Washington Drivers (written with love, respect, and a wink)

Sea-to-Sky Highway between Vancouver, Squamish, and WhistlerI drive to Squamish periodically, along the Sea-to-Sky highway, a superbly scenic winding road that wends its way along the northern side of the Howe Sound, seemingly precariously perched along steep fjord walls that rise above you several hundred metres to snow-capped peaks in the late fall through early spring, and fall sharply below you into the deep, always dark waters of the Sound. My grandmother affectionately says that the Sea-to-Sky highway reminds her of Italy’s Amalfi Coast, which is arguably a jewel as one of Europe’s most scenic routes.

For those living in Squamish, the Sea-to-Sky makes for an always spectacular commute, rain, snow, or shine. You quickly get used to the twists and turns of the snake-like road, which almost mesmerize you, and certainly I’ve had passengers in the car fall asleep as the car rocks back and forth with the sun shining down on them after a beer in the local in Squamish.

One thing mars the scene. It’s really more the fault of the road-makers than anything else, but in parts, when the highway was updated from a single lane in either direction, to two lanes, there are still parts of the Sea-to-Sky that narrow back down to a single lane in either direction. This narrowing makes for a frustrating drive if you end up behind a nervous driver who is traversing the track for the first time, not used to the continuous sharp s-curves. I do blame the engineers. They should have either punched their way through the rock and tunneled the highway in order to twin the lanes, or built the perch further out over the Sound. Expensive, I know, but would likely have helped to prevent the numerous accidents that inevitably claim a life or two every summer and winter; I’ve been stuck on the highway for two hours as a foolhardy motorcyclist had to be scraped off of the highway because of their reckless disregard for common sense (FYI to all motorcyclists: driving between two cars in order to overtake your sense of frustration will only result in you being scraped off of the pavement at some point).

But my peeve is not the narrowing of the two lanes into one, it’s our Washington cousins who sit in the left lane and go on the speed limit on the nose, hunched over the wheels, oblivious to the fact that half a dozen cars have overtaken then in the past two minutes. I have seen the signs in Washington: “slower traffic keep right, use left lane only to pass.” Why can’t they carry over this motor maxim up north?

I had some minor justification of God’s existence today, in this regard. A motorcyclist of the decent variety was stuck behind a Washington driver driving a behemoth of a dated white Cadillac, who was keeping pace with the vehicle next to them. Just around the Lions Bay, the motorcyclist finally had his opportunity to overtake the Washington fellow, but oddly enough kept pace with the Cadillac. I wondered what the heck he was doing. I realized that he was trying to get the Washington driver’s attention, and started to gesture for that driver to move over into the right, slow, lane. Super awesome. Message received. The Cadillac moved over.

Washington drivers: please, the left lane is the fast, or passing, lane – the right lane is the slow lane. It’s a beautiful winding road so if you want to really take it in slow, wonderful, just stick to that right lane. Our traffic rules in Canada are essentially the same. Just like the size of our change: our quarters are just like your quarters, and so forth. The same principle applies to traffic rules.

And in the meantime, I’ll just trail you and vent loudly to no one in particular.

The Graves That Dot Our Landscapes

I called my dad on Friday, as he’d left a voicemail for me to call him back. Whenever he’s cryptic in his voicemails, I know it has something to do with a bill, usually a cell bill, that I need to pay. This time though, after asking if I’d paid my portion of the linked account, he casually mentioned that my brother had been nattering on about me, as he’d been in Squamish for a month already, and I’d only seen him once, and had made no effort to go out to see him. Fair dinkum, it was all true. I had a lot going on in my life that made me escape to the comfortable solace of my friends’ living rooms instead, plus I had been house sitting out in Caulfeild on and off. Gas was expensive, time was short, Squamish was forty-five minutes too far away for the perceived hassle. But Dad was right, I should touch base with Marek.

