Local Big

In merely one week I’m going to be packing up that little black truck in the background of this photo and driving north with a cargo of camping gear to spend some quality time in the Alberta wilderness.

(No) thanks to the pandemic it’s been two years since I’ve slept in a tent, and coincidentally that same tent will be pitched on about the same weekend in the same vicinity as when this photo was taken… two years ago.

for whatever one photo is worth:

It’s something of a running joke, or insider gag, that every local road trip through the rural country highways usually involves stopping for at least one photo with something big.

No… BIG.

An oversized bird statue. An obscenely large perogy on a fork. A life-sized UFO landing pad. Or the world-famous giant Easter egg, a Ukrainian pysanka, in Vegreville.

Or, for this example, a few kilometers drive from where we had been camping in the bush, we escaped the rain for a couple hours to meander into Vilna, Alberta for some ice cream and (of course) to pose with the World’s Largest Mushrooms.

Like so many World’s Largest objects scattered around Western Canada, the World’s Largest Mushrooms are a photogenic bit of roadside art propped up in a small park, tucked into a tiny neighbourhood, hidden behind the main street of a pinprick town in the middle of the Alberta prairie.

This is as much a kind of local hubris as anything else. For many of these small little towns, despite their small town beauty and unique identity in vast western expanse, the there is little reason besides a fill of the gas tank or a happenstance need for a meal to veer off the highway into their streets. They are lovely little places, but apart from a green highway sign marking their location as one speeds by at a hundred kilometers per hour, few people turn turn gaze from the road… unless as there occasionally may be, there is a World’s Largest… something… anything to be seen.

With some steel and paint and artistic license, any small town in the middle of nowhere becomes a tourist destination.

An excuse to visit. A reason to stop. A purpose for a day-long country-side road trip with a camera and a sense of local curiosity.

And of course, there is usually some ice cream close by, too.

New York Deli

After my weekend foray into a batch of sourdough made with locally sourced rye flour, I got to thinking (and actually mentioned) a fabulous rye-bread pastrami sandwich that I shared with my wife back in 2016 in a world famous deli in the lower east side of Manhattan.

As promised, I dug through my old photos and discovered this mouth-watering gem.

for whatever one photo is worth:

In 2016 I won the lottery.

Sadly it wasn’t a cash prize. Instead, my name got picked from a big pool of runners who had submitted their entries to run as international participants in the annual New York City Marathon.

On a sunny Sunday morning in early November (literally hours before that infamous national US election) I ran forty-two point two kilometers through five boroughs of New York, starting in Staten Island, through Brooklyn, into Queens, over to Manhattan, and then a quick sweep through the Bronx before heading back to Manhattan to cross the line in the middle of Central Park.

My wife cheered me in and helped me hobble back to the hotel where I crashed over a bowl of carbs and a bottle of water.

The next day I was sore, tired, and hungry.

We walked, spent some time riding the subway, and checked out some museums at a much more leisurely pace than I’d done the day prior.

By lunch, we’d made our way to the lower east side, and towards one of my bucket list lunch spots: Katz’s Delicatessen.

As you walk in the door they hand you an orange paper ticket that tracks your order. I ordered at a packed, shoulder-to-shoulder counter nearly the length of the building, and the guy sliced my lunch there in front of me handing me a small sample to taste before I brought it all back to a table.

We shared a sandwich with each other, pushed through some fries and a pile of dill pickles, and chugged a cold beer to boot. We shared the table with a quartet of other marathoners who we chatted with and cheered before heading on our way stuffed and satisfied.

It was a memorable trip by all accounts. Not only did I run a marathon, but we saw a show on Broadway, met up with friends at the fountain in Columbus Circle, high-fived a famous actress at a nut cart in Central Park, attended a live taping of the Late Show, and stumbled upon multiple epic bridges, towers, landmarks and sights on foot… all before fleeing the country on the morning of their election.

Yet somehow among all of that, one tasty pastrami sandwich held it’s own in my memory.

June Mountain Travel Runs

It’s the first day of June and as spring officially trickles into its waning days, I couldn’t help but flip through some old local travel photos and recall how June once… sometimes… began for me for a few consecutive years as the week of the most epic travel race I’ve ever run.

for whatever one photo is worth:

For four years in a row a small group of fourteen friends and I formed up a team and ran the epic Banff-Jasper Relay race.

