I returned to Vancouver, to an empty house; as a small favour and some way to begin to repay the wonderful generosity shown to me over the course of the past eight months in the city, I had agreed to house- (and kitten-) sit for Mike and Jenna whilst they took a trip to the east coast for the week. So it was that I entered the house late the night that I arrived back from the Island, trepidation weighing against my happiness: "I hate cats, what was I thinking?" may serve as a general summation of the reasoning behind my sudden dip in spirits. Never mind that my blog was beginning to resemble a degree of neglect last seen in the public expense accounts of certain of Britain's illustrious Members of Parliament, that the peace offered by incarcerating myself in the house presented a road to redemption. No matter that I would have the run of the place for one whole week, when I could wake up late, play favourite music on 'You Tube' and shower only when the whim took me. I would be sharing the house with two small, Mexican rescue kittens. The fur-balls would treat me as an invader: they would scratch and bite me at every available opportunity; they would lie in wait for me to appear in the early morning, blurry-eyed from interrupted sleep punctuated by feline-related nightmares; of course, they would urinate on me, copiously, repeatedly (this is an ordeal that certain animals invariably enjoy inflicting upon me). The week was going to be hell.
Mid-week, my mind numbed, my vocabulary exhausted by extensive blog updating, nonetheless I reached the evening happily contented: finally, I was within one month of current events once more, for the first time in, well, a very long while. I prepared and ate a simple meal of brown rice and pan-fried vegetables and then stumped downstairs to attend to the creatures below. I had be out for a run before dinner, which necessitated returning the four-legged fur-bandits to their nests in the bathroom, their cat-litter for company, in order to preserve something of the house in time for my return. No sooner had I opened the door than two streaks of energy, one ginger, one white, rounded my stationary legs and flew towards the stairs. I stifled a sigh before it could become a smile and bustled into the bathroom. As usual, I was less than ten seconds into cleaning out the insufferably smelly litter when the little pests had returned, to wind their sinewy bodies around my ankles, to mew softly, persistently, to fix me with their impossible, plaintive eyes. Diego and Sucio - yes, they have names - won me over easily, in a swift, bloodless coup: they even refrained from relieving themselves upon me, or anything else besides their litter. My toiletry duties exercised, we adjourned to the living room upstairs, where I spent an hour playing with the brothers, trailing colourful toys attached to string for them to stalk, petting them and looking on, an observant referee to their wrestling, their early testing of strength. By the time of Jenna's return that Sunday, Diego, Sucio and I had become firm friends: from vigilant critic to hopeless convert in less than a week - at least my blog was fully updated.
Jenna arrived back in town on the eve of my twenty-fourth birthday, determined that we would celebrate my big day with suitable aplomb. The next day, I rose early and opened the presents that my family had so thoughtfully, so brilliantly mailed to me in large, bubble-wrapped packages. Then I phoned Mum, Dad and Beth, wearing my new, colourful shirt, munching decadently upon tasty 'Green and Black's' chocolate and day-dreaming of the restful, sumptuous setting of the Michelin-starred 'Mr. Underhill's', a meal at which Beth had rashly promised me in her card upon my return home, at some distant point... she had even offered to cover some of the cost, according to Mum, at the same time thereby informing Mum of said expensive promise (excellent policy, Beth). The conversation wound on happily: it was wonderful to enjoy an extended chat with my nearest and dearest, experiencing my second birthday in succession away from home, albeit in slightly less magical surroundings than those at Machu Picchu (was it really one whole year ago that I was there?). Afterwards, cleaned up and made presentable for general society, I ventured out with Jenna to my favourite brunch spot in Dunbar for banana and chocolate chip French toast (oh yes).
