Thursday, February 24, 2011

Bayou blues

As I sit here on a February morning at my home computer, which is parked in front of an expansive window, I find myself thinking of Betty’s RV Park in Abbeville, La.
It’s high on my list of “Places we’d rather be right now” as I sit mesmerized by the falling snowflakes.
It’s not supposed to be like this, not here, at this time of year. The daffodil crowns are six inches above the ground and finding themselves surrounded by snow, instead of spring sunshine. But we are no exception to what has been happening across North America this winter. Weather has been unusual and now it’s our turn.
And those groundhogs, with their silly shadows, don’t know a thing about weather patterns.
We have been home since Dec. 15, and since that date, I have tried to think of a way to wind up our blog. I thought I’d write more about the trip, filling in some of the details, but as yet, I haven’t found the passion to do that.
Our 18-week journey was the ultimate escape of our life to date. We simply left our lives and hit the road, an appealing thought this morning even though we’d have to haul Harley through some snow to get to the ferry. But even though we dreamed we could leave all responsibilities on our front step and pull out, we knew we’d carry much of it with us — and we did.
We have two daughters and a son-in-law and although they are in their mid-20s, they do need us now and again. Skype helped immensely with that but sometimes the girls were unwilling to discuss some of the bigger things in life in a virtual face-to-face setting. It wasn’t until we were home that one of them broke off her engagement, and came to us for support over the Christmas season.
We knew we would return to our everyday life, and work, as property managers here on Pender Island. The work has been steady for Ian, sometimes a good thing. But on other days, the winter depression he has always fought seems to win the battle. Doctors are again part of his life, hoping to regulate the brain chemicals he lacks.
I — and there is a reason this is the first time I have used the first person on a blog entry — too have been busily seeing doctors. When we were in Quebec in September, my cousin Brian died after a long battle with kidney cancer. A little further down the road, we learned his younger sister had announced she would be having a kidney containing a tumour removed, an operation that took place in January.
When in Quebec, I spoke with Brian’s wife who told me this all started a few years ago with a simple sore back, nothing really at the start, but persistent until it reached the point that it was more than simple.
Part way through our trip, we talked about long days driving in our truck and about the mattress on our bed in the trailer, whether it was the culprit. After a month at home, sleeping in our own bed, we knew any mattress had little to do with this so I went to the doctor.
The surgery to remove my right kidney, which encompasses an almost-certainly cancerous tumour, is scheduled for March 29. The cancer is fully contained in the kidney and rated as stage one, making for a wonderful prognosis. My doctor was surprised that I didn’t think two cousins with kidney cancer qualified as a strong family history, that is until Ian pointed out there were 46 of us in my generation. My doctor was surprised at how many first cousins I have.
And bless the advent of the social media. My eldest brother set up a sub-group on Facebook of the Gauley family (my mother’s maiden name) so I could let other cousins know my diagnosis. Many of them have gone to their doctors, seeking an ultrasound or CT scan of their kidneys.
And they all know I still would say I have a bit of a sore back, not enough to even take a Tylenol.
It wasn’t until we put the word out to our American friends, some made during this journey, that we thought of one of the major differences between our two countries. My surgery is not an insurance matter and not a financial matter in this home. As a Canadian, I need the surgery and will have it, covered by national medicare that is available to all. This is not a political discussion, simply a fact of Canadian life.
The kidney cancer, even cured, will affect my ability to obtain private insurance for coverage in the United States on future trips. I believe I will be able to get it, but it will cost more. And still, we talk of our next trip and are so thankful we set out on our “big” journey when we did — thankful that Manon, my cousin Brian’s wife, told me about his simple sore back; thankful that we had such a healthy, happy trip exploring all kinds of new-to-us places in our own vast country and the United States; thankful that we had reached a point in our lives that we could make this trip; thankful that we said (to a degree) to hell with money, we’re going.
And after this surgery is done and finished, I have no doubt we’ll say to hell with money, again.
So, how are things going at Betty’s? Off to Touchet’s for the music and food on Saturday? Is there still room for us?

