Canada on a Motorcycle, Day 4: Zero Expectations

Waterton Lakes is a town too beautiful, too idyllic, to be real. It's a movie set of quaint log cabins and flowerpots hanging from windowsills, the bright gardenias and carnations and poppies decorating even the older, shabbier motels so that they look charming and European. The main street holds a handful of restaurants, cafes, and shops, and backs onto Waterton Lake, which is bordered by mountains that reduce everything around them, ourselves included, to miniature. It's the type of town where it's difficult to imagine anything truly terrible (or even a little terrible) happening, even though it's a spot on earth in which winter would obliterate the unprepared. When we were there, in the middle of July, daytime temperatures were in the low 70s and nights dropped to the 50s. In winter, the temperature plummets to -40 degrees celsius, which is so cold that it's equal to -40 degrees Fahrenheit. This is what cashier working at the cafe where I picked up breakfast told me. He laughed at my expression.

"So--what do you do when it's that cold?" I asked. "Can you even leave the house?"

He laughed again. He was blond and tan, maybe 16, easy to imagine snow boarding or skiing. "Yeah, they run the snow plows through," he said. "But only like nine people live here year round, including me. I love it here."

"Wow," I said, taking my coffee and a brown paper bag containing the breakfast sandwich, yogurt parfait, and cranberry orange muffin I'd ordered for Adrian and me. "Well, the weather here today is like a nice winter day at home. It's about 110 degrees there now."

It was his turn to balk. "No way," he said, shaking his head. "That's insane. I could never do that."

I was smiling as I left, thinking of how adaptable to our environments we are, becoming inured to extreme heat or cold as nature requires. One of the body's many miracles.

I made another stop at Starbucks for an orange juice for Adrian, a hunk of banana bread, and a granola bar. I was getting hungry more often than usual on this trip, my stomach growling two or three hours after a substantial meal. It got to the point where Mark asked if I was pregnant (I'm not) and Adrian jokingly suggested I get checked for tapeworms. My explanation is that you expend much more energy than you think on the bike, on top of which there were days we walked between three and six miles, exploring. The only times we really rested were at meals and when the day's ride was over. So instead of griping about hunger, I was learning to just eat more and pack snacks. Not a bad plan.

That day, we'd booked a cruise across Waterton Lake, which would take us back into Montana for a brief dock at a spot called Goat Haunt, the northern gateway back to Glacier National Park, before returning to Canada. We thought we were switching to a different motel, but when I returned from picking up breakfast, it turned out that the "honeymoon suite" was available, so Mark had booked it for Adrian and me . . . plus Megan, Valerie, and Deb. Mark and Jeff would move down the road to a different place.

We were all running on slightly different schedules that morning, so Adrian and I ate our takeout breakfast while the rest of the group eventually convened in a nearby restaurant. We agreed to meet at the dock at 9:40 for the 10 a.m. ride.

When Adrian and I got there, a hundred people were already in line, rubbing in sunblock and rearranging items in their backpacks. The double decker boat didn't seem nearly large enough for everyone, and even if it was, we'd clearly gotten there too late to sit up top. Adrian had brought all his camera gear in anticipation of a different kind of excursion. We'd both imagined it being a small boat, maybe one or two dozen people. We hadn't thought it was a major tourist attraction. Adrian was grumbling by the time the rest of the group joined us, becoming sulkier when, indeed, we needed to take seats in the cabin.

My dad has always offered us advice that is part cynical and part (I think) hopeful. He tells us to approach situations without expectations--that is, without constructing elaborate fantasies of what something will look like or feel like. Same goes for people: don't expect people to react to circumstances in a certain way, least of all the way you want them to. If you do, my dad says, it's a recipe for disappointment. He reminded me of this a few months ago when Adrian and I were going through some challenges. He warned me against having any expectations, let alone high ones, for how Adrian would behave, not because he thinks lowly of Adrian (he doesn't, quite the contrary) but because he knows I would be setting him up for failure. We have to accept people, things, places, and experiences at face value. This is the only way to experience them--and, more importantly, appreciate them--as they are. I struggle with this when it comes to people I'm close to, when my emotions are tied to their behavior, but I'm better at it with situations. It's one of the reasons I loved this trip so much. I didn't even try to imagine in advance what the experience would be like (partially out of denial that it was actually going to happen), and so I could appreciate every aspect of it for what it was. I think Adrian is the opposite--he's better able to let people who are close to him just be, but when an experience doesn't meet his initial expectation, it can take awhile for him to step back and recalibrate. Eventually, though, he did. How could he not with these views?

