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Todayville Travel: The Long Road to Texas

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  • by Gerry Feehan

    You would not want to go on an RV trip with me. Plans are inevitably last minute and unpredictable. An innocuous road sign may result in a quick U-turn – and a two-day detour to places unknown.

    In early fall we packed our modest motor home and slowly, circuitously ambled from Red Deer southward toward Texas. While impatient snowbirds zoomed by on the interstate en route to a quick, warm Arizona fix, we meandered the back roads, stopping to smell fall’s decaying flowers.

    The road to Texas began circuitously, with a detour through Invermere, BC

    Our destination was the Texas Gulf but we ultimately took more time getting there than we spent in the Lone Star state.

    There’s always time for fishing!

    We had no reservations, just a vague malleable plan that, malleably, seemed to change every day. An open travel agenda often leads to pleasant surprises, particularly if one foregoes the freeway for those tranquil country roads. In every backwater town knowledgeable locals are anxious to share wisdom about local pearls. Preconceived plans may go into the rubbish bin but… c’est la vie.

    That’s how we stumbled upon Great Sand Dunes National Park. As usual, we had eyed the map one morning, fired up the RV and started to wander. We were lost, headed down the Arkansas River in south Colorado. It was late afternoon. I pulled over and asked directions from a local lady walking her dog.

    “Excuse me,” I enquired apologetically of the woman curbing her canine. “I’m a little displaced. Do you know of any campgrounds near here?”

    She looked at me, astounded. “Don’t you know that one of America’s great treasures is right there?” She pointed toward a distant, sandy pile fronting the Sangre de Cristo Mountains: Great Sand Dunes National Park.

    Great Sand Dunes National Park

     

    We rolled in just as lengthening shadows crept over the vast dunes in a remarkable, rippling display. We set up camp as a bloodshot sun set on the Sahara-like landscape. Coyotes howling at the moon lullabied us to sleep.

    In the morning I stepped out into the crisp mountain air. The sand was now shadowed from the east.

    We enjoyed our cup of morning joe as dark images, reversed from the night before, played across the dunes. After breakfast we huffed and puffed a thousand feet to the summit of the sand; then ran, child-like, down to the flat plain.

    At the visitor center I told a Park Ranger that we were headed toward Texas and asked if there were any other such magical places along the way.

    Have you ever been to Palo Duro Canyon State Park?” she asked, pointing to a map of Texas.  Palo Duro was directly in our path to the Gulf.   Perfect. That afternoon we descended from a Colorado Rocky Mountain high to the bleak, flat scrubland of west Texas. We stopped for the night at “Happy Plains” RV Park in the sleepy town of Texline. We were the only guests. The proprietress, a lonely retired schoolteacher, was happy to shoot the breeze during check-in:

    “You’re from Canada? Well, welcome to Texas. My late husband and I drove through Canada once on our way to Alaska. Very friendly people. What’s the name of that National Park? Barff? Great food there, not too spicy.”

    I averted my eyes. Florence yawned in an effort to speed up the check-in process. The old gal continued undeterred:

    “But Canada was just a little too clean for me. I’ve never been happier than when we finally got to Alaska and saw all the cars jacked up on blocks. Made me feel I was home again. Don’t get me wrong,” she continued, “there is no reason for you to feel ashamed. In fact I believe there is no reason why we wouldn’t welcome you to join us and make one big country.”

    “Good idea,” I responded. “We could call it Canada.”

    She looked at me quizzically. It hadn’t occurred to her that Canadians might actually cherish their northern independence, that we might like our clean, polite wasteland and that we enjoyed our bland dishes, even if they were served up in “Barff”.

    In the morning we hastily broke camp and tried to sneak out the Happy Plains gate. But there stood the lonely matron, blocking our escape route, a basket in hand. She handed me a fistful of chocolate bars. It was Halloween.

    Pronghorns near Texline eye the road warily

    “I’m sorry about that nonsense last night,” she said, “sometimes I say silly things. ”Don’t we all, sister.

