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Unlike Saul or Paul there was no flash of light, no seeing a need for a change in my life, but some revelations did appear to me on the road to Cuastecomate. It is a quiet road, a little dead-end backwater on the Costalegre in the State of Jalisco in Mexico. The total distance from the junction with the main coastal highway 80 to the ocean is only two and a half kilometres, but it is a useful road. For me it was the place where I thought through some real revelations.
I suppose I have written on and off most of my life. At first I concocted two page essays for school, and then I always wrote up special trips when I was a kid. Coming from the flatlands of London England I had this unlikely interest in mountains and climbing. I put it down to my Scottish heritage thing that developed as a passion when I became a teenager. This passion led to a thirty-six hour trip on a coastal steamer from London docks to Aberdeen and a bus ride across to Braemar. From the youth hostel at the Linn of Dee I walked solo the twelve hours through the Lairig Ghru in the heart of the Cairngorms to an Outward Bound style two week course at Glenmore Lodge beside Loch Morlich. I came home to write-up this escapade of sailing, canoeing, bird-watching, hiking and rock climbing in the laborious words of a middle teenager. When I reread it I find that what I wrote was simple reporting, with little reflection on emotions and how I felt. The only excited part of the essay was a description of the thrill of actually doing roped together rock-climbing and my first ever lead. I suppose we often remember the first time we ever did anything about which we feel passionate.
Two years later I managed to get to Finland for two months with the British Schools Exploring Society expedition, and that led to another diary-like description although this time the passion was over forestry and building a corduroy road to get the vehicles out of the swamps. There were also some very descriptive and memorable parts of this tale about the various tactics to handle mosquitoes. Again the trip described another first where the Finnish border guard introduced us to saunas and flagellation with birch branches. Kinky communal cleansing while camping could be the headline.
University life and requirements caused my writing to change style and content. True I still managed to write about mountaineering trips to the French and Swiss Alps. There were also a few epic mountaineering tales of winter heroics on Ben Nevis, freezing digits in the Lake District, and mistakes not to be repeated in North Wales, but for the most part University writing tended to be passive, in the third person and technical. Well there were courses to complete and examinations to pass. It was not until I went to Australia that I started to dabble in tales of fiction again. Unfortunately these early scribbles were snuffed out when I launched into another three years of education, and for post-graduate courses the words had to be very scientific and quite thoughtful. Universities have this idea that PhDs must embrace original thought and new perceptions. This thought process put a damper on creative and imaginative writing for a while but never extinguished the flame.
In my professional life I had to write a lot. People wanted to know about things and one learnt to be complete yet concise. Occasionally one could get carried away and slip in on page twenty a comment that "if you have read this far I will buy you lunch". Over thirty years in government service I didn't have to buy many lunches and so I learnt that brevity was rewarded with merit marks. Scientific reporting doesn't lend itself to verbose scenic descriptions and an over-abundance of adjectives tended to be skipped. Cryptic comment over-ruled literary style. Writing in the first person in an active voice wasn't government-speak.
As the years passed and children grew up and waltzed away I found more time to write, and I let my imagination wander away from the rigours of professional forestry and people management. There were still the occasional special sports activities that caused the pen to quiver excitedly over climbs that were near the edge or sailing races that had moments that were potentially life-threatening. I used to crew for a friend who raced on Lake Ontario and I worked the foredeck handling the jibs and spinnaker. The last two races in the beginning of October were called Frostbite races for good reason. It is at the end of September and start of October that a series of cold fronts come chasing across Lake Ontario, and as the front comes through the wind will veer at least ninety degrees and the attendant gusts will knock the boat flat if you are not paying attention. I was standing on the foredeck looking aft when all I could see was the lee rail deep underwater and we were close to capsizing. Now twelve miles out in Lake Ontario in October is not a place to test the temperature of the water and it looked very likely that was about to happen. Hypothermia doesn't really care whether you are wearing a life jacket or not when the water is close to freezing. All I could do was slacken off the jib sheets and hope the skipper was awake! As we were racing I really hoped the skipper was awake. Several yachts lost their masts in that race and one crew did drown. I certainly didn't write-up that experience in the passive voice!
