"Do you have any guns?" asked the officer at the Canadian border and then I was into Alberta. Some of Montana's friendliness evaporated as every gas station sprouted an enormous "washrooms for customer use only" sign. The landscape was completely flat, but I'd seen so much of the Rockies that being able to set the cruise control on 60 and relax was a relief.
Approaching Calgary from the vast emptiness of Alberta, one enters into the kind of capitalist cornucopia that Americans so badly wanted to show the average Russian back in the Cold War days. One mall after another hits the traveler with a relentless intensity, and some of the stores are overgrown to an absurd degree--supermarkets are four times the size of Boston's largest, for example.
It was rather hard to even see the city at first, so obscured was it by an enormous cloud of pollen whipped up by the wind. Closer up it reminded me of Minneapolis: big glass skyscrapers climbing from nowhere and rapid reversion to flatness. There is one unmistakably Canadian feature, however, a tall cylindrical tower with radio antennae and a tourist restaurant. It must say something about Canadian psychology that they've built special round towers in Montreal, Toronto, Calgary, and Vancouver when most U.S. cities manage nicely with ordinary square office buildings. What would Freud have said?
Calgary's youth hostel was full of the usual Germans and Australians, plus a few surprises. Hauling out Samantha earned me the company of a couple of delightful Japanese girls, Keiko and Kazuyo. My position on the couch later earned me the company of Judy and John, an unlikely pair of Northern Irish and plain-old-Irish. Having spent a whole life reading newspaper accounts of troubles between the English and Irish without having actually visited Ireland, I was surprised to see them so friendly with each other and even the English travelers.
"Is Judy Protestant or Catholic?" I asked John.
"I've never asked," he replied. "The fights that you read about in the newspaper are carried on by poor uneducated scum. It isn't relevant to our lives."
Late in the evening, I chatted with Yvonne, who had prepared for her trip in the best British tradition. I told her that I'd been confused by a highway sign an hour south of Calgary: "Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump."
"Oh. I read all about that back in London. There are two cliffs over
which Indians used to drive bison. One Indian would play a dead calf
and one would play a live calf and blend in with the herd. At some
point, they'd both jump up and start shouting, and the confused buffalo
would just jump off the cliff. The place gets its name from a warrior
who wanted to see the jump from the bottom and, predictably, got his
head smashed in by the 500 falling buffalo."
Sunday, June 20
I biked about 20 miles around Calgary today. My first stop was the modern and scrubbed Chinatown. The people looked an odd combination between corn-fed Iowan and typical slim Chinese. They were definitely thicker than your average Chinese-American. I took some dim sum to Prince's Island Park and ate on the grass before heading out to bike up the Bow River.
Calgary is a knot of slick modern urbanity that disintegrates after just a few blocks. One is abruptly swept from soaring 30-story glass tower to one-story auto repair shop. Riding back through a nasty 20 mph headwind, I stopped at the downtown interconnected multistory shopping mall complex (is there any Canadian downtown that lacks one?) and bought a few trinkets. I finished my tour in Kensington, Calgary's equivalent of Greenwich Village. It lacks only sizable bookstores or really pleasant cafes to be a contender. In fact, many parts of it look rather like suburban U.S. strip malls.
It is a beautiful hour's drive from Calgary, the shopping mall amidst the plains, to Banff, where the young, beautiful, rich, and Japanese shop till they drop. One approaches the Rockies first indistinctly and then before one realizes it, one is in a river valley with mountains all around. I arrived in Banff around 7:00 PM and, with plenty of daylight in front of me, headed straight down a mountain on my bike. The trail was terrifyingly steep, especially for a man surgically attached to his bike with Shimano SPD pedals, into which one clips special cleated shoes similar to how one uses ski-boot bindings. The river flats were populated with beavers, take-no-prisoners mosquitoes, elk, and pleasant Swiss-Germans. One of the first differences between the U.S. and Canada is that elk here are regarded as a major hazard. In Yellowstone, one is presented with dramatic imagery of bison launching tourists into orbit with their horns, but elk are painted as being fairly benign. Here the park service has gone so far as to close certain trails because during calving season the elk are allegedly out for blood.
