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A Piece of History

by Jim Park

Talk about Canadian history! It's hard to believe there's been a Dogwood Truck Stop of one form or another on this site - 10 miles north of Hope, B.C. - since 1940.

Try to picture an old house converted into a coffee shop back then, alongside a gravel road that's now the Trans Canada Highway. The walls in today's cozy coffee shop are covered with pictures of that era to prove it. I'm sure the hardy souls who fought their single-axle body jobs over that trail appreciated the Dogwood station as much as today's pavement pilots do.

Of course, the present site and buildings have been vastly improved since Ralph Cummings, his wife, and one other partner, John, bought the place in 1972. They already owned and ran J's Flood-Hope Service south of Hope, so they had a pretty full plate. Only years later, when John retired, did they sell J's and put all their efforts into the Dogwood. Its location at the south end of the Fraser Canyon, in the mountains of south-central B.C., makes it a welcoming oasis for truckers fighting their way over one of the toughest roads in Canada. After hours of climbing, dropping and twisting through snow, black ice, falling rock, pea soup fog and, in the summer, the tourists, the Dogwood looks like heaven.

At this point, if you're headed south, you've only got the dreaded American Mountain left to climb, then flat land into Vancouver. If you're northbound, the Dogwood gives you a chance to check the rig over and get up-to-date road information from other drivers or the staff.

Chuck Common, who has worked with Ralph since the early 1970s, is a wealth of information, as is Ralph himself. They appear to know every driver who comes in by name and always make time to chat. They've done wonders with the truckstop over the years. The site itself had to be physically carved out of the side of the mountain to enlarge the parking area, old buildings removed and replaced, besides updating the shop and fuel island. The Dogwood presently displays the Husky Oil sign but has had others. Like Ralph says, "You gotta buy fuel somewhere and that's the flag you fly."

Thankfully, they've kept the old-world charm of the place with truckers in mind. The restaurant has an open-beam ceiling, leather booths, and easy-to-read menus plastered all over the walls. It also has good service, reasonable prices and, of course, burgers with catchy truck titles. The modern telephones mounted in most booths are offset by the myriad of old transport pictures hanging above them.

The service station office is a trucker's delight, stuffed with spare parts, snack foods and coolers full of food and drink. The two-bay shop is big enough and equipped enough to repair anything. If Ralph and Chuck can't fix it, nobody can.

Ralph and Chuck both admit the shop isn't nearly as busy as it used to be. Because of sharp rocks constantly falling in the Fraser Canyon, the old bias-ply tires once guaranteed a steady flow of flats to repair, but radial rubber all but ended that. Modern rigs, with their sensors and computers, have drastically reduced surprise breakdowns and the need for major (and expensive) out-of-terminal repairs. Leaky air lines and small stuff still happen, though, so the shop does pay for itself.

One outstanding feature of this operation is the staff's attitude. These people really care about the owner-operators and others who frequent the place. Other than the old Husky shirt that Ralph wears, there are no uniformed youngsters hassling you in or out, no pressure and no high prices that glitter and hype usually bring. These people are keenly aware of the tough times truckers are facing and they try to keep costs down. Ralph even trucks in fuel with his own 1973-model Pacific tractor and tandem tank to save the boys a few bucks. The cafe meals are the most reasonable and delicious we've come across.

The few drivers we interviewed, including Dave Rathburn and Rick Letourneaux of Artline Tractor, stated that they stop here every chance they get.

"The food's good here," said Rathburn, munching a muffin on his way out the restaurant door.

One regular, in particular, fits right in. George Ettinger, a contract driver for the Government of Canada, has been hauling Canadian museum artifacts and displays between Ottawa and Vancouver - amongst other destinations - for 22 years, stopping into Dogwood every trip. Considering that his cargo is old stuff, just like this trucker's haven, you can't help but make connections. George and Ralph are obviously good friends, and their stories of the past kept us grinning.

It seems every driver who pulled in knew Ralph and Chuck, so the conversations were endless. Ralph is 62 now and makes noises about retirement.

"When the Coquihalla Highway between Hope and Kamloops opened a few years ago, our business dropped by 50%. We got some of that back when the novelty of the new road wore off, but it's never been the same. Staffing problems are tough unless you have a big family. It's hard to keep people in an isolated spot. We used to stay open 24 hours but could no longer justify it. My wife and I run it from 6:00 a.m. until 10:00 p.m. and sometimes a little later if a driver comes in needing a meal and a sympathetic ear. Granted, we live in a nice home on the site, but we're getting a little old for this."

Despite all that, the Dogwood seemed busy enough when we were there. A constant parade of loaded rigs pulled in and out during our stay. At 1:10 p.m., six of the eight restaurant booths were full. At 1:30, five big rigs had crowded into the lot, and by 1:45 p.m. there were seven, stacked up three-deep between the cardlock and the highway. The lunch special may have had something to do with it - chicken burger with fries, soup or spud salad, all for $5.25. Most breakfast and lunch entrees run between four and seven dollars; dinner costs between eight and ten.

Waitress Val Minchau, one of three at the restaurant, handles the lunchtime crowd like a pro. "It's hard to get good, homemade food these days," she told us. "I've only worked here three months, and I've eaten far too many burgers. You sure you want one? They're huge!"

You may already know that the B.C. government chose the dogwood as their provincial flower some time back, but there's reason to believe the flower may have been named after this truck stop.

The few hours we spent in that beautiful location - with these friendly people and the constant stream of truckers - reminded us that the world doesn't have to be a zoo. A handful of restaurants through the Fraser Canyon have been forced to close for lack of business, and one can only hope Ralph and his people can survive. The Dogwood Truck Stop is as much a part of the Fraser Canyon as the mountains that surround it.

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