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A Canadian Adventure

A major rockslide recently blocked Highway 97, just north of where we live. This 97, the longest highway in North America, starts in Weed, California and ends somewhere in the Yukon, no one knows exactly where. In this, British Columbia’s steep and narrow Okanagan Valley, the 97 is the only viable north-south travel corridor. The February rockslide started from a high promontory favored by mountain goats. Witnesses said the loosened rocks started out house size, but were then reduced to van size when they hit the pavement. There was instant commuter consternation, since commuting is our lifeblood here in the Okanagan, and there were no obvious alternate routes. No way to get to and from Kelowna, the Big Box city. At first we all assumed the closure would be a matter of a day or two–this simply could not be a repeat of that horrendous prolonged rockslide closure of 2008. But the commuterless, shopperless days dragged on. Adventurous young bucks in F-350’s began exploring various sketchy and unmarked bush roads to get around the blockage. Even more adventurous tow truck drivers began raking in big cash by towing the bucks out. A rumor circulated that a lovely young woman in a party dress arrived at one end of the rockslide and convinced an adoring Mountie to escort her on foot over the rocks, to meet her partner on the other side.

Finally the Ministry of Transportation got involved, and established a signed and graded detour of 200 kilometers, following Forest Service Mains up the east side of the valley. Then a few days later they announced a shorter detour of only 90 kilometers, on the handier west side of the valley. My wife needed to catch the Vancouver-bound bus, which stops on Highway 97 just a short drive north our home, but on the far side of the rockslide. So we girded our loins, packed up toques and mittens, checked tires and gassed up, ready to take on the shorter detour.

The Ministry’s map of the “alternate route” showed a crude and wobbly V laid on it’s side. One end of the V started at our home town of Summerland; the other end touched down at Peachland, twenty kilometers away up 97, with the rockslide in between. The vertex of the V was near a community far out in the bush called Mazama.

Pavement switched to gravel just a few kilometers out of Summerland, but we soon discovered that frozen graded gravel, with skiffs of ice here and there, provided pretty good traction for our aging Honda CRV.  So off into the forest we went, the road continuously winding, angling mostly upward and occasionally downward. The very odd straight stretch of a few hundred meters was usually followed by a hairpin and then a one-lane bridge. This was clearcut country, the vast and seldom visited Southern Interior warehouse of lodgepole pine, Douglas-fir, mines, powerlines and reservoirs.

We passed occasional convoys of commuters coming the other way, and they slowed down respectfully as we passed. There was a sense that we were all in this together, and if anyone needed help, several cars would pull over to offer it. When we finally reached our turning point at the end of the V, I realized the community of Mazama consisted of one bush ranch and nothing else. It got dark as we started the long descent toward Peachland, and dry, flaky snow started falling. Fortunately visibility was improved by the bright, continuous meter-high barrier of recently plowed snow on either side of the road.

To help pass the time, we reminisced about that first 97 rockslide, which happened right in the same area. We were returning from Vancouver when it occurred, and we were the first car to be stopped by the lone flagman a few kilometers north of the slide. “How long do you think it will be?” we asked. “Dunno, but you can wait if you like.” We chose not to, and headed back to Kelowna, seeking the alternate eastside route to get home to Summerland. The directions we got were pretty vague, but we set out, winding through the suburbs of south Kelowna, blithely assuming there would be signage. We soon realized we were lead car in a small convoy of fellow commuters who were relieved, assuming they were following someone who knew the road.

Several kilometers later we finally stopped on what had morphed into a glorified, muddy goat trail, full of ruts, rocks and roots. Adventurous young bucks in Ford F-350’s and camo gear were stunned by our surprise arrival at their 4WD playground. They gave us to understand our little six-car convoy was definitely on the wrong road. In fact, not a road at all, and that we best turn around. The car behind us, a Dodge Caliber containing four nurses returning from a convention, needed help. The young bucks provided instant assistance to get them turned around.

We did, finally, make it home, and Highway 97 reopened—19 days later. As challenging as the detour was, we were glad we didn’t decide to “wait.”

