Fernie, BC

I was born one mornin’ when the sun didn’t shine
I picked up my shovel and I walked to the mine
I loaded sixteen tons of number nine coal
And the straw boss said “Well, a-bless my soul”

You load sixteen tons, what do you get
Another day older and deeper in debt
Saint Peter don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go
I owe my soul to the company store

“Sixteen Tons” by Merle Travis (no, not Tennessee Ernie Ford, Big Bill Broonzy, or Interstate Brickface)

Editor’s Warning – Earl visited the Fernie Museum during this visit, and got a little carried away with the history lesson.

From February 7th to 12th, Betty ‘n’ Earl drove from Ontario to Fernie, BC for a ski vacation. They were the advance party for 11 family members on a university reading week ski trip.

Having left Mabel in Texas, Betty ‘n’ Earl were without a trailer to stay in, instead staying in cheap-and-cheery hotels along the way. They chose to drive through the US to shave some time off the drive, and to take advantage of cheaper fuel. It was an uneventful drive through Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota and Saskatchewan, with perfect (although very cold) weather the whole way.

Noon in Saskatchewan

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1:15PM in Saskatchewan

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4:06PM in Saskatchewan

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Ice road in Saskatchewan

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View from hotel room in Saskatchewan

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The final leg of the trip took them from Alberta to BC through Crowsnest Pass. This pass was long used by First Nations peoples, then by rail companies, and eventually by automobiles starting in 1917. The road passes by the site of the Frank Slide, Canada’s deadliest rockslide that happened in 1903, with 82 million tonnes of rock falling from the summit of Turtle Mountain into the Crowsnest River valley below, killing 90.

Betty ‘n’ Earl’s only danger through the pass came from the 18-wheelers determined to maintain near supersonic speeds despite snow-covered roads and occasional whiteouts. They were fortunate that Kevin has winter tires and all-wheel-drive, which contributed to a safe arrival in Fernie, a picturesque town of just over 5,000 full-time residents location near the southeastern corner of British Columbia. As well as having a fantastic view of the nearby Mount Fernie ski hill, the town is also within sight of several other mountains, including Castle Mountain, Mount Hosmer, Mount Proctor, and the Three Sisters. Legend has it that the last two mountains were formed when a young Ktunaxa Chief found great difficulty in choosing a bride among three maidens, and the gods punished his indecision by turning him into a mountain. The maidens’ grief was so great that they prayed for, and received, the same fate.

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The Elk Valley region surrounding Fernie was first settled by the Ktunaxa tribe (often Anglicized as Kootenay, Kutenai or Kootenai), who were closely allied with the Shuswap tribe. A century after the arrival of Europeans in the late 18th century, coal was discovered in the region, and William Fernie founded the coal industry that continues to this day. Five area mines, now run by Teck Resources, produce metallurgical coal that is shipped to China for use in steel production (too early to tell what Trump’s new import tariffs on Chinese steel will have on this). Whereas the mines are not visible from Fernie, the long trains that roll through the town several times daily are a constant reminder of the importance of coal mining to the area’s economy.

Throughout Fernie’s history, coal mining has led to prosperity, poverty, incarceration, misery, death and salvation. In the early part of the 20th century, the town and surrounding area suffered a series of catastrophes, including two fires that devastated the downtown, and a series of coal mining accidents and explosions that killed over 500 miners in aggregate. The most devastating mine explosion occurred in 1902, with 128 men and boys losing their lives. After a second major fire devastated the downtown core in 1908, survivors sought refuge in the only major building left standing; the coal company’s head office, now Fernie’s Town Hall.

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During the first world war, miners originating from Germany, Austria and the Ukraine were kept in internment camps under brutal conditions in nearby Morrissey. Fernie fought through these setbacks and others, including economic blows caused by fluctuations in demand and pricing for coal. In the late 1960’s, Heiko and Linda Socher helped start and eventually ran the local ski hill, which now has a well-earned reputation for some of the best powder skiing in North America.

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The success of the resort has provided greater economic stability for the Elk Valley, and employment for many (although most seem to be Australian!). The town has a thriving downtown core with art galleries, a museum, ski and mountain equipment stores, and clothing and furniture stores.

