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Reports

Monday, 17 March 2003
Prince George, BC --> Grande Prairie, Alberta, Canada

HAPPY ST. PATRICK’S DAY!
I actually was awake before my phone alarm would wake me up at 5.30am. Probably my mind had set a clock too. I had everything already and shared breakfast and a newspaper with Bob and Karen in the kitchen.

I said goodbye to Karen and thanked her for all her kindness. She even gave me a hug!

Bob was on his way to work and he could drop me off on the highway out of Prince George. It was 6.45am when I thanked him for his support and we parted.

There I was along the road with my new hitchhiking sign saying ‘Nice Dutch Guy’. I wondered if it would make any difference.

At this time of the day it was pretty cold. The sun was on its way up, but it was still freezing. But I was prepared. I worn thermic clothing underneath a few layers of sweaters, worn my ski bib and my jacket and had my thumb up in my gloves. Weather won’t be able to beat me that easily.

I wasn’t as lucky as always. But who would pick up a guy with a sign that says ‘Nice Dutch Guy’ at 7am in the morning? He might hide something, it’s way too early!

And actually all the traffic that passed me the first hour were pickup trucks filled up with men on their work to the factories or big lumber tracks splashing by.

My luck pulled over around 8 in the morning. His name is Dale and he was on his way to visit his colleagues of the sawmill he works at near McKenzie Junction. He himself had a knee injury and wasn’t allowed to work for a while. But he showed his extraordinary commitment to show up at work to treat his colleagues with donuts he just had bought at Tim Horton’s.

“I never pick up hitchhikers, but your sign was a good reason to pull over,” Dale said. And his once earlier experience with a hitchhiker wasn’t a good one. “I once got this guy in on my way back to Prince George and he started telling these weird stories about pub fight he has been in and shows me his scars and tells me how he could use his elbow to knock-down somebody. I wasn’t feeling very comfortable anymore. But I was a bit afraid to stop and hoped I would make it to Prince George. Then he got something from his inside pocket and I thought: there I go… But he got out this little bottle with whiskey and offered me a drink too. I kindly rejected that, but he started drinking and drinking. At the time we arrived in Prince George he was as drunk as a skunk and I could easily push him out of the car.”

We had a few good chats on the road. That was a good thing, because the ride to the McKenzie junction took almost 2,5 hours! As he got off the highway there, he dropped me off at the gas station, so I could easily hitchhike on again.

I had a peaceful sit in front of this gas station, when a big truck had pulled over and the driver approached me. “Where you heading?” And I said “Grande Prairie”, which was another 200km up the road in the next province. “Are you hitchhiking?” Actually I was about to start hitchhiking again. “Come along, I would love some company in me truck! I first have to get some breakfast. Want something too?”

And I was surprised about his generosity. We got inside the restaurant of this little gas station and he ordered himself some omelettes and coffee for us both. As he couldn’t eat all his toasts, he shared some with me.

He took me along in his giant truck and I was very happy, my driver had to go all the way to Grande Prairie too! He was apparently very pleased with some company, because –boy– he was a talker.

He told me all about his trucking life, about his wife, about his girl friend, about his ex-girlfriend, his parents and he knew to tell me exactly at which road stop I would find “the hottest pussycats of Canada”, haha.

Meanwhile we listened to his CD collection with Pink, Eminem, European dance tracks and the soundtrack of Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?, which is a great movie!

With George Clooney singing on that soundtrack we drove through the Canadian Rocky Mountains. I passed big white topped mountains as we drove up and down through green valleys where the snow should have been piled up high along the road. But with the sun shining this warm already, a lot was melting and the roads were muddy.

And before I knew we entered the province Alberta and I had to set my clock back one hour as I also crossed a new time zone.

The scenery changed immediately too! The Rockies were behind me and in front of me I saw this wide open space. I was entering the prairie flatlands of Alberta!

Another hour on long straight roads, passing small towns and four-house hamlets made us arrive in my destination town this afternoon. I had reached Grande Prairie at 4.30 in the afternoon and I found that quite an achievement as I worried that I wouldn’t make it on time. I thanked my truck driver for that too!

My hostess in Grande Prairie was Jane Friesen and she picked me up at the petrol station in Grande Prairie after I called her on the truck phone.

“I had heard about you first when you were interviewed by Arthur Black on the CBC, way back in November 2001. I have been following you around since then and suddenly read you were coming to Canada. But I never expected you to visit Grande Prairie.

But just another dot on my map had become a visited place and earned a place in my history now.

Jane is chairman and instructor of departments of early childhood developments and human services at the Grand Prairie Regional College. Now try to fit that on a business card, ey! Her husband is Randy and he is a student at the same college. Now don’t get this wrong. Randy used to be a welder at the pulp mill out of town, but due to some injuries he couldn’t continue that job anymore. He decided to get himself re-schooled and now he studies computer engineering at the same institution where his wife is actually teaching.

