Road Trip of the Sublime, Part I: Vancouver and the Cetaceous Aleph

Last fall, my husband and I went to the Northwest for a month.  That sounds like a long time, but when you spontaneously decide to turn it into a road trip, it is, in fact, a short trip of awesome.

Canadian flag waving at UBC
Canadian flag waving at UBC

We started in Vancouver, and stayed with our good friends Lesli and Bill, who took a week out of their busy school and work schedules to show us the sights–and I mean THE SIGHTS.  They moved to BC from Florida about three or four years ago, and have done an inspiring job of exploring everything Vancouver has to offer–best restaurants, best bookstores, and most importantly, the best nature. They really have become experts of their locale, and Lesli has a beautiful blog called New North Country Girl that explores the environmental differences and similarities experienced as a tropical-born expatriate.

The way I describe Vancouver to people is that it is maybe one of the most beautiful cities I’ve been too.  I don’t know whether it is just feats of urban designing, Asian and First Nation influence, or a fluke of geography, but Vancouver’s beauty seems to directly respond to its terrible weather.  The darker, colder, and more wet the city grew, the more intense the color in the trees became, and their contrast to the neutral, light-colored architecture punctuated by  random views of the surrounding mountains and blue sky glimpses made the city a delightful distraction to damp chills and overcast skies. It was a metropolis integrated and surrounded by nature, rather than trying to ignore it or designate it for certain spaces like say New York City.

Parallel 49 beers
Parallel 49 beers

They had beautiful beers, too, which may be a fact related or unrelated to weather coping mechanisms.  Parallel 49 seems to make nothing but home-run brews, their Lost Souls Chocolate Pumpkin Porter and Schadenfreude Pumpkin Oktoberfest were especially memorable.  All the beers in the Vancouver Island Brewery’s Pod Pack, especially the Storm Watcher, were all lip-smackers.

The Storm Watcher is the most delicious beer I’ve ever tasted.  It tastes like someone put freshly pulled Carmel in your mouth and somehow flambéed it on your tongue.  However, it wasn’t too sweet. It just implied sweet. Also, when a 12-pack has a pod of frolicking orcas on it, you know you are buying the right thing.

Suiting up.
Suiting up. Photo by Bill.

Speaking of frolicking orcas, thar be whales! Bill and Lesli took us out to Victoria Island for the weekend, and we went on a whale tour where we saw a shy humpback, harbour porpoises, and a pod of Orcas including a baby. I’ve only seen whales either post-mortem at natural museums or as faded monsters in antiquated lithographs, so finally getting up close to them was just—.

There needs to be a word that specifically describes the unique form of sublimity you experience when whales rush up too close to your boat and suddenly there they are, and there you are, and the fragile space in-between and all the emotions and thoughts that flash towards your cortex would be the word.

Yeah, that word.

I consulted Dan Beachy-Quick’s The Whaler’s Dictionary to see if he had a word for the experience, and the closest I can find is “Aelph.”

“Aleph carries breath, inspires–a livingness that comes to life without the consonant obstructing breath’s freedom. Aleph’s power can come to no use in the world, for it remains too close to the infinity that inspires it.”  (Pg.11)

Whale spotting.
Whale spotting. Photo by Bill.

He expands upon the definition later on in his “Reading (Water)” entry:

“Whalers who sight a whale lower boats and row after it. The whale sounds down when it senses their approach. A whale breathes as men breathe–with lungs. A whale rises to the surface to gather breath. The whaler’s look over the boat’s edge for a sign. The ocean does not bear words as text open upon it; water dissolves ink; water mocks legibility. The whalers do not look for a word, but for breath rising faster than the whale who exhaled it. Breath bears vowels. The first letter of the Hebrew alphabet–aleph–is silent; it takes the sound of whatever letter it is next to. A breath is silent but all words are borne on breath. A whaler watches for the breath that pronounces the whale. It appears as a bubble that bursts as it meets its own element. On the page it would appear as lightning–not a word but the light by which a word is seen.” (Pg. 232).

His focus on breath is very interesting, as I distinctly remember when the whales were spotted how suddenly they disappeared. Our guide cut the engine, because by law we are supposed to keep something like 100 yards away from the whales, and everyone held their breath while looking over the distance to catch a glimpse of them again.  For some reason, I decided to look over the left side, where I was sitting, and suddenly the entire pod breached right by us.  “Thar she blows” came out more as “Holy shit!” and everyone erupted into exhales and gasps and murmurs.

Seeing the Aleph.  It was like seeing the Aleph writ in water.

Thanks to Bill and Lesli for helping us read the water.

Moi, Josh, Lesli, Bill
Moi, Josh, Lesli, Bill