Dispatch from the Field: Signs

So Hip

Driving across country, you see a lot of forgettable signs, but some stand out:

“Dance like no one is watching. Drive like everyone is!”

Some try to cajole us to better driving habits by appealing to our vanity: “Road Rage Causes Wrinkles.”

Or “Motorcycle Helmets Make You Look Smarter.” Not sure that one would be effective with most of the Harley crowd I see.

You see so many “Buckle Up for Safety” signs you ignore them, but how can you ignore: “Buckle Up Buttercup.”

Some signs are popular with families playing the ABC game:

How do you pronounce Zzyzx? - Funny Sign

Parking meters do not often cause one to smile, but someone carefully wrote this post-it and placed it on a Portland meter:

Portlandia parking meter


Isn’t that just so Portlandia?

Speaking of parking, too many signs can be a money-maker for cities. I was once towed from a parking space in San Francisco that had so many signs plastered up and down and all around the meter post, I apparently failed to see the one that actually applied on a Monday between 11am and noon, when the moon is in the seventh house and Jupiter aligns with Mars. The barber in the shop in front of which I had parked smiled and told me it happens all the time.

There are signs advertising cannabis all over the West Coast, but the sign I never thought I would read was the large one on a field adjacent to I-5 near Eugene OR: “Pot Farm For Sale,” complete with phone number.

Almost as unlikely as: “Re-Elect President Trump.”

The Just Say No crowd still has its adherents in Maine:

So no to pot

Gratuitous “butt” reference for the grandkids:

gratuitous butt reference

Finally, I wonder if the Oregon DOT won the humor award at the National Road Sign Makers Conference when they decided to juxtapose these two Oregon town names on the same sign:

Boring Oregon - Funny Sign

Dispatch from the Field: Some Politics-Free Observations about Mid-America


Random thoughts following a trip through middle America on the way home to Oregon last Fall:

  • If you can afford to live on the West Coast or the East Coast, you can live like royalty in mid-America. Homes are comparatively cheap. For the price of a nice home in Portland, you can own a mansion anywhere from Michigan to Arkansas – and it probably has lake frontage. Gas is cheap. Food is cheap. For a restaurant meal, you can budget about a third to half (or less) what you would in a foodie city like Portland. Of course, you’ll be eating meat loaf, mashed potatoes, canned peas, and pie, but you won’t go away hungry.


  • On the left coast, you head to the mountains or the desert or the coast to go camping. It would be unthinkable to travel 10 or 20 miles to camp in a campground that looks about the same as your own backyard. In mid-America, however, people do that all the time. I finally figured out the reason: out West, you can go hoodviewsomewhere fun and interesting and completely different to camp that is an easy weekend drive. For example, from the heart of California you have the following choices for an easy (1 hour to max 4 hour) drive: LA, Lake Tahoe, San Francisco, Yosemite, the Napa Valley, Sequoia National Park, the central coast, Santa Cruz, Santa Barbara, Monterey, Big Sur, and if you stretch it another hour or so, you can add Mammoth Lakes, San Diego, Death Valley, and Las Vegas. In mid-America you can travel hundreds of miles and it is pretty much all the same. If you leave your home in the corn and soybean country of Iowa and travel 3 or 4 hours, you are still in corn and soybean country. If camping is your thing, and you live in mid-America, you might as well go to the KOA that’s 20 minutes away rather than the one that’s 4 hours away, and spend more of your time in the campground rather than on the road. It’s all going to look the same anyway. The result is that even as Fall
    comes,and it gets cold and damp, the campgrounds in mid-America continue to fill up on the weekends with families having fun just being in their tents and trailers, cool car koaand enjoying the hokey things all the campgrounds do to get and keep you there, like hay rides, crafts, bicycling around the campground, breaking limbs on play structures, kayaking on the pond they dug out. Decorating for Halloween is an art Halloween at the campgroundform there too. Hey it’s either go camping or head to the casino. So camping in mid-America is generally not the experience of exploring some place different and adventurous. It is the experience of just hanging out at the campground.KOA people
  • In mid-America, tourist bureaus have to work hard to get you take the off-ramp to their town. So just about every interchange has signs for the attractions they hope will draw your left hand to the turn signal. And there were attractions everywhere. How can you resist, for example, “The World’s Largest Golf Tee” at Exit 129 in Kansas? Or the World’s Largest Sycamore Stump in Kokomo? Or the Hubcap Lady in Jeffersonville?
  • We did resist Uranus Chocolates (motto: “The World’s Best Chocolates Come From Uranus”).
  • They really like their cars in mid-America. Every town seems to have its own dirt Yeager cartrack, and there are car museums everywhere. We missed the DeKalb turnoff, which thereby wiped out the possibility of seeing no less than 47 auto-related museums. The 500 Museum of Wheels (500 what? we don’t know) in Terra Haute had an open wheel racecar with an airplane engine that had been driven by Chuck Yeager (the first person to go BOOOOM! in an airplane that did not blow up.) Notable quote the day he broke the sound barrier: “Hey Ridley, I got me a little problem. I fell off my horse last night and busted up some ribs; I can’t tell these guys because they won’t let me fly today.” “OK Chuck, let me see what I can rig up.”
  • Where but the heartland would you find the one and only, and world-famous, Quilter’s Hall of Fame?