    Late that evening we descended into Palo Duro – the “Grand Canyon” of Texas – near Amarillo. Palo Duro is famous for its spectacular red-rock vistas and endless hiking and biking trails. As usual we arrived without reservation. It was a busy weekend. The ranger greeting us was a mountain of a man. His nametag said simply: “Moose”.

    “Geez your lucky,” he said. “We’re full up but just had a late cancellation for one of the finest spots in the park.” I shrugged happily. As I affixed the park pass to the windshield, Moose remarked: “Sometimes it pays to travel by the seat of your pants, last minute like.”

    Yup, it does.

    Palo Dur0- The Grand Canyon of Texas

    Travel during the shoulder season means you have entire vistas to yourself – and great weather!

    Gerry Feehan QC practised law in Red Deer for 27 years before starting his second life as a freelance travel writer and photographer. He says that, while being a lawyer is more remunerative than travel writing, it isn’t nearly as much fun. When not on the road, Gerry and his wife Florence live in Red Deer and Kimberley, BC. Todayville is proud to work with Gerry to re-publish some of his most compelling stories from his vast catalogue developed over more than a decade of travel.

    THANKS to these great partners for making this series possible.

    Proverus LLP

    Riverview Insurance Solutions

    Kennedy Wealth Management Group


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    Travel

    Todayville Travel: Down on the Bayou- Cajun Hospitality

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  • The news from Louisiana is often hurricanes, burst levees and the dangerous streets of New Orleans.

    What we’ve discovered down South has been unreserved hospitality.

    A few years ago on our first trip through the Bayou State the weather turned cold. We became stranded in the town of Natchitoches, blind-sided by a gale of sleet. Thrilled locals informed us they hadn’t seen snow in NAK-a-tish (that’s how it’s pronounced) for nine years. As polite Canadians, we controlled our elation.

    A snowstorm in Louisiana?!

    As luck would have it we had arrived the day of the annual river-barge parade. We mingled with happy revelers on the banks of the Red River. As we strolled, the sound of a Cajun band spilled from an antebellum mansion fronting Front Street. The owner, a well-dressed southern gentleman, was watching the parade through his wrought-iron fence. Small talk ensued. Soon the wandering Canadians were invited into a stately pre-Civil War home to join a bon fête.

    Cajun fiddler in Natchitoches

     

    The party lasted into the wee hours. Filet gumbo, stomping feet, a crackling fire and genuine Louisiana friendliness kept us warm. After much cajoling I joined the band, rang the Cajun ti-fer… and did credit to all Canadians – in the beverage consumption department.

    Antebellum (pre-Civil War) mansion in Natchitoches

    On our return to Louisiana this time we bypassed Natchitoches, hugging the Gulf Coast, seeking the blue bayou of the South. Roadside billboards stuck in the swamp advertised free consultation to shrimpers still affected by the Deepwater Horizon disaster. The ex-lawyer in me was intrigued. The guy seeking quiet solitude was – quietly disgusted.

    A great blue heron rests on a cypress stump

    Bald cypress in winter plumage

     

     

    The bayous of Louisiana start where the Mississippi River begins to end: in the silted course of its enormous delta. Braided channels open and close. New rivers form. Shallow meandering creeks emerge in swamps overgrown with cypress and mangrove forests. These muddy backwaters are the birthplace for a vast array of aquatic life. Their predators – birds and reptiles – lurk quietly in the sultry stagnant shadows.

    When we arrived at the Morgan City campground it was dark. We were hungry, tired, irritable – and without a reservation. Most horrible camping experiences begin with a late arrival. While attempting to set up in the dark I backed into the last open site, glancing off an oak tree and a concrete picnic table, fanning the fires of a simmering matrimonial dispute.

    I walked, fuming, past a campsite’s roaring fire toward the office to register. A happy group of tenters were huddled near the flames, laughing and smoking.