Monday, June 21
I met Keiko and Kazuyo again and gave them a ride down to the mirror-flat Vermillion Lakes. Just five minutes from the town's shopping malls, we saw elk, a diving osprey catch a fish and lose it, and a bald eagle calmly perched in a tree. As we drove up the main highway toward Lake Louise, it occurred to me how very sharp the peaks are here, in many ways more dramatic than most of the American Rockies or the Sierras. A lot of mountain enthusiasts prefer the look of the landscape here, although rock climbers don't appreciate the unsafe sedimentary rock.
As we wound our way up the mountain to Moraine Lake, I recalled a German encyclopedia's first photograph under the entry for the United States: "USA. Morain Lake im Banff National Park in den Rocky Mountains." Wherever you stand on the controversy of which country owns the lake, it glows with an eerie turquoise light, reminiscent of Poe's poem The City in the Sea. This glow persists even on a gray day like today and is caused by light bouncing off fine rock dust in the water. The dust is scraped off mountainsides by the glaciers that feed the lake.
On the lakeside path, we talked with aristocratic Mexicans who said they'd traveled a lot in both Canada and the U.S. and were treated better in Canada. Keiko thought the 35-year-old graying man and 20-year-old woman were father and daughter, but in fact they turned out to be boyfriend and girlfriend--apparently there's hope for all of us overaged bachelors south of the border.
We drove through a hard rain to Lake Louise and soon came upon the magnificent Chateau Lake Louise, built in stages starting 100 years ago by the Canadian Pacific Railroad. Like everything else in the deluxe tourist trade here, it now caters mainly to the Japanese. I had a nice chat in the chocolate shop with Brian, a ski/mountain bike bum who'd come here for the bohemian life seven years ago and had grown by imperceptible steps into a petit bourgeois merchant. I bought a couple of Lindt liqueur chocolate bars, but they later proved to be emasculated alcohol-free versions of the slices of Heaven one gets in Switzerland.
Lake Louise itself is a green jewel backed by a glacier-covered mountain, and we had a nice walk around the shore before moving on to a riverside campground. We pitched the tent and ate a picnic while killing enormous mosquitoes whose heavyweight carcasses presented a disposal problem once they'd been crushed. Towards the end of a pleasant after-dinner stroll in the fading 10:45 PM light, I stopped to talk to a couple of scruffy hitchhiking guys. Keiko and Kazuyo looked a bit scared and retreated 50 yards or so down the road. They said they'd avoided taking a package tour because they wanted to drink in the local culture during their 10 days in Canada. I wondered how they could do that if they were afraid of the local people.
I stripped naked and crawled into my sleeping bag while my companions were in the bathroom. When they returned, Keiko wryly noted that I was "shirtless."
"Only animals sleep in their clothes," I responded.
Keiko and Kazuyo got into their sleeping bags fully clothed.
Even after 24 hours together I never felt that I achieved any real understanding of Keiko and Kazuyo's motivations or aspirations. Their English was pretty good and they were about my age, yet a huge gulf yawned between us. What did they hope to accomplish in their lives? Where did they want to be in five years? What was fundamentally important to them? I couldn't have begun to say.
After shaking off the cold and damp of the campground, K, K, and I shared a breakfast table in the youth hostel cafe with the radiant blond blue-eyed Thomas, a Dane at the end of an 11-month round-the-world odyssey. Despite the 50-degree drear, Thomas was all set to rent a mountain bike and hit the hardest trails in the area. I was still trying to read Main Street, having acquired it at the Sinclair Lewis home in Minnesota, I was exactly three states and one province behind in my reading. I would have been happy to sit out the day reading, but Thomas shamed me into activity. Leaving the Japanese girls to make their way north to Jasper, we donned our cycling gear and sallied forth. I wore a Gore-Tex jacket over a cycling jersey, cycling pants, Lycra leg warmers, and SPD shoes. Thomas wore longish Eurostyle drawstring pants, a sweatshirt, a plastic jacket, and loafers (!). I lent him some extra biking gloves and a fanny pack for his camera.
