The Long Trip Home

 

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I had made it all the way to the far side of the continent. It was time to celebrate. I heard about downtown St John’s back in Ontario. They have a street there with the most bars per capita than any other place in Canada.

I found a place with easy listening live Celtic music. I had never heard any of the songs before but it seemed like everyone else had as they sang along. Just like everyone knows the words to all the popular Christmas carols, Newfies know all the words to their popular east coast tunes.

A girl walked in the restaurant and sat by herself in the corner. Her beautiful dark hair sat woven into a thick French braid that rested perfectly over her shoulder. She wore jeans and a sweater with comfortable foot ware. Impossible not to notice.

I thought to myself “I’ll give it ten minutes, if she’s still by herself, I’m going over there.”

I gave it five, then went and introduced myself. “Excuse me, but I noticed you’re by yourself and I’m by myself as well. I just finished driving here from Whistler British Columbia… It took me a month. Would you be interested in having a beer with me?”

“ Your fly is open” she said as she pointed with her finger. “My what? Oh nooooo…” I thought. I slowly bowed my head and looked down towards my belt line. A 2 inch strip of white underwear stared out of my black shorts directly at the young women. “I’m just going to go sit back down now, please excuse me.” I said.

“ You can have a seat if you want, you might just wanna tuck those in first.” She said. I could tell right away she was cool. Relieved, I quickly zipped up and sat down. I told her all about the hockey games and the Bieber concert. She seemed into it.

Her name was Kate, and was also on vacation, but had just flown in from Toronto. She had a degree in Environmental Science, spoke three languages, and was very well travelled.

I could tell we were really starting to hit it off. She was making lots of eye contact through her stylish glasses and constantly smiling. After chatting and laughing over a pint, she admitted that the reason she took the vacation was because she had just broken up with her boyfriend last week.

“What a coincidence…I just shaved my pubes last week…” I said.

In hindsight I should have just kept that one inside my head, because I’m pretty sure that’s when I lost her. Call it a TSN turning point or whatever you want, but there was no coming back from there. Her warm smile turned cold. She got up, went straight over to the waitress, payed her bill and left the restaurant.

I watched her hustle away down the street, and thought to myself “What’s her problem?”

In the back of my mind I knew what her problem was…Too much education. I made a decision not to let it bother me. I put my foot down. I was going to have fun no matter what.

I found a busy bar full of people. There was some wicked good live music playing and a festive atmosphere. I looked up to the t.v. and wouldn’t you know it…It was the Memorial Cup live from Red Deer. The tournament opened with an amazing goal.

One of the players stick handled the puck between his legs and then went top shelf beating the goalie. An unbelievable snipe. He played for the Wheat Kings and his name was John Quenneville.

He was being interviewed by every reporter in the media, and the goal was being shown over and over again.

I couldn’t believe it. The same kid I yelled at over the glass three weeks prior, was now a major Canadian hockey star.

I pointed out the goal to some women that were sitting next to me. I gave them the story and they ate it up. Within five minutes the tables were pushed together and I had a fresh start. The drinks flowed as they welcomed me to “The Rock”.

We drank and drank and danced and danced. When we were done dancing, we did shots.

Things escalated quickly towards black out. Somehow through the course of the night, I lost the girls and my jacket by managed to pick up a pack of smokes and a large bruise on my elbow. No doubt a defensive wound from a skateboard accident.

I woke up the next day at noon, rolled out of the truck and projectile vomited on the sidewalk. Par for the course when visiting Newfoundland.

I guess that’s it. I had done what I came there to do. Tell stories and drink too much.

I pointed the truck west for the first time in the trip and slowly started making my way back home.

As I skipped from town to town I scanned my phone for anything cool that might be in my path.

I was delighted when I saw that Natalie McMaster was also touring around. I grabbed a ticket and hit the breaks for one day. I used the gym and the library and waited for her to show up.

The fiddle is my favourite instrument. I really love the way it sounds and I’ve always wanted to be able to play. I couldn’t believe I was about to see an iconic Canadian fiddle player in a Newfoundland fishing village. What a beautiful authentic setting for this to happen.

Of course the show was amazing. Natalie and her husband Donnell Leahy blew me away. It’s no wonder they’ve been on the TED stage. The most amazing part of the show was when their 4 kids all under the age of 10 came out from behind the curtain. They were gifted in both music and dance, and stood in a line smallest to biggest. As the kids alternated between instruments and dance styles, they stole the show.

