Our big box journey of 17 days — west to B.C., south to California, east to Nebraska, north to Manitoba — is finished. We’re very grateful for safe travel, and good experiences. The family visits with siblings and children, in B.C. and in Colorado, at the two poles of the trip, were definitely the highlights. Other notables, for our own recollection and for those interested, include the following.
1. Total distance travelled: 8,070 kilometers.
2. Best hotel: This is nearly a draw, between the Hampton Inn in Norfolk, Nebraska, corn country, and the Holiday Inn in Astoria, Oregon. Both had great beds and “extras,” in terms of amenities. But the latter wins, for the view — of the Columbia River and the green girders of the long Astoria-Megler Bridge — just outside our window.
3. Most expensive hotel: Our winner above, which just goes to show that sometimes you pay for what you get.
4. Most “basic” hotel: We were tired that night, and Basic was plenty good enough at an old motel, which shall remain nameless here, found along the # 3 in the B.C. Rockies. But we did have to chuckle when we were shown the “executive” room first, which was, as far as we could tell, exactly the Same Basic as a standard room, except that the room itself was somewhat larger. We decided to forego the privilege of additional worn carpet and linoleum and save ourselves, as well, the executive $10 extra!
5. King of the road: We were tired another night too, post hours of turns in the California mountains. The towns-along-the-way options seemed to be diminishing. In Shingletown, we followed the suggestion of a gas station clerk, somewhat dubiously, down a long road through tall trees to an assortment of trailers and cabins called Mill Creek Eco Resort. Our trailer accomodation was one of those places that seems to have been pasted together over the years from what comes to hand or may be on sale. The door, for example, contained an oval of cut glass that was more suited for a two-storey in the suburbs, but the welcome surprise here was the 4-post king-size bed, new, and extremely comfortable. And (though this has nothing particular to do with anything except that I found it interesting) the helpful proprietor of the place was wearing a T-shirt with “Souled Out” on it, and the verse, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, and soul.” Good man.
6. My favourite meal: That would be the Moroccan chicken and polenta at the Bridgewater Bistro in Astoria. As for dessert, an unassuming cafe in a small town yielded a memorable homemade bread pudding, moist and filled with raisins.
7. Best sand: The sand dunes, white and stretching everywhere around us, called the Sahara of Oregon, playground of all manner of ATVs and dune buggies.
8. Best dirt: While in Denver, we saw “The Art of Dirt,” a wonderful exhibit connected with IDE and curated by our sister-in-law Agatha Doerksen. It had two parts: a display of the simple but effective technologies IDE promotes such as the treadle pump, rope pump, drip hoses for irrigation, etc., and secondly, 43 paintings and works of art from artists in 10 countries, relating to small markets and farms, which is the context of IDE’s work. (See the link above to view the technologies, photographs, and art pieces now available by auction.)
9. Most over-rated tourist attraction: I’d read that the Tilamook Cheese Factory was the top tourist attraction on the coast, so of course we had to stop too. What we saw was hordes of people milling about, and from a gallery overhead a large room with closed and gleaming stainless steel cylinders and conveyor belts of packaged cheese, with several women in white looking at gauges or helping the moving cheese along in various ways. We both grew up in small towns that had cheese factories which we’d visited then, so why had we come? Well, to say we’d done so, I suppose. The “squeaky cheese” we purchased was delicious, though, every bit as good as Manitoba’s Bothwell cheddar squeakies!
10. Patriotism meets equal opportunity pity: One traveller I’d consulted online described the Air Museum just out of Tilamook as odd but fascinating, which is about how we found it as well. It was housed in a huge wooden former hangar for blimps. The introductory video about the hangar and its display of World War II aircraft was informative but rather heavily tinged with patriotic admonitions. We were instructed to think, as we looked at the planes, of the dedicated stalwarts who served in defense of “our country.” Sure, but then it turns out there’s a German Messerschmidt in the collection too. So I simply thought of the poor, brave, wasted lives on all sides of that brutal conflict.
11. Favourite picnic spots: By a cold rushing stream somewhere between Cranbrook and Creston, and by the Pacific Ocean with a black sand beach and a warning sign about “sneaker waves” that had taken four lives there since 2003. We kept away from the sneakers, but what it is about the sound of water that so enhances any picnic menu, even just bread and cheese, or bread and peanut butter and jam?
