At the age of sixty eight (I know, it’s hard to believe isn’t it? I have the physique of someone twice my age), I should no longer be surprised by the things people do. But a crazed, horned shaman defiling the heart of American democracy has finally made it across my tolerance threshold. Unfortunately, other acts of breathtaking stupidity and unforgivable selfishness have followed him through my defences. I have no words to describe the idiots who wandered around our local hospital – maskless of course – taking pictures of empty corridors as proof that the whole Covid thing is a lie. As for the organisers of a recent super-spreader wedding . . . well, you get the picture. I am starting to sound like Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells. Next thing I’ll be reading the Daily Mail and shouting at the telly.
Normally, I am unfazed by the strange obsessions of my fellow humans. They can usually fixate on their own narrow topics without tipping over into compulsion. These obsessions are individual and private in nature, often to the point of secrecy. But it’s only since I entered my anecdotage that I have realised that you can obsess as a group too.
Growing up in South Manchester – all right, I am not afraid to use the S-word, Stretford – the two obsessions were the obvious ones: football and religion. Unlike some similar two horse towns like Glasgow and Liverpool, football in Manchester was no longer divided on sectarian grounds. There was a weak East/ West division between City and United, and another fault line separating urban from suburban. And there were also ethnic effects. For instance, Irish immigrant families supported United, their Polish counterparts supported City, regardless of religious affiliation. You were defined solely by the colour of your scarf, blue or red.
Our house lay in the demilitarised zone, half an hour’s walk to Old Trafford in one direction and 45 minutes from Maine Road in the other. My father took us to watch City, and the rest is misery. Our street may have housed Denis Law and United captain Paddy Crerand, kick-abouts in the park may occasionally have included Irish wizards George Best and Eamon Dunphy (they wanted me because I was thin enough to be a goalpost), but we were from the City tribe, so I was officially unimpressed by Best’s mesmerising skills that had me swaying from side to side, not the ideal thing for a goalpost. As for Law, I wouldn’t wave back to him as he passed in his purple Jaguar unless it was during one of his two spells as a City player.
So football was the biggest obsession where I grew up. From our house, you could hear the roar every time United scored, and the same might have been true of City, if they ever had. My dad’s decision was made on the grounds of safety and the safety of the grounds. We kids were allowed to walk through Whalley Range and Moss Side (fans of Crimewatch will know what I mean) and it was still safer than Old Trafford.
But security is a relative term, like life imprisonment. It is commonly prefaced by the words “false sense of “. It may have been divorced from the great god Football in 1950s and 60s Manchester, but religious sectarianism still raised its ugly head from time to time. And it was far more likely to be used as an excuse for violence than football ever was.
For instance, I was waylaid by a group of young Neanderthals on my way home from the shops. I was backed into a corner and shown their weapons: no knives, thank heavens, but fists, a metal ashtray and a thick piece of wood with a rusty nail sticking out of it. The bearer of the stick asked the question I had been dreading: “Are you a Catho or a Proddy Dog?”. The problem was that there was no way of telling what their allegiance was. They just looked and sounded like generic street urchins, and there was no way I could know if they were angry about their straight-laced upbringing or if they wanted something juicy to confess to next Sunday. Even the word “dog” was no clue, as both sides used it. Afraid of choosing the wrong option, which would have led to a brief beating, I panicked and said something far worse. I said I was neither, which earned me a punch to the solar plexus. Then I tried “agnostic”, which sounded too much like stick, and that hurt more than the punch. In desperation, I told them I was a Jew, which didn’t help. “So what are you ” they shouted, “a Protestant or a Catholic Jew?”. After they had let out a bit more of their frustration on me, they took my chocolate and spare change, which was the reason they had followed me from the shop in the first place, and they left without hearing me mumble through a mask of snot and blood “Pros’dent, I s’pose”.
