O Canada - The Return to Vancouver
Updated: Mar 15, 2021
“The purpose of life is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience.”
– Eleanor Roosevelt
When I left Quebec City on July 20, 1990, I had been traveling for a full month. Just two weeks remained on my rail pass. Now facing west, my journey across the vast geographical sweep of Canada would soon culminate with a return to my starting point at the Via Rail station in Vancouver. Still, I had a few more places on my list that I wanted to squeeze in before time ran out.
July 21, 1990 - Toronto
On my journey eastward toward the Atlantic Ocean a few weeks prior, I fell in love with Toronto. Those precious four days in the city, however, were not enough to quench my thirst for it. I knew that I would want to soak up as much of the city as I could on my way back home, so I re-arranged my schedule and traded days I had previously planned to spend in Moncton, New Brunswick for more time in the big metropolis. Sometime on the night of the 21st, I arrived at the train station in Toronto. Before leaving Quebec City, I called up my new friends, Gaye and Ron Hemphill, and asked them if their offer still stood to overnight with them for a few days. Graciously, they said yes. They sent their daughter Trish out to pick me up at the station.
Gaye and Ron lived in a century-old three-story brick home on Langley Avenue in the Riverdale neighborhood east of downtown Toronto. Their house was warm and appointed with stunning artwork, all painted by Gaye's former husband. At the time I arrived, Gaye was vacationing in PEI, but Ron, acting alone as host, was more than accommodating. He set out a welcome platter of crackers, brie, salmon spread, Greek olives, jumbo strawberries, cold cuts, barbecued ribs and garlic bread. We washed it down with beer, and later, he served chocolate-covered éclairs. He gave me a room on the second floor and entrusted me with a key to their house. The notion that one would not only open their home to a nearly perfect stranger, but roll out the red carpet for them, was one that I struggled to reckon with. The engrained caution and automatic suspicion of strangers that was a standard canon in my American upbringing was betrayed by this overt hospitality and trust. I was immensely grateful to my hosts, while at the same time in awe of their trusting nature.
July 22, 1990
The next morning, Trish and her boyfriend invited me to breakfast with them. It was over breakfast when Trish informed me that their next door neighbors were former members of the Canadian rock/jazz group, Blood, Sweat & Tears. She said she often sees groupies hanging out on their front steps. I didn't see any band members until my last day at the Hemphills' house. One of them was wearing a gold lamé vest and was packing a guitar into his truck.
It rained all that day, so I put on my mackintosh, braved the foul weather and walked back into the heart of the city from Riverdale, crossing the Don River on the way. (A group of Canadians later told me that the Don River used to reek of industrial pollution; so much so, in fact, that locals would pour perfume into it prior to visits from the Queen.) I wandered the city, stopping for meals and an occasional beer. The weather really dampened my mobility, so I mostly hung out in restaurants and shops. I even stopped to observe a group of people practicing a then-popular folk dance -- clogging.
July 23-25, 1990
My final days in Toronto were spent on foot, exploring Yorkville, Ward's Island and the many parks in between. I passed the time pleasantly sipping coffee in parks, seated at sidewalk tables, watching people walk by. I had small meals at several outstanding restaurants and cafes. I walked the length of Yonge Street from Queen Street to Bloor, then over to Yorkville, back down University Avenue to the water's edge of Lake Ontario. Here are a few photos I snapped downtown of the CN Tower, Eaton Centre and the Toronto Police Headquarters.
One of the most memorable events for me during those three days was seeing famed Canadian journalist, Knowlton Nash, walking up Church Street. He was a regular newscaster on CBC News and quite recognizable to me. It was like seeing a Walter Cronkite or David Brinkley. I tried to be subtle, but I ran up ahead of him on the sidewalk to get this photo from the front.
At the end of my stay, I bought Ron and Gaye a lovely bouquet of flowers as a token of my gratitude for their hospitality. Gaye had just returned from PEI on that last day and shared photos of her visit with me. We drank champagne and I caught her up on my own experiences since I last saw her.
An anecdote of how travel often leads to personal growth ...