Photo by Adrian Collins Photography

Photo by Adrian Collins Photography

The sky was constantly changing throughout our ride, clouds assembling and disassembling, the color brightening and darkening. When we docked at Goat Haunt, everything became suddenly vivid, with a perfect reflection of the mountains against the clear, deep jade water. There was nowhere you could stand that wouldn't awe you.

Photo by Adrian Collins Photography

Above, Adrian and I on the boat. Below, Megan, Valerie, and Deb.

We sat up top on the way back, mostly quiet as we took in the views and munched on the muffin, banana bread, and granola bar. The only thing separating one country from another was a vertical line on a mountain where the trees had been cut to demarcate the US from Canada. As always, I was struck by what a very abstract thing a border is, a concept more than reality. The mountains do not know they belong to anyone.

Afterwards, we decided to have lunch at the Prince of Wales Hotel. In the photos below, it is not much more than a beautiful speck in the distance:

Photo by Adrian Collins Photography

Photo by Adrian Collins Photography

Inside, though, the views were grand and sweeping:

As we waited in line to reserve a table, a group of women walked in dressed in bright, regal reds and purples, wearing the kinds of hats you'd never see in the US, except perhaps at the Kentucky Derby. They chatted and laughed together like teenagers, with the kind of happy confidence of those who feel beautiful. Mark and I exchanged curious glances, and I asked the woman behind us, "Are you all a part of an organization?"

She stood up straighter, fluffing her tight gray curls. "We," she said, "are the Red Hat Society."

"The Red Hat Society?"

"Yes." She smiled. She spoke with a prim but faded British accent. "We are a group of ladies over fifty who just want to be silly and have fun. We've finished raising you all," she gestured toward me, "and now, this is just for us."

She beamed, and shortly afterward, her group was called to sit down.

"I want to take a picture with them," Mark said.

"You should!" I said. "Come on, I'll take it."

Like paparazzi, we followed the women into an adjoining parlor and asked them for a photo. They agreed, smiling and laughing and primping.

Adrian had disappeared inside the hotel gift shop, and he surprised me by buying me a beautiful ring made of ammolite, an iridescent green-and-orange gemstone made from the fossils of extinct sea creatures called ammonites, which are found only in the Bearpaw Formation in Alberta, where we were. "For putting up with my whinging," he said, kissing me, and we joined the group in the dining room. All the girls oohed over the ring, and Mark said approvingly to Adrian, "You're learning!"

Lunch was long, since two tour buses had been seated before us, and we were only there few minutes when Mark--who had been looking at his phone--said, "I keep seeing all these celebrities who say how 'unsafe' they'll feel if Trump is elected. Can you explain that to me? What am I not seeing?"

A couple of notes here: we barely ever had cell phone signal or WiFi, so when we did find ourselves at hotels, we'd usually check in briefly with people back home, scroll through social media feeds, read the news, etc. I was surprised at how little I missed the connectivity. At the Prince of Wales, I didn't even try to log in. Second note: Mark is quite conservative in many of his political views, while Adrian and I are liberal. But one of the qualities I so respect in Mark is that he actively seeks out opposing views. Social media makes it easy to block or stop following anyone whose views upset us, surrounding ourselves with people who are wholly like us. But when we do that, I think we lose the ability to have a discourse, to seek to understand, even if at the end of that exploration our own views don't change. Worse, we run the risk of villainizing people who don't believe what we believe, and this might be the greatest danger we face--indeed that we've ever faced, because what comes next? Hate. Terror. War. So for Mark to ask what he did filled me with warmth and hope, despite my negative opinions about Trump and this political climate as a whole.

Mark and Adrian dominated the conversation, while I interjected in moments of passion. But mostly I listened. I liked how, while both men were opinionated and often on different sides (such as on gun control), they talked and listened with respect and a genuine desire to understand a view they didn't naturally understand. They talked about Trump and Hillary, about Trump's wall and the dangers of his rhetoric, about terror threats and where they come from, about Mark's military background and how it colors his views today. The conversation lasted the full two hours we were there, and as we trailed outside to enjoy the view, Mark clapped Adrian on the shoulder.

"Sorry if I pushed any buttons," he said. "I know people can be sensitive to all this."

"No, no!" Adrian said. "I loved it. Great conversation."

