The Road to Banff

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Alberta comes in two flavours. Extra high bumpy white top and extra flat pancake brushfire. The flat bits are covered with a network of underground pipes and above ground well heads and other equipment harvesting the vast supply of natural gas and perhaps a few pockets of oil that are supposedly larger than that those reserves of Middle East, that vast milk shake of energy we have been drinking for about an hundred years. The mountains in Alberta start suddenly, with little warning of foothills and increasing slopes and shoot up to grand monsters, huge giants covered on the top with snows and glaciers even at the end of another Global Warming Summer.
I entered the road to the mountains from Calgary, a city of far greater charm than its sister to the north but yet utilitarian as only Canadians and Communists can. Tin boxes, houses made of cement that seem carved from solid blocks, and American-style suburbs except filled with the cultural mosaic promoted by the Ministry of Culture/Culture d’Ministry Avec d’Canada rather than that found in the United States of the segregated melting pot. The road out drove as an arrow across fields of gas and soy/bulgier/wheat/sorghum/gas/oil and then passed through reservations which as all reservations across The North Americas are sad sprinklings of First Peoples and Third World problems. Beyond the last Casino, I entered the mountains. Grand and fantastic and very true to their name, Rocky. I am glad that the people of the world generally name Nature in simpler and more obvious terms than they describe human actions and contours. At least we don’t name the features of the landscape or the beasts of the earth the way hipster bars name their drinks. However much fun it would be to drive through the Ten O’Clock Twin City Tea Mountains.
The road pushes in and the roadside crap-o-la of Canada drops off to nothing but the hush of forest and eight lanes of well-maintained and perhaps brand new highway. Canada is indeed an environmentally aware nation, yet they have that other side to them. The whole tar-sand James Bay Hydro strip mine clear cut strip mall way of them too where they can take an area of beauty and make it resemble a pile of shit tossed hard by a Bonobo monkey on a hot day in Tijuana. In Edmonton there is the Mall that was so big it made the National Geographic Magazine back in the 80s. I had ducked inside this monster city of mall and indeed it was grand. I rented ice skates and enjoyed the rink. I stared at the water park (closed for the day for some reason) and watched the highly attractive keeper of the highly unattractive sea lion feed her charge next to the pirate ship (also closed for the day). Then there is the wilds. Deep landscapes of nothing that continue for mile… ahem… kilometer after kilometer and perhaps this grand and sometime bleak open space compensates for the large malls, commercial strips, and fugly housing stock clustered about places with names like Red Deer, Oil Rig Junction, and The Gates of Hell. None of these signs of development were on the road to Banff.
IMG_2756I had a late start having had work that day so night fell as I came to the village close to Banff where I had a hotel. I had to complete some work the next day too, so my schedule was not my own and the Autumn days had been already growing short for those of us lower down on the parallels. I made for an early morning since I had a call with the East Coast and as I chattered away explaining something or other, the sun rose up and revealed the mountains I had not seen in the night. My cheesy little motel room opened on to a grand palace of a view, the sun bringing to light the blue gray rocks and the deep greens of the woods, the umber of clay and sands and the brilliant yellow leafs and white dapple and black marked birch trees in colorful explosions bringing to mind classic northern poetry or scenes of Russian tiga I had seen briefly from the train or the wall paper of certain individuals who thought a print of a forest on the wall would make their single-wide look that much bigger.
When I had discharged by duties, I made for the outdoors. The chill in the air was strong and my short walk down the little nature trail in the center of town told me I needed to put on everything I owned for that trip. The drive from my hotel in the little town took me back to the highway in order to reach Banff. I had not a solid plan, so I took a detour to the right rather than the left and wandered the often narrow roads from one stunning view to another. Had I a pin hole camera made by the F Troupe Cub Scouts or a disposable camera bought from a gas station outside of Reading, West Virginia (the kind with the $3 showers, I know, yuck right?) I am sure that every shot would make it into at least in to Nature Magazine if not grace the cover of that famed National Geographic. Stands of birch lit up by the sun exclaiming the end of summer. Rock faces built up in the sky, the clouds having to beg around them and some far off taller ones dabbed with a hint of snow this was the land of pristine-looking vistas and stunning lakes I can only imagine hold fishies I wanted to nibble on or turn into sushi.
