Sunday, April 28, 2019

Chasing The Sun: Five Days in America


(written by Robert J Williams)


Day 1: Michigan

The border officer just didn’t get it. She couldn’t understand why we were going north then west to begin our US journey to BC, instead of south around the Lake and through Chicago. But she let us go, anyway. We drove for hours before getting to the northern peninsula and as we crossed the Mackinac Bridge we saw ourselves surrounded by three Great Lakes: Michigan, Huron and Superior. It was a sight to behold: the water was so cold that tiny chunks of ice floes bobbed up and down in the choppy waves. Either spring had forgotten to come, or winter had forgotten to leave. Likely the latter.

St. Ignace, once a French village and later a fur trading post, was founded in 1671, named after Jesuit missionaries serving in North America. Chantal and I were surprised to see so many French names still preserved here after so long. Even more surprising, across the street from our hotel stood an old drive-in called Clyde’s, first opened in 1949. Their season had just started two days earlier, our server told us, and they were already backed up. I watched the cook at the grill work his magic, flipping and wrapping with both hands. “He can do up to fifty patties at a time,” she said after we ordered. We understood later why the McDonalds down the street was empty. The restaurant was pure vintage America: red and white colors, simple menu, and very thick shakes.

The hotel’s key card had a slogan on the front: “better over the bridge.” They were right. The view was amazing, and the suspension bridge itself reminded me of the character of the Golden Gate over San Francisco: strong, bold and fearless, although the strong winds required escorts from ground crews for larger vehicles and towables. Bridges also seemed uniquely American here, going well with the all the roads that we’d forgotten about.


View of Mackinac Bridge from hotel | Good old fashioned drive-in!


Day 2: Michigan and Wisconsin

What the hell are pasties? I wondered, seeing sign after sign on Route 2 going west. Were they all just pastries, each sign somehow misspelled the same way? Were they fish cakes? As it turned out, pasties are as unique to northern Michigan as poutine is to Quebec. They are Cornish style crunchy baked pies filled with beef or chicken, diced potato, rutabaga and onion, served with gravy all over them. We had to try one, but all the shops were closed on a Sunday morning. We had to wait.

We continued driving west, with Lake Superior watching us from our right the entire way. The water was filled with ice chunks being bounced around like pinballs against the rocky islands near shore. The ice was so thick, even in April, that we saw people with sleds and fishing poles way out in the distance. Deer crossed our path several times, and the crows fed on the ones who hadn’t made it. The whole area was filled with tiny villages and bait shops and boat launches, a vast fisherman’s paradise.

We finally reached Wisconsin, and Chantal stressed as she managed to get a shot of the border sign. Our 32nd state was now in the books. Along the road there were many turnouts and park entrances, still closed until the snow and ice subsided. We drove through forest after forest, all part of the Hiawatha and Ottawa National Park systems.

Day 3: Minnesota and North Dakota

After hearing about them in St Ignace, Michigan, and buying them in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, we finally had pasties in Bismarck, North Dakota. Described as enlarged hot pockets surrounded by crusty dough, they reminded us of tourtiere meat pies for Christmas. They were delicious, especially when smothered in gravy.

Frost and an orange striped sunrise greeted us in Duluth as we pulled away early and headed west. The ten thousand lakes and fishermen’s paradise of Minnesota soon became the ten thousand farms of North Dakota as we drove west across I-94, a road so quiet we felt like we owned it. The flatlands stretched as far as the eye could see, and the clouds above loomed so large they looked ready to swallow us whole.

The state continued to open up for us as we kept driving. Vintage cowboy towns began to reveal themselves, like the one in Medora, a quaint village right next to the Theodore Roosevelt National Park. We stopped at a gift shop and were introduced to a cashier from Luxembourg who married a rancher and after all these years was still overwhelmed by all the space around her. I picked up my usual shot glass as we headed out.

We found a nice hotel in Bismarck, the state capital. There we were treated to a breakfast that challenged all of my dreams: a showcase filled with cake donuts; a steam table filled with sausage, scrambled egg and hash browns; another steam table filled with French toast sticks and maple syrup; and, in a far corner, a chocolate waffle station complete with whipped cream and chilled strawberries. Even the coffee post was impressive, featuring three roasts and six types of creamers. We could have stayed a week, and almost did.


