Somebody asked me, yesterday, what I would wish for if I had one wish. It wasn’t that hard to come up with, even though it may be something else altogether tomorrow: If I could, I would move both my families – all the Allmans and Joys and Leonardos and Tilleys and Fords from Out West and all the Bodys and Blounts and Baileys and Eatons from Back East – to Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Most of them don’t know anything about Vancouver Island but I have to think they’d all come to love it and QUICKLY.
As I did.
I’ve been struggling, since July(!), with what to say about our visit there, so that I can write about it in The Pour Fool. My last previous trip to Canada was in 2004, and that was only to Whistler for a weekend vacation. I had a week, this time, and on Vancouver Island – which, for those not aware of it, is not even on the same land mass as the city of Vancouver – and while it is certainly a cliché to go on about how nice Canadians are, it’s also quite true. Given my natural tendency to attract assholes, I did manage to find one on my trip there: a disagreeable middle-aged woman in a thrift shop in Parksville, where I went to find a water bowl for our dogs. She was having a remarkably lousy day and I tried joking with her. Bad move. That made her even crankier and while I recognized a kindred spirit, I still beat it out of there, eschewing even the wait for a receipt.
But that was one (and one hotel staffer who was simply not very loquacious, hardly a crime; if it were, he and I would be cellmates) out of maybe 150 people with whom we interacted in our week on VanIsle. That’s roughly the equivalent of a pitcher sporting a .013 ERA, with 48 strikeouts over nine games. In short: freaky good.
And “freaky” is an adjective used here with a LOT of consideration. I live within what all the marketing companies have labeled the “Seattle-Tacoma Metro”, a relentlessly civilized, hyper-educated, hugely industrious little pine knot of America. If one has my temperament – liberal, tending toward eggheadedness, artsy to a fault, pre-conditioned to your sports teams losing quite a bit (EXCEPT FOR THE 2013 SEAHAWKS, YOUR SUPER BOWL 48 CHAMPIONS!!), and a world-class adult beverages community – the Seattle area has no real parallel in the US and I whole-heartedly love this screwy, Nanny State-ish, studiously Cool place. I have reveled in living here and, astounding for me, have had very few complaints….until November of 2016.
I’m not going into the whole disaster because we all know about it. (Those who are actually happy about the occupation of Washington, DC, by a traitorous gang of amoral, mentally ill sub-humans is probably reading the wrong website and any snarky comments deposited here in support of the Current Atrocity would have to be approved by me before they become visible. I will leave it to any of those inclined to bitch and whine to figure what the chances are of my allowing them.) But let me just observe that, since the Treason has taken place, this was my first trip outside the borders of my native country and, of course, I carried my suspicion and snark and simmering rage with me for a 4th of July weekend, fully equipped to inflict it on any Canadians who might have anything approving to say of Our Fearless (brainless, unprincipled, homicidal, Russian-owned) “Leader”.
Not only did that not happen, (universal horror and condemnation for The Thing in The White House) by roughly the second lunch, on the road north out of Courtenay, our VI base camp, I had unclenched to such a remarkable and unprecedented degree that I was almost disoriented; even a bit giddy at having what felt – for decades, not just since ’16 – like having an anvil lifted off my chest.
That week was a whirlwind of Seeing Stuff. We spent a day driving out as far as one can on Vancouver Island, the windswept Port Hardy – a graphic example of what would result of having a 19th century frontier fishing town evolve, absent of most corrupting outside influences – and a day following a road that can best be compared to a gerbil HabiTrail down to Tofino and Ucluelet, on the wild South shore, to multiple visits to wineries and breweries and two remarkable distilleries and meals that…well, all compared very favorably to the best of what I’ve found in almost three decades living in the Pacific Northwest.
Undeniably beautiful as VanIsle is, it was the people, the atmosphere that made the most profound impact. Maybe these folks, cloistered there on that magical island, are simply removed from most of the brusque intrusions of the daily bummer that is The World of 2020. But I suspect the difference goes beyond that, into the fundamental differences between the US and a country not continually obsessed with being “The Most Powerful Nation on Earth“, that pompous little tag we’ve bestowed upon ourselves for practically our entire American history. We are so immersed in our own supremacy that most of us simply refuse to acknowledge that we are no longer the leaders of the free world (absolutely that title does NOT reside in Trump and is a revolving toss-up between Angela Merkel, Justin Trudeau, and Pierre Macron) and that Trump is so universally loathed by 90% of humanity that we’ve now been reduced to the borderline of “Third World Shithole” status and are one Trumpian atrocity away from falling into shitholeness up to our hairlines.