Brunch concluded, my stomach feeling suitably special, Jenna drove us north out of the city, onto the glorious Sea-to-Sky highway. The day was shaping up to be warm and bright in places, though with a considerable degree of cloud cover. This bore relevance due to the reason for our drive: finally, after being regaled with countless enraptured tales and one previous failed attempt with Victoria, Jenna was taking us to climb The Chief above Squamish and I was very excited. The drive up was as spectacular as ever, Western Canada's own version of the fjords majestic in their beauty and constancy. We parked in the lot below the trailhead, loaded up our pack with lunch, water and extra clothes for our picnic on top and began our steady ascent, through cloistered, tranquil groves, beside the rushing water of a boisterous mountain creek. The sun appeared occasionally overhead, more often obscured by cloud, tree foliage or a combination of the two. In time, this grew to be a welcome situation, our laboured breathing and the steady trickle of sweat forming constant companions, alongside our vibrant conversations: it is impossible to have a dull exchange with Jenna, she remains so inspirationally enthusiastic, interested in and interesting upon any topic. The trail unfolded before us, upward ever upward, flitting between huge slabs of rock, domineering boulders, sturdy trunks, some stood rigidly to attention, others slouched idly in obscure directions, every once in a while stooping to block our path. The trail required a degree of energetic application, mixed with the occasional climb or side-route to skirt an obstruction.
As we climbed, our conversation remained constant, while the air gave way to that tell-tale thinning, that alpine crispness, clean and healthy. Such ascents are a real joy: if I am to consign my labouring lungs to heaving in huge quantities of air, then that of such purity as this is barely a chore. Eventually, the trees began to thin and then give way to bald patches of open space, great boulders rising up in the stead of roots and branches. We caught our breath looking out over a stunning panorama of the valley below, hemmed in by neighbouring peaks beyond. The waters of the inlet stretching north from that of Burrard glittered in restless repose, lapping at the edge of the town of Squamish, nestled within the valley at its furthest earthen point. Rolling banks of cloud passed slowly overhead, now obscuring the twinkling of the waves, now revealing them. Jenna and I made ourselves comfortable before breaking into a fabulous picnic-lunch of hummus, camembert cheese, sourdough bagette, crisps, chocolate and water. Our conversation flowed easily, good-naturedly and I passed a wonderful birthday outing high atop the world with a very dear friend.
The journey back down to the parking lot took us via some exciting ladders and guidance ropes secured into the steeply sloping rock-face. It required little imagination to conjure scenes better befitting a military boot-camp as I began a tentative descent, ripe with hesitancy - Jenna was soon far ahead of me, waiting discreetly for me to summon the sparse courage necessary to scramble down the slightest of gullies, or to skirt the most accommodating gnarled sections of root, flowing abundantly, chaotically across our path. Emerging from the unobliging undergrowth, thrilled by the naturally unkempt experience of our hike, we began the drive back to Vancouver, stopping first at the Shannon Falls, a captivating cascade shooting out into the still space some 335 meters above out heads, to drop over smoothened chunks of rock into the natural pool below. Continuing on our way, Jenna pulled over one final time before we gained the city limits, leading me down a wide trail carpeted with pine needles, to open out at the water's edge, the Burrard Inlet, the hulking mass of Kitsilano and the university rising directly ahead and beyond the swirling sea. To our left, to the east, the bright lights of Vancouver downtown shimmered, reaching out to us across the gathering gloam. Pulling our gaze in the opposite direction, the fiery colours of a brilliant sunset were fanning out across the sky, lighting up the brooding shadow that denoted the Island out to the west. The wind picked up, carrying a slight chill. I cared not at all, utterly content to sit down upon a small rocky promontory and feast my eyes upon the gorgeous scene. Out on the water, a lone wind-surfer sped noiselessly across the choppy swells, making swift progress back towards the twinkling lights of North Vancouver, passed in turn by a n expensive motorboat, teeming with passengers elegantly dressed in suits and summer gowns, sipping at champagne flutes, hair and conversation teased by the playful zephyrs. I sat long upon that rock, smiling obligingly as Jenna committed snap-shots to her camera, drinking in the views, seeking to blaze them to my poor visual memory, readying myself for the inevitable, for the day when such views would become just that; memories.
