Chapter Excerpt: British Columbiana - Dundurn
Jul 08, 2024

Chapter Excerpt: British Columbiana

Read an excerpt of British Columbiana by Josie Teed below, one of our featured summer reads! Don't forget to save 25% off this book when you use code BC25 from  July 4 - July 10, 2024.

Dad insisted on travelling with me when I got the job. I was to be the curatorial intern at Barkerville Historic Town & Park for six months from October 2018 until March 2019. The head curator emailed me to tell me that the person they offered the job to first had turned it down, and so it was mine if I wanted it.
     It was both hurtful and exhilarating to be someone’s second choice for the role, and to be told this by the person who made the decision. This was the type of mean information adults shared with each other all the time. For instance, I knew that many Oscar winners had been the second choice for their winning roles. Even Julie Andrews had been passed over for My Fair Lady after originating the role of Eliza Doolittle on Broadway, only to win for Mary Poppins the same year. I told myself I could be like that.
Barkerville Historic Town & Park, a preserved gold rush town, is located in the Cariboo region of British Columbia on the western end of the Rocky Mountains, halfway between Washington State and the Yukon.
I had never heard of Barkerville before and I only conceptually understood that it was very far away. It took an entire day to drive from Vancouver. I couldn’t imagine anyone I knew going there, and it was difficult for me to picture a car leaving a city and travelling into interior British Columbia. What could that possibly look like? How could a city fall away to mountains and thousands of acres of wilderness?
However, I wanted to work in museums, my “chosen field” following my master’s, and I hadn’t received any other job offers. It paid $22.50 an hour, almost eight dollars above minimum wage, because the position was so remote. It had to be partially subsidized by the government because nobody wanted to live there. I had little idea of what a good salary was, but this seemed too promising an offer to refuse.
I was offered the position two weeks before I flew home to Ontario. I was completing my master’s degree in medieval archaeology in York, a small city in the United Kingdom. I was to go home to Fenwick, Ontario, which was twenty-five minutes from Niagara Falls and two hours from Toronto. People often asked me if I saw the falls all the time and if they were beautiful. I always replied yes because it made people smile, and when I said no it made them frown. I was going to spend a few days in Fenwick with my family, and then fly to British Columbia. My accommodation would be in Wells, a town ten minutes outside Barkerville, in the “staff house” that a few employees could rent for $500 a month if they didn’t have their own place to stay.
From my laptop in my already packed up apartment, I Googled “Wells, B.C.” and opened the Wikipedia page.
In 1942, it had a greater population than Quesnel or Prince George. The closure of the gold and other mineral mines in 1967 took their toll on the town and most of the population moved away. Today it has a listed population of just 250 which doubles during the summer months.
I read on. “Wells has a subarctic climate.” “July daily mean: 12.3 degrees Celsius.” The prospect of living somewhere that had a population of only 250 people, and that was so cold, concerned me. Perhaps these conditions would teach me something about human nature and the essence of life itself that my peers did not know, and I could, for once, carry on confidently assured that I held a great secret about living well. I was also sure that spending a year in England and then six months in rural British Columbia would signal to everyone — my parents, whose approval I desperately sought, and my classmates at McGill, many of whom had already landed in miraculous careers as if by magic — that I actually had a lot going on, had found my way to that narrow road toward success and was definitely an interesting person worthy of their respect and admiration.
I learned that Wells hosted an annual art and music festival in the summer called “ArtsWells” that attracted a hundred thousand people. I learned that the arts organization, Barkerville, the adjacent Bowron Lake Provincial Park, and the existing mines employed almost everyone in Wells. I followed another link to a Facebook group called “Wells, B.C. ~ an artistic community.”
“The community of Wells, B.C., is looking for creative individuals to move to our community.” The cover photo was a white woman with a pixie cut in a carnivalesque outfit standing on the shoulders of a man dressed like a court jester. They piggybacked in front of a parade of smiling faces marching down the streets of Wells.
My whole life people had been telling me I was creative, but this photo seemed diametrically opposed to who I was. Would I be surrounded by these people in costumes at some point if I moved to Wells? Was this inevitable? How would I feel then: happy, like the woman, or pained by embarrassment, like I currently was looking at her photo? Was that woman even happy? I closed my laptop.
My last few days in England were all the same. I would wake up, pick up three pre-packaged white-bread sandwiches from the Sainsbury’s on the corner of my street, and journey through a field of cows to campus to work on my thesis. After eight hours or so, when I couldn’t write anymore, I’d make my way home again and watch five hours of Love Island until I fell asleep.
