I backpacked in the Rockies this summer and here's how it went
It had been a while since I’d been out of the hostel scene (117 days, if anyone’s counting. I’m fine though. Totally fine.) and I was itching to get back out into the world. As a digital nomad, I have no official “home” anymore since I try my best to be somewhere, anywhere, out in the world as much as possible. So not only has COVID-19 kept me home in Canada, it’s been keeping me in my family’s spare bedrooms and on my friends’ couches for months. And while I’m beyond grateful to even have a roof over my head let alone spend so much quality time with my loved ones, this lifestyle left me feeling a tad displaced and unsettled. After four months of it, I needed to get back out there, but with international travel on hold, I set my sights a little closer to “home.”
It may not be for everybody, but where I feel the most comfortable and like myself is when I’m out on the road, exploring new places, meeting new people, and having new experiences. Basically, my comfort zone is being out of my comfort zone. That constant stimulation keeps a fire alit in my soul, my heart content and inspiration and motivation flowing into all the areas of my life that need it. But like many others, the last few months of quarantining have left me feeling stuck, stagnant, and for lack of a better word, blah.
Of course, now is not the time when we can just get up and frolic to whichever destination we please, without a care in the world. Our travel options are limited, and rightfully so—COVID-19 is still ravaging our planet, and travelling means that we may not only be putting our own lives at risk, but those of others as well.
So this is the dilemma faced by everyone who suffers a case of the travel bug, and we must find a way to balance being safe and responsible while taking care of our wellbeing and mental health. COVID-19 isn't going anywhere for the foreseeable future, and we must adapt to the new normal in whatever ways the experts and we feel are best.
It'd been a few months into quarantining and the mountains were calling, the lakes were beckoning and my couch-surfing was getting old, so I set off on a solo road trip through the Canadian Rockies. It was time to verify if Mother Nature's artwork that I had seen in pictures was Photoshopped or if it really was that pretty in real life (spoiler alert: it is prettier).
As an avid solo traveller, I am well accustomed to staying in hostels, but I had never actually stayed in one in Canada before—and I had certainly never stayed in any during a pandemic before. I was so excited to be staying at HI locations throughout my trip—they looked like a dreamy Canadian experience based on what I saw online (another spoiler alert: they were dreamier). But of course, concerns and doubts lingered in my mind: Would I even speak to other humans? Would I make friends? Would I feel safe? Would fears of COVID-19 be lurking around every bunk bed?
I arrived at my first destination, the beautiful mountain town of Banff, and got back to the HI Banff Alpine Centre after an evening of dining out alone (one of my fave pastimes), where I did have some social interaction with the bartender, from behind his mask, from behind a glass panel, as I ate my shrimp lettuce wraps. So we can cross off my fear of not having conversations with other humans my entire trip.
I came back and plopped myself down in the common space, which had a ski chalet vibe with its vaulted ceilings, stone fireplace, and cozy seating, where two other guests were sitting on separate couches. After travelling alone for many years—combined with being a fairly outgoing and friendly person, and did I mention craving social interaction?—I am no stranger to striking up conversations with friendly-looking strangers and so I did so with my socially distanced company.
“So are you guys staying here?” I blurted out, and they both confirmed they were not, shockingly, random Banff locals who had decided to go check their phones at an HI Hostel at 10:30 on a Wednesday night. Hey, anything to get the convo going.
I went on to say that I wasn’t sure what kind of hostel vibe to expect, and we got into the easiest conversation topic known to everyone around the world right now: COVID-19! They, too, had been hesitant to travel during these times but took them as an opportunity to explore Canada, both of them having road-tripped across the country from Ontario. That led to another conversation of their nearby hometowns, and then we got into the other easiest topic, which was discussing our travels, and our recommendations for the area.
We ended up chatting for a while, just sitting on our respective couches; I wonder if in normal times we would have moved to sit closer to each other but we each seemed content conversing from across the room. After a late-night, wine-fuelled agreement, one of my new hostel friends and I were set to catch sunrise the next morning and to see if we could spot the elk that our other hostel friend had spotted that day at dusk.
Not only did we see the elk, but about 100 of them surrounded our cars as they moved along the empty road capped by a stunning mountain. It was everything you'd hope for out of a Banff wildlife sighting. We made the most out of our day, hiking up Tunnel Mountain, having dinner in town, and catching the sunset at one of Banff’s most scenic lakes.
That was a nice way to break in the social bubble of my trip, and as I journeyed on to stay at HI Lake Louise Alpine Centre, HI Athabasca Falls Wilderness Hostel, HI Jasper, HI Beauty Creek Wilderness Hostel (key word “beauty”), back to HI Lake Louise again, and onto HI Nelson, I found I was able to have pleasant and interesting conversations with people at every single hostel location.
Most of the time I adventured on my own during the day, and as I turned in for the night I would hear about one man’s cycling journey through the Icefields Parkway or two Quebecois girls who were on their Construction Holiday (did we all know this was a thing?!). At the very end of my trip, I met a fellow hostel guest who happens to live a similar nomadic life as I do, is also a writer and shares a passion for Africa that may lead to an exciting opportunity in the future! You never know where hostel-made connections could lead.
No matter where I travel in the world, there’s always a unique conversation to come out of meeting other hostel guests. These just aren’t conversations I find in my parents’ spare bedrooms or from my friends’ couches.
Throughout my entire trip, I felt completely safe and comfortable. Physical distancing measures were in place, many people were wearing masks and most of the time I was out in the woods or climbing a mountain or plunging in a lake, providing an escape from the urban areas where finding a little space to explore can be trickier. Checking in at the HI hostels involved a friendly welcome from behind a mask and/or glass panel. I was able to choose from private rooms or reduced-capacity dorms, and the rooms and facilities were absolutely spotless. Hand washing was required, sanitizers were aplenty and screening questions were asked almost everywhere I went. It was reassuring to see the tourism community welcoming visitors but taking the current situation extremely seriously at the same time.
I am so grateful I was able to glean my favourite parts of travelling from my trip despite this year putting a major wrench in my wanderlust, and staying in hostels again was a much-needed burst of energy and motivation that will keep me going until I can adventure again.