Goats on the Roof

G. K. Chesterton wrote – and yes, this time I’m sure it was Chesterton* – that “the traveler sees what is there, while the tourist sees only what he has come to see.” Proving that even back in 1909 you couldn’t escape the “traveler vs tourist” smackdown. With apologies to ol’ Gilly, after half a lifetime of travel I can’t help but offer my own corollary to the neverending one-upsmanship, that every traveler is someone else’s idea of a tourist. You know the type: “What? You went to Morocco? You did spend the time to do it right, and cross the Sahara, didn’t you?” “Oh, you did? But in a Jeep? When Camille and I we did it the traditional way, on camelback.” And “Oh, you crossed on camelback, but hired a guide and porters? We took the time to learn Tamasheq and befriend local Touareg who took us into their caravan…” There’s no end, Amirite?

So it is with that disclaimer and dispensation that I proclaim that Devon and I have spent the past two days being unabashed tourists. Pulled out the guidebooks, plugged in the GPS, and pointed the Orca at the next item to be checked off on the list of Vancouver Island’s Greatest Hits. Well, not entirely – we tried to see the Greatest Hits but missed about half of them and ended up somewhere slightly else.

Went looking for the Sooke Potholes, but found a family swimming spot instead, and a little hidden waterfall. We did find the much-vaunted “Shirley Delicious” for lunch, but got ourselves distracted by a trail down to the lighthouse. Aimed for Jordan River but found ourselves tromping through the practically enchanted forest around Sandcut Creek. Port Renfrew? Well, there were these signs all along the road saying “May’s Ice Cream.” ’nuff said. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t call out what may be the world’s largest inflatable roadside bong.

And all the way through, we kept stopping to gorge ourselves on blackberries, thimbleberries and salal berries. Even roadside, right by big “Don’t Miss This” sights, there was an embarrassment of berries for the picking and eating.

But the one tourist attraction we knew we could not pass up was, drum roll please, Goats on the Roof.

Technically, it’s the “Old Country Market,” but if you punch “Goats on the Roof” into your GPS anywhere in the world**, it won’t blink. Apparently, some number of years ago, the local provisioner in Coombs decided to turf the roof of his store, put some goats up there to graze, and advertise the fact. The result has improbably made this formerly obscure little shop into pretty much the only pushpin on Vancouver Island’s east coast – other than Butchart Gardens – that gets mention in every freaking single tour itinerary I’ve seen. Of course it’s going to be kitchsy. And of course we were going to go.

And yeah, it was pretty much what it says on the tin: a local incarnation of something that, in another life, could have been a Trader Joe’s, except there were goats on the roof. And an insane swirling crowd of people and cars trying to find parking and taking pictures and buying donuts and having tacos or croissants at the restaurants and shops that have inevitably sprung up around this random act of elevated agriculture. Chalk one up for random kitsch; watching the goat-induced commerce, I could almost imagine the mayor of the legendarily kitschy Bavarian-themed town of Leavenworth pounding his fist on the table in front of city council, asking how they failed to see the appeal of Goats on the Roof, and demanding they achieve goat/roof parity by 2023.

But that all seems far away now. Partly because it is all far away now, as we’ve crossed over the rugged spine of the island again, this time westward, to Long Beach, equidistant between the budding competing surf-and-tourist towns of Tofino and Ucluelet. Keeping with Pabloverse serendipity, we snagged what the Canada Parks website indicated was the only remaining reservable campsite on the west side of the island.

And it’s a magical, secluded little tuckaway overlooking (through the fir and cedar) the pounding surf at Green Point. Note that when I say “magical,” I’m using the word advisedly – no sooner had we pulled into our spot than we discovered that someone had constructed a tiny fairy village around it. I don’t know how else to describe it – the logs and mossy boulders that ring the site are all decked with delightful little cedar shake dwellings, the largest of which would fit two or three in your hand.

On one hand – figuratively speaking – this is delightful. On the other, a little troubling, as you may recall that I’ve just spent a month tromping around Ireland and gotten more than an earful on how to properly respect the domain of “the wee folk.” And suffice it to say that the Irish I’ve spoken with suggest that they can be mighty persnickety – even vengeful – if you don’t adhere to protocol. So maybe equal parts “magical” and “haunted”?

Leaving a saucer of milk for them (the recommended offering) was right out, as we’d been not-so-gently warned by the cheerful young park ranger on our arrival that, well, bears. At every turn here on Vancouver Island you’re warned that, bears. Bears that have developed a fondness for human food, that have acquired a fondness for beer and soda and now actively seek out six packs. Bears that are perfectly comfortable operating car door handles and working their way around windows left open “just a crack.” Bears, bears, bears. We were admonished to not even leave empty water jugs outside. Leaving a saucer of milk? Heck.

So what do you leave the wee folk? Fortunately (thanks, Kateen!) I’d recently finished W.Y Evans-Wentz’s classic The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries – side note: he prefaces the book, from a bit over a hundred years ago, by effectively saying that as a young man he really just wanted an excuse to skip out from University and spend a couple of years tromping around Scotland, Ireland and Wales. Well done, young man, well done.
Evans-Wentz, who I really would like to have gotten to party with in my younger days, suggests that practitioners also believe shiny baubles are also appreciated. Digging through the “trove ‘o baubles” pocket in my knapsack (doesn’t your knapsack have a dedicated trove o’ baubles pocket?) produced a gold-plated hoop earring I’d found somewhere that Devon and I thought should do. We’re not entirely unconcerned: it is only gold-plated, not the solid, real stuff. If anything grievous befalls us, maybe someone will notify the publishers for the western hemisphere edition of the book?

In the meantime, we’re taking in the delights of the western shore, walking the stretches of the appropriately-named Long Beach, heading into town to indulge in waterside libations while floatplanes and fishing boats buzz past above and below. On the docket for today is a bog walk, maybe another lighthouse, and a healthy dose of local seafood.

Tomorrow we’re headed back east, maybe up to Courtenay, maybe Campbell River – still figuring it out. “Heading back east” is, it turns out, has complications that we’d not appreciated until we came out west, where a single road now connects us to the rest of what passes for civilization. A single winding mountain road that got wiped out by a landslide some time back and is still in uneven stages of reconstruction. When the local coffee shops sell t-shirts proclaiming “I survived the Kennedy Hill Road Closure,” you know…uh, you know something about the place, but for the life of me, I can’t figure out what.

* (Thanks to my friend and colleague Loren for setting me straight on my previous I-thought-it-was-Chesterton quotation, which turns out to have been Thornton Wilder.)

** (As Ellen points out in the comments below, in the Midwest, your nearest source of Goats On The Roof is Al Johnson’s, north and east of Green Bay, also serving folks worldwide with their fabulous Goat Cam.)

7 responses to “Goats on the Roof

  1. As an incorrigible sports fan I keep running across GOAT, the acronym for Greatest Of All Time. Now you can claim those 4 letters for your rooftop goats.

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    • We did find ourselves playing with the name of the place, trying to figure out what “Renfrew” sounded most likely to be: A British salsa? Henchman for an archvillain? (“Renfrew, fetch me the Destructo-bombulator!”) Obscure betting strategy in cribbage?

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      • I was thinking that it was the name of a character in the original Dracula. But that is Renfield. Renfrew is being developed. When we were there four summers ago, they were advertising for the third tranche, or whatever they call success slices of vacation home development. It had been a very quiet undeveloped place. There were still places to anchor out for free; dock space was expensive but there was a nce bar with a ‘‘captured’’ food truck as a kitchen.

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