One twilit evening I was returning to the Comox Valley – having been away for some time – and was graced by the glorious sight of a full moon rising over the Beaufort Range at the entrance to the valley. There are many beautiful sights here, but that one has stayed with me in an intensely visually evocative way…a vision that evokes the beauty of home. The islands of Denman and Hornby arising out of the soft fading light and the Salish Sea, on the right, and the majesty of the Beauforts on the left, the full moon over all…I am drawn to call this place ‘home’ because of its beauty. A few miles further north, one exits the highway into Courtenay and the charmless landscape of strip malls and big box stores begins; whether you head further north, turn to the ferry, or out to the airport, the landscape has been transformed in less-than-imaginative ways, and the visions of stunning beauty all around hard to see. One travel writer had the audacity to tell the truth of this bleak sort of pilgrimage around the Valley a few years back, and the local government and chamber-of-commerce-types immediately began bleating about how terrible this was…alas, ‘tis the truth, nevertheless. One could follow the beaten path and never discover the grandeur and immensity of what is here…As so few of the travel and tourism writers do, apparently. Or maybe, more to the point, they simply want to highlight their advertisers…indeed, most writing about this place reeks with the odour of advertorial, my imaginary friend.
It is the movement of rainwater from the snow-capped mountains, through the streams and creeks and lakes and rivers, that has brought the silt that created the marvellously fertile farmland, and the estuary, with its teeming life of all kinds…food is grown here, and some local eateries actually serve this home-grown food, and this is a food culture that is innovative and nourishing and with its own distinct terroir. Wineries, craft breweries, natural soda makers and a distillery have sprung up to compliment and complete this food culture, and a variety of artisans who strive against the might of the chain and fast food restaurants to bring food and drink to the table that is authentically made and grown here. Move off of the main travel arteries, and look around and you can find food with the influence of dozens of different cuisines, served with love and pride and sense of home that no franchise will ever match, and with the taste that proclaims ‘Comox Valley Grown’. Take a bike tasting tour of local farms (and wineries) and understand what this means, this land…once, indeed called “Land of Plenty” by its First Nations denizens. Perhaps the big city has more three-starred chefs…but here you will find chefs who have been taught by the glory of the fine local products available.
Also, my imaginary friend, there are artists here. Artists of every description, working in every medium, which includes the many fine musicians and writers and performers, of course. Tucked away in corners, for the most part, or playing at a local pub, some of them well-known and others not, but all contributing a depth of soul and vision to the place that could never have been planned…though I would argue that it is their collective artistic vision that keeps us true, in some small way, to the soul of the place…
Ah, the soul of the place…Some would say it is the glacier, to the west, overlooking all – called Queenesh by the local First Nations and said to be the remains of a white whale that was carried to the mountain top by an epic flood. The story has been handed down in fine story-telling tradition, and I admit it is this First Nations vision that most captures me as to the soul of the place. To the east, the Salish Sea and marvelous beaches and sand dunes and low-tide wonders – kayaks and windsurfers, fishing and sailing boats, and in the middle, the farmlands and the river opening out into the estuary…which must be the heart of the Comox Valley, if not the soul.
Hiking and biking trails abound here, not all of them easy to find…you might have to ask a local. Perhaps that is the particular charm of the place: like many small towns, you can stop and chat with a stranger, who will at least point you in the right direction. Often you might hear a story or two, and there is certainly a rich oral tradition of First Nations history. Every place has its collection of stories; here, perhaps, they are more accessible…off the well-traveled sheep paths, in any event.
For it is the stories that the locals tell that will give you a sense of this place, both the magnificent, and the mundane…look to the images shot hastily from a cell phone, perhaps, rather than the magazine perfect images. Disregard the thinly-veiled advertising pieces and venture to discover the experiences that are around every corner, many of them free to enjoy. Ask an artist what draws them to this place…this is the ultimate tourism, my imaginary friend. The ethos, the feel of a place is geography and human geography, language and dialect, history and social organization, work and play – hundreds, if not thousands of intangible elements. Can it be discovered in the museums or markets? The answer is yes, but only partially; the discovery of a place resides in the daily experiences of the life of the inhabitants.
I will leave you with this, a hastily-shot cell phone image…If you ask me, I will tell you where it is, and I will share a story or two.