We were stuck for an hour. On Route 99 outside of Squamish, British Columbia, traffic was bumper-to-bumper. In fact, cars didn't move at all.
Route 99 was closed, as it is six hours each day.
Known as the "Sea to Sky Highway," Route 99 is one of the most scenic drives in Canada. It snakes alongside Horseshoe Bay into the pristine Coast Mountains, a preserve of natural wonder north of Vancouver still largely unspoiled by development.
We were en route to Whistler, a world-class skiing resort nestled between two mountains adjacent to Garibaldi Provincial Park. We were scheduled to speak at the annual meeting of the San Francisco Paramedic Association.
We flew the red-eye into Seattle and rented a car for the five-hour drive to Whistler. Tired and sticky from the overnight journey, we were ready for a hot shower and comfortable bed.
We had been warned. Beginning near the old mining town of Britannia Beach, signs posted along Route 99 read, "Road Closed from 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m."
Fatigue, or perhaps a belief that as Americans we are indomitable in foreign lands, led us to deny that the road would really be closed.
Americans aren't very good at obeying signs. We walk past signs saying "Sidewalk Closed." If we see a "Wet Paint" sign, we touch it anyway. The idea that a road would be closed for six hours seemed absurd -- anti-American even. So we drove on.
The view is stunning. For most of its length, Route 99 is a winding, two-lane road etched in the rocky slopes of extinct volcanoes. Rugged, snow-capped peaks tower over the narrow highway.
Route 99 is laid along an Indian hunting trail leading to Lillooet, a trading village deep in the British Columbia interior. First cut in 1873 by railroad surveyors to drive cattle to Vancouver markets, the route was rarely traveled even after automobiles were
introduced. A gravel road wasn't completed until 1964.
A few miles from Squamish, two women in jumpsuits and fluorescent orange vests blocked our path. One of them held a stop sign. Sure enough, the road was closed. Around the bend up ahead, out of sight, work crews cleared away rock that threatened to fall on the roadway.
We apparently were not the only skeptics; about 30 cars lined up in front of us.
Stopped dead in our tracks by forces far beyond our control, we were constrained to do something we ordinarily wouldn't do: We waited patiently for an hour.
We talked. We looked at the mountains. As far as the eye could see in any direction, there was no hint of humanity except this one thin asphalt slice in the jagged terrain.
We walked along the roadside into the sun-dappled trees that clung to life on the craggy, steep incline that leads to icy waters far below. The sky was clear and cloudless.
Other people left their cars. Several took pictures. One video-taped the line of cars with his camcorder.
People said hello to one another. They sunned themselves and read books. Several small boys, rifles slung over their backs, played cops-and-robbers among the boulders.
At the head of the line waited an ambulance, its crew headed back to their base station in Squamish. There was the hotshot motorcyclist, dressed from head to foot in black leather. Behind him was a gleaming white tractor trailer, its load an incongruous tank of hissing liquid oxygen that was frosted with ice.
Waiting in line was a remarkable cross-section of people. A family fussed with their baby. Exotic music wafted out of a car carrying a Sikh family. There were wealthy people and those of modest means, young people and old.
"Looks like we aren't going anywhere for an hour," said an older gentleman with a keen sense of the obvious.
And so we didn't.
At 12:30, one of the orange-vested women, at the command of her walkie-talkie, put the stop sign in the back of her truck and drove off. One at a time, we returned to our cars and continued on our way. Within minutes, we were back at the speed limit.
Thinking back on those moments of tranquillity, something seemed out of kilter. Something just wasn't right.
And then we realized: Nobody seemed to mind being stopped. Nobody was in a hurry. There was no grumbling. Not one horn was honked.
We tried to imagine the same scenario in a different place and time. Take the same set of people in another environment, the urban jungle rather than mountainous wilderness. In the District of Columbia, tempers would have flared. In New York, there might have been guns brandished.
But diminished by mountains, matters of schedules and commitments -- things so important to defining ourselves -- simply evaporated into the thin atmosphere.
Bruce Goldfarb and Nancy Peterson are Baltimore writers.