Category Archives: Travel

Kick Ass

The Donkey Sanctuary of Canada (DSC) is located in Guelph, Ontario. It is a not-for-profit charity funded by private donations and currently houses 86 equines (meaning donkeys, mules and hinnies). A mule is the offspring of a (male) donkey and a (female) horse. A hinny is the offspring of a (female) donkey and a (male) horse.

Here is the DSC’s startlingly-detailed and rather intrepid About Us:

Since 1992, The Donkey Sanctuary of Canada has been a refuge for donkeys, mules and hinnies who have been neglected or abused, or who can no longer be cared for by their owners. The Sanctuary rescues the donkey with hooves so long it lives in constant pain and cannot walk. It saves a terrified mule shivering in a pen in a slaughterhouse. It offers a home to a much-loved donkey whose aging owners can no longer provide adequate care. At the Sanctuary, the animals are provided a welcome and often life-saving peaceful haven after years of suffering and neglect.

The DSC does all these things and more. I learned a lot about donkeys, mules and hinnies during my visit there, and got to wander among these great beasts – with names like Cargo and Hershey and Daisy and Bob Ray – for one lovely summer’s afternoon. Some were amendable to knowing me. Others, decidedly not.

Does it matter? As the DSC’s puts it: We feel fortunate to be in proximity to such gentle souls day after day.

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There are worse ways to spend your time.

***

Donkey Facts:

  • Mules and hinnies are the offspring of donkey (and horse) parents, but 99.9% of the time cannot breed amongst themselves to make more mules or hinnies. This does not stop them from trying, and after all, who would? Such efforts may seem futile (a group of mules, after all, is called a “barren”), but by definition not impossible.
  • When presented with a situation, donkeys think, then decide their course of action – which means they choose, and on their own terms, whether they will do something, or not. Some might call that being “stubborn,” but then there will be always people who demean that which they don’t understand or that which refuses to satisfy their wants and needs.
  • Due to the harshness of their natural environment(s) (i.e. arid scrubland) a donkey’s sense of “flight-or-fight” is geared more towards “fight” then “flight,” resources such as food and water being scarce. Donkeys would rather hold their ground and face what’s coming. Not many of us can say the same, though that’s not the donkeys’ fault.

Favourite Donkey Fact:

Q: Do you know how a donkey goes about attacking predators – say, a coyote? (You’d think it was by rearing up and kicking at it with its back legs, yes?)

A: The donkey grabs the thing by its scruff, grabs it as hard is it can with its teeth, and then uses its front legs to pummel the thing to death.

Great beasts, gentle souls, and never to be underestimated.

The Miraculous Mule.

The Wonderous Hinny.

That Incomparable Donkey.

 

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Cold Inn Comfort

The art, such as it is, repeats itself.

Three panels on one elongated frame, hung just above the bed; each panel an abstract, non-comitial rendering of something that resembles earth-toned coffee stains overlapping each other on a hard wooden table. A kind of meek, kaleidoscopic effect (or is that affect?).

Ottawa, Calgary, Thunder Bay, Vancouver. Wherever. Whatever.

Every room the same: an unfailing arrangement of bed against wall (close to the small alcove containing the bathroom and the door), TV placed atop a chest of drawers in front of bed, desk with black faux-leather swivel chair beside chest of drawers (leading away from the alcove and door), mini fridge (possibly with an ancient microwave balanced on top), then some dead space of a few unimaginative feet, leading finally to a sliding glass door festooned with elaborate (often broken) lock, ostensibly to keep unwanted elements out.

Imagine someone. Anyone. See yourself. Staying in this room in one city or another, some capital propped up against the landscape, some small town just big enough for the chain motels to test their tepid waters. Put up a location, see what takes! Provide slightly more-than-basic cable. Serve a “free hot breakfast” (available 6:30AM – 9:30AM) that’s already been worked into the price of the room.

Every room the same. With one exception: the large framed photo by the bed. Hung up on the wall just by the foot of the bed. Always different, always a photo of the place outside the room, the world surrounding the motel: the Rockies, the Sleeping Giant, the Parliament buildings.

It’s the one thing you, weary traveller, have learned you must count on.

***

Scenario 1:

A man wakes up and discovers that it is still dark outside (too early to get up, much too early to partake in the “free hot breakfast” of sugary bread, machine-dripped coffee and scrambled eggs fresh from whatever half-opened carton of liquid egg-like product that happened to be lying around that morning). He is shivering. He does not remember going to bed; he had not planned to sleep, not after this particular job.

He is suddenly reminded of the blood that still remains under his fingernails, the bruises running the length of this ribcage, marring his face. He tastes vomit – he, actually, reeks of it (and not all or even that much of it is even his). His head throbs, his temples dancing to the beat of an erratic pulse. He tells himself again that he regrets nothing and then just like that the darkness is too much for him.

He turns on the oversized lamp that is (also always) by the left side of the bed. Nothing out of the ordinary appears in the lacklustre light in provides. He breathes.

No, nothing out of place.

Until he looks up and finds the frame hung up on the wall, just by the foot of the bed, empty. A great white nothingness where a picture of the Canadian Rockies should be just manages to glow, a little, blankly, then hotly, in the darkness of the room. It is clear it is calling to him. Beckoning.

It knows.

He realizes he won’t make it to either door if he tries to escape: movement now that he has seen the frame will only serve to pull him in and snare him in its field of vision, something which he knows he must not do.

Terrified, the man realizes that his only recourse is to lie silently in bed and wait for the daylight.

It soon becomes apparent that the light, too, is conspiring against him. The lamp dies a slow mocking death, its flickering like cruel laughter. The darkness – despite what should be by now the encroaching dawn – remains.

Scenario 2:

A woman wakes up from a long nap after spending the better part of the day touring the nation’s capital. Standing on the steps of the Parliament buildings, she remembers telling her friends to expect her in the evening upon which one, a man who everyone knows had a huge crush on her in high school, handed her a polished wooden box. It fit nicely in the palm of her hand, though it weighed down her palm and tired her arm. There were etchings on it she couldn’t quite make out.

