All week I’ve had the well-worn lines from T.S. Eliot’s poem “Little Gidding” in my head: “We shall not cease from exploration/ And the end of all our exploring/ Will be to arrive where we started/ And know the place for the first time.”
Is it ever really possible to know a once-familiar place for the first time? I’ve been trying to. I’ve been sneaking up, glancing sidelong, observing from different angles. Just as you sometimes glimpse in the window a stranger who turns out to be you, but in that split second see someone else, I hope that I will see something new in or around Vancouver—something beyond state-of-the-art condos and wider roads. It will explain something important to me. It will tell me my next move.
From Whistler, we drive straight to the terminal at Horseshoe Bay and onto the car ferry to Vancouver Island. Despite the name, the island is not a part of the city of Vancouver but a 12,079-square-mile oblong that lies offshore, smaller than Taiwan but bigger than Sicily, sheltering the mainland from the wild Pacific. The car ferry drops us in Nanaimo, but we keep going west, through the logging town of Port Alberni; over the Vancouver Island Ranges, with their thick blanket of new and old growth; and, finally, down into the Pacific Rim National Park, amid hemlock, cedar, fir, pine, and Sitka spruce. The evergreens become more gnarled and spindly as we get nearer to the beach, and we pass road signs indicating tsunami evacuation zones. We reach the village of Tofino, which sits at the tip of a peninsula on Clayoquot Sound.
We’ve arrived in a kind of primal anti-Vancouver, a rain-lashed shore where they didn’t haul away all the trees. Not that they didn’t try. Logging abated here only after raging environmental protests in the 1990s and after UNESCO declared Clayoquot Sound a world biosphere reserve in 2000. Commercial fishing has also diminished, not because of any protest but because humans ate most of the wild fish. But Tofino has a new enterprise: It has about as many surf shops as it does streets. Winter brings the biggest waves.
I’ve never been here precisely, but it is immediately familiar, of a piece with other feral, mist-cloaked parts of the Northwest coast. Our room at the Wickaninnish Inn has a fireplace and a deck, a closet stocked with sturdy rubber rain gear suitable for an Alaskan fishing expedition, and a picture window onto the beach. There are a few Sitka spruces and fallen logs in the foreground, while beyond the water’s edge and the breakers, a gray churning sea stretches away to Japan. I immediately want to move in and stay. I’m not sure whether I find it beautiful because it looks like home or feel at home because it looks beautiful.
We put on the rain gear and walk out onto Chesterman Beach, then out onto rocks that are being sloshed by the sea. It recedes to expose thousands of shiny purple-black mussels, which crunch under our feet. In the water are surfers in hooded wet suits—each one suggesting a cousin of the seal, perhaps an evolutionary offshoot that thrived for a time and went extinct—paddling, crouching, and disappearing into the waves. I sense I am watching some extreme form of human adaptation to the environment, like the Tuareg with their blue veils against sand and sun. The rain pours down even harder.
We almost don’t see the wooden hut on the edge of the forest, right where it meets the beach. A modest sign on the door reads “carving shed.” We step inside, and a childlike man in his 40s, with wide-set eyes and a mass of curly dark hair, extends his hand. His name is George.
“So this is—?” I ask.
A place, he explains, for well-behaved, communally minded villagers to carve. It’s the old workshop of a late sculptor named Henry Nola, whom George and other local artists consider a mentor. There are tools everywhere; my boyfriend and George discuss adzes. The floor is covered with sawdust, and the room smells of fresh-cut wood, warm and tangy. The space is dominated by a half-finished totem pole lying on its side, carved out of a single yellow cedar. A local named Joe, who is taking pictures, explains that the pole is being carved by friends of his, having been special-ordered by a Polish architect who recently visited Tofino.
George, who makes feather-shaped carvings out of reclaimed cedar, is open and friendly, and we talk about traveling and current events. He advances the idea that this recession he keeps hearing about wouldn’t be happening if everybody would just stop talking about it. Oh no, I think: a believer in the “law” of attraction, the notion that we rain bad vibes on ourselves by failing to visualize good things. I haven’t mentioned to him that I work for an American business magazine, making me in effect a walking epicenter of unfortunate juju. I gently propose that, whether we were to talk about it or not, the laid-off people would likely remain laid off. At the moment, though, George’s think-happy solution to global financial woes doesn’t seem crazier than those being bandied around in New York and Washington. I am charmed, moreover, that he can exist in such splendid isolation. Out here on the edge of the world, at least on this one winter day in the carving shed, there is no recession, no construction, no Olympics.
It’s snowing the morning we leave, and once again there are surfers bobbing on the waves. The hotel clerk asks me where I’m headed. After the drive and the ferry ride, I will have dinner at a Pan-Latino restaurant in Vancouver, then board my Cathay Pacific flight amid the sleepy denizens of Hong Kong and New York, and land before midnight. The prospect is suddenly dismal.
But wait. I don’t want to go back to my beloved New York?
I realize that I’m romanticizing home, or some idea of it, the way I once romanticized the faraway. I have tried to see with fresh eyes. But as Joan Didion wrote about her hometown, “perhaps in retrospect this has been a story not about Sacramento at all, but about the things we lose and the promises we break as we grow older.” Maybe that’s the only kind of story we can tell about our native lands. But I have, in a way, seen it anew. Home has become the faraway place, with all the mystery and promise of the exotic.
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