A Canadian Love Affair: British Columbia and Alberta Mountains (draft)(prairies soon)

“Uncle” Tom Yuan

Sunday afternoon, sitting in the sun outside the IGA in Canmore with our bagels and cream cheese lunch; blue sky and cumulus clouds graced the sharp gray limestone faces that dominated our view. Warm, enjoying the creamy cheese and warm bagel, when…

“You know they don’t tell you how much fat in that thing, don’t you?”

Bagel stopped half way to my mouth.

“What?” I asked.

“There all kind of, what you call it,” he looked puzzled, “in there.”

“Cholesterol?” Claire said.

“That it.” He pointed his finger at her and laughed. “Don’t tell how much in there. You don’t eat!”

He was of Chinese descent; very light skin and in his sixties. He wore a beige shirt and brown tie, brown polyester slacks and leather sandals, topped off with a flat-top straw hat. He had an open curious face, his eyes made wider and blacker by large round glasses.

“You know these thing, these bagel, is going to put McDonald’s under,” he said emphatically. “I know.” He nodded.

“Did you own McDonald’s stock?”

“Me?” He looked surprised. “No never. Not me.”

“You seem to be very interested in the industry?” I questioned.

“I own building. Fast food building. Three. That my business!”

He didn’t own the franchises, but leased the buildings to the franchises. I told him my sister owned a lease for Dairy Queen in Seattle.

“Not good. Dairy Queen bad. Go down now. Not good.” He shook his head. “Future is in people want healthy food. Tired of hamburger. Want something new, always something new. What you think next?” He looked at me, challenging me.

“Chinese.”

“Yes! Fast food Chinese.” He seemed happy that I’d guessed right (it was a no-brainer eh).

“All Chinese need is get fast. Four menu items. No more. Fast. People want fast. Then they eat Chinese. Healthy. Want healthy. Want fast.”

“You American?” he asked, having noted my sister was in Seattle.

We affirmed, and told him our names.

“My name, Tom Yuan,” he said. “Uncle Tom.” He laughed, then his face turned serious. “You know Chinese history? I tell you Chinese history they no tell you in America.” He looked at us, waiting.

“What?”

“Americans start Japan war. They want Japan keep down China. China get too strong then.” Wide eyes.

What could we say?

“Really?”

“I there. My father second to head man in Shanghai, China office of Standard Oil of New Jersey. Head man got telephone call from Rockefeller. Tell him, open all the valves, let all oil out into China Sea, so Japan not get, he say, because war start next day. America get into war next day. Next day attack on Pearl Harbor. Rockefeller know! Roosevelt know! He shook his fist, his voice rose. “Over thousand Americans die! Not need die. All die. And Roosevelt know!” He waited for us to respond.

I had heard of such rumors, but like most Americans, have discounted them. He could sense our doubt.

“I Know!” he said. “I there.” He jabbed the air with his finger.

He went on to tell us how his father received the call to open all the valves, and did so. When the Japanese occupiers came to his father to demand an answer he, a child of 12 hid under the bed and listened. His father sent them to his boss who was tortured, and finally ransomed by the Rockefellers for 5 tons of gold. Very interesting.

He was adamant that he was there and could rewrite history if only people would listen to him. Maybe.

Suddenly, he looked at his watch. “Oh! I late for one-o’clock appointment.” He ran with small fast steps to his aging luxury car, waving his arm in large round-house circles of good-by.

And all we wanted was a quiet lunch in the sunshine.

I was sitting on the floor of Altitude Outdoor Sports, among the rental helmets, computer plugged in, using their juice to write about Uncle Tom. I glanced between the shelves and saw a tall guy in bike shorts with a mustache come in the shop. He looked familiar. I went back to writing. Couldn’t be. I looked again. Very familiar. Hmmm.

The door buzzer announced a woman in a bright yellow jacket; she was with the tall man with the mustache. She looked familiar. Naaa. Went back to my writing. Looked again. Hmmmm.

I got up and walked toward them, just to make sure I didn’t know them. “Do I know you?” I said hesitantly.

“Bob Rogers,” said the man. The woman smiled. “What are you doing here!”

“On a Zippy-tour, what else.”