I was supposed to be writing my thesis on medieval archaeology, but I’d struggled for a long time to think of anything to say. I’d been starting to suspect that I wasn’t all that interested in medieval archaeology, but that could not possibly be true because I had sunk myself into incomprehensible debt to study it.
All my classmates found old doorknobs and soup ladles fascinating and revealing about the social, political, and economic conditions of both the past and the future, and even after a year I did not. They used exciting, charged language to describe buttons found in trash deposits from 950 CE, which never would have occurred to me to use. As much as I wanted to be like this myself, it all bored me, the dendrochronology, the peat bogs that I read about but never got to see, and the promise of Norse shield-maidens who never materialized in the evidence.
Exhausted by my choice, I’d told my supervisor that I really just liked movies.
“Why don’t you write about medieval buildings — on film!” she had said.
“What do you mean?”
“You could study the relationship between depictions of medieval buildings and the reality.”
“I don’t understand how that could be considered important.”
“Oh, it would certainly be important.” She waved her hands vaguely from behind her desk as she said this but didn’t elaborate further.
My supervisor was the foremost scholar of medieval guildhalls in England, and so I regarded her as a trustworthy authority on what was important and unimportant in medieval archaeology, but also in life.
While I was working on my thesis in those last few days, I caught the worst cold I’d ever had. My throat and nose were so plugged with phlegm that I vomited in the middle of the night. And yet something about the idea of pushing my body and mind as far as they could go before crashing was pleasing to me. When I spoke with people on the phone, I said that writing my thesis was taking its toll on me. It was invigorating to say that and actually mean it. I timed my cold medicine so I didn’t overdose. In the U.K. it came in a liquid form called Lemsip, which tasted like hot Kool-Aid.
I submitted my thesis at 9:00 p.m. on the last possible day. It was the middle of September and my flight to Toronto was at 7:00 a.m. the next day. I slept for three hours, and then took a cab to the train station and rode to Manchester. On the plane, my ears plugged up immediately with congestion and never unplugged, even when we touched down in Toronto.
Delirious from travel and medication, I cried on the car ride home and told Dad he needed to take me to the hospital because my ears were damaged. Dad just smiled at me, unsure how to respond. We went home and my ears were clear when I woke up in the morning. With my faculties newly restored, and finding myself back in my childhood home, smelling cat dander on my childhood pillow and coffee from the kitchen, my time overseas began to feel like a strange dream.
The next week, Dad and I took two flights to get to Wells: one five-hour flight from Toronto to Vancouver, and another to Prince George, which was just over an hour. The second plane was small and reminded me of Howard Hughes. We had to board the plane directly from the tarmac, like fighter pilots going to battle. There were twenty seats. In front of me were two young Indigenous men. Both of them were very tall, and they were speaking to some elderly people across the narrow aisle. From their conversation I learned they were rappers and travelled to different reserves and towns to perform and to talk to children.
Dad listened to the men, too, and he turned to me and raised his eyebrows quizzically. The look on his face said that he was thinking something but didn’t know if I’d be receptive to it. Because I was tired and irritable, I said, “What?”
“Nothing,” Dad replied, shaking his head, still smiling. He is a champion of unnecessary poker faces.
The plane took off differently from other planes I’d been on. It shook like it would crumble against any wind and turbulence, as if a successful flight would require the calmest of conditions.
Dad, a frequent flyer, wasn’t concerned. He fell asleep almost instantly, his head cocked back and his mouth open as if waiting for the dentist.
I gazed out the window. We were flying over enormous mountains. I had never seen mountains like that before — they didn’t exist in Ontario or England or Quebec or anywhere else I had travelled. Clouds shaded the peaks, and I was overcome by the distinct feeling of being underwater, as if beyond the ring of white puffs was where some truer plane existed, an unknown world that was larger, more magical, and closer to God than anywhere else.
As time passed, I wondered if I had misunderstood the geography of British Columbia somehow, if the entire province was a singular mountainous mass. Eventually things changed. The mountains became greener, and soon everything was covered in forest, then field, then forest again. Some areas resembled desert. We never got very high in the little plane, so I could make out pastures full of cows, tractors, specks of people, and pickup trucks.
Things nearer to Prince George were browner. There were ugly buildings lurking in the shadows of Mother Nature, dry ground and razed forests.
“Those right there are paper mills, Josie,” Dad said, pointing to one of the brown buildings. “Paper is a big industry in northern B.C.” Dad loved to research the places he was going, and I was sure that, like me, he had read through the Wikipedia page for every stop on our trip.
“Wow,” I said, although I had already guessed as much.