Thomas and I started up the trail, he with the natural vitality of youth, me with seasoned wisdom, some biking conditioning, and technique. I got up all the hills, albeit not without some bitching and moaning as we climbed 600' in a raw wind. My ears hurt from the 50-degree cold and the 20 mph headwind and I lost sensation in my exposed fingers after just 30 minutes. Thomas had no such complaints, but he was standing up in the saddle and trying to overpower the slippery slopes. By applying power in bursts, he just threw gravel all over the place and didn't move his bike forward. I spun my cranks smoothly, swiftly, and relentlessly, staying on the saddle, and didn't have to suffer the indignity of walking.
While gazing at the quiet forest and occasional river valley vistas and ducking hailstones, we shared some interesting conversation. Thomas is 19 and just finished the Danish equivalent of German Realschule (a kind of high school that is a more practical alternative to gymnasium). He's going to do military service, one of an unlucky 25% or so who lost a lottery, and then go on to university (still free) in Denmark.
A few months before, I'd met a Czech émigré architect in Prague who was just returning after eight years in Denmark. He'd described the Danes as unwilling to accept immigrants in their social lives or even in the first rank of jobs.
"Your friend is right. Danes aren't accepting at all, especially of Turks who stubbornly cling to Islam. After one or two generations they should convert to Christianity. That's the religion of their new home," replied Thomas, who added that he himself was not a religious believer.
"There aren't even many Danes who feel genuine sympathy for the Turks being killed by neo-Nazis in Germany. We don't like the idea of Germany invading Denmark again, but most Danes think it understandable that Germans are irritated by an alien presence in their midst. I've got some Turkish friends and am probably more open-minded than the average Dane."
I'd never before realized how unusual the U.S. and Canada are in not having an official religion.
Lake Louise is probably the world's nicest youth hostel, and the lounge is superplush. Relaxed after the ride, I chatted with Ralph, a schoolteacher from Prince George, B.C. Ralph teaches correspondence school for 40 fourth through seventh graders. Some live in the middle of Nowhere, B.C., but quite a few live in reasonable-size towns and have simply exercised their option to learn at home.
"Disciplined students need about three hours/day to get through the standard curriculum. They send me papers by mail. I used to teach in a traditional public school, and correspondence school is better when a child has reasonable parents."
Ralph was playing Risk with his German cousins, and I was struck by how different Canadian and German culture are. Despite similar genes, not only their mannerisms but even the way they hold their faces was completely different. Ralph looks rather contemplative, questioning, and studious, his cousins stolid and self-satisfied. I would never have guessed that they were related.
Thomas and I had planned an afternoon ride, up 1200' to Lake Moraine. I felt rested, but the 30 mph wind driving a cold rain made me think twice about riding up an exposed ridge. Thomas saved me from having to wimp out: "I'm dead tired from this morning's ride. I can't go."
I spent the rest of the day exploring the various commercial offerings of Lake Louise, letting Thomas cook me a pasta dinner, and chatting with folks in the hostel lounge. One doesn't meet too many bona fide English émigrés in the U.S. anymore, and therefore it was interesting to speak with Jean, a 61-year-old woman born in Liverpool. At age 19 she'd refused to marry a nice Jewish guy of 31, not because of his ethnicity but because he was too old. She has spent the rest of her life regretting this decision, for the English army officer that she did marry proved to have an upper lip that was just a bit too stiff.
"My sister was a war bride living in Vancouver, and she convinced me to come over with my 6-year-old son Malcolm. I had to leave an older daughter in England with my husband. He was so angry with me for emigrating that he cut me and Malcolm off entirely."
Was her sister able to support her?
"Oh, we started to fight after three months so I moved to my own apartment and got a job as a secretary. Malcolm was a precocious chap. When he was only 7, he gave a dramatic lecture on Rommel's North African campaign during show-and-tell. The teacher called me up to say that he'd inspired her to undertake her own study of WWII desert combat."
At the age of 40, Jean married a man in the construction business, and they quickly had a daughter, Alisa. Her husband worked himself into an early grave, and Jean and Alisa were left on their own once again. They aren't close for a variety of reasons, one of which is that her mother can't abide Alisa's academic lassitude.
"Alisa is very beautiful. That's the basic problem. Why should a girl study if men are sending her flowers all the time? Now Alisa's fat charmless friend Dawn... there's a great student."
