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Three Lessons from Traveling in Alberta

As we prepare to head to the Canadian Maritimes (a.k.a. ManicTimes `12) it’s hard not to look back at our first trek through Canada in 2006. That was our second roadtrip and it wouldn’t be until 2008 that we started to consider ourselves professional roadtrippers. Aside from almost missing our flight to Vancouver and being giving a minivan instead of an SUV by the guys at Discount Car and Truck Rentals, X-Can `06 started off fine. Once we crossed the Canadian Rockies however, it became clear that we were still wet behind the ears.

Here are a few lessons we learned while in Alberta.

City: Jasper
Day of the trip: 3
Lesson: Be sure to leave some flexibility in your schedule


Our first major target was 7,472 feet above sea level and 494 miles northeast of Vancouver. We didn’t exactly take a beeline there, but we reached Whistler’s Mountain in Jasper, Alberta on the third day of the trip. Rather than scaling the entirety of the mountain, we took the tram that dropped us at the foot of a series of trails around the peak.

There was a fair amount of other people visiting Whistler’s. Some were hikers, some retirees, and then there was one family resting on a series of rocks a short way from the tram station. The whole family appeared overweight and as we walked past them, we heard the following exchange between the mother and one of her sons:

“You can live a short life, and not want to [hike], or you can get healthy. And you told me that you want to get healthy… I’m fat too, more fat… Physical exercise can extend your life, or you can live a short life.”

“SHORT LIFE!”

His reply carried clearly in the crisp mountain air, and we were soon having a “did you hear that” conversation with two other hikers. They were both named MaryAnne, and the four of us spent the next few hours together hiking atop Whistler’s, checking out the rock formations left by previous hikers, laughing at the penises drawn in the patches of snow and just chilling on top of a mountain.

Whistler’s having been summited, the four of us hopped into our rented minivan and we drove the MaryAnnes back to the camp where they were working that summer. The girls gave us a tour of the place and invited us to stay there for the night. This invitation caused us a dilemma: We were booked to spend that night in Edmonton, over 200 miles to the east.

We wanted to stay, but if we lost the night in Edmonton we would have lost the deposit on the hotel and the rest of the trip would have been thrown off. In the months before leaving, we had mapped out the entire trip on a tight schedule that would allow us to cover as much ground as possible. We had booked almost every night’s hotel in advance, thinking this would save us from being stranded. Instead, it left us no choice but to decline the MaryAnne’s invitation and leave the camp with a round of awkward goodbyes.

The lesson: Don’t book every night of a trip and don’t have an inflexible schedule. If we had left any room for chance, fate or even a bit of controlled chaos in the trip we could have spent the night at a summer camp with a couple dozen twenty-somethings instead of in a stripmall hotel in Edmonton surrounded by roughneck oil crews.

City: Edmonton
Day of the trip: 4
Lesson: If you stop looking for new things you may miss something worth seeing


Most famous for its hockey team named after the local oil industry, Edmonton isn’t really located close to anything else. Road signs tell you which exit you take to reach Alaska and, in the summertime, daylight stretches past 10PM. We were interested in the city for being an isolated and industrial bastion of urbanity… and for The Mall.

The West Edmonton Mall, then the largest in the world, loomed as the apex of North America’s conformist shopping culture. We were also curious about how the mall vs. non-mall commerce divide played out… and to see if George A. Romero’s take on malls would hold up there. (In Dawn of the Dead the mall is full of mindless humans staggering around trying to fulfill a need. Whether that need is human brains or a new sweater is almost irrelevant.)

So we hit the mall. We started in the Chinatown and New Orleans wing, rode the roller coaster, went to Hooters, played a round of Professor WEM’s Adventure Golf, watched some of the seal and penguin show, skipped the wave pool and after a few hours (and some light shopping), left to see more of the city. After all, there is only so much time you can spend in a mall before you end up staggering about like zombies.

That night we went out to Whyte Avenue, had a few drinks at the Black Dog and found out that when sorority girls hear you talking about how divisive politics had become they tend to respond by saying “we should move away from these guys.” It wasn’t long before we decided to exit the bar scene and walk back to the hotel.

As Rob put it: “This turned out to be the best part of Edmonton! Walking along the exterior of the CP Rail yard, we passed through the factories of Cessco Fabrication. As the night switcher (train) whistled through crossings, delivering cars to a steam-shooting plywood plant nearby, men on either side of our desolate road used grinders and arc welders, shooting blue and orange sparks and clouds of white smoke into the night sky. In the open air and in huge hangars, fractioning towers for the petroleum industry and ethanol (or ammonia?) storage bulbs took shape. Up and out here, industrial and postindustrial have to exist simultaneously, and it’s quite a show.”