The sky had changed again, darkened, storm clouds hovering low. The air smelled like rain, which I've always considered a little magical--nature allowing us to know her plans.

Photo by Adrian Collins Photography

(My own iPhone pic.)

Next on the agenda was to ride out to Red Rock Canyon, only a half hour or so away. Adrian and I were the only ones not wearing our riding gear, since we thought we'd be returning to the motel to check into our new room before heading out again. He was in a t-shirt and cargo pants, I in my fleece hoodie and jeans. Though the sky was ominous, we thought it would be a quick ride and didn't want to hold the group up while we went back and changed, so we took the chance.

Halfway to Red Rock, we saw a line of cars and trucks pulled over to either side of the road. This, we would soon learn, was a sign that there was a bear close by. Eagerly, we pulled over, too.

Photo by Adrian Collins Photography

Sure enough, across a field and stream, right next to a golf course, a mother bear and her two cubs played on a hill. We all gasped and took turns passing a pair of binoculars around. The bears were oblivious to the golfers 100 yards away, and the golfers were oblivious to the bears. When one man went chasing after a ball in the direction of the bears, I felt a clutch of foreboding in my stomach, as if I was watching a horror movie (Turn around! He's right there!). But he retrieved the ball, neither he nor the bears ever aware of each other. I wondered how often this happens, averting a danger we never even see.

Then there was a clap of thunder and the sky opened. Adrian swore, trying to protect his camera equipment, as I shrieked with laughter and we all ran back to the bikes. We were helmeted and on our seats in record time, flying through rain that quickly turned to hail. The pebble-sized ice hit Adrian's bare arms as we rode, and we could hear each other saying, "Ow! Ouch! Oh!" even through our helmets. I was completely soaked through in a minute, the roads shiny with rain. Strangely, I wasn't scared. I was actually laughing inside my helmet. Then, about ten minutes away from our motel, the wind picked up, and this sobered me. Now I just gritted my teeth and leaned forward, holding tightly onto Adrian until we'd reached the covered driveway of the motel.

There, we checked into our new room, stopping in our tracks as we stepped inside: there was a little loft upstairs with a double bed, and downstairs, there were two pullout beds . . . and a Jacuzzi in the middle of the room, beyond which sliding glass doors rendered the shower completely visible. We all burst out laughing, doing some quick problem solving by hanging towels to give the bathroom more privacy. We stripped off our wet clothes and Adrian and I changed into our riding gear. He was in a rush to get back to photograph the bears.

"I think I'll stay here," Deb said. She was the newest rider of the group, and the rain had shaken her. "I don't want to go out in that again. If you guys want, just leave me your wet clothes and I'll go to the Laundromat."

"Are you sure?" I asked her.

She nodded emphatically. "Oh, I'm sure. You guys have fun. I'll see you later."

So back out we went. The bears were right where we'd left them, though Adrian lamented not being able to get a closer shot (which he would in only a few days...).

Photo by Adrian Collins Photography

Before we left, Adrian shifted his lens to the group.

Mark and Megan. Photo by Adrian Collins Photography

From left to right: Mark, Jeff, Valerie, Megan, and me. Photo by Adrian Collins Photography

I forget, now, why we returned to the motel. Mark and Jeff wanted to take Adrian to a waterfall, but we stopped first, and I opted to stay behind. It was after five, and what I wanted to do was take my book (I'd bought My Sunshine Away at the airport in anticipation of finishing Salvage the Bones) and read it lakeside with a glass of wine. I love being around people, but I need solitude and quiet to recharge. I recognized that I was feeling edgy and a little antisocial. But Deb was back in the room, our laundry dry and laid out on the coffee table, and I couldn't not invite her. She accepted immediately, with a bright smile.

"Now that sounds great," she said, and within moments we were out the door.

I was back down to a sleeveless top and jeans, which I realized was a mistake as soon as we sat at an outdoor table at the restaurant where we'd eaten the night before. The wind was up, crisp off the water. The sun wouldn't set for hours, but it would only get cooler from here. Oh, well, I thought. A drink will warm me up.