After Jane picked me up it was also about 5pm and a good timing to pick up Randy from school. This also meant a short introduction to the college for me.

The Grand Prairie Regional College is built by a famous Canadian Native architect Douglas Cardinal and it was one of his first projects. I could totally make out that the architect was a creative one; all the college buildings were connected with each other and there was no 90 degrees rim to be found. Everything just bends here. Very remarkable!

Randy just finished a script writing class and altogether we drove to their home in the north part of this big town. Now I just have to quote what my guide book is saying about Grande Prairie:

“Failing dismally to live up to its evocative name, Grande Prairie’s unfocused sprawl is a legacy of having the luxury to unlimited space in which to build. The centre is nicer. The info centre we mean…”

So that book isn’t rather positive about this town. On our way home I noticed there isn’t much positive to say anyway. It is a city called a city because of his size, but has absolutely no characteristics of a city. Grande Prairie is as far as I could see, indeed a wide sprawled village. Cut some more forest and plant some more suburbs and this way it grows bigger and bigger.

But next to the destinations I have visited lately in British Columbia, this town does not only rely on its main industries lumber logging and pulp mills, but also with another stirring source: oil!

At the spacey suburban house of Jane and Randy I was offered the guest bed room and again my own bath room on the first floor. I had a powernap to catch up with myself after such a long day of driving and joined the couple again at 7pm.

Jane had prepared a salmon dinner and during dinner they caught up with the latest developments in my project. I am indeed heading up north this week, hopefully making it all the way to Yellowknife in the North West Territories.

And then Jane asked me what we could do tonight and she gave me two interesting offers. Going to a performance of jazz and blues man Guy Davis or to a show by The Commitments. That last gig won it for me. What else could I wish for on St. Patrick’s Day today than to go to a concert of those that have portrait the Irish capital Dublin the best in the movie The Commitments?

Randy chose to do homework this Monday night, so Jane and I got to BJ's Q Club & Sports Lounge in downtown Grand Prairie together. We got there around 9.30pm and had a few beers while we looked around at the surrounding people. Then one hour later, nothing much had changed and the show started.

For an audience of some 60 people that merely sat down on their bar stools the members of The Commitments absolutely played their hearts out! I loved their groovy blues music and empathetic jazz.

It weren’t all the actual band members of the original The Commitments movie, but the drummer and the guitarist actually played a role in that great flick.

They were good! They were great! They were the greatest! Well, you might know how much I enjoy real live music. It was fascinating! The energy those guys were giving on stage!

And what I found even more interesting was the meeting with members of the band backstage during their breaks. There wasn’t really a backstage, more a elevated area of the pub with a few relaxing couches.

And I just walked in and thanked them for the show they had given. I had a nice chat with the lead singer Phil, who says he lives a life where he is told where they are that day and it will all be different the next day. It’s quite similar to what I do, actually, but they have to sing every day and their tours are pre-booked by managers.

By the way, I loved to hear some European accents again!

I also talked with the blonde singer Claire Malone. She is about my age and joined The Commitments during an audition in Dublin. I was very interested in their average normal day life while they were doing a tour through North America. They started this month in Dallas and last week they performed in Winnipeg, yesterday in Calgary and tomorrow they had to head up to Fort St. John.

“We don’t really have weekends off, we just go on. God, I am tired,” Claire said and lit up a European cigarette. “We move around in a big tour bus and stay overnight at hotels. The worst part of this all is the actual sitting in this bus and make those long distances through Canada.” She sighed.

Anyway, it was quite amusing; she became more and chattier with me. Real Irish! “You know, we shouldn’t be allowed to go shopping,” she said. Why not? “Gosh, I am making so much money that when we get a chance to shop at a mall, we want to buy everything!” And she laughed out loud.

Then the drummer walked in and Claire told him about me being a humble backpacker travelling through Canada. “You are just backpacking around?” he asked. “Well, actually I support myself with a website where people can…” But he interrupted me. “You aren’t that guy that travels around for free and stays with people, are you?” Uh, yes I am. Actually…

And suddenly the band members of The Commitments started to share this story about this freeloader that had joined them here backstage. Before I knew Claire screamed around: “This guy is famous! Hear this!”

Yeah right, me famous. I don’t have a book about me and let’s forget about a movie, like they had. Now who is famous in this pub now?

It was an interesting night out and we got our feet on the floor in front of the band at the end of their performances. Even Jane did some dancing!

I thanked Jane for this fascinating opportunity that she wanted to share with me when we left the pub just after 1am. I said goodbye to the band who was catching their breaths after their show. Claire gave me a hug and wished me luck on my travels.

Oh boy, what a night. What a day! Oh what a St Paddy’s Day!

Good night Grande Prairie!

Ramon.