August 9, 2004
Dawn came early this far north and Daris was up with the sun, followed shortly by her parents. I moved out on to the porch and sat in the cold air and sun, watching Mount Robson and thinking about the near future. I had to get back to Calgary sometime relatively soon since Mark and Kristine were leaving for a trip to Miami in a few days and I wanted to see them before the summer ended. After a feast of blueberry pancakes, cooked up by the parents, we packed our gear and said our last goodbyes. Daris and Paula were riding back to Chilliwack with Daris' parents, while I was going to get a lift to Jasper with Paula's parents, who were picking up a box that the ladies had left at the PO in Jasper before continuing on to Edmonton to visit with the aunt whose shirt I was wearing. Paula slipped Ian's partly empty bottle of Crown Royale into my pack, and Daris' mother put the last can of Canadian in the outside pocket. And that was it. As we rolled down the HWY 93, I already missed the two women that I had met not long ago. I missed their smiles and constant joy at life, their happiness at simply existing.
Jasper appeared just as it had when I we had left it for the NBT trailhead, but perhaps was a little more attractive. The tourists and RVs and diesel trucks bothered me less, for some reason. I parted with Paula's parents and thanked them for the lift, but I should have thanked them for their daughter and what she had become under their tutelage. I grabbed a cup of Princess of Darkness at a coffee shop and found my way over to Gravity Gear, the climbing store whose employees had been so helpful before. The same person was there once again and we chatted about the NBT and Jasper in general. He suggested that I try asking at a few tourist companies to see if anyone had a charter van heading back to Banff. Tourists just didn't go further north than Jasper or Robson and the chances of getting a cheap lift seemed good. I thanked him once again for all his help and set off to find a ride to Banff. Greyhound wanted a lot of money and a very long ride to get me to Calgary via Edmonton, of all places, and the first tour company I stopped in at didn't have anything going south anytime soon. Standing in front of the company storefront, I pondered my options. Just as I was setting out to querry Parks Canada, one of the managers tracked me down and said that there was an empty van heading to Banff in a few hours and that I could ride along with it for a cheap fare. All was set.
I stopped in to Parks Canada to give them a trail update for the NBT, and noted with some disappointment that their warning about the crossing of the Maligne was still up, despite what I had told them more than a week ago. I found a Korean restaurant called House of Kimchee and ate a delightful lunch of kimchi stew before making my way to McDonalds for a coke and a strawberry shake. I bought a paper and retired to the park to drink my whiskey and coke, followed by the shake, and to read the newspaper. After polishing off both drinks, I poured the Canadian into the empty paper cup and drank my beer through a straw. Civilization was catching up with me fast.
With still more time on my hands, I called mother to tell her that I was okay and then Mark and Kristine to let them know that I would be getting into Calgary today, most likely, or perhaps tomorrow depending on the transport options in Banff. I got neither on the line, but was able to leave a message. Still, nothing to do. I returned to the park and wished I had some more beer. I could easy buy some and drink it, carefully, in the park. Walking to the liquor store seemed like too much work, so I simply sat and did nothing. Doing nothing used to see so pure and joyful, but now that I was done hiking it seemed somehow lazy, and not lazy in a good sense either. I tried to raise Mark and Kristine again, but failed once again. However, they had apparently gotten my earlier message and changed their voice mail greeting, telling me that they would meet me at the Banff gas station when I got in.
After what seemed a terrible wait (what had happened to my patience and serenity?), I finally rolled out of town in the charter van, talking the whole way with the rather interesting driver. She was in her late 20s and had spent most of her post-high school years traveling about, working odd jobs when she could to raise money for more traveling. She was tiring of it, though, and wanted a little more security in her life now. What she really wanted, though, was to move back to a small town in Mexico where she had lived and worked for a few years, on and off, as an illegally employed bartender in a place that catered to the dozen or so tourists who found their way there. It sounded like a Buffet kind of life. Money was good driving for the tour company, but it was only temporary employment and not the sort of thing that carries many benefits. It was nice to talk to someone who Understood.
She dropped me off on the outskirts of Banff at the Greyhound station and then took off to the airport to pick up a group of a dozen old ladies from Florida out to see the wilds of the Canadian Rockies on a charter tour. There were a few runaway types lounging around the bus station, and I exchanged smiles with a rather pretty one. I looked like anything but a tourist, and I imagined she was tired of dealing with them. Mark and Kristine showed up ten minutes later and quickly we drove off looking for eats in the prototypical tourist town. Mobbed with people on a scale that made Jasper look like Seiad Valley on the PCT, we eventually scored a parking lot and a Mexican dinner before making a driving tour of Banff and eventually the road home.
Sitting on their comfortable loveseat and drinking a rum and coke with them, I had difficulty summing up what I had just done. I could relate logistics and numbers and places, but I couldn't talk about anything important. My head swimming from the rum, I retired later than usual and slept deeply in the first soft bed that I had at my disposable for more than a month. It was the longest I had gone without a mattress.
I had a day to eat and drink myself silly in Calgary before Mark and Kristine were to leave for Miami and I put it to good use. My most difficult task was the grocery store up the street, with its aisles of food. A Russian proverb warns of the mule who starved in front of two equal size piles of hay, something that I always try to remember. Kristine and I made a trip to the liquor store and eventually I found myself on the Bauer's back porch with a large bottle of malt liquor, a pile of food, and a newspaper. Nothing to do, once again. I ate and ate and drank and drank, and by the time Mark cooked up burgers and sausages on the barbeque, I was quite tossed. I ate two of his massive burgers and declared myself done. He went to return a saw to his next door neighbor and I ate the four brats that he had cooked as well. Once more I declared myself done. I ate a few donuts left over from the after noon, and was really done. So, I poured off six cans of Canadian into a huge beer stein they had and sat infront of the TV, getting my calories from liquid instead. I could take heart that I didn't have to go back to work right away, but neither did I particularly want to face the reality that my summer was more or less over. That is, the part that really counted for something was over. A few more rum and cokes were poured before I finally staggered off to bed, facing an early morning wake up and drive back the States.
Miraculously, I felt no effects from the alcohol of the day before and was able to get rolling out of town before the sun was up. Mark and Kristine left as well to catch their early flight across the continent. Heading out of Calgary on the TransCanada, I wasn't sure if I should weep or cry out in joy. I had done what I had set out to do. I had lived deliberately and enjoyed what life had to offer. I could rejoice in that. It was also now over, and I could weep over that. Instead I did nothing, and searched the radio for the CBC. As I rolled across the plains of Alberta, the sun came up over the praries and illuminated the mountain range to the west that I had spent the last month traversing. I could remember clearly the joy that I felt sitting on top of the first pass in Waterton, looking off to the very plains that I was now driving on. The future looked so bright then, with mountain after mountain piled up in front of me to the north and west, and the flatlands behind me in the past. I was in the past again, and there was no getting out of it for at least a few months. Jonathan Ley was right when he said that a thruhike was not so much about doing something as it was about becoming something. What I was becoming was still unclear, but I liked it and did not dread it. What I dreaded was the fear that I might lose myself in the bustle of civil society and its meaningless trappings, with its sheltered, structured, and shackled life. The waving grass danced in the wind and early morning sun. The mountains stood still. And the plains rolled on and on and on toward the border, not caring about what I thought or did or feared. There simply were, and I liked them all the more for it.