“Not now,” he said, when she began to open it. “Later, when it’s time.” He wagged a thick finger across her eyes and then stuffed the offending hand deep into his front pants pocket. Behind him, their other friends tittered loudly like a nest of drunken sparrows.

Now, sitting up in bed, the woman thinks again of the man, and her thoughts are less than fond. Actually, she remembers him being more of a friend of a friend (or someone’s brother, maybe); in any case, he was an annoyance she put up with because it made things easier among their rather exclusive group. She remembers being liked by most everyone (by everyone who counted), and as she does this, she glances idly to the spot on the wall above the foot of the bed.

The picture is of the Parliament Buildings, but it is from the year 2056. The semi-distant future. She only just recognizes the buildings from that very afternoon (there have been quite a few alterations, queer flourishes, and add-ons), and then only after reading the little inscription affixed haphazardly to the frame itself: a bronze plate with scratched-on letters.

It seems like a warning; even the ambient noises of her room now seem strange, a measured humming she can’t quite place. Yes, there is an ominous whooshing in her ears and the air tastes brittle, like tin. She reaches for her cellphone, but cannot find it in her to turn it on. What if – ?

A cursory glance of the room reveals nothing else has changed. A prank, perhaps? Or is she still dreaming? She looks again at the unassailable frame.

Reluctantly, she considers the box.

Scenario 3:

The Sleeping Giant Provincial Park isn’t quite as you remember it. It seems less pristine, more congested now, and the childhood fancy you had of the rock outcroppings being the Giant’s “spine” as you walked along them does not hold the same sense of joy (or was that whimsy?) you had hoped it would. The scale, the immensity of actually being there disrupts, undermines the fantasy for you. But not as much as you imagine it should.

Mostly, you are just tired. You realize it was a mistake to come back (you regret it so much), and you are glad you decided to spend this last night at a motel rather than at your father’s place. In the morning, you will leave them both.

Something about the frame hung up on the wall just by the foot of the bed catches your eye. A portrait (of sorts) of the rock formation, the Giant, who indeed appears as if reclined, as if in sleep. He is surrounded, of course, by the mighty waters of Lake Superior, and you find yourself oddly comforted by the thought, the assurance of that critical distance. You walk up to the frame, traces of a smile pulling at your lips. You put your face in real close, almost touching the glass. A challenge (and one, you are certain, easily won).

You blink.

There is a man standing, perched, on the Giant’s chin. The perspective is impossible: he is so far way and yet so very close; his features are clear but his proportions are indistinct. He must be a giant himself to stand on that massive jaw the way he’s standing on that massive jaw, that jaw that nonetheless remains in the distance, bounded by the water, all that water, of the largest, the greatest of all the Great Lakes.

You want to step back – away – from the frame, its incontrovertibility, but know that it is already much too late.

You see his face. You realize that you’ve seen that face before. More than that, his expression, the one staring back at you from the frame, is one of recognition. And anger.

You blink (you can’t help it) and the man vanishes. The hairs on the back of your neck suddenly prick at a presence behind you, looming and immense.

“Hello.”

***

Each scenario, while fantastic, is not wholly ridiculous. Not when you’re sitting in that room, not when you’ve been across the country, as I have, and discovered them all – every room – to be the same, in whatever city, whatever place you happen to be.

Every room the same, except for that one picture, the large framed photo by the bed, hung up on the wall just by the foot of the bed.

It is never the same, unless the place is.

Wherever and whatever that place happens to be.

 

 

 

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Filed under Interruptions, People, Places, Routines, THE FUTURE, Travel

The Places You’ve Been (Before & After)

Sharon Temple is located in East Gwillimbury, not too far from King City, Ontario. I went there with Nate and Ally[1] recently on a mutual day off.

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There was a school group before us. They left as we came in and staff were a bit surprised by our adult presence there on a weekday.

(This economy.)

According to their literature, Sharon Temple was “a community formed during the War of 1812, inspired by the Rebellion of 1837, and instrumental in the fight for true democracy in Canada.” Several members, indeed, took part in William Lyon Mackenzie’s 1837 uprising, which led to key political reforms for “responsible government” in what was then Upper Canada. Read more about Sharon Temple here. Suffice it to say, their stairway is an architectural feat, the Temple itself a marvel.

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Admission: $5 Adults. Children (under 16) free.

We hit an antique market in Barrie shortly after visiting Sharon Temple. It was two-and-a-half floors of a very large building just brimming with stuff – all kinds of matter, seemingly all manner of Thing, although it seemed rather generous to call or deem some of it “antique.” Antique markets are strange places: they seem rather like high-end thrift stores, or immaculate refuse heaps. We had been told by our mutual friend that this particular place was great for quality (or at least hard-to-find) books.

The books up for sale were overpriced for my taste, but Nate and Al poured over them and found some hidden treasures pertaining to their specific interests.

These include (in no particular order): Ontario history; archeology in Western, Eastern and Southern Ontario; provincial archives/sketches; big books full of old maps; and descriptions of early slip-decorated pottery in Canada.

This list is by no means extensive. I have very interesting friends.

I found (in no particular order):

 

  1. An array of foam skulls, purportedly from the set of the 12 Monkeys TV show (which I don’t watch).[2]
  2. A stain glass poodle.
  3. Many wood duck decoys of varying craftsmanship, price and (in some cases) degrees of decay.
  4. A “vintage” mushroom lamp that cost several times more than my hydro bill.
  5. An ENTIRE EDWARDIAN SITTING ROOM (removed piece by piece, bit by bit, wood panel by wood panel and by wall by wall from an estate somewhere in England, with the fourth wall removed/left missing like a stage play or sitcom…a steal, really, at only $38,000).
  6. Metal coin banks in the shape of various animals.
  7. A statue of a Bull fighting a Bear (both male) affixed to a pure marble stand.
  8. Circus Butts.
  9. Old, used buckets of KFC – let me clarify: for sale.

 

I rejoined Nate and Ally. I left them once more to their books and wandered a bit before rejoining them again. I rejoined them again after walking back to the Edwardian Sitting Room, standing inside a place that was and was not there, before stopping at the array of foam 12 Monkeys skulls and picking one up as if it were, alas, poor Yorick.