I leaned over to the man next to me and said. “I think the reason this is so amazing is because they are kids…in another 10 years when they are all grown up and adult sized I think it will be less spectacular.” He agreed.

I stayed after the show and got a picture with them. “My mom is never going to believe this” I thought.

I pulled into Sydney looking for a rest after the long ferry ride. I opened my on-line dating app and found a golden opportunity.

She was a single mother of three kids with three different dads. I thought it was interesting that she would put that on her profile but I kept reading. Next, she boasted of her plans for the future.

She said “she was working to complete her grade 11 and when she gets done that, she wants to be a journeymen carpenters course.”

Now here’s one that sounds a little more up my alley.

I texted her right away. “Let’s play a game…”

“What kind of game?” she texted back.

“The name of this game is: What would you do for a cheeseburger?” I wrote.

“Anything you want….come meet me at the bus station”

I’ve always had good luck meeting girls at the bus station for some reason. Maybe its because I’ve always had a vehicle. Having your own ride at a bus stop is like having a pool in July. It’s easy to make friends.

I pulled into the Diary Queen, grabbed a burger, and headed her way. As I drove through downtown, I had some time to think. “Maybe this isn’t such a good idea” I pondered.

Was I really going to pay for sex with a sandwich?

Prostitution is wrong anyway you look at it. People should only have sex if they are in love with the other person. I was not in love. In fact, I was kind of hungry.

After some careful consideration, I decided just to eat the burger and keep on driving.

I pulled into Turo Novia Socita around 9:00pm. Game 7 of the Eastern Stanley Cup finals was underway between the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Pittsburgh Penguins. I found a busy sports bar and had a few beers. The Pens closed out against Tampa that night.

In the back of my mind I knew this meant something big.

Just out of curiosity I pulled out my phone and investigated. Only 18 hours to Pittsburgh.

I looked on their web site and found a little clock counting down until 10am the next day when tickets came on sale.

I had a hard time sleeping as I ran through my plan again and again.

The next day I got up early and found the library. I sat for two hours watching the clock tick down with my mastercard ready.

As the time approached 10, I became more and more nervous. When the tickets finally became available, I moved through the process with extreme focus and attention. I scrambled to find any seat in the arena, I didn’t care which. I bought the first one I saw. 200 bucks. Sure. I threw in my payment information and waited for the web site to process the sale. I watched with sweaty hands as the computer told me to please wait…

“Congratulations Gavin, you are going to game #2 of the Stanley Cup Finals” popped up on the screen. I jumped out of my chair knocking it over, and held a victory pose. The Librarian looked at me kind of funny, but I didn’t care. This was unbelievable. I packed up my computer and jumped in the truck. I had a lot more driving to do.

I had five days to travel 18 hours. That was plenty of time, but I thought I better start heading that direction right away just in case I had car troubles or something of that nature.

The next day I crossed the boarder and headed south. The highways started out as quiet single lane but soon changed to four lanes in each direction packed with speeding Americans.

I was in thick of it now. Time to concentrate and listen carefully to the robot giving me directions through my phone. One missed turn could lead to a nightmare of wasted time and frustration.

Harley Davidson motorcycles were popular. The riders flew down the highway with hair straight back and no helmets, often wearing nothing for gear other then a T-Shirt and jean shorts. It seemed totally bizzare and dangerous to me as they carved past the other vehicles, but maybe that’s just the rebel culture here in “Merica.”

After driving all day I decided to stop and eat. I noticed a point of interest on my phone and thought to myself, “I better check this out.” So I left my truck at a park-aide and hopped on a train.

I carried a few clothes and my lab top computer in my pack. I held my skateboard cradled in my arms like a guitar. “Bring it on” I thought to myself nervously as I rocked back and forth on the two hour rail tour.

I stepped off the train and walked up the stairs into Grand Central Station New York. The large room looked exactly like it does in the movies. I felt like I was in a movie. NYPD on my left, a group of sailors on my right, everyone in perfectly pressed uniforms. People everywhere taking pictures.

Since I had no plan, I texted a friend for help. The last time I was in contact with her, was only two days prior from Newfoundland. Twenty hours straight north. I sent her a picture of the huge flag that hung on the wall above the famous ticket booths. “Guess Where I am…” I said.

She texted back right away. “Are you in New York?… I am so jealous of you right now”

I looked to her for guidance since I had no idea what I was doing. Plus I remembered she had told me last Christmas that she had always wanted to go to NY.