It was Art and Sharon Gabriel, up from Colorado to ride the Icefields Parkway with a group from home. On our long Zippy trip around America, we met them at Fred’s Lounge in Mamu, Louisiana, and rode along with their tour group for a couple of days. We kept in touch with Art and Sharon throughout the rest of our trip. Later we received email newsletters from Art as they flew their tandem to such places as Italy to tour. They tour with sag support and stay in hotels, but have enjoyed following our adventures with Zippy. Art said my writing had inspired him to begin writing about their travels. We have only read the one from Tuscany, and it was well written and interesting. He is on the right track. When Art decided to retire (at 54), he closed his company email account and we lost track of them. They didn’t know we were on this trip and we didn’t know they would be here. They just happened into the bike shop where I just happened to be waiting for a new wheel, and just happened to be hanging out and writing this afternoon instead of hiking…

Art and Sharon don’t camp. They have never said exactly why, but I must presume it is because of perceived discomfort: being too cold or too hot, wet and sometimes dirty, perhaps safety. They are not unusual in that feeling; it is we who are in the minority. Later in the afternoon, after talking with them, hearing them say again they don’t like to camp, I pondered why it is that we do like to camp. There is, for us, a feeling of coming home, to our tent, that is not even matched by our house/home.

For millions of years, humankind lived with only that which she could carry in search of game, roots and berries in season, water and fuel. The few possessions, a stone ax, a bone root-digging tool, a skin shelter and personal cape, perhaps a wooden bowl… These defined the individual and the group. Small refinements in form leading to improved function served the society, and brought status. They brought not only physical comfort, but spiritual comfort, well-being. It is the same with us.

Zippy, our tent, sleeping bag, our two plastic bowls, spoons, Swiss Army knife… On this trip we scrounged our bear-string (to hang our food) from the side of the road. It is a comfort to use it, and know how we came by it; same goes for the pipe insulation I found and added to the handlebars with our electrical tape to ease my hands on a long day. These things bring psychic satisfaction and well as physical comfort (safety), and some degree of status among others who understand the process.

You can’t get that experience by having someone hand you a motel room key. I don’t mean to say those who choose to travel in comfort always are wrong, (we stay in motels sometimes) just that they might be missing an ancient primal experience; an experience rare in modern life, and more precious for it.

The wheel arrived late Monday morning from Quebec. It was wrong. Seven speed, not eight, and no threading for the drum break. When the shop called the supplier, they were told to take it or leave it. The barriers between Quebec and the rest of Canada go well beyond language and culture. There is often a very real animosity that gets in the way of commerce; and we were stuck in the middle.

Finally I decided to accept the wheel, at wholesale, and make do with the seven speed cassette with eight speed shifters, and without the drag brake we use so much. It provides a safety margin in these high mountains, allowing us to save the rim brakes from overheating, with the unpleasant result of a high speed blowout. We will just have to stop on the long descents to allow the rims to cool. Too bad, Zippy loves to speed downhill.

We rode for a second time to Peter Lougheed Provincial Park, this time by a paved but no less beautiful route. The day was hot and sunny and as the road steepened we acquired traveling companions; large flies who, helped along by a tailwind, buzzed us continuously and scored some bites. Claire flicked at them with one of my T-shirts, but even direct hits only threw them off for a few seconds. The wind finally changed against us and we lost them.

That wind was coming off of storm clouds rolling off the high peaks; yet we were still hot and in sunshine. We set up the tent and decided to ride the four kilometers to the showers in only shorts and T-shirts.

The first drops found us about a kilometer from our tent. Big deal. What’s a few drops of rain eh? Soon the drops were exploding off the asphalt of the bike path and pounding our backs with hard cold drops. We began to get cold. We rode faster, which increased the wind-chill, and the shower facility was still two clicks away. Soon our shoes soaked through, rain dripped in our eyes and the wind blew the large drops into my nose; my cotton shirt was heavy and cold. Yes, I know we were going to the showers anyway, but mountain thunder storms are cold and those huge drops sting. I began to shiver and was glad to see the showers through the curtain of gray.

The shower facility was still warm from the sun. I brought Zippy inside with me and he was soon the center of attention of a family on holiday from The States. There were three brothers of high school and college age and their father. Zippy and his travels were a revelation to them. I could see the wheels turning, ideas forming about muscle travel. Another seed planted.

The rain eased enough for us to ride back to our tent, but we still got wet from standing water. Our next-door neighbors, Bob and Diane invited us to their warm trailer for hot chocolate laced with some sort of licorice liquor for me, and Baileys for Claire, and conversation. What a treat.

The landscape of Kananaskis Country: broad glacial valleys; ridges of dramatic synclines and anticlines; soaring limestone folded in upon itself in a billion ton taffy pull; green rounded valley floors; elk meadows and moose wetlands; big sky, blue sky and clouds like torn cotton.

