LITERARY LOCATION: Mack Laing Nature Park, 70 Orchard Park Drive, Comox, on Vancouver Island. The nature preserve can be accessed from the end of Comox Avenue, at the top of Brooklyn Creek along Balmoral Avenue, and through MacDonald Wood Park at the corner of Balmoral Ave. and Croteau Rd.

ENTRY:

Hamilton Mack Laing (1883-1982) was a naturalist and artist who came to the Comox area in 1922. He wrote 24 scientific articles on ornithology, almost 700 natural history articles for newspapers and magazine, and several books related to nature and fishing. Born in Ontario and raised on a Manitoba farm, he attended art school in New York. After a stint as a school principal in the American west, where he travelled extensively on a motorcycle, he built two homes near the waterfront in Comox on acreage that he donated to the community. His property became a park named in his honour. Also a photographer, he collected specimens for the National Museum, wrote for many outdoor magazines and operated a nut farm. He befriended fellow ornithologists, including P.A. Taverner and Allan Brooks, and wrote a book about the latter. Laing is the subject of a biography by Richard Mackie, Hamilton Mack Laing: Hunter-Naturalist (Sono Nis, 1985), a finalist for the 1985 Lieutenant Governor's Medal for Historical Writing. It was published three years after Laing died at age 99.

In 2015, local politicians in Comox were taking heat for voting to destroy two houses on the waterfront property donated to the area by Hamilton Mack Laing within the Mack Laing Nature Park at 70 Orchard Park Drive. In March of 2015, historian Richard Mackie wrote a scathing letter to express his exasperation and regret upon learning that the Comox City Council was planning to demolish the two homes built by Laing. In June of 2014, the Comox Valley Naturalists Society and Project Watershed requested that Comox Council delay their demolition. A subsequent report provided by various experts determined that one house, called 'Shakesides,' was structurally unsound and could not be salvaged for long-term use, but Laing's house called 'Baybrook' was structurally sound, according to a professional engineer, and it was salvageable, according to a professional architect.

Richard Mackie wrote:

"With regret I have cancelled the generous offer by Evelyn Gillespie to participate in the "Authors for Independent Bookstores" day at the Laughing Oyster Bookstore on Saturday 2 May 2015.

"Anyone familiar with my four Comox Valley books will appreciate my love of the history and heritage of the valley: Hamilton Mack Laing: Hunter-Naturalist (1985), The Wilderness Profound (1995), Island Timber (2000) and Mountain Timber (2009), all of them published by Sono Nis Press.

"I simply cannot believe that Mack Laing's two houses in Comox are to be demolished despite the honest and unselfish efforts of the Mack Laing Society to preserve them. Any house can be preserved if the will exists to do so, and excuses can always be found for demolition. Dedication and effort are always required to preserve our cultural heritage.

"In the last decade I have seen a good many Comox Valley landmarks destroyed through civic neglect or arson, including the Courtenay Hotel, the Lorne Hotel, Leung's store, Palace (Bickle) Theatre, the Currie (Radford) farmhouse on Balmoral Road, and now Mack Laing's two houses. All these buildings were of provincial and arguably national importance.

"With the loss of the Lorne and Courtenay hotels, the nineteenth century has been expunged from the Comox Valley. This destruction amounts to cultural vandalism.

"Why should I celebrate books, history, and heritage with a community that consistently destroys what I have tried to protect and perpetuate?"

BOOKS:

Out with the Birds (New York: Outing Publishing Company, 1913)

Allan Brooks: Artist-Naturalist (British Columbia Provincial Museum, 1979)

Laing, Hamilton Mack; (Trevor Marc Hughes, editor) Riding the Continent. Vancouver, BC: Ronsdale Press, 2019. 230 pages. 9781553805564 (pbk) $19.95

ABOUT LAING:

Mackie, Richard. Hamilton Mack Laing: Hunter-Naturalist (Sono Nis 1985)

[BCBW 2019] "Art"

*

REVIEW: The Transcontinentalist: Or, The Joys of the Road


Manuscript in the Laing Papers at the B.C. Archives, written in 1915

by Hamilton Mack Laing

Reviewed by Trevor Marc Hughes

*

We are delighted that Trevor Marc Hughes has ventured into the voluminous Laing Papers at the British Columbia Archives to assess an early unpublished book manuscript by the Canadian naturalist Hamilton Mack Laing (1883-1982).

The subject of a biography by Ormsby Review editor, Richard Mackie, Laing grew up on a farm at Clearsprings, south of Winnipeg, and taught school in rural Manitoba between 1901 and 1911. He wrote about nature and the outdoors and published his first book, Out with the Birds (New York: Outing Publishing Company), in 1913.

