#180 Rick Antonson
March 29th, 2016
LOCATION: Mohamed Tahar Library, lower south east quadrant of old Timbuktu proper, Mali
Part of the royalties from Rick Antonson’s travel memoir To Timbuktu for a Haircut have been provided to biblioteques such as the Mohamed Tahar Library for use in construction and in preservation of endangered ancient manuscripts from the 14th Century.
Rick Antonson’s To Timbuktu for a Haircut (Dundurn 2008) is an amusing and enlightening memoir about his intrepid journey to Mali, via Senegal, to visit the fabled city, and his resulting determination to help preserve Timbuktu’s approximately 700,000 endangered ancient manuscripts.
“I left Africa personally changed by the gentle harshness I found and a disquieting splendour that found me,” he writes. “Mali was the journey I needed, if not the one I envisioned. And I learned that there’s a little of Timbuktu in every traveller: the over-anticipated experience, the clash of dreams with reality.”
The book’s title is derived from a favoured expression of his dad whenever his two young sons pestered him as to where he was going. Antonson’s father would reply, “I’m going to Timbuktu to get my haircut.” With the logic of a child, Rick determined that he, too, must one day go to Timbuktu for a haircut. Fifty years later, he found himself in west Africa.
Timbuktu is a legendary and still-existing African city known as a place of scholars, splendor and mystery dating back to a golden age in the Sahara Desert. For many its name conjures up “the most remote place on earth.”
Aided by an adventuresome spirit, Antonson endures a forty-five hour train ride, a swindling travel agent, “Third World, three-lane” roads, rivers and a flat deck ferry boat before finally reaching Timbuktu. He narrates the history of his destination through the teachings of his Malian guide Zak, and encounters with stranded tourists, a camel owner, a riverboat captain and the people who call Timbuktu home.
Of course, adventures abound en route: “We were stuck. Everyone in the Land Cruiser jumped to the ground to lighten the load. Two weeks earlier I had used my hands to scuff snow from under the wheels of a friend’s Jeep that had got stuck in Canadian mountains. Now, I carved armfuls of sand from behind the Land Cruiser’s wheels to achieve the same effect.
“We pushed and the vehicle lurched forward. We continued toward Essakane. Our vehicle’s shocks abdicated. It was an atrocious experience, and I loved it. These hours, as we bore north, were among my most memorable experiences of the land — vast, faraway, uncertain. It was what I’d long envisioned Timbuktu to be.”
Antonson highlights the city’s myths―the centuries old capital and traveler’s dream―as well as its realities: A city gripped by poverty, where historic treasures lie close to the sands of destruction. Indeed, some 700,000 ancient manuscripts remain there, endangered. Both a travelogue and a history of a place long forgotten, To Timbuktu for a Haircut emerges as a plea to preserve the past and open cultural dialogues on a global scale.
The second edition of this important book outlines the volatile political situations in Timbuktu following the spring 2012 military coup in Mali and the subsequent capture of the city by Islamic extremists. Literally, it is a race against time to save the city’s irreplaceable artifacts, mosques, and monuments, and to understand why Timbuktu’s past is essential to the future of Africa.
Antonson’s long-imagined journey to Timbuktu was undertaken on a sabbatical in the wake of his participation in the successful bid to bring the 2010 Winter Olympics to Vancouver/Whistler as the president & ceo of Tourism Vancouver.
Rick Antonson’s roots in writing and publishing go back to the early 1970s.
One of the most enduring tales of murder and gold in B.C. was the basis for Rick Antonson’s first book, In Search of a Legend: The Search for the Slumach-Lost Creek Gold Mine (Nunaga, 1972), co-written with Mary Trainer and his brother, Brian Antonson. The threesome started their own publishing company (eventually named Nunaga Publishing) to release the book, doing so initially simply under the book’s title. The original title itself sold over 6,000 copies before being amalgamated with other writings about Slumach appended, and still under this title, by Art Downs for his Heritage House books; all together, the title sold more than 10,000 copies in these two editions.
