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The Sojourn I: Escape

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We gave up on Banff around the end of February.

Not that we, a trio of wide-eyed Eastern skiers, didn't like the place. We were having a blast. But we were ready for something else. There hadn't been much snow in the months we'd lived there, and there was the cold. The bone-numbing, digit-destroying, stultifying cold.

So we packed up and hit the road, spending March spinning first through Whistler — where we skied a fog-bound hill with a patroller friend, parking our van at the UBC hostel so we could poach its ice-water showers. Then on to Mt. Baker in Washington, Squaw and Heavenly Valley in California, and across the Nevada desert to Utah's Little Cottonwood Canyon. We finished in Aspen, Colo., before limping home to Toronto. Our passage back into the warmth of a southern Ontario spring was radically different than the one made in the opposite direction on a cold, blustery day the previous November.

Then, it had been the start of an odyssey, the cliché Western pilgrimage. The seed belonged to myself and my buddy, Merl. We'd self-taught on skiing fundamentals during high school ski trips and weekend missions to the rumpled hills north of Toronto that billed themselves as ski "resorts." Whatever else was required we garnered from ski-magazine photos and bedroom-wall posters, distilling the nuances of the era's hot-dogging Zeitgeist in doodles on our notebooks and periodic comics full of ski heroes and villains into which we poured more care and detail than any of our studies. Joining us was another ski-mad university friend, Lee, a happy-go-lucky guy to which anything seemed a good idea. Tagging along was another high-school friend, Pat, on his way to a surveying job in Calgary. To our collective cause my father donated a beat-up delivery van, a three-in-the-trees, half-ton Chevy with 200,000 kilometres whose interior we'd spent the fall remodelling, fashioning rustic walls from wooden shingles and a dining area that converted to a bench bed with room for three sleeping bags. I don't remember who got a deal on the tires that were more like racing slicks than the proper winter rubber we'd need, but my vague recollection of solving this problem is no stronger than my vague recollections of panic-stricken sliding on occasions too numerous to count.

On departure day we'd started late, after last-minute preparations and various insistent mothers' stocking the van with frozen foods and groceries. To save money on gas we'd chosen the shorter, more direct route through the northern tier of the U.S., arriving at the Windsor-Detroit border crossing, four hours west of Toronto, around sunset. Here, the trip almost ended when we drew the short straw on border officials: we were refused entry due to our vague plans and not having enough money to last the winter. This was inarguable, as we all hoped to find jobs in our destination of Banff; the border guard, however, was convinced we were heading to Colorado for the winter. Regrouping, we made a second crossing attempt an hour north near Sarnia. In those pre-computer days there was no way for the lone guard there to connect the polite young men with a well-honed story before him with the hapless doppelgangers who'd been turned away in Detroit, and we had no problem skittering across and onto the dark nexus of Interstates that would carry us west.

The drive went smoothly until a blizzard hit outside Bismark, North Dakota, a Prairie screamer with abundant snow and arctic winds, whose terrifying gusts threatened to blow our van from the highway. As it was, when deteriorating visibility forced us to exit several hours into the maelstrom, we experienced a full 360-degree spinout at the end of the off-ramp, which was glazed with snow-polished black ice. Fortunately we remained on the road, pointing ourselves to a nearby gas-station/diner, where we spent two days eating the toast and coffee we could afford, envying the mounds of bacon and eggs consumed by similarly stranded truckers while our van drifted in outside. Entertainment wasn't a problem; we had a foursome for euchre, and Pat and I had our guitars to make merry with the truckers. Sleeping in the ice-cold van, however, was a test.

Eventually, a combination of National Guard and state highway resources reopened the Interstate, and we crawled carefully west through an apocalypse. Abandoned and overturned vehicles were everywhere, only partially visible in the monstrous drifts and snow-filled ditches that engulfed them. Particularly ghostly were the lifeless semi-trailers, one on its side whose driver-side door had been pried up by the winds to allow the cab to fill with snow. We steered north somewhere in Montana.

In Alberta, we dropped Pat off and headed for Fortress Mountain, where a girl we knew was about to overwinter. The ski area wasn't open yet but we spent the evening in the employees' ATCO trailer drinking beer and playing cards with her new friend, an Australian, whose nickname — predictably in those days of Antipodean novelty — was "Oz."

Giddy with anticipation, we left next morning without saying goodbye, hitting Mt. Norquay in Banff just as the lifts opened.

Next week: The Sojourn II: Arrival. Leslie Anthony is a Whistler-based author, editor, biologist and bon vivant who has never met a mountain he didn't like.

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