**** The voice of my grandfather travels through the folds of my mind: It’s so peaceful. In the valley... He’d sing this verse of an unknown song on trails perfumed with wild Alberta sage, where husky prairie grass met the roll of the Rocky Mountains. He was a quiet man with a blue inner longing. But in the peaceful valleys just west of his home in the ranch town of High River, Alberta, he’d brighten. The sun would soak into his ironed plaid shirt, would warm his tobacco-stained hands. He chain-smoked Winston cigarettes and drank black coffee from a Thermos, always sweetened with farm honey. My grandpa died in 2001, but his spirit still speaks to our family, especially in the quiet in-between times. When I was 14, Grandpa taught me to drive on rural gravel roads that pointed toward those valleys, in a space between domestic and wild. I’d sit at the wheel of his tan Oldsmobile station wagon. Scotch mints in the console. Stale scent of upholstery laced with the smoke of a thousand cigarettes. In the company of a man who did not abuse silence. Tires crunched gravel. The open road took us in, and for a few hours we’d become nameless. Wordless. Free. Grandpa’s longing must have pressed into my mind. As a young woman, I’d make solo pilgrimages from my home in Edmonton to the province’s wild places, finding my own way back to nature.
Once, I borrowed my mom’s Pontiac 6000 to venture beyond my driving training grounds into Kananaskis Country. Through autumn gold poplars, I walked alone to the base of a gleaming waterfall. In my pocket was one of my baby teeth. My mom had saved them from my childhood, and once I learned the tooth fairy wasn’t real, she returned them to me. I felt its glossy calcium formations between the pads of my finger and thumb. It could have been a tiny white shell. Or a stone. I felt the intense need to do more than just look at the scene before me. I wanted to become it. And so I threw my little tooth in. A shard of Jane in the waterfall.
I’ve been searching for Happy Valley my whole life. Perhaps my grandpa’s wandering ways imprinted on me too deeply, like footprints on rain-soaked mud, forming a path I had to follow. Perhaps that was his plan all along.
I’d do this at special locations with my other teeth, or I’d pull out a lock of hair and bury it in the dirt. Maybe I was strange, but I later learned that Tibetan pilgrims wandering to sacred places leave pieces of their clothing, hair, or teeth. And a wise Piikani First Nations man from southern Alberta I interviewed for a Travel Alberta article, Conrad Little Leaf/Piita Piikoan/Eagle Being, told me that it’s tradition to offer water or food to the earth at sacred sites. These impulses are a form of giving and connection. Instead of tromping the earth and taking photos, plucking her wildflowers and stealing her stones, hunting her animals for wall trophies, mining and extracting her treasures, carving her into range roads and townships, slicing her skin with road-building machinery, plotting her, mapping her, using her, eating her and spitting her out, instead, we give. And in the soft act of giving, that’s when we receive.
I’ve been searching for Happy Valley my whole life. Perhaps my grandpa’s wandering ways imprinted on me too deeply, like footprints on rain-soaked mud, forming a path I had to follow. Perhaps that was his plan all along. This search for Happy Valley isn’t mine alone. It’s the age-old quest for Shangri-La, coded into the very dips and valleys of our human DNA. As a travel writer, I’ve visited places across our planet, and I’ve noticed a theme. In seemingly unrelated cultures, there exist sacred valleys where a balance between humans and nature has been struck. These places are considered sacred geography by their Indigenous Peoples, and they share key characteristics: they are remote and geographically protected by mountains; they are home to rare plants and animals; they exist outside of protection zones, which gives them autonomy but makes them vulnerable; and they are places where inhabitants have lived with advanced subsistence technologies for millennia. And, importantly, in Shangri-La women are honoured as a balancing, powerful force. Local people know each of these valleys as “Happy Valley,” and I became hungry to know just what made them so. I found the first Happy Valley writing my first book, Back Over the Mountains. It is called Kyimolung in ancient texts and is located in the high Himalayas of Nepal. There are no roads to get there, and it takes days of intense hiking to access it. Its inhabitants are Tibetan Buddhists, and the valley holds eighth-century treasures and texts hidden within mountains, monasteries and caves. Two years later, I found another Happy Valley by following red-crystal dust trails into the Atlas Mountains of Morocco with my husband and our two children. There we immersed ourselves in Amazigh/Berber culture by doing village homestays and travelling to a goat-herding hut where Muslim families live off the land and animals. Then my grandmother surprised me by telling me there’s a Happy Valley right in our province of Alberta, and that it was there where we had spread my grandfather’s ashes.