In 2007, Mary, Brian and Rick revived their quest for chronicling the story of the lost gold with the new bestseller, a much expanded piece of research and writing, Slumach’s Gold; In Search of a Legend. (Heritage House) . It spent 23 weeks on the Vancouver Sun’s BC Books Bestsellers List, and has sold beyond 11,000 copies as of early 2016. It’s a compilation of both fact and local hearsay about the indigenous man of the Katzie people, named Slumach and the legend of his lost gold mine in the Fraser Valley, near Pitt Lake, about 50 kilometers east from Vancouver. The authors focus on the ‘gold seekers’ who have been searching for the legendary Motherlode over many decades. Slumach’s Gold provides the backdrop narrative for the popular television series Curse of the Frozen Gold, on The History Channel and Animal Planet in the 2015/2016 season.
Often said in legend to have been seen in New Westminster with huge gold nuggets, over the decades Slumach gained a reputation as a violent womanizer. Not so, say the authors. In actual fact, Slumach shot and killed a Métis man, Louis Boulier, also known as Louis Bee, at Lillooet Slough near the Pitt River, in 1890, and disappeared into the bush. Newspapers brazenly described Slumach as a murderer long before he was caught and brought to trial. He was eventually convicted of murder in 1891, and hanged. If the First Nation suspect had been defended by a lawyer and received less rushed “white man’s proceedings,” a plea of self-defense might have been sufficient to save his life.
The Antonsons and Trainer note that stories of Slumach spreading his gold nuggets in local “sporting houses” and taking women into the bush with him—never to be seen again—only emerged more than a decade after his death and have no demonstrated truth behind them.
Prior to being hanged in New Westminster, Slumach supposedly placed a curse on his hidden motherload, also known as the Lost Creek Mine. His reputed fortune has never been found over more than a century. In the early 1900s an American miner named Jackson entered the legend when he supposedly found Slumach’s gold, but he died soon afterwards, apparently leaving behind an intriguing letter that provided hints as to the site of the mine in a remote part of what is now Garibaldi Provincial Park—and becoming the first victim of the mine’s rumoured curse.
Many others who ventured into the difficult and dangerous terrain to seek the mine over the years also met with misfortune. The Vancouver Province newspaper once estimated the number of deaths to be around 30 (while other sources claim over 60). Rick and Brian Antonson were years later contacted by a former newspaper publisher who confided that gold seekers had indeed found what he believed to be the legendary mine. That information helped spark the three co-authors reuniting for the much expanded 35th anniversary edition of the book–triple the size of the original version–which introduced new material now that three television documentaries had been made, new websites had been launched, and new seekers had joined the search over the decades. Not surprisingly, other fortune hunters had been reported missing. The additional research and storytelling is complemented with new maps and photographs.
There are more than 2,000 references to Slumach on the internet. Fred Braches of Whonnock, B.C., maintains an excellent reference site for skeptics and seekers alike at www.slumach.ca along with a companion blog at www.slumachblogspot.ca; Fred’s important and independent work is undertaken with contributions and support from a wide range of enthusiasts including from Rick and Brian Antonson, Mary Trainer, Mike Collier, Ann Lunghamer, Rob Nicholson, David Mattison, Joanne Peterson, Don Waite and the staff of the New Westminster Public Library, Vancouver Public Library, and BC Archives. There are only imaginary images of Slumach and verification that he ever had access to gold nuggets from a hidden mine does not exist, but Slumach’s reputation is nonetheless global.
