FOR SOME PEOPLE, THIS MAY require a mental map.
There are three highways that cross British Columbia. Foremost is the TransCanada, which comes in through Rogers Pass and glides southwesterly through Revelstoke and Kamloops all the way down into Vancouver. Then there's the Yellowhead, or Highway 16, which starts right below the province's waist and north by west from Prince George over the Coast Mountains to Prince Rupert. And finally there's the onerous, treacherous, and comparatively little travelled Highway 20, the Chilcotin Road, which starts in the healthy commotion of Williams Lake, in central B.C., and ends, more than 450 kilometres later, at Bella Coola -- the place where Alexander Mackenzie left his famous rock inscription "Alex Mackenzie, from Canada by land, 22d July 1793."
The Chilcotin is in one sense the oldest. The impetus behind it goes back to the Cariboo gold rush of the 1860s, when various schemes were proposed to connect tidewater with the mining region whose centre was Barkerville. The plan that is best remembered was hatched by the talented booster Alfred Waddington (author of the first book published in B.C.). It is remembered because it ended in generalized disaster after a group from the Tsilqot'in nation killed one of the work crews, thus igniting the "Chilcotin war," in which a small expeditionary force was sent in to extract "justice" for the "massacre."
But the Chilcotin lacked the geographical advantages of the Cariboo or the Fraser Valley. The gold rush and later the railway left it untouched and sparsely settled. Mercifully. Even the logging industry hasn't done to the Chilcotin, alternately dry and swampy, what it's done to rain forests. The Chilcotin remains a land of jackpine and ranches and individualists whose main desire is to be left alone.
Hardly surprising, then, that the region hasn't produced much in the way of literature, not as compared to the Cariboo certainly. That's one reason why it's so good to see the new book The Road Runs West (Harbour), by Diane French. All the more so because this is the kind of local history that brings credit to a literary genre that is too often synonymous with the slapdash and the unsophisticated.
Waddington notwithstanding, the Chilcotin Road is actually quite recent. The scheme to build it picked up momentum only towards the close of the century, when farmers began chopping a road westward at the same time as the residents of Bella Coola were hacking one in the other direction. The effort, all private sector and almost totally uncoordinated, was finally stopped by the mountains. The two strands weren't joined until the 1950s (at about the time that Ms. French first went to the region, to teach in a one-room schoolhouse at Chezacut, a collection of ranches joined to the main road by dotted lines on maps -- indicative of what the roads are like in fact, too). "For the next quarter century," she writes,
the Bella Coola/Chilcotin was the longest, worst road in the province. It is still the loneliest. Only half of it is paved. There isn't one supermarket or fast-food chain outlet anywhere along it. The service stations and restaurants close at night. The population of places marked on the map
varies from one (Towdystan) to 400 (Anahim Lake).
My kind of place. Hers too, obviously.
Ms. French, who's a former editor at one of my favourite newspapers, the Williams Lake Tribune, naturally draws on oral sources, there being so little primary written material, but she doesn't fall into the trap of accepting people's memories as fact or their yams as history. Rather, she's tapped into what might be called a collective, consensual imagination, and weaves the historical material in very neatly indeed with a narrative of what it's like to travel Highway 20 these days, heading west through places with names like Moon's Ranch, Becher House, Hance's Timber, Riske (pronounced Risky) Creek, Redstone, Chilanko Forks, Fist Trap Bridge, Heckman Pass, Burnt Bridge, and, memorably, Hagebsborg (which was colonized by Norse settlers). The names of these places are like music to the ear -- a lovely old crabbed kind of folk music.
Even today the road is not always passable, and is always more than a little hard on motor vehicles. Ms. French tells the story of one local resident who drove his year-old truck all the way to Vancouver where it could be serviced under warranty. The mechanic suspected some fraud, saying that surely no one could inflict such wear on a transmission in so short a time. The mechanic then demanded: do you drive in first gear much? No, not really, the owner replied without irony, though once there last spring I was in first gear for six days.
Douglas Fetherling summers in the Cariboo.