Canada on a Motorcycle, Day 6: Spirit and Ghosts

There seemed to be so few dark hours in Banff. By 5:30 a.m., the sun was already gilding the edges of the window shades. Moose Hotel and Suites had opened just a few weeks earlier, and the lobby still smelled of sawdust and paint, that heady promise of new construction. It was beautifully done, but ironically (considering we'd stayed there for good sleep), I slept horribly after the previous evening's nap and a late night of writing. Four hours of rolling from side to side and trying not to wake Adrian with my restlessness, and then it was time to meet the group for breakfast.

It was a bright blue morning, cloudless and breezy. In the daylight, Banff was utterly picturesque, an alpine village cradled by mountains. I laughed when we saw bikinis and cutoff shorts in storefront windows; I kept forgetting this 60-degree morning was the beginning of another summer day here.

We met the group at one of Mark's favorite restaurants in town, Tooloulou's. Though we had a reservation, our group--which now included two new riders--was too large for one table, so we were split up into two. We met Mike and Ellie in line. Their ride had started in Oregon two days earlier, and they'd stayed with the others at the hostel the night before. Mike greeted us with an open, friendly smile, and his daughter, Ellie, waved before they were ushered to their table. It was their first father/daughter bike trip, I'd find out, with Ellie surprising me by saying she'd only ridden with her dad two or three times, just around their neighborhood, to familiarize herself with the bike before the trip. She seemed casual and at ease in her tall riding boots, blond braid falling across her Harley Davidson leather jacket.

After the previous day's long ride, today would be mostly sightseeing, hopping on the bike for forty-minute jaunts between locations. Our first stop was a gondola ride up Sulphur Mountain, part of the package we'd booked over pizza in Montana, which now seemed a lifetime ago. The list time I'd ridden a gondola was January in Yosemite, when I'd gone skiing one day while Adrian was out with his photography group. Before that, it was a dozen years earlier, when I'd last skied. In Yosemite, the gondola shivered as it climbed, and my stomach plummeted when I looked down. Everything was white--the sky, the ground, the tops of trees--and I had no sense of depth. I could have been 100 feet at the top or 1000. I remembered feeling proud to be doing something that scared me. At least in Banff, I shared the gondola with Deb, Adrian, and Megan. I started with my back facing the climb, but my stomach dipped, and there was nowhere I could look that stabilized me. Eventually Adrian and I switched seats so that I was next to Deb, and she and I gasped at the same spots where the gondola hitched on the cable. We were not looking forward to walking across the glass Sky Bridge in Jasper, 918 feet above the valley floor.

At the top, there was a half-mile climb to different viewpoints. The farthest mountains took on a kind of haze, the valley swept gently below them, and there was the first hint of those otherworldly blue glacial lakes and rivers.

Photo by Adrian Collins Photography

As if challenging the bigness of the view, squirrels played at the edges of the wooden decks, scaling rocks with acrobatic ease and shoving things into their mouths with tiny dexterous hands. We laughed as they performed their daily rituals, indifferent to the hundreds of footsteps shaking the wood inches from their bodies. Megan and Ellie photographed them, and I was, as always, charmed by the attention to detail that others might never notice.

The group split up after that: Jeff, Valerie, Mike, and Ellie returned to the hostel to change, while Adrian, Deb, and I accompanied Mark and Megan on a personal stop: Mark wanted Megan to see the hotel where he and and his wife, Melanie, had honeymooned. The Fairmont Banff Springs is known as the "Castle in the Rockies." It was originally built in 1887, at the convergence of the Bow and Spray River. (In Adrian's photo, you can just make it out in the lower third center of the photo.) The Castle is true to its nickname: from the outside in, it's ornate, old-world luxury. You can easily imagine women in petticoats gliding along the hallways, or waltzing in the ballroom. In fact, a woman dressed in Renaissance velvet sat playing the harp in the marble lobby, smiling at us when we walked in.

Mark told us that he had surprised Melanie with this honeymoon. She'd thought they were going to Tahoe. Once she got over the initial surprise, Mark said she was in awe that he'd thought to bring her to such a magnificent place. They were in their early twenties, Mark said.

"Can you imagine?" he said, laughing. "Just two kids in this castle."

A view from one of the many windowed corridors.

We peeked into a conference room where Mark said he'd love to one day host a Love Loudly retreat. "Can you imagine that?" he asked. "Being able to take a group of kids who don't think they're worth much to a place like this?"