quilters hof

quilt 1

  • If you judge an area by what you see from the Interstate, you would conclude that Missouri is all about adult stores and fireworks factories. (Sorry, no photos.)
  • Rest areas are an art form in mid-America. In New England they basically do not  exist. In many parts of the country, they are reluctant after-thoughts by highway departments that have run out of money.  But in mid-America, they are roadside attractions in their own right. Look closely, because each of the following is a picnic table shelter at a roadside rest area somewhere in the heartland:

picnic shelter 4

picnic shelter 3

picnic shelter 2

picnic shelter 1

  • Finally, motorhome aerodynamics are carefully engineered so that the first bug landing on the windshield after you cleaned the windows at the last rest stop will land right in the middle of the driver’s field of vision. Every time. I believe that the engineers do their real world testing in mid-America.


Dispatch from the Field: 10,000 miles in 90 days – the rhythm of an RV road trip.


best campsite

After two months touring Canada, we left Ontario ready to get home. The more direct northern route was not promising weather-wise, and I wanted some warm dry weather before returning for a Portland winter. A meandering south by southwestern course brought us through the heart of mid-America, on to Arkansas to meet an old friend at the U of A, west (quickly) through Oklahoma and Texas to New Mexico, there to search for aliens and explore Carlsbad Caverns, then a few warm, sunny days in Tucson, on to battle traffic in southern California, and a week in California’s central coast, that being my happy place, but I am not the only one. San Luis Obispo regularly places in the top three “Happiest Places in America.” Then, like a horse heading back to the barn, we made a beeline up I-5 to Portland.

After 10,000 miles, in 90 days, we made it home, having witnessed only two wrecks (neither serious, likely no injuries), and with nothing having gone seriously wrong with the motorhome. How could anything go wrong, after all. Anything that could possibly break has already broken at least once, and been fixed. Repeatedly.

There is a rhythm to a long distance road trip. The first hour of the first day takes forever. You look at the odometer – only 50 miles! Geez, this is going to be a long trip. By the end of the first day you are questioning the wisdom of the trip. The second day is not much better. But by the third day, you settle in, and the miles start clicking along, you stop looking at your watch or the odometer.

You have reached road trip zen.

Just getting onto the road in a motorhome takes longer than in a car. In fact it takes about an hour to button everything up, removing all the utilities (power, water, sewer), packing for travel, pulling in the slides, hooking up the toad (the cute name used for a towed vehicle), and installing the auxiliary braking system. Once under way, EVERYTHING takes longer in a motorhome. Starting with acceleration to cruise speed. And stopping. Much longer. Especially if you have delays for horses and buggies (though they could probably outrun you):

delays for horse and buggy

So you drive much more conservatively, letting people by when you can. Speed limit is 70 mph? Not for a motorhome pulling a toad. Try 55 mph in some states. But that’s ok, because you never have to worry about passing that slow vehicle ahead of you – you ARE that slow vehicle. So courtesy calls for frequently pulling over to let others pass. And serious hills and mountains are taken (both up and down) at 40 to 50 mph, not full cruise speed, since getting towed out of the runaway truck ramp takes even more time.

If Mr. Google Maps says a trip should take 4 1/2 hours, I figure at least 6. This includes the mandatory nap after every few hours of driving. You laugh? Some friends we met on the trip relayed this dialogue that happened only a few weeks before our visit:

She: “Getting tired hon? I can take over driving.”

He: “No, I’m ok. We’re almost home.”

Car: “THUD!” as he shortly thereafter nodded off, ran off the road, and hit a tree.

They were both fully recovered by the time of our visit. The car, not so much.

On arrival at the campground you stop to register, and are shown to your site. Figure about 15 minutes, more if there is a line at registration. Parking often involves some fine-tuning to make sure you can reach the utilities, nothing will interfere with the slides, and hopefully no tree branches will block your satellite tv reception – yeah, I know, this is really roughing it. Then another half hour or so to level the coach (one button), open the slides (4 buttons), hook up the utilities, set up the furniture, and move everything back into place. This includes the chairs you set up outside in order to enjoy the sunset.

sunset in mid-america

By then, it’s usually time to raise a toast to the Queen (a British tradition we have adopted), make and enjoy dinner, clean up,  and finally relax and enjoy the evening. One of the best parts of staying in a campsite rather than a hotel is the campfire. Most hotel chains, I have found, frown on campfires in their properties.


