Bye bye British Columbia, hello Jasper. Gasper. The winding roads and serenity of the mountains are officially behind me, and I find myself in gift shop purgatory – a hub of zombie debit swipes and ascot-clad backpackers.
The detour to Jasper was a sort of litmus test to find if I wanted to make the journey south down the Icefields Parkway to Banff. I don’t.
To be honest, a good portion of my heart is still in British Columbia. The ride east on the Yellowhead was wonderful, a relaxing meander through sweeping valleys and lush farmland that smelled like home. It was so incident-free, in fact, that my mind wandered in every direction for hours. And, of course, that’s when something happens.
I was cycling through the hills near Prince George as black clouds gathered behind me. They mushroomed all day, but since I was facing the sunshine, I didn’t think much of them. Then, in the early evening, Mother Nature pulled a hood over the sky and it sounded like bombs were dropping in the distance. Day became an eerie night and I pulled off onto an abandoned hiking trail as fast as I could. I scrambled to put up my tent, and just as I snapped the last pole together, gumball sized drops started falling and lightning lit up the sky. And the thunder! It boomed through the valley, through my guts, and I couldn’t help but think the next bolt was headed for my tent.
But it wasn’t. Something else was. As the storm slowly subsided, I heard a huge crash through the trees and seconds later a nose in constant suction was sniffing at my tent. I looked up to see a big black snout pressed against the fabric, inches from my own face. The animal then walked to my bike, knocked over my cook pot and then plowed back through the bushes. The next morning I found a huge pile of bear shit in front of my tent. And that was that.
Further east, in the Robson Valley, I came to a small town called McBride. It gave me a good vibe from the moment I cycled down Main Street, so I grabbed some supplies from the local market and headed to the Visitor’s Centre for some complimentary coffee. True, I don’t drink coffee, but I’m always in the mood for something free.
Admittedly, though, I’ve developed a bit of a problem with crowds. I’ve spent so much time alone, in the middle of nowhere, that large groups of people pour glue on my shoes and make me clutch the wall. So I stood there, eyes widening, until a woman gave me a huge smile that must have rattled off the mugs behind me. I turned red and scuffed the floor with my toe.
“Can I buy you a coffee?”
The glue melted and I smiled back. I said I’d be happy to have a cup with her. I sat down and right away her husband asked me all about my trip. Where was I going? Where did I start? Where was I staying tonight? My reply to the last question wasn’t up to snuff, I think, and they invited me to stay at their acreage east of town. Juliann and Gerald were such genuinely warm people that I accepted right away and asked that they repeat directions to their place, which I promptly forgot after the door swung shut.
I’m not much good at details.
So, after five cups of coffee and an hour-long conversation with a local cedar farmer, I headed off for the road that starts with an “H”, second house on the right. Or left. And I made it! The road was Hinkelman and the cream house with green trim was just as wonderful as I imagined. It sat under a canopy of beautiful trees and right beside the back door was a candy-colored garden with flowers I’ve never even seen before.
Jullian and Gerry were the most amazing hosts. I asked where I could set up my tent, and they winked and suggested the guest bedroom downstairs. This, after they stuffed me with delicious food, threw my clothes in the washer and me in the shower. And as I ran my fingers across the titles of Jullian’s book collection, I smiled, warm and content, and realized how lucky I’ve been on this trip. I’ve met so many wonderful people, so many generous souls, and in the end I guess that was the point. It makes all the difference in the world.
The next day, Jullian and Gerry drove me halfway up an alpine trail so I could climb Mount McBride. I squinted at the treeless peak and realized, once and for all, that the prairie flats are permanently ingrained in my DNA. The idea of climbing an actual mountain was so foreign to me that I set off with a ham sandwich and a big smile, figuring they were all I’d ever need.
I got to the top of Mount McBride without any trouble. In fact, it was fun, and as I looked down at the snow on smaller peaks, I found that I was having the time of my life. I peered across the horizon and picked out another ridge, this one a towering rocky mass, and decided I was going to climb that one too.
If you’re looking at the picture above, the peak in question sits centre frame, just to the right of the sharp triangle outcropping. I almost made it, too.
As I made my way up the ridge, I came to a sheer rock face that was impossible to climb. I had to go around, so I shimmied down, and that’s where I slipped. Or rather, the rocks slipped. They disintegrated under my feet and on my back I slid about 20 meters down the mountain. The slope continued beneath me, the angle growing sharper, and then it dropped off, straight down to a rock pile far below.
I dug my fingers into the stones to try to climb back up, but every time I moved I only slipped further down. A few inches at a time, lower and lower, sliding to a free fall. I clutched the wall for about 20 minutes, talking to myself and trying to quell the panic rising in my throat. Eventually my arms started to shake, growing weak, and the time to climb out was now or never.
I couldn’t get any sort of grip, so I slowly pried a rock out of the mountain and put my fingers in the hole. Then my knee and then my foot. From there, I scaled a narrow outcropping back to a tiny perch where I could sit, dizzy and very scared. The top of the ridge wasn’t far above, and when I made it there I got off the mountain as fast as humanly possible. Mount McBride, far below, seemed like a gift and solid ground a blessing.
Jullian asked me what was going through my mind as I clung to the mountain wall. Here it is: Sliding down the rock face, inch by inch, I realized I know just one thing about God – I ain’t Him.