Then the road spills you into tiny Field, whose sunlight is blocked by the mountains in the winter. I pulled into a cafe called The Siding and was served by a young woman in a hand-knit beret (the cafe sells them) so huge and cascading it looked like an avalanche slouching off her head. The RCMP notices pinned up outside the post office next door reported Gregory Winter, 49, missing, and six juniper plants stolen. In Field, you’re inarguably in the mountains.
At Golden, where the clear-cuts of lumber companies become more noticeable, the Columbia River shows up, slow and fat and glossy like a millionaire taking a Sunday stroll. The local art gallery was displaying the latest work of John Hartman, the Canadian landscape painter. Wandering between projects two years ago, Mr. Hartman began to drive the Columbia River valley, stopping his car to make fast watercolour sketches of the mountains whenever a view struck him. The paintings catch the careless, inevitable way the mountains steer the river, organize the towns, determine the fates of the people who live there. Mr. Hartman was trying to understand something eternal in a passing way, which is the way we do it these days.
The novelist Hugh MacLennan famously wrote in Seven Rivers of Canada that “in Canada the time-sense of the people was abruptly fractured when the railway age began.” He meant that this country was first experienced in real time and real space on its rivers, floating at nature’s pace. Trains and cars and airplanes (and computers and smartphones) obliterated that direct experience.
“In a vast country like Canada,” Mr. MacLennan went on (he often did), “space in our daily lives can only be measured by the time and expenditure of effort it takes for people to cover it.” Today we do it technologically, effortlessly and at second hand, which is maybe why the country sometimes seems to have “out-traveled its own soul,” as Mr. MacLennan put it, and why our history and especially our politics seem disconnected from our real lives. Motoring the Trans-Canada isn’t the same as prying down a rapid – although it has its moments, as when some oncoming dolt decides he can pass three cars in your lane as you drive toward him – but these days it is the next best thing. At least on the highway you can watch yourself react to the land that made us, can feel how slowly its enormity wheels by. You can roll down the window and smell sawdust, mine tailings, pulp fumes, pine trees, water, diesel. But then you come to Rogers Pass and you have to pay attention to the road again.
Rogers Pass was an idiotic choice for a railway and a highway. Two winters ago, 1,684 centimetres of snow fell on the mountains of the pass – more than 55 feet. There are 134 named avalanche paths coursing down the steep mountains that line both sides of the highway as it winds through the crack of the pass, and most of them have multiple starting points. It’s like driving through a canyon of giant anvils. Two hundred people were buried alive during the construction of the railway alone. In 1889, as if to drive the point home, an avalanche wiped out the Rogers Pass train station.
Today, a Parks Canada interpretive museum sits on the only patch of the 18-kilometre pass that isn’t on an avalanche path. The avalanches documented in the museum are gargantuan: The infamous 1910 monster that killed 62 railway workers (most of them Japanese) swept away a 100-tonne railway engine. After that, the CPR drilled a tunnel through the nearest mountain and abandoned the old railway line – which is now the Trans-Canada. The highway closes regularly due to mudslides and avalanches, despite the efforts of the 1st Regiment of the Royal Canadian Horse Artillery, which in an average winter can fire more than 1,500 105-mm howitzer shells at the surrounding cornices and slide paths to bring threatening avalanches down in a more controlled fashion. The bombing starts in early October and ends in late May.
For all that, when the road opened on July 30, 1962, traffic jumped tenfold. People liked the idea of following the native path that became the railway that became the road that is still one of the world’s pioneering feats of engineering. It’s best not to look up at the deadly slopes that drape the highway, but you can’t help it.
You’re through the crux when you hit Craigellachie, where the last spike in the CPR railway was driven by Donald Smith, one of the original syndicate financiers of the railway, on Nov. 7, 1885. A lot of tourists stop there these days, but you can’t actually touch the last spike: It was given to the son of a local factotum and reportedly made into a carving knife. The first cross-country CPR passenger train didn’t leave Montreal for another eight months, on June 28, 1886. It arrived in Port Moody, B.C., 139 hours later, a minute late, on July 4.