Lessons From The Great West

At the end of November, I embarked on a 10-day trip to the Great West for a little time with family and a lot of time with a best friend who lives too far away for my liking. This was meant to be a vacation to allow me to decompress after several stressful and busy months at work. It definitely delivered that and so much more – it feels as though I was served up a new epiphany almost daily, so much so that even a month later, these lessons resonate with and infiltrate my psyche on a regular basis. The itinerary consisted of a flight to Calgary, a road trip to Banff, a short stint in the suburbs of Calgary, a flight to Los Angeles, and then several days spent in many corners of LA including Venice, Hollywood, Santa Monica, Burbank, Beverly Hills, Malibu, and probably many other locations I can’t even name – the city is enormous.

Now, 10 lessons for my 10 days:

1. Canada is spectacular. This isn’t the most groundbreaking of the lessons learned on my trip, and probably would be better referred to as a refresher since I’ve lived in this great country my whole life. But there is something about standing at the top of a mountain and breathing in that thin air – it is intoxicating. This was my first trip to Banff National Park and I am certain it won’t be my last. We drove into the park directly from the Calgary airport – quite the change in scenery over just a few short hours: from rows of houses tightly packed into flat valleys, to sweeping grasslands with the occasional coyote, to looming grey mountains approaching slowly yet simultaneously with increasing speed, until suddenly you are on a highway in the park that winds tightly between two enormously tall mountains capped with snow and littered with jagged deep green trees. Every view is breathtaking and that’s just on the ground – on our second day we took a gondola up Sulphur Mountain and being eye level with some of the peaks of these mountains was even more spectacular. Sure, it is damn cold here. And after spending the rest of my trip in sunny California where the sun shines down incessantly on a reliably balmy climate, it is easy to see why people escape this vast country with its seemingly endless winter. But then I remember the view from a balcony of our hotel, or the overwhelming sensation of being a tiny speck at the top of the world in our huge country, or how it felt to look down at the world with bright eyes, and I fall in love with Canada all over again.

bow-river

banff

2. Modern times are also pretty spectacular. At the top of Sulphur Mountain we peeked into the windows of the tiny stone shack – the exterior of which is covered in decades of graffiti, while the interior remains un-touched, with a tiny cot and even tinier chair for the brave (insane?) man who hiked up the mountain once a week to gather weather data in the early 1900’s. We read an informational sign explaining that this man, Sanson, would climb the mountain in an 8 or 9 hour hike, stay overnight and then hike back down in the morning. We took an 8 minute gondola ride to the peak of this mountain and groaned at the hundreds of stairs we had to climb to get to his shack, and this guy scaled a mountain. Modern times, when a quick trip in a tiny pod will transport you up a mountain, and you can instantly share the moment around the world with the tap of a finger. As with lesson #1, this isn’t necessarily a new lesson for me but it felt increasingly prevalent in my mind throughout my entire trip – particularly once I reunited with my best friend and we found ourselves in a three-way WhatsApp chat with our other best friend who happened to be travelling in France for work. The fact that we can talk in real time and instantly exchange photos to share exactly where we are and what we are doing is quite simply astounding.

3. History doesn’t have to be boring. (See lesson #2.) Learning about Sanson was surprisingly fascinating, as was the history of our hotel, which felt more like a medieval castle. Too often I think we forget to appreciate everything that has come before us and this trip served as a great reminder for me. Wandering around our castle, we stumbled upon a mini museum with old photos from the last hundred years showing us what life looked like in the hotel over the last century. It was hilarious and strange to see snapshots of couples dancing in the 1950’s – both the activity and the clothing looked outdated. This trip was bookended by history. It started with our castle hotel and ended at a beautiful little restaurant nestled in the mountains about an hour outside of Los Angeles, in a building that is over a hundred years old filled with vintage photographs and decor. Of course, in between these relics were modern buildings but really, those are boring. The stories behind an old building and the detail in the construction is palpable history, and about a thousand times better than the dry history textbooks of my education.

castle

The irony of "Go East" is not lost on me.

The irony of “Go East” in the vintage restaurant is not lost on me – I’d revise to Go West.

4. Ocean people are (sometimes) good people. In my family, we share a common perspective about “ocean people”. Those fortunate enough to live by the sea seem to have a different way about them; they move slower, suggesting that they’ve learned the secret to stopping and appreciating one’s surroundings. They’re more relaxed and generally seem happier. The salty air and rhythmic crashing of the ocean’s waves must instil some inner calm that we’re lacking inland. All of this I already knew – but things are never black and white. So I learned on my very first night in California as I sat eating dinner on a patio along the boardwalk of the Pacific and watched two desperate individuals grab an expensive camera off a table and sprint down a dark alley. What really sticks with me about this story (apart from the fact that the victims of the crime serendipitously happened to be from Montreal – just like me!) is that every single person sitting on that patio collectively felt an immense amount of empathy for the guys who lost their camera. Nobody shrugged and went back to their drinks – we all looked at each other with wide eyes and questioned what we could do to help. We all consoled the victims when they returned from their chase and commiserated that the true loss was the photos on the camera and not the equipment itself. And when we spoke with the victims it was clear that this outpouring of empathy and concern is what would stay with them – not the loss of the camera, not the twisted actions of the thieves, but instead the care and sympathy of strangers. To the guys who lost their camera: I hope you found another gorgeous sunset to make up for the photo you lost, and if not, perhaps this will suffice!