Passionate about art and photography, Laing studied at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York from 1911 to 1915.

He bought a motorcycle, a Harley-Davidson, and spent his summers bird-watching in Manitoba. In June 1915, his Pratt studies behind him, in New York he bought a new three-speed, eleven horsepower, Harley-Davidson motorcycle with a top speed of thirty miles per hour -- destination Portland, Oregon.

In July, in Nebraska, Mack met up with his younger brother Jim, who drove Mack's refurbished 1914 Harley; and along the way, they picked up a young Californian named Smith Johnson for the journey between the southern desert and San Francisco.

The Laing boys then motored north to visit their parents who had moved to Portland to be near their daughter and her American husband.

In 1917, Laing returned to Canada to join the war effort as a munitions instructor for the Royal Flying Corps at Beamsville, Ontario, after which he moved to B.C. He lived and wrote on the Comox waterfront between 1922 and his death in 1982, aged 99.

Trevor Hughes relishes Laing's long-forgotten Transcontinentalist for its reminder that, "in the days before Google Street View pre-planned our road trips, gypsies and adventurers like Laing sought and welcomed the unknown." -- Ed.

*

I often write about the connection with people afforded to motorcycle travellers. As one of them, I can personally vouch for the quality of human contact I've made along the open road in my two-wheeled travels.

When Ormsby Review editor Richard Mackie told me of an archival treasure in the form of a century-old account of a Canadian riding across the United States of America from east to west, I had to read it. I mean, I read a lot of accounts of trans-continental motorcycle journeys, but Hamilton Mack Laing's The Transcontinentalist: Or, The Joys of the Road is the story of riding a Harley-Davidson across its country of manufacture in 1915. What were the roads like? What were the people like? How did he get on?

Its dedication sets the stage for all those who have risked motorized travel on two wheels: "To every lover of the Winding Road." The Road is indeed a character in this tale.

Mack Laing was a lover of the great outdoors, of flora and fauna, but specifically bird life, as Richard Mackie shows in Hamilton Mack Laing: Hunter-naturalist (Sono Nis Press, 1985).

Laing was a Comox-based writer and naturalist for much of his life, and one who was passionate about the preservation of bird life wherever he went. His motorcycle travels detailed not only his connections with the everyday citizens of the United States but also chronicled the avian and human characters he came across while pursuing his ornithological interests from the seat of his Harley.

Laing's roadside knowledge of local flora and fauna is impressive. But he doesn't satisfy himself as he makes his way through Pennsylvania: "I halted to photograph a locust-fringed road by a farmhouse; but though I captured the trees all right I could not get the songs of the orchard orioles that sang so clearly and jubilantly."

There were many opportunities to wax philosophical as he set out from St. James Place in Brooklyn, Mack Laing ruminating as many motorcyclists do today at the start of a lengthy journey: "How similar to a road is our entire spin through life. We may see the path clearly enough to the turn, but beyond it, the future must reveal."

Certainly, in the days before Google Street View pre-planned our road trips, gypsies and adventurers like Laing sought and welcomed the unknown.

His motorized companion was named Barking Betsy, and mud was her least favourite road surface, as is it is with my motorcycle. "Soon I met mud and some of the romance of the Road went out of it...Betsy abhors mud; in it she is as sprightly on her feet as the proverbial pig on glare ice."

Food was sometimes difficult to come by. But the industrious Laing always seemed to endear himself or politely coerce the locals to providing a hay bed for the night in a barn with a few menu items. His focus seems clear even though - as in Nebraska when a meal consisted of a loaf of bread begged from a farmhouse - he remarks positively on the bird life: "The most pleasant thing I can recall of that meal and the place was that an Arkansas kingbird pair had a nest in the upper frame of the wind-mill..."

Today secondary roads are often paved, even if a little cracked and greying. If I was looking for an account of the conditions of secondary roads in the American Midwest a hundred years ago, Mack Laing will not disappoint: "We rode the combs till we fell into the ruts and when we got wedged there we heaved out and started again. It was rough while it lasted; the motors roared savagely at such outrageous opposition."

The Transcontinentalist contains many other such accounts, and, while reading them, I was glad Mack Laing was spry, young, and full of vim and vigour during his cross-continent adventure.

As a motorcycle traveller I can attest to being vulnerable to the elements. In many ways it's what makes travel on two wheels more authentic than other more vacuum-sealed forms of travel. I remember a thunderstorm that I rode through in southern Alberta while riding to Waterton. I could see the lightning flashes ahead on the prairie and foothills of the Rockies.

