Flying the Friendly Skies

Two summers ago, as we eked our way across the nothingness that is lower Saskatchewan, returning from yet another 8000km/4000mi+ journey to the Heartland, I knew with frightening certainty that we would not repeat the feat in 2017. Sometimes when in the midst of a trying situation we humans say things like ‘well I’m never doing that again.’ As with childbirth, for example. And then, despite insistence to the contrary, you find yourself doing the thing again.

But this was different, I knew I was so sick of sitting on my butt, trudging along asphalt, staring at open skies, eating countless bags of chips and candy, hoping the car wouldn’t break down (again), that a two-year reprieve would not be sufficient to convince me to embark on another cross country roadtrip. And, in the odd chance that I managed to rally and convince myself to pack up the car because the monetary savings was worth it, I knew the professor, our primary driver on these extreme undertakings, would not.

As skipping our biennial visit to the Heartland was not an option, we turned to our trusted friend, Expedia, just before Christmas – an astounding seven months before we were due to leave – and forked over credit card details for the vague, easily broken, promise of five seats on a Chicago-bound plane. The professor had spent an astounding amount of time (days!) holed up in his basement office trying to find the cheapest flights and when he finally emerged with the words ‘it is finished’ he added the delightful caveat ‘the trip back is going to be rough….three flights…..going to LaGuardia.’

Geography is not a particular strength of mine, but even I know that flying from Indiana to New York to go to Calgary is not exactly efficient or direct. ‘Oh well,’ I shrugged, ‘this year we at least have the advantage of knowing no matter how much that one day of travel sucks, it’s still better than three days in the car.’

Even as I said those words, I knew they would come back to haunt me.

Seven months passed, as they do in our current phase of life, in a blur of cold, school, work, sports, warmth, work, school, sports. As soon as July hit we headed to the airport with five carry-on suitcases, 5 ‘personal items’ and a large black suitcase with a red string attached. To set it apart from the host of other anonymous black suitcases cruising around on the conveyor belt.

Percy and the Hen, technicalities aside, had never really flown on an airplane before. The Gort and I had sporadic, intermittent, experience with the art of flying in the 21st century. As in, I hadn’t flown since November 2015. The professor was the only frequent traveler among us, which turned out not to be one of those ‘blessings in disguise’ of which ‘people’ sometimes speak.

Apparently when one’s solitary ritual is invaded by four neophytes, injecting a touch of chaos into one’s established way of doing things, tensions can run high.

Cranky paterfamilias aside, the travel itself was relatively smooth. Our flight departed more or less on time, we had seats in the same row and when Chicago’s piles of skyscrapers came into view a mere three hours after leaving Calgary, it felt like a modern miracle. Yes, I’d flown before. Yes, I was aware it was considerably faster than driving – but to see Chicago? After only being in a plane for 3 hours?

Milagro!

Our semi-lengthy layover in Chicago passed quickly enough between neverending walks from one concourse to the next, and spending cringe-worthy amounts of money on small amounts of mediocre food. I always keep my eyes open in airports because I’m addicted to people watching but I’ve also had enough bizarre small-world encounters to know it’s entirely possible that I might see someone I know, or at least recognize.

Sure enough, walking along one of the concourses, surveying the food situation with my youngest two, I passed a short, tattooed man with dark, wavy hair. I stared, tactlessly, at him because he was familiar to me even though my middle-aged brain was not offering up a corresponding name. Joseph Boyden, my brain finally cooperated a few seconds after I passed him. The author. He’d been in Calgary just two months before and I’d attended his talk with a friend.

It struck me as unglamorous, this gifted writer hoisting a large duffel bag over his shoulder, traveling from one city to the next at the behest of his publisher/agent in an attempt to sell, defend, himself.

Once we landed in Indianapolis, our day’s final destination, I asked the Hen which he preferred – flying or driving. ‘Driving’ he surprised me, ‘it doesn’t hurt my ears.’

Twenty-nine days later, having seen Indiana, Michigan and New York, slept in six different beds, and worn the same two pairs of shorts and two tank tops too many times to count, we loaded our stuffed-to-the-brim suitcases into my sister’s car and drove to the airport. With a forecast of unassigned seats and two problematic big city airports looming overhead.