Highwood pass is the highest all-weather (paved) road in Canada. We thought we were in for it, but at 2206 meters (just over 7,000 feet) it’s not a very high pass by U.S. Rockies standards, and the grade was just right for a morning’s pedal.

About ten clicks from the pass Bob and Diane pulled over on the shoulder in front of us. Bob jumped out and stood grinning and holding a huge insulated mug of steaming coffee. What a treat! They had offered coffee, but we were off before they awoke, so they just brought it to us.

As we neared the top we saw some cyclists at an interpretive sign and decided to say hello. As we were approaching, one of them said, “You guys probably do this in your sleep?” Sort of. We do get into a rhythm on long climbs that makes them almost pleasant to us. Perhaps we look like we’re asleep, but we’re really meditating on our pedal strokes and the sounds of birds and the smell of flowers and road tar…

The group was on a guided bike ride that consisted of being dropped off at the top of the pass and coasting down. Don’t ask me why. It seems one of them had managed to knock her chain off the bike and none of the group could figure out how to put it back on the bike. Amazing. Claire did it in about three seconds.

They were from Oklahoma, and had never seen mountains like this before and were in awe. I said we wanted to bike there someday (we want to bike everywhere someday). They said, in unison, “Don’t.” But we really do want to ride the rolling wheat fields on Zippy singing, “Oaaak La Hommmaaaa! where the wind….” Someday.

I wondered how safe they could be on any kind of bike if they couldn’t get a chain back on. The tour leader stopped by later in the van and said he’d probably have to do some first-aid before the day was over. No doubt.

“Com’on you! You can do eeet!” The hard blond looked at her stopwatch and shook her fist, “Push eeet!” She yelled to the struggling cyclist hammering toward the pass sign where we were snacking. “More, more hard!” He coasted the last yard and she frowned at him and then the stopwatch.

“Two more coming,” she said. “They are speed skaters. Very good. Very fast, speed skaters.”

“Cross training?” I asked.

“Cycling very good,” she answered. “Same muscles work, exact same muscles. Good summer work.” She went back to her stopwatch and clip-board.

Coach. She was just old enough to be retired from speed skating. She wore long baggy shorts, perhaps to cover the thighs as large as the three young men she was coaching. I bet she was jealous of Claire’s thin, but muscular brown legs, sculpted to perfection by a month of touring.

The three guys were all interested in Zippy and how he can travel. Someday they will be able to ride a bike for something other than training, but for now, until the next Olympics makes them heroes, or releases them, they must cross-train and feel the burn of quads, and the hard eyes of Coach.

Flying

Eastbound from the pass, suddenly, within 30 clicks of the rocky alpine pass, the landscape domesticated: fields of rolled hay bales; trees with browse-lines; ranch gates; small benches traversing hillsides, sign of  livestock; bluebird boxes on fences; bright blue painted old metal bridges across the Highwood River; red houses and barns with white trim or white houses with red roofs; blue sky and puffy prairie clouds; purple asters in clusters; aspen groves as jig-saw-puzzle pieces against the green hills; stripes of dark spruce against the pastures; old gnarled pines rooted in rocks.

We picked up a brisk tailwind, and for a sunny glorious hour we cruised at 45 clicks down the Highwood river. We flew it seemed, sometimes singing, past rolling hills.

Something about them… like the soft blue fuzzy hills I once made with Mother’s bathrobe on the polished oak floors of our bedroom, scrunching up the terry-cloth, creating landscape and story. Comforting hills, familiar hills, with the scent of her in them, still living, caring for me. I buried my small face in my hills and slept. Sweet memory comes as gift, always a gift and surprise. Or, perhaps it is Grace.

A red tailed hawk screamed and chased an eagle, ravens lilted along the brow of a gentle hill and croaked, two prairie falcons swooped and dove over the widening valley.

And we sailed into Longview, the edge of the beautiful Albertan prairie.

In Longview, there were oil well pumps with huge orange heads the shape of praying mantis heads and arms the shape of mantis arms, going up and down, up and down, looking like a mantis praying, or feeding. Feeding on the earth? I’ve always wondered how they work, and why the counterweight system. I think it is longevity. They want them to work for years and years without maintenance and their unusual design is for that purpose alone. Form follows function. But I like to think the engineers just wanted them to look like mantis.

A home-made sign on a stop sign at a lonely road in the prairie, “Paul and Sherry’s Wedding,” and one deflated black balloon. Black balloon, for a wedding? Story there I suspect.