Ralph and I talked until 1:30 AM. Ralph told me about the year he took off from U.B.C. to study at a fundamentalist bible college in California. Education had been poisonous to his faith as he failed to reconcile the idea that the New Testament was divinely inspired with the dramatic inconsistencies in the accounts by different apostles. A deeper feeling that the Jewish/Christian god might not be such a great one had been inspired by his reflection upon all the violence that had been allegedly authorized by this god. Ralph went all the way back to God's instructions to the Jews to wipe out the Canaanites after the Exodus from Egypt. Moving forward, he looked at all of the wars allegedly authorized by God, e.g., against the Muslims, the Jews, various heretical sects and pagans, etc. A god that was right at home in the violent ancient world looked a little out of place in the modern love-in of British Columbia.
Ralph switched gears and ran down the Israelis for their intolerance in refusing to give citizenship to Jews for Jesus.
"You expect better of them because of your implicit assumption that Israel is somehow controlled by people like yourself, i.e., with good English middle-class values. Remember that a good chunk of the population stems from the 500,000 Jews kicked out of Arab countries after Israel won the 1948 war. They came from the bottom strata of poor Arab societies such as Iraq and Morocco and spoke no European languages and hardly even any Hebrew. They might be Jews in name, but they were Arabs in culture. How tolerant do you expect Saddam Hussein or any other product of Arab culture to be?"
"Well, not very," Ralph admitted.
"Since a large proportion of Israeli voters are either bona fide Arabs or Jews from Arab countries, you should in fact be surprised that Israel is any more tolerant than Iraq," I said. "Bruce and I took a cruise down the Nile with two German sisters. Rita said, `Why don't these stupid people learn how to serve soup? Every day they spill the soup in the same way, even though we actually went over once and showed them the proper way to do it.' I said, `Rita-baby, look around at the people carrying sugarcane on donkeys. Does this look like Germany? If everyone here tried to find a better way to do his job, Egypt would be as developed as Germany.' Even when evidence to the contrary is staring them in the face, people have a hard time shaking the assumption that everyone else thinks as they do."
One of the things about Ralph that surprised me the most was his sentiment against Asian immigrants: "Canada shouldn't admit Cambodians and Vietnamese because they haven't the language or job skills required to succeed here. They've no choice but to turn to violence and gangs."
"That's one nice thing about the U.S.," I responded. "We may be dependent upon Asians to engineer our cars and produce our consumer electronics, but we are able to home-grow most of our criminals."
We parted on the subject of women. Ralph is 39 and in conflict. "I'm drawn to Christian women and simultaneously repelled by their anti-intellectualism and inability to think."
Back in the town of Banff I was struck by the preponderance of Japanese. In America, our reputation for violence keeps scenic areas from becoming Japanese colonies. Another thing that draws Japanese to the Canadian national parks is their policy of limited laissez-faire rather than monopoly. For example, a wealthy Japanese tourist on a rainy day in Banff National Park is able to visit a Polo shop and dozens of similar enterprises; in Yellowstone he or she would be sitting in a 100-year-old lodge lobby listening to Stephen Foster songs. It struck me that there is really no part of the U.S. where one feels a stranger in one's own land. Chinatown is exotic, but most of the customers in a restaurant are Chinese-Americans rather than tourists from China. Even in places that have no industry other than tourism, there are just too many intra-U.S. tourists for foreigners to ever constitute a majority.
A government worker expressed the prevailing local sentiment: "It is eerie going into a shop where the salespeople don't speak English. There's good sport to be had imitating the more ridiculous Japanese and Germans, but I prefer to live 20 miles from here in a little village that is `more Canadian.'"
At 7:00 I ducked into Jurassic Park at the town's quad movie theater. I'd spent a good part of the day fighting with America OnLine. They were acting in the best tradition of Corporate America: deny everything; obfuscate; treat the consumer with bland indifference--we have lawyers and he doesn't. Nonetheless, I had finally proved that the problem lay with their system, the shining product of hundreds of millions of dollars of investment and the latest crop of 22-year-old C hackers. Just as I was trying to think of a way to save America's children from turning into the kind of pathetic drones who write C code for companies such as America OnLine and Microsoft, Steven Spielberg came to my rescue.
