• Image about Lake Louise

Martin Dugard goes road-tripping through the Canadian Rockies in search of a polar bear. What he finds is much better.

Illustrations by Oksana Badrak

THE FIGURINE SAT on our mantel for almost a decade.  It was a small Lladró polar bear, purchased in a gift shop just off the main lobby of the Chateau Lake Louise. Looking back, I think that bear cost me about $80, which seemed like an extravagant amount at the time. But I sprang for it anyway because that day in Lake Louise marked the last stop on a honeymoon trip that had taken Calene and me from Vancouver through the Canadian Rockies via the Trans-Canada Highway, a strip of asphalt through the wilderness that is lined with soaring peaks and ice-cold rivers that run clear. 

I had marched into the gift shop searching for a keepsake by which to remember that auspicious journey. Sweatshirts and shot glasses just didn't seem appropriate. That Lladró bear represented Canada, if only just a little, and had a permanence that bespoke a certain emotional heft; it would remind us of our adventurous drive each and every time we looked at it.

For 10 years, it did just that. As we moved from our small condo into our first house, I carefully wrapped that polar bear in newspaper and placed it inside a box for the trip from one mantel to the next. And then it disappeared. To this day, I don't know what happened to that box. I searched and searched but could not find it.

Thus began a quest to replace it. But not just any Lladró store would do, and I certainly couldn't purchase another bear alone. Sooner or later, my wife and I would have to road-trip through Canada once again, if only to visit that gift shop. Not long ago, we finally did just that.

THE TRANS-CANADA HIGHWAY is a 4,860-mile tongue of pavement that stretches from the Atlantic to the Pacific. It's a smooth thoroughfare with wide shoulders that makes Canada's open spaces and rugged wilderness accessible to any driver with a good set of wheels and a desire to put them to use. I have driven on six continents and in dozens of countries since that honeymoon road trip, but none of those journeys has even remotely compared. And yet, I was a bit hesitant to drive in Canada again.

Why? Simple. The Canadian Rockies of my memory were a pristine and inviting wilderness, almost entirely devoid of tourists and chains. What if they were different the second time? What if they were slick and commercial and a little repugnant? But I gave in to the allure of gazing once again upon those unforgettable vistas - and am glad that I did. The Canadian Rockies had grown up, to be sure, hosting more amenities and bigger crowds ogling the spectacular emerald-colored lakes and ominous ­glaciers. But if anything, the mountains were more wondrous than I had remembered.

So, worries quickly set aside, I began to not just absorb the wonder and beauty everywhere outside the car window as the trip unwound, but also to meditate on the very nature of a great road trip. What components set them apart and make them great? Here's what I came up with.