After a long day of prairie-hot headwind, we gratefully made camp beside The Oldman River and ate the last of our red cabbage with peanut butter. Breakfast would be a granola bar. I don’t know we’ve ever come quite so close to running out of food.

In deep twilight, the river is cellophane blue under chalk gray clouds, a glow of pink silhouettes the mountains. Coyotes sing and there is no moon.

Later, the milky way is bright and faraway lightning animates the sky unexpectedly, without sound. A planet lays a ray of cold light across the river as bright as if it were the moon.

Much later, meteors plunge in from the north where the light of early morning begins to soften the brows of the hills.

Some nights are worth breaking the long sleep into short ones.

Lundbreck offered us a big prairie breakfast in the Alberta Rose Cafe. Huge amounts of lean bacon, large eggs with amber yolks, hand-cut home fries and a friendly French accented waitress who never let our cups cool.

A real cafe: a table set up for checkers; heavy white dishes and thick mugs a cowboy could hold on to; pictures on the wall of men with guns and dead wolves, elk, deer; banter between the kitchen and counter, customers and friends, the flow of time and life of a town was there.

A woman sat beside us at the counter and smoked cigarettes and drank coffee. She talked of growing up in the tiny prairie town and of the going away and the coming back. She reminded Claire of her mother.

Down the street, if it could be called a street, is a store and gas pump. A sign offers, “Hot Snacks,” as competition for the cafe. The proprietor guards his cash register and scowls at his customers. No one lingers, or buys more than necessary it seems; certainly we didn’t. He thinks he is selling food and gas and snacks. The folks at the Alberta Rose offer community along with the strong black coffee and smells from the kitchen. They are the heart of the town and are rightfully rewarded.

As we turned east, toward Crow’s Nest Pass, we faced yet another day of headwind. I found myself not expressing my frustration at the wind (complaining) and by not expressing it, not feeling it. I knew that. Just needed Claire to remind me some weeks ago.

On the way to the pass, a sport-utility pulled over on the shoulder in front of us. Two people got out and waited for us. This is not an unusual thing for us. Strangers decide they want to find out about us, and stop us to ask. We don’t mind, they’re usually entertaining, and break up our day.

“Are you Bob and Claire Rogers?”

It was Mary Ann and Claude from Fernie, our contact for meeting our friend Steve Richards so we can tour with him. They knew it had to be us from the flags we fly since they have been getting our newsletters. They gave us some information on camping and the road ahead, and we got to meet them two days early.

After camping a night at the pass, we rode back into British Columbia after two weeks in Alberta. The pass was hardly noticeable; we wouldn’t have except for the province border sign. We will miss Alberta. The mountains are spectacular and we just got a taste of the prairie. Someday, we will come back.

This part of BC is coal mining country. At Elkview, a mine stop on the railroad, a stream runs through the narrow valley and a strip mine hovers over it, high on the mountain. All color is subdued. Coal dust? It was a holiday and the mines were not working, so I could not tell for sure, but the light and feeling were the same as in West Virginia,  permanently darkened by its attachment to coal mining, since late last century. They are however doing things differently here; the streams are clear and without the orange stain of acid found in West Virginia. That the coal is low sulfur, and the surrounding rock is limestone doesn’t hurt either.

In Sparwood we stopped for pictures of The World’s Largest truck. It was indeed an unbelievably huge mine truck, dwarfing Zippy when I leaned him against a four-metre tall wheel. The monster had been retired to the town square when it was found too expensive to operate.

Worlds Largest Truck

As we approached, two retired men talked earnestly about horsepower and balancing the load and such. My father could have spent a day reading and talking and thinking about that truck, and talking about it for years. Big things, machinery of any sort, hydro dams and such excited him. He would have loved this truck. And standing there, craning my neck at this green monster of a six-wheeled thing, squinting in the sunshine at the hugeness of it, I think I began to understand. Just a little.

Small Canadian towns seem to all have “worlds largest” something or other. One town on the Yellowhead has the worlds largest flyrod, perhaps six meters long. We stop and take pictures, like the good tourists we are.

In Fernie we found a hostel that also has cheap hotel rooms and went to do laundry. Claire said our clothes were so dirty they were hard to shove into the Laundromat washer because they were so stiff. After a shower and nap we were ready to eat and, just out the door, Steve arrived. Perfect timing for dinner, over which we started to catch up on each other’s summer and plan the next three weeks of travel before he starts the drive to Virginia, and we turn Zippy west.