When people in Banff need to get out of town – and they do, at least twice a year – they often aim their cars at Vancouver. Vancouver is the closest place you can find the sea, the nearest infinite horizon beyond the hemming mountains. I know a woman who has made the dash to Vancouver 40 times in 20 years; she always overnights in Kamloops. Everyone has a preferred routine. Upon their return someone always asks, “How long did it take you?” The question is standard competitive mountain etiquette, like asking after the kids.
The reigning local Banff-to-Vancouver speed champion – everyone in Banff knows who I’m talking about – once drove the 792.9 kilometres from Lake Louise to downtown Vancouver in six hours and 15 minutes. He did it in a supercharged Jag at a steady pace of 130 kilometres an hour, with extended bursts north of 180 km/h. “I don’t like to go much over 180 with the top down,” he once told me. “It messes my hair.” He has very little hair. He likes that joke. His young wife has hair, however, and any faster makes her nervous.
You can also do the opposite and take four days to drive what most people do in one. It’s the Trans-Canada Highway, after all, the national asphalt that officially opened 51 years ago last month – the super-concentrated and most harrowing part of the drive, the western bit that takes you through all the phases of the history of the country and back again. The stretch that was hardest to build and last to be finished. The journey has the most unlikely effect: As embarrassing and old-fashioned and naive as it might sound in a pan-global, ultra-technological, postmodern, surpassingly ironic and multicultural age, the highway from the mountains to the sea makes you feel Canadian. And then, shockingly, grateful.
You start out beside the Bow River and the railway, and after Lake Louise you follow the Kicking Horse River and the railway. You’re always following a river and the railway. I set out on a Thursday, at 1 o’clock on an afternoon so clear and bright it made life look simple.
This is what I can tell you from the start: Very few people pack light these days. There are RVs the size of buses, with the names of their owners in script on the sides, and guys in pickups with two motorcycles in the flatbed and a boat in tow behind. Giant carnations of bicycles bloom off car racks. Canadians refuse to say no to any leisure possibility.
Also: The road is under constant repair. “We’re relaying the road bed?” an orange-chested youth named Jude told me. “We’ve been doing it for about three months?”
The heart-attack driving starts when the twinned highway stops after Lake Louise. Road-sign warnings come at you like text messages on your day off. Avalanche Zone! Rock Slides! Construction Zone! Wildlife on Highway! Brake Check! Sometimes all these signs show up at once.
Bud Van Driesen, who’d pulled into the layby at the top of Ten Mile Hill, before the big whoop into Golden, informed me there are seven compulsory brake checks for trucks between Calgary and Vancouver. He was large, 52 and hauling a full load of fresh meat from Lethbridge to Vancouver. He planned to be there by midnight, seven hours away. The stretch of road from Field to Rogers Pass was the biggest challenge of the entire Trans-Canada. “Your right foot controls all that weight,” he said. “And you’re going downhill.”
Still, he figured only one in a thousand truckers had ever had to use a runaway lane, the short uphill chutes of gravel that angle off the steepest downhills in the B.C. mountains. Regulations and better brakes have made them almost redundant. There was one just over the crest of the rise, as the 7-per-cent slope got rolling. The runaway lanes always remind me of people losing their memories. I don’t know why.
At Kicking Horse Pass, coming off the Continental Divide, the highway follows the infamous Big Hill, the original railway route between the summit of the pass (1,627 metres) and the village of Field (1,243 metres). The track was notoriously difficult to build and exacted a human death a week. A 15-car train needed four engines to push it up the Big Hill, but coming down was the real nightmare: The first train to try it derailed and killed three men. Twenty-five years of accidents ensued before the CPR cut the grade in half (to 2.2 per cent) by spreading it out through the famous spiral tunnels that worm their way through not one but two mountains. Suddenly two engines could push 18 cars five times faster. It was a Swiss idea, originally.
Travellers love to get out of their cars and gaze down at the spiral tunnels and read about those numbers. We like to take in the ingenuity of man’s violence against nature, as the poet Tony Hoagland once put it – the way we take revenge on matter that will outlast us. We glorify voyageurs, but it’s the engineers who dynamited their way across the country that we really admire.