Wednesday, January 4, 2012

SFTR: The Maple Leaf Adventure

I used to write these blog posts daily, or almost that often. I just do not have that kind of time anymore, and I have no expectation for this to change in the foreseeable future. However, I was touched that a couple of you have written me to encourage me to continue writing occasionally about my travels. One day, I hope to publish something about my travels, perhaps with a focus on my photos, but I cannot see when that will happen. As such, I resort to the ubiquitous blog approach. I'm an everyman, I guess.


This past summer, I spent a wonderful week in southwest Canada. My mother joined me on a 5000+-mile road trip to Vancouver and the Canadian Rockies with the start and end point of Lincoln, NE. When asked, I describe the trip as the vacation of a lifetime. Cliche, I know, but it certainly was the most wonderful week of traveling I have ever experienced. As much as I look forward to flights to Europe and Asia in the near future, there will always be something about the road trip that remains closest to my wandering soul. Here are a couple of short vignettes regarding the trip...


Short Story 1: Vancouver, BC

Getting to Vancouver required 27 hours of driving between Mother and me. We had a stopover in Ogden, UT (beautiful), before driving to one of my favorite routes in the US: Interstate 84 (western US). There is something special about the vast landscapes of northeast Utah and southern Idaho, the dry hills of eastern Oregon, and the steppes of northern Oregon that thrill me like no other freeway in the country. We reached the Washington Cascades by dusk, and had a painless transition to Canada.

We arrived in Vancouver around 11 pm local time. We stayed in a small hotel in the downtown area that was once an apartment complex. The floor was "close to burgundy", according to Mom, and the rooms smelled of very old cigarette smoke. As pleasant as this sounds, I loved the hotel. It seemed strangely authentic. The hotel was what I expect hotels in major cities to be like. My experiences in New York City, Toronto, and Montreal have been very similar. Cosmetically, the hotel is a zero, but figuratively, they are strangely appealing -- even quirky.

As Mom and I escaped the lung cancer early the next day, the beauty of Vancouver emerged. There are some cities that deserve a nighttime arrival. Las Vegas comes immediately to mind. The blinding light that spans the horizon driving over the mountains to the south is one of my most memorable traveling experiences. Vancouver does not deserve this approach, however. The key to Vancouver's beauty is its symbiotic relationship with nature. The towering mountains to the north, the deep blues of the water, and the high-albedo glass of the man-made towers all gel in such a magical way. Vancouver at night is beautiful, but Vancouver in daylight is sublime.

We first walked to Stanley Park, and during the trek, we gradually realized just how stunning of a place this was. We emerged from the glass towers to a beautiful and big city park that provides endless views of the skyline. Really, this is the best way to appreciate the city. It's big, it's beautiful, and it knows it.

After a six-mile walk around Stanley Park, Mom took a short nap, leaving me to experience downtown on my own. After stopping for an obligatory Asian meal, I walked to Canada Place. It turns out that Vancouver thrives when the sky behaves. The views of the city in the hours just before sunset are some of my most treasured. There is something electric about the photos I took here. The beautiful blue sky, the stunning glass towers, the alpenglow, and the complementary water all seemed vibrant and alive. It's a walk that I remember fondly and fiercely today.

I've talked about these moments before. Transcendental experiences, which are virtually always unplanned, that only observing can provide. The fact that I was alone at the time made it all the more mystical. It was as if I was the sole arbiter of this confluence of events -- that I was somehow manufacturing this scene. I'll never forget it.


Short Story 2: Lake Louise at Dusk

A trip to Banff National Park requires a stop at Lake Louise. It is the quintessential tourist trap, but the natural beauty of the scene overwhelms the man-made nonsense. It is absolutely one of the most beautiful places in the world, and I remember thinking as I watched the mystical clouds left over from a passing shower that I may never see something as beautiful again.

At the time, the magic of the scene overpowered the obviously depressing conclusion I had just made. If I were to never see anything so beautiful again, would my travels from here on forever be "almost as good" or "second tier"? I walked in the streets of Banff that night, asking myself, "What do I do from here?" Will I ever see anything as satisfying again? Not a question I wanted to be asking myself at age 29.

Then again, I had briefly forgotten what travel is about. The best moments, the most cherished memories, are the spontaneous ones. I would hardly call Lake Superior the most beautiful place in the world, but a drive at sunrise to the tune of "The Fortress of Solitude" will be one of the greatest vacation moments I will have. It's not always about scenery, in other words.

The following day, Mom and I returned to Lake Louise to hike the Plain of the Six Glaciers trail. We reached the top of the trail after a glorious two-hour hike through the beautiful snow-covered spires outlining the lake. And at the top features a beautiful log cabin offering tea and assorted snacks. The meal with the pitter-patter of raindrops hitting the logs already exceeded the lake scene the previous day.

I know people who exclusively travel in a small area surrounding their home. I know people who won't travel outside of the US, even though they have the financial capability to do so. Here I am, in this treasured moment, rain falling in the fog-laden mountains. Nowhere else in the world I would rather be. A neighboring table features a family of four from Japan. The other side of us, two lifelong friends hiking all over the world share some hummus. Below us, a group of sixteen kids is treated to a hearty lunch and hot cocoa from their proud adult leaders. Nowhere else in the world could I have had this experience.

Lake Louise is beautiful, but the memories only begin with the photographs. What I vividly remember are the moments, like this one. All at once, everyone sighs. A glacier clinging to the mountain has calved, and a thunderous cascade of melting ice flows down the cliff. The pitter-patter of rain was our universal applause.