I’d spoken to Steve about going shopping on Saturday, and he said he was interested in joining, but I knew that he’d be okay with it if I bailed on him; family trumps, and Steve understood this. So I called Marek to see where he was at (playing a zombie shoot ’em) and in between grunted efforts to skewer a particularly tough undead, he let me know that he was going mushroom picking with Evie the next morning. I asked if he wanted to come out to West Van, and we could go to our regular haunts, but he said no, he wanted to stay in Squamish. Alright, Squamish it was, I’d suck up the gas cost and spend some quality time with my brother and my niece.

The next morning, I got up bright and early at 7am, a painful sleep-in of only half an hour from my usual wake-up time during the week. I took Sophie out for her morning constitutional, and this time she didn’t fuss about going out so early, as the six thirty am walk was usually a bit of a drag for her and sometimes we’d only make it to the end of the driveway and back. This time, because I was in a bit of a rush, she decided to sniff every bit of foliage available and check all the neighbourhood pee-mail. When I got back to the house, I noticed that I’d missed a call from Marek: he needed to come into Vancouver to look for a book. I told him it would be better if he’d call to the bookstore ahead of time to see if they even carried for what he was looking, so as not to waste a trip out. I had my mind set on going to Squamish at this point. He agreed and said he’d wait for me.

I put Sophie out on the patio for the day, thankfully it wasn’t raining, and drove out to Squamish. As luck would have it, it started to piss buckets around Britannia Beach, and a virtual deluge by Murrin Lake. It wasn’t boding well for picking mushrooms, but then, we’d be under forest cover anyhow, and we weren’t made of sugar. When I arrived at my parents’ place, the rain had let up somewhat, thankfully.

Mum and dad were just sitting down to breakfast, mushroom omelettes, with Evie picking at the mushrooms. She looked at me shyly, from behind my mum’s leg; she rarely saw me to be fair, and I must have seem like some odd interjection into her life. Marek bundled her up in gumboots, three layers of sweaters, and a hat, and swapped out car seats from the Forerunner to the Explorer. We set out for Alice Lake to look for chantarelles.

photo 1(1)


The plateau was bereft of chantarelles, sadly. I caveat here that we were in full mushroom-picking gear, that is to say, gardening jeans, rubber boots, over-sized sweater, and rain coat. Rather, I was in full mushroom-picking gear, looking slightly eccentric like a homeless person trying to make a stint of it in the great outdoors. I carried a bag in one hand for any mushrooms, and a expensive and sharp knife that I’d picked up at a gun show in New Mexico (gun shows are crazy places, but that is another story, for another time) in my pocket.

Mum and I had reached a conclusion some years ago that chantarelles really like to grow in places where there are salal bushes and a lot of moss, places where the leaves turn the same sort of yellow as the mushroom, so I waded into the forest undergrowth, brushing branches aside, and dodging scurrilously placed spider webs (where was a pointy wavy stick when you needed one, anyhow?). You have to walk slowly, or you’ll miss the faded yellow-orange of the chantarelle cap, and often the wee buggers hide under logs or in wooden niches.

photo 4

Matsutake, or Pine, Mushroom

Unfortunately, the place had been picked over; either that or it was a bad year for chantarelles. The forests between Squamish and Whistler are the haunts of many a professional picker, and if you have a found a good area for chantarelles, you don’t tell anybody where that area is. It’s a rule of thumb that if I had to tell you where my spots are, I’d have to kill you. So sorry, the mushrooms are that delicious. And for professional pickers, chantarelles are an easy bit of gold, as the mushrooms can go for up to fifty dollars a kilo. Even more lucrative are pine mushrooms, beloved by the Japanese as matsutake mushrooms, as well as lobster mushrooms, and these forests are also known for this particular bit of foodie heaven.

For better or for worse, the chantarelles were scarce and the lobsters minced. The only chantarelles were a couple of beauties, to be fair, that were hidden in places that were hard to reach, into which whomever had come before us hadn’t bothered to go. We found two intact lobster mushrooms that seemed to be the good variety, but I later found out that they were bitter so we had picked the wrong russula, covered with a secondary bright red fungus that gave the lobster mushroom its distinctive stunted look.

