Saturday, August 1, 2009

The Ugly Canadian

AKA CAP Congress Part II + Colorado.

I started this blog post in August, and I've been putting off for months. When you see how long it is, you'll understand why.

For the first twenty-five years of my life, I never set foot outside of my home country of Canada. Hell, the only other province that I ever visited was Alberta, and that barely even counts when you're from central BC.

However, this past summer, I travelled to the United States of America not once, but twice. The first visit was my return journey from the CAP Congress in Moncton, NB, with my sister Naomi. The second was a camping trip in Colorado that I went on with my parents. These journeys have taken me through two great American metropolises (Chicago and Denver), numerous towns small in size but grand in character, great plains, high mountain passes, lush forests, priceless national monuments, and one really overrated national park.

And in the end, it has left me feeling like dumb tourist.

For one thing, stereotypes be damned, I found Americans to be friendlier and more polite than Canadians! Granted, I spent the majority of my time in mid-west states like Montana, Wyoming, and Colorado, which might well be friendlier-than-average parts of the country. And granted, for the purposes of the above comparison, I am deliberately forgetting about just how pleasant the people of New Brunswick were. But still. . . I'll give you a couple of examples. First, during the Colorado trip, when me and my parents were stopped at rest area after crossing the Montana border, an American couple returning from a trip in Alberta came up to us, expressed what a wonderful time they had in Alberta, and wished us Canadians safe and pleasant travels! I know this should be stroking my national ego somewhat, but never in my life have I encountered Canadians that warm and open. It made me feel like a classless bum, not to mention, as I said earlier, a dumb tourist.

Another instance of American friendliness occurred on the return trip from Colorado. Me and my parents drove in separate vehicles-- I drove the tiny, spunky Pontiac Vibe, while my parents took turns driving a pick-up loaded with a camper. As you can imagine, there were times when I would take a considerable lead on the highway. At one point I got so far ahead that I had to pull over and wait for them at the side of the highway (this was near Casper, Wyoming, a nice little town that has the distinction of being the birthplace of Dick Cheney). As I waited, a pair of passer-bys (a mother and daughter) pulled to the side of the road in front of me and asked if I needed assistance! Again, never in Canada has that happened to me.

What makes this even more weird was that Naomi seemed, at some points, to have the complete opposite reaction to mine when it came to Americans. I remember stopping at Subway restaurant in a small Minnesota town just off I-90. We had to contend with the lunch rush, so it was crowded, but I enjoyed it-- the Minnesotan townsfolk seemed pleasant, in spite of limited space. However, when Naomi and I returned to the car, the first words she said were "Americans are such stupid classless assholes." This aroused my curiosity, so I probed further. "I was holding a door open for some guy and he doesn't say anything, so I say 'you're welcome!' and he says 'oh, oh, thank you.' God!" So, yeah.

I will note that there was one unpleasant encounter I had with an American, but that has to do with the overrated national park I mentioned earlier, so I'll come back to it later. For now, I will segue awkwardly into discussing the many sights, sounds and other attractions I partook upon during my American sojourn!

Chicago! Went by too fast for me to really take it in. But Sears Tower is... I'm sorry, Willis Tower is pretty impressive.

Albany! Naomi and I stayed there for a night! Then we ate at the local IHOP! There we heard real blue collar New Yorkers speak. And it was good. Though I have to say, the McDonald's service there is shitty, at least if the place I went to was at all indicative.

The Mississippi! We crossed the famous river, which essentially formed that part of the Wisconsin-Minnesota border through which we were driving. And yes, I did say "M-i-s-s-i-s-s-i-p-p-i" to myself to make sure that I would spell it properly.

Cleveland! Yeah, so that would be a third great American metropolis that I forgot to mention. We drove a convoluted route through the city on our way to Chicago. It wasn't as bad a Calgary, though. Driving through Calgary is like trying to find a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow, except both the gold and the rainbow are buried at the horizon, and your only hope of finding it is with a treasure map, only the map itself was burned, so you have to rely on a recorded transcription of the map that can only be played on Thomas Edison's original prototype phonograph, and the transcription itself was translated from Japanese Haiku into Chinese Shi and then into French Rondeau. Yeah, it's a strange metaphor, but you trying connecting from Highway #1 east to Highway #2 south in Calgary sometime!

South Dakota! Near the Minnesota border, me and Naomi stopped at a small gas station. I after filling up the car, I went in to pay for the fuel, when the clerk, a man in maybe his sixties with a slow drawl that-- and I'm not trying to insult the man-- suggested a head injury, said "So what state are you from?"