As you can see, this does not allow a lot of time for writing. Especially after toasting the Queen and eating a hearty meal. Nodding off, yes. Writing, no. Hence no posts for most of the way home.

Having left this blog somewhere in mid-America, it is time to bring it home to the Pacific Northwest. The next few dispatches will hit a few worthy highlights along the way as we cannonballed our way west.



A Few Thoughts On Turning 65

It started when I went to McDonald’s for a coffee over 15 years ago. The young kid at the register said “25 cents please.” Startled, I handed over a quarter and looked around the posters on the windows looking for the special on coffee. Nothing. Puzzled, I sat down, started to sip, and my eye caught the receipt, containing the horrible phrase: “Senior Coffee.” I wasn’t even 50!

Next it was at a movie theatre: “$10 please.” Wait, admission is $7.50 each, so for two that should be…OK, sure, I get it, here’s $10. Without even asking, I was getting away with paying less than full money’s worth, compensation for having avoided the early death lottery.

I started getting comfortable with the notion. For some reason though, I hated the words “senior discount.” Instead I coined my own term: “Gray Hair Discount.” When asked whether I was a senior, I’d just point to my silver mound of hair, and ka-ching – out popped the discount.

There’s more to turning 65 than discounts. My good buddy and avid reader Randy recently turned 65 while on a flight across the ocean. Since he happened to be occupying the left seat of the cockpit, this required that he immediately exit the pilot’s compartment and take his place in the cabin. No one gets to fly airliners at age 65. Care for some warm nuts?

Turning 65 also means medicare, medicare advantage plans, medicare supplement plans, medicare Rx plans, Part A, Part B, Part D – is it really this complicated? Or I am just getting old?

I don’t think anyone in their 50’s feels like a senior citizen, yet as soon as you turn 50, the AARP somehow finds you and sends you pictures of healthy, virile, active men and women with grey hair. Sign up and you get even more discounts! And magazines with more gray-haired people, including starlets you remember lusting over when you were a teenager. They have grey hair now too, but the wrinkles are all photoshopped out.

In your 50’s, even your early 60’s, you can fool yourself that you aren’t a senior. You’re still middle-aged, getting older, but not a senior citizen. My dad was definitely a senior citizen at that age, but not me.

When you hit 65, it’s all over. You cannot deny it any longer. You are the very definition of a senior citizen.

I just turned 65. I am a senior citizen. There – I said it! But I still don’t believe it!

On reaching 65, a male born in the 1950’s no longer faces an early death. Too late for that. Any death from now on is timely, he led a full life, he beat the odds, he lived beyond life expectancy, wasn’t it nice that he lived as long as he did?

It’s just the passing of another day, another year, yet this is a bigger milestone than anything since turning 16 and becoming able to drive (and fly an airplane solo). Less fun, but at least as meaningful.

Oh sure, they say, growing old is better than the alternative. But really, how do you know? It isn’t like someone tried both, and came back and said this is definitely better, keep on trucking, don’t do that other thing. We just accept the notion, realizing that the aches and pains will not dissipate, the sharpness of thinking will not improve, and the ability to make wild, passionate love all night long might survive as a memory of earlier times but that’s about it.

So we persist, thankful that we made it this far, making the best of every day, doing what we can to ignore the side effects of living life this long.

© 2017 Ken Fransen

The writer is a retired attorney who now travels North America, still living in denial that he is now a senior citizen.


Dispatch from the Field: What I will miss about Canada

more Canada

After my last post, we left Maine, blew through upstate New York, and spent a few days in Southern Ontario, mostly visiting relatives and briefly reacquainting myself with my hometown of Toronto.

It turns out I have a lot of really cool relatives! My family left Southern Ontario for the prairies when I was 11, and for California when I was 14, so I never really got to know most of my cousins and other relatives, who now number approximately 235. Or is it 350? Who can possibly keep count? There, it just grew again. (Congratulations on the new baby by the way.) As if that wasn’t enough relatives, two of my wife’s siblings (all from California) married Canadians from southern Ontario, moved there, and their families are growing there as well. (Congratulations on the new baby by the way.)

Having left Canada with our passports tucked away for awhile, I’ve had a chance to think of the things I will miss most about Canada, and things that I will not miss.


