Wednesday, 23 May 2012


After making it all the way up the Western seaboard--from San Diego to Seattle, sandy beaches to the Space Needle—we found ourselves on familiar turf: crossing the American-Canadian border.  Although we knew it would be a slight detour from the all-American road trip, I have always wanted to go to Vancouver, and it made sense since we were already going to be in Seattle just a couple hours south.

As we drove up to the border guard, passports in our experienced hands, we hoped that we wouldn’t be forced to go inside the dreaded immigration building.  I knew, however, that we would have no such luck. Ricky being Ricky, on the day that his parents drove him up to school for the first time, he forgot the Proof of Admission letter, which is necessary in order to be approved for a Canadian student visa, on his desk in Wayne. The guard denied him entry, and only after having a friend break into his house and fax the letter over to a different crossing station, was he finally allowed to enter Canada. This mark on his passport apparently cannot be removed unless he becomes a Canadian citizen or dies. So, with that, we sat in the building waiting for the guard to discover that Ricky hadn’t committed any heinous crimes, and contemplating the bizarreness of these arbitrary borders.

Like most American students at McGill, Ricky and I, if I can speak for us both, didn’t choose to go to McGill because of any essential differences we perceived between America and Canada, or Americans and Canadians. We chose it because it was a good school, relatively inexpensive, and because the experience of living in a place where people spoke French and had hockey players and the Queen’s face on their money seemed, if nothing else, interesting.

This endeared me early to Canada. 
I don’t think either of us had anticipated just how different it would be. I never thought of myself as exhibiting any kind of “American” sensibility until I realized just how much of a cultural imperialist I actually was.  I didn’t realize that jesting about how the fact that the music Canadians listened to and the movies they watched were all American; how Warner Bros. must have dreamed up the name for Canadian coinage; how people must be crazy to endure such horrible winters; how Canadians wouldn’t know good pizza if it hit them in the face, were the very things Canadians resented most about us. I also didn’t realize that it’s not jealousy that brings about their resentment. Americans assume superiority because they measure the two countries by their own standards—size, wealth, and fame. But by Canadian standards—clean air, free health care, nationwide gay marriage, a smaller police presence, and overwhelming quality of life—they have a right to feel smug.   

I could pick out the American students at McGill just by the tensions and stresses written on their faces. If I overheard “I didn’t study at all for this exam—I’m so screwed,” I knew they were likely American. If I overheard “I can’t tell if I’m ready for this or not, eh?” they were probably Canadian. For the most part, I have found that the mentality of Canada’s government trickles down to its citizens; don’t worry about being the best in the world, just be the best you can be.

So, excited to be back in the motherland—this time on the opposite coast—we headed for Vancouver, where we had yet to find a place to stay. Although we had told the border guards we’d be staying at a youth hostel, we were actually hoping that one of the many people we had messaged on couch surfing would be getting back to us before nightfall. Canadians move slowly, so we figured we had to give them time.

Lo and behold, while sitting in a Starbucks in Vancouver, we got a call from a guy named Adam. He told us that he was sorry (pronounced saw-ree) he got back to us so last minute. He just had some couch surfers leave that morning, and wasn’t sure he could take on a double shift. But he decided, last minute, that it was the least he could do. We were thrilled.

Adam was exactly as I expected. He was extremely nice and he couldn’t have been more chill. When he said “please take whatever you want, go and leave whenever you want,” it was clear that he meant it. With some of the other hosts we’ve had, you could tell that they didn’t actually want you rummaging through their kitchen, or lounging around their house when they weren’t there. But to employ Adam’s own words, he really couldn’t care less.

Over the next two days, we walked along the water at the Burrard Inlet, sampled the goods at the massive farmer’s market in Granville Island, and frolicked in Stanley Park, an amazing city park that makes Central Park look like somebody’s backyard. Even though the park is technically “downtown,” it’s situated along the water, so that it has sand beaches on its perimeters, and massive clumps of unbridled forest in the middle. You can’t see buildings for miles; all you see is signs pointing to various nature trails you can take throughout the park.

Canada Place, along the Burrard Inlet.

 Stanley Park.

The beach surrounding Stanley Park.

Stanley Park.

Granville Island.
Outside the park, we also took time to admire the city’s highly modern architecture. One thing that struck me about Vancouver, and the west coast in general, is just how new it is. While the east was fighting a Civil War due to centuries of deep-seated conflict between north and south, pioneers were just barely stumbling upon the west for the possibility of gold and new land. Every northwestern city we’ve been to—Portland, Bend, Seattle, and now Vancouver—looked like it’d only been built up in the last 50 years. Unlike New York City, with all its visible layers of dirt and human history, these cities are eerily clean. In my opinion, they are also somewhat lacking in character, but I can definitely see the appeal. One thing that really does distinguish the northwest is the enormous, almost sublime, mountains that provide its backdrop.

Vancouver's uber-modern architecture.
The best part of our excursion to Vancouver, however, was not experiencing the city, but rather just hanging out with Adam and his friends. Throughout our trip, we’ve wondered where all the unemployed twenty-somethings were hiding. Why were the only people we met on road retired or foreign?  Now we discovered that they were all in Vancouver. When we first met Adam’s friends, we were known as “the Americans.” But by the end, they told us how we seemed more Canadian than American. We, similarly, felt right at home sitting around Adam’s living room and just “shooting the shit,” as Ricky likes to call it.

