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The Exotic Alaska Highway

Shelter by Frances GreensladeIf you look at a globe from a couple of decades ago, you'll find it dotted with the names of major cities that you'd expect — Casablanca, Moscow, Vancouver — but you'll also find a dot marking a tiny town in the far north of British Columbia, Canada, called Fort Nelson, a town most people, even in B.C., have never heard of. I learned this about a month ago when I was on a book tour up in this region, which is known as Peace country, after the Peace River that runs through there. I heard the story from a guy named Marl in the Fort Nelson museum. "Check it out next time you see a globe," he said. Marl had a long silver beard and a glint in his eye that made think he was pulling my leg. But I said I would.

For the book tour, we had flown in to Dawson Creek, mile zero of the Alaska Highway, then the next morning we got in the car and took the highway north again. I was traveling with children's illustrator Rae Mate and B.C. Book Prizes' director, Bryan, our driver for the tour. It was April, tulips were up at home. Here, there was snow on the ground, but the sky was a wide clear blue. The sun through the skinny aspen, birch, and spruce cast crisp shadows on the road. Past Fort St. John, the trees opened up and hills rolled into blue mountains, topped with snow. I'd never been this far north and we still had about four and a half hours of driving ahead of us.

At the closed gas station at the Prophet River First Nation, we had a conversation about how much gas we had left (a quarter tank) and how many more miles we had to go before we found a bathroom (no idea)we had a conversation about how much gas we had left (a quarter tank) and how many more miles we had to go before we found a bathroom (no idea). Back on the road, the trees were economically thin. A sign said 600 kilometres to Watson Lake.

I was scheduled to read at high schools. My niece, only a couple of years out of high school said, "Be prepared to look out on a sea of faces staring down at their iPhones." I asked my son, who is in high school, what engages him when visitors come to the school.

He said, "Special effects."

I envied Rae. She was visiting elementary schools and had sketchbooks and paintings to show them.

In Fort Nelson, we were only 300 miles down the highway from the Yukon, and less than one hundred miles from the border of the Northwest Territories. The museum was closed, but we had a couple of hours to kill. We wandered outside, looking at the displays of old mining and road-building equipment. A truck came into the yard and a man rolled down the window and called, "Can I help you?"

It was Marl, the founder and curator of most of the collection. "I just had the floors done. If you take your shoes off, I'll show you around," he said. He fired up the old juke box and while "Tennessee Waltz" played, he told us a story about the albino moose we were looking at. A hunter had shot him, then instantly regretted it. He thought it might be bad luck, so he brought him in to the museum. Marl showed us an owl he found waiting on a post by the roadside beside its dead mate. When he went back a week later, the owl was still waiting. He told us about the Alaska Highway, built by the American army during World War II, to open a supply route to Alaska. Then Marl led us out to the car shed, where each antique car had a story of its own.

Monkey Beach by Eden RobinsonAt Fort Nelson High School, I took refuge in a screen for the beginning of my visit. Not exactly special effects, but I showed them the book trailer a Vancouver filmmaker had made for my novel Shelter, and I showed them the covers for other editions. I told them that what surprised me about the novel, set in the tiny communities and wilderness of the Chilcotin area of B.C., was that it was being translated into German and Dutch. People in other parts of the world found something in it they recognized. I read to them, and they seemed genuinely intent on the story. They had questions: how long does it take to write a novel? How much money can you make? I told them the story of Eden Robinson, who wrote Monkey Beach about another northern B.C. community, Kitimaat, and was offered a six-figure advance for it. It happens. Not all the time.

When I asked the students to write the opening sentence for a novel set in their community, one boy turned to another and said, "Nothing ever happens in this shithole." Then he wrote a sentence about a hunter standing at the edge of the bush, hesitating, his rifle raised. The other boy wrote about a car that no one recognizes that drives into town one day. Both were the kind of sentences that raise questions, make you want to know more.

When I was a teenager, I read East of Eden, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, A Passage to India, Rebecca, set in exotic places that became real to me. I remember the revelation when my sister gave me Margaret Laurence's novel The Diviners. I read this sentence: "Hard-packed snow on Portage Avenue and the downtown streets, dirty from trampling boots." If I got down from the window where I was reading, went out our front door, turned left and walked half a block, I'd be on that street, in the same dirty snow. Through writers like Margaret Laurence, Margaret Atwood, Carol Shields, Ethel Wilson, I discovered that what makes a place exotic is the looking. Pay attention, as Marl does, and even the blandest of shitholes percolates with stories.

As our tour wound down, we killed time in a garden store in Dawson Creek. By the door was a basket of decorative globes the size of Christmas ornaments. I decided to check Marl's story. I picked one up. The writing was so tiny, I had to put my glasses on. The paper for the some of the globes had been glued on haphazardly; two Canadian prairie provinces and part of the U.S. Midwest was missing. But British Columbia was there. Vancouver. And, sure enough, there was Fort Nelson.

÷ ÷ ÷

Frances Greenslade is the author of two memoirs and the new novel Shelter and is the winner of the Saskatchewan Book Award for Non-Fiction. She teaches English in Penticton, B.C.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Shelter
    Used Trade Paper $3.95
  2. Rebecca
    Used Mass Market $4.50
  3. A Passage to India
    Used Trade Paper $5.50
  4. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (P.S.)
    Used Trade Paper $6.50
  5. East of Eden
    Used Trade Paper $8.95
  6. Monkey Beach Used Trade Paper $5.50
  7. The Diviners Used Mass Market $3.50

One Response to "The Exotic Alaska Highway"

    Francy June 28th, 2012 at 11:05 am

    Next time you're driving up the ALCAN, get a copy of the Milepost. It tells you everything from how far to the next gas station and where the cleanest public restrooms to some of the neatest tourist attractions (I bet the museum you mention is in there). I don't work for the Milepost, but have used it on many trips from Anchorage, AK to the "lower 48" which is what we Alaskans call the contiguous 48 states.

    BTW, love this post! Think I need to read a couple of these books (at least).

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