I was only planning to stay for a few hours. But the next morning, I feel obligated to explore a few of the coffee shops on this mountain-speared main street. Everyone I meet is remarkably friendly; the Canadians, the travelers, the Europeans and Asians working here for the summer in all of the shops and cafes. Just before dinner time I return to the corner where I played guitar last night. Busking in Banff is incredible. I am convinced that the Canadian economy is thriving because they have these $1 and $2 coins. In the US, I will play for hours and make maybe $20 on a great night. But here, people drop their spare change and it’s $5 at a time. After two hours, I’ve made $48. As I’m packing up my guitar, a happily intoxicated couple reads my “traveling to Alaska” sign, and after we chat they hand me a 20. This will be one of four separate occasions that I am given a $20 bill during my time in Banff.
I walk back to my car under the starry sky. Where will I sleep tonight? Should I hit the road and pull over in an empty clearing to camp in the forest? Should I tuck my car into a neighborhood somewhere nearby? Just as I’m about to turn the key, a police car arrives. I see the cop climb out and walk over to an Escalade parked three spots away from me. I can just barely overhear the conversation—“are you guys planning to spend the night here in this parking lot?” When the police car drives away, I hop out and walk over to the Escalade. Through the open back window, I can see a guy and a girl lying inside, curled into a cozy-looking den of blankets and pillows. They have two guitars. “Hey!” I wave. “Did he say it was ok to sleep here?” I lean my elbows against the edge of the car as we chat. They are travelers from Saskatchewan, and they only just arrived here in the mountains a few hours ago. The cop said that it was technically illegal to stay here overnight, but he didn’t have a problem with it. After a few minutes they invite me inside, so I climb in through the back window and stretch out on the blankets with them. We share travel stories, pass the guitars around, lean out to look up at the stars. After an hour or two we realize that we still haven’t even exchanged names. Tom and Chay feel the same way as I do about John Butler, and Chay puts on Ocean as we climb out to stand beneath the stars.
I head to a café early the next morning to write. In the afternoon I strum, trying to pull together funds to continue onwards, and I run into Tom and Chay while I’m playing. “Wine and jam sesh tonight?” They ask. So apparently I am staying yet another night in Banff.
The day unfolds as on-the-road days always do. I wander the city, I meet travelers as I strum, I convince a nurse in a clinic to illegally teach me how to remove the stitches from my own knee, I narrowly avoid the advances of a pair of drunk Canadian girls who aggressively try to get me to add a hickey to each of their already pock-marked necks, I meet a father and son from Chicago, Reem calls and we talk for the first time since she left for Italy at the beginning of the summer, I convince two passersby to sing “Let It Be” with me and the song ends with an entire street corner of applause. By the end of the day I have $70 more than I did at the beginning, and all I’ve done is explore, write, play music, and meet people.
Tom and Chay find me in the evening. We grab our instruments and we play on the street for a bit, then Tom procures two bottles of wine and we wander back to the cars. Tom opens the Shiraz while I crouch beside my car eating ramen. When I throw away the wrapper I find a box of pizza in the trash with two untouched slices inside: lunch tomorrow. Chay puts on John Butler again, Tom passes around cups of wine, and we revel in how crazy it all is. “How the hell did we meet each other?” “What is this?” “What is life?” “What is everything,” Chay says. I laugh. That’s one I ask a lot. “What is everything.” We all wonder how long we’ll travel for. “What are you going back to? What do you guys even do?” I eventually ask, realizing we’ve bypassed that customary question just like we forgot about names for the first two hours. Tom is an electrical engineer and Chay is a student and waitress. I laugh. After sharing our souls with one another, playing music together, wandering through an unfamiliar city, looking for shooting stars—after all that, those descriptions feel like ridiculously irrelevant labels rather than identities. As they are.
Chay mentions Bon Iver, which automatically makes my night, and she plays Skinny Love and Blood Bank and For Emma from the speakers of the Escalade as the three of us stand outside with our plastic cups of red wine, shivering under the mad raging night sky. A planet gleams: Saturn, Venus? And then a guy and girl walk up to us. “Excuse me,” they say. “Sorry, but would you mind turning your music up?” “Turning it up?” “Yeah.”
We turn up the music and stand beside the river where the reflections of silver diamond stars burn into the watery stillness and galaxy plumes through the heavens, mountain silhouettes black ink against ink and we just met each other, standing there together with red wine and jackets zipping out the chill. What is everything? This moment feels like one answer.