The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Monday, July 17, 2006

A seat with a view

by Tamara Lee

Travelling with my mom is by no means a new experience. When I was growing up my family drove all over the US and BC, and over a dozen years ago, I went on my first adult road trip with my mom, aunt, and sister. That was a good time, for the most part, but it also marked yet another peak and valley in our family’s landscape.

Recently, when my mom applied for her first passport in over 40 years, she told me she decided not to use me as her emergency contact, assuming a lot of her travelling was likely to be with me, anyway. At first I was moved by this indication that our once rocky relationship had reached a peaceful plateau. But then it occurred to me: Have I become that woman who travels with her mother, like some Victorian novel where the protagonist who chooses independence for so long suddenly finds the only person left as a companion is her recently-widowed mother?

Over the past few years, I’ve been taking semi-regular road trips with my mother to see my siblings. Nothing too far, but trips nonetheless. In June, we headed up again to visit my eldest sister in Mclure, just past Kamloops, near the sad scene of the Barriere fires that ravaged the BC Interior several years ago.

My mom and I have always travelled well together. She is a social woman who has no reservations asking for directions or talking to strangers, and we both prefer our silence be mixed with equal parts music and chitchat. Plus, she doesn’t mind driving (though she sometimes forgets there’s a speed-limit on open roads), and I’m an excellent shotgun. So as long as there’s Patsy Cline or Dean Martin on the stereo, she’s content for several hours, and I can watch the scenery and think up stuff.

We set out early from Vancouver, in pouring rain with limited visibility. Passing through the Fraser Valley, the manure and hay of the nearby farms seeped through the window my mom had cracked so she could smoke and not have to listen to me bitch about it. I whined about the shit-smell instead. We kept plowing through the fog until we found a place to have breakfast, in Hope, the last stop before heading into the mountains. The rain had eased into a misty drizzle.

Husky Gas, that ohso-Canadian institution, almost always has a café attached, where the truckers all converge and eat heaping plates of meat and eggs and toast. Truck stops, we’ve learned from years of family vacations, are typically some of the best places to eat. My mom and I chatted with the truckers who offered to fill up our coffees when the waitress was too busy.

Back on the road, we set out to conquer the Coquihalla Highway, which takes you from the Valley over the mountains through the Great Bear Snow Shed, and into BC’s version of a desert. My mom and I are both equally awed by passing landscapes, and discussions of weather are damn near intense, as we consider every facet of the unpredictability. So, passing through each new weather pattern towards a still snow-capped summit, we imagined what it would be like to live up there, what kind of people do and what life would be like. And just like when I was a kid on one of our family road trips, we scanned the license plates of other cars, remarking on how far from home the drivers were, and imagining their circumstances for being on the same road as us.

I come from a long line of storytellers and fibbers; a family full of unknowns. While we are experienced in creating lives out of a stranger’s license plate and vehicle-choice, I’ve also learned to fill in the blanks when it comes to my own family. We are not one of those families with a great-great uncle Grover who worked on the Trans-Canada and married his childhood sweetheart out back of the family farm. An uncle Grover may have existed, but we don’t know anything about him.

So my recent travels with my mother have allowed me to pull some threads and open the hem and haws a little, giving me the chance to get just that much more acquainted with my family history.

On this last trip, as we drove up and over the mountains, near Lac Le Jeune, I learned all my grandparents’ hometowns, and that I have French blood in my mix of Scottish, Welsh, Irish, English, and Cree. This bloodline has always made me feel like an embodiment of Canadian history. Learning that there’s French in there too made me feel instantly more exotic and Canadian. I ached to learn more, but the sun was finally shining, and my mom was off singing with Dean-o at the top of her lungs, driving well over the speed limit. And that was much more fascinating to witness than learning where my anonymous great uncles came from.

The scarred trees lining the hills along the Yellowhead Highway from Kamloops to McLure are a reminder of a very tumultuous time. The trees that are not blackened burnt-out carcasses are fiery orange, choked to death by the Mountain Pine Beetle. I nearly wept for the loss myself on our first trip up there.

The man who accidentally started the worst of that fire still lives in Barriere, and most of the residents have made their peace with him. Instead of complete abandonment, the citizens adapt, learning that many of the beetle-damaged trees can be harvested and that wild life is also resilient and willing to give the damaged landscape another chance. On this trip, en route to my sister’s McLure home, I saw the life just starting to return to those charred slopes: a slow yet determined reconciliation.

At the end of the summer Mom and I will be taking the train up to Whistler to see my other sister and her husband. There could be more opportunity to pilfer information, or I could just relax, watch the scenery, and be grateful our own family tree’s finally healing. And that silence is just as comfortable for us as is making stuff up.


Blogger J.A. McDougall said...

Thank you for taking me on your trip with you through BC, through your family history. You are smart to soak up those moments with your mom - whether they be spent sharing history, dreaming about your neighbors or sitting in silence with the one who loves you best.

Mon Jul 17, 04:30:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

I love this post, Tamara, so comfortably intimate.

Mon Jul 17, 11:45:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger tamara said...

Thanks, guys. You're very kind :)

Tue Jul 18, 01:36:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Patricia said...

this is lovely Tamara...I have no doubt the next trip will be a wonderful one, I love the last paragraph, the family tree healing...the entire thing....beautiful...xoxoxo

Wed Jul 19, 03:40:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger tamara said...

Thanks, Patricia. I'm sort of looking forward to the train ride myself... So long as CN doesn't have another of its mishaps ;)

Tue Jul 25, 07:17:00 pm GMT-4  

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