But enough reminiscing about the last rockslide and back to the present. Even though we were on the descent to Peachland, we were still way, way out in the bush. I had reset the trip meter at Mazama, and I checked it again when we finally re-emerged on to Highway 97. Forty-six kilometers out, forty-four back: a fearful symmetry.  

We arrived at the bus stop in time to get Judy on the bus for her seven-hour trip over the Coquihalla, to Vancouver. It was a true Canadian adventure.

The Mechanics of Warmth

A house enjoys both physical and emotional warmth, but in a Canadian winter cold snap, it is the physical component occupies our attention. Visible heat, in the form of a woodstove, always seems more gratifying than the anonymity of gas or electric heat.   There are two parts to the physical warmth of a house: the generation of heat, and the keeping of it. This latter has always fascinated me: window seals, door sweeps, vapor barriers, insulation batts and even double-muffled dog doors I find immensely compelling. I cut my teeth on this subject in Saskatchewan in the early 1980’s, that brief time when we Canadians actually cared about energy conservation. A friend, Rob Dumont, built an energy efficient house in Regina. I “can heat it with a toaster,” he bragged.  Dumont was the subject of some popular envy at the time.

This Summerland house we live in was built sometime in the 1930’s, with the classic floor plan of the era; small rooms and narrow hallways, a basement fruit cellar and a half-story loft upstairs. The anonymous carpenter who built it was no professional, but he didn’t stint on materials: the floor joists are massive rough-cut 2×12’s. When we renovated the interior, I stripped off mountains of lath and plaster to get down to the bare 2x4s, which actually measured up to and even beyond their name. The one material the anonymous carpenter did scrimp on was insulation. Actually he didn’t scrimp: there was simply no insulation at all. Just a few newspapers here and there, which made for interesting historical reading.

Insulating a new house is a challenge; insulating a heritage 1 1/2 story renovation moves beyond challenge into obsession. You have to consider air movement, condensation points, R values and airtightness while completely swaddled in dust mask, gloves and overalls. Peering through foggy goggles, you join vapor barriers with a runny black goo that promises to stay sticky for thirty years. You spend endless hours in claustrophobic crawl spaces. Insulation dust mixes with sweat to form the itchiest compound known to man. But somehow, the job goes forward. You become expert in cutting batts without measuring, and laying them into uneven joist spaces with a perfect press-fit. You seal vapor barriers like you would tuck a cold child into a warm bed. And you prowl the house like a forensic detective, looking for tiny air leaks.

I am a great fan of Roxul, an insulation batt that is partly made from an enormous mining slag pile near Grand Forks, BC. It’s a little stiffer than the ordinary fiberglass insulation, and I discovered that it cuts beautifully with a serrated bread knife. Who knew.

The payoff to this prolonged and itchy obsession is heat retention. You don’t keep cold out; you keep heat—produced by you, the dog, the woodstove, the baseboard heaters, the coffee pot, the bathtub, even the toaster–in. All this is so you can sit in comfort in an easy chair next to the woodstove, with the dog on your lap, and contemplate the soft mechanics of warmth.

I don’t look forward to winter, but once it’s fully arrived, I settle into it.  Days get short, and my world gets smaller. All those springtime tasks I planned on doing got pushed into summer, then into fall and are now blissfully forgotten. The focus now is on the mechanics of warmth. Domestic life centers around the woodstove in the living room. The woodpile is assessed on a daily basis, and I am reminded of a universal law of firewood physics: the driest wood is always at the bottom of the pile.  Next to the woodstove is an easy chair, and next to that is a coffee table, where piles of half-read books and research journals accumulate.  Stale coffee cups and an empty wine glass or two the remaining space. Both the dog and the cat make their sleeping areas close to the stove, but whenever I leave my easy chair for a moment, one of them will instantly colonize it, claiming my residual body heat.

