SHORT DAYS AND PLENTY OF STOPS
The trip began upon arriving at the Calgary International Airport and very easily could have lapsed into the standard road-trip format: Get on the road early, drive hundreds of miles, gobble a hurried lunch, drive hundreds of miles more, find some hotel, and collapse into bed, repeating daily until finished. Covering as many miles as possible each day is the primary purpose.

Most family driving vacations are done in this manner, which is probably why family driving vacation and claustrophobic death march have often been used in the same sentence. I admit to being a prime offender. Canada offered me a chance to reform my ways.

The Canadian Rockies are truly worth savoring. They rise abruptly from the windswept prairie outside Calgary, starting first as a series of low, rolling hills carpeted in firs and pines and then jutting upward to form great jagged peaks that block the late afternoon sun. When Scotsman Alexander Mackenzie charted the region on his transcontinental journeys in 1789 and 1793, he made careful note of his surroundings; we did the same. Even though the Buick Lucerne that I was driving was a deceptively powerful car, with all the prerequisites of a great road-trip vehicle (speed, legroom, comfortable seats, and a booming sound system), there seemed to be no point in hurrying.

From the airport, we drove just 40 miles that first day, spending the night at Falkridge, a wondrous corporate retreat. The purpose was to decompress after a day of air travel so that we could start fresh in the morning. Falkridge perches on a forested hilltop, facing west, toward the Rockies. Our bedroom featured picture windows that let in the setting sun, and dinner was served in a small gazebo. Atop the gazebo was a lookout tower that offered a 360-degree view of the spectacular and undeveloped countryside and from which we gazed out across the long wilderness valley leading to the mountains. The setting sun rendered the granite peaks a slowly changing palette of purple and pink and mauve.

Things didn't get a whole lot more aggressive the next morning, when we drove along the Trans-Canada to Banff. Again the mileage was short, just 120 miles. We stopped at the Cochrane Ranche Provincial Historic Site, which marks the location of Alberta's first ranch, established in 1881. Normally, I would never have taken the time to seek out a place like Falkridge or to veer off the highway and wander through the ruins of an ill-fated ranch. But those two simple experiences added inestimably to the trip. They sparked conversation. That all-important road-trip bond between those in the car was strengthened. Calene and I were not just powering across Canada, gazing out the window and pulling over now and then to ogle something spectacular - we were investing ourselves in the landscape and the culture. We were investing ourselves in the journey, in a way that merely opening a map and aiming the car down the highway could never accomplish. All it took was a personal mandate to make the journey, not the destination, the road trip's focal point - as it should be.