In most practical ways, Western Canadians are indistinguishable from you and me. Besides an occasional twist of dialect, (I heard “aboot” for “about” a time or two and, of course, everything is labeled in both English and French) your ear will encounter little that is unfamiliar. This is Western Canada. All that Doug ‘N’ Bob, “Hey, hoser, take off!” nonsense is not from VI. Aside from an admirable tendency to slather every sandwich and main dish and maybe even ice cream sundaes with slabs of Brie the thickness of patio tiles, the food is even the same. Oh, yeah, ya find a mess o’ poutine but you find that all over the US Northwest, now.
There are thousands of acres of unspoiled forest and vast tracts of meadowlands and hills and mountains rivaling our own Washington Cascades and the roads are, if anything, better maintained than ours. There are good drivers and bad drivers, like in the US, and small businesses are the backbone of every community, same as here. Small towns on VanIsle look and feel much like small towns in Washington and Oregon and Idaho and maybe even Virginia and Ohio, minus most of the rednecks. (And, it bears saying, Vancouverites have discovered colored house paints and seem to have no fear of using them.) I could take any of my East coast cousins, even the ones who live so far from major water that a trip to the beach sends them into near-incoherent ecstasy, and plop them down in Courtenay or Parksville or Duncan and they might not even realize they weren’t in Virginia or Georgia, anymore, for a day or so. And they definitely wouldn’t feel alienated…unless they started popping off about Donald Trump.
The difference, then, that puts everything about Vancouver Island versus Washington into stark relief is the simple, everyday interactions with Average Joes…or Average Pierres, maybe, but The Man or Woman on The Street.
Any American can argue this all they like. Certainly, American right-wing idiots would bristle at these comparisons, but Canada, to me, feels very much like what the US was thirty, forty years ago. Here in the 21st century, America has become a virtual armed camp. And it’s getting worse daily. That crackling undercurrent of friction and division is, after a day or two of Going Around, as easily apparent as a sunrise.
People talk to each other on Vancouver Island. Even here in egalitarian, relatively enlightened Seattle, there is a studied Cool. It even has a name: “The Seattle Freeze”, best described as that veneer of stoic courtesy and measured “friendliness” that’s infused with a nearly-tangible emotional arm’s length that underlays every personal interaction not strictly Among Friends. People DO make friends in the Northwest but it takes time and you have to pass through a gauntlet of mild suspicion (new people who are too immediately friendly, in Seattle, are frequently labeled “stalkers”) and an unspoken, uncodified set of emotional tests to be passed before the Friend Compact is sealed. Younger people rarely initiate a conversation with older people, unless they’re working in some service occupation that requires them to. And those divisions come in an exhausting number of strata. Forty-somethings don’t really, willingly strike up conversations with sixty-somethings. Teenagers – unless you’re related to them – might as well be a separate species. Certainly, those roving bands and cliques of all ages seldom reach outside their immediate circles to include some peripheral youngster or oldster.
Smaller versions of Vancouver Island’s openness happened a dozen times, in our week there, but one specific incident, happening in two parts, over two hours, slapped me right in the face with this impression:
My main requirement for this VI trip was that, at the end of it, back in Victoria, before getting on the ferry back to Port Angeles, WA, I get to visit Driftwood Brewery.
Driftwood, for the vast majority of you who have never even read the name before, is one of the best breweries in the entire area that includes the West Coast of the US, Southwestern Canada, and Alaska. Really. If you have never heard of Driftwood, blame that on Canada’s protectionist trade relationship with the United States. Seeing thousands of graphic examples of how American influence can take over a culture, Canada makes it difficult for our goods to travel across the border. They are quite willing to SELL Americans any Canadian products we might want but are far less willing to allow Canadians to BUY our goods. And, of course, that attitude don’t fly with our state and federal governments, so we make it as difficult as possible for Canadian beer and whiskey and hand tools and wines and smoked salmon and totem poles and widgets to get all the permits and bullshit necessary to cross into The Most Powerful Nation on Earth. Our trade relationship with Canada has fluctuated, over the years. Back when I was fairly new to the bev biz, we routinely saw brands like Grey Monk and Mission Hill and Central City and, yes, even Driftwood and sold quite a bit. But, as the Trump administration took control and Donnie Boy nurtured his jealousy of Justin Trudeau’s popularity, all that happy cooperation ground to a halt.
So, my whole raison d’ etre for the VI trip was Driftwood and possibly what I consider THE best cidery west of Michigan, Sea Cider Farm & Ciderhouse of Saanichton, BC. Sea Cider was a “maybe“, if our schedule permitted. Driftwood was NOT. I was going to Driftwood if I had to miss the ferry.