    “You were pretty lucky to get that spot on a busy weekend,” said the affable occupant of site B12. “Where y’all from?

    I told him we were from Alberta and said we were hungry and hoping to find a Cajun restaurant nearby. He recommended a place in town down by the Riverwalk and wished us a pleasant evening.

    My mood was greatly improved when we drove back through the gate a couple of hours later, stuffed to overflowing with crawfish and dirty rice.

    “How was the Creole?”

    The small group settled around B12’s fire was well into their cups and still going strong. My relaxed demeanor confirmed we had not been led gastronomically astray.

    “Why don’t you and your wife come on over for a drink?” asked the friendly fellow who was responsible for my contented smile. I slipped into our RV and grabbed a couple of Pilsners I had lugged from home. I handed a cold one to Dean Landry and his wife Vicky.

    “These all the way from Canada?” Dean asked.

    “Yup. There is no finer Canadian beer.” (I had my fingers crossed behind my back.)

    “How come he talk so funny?” asked Zach, Vicky’s precocious twelve-year-old.

    “Sshh, you mind your manners,” said Miss Vicky.

    Zach carried on, unabashed. “You got a different kind ‘a money up ther‘ in Canada?”

    I reached into my pocket and handed Zach a blue, five-dollar bill. I proudly told him it was worth almost $4 American and that it was now his.

    “This’s made out of plastic,” he screamed, running through the campground, announcing to the world that some geezer from Canada had just given him a foreign blue fiver.

    “Why you come down to these parts?” Mr. Landry asked. His surname and that unique Louisiana cadence confirmed his Cajun ancestry.

    (Cajuns are the descendants of Acadians, French Canadians expelled from Nova Scotia in the eighteenth century. They brought a distinct culture and dialect to the swamps of the South. To the uninitiated, Cajun French is unintelligible. Their English is only marginally more comprehensible. For instance if a Cajun asks, “where you gonna powk de caw?” he is not rudely inquiring about your bedroom habits – he’s just asking where you intend to park the Buick.)

    “We’re here to see the bayou,” I told Dean. “I want to get into the backwaters, see the swamp, the alligators. I noticed there are some operators in town offering boat tours. What do you think?”

    Dean looked at the fire for a moment, drained the last of his Pil and said, “You an early riser?”

    “Not particularly,” I replied truthfully.

    “Dean, he an early bird,” chimed in Vicky. “He’s up with the roosters.”

    “I live only a little more than fifty mile from here, up near Thibodau, in Lafourche Parish.” Unlike the other 49 States of the Union, which have Counties, Louisiana is divided into Parishes – further tribute to its French roots.

    “Ain’t any big deal for me to scoot over first thing in the morning and hook up my boat. By the time y’all get up, my skiff’ll be waiting for you. I’ll show you the real bayou, not some tourist crap.”

    We’d had a few brewskies by then – and I don’t put a lot of stock in late-night campfire bravado. So when I popped my head out of the camper the next morning my expectations for a bayou experience weren’t high.

    “There you are,” shouted Dean, wiping down the lovely flat-bottomed craft that had appeared at his site. He’d driven 80 kilometers to his home, breakfasted with his daddy, hitched up the boat and returned – all while I was still sawing logs.

    “And he’s been polishing that motor for near an hour now,” Vicky smiled.

    My mother told me I’d never amount to anything if I didn’t get up early and get to it. But somehow serendipity follows my late-morning shadow, shaking me awake with fortunate encounters.

    Vicky, Zach, my wife Florence and I jumped into the boat and Dean motored us into the bayou. The perspective from water was entirely different from the bits of swamp we could see while driving. Narrow muddy channels serpentined every which way and within minutes I was completely lost in a vast wet labyrinth.

    We floated through vast groves of bald cypress trees draped in Spanish moss, their knees soaked in brackish water; past “fishing camps” – remote wooden cabins fronted by a small deck for fishing. (Many sported a Confederate flag. For the South, the Civil War is not yet over.)