An easy chair in front of an energy-efficient woodstove is a good place to speculate about the carbon footprint, which is actually more like a highly interconnected spider web than it is a footprint. Every log I put in the stove sends a packet of greenhouse gas into the atmosphere. But every log I put in means I use less electricity, which in BC’s hydro-based generation system doesn’t produce carbon, but troubles our rivers instead. And the beetle-killed lodgepole pine I’m burning: is it better off to stay in the forest? Will it burn anyway, in a wildfire? Is cutting firewood one way of reducing the density of our overgrown dry forests? What about the fuel and chainsaw gas I use to get the wood? It seems that climate change has made everyday decisions far more complicated. But I suspect the real truth is that our previous decisions were far too simple and shortsighted.

An Antidote for America’s Illness

Re-read Walt Whitman (1819-1892). (If you aren’t familiar with his work, you are in for a treat.)

He is celebratory, and pansexual. An Everyman, and solitary poet/thinker. An American patriot and passionate internationalist. Critical thinker and Dionysian hedonist. Naturalist and urbanite. A pacifist, and an unabashed feminist. Devoted to personal freedoms and to empathy. And one hell of a poet.

(The following quotes are from Walt Whitman: Poetry and Prose, Toby Press, 2003)

A child said What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands;
How could I answer the child? I do not know what it is any more
than he.

I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven.
My spirit has pass’d in compassion and determination around the whole earth,

I have look’d for equals and lovers and found them ready for me in all lands,
I think some divine rapport has equalized me with them.

Now I see the secret of the making of the best persons,
It is to grow in the open air and to eat and sleep with the earth.

Will we rate our cash and business high? I have no objection,
I rate them as high as the highest—then a child born of a woman and man I rate beyond all rate.

We thought our Union grand, and our Constitution grand,
I do not say they are not grand and good, for they are,
I am this day just as much in love with them as you,
Then I am in love with You, and with all my fellows upon the earth.
We consider bibles and religions divine—I do not say they are not divine,
I say they have all grown out of you, and may grow out of you still,
It is not they who give life, it is you who give the life,
Leaves are not more shed from the trees, or trees from the earth than they are shed out of you.

Resist much, obey little.

Walt Whitman is my hero.

Walt Whitman is my hero.

From Sagebrush to Politics: Leonard Marchand

Leonard Marchand
Leonard Marchand

Reading scientific literature can be like a treasure hunt. You read one research paper, and then you read that paper’s references. That leads you to another related paper, and on to its references, and so on down an unexpected daisy chain of research.  Mostly you simply finish up with a better understanding of some narrow topic, but once in a rare blue moon, you hit buried treasure.

This happened to me a few years ago, as I researched the ecology of sagebrush in British Columbia. As I plowed through paper after paper, working backward in time, I ran across reference to The Ecology of Sagebrush in Interior British Columbia, by one L. Marchand. Now that surname rang a bell, but more for Canadian federal politics than for rangeland research. I was unable to find the paper anywhere online, so I investigated further and found that it was actually a 1964 Master’s thesis, from the University of Idaho. I contacted U of I Research Librarian and found that they did have the original copy, and if I was prepared to put my grandchildren up as collateral, I could actually borrow it. Of course I agreed.

As I waited impatiently for the thesis to arrive, I refreshed my memory in regards to Leonard Marchand. Born on the Okanagan Reserve near Vernon in 1933, Mr. Marchand collected a number of Aboriginal “firsts” in his long and varied career: first Aboriginal to graduate from the UBC School of Agriculture; first to receive a Master’s degree at the U of I; first to become a federal Member of Parliament, and first to become a cabinet member. He was the third Aboriginal to be named to the Canadian Senate, after James Gladstone and Guy Williams. Along the way, Mr. Marchand also became a member of the Order of Canada. Intrigued, I tracked down a phone number, contacted Len at his home, and told him that I had borrowed his thesis. After a delightful chat, he said, “you know, I loaned my only copy of that thesis to a colleague years ago, and he lost it.”

