Something to declare

Taking it on ... the Icefields Parkway, Canada.
Taking it on ... the Icefields Parkway, Canada. Photo: Alamy

"Oh, it’ll be slippery," the lady at the rental shop said with typical Canadian understatement.

There's something frighteningly familiar about all this. We've just hit the ice and it's worse than I imagined. I was picturing a couple of patches of the hard stuff, maybe a few unmarked sections. But what's crunching under my tyres right now is one long, giant sheet of heavily compacted snow.

Officially, the road condition is "poor", which is like saying Bill Gates is "well off". "Poor" back in Australia means a few potholes and popularity with P-platers. "Poor" in Canada means treacherous ice that completely covers the road. I'm panicking a little inside, mostly because I really, really don't want to wreck the rental car I'm in. That and I've never driven on ice before, so I have no idea if I'm going to turn the wheel and nothing's going to happen, whether we'll go careening off the side and into the famous icefields of Alberta, or smoothly carve an arc around the corner.

The drive is from Jasper to Banff along the Icefields Parkway and it appears that today, in the dead of winter, my cousin Bobby and I are the only people mad enough to be taking it on.

It'd been touch-and-go whether this would even happen. For the last few days in Jasper we'd been checking the reports, making sure the road was actually open. We were only a large dump of snow away from being forced to take a longer, less scenic route south.

"Oh, it'll be slippery," the lady at the rental shop had said with typical Canadian understatement. "The best you can hope for is the road condition will be 'poor'. Otherwise it'll just be closed, eh?"

So we'd watched the snow and road reports, hoping to see big dumps up on Marmot Basin, the local ski field, but none on the Parkway - a combination that is almost impossible. Come the big day we'd headed down to the local Tim Hortons coffee shop and slugged some average filter coffee while deciding how to tackle it.

"You drive first," Bobby said, probably deferring to the fact the rental car was in my name. "Then we'll swap halfway."

Great. So that's why I'm now in the left-hand seat as the tyres crunch over the ice and my grip on the steering wheel tightens from "wary" to "panicked".

We're actually lucky - it's a beautiful, clear day. There might be ice on the road but there's nothing falling from the sky. Our sunroof is a canvas of flawless blue. We've got views to the soaring Rockies all around us.

Bobby couldn't be more relaxed. He's done this stuff before. He used to live in Val d'Isere in France - it was his job as chalet worker to pick clients up from the airport and drive them up the mountain, so he would probably find this as nerve-racking as collecting milk from the corner store.

That's why he's flicking through the radio stations now, trying to find something to pump up to a suitably high volume. It sounds as though we're going with the hip-hop station - he's got it cranked to 11, raising the roof with his palms stretched high.

"Yeah, boy!" Bobby yells in his best mock-gangsta, giving my shoulder a nudge while 50 Cent talks about his hoes.

Meanwhile, I'm staring at this crazy road in a mild panic.

What if I tweak the wheel a bit too hard? What if I stab the brakes and the wheels lock up and we go into some sort of power slide and slam into one of those achingly beautiful cliffs? What if we plough into one of the cross-country skiers silently plying their trade by the side of the road?

"Um, mate," I say, giving Bobby a look. "Can you turn that down a bit? I'm trying to concentrate here."

And that's when it hits me.

That's when I realise what's so familiar about all this.

I've been here before. I've done this drive before, although it was from the back seat.

My parents took me to Canada when I was about seven years old, and I have vague memories of a treacherous car journey we once set out on. Right here. It's not the journey I remember most, however, but my dad's reaction.

My brother and I had been doing our usual thing in the back seat, wrestling or punching each other or arguing or something like that, while mum and dad sat in the front seat listening to their new Chris de Burgh cassette and trying to negotiate the icy road.

At one point my dad had spun around in his seat to face us.

"Boys! Can you keep it down a bit? I'm trying to concentrate here."

Now, 25 years later, I'm not sure what's more frightening: the icy, slippery road ahead of me, or the fact that I've become my dad.

bengroundwater@gmail.com
smh.com.au/thebackpacker

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