Portland contains the world’s largest independent bookstore, a paradise matchless. Despite repeated vows to myself to go farther afield than Powell’s Books and see the parade of creative frenzy and freakiness that Portland offers, I’ve found myself there three of the four days that I’ve been in town. I think I’m done now, though: I was looking for two books to see me through for the rest of the time I’ll be traveling—nice long ones that’ll keep me busy for a while if there are boring moments. I picked up Crime and Punishment and Foucault’s Pendulum. That ought to do it.
And now let us move a bit back in time, because after all I’m still not done with Portland, so I’m not going to write about it yet. I have a backlog of places and they’ll weigh on me until I’ve at least mentioned them all; once I’ve achieved that I can unplug myself from the internet again. Unlimited internet time isn’t a good thing for me to have while I’m traveling. I abuse it. I make excuses like, “I’ll just write a little blog post and then I’ll be done.” Hours later I’ve finished a post but also read webcomics until almost the time that I’d be waking up if I were still picking pears.
Jenna and I shared the same tan, brick-shaped Soviet van for nine days with six other people, trundling across Mongolia’s vastness. A trip like that has a way of getting everyone to know each other. She’s from Calgary but came to Vancouver for college, and then stayed because it’s Vancouver, and invited me to stay with her for a while while I visited the city. For a lot of Canada, she explained, Vancouver is less a place you move to and more a phase you go through. It’s the warmest of Canada’s big cities. (Canada has a very manageable number of cities. In the US, you have dozens to choose from. In Canada, there are basically six: Toronto, Montréal, Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver, and Ottawa.) It’s also full of young people and craft beer and colleges and dating opportunities and a high standard of living and functionally legal marijuana (a “high” standard indeed). But the rent is high and it’s far away from most things that aren’t Vancouver, and I imagine that if you started getting old in Vancouver you’d get to wondering what all these damn young people were doing running around and smoking pot and having way more fun than you, and you’d move away to somewhere else where you could be with people your own age.
I took a few days to explore it and found all these things to be true. It’s an absolutely beautiful town that bends over backwards to accommodate bicycles and where you can go see a free concert on a town square and smell many people openly lighting up around you. It’s eaten through with water. Canada has such vast areas of empty land, and yet they chose to build two of their biggest cities, Montréal and Vancouver, on the most inaccessible island-or-practically-so places available. But whatever logistical irritations that may cause, it does make it so that, at practically any point in Vancouver, you can point your bicycle downhill and arrive at a waterfront within ten minutes. At some point they had a revelation about how beautiful their waterfronts are and set to keeping that way forever, so now you can go on a waterfront walk and see, depending on which, pleasureboats cruising around, or the high-rises of North Vancouver, or the swarm of guardian islands that block any view of Vancouver Island. (Or, if you’re not lucky like I was and instead get to the city when it’s having its typical weather, you can see the same thing from any waterfront: the planet Neptune’s worth of fog.)
They have a park fully the size of their downtown, laced with bike paths and walking paths and a waterfront where you can see kids freaking out about silverfish and a sculpture of a girl in a wetsuit sitting on a rock. Over a dozen totem poles welcome you into the park. They’re a uniquely Pacific Northwestern thing, totem poles, and the First Nations there are justifiably proud of them—there aren’t many things more awesome and full of meaning and tradition in the world of art.
They also have something going on pretty much any day you find yourself bored. While I was there, I went to: a chili and ribs cookoff, a festival of everything Taiwanese (where I got a free consultation with a practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine), a little Méti dance exhibition where cute old couples danced, an all-day series of concerts called Block Party, and a pan-Asian night market. Vancouver doesn’t really get tired.
Another thing Jenna told me, and that you may have deduced based on some of the things I went to, is that there are a lot of Asians in Vancouver. There’s a sub-city in the metropolitan area called Richmond where there are more immigrants than white people. Not coincidentally, that’s where the night market is held. All this Asian presence put an idea into my head: I needed to get some soondae.