Along with his solitary travel peculiarities, the professor has also adopted what I’ve since dubbed ‘his Vicky voice’ when dealing with airline personnel. So named after listening to him talk on the phone with an airline representative named Vicky. The voice is a blend of extreme calm and pleasantness, bordering on personable, utilized with a tacit expectation of reciprocated cooperation.

Apparently the Vicky voice pays off on occasion, because we found ourselves in ‘Comfort Plus’ seats for the first flight from Indianapolis to LaGuardia with a 65+ year old male flight attendant, who was perhaps the nicest man I’d ever met and an almost two year old girl who shrieked at eardrum-shattering decibels. You win some, you lose some.

We arrived at LaGuardia ahead of schedule and ‘everything was coming up Jason’ as the professor likes to say when things are going his way, until it came time to board our flight for Toronto.

Tuesday, August 1st was apparently a banner day at the Toronto airport for thunderstorms. Of course, we were entirely unaware of all of this, as we were standing in line waiting to board when the dreaded announcement came. ‘Thunderstorms…Toronto area…Delay…..No idea when this plane might leave.’ A look at the departure board revealed the next Toronto flight after ours had been entirely cancelled.

Mere minutes after the first dire announcement, came a second: ‘Board. Quickly.’

Part of me envisioned a favorable outcome to the scenario – we were going to board quickly and depart at just the right time to allow us to land in Toronto in between meteorological episodes. The smart part of me realized we were going to board quickly….and sit on a plane. We’ve all seen at least one news headline about a plane full of passengers sitting on a tarmac for hours on end without water to drink, forbidden from using the bathrooms.

This was not like that, exactly.

We boarded an un air-conditioned plane in 90 degree heat with a hundred-some strangers, but at least we were handed dixie cups of water and given permission to use the bathrooms, all while the flight attendant and pilot spouted honest if unapologetic rhetoric about having no idea what’s happening. ‘It is what it is,’ they seemed to say. Actually, that’s exactly what the pilot said.

I’m not sure that I would describe myself as a claustrophobic person, per se, but I definitely have a large personal space bubble and am quickly irritated in hot, overcrowded, public transportation situations. Also I was wearing jeans and a light sweater for the purpose of keeping warm in cold airports and airplanes. Ah, the irony.

At first the sitting on the plane was alright. We’d handed out screens to our boy-children and I’d usurped the Hen’s Sudoku puzzles. But minutes turned into tens of minutes and the plane seemed to be getting hotter. And I was stuck in between the Gort and the professor.

‘Do you want me to get you a t-shirt from the suitcase?’ the professor offered when it became unbearably obvious that I was irritated. ‘No!’ I snapped, because I didn’t want to ‘hold things up’ or ‘inconvenience anyone’ by opening an overhead bin and extricating a t-shirt from a suitcase. I also held on to the foolish hope that our suffering could end at a moment’s notice.

Eventually I capitulated and never was I more grateful for a tiny airplane bathroom or a well-worn black tank top.

We were past the hour mark when the pilot asked for a show of hands to see who would be in favor of getting off the plane. I raised my hand, even though I never raise my hand for anything. I would have abandoned the four members of my party and started a new life in a rat-infested New York City studio if it meant I could get off that plane.

Sorrynotsorry.

[Rats and the City: coming soon to a television near you, featuring a sad fortysomething grey-haired woman with a large personal space bubble, wearing clothes from the Gap.]

Luckily at least 50% of my fellow passengers agreed with me, because we were allowed to get off the plane. The first thing I saw upon entering the terminal was a waitress carrying a smoothie on a small tray and all I could think about was finding a smoothie for myself. Stat. I forked over more cringe-worthy amounts of money for not enough food, lamented our travel situation to my mother and sister and eventually found myself standing in line for the same flight, again.

Around the ‘three hours later’ mark we finally took off for Toronto with visions of missed flights and getting to Calgary at 2am in my head.

It was my first time ever, landing at YYZ, so perhaps it’s always like this, but the airport seemed overrun with people scurrying and people standing in lines waiting to make alternate travel arrangements and stressed airline employees directing traffic. The escalators were stopped and I found myself hoisting suitcases and backpacks up and down flights of frozen stairs to appease unhappy children who’d been traveling for a month and had hit the proverbial wall of exhaustion.

And then we got to security.