Driftwood’s postage stamp-sized taproom
I walked into Driftwood’s impossibly tiny taproom about 3 p.m., on Friday afternoon. We had finished a meandering, 5 hour drive from Courtenay, a trip that should take about two hours, and were famished. I asked their taproom guy two questions: Where is a good place nearby to eat? And, is there maybe, possibly, ONE bottle of Driftwood’s STUNNING, paradigm-changing “Old Cellar Dweller” Barleywine (“OCD”, get it?) and, if so, could I possibly bribe someone to sell it to me?
Shocker #1: the tasting room guy, maybe early thirties but possibly not, actually walked me outside and pointed to the turn we would make at the bottom of the hill and then described the route to Moon Under Water Brewery, Distillery, Pub, and Tasting Room, a brewery and distillery with an onsite pub, four blocks away. He recommended several dishes and even said to ask for a friend who’s a server there, and said to tell her he sent us.
To say that this sort of thing doesn’t happen in Seattle is putting it mildly. Being the converted PNW weenie that I certainly am, after thirty years living here, I thought at first that he was throwing me out and was wondering what I had done.
Restaurant recommendation thus completed, Shocker #2: He then put his arm around my shoulder, (again, NOT a Seattle or even an American thing, as far as I know.) and said, “Listen, I feel your pain about this but OCD is gone pretty much as soon as we release it. I can’t even get a bottle and I would, maybe daily. Occasionally, a local shop might keep a few but you said you’re heading back to the States in a while, so you probably don’t have time to get to the most likely places. Come back after you eat. I’ll be here. Maybe we can find something else you like.“
We went to Moon Under Water, where I had a pair of a shockingly fine ales – “Hip As Funk” brett Saison with fruity, vivid hops, and Kokako 2019, a lovely, integrated sour made with New Zealand hops – and a plate of grub as good as any brewpub stuff I’ve had in several years. I also tried their Vodkas, all of which I would have bought, if I had thought I could sleaze them through US Customs.
Thus fortified, we drove back to Driftwood and I went inside. Judye decided to wait in the car, as the taproom wasn’t big enough to accommodate her chair comfortably…and, frankly, because she’s seen me with that glassy, fixated, quasi-evangelical look in my eye that I get when I’m anticipating something game-changing. She wants no part of this and I don’t blame her, so I went back alone.
Now, it’s Friday at 4:30, on a warm, sunny summer day. People are filling growlers for their Friday evening socials and Driftwood is packed. This room is literally no more than 18 feet by maybe 30 feet and about 15% of that is the tasting bar and check-out counter. My friend behind the bar smiles and waves me over and hands me a tasting glass with a pale amber liquid in it. “Pilsner,” he murmured. I tasted it. It was amazingly good and I am SICK of craft Pilsners. It’s called “Arcus” and would be right at home in a line-up featuring pFriem and Chuckanut and Victory Prima. Next, he slid me “Naughty Hildegard”, a dead-authentic ESB that delivered a hefty punch of caramel and sugar cookies and sweet herbal hops. Gorgeous.
Next was “Goldynwell Folköl”, a graceful, light, sunny Saison that oozed white grapes and Lemonheads and peaches and green tea. On this hot day, it was Perfect. “New Growth” Pale Ale was a classic English Pale, featuring biscuity malts and grapefruit/pine resin hops in ideal balance.
Last came a beer that I know very well but have missed in the way you miss a guitar you foolishly sold or a picture of a past love. “Fat Tug” is, without doubt, one of the best and most consistent IPAs made by ANY brewery in North America. Stylistically, it deftly straddles the very fine line between traditional, bitter-forward herbal-resin hops and the new notions of pumping up the volume on the tropical fruit/spice/floral/citrus potential that underpins the modern hazy IPA…the catch being that I was selling Fat Tug eleven years ago and it tasted exactly like this, back then, MILES ahead of the curve on the floral/fruity IPAs that are the norm today. Fat Tug is assertively hoppy and bitter enough to satisfy the most devout Old School HopHead and yet shows enough hops subtleties to gave it a distinctly contemporary appeal. I have to confess that one of the largest buyers of this beer, when I was selling it…was me. I bought cases of this stuff and my wife was virtually addicted to it. And, tasting it there in that cramped little room, full of smiling, growler-bearing Canadians, I was tickled to find that Fat Tug had lost not a step.
It was at the end of this tasting that the singular event of our trip happened; the event that planted the seeds of the epiphany at the heart of this post.