    For some Southerners that war ain’t over yet

    The gators were out, sunning on logs or floating motionless, eyes protruding silently above the water. These malevolent-looking reptiles can grow to four meters and 400 kilograms – top of the food chain in these hidden warrens. In the bayou it’d be easy to dispose of things unwanted. I was glad Dean was a friendly chap.

    Zach acted as lookout, chatting constantly, identifying all flora and fauna the bayou had to offer.

    An abandoned orange hurricane pod, resembling a wayward UFO, floated uselessly in a backwater, testament to the unrelenting power of Mother Nature.

    An abandoned hurricane pod resembles a wayward UFO

    We moored for lunch at Gros’ Place, a remote camp accessible only by water. A huge kettle of fragrant jambalaya boiled above an open fire. A fresh-dressed deer carcass dangled from a hook in the kitchen.

    This must be the place!

    After a meal of fried catfish and white beans – and an afternoon of great camaraderie, Dean steered us out of the bayou, effortlessly retracing our path through the indiscernible twisting, turning channels. The sun, shining through a thick canopy of cypress and mangrove, hinted vaguely at our direction of travel.

    Zach entertains the womenfolk in the bayou

    At the dock we shook hands with Dean and Vicky, said good-bye and climbed into our RV, headed for New Orleans. As we pulled away Zach strolled up. I rolled down the window:

    “That new? That got a diesel engine in it? My grandpa told me down on the farm that you got to fill a special compartment with somethin’ called urea to keep a diesel engine running. Urea same as pee, but you got to pay twenty dollar for five gallons.”

    If there’s one thing I can’t stand it’s a know-it-all kid. I thanked him for his advice and drove off.

    “That kid is either a savant or a nut,” I said to Florence.

    Less than a hundred kilometers down the road a yellow warning light flashed on the dash. I pulled over. The owner’s manual indicated there was a malfunction in something called the DEF. The problem required immediate attention. After twenty ignition starts the vehicle would be rendered inoperable. I stopped at an Auto Zone and explained my problem to the man behind the counter.

    “You need to add DEF fluid. It’s over there behind the antifreeze. It’s really just urea,” he said in a thick Cajun drawl.

    “Yeah,” I replied. “Just like pee, but costs twenty bucks.”

     

    About the author:

    Gerry Feehan QC practised law in Red Deer for 27 years before starting his second life as a freelance travel writer and photographer. He says that, while being a lawyer is more remunerative than travel writing, it isn’t nearly as much fun. When not on the road, Gerry and his wife Florence live in Red Deer and Kimberley, BC. Todayville is proud to work with Gerry to re-publish some of his most compelling stories from his vast catalogue developed over more than a decade of travel.

    THANKS to these great partners for making this series possible.

    Proverus LLP

    Riverview Insurance Solutions

    Kennedy Wealth Management Group

     

     

     


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    Travel

    Todayville Travel: I survived the Road to Hana

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  • I survived the Road to Hana! by Gerry Feehan

    “…I’ve done enough beach holidays to fill a leaky bucket. Watching overweight tourists in undersized beach wear (throngs in thongs) has long since lost its lustre…”

    The village of Hana is located on the quiet ‘windward’ side of Maui. Windward is a euphemism for rainy. Precipitation here averages three hundred inches a year. No person of sound judgment would live in a place where an inch of rain in an afternoon is considered a light drizzle.

    Hana is definitely on the wet side of Mau

    Most tourists endure the gruelling drive to Hana as a day trip, rising early to negotiate the eighty-five kilometer journey with its six-hundred-plus curves, 54 narrow bridges and frustratingly slow traffic. They choke down a fish taco and lemon bar at a roadside food stand then snake back at a snail’s pace in darkness to the dry leeward side of the island, collapsing into bed at a fancy seaside resort in Kaanapali or Wailea, a checkmark on their Hawaiian holiday agenda firmly ticked off.

