When my sister Amy was almost 19, her friend convinced her to secretly hitch-hike out to Vancouver from southern Ontario, a trip of over 4000 kms one way.
The young ladies stitched ‘VAN’ patches to their back packs and with straightened hair and bell bottoms, off they went: flower children off to find themselves. (The prior year, my brother Matt had gone west with a buddy, hopping on and off rail cars. It was a trendy thing to do then, to head West and to always ‘hit the ground running!’)
They were lucky to get rides in transport trucks with very attentive and caring knights of the highway who fed them and took them the extra mile to their destination. They also took them on little side trips to Banff Springs Hotel and to the Okanagan Valley. The gentlemen put the girls up in a hotel room of their own for two nights…sheer luxury and after four days they were dropped off in Vancouver at a hostel which the men paid for, for a night. So generous!
The next day, the young women went to see Donna’s uncle in Port Alberni. He gave them money to stay in a hostel for a further week so they could visit Wreck beach, Gas town and Stanley Park.
The friends walked all over the city seeing various vendors, musicians with tambourines and hippies everywhere as well as trans folks. Amy and Donna didn’t have a clue as to what they were seeing sometimes.
At Stanley Park in Vancouver, the sight there was not the best. The park was strewn with tons of garbage and many youth were strung out and laying around on the grass. Some folks were meditating or in some sort of drug-induced trance. Everyone was friendly but, it wasn’t anything like what Amy and Donna expected.
At the hostel which was nice and clean and more wholesome, there was a kitchen with folks baking bread. The meals there were mostly stews and bread. Sitting in a circle at the hostel, everyone would share stories about where they came from. There were many minstrel musicians and artists there with a general attitude of living on love, not working and being cool.
Walking through Vancouver one morning, seventeen-year old Donna saw a dance studio with a dancer in the window. This dancer became her husband and they are still together today, going on to open a water-bed franchise and doing well on the water-bed trend of the eighties. Remember that? (Amy reminded me that she had two water beds in her apartment in the eighties where I lived while waiting to get into the army. My husband Dean installed a waterbed in his residence room at university!)
In Gas town there were many people sitting on the sidewalk and shooting up and doing all manner of weirdness, almost like a mini Woodstock. They seemed to be doing anything they wanted without a thought for the law. Long hair, headbands, bare-chest, jeans, cut-off shorts, macrame belts with beaded tail a hanging down the thigh.
‘Georgie‘ girls would walk by in peasant blouses, long, flowing skirts and hair, floppy hat, beads, bracelets and anklets and Jesus sandals, patched and needle-pointed bell-bottom jeans and no makeup. No bra. Some wore moccasins and everyone had a backpack which identified them with sewn-on patches of their home town and of different places they had been. No cell phones. No email. No video games. No social media and no effing selfies. Just patches, music and spoken word. Imagine.
At the white-sand, nude Wreck Beach Amy recognized John from home who was sunbathing nude, stretched out on the fine, warm sand. Amy told him to throw a towel on if he wanted them to speak to him.
Soon the money ran out and Amy needed to get home. From the ‘free’ phone at the Trans Union office, she called Mom and Dad and begged for airfare, mentioning that she didn’t even have money for food. Back then, a student could fly across country for under a hundred dollars.
‘Our blond daughter is coming back from finding herself! Wailed Dad to Mom.
Amy waited all day in Gas Town for the money transfer to come through, seeing sights that made her head spin. Men dressed as women. Gay lovers. Protests of every sort. The needle and the damage done.
Back home to reality and work at A&W. Dad and Mom had let Amy, Matt and Mark have the house that summer while they were at the lake for the summer. Bad move as there were parties galore and the house was getting more and more weathered due to them. In the seventies when the baby boomers were teens, there were just so many of them about that they took over every aspect of life. They walked around in packs. It’s hard to believe now in 2019, that they were ever that young. The baby boomers are now aging and their vast numbers are taking over the assisted-living homes, seniors resorts and most of Florida. Stores are stocking more and more seniors’ needs: reading glasses, purple shampoo, compression hose, knee-braces, Epsom salts, sore muscle balm, soup and the like.
Anyhoo, at home, Amy kept an eye-ball peeled for Donna’s dad who was the police chief. She thought she would be killed if he saw her as he was sure to blame Amy for the loss of his daughter to Vancouver…man.
(Eva Player – daisy pic – and Google images..thanks again )
When 16 to 18, Dad and his new wife Wendy took my little brother, Luke and I, to Florida with them for Christmas break (our older five siblings were all moved out by then). Except for the first year, we drove down, all 2500 km in Dad’s Mercury Zephyr. Yes, there used to be a car called a Zephyr. Dad had a skin-tone coloured one. It was super sexy. Not.
The first year, however, Dad put Luke and I on a Greyhound bus for the forty hour trip. We had to change buses at 2 o’clock in the morning in Detroit, Michigan which is known to be one of the most dangerous cities in the US of A. Let’s face it, Grey Hound bus stations are not usually located in the nicest parts of town. I was 16 and Luke was 13. Dad’s best advice was to use my scarf to tie my purse tight to my body. Luke and I found a seat on the dingy molded plastic chairs and linked arms with eye-balls peeled. We were terrified. Since I am writing this today, I guess we survived the Detroit Bus Station, twice, actually. We were there on the way home too.