After running low on fuel, since this tour of God’s Majesty was brought to me by Human’s Fall and I knew I was leaving a trail of minor shavings from certain ball bearings, some oil from tyres if not a little dust of synthetic material and perhaps a few drops of oil or lubricant as well as the usual fumes from combustion, I found my way to Banff and again was stunned. Rather than the box-d-cement or strip-o-bullshit or even the plastic pirate ships of the Edmonton Mall, I came across a town so picturesque and perfect in what you want Canada to look like that I imagine it indeed the work of Six Flags and Disney and not the happy accident that everyone agreed to build something wonderful and out of logs if not stone and brick. I know Banff is money, and the upper money classes can shape beauty when they have to, and for a moment I wondered if rather than people I had a disdain for poor people, as fraught with social ostracizing and self-loathing as that position may entail since I am one pay cheque away from poverty at any given moment and socially connected with as many of similar fate and position.
I at once made for the souvenir shop.
IMG_2973As well as the usual crap I had to bring home to this one or that one, I hoped to find some cheap hoodie or warm something I could afford. While the sun was dipping ever past the meridian I was intent on visiting the glaciers of Banff, located not at the The Shinning-style hotel on the outside of town, but the next huge hotel further off. I bought my allotment of crap, and managed to get a hockey jersey for cheap and that would have to do. I toured the village a quick spin and again to the highway. The highway was changing nature and there were weird overpasses… not for roads but for migratory animals. I could only imagine our most Red State people and their anger at these frivolous additions to the world of Nature at the expense of some tax payer, I am sure. Or oil company drilling away happily elsewhere. A younger kid at the hotel bar where I stayed claimed the mountains were logged, clear-cut to the nub but only on the other side of the mountain not facing the highway, as opposed to how we Yankees do it back in The States. I had not the knees of the hike nor the time to confirm this claim. I made for the parking lot of the hotel. The sun was setting hard, the lake blasted light up to all viewers. I consulted the maps at hand and pondered the time in and out, looked at more maps since I had to be in Edmonton this night in order to catch an early morning flight, so I had to weigh the time taken on the road as well as the potential that I was not prepared for a hike, I was still wearing office shoes. Nevertheless, I made a deal with myself, the same deal an addict makes and written on the same quality paper a deal meant to be broken at the right time and for the best reasons, because we addicts cannot help ourselves. We must push extra hard where others fall behind since some deep part of me needed to walk, touch, or see that glacier especially since it was advertised as not just one, but a convergence. It is pride. The Sin of Pride that pushed me. And that with each step, nature grew about me in a stark and mesmerizing way so that at my “turn back point” that end of the lake where I could view the hotel in the distance, see the mountains on both sides, and yet make it to the car before sun down, the chanting and evil bell of adventure rung and as a drone filled my ears and I looked on. Also, there was a sign that said “Tea House.”
IMG_2755Fuck.. Yeah. Tea house? I am from Gothem. I don’t care if it is closed, I am making it to the Tea House on the glacier. I would walk as far for a taco served out of a truck parked under a highway if it was recommended. I will Yelp the shit out of this experience. I had a goal to my quest that ensured there was to be no turning back. So I drew deep into the skills I have having grown up in the Catskill Mountains. No joke, I think these skills have prepared me for quite a few adventures and while the Mountains of Rocky are much more grande, the cloves and gorges of Patter Van Winkle’s dear sleeping grounds are well suited practice for other environments and I have gotten beyond middle age using these fare skills and have not sufficiently matured to actually be concerned or not get wrapped up in the whole quest thing, a thing I am sure Professor von Blah Blah Blah would said points to an undeveloped such-n-such of the scrotal-labial cremaster.
