Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Cancelgar and Silver Dogs.

9:50am Sub-optimal. 

I'm sitting on a hard plastic seat between a broken linoleum floor and water-stained ceiling tiles listening to the low thrum of the Pepsi Machine. The half-dozen people in the room are avoiding each others eyes, avoiding conversation, wondering who they might have to sit beside: Guy over there looks like the quiet type; that teenager looks like she recently held up a Shoppers Drug Mart cosmetics counter – too much perfume; those fidgety guys outside getting the last few puffs on a smoke? Please, not that.

10:02 depart Castlegar. 

Close enough to right on time that no-one is counting. Yes, I am on a Greyhound Bus. How did I get here? 

Against all logic and experience, I decided to fly to Castlegar for a family event in January. On first principles, it seemed like an obvious move. Fly on Friday afternoon, so I only take a half-day off work, fly back Monday morning, and I can be in the office by Noon. Three nights with the family, no hassle with snowy highway passes or midnight fill-ups in Grand Forks, arrive rested and relaxed, get a nice view flying over the western half of the Cordillera and think about Geology (and her showy cousin, Geomorphology) all the way.

People in the Kootenays know better.

10:12 up the Bonanza pass. 

10km west of Castlegar, the sky brightens. We have broken above the cloud keeping planes from landing in Castlegar.

 They don't call it Cancel-gar Airport for nothing. The on-line flight schedule resource Flightstats.com rates the Castlegar-to-Vancouver Air Canada Jazz flight on its reliability scale as 0.4 out of 5 stars In January, your odds of getting in and out of Castlegar without significant delay are about 45%, with the odds of complete cancellation about 36%.

The problem is partly Castlegar's remarkably mild climate. Once known as the "warmest place in Canada" before weather stations arrived in places like Lytton or Lillooet. The summers are hot, and the winters surprisingly mild. By coincident of microclimates, 30 degrees or more is common in the summer, but -20 is extremely rare in the winter. The winter weather spends a lot of time just close enough to 0 to keep the snow constantly melting and refreezing, putting a lot of cool moisture in the air.

 The weather elephant in the room is also the reason for Castlegar's being: the confluence of the Kootenay and Columbia Rivers. The massive bodies of constantly-moving 5-10 degree water adds that extra measure of warmth and moisture that condenses into the otherwise freeze-dried air from the mountains and valleys above. Sometimes it condenses at 3000' and we get to fly. Just as often, it condenses at 1500', and the waiting game begins.

10:22 Nancy Green Lake. 

I can see the peak of Old Glory Mountain, 8000' feet high and 20 km from my location. What a beautiful day to fly. I’m on a bus.

 On a day like yesterday, you can stand at the Cancelgar airport, and see up three valleys, visibility well over 20km, but you can't quite see the curve that marks the false summit of the massif that dominates the Castlegar skyline: Sentinel Mountain.

If the pilots can get into the valley, they can land. However, if they are up there at 15,000 feet, all they know is there are mountains and valleys down there under that cloud cover. Sometimes the clouds are low enough that they can see the peaks of the mountains, but to drop into the valley, they need to see the river at the bottom. GPS is great and all, but traveling at 500km/h blind while surrounded by mountains, one wants several redundant systems to assure you don't smear the passengers all over someone's timber license area. 

10:55 Christina Lake. 

Not much going on here, but we're making good time. The wheels of the bus go round and kill me.

I had a memorable flight once into Hagensbourg, BC for work. A similar situation as Castlegar: if there is a break in the high fog / low cloud that allows access the valley floor, we land. Otherwise, you get dropped at Anahim Lake, 120km of very bad dirt road way,  and hope for the best.

The pilots of the 18-passenger Beech 1900 flew the length of the valley twice, out to sea and back to the hanging valley that marks the fjord's landward extension. Just when everyone was feeling all hope was lost, the pilot came on the Intercom and said "Here we go". The engines were throttled back, the flaps came down, and the plane both decelerated and dropped fast enough that the passengers would have screeched, had their stomachs not filled their mouths. Feeling like a Val at Pearl Harbour, we dove for the hole in the cloud and got under the ceiling. After that, it was just a routine landing.

11:12. 20 minute stop in Grand Forks. 

Like in many interior towns, The Greyhound station is in a semi-industrial part of Grand Forks, the low-rent commercial district where single-story aluminium-sided sheds hold chainsaw service shops and Culligan Water outlets. During our 20 minute stop we can queue for the single toilet, avail ourselves of electro-mechanically distributed snacks, or update ourselves on the artificially-aged missing children of BC. Or have a smoke.

