Tuesday, May 25, 1999
Archeologists say Lake Louise was in use over ten-thousand years ago, but the first white guy saw it in 1882. He named it Emerald Lake, for its color, though returning two years later and finding the water now reflected unclouded sky, he decided “emerald” was wrong and renamed it Louise—for the daughter of a man traveling with him. Still, when the lake was officially christened, by the Geographical Society of Canada, it was after Victoria’s fourth daughter, Princess Louise. The natives simply called it The Lake of Little Fishes.
The first hotel was a simple chalet, underbooked because it was built on a peat bog and mosquito infested. Also, the nearly three-mile road from the closest train was kinda bouncy. But the view of the lake, in an amazing valley once carved by six glaciers, soon overrode that, and the bog was filled, the road leveled, and the chalet expanded to a chateau. This also grew, till by 1920, it was a sprawling mess: Part-Victorian. Part-quasi-Tudor. Part anything that seemed to pop in the multiple architects’ brains. The only good thing was it was fairly low, so the snows almost buried it in winter. Then a four-story concrete wing was grafted on, much like the Titanic to the Duchess of Windsor’s yacht.
Fortunately, in 1924 there was a fire. Unfortunately, only half the hotel burned. No one was hurt, so don’t start getting weepy, and the staff nobly sacrificed their own belongings to rescue those of the guests. Dinner was served, not only on time that evening, but also with everyone properly dressed. More amazing, in less than a year, and despite the forty-below temperatures, a new wing was added. Sadly, it was even uglier than the first. And while there was nothing chateau-like about the resulting disaster, the name stuck.
Which quickly brought Hollywood, seeking its own level. The Chateau became the place to have an affair in Western Canada, not that much besides woodchucks gave it competition. But if the Thirties boomed with sparkly celebrities, the Forties were less kind—who had time to ski except the Nazis? The hotel slipped further in the suburban Fifties, skidded in the hallucinogenic Sixties, and by the Travolta Seventies, couldn’t even stay open winters. Finally, it was set to be razed for something more modest.
Then came the Cavalry—well, the Calgary Olympics. And the suddenly techno-rich Japanese, believing anything worth overdoing once was worth tricking out again, renovated the place, adding an even grosser third wing. And people rushed—go figure—to pay fifteen hundred dollars a night for a room. True, the views were still spectacular. But if you stood at the lake, and looked back, it was architectural death. And very close by was the twin Banff Springs Hotel.
Banff’s white guys worked on the railroad. In 1871, trying to unite Canada, the east coast folks promised the west coast people, rich in minerals, they’d connect the two halves. And the only thing stopping them was the Rockies. Hah. But the resourceful prime minister sent in crack surveyor “Hells-Bells” Rogers, and within years the route was mapped. As an accidental result, in 1883, stumbling drunk one shivery night, three railroad workers tumbled into a natural hot springs. Now you figure it: swinging sledges all day, or soaking in a jacuzzi primeval. When the head of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) saw the springs, he said, “These are worth a million dollars!” And Banff became home to the renowned and tubercular.
Though now you can’t even wade in the springs. They’re not polluted, just contaminated by another blight—politics. It seems the sulphur wells also harbor the last known home of a nearly microscopic snail. Anyone endangering the li’l fellas gets brutally fined: five grand, with no appeals. It happened recently to four young frolickers, as innocently drunk as those olden days railroad boys. Canadians have no heart.
Which leaves the question: without the springs, what brings anyone to Banff? It ain’t the food, believe me—that was plastic, served heaping, up and down the avenue. Gift shops? You can find ’em anywhere. Cleanliness? Choose Sweden—Canada without inhibitions. And the place is only pretty if, again, you look at the mountains. My crackpot theory: it’s the streets, all named for cuddly forest critters. Where else does Moose intersect Squirrel?
Abandoning Banff, we escaped south, finding blue skies, evergreens, and more lingering snow. We crossed, recrossed, then re-recrossed the Moyie River, which seemed to dog us like a snake. Our actual four-legged fellow traveler didn’t seem to care. She slept.
Near eight, we aimed for Yaht, just north of the American border. Our books listed two motels, though actually we discovered four—all closed. With darkness glowering, that didn’t leave a lot of yuks in Yaht. Then a helpful, if underprepared, motel owner—her rooms lacked permitable walls—recommended a charming place in Idaho. Which would have been fine if they’d taken pets.
“Not even cats and canaries,” that innkeeper smiled.
But she steered us toward a kind of motor lodge/casino—which would have taken dogs. Odds are, they would’ve bet on her teeth. But I’m squeamish about slot machines in johns. And Tom confessed he probably would’ve lost a hundred bucks at the tables.
The next place listed, again in the dog guide, sported a sign reading, No Animals Of Any Sort.
“They might not be talking about pets,” Tom quipped. But we pushed on.
The last motel had the warm and friendly feeling of a family named Bates. Bravely, we banged at the door. Soon, an old guy, distracted, in an AmVets cap, admitted they did take dogs. Then he fretted when I asked to inspect a room.
“I could do that,” he finally allowed.
It was okay—surprisingly—if somewhat homemade: Everything was grey. Nothing was level. Little matched. We paid in cash and asked for a place to eat.
“There’s a good spot in town,” he ventured, then couldn’t remember its name. And it’s not like he’d lived somewhere else most of his life. “It’s just this place in town,” he stammered, waving, directionless.
We followed his fingers and got lucky—though town was all of two blocks. Still, as we pulled into the lot, a Closed sign was turned in the restaurant window. But I hoped the people inside had suggestions.
“Heck, just come in,” the cook grinned—he also seemed to be the owner. “We were supposed to close, then these folks showed up.” He pointed a spatula across the room. “And it’s as easy cooking for four as two.”
Tom parked the truck. The restaurant was small, low-ceilinged, and trellised, but not especially comfortable—the lighting was too flat, the chairs unforgiving. But the waitress tried to make up for that, asking about our trip, gushing about her own travels.
She recommended the Veal Special and the Oregon Lighthouses. Though she warned against touring them at sunset. “It’s pretty and all—I’ll give you that. But that’s when the bats fly. I just ran.”
Since we’d already passed Oregon, we mainly nodded. And tipped high.
The other customers were a middle-aged woman and, possibly, her mom. They were both local and knew the waitress well—you could tell that from their chatter. When asked about dessert, they declined, giggling, saying, “No, we’re going to be bad.”
“What’s that mean?” I questioned Tom, soon after they left.
“They’re going to gamble.”
How did he know? I never would’ve guessed.