Jon Merk photo - Rogers Pass
Luckily for us, all the patron saints were standing by, that blowing, snow-blinded winter day in the heart of the Hope-Princeton Highway. In those days, the road was narrow-laned, unpaved, steep and winding. In good weather, it could take from twelve to eighteen hours to travel between Kelowna and Vancouver, a distance that now takes from four to six hours.
Our family traveled often between the two points, following the whims of elusive fortune, as we moved between the city ("Big time Vancoober!" I'd say when I was a baby), and Kelowna. I remember my disappointment at age four, when the ferry that my father said was going to carry us across Okanagan Lake turned out to be a big white boat, and not a magical tiny being with wings. On another occasion, when I lay close to dying in the Kelowna General Hospital at age six, my parents drove the same road all one night, to reach my bedside in time.
But this day, it was mid-winter and out car windows steamy from our combined breathing, we could see nothing but swirling white. Our car was inadequate for the trip, a metaphor for our family's financial journey, and I dont remember why we were traveling this time; though since my aunt, uncle and cousin Teddy were in the car with us, I suspect we had all gone to Grandma and Grandpa Marr's in Kelowna for Christmas and were now heading back to the city.
Teddy was about ten then, and I adored him from the distant vantage point of being a freckled and disdained six, and a girl to boot. But he and I both attended Catholic schools and were the only family members in the car whose prayers were likely to be recognized by God.
I remember us trying to get up a steep and slippery hill, and the sickening feeling in my stomach as we slid back down. The men, my father and my uncle, got out of the car to kick the tires, have a smoke and generally commiserate at the misfortune of being poor and alive and on this damned road to begin with, damned women and their sentimental nonsense.
Then both car doors opened, they thumped into the front seat with a whoosh of frigid, snowy air and renewed spirit, and Uncle Ted beamed back at us: "Better say your Hail Mary's, if we're going to get up this hill!"
Teddy and I bowed our heads against the back of the front seat. I prayed obediently, and probably as hard as I have ever prayed in my life, the whole time feeling the car resisting the slow push up, up, up, tires spinning helplessly. We werent going to make it. Then - wait! were they catching? Hail Mary's tumbling through my mind along with fear that we would be stranded here in the cold and the snow, would never reach warmth and safety again. Then we passed the point at which the tires must grab hold or give up the fight and, amazingly, they held their ground and we were up and over the hill, in a burst of happy chatter, the Virgin Mary directly responsible for getting us up that mountain.
One other winter journey, when I was maybe a little younger, we took the Fraser Canyon route, also narrow-laned, unpaved and winding, but even steeper. I was standing on the seat between my parents when I saw the older model car ahead of us, before our horrified eyes, take a slow, icy sliding swing to the left that led the car and its occupants inexorably to and over the cliff edge, down and out of sight. Our car stopped; my parents got out, after a ghastly silence spent looking at each other. "You stay here" Mom said to me. They walked to the edge and looked over, and that's all I remember.
Later, I seem to remember being told the car had been stopped by a tree from falling far, and that the young couple inside was lucky and had been saved. I am not sure whether they said that to ease my mind. I hope it was true.
And we were lucky too. Lucky that those Hail Mary's got us up the hill that winter's day, and likely a lot farther along the highway than we ever guessed.