Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Importance of Egg Sandwiches

The South West desert seems unpredictable in late November. In some ecosystems, scarlet leaves cling to life while others' only color comes from green yucca plants and black lava flows. Warm, 70-degree days fade into windy, 25-degree nights as soon as the sun sets behind the mountains, whose colors change from clay to rose to gold, depending on the light.

We spend the coldest night of the trip camping in Grand Canyon. We're layered in multiple pairs of socks, long underwear, jeans, fleece and winter coasts. We're trying to sleep, me in a 15-degree bag and Patrick in a 20-degree bag. But they're both unzipped so Ophie can climb in and won't freeze overnight. It's a long night, and in the morning, we can't feel our toes.

Sometime after the sun rises, I climb out of the tent to walk Ophie. We ran out of coffee yesterday (I didn't realize a small can of instant coffee makes 30 cups. I poured the entire contents into the press.) and we've only got cold cereal. As I walk the dog, who's oblivious to any discomfort, I look at the other campers spending their Thanksgiving week in the national park. They're bundled in beanies and gloves, eating warm breakfasts and drinking coffee, and they all look warm and happy. By the time I get back to the tent, I'm crying.

I wake Patrick up. "See that couple next to us? They're everything we're not," I say between sobs. "They're happy. They're warm. They have coffee. And they have egg sandwiches."

Patrick starts laughing, which makes me cry harder. "That couple?" he asks, pointing to the two sitting apart from each other at a picnic table. They're hardly kissing passionately while surrounded by steaming pots of coffee and breakfast sandwiches.

"We're OK," he says. "We're cold, but we're happy."

"No. I will never be happy again without coffee and egg sandwiches. Go to the market and bring back coffee and egg sandwiches."

Patrick points out that we're camping, in the high desert, and we don't know if there's a market in the park.

"Let's go sit in the truck and defrost our feet," he says. "Then I'll make you cup o' noodles and swiss mocha instant coffee."

Our relationship—and life in general—seems more optimistic after my toes have thawed. And after Patrick promises egg sandwiches and coffee tomorrow morning, instant noodles and dehydrated peas never tasted so good.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Pretty as a Postcard

Mahone Bay, a charming, postcard-perfect fishing town in Nova Scotia is our eastern-most destination. It's also my birthday present from Patrick: two nights in a bed and breakfast, which seems oh-so Nova Scotia and storybook to me.

We arrive at the Fairmont House soggy and sniffly after camping in the rain at Fundy National Park, looking forward to a roof, warm bed and a jet tub. (The home-made chutneys and quiche will be an added perk.)

Our room overlooks the harbor, a gritty, industrial shipyard that's endearing for it's metal and usefulness and purpose in an otherwise fairy tale place. We clean up, continuously dissuade Ophie from claiming the king-size bed (it gets worse when we try to sleep. She figures she can wait us out and then overtake the giant mattress.), and then head across the street to the pub for a dinner of seafood chowder.

It's cold and misty outside and I bundle up in a sweater, scarf, hat and furry coat. This prompts the first of many entertaining moments for the Canadian innkeeper and guests, who seem to never tire or mocking the poor, cold California girl and wonder out loud what she would do should she visit in the winter when down coats and wool hats are actually needed. Patrick likes this game, too.

The seafood stew—and any mussels, clams, fresh fish—tastes hot, fresh and amazing. The IPAs, on the other hand, taste like Pilsners, something we've noticed throughout Canada and inspires our next potential business venture: Canadian IPA brewers.

The Great Scarecrow Festival

Every year, around the beginning of October, strange visitors flock to Mahone Bay, Novia Scotia. They are pirates and bellydancers, mermaids, queens and musicians. Michael Jackson, Harry Potter, Sarah Palin and Barack Obama are popular guests among the not-quite-human crowd.

The Great Scarecrow Festival has come to town, and with it comes an old fashioned pie-baking contest, a magical pumpkin path, car show and antique fair.

This year, two road trippers from Santa Cruz and one pampered pup named Ophie Jane join the hundreds of scarecrows for a few days of treats and tricks, fish stories and fishing boats and a romantic waterfront bed and breakfast. But before those stories, the scarecrows: decorated by locals, they stand in front of nearly every home and business along the main street, and one pirate scarecrow even has his own boat in the bay. Some are spooky, others clever, all a festive way to welcome the fall.