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Cane, now able

No one wants to take an unwanted companion along on a long voyage but MS was coming along, whether Ian and Vicki wanted it to, or not.
So, it was best to work MS into what little plan we had for this trip. And sometimes, luck plays a large part in the planning.
In Vicki’s case, Lady Luck reared her head just over a year ago when a chance encounter at a Montana motel’s complimentary breakfast brought a device called a WalkAide into our lives. The woman enthusiastically sang the praises of a similar device she had found in the U.S., and put hers on her leg to illustrate just how important it was. This woman, whose name Vicki never did learn, had limped badly in that distinctive MS way into the room and when she put the device on her leg, she got up and walked away, straight as an arrow.
Vicki and Ian were driving back from a Winnipeg wedding, and the heat was doing its usual damage for Vicki. She’d already been using a cane for the better part of a year and with the added heat, was thinking the long-hoped-for trip around Canada and the U.S. was plainly no longer possible. The way things were in August 2009, both Ian and Vicki felt it would simply be too difficult to manage the trip we have enjoyed so much.
Weeks later, Vicki found Island Orthotics in Victoria sold the WalkAide, which through computer and electronic magic, compensates for the foot drop that plagues many MS patients. Since then, there has been no cane and she walks where she wants, when she wants.
As soon as Vicki and Ian knew the WalkAide was working, the trip was being planned.
Initial thoughts of the big ramble came after a too-young friend died over two years ago, when we realized we’d reached an age where we should think about making some of our dreams materialize. At that point, we bought our trailer because we knew one thing was certain with Vicki’s MS and travel. She has to have her medication, a form of beta-interferon, and it must be refrigerated. It seems silly but the trailer grew around a small refrigerator, which started the trip with five months of that prescription safely tucked away.
The fridge was nearly half-filled with Vicki’s drugs alone. There is always the fear the fridge might fail so a 12-volt cooler, that can work off the truck’s electrical system, was purchased just in case.
Vicki injects her drugs once a week, on Friday nights. That means Saturday often can be a less-than-ideal day for her as the drug takes affect. She rarely plans to do anything important on a Saturday because it may or may not happen.
On a Saturday, Vicki spent six hours traipsing up and down the hills and stairs of Quebec City, quite possibly the least MS-friendly city there is.
Yes, she was tired at the end of the day, but not ridiculously so. Yes, her WalkAide was firmly strapped to her right leg, contributing to every step. No, there was no cane helping her walk. Just over a year ago, she would have told you a day like that was not possible. And she would have been right.
MS is still an unwelcome companion. It makes plans tentative. Since spontaneity was one of the goals of this trip, that’s less of an issue. We may have thought we were going to travel 500 kilometres one day, but at the first sign of any discomfort in the passenger seat, Ian was looking for a campground. Some of those 500 kilometres may have passed rapidly on the back of Vicki’s eyelids as naps could be frequent. Sometimes there were more stops made so legs could be stretched out with a walk to alleviate some cramping before we were back in the truck. Or the day may have started later than we’d anticipated since a long sleep was needed.
But we made our trip.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Blue highways surprise

