“The Okanagan Valley is a rich and fertile land,” said Syilx knowledge-keeper Richard Armstrong to a group of us under a UBCO pine tree during our introduction to Syilx cosmology in July of last year. My first recollection of the Valley was as a child vacationing in Kelowna with my mother in the Summer of 1969 -- that long multi-clause sentence known as the Harvey Street portion of Highway 97, where orchards and fruit stands were punctuated by motels and gas stations (and vice versa). In 1971, one of Kelowna’s largest orchards was razed to become the Orchard Park Mall. Today it is all malls -- a Las Vegas of malls -- like we see along that strip north of Nanaimo after disembarking from the Horseshoe Bay ferry.
Indigenous artists and scholars like Leanne Betasamosake Simpson and Tania Willard remind us that the land gives us stories, and that these stories and the land and the bodies that convey them are indivisible. Certain Eurowestern scholars speak of the land as a medium, often in unilateral terms. In his essay “Roads and Paper Routes” (1964), media theorist Marshall McLuhan reminds us that prior to the telegraph (the first instance where “the message arrives before the messenger”) “roads and the written word were closely interrelated.” The “road stories” of post-war French cinema (from the films of Jean-Luc Godard to those of Virginie Despentes) operate similarly, with the French word ballade (“trip”) and ballade (“story”) differing only in an unpronounced “e”.
During my twelve months living in and out of Kelowna I spent a good part of my time on a ranch off Westside Road near Head of the Lake. My commuting options varied, depending on where in Kelowna I was driving to. If I was driving to my apartment in South Kelowna I would take Westside, a winding road that hugged the upper reaches of the eastern slope overlooking Okanagan Lake. If I was driving to UBCO I would head north to Hwy 97, turn right and take Old Kamloops Road south along the west side of Vernon, returning to the highway at the south end of town or remaining on the highway along the east side of Swan Lake through the centre of town and from there along Kalamalka and Wood Lakes through Winfield past Ellison Lake into Kelowna. The drive from the ranch to my apartment via Westside Road is 1hr 10 mins, the drive from the ranch to campus via Hwy 97 is exactly one hour. (The drive from campus to my apartment is 25 minutes, making the Hwy 97 route to my apartment roughly 1hr and 25 minutes, or 15 minutes longer than the Westside route.)
If I chose a particular route to go from north to south I would select the other option to travel from south to north. During the first months of my commute the ideal round-trip was a loop, with each route having its own thoughts, its own music, its own tone. But as time went on I became aware of other options, like turning the loop into a figure-eight. There is something about that crossing, where Okanagan Centre Road meets Glenmore Road, that haunts me. When I told this to one of the older punters at the Eldorado he nodded knowingly.
“The Duck Lake Gang,” he said into his pint glass.
“Where is Duck Lake?”
“Duck Lake is Ellison Lake.”
“Who was Ellison?”
“Price Ellison was a land baron who settled in the area in the 1870s. He grew wheat and raised cattle and at one time owned eighty-percent of the arable land in the north central Okanagan.”
“What does Price Ellison have to do with the Duck Lake Gang?”
“Nothing,” he said, taking a swig from his glass.
“Who is the Duck Lake Gang?”
“The Duck Lake Gang was the enemy of the Pixie Beach Gang.”
“So the two gangs had it out at the junction of Okanagan Centre Road and Glenmore?”
“Didn’t say that.”
“So what are you saying?”
“Just as well you don’t know.”
“You made this up.”
He turned to me. “Made what up? I’ve told you nothing.”
“Correction -- you’re making this up. You just don’t know how it ends yet.”
“It ends with the death of a clown named...Cathy!”