The Great American Road Trip II - 8 - Joe, Honey, and Mr. Touchy
We left Brandon a little after ten-thirty after a filling breakfast. We were outside of the city - Manitoba's second largest - within no time, and by eleven we were seeing vast, wide-open expanses of sheer nothingness where we could see forever.
Nearly noon, we found ourselves in Saskatchewan (province #2) at their welcome center, where we met two upbeat ladies who showed us interesting pamphlets for and lively descriptions of Saskatchewan attractions. While we did not end up getting to many of the things they showed us, we learned about the province. Their flag is highly interesting and their tourism ad campaign centers around the phrase "hard to spell, easy to draw."
I inquired as to the origin of the name of Diefenbaker Lake, mentioning that it sounded German, and was told that it was named after a former Prime Minister way back when, to which I said "I guess that was back when they had names like Diefenbaker."
Saskatchewan, in addition to its profound rectangularity, has the world's largest Kimberlite fields and is a major source of the world's potash and uranium. It does not follow daylight saving time and thus we moved an hour backwards a province earlier than we had anticipated, which was as welcome as it was unexpected.
A little before 11:30 we pulled into the first bank we saw in Moosomin (pronounced MOOSE-mon), Saskatchewan's first major city after the border crossing, to exchange a hundred dollars into Canadian currency. (Canada, we figured, was too large to get across by credit card alone.) As our luck would have it the exchange rate is at an unprecedented 1-to-1 ratio after days of fluctuation. Hopefully it tilts back in our favor if we have any cash left before we get back to the States.
I forgot just how interesting Canadian currency is, or perhaps I never studied it while in Toronto. One of the bills I got a good look at was purple and had a scene of boys playing hockey on the back. Next to this is an interesting quote which I can't remember at the moment. (All of the bills I looked at were very pretty and interesting to look at. [Sure beats a creepy one-eyed floating pyramid, I know that much. No wonder conspiracy theorists think something's up; no currency could possibly be as dull as ours without some deeper meaning.])
Back on the road, we spotted white smoke in the distance and figured it was a forest fire. About a half-hour later we caught up to where the smoke was and it smelled exquisite, almost like a gigantic hickory-smoke barbecue was going on somewhere up north. This was the deciding factor in not going north to the valley area we'd heard about from the welcome center.
The scenery is beautiful, to be sure, but there comes a point where it gets dull and one begins to notice smaller and smaller details to alleviate the boredom. Between Whitewood and Broadview we began a barely noticeable climb that lasted for most of the province east of Regina. We would never go downhill; we would only plateau for a while before we went uphill again.
(Side note: the Trans-Canada highway is Canada's major and only coast-to-coast highway. It is their equivalent of the US Interstate system. One would think that, being the fastest route from the ports of British Columbia to the major population centers of Ontario, Quebec, and the Maritimes, there would be traffic, but it is deserted to the point where we wondered why there were two lanes in both directions.)
Signs for cities were three-dimensional and interesting, such as a gigantic G with something inside it (I didn't get a good look) for the town of Grenfell. We passed a number of these tiny towns before we found ourselves, suddenly, in Regina.
We got gas in Regina and attempted to find some distinctly Canadian place to get some late lunch, but most places were slammed even though it was nearly 2:00. We ate Nutter Butters in an attempt to tide us over to Moose Jaw, which is the only major city between Regina and Swift Current.
By 2:30 we had made it to Moose Jaw and a gigantic moose statue at the welcome center. We entertained the ladies at the welcome center and they gave us plenty of information about Moose Jaw.
Back around the turn of the century, Moose Jaw was notorious for its rampant vices. Law enforcement looked the other way as long as gang activity was confined to the thriving red light district. As a vestige of their past, the tunnels underneath the city - which were used as hideouts for bootlegging operations during Prohibition and were used extensively by Al Capone - have been maintained, and themed guided tours run daily.
We heard of these when we had first crossed over the Saskatchewan border but things got more interesting the more we heard about them. It's one of the more distinctive things about Moose Jaw (aside from its many murals randomly placed around downtown) and something that seemed right up our alley, so we went on a tour.
The guides on the tour are entirely in-character - one a 30s showgirl and the other Capone's right-hand man. The both took half of the tour. I must applaud them for staying in-character, as we did all we could to get them to crack up and break character. (The one guy nearly lost it when my dad mentioned deep-frying possums, but he held it together nicely.) During the tour we also received nicknames - I was "Mr. Touchy," my dad was "Joe," and my mom was "honey." While a tad corny, I soon learned to enjoy the banter when they asked questions. (When they asked us where we were going, we told them "the north pole," and when they asked why we told them "because Santa needs a drink too.")
The tour was more informative than simply showing you around telling you what went on, which would have gotten old.
After this we stopped at a local place called the Deja Vu Cafe, which came highly recommended by the Moose Jaw visitor's center and featured on a show called "You Gotta Eat Here," which is the Canadian version of Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives. Their menu featured well over fifty sauces and well over fifty milkshakes. We got six of the most popular sauces for our wings and chicken strips as recommended to us by our waitress (who picked up on our accents right off the bat).
While there, I got the chance to try something I'd been itching to try ever since getting into Canada: a poutine. For those unaware, a poutine is a disgusting-looking side item made by taking french fries, putting a vast amount of cheese on top of them, and then, as if that wasn't enough, pouring hot, sticky gravy over the whole thing. It was somewhat more appetizing than it looked (and tasted better with sauce) but I couldn't eat it all.
A little after 5:30 we were back on the Trans-Canada Highway and got into some different scenery. The eastbound and westbound portions of the highway split off from each other with over a mile between them on occasion. The reason for these splits are unclear but it seems to have to do with farmland and to accommodate some of the region's many small lakes.
We went over a hill and found ourselves looking down into a vast white valley filled with flat sheets of an indeterminate white mineral we later determined was sodium sulfate accumulated from the nine-mile-long, three-mile-wide Lake Chaplin, one of the largest salt lakes on the continent outside of the Great Salt Lake in Utah. (I was first alerted to its mineral content because it smelled atrocious as we drove through.) The same white stuff had accumulated along the banks of the lake and cows did not drink from it. Ducks loved both it and the small briny lakes around it, and we saw them with their heads underwater more often than not as they were searched for shrimp to snack on. Also on the lake was a dirt road on a culver that went all the way across the lake to facilitate transportation without going around the lake.
By 7:00 we were nearing Swift Current and saw tunnels that cut underneath the highway. I assume that these are for farmers and animals to be able to cross the highway without the danger of getting run over, but I'm pretty sure someone could suntan for an hour on most stretches without being in a great amount of danger. (I certainly wouldn't try it, though; my skin is too fair.)
A little after 7:15 we made it to our hotel and got to our room, which is spacious if a little odd-smelling. You can still see a bit of the sun and it's 9:41.
Tomorrow: we trek even further north to Banff National Park in Alberta.