When I was a child, my family drove from Victoria to Edmonton most summers. In those years there was no Coquihalla Highway so you drove up the Fraser and Thompson Canyons to Cache Creek and then you drove east. I loved the drive up the canyons, loved watching for the first Ponderosa pines, usually around Boston Bar, and I loved the trains, the way they looped around the mountainsides, the haunting sound of their whistles. My dad always pointed things out. The sign for Walhachin (which haunted me in its own way for so long that I finally wrote a novel about it), the old hotel in Spences Bridge, the sign for Jackass Mountain. Sometimes we camped at Skihist. John and I took our children there when they were young too and we found remnants of the old wagon road, walked its ruts, imagined it in the years when men and mules followed it north to the gold fields. I wanted a way to commemorate these places as I knew them, and know them, and so I wrote about them. At one point I even gathered long pine needles from Skihist and other places and made little baskets as a way to hold the memories of dry air and resiny trees somehow intact, shapely and sharp-scented.
And I loved Lytton — as a child (because sometimes we stopped there for ice-cream or popsicles) and as an adult, particularly once I’d read Ethel Wilson’s Hetty Dorval and I could walk the village, wondering where Hetty might have lived. I imagined her here, in better days, but of course, as Melville observed, “It is not down on any map; true places never are.“
The sun dipped behind the hills across the river and the windows of the bungalow ceased blazing with evening sunlight. At once you felt the cool air as if it were the earth’s cool breath. Anybody looking out of the front windows of Mrs. Dorval’s bungalow could look down on to the racing Thompson River. Perhaps the water was emerald, perhaps it was sapphire. It is both. It is neither. It is a brilliant river, blue-green with lacings of white foam and spray as the water hurls itself violently along in rapids against hidden or projecting rocks, a rapid, racing, calling river.
If I have a favourite river, it might be the Thompson. It might be the Thompson between Spences Bridge and Lytton, a length I’ve rafted twice, once with John and Forrest, and again with Brendan and Cristen, the trips our gifts to them when they’d completed their PhDs. Tumbling over and through the rapids in a rubber raft is exciting but what I loved most was when the guide told us we could swim for a bit if we wanted to. If we wanted to. I will never forget swimming those blue-green waters, holding a rope for safety, as we passed flinty rocks, the air heady with artemesias. In my novella, The Weight of the Heart, I gave Isabel the experience (though our rafts never flipped).
Last night I was shocked to learn that Lytton was on fire. On fire. Just think about that for a moment. A small village on the edge of a river, two rivers, burning. I woke several times, thinking about the place and its residents, hoping that somehow the story would have a happy ending when morning came. But it didn’t. News reports say that 90% of Lytton has been destroyed. Residents were given 15 minutes notice and reception centres were set up in nearby communities.
Lytton has seen more than its share of devastating fires. In Thompson Valley Histories, a collection of essays about communities along the Thompson River edited by Wayne Norton and Wilf Schmidt, published in 1994 by Plateau Press, Dorothy Dodge chronicles the history of post-colonial fires in Lytton. In 1931 a fire “claimed twenty-eight buildings, including garages, two stores, the hotel, cafes, barbershops, the Opera House, the butcher shop, a pool hall, a drugstore, two warehouses, the livery stables, barns and outbuildings.” The hospital was saved but patients were evacuated: “Annie Kent tells of herself and a woman from Lillooet, both with new-born babies, being whisked away to the doctor’s house on the hill, all four of them being plunked in a big double bed, there to stay until the threat was over.” There were several casualties though.
In 1949, another terrible fire destroyed most of the businesses. In 1970, a forest fire burned a subdivision and an Indigenous reserve on the south-east side of the town. Dorothy Dodge writes, “The fear of fire never completely goes away. The town has survived, despite the recurrent flames, and looks forward to a future uninterrupted by setbacks like the disastrous fires of 1931, 1949 and the early 1970s. Reminders of these and other fires still remain on the streets of Lytton and in the hearts of its residents.”
I keep checking for updates of last night’s fire. The images are horrifying. The main street before and after, bright light and green grass, then smoking ruins.
After our raft adventures, swirling out in the confluence of the two great rivers, we sat in the welcome shade of big trees by the Totem Motel, drinking beer, relaxed and light with pleasure, watching the trains heading north and south. In the haunting sound of their whistles was the memory of hearing them at Goldpan and Skihist, at the old hotel in Spences Bridge, in childhood and young motherhood and after, and now I will also remember those moments of deep joy in a place that should have been spared, but wasn’t.