Ever organized, we packed this little cooler with things like hard-boiled eggs, fruit, cheese, bread so that we didn’t have to spend much on restaurant stops. All we wanted to do was get off that bus as much as possible and stretch our legs. A long Greyhound ride gets rather ripe, especially after eating one too many hard-boiled eggs. By the time we arrived at Valdosta, Georgia, we were overjoyed to see Palm trees, finally.
When we finally arrived in Fort Myers, we were picked up by our eldest brothers wife, June’s Mother, who’s name is also June (rest in peace), driving a huge caddy and telling us in a thick Southern accent that she would adopt while in Florida for the winter, how very dANgerous it was here: ‘Nevah take out your wallet in pahblic’, she advised. ‘Almost ahveryone has a GUUN so just be caheful’ and then she accelerated to get across a lane of traffic and screamed: ‘HANG ON!!’ June Senior was quite a character. She took us in and fed us (I remember one meal in particular was turkey necks — I had never had a meal of turkey necks before) and made sure we had everything we needed for the couple of days before Dad and Wen arrived and we would move into the motel that Dad had booked from afar.
Luke and I spent many hours on the beach and walking around the town of Fort Myers. We didn’t have much spending money so we would usually have an ice-cream and maybe some fries around lunch time. Then we would walk all the way back the couple miles to where we were staying with Dad and Wen. By that time, we were wiped. We had swam, sunbathed, played frisbee plus the walk to and from the beach. Luke would carry his boom box on his shoulder and play music for us all the way.
Sometimes we would eat supper all together or we would go to a very good value All-U-Can-Eat Buffet which are prevalent in Florida. The odd time Dad would say, you kids are on your own, we are going out for supper without you. After supper, Dad would get us into the car and we would drive through the well-to-do neighbourhoods looking at the Christmas lights. It was so strange to see this without snow. Sometimes Dad would take us to some random high school gym to watch basketball. There seemed to always be a basketball game on somewhere and both Luke and I were big fans of the game. Luke could even spin a basketball for a significant length of time on his finger, then bounce it off his knee and back to his finger. In basketball practice with Mr. Laset, ball-handling drills had been highly encouraged. Luke and I would often play hours of 21 in our driveway and when sitting watching a television program, we would often be holding and spinning the ball.
One day, we met this family on the beach. The Bates’. There was a boy my age, a girl one year older and they were from Indiana. We hung out. They were really nice and we loved their accent and they liked ours. They arranged for Luke and I to go out for supper with them at a Mexican restaurant. We had never eaten Mexican food and we were so eager to give it a try. That was a fun night. Especially trying hot sauces and pico de gallo for the first time. The virgin lime margarita was spectacular too. Sour, sweet and salty all at once. I still love margaritas today. We ended up staying over at their house, which was actually their relatives house, in Fort Myers, for the night. Luke and I slept on the couches in the den. I was astounded by their generosity. In fact, I have been astounded at the generosity of Americans again and again when I lived there over the decades. The Bates’ were good people and they liked us. It was a nice feeling. We kept in touch and saw them the next years too.
Wendy found this beach park for us to go explore. No one was there and it was gorgeous. We walked along the sand and found wee little treasures while a very relaxed Dad slept on a towel on the beach. Luke and I jokingly calling him a beached whale, when we were out of earshot. After a good snore, he awoke and sat up with sand all over the side of his face and pine needles in his hair. Oh my, we chuckled. Perhaps he did these things on purpose to get a reaction. I’m still not sure about that.
That pure white-sand crescent-shaped beach was just spectacular and I have always enjoyed, for some reason, the places where few people go, but which are incredible. I have also enjoyed the wondering. The wondering why they are not there.
When it was time to head North, I dreaded it. Going back to the cold, dark North after all this sun, sea and sand. The only cool thing would be showing off our sun-kissed tan skin to all of our pasty white friends.
Those trips to Florida were bittersweet. In one sense it was amazing to be with my little brother, Luke and be on an adventure together down to Florida, especially for three years in a row, making it almost a tradition. Luke and I were very close. In another sense it was tough to be trapped with our parents in a car for several days on a road trip. The travail of teenagers, perhaps?
In the car, Luke and I would be in the back seat finding any reason to laugh hysterically at Dad. Dad had these habits that drove us wild with hilarity. Every so often, he would reach up to daintily scratch his balding pate with just his middle sausage-shaped finger. Next he would be asking Wendy if she wanted to split a black coffee. He would pull into a gas station, struggle into his huge down coat, and pay a quarter for the gut-rot coffee on offer. With a big smile on his face he would come back to the Zephyr with a single styrofoam coffee cup which was barely visible in his large hand. Wendy would hold it.
Dad would pull out and get back onto the highway and only then would he take off his huge coat. Every time, while driving and with the three of us helping to get his coat off, narrowly missing oncoming traffic. Another time, we were at some diner in a tiny little town, for some lunch. Dad asked the server a question about her hometown, the very town she had lived in her whole life. The server answers but her answer is not what Dad was expecting. Much to the embarrassment of Luke and I, and as we would have liked to slide off our chairs and hide under the table, Dad says, ‘Honey baby,’ waving his thumb at himself and Wendy, ‘We’re both teachers. You must have your facts mixed up. That can’t be right.‘
There was one thing about Dad. He was not boring and he enjoyed both a good argument and a good adventure, as long as he didn’t have to walk too far.
