There are other Gastown diversions, I am told; hemporiums, like the New Amsterdam Café, have sprung up in response to hazy marijuana laws. With a mixture of pride and pain, Vancouverites will tell you that the city's liberal drug policies are not blissfully naïve. The intersection of Main and Hastings at the edge of Gastown is known locally as Pain and Wastings. In this area, heroin addicts have a safe site where they can inject themselves using clean hypodermics from a needle exchange. It's a controversial program, but typical of Vancouver's socially forward-thinking tendencies. Even so, this is the one part of the city that people avoid—not so much because it scares them but because it is so heart-wrenchingly sad.
On Sunday, I decide to put the previous day's purchases to use on a bike tour. I walk north through the city, past the outdoor cafés and through charming neighborhoods with Victorian houses, Craftsman cottages, and stark modern apartment buildings. On Denman Street, I rent a funny little bicycle, a cross between an old-school Sting-Ray and a three-speed roadster. Map in hand, I pedal past cyclists, Rollerbladers, and pedestrians. There are shortcuts and diversions all along the way: a cluster of totem poles, the Brockton Point lighthouse, water lily-covered Beaver Lake, and the magnificent 1938 Lions Gate Bridge, which connects the city to North and West Vancouver. Along a bumpy leaf-covered side trail, I skid to an abrupt stop as my bicycle chain jumps its gears. I'm stalled, but it's hard to muster frustration in the middle of a forest of cedars and Douglas firs. Instead, I breathe and take it all in: the fragrance of salty air through evergreen needles, the magnificence of groves of old trees forming their own small cities in counterpoint with the glass towers of Vancouver. Before long, a passing middle-aged cyclist stops, hops off his bike, and easily slips the chain back on while I hold my inverted bike in place. Nothing to it.
I head back to the road more traveled, following a path that winds around the edge of the park. The Pacific Ocean spreads out before me off Third Beach and Second Beach. (Vancouverites laughingly say that after the early settlers gave names to Sunset Beach and English Bay Beach, they got lazy and just numbered the rest.)
Not that they are generic by any means. Indeed, there's something on these beaches I have never seen before: great piles formed from rocks and the occasional piece of driftwood, huge demi-boulders improbably stacked on golf ball-sized pebbles. Built by patient souls with extremely steady hands, they tower majestically above the sand and water. Some recall abstract statues by Jean Arp, some have a Stonehenge stoicism, others are primitive glyphs—rock-and-stick figures. The locals who assemble them refer to these impromptu, impermanent sculptures as "balanced stones," but to me, they're a modern version of the inukshuk. Their existence may owe more to whimsy than to ritual, but their artful arrangement and baffling equilibrium are a perfectly apt metaphor for the delicacy and depth of Vancouver. Tomorrow morning they'll probably be gone, toppled by the incoming tide, but before long they'll be rebuilt in new configurations, mirroring the ever-changing skyline of the city.