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And lo. And behold: flipping idly through Al’s very large pile of “To Buy” books, I came across an account of the Children of Peace, the people who built the Sharon Temple and their founder, one David Willson. There were pictures, some admittedly at weird angles, of the Temple’s magnificent structure and accounts of Willson as an outspoken, even outlandish leader.

Further reading revealed a former school teacher turned minister, disowned by the Quakers for “some peculiarities of belief or conduct,”[3] (including, apparently, his love of music, including, for example, his own particular brand of mysticism), Willson is described thusly in one account:

“David Willson seems about 65 years of age and is a middle-sized, square-built man, wearing his hair over this face and forehead, and squints considerably…He was dressed in a short brown cloth jacket, white linen trousers, with a straw hat, all perhaps home-made. Originally from the State of New York, he had resided thirty years in this county. The number of his followers is unknown, but all offering themselves in sincerity are accepted, as he dislikes sectarianism, and has no written creed. He seems to act on Quaker principles, assisting the flock in money and advice.”[4]

(Willson strikes me, after everything, as a man not just of his time but of the unforeseen circumstances, rather than the inevitabilities, surrounding it – a compelling figure for all that he was, and remains, a rather uncanny person.)

Still, it was the pictures that I found particularly striking: we had just been there an hour ago. The pictures seemed proof of something; they somehow added another layer to the veracity of the day, conspiring with us, egging us on.

Something like that.

***

In the end, I didn’t buy anything at the antique market, but it’s the thrill of the hunt, yes?

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Because there’s something about it, isn’t there? Reading about a place you’ve been to before, feeling out how one experience compares (enhances? diminishes? challenges? complements?) to the other, afterward. Learning about someone you didn’t know existed a day before, or even that morning, their life leaving some kind of impression on yours.

And then there was the experience of having been in a sitting room that wasn’t, of having encountered a memento from a show I have never watched in, of all places, Barrie, Ontario.

Wasn’t that something?

Maybe I shouldn’t have passed by those foam 12 Monkeys skulls. Maybe I should have more seriously considered the Room.

But since I can’t place the value in either of those Things, since their purpose eludes me, I think it was the right decision not buy anything after all.

That day, at least, it was best.

 

 

________________________________________________

[1] Not real names.

[2] I have seen the movie (years ago) if that counts for anything.

[3] Hughes, James L. (James Laughlin). (1920). Sketches of the Sharon Temple and of its Founder David Willson. York Pioneer and Historical Society: Toronto, 1. Available: https://archive.org/details/sketchesofsharon00hugh_0.

[4] Patrick Shirreff, quoted in Hughes, 11.

 

 

 

 

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Points of Convergence (Repertoire of a 6:00AM Commute)

There was a time when my morning commute meant a pre-dawn commute before the commute. It required taking a very early bus to the subway, to another bus, and then to a station where I met up with my Work Crew for what was then another 30-to-90-minute drive to site, wherever it happened to be that day.

***

The Very Early Bus arrived at around 6:00AM and the stop was about a 10-minute walk from my house.

Now. There was my Work Crew, whom I saw every day, and then there was my Commute Crew, with whom I also had a specialized relationship (they being the first faces of the new day, which placed my Work Crew in a close, yet distant second).

 

There was really no comparison:

 

  1. Leather Jacket Motorcycle Man. The jacket was of a rich, heavy leather. It had shoulder armour (impressive!) and fit him perfectly; less like a glove and more like a second skin. I never saw a motorcycle helmet. I never saw a motorcycle. Seemed unnecessary, maybe even over-the-top.
  2. The Old Timer. He must have lived close; his stop was only one away from mine. We could have been neighbours, though I never saw him in the street. He was quite, if not rather, elderly, perhaps even venerated.
  3. Army Gent. Over the weeks I watched him go from civvies and duffle bag to full-on uniform: beret, Canadian Flag patched prominently on his camo jacket; shining, immaculate boots. And duffle bag. He looked rather dashing, set. He smiled often, and not unkindly.
  4. Mr. Hard Hat. The yellow hat was sometimes worn on this man’s squarish head or on his heavy belt and sometimes it was nestled securely in his lap. He never took his gaze off the middle distance. His hours were probably as bad (if not worse) than mine. He sat tall, and primly, regardless.
  5. Lady Grey. She and The Old Timer were friends (or maybe neighbours – there’s a difference sometimes). She helped him off the bus. She reminded me of Tea Time. She carried a big shoulder bag looped over her small torso. Sometimes it appeared heavy and overloaded, as if it were full of bricks or hard drives. Other times, it was so empty it swung chaotically around her, like a siren. Maybe she kept tea in there? It seemed full of promises. She and The Old Timer sometimes talked animatedly (though quietly) with each other, but I didn’t ever catch a word of their conversation. Why spoil a good thing?

 

The Subway was usually empty at that hour, or it was full of people still clinging to or retreating back towards the last vestiges of sleep (including me). It was warmer, roomier, quieter there: you could be totally alone. It was easy. Can you blame us?

The Another Bus was not without its charm. For example: The Man With the Scruffy Dog He Kept Inside His Jacket. For example: The Woman Who Cut Her Fingernails At the Back of the Bus. For example: The Bad Hermit. But by that time of day, the riders were more diffuse, more varied. I never kept close track of them.

The Station had the Steel Drums Man. By then, it was about an hour into my morning commute to my commute (sometimes longer if traffic was bad). Whatever time I arrived, he was there, playing away on a set of steel drums in the vast corridor connecting the buses and the subway, near but not too close to the escalators leading to daylight. The perfect spot.

After a while I realized that he was playing the same set of songs every day, day after day. I realized then as I remain sure now that it could not have been otherwise: they were nice, and he was very good at them. He made them sing. 1) Seeing the Steel Drums Man and 2) hearing him play meant that 3) I had made it (for another day at least). One more day at least. No small feat, by any measure.

***

My commute before the commute went on for months, until there came a time when work was scarce and I was laid-off from the company for the winter. In the spring, I walked to take the Very Early Bus again.

The bus driver recognized me immediately.

“Where have you been?” he cried. Each word was almost its own sentence, its own question: Where. Have. You. Been?

It felt good, if not right (not really) to be there again, with my fellow pre-dawn commuters. Sometimes you don’t need all that much to count on, and the extras you do get don’t make up for anything but themselves.

