The Rockies

By the time I reach my hotel in Vancouver I am beyond tired. This is to be expected. To get this far I have risen dark and early on the East Coast and gone through the rigamarole that is airport security check in. I have flown all day in a cramped airplane seat across the country and over the border. My stamina has flagged as whatever was meant to pass for a meal along the way was, true to form, fairly inedible. I have stood in a seemingly endless line to clear customs, then boarded a bus in the rain to get across town to the hotel. My exhaustion is well-deserved and hard-won.

I have never been to Vancouver before and want so much to see the city. The length of the day, the time change, and the weather conspire against me and largely negate my excitement in the newness of the place. I walk around the hotel’s general vicinity, in search of a local eatery that will accommodate my off-hours hunger pangs. It does not strike me as a nice neighborhood, though not necessarily unsafe. I have to remind myself that no neighborhood will look nice to a person who is tired, wet, and starving. It’s a bit too wet for pictures, and there’s not much to see at this end of town. In the end I decide to go back and order room service. I have hopes of staying up and starting to readjust my schedule to West Coast time, but in the end biology wins out over intention. I fall asleep for the night at a ridiculously early hour.

In the early dark of the morning, I’m still tired but this time being on Eastern time is to my advantage. In any case, I have been so looking forward to this trip that I almost spring out of bed.

Today, I start a tour through the Canadian Rockies. In just a few hours, I board a train. I can barely contain my excitement.

I have planned ahead for the special packing preparations needed for the first night, so I’m in the somewhat shabby lobby well ahead of schedule. I’m not the only one; there’s a veritable sea of people, mostly older couples, milling about. It’s still raining outside. While we wait to be checked in and boarded onto busses to the depot, conversations are struck up. An old man with a sour expression grouses that he arrived a week ahead to give himself a chance to see Vancouver and Victoria, and it’s rained the whole time. I nod sympathtically, but I am thinking that I will not let anyone else’s outlook diminish the experience for me.

Eventually my name is called, my paperwork processed, my bags collected. It’s pouring. I’m sent to one of a string of buses lined up, glad to have a hood on against the rain. I wait, patiently, while they continue to fill the bus and then send us off to the depot. We snake through town in the gray dark of the morning. There’s a road closed for construction and we have to double back. My one big fear has been that I’ll miss my train and my vacation, and I have to remind myself that both the bus and the train are part of the same tour company. They aren’t going to let the train go without an entire bus of passengers.

The rain lets up to a slow drizzle as we reach the station. The sun is rising; the sky is a lighter gray now. I’m routed to the appropriate rail car. I have half expected that the seats will be reminiscent of airline seats in coach class. This is first class all the way. Roomy, comfortable. The views are nice. Better still: not only is the seat next to me empty, but so are the seats across the row. When the view is better to the other side of the train, there is availability to pop across the row to take pictures from there.

Eventually we are all boarded, and it’s time to go. The train slowly pulls away, and by instinct we wave wildly out the windows at the staffers outside. They wave back at us, smiling. Our tour guide is a slight young man. French Canadian, the accent hard to understand at times. But friendly, funny, charming. He feeds us elaborate meals and snacks every two hours. Surely people don’t eat this often even on cruises.

The newness of the experience is what makes the first day special. The rain continues all morning and into the afternoon. The pictures won’t come out, though not for lack of trying. The even rhythym of the train’s movement makes me want to fall asleep in my chair, but I make myself stay awake. The journey is the adventure; don’t miss it. The rain tapers off as we reach the edges of desert. I have not expected to see sage brush along this journey.

The tour company owns the train, but passenger trains must give way to the freight companies that own the rails. Periodically we are pulled aside and stopped as massive, heavy-laden trains roar past. Once we stop beside a small settlement, no more than 2 blocks square, beside the tracks.

We approach Kamloops, our stop for the night, as evening falls. Maybe it’s the cloud cover, but the sun doesn’t seem to set; the sky simply darkens around us. The hotel for the night is decidedly low-end but clean and there’s free internet connection in the lobby so I can send a quick word home. There’s a dinner show: the show suitably hokey; the food better than expected. When I am returned to my room for the night, I fall asleep almost instantly.

In the morning, buses take us back to our train. The sky has cleared, the gray now a pale perfect blue. The mountains around us are rounded and dark.

Back on board the train we head toward Jasper and the Rockies. The dull gray-green of sage becomes the bright yellow of fall aspens, then higher still into the dark green of spruce and pine. We break free of the hills that close us in, and can see snow-capped mountains. In Jasper it is drizzly again but the spectacle of the mountains is breathtaking.

I take the gondola up to Whistlers Summit. The rain below is snow up top. A family of Japanese tourists excitedly take pictures of each other. Above the tree line, there’s nothing but the bliinding white to provide a backdrop for the photos. I meet a pleasant girl from Australia who has been making her way across Canada for her vacation. The two of us take the same gondola back down the mountain. The snow and wind are increasing. As the gondola sways, ice on the wire breaks away periodically and falls with a bang on the roof. The lone crew member answers a phone call and then tells us that they’re closing the gondola down due to bad weather. Ours will be the last run until it clears. The tourists and staff up above are stranded until then.

On my second evening in Jasper, I find quiet little place for dinner. It’s the tail end of the tour season, and a few weeks until ski season takes over. The restaurant, like the town itself, is no longer packed with tourists. I people-watch through my meal. A young couple sits at the window, holding hands. A family with three small children orders pizza. Two older couples talk and laugh in the corner.