Mike returned home the following day, tired after the medical conference that had required him to stay longer out east. The ensuing days offered plentiful chances for us to socialize ahead of my looming departure. The day after his return, Mike invited me out for a "short run". I donned jogging attire and looked forward to some fresh air beneath a calm sky of blue. Forty-five minutes later, wheezing, struggling to surmount the ragged nature of my breathing, let alone my seeming inability to run any further in a straight line, I was nonetheless trying to keep up a conversation with Mike, who assured me that he too felt out of shape, even if he appeared anything but the asthmatic invalid who had so breath-takingly assumed my identity. I succeeded at least in assuring Mike that his and Jenna's birthday present to me of whole-heartedly decadent east coast chocolate (reason enough to visit Boston, apparently) was every bit as appreciated as his own idea had been: a Harvard University t-shirt, vetoed by Jenna on account of my lack of packing space - the chocolate, of course, could simply be consumed whenever I needed the space for other items. I must say that the idea of collecting t-shirts from each of the Ivy League institutions rather appeals (Mad has already presented me with the first of my collection, from her dear Princeton), but Jen's logic made sound sense. Also, besides Harvard and Columbia, I would struggle to find any reason at all to purchase merchandise from the remaining members of the league. It was at this point that Mike broke in upon my happy reverie to inform me that we had reached our halfway stage in the run and could now turn towards home: my muscles and - mercifully - my internal voice alone, screamed in agony, fury and with a large slice of fear.
My final birthday present, dressed up also as one final hurrah to Vancouver and my wonderful, challenging life of the past eight months, arrived in the shape of a third (and, again, final) meal at 'db', this time with Mike and Jenna. I had warned Chris of my imminent departure ahead of time and he knew that this would be his final opportunity to both dazzle, humble and possibly even embarrass me, potentially for quite some time. After everything else that I have written here about sumptuous dining experiences at 'db', first with Victoria and then Madeleine, I did not imagine that there could possibly be room for anything further to be recorded upon the matter. How Chris and my friends at 'db' surprisingly, miraculously, wonderfully proved me wrong. The entire experience was absolutely incredible: all three of us, Mike, Jenna and myself, agreed that this was one of the greatest meals that we have ever had the pleasure of enjoying. The service, from my good friend and former estimable house-host Ari and from Chris himself, was impeccable (if, as usual, decidedly edgy, laced with lacerating wit, upon the part of both our hosts, Chris especially, inevitably). The efforts of my great friend Ben at the bar were once again engrossing and astonishing - the man is a wizard of the highest order (Merlin, First Class). The food, ah; the food! Upon hearing that both of my guests are diligent vegetarians, Chris swallowed whatever ridiculously unwise comment had initially sprung into mind to suggest that we depart from the regular dining menu and allow him and Chef Nathan to guide us through the tumultuous, winding road of vegetarian options within the restaurant's divine repertoire. As is his custom, Chris stated his intention to pair these secretive offerings with some scrumptious wine, a mission that he once again pulled off with the strongest aplomb. Food began arriving soon thereafter - creamy asparagus soup topped with minuscule brioche croûtons, Caesar salad, escargot and chicken oyster fricassee, roasted potato gnocchi, three pea tortellini - and it did not stop appearing until long after my protesting stomach passed caring. Fortunately, the imagined need for a respirator, or even a defibrillator, proved happily unnecessary as I daintily put paid to the last mouthful of wickedly rich chocolate mousse dessert, wistfully swallowed the last sticky, splendid mouthful of Banyuls and sat back in heavenly contemplation. This was a meal, a gastronomic experience, a fine-dining encounter to end all others. The company, the service, the staff, the ambiance ('gezellig', as my good friend Seb would say); everything was absolutely, consummately fantastic. It is an occasion that I shall remember, reminisce over for years to come.
As with everything, good and bad - in this case most certainly, monumentally good - my time in Vancouver came finally to an end. After delaying just long enough to enjoy one last home-cooked meal with Mike and Jenna, I boarded a bus with all of my travelling (and, for the following four months at least, worldly) possessions and began the journey east to Kelowna, my first destination on my adventure to the east coast. I found a window-seat and stared wordlessly - for how can words possibly suffice? - as my world outside receded into the distance, into the past. Once again, a chapter in my exciting adventure, in my life as I now know it, had ended. This time the chapter was long, at times arduous, on many occasions breath-takingly wonderful, always fascinating, forever to be treasured, but nonetheless; my Vancouver sun had set at last and it was time now to turn my face to the east, to the rising sun of the unknown, of unbidden exploration and adventure once more. After eight tumultuous, quizzical, challenging, tiring, purposeful, aimless, fabulous, happy, electric, rain-drenched, sun-bleached months, I was finally ready to resume my travels, to take to the road again.
Best wishes to all!