09. Prairie Singers

  1. 01. Minutes of the COCKUP
  2. 02. A Public Service
  3. 03. The 22% Solution
  4. 04. On The Campaign Trail
  5. 05. Athens of America
  6. 06. A Yankee’s Yankee
  7. 07. My Canadian Family
  8. 08. Edmonton? Why?
  9. 09. Prairie Singers
  10. 10. Deconstructing Calgary
  11. 11. My Kelowna
  12. 12. Wine Whine
  13. 13. Fire Mountain
  14. 14. A Stopover and a Popover
  15. 15. Inspiring Victoria
  16. 16. Planet Rosehip
  17. 17. Carry On Grunge
  18. 18. Street People
  19. 19. The Curse of Portland
  20. 20. Mean-Spirited, Powerful Justice
  21. 21. Amtrak’s Jewel
  22. 22. Managing Yosemite
  23. 23. Yumpin’ Yosemite
  24. 24. Parched
  25. 25. Brave New San Fran
  26. 26. Over The Hill
  27. 27. Greatest Again

Sitting crossed-legged in the entry way of a closed bank on Jasper Avenue, Edmonton’s premier boulevard, the scruffy busker strummed his guitar, smiling hopefully at a passing businessman.

“…And the Colorado rocky mountain high, I’ve seen it rainin’ fire in the sky…”

The businessman apparently had not, continuing on his way without a glance at the busker. The music ended abruptly, the busker bellowing “What is wrong with the goddam fucking people in this town? You’re all assholes!” Then the busker started singing again.

You can talk to God and listen to the casual reply, rocky mountain high, hi, hi, lo, lo…”

A young woman passed. “You bitch! You’re a fucking bitch!” he blurted, then picking up where he had left off once again.

“Now his life is full of wonder but his heart still knows some fear…”

My seventh campaign pledge: The Smiling Kodiak administration will provide mental health services to any busker that expects tips for singing John Denver tunes.

If you are leaving Edmonton, and I recommend you do, I suggest the Red Arrow bus line. It is about as nice a bus as I have found anywhere, with comfy seats, free on-board snacks and soft drinks, a stunningly clean and spacious toilet not all covered in blue gunk, and Wi-Fi intermittent enough to facilitate a nap. I have had pretty good luck with Wi-Fi on trains, but I have yet to succeed in getting the Wi-Fi on any bus to work for more than an instant. Just as well, I needed the nap. We arrived refreshed in Red Deer in less than two hours.

I had no expectations of Red Deer other than to inspect the living arrangements my niece, Jeni, whose wedding reception in Kingston we had attended only four days earlier. Jeni kindly sacrificed her lunch hour to meet us at the Radisson by the highway, Red Arrow’s drop-off point for Red Deer. She gave us a thorough tour of the city’s many attractions. Fifteen minutes later, she dropped us off at her apartment and dutifully headed back to work.

In anticipation of the arrival of her relatively elderly uncle (me), Jeni had laid hands on an actual paper map of Red Deer. Reviewing it, Frank and I immediately deduced that one could circumnavigate the whole city almost entirely on trails through parklands, much of it wending along the Red Deer River or the Waskasoo Creek. Our day was planned. Off we went.

We had come to expect construction detours in this part of the world in July. Sure enough the trail was closed, diverting us into an industrial park, where we got hopelessly lost. Exasperated, we stopped for lunch at a deli in a small strip mall only to find it was a deli that didn’t make sandwiches. Our other choices were a plumbing supply store, an insurance agency, and a sad, empty pizza joint featuring ill-preserved pizza writhing under heat lamps. I briefly considered asking the plumbers or insurance agents to sell their bag lunches to us. But I was on vacation, so in no mood to deal with plumbers (“Two weeks!”) or insurance brokers (“God forbid something should happen…”). Instead we got an Italian sub from the sad pizza joint, where a grumpy woman provided it slathered in mayonnaise. What kind of Italian slathers a sandwich in mayonnaise? At the least they’d call it aioli. Anyway, we ate.

Heading back through the industrial park, searching for the trail, a deer approached, in fact, an actual red deer. Near as I could figure she was seeking an Italian sub with mayo. The chunky deer had no fear of us whatsoever, perhaps a result of forging a perfectly good living from ill-preserved pizza and such. I scrambled for the camera. The deer correctly interpreted this as an indication that no food was forthcoming. She turned and lumbered away into the woods. I followed through the bush, losing the deer immediately, but happily stumbling back upon the trail.

We completed the circuit in about two-and-a-half hours, finding ourselves across the street from Jeni’s apartment, a high fence surrounding road construction running five blocks preventing us from completing our journey. It took another half-hour to get around it!

