Well, this is it; my final Christmas entry, concluding my wonderful stay in Alberta. After another day of necessary recovery following on from our New Year's exploits, Kelsey, Seb, Todd and I packed into two cars and drove west out of Calgary, following one of Canada's most scenic drives into the Rocky Mountains. Our destination was the winter ski resort of Lake Louise, the biggest such resort in terms of the number of runs anywhere in Canada. Lake Louise doubles as a very popular summer attraction as well, where visitors come from all over to indulge in hiking, camping and water-based activities. There is also a famous attraction in the shape of the beautiful Fairmont Chateau, standing proudly next to the lake and nestled amongst stately pine trees in contemplative solitude.
We arrived first in Canmore, en route to our final destination of Lake Louise. Canmore lies at the entrance to the Rockies and is a fabulous, small town, reminiscent of a close-knit alpine community, resplendent with proud log buildings and captivating views of grand peaks rising up either side of the valley-placed settlement. Canmore had been the first stop on that wonderful family holiday here to Canada in the summer of 2006, when we used the town as our base for exploring the Rocky Mountains and Banff National Park. It was the scene of many remarkable and dear memories and it was a fantastic treat to be able to revisit these physical and metaphysical landmarks. Kelsey and Todd headed out into the back-country, intent upon an afternoon of cross-country skiing. Seb and I spent a little time wandering the near-deserted streets together, before heading to a local eatery for some lunch. I also took the opportunity to explore the area alone, reveling in half-remembered sights made tangible once more, at peace with my recollections. So soon after New Year's, the town was quiet and combined with the muffled, compressed aurora of the snow-deadened streets, this made for a somewhat surreal reacquaintance, as I shuffled and slide down pavements and over bridges, stealing the occasional photograph as a benign, token keepsake. Not for the first time as I roamed the by-ways and surely far from being the last, I was reminded of a line from a Carol-Ann Duffy poem that I had been subjected to studying in an English class at school some years before: I returned to find things the same and yet 'everything changed'. As is sometimes the case, whilst engaged in this study of a poet to whom I have never particularly warmed, nevertheless some connections were forged and in her fixation upon time, memory and loss especially, a link has remained. Whilst my return to Canmore cetainly did not kindle the feelings of disappointment and betrayal that Duffy so often invokes, seeing the town in such a different character, from eyes that have seen so much since their last viewing, creating such an altered character in the viewer himself, was a little disconcerting, a reminder once more of change, renewal and the sometimes harsh implications of such grandly overarching conceptualizations.
Happy to rendezvous once more with my friends, we warmed ourselves once more in the bar where Seb had remained to read and where Kelsey and Todd were now finishing off their own belated lunch, before piling back into our vehicles to complete the final, small stretch of our journey to the HI hostel in the Lake Louise ski-resort, where Kelsey's brother Aaron was awaiting our arrival, along with her friend and work-colleague, Heather, the two having travelled down together earlier that day from Edmonton, to spend the short stay with us. A joyful reunion with Aaron and pleasant acquaintance with Heather later, we were settled into the hostel and cooking in the cavernous communal kitchen, reliving our various New Year's experiences and looking ahead to our skiing plans for the following day. The evening trailed away from us in good food, crisp beer and great company, safely barricaded indoors, away from the wintry chill clawing at the windows.
