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Some Lessons from Alberta
About Freaky Weather and Traveling Alone

I first visited the Rocky Mountain parks of Alberta in August 1983. The scenery lived up to its reputation, and the weather was warm and sunny. The crowds, traffic, and expensive accommodations were not so nice. Nor was my travel companion, a friend who was, to put it charitably, “difficult.” I was also disappointed with the pictures I took on that trip. (That disappointment mainly came from the deplorable original set of “Prestige Prints” from the Berkey Photo lab, a once-prominent wholesale photofinisher that disappeared many mergers ago. But I didn’t fully recognize that as the problem until I scanned some of the negatives in 2001.)

In 1992 I decided to revisit the Canadian Rockies. The travel books in the public library all agreed that late May would be the ideal time to enjoy the scenery at its best, and to take some spectacular new pictures. Spring would be in full flower, the weather would be mild and pleasant, and the summer tourist throng would be delightfully absent. I made my reservations for a two-week solo trip auspiciously beginning on Liza Doolittle Day, and bought an appropriate quantity of Fujichrome RD100 slide film.

It didn’t turn out according to the books. As the plane descended into Calgary, the pilot announced the weather: One degree and snow! I was sitting next to two teenage girls from Edmonton. When they saw the horrified look on my face they giggled, and then reminded me that it’s one degree Celsius. Gee, thanks. Having lived my entire life in Southern California, I had no experience with snow. And now I had to drive in it for the first time, on a freeway at 110 km/h.

My rental car accumulated 18 centimeters of snow that night. I know that because the owner of the motel measured the snowbank on the car’s roof before helping me remove it. He said that was more snow than they got in January and February. Thus began a smorgasbord of what everyone apologetically assured me was unusual weather. Days of continuous heavy rain were interspersed with gray slushy snow. Fog persistently shrouded the mountains. The glacial lakes that weren’t filled with muddy slush and dead fallen trees were covered with ice. And against all of this was a leaden backdrop of elephant-gray overcast. I got the impression that I had arrived while the splendid scenery was still under construction, before the scaffolding of clouds, fog, and snow was ready to come off for the summer.

I can’t call the trip a disaster. I didn’t get sick or injured, and I didn’t crash the car. But I wasn’t having a very good time. It did not help that the area is renowned for world-class scenery rather than for any indoor activities a solo traveler might enjoy. I even called the airline about the possibility of going home early. When they told me it would cost $600— $1,012 in today’s (2014) dollars— I decided to stick to my itinerary. I caught glimpses of the scenery hiding behind the fog and raindrops, talked to some friendly Canadians, ate some nice meals in restaurants by myself, went to some movies, slept late, and read some books.

One of those books was a collection of essays by Stephen Jay Gould, the Harvard evolutionary biologist and paleontologist. It described bizarre fossils from the Cambrian era, half a billion years ago, found in the Burgess Shale formation in the Rockies of British Columbia. Since that was not far from Lake Louise, and the route to get there went through spectacularly scenic Yoho National Park, I decided to visit the Burgess Shale. It was yet another cold, dreary, rainy day. Whatever scenic wonders Yoho may have had were, of course, fully concealed behind gray clouds, fog, and mist. And there was nothing to see at the Burgess Shale site itself, other than a sign explaining its significance. Despite the disappointment, this spur-of-the-moment “pilgrimage” remains a memorable experience.

As I write this 22 years later, my memories of the trip are clouded with frustration about the weather. But the slides I brought back clearly indicate that the Alberta Meteorology Variety Show offered me more moments of nice light than I remember. They also show that I sometimes responded creatively to the challenge of adverse conditions.

One picture, Patricia Lake, is typical of what I had to deal with. I was staying in a cabin on the lake, near Jasper. It was raining when I went to bed, and the forecast for the next day was continued rain. Sunshine streaming through the window woke me up early. I threw on some clothes, grabbed the camera and tripod, and walked a few steps toward the lake, which I had previously only seen covered in dreary fog. There I found a tranquil composition with fine morning light. When I said “moments of nice light,” I meant that literally. Ten minutes after I took the picture, the sky had turned completely gray. After half an hour it was raining, just as predicted.

Let me contrast that trip with one I took to Québec in early September 1996. Once more the Canadian weather ignored the books. It was rainy, overcast, and unseasonably cold the whole time, except for one nice day in Québec City. Could I perhaps have inadvertently offended some Spirit of the Great White North?

This time I was traveling with a good friend who then lived in St. Louis. We flew separately to Montréal. When I met him there, he greeted me with “I’m getting a cold.” By the next day he was feeling miserable. As soon as he started to get better, I started to get sick. The whole trip was soggy, cold, and sickly for both of us. But looking back on it, I had a good time and pleasant memories. Going with a friend— one who isn’t “difficult,” that is— made all the difference, even with a viral stowaway. Had I been alone, I probably would have been miserable. I have only seven pictures of very photogenic Québec City on my Web page because, during the whole eight-day trip, there was only one day that wasn’t rainy or heavily overcast.

Lessons:

  1. Respect Murphy, since his Law governs the Universe. No matter how much research you might do about when to go somewhere, the inherent unpredictability of Nature means it sometimes doesn’t behave according to statistical averages.

