Volume 9, Number 48, 2006

Valley of the shadow
by Elaine Hurlburt

Our father turned off the ‘49 Merc, and we tumbled out into the lumber camp that was to be our new home. Delighted to be out of the backseat with the lurching, jolting journey behind us, we stood rooted in awe at the whine of the sawmill and the roar of the logging trucks. My older sister, Lois, took a deep breath, sucking her nostrils together once, then again.

“Smell it, Elaine,” she said. “It’s like a million Christmas trees being ground.”

I sniffed the air and plucked three white daisies from a weed patch. I sniffed them, too, and began braiding their stems.

“Hurry with those suitcases, or I’ll be grinding you up,” Grandma said, waddling past us. We knew she wouldn’t, but we thought our tiny mother might, by the curl of her lip and the scowl she aimed at our father’s back.

My father strode ahead of her, waving his arms, talking faster than usual. I wasn’t sure what Mom was feeling until she muttered between her teeth, “Don’t you ever take me over that road again.”

That was in 1952, the summer I turned eight. For most of my eight years Mom, Dad, and Grandma had struggled against the odds on our northern Saskatchewan homestead. Barley and wheat crops had been repeatedly rained out, the pigs and chickens became diseased, and this spring our last horse, Barney, died of old age. My father resolutely pursued work in Alberta and moved our family to Lost Creek Lumber Camp nestled in the Rockies behind Bellevue. On a hot July afternoon, we cheered as we turned off Highway 3 and onto the final piece of road.

But coming from flat Saskatchewan, none of us were prepared for the horrific ride over that last sixteen miles into the camp, with our father flooring the Merc to keep up with an empty, in-a-hurry lumber truck so we wouldn’t get lost. I wish I had known the word “tortuous” then; that would have perfectly described that narrow, gravel road. It snaked through switchbacks with steep drop-offs on one side and high banks on the other. Oncoming, loaded lumber trucks had the right-of-way and changed lanes accordingly to always occupy the safe lane against the bank. My mother screeched all the way, “I’ll never come out alive.” To this day, I think those words sealed her fate.

My father worked as a sawyer for the mill at Lost Creek; my mother taught the mill workers’ children. The company offered only primitive housing, primitive even for the 1950’s. All the buildings, including our school, were paintless shacks on skids, barely winter-clad, as apprehensive as the mill workers’ families who lived in them. Our house was a typical three-shacks-combined dwelling with two of the sections added like tired wings. Over the first winter Mom set about making that shack into our home. It did have some attractive features, electricity for one, which we hadn’t had on the farm. And we all loved the red Formica counter tops and the tiny, sunny verandah off the kitchen. There in the spring, I helped Mom baby geraniums and transplant wild, white daisies, which flourished. Even Mom was surprised.

Despite scary roads and bleak housing, our mother taught us to love our life at Lost Creek Camp. Boosted by Dad’s patience, she practised driving one mile at a time back over the road until she made her peace with it. Eventually, she challenged herself to drive Lois and Grandma and me to picnics or into Bellevue when Dad was working.

After having done nothing but farm chores for ten years, Mom loved her challenging teaching job, and she loved planning Nature Study lessons for us by roaming the densely wooded hills right behind our house. She sang then; we could hear her singing long after she was out of sight. “Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag, and smile, smile, smile” - old wartime songs like that. In summer, far up the hill she would find a sunny meadow, remove her dress and shoes and lie down in the moss in her full-length slip, “To feel the earth and sun mating in my bones,” she told my father. I only know this because I heard her telling my father one night when they thought I was asleep in my cot at the end of their bed.

My father teased her. “Hey, if it’s mating you want, let me know the next time you’re up there.” It took me a few years to realize why they laughed at that, and I still shudder at my mother’s giddy response, “You’ll never find me.”

My mother often had a teasing answer like that, but wise, almost prophetic, when I look back on her life. Like the time my sister asked her why she always wore white slips. “A sign of purity,” she laughingly said. “Like an angel.” But my sister and I later realized she wore white slips because she couldn’t afford the colored ones we picked out for her from Eaton’s catalog.

We had few books besides the catalogue, but Mom always found something to read to us at school and at home. My favourite was A Girl of the Limberlost, about Elnora whose father mysteriously disappears in a swamp. I became haunted by that story into adulthood and have re-read it several times. There’s something morbid, yet ethereal, about the father’s mysterious disappearance and the sporadic and eerie sightings of him years later in the swamp.

Our lumber-camp life went blithely on with millwork for Dad, schoolwork for Mom, summer nights of Kick the Can and winter days of sledding on the sawdust pile for us kids. A few dramatic incidents did add excitement, such as the time a bear killed the neighbour’s goat that was tethered behind our house on Mother’s Hill, and my mother had to refrain from her roaming until the bear was hunted and destroyed.

