Grainger, Riding the Skyline

It's not a comfortable read, Riding the Skyline, except that it's a thoroughly comfortable read.

If you've read this posthumously collected set of articles and letters by M. Allerdale Grainger, the odds are that you know what I mean -- but I don't imagine many people have. The publisher of this book, Horsdal & Schubert, has since become TouchWood Editions (which includes the great Brindle & Glass imprint), but in the mid-90s, when Riding the Skyline appeared, its readership numbers weren't overly stable. I've read more obscure older BC writing than most people, and somehow I'd never made it to this volume.

But: this is a classic work of late-settler mythology, which means (a) it feels delightfully like home to me, and (b) it fills me with inadequate, hangdog resentment.

Basically, M. Allerdale Grainger in the 1920s and 1930s was a Serious Businessman in Vancouver, except that what he really wanted to be doing was riding horses over the mountains between Hope and Princeton. On as many weekends in the summer as he could, and for as many weeks as he could, too, he'd take the train to Princeton, climb onto a horse with a packhorse or two, and head for the hills. Sometimes he'd take his wife, or some friends, but most often he'd travel by himself. Generally he'd run into mountain acquaintances of his, often but not invariably men who'd been living off the grid (as we say now), and all of this perfectly ripe with anecdotes.

It's the time before development got serious, before highways and ski resorts and backcountry regulations and all that, and so it's terribly romantic.

But it's the time when First Nations were irrelevant, and the environment was merely a backdrop there to be used, and so it's horrifying. In a letter of 1928, for example, Grainger recounts meeting a few friends who were showing around a woman visiting from Scotland, and during the expedition things got cold:
"Then we stopped and set fire to a clump of stunted Alpine trees which blazed like a furnace forty feet into the air, being very pitchy. The warmth and the cake I carried on the saddle cheered the party up a little but they had had enough and we went back to camp and dinner, later moving to a lower level and stopping the night at Powder Camp." (p.20)
Just ... dude, no.

Grainger does a great job of describing the effects of the Great Depression on the area, and his relationships with horses are lovingly drawn. As I say, too, he gives a great angle on early settlement in the region, particularly its self-mythologizing at the very moment of settlement (and dispossession of the First Nations peoples who'd been there since time immemorial).

But reading BC history hurts, if you're doing it right. It should hurt, now, to read works like Riding the Skyline: and there's lots here to hurt you. Valuable book, this!


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