cafe culture

🕔Aug 04, 2005

There is barely a pullout on the highway at Pollywog Creek three quarters of the way to Terrace from Prince Rupert, but every time we pass this easy-to-miss trickle flowing into the Skeena, I’m told about fudgsicles.

The story goes like this: When my partner Tom was a small boy living in Prince Rupert, oh so many years ago, one couldn’t expect the same smooth ride along Highway 16 that spoils today’s drivers.

No siree. The boy and his sister, prone to car sickness and/or whining on the twisty, turny ride, had to be bribed with treats from the gas station at Pollywog Creek. That’s where the road began to straighten and the family’s peaceful rhythms could be regained.

Supposedly, an avalanche wiped out the road side stop, along with the sleeping patrons, years later so there is nothing left but stories now.

He’s got a few to tell about other stops on Highway 16. As we continue along to Hazelton, the sight of the Homesteader Café always begins a tale. Where once there was a roadside eatery famous for its pies, now there’s just a sign about rocks and a grill that’s cold as stone.

At Topley we stop at the junk store instead of the café where a crowd is filing out of a Greyhound Bus. Farther on, Tom is happy to point out the OK Café in the historic village at Vanderhoof. Cheapest liver and onions on the highway, he says. Me, I’m not hungry, so we carry on.

I’m hanging on until we get past Prince George, where the highway starts climbing towards the Rocky Mountains. That’s where we seek out the legendary Dome Creek Diner and the Purdon Lake Café.

Located two hours from the nearest towns on either side, both were closed on our most recent pass, leaving our cravings for burgers thwarted.

The sad thing is that fewer and fewer of these roadside café s are open, and those left are struggling. Thank goodness we got to eat at one of Tom’s favourites just before Kitwanga.

For Wendy Caldwell, owning a roadside café was a romantic dream. On a trip north from her previous base in Campbell River, she found the Cedarvale Grill and fell in love with the unique character of the place.

“I was looking for adventure and hardship—like cold winters,” she says with a wry smile.

And that’s what she’s found at the small café, now hers, a traveller’s refuge between Terrace and Kitwanga since at least1952.

Ironically, the hardship has come less from the cold winters, than the changing needs of today’s road tripper.

Caldwell describes the well-worn traditional role of a roadside café. “We’re a friend to the road,” she says. At least once a day she looks after a traveller in need, a service she’s glad to provide. Some have slid off the road on icy patches, others have run out of gas. If she’s lucky, they are tired and hungry. If not, she does what she can and sends them on their way.

Her old time customers regale her about how bad the road to Prince Rupert used to be—300 kilometers used to be a seven-hour drive. The café wasn’t the only welcome refuge at her pullout; in the past a hotel, gas station and tire repair shop greeted travellers as well.

An entire section of the restaurant was reserved for truckers and in the 1960s the place ran 24 hours a day with a staff of six waitresses. The restaurant not only served those coming off the highway, but fed a better part of the community of Cedarvale, once a happening mining hub in northern British Columbia.

Now it’s often just her and the mushroom buyer, who sets up shop each fall.

Some customers come for the memories. Recently a couple told her they’d become engaged at this very spot 30 years before. They’d also spent their wedding night together there.

The place bustled over the years. Across the road was the waitress residence and nearby there was a dock where the cable ferry whisked people across the Skeena between the north and south sides of Cedarvale.

Not many come in anymore, says Caldwell.

We’re listening to Caldwell’s tales while Tom is digging into his favourite roadside menu item: a cheeseburger. I am picking at what are obviously home-cut fries done in fresh vegetable oil, wishing we’d never stopped at the bathroom in Tim Horton’s a half hour ago in Terrace.

Caldwell tells us she gets the potatoes from the Fairhaven farm across the road. She hand-makes the burgers, with fresh Grade A beef and her own secret ingredients tossed in. She considers herself part of a grassroots movement away from batch hamburgers. As a rule, she uses local food where possible, but certainly nothing manipulated or processed.

“Nothing is out of the box,” she says.

I take another look at the menu and again regret the doughnut I’d gobbled on the road. Fresh homemade pie, pan-fried oysters, pizza marguerite. Tom and I find room for an old-fashioned milkshake, the kind where you get a full glass and even more in the frosty metal container.

Caldwell tells us about the fiddleheads and morels she finds in the spring and the pine mushrooms and chanterelles in the fall, all used in her kitchen. Fresh Skeena River salmon will make an appearance on the evening special.

Her favourite mushrooms are called black nipples, which she tends to use in soup. She doesn’t have any on hand, but insists it’s always a popular menu choice. From the look in Tom’s eye, I discern this will become one of his new favourites as well, even if it’s only another story to tell.

When we pulled in, there was only one other car in the generous lot: hers. As we eat, only one other vehicle pulls up, its occupants trotting up to the door. Caldwell goes to serve them, but the mother and child have one thing on their minds.

“Where’s the bathroom,” the mother asks, her eyes darting furtively around. They take care of their business and run out with little more than a thank you.

As far as I can tell there’s been no true academic study on the disappearing roadside café phenomenon, but my partner and I have drawn our own conclusions.

More comfortable, faster cars, better roads and public distrust of anything but franchises—not to mention there are now generations who prefer eating things individually wrapped in recognizable packages.

I’ll admit the first time Tom took me for burgers in Dome Creek I was suspicious. But they were big and juicy and the proprietors had the most intriguing story to tell about how they came to own a café in a pull-out on a pretty deserted stretch of highway.

As for the café at Purden Lake, who knows if I’ll ever believe Tom’s story about the maze of trailers that make up the innocuous little restaurant. According to him, you wind your way through at least five different rooms before getting to the bathroom—in a motor home attached to the side.

Just that and the pie were once worth the trip alone.