I decided to take action. When the thesis arrived I had it scanned, then printed a copy and had it bound.  Later I had the pleasure of hand-delivering the resurrected thesis to Len and his lovely wife Donna at their Kamloops home.  As we thumbed through the thesis together, I was stunned by the amount of work that had gone into it. Len’s sagebrush research involved vegetation monitoring, taxonomy, soil studies, root growth studies, common garden studies and genetic analysis. And the list of field plot locations was daunting: Kamloops, Summerland, Alkali Lake, Shingle Creek, Garnett Valley, Greenstone Mountain, Rock Creek and Anarchist Mountain, with additional sites in Squaw Butte, Oregon and Dubois, Idaho. Anyone doing that same amount of research work today would demand at least two Ph.Ds for it!

After completing his thesis, Len was planning to do a Ph.D in range management at Oregon State University, but Canadian politics intervened. As a youngster, Len had met George Manuel, head of the North American Indian Brotherhood, and the two stayed in touch. Manuel had long advocated for an Aboriginal presence in Canadian federal politics, and saw Marchand as the ideal candidate for such a role. In 1965, Manuel convinced J.R. Nicholson, Minister of Citizenship and Immigration (Indian Affairs was under that Ministry at the time), to name Len as Special Assistant, and the rest is history. In 2000, Len published his autobiography, Breaking Trail. It is a fascinating read.

Len passed away in the summer of 2016. There is a sagebrush flat near where I live, just off of Highway 97 at Trout Creek. It was one of Len’s research sites, from 1963; I actually found some of his old plot stakes there. Every time I pass that flat, I am reminded of how privileged I was to have met this eminent Canadian. He is no longer with us, but he definitely left his mark.

An earlier version of this article was published in the BC Grasslands Magazine.


Kinder Morgan Meditation

So we have bought a heavy oil pipeline. No Canadian analogy comes to mind, so I’ll go with the Brooklyn Bridge, or those fantastic real estate deals on Florida waterfront. With this purchase, our Federal Government has emphatically stated that petroleum trumps everything. Or, in the words of Alberta’s premier, petroleum is Canada’s lifeblood.

How wrong is this purchase of the Kinder Morgan pipeline? Let me count the ways. My tax money is being used to facilitate shipping unrefined bitumen to China, the biggest carbon dioxide emitter on the entire planet. We steadfastly refuse to build our own refineries, thus maintaining our traditional Canadian status as hewers of wood and drawers of water. As exporters of first beaver pelts, then raw logs and now, unrefined bitumen. We refused Energy East, thus eliminating the opportunity for Alberta petroleum to replace the imported petroleum that eastern Canada currently consumes. I could go on to describe the horrendous spill risks in the busy and constricted waterways of the BC coast, or the illusory job numbers, the trampling of indigenous land rights, the terrible economics of the purchase, the toxic nature of the diluents used to move bitumen, but I desist, since I feel a nosebleed coming on.

Petroleum use in all its forms, including its bastard spawn plastic, constitutes an addiction. The symbol of drug addiction is the discarded needle in the alley; the symbol of petroleum addiction is the tricked-out Ford F-350 truck with a driver, no passengers and no payload, on the daily commute to work.  Psychologists agree that moderating an addiction is nearly impossible; you either go full on, or go cold turkey.  So we are faced with a profound problem; not only are we citizens and governments unconcerned about our addiction, the cold turkey option is impossible.

It strikes me, and I have no proof of this, that the Canadian public is less concerned about carbon emissions and climate change than we were five years ago. The general public support—or at least resignation—in regards to this purchase is perhaps a symptom. If I am right about this erosion of climate change concern, then that is a much bigger issue than the pipeline. Is it defeat? That anthropogenic carbon-driven climate change is inevitable, and we can’t do anything about it? Is it denial: climate change is fake news? Is there some perverted religious basis: we are mandated to exploit the earth, and a better world awaits us? Or is it simply a form of social exhaustion: there are too many things to worry about, so let’s fire up the F-350 and go get burgers at the drive-through?

A mea culpa here: I am guilty as the rest of us. This was brought home to me a few years ago, when I drove from the Okanagan to Vancouver to attend a climate change event. I was halfway there when I realized a huge irony: I was driving a Ford Explorer to a climate change conference. But then I was able to rationalize the irony away by pointing out (to myself) that said Ford Explorer was sixteen years old, and the carbon costs of destroying it and getting me into a new vehicle would be astronomical. And so on. I’m sure lemmings have similar rationales.

