Our final morning in Jasper dawned bleak and damp: the clouds laden and the roads treacherous. After some consideration and with great reluctance, we turned our back on the Icefield Parkway - in any case, much reduced in scenic splendour obscured by the dank, disorientating fog - and retraced our route back east, towards Edmonton and Highway 2, the main arterial motorway connecting that city to its southern sister and our destination, Calgary. Our reasoning ran along the lines that travelling conditions were so terrible that we should maintain a course employing only the largest, busiest roads, as these would be the best serviced and with the added boon that if the weather did prove too dangerous, we could abort and head straight on to Edmonton for the night and await better conditions, hopefully, the following day.
As luck would have it - luck, coupled with Kelsey's inspired driving and determination to reach Calgary and her new beau Todd(!) - we were able to soldier on past Edmonton and begin the long, punishing descent through central Alberta along Highway 2. This trip was difficult indeed, bordering upon the surreal at times; I learnt much that day about the harsh facet of the weather in wintry Canada and the necessary toughness bred within those people willing to brave its steely aspect on a yearly basis. I came to appreciate even more fully also the sheer vastness of this country's scale. Here we were, travelling at roughly 40-60 kpm (dependent uopn the ever-changing road and weather conditions) through a mere fraction of the length of a single province and it took us an entire day. The journey itself was eerie, as we ploughed through clinging wisps of fog, hail and snow, along tracks of ice, ghostly headlights rising to greet us, fleetingly, before flashing past and away, back into the gloom. Long minutes would pass between such transient meetings, time in which the mind could well come to imagine that we were the only hardy, neigh; fool-hardy, beings on the road. Other meetings were less alluring, far less pleasant: every few kilometers, we would drive by cars, trucks, vans beached in the snow drifts off the sides of the road. Most were simply abandoned, half sunk into the blanketing whiteness, but all too often we passed vehicles on their side, or even their roof - indeed, the most harrowing moment came as we neared our goal of Calgary, where we crawled past a jeep that could have veered off the road only minutes earlier (people were still emerging from the wreckage and ambulances, sirens blazing, were still en route to the scene further down the road, heading back in the other direction, away from us). It was on its roof and we all were shocked by the sight. Kelsey questioned whether we should stop, but the conditions were dreadful and the sight and sound of the ambulances convinced us that all was under control as well as it could be in such a nightmarish situation. We drove on, ever cautious and finally, after some nine hours on the road, we entered Calgary and pulled up outside the tasteful apartment of Todd, Kelsey's new boyfriend, relieved to have arrived safely, unlike the other poor commuters, their numbers too high to count, whose vehicles we had seen so forlorn besides the road on our way down.
We arrived in Calgary just in time for New Year's and so, for a quandry: how best for three great, yet very different, friends to celebrate such a (non-)momentous night? Without mentioning any names (there really is no need), we were torn, desiring a quiet, relaxing night filled with good food and good company, a riotous, outrageous dance-fest and all things in-between. I have never been a huge fan of New Year's as far as celebrating it is concerned: the highs and lows of an entire year are recalled in the space of only a single night, with - generally speaking - copious amounts of alcohol thrown in for good measure. The pressure, however apparent or otherwise, seems always to exist come New Year's: with whom are you going to celebrate, where are you going to celebrate, how are you going to celebrate? By the time the big night rolls around, I am too exhausted to much care, far less after the customary heavy drinking and occasional drama. Many of these concerns were missing from this year's celebration, which is perhaps why I was still enthusiastic come New Year's Eve: I did not need to worry about with whom I was and was not going to celebrate the evening, but there were some issues regarding the how, as mentioned above and, therefore, also the where. Fortunately, my imput in these matters was negligible, as I was content simply to be with my good friends in a new, exciting city. Eventually, Kelsey and Todd hit upon a master-stroke, Kelsey once again spoiling us with her diplomatic and generous approach: we were to spend the evening at a bar in Calgary's down-town area, complete with a dance-floor and all for a ludicrously small cover-charge, all of which covered everyone's various wants.
The evening stole upon us, accompanied by the raw wintry chill to which Seb and I were becoming so accustomed and we sallied forth to our chosen location. We procured a table and proceeded with plentiful pitchers of good, local beers and ales. Thus did our final evening of 2009 past, right up until the final minutes preceding midnight, at which point we grabbed our drinks and headed for the dance-floor, where we held the count-down, locked in a tight, personal circle. It seemed appropriate indeed that I should end such a fantastic, definitive year in the company of my two greatest companions from the life-shaping trip that so dominated it, far from home, embarked on yet another adventurous undertaking. Looking back, it comes as something of a mild surprise that I did not linger over many past deeds during the night: I was far more content to remain in the moment, chatting away with Kelsey, Seb and Todd about the here and now much more than the there and then. Again, I sense that this was appropriate for us all, a feeling that is supported by the simple instinct upon that night, leading the conversation in the ways that it did.
The remainder of the night, the earliest hours of 2010 and a new decade, passed with much less lustre: Kelsey and Todd departed soon after midnight, leaving Seb and me to make do with the heaving dance-floor and plentiful revellers. After dancing happily for a short while, it became apparent that the party was winding down for many and I too was feeling ready for the off. Unfortunately, by this point Seb had embarked upon what he does best in such situations and so a girl prevented us from leaving the venue for another good hour. It was at this point, with so few people left with whom to make conversation, that thoughts did drift lazily, inevitably to moments crowding the past year. Still, I found myself more than happy to relive these flashbacks and I was perfectly content keeping company with my marvellous memories. The past is not just one, but a whole collection of foreign lands, each different from the last and many providing welcome relief whenever the desire takes hold and I sojourn there once again. Journeys are frequent, departure times haphazard and the duration varies.
So it was that 2009 passed into this collection of distant lands, to be returned to, revisited at any time. The danger, always of course, is that such a retracing of one's steps can never match the initial encounter; the edges are blurred, the time shifting and disconcerting, the memory distanced. Nonetheless, with such borne in mind and with some practice, this mode of travel can yet reap ample rewards. 2009 certainly reaped for me more than ample rewards: it is a year that I shall forever look back upon with huge fondness and a true sense of thrill, excitement and contentment. To borrow a phrase particular to Che Guavara, yet common to us all; "I am not the same as I was before" and still, I am all the better for it and grateful indeed.
So it is that 2010 opened in Calgary and now, finally, here upon this page as well: on to a new year and to new adventures!
Best wishes to all!