Right. How did I get here? After a great weekend with the Family, I wake up Monday morning and look out the window, and feel assured we would fly today. I can see the airport over there in Ootechenia, across the Valley from Castlegar. It is definitely overcast, but I can almost get the sense that the sun is just behind that ceiling, and if not 9:30, it will definitely clear up by the 1:00 flight, or in the worst case, 3:40. Three flights a day, what could possible go wrong?

The looks in the faces of the other passengers when I arrived at the airport were my first hint. The plane did not arrive from Vancouver, so we wait until noon. The folks at the Air Canada counter assured me there was room for me on the next flight, and they would book me. The Airport has WiFi, the Cafe has just opened. I sit down to e-mail my boss and co-workers that I would not be in until later in the afternoon, but would be on-line if anything came up. Order a coffee and hunker down. Free time to get some shit done. Bonus.

The cancellation of the 11:00 flight to Calgary was neither surprising, nor comforting. So I used the WiFi to start following Vancouver departures, and this is how I discovered, at noon, that the 12:30 flight to Castlegar was cancelled, which means the 1:20 departure back to Vancouver was not going to happen. Since there had been no announcement, I wandered over to the Air Canada desk (which was about a 15 foot walk) and asked if the flight upon which I had been bumped was, indeed cancelled. It had apparently not occurred to the Air Canada staff that this was a piece of information the half dozen people sitting there waiting 15 feet in front of them might want to have. The cancelled flight was not due to arrive for and hour, so I guess there was no rush, except for those of us who are starting to contemplate our other alternatives...

11:56: Pull out of Grand Forks. 

The 20 minute stop got extended a bit as we picked up a cargo trailer. This should be straight-forward. I mean, if you run a bus company and moving trailers full of cargo is an increasing part of your operation, one figures there would be a system in place established for connecting A to B. Apparently attaching a heavy trailer to a bus is a two-man operation. In Grand Forks, however, this is performed by a singe driver with a bus full of passengers, without even the help of a backing-up camera. The driver backs towards the trailer, gets out to take a look, adjusts to the left, gets out to take another look, backs up a few more feet, gets out... Then there is locking and connecting electronics and chains and before you know it the entire operation takes more than 20 minutes. This is not done during our 20 minute rest stop, but after.

Back in the Airport on the previous day, with me starting to doubt the 3:40 flight, I called Trail Regional Airport, 30km downriver. They have scheduled flights to the south terminal at YVR, run by the same airline using the same Beech plane that had dive-bombed me into Hagensbourg a few years back. After an interminable time on hold, the very helpful woman on the other end let me know the morning flight to Vancouver had not taken off, and the afternoon was looking doubtful. They were no more likely to fly than Air Canada. So it was Air Canada - Jazz or bust.

Then it fell on me, once again, to inform the people patiently waiting the 3:40 flight that it was not going to arrive. The morning looked promising, Air Canada folks declare, and I had a seat booked. Back to my brothers place to send the notices back to New Westminster and the people that matter that I would not be present that night.

12:25 in Greenwood, the Smallest City in Canada. 

Even here we cannot stop in the funky downtown part of the City where there is an exceptional coffee shop, but out on the fringes at the Evening Star Motel. We don't get out anyway, but it is nice to rest our kidneys for a bit after that last few miles. I think the driver has been tapping her foot to the beat of a song. The foot that is on the accelerator.

Tuesday morning holds less promise than Monday at the Castlegar Airport. Maverick and Goose would land, but after yesterday, I am ready to concede that the clouds today are a little thicker and a little lower. Snow is in the forecast. As I am eating breakfast, my brother demonstrates a skill I once possessed, but which has atrophied in recent years: looking up a phone numbers in the phone book.

(this is the part where I stop complaining about airlines, and start complaining about buses)

As a modern adult, my initial reaction when looking for information on buses and schedules is the same as yours: type "Greyhound Canada" into Google, select the first non-banner-ad hit, go to the website and look for a schedule. Go for it, I dare you. If you are reading this you have access to a computer and the Internet, I'll wait.

Yep, the one piece of information anyone hoping to plan a trip by Greyhound (shudder) from one place to another in BC is the most impossible piece of information to attain.

The phone book analogically provided the phone number of the Castlegar Greyhound terminal, so I can call and get the information directly. I'll spare you the details of the conversation with Greyhound personnel, if only to save the innocent from embarrassment. The long and short version is that there is one bus heading west today, it leaves at 10:00am, there is space on it, and it will cost me $130 one-way.

12:37: Midway. Between what? 

