Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Heavy Like Gold, Hard Like Diamonds

The minor differences between British Columbia and the Yukon were enough to amuse me for a while. At the border of the province are several large signs bearing tourist information and touting the land’s greatness. It seems every town, province, state, and country has a slogan in which it tries to convince any visitor that their land is the best place on earth. Often this theme is hinted at or implied indirectly by making some statement about the richness of culture or the beauty of the landscape. British Columbia, however, simply comes out and states it directly. 'British Columbia: the Best Place on Earth.' Bold statement, I thought. But they don't stop there. They have selected two slogans which are repeated with equal frequency and seem to compete for official status. 'British Columbia: Super, Natural.' Oh no, a pun.

The road was narrower and more coarsely surfaced. There was no strip down it's center and, like the Dalton, it was completely subject to any whim of the terrain. The road was pasted to every undulation and dip and seemed to choose its course without any grand plan in mind. Road signs were often supported, not on standardized sign posts, but on pieces of wood nailed together and set on the ground (or by one of many other means of ingenuity).

In the Yukon Territory, short, washboard sections of dirt were a minor nuisance and were fairly common. Here, on the Cassiar, unpaved sections were very common, only much longer and generally more problematic. I dove headlong into my first day, eyes on the road and mind on the weeks ahead. I was aware of drawing closer to the mountains but I didn't give them much thought except for a detached anxiety about how much climbing they might mean.

I soon came across a young German couple. The woman spoke very little English and her boyfriend was not much better, though he did not hesitate to make an effort.

'Ve love it here. This very nice. Is beautiful!' I looked around. It is beautiful, I thought. My tense frame of mind hadn't allowed me to notice or appreciate the emotional resonance of the setting. I was directly at the base of the mountains whose rocky bases began across the pond and through the trees. The mountains had color, orange volcanic rock drawing out the deep purple in the granite and the green of the trees on their shallower slopes. The mountains were not especially large, and perhaps for that reason alone I had written them off, expecting instead the sheer dizzying grandeur of those peaks shown with dramatic music in nature documentaries. I resolved to try and appreciate my experience more as I wished the German couple luck and set off again.

The road wasn't mean, although perhaps a little spiteful in some of its short steep climbs, but I didn't mind. Every half hour or so an RV, construction truck, or local car would creep around me, but other than that it was silent and I was alone. That evening I found a place to camp at Good Hope Lake.

In addition to being a body of water, Good Hope Lake is a couple houses with large satellite dishes and a large convenience store. The store is a large mobile building that has one or two small and mostly empty shelves inside and is tended by an angry young local. I found a rocky dirt road that descended a steep embankment from the highway and led to a small sandy beach on the edge of the lake.

The water was crystal, cool, and blue. Small ripples pushed up on the shore through which I could clearly see sand and pebbles swelling in the refraction. I wondered if my camera would be able to capture the effect that I found so mesmerizing, so I took several photos before setting up camp.

Until that night I never really had a proper fire. I had built other fires, but due to the amount of attention they required, my level of fatigue and the direction of their smoke, I never drew much comfort from them. But this night I was so ecstatic with my campsite that I decided to do the thing properly. I had a cable saw with me, a thin steel wire with sharp teeth protruding from it and I decided to give it a try. I found a large dead branch still firmly affixed to a nearby tree and wrapped the wire around it at its widest point. My first several strokes stuck suddenly in the grove and I had to jerk the wire back to free it. After a moment I realized that by keeping my arms wide and fixed and rotating through my shoulders and hips, the wire wouldn't catch. The cable cut quickly, but it was exhausting for my back and arm muscles to keep my fists spread. The branch finally broke with a dry crack and fell down the embankment. I dragged it with one hand over to my camp and began to break it down into fire size chunks. I picked up a large boulder and threw it down onto the branches where I wanted to break them, but soon the boulder began to bounce off of the thicker points and I had to revert back to my saw. The wood burned well. It was warm and constant and I had enough of it that the fire maintained its critical heat and so did not make any smoke or require constant attention. I listened to music, prepared my dinner, and sat staring at the flames as darkness came and stars appeared. After that night, whenever possible, I always built a fire.

I have spent enough time rock climbing to develop a sincere affection for stone. Rock climbing puts you in intimate proximity and dependency with stone. It requires visual and tactile scrutiny of every detail, every flake and crack and texture. You learn to feel the softness and warmth in some, the sharp coldness that drains heat from your fingertips in others. It takes on innumerably varied forms and offers a dramatic template in which to entirely immerse yourself. Every time I rose past a curve in the road that had been blasted into rock it was always an interesting study for me to wonder at the age and composition of the exposed layers.

I came to a place called Jade City. I had heard the word before, of course. Jade. I had some notion of a polished green stone which was sometimes used on ancient necklaces or art. I knew that it was sometimes used in new age healing and was supposed to carry a positive energy, but I had never given it a second thought. There is a shop in Jade City which I only visited because of the sign out front offering free coffee and because it was beginning to rain. This shop is practically the only thing in the 'town', aside from several other unremarkable buildings set quietly into the trees along the road. It sells jade in the form of several dozen slightly imperfect and cheesy statues of local animals, rings, necklaces, doorstops, paperweights, charms, totems, and on and on.

I fetched my coffee and looked around, grateful for an excuse to be off the bike. The raw jade is flown in from a quarry somewhere off in the mountains. Large boulders are strewn about in front of the shop waiting to be processed by large screaming saws that are left unattended to work their way through chunks of stone. Jade is such a dense and fibrous material that it is only worked with diamond tipped tools, and even then it can take hours for one of these saws to work its way though even an inch of a quality stone. I couldn't find anything in the store that I liked. I gazed over shelves of imbalanced green bears reaching across their wooden pedestals for a little metal fish, at bins full of delicate translucent jade rings, and at the minute pieces of green that had been worked into countless earrings, bracelets, and necklaces. I didn't like any of the transformed pieces, but the stone itself, raw, heavy, deep green, and pure, seemed to me a substance of such legitimacy that I understood all the claims made about the stones healing energy. I finally bought a small, simple little oval of rock, unornamented, plain, and tucked it into a pocket on my bike.

I mark that store as a transformational point in the forest. North of here the trees are dry and dull. Sometimes dense and sometimes as sparse as the furthest reaches of the Boreal Line, they simply did not carry the electric mystery I was expecting and hoping for. After Jade City the forest was suddenly dark and full. It seemed intriguing in the way that only something alive or seemingly concealing life can be intriguing. In the cool light rain I moved without effort for miles, trying to stare as deeply as possible between the trees as they flashed by, trying to catch glimpses of concealed moss covered rock faces, ponds happy with lily pads, and the never visible, always audible, sound of flowing water.

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