Eventually, for most of us that is, there comes a time when we hang up our boots and retire from professional life. The office no longer commands our attention. Mark you, this day and age the office is often your home, your car, or wherever there is an internet connection, but for us old-timers it usually means a real old-fashioned office. The routine changes and suddenly I had no need for the three million people all around me so my wife and I brought our retirement discussions to a conclusion. Now I had been lucky because for the last three years of my professional life I had been on assignment in Zimbabwe, working towards the conclusion of a ten-year project. We had written up the final reports: we have transferred technology and expertise to our hosts: we had enjoyed the experience but it was time to go. As the project wound down there was free time to think about what to do next. I sat down with my computer and let my mind wander over options. Selecting some forty potentially desirable locations in the world I laid out a list of over four hundred questions in several categories including climate, topography, culture, health, finance, food, political stability and so on. For each question and each location I tried to score from one to ten my rating of the answer. It's true I didn't know enough to answer all the questions accurately but with a little research I made a best guess. Fascinating I thought, because the overall conclusion with the highest score was to stay where I presently lived, along with the three million people in Toronto. I took the analysis back home from Zimbabwe to Ontario Canada and laid it on the table for discussion.
Like most husbands I thought I had some idea how the wife thought. Wrong! I had obviously missed several relevant questions that were not included in my four hundred. My wife also had some very different ideas about scoring. The net result was a fact-finding trip to the west coast. If you look carefully you will have noticed that old-timers have created several centres of frenzied activity within Canada. The geriatric crowd knows what it likes and you'll find an assortment of crustie's colonies scattered across the country. There is a strong contingent up the east side of Vancouver Island. When I looked on the map and did a little measuring I found that British Columbia is further from Mexico than Ontario. I pointed this out to the wife, as going south for the winter was becoming a desirable routine on retirement, but all she said was that we needn't go via Mexico City any more. Now I'll say this with no disrespect to the people of Mexico City, but their airport was built for fit people. First of all it sits up at five thousand feet or more. Secondly, most international flights come in at one end, gate forty something and your connection is down at gate one – about a kilometre away. In between, apart from a lengthy lung-stretching corridor, is gate nineteen where you discuss civil liberties with Mexican Immigration. When the Canadian Federal government built Terminal Two at Toronto airport they decided to put into practice another Federal government policy – keep fit. So Terminal Two at Toronto is similar – long, thin, and your gates are always miles apart. Obviously the Mexicans consulted the Canadians although they didn't explain about the altitude. Last time I was through Mexico City I was pushing a friend in a wheel-chair and I wasn't in training for anything special at the time!
As I read through my emotional tale of the trip out west I recall some observations. You have to realise that my wife and I both climb mountains and so by the time we had reached Calgary my wife thought they could zipper together the western border of Ontario and the eastern border of Alberta. I gently pointed out that we might run out of food, fertiliser, and friends that way but she had a point. By the time you hit the British Columbia border my storybook reminds me that there really are only six maybe seven overland ways into this Province, and every winter all of them get closed by mudslides, avalanches and other "acts of nature". The provincial brochures told us we were entering "God's Country" and I was never sure whether God was keeping the heretics out or keeping British Columbians in to ensure their conversion to the true faith. When I learnt more about the province I came to realise that there were several "true faiths" in BC.
The eastern side of Vancouver Island is home to killer whales, porpoises, several shoals of wandering salmon all watched over by a dedicated population of retirees. Now it is true that there are some people in Parksville and Qualicum Beach who are not Old Age Pensioners but they are thin on the ground. The same could be said for many of the communities up and down the east side of Vancouver Island and why not? The scenery is dramatic with a variable coastline, great views across the strait to the coastal mountains, a mild climate and despite many unbelievers a dry summer season. Most people are convinced or perhaps just deliberately misled by BCers that it always rains on the west coast. True, November tends to be grey and it has been known to rain every day of that month. Mudslides, canyon washouts, and floods do occur but then you shouldn't build on outwash plains and alongside scenic rivers. As a student at the forestry school of the University of British Columbia I learnt that Douglas fir is a fire climax species on the east side of Vancouver Island. Translated into non-techie terms that means Douglas fir would eventually become the dominant or prevalent kind of tree along the east side of the island. This is because it is so dry that fire comes and changes the forest that frequently. In any forest succession there on the eastern side of the island you never get beyond Douglas fir, unlike other parts of the island and much of the west coast which tend to go beyond Douglas fir and climax into spruce and cedar. Now it is quite difficult to get a good forest fire going when it rains every day, like in the cedar and spruce forest. However, where we get Douglas fir and fires it obviously doesn't rain that often. So, without any rain gauge or weather records, that tells me the east side of the island is typically sunny, warm and trending to hot! Just what many old crusties like.