[One of the earliest books about gold in B.C. was Handbook to the New Gold Fields: A Full Account of the Richness and Extent of the Fraser River and Thompson River Gold Mines (1858) by Robert Michael Ballantyne, a Scot who was dubbed “Ballantyne the Brave” by Robert Louis Stevenson. For other authors pertaining to gold, see abcbookworld entries for Anderson, Doris; Baird, Andrew; Banon, Edward Magowly; Barlee, N.L.; Basque, Garnet; Beeson, Edith; Boissery, Beverley; Brown, Robert; Caldwell, Francis E.; Claudet, F.G.; Dickinson, Christine Frances; Domer, John; Douglas, David; Dower, John; Elliott, Marie Anne; Fetherling, George; Ficken, Robert E.; Fitzgeorge-Parker, Ann; Forsythe, Mark; Futcher, Winnifred; Gates, Michael; Green, Lewis; Hall, Ralph; Harris, Lorraine; Hauka, Donald J.; Hawkins, Elizabeth; Hayman, John; Hazlitt, William Carew; Ingersoll, Ernest; Johnson, F. Henry; Johnson, Peter; Krumm, Stan; Langston, Laura; Laut, Agnes; Lazeo, Laurence; Lindley, Jo; Ludditt, Fred; McNaughton, Margaret; Miller, Naomi; Minter, Roy; Morrell, W.P.; Murphy, Claire Rudolph; Patenaude, Branwen; Paterson, T.W.; Phillipps-Wolley, Clive; Porsild, Charlene; Ramsey, Bruce; Reinhart, Herman Francis; Service, Robert; Sheepshanks, John; Sinclair, James; Smedley-L’Heureux, Audrey; Smith, Robin Percival; Sterne, Netta; Swindle, Lewis J.; Trueman, Allan Stanley; Verne, Jules; Villiers, Edward; Waddington, Alfred; Wade, Mark Sweeten; Waite, Don; Wright, Richard; Wright, Rochelle.]
Brian Murdoch of Murdoch’s Bookshoppe in Mission, B.C. neatly encapsulated the scope for Rick Antonson’s American travel memoir about sojourning in a grey Mustang convertible with his friend and foil Peter to find the remains of the highway that once linked the central U.S. to California, Route 66 Still Kicks: Driving America’s Main Street (Dundurn 2012). He wrote, “From Woody Guthrie to Will Rogers, from the TV show of the same name to John Steinbeck and The Grapes of Wrath, the connections with this highway are wide-ranging and intriguing.” Part of the royalties from Route 66 Still Kicks were donated to the National Historic Route 66 Federation to further their work in restoration and land marking sections of the old road. Antonson and scriptwriter Shawn Macdonald have joined forces to shape the Route 66 book into the basis for a musical theatre piece. It has been workshopped with the Arts Club in Vancouver.
For Route 66 Still Kicks, Rick Antonson and his companion travelled 2,400 miles (3,900 kilometres) over twelve days from Chicago to Los Angeles through eight states, seeking — and finding — all the old parts that remain of Route 66. He suggests North America’s Alaska Highway, the Baja Highway and even the Trans-Canada highway are “Icon-light” by comparison. He states Route 66’s peers are on other continents — the Asian Highway from Singapore to Bangkok, the Road of Emperors from Prague to Budapest, or the Golden Road from Baghdad to Samarkand. His travelogue blends surprising vignettes with obscure stories about Route 66–related personalities, among them Al Capone, the Harvey Girls, Salvador Dalí, Mickey Mantle, 1930s photojournalist Dorothea Lange, Cyrus Avery (the Father of Route 66), and songster Bobby Troup “(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66.”
Whistle Posts West (2015) by Mary Trainer, Brian Antonson and Rick Antonson is a collection of train stories from B.C., Alberta and the Yukon spanning 150 years. Topics covered include classic episodes like the nailing of the “last spike” at Craigellachie, BC, in 1885 and the devastating train collision at Hinton, AB, in 1986, along with tales of train robberies, bridge disasters, humour and high jinx on the rails, and Robert Service’s 1904 journey to the Klondike aboard the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad. The book includes a foreword by Don Evans, president emeritus of the West Coast Railway Association, a list of heritage train sites in Western Canada, Yukon, and Alaska, and fabulous archival photos throughout.
For Full Moon Over Noah’s Ark (Skyhorse 2016), Rick Antonson joined an expedition to the 5,137-metre (16,854-foot) summit of Mount Ararat, looking down on the countries of Turkey, Armenia and Iran, a journey on the massif often said to be the resting place of Noah’s Ark after the Great Flood. Trekking alongside a contingent of Armenians, for whom Mount Ararat is the stolen symbol of their country. Antonson weaves vivid historical anecdotes with unexpected travel vignettes.