My suitcase was flagged. The same suitcase which wasn’t flagged in Indianapolis. As soon as the security guy said ‘liquids over 100ml’ I remembered about the bottle of mouthwash, and the shaving cream. ‘Right,’ I disclosed in an attempt to hurry the process along, ‘I have a bottle of shaving cream….and a bottle of mouthwash.’ The man didn’t appear to notice that I seemed tired, done, and unable to care about whatever belongings of mine he needed to confiscate. ‘Let me just search the bag and then we can talk through some options,’ he replied smoothly, as though to suggest my patience with the process would be rewarded handsomely. He continued his search of my suitcase and unearthed an additional culprit: a bottle of lens cleaner ‘somewhere between the 100 and 200ml mark.’

‘Well,’ he was finally ready to tell me what I already knew. ‘You could take these items back and check them blah blah blah blah or…..’

‘Or?’

‘We could confiscate them.’

I nodded my head, pointed a finger as though to say ‘that’s the solution I’ve been waiting to hear’ and said ‘Yes, that’s fine.’

Nothing in my suitcase was worth retracing my steps from the previous hour for the purpose of checking a bag.

With an almost amusing chorus of apologies, the security guy took possession of my Listerine and Nivea and eyeglass cleaner, then called me back and handed me the spray bottle of lens cleaner: ‘If it’s medicinal, it can be over 118ml.’

Good thing I was wearing my glasses.

It was close to midnight before we were allowed to board the flight back to Calgary, our party of five dispersed throughout the plane. As my head bobbed back and forth between sleep and consciousness, my body wracked from fatigue and illness, I estimated our journey from start to finish had taken 19 hours. Less than 3 days in the car, to be sure, but not by much.

 

 

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.

 

 

Heading home

The ninth and final installment of Summer 2015: Roadtrip to the Heartland.

We emerged from our suburban hotel at a surprisingly efficient 8:30am. Surely a new trip record for the Johnsons, undoubtedly attributed to the hour gained since leaving Michigan. We ate cereal out of cardboard bowls (which I just happened to find under my seat yesterday, three weeks later), supported yet another mediocre Starbucks, and hit the road.

It was to be a difficult day of driving as we were due for another close encounter with North Dakota. We made it as far as Fargo before I felt the need to get out of the car. Although, now that I think of it, we may have pulled off at a rest stop near the Minnesota border for one of the boys to go to the bathroom. Or maybe that was before Jamestown. Or all of the above. Who can recall?

The professor googled ‘best coffee in Fargo’ and the Red Raven Espresso Parlor popped up in the search results. So we drove through unknown streets in search of an algorithm’s idea of suitable caffeine.

We stopped, briefly, in the parking lot of an auto repair shop, to verify we were on the right street, when the Gort looked up, saw the words ‘auto repair’ and despaired, ‘oh, no, what do we have to replace now?!’ [For in addition to the Missouri alternator emergency, we’d also kitted out our Sienna with a brand-new Indiana muffler.] It was to be the funniest moment in all seven days of driving.

Which is sad, really.

We stopped for coffee. Which led to a stop for burgers. And then we hit the road to Jamestown where we stopped for an emergency bag of m&m’s at the world’s scariest looking grocery store. And there was another stop after that for gas and a Subway sandwich for somebody’s dinner.

When the professor said, at the beginning of our return trip, that he was saying goodbye to happy Nicola, he really meant he was saying goodbye to happy everyone. For the atmosphere in the car on the tail end of every one of these trips is always charged. High levels of irritability mix with exhaustion and abnormal blood sugar levels in decidedly unpleasant ways, and we have no choice but to endure it; the journey and one another.

As we headed towards the border, which had me feeling slightly anxious on account of our previous encounter with America’s finest, I suddenly panicked that it might be closed by the time we got there. I envisioned us having to drive to another point of entry, or possibly spend the night in the car. Luckily, that particular crossing point turned out to be open 24 hours a day. I suppose we should add it to the list of things to investigate: border crossing hours of operation. If we ever intend to make this roadtrip again.

My memory is somewhat hazy, nearly a month later, but this is an approximate account of our exchange with customs:

Where are you coming from: Indiana

How long were you there: One month

What were you doing: Visiting Family

Value of any purchases: Maybe two hundred bucks

Have a good day.

Oh, Canada.

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I couldn’t help but think of the Gort’s panicked conclusion from several days earlier, upon nearly being run over by a motorcycle in the South Beach parking lot: ‘we need to go back to Canada! It’s safer there.’

I don’t know about safer, but pedestrians do have the right of way. And border agents don’t seem overly suspicious of kids having passports.

