A few months ago this story closed a wonderful book, Table for Two. All day today I have been thinking of Ken Wilson and the day we married, July 1, 2000.
Our Canadian Sunset
By the time Ken and I flew to northeast Washington State to shop around for our future retirement home, I’d lived, worked, or traveled in exactly forty-nine countries. But I’d never set foot in Canada. A native Californian, I’d always envisioned our neighbor to the north as a kind of frozen wasteland dotted with icebergs and igloos. And now my husband of not too many years wanted to move to a county right next door, edging the Canadian border.
He’d explored the area solo a summer or two earlier, on the recommendation of his son who often had visited Stevens County to fish on the Colombia River or to play golf. And he’d liked what he’d seen.
“The Colville National Forest actually is high desert,” he’d explained, urging me to at least give the place a try. “Let’s consider it seriously. There’s four seasons, a fifth if you count Indian Summer. And I’d never let you freeze to death. I promise.”
Still, I’d read that temperatures plunged below zero in the winter, so that January I’d taken a week’s leave from my Peace Corps job in Washington DC. I suggested we reconnoiter the area in the dead of winter before we committed to such Ken’s proposed move. I wanted to see if indeed I could survive in sub-zero temperatures without turning into a life-size icicle.
During that initial first brief visit our realtor escorted us up and down Stevens County’s Highway 395 corridor. We tramped through ranch houses, log cabins and even farmhouses, from Loon Lake to Kettle Falls, slogging through snow to reach each entryway. By Saturday, weary and chilled, I felt relief when our realtor announced she took Sundays off.
“Thank heavens. I’ll a chance to thaw out.”
“We could drive up to Grand Forks in British Columbia for an early Sunday supper,” Ken suggested the next morning, peeking out the window. “It’s doesn’t look like it will snow today and it’s less than an hour and a half from here. We’ll take our time and really enjoy dining out.”
“What a delightful idea! The rental car does have a good heater.”
I grabbed my jacket and mittens quicker than anybody could say Jack Frost. In the motel lobby I snatched up a brochure about Canada’s Boundary Country. Grand Forks, I explained to Ken as we headed north, had been called the “jewel of the Boundary” and had been settled by Doukhobors. These were Christian pacifists who’d fled the religious persecution of Russia’s 19th-century czars. Russian was still taught in public schools.
“The Doukhobors sound as if they had much in common with the Quakers,” I added. He grinned and nodded. He knew I’d attended a Friends church as a child.
“You’ll probably like them then,” he said.
When we finally reached the Canadian checkpoint, I pleaded with the border guard to stamp my passport, even though he claimed it really wasn’t necessary. I wanted solid proof that I’d finally arrived at my fiftieth country. I’d been keeping count for a long time, and planned to brag to my colleagues at Peace Corps headquarters when we returned to the capital.
The landscape we’d traversed on our drive turned out to resemble more closely the Currier and Ives lithographs I remembered from Christmas cards than it did the barren Frozen North of my imagination. When we pulled into Grand Forks, though, the little town appeared shuttered down for the winter. I didn’t spy any welcoming lights.
My brochure had informed us that Grand Forks, BC, derived its name from its location at the juncture of the Kettle and Granby Rivers in the area's "Sunshine Valley.” Hard to understand why the area earned that nickname. Not a glimmer of sunshine was breaking through the glowering overcast skies that frigid day.
Getting hungry, we pulled up in front of the Grand Forks Hotel, an Edwardian Classical Revival structure that we later learned had survived devastating early 20th Century fires. Its restaurant was closed that Sunday afternoon, but a sign on the door announced that meals were available in the bar.
“Great,” Ken said, as we settled at a little table set for two, nicely set with a checkered table cloth and matching linen napkins. “I’m ready for a steak!”
When the waiter appeared, I asked what beer he would recommend. I’d glanced around at the few diners and noticed that they all seemed to be enjoying identical bottles of a golden-hued brew.
“I figured you must be tourists,” he said, with a smile. “Everybody here of course drinks Kokanee. It’s brewed in Creston, a town just down the road a stretch.”
He brought a couple of bottles and some glasses to our table. “Look for the Sasquatch on the label,” he said, “You can’t miss him. His name is Mel.”
