Completing a journey 50 years in the making
Everything needs a conclusion, a final period, a closure. That applies to movies, books, games, careers and life itself. As it turns out, it also pertains to travel.
In August of 1972, I started a travel journey that didn't conclude until a few weeks ago. It was a journey that spanned 50 years. Fifty years. That's hard to believe, but it's true.
A little backstory at this point seems appropriate. My parents, born in the early portion of the last century, liked to travel. They mostly preferred states that were either bisected by the Rocky Mountains, touched by the Rocky Mountains, bordered the Rocky Mountains or had to be traversed to get to the Rocky Mountains. So, it may come as no surprise to you that most summers of my youth featured two-week road trips and vacations to the Rocky Mountain states of our great American West.
We were budget travelers, so we camped a lot, ate at roadside park tables, cooked on Coleman stoves and drank from the always-at-the-ready thermos. Despite our numerous visits, we could never get enough of our adventures in and around the Rockies, as we always came away with grand memories.
The beginning of our 50-year journey
The summer of 1972 (wasn't there a movie by that title?) saw my family double-down and go all-in with the annual sabbatical. Two weeks became three, and before we knew it, the Rocky Mountain theme was extended into Canada, with Banff and Jasper National Parks becoming our ultimate goals.
It was a 1,931-mile drive due north from our home in southeast Texas to Jasper, Alberta. However, our trip was anything but the proverbial shortest distance between two points. In retrospect, we probably logged about 2,600 miles one-way, as Santa Fe, New Mexico; Telluride, Colorado; Moab, Utah; Salt Lake City; Sun Valley, Idaho; Stanley, Idaho; and Glacier National Park in Montana became stops to experience along the way.
The epic cross-country (countries) journey with our travel trailer became a series of chapters bound together into a single journal. Ten of us were along for the adventure, including me, my mom, my dad and my sister, plus two friends, three grandparents and an aunt. The family pets (i.e., two dogs and two cats) also joined us.
We crammed into two vehicles — a two-speed '64 Pontiac Tempest LeMans, which pulled the travel trailer, and a loaded '69 Pontiac GTO — and started our grand getaway.
Given the somewhat limited power and pulling capabilities of the Pontiac Tempest LeMans, the youngsters (myself included) and one of the loyal canines would pull out at dawn to get a head start. Eventually, we'd reconnect with the rest of the group in our agreed-upon destination, relying on old-fashioned planning, map reading abilities, common sense, confidence and faith to light the way.
As we traveled, we made a point to take in and fully experience each location we visited. We rode bikes from the Santa Fe campground to downtown, checked out the Mormon Temple in Salt Lake City on a Sunday morning, camped in Yellowstone National Park, soaked in the calming and therapeutic hot springs in Montana, ice skated on the outdoor rink in Sun Valley and admired the unique color of the water at Lake Louise, among other highlights.
While we crammed a lot into that trip, by the time we crossed the border, much of it became a blur.
Other than our time at Lake Louise, specifically, the Canadian part of our adventure felt like an incomplete overview of the area. It was as if we'd run a marathon but the last half-mile was never experienced and the finish line was never crossed. We were so close, but we ran short of time and money, resulting in our coming up about 150 miles short of our ultimate planned terminus of Jasper.
Ever since that brief visit to Canada, I have lived in sort of a traveler's limbo. What was out there that we didn't get to, and would I ever return to see what we'd missed? We had been so very close to completing the journey that it didn't feel right to never finish what we'd started all those years ago.
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Trying to finish the odyssey
My family always thought that one day we would go back and tend to the unfinished business. Decades passed, though, with no return to Canada put on our calendars. Despite life cycles beginning and ending, the emptiness of that unfinished trip lingered.
Fast forward to 2020 when my wife and I thought we could finally close that chapter on this grand adventure by planning and booking a trip to Banff, Lake Louise and, yes, Jasper. This trip would include us, our daughter, our son-in-law and our two granddaughters. All appeared set for us to complete the trip, but then fate intervened. The coronavirus pandemic came, Canada closed its borders and our time in the holding pattern was extended not once, but twice when 2021 presented much more of the same.
By the time our six-day trip across the border was finally becoming a reality in 2022, the vacation looked quite different from the one I took with my parents 50 years earlier. Instead of a multiweek odyssey to Canada with the dogs in the backseat, we'd spend four hours and 15 minutes on United Airlines Flight 2205 to travel from George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH) in Houston to Calgary International Airport (YYC) in Alberta.
