Road Trippin’ 2015: Circuitous Logic

The road between the Denali turnoff and Fairbanks is remarkable in that it is entirely unremarkable from a topographical perspective. With its winding rivers, grassy marshlands, random forests, and scrubby brush land, the area looks pretty much like northern Minnesota or Wisconsin. In fact, were it not for all the fireweed and the unfamiliar town names and road numbers gracing the signs along the way, the route we took to Fairbanks could have passed for any number of highways connecting the northern part of any Midwestern state to its nether regions. Still, it was uncharted territory for the two of us, and we were thrilled to have the chance to see it up close—even if it looked a lot like home.

Although the topography was relatively familiar to our eyes, other aspects of the geography were not. In fact, now and then it would feel as though we’d entered a land that time forgot—like when we would run across a house featuring four different types of siding or a tri-color roof that looked more like a shed or a kid’s fort than a dwelling. In any other setting, such a sight might suggest poverty or malfeasance. But out here, where resources are scarce, a house of many hues is not so much a reflection of one’s income or iniquity as evidence of one’s ability to improvise, overcome and adapt. Many in the so-called civilized world like to talk about the environment and conservation, but the folks who live in the sticks of Alaska take the concept of reduce, reuse, and recycle to a whole new level. Whether they do so by choice or by necessity, one has to admire their ingenuity.

Contrary to what some might believe, I did not spend the bulk of the drive waxing poetic about the virtues and vitality of the inhabitants of Alaska’s interior. If I had, no doubt the Jarhead would have set aside his distaste for talking to strangers and stopped off somewhere to borrow a strip or two of duct tape. But since he was napping (ostensibly) most of the way and thus would not have heard me anyway (or would have pretended not to) I kept such thoughts to myself.

There were times, of course—especially when we would go miles and miles without seeing another car—that I wondered if we were making a huge mistake in venturing out on our own without an atlas or a firearm. But whenever such a thought would occur to me I would remind myself that the people who live in the interior do so for a reason, and therefore are less interested in us than my ego would have you believe. Not to mention the fact that the folks who are up to no good are likely to be packing more firepower than whatever we could have brought along for protection.

And so instead of contemplating who might be looking to murder me (and when, where, and how) I considered what I had learned about Alaska so far on this trip that was unlikely to be found in your average textbook or on even the most thorough of travel websites. One thing that came to mind was the subtle rivalry that apparently exists between Alaska and Texas, as evidenced by all the items bearing the phrase “Let’s cut Alaska in half and make Texas the THIRD largest state” or some variation thereof. With both states being famous for their size and their oil, I suppose it’s only natural that they would compete with one another, but I found it odd that two places that are so different—and so far apart—would even bother.

Being more accustomed to regional rivalries, such as exist between Minnesota and Wisconsin, I would have expected to see merchandise with trash talk directed at Canada, perhaps, or at least the Yukon. Consequently, a rivalry between Alaska and Texas made about as much sense to me as would a rivalry between beef jerky and Laffy Taffy.

A more fitting rivalry for Alaska, in my view anyway, would be Minnesota. Both states are known for their harsh winters and hardy residents, after all, and until Alaska came along and stole its thunder, Minnesota was home to both the northernmost point in the United States and—according to my friends at Wikipedia—more square acres of wetlands than any state in the nation. In addition, both are populated by hunting, fishing, hockey, and snow machining enthusiasts, and both attract their share of tourists. And still, despite all these ingredients of a rousing rhetorical grudge match, I have yet to see even a one tee shirt or coffee mug in either state speaking mockingly of the other.

Then again, having been to the Lone Star State three times without seeing any evidence of an adversarial relationship between it and the Land of the Midnight Sun, I’m inclined to think Alaska’s war with Texas might be a one-sided argument. Either that, or Texas handles its enemies the way I do mine: by pretending they don’t exist.

Near the end of the day’s drive, I learned something else about Alaska: The suburbs there look pretty much the same as the suburbs in every other state. In fact, if I hadn’t been awake for the entire drive—if instead I’d been chloroformed, thrown in the trunk, driven around for several hours and somehow managed to escape the vehicle while my captors stopped for coffee or to use the restroom—you could have told me we were in Burnsville, Green Bay, Fredericksburg, or even Philadelphia and I totally would have bought it. At least until I noticed the road signs. And maybe a license plate or two. But up to that point, surrounded by buildings bearing the names of nearly every single restaurant, clothing store, and home improvement center to be found orbiting every city in the lower forty-eight, you would have had a hard time convincing me we were in Alaska.

