I always expected that the middle third of our outbound trip would be the most psychologically difficult. We’ve been getting further from home with every mile yet are still a very long way from road’s end, and it’s been difficult to strike the right balance between keeping the driving days manageable and making enough progress to feel like we won’t be on the road for all eternity. Moreover, I know from her tone of voice on the telephone that this stage has been tough on Belinda, too.
But things are looking brighter. Tonight, we’re holed up in Hinton, Alberta, and by perhaps lunchtime tomorrow we should make Dawson Creek, BC—Milepost Zero for the Alaska Highway, the beginning of the end for our outbound journey. Tonight I had the first chance since we left to have a substantive phone conversation (beyond routine checking in) with my beautiful and tolerant (and lonesome) wife. And firm plans are taking shape for her joining us for the middle third of the return journey.
Some notables from the last few days:
- On Tuesday, we camped at Belly River in Waterton Lakes National Park (Canada’s sister unit for our Glacier). We were worried that the little campground there might be full by the time we arrived, but we found it absolutely empty. We enjoyed such a quiet night that we found ourselves ludicrously annoyed when two cars rumbled through during breakfast the next morning.
We had it all to ourselves. Why this place wasn’t overrun is still a mystery.
The wind was just right to break out the big kite for her maiden flight.
- We spent much of Wednesday afternoon at a place called Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, a UNESCO World Heritage Site where the Blackfoot people (before horses and firearms had been introduced by European contact) hunted bison by stampeding them off a cliff (that’s an exceptionally condensed summary of a fascinating and complex practice). This site is well worth the visit—the haunting physical location and first-class interpretive center made quite an impression on the boys.
- Driving north from Great Falls, Montana you can’t help but be struck by the emptiness of the landscape, the feeling that you’re coming to the end of things. It’s just too cold and lonely way up there. And then you cross the border and continue north into Alberta and the country strangely starts filling up again until you reach Calgary, a sprawling and gleaming ultra-modern metropolis that feels like a city the Sunbelt somehow misplaced. Driving through on the third day of summer, I had trouble imagining it ever being cold and snowy and dark there.
- Banff is a funny place. I think about it in comparison to Jackson, WY . . . Jackson might also be touristy and glitzy and expensive (and not without its charms) but at least it’s tucked away in the southern end of the valley and doesn’t sit smack-dab in the heart of the Teton’s signature scenery. Banff shows no such modesty. Then again, the Canadian Rockies have so much signature scenery that one jaw-dropping valley can be “sacrificed” for a township. In particular, all 140 miles of the Icefields Parkway heading north through Banff N.P. into Jasper N.P. had scenery so numbingly spectacular and pristine that, had I been in a pull-over-and-take-a-picture mood, the traverse might have taken us two days.
- That said, Lake Louise did not live up to my expectations. Any mountain hiker worth his or her salt has been to numerous alpine tarns of equal or greater beauty that didn’t have an incongruously modern hotel and parking lots packed with tour buses at one end.
The obligatory snapshot. Thousands of other people were taking one, so I had to, too.
- The interpretive portion of the Athabasca Glacier visitor center (sorry, I mean “centre”) in Jasper N.P. was very, very well done. The gift shop, however, was a joke, filled with the same useless trinkets that you might find in a Gatlinburg T-shirt shop. I’m struck by the irony that downstairs they hit you with displays extolling conservation and living in harmony with the earth while right above they push mindless consumer dreck like Canada shot-glasses and Jasper N.P. ashtrays. And I’m reminded of the wisdom shown by our own National Park Service in turning over visitor-center gift shop duties to non-profit natural history associations. Instead of Gatlinburg T-shirt shops, we get independent niche booksellers.
If all goes well, by this time next week we’ll be in Fairbanks. The roads get awfully (wonderfully) lonely from this point . . .