Fodder for your Memoir Saturday

It continues to perplex me, after fourteen years of being a parent, that a suggestion as innocuous as ‘let’s go to Banff for the day’ should be met with the level of weeping and gnashing as happens chez moi. I mean people, from all over the world, use their hard-earned vacation time and money to experience the Canadian Rockies but the Johnson boys will have none of it.

None. Of. It.

But alas, I had googled ‘winter hikes banff’, had pinpointed an ‘easy hike’, had made vague mental notes about locating said hike: you take this road, and then you find another road and there will probably be trail signs’ so forfeiting was not an option.

The professor set about searching for mittens and hats and snowpants while I went about my pre-trip ritual of inexplicable kitchen activity. Typically in the warmer months, this takes the form of producing a large quinoa salad while the rest of my family members pace around the living room waiting for me. But on this snowy ‘spring’ day I opted to make scones. To the professor’s credit, he no longer raises an eyebrow when I do this, no longer says: ‘really, you’re making scones? Now?’ Instead he just asks: ‘what are you doing?’ And I say ‘making scones’ and he keeps on looking for mittens.

This is how you survive a marriage.

Eventually, a mere 20 minutes later than I’d hoped, five grumpy people crammed into the professor’s car with its snow tires and singular backseat row, and extreme proximity to any and all vehicle occupants. Then it was time for the professor’s signature pre-trip ritual: the realization he doesn’t have his wallet and has no idea where it might be. He  patted his pants pockets, his coat pockets. He checked the cubbies in the car. Then disappeared into the house for probably five minutes though it felt like fifty.

We hit the Transcanada Highway and I reached for the book I’d brought along: Jessica Fechtor’s Stir. I read, both for interest, and to keep my anxiety in check about the professor’s driving. The book tells the tale of the author’s brain aneurysm at the age of 28, weaving tales of her life before and after the incident together with recipes for dishes that were meaningful to her at each juncture. It’s as clunky as it sounds but still I identified with the fear, the uncertainty, the attempt at reclaiming identity, for just that morning I’d noticed what I thought was a cavity on one of my teeth. My stomach churned at the dental uncertainty that lay ahead of me, so much that I shut the book and decided to take my chances with the professor’s driving.

We made it to Banff without incident, and I found ‘this road’ etched in my mental map. The car meandered along, and we stopped to look at hoodoos and eat the still-warm scones I’d made. There was also a very chilly visit to the outhouse in below zero temps. We continued on, searching for ‘another road’ and eventually located the trail and a parking lot with exactly one space for our car.

The sun was shining brightly and the sky was blue and it seemed like a great day for an easy hike. Maybe. We stepped onto the trail, into the unknown. A young, childless, twentysomething couple who looked like they’d chosen their clothes ‘on purpose’ as opposed to grabbing whatever lay within arm’s reach trailed a short distance behind us. ‘Maybe we should turn around,’ the woman in the sunglasses and belted coat muttered uncertainly at the prospect of an hour-plus walk on a snowy-icy trail.

Meanwhile the Johnsons walked in relative peace, minus the exasperating things boys tend to do when they find themselves on a trail: crawl on their hands and knees, throw snow at one another, yank on a brother’s arms for no apparent reason. Around the fourth switchback (what does easy mean, anyway?) it happened. Our youngest explorer, as has been his habit since the first time he set foot on a trail, fell into an emotional-mental pit that no amount of logic or faux-patient speech through clenched-teeth would resolve. We all navigate emotional-mental pits in our own way, and Percy’s way is to collapse in the middle of a trail while wailing any number of choice phrases: ‘I want to die’ or ‘I’m not going anywhere’ or ‘I don’t care’.

I’m pretty sure Mother Teresa would have lost her beatific mind at the sight of such ludicrous behavior.

A woman, walking alone, likely in her mid-fifties, passed us. She raised her eyebrows at me. Perhaps her way of commiserating with our squatting spectacle but I took the raised eyebrow to mean ‘oh yeah, been there, done that, now I walk alone.’

During the ‘Banff Hostage Crisis of 2018’ I counted at least five children hiking down from ‘the top’ with their parents in tow. All younger, smaller than our dispirited Percy. None of them crying, complaining or threatening mutiny. One child, dressed head to toe in a pink and purple snowsuit like some kind of Teletubby  – undoubtedly drenched in sweat underneath those downy layers – marched silently without a word of protest to her parents.

In the word of Nancy Kerrigan, ‘whhyyyyyyyyyyyyyy.’

At some point, while we were still a considerable distance from the top, I saw the woman with the belted coat and sunglasses who’d been behind us at the start of the trail. She and her companion were heading back, in the opposite direction. Because they ‘d already made it to the top.

Exasperated, I spoke to my children: ‘there’s the woman who was behind us, she’s on her way back already, that leaves me with two theories – what do you think they are?’

‘That they’re going faster than we are,’ my scientists-in-training responded.

‘Sure, I guess, they could be going faster than we are,’ I sputtered, because as usual I’d thrown out a number – two – without actually having two theories. ‘But mostly I’m thinking we could have already been there if we weren’t spending so much time complaining.’

An hour, or was it three, after we first began, the five Johnsons made it to a clearing type space that seemed to be ‘the top’. Our children crouched on the ground, while I snapped photos, noting that the ‘view’ was virtually the same as the photo I’d snapped from a lower viewpoint. We noticed a small trickle of people emerging from the far end of ‘the top’ giving us reason to believe we hadn’t reached the summit, after all. ‘How much farther,’ I inquired of an energetic twentysomething hiker.

‘You go another 200m that way and there are some red chairs, and then about another 30m or so.’ The professor and I instructed our children to sit tight and walked. And walked. ‘How long is 200m?’ I wondered aloud. It seems such a benign distance, like it’s basically right there. Doesn’t Usain Bolt run 200m….in less than 20 seconds?

Not on Tunnel Mountain, he doesn’t.

We passed the woman with the belted coat and sunglasses….again….and I realized there was a third theory I hadn’t considered: mistaken identity. Here was the woman who’d started the hike behind us, hoping to turn around, that other woman had been an imposter. In a different colored coat. With a different boyfriend. This woman and her companion had beaten us to the top, yes, but by a very slim margin.

Perhaps she and Percy should hike together.

We came upon the promised clearing with red chairs, so buried in snow as to make sitting and enjoying the view impossible. Behind us a group of three men was taking turns climbing onto a tree bent in a zig-zaggy shape that, for whatever reason, reminded me of Mr. Tumnus.  They were striking all manner of lewd and improbable poses while I mentally added the hashtag #TreeToo to their Instagrams.

I begged the professor to get on the tree and allow me to take his photograph, hoping for a pose like George Costanza on that velvet couch. But alas, he declined, so we returned to our crew. They jumped to their feet and, without so much as a backwards glance, speed-walked directly to the car. For as much as Percy hates walking away from a parked car, there is no one on earth who marches towards a car with more energy and zeal.

‘He likes having summitted’ the professor muttered.

Hellobonjour, le troisieme time is le charm

The professor and I took a few moments at the White Wolf Inn to tweak our itinerary for the following day, using the lessons we’d gleaned from failed hikes number 1 and 2: less distance and elevation and perhaps something besides hiking and driving. For the kids.