As they saying goes, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” With that in mind, we pulled into the parking lot of the Hilton Garden Inn, tossed our bags into a room that looked exactly like every other room in every other Hilton Garden Inn in every other city and, after a brief stop at Walgreens, set out to find a place to eat whose sign did not end in bee’s, back, or bucks. This was a bigger challenge than one might guess since, those that weren’t part of a chain often looked a bit like the houses I mentioned a few paragraphs ago.

Eventually, though, we found a place called Brewster’s where we enjoyed “Great Food, Great Alaskan Spirits” just as their slogan promised. Specifically, we enjoyed their simply-named, signature appetizer, Steak Bits, which are tiny chunks of steak simmered in a sort of savory broth and served with garlic toast. And when I say enjoyed, I mean it. It was the most delicious and different treat we’d sampled in a long time. And the rest of the meal was no slouch either. To top it all off, our server apparently recognized the Jarhead’s military bearing and, without prompting, offered us a military discount. It was all almost too good to be true. And yet, it was.

The next morning we set off for the Arctic Circle, which, according to LaVon’s map, was just a few miles off the highway between Fairbanks and North Pole. Although we didn’t expect to be greeted with the kind of fanfare one might receive upon completing a marathon or winning a Grammy, we were at least hoping to take a photo and earn some bragging rights.

Two hours and countless miles later, however, the road terminated at a resort at Chena Hot Springs. Having seen nothing in the way of a sign or symbol referencing the Arctic Circle along the way, we were more than a little bit confused. Had we misread the map or simply missed a turn? Had LaVon’s memory failed her when she was drawing the map that morning? Or could the phrase “a few miles” means something different to one former Minnesotan than it did to others?

Sadly, there had been no one to ask about the location of the Arctic Circle as we made our way to Chena Hot Springs, and once we got to the point where the road terminated it seemed a moot point. So, after giving Oscar-worthy portrayals of a couple of paying customers while strolling around the resort in search of a restroom, we turned the rental around and headed back to toward the highway.

We never did find the Arctic Circle, but we did make it back to Fairbanks and on to Glennallen via North Pole and Delta Junction. Along the way, we stopped off at several state parks and scenic overlooks to admire all the rivers and other natural wonders to be found along the way—including two moose, one moose calf, scores of bison and one semi-suicidal elk. At one stop we found and photographed no less than a dozen types of mushrooms—more than I had ever seen in one place other than a field guide. Despite our futile attempt to find the Arctic Circle, it was a great day.

By the time we landed in our room—having stopped at the first place we found with a vacancy—we were more than ready for bed. Which is good because we had few other options. Having arrived at 8:51 to a restaurant whose staff had decided to close at 8:45 instead of 9, we were unable to procure a hot meal, and thus had been forced to choose between something from the cooler and whatever could be found at the convenience store we’d passed two miles back on our way into town.

In addition, as none of the outlets in our room were tight enough to maintain a circuit or hold a plug, we were unable to use any electronic device other than the television that was mounted in the corner of the room near the ceiling and whose cords had been carefully run through the wall with the goal, one assumes, of thwarting a theft. Consequently, the Jarhead was forced to position the nightstand in such a way that would hold the plug in the outlet so I could run my CPAP and not die from lack of oxygen. Likewise, he was able to arrange a chair, the refrigerator, and microwave—MacGyver style—so we could charge our phones and run the box fan that provided the white noise I needed in order to sleep in a remote area with funky electrical systems and employees who resented their patrons.

On the upside, there was a Jacuzzi tub in the room from which one could see the television and imagine it falling from its perch and landing somewhere in the vicinity of one’s knees. Even after the Jarhead pointed out that for the TV to fall into the tub it would also have to break loose from its power source I was completely disinclined to give it a try. Given my lack of faith in the facility’s wiring and my general aversion to death by electrocution, it just made more sense to avoid using water altogether.

