Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Grand Prairie to Grande Cache, Alberta

Up at 8:30. Cold and gray. A big change from last evening. On the foot bridge, crossing a nearby stream, I met some fellow campers, a family from Alberta: Wayne, Wendy, Terrell and Sienna. Terrell's a cute, pudgy BIG boy. With his parents standing there, he asks me for permission to go to the playground. He had already tried his folks, but apparently got the wrong answer.

Wayne educated me a bit on the subject of fish, pointing to a large pike resting on the streambed below, waiting for a meal to swim his way. He pointed out a beaver dam, which was suddenly obvious and the grating over the fish ladder that prevents beavers from damming that as well. We talked about bears, moose and travel. Nice people. Very down-to-earth, and in touch.

Starting to break camp, when suddenly the park and campground filled with kids and activity. On the road about noon. Grand Prairie was only an hour away. Rain starting as I reached the city. Went directly to the Visitor’s Center. Inquired about internet cafes. They said they had a room where I could set up my computer, but also mentioned some other possibilities. I thought I would check on those other places first: "London Drugs", the library, a computer coffee café (strange shop with mirrored windows, a little coffee machine, and $7/hour rip-off internet fee. Across the street was an interesting coffee shop, but no internet access. There I waited 15 minutes for a toasted bagel, the young lady not too attentive. Raining steadily outside now. Went to the library, but I could only check e-mail on their computers. Back to the Visitors Center, to take them up on their original offer. Plugged in. "This is great." After about 45 minutes, it was announced, "we’re closing in 10 minutes."

"Wah!"

Before leaving, a very helpful staff member called around to motels on my behalf. She found the "Canada Motel", which offers internet connections, $63 + $10 connection fee. Not bad. "I'll be right over." I had passed it earlier.

After checking in, I began having my doubts. The construction on a new wing had turned the parking lot into a mess. Walking to my room, I saw a mini-van, its rear window smashed, a heap of glass on the ground. A break-in? The smell of cigarette smoke in the "non-smoking" room. Mud tracked everywhere. "Construction workers are slobs!" Diesel engines idling. Problems connecting to the internet.

I couldn't avoid the conclusion any longer; "this place sucks!"

Returned to the office, apologizing, "it's not going to work for me." The owner said "give us another chance in the future." She said the construction's moving slowly. "It's hard finding workers. The city is booming." Grand Prairie is now known as “Little Texas.” Fort St. John has also boomed within the past few months, she added.

But I couldn't leave without trying "Alberta Beef." My friend at the Visitor’s Center recommended "The Keg", so I gave it a try. The parking lot was full, but I found a spot on the sidewalk.

Ordered a glass of wine (my last was on Whidbey Island!) A 2002 J. Lohr Seven Oaks Cabernet. Very good; big, ripe, high extract and tannin. Lots of fruit. (I've got to include the wine review!)

Went with the "Mushroom Sirloin with Dijon." Excellent. Garlic mashed potatoes and a baked tomato accompanied it. For "dessert", a "B-52" coffee without "Kahlua". The restaurant's soundtrack was strictly oldies. I hadn't heard “Yakety Yak” in a long time. Asked “Miranda”, my server, what she thinks of this music. “It’s okay. I like some of them, like ‘It’s my party.’”

Across the floor, I watched a couple, somewhat older than me. When their food was served, the conversation ended. No words, just feeding. No eye contact that I could see. But their eyes darted around the room. There was a very instinctive energy. Yet, when the plates were removed, the conversation resumed. Interesting, though I didn't understand the behavior.

Reflected upon how I used to think this part of the world was so far north. Hearing Mark Smith talk of Edmonton, I envisioned desolate northern plains. When I traveled as far north as Banff in the 70’s, Jasper just seemed too distant. Now, coming down from Alaska, this feels like being back at the heart of "civilization".

After dinner, stepped out into the cold (40’s-50’s. It was almost 80 yesterday, they say). The city thoroughly soaked. Left Grand Prairie for the south, signs of clearing out west. Taking a chance on fuel – Grande Cache was just on the borderline of my range. Clouds were breaking and I was starting to dry out, when the highway climbed into mountains, using more gas, and the rain began again. "Damn, I don’t need this!" Darkening skies, reduced visibility and suddenly deer along the shoulders. All combining to make things more exciting, and stressful.

Dropping into a river canyon, passed a coal mine, black cliffs lining the road, then a huge energy plant. I was very cold and my suit soaked by now. Desperately needed a place to camp! Re-fueled in Grande Cache. The town is filled with oil and gas field contractors and support companies. The station attendant told me of a campground in town and gave directions. It was a welcome sight. The manager greeted me. “You’re traveling late tonight!” The campground is occupied primarily with seniors and workers, she said. $18, but showers were included.

Pitched my tent as the rain arrived and climbed in. Warm and dry at last!

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