When Laing experiences a thunderstorm the reader can revel in his vibrant telling of the experience, worthy of an epic: "The north-western sky was inky black, and split asunder every few moments by great jagged lightning scimitars that slashed from zenith to the horizons. It had a wicked face, that storm, and I watched it a few minutes."

Laing sets out early, at 6 a.m., to get the best of the day's riding in, but also to get to the nearest town's breakfasting spot, his motorcycle's panniers' stores having dwindled miles before. "I got wet to the knees with soupy liquid, and finally did a grape-vine down Main Street in the direction of an eating-house sign, and then subsided." Taking on mud, a nemesis of the biker, before breakfast can be a nasty business.

While reading Laing's account, I couldn't help but follow his progress using the modern convenience that is Google Street View, to see the state of the roads he rode today. What I found was glorious asphalt along a succession of secondary US highways.

One thing Laing excels at is rich description of the places he passed through. Beyond his admiring reports on bird behaviour, his analyses of characters he meets are refreshingly clear and observant compared to the brief glimpse that some of today's motorcycle travel accounts provide in their pages.

He discovers several travel companions, including the indefatigable Frat, also riding a Harley-Davidson. But it's the unexpected callers that he revels in describing, not unlike a novelist making an introduction. "Bill, a native of Ontario, Canada, carried a .30 Winchester and had but to open his mouth to make plain that he was not the man his rough exterior betokened." Laing met this new acquaintance while camping near Idaho Springs.

Every day seems filled with song for Laing -- bird song, that is. It is an honest, pleasant and fulfilling connection with the natural world within the boundaries of the continental United States that he finds in spades. He himself is keen to point out how his planned route avoids large cities on purpose. Mack Laing is drawn towards the natural landscape, peace and quiet, save for the barking of his reliable metal steed Betsy.

It's the moments when you give yourself a pinch and remind yourself of where you are when travelling by motorcycle that are most poignant. There is a sense of accomplishment when I encounter a landscape of awesome beauty. Such a moment occurs to Mack Laing when he discovers a Coloradan valley, where the changes in the landscape are favouring the arid, when he has such an instant. It is "a world of dryness and heat and distance and loneliness."

But he is also aware of and describes the intimidating aspects of the landscape, indicating his sense of vulnerability on a motorcycle when travelling the high altitudes of Colorado: "It was beautiful, wonderful, terrible, colossal, blue-grey billows on Titanic sea; magnificent, and yet with something lacking. It was the kind of thing that catches our breath and starts a tear and we know not why."

And the moments don't stop there, especially after having survived the wretched mud roads of Nebraska. When he gets to solid asphalt and feels the wind in his hair again, Mack Laing realizes, as many motorcycle travellers do, "...to sit up loose and easy and open the throttle a little meant quite a new joy of the road."

I smiled widely when I read this part.

Hamilton Mack Laing makes every evening's camp a fresh, new opportunity to experience the wild world. His observations, such as spotting a collection of antlered heads on display, stir his "hunter-pioneer blood," exposing a certain aspect of his character, demonstrating that, with adventure travel, we can see ourselves in a new light and meet new aspects to ourselves.

To think that Laing experienced everything he did, without the modern accoutrements and gear of the motorcyclist such as a helmet, padded mesh jacket and pants, a one-man tent, or camping equipment! A bedroll and tarpaulin did the trick, as did his trusty companion Betsy.

The rattlesnakes that advisors in the east warned him about were few, and usually fell under his wheels when encountered. People were friendly and most of the time helpful and pleasant. Sometimes he even found lasting travel companions. Although he did once pay the price for drinking bad well water.

On its typewritten pages, I couldn't help but grin when the lettering got darker, the result of a change of ribbon.

But does Mack Laing make it? After toiling along dusty and rutted roads, bouncing over cattle guards and punctures, sleeping under the stars in the desert, wearing out in Nevada, spotting dozens of bird species and connecting with America, he makes his way to the Golden Gate on Barking Betsy, but not before extolling one final bit of wisdom picked up along the way:

"The man who know not the roads of a country knows not that country."

*

Trevor Marc Hughes has written Zero Avenue to Peace Park: Confidence and Collapse on the 49th Parallel (2016), and Nearly 40 on the 37: Triumph and Trepidation on the Stewart-Cassiar Highway (2013), both published by Last Autograph Press.

The Ormsby Review. More Readers. More Reviews. More Often.

 

REVIEW


UNEASY RIDER: The transcontinental diaries of Hamilton Mack Laing finally see the light of day

by  Alan Twigg

 

Hamilton Mack Laing is one of those great British Columbian authors who most people have still never heard of.