Toronto has a very large and vibrant gay community, perhaps second only to New York City's. This is where I felt most comfortable as a solo traveler. At night, I visited gay bars and clubs and met people who graciously took me under their wing, showed me around, and oriented me to the community. I had a wonderful time in their company. However, in spite of the fact that I was surrounded by affable, if not adoring men, there were moments when I experienced genuine existential conflict. Mind you, this isn't a story about sexual identity. I had been out since I was 17 years old. What I struggled with in Toronto was more of a reckoning of my own self-worth as a young man. So many of the men I met were successful, confident, fit and cultured. In my young estimation, they were models of perfection, glimpses of what I aspired to be. Comparatively, I was none of those things. I felt like just the opposite of them in many ways. I was a poor student, traveling on a shoestring budget, trading meals for admission tickets. I did not live in a gleaming condo in a high-rise with killer views of the city. I did not have a high-paying career. I didn't have a career at all. And I didn't have the life experience they had to buttress the wall of confidence they projected so effortlessly to the world. The sad truth is, during those final days in Toronto, rightly or wrongly, I judged myself harshly by comparison. I let it get in where it viciously assailed my self-confidence. The sting of confronting my own perceived inadequacies followed me long after I left Toronto and forced me to examine the painful underpinnings of those feelings. Despite the silliness of it all – comparing myself with people who were older and in different phases of their lives -- I felt as if I were being crushed under the weight of an impossible paradigm that was impervious to reason. Dear readers, I share this sidebar only to offer a bit more of the psychological experience of being in Toronto for me at the time and to demonstrate an important point about these experiences. Travel, like anything that takes you away from your usual comforts, frequently provokes these unexpected emotional upsurges. It can be a bracing tonic, a bit of self-directed therapy that often leads to personal growth, as well as greater emotional agility and empathy. That was certainly true for me on this 45-day journey through a foreign country. The quiet discomfort I experienced in Toronto was an opening to a deeper dialog with myself that eventually led me to see myself more clearly, and in my case, dispel untenable, ridiculous beliefs. It is one of the reasons why I travel – to gain those elusive insights to my deeper self.
Readers, if you have experienced moments of emotional discomfort and/or realizations about yourself that only your travels could have provoked, I'd love to hear about it. Feel free to share your own story in the comments section below.
July 27, 1990 - Midnight
The train rolled slowly out of the Via Rail station in downtown Toronto on July 26, 1990 -- just moments before midnight. I was already missing my beloved Toronto. I hadn't really prepared for the 36-hour journey back across the Canadian Shield and into Manitoba. I was low on foodstuffs. At my very first opportunity, the next day when we stopped in Capreol, I raced into town, found an IGA and purchased snacks and sandwiches for the remainder of the train ride. I was seated in the very comfortable Car #2 with the extra leg room and the pivoting seats. The only drawback was the group of young guys seated all around me -- they were loud and drinking heavily, padding out their sentences with lowbrow filler words and profanity. They staggered up and down the aisle, vomiting, moaning for aspirin. I did my best to block them out. In fact, I slept through much of the 36-hour trip.
The scenery was familiar, calming. On the morning of July 28th, I watched the last few outposts in Ontario whiz by and soon saw the sign along the tracks indicating the border with Manitoba. Before long, we were pulling into Winnipeg.
July 28, 1990 - Winnipeg
Being so close to the U.S. border, and two states I had never been to, I wanted to leverage my proximity by renting a car and driving south to North Dakota and Minnesota so that I could count them among the states I'd visited. Calling around for a rental car was the second thing I did upon arrival; the first thing I did was to hastily wash up in the train station lavatory and change clothes. That's the downside of traveling coach on a leg of travel longer than 24 hours -- you really start to crave a shower. I stashed a few personal belongings in a locker at the station to avoid having to tote them around town while I was looking for a rental car.
The first few car rental agencies I called had nothing to offer me. I finally found an agency a little ways outside of town that had a Mazda and a promotion for 100 free kilometers. I caught a bus out to the agency, picked up the car and headed south for the U.S. border. The drive was about an hour from Winnipeg to the crossing at Pembina, North Dakota.
I had a little trouble at customs. When I told the U.S. customs agent that I was just crossing back into the United States to visit the corners of North Dakota and Minnesota, he was instantly suspicious of me and asked me to park my vehicle where he inspected my bags and asked me to empty my pockets. He took my driver's license and walked back into the office. I must have sat in the car for about 15 minutes before he returned. Apologizing for the wait, he explained that people don't normally duck across the border for such a brief visit unless they're trafficking drugs. It didn't even occur to me until then that the reason I gave him for crossing the border did, in fact, seem suspect. Lesson learned. He waved me through, and I officially marked North Dakota as the 10th state.
Just a few miles into the state along I-29, I exited at Pembina and headed east across the Red River into Minnesota. North Dakota S.R. 59 turned into Minnesota S.R. 171 as soon as I crossed the river. There was no "Welcome to Minnesota" sign there. The photo below was the only evidence I had that I was indeed in the state, which I then counted as number 11.
In less than a half hour, I added two more states to the done column. As soon as I crossed into Minnesota, I connected with U.S. 75, turned north and headed back into Canada at Emerson, MB. Unlike my journey southward, my crossing at the Canadian customs checkpoint back into Manitoba went very smoothly.