The Tea House Quest was on. I knew I had to make up for time so I tied up by shoes, put on my now lucky hockey jersey and jogged on hopping from rock to rock to avoid the ice patches that were already gripping the trail. I knew if I kept moving I would not mind the cold. I passed a few very confused couples in their sports gear, water bottles, shells and coats, sensible hiking boots as I jogged past in wingtips and a XXL hockey jersey and two pairs of pants on. I had forgotten all about the appearance of my survival gear and just spoke to them as normal only later in the depth of a selfie actually catching the state I was presenting myself to society. I did not care. I kept on, pushing up and up seeing more of the ice and counting the minutes until sunset, looking at rocks and trees that may help guide me back in the dark if not the tail end of the gloaming.
The trail became more difficult, even hugged a cliff with a life line as a guide and the patches of ice predictably grew in number and size. I faltered a moment but then saw the sign to the Tea House ever closer so I pushed on and for that was rewarded.
IMG_2909The first Tea House was built in the 1920s or so. I can only imagine the alpine wonder that those days presented visitors. Most traveled to this spot on horse, a service still available and yes, I am sure the ice pack was deeper before the Age of Climate Change (Change d’Climate). The building had been rebult a few times but always in more-or-less the same style and location. While originally an Alpine vibe, the neo-Canadians of the middling classes had decorated the structure with Asian religious prayer flags, perhaps Tibetan, and this still fit as well as added to the epochal mosaic as well as the satisfying sense of accomplishment that no quest would end in ice alone but a temple to that ice and whatever gods came to call there. Yes… I have seen too much of… insert Spirited Away Director name here, he must be in IMDB.
And as I watched the clouds fall over the ice grounds after creeping over the zenith of the ridge, I also noted that indeed the hour was late and that I was ill equipped to spend nightfall out here in the cold forests of the Ice Giants and Stone Gods. I made for the way back with haste. I passed the couples still making their way up in their gear as I bounded down the trail, how much farther to the Tea house, well not much farther indeed I was just there and you will enjoy it well and I continued on my way. As the grounds grew dark the animals skittering about increased and these mice or whatever they were startled me but not as much as a porcupine who meandered onto the trail and sat there defying me to pass. As he moved I made up time and reached the hotel parking lot quite cold despite my vigor sportive efforts and fatigued at the miles I had condensed into but a short few hours. I mean kilometers.IMG_2916
It was perhaps because of this fatigue I missed the turn off to Edmonton and made by mistake a journey that took several hours out of my night. It was well into the evil hours of night before I was on the Glacier Highway and while the road was narrow and fraught with frost heaves, I pushed hard and fast trying to make Edmonton first before midnight… then one…. Then three… then focusing on just making my six AM flight. While the moon was not out, there was enough ambient light to see that I was going through stunning territory and I stopped every not and again to jump about the car, admiring the wilderness and attempting to shake off the nods that were threatening my safety. It had been a long, long time since I drove with the nods, and I did not miss having avoided that condition for some time.
I had thought my quest was over when I reached the Tea House on top of the world. However, in retrospect, it was but the first leg on a long quest home, one that had me drive all night through the high peeks and returned back to the flat lands of the prairie to drive even further on to the night life of Edmonton.
When I came to the gas station in town, I was frantically searching for a way to find the car rental agency in order to drop my car and get to the airport. My phone-cum-computer was down since I did not have an International Plan and my map skills had degenerated in the decade I have used MapQuest(tm) and other such services. The gas station was set on by Goth kids, bored and sober and still bored even after their rave or convert or whatever. I set upon a taxi driver and asked him as to where I was and how to get from point A to point B, He offered to guide me, so I followed him to the closed and dark car rental agency, jumped in his cab, and made off to the airport to just make the flight before the door closed.
On the flight back, I was in that state of someone awake yet dreaming of all I saw in a pastiche with my eyes yet open as colors of day, the stars lighting the snow at night, the late gas stations and jitters from too many energy drinks blended together. Was there really a Tea House on the road to Banff?
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