Heaven on Earth

(Published in Daily Times, 25 April 2012.  This is the 7th installment in the series “Across America & Canada by Road″.  All can be read here under the “Here & There” category)

From Calgary we headed west again on the Trans Canada-1, which cuts through the Rocky Mountains.  Our next stop was Kamloops, at the confluence of the two branches of the Thompson River. Leaving the main highway that runs south-southwest from here towards Vancouver, we kept to the westerly, less-travelled road to Whistler. 

And we are glad we did.  After Lillooet, which is a couple of hours from Kamloops, the scenery was absolutely spectacular. Situated at an intersection of deep gorges in the Coast Mountains, by the Fraser River, Lillooet is one of the southernmost communities in North America where indigenous people still constitute the majority. For the next four hours or so, we drove mostly through a narrow lush valley along a fast-flowing river, sometimes no more than a few metres away.  We passed many native Indian settlements before reaching Whistler.

Situated 125 kilometres north of Vancouver, Whistler is a famous resort in Canada’s far west, in the province of British Columbia.  It has a permanent population of only about ten thousand, but a large number of temporary workers to cater to the hundreds of thousands of tourists who descend here mainly for skiing.  Typically, these temporary workers are young people in their twenties from other parts of Canada and from as far as Australia, not to mention Europe.  There are so many young Australians here on “working holiday visas”, earning money while having fun, that a Sydney newspaper called Whistler “Australia’s best ski resort.”

Highway 99, which connects Whistler with Vancouver, is also known as the “Sea-to-Sky Highway”.  It is a spectacular drive flanked by bays, inlets, coves and the Pacific Ocean, on one side, and lush forests, on the other.  And Vancouver is not just one of the great cities of the world but has headed the list of best cities to live in for three years in the last five.  In the most recent survey, Melbourne has taken first place but Vancouver still ranks very high, holding third place (after Vienna), followed by Toronto, Calgary and Sydney. 

To the west, north and northwest of Vancouver are some of the most breathtaking landscapes in the world, in British Columbia, Yukon and across the border in Alaska. The American state of Alaska would still have been a part of Russia if the Tsarist government had not sold it to the US in 1867 for $7.2 million ($4.74 per sq km or $79 in today’s prices).

Thus, for a negligible price, the US acquired what is now the largest of its 50 states, more than twice the size of Texas, the second biggest. Alaska is larger than 22 of the smaller US states put together and would rank 19th among the countries of the world in size.  The highest mountain peak on the North American continent, Mt McKinley (6,194 metres) is situated in Alaska, pushing Canada’s Mt Logan (5,959 metres) into second place by a mere 235 metres.

Now Alaska is considered priceless in terms of strategic location, tourist attraction, environmental benefits and natural resources.  At the time, however, it was regarded by many Americans, including some Congressmen, as “an utterly worthless, barren waste”.

As we drove further away from what we saw and what we missed, I could not help but wonder, not for the first time: “If there was a heaven on earth, where would it be?”  Or, more correctly, what would it look like? 

Leaving aside, for the moment, such factors as weather, food, fruits and drinks (and, for true believers, “houris”), could the Rocky Mountains be it?  Or Alaska?  Swiss Alps?  Austria’s Salzkammergut?  Norway’s fjords?  Australian beaches?  Italy? Costa Rica? New Zealand? Pacific islands? Kashmir? Sri Lanka?  The contenders for the title of “heaven on earth” are many indeed!

Leaving British Columbia and Alaska for a separate visit, we headed south from Vancouver towards Seattle, a two-hour drive away, entering the US overland for the second time in about three weeks through the “Peace Arch” border.  Border formalities took no more than one minute and these were completed while we sat in the car, as in the previous three crossings.

On the short drive to Seattle, we passed forests and waterfalls on both sides of the I-5, the most westerly road of the Interstate highway system.  Seattle is well-known as the home of Boeing Company as well as IBM.  Boeing maintains an aircraft museum called the Museum of Flight, which we made sure to visit.  It houses 80 aircraft, some inside a massive hangar, others outside. 

These include: the first US presidential jet (which retired in 1996 after 37 years of service); British Airways Concorde (both are open for walkthrough); a Caproni Ca20, the world’s first fighter plane from World War I (the one on display was the only one ever built); one of only two remaining airworthy Douglas DC-2s; the only surviving Boeing 80A; a Lockheed Super Constellation; and 28 World War I and World War II aircraft from several countries including Germany, Russia, and Japan.

A new exhibit traces the evolution of space flight.  Opened in June 2007, it is called “Space: Exploring the New Frontier”.  The museum also has an aviation library open to researchers.

From here we continued south along I-5, through Portland in Oregon, then turned west and drove down the coastal road until we reached San Francisco. The fog that frequently envelops the San Francisco Bay area during summer days was somewhat of a spoiler. Much as we tried, and although we drove over the Golden Gate Bridge, the fog denied us a clear view of this beautiful bridge.

San Fran is an adorable city – the bridges, the trams, the narrow roads going uphill and downhill, winding and curling, and the houses, beautifully painted, as if ready for a wedding or vying for the title of the most colourful house!  Together with a liberal, gay (read joyous) environment, not to mention an excellent climate, they make this city such an attractive place to live in or visit.  But a word of caution for fundamentalists of all religions planning a trip here: San Francisco is the (unofficial) gay capital of the USA and the world.

  by Razi Azmi

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3 Responses to Heaven on Earth

  1. Jehanzeb says:

    Another good one.

    You may want to re-check the year of Alaska was sold by the Tsar to the US. Font of the text appears to change throughout or it could be my computer.

  2. Kamath says:

    I wonder if you travel to far away lands in your dreeams even if you are fast asleep ! Perhaps you are a descendent of Ibn Batuta !
    Lucky chap!

    Next time I like to see your travels in South America!

    Best of luck

  3. Zeeshan says:

    Good one Uncle,
    Even I have so many friends who went to Candana on working visa. And they miss it for sure. Next one lets plan a long drive to Perth – Broome.

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