Our first stop on day 3 was the Miette Hot Springs where we arrived right at opening time. Sitting in hot water , staring at strangers wearing bathing suits is not really my idea of a good time, but this fell under the ‘for the kids’ category. The professor decided to be amusing and rented one of the old-fashioned one-piece bathing suits on offer. Though I left my camera in the car, I may or may not have posted evidence on instagram of my better half sporting a blue onesie.

After raising our internal temperatures a few degrees, we headed to the next stop of the day: Jasper Lake. Basically, a large body of ice cold ankle deep water right off the highway. Again, pour les enfants. DSC_0492

For the day’s hike we had selected Maligne Canyon, which has the dubious honor of being considered ‘the most interesting canyon in the Canadian Rockies’. A mere 7km in distance, with minimal elevation gain, we had every expectation that the third [hike] would be the charm.

We pulled into the Sixth Bridge parking lot, crossed our fingers and away we went. It was perhaps less ‘hike’ and more ‘scenic walk’, especially since it turns into a full on tourist trap by the time you get to the third bridge. Most likely because you can skip all that hiking business and drive straight to the first bridge to walk around on paved trails with less than minimal exertion.

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Perhaps that makes it sound like I’m frowning upon people who choose to eschew all the drama adventurous preamble in favor of door to door service. Which, of course, I am. But, in defense of tourist traps, they do make for the best people watching, offering a welcome respite from one’s own travelling-family dynamics.

[Scene: Middle-aged father walking with two tween-aged girls. The eldest is wearing jeans and a black leather jacket and obviously suffering as a result, on this warm, end-of-July day.]

‘Why don’t you just tie the jacket around your waist like you did yesterday,’ the father suggests to his sweltering daughter.

‘Do you have any idea how ridiculous that would look?! Who ties a leather jacket around their waist?!’

‘Well, I don’t know many people who wear a leather jacket to go hiking.’

‘I didn’t know this was what we were going to be doing. I was not well informed!’

The exchange had me laughing to the point of tears, and wishing I could walk behind them for a few more minutes, if only to be reminded that I’m not alone. Because I am traveling with a 12 year old boy and his two tweens-in-training younger brothers. Our conversations may not revolve around wardrobe choices, but nobody asked to come on this trip and this is the worst day of my life and I just want to go home.

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Despite the abbreviated nature and ease of our excursion, we did not avoid the seemingly inescapable boy breakdowns. Luckily there was a visitor centre with a ‘tea house’ and luckily, having learned a thing or two about the importance of carrying cash in remote settings, I had enough funds to purchase something edible for all involved.

Let it not be said that I don’t learn my lessons….eventually.

While sitting on the terrace at the tea house consuming our lunch, dark clouds had filled the sky, signalling imminent precipitation. The professor, who is in charge of maps and trails (a slight step above Phoebe’s cups and ice) when we hike, had identified a shortcut that bypassed all the bridges and the tourists. It was a delightful, virtually deserted trail and since we were ‘going back’ the boys didn’t even care that they were getting pelted with rain.

Johnsons 1-Nature 2

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For as long as I’ve been thinking about visiting Jasper, Maligne Lake/Spirit Island has been at the top of my list of ‘must-see’ Jasper destinations. But here’s the thing about traveling with kids, sometimes you have to relinquish your dreams for the greater good. (*Cough* Delicate Arch *cough*.) The drive to Maligne Lake would have taken two hours return and though the boys had tolerated the canyon business fairly well, they were certainly not chomping at the bit for more. And it was almost 5pm (I think).

Thus we headed to our resting place for the evening – an Otentik in Whistler’s Campground – while I tried to swallow my sadness. ‘You need to be flexible,’ I’d explained to one of my boy-children the previous day, when he’d complained about having to do things he didn’t want to do. And, as usually happens when I try to impart wisdom, I end up having to listen to my own advice.

When we arrived at the highway turnoff to the campground, there was a line-up of vehicles trying to do the same. There was also a line-up in the opposite directions of cars stopped to look at yet another bear. Eventually we made it to the campground entrance with its full/complet warnings to any of those silly enough to dare to show up in a national park on a long weekend without a reservation.

A Dutch woman drove up in a Canadream rental camper and spoke to the hellobonjour agent in the booth. ‘I need a campsite.’ ‘Do you have a reservation?’ ‘No, but I want to stay for two nights,’ she added, loudly, as if that would entice the agent to rustle up a free campsite.

They sent her to ‘overflow’ which I imagine to be a field filled to the brim with reservationless campers and no bathroom facilities.

We drove into the tree-filled campground, found our Otentik and began the process of unloading and setting up and cooking ‘dinner’. While shopping at the Camper’s Village in Calgary for bear spray, the Gort had talked me into buying a $12 freeze-dried ‘italian chicken and pasta’ dinner. My first response was ‘no, it will taste terrible.’ Because I knew it would. But sometimes, as a parent, you need to say yes, so they can learn these things for themselves.

I’d also surveyed the boys for camping food preferences before we left. ‘Pizza sandwiches!’ the Gort had yelled, ‘I love those.’ Two years had apparently improved his memory of the improvised ‘grilled cheese with a thin layer of homemade tomato sauce’ sandwiches I’d made during the Summer of 2014, aka ‘The Summer we Spent Two Nights in a Tent Trailer.’

So I made the ‘beloved’ pizza sandwiches, while the Gort made his much-anticipated Italian pasta and never was there a more disappointing dinner for all involved. I consumed approximately three large smores to help ease the pain, played another round of argument-inducing Anomia and called it a night.

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Hellobonjour, part deux

After a less than stellar night’s sleep in the trapper’s tent, the professor and I awoke to three truths:

  1. We were very tired
  2. Our backs were somewhat destroyed from the tent’s ‘bed-like structures’
  3. We had been married for 20 years

It was not necessarily my intention to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of our wedding day by eating oatmeal out of a packet and drinking questionable coffee but when all of Parks Canada is complet, you do what you have to do. As luck would have it, the particular type of chia-oatmeal I’d purchased was of the unsweetened variety. Or so I deduced when my mom mentioned it tasted somewhat disgusting and I glanced at the paper envelope and saw the ‘sweeten to taste’ instruction.

But fortunately, I’d brought a just-in-case jar of apricot jam which, when stirred into gross oatmeal along with some blueberries and banana renders it practically palatable. It was the first time that jar of jam would come to my rescue, though it would not be the last.

After rolling up sleeping bags with slightly dire results (seriously, does it require special genes, techniques) and cleaning and packing and loading for what felt like hours, we headed to Jasper. With a ‘quick’ stop for gas, coffee and almond croissants in Banff. And a ‘quick’ stop in tourist-riddled Lake Louise to see ‘the lake’ and a ‘quick’ stop for gross food in the Lake Louise Village.

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By the time we turned onto the Icefields Parkway, it was considerably later than it ought to have been, especially considering we were still hoping to do a hike and drive all the way to one-hour-past-Jasper Hinton. But the words ‘we probably don’t have time for this’ is not part of the Johnson travel vocabulary, so we pressed on. Cars were stopped along the highway and tourists were standing in the road, with cameras. We pulled over to see what had been spotted: a bear.

