Rocky Mountain Low

Fun Fact: My brother and I once drove 6,000 miles in 6 days! We did it so that we could see Alaska, which was the 49th state we had been to at that point. Some of our friends thought we were foolish.

We weren’t, of course. For guys like us, travel is always deeply, inarguably worthwhile.

But something I did the week after our Alaska trip proved them right, in my case, about the foolishness.

It was fall 2002, almost 2 decades ago. I had already been solo road-tripping through the Pacific Northwest, and after Nate joined me for our brief, brotherly Alaska adventure, I continued by myself through British Columbia and a little of Alberta. A bona fide mountain paradise. Banff, Jasper, Lake Louise (see picture below), Kelowna, Revelstoke — each of those words now feel to me like a sacred incantation.

I remember stunningly picturesque hostels in the Canadian Rockies, most memorably one in the town of Squilax. At this rustic hostel, I slept in a converted train caboose, fed a pair of standoffish llamas, exfoliated in a tiny cedar-scented sweat lodge, took an eye-opening polar bear plunge into a wide river under gleaming stars, and watched bright red salmon spawning en masse in that same river the next day.

I have a treasure trove of glistening, blissed-out road-tripping memories from that trip. More than I can keep track of.

But I also have this memory: Waking up in a hostel bed near Lake Louise with dark fog in my brain on a Monday morning, with no earthly memory of how I got there.

I had planted myself at a sports bar in the bustling tourist town of Banff the day before, watching an Eagles game with some Canadian fellow (American) football fans. I don’t remember what I drank, but knowing my 2002 self it was likely bright yellow and vodka-based.

And as sometimes happens when consuming candy-colored alcoholic beverages, at some point I blacked out and stopped making memories of any kind. What kind of conversations did I have during that blackout? Did I make America look bad to the bar-hoppers of Banff? Did I embarrass myself by flirting with someone in my word-slurring state? I’ll never know because those hours are lost to history. Or they were not so much lost as I willingly, eagerly relinquished them.

The ghastly (and frankly criminal) thing I do know is this: Despite my sloshed state, I drove the 25-30 miles up the Icefields Parkway from Banff to my rustic hostel in my ’91 Toyota Corolla. Then I collapsed in a drunken heap on the bed I had paid for earlier, and woke up the next morning with a dull, grinding headache.

I can still picture, even though I can’t remember her name, the warmly maternal middle-aged woman who ran the hostel. I remember regaling her with the anecdote about how I didn’t know how I had gotten back from Banff the night before. I remember telling her this story as if it was an entertaining or even faintly impressive fact about myself.

I had bought into that tenet of frat-boy culture — distilled in Old School and The Hangover and a hundred other frat-boy movies, and toxic in both senses of the word — which says that drinking alcohol is an innately interesting act.

But the hostel-owner woman didn’t find my story remotely interesting, and certainly not impressive. She, being of sane mind and good conscience, was aghast that I had driven my car while blackout drunk. In that moment, she acted as a surrogate for my own warmly protective mom, more than 3,000 miles away. And I vividly remember the woman, in the lobby of that mountain hostel, telling me that the reason my body felt awful was that the alcohol was literal poison coursing through my veins.

I was 22 years old and had grown up being given every possible impression that alcohol was bad. But I had never heard it stated in quite that way before. Alcohol as poison. Poison that needs to leave the body, sometimes by force, before the body can regain its health.

It was another 5 years before I got my head straight and sobered up for good in 2007. But I’ve never forgotten that nurturing and deeply principled woman trying, with solemn and warmly stern wide eyes, to get me to understand that I was willingly poisoning myself.

So many times since that day, I have thought with horror about how easily I could have killed some innocent pedestrian somewhere on that blacked-out road from Banff to Lake Louise. Maybe a fellow starry-eyed wanderer like me who was visiting Lake Louise to drink deep of the staggering wonders of the Canadian Rockies. Or some resident of Alberta just having an ordinary Sunday night. I could have easily ended a life that day. Someone else’s or my own.

I forged a lot of spectacular, epic memories in my 20s. And I somehow dodged a lot of self-inflicted bullets too. I survived my own foolishness. I’m deeply fortunate that I made it from age 21 to age 27 in one piece. I am forever grateful that I lived long enough to find the 3 great loves of my life.

Some would say that I got lucky. Pure dumb luck that kept me from misfortune (or jail). Other people I love would say that I was divinely protected. That God watched over me and kept me alive long enough to finally collect my wits, and my survival instinct, and pursue the life I was meant to live.

I’m not dogmatic on the exact coordinates of that point, because many people who are much better than I am have died young for no good reason. But I’m happy to default to the latter view. Because I do see my life as a gift from God.

But in moments like that one in Banff, I looked the gift horse straight in the mouth. Tempting fate and threatening to return the gift to sender.

I’m so glad that I embrace that gift now. I’m grateful I can be grateful. I am fortunate that I lived to savor all of those unforgettable travel memories, in the jagged mountains of western Canada, the lush greenery of the Pacific Northwest, the orange canyons of the Southwest, and beyond. The grand tour.

And at 42, I’m fortunate that I can gradually give my kids their own grand tour. So that their mental scrapbook can be as colorful as mine, and overflowing with snapshots.

That is, and will be, my gift to them.

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