Driving the Trans-Canadian Highway

The Athabasca Glacier was my planned northernmost stop, and as you can see from my last post, I got there. But now what? I wasn’t sure exactly which way I wanted to go home from Banff, and where I should stop on the way. I was trying avoid Idaho because I spent some time there as a kid and had seen enough. Although the thought of Yellowstone National Park was tempting, and the shortest route would have been through Idaho. I’d already seen a fair bit of Montana and the Highway to the Sun was still closed for the winter. Spokane, which is probably very pretty, had nothing in particular to recommend it and to get there meant going through Coeur D’Alaine, ID. I remember learning about how the first amendment of the constitution was protecting the annual parades of white supremacists in Coeur D’Alaine, and my mother explaining the price of free speech. Vancouver, on the other hand, sounded wonderful. And people do make whole vacations out of driving the Trans-Canadian Highway, also known as highway one. So, I thought, sure. Why not? How hard can it be after all the driving I have already done?

After a sandwich and a little shopping, where I still could not find postage stamps (“oh, we don’t have those yet” – hmm), I left Banff and got on highway one heading west. It was time for a new adventure. And what an adventure I had! The Trans-Canadian Highway sounds like it’s a major multi-lane road with all kinds of convenient rest stops and scenic turnouts along the way. It’s that way in a few places, specifically near Banff, but after that? Not so much. It was one lane in each direction most of the way, with the occasional passing lane every 30 miles or so. It goes through some serious mountains and it is an avalanche zone for 400 miles. Yeah, that’s right. 400 miles. In California, if you drive in the mountains, it’s maybe an hour or two, at most, before you’re out again. Not in Canada. The mountains are endless. They go all the way to Vancouver, which is 550 miles from Banff. It got a little easier when I got closer to Vancouver, but that was only after eight hours of full-on mountain driving from where I started in Banff! Yikes. I felt like I had earned a driving merit badge or a bumper sticker by the time I finally reached Vancouver.

There are rules about driving in an avalanche zone, the chief of which is that it is illegal to stop your car, even in an emergency. You have to get to a town for that. There were some beautiful towns, too, including Golden and Salmon Arm. Fortunately, the towns are in the valleys and often on the edges of lakes, and there the driving gets easier. But then, the scenery is different in the valleys and you don’t have the same awesome and stunning beauty of a mountain almost over your head. There must have been hundreds of waterfalls from snowmelt, sometimes right against the road, and they were so beautiful. The road was twisty and turning and well-banked but demanding. All my attention had to be on the road all the time. Even “drive by” photography would have been dangerous in most places. Once, I had to break the rule and shoot out the window when there was a mountain looming over me so impressively even I had trouble believing it was real, but generally, I could not take pictures. At one point, I saw what looked like 1,000 trees fallen that looked like a box of spilled matches, right down to the road, from a recent avalanche. There was evidence all around of the season’s avalanche activity, both on the Trans-Canadian and also back on the Icefield Parkway outside of Banff. I find it hard to take seriously the destructive power of falling snow until I recall that gravity is also responsible for the formation of neutron stars and black holes Then I see something like those trees and it just brings the point home. The mountains and the avalanche zone went on, and on, and then on some more. When I stopped for gasoline about four hours into it, I had to close my eyes and take some deep breaths with my head resting on the steering wheel at the filling station. I was exhausted from the adrenaline.

The Trans-Canadian is the only major road east to west, so everyone is on it. Semi trucks, delivery vehicles, passenger cars, you name it, and we’re all in just one lane unless you’ve got the courage to pass on the “wrong” side of the road. It’s legal and expected, but it is a rush of nerves all the same. After passing all those semi trucks, people towing trailers and generally slower drivers, I was hesitant to stop and lose the place I had worked so hard to get in that one-lane line. It was raining and blowing snow off and on all day, and while it cleared up in the middle, I counted myself lucky that I’d spent the day before sightseeing and photographing when it was sunny. I was so relieved to finally drive into Vancouver and find my hotel. Even driving the cobblestone streets and the one-way downtown streets at night in the pouring rain seemed easy by comparison. It took me about 9.5 hours to get from Banff to Vancouver, which I understand is pretty good time. I gained an hour magically by crossing back into the Pacific time zone, and I count that here in my estimate. Moral of the story: if you go, bring an extra driver. That way, you can take pictures!

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