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Sunday, September 9, 2012

Day 79 and 80: Traveling South from Houston to Hope

We said our good-byes to Christine and Alf early Tuesday morning and, pulling out of Tyee Lake, rejoined the eastbound Yellowhead Highway to begin the long drive south to Vancouver. We paused at Houston - fly fishing capital of Canada - to admire the giant rod that graces the parking lot of the town's tourist office. It was surprising to see just how much artistry and craftsmanship had gone into its construction...No tacky plastic replica of a fishing rod, this! Rather, it was made of the exact same materials as a regular fishing rod, only 20 times (or something like that...) bigger. We oooohed and aaaahed accordingly and then moved on.

Passing Burns Lake, we thought about the fire that had ripped through the town's sawmill just one year ago, killing a number of workers and closing down the town's main source of employment. This has brought added hardship to an already economically depressed area, and it showed on the faces of the people we passed on the street, on the streets themselves with their boarded up shops and 'closed down' cafes.

The further east we traveled, the more traffic we saw. It felt a little sad to be back in the world of fast lanes and slow lanes and, come to think of it, highways that even had lanes. On the bright side, we were ticking off the Ks. We had expected to make Prince George by bunking down time but instead we were navigating this big smoky service town that sits on the bend of the Fraser River and marks the starting point of the mighty river's journey south by early afternoon. We loaded up on bad coffee and basic supplies and turned south too.

We camped that evening in Quesnel - a mid-sized town with a super-sized sawmill operation that also has its charms...Granville's Coffee Shop, for example. The gated Robert's Roost RV Resort on the southern edge of town was just off busy Highway 97 but felt like a little oasis of peace and gentility: its neatly groomed sites lined up one beside the other on the edge of a lovely lake, a couple of dragon boats drumming their way across the water as the sun set, everybody safely back in their rigs and nestled in for the night by 9pm. We understood why Robert called it his Roost.

Next morning we were up with the chickens and back on the road, steaming down Highway 97 as fast as Ruby's little wheels could spin, feeling our whole unit shudder and sway each time one of those mammoth logging trucks thundered past - overtaking us and leaving us behind in a dusty wake. It was all a bit frantic. Moreover, there really wasn't anything we were heading for - anticipating by way of scenic respite, a bit of a breather - save faraway Vancouver. So we just kept on trucking: past sprawling Williams Lake and the aptly named Lac la Hache.

We noticed a fairly dramatic landscape shift as we drove into pretty Clinton and the lake and forest backdrop we had grown accustomed to gave way to a sparsely treed expanse of sandy buttes and coulees - a sort of desert set on a hillside, and then a mountainside, and then, oh wow, look at those hoodoos...

There are some legs of an extended journey such as this one that you research meticulously, to the point that you know just what will be round that next corner as you round it. Then there are the legs that require no research: the Banffs, the Lake Louises, the Niagara Falls...We have seen them reproduced so often in glorious techni-colour that by the time you actually see them for real, it is like seeing something you already know, like reaffirming the image already imprinted on your mind. And then there are the legs that you haven't bothered to research, that you know absolutely nothing about: they creep up on you unexpected, a humdrum drive to get you from A to B suddenly morphing into one of the scenic highlights of your entire trip. Such was the Fraser Canyon.

We had kind of put the camera away for a while, were taking a break from snapping everything that either moved or had magnificently stood there unmoved for 3 billion years. That camera was back out again el pronto as we swung onto the TransCanada Highway at Cache Creek and started the long and astounding descent into the heart of the Fraser Valley. It was a ride that was terrifying, exhilarating and breathtaking all rolled into one. We couldn't believe that this cliff-hanger of a journey was being taken on the same road that one uses to get from Montreal to Toronto...Yes, THAT road. Quite apart from the stunning views of canyon wall and edge-clinging train track and cliff-scaling mountain sheep and ferociously flowing Fraser River at the bottom of it all, was the amazing way how - in spite of going down and down and down - you always seemed to be the same belly-quaking distance from the valley floor. Let's just say that it was not a journey for a gal with vertigo. But nor would we have missed it for the world.

The canyon eases off at Hope, and from there, the TC cruises its last hundred odd kilometres through market farming valley floor and on into Vancouver. Our hope had been to reach Hope by nightfall...But then, we hadn't bargained on that brake-stamping thrill-ride of a road either. So we were looking for a spot to spend the night by the time we hit Boston Bar - home of world-famous Hell's Gate.

That slogan on the side of the promo-car for Hell's Gate has it wrong. It isn't the Air-Tram that provides the biggest rush of the Gold Rush Trail. It's the road leading up to the Blue Lake RV and Tenting Resort where we decided to pull off for the night. Let's just say that the 1 kilometer 90 degree ascent up a cliff face on a narrow pot-holed dustbowl of a track to get to what proved to be a holy dump of a 'resort' was a bit of a challenge after a long day on the road. We would have turned back if we had known what lay ahead. We tried to turn round about 200 meters into it, but that proved impossible. There was no room for maneuver, let alone for passing a vehicle coming the other way. No wonder that stop sign midway up is pummeled with gun shot. It's how we were feeling too, going up, wanting down.

It was the longest one kilometer of our lives. The only thing more depressing was the knowledge that we had to go down again. But that was tomorrow. With the light fast fading, we had to book in. We chose to forego the scary disappearing path into the 'bear exhibit' and went to the office instead. Staying at Blue Lake RV resort was (TransCanada) highway robbery, but what choice did we have? Obviously the jokers who built the road in and out know that too. We sucked it up and paid. We're still not sure where Blue Lake is or was, but the landslide and swamp we camped up beside was, well...private.

We made it down the cliffside the next morning. We didn't bother with the Air-Tram. We slid the rest of the way down to Hope, disappearing into long dark tunnels and emerging the other side into more dramatic canyon and river. It was a wail of a ride. By the time we reached Hope we felt like we had earned our pioneer stripes. We'll try it by canoe next time...Maybe.

Vancouver hailed and we barreled on towards the big city. We were eager to see the sea, dip our toe in the Pacific Ocean. With almost 14,000 kms under our belts and 80 days on the road, we'd made it to the other side of the country. Okay, so we took a few detours here and there...But that's the whole point of it, isn't it?