Apparently these particular tourists had not read the myriad of news stories about recent bear encounters, nor had they heard about the need to maintain a very large distance from wildlife, for they were standing in the road, on the same side as the bear, staring, snapping and speaking animatedly. An Italian trio had emerged from their vehicle with lattes and cappuccinos in hand to gaze upon the black bear eating berries.

‘Hellobonjour’ a Parks Canada ranger called to the oblivious tourists from the confines of his government-issued truck, ‘please get back in your vehicle.’ A few obliged, but most did not. ‘Hellobonjour,’ he tried again, ‘you need to get back in your vehicle.’

The hellobonjour struck me as exceedingly funny after having read [a portion of] ‘Why I Hate Canadians’ and learning a little bit about the bilingual politics of Canadaland. Thus I took it upon myself to say hellobonjour as often as possible throughout the trip, in any and every situation.

Also, in the spirit of full disclosure, I may have barked at les touristes to get in their cars. Much like my oldest son, I am a rule follower at heart.

‘So where did you want to hike,’ the professor asked me as we drove away from the bear sighting. I stared at the itinerary I’d created with its list of possible hikes en route to our destination. Unfortunately I hadn’t taken the time to note any details of the hikes, like distance or elevation gain or how long they might last.

‘I don’t know, it says Helen Lake,’ I revealed the first hike on my list. And without further thought or negotiation, the professor pulled into the Lac Helen parking lot and before I could say ‘I also have several other options on my list,’ we set off on our second hike of the trip, stopping briefly at the interpretive trail sign (there was one!) to learn a bit about this particular hike.

A quick glance revealed details like: 460m elevation gain, 12km return.

I was about to say ‘yeah, this is probably not the hike for us,’ when the professor enthused ‘let’s do it.’ And away we went; my poor Indiana-walking mother released onto a rather un-flat trail laden with tree roots. Or ‘troll toes’ as the professor would call them whenever the boys stumbled over the exposed roots.

He also enjoys hiking while making high pitched shrieking noises and pretending they originated from a mythical creature known as ‘the tickle falcon.’

Yes, these are the memories we are passing on to our children.

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That thing I mentioned about time, in part un? It would have been handy to know the time at which we started hiking and the amount of time the hike was expected to take. Thus when Percy began to balk about his leg hurting and I began telling my ‘only ten more minutes’ lie, I might have had a sense of how big a lie I was really telling.

We pressed on, the professor inquiring discreetly from returning hikers about how long it might take to reach the lake. Each of them seemed to offer a different answer. ‘Only 45 more minutes,’ my better half told me at some point and I cajoled and bribed our very unhappy boy-children, promising whatever I could think of to keep them putting one foot in front of the other. A considerable amount of time later we reached an impasse. There were tears and people were falling to the ground, refusing to take even another step, and still the professor showed no signs of giving up. He seemed unusually hell-bent on finishing this hike he’d never even heard about, so I offered up the last bribe in my arsenal: a piggyback ride.

I hoisted fiftysomething-pound Percy onto my back and walked, decidedly uphill, for as long as I could stand it, and then a little bit more; earning exclamations of reverence from a tour group of seniors heading back. DSC_0319

We reached a meadow of sorts and I stopped a trio of returning hikers. ‘How much longer,’ I gasped, out of earshot from my falling-apart-contingent. A grey-haired man looked at his watch. ‘Mmmh, what time did you say we started hiking back,’ he asked one of his companions. ‘2:30’ a younger man replied. ‘So, we’ve been hiking down about 45 minutes, it should probably take you about an hour and fifteen to get up there.’

I was looking for answers in the vicinity of 15 minutes. As soon as I heard the word ‘hour’ I knew I would not be seeing Helen Lake. And so, our party of six, turned around and walked back to the parking lot. The professor tarried at the back, trying to digest his disappointment.

Johnsons 0 – Nature 2

The ‘funny’ thing about hiking with our semi-blond wonders, as soon as you say the words ‘let’s go back’ they turn into the happiest, most energetic children you’ve ever seen. Tears vanish and sore legs magically disappear as they sprint downhill, chatting excitedly and being their best selves. ‘I’m having fun on this hike,’ Percy exclaimed. The same kid who’d plopped to the ground sobbing about his legs and a host of other ailments. ‘Really,’ I rolled my eyes at the memory of his weight on my back.

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By the time we finally got back to the car, it was around 4:30pm, with an indeterminate amount of driving remaining. Not to mention the matter of dinner. Just before 8pm we arrived at the less-than-stellar but infinitely fancier-than-a-trapper’s-tent White Wolf Inn in Hinton. Our dinner options were Dairy Queen and McDonald’s. Conveniently located on either side of our motel.

The boys ate blizzards and french fries, and my mom resigned herself to a DQ salad while the professor and I opted for self-made peanut butter and apricot jam sandwiches, consumed while watching the news. ‘It’s strangely delicious,’ I remarked. ‘Oh, I’m having two’ my better half agreed. He handed me an anniversary card. ‘I was going to do a toast when we got to Helen Lake,’ he explained, pointing to a half buried bottle of bubbles  in the middle of our stuff. Suddenly, his strange fixation on finishing the hike made sense. ‘You carried a bottle of prosecco on that hike,’ I asked incredulously.

‘Yup.’

Now that’s commitment.

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Hellobonjour

Eight years in to This Albertan Life, and we still had not made it to the famed Jasper National Park, despite the fact that it’s only a four hour drive from where we live. Which, for ultra-roadtrippers such as ourselves, is a crying shame.

Sometime in the late Fall/early Winter I resolved that Summer 2016 would be the year to address this gaping hole in our national park repertoire. A resolution that happened to coincide with a visit from my mother, a weak Canadian dollar, and a similar declaration from thousands of scenery-loving Americans and Europeans with stronger currencies.

By the time I pulled out my credit card, ready to make a reservation – in March (which, for someone like me, is astoundingly timely) – everything was booked. Reserved. Full. Complet.

Thus I did what any single-minded, stubborn individual would do, I cobbled together a compressed itinerary with whatever accommodation I could find for our party of six. My dreamed about four nights in Jasper, turned into one night in a trapper’s tent in nearby Kananaskis, one night in a small town motel an hour from Jasper, and one night in a tent-cabin in Jasper. And two nights in a random cottage outside Waterton National Park. Because three nights does not a summer vacation make. And also the professor was still smarting from his failed attempt to drive the Going to the Sun Road in May.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how you turn an 800km journey into a 2,100km journey.

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We arrived in Kananaskis on a Tuesday late-morning and stopped at the information center. The park ranger had the latest in bear-related trail closures. Because Summer 2016 has also turned into ‘The Summer of the Bear.’ ‘We were thinking about hiking Pocaterra Ridge,’ I declared-asked. ‘That’s open,’ she nodded, with a cautionary ‘bears have been sighted on that trail. But you’re on a ridge so you’d [probably] see them since you’re out in the open. We do strongly recommend bear spray but we are completely sold out.’

Luckily I’d procured my first-ever can of bear spray a few days prior, carefully considering whether possibly scaring off a bear was worth $60. I decided, rather grudgingly, that it was. Probably.

Really, I decided that not listening to my mom or the Gort worry aloud about our lack of bear spray was worth $60. Definitely.

I’ve also declared Summer 2016 as ‘The Summer of Hiking.’ Mostly because we are home all summer with nothing planned other than my five nights of random fun. And also because the boys are 12, almost 9 and almost 7 and doesn’t that mean they’re practically old enough to hike the Appalachian Trail?