In seemingly unrelated cultures, there exist sacred valleys where a balance between humans and nature has been struck. These places are considered sacred geography by their Indigenous Peoples, and they share key characteristics: they are remote and geographically protected by mountains; they are home to rare plants and animals; they exist outside of protection zones, which gives them autonomy but makes them vulnerable; and they are places where inhabitants have lived with advanced subsistence technologies for millennia. And, importantly, in Shangri-La women are honoured as a balancing, powerful force.
The question is, why should we care about these happy valleys? What makes them significant? In truth, our human future depends on them. In Tibetan Buddhism, Shangri-La is believed to be a place of refuge where people can survive in times of strife, war and environmental devastation. An ideal place where people live in harmony with the environment. For me, happy valleys have been a place to reconnect with nature and reset myself when life gets too neurotic. The scientific community has proven that our planet is heating up, our ocean reef systems are collapsing, and life as we’re living it is unsustainable. We are also facing times of unprecedented anxiety and polarization. Renowned anthropologist and past National Geographic explorer in residence Wade Davis asserts that it is time to look to the ancient wisdom of cultures that lived on this earth with incredible primal technologies for thousands of years before industrialization. That now, before it’s too late, we must learn from our elder brothers and sisters. Unfortunately, dominant colonial governments have destroyed much of this knowledge over a remarkably short time period—a few hundred years or so in Canada, currently in Tibet, and with a potential threat of spreading to Nepal, and in the 20th century with French colonization in Morocco—laying waste to languages, rituals, entire animal species and what were deemed to be “barbaric Native ways.”
The time to find Shangri-La is now. We need to see and feel the deep peace that still exists hidden in these happy valleys and within their keepers, and to recognize the ill effects when happy valleys are exploited and subjugated. By searching for Happy Valley, we have the opportunity to learn—and to return.
A global quest to comprehend the meaning of “Happy Valley” on three continents and how these mountain communities continue to survive in a world that constantly challenges the very notion of “happiness.”
Over her 17-year career as a travel writer, Jane Marshall has wandered the planet, always in search of wild, high-altitude, off-the-beaten-track places. During her travels she discovered something profound. On three continents, separated by vast oceans, she found hidden valleys known locally as “Happy Valley.” Her quest: to discover what makes them happy and learn from their Indigenous keepers.
The happy valleys share common characteristics. They are geographically isolated and protected by walls of mountains; they are home to rare and endangered plants and animals; they exist outside of protections zones — which gives them autonomy but also makes them vulnerable; their Indigenous populations name the land after human and divine body parts; and women are seen as powerful. Inside these Happy Valleys a balance between humans and nature has been struck. Sleeping on ridges, in caves, and in the traditional homes of local people, Marshall makes gruelling journeys to the heart of the happy valleys as she strives to comprehend the deep peace she feels within them.
In a world facing environmental devastation, illness, and unprecedented mental anxieties, Marshall’s book offers an alternative. She immerses herself in the land and forms deep connections with its people so she can learn sustainable ways of living their Indigenous populations have honed over millennia. From a goat herder’s hut in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco, to a Sundance ceremony with the Blackfoot/Soki-tapi people of Alberta, and ultimately to her dangerous pilgrimage in Nepal where she reaches the heart of a sacred land studded with treasures hidden by a famous yogi, Jane Marshall takes readers on the greatest adventure of all: The search for Shangri-La and the wisdom that can save the planet and our own hearts.
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