The first time I remember driving Highway 8, the road between Spences Bridge and Merritt, was in, I think, 1982. John and I were heading to a family event north of Kamloops. Angelica hadn’t been born, Forrest and Brendan were small boys, and we still had Friday, our English sheepdog cross. Our usual route would have been Highway 1 to Cache Creek, then east to Kamloops, then north to where we were meeting my parents, brothers and their families for a few days of camping. Why don’t we take this road instead, John said, as we reached Spences Bridge and the turn-off to Highway 8. He’d travelled in the Nicola Valley before, with his family, when he was a boy. He remembered how much he’d loved the Nicola River and he thought I’d love it too. That was an understatement. I’ve never forgotten the drive, every moment of it. We stopped for a picnic at a forestry site along the highway and it was like the Emmylou Harris line: “Speaking strictly for me, we both (all) could have died then and there.” Not that I had a death wish, not then, but the river, the aspens, Ponderosa pines resiny with heat, the scent of sage, the dry hills around us: it was a landscape that entered my heart and never left.
In the years since, I’ve put characters in a novel on that road, just so I could travel it again over and over, as I wrote, as I revised, as I edited, and they are there still, in my novel, Sisters of Grass. I’ve put us there, in an essay coming out as part of Blue Portugal and Other Essays in the spring.
I imagined us staying there, making some sort of shelter to extend our small tent, I imagined a life by the river. My husband had his fishing rod, I knew a little about edible plants. Already I watched the sun for its own time.
…the beams of our house are cedars,
our rafters, cypresses.
We spread out our maps and planned the rest of the drive, eating sandwiches and apples, tipping our cup into the river itself (this was before anyone worried about giardia), drinking the cold water as sweet and satisfying as wine. There were outhouses and we used them, one of us staying with the boys as the other entered the little shed in order to at least have the opportunity for privacy and toilet paper (there’d been a stop or two along the way to crouch by the highway behind the door of the brown Toyota station-wagon). John stretched out on the table for a short nap while I helped the boys to skip stones on the surface of the river. A small herd of mule deer were grazing on the opposite side, in a pasture under the shadow of the mountains the Nicola River cut through.
I adjure you, Daughters of Jerusalem,
by the gazelles and the does of the field,
Do not awaken or stir up love
until it is ready.
I changed diapers, rubbed sunscreen into the arms and legs of my children, the tops of their feet in leather Clark’s. (How beautiful are your feet in sandals…), and packed up our picnic leavings to return to the back of the car. We had several hours of travel ahead of us and as it turned out, a stop in Kamloops for an emergency car repair, so it was time to leave, though I’ve never forgotten the smell of the dry grass and sage, the sound of the water, and the arms of my small boys, golden and downy, as they tossed their stones as far as their arms could fling them before I settled them into the car.
Deep waters cannot quench love,
nor rivers sweep it away.
I’ve just been looking at photographs we’ve taken on that highway and the memorable ones are from October, 2014, when John and I were on one of our road-trips. We had a few routes, meandering through Lillooet, Pavilion, Cache Creek, over to Kamloops, down Highway 5A through the Nicola Valley to Merritt, west to Spences Bridge. We were nearly at Spences Bridge when we encounted a herd of bighorn sheep, a single ram and a whole passel of ewes. We pulled over to the side of the highway and watched them, the scent of them in air earthy and warm.
During the recent and catastrophic weather events in this province, major highway systems were damaged, some of them badly. Rivers flooded them, undermined them, and huge sections washed away. I knew Highway 8 had been closed because of wash-outs but it wasn’t until yesterday that I saw the really awful images of sections of the highway simply gone. This morning I saw some video footage and it broke my heart. One of the voices in the helicopter flying overhead:
“But this is all the road here…it’s gone. Not gone in one place, it’s gone in all the places. This huge section of road here is all gone…”
We are still there, I hope, in what I’ve written, what I’ve remembered. (Speaking strictly for me.) We are wading in the river, skipping stones in the heat of the day. A day that has lasted forever.