Our first stop in Canada was a unique experience. It was deep in a rural area not far from Waterton Lakes National Park (which abuts Glacier National Park on the U.S. side of the border). We spent close to a week at the house of a friend, Leland, whom we’d met last year in Ethiopia.
He called his impressive house a cabin. Although off the grid, it was an attractive year-round home with picture windows opening to views of the Castle River.
Deer and bears often stroll in front of the windows, only a few yards from the house. In the winter Leland and his friends ski to the cabin in 40 below 0 temperatures through several feet of snow.
In the fall they hunt bears and deer and elk with bows and arrows. Canadian law requires them to eat what they kill, an activity that, at least in the case of bear meat, may be a good bit more arduous than epicurean.
In the summer, Leland works as a professional fishing guide—an activity that he treats as more science than art, knowing in advance where he and his clients will have success and what they will catch. “Watch the fish rise” to catch bugs, he advises. Two of his friends have been canoe instructors for three decades. We sat tensely in a canoe as the couple delicately and precisely threaded the boat across the river, through rocks and waves and swift currents and an intersection where a tributary entered the river. For bumbling canoeists like ourselves it was a bit like Sunday painters looking over Rembrandt’s shoulder.
Leland is a member of what seemed to me a quite unusual group of friends—adults, a number of whom are unrelated, but who have lifelong affection for each other and spend a lot of time together, including in condos and winter houses in the snowbird resort of Desert Palms, Calif. They are like an extended family.
Most of these men and women are outdoorsmen—hunters with rifles and bows, fishers, canoeists, hikers and naturalists. We went out with them one day to check automatic cameras they had posted at several locations in the nearby woods to photograph wildlife.
Although the walls of Leland’s cabin are decorated with numerous stuffed mammals and fish, he and his friends come across more as gentle nature lovers rather than macho mountain men. Leland is a retired teacher, his identical twin brother a retired Royal Canadian Mounted Policeman who recently worked with a First Nation village on a remote island off Canada’s northern Pacific coast.
Fellow guests at Leland’s included a couple we met in Ethiopia—a large, outgoing and very vivid Ethiopian woman and a lean, soft-spoken British engineer who is designing a water system for the new and much troubled country of South Sudan.
Reluctantly leaving Leland’s to resume our travels through the Rockies, we felt indebted to him for showing us a side of Canadian life we could not otherwise have come to know.
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The most profound difference between Americans and Canadians, or so it seems to me, is that a lot of Americans (particularly the one third who are Donald Trump’s base supporters) seem to be angry much of the time, while few Canadians are.
Many Americans feel they’ve been left out. Most Canadians on the other hand seem to see their glass as half full and believe they’re lucky to have all that they do. Enjoying their endless outdoors, they just accept with stoicism the endless winters that go along with it.
The vast sparsely settled hinterland reduces competitiveness, dispelling the American need for competitive struggle to get enough space and resources to live well. There is a sense that there’s enough for all.
“All” in Canada has complex ramifications. The country has a far higher percentage of Native Americans and now more annual immigrants than the United States. While Trump proclaimed recently, “Our country is full,” Canada, with 10 percent of the U.S. population, wants more people to inhabit and develop its rich land.
Driving through Canadian villages, we saw fewer churches, liquor stores and gas stations than in U.S. towns, but more parks, cleaner rivers and—surprisingly—Muslims in traditional dress. But in both countries it’s become the fashion for every urban area to brag of a charming old town even if it’s neither old nor charming.
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On the way home after two weeks in the Canadian Rockies, we passed through Montana for the second time and met some of the new Montanans, people who moved to this huge and harsh state because they could no longer stand the gentler ways of Chama, N.M., and San Diego, Calif.
Montana, a state even larger and emptier than New Mexico, always seems to have surprises hidden in its endless wintry spaces. The combination of isolation and climate may explain why Montana has the nation’s highest suicide rate. New Mexico’s suicides, however, are right up there, ranking No. 4.
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Travel for me is always a matter of serendipity. No matter what I plan, the things I do and their effect on me are pure serendipity. Such was the case with this trip.
My wife and I drove 5,000 miles in 18 days through two Canadian provinces, Alberta and British Columbia, and seven U.S. states, New Mexico. Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Washington, Idaho and Utah.
If we had taken different roads, stopped in different towns, walked in less rain, camped on lower mountains, who knows what trip we would have had. For good or ill, we had the trip we did. My wife and I often wonder about the many roads not taken, but that is part of the life of the traveler.