“You bet your ass I am…What should I do!!!!!”

“Go to a food truck, Go to Times Square, Go shopping!!!” She texted back almost like she was panicking with excitement into the phone. That message got me jacked, so I jammed my phone in my pocket and skipped up the stairs towards the doors of the station.

I walked straight into a swarm of a hundred people crowded around a street performer playing the bag pipes. The smell of a food truck blasted me in the face as I turned my head sky ward to the buildings that went straight up in every direction. “This was really happening” I thought to myself.

I grabbed an ice cream from the street vendor and asked for directions to Times Square. “Follow the people that way.” I was told.

I jumped on my skateboard and ventured out into the stream of taxi cabs. My head swivelled around looking for danger, however the cars weren’t moving that fast and I quickly felt comfortable as I always do on my board.

The pavement was nice and there was enough room next to the sidewalk to push and glide. When the cars would stop in grid lock waiting for a light, I would flow through them to the front of the line.

I followed the crowds just like I was told and within 5 minutes I was standing on the busiest corner in the world. Time Square.

I was in sensory over load. The first ten minutes in NYC were very fun and exciting. It was like nothing I’d ever done before and it was only 9:00pm.

I wasn’t sure what to do next so I just drifted around aimlessly for hours on my board. Sometimes I could go fast trying to stay ahead of the double decker tour buses. Other times I’d go slow, caught behind a herd on the sidewalk. Where ever I cruised to, I had this goofy look of disbelief stuck on my face.

By midnight I hit my wall. A 12 hour drive combined with a 2 hour train ride stacked on top of 3 hours of skateboarding had me exhausted.

The cheepest hotel room I could find was $300.

I didn’t want to spend that kind of money on just a quick sleep, so I looked around and thought about my options. It was a beautiful night and I was still in my shorts and T-shirt. I just needed a place where no one would mess with me. The bushes outside the library looked inviting but I was nervous about being hit by the sprinklers.

I found a perfect spot just outside an apartment building. The walk way into the building had a small cement patio next to it that was separated from the sidewalk with a thin row of shrubs.

I laid down out of sight, made a pillow out of my sweater and fell fast a sleep on it within minutes.

I woke up early the next day at 5:00am and found a coffee. Bathrooms were harder to locate.

When I finally got to one at a bus station, the mens room was completely packed with other homeless guys shaving and brushing their teeth. I had to wait in a line for ten minutes just to get to use a sink so I too, could quickly freshen up.

I spent the morning cruising all through Central Park. They had artists, cops on horses, street performers, joggers and cyclists.

For the most part, I was just people watching. It was a worldly place, and there was all kinds of interesting characters around. After a few hours in “nature” I decided to brave the crowds and head back down town.

During the train ride into the city, I had seen a poster for a musical called Matilda. I’ve probably read 7 or 8 of Rohl Daul’s books when I was a kid. Matilda was one of my favourites.

I found a ticket for $60 and stood in line outside the theatre for over an hour. I chatted with some people next to me and told the story about sleeping in the street. The lady I was talking to asked me if I wanted the other half of her burrito. I thanked her for the offer but clarified that I wasn’t actually homeless. Just really cheep.

I’ve often said that the best art is when a combination of beautiful things come together for one finished product. The Broadway Musical in New York was a prime example.

They took an amazing story and built off it with probably some of the most talented actors on the planet. It had an unreal stage design with all kinds of crazy effects and lighting. They layered over that with a 12 piece band full of talented musicians to play all the tunes live. The end result was two hours of pure enjoyment.

Similar to the fiddle players, the kids stole the show. They were so talented at singing, acting, and dancing, that it almost didn’t seem fair.

In order to be as good as they were, you’d have to practice all the time. The show runs twice a day, six times a week. That’s a lot of work for a ten year old.

What if they want to go to the beach or just ride bikes? How would they do their schooling if they are working all the time?

As I left the city and rode back to my truck, I thought about the kids and hoped that they don’t get too messed up from their childhood stardom.

I quickly forgot about the kids as a man boarded the train and walked towards the open seat across from me . He was about 6 ft 6 and weighed 300 lbs.

Well dressed with tons of jewellery on. Large diamond earrings, gold chains, and rings. Tattoos covered both arms that sat swollen with muscle. My best guess was he was either a pimp or a gangster, as he sat down within reach.

I became really aware of my surroundings. Some teenagers behind us and a senior lady a few seats up.

Not much for help if things went sideways.