  2. Check the weather for a few days before leaving on an “outdoor” trip, particularly if you’re going alone and/or in the off-season. (The Internet makes that easy today, but it wasn’t available to me in 1992.) If it’s anomalous, think about canceling. By “anomalous” I mean truly unusual, such as once-in-a-century flooding or persistent snowfall in June when it’s normally all gone by April. Given the notorious imprecision of meteorology, a mere forecast of rain or overcast is not a reason to cancel.

    If you do choose to cancel, you’ll most likely forfeit a lot of money if you’re flying. Airline executives apparently believe that transferring all possible risks to passengers is the only route to profitability. They have tightened restrictions on affordable leisure fare tickets, imposing punitive fees on itinerary changes and making the tickets otherwise non-refundable. (Though travel insurance can often be a good thing to have, it doesn’t cover bad weather unless it’s a true disaster like a hurricane that makes travel impossible. A refundable full-fare ticket is one way to insure against lesser problems, but the premium on that “insurance policy” is probably much too expensive.)

    Still, forfeiting the ticket might be better than spending even more money on car rental and lodging for a disappointing (or worse) trip. You might decide to go anyway, since it’s always possible that the weather will change. Or you could adjust your itinerary to spend time in a nearby city with indoor attractions. At least you won’t panic when the pilot announces that it’s snowing.

  3. If it’s at all feasible, travel with a compatible friend, relative, spouse, or “significant other.” (No, a laptop computer or iPad does not qualify.) Solo travel can be interesting, rewarding, and even fulfilling. But the trips on which I look back most fondly are not the ones I’ve taken alone. Sharing driving and meals, or merely having someone to talk to, can mitigate the inevitable hassles of travel, and alleviate the tedium of a long drive, congested traffic, or the wait for sunshine between storm fronts.

    Of course, it is better to travel alone than with someone “difficult.” If no compatible companion is available, it’s usually better to travel alone to somewhere interesting than to stay home alone. (But don’t overlook the travel possibilities in or near your home town.) And some people genuinely prefer to go alone, even when a companion is available. They revel in the exhilarating feelings of liberation and empowerment, and often find that going alone helps them meet all sorts of new and interesting people. (Although it’s invariably women who mention those things in explaining their preference for going solo, there’s really no reason they can’t apply to men as well.)

  4. If you do travel alone, especially in the off-season, expect and plan for at least some “down time” due to bad weather or fatigue. If you’re gregarious, you might seek out hostels, bars, or other places where other travelers or local folks congregate. If you’re not gregarious, bring plenty of those books you’ve been wanting to read. Or practice being gregarious. With the proper attitude, the “down time” can prove valuable, even if it’s only for the a respite from the routine at home.

  5. Possibly the worst part of traveling alone is eating in restaurants. Travel writers seem to believe this only bothers women, but I think men are just afraid of admitting to it. I doubt anyone is truly comfortable. The best way I’ve found to reduce the discomfort is to Arrive at Five. Get to your chosen restaurant at 5 p.m. (or whenever they first open the doors— it will be much later in France, for example). The place won’t be crowded, which means they’ll be more interested in serving you and you won’t have an uncomfortable wait.

    Alternatively, stop at a supermarket for a picnic dinner and eat lunch “out.” That’s usually cheaper, and for some reason I find eating lunch in a restaurant alone much less uncomfortable than dinner. If you’re a photographer, mid-day (with its “useless” light) is the appropriate time to relax and enjoy a meal.

    Even better is to stay in a hotel or motel with a kitchenette (or at least a refrigerator). This gives you the option of preparing some of your own meals, or at least having a picnic in your room if you’re tired. Besides reducing the restaurant problem, you’ll save money and calories, especially if you’re in an area not noted for fine dining. If you’re a photographer, you can fully enjoy the late-afternoon “golden hours” without the prospect of a long wait in a crowded restaurant when you’re done. Wait for the inevitable overcast, foggy day to treat yourself to a 5 p.m. solo dinner.

  6. If you are caught in unremitting exceptional bad weather, or if any other genuinely significant problem prevents you from enjoying your trip, think about cutting your losses and going home. If you fly, airline fare structures make this a very difficult decision. You might have to throw away the return portion of your discounted nonrefundable round-trip ticket, and buy a new one-way ticket at a stratospheric fare intended for business travelers with deep corporate pockets. If you’re in the United States, the price of that one-way ticket might include an extra intrusive “secondary screening” from the TSA. But if you are truly miserable, lonely, soggy, or whatever, and you can see absolutely no way to salvage your trip, that $1,012 (or more) ticket home may be money well spent, even if you have to pay it off at a 25% credit card interest rate.

    But before you take such a drastic step, stop. Make sure you’ve considered all your options. In hindsight, much of the difficulty I had in Alberta was due to frustrated expectations. Simply adjusting those expectations to fit the situation may lead to new ideas for an enjoyable trip, even if it’s entirely different from the one you had planned. Having a list of options in front of you can itself make things better. You might be very pleasantly surprised at what you come up with.


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