Lately I’ve had occasion to research the whaling era (roughly 1845 to 1895), an eerie forerunner of our current petroleum era. Whale oil was the predecessor to petroleum, used for lighting and a host of other applications. The whaling industry was rapacious, totally unregulated, and had devastating ecological consequences. One out of three harpooned whales was never recovered, and sank dead to the bottom.  The ocean of the whaling era was the equivalent of today’s atmosphere; nobody cared what happened to it. And the avarice of the whalers was more than matched by the demand for their product.

As a kid growing up in the Fifties, I remember the advertising slogan, “better living through chemistry.” My wife remembers the first mass-market plastic container, Prell shampoo, guaranteed not to break if you dropped it in the shower. That postwar era set the stage for how we live today: disposables, commuting, suburbs, plastic everywhere, eight-lane highways, and the total dominance of the private automobile. I am reminded of the pundit who said we drive cartoon cars, and live in cartoon cities.

Now that we Canadians have been forced to bend over and accept the thrust of this pipeline, a rational and logical response is to demand a comprehensive, revenue-neutral carbon tax, and hope that market forces will help us moderate our petroleum addiction.

Ponderosa Contemplation


A long, low ridge borders our neighborhood, about a kilometer distant. Dry and grassy, with scattered pines here and there, it is fortunately too steep to build houses on. From the leisurely perspective of a backyard evening I scan this hillside, and speculate on a fundamental duality of Okanagan nature: trees and grass. Forest and grassland. The tree that grows here is the hardy Ponderosa, which reaches farther out into dry grasslands than any other tree.

On the ridge’s lower slope the three-dimensional bulk of each tree is visible, as well as the shadow it casts on the grass below. But the trees lined along the hill’s ridgeline are two-dimensional, seen only in profile. With evening light behind them, they are like the black and white illustrations in old forestry textbooks. A few have the classic Christmas tree shape, but most are funky and asymmetrical. There is the beanpole, the bonsai, and the lightbulb. Dead top, leaning left, Charlie Brown and windswept. Red attack, witches broom, schoolmarm crotch. Some an open filigree of branches, others a solid black blob. One perfectly triangular specimen is right next to a standing dead snag. Life on a dry, windy ridge does not make you pretty. It is a rogue’s gallery, a police lineup of deviant conifers. Some have branches all the way to the ground, others their yellow trunks are naked halfway up. Some look like they have stood since the glaciers; others appear new, temporary or even rudely invasive.

When the evenings are longer and supper is over, it is fun to sip another glass of wine and assign adjectives to certain trees on the ridgeline. Aspirational. Overbloated. Calligraphic. And so on.

Ponderosa is not my first iconic tree. As a kid living in Southern California, a large old pepper tree was my gymnasium, refuge, and friend. It’s sturdy trunk and spreading main branches were perfect for climbing. The long, weeping terminal branches with pinnate leaves hung vertically around the tree’s perimeter, creating a large, shaded canopy. It was a quiet, pepper-scented room, with a plush carpet of duff and pure adventure on the ceiling. On one of my more daring climbs I lost my grip and fell, landing flat on my back. Unconscious for a few seconds, I opened my eyes to the radiant canopy. Part of my mind struggled to comprehend what had just happened, while the rest fixed on the infinitely complex mosaic above me, delicate pinnate leaves shot through with light. It might have been a transformative moment.

Trees not only evoke memory, they contain it. Ponderosa remembers fire, and lives somewhere in the ambiguous realm of either withstanding it, or requiring it. Does it withstand fire so well, with its thick bark and progeny that germinate on burned ground, that it actually needs it? When its forests go a long time without fire, creating a dense canopy and cooler microclimate that allows the Douglas-firs to take over, is that a voluntary surrender, or a defeat? When First Nations added millenia of their own prescribed fires to the natural regime of lightning starts, and then when our white settler culture set about stopping all fires, does the Ponderosa even care? Fires and drought suppress trees, and favor grasses. Closed forest canopies suppress grasses. It is a pity the Okanagan didn’t come with an operating manual.

