Nomad in North America: Amazing Alberta

“For seeing without feeling can obviously be uncaring; while feeling without seeing can be blind.” — Pico Iyer

It hits you out of left-field, usually when you make a sharp turn, and your vision is focused on something else. My eyes were transfixed on a hand-held map, and a busy piazza on the horizon. All I could see emerging from it was this strange octagonal structure, which I would learn later is the Baptistry of St. John. So I followed it, and at the junction, I unleashed a monstrous “wow” with another traveler next to me joining in the chorus. We smiled, and with our jaws barely recovered, we were mesmerized by this piece de resistance we had been chasing in this Florentine maze: the iconic Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore. We had achieved a moment of glory together, and then happily parted ways.

This happened to me 10 years ago. As if to celebrate that milestone, that utter amazement at something so profound that it bonded two strangers in a split-second, repeated itself in my recent trip to Alberta.

Downtown Calgary, Alberta, Canada

I was fortunate that upon learning of my planned adventures across Canada, my cousins invited me to stay with them in Calgary, which they have called home since 2003. This is but one of the many perks of being Filipino: there is one in almost every city in the world, and they spoil you like crazy.

The welcome dinner was amazing and it helped that Calgary’s local specialty is universally popular: beef. The Briggs’ Tomahawk was tender, succulent and huge, even for a party of 5. It paired well with the recommended malbec. The last time I had to attack a sizeable steak like that was at Boston’s Smith and Wolensky, which my cousins fondly recalled for me. They were my guests at my graduate school graduation and we celebrated in style.

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Fake fear of Briggs’ Tomahawk steak

Downtown Calgary is easy to navigate and looks gorgeous at night. The needle was lit up, and funky installations dot the city. It was drizzling during this pre-game trek around the city, so we did not stay out too long. Best to reserve the energy for the real adventure that awaits us the following day.

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Calgary at night

I have been on many long drives before, and I find North American roads conducive for them. They are a far cry from the potholed and severely congested expressways of Metro Manila, so I always find joy in road trips when traveling abroad. One of my favorites is the drive on the I-95 down to DC from Boston, a good 8 hours with just a few stops in between. The drive up to Vermont during the leaf-peeping season is extraordinary, with multi-color panoramas juxtaposing bland highways. But no language has yet been invented to describe for me the ride to Banff National Park from Calgary, and my cousins will attest to this lack of vocabulary when all I could repeatedly say was “wow” and nothing else.

The view of the Canadian Rockies on the ride to Banff is an attraction in itself.

Lake Louise felt like nature’s way of telling me “Hey, you have finally arrived! What took you so long?” It looked as it did in many Instagram humble brags, but naturally, much more alive. There are no glaciers in the Philippines, but the lake’s azure splendor was reminiscent of a hidden lagoon in Palawan. To see a familiar vista but with snow-capped rocks was surreal. I could not help but take repetitive shots of the same views just to make sure that what I was looking at is real.

Lake Louise
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Lake Louise

We then checked out Two Jack Lake and Lake Minnewanka, also at Banff National Park (Alberta has 600 lakes, so a trip to just Banff barely scratches the surface). I was thrilled to discover that scuba diving is offered in the summer, though I have not ventured into waters in more temperate climates. It also has been a while since I had gone diving, but these lakes formed by glaciers piqued my curiosity and is prompting me to get a refresher course stat.

Two Jack Lake
Parking at Lake Minnewanka

The Canadian Pacific Railway, which developed the Chateau Frontenac in Quebec, also paved the way for the building of Banff Springs Hotel and Chateau Lake Louise. After setting foot in these hotels, and observing them as a former hotelier myself, I have since admired the work of American architect Bruce Price. He accurately depicted the chateaus of Europe in these iconic hallmarks of luxury and style that continue to delight folks who can afford to shell out $400–600 for an overnight stay.

Banff Springs Hotel — nice life!

We were refused entry to Moraine Lake due to full capacity, but thanks to my cousins’ insistence and patience, we drove back to Banff early morning of the next day to visit the lake and its famed backdrop, the Valley of the Ten Peaks. No wonder they were persistent. Wherever you look, you get stunned and speechless by these incredible views unlike anything I have seen before. There were dense coniferous forests on the right, towering snow-capped peaks in the middle and a glacial blue lake I could stare at forever.

View of the Valley of the Ten Peaks from the beach

It was here when my jaw-dropping reaction with another stranger, as experienced in Italy, made a repeat performance.

Majestic: Valley of the Ten Peaks and Moraine Lake

We went up the rock pile for a better view of the lake as it appeared on the 1969 and 1979 issues of the Canadian twenty-dollar bill. By this time, I had already seen the peaks and the lake at a lower elevation, but it was an easy climb. When we hit the summit, a hiker right next to me gasped, and all together now, we said “wow.” She looked at me and said “Thank God I got to see it,” and I nodded fiercely.

I am not religious, but there was something very spiritual about our shared experience at that moment. We had accomplished something not many people have. We had witnessed one of the greatest natural wonders on Earth. We have come this far in our journey through life. I kept to myself my feelings of gratitude, but as with my similar experience in Florence, I knew then why I travel and why I live.

Quality time with the fam and the Canadian Rockies :)

Our day was off to a great start, with genuine introspection amidst stunning views while also getting some serious cardio in. We headed to Canmore for lunch and ordered a modest unhealthy fare: Kettle’s maple bacon-flavored potato chips, Montreal smoked meats, focaccia bread, and San Pellegrino lemon soda. I even took home bacon-flavored Ruffles for our M. Night Shyamalan marathon scheduled that evening. We don’t really do picnics at home because of the heat, so it was time to take advantage of the nippy weather and this rare breathtaking view of the Rockies.

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A success story in converting old spaces into hipster ones

I spent my last day in Calgary downtown and ate heartily. I still remember the pork burger and fries from Alley Burger, which my cousin and I enjoyed by the river. We also had a ton of artisanal ice cream, from Cow’s to Village Ice Cream, including this memorable affogato at the Calgary Public Library — a monumental architectural feat. Charbar was also good, though I was so engrossed with catching up with a friend of mine from grad school who is local that I couldn’t really focus on the epicurean side of things. Both Alley Burger and Charbar are located in an old mattress factory that was wisely converted into a hipster food park.

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Calgary Public Library

Traveling to Alberta redefined for me the art of meaningful travel. For some, it is through volunteer work in third world countries. For others, it is to immerse into a culture and language so different from one’s own. What I experienced at Moraine Lake — the majesty and that instant bond I had with a fellow traveler — was this intense desire to keep discovering. I want more of those unforgettable experiences that keep me struggling for words. I want to move while keeping my feet firmly on the ground, perhaps through a humbling hike to bear country…in the winter? I want to do all these things, while I am physically able, without trepidation and time limitations. And that is why my first vagabonding experience is pivotal at this stage in my life. Once I have sorted things out, and I do have a nearing deadline, this commitment to discovering more calls for another hike in Alberta, back in Banff for a longer stay and then maybe head north to Jasper National Park.

Written by

Former presidential speechwriter, still a musician; writes about urban gridlocks. Will work full time for the planet. Harvard Kennedy School ‘14 🇵🇭

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