The elves of Metaline Falls.

The elves of Metaline Falls.

A Christmas confession

Mr. Shop-local-support-the-local-economy-holier-than-thou-consumer took a run across the border on Saturday to retrieve a Christmas gift.

Busted. Mr. Shop-local-support-the-local-economy-holier-than-thou-consumer took a run across the border on Saturday to retrieve a Christmas gift. How will Nelson ever forgive me?

All I can do is plead my case and offer some newfound Christmas spirit as penance.

The object of the journey was my 11-year-old daughter’s Christmas gift. This year’s wish list was typically modest, but on the top was an item too obscure to be found in Nelson and for that matter Canada. I can’t blow the surprise at this point because she reads this column, but trust me it can only be found in Illinois.

Though reluctant to buy into the trap of online, cross-border shopping, I caved. I justified the move with the reality that $89 out of the many hundreds we spent on family this year was a small drop in the gift wrapped bucket.

So I fired up the Toyota and off I went to pick up this special parcel from Metaline Falls. With the iPod blaring and riding solo, I was happy to be on a mini road trip. Now Waylon, now Beatles, now Stones and Jay Z! On Marley, on U2, on Zeppelin and Green Day! To the top of the porch, to the top of the wall, I dashed away, dashed away, dashed away south!

I’ve made the journey to Spokane many times over the last 18 years. Mostly for kids’ hockey and soccer tournaments or to catch a flight, we have always zoomed right past the first major settlement on the US side.

In many ways Metaline Falls is a typical town on the fringes of America. A burg that was once a vibrant industry town, it fell on hard times about 20 years ago when the cement plant closed down. Drive through today and the houses with “for sale” signs outnumber those without. The economic woes battering the United States are compounded in tiny places like Metaline Falls.

To get myself in the mood, I threw on Bruce Springsteen’s The River as I drove into town. I didn’t want to be too chipper when I hopped out of the van, so I tried to get in the right frame of mind with a sad tale of small town America.

When I pulled up to Sweet Creek Creations on main street, the mood was hardly dark. Instead, a three-block Christmas display of Santa’s workshop lined the storefronts. The statues were faded by time, but clearly handmade and pretty funky.

Inside Sweet Creek Creations I found owner Shirley Botzheim working away at a quilt pattern on her industrial sewing machine. She greeted me with a smile and asked if I could wait a minute while she finished her pattern. Finding her work entertaining, I said no problem.

Once she was finished I told her my business. As the UPS depot in Metaline Falls, Canadians are frequent guests. They don’t browse the shelves filled with all kinds of quilting and crafting materials, most simply give their name and wait for her to bring out their parcel from the back.

Shirley told me in the previous three days she handed out almost 300 packages to Canadians. The number was staggering and weight of the guilt for my trip south built.

I shook off my thoughts about how the traffic through her store was so damaging to our local economy and instead turned my focus to finding out more about the town.

I found out that the Christmas display lining the street was created by Metaline artist Lee McGowan. Now 82, McGowan created the display just before the cement plant closed down two decades ago. There was a little more traffic back then, but the few local retailers that have survived have continued to diligently put it up every December.

Born and raised in Metaline Falls, Shirley told me she opened her specialty shop just after the cement plant closed. It was her attempt to hold onto life in small town America. She didn’t know how long it was going to last and today the future is more unclear than ever, but she soldiers on with a big smile.

After chatting with Shirley for more than 20 minutes about hard times and eternal hope, I apologized for taking up so much of her time. She smiled and instead thanked me for taking the time to ask questions.

I wandered around the rest of main street, visiting Cathy’s Cafe, peeking into the newly refurbished movie theatre (a topic for a future column) and bought a snack for the ride home at the grocery store. For the most part I had the town to myself. The setting was far from vibrant and it seemed the locals wouldn’t have much to celebrate at this time of year. Yet every person I ran into was extremely friendly and proud to talk about their little community.

As I drove up the hill towards the border, an entirely different mood consumed the van. The guilt of my cross-border sprint had subsided somewhat and joy of meeting some of our American neighbours was foremost on my mind.

Today’s economic climate has created tough times for so many on both sides of the border. I expected to find little Christmas joy in Metaline Falls, instead I discovered a indomitable spirit that left me feeling positive about the times ahead. Just then, Springsteen’s The Rising came on the iPod. It was the perfect soundtrack for the ride home.

Bob Hall is the editor at the Nelson Star