Instead, we hit the rack and watched reruns of Forensic Files and Unsolved Mysteries until the Jarhead had nodded off and I was left to imagine all the possible crimes to which I could fall victim before daybreak. Naturally, I would have preferred to imagine myself awakening to a bright sunshine and travelling joyfully to Valdez, but we all know that isn’t how this mind works. Nevertheless, at some point I decided I’d rather be killed in my sleep than face whomever might come through the window or door, and switched off the tube and waited like Will Smith in “I am Legend” for morning.


Road Trippin’ 2015

For the second time in two years, I set aside my fears and phobias this month, and agreed to accompany the Jarhead on week-long adventure to parts heretofore unknown to us. Although this trip did not involve Canada or the Rockies—unless you count flyovers—like our 2013 journey, it did carry an element of risk to mind, body, and soul.

But nothing ventured, nothing gained, as they say. So rather than sitting at home waiting for death to find me in the pool, in the tub, or at my desk, I crossed my fingers, tossed my hiking boots into a suitcase—along with enough clothes to impress both Ginger AND Mrs. Howell—and headed north to Alaska by way of Minnesota.

To be fair, much of the trip was not unknown to us, as it began with a six hour car ride from Oshkosh to Minneapolis. If you think 6 hours is an excessive amount of time drive a distance that would ordinarily take only 4 ½, you would be correct and can therefore cancel any plans to have your head examined. If instead of your own mental wellbeing you were concerned with our driving and/or navigational skills, it should ease your mind to learn that we took the scenic route.

Yep, for reasons known only to him, the Jarhead decided he wanted to take his time and travel to the Twin Cities by way of Tomah, La Crosse, and Rochester. Although he will deny it, I suspect he chose I-90 over I-94 for the simple fact that he has travelled the I-94 route—back and forth—twice since Memorial Day and simply wanted a change of pace.

As long as we were taking the circuitous route, we decided to drop in on a good friend of mine whose house stands but a mile or two off of the highway between Rochester and Minneapolis. As I expected, we caught her a bit off guard, but as it had been months since we had seen each other, I felt it would be worth surprising her even if she was already in her pajamas. And, oh, how I would love to provide a photo of that moment she warily opened her front door! But since I don’t want that visit to be the LAST time she speaks to me, you’ll just have to imagine how shocked she was to find us on her porch. (Sorry, T. Lo!)

From there we continued on our trip to Minneapolis where, the next morning, we took an unforgettable trip down memory lane on our way to the airport. This seemed a fitting way to begin our journey since the Jarhead and I recently celebrated our 30th wedding anniversary, and because apart from Oshkosh, the longest we have lived in any one location over the course of our three decades together was the three and a half years we spent in the Twin Cities.

We started this segment of our trip with a drive by Lake Nokomis. Lake Nokomis figures prominently in our lives since it is where my friend LaVon and I used to spend hours walking and, later, pushing babies in strollers. Although it is also where my mother’s relatives used to hold their family reunions when I was a kid, it is probably better known to my immediate family as the place where El Noble learned to ride a two wheeler in April of 1991, and where he subsequently found himself up to his chest in ice-cold water about a half an hour later.

From Lake Nokomis, we continued north toward Lake Street. Along the way, we spent twenty minutes looking for the duplex where we lived for about a year—since neither of us could recall the address—and another ten discussing what was different about it and why it had taken us so long to find it. We also paid a visit to the four-unit brownstone we lived in before moving to the duplex, and the building next door where LaVon lived when we first moved there. These two were much easier to find owing to the fact that we remembered they were situated on 11th Avenue somewhere between Powderhorn Park and 38th street.

After another discussion about the changes we observed to the two structures and the neighborhood, we continued north to Lake Street and followed it east toward St. Paul in search of the big old Victorian whose second floor we occupied when the Princess was conceived. As was the case with our first two former dwellings, we had to circle the neighborhood a few times because we couldn’t recall the street address.

Although it still took us longer to find it than we expected, the task was made easier by the fact that we knew it was located at the corner of its block on Marshall Avenue, a few blocks west of Snelling. Even with that much intel, we still missed it the first two times we passed it and, due to the volume of traffic in the area, did not have the chance to get a good look. Thus, we could neither assess nor admire it as we discussed all of the memories we had of the place. Even without the benefit of the visual aid, however, we had a pretty good laugh recalling the time El Noble came to us crying after discovering that, unlike his friends who lived downstairs, he was not African American.

