The Southern Okanagan Valley of British Columbia is very dry now, a desert, in fact, where water has to be cared for, where they had to build a canal called “the Ditch” to irrigate orchards, and where you were instructed to flush your toilet, if you had a flush toilet, only when it seemed absolutely necessary. You never brushed your teeth, and your father never shaved, with a running faucet.
But the valley used to be the path of a glacier that moved slowly in the southward direction taken by the Okanagan River now. You can see the presence of extremely old news in the tall clay banks on both sides of Okanagan Lake at its south end, or in the striations in the rock faces as you go further south, toward Oliver, where I lived from Grade 3 to Grade 12. A kid living in the Southern Okanagan lived among signs of an ancient land, even while keeping track of the ground in front of him because he might be stepping where rattlesnakes wanted to be.
The Valley is shaped the way a valley should be, so that you can stand at the intersection of Oliver’s Main Street and Fairview Road, for example, and look up to the west and up to the east and see parallel lines of hills and then mountains. The river runs through the middle of the valley. Then on either side you now get orchards or vineyards; or in some cases you still get slopes of dusty soil with dry grass and sagebrush, right up until the hills rise seriously. The further you go up those hills and then into the mountains, the more likely you are to find pine trees, and in the winter you will, if you keep climbing, find your share of romantic snow.
As often as I could, when I was not working, when I was still a Wordsworthian boy, I would be up in those hills, east or west, watching for rattlesnake or cactus, sometimes carrying an orange and a book that would fit into a pocket, walking around and looking for animal footprints. During the winter, when the water was turned off, I would explore the Ditch, sometimes on foot, sometimes with my bike. With your bike you could ride up and down the sloping concrete sides, but there was a problem when the ditch had to cross a road—it would change from concrete to some sort of metal, and there would be planks across the top, so you had to take your bike out and down across the road and up again and so on.
There was also a problem with the slime. There was a lot of green slime in the water of the southern Okanagan—in the lakes and in the river, in the town swimming pool and in the Ditch. Usually I walked when I was exploring the newly emptied Ditch. Once I found a necklace made of Dutch coins. Once I found a small-calibre pistol. Despite the fact that we were only fifteen miles from the U.S. border, this was the first pistol I had ever seen. The handgrip was missing, but the rest was there. Maybe it was a .22, I don’t know. Once I found a big old primitive-looking jackknife with a toad sticker. I still have it, but I don’t know what happened to the pistol or the necklace.
Up in the hills I found stuff, too. Some of it was stuff I had secretly buried a year or two earlier, my secret caches that included hunting knives I had found, baseballs, I can’t remember what else. I found a lot of footprints, as I said, horseshoe prints, paw prints. In my fancy under the hot sun I liked to intermingle this business with the stuff I was reading in drugstore paperbacks by Max Brand. Sometimes I would find a tuft of fur on a barbwire fence, fur or hair. There was no one else around, unless I had brought my little old dog Dinky with me, but I tried to look knowledgeable and laconic, eyes squinted and lifted to scan the near horizon.
I found an old stove door once, and a woman’s boot that must have come from the late nineteenth century. I found lots of rusty old cans that must have been emptied near a campfire decades before. I found mysterious square bottles from the olden days. I found skulls, big ones and small ones, from cows and birds and coyotes, maybe.
Once when I didn’t have Dinky with me, I climbed a hillside cliff made of rotting stone just for fun, and on the other side there was a little open space of no trees and no rock outcroppings, kind of like a natural corral, natural except for the remains of a wooden fence. In the middle was a dead horse.
The body had been around so long that it didn’t give off that smell you hate. In fact it was pretty well flat, some brown hide with the insides all gone, eyes gone, not like a sheepskin or bearskin, because it was just horsehide lying full length on the ground where the brown grass had all been removed.
There were horse buns all around, been there a long time in the sun, if you picked one up it would fall apart between your fingers. I stood and stared at my first dead horse. The flat neck still had a rope tied around it, and the rope was secured to a fence post. It looked so flimsy that I wondered why the horse had not pulled it loose.
Quite often in those days you might see large birds with long black wings circling around something in the hills, as in western movies or comic strips. I thought that they had probably been over this spot quite a long time ago. Since then the sun had become a tannery.
I tried not to think about the person who had tied the rope and why he had not come back. Was he saving a bullet? Did something happen to him? Had he ever given this horse a name?
After I descended into the valley and went home to fill the sawdust hopper and so on, I didn’t tell anyone about the place where I’d seen something wrong. I knew that I was going to be something, a poet or something.