  • 18% butterfat cream wherever you buy a cup of coffee.
  • Friendly people everywhere.
  • Peanut butter as well as jam for your toast in the little container at the table of every restaurant.
  • Feeling fairly confident that the person tailgating or otherwise driving aggressively toward you does not have a handgun or assault weapon.
  • Overhearing lovely conversations in French at the table next to you even though you have no clue what they are saying.
  • Tim Horton’s. (Aside: Tim Horton – number 7 – was my favorite member of the Toronto Maple Leafs when I was kid. He had the good fortune to start the most successful donut and coffee shop chain in Canada, but had the bad fortune to be screwed out of it long before it really took off.)
  • The metric system – it just makes sense – and the constant mental exercise involved in converting metric to US.
  • The 20% discount on everything due to US-Cananda currency exchange.
  • Butter tarts everywhere! This alone would make moving to Canada a reasonable option.
  • Inukshuks – the hundreds and hundreds of Inuit-inspired rock sculptures along many roads that are in the likeness of humans and traditionally mean “you are on the right path.” This elaborate one was shot by John Mackey because all of the ones we saw had been knocked down by vandals, and now have the traditional meaning of “pile of rocks” or “some people are real jerks.”inukshuk
  • Primary roads that have almost no traffic. All across the Trans-Canada Highway I was amazed how comparatively little traffic there was. Especially trucks. By contrast, for example, I-5 is horrible all the way from San Diego to Seattle, and I-80 can be messy most of the way across the US. Okay, this comment does NOT apply to roads anywhere near Toronto or Montreal or Vancouver).
  • Canadian accents eh?
  • A country that appreciates its diversity and the contributions of its immigrants to such a degree that it has a National Museum of Immigration. (If you look carefully you will find the name of my grandmother, who came to Canada as a young single mother with SEVEN young children in July of 1926.)
  • No pennies – you round to the nearest nickel.
  • A system where policy still matters, campaigns last 11 weeks, special interests can’t buy elections, and elected representatives have to actually answer to each other, in public session, every day. (Now coming oh so close to violating the No-Politics Zone – let’s move on.)
  • The Canadian flag. flagCanada’s flag, by the way, is considered one of the world’s best by world-renowned Vexillologist Ted Kaye, who literally wrote the book on what makes a good flag: “Good Flag, Bad Flag.”
  • Fall Colour worthy of its name.
  • Loonies (one dollar coins) and Toonies (two dollar coins) – just because it is so much fun to say Loonies and Toonies.
  • Singing along with the Canadian anthem until I choke up. (BE SURE TO CLICK ON THE LINK AT THE BOTTOM OF THIS POST.)
  • Poutine!


  • No free refills of coffee. I was amazed how after spending $5 or $6 on an espresso beverage, my smiling request never yielded a free refill of coffee, a request routinely granted below the border. To prove the point, I am currently finishing this post at The Bean in Las Cruces, NM. After finishing my morning espresso, I have just gone to the counter and asked the lovely Lauren how much it would cost to trade my empty mug for a full one of coffee. She smiled sweetly, and said, “oh, nothing.” Thanks Lauren:

lauren 2

  • The prices of just about everything, which are higher than in the US even after the currency conversion.
  • Hardly any rest areas on highways. How is one supposed to have their morning and afternoon naps? (Ah, the retired life.)
  • The metric system – how can you figure out what you are really paying for fuel?
  • Apparently a lot, so let’s add fuel prices to the list.
  • The challenge of trying to find a coffee shop that is not a Tim Horton’s. (The challenge now that I am back in the States is to find a coffee shop that is not a Starbucks.)
  • Lounge music masquerading as jazz.





Dispatch from the Field: The Red Phase – Fall Color and Lobster

fall color pano

We somehow stumbled into Maine during the height of Fall Color Season. When you start your trip in August, with a flexible and oft-changing schedule, you have no clue when the show will begin, but we got lucky this year. And we didn’t have to go far to find it. This tree was next to our RV site:

rv site tree

Sometimes, it was fun to just inhale the intense splash of color:

splash of color

Other times we savored the mixture of greens and yellows and purples and reds, with a pond thrown in for good measure:

mixture of colors

Touring Acadia National Park, you get it all:

Acadia everything

Watching the waves from the Atlantic Ocean crash into the rocky shore was mesmerizing even without the changing colors of Fall:

rocky shore b:w

Beyond Acadia National Park and the opportunity for leaf-peeping, Maine is known for lobster. Sometimes the best part of lobster is the people who are attached to them:

bob and kathie.jpg

Bob and Kathie are friends from our time in Clovis, California. They are not only great people but big supporters of the Boys & Girls Clubs. She grew up in Maine, inherited some of the family coastal property, and they go back and forth between California and Maine. Our luck, they were in Maine while we were passing through, and they invited us over for lobster supper. A seminar in how to eat lobster was included, and the meal and conversation were wonderful. We enjoyed lobster so much we went to a number of other lobster suppers:

lobster pot

It doesn’t get any fresher than this:

fresh as it gets


And you can’t beat the price for Maine lobster in Maine! Complete lobster dinners for 18.95!

Being from Portland Oregon, we couldn’t go to New England without visiting Portland Maine, which has a lovely, very walkable waterfront and downtown area. There was a remarkable community art project consisting of nothing but a mass of colorful locks:

lock art

It reminded me of the Pearl District with its art galleries:

art gallery

and interesting shops and restaurants, including a unique donut shop featuring REAL MAINE POTATOES:

donut shop

And, of course, there was lobster:

portland lobster.jpg


With this dispatch, the West Coast to East Coast portion of the trip is complete, and the Portland (ME) to Portland (OR) leg of the Tour begins. How we get there is anyone’s guess.

