Damn you, George Vancouver
In June of 1772, the ships Discovery and Chatham, captained by Dutch-born George Vancouver, entered the Straits of Juan de Fuca between what are now the state of Washington in the United States, and the province of British Columbia in Canada. Ever since, travelers meaning to go to southern Washington have ended up north, and travelers dying to go north to BC have found themselves with tickets leading them south. And sometimes, people expecting to find themselves on a lovely island for a short train jaunt find themselves instead in the wilds of the mainland for eight hours or more, ending in a town known only for its hockey team (and not really for that if you’re not a Canuck).
Three destinations in the Pacific Northwest bear witness to the mighty sea captain. Two are cities, a small one just inside Washington from Portland, Oregon, and a large one between Seattle and Whistler (where people go to ski and/or shop year round). The third, Vancouver Island, is just off the coast from Vancouver, BC. This does not help matters.
Personally, I have only ever been involved in one case of a mistaken Vancouver. When I graduated from college, Mom took me first to the Edmonton Mall in Alberta (the largest mall in the world until the Mall of America in Minneapolis opened soon after) where we stayed at the mall hotel and didn’t go outside—literally didn’t—for 48 hours; then on a train trip in BC. The train trip she had asked the travel agent for was about 4.5 hours, leaving from Victoria on Vancouver Island, stopping for the night in Courtenay, returning the next day. The train trip she actually bought started in Vancouver city, and went for about 8 hours up the Fraser River Valley to Prince George, a, well, town with a hockey team that the Canucks know the name of.
We enjoyed the ride—in part because the Fraser River Valley is craggy and dramatic, with rushing waters and soaring boulders and deep-green trees—and in part because we met an elderly couple, the male half of whom was a retired civil engineer with a geology background, who entertained us with natural history—and the fact that they, too, had meant to be on Vancouver Island, rather than traveling north from Vancouver city.
Not long after this star-crossed graduation present, Mom invited Gma B (who has recovered well since her previous appearance in these pages in September) to see a musical in Vancouver city. She bought train tickets through the same travel agent, a cousin of my father’s (god rest both their souls) and niece of Gma B. On the big day, Mom and Gma arrived at the train station in Seattle, with plenty of time before departure.
“Where should we catch the train to Vancouver BC?” Mom asked one of the ticket agents, just to make sure she was on top of things, having been burned before.
“The train to BC left 20 minutes ago,” said the agent. “Besides, these tickets are to Vancouver, Washington.”
“They’re to go to Vancouver Washington?” asked Mom, incredulous. “But I went through a travel agent and everything. How could these be wrong?”
“Lady, I recommend you get a new agent,” said the ticket man. He did, however, exchange their tickets for seats on the next bus, and they had a fantastic time and enjoyed their show.
For these two reasons, though, when Mom and I decided to come to Vancouver to celebrate my 33rd birthday, Mom suggested we drive. We at least knew that we wanted to go north. And I do love to drive, but the thought of sitting behind the wheel of a car for 3 hours each way, plus whatever endless amount of time the border crossing took, plus the potential for the trip, this time of year, to include snow-driving but the absolute non-chance of any skiing also being involved, all made me think the train would be better. Mom agreed, cautiously, and was much reassured when I had to call her mid-online reservation and get her passport number. As far as we know, northern Washington and southern Washington are still the same country.
There was some potential for mishap when all the rains caused major mudslides over the tracks north of Seattle, but the replacement bus was specifically ours, and large and comfy and had a spotlessly clean bathroom—complete with a drawing of a man in an Indiana Jones hat standing with an X drawn through it and the man in the Indy hat sitting in a big circle. Yeah, sitting is key.
At customs, we all filed off the bus and collected our bags from underneath, and were genteely queuing for check-in when an older couple, clearly not American of any country, asked a girl in broken English why we had to go through customs. “We’ve just arrived at the Canadian border,” she replied, or something equally electrifying. The man immediately dropped his bags at the feet of the woman and leapt out of the hall, racing for the bus which was starting to pull away, to meet us in another country. “Vancouver Washington,” he yelled, “VANCOUVER WASHINGTON!”