Other places have their own obsessions. Some can supply a logical explanation. For others, the origins are lost in the mists of time. Here are a few examples just from the north east of England: why are the inhabitants of the Isle of Lindisfarne preoccupied with the phases of the moon, the good people of Newcastle obsessed with T shirts, Hartleypool with monkeys, Middlesborough with schnitzel?
The first of these is easy. Lindisfarne is a tidal island which rocks to the rhythm of the lunar tides. If you get your timing wrong, one of three things may happen: you get stranded on the island for a few hours (generally a pleasant experience); you get frustrated on the mainland side, and probably give up on your plans; or you ignore the warning signs and drown.
The obsession in Newcastle is not really with T shirts but about wearing little else, and doing so all the year round. It is a macho thing, braving the elements, but it’s also macha: if anything the women are more extreme. The uniform for men is T shirt, shorts, red face, blue knees. With luck, there will also be a generous smear of kittywake guano, which helps mask the aftershave. The women have it harder. I remember visiting the town of my birth and encountering a large group of female revellers clicking their way up a steep cobbled road on impossibly high heels and in dresses that can only be described as anatomically correct. Below the strappy top there was very little really. It may have been a belt, or was it a microskirt, or perhaps a thong extension? And it was raining biblically. A lazy wind was blowing off the North Sea. ‘Lazy’ is what Geordies call a gale so strong and icy that it can’t be bothered to go round you, so it goes straight through you instead. It was wild. It was freezing. It was August.
There is no secret about Middlesborough’s signature dish, the Parmo. It is a stuffed breaded cutlet, akin to a continental Cordon Bleu. If I could eat, I would definitely eat that. But why do they make such a big thing of it? I can think of a couple of reasons, but I don’t know Middlesborough, and it would be unkind to speculate.
Hartlepool’s dysfunctional relationship with its monkey is an altogether murkier story. It probably started as a malicious rumour designed by the town’s neighbours to show how insular and ignorant its inhabitants were. Versions vary (as does the spelling of the town’s name), but it is basically about a French warship a couple of centuries ago being captured and taken to Hartlepool harbour, where the crew were arrested. The story goes that a monkey on board was taken for a Frenchman, possibly Napoleon, by the locals, who had never seen anybody French before. The tale is full of holes, but Hartlepool still became “the place they hung the monkey” (sic). The town did the brave thing and decided to own the story. The football team adopted a mascot called Hangus the Monkey, who was so popular that the man inside the monkey suit was elected Hangus the Mayor. Twice. So it was all right in the end. They were off the hook. And anyway, it wasn’t a monkey, it was an ape.
This area we’re travelling through at the moment – the US Pacific north west and Canada’s British Columbia – is obsessed with goats. They are not particularly common in these parts, but maybe that’s what makes them iconic. Their much showier cousin the mouflon is easy to spot in the mountains. Just look for the fluffy white animated hearth rug. But they are not what we’re after. Manchester may have its dogs, canine or Proddy, but this land is haunted by goats.
We’re here at the invitation of the wonderful Else family who are good friends of ours and who, as serendipity would have it, are here and are waiting for us at Goat Haunt Rangers Station.
It is considered to be the border between the United States and Canada, sandwiched as it is between Montana’s Glacier National Park and the Canadian Waterton Lakes. But border posts are funny things, even though the people who work in them around the world don’t tend to display much of a sense of humour. But out here in the semi wilderness, within touching distance of the wild beating heart of North America, the dividing line between the two countries is as fascinating as it is confusing. Technically, as soon as this boat crossed the half way point of the lake on its journey south, we were back in the US of A, but I suppose that spot was too wet for a border station. And I still can’t get my head around the reason why we had to go north into Canada before we could go back south to this part of Montana.
Fortunately, Jonathan and Ruth have sorted out the itinerary and paperwork for us, so they are the ones to ask about this. Unfortunately, I will not be able to join you on your all-day hike. The trail is much too rough for a wheelchair. As you saw, it was hard enough getting me in and out of the boat. Brenda and I will stay here by the little dock and leave you in very capable hands.
