Friday, October 12, 2007

On the Road Again...


When the boys were children and we set off on a road trip we'd always sing an off-key version of Willie Nelson's On the Road Again. No different now. Wednesday morning Ian and I set off on an 800 km road trip to visit the small and somewhat out-of-the-way village of Lillooet BC. We got a mile or so down the highway when we looked at each other and began singing On the road again, just can't wait to get on the road again....

Tony and I have decided that as much as we love the Tin Palace, it's time to put down roots again. The Okanagan is beautiful. We love Oliver and the people are wonderful. But the real estate prices are in the stratosphere and surprisingly enough, I'm finding it a bit too developed. It's an almost unbroken corridor of development from the US border to Vernon. The only thing we could possibly afford would be an apartment. Been there done that.

I am adamant. I want room for a garden, a greenhouse, a pond and a few chooks. There is nothing that says contentment for me as much as the background clucking and fussing of a few well-fed hens. I had my first flock at the age of six and I have never gotten over my love of the chicken. Chicken-kind is calling my name. Thus we have begun the search for a warm and reasonable place to buy property. Lillooet is both warm and has reasonable land prices. Hence the road trip.

It was raining when we left Oliver, rained harder on us as we headed up the Okanagan Valley, poured as we rose out of the valley and turned west, and more or less drizzled all the way to Merritt. The highway to Merritt is chopped through an ominous-looking forest of lodgepole pines. Mile after mile of sun-starved skinny trunks packed so closely together that dead trees lean on still-living neighbours but do not fall until they collapse into shards. Walking through such a forest, with spikes and splinters of deadwood thrusting in every direction, would be like facing a medieval army.

After Merritt the Nicola Valley widens out and the wall of trunks is replaced or interspersed with aspen and sumac. The autumn colours were spectacular. I took some pictures from the passenger seat, at 90 km an hour. Hard to capture the brilliance of the colours through a dirty windshield.

Somewhere along the highway between Merritt and Spence's bridge the sun came out. Spence's Bridge looked like an interesting little community, but we had no time to explore it. We pressed on through the village of Lytton and onto Highway 12, toward our destination.

The scenery between Lytton and Lillooet is nothing short of spectacular, but I was clutching the dashboard which made it hard to take pictures! The Lytton - Lillooet road is your typical Canadian mountain "highway" - two narrow lanes, no shoulder, precariously huddled between a sheer drop-off into the Fraser River on the left and unstable and menacing cliffs to the right. "Slide Area" is the most common sign.

For a short stretch a few miles this side of Lillooet the road narrows to one and a half lanes, as it traverses the area known as "The Big Slide". This is where a substantial part of the mountain above the road moved house about 1200 years ago and took up riverside accomodations. Unfortunately the mountain is still moving. It flings stray rocks (or truckloads of rocks) onto the road on an almost daily basis. (A grader is stationed permanently at the edge of the slide to keep the road cleared.)

According to locals, as you enter the Big Slide Zone you pray to whatever gods you believe in, grit your teeth and dash through as quickly as you dare, hoping you don't meet a loaded logging truck coming toward you around a hairpin curve. I guess you get to test your backing skills if that happens. There are a couple of pull-offs, where two vehicles could pass. I wouldn't want to back down the road looking for one of them!

Thankfully we met no other vehicles coming across and we were soon through what had been for me a dreaded stretch of road. Then the vista opens up. Years ago we lived in the Columbia Valley between Radium and Golden. The road into Lillooet reminds me of that same stretch. Amazing beauty, rolling green meadows on both sides of the river stretching right up to the foot of the mountain.

We entered Lillooet as the sun dipped behind the mountains. It's a funny little town. Main Street meanders and changes directions two or three times. Downtown is about two blocks wide, which is all there's room for between the banks of the Fraser and the first bench of the mountain, but it must be a couple of miles long. The shops are separated into two distinct areas, on opposite ends of Main Street. The residential streets mostly climb up the benches in terraces. It's easy to see why most of the real estate listings include the words, "River View" or "Water View". I think the modifier "spectacular" is assumed.

We checked into a motel and went to find a place to have dinner. Chinese, pizza, Greek, and any number of "regular" eating establishments were available to choose from. We chose the Greek place and were not disappointed. Excellent meal.

Thursday morning the air was crisp and squeaky-clean, the day was warm and perfectly sunny. We spent the morning exploring the town, beginning with the realtor's office. We spent time in the jade shop which is a mini-museum with a talkative and very pleasant artist/owner. We dropped into the nice museum which is jam-packed with artifacts representing Lillooet's colorful history, including a camel saddle.

We drove up and down the terraced streets directly above downtown in what might be charitably called the "working-class" neighbourhood. Not a bad neighbourhood, just small lots and older homes, interspersed with mobile homes. Some of these places were immaculate with wonderful gardens, others were "accented" by peeling paint, sagging gates and discarded car parts.

Drive-bys of several of the properties dampened any "listing-based" enthusiasm. One appeared to be a large two-story building in the photo, but turned out to be incredibly tiny, with a false-front and what appeared to be a four-foot-tall front door. We decided that the realtor must have lain down in the middle of the street to take the photo. Another house, which looked nice in the photo, appeared to be one strong puff of wind away from collapse. Another candidate was a very nice house, but is backed up against the foot of a steep slope and may very well be under it within a few years.

Another series of terraces held newer "up-scale homes", the kind with sharp edges, concrete driveways and aggressively manicured flower plantings. The lots were wider but so were the houses. Not the neighbourhood for me. I can visualize vigilante committees protesting mychickens headed up by women wearing anti-wrinkle cream and carrying "hot yoga" manuals.

I need a neighbourhood with a certain relaxed atmosphere, where no one would drop dead if my chicken crossed their road. Thus we moved our search to the semi-rural edge of town. Big lots with houses that appear to have grown a bit here, pushed out a bit there. Horses, gravel drives and big sheds. Swings in the front yards. Large and somewhat disorganized flower beds. This is more like it. I think this is the neighbourhood. It will take another trip or two to narrow down the field to any one property but we're not in a hurry, we're where we want to be, at least until next spring.

We headed for home, the long way round, passing Pavillion Lake, with water as blue-green, and as clear, as a Jamaican reef. There were boats and cabins around the lake, in a scene which could have been picked from the top of a puzzle box. The contrast between green water, cliffs dotted with dark pines, yellow aspens and brilliant red sumac was breath-taking. A painting with such colours would seem gaudy and contrived, but nature does it to perfection.

We stopped at Marble Canyon and took pictures, and saw a huge pile of very fresh bear scat full of berry seeds. This incredibly huge spire is part of Marble Canyon. We saw some nice country the rest of the way home, not as spectacular as the scenery on the way out, or through Marble Canyon, but certainly enjoyable. We had a very good trip.

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