Born in Vancouver in 1949, Rick Antonson attended Simon Fraser University and co-founded Nunaga Publishing (later known as Antonson Publishing) with Mary Trainer and Brian Antonson in the early 1970s. Titles released by Antonson include Dr. Guy Richmond’s Prison Doctor (1997), Brian Antonson and Gordon Stewart’s Canadian Frontier (1977 and subsequent years), Richard Thomas Wright’s collection of outdoors articles, Westering (1978), and Peter Moogk’s Vancouver Defended: A History of the Men and Guns of the Lower Mainland Defences, 1859-1949 (1978). For a complete list of Nunaga titles, visit Antonson’s entry on the ABCBookWorld reference site, hosted by Simon Fraser University Library.
Antonson was an early Executive Director of the Tourism Industry Association of B. C. From 1987 to 1990 he was general manager of Edmonton Tourism. For five years in the mid-1980s, he was vice-president and general manager of Douglas & McIntyre during which time he served as president of the Association of Book Publishers of British Columbia. He left publishing to become vice-president of Rocky Mountaineer, which operates a luxury train service between Vancouver and the Canadian Rockies. This led to his position as President & CEO of Tourism Vancouver, the Greater Vancouver Convention & Visitors Bureau, which represents more than 1,000 member businesses.
Among his adjunct activities over the years, Antonson served as co-chairman for 1983 B.C. Special Olympic Games, about which it has been said, “Special Olympics teaches us to recognize our similarities rather than focusing on our differences.” In 1985, he chaired the Leader’s Committee to oversee the provincial election campaign for the B.C. Liberal Party. Later he served as Chairman of the Oceans Blue Foundation to encourage a more environmentally responsible approach to tourism in the Pacific Northwest. He was a founding member of the Board of Directors for the Canadian Tourism Commission. Antonson was chair of the board for the Destination Marketing Association International, based in Washington, DC; deputy chair for the Pacific Asia Tourism Association, based in Bangkok, Thailand. He was president of Pacific Coast Public Television Association, aligned with PBS affiliate KCTS in Seattle. Antonson was a member of the Board of Directors for Vancouver/Whistler 2010 Olympic Winter Games Bid Corporation, and served as an Ambassador for the 2010 Games.
Capilano University awarded Antonson an Honorary Doctorate of Laws in 2011, and he has been inducted into the Canadian Tourism Hall of Fame. In 2013 he was presented with the IMEX Academy Award in Europe. He is also a recipient of the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal. He is regularly invited to speak all over the world. In five trips over a dozen years, Rick and his sons Brent (author, Of Russia; A Year Inside) and Sean have circumnavigated the northern hemisphere by train, beginning and ending in London, England, including Beijing, China, by train to Pyongyang, North Korea (a country visited by fewer than 300 Westerners each year).
Antonson left his Tourism Vancouver post in 2014 to concentrate full time on his book writing. He and his wife Janice live in Vancouver and Cairns, Australia.
The Fraser Valley (Whitecap, 1981). Photographs by Bob Herger.
In Search of a Legend: Slumach’s Gold: The Search for the Slumach-Lost Creek Gold Mine (ISOAL, 1972). 35th Anniversary Edition, revised and expanded, published as Slumach’s Gold: In Search of a Legend (Heritage House, 2007). Rick Antonson, Mary Trainer and Brian Antonson. ISBN 978-1-894974-35-6
To Timbuktu for a Haircut; A Journey Through West Africa (Dundurn, 2008; Second Edition, Skyhorse, 2013). Dundurn ISBN 978-1-4597-1049-8 Skyhorse ISBN 978-1-62087-567-4
Route 66 Still Kicks: Driving America’s Main Street (Dundurn 2012; Skyhorse, 2012) 40 illustrations; 5 maps. Dundurn ISBN 978-1-4597-0436-7 Skyhorse ISBN 978-1-62087-300-7
Whistle Posts West: Railway Tales from British Columbia, Alberta, and Yukon (Heritage House 2015) $18.95 Mary Trainer, Brian Antonson, and Rick Antonson ISBN 978-1-77203-043-3
Full Moon Over Noah’s Ark: An Odyssey to Mount Ararat and Beyond (Skyhorse, 2016) $24.99 ISBN 978-1-51070-0565-4