In early July 1993 we rolled into Polar River, just north of the sixty-sixth parallel in the North West Territories. We had been driving for several hot and dusty days on the road across Canada, from Newfoundland to Alberta and then straight North.
We passed through Whitehorse and Dawson City, Yukon and then a full day up the gravel Dempster Highway, two hours beyond the Arctic Circle.
We had driven in tandem for a week, driving ‘Betsy‘ our ’76 VW Van and our tiny Chevrolet Sprint we fondly called ‘Puny’. Unfortunately, Betsy didn’t survive the trip. Her engine blew in Whitehorse and, on a deadline to get to the job, we sold her body to a small Franco mechanic with the longest, most gorgeous ringlet hair we had ever seen. His dark ringlets reached way down his back. He saw me admiring it and said with a lop-sided grin: ‘the ladees, estee, they love my hairs, they are curly, non?’ I just wanted to touch it to verify that it was real. Of course my mind flitted back to the Francos marching in perfect formation in Nijmegen a couple of years prior, and singing their old, soulful regimental songs – making the Anglo teams look rag-tag by comparison. Such was their pride and fervor for their culture.
Anyway, while in Whitehorse, we ate at a restaurant that is still there today: Sam N Andy’s. Interestingly and coincidentally, there is a very real chance we were served by my very good friend, Daisy, who lives and works in our current Nova Scotia town. One day, decades later, Daisy and I came upon this nugget of truth while reminiscing about our Northern days.
So, Dean had accepted a one-year contract position as Recreation Director for a tiny northern community of 150 First Nations Gwich’in people and roughly ten whites living in about 25 houses. The houses were built on pilings that were anchored into the permafrost. There was a general store, an all-levels school, a gym, two churches, a health centre and a community office on a hill overlooking the confluence of two icy rivers. The setting was incredibly beautiful. It felt like the final frontier.
The first thing we did was attend a community feast. But, to call it a feast was a bit of a stretch. It was simply hot dogs, pop and chips, but, we were so pleased to finally be there and soon to be on a payroll again, after more than a year, that we were all smiles and best intentions. The local children took our hands and tugged us along.
‘How long will you be here?’ Charlie asked. They don’t mince words, I thought. They also were intrigued with our little black lab puppy, ‘Dempster’ whom we had on a bright blue leash and matching collar. Full of questions: ‘Why is he on leash? Does he bite? Why does he have a name? Do you feed him fish? Will he stay outside?’ And, of course questions directed at me like: ‘Is there a baby in your belly? (It wouldn’t be until 1998, 1999 and 2001 that a baby would be in my belly.) Where are your babies?’ These questions were telling.
At the feast, we met Allie, the daughter of the former old Chief Henry. Allie was quite articulate and confident. She told us of her recent huge adventure, trekking in Nepal. Little did we know then that we would be trekking in Nepal the following year, thanks to the seed planted by Allie at this little feast.
The Chief of Polar River, Gwen, was dysfunctional, mostly ineffective, extremely high maintenance and neurotic. She expected Dean to be at the gym facility seven days a week, twenty-four hours per day. He was hired to do a job and she wanted him working non-stop.
Poor Dean, who is overly kind, was exhausted by her neediness in a couple of weeks. The gym, thankfully, was a very nice facility, a couple of minutes walk from our apartment, and was perched on the edge of the forest which was millions of acres of wilderness. It was a state of the art building with a huge gym and fully stocked kitchen as well as Dean’s new office. Equipment galore: new, mats, rackets, nets. New cross-country skis and new canoes came later when Dean applied for and received a grant for them, as well as money to hire an instructor to come up and teach canoeing. The instructor was this funny young guy from Manitoba. He would exclaim, ‘I can’t believe I am being paid to teach the natives how to canoe’.
One of the main weekly events at the gym was the Wednesday night BINGO. Here was my husband with over seven years of higher education and a former Army Captain, calling BINGO once per week. It was comical, if a little sad. It was a big event and it came with big winnings. Hundreds of dollars were won each week. I hung out in the kitchen, offering burgers and pop for sale, the proceeds going into the gym coffers.
Dean was mandated to teach one of the local women how to run the gym facility and how to manage the budget and maintenance. This young woman had four young children and a husband who played around on her. Consequently, she wasn’t fully available. Life in Polar River was both gritty and frustrating. Like the day when one of the young kids who were always at the gym (free babysitting) told Dean, ‘I don’t have to listen to YOU, White Man’. That child was about seven years old.
The first tragic thing to happen to us that year occurred on a gorgeous evening a month after we arrived. I had been walking our lab puppy Dempster who was scampering ahead of me over the beaten-earth pathways. I was just skipping along and watching bemusedly as he chased a rodent under a house. That was the last time I saw him alive. He didn’t come out from under the house… that I knew of.
I was calling and whistling. Nothing. Then, a dirty blue pick-up drove up. A young Gwich’in man, Billy, rolled down his window and with a smoke in his mouth said, ‘Your dog’s dead’. And drove off.
