North on 19: Traffic and the Savage Sky
09 Jun 2013 · by Brennan Storr · Be the first to comment!
This weekend my wife and I drove up island to Campbell River to visit my mother. We used to visit once every few months but since my stepfather’s passing in March we've made the trip - some 260km - more frequently.
We had planned to leave Friday afternoon at 2, which we thought would allow us to beat the inevitable after-work traffic jam that clogs up the westbound road out of Victoria and in no way indicates a need for commuter rail. As it turned out, we were almost right – we had made it as far as the beginning of the Malahat highway, where traffic bottlenecks on a good day, to discover a construction crew busily increasing to three the number of lanes which have to frantically merge into one thirty feet later. Traffic slowed to a standstill and we had plenty of time to reflect on how peaceful our up-island trips used to be when Via Rail was still running.
In my more optimistic moments I imagine a day when some kind of light rail service gives commuters in the GVRD a way to work that doesn’t involve sweltering on asphalt while a chopped Harley Davidson four feet away plays you the song of its people but such a utopia is unlikely.
Victoria would like to be thought of as a forward-thinking city and with all the tattooed yogis wandering around you’d almost fall for it – until, that is, someone makes a suggestion towards improving infrastructure in any meaningful way.
Flagrant pork barrel projects abound – the Johnson Street Bridge Project, for example, or Langford’s infamous$35 million Bridge to Nowhere which at that moment was looming monolithically out of the heat shimmer ahead of us – but float the idea of funding potentially useful projects like commuter rail, bus lanes or sewage treatment and watch as those placid yoga bunnies start frothing about taxes and big government like the mad love child of Rush Limbaugh and Alex Jones.
Hours later, traffic jams were well behind us as we burned our way up Highway 19 toward Campbell River under a leaden sky. That stretch of road, called the Inland Island Highway, has as many personalities as a hormonal teenager and they run about the same range, from ethereal and gentle to a shocking darkness suggestive of knowledge older and deeper than you expected or were prepared for. The drabness above was hardly the best Highway 19 had to offer but it was far from the worst we’d experienced.
The day my stepfather died we left Victoria for Campbell River as soon as work allowed but the usual gauntlet of traffic and construction meant we were making the final leg as the March sun began to set and it was much worse than we’d expected; the only things not obscured by driving snow, wind and rain were the too-dim tail lights of the grit truck ahead, the payload of which threatened to crack our windshield if we followed too closely. When the grit truck finally turned off and the clouds lifted we were left alone on that long, empty road with the most savage sunset I’ve ever seen.
It wasn't the delirious conflagration of orange, red and yellow I always associate with the word – the sunset that caps off long summer days like a blessing. Instead, as we drove north and daylight waned, the sky ahead of us was a deep Tyrian purple, with nothing delirious about it- it felt ancient, predatory and deliberate, like movement in the shadows beyond a campfire.
The configuration of Highway 19, the "Inland Island Highway" that links Parksville to Campbell River, is such that the only things you see, aside from the road in front of you, are trees and sky, with the former set so far back the latter seems to occupy every inch of your vision, so close you could touch it or, on nights like that, it could touch you. Driving north on the empty Inland Island Highway the night my stepfather died I felt completely exposed, as though the road was offering us up to that cold sky. When the pressing need for a gas station forced us off Highway 19 onto the old highway, which hugs the waterline under heavy tree cover, I couldn’t have been more relieved.
Given all that, it’s not hard to see why some grey clouds on Friday afternoon were of little consequence. In fact, whatever grimness the grey sky may have held was relieved by bright sprays of yellow and blue wildflowers all along the side of the road. The sun finally made an appearance just as we were pulling off the highway at Campbell River and the blooms, already vibrant, practically glowed in the light.