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Review

Country Roads of British Columbia: Exploring the Interior

By Liz Bryan

November 4, 2013

Review By Jocelyn Smith

Liz Bryan will be known to many readers of BC Studies as the founding publisher and editor (with her husband, photographer Jack Bryan) of Western Living and the author of British Columbia: This Favoured Land (1982); Buffalo People: Pre-Contact Archaeology on the Canadian Plains (2005); and Stone by Stone: Exploring Ancient Sites on the Canadian Plains (2005). 

Country Roads of British Columbia is an excellent collection of eighteen articles, some of which are reprinted from Bryan’s earlier works, and some from Westworld Magazine and Western Living Magazine. Each article, or “journey” (as Bryan terms them), covers a drive of not more than a few days (and most can be done in one day) along a less-travelled road in British Columbia: the appealingly named route “Soda Creek and Sugar Cane” (from Williams Lake to McAlister), or “North of the South” (from Kamloops eastwards to Squilax Hostel), or “High Hedley Circuit” (from Hedley to just past Keremeos). The result is not only an impetus to undertake these extraordinary journeys but also an invitation to delve into the landscapes, geology, and human history of the province.

“I have chosen not to include a bibliography,” Bryan writes at the end of the last journey. “If I were to add one, it would be longer than this entire book for I have, over the years, read just about everything ever written about BC” (191). The results of this lifetime of reading are clear. Bryan writes with an impressive but never ostentatious knowledge of the physical and human composition of British Columbia. In the chapter “Along Deadman River,” she tells us that the Skeetchestn graveyard beside the [Deadman/Vidette] road is a good place to stop and savour this unique and geologically fascinating landscape. The north-south valley lies on the seam between two separate land masses fused onto what is now British Columbia during the different episodes of earth history. On the west side, the relatively flat and forested Interior Plateau is bordered with basaltic columns, the exposed edge of a thick layer of lava that covers ancient bedrock formed during the Miocene/Pliocene era (five million years ago). To the east, it seems that all hell must have broken loose. Deeply fractured and fissured, the land dates from the Holocene/Pleistocene era (1.6 million years ago) and the river valley is walled with strange fire-coloured rock formations, mostly solidified from volcanic ash. (35-36)

Bryan writes about the recent past just as skilfully as she does of the remote past. Once mining had established itself in British Columbia, how quickly human settlements arose, grew, and vanished! Again and again Bryan writes of mining towns such as Fairview (described in the chapter entitled “Sagebrush Solitudes”), just west of Oliver, once the largest town in the Okanagan, “with everything necessary for urban life: stores and livery stables, doctor’s office, school, government buildings, two churches, a Chinese laundry and a jail” (143) and six hotels. Fairview survived a typhoid epidemic and a fire, but when the mine closed in 1907, after twenty years of operation (admittedly a respectable lifespan for a gold mine), the town died. Now, nothing is left. Not a trace remains of the lives of the doctor and his patients, the teachers and their pupils, the jailers and their prisoners: it has all gone.

Although Fairview’s two churches did not survive, many other rural churches throughout British Columbia remain, and Bryan does an excellent job of bringing this aspect of the province’s past to the traveller’s attention. She writes not only about the well known, such as the Church of the Holy Cross near Skatin (described in the chapter entitled “Lillooet Adventure Road”) but also, with sensitivity and appreciation, about the less known. “The tidy white and blue frame Church of St Gregory appears on top of a rise,” Bryan writes in “Sagebrush Solitudes.” “It is an old church (1885), but a little beyond it is an even older one, of hand-hewn logs … which has been built around an even older and smaller church. Windowless and with a sod roof, this first building was dated to before 1860. The church that was constructed around this older core is of logs, once sheathed with pine planks. Today in ruins and open to the elements … its stark simplicity is somehow more redolent [sic] of past faith than the ‘new’ church opposite” (141). 

It is hard to imagine how this useful and beautiful book could be improved, though a few thoughts come to mind. A map accompanies each of the eighteen journeys, but none has a scale. An index would also be helpful, as would a single map of the entire province that showed the approximate region of each journey. These small points can easily be corrected in a later edition. Country Roads of British Columbia is an irresistible invitation to travel throughout the province. Read it, savour the prose and the exquisite photographs, and start your engine.