I ran down to the gravel road beneath the hill where I was standing, hoping it was a cruel joke, and this is what I saw: My precious black lab puppy lying on his side with a growing pool of blood around his puppy head. I began to cry bitterly, hugging myself and bending at the waist in my grief, one hand over my mouth.
Suddenly, I was feeling overwhelmingly betrayed by this new place. How could this happen to me? How could he be so cruel? Looking back a quarter of century, I realize that I was dealing with culture shock and home-sickness, being so new in a very foreign place, albeit still in Canada.
The killing of our puppy didn’t mean much to young Billy because in his culture, they didn’t keep dogs as pets the way we do in the South. Someone went and fetched Dean and he came and wrapped his strong arms around me consoling me. Someone picked up Dempster in an old blanket and we drove down the Water Lake Road and Dean buried him while I sat in the car, still too upset to move, still in mild shock.
A few days later, on a sunny afternoon, a nice local man brought us a very cute puppy from his new litter. Our new puppy had pointy ears and muzzle. He was fuzzy black and white, wolfish looking and stunk of fish – the only kind of food he knew. We called him Delta, after the River Delta where he was born.
Dean worked away at his position and I picked up some work, just finding odd things to do that no one else would. I made pots of soup and trays of sandwiches for Band Meetings. I took people to the big town of Inuvik for shopping and medical appointments. I typed minutes to various meetings. Then I was offered a full-time position in the Community Office doing payroll, payables and receivables.
Later, I picked up the part-time position of Medical Centre Coordinator. There was this beautiful Medical Centre equipped with two examination rooms, incredible instruments and medications and a locked cupboard of narcotics. There was also a small apartment meant for a visiting doctor or nurse.
One day, I was out walking when someone ran up to me saying that little Suzy had been mauled by a dog. This was the second tragic thing to go down. I ran as fast I could to find her laying just out of reach of a big, mean Husky that was chained in the backyard of someone’s house.
She was bleeding profusely from the many open wounds in her legs. I screamed at anyone to go get Dean and to call an ambulance to come from the neighbouring larger community, Pierson, which was an hour away. I prayed, spoke calmly to her and pressed rags on her wounds until Dean rolled up in our vehicle. To this day, I do not know where her parents, friends or relatives were even though we were in the middle of town. She was eight.
We drove as fast as we could toward the Pierson Health Centre and the ambulance met us halfway. We transferred little Suzy into the ambulance and then followed it. She was put on the medical table and her ripped clothing was removed and as I watched the doctor poured hydrogen peroxide into her open wounds. She was laying on her belly repeating, ‘Owieeeee! Owieeeee!’ It occurred to me that this little girl was no stranger to pain. She received several hundred stitches to close her wounds. A year later, after returning from Nepal, I would find myself managing the medical clinic in Inuvik and working for that same doctor that stitched her wounds.
As Recreation Director, Dean had a major event to plan and carry out: the Spring Carnival which included many different competitions including snowmobile races and dogsled races. He spent days planning and coordinating this major event which would attract many visitors from out of town, and which had several thousand dollars in prize money. Very early on the day of the big event, we were still in bed sleeping when the phone rang. I picked it up: ‘Hello?’
‘Jordy’s dead’, said a voice.
Holy shit. ‘Dean!’ I screamed, ‘Get up! Jordy’s dead.’
We spent the next several hours sorting out Jordy’s body at his house. The RCMP came from Pierson and asked me all manner of lame questions. It was pretty obvious, if you had a nose, to detect how he died. The poor tortured soul smelled like a distillery mixed with a chemical waste plant. He died sitting up on his couch.
Next, we took his body by truck to the medical centre and laid it out on one of the beds. I had to stay at the medical centre until the coffin guy from Inuvik showed up. Also, two of Jordy’s female relatives came in to clean up his body in preparation for burial.
Despite the tragedy, it was an astoundingly beautiful sunny spring day and snow was melting rapidly. I was happy that Dean would have a successful carnival because of it, but the warmth wasn’t doing anything for Jordy’s body odor issue. For a while I talked to the coffin guy and his wife on the deck at the medical centre (there was no being inside with good ole Jordy). The funny thing about the entrepreneurial coffin guy was that he was an ER nurse.
When we finally left Polar River in July of 1994, we were happy to go – we had big plans to go travelling, but, we had many mixed feelings about the North. Yes, the Gwich’in of Polar River had hired us, but, did we really have any business nosing our way into a tiny First Nations community, for a year? Did we do any good at all, or did we just cause surreptitious upset, undermining and questioning of the old ways?
I really don’t know for sure but, I think that the people of Polar River could most likely run their own gym (especially now that Dean had taught his protege), their own BINGO nights, their own health centre and do their own payroll, if push came to shove. I think that maybe they had this idea that we Southerners knew more and could organize better but, we were left feeling that it would be best for them to leave our Southern ways and instead, get back to a more traditional way of life.
We had spent some time with the Old Chief Henry. He would come to our apartment door and want a cup of tea. He told us many stories of the old days and spending time on the trap line, drying fish and getting caribou for the whole community, going by dog sled over the snow. The traditional jobs that would be carried out by the women and the young men. How the children would play, tumbling and were cherished and spoiled by their Elders. Traditional feasts and celebrations. His eyes would glisten with the memories behind them. I was in awe of this man who had lead his people for over three decades. If I had a wish for the Northern Peoples it would be to go back to those ways and to embrace them once again, even if just little by little. Perhaps that is impossible, but, I’m gonna wish it anyway.