I saw Motorcycle Man, The Old Timer, and Lady Grey, though there were a few new faces I didn’t recognize.

If anyone was missing, I’m sure they had their reasons.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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They Call Him Pinto

 
“Pinto…McBean?”

That’s Pinto MACBEAN.

M-A-C-B-E-A-N.

He flashed across our vision as we drove through the streets of Bow Island, Alberta, lost as anything. A beige and orange dollop blur that beckoned from the horizon.

PINTO, large, bold and black was stamped on the brim of his cowboy hat.

Those eyes, vast yet warm. That crescent moon smile and John Wayne-ish bandana. That lovely, pear-shaped body. His gun (a six-shooter?) hanging rakishly off his hip, his two hands impossible mittens, at once waving hello and resting just above the gun.

PINTO MACBEAN

As if to draw?

As if to give us pause?

Et tu, Pinto?

Ceci n’est pas une pistolet, Pinto.

An information booth, itself non-descript and patient, Sorry We are Closed hanging dead centre of the window yet open for business, stood in Pinto’s wake.

Coffee mugs graced with Pinto’s likeness were on sale on the one shelf set up on the one wall that had much of anything. Stationed behind an enormous counter, the old woman inside offered us bags of free dry edible beans, her head just peaking from above a vast edge Formica.

Different kinds, assorted sizes. As much as we wanted! That was, after all, why Pinto was there; to signify the importance of the dry edible bean industry in Bow Island, Alberta, letting us know exactly, You are Here.

The Bean Capital of the West.

Bow Island, Alberta, which is not an island. Population 2,025, according to the 2011 Federal census.

Bow Island, Alberta, a place, a nearby sign reads, that remains In the Heart of the Golden West. The Last Frontier.

In case you didn’t know.

I took kidney beans and black beans.

Weeks later, when we unpacked the car, we couldn’t find them. Not anywhere! Not a bean.

Kris swears he didn’t take them, but later admitted that they were spectacular in his stew.

We’ve never said another word about it.

Pinto Info?
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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Interlude!

 
He had a kind face, with laughing eyes and an easy, well-worn smile, the Australian man did; and he talked oh so pleasantly as the boat rowed us down the gentle river towards the pagoda, his voice all silk and perfume.

The water rippled playfully; lapped up the side of the boat with a splish-splash-splish in time, of course, with the dip-dripping of the paddles.

I listened, mostly, while he talked, and almost missed it when he said, “Of course, this could all go pear shaped and we’ll be lost!”

He laughed in small breaths that battered the morning mist, marinating the air around us; that floated off into the landscape.

Pear shaped?

How alluring! That full-bodied, voluptuous body! Bottom so fine and contours so beautifully scrumptious; that taper into that inevitable, delicate nape. The sweet spot that is neither bottom or nape.

How nice it is to have such sexy problems!

Perfume Pagoda 2014
 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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@ The Gopher Hole Museum, Torrington, Alberta

 

Ice Skating Gophers
 
 
“So, do you have a taxidermist on site or how does this,” I paused to gesture around the room, “um, work?”

The woman standing next to me was standing next to me out of the same sheer curiously that compelled me to ask the question – that, indeed, compelled both Stephen and I to take a last-minute detour 130KM out of our way on this, our last day in Alberta, Canada.

The Gopher Hole Museum and Gift Shop. June 2012.

The woman standing next to me was Granny Gopher. The woman standing next to me could, in fact, be none other than Granny Gopher.

We were in the presence of the Grand Matriarch of a little speck of a place known as Torrington, Alberta.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Magnificent Torrington!

A place you could not rightly call beautiful. A two-minute walk in any direction takes you to the very edge of town, will take you to that exact spot on the Albertan horizon where the sky and earth fuse into a vast, indistinguishable one.

This has not in the least deterred the good people of Torrington, who decided to celebrate the awe and splendor of life in Torrington as they thought best.

Through taxidermy.

Through dead stuffed gophers to be exact.

The Cowboy

Why gophers?

Because, unless yet despite being employed otherwise, gophers are a bane on the town of Torrington, destroying crops and leaving holes around town, attracting still more pests in the form of predatory badgers that dig still more holes in their pursuit of Torrington gopher meat.

These holes can be dangerous. They can break legs: human, cattle and horse. They are unsightly and cause erosion.

Torrington’s residents kill Torrington gophers by the thousands.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Is the Gopher Hole Museum And Gift Shop world famous?

No. Not really.

True, when it opened its doors on June 1, 1996, there was a bit of what you could call a media frenzy – newspapers at home and abroad, including big name publications such as the Wall Street Journal and Newsweek ran stories of what could be called the Torrington’s embrace of its “controversial” museum.  But now, as we trudge on toward the end 2013, it is fair to say that Things have died down for Torrington’s Gopher Hole Museum and Gift Shop. Publicity comes at a trickle, these days.

It seems fitting, then, that it was only incidentally that we found out about Torrington.  A turn of events, a kind of kismet that you wouldn’t actually call fate had lead us Torrington:

“You’re into taxidermy, right?[1] So there’s this place that you should check out before you leave. It’s got all these stuffed squirrels or rats something. It’s like an hour away from Calgary.”
“It is expensive?”
“It should be like two dollars.”
“Okay. Maybe.”

That is how it went down.

Is the Gopher Hole Museum And Gift Shop infamous?

Again no. Not really, no.

There was that scrap it had with P.E.T.A. When Torrington settled on dead stuffed gophers to attract tourists, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals wrote many, many letters. It was a campaign of protest. Of indignation. Protest letters soon followed from all over Canada, France, The United States, the Netherlands, Germany and Japan.

Eventually, Torrington sent a postcard to reply to P.E.T.A.

“Get stuffed,” is what it said.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Inside Torrington’s Gopher Hole Museum And Gift Shop.

“Television screens. The walls are full of little TVs”, is what I said to Stephen.

