By: Laura Keil

Whether they plan it or not, tourists often drive bumper cars. Only the thing that knocks them in a new direction is not a wall – it’s a sign.

In the city, we are bombarded by billboards, flashing lights, and signs telling us or confusing us about lane changes and exit ramps. The landscape can be obnoxious and send your mind into a tailspin.

But in places like Valemount, Dunster, Blue River and McBride, signs are the valves to our communities’ hearts. Without them, we would have no new blood pumping through.

Let me draw a picture of common tourists in the region: they are geographically unaware of our roads; they don’t read maps; they dislike gravel roads, especially long ones; they believe there is nothing beyond the commercial area of town and that the unknown is scary and should be avoided.

These are gross assumptions, obviously not true of the attitudes of many people. But let’s deal with the lowest common denominator. Tourists are like parents in Disneyland: after they’ve hit Cinderella, Toon Town and the Wookies, they are only going to walk around in the confusing, busy hub if there are signs to guide them. At this point, their minds are likely cinders, and they need a bread crumb trail just to find a washroom.

If you place said tourists in Valemount, Dunster or McBride, they will see only one entrance to the community from the highway. At the end of Main Street in McBride or 5th Avenue in Valemount, they look left, they look right, and our unadventurous middle-aged couple or time-strapped musical group turns right back around to the highway munching on their puffed wheat.

To be fair, there are often a few signs signalling that something lies somewhere ahead after several unmarked forks in the road – but that isn’t good enough.

Every town or city has a personality. Valemount’s personality is a beautiful girl who is reading her book and does not want to be disturbed. If pressed, she’ll point in a direction with her head still down.

I’m talking the physical village, not the people – the people of the Valley are unarguably very helpful to newcomers. But not all newcomers know they need help.
Some will honestly assume there is nothing here. Or they will not bother, since they assume the residents don’t care enough about their town to flaunt it.

These assumptions are obviously wrong. There is plenty to explore and residents do care. But most locals don’t realize that newcomers don’t read maps, hate the unknown gravel road, and talk only to their pet Chihuahua instead of to a helpful local.

In addition, the signs that do exist are often tiny, vague or broken: the signs’ state of disrepair a sign in itself.

Now clear your mind and imagine a Valemount or McBride that is like Google Maps: images of boating the Fraser River and Kinbasket Lake pop out of billboards along the highway, much like on the digital map people can find on the internet. The road that leads past the old mill site in Valemount would have reassuring signs that this is indeed the way to the lake – and to continue past the tracks past the slight curve towards Canoe Road. In Dunster, you could install several “bread-crumb” signs along the road after the bridge, letting motorists know that the store is just up the hill and to the left – and here’s a photo of the cute shop you’re looking for.

Ramping up the idea even more, for people who walk up and down 5th Avenue, past the Saas-Fee property/off-leash dog park, why not install historical panels explaining some of the village’s history or interesting personalities? Most tourists do not bother to check the museum for these facts – they want them on the road, Google Map style, not on a map or under museum glass.

The same goes for trailheads. We cannot assume tourists will make an effort to decipher local maps or visit the Visitor Information Centre. Signs must be large, with smaller signs in between acting as the bread trail. Our imaginary tourists do not like making leaps of faith.

And here’s the worst: out-dated signs. Sushi restaurant on Main Street? You’re two years late.

The more we integrate the psychological landscape into the physical, the better chance we will have of tourists bouncing around our community, discovering its beauty, and knowing that the people here are rooted to a place they are willing to share. I’m willing to sign onto that.