The amiable crowd, ranging in age from me and one other post-sixty geezer to three young ladies who had just turned 21 and were making their first visit to a real brewery taproom, was chatting quietly. None of this boisterous, look-at-me hot dogging that has become commonplace in too many American breweries, these folks were chatting both in groups and with strangers around them. And not just a tight smile and a mumbled greeting but actually drawing total strangers into their conversations. I was put in mind, there in my Northwesty shell of icy reserve, of greeters at conventions or those smiling yahoos who come to my door peddling Watch Tower and leave mortally offended. But there was none of that practiced, forced connection. Just smiles and quiet exchange of ideas and laughter. It was suddenly finding yourself in a Disney movie, except that there was no script, no director, no motivation for this bizarre behavior except that it’s just how these people live. It was jarring, almost. It was…familiar but remote, like the faint edge of a memory, flitting by, just out of touch.
From behind the tasting bar, my friend, just making conversation, said, “I was watching a nature documentary, this morning, about the Western end of the Island and the guy described the land as ‘fecund’. I had no idea what that meant. Does anybody know?“
Well, of course I know what “fecund” means…but I do NOT – ever, even before the Trump Era – participate in these discussions. It is just Not Done. And the very few times I did, when I first arrived in Washington, I noticed that my voice seemed to make those youngsters in the room uncomfortable. It’s harder to walk among older folks and see them as shadowy cardboard stand-ups if they’re talking. My speaking surely has never elicited any comment in return.
I saw a few phones come out of pockets and heard on young lady near me murmur, “How would you spell that, y’think?” I was at the end of a lovely week of feeling that I could relax and unwind a bit, so I blurted out, “It means bursting with life and potential,” I said, “Full of promise.“
“Yeah,” the other old guy in the room said, looking up from his phone, “Fertile. Second definition, ‘full of life and potential’.” Then he looked over at me.
“Did you look that up?” one of the young girls asked.
“No,” I smiled faintly, “I’m a writer. I’ve used it a few times. Besides, he’s actually right. It means fertile.“
“That was cool!” my friend behind the bar said, “You just…knew that?“
“It’s not that cool,” I smiled, “I know what a lot of fairly useless words mean. My Mom used to call me ‘a storehouse of miscellaneous information’.”
And everybody laughed.
Several people, most of them less than half my age, asked me questions, I asked them questions. They welcomed me to Victoria. Asked for places to visit when they come to Seattle and Tacoma. It was…easy, enjoyable. The oddness of it disappeared quickly and while this was going on, the familiar part of it slowly dawned in me…
This is how America used to be, forty years ago.
I remember those times fondly. I used to strike up conversations with all sorts of people, in bars and restaurants and at ball games and in the park, back in Virginia and North Carolina and even in Seattle, after arriving there in 1991.
YES, much of this change lies in me. I’ve never been a particularly gregarious sort and I have never liked the whole idea of “smalltalk”. But I also noticed that, even in Virginia and Denver and rural Oregon and Arizona and California, there was always some degree of social isolation, of clustering in tribes and rarely reaching outside those boundaries. There is a pervasive undercurrent of mistrust and the real potential for unpleasantness or even outright hostility. The ’16 election proved to me that my lifelong assumption of the fundamental goodness and benevolence of the Average American is not and likely never has been real. Yeah, the shock of discovering that fully 30% of everyone around me in a crowd, at any given time, would be delighted if I was killed or exiled was a new and heinous revelation. But all this bile and contempt and intolerance that has bubbled up from the assumed licensed that the (phony, Russian-fixed) “election” of Donald Trump has convinced (erroneously) this twisted 30% that it’s okay now to say whatever vile shit in in your head. Incidents of racism are up over 300%. Hate speech is rampant. Simpletons pop off on social media, cowering behind screen names, and feel that there can’t be any repercussions. They’re wrong, of course. Plenty of these fools are found and punished. But the atmosphere of chaos remains and gets worse with every day Trump goes unpunished.
Canada, in general and Van Isle in particular, is unburdened by a lot of this berserker lunacy. There is nobody there insisting that he and only he can “Make Canada Great Again”. Canada is already great and that realization may be the very crux of this difference in the two cultures.
To those of us with brains and decency and a moral compass, “great” isn’t defined by our government’s military might or our economy or capitalism or our ability to dictate to the rest of mankind. In reality, we, the US, is the only country with this particular problem. We’re the ones with the leader who has traditionally been the presumptive “leader of the free world”. We’re the ones who have driven the effort to give every nation the right to hold elections. We’re the ones that developing countries and even traditional allies came to for aid or the ability to solve problems, avoid wars, and alliances formed to achieve common goals. We’ve been the ones who were willing and able to intervene when aggressors threatened the sovereignty of our friends.
