“Today, the temperatures are set to rise to plus 16 degrees Celsius. I am determined that this shall be Spring. It may be earlier than last year, and I’ve lost count of the number of Canadians that have visibly winced when I’ve made my proclamation, but I am declaring it to be so. The temperatures rose above zero a couple of weeks ago, and our grass began to emerge triumphantly from under the snowpile. The excitement was immense. “Mammy, LOOK! It’s GRASS!” shrieked Rebecca, charging around on the battered, yellow patches and discarding most of her snow gear as she ran. The sun shone. The paths started to clear. If I kept my gaze firmly on the road ahead while driving, I could block out the melting mountains of snow that line the paths, and pretend that it was all gone. This euphoria was rudely halted by a weekend of lazily falling snow, and we awoke again to a white landscape and some very very bad language. “How do you do this every year?”, I whinged to one of my hardy Saskatchewanian friends. “These winters. Every year. It’s relentless. And the hope, oh God, the hope….” Then today, I woke up and realised why. It’s warm outside. The sun is shining – and in fairness, that’s pretty much an everyday thing. I can’t remember the last time it rained here. The parks are starting to turn green, and I find that Prairie winters are actually a bit like childbirth. It’s hell while it’s happening, and then you forget about it enough to do it all over again.” I wrote this last week, and then watched in appalled horror as the temperatures plummeted and snow began to fall in earnest. It’s now minus 10, with a couple more cold days to come before the weather gods laugh and raise our hopes again with a plus fourteen weekend. Crazy, crazy weather. I give up.
Last month was our first Big Trip out of Saskatoon, and it was planned like a military campaign. We had settled on Edmonton as the best place to go with the children, mainly because the West Edmonton Mall is there. It’s the biggest Mall in North America, with over 800 shops, its own hotel, a massive waterpark, the largest indoor amusement park in the world, an ice rink and aquarium, and lots more. We planned to spend two days there and another day in the Telus World of Science. Our nephew, Keith, is at the University in Edmonton, and so we arranged to meet up with him, and also with two friends of ours that moved to Edmonton from Saskatoon last year, Piotr and Magda. I told everyone I met in Saskatoon where we were going and got the same reaction every single time. “Edmonton, eh? Great trip, divided highway all the way. Only about 5 hours or so”. They made it all sound so easy. So easy, in fact, that the reality of over five hours on the road was nicely sugarcoated in our minds, and we succumbed to the Canadian mindset of thinking nothing of driving for days to Arizona, or just hopping over to British Columbia.
Two days before we went, I was sitting with Michelle at Beavers while Nicholas and the rest of the troop were engrossed in the night’s activities. This hour and a quarter is usually spent sitting on the benches in the gym, catching up on the events of the week, and as Michelle used to live in Edmonton, I settled in to pick her brain. “Great drive, divided highway all the way”, she said, backing up the opinion of every other Canadian ever. “Just set your GPS for the Mall and you’ll be fine”. “We don’t have a GPS”, I remarked casually. “Do I need one?”. “Oh! Well, do you have a map of Edmonton?”. A map? A GPS? “Eh, no, not a map either. Is Edmonton very big?” I asked, starting to feel a bit anxious. Michelle regarded me thoughtfully. “I think you’ll need a GPS”, she decided. “Louis can lend you his. It’ll be fine”. It arrived the following evening, and I fiddled around with it, setting it for Edmonton. The directions were very straightforward. Leave our house, turn left, right and right again, then drive for 500km in a straight line on the Trans-Canada Highway. Easy peasy.
