If you have ever driven under Mount Washington in Pittsburgh, through the just-barely-able-to-hold-your-breath-long-enough Fort Pitt Tunnel to burst into the sparkling jewel that is the Golden Triangle, where the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers meet to form the Ohio, you know that this is one of the most spectacular approaches to a city skyline in the world. Our home was a scant nine miles from the Golden Triangle, all highway. Eleven minutes, tops, to the YMCA downtown where Dad drove us weekly for swimming lessons. But we lived in the country: Chartiers Township was a child’s adventure fantasy of fields and forests, trickling waterways and abandoned coal mines (Girls, girls! Don’t get near those shafts!).
Before cigarettes got hold of her lungs, we could hear Mom calling from the farthest reaches of our explorations into all sorts of places and predicaments. As long as we arrived home promptly and without much bruising or bleeding, our secrets remained safe.
Where were you? (She, suspicious, covered in flour. We, breathless, covered in burrs.)
Climbing trees at Ginther’s. (Watching Mr. Wright wring the necks of his chickens.) Or, Playing house with Norma Jean. (Hide and seek in her asparagus patch, pursued by her dad, with shovel.) Or, Chasing butterflies in Hutchko’s field. (Lost on the far side of a barbed wire fence so convoluted we’d only found our way home following the sound of our mother’s voice ringing through the woods.)
Home was a dwelling built by our father’s hands—stacked concrete block, with a flat roof of tarpaper—the basement of a dreamed-of future: a one-story ranch. Joyce and I could not resist the temptation to walk on that roof (which was even with the elevation of the back yard). On sunny days, the tar Dad applied to keep the roof from leaking would bubble like cheese on an over-baked pizza, forming blisters that sang to us like the sirens of Ulysses. We were wild to pop those pliant scabs despite repeated warnings. Afterwards, pocked with tarry goo, we tried to sneak by Mom’s inspection, always eliciting the punishment du jour—a swat with the hairbrush, a wooden spoon or, if we were lucky, her hand. We discovered early that we could easily run from her—but not escape—or we’d face the dreaded twice-as many from Dad later. With the next downpour we would rush around the house positioning buckets, bowls and pots without complaint, to avoid a second penalty for our transgressions.
When we re-board the train in Kamloops the next morning our steward says, You’re going to like today even better than yesterday. I raise an eyebrow. Impossible.
He’s been an encyclopedia on the terrain, flora and fauna, the First Nation Peoples, and the white Europeans who displaced them. He expounds now on the Thompson River as we follow it into a narrow passage with steep rocky walls. There is nothing but whitewater, stone and sand as we enter a wasteland of abandoned settlements with names like Jaws of Death Gorge, Big Slide and Avalanche Alley, a story of triumph or loss accompanying every turn. While we have glimpsed the trans-Canada highway on occasion, paralleling our journey, here there are no roads, only railroad tracks hugging both sides of the gorge, hundreds of feet above the churn. Now and then, across the roiling water, a freight train heads east, perilously close to the cliff edge. If we look down on our own side, the sheer drop and the scree-speckled stone to which the ties and rails are anchored invite disaster. Punctuating this threat, the steward points out periodic wire and steel roofs that allow avalanches from crevasses above us to burst harmlessly over the tracks on a gravity-bound collision with the river. I want to ask, What about boulders crumbling beneath us?