Photo: Courtesy of Fairmont Hotels & Resorts
Can the right vacation change your life? Celia Barbour found the answer in the Canadian Rockies.
I was running away the first time I went to the Canadian Rockies, fleeing a half-year relationship with a man so narcissistic I'm not sure he knew my name. The trip, planned on a whim, was a way of proving to myself—and him—that I was (a) interesting, (b) independent, and (c) capable of being kinder to myself than he'd ever bothered to be. I considered traveling someplace hot and beachy; it was December, and winter was snuffing all the light and warmth from New York City. But I decided that escaping the cold would only make me feel worse when I got back. What I needed was to be ravished by snow.
So I packed my bags and flew across the Great Lakes and the endless, aching plains to Calgary, unaware that I was about to experience one of the geologic thrills of our continent: the abrupt change from plains to peaks. Renting a car in flat-as-a-coma Calgary, I popped in a CD and beelined west. Before I knew it, the mountains were crashing toward me; three songs later, I was knee-deep in powder. The town where I was headed, Lake Louise, is nestled in the middle of the Canadian Rocky Mountain World Heritage Site: seven contiguous parks adding up to nearly 9,000 square miles of wilderness. Lake Louise is some 5,000 feet above sea level, but it wasn't just the change in elevation that lifted the weight of the past six months off my shoulders. Canada's Rockies are more raw and brutal than America's; looking at them makes you feel a little battered and knocked about—in a good way, like a Russian massage for your soul.
My body, though, was cramping up. I had driven the Trans-Canada Highway with my chest against the steering wheel, the better to peer up through the windshield at snowy summits. I arrived at the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, one of those grand old railway hotels that look more like a private castle than lodging for paying guests, and—by the way, did I mention I was trying to shake off a bad relationship? Until the moment I pulled up at the hotel, I'd had no idea that what my withered heart needed was three cute guys in lederhosen to step forward and smile at me. They opened my door, they welcomed me, they carried my bags. Yes, I realize they were paid to be chivalrous. It still felt swoony. Inside, fires burned, lights sparkled, and three-story-high windows glowed with pearly light reflected off the mountain-rimmed glacial lake. I felt like a cross between Heidi of the Hills and Eloise of the Plaza. I had come to the right place.
But as the days went by, it became clear that I wasn't the right person for the place—not yet, anyway. I was a distressed single girl from the city, whose notion of adventure was to scale the airless heights of calamitous relationships. It would be an exaggeration to say that the Canadian Rockies convinced me to swear off such misbegotten thrills, but those mountains did extract a promise from me: that I would come back someday with my family. And to do that, I needed to get busy creating a family. My idea of romance underwent a seismic shift that week. Instead of hankering for an après-ski make-out session with Sven the downhill champ, I longed to ice-skate on a frozen lake under the stars with my blushing, twinkle-eyed children.
I've been back three times, and yes, we have skated—my husband, three kids, and me, twirling around a castle built from blocks of lake ice, while my mother sat inside by a fire with a novel and a sherry. We have been driven in dogsleds over the Continental Divide and hiked through fragrant pine forests, stepping aside to let a horse-drawn sleigh clop by. Mostly, we have skied. I can imagine a day after the kids are grown, when Peter and I will come here alone; we'll stay someplace chic and serene, and ski all day on senior passes. But even then, I will remember the time I thought I was running away, and instead ran headlong into my rosy-cheeked future.