Having visited our fourth Twin Cities residence only six or so years ago—and lacking the time to travel there and back before we needed to be at the airport—we decided to forego a drive to Windom Gables and headed for the highway. From there, it would be a short drive to the terminal, an even shorter walk to security, followed by a LONG walk to the gate, and an even longer flight—to Anchorage…

Road Trippin’ VIII: The Journey Home

Given that the seventh and final leg of our journey involved the longest drive, you might think there would be much to say about it. But just like the first day of our trip, we were on familiar territory and had planned no stops other than for food and fuel, which meant there wouldn’t be much to talk about unless something tragic or unusual occurred. Fortunately, that did not happen. Instead, we passed a pleasant day as quickly and efficiently as we could with the goal of spending the night in our own bed.

To be fair, the trip wasn’t entirely unremarkable. For example, on this day, the Jarhead decided not to hog the driver’s seat. It probably helped that he knew I was familiar with the route and was unlikely, therefore, to miss a turn and get us lost. It may also have helped that we were passing some of the flattest and straightest terrain this side of North Dakota, Saskatchewan, and Iowa, and would be willing to do the speed limit or better. A more likely explanation, however, is that, having stayed up late watching TV and eating junk, he was less interested in driving than he was sleeping. Whatever the case, we did spend the entire day driving and succeeded in making it back to Chez Diersen before bedtime. To my intense relief, the kids and the cats were all alive and well, and none the worse for having spent the week alone.

Looking back on the previous posts and the comments I’ve received from readers, it occurs to me that I may have given folks the impression that North Dakota, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, British Columbia, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota and Minnesota don’t have much to offer the travelers and tourists in their midst. In fact, there is more to see and do in the upper Midwest and south central Canada than can be discussed in eight blog entries, and you could spend a week in each state and every province and still not see and do it all.

For example, in South Dakota alone there are the Black Hills, the Badlands, Mount Rushmore, Custer State Park, Wind Cave National Park, the Corn Palace, and the Mammoth Site at Hot Springs. These did not receive a mention because we did not visit them this year since, one, we have visited them all once or twice on other trips and, two, our primary goal was to make it from Wisconsin to Idaho by way of the Canadian Rockies within a week. The same is true for Yellowstone National Park, Big Horn National Forest, and a multitude of state parks and cave systems.

That said, if you haven’t already done so, be sure to visit them as you make your away along I-90. We did so last back in 2011, and here is some of what we saw then:


If you have the time, you especially should not miss the Mammoth Site at Hot Springs where you will see where the remains of various mammoths and other creatures have been found, studied, and preserved. It’s off the interstate by about an hour, but it is well worth a visit not only because it gives you such a sense of what we know about prehistoric North America, but also because it helps you appreciate how much more we still have to learn! For more information about this fun and educational place, visit


Animal lovers, meanwhile, should be sure to check out the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary. I have yet to visit this one, but it comes highly recommended by equine enthusiasts like my friend and fellow writer, J.S. McCormick. Founded in 1988 by Dayton O. Hyde, the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary offers tours ranging from two hours to three days. They aren’t cheap and reservations are required, but if you love horses, it is not to be missed. To learn more about this amazing place, visit

Well, that about covers it. I hope you’ve enjoyed the adventure and, perhaps, been inspired to make a road trip of your own. Meanwhile, thanks for playing along!


Road Trippin’ V: Rocky Mountains–Hi!

Banff National Park was everything people said it would be and more. And yet, somehow, Kootenay National Park was better. Maybe it just seems that way because no one talked Kootenay up before we left and so our expectations for it were not that high. Or maybe Kootenay really is better, but nobody knows that because fewer people go there. Or maybe folks are bragging up Banff over Kootenay the way early explorers did Greenland—so everyone will go there instead of Iceland.


Among the many wonders in Kootenay, our favorite was Marble Canyon. Situated between Lillooet and Cache Creek, the canyon is what the experts call a collapsed Karst formation, which basically means it’s a cave whose top has washed or worn away. The word ‘marble’ in the title apparently refers to the color and texture of the rock forming the canyon walls rather than the type of rock itself, which is not marble but limestone—and which explains why it’s washing/wearing away.