12. Speaking of water, reminders of where to put down roots: As we drove through various dry places in Utah and Colorado, we couldn’t helping noticing how green the vegetation was beside the occasional pond or stream. It was a visual reminder of an old and obvious truth, and a spiritual truth as well. “Happy those… whose delight is in the law of the Lord… They are like trees planted by streams of water… their leaves do not wither” (Psalm 1). And, “God’s rivers brim with water…” (Psalm 65:9).
13. Also, reminders of the dead: On our first Sunday, a misty morning, we were early for our lunch date with an aunt in Lethbridge, so we detoured through Coaldale, finding the former Mennonite Brethren Church, now the Gem of the West Museum, closed on a Sunday of course, just as it had once always been open that day, and saw too the gravestones and commemorative stone for B.B. and Maria Janz. I wrote the biographical piece on Janz for Harold Jantz’s recent collection, Leaders Who Shaped Us, but had not seen these markers before. Then, in Denver, on another Sunday morning, we attended First Mennonite Church and were intrigued to see six memorial columns standing in a niche of the property beside the church, a cemetery appropriate for urban land use, each containing spaces for the burial of ashes. I don’t know how this cemetery came to be — not many of the available crypts had been filled as yet, so it must be relatively recent. I was reminded of a sermon, “Life of the dead” by Isaac Villegas, which I read some time ago, in which he said,
I think something happens to a people who get together near the graves of those who have gone before them… In a culture that is afraid of growing old and dying, gravestones keep us honest — they help us live without delusions… [In addition] in a very real sense… the church is a leaf of grass growing from those graves.
14. Connections even further back: Mesa Vera, with its ruins of dwellings built into the canyon cliffs and crevices by the Puebloans who came to the area some 1,400 years ago and stayed more than 700 years, was fascinating. There’s something compelling and almost risky, one feels, about poking around an empty or abandoned house. It feels mysterious, and one wishes too, and half expects, that surely someone will suddenly appear in one of the windows, call out to you, and tell you everything about who lived there and what happened. If only it was possible to know even more about these people than the archaelogical record and these ruins reveal.
15. Wildlife sightings: Wolves, deer elk, foxes, and dozens and dozens of (motorcyle) “hawgs.”
16. Scariest stretch of road: Driving through the three mountain passes from Ouray in Colorado south to Durango. When the right white line has crumpled away at the edge, which then drops hundreds of feet straight down into a canyon, the turns sharp and seemingly endless, even H., who had a reputation as something of a daredevil driver in his youth, found himself clenching the steering wheel for dear life. We both decided later, done there, been that.
17. Most inappropriate place to hear an organ: We stopped at “Trees of Mystery” near Klamath, California to see the wonders of the coastal redwood forest. These are simply awe-inspiring trees. At one point on the walk, we came to what is called the Cathedral Tree, nine trees growing as one in a semi-circular “cathedral” formation. Apparently weddings and Easter services are sometimes held in this space. To illustrate, I suppose, schmaltzy organ music was being piped into the site. The First Nations peoples called this forest “a place of spirits” and declined to enter. We moderns have no inhibitions, but couldn’t we at least keep quiet? These magnificent trees, pulling heavenward, provoke silence and our appreciation of them needs it too.
18. Most appropriate place to hear an organ: At Salt Lake City, we visited the Mormon temple and buildings for the tourist draw they’ve become. Although the summer organ concerts in the tabernacle (it of Mormon Tabernacle Choir fame) had ended, we did hear an organist practicing for an upcoming concert. The sound was spectacular. One of the “sisters” who act as tour guides around the temple area also demonstrated the excellent acoustics of the building by speaking without a mic from the podium, tearing paper, and dropping nails, all of which we could hear clearly in our seats close to the back.
19. Sisters everywhere: The missionary sisters of the Church of the Latter Day Saints (Mormons) were everywhere at the site, working in two’s, fresh-faced and modestly if somewhat dowdily dressed, each carrying her Book of Mormon and a ready smile. It disconcerted me, I confess, to be steadily accosted by a friendliness so warm and un-subtle in its attempts to engage in conversation of a proselytizing nature. A kind of anxiety seemed to lie just beneath the surface of these earnest and very committed young women’s endeavours on behalf of their faith. It reminded me too much of some of the things I participated in many years ago in “evangelization” training in my youth, in which I felt not genuine and doing something ill-suited to my temperament and gifts.
20. Where we’d like to go again: Any of the places, really — how much variety, beauty, and colour in the world! — but the Oregon Coast highway (# 101) definitely, as far as San Francisco next time perhaps.