    “… But as is often the case when one ventures off the beaten track, our choice was serendipitous…”

    Some time ago a clever marketer began selling T-shirts with the caption: “I survived the road to Hana!” It really is a challenging drive, so that intrepid shirt salesman is probably now quite wealthy.

    I’ve done enough beach holidays to fill a leaky bucket. Watching overweight tourists in undersized beach wear (throngs in thongs) has long since lost its lustre. We were looking for a change, an out-of-the-way Hawaiian adventure. There’s hardly a soul living out Hana way. So we decided to spend a week with the free spirits and addled Vietnam vets.

    My search for accommodation in Hana was careful and meticulous. Not. I booked the first place I found on the net: Entabeni Cottage. Click here for their website.  But as is often the case when one ventures off the beaten track, our choice was serendipitous.

    Outdoor shower anyone?

    We had absolute privacy, from the gorgeous ocean view to the solar-heated outdoor shower. The north wall of the cottage consists entirely of glass doors. Each morning we awoke to a 180-degree view of the ocean and the barely discernible sound of waves crashing on the rocky shore hundreds of meters below.

    “Entabeni means the place on the hill in Zulu,” explained owner Terry Kristiansen as she toured us in morning sunshine through the horticultural wonder of her amazing garden. We meandered amongst gigantic Cook pine, African tulip and mango trees. She and her husband Michael maintain a tropical nursery. I tried not to blush when she mentioned that some of the flowering plants were viviparous.

    Green eggs and …

    Two dogs, a cat, a goat, a multitude of chickens and a raucous gaggle of guinea fowl followed our progress. Terry’s hens lay green eggs – organically of course. Each morning our doorstep was laden with a fresh coop-full of Entabeni’s emerald bounty.

    Our Hana booking was for seven days. Perhaps a mistake? There’s purportedly nothing to do there. (A renowned friend of mine, Dr. D, who is intimately familiar with Maui, asked bluntly, ”You’re going to Hana? For a week?”) So, soon after arrival, we decided to scout out some adventure. We meandered into town and chatted up some locals:

    “What do you do out here in Hana?” I asked Tyler, a mixed-blood Hawaiian of Portuguese pedigree.

    Tail of a whale – or whale of a tale?

    “Not much” he replied, “sometimes we fish… when it’s not rough.” He looked ruefully out to sea, as whitecaps roiled in a sub-tropical winter storm. A lone humpback whale breached in the distance. I concluded that there’d be no fishing on this trip.

    “Sometimes we drive into town and pick up mail,” offered his cousin, who was high on friendliness but low on wisdom teeth. “And of course there’s the big meetin’ tonight at the church to vote on the offal plebiscite.”

    I’m not sure what offal is but it sounds terrible. I was about to excuse myself, vacate the cottage and head for dry, civilized parts of Maui when Tyler added: “What we really like is hunting wild boar. We’re going out tomorrow morning. You’re welcome to come along if you don’t mind getting a little muddy.”

    My expertise as a hunter is renowned. I once shot a gopher – grazing it only slightly but deeply wounding its pride; and I’ve caught two fish – three if you include the goldfish I netted in my backyard pond. Still I figured ‘when in Rome’ and agreed to meet them in the morning at mile marker 26, near an abandoned, burnt-out pickup truck.

    Mile 26 marks the meeting spot.

    “It’s blue,” offered my newfound toothless friend, perhaps to ensure I didn’t wait by a red, abandoned burnt-out pickup truck at mile marker 26.

    Terry drove me down at 7am sharp. We hadn’t waited more than a minute when up rolled a pineapple-yellow Ford crew-cab, loaded to exploding with Hawaiians, hunting dogs and guns. The truck, high on its suspension, teetered on two wheels before finally rocking to a stop. The occupants piled out and cracked a Budweiser. The humans that is. The dogs were content to slurp at the slough that had formed around the old blue pickup during the previous evening’s downpour.