Before we headed up the trail that runs along the canyon, I was just another curious tourist wondering what there was to be seen further up the hill. Well that’s not strictly true. I was also—and still am—a victim of osteoarthritis, which is why about halfway up the trail I was wondering if I really cared what there was to be seen further up the hill.


It was at about this point that we encountered another 40-ish couple making their way back down. “Don’t give up now,” taunted one of the sadists as I paused to rest my knees. “You don’t want to miss the falls.” Hoping she meant the naturally occurring geographical feature in which large volumes of water flow rapidly over rock formations as they make their way downhill and not the naturally occurring gravitational event in which middle-aged arthritis victims roll rapidly over rock formations after losing their balance, I decided to push on.

I probably would have done so even without the promise of the falls since I knew the Jarhead wouldn’t have continued up the trail without me, and I wouldn’t have wanted to deprive him of the experience of seeing the entire canyon. Nevertheless, her words were the boost I needed to get me moving again, and soon I was back on my feet, gritting my teeth, and praying I had enough cartilage to make it back down.


In the end, the view was definitely worth the walk, as well as the cortisone flare I experienced a few weeks later after my first consultation with an orthopedic surgeon—but more on that later. The falls were beautiful, and thanks to the brilliant engineers who work for the Canadian park service, you can stand close enough to the water to feel its misty kisses on your face. It was truly awesome.


After seeing the falls and the canyon, plus several other natural wonders in our path, we headed south toward Idaho. Then, after a brief stop at the duty-free shop (where we picked up a t-shirt and some cigars for the Princess, and a scarf and maple syrup lollipops for El Noble—I’m kidding, of course; but wouldn’t it be funny if I wasn’t?) we crossed the border at Kingsgate and officially checked the 50th state off the Jarhead’s list.

That evening, we decided to make camp at Bonner’s Ferry, ID. I use the phrase “make camp” a bit loosely since we actually stayed at the Kootenai River Casino & Spa Best Western. I will remember this visit for several reasons, not the least of which was the two mile distance between our room and virtually any of the facility’s fine amenities.

It bears mention here that the hallways in this section of the facility were not air conditioned. This is significant because despite the shower and the other heroic measures I took toward making myself presentable every time I left the room I couldn’t make it halfway to my destination without breaking into a sweat and leaving my fellow patrons to wonder if I had been walking in the rain or showered in my clothes. Thank goodness we were only there for a night. If we had stayed any longer, I may have been forced to wear my swimsuit to play the slots.

That’s all we really saw of Idaho since after a big dinner and several drinks, we hit the casino. The jackpots eluded us, but it took me two whole hours to lose the twenty bucks I started with, and the Jarhead came out sixty bucks ahead, so we went to bed happy—and looking forward to spending Saturday in Montana.

Road Trippin’ llll: Are we there yet?

Having spent most of the previous evening driving through Saskatchewan—whose primary purpose seems to be to occupy the space between Manitoba and Alberta—we were excited to be more than halfway to Calgary. Again, there’s really nothing wrong with a place whose only topographical features are hayfields and power lines; it just wasn’t what we had come to see.

And that’s not to say there was nothing to break up the monotony of the drive. For example, there were lots of Humpty’s Restaurants along the way. Essentially the Canadian equivalent of Denny’s, Humpty’s offers the weary traveler an array of hot and cold beverages, and a variety of foods—including some I have yet to see available on any US roadway, like pierogi, turkey schnitzel, and bangers and mash.

Also helping to make the trip more interesting on this leg of the journey were the other travelers we met along the way. I must admit to using the first person plural a bit generously here since the Jarhead can barely bring himself to exchange greetings with strangers, much less make small talk. I, on the other hand, will strike up or join a conversation with just about anyone who isn’t holding a weapon or a hostage. That probably isn’t a fair statement, given I’ve never had occasion to avoid or ignore someone bearing a firearm or keeping people against their will; but I like to think that when the situation presents itself, I’ll be smart enough to recognize what’s happening, and have the sense to zip my lips.

Meanwhile, I was more than happy to chat with the nice Aussie woman who approached me during one of our pit stops to ask if I was a ‘local lady.’ Resisting the urge to say, ‘No, I’m the local slut,’ I told her and her travel companions I was a Yank from Wisconsin, and then made polite inquiries into their origins, their itinerary, and their impressions of North America, while the Jarhead waited outside cursing the bus in the parking lot as if the volume of people in the washroom alone were to blame for the delay in my returning to the truck.