Dispatch from the Field: Lighthouses, Scarecrows, and Walking on the Ocean Floor

If you ask about where to go or what to see in Nova Scotia, Peggy’s Cove and its beautiful lighthouse are always mentioned. Here is the traditional view of the lighthouse, with people crawling all over it:

peggy lighthouse

And here is my artsy fartsy interpretation:

artsy fartsy

Either way, it is a pretty lighthouse, but before you even get there you pass a memorial for the SwissAir flight 111 that crashed in the Cove less than 20 years ago. Carved into a massive rock are three notches (i.e., “111”), with the direction of the notches pointing directly to the place not far offshore where the flight ended in the Atlantic Ocean:


Everyone was quiet and respectful and I wondered if anyone there had lost a loved one in the crash. It did not seem appropriate to ask.

Nearby, Mahone Bay was trying to drum up some late season tourist business with a Scarecrow Festival.


The town itself is absolutely gorgeous, situated as it is right on the water, and it appeared that every single home or business in the town was heavily invested in the competition. Here are but a few entries:


quilt store scarecrow.jpg

My favorite:


The average tide worldwide fluctuates about 3 feet. At places in the Canadian Maritimes, they can fluctuate anywhere between 32 to 46 feet. At Hopewell Rocks, you can watch it happen. Here is what it looks like just after high tide:

high tide

And this is what it looks like, walking on the ocean floor 3 or 4 hours later:

low tide

The Park officials are very careful to kick everyone’s butt out when the tide starts turning, because it can move quickly.

With this post, we have completed our trip across Canada, and we somehow managed to be here just when the leaves started turning brilliant:

fall colour

Nova Scotia-born singer, Anne Murray:

Dispatch from the Field: Canadian Rednecks, and the Tragic Loss of Life and Property in Halifax



Had my initial experience with people from Halifax been otherwise, I might have immediately concluded that Halifax is a really cool town. See: Dispatches from the Field: Calgary – What is Hip?

After all, Wanda (whose real name is Kate but inexplicably changed her name) at Second Cup made sure I knew about all the great places to go in Halifax. Great live music at the wanda kateCarleton, creative cocktails at Lot 6, the longest civil rights protest ever in Africville. I told her she made me feel at home with her wild hair color and tattoos, Portland being a haven for both. She has a young daughter about 8 years old, who shares the same fiery hair color, but no tattoos as yet. Another barista, also named Kate, who did not change Halifax Kateher name, reminded me in her mannerisms of my non-Kate daughter Jen (real name Jenny), and this Kate also wanted to make sure I knew all about their town. I always seem to find a home base, usually a coffee shop, where I can work on this blog, catch up on emails, read the news (which is inevitably about Trump, Trump, Trump, even in Canada) until I can’t take it anymore, and if I am lucky I will meet someone helpful like the two Kates. No, if my first interaction with the people of Halifax was with Wanda Kate and Kate, I’d have loved the town from the outset.

But my initial experience in Halifax was just sour enough that it took a day or two to realize that Halifax was a very nice city. And it wasn’t the drivers blasting around the motorhome, or cutting me off, or otherwise driving aggressively as I was trying to find the campground. As readers of last year’s dispatches will recall, Canadians do all of these things, but they are always smiling politely as they do them.

No, it was the initial experience at the campground that did it. First, as I parked to register in a two lane area, there was a big, black pickup parked going the wrong way, blocking one of the two lanes. Some of you may know that I have a thing about big, black pickups, or at least the people that seem to want to drive them. Not all of them, mind you. My good friend, avid reader, and retired airline pilot Randy drives a big black pickup, and Randy is one of the absolutely nicest guys you would ever want to know. Really, you ought to try to get to know him. And my other really good retired airline pilot friend, avid reader Paul, has a son in law who drives a big black pickup and I know personally that he is a really nice guy. But for some reason, regardless of country or other geography, if you someone cuts you off, tailgates, or otherwise drives aggressively towards you, the odds are 50/50 or better that he is in a big black pickup. Unless you have just crossed into Fresno County, in which case the odds are 100%. Check it out. Every time. Bank on it. So when someone is parked the wrong way, blocking the only lane allowing access to the campground now that I am doing the mandatory stop and register routine, it did not particularly surprise me that it was a big black pickup.

Walking in and saying hi to the nice woman at the desk, I noticed two men, one older and one younger, slouched on a sofa and easy chair respectively, dressed in full camo and looking about as sullen as one could imagine. I quickly determined that older camo-man was the father of younger camo-man, and that the nice lady was the wife and mother, respectively, and whom I came to pity. I requested a site that was satellite friendly, saying I wanted to watch the Green Bay Packers game that evening. Grumbled one camo-man to me: “They’re all takin’ a knee tonight.” Not wanting to get into a political discussion, this blog being a Politics-Free Zone, I simply replied “yep, that’s freedom.” I then overheard the other camo-man say to the first under his breath: “one of THOSE.” Apparently “freedom” was not a popular concept among Canadian camo-men that day. It shall come as no surprise that the big black pickup was that of one of the camo-men.