Evie entertained herself by digging into layer of Douglas fir needles that carpeted the forest floor, as she waited with either Marek or myself, as the other would tromp into the bush to go for a look; we didn’t want her out of arm’s reach, as the area was also known for cougars and bears, and cougars in particular would eye a little one and a half year old as easy pickings for a mid-day snack.

We eyed our miserable little haul and Marek suggested we head towards Whistler, as he’d seen some places where people seemed to regularly stop, and he was pretty sure it was to pick mushrooms. I agreed, as we had time, and it was worth the trek if we could find a good spot. One place, the entry to Garibaldi, I recalled from a previous mushroom excursion the year before, with my parents. We’d noticed a long cable lining the beginning of the drive into Garibaldi, and surmised that perhaps professional pickers were coming into the forest at night to look for pine mushrooms and needed the cable to drive power to lights. Maybe the lights helped find the white mounds of the pine mushrooms.

By the time we arrived to this spot, just south of Green Lake, the little one had fallen asleep. Marek was okay to leave her in the car, with the windows cracked open a wee bit for fresh air and to help us hear her if she woke up, and we set off into the forest. The forest here was different, sparser, more rocky, with a thick layer of moss covering the rocks and logged stumps of years past. It felt like we were walking on a plush green uneven carpet. We talked about my love life (on the rocks, shaken, not stirred?), about Marek’s job prospects in Vancouver (with a lemon twist), about Mum and Dad, about Dad’s Parkinsons, all sorts of things. One thing we noticed, in between topics, as well was the dearth of mushrooms again, so we headed back to the car to see about Marek’s spots.

We tried the area around Brandywine Falls, but it was far too rocky to support anything but moss. Evie had woken up at this point so we showed her the river but then the impetus to try one more area took hold before we crossed the bridge to the actual falls. The river was that lovely frigid blue colour, that you know will cause hypothermia within thirty seconds of a dunk (ah, for the bathtub warm waters of Hawaii). Evie was perfectly happy to gobble down those little golden fish crackers that one feeds to small children to keep them happy, as one might feed biscuits to dogs. Her eating habits were about the same, as well.

One more spot, on the other side of the highway, a bit further south from Brandywine, Marek said. Ok, let’s give it a try.

He pulled over to a tiny little side road that lead to Hydro’s lands; it was a good thing he had the Explorer as we had to drive up a little rocky knoll that would have taken out the undercarriage of many a low-lying sedan. We were now in grizzly country, so we kept Evie even closer. We crossed some tracks, and came across a set of relatively well-established trails, which looked promising. We set off down one, trying to keep our bearings straight so that we could get back easily, as it is so easy to get lost in a new forest, and especially out in the back country. The forest was denser with trees, with fewer rocks, lots of moss and salal. I started to find chantarelles right away, large lovely fist-sized chantarelles. Even Evie found a chantarelle, hidden beneath some moss.

Marek and I were pretty happy, as we’d gathered almost a kilo at this point, including what we’d gathered out at Alice Lake. We decided to push in a bit more, just to see if we could find any more, and came across a strange sight.

photo 2(1)Right there, in the middle of this nameless forest, we came across a grave. It was a cairn of rocks, well-covered in moss and the bottommost rocks covered over by forest debris. A simple wooden cross stood out in the middle of this cairn, with the vertical timber reading at the top: “RIP” then a faded word underneath that looked like “Pax”. The horizontal beam read “SEPT 79” to the left, and to the right, a faded “Bill.” There was a strange symbol in the middle of the cross, which reminded me of the Egyptian symbol, ‘Udjat,’ the sacred eye of Horus that was placed in the wrappings of mummies to protect the deceased.

photo 3A grave, all forlorn and alone, forgotten, no friends or family by which to remember the person within. It was rather sad. I took the “79” to mean “1979” but my Mum thought it must be “1879,” for a grave in the middle of nowhere to have been dug. I think that the wood would have rotted away though, if it was over a hundred years old, but then, the rocks were covered over with a fair layer of debris, and the rocks mossy.

