Given the severity of my cancer, it's unlikely I'll be traveling all that far from now on, no matter how much longer or shorter I live. I have been fortunate enough, however, to have visited a few of the world's spectacular and famous places. Since I live in beautiful and spectacular British Columbia, some of them are quite close by.
This is the first of a series of blog posts about some of the places I've been that I recommend—some natural, some artificial, in rough order from nearest to farthest from my house—see part 2 and part 3. Many are popular tourist attractions and are quite easy to reach for nearly anyone with just a bit of money and time. That's fine by me. They deserve the recognition:
- The Stawamus Chief, a ridiculous sheer cliff face just south of Squamish, is a short drive from Vancouver on the Sea-to-Sky Highway. It's our local El Capitan, and I've never even thought of climbing it, but my wife has hiked up the back side with school groups a few times, and once I rode by its rear base at the start of an adventurous mountain biking trip. The Chief itself is over 700 m (2300 ft) high, a grey granite slab rising almost straight out of the ocean. Even if all you do is stand near the bottom and watch cliff climbers through binoculars, it's worth the trip.
- The world's longest and highest cable-car gondola isn't in the Alps, but another hour or so north of the Chief, above the ski resort in Whistler. It's the new Peak2Peak Gondola. In the middle of the span between Whistler and Blackcomb mountains, as you cross above Fitzsimmons Creek, you are more than 430 m (1400 ft) above ground. The 10-minute ride is smooth and safe, but no matter your feeling about heights (I love them), somehow the trip still seems more appropriate for a helicopter or a small plane.
- People from Vancouver think we know old-growth temperate rainforests. We have Stanley Park and the North Shore mountains, and dozens more parks and watersheds full of immense trees dripping with moss, right within our metropolitan area. But you need to take a ferry to Nanaimo, drive north to Parksville, and then go inland so you can reach Cathedral Grove. The highway to Port Alberni slices right through it, so like the Chief and the Peak 2 Peak, it's easy to reach. But unlike most of B.C.'s coastal old growth, it's never been cut down for lumber, and is a prime example of a rich rainforest valley bottom. There are firs and cedars and spruces hundreds of years old, larger and taller than anything you'll see without an arduous trip to distant B.C. wilderness, or to California's Sequoia and Redwood preserves. Personally, I think B.C.'s trees are prettier, especially in the snow.
- Some claim that the world's largest tide pool is on an island at the tip of the Broken Group in Barkley Sound, off the West Coast of Vancouver Island in Pacific Rim National Park. I've seen it, and I don't know if it really is the largest, but regardless, it didn't blow me away. That's because most of it is pretty barren of life, not chock-full of it like so many tide pools in this area. I don't even know exactly what mini-island it's supposed to be on—maybe Wouwer or Howell—but if you find it (you require a boat) and venture to its exposed southwest coast, then instead of looking down, look up to the horizon. Massive basalt sea stacks offshore look like railway cars crushed into the ocean. Waves that have crossed the Pacific explode into them, and you can feel the collisions in your chest, even from far away. And then think about where you're looking: directly south, beyond those sea stacks, there is nothing but Pacific Ocean (no people, no islands) until you reach Antarctica, 9000 miles away. My band wrote a song about it once, in which I called that spot the most beautiful place I'd ever seen.
- It's not easy to watch big planes get built. Military contractors are expectedly secretive, and if you want to visit the Airbus factory in Toulouse, France, you need to confirm in writing at least 45 days in advance, with the waiting list still months long. Plus, you have to find your way to Toulouse. Much easier is a trip to Everett, just north of Seattle, Washington. If it's not the busy summer season, as it wasn't when we went in May last year, you can walk right up to a ticket counter at the Future of Flight museum, and be inside the Boeing Everett Assembly Building in half an hour. You're prohibited from taking photos, or even bringing anything resembling a camera with you, but then you have more attention to turn to the activities within the most voluminous building in the world. The new Boeing 787, the long-haul 777, the transatlantic champion 767, and perhaps the world's greatest aircraft, the Boeing 747, all come together inside this single structure. It is a marvelous testament to what people can do—and it's absolutely goddamn huge to boot.
- The Cascade Volcanoes are fearsome and beautiful, forming a chain of smoking peaks from B.C. to northern California. My favourite of them, however, is extinct: Crater Lake in southern Oregon, formed from the carcass of Mount Mazama, which erupted so violently a few thousand years ago that it collapsed on itself, leaving a basin to be filled with rain and meltwater (no streams run in or out). At its deepest it reaches nearly 600 m (2000 ft), making it the ninth deepest lake in the world, and by far the clearest. The blue colour of the water is unlike any you'll see anywhere else. The rimside lodge is spectacular. The views from anywhere around the lake are astonishing. And a trip on a tour boat across the lake or onto Wizard Island is remarkable. Because of heavy snowfall, the season is short, but try to make a visit happen.
- Greater Los Angeles has Disneyland, Knott's Berry Farm, and Magic Mountain. It has Beverly Hills and the Hollywood sign, as well as the La Brea Tar Pits. It has an unbelievable tangle of freeways, and miles and miles of famous surfing beaches. I do not know if it surpasses Rio de Janeiro for plastic surgeries per capita, but I do know what L.A. has that nothing else does: the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), near Pasadena. Open houses happen only once a year, but I was able to take a private tour with my dad (through his connections in the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada) almost 30 years ago, around the time JPL was processing data from the Voyager 2 probe as it passed Saturn. JPL is an unassuming place, nothing spectacular to look at. It's an academic campus in the foothills, but it's where people have revealed some of the first close-up images from our solar system. When you hear the names of interstellar probes like Mariner, Pioneer, Viking, Voyager, Galileo, Cassini-Huygens, and the Mars rovers, JPL is where they came from, and where they've been piloted and run. Plus the people who work there get to say, "Yes, this is rocket science!"
Next time, a wet windy lookout, the Grand Canyon (of course), and a not-especially-tall building.