I’m notoriously unorganized.
Objects in space confound me. I don’t track dates or times. My sense of direction is relentlessly wrong.
My husband, John, is better but is so absent-minded that he has, on at least two occasions, worn his shirt inside-out all day. When it comes to vacations, we tend to have big ideas and tons of enthusiasm but little planning skill. Last August, we tried to reform.
Our anniversary was coming up and we were determined to make this a smooth trip. No surprises. We checked weather forecasts, currency rates and airfares. Of the cities on our wish list — Santiago, Chile; Gdansk, Poland; Banff, Alberta — we settled on the last. We’d gone to Montana’s Glacier National Park on our honeymoon, so it seemed fitting. Also, several people had told us in rapturous, better-than-sex voices, “You will love Banff. It’s the most beautiful place in the world.”
John reserved our airline tickets while I worked on hotels. A day in Calgary, two days in Banff, two in Jasper. An hour later, our perfect Alberta vacation was booked.
Yet, we descended into Calgary through thick, black clouds. The weather had changed in the week that had lapsed: Instead of warmth and sun, the forecast was for a cold, constant rain. We were disappointed but bought a bottle of wine and spent that evening inside, plotting our route. I gave John addresses for the places I’d reserved.
A few minutes later, he said, “You know this B&B in Jasper?”
I nodded proudly. I’d snagged a very good deal.
“It’s two hours past Jasper, in British Columbia.” Then he said gently, “That’s a whole different province, by the way.”
Our reservations said “moderate cancellation policy.” But in the end, it didn’t matter. Every hotel in Jasper was sold out. We’d have to make the drive to B.C.
The next morning, the sky was dark and the wind bitter. But we decided to make the most of the day. After putting on nearly all the clothes we’d brought, we set off on foot and ran smack into Calgary’s Gay Pride parade, where the Royal Canadian Mounted Police were waving rainbow flags and someone in a gorilla suit was painting a portrait of Harvey Milk.
This was the sort of happy accident that we were used to. We walked back through the rain, stopping first in a park to watch groups of tattooed kids dance, then for dinner at a tiny Japanese noodle shop. The day turned out well, and we were headed to the most beautiful place in the world.
But instead of the dignified village we’d been envisioning, Banff rose in our windscreen the next morning like some upscale version of Wisconsin Dells. The streets teemed with people wearing L.L. Bean and clutching huge shopping bags. There were fudge shops, T-shirt huts, ice cream parlors and an ersatz alpine cosmetics store. A mall, ornamented in neon, glittered on one corner. We went to a coffee shop; it was humid and filthy, every sticky table crowded-around.
So we stood, drinking our watery $6 lattes. A young woman at a nearby table picked up a purse that cost more than our car and screamed, “Are you ready? It’s so boring here!” then threw a pristine guidebook down as she stood. We pounced on her table and I slipped the book in my bag.
As we left the coffee shop, we saw the Canadian Rockies through mist in the distance — like a Thomas Kinkade painting framing the tiny, raucous town. I thumbed through the guidebook. “Wow,” I told John. “They’re taking people on guided tours of disappearing glaciers. It says right here this is an opportunity to ‘stand on actual thinning ice.’ ”
He sighed. “Thus warming it up ever faster, and probably breaking off chunks to take home. Remind me, who told us they liked this place?”
We stuck out the two days, because our careful (and correct!) reservations were nonrefundable. The hotel was crammed and noisy. Our $200 room had stained walls, leaking plumbing and a broken TV. We did manage to find some good hiking trails and a pricey little vegetarian restaurant, nearly empty, where the wait staff was soothing, trippy and stoned.
Leaving Banff with relief, we drove to Jasper and found a nearly identical scene. Jasper National Park was gorgeous but was choked with busloads of tourists wielding iPads like cameras. Once we came across a band of them standing in front a “Do Not Feed the Wildlife” sign, pitching chunks of fudge at a chipmunk so obese it looked like a cartoon.
Late that afternoon, we headed toward Valemount, B.C., the location of the B&B I’d accidentally booked. After we had driven an hour, the mountains rose higher around us, quiet and unpeopled. There were no guided glacier tours here. Streams rushed and wildlife roamed at the side of the road; once we pulled over to watch an indifferent caribou graze on actual grass.
Our rooms turned out to be the top floor of a house in a ragged and real town, tucked into the foot of Mount Robson. We had a firm bed plus a sitting area, small kitchen with pots and clean and worn linens all around.
“I’m sorry we’re not closer to all the action in Jasper,” said the innkeeper as she opened the door to a small porch that verged into a mountain shelf. “Sometimes people are disappointed.”
“We’re happy to be here,” John said. Then he whispered to me, “This may be the best mistake you ever made.”
Ann Bauer is a Minneapolis-based writer. Her most recent novel is “Forgiveness 4 You.”