Spielberg paints the definitive portrait of the early 90s industrial computer programmer: fat, bitter, underpaid, and unsatisfied. His job security comes from a nasty collection of 2 million lines of C code that nobody will ever understand or get to work properly. He won't get the steaming pile of offal to function correctly, but by continuous intervention he can keep his employer living in hope and forking out $50,000/year.
I hit the road intending to go straight towards Jasper, but quickly picked up a hitchhiker who convinced me to explore adjacent Yoho National Park first. Takakkaw Falls, though puny by Yosemite standards at a mere 1000', is one of Canada's highest and most easily accessible. On the way there, I got a great view of the back half of a train going into a mountainside and the front half coming out going the opposite direction. This spiral railway tunnel is part of Canada's coast-to-coast rail link.
Lunching in Field, where the tourism industry is confined to the postcard rack at the general store/cafe, I met Steve, a long-haired lean outdoorsman. Steve came here in 1970 from California and stayed to make his living skiing. Not for Steve the life of saying "bend ze knees, five dollars pleez" to the coltish daughters of the elite. This loner prefers mountain solitude and makes his living climbing up into the high passes on special skis in the winter, looking for potential avalanches. When Nature threatens highway or railroad, she is given a little push by a 105 mm howitzer antipersonnel round. Several thousand of these $600 babies are often expended in a season around Banff/Jasper.
Steve will be 50 soon and has some slight regrets about being left out of the materialism party, but he feels younger and more vital every day thanks to eating strange ancient Chinese herbal foods and absorbing the philosophy of Depak Chopra. Ironically enough, Chopra is an endocrinologist who used to work at New England Memorial Hospital, about one mile from my house in Melrose, Massachusetts. We listened to one of Chopra's lectures integrating psychological and immunological research, insights from the trances of ancient Vedic seers, and the Maharishi's Grand Unified Theory.
Chopra goes back to the Hubel and Weisel experiment exposing kittens to only horizontal or vertical lines; they ended up able to see only the kinds of lines they'd been exposed to. We function with a neural system that functions only to reinforce what we were exposed to in the first place ("premature cognitive commitment"). We commit ourselves to a certain reality, and then literally our nervous system serves to reinforce conceptual boundaries we've established whether or not the world really looks that way. Without acknowledging Bishop Berkeley, he offers many of the same criticisms of the "superstition of materialism," i.e., that since all we have available to us are sensory experiences we can't know what the world is really like. Chopra claims that technological developments will overthrow the superstition, although he doesn't say how.
Chopra claims that there are receptors to neurotransmitters not only in the brain but also in cells throughout the body. "T-cells, lymphocytes, etc. eavesdrop on what we are thinking!" Also these cells make the same chemicals as the brain when it thinks. It is tough to tell the difference between the immune system and nervous system. Even stomach cells have this property of sensitivity to and production of brain chemicals. "So people who talk about a `gut feeling' or `heart ache' are in fact speaking literally. It is wrong to confine the mind to the brain."
Chopra cites a recent study that concluded that the two most important risk factors for death from coronary artery disease are self-happiness rating and job satisfaction. More people die of heart disease at 9:00 AM on Monday than at any other time. Chopra cites a study using medical students during exam periods that found stress depresses Interleukin-2 levels and even DNA cell activity. If you feel exhilarated, Interleukin-2 levels go up. Since one anticancer treatment with this drug costs $40,000, a ride on a roller coaster can produce millions of dollars of Interleukin-2.
Space and time themselves are artifacts of sensory experience. In
India, there were tribes where people just got to be better athletes
with age, doing better at 30, 50, 60! Guys plateaued rather than
deteriorated. Blood pressure got lower and heart rate slower. Lungs
became higher capacity. (At this point I became rather skeptical; all
the older Indians I'd seen in photographs looked to be in pretty sorry
It was nearly 4:00 pm by the time I extricated myself from Steve's hospitality and Chopra's lilting exhortation to drift off into a "field of information." With six hours of daylight ahead, I poked my way up the fantastic Icefields Parkway, stopping every now and then for a little hike, a turquoise lake, a look at the jagged peaks, and once to watch a good-size black bear and her two cubs mosey through the woods.
My most interesting roadside conversation was with another Philip. He works for the Canadian parliament's foreign affairs committee and observed that a principal difference between Americans and Canadians is that racist Americans will openly admit their prejudices whereas racist Canadians will try to disguise themselves.
