Although we knew we had to do it, we found it hard to turn our car south, leave Yellowknife, and head back to San Francisco. A local man at a gas station spotted our California license plates as we tanked up before we left. He was shocked that we had driven four days from San Francisco to Yellowknife and we were about to do the same heading home. “Are you rich?” he asked as he glanced at the current insanely high price of fuel. It was a hard question to answer since being “rich” is relative. I assured him that we were not rich, drove a hybrid that got around 50 mpg and ate a lot of peanut butter sandwiches along the way. Then his face brightened as he exclaimed “Oh, coming to Yellowknife is on your bucket list”! In a way, he was right. Walker and I have always wanted to come here. Walker, the born geographer, had already travelled all over this area on Google Street View. For both of us, this trip was a chance to literally travel to the end of the road. Our lives tend to be circumscribed by geography, circumstances, and our imagination. This trip was our chance to be blown by the wind to a far corner of the earth and break the boundary of the world we know. After years of Covid restrictions, Donald Trump, and Putin’s stupid war in Ukraine, we just needed to do something different. Like explorers from the past, we chose to go somewhere that we’ve never seen. It was a crazy, exhilarating, life-changing adventure!
Before we head back, I wanted to share a few images buried in the mountain of photographs made on this trip. I usually take a while to edit and sift through photos from a long journey. It is hard to do while traveling and the best images usually take time to rise to the top. The first is the High Prairie Public Library in central Alberta. The panorama of this unusual library gives a good sense of the dusty streets of a small town on the Canadian High Prairie. The second library is the Northwest Territories Legislative Assembly in Yellowknife, NWT. The library there was fantastic, and this photo is of the nearby Legislative Assembly chamber itself.
The third image is a grid of the hand-built houseboats on the still-frozen Great Slave Lake in Yellowknife taken over two evenings at sunset at 10 PM.
The last is a photo of the little Yellowknife Dene village of Dettah, NWT. When we visited this place on the remote north shore of the Great Slave Lake, we had no idea that England’s Prince Charles and his wife Camilla would be coming there soon to meet the Indigenous people of the area. One of the topics they will discuss will the horrible treatment of Native Canadian children in some of the Indigenous boarding schools in the late 19th and 20th centuries. Libraries and education continue to be an important subject here, especially among the Native people.
We left Yellowknife at an un-Godly hour and all the good coffee shops were still closed. The only place open was Starbucks and I was amazed by the sign in front that speaks to our current economic situation.
Driving south we encountered many large mammals by the side of the road. The bison we saw were near the vast Wood Buffalo National Park, the largest in Canada. Straddling the border between northern Alberta and southern Northwest Territories, it contains an area larger than Switzerland, and is the second-largest national park in the world. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its biological diversity and for the world’s largest herd of free-roaming Wood Bison. We also encountered elk, moose, deer and even a black bear. We had been told the polar bears didn’t come this far south.
By a miracle, we mostly had good weather throughout our trip but barely missed the major catastrophic floods in Hay River, NWT on our way up. We still encountered parts of the road that were flooded, but fortunately our mighty Prius never wavered through all the challenges.
After an 11-hour drive, we briefly stopped for dinner in the central Albertan town of Whitecourt. We were shocked to see a “F*ck Trudeau” flag flapping from the back of a white pickup. Canadians generally avoid the angry Trump-like symbols and signs that are so prevalent back in the USA. Walker said that we were driving through one of the most conservative parts of Canada. An hour later, we ended our long day on the eastern edge of the Canadian Rockies in the small town of Hinton, AB. Checking in to our motel, I noticed the Edmonton Oilers hockey team were playing LA in the Stanley Cup. I thought back to our stay in that wonderful Canadian city and immediately started cheering for the Oilers!
The next day, we drove over two huge mountain ranges. The Canadian Rocky Mountains were beautiful and still covered in snow. Jasper National Park was stunning, and it was nice to be here without the usual crowds. This large park was established in 1930 and is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
After traveling through Jasper, we encountered vast agricultural lands around the city of Kamloops. Walker described this beautiful Canadian city as the largest that most Americans have never heard of. We entered the massive Canadian Coast Mountains near the tiny village of Lillooet on the Frazer River in British Columbia. Situated at an intersection of deep gorges in the lee of the mountains, it has a dry climate and long growing season. These interior mountain valleys are called “Canada’s Hot Spot” and can bake in the summer. Walker described the nearby town of Lytton that had one of the highest temperatures ever recorded in Canada. Tragically, it completely burned down the next day. After I photographed the Lillooet Public Library, we headed west into even higher and more rugged mountains. As our car made the steep accent the sky got darker and cloudier, and we soon encountered snow by the side of the road and slushy rain. We stopped in Duffey Lake Provincial Park and gazed out over the spectacular lake as the rain fell and the ice was breaking up.
We continued to the famous ski resort town of Whistler, BC. This town is situated in one of the most beautiful valleys we have seen on this trip. While I photographed the attractive but closed library, I realized that I have complicated feelings about communities like this. On the one hand, the wealth here creates great restaurants, great coffee shops, and sometimes even great libraries. But the economic monoculture seemed pretty stale, predictable, and pretentious. I loved the setting for Whistler, but we were glad to move on through the beautiful mountains and eventually down the rugged coast of British Columbia to the sea.
We arrived late in Vancouver, BC and stayed in the remarkable Sylvia Hotel. It felt like something out of a Humphry Bogart movie and was situated on an inlet of the Pacific. The next morning, we hiked along the sparkly shore and gazed out into the ocean. The Greater Vancouver area is the third largest in Canada. The city is one of the most ethnically and linguistically diverse places in the country: 52% of its residents are not native English speakers. It is considered one of the world’s most livable and greenest cities but is also one of the most expensive places anywhere. In my mind it is also situated in one of the most beautiful settings for a large city anywhere on earth. Needless to say, I fell in love with this area again. After a great breakfast and a meeting with a friend and her new baby, we headed back to the USA.
Many hours later, we arrived at one of my favorite American cities of Portland, OR. It shares many things in common with Vancouver including a northwestern eco-friendly, hipster vibe. After dinner, Walker and I visited the site of the recent George Floyd protests in the city center. I was fascinated by the layers of graffiti sprayed on old Spanish-American war monuments by social justice, anti-antifa, anarchists, and pro-Trump people. Walker had earlier reported on these protests for his job working at CBS News, Fortunately, he was able to decipher the cryptic, spray-painted messages ironically covering the monuments to an earlier American colonial war. It was late and we were tired, so we rented a scooter and rode through the dark deserted streets of the city center back to our motel. The next day, of course, we made a pilgrimage to that towering monument of literary excellence: Powell’s Books. I was happily surprised to see our book Photographing Shakespeare: The Folger Shakespeare Library on display as a Staff Pick!
It was a great experience to spend 10 days locked in the car with our son Walker Dawson. As I mentioned earlier, it was a true father-son bonding experience. We traveled about 6,000 miles on this trip. During that time, the secret ingredient that kept us sane was listening to lots and lots of podcasts. Mostly we listened to Lindsay Graham (not the Senator) and his series called American History Tellers. You may recall that when Ellen and I drove across the country last year we listened to his American Elections: Wicked Game. Graham’s work is exceptional, and we spent many happy hours as the miles melted away listening to his podcasts on the Gilded Age, the Roaring 20s, the Great Depression and the American Revolution, etc.
As I now contemplate scraping off 6,000 miles worth of bugs from the front of our car, I am thankful for the privilege of being able to make such an amazing trip. To be continued…