Currently I am teaching a once-weekly class at a community college in Merritt, BC, which is a 140 kilometer drive from my home. That sounds like a straightforward commute, but there are three minor problems. One. The class starts at 9am in the morning. Two. The term is January to April. Three. To get to Merritt, I drive over a mountain highway known as the Coquihalla Connector, which tops out at 1730 meters and is famous for black ice, impenetrable fog, and occasional whiteouts. The first 30 and the last 30 kilometers are low elevation and usually not a problem, but the middle 80 kilometers can be white-knuckle. Like when a semi passes and your windshield receives a blinding torrent of gravel-impregnated slush. The highway readerboard will have information statements like: “Dense fog next 30km,” or “Ice and Slippery Sections.” I like to pass the time by making up alternate statements like: “Do You Really Need to Make this Trip” or “Conditions Improve In 3 Months.” There are of course, occasional potholes, which must make snowplowing similar to an old man shaving: how to work through the wrinkles and low spots.
The stress of winter mountain driving makes a three hour trip feel like eight hours, so I have found other ways to help pass the time. On my westward trip, I keep track of the notable points: Silver Creek, Brenda Mines, the Pennask Summit with its five spectacular wind turbines, then Loon Lake, Elkhart, Pothole Creek, the Wart, the Aspen Grove turnoff, and Corbett Lake. Then on my way back I test my memory by ticking these points off in reverse. As a cautious driver, I take my time driving over the Connector the day before the class, and stay overnight in a motel.
Merritt, a crossroads town of some 7000 souls, has a checkered Settler history of cattle ranching, coal mining, railways, sawmills, and country music. Several First Nation communities are close by, and the town hosts a significant South Asian population. The town straddles the confluence of the Nicola and Coldwater Rivers, and it experienced an unprecedented flood in 2021.
My overnight stay is not in Merritt proper, but in the very north end of town, which has become a major transportation hub, as it is the junction of Highways 5, 97 and 97c (otherwise known as The Connector). Travellers and truckers from Kamloops, Vancouver, Kelowna and further afield all converge here, for gasoline, sustenance and overnight stays. My motel sits on a hillside just above this hub, and it looks down on a maze of on- and off-ramps, stoplights, side roads, drive-thrus, parking lots and 24-hour traffic. Looking out my window in the evenings, I see the majestic, elevated neon signs of A&W, Boston Pizza, Dollarama, Canadian Tire, Chevron, Comfort Inn, Esso, Kentucky Fried Chicken, McDonalds, Metro Liquor, No Frills, Petro Canada, Shell, Starbucks and Walmart. If I think I have missed one, I simply look up from my laptop and gaze down upon what now passes for community, since Merritt’s actual downtown has become a struggling commercial backwater.
What we gain from all these franchises is speed and convenience, but I wager that we lose far more: community, interaction, humor, uniqueness, idiosyncracy, sense of place. The attraction of this motel is that it is a five-minute walk to the college where I teach. Unfortunately the vintage Coldwater Hotel downtown, with its famous copper dome, no longer rents rooms. So my plan is to find another downtown motel close by, and go to the Coldwater’s Pub for a steak and a beer. I’m sure the Pub’s strippers are long gone, but I wonder if the dance pole is still there.