Journey to Canadaland with Forays to Miscellany

A friend just returned from a curling contest in Creston, British Columbia, and informed me that I live only two hours from the Canadian border. News to me. Ditto for curling contestants being allowed to drink during play, which makes the game pretty much like bowling. That's the kind of small stuff I don't care about because my knowledge goes to The Deep Things.

For example, it's a mistake for Americans to think Canada is full of God-fearing, can-do, drunk bowlers like in the good ol' U.S. of A. In culture and politics Canadians are much closer to European socialists. The only group of Americans they resemble are members of the Democratic Party.
Whoa. That's what you call irony. With the party of the welfare state in charge south of the border, maybe it is we Americans who are pretty much like the Canucks. They once had the fifth largest navy in the world. Now they have nationalized health care. That's what we just got, and someday our navy will no doubt rival theirs.

My first awakening that there is a Canada goes back to childhood and
Sergeant Preston of the Yukon. I used to own a square inch of Yukon Territory, possibly right over a vein of gold, the deed registered and sent to my by Quaker Oats, Sergeant Preston's sponsor. It went the way of my Ted Williams baseball card.

When I was older, I was more into the gunshots and horn blasts of Spike Jones and his City Slickers than into the serious swing of Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians. But it's always fun when Canadians forgot they're Not Americans, as what seemed to happen when Guy and boys cut loose with "Sioux City Sue."

I fished once under the Northern Lights. I got screwed twice by Alliance Films of Montreal.

But I digress.

During my second to last trip to Not America I dined with foreigners on their side of Niagara Falls. People at our table turned back a bottle of wine; the late-coming food was mediocre; the prices, criminal. The day outside was cold, wet and windy. Springtime! But the view of the Falls was breathtaking. Since I’m not a wine bibber, I kept ordering gin-and-tonics that didn’t need to be turned back and was quite enjoying conversation with the lady next to me. I allowed myself to think it might be mutual, that we were building bridges of understanding, following in the footsteps of Prime Minister John Diefenbaker and President Eisenhower, or President James Monroe and the mythical Canadian volunteers who weren't with the Red Coats when the British burned Washington.

Then she said, “Well, it does contain all things necessary for salvation.” That was a quote from the Anglican
Book of Common Prayer regarding the Bible, after which she launched an attack on the Bible for leaving out the Di Vinci Code.

Loon Lake. She was a French nationalist, and I was Nelson Eddy trying to sing "Hawaiian Wedding Song" to Jeanette MacDonald.

But I digress.

Due to a very generous gift three years ago, my wife and I took our last trip to Canada, flying First Class from Los Angles to Vancouver, BC. I thought I had a fear of flying, but when seated up front with lots of leg room and the stewardess murmuring, “Oh. I poured you a double. I hope that’s OK,” I realized fear was really distaste for having peanuts tossed in my general direction when squeezed among the huddled masses. We got out of the airplane way before free peanuts crowd ever did and got our luggage first too.

"But," I hear someone saying, "in the cosmic scheme of things does First Class really mean anything?" Well, Bongo, if there were a sudden stop against what barnstorming pilots used to call a solid know, the kind with rocks and trees..then, yeah, we're all just part of the same splatter of humanity. But frankly, if that's how it's going to end, I'd rather be a millisecond or two ahead of the pack.

A half hour drive took us to the ferry terminal. A pal who knows his grub highly recommended BC Ferries’ “Famous New York-style clam chowder. Now with more clams than ever!”

I used to have an obsession about trying famous hotdogs, hamburgers, tacos, anything, and especially if they were “world famous.” Like that robot kid in Artificial Intelligence who waits thousands of years underwater for his mother to come back, I used to hope as I stood at a flyblown counter in the middle of the San Joaquin that a real movie star would come in and give a signed photograph to the proprietor who would then put it up next to the yellowing one of Rory Calhoun. It would not be a non-committal, “Good luck, Max. Your pal Rory.” It would come straight from the heart: “Max! Your chili rocks! The best ever! The best in the world! Love and kisses from...” whoever that lady is who played the mother in A.I. Reality finally sank my obsession. I came to learn that "world famous" food is pretty like “The Banana Belt of Washington State” or “Lebanon, the Switzerland of the Middle East.” These are nothing more than local attempts to put the best foot forward about inclement weather, surly natives and lousy food.

