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Seen on the Fraser Canyon stretch of the Trans-Canada. (IAN BROWN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Seen on the Fraser Canyon stretch of the Trans-Canada. (IAN BROWN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Driving home: Ian Brown on the Banff-Vancouver run and what it means to be Canadian Add to ...

I prefer to think about the unofficial train that got Mr. Smith, Sandford Fleming (he invented Standard Time) and William Cornelius Van Horne, the head of the CPR, out to the last spike ceremony in the first place. It, too, came from Montreal, and made Port Moody, on the West Coast, the day after the striking. I wonder what they talked about along the way – I imagine some mutual congratulation was involved. These are the sorts of things you think about when the road through the mountains eases off and you have nothing to do but drive.

 

After the mountains loosen their grip on the highway at Revelstoke, man, rather than Nature, begins to shape the landscape. This is not always an uplifting experience.

I found Ethel Bell, the owner of the Three Valley Gap hotel, ghost town and restaurant, which is all there is in Three Valley Gap, in her office, making coffee packages – creamer, sugar, stirrer – for her 200-room hotel. “I’m retired, so to speak,” Mrs. Bell said.

She was a pleasant woman in her 70s. In 1956, she and her husband, Gordon Bell, then 18 and 20, bought 24 acres of land west of Revelstoke. The property consisted of some Columbia River shoreline, some cliffs and a slight widening in the valley.

“We knew the highway was going to go through here,” Mrs. Bell said, “even though it didn’t open until 1962.” They started with nine rooms, one of which was a coffee shop. But “for a motel in the middle of nowhere, we had to have something for people to stop.”

In 1959, Mr. Bell started building roadside attractions. He never stopped. Today, Three Mile Gap is a hotel, a restaurant, a souvenir shop, a theatre and a ghost town (an early church from Field is there, reconstructed piece by piece, as is the schoolhouse from Craigellachie, the Bellevue Hotel and the Revelstoke tobacco store), a Chinese laundry and countless other arbitrary artifacts of pioneer life in the mountains: wedding dresses, stoves, hats, saloons, automobiles, saws. When Mr. Bell died (an event mentioned in Hansard), he was finishing off the site’s full-sized, fully functional railway roundhouse – the largest in North America, naturally. It houses a dozen railway cars and locomotives, including the governor-general’s sleeping car from which Pierre Trudeau delivered his famous Salmon Arm salute to a band of western protesters. Of all the things you feel as you wander through Mr. Bell’s monument to the idea that if you build it they will come, the thing you feel most sharply is his compulsion, which is why Three Valley Gap can feel exhausting.

But Three Valley Gap is Versailles compared to what’s 10 minutes down the road. Shortly after the Bells opened their phantasmagoria in 1962, the Enchanted Forest – a loop of paths in the woods dotted with fairy-tale characters made of painted hand-cast concrete – opened its own doors. The Enchanted Forest claims to be magical, but what it really does is shrink the genuine awe you can experience in a Canadian forest to a $20 lump of regret. Afterward, you want to run shrieking and possibly naked to the entrance, to prevent other unsuspecting souls from entering there. But Ethel Bell never minded it.

“Oh, no,” she said. “The more the better. We want people to stop.”

 

The further west you drive, the less impenetrable the mountains become, the less demanding the country feels. The houseboaters of Shuswap Lake give way to the retirees of Salmon Arm, who yield to farmers in Sorrento, on the fringe of the Okanagan. From the steep valleys of survival you enter the wide plains of contentment. One Saturday at the Sorrento farmers’ market, I met a woman named Sandra Marr, otherwise a landscaper, who was selling her handmade JayneGirl soaps. In the middle of our conversation a young guy dashed up and said, “Love Spice?” Ms. Marr said, “You need the love spice!” and sold him some. I feel this conversation could not have occurred anywhere else.

Then I walked over to the annual Sorrento bluegrass festival and listened to Andrew Collins, a mandolinist from Toronto, play a Lefty Frizzell honky-tonk tune called My Baby Is Just Like Money (“Money goes from hand to hand, and baby goes from man to man”). Then he played a Stanley Brothers tune called Little Glass of Wine. The music was simple and intricate at the same time, as if a lot of stuff had been rolled into one thing. The highway bestows these gifts unpredictably. You set out, aching to find a thing you cannot name, and something you never expected calms you down again. It isn’t love or money or pleasure or being proven right: It’s the chance to be defined by the geography of wherever you are, which is the gift a country that was almost unsettled a century ago can still bestow.

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