The lesson: Even when you think you’re done, keep going. Sure we could have gotten a cab that night, but then we would have missed watching heavy industry at work. Edmonton is Oil Country and we got to see it up close. That afternoon in The Mall we had seen a statue of three workers tending to an oil well, erected as if to remind shoppers of the oil industry’s roots. That night, by avoiding the comfort and ease of a cab ride, we got to see living workers creating the pieces of the oil industry’s future.

(Bonus lesson: Don’t leave all your cameras at the hotel. We have no photos of the welders and towers, only bourbon-fueled memories.)

Cities: Drumheller and Calgary
Day of the trip: 5
Lesson: Not every destination will appeal to you, so be sure to research where you’re going

Calgary is known for the Flames and its Rodeo, while Drumheller is known for its dinosaur museum and the badlands surrounding the area (and the Hoodoos located therein). We thought we would check out Drumheller and then hit our second hockey city in two nights and party it up. If anything, we should have stayed in Drumheller and avoided Calgary altogether.

For a kid who grew up obsessed with dinosaurs and wanting to be a paleontologist, The Royal Tyrrell Museum was a trip. Without getting too far into details, Alberta is rich in fossils and the Tyrrell does a fantastic job of showing them off. To show its civic love of its prehistoric heritage, Drumheller has even erected the world’s largest fake dinosaur. It’s a vision of post-modern Pee Wee-esque art and looms large over a park where children frolic and teenagers shout “Nice camera, dick!” as tourists drive past.

Outside of town are the badlands, full of parched and sparse landscapes in all directions. It’s not quite Death Valley, but when walking around on a cloudless summer day with the sun’s heat pounding down on you, it’s the kind of place where you can very quickly get light headed and begin thinking about your place within nature. The seeming lack of life beyond a few shrubs and the odd lizard give the badlands a sense of old-ness, of time having stood still and avoided all the mishaps and machinations of mankind over the centuries. It brings a sense of elemental calm. Time slows down in your mind and you can understand the stories of people going to out to deserts, seeing visions and coming back changed.

It’s also a place where parents bring their mohawk’ed kids to look at the Hoodoos, which, in my opinion at least, were the worst natural phenomenon in the history of ever. Marketing was mostly to blame for this – I had read a large volume of literature that built the Hoodoos up to be a breathtaking sight, towering over the landscape like the rock formations of Monument Valley. In actuality they are all nothing more than stubby hunks of rock. Underwhelming didn’t begin to describe the feeling of seeing them in person.

If “disappointing” would describe our experience with the Hoodoos, Calgary was even worse. We stayed in the dorms of the University of Calgary and found it to be a husk of a city surrounded urban sprawl. We roamed around downtown in search something cool to check out, and didn’t find anything. We tried to find a bar to grab a couple drinks in, and none were open. We couldn’t even find an open restaurant where we could eat dinner. At one point we were fairly certain that something hissed at us from the shadows as we walked by.

There was, however, one upside to our visit to Calgary: it made running into a man in a Calgary Flames t-shirt two years later in the Atlanta airport all the funnier. Rob was wearing his Edmonton Oilers shirt and the Calgary man was kind enough to take a photo with us. We enjoyed the serendipity of it while he was simply confused by the fuss we made over him.

The lesson: Just because something is “there” doesn’t mean it should be seen or visited — that’s what research is for. If tourism websites tell you that a geological formation is worth seeing, check out to see what has been posted about it on other websites. If there is a city on a map, don’t just visit it because you’ve heard about it – do some research and see what it has to offer (or even just find out when it shuts down for the night).

The more you travel, the better you understand what you want to get out of traveling. It goes beyond seeing the sights and checking cities off on a map or a checklist. It’s a way to find something out about a place, about the people there. After seeing a sign on the highway, we spent about half an hour in the tiny town of Bashaw and came away with some good memories of it. That was a good little detour. Calgary? Beyond it being a city listed on hockey schedules we didn’t really research it. Maybe we were in the wrong part of the city, or maybe we should have skipped it altogether. We just didn’t know, but we learned from that experience and there hasn’t been a “Calgary” on a trip in years.

You get a successful and rewarding roadtrip when you work on it: researching, planning, scheduling and knowing when and where to let all that fly out the window. Those moments when the plans fall by the wayside also tend to be ones that end up staying with you — when without home, host or plan in a strange land you absorb and react to things in a way that tends to be truer than when in a “safe” or “known” environment. You learn about yourself while learning about where you are traveling.

We know all of this now, and knowing that you’re ready for the next trip makes going on it all the more exciting.

See the accompanying “Thee Days in Alberta” photo gallery on Flickr:

Text: Dan Meade
Photos: Dan Meade, Rob Bellinger

June 13, 2012

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