"Actually, I'm from B.C.-- er, British Columbia."

"Oooh." the clerk said. "So. . . I heard you got the, uh, B.C. bud up there?"

"Er, yeah. We got that," I replied.

A fellow who was standing nearby, and who seemed to be a regular customer based on his interactions with the clerk, seemed to take interest. The clerk asked for the price of gas or something like that, and the other man remarked "you asked that three times today"-- this is the other reason I though the clerk might have had a head injury.

Turning to me, the other man asked "I heard that B.C. Bud is pretty good stuff."

"I wouldn't know myself, sir," I said. This provoked a fit of laughter from the two.

Then the clerk, committing the mortal sin of explaining the joke, said "I'll bet he thinks we were trying to pull a fast one on him!"

Asking for a receipt, I left with a smile on my face. For some stupid reason, I felt a little bit clever. Maybe it was just because I thought, at the time, that this is gonna make really a good story.

Mount Rushmore! It was cool. Not as big as I thought it would be, but still impressive. What surprised me was the amount of tourist-y build-up we encountered on the way to the place. I should have known better, but I kind of expected something like a highway pull-off, basically a parking lot with a gift-shop. In reality, the mountain is about a thirty mile drive south from Rapid City, SD. The road, as far as I can tell, was purpose built for travelling to Rushmore and the near-by Crazyhorse monument. A couple of miles before you even get to the parking lot, you encounter a propped up little tourist town consisting entirely of gift shops, restaurants, and resort lodges. After you've paid the ten dollar admission fee to get into the parking lot, you come up to a huge entrance, followed by a few historical exhibits and even more gift shops. Then you pass a fairly impressive avenue of all the state flags. Then, finally, you come to the monument itself. Naomi and I did take our own pictures, but we have yet to upload them to an online photo album. Naomi was not particularly enamoured of how crowded the place was; we arrived at around eight o'clock at night, and there were still at least three hundred people in attendance! Being surrounded by Americans at a fairly patriotic attraction, we were denied our God-given right as Canadians to be sarcastic about the United States. (Recall the title of this post.)

A warning about the pictures that follow. This is the first time I've ever posted pictures of myself on the internet. Now, I am not an especially good looking man at the best of times, but combine my undistinguished looks with 13 straight hours of driving, like these pictures from Mount Rushmore, or with extreme heat and a shirt one size too small, like in the pictures from Denver, and. . . well, if you're a reader who has never met me before, and have built up an image of me in your mind, prepare to have that destroyed. Again, I didn't call this "The Ugly Canadian" for nothing.

The Path:

The Mountain:

Two Awestruck Tourists:


Denver! When I was young, our family used to have a TV satellite that could pick up various American stations. One of the stations I remember fairly vividly was based in Denver. It was from this station that I first learned of the concept of time zones (since Denver is in the mountain time zone, all the programming was ahead of us by one hour) and it was our family's one stop source for Star Trek: The Next Generation. The station made a point about being based in Denver, Colorado, which any station in any city would do. Still, because of that, and because of it's impact on my childhood, when I entered Denver I felt a strange sense of coming home, even though I had never been there. So what was it like?

Duh Sssthoo Wath FUUN! Only Naomi will get that joke (it involves Matthew Broderick looking like a dumbass. . . more so). But. . . me and my Mom, during a day-long expedition to Denver, did visit the apparently famous Denver Zoo, and it was indeed fun! It was hot as hell, though, and the mile-high air did not help much. At one point, my Mom got so dizzy she had to sit down. In addition, we visited the state legislative house and Denver city hall, where we met a very nice Wisconsin family who also noted the unappealing combination of heat and thin air. We also visited our first American Wal-Mart. This was a surprisingly distressing experience: the Wal-Mart, in terms of appearance and overall layout, was exactly like the Prince George Wal-Mart, but it was far bigger. This led to the strange feeling of being back in Prince George, and yet of also being a tiny child lost in an expansive mall. The fact that my mother was with me the whole time somehow did not help to alleviate this feeling. The strangest thing about Denver, for me as a Canadian, was that it was pretty much English-Spanish bilingual. Bilingualism is our gimmick, dammit! Next you'll be telling me that President Obama is trying to pass single payer government health care, too! Fine, we'll just build up a massive military-industrial complex and ravage our environment. . . oh, wait, that last one is already underway. Never mind.



