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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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    National

    Sophie Gregoire Trudeau names first Arctic and offshore patrol ship

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  • HALIFAX — Sophie Gregoire Trudeau spoke at the official naming of Canada’s first Arctic and offshore patrol ship in Halifax on Friday afternoon, praising the bravery of the veteran sailor for whom it is named.

    The future HMCS Harry DeWolf is named in honour of a vice-admiral who oversaw the rescue of 42 sailors from HMCS Athabaskan on April 29, 1944, during the Second World War.

    “His perseverance and his hope for a better country, we all need more of it. Canada needs more of it,” said Gregoire Trudeau, addressing hundreds of navy members, shipbuilders and dignitaries at the Irving Shipyard where the vessel was built.

    “He was decorated many times for outstanding service throughout his naval career. He was a local hero to many because of his exceptional character and bravery.”

    Gregoire Trudeau broke a bottle of Nova Scotia bubbly against the bow of the 103 metre-long vessel, which she said will “provide capabilities that will benefit Canadians and the world.”

    The ship is the first of at least five Arctic and offshore patrol vessels that will be tasked with patrolling Canadian waters, including the Arctic.

    Irving said construction of the second and third vessels — to be known as HMCS Margaret Brooke and HMCS Max Bernays — is already well underway, and construction of a fourth is set to begin later this year.

    In her speech, Gregoire Trudeau, the wife of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, acknowledged the hard work of the navy members who will make up the ship’s crew.

    “We all share this path of hard work, this path of service, and we are one big family. We must continue to surround and encourage the work of so many exceptional Canadians that will be on board this ship,” she said.

    “To the entire Harry DeWolf courageous crew, we say fairest winds and following seas. Bonne navigation!”

    Gregoire Trudeau was joined by several federal politicians, including Treasury Board President Scott Brison and Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan.

    Also speaking Friday afternoon, Irving Shipbuilding co-CEO J.D. Irving told the crowd he was proud of the shipbuilders who worked on the Harry DeWolf, which will be the first large ship the Canadian Navy will receive in 20 years.

    “We know the men and women of this shipyard have, and continue, to put their skills to work every day to deliver the best value for Canada,” he said. 

    “We believe the best shipbuilding team in the country — 1,900 strong and growing — is right here.”

    Irving made multiple references to the National Shipbuilding Strategy, a long-term project awarded to the company in 2011 in an effort to revitalize the country’s shipbuilding industry.

    “We all worked together to achieve this historic landmark goal. Together, we earned this historic contract,” he said.

    “It’s been a game-changer, a generational opportunity that we do not take for granted.”

    The ship will need to go through testing to make sure everything works according to the specifications in the contract.

    Irving will also build 15 vessels under the Canadian Surface Combatant project over the next 25 years.

    Alex Cooke, The Canadian Press



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