The sign caught my eye on a road trip a friend and I took some years ago through British Columbia: Forbidden Plateau.
The name was familiar. For as long as I could remember, I’d had a painting by that name hanging in my house. Painted by my father.
More than 20 years had passed since my father’s death, 70 since he had painted that particular landscape.
“Let’s turn back!” I said to my friend, who was driving. We did, but it was winter, the mountain steep, the trails that I wanted to hike impenetrable. At that moment I vowed to return one day. And I did.
I grew up in the U.S., on the other side of the continent from British Columbia. But I always knew that my father—age 51 when I was born—had another life before the one he lived with my mother, my sister, and me. Max Maynard was born in 1903 in India, the son of British missionaries who had broken from the Salvation Army for being too liberal. They had immigrated to Canada in 1912, when my father, and the province of British Columbia, were still young. My grandfather, Thomas Maynard, established a church following the doctrine of a small fundamentalist sect called the Plymouth Brethren. The group, and my grandfather, were so strict that my father once was severely punished for buying a paint box; his passion for painting remained, however. The man I knew taught English at a small state university during the day but, every night without fail, climbed the stairs to our attic to work not at a desk but at an easel. The paintings he made there—often laboring late into the night—portrayed two very different landscapes. One I knew well. One not at all.
Most of the time, my father’s work in that studio focused on the New Hampshire countryside: the fields and woods near our house, the narrow strip of coastline not far away. But another set of images haunted his nights in the studio: a vast, rugged territory where the trees grew taller and the coast was strewn with driftwood logs. Abandoned churches, desolate beaches, roads that seemed to lead into ever darker forests.
The New Hampshire landscapes held no mystery for me. Almost every Saturday of my growing-up years, times when other children I knew played sports or watched cartoons, my father and I rode our bikes into the countryside on sketching expeditions. At some spot along the way—seldom the most obviously scenic—we would stop and draw. As we worked on our sketches he’d talk about art. I’ve never known a person to love drawing more than my father. He is my first and best teacher, and the lessons he taught me had to do not just with how to represent an image on paper but how to look at a landscape, how to see. Sometimes when we were ambling along he’d stop and lift his walking stick to the sky. “Look at that cloud formation, chum,” he’d say, with a passionate urgency. “See how the light hits that tree? That log? Do you see how the shadow of that barn falls on the field? The color of the hay? Let’s consider how to draw that cow.”
But I’d never laid eyes on British Columbia. I only knew the province from the intriguing paintings that hung on our walls. So the idea came to travel there, my route mapped by my father’s sketchbooks and paintings. Usually when I travel, I do so with a friend or my children. This time, although I would’ve loved to show my father’s grandchildren these places, it seemed right to be on the road alone. For eight full days I would give myself over to the landscape and my own thoughts. My starting point would be the place that held many of my father’s works: the British Columbia Provincial Archives, in the capital city of Victoria.
Some one hundred years from the day my grandparents arrived in Victoria, the largest city on Vancouver Island, my plane touches down there. Victoria is a center for tourism now, a quaintly British throwback filled with double-decker buses and tea shoppes. Looming over the harbor sits the century-old Fairmont Empress Hotel, where reservations are taken for tea (brewed in a manner my father claimed few Americans ever master). Too poor to dine at the Empress, my father loved tea there and always wanted to bring me, though the cost (now around $45 U.S.) was steep.
In Victoria, I get a room at the Oak Bay Guest House, an old residence on a tree-lined street. The lobby is filled with brochures for whale-watching trips and excursions to Butchart Gardens, a Victoria landmark with 55 acres of floral extravagance, but my mission is clear. I head straight to the Provincial Archives, where I’d asked to see the Maynard collection. It turns out to consist of a handful of sketchbooks filled with my father’s drawings—a few hundred images of British Columbia in the 1930s and ’40s.
Leafing through the pages with gloved hands, I jot down notes of places to see, all on Vancouver Island. I trace my route on a map that evening over a meal of wild salmon with my second and third cousins, relatives unknown to me until after my father’s death. “Your father was part of a salon of young artists, writers, and poets at the University of British Columbia,” one says. “In the early 1920s he showed them reproductions of works by a painter he felt they should know about, Pablo Picasso. He confessed his first glimpses of the images so excited him that he’d stayed up all night studying them, then painting.”