Perhaps it was the grave of some hermit, whose once-a-year friend had buried him upon finding him lifeless; or a hunting accident gone terribly wrong; or the ashes of a loved one who wanted to be buried in the woods that he loved so much in life that he wanted to become part of them in death.

The archeologist in me wondered whether there was an actual skeleton underneath those granite rocks, or whether just Bill’s ashes. Who was Bill in life? All we had of Bill was his grave, not even his death. How many such graves dot our landscapes, without our even realizing it.

We kept on the path for a few minutes longer, after passing by Bill. A river was nearby. Marek found a lone pine mushroom on our way back to the car, which was a triumph, as it did look like someone had cleared the place out of pine mushrooms perhaps a week or so ago as there were all these unusual indentations in the ground where a mushroom could have grown. It is a strict principle in our family to always leave the stem, so that the mushroom’s spores can reproduce for the coming year; it kills me when I see that people have taken the whole mushroom, stem and all. That is why an area can get cleared out of mushrooms and they don’t come back year after year. I am surprised that places like Whole Foods, with their mandate on sustainability, are okay with such poor mycological practices.

Bill too, was taken out, in his entirety, from his world, leaving only a small shallow dip in someone else’s life, and for some strangers to come across randomly, in the forest, while foraging for mushrooms.

Canada Day Thoughts

Yesterday was Canada Day. I spent the day up in Squamish, at my parents’ place, barbecuing for four hours in 33 degree weather. The worst of it was that I couldn’t even have a cold beer to help take the sting off of the heat, as I am on antibiotics due to a sudden onset of tonsilitis last week. I’d never had tonsilitis. I used to be jealous of kids who had to get their tonsils out, when I was in elementary school, as not only did they get a week or two off of school, they had to eat ice cream. One could only hope for so much.

Last week, I woke up with a pain I can only equate to the sensation of razors in my throat. The doctor whistled, and said it was as bad a case as he’d seen and I had to take penicillin, and rest. No ice cream for me though; I’m attempting to be good and keep to a paleo diet during the week, and ice cream just isn’t conducive to the hunter-gatherer lifestyle (because, clearly, as a suburbanite, I am a hunter-gatherer).

So I spent the weekend in bed, save for a stint on Saturday, where I cleaned the whole flat, top to bottom, side to side, inside and out, and promptly got sicker again, so Sunday was back in bed, watching Netherlands beat Mexico in the last three minutes of their World Cup match. I’d promised to help my mum prep for the party, but couldn’t obviously, so that is how I ended up in front of the barbecue on Canada Day. Well, to be fair, I would have volunteered to cook anyhow; my dad isn’t too fond of it anymore, and he tends to go Cajun on everything (read: he burns it).

The whole patio party was a great success. From the grill, in order of appearance: cedar planked sockeye salmon, sirloin tip roast that had sat in a barbecue brine for 24 hours before being slowed cooked at 225 in the oven for another four, before being placed about the salmon and smoked lightly, ginger-soy chicken, and good old fashioned barbecue pork ribs. Inside, you could find pink (beet-based) potato salad; tomato and onion salad with just white vinegar; spring salad with honey roasted pecans, strawberries, and a light balsamic dressing; Asian slaw with sesame seeds and spring onions; little rounds of choux pastry stuffed with cream cheese and green chilis; meatballs slightly warmed through in a spicy tomato sauce; cheese ravioli in a cheese sauce and hard-boiled eggs; bruschetta on little baguette rounds, toasted with cheese.