"Well, at least you guys made a real contribution to the politically correct lexicon. I saw a newspaper article referring to immigrants as `New Canadians.' It made me think that somebody regards anti-immigrant sentiment as a serious problem." I noted.
"We let in proportionately far more immigrants than the U.S. I think that explains some of the animosity. We also have a lot of social disruption right now. The Atlantic provinces [New Brunswick, Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, PEI] are going to empty out because there just aren't any jobs. Russians and Portuguese routinely defy the 200-mile limit and have depleted the fish stocks so much that the Canadian government imposed a ban on all fishing. It destroyed a whole way of life."
I spent the night at the Columbia Icefield Pass, where I chatted with a
bunch of Canadian environmentalist painters. Pam, who's lived all
around North America, is upset that Canada lags the U.S. in terms of
environmentalism. "People still have the attitude that the country is
big enough that they can use up part of it and move on. What upsets
me the most is that we sell huge forests to the Japanese and then
they clear-cut them."
Friday, June 25
Occasional patches of blue poked through the low clouds, and a raw wind made me happy to be inside a "Snocoach" on the Athabasca Glacier, just one of the rivers of ice that flow out of the enormous "lake of ice" that is the Columbia Icefield. One rides in a $480,000 vehicle with six 6'-diameter tires over the four-mile-long, half-mile-wide, 100'-thick glacier, which is surrounded by 11,000' peaks with their own little glaciers. We got out of the Snocoach for 20 minutes at the top of the glacier but were cautioned not to walk too far due to the large crevasses.
Next stop was the viciously overpriced cafe at Sunwapta Falls. Laissez-faire within Canada's parks leads to great values where there is competition and shameless ripoffs where there isn't. Leif and Darryl, two 26-year-olds, proved that one need not be from California or have gone to college in order to be "rotated 45 degrees into the complex plane." Despite their prosaic highway department day jobs, they were so New Age that Los Angeles seems positively Old World by comparison. It is not important to work for success; the important thing is to get it. One gets what one wants by having a pure true desire. Any failure is explained after the fact by the statement, "He didn't really want it."
"So the Tacoma Narrows Bridge blew down because its engineers didn't have a pure desire to see it stand? And the George Washington Bridge remains because its engineers did have a pure desire?" I asked.
"Now you are getting it," Darryl encouraged me.
Luck has nothing to do with anything. I couldn't poke holes in their theory with any of my questions. Bill Gates is rich because he had a purer desire than the other folks hawking 1950s-style operating systems back in 1982, not because he was lucky enough to be picked by IBM. Poland suffered not because it was unlucky in being in between Russia and Germany but because people there all have subconsciously chosen to be oppressed.
"Most of the Poles are probably there because they made some bad choices in a previous life," Leif noted. "You can't escape Karma."
Modern medicine is a complete fraud. People make themselves sick by suppressing anger and can heal even advanced cancer by thinking appropriate thoughts. Psychic healers can pass their hands over your ruptured appendix and bad stuff is magically replaced by good stuff. Sinclair Lewis showed that broad prairies don't breed broad minds, but after all of these New Age conversations I was beginning to think that high mountains breed high, i.e., "stoned" minds.
Feeling a little stoned myself, I drove north toward Jasper, stopping to look at waterfalls, a herd of mountain goats with two tiny lambs, and a large grizzly bear. Mr. Grizzly was impassively surveying the highway from the edge of the woods (maybe 75' back from the road), perhaps thinking about crossing. The five or six cars that quickly gathered to gape presumably changed his mind, and he just turned around back into the woods.
Jasper itself is less a Japanese colony than Banff and more a traditional center of mountain hedonism. The public swimming center here not only has a fine workout pool, but also a great Jacuzzi and a huge waterslide! I swam one kilometer and then rested my bones in the Jacuzzi with two guys from Frankfurt. If I'd thought Germans who tour the U.S. parks in their hermetically sealed motor homes had little affinity for American culture, that was because I hadn't met those visiting Canada. These two are spending five weeks in Canada, but are scrupulously avoiding the U.S. because, as they cheerfully averred, Americans are all slobs.