That night the Packers locked arms, did not kneel, and won their game, so perhaps all was well in camo-land after all, but it bothered me that in Nova Scotia I could not simply get a campsite without having to be confronted with the detritus of US politics.

But thanks to Kate and Kate, I came to appreciate others from their community, and ultimately became a Hali-Fan. It turns out Halifax has a rich history, mostly involving the tragic loss of life and/or destruction of property.


Case 1: During WWI, a munitions ship and a Belgian relief ship collided in the narrowest area of Halifax Harbor (aka Harbour), appropriately named The Narrows. No explosion. That happened an hour or two later when the crippled munitions ship, by then on fire, hit the shore. A large portion of Halifax, primarily along the waterfront, was incinerated and thousands died.

Case 2: When the Titanic sunk, the deceased were all taken to the nearest port, Halifax. The survivors were picked up by a nearby ship, the Carpathia, and they sailed on to New York, but Halifax became the largest morgue in the world. Fun fact: First class dead passengers were removed in coffins. Second and third class passengers were taken off in canvas bags. Think of that next time you think about saving money on your next cruise.

Case 3: There are over 10,000 shipwrecks in Nova Scotian waters, though some think the total might be as high as 25,000. Each red dot below is a shipwreck – so many it looks like a red line around the entire coastline.


Case 4: The Black neighborhood of Africville, founded centuries ago by former slaves who were freed when they fought for the British during the American Revolution, was destroyed in the 1960’s in the name of urban renewal. The residents were relocated, their possessions transported with exquisite symbolism by city garbage trucks. One resident, Eddie Carvery, returned to Africville in 1970 to protest the loss of his home and community. He has never stopped. This photo shows what remains of Africville:

africville part In the distance just beyond the park you can barely see four trailers, and Eddie’s is the one on the right with the tattered sign “Africville Protest.” In 2005, the city of Halifax formally apologized and built a museum:

africville museum

Halifax turns out to have a thriving cultural scene, and some very interesting stores, including one catering exclusively to women called Venus Envy: venus envyI do not know what that means, but stayed clear anyway. In addition to an array of museums and art galleries (including the Canadian Immigration Museum, a concept that would somehow seem more appropriate in the States right now), I saw a poster for the most unusual poetry reading I have ever come across:



Having already bought tickets to the Thom Swift gig at the Carleton, we had to skip Nudi-Tea, but enjoyed our time with the singer-songwriter who reminded us of another Canadian balladeer, Gordon Lightfoot:

thom swift

So Halifax turns out to be a fun place, as long as you don’t talk about football and try to stay out of the way of big black pickups.


Dispatch from the Field: Cape Breton and a Gaelic Kaylee

Breton pano

Cape Breton Island is at once beautiful and culturally significant, as it is home to a massive amount of Acadian and Gaelic culture and history. The French Acadians were evicted from the southeastern part of the Island when the British beat the pants off the French during the Seven Year’s War. Acadians subsequently came back to the northwestern part of the Island where the high lands (now known as the Cape Breton Highlands) gave them some protection and cultural insulation. It worked! There were as many Acadian flags (the French tri-color with a gold star on it) in that area as acadian flagthere were Canadian flags. Many Acadians also moved to other parts of Canada as well as Louisiana. Avid reader and Cajun music lover “shortforcanyon” will appreciate (and no doubt already knows), that after the Acadians got to Louisiana the persistent southern accent converted “Acadian” to “Cajun.” Same great traditions and same great music.

In addition, centuries ago Gaelic immigrants from Scotland came by the tens of thousands and made Nova Scotia, especially Cape Breton, their home. The Gaels, with their Celtic language and rich culture, have helped shape Nova Scotia’s identity.  More on that in a bit.

For now let’s focus on the Cabot Trail which circumnavigates the Cape Breton Highlands National Park. Cabot Trail signWe did the 200 mile Trail (meaning road but Trail sounds oh so much more adventurous and that is what they call it) in a day, with a stop for lunch at the Keltic Lodge, enjoying the breathtaking view from the restaurant. We took some short hikes along the way, and I took a short nap, and we got back to the motorhome in time for dinner. Doing the Cabot Trail in two days, and spending more time along the way, might be the better option. But geez, not in a motorhome. Parts of the road are windy, steep, and tight. Hence we took the Jeep, and I was too cheap to stop half way through and rent a room somewhere.

breton coast line

Along the Trail, there are a bunch of hiking opportunities, and we took the one called “The Bog.” Clearly, it does not sound as inviting or as sexy as “Skyline Trail” or “Middle Head Trail,” but it was supposed to have a good chance of us meeting a Moose. What we would do in that event, it was not clear. The issue was moot, however; no Moose, just bog. But as bogs go, not a bad one.