I visualized what it would be like to be in a robbery on the subway. I pictured him trying to hurt me. I’ve been knocked around a time or two, and the scene that played out in my head was chaotic like any good fight should be. The shear size of the man meant I had my work cut out for me. I would need to strike fast and hard with a weapon.

So there I was, hoping I could knock this poor guy out with my skateboard who was probably just a harmless dude on his way to get a haircut.

I sat tensed up for over an hour. Ready to pounce into action at the slightest move. Finally he got up and stepped off the train and out of my life. “Yeah… That’s right…You better run” I thought to myself.

I made it back to my truck and pushed on towards Pittsburgh. It felt great to have my home back. Air conditioning was only a switch away and going to the bathroom was as simple as pulling over on the side of the highway.

I pulled into town a few hours before game #1. The rink was already crowded with people in black and yellow. I wore my bright yellow Shawinigan Cataractes T-shirt and hoped someone would recognize it. Maybe I could get a comment or two.

The street outside the arena was filled with people in camping chairs. Alcohol was being sold and consumed openly right in the street. The police were being cool for once and letting it all happen.

The people of Pittsburgh were definitely hockey fans. I noticed a guy with an authentic Mario Lemieux jersey from the early nineties. I gave him my regards and we quickly started talking.

It was cool because we were the same age. We where able to discuss all the great things that had happened in hockey though our lives from different points of view. Him from Pittsburgh and me from Vancouver. We talked for half an hour about players from our childhood, big games, and goals.

There was no denying it, this guy knew his stuff. We chewed that fat about hockey just like a couple guys might over cars. It made me feel smart. Almost like a hockey expert. It’s kind of a strange thing to have knowledge of, but it makes a lot of sense if you truly love the game. We had sixty years of experience between us.

We wrapped up our talk as the line started to move people inside the rink. Feeling satisfied I introduced myself. His name was Nolan. “ I’m really excited because I’ve never seen a live NHL game before” he said.

I reached out and shook hands with him right away when I heard that. “I hope you have an awesome time in there tonight man, you deserve it” I said with eye contact.

As the game got going, I found a place in the crowd near the big screen.

As I watched and cheered from the street, I couldn’t stop thinking about Nolan.

Why had he never been to a game before? Did he fall on hard times early on in his life? Was he struggling to support a family? I thought about the experience he must be having. He was living out a life long dream inside that stadium, and it made me smile.

I prayed for a good game, and once again, things worked out. It was a low scoring affair which kept everyone on the edge of their seats. Nick Benino got the game winner with two minutes left. Party time!

I found myself in a crowded bar laughing and telling stories with some friendly people. Everyone was happy so it was easy to start a conversation. The drinking lasted until the ealry hours of the morning when the bar finally cleared.

Once out on the street, a drunk guy in a Sharks jersey made a comment to me. “Cool skateboard dude!” I looked at him and then down the road.

The pavement was absolutely perfect for learning. A gradual slope that went on for about six blocks down towards the core of the city. Not too steep that you would get out of control, but steep enough to really get you moving. Like I said it was perfect.

“Dude…You’ve got to try it” I insisted. He looked at me and could tell I was serious, so he nodded in acceptance. I took him out to the centre line and gave him a few pointers about how to stand on the board.

He said he’d never skateboarded before but you would have never guessed it.

The crowd outside the bar picked up on what was happening and cheered him on as he started to roll away and pick up speed. “I think he’s got it” I said to a by-stander.

Away he went. One block, two blocks, three blocks…he was practically out of sight four blocks away, when we all heard the distant echo of his voice. “Yeah Whoooooooooo!”

Everyone busted into laughter when they heard the yelling. “Arn’t you worried he won’t come back with your board?” someone asked.

“Not really, he’s got my board, I’ve got his girlfriend…” I said as I pointed to the only other person in a San Jose jersey. She was good looking too. “Something tells me he’ll be coming back for her” I said.

We hung out and finished our drinks. Within five minutes he was back. Smiling ear to ear, he took a bow. He gave me a big hug, and I exchanged the girl for the board. Once again, everyone laughed.

The next day I explored the city via skateboard…again. They had beautiful paths that ran all through the park and down by the river.

I noticed that the weather has a direct relationship to how much fun you can have when visiting a new place. The weather in Pittsburgh was great, so naturally I had a blast.

It also didn’t hurt that Beyonce was in town and I had a ticket.