Inside Torrington

 
I lied a little above when I said Things have died down for the Gopher Hole Museum and Gift Shop. There was a bus full of visitors due that day Stephen and I were there. That’s also why Granny Gopher was there, in person persona, dressed up and ready – to entertain half of the group (12 people) outside in order to allow the other half to comfortably tour the very small museum. In the gift shop, which you enter and exit during your visit to the Gopher Hole Museum and Gift Shop, is a map. It is dotted with hundreds of pins representing visitors from all over the world.

But why gophers?

“Our museum is a whimsical portrayal of life in the tranquil hamlet of Torrington. There are 77 mounted gophers in 47 displays with different themes: hockey player, hairdresser, farmer, etc. Each character is dressed to compliment the artist’s picturesque background”, reads a handout I was given at the Gopher Hole Museum And Gift Shop.

“Admission:
Adult………$2.00
Under 14…… .50″

The gophers, I am convinced, could have been depicted doing absolutely anything, anywhere.

But almost all of the 47 TV boxes are of Torrington: the post office, the library, the Torrington Viscount School, Torrington’s Trinity Lutheran Church, Torrington’s Village Office, the Torrington Hotel and someplace called John’s Air Cooled Marine Engines Service.

Torrington Hotel

There is an unreal tangibility about the gophers of Torrington. Torrington’s gophers.

Because the gophers are embedded into Torrington’s very concrete, in a way, they fill Torrington’s very air.

There’s Clem T. GoFur, Torrington’s official greeter and town mascot.

Ladies and Gentlemen: Clem T. GoFur

Ladies and Gentlemen: Clem T. GoFur

Clem is 12 feet tall, clothed and smiling, and is the first thing you see as you turn in from the highway and into Torrington. There is a plaque listing, among other Things, his D.O.B (June 20, 1991). There is a nearby sign that reads, among other Things:

I am a handsome gopher
A mascot if you please
Torrington’s my place of birth
And where I take my ease

Hello to everyone of you
We’d like to shake your hand
Come in and see our heritage
Living off the land.
[2]

My feeling is that the sign is meant to compliment the lyrics of The Torrington Gopher Call Song, which includes, among other Things:

There’s millions of these rodents that are causing such a fuss,
They dig their home in the prairie loam, turning everything to dust.
If you fret and worry that the Gopher will be gone,
You can always take some with you and release them on your lawn
The moral of this story is to be wise before you speak,
Lots of us do like them, but their damage is not cheap.
There always will be gophers, their lives not in hand,
So just sit back and watch them as they dig up all our land.
[3]

Torrington’s fire hydrants are painted up as gophers – Clem’s GoFur Clan – at the apex of which sits Granny Gopher of course. You may find each of hydrants – each member of the GoFur Clan – on a self-guided walking tour of Torrington using the very thoughtful map provided at the Gopher Hole Museum and Gift Shop by the TORRINGTON TOURISM ACTION SOCIETY.

They have names and a pretty involved family tree, complete with individual back-stories.

The GoFur Clan

The GoFur Clan

They are as real as it gets.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

“We don’t have an on-site taxidermist. There’s a man we send the gophers to. He stuffs them. Sometimes people send us gophers, like the albino one we have. The cowboy,” said Granny Gopher.

Why gophers?

Lacking lakes, mountains – natural attractions of any kind – without grand architecture or dramatic origins and bereft of anything you would call a vibrant arts or culture scene, Torrington looked deep into itself and came out the other side of itself.

Clem T. GoFur Too

If it happens in Torrington, it happens to Torrington, it happens through Torrington.

It had to have been always about the gophers.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

What is there left to say?

I have never encountered a place that meant itself so much as Torrington, Alberta.

 
 


[1] “Yeah.”

[2] By Carol Pfeifer, a Torrington resident.

[3] Lyrics by Dennis Oster.
 
 
***********************************************************************
 
The GoFur Clan [as described by the TORRINGTON TOURISM ACTION SOCIETY]:

1. Granny is the matriarch of the GoFur clan, the mother of Trixie, Mabel and Junior. Her grandson, Clem, is the official town greeter. Granny and Gramps were among the earliest settlers of this region, at a time when becoming a province of Canada was still in Alberta’s future.

2. Gramps is the patriarch of the GoFur clan who is getting a little too old to cut the mustard anymore but he sill enjoys a bit of barley, He’s always happy to welcome visitors whenever they drop in to see him at the south end of town.

3. Auntie Mame is Granny’s sister who married an elderly European count and went to live in Gofalia when she was still in her teens. They lived happily in their castle for many years but then the count died, Auntie Mame returned to Torrington to be with her kinfolk.

4. Trixie is Clem’s mom and the daughter of Gramps and Granny. She is a nurse who cares for the sick and bandages the scraped knees of the youngsters in town. When Homer was inured falling from a hay wagon that was passing through town, it was Trixie who cared for him and when love blossomed, married him.

5. Homer grew up in Saskatchewan and arrived in Torrington when he fell from a hay wagon that was passing through town. Trixie found him at the roadside and cared for him while he recovered from his injuries. They later married and raised their children, Clem, Tubby and Peggy Sue, in the town.

6. Mabel was the town’s schoolteacher when she met Butch on a hoilday. She is very involved with community affairs and still teaches part-time at the school while also raising a family of little GoFurs.

7. Butch is the sailor of the GoFur clan. He was a crewman on a cruise ship when Mabel met him. After a long courtship, they married and Butch settled down in Torrington. Shy and retiring, he’s often found peeking out at visitors from behind the bushes and shrubbery.

8. Junior is the bachelor son of Granny and Gramps. He’s the musician of the GoFur clan and is the leader of his own musical group which provides music for many local events. During the winter, he travels in the south but if you’re lucky, you may find him at home during the summer.

9. Ellie May [mentioned only in entry on Baby Jessie. See below].

10. Clem [mentioned only in entries of other GoFur family members].

11. Tubby is the comedian of the GoFur clan. At family gatherings, he’s always the one with a lampshade on his head, surrounded by smiling faces. Tubby is the opposite of his rather quiet, subdued brother, Clem [,] who stands at the entrance of town, watching visitors as they pass by.

12. Peggy Sue is the baby sister of Torrington’s official greater, Clem. She’s normally found just outside the Lutheran Church, dressed in her ‘Sunday best’, as she leaves church after attending Sunday School.