Wisconsin | Medora, ND | Bismarck AmericInn Hotel lounge


Day 4: Montana

As we crossed into America’s fourth largest state, I tried to remember scenes from old movies, such as Legends of the Fall and The Horse Whisperer to gear up for the coming landscape. It was as wide open and vast as I expected. We took smaller, lonelier roads across most of the way and wondered what people did here during what little free time they had. Small towns were spread apart twenty, thirty and forty miles, with very little in between other than immense farms and ranches, with mailboxes attached to gravel side roads that disappeared far off into the distance to their hidden homes.

As we approached Great Falls, our last US destination, the grasslands magically transformed into forests and mountainous terrain, and the dipping sunlight sent off a glaze to the freshly fallen rain on the roads. The hotel clerk told us that Great Falls used to have falls, but were replaced with dams, and the town was now known as Electric City. We unpacked quickly and found our way to one of our favorite restaurant hang outs, Chili’s. Margueritas were on special, but we decided to stay clean.


Day 5: Montana and Lethbridge

The sun stayed with us as we reached the border. No other trip across America had been so fast for us as this one had been, and Interstate 15 remained quiet all the way to Canada, reminding us how intoxicating driving through the United States can really be. We could have kept on going, and perhaps someday will. But for today, our target was Lethbridge and, beyond it, a small town called Blairmore, home to the famous Crowsnest Pass and the buried town of Frank’s Slide.

I was not feeling well that day and we stopped at a Tim Hortons on our way. I had a bowl of cream of broccoli soup that was so hot and delicious that I had forgotten about my fever and congestion. We drove along Route 3 through Crowsnest, one of the few highways available to cross through the mighty Rockies into BC. The scenery was even more breathtaking than it had been six months earlier, and slowing our way through the massive rubble of Frank’s Slide was as incredible as driving up the side of a mountain.

We followed the sun one last time to our final hotel, where rest came early and quickly. The next day would bring us back to Golden, where our western Canadian adventure first began a year ago and would resume again, to go back to our RV that was waiting for us for a new season of travel and adventure.


Montana | Back to BC!



Monday, April 8, 2019

Call of the Mountains

(click on pictures for full-screen viewing)


Call of the Mountains

by

Robert J Williams



The mountains followed us a lot in 2018, from beginning to end. Sometimes close, other times at a distance, they lured us along almost every road and watched us curiously from almost every campground. There were so many, we could not keep up with their names, even with the assistance of a truck atlas, GPS and local signs. Along the west coast we saw them in California, Oregon and Washington, in many shapes, sizes and colours. But in British Columbia, they brought us to a whole new level neither one of us had thought possible.

We chose to live in Golden for six months, a small town named after its mining and logging roots and now surrounded by national parks in every direction. Golden is sandwiched between the Purcell and Rocky Mountain ranges, and the valley in between them is home to as many specimens of wildlife as there are tourists who travel through it. As we drove through the Rogers Pass along the Canada Highway we looked on either side and almost felt the ice begin to crack and slide down the rocky slopes. Ski season had just ended and the coming of spring was hidden within the misty shadows of the melting frost. A tiny gut feeling gave me the impression that winter, in all its glory of beauty and ugliness, liked to be born here, hide here and die here with each passing season.

We settled into our new home in an RV park along a lonely stretch of highway outside of town. The owners, who lived there full time, welcomed us warmly and watched over all the sites from their farmhouse near the gravel entrance. Gary and Karen had been and done everything in their lives. They had driven trucks the size of houses along the mining quarries of Fort MacMurray; they had run farms and businesses and parks throughout BC for many years; they had fished, hunted, travelled and laboured their entire lives. They built not only families and not only friendships, but also communities. They were grandparents who held shotguns; they were farmers who grew crops but forgot to cook for themselves on occasion; they were home builders who enjoyed staying in an RV from time to time; they were both Metis natives in full touch with the spiritual world that governed them. And, of course, they were servants of the mountains around them.

Early in our stay, we listened to an avalanche in the near distance as the warm weather guided us toward May. At a family dinner one evening, Gary told us about all the mountain peaks he had climbed in his youth, which had now affected his bad knees later in life. He was happiest with a horse and a gun, and could easily disappear in the cold forests without a care in the world. He once slept near a campfire and, the next morning, saw lines of bear prints that had circled him and somehow had left him alone. He believed that they knew that he was at peace that night, at one with his space. All the meaning in life he had found along those peaks, the same meaning that had brought him back to be part of a family.