What a great way to kill an evening and check out an NFL stadium. I’m not a huge fan of her music but I’ve got a few songs on my I-pod. I could spend fifty bucks in the pub or I could check out another world class artist… What would Jesus do?

Jesus would go and sit with the black community of America and watch Queen B.

So that’s what I did. It was a cultural experience more than anything. I sat between two large black women.

More than a little excited for the concert, they took me in right away.

Maybe it was because I stood out like a sore thumb. There were no other bald middle aged white guys in the building from what I could tell.

After making friends, I showed them pictures of home and life in Canada. They couldn’t believe it. They thought the pictures were fake and that I had photoshoped myself in the mountains.

That’s when I started to realize something. These people where poor. I was careful not to brag about my trip once I learned that the lady on my left had only been to one other concert in her life. The one on my right had seen two.

From what I could tell education wasn’t much of a priority, but they were happy and somehow had scraped the money together and made it inside…Living their dreams just like Nolan the night before at the hockey game.

“Oh she baaaad!!!!” one would say. Then the other would pipe up “ Beyonce… She my girl!” Then from somewhere behind us “I got three babies at home… I work two jobs…. Aint nobody gonna believe this!”

The things I was hearing where priceless. They even gave me a shout out. The lady beside me jumped out of her seat and yelled “ Yo B…We got Gavin here from Canada…He got free health care!”

The stadium had an opening in the bleachers that allowed for a beautiful view of downtown from across the river. It was truly unique. No dought planned that way by a thoughtful architect of some kind.

So there I sat on a peaceful evening, amongst the poor, watching the best thing since Tina Turner with an entire city in the background. I felt humbled by it all.

The next day I saw Scott Oak and Glen Healy from Hockey Night in Canada walking down the sidewalk. I took a U turn on my board and skated up behind them as they strolled along talking to one another.

I interrupted their conversation “Boys I just drove here from Whistler British Columbia” I said. “Cool… good for you.” They said as they kept moving, trying to ignore me.

“I caught 5 junior games on my way across.” I said as I held out my hand with all fingers showing.

They stopped walking and eyed me up and down. “Really?” Scott said.

“Yup, I watched Brandon close out against Red Deer, then the first four games of the Huskies Chateracts series.” I said

Now that I had their attention, I told them that all I really wanted was a picture with Don Cherry and Ron MacLean.

“I can’t tell you much, but what I can say is that they are staying at the Westin. They should be coming through the lobby of that hotel on their way to the rink sometime this afternoon.” Glen said.

I thanked them for their time, went and grabbed a smoothie and headed for the Westin.

I found a comfortable spot to sit in the lobby. Within five minutes Ron MacLean stepped off the elevator and strolled out towards me.

I stood up and introduced myself. I quickly told him about my trip and asked for a picture. He said that would be no problem.

As we waited for “Grapes” we sat and chatted. Ron is a very classy guy. After hearing about my trip he made a point to make sure I had a ticket to the game. I assured him that I did have a ticket and that I was indeed going to be inside the building for the game that night.

I could just tell the reason he was so concerned was because he would have gotten me a ticket if I didn’t have one. Just then Don Cherry stepped off the elevator, and walked over to us. When Ron made the introduction, all Don said was “Nice shirt.”

I thought it was cool that someone, finally recognized the vintage Swift Current Broncos T-Shirt that I was wearing. I had picked it up in a thrift shop in Regina about a month earlier. Only a real hockey fan would notice something like that, so it was cool he picked up on it.

After the picture I headed to the rink. I was able to get down close to ice level for the pre-game. Right away I noticed the difference between the juniors and the pros. The pros were thick large men, opposed to wiry baby faced teenagers.

I watched Sydney Crosby and Phil Kessel laughing with each other against the glass as they waited to warm up. Everything seemed calm and relaxed, almost playful as they stick handled around in their feet.

Things changed when the players reached the front of the line in the corner drill.

When it was Crosby’s turn, he found a target to pass to, and sent the puck express delivery. The little black cookie went 100 ft across the rink in the blink of an eye. Tape to tape.

Next he exploded with raw power and bolted up the boards. In two strides he was already out to the blue line and making a sharp turn back into the zone.

The way he moved reminded me of a charging wild animal on the plans of Africa. When the pass from the corner landed on his stick, he fired it off the cross bar deflecting it into the netting behind the goal.

My jaw dropped as I realized that I was about to watch the best hockey players on the planet do battle.