I spent the rest of the evening reading Main Street (432 pages) and writing a few postcards for the Internet-challenged. Canadian stamps are a bit larger than their U.S. counterparts, graphically more complex, bilingual, and in relatively understated colors. One might infer that Canadians are used to more space, are attuned to subtler distinctions, and are more understated. Unfortunately, they also appear to be inefficient as postage is 50-100% more than in the U.S. and Canadian stamp packaging is much more wasteful. One wouldn't think it possible, but Canadians actually have a lower opinion of their post office than we do. They complain that the workers are unionized and absurdly overpaid, that mail is delivered at a glacial pace, and that much mail is actually lost.
I encouraged them to look on the bright side: "You hardly ever have a post office shooting spree here."
Saturday, June 26
The morning broke clear and blue-skied, and I rode up the Whistler Mountain gondola to a fabulous view. I walked around a bit up there and finished Main Street. There was a 15-minute wait to get back down on the gondola, and I chatted with a family from Arkansas. I told them how surprised I was at the number of New Agers in the Canadian Rockies.
"Too many people call themselves New Age who haven't adequately studied. I've been looking at it for two years; there's a lot of truth to it," responded the husband, a churchgoer and video rental mogul.
What about Bill and Hillary?
"Just wait until the end of his term; the public will love Hillary then," he gushed. "The only people in Arkansas who haven't met Clinton are those that didn't want to."
Later in the day, I biked out to the Valley of the Five Lakes, taking advantage of the Canadian national park system's liberal attitude toward mountain biking.
"Only three mountain bikers in Jasper can get up all of the hills on that trail," cautioned the Lycra-clad animal in the bike shop.
Just as I was thinking that the ride wasn't nearly as tough as advertised, the Mother of All Hills appeared out of nowhere. It was probably 70' high and rose at a 20-degree angle; rocks and roots made it especially gnarly. I snapped out of my SPDs about one quarter of the way up and huffed up the rest. After about two miles I came down a hill, and a group of four young hikers jumped two feet into the air.
"We thought you were a bear! We saw two bears half an hour ago."
I climbed up about 600' with frequent small depressions through fairly closed-in woods before coming to the first of the five lakes. A very impressive little sign with distances to various lakes and the highway convinced me that I couldn't get lost on this trip. Each lake was a dark green little treasure, and the ridge trail afforded views over each lake to the big mountains around Jasper. I'd kind of lost count unfortunately and continued along the shore of the fifth lake when I should have turned. The trail became an obstacle course of huge logs, rocks out the wazoo, and eventually impossibly steep slopes filled with trees. I backtracked and fought my way out the usual route, which was no picnic either.
I finished the 16-mile ride past swimming beavers and grazing elk.
Sunday, June 27
Under drizzly skies I packed the soaking wet tent and went over to HavaJava for breakfast. The front page of the Edmonton Sunday paper carried two stories most prominently, one on securing a child seat in an automobile, one on a recent U.S. missile attack on Iraqi intelligence headquarters. The 20-year-old tragically hip U.B.C. student behind the counter was upset about how the poor Iraqi-in-the-street would see this attack.
"Why didn't the U.S. ask permission from the U.N. before doing this?" she asked.
Perhaps because of the U.N. committee that has spent the last 25 years trying to define "aggression"?
"Americans are so much more aggressive than Canadians. I don't know any Canadians who think violence is justified, and I've hardly met any Americans who are as progressive," she observed.
"If 99% of the Americans you've met are traveling in motor homes, I'm not surprised," I responded. "You should visit the People's Republics of either Berkeley or Cambridge if you want to find kindred spirits."
"I'm studying political science, and I keep coming back to one question: Why are there still people in the world building the atomic bomb?"
I don't think she'll be able to use my response in her bachelor's thesis: "Perhaps it was because the last people to use it won a war?"
After a brief rainy hike through Maligne Canyon, I had a long soak in Miette Hot Springs. I chatted there with a couple from nearby Edson. He works processing sulfur beads for industry and voiced very similar political views to what I'd heard across the U.S. In particular, he feels more like an inhabitant than a citizen.
"All the political power is in Ontario and Quebec. It doesn't make any difference for whom one votes. We've not had a real choice for 20 years; both parties are the same."