I packed. Ice skates and helmets for the rink. Swim gear for the pool. Winter jackets for the journey (in case we broke down on the highway and became a tragic headline. Sage advice from my beloved neighbour Fran, the fount of most wisdom). Clothes, pyjamas, lots of food for the journey, and 14 DVDs to keep the kids entertained on the way. I got up at 6.30am on the morning of departure, and still didn’t manage to leave the house until almost 11am. Off we sailed, DVD playing, picnic bag of supplies at my feet, GPS fired up and ready to go. We got onto the highway to Edmonton about ten minutes after leaving the house. “Are we there yet?”, asked Rebecca. Seriously? “No, not yet. Not even remotely yet. Don’t ask me again for another four hours”. The highway unfurled before us, cutting a swathe through snow-blanketed Prairies, dotted with grain mills and Dutch barns. It was almost hypnotic. “I’m hungry”, from the back seats. I passed around the first course. On and on we went, the kids absorbed in the film, Michael and I chatting in the front seats. Ah, the innocent bliss of those first 100+ kilometres of open road. We arrived in North Battleford, and decided that stopping for food would be a good idea. “There’s the highway to Lloydminster”, I said, waving at the road on our left. We continued on to the ubiquitous McDonalds, fed the kids, did the obligatory trips to the washroom, and set off again. Five minutes into the trip, I was starting to doubt our directions. “This isn’t right”, I said to Michael. “We’ve missed our turn somewhere”. “Are you sure?”, he said, continuing to drive. Navigator narks set in. “Yes, I’m sure! Pull over, there’s no point in driving on in the wrong direction!” He sailed on, looking for somewhere to turn around. I scanned the road ahead, looking for a break in the highway. Were we going to having to travel halfway back to Saskatoon before finding a bloody turnaround? The kids sat silently in the back, attuned to the We-Are-Lost-Forever drama that was unfolding. A break appeared. We swung around and headed back. The road to Lloydminster appeared on our left, with a big queue of cars waiting to turn, and a train gliding by, cutting the town in half. Trains in Canada are really really long. 200 carriages long. We joined the queue, drama over, route regained. “I can’t believe we got lost in North Battleford. Michelle never said that was even possible”, I remarked, composing an indignant text. Two replies arrived. A splutter of hysterical laughter from Michelle, and an astounded “Lost? in North Battleford? WITH A GPS????” from Louis. They’re off my Christmas card list.
Onward we went, new DVD playing, all full, sun shining. “I need to pee”, announced Nicholas. We stopped again. “Are we there yet?” from Rebecca. “Not yet, darling”, I said sweetly, trying to work out how many kilometres it was to Lloydminster. Another 138 km. Seriously? I sighed. Conversation in the front seats was becoming desultory, and the kids were fighting over which DVD to watch next. “I want Dora!”, whinged Rebecca. There was a concerted howl of anguished protest from the other four. “What about Hercules?”, I asked placatingly, shoving it into the player and ignoring the bickering. “But when are we going to be there?”, complained Nicholas. “Not for a while yet”, I said though gritted teeth. We finally reached Lloydminster, the border town between Saskatchewan and Alberta. “I need to pee”, from Nicholas. “So do I”, from all the rest of them. We pulled in, and Michael trooped in with the boys. I took my turn with the girls. Off we went again, watching for the sign for the border. “Welcome to Alberta”, I said cheerfully, as we crossed the intersection. “So are we there now”. “No. Not yet. I’ll tell you when we’re nearly there”.
I took over the driving, and Michael settled into the passenger seat. Two minutes later, he was snoring his head off, while I drove along, seething at the injustice of how some people can sleep anywhere and at the drop of a hat. There was lots of rustlings and rumblings coming from the back seats. I watched the highway unspool in front of me, opening the window from time to time to stop myself from feeling dozy. “Are we there soon?”. “Not yet! I’ll tell you when we’re near!”, I snarled, looking at my mileage clock. Thank God, only about 40km left. I can do this. Five minutes later, I pass a road sign. Edmonton 140 km. WTF? Where did that extra f&*%ing 100 km come from? I glanced over at Michael, needing someone to either share my pain (which was immense) or tell me that the road sign was clearly wrong, and that I hadn’t miscalculated by a whole 100 kms. He snored on. I started to feel a bit homicidal. “I need to pee!” Michael opened an eye. “Just let him pee into the coffee cup”, I hissed. Both eyes snapped open. “NO!, he said, horrified. “Why not? It’s almost empty. Just fire the coffee out the window and pass him back the cup”. “He’ll pee all over the seat and miss the cup completely”, he pointed out. I thought about that for a minute. True enough. I pulled over.
