In the 90’s I began writing short prose pieces about what I felt were significant personal experiences. I had no clear idea as to what purpose these writings might fulfil other than augmenting my enjoyment of stringing words together. These are not stripped down like poems but they might come from the same places.
Coquihalla River (Summer 1945?)
We started out early from Vancouver in my Aunt Joanie’s car, my mother, my sister Jane and I, Aunt Joanie and Jill. It is one hundred miles up the Fraser Valley to Hope and in 1944, the two-lane road passes through the main streets of all the little farming towns, Langley, Abbotsford, Chilliwack. The Valley is wide near Vancouver and the mountains are distant. We travel on the south bank of the Fraser once we have crossed over the Patullo Bridge at New Westminster. Beyond Cloverdale we are squeezed in by mountains, and the road through lush and level fields is forced onto the flank of the mountains by the muddy and turbulent Fraser that now appears on the left hand side. Three hours have passed and we children are bored, but we revive briefly at the challenge of looking for feathery waterfalls plunging into the forest off the mountains on the right hand side. At lunchtime we arrive on a gravelly bench where the Fraser emerges from its canyon through the Coast Range in a sweeping bend to the south. The town of Hope is dusty with gravel roads, its streets shaded with river cottonwoods. There is a general store, two gas stations on the main road, a hardware store, a liquor store with shaded windows, a police station and two churches. The sun is high and bright. Dogs snooze in pools of shade under the cottonwoods.
We turn off the highway away from the big river and instantly raise a plume of dust behind the car. But the glare of the noon sun quickly softens as we enter the forest and the chalky smell of dust is replaced by the perfume of leaf mould and cedars. We cross the Coquihalla river on a one-lane timber bridge in the dappled shade of alders near its junction with the Fraser. The Coquihalla here is green, transparent with a muscled and writhing surface. The air has become cool. We find a lane of two tire tracks leading towards the river. Bushes rustle on the bottom of the car; leaves brush at the windows. The lane drops to the flood plain of the Coquihalla and we emerge into a clearing before a brown shingled cottage. The motor stops. We burst out of the cramped car, ready to run. But my Jane and I are transfixed by a noise we cannot identify, a roar like a March wind, but not like a big wind because it does not vary. It is steady, authoritative, and somehow strangely solitary, an endless monologue with no expectation of a reply. I look toward the sound but I cannot see clearly through the trees. I am aware of sun falling into the open a hundred yards away and in the opening, transient shards of white light.
Mum, Aunt Joanie and Jill think our apprehension is funny. They lead us to the river bank and we gaze across the brawling Coquihalla, sunlit against the black wall of Hope Mountain, light flashing from white rollers on green water, a blazing band of grey-white granite cobbles in the mid channel bar, the air full of noise and chaotic motion. I am thirsty. I ask for a drink. “Drink out of the river.” says Aunt Joanie. The idea is scary but irresistible. I am led to the water’s edge where the river plays more gently against rounded boulders. Aunt Joanie clutches my belt while I lean out on hands and knees towards the water. We are in the shade of cedars but a flickering green light shines from the river into my face. My hands are in the water. It is cold. Coached by Aunt Joanie, I lower my face to the surface. I see a trout flicker into the shadows. The river is the only sound I hear. For the first of a few precious times I have become something elemental, reduced to a simple clarity, a thirsty creature at the water’s edge. No water has ever tasted as clean or as lonely.
If I were to rework this recounting of my first powerful experience of awe as a poem, I would be tempted to end it here at this climactic moment. I reveal now that the day held one more powerful experience for my sister Jane and I. Later that afternoon a freight train came through on the nearby Kettle Valley Line, heading up the steep grades of the Coquihalla Valley. It was powered by several steam locomotives, fully stoked, working hard and whistling as the train approached the canyon tunnels. In the narrow valley with multipe echos, the noise was overwhelming. The afternoon started with awe and ended with terror.
My sister and I got over the terror in the next few days because the trains kept rumbling through and we knew about trains. The river took no notice and kept on with its private monologue night and day. My memory of primordial awe remains vivid as do the memories of the many times we visited that cottage on the banks of the Coquihalla. Roll on, Coquihalla, you are a beautiful river and your name is a pleasure to the tongue.