Bellydancing scarecrows?! Where's my coin belt?

As expected, the King of Pop was popular in Mahone Bay this year.

Patrick bowing to the Queen outside of our B&B.

More Michael. Can you tell the scarecrow from the tourist?

A Real Maverick.

This proves it. Ophie's a yellow dog Democrat.

Two Geniuses.

Harry Potter and the Hogwarts Gang.

Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame.

The Rolling Stones.

We quickly realize many Nova Scotians don't realize that they aren't British.

Walk the Plank!

Founding Families of Mahone Bay.

Viva la Scarecrow Festival!

Monday, November 2, 2009

High Tide or Low Tide

Fundy National Park of Canada encompasses some of the last remaining wilderness in southern New Brunswick. Here, the conifer-dominated Caledonia Highlands roll down to meet the fog-generating Bay of Fundy, with the highest tidal fluctuation in the world. At its most extreme, the tide rises and falls more than 70 feet!

Our longest driving adventure of the trip so far had us pulling into the Chignecto North Campground just before 2am. To our surprise two rangers were still manning the check-in/information booth. They told us they were just about to leave for the night (morning?), but before their own national budget crisis, park rangers were available 24/7. Interesting in comparison to our own park service where, after peak-season, rangers are rarely around after 5pm.

We awoke to what would turn out to be our warmest day in Canada, with bright blue skies and a relatively empty park. We fell back into our camping routine and studied the map over our morning coffee. We discovered that Fundy is a very bike-friendly park much like Yellowstone and Grand Teton, and decided on a 10-mile ride that would take us north along the coast to Goose River Beach. Within the first 100 yards, the trail showed us its teeth! A long and very steep 1.5 or so mile climb greeted us. We had expected more of a leisure ride based on the park terrain we had seen already, but we were up for the challenge. The rest of the ride continued in the same pattern; five major uphill battles followed by a fast and technical desent. Everywhere along the trail were huge deposits of moose poo. These guys can take some serious dumps! We managed to keep Ophie from rolling in them and unfortunately never saw one. Actually I'm going to stray for a second and once again say we must have seen 300 Moose X-ing/danger signs in Canada and didn't see squawt!! Seriously, did they all head to Florida for the winter?? If anyone has a picture of a moose in Canada, I'd love to see it!!

OK, back on track now, after a few creek crossings we came upon several bands of hikers. They were prep school teens from Prince Edward Island participating in what is Canada's equivilent to Boy/Girl Scouts. Although there were slight differences, it was open to all students and they also included skills such as firearm training. At the beach many of their classmates were still camping on great ocean over looks, one for boys and one for girls. We talked with the boys for a while after Ophie invited herself into their camp. They were so full of that funny teenage spirit it was a welcome encounter at the end of a hard ride. I think some had a little crush on Jessica, they couldn't believe a girl road a mountain bike all the that way!

The beach was great and it was very evident to see where the high extended up to. We threw some sticks for Ophie into the river that was running into the ocean, took some photos, did some rock collecting, and each enjoyed an IPA that we had packed out with. We made the long ride back and made a yummy dinner. That night we had a few drinks around the fire and laughed at some roudy neighbors who pulled in late and proceeded to blare Bon Jovi and Guns n Roses even later! We almost went to join them but a storm pulled in and we were both fighting a cold so we decided to close the book on that chapter for the night.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Farewell Freedom Fries

Late-night arrival in Montreal, Sept. 30. The lights from the bridges and buildings glow against the dark sky, and it's scarf-and-hat-wearing temperatures now in eastern Canada. The city feels more European than North American; sounds of foreign tongues on the streets that are still full of life at 11pm on a Thursday night, packed with faces that fill the spectrum from eggshell to espresso.

Our hotel, Le Saint-Malo, is European-style, too: boutique with tiny-rooms (luckily, the economy rooms are booked so we stay in a standard, which barely contains the bed, our bags, two bikes and Ophie). It smells like cigarette smoke and cobwebs, but it is cheap, with free morning muffins, and pet-friendly, allowing "little-dogs." The hotel staff doesn't see Ophie until we leave the next day.