But hiking has not turned out to be the simple pursuit I expected. I say this based on our only first hike of the summer to Chester Lake. I assumed you’d get a guidebook, select a trail, set foot on the trail, navigate the ensuing boy-child protestations and that would be that. But in my experience the trail finding instructions in the guidebook haven’t quite matched the scene in real-life, possibly due to everything being wiped out in the flood of 2013 or because the professor and I are incompetent trail interpreters. Maybe both.

What I’m really trying to say is, I found myself in the designated parking lot where the Pocaterra Ridge hike was supposed to start with instructions to ‘find a dirt trail at the interpretive loop trail sign. Head down the trail for a minute or 2. Take unmaintained trail on the left.’ Except there was no interpretive loop trail sign. No sign of any kind. Nothing.

The professor and I walked in a circle looking for said dirt trail. We found one….that led to a picnic table. We found one that didn’t appear to be a bonafide trail. And nothing else. So we started walking in the opposite direction on a gravel road with caution/do not cross tape across it along with some sort of bear related warning. Our oldest, rule-abiding boy-child expressed his dissension, loudly and repeatedly, while the professor insisted ‘mom checked at the information center and we were told this trail was fine’. All while I silently replayed the park ranger’s ‘bears have been sighted on the trail’ along with the fact that I was 99% sure we were on the wrong trail.

We walked and walked, without finding ‘the unmaintained trail on the left’, hoping the Gort wouldn’t see the big deposit of berry-laden bear scat and making as much noise as possible. Finally, one hour – maybe two – later I said to the professor ‘I’m pretty sure we are on the wrong trail, let’s just turn around.’

Another key component of hiking – one that I have yet to implement, though I see the value in it – is time, or, more specifically, keeping track of it. What time you start the hike, how long you’ve been hiking, how long you might expect to hike, that sort of thing. By the end of the summer I might wear a watch, or at least make a point of looking at the time on my phone instead of snapping photos obliviously.

On our way back to the car, I noticed a trail off in the distance, one that better matched the description and direction of the Pocaterra Ridge hike. Once we’d reached the van, I summoned the bear spray-carrying professor and we headed off in search of the missing trail. Sure enough, it was ‘the dirt trail that didn’t really look like a bonafide dirt trail.’

Johnsons 0-Nature 1

On the way to our campsite, we spotted this bear on the side of the road. From the safe confines of our car. The orange tag in its ear and collar around its neck gave the experience a bit of an ‘outdoor zoo’ rather than ‘wild bear in nature’ vibe.  But the professor, who loves nothing more than spotting animals while driving, was semi-satisfied. Even more so when we spotted a second, collar-less bear five minutes later.

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We had not dabbled in camping-related activities since Summer 2014, also known as ‘The Summer we spent Two Nights in a Tent-Trailer.’ This was partly due to the fact that we spent Summer 2015 driving our brains out, but mostly because we were all still suffering from camping-related PTSD as a result of that abbreviated experience. So much so that when it came time to pack for this trip, I gathered wool blankets and sheets and fleece pajamas in addition to our sleeping bags because I can still remember how cold I’d been on those two August nights.

I’m actually shivering just typing that sentence.

People often talk about camping and how relaxing it is and we’ll just have to agree to disagree on that one. For in my experience it’s basically nonstop work – the planning, the purchasing, packing everything you might possibly need, food preparation, loading, driving, unloading, setting up, making a fire, cooking food, arguing with kids about fire, the ordeal of going to the bathroom, bear prevention (aka continuous cleanup), 3 or 4 hours of intermittent sleep in between wondering what time it is, hoping no one has to go to the bathroom, and how much longer before you can get up, making a fire, cobbling together an unsatisfactory breakfast, drinking bad coffee, cleaning up, packing up, loading and getting back in the car.

But I suppose if you’re going to do it, staying in a trapper’s tent is the lesser of all camping evils – equipped with bed-like structures, and freeing you from tent set-up duties. Leaving you with a spare 10 minutes to play Anomia with your kids and argue about rules and sportsmanship.

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Fool’s errand, part deux

We drove to Kalispell without a clear sense of what we might do when we got there. Our children, whether suffering the after-effects of ingesting pool water, or having eaten too much junk, were all in various stages of poor health; handling it in much the same manner as those afflicted with the worst of man-colds.

And, faster than a boy can say ‘my stomach hurts’, seeing Glacier National Park disappeared from the day’s itinerary.

I suggested seeing a movie, the perfect rainy day activity, particularly when one is proximate to a giant movie theater complex with stadium seating. Two out of three boys wanted to see Angry Birds. And two out of three boys wanted to see Jungle Book. Not the same two out of three, mind you. And I didn’t want to deal with any of the inevitable unhappiness that surrounded either choice, so we saw neither.

Instead we suffered through a gross lunch with an MIA server, who took so long to bring our politely requested bill, that the boys and I left the professor alone at the table to go wait in the car. And even then his departure was delayed when she couldn’t find change. Since things were already going so well, we decided to go to Costco. Just to bring the rainy day fun full circle.

All I can say about American Costco is that things seem even bigger there, and the wine is cheap, but the gas is the same price as everywhere else. I grabbed a five pound tub of strawberries and the boys sampled Pirate’s Booty dispensed from a bag so big it could feed the entire population in one of Montana’s smaller towns. Another vendor was offering samples of a very large bag of Snapea Crisps. I’d always been intrigued by Snapeas and grabbed a miniature paper cup. I immediately regretted putting that piece of canned pea-flavored sawdust in my mouth. As did the Hen.

I still tremble at the memory.

Having plumbed the depths of Kalispell’s inclement weather offerings, we drove back to Whitefish to check into our second hotel for the stay. It is not clear to me why I hadn’t booked two nights at the same hotel. Oh right, because we’d thought we would only spend one night and drive back but then we decided to be ‘fun’ and make a weekend of it.

The F word. If only I could turn back time…

‘Wow, that hotel is really ugly,’ Percy remarked as we drove up to our evening’s resting place. The professor and I burst out laughing because what else do you do when your six year old makes such an unsolicited declaration. The hotel was probably something kind of special around the same time I last set foot on a treadmill. But both of us had fallen into disrepair since then. And one of us smelled a bit like a casino.

But it had a pool. And so, for the third time in less than 24 hours – a new Johnson family recordmy boy-children found themselves inside a rectangle filled with blue chlorinated water. While I finished reading Bossypants.

We couldn’t agree on what to eat for dinner, nor could we find a suitable eating establishment during our tense drive around town, so we drove to Safeway and acquired a smorgasbord of items to consume in our room, including, but not limited to: chicken wings, kept a consistent temperature by heat lamps, sweet and sour chicken kept under the same heat lamps, vegetarian sushi, gatorade and mint tea.

I ate an entire, large bag of low calorie popcorn and the professor ate a chicken wing and drank half of somebody’s tea. With dinner out of the way, he left the room to ride the hotel’s exercise bike for as long as he could stand it.

I bribed the boys with extra screen time the next day if they pretended to be asleep and watched a show about people living in unusual places on American Netflix. When I was too tired to hold the ipad on my lap, I turned it off and drifted off to sleep atop a square cotton ball-esque pillow and spineless mattress.

