Picturing the PicturesqueOn April 15, 2020 by Ian Gillies
That can’t be real…
This thought (as well as a series of others that I’ll spare you the details of here), is one I have had more often than not over the course of my time at Live History. While it is true that we often come across incredible feats and stories in the research we conduct (and you better believe there are some fascinating ones out there), the elements that continually blow my mind are the magnificent places I have had the fortune of travelling to.
Growing up in a small town in South Western Ontario, I had never in my life seen mountains before. Sure, I could tell you about them and wonder to myself about their immense size, but at the end of the day they were completely alien to me. We have escarpments and hills down my way, and a few ski hills and the like. If you were really feeling inspired, you could even dip across the border and check out the Adirondacks (which I absolutely recommend you do!). So we have our own share of beauty down that way, but you’ll understand what I mean when I say that I had never seen a mountain.
Imagine my first thought then, as the team and I landed in Calgary and started the drive towards the interior of British Columbia.
That can’t be real…
For those unfamiliar with the Canadian West, it is a sight to behold unlike any other. Coming out of Calgary on that snowy September day (this is, unfortunately, real), you could maybe make out the vast silhouette of something off in the distance.
Just part of the storm.
It takes a minute before you realize what you are looking at and then, suddenly, you come to understand. The dark mass before you looms larger and larger until it defies expectations. Its immensity, even in the distance, overtakes everything and your eyes become transfixed on it. Paralyzed in awe, the only thing you can do is keep moving forward, inching ever closer to the majesty before you.
Then, as you come to the base of that wall, you slowly begin your ascent as you carve your way between the faces of rock.
That CAN’T be real…
Every direction you look, your eyes are met with a new surprise and something that immediately sends your mind spiralling. The great mass of darkness that loomed before us for so long in the snow was now all around us, but instead of a blur on the horizon, it was bathed in light and each of the sharp edges before us was highlighted by the sun and the fresh snow fall. Lakes of a blue that I thought were reserved for Pencil Crayons snake their way around the feet of the behemoths that tower above them. Peaks, capped in snow, look down on your now insect-like vehicle, as you move slowly along the roads, which in turn, seem to embrace the movement of those hills.
My initial thought has started to spiral out of control and the team laughs as I can only exclaim in various expletives at what I am seeing. So beyond my understanding is the sight before me that I am reduced to gasps and laughter with each passing turn (yes, I am sure the rest of the team wanted to toss me out). I am reminded of the science fiction stories I have read of people becoming blubbering messes when they encounter something that their mortal minds are too fragile for. Well, for a solid hour (it might have been a few days), I was just that – a hot mess!
As we journeyed through the mountains, the only thing that could tear my eye away from the sheer majesty of the landscape around me, was more nature. I have always been a birdman (like Michael Keaton), and if you have ever wanted to get into birdwatching, I can’t recommend the trip from Alberta to B.C enough. Raptors of all sizes perched on hydro poles. Magpies swimming through the air (a big deal for a southern Ontario boy). Ravens that dwarf even the biggest crows I’ve seen. I could go on and on about the birds we saw, but the best way to describe them is to say that they, in my mind, have risen to the challenge that the mountains have presented them – each and every creature has a sense of majesty to them, well at home in the magnificent rock.
When we arrived in the Creston Valley (our destination for this tour), I think I was finally able to calm down and fully take in what I was seeing. The valley was nestled deep within the protective mountains close to the Canada-US border. Getting out of the vehicle, the first thing I did was take a deep, instinctive breath. You hear stories all the time about how clear the air is in the mountains and how well one can breath (that is, until you start climbing!). I can assure you that it is completely true. That, coupled with the serene landscape around us, immediately put me at peace. We would be there for only a short time, but I knew I needed to take advantage of each and every single moment.