We stop here to pick up a little cargo. It occurs to me if I am going to survive this, I will need some empathetic music. Somehow, listening to old Tom Waits is pretty much the perfect mood for 12 hours on a Greyhound. Tom knows my pain, and can make me laugh about it. That's a voice that's been on a Greyhound bus for 10 hours. That's a voice that's been under a greyhound bus for 10 hours.

It may be impolite to note at this point that the total cost for my now-lamented return flight to Vancouver was $322. So in a pure value-for-money viewpoint, 10 hours on a Greyhound for $130 seems a little out of scale compared to a single hour on an aircraft for $161. Comparing Castlegar Airport to the Castlegar Bus Terminal or even the above-average Vancouver Bus Terminal to the Grandeur of YVR... Something here is seriously broken. Who in the hell would anyone EVER take a bus to save $30 when the flight can save you 9 hours?

Oh, yeah. Me. Because I have to. That should be Greyhound's ad tag line.

Greyhound: When you've no other option™

12:53: 10 minute rest stop in Rock Creek. 

This is the place where a rational person traveling from Castlegar to Vancouver would continue along Highway 3. You wouldn't stop here for anything but summer ice cream, as you are just a pop over the spectacular plateau of the Anarchist Summit before you drop into Osoyoos, where food-gas options abound.

On a Greyhound, we take the right int he photo above, up the (quasi-concerning) Christian Valley and onto small, twisty, Highway 33 to Kelowna. This adds at least two hours to the trip, and represents the difference between the old over-night direct line, and the daytime milk route. With the overnight line going the way of the dodo, as Greyhound joins the long list of things of my parents’ generation that society can no longer support without rationalization and cutbacks.

The first 20 km of the trip up 33 is on that special type of BC interior road. Every viewscape through the pine forest thinned by summer heat lands on a painted-plywood cabin or tin outbuilding of some sort, surrounded by an eclectic assortment of barely serviceable or abandoned heavy equipment. Trackless excavators, 1950s style dump trucks on time-flattened tires, engine blocks of indeterminate provenance and always spools and spools of steel cables. The detritus of a century of on-again off-again resource extraction. 

Then it changes with altitude, and the trees get thicker and the snow gets deeper. Eventually the type of landscape that makes you want to slap on skis and just go out there emerges. Big mixed forests, tight valleys cut but now-frozen creeks through rock outcrops as complex as the 100-million year mountain-building legacy of the region. The occasional peek of a snow-capped mountain range with tree line running out just before the tops. Baldy, Apex, Big White: the names are not coincident. In places, the views can only be described as gigantic.

2:38 Kelowna, 35 minute stop. 

Here we get off and back on the bus. The bus station is, almost mockingly, in the middle of an auto mall. Chevy, Dodge, Mitsubishi, and Chrysler, dealers are out four neighbours. There's s a cafe here, at least. But what is that scent in the waiting room? I'm not 100%, but I am pretty sure it is feces. Yep, that is human feces.

Could part of the problem with busses in this country be the bus stations? With the (notably recent) exception of Vancouver's use of the Canadian Pacific Station on Main Street, our bus stations are depressing, dank, small, unkept, and tucked away in some crappy industrial area far from where anyone would want to be. Where is the Bus Station Improvement Fee?

Tuesday morning I arrive at the Airport an hour before my flight is officially cancelled, but well after the incoming flight that would supply an aircraft has been cancelled, and asked for a refund. They wanted me to be sure I didn't want to wait until the afternoon flight, but with the Greyhound (when you've no other option™) pulling out of town at 10:00, I could not risk it, and missing another day of work. The refund process surprisingly lacked resistance or drama. So with $161 burrowing its way towards my Visa account, I went to the bus station: the depressing, run down, dirty, smelly bus station with milling smokers out front and the worlds most elderly vending machine inside, and re-invested $130 of it, and accepted my fate.

3:30. Pull out of Kelowna.

The stops seem to be putting us behind schedule, as we are now fully 30 minutes behind. This doesn't count the time spent sitting around in Westbank, which appears to be a retirement community for Kelowna stripmalls.

5:00 Night falls somewhere up on the 97c.

Last flight out of Castlegar would have me home about now. Pulling a car onto the road at the same time as this bus pulled out of Castlegar, I would be pulling into my driveway about now (I would have taken the rational left at Rock Creek, and probably only stopped twice: Osoyoos and Hope). Instead, I am still outside of Merritt, Tom Waits crooning about Putnam County on my iPod, the book I am reading almost finished. I flip on the reading light.

5:20 Merritt. 10 minute stop at the uber truck stop of your dreams. 