Upon arrival, I was anxious to find out what I'd missed 50 years ago. Was everything as incredible as I'd imagined, or was my vision of the region magnified and inflated by all the anticipation? After re-experiencing the few locales I'd previously visited — Banff, Lake Louise and Moraine Lake — it was time to draw back the wizard's curtain and discover what was awaiting us after five decades of wondering.
Related: 3rd time's the charm: Finally taking a Canadian dream trip to Banff, Lake Louise and Jasper
Completing my family's Rockies adventure
The yellow brick road we followed from Banff and Lake Louise to Jasper is Highway 93, a scenic thoroughfare also referred to as the Icefields Parkway. That drive by itself is spectacular and worth the trip. Twenty-plus named glaciers can be viewed from a distance, and each mountain you pass is unique in its own way, with an identity and character that garners your attention.
The mountains were rugged, jagged and edgy, wrapped with snow left over from winter and packed with ice that has been there for years. Millions and millions of conifers densely filled the carved valley floors and climbed the mountainsides as high as the rarified air would permit.
Between the towering mountains were glacier- and snow-fed lakes featuring eye-popping colors that amaze and astound. As you gaze at them, you can't help but wonder if the blue-green hue on display may have been invented right here in this very spot.
Related: A real-life fairy tale: My dream stay at the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise
Obviously, there has been human intervention to make the region accessible and comfortable, but let there be no doubt that nature, in its near organic state, is the chief operating officer here. We are just privileged observers and subject to her whims.
While you can get between the destinations in about three hours, to do so, especially as a first-timer, would be a poor choice, as this highway is recognized as one of the most scenic drives in the world.
Keep your eyes peeled for all kinds of creatures as you make the journey. We spotted a black bear walking in the treeline just off the side of the road on three separate occasions, plus an impressive buck lounging in the grass and a bighorn sheep posing for a photo. When a passing critter hasn't caught your eye, marvel at cascading waterfalls so close to the road that you can nearly touch them from your car.
Related: Why you should absolutely visit the Fairmont Banff Springs — but maybe not spend the night
Don't hesitate to venture off the main road, though. Multiple turnoffs lead to special scenic opportunities that dot this magnificent corridor. Most are just a short distance from the highway and only take a few minutes to reach.
You'll have your pick of breathtaking points of interest by the Icefields Parkway, including Johnston Canyon (just outside of Banff National Park's entrance), Bow Lake, Peyto Lake, Waterfowl Lake, Columbia Icefield, Tangle Creek Falls, Sunwapta Falls and Athabasca Falls.
Personally, we found the Johnston Canyon hike to be a particularly enjoyable trek, as we loved how the Crowfoot Glacier came down and kissed the brow of Bow Lake.
Similarly, Peyto Lake and its intoxicating sky blue color (even when the sky was gray) left us giddy with excitement, while Waterfowl Lake offered a setting that was truly stunning. We enjoyed the grace and dignity of Tangle Creek Falls, too, as well as the raw power and force of the Sunwapta and Athabasca waterfalls.
Related: Hidden gem: The Canadian Marriott with a Nordic spa that stands in the shadow of Banff
When we got to Jasper, we found a town that fulfills the needs of the 21st century while simultaneously embracing its past. Life here has the feel of the 1950s when everything was basic and alarmingly simple. It is straightforward and unassuming, with a calm atmosphere and ample beauty that you can't help but appreciate.
Jasper must-dos include Maligne Canyon, Pyramid Lake, Maligne Lake and Angel Glacier. However, there's really no bad sight in Jasper National Park. The dedicated Dark Sky Preserve impresses with its thousands of stars, which seemed so close you could almost reach up and grab one to put into a glass jar like I did so many times with lightning bugs as a kid.
After all this time, I'm thrilled that I finally had the chance to fill in the blanks and answer all the unknowns I'd been wondering about for years.
Although we may never have the chance to return to this particular land of plenty again due to time constraints and circumstances, we will always remember the grandeur and the glory that it afforded us. Not to mention, the parting gift we received as we headed back to Calgary — the sight of a beautiful grizzly bear and her cub eating in a natural clearing close to Banff — was so special and unique that we'll never forget it.
Oh Canada, you were more than worth the 50-year wait.