Despite my waxing enthusiastic about all these forestry indicators my wife didn't find anything up and down the east coast of Vancouver Island that caught her eye. We toured in and out of new developments, old developments, gated golf-course communities, ultra-modern designer houses, on the coast, in the forest, you name it but no satisfaction. Of course some of this discomfort may have come from the fact that I had decided to be frugal on this trip and camp. For us this means sleeping on the ground in tents and although I might have enjoyed this all my life, including my recent living in Africa, my wife hadn't laid her fair hips on solid mother earth for some time. Even shopping didn't change her mind! There was a glimmer of hope when we visited Victoria. I made a point of revisiting all of the many pubs I had frequented when out there as both a student and a consultant but my wife was more interested in the ambiance of the downtown core. True enough, just outside the city Butchart Gardens will gladden anyone's eyes as will the gardens at Royal Roads but those pleasures were essentially those of a tourist. Given my wife's passionate patriotism for being a Canadian I thought she would find Victoria too English. However, she said she found it quaint. I pondered on this and wondered if this characteristic was why she married me because I too am English. Well, you never know now do you? Still, at this point in my life I wasn't going to ask. We left the island on one of BC's famous ferries. I can remember smiling to myself as we twisted and turned through the islands from Swartz Bay heading for Tsawwassen with a good clear view of Mount Baker lording it over the Lower Fraser Valley. Still thinking about the ferries I remembered that W.A.C. Bennett was the Premier when I was a student at UBC in Vancouver. At that time people had estimated that if he put guns on all the ferries BC would have a bigger navy than Canada itself. Since then the ferry service has gone through some rough patches with super-fast catamarans that were so fast and disturbing that they became white elephants: accidents that shouldn't have happened and fares that seem to have no ceiling. If we lived on the island my wife explained no one would come to visit. It is either too expensive or impossible to get a passage on the holiday weekends. Obviously my wife was grasping for reasons not to live on the island and so we ventured inland.
The other major colony of retirees in British Columbia is in the Okanagan. Once again climate and weather have a lot to do with it but then so does the grape! When you don't have to get up at six every morning to make that two hour commute to the office it is possible to imbibe a little the night before and not feel like shit as you sit fuming in stalled bumper to bumper traffic on some stretch of highway in the early morning predawn. You remember the feeling? You're still doing it. I sympathise. Come to think of it why do Canadians drive on the Parkway and park on the driveway? Why do Freeways have tolls? Funny language eh?
For me the Okanagan offered something better than the grapevine, two things actually. There are many well-maintained and challenging golf courses conveniently located up and down the valley. From my early years, starting at age seven, I have always found this game both a challenge and a relaxation. As a kid I used to play sufficiently seriously on the junior team that I concentrated, and that drove all other thoughts and worries out of my head. Apart from being an enjoyable walk in pleasant surroundings I found it a great game, and as a youngster I always played really hard before any school examinations. That cleared my brain of any last-minute unconnected fragments of data. I have always believed in learning as you go and not trying to cram everything into the brain in that last week before the exams. That is the time I go golfing, climbing, sailing, or anything else to take my brain right out of intellectual exercises and into challenging or life-threatening situations. These keep me focussed.
In addition to the multitude of golf courses the Okanagan valley and its surrounding topography offers a wide array of hiking opportunities, and although my rock climbing slippers are gathering dust along with the slings and karabiners, I can still put one foot in front of the other in rough terrain. With open ponderosa pine hillsides low down and denser Douglas fir, white spruce and ultimately lodgepole pine higher up the forests are sufficiently open to walk almost anywhere. My friends from coastal BC are amazed for two reasons. Firstly, you can see things, other than the green tunnels that contain you on the coast, unless of course you clamber for three hours or more into the alpine. Secondly, the terrain and the trees do not constrain you to the well-trodden path. There are opportunities to wander and explore without feeling you are reaching the point of needing to be rescued from some one-way only gully.
Excerpted from ON THE ROAD TO CUASTECOMATE by JOHN OSBORN Copyright © 2011 by John Osborn. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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