He dropped by our trailer one morning and showed us with a scope two mountain goats climbing a faraway ridge. “There’s probably a cougar somewhere around there, too,” he mused in passing, almost as if he had said it a thousand times before. It was then that we began to learn about the lives of other creatures here: deer, elk, bears, coyotes, eagles, and so on. “The mountains decide where they go,” he said to me. Chantal and I often walked around the perimeter of the farm, and down a gravel road that led over the train tracks to the edge of a boat launch. There we sat at an old picnic table and watched over time as the river below would rise with the melting glacier water and the mountains would continue to change colour with the passing skies.

Our backyard at the RV park, where we gathered every evening at the picnic table to look at the Columbia River & the mountains. Looking South.
As the air grew warmer we worked outside more and more, cutting tree branches and planting crops and mowing grass. There were times when I would stop my ride mower for a moment and just gaze southward at the mountain peaks, or watch a coal train slowly drift along the river’s edge, or squint my eyes to follow an eagle hovering nearby, searching for a meal. I had not breathed such fresh air or taken in such fresh water or bathed in such crisp sunshine for my entire life, I thought. Part of me wanted to take a picture or shoot a video or angle my phone for a breathtaking panoramic shot; but, instead, I simply enjoyed the moment, as I’m sure the mountains wanted me to. They made the silence echo somehow, so much that the chirp of a bird seemed deafening, the twist of a tree branch seemed intrusive, the running of the Columbia River water seemed overwhelming.

Karen loved to shoot snakes. It was one of the few things in this world that scared her. When she blew one to smithereens one morning she cried out in triumph with a boisterous yell that could wake the dead, I thought. She had no problem with it, she told us; it had chosen its fate by crossing her path. She had taught her four children how to shoot, and was waiting eagerly to do the same with her young grand daughters in a few short years. Karen and Gary hunted both together and separately, and wasted not a drop of their kill. They lived to track in the mountains, she said. That is where human and animal are equal.

I turned 50 in these mountains, something I had not thought of earlier in our travels. It didn’t feel like a milestone at first, but the Kicking Horse River that wound through the valley here had other ideas - and so did Chantal. She bought us a day pass to go white water rafting, a first for the both of us. We were the oldest in the group on the bus, I think, but I couldn’t have felt younger at heart that day as we were taught how to gear up and hold our paddles properly. Our groups divided up and we entered the cold, surging, glacier waters. Our raft leader, Darren, a veteran at commanding the rapids, told us when to yell and when to turn from atop his throne above us on the swirling puffy boat. We laughed as the waves launched us and the rocks ricocheted us like balls helpless in a pinball game.

Laughing all the way down the Kicking Horse!
By lunchtime, we were famished. We settled in a camping alcove along the river, where steaks and burgers waited for us, along with a buffet table of chips, cookies, veggies and salad. We gobbled up everything they gave us as we warmed up by a fire. There was still a cool mist hovering above the water line, and the roaring, gurgling sound of the surge - the lifeblood of the river - was never far from our ears. We all talked at once but no one really listened. We were just all grateful to be alive, to hear our hearts beating in our chests, our temples pounding from the excitement, and our stomachs growling from the appetites. As the food came and went, we all took turns throwing our leftover sandwich cookies to other rafts floating by, a gesture tradition started by one of the companies in town. We got back into our boats, our voices hoarse from screaming and laughing. But nobody cared. The paddles didn’t feel heavy anymore, and we all felt like we could conquer anything. As the afternoon fell to the evening, the bus ride back to town lulled us to nap but we didn’t dare close our eyes. We looked out and down into the gorge that had swallowed us for the day and spit us back out. In the parking lot, none of us seemed to want to leave. A director came up and handed me a chocolate cupcake with a lit candle sticking out. A gentle rain started as we made for our cars. I don’t think I told anyone my age that day.

As the spring became summer and the summer became fall, the mountains continued to impose themselves upon us. I took a job working at a lodge deep within the skiing trails of Kicking Horse outside of town. My commute allowed me to count the pine trees and watch the glimmer of green change in the setting sun. Deer and elk watched me go by almost daily. The clouds and mist often hid the peaks in the distance from me, but on clearer days the blue sky glared upon the misshapen white triangles that refused to melt. One of those faraway peaks was called Mount Seven, a place named after the same digit stencilled into the north side of the face during colder months. On a bright Sunday morning near Thanksgiving we felt it was still warm enough to drive to the top, and so we took the long, single lane gravel road up several thousand feet, winding around various switchbacks and ice patches. Along the way we realized we were not going up there alone.

