Hell On Wheels

//Hell On Wheels

Hell On Wheels

<Smiley face

So, where were we? Oh yeah, watching the sun set over Stanley Bay in Vancouver.

It’s been two months since the last real dispatch. I should apologize for that. I’m not going to, of course, but I realize it would be the right thing to do. September and October just kind of flew by. There were thousands of dirt-road miles to be covered, actual paying stories to be written and, most of all, many many beers that needed to be drunk. I couldn’t just leave them there, unattended and unloved, all those microbrew IPA’s, with their funny little names and flirty little bubbles, smelling of hops and destiny. They needed me more than I needed them. Who was I to refuse?

Maybe you’d have ignored them, just left them there in those funky dim-lit brewpubs, surrounded by strangers and slowly going flat. Not me. I’m better than that. If I’m driving through a town, let’s say Revelstoke, British Columbia, and see a sign for The Village Idiot Bar & Grill, then, dammit, I’m going in. And I’m drinking Ice Fog Ale until I can’t tell the difference between the Traipsemobile and a Zamboni. Beers are people, too. (Okay, maybe not. I might have been drunk when I wrote that.)


From Vancouver, I headed east to Calgary, where I had an assignment to write about “Hell on Wheels,” the new AMC series about the building of the trans-continental railroad. The only way to get there was through the Canadian Rockies, whose primary difference from the American Rockies is that they have subsidized health care. I kid.

I went most of the way on the Trans-Canada Highway, which sounds like it ought to be a freeway but, at least in this part of the country, isn’t. It’s a winding mostly two-lane highway, devoid of exit ramps or overpasses, that hits a stoplight at the center of every small town it passes through. (Kamloops, Salmon Arm, Edelweiss)  It meanders past small cafes and Esso stations (they’re still called Esso up here) and feels like something from the 1950’s. It’s like driving across the U.S. before the Interstate system, I imagine, smooth and efficient enough for cross-country commerce , but not just an assembly-line of four-lane same-shit-at-every-exit boredom. The highway runs through farms and ski resorts and past an uncountable number of gorgeous glacial lakes. There were signs warning drivers (suggesting, really, it’s Canada) to be on the lookout for moose and elk and deer. Weirdly, there is no road kill. I think it’s set up like a Grand Slam tennis match, where someone’s kneeling just out of sight, ready to dash out and remove any possums or porcupines the second they are struck.  In the U.S., I saw a dead deer or raccoon every couple of miles. In western Canada, not a one.

It’s a 12-hour drive from Vancouver to Calgary (not that I did it all in one chunk. I slept/passed out on Main Street in Revelstoke). And almost all of it is through forests and mountain passes that are as spectacular as anything I’ve ever seen through a windshield. Hour after hour of “Holy Shit” vistas,  towering gray granite cliffs, snow-capped ridges across magnificent alpine valleys exploding with wildflowers. You know those scenes – well, actually, every scene – in “Lord of the Rings” where they’re trudging past peaks and looking towards otherworldly horizons? Like that. I’m pretty sure I saw Orcs.

The entrance to Rogers Pass

The best of them all was the summit at Rogers Pass, through the Selkirk Mountains (the northern Rockies, really). The pass wasn’t even discovered until 1881 and I don’t mean discovered in the usual “when white people finally came across something the Native people had known about for centuries” sense. The local tribes didn’t know about it either because they never went through those mountains. There was too much snow in the winter (10 meters a year, that’s 300 damned inches) and no wildlife or food in the summer. Just those towers of gray rock. So, not being idiots, they never went up there.

But the white guys needed to find a place where the Canadian Pacific Railway could get through and Rogers Pass was the best they could do. Lots of them starved and froze to death, but they got the railway through in 1884 and the Trans-Canada Highway pretty much follows the same route. Because the railway and the highway (completed in 1962) are  prone to avalanches there are approximately 5 miles of “snow sheds” along the pass. It’s like having a mountain with a drive-through window.

Wildlife Overpass

I drove through Glacier National Park and Banff (where there are “wildlife pathways” built over the highway, grassy areas so the bears and wolves and elk and caribou can get from one side of the road to the other and eat each other, unimpeded. And they actually use it. Which, I guess, is why there’s no road kill). And then, just before you get to Calgary, it stops. Bam. Suddenly, at a place called Dead Man Flats, the road goes straight and flat and there’s nothing but prairie ahead. It must be freaky to be coming from the other direction, after days of  driving through Manitoba and Saskatchewan and then, out of nowhere, you’re in the Hall of the Mountain King.  It’s like one moment you’re in Kansas and the next you’re in Katmandu.

