My idea of outdoor time during a road trip normally revolves around gas stops and rest stops. Preferably, they are the same thing. But on the most mythic road trips, you need to build time into each drive for play. (Think, for instance, of On the Road.) Which is why, over lunch, we perused a list of outdoor activities in Banff. Banff is a ski town in the winter and a tourist attraction all year, thanks to its artsy and welcoming feel. Its annual film festival is world renowned. The Bow River, which is a deep blue color due to a preponderance of glacial flour, runs through town, adding the tranquil vibe that accompanies running water.
When Calene and I visited Banff on our honeymoon, it seemed that the only outdoor activity was hiking. But this time, we soon discovered a mountaintop gondola ride, hot springs, white-water rafting, mountain biking, a national historic site, shopping, and just plain people-watching. We opted to rent mountain bikes, and we spent a few hours bumping through the forest single file, keeping a sharp eye out for grizzly bears. Hey, the journey thus far had been one surprise after the other, so we wanted to be prepared. By the time we got back in the car and were headed down the highway, I found myself wondering and anticipating what lay ahead rather than staring at the map and dreading the miles between our current location and our hotel. All these years, I'd thought I knew how to road-trip, only to learn I'd been doing it all wrong.
AVOID THE KNOWN
The hotel for our second night was the rugged Simpson's Num-Ti-Jah Lodge, on the shores of mighty Bow Lake. It is an hour and a half northwest of Banff and 100 years back in time. When Jimmy Simpson, a red-haired mountain man, first camped at this location in 1898, he thought it the most beautiful spot in the world and vowed to "build a shack" there someday. Simpson did better than that. By the time it was completed in 1950, his lodge featured a stone-and-log construction and 25 very utilitarian guest rooms. Calene and I slept in a spartan room that offered a view of the glimmering lake. Looking outside the window, we could see the paw of an enormous glacier dangling from the cliffs ringing the frigid waters. The food in the Elkhorn Dining Room, where moose and elk heads were mounted on the walls, was nothing but gourmet. Entrées included fine Alberta beef and local venison, and the broad wine list featured vintages from around the world.
But the lodge's greatest allure was its isolation. There was not a phone or a TV in the room, and checking e-mail was out of the question. The greatest amusement of the evening was when a moose lumbered by outside - we all went out to have a look. At bedtime, we piled on an extra blanket to keep out the chilly night air, and we fell asleep listening to the sound of a cold Arctic wind battering our windowpanes.
There is utter simplicity in such a place, inducing the reflection that great road trips so often inspire.
I have to admit that left to my own devices, I would never have chosen the Simpson's Num-Ti-Jah Lodge. I would have made reservations at some more upscale place in Banff or even down the road in Lake Louise. And the same would hold true for our lunch destination the next day. From the outside, the Baker Creek Bistro looked like a camper's store. The food, however, was incredible - fresh, local ingredients cooked to perfection. There's a lot to be said for avoiding the known and taking a chance on character and charm.