Harley-riding Hamilton Mack Laing fills the hall after 104 years

Harley-riding Hamilton Mack Laing fills the hall after 104 years

Archive photos courtesy of the Mack Laing Heritage Society

Arts & Culture

By Guest Writer

Che Guevara’s Motorcycle Diaries may be a second best to local legend, Hamilton Mack Laing’s account of his motorcycle ride from New York to the San Francisco World Exhibition of 1915.

One hundred and two years after he wrote The Transcontinentalist, this local legendary naturalist’s account of his journey on an early 14 horsepower Harley Davidson continues to fascinate Canadians, some of whom` easily filled the Courtenay Museum’s auditorium this week to hear readings from the new edition of his memoir by author Trevor Marc Hughes.

Hughes presented an animated and illustrated presentation of Hamilton Mack Laing’s previously unpublished memoir, under its new title, Riding the Continent, published by Ronsdale Press, and which is to be released July 15.

Author Trevor Mark Hughes reading excerpts at the Courtenay Museum this week

The lecture presented some of the rich silverpoint photos taken by Laing. The photos reveal a young Laing fresh out of the Pratt Institute Art programme as an early Ansel Adams, pushing the limits of wilderness landscape photography as an art form.

Laing, who built two famous houses of certified national heritage interest in Comox — Baybrook and Shakesides — lived here for many decades (1922-1982).

He was an illustrious early British Columbia writer and naturalist in his own right and is increasingly recognized for his many contributions to Canada’s scientific history. Notably as the mentor of Dr. MacTaggart-Cowan, who was himself the mentor of David Suzuki, and as an early influence on no less than the late Farley Mowat.

Although Laing was a giant in natural history, he is less known as a Harley-Davidson rider. Laing described himself in his mid-30s as a “motorcycle-naturalist.”

For several years beginning in 1914, Laing used the motorcycle to access the natural world, believing it gave him a distinct advantage over other forms of transportation. During this period in his life, he would take on a transcontinental journey, riding across the United States from Brooklyn to Oakland in 1915.

In his presentation of excerpts from Riding the Continent, Hughes presented the story of a pioneering motorcyclist and independently thinking naturalist, as well as an unusual road trip As a well-published motorcycle enthusiast and historian, Hughes ranks Laing’s account as “perhaps the best piece of motorcycle-writing” known to him.

As Laing put it, “the lure of the unending road is a call that will not be denied.”

Hughes pointed out that Laing’s tale presents his experience of a pre- First World War America unspoiled by real roads or automobiles. He meticulously presents the beauty of North America’s bird life, describes the sights, scenery and people he encountered, and takes us along for the ride on a 1915 Harley-Davidson he named Barking Betsy.

As North-America is becoming increasingly conscious of its natural heritage, this is undoubtedly the first of many books by and about Laing that will be coming forth this decade. Hughes’ excellent presentation made a great case that this book is a must for the bookshelves of Comox Valley residents wishing to understand Canada’s history.

Laing’s legacy lives on in his gifting of his house and property to the Town of Comox as a nature preserve. Laing left this gift to the Town of Comox in trust, and it is to be hoped that the Town of Comox will one day find the wisdom of respecting this important national treasure.

Riding the Continent will be available for purchase after July 15 ($19.95, Ronsdale Press).

 

 

WHO WAS MACK LAING?

Hamilton Mack Laing was an important Canadian naturalist, photographer and writer. He moved to Comox in 1922, cleared his land and built his home from a “Stanhope” Aladdin Ready-Cut kit. In 1927, he married Ethel Hart of Portland and they established a successful and commercial orchard which included walnut, pecan, filbert, hazelnut, apple and plum trees. They also grew mushrooms and vegetables. After his wife, Ethel, died in 1944, he sold his original home, Baybrook, and built a new home, Shakesides, on the adjoining lot. He bequeathed the waterfront property to the Town of Comox and it became Mack Laing Nature Park — excerpted from content on the Mack Laing Heritage Society‘s website.

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