It was 9:10pm but I didn’t care. Some days just need to end.

I’d set my running clothes out again, in the off chance I woke up to clearer skies. Just after seven, I asked the Hen to report on the weather outside, before I got dressed. Experience had taught me that. ‘It’s not raining….as much,’ he tried being optimistic. ‘It’s only raining into the puddles.’ Whatever that meant.

Same grey skies. Same level of precipitation. ‘Okay, let’s pack up and head out,’ I rallied the troops. Enough was enough.

The professor stared at the collection of popcorn kernels littering the floor where I’d consumed my ‘dinner’ the night before. ‘If you’re ever on the run, I will be able to find you. They’ll show me an abandoned hotel room and I’ll be able to say: yep she was here.’ ‘Lots of people eat popcorn,’ I protested. Though perhaps not as messily. ‘Yes, but there’s also a coffee cup in the trash can,’ Columbo pointed out like that was a dead give away.

We piled our belongings back into the van and headed for, where else, the coffee shop. ‘No offense mom, I’m not trying to be mean or anything, but this has been the worst vacation ever,’ the Gort opined. We picked up lattes and baked goods and headed to Glacier National Park, to see what we could see. Perhaps, in  lieu of a hike, we could just drive the portion of the ‘Going to the Sun Road’ that was open. (A woman in a coffee shop had told me it wouldn’t be open all the way until end of June, when all the ‘avalanches had slid.’)

We pulled up to the park entrance and just as the professor was about to hand over payment, the park employee informed him a culvert had recently broken and the road was down to one lane, though they might have to close it entirely. We took the news as a sign that we were not destined to see this particular part of the world and u-turned out of there.

We drove for what felt like many hours until we got to the border crossing at Piegan. We’d seen virtually no cars on the road, yet there were quite a few lined up at the border. When it was our turn to speak to the customs officer, the professor passed her our passports and mentioned that we were hoping to become ‘landed’ permanent residents. ‘You want to do that…today?’ she asked incredulously. ‘Have you seen the line-up?’ ‘We don’t even handle immigration here anymore, that’s all out of Coutts now. It’s probably going to be one hour minimum wait. Maybe two. You’re not a priority. Did I already ask you, any weapons? Firearms? Currency over $10,000?’

I briefly wondered if we should just drive to 1.5 hours away Coutts, but instead we parked the car, told the boys to bring in the ipad and I carried the only reading material at my disposal ‘Why I Hate Canadians’ inside.

‘I just have a couple of questions for you first,’ another customs officer explained. ‘Do you think your children can stay by themselves in that waiting room for a few minutes?’

‘Sure,’ we agreed and ushered them into the cordoned off waiting room.

‘So,’ the officer lowered his voice when we returned to the counter, ‘when was the last time you were arrested?’

Much like watching reality television, speaking with customs officers always fills me with tension. No matter the question I feel like I’m lying when I answer. I racked my brain trying to sort through my mental rolodex of life events, when was the last time I’d been arrested?

‘Um, never,’ we laughed. Nervously.

‘Never,’ he asked, a trace of suspicion in his voice. As though this disclosure made us part of a highly unique subset of the population. ‘What about falsely accused?’

It had me wondering, do Canadians have a higher number of arrests per capita than Americans? So far Will Ferguson had only touched on the possible myth that Canadians are nice. And that business of making French the other official language. And Katimavik.

‘No.’

‘What about other husbands or wives? Any other children?’

Have I been married before? Do I have secret children that I’ve simply blocked from my memory?

‘No.’ Though I was tempted, as I sensed was the professor, to make a joke here. But better to let a lame joke die than risk irking a customs officer. Put that in your book, Tina Fey! There’s some advice immigrant women everywhere can get behind.

And with that awkward interrogation out of the way, he kept our passports and dispatched us to the waiting room.

Apparently I do dabble in optimism on occasion. I’d thought maybe that three-day-long rainy cloud forecast for Montana was more a possibility than a certainty. And I secretly hoped the border agent who’d said ‘it’s going to be minimum one hour, maybe closer to two’ was overstating; that once they saw how unarrested and unmarried we were in our previous lives, they would fall over themselves to welcome us to Canada.

But alas, no, we really weren’t a priority. The professor, who’d raised his eyebrow at the sight of my book [title], traded off reading chapters [silently] with me, since it would be strange for me to read aloud a book in a waiting room, shared with other people. All of whom spent less time waiting than we did. One of them, a man with cheekbones as sharp as knives, had the professor whispering ‘I don’t think they should let him in,’ when he left the room to speak to the agents.

Finally, well after the hour-mark had passed, we were summoned out of the waiting room. The customs officer had us sign forms in his presence and instructed us to go to Service Canada in Calgary with the signed documents. Apparently his asking us about our previous arrests and marriages had sufficed as the interview portion of the event. ‘If you have any friends planning on doing this, tell them not to come here,’ he suggested in a humorless tone.

‘Yeah, I noticed on that letter we could just make an appointment at a CIC center,’ I made awkward small talk in an attempt to convince this unamused man that Canada was lucky to have us. He pursed his lips and semi-rolled his eyes, as if to say ‘duh.’ ‘Kind of an expensive weekend,’ I chirped, in one last ditch effort to make him our friend. Then we headed back to the car.

As one does after a customs encounter, we debriefed once we were a safe distance away.

‘What was the point of that,’ I wondered. ‘What did they actually do?’

‘They probably just Googled our names,’ the professor speculated.

‘Yeah, I bet they’re all sitting back there reading J is for Jenerous now.’

‘I didn’t understand the point of him asking about imprisonment and marriage when we all know they’re basically the same thing,’ the professor attempted to provoke.

‘I can’t believe we have to go to Service Canada,’ I ignored him. Would this process never end?

It had been well over an hour since one of our boy-children had utilized a restroom and, as if on cue, someone piped up from the back that they really needed to pee. It was a statutory holiday and we were driving through nothing Alberta, hence we stopped at a Tim Horton’s. ‘Don’t you have a gift card,’ I reminded the professor about a recent ‘gift’ he’d been given after having some inconvenience at the dentist’s. ‘Oh yeah, but I don’t know how much is on it.’ ‘Well, how inconvenienced were you – was it a $5 inconvenience, a $10 inconvenience, more?’

The Tim Horton’s Victoria Day lunch line rivalled the line-up at the border. We waited behind a dozen fellow residents and formulated our order: 3 Canadian maples and a small box of Timbits. A swipe of the gift card revealed the professor had suffered an inconvenience worth $10, which left us with $5 towards future Canadian maple and Timbits purchases.

Perhaps after we go to Service Canada.

 

If you missed part un, it’s here.

 

Fool’s errand

After a rather lengthy (five year) process that involved three attempts and several outrageously stupid mistakes – paperwork that was mailed out one day too late, and submitting the wrong paperwork only to be told to repeat the process – four out of five Johnsons finally got pseudo permission to remain in Canada. Indefinitely.

Four out of five because it took all three of those attempts for Canada to decide that Percy is in fact, Canadian, and can remain here forever. Without the rigamarole of filling out any paperwork.

We received a congratulatory letter with official documents sometime at the beginning of 2016 and, with our work permits due to expire in July, we found ourselves having, on occasion, a pseudo-discussion about when we should venture ‘to the border’ to become ‘landed’. [As in being interviewed by someone official and signing a form in their presence.]