We didn’t think much more about bears until the end of the third summer when our mother disappeared. She told our grandmother that she was going on her usual jaunt up the hill and would be back by four o’clock to start supper. She went away singing and never came back. Our father with RCMP, wardens, and camp workers searched desperately for days, weeks even, combing the hills and tramping the undergrowth. They found her dress and her shoes - nothing more.

For the first week, sister Lois, then fourteen, screamed angry obscenities into the hills and hurled rocks at the trees. Then she spent the winter crying. I was silent. I felt a numbness slither into my bones and hibernate there like so many snakes in a pit. I didn’t cry. I simply spent the winter talking out loud to my mother - either through the window facing her hill, or from the bottom of it behind our house. “I’ll never leave you,” I promised her every day. Then I’d see her smile. I promised I’d look after the potted daisies, too, but they all died that first winter.

I remained frozen for months until one April morning at breakfast when our father stated (as flatly as if he were asking for the salt), “When school is out in June, we’ll be moving out of the camp.”

That’s when I erupted. I jumped up, flinging my heavy chair over backwards. “You can’t take us out of here,” I screamed with all the pre-teen disrespect I could muster. “Don’t you care about Mom? Didn’t you even love her?”

My father slowly stood up, awkwardly reached for me, and cradled my head in his muscular arms as he had tried to do many times before. “Oh Baby, Baby,” he murmured, and then, for the first time, I cried. And for the first time, as we stood together crying, I felt the agony like a searing dagger, splitting his heart, and mine. Lois picked up my chair and sat down, sobbing into her arms at the table. Grandma tried to soothe us all.

“Now we’ll never find her. We can’t leave her here alone,” I cried against Dad’s sleeve.

“We’ll take her with us - in here.” He put his big hand over his big heart. I couldn’t, or didn’t want to, understand that. Mom needed us here. But our father had carried on at the camp for most of a year since our mother disappeared and had just become foreman when tragedy struck again. When a falling tree killed a young, Japanese logger named Harry, my father felt a curse in the place. “Those mountains are out to get me,” he’d say. “There’re demons here.”

In July he moved us out onto the prairies, but right into adulthood, the mountains kept calling me back. My father could never bear to take me, Lois wouldn’t go either, and my grandmother died when I was fifteen so she was no help. But the child-mind in me insisted that our mother needed us. I thought I should go and exorcise some demons, but I didn’t, and the camp was removed in 1969.

Years later, I learned that an open road to the campsite still existed, so I begged my husband to take me there - and he did - there, to that place that by this time had become a tranquil valley of angel-white daisies. I picked an armful and fashioned a cairn of twelve smooth rocks to display them on, an apt memorial to my mother; then I designed a miniature one for Harry and knelt before them. “This truly is the ‘Valley of the Shadow of Death’,” I whispered to the daisies. I went away from there somewhat more peaceful, but still dissatisfied that I’d never know for sure where my mother was; I needed a sign, a closure.


In the summer of 2003, when we heard that the Lost Creek Forest Fire was ravaging those hills, horror held me hostage again. Nightmares began stalking me. Night after night, I’d see my mother running toward me in her slip, her wavy, chestnut hair glinting sunlight. When she got close enough for me to see her seared, scared face, I would scream. She’d turn then, and run away, singing something like, “Smile boys, that’s the style.”

By now, I was living in the Yukon, 2000 miles away, so I called my cousin in Calgary. I knew she was cutting clippings from the Calgary Herald. She tried to console me and suggested I call the Crows Nest Museum to get maps or photographs of the area, which I did. Maybe a visit to the place one more time would calm me.

When the area cooled and the smoke cleared from the burn, I flew to Lethbridge, and with an obliging guide from the museum, got permission for us to drive into that charcoal Hell. As we wound up to the Beaver Mines Summit, I retched, thinking about my mother trapped among those black, greasy spruce skeletons, the acrid, smoldering earth.

“Stop,” I gritted, and got the door open just in time to stumble, heaving, onto the roadside. Twice I did this, and was embarrassed only later. Right then I didn’t care. We drove on, finally coming to the last piece of corduroy road. It hadn’t been redone in forty years, but seemed passable, so we bumped slowly on, around the last blind curve before Lost Creek Valley. I held my breath.

“Oh my God! Oh my God!” I jumped out of the car before it stopped rolling.
The fire had halted at the edge of my valley, had skirted around Mother’s Hill, leaving it beautifully wooded and green. The valley of daisies remained and even my old memorial cairn hadn’t changed, except for the prolific flourish of flowers now shrouding it.