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THOMPSON: The Grand Semi-Annual Adventure between Florida and B.C.

May 13, 2019 - 12:00 PM

 


OPINION


My wife, Bonnie, and I just finished the first leg of this year’s Grand Semi-Annual Adventure…what we call our trips between Florida and British Columbia.

Twice a year we drive 3,124 miles in a Ford F-350 dually pulling a 48-foot horse trailer with two or three Dutch Friesian horses, a couple of Borzoi hounds and two very pissed-off cats. Our friends and family variously fall along a continuum that runs from admiration to incredulity.

Typically, we leave for Florida the day after Canadian Thanksgiving, spend a couple months, fly back for Christmas and New Year’s with the kids and grandkids, then fly back to Florida. Then, in early May we drive ourselves, the horses, dogs and cats back to Vernon. The timing - as you might guess - correlates roughly with the occurrence of fair weather in each location. Our mission - and we believe it worthy - is to spend as few days as possible below 10 degrees Celsius. We have done this for the last seven years and will continue as long as we can safely traverse America.

You don’t make 14 such trips - equal to about one and two-thirds laps around the equator - without creating, well, some adventures. There have been incidents…a few of them hair-raising. We have suffered flat tires…like the one on the horse trailer in Montana on a Saturday afternoon when every tire store was closed. We were 80 miles from anywhere.

We endured a “catastrophic dual fuel pump failure” in Chattanooga. By the way, it’s as bad as it sounds…and the cost of a “catastrophic dual fuel pump failure” is US $7,000 and six days of waiting for repairs. Another year, we were waylaid for 13 days in Council Bluffs, IA in the worst April snow storm since 1870. Both of us have been in hospital emergency rooms on separate trips…me in Iowa and Bonnie in Tennessee.

We lost an entire wheel on the horse trailer somewhere between Paducah, KY and Macon, GA last year. And, we have been pursued, caught and warned by an Officer of the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services for not stopping at an Inspection Station. By the way, we had blown past said Inspection Station six times in three years and were not chased…ignorant of our obligation to stop. Additional by the way…if we ever fail to stop at said Inspection Station in the future it is a third-degree felony…and I don’t look good in an orange jumpsuit.

All that said, there has been a good amount of laughter…and many great memories. Some of those happened in Murdo…a town of about 700 people on the edge of the Badlands and Black Hills of South Dakota. It is the halfway point on our cross-country adventures.

Left to right: Graham’s Best Western employees Jennifer Schoon, General Manager Nadine Hathaway, Bonnie and Valerie Feddersen, share a few laughs in Murdo, South Dakota.
Left to right: Graham’s Best Western employees Jennifer Schoon, General Manager Nadine Hathaway, Bonnie and Valerie Feddersen, share a few laughs in Murdo, South Dakota.

We discovered Murdo by accident on our first trip south. We left Vernon on Boxing Day…and to be honest I don’t know what we were thinking. The Las Vegas odds of making that trip without major snow or ice storms are about 100 to one. We had mostly dry road and a few flurries that trip…so that kind of good fortune won’t happen again until the year 2112.

It was minus sixteen with a 45 kilometres per hour wind when we rolled into Murdo on the third night of our trip. Just off I-90’s exit 192 we passed the Buffalo Bar and Grill…and a quarter mile later we pulled into Graham’s Best Western motel.

After feeding and watering horses, feeding, walking and setting up crates for the hounds in our room, settling in the cats…all in less-than-hospitable conditions…Bonnie suggested we walk to the Buffalo Bar and Grill for dinner. I said I’d rather eat cheese crackers and a Coke from vending machines than walk a half mile in weather that would have discouraged the Donner party. The horses were finally settled and unhooking the trailer - which didn’t have hydraulic jacks - wasn’t an option.

“No problem,” Bonnie said, as I hit the shower. “We’ll call a cab.”

“There are no cabs in this town,” I said with a palpable tone of indignation. “There isn’t even a traffic light!”

Bonnie found the local telephone directory in the bedside table drawer as a Gideon’s Bible…thumbed through the Yellow Pages …and proudly exclaimed, “We’ll call Mitchell Cabs,“ she said. “The number’s right here.”