We ordered cocktails and smiled at each other. It was the first time we'd chatted one on one, and while I'd initially wanted to be alone, I was soon happy that she'd joined me. We talked about her background, and I realized quickly how much I didn't know or had incorrectly assumed. For example, I'd thought that she was good friends with both Jeff and Mark from their work, but it turned out she'd only met Mark once or twice before jumping in a truck with him, Jeff, and Megan for the two-day haul from California to Spokane. She'd never met Megan or Valerie, though I'd assumed, from their comfort together, that she and Megan had known each other. She'd been deeply nervous to join the group and had almost backed out of the trip several times. On top of this, the Harley she rode was a bike she'd only recently bought from a friend. She'd ridden it once--once--before taking it to get serviced, and the dealership had dropped it from the truck, ending up needing to keep it longer for repairs. She'd gotten it back the day before the trip began. Before this, she'd been riding consistently for about five years, but some of that was on the trike she'd inherited from her dad.

"I'm so grateful that Jeff and Mark let me come," she said. "It means so much to me. And everybody has been so encouraging. I'm just soaking up all the little tidbits of advice."

"So this was really a stretch for you, coming out here," I said. "I knew you were a newer rider, but I thought you knew everyone, and I definitely thought you'd had more experience on the Harley."

"Not at all!" she said, laughing.

Then she told me that on the day after Christmas nearly 10 years ago, her son, then around 20, had nearly died in a motorcycle accident. He'd been on the highway, and the brake lights were broken on the Suburban in front of him. When it braked suddenly, there was nowhere for Deb's son to go, no time to react. His bike--and his body--hit the Suburban, and he flew over it to land like a rag doll on the road. When Deb got the call from her son's roommate, she knew instantly that something was wrong. She had known, in fact. She'd had a strange, ugly feeling in the pit of her stomach, a crawling sense that something bad had happened. When the phone rang and she heard her son's friend, she asked simply, "Is he alive?"

They rushed to the hospital, which was an hour or so away. Her son was unconscious, and when he woke, doctors said he was lucky to be alive. He'd be in the hospital for the next six weeks, they said, but her son--who couldn't even talk--managed to convey that he'd be out in half that.

"He's very determined," Deb said, smiling though her eyes glinted with tears. "He had to learn how to walk again, how to talk, how to read and write. He still doesn't have use of his right arm. I used to take him out for rides on the trike . . . He really misses riding."

We were silent, contemplative, and when our server returned we ordered another round of drinks. I sent a text to the group letting them know where we were.

"And you still ride," I said softly. "You still came on this trip."

She nodded. "People ask me all the time, 'How can you still ride?' But I think that's part of it. I do it for my son, and I do it because I don't want to be ruled by fear."

"That's amazing," I said, and she smiled.

We talked and laughed until one by one, the rest of the group joined us. They'd gone to the waterfall and then returned to their rooms,and Mark and Megan had napped while Adrian went out to shoot more photos. This was the waterfall:

Photo by Adrian Collins Photography

We ate and drank, and by the time it was just Mark, Megan, and me left at the table, I was warm and tipsy and tired. When Megan and I made it back to the room, we were surprised to see that Valerie, Deb, and Adrian weren't there. We looked at each other, baffled.

"There's Valerie's wallet and phone," I said, pointing to the mantel. I looked around. "And Deb's tennis shoes that she was wearing! Where would they go without these things?"

We kept speculating, gigglingly looking for clues, until Megan suggested I look upstairs. When I did, Adrian was propped up in bed, shaking his head.

"What are you doing?" he asked.

"You've been listening to us the entire time?" I demanded, affronted. "Why didn't you say something?"

He shrugged. "You were doing your CSI thing."

"Adrian's up here!" I called to Megan, needlessly.

She, who doesn't drink, said wryly, "I thought he might be."

"But where are the others?" I asked.

Then the door opened and Debra and Valerie tumbled inside, laughing. "There you are!" Valerie said.

"We got worried, so we went back to the restaurant to look for you," Deb added.

"We even knocked on Dad's door, asking where the girls are, and he's like, 'What girls?!'" Valerie said, and we all collapsed in giggles.

"We thought you guys would be too smart to walk through the alley, so what did we do?" Deb said.

"We walked through the alley!" Valerie and Deb said in unison. The room rang out with merry female voices and laughter, and I didn't care if Adrian was annoyed. The camaraderie was too much fun.

Eventually, though, our bodies remembered that it was almost midnight, and our voices lowered, our laughter faded. Bathroom doors opened and closed, water ran. We yawned, and sheets rustled, and we called quiet goodnights. The next day we would pack up and ride to Banff, where we would be joined by two new riders. New experiences and relationships awaited, and I didn't even try to imagine what lay ahead.

#canada #WatertonLakes #motorcycleadventuretrip #motorcycle #GlacierNationalPark #explore #blackbears