Charles Kuralt of PBS and NPR once famously said that the U.S. interstate highway system makes it possible to travel across America without seeing anything.
That’s a little harsh. The never-ending clusters of McDonalds, Burger Kings and gas stations that crouch at every intersection are not nothing. In fact in many ways, too many perhaps, they are the flavour of America.
Following the lead of our literary and literate hero, William Least Heat-Moon, we prefer smaller roads, the Blue Highways of the Missouri author’s book. But only sometimes.
Our predilection for the road less travelled has sometimes led us into more adventure than we might have wanted. Consider SoCal.
We arrived in Southern California, cruising past Palm Beach and Palm Desert expecting blue skies, bright sun and George Hamilton working on his tan. Instead it was hard to tell the colour of the sky, the sun was orange and fuscia through the sepia haze that passes for air, and as for George, well it’s hard to get a tan through the Haz-Mat uniform residents need to stay here long-term.
So when we had a chance to escape the valley and pass through the San Bernadino forest, that sounded like a good option. Following a small (by California standards) highway, we headed to the trees and — we thought — a breath of fresh air.
What we got instead were a lot of gulps — perhaps gasps is closer — as we inched our way up a mountainside, hauling Harley in ever-narrowing concentric circles as we scaled the San Bernadino MOUNTAINS, not just the forest as it said demurely in our map book.
Bridge after bridge on the way up — did we mention Ian hates bridges — followed by harrowing hairpin turns on the way down, with Harley (our trailer) vying with our truck for the lead in this race to the bottom. After finally escaping our alpine ambuscade we found ourselves in a desert wasteland. In a state with a population equal to that of Canada, who knew there could be so much empty space, this within 60 miles of Los Angeles. Given its inaccessibility and lack of agricultural use, the land seems worthless, which probably means it’s about $1 million an acre. California real estate prices are a little high.
We also had a secondary-highway thrill with our GPS. The loyal Cupcake, back in our lives after a brief banishment in favor of Skippy, her male counterpart, led us down a small road in Nova Scotia toward the desired small highway. Our preference for small roads was tested by Cupcake’s choice, as pavement gradually narrowed, wavered, then disappeared altogether.
The gravel road we were now on also narrowed and petered out, leaving a narrow dirt track that led us to the edge of the desired highway. All that stood between us and continuing our trip was a steel barrier and a four-foot ditch. As we sat on the narrow track and looked at the vehicles whizzing by, we pondered technology — and how we were going to turn around.
As we followed the same road out that we had taken to find the barrier, a fellow who had watched us curiously as we went toward the highway stared in amazement — or perhaps amusement — as we returned.
Cupcake is a valuable asset at times, but also contributes to our adventures. Her cheerful “You have reached your destination,” usually results in a careful, sometimes frantic search, for our true destination, which could be half a block away. Likewise her insistence on taking major highways unless instructed otherwise, and her preference for routes through the heart of cities makes for exciting journeys, particularly with Harley in tow. Changing lanes is an adventure in itself.
And the one area where we stuck to the main roads was in West Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, where even along the interstates civilization is scarce. Take Kent, Texas. Please.
Kent is two gas stations, one on each exit off I-10, with the westbound lane’s version manned by a young woman with a stud in her tongue. It would seem her social prospects might be limited in the community, in redneck rural Texas, flavored with the ever-present west wind, but it’s her call. But the prospect of a life spent in such a venue was a little daunting.
Secondary roads are fine if you have choices, but if that’s your only route out of town, life might be a little lonely.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Any Portland in a storm

Urban camping in Portland, Ore., involves listening to the Freak Mountain Ramblers

“It reminds me of Oakland when they had that earthquake,” Ian said as we rolled into Portland, Ore. down the concrete highway under another layer of roadway above us.
“You know, when the layers collapsed on the cars ...” he continued.
“Thanks for that, honey,” Vicki muttered.
We never have been fond of Portland because our trips have simply been to get through that concrete jungle. But this time we were stopping to park outside the house of friends Peggy and Brian, who call Portland home but spend half their year on Pender Island.
When they said we could park in front of their duplex, they weren’t kidding. There we were, camping on the street, and parked right next to their idle fibreglass RV, a Scamp fifth wheel. When Vicki asked if we might have cops pounding on the door in the middle of the night, since we had sprawled an extension cord across the sidewalk to the house for power, they just laughed. Their Scamp has been sitting there for six months or more without a peep from anyone.
So we moved in, quite happily, for a thoroughly enjoyable weekend, despite the threatened deluge and high winds.
Friday night disappeared into a lovely meal at their dining table, followed by too many bottles of red wine.
Saturday was a pre-arranged visit with other fibreglass RVers, Kathie and Dave, whom we met at something called the Northern Oregon Gathering, where fibreglass people get together to compare notes on their mini-camping experiences. They knew we’d love going to Powell’s bookstore, a Portland institution.
This used bookstore covers a full city block and is five storeys high. The most difficult part of shopping here is trying to keep our purchases to less than a truckload. After all, it is a small trailer.
We returned to their home, coincidentally not too far from where we had set up camp, and sat down to a lovely meal with Donna, another of our little fibreglass family. We caught them up on our Friday lunch in Eugene, Ore. on the way through with four more fibreglass folk — Dennis, Charlene, Bob and Adonna.
With everyone, there was much time spent recapping highlights, and lowlights, of our voyage. But each and every one wanted to know the same thing. The question came in different forms, anything from a hint as to how we were doing after that much time together to the point-blank question, “Did you ever just want to get away from each other for a while?”
Not sure they believed our assurances that a small trailer, with the two of us in it, is just a fine place to be, all the time. Sure, we’ve worked out the logistics of Ian sitting in one corner while Vicki is cooking, or never opening the bathroom door to come out without asking if all is clear first.
And all were looking at their partner, wondering if they could do it.
We just keep assuring people you can find your own way to handle it. We can’t write a handbook detailing how it’s done because it depends on the individuals, and their individual relationships.
It was nice to spend some time with people who know us, and share our trailer experiences.
And Peggy and Brian proved they know us well when Sunday evening they suggested an outing to Laurelthirst Public House. It’s a small neighbourhood bar known for its music, and according to our hosts, its people watching. It’s rapidly become part of their weekend routine since they found it out a month or so ago.
Off we went to check out this Portland icon, since Sunday at 6 p.m. the Freak Mountain Ramblers take the stage. There’s no cover charge but a hat is passed, or more accurately an empty draft jug is floated around the room, above the dancers heads, not that there’s a dance floor.
The old hippies, joined by some youngsters thinking they were born in the wrong era, are out in force, with the four of us choosing our favourite dancers among them. Long grey hair was the coif of the moment, male or female, and dancers were moving just like we did in the ‘70s, each to his or her own spirit although there was no sign or smell of anything illegal being served up.
It was a dance-like-nobody-can-see-you, sing-like-nobody-can-hear-you kind of crowd, and old enough to appreciate the band’s set lasting from 6-8 p.m.
And man, was it fun!
Ian and Vicki naively thought that would be the end of Portland surprises but Peggy and Brian had one more up their sleeves. Off we went, not very far, to Kennedy School, as done over by the McMenamin brothers.
The school, built in 1915, was renovated the McMenamins and reopened in 1997. The idea is to carry on the school’s position as a hub in the neighbourhood but in a different way. It offers hotel accommodation, even though you’re sleeping in what was a classroom. You get standard hotel features such as king and queen beds, a phone and a private bathroom but you’ll also be looking at chalkboards and cloakrooms. Your overnight room rate, $125-$145, includes access to the on-site movie theatre and soaking pool.
Some of the classrooms, not to mention the gym, are enjoying a second life as restaurants or meeting, wedding and event space.
And Kennedy School in Portland isn’t the only location to have benefitted from the McMenamin touch. They operate a total of eight hotels in facilities ranging from a Edgefield, the former county poor farm in Troutdale, Ore.; Grand Lodge, a former Masonic and Eastern Star facility built in 1923 in Forest Grove, Ore., near the Tillamook State Forest; three buildings in Portland, another old school in Bend, plus the Olympic Club in Centralia, Wash.
We headed in to Boiler Room for some pizza, calzones and drinks. When we left, we were trying to convince Brian to start a company, hire us and have the annual Christmas party at Kennedy School, complete with a night’s accommodations.
And then we went home with our generous hosts to camp once more on their quiet street.