One photo hardly does this endurance relay justice, but it can try,

Picture this instead: a ribbon of twisting, undulating highway follows a course northward through the Rocky Mountains for a distance of two hundred and sixty kilometers. On its way it passes through thick forests, expansive lakeside vistas set at the base of mountains, to the foot of a glacier, cresting at elevations many people will never experience let alone run, dodging wildlife and encountering unpredictable weather from fleeting snow to pounding sunshine. Runners tackle varying distances of as much as twenty kilometers each of asphalt highway shoulder, each section a unique challenge of solitude, terrain, or pacing as support vehicles leapfrog the highway providing water and nutrition and keeping tabs on each participant.

I took this photo in 2016 with a small camera I carried with me that year. I had hoped to document not just the spectacular views but the spirit of the race as hundreds of runners and support crew set up bases at transitions, cheered from the highway, and embodied an experience that would be impossible to replicate outside of sports like this.

We are so lucky to live so close to this.

Yet, I call this a travel photo because as much as these mountains are a mere four hours of by car away from my house, the effort to participate involves days of adventuresome driving.

The day before the race we would spend the day driving nearly five hours from home to the start line headquarters for the race in scenic Lake Louise, just North of Banff, Alberta.

The morning of the run our support vehicle would drop runner one off at the muster point for the very beginning leg of the South portion of the race. The race used to be run as one loooooooong day but due to concerns about running along a highway in the dark was later divided into a North and a South portion. The start line was about thirty kilometers out of town at the proper beginning of the highway.

For the bulk of the morning and early afternoon, each runner would run their leg of the mountain road while the others paced along the shoulder of the highway in the car. This meant driving slowly, parking, supporting, and repeating for upwards of six to eight hours.

As the South portion concluded, the North portion with three additional legs, was still in full swing, so the participants from the South portion would drive a hundred kilometers of long, cellular-service-free mountain road, the same stretch run by members of the team just hours prior, to catch up and try to find the remaining crew.

As those last still-racing runners completed their legs, the whole of the team would drive to the finish line in Jasper to cheer on the runner bringing in the fifteenth leg of the relay, followed by celebrating, food, and toasts all round.

The next day, for those who chose to make but a weekend adventure out of the race, yet another four to five hour drive back to the city awaited, completing a loop of nearly eleven hundred kilometers over about three days.

This year the race is purely virtual, but I’ll be thinking of those mountains as I continue training through the hills near my neighbourhood this June.

Travel Eats: Smoked Fish and Bagpipes

In the summer of 2019 we spent two weeks in Scotland.

My wife and daughter are competitive Highland Dancers with a dance school here in Canada, and every four years or so the school makes the trip overseas with a busload of dancers, parents, and teachers to participate in an authentic Scottish Highland Games.

They all get to stress about dance. I get to wander around, take photos, and eat interesting foods.

for whatever one photo is worth:

In early August 2019 I found myself on a rain-soaked morning meandering around the muddy grass of Strathallan Games Park in Bridge of Allan, UK, where the annual Bridge of Allan Highland Games are held in the shadow of the Wallace Monument towering in the misty, rolling hills a few kilometers away.

The games themselves are wrapped around a race track. Running and cycling field events that happen on the track itself are more modern additions to the more familiar caber tossing and hammer throws that take place midfield. The dancers huddle around a stage at one end of the inside field, the bagpipe bands set up at the far opposite end (though their warmup hum can be heard forever away.) Scattered in the empty spaces between food and craft vendors find customers like me wandering through the games action.

The column of smoke can be seen from nearly everywhere, and I found myself organically attracted to the action to see what was cooking at its base.

From an article on the website itself this is what I found:

Arbroath Smokies are famed throughout Britain and beyond for their wonderful flavour and smooth, flaky texture. For those new to this particular delicacy, smokies are smoked haddock, prepared according to highly traditional methods by a number of producers in and around the wee North East fishing community of Arbroath.

I stood at the back of a very long line and when I reached the front I ordered two.

Delicious. Amazing. Perfect food for a perfect morning.

If (or when) we return for another Highland Games in a couple years, I’ll be saving some room for a second round.

I’m a huge fan of smoked fish… which is a difficult kind of fan to be when you live in a city on the land-locked Canadian prairies. I’ve been thinking a lot about cooking (and maybe even smoking) fish over an open fire. In an upcoming sequel and follow-up post to my Suburban Fire Craft (Part One), I recently purchased a new movable fire pit for my backyard. I’ll be doing some cooking on it (so long as the weather cooperates) this coming weekend and writing about it here. It probably will not be fish. I’ll save that for when I’ve practiced a bit more. It will be backyard cooking over an open fire, though, and that’s almost as exciting as a day of Highland Games.

Almost.

Now, obviously, my new fire bowl isn’t an old whiskey barrel, nor is it the foundation for a multi-generational history of smoking famous fish. But my neighbours might soon be wondering what cooking at the base of a column of smoke from my backyard. I’ll save the bagpipes for another year.