Soondae officially should be transcribed sundae, but that tends to just confuse and sometimes severely disappoint people, because it’s a Korean sausage in which the operative ingredient is pig’s blood. But it’s not the sort of thing that people dare each other to eat. (For that you want silkworm pupae.) It’s actually, in my opinion, extremely delicious, not to mention a good way to use the leftover blood and intestines from a pig. I hadn’t had any since the last time I went to Sachangni’s oiljang and got a heaping Styrofoam takeout full of it and knew I wouldn’t see soondae again for a long time. So I went to the Richmond Night Market, the day after I visited Grandma and Grandpa and Uncle Howard and Aunt Lois at their hotel right near the market. (The elementary task of me getting to their hotel somehow impressed them immeasurably. Public transportation really isn’t that hard. Maybe this is why Americans won’t embrace it: they all believe you need a wallful of degrees to figure it out, so they would never manage to get anywhere with it anyhow.) The Night Market was immense, an acre of people selling noodles, tempura, fried squid, Chinese kabobs, cell phone skins, socks, and contact lenses that change your eye color. But, besides the contact lenses guy, the sole representative of the Republic of Korea seemed to be one guy trying to convince people to like tteokbokki. (It’s just rice logs and sugary-spicy sauce.) I tasted many other things that night, but when a voice announced, “Will all visitors attention, please. The Richmond Night Market will be closing in fifteen miniss. Thank you for your visits…”, I had to go back to Jenna’s disappointed. Judging from their cuisine, I guess everyone in Richmond is from China, Japan, or Thailand.
Luckily there was a Korean restaurant downtown called ChamMani, a perfect little hole in the wall, as hastily thrown together as real restaurants in Korea, all plastic veneers and cheap chairs and maximum economy of space. There was a partition hiding the kitchen but I imagined it had basically enough room for a few pots and a marginal ability for the chef to turn herself around so she could, if she felt like going to the trouble, exit frontwards. So I went there—and they were closed for Labour Day. Of course. But I wasn’t leaving the city without getting that satisfaction, and a couple days later I finally made it back there, and for fifteen minutes while I slowly enjoyed dipping the heme-rich rounds of brown wholesomeness into the spiced salt, I could imagine I was back in Korea, in a concrete building made by someone unaware of the concept of insulation, in view of a wall of lush green mountains, listening to a language I could understand only in snippets that made me feel accomplished every time.
And so, with that and several excellent craft beers placed into my stomach, I felt ready to leave Vancouver and go to Vancouver Island. Just as we have two Portlands, we also have too many Vancouvers. The seminal Vancouver was George Vancouver. Vancouver explored Vancouver, as well as Vancouver and also Vancouver Island, before any of them were Vancouver. The first people to start calling a place Vancouver were the ones who named Vancouver Island, which does not contain Vancouver or Vancouver. They named Vancouver Island way back in 1792. It took until about the 1850s for another Vancouver to become a Vancouver, and then it still wasn’t the Vancouver I visited, it was the Vancouver that today is situated three hundred miles away from Vancouver, in Washington (which is of course named for Washington, just as Washington also is). The main Vancouver didn’t start calling itself Vancouver until 1886, rather late in the game, but even so, now when people think “Vancouver”, they think of Vancouver, not of Vancouver, or Vancouver Island, or even George Vancouver, who would also go on to give his very eponymable name posthumously to both Mount Vancouver and Mount Vancouver (on the Alaska–Yukon border and in New Zealand, respectively—or irrespectively if you prefer).
You get to the Island on a ferry. Modern engineering may be formidable, but even today we’re still not capable of creating a bridge thirty miles long, and it’s just as well that they’ve never tried to run a series of them across all the little islands dotted throughout the Georgia Strait, because those islands are pristine and they would be ruining some of the swiftly dwindling supply of perfect things in this world. I got onto the Island in the evening and had to camp out near a little pond when night fell. But the next morning I got back on the road with my thumb out and flagged down one of the best rides ever.
I’d never been picked up in a hi-rail truck before. These are those big pickup trucks that have train wheels fitted next to the regular rubber ones so they can ride on tracks. The guy, Peter, a tall, friendly, confidently-spoken man with a long face, told me that he has the hi-rail truck because one of many jobs he does involves fixing railroad tunnels, but he was in it today because he’s part of a club that tries to keep some of Vancouver Island’s few remaining miles of railroad track in workable shape. Apparently the tracks default to the government if they become unmaintained, and they’d get ripped up—but as long as Peter and his friends go out once a year or so and clear off all the logs and rockslides, and a hi-rail truck can drive along the tracks, the club gets to keep them. There hasn’t been a real train on their stretch for about sixteen years. But he’s hopeful that one day the little tourist train that goes on a short excursion further down the line might get extended back to his stretch.
I told him going out on an abandoned railroad line sounded like the sort of fun that would practically send me into conniptions. I didn’t realize that he was actually going out to do maintenance today, and that there was a chance that he might even invite me along—but he was, and he did, and oh jeez, could anything work out more perfectly?