We rolled into Regina at a surprisingly decent time, meaning: notmidnight. And fell asleep in a relatively undramatic fashion, meaning: noonescreamedforthirtyminutesplus. It was, what I like to call, a roadtrip miracle.

The next morning we awoke, ready for the last stretch to Calgary through some of the flattest, most unexciting land in the history of flat and unexciting land. I consulted Google to lead me to my morning coffee and as we drove through downtown Regina, I found myself thinking: Regina is not half bad.

It may be a side effect of driving 8153 kilometers, my thinking that relocating to any university town with the potential to reduce our overall driving time, would be awesome.

Or maybe, as Bill Bryson suggests in his book The Lost Continent, I’m on a perpetual search to find ‘the perfect town’ that seems only to exist in mid-century film and literature. After leaving Regina, we drove through the hamlet of Moose Jaw and stopped in Swift Current, which surprised me with signs for a Saturday farmer’s market and a newly opened independent coffee shop.

But despite its slightly closer proximity to Indiana, I did not contemplate – even for a second – moving there.

The last couple of hours of the trip always hold a bit of excitement as the boys start calculating what time we might get to Calgary; anticipating the fun of being home, with their toys and in their own beds. And the professor’s spirits lift a bit, too, as he anticipates a day in the very near future where he will not have to spend more than fifteen minutes in the car. And I imagine my own bed. Getting my clothes out of a closet or a dresser. Making my own coffee and eating real food.

Just after 4:30pm, we ran from the car, through a rainstorm, into our little white house. After being gone for 33 days and sleeping in 13 different beds. My basil plant had shriveled to a brittle outline of its former self (good thing I stayed up to make pesto the night before we left), and the colorful orange planters I’d bequeathed to Mother Nature, had died a severe and painful-looking death.

But we were home, and that was more than sufficient. We ate french toast and bacon and crawled into bed at a relatively decent hour. The next morning the professor emerged from the shower looking especially handsome, and as I tried to pinpoint the reason, I realized it was because he was wearing a t-shirt and pair of jeans I hadn’t seen every day for the last 5 weeks.

The boys were back to the business of being a trio, playing Lego in the basement and at the coffee table, as though the trip had never happened. While I got back in the car to address the empty fridge and pantry and the chipped windshield North Dakota had given us as a parting gift.

I think about it often when we do any trip, but especially these marathons – the difference in being a parent versus being a kid. The cleaning, the packing, the laundry, the arrangements, the driving, figuring out food and paying for it all…just how much work it is to make memories.

For the adults, it’s brutal with a side of awesome. And for the boys, it’s awesome with a side of brutal.

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The Warriors

Eight installments down. One to go. 

Exactly one month from the day we first got in the car to drive southeast, we got back in the car to drive northwest.

A friend living in Wyoming had invited us to stop there on our way back. I was all set to accept her invitation, as in: I’d already typed the words, ‘yes, we’ll do it!’ when I realized driving straight west would add seven hours to our return trip. I could handle a seven hour detour….on the front end of the trip. But I could not handle seven extra hours in the car….on the way back.

If nothing else, our stop in Yellowstone, circa 2011, had taught me that much.

So I declined very apologetically and we set our sights on the shortest, most direct route: Minneapolis. Regina, Saskatchewan. Calgary.

We hugged our family members goodbye……and then the professor hugged me. Which I found odd, considering we were going to be spending the next three days in very close quarters. ‘I’m saying goodbye….to happy Nicola,’ he explained.

Fair enough.

We drove away from South Haven and, somewhat apologetically, steered our old and tired van onto Highway 31. Maybe cars don’t have feelings, like fatigue, but I find myself feeling sorry for our little Sienna. Approximately 3 minutes after hitting the highway, the tire pressure light glowed orange on the dashboard. Surely, a new trip record.

We pulled off at a gas station and the professor checked something and hit a button and then we started driving again, crossing our fingers that would be the end of it.

Already at the orange alert level of despair, I decided I needed to find better-than-swill coffee to get me through Chicago. Some people have smart phones with out-of-country data plans and coffee-finding apps. I have a sister. I texted her to inquire about good-coffee possibilities in St. Joseph or New Buffalo. And, albeit with a slight time delay, she steered me to the latter town’s David’s Delicatessen. Complete with driving directions.