Oh my darlin', oh my darlin'

You see all kinds of marriages in an RV park. And you know what kind it is within minutes of the happy or unhappy couple pulling in to stop.
They park their RV, and then you know.
On a recent Friday, the North Dakota truck towing a 20-something foot trailer rolled in. Before it came to its final halt, the surrounding campers thought we knew what was before us.
“Oh honey, a little more ahead.”
“Like this, sweetie?”
“No, a bit more to the left, pumpkin.”
And so on.
It wasn’t until the rig was set up and unhitched that we all saw the light.
He had removed one propane tank, telling “Cupcake” that he was going to have it filled, here in the park, and tied it securely into the back of his truck.
A discussion ensued, with his wife saying there wasn’t much in the other tank so why not fill them both?
“Oh, good idea, sweetie.”
So he disconnected the other tank, untied the secured tank already in the back of the truck, lynched them both together and went back to report in through the screen door, “They’re all ready. You should have as much hot water as you need now.”
“Oh thank you sweetums,” floated out through the screen.
But then he leaned closer in, and said, “That light is on. It means the pilot didn’t light. You won’t have any hot water now. But just push that button and it should light.”
The whole park knew it wouldn’t light without a propane supply but it was few minutes before he said, “It’s not lighting.”
There was silence.
Then, “Well how stupid am I?” she said. “The tanks aren’t connected,” followed by a high-pitch almost teenage giggle coming from the senior citizen wife.
He, presumably married for some time, took the question to be rhetorical and joined in.
“Well,” he said, “how stupid am I!?!?!?!?
“You’re really stupid,” she said, no giggle evident.
And that sums up that marriage.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