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As they had arrived in Fernie a few days before their chalet rental was available, Betty ‘n’ Earl stayed with their friends Brenda ‘n’ Harry. Their house has idyllic views of the surrounding mountains, and is adjacent to trails that lead to the top of Castle Mountain. Betty ‘n’ Earl spent several days hiking and skiing with Brenda ‘n’ Harry, getting to know the hill and the town.

Fernie has a vibrant arts and music scene. Brenda produces original ceramic art, and Harry is active in booking bands for area venues, also playing several times a week at local pubs. Having been in a couple of bands with Harry, Earl joined him on stage a few times through the week, fueled by some liquid amber courage.

After the rest of the ski party arrived, the whole group hit the slopes (except for Betty, who had injured her knee). The resort is huge, with 5 large bowls and many ridges that can be traversed or hiked to access fresh, unspoiled powder. There are some world-class off-piste runs, many of them beyond the ability of even the best skiers in the group.

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At the end of the week, the rest of the group flew back to Ontario, and Betty ‘n’ Earl drove their son back to Revelstoke where he is currently living and working…and, of course, skiing.

Betty ‘n’ Earl then drove through Montana, Idaho and Wyoming to Boulder, Colorado (more detail in an upcoming blog) and flew back to Ontario to move to their new home before resuming their travels.

America

Let us be lovers, we’ll marry our fortunes together
I’ve got some real estate here in my bag
So we bought a pack of cigarettes and Mrs. Wagner’s pies
And we walked off to look for America

Cathy, I said, as we boarded a Greyhound in Pittsburgh
Michigan seems like a dream to me now
It took me four days to hitchhike from Saginaw
I’ve gone to look for America

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Whereas Paul Simon was looking for America, over the past five days, Betty’n’Earl were returning to Ontario, sans Mabel, to spend Christmas with family and friends. Despite this, they felt they were leaving something behind when leaving Mabel in Buda, Texas. The folks at the dealership were amused to see Earl winterizing the trailer, emphasizing that they were in Texas, not Ontario. Seems Betty’n’Earl had the last laugh, as three days later, the largest winter storm in 125 years (Benji) dumped snow and freezing temperatures from New York City down to the gulf coast, with Texas getting particularly hard hit.

In contrast, Betty’n’Earl’s route home only received a dusting.

The northward trip had a different focus than when towing Mabel southbound. Heading south, the goals were (1) keep above freezing (2) spend time experiencing the land, and (3) keep the time towing to a minimum. Now, their priorities were (1) get home ASAP (2) spend time experiencing the land, and (3) don’t fall asleep at the wheel.

Betty’n’Earl drove through Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where uranium was purified during WWII’s Manhattan Project. They were unable to tour any of the sites, as all tour participants must be US citizens. They did at one point pull onto an uncharted road to which their GPS guided them, but the duo quickly realized that they would soon be surrounded by troops in Jeeps with semi-automatic weapons, so they rapidly retreated. Weapons-grade nuclear elements are still being produced here. No-one seemed interested in Earl’s qualifications from his undergraduate course in nuclear radiochemistry, so they moved on.

After a sleepover in Kingsport, Tennessee, they headed north and stopped at the New River Gorge Bridge, which used to be the longest single-span arch bridge in the world. From the visitors’ centre, they took the original road which was the only crossing available before the bridge was built. The drive was narrated by a CD describing the old route, which featured old towns and coal seams long since abandoned. The bridge, completed in the 1970’s, reduced a 45-minute crossing to 30 seconds. This reminded Earl of a brief scene from the movie Margin Call where a polymath civil engineer, now a derivatives trader, laments about leaving the engineering profession, where he used to improve people’s lives by building bridges.

Betty’n’Earl ended the day’s journey in Bridgeport, West Virginia.

Virginia Beach, VA

Betty’n’Earl arrived in Virginia Beach one day late thanks to a recurring problem with Kevin’s passenger window. The dealership in Maryland bent over backwards, giving them a loaner vehicle to use, letting them boondock in their parking lot overnight, and replacing the window parts.

One thing Earl was looking forward to was to drive across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge & Tunnel. Although a spectacular crossing, with two separate two-lane bridges, the tunnel has only one lane each way. Earl found it terrifying pulling Mabel through the tunnel with transport trucks coming toward Betty and him.

