by Esther Darlington MacDonald
I have heard some stories over the years about experiences that people have had on Cornwall Mountain. You know, – that mountain that sits above us all, that is the barometer that tells us how the weather is going up there and the possibility of it coming closer to our little village wedged on either side of the Thompson River, far below…
The mountain that was once a solid, graceful form of dark green. The form is still there, but the dark green was destroyed in a monumental forest fire that took the whole north flank of the mountain some years ago.
People will tell you about their experiences riding horseback up and along the descending slopes. The wildlife that abounds, the wild flowers that grow in abundance in the late Spring. The panorama of mountain and valley, gorges and cliff faces of limestone with the ancient etching of figures and symbols on them. People will mention the magic of entering a meadow tucked away off the road and into the trees, where silence only beckons the strong of heart. Someone once wrote that the silence of the wilderness is the loneliest silence of all.
People will tell you how they went about discovering the mountain’s loftier retreats, where they built their lean-to’s and sheds, their houses, their greenhouses, their animal pens.
I have heard stories that seemed more akin to myths. And perhaps they were myths. But nevertheless, ones that contained more than a breath of the truth in them. The woman with her long fair hair blowing in the wind, for example, riding naked on a white horse up to the summit – a latter day Lady Godiva whose own adventure left an indelible memory on the persons who saw her move through the trees.
We spent one Thanksgiving weekend up on Cornwall with a couple whose greenhouses were kept heated through the winter by wood stoves that had to be fed all through the night as well as the day. Their library stocked with books from floor to ceiling. Their kitchen with the original wood cook stove from Chow’s kitchen behind Wing Chong Tai’s general store.
Shirley made her own jams, jellies, catsup and mince meat. The aromas from that kitchen wafting through the screen door and into the trees and along the road for a good stretch. Their kiosk on Railway Ave. every spring held bedding plants that people flocked to buy. Their turkeys graced the tables of Ashcroftians for several seasons. And then, they were no more. They’d fulfilled their dream and went on to other dreams somewhere else.
The mountain had not conquered them exactly. They had created their own world up there for as long as they wished to build it. And when they tired of maintaining it, they left. I would like to believe they left without regret. Looking back on that period of wholesome life on Cornwall Mountain, grateful for all the pleasure it had provided, despite the hard work, or maybe, grateful for that work which is growing things that people need and appreciate.
And I have heard the story of a native lad whose duty it was each evening was to bring the cattle back from their meadow feeding grounds. As the sun was setting and the shadows of night began to close in around him, he admitted he was reminded of the ghost stories told to him by his elders who knew all the mysteries that the mountain revealed. And as he walked down the narrow dirt road and the darkness overcame him, his heart beat faster, and he longed for the lights in the window of his home in the trees.
Stories told around the woodstove before bedtime, or around the camp fire at night, when the stars above and the moon shone down on them all gathered around. Stories that remain with you for a lifetime. The stories that grandparents tell to their grandchildren before bedtime at night. Whether they happened here on Cornwall Mountain, or in England, in a midland meadow.
We camped at the top of Cornwall Mountain, pitching our tent in a meadow where a carpet of wild flowers, white, blue, pink, yellow, spread across the green meadow. In the morning, we awakened to the lowing of cattle. They were very close. Too close for comfort. We hastily collapsed the tent and left.
At the top of the mountain, we watched men jump off the ridge in their winged gliders, utterly confident. Plunging off into the blue, confident that the wind currents would take them where they wanted to go, to land. In some meadow east of Cornwall Mountain, a good 20 miles from where they started. even further. We watched them with something akin to envy. To be so unafraid. To be so certain that the currents of cool and warm wind would carry them safely along. We watched them not with our hearts in our mouths (as their mothers might have done), but with incredulous wonder.
People will tell you about driving the narrow road over the top of the mountain, up and up, and finally, over and down, down, the other side of the mountain which eventually brings you out of the trees and into Upper Hat Creek Valley. They will tell you that the road is not a place to gaze around you on. It is a road that makes you concentrate every foot of the way. And you may ask yourself, why am I driving this road on this mountain well beyond habitation by anyone but the odd deer or even a moose? Why am I choosing to not look down on the gulleys below that drop a good 200 feet and end in a green meadow where wildlife undoubtedly roam? Well, you do it for the adventure. For the joy of coming down and out into the broad stretch of range land laid up against the limestone mountain ridge. And you keep on driving through that isolated valley until you find yourself on the highway that leads back to the towns.
It was my pleasure years ago, to spend week ends on Cornwall Mountain with my friend Margot and her daughter Jennifer. Margot made her own bread which she baked in coffee tins. I sat and sketched. I explored. I fished in the pond made by the beavers.
Archaeologists camped on the site and studied the area, rich in history of the migration of the indigenous people. The great Thompson River yielded up its salmon, and the Mountain yielded up its game. And the people came and went. Spent their winters in that valley we call Upper Hat Creek.
The Mountain told its story for generations to study. The Mountain is still the living, breathing breath of the Thompson River corridor. When you look up, you will see it in all its transformations.