A pseudo-discussion, for those unfamiliar with indirect and pointless communication, is when one person brings something up to another person and that person feigns interest without contributing anything definitive to the conversation. As in, ‘we need to get that permanent residency thing done!’ ‘Yes, we should.’

[Cue: Walk out of the room to get laundry or return to equally pointless web-surfing.]

After doing this a few times we miraculously reached the same conclusion (likely driven by our Google Calendar and upcoming air travel) that our only opportunity for making a run-for-the-border would be the May long weekend. Faster than you can say ‘I thought you guys were incapable of making decisions’, I created a red rectangle of our intentions on Google and booked a hotel in five-hours-away Whitefish, Montana.

Why Whitefish? Mostly because it is ‘only’ five hours away. And because it is close to Kalispell (i.e. it has a Target). And for its proximity to Glacier National Park which boasts a scenic drive known as ‘Going to the Sun Road’. (The professor is something of a sucker for a scenic drive as you might recall.)

A day or two before we left, I was talking to my mom on the phone. She’s a detail oriented worrier and felt the need to ask questions about this strange roadtrip of ours, like ‘are you sure you can do this at any border’ or something like that. Later when I was gathering all our relevant documents for the trip, I took a moment to read through the letter we’d gotten back in January or February. The letter neither of us actually bothered to read all the way through.

‘If you are residing in Canada….please contact a CIC office near your place of residence to arrange an appointment.’

[Though I don’t know what a CIC office is, exactly, I know there is one less than 8km from my house.]

I relayed the news to the professor when he got home and we had another pseudo-discussion about whether we should call off the trip. ‘So, should we not go?” [Silence, accompanied by reciprocal thinking-without-opining stares.] ‘Well, we’ve already booked the hotel. Might as well have some fun.’

The next morning, after an astonishingly protracted departure given the fact we were going to be gone for all of 48 hours, one that involved digging out our winter jackets after a glance at the forecast revealed less than desirable weather, we hopped in the car at 8:34am. By 8:37am, the Hen had already consumed his day’s allotment of junk food – an entire row of Oreos. At 10:01am the Gort asked ‘Mom, can I have a sandwich?’ And at 10:03am someone asked ‘have we crossed the border yet?’

Man, do I love roadtrips.

I’d intended to read Tina Fey’s Bossypants aloud during the drive, in an effort to keep the professor from listening to baseball or his very eclectic ipod playlist entertained. It’s true, he actually plays this ‘game’ where he finds an annoying song, turns it up way too loud and then counts, silently, how long it takes me to freak out.

Apparently it’s six seconds, if I’m busy deleting pictures from my phone. Point seven five if my hands are idle.

After reading through the first chapter, I determined Bossypants was neither hysterically funny nor appropriate to read aloud with six potentially listening ears in the backseat. So I settled on reading Will Ferguson’s ‘Why I Hate Canadians’ instead. A book that is both funny and esoteric enough that the 12-and-under set are unlikely to persist in paying attention. Not to mention educational for the 40-and-over American-but-living-in-Canada set.

During the drive, when I wasn’t reading, I formulated a rough itinerary for our visit to Montana. Day 1: visit Target and everything I love about America that Kalispell has to offer. (This is an important distinction because I love Trader Joe’s but Kalispell does not have one.) Day 2: visit Glacier National Park. Day 3: drive home and become landed permanent residents.

Eventually we arrived at Whitefish’s very brand-new Hampton Inn & Suites. The boys, who can all read, as luck would have it, saw the dreaded P-O-O-L sign and my itinerary received its first adjustment: sitting in the extremely warm pool room while three boys cavorted in chlorinated water and the professor took a nap in a quiet room.

I sweated for an hour, imagining all the familial goodwill I was purchasing with my sacrificial act, and then we left the pool and readied ourselves for some fun in 15-miles-away Kalispell. We entered the town via a settlement of strip malls, the kind I like to deride for lack of imagination and terrible architecture but secretly love: Target, Costco, Starbucks, a natural grocery store and an enormous movie theater surrounded by the culinary likes of Famous Dave’s and Applebees. Yes!

‘Mom, if you love this place so much, why don’t we live here?’ the ever logical Gort inquired from the back. Indeed, why weren’t we living in Montana? (Besides the obvious dearth of architecture programs.)

Despite idealizing it from afar, imagining a romantic, granola-chic existence surrounded by spectacular scenery, whenever I’m in Montana I inevitably find it lean on the chic and heavy on the rustic. Not to mention the vehicle to domicile ratio exceeds my comfort level. I simply don’t understand it, especially not when a percentage of those vehicles are obviously not in working condition.

Why keep them around?

I explained my Montanaversion* by mumbling something about employment opportunities, plus ‘I just don’t think I can live in a state that does not have at least one big[ish] city.’ To my mind it would be like living on a cruise ship. Sure, you have everything you need, but there’s nowhere to escape.

We strolled through the aisles of Target – really just the toy aisles. And though I purchased nothing for myself, I felt buoyed by seeing the Marimekko for Target collection along with the different flavors of Oreos not available in Canada. After a quick browse through two-stores-down TJ Maxx, which yielded nothing but a soccer bag for the Hen, we drove across the highway to Famous Dave’s.

The main reason we willingly eat at Famous Dave’s – aside from our boy-children’s ardent appreciation of pork covered in barbeque sauce – is because we used to eat there when we lived in Minneapolis, many moons ago. When Dave had only two or three franchises to his name.

Good times were had. We dined under faux antler chandeliers. Our efficient and attentive waitress brought us free barbeque chips. And we drove back to the hotel where all four boy-men indulged in their roadtrip ritual of watching cable television until far too late, while I fell asleep convincing myself that I would get up early and go for a run before we headed to Glacier National Park.

Because I am now a person who exercises. Regularly.

[Please note I did not say ‘because I am now a person who eschews eating excessive quantities of disgusting cake to the point of illness. No, rest assured, I still do that.]

The night transpired in the manner of one spent in the confines of a hotel room with unfamiliar thermostat settings and four other people shifting and coughing and stealing your covers.

At some point I emerged from my bone tired cocoon and put on the running clothes I’d carefully set out the night before. In an effort to gauge how many layers I would need, I walked towards the window for a peek at the outdoors.

It was raining. Neither a drizzle nor a downpour, but steady, confident precipitation. I may be a person who exercises regularly, but I am not a person who willingly goes out into the rain to do so. [This pseudo-litmust test will undoubtedly rule out the possibility of relocating to Washington or Oregon.] I stood, staring at the steady rain, trying to decide how to handle this turn of events. (I guess sometimes the weather forecast with the raindrops coming from a cloud actually means something.)

‘You could go to the gym. I’m sure they have a treadmill,’ the professor finally stated the obvious. Which was just as well since I would have never reached this conclusion on my own.

Relieved at the thought of not having to jog along a highway in my better half’s rain jacket, I made my way to the brand new, unoccupied gym. It’s of very little consequence, but I can not, for the life of me, recall the last time I might have been on a treadmill.

Was it 1993? Maybe 2001 for that brief two month period when the professor and I belonged to a gym? (Also in Minneapolis.)

