I wake early on Monday, get into dress clothes, then drive 260 kilometres out of downtown Calgary. My destination is southwest from here-an old mining town at the Alberta-British Columbia border, where I'm expected for the funeral of a cousin I have never met. The road twists and rises and dives through the foothills before exploding into the forest-and-peak splendour of the Crowsnest Pass.
The pass opens with the silhouette of a single leafless tree on a solid sandstone ridge. Known locally as the Burmis Tree, this rare species of limber pine has been gnarled into a beckoning hand by centuries of chinook winds. Named after a town that's named after a pair of petitioning settlers (Robert Burns and Jack Kemis), the Burmis Tree signals that the Frank Slide is next, then Hillcrest and, in less than ten minutes, Blairmore. A realm in the full-blown Tolkien sense, the pass swells up into the Rocky Mountains, right down to the Montana border. Within its embrace is the most cursed stretch of towns in Canada.
There's a tingle of dèja vu as I step into my late cousin Shannon's house in Blairmore-a house lived in as thoroughly as any I have ever entered. An orangey shag carpet spreads across the front room, its matted roots soaked in three decades of nicotine. There's a sofa. Scratched panel walls. Peeling linoleum. The curtains are thick and linty. A cribbage table straddles the kitchen area; the Formica top is cracked in a parochial tarantula pattern.
My stomach is knotted. I've made no effort in Shannon's short forty-nine-year life to deserve coming here. Big middle-aged men they call "the boys"-as in "wonder why the boys are so late"-stumble in one by one. Tom. Todd. Teddy. Travis. Trev. Moustaches kept like the carpet and skin lived in like the house. Bone-crushing handshakes. Size 13 Brooks running shoes caked in mud, strewn near the screen door. Rye and flat ginger ale. A rabidness in their eyes as they concentrate on keeping the pace down to a sip, gazes trailing off to the cribbage table.
Not until Shannon's daughter arrives, thirtyish, with a bouquet under her arm, would you realize this is even a funeral. Her mascara's smeared. The boys dutifully guide her to the table. No collared shirts, no double-breasted jackets, no ironed trousers. Tom does the introductions. "Pleased to meet ya." Black Lee jeans and flannel shirts. "Lung cancer, eh?" Baseball caps like my grandfather used to wear, mesh backs and logos of junior hockey teams. "I'm sorry for your loss." Trucking logos are also acceptable. So are denim coats, stiff corduroy collars. Me: dress pants and an emerald green polyester shirt done to my Adam's apple, silk tie balled up like an extra testicle in my left pocket.
People in the room have been waiting for this morning a long time-to the point that I feel like I've been waiting for it too. Such was the duration of Shannon's illness. Such also is the endless story of Blairmore's endurance-of mine accidents and mine closures, of forest fires and long sicknesses, of all-purpose fundamental misfortune.
My relatives look at the ground now, shake their heads and throw out stuff like, "It's a hell of a thing." And "God damn, it is a hell of a thing." A fucking shitty thing, I want to say, to prove how much I've been affected all these years. These good, kind, do-unto-other folks to whom unlucky things just keep happening. Next door, the other next door, and next door out each way from there are the same lived-in houses-enduring the same stretch of sad luck. Sad things happen to good people all over Canada, of course, but nowhere is the expectation so pronounced as in the towns of the Crowsnest Pass.
We file out of the house into the drizzle, into our pickup trucks and minivans. A mighty line of vehicles forms, one of them transporting the ashes, along Highway 3 to the graveyard outside Sparwood. I have to pass other cars-cars already speeding-to keep up with our weaving convoy. And apparently there's a shortcut just before the British Columbia border, so there's no choice but to barrel after the line. Because what's a funeral procession if it's not making time?
Fog stretches over the pass like an ashen tarpaulin, working its way outwards from Turtle Mountain. Or what's left of it. One early spring morning in 1903, as the sun got ready to break, eighty-two million tonnes of limestone cracked off from the mountainside, burying a sleeping town called Frank under three square kilometres of rubble. It took about ninety seconds. Tom told me a tale about searchers who found a baby girl sitting peacefully atop a boulder the size of a Jeep Wagoneer, the rest of her family sealed with seventy others in the crypt beneath. Today, a wide-shouldered road and parallel rail line are the chunky limestone wasteland's only let-up. People who live beneath say the mountain "might" be ready to crack again-although the geologists from the big city use the words "just a matter of time."
If our procession turned back east for ten minutes and ninety years, we'd be ground zero at Hillcrest. On June 19,
1914, around nine-thirty in the morning, an explosion ripped through the coal mine. Of the 235 men on shift, only 46 survived. For the mass burial, limbs were randomly matched to the closest torsos-one too many legs left over when they finished.
The region's identity has been forged in this sadness. Driving though, you drift from graveyard to overgrown graveyard, shaking your head at the surrounding mountains' wrath.
And thus we arrive at the old Sparwood cemetery.
Shannon's older brother Tom, now in his early fifties, grew up beside Highway 3, between Blairmore and Sparwood in a community called Michel-Natal. The town-the whole town, according to Tom-was "relocated to Sparwood forty years ago." The only evidence is a ramshackle hotel. "You shoulda seen this place when I was younger," he shouts at me. "Coal dust! Trees, houses, clothes on the line, everything stained coal-dust black."
