Sunday, June 26, 2005

Calgary, Alberta to Great Falls, Montana

It rained in Banff overnight. I was up around 9:00; the campground had been bustling for hours. Drove into town, under stormy skies. It was chilly. Found Evelyn’s coffee shop. Though there’s a Starbucks, Evelyn’s seems to have a lock on this small town with at least 3 outlets and a coffee cart. Outside, I saw a lean mountain climber, everything on his backpack. "Now that’s traveling the hard way."

A cold 70-mile ride into Calgary. Trying to approach this intelligently, I looked for the Visitor’s Center to help me locate the BMW dealer, an internet café, and maybe even use their computer. But the Visitor’s Center was little more than a small counter inside the Olympic Pavilion (which now seems dedicated primarily to a dirt-bike park.) The pair of seniors behind the counter did their best to help, but they didn’t have any idea about the internet world. There was no computer, and it took them quite a while to even locate a phone book. The three of us looked up the BMW shop and they patiently mapped directions. Surprisingly, the gentleman also knew of an internet café.

Found my way to Blackfoot Motosports, the biggest, busiest motorcycle center I’ve ever seen. About the only thing they don't work on is Harleys. Inquired about having my rear tire changed today. With 8,500 miles, it was due for replacement.

The young lady behind the service counter was (to me) clearly in the wrong job. I listened while she “helped” a perturbed fellow ahead of me. Then it was my turn.

“I’m not sure we can get to it. There are 4 jobs ahead of you. We have one mechanic. the other went home sick. The mechanic isn’t sure he can do it.”

“He’s not sure, or he can’t get to it? Because if he’s not sure, I’ll just wait around until he IS sure.”

“I can’t guarantee anything.”

“Can you tell me when I should come back?”

“3:00. But I can’t guarantee anything.”

“I understand. I’ll come back and then wait until it becomes clear. If he can’t do it, I’ll just have to do it myself.”

Left and found a car wash, where I unpacked the bike and gave it a fairly thorough cleaning. Returned to Blackfoot at 3:00.

“I can’t guarantee…”

“I know. But I’ll just get it all ready, just in case he CAN replace my tire.”

Unpacked all the gear again and left the tire that I had carried since Anchorage resting on the seat. Went to an upstairs lounge where I was able to plug in the computer and catch up on some notes.

A short time later, I was paged. “This is not a good sign.”

“It’s done.”

“You’re kidding.”

“No, the mechanic was able to get to it.”


Loaded up once again and rolled it out of the shop, and into a downpour. Asked a salesman named “A.J.” about my windshield rattling. He hadn’t heard any other complaints about this, but suggested using some silicone rubber to fill in the excess gaps.

The next order of business was to find an internet café, and perhaps a motel. Tried the nearby Holiday Inn, but their $120 price was too much. Headed towards the University of Calgary. "There must be some internet cafes around there.” Stumbled into an area not far from the university (I think it is "Kensington") that is refreshingly free of franchises. Inquired at two coffee shops and a bagel shop. Got the same puzzled look when I asked if they offered internet access, or knew of anyone who did. "Starbucks..."

Drove onto the University of Calgary campus. Relieved to find I wasn’t crazy, they do offer free access, "but only for 10 minutes more. We open again at 10:00 tomorrow morning.”

So, now I looked for a motel with high-speed internet service. On Crowchild Trail, I found a cluster of competing motels, but they were all booked up. I was amazed. "What's going on?"

"Nothing special. It's just busy," I was told.

Decided to try a Boston’s Pizza. I had seen over a hundred of the stores by now. "I should try them before criticizing." Now I can criticize. Simple, bland fare, and not inexpensive. But the "Big Rock Traditional Ale" was good! An odd selection of music playing, given the clientèle, which included many seniors: hard rock and heavy metal (though played at a subdued volume.) “What do the seniors think of all this?” I wondered.

After dinner, with showers rolling in from the northwest, I turned south. Canada has suffered in my estimation. Calgary has sold out. It is in the middle of a major boom, sprawling in all directions, and it’s model for growth is taken directly from the U.S.

