I crossed the Canadian border in mid-June. The border agent peered at me as I explained that I was going to Horsefly to visit some friends. He told me to pull over and head inside the border office. The agent inside told me that she had never heard of Horsefly. A few minutes later she nodded at her computer screen and acknowledged that Google had proved I wasn’t lying.
I stopped in Vancouver and found that no one there knew about Horsefly either. People raised their eyebrows when I told them that it was seven and a half hours northeast of Vancouver – up the Canada 1 East for a long time, then onto 97 for a while, then a right onto Horsefly Lake Road, and, roughly 50 minutes later, you’d be there.
As I drove, the clouds got closer together in the distance, their cartoon shapes—perfectly rounded and white, like floating marshmallow cream—dappled the sky. Rundown RV parks, fruit stands with peeling paint and barely readable signs hinted at habitation.
Once in a while, I passed clusters of ramshackle houses, with their handfuls of run-down cars sitting out front, or behind, or all around. Each curve in the road brought a new stunning view of a landscape empty and untouched except for the road.
I pulled into my friends’ driveway as the sun was setting behind the mountains. The river bubbled in the distance. The silvery aspen and poplars’ bark shone against the green grass that seemed to coat this world. The partially built, square log-house stood in front of me. Slanted rays cut through the willow tree to illuminate a small crowd eating dinner around two picnic tables.
My friends were building a house and I was invited to visit for a month and help out. I would end up staying for four months, taking care of the kids whenever I was needed and cooking two meals a day for the construction crew—a tag team of friends and neighbors who rallied to help finish the house before winter blew in.
My first day felt suffocating—I realized how far I was from a city, any city. This felt ironic since I grew up in rural Big Sur, on the side of a mountain, an hour from the nearest town. But maybe my four years at Mills College in Oakland had helped me to forget what being surrounded by only nature was really like.
My friends’ property had one indoor space—a 14×18 foot room which housed the kitchen and bathroom. This meant that, when I wasn’t cooking, I was outside. At night, I slept in a tiny trailer with barely enough room for my stuff.
Nestled in a wide valley in the Caribou region of British Columbia, Horsefly is surrounded by incredible wilderness — what Canadians call “the bush.” The Caribou is home to 8,000 lakes and locals joke that you can pretty much throw a rock and hit water wherever you are. Horsefly is on the way to nowhere. It mostly sees traffic from locals, or fishers and hunters during certain seasons. It’s quiet. The town houses roughly 750 permanent residents and another 300 who head for warmer climates during the winter months.
On the surface, the town doesn’t look like much. There is a school downtown serving 60 students, a hardware store, a post office, the Anvil Pub that is open three nights a week and a museum. Just past the gas station on the right is a food truck that looks out of place with its bight green lettering reading “Soul Food.” Atop the grey gravel spread in front of the truck, tables and chairs under umbrellas invite tourists and a good assortment of locals in for a quick bite.
Clark’s General Store, with its dark red paint peeling from the weather, has a decent selection of all the necessities—slightly green potatoes, onions, lots of alcohol and the usual assortment of Wonder Bread, a small baking section, cigarettes, lotto tickets, and some frozen meat. There is one real estate office, and a library run out of a double-wide with a fairly decent DVD collection.
Police come through once a week, maybe. A post on the Horsefly Facebook page lets everyone know the police are around. For those few hours, the shenanigans of the small town, including the locals’ propensity to pop open a beer once on the dirt roads, stop. Driving through Horsefly, it doesn’t look like much. What wasn’t apparent on the surface began to appear as I became more integrated into the community.
It’s a sunny afternoon two weeks after I arrived and I’m lying on my back on the dock. Two-and-half-year-old Indi tells me not to move. Drips of cold river water run down my calf as she lines up the fresh-water snails she’d dug out of the muddy sedges on my leg.
I want coffee, I want to go see what everyone else is doing, I want to look at my phone, I want food. I think about getting up and telling her we have to be done. But, without moving my leg, I pull my head sideways and watch her.
Crouching naked next to me and peering with unwavering attention at the finger-nail sized snails, she places each one as carefully as her tiny hands can manage. One falls off my leg. She picks it up and, cradling it in her hand, brings it over to me.