We arrived in Melbourne, Australia in 1994 and kicked around the city for a few days, staying with friends we had met on the Chilkoot Trail in Alaska (Across Canada in Betsy (age 26) 🇨🇦. But, wanting to experience the true outback, we decided to take the historical Gahn train to the centre.
So, onto the train we got, bound for Alice Springs. On the train, I had some sort of sudden mucous problem and water poured from my nose and eyes. Dean cracked open a smuggled-in bottle of red and after a few sips the mucous stopped flowing. (We don’t usually go too far without a nice bottle of red.)
The next day, we stepped off the train into a brick wall of heat. Just imagine walking into an oven. Now add about 300 degrees and you have the heat that is Alice Springs. We found a hostel where we rented a small trailer, and spent some time slowly walking around and seeing the sights. There were many aborigines about and we saw a few homes with living room furniture out in the yard where people would sit. One evening we decided to go to a movie and just by chance, the movie Priscilla Queen of the Desert was opening. It had been filmed in Alice Springs and starred Guy Pierce. It was a bizarre film which the Ozzies in the cinema found hilarious. Us, not so much.
Next we decided to hitch-hike to the coast. Some 2776 km away and most of it through arid Australia. We had no idea that arid Australia is deadly. We simply could not fathom it, coming from Canada. Arid Australia is brutally hot, sometimes 50 degrees Celsius and has very few water sources and very little traffic. There are biting ants and other insects, kangaroos, venomous snakes and spiders and the odd dingo about. In Oz, when you see a spider or a snake, you have to assume it is venomous because most are.
We were very lucky, once again. One of the first drivers to see us hitching pulled over. It was an 77 year old man named Lockey. He helped us put our huge packs in his small Toyota van. Dean took a seat in the front and I climbed into the single rear seat in the back and immediately became a river of sweat. No air conditioning except the two front windows which were perpetually down and circulating hot air. It took us five days (five days!!!) to travel through the Outback to the east coast. We camped each night in the free campsites that Australia nicely provides so that folks don’t parish in the outback.
Lockey drove slowly, necessarily. The scenery was mostly desert-type scrub and four foot high phallic shaped ant hills formed from red sand. Now and then we would see a troop of kangaroos. And the odd bloated dead cow carcass. We were told that the cattle ranches are so vast that there is no way the farmers could fence them, so sometimes cows would get killed by road trains. Oookay. Road trains are very, very long tractor trailer trucks with accordion-type mid-sections. It was not fun to be passed by a road train and have to man-handle the steering wheel so as not to be sucked under it.
We would stop in the mid-afternoon for a bite to eat, usually after getting gas. The little gas stations were remote but had everything you could possibly want AND a huge cage of cockatiels and parrots. We would order a sandwich or a burger and a beer. Invariably, the sandwich would arrive with not only sliced beet (yes beet) on it but sometimes grated carrot and a sunny-side up egg sitting on top. Huh?
Where ARE we??!
Arriving in Bundaberg, Lockey offered for us to stay with him for a few days. We all got along so well and Lockey was very funny. He was always making sounds like errrrrk when he opened the fridge door or zzzzzip when he did up his jacket zipper. Lockey had several geckos that were friendly and lived with him informally in his house trailer. They were so cute and made little chirping sounds that Lockey would imitate perfectly. Lockey told us he did 100 push ups per day to stay fit. He had been a Air Navigator in the war. That’s saying something. Lockey’s house trailer was in a trailer park with many other residents. There was a common washing room and shower house close by in one direction and the short trail to the beach in the other direction. We were offered the back of his station wagon to sleep on a foam mattress.
One day we decided to do some laundry. It was dusk as we walked to the washing house. Suddenly there was loud cackling from the tree top above us, almost like an old married couple cackling at a funny tv show or a progressive bridge game. Looking up we shivered to see two flying foxes, yes FOX bats that can fly!!! having an upside-down gander back at us and cackling over it.
Holy shit! Where ARE we??
The next day Dean went for a nice long morning run before the sun became too hot. He was down a dirt road a few miles from Lockey’s place when he realized that he was being watched by an seven foot tall kangaroo. He stopped dead in his tracks and with heart racing, tried to figure out what to do. He could not read the roo who was now lazily scratching his chest, licking his lips and staring at Dean. We had been warned to not corner a roo because they will quite easily lean back on their tail and kick you into next week. Dean lowered his eyes and smoothly backed away from the giant roo. Next he ran to the toilets as fast as he could.
Lockey was a retired motor mechanic and we were in need of a car. We decided that trying to get around Australia, which is huge and mostly empty in the centre, we would need a car. Lockey helped us find a very sensible white Toyota Corona. The next day we drove it to a large shopping mall and went inside to watch a movie. Coming out, we were dismayed to find my day pack missing from the rear floor. My passport was in that day pack so, now this was a problem if I ever wanted to get home to Canada.
We drove to a bank of payphones by the side of the road. Is was dusk… Dean was on the phone with the Canadian Consulate when suddenly the sky darkened with some very large entity moving over us. We cowered and looked up to see a sight that will be etched in my brain forever…HUNDREDS of flying foxes moving as in a herd overhead. Holy shit! Where ARE we???! We were informed later that the flying foxes were heading to the fruit orchards. They eat fruit all night. They are fruitatarians. I am not sure if that is a technical term. I am just happy they don’t drink blood or anything.