Major corporations have captured every significant intersection in the “new neighborhoods”, lining them with McDonald’s, Subway, Boston’s Pizza, Dairy Queen, Walmart, Costco, Home Depot, Safeway, Starbucks, etc. In touring Calgary I must have seen 5 to 10 of EACH of these; and I only passed through a small segment of the city. It was very discouraging. We are peddled mediocrity to the point of saturation, drowning all creativity. It may not be what everyone really likes, but it’s easy, comfortable and safe.

In the new developments I saw, virtually no independent local businesses. Suddenly, I longed to see some of those quirky roadhouses.

Signs proclaiming such things as "find your dream”, “come home at last” and "your search has ended" direct us to the “new neighborhoods”, springing up by the dozens. As soon as they’re filled, the show will move on to the next plot of prairie.

Drove into one subdivision, just to confirm my suspicions. Over-sized homes crammed onto tiny lots, even out here in the "boondocks". They draw attention to how much house you’re getting, the amenities, not to how little land you’re getting. Building material is a high-profit product and people are forced to buy far more house than they need, simply because that’s all they're offered, and “everyone else is doing it.” It's like visiting Costco; you buy the brand and the size their buyers have chosen, not necessarily what you want or need. You see all the other carts piled high with stuff and regard it as normal, but, in fact, it's quite abnormal. The consumer society is growing worse.

Calgary suburb. Just like home. Wide open prairie and they pack them in. One owner seems to be taking advantage of the real estate boom.

(July 1, 2008 Note: I just watched the excellent 2006 Canadian film Radiant City. A Documentary About Urban Sprawl. Filmed in the Calgary suburbs, it analyzes the economic, social, cultural and psychological impacts of sprawl.)

Riding south, the sprawl resurfaced in Okotoks, well after I thought I’d left it behind. Then I realized the California standard: if it’s within an hour’s commute, no problem. Up here, however, that commute must be brutal in winter.

South of Okotoks, the wide-open plains took over, saturated from recent rains. Incredibly rich land. I could breath again.

From Calgary southward, I inquired at 8 to 10 motels; all were booked solid. Discouraged by this situation (I’m becoming dependent on my periodic internet fix!), my attitude further deteriorated. Cruising with the wind at my back, leaving showers behind, I began to long for the U.S. This Calgary experience had really “bummed me out.”

“I want to go home," whined a little voice. “You don’t have a home to go to. Just deal with it,” was the reply.

As darkness approached, I took a 10-mile detour to look at a possible camp site near Stavely. Arrived to find a lakeside campground on a grassy slope. It was fairly full, with the "wagons circled" and "fishing-types" sitting out in chairs, their camps all set up, fires blazing and beer flowing. Felt a little awkward about setting up tent in the open, while everyone looked on, so I just rolled around the loop and right back out onto the highway.

Being passed by some cars at high speed (the third time by one Mercedes), I cranked the bike up to 100 mph. The front end began an uncontrollable oscillation that gave me quite a jolt. Fearing the result of any abrupt input from the controls, I just held on and rolled off the throttle. It gradually subsided, and I took a breath. “That was interesting. Make a note.” But it makes sense, with the weight to the rear and much of the drag favoring the rear, the front tire begins to lose grip. “So that’s why BMW says ‘don’t exceed 80 mph while carrying luggage!’”

Tension and sharp back pains nagged me, but I kept going. Approaching Fort McLeod, the air suddenly became heavy, hazy and putrid with the smell of stockyards, many of them. (I have experienced this around the Harris Ranch stockyard near Coalinga, California, but this was on a vastly larger scale.) One price of the famous “Alberta Beef”. There was a campground outside Lethbridge, and I started to detour to have a look, but the air was so foul, I couldn’t imagine camping in this region.

In Lethbridge, I took refuge in the Cheesecake Café (similar to the Cheesecake Factory). Looked around and saw women out-numbered men about 8 to 1 in the dining room. “Does this seem strange?” I asked my server. “I hadn’t noticed,” she replied. Ordered some coffee, but in a glass mug, it looked like dirty water. “Do you make espresso here?”