Georgetown, CO! The entrance to Guenalla Pass lay past Georgetown, a community that virtually defines Charming Small Town America. Granted, much of the "small town charm" may well just be a cynical, carefully crafted, moneygrubbing tourist facade. I don't care. They work hard for the money!

Guenalla Pass! Guenalla Pass is a roughly twenty mile long pass through the Colorado Rockies beginning in Georgetown, located about fifty miles west of Denver. It's highest point in nearly 12000 ft in altitude. We had to drive the pass in order to reach our campsite. Despite its short length, driving the pass took quite a long time, owing to construction (which limited traffic to a single in some parts), the fact that it was a winding mountain road replete with near-180 degree turns, and the fact that my parents were driving a pick-up loaded with a camper and hence had higher center of gravity than most vehicles. Some were not pleased with this. At one point, two Suzuki-esque "off-road" vehicles driven, based on overall appearance and behaviour, by douchebags, passed me and my parents during a fairly short straight stretch. I wouldn't have minded this, had not they driven through a puddle, and had not both my parents driver's side window and mine been open at the time.


But we got pictures.

As for the campsite itself? My parents-- my father, specifically-- were attending a "potlatch," a gathering of "tramps". The tramps are a society of mainly Czech ex-patriates who fled communism, seeking the wide open spaces and sweet, sweet freedom of the North American wild. This particular potlatch was an especially big deal: while most potlatches would gather all the members from a single region, province, or state, this was a gathering of tramps from across the continent. That was the theory, at least. From what I could tell, the attendance at this potlatch was about the same as the more regional events that I had attended in BC. The other tramps spoke English passably enough, but preferred Czech, and enjoyed, among other things, singing old Czech folk songs around the fire. Anyone care to guess whether I stuck around?

Not that there was a shortage of campers, though. It was the Fourth of July long weekend, after all. Incidentally, me and my mom witnessed one of these campers nearly kill herself. We were driving back to our campsite down the main dirt road when out of nowhere, some stupid girl on a ATV came barrelling down the road at what must have been at least eighty kilometers an hours-- and she was headed straight for us, seemingly out of control! She managed to veer out of the way just before hitting our car.


Speaking of the Fourth of July. . .

The Fourth of July! I witnessed my first Fourth of July parade in Georgetown. The entire populace was gathered on the town's main street or in the park, while firetrucks and police cars blared their sirens loudly and proudly. There was also a parade of Corvettes. Not just any sports cars, but Corvettes and Corvettes only. I'd make a joke about this being some bizarre memorial to GM and the faltering American auto industry, but since the U.S. was pretty nice to me on the whole. . . I'll just refer you again to the title of this post. I was quite disappointed by the lack of Hot Dogs-- I had to get lunch at, of all places, a restaurant specializing in eastern-European cuisine owned by a Czech! Never mind the strange coincidence. . . it was the fucking Fourth of July! Who the hell wants to eat Hungarian Gulash on the Fourth of July? I mean, it was good Hungarian Gulash, but still!!

Some more pics of Georgetown:

DUBOIS, WY! On July 5th, we started for home. However, we decided we'd take a little detour through Yellowstone National Park. After hitting Casper, we broke off toward western Wyoming. On the sixth, we passed through the small town of Dubois, which is to the Wild West what Georgetown is to small town Americana:

Yellowstone + Grand Tetons! We arrive at last to the nadir of my American experience: Yellowstone National Park.

After passing through the Wyoming desert, which included the above-mentioned Dubois, we reached the turn-off for Grand Tetons. I made the turn into Grand Tetons, but my parents did not. You see, I had the funny idea that if I took the road with the sign "Entrance to Grand Fucking Tetons Down This Fucking Road", which was not coincidentally the same road that had all the fucking toll booths saying "Pay Here To Enter Grand Fucking Tetons," I would perhaps-- and I state again that this was my just my own supposition-- GET TO GRAND FUCKING TETONS! My parents did not have the same idea, however. They chose instead to go straight down the road we were on and park at a nearby pullover. This resulted in thirty minutes of me driving up and down the same stretch of road trying in vain to re-establish useful radio contact. The most I could get was "-we don't know where you-" and "-we drove down-" which, believe you me, helped out one whole shit. Ultimately, I had to call Naomi, who ended up calling Mom, who ended up calling me. We reunited and ate hot dogs.

Now, I'm gonna be badmouthing the Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks for a little while, but let it never be said that the Grand Teton mountain range itself is not beautiful.

