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  • Writer's pictureHu Eliot Young

Reminiscences of the cycling trip from Montana to Jasper in late June, 2016

On the first day of the seven day cycle, we laboured up Logan's Pass (affectionately known as the 'going to the sun' road, due to its elevation and the fact it was constructed in the 1920s out of stone from the mountains it hugs). The climb from West Glacier includes a 40 km ascent with many switchbacks along the mountain pass. As the grade escalates, one is confronted with waterfalls at regular intervals on the left with pools of water cascading across the road and a 100 foot drop off on the right. Spectacular scenery; a veritable Valhalla. With grades often reaching off the chart slopes of 12%, it is many a cyclist's dream bucket list challenge.

At the summit, we were confronted with gale like gusts which were clocked at a hundred kilometres an hour. As the road only opened that very day, after the winter hibernation, you can imagine the cold that penetrated one's body. My hands were seemingly frozen to the handlebars. But down the road we would plummet, hairpin turns leaving one open to a crosswind which took a big, powerful man like my friend, George Gagnon, all magnificent 20 stone of him, sideways a foot and a half. A treacherous descent for sure, but one we will never forget.

At the end, near the east entry to the National Park, at St. Mary Lodge and Resort, we rewarded ourselves with elk sausage gnocchi, panfried trout or bison stroganoff. Oh yes and the delectable Huckleberry crumble.

On the second day of the cycle, we looked around and saw it was good. The road would take us by Chief mountain, past Waterton, the sister national park in Canada and onward, to Pincher Creek.  We were blessed to have a magnificent day for cycling, the winds in abeyance. Somehow, I missed seeing the sign indicating the lunch at about kilometre 70 of the 113 km cycle. I paid a steep price, running on fumes as my energy plummeted with only an energy bar for about the last 70 kms. There was ice cold lemonade, watermelon and salt and vinegar chips and the ubiquitous bananas to restore the energy level at the end of the cycle, in compensation before we took our rest in anticipation of the third day.

We awoke on the third day to the good fortune of no winds to speak of. The headwinds which were so treacherous two days before, were calm as we approached the Crow's Nest Pass before turning north on the Cowboy trail. In retrospect, it was like the doldrums of the Ancient Mariner, although we were landlocked on different transit instruments, portending unknown calamity perhaps. The cycle was a rather long 134 kms that day, concluding with our entry into Longview. The skies opened to hurl down some hail upon those in our party who had started late. The evening meal at the Main Street hotel included bison burgers and we were able to observe real cowboys coming in off the range in their cowboy hats and stirrups. I stayed at an exceptional bed and breakfast of sorts, called the Diamond Willow, up the road west of Black Diamond.

The fourth day promised some heavy sledding. A slow but relatively steady ascent for the first 75 of the day's 148 km cycle, included the Highwood Pass,  the highest elevation road in Canada. The ride that day featured stellar weather which meant the lengthy descent on the Kananaskis trail to the junction with Highway 1, where we would rest up at the Nakoda Stony Casino/resort awaiting the fifth day. Two lengthy cycling days In a row meant I was more tired than usual so I went to bed early.

The fifth day started inauspiciously. We were to head west to Canmore, where we would get on the Legacy Trail to Banff albeit in a more scenic manner than the main highway. We would then enter Banff for purposes of joining Highway 1A, taking us past Vermillion Lake where I had gone canoeing with my sons Spencer and Aaron more than two and a half decades earlier.

Unfortunately for me, I sustained my first flat of the ride early that morning which resulted in my being rather "back in the pack", as it were. I was mindful that it was kind of like being told that I should slow down and smell the roses so to speak. As I entered Banff, to connect to highway IA, I spotted a vintage motor vehicle crossing the road in front of us. If we had arrived at that intersection 15 seconds earlier or 15 seconds later, I would not have seen the vehicle.

I said to my four fellow cyclists, "does anyone know what the car is?" Someone said, "Hu knows old cars. Hu, what is it?" I told him that it was a 59 Chevy and the way they could tell was the diagonal fins at the back. I then told the foursome that the reason I knew the car was because my father's father, whom we called "Pop", had a 59 Chevy; it was the last car he had driven before being diagnosed with cancer and succumbing to the illness just before his retirement. Moreover, Pop had been a warden in Banff National Park and he was buried in a family plot at the cemetery just a few hundred yards away. Further, that my father had inherited the vehicle and I well remembered my dad driving us around in it.

It was almost like the events unfolding were like a harbinger of something yet to come.

As we got onto Highway 1A, I remembered with delight and deep rooted nostalgia, the distant summers I had spent going up and down the stretch near Johnson's Canyon where Pop and Grannie Young lived in the park cabin near what was at that time known as Mount Eisenhower (since renamed Castle Mountain.) I stopped and took more photos. The rains began to come down hard and I was without my rain gear which was in the first van near the front of the pack. As I got progressively colder, I needed to speed up to finish at the village of Lake Louise and I stopped "smelling the roses" and stopped noticing road signs.

As I turned off highway 1A, to head down the hill before entering Lake Louise townsite, I was going around 50km per hour. Too fast to handle the mega cattle gate erected at the overpass to restrict wildlife from entering the village. I hit the cattle gate at an excessive rate of speed and, in the rain, the gate was like grease on a spit. The front tire of my bike jumped to the left and I was catapulted over my handlebars, hitting the highway hard. My right elbow and forearm took the impact first, followed by my helmet in the area of my right temple and forehead. I was stunned, thinking the bones in my right elbow were sticking out and I rolled to my side unable to catch my breathe. I was told later that day by the physician in emergency, that if my right forearm had not beaten my helmet to the pavement, I wouldn't be here to tell the tale. After some quick medical attention from a CPR specialist and a paramedic, I was transported to the Banff Hospital by ambulance for medical attention and surgery. The first paramedic examined my spine and neck and did not want to allow me to be moved. She stated that she could hear a funny recurring sound as she checked me. I told her it was my teeth chattering as I was losing heat to the ground beneath me.

