I was driving intently along Highway 99 with my eyes on the road, barreling down and buzzing up the canyon hills, stopping only occasionally to get out and pay the beautiful terrain proper respect with dropped jaw and hastily snapped photo. My destination was the Vancouver International Film Festival, and I was already late.
Then I looked up and saw a scene that took my breath away, slowed me down and made me forget where I was heading so fast: It was the town of Lillooet, B.C., hanging above the Fraser River on bright green plateaus dotted with houses. The mighty river itself was enough to take my breath away. I was standing on what I had to consider the “bank” of the river, but I was hundreds of feet above the water. The river was huge–muddy and ponderous. I couldn’t help wondering what it was like to live in one of the houses, looking out the window across the river chasm each morning at breakfast. If I lived here, I would brag about it.
Lillooet is a gold rush town, begun in the mid-1850s during the Fraser River Gold Rush. Thanks to the folks who stayed on to see several more gold rushes–along with mining for copper, silver, jade and uranium–and the many native peoples who made this canyon their home, the town persists today as one of the continent’s oldest continuously inhabited locations. That’s in part due to the fact that several other rivers meet up with the Fraser here. And it’s also probably due to the fact that the salmon fishing here is unusually good. A rock shelf in the river slows down migrating salmon and makes it easy for fisherman to cast and win.
The day I visited, I didn’t have time to see anything but that one view. But I didn’t want to leave as quickly as I’d left my other gratuitous stops on the careening trip to Vancouver. My mind wandered, calmed by the slow meandering of the water through its expansive channel and the light feeling of standing so high above it–almost like flying. I toed the grasses along the asphalt pullout to see if they seemed safe to ford, and then plunged in for a few feet and felt for the bottom. I snapped photos of bark, grass, red sumac (I think), and a lacy silver plant that seemed like the hill’s headdress.
The name of the town is similar to the town in Gulliver’s Travels: Lilliput. With a name like Lillooet, it’s not unfitting that I should be standing above it from the vantage point of a giant, looking upon that Lilliputian city.
I could have stayed for a long time, just to breath. But movies called, and I jumped into the Jeep to continue my journey through the canyon. I was so enthralled with the town as I passed it by that I missed my turn and took an unplanned trip partway down highway 12 and back. More lost time. I continued through Lillooet along Duffey Lake Road, winding back and forth through rich, damp, colorful mountains, smugly using my superior race-car driving skills to make up for lost time. When I got to Pemberton, I smelled hot iron and had to stop at a local garage to service my brakes. More lost time.
I sailed at a more reasonable pace through Whistler and Squamish, then on to the stunning Sea-to-Sky Highway along Horseshoe Bay, with hundreds of insane rush-hour Vancouver natives. I was able to enjoy only the occasional split-second glance at the bay, because I was busy keeping myself alive in the frey. When I reached North Vancouver, I pulled off the road to figure out the location of the theater screening the films to which I’d bought tickets online. It was a given that I’d miss the first one of the evening, but I had time to catch two others. A good Samaritan at a gas station helped me figure a route, and I raced downtown, parked, covered up my camping gear, then ran to the theater and inside, up to the festival table. “I’m from Nebraska! I can’t believe I’m here! I made it! Am I too late to get into the movie?”
“Nebraska was screened earlier this week,” they answered, confusing my home state with the name of one of the festival’s feature films.
It wasn’t too late. I climbed the grand staircase of the theater, walked through the double doors with long, shiny dramatic handles and found a velvety seat toward the front. Finally. I breathed.