I’d had food anxiety – this is a Polish cultural phenomenon – that morning, and convinced my mother to pull out a string of sausages just in case. We didn’t need them, thankfully. Just to put this in context, if you don’t have enough food in case the army were to visit, you aren’t a good hostess. My aunt, whose background is Dutch, and is married to my mother’s brother, has confessed that she has had nightmares in which she is hosting a party and has no food to serve; that is a classic case of food anxiety.

By the time the meat was all off the barbecue and I’d finally had a chance to sit down to eat, everyone was sprawled out in various corners of the house and on the patio, out of the baking sun, digesting slowly, sweating slowly, halfheartedly swatting at the late-afternoon insects that started to appear.

I wanted to sit and to digest as well, but we had to make room for dessert so I tackled the dishes, and some people managed to raise themselves out of their food comas to help put away food. Dessert was cold watermelon; vanilla cheesecake that resembled a marble slab, all swirled through with strawberry preserves; lemon cookies in little perfect rounds with a dollop of raspberry jam; and my mother’s fancy, Canada Day cupcakes that consisted of a vanilla pound cake base with a raspberry buttercream icing, in a deep pink (the closest we could come to red) and gold sprinkles. As one friend noted, the cupcakes didn’t look so great but tasted amazing. And my mum wanted to skimp on the raspberry buttercream icing. A travesty of nature to even think that way!

It was hot though, and from my years of gardening, I knew where the coolest spots in the house and garden were, so I talked my friends down from the ledge in the back, where they’d hid themselves from the sun, and brought them out front where the shade was most prevalent. My litmus test for a successful party are one particular couple who always end up on the floor or on the ground, digesting, and having to undo the top button of their pants. Sweet success, my mum’s party passed the test. Buttons were undone, shoelaces untied, and sighs of relief audibly heard. Maple leaves

By 5pm, people started the slow exodus back to their homes, in twos, and fours. I’d made plans with another set of friends to watch the Canada Day fireworks from the rooftop patio of their apartment building, so after making my rounds of goodbyes, pilfering the remainder of the roast beef, and absconding with all the remaining cupcakes (to bring to my colleagues at work the following day), I left.

The drive was a bit painful, as I suddenly hit my wall, and had to set the air conditioning on high, to keep my body from slipping into the warm embrace of sleep. Just before Lions Bay, just after that one stretch of the Sea-to-Sky that is always in commercials, I saw a car pulled over to the side of the highway, with a woman rolling a tire to the back of her car, clearly working on swapping out for the spare. A man, her husband, boyfriend, or brother, stood leaning against the concrete barrier, toying about on his cell, shades over his eyes, looking rather bored.

My initial reaction to the scene was to think, “What an asshole, he’s not even helping her. He should be doing that,” meaning the tire change. I then immediately felt guilty. Why couldn’t she do it? Of course she should do it. Just because she’s a woman doesn’t mean that she can’t change a tire while her male passenger stands idly by. In fact, were the roles reversed, would I even give the scene a second thought, if it were a guy changing out the tire, and the woman standing by, looking bored? Likely not. I spent the rest of the drive home debating the scene and my reaction to it. The old-fashioned side of me wants the guy to change out the tire; the feminist in me is happy that the woman is taking the lead. I suppose it really comes down to who actually knows how to change a tire. I certainly don’t; I’d call BCAA for help. The whole incident was good food for thought.

When I got home, I showered, as I was sticky with sweat and smoke. I called my friends to say I’d be a bit late as I wanted to have a quick nap. I set the alarm for a fifteen minute shut eye. I woke up half an hour later; either I’d been so sound asleep that I’d missed the alarm or I’d missed setting it in the first place.

I made it in time though, and with extra cupcakes to share. I was rewarded with a spectacular fireworks display over Dundarave, that rivalled anything I’ve seen come out of the States. In fact, the last time I’d watched a Canada Day fireworks display was back in the nineties, at Canada Place, and a teenager at Hallowe’en would have done a better job than what I saw, so I’d renounced Canada Day fireworks displays for the better part of fifteen years. The one I saw yesterday was simply beautiful. Whoever sponsored it, went all out. When we went back inside, my friend opened up a bottle of 2004 Mission Hill ice wine; a bit of summer in a bottle to celebrate what felt like the first true day of summer.