Canada has not shouldered that burden. They have contributed resources and personnel to military actions and emergency planning. But they don’t carry that set of expectations the US has always borne. Canada is concerned with being a benevolent society; a culture that celebrates its diversity and honors the arts and governs economic growth with humane principles and a sense of proportion. They are a modified socialist society and embrace that. They are unafraid of the ideas brought into Canada by immigrants and are better able to integrate pilgrims into Canadian society, instead of feeling so threatened that they commit wholesale atrocities to “control” some specious, fabricated “immigrant problem”. They focus what we would consider an excessive amount of attention on being Good, managing a common resolve to be decent and humane. They care about ideas like that, where we barely care about ideas, period.
Yes, that moment of epiphany in a Victoria taproom was familiar to me; would have been to most Americans past the age of maybe 45. It isn’t a lost fragment of my childhood. Or yours. It isn’t the stuff of children, not a childish idea. It’s an adult expression of common will, to deal with the very real problems and disagreements and political battles to which Canada is prone. Canada is not Never Never Land. It’s a nation of factions and competing interests and profound divisions. French-speaking Canada has been trying to secede from the English Canada since 1968, when Parti Québécois began negotiations to become a separate governing entity from the rest of the country. The Vancouver Island Party wants to establish VanIsle as a separate Canadian province by 2021. And then there is the ongoing idea of combining a wide swath of British Columbia with Washington and Oregon to form Cascadia, a region suggested by our shared, established bioregion and a broad range of compatible interests. In Canada, Cascadia has a LOT of supporters and I, for one, would LOVE to suddenly find myself able to roam all over Western BC with no borders, no passports, and no tariffs on goods carried back to Seattle from Victoria. Even aside from getting several million Americans out from under the burden of Trump, the idea has a TON of merit.
There are divisions within Canada. They just don’t define the whole of their country by them and even the Québécois aren’t out to destroy Canada or cast out interlopers and immigrants.
We used to be this way, quite a long time ago, now, before a certain segment of America began to assert the idea that only they know what’s best for the nation and became at first petulant and then openly hostile when voters rejected, again and again, their shallow, shoddy ideology. They began to cheat in elections, gerrymandering to maintain political advantage, and adopted as an article of faith that the system we have always respected and used as our template for democracy – the will of the majority – is something that can no longer be allowed to prevail, as those of us who don’t agree with their version of America are no longer simply people who disagree but turncoats, traitors who would destroy America by coddling what they regard as the Undesirables; all the brown and black and foreign and Jewish and LGBTQ people and anyone, in short, who doesn’t agree to accept their version of our future.
How did we go from respectful disagreement, cooperation and compromise, dialog and negotiation to a philosophical dictatorship in forty years of my lifetime? I don’t know but I miss that time, when Jesse Helms and Sam Rayburn, men of two diametrically opposite personalities and ideologies, could vehemently disagree with each other on the floor of the Senate and then go have lunch and do the real negotiations, the discussion among men of how this problem that’s right in their faces and the country’s business could be resolved. That is gone from America…the sitting down and hammering out an agreement. The respect to do so. And the security, the peace of mind that you can rely on people – decent, honorable people who respect and abide by their own rules and traditions – to work through your common problems without destroying the entire edifice. THAT is what is different about Canada. It is a shock to ANY American to find themselves suddenly immersed in a culture that is not controlled by fear and uncertainty. It’s literally stunning to look at a society and not see the divisions above all else. And these people live in that peace of mind every day. Does that mean that they’re naive and silly and are only friendly and open because they don’t have our responsibilities and they’re just not as great as the old’ flag-wavin’ USA?
Hell, no. It means, somewhere along their evolution, Canada grew up. They looked around at their situation and looked at ours and said, “Nah, let’s not.” Canada chooses to be who and what they are and what they are is what we used to be and what we sacrificed upon the altar of More Profits and More Power and More Everything, always, without ever a slip. They are the best of what America used to be.
And, yes, I miss that and yes, I want that back. As it stands today, Canada – well, Vancouver Island, at very least – is just a better place than the US and if I could realize that wish, to move me and mine to Vancouver Island and embrace those old values, I would. I would in a hot minute…and I would drink better beer and wine and whiskey every day.
Part Two coming, in which we say names like Unsworth and Averill and Beaufort and Wayward and Gladstone and Cumberland and discover some very tasty wonders.