No trouble finding a place that is open and still serving food at this hour. The toughest decision is choosing just one restaurant from the many. We have been warned against speaking French by a friend who used to live in Montreal: "They jab you with cigarettes and stiletto heels if you even think of disrespecting their precious Quebecois." We can't say anything other than fromage, le chat, tres jolie, so we're safe.

In the morning we explore and spend most of the afternoon at Mount Royal Park, a 101-hectare park in the middle of the city landscaped by Frederick Law Olmsted, who famously designed New York's Central Park. We walk up hills, through the forest and sculpture garden, around a lake, enjoying the leaves beginning to change from green to orange. Ophie enjoys chasing squirrels and playing with pocket-size puppies, the only type we see during our visit. (This may explain why grown men in Montreal jump off the sidewalk and run to the other side of the street when they see Ophie. There seems to be a cultural oddity/bias against dogs that weigh more than 50 pounds in this part of Canada.)

In addition to the park's natural beauty, it's got a great playground, and because it's a school day, we don't need to kick any children off of it.

Mount Royal Park also includes the highest spot in the city. It's a crisp, clear day and the views of Montreal are spectacular.

Trés jolie!

The Sherpas of Toronto

Our itinerary had us heading for the Adirondacks and the Lake Placid area today but instead we found ourselves turning to an old friend, our Super 8 Hotels directory, on the way into Toronto. Pet-friendly and cheap have been words dear to our vocab along the road. Luckily the Canadian city had one. Unluckily for us it was smack dab on top of a generic, super cheesy, all-Chinese, four-story mall in the heart of Chinatown, and the underground parking garage clearance, stated as 6 feet, actually more like 5 feet10 inches, and our truck with the bikes is about 9 feet 6 inches, with the cargo box and no bikes 7 feet 7 inches, with just the bike racks and no cargo box 6 feet 2 inches, with just the bars just enough to make it! : ) The area around the hotel was busy and a bit ghetto so parking on the street wasn't an option. We had to formulate a plan of action and act we did. We pulled into a dead-end street that resembled the projects, oh wait it was the projects. We figured that Jessica could ride one bike at a time over to the hotel and check in while I rearranged the truck to somehow make everything fit. That meant pulling off the cargo box and the bike racks, moving everything from the back into the cab without crushing Ophie, putting the cargo box upside down and hanging out of the back and driving it thru the busy streets of Toronto with no visibility and praying the box didn't fall out of the back on the hills. Success! Now part two of the plan, carry all of our loose and valuable stuff (including our cargo box and dog) from the third underground level to the third floor of the hotel including our cargo box. After about six or seven trips from the parking garage thru the Chinese mall into the elevator past all the people in the hotel lobby and finally into our room. People had never seen anything like it and it was truly a unique experience.
Oh and by the way we had a nice dinner at a great Indian spot, caught the end of the Avett Brothers show at the legendary Horseshoe Bar, and got some shopping in the next morning after we did the whole sherpa thing all over again just in reverse order. One hell of a 24 hour period!

Border Jumpers

The power of Niagara Falls is evident long before the mighty river comes into view. Mist rises like white smoke high above the trees, miles before we see the thundering falls. Also evident before the sacred place: wedding chapels, high-rise hotels, duty-free gift shops and casinos.

We want to see Niagara Falls from the Canadian side so we park the truck in New York, walk across the bridge that looks way, way down on the Niagara River, coffee mugs in hand.

As we cross the Niagara, we find inspiration to take the big leap (maybe it's the free-marriage-license-with-cheap-motel-room deal)...and travel through Canada, stopping first in Toronto, on our way to Nova Scotia. It's cold and rainy and big-city living sounds more adventurous than camping through upstate New York and Vermont.

Back to the U.S. side, passports and rabies vaccination certificate in hand (and paw), we drive across the border with a brief delay at the customs office. Apparently no job, no home and no cash make American visitors sound like would-be illegal immigrants.

Patrick did OK. He told the officer he had been laid-off from his job in the bicycle industry and this is how he has four-months off to take a road trip across the United States and Canada. Then the customs officer turned to me: "What do you do?"

"Nothing!" I say gleefully, with yogurt-covered pretzels falling out of my mouth. "I quit my job!"

"And how much cash are you carrying?"

"About $60."

"Please pull over and go inside the office."

Once inside, I realize that freelance journalist, Santa Cruz homeowner and $15,000 in the bank are all better answers. We convince the officers that we're not flight risks and head to Toronto.