Last night we camped on the side of a Forest Service Road beneath the snow tinged mountains just east of Creston. Out of the bush directly in front of our van ran a small brook, its voice swollen by the snow melting on upper slopes. All night long the stream sang and burbled, and tucked away in the bunk of our van, separated from the night by nothing more than canvas, it seemed as though we were surrounded by rushing water, by the rush and whisper of a mountain stream hurrying its way to join larger and louder voices downhill. Like the sound of a fire crackling in a fire place, it was an utterly comforting and homey sound. The sound of my childhood, an old friend whispering an almost forgotten childhood name.
I was born in Ontario. But I spent my childhood in the mountains and valleys of The Kootenays, in the Slocan Valley, on the green side of a hill that sloped down to the Slocan River. There my early summers were spent cooling off in its swift moving waters. My parents had decamped from southern Ontario in the spring of 1971 in a blue Nash Rambler to set up a homestead on the forested slopes of a tiny hamlet called Winlaw, near the town of Nelson in the Slocan Valley. An unlikely home to different groups of people running away from the hard edges of modern society– Dukabors, Vietnam draft dodgers, hippies, artists, poets and musicians–I recall the Winlaw of my childhood as a magical land full of natural beauty, freedom and community. It is a place that I have somehow always longed for.
But more than anything it was the land that held on to me and would not let me go: the dark mossy woods fragrant with cedar and wild ginger, fields of tall grass and bracken fern, cold mountain streams, rivers and worn rocky beaches. And mountains. Blue, treed slopes with snow clinging to them long into summer’s warmth, immeasurably huge stone giants dominating the horizon. When I left The Valley as a young boy and we finally stopped returning in the summers, the mountains left a hole as large as themselves in my being. There have been other mountains: New Zealand’s Southern Alps, The Himalayas. But when, on my honeymoon 22 years ago, I drove across the country with my wife and saw the eastern flank of the Rockies, my heart suddenly soared and I felt like I was coming home at last.
And I did make my way back, on that long ago trip, to The Valley of my youth. Then, 13 years after having left for the last time, the house I had grown up in was gone, burned; the garden with its raspberries and apple trees had been reclaimed by the grass and bracken fern that surrounded it. And, though the beauty was still there, some of the magic seemed to have ebbed away. Since then I have returned to these mountains and my Valley several times, each time visiting the small clearing in the woods that I remembered. Each time it seemed that less and less of the magic was left, less and less of me and my time there was remembered in that place.
Even so, despite the ache of longing that comes over me whenever I get close, despite the disappointment that I know it will bring, I am compelled to go back. Winding our way down from the Hot Springs town of Nakusp, past the lakeside villages of New Denver, Silverton and Slocan, a small road sign announces that we are entering Winlaw. There at the corner is the small store that I think used to have gas pumps outside it. Turning toward the river we pass by the elementary school that I used to join for a month or so when we returned to The Valley from our new home in Ontario in the spring. Over the bridge, the shallow, rocky-bottomed river where we swam swirls below. Past the old Dukabor farms the small road leading past heavy-limbed cedars winds up hill. At the top of the road as it starts to curve back toward the main road, a driveway leads into the woods, an overgrown garden on the left faces a tarpaper-clad building -the old barn- the only building left of the three that used to sit on the edge of the dark woods there. Old vehicles litter the clearing, and there is an old stone wall that I know is there even though it is hidden by the tall grass. All the magic is gone. There is only the remembering. You can never go home.
But you can visit.
From the old homestead we wind our way past familiar landmarks along the river to the town of Nelson where old friends are waiting for us. Since our family left The Valley all those years ago many of our dear friends from that time have also left, some have passed away, but several have found their way back and other friends of ours have also been captivated by the area’s magic and made it their home. Tree, my oldest and dearest friend from The Valley, with whom I seem to remember spending nearly every waking moment as a kid playing together outside, has moved back to Nelson from Maui with her partner Bill and two children Aiyana and Leland. Sonny Wood, a year or so older than Tree and me has also returned. Both they and Bill are outstanding musicians and have brought the music that was so vital to that time back to The Valley. Lorraine, one of the many women of my mother’s generation whose kids we hung out with and who mothered all of us has also moved back to the area too. Jan, Sonny’s mom, is also there, in her tiny house with the garden she loves so dearly. Anna Purcell, a dear friend from school and university days has also settled in Nelson with her partner Gary. Anna is now a local councilor. Tree and Jan have arranged a pot luck at Tree and Bill’s house, and when we arrive, faces that I have for so long only seen on a computer screen appear and long overdue hugs are given, the embraces bringing back a flood of memories.
We share a meal and memories and some of the stories from our current lives. The children run about the house and eventually escape to our van to pour over the mess of Pokémon cards that Eamon has been gifted by his cousins in Victoria. After the meal, instruments come out and Sonny’s deft guitar work and growl conjure up ghosts from The Valley’s past: Gary Kramer’s music fills the room. One of Gary’s song’s has haunted me since before I can remember. I only carry two verses of it, but those two verses are the most fitting elegy I can think of for The Valley and those who called it home.
If I should die of youngblood’s vice
Or if I crumble from old age
When I pass in sweet reply,
To the voice of my own sage
Set my windless ship, set it alight
Let it drift, to the waters of light.
And when the morning wind awakes the day
And the white sea birds take flight
Lay my worn grey ashes down
In a box of wood that waits,
Set my windless ship, set it alight
Let it drift to the waters of light
Some –too many– did die of youngblood’s vice; some crumbled from old age. Some remain to remember them and the magical place that we loved.
You can never go home. But you can visit, in your dreams, in the memories and in the voices of old friends; you can go back, in a way.