Later that day, as we approached the mountains east of Banff, we spotted a dude on a bicycle a ways up the road. Upon noticing him, the Jarhead surprised me by suggesting that we pull over and offer to throw his bike in the back and give him a ride. I should have known he meant it sarcastically, since he’s even less of a humanitarian than a conversationalist when it comes to strangers, but all of that was lost on me at the moment.

“No way,” I said in response. “I know bicyclists are almost never serial killers, but with our luck we’d find the one who is, and we have no means to defend ourselves.”

“We could run him over,” he offered. “Unfortunately, those guys are pretty fit, so we’d have to back up and do it again two or three times.”

“So you agree it’s a bad idea.”

“Of course I think it’s a bad idea.”

“Then why did you suggest it?”

“Because then I could tell him how stupid it is to ride a bike through the mountains when there are so many motorized forms of transportation available.”

So that was Thursday…

That afternoon we entered Banff National Park and were on course for Lake Louise. By nightfall we had reached Baker Creek lodge and secured a nice room with a fireplace, kitchenette, and whirlpool tub—none of which we used. Instead, we gathered up the rum, a couple cans of coke, and the remains of our crackers and deer sausage, and had dinner on a swing under the stars.

It was probably the rum, but I didn’t give a single thought to bears, bandits, or any other potential threats to my existence while we were out there. Nor did I worry about earthquakes or volcanic eruptions, or wonder if the creek would suddenly shift course and wash us away. Instead, I just enjoyed the peace and tranquility, and crossed my fingers that the Jarhead wouldn’t fall asleep before I was sober enough to walk back to our cabin.

It had been a long drive, and we were looking forward to sleeping in on Friday, and to seeing everything that awaited us in Kootenay and British Columbia.

Road Trippin’ lll: Oh Canada!

We left Grand Forks relatively unscathed but rather unimpressed. As I mentioned in the last post, we had chosen to spend the night in a hotel with the aim of having a hot shower and a hot breakfast before conquering the wilds of Canada. Apparently, however, I set the bar too low when I established those parameters, for although the shower did yield hot water and the eggs and sausage on the breakfast bar were hot-ish, there is little positive I can say about the place other than they are quick to respond to bad reviews. Assuming the corporate office is as swift to familiarize the Grand Forks staff with the concepts of professionalism and outgoing mail as they are to offer an apology, and assuming they are as adept at training their housekeepers in the removal of body hair from the bathroom floor as they are at issuing vouchers for a free stay, we may give them another chance—that is, if the Jarhead decides he wants to see North Dakota again within the next twelve months.

Anyway, after departing the hotel—and after searching for and stopping at the last local post office in our path—the Jarhead and I were tooling up I-29 on our way to Brandon, Manitoba. Although we had been through the eastern provinces of Canada in 2006 I was a bit nervous as we approached the border crossing. Would they think we look suspicious? Would they want to search the vehicle? Would they find our cooler packed with salad, venison sausage, Fresca, Atkins diet products, pistachios, cashews, Pop Tarts and dark chocolate a tad schizophrenic and deny us entry in the interest of public safety? Or would they see how much food we were bringing and conclude that we are lying about how long we plan to stay?

Turns out—and I know this will come as a shock—the Canadian border agents weren’t the least bit interested in our cooler or its contents. Nor were they interested in our vehicle or us, for that matter. In fact, I was somewhat offended by how disinterested the agent by whom we were interviewed was in us and our journey. I understand these folks meet an American about every five minutes or so, but they haven’t met US. They don’t know how amazing or fascinating we are, or how exciting or dangerous we might be. Seems to me they could make a little more effort to get to know a body fore deciding you’re just another boring tourist with weird eating habits…

Anyway, as I was recovering from the sting of the agent’s indifference, it occurred to me that ours would be the perfect cover if someone wanted to smuggle drugs or other contraband into Canada. Not that I would ever do something like that myself, but if the Canadian border agents are letting people like me and the Jarhead just waltz across the border in our Midwestern tourist clothing and cheap sunglasses, no doubt American border agents are doing the same. Could that not explain why the DEA and other agencies have failed to stem the flow of drugs and guns into the US? Is it not, then, possible, that the drug cartels and gun runners have figured this out as well and are exploiting this gap in our homeland’s security???