13. Baby Jessie is the daughter of Clem and Ellie May. She used to enjoy watching the trains that passed through Torrington. Now, even though the line has been closed and the track removed, she still likes to sit and remember those good times.

14. Clem Jr. is the “chip off the old block” who tries to imitate his father, Clem, in every way. You’ll notice that they even dress alike. When he grows up, he thinks he’d like to be a fireman. He likes to play on the swing and slide in the playground.

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Baggage Claims

 
Here’s a quick one, and it comes as a warning:

Hey!

Those guys at the airport at the baggage claim for international flights? The ones dressed vaguely like ice-cream men or low-level cops, with neutral ties and short-shelved dress shirts. Beware of those guys. Be wary.

This is how they do: they come up to people. Certain people, especially. Ethic people, really. The people who may not know, exactly, precisely, how to get by in an altered reality. Strangers in a strange land. Or people who look it, anyway, and/or especially those travelling alone. Maybe you, definitely me, my mom in particular.

Then they go like this: “Hello ma’am. How are you? Hey. You got booze in those bags of yours? You got meat or fruit or animal skins or poppin’ pills or anything else? Things that would make customs tsk, tsk, tsk at you and cause you all sorts of embarrassment? Little special somethings for you or your family or your friends to enjoy from the homeland? Then come with me! With me carrying those bags of yours for you, there are no worries for you. They will not check those bags of yours if you are with me! No? You don’t have any naughties in those bags of yours? You’ve got all the receipts? All the paperwork? Crossed your “t’s” and dotted your “i’s”, hmm? You know how it works here, eh? You sure? You can never be sure. Now come with me!”

They take your bags, before you or me or my mom in particular can stop them. Exasperated, tired from a long flight, you acquiesce. There is no other word for this: acquiesce.

Then they parade you or me or my mom in particular out, past the gates, to arrivals, through the waiting crowds, past the crowds, past arrivals. Outside. Outside into the chilly night air where there are not so many people, even less paying any kind of attention. Today, customs did not intervene, but it’s plain to see that others, others accompanied by Baggage Men like him have, indeed, been stopped.

Then: “You see? No trouble at all! Here are your bags! $30 dollars, now.”

Maybe you or me or my mom in particular on this Saturday night (August 10, 2013), exasperated, tired from a long flight, lonely and disoriented, have had enough of enough all goddamn fucking ready and say NO.

Then they do like this: a step back in mild shock. A step forward in hard cajoling. A little foot stamping. An accusatory finger pointed at your heavy, heavy baggage.

“Hey, now. I helped you, now. I helped you with those bags of yours. Quick now. $30 dollars, no one the wiser, see.”

Desperate now more then ever for home, with this stranger in your face, in your space, suddenly decidedly very unhelpful if not ever kind, you or me but especially my mom just give him the last $20 dollar bill you have, just to make him go far away.

He is far from satisfied. He demands his last 10 dollars but vanishes very, very quickly back into the busy lights of the airport once the words “…speak to your supervisor” cut into that chilly night air.

But then he already has the money.

No lies. Toronto’s Pearson International Airport. Be very wary.

I should probably call someone.
 

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Nepal: How My Mom Saved My Trip Before It Began

And away is up. And away.

When up is away.

Stephen bid me farewell as I headed toward the gate at Toronto’s Pearson airport.  He was very supportive of my decision to buck work and responsibility for the beauty and grander of the Himalayas, but I detected a certain melancholy in his demeanor upon my departure.  He would miss me as I would miss him, but there was little we could do about that. So I did what I could at the time, which was text my friend, Dejan, to enlist his help in alleviating what I imagined was Stephen’s crippling emotional turmoil:

From Me to Dejan:

About to board the place.  One thought: can you take Stephen to Hooters or something to cheer him up? He’s a little down.  Also, tell him I was kidding about the Sherpas.  OR WAS I??? See y’all when I get back 🙂 03/15/11, 5:54PM.[1]

From Dejan to Me:

You’re rude.  But funny.  Have a good trip!!! 03/15/11, 5:55PM.[2]

To save a few dollars (actually a few hundred dollars), I booked a rather meandering and dawdling flight to Kathmandu.  It started with a 7 hour and 20 minute flight from Toronto to Brussels, plus a 2-hour layover.  Then it was a 7 hour 55 minute flight from Brussels to New Delhi, followed by a disorienting 9-hour layover at the ultra-chic New Delhi airport.  From there, it was a mere 1 hour and 35 minute flight to Shangri la itself, Kathmandu.

As I sat by Gate 171, legs thrust out confidently in front of me and hands folded jauntily at the belly, I began to muse about the adventure before me.  I thought about how fucking awesome I was, headed into the unknown, facing head-on the challenges that were sure to come my way, of the people I would meet and the places I would see and, of course, of all the amazing food I was sure to encounter…

MOMOS!  Those delicious steamed or lightly fried dumplings that come with a sweet n’ sour spicy red sauce perfect for dipping MOMOS. A traditional delicacy native to Tibet, Nepal, West Bengal and Other Places, I had had momos (WONDERFUL MOMOS!) during my last day in India – devoured them, actually, from a street-side cart where the vendor shook his head in bemusement at my insatiable gullet.  I gave him many rupees and he gave me many, many momos, and it was GLORIOUS.

But in Nepal…

…in Nepal, I had heard, there were momos of all shapes and sizes, of all robust plumpness and delightful bounce, all savory delicious in their own way.  More than that.  You could get them in the streets.  You could get them in the mountains. You could get them stuffed with yak cheese!

YAK CHEESE.

Yak cheese. How to explain? It's like if all the other cheeses got together and tried to be just a little bit better and fell just a little short of that, THAT would be yak cheese.

And I did.

As I daydreamed and fantasized and whetted my appetitive in grand anticipation of ADVENTURE, my immediate surroundings faded in and out of conscious thought.  One minute, I was expertly navigating my way across bamboo suspension bridges and prodding bravely on while others collapsed at my feet due to altitude sickness and weak characters.  Another moment, and my backpack was poking me sharply in the spine as I slumped in my chair.  I saw the awed faces of the folks back home as I regaled them with stories of momos (MOMOS!!!) and snow leopards and yaks, and irritably wrenched my eyes open to check the clock above the airport bathroom to see if the plane would be boarding soon.  Then I heard it.