My seats were next to a young couple from Pittsburgh. I told them a little bit about my trip and they seemed to be amazed. So instead of focusing on the best game ever…they chose to interview me about my trip. In fact the whole first period was over and I hadn’t really got the chance to get into the game. I had to make a point to say that I wasn’t there to tell stories but to watch hockey.

During the intermission we went back to chatting about my trip. They wanted all my social media info, which I had to admit, I didn’t have. They said they loved to travel too, and that they had taken their family to Disney World 3 times already.

I’m not so sure that’s the same kind of travel I’d been doing. Travel and Vacation are different things I think.

The game came back on and continued to be excellent. After another couple of tight periods, it went into overtime. That’s when the couple got up and left their seats. The man said that he had no time to watch sudden death in the Stanley Cup Finals because he had to “Work in the morning.”

“It’s a free country” I thought to myself, but I’m not so sure that would ever happen in Canada.

The home team won the game with a quick snap shot from the hash marks shortly after.

I try not to take selfies, but I just couldn’t resist. I turned my phone around and held it out in front of my face, with a sea of yellow shirts in the background, I snapped a pic. Something to prove I was there.

The next day I was back in Canada. I moved towards Ottawa stopping along the way to work out and sleep.

In Niagara I pulled off the highway to find the local rink as I always did when arriving in a new town. Visiting the arena is like visiting a hockey museum for the area. You get to see what famous players have played there and what titles the city has won. It became an essential part of my routine, and a great way to educate myself in Canadian hockey. It’s also fun because it allowed me to dream what it would’ve been like to play  junior in some of these places.

The rink attendants were always happy to let me come in and snap a pic and look at the trophy cases. They always seemed to have lots of time to talk hockey and hear about my trip. Which was rare because most other people I’d come across were often too busy.

By the time I hit Niagara I had 30 pictures of different rinks across the country for my scrapbook. I hoped for another positive experience but had my faith in humanity shaken once again. The women at the ticket booth refused to let me have a peek inside. The excuse I got was that I couldn’t go in because “the guys were working in there.”

I begged her to let me in. I told her all about my trip and the other rinks and the collection for the scrapbook and she still wouldn’t budge. So I went into more detail about the concerts and other life changing experiences.

I stood and talked for close to an hour. After all she couldn’t get rid of me and she was safe behind the ticket window. Plus I think she really enjoyed hearing about my adventures, but in the end she lacked the simple ability to make an easy judgment call.

Just like the park warden who wouldn’t allow skateboarding, I could only feel sorry for her.

When I got to our nations capital. I had a few days to kill so I went to 3 museums in 3 days.

I also got a ticket to Canada vs Brazil women’s soccer.

Another amazing stage. This time on a field of grass. The women were athletic and beautiful. I wished I could date one of them. Any one. Doesn’t matter which. Even the referee.

The game went all the way through with no goals, and then finally at the very end in extra time, Canada scored to win. Pretty cool.

The next day I got up and headed for Montreal. I had tickets to another show. Of Monsters and Men and Florence and the Machine. They sold out the Bell Centre.

Florence is a true artist. She did the entire show in bare feet and asked everyone to put their phones away and just be there in the moment with her and each other.

I had a spot standing on the floor not far from her. The energy produced flowed off stage and into the audience. The crowd of like minded humans bounced to her killer voice and sang along.

Florence was better than Bieber and Beyonce put together.

The next few days had me travelling west to the cities of Sudbury and Sault St Marie. It was well into June now and the roads where starting to change. They seemed busier than a month earlier and especially full of R.V.’s. People were out and moving around. There was also lots of hitch hikers.

I saw a couple of girls and picked them up. About 5 minutes later we came across another couple. We had a quick vote and decided to pick them up too. Now there where five of us jammed into the cab of my truck which up until that point only held one. It smelt like an arm pit in there. Speaking of arm pit’s… One of the girls had dread locks on both on her head and her arm pit. Cool eh?

All four of the hitch hikers were on their way to BC to pick fruit. They each carried a back pack with camping gear and that was it. As I dropped them off on the side of the highway I thought to myself, “I hope it doesn’t rain tonight.”

That night it poured.

I woke up grabbed a coffee and headed back out on to the highway. Wouldn’t you know it, the girls were still there. They had camped on the side of the road through a rain storm, only to have me pick them up again the next day.

They where happy to see me. I was less excited. Mostly because my truck smelt like a wet arm pit this time.