Todd, a friend of Tom's, also grew up in Michel-Natal. Todd is six-foot-three, almost 225 pounds, wears blue jeans with a denim jacket and cowboy boots; a long, grey ponytail anchors a George Carlin kind of face. When we arrive at the graveyard, Tom introduces Todd as his "longest, oldest best friend in the whole wide world."
Every one of Todd's stories ends with a pal being mangled or killed-in a snowmobile accident or late at night, on one of the back roads, "pissed out of his gourd." His voice trails off. "What a hell of a thing." Todd's been waiting for us at the graveyard, it would seem, for hours. There are two shovels and a wheelbarrow full of dirt in the back of his pickup.
Nobody placed an obituary in any of the papers. There were no invitations. No tactful "in lieu of" suggestions. ("Cancer," if anyone asked where they could send something). There wasn't even an official starting time-only "Monday morning." But there are more people here than anyone expected. Than Iexpected. They sort of all show up-even the ones not in our convoy-at the same time.
Abruptly we begin. Tom pulls the urn out of his Adidas bag and stutters through a thanks-for-coming; looking down at the grave, he tells his sister how much he'll miss her. A young girl with carefully brushed bangs unfolds a piece of paper and reads the poem that she and her sister worked on the night before. Solid at first, she gets to the part about being happy that her Grandma Shannon won't be suffering anymore and her voice trembles. By the next line, it falters. Then it cracks. After a minute, she shakes her head, unable to bring back the steady composure. A lady takes the sheet and continues, and once her voice collapses, an old man with a crewcut doggedly finishes it.
Next, three old ladies in animal-print outfits shuffle hesitantly up to the front, drop a wreath in the open grave-a square ditch, three feet by three feet, about a third the size of a regular grave-and ask if they might say a few words. One of them, shaking, recites what I think is a psalm. Her friends hold her hands, and everyone nods their head with each word. Elmer-the old man who finished the little girl's poem-says something I can't hear. I'm at the back now. I do not belong near the front.
It goes on like this, haphazard. The one stipulation was that there be "nothing too obvious about God or Jesus." Two families under a pine tree self-consciously start into "Amazing Grace." None of the boys tear up, but they never remove their eyes from the ground, tilting back and forth until it's done. No hearses. No organ. No funeral-home directors with their tinted glasses and pallor. No priest. And then it's done.
Tom thanks everyone again and says something about going to the Legion for a beer if anyone wants to come. He'll buy the first round. Give him an hour.
"What can we do, Tom?" I ask.
"Just keep watch for cops."
Because of space restrictions, the Sparwood graveyard has been closed to new clients for more than twenty years. But Shannon's parents are buried there, and her first husband and their first baby. It seemed to Tom that she would want her ashes in the ground beside them. Besides, to put a body anywhere, you need to buy some kind of a permit and pay some sort of administrative fee-which just isn't an efficient use of capital. Middlemen didn't do real well here.
I rub my hands together briskly then blow into them for heat. The wheelbarrow comes out from the truck, then two shovels. Tom and Todd stoically pour a mix of gravel and dirt over Tom's little sister. There is something perfect about properly burying your own. This is closure, final and intimate. We watch Tom and Todd. We watch for cops. No one dares offer to take a shovel.
I look up into the sky at what I think is Crowsnest Mountain, named, some believe, for the bloody battle between Crow and Blackfoot Indians. The Blackfoot trapped Crow warriors and killed them in a "nest" at the base of the mountain. Mountains and reckoning; this is how I have always believed the pass to work. Its cemeteries filled with miners and their families remind us of the consequences of picking too deeply into the earth. Those who live here have such an acute sense of penitence as to share an almost hedonistic understanding of how appropriate death is. We don't learn this growing up in the city. We simulate knowing. We have the Tragically Hip sing to us:
If I die of Vanity, promise me, promise me
That if they bury me some place I don't want to be,
You'll dig me up and transport me
Unceremoniously away from the swollen city breeze, garbage-bag trees,
Whispers of disease and the acts of enormity,
And lower me slowly, sadly and properly;
Get Ry Cooder to sing my eulogy.
But we don't believe in such lines.
By the time we arrive at the Legion, Tom looks whipped. He's got a cut on his face, his skin is splotchy and the vein on his forehead is puffed. The town council said they'd all be arrested if they tried this behind its back, but now Shannon's in and so's the marker-and it's barely noon. Tom pulls out a crisp one-hundred-dollar bill. And, you know what? Life's not really that bad after all. We begin trading memories about her, shining down on our beers, whose cigarette-stained shag carpet I want to think I remember. One fall, before I started going to school, my grandfather took me all around these towns where he grew up. We camped in an old canvas tent, visited the rowdy chain-smokers, played cribbage until late at night and pretended to look for some cursed mine that killed anybody who got near it. Everybody at our table remembers my grandfather. And while I never met Shannon, Tom insists on giving me the benefit of the doubt.
Speeding back home through the eastern end of the pass, back to Calgary, the welcome tree becomes the exit tree. It's the most photographed tree in Canada, this limber pine estimated to be between 400 and 750 years old. It is the Crowsnest Pass-a strange, weathered life enduring so stubbornly we cannot bring ourselves to bury it. Want to know a secret about the Burmis Tree? Steel brackets are fastened over its dried-up roots to keep it from blowing away. It's been dead since 1979.
What fell between the lines? Writers Jessica Block and Chris Koentges have a candid conversation about loss in strange places. Read the interview at Maisonneuve.org.