The long, graceful needles of the Ponderosa have a clear surface coating that reflects sunlight. If you are under a mature ponderosa on a mid-afternoon with a breeze, gaze upward through the foliage and you will see thousands of tiny moving points of light. While you sit there, it is also a good time to contemplate the relationship of trees, grass, humans and fire, in no particular order. One of those traditional Spanish leather wine skins, filled with an Okanagan Pinot Noir, would be a helpful asset.


The Natural History of the Bookshelf

I decided to organize my books. The origin of this impulse is obscure, but since I’ve been acquiring books for about fifty years, this seemed like a decent interval. I own more than a hundred titles, but probably less than a thousand. It seems crass to actually count them. The books are contained in eight or ten bookshelves scattered through various rooms of the house. A few are from my father, momentoes from his youth, which he passed on to me. One such is Will James’ Smoky The Cowhorse, from 1929. And three Tarzan novels, from 1912-1914. Tipped into one of the novels is a note from the man Edgar Rice Burroughs himself, obviously in response to a childhood note my father wrote. It says, “I have a dog too, and he gives me great pleasure.” Then there is a series of Russian novels, heavily weighted toward Maxim Gorky, from my highschool Bolshevik days. A section on Sacco and Vanzetti abuts publications on the Great Spokane Flood, which are next to the entire Dr. Seuss oeuvre. And so forth.

I started by consolidating novels by the same author, which didn’t take long, but served to open up the larger question: what are my organizing principles? Alphabetical would of course be pedantic and silly for such a small library. Fiction/nonfiction made some sense, but how would I accommodate the Annie Dillards, the Wallace Stegners, the James Agees, who wrote in both genres? Friends jumped in with facetious organizational suggestions. By jacket color. Another, gleaned from an interior design magazine: turn the books around, spine in, so as to achieve a consistent aesthetic against white walls.

Then there was the question of what to put in which bookshelf. Recently I installed a new floor-to-ceiling shelf in the living room, and right away realized that bookshelf positioning plays a major role. The contents of this tall bookshelf now confront me as I enter the living room, whereas the shorter bookshelves, and the ones oriented parallel to my customary line of vision, really do not register. Ask any bookstore person: the books that get seen are the ones that get read. Books at eye level get the attention: books at ankle level are pretty much orphans.

A good quarter of my books are in a large upstairs guest bedroom, which is a boon to literary house guests, but for me they only register on my infrequent trips upstairs.

I have another bookshelf, one of those antique office affairs made of dark oak, with glass-fronted doors guarding the contents of each shelf.  At the bottom of the unit are a whole series of shallow wooden pull-out drawers, apparently for storing important documents. Each drawer has a finger-sized hole in the bottom that must have facilitated document removal. I acquired the bookshelf years ago when the government office I worked in was being closed down. The shelf, a battered relic of the manual typewriter era, had been tagged for “offsite storage.” I knew exactly what that phrase meant, so I removed it covertly, as a retirement gift. This unit now contains my old books, my meaningful books, and my old and meaningful books.  Obviously this shelf, which is next to a very comfortable overstuffed armchair, would be exempt from any house-wide organizational scheme.

Then there was the issue of the bedroom bookshelf, which is the repository for whatever I have brought in with me for bedtime reading, plus a few other volumes that I have consciously placed there. The theory behind the conscious placements runs like, “I’ve been meaning to read this one for months and if I put it here by my bed I might get desperate enough to pick it up.” The bedroom shelf also contains a few hefty books that I will never read cover to cover, but that I enjoy opening randomly, like Simon Schama’s Landscape and Memory, or A Pattern Language, by Christopher Alexander.

Then there is the Apocrypha Shelf, containing books I don’t know what to do with. Like an aquarium book, but I sold the aquarium. A flora of a region I’d hoped to visit, but now never will. A self-help book; not likely. All of these are candidates for the Thrift Shop, where they might find a new home and be loved.