My mother’s voice.

“Ngọc!  You sure you are at the right gate?  Are you SURE?  ALWAYS CHECK.  You need to check.  Check now…check now…NOW.”

It was more than mere coincidence.  My mom and I have travelled many Places together, and it is always at the airport – on arrival and departure – that we very nearly unravel as a mother-daugther pair.  It’s the planes.  My mom, she’s terrified that they will leave without her – she is convinced, in fact, they are trying to leave without her – and in her single-minded drive to beat the planes at their own game, she will abuse airport staff, cut lines and DESTROY fellow travellers should they by some poor, cruel twist of luck get the slightest bit in her way.

These are Things I know.

And yet, I still don’t know any better.  Because I always try to defuse my airport Mom-Bomb by yelling at her to “RELAX, CALM DOWN, NOOOO, PUT IT DOWN!!!, and this has always and will always end with me feeling ashamed and guilty and her basking in total validation at my eventual apology.

So as I waited for my plane I tried, REALLY TRIED, to ignore The Voice.  But it was an exercise in ultimate and utter futility.

 

“…always…                                     ….check…                                    …always…

 

                                          …check…

 

                                                                   …always…                                     ….check…                                   

                                 …always…

…check…

 

                                                                                      …check…

            …check…

 

                                                 …check…

        …now…

                                                            …check…                                                            ….now…

                                                                                                            ….check…

Now!

Now!!

NOW!!!”  

NOOO!  I AM at the right gate.  Of COURSE I’m at the right gate!  Gate 171.  I’m sure, o.k? 

“HOW sure?”

Very sure. 

“Are you?”

Sure as sure. 

“Are you??”

Y-yes.  Sure.

“ARE YOU???”

Well, fairly sure…

Endgame.  There was no point in arguing with the me that was my mom in me any more than it was trying, however heroically and massively, to ignore it.  I sighed, reached for the travel wallet that was hanging around my neck, and proceeded to (double) check my boarding pass.[3]

Jet Airways.  Check!

Flight 229.  Check!

7:25 PM.  Check!

Gate 179.  Check.

Oh.  Lord.

Below are my actual, real notes of my reaction, given to you in their entirety:

March 15th, 2011  

HOLY FUCK!  IT WAS GATE 179!!!

(see above!)  Jesus GOD!  Rookie mistake.  Made it just in time, thanks to frantic

running, Tilley hat bashing against my pack as I flew.  Lesson here: ALWAYS

check.  Only way to be sure.

Always. Check.

The me that was my mom in me did a victory dance that day.

Thanks, Mom.

Hours later, in Brussels, I parked myself at Gate B33 and waited with bated stupor for the plane, making sure to check and re-check the gate every two minutes during my two hours at the airport.  It was a Herculean task in concentration.  8:00AM in Brussels meant 5:00AM in Toronto.

In travel time, this meant that from my perspective it was daylight out instead of dark and there were people about instead of none, and there was a sense of purpose in the air instead of listlessness.  My body was confused, aching and thirsty, but my mind disregarded all physical discomfort in order to focus on this one mantra:

Gate B33…Gate B33…Gate B33…

THANKS, MOM!!!


[1] I wasn’t kidding.

[2] I am.

[3] Travel wallets are dorky and lame.  They are.  I admit that.  However, they are terrifically convenient in busy airports, especially when you’re trying to stow away wayward liquids and gels, untying and re-tying your shoes, getting patted down by someone who, frankly, should have tried harder in life, and when you’re required to keep both your boarding pass and passport at the ready while dragging along your carry-on.  So there.

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Nepal: The Day My Knee Broke OR Cheaters Sometimes Prosper

A few weeks ago, I served up some raw notes of my trip to Nepal for your consumption.  Partly, it was an attempt by me to process the experience as only time and the comforts of home can allow.

Look into mine eyes.

This is what big looks like when it's immense.

Mostly, it was me being lazy about getting a blog post up before deadline.

Mmmbap!!!

Between bibimbap and blog, where do you think I went?

Imagine my surprise when I went online and encountered (because online is a Place, totally) comments from people who actually, really enjoyed the post.

Huh.

So, I figured Why not? Let’s do as my mind is doing anyway: (re)start at the beginning, jump to the middle, and eventually saunter on towards The End.

In my last post, I boasted to you that I decided to go to Nepal for many reasons, most importantly of all, that of daring prestige. That was a story of Heroics (of sorts).  In this post, I will confess to you that going to Nepal was a move, too, that would at the very least buy me some time while I contemplated my future outside of the cloistered safety of the ivory tower.

That, after all, is the magic and allure of the Journey.  Louis L’Amour put it very well when he said “[a] journey is time suspended. All decisions await arrival, and one travels on, day after day, accepting each as it comes” (1990: 168).

I had been living so long according to a plan, knowing three steps ahead where I needed to be in order to push still forward, pursuing a dream, a career and accolades I never really stopped to think I may not have wanted.

Stopping, it turned out, was easy compared to actually making the last, final decision to leave.  That decision took months and it was pure agony.

But then, I have never been good at making decisions: when you plan three steps ahead, the realization comes rather quickly that one choice always (in the sense that “always” is “inevitable”) leads to another.  There’s no avoiding it.

After all, as Mr. L’Amour also says, waiting at the end of a journey “is the harsh reality of decision and doing” (1990: 168).

That reality for me is NOW.  But in the meantime, here is a story about what happened THEN, on the day I learned that my body is at once my closest companion and immediate enemy and that sometimes the easy way out is, in fact, the best way.

Enjoy!

March 31st, 2011

Day 12 of 21

At the end of the day, I came to the conclusion that this day had been about the little things.

It had to be.

With the pain in my knee spreading to the upper and lower parts of my body and my feet all a’ blister, the best thing to do was appreciate what didn’t go wrong, and that’s what they call OPTIMISM! in The End.

