It continues to perplex me, after fourteen years of being a parent, that a suggestion as innocuous as ‘let’s go to Banff for the day’ should be met with the level of weeping and gnashing as happens chez moi. I mean people, from all over the world, use their hard-earned vacation time and money to experience the Canadian Rockies but the Johnson boys will have none of it.
None. Of. It.
But alas, I had googled ‘winter hikes banff’, had pinpointed an ‘easy hike’, had made vague mental notes about locating said hike: you take this road, and then you find another road and there will probably be trail signs’ so forfeiting was not an option.
The professor set about searching for mittens and hats and snowpants while I went about my pre-trip ritual of inexplicable kitchen activity. Typically in the warmer months, this takes the form of producing a large quinoa salad while the rest of my family members pace around the living room waiting for me. But on this snowy ‘spring’ day I opted to make scones. To the professor’s credit, he no longer raises an eyebrow when I do this, no longer says: ‘really, you’re making scones? Now?’ Instead he just asks: ‘what are you doing?’ And I say ‘making scones’ and he keeps on looking for mittens.
This is how you survive a marriage.
Eventually, a mere 20 minutes later than I’d hoped, five grumpy people crammed into the professor’s car with its snow tires and singular backseat row, and extreme proximity to any and all vehicle occupants. Then it was time for the professor’s signature pre-trip ritual: the realization he doesn’t have his wallet and has no idea where it might be. He patted his pants pockets, his coat pockets. He checked the cubbies in the car. Then disappeared into the house for probably five minutes though it felt like fifty.
We hit the Transcanada Highway and I reached for the book I’d brought along: Jessica Fechtor’s Stir. I read, both for interest, and to keep my anxiety in check about the professor’s driving. The book tells the tale of the author’s brain aneurysm at the age of 28, weaving tales of her life before and after the incident together with recipes for dishes that were meaningful to her at each juncture. It’s as clunky as it sounds but still I identified with the fear, the uncertainty, the attempt at reclaiming identity, for just that morning I’d noticed what I thought was a cavity on one of my teeth. My stomach churned at the dental uncertainty that lay ahead of me, so much that I shut the book and decided to take my chances with the professor’s driving.
We made it to Banff without incident, and I found ‘this road’ etched in my mental map. The car meandered along, and we stopped to look at hoodoos and eat the still-warm scones I’d made. There was also a very chilly visit to the outhouse in below zero temps. We continued on, searching for ‘another road’ and eventually located the trail and a parking lot with exactly one space for our car.
The sun was shining brightly and the sky was blue and it seemed like a great day for an easy hike. Maybe. We stepped onto the trail, into the unknown. A young, childless, twentysomething couple who looked like they’d chosen their clothes ‘on purpose’ as opposed to grabbing whatever lay within arm’s reach trailed a short distance behind us. ‘Maybe we should turn around,’ the woman in the sunglasses and belted coat muttered uncertainly at the prospect of an hour-plus walk on a snowy-icy trail.
Meanwhile the Johnsons walked in relative peace, minus the exasperating things boys tend to do when they find themselves on a trail: crawl on their hands and knees, throw snow at one another, yank on a brother’s arms for no apparent reason. Around the fourth switchback (what does easy mean, anyway?) it happened. Our youngest explorer, as has been his habit since the first time he set foot on a trail, fell into an emotional-mental pit that no amount of logic or faux-patient speech through clenched-teeth would resolve. We all navigate emotional-mental pits in our own way, and Percy’s way is to collapse in the middle of a trail while wailing any number of choice phrases: ‘I want to die’ or ‘I’m not going anywhere’ or ‘I don’t care’.
I’m pretty sure Mother Teresa would have lost her beatific mind at the sight of such ludicrous behavior.
A woman, walking alone, likely in her mid-fifties, passed us. She raised her eyebrows at me. Perhaps her way of commiserating with our squatting spectacle but I took the raised eyebrow to mean ‘oh yeah, been there, done that, now I walk alone.’
During the ‘Banff Hostage Crisis of 2018’ I counted at least five children hiking down from ‘the top’ with their parents in tow. All younger, smaller than our dispirited Percy. None of them crying, complaining or threatening mutiny. One child, dressed head to toe in a pink and purple snowsuit like some kind of Teletubby – undoubtedly drenched in sweat underneath those downy layers – marched silently without a word of protest to her parents.
In the word of Nancy Kerrigan, ‘whhyyyyyyyyyyyyyy.’
At some point, while we were still a considerable distance from the top, I saw the woman with the belted coat and sunglasses who’d been behind us at the start of the trail. She and her companion were heading back, in the opposite direction. Because they ‘d already made it to the top.
Exasperated, I spoke to my children: ‘there’s the woman who was behind us, she’s on her way back already, that leaves me with two theories – what do you think they are?’
‘That they’re going faster than we are,’ my scientists-in-training responded.
‘Sure, I guess, they could be going faster than we are,’ I sputtered, because as usual I’d thrown out a number – two – without actually having two theories. ‘But mostly I’m thinking we could have already been there if we weren’t spending so much time complaining.’
An hour, or was it three, after we first began, the five Johnsons made it to a clearing type space that seemed to be ‘the top’. Our children crouched on the ground, while I snapped photos, noting that the ‘view’ was virtually the same as the photo I’d snapped from a lower viewpoint. We noticed a small trickle of people emerging from the far end of ‘the top’ giving us reason to believe we hadn’t reached the summit, after all. ‘How much farther,’ I inquired of an energetic twentysomething hiker.
‘You go another 200m that way and there are some red chairs, and then about another 30m or so.’ The professor and I instructed our children to sit tight and walked. And walked. ‘How long is 200m?’ I wondered aloud. It seems such a benign distance, like it’s basically right there. Doesn’t Usain Bolt run 200m….in less than 20 seconds?
Not on Tunnel Mountain, he doesn’t.
We passed the woman with the belted coat and sunglasses….again….and I realized there was a third theory I hadn’t considered: mistaken identity. Here was the woman who’d started the hike behind us, hoping to turn around, that other woman had been an imposter. In a different colored coat. With a different boyfriend. This woman and her companion had beaten us to the top, yes, but by a very slim margin.
Perhaps she and Percy should hike together.
We came upon the promised clearing with red chairs, so buried in snow as to make sitting and enjoying the view impossible. Behind us a group of three men was taking turns climbing onto a tree bent in a zig-zaggy shape that, for whatever reason, reminded me of Mr. Tumnus. They were striking all manner of lewd and improbable poses while I mentally added the hashtag #TreeToo to their Instagrams.
I begged the professor to get on the tree and allow me to take his photograph, hoping for a pose like George Costanza on that velvet couch. But alas, he declined, so we returned to our crew. They jumped to their feet and, without so much as a backwards glance, speed-walked directly to the car. For as much as Percy hates walking away from a parked car, there is no one on earth who marches towards a car with more energy and zeal.
‘He likes having summitted’ the professor muttered.