We bought one final Sunday edition of the New York Times, just to clutter up our filled-to-the-brim car, and a couple of coffees and climbed back in the car to navigate the maze of highways and traffic that define Chicago, past Kid-Vegas (Wisconsin Dells) to the land of 10,000 lakes.

The professor and I used to live in Minneapolis many moons ago. We made the drive through Chicago, past Madison dozens of times. And yet, on this, the first day of our trip home, in what was to become another of the mind-boggling, brainless moments that seemed to define Roadtrip 2015, we somehow missed the Madison exit and drove straight to Milwaukee instead.

As far as navigational malfunctions go, it wasn’t the worst, but when you’ve already driven six thousand some kilometers, you don’t want to drive even one unnecessary kilometer. Unless it’s for a donut or an iced coffee. And even then, it’s 50-50.

Like our meander through Kid-Vegas. Based on my memory of previous drives, I felt confident that I-90/94 was void of any easily accessed Starbucks chains. But when we got to the last Wisconsin Dells exit, we saw the telltale green and white logo on an exit sign. Naturally we veered off. Not because we like Starbucks all that much. But because it is a beacon of comfort and security; offering a momentary respite against the cruel world of asphalt and highway signs and gross fast food chains.

Except, when we got to the stop sign, the arrow pointing to Starbucks had some crucial small print underneath it: 2mi thataway. I was fully prepared to steer the car-van back onto the highway for, believe it or not, we have a fairly strict rule about only stopping at places that can be seen from the highway (unless, of course, we’re talking about a Whole Foods or something awesome.) ‘Oh, let’s just go. What’s two miles,’ the professor sighed and so, against my better judgement, we headed east. For the longest two mile drive known to man, that featured the least accessible Starbucks in the history of coffee chains. Where we sat in the drive-thru for a tears-inducing amount of time.

Though I despised my venti iced coffee, I still drank it.

Eventually, despite detours and stupid stops, we made it to Minneapolis. Driving along the curve of I-94 near ‘the U’, I thought back to my coffee-drinking, graduate school days when we had no kids and lived in a little bungalow. And I had a monthly pass at a downtown parking garage because it was the cheapest place to park my car while I was at class.

It struck me as very grown-up and light years removed from my current life, having a monthly pass at a parking garage.

Our resting place for the night was in some far western suburb, near the highway we’d be taking on our way to Saskatchewan. But first we had to acquire some provisions for our next day’s journey. And there was the matter of dinner. And ‘naturally’ this could only be remedied by stopping at the Whole Foods near Lake Calhoun.

We cut through Uptown on Hennepin Avenue, past the long-gone Blockbuster where we used to rent movies on Friday nights. So many new restaurants and coffee shops keeping company next to places we used to frequent. Like D’Amico & Sons, where the Balsamic Chicken Salad with Strawberries is still on the menu after all these years.

After the boys had eaten something that resembled real food, we headed over to Lake Calhoun to stretch our legs and feel something besides air conditioning on our skin. It was a beautiful night and people were out; walking, running, sitting at picnic tables with friends. The sun was just beginning its descent and the lake, dotted with sailboats, glowed.

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Yes, I pretty much follow them around and take pictures of their backs. 

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Va-cation!

Minneapolis really might be the perfect place to live, with its lakes, trees, architecture, vibrancy, and natural beauty. If you’re able to set aside the brutally cold winters. And the way too humid summers. And there’s the matter of the never-ending road construction projects. Truly it feels like something from FDR’s New Deal – are they just working on roads to create jobs for people?

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Aspiring American Ninja Warriors

I could have stayed at the lake for hours. But the boys were dying to find our hotel so they could watch American Ninja Warrior. They’d discovered the show on our last night in Michigan (six years after the fact) and it had become their only topic of conversation. In the car. Running to the play structures at the lake. Jumping onto rock-hard sand from a six-foot-high ledge. The surprised look on my middle would-be warrior’s face as he hit the sand suggested he hadn’t quite thought it through.

While the boys were glued to the hotel television screen, watching insane feats of strength, I readied everything for our earliest-possible departure the next morning. I marveled at how things had changed in the seven years we’d been making the journey to the heartland, recalling some very late nights of kids screaming in hotel rooms while exhausted parents struggled to retain their sanity.

And then the professor turned off the light right in the middle of Fat Guys in the Woods. And somebody completely lost it. And I thought, ‘maybe not.’

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Calgon take me away