Anyway, we made our way back to the toll. I already paid, so I went in the entrance for ticket-holders while my parents paid for their tickets. Unfortunately, I was so focussed on my parents, ie making sure we don't get separated again, that I missed the stop sign at the entrance. Noticing my mistake, I first slammed on the brakes, and then noticing I was holding up someone behind me who was already pulling up to the toll, I drove ahead about twenty feet and pulled to the side, completely out of the way of any motorists.

Now, as you can imagine, I felt pretty sheepish about this. Still, I figured, just a simple mix-up. I pulled to the side already, so it's not like I'm trying storm the gates of Grand Tetons. I figure if I apologize and smile, maybe make light of the situation, it won't be too bad.

But no. . . Ranger Fucking Smith of the Grand Teton Republican Guard had to give me a cute little lecture. All while my parents, with whom I had hoped to remain close, drove away.
Me: Oh, man, I'm sorry about that, I didn't notice the stop sign until--

Ranger Fucking Smith: Did you see that big red sign over there?

Me: Well, yeah, I--

R.F.S.: (takes my ticket) That means stop! You know what stop means? And that sign over there with the number fifteen on it? That means fifteen miles an hour!

Me: Yes, sir. I'm sorry sir.

R.F.S.: You need to pay attention. Are you going to pay attention?

Me: Yes sir. I will. Thank you sir.

R.F.S.: Pay Attention!

Me: Thank you sir.

If you're thinking that I'm trying to make myself look more polite than I really was because I'm telling the story, let me tell you that I felt like an ass having to smile and nod so that I don't get in more trouble with this guy. If I were telling this story the way I would have wanted it to happen, well. . . it would have involved many cheap shots about R.F.S. never making it past the tenth grade and remaining here on glorified mall-cop duty whilst I would be moving on with my shiny master's degree. Yes, I am smarter than the average fucking bear.


Okay, to be fair, I did mess up. And it was a very busy time of year so I imagine R.F.S. was not in the highest of spirits either. But considering all this still didn't make me feel any better. In fact, after I caught up with my parents, I was fuming.

The parks (Grand Tetons and Yellowstone) themselves did little to help matters. Tetons was pretty enough but didn't last very long, and Yellowstone. . . well, Yellowstone was a tragedy. See, it turns out that a huge forest fire swept through Yellowstone in 1988, devastating much of the forest in the park, particularly the part of the park through which we passed. Looking back, I realize how sad it is for the park to have been damaged this profoundly, but at the time I was driving through, the devastated scenery, combined with the heat, the ludicrous amount of post-fourth of July traffic, and road construction that seemed to bring everything to a screeching halt every five miles. . . well, let's just say if Yellowstone blew to pieces at that moment like it did in 2012, I probably wouldn't mind.

(On a related note-- I will swallow every other stupid thing in 2012, but the idea that John Cusack and his kids could drive down an empty road and enter Yellowstone without passing so much as single toll-- well, that I simply cannot abide.)

Still, there was a glimmer of hope left: Old Faithful, the world's most famous Geyser.

Now, I had learned my lesson from Mount Rushmore. I expected a national landmark like Old Faithful to be an all out altar to the Tourist gods. What I did not expect was the population of a small city to be packed in around it. "Small city" may be exaggerating, but not by much-- I'd estimate about one thousand people gathered on the wooden walkway ring surrounding the geyser a hundred feet away (there's a tragic story behind that too--apparently, it took the death of a young boy for park officials to realize that allowing people near a geothermal vent whose outer shell is of the same thickness and approximate strength as pie crust might not be the wisest move). Plus it was hot, combination of Yellowstone's climate and the geyser itself. So, I can't say it was terribly fun, which is sad since this was the highlight of out day-trip to Yellowstone. But Old Faithful promises nothing more than a periodic vertical gush of boiling water, and after thirty minutes of waiting(ten minutes after the promised eruption time-- "faithful" indeed) that's what we got. Sideways photo of the Geyser behind my Mom below:

After leaving Yellowstone, we passed by Earthquake lake (created by the 1968 earthquake which nearly destroyed Old Faithful) and through the mountains of southern Montana, and I have to say it was far more pleasant, and beautiful, than the national park we had just left. In fact, pretty much the entire western half of Montana is beautiful. If you do plan on travelling down to the States (or up to Canada), I recommend entry through the Post of Roosville. This will take you through some very nice parts of Montana.

Bye bye Mrs. American Pie. . . for now.

So. . . my ultimate impression? Well, all I can say is that, during the Bush years, I swore would never set foot in the U.S.. Now, having seen a tiny glimpse of the country, I hope to return someday, as does my Mom. Until then, for any American readers, farewell from Canada.

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