After we visited the consulate and retrieved my passport, that the kind thief must have sent in we continued with making plans for our next stop. We liked the idea of heading up to Bowen to work on a farm for a bit. Off we went after many many thanks to our host Lockey.
We arrived in Bowen and found a trailer to rent in a park by the sea. Oh my, it was pretty. We only found out later that there was no swimming in the sea due to the box jellyfish, the most deadly creatures in the world. It was box jelly season. Where ARE we??!
We visited a few different farms and had a day here and a day there picking tomatoes, rock melons (cantaloupe), capsicums (green peppers). It was hard bloody work out in the elements.
There were acres and acres of low growing fruit and not one single real shade tree. The water in my precious water bottle was HOT. I thought I was pretty tough but, nowhere near as tough as those career pickers. To say the sun was brutal is a serious understatement. One day, I laid under our car for shade during break. The Oz sun is the very reason why we decided to not live there. It’s just too oppressive. We were finally offered a position working in the barn. It was hard work too, but so much more civilized for we Northern, white-skinned types from cold Canada. It was in the barn that we met the couple who had just returned from India. They told us of the exotic country and amazing food and how they speak English and also how inexpensive it was to travel there compared to Western countries like Oz. We wanted to go there!
We worked in the tomato farm barn for a couple of months and put almost every penny away to save for our tickets to and adventures in India. The only things we would buy were the Ozzie meat pies (omg the BEST thing ever — and they are square just so you remember where you are while eating them. We even discussed importing them to Canada. So good.) We would also buy beer and, okay, groceries. The farmer we worked for would often send us all home with a wonderfully fresh watermelon. We would devour half of it and put the other out for the parrots. Within moments, several brightly coloured parrots would be perched on the watermelon and eating it. Near our trailer, there was an abandoned lot with a mango tree just begging to be picked. We would gather a whole bag of ripe ones and the gorge on them. More delicious than words!
After leaving Bowen, Queensland, we hightailed it to Caines then said, why the hell did we do that? It was horrible with brutal humidity levels up there. From there we went south and climbed Mount Kosciusko and camped for a night at the top. It is only about 2200 m high, (Everest is 8800 m by comparison). We also went to the spectacular Great Barrier Reef for a day and then spent a couple of days in Sydney.
We managed to sell our car for the same amount we bought it for. Score. The sale was touch and go for a bit though because on our way to motor vehicles with our buyer, much to my horror, steam began to come out of the front dash vents. What the??? I was sitting in the back and began to surreptitiously pound Dean’s left arm. He didn’t see what I was seeing. Nor did our buyer. And then the steam stopped and it was all fine. Heart attack!
When we finally went to purchase our flight tickets to India, because of Chinese New Year, we could not fly into India. We could only fly into Nepal. We shrugged: when a couple of billion people celebrate Chinese New Year, it can cause jam ups in the airlines. So, we flew into Nepal and it was one of the best things we ever did. As the Dalai Lama says: remember that not getting what you want is sometimes a wonderful stroke of luck.
We arrived in Kathmandu on Chinese New Year of 1995…but…
that’s another story…
Before you leave, here is the link to a blog with an incredible Ozzy bird performing for his mate. Too cool! Link
On boxing day of 1996 we packed up our tiny little three cylinder Chevrolet Sprint hatchback aptly named Puny, put our two big northern dogs in the backseat (Delta and Grizzly), and started our 7000 km, eight day trip south west to Toronto. Dean was enrolled in the very expensive nine month intensive Information Technology program at a downtown Toronto school called Information Technology Institute (iti). We had spent three years above the Arctic Circle living in Polar River first and then Inuvik after that. We had had good employment and a great group of friends but, it was time to move on and start something new.
As we rolled out of Inuvik on the Dempster Highway, in the dead and dark of winter and -35 Celsius, we were not unaware of the risk of travel for the first 800 kms of this road trip south to Dawson City Yukon with just one gas station at Eagle Plains, about half way. The moonlight shone above us and lighted the way over North America’s most northerly and remote highway, which in fact is actually a gravel road. It was a good omen, I thought, that moon. It was sure to be a fine trip with a moon like that shining above us and leading us on.
Just to give some idea of our situation in the car. We had huge Canada Goose parkas on. Large layered mittens, a toque each and Sorel boots rated to -60. It being so bitingly cold outside, our little car could not keep up. We just broke even for heat, which means, we were quite chilly for the first couple of days. Few people had cell phones back then. A friend in Inuvik had given us his cell phone in case we ran into an emergency.
Not long into the trip, we realized that our front windshield was frosting up, even though the fan and heat were turned on high. It didn’t take much to figure out that the fan had stopped working. Our focal point out the front of the car was rapidly diminishing. I wanted to turn back and get it fixed. Dean said no, we could do that in Dawson. Just then Delta and Grizzly lunged into the front seat, their heads and shoulders anyway, because they had sensed a heard of caribou moving methodically across the dim tundra. Our wee vehicle was surrounded by their graceful presence. (Like the picture below, only dark outside). We felt honoured to be in the midst of their serenity. Delta and Grizzly just wanted to give chase. On we rolled.