We then stole into the ballroom, where Mark and Megan attempted a waltz and Adrian dipped me as we tried unsuccessfully to recall our wedding dance.

I ducked into a restroom as we talked about leaving, and when I came out, the group was immersed in conversation with a man who worked at the hotel.

"...He killed his wife and young daughter," the man was saying. "They painted over the blood on the walls, but the blood was so thick, so deep in there, that it kept coming back, showing through the paint. People who stayed in that room said they heard screams in the night. They ended up closing off that room for good. If you go up to the eighth floor, you'll see it where it skips a number."

Later that day, Deb would relay the story to Valerie, and the two of them would take a trip back to the Castle to verify the man's story. But Deb remembered the man saying it was room 866, and 866 was decidedly there. It was actually (according to my research, since I missed that part of the story) 873. The numbers go 871, 875 . . . 873 is a ghost room. We joked that perhaps the man himself was a ghost, since he disappeared shortly after telling his story.

It was coming up on lunchtime, and in the parking lot, Deb came through for me as she had before, handing me a granola bar and some frickle from her pannier to hold me over. We went back to the hostel to meet the others, then rode 40 minutes to Lake Louise. Mark wanted to treat Megan to lunch at the Chateau Lake Louise, another historical hotel that held memories of trips with Melanie. Jeff and Valerie bought sandwiches and opted to hike instead, but Mike, Ellie, Adrian and I joined Mark and Megan. We sat on the back patio, facing Lake Louise, and it was the most exquisite demonstration of natural beauty I'd ever seen.

The view from our table. Photo by Adrian Collins Photography

Something shifts inside you--or it does inside me--in the presence of such profound beauty. The heart quickens, then slows, organs move, breathing deepens, as if it's possible to absorb inside what the eyes are seeing, to hold the sensation of wonder and revisit in the spirit those moments of awe. We were like children, eyes and mouths open, photographing on phones and cameras before our order was taken and we turned to each other.

It was our first real opportunity to talk with Mike and Ellie, and I liked them immediately. Mike told me that he "writes a little, too"--his book, The Danger Habit, was published by Random House, and Los Angeles magazine recently published a piece Mike wrote about his father. Mike's father, he said, won a Medal of Honor in the 1970s after his involvement in a hostage situation, in which Dustin Hoffman's cousin, high on drugs, held a studio head hostage, accusing him of stealing his music.

"Back then," Mike said, "the SWAT team was a bunch of guys with shotguns. They were ready to bust in there. But my dad got on the phone with this guy, Franklin, and talked with him for almost an hour. They talked about music, religion, Vietnam, everything, just building a connection."

Eventually, Mike's dad was sent to the scene. Through the mail slot in the door, he and Franklin held hands and prayed together. Shortly after that, Franklin surrendered. But it wasn't where the story ended, Mike said. Every year, on the anniversary of that day, Franklin called Mike's dad to thank him for saving his life. At first, Mike's dad wanted nothing to do with him. But eventually, the conversations extended from a minute or two, to twenty, to forty, to an hour. They built the kind of unlikely friendship that at first made Mike's dad question himself: I'm a cop--I don't associate with criminals. Somehow, though, their bond transcended those labels.

I was enthralled by the story as Mike told it, and I read it online as soon as I got home. I won't say any more about it; you should hear it in Mike's words, here.

After lunch, we walked to the rocky banks of the lake. Adrian, Megan, and Ellie began taking photos. Though there were people all around us (which Adrian expertly avoided in the photo below), it felt to me like a spiritual place. I wanted to take it with me, but then, perhaps the magic is that you can't.

Photo by Adrian Collins Photography

Jeff and Valerie materialized, eyes bright and cheeks flushed from their hike. I'd hoped to go exploring after lunch, but it was closing in on 5 p.m., and we still wanted to see Moraine Lake.

We hopped on the bikes for another half hour ride, and I thought that nothing, nothing, could match the beauty of Lake Louise. But Mark, almost giddy with the delight of knowing something we didn't, said, "Just wait."

I was laughing in disbelief before we even climbed off the bikes in the parking lot. I'd caught a glimpse of an unearthly azure, the shade of Crayon a child might use to draw the ocean when his imagination is still capable of surpassing reality, or even possibility. We climbed up a steep rocky trail and stopped at the top, breathless.

Photo by Adrian Collins Photography

Megan and I had lagged behind a little, and we were met by Valerie and Deb's exhilarated laughter.

