Snapshots from a North American road trip, end of the summer of 2010:

Conventioneers in a Seattle hotel elevator. Large women, large hair, lots of perfume. Beauty products? Excited talk about plenary sessions and breakouts. Later, the hollow clack of three-ring binders in the hotel lounge, brightly colored cocktails with fruit swizzles.

The morning newspaper nearby contemplates continuing joblessness. A lull, then someone quotes the philosopher of the times, Tony Robbins, recently legitimized from infomercial to network star. There is a brief moment of optimism amid the quiet despair.

Amtrak train from Seattle to Vancouver. Young couple boards and immediately plugs in, tunes out. Laptop, smart phone. They do not make eye contact with anyone. Like many of their generation, they do not engage with anyone older than themselves in case a stranger might have something interesting to say. For four hours, they consume, and are consumed by, their technology. If they look out the window once, I do not catch it. They miss the snow-capped mountains in the distance, miss the sea lions sunning on rocks, miss the fishing trawlers coming back with the day's catch. They don't hear the rhythmic chuck, chuck, chuck of the train rocking the tracks, or the conductor making small talk. They do not hear the young girl a few rows behind them who, when it was announced we were leaving the United States and entering Canada, asks loudly: "Mommy, why are we leaving Earth?"

They make me feel sad. I doubt they will grow old together.

Canada is pleasantly different, yet comfortably the same. There is worry over whether the housing bubble in Vancouver will pop. A debate over registration of "long guns," and fevered talk about taxes. Canadians of all political stripes appear just as adept at obfuscation as American politicians. They have just agreed on a new compromised, combined federal and local sales tax and they have named it, comically, the HST, or "Harmonized Sales Tax," proving that euphemistic excess has no geographic boundaries. It is so harmonized, more than 80 percent of British Columbians opposed it. So, they laugh, then head across the border to the United States to buy school clothes.

In need of preemptive medicine, we consult the truth-keeper of Vancouver, the coffee barrista. She suggests the corner clinic, and we are forced to face the evil, much-castigated Canadian health system. We are third in line, and see the doctor within 15 minutes. A doctor does a quick history, makes an assessment. A call back to a U.S. doctor elicits a suggestion to avoid rich seafood. Canadian doctor looks insulted. You cannot come to Vancouver and NOT eat seafood, he says. There is a record run of sockeye salmon. You must try it.

For $110 we get good medical and culinary advice.

Later, on the evening news, a man tells how he made an appointment for an MRI and couldn't get in for almost a year. Instead, he paid $800 himself, got the MRI and discovered a brain injury that might have killed him. Two days, two realities.

Canadians are hard workers, but a television host joked that British Columbians are different, known to knock off on Fridays to go fishing or kayaking. I notice one of the top-selling books at a Vancouver bookstore is called "The Four-Hour Workweek."

Canadians we met were honest and forthright, but even their revered Mounties have scandals that make our Metro Gang Strike Force look like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Even Dudley Do-Right does wrong sometimes.

Sunrise rides my bumper toward Desolation Sound, past Cougar Smith Road and across Blubber Bay. On a charter boat on the sound, our captain pulls up a trap crawling with spot prawns and rips their heads off for our dining pleasure. Few Americans visited last year. This year was better, but not much. No money. Not in the United States, not in Canada. So, like everyone we met, he was willing to bargain, and he was getting by.

In October he will dock the boat, pack his guitar and go to Mexico for four months. A wise man once told him that if you do what you love, you will never work a day in your life. He is my Tony Robbins.

At a wilderness resort, where seals play beneath our deck, the owner warns that hikers here may encounter bears and cougars. He says in a strong German accent that if a cougar approaches, "You must attack zem and zurprise zem. But if zey vant to get you, zey vill."

I'm not sure if it's a good strategy on cougars, but I think it's a good strategy for life: Attack it vigorously and forcefully, surprise it before it surprises you, but if it wants to get you, it will.

Another day on the road, another lesson. And a reminder that it's good to leave Earth every once in a while.

jtevlin@startribune.com • 612-673-1702