I am 6, and we are driving through Chilliwack, Hope, Manning Park.
We are moving to a new town because my dad has a new job, and our red 1967 Rambler is crammed with overflow from the U-Haul truck that follows behind.
We’ve left our former home near Vancouver, British Columbia, rainy and leafless now in winter, and on the road to the new destination in the southern interior of the province we see high mountains, abundant trees, and long stretches of lonely two-lane highway.
We drive through the backwoods towns of Princeton, Hedley, Keremeos—I read each sign on the way as we pass. Names of towns mean little yet—it’s the piles of snow out the car window that have caught my attention. My winters living near Vancouver have yielded none of it yet, but somehow this new realm is blanketed with the glorious stuff.
Penticton, Summerland, Peachland. Westbank, at last, almost to Kelowna, and when the car stops in the driveway of our new place to live, snow is all around. With boyhood joy I fling myself into the frosty mantle in the front yard.
It’s almost dark outside, with drifts to my knees, and I can see hints of color in the broken sky across the lake above Okanagan Mountain Park. Although I don’t know it yet, in this place I will grow up.
1. Did you move there, or were you born there?
Summer comes quickly this first year in the Okanagan and I am behind a boat on Shuswap Lake. We are renting a cabin for a weekend in Canoe, a woodsy town just up-lake from Salmon Arm.
The waterskis on my feet seem to go every direction except parallel, but I am determined. Dad gives the signal and I am up, 20 tries later, bent at the waist in every wrong position but out of the water. I am flying, soaring, the rope handle clenched in my grasp. What is this new place that gives such opportunity? I will not let go. I am water skiing for the first time; all around me are hills of golden green, and the wake behind the boat arcs toward me like a giant capital V.
My new home is wilder than I imagined. There are skunks outside our back door in the warm summer evenings. We wrap thin sheets of aluminum around the base of our fruit trees so beavers don’t gnaw them down and carry them away. Ducks and wild geese run across our lawn, and sometimes I hear coyotes at night in the hills.
There are no freeways or skyscrapers like there were in Vancouver. In the tiny post office in Westbank, they know my mother’s name almost at once. What other wonders will this new home hold?
The Okanagan Valley is an orchard region. Everything grows here. Apples. Peaches. Apricots. Pears. Acres of vineyards stretch in every direction. I pick cherries one week with my mom when I am 8 and make $10. The ladder is heavy, and the warm June air is so tempting I spend hours running between rows of trees instead of picking. The orchardist is a friend of my father’s, and I know he adds buckets to my count out of kindness.
Later I land a paper route, and walk or bike three miles each evening to deliver the Kelowna Daily Courier through the heat, rain, wind, or snow. On summer evenings I go from tent to RV in the campground down our road selling spare newspapers. More than once I am asked by tourists if I actually live here all year long. This Okanagan Valley is considered vacation country, I realize: this is Hawaii and Cancun, and folks can’t believe the luck of people who call this valley home.
2. What did you do for fun, school, hobbies?
I am in the first class of students who move into a new school called Hudson Road Elementary. My mother is impressed with its name. She likes schools to be named after significant compass points or national heroes, and is pleased with such rich poetry to surround her children.
In school, we take field trips to the Research Center in Summerland with its extensive gardens, to the Kelowna Community Theater to see clowns and singers, and to the Kelowna Museum with its rounded gray front.
Our school lockers are crammed with crazy carpets, parkas, and snow boots in winter, and every recess and lunch is spent sledding on the hill in front of school.
I am 12 and buy a dirt bike, and an older friend takes me riding across the trestles on the Kettle Valley Railway. Years later the trestles burn during weeks of a firestorm that sweeps across British Columbia, but right now I am one of the fortunate ones. I ride across the jutting timbers, front forks shaking with every gap. Here is an engineering marvel still alive from 1915, and the views from the trestle tops stretch for miles.
The trails of Mt. Boucherie become another favorite motorbike riding area. I know each dip and rut long before thousands of luxury homes are built on this mountain. I don’t fault developers or new homebuyers. Who wouldn’t want this scenery at his window?
Mt. Boucherie is sagebrush and Pine country, and from the top of a peak that once housed Uncle Ben’s Winery I can see as far away as Rattlesnake Island—the tiny atoll across from Peachland.
One day a girl in grade 10 laments out loud: “There’s nothing to do around here,” but I don’t know what she’s talking about. At 15 I buy snow skis, and discover the great beginner slopes of Last Mountain nearby, and then three world-class resorts in three directions, each within an hour of my house—Big White, Apex Alpine, and Silver Star.
This is interior snow, dry and light, and the movement on skis is buoyant and uncomplicated. Years later I live in Bellingham, Washington, and ski at Mt. Baker. The snow on the coastal mountains is soggy and weighted in comparison; skiing in rain is commonplace at Mt. Baker, and more than once I stop on a run and reverie Okanagan powder.
There’s an indoor ice-skating rink at my high school and sometimes at lunch we watch hockey teams practice.
Across the street from my house is Green Bay, which freezes over most winters, and I play pond hockey with the guys in the neighborhood.
I play rugby for several years in fall, and girls my age play field hockey. I never think twice that our Canadian high school has no football team.
Summer again, and I am in a Laser sailing boat, a straight-shooting speed racer with a molded hull. When the boat tips, standing on the centerboard will right the boat, and water flows out. Capsizing poses little fear in a Laser, and sailing in the strongest squalls soon becomes my goal.
My best friend takes a break from his summer job at an amusement park called Old MacDonald’s Farm to go sailing with me, and the wind pummels us in gusts.
We can gauge each blast as it whips across the lake toward us—seen as dark ripples on top of waves. We time the hits exactly and hike out further on the side of the sailboat when gusts come, feet hooked loosely in straps—the friend and I stretched so close to the water we can look upside down.
3. How has the rest of your life so far been affected by where you grew up?
I finish grade 12 and work a construction job in the first few months after I graduate. We build the inside of the new Sears renovation at Orchard Park shopping mall. I’m the lowest grunt on the crew but come home after 12-hour days of shoveling concrete to go windsurfing on the lake. Another friend works nights that summer at Gorman’s Mill. We both make money, but know it’s time.
College comes that fall and many of us leave. I spend years in Portland, Oregon, then on to graduate school in Los Angeles. In southern California I have palm trees and In’ N’ Out Burger and take my books to the beach in November, but somehow I feel as if I’m always just visiting.
After university I see the world—Kenya, Greece, Egypt, Haiti, Mexico, England and all across the States. Once on a plane trip back from Israel I cross both the Swiss Alps and the Canadian Rockies during the same flight and see from an eagle’s eye how Canada rivals any of the world’s natural majesties.
Years pass and I’m 45 now and have been gone from the Okanagan for 27 years. Together with my wife and children we travel about twice each year to my parents’ house near Kelowna. A new highway has come through and the drive inland is different now, higher in altitude but shorter in length. I realize as we stop before Merritt, there are fewer places to meander through.
On highway 97-C we travel up and down long swift hills in the darkening sky. This is timber county, here on the Connector, as the locals call it, so much of it looks the same—but suddenly here’s the overhead animal crossing, here’s the tourist center at the outskirts of Westbank. The clouds clear. It’s almost as if the air lightens.
And we’re here again. Wrapped in memory, cloaked with longing—this Okanagan valley.
This place I once knew as home.
Question: tell me about where you grew up.
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by Marcus Brotherton