Band on the Run: The SkyTrain View of Vancouver, BC

Ember Swift, Canadian musician and touring performer, will be keeping us up-to-date on what it’s like to tour a band throughout North America. Having just arrived back from Beijing where she spent three months (check out her “Canadian in Beijing” series), she offers a musician’s perspective on road life. Enjoy!

Last week, I had the pleasure of an extra day in Vancouver. The festival we performed at in Grand Forks, BC didn’t program events on the Sunday. As a result, we headed back to Vancouver on Sunday rather than on our flight day, which was Monday. This gave me a chance to catch up with a friend in Vancouver and take in a very Vancouver-specific experience:

The SkyTrain.

I was staying out in Surrey, an outlying suburb of Vancouver. My friend lives on the opposite side of the city and so we agreed to meet up downtown. I headed to King George SkyTrain station and felt like a tourist all over again, even though this is definitely not my first time in this city.

I love wandering cities alone, even the occasionally seedy ones.

Now, I’m not slagging Vancouver. This is a beautiful place. On my many occasions here I have walked the Sea Wall, seen Stanley Park, spent copious hours on Commercial Drive and generally loved the Vancouver vibe. I am definitely a west coast convert and probably wouldn’t turn down much opportunity to get out there because it is just that beautiful. The fact that it’s guarded by the Rocky Mountains doesn’t hurt either, as though they supervise the town with their stony majesty.

Well, hey, this summer is a fine example of that respect I feel for the west coast, not to mention the magnet I feel to get there; we have flown out there as a band three times since early July and that makes British Columbia our number one destination for summer festivals in 2007.

That’s something.

I would, however, be remiss if I didn’t also point out that Vancouver has a rough side. Seedy, rough, sketchy – call it what you will. This town has its full-spectrum attributes and I’d say that King George station reminded me of this truth.

I read here that Vancouver has been noted as having “the worst skid row in North America.” Hard to believe when you tour the beautiful neighbourhoods of North Vancouver or the hip arts district of the East End.

But, I think this reality adds to the beauty of the city, too. There is a seedy underbelly here that clashes suddenly with such intensely beautiful scenery, for sure, but, even more interesting is that this underbelly is not being hidden; it is regularly visible, sort of like a dog that is willing to roll over and show its vulnerability without losing its ability to dominate or its charm.

Yeah, Vancouver is a mix, for sure, and that’s what I love about it.

Nothing happened at that SkyTrain station to be alarmed about, of course. There was just the exchange of general acknowledgment between those hanging around the station and me, the visitor, passing through the station. I bought my ticket (from the kiosks that work on an honour system – you just buy the ticket and they occasionally check but there’s no turnstile or attendant!) and headed upstairs to the platform. The only indicator that this is the right direction is the banner above the stairway that indicates that this is “Fare Paid Zone.”

I love how trusting Vancouver is.

This is the end of the line, so the train was paused here for a few moments before heading back downtown. It gave me just the time I wanted to snap a picture of its perch, pre take-off, and of the way the tracks look, as though they’re about ready to mount the mountains themselves and then race down into a twist and turn and upside-down roller coaster run. I half expected to hear that motorized-pulley sound of roller coaster cars being tugged uphill.

The SkyTrain is a subway above ground (not unlike Line 13 in Beijing or the L in Chicago) and it offers an amazing view of such a diverse city. When I sat down in the front car, I was soon surrounded by everyday commuters and some noisy teens heading out for the evening. Everything seemed normal and urban, as though I could be anywhere, as we weaved into the city suspended on stilts across the water and skimming roof lines of various neighbourhoods. No hills and no death-defying speeds, but it was cool all the same.

I got off at Granville Station and was met with the steepest escalator I have ever seen. In fact, I actually backed away from it when I saw it with the intent to take a picture and stranger said to me, mockingly, “Ah, don’t worry. It won’t hurt cha!” while pointing upwards and smirking.

I just nodded and took my picture, feeling all the more like a tourist (and this sometimes can be equated with “geeky,”) and then I also felt an overwhelming drive to put my camera safely in my bag, out of sight. This isn’t a common feeling for me so I rode the escalator up, took a couple more photos and then safely stashed it in my bag before getting to the top. The urge to conceal anything valuable was palpable and I just listened to myself. I wouldn’t call that paranoia, just instinct.

When I got out of the station at Granville, there was a lot of street action and I was grateful for this decision. I walked through it unnoticed, but sometimes looking like a tourist even when there’s only twenty bucks in your pocket and a cheap knock off camera in your possession is just not worth the hassle. I hurried past and then called my friend and we found each other just a few blocks later. Now, hey, I’m not saying there was any actual threat on that street there; I’m just saying that I wasn’t about to invite any, either. Not in Vancouver.

And then, I had a great catch up with my friend who I haven’t seen since I was in Beijing in June. I got a lift home from Dave’s sister, Liz, but I would have happily taken The SkyTrain again. I’ll have to do that sometime when night has fallen so that I can watch the lights of the city bounce off the water and the tall buildings. I’m sure it just adds to the beauty.

Until then, stay safe and open minded in the great wild, Wild West.

I miss that coast already.