Vancouver: Notes From a Native Daughter

Whistler Redux
Scenes from the Olympics.
Feb. 19 2010 11:34 AM

Vancouver: Notes From a Native Daughter

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A Native Daughter Returns to Vancouver-Whistler. Click here to launch slide show.

One night when I was about 21, my then-boyfriend and I took a borrowed car and drove from his place, which he shared with eight housemates, to a new gray-shingled condominium on the other side of Whistler, British Columbia. I followed him up a path between two snow banks, which dead-ended at the steel bars of a high fence. "Here it is," he said, and he got down on one knee, offering me the other as a stepladder. I looked around, wondered whether the place was alarmed, and hauled myself up and over the fence. He followed, and a few seconds later we gazed on what we had sought, our own little piece of ski resort bliss: a capacious hot tub, steam rising into the alpine night.

Today, I breeze into the Fairmont Chateau Whistler Resort after we put the truck in paid underground parking. The lobby is a cathedral of river stone and great wooden beams, with, in place of an altar, vast windows facing a snowy slope. I brandish my credit card and am welcomed as a legitimate guest. "New York," I say, when asked where I've come from, a statement I think conveys all sorts of misimpressions, but correcting the record seems too complex. After checking in, my now-boyfriend and I head for the tiled spa, which is equipped with pitchers of citrus-infused water, a sauna, an indoor-outdoor swimming pool, and several hot tubs. It is, to be sure, more relaxing than commandeering a hot tub by stealth, but I can't definitively say that it is more fun. Being able to afford a nice hotel underlines the frightening unstoppability of passing time.

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Whistler Blackcomb, as the two-mountain resort now calls itself, was but a few cabins and a dirt road when the first chairlift opened in 1966. In recent years, it has become progressively swankier, attracting helicopter service from Vancouver and a regular flow of tourists from Japan and Europe, as well as migrant lift labor from the far corners of the globe. During the Winter Olympics, the mountains will host skiing, bobsled, luge, and skeleton events.

On top of Blackcomb, the sun is brilliant and the vistas extend up and down the valley, but days have passed since new snow fell, and it is alternately crunchy and icy under board. After a few runs, we embark on Whistler Blackcomb's latest pre-Olympic project, the Peak 2 Peak gondola, which was unveiled three months earlier and ferries people between the two mountains. In the middle of the traverse, the glass and metal pods hang 1,427 feet above Fitzsimmons Creek, setting a world record for height. We crowd, with other tourists and members of the Slovakian Paralympic Ski Team, onboard one of the pods that has a glass floor at its center. The creek is visible as a jagged black line against the snow far below. During the 11-minute crossing, several of the passengers white-knuckle the railings. The chief practical implication of the Peak 2 Peak is that whereas we came up Blackcomb, we can now snowboard down Whistler without descending the former and ascending the latter first. And so we do. It seems an incremental benefit for a $52 million investment. But it feels churlish to question the inherent good of growth amid the pre-Olympic bustle.

Early the next morning, we drive out of the narrow mountain valley. Before we get out of town, I still feel embraced by the steep slopes on either side. On leaving Whistler, or any mountain place, I have always felt a touch of agoraphobia. Some animal-brain instinct kicks in, telling me predators can now approach from any direction.

That winter I broke into the condominium hot tub, I was nearing college graduation, anxious about the world suddenly becoming too big. I often went to and from Whistler to visit my boyfriend, who lived there. On one return journey, I got a ride down to Vancouver with a friend of his, who was continuing across the country to Toronto, a five- or six-day drive. This young man was from Back East and had a degree in political science. After two winter seasons at Whistler, he was going home to tackle the whole business of adulthood. You can't, after all, just while away life in Lotus Land—or, at the very least, you have to decide whether you're the kind of person who does. He wasn't the kind, and I knew by then that I wasn't, either, that I would have to go do the career-getting and money-making and figuring out of who I was, and that I was ill-equipped to even begin. The snow turned to pouring rain during our descent to the city, and when he dropped me off in a shopping mall parking lot before getting back on the Trans-Canada, I felt as if more than just a weekend was ending.

The road between Whistler and Vancouver, known as the "Sea to Sky Highway," is, like so much around here, undergoing pre-Olympic improvements, these ones intended to smooth out the twists and limit the dangers. We pass our first road construction project before we even get to Squamish, a formerly depressed-looking logging town that has lately refashioned itself into the "Squamish Adventure Centre," as the sign says on the new stone, glass, and fir visitor's bureau at the side of the highway.

South of Squamish the revamped road whisks drivers along the rocky hillside above Howe Sound. With a highway this straight, the Olympics can surely stay stocked with sushi and midwinter greens, and the road is now far less likely to kill anyone than the old winding way was. Change, in places as in people, may be its own goal, the product of our restlessness. The result is that things are different than they were before, but whether they are better, I can't definitively say.

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Elisabeth Eaves is an editor at Forbes and the author of Bare. Her last Slate story, "Ecotouring in Honduras," appears in the 2009 edition of The Best American Travel Writing. Her work is also anthologized in The Best Women's Travel Writing 2010.