Happy birthday, Country.

Flower Basket: Or Four Variations on a Theme

Petunias, I thinkI was driving north to Squamish, along the Sea-to-Sky corridor, when just a few kilometers past Lions Bay, I noticed a hanging flower basket dangling from one of the metal pipes that is used to reinforce the fjord walls along that highway. Given the area’s penchant for succumbing to rock slides after a long hard rain, MoT (the Ministry of Transportation, for those of you unfamiliar with the acronyms that pepper the pages of government texts) drilled holes into the rock walls, and carefully placed steel pipes into the rock. I’m not an engineer, so my best educated guess for the reasoning behind these pipes is so that any water that has trickled into the crags and crevices of the rock has an outlet, rather than possibly lying dormant under the middle of a harsh winter, freezing, expanding, pushing and prodding the rock until the rock eventually weakens and gives up the ghost, causing a rock slide.

The Sea-to-Sky highway wends its way from Horseshoe Bay, at the north end of West Vancouver, all the way to Whistler, where the 2010 Olympics were hosted. It is a beautiful highway, and is always breathtaking, particularly from the Horseshoe Bay to Squamish portion of the highway, as you have the mountains to your right, and the waters of the Howe Sound, and the islands that dot the Sound, to your left. I’ve driven that highway enough times to notice a discrepancy, usually because I am keeping an eye out for bears along the side of the road, or new rockfalls, which may be harbingers of worse to come. So it was striking to my eye to see the purple flowers of a petunia plant, sitting in a basket, minding its own business, along a rock wall, hooked onto a metal pipe. A brief moment, as I was driving 80kmph, but a poignant one, nevertheless.

How did the flower basket end up there?

1) Most unlikely reason: Squamish is full of landscaping companies, and perhaps one such gardener, rushing home for dinner, from a job in North Vancouver, forgot to secure a hanging basket that he was bringing home to his girlfriend, as he had an extra one from his job site. As he whipped his open-backed landscaping truck around a corner that warned drivers to slow down to 60kmph, he was actually going 90kmph, and took the sharp s curve at such a gallop, that the basket was jostled out of the back of the truck, bounced from the pavement and, by sheer fluke and specific physics, bounced right onto the metal pipe, which was about 3 feet off of the ground.

2) Slightly more plausible reason: One of the MoT maintenance guys, who traverses the highway everyday, decided to cheer his daily route up by placing a basket of petunias on this particular bit of piping, which he’d noticed, as he had been working this particular stretch of highway for the fourth year now, had the most water coming out of it at regular intervals. The regularity of water was key to keeping the plant alive. He’d chosen petunias because they were pretty hardy.

3) Tenuous reason, but with potential: Given the proximity of the Village of Lions Bay, one of the village’s local eccentrics decided to embellish the highway, in a subtle and silent anti-government protest, through the medium of a basket of flowers, echoing something similar that she’d done back in the 60’s, when she’d hung a garland of flowers on the hollow pipe of a soldier’s gun barrel. Those flowers, too, had been purple.

4) Most likely reason: The basket was near a particularly sharp s curve, where each year, people crashed either their cars or their trucks or their motorbikes, for taking the curve too fast. Though the corner had claimed several lives, no crosses were placed there. Perhaps roadside memorials were not permitted. So one of the friends of one of the victims had parked at the nearby viewpoint, one night, and had snuck across the highway at dawn, up to where the accident had happened, the rose coloured fingers of the light grazing the rock wall, pointing out the fortuitous pipe off of which to hang the basket in memoriam.

I wondered though, what the actual reason was, and how the basket had gotten there. It was pretty enough, to catch out of the corner of my eye, as I sped forward.