Way back in 1985, when Richard Mackie published his biography of the multi-faceted, Comox-based naturalist Hamilton Mack Laing (1883-1982), two paragraphs were devoted to Laing’s account of his motorcycle journey across the United States in 1915.

More than a century later, motorcycle essayist Trevor Hughes has retrieved and edited Laing’s unpublished memoir as Riding the Continent (Ronsdale $19.95).

When we think of motorcycle journeys, Peter Fonda in Easy Rider comes to mind, or perhaps the nine-month journey of Che Guevara at age 23 that resulted in the Spanish biopic, The Motorcycle Diaries. Both adventures were fueled by a thirst for freedom and rebellion.

Having been raised on a farm south of Winnipeg, where his father had first settled in a tent in 1872, Mack Laing’s thirst for the open road was fueled by a love of natural history. As a child, he was the self-appointed “official pest warden” or “game warden” of his parents’ farm, trapping mice, pocket gophers and Franklin’s ground squirrels. At eleven, he was using a rifle to shoot hawks preying on the chickens.  He started school in 1888 at age was five and graduated as a qualified teacher in 1900, at only seventeen.

Having bought his first camera, a 4 x 5 plate glass Kodak, in 1906, hoping to become a nature photographer, he sold his first story, “The End of the Trail,” to the New York Tribune in 1907, and first studied natural history at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York, in 1910. Laing was soon selling articles illustrated with his own photos to American magazines including Field and Stream, Country Life in America, and Tall Timber.

He later described his three years at the Pratt, “painting nudes by day and whacking a typewriter by night,” as three of the most pleasant years of a long life. During his New York summers, Mack set up a camp at Oak Lake, Manitoba, at a place he called “Heart’s Desire” where he constructed a dark room made of prairie sod to develop and print his glass plate negatives. He sold so many stories that he was able to buy his first Harley-Davidson motorcycle in the spring of 1914.

On completing his studies in 1915, Mack was in a quandary. Canada was now in the depths of war. Most of Laing’s Canadian friends, contemporaries, and former students would join up and some would die, but the United States would remain neutral until 1917. His parents had moved to Oregon to be close to sister.

“I came to the Y in my way of life,” he later recalled. “Over the left branch was the sign Art. Over the right way there was a very different sign! Natural History – which really meant writing.

It didn’t need a judge of the Supreme Court to decide which branch I would take. Art, though I loved it, had let me down. The other branch had paid my board and tuition for the year and bought me another Harley Davidson motorbike.”

So it was in the spring of 1915 he devised a plan to ride to San Francisco on his second, unflappable “Barking Betsy,” before heading north to Portland. By the time Laing submitted his manuscript to Harley-Davidson for their consideration, in a 1922 reply it was considered a "most interesting narrative" but it was deemed too long to run in serial form in their Enthusiast magazine.

Hamilton Mack Laing would return to Canada in 1917 to join the Royal Flying Corps. From 1920 to 1940, Laing became a natural history specialist with the Smithsonian Institution, the National Museum of Canada, the Dominion Parks Branch and the Carnegie Museum. In 1930, he became the first Park Naturalist ever hired by the Dominion Parks Branch (now Parks Canada) in Jasper and Banff.

*

“After Richard Mackie suggested I read Hamilton Mack's Laing's memoir,” says Trevor Hughes, “I quickly surmised that if I liked reading this tale of what it was like to ride a motorcycle over a hundred years ago, prior to GPS and Google Street View—or, heck, even before reliable maps or roads—then surely others might be equally charmed.

“What fascinated me through Laing's account, is that, no matter how bad the roads got during his journey, and believe me they got bad, he was always taking notes about the surrounding bird life and natural landscape. He was a very meticulous and disciplined individual. He knew he was going to write something of significance after completing the journey.

“I think readers will enjoy Laing's description of the birds he met. He had an ability to give character to every bird he met, to describe their songs with enthusiasm. He always made a point of picking a camping spot at the end of a long riding day near a tree or at a spot that would give him the best opportunities to look and listen.

“After setting out solo from Brooklyn, he would also meet fellow appreciators of the open road, and people in communities from Pennsylvania to Nevada. From his unexpected friendships, we get a sense of how motorcyclists found camaraderie through their mutual love of travel on two wheels.

“Although he set out to have close contact with the bird life he loved to write about, Riding the Continent becomes much more than that. It’s a vivid, candid and light-hearted description of the United States before its entry into the first World War. Now it serves us as a vivid time capsule of 1915, as seen from a motorcycle—as an uneasy rider.”

978-1-55380-556-4

[BCBW 2019]