Back in Winnipeg, I picked up the rest of my things at the Via Rail station and then checked into the youth hostel, which turned out to be very close to the city center. It was also a bargain at $10/night and a necessary downgrade to offset the expense of the rental car, which I still had for another day. For the remainder of the day, I wandered around the city, gravitating once again to the Legislative Building where I could enjoy some peace and solitude. I was utterly alone in the cavernous Legislative Building. One of the more interesting observations I made while walking around the city was the curious presence of electrical outlets in the stalls of most parking lots. The winters in Winnipeg can be cold and brutal, or so I am told. It gets so cold there that it is necessary to plug your vehicle in to keep the fluids of your car's engine from freezing. I learned later that these outlets are common fixtures of parking lots all around Minnesota and North Dakota, as well. And when I started really looking, I noticed lots of cars with plugs protruding from their grille.
July 29, 1990 - Lake Winnipeg
On the advice of a woman I had met on the bus the previous day, I decided to drive up north to Lake Winnipeg, specifically to Grand Beach. Lake Winnipeg is a surprisingly large freshwater body about an hour north of the city. In fact, its size rivals that of many of the Great Lakes. The woman I met the day before on the bus told me it was recently featured in Playboy Magazine's "10 Best Beaches in the World" article. Really? In Manitoba? I was incredulous, but also deeply curious. If Manitoba really did have a beach that remarkable, I wanted to see it. The weather wasn't what I could call perfect for a beach, but there were breaks in the clouds here and there when the sun would come out and the air temperature was unmistakably warm. A light breeze blew along the shoreline. There were two beaches: East Beach and West Beach. I started at West Beach, strolling up and down the shoreline, waiting for the weather to improve enough to allow me a few minutes to lie down in the sand. The overcast skies, however, were unrelenting.
After an hour or so, I went to East Beach. By the time I got there, the cloud cover was beginning to burn away. When the sun finally made its debut, I spread a blanket out on the white sand and laid back with eyes closed taking in the sounds of the water washing against the beach and the tantalizing feel of the sun's rays soaking into my skin.
I later regretted not paying more attention to where I had placed my camera. It was a compact, auto-focus, idiot-proof Fujica that I had bought at a small camera shop in Longview, Washington in 1984. It took amazing photos with little effort on my part, and I had made it nearly through the entire journey across Canada before disaster struck. The gentle breeze blowing across the white sand beach that day had deposited enough tiny grains of sand inside the moving parts of my poor camera that it stopped working altogether. This was the last photo I ever captured on that camera, taken at Grand Beach:
As I later learned, the damage was prohibitively costly to repair. It was actually more economical to buy a new one. For the rest of my travels through Canada, I relied on disposable cameras instead which rendered poor quality prints that were occasionally streaked in red gels. I didn't stay long at the beach; I had to get back to the city and return my rental car before the additional fees kicked in. As for the hype drummed up by the Playboy article about Grand Beach? I had to conclude that, though it was a nice beach, claiming it was one of the top ten in the world was nothing more than hyperbole.
My camera wasn't the only thing I neglected that afternoon. I had failed again to put sunscreen on my skin before submitting to the sun. As a result, that evening, I was nursing my second sunburn of the summer. On the way back, I stopped at a Mexican restaurant for dinner. In the mirror of the restaurant bathroom, my body had been transformed into a canvas of varying hues of red and pink. The colors changed along unseen boundaries moving from arms to shoulder to face to neck. I looked extraterrestrial. I quickly left the restaurant, feeling embarrassed about my appearance, stopped at a Circle K for a ginger ale, then retreated to the youth hostel for the night.
July 30, 1990 - Saskatoon
That next day, I was back on the train, this time bound for Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, where I would spend two or three days exploring. In its westward progression, the train made a brief stop in Brandon, Manitoba. It was on the platform at the station where I saw Audie for the fourth time that summer. When I approached her, she was squatting over her bags. I said hello to her a little timidly, and she replied, to my utter delight, "Oh would you just get out of my life!" We both had a good laugh and immediately began sharing stories of where we'd been and what we'd seen since our last encounter. She was boarding the train heading for Edmonton, so we would be able to share a seat all the way to Saskatoon. We went to the bar car where she bought me a club sandwich and a Coke ... and would not take "no" for an answer. We chatted more over games of cards. A few hours later, as I was getting off the train in Saskatoon, I realized I would probably never see her again. We exchanged mailing addresses and kept up correspondence for a few months. Like most encounters, it was short lived, but this one was deeply meaningful to me. I always wondered what became of her.
The train arrived late that evening, but the youth hostel was a 24-hour operation, so I did not have to worry about being locked out. It was actually part of the Patricia Hotel (or "The Pat" as it is known locally). There was a night club attached to the building. The desk clerk, a friendly man named Cyril, gave me a private room for just $8/night. It had its own sink, toilet and tub. It was probably the best room and the best bargain of all the youth hostels I had ever stayed at up to that point in my life. The only complaint I had was that the live music from the night club below seeped in through the thin flooring of my room. Shortly after checking in, Cyril was knocking on my door. He offered to take me on a tour of his city over the next few days. I was very grateful for his instant hospitality and happy to have a new friend in an unfamiliar place.