After we located the Bigfoot icon mascot, we perused the menus. No steaks. Instead, it offered us a selection of borscht, perogies, hamburgers and fries.
“What’s a perogy?” Ken asked. “I know that Borscht is beet soup.”
“They’re potato dumplings. I ate some in Ukraine. They’re addictive! I’m going to have some. If we’re drinking local, we might as well eat local.”
So, we ordered the soup, as well. Neither of us had ever been fond of beets, but we hadn’t driven all this way to settle for burgers. The perogies, accompanied by a creamy dill sauce, appeared as crisply inviting as the ones I’d sampled in Ukraine. Our borscht was thick with cabbage, onion, beets, and carrots. We dipped our dumplings into the dill. Umm. Not bad at all. Then we each spooned up some soup. At first taste, we gazed at one another. We’d fallen in love. It was drop-dead delicious, the perfect hearty dish for a gloomy winter day.
As we headed that evening back to our motel, I turned to Ken and grinned.
“Canada’s a perfect fiftieth country for me to add to my list. This has been a golden afternoon.”
A year later Ken and I, long since settled into our Stevens County home just south of Colville, discovered that our upcoming fifth anniversary on July 1 was also Canada’s national day. Since it fell on a Friday in 2005, I suggested we take a long Independence Day weekend and celebrate Canada Day in Grand Forks and come home to Colville in time for July 4th fireworks.
Ken concurred. “I’m ready for some more borscht!”
This time we sampled the luscious velvety red concoction at The Borscht Bowl, in a heritage bank building in downtown Grand Forks. We spent the afternoon wandering through the festivities in the city park, and visited Mountain View Doukhobor Museum, a collection of artifacts and heirlooms set in one of the last original Doukhobor communal homes. We drove out to the Spencer Hill Orchard and Gallery, admired their contented cows, and picked up some organic Gouda, Ken’s favorite cheese, for snacking later at our motel.
We dropped by the local bowling alley, ordered a couple of Kokanees, and watched locals compete at five-pin bowling, a variant played only in Canada. I puzzled over how the bowlers could get a grip on the hand-sized hard rubber balls that lacked any finger holes. Somehow, they never fumbled.
We lingered outside our motel room to watch the sunset together, and then settled in to catch some cable television. Ken delighted in finding a local channel running a marathon of his favorite old western series, “Have Gun, Will Travel.” He’d always admired its black-clad gun-for-hire, Paladin, a man of ethics and conscience. In fact, Ken knew all the words to only two songs, “You are My Sunshine,” and the theme song from Paladin. He even treated me to a few bars as the show closed. Then he hugged me close.
“What more could I ask for on an anniversary? I’ve got you, borscht, Gouda, and Paladin. Life’s good.”
And it continued to be for a few more years. Then Ken died, just three weeks short of our ninth anniversary. On what would have been our tenth, and another Canada Day, I drove up to Grand Forks by myself. Perhaps revisiting my golden 50th country would cheer me.
Doukhobor women, in their head scarves, were selling handicrafts and ice cream in the park. I wandered through some of the art galleries that Ken had loved, and visited a new one in the Palladian-style red brick courthouse. Then I treated myself to a bowl of aromatic borscht at the hotel where we’d first become enamored of borscht. I looked across my table set for two at an empty chair, and silently toasted Ken’s memory with a Kokanee, after checking the label to make sure that Mel, the Sasquatch, was still atop his glacier. He was.
Each prior visit when Ken and I left Grand Forks to head south, we’d steal a last lingering look at the nearby Hardy Mountains. We’d pretend to search for Mel in the shadows of the evening sunset.
This time, though, as I scanned the mountains, I fantasized that I could catch a glimpse of Ken. He’d be riding alongside his friend, Paladin. He’d be wearing white in contrast to Paladin’s black. The pair would be heading towards a hitching post outside a cozy saloon where they could down a Kokanee and savor a bowl of borscht. Perhaps they’d wave to Mel on their way.
I crossed the border into Washington, reflecting. Ken’s absence loomed large in the front seat of our vehicle. Nonetheless, it had been a good, if not grand, tenth anniversary in Grand Forks. I’d be home by sunset, still missing my husband, but aglow with tasty memories.