"We've renamed it Blue Otter Pop Lake," Valerie said, and Deb nodded, her eyes shining.

"Yes!" Megan said. "That's perfect."

"Blue Otter Pop . . .?" I smiled quizzically, ready to be let in on the joke.

All three women looked at me in disbelief. "Do you not know what an Otter Pop is?" Valerie exclaimed.

"Those popsicles, in the plastic sheeting?" Megan said, miming pushing a popsicle to the top of its wrapping.

"Ohhh," I said. "Yes! I know them. I just never knew what they were called." Those popsicles had always been in the back of my grandpa's 1950s-era backroom fridge, and we kids beelined toward them in the summertime. But they were probably a generic brand, always bought in bulk from Sam's or somewhere, and stored in one thick wheel of rolled up plastic. But I knew instantly what they meant. The lake was that unreal shade of blue, exactly.


We stayed up there for maybe close to an hour. There isn't enough time in the world to grow weary of such a sight.

It was after six, maybe even close to seven, when we left to ride back to Banff proper. But it was our last night there, and Adrian wanted to return to the spot where he'd seen the bear the night before. If there was any chance to photograph it again, maybe even closer, he didn't want to miss it. Jeff and Valerie headed back to town for dinner, but Mark, Megan, Mike, and Ellie joined us. We took a two-lane side road, and Adrian's voice came on in my helmet: "Keep your eyes open!" he said, eager as a young boy.

I was tired and getting hungry again. "Well, obviously!" I tried lightening my snappishness with a laugh.

On the side of the road, a car was pulled over with a family buried ten feet deep in the trees, excitedly taking photos. We stopped, and Adrian called, "What is it? Is it a bear?"

One of them called back, no less excited, "A beaver!"

We laughed and kept going.

At Vermillion Lakes, we stopped so the shutterbugs could take a few photos as a long, slow dusk began dappling the lake with golden shadow. Two girls parked behind us, wearing sundresses and dragging kayaks over to the shore. They were chatting and laughing, as if they'd done this a million times before.

Photo by Adrian Collins Photography

Photo by Adrian Collins Photography

Then we were back on the bikes, riding almost aimlessly in hopes of spotting wildlife. Ten minutes down the road in the opposite direction, we did: a group of elk were grazing. We stopped, as a few others had, and one loud, insistent man began approaching the herd. With slow, silent power, the elk began dispersing and widening, forming a loose semi-circle.

"Have you noticed what's behind them?" Mark asked.

We peered more closely.

"A baby," Ellie breathed.

She was right. In an understanding beyond words, the elk were responding to a potential threat by assuming a formation that would protect the fawn. For some reason, it made me want to cry.

"Hey!" Ellie shouted to the man, angrily. "Get back!"

Mark shushed her. "He's not your responsibility, Ellie."

"Yeah, but if something happens when I'm here and I didn't say something, I'll feel so bad," Ellie said.

Mark said again, firmly, "He's making his own choices. He's not your responsibility." Then he got a mischievous grin. "Besides, if he gets headbutted by one of these things because of his stupidity, it'll make a damn funny YouTube video."

Ellie still looked troubled and frustrated, as if she wanted to grab the man by his shirt and yank him back to his car, scolding him the whole way. I liked her even more then.

We rode a little farther, to one more lake, by which point I was done. I sat on a rock while Adrian and Ellie took photos, knowing I was within half an hour of getting legitimately grumpy. The sun set in a calm, understated way, the sky a muted pastel pink. Finally, we returned to the bikes and rode the 20 minutes or so back into town.

It was almost 10:00 when we pulled into the hostel's garage, and two men appeared from seemingly nowhere, grinning and slapping Mark on the back, waving at Megan. I thought the group had met them at the hostel the night before, so I just gave them a cursory smile and wave from the back of the bike. Mark, who was also clearly exhausted, said they'd just have dinner there. He'd sent us a video the night before, smiling dryly at a bar while behind him a sea of twenty-somethings shouted and sang too loudly. I could almost smell the stale beer and feel the floors sticky under my feet--it was every college dive bar in which I'd ever drunk way too much.

"Yeah, I think we'll just go back to ours," Adrian said with a laugh, and I silently thanked him.

We finished the day in a quiet booth at the hotel restaurant, and I was almost catatonic by the time we made it upstairs. Tomorrow would be a full day of riding into Jasper. I couldn't wait.

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