Speaking of the Thrift Shop, I have a friend who has the largest personal collection of books I’ve ever seen. A retired antiquarian bookseller, he is getting up in years and has put his collection up for sale. No one wants to buy it. But I often meet him coming out of the Thrift Shop, with books under his arm.

In the end, my organizing effort came down to a bit of dusting, straightening, and very limited organizing. I was simply no match for the fierce independence of these wonderful books.

Cowboy Dreams

As a kid, I wanted to be a cowboy. That seems desperately old-fashioned, but as a suburban adolescent I yearned for that simple and passionate life, riding rimrock country on a trusted horse, amongst sagebrush and arroyo. While my contemporaries built youthful fantasies around Superman and GI Joe, mine were drawn from my father’s bookshelf, where I found Western novels, including those of the artist and writer, Will James.

Immensely popular in the 1930’s and early 1940’s, James was a folk hero to my father’s generation. He was not an author who chanced to write about cowboys; instead, he cowboyed, and then wrote it down. His heartland was the open range, and his twenty-six novels contain glorious sketches and paintings of wild mustangs, lone horsemen, and sagebrush. I fell headlong into his book Smoky, written in 1926, as well as The Lone Cowboy, penned in 1930.

In time I woke from my cowboy dream, lost track of the novels, and forgot about Will James for about forty years, until a meandering journey to Saskatchewan’s Grasslands National Park brought it all back again.  The trip was a quest to understand the core elements of that part real, part mythical region we know as the West. The Park seemed an excellent place to start.

Well off Canada’s Highway One and near the small community of Val Marie, the Park was created in 1988 to represent the Canadian prairie biome. The solitude and spectacular ecology of Grasslands make it a haven for seekers, romantics and avoiders of the beaten tourist track. If you chose Grasslands as the spiritual heart of the Canadian West, you wouldn’t be far wrong.

Walking the Park’s interpretive trail above the historic Frenchman River, with Seventy-Mile Butte in the distance, I was struck by an intriguing sense of déjà vu. What was it about the subdued pastels of grass, rimrock and badland, the endless horizontal vistas under a dome of prairie sky, that made them so familiar? A subsequent tour of the local historical museum gave me the answer: the paintings of Will James.

My western quest had taken a sudden new turn. Returning home, I searched out the old novels and began to research my forgotten childhood hero. A truly amazing story emerged.

Will James was actually Ernest Dufault, born in St. Nazaire, in the Province of Quebec, in 1892. He too was smitten by the cowboy life, and spent all his spare time dreaming about and sketching imagined life in the West. Leaving his home at the tender age of fifteen, he got off the train in Saskatchewan, and began working on cattle ranches in the wild south country. His learning curve was enormous: within two years, the young Ernest had mastered English, horseback riding and cowpunching. And he continued to sketch, on envelopes, bunkhouse walls, on anything he could lay his hands on. Horses dominated his art, and that love affair would continue to for all of his short life. Slowly, young Dufault began to invent his own western image, both in his mind and on sketch paper; ten gallon hat, black vest, scarf knotted around the neck, pointed boots, pant cuffs turned up, a Bull Durham roll-your-own held casually in the side of the mouth. Always mounted on a horse, or standing next to one. With jet-black hair, hawk nose and chiselled features, this young man was as handsome in real life as he was in his self-portraits.

Name has much to do with image, and during this time Ernest began experimenting with anglo, western-sounding handles for himself, eventually settling on the monosyllabic Will James. That was a prophetic early step along a journey towards fame, fortune, and an early death.

As I researched further, I found references to Ernest Dufault/Will James popping up in various Canadian prairie communities during his six-year stay in Western Canada. One of his trademarks was to leave a signed and dated sketch or photograph of himself wherever he went. These artifacts, together with local histories and rancher accounts, have him passing through or working in communities like Maple Creek, Ravenscrag, and Gull Lake as well as Val Marie. A sole postcard the young man sent to his family was postmarked at Sage Creek, in the isolated Milk River country of southern Alberta.