July 31, 1990
I got a slightly later start to my day having arrived so late the night before. I quickly set out in search of two things that morning: information on travel to Regina (the capital of Saskatchewan), and a breakfast house. A large, white question mark sign guided me to the tourism center where I found I could purchase a round-trip, non-stop ticket to Regina on a Saskatchewan Transportation Company bus for just $39. (Saskatchewan Transportation Company ceased all operations in 2017.) I decided I would go the next day. Just a few minutes later, I found a breakfast place. That first day, I had no genuine itinerary. To fill the remaining daylight hours, I wandered around downtown Saskatoon, trying to avoid the blazing sun (my scorched skin was still a little tender). The temperature that day topped out at 95°F.
My wanderings took me to Kiwanis Park along the South Saskatchewan River, then to the Broadway Bridge where I got great snapshots of the city itself, then to the University of Saskatchewan campus.
I met up with Cyril that afternoon at 3 p.m. back at The Pat. He took me out to one of his favorite watering holes where we met up with a few of his friends. I got an immediate introduction to gay Saskatoon that afternoon. His friends were funny and irreverent and quick-witted. I enjoyed their company tremendously. One of them, Gary, once worked at the Bessborough Hotel, a majestic Canadian Pacific railway hotel located on the banks of the river. Gary told the story of serving Queen Elizabeth during one of her visits years ago when he had to undergo background checks and two weeks of surveillance prior to the event. He said he had to change his gloves 30 times while serving Her Royal Highness. He held her in high esteem, but had nothing flattering to say about Princess Margaret.
August 1, 1990 - Regina, SK
I was on the bus to Regina at 8:00 a.m. The travel time was just under three hours. When I got there, I was welcomed by a surprisingly beautiful, modern city on the prairie. I walked from the bus station to the Saskatchewan Legislative Building where I toured the grounds and explored the interior of the capitol. Mounties stood guard just outside the main entrance to the building.
Regina was celebrating Buffalo Days when I was there. (The city later dropped the reference to "Buffalo Days," preferring instead to rename the event the Queen City Ex.) There were lots of outdoor concerts, lots of people everywhere and the weather could not have been more beautiful. I remember that people on the street smiled at each other when they passed by and were uncommonly friendly. A few hours later, I hopped back on the bus bound for Saskatoon, met up with Cyril for a drink later then retired to the youth hostel.
August 2, 1990
On my last day in Saskatoon, Cyril took me around town one more time. We walked through Kiwanis Park and later he pointed out the house where Joni Mitchell's parents still lived. We went to Robbin's Doughnuts and had coffee, then later wound up at a place called The Fringe on Broadway where we had proper drinks. Time passed much too quickly that day. Before I knew it, Cyril was calling me a cab to the train station where I would embark on the very last leg of my summer journey.
My newfound friendship with Cyril endured long after I left Saskatoon that day. We remained friends for years. He was one of my best pen pals when I was teaching English in Japan from 1991 to 1992, sending me letters nearly every month. In the summer of 1992, I would make the drive from Seattle to Saskatoon to spend four days with him and his friends.
August 3, 1990 - Edmonton/Jasper
When I arrived in Edmonton that morning, I learned that there had been a freight train derailment up the line toward Jasper. Via Rail arranged for all westbound passengers to be bused from Edmonton up to Jasper where we would have to wait several hours for another train heading toward Vancouver. It felt like the longest day of my trip. There was little to do in Jasper, and since none of us really knew exactly when the next train would be departing, we had to stay relatively close to the station. Finally, very late in the afternoon, our train arrived and we were heading west once again. I got this shot of the mountains later that day as we were passing through the Canadian Rockies.
August 4, 1990 - Vancouver
I remember very little about the last 24 hours of train travel prior to arriving in Vancouver. We arrived mid-day, just as the third Gay Games were beginning. The city was awash with athletes and spectators and curiosity seekers, like me. It was an exciting place to be for a 24-year-old gay man. Even though my Seattle roommate was on his way to collect me at the train station, I had a powerful desire to remain in this city. I still had a few hours of time before his arrival, so I hopped on the SkyTrain and sailed into downtown to find venues and meet people. It would all be over in just a few hours -- both this precious time with my community in the midst of this great celebration and this great summer adventure through this great country. And thus, I greeted my roommate at the station with a mixture of joy and sadness.
As far as great adventures go, my travels through Canada remain as one of the most epic journeys of my lifetime. It was on this journey where I encountered my deepest anxieties about solo travel and faced them head on. The expedition is now a mental collage of sweet memories that I cherish to this day. The alchemical blend of experience and self-reflection produced in me a new perspective, and shed light on my life's priorities, separating the frivolous from the essential.
Until next time, dear travelers, may all your journeys be safe and rich in experience!