8. North to Alaska: Chapter 10 and Chapter 11 – Life Out Here
Shadowed only by a park ranger hat, her smile was sunlight. Of course we could pass through. So long as we did not stop.
The Kootenay Highway became the Banff-Windermere Highway—roughly 103 kilometers of storied asphalt through Kootenay National Park to the Trans-Canada Highway.
Morning sun reflected off the canyon as an iridescent copper and vermillion glow. Shadowed ponderosa were a cool slate blue. A valley of stately firs and larch and poplars grew in steep waves up mountainsides, the snowy peaks of which touched a sapphire sky. I put on Jackson Browne; his “Solo Acoustic, Volume 1” became my album of the trip.
The cold Kootenay River wove back and forth under the highway, its turquoise waters shallow and rushed, slipping over sprays of speckled light and polished driftwood. Then I recognized the valley of my childhood memories which, until that moment, had been the hazy kind of memory you can never quite place. My heart had responded to this place decades earlier and I remembered why. Skiffs of daisies spangled lime-colored grasses, gathered like sea foam at bases of emerald evergreens, some squatty and some spindly spears.
The land was scarred near Vermillion Crossing where the boundary line between British Columbia and Alberta ushers you back over the Divide. Blackened toothpick trees. Purple and white wildflowers. It was a gentle climb, and through my rearview, I watched Zach catch up and fall back with the rolling road and other motorists. The peaks of Banff were shipwrecked steamboats.
They watched us pass by on our way to the Trans-Canada Highway, a congested thoroughfare we abandoned a few kilometers short of Calgary. Google Maps took us down the Cowboy Trail through First Nations territory – Highway 22 to Whitecourt. At a glittering truck stop I behaved as I do on any Montana reservation, respectful and friendly and like had always planned to buy their six dollar turkey sandwich. Zach held out for the Cranmore A&W.
The east side of the Divide always seems blond as sand and never ending and steamboat silhouettes now filled a far flung horizon. The Rockies receded. I kept glancing at them until it seemed the sky might have been ripped from the seam of the jagged earth. Then they were indistinguishable. I was further north than I had ever traveled, and what is there besides the gentle Ozarks back East and the Rockies of home?
Rural Alberta was all yellow canola and unripened berry fields, cattle companies and straight roads pocked with the scars of harsh prairie winters. Alberta’s rodeo country. I saw road signs for places called Cremona or Drayton Creek or Mayerthorpe. I listened to Emma Thompson read “Emma” to pass the time. It was lonely country.
Starbucks and McDonald’s and Taco Time appeared on the blazing horizon where darker clouds gathered. Whitecourt was a sundown town that seemed to never sleep. The late-day storm brought with it darkness and a rainbow and evening deer grazing lush meadows.
We woke in pitch darkness to a fist-pounding on the door across the hallway. I heard loud voices and the deep bellows of a startled dog. Enough yelling to maybe phone somebody, but a few door slams and the hotel fell quiet. My sleep was restless. A grab-and-go breakfast from a masked attendant and we were on the road to Fort St. John, our first stop on the Alaska Highway that lay somewhere out on the westerly horizon.