Part way up, we came across a hiker, carrying a backpack filled with a rolled up hang glider. He asked for a ride, and agreed to sit on the tailgate, enjoying the scenery that passed us from behind. Not long after, we picked up three other hikers, all European tourists who barely spoke English but knew enough to tell us about the great view that lay ahead. They joined the first hiker on the tailgate and they all chatted happily while we drove, all eight legs swinging like pendulums as we navigated along the narrow lane of ice and gravel. After a slow drive we reached a turnout, and we all got out to walk the rest of the way. A sharp, cool breeze met us as we reached the rocky edge and looked out: before us, far below, a group of little flickering specks engulfed in mountains, was the town of Golden. Highway 95, a thin pencil line, snaked through and around it, heading south along the river toward a spot we knew had been our home but would not be in another two weeks.

The young hiker thanked us, then barely spoke after as he went straight to work. He unpacked his gear and began to construct his ride back home on the rocky turf. The breeze kept us all in check and on guard as we stood and watched him. He stretched out his tarp, attached his fittings, dressed himself into his harness, took a long drink from a bottle, and within moments he was ready to take off. There was no ceremony or horn blaring or announcer’s voice on a noisy mike; he just ran down a small patch of dirt and grass until there was none left, as he set sail into nothingness. He did not yell or cheer; he simply became a large colourful bird with strange wings and feet, circling at first and then beginning his descent, becoming smaller and smaller until he just wasn’t there anymore.

Down the mountain he goes! Columbia River below, looking West.

Chantal and I stood at a wooden launch pad and looked out, for a moment saying nothing. We knew that the mountains had quieted us ever since we had begun driving alongside them two years earlier, but nothing like this. Peace and serenity and some measure of solitude must have been born here, I thought. This high up, there is no place for noise or distraction, only calm. Someone took a picture of us, and as we looked around for a little while longer, a man driving an Ontario car without snow tires had somehow made it up and joined us briefly. He was wearing shorts and sandals and planned to stay until the sunset with his camera. It had taken us almost two hours to get up here; how was this guy going to get down the mountain by himself in the dark?

That question loomed in my mind as we all made it back to the truck. The other hikers we had picked up took their places again on the tailgate and we began our journey down the mountain. What we had not seen going up was now glaring back at us: a single lane with two long, twisting, glazing grooves serving as tire tracks, and I had lost count of the switchbacks that lay ahead. I cursed myself for not stopping sooner or turning around, but it was too late now. The added weight on the back seemed to push us more and more the slower I tried to move. Even with the onboard tracking controls, the ABS was working against us so I turned it off. Gearing down didn’t help either, because the gravity was against us. I managed to just stop at a turn before careening over the edge, and everyone got out. We didn’t have dirt or sand on the truck, which would have helped for traction. Chantal walked ahead and waved at another truck coming toward us in the same lane. Somehow, he read the problem, turned around, and went back down. With less weight on board, I took it very slowly, listening to the tires crunch along the ice, keeping it slow so that I didn’t need brakes.

Before our troubles began. Beautiful mountain scenery!

It went that way for a while, with the edge of the cliff always to my left. Finally we levelled off a bit, and everyone got back in the truck. About an hour later, half way down, ice finally gave way to mud and dirt, and I could not have been more grateful. The adrenaline had pumped like never before, and not again since. At a fork in the road near the bottom, we came upon the group’s SUV, and we let them off, watching them wave as we continued on. Sometime later, we saw the sign that led us back to Highway 95. To this day, we don’t know what happen to the dude with the shorts and sandals.

The mountains called to us that day, of that I’m sure, and they no doubt winked slightly as we left two weeks later to cross the country to head back home, much closer to sea level. In the winter months, the Laurentians north of Montreal whispered to us to hang out with them for a while and so we did, hanging out in small towns like Prevost and Saint Sauveur. The gentle ski slopes guided by lights and tram lifts did not give us the same fear that we had discovered that day on Mount Seven, but they did remind us of that strange, ethereal magic that we had left behind. And that same eerie force is summoning us again, pulling us in ways we cannot explain and don’t want to.

Back we go along the yellow brick road to take us the land of Oz, otherwise known as the Trans Continental Highway leading us back to Western Canada, where another season of breathless wonders awaits us. We thank you for following us on our adventures as we continue our RV journey and our exploration of our great country - and ourselves.