We finally got to Edmonton. Tired, cranky, hungry. And that was just Michael and I. The kids were beyond all reason. “Look at the city!”, I said brightly, trying to stop the whine-fest in its tracks. We all looked at the Edmonton skyline. “We’re there!” I decided it was the wrong time to tell them that we still had to get all the way to the other side and then out another 20km. Let them sit in ignorant bliss for a while. The traffic was mental. Four lane highway, loads of huge trucks, lots of white-knuckle driving. The landscape was really industrial-looking and there was lots of construction going on. “I need to pee”. “Just. Hold. it”. “Are we at the hotel yet?”. “NO”. “Are we there yet?”. “Not. F&^%ing. Yet”. And breathe.
We arrived at the hotel. It shone like the Holy Grail in front of us. We staggered in, pulling our luggage and looking like we’d crossed the Sahara on foot. “So how was your trip?”, asked the infuriatingly chirpy receptionist. “AWFUL!” came the chorus behind me. If she even says the words “divided highway”, I’m going to go postal, I thought. She had a lucky escape. We hauled ourselves up to our lovely interconnecting rooms, and sagged. “I can’t do this again on Tuesday”, I said assertively. “I need you to drive the car home, and me and the kids will fly”. Michael just laughed. I googled Divorce Lawyers in Saskatoon.
The next day was earmarked for the Waterpark in the West Edmonton Mall. We programmed the GPS and blithely set off, all cheery, fed, watered, washroomed and ready for the day. The GPS started doing its thing. All went well, until it told us to turn down a road that didn’t exist. “Did it mean that road?!”, I gestured, starting to panic. “Haven’t a clue”, said my navigator, peering at the screen and waiting for the next direction. “I think it did!”, I said, and turned right at the next intersection to get back on track. There was a mad yell from the seat beside me. “Pull over! PULL OVER! NOW!!!!” What the hell? I pulled over into a bank of shops on my right, and looked at Michael, who was practically foaming at the mouth. “What’s wrong?” I asked, completely baffled. “You’re driving up a one-way street”, he said. I looked over. Into four lanes of oncoming traffic. “Oh”, I said faintly. We all sat in silence for a moment. I rallied. “Stupid GPS”, I said, and made my way gingerly back into the traffic. In the right direction this time. “It wasn’t the GPS”, said Michael eventually. “Ssshhhh. I know”. It all went from bad to worse. It was like one of those hideous computer games where you can see your destination but you can never quite get there. Eventually, after many wrong turns, some seriously narky exchanges and a brief meander through a random housing estate, we made it to a parking lot beside Target. We regrouped, grabbed our swim bags, and hit the Mall. The gigantic, awesome, endless Mall.
The plan was to deposit all our swim gear into a locker at the Waterpark, have a look around, meet Piotr and Magda for lunch and then spend the rest of the day/evening in the pool. We set off eagerly, oohing and aahing at the various sights, and eventually arriving at the ice rink, where a judo championship was underway. The kids were engrossed in that for a while, until we dragged them onwards and found ourselves at the sea-lion show, which was brilliant.
The Waterpark was beside us, so we paid our admission fees (ouch!) and went to find a locker. Find a locker. Sounds so simple. I assumed we were going to sling our stuff in, lock the door and depart again. It was way more high-tech than that. First, we had to find seven dollars in change, and then queue up at the touchpad screens to be allocated a locker. I put in the money, picked “New Locker”, chose a six-digit PIN and watched the banks of lockers to see which one swung open. We pounced on it, shoved in half the bags, and realised we were going to need another. I sent Michael to the change machine for more dollars, queued again, watched another locker pop open, stashed the gear and headed off to the Food Court. At the back of my mind, I was visualising doing the whole locker process while cold and wet, with shivering, cranky, hungry children. In a busy changing room. It was going to be fun.
