Northern Exposure

There is a theory that posits that the key to a happy life is to establish a satisfying flow of activity. A stimulating job, loyal friends, and a caring family facilitate a meaningful existence that drifts by in a series of enjoyable days. For me, this philosophy holds some truth, though a key ingredient is that I feel most fulfilled when I am working towards an objective with a reasonable chance of success. The allure of looking forward to the future and to striving to meet my lofty expectations provides a departure from the day-to-day tedium and lends meaning to otherwise mundane activities. However, even when immersed in the smooth flow of an efficient routine, the itch to travel and to break free from the predictability of everyday life can occasionally become overwhelming. When such an urge arises, appeasement seems the only acceptable option.

My first trip took place in the last days of September. Nostalgic for the crisp autumn days of New England, I yearned for a taste of my favorite season. Instead, I continued to bask in the ever-present sun of Southern California. While it is commonly accepted that a large portion of the population become depressed in the dark days of winter or during prolonged periods of rain, I miss the inclement weather and lament the constant glare of the sun. One theory for my contrarian preferences is that rainy days provide a guilt-free excuse for staying in and reading. In contrast, sunny days seem to require an attempt at productivity to make the most of the beautiful weather. So, as I conversed with friends and family on the east coast and jealously heard about the glorious days capped by pumpkin pie and warm cider, my thoughts urged me northward.

Several weeks after taking in a riveting Red Sox baseball game with Megan, a sweet girl typically cloistered away in one of the fly-over states (either Kansas, Nebraska, or Oklahoma), we decided to meet up for a weekend. The decision of the best place was accompanied by an exceptional amount of hemming and hawing before a coin flip dictated Vancouver over Denver. So, with less than a week to plan, we scurried to secure flights, found a suitable hotel, and developed something resembling an itinerary of activities to make the most of our brief time abroad.

Arriving late on a cold Thursday night, we met in the hotel and settled in our rooms – hers facing an office building with an unobstructed view of a yoga studio across a narrow alley and mine overlooking a bustling intersection with drunk Canadians yelling obscenities at passing cars. After a couple of hours spent catching up, we retired and agreed to wake early to begin exploring the City of the Glass. The following morning began with a crisp autumn day. Being a Friday, most pedestrians were hustling off to work and slowed down slightly to offer a curious sideways glance as I shivered in my ill-advised wardrobe of shorts and a long-sleeve t-shirt. Having lived in Seattle for six months, I expected a more temperate climate in September, but Megan kindly reminded me that I was in fact in Canada. We set off for the picturesque waterfront of Stanley Park and wound our way through the stylish buildings of steel and glass. In part due to the large Asian population and in part due to the architecture, Vancouver in many ways reminded me of Singapore, a place that I remember fondly. Despite living only a couple of blocks from the ocean in Santa Monica, the waterfront of Vancouver seemed more incorporated into daily activities. Buildings wrapped around snug harbors. Water taxis patrolled between docks. Boats gently rocked in the tranquil inlets. Similar to the east coast, the coastline surrounding Vancouver offers an interesting array of bays, inlets, and coves that beg to be explored, as opposed to the wide open ocean of Los Angeles that makes one feel small and insignificant.