We headed to the Creston Museum and Archives and took a quick look around with our client, Tammy. The museum almost feels like a centrepiece of the town (besides the two giant grain elevators that tower over the valley and farmland). The focal point of the museum is an old stone house, intricately detailed in its construction and beautifully adorned. Walking through the door immediately takes you back in time, a feeling that is only exacerbated as you continue on throughout the museum. Exhibits that tell the story of Creston Valley and the West Kootenay Region line the walls and once you head outside into the back of the property, you come across even more wonders – one of which remains one of my personal favourites.
At the very back of the museum property, tucked away and perfectly preserved, is an old trapper’s cabin – plucked right from the nearby mountains as if taken directly from a time long gone. Crouching down, I found myself entering the domain of Wally Johnson, trapper extraordinair, who used this very cabin for many years. Upon entering you immediately feel as though you are up in the Rockies, isolated for weeks on end, and preparing to go check your trap line. Taking a careful look above the door, you’ll even notice carved notes from the previous occupants (One pine martin, two hares, April 3rd). These details are everywhere in the cabin and, indeed, throughout the museum at large. They are the tiny moments that add to the overall feeling, and while dwarfed by the surrounding mountains, complete the feeling of a new and exciting world.
When we headed out from the museum, Tammy informed us that she had a copy of an interview with Wally Johnson recorded somewhere in the museum. Since I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to portray Mr. Johnson in the show we would be doing the next day, she offered to set up the recording for tomorrow so that I could listen to the man himself and hear about the life he lived.
I was absolutely thrilled and the team and I headed out for the night. It was a cool night, but I didn’t mind. We were located a bit higher up on one of the walls overlooking the valley. The sound of coyotes calling to one another, like ghosts across the open and protected ground, as the sun started to set was something I will not soon forget. We prepared the BBQ and enjoyed the sights and sounds of the twilight in the mountains, conscious of the time (for indeed, in Creston, there is no daylight savings time and our watches were adjusted accordingly), but relishing in every moment. In such a situation, you might think it is easy to daydream or drift off, but here I remember feeling so connected to everything around me that the last thing I wanted was to break away from it in any way.
The following morning we headed back to the museum and prepared for the day. The first step was sitting down and listening to the recordings that Tammy had procured for us of Wally Johnson. I listened with earnest and spent much of the morning sitting back with headphones in hearing about the life of this amazing individual. He spoke at length about his time away from town, up in the cabin. He spoke of his friends and of the competitions they’d have. He spoke of Lake Monsters and hard times. He spoke of himself and the life he had lived. It is amazing opportunity to hear the voice of an individual that you are going to portray. You can never fully do someone justice, but you have to try and hope that you succeed. It is a humbling feeling to listen to a voice from the past and the experience is one that I will always hold onto.
The second step were workshops, organized by Tammy for the various schools in the area. It was here that I started to realize how silly I likely looked, head always looking up at the nearby mountains, and how tiring it must be for locals to have to deal with tourists on such a regular basis. When we were talking to the children, one of them asked where I was from and I told them, adding that this was my first time seeing mountains.
They laughed and could hardly believe it. I imagine that most of them were thinking the exact same thing that had plagued my thoughts over the last while of the journey.
That can’t be real…
It suddenly occurred to me that, for many of these children, this was the world they had seen the most of. They were used to it. The majesty, the mountains, the surreal feeling of being within the sublime. For them, today was just another day (albeit a day where they had to listen to a strange man rant and rave about the landscape around them). They were used to it. For me, a stranger in a beautiful, strange land, I could hardly believe it.
I thought about a time when I had been fortunate enough to travel to Rome and how mesmerizing it was seeing such history surrounded by people going about their everyday lives. Imagine how crazy it must be to get used to walking by the Colosseum everyday. How many people must feel that exact way? It was absolutely mind blowing to me.
And yet, as we finished our performances and started the long journey back home, I kept thinking about how realistic it was and how the same feeling had likely happened to me. I thought back to growing up in a small town in southern Ontario. I thought about the creeks, the small forests, the farmlands, the hills, and the escarpments. I thought of the beauty that had surrounded me for so long and all that I had started to take for granted.
And so I started to look again.