We arrived at the Food Court to find a bewildering array of choices, and went with the path of least resistance. I doled out cash to the kids and sent them off to pick whatever they wanted, bagged two adjoining tables and settled in to fuel up before our marathon swim session. Magda and Piotr arrived, and we caught up on the events of the last six months; they were enjoying life in a bigger city, and had settled in well. The kids ate, spent all my change in a games arcade beside the Food Court, and eventually got impatient to get going on the water slides. The water park is gigantic. Tons of huge slides, a whole area for smaller children, a massive wave pool, a zip-line that crosses the whole park, food concessions, tube rental, seating areas etc. We got changed, headed out, and immediately lost the three older children. Michael and Nicholas went on the slides for his height, and Rebecca and I visited the areas for the little ones. Some of the slides looked absolutely terrifying, which didn’t deter Christopher, Isabel or Benjamin, and the wave pool was nothing like the one in the pool beside us here. Half of the swimmers were sitting in round tubes, and the waves were massive. People were zip-lining over our heads, shrieking from one side of the waterpark to the other, and there were two slides at the back of the wave pool that used tubes or three-person inflatable rafts – we shot down them in giggling trios and then marched all the way back to the top to go again. Five hours of water-play later, we were starving, wrinkly and exhausted. We stood under hot showers and then braved the lockers. Chaos reigned for a while, but eventually we were all dry, dressed and ready for food. We sat in semi-silence at the tables, watching the kids flagging before our eyes. By the time Michael and I had finished, they were lolling around, heads on tables, feet on the seats. “We’re parked miles from here”, I whispered. Michael nodded sorrowfully. We dragged ourselves to our feet, slung the swim bags over our shoulders, and set off on the March of Death to Target. On and on we slogged, kids trailing behind, whining and complaining. My legs felt like lead. Where the hell was Target, anyway? I had a moment of utter terror when the thought crossed my mind that we had turned in the wrong direction, but thankfully the red circle appeared before us at last. We weaved our way through the aisles to the car park exit, and collapsed thankfully into the car. Oh, the bliss of tucking them all into bed and crawling into our gigantic king-size one. Lights out in an instant.
Round Two of the buffet breakfast the next morning, and the novelty of endless Fruit Loops clearly hadn’t worn off yet. Bowl after bowl of the brightly-coloured (and forbidden at home) cereal was chomped, while Michael enjoyed the pastries and I braved the slightly odd-looking omelette-y things in the warmers. Once the supply of Fruit Loops had dried up, our locusts had a try of everything else on offer, and I allowed myself to hope that we might get through a few hours without the usual sudden onset of acute hunger pains and malnutrition – Nicholas, in particular, turns into Mr T the very second he realises that he might be hungry. We packed up some snacks and headed off to the Telus World of Science to meet our nephew Keith. We hadn’t seen him for almost three years, and it was great to catch up; Nicholas was thrilled to find out that Keith is a real scientist, and we spent six hours at the centre. There was so much to do there; experiments, puzzles, a whole section of forensic science, where the kids had to follow all the clues and then decide on the culprit, a dome theatre where we lay back in swivel chairs and watched a feature on space, an area dedicated to space, where we lifted heavy meteorites and checked to see if we were prone to motion sickness.
We stopped for food (all those Fruit Loops being a dim and distant memory for the children), and continued following our map of the centre. When we had finally seen and done it all, Keith suffered a temporary moment of madness and invited us back to his house for dinner with himself and his girlfriend, Beth. We drove to where she works as a pharmacist, gathered some grocery supplies, and followed them across the city to Belgravia, a beautiful area near the river. Beth was gorgeous, and handled the sudden arrival of seven complete strangers with aplomb. A huge pot of pasta was thrown on, and we had a lovely evening of catching up and swopping stories of life in Canada. The GPS brought us safely back to the hotel, and dreamless sleep ensued. “This is the most exhausting holiday ever”, was my last (and only) thought before succumbing to blissful sleep.
Monday dawned with the promise of a return trip to the Mall; ice-skating and a trip to Galaxyland were on the menu. It was St. Patrick’s Day, and the first person we came across as we entered the Mall was an extremely enthusiastic Leprechaun, all decked out in green and gold and waving a large gold hat at us. “Happy St. Patrick’s Day”, he roared, only to practically implode with excitement when we answered with Irish accents. “Pick an envelope”, he urged us, as we delved into the hat and pulled out gift vouchers for the coffee and cookies place beside him. The luck of the Irish, eh? I felt a bit bad that we weren’t dressed in green and covered in shamrocks. The ice-rink was open for skating again after a weekend of judo, and so the kids donned their skates and glided off. “It’s like they’re back in their natural environment”, I remarked, looking at Christopher and Benjamin chasing each other around the ice. The outdoor rinks have melted, and they hadn’t had their ice fix for a couple of weeks. A group of figure skaters arrived as we were leaving, and we spent some time watching them; the kids were mesmerised by the swooping, lifting, twirling, swinging around by the ankles etc. The rink is in the middle of the Mall, and the skaters garnered a large audience; when we walked by later on, there was a hockey game underway, so it certainly gets a lot of use.