California, trees and nuts

Did Ian mention his fondness for bridges?
The Golden Gate in particular?
After a sunny sojourn in San Francisco it was back on the road north — this time on Highway 101 across the bridge yet again, this time in the rain and hordes of traffic toward California wine country. Our trip took us through the Sonoma Valley, the less famous but equally wine-blessed sister valley to the Napa, then on.
There was little time for wine tasting, as Ian has been the solo driver thus far on the trip and also has been the solo wine drinker for far longer than that. In the interests of sobriety, it was decided we would keep on going even though the vote on the issue was 1-1. Apparently in the democracy of marriage, some votes carry more weight than others.
The state is one of sharp contrasts, with densely populated urban areas interspersed with huge areas that seem almost empty as we speed along the highway that snakes north through the mountains, playing peek-a-boo with the ocean and the flowing mountain streams, then switching to a narrow corridor of towering evergreens altogether too reminiscent of the canyons of concrete that dominate the urban settings now behind us.
It was also along this stretch that we saw one of the eccentrics for which California is so justly famous. As we approached along the rainy road, a figure ahead, clad in a tuque, ski jacket and carrying a backpack burst into a lively jig in the middle of the lane of what we thought was our lane. With canvas sneakers bouncing and hopping, and arms waving, the bearded walker saluted our passing in a pas de deux alone. California indeed.
And so to the mightiest of these corridors, the Avenue of the Redwoods, with their massive branches lacing their fingers together and their enormous trunks emphasizing the insignificance of man. Shrugging off the steady rain from overhead and waltzing in place in an on-and-off courtship with the autumn wind, the mighty trees seem to bless us as we pass, as if wishing us a safe journey home, and to our everyday lives.
But not yet.
The road takes us north to Crescent City, then it’s on to Grant’s Pass, the I-5 and Oregon where our companions will be far less wooden and far more human — friends are why we do this.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Frisky in 'Frisco

Clang, clang, clang goes the trolley as we left our hearts in San Francisco.
The northern California city, offering up so many familiar song phrases or views from television shows and movies, lived up to that reputation and then some — the impossibly steep street for the car chase in the movie Bullit. Alcatraz out on the island. People hanging off the sides of cable cars as they chug uphill, blocking the flat intersection at the top as new riders clamber aboard.
But Ian managed to refrain from tucking a flower into his hair for the day.
Once again, we rode a Grayline tour bus, at this time of year nearly empty of tourists ready to listen to Ken Washington give his history of the city he calls home, a spiel he has given for 30 years now. But the bus looked familiar, causing Vicki to get that confused look on her face, until Ian said, “It’s the same bus as runs from Victoria to Sooke.” So it is.
The 3 1/2-hour tour takes in everything from city parks to the Golden Gate Bridge, with a brief summary of its suicide count. It’s somewhere over 1,700 so far, although speculation is a couple of hundred more have died by jumping off its railings but their bodies have never been found. Washington chuckles as he relates how police foiled one attempt when an officer brandished his weapon and told the would-be jumper, “If you jump, I’m going to shoot you.” She climbed down.
The city’s neighbourhoods are intriguing in their similarities and differences, all at the same time. A lawn mower in San Francisco must belong to the city because homeowners have no need. Houses reach to the sidewalk front and back, with grass nearly non-existent and dogs looking perturbed as they walk at the end of a leash.
The houses built since the fire following the 1906 earthquake appear to be joined structures until our guide points out the mandatory one-inch gap as a fire guard between structures. Should fire break out in one home, firefighters first aim the water to the roof, where it will run down and fill the gap between the homes, thereby protecting the neighbours.
Neighbourhoods have been settled by Chinese, Japanese, German and Russian newcomers, all bringing a little of their own architecture to the row houses, giving each neighbourhood a flavour all its own, even though each covers a small area. All feature a large, central park since that is where people spend their outdoor leisure time.
Golden Gate Park, home to an aquarium and art gallery, is the premier showpiece, particularly since its half-mile by three-mile area was carved out of sand dunes. What grows there is a marvel of gardeners’ knowledge and effort.
To sit atop Twin Peaks and see the neighbourhoods below stretching to the sea beyond is to marvel at architecture in both homes and standout public buildings, as well as understand the perseverance necessary to carve a city out of steep hills.
It is populated with a people proud of their ability to deal with adverse weather. With a high of 65 degrees F on this day, many are bundled in puffy down-like jackets, with toques and scarves wrapped around their heads. Our guide points out that all are outside enjoying the sunshine.
This year the famous fog rolled into the harbour and blanketed the city in July.
It didn’t leave until mid-October. Wine lovers groaned to hear, as a result, there hasn’t been much of grape crop this season.
Then it’s off the bus, back on the cable car and home for a glass of wine. Australian.