As beautiful as the Highlands were, the highlight of our Cape Breton experience was attending a Ceilidh (pronounced “Kay-Lee”) at The Gaelic College. Let’s just call it a gaelic collegeKaylee and focus on the event rather than the spelling or pronunciation. A Kaylee is an old Gaelic tradition roughly meaning gathering, as in let’s get together in the kitchen and play music, eat, dance, and tell stories and lies. Carol was hoping “drink some Scotch” would be a part of it, but two of the performers, Dawn and Margie, instead served all of us tea and cookies. Yes, the performers served tea and cookies to everyone there, like we were in their kitchen. And that was the point.

Since The Gaelic College is all about preserving the Gaelic culture, KayLeelanguage, and traditions, they hold many public Kaylees, and we attended a doozy. Margie and Dawn started off the show, playing the fiddle and
keyboard, and were ultimately joined by three more performers. They all traded off playing the fiddle, the keyboard, the guitar, and dancing. There was even a Gaelic song, sung in Gaelic that nobody understood, but we all sort of got. Another tune was from a Gaelic song literally translated “She put her knee in him.” Sadly, the title and the song were not explained. The music pulled me in like a magnet on iron. It was all I could do to keep from jumping up on the stage and dancing with them. Well, that and lack of talent.

One of the performers was Rod MacDonald, who played the fiddle and danced, sometimes at the same time. The Gaelic tradition is all about dancing to the music, even if you are playing the music. It was a wonder to see. It turns out that Rod is not only the CEO of the College, but also the former Prime Minister of Nova Scotia. (Just teasing, Canadians, he is the former Premier.) We talked to Rod after the concert. He was pretty sweaty from all the performing, so I guess that’s why Carol is hugging me not him. He with rodtold us that prior to becoming Premier he was at various times the minister of tourism and culture, and immigration, and this, and that. Essentially, when he became Premier he knew pretty much everything about what was going on in the government. We asked him if he would consider moving to the States and running for higher office, but he politely demurred and instead invited us to return to Cape Breton another time. We actually might.

When we were at the Keltic Lodge (and I know they can’t seem to get the spelling straight – is it laurenKeltic or Celtic? Apparently no one knows), we met Lauren, who now lives and works in the Cape Breton Highlands. I asked her where she was from and she said “Sydney [Nova Scotia] but I’m not going back!” Why? “Because there’s nothing to do! The coal mines and steel mills have closed, and it’s kind of depressing.” So, of course, the next day we went to Sydney. She was right. There was one thing though that I did want to see in Sydney – the Odditorium. What better place to go for a blog that enjoys the weird and the quirky. It apparently specializes in old rocks and minerals and other relics of the past. However, the Odditorium enjoys odd hours too. It turned out that they are open – briefly – on Monday and Friday, and otherwise by appointment only, and we were not there during the open hours. And it was very, very hard to find, unless you happened to already be heading to the medical marijuana dispensary next door. Hmm, that’s odd. Coincidence? Lauren, I’ll never doubt you again.

Our last night, tropical moisture from hurricane Maria mixed with a cold front from western Canada, resulting in the most intense series of Cape Breton thunderstorms in decades. Torrential rain. Lighting. Thunder. It started around 4 in the morning and lasted for three hours. The experience of thunder and lightning is a bit more intimate when your campsite is at the top of a plateau, you are all by yourselves in your motorhome, there are no other tall objects nearby, and your head is on a pillow separated from the metal superstructure of the RV by about three inches and a thin wall. Every time there was a flash of lightning I counted the seconds before the boom. Five seconds means it is about a mile away, and luckily the strikes never got closer than that. Storms like that make for little sleep, but great sunsets.


Dispatch from the Field: PEI and the Search for the Silver Tin

pano pei campsite day

Notwithstanding the photos and video clips you see from RV company ads, it is rare to have a campsite that is honestly on the waterfront. Above is the view from our campsite in PEI. The picture at the end of this dispatch is also from our campsite. We enjoyed our time there so much we added some extra days, one of which involved staying at the campground and just enjoying the view. For those who know me, this is rare.

Knowing I was heading to Prince Edward Island (known officially as “PEI”), avid reader and fellow jazz aficionado Joe writes: “I lost a stash of weed in a campground on PEI in 1977. I appreciate your keeping an eye out for a silver tin and a pack of Zig Zags.” The loss apparently still hurts as he followed up with a further email after I agreed to take on the search: “Ok. I seem to recall the tin was packed with the finest Hawaiian weed available on Berkeley’s Telegraph Avenue. God how I missed that, and it impacted the general tone of the rest of my cross country trip. My buddy and I had to rely more frequently on Strohs and Old Overholt for our kicks after our great loss.”