“Can you add two shots to this coffee?”

She did so, and I was much happier.

I tried one more motel, the Holiday Inn Express across the street. It too was fully-booked. So, now my goal was definitely Great Falls, a little over 200 miles south. I expected to arrive around 3:00 a.m., but would attempt to check into a motel early (on a new day).

Driving through the dark (against better judgment), few vehicles on the road (for an hour at a time I would see no one else heading south), my senses were heightened by the risks and the unfamiliar road. A long, quiet ride. Distractions had to be avoided. “No singing, no mind-wandering. Remain focused and keep the eyes moving.”

But I did reflect on the series of small decisions that led to my being placed in such a difficult and risky position. This could have been avoided at many points throughout the day.

Around midnight, I started looking for the moon. “It should be coming soon.” Within minutes, I saw the orange glow on the eastern horizon, and it was almost as if having a companion join me for the remaining ride.

Pulled into the Port of Entry, a solo traveler on the frontier. The agent noted “two licenses?”

“One’s expired” (I'm carrying the spare to hand to officers in Latin America, so should it "disappear", I'll still have my current license.)

(The border agents have noticed this at nearly every crossing, though I don’t make a point of showing them. These people seem very perceptive, watching your moves and scrutinizing your gear.)

She asked me about my travels and what I was bringing back (food? weapons? alcohol? furs?) After that, she asked what I did in California and we talked about wine. She likes Mondavi, but also Chateau St. Michelle. Very convivial, we talked for about 10 minutes (still no other vehicles arriving.)

I asked about deer up ahead. “The trucker who came through just ahead of you hit one south of here. Be careful out in the tulles.”

At night, the eyes play tricks while constantly searching the road and shoulders for any sign of deer (that telltale orange reflection from their retinas.) But reflectors, road signs, lights and on-coming traffic all send confusing signals. And fatigue compounds the problem.

One is more sensitive to temperature changes and fragrances riding a bike. Maybe it was imagination, but the air was cleaner and fresher on the American side; few if any stockyards. I enjoyed a sweet perfume from the wild vegetation. It reminded me of a natural soap shop. I could smell mustard, then a fragrance I couldn’t identify, that was oddly like a neutral boot polish I once used. In a few areas, a pungent ammonia or “mothball” smell surprised me. The most fragrant stretches were also the coldest, in some of the low-lying vales.

The electric vest and heated grips weren’t keeping pace with the loss of body heat, and I was anxiously counting down the miles to Great Falls. Attention falters when fatigue, hypothermia, or muscle spasms threaten. To my relief, I rolled across the Missouri River and into Great Falls around 3:00 a.m. Went straight to the Holiday Inn, the first motel I saw. Two gentlemen seated behind the counter, fresh Sunday morning papers in hand, said they were booked up.

“Could you call the Holiday Inn Express and see if they have anything?”

One of the fellows obliged. From the conversation, I could tell it was not too hopeful. The other hotel did have a room, but they’d have to charge me for a full night just through noon today.

"At what time could I check in for Sunday, without having to pay that extra cost? I’ll find a place to hang out until then.”

“It would be noon.”

I asked to speak directly with the person.

“I can’t hang out for 9 hours. Some hotels let you check in at 7 or 8, if they have space. Can't you do that?”

“Come over and I’ll see what we can do.”

One of the fellows behind the counter said “if you’ve been riding that thing for a month, they’ll give you a room.”

Found the Express back near the highway and approached a gentleman at the counter.

“I talked to a woman here a few minutes ago…”

“That was me.”

“Uhhh. I’m sorry. My mind’s playing games with me…”

“Jerry” agreed to let me check in immediately, but said he would have to charge me the $99 rate, though I could stay through Monday noon. I could have kissed him.

“That’s terrific! Thank you!”

The room was quite nice, even luxurious to my weary body. Quickly hauled my gear in, then returned to give Jerry a $20 tip. He asked “where is Kenwood, California?”

It turns out he had lived for years in Oakdale, California (in the Sierras, east of Modesto.)

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