In any case, at some point I changed my mind and decided I did not want anyone to search the vehicle. This moment arrived approximately three seconds after I remembered the tiny bottles of vodka that the Jarhead had stashed in the back seat in case I needed sedation as we drove through the mountains, and which he had failed to mention when the agent inquired about alcohol. I don’t know what sort of hell we would have faced if we’d been caught with unclaimed booze in the vehicle, but I do know what sort of hell the Jarhead would have experienced if they had confiscated the stuff and I was forced to endure a trip through the mountains without it.

The first thing we noticed upon entering Manitoba was a sign advising us of the speed limit, which was 110. This excited the Jarhead tremendously until I reminded him that Canada operates on the metric system, and that the speed limit referred to kilometers not miles. That didn’t seem to phase him much until he did the math and realized that, unless he wanted the next Canadian he met to be a member of law enforcement, he’d be traveling at a measly 65 miles per hour.

The second thing we noticed about Manitoba is that it looks a lot like North Dakota, which looks a lot like Iowa only with miles and miles of hay fields instead of miles and miles of corn. That’s not to suggest there’s anything wrong with Iowa or North Dakota—or corn or hay fields for that matter. It’s just that as natives of Minnesota and residents of Wisconsin, we’ve already seen our share of cropland and, while fields may come in many shapes, sizes and colors, they are nowhere near as exciting as the mountains, cliffs, canyons and rivers that awaited us in Alberta.

It was soon after we made this discovery that we decided not to stop for the day at dinner time as planned, but to continue as long and as late into the evening as we could. That way, we would get through more of the boring bits in the dark, and save the daylight and our energy for the star of this road show:  The Canadian Rockies.

Road Trippin’ ll: The Adventure Begins

The first stop on our journey was at one of our favorite cafés in Abbotsford. By that I don’t mean one of our favorite café from among the various cafés in the town of Abbotsford, but one of our favorite cafés, which happens to be in Abbotsford. It’s a fine distinction, but one that must be made since, although there are other cafés in Abbotsford, we haven’t been to any of them, and we wouldn’t want anyone to think we dislike or disapprove of them.

The Abby Café stands among our favorite cafés for several reasons. Primary among them is the food, which is delicious, plentiful, and reasonably priced. We also like the atmosphere, which is warm and inviting. The dining room features lots of wood, metal, ceramics, and hand-painted frescos, which give the place an ‘early American meets Tuscan countryside’ feel that somehow works.

About the only thing that doesn’t work, in my opinion, is the décor of the ladies room, which sports a fresco of a man with a cigarette looking into the room through a window from outside. As you can see from the photo below, it is not something one would expect to encounter in any room, never mind the ladies room. In fact, it can be more than a bit disconcerting—especially for those who, in their haste to relieve themselves, fail to notice it on their way into the restroom and then come, literally, face to face with it as they exit the stall.


Incidentally, the men’s room does not feature a fresco of a woman smoking a cigarette while looking in through a window from outside. According to the Jarhead, there is a fresco of a window painted on the wall of the men’s room, but the only woman in it is not smoking but hanging laundry on a clothesline.

To be honest, I’m not sure what to make of this. On the one hand, I’m somewhat disturbed by the idea of a man lurking outside a restaurant window looking in the women’s restroom. On the other hand, I’m even more disturbed by the thought of a man lurking outside a restaurant window while his wife is stuck doing laundry. And don’t even get me started on his refusal to observe the state’s smoking laws…

Anyway…we planned our stop in Abbotsford—or Abby Land, as the locals apparently call it—to coincide with brunchtime.  This, because it was two hours into our trip and, therefore, perfect for a potty break, and because I still wasn’t sure I was going to survive the trip, and I wanted what was potentially one of my last meals to be a good one.

From there we continued on through Minnesota to Grand Forks, ND, where—having checked the 49th item off of the Jarhead’s US Bucket list—we decided to stop for the night. Having decided to take a ‘fly by the seat of our pants’ approach to Canada and the mountain states, we decided to play it safe and stay in a familiar chain hotel that night. That way, we could be assured of at least one shower and one hot breakfast before setting off for parts unknown—also known as Manitoba.