Afterwards I step outside into the whisper of flurries, and the owner follows me outside. He calls out to me, catches my sleeve, chats with me there on the stoop: Am I new in town and how long am I staying? Why would I be traveling alone through the Rockies? I smile, aware that I don’t fit the mold of the ‘typical’ tourist on this trip. I came because I wanted to see the mountains; I don’t mind traveling alone in order to get the chance. While we talk, his hand rests on my arm lightly, holding me there as he stands, coatless, in the cold to have this conversation.

I am so totally flirting-impaired that it is only much later, when I rethink what he said and how he said it, that it occurs to me that he was interested in me, chatting me up.

The rail portion of the adventure is ended. The remainder of the tour, from here to Calgary, will be by bus. Along the way we pass through 3 national parks; we cross the continental divide; we walk on a glacier. Lake Louise is unspeakably beautiful. God shows Himself faithful, and sets things miraculously right when they seem to go wrong.

The mountains sing to my soul. No matter how well any of the pictures turn out, they will not do justice to the beauty and majesty of this place.

We reach Banff, nestled in the arms of the mountains, late in the afternoon of the sixth day. There is still light and time to explore a bit, but I am mindful that the sun only needs to pass the peaks of the westernmost mountain range and the city will descend quickly into dusky twilight.I cross the main thoroughfare of picturesque storefronts. I stop to look down its length – the street ending at last at the foot of the mountain looming overhead. The streets are almost empty, but for a few couples walking hand in hand. I imagine how it must look in the ski season: the mountains white; the streets crowded with people.

The side streets are lined with pretty houses and churches. I add these to the sea of pictures I have taken along the journey, while the first tender snowflakes begin to form. They flit and float, perfect miniature stars on my eyelashes, in my hair.

I am thinking about the peace and beauty, thinking how happy and thankful I am to be here surrounded by such wonder in the high, high mountains —

— when I am suddenly overwhelmed by such a sharp ache of longing and loneliness that it takes my breath away. It’s not that I didn’t know it was possible to feel this way; only surprised that it has come now, here. For one exquisite, excruciating moment, the icy knife in my heart makes my breathing shallow. I can’t draw in any of the cold, crisp air. My eyes fill, blur. Is it possible to die from heartbreak?

And then I remember how to breathe. I blink. I shake off the nonsense as I remember that the loss I am tempted to grieve is no loss at all. I look up through tiny snowflakes at great mountains. I admire the Creator through the created.

I breathe. The air is clean and clear and fresh.

I am fine.
I am thankful.
I am … happy.

I finish my slow walking tour and find a place in town for dinner. I have a seat on the second floor, next to the window so I can take in the city as it darkens. A couple I recognize from the train come in shortly after me, and I invite them to join me. Below me, Banff is quietly filling with soft snow. The air is warmer than earlier. The walk back to the hotel is peaceful. The lights on the storefronts remind me of Christmas.

In the morning the sun is shining. We board the buses to head east. We stop to see the sulfur spring that put Banff on the map. We stop to see hoodoos. The highest mountains are behind us. We make our way out of the Rockies, to the plains. The land is almost emphatically flat by comparison. The drive stretches out for hours of gray sky over pastures. Herds of cows graze on yellowed grass. In spite of myself, I sleep.

I wake to much of the same, but I am more alert to the surroundings now. The fields give way to housing, gives way to city. We are approaching Calgary. I am trying to see all of it through my window as we approach. The sky is still gray. Then we are in the city, and the sky is lost overhead. The hotel is in the heart of the city. I am on the upper floors, but the buildings around it are taller still. My view is of other rooms: hotel suites, office buildings.

I have dinner with one of the women from the tour. She leaves in the morning, so we go together to see the Calgary Tower, while she has time.

Calgary lies below us. The Rockies beckon in the distance. I am able to walk on the glass floor, as long as I don’t look down into the freefall while I do.

We walk a few blocks of the city on our way back to the hotel, trying the Plus 15’s. We aren’t really in Calgary if we don’t try them, after all. Where we try them, however, proves to be in a part of town that we belatedly realize we shouldn’t linger in. We are glad there are two of us, but at the same time we know that each of us is as much liability as protection for the other. We find our way out into the open again, as quickly as possible. We laugh nervously, once we achieve safety. Bravado reasserts itself. The city has fallen slowly into a gray twilight. She has an early flight to Toronto; we end the evening early.

My final day in Calgary has no firm agenda. I am up and out before the city is ready to start its day. I walk through Chinatown, as it slowly wakes. I get to the Glenbow Museum as it opens, and spend the morning there. On my way out, I run into two couples from the tour, and the five of us have lunch together.

The sun has come out; the day is warm, the sky is blue. I peel off extraneous layers as I walk the city. Art museums. Shops. Statues of cows, each decorated with a theme reflecting the group that sponsored it, punctuate the city. I am in a wonderful mood. I can see how someone could be happy in this place. No accompanying ache comes with the thought.

I walk up to the river. It sparkles in the sunshine, as does my spirit.

A few hours later, I gather my things and head to my final hotel for the trip. It’s not in the city, but up past it, near the airport. There’s a scenic overlook point on the top floor, and my room is next to it. The sky is still clear, and I realize that since I arrived, I had not seen sunshine, a sunset, or stars … until today. I am content to watch the sun go down. It sets Calgary on fire. The snowcapped Rockies glitter in the light. Then the sun slowly dips past their peaks, casting their shadow back toward me. The stars slowly appear, one by one. I stay to visit with them.

I have loved the mountains, but I have missed the sky. My flight is early in the morning. We take off into the rising sun.

Copyright © 2009


~ by lorakceel on March 13, 2010.

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