“This is a mommy one,” she says with great authority, and settles herself down onto the wood next to my shoulder, still
cupping the snail.
I look up at the bright blue sky. No trees or clouds inhibit my view and I am struck by the depth and never-ending space. White tufts blow past on gusts of wind high above us, but on our dock we are untouched. Swallows dive and dip and a woodpecker across the river breaks the silence. My angst dissipates quite suddenly. Indi gets up and enters the water, groping about for more snails. Coffee, phone, food, none of it seems important anymore. I pull my Chaco sandals on and go hunting for snails with her.
Back at the house, I stand on the front porch and look at the wooden shelves covered in fresh produce. Feeding the crew of 15-20 who are working on the new house means that the amount of food we need doesn’t fit inside.
We turned the porch into a root cellar: Bags of fresh creamy yellow potatoes; bright orange, almost translucent carrots; two heads of romaine lettuce, so large I need both hands to carry just one; two 25-pound bags of apples I picked up from a fruit stand on the trans Canada 1; leaves of kale the length of my arm; huge zucchinis sitting next to five yellow spaghetti squash from the garden.
I pull the boxes and bags off of the deep freezer and dig through the Ziplock bags filled with apricots, spinach, and roasted tomatoes before finding one of the free range, organic chickens that had been raised down the road.
In Horsely, a lot of people are extremely dedicated to raising and eating high quality food. It is easy to buy all the produce we need without driving for more than 10 minutes. The milk comes from down the road and the meat we eat comes from different farms, all within a 15-mile radius.
I put everything back on the deep freeze. As I grab a head of garlic, a woman parks and walks over a huge tray of cookies. She says she isn’t good with a hammer, but she wants to contribute.
Four weeks into my stay, Indi’s mom, Indi and I take the truck on some old logging roads an hour and a half up to the top of Horsefly mountain. The winding roads are grassy and steep and rutted in areas. Logging roads create a web over British Columbia, giving everyone access to thousands of acres of wilderness that would otherwise be untouchable—maybe one of the very few positive effects of logging.
Thimbleberry bushes with their fuzzy leaves line the road and, as our elevation increases, so do the bright red clusters of elderberries. We park in a clearing at the top. Clear cutting made way for a sea of wildflowers spread between baby reforestation trees in every direction — purple asters, large white daisies, light purple lupin, and tons of extra large Indian paintbrush. In the distance, Horsefly Lake snakes its way between triangular silhouettes of snow-capped mountains. The water is so clear that it’s hard to fish—the fish can see the line and won’t bite.
Silence reverberates across the valley.
“Are there little tiny bugs on the grass?” Indi asks.
“Probably.” I answer, looking at the grass seedpod nearest my face.
“Why can’t I see them?”
“Because they are very, very tiny. So tiny that we can’t even see them,” I say.
She tugs at a grass stem.
I don’t say anything for a second.
A piece of grass pokes into the back of my neck.
Her piece of grass suddenly comes free and she falls backwards. Rolling over, she begins chewing the tender end like I had shown her weeks earlier.
“The bugs on the grass are small because some bugs are big, and some are small. The grass bugs are tiny so they can stand on the grass without making it fall over. They have to be tiny.”
“I just told you.”
She stops and looks at her piece of grass.
“Are there mummy and daddy tiny bugs?”
“Yes there are,” I say.
“Do they eat grass?”
“Yeah, or they eat the pollen on the grass, I don’t really know.”
We lie behind the house in several acres of green speckled with daisies. The grass seed pods rise a few feet above us and wave just barely in the breeze. Indi rolls back and forth giggling at the grass that tickles her face.
“Can you do that?” she asks.
I smile and cross my hands over my chest. I roll down the slight hill to our right.
Indi shrieks. The ripe grass stains my elbows as I raise myself up to look around and she dives into an extra thick patch.
In a place with terrible satellite internet, no television, and no where to go, each day becomes just about experiencing everything. And when a vivacious two-and-a-half-year-old is around, every second, every particle, becomes reason for curiosity.