    Like most flora and fauna in the Hawaiian Islands, the wild pigs are alien. These invasive, destructive critters are a cross between the small Polynesian variety brought to the islands by the first human inhabitants a thousand years ago and larger European pigs imported in the 1800’s; the result is the large, black, elusive, ornery beasts that Hawaiians love to hunt.

    By 7:30 a.m. we were a kilometre deep in the rainforest, up to our knees in muck. The dogs had sniffed out a promising dig. Fresh tracks confirmed that a large sow was nearby. Three hours later we were still zigzagging back and forth over, around and through jungle streams laced with invasive strangler figs and giant eucalyptus trees. The pigs were clever. On a couple of occasions the dogs bolted excitedly into the impenetrable jungle on a promising scent but near noon, with the tropical sun beating down and steam rising in the heated rainforest, we admitted defeat and called it a day.

    ‘Hurt’ is not an option in here.

    “What happens if you get injured in here?” I asked Tyler as we began the slow hour-long crawl back to the pickup.

    “Hurt is not a’ option,” he answered, tugging at a rubber boot sunk deep in a wallow of mud.

    Back at the truck, with the last of the morning Budweiser, we conceded the feral pig’s victory over man.

    Hike to the seven sacred pools.

    Rainbow Eucalyptus

    “Why don’t you and your bride come down to our place tomorrow for Super Bowl,” offered Tyler, “there’ll be plenty of grind and bevvies.”

    I assumed he meant food and drink.

    We arrived fashionably late with a plate full of devilled (green) eggs and a cooler full of cold ones. After the game (quite exciting – not a Superbore) I asked if it would be okay were I to bring out my ever-present ukulele from its coincidental resting place in the trunk of the rental car.

    “That’d be great bra’,” said Tyler, using the term of endearment that forms every second word of Hawaiian pidgin vocabulary.

    When I returned, a slack guitar and four ukuleles were jamming on the lanai. Uncle Bobby (whose relationship with our hosts I never did quite grasp) was pouring himself a stiff concoction, lighting a smoke and settling into an over-worn armchair for what turned out to be a long night of music and laughter.

    Warm grind, cold bevvies – and a hot uke!

    Later in the week, as we strolled Hana’s streets locals were honking, waving “hey bra’’” and inviting us for grind. Apparently we ‘haole’ (white people from another place) were a hit.

    In closing I offer seven recommendations on how to pass a week in Hana:

    1. Walk awestruck as Terry Kristiansen guides you through the horticultural wonder that is Entabeni Cottage (whilst chickens peck at your progress);
    2. Shower outdoor at night in the Entabeni rain;
    3. Crawl on all fours for hours through steep, muddy rainforest with a pack of men, dogs and Budweiser on the hunt for wild boar;
    4. Enjoy a candle-lit repast of raw sashimi-grade ahi tuna, followed by lightly seared opaka-paka, served with a glass of white wine by your favorite fellow hominid;
    5. Get lit up with Hawaiian locals at a ukulele jam;
    6. Waste a day by shooting close-up photographs of the incredible rainbow eucalyptus trees;
    7. Snorkel at a ‘clothing optional’ black sand beach, oblivious to the nudity of those around you;
    8. Hike the seven sacred pools to Waimoku Falls or traverse the jagged lava cliffs of Waianapanapa State Park.

    Can’t see the forest for the bamboo.

    Did I say seven things? I guess there’s more to do in Hana than first meets the eye. So get off the beaten track, out of the th(r)ong and seek some adventure.

    Gerry Feehan QC practised law in Red Deer for 27 years before starting his second life as a freelance travel writer and photographer. He says that, while being a lawyer is more remunerative than travel writing, it isn’t nearly as much fun. When not on the road, Gerry and his wife Florence live in Red Deer and Kimberley, BC. Todayville is proud to work with Gerry to re-publish some of his most compelling stories from his vast catalogue developed over more than a decade of travel.

    Gerry Feehan

    THANKS to these great partners for making this series possible.

    Click to read an excellent story about the Turks and Caicos.

     

     

     

     

     

     


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