If you're going to sustain injuries such as mine, where better than near a ski hill area where plenty of medically trained people have chosen a lifestyle compatible with the great outdoors and there is seemingly a doctor or nurse or CPR specialist among every handful of community members?

The doctors and staff at the hospital were outstanding. I was released the following day although my right arm was swollen to twice its size and I was told that it looked like Popeye's forearm. The one physician told me his 13 year old daughter didn't like to wear a helmet and I was a poster child for why one should always wear one. I let him take a photo for her benefit. No residuals anticipated.

I could not stop thinking of my Pop and how he had protected me, on that Cattle gate so close yet so far from Lake Louise. So, close, yet so far, from the cemetery where Pop is buried, a 59 Chevy at an intersection in Banff, his last vehicle, to remind me of him so shortly before the accident.

Thanks Pop!

Whether anyone accepts the proposition that an imaginary or spiritual hand which was the instrument of my "salvation", as I hit the pavement, or opines that it was merely my own, the fact is that each of us have opportunities regularly to lend a hand of fellowship and help out our neighbours and anyone else with whom we come in contact. Just as others have helped us on our way, whether as a "pay forward" approach or otherwise, we can do likewise. Th golden rule is not about he who has the most gold, ruling; rather it is about sharing our abundance.

In any event, let me get off my soapbox for a second and share a little bit about the people and charity I was riding with and for: The cycling event was a charitable event for CASA, a mental health foundation for children and adolescents, to raise monies for the construction of a medical facility for the mental health treatment in Edmonton. The building is near completion and the rooms, with many rounded walls, were designed to provide a creative, artistic and therapeutic non confrontational space for children with mental health issues, including suicidal ideation. Over $400,000 was raised from the cycling event, which concluded with two more days of cycling after my accident. Although I had previously cycled from Jasper to Banff, twice, decades ago, my injuries, including the fractured elbow, prevented me on this occasion, from going the other direction on the Columbia  Icefield Parkway and up the Marmot Basin summit.

Let me tell you a little about how the great work done by CASA has impacted me. (And please talk to Jeff Fixsen, the husband of my niece, Jaima, as Jeff is a board member of CASA and he can fill you in on other relevant and collateral details).

Let me give you a little bit of family history that I now realize is very similar to the family histories of so many friends, clients and neighbours. A history that is not really spoken about openly until it is too late.

I was oblivious to the sickness that insidiously stalked my cousin Garth. He drifted off in a vast and deep ocean of despair, surrendering to the mental illness that so pervasively attacked him. The vital veneer of enthusiasm that was so visible to all, mowed down by phantoms seemingly labouring 24/7 to annihilate his mental mojo. I remember well attending the mental health unit of the hospital in Vancouver to pick him up so he could attend his mother's funeral service; the hospital administrator prepared to release him into my care upon my solicitor's undertaking to ensure his return, an undertaking truly not within my own power, but given nonetheless, for family.

I remember my cousin, Leslie, afflicted by imaginary ghosts, skeletons from nonexistent closets who shattered her joie de vivre. She isolated herself from humankind despite valiant attempts by family and friends, to soothe her soul. She too, succumbed to the clarion call of certain sirens and was lost to the living.

I will not forget the damage done.

A decade and a half ago, while chair of a national charity, I attended a symposium that spoke to the issue of mental illness. All gathered were asked to consider five serious disabilities and comment upon that which they most feared. Invariably the response was mental illness, for it robs us of the building blocks we most cherish, the powers of communication and memory that bond us to our loved ones and enhance relationships far and wide.

It is one thing for mature adults to face the challenges of such an illness. It is another for youth who don't have the five, six or seven decades of life experience upon which to draw for sustainment. Youth who do not have the deep reservoir of lifelong interaction to buoy them through depths of despair. I was profoundly touched by the experience.

The acronym CASA subliminally suggests "home" which is its meaning in Italian. "Mia CASA e tua CASA." I lived in Florence (Firenze- the grande flourishing) for a period of six months more than four decades ago. The expression, "lingua Toscana in bocca romana" means, the purest form of Italian is the Tuscan language, but spoken by (or from the mouth of) a Roman. The reason is that the Florentines pronounce words that have a hard 'c' such as "chiesa" and "casa" (being 'church' and 'home', respectively), as "hiesa" and "hasa." These are perfect examples of how words from the Latin such as "cent" or "cento" became "hundred" in English. Likewise, "casa" became "house." The brothers Grimm, whom most know as fairy tale authors and compilers, were etymologists actually, who studied language and derivatives and then postulated that words beginning with 'p' such as "pisces" became "fish" because the phonetic enunciation over many generations changed the pronunciation. If you roll the words off your tongue, you can feel the slight declension. Likewise, the "k" sound of "chiesa" and "casa", became "house." So CASA is about building a "house" and a "home", a refuge and sanctuary and those who work with these young people, are nurturing the vitality of our posterity so that youth, like my cousins Leslie and Garth, can be helped by professionals before it is too late.

Thank you for taking the time to read this "epistle." — Hu

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