Calgary, which I always thought of as kind of a cow town, feels more like Dallas than it does Fort Worth, prettier than you expect it to be, but also a little full of itself, trying very hard to be cosmopolitan, but betraying itself by having a Mayonnaise Tent at the Taste of Calgary festival. But, to be fair, there were also cabbage rolls. I kid again. (I mean, yes, they had cabbage rolls and a mayonnaise tent. But they also had coconut curry chicken and Pisco sours.)

Even though a lot of this is in The New York Times story, I can’t stress enough how cool the “Hell on Wheels” set was. It’s only 15 minutes from downtown Calgary, but hidden down some bumpy back roads, on a huge undeveloped chunk of T’sim Tsuu tribal lands. There is a herd of wild horses that hangs around the set, occasionally nibbling on the tents at night when no one is around. Also, there is an electric fence around the corral where the workhouses are kept because they were having a problem with bears and cougars attacking the livestock. Let me repeat: 15 minutes from downtown Calgary.

The Calgary Food Festivall mayonnaise tent

Which is fine place, by the way. Lots of  cool little coffee shops and pubs, my favorite joint being the Hop In Brew Pub House, about a half mile from the Calgary Stampede grounds and, it turns out, an actual house. It’s an old two-story wooden house, that probably went from being a well-do-to single family residence to an upstairs/downstairs duplex and finally, a pub. The bar is downstairs in what was once the dining room. The upstairs bedrooms are filled with chairs and a billiard table and reachable only by some creaky too-steep-for-fat-guys stairs.

There are other pubs in the area, places that clearly cater to the after-work professional crowd, but the Hop In Brew has a much more varied clientele. Old neighborhood guys have clearly been coming here for a pint for many years. They have favorite tables, order the same old Molson Canadian they’ve always ordered and kind of shake their heads at all the young hippies and punks and trying-too-hard hipsters who have infiltrated their lair. But they don’t seem all that upset about it. It’s more like, “What is the deal with that haircut?”

The Hop In Brew, Calgary

You want beer, you stand in line and wait your turn. No one’s bringing it to the table. And everybody – the punks, the hippies, the old guys –  stands in line together, so very polite and Canadian about the whole thing. It’s like “Ironweed” meets a Weezer video in there. And Hophead Lenny’s RIPA (get it, it’s an IPA so strong it’ll kill you!) is a fine thing. And, even though it’s downtown, there was a Traipsemobile parking spot right around the corner.

I was in Calgary for nearly a week, almost all of it wonderful. I discovered my new musical crush Romi Mayes, who looks like Sarah Silverman and sounds like Bonnie Raitt, an absolutely killer blues/country guitarist singer-songwriter from Winnipeg (which apparently is a hotbed of female Jewish blues guitarists) who should be a star, but for some reason isn’t. Maybe it’s because she still spends most of her time playing joints in western Canada. But if she ever decides to, say, move to Austin full-time, she’ll be huge. I know this.

Really, the only downside to the week in Calgary was that, for the first time ever, the Traipsemobile got pulled over. I’d been in one of those coffee shops for a couple of hours and had noticed the police cruisers circling the block a few times, slowing down every time they got to the Traipsemobile. When I got behind the wheel, I noticed them again. I sat there for a while, waiting for them to approach me. But they didn’t. So I took off, heading for downtown and the Hop In Brew.

Romi Mayes

I went all of two blocks before they lit me up. One cruiser pulled up behind me, another pulled in front, making sure I didn’t make a run for it, I guess. This was all in the middle of a busy intersection, which must have been a real pain in the ass for all the other drivers. Sirens blaring, lights flashing, Calgary cop approaching from both sides of the vehicle.

It was the license plate that had spooked them, apparently. Not the dome, not the government-operative. paint job. But the unstickered Texas license plate. This happened once before, in Massachusetts last year, when I was momentarily a suspect in a bank robbery because an officer had noticed the possibly-made-in-the-basement nature of my plate. But that had been in a parking lot. This was the first time, I’d actually been pulled over.

I’ll be honest, I kind of enjoyed it. Because I knew how it would turn out. It’s Calgary, after all. They were very polite but very direct. I gave them the paperwork, explained that all the information they sought was on my windshield stickers instead of the plate, that I was in town to write about “Hell on Wheels” and asked if they’d pulled over any of the cast. They hadn’t.

It took them about 10 minutes to run my license and be assured that I had not, in fact, created a black-and-white Texas license plate with “T TRAIPS” on it in order to conceal my nefarious international crimes. They apologized for the inconvenience and sent me on my way.

I invited them to join me at the Hop In Brew, an offer they politely declined. As soon as they left, I breathed a sigh of relief and checked the secret compartment where I’d hidden the blood diamonds with which I planned to finance my master plan: a weather balloon filled with poutine which I planned to detonate over next year’s Calgary Stampede, drowning countless innocents in gravy.

I kid yet again. Or do I?




By |2011-11-19T13:22:13-04:00November 8th, 2011|Dispatches|1 Comment

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