A scene from Adam's basement.
Three days after we arrived in Vancouver, we set off for what was to be the first of two intensive days of driving. Whereas we had normally kept our daily driving to a three-hour max, our plan now was to bypass the vast empty spaces of Washington, Idaho, and Montana, and to arrive in Yellowstone National Park within two days—quite the feat. On the first marathon drive, we passed through the breathtaking Cascade Mountains in eastern Washington. We saw bald eagles flying overhead, and giant snow-capped mountains all around us.

The Cascades in eastern Washington.
Near the end of the drive, we stopped at the Grand Coulee Dam, a large dam built by the CCC in the1930s, who also contracted Woody Guthrie to write a song about. In the words of Mr. Guthrie:

Well, the world has seven wonders that the trav'lers always tell,
Some gardens and some towers, I guess you know them well,
But now the greatest wonder is in Uncle Sam's fair lang,
It's the big Columbia River and the big Grand Coulee Dam.

The Grand Coulee Dam at twilight.
I have never quite understood the appeal of seeing dams—we got chastised by Ricky’s father for opting not to go to the Hoover Dam when we were in Las Vegas—but perhaps I was less awed because it was almost nightfall by the time we reached Grand Coulee. We finally ended the night, 350 miles later, in a small town in eastern Washington called Wilbur.

The following day, we drove quickly through the narrowest stretch of Idaho and into Montana, where we had plans to couch surf in a town in southern Montana called Bozeman. We were to drive to Yellowstone the following morning. We didn’t stop much that day except for gas, bathroom breaks, and lunch in Missoula—home to the University of Montana. At one appointed location for a bathroom break, we stopped at a little convenience store, where Ricky asked for the obligatory cup of coffee to be courteous while using the bathroom. “You don’t need to buy anything—you can just use the bathroom.” When Ricky told him that he wanted to buy coffee anyway, he said that he could “just have it.”  The guy had a long ponytail, tattoos, and I could see his motorcycle outside. Call me small minded, but I was surprised to find that he was one of the gentlest people we’ve met on this trip so far. Between him and the Sandholms, the lovely couple from Helena who gave us their binoculars to spot spouting whales in Big Sur, I am going to go out on a limb and say that Montanians are an extremely nice breed of Americans. At last, we arrived in Bozeman, where we stopped at an Albertson’s to pick up a quick bite before heading over to our perspective couch surfing host.

It was there, in the parking lot, that Ricky got the dreaded call that both of us had been expecting since we embarked on this trip. His grandpa Jerry, who had been battling Alzheimer’s for almost seven years, had passed away. We sat in the Albertson’s Starbucks making calls—I called the couch surfing host to tell him we wouldn’t be making it, and Ricky spoke to his parents about plans for our return home for the funeral. We would be flying out of Jackson, Wyoming the day before the funeral, and returning there three days later. Since we would need to be arriving in Jackson, which is south of Grand Teton National Park, which is south of Yellowstone National Park, by the following night, we knew that we would have to do the park as efficiently as possible in that one day. So, even after we had driven almost 500 miles to Bozeman, we decided to drive another 80 to reach Gardiner, Montana, which is just north of the park entrance. This way, we would have the entire day to explore Yellowstone and the Tetons on our drive south to Jackson.

Neither of us was happy about compressing one of the most exciting destinations of our trip into one day, but it was as if Mother Nature knew what had happened, and wanted to make sure that we still got our value’s worth. Yellowstone is known not only for being situated on top of a super volcano—which accounts for its amazing geysers and hot springs—but also for its wildlife. It has some of the biggest populations of grizzly bears, elk, and bison in the world. Within minutes of entering the park, we saw a herd of elk and a single bison moseying in the parking lot. I snapped a bunch of pictures, not realizing that we would be seeing hundreds more of each by the day’s end. As we drove further down the road, we spotted a wolf walking in the field. Wolves are not known for their gregariousness, so it was quite exciting to see one right there in broad daylight. Next thing we knew, a long line of cars was parked on the side of the road and a ranger was shouting at all the approaching cars to move out of the lane. Adept at spotting a wildlife sighting when we see one, we parked the car behind the line and got out to partake in the commotion. It was a grizzly bear, standing about 200 feet away.

The first bison we spotted in the parking lot.

An elk lounging in the parking lot.
A lone wolf in the field.

The best I could capture of the Grizzly from 200 feet away.
 Unlike black bears, which are ubiquitous throughout the United States, Wyoming and Montana are the only American states with a healthy supply of Grizzlies. The rest are found in western Canada and Alaska. So it would be an understatement to say that I was pretty thrilled to see one in the flesh.

Following the wildlife encounters, we got to see the park’s other major attractions—Yellowstone falls, several hot springs and bubbling geysers, including the famed Old Faithful. It was, overall, the most jam-packed day we could have had at Yellowstone. Eventually, we left the park and had the pleasure of driving through the stunning Grand Tetons—a sub range of the Rocky Mountains, which houses the Grand Teton, the second tallest mountain in Wyoming—on our way to Jackson.  

Yellowstone Falls, situated within the "Grand Canyon of Yellowstone."

A sprouting geyser.

A steaming hot spring.

The Grand Tetons.
We spent that night at a Super 8 motel in Jackson, but slept briefly, as we had a 7 am flight to catch. Little did we know, as we crossed that border into Canada only a few days earlier, that we would soon be taking a detour much more profound.

Tired and weary, we boarded the tiny plane in Jackson, Wyoming.

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