venice

5. NoNeToFigO. This one is huge, perhaps the most important realization of my fleeting twenties. I’m letting the world in on a secret here. Forget about YOLO. Forget about FOMO. It’s all about NoNeToFigO: No Need To Figure It Out. Six small words, but somehow they feel hugely important. The overarching concept of NoNeToFigO is that we should avoid spending time worrying about what has happened and what will happen, because the moment we live in now is the only one that matters. My friend and I stumbled upon and made up this mantra over the course of several conversations about the meaning of life and what we’re both doing with our own lives. And what we agreed to is that there’s no need to figure out the meaning of life, because it is impossible to really know and there is no way to come to a conclusion that works universally for every single person of the billions on this planet. There is nothing to gain from dwelling on and worrying about those things that we need to “figure out”, because ultimately, things tend to work themselves out anyway. The future isn’t real because it is a period of time that has yet to happen so it is pointless to waste time in our present worrying about what will happen, especially when we can spend our time in the present enjoying what is directly in front of us. The same goes for our past. What’s happened has happened – we can learn from it but should never find ourselves preoccupied by it because what’s behind us is no longer real. Memory is a strange, strange phenomenon and we can easily fool ourselves into remembering things differently, only to find that dwelling on our history prevents us from living in the very real present. No need to figure it out – just live.

6. Steps and circles are better than decisions and straight paths. This lesson aligns really closely with the NoNeToFigO mantra and jumps deeper into the idea of letting it be and actively not figuring things out. Our whole lives we are made to believe that we must make huge life decisions – study X at school, find a career in X field, marry person X, have X number of children. But really, it isn’t possible for everyone to fit into that exact mould. And if we force ourselves to make these sweeping decisions we might find ourselves going down an uneasy path that is nowhere near where we want to be. Conversely, taking small steps on a circular platform that is always moving in an upward trajectory feels like a better way of managing the unmanageable chaos that is life. (This blog is a perfect example of a step instead of a decision. I know I don’t want the job I have for the rest of my life, but I am not ready to decide on a different career path – in fact, I’m not sure I ever will be. So instead I took the step of starting something new outside of work and each time I write a new post I feel things becoming clearer in some obscure and mysterious way.)

7. Peace, Love, Unity, Respect. Also known as PLUR – this is apparently a huge part of rave culture. You read that right – rave culture. Those who follow this blog and especially those that know me would probably be surprised to hear that I attended a rave in California – or, a “good party with dancing” as one of the attendees called it when my friend and I excitedly told her that it was our first rave. We ended up at this rave / party by chance on a quiet Wednesday night and it turned into one of the greatest evenings of my life. And let me be clear that no illegal drugs were consumed at this rave. There were other mood-enhancing elements at play: Red Bull, yes. The natural high of dancing with my best friend, yes. Over-the-top thrill at being given my very own hand-made flower crown, double yes. (See below photograph of the gorgeous table where all my dreams came true.) In any case, the lesson learned from this night is that rave life is not at all what I thought it would be, and that PLUR life is a beautiful concept. I’m told that the attitude at a rave is all about PLUR – Peace. Love. Unity. Respect. Now imagine if we could translate this worldview into the real world and our everyday interactions. It would be incredible and it is a concept I try to carry with me as much as possible, because the world needs a little more PLUR, don’t you think?

flower-crown

8. The evolution of a lifelong friendship is beautiful. I have the misfortune of maintaining two long-distance friendships in my life. These two friends are intelligent, gorgeous, exceptionally talented women – so of course both have relocated to fabulous cities and thrive as they live their dreams. Begrudging them for leaving is impossible; although I miss them and wish they were here for normal girlfriend activities (like brunch on the weekend, or shopping, or catching up after work) I recognize that they are my free birds living life to the fullest, so it fills me with melancholy joy to miss them and love them all at once. During my visit with one of these two ladies, it struck me that the growth of our friendship, even at a distance, has been remarkable. We’ve had ups and downs like any relationship does, but after each block of time spent together, our bond grows stronger and we learn more – about each other, from each other, and sometimes from others around us. The other of these two best friends was practically with us the whole time through the magic of technology (see lesson #2) and I feel in the last few months that we have all grown closer despite our physical distance. I should also add that many of the lessons contained in this post are the direct result of endless discussions and discovery with my friend on this wonderful trip. She is wise beyond her years and I owe so much of my 2014 enlightenment to her.

9. Facial = Painful! A less critical lesson from my trip, but something I will take with me for the rest of my days – facials are painful. I’d never had one before and can safely say that I will never have one again.

10. Never stop trying new things. (See lesson #9.) Sure, the facial hurt and the lady accosting my face made me feel like I have spent my entire life deliberately not washing my face (not true!) but if I hadn’t tried to get a facial at least once in my life, then I would never know that it just isn’t for me. It felt like a lot of my trip was about trying new things – my first gin and tonic, my first whiskey and ginger, my first facial, my first full spa day, my first experience with PLUR life, my first American Thanksgiving, with strangers… and the list goes on. Someone asked me on my trip if I like to try new things, and my response was: “Not really, unless I’m with this girl!” pointing enthusiastically at my bestie. We all laughed, but in retrospect I’ve learned how important it is to never stop trying new things and that I shouldn’t limit myself to doing this only when I’m with one or two specific people. I do this happily and blindly with my best friends to go along with whatever fun plans they’ve made when we get together, but in my own day-to-day life I tend to err on the side of the boring and monotonous. So many of my lessons from the Great West stemmed from new experiences and if I want to continue my journey up the circular platform then I must (and will!) try new things so I can keep learning.

And of course I categorically include travelling as part of trying new things. Travelling and seeing = learning and growing.

pacific

rockies

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6 comments

  1. miss lilly munster

    Lovely writing as always! Resonated with 5, 6, and 10 particularly. Given that I’m trying to mentally plan the next eight weeks of my life (yet another teaching stage, which is impossible to plan without knowing my students/where they are in the curriculum!) number 5 is exactly what I needed to hear today. Happy new year, and cheers to us both remembering to add a little number 10 in our lives!

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