The skiing at Lake Louise the next day was brilliant. The area was extensive, the coverage good and there was a strong depth to the routes offered for every ability. I started the day slowly, cautiously and was soon adrift of the rest of our crew. In fact, it transpired over lunch, when we all gathered at a pre-arranged meeting-place, that the group had become strewn over a large area, in twos: Kelsey and Seb had skiied the morning together, as had Aaron and Todd. Finally, Heather had boarded with her sister, visiting for the day and I had gone solo after hanging with them for the first couple of runs. I really enjoyed the time alone, to work at my own pace on my fledging technique, whilst taking in the wonder of the winter wonderland scenery all around. I also revelled in testing out various settings for my boots in terms of tightness and resting regularly, whenever I felt the need, at the end of punishing descents. After our lunch-time recollection, we headed out as one in the early afternoon and I was soon following in dazed awe the mesmeric, sweeping movements of my far more skilled companions, as we meandered down various blue runs. When the team decided that it was time to tackle something a little more challenging (a perilous black from the very peak of the mountain), I discreetly determined to strike out alone once more, to practise the new advice that had been offered to me in the past hour or so and to ensure that I would not be returning to Vancouver on crutches, or worse. After running a number of tricky blues and building my confidence, I finally commited to a black run of my own and - somehow - made it to the bottom of the hill upright and intact. Exhilarated, I headed straight back up on the ski-lift and did the same descent again, and again, and again. I finally called it a day after my fourth successful descent, by which time I had conquered any residual fear that remained towards that particular run and towards the colour black in general. I was happy with what had been an enjoyable and yet taxing day, confident that some progress had been made, but sure that to truly improve on skis I would require some detailed lessons in the future. On my final descent, I bumped into Seb chatting with some other skiers and the two of us finished together, pulling up at the outdoor bar at the base of the runs, where we joined the rfest of our crew for a well-deserved, much-appreciated beer around an open fire. It was a superb end to a great day.
That night, back at the hostel, we ate, drank and played cards and board-games late into the night. It was a fitting end to our trip, as the following day promised a return for all of us, by different routes and at different times of departure, to the places from which we had originally journeyed: I myself had once final day before catching my flight back to Vancouver from Calgary. The morning was delayed by the unfortunate breaking down of Heather's car, just after Todd had departed back to Calgary and work. Thus Seb, Kelsey and I hung around, to keep Heather and Aaron company whilst Heather's car got the once over from a mechanic. Resigned to spending some time awaiting the outcome of the prognosis, Heather and Aaron stayed at the hostel, whilst we three headed out to our intended visit of the Fairmont Chateau at Lake Louise.
After viewing the hotel at the height of summer whilst on holiday with my family in 2006, it was wonderful to return here at Christmas-time and see another side to the structure and indeed the region at large. Approaching the impressive building through the snow, our footsteps puncturing the crisp blanket beneath us as well as all around in the muffled stillness of the scene. There were few people out and about, contributing to the vision of splendid desolation. Some hardy souls braved a small outdoor ice-rink at the water's edge of the lake, in front of the hotel and itself crowned by a tidy ice structure representing the building it neighboured. Seeking a respite from the biting cold, we ventured inside, to marvel at the opulence of the furnishings and assured protocol of the staff. I was reminded somewhat of the famous Ritz Hotel in New York, itself bordering a famous visitor destination, Central Park, and the various shenanigans experienced there by 'Kevin' in the 'Home Alone' sequel: needless to say, we three were rather better behaved during our own, much curtailed visit!
All too soon, the chateau seen, the photographs taken, our footsteps retraced back through the snow, our time together in the Rockies was at an end. We piled back into Kelsey's car, picked up the rather forlorn figures of Heather and Aaron, who were resolved to using an alternative set of wheels to make the trek back up north to Edmonton, Heather's own car being in need of some serious repairs, and headed for Calgary once more. We arrived back there in the late afternoon, waved a fond farewell to our two despondent friends and gathered ourselves for the prospect of the following day, the final one in which we would all be together in some time. The thought was sobering indeed and yet, this was truly the best way to feel: I had seen two wonderful friends together again for the first time since Mendoza and the spark was still there, albeit somewhat different from a time and place in which we were all visitors and all at utter leisure. It was right and necessary that I should feel sadness for the approaching split once more, as this confirmed that I had indeed enjoyed a fantastic trip that I absolutely did not want to end. I have been incredibly fortunate, as I keep on writing, to have met so many wonderful people in the course of my inspirational travels and especially these two very dear friends. To have been granted the opportunity to enjoy a second, rather unexpected and extended period of time with them both together at the same time, half a continent and a whole world away from our previous encounter was cause for celebration indeed and far more worthy of deep reflection than the anguish of another parting.
It was with such warm thoughts in mind that I boarded the plane the following evening, that I cast one final, hungry look at my two erstwhile companions before stepping through security. It is absolutely right to feel the sadness of the end of something so special (if only in an immediate sense of being finished), but how much more appropriate and how much healthier to use such dismay to point towards the far happier remembrance of the root of such upset; the close, unique bond between great friends.
Best wishes to all!