As another day of seemingly-endless driving rolled by between the grubby oil town of Fort St. John and the abundant beauty of Jasper, we talked about what was working on the trip, and what wasn’t. This much driving, without hikes or a really sweet destination, wasn’t working. We were both tired of being in the car for up to ten hours except for brief stops to take a picture, stretch our legs, or sample the local color at roadside restaurants, and day 17 makes four in a row of those.
“Well, we have proved there is still a lot of room in the world,” Mike said, as we looped down into yet another stunning valley, cleft by a rippling stream and bordered by cottonwoods and aspen, punctuated by the dark note of pines.
“And we’ve settled the question of whether or not there are enough trees,” I replied, gesturing to the rolling hills covered in green of various shades. Today’s drive took us through farmland in the area surrounding Fort St. John: fields of canola, hay and alfalfa, rich and groomed as a good clip on a show dog. Further along, heavy road work slowed our pace with the gouging and reshaping of entire hillsides for miles, and then we got back into more trees. Mike and I took turns taking naps and driving.
We passed a coal mine and energy plant, every bit as darkly dramatic as I’d read about in various stories, but it was tidier than I’d been led to expect. A whole side of a mountain was pulled down into various levels of black rubble, and on the floor of the valley a vast, shiny black mountain of coal was being backhoed into trucks. The power plant part of the operation boasted a lot of pipes and metal buildings and power lines sprouted from it like a chia pet.
We ran into trouble in Grande Cache, the only food/gas place for 86 km in any direction. After a surprisingly wonderful lunch at a restaurant filled with old dudes playing cards, Mike went to pay and found he was missing his credit card. He realized he’d forgotten it back in Fort St. John, where it got left in the gas station. He called, and the guy said he’d cut it up—then he called our lovely Bank of America and got an automated response that canceled BOTH our cards at the touch of a button, which wasn’t what he’d wanted to do, of course.
It took us a hundred miles or so to calm down and work that through. Fortunately we each had our own personal card, so we’re still able to get through the trip, but that was our main card and having it disappear so quickly and with terrible customer service was upsetting. Things seemed on a downward trend as we finally, really tired by then, rolled into the Sunwapta Falls Resort/Lodge in Jasper National Park. The place was completely booked and they put us in a tiny, dim room out by the roaring electrical generator (room 19A. Avoid it if you can.) It was so depressing that Mike tried to get us a different room, but none were available, so we dropped our bags and fled out into the beautiful park, still light and lovely at 10:00pm.
“I’m just tired of driving,” I sniffled as Mike looked for a place to shoot the sunset. The park is big. Very big. Like, hours of driving big. I’d wanted to take a shower and write my blog post, but the room was not only uninspiring, the wi-fi didn’t work out there. First world problems, I know, but I was tired and fussy.
“Me too. But we can’t do anything about it, so let’s just enjoy the beauty.”
We pulled into a tiny parking lot and there, hidden among trees, was parked an older camper. Seated by the rushing, powerful milky-green river were a couple about our age. They sat in camp chairs watching the sunset over the water, the peaks lit by gold. I felt bad disturbing their solitude and struck out on a path through the woods along the river to pull myself together.
“Be here now,” I told myself sternly, looking at the long flare of the setting sun lighting the snow-streaked crags, the rush of the river filling my ears, nothing but nature all around. Which meant bears, but I kept a good eye out and after getting my frazzle under control, headed back to sit with Mike on a picnic table next to the other couple.
“Do you want us to move?” the guy asked. He looked like a man of action and his companion too, both dressed in athletic wear. So many of the Canadians we’ve met have been older, and stout, or young families traveling in boisterous pods. But at every park there are also the highly-fit athletes, toting mountain bikes, wearing lycra and running shoes, their bodies wrapped in climbing rope. This couple reminded me of us—athletically inclined, but comfortably padded in middle age.
“No, no, of course not,” Mike said. We were both surprised at this offer to move so he could get a better photo. We were the ones invading their space. Mike was doing a time lapse which didn’t require attention every minute, and sitting beside me on the tabletop, he put his arm around me and gave me a squeeze. “Are you okay?”
He knew everything that I was feeling. I didn’t have to tell him. And actually, he didn’t have to ask. That’s the gift of being married this long.
“I will be,” I said. I was letting go of expectations and entering into now. Expectations are the number one reason for unhappiness. Happiness is a choice and a practice.
Someone asked me what we’ve been talking about on this road trip, how we pass so much time in each other’s company. We don’t actually talk a lot of the time. Long stretches of driving are in comfortable silence, or listening to oldies rock which we both like. Other times, something will spark a thought or idea, and we’ll go deep, reviewing our lives together, the paths taken and not taken, how the kids are doing and what we wish for them, and we plan our next trip or build castles in the air for our old age. We talk about friends, and our church, and each of us talks about our artistic work, gets ideas and feedback about it from the other.
A lot of why I like a road trip (even one that’s too long in places, as this one has been) is so that Mike and I can be together like this. We are almost symbiotic. It’s weird and wonderful and not how we are at home, where we’re like kids playing in two different sandboxes side-by-side.
Anyway, the Canadian guy suddenly asks us, “Would you like some tea?”
“We’d love that,” Mike said, correctly interpreting my thoughts as he’s done almost 100% accurately on this trip. (Usually I’m not that social, but today I really needed some sort of positive encounter with other humans.) The guy went to his camper and fixed a big pot of Red Rose tea and put it in cups for us, and we had a lovely visit hearing about their travels “weekends when we can get away in the camper to explore our beautiful backyard,” and we told the saga of ours. We didn’t get their names, but we left when it was fully dark, feeling our spirits refreshed by their kindness and hospitality.
On the way back to our lodge we both remarked on how lovely Canadians are (again.) We’d passed a big billboard in one of the towns: Courtesy Matters. We both commented on how that would get graffitied if it were put up in the United States. This politeness, which creates harmony and kindness, is a group norm. I wish we had more of it in the USA.
“It’s amazing the way they reached out of us. If it was us, sitting there on the bank, we’d have resented the intrusion of other people,” I said. We looked at each other, a little ashamed, but knowing it was the truth.
I plan keep a little of that Canadian spirit alive in my heart.