Road Trippin’

I recently broke with tradition and accompanied the Jarhead on a seven-day journey into the wild. The trip took us to the Rockies by way of the Trans Canada Highway, so we weren’t exactly in No Man’s Land; but since we spent most of the week alone driving at high speeds near deep lakes, raging rivers, open fields and dense forests—not to mention steep drops and sharp curves—it did carry an element of risk of death and/or bodily injury. Thus, the fact that you are reading this entry is either evidence of my value as a travel companion, proof of the Jarhead’s patience and restraint, a testament to the power of negotiation, or a sign of my intense will to live.

Unless, of course, he’s actually posting this himself in an effort to make things seems as normal as possible for as long as possible. As any fan of Law & Order or CSI can tell you, such a ruse would enable him to keep my family, friends, and followers from realizing I’m missing until such time as my remains can be disturbed by wildlife or sufficiently degraded, thereby preventing investigators from finding evidence of his crime and improving his odds of escaping punishment.

Then again, if the Jarhead were going to do me in and conceal it by impersonating me, it would be silly of him to even mention the trip—much less to make a point about evidence—so you can assume these are my words you’re reading. Sure, he could have posted all of the foregoing in order to throw people off the scent—much in the way the talented Thomas Ripley impersonated Dickie Greenleaf and sent messages to his loves ones to give the impression he’d left town of his own volition and not been beaten to death with an oar—but truth be told, even on paper, the Jarhead isn’t that good of a mimic.

The goal of our trip was to complete the Jarhead’s whirlwind tour of all 50 US states, which he started at some point in the late seventies when he flew to Colorado and wisely gave up in favor of earning a high school diploma. In the spring of 1984 he managed to squeeze in a brief visit to Florida, but this was the extent of his travels until that June when he answered Uncle Sam’s call and got to spend 12 fun-filled weeks on board Marine Corps Recruiting Depot San Diego. Between 1984 and 2011, he managed to visit nearly every state in the country—plus a handful of Canadian provinces, and parts Europe, Asia, Australia, and the Middle East—but somehow managed to miss Idaho and North Dakota.

Idaho, I get. It’s surrounded by mountains and seemingly endless prairies, and offers potential visitors little in the way of incentives other than the promise of great potatoes, which quite frankly you can buy almost anywhere already. Oh, sure it also offers you the chance to see some gorgeous scenery, but apart from Demi Moore and Bruce Willis—if he happens to be visiting—there’s nothing of beauty in Idaho that you can’t also find in Montana, Washington, or Wyoming, so I can understand why he might have chosen to put that one off.

But I’m having a little harder time with North Dakota. Because I can’t fathom how a man who grew up in Minnesota managed to visit 47 other states including Alaska and Hawaii—both of which require a plane ride and a fair amount of dedication to reach—but could not muster a trip to North Dakota, which involves no oceans, mountains, or other major geographic obstacles; costs almost nothing to get to; and is literally right next door.

Not that I’m a globetrotter myself. In fact, even after this recent trip I still have 7 states and 15 countries to see before I can claim to be as well traveled as he is. But I still managed to visit Iowa, Wisconsin, North Dakota, South Dakota and Manitoba before I turned 17 because—and I can’t stress this enough—they’re close by and it isn’t hard.

In any case, although I had already seen North Dakota, I agreed to accompany the Jarhead on his quest to cross the last two states off of his USA Bucket List. It wasn’t a sacrifice, to be sure. The Jarhead is a gem among stones on a bad day, and the best of the best on any other. When it comes to drivers, navigators, and spouses you honestly can’t do any better.

And I had no objections to going back to North Dakota. After all, the last time I was there was about 1973, and I figured it would have changed enough since then to make it worth seeing again. Plus, I had fond feelings leftover from my last visit owing to the bloody nose I got when my step brother knocked me down on the ice rink, and because, despite my injury, I was able to both demonstrate my considerable skill and highlight his lack of liberty by gliding back and forth in front of him while he sat grounded on the sidelines. Ah, memories.

It was with all of this, and so much more, in mind that I and the Jarhead boarded the USS RAM 1500 and embarked upon our journey west. Destination: Grand Forks