So we drove down the highway until we reached a spot where we could turn off to a short driving trail that’s completely invisible from the road, shaded in by trees and conspiratorially covert-feeling, and reached what appeared to be a wooden grade crossing that hadn’t been maintained for fifty years. Peter maneuvered the truck onto the tracks and lowered the wheels, and off we went. The forest was working gamely on reclaiming the right-of-way, and had transformed the whole line into a green tunnel. This secret path, going from forested nowhere to forested nowhere via wild, post-industrially beautiful freedom, was revealed to me. A few miles further down the track, the lake appeared on our right, fifty feet below, free of cottages, shores decorated only with firs and pines, water the bright blue of the sky. This was a private view. Once in a lifetime.
I’m still hard pressed to say exactly why I like traveling on rails so much more than I do on roads. I have a few theories, and probably they all combine into the right answer. It’s not built up along the sides; there are no billboards or restaurant signs, not even any informational signs except the terse ones that engineers are trained to decode: “W”, “24”. You can’t even see the tracks beneath you. Just pure outdoors. It’s also quieter, less stressful—as opposed to car travel, where any momentary lapse of attention could potentially kill you, on a railroad you generally don’t have to think about anything or communicate with other drivers or decode their mysterious intent. Even for a rail-trail, like the one I biked on to West Virginia a few years ago, you can say the same, because it’s only used by bikers and walkers. And the places train tracks go are nicer. They aren’t looking for your attention and money as you go through. For little railroad towns, the tracks are just something that’s there, like a walking trail through a British sheep pasture—there are trails hundreds of years old in England, but they can’t be built over or eliminated because they’re public rights-of-way, with the same legal standing as any paved road, just because people have been walking that way for centuries. You don’t get any spare infrastructure along a British footpath, and the same goes for a railway, because no one’s going to stop. At the most you might see a grain elevator painted with an advertisement for a brand of flour (a brand that, like as not, hasn’t been in stores for fifty years). All this means that when you do emerge into a town after traveling down a railroad, it probably feels like it’s in the middle of nowhere, in both location and time, even if it’s actually just a few miles from a big city, and it looks inward, not outward.
Towns didn’t really figure into it on this trip on the Island, although at the end I did get to see something even cooler that you wouldn’t find along a highway. But as we went along the lake, Peter stopped because there was a giant Douglas fir on the tracks. It had fallen down a little ways up the steep embankment to our left and slid onto the railbed, standing up almost vertical, leaning for support on the embankment. It was almost as wide as the distance between the tracks. Peter had a winch and a chainsaw, but even so we determined that we’d have to have some people come around from the other side to deal with this hoss. I did make myself useful: I climbed up the inhospitable slope, which was only possible using rock-climbing techniques, and did reconnaissance—I told Peter that the tree was not in fact attached to its stump anymore, and would probably slide easily down the slope. Rock climbing finds a real-life use!
He threw us into reverse and back to the old grade crossing, and then turned around: that was only one of the two directions we were going today. And so we glided through the green tunnel the other way, toward Port Alberni, crossing old wooden trestles with no railings, looking out over creeks and ponds and greenery. There were no big firs on the way to Alberni, and we made it to our take-off with no incidents. We didn’t stop in the town itself, but at the sawmill. The historical society has kept alive there what is perhaps the continent’s only remaining steam-powered sawmill. It still works; retired guys get wood from somewhere and actually mill boards there, especially during the tourist season (which had finished just the weekend before I got there). Peter took me on a little tour of it. The building is made all of wood, and the machinery all of old-time gears and engines, and you can tell the whole thing required immense ingenuity to put together.
Much as I might have liked to stay and geek out about railroads and sawmills, I had a coast to get to. So Peter—who, as we had talked, had revealed that he was the CEO of numerous companies in Canada and the US—got me some lunch for my trouble climbing, and left me at a good place to hitch.
That’s how I got to Tofino, or rather the marathon-long stretch of highway between Tofino and Ucluelet (“You-clue-let”), which you could say are the only two important towns along this section of coast. All between them is a national park full of rainforest and beaches. Tofino and Ucluelet are for surfers. Evidently this is where you go if you’re a Canadian surfer. They come here by the thousands.
