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Crowsnest Pass, Alberta

DECEMBER 12: MOUNTAIN VIEW

The GPS on my phone isn’t always reliable, especially in remote areas and in the mountains. So before I hit the road each day, I quickly scribble directions in a little notepad. Old school mapping in case of interrupted technological assistance.

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First sight of the Rockies

It takes me awhile to leave the city of Calgary as I fill up with gas and pick up a Starbucks breakfast. I drive south on the Deerfoot Trail and am awestruck — as always — by my first view of the mountains on my right. They sit prettily on the horizon, completely covered with snow. Eventually of course I turn west and slowly climb through them.

The north-south Cowboy Trail (Highway 22) leads to the Crowsnest Highway, a long, high, flat windswept road up to the Crowsnest Pass. Along the route, I lose my GPS directions. My phone tells me they’re not available because of road conditions, whatever that means. There’s a little bit of snow on the pass, but the weather is good and it’s sunny. Traffic is light and moving well.

The Crowsnest is a fairly low-elevation pass that crosses the Continental Divide of the Rockies. I drive by the site of the Frank Slide, a field rife with the rubble (and remains of dozens and dozens of buried residents) left when 82 million tonnes of limestone rock slid down Turtle Mountain in less than two minutes, covering part of the town of Frank, The Canadian Pacific rail line and a coal mine in the spring of 1903 when the region was still part of the Northwest Territories. A frozen piece of history.

In fact, the thriving Crowsnest community has a colourful history, complete with train robbery, shootouts and rum-running. A landmark is the 600-plus-year-old Burmis pine tree, twisted and weathered and dead for nearly 50 years, but still standing resiliently against the wind.

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The Elk Valley Highway

It’s slow coming down off the pass because there are plenty of icy patches on the road. The shiny blue-grey-green rivulets running through the snow-blasted evergreens are stunning, so it’s really enjoyable to drive at a quiet pace.

I only have another hour to reach my destination: the “Wild at Heart” Rocky Mountain town of Elkford, British Columbia, which sits at an elevation of 1300 metres at the end of the Elk Valley Highway 43 near the Teck Coal Greenhills coal mining operation.

JUNE 27, 2015. SECOND DAY OF JOURNEY HOME

My restless night on the Greyhound is broken around 4:30 a.m. as dawn lifts the veil of darkness over the flat lands stretching infinitely beyond Lethbridge. The two talkative young people sitting directly in front of me have disembarked. Maybe now I can catch a few winks over the next couple of hours as we head north to Calgary.

27 June Calgary departureAfter a long catch-up nap, a refreshing shower, a change of clothes, a suitcase repack and a barbecue lunch at my Calgary friends’, they drive me downtown to catch the last Red Arrow bus to Edmonton.

There are only five of us heading north through the flat prairies. We pass a horrendous accident blocking the southbound lanes. A car has rolled over and is smashed beyond recognition. If I were a nervous traveller, I’d be quite disturbed after a series of “bad” signs, from the wasp or hornet sting I got yesterday as I was boarding the bus, to the avalanche conversation on the Greyhound as we barrelled over one of Canada’s highest mountain passes and this latest accident. But, having travelled so extensively, I know that such incidents and delays are simply an inescapable reality of travel.

Speaking of which, my bus arrives in Edmonton more than 45 minutes late because of a long traffic delay south of the city. It means a fairly tight window of time to reach the train station and check my baggage.

27 June Calgary to Edmonton on Red Arrow

Sun sets over a prairie puddle

The city’s downtown is magically pretty at 11 p.m. this hot summer night and the late evening air is still and stifling. As I used to live here in the late 1980s and bore all three of my children here, it feels a little disorienting.

Edmonton’s Via Rail station is crowded with people, families, children. The rise and fall of conversation fills every space. One man tells me a friend who promised him a ride to the station didn’t show and he had to cab at the last minute, which cost him $100. He says he’s never seen the station this full. Another older gentleman cradles his carry-on banjo – it’s too valuable to travel in the baggage car, he tells me.

My day closes when I board the eastbound midnight train, The Canadian No. 2.

We change our plans to relax for the day in Calgary, when my friends invite us to accompany them on a brief holiday at Fairmont Hot Springs across the border in eastern British Columbia. They head off in the late morning, we follow four or five hours behind them. More rain. Cold rain. Thick grey mists veil the peaks. Glaciers reflect the cloud cover. But the deep blues and greens of mountain country are still beautiful. A magnificent elk gallops toward us beside the highway, its antlers a thing of beauty, its nostrils blowing out hot steam. It moves with purpose. I sense my daughter’s unease and tension and wavering sense of purpose as we near the coast.

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It’s a long tiring trek to my Calgary friends’ home in the shadow of the Rockies. Rain continues to soak the Prairies – it hasn’t stopped for the past month, making it impossible to plant any wheat. The flat lands are uncharacteristically green and there are lakes – well, ponds really – where there were none before. Grazing cows and bulls, I’m convinced, are sick of being sodden.

Day One

It’s one of those spontaneous moments. Let’s just get in the car and drive. Okay, well not quite. My daughter and I have been talking about driving west pretty much since last summer when we did it. I’ve promised friends in Calgary I’ll cat sit for them for July and August while they go to Europe and my daughter wants to move to Vancouver to go to school. My luggage fills the back of my Hyundai Tucson and my daughter’s worldly possessions take up the entire back seat.

We drive out of Ottawa through the late spring dampness to the little community of Thessalon on the north shore of Lake Huron. We stay the night at a friend’s farm just north of there. Relieved to be on our way westward, with a destination in mind, my daughter slides our road music into the CD slot:

And the caravan is on its way, I can hear the merry gypsies play