B.C. Ferries' more-clams-than-ever chowder tasted like anything else you can get from a Number 10 tin can. I have nothing to compare whether there were more bits and pieces of bivalves than before, but pushing them from one side of the cardboard cup to the other helped while away the two-hour crossing of the Strait of Georgia.

Sorry. I thought that was Georg
ia Strait.

Although this was my first time on that choppy blue-brown stretch of cold crosscurrents, I had used the Strait of Georgia as a story setting. I put a man there in a yacht. He forces his wife overboard at gunpoint. Wanted her money, had a mistress. “What’s at stake?” asked the producer. Her life, you mindless turnip; but this was the kind of producer who always wanted, “Something bigger at stake,” which boiled down to a Doomsday device ticking away somewhere. I opted for realism. Or so I thought. Either way the movie didn't get made.

In a scene before the husband demonstrates divided loyalties, I showed his wife swimming in an Olympic-sized pool, sans suit or with sprayed on Lycra depending on where we were hustling the financing. The point was that she is a former champion. Thus after she is forced overboard, it is not a complete surprise when nightfall finds her dragging herself from the sea and crawling onto a small island’s craggy shore. Under a sheer wet blouse her full breasts heave with the perky will to live. By dawn Mounties are knock-knock-knocking on hubby’s door. And justice prevails.

Ha! In the real Strait of Georgia she could be Johnny Weissmuller and the Marks combined (Spitz and my nephew Warkentin) and she would drown in twenty minutes.

We made landfall with my mentally rewriting—Baja, thong bikini, friendly dolphins. From Nanaimo it was another three hours on Highway 4 through the white-peaked Insular Mountains. There was a snow flurry at 1,200 kilometers. (That would be 746 feet in real distance.) Then we descended into the Pacific Rim National Park where, my God, the end of the world
is at stake! How else are you supposed to read the signs?

Tsunami Evacuation Route.

Tsunami Hazard Zone.


For the next four days I feared for my life in the rustic luxury of the
Wickaninnish Inn south of the village of Tofino on Vancouver Island’s western shore.

To our backs stood old growth cedar and Douglas fir fringing the fjords of Clayoquot Sound. To the front the Pacific heaved slate gray and cobalt blue depending on sun and cloud clover. There were surfers out there, not many but daily, and sometimes I mistook the black hoods of their wet suits for seals madly trying to escape some horror coming in from Japan.

I never saw a seal but spotted a bald eagle high in a tree. Even after all these years in the New World my wife thought it should be bald like the vultures where she grew up in Africa. To make her feel better about her ignorance, I said, “It has a comb over.”

We also saw a dripping wet black bear eating grass at the side of a gravel road. The bear was scrawny and reminded me of dogs that eat grass to get sick. One of the bellhops didn’t think so. He said that the bears were still dozy that time of year: they’d be fat and sassy on insects and berries by the end of the summer. And eat grass, I thought, when they wanted to throw up that arm or leg from a stray hiker.

Tofino, population 1,900, is the end of the road for the Trans-Canadian Highway. There are remnants of a fishing fleet, but the the town survives mainly on tourism. At the peak of the summer season there can be as many as 20,000 a visitors a day. The time of my visit made me the only potential costumer in the town's froo-froo shops. That's embarrassing because the proprietors treat you like some kind of god who will feed the family, and you have to pretend that you care about a local artist's environmentally sensitive rendition of whales. Hey, it ain't a whale unless its ramming a tall ship and Gregory Peck is tied to its back ramming home a harpoon. I don't want playful pods. I want drama.

I felt more at home parking just beyond the driveway of trailer set back from the main street. The owner's tolerance of tourism was clearly marked by hand painted signs.

No Parking.

No Trespassing.

No Exceptions.

Beware Attack Dog.

I Have Gun.

I don't think he shared the same gushing pride as fellow citizens when the United Nations declared Clayoquot Sound an exemplary World Biosphere Reserve. Most Canadians respect and trust the United Nations, demonstrating a certain gullibility, but I think my man with gun and dog represented the tougher shrewdness of bygone generations. He would have rather kept the saw mills going because they provided real work, not the toading required to sell Indian handicrafts.