Red Deer’s ample parkland is its best feature. The section along the Red Deer River provided scenery most splendid and refreshing, while the canyon surrounding the Waskasoo Creek was both serene and dramatic. Being on the east side of the Rocky Mountain continental divide, I assumed that the Red Deer River emptied into the Atlantic by way of either the Great Lakes or the Mississippi River. The reality, which never occurred to me, is that the river flows “up” – to the north – through the massive Lake Winnipeg, eventually emptying into Hudson Bay and the Artic. That’s my US-centric thinking misleading me again.

That evening Jeni most Jenirously drove us an hour further south to the small city of Airdrie, centrally located on the high plains of Alberta – quite literally, the middle of nowhere. There, our dear friend Lauren was hosting a four-day extravaganza for her wedding. The lead-up included a series of events from the sublime to the ridiculous, most notably a celebration of her parents’ fiftieth wedding anniversary. Expectations were that over two hundred were to gather on the Alberta prairie. Near as we could count, Frank and I would know about fifty of them.

IMG_0394That Thursday afternoon, many arrived in camper vans, Winnebago’s, trailer homes and the like. A large contingent, including us, was “camping” at the Hampton Inn in Airdrie for the duration. The first event was an informal barbecue on Lauren’s parents’ farm in Carstairs, where she had grown up. I had expected there to be about a dozen in attendance, but it turned out to be closer to fifty, mostly family. I‘ve known Lauren for over twenty years, yet this was my first real glimpse into her childhood. Nothing very surprising was uncovered, IMG_0410save some entertaining photos of a younger Lauren, nevertheless meeting a person’s broader family is always fascinatingly explanatory.

IMG_0409Jeni didn’t know a soul but Frank and me, but she is something of an anthropologist, so enjoyed witnessing the quirks and foibles of an extended family of strangers. Eventually we said our goodbyes and she headed home for Red Deer where she hopes to get used to being married. Good luck with that.

IMG_0540Friday night another hundred or so gathered for a sausage sizzle at the nearby Madden Community Hall. IMG_0617IMG_0543There were at least twenty kinds of sausage on offer, everything from bratwurst to Italian to turkey/cranberry to foie gras to kale and quinoa. I tried about a dozen. To tell the truth, they all tasted pretty much the same to me — like the French’s mustard I smothered them in, to be precise. I have a less than discerning palate.


IMG_0707Saturday was the big day, the actual wedding, also at Madden Community Hall. As you might expect, Canadians were the largest delegation. IMG_2435Lauren‘s intended was an Australian gent named Peter, so there was considerable representation from the wide brown land, including us. The Irish branch of Lauren’s family made an impressive showing, too, in all respects. There was a healthy dose of Americans there, if one can refer to us as such, with the commanding presence of Brits, and a smidgeon of enthusiasts from Germany, South Africa, and New Zealand.

Since both the bride and groom were travel and hospitality professionals, so too were many of the guests. Let me tell you something about travel and hospitality people: they are not shy.IMG_0448 This was the most extroverted group of two hundred ever assembled in human history. Dozens of strangers assailed me, claiming to know me. I found these claims hard to deny since each of them knew everything about me and could explain in detail the circumstances of our previous acquaintance. Spooky.

Most extraordinarily, the master of ceremonies informed us that to be invited to join the banquet line, each table would be required to “sing for their dinner”. Without delay table after table arose in competition to belt out a tune: I’ve Been Working on the Railroad, or Row, Row, Row Your Boat, or Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star. Genius. Our table included Daisy, the token Quebecois attendee, leading us to choose Alouette, a pleasant tune about plucking a lark to death. Thankfully, the Aussies did not attempt Waltzing Matilda, the Irish did not defame Danny Boy, and nobody approached O Canada.

The part of the evening dedicated to the 50th anniversary celebration was bittersweet. Lauren’s dad was mortally ill, at death’s door, surviving long enough to participate in Lauren’s wedding and his anniversary only through the triumph of will – possibly the sheer will of Lauren and her mom. A touching slide show reviewing their lives together led to a family sing-along, creating an eerie sense that dad was attending his own funeral. Indeed, he died about a week later.

That night, though, he and everybody else was very much alive. Even I danced late into the night. I’m told on the bus ride back to Airdrie I sang Tom Lehrer’s When You Are Old And Gray. Best of all, I don’t think I offended anybody – at least not until I wrote this. We’ll see!

IMG_2572Sunday morning a large part of the mob gathered once more at Madden Community Hall for a recovery breakfast. Aside from being rather hungover, I had reached the limits of my sociability. It occurred to me that many marriages don’t last as long as this wedding celebration had. I can withstand only so much friendly, engaging, outgoing pleasantness. It was time to crawl under a rock for a few days, and there are few places with more rocks than Calgary. By noon we were on our way.