Magazine article The Spectator

Driving to Shangri La

Magazine article The Spectator

Driving to Shangri La

Article excerpt

Annabel Howard discovers the allure of the Canadian wilderness

I'd go to Canada if I wanted to ski, or fish, or see the Northern Lights, but in the end it was only to launch my (Canadian) boyfriend D.W.'s book that I ventured west. I hate to think of myself as prejudiced, but even lyrical books like Will Fiennes's The Snow Geese don't do much to encourage Canadian tourism. Which made D.W.'s goal - to woo me into a love of the Great White North - difficult: I was determined not to be converted.

D.W. is a native of the Kootenay Valley, British Columbia, where, he says, 'Men are men, and so are women.' His book is set there, in 'the Valley', and is a hard-as-nails collection of short stories about sad men and lost opportunities. This - smalltown Canada - was my destination.

D.W.'s 'ma' (pronounced maaaa) , Kathy, met us at the airport in Calgary, a city somewhere west-of-the-middle.

Upon deplaning, we were greeted by aged cowgirls who sing-songed 'Welcome to Calgary folks!' as they rocked on their booted heels. Kathy had driven ten hours for the privilege of picking us up and thank God she had, because Canada has a vendetta against public transport - one of the few characteristics it shares with the United States.

She lives in Regina, and the landscape beyond her window is so flat that she says she could watch her dog run away for days.

Luckily, isolation had not turned Kathy into a monster but a woman of remarkable kindness and determination. She is what's known as a 'doer'.

Most Canadians I encountered were 'doers' - they chopped and stacked firewood, hauled heavy equipment, cleared out basements, constructed terraces and held yard sales. Perhaps they don't have enough to do.

The town where D.W. grew up has, by way of entertainment, one cinema (open once a week) and one bar (open till 2 a. m. every day). There's also a lake, but if you fancy a dip you risk the dreaded Swimmer's Itch and mosquitoes determined enough to dig through cotton to nip wheals in your skin. In that environment, why not learn to chop wood?

Leaving the airport, Kathy walked ahead of us with quick little steps, on a mission to get back to the road. Her vehicle was everything I'd hoped for: a peeling Ford truck, open-boxed, with a cab stuffed full of tools, maps, and carefully labelled plastic bottles. We set off in the direction of the Rocky M ountains with the radio playing Brad Paisley's 'I'm Still a Guy'.

The Rockies are unlike the Alps in that there's no introduction - you round a corner and there they are, big as imagination. D.W. loves the mountains because they make us feel small, same as the desert or the ocean. I wasn't sure that I liked feeling small, but I didn't say it, for fear I'd hurt his Canadian feelings.

As we drove along the mountain flanks, we passed signs that read 'Danger' and 'Check your brakes'.

The sun was setting and the peaks glowed dusty red. There's no phone reception in the Rockies, and even on the carefully maintained road I felt further away from things than I'd ever been.

the spectator | 25 august 2012 enough. A wild bear! It left me speechless. What more could Canada offer?

D.W.'s childhood friends had enlisted for Mission Canada. That first weekend they arranged for five of us to go out to an old trapper's cabin and hike the mountains. The organiser was Nathan Koss, known as 'Kosser'.

When he was 18 he wanted to see the world, so he joined the army, endured it, appreciated it, and left at the first opportunity. …

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