After strolling through the scenic city, we enjoyed a fine brunch of eggs benedict, apparently a local specialty. Our appetites satiated, we embarked on a quest to find the world’s longest suspension bridge. Equipped with a Lonely Planet guidebook and some rapidly appreciating Canadian dollars, we boarded a water ferry and transited the bay. Disembarking on the north shore, we followed the crowd to the bus stop and boarded the bus whose sign read “Suspension Bridge.” Mixing with the proletariat, we ascended into the mountains and took in the diverse surroundings. As the number of passengers dwindled, we finally were instructed to get off towards the end of the line. A short hike through a verdant forest was rewarded with our arrival in the national park. It should be noted that one of the main reasons for the pilgrimage to the suspension bridge was that Megan holds an overwhelming fear of heights. Apparently, she breaks out sobbing when confronted with elevation. Undaunted, she wanted to confront her fears and conquer what was sure to be an impressive experience. Approaching the swinging bridge, she hesitated and reconsidered her initial brave proclamations. Never having been accused of being either compassionate or sensitive, I mocked her mercilessly until she shuffled apprehensively across the flimsy footbridge. Relieved to reach the other side, we remarked that, while impressive, the bridge didn’t seem all that impressive and that we were pretty sure that we had seen longer suspension bridges elsewhere. A quick glance at the guidebook confirmed our suspicions that the bridge that we have crossed was not in fact the longest bridge in the world. That bridge swung over a different canyon nearly five miles away. Conceding failure, we made the best of the situation and enjoyed a nice hike through the forest. Ignoring the stunning views and transcendent beauty all around us, we derived endless amusement from the morbid signs dotting the trail. Initially, we were greeted with a sign that not only warned us about the dangers of swimming, climbing on rocks, and leaving the trail, but that provided the exact dates of casualties that resulted from disobeying these rules. Not content with this horrifying notification, various places along the path were marked with small monuments to some tragic circumstance. For example, one plaque mentioned that “Amber died here while sunbathing in August 1982.” A more disturbing plaque described how a small girl drowned in her father’s arms. We were left to wonder why that particular detail was included; whether it was meant to make the circumstances even more tragic, to suggest that he was holding her under, or to invoke guilt that he was unable to save her.

Back in the city, we wandered the empty streets unable to find a suitable place for dinner. Finally, after walking throughout the downtown area, we settled on a bar next to our hotel. Being in a bar, we did what bar-goers tend to do. Inspired by the fall weather, I quaffed hard cider and the hours slipped by. Music was played. Stories were exchanged. Memories became blurry. I attribute the rough night to the strong alcohol content that our friendly neighbors to the north allow in their beverages. This calls to mind the old Canadian drinking joke: “How do Canadians prepare beer for export to the US?” Answer: “Drink it first.” Needless to say, Saturday morning found me tired and sallow. Ambitious plans to take the ferry to Victoria for the day fell victim to my poor humor and the cold, rainy weather. Instead, we rode the water taxi to the public market and Megan nursed me back to health with pumpkin pie and warm cider. Rejuvenated, we hurried to the Science Museum, a disappointing array of games and exhibits designed for children. After dominating every challenge laid out to stymie 6-year-olds, we eventually stumbled upon a simple game that tested reaction time by lighting up a button and measuring the time that it takes to press the lit button. In a back-in-forth battle that will be talked about in those parts for years to come, we spent nearly an hour competing for the fastest time. Finally, just as the hotly contested game was reaching a decisive conclusion, the museum closed and we forced to abandon the competition without a clear winner – an unacceptable outcome for all parties involved.

As night enveloped the damp city, we ascended the Vancouver Skywalk, once again putting Megan’s fear of heights to the test. A poor man’s CN Tower and a homeless man’s Space Needle, the tower offered mildly interesting views of the city. Perched above the skyline, we were able to take in the panoramic view and identify the various parts of the city that we had visited during the previous two days. Unimpressed, we descended back down to the lobby and began our quixotic search for dinner. Once again failing to find something that inspired us, we settled for Japanese takeout and went back to the hotel to watch an insipid episode of The Hills. Most people would consider staying in on a Saturday night while visiting a foreign country to be an egregious waste of time, but for me, not having a TV, enjoying a rainy Saturday night watching TV was about as far of a departure from my life in Southern California as I can imagine.

On Sunday morning, after checking out of the hotel, we finally managed to find a quaint café nestled away from the well-trodden streets. Overlooking the train tracks and the expansive bay, we sipped coffee and lamented that we did not have longer to explore such a lovely city. Lingering over our breakfast, we finally hopped in a cab and sped off for the airport, where we went our separate ways.

Although the trip to Vancouver lasted only three days, in retrospect it feels like a much longer vacation. Returning to LA, I felt reenergized and wished that I could have stayed longer. Instead of quenching my desire to travel, it reminded me of how much I enjoy exploring new places. The stylish buildings, diverse population, and picturesque landscape provided a much-needed lift and allowed me to once again appreciate all of the natural beauty that I have become accustomed to in Los Angeles. Spending time with Megan also reminded me of how enjoyable it is to travel with someone who is curious to learn and who can make even the most regular outings memorable.

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