Across Canada by Car

Road tripping through the Canadian Rockies in search of a polar bear

<strong>Lake Louise, Banff National Park</strong><br><em>AP Photo/Gerry Broome</em>

The figurine sat on our mantel for almost a decade. It was a small Lladro polar bear, purchased in a gift shop just off the main lobby of the Chateau Lake Louise. The bear cost me about eighty dollars, which seemed like an extravagant amount at the time. I sprung for it anyway, because Lake Louise marked the last stop on a honeymoon road trip that had taken Calene and me from Vancouver, over the Canadian Rockies, on a wilderness highway lined with soaring peaks and ice-cold rivers that ran clear.

I had marched into the gift shop searching for a keepsake to remember that auspicious journey. Sweatshirts and shot glasses just didn't seem appropriate. That little Lladro bear represented Canada and had a permanence that bespoke a certain emotional heft that would remind us of our adventurous drive each and every time we looked at it.

And for ten years, it did just that. But as Calene and I moved from our small condo into our first house, I carefully wrapped that polar bear in newspaper and placed it inside a box for the trip from one mantel to the next. Then it disappeared. To this day, I don't know whatever happened to that box. I searched and searched, but could not find it.
Thus began a quest to replace it. But not just any Lladro store would do, and I certainly couldn't purchase it alone. Sooner or later, Calene and I would have to road trip through Canada once again, if only to visit that gift shop. Not long ago, we finally did just that.

The Trip

Garry Sowerby is an old friend with an unusual job description: Professional road trip arranger. Sowerby's company, Odyssey Adventures, is often hired by auto companies to escort bigwigs and journalists on test-drives of their new vehicles. Sowerby conducts these boondoggles all over the world, selecting each trip based on the vehicle.

Baffin Island, once used to prepare astronauts for lunar landings, was perfect for Hummers.  The California desert was ideal for the sporty Subaru Outback. When Buick came calling looking for a place to test their new Lucerne, Sowerby--a resident of Nova Scotia--immediately thought of the Trans-Canadian Highway. This 4,857-mile tongue of pavement stretches from the Atlantic to the Pacific, a smooth thoroughfare with wide shoulders that makes Canada's open spaces and rugged wilderness accessible to any driver.

It was Sowerby, a tall and serene former military pilot, who brought us back to Canada as part of his Buick excursion. I was eager to say yes when he called about Canada, but also a little hesitant. I have driven on six continents and dozens of countries since that honeymoon road trip, but none of those journeys even remotely compared. The Canadian Rockies of my memory were a pristine and inviting wilderness, almost entirely devoid of tourists and chains. What if it was different the second time? What if it was slick and commercial and little repugnant?  But I gave in to the allure and was glad that I did.

The Canadian Rockies had grown up, with more amenities and bigger crowds ogling the spectacular emerald-colored lakes and ominous glaciers. But if anything, the mountains were more wondrous than I remembered.

So, worries quickly set aside, I began to not only absorb the wonder and beauty as the trip unwound, but to meditate on the very nature of a great road trip.  What components set them apart and make them great? Here's what I came up with. 

Short Days and Plenty of Stops

The Canadian Rockies rise abruptly from the windswept prairie outside Calgary, starting first as a series of low rolling hills carpeted in firs and pines, and then jutting upward to form great jagged peaks that block the late afternoon sun. When Scotsman Alexander McKenzie first charted the region on his transcontinental journey in 1793, he made careful note of his surroundings, and so did we.

The trip began upon arrival at the Calgary Airport, and could very easily have lapsed into the standard road trip format: On the road early, drive hundreds of miles, gobble a hurried lunch, drive hundreds of miles more, find some chain hotel, and collapse into bed. Repeat daily until finished. Covering as many miles in a day as possible is the primary purpose.

But the Rockies are worth savoring so this trip offered a chance to reform my ways. Besides, the Buick Lucerne was a deceptively powerful car, with all the prerequisites of a great road-trip vehicle--speed, legroom, comfortable seats and a kick-ass sound system--there seemed no point in hurrying. 

Seek out the Falkridges of the World

From the Calgary Airport we drove just forty miles that first day, spending the night at a wondrous retreat center known as Falkridge. The purpose was to decompress after a day of air travel, so that we could start fresh in the morning. Falkridge perches on a forested hilltop, facing west toward the Rockies. Our bedroom featured picture windows that let in the setting sun, and dinner was served in a small gazebo. Atop the gazebo was a lookout tower that offered a 360-degree view of the spectacular and undeveloped countryside, from which we gazed out across the long wilderness valley leading to the mountains. The setting sun rendered the granite peaks a slowly-changing palette of purple, pink and mauve, like a landscape painting come to life.

The next morning we drove up the Trans-Canadian to Banff. Again, the mileage was short, just one hundred and twenty miles. Calene and I stopped at the Cochrane Ranch Provincial Historic Site, which was the location of Alberta's first ranch in 1881. Normally, I would never have taken the time to seek out a place like Falkridge, or to veer off the highway and wander through the ruins of an ill-fated ranch. But those two simple experiences added inestimably to the trip. They sparked conversation and that all-important road trip bond between passengers in the car was strengthened.

Calene and I were not just powering across Canada, gazing out the window and pulling over now and then to ogle something spectacular. We were investing ourselves in the landscape, the culture and the journey, in a way that merely opening a map and aiming the car down the highway could never accomplish. All it took was a personal mandate to make the journey, not the destination, the road trip's focal point.

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