Before I visited British Columbia a few weeks ago, my only sense of it had come from what American naturalist Edward Hoagland wrote about the place a generation ago, when he went there to clear his head.
Hoagland traveled to British Columbia in 1966, then again in 1968, chronicling the second trip in “Early in the Season: A British Columbia Journal.” That later journey unfolded during a broken and messy year. He left New York for the wilds of northwestern Canada on June 6, 1968, just one day after Robert Kennedy was shot. The Vietnam War raged, but Hoagland was too old for the draft and wasn’t going to Canada to dodge it. Even so, reading the journals, you sense his relief at keeping the chaos of his country at bay back then, if only for a few weeks.
My own reason for visiting British Columbia was much simpler. Our teenage son was attending a robotics conference, and I was along as a chaperone. I hadn’t set out to escape from anything. But was I wrong to savor several days away from the turmoil of our latest American season of discontent, so touched by political bitterness and violence?
We stayed in Vancouver, not the frontier reaches where Hoagland had roamed. Even in the cities of British Columbia, though, nature often touches you. A fellow hotel guest from a far corner of the province checked in before us, declaring himself, a bit apologetically, as a man of the country. Another guest smiled, shrugging off the distinction between urban and rural. “You can go 5 miles from where we’re standing,” the Canadian noted, “and be back in the country again.”
City and woodland blur in Vancouver. Trees and grasses sprout from skyscraper rooftops. At the Vancouver Convention Centre on the waterfront, a 6-acre roof garden has beehives, too. Flowers grow in the street medians, and traffic crossings chirp with mechanical birdsong to help sightless pedestrians navigate. I could have spent my whole visit at Stanley Park, Vancouver’s iconic sweep of gardens, and not seen all of it.
If Vancouver seems seamlessly connected with its natural origins, perhaps it’s because, as cities go, the place is still young. It wasn’t even a town yet in 1870 when British Columbia became part of the Canadian confederation.
Vancouver often stands in for Seattle in movie productions because it’s also hemmed in by mountains and defined by the Pacific. Like its larger American counterpart, Vancouver is a rainy city, umbrellas blooming from commuters each morning as the ashen autumn sky emptied, ever so gently, once again. But when the clouds parted and the sun hit Burrard Inlet, blazing the water into a miraculous Mediterranean blue, I felt content to watch the seaplanes come and go, like clever Christmas toys in a department store tableau.
It was gift enough to see that — maybe the best gift I’ll get this year.
Follow Danny Heitman on Twitter @Danny_Heitman.