Next stop was Galaxyland, the largest indoor amusement park in the world, with loads of rides and a big soft-play climbing frame area for smaller children. Michael headed off into the terror with four of the children, while Rebecca and I investigated the tamer rides. I’m hopeless in amusement parks; a complete wuss when it comes to anything remotely scary. There’s one mental rollercoaster in Galaxyland, and I had a pain in my chest even watching the people go around on it. Thankfully the kids were too young for it (much to their disgust), but Michael had a go and survived. Rebecca went on motorbikes, airplanes, trains and hot air balloons, while the others tried out all the bigger rides and returned to me occasionally, windswept and exhilarated. Isabel had hysterics the first time she went on the Orbiter, but then decided she loved it anyway, and went on it another gazillion times before closing time. Rebecca spotted a rollercoaster that she wanted to go on, and the other four piled on ahead of her. “You’re not tall enough”, I said firmly, standing her in front of the height chart. Meltdown. The kids set off, and I watched with my heart in my mouth as they were flung around bends and up and down hills. Rebecca was a screaming puddle at my feet at this stage. The ride finished, and the kids clambered off and tore back around to do it again. I tried reasoning with Rebecca, who was escalating rapidly, but to no avail. Over arrived the attendant. “She’s not tall enough”, I explained, thanking God for that fact. “Let me see”, he said to her kindly, and she stood in front of the height chart, all tear-stained and hiccuping. “It’ll be fine”, he said to her, smiling. “Just as long as your mother goes with you”. She beamed. I nearly fainted. “Em…” I stuttered, looking around desperately for Michael. “YES!”, said Rebecca, towing me towards the carriages. There was a man sitting on the benches beside us, in kinks of laughter at the look on my face. I incinerated him with a look, and climbed in. “This ride has a rapid start and stop”, announced the automated voice, and off we shot like a bullet from a gun. 10 seconds in, I was fairly confident that I would be the first person to die on this ride. The kids were waving their arms and whooping, and I was clinging onto Rebecca and praying. Hard. Finally, after an interminable period of pure terror, we skidded to a halt, and the bars lifted. “Let’s do it again!”, howled Rebecca gleefully. Not on your nelly. Michael appeared, and I thrust her into his arms, staggering over to the bench on jelly-legs. Off they all went again, and I realised that all of the kids inherited Michael’s rollercoaster gene. I’m the only wuss in the family. We were the last to leave the park, and Nicholas refused to take off his wristband for two weeks. They loved it.
The next day was spent driving home. The entire day. I think I’ll need therapy before we attempt the drive to Calgary and the Rockies. We arrived home just in time for Michael, Christopher and Benjamin to head off with Louis to their last hockey game of the season, while Isabel, Nicholas and Rebecca went to the church with me for Nicholas’ First Communion and Confirmation class. We were tired, scruffy and suffering from the anti-climax of coming home, and so we snuggled into seats at the back and tried to focus on the class. We had a prayer service for the last twenty minutes, and as we were all moving into the rows of seats, I was asked to do one of the readings. “Oh NO!”, I thought, panicking, “I look like a bag lady”. My clothes were covered in all the food and drink that I had spent the journey passing around, my hair was wild, and the kids weren’t much better. I wondered would it be ok to start with an “I just drove back from Edmonton with five kids” disclaimer, but then I realised that everyone would just nod sagely and mutter “Great drive. Divided highway all the way”. Murder in the Cathedral.
We shall go back to Edmonton again though, once the trauma of the drive is a dim and distant memory. It’s a fantastic place for a holiday; we could have quite happily spent another three days in the Mall. I don’t think I’d like to live there, particularly; it’s much bigger than Saskatoon, and it’s quite industrial, with much heavier traffic and a much busier atmosphere. It made us realise how much we like living in Saskatoon. Our next road trip will be Drumheller (dinosaur country) and Calgary; a longer journey, but a chance to see the Rockies.