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Chesapeake Bay is huge! You can’t even see the other side of the bay. The bridge is located at the mouth where it opens into the Atlantic. There are many fully-loaded container ships going back and forth. There is also a lot of military traffic, with Fort Story right next to the state park Betty’n’Earl stayed at, and Norkfolk, the world’s largest naval station, also nearby. There are also many pelicans.

Speaking of Fort Story, there were two historical sites Earl wanted to see located on the base. The first was the Cape Henry Lighthouse, built in 1792. The second was the site of the first landing of the British in North America in 1607, who were then able to establish a permanent settlement. There had previously been an English expedition under the command of Sir Walter Raleigh (without him present) which landed on Roanoke Island, NC, in 1584, and started a settlement shortly thereafter, but that settlement had mysteriously disappeared.

To get on the Fort Story base, Earl went through a thorough security check, complete with military personnel opening and searching every compartment in the vehicle. Betty had stayed with Bubbles back at the park as they don’t allow dogs. Earl received many warnings about where he could and couldn’t go, what he could and could not photograph, etc. He was uneasy about making a mistake, but while the military personnel were very serious and intimidating, they were also very helpful and polite. Earl took a minimum of photos and then returned to the state park.

Betty’n’Earl met many engaging, interesting people along the way. Since leaving Canada, they couldn’t think of a time where they had heard a car horn honking or a word spoken in anger. They were also acutely aware of one thing that an American friend (now living in Canada for many years) once observed. He said that Canadians swear much more than Americans. Earl could vouch that he hadn’t heard a single swear word since traveling (except from Betty).

With the forecast calling for rain, Betty’n’Earl decided to stay for an extra day and relax, do laundry, etc. Their plan for the next day was to head for the Outer Banks of North Carolina, including Roanoke Island. Earl was looking forward to seeing Kitty Hawk, of Wright Brothers fame. Their plan was to stay at the outer banks for two days, then head inland to drive the Blue Ridge Parkway, and eventually make their way to Nashville.

The Great Adventure

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As Betty’n’Earl crossed the border to start the first leg of their exploration, they felt an enthusiasm, some nervousness, but also a sense of living a cliche, which of course they were, as you will soon see. But let’s backtrack a few days to experience the cacophony of a house move.

Just kidding. They wouldn’t subject you to that, other than to thank all who helped (You know who You are).

After the deal closed on their home, Betty’n’Earl had driven to their old university town.
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They stayed in a trailer park close to their old school, then picked up their kids for the Canadian Thanksgiving weekend. After the weekend, they left to boondock (stay with limited or no hookups) at a good friends’ property north of the GTA.
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This was followed by a trip to the trailer dealership to fix some teething problems with the new trailer, then a trip to an RV show in Toronto, and finally to the border to stay at a rather sad-looking end-of-season campground in Niagara Falls.

Anyway, we opened with the posit that Betty’n’Earl are living a cliche. Their adventure could have been ripped from the script of Albert Brooks’ 1985 movie Lost in America, which had been re-released just two months before their departure.

The movie depicts a successful couple who ditch everything to hit the road in a Winnebago. The conceit is that Albert Brooks’ character is living his vision of the movie Easy Rider. John Powers of National Public Radio calls Lost in America:

…a trenchant satire of the [then] emerging species known as yuppies, with their materialism, sense of entitlement and unidealistic belief that the world is their oyster…[capturing] the essence of bourgeois Bohemianism, the attempt to embrace the cool lifestyle of the rebel while still having money and comfort. That fantasy is alive and kicking among today’s urban strivers, who play vinyl, go glamping and drink artisanal coffee as they try to make their millions.(1)

Betty’n’Earl, guilty as charged. Held without bail, do not pass Go.

A more recent movie about RV travel(2) also informed Betty’n’Earl’s most commonly spoken phrase of the trip whenever they questioned whether they had made the right move — “No ragrets.”

Given the same set of circumstances, You would have made the same decision to abandon all of Your responsibilities, only You would have done it years earlier, to hell with everything else, all hands on deck, damn the torpedoes, remember the Alamo.

(1) https://www.npr.org/2017/08/07/542028917/albert-brooks-lost-in-america-remains-piercingly-relevant-32-years-later

(2) We’re the Millers, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1723121/