As I See It: In Search of the Technology-Free Vacation
September 23, 2013 Victor Rozek
Just before we headed off on vacation, my wife, who never strays far from computerized devices, made a bold, unprecedented suggestion. “Let’s also have a vacation from technology.” I was pleased but dubious. Like Charlton Heston, who planned to have his gun pried from his cold, dead hands, I sort of figured the wife would leave this world clutching her smartphone. But her reasoning, she explained, was economic, not an unexpected lack of interest in all things with screens.
We planned to go to Washington (the state) to visit the in-laws, and then on to Canada to visit the Rockies. But a little investigation revealed that service providers ding you for using your technology outside the country. (“Ding” is a charitable word, and “rape” is excessive, but it’s definitely closer to the latter than the former. In fact, if I wasn’t such a verbally elegant guy I’d use the word “screw.”)
My wife said she planned to take her computer, smartphone, and Kindle to Washington, (because she had some business emails to answer, calls to make, and a novel to finish reading), but would not use them in Canada. That’s like hoping the shark will only bite you if you’re swimming in American waters. I figured the over/under for how long it would take her to break would be three days. But what is life if not hope, and what is vacation if not the reward for staying hopeful. So I smiled and nodded encouragingly. The supportive husband.
Granted, we’ve gotten spoiled if not downright dependent on technology. Google Maps is the traveler’s new best friend. That non-judgmental voice directing drivers through rain and sleet and dark of night over endless miles of unfamiliar terrain is the best invention since the pop top beer can. Plus, the smartphone can find lodging options and cheap gas, which would be great if there was such a thing as cheap gas in Canada, which there is not.
So the first thing we had to do was get an old fashioned map and a travel guide. Happily, AAA supplies all these things and more. But I’d forgotten how small the lettering was on maps, and as many times as I spread my fingers across the paper, they didn’t get any larger.
Squinting through the late afternoon Canadian gloom, I could tell we had passed through a town with the anatomically incorrect name of Salmon Arm and we were heading toward a city named after, of all things, a 19th century investment banker: Revelstoke.
But before we got there, we passed Three Valley Lake, at the end of which loomed a huge structure that looked like a cross between Valhalla and a Disney attraction. Turns out it was nothing more surreal than the Three Valley Lake Chateau, a hotel complex complete with ghost town and railroad museum. Anything with the word “chateau” was bound to come at inflated prices, but it was the first night of our vacation and we were both tired of driving.
This would be our first big test and, bless her heart, my wife was able to fight technology withdrawal until about 10 p.m., at which point she grabbed her laptop and announced she was heading for the lobby where Wi-Fi beckoned.
So the precedent was set: the laptop was in play anywhere Wi-Fi was available. But, so far, the other devices were verboten.
We arrived at Lake Louise near Banff the next day. It may be the world’s most photographed lake and it doesn’t disappoint. It boasts its own chateau, where the cheap rooms go for $600 a night, and that’s before assorted taxes are ladled on. But my wife is so taken with the turquoise water surrounded by gray granite peaks that she walks up to the registration desk to see if any possibility of a deal could be had. Inside my head I’m screaming “no, no” because even a “deal” will require taking out a mortgage. But ironically technology came to the rescue.
Or to be more accurate, the failure of technology. The desk clerk is so very sorry but the chateau’s computers are down. It’s the perfect cautionary tale about becoming too dependent on technology. The hotel has no contingency plan, no idea which rooms are filled and which are empty. But if we could only wait around five or six hours, he was sure the problem would be rectified. Not having to pay for an overpriced room was fine with me, but the hotel was annoying a lot of very wealthy people who were accustomed to deference, not down time.
Feigning outrage, we decided to go for a hike, which was when the prohibition on the smartphone fell. High above Lake Louise is a tea house where a strenuous uphill hike is rewarded with a $12 pot of tea (best I’ve ever had), and an $8 sandwich (far from the best I’ve ever had). But the scenery is spectacular and out comes the smartphone, which boasts a camera that can take panoramic pictures. It’s only day two, and we’ve already dodged our commitment to be technology free twice.
We take the long way back, over to where the glacier had recently been. It has been receding like every other glacier in the Canadian Rockies, and what’s left is a glacial valley scraped clean of rocks and vegetation, with only a gush of glacial melt cascading toward the lake.
The trail then angles down to the far end of the lake and follows the shoreline back to the chateau. Unfortunately, by late afternoon, the glacier has been worked over by the sun for many hours and the volume of water pouring down the hill increased dramatically. Fifty yards of the trail are now submerged, and the choice is get our boots wet, or take them off. I opt for bare feet. Freshly de-frozen, it’s the coldest water I’ve ever had the misfortune to wade in. In seconds my feet are numb and shortly thereafter they begin to hurt. My wife celebrates the crossing by insisting we take a picture of our red feet. In that moment I hate camera phones.
We spend the night in Banff. When a noise awakens me, I see the glow of the Kindle nestled next to my wife. We have completely and utterly failed in our commitment to be technology free.
But with or without technology, the Canadian Rockies are breathtaking. And no camera can truly capture the grandeur and scale of the ranges that comprise the continental divide. On our last day we take the Whistlers Mountain tramway up above the tree line. We almost decided not to because the weather that morning was low overcast and from the Jasper valley not a single mountain was visible. We enter the cloud cover and ascend in a total whiteout. But minutes later we emerge into bright sunlight. There was a rare inversion in the valley, and beneath us lies a white carpet of clouds, while all around above the cloud cover, loom dozens of peaks that encircle the city of Jasper.
By the time we climb to the top of Whistlers (another 500 feet or so above the tram), the clouds are beginning to burn off and slowly the valley below reveals itself. Forests, lakes and the obligatory golf course appear, including the milky Athabasca River which is one of the few rivers that runs north to the Arctic.
It was beyond spectacular in a way that technology cannot capture or adequately replicate. In the end, as convenient and miraculous as our technology has become, and as addicted as we are to it, technology is to travel what crampons are to traversing glaciers–it’s handy to have, but you can get by without it. At least if you’re not my wife.