Excuse me. First Nations People. That's Canada's official name for the Native Not Americans.

There were no bars on my cell phone, but the Wickaninnish bar was loaded with single malts. My wife thought the wine list was impressive too. The dinning room was a gourmand’s playground. Even miles from nowhere, with the influx of tourists some weeks off, you needed a reservation to be seated. Without a reservation one made due with a "limited" menu prepared by the same master chefs.

Look, the Wickaninnish is not the kind of place that would appreciate the following analogy, but I am decidedly not its normal guest who books massage and pedicure at the spa before swaning in for dinner in a change of underwear, and this is what I say about the grub:

Everything was so good, I felt like a dog on gut wagon.

Our room had a fireplace, a deep-water tub that allowed you to stretch out and a view of cold waves crashing on dark volcanic rock. If you got tired of tramping the hard packed sand of Long Beach, or of putting on slickers and Wellingtons supplied by the inn to slog through the rain forest, a cozy warm bed beckoned. And there lay a hint that all wasn’t well in this paradise north of the Equator.

It was the sign near the plush bathrobes. “We’re committed to persevering ...”yadah, yadah, yadah, “.. so even though your room is $400 a night, we’re not going to change your damn sheets.”

OK, I wasn’t paying, but there’s a principle involved. I became cognizant of it about fifteen years ago in a motel room that smelled like cheap perfume and sweaty traveling salesmen. The sheets were so thin I wondered if my toenails would tear holes in them. But management wasn't going change them because of "concern about the environment." Over time I saw the Green Excuse applied to places where the thread count is over 800. It's really about money. Keeping your bedding as mungy as it is at home saves on wages, water, electricity and detergent.

For all that, the bed at the Wickaninnish was more comfortable than any I had slept in the States.

Speaking of home, I was a day late on the news but a quick check on the satellite TV for what the weather would be like if we were to go tramping the next day made me realize that Hell never takes a holiday. At Virginia Tech a Korean immigrant majoring in English and known for harassing coeds fatally wounded one woman in her dorm then gunned down the resident advisor, Ryan Clark, who came running to investigate. The gunman skulked back to his room, left a written rant and mailed a pre-recorded video diatribe to NBC before slaughtering thirty more people at Norris Hall.

The usual pundits characterized the killer as a misunderstood youth showing early signs of autism but falling through the cracks of mental health and social services. They lamented that he had a speech impediment for which he was bullied since he was a child, oh, two or three times at least. He was an obvious product of racism and America’s gun culture.

Liberal opinion makers could not distinguish the massacre’s several heroes. First and foremost there was another immigrant, Liviu Librescu, Professor of Civil Engineering. He had survived some real bullying by real racists called Nazis, with more of the same from the Communist thugs who took over Romania. Professor Librescu died trying to protect his students. Close on his heels for honor was a senior survivor in a second classroom, Zach Petkewicz, who led two other students in barricading the doorway as the crazed Korean tried to shoot his way in. Back at the dorm was the body of Ryan Clark.

The mass murderer finally did everyone a favor by killing himself, but bleeding hearts, not understanding what a blessing that was in saved court costs, added his carcass to the victim count. Victim. The perpetrator as victim.

We left early Sunday morning with thanksgiving for having been among generally polite people. Unfortunately, I tuned the rental car's radio to the only band that could be picked up. Howler monkeys had invaded British Columbia and taken over a radio station in the capitol. It was a kids' show with characters played by shrill, humorless adults. The message was global warning threatens the planet, and all the bravest and smartest young people must get their parents to forego electricity and driving, then teach them how important it is to close down smelly factories and mills. Americans were pilloried for having greedy eyes on British Columbia's water.

News to me.

So with the sun slowly sinking in the west, we come full circle about this magical land known to many an enchanted visitor as "The Tropics of the North." Reluctantly, we made our way home. Home at that time but for not much longer was a balmy beach city in the County of Los Angeles, State of California. The 405 Freeway bordering the airport was being expanded, and there was hardly a yard of construction that wasn't covered in gang graffiti put there by Not Canadians.