Way Out West:|
On the Trail of An Errant Ancestor
by Michael Shaw Bond
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|An Englishman Treks Through Canada
by Erling Friis-Baastad
In 1862 a 23-year-old British lord, Viscount Milton, and his personal physician trekked from Winnipeg to Victoria. Their expedition almost came to a disastrous end in the Rocky Mountains. The Viscount became a celebrity; the trip became a legend and its geographical discoveries were entered into the history books. Then, mysteriously, Milton was all but forgotten, while the accomplishments of other mid-19th-century explorers of Canada were celebrated and studied and taught, here and abroad, time and again.
Nearly a century-and-a-half later, the viscount's great-great grandson, a young London-based journalist who specializes in natural history, followed in his ancestor's footsteps across the Canadian prairies and mountains and down to the sea. Way Out West is his by-and-large successful attempt to weave the two adventures together.
Bond's research begins in Britain in his grandmother's parlour. It's a marvellous launching pad: "Visiting her was the high point of every weekend. It was best to arrive around teatime because she would have been drinking whisky and milk since eleven in the morning and the stories flowed more easily with that." The old woman gave the author his first driving lesson. "It ended against the wall of her kitchen with an inverted bumper. Grandma was delighted. It had all gone according to plan." Her individualism and eccentricity gave her grandson the first clues about an ancestor who trekked to a different drum.
British bluebloods have long tolerated fiercely independent, rebellious, wacky and bizarre celebrities within their ranks. His eccentricities shouldn't have been cause for Milton's disappearance from the public record. His "gaffe" was far more grievous for the unenlightened time: he was an epileptic. "Epileptics in the nineteenth century were not exactly the toast of society and they had a lot of history against them," Bond says. That history began in ancient Greece, where physicians assumed sufferers had sinned against Selene, the Moon Goddess. By Milton's time, things hadn't much improved. Many experts assumed debauched living caused the malady. As if epilepsy weren't burden enough, Bond's great-great grandfather was dosed with opium, sulphuric acid and strychnine.
Despite, or because of, his plight, the young lord developed a strong taste for the active life and adventure. The high society that didn't welcome him, bored him. The First Nations and MTtis hunters of the Far West beckoned. With Dr. Walter Butler Cheadle in tow, on June 19, 1862 he set out for Canada from Liverpool. Apparently Milton was spared an attack of epilepsy throughout the journey, right up until he was preparing to leave Victoria for home. But he suffered much else.
Bond's own journey was somewhat easier, though by contemporary standards he faced his share of discomforts and perils while hitchhiking and horse riding. But his accounts of mud, wind, cold and saddle sores, and even of intimidating landscape, pale beside his descriptions of people. Characterization is the strength of this memoir, and the personalities encountered by Bond and by his ancestor remain with us long after the travellers' other experiences have blended into a morass of discomfort. New World warmth and gusto came as a bit of a shock to somewhat reserved young Bond. In Shoal Lake, Manitoba, he encountered The Coffee Mugs, "a group of women notorious in these parts for one thing: gossip. That morning, it seemed, I was their chosen subject. I suddenly wanted to run." If they had a bad (to him) matronly habit of mussing his hair, they did take up a collection to pay for his breakfast, and left him marvelling: "It must be harder to be lonely in the Canadian countryside than anywhere else on earth. The Mugs were only the beginning. They were followed by many other hospitable folks right across the Canadian wilds, the descendants of the frontier folks who had encountered Milton and Cheadle.
The most engaging of Milton's oddball companions was one Mr. Eugene Francis O'Beirne¨credited by a party of BC miners with "ingratitude", "egotism", "indolence", "dishonesty", and with being an "insufferable sycophant"¨who brought all those baleful characteristics and then some to the Milton-Cheadle expedition to which he attached himself like a leech at Fort Edmonton. O'Beirne, a self-appointed anti-Catholic activist, after having been expelled from a Roman Catholic theological college, was such a hindrance he almost doomed his companions.
Bond's writing style shows the influence of time spent among the Victorians, his ancestors and other 19th-century chroniclers of the West¨and that works quite well. The somewhat-florid passages serve to link the two eras, make the transitions less stark. "There was no growth on this monstrous appendage, this inanimate desert cliff, and above the productivity of the valley it looks unworldly, a museum piece on loan from some other barren planet, vestiges of extinct life within." That's Bond describing a Rocky Mountain scene, not Milton. As an historic document Way Out West leaves a bit to be desired. For instance, passages like, "the buffalo was the lifeblood of the Indian. Without it he was impotent on the plains, a ship without engine or sail. The downfall of the buffalo was the downfall of the Indian," tell us nothing new, and should have been woven into the text more deftly. More troubling than an occasional belaboring of the obvious: I caught a glaring error regarding a favorite Klondike character, Bombay Peggy, who, Bond tells us, "ended up in Dawson Creek in the Yukon where she ran a brothel and sold alcohol to the miners." Dawson Creek is the starting place of the Alaska Highway, far down in British Columbia. Dawson City is a six-hour drive to the north from Whitehorse, which is 1,475 kilometres north of Dawson Creek.
That said, Way Out West is fun to read. The slapstick elements of travel in the Old West add a dimension often missing in more sober-sided memoirs and historical works. And the story of a young Brit discovering today's aggressively friendly folk of hinterland Canada, helps prove, it's all too easy to forget how quaint our quotidian lives can appear to outsiders. It's refreshing to be reminded˛