Now even more intent on my voyage of discovery, I head west the next morning but drive only a short distance before my first stop: the Emily Carr House, family home of an iconoclastic bohemian artist born in 1871 and known for her paintings and writings about the nature and landscapes of the west coast. My father first saw Carr’s painting—strong-colored, unsentimental, offering none of the conventional prettiness typical of the bucolic landscapes and polite still lifes of the period—at an exhibition of area painters in the 1920s. Her art was the only worthwhile thing in a show of otherwise meaningless work, he declared, unaware that Carr was listening. Though he was quite a bit younger than Carr, the two became friends. Her style of landscape became a central influence on my father’s work as he explored the definition of beauty.
Back on the road, I continue west to the resort town of Sooke along a stretch of coast marked here and there with signs for bed-and-breakfasts and small restaurants.
In his late 20s my father married a young woman named Evelyn, who came from these parts. For a time the two lived around here, but I was 17 before I knew Evelyn existed. On my visit to the archives, I saw a drawing of her: an elegant young woman with long, beautiful fingers. The facing page showed a drawing of trees and the notation “made on a sketching trip with Evelyn, March 24, 1932.” A few years after this my father left this woman. The one drawing and one old photograph provided my only glimpse into that unknown chapter.
My destination for the morning is the Coast Trail, which winds six miles along the shore of Juan de Fuca Strait in East Sooke Regional Park, a particularly dramatic stretch of British Columbia’s famously scenic coastline some 22 miles west of Victoria. I enter the trail at Aylard Farm, a landscape of cleared meadow dotted with apple trees around which deer are grazing.
Not far along this section of the trail lies Alldridge Point, where I check out ancient petroglyphs—including one of what looks like a seal—on my way to the rocky headland of Creyke Point, overlooking a wild and stormy expanse of sea. Opening my sketch pad, I imagine how my father’s eye would have broken down this rugged shore.
“First, just look. Draw nothing. Locate the center; also the edges. Find where the light comes from and where it falls. Find where shadows cut across light. Consider the movement of the forms—branches, rocks, clouds—and the way they intersect. See not only their shapes but the shapes created by the spaces around them. Don’t be timid with your pencil. Move not only your fingers but your arm. Go right to the edges of your paper. And beyond them.”
I keep these instructions in my head as I continue my drive, now angling south along coast-hugging Highway 14, past beach coves, to a place called Whiffen Spit, sketched by my dad in the 1930s and ’40s. I stop for a look and perhaps a sketch. In my father’s renderings, Whiffen Spit at low tide is an empty stretch of sand and driftwood looking out on an unbroken horizon. I imagine he would have been surprised to find, as I do, an inn here: the Sooke Harbour House, with rooms in the $300-400 range. More money than a handful of his paintings would have sold for.
After my reconnaissance I resume my route. The highway ends at Port Renfrew, a pleasantly down-at-the-heels fishing outpost with B&Bs, a half dozen small businesses, and a shop where muffins were coming out of the oven when I arrived. At the far end of town, the Port Renfrew Hotel juts over the Pacific waters. I eye its cluster of waterside cabins; I like the idea of sleeping in one—with the sound of the water lapping just outside the door—but they, too, are pricey, so I settle for a beer and the view from the deck.
I head inland for the town of Lake Cowichan (yes, on Lake Cowichan), an old logging hub—British Columbia, in my father’s youth, was a center for logging—where he often went sketching and where my minister grandfather settled near the end of his life in a houseboat he’d brought on shore and turned into a house of worship. Among the most prevalent images in my dad’s early works were stumps of trees and fallen logs, strewn like giant pick-up sticks on vast expanses of beach. As the crow flies, Lake Cowichan sits only 39 miles northeast of Port Renfrew, but making the journey as I did, along dirt logging roads, took several hours. Most tourists wouldn’t choose this route, but I found the landscape, defined by trees and the cutting of trees, not only visually captivating but oddly moving. It is one of my father’s gifts to me, I think: the lesson that beauty can be found in unlikely places. In fact, as often as not those were the ones he favored.
Lake Cowichan—the town, not the lake—features a main street lined with a scattering of businesses. I stop in the Kaatza Station Museum, which includes a re-creation of a local general store from the 1930s. The woman overseeing the museum asks if I need help. I explain that my grandfather had lived in this town.
“I’ll look him up,” she says. Five minutes later she’s back with a handful of documents. One, a news story dated Dec. 14, 1939, is titled “Lake Cowichan Pastor Dies on Way Home.” It appears my grandfather, then age 74, was returning from a visit with his congregation and took a shortcut, where it’s believed that “toiling up the embankment had imposed an extra strain on his heart” and caused him to fall. His body was later found in a clump of bushes.