Despite my reluctance to begin the trek, the day actually started off quite wonderfully.  Hem showed me Annapurna I, visible in the morning light outside our tea house, and I ate a “light breakfast” (2 eggs, sunny-side up, potatoes and onions, toast and tea) with the Holland Boys, whose jolly company I was very glad to be keeping.  They, of course – and in what I can only rationalize as their innate superhuman agility – would disappear into the horizon during the day, bouncing off rocks and cartwheeling down sheer drops and precipices, as I followed resolutely behind, one small sure step after another.

As we ambled along in The Trek, the landscape gradually went from being “Canadian” back to “sub-tropic”.  Essentially, this meant the gradual waning of jagged rocks, icy streams and conifers and the return of water buffalos, banxan trees and rhododendrons.

Water, buffalos?

Ladies.

We followed a river gorge for a time – professed to be one of the world’s largest. But it didn’t really seem like it to me. Though, what do I know about gorges?  It could have been big.  It was, by my estimation at least, very gorge-like.

But like most Things, gorges come and gorges go, and after a while we found ourselves at the bottom of a very large, very long, multi-leveled waterfall.

Or stick to the rivers and the streams that you're used to, baby.

Chasing Waterfalls.

What can I say? I was impressed.

Then, just about an hour from lunch:

  • Rain.  Lots.  Little.  LOTS.
  • Nagging to persistent to full on pain.
  • Rocky roads, “undulating” up and down, but mostly D-O-W-N.
  • A pace that was brisk, then halting and, finally, hobbling.

It was enough.

Since our decent from the apex of our journey – the highs of the mighty Thorung La Pass – my knee had begun to protest the punishment I was putting it through by periodically freezing up and/or sending sharp, very precise pain up the side of my body and straight into the back of my neck.  By the time we passed the waterfall, I was basically using my trekking pole as a crutch.  Hem suggested we take a bus to our destination at trek’s end today, and though I found that a bit of cheat, my mind eventually submitted its will to my body’s demands.

But then, a small surprise as we entered the Waterfall Restaurant, cruelly located at the bottom of some very steep and VERY slippery, stone steps.

Never again. Probably.

Waterfall in the rain with pain.

Chris and Tommy and their entourage from EcoTrek were there (we had met them at High Camp before taking on the Thorung La).

Rather, they were still there.

Turns out, Chris had been throwing up and was feeling dizzy and nauseous.  This, too, was a surprise, considering that he and Tommy had consistently left me in the dust each time we crossed paths.  The decision was made, for Chris’ sake, to take the local bus the rest of the way to Tatopani.  We elected to join them as we sat down to lunch…right around the time The Germans joined us.

Ah, Ze Germans!

They had run into me a lifetime ago, a few days after I started The Trek.  High-powered, well-to-do, outrageously personable and armed with the best that Nikkon has to offer, they had gained a mild celebrity among the Annapurna trekkers for their insatiable entitlements and prodigious appetites.

If they were tired, it was not because of unwarranted exertion or the previous night’s overindulgence in cheap Nepali beer or even the strenuousness of the terrain.  It was because the slow progress of Others (i.e. the old, the novice, the non-German) who audaciously got in the way of their German efficiency.

If they had to wait while they were hungry, it was because you had the nerve to order first.

If they were discombobulated with altitude sickness, well, it was because there was just too much altitude to begin with, anyway.

On this day, they filled the lodge with sleek abandon, as their harried guide scrambled after them, putting discarded gloves and trekking poles and backpacks into neat piles in the corners of the restaurant while presenting them with menus for their midday repast.  The man’s arms were little more than blurred streaks on either side of him, he moved so F-A-S-T.

They ordered first.

They ate so much chow mien.

It was epic.

I ordered a Fanta and when Chris asked if it was cold (he drank a coke to help the dizziness/nausea, but it was warm), I gave him the portion I didn’t already pour into my cup.

And so we waited for the bus, Chris pretty much passed out on a nearby cot.  There was a rooster that was being stored in an upside down basket in the room with us who kept crowing, CROWing, CROWING as if to resurrect the long-dead morning, but Chris kept his eyes closed even as I set my teeth on edge.

The bus ride itself cost 280Rs (about $4.00 US), and aside from a few parts where I was convinced we’d fall off the razor’s edge we were driving on, and my worry that Chris, with the aid of the ride, would throw up on me, I could tell by the dull throbbing of my knee that it was so very worth it.

Our refuge for the night, the Old Kamala Lodge, was a very nice place – spacious, clean, with some neat gardens (banana trees and all), and complete with en suite bathrooms for patrons.

Sometimes a cigar is just a banana, OK?

My childhood fascination with banana trees continues, unabated. No matter what the Freudians say.

And the room came with TOILET PAPER!!!  An absolute rarity in the “supply your own” ethos of the Himalayas.

And, much like the last couple of places we stayed at but still no less appreciated, I was able re-charge my batteries here, hassle-free (some places charge for this, others simply cannot accommodate you).

And, due to the altitude, it was actually pretty warm all around – my feet weren’t freezing after showering and I was quite pleased to discover that I wouldn’t need an extra blanket to pass the night.

And, because of the glorious proximity of the bathroom, I didn’t have to worry about having to “go all the way” to the bathroom.  Trivial?  Silly?  Revealing of my First World sensitive sensibilities?

Not. In. The. Slightest.

Not when your stomach turns on you in the middle of the night and you have to run – RUUUUUNNNN!!! – down 3 flights of wooden steps and around a dark corner to a cupboard size closet without plumbing but still, somehow, with water (hopefully water) standing EVERYWHERE between you and your destination: a battered squat toilet.

Not when, amid the snow and ice and the chill of the night, 40 total strangers find themselves sharing two outhouses located waaay behind the relative warmth of the lodge.

Not when the squats become ovens of hot poo once the cold is chased away.  And especially after the Germans make it to them before you do.

AND, I met up again with the Czech couple, the Ultra Cool Katz I had first encountered the night I shared my dinner hour with the Determined Korean Man.  They were headed home, finally, after months and months away.  As we congratulated each other on passing the Pass I learned that I – ME!!! – completed the trek across the Thorung La ONE HOUR before they – in all their sinewy vegetarian fitness – did.

See what I mean?  When the world as a whole is set up with trail and tribulation, it really is all about the small things.

It has to be.


References

L’amour, Louis. (1990). Education of a Wandering Man. Bantam Books.

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