8 April 2021

    One of my early aspirations was to drive the entire length of the AlCan Highway, 1,500 miles from Washington State through British Columbia and the Yukon to Fairbanks, Alaska. It is mountains all the way (which I love), and in the 1960s (when I first started considering it) was ranked one of North America’s great driving adventures. (It still is, for that matter.)

   On 2 September 1993, I changed my mind about the AlCan. That was the day that Sally and I drove the Icefield Parkway, the 180 mile stretch of Canadian Rockies highway that connects Banff to Jasper, Alberta. It’s not part of the official AlCan Highway, but is often identified as an alternate route to begin the northward journey. We set out at a leisurely pace under blue skies, with almost no cars besides us on the road, and with a full tank of gas. (There is only one service station on the entire drive.)

   From the start, the views were enchanting: mountain after mountain, glacier after glacier, deep blue lake after deep blue lake, braided glacial river after braided glacier river, etc. Early on, a herd of bighorn sheep slowed us temporarily as they milled about, and eventually crossed, our path. It was a great morning.

   One hour later: spectacular mountain after mountain, glacier after glacier, lake after lake…

   Two hours later: mountain after mountain, glacier after glacier… Well, you know the list. “Enchanting” and “spectacular” had, somewhere along the way, become redundant, almost boring, and even a little oppressive. We had glimpsed only one more bighorn – a lone ram on a far hillside - no other mammals, and almost no birds. Seeing the service station near the halfway point had come almost as a relief from The Scenery. Finally reaching Jasper, and getting settled in the mundane park service accommodations, felt something like having been rescued. I was glad to be “back in town!”

 *  *  *

   Following our Banff to Jasper trip, I lost interest in doing the AlCan Highway. If 180 miles of mountain scenery could take me from elation to near depression, what would 1,500 miles do? I knew better ways to enjoy being in the mountains.

   Still, I’ve often wondered about my reaction to that trip. It had all the elements of Mountains that I have craved – and enjoyed – my whole life. A quarter-century later, I may have found an explanation in Ian Frazier’s comment about traveling across Siberia in 2001: 

  “I was becoming numb to scenery. My stock of landscape adjectives was running out. On the road paralleling the Ingoda, the panoramas just kept coming at us as if they were being brought to the windshield by a conveyor belt somebody had forgotten to turn off… In every direction, the land rolled on – unfenced, untenanted, unvaried, still apparently unused. The idea of ‘scenery’ implies a margin, a frame. What we were seeing had neither, and I couldn’t exactly situate it in my mind.”  From: “Travels in Siberia,” by Ian Frazier (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010).

   I think that was it: it was too much of a Good Thing! Sweeping panoramas are great, but – at least for me – the heart of the mountain experience is in the intimate details. A hike to a waterfall or mountain meadow; a week camping in one spot – taking hikes, watching the birds, seeing the weather change – these times have always made me feel of the mountains, not just in the mountains.

   We made one trip to Alaska – not on the AlCan Highway, but in the mountains. We didn’t have a lot of time, but we hiked a little, saw glaciers up close, stood beside a river, experienced Alaskan mosquitoes, and felt like we were really there. We never got back to Alberta. If we had, I’m sure I could have had satisfying experiences in the Canadian Rockies – or, for that matter, anywhere along the AlCan Highway,

   I just needed the right circumstances for me.

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© Sanford Wilbur 2021