We pulled into Dawson City Yukon and it was -45 degrees Celcius. Nothing was open in town so we retreated to the corner of the highway and stayed in a motel there. Carefully plugging in our car so that there would be every chance that it would start in the morning. After a satisfying turkey dinner, hot shower and good night’s sleep we breakfasted and clambered back into Puny. Dead. Upon examination of the cord we found that someone had stepped on it (probably me) and with the cold, it had snapped. Useless. We would need a ‘cold start’ at $50. It worked and we rolled out of Dawson on square tires due to the extreme cold. We were Whitehorse bound with the hopes of getting our heater fan fixed. In Whitehorse, at Crappy (a Player family nickname for Canadian Tire) we were able to get it repaired. The service department stayed open late for us and were very kind.
The most remarkable thing about the rest of the trip, which we were already aware of due to several cross-country drives, was the shear vastness and emptiness of our big beautiful country. The Prairies were endless and so windy that Puny used twice as much fuel as usual. The Prairies in the winter had white-outs and dangerous snow drifts right across the highway. Dean, my Newfoundlander, is an amazing winter driver so I wasn’t too worried, really.
We finally pulled into Toronto seven days later. Our friend Nee was home and we crashed in with him. He had found us an apartment right behind his on St. Clair. Excitedly we went to look at it. Sadly and disappointingly though, it was little more than a slum and was a serious firetrap. It just would not do. We had stupidly paid the slum-landlord first and last month rent, from afar, sight unseen. Bad idea. When we met her she tried to tell us the place was fine: rotten wood floors, drafty old windows, old, dirty paint, crappy old kitchen and ancient wiring.
We told her we wanted our money back.
She and Dean were in the kitchen and I was standing in the kitchen doorway. She stamped her foot and said this is ridiculous and tried to get past me through the door. I stood my ground and filling up the doorway space said not sweetly: Where do you think you’re going? She turned around and filled out an ad for the apartment telling us that if it were to rent, we would get our money back. Next, we called the fire marshal who declared the place a fire hazard. We got our money back.
The next day we found a 2.5 story brick house with a great kitchen, hardwood floors, attic study and a fenced yard in the North Beaches at Birchmount and the Danforth. It was ideal and cheaper at $900 a month.
Dean started his program and worked like a dog, ending in nine months as the Valedictorian of his class. While he did his program, I decided to volunteer at my sister, Eva’s camp as much as possible. We ended up putting on a week-long boys’ camp which was a lot of work but truly successful and rewarding for everyone involved. I also helped with small maintenance jobs, errands, painting and cleaning duties. It was a very good summer and it was so fun to be with my big sister and at the camp again.
In the fall we bought our first little house in Milton, Ontario upon the advice of a savvy Real Estate agent and Newfoundlander with an office in Campbellville. Our side-split bungalow was on an older street with tall trees. Dean had gotten a job as a technology trainer and was traveling a lot. While he did that, I fashioned a small apartment in our basement and rented it to a nice young couple. Next, there was an offer by Dean’s company for us to move to Virginia. We sold our house to the first people who walked through and off we went to Leesburg, Virginia. Nine months later, Leo was born. We were over the moon until…but that’s another post.
My two big sisters were Irish twins — born ten months apart. They had the most awesome bedrooms down the basement of our little red-brick bungalow in Barrie. Their faux wood paneled walls and wall-to-wall carpeted bedrooms were not only super cool and trendy, but they were adjoined so that if you wanted to go into Eva’s room, you had to first walk through Amy’s. Eva had a single bed in her room with an afghan on it that she crocheted herself. She was (and still is) very creative and multi-talented – always making something, or writing a poem, baking, painting a paint-by-number or organizing a get-together. Eva’s zest for life is contagious. People flock to Eva, wanting to be apart of her exciting and enthusiastic life.
Eva also had throw cushions on the bed with hand-stitched whimsical hippos, frogs and turtles. Her room was so interesting that I would love to just sit and look at everything and wonder at how she must have made it. Eva was twelve years my senior, my God-mother and I adored her. I was so lucky.
Amy’s room sported a double bed and a walk-in closet that had its very own light and light switch. As a little girl I would imagine it to be my play house and I would wish I was big enough to wear some of Amy’s great clothes. Amy is a very gentle soul. She has many friends and many we call Amy’s Men. She listens well and can empathize with just about everyone she meets. She hears her clients all day while she expertly works on their hair and makes them feel good about themselves. People love Amy from the moment they meet her and look into her beautiful blue, kind eyes. She is one of those soft-spoken, nice people that everyone wants to associate with. Amy 11 years older than I and I also adored her, she was the most beautiful woman, on the inside and out, that I knew and I was very proud to be her little sister. Amy and Eva pretty much raised me from the time I was a tiny.
One night when I was seven years old, I was curled up beside Amy who was reading her homework assignment to me aloud. She was attending the Barrie School of Hairdressing at the time. I shared Amy’s double bed with her. Eva walked in, all excited, and announced that she was going to Windsor to attend Mark’s graduation from Law School. Mark was a school friend of hers who lived down the hill and who just loved Eva. He wanted her as a girlfriend but, unfortunately, Eva really never could muster up those kinds of feelings for him. Eva however, still really liked him as a friend and was looking forward to the adventure of going down to Windsor to attend his grad. We would, of course, stay with our relatives and not at his apartment (which he shared with some other guy). I guess I was a type of chaperone for this mission and would keep Eva, my big sister that I was in awe of, company while she drove.