You never know, if we stay still enough, we may attract some of the local wildlife, but I fear that’s more likely to be bugs than goats. Our horned friends are probably under contractual obligation to stay on Goat Haunt Mountain over there. We will meet up tonight and you can tell me what you’ve seen and done. The only thing I will add now is one snippet of what counts here as ancient history. Back in 1932, the Waterton Glacier International Peace Park was founded by John George “Kootenai” Brown and the reassuringly named Henry “Death on the Trail” Reynolds. Presumably the latter was either a pessimist or a serial killer. And I suppose the image of a glacier has more gravitas than a haunting goat.
Thank you and goodbye to our hosts, and on to our next destination, this time a little more off the radar. Isolated among the woods and stunning lakes lies the fourth and last of our small towns. No pessimists here: they called the place Hope. And in the bright sunshine, it looks friendly and functional. I am delighted because we have got our timing just right, and tomorrow should be the big day. Also because standing in the tiny central square are the two icons of this rugged land: the grizzly and the goat. Not in the flesh, of course, but carved with skill and precision from a tree trunk, against the clock and against other chainsaw-wielding sculptors. I really want to watch a competition some day. A love of decorating large poles is one of the few things modern day British Columbia has inherited from the First Nation Canadians, the people who roamed this beautiful forest before the European invasion.
That and maple syrup. Back in the days of Phil By Mouth, I was a sucker for anything sweet, as my rotten teeth bear witness. I must admit this is partly because I wasn’t keen on submitting to yet another drill-happy depressive – that is actually not fair. One of them was a card-carrying sadist who had a mirror on the ceiling, right above the torture chair – but also because of my short life expectancy. What’s the point of shuffling off this mortal coil with a perfect set of celebrity-white gnashers?
This is the restaurant I remember from my first visit. Our Canadian hosts are all eating salmon cooked the traditional way, with the fish sitting on a well soaked wooden board, drenched in maple syrup (the salmon, that is, not the locals, although I have heard stories), and placed on the open fire. And locals they all are. You won’t find another tourist within a hundred miles of here. I can recommend the salmon, caught this morning, prepared with a theatrical flourish and tasting nearly as good as if it had been grilled or fried.
There is nothing really wrong with Hope that a decent night’s sleep wouldn’t fix, but I suspect none of us have had that. I hope you didn’t feel threatened in any way. It was only three harmless drunks sitting a block away from each other, one of whom sounded so close to our motel that I thought he was in our room. They seemed to be singing and shouting at the top of their voices, but the supernatural silence of the woods made the echoes seem louder. I think they sit so far apart because they don’t trust the others with their whisky. They still want to chat though. Canada does have a problem with its small towns, and the more isolated they are, the more stunning the scenery, the more dysfunctional the town appears.
Hope has a few problems, but nothing serious. A couple of crazy drunks don’t make the town dysfunctional, but superficially it does have a split personality. If you want an insight into a place with a real identity crisis, try Kamloops. That’s like Mr Hyde and Mr Hyde, day or night.
But Hope has its treasures, as you are about to discover. I know it’s still dark, but you’re in for a treat. I know you are carrying breakfast in your rucksacks not your bellies, but it will be worth the effort. Neither of our activities is unique to this place, but I think you’ll find that nowhere does them better. This time we really are talking hidden gems, off the beaten track and, at this time of the year, we will have ideal conditions and the whole of the area to ourselves. Except for the bears.
Only kidding. They won’t come down into this valley while the ripe berries are up in the mountains. Probably. We might see some goats with their young. Their turn to be only kidding. It’s only a short walk to the west end of the lake and the ground is surprisingly wheelchair friendly. Let’s sit here and have something to eat while we wait for the dawn. And I assume the show that’s unfolding before our eyes does not disappoint. The sun rises everywhere (even Scunthorpe), and there are lots of great spots from which you can see and photograph this daily spectacle. But out here, filtered through the purest air and reflected in the calmest water, our friend the sun has truly got his hat on.