I thought about the girls plan to get across Canada and the experience that they had just gone through. For some reason the old expression “If your gonna be dumb, you gotta be tough” popped into mind.

Eventually I got rid of the girls and moved on to Winnipeg. I hit all 5 Value Villages in the city over two days. I also checked out the Red River Exhibition and a Garth Brooks Concert.

He was on tour with his wife Trisha Yearwood. Garth Brooks is another classy guy. For starters he just took the last 20 years off touring because he wanted to raise children. Now that they are grown he’s getting back out there for his fans.

He played 4 shows in a row. All the tickets were only 20 bucks each. Almost to say “If your living near Winnipeg, and you like our music, and you’ve got twenty bucks…Come on down and check us out.”

Most big names would come to town for one night, charge 150 bucks a ticket and then only the privileged would get to go. The way Garth did it basically meant anyone could go.

He started the show by saying “Guy’s… I’m just gonna play all my old stuff, cause it’s the best stuff….Nothing is worse then when an artist dumps all his new songs on the fans.” The sold out crowd roared, and the show began.

The next day I travelled west back into Saskatchewan. Just before Regina I noticed the signs for Fort Qu’Appelle. Although it was out of my way I decided I better go and have a look around. My grandfather grew up in that town. Maybe I could find his name on a war memorial at the park…Who knows.

When I pulled into town, this strange feeling came over me. A feeling of connection. This is where my family’s story began. Amongst these hills, next to this lake, under this big sky. I had heard about this place again and again at family gatherings, even researched it once on the internet, but I had never been there to see it for myself.

I stopped at a coffee shop and was served by a young native girl. There was little doubt to me that she would have been from the area. It dawned on me that perhaps her grandfather and my grandfather knew each other. Could they have worked these farms together? Maybe they were even friends.

I was sure they would have put down their tools when the time came and gone off to fight together in the war. Perhaps the girl at the coffee shop and I had more in common then we would ever know.

Along one of the quiet streets just back of the main drag, I noticed a party at the local Legion. “Perfect!” I thought as I pulled over.

I slipped past the crowd on the patio and into the main common area inside the building. The walls were covered in old pictures from the war.

This was going to take a while.

I studied each picture carefully looking for my Grandpa. Two of them where huge with hundreds of people in them. I pressed my face inches away from the prints and scanned the rows of faces using my finger as a pointer.

After half an hour I still hadn’t found my relative. I was starting to give up hope, but I knew there was still a chance of finding him as I came around the corner looking onto the last section of portraits in the room.

I checked each picture carefully as I moved side to side. That’s when a familiar face jumped out at me…Bobby Boy! He looked pretty sharp in his pilot’s uniform too. Again I held a victory pose.

The bar tender noticed me taking his picture and came over to see what the fuss was all about. I told her about my grandfather and showed her a picture of him with his Fort Qu’Appelle High School hockey team before the war. Grandpa Bob always said that if he didn’t have to go fight, that he would have been in the NHL. I believed him.

“I think there is someone here you should meet” she said.

The young women lead me outside to the patio and sat me down next to an 81 year old man named RJ.

I introduced myself and showed him the picture of my Grandpa and his team. I shared as much information as I could with him, hoping he would be able to tell me something. Anything that could connect me with my heritage.

“Smith eh….” there was a long pause. “The only Smith I knew was N.P. Smith and he worked in the laundry out at the old Sanitorium.” The old man recalled.

My jaw dropped, and my eyes began to tear up a little. Everyone else at the table looked at my reaction. After a few moments of silence the man next to me said “Does this help you out at all?”

I took a second to collect my thoughts, “Oh yeah, this helps me out a lot.” I said with a shaky voice.

“Do you know who N.P. is?” A lady asked.

“I’ve heard of him…hell half my family is named after the guy, he’s my Great Grandfather.” I said.

“Do you have somewhere to be tonight?” another person asked. “You better grab a burger and just sit tight for a while.”

I couldn’t believe I was able to connect with a living person that knew my Great Grandfather. Of course I never knew him, so it was hard to find things to talk about, but I still wanted to leave something with the people of Fort Qu’appelle.

I told RJ a little about my family history, about how we had moved from the Parries and became Mountain People in BC.

Although there was only a handful of people listening, I thought of a story about my Grandpa that I could share. I thought they might like to hear about one of the hero’s they have honoured on their wall. So I began…

When my Grandpa was getting on near the end of his life, the people at the insurance office took his drivers license away. So the only way of getting around was with his much younger wife, who would often drive him on the daily errands.