Among his survivors: five of his seven children, including my namesake, his daughter Joyce, who died not long afterward; and a son, Max, my father, whose address in the 1939 news article is listed as being somewhere in Los Angeles.
Los Angeles? I’d never heard about that chapter either.
Also in the stack of papers is a photo of my grandfather toward the end of his life, dapper in his suit. Though I’d not seen the picture before, the face is utterly recognizable. It is the face of my father. Also—to a startling degree—the face of my younger son, born almost 50 years to the day after my grandfather died.
I follow more country roads, this time looping back east through Cowichan River Provincial Park—all forests and clearings—and the town of Duncan. So far, my eye has focused on the general sense of the landscape. Now I look for a particular spot east of Duncan, a place my father returned to in his art: the Old Stone Butter Church, perched by Cowichan Bay on First Nations land.
Founded in 1870 by missionaries (though not my grandparents’ sect) and nicknamed for the butter manufacturing that helped fund its building, the Butter Church was soon abandoned for a new church. When my father sketched it, in 1936, it had sat vacant for decades. I pull over at an opening in the brush that leads to the church. No sign points the way. I climb an untended path toward a clearing. Then there it is, in a field overlooking Cowichan Bay.
The church looks surprisingly unchanged from the image in my father’s paintings. The stone structure remains solid, though the roof is open to the sky in places, and graffiti covers the walls. From a certain angle I can almost re-create the scene as it must have looked to my father. I squat down, imagining that young man with his sketchbook, and form the church’s outline on my own pad. No more than that. Then I move on.
It's a function of travel that going out into the world can become the catalyst for an interior journey. In my case this journey evolved into a rumination on the passage of time—the poignancy of witnessing change against the backdrop of what endures. The natural world, one hopes, remains among the things that are timeless. Likewise, art endures. Parents pass their stories and beliefs to their children. Children may or may not pay attention to them. Some, like me, do so belatedly.
Maybe because it inspired my trip, I have left the Forbidden Plateau for the end. I drive northwest from Duncan 110 miles to Mount Washington, a ski area that abuts the plateau. I set out from an abandoned ski lift, where the only trail appears to be one used by skiers. It is nothing more than a sandy moraine of gravel, rock, and scrub climbing straight up the mountainside. I’m the only one on it today. I hike into the afternoon, passing no one, and for good reason. The sky looks threatening, and there aren’t many photo ops. I consider turning back but remind myself that 70 years ago my father scaled this same mountain, sketch pad in hand. If I didn’t keep on, it was unlikely I’d ever return.
Around the five-mile point I meet a couple on the path. “Pretty rugged, huh?” I say, catching my breath.
“Not so bad, really,” the man replies. “We just walked in from that trail over there. You can drive most of the way, you know.”
No, I did not.
Forbidden Plateau, when I finally reach it, offers no particularly dazzling scenery. A few trees dot a field of low-growing moss, not much more. I sit down, take a swig of water, and contemplate.
Here too a lesson presents itself, though it has taken me 12 miles of hiking to learn it: The places that may provide the richest inspiration for an artist—if what interests that artist is not simple beauty, but truth—are not necessarily the places gracing postcards. As a writer, I know this: It is seldom the happy story, with the easy and obvious resolution, that I burn to examine. It’s the story where dissonance and trouble lie, where not just sun, but shadow, cross the landscape. Places like the Forbidden Plateau.
I returned to Victoria before heading home, marking the end of my trip with a visit to the tearoom at the Empress Hotel. For a woman who’d spent eight days wandering mountain trails and deserted beaches, tea at the Empress, with its fine bone china and linen tablecloths, may seem a contradiction. But British
Columbia—the British Columbia of my father, at least—contained both the wild and the civilized, the untamed and the Victorian.
My tea, a special blend in honor of the hotel’s centennial, is brewed in the manner I remember from my childhood; no such thing as a tea bag crossed the threshold of this room. The pot is covered with a cozy and, at the right moment, poured by a woman who has taken a special class, she tells me, in the art of making tea. A tiered china server offers a variety of what my father would have called, in his John Gielgud way, “some small fine things”: tiny sandwiches of smoked salmon, and pâté, and cucumber with chives; slices of shortbread and strawberry tarts with clotted cream.
I sip the tea and reach for a sandwich. Then, because I do not normally dine on foods like these and the journey home will be long, I wrap a few of the sandwiches in a napkin. My souvenirs.
Joyce Maynard is the author of 12 books, including the 2010 The Good Daughters. Contributing editor Aaron Huey last photographed “In Search of the Black Pearl” (October 2010).