That wasn’t my goal in coming here. I wasn’t sure what my goal was, actually. But from someone or other, I heard that the salmon were running and you could watch that at a hatchery nearby. I went there, walking down a long dirt road to Thornton Creek. I approached quietly: I’d heard bears frequent the salmon’s waters. They do. For what I think was the first time, I saw wild bears. At first just one, wandering around the rocks where the creek broadened and flowed directly into the ocean. It was a black bear, in no evident hurry, searching lazily for seafood. Then in the thick forest to the left of the creek I saw two more, walking around and occasionally cracking sticks underfoot. They were a mother and a cub. They were close. Quickly I decided to walk quite a ways down the road. And that’s where I ended up camping, well away from the bears near what was apparently an old quarry. I would watch the bears more in the morning when the hatchery was open and there was a fence I could put myself behind if they started taking an interest in me.
I never saw the salmon the bears were after. The signs I saw said they wouldn’t really start running until October. Someone guessed later that the ones I saw were just early-bears, marking time there until the migration by eating shellfish and urchins and such. The next morning I went to look for both bears and salmon. One of the two was easy to find. The hatchery has a bear viewing platform set up along the near side of the creek, and from it I viewed a bear on the opposite bank of the creek, a scant dozen or so meters away, walking upstream. I stared. I wanted to know what it was up to, what it thought, what its life was like. But I only had a few minutes for that. Then a camper pulled up and I indicated to the hesitant occupants that there were no salmon, but there was a bear right there. They came up, a young couple, and stared with me, but then as I talked with the woman, the bear went out of view, with the man following it from the platform until he ran out of platform and came back to report the bear had left. Someday I’ll see a bear again. If you’re in a boat with me when that happens, be prepared, because I’m going to take my time.
The couple were here from Germany, and were surprised at how many Germans they’d seen. They took me to the highway, and I spent the day walking along beaches and nature trails and other places. My instinct is to say the rainforest was otherworldly, but that just shows how deeply my instincts have been conditioned by a culture that’s otherworldly, because in fact the rainforest was more earthly than most things I’ve had the chance to see in my life. The trail I walked was a boardwalk. Looking down, I had a profound sense of lostness, because the forest floor was incomprehensible. I don’t mean just that it was invisible, although it largely was, behind the leaves of all the ground-covering plants. I mean that I could hardly even conceive where it might be. Was it five feet below me, or twenty? Were the plants I could see growing from soil, or growing on one of the dozens of immense downed trees netted together above the floor, each of them covered in moss and plants, some with full-size trees growing from them, phoenixes of the mist? If I were to jump down onto what looked like solid ground, would I punch through a delicate lattice of still-decaying branches to another floor underneath it, and would I then be on the ground or still no? It was like there wasn’t a floor at all, just a probability zone reminiscent of the electron cloud surrounding an atom’s nucleus, the zone where we can say that there must be electrons somewhere, but it’s impossible to say exactly where, just where they’re most probable. There must be a forest floor in the rainforest, but perhaps it’s impossible to truly locate. Especially from meters away up on a boardwalk.
I slept on a beach that night after watching the sun go down cool and red and pink, sky ablaze, over a little bay near Ucluelet. Half the town appeared to be out there with me watching it. This coast is socked in with fog for all but a tiny window on the calendar. I came at just the right time, the time that draws people out of their houses in droves to see the irresistible beauty surrounding them.
I had one final day, which I used to go to Tofino, a town that I had nominally come to see, but which I didn’t reach until I spent over two full days avoiding it. I got there partially by way of a trail thick with salal, a plant I had never seen, but which produces big, weird-looking, tasty berries. And in Tofino I found everything a nice little town needs—coffeehouses, restaurants, shops—and even a gallery full of amazing art by a First Nations guy who blends traditional geometric Northwest Coast art with realism. But I suppose after a railroad trip, several bear sightings, new berries, and rainforest, even Tofino felt like a slight let-down. Oh well: I didn’t have much time left anyhow.
I took off the next day all the way back to the ferry terminal. But the Island wouldn’t let me leave on a mediocre note, and so it assured that while I was on the boat I bumped into none other than Peter, on his way to an Eagles concert in town. We talked a lot and, after a while, he said, “Kind of a weird question maybe, but do you take donations? … Seeing as how I have about thirty companies and at least a couple of them are doing okay,” he reached into his wallet and gave me a hundred-dollar bill. For him it was a bit of leftover petty cash from his trip to the Island; for me, I assured him, it would go a long way. I guess you could say I got paid for my skills at rock climbing. Or, alternatively, you could say it was the Island’s magic.