More about the search later, but whereas we couldn’t find enough to do in other places, we could easily have stayed in PEI another week. We didn’t even get to spend any time at the Art Gallery, or the Museum, or attend a couple of other plays that looked interesting, or get to know Bill the actor/story-teller/playright who goes around town, coffee shop to coffee shop, with long, scraggly, graying beard and hair, and wearing only a robe and sandals, referring to the pastries he wants to purchase as “bird droppings.”

But we did meet Paul, a semiretired software engineer, now a consultant helping startups who works with a business incubator down the street. He is a business powerhouse, having managed a number of Nasdaq companies, but fell in love with PEI. Why? “It’s small, only 135,000 people on the entire island, and only 35,000 in Charlottetown. People care about each other.” He lives on the north edge of the Island, along the Gulf of St. Lawrence. “Friends often get together for dinner at each other’s homes. Last weekend there were 14 around our table. Tonight there will only be 8.” He doesn’t mind the weather, despite the howling 60mph/100kmh winds coming off the St. Lawrence in the winter.

churchills-pub.jpgWe met Paul at the best curry place in Canada – Churchill’s Pub. There were four curries to choose from. We ordered two – both great. But what got Churchill’s into the Canadian foodie show “You Gotta Eat Here” was their Deep Fried Mars Bar. I’m a big fan of Winston Churchill. My favorite speech by anyone was his speech at the beginning of WWII to a graduating class somewhere, where he got up to the podium, paused, looked around and said in its entirety, “Never give up, never give up, never, never, never, never give up!” And he sat down. My kind of guy.

Now some of you, maybe all of you, may know that the foregoing story is a myth, that the quote was a short excerpt from a two page speech, and that this portion of his speech actually read: “Never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never—in nothing, great or small, large or petty—never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense.” And he kept going. I like my version better, but I liked their Deep Fried Mars Bar best of all:

deep fried mars bar

We also met Hamad. Having been immensely disappointed in the fish ‘n chips served at Jungle Jim’s in Fredericton (my fault – who else would order fish ‘n chips at a chain called Jungle Jim’s?), we went to Brit’s Fish ‘N Chips in downtown Charlottetown. We immediately noted by his accent that our server was hamadnot British. He volunteered that he was from E-Ron. “You may know it as Eye-Ran.” He came to Canada 10 years ago with his family, but it took them 13 years of effort before that to gain admission. He started working at the fish ‘n chips store with his brother, then when the owner decided to sell, the family bought it. There were lots of choices on the menu but I asked for the traditional fish ‘n chips and a beer. He asked where we were from? I said Oregon. He said “most Americans think Canadian beers are…” and he paused, hesitant to continue. I said, that’s OK, tell me. “Cat piss.” So I ordered a pint of cat piss, and here is Hamad presenting it to me. As cat piss goes, it was not too bad. A bit mild, not too hoppy. Your standard yeoman cat piss.

Of course, PEI is all about Anne of Green Gables, and we went to the Anne Museum, the Anne National Park, and one of two Anne plays then playing. Not having done my homework ahead of time, I had not read the book. Or books. I guess there were a bunch. But I found one thing very interesting. The guide at the Anne Museum said they rent out the place for weddings of “Canadian and Japanese couples.” I asked why the reference to Japanese couples as compared to any others. “Green Gables was translated into Japanese just after WWII and proved to be very popular among Japanese women. Anne was a strong, and independent woman, and this resonated among Japanese women whose culture did not encourage that independence.” While we were there, at least half the people attending were Japanese. Here is a picture of the Green Gables house:

green gables house

Not the real one mind you, but an exact replica built in Japan and one of the most popular tourist sites there.

The drive out to the Green Gables area took us through many picturesque villages, and with some effort we finally made it to the north shore, and saw the Gulf of St. Lawrence:


Charlottetown is historically significant to Canadians. It is where delegates from the various colonies north of the US gathered together in 1864, and agreed to create the union we now know as Canada. This was all very dry stuff when I attended Canadian schools when I was young. It would have been way more interesting had I known the truth. In fact, the meeting was only for delegates from Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and PEI, but politicians from what we now know as Ontario and Quebec crashed the party. They wanted something bigger and better – a new country to be called Canada, consisting of all of their collective territory. With crates of champagne to drink, the delegates spent more time at the banquets and on the dance floor than in meetings. The “Canadians” wined and dined the Maritimers for 8 days, basically wearing them out, until they realized this could work out for their benefit. Either that, or they agreed in order to get the Canadians to go home. The conference ended with a grand ball that lasted into the wee hours. Finally, at 4am, a procession of undoubtedly very giddy politicians marched down the main street to continue the celebrations aboard the SS Queen Victoria. Think how much could be accomplished these days if politicians actually partied together!

Back to Joe’s missing silver tin. Despite an intense search consisting of me standing at our campsite and looking around with my head down, Joe’s tin remains at large, but I did notice that the people at the campsite four down from us were very, very mellow.