I hopped on the machine which seemed to look much the same as the last treadmill I used. I hit a slew of buttons and the conveyor belt began to move, albeit slower than crystallized honey.

‘I will die if I have to spend three minutes on a treadmill this slow,’ I thought to myself. I kept punching arrows but the treadmill wouldn’t go any faster. I got off and tried another treadmill. Same thing. I was fairly confident that I was the culprit, that there was no way a brand-new hotel would have two broken treadmills. Finally, I saw it: another set of arrows and boom, I was able to adjust the speed from 30 minutes a mile to something in the slightly more respectable range.

As an added bonus, I had a giant television screen two inches from my face; the tell-tale HGTV letters displayed in the bottom right hand corner. After my struggle with the treadmill, I didn’t even contemplate touching the remote in an effort to find something more entertaining to watch. So Flip or Flop it was.

I endured thirty minutes of Tarek and Christina dealing with renovations and unexpected costs, trying to push through that anxious, tension-riddled feeling reality television always gives me; doing my best to ignore the fact that the temperature in the room hovered around 85 degrees. And then I hopped off the treadmill – luckily the ‘stop’ button is still easy to find in 2016 or I might have had a Bridget Jones situation on my hands.

I grabbed a triangle paper cup from the dispenser and held it underneath the water cooler, pressing one button and then the other with zero success. Red-faced and dehydrated, I returned to my television-watching junkies and gathered them for the free breakfast downstairs. Where, hopefully, I would find some water.

I hate free hotel breakfasts. Or maybe I just hate taking my children to free hotel breakfasts. I inevitably stand around, trying to assess the situation, as in ‘what is the least offensive thing we can eat here’ and in the roughly 90 seconds I spend doing that, my boys have dumped apple jacks into cardboard bowls, filled paper cups with a beverage labelled ‘orange juice’ though it looks decidedly like flat orange crush, and have piled plastic looking danishes onto plates. They’ve also drained the contents of several strawberry banana Yoplait yogurts.

This causes me to freak out a bit and say things like ‘what is this beverage in this cup?’ ‘It’s orange juice.’ ‘This is definitely not orange juice.’ ‘But it says so on the machine.’ I taste the orange kool aid crush in the off chance orange juice in Montana is just a different color than it is in the rest of the world, shake my head vigorously and say ‘you’re not drinking this’. They get mildly annoyed but they’ve also come to expect this level of insanity. So they disperse to our corner table and quietly eat their apple jacks and nibble on plastic danishes while the Gort scampers off in search of the coffee station because he is 12 and pretends to drink coffee on occasion.

The rain showed no sign of abating so it seemed rather pointless to rush off to Glacier National Park. The boys returned to the hotel pool under the watchful eye of the professor reading his large-print copy of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, while I drove ‘into town’ in search of palatable coffee.

We read our books and drank our coffee for as long as we could tolerate the humid pool area, which was suddenly crowded with three other families also at a loss about what to do on a rainy Sunday in Whitefish. And then we packed up our room which, again, seemed like a rather extensive prospect considering the timeframe of our stay. And we drove back to Kalispell.

 

*This litmus test would also rule out Idaho. Wyoming. North Dakota. South Dakota.  and Utah. Not to mention a host of other, smaller states, though I’d argue proximity to New York City or Boston would render states like New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Connecticut eligible. Also, full disclosure: I don’t really know where New Hampshire is.

 

 

Johnson Canyon

It’s that time of year, again, when schools shutter their doors for 11 days in the name of a break that is not particularly Spring-like. Unlike years past, Spring Break 2016 unfolded somewhat differently and not because we joined the throngs of North Americans flying to Mexico and Hawaii and anywherebuthere.

This year the professor’s parents opted to drive a mile (or 5000) in our shoes, making their way from the Heartland to Cowtown to pay us a visit. Their presence (and the new basketball hoop they brought with them), along with a calendar filled with obligations, meant there was precious little time spent sitting at home listening to our boy-children fight or lament their lack of things to do. Also the weather was remarkably Spring-like which eliminated the need for total hibernation.

Hence, 2016 will be remembered as the fastest, most painless Spring Break in history. (Though of course, it’s Saturday and we still have two point five days to go…..)

A small, 23 hour window of time with neither meetings nor teachings, presented itself late Sunday afternoon, so we ventured to Canmore for the night. The next morning we drove to Johnston Canyon, because the professor had waterfalls on the brain and we hadn’t been out there since Percy was still in utero.

As these things go, there was a slight kink in our Spring Break hike-to-the-waterfall plans: the pathway was covered entirely in snice (snow+ice). Perhaps you, the reader, are thinking ‘what’s the big deal, so you had to walk on some snice?’

I suppose on the spectrum of dangerous things: (1) being sitting on the couch and watching a movie and (10) being climbing Mt. Everest, walking on an ice-covered path for 2.2km would probably register somewhere in the 3-4 range. But did I mention I’m no longer in my 30s? That breaking a leg or a hip is now something I actually think about? And that we had two sexagenerians with us? And that we were all wearing…..tennis shoes?

We arrived at the foot of the trail and I observed the long stretch of snow, thinking little of it other than: my tennis shoes are probably going to get wet. And then, ten or so paces in, I set my foot down and it slid and I realized this was not snow. At all.

My eyes darted to the nearest thing I could grab onto, which was nothing,

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Pure Snice

I waited for the only logical conclusion: ‘let’s turn around’ or ‘this is probably not the best idea’ from the professor. But it never came. Inexplicably, we kept walking while I imagined convalescing on the couch with my shattered limbs. Hikers returning from the falls passed us going in the opposite direction. Alive and uninjured. Though I noticed they were not wearing tennis shoes. They were wearing hiking boots. With crampons. I hadn’t thought about crampons since reading Jon Krakauer’s account of his Everest disaster-expedition Into Thin Air. Which was probably more dangerous than walking a kilometer on ice. But only slightly.

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I considered every one of my 1,320 steps to the falls with utmost care, casting aside my pride and clutching the railing as though my very life depended on it. While freaking out about Percy and the Hen running ahead of me and the inevitable catastrophe that could befall them.

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Why yes, a six year old boy could slip on the ice and slide through the gap in the railing, plummeting to his death.

Thirty minutes, or five hours, later we made it to the lower waterfall, which one views by entering a small, ice-lined cave (err, holding cell.)  While waiting for other eager tourists to release their claim on the shelf of rock upon which one stands in order to stare at the water and ice. I gratefully accepted the advice from a departing, red-jacketed woman that the only way to make it out of the cave alive is to exit on one’s posterior.

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I dutifully snapped a photo and slid out on my butt, anticipating a happy reunion with my minivan in the very near future. (Choosing to ignore the 1,320 steps between us.) Near the start of the trail, we  passed four park ranger/paramedic types carrying a stretcher, heading towards an injured hiker near the falls. We also passed a raven-haired, Spanish-speaking family of four. The two daughters walked ahead, ensconced in the foolish confidence of youth. The mom – dressed for shopping, more than hiking – lagged behind, clutching the shoulders of her husband walking in front of her like a cat suspended over a tub of water, while wailing some variation of ‘Ai, ai, ai.’

Translation: I’m no longer 30 and I’m wearing the wrong shoes.