Buffalo Bar and Grill Bartender Bart Kerns.
Buffalo Bar and Grill Bartender Bart Kerns.

She called and told the dispatcher we wanted to go to a nearby steak house…she couldn’t remember the name...and after a couple guesses…Bonnie said “We’ll be in the lobby of the Best Western in 15 minutes.” There seemed a new-found brightness and no doubt some smugness in her voice.

I remained incredulous, muttering a question about how the hell a cab driver could make a living in such a small town. When we walked into the lobby to ask the name of the restaurant, Donna Eckert, working behind the check-in desk, asked, “What can I do for you folks?”

“We’re waiting for a cab,” Bonnie explained. A few local residents - one wearing a green John Deere cap - sat around the lobby chatting and drinking coffee. It was a scene reminiscent of Andy of Mayberry. As memory serves, there were about four seconds between Bonnie’s explanation and the uproarious laughter that filled the lobby.

“There are no cabs in Murdo,” Donna managed to say between laughs.

“Sure there are,” Bonnie said. “Grab your phone book.” Donna handed her the Yellow Pages and Bonnie flipped through…finding the quarter-page ad for Mitchell Cabs and said, “See?”

Once more there was a pause from those gathered in the lobby…this time just a couple seconds…then came even louder gales of laughter.

Donna, with tears welling in her eyes, managed to say, “Mitchell is a town one hundred fifty miles east of here.”

Bonnie - looking a little sheepish - handed me her cell phone and asked me to call Mitchell Cabs to cancel our ride, which was now waiting at the Best Western 150 miles away. The dispatcher…after a couple seconds burst out in laughter as I apologized for the inconvenience.

Christian Nelson, 18, cooks at Buffalo Bar and Grill.
Christian Nelson, 18, cooks at Buffalo Bar and Grill.

I barely got “It’s time to find the vending machines” out of my mouth when Donna tossed the keys to her silver van parked just outside the entrance, and said - still smiling - “Here ya go…enjoy.”

Over Bonnie’s Manhattan and my Gin and Tonic - followed by my great steak and Bonnie’s beef dip sandwich made from prime rib - we talked about American small towns and the people who live in them. Still, Bonnie shook her head in amazement and asked, “Who does that?” 

“People who live in Murdo,” I said. “Get used to it…this really is as American as it gets.”
Bonnie suggested we give Donna money for gas when we went back to the Best Western.
“No,” I said. “She would be insulted. Better a heartfelt thank you,” I added.

We look forward to stopping in Murdo every year…it’s tradition. We have friends there…Bart Kerns, the ever-present bartender at Buffalo Bar and Grill, Christian Nelson, an 18-year-old grandson of Buffalo’s owner and cook, who wants to attend culinary school and become a chef. Kelsey Iwan, a mother working two jobs including waitressing at Buffalo (yes they still call them waitresses there).

Sadly, Donna Eckert - a Murdo native who first showed us the heart of middle America - passed away from cancer last year. We think of her warmly when we reminisce about our trips.

Our most recent Grand Semi-Annual Adventure found us staying two nights in Murdo to avoid six inches of snow an hour and a half west of us in Rapid City. I don’t pull a full 48-foot horse trailer up and down steep hills in snow…I have a low threshold of death.

The weather was cold…one degree Celsius both nights…and Valerie Feddersen, who works behind the check-in desk at the Best Western, tossed her keys across the counter for us to drive to Buffalo Bar and Grill each evening.

The last night, we left Valerie an envelope with a gift certificate for dinner at the Buffalo Bar & Grill. You see, you don’t have to repay strangers for kindness…but you can give gifts to friends. And I expect there will be hugs all around when we see our friends in Murdo again this October.

— Don Thompson, an American awaiting Canadian citizenship, lives in Vernon and in Florida. In a career that spans more than 40 years, Don has been a working journalist, a speechwriter and the CEO of an advertising and public relations firm. A passionate and compassionate man, he loves the written word as much as fine dinners with great wines. His essays are a blend of news reporting and opinion.


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