As he drifted from one ranch to another, Ernest found an older mentor in Pierre Beaupre, a fellow Quebecois, who helped him learn English and the ways of the Western cowboy. In 1911 they filed adjacent homestead claims in what would become the Grasslands Park, nearly a century later. “Bopy,” as Will affectionately called him, was to become a seminal figure in James’ autobiographical novel, the Lone Cowboy.

A scrape with the law followed by a stint in the Maple Creek jail nourished James’ fugitive tendencies. Upon being released he fled south across the Montana border, leaving literally everything behind–his homestead claim, his partner, his family ties, his real name and his Canadian identity. He was now fully remade as Will James, Montana cowpuncher, rodeo rider, storyteller and itinerant artist. Legend has it that James met the great cowboy painter Charles M. Russell, who encouraged him in his work and got him started writing his stories down. Those early works came to the attention of the popular New York magazine Sunset, and soon Eastern readers were devouring James’ short stories and sketches.

Will James literally embraced the American West, cowboying and rodeoing through Montana, Utah and Nevada, working as a stunt rider in Hollywood, sketching, and writing everything down. He saw himself as indestructible, but bronc riding and a habit of binge drinking were taking their toll. His marriage to Alice Conradt, daughter of a wealthy Reno ranching family, brought some temporary stability to his life, and his stories lengthened into novels. These were wildly successful: Smoky, The Lone Cowboy and several others were bestsellers, reprinted over and over again.

All the James books are written in a slangy western vernacular which now seems dated and a bit silly, but which captivated readers at the time. They held particular appeal to boys, and my father admitted to being under the James spell as an adolescent, just as I was. This speaks to the power of myth, as it passes unchanged from one generation to the next.

America in the 1930’s was a nation undergoing rapid urbanization and industrialization, but Will James’ novels reflect none of that. They were about frontier: cities, factories, even automobiles found no place in the James books, and that was part of the secret of their success. In spite its passionate embrace of the Machine Age, American identity was still rooted in the rugged, independent frontier cowboy, and James reinforced that belief. Writing about an unfenced, free-range ranching lifestyle that was largely gone, Will James gave Eastern  factory workers, straphangers and intellectuals alike the opportunity to fantasize that era back to imaginary life.

The Lone Cowboy, James’ “autobiography,” is a fascinating fabrication. In it he makes no mention of his Quebec roots, offering instead this fantasy origin: born on a remote Montana cattle ranch, both Will’s parents are killed in an accident when he is a child. He is subsequently adopted and raised by the French-Canadian cowhand Bopy. Later on, Bopy drowns in an ice-filled Montana river. This clever fabrication provides a logical explanation for Will’s lifelong French accent, while at the same time eliminating any possibility for story verification. All possible loose ends in the Lone Cowboy have been carefully snipped off.

Will’s newfound celebrity status was both a blessing and a curse. Book royalties allowed him to buy a Montana cattle ranch that was to be a romantic haven for himself and Alice. He landed movie contracts for both Smoky and the Lone Cowboy, but was soon shut out of any significant role in either film because of his drinking habits. With fame came increased scrutiny, and people began to question the gaps and inconsistencies in Will’s life story. Like his famous contemporary Grey Owl (real name Archie Belaney), he lived an elaborate lie. The resulting psychological pressure on James was enormous. Paranoid about having his real origins discovered, he swore his Quebec family to absolute secrecy, and then cut all ties with them. Not even his wife knew the true story. An obvious outlet for all this pressure was booze, which his celebrity status provided him with in abundance. Will’s binges and blackouts became more and more common, and his artistic output finally ceased altogether. When he died at age 50 of cirrhosis of the liver, the world lost a mythic—and tragic–hero.

I still have my father’s well-thumbed copy of Smoky, which was given to him by an aunt in 1929, when he was eleven. The book now occupies a proud place on my bookshelf, and serves to remind me of that adolescent dream. Although I never became a cowboy, my life has been somehow tied to grassland, sagebrush, badland and butte. Will James had something to do with that.

(A previous version of this article was published in Western Living magazine.)