I can't figure out why I have such and aversion to the Greyhound. I ride transit all the time in Vancouver. I actually prefer to take the bus or Skytrain than to drive my car. I have ridden transit buses and trains in cities from New York to San Francisco, and have used buses to move me around in Europe, in Central America, the Caribbean, Southeast Asia. My experiences on long-distance buses in Cuba and Malaysia are amongst the most memorable parts of the trips - often in a good way!

But I have another memory, growing up in Castlegar. The overnight Greyhound to Vancouver to took one too many times in the 1980s. In the good old days when there were two buses a day, one an all-day 14 hour journey via Kelowna, the other a 12-hour overnight that was more direct but connected 6pm in Castlegar to 6am in Vancouver. This was a time when the back half of the bus was the smoking section. All smoking in the front half was strictly the second-hand variety. Mix this with uncertain road conditions, a traveling teenager junk food diet, darkness outside, virtually no consumer electronics to distract, and reading-induced motion sickness, and the overnight Greyhound was something from which you could spend days recovering.

Compared to flying over the amazingly spectacular mountains of BC in (at that time) a Boeing 737, and being in Vancouver in less than an hour - the bus was hell.

6:50. Passing Hope, physically and figuratively. 

This bus doesn't stop in Hope, lest one might catch some. By 7:13 we are leaving the highway at Chilliwack, for a 5 minute stop. Back on the highway at 7:29. The Chilliwack Greyhound Terminal is everything you picture when you say each of the worlds "Chilliwack", "Greyhound", and "Terminal". That's not me putting those images in your mind.

Old Joke: "What's the best thing to ever come out of Chilliwack?" "an empty bus".

7:46 Downtown Abbotsford. 

Not, actually, the setting of Downton Abby. Rolling at 7:55, and I have replaced Tom Waits with Paul's Boutique. Must refrain from foot-tapping and drumming along for the sake of the other passengers. I make it to Egg Man. Feel very Abbotsford rollin' along Highway 1 staring menacingly at dark, passing farm fields while listening to High Plains Drifter. Those Shoes, indeed.

8:20. Langley. This isn't even funny anymore.

If our City had a decent Transit system, I would be getting off here, and would be 20 minutes from home on a SkyTrain. Actually, if we lived in a modern country, like any member of the European Union, Japan. Korea, or even China, I would have probably spent this entire trip on a train. It would have taken half the time, used fewer hydrocarbon resources, and I wouldn't be rollin' 200th street in a stinky bus where even the dulcet tones of a B-Boys Bouillabaisse can't sooth my nerves.

Instead, the only way to get on a train in the Kootenays is to be a bail of pulp or a zinc ingot. The rails systems that built cities like Castlegar (originally only a rail hub), Trail (a smelting town without an operating nearby mine in more than half a century), and Nelson (a City within economy so diversified, no-one can figure out way it is there!) are barely used anymore. Even them, they don't connect west, but south to the markets in the USA, or East to the Rocky Mountain Trench to hook into the CPR the long way. A 400-km detour that might not matter if you are made of zinc.

There are no rails of any kind in cities like Grand Forks since the KVR was torn up decades ago. No commercial airport either. One bus a day is the only way in or out of that town unless you drive yourself. This is the reality of small-town BC that those of us living in the Big Smoke don't think about. For us, cars are a luxury, one many of us are choosing to go without and one we wish the Government would stop subsidizing so heavily instead of making investments in the alternatives. For many, those alternatives are not just inadequate, they are no-where to be found.

Speak of the devil, I just crossed the $3Billion Port Mann Bridge for the first time. Didn't pay my toll, either.

8:50 Coquitlam: the end of the Road.

The one thing the Coquitlam Greyhound Station doesn't have is a connection to the local transit system. The adjacent bus stop that will take you east to Ikea is apparently closed. The nearest usable bus stop to get people to SkyTrain and New West is up on Brunette, North of Lougheed, most of a kilometre away.

Good thing Tig was there to pick me up. First thing she said when she saw me? "You smell like a bus". It took us a while to determine what that smell was, it was the same smell I found overpowering when I entered the Bus back in Castlegar, but am now (apparently) immune to. A mix of antiseptic, soap, mint and ammonia. A combination of clean and whatever the clean smell is masking. On the way home we figured it out: urinal puck. I smell like a urinal puck. A $130 urinal puck. Now she has to sit beside me all the way home.


Anonymous said...

This brings back fond memories.
Had I known you'd be enjoying the hospitality of the Chilliwack station, I could have brought you a "Big Gulp" cup from the 7-11, and filled it with Colt 45.

Unknown said...

This is such an interesting blog. You are very knowledgeable about this subject. Please check out my site.
Cheap Flights to Vancouver