Fabulous as it was, the sunrise is not the only reason for our early start. We have about an hour to get to our next viewpoint, not that we will be competing for viewing space. All we have to do is stay at the junction of the main river and this shallow tributary, look downstream and wait. Again, at this auspicious time of the year, we will be the only people here to witness this wonder of the natural world. No camera crews, no Attenborough, not a living soul. Unless salmon have souls.
Ok, there are other points from which you can witness the annual salmon run, some with waterfalls the fish must jump up in order to reach their destination and complete their mission. Some rivers can lay on the spectacle of fishing bears, but I find it safer to stick to the old adage: “Beware creeks gifting bears”.
Don’t worry, our experience here will stay with you anyway. Look downstream with your binoculars and you’ll see something strange is happening to the placid river. A couple of miles away, the water is beginning to boil and whatever it is, it’s coming towards us quickly and against the flow. Soon it becomes clear that there are small dark salmon jumping in and out of the maelstrom. Because this is the annual migration of the Coho salmon. For months now, they have been hatching a plan and planning a hatch. And yet it is all determined by Nature, how they must find their way up into the mountains and back to the place of their own birth.
The Coho is one of the four types of salmon in these parts, the others being Sockeye, Red and John West Tinned. Each has its own time slot and you can set your calendar by them. There is also a regular “salmon watch” on local radio, but I doubt they can hear that.
Now there are thousands upon thousands of the slippery beggars heading straight for us at breakneck speed, and it’s a huge relief when they all make a sharp left into the shallow side stream so close to us. Well, almost all. A few have too much forward momentum, resulting in understeer on the bend and a high and dry feeling, which they take in their slide, as they wriggle their way back to the water. It’s an odd feeling, isn’t it, having a wild creature land on your foot like that. Not an altogether pleasant experience, watching it struggle, slippery as a lawyer, and feeling the power of its tail. Not something you will forget in a hurry.
You have certainly earned your rest and recuperation in beautiful Vancouver. If this is how Canadians do bigger cities, nobody can have any complaints. No wonder it is always near the top of the league of the best cities in the world, to live in and to visit. It seems like damning it with faint praise to say it’s nice. How about very nice? If it’s edgy you want, tough luck, this is as flatty as it gets. If you’re going to lose a toddler, this is the place to do it.
The same cannot be said about Port Alberni. It is the obvious place to stay for people like us, touring Vancouver Island and looking for a comfortable hotel. Arriving in the dark, it was good to have somewhere warm and light to go, but it gave the strong impression that this small and slightly rundown fishing town was not the place to be out after dark. In the morning, everything seemed fine, and it was nice to see a black bear safely on the other side of the river.
Tofino is an altogether friendlier place for tourists, even though its attractions are purely voyeuristic. Some places you visit in order to do stuff: walking, water sports, eating and drinking. You go to Tofino to watch. This time of the year should be ideal for storm watching. I didn’t know that was a thing, but people have found they really enjoyed watching the mighty Pacific Ocean prove how badly it was named. I don’t think the sea today is wild enough to knock seven bells out of the coastline, but it’s too foggy to see the water. The same goes for the other voyeurism: whale watching. I’m afraid that’s also seriously fogged off. We can try again when we are in Victoria. There are some good whale watching boat tours going from the southern end of the island, and plenty of visitors from the USA. With any luck, you will be able to enjoy the sight of two hundred tons of blubber trying to spot a whale.
But for now, just sit back and admire the coastal rainforest and the natural tree cathedral. And look for the sign. There is no need for any explanation, you will know it when you see it. It has been named with the simplicity and directness of a child or an Australian. A wooden house comes into view, its roof covered in lush green grass. And there is the sign: “Goats On The Roof”. And as we approach the house . . . well, I’ll leave the rest to you. My work here is done.