One day, the old boy decided he had just about enough. Maybe it was the rainy weather in Vancouver or his nagging wife, but something flipped a switch.

When she stopped to go to the bank, he jumped out moved to the drivers seat. He proceeded to steel the car, leaving her stranded downtown.

He made an amazing run for it, and travelled all through the night. The drive was six hours long and far into the interior of the province, before the police caught up to him. When the officers finally pulled him over, they said it was really cute.

When they asked where he was going, all he said was “I’m going home.”

“I can only assume he was talking about coming here to this valley. No doubt to be with all of you at this very Legion…” I said as I pointed to my audience.

That was my Grandfather’s last great kick at the can. A story worth sharing.

Within a month he passed away.

Feeling like I had made my mark. I thanked the folks at the Legion for their hospitality. They wished me luck and with that, I was back on the long trip home.

As I moved from town to town I stopped at every thrift store that I could find. Often I was able to pick up cool T-shirts from teams or universities in the area I was visiting. The stash of loot I collected got bigger and bigger until I had two large garbage bags full of clothing.

Thrifting is an excellent way to connect with people. Lots of times I was able to find “little gems that remind me of friends.”

I found a basketball jersey for an old buddy all the way back in Quebec. I hadn’t seen him in a while, so I found his address and sent it to him.

The postage ended up being more then the jersey, but it all paid off when he received my gift in the mail.

He said “It was his favourite player and the reason why he started watching basketball again.” I knew it was his favourite team and I was kind of hoping he liked the player. I guess I got lucky with that one.

Another time, I found a mint condition team Canada T-shirt. “1994 World Jr Hockey Champions” it said on it. I pulled out my phone and looked to see who was on that particular team. I recognized a few names, but Don Hay stood out the most.

He had coached that team when they won the famous tournament over the Christmas holidays in Red Deer that year.

I wonder what he will think when it arrives in his mailbox back in Kamloops. Lost and forgotten, then found in a thrift shop in North Battleford and returned to it’s rightful owner 22 years later. I hope he likes it.

I even stopped and checked out the rink in Saskatoon. Outside the building sat a statute covered in flowers. It was of Gordie Howe…Mr. Hockey.

He had died a week earlier, and left his mark not only on Saskatchewan, but the entire hockey world. I thought it was fitting that I got to see the memorial on my trip.

In Lloydminster, I stopped at McDonald’s to borrow some free Wifi. I sat on the picnic tables outside with some snacks and a drink and watched a movie on Netflix. Forest Gump. For some reason his story reminded me of my trip.

Watching a movie outdoor on the patio also reminded me of being at and old drive-in movie. Sure the screen was a little smaller, but it was another beautiful night and the perfect way to wind down and reflect on the last two and a half months.

I had moved from spring to summer. Snowboarding to skateboarding. Mountains to Parries. Hockey to soccer. English to French. Justin Bieber to Garth Brooks. Dinosaur museums to war museums. Small towns to big cities. Canada to the USA. Rejected on-line to rejected in person.

Like any good art it wasn’t just a trip about hockey or concerts or anything in particular. It was a collection of everything combined. Layers upon layers of good things coming together to make one amazing experience.

I thought about this experience as I rolled along outside Hinton Alberta. The mountains appeared almost out of thin air on the horizon in front of the truck. Mountains to the sky. Just like home. Even though I had 8 hours of driving left to do, as the road started to dip, dive, and turn through the Rockies, that’s when I knew I was finally home.

(see pics below)

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Natalie McMaster and Donnell Leahy

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Grand Central Station

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The view stepping out of Grand Central

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Times Square

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Skateboarding NYC

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The Broadway Musical

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Skateboarding Pittsburgh

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Beyoncé in Pittsburgh

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Outside the arena in Pittsburgh for game #1

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Super Mario Statue

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Grapes and Ron

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Game #2 Stanley Cup Finals Opening Faceoff

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Overtime Selfie

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The Stanley Cup in Toronto20160607_193649

Canada Vs Brazil Women’s Soccer in Ottawa

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Of Monsters and Men in Montreal

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Florence and the Machine in Montreal

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Inside the rink in Sault St Marie

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Waiting for Garth Brooks to Start in Winnipeg

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On the Wall at the Legion in Fort  Qu’Appelle

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My Grandfather with the Fort Qu’Appelle High School Hockey Team

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Outside the rink in Saskatoon

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Inside the rink in Edson

 

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