Summerland Photo: Don Weixl

I didn’t know it at the time, but the town I grew up in is one of the most beautiful places on the planet.

“There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered.”
– Nelson Mandela

I grew up in a town called Summerland. Yes, that’s its actual name.

Like many teenagers growing up in a small town, I couldn’t wait to leave. And I did, pretty much immediately after graduation. And since my parents moved away from Summerland just a few years after that, I haven’t been back for years.

2015 is the twentieth anniversary of my high school graduation. And when the Facebook messages started popping up, it got me thinking about my hometown.

Not just in a Bruce Springsteen or John Cougar Mellencamp kind of way, but also in the “Wow, I spent my formative years in a place that for all intents and purposes I abandoned and never looked back at. That doesn’t seem healthy.”

I didn’t make it back for my high-school reunion, but I did end up back in Summerland this summer. Nothing profound happened. No cinematic encounter with the high school bully or unrequited love, no earth-shattering epiphany. But nonetheless, it was quite moving.

Why go home?

The first thing I noticed while back in the Okanagan is how beautiful it is. Okanagan Lake, the centrepiece of the valley, is a 135 km-long lake, surrounded by hills filled with row upon row of fruit trees and grapevines all dappled by bright unfiltered sunlight. The lake sparkles and shimmers in an almost over-earnest way. Everyone there seems to be on vacation, or at least in vacation mode.

That’s because it’s a popular getaway – not just for the natural beauty that is literally everywhere, but also for the laidback lifestyle it engenders. Residents and visitors alike seem chilled. At least they did while I went back.

But I was aware of exactly none of the beauty and good fortune while I was living in this sunshine-filled paradise. However, upon returning, with twenty years between then and now, I realised that I had it pretty good growing up.

apples were polished and are very bright and shiny

But mostly I was struck by the surreality of dropping myself and my wife back into this land that is, at present, a beautiful place for sun and frolicking, but is also filled with a steady stream of angsty teenage memories and struggles. The juxtapositon of present splendour and past frustrations gave the place more depth and contours.

When we drove into Summerland for the first time together I wasn’t sure whether to take it all in greedily, or to parcel out the memories and mementoes of my youth.

I needn’t have worried: there was no shortage of things to share and describe and show. Not only did all kinds of individual memories come flooding back, but because Chiara had never been there before, there were so many basics I needed to lay out for her: the houses I lived in, the high school, skateboard spots, coffee hangouts, friend’s houses, etc.

Nostalgia as my co-pilot

Turning off the highway towards Summerland, a long dormant part of my brain kicked in; even though some things had changed (businesses closed down, new housing developments sprouted up) navigating my way around was surprisingly easy. It was just a case of real world overlay on a dusty, subjective and hardly-ever-accessed map of my youth. It worked.

Mixed with the present splendour and the landmarks of my past were a steady stream of stories and feelings – on quite literally nearly every corner, there was a memory of a person or an event, or even just a feeling. Not all were worth sharing, not all of them happened to me. But there they were: my youth.

We were only there for a couple of nights, and just touched on this place that was once home. After all this time it was great to make it not just a piece of my past, but to bring it back with me as part of my present.

Plus: objectively, it’s a really nice place to visit, I think we’ll return.