redux: how road music leads to an essay

Note: 3 years ago, we were on a little road trip, visiting our favourite places. Before the virus, before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, before a surgery gone sideways. The world was different — and the same.


We just spent a few days away from home, driving up to Lillooet the first night, then taking Highway 99 through Fountain and Pavilion where the road meets Cariboo Highway 97. This is the loveliest way to see the Fraser River with the benches on either side falling to the fishing rocks, everything grey-green with sage.

fish rocks

These roads are perfect for Emmylou Harris, her sweet voice singing us the whole way to Ashcroft and more of her the next day driving down Highway 5A to Merritt. “The Shores of White Sand”,

‘Cause my heart’s been skipping
Like a flat rock on water
And with each ripple
The further I’m gone

and Patty Griffin’s gorgeous “Moon Song”:

Followed your road till the sky ran out


And though it never ran out, that huge blue sky, you could lose your heart to the wide pastures with cattle and paint ponies, a coyote watching the river, and all the forlorn cabins:

Time go easy on me tonight
I’m one of the lost sheep alright

I kept making notes. Why do some road trips lead to essays and some don’t? I have no idea. But there are times when the landscape shimmers, when the mare turning her face to you when you stop by the fence is somehow your soulmate, when the trumpeter swans on Nicola Lake swim close to the shore so that you can see 3 adults and 3 juvenile cygnets, still grey but nearly the size of the parents and the other adult with them. You text your children to say how the park where you once camped every summer with them is as beautiful as ever, and unchanged, and two of them respond immediately. So you are all there, in that moment, walking down for a swim from your campsite, the black dog Lily settled in the shade of the tent-trailer.

across nicola lake

We’d never taken the road up to Tunkwa Lake and there it was, open and empty. Past ranches, past marshes with remnants of blackbird nests, a field with three sleepy donkeys and the dog keeping guard coming to sniff me out when I stopped to photograph his charges:


We listened to the entire Western Stars cd on the Tunkwa Lake road. It’s like an old-fashioned orchestral tone poem, in a way, with brief intimate lyrics:

I lie awake in the middle of the night
Makin’ a list of things that I didn’t do right
Now the heart’s unsteady, and the night is still
All I’ve got’s this melody, and time to kill

and huge anthems that somehow match the country we were driving through:

Moonlight, moon bright
Where’s my lucky star tonight
The streets lost in lamp light
Then suddenly inside
Suddenly inside
There goes my miracle…

All the while, making notes, little scratches in my journal, the colour of the birches, the sound of geese high, high, and the rounded river stones at least half a kilometer above the Thompson at Walhachin, a line of geological history telling us what happened, and when. Two osprey nests on the Walhachin bridge, the old houses Bert Footner designed and built decades before he was our neighbour in Royal Oak, a man as old as god, it seemed like, when he came out to sit on his shooting stick and talk to me about horses.

On Tuesday, driving back from Merritt, I saw the road unfold in front of us as Van Morrison sang,

Traveling like a stranger in the night, all along the ancient highway
Got you in my sights, got you on my mind
I’ll be praying in the evening when the sun goes down
Over the mountain, got to get you right in my sight

and it’s a song I know every word, every note, and I sing along always:

And we’re driving down that ancient road
Shining like diamonds in the night, oh diamonds in the night
All along the ancient highway
Got you in my sight, got you in my mind
Got you in my arms and I’m praying, and I’m gonna pray
I’m gonna pray, to my higher self, ah don’t let me down
Don’t let me down, give me the fire, ah give me the fire

The memory of our fire, the one we built with resiny pine, and kept our coffee pot warm on a rock in its ashes, that fire, I could lead you to it in a campsite on Nicola Lake in 1988, children in their pajamas roasting a last marshmallow, everything golden with pollen from the pine that spreads its generous branches over our tent. Don’t let me down.


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