 

 

The Family that walks together…

Despite the undeniable lack of enthusiasm from my people, I generally insist we venture out into the natural world every weekend. I don’t know what it is my children find so painful and punitive about breathing fresh air and putting one foot in front of the other for a while, but they do. Find it punitive and painful. And every weekend when I, or the slightly less-inclined professor, make the dreaded ‘announcement’, I brace myself for the litany of complaints about to rain down on my head.

‘But I hardly got any time to play,’ is the one I hear most often. It’s the complaint that annoys me much more than any of the other ones (but we went on a walk yesterday, but we’re having fun, but I haven’t gotten to do [blank] yet, but I hate walking, but my foot hurts, but my back hurts, but it’s cold outside) and immediately propels me into math teacher mode.

‘What time did you get up this morning? 8? And what time is it now? 3:30? That’s sevenandahalf hours to do exactly what you want to do.’  And then I imagine African children carrying water from wells or Asian schoolchildren spending hours each day in ‘extra’ classes outside of school. ‘No child in the world gets as much time to play as you do.’

(Which, who even knows if that’s true. I’m basically just giving my boys material to use in mocking me later in life. We’ll need something to talk about at Thanksgiving.)

After a sufficient amount of complaining has occurred we climb into the van and drive – to the soundtrack of the Grievance Trio – to wherever we’re going on the dreaded walk.

Last Saturday, we did just that, making the short drive to Edworthy Park which, despite the excellent temperatures, is looking rather skeletal these days.

It had been five short days since Justin Trudeau had been elected the new Prime Minister, and the Gort still had politics on the brain.  ‘Ten years of Stephen Harper and we have a $1.5 billion deficit,’ he recited from the back, as though practicing for an upcoming voiceover. The professor and I sputtered because it really did sound like we were inside a traveling political ad, and where does the kid hear this stuff? Undeterred by the barely suppressed laughter in the front of the van, the 11-going-on-45 year old sighed, ‘and now, if the Liberal Party is going to do everything they say they’re going to do….we’ll end up with a $10 billion deficit! Next time I’m voting NDP.’

‘You mean next time you vote in your mock election,’ I couldn’t resist.

‘You mean Mulcair?’ the professor couldn’t resist. ‘He lost! Big time.’

This is what happens when three firstborns communicate.

I steered the van into one of the many parking spots – another sign that beautiful, yellow-leaved Fall is a thing of the past: plenty of space to park. We spilled out of the 98 special onto the gravel and headed for the train tracks. Just as an enormous train arrived at the crossing. Not ones to stand around and wait for a huge train to pass, the professor veered left so we could keep walking – a logical move. Unfortunately his youngest son had decided crossing the tracks was where he wanted to go and, just like that, approximately 7.9 seconds after getting out of the car, we had our first tantrum.

Sadly, it was not a new Johnson family record.

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We walked to the soundtrack of Percy’s unhappiness, the professor doing his best to fabricate a faux event or competition, so as to stop the trail of tears. The best he could do was initiate a race to do lateral jumps across a grassy median. It stayed the sadness for at least three minutes.

‘What are the things I’m good at, Mama,’ the Gort suddenly asked, seemingly out of nowhere, calling me Mama, instead of Mom which he uses 99.99% of the time. It meant he really wanted me to pay attention, give him a serious answer. Parenting is like this, I’ve come to conclude over the last 11 point 5 years. You’re basically on call twenty-four hours a day, to be summoned at anytime, with absolutely no notice and likely zero experience, to shape someone’s soul or offer words that they could potentially remember for a lifetime.

Here I thought I was just putting one foot in front of the other, hoping to get 3000 steps on my fitbit. But there, in the middle of my 540th step, I was suddenly expected to be part career counsellor, part insightful wise mentor-type.

Crap.

My philosophy in these matters is to be honest. And kind. And encouraging. And hope it doesn’t come back to haunt me during Thanksgiving 2027. I did my best, pointing out the strengths I see and how I could imagine them developing as he grows older. And then, just as suddenly as the moment began, it ended, as he raced off to join his brothers in searching for beavers and crawling through Narnia-like twig forest.

I meandered on alone, decidedly less interested in searching out potential beaver homes. I heard the professor initiate another competition to advance the troops in a more timely manner: ‘let’s see who gets to mom first.’ And six seconds later I had two boys ‘tagging’ me in the back with the sort of heavy-handed slaps that caused me to lurch forward a step or three. All while chanting something like: ‘First is the worst. Second is the….Third is the golden egg….’

If pressed to sum up boy life in one word, it would be: competition.

‘It smells like dog poop and pepperoni,’ the Gort observed. And I smiled at the very specific, if unusual, olfactory combination.

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We walked to the river to go throw rocks into the water – because in addition to competition, boys also like to throw things. Percy took this opportunity to announce he had to go to the bathroom rightaway, which is pretty much his modus operandus these days: refuse all logical and timely opportunities for bathroom breaks, wait until the last possible moment, then wait another five minutes and then announce in a hyperventilating sort of voice that he must find a bathroom. Immediately.

Thus the professor escorted him to the nearest facility while the Hen and the Gort and I stood by the river. ‘Didn’t the water use to come up to here?’ the Gort worried aloud, pointing at a line in the rocks. ‘Yes,’ I nodded. ‘Is this because we’re consuming too much water?”

And I muttered something about water levels and melting snow, hoping to sound semi-informed despite the fact that I’m clueless.

The brothers picked up a flat grey rock from the sea of flat grey rocks. Remarkably, it had writing on it: ‘I really don’t think I need buns of steel, I’d be happy with cinnamon buns.’ Ellen Degeneres. The humor was lost on them. As was the concept of a quote. As was Ellen’s last name, which the Gort twisted into something like Dee-Ju-near-us. Sometimes I think all that Spanish is really messing with his English.

While watching the Hen hurl rocks into the Bow River, I got a text from the professor. The first bathroom had been closed and they’d headed to the one near the parking lot and were waiting for us there.

We meandered back and the boys migrated towards the playground where Percy was sitting on the tire swing. ‘So, why don’t you tell mom that advice you learned today,’ the professor prompted his youngest son. I assumed it had something to do with waiting too long to go to the bathroom. But instead the professor relayed the chatter he’d overheard from outside the port-a-potty his son had occupied.

‘Wow, that soap is really old.’

And then, when his son emerged from the port-a-potty and showed his father the ‘really old soap’ he’d used to wash his hands?

It turned out to be a urinal cake.

The professor recoiled, while I covered my ears and walked back to the car, having expended my stand-and-wait energy at the river. Minutes later I heard the professor yell our family creed: ‘Last one to the car gets left behind!’ Because this summer I thought it would add a ‘lovely sense of occasion’ to our gas and bathroom breaks; telling the boys that whoever made it to the car last would get left behind.

They will either be scarred for life, or learn resilience – only time will tell.

Luckily I was already standing at the passenger door. The professor unlocked the car and we jumped in, with Percy joining us shortly thereafter. ‘You only need one child,’ he shrugged heartlessly when I suggested we lock the doors and drive off. But then, in a rare display of brotherly love, he unlocked his side door to let the Hen in, motioning furiously while whispering to him to jump in lest I pounced on the lock button.

Which left the Gort, last man standing, scrambling to get in the locked van. The professor tapped the gas and the van inched forward. While a man walking his dog laughed at the spectacle that is us.