We started out early in the day in Eva’s new, green, 1974 Maverick –“The Mav”. The plan was that we would pull off the highway about once every hour so that Eva wouldn’t be too tired by the time we got there. It’s about a 6-hour road trip to Windsor and sure enough we pulled off for a break each hour. Eva would buy us a treat and we would sometimes gas up the Mav and then we would be on the road again. The trip took us on multi-lane, fast 400-series highways all the way to Windsor which is situated on the border with The States. We sung all kinds of great tunes. Eva is a talented singer and loves to entertain. We sang Band On the Run, Country Roads, Out on a Date, Maggie May and more. My big sister Eve was so much fun! I could hardly believe the adventure I was having and how lucky I was (compared to my four brothers and Amy who had to stay at home).
We arrived in good time and I was amazed at the absolutely largest bridge I had ever laid eyes on. Eva said that was the bridge to The States and that it was a mile long.
Holy Cow! I thought.
We found Mark’s apartment and he and his roomie welcomed us in with open arms. There was lots of smiling and some cute flirting going on. Eva was an expert joker and loved to wittingly poke fun. Mark would get all shy, blush, wave his hand and say,
He opened the fridge to offer us a refreshment. Eva politely declined but, I couldn’t help but notice that all of their food, even the peanut butter was in there. Yuck! Cold peanut butter, I thought. We were big peanut butter eaters in our household. Mom would buy peanut butter by the gallon bucket and it would be gone in a week. We would usually find a butter knife in the emptying bucket. One of us had just left it in there.
We NEVER put peanut butter in the fridge!
I had to ask. I was so curious. Why do you have all that food in the fridge? It turned out that their apartment, which was actually in a really old huge brick house, probably out of the Victorian era, had bugs – cock roaches. Keeping food in the fridge deterred these pests.
Suddenly I had to use the toilet.
Eva said she would come in with me to freshen up while I used the toilet. As we walked into the bathroom I noticed that the bathtub was different from our late 70s model in our brick bungalow at home. This tub had feet. Everything looked different and old, but really neat at the same time. Eva explained antiques to me as she applied some blush, mascara, then some blue eye-shadow and a bit of pinkish lipstick. I can remember feeling like I was learning a lot on this trip.
I did a poop, wiped, and hopped off the toilet, yanking up my jeans and turning to look at it. There, in the bowl, was the biggest, fattest poop I had ever produced, or seen produced, in my young life. It was huge and it curled all the way around the toilet bowl! I was pointing at it and saying:
Wow, Eva, take a look at this!
When I noticed the look of utter horror on my big sister’s face.
Flush it, Martha! she ordered, before it stinks up this place really bad!
I reached over and pulled on the ancient flushing lever. I couldn’t figure out why my oldest sister wasn’t as amazed by what I had produced as I was. The massive, man-poop was going to be gone in an instant so I watched it closely as it was going to disappear down the hole. Around and around and around it went but…
Instead it proceeded to float up higher to the rim of the bowl. Geez! I was amazed at its size and bulk.
Eva hadn’t been watching. She had been brushing her long, dazzling hair.
Look Eva, it’s not going down. I said. I wasn’t the least bit disturbed by this.
Oh NO Martha, she said in dismay as she pushed her shiny, straight brown hair behind her ears, They’re gonna think I did that! indicating with her head nod my big prize poop.
Oh never mind, you’re too young to understand. We’ve got to do something before they wonder what the heck is going on in here!
Eva looked frantically around the bathroom until her eyes fell on a scoop beside the toilet that had been fashioned out of an old bleach bottle.
The rest of it happened pretty quickly.
She opened the window.
She grabbed the scoop.
She fished out the huge poop coil and,
she tossed it straight out the window!!!!
When I looked out to see where it landed, there it was: a large brown lump, below the window, on a small roof, about ten feet away from my wide-eyed wondering face.
Eva simply closed the window and the curtain, took one last glance in the mirror and quickly washed her hands. She then plastered a somewhat nervous looking smile on her face, took my hand and opened the bathroom door.
Years later, after recounting this story to my best girl friend Kelly, she was doubled over laughing then stood straight up and while smiling widely said,
Who says pigs can’t fly?
We both laughed some more.
When in Australia in 1994, I told this story to a group of women with whom I was working at a tomato and garlic farm. (At the time, Dean and I were doing our best to make money in order to be able to continue our travels to Nepal and India.) We were standing in a circle around a huge wooden crate of fresh picked garlic and we were cleaning it of it’s extra layers and roots. It was mind-numbingly boring work, but better in the barn doing this work than out under the scorching sun. Anyway, I asked the ladies if they wanted to hear a story. Of course they did and said, ‘Ah mate. Let’s hear it!’. A few minutes later they were bent over double laughing at this story. Some manager came over to ask if everyone was okay. They all waved at him that we were fine, breathless with hilarity. I was quite pleased that they found it that funny. Anyway, I will never forget relating this story to those ladies in the Ozzie barn.