Road Tripping: Oh. Canada.

Part 4 of a series. Road Tripping

Destination: Thunder Bay, Ontario (48° 24’ 56” N  89° 16’ 2” W)

Origination: Eden Prairie, Minnesota (44° 51’ 16” N  93° 28’ 14” W)

Traveling Party: Barry, Jennifer, David (19 weeks in utero)

Date: August 1999

Before the days of Expedia, Travelocity, Priceline, Hotels.com, etc., unless you were willing to enlist the help of a travel agent, you really flew by the seat of your pants. I have to take full credit for the disaster of a trip this was.

On paper it was perfect. We wanted a long weekend getaway to celebrate our first wedding anniversary, preferably someplace we’d never been. We needed to keep expenses down because we would be closing on a house in a few weeks. We preferred somewhere low-key because we were expecting a baby.

I’d never been to Canada, and Thunder Bay was within driving distance. The exchange rate was excellent. It seemed like a quiet, romantic kind of place on the shores of Lake Superior. Like the North Shore, only further north. And with exotic Canadians. Clearly I failed to do my research.

Thunder Bay is not the quaint lakeside burgh I’d envisioned. There were no fancy boardwalks on the lake. No cutesy little shops to meander in and out of. No coffee shops with late night jazz musicians playing a soothing melody. No open air restaurants where one could enjoy the summer breeze off the lake while enjoying some pasta and a virgin daiquiri.

Thunder Bay is a pit. It’s a working-class seaport, pure and simple. Nothing was open past 9:00. There is maybe one park where you can actually walk by the lake. There was a mall, which appeared to be the only source of entertainment for the entire town because there could not have been a single parking space available at the movie theater on a Saturday night.

We wanted quiet and relaxation, but spending the night watching the three available channels on TV, which included a cricket match, a sports broadcast that just kept repeating the same provincial hockey scores over and over again, and a rerun of Homicide: Life on the Street, wasn’t exactly what we’d had in mind.

I’d made an anniversary dinner reservation at the Valhalla Inn, billed as the premiere experience in Thunder Bay fine dining. I’m not especially well-versed in Nordic mythology, but I believe to go to Valhalla, you have to be dead first. If that’s the case, then the Valhalla Inn is an apropos name for this place, where the dead walk amongst the living.

In lieu of ordering from the menu, our server convinced us to go for the Chinese buffet they were offering that night. Barry and I, both lovers of Asian food, couldn’t pass this up. And the price? Shoot, with the exchange rate, we’d be MAKING money off this dinner. What wasn’t to like?

Everything, it turns out. The grandiose buffet consisted of some fried rice, egg rolls, and a couple of different kinds of meat with a few assorted vegetables thrown in as an afterthought. Barry and I dug in and immediately looked at each other with a cocked eyebrow. Everything tasted like it had been marinated in Pine-Sol and soaked in Worcestershire sauce. We didn’t know what to do. Is this how Canadians thought Chinese food should taste? Would we be regarded as obnoxious Americans if we complained?

As we contemplated this, the large table next to us, ironically enough, celebrating an anniversary, began toasting the happy beaming interesting proud existing couple. The party consisted of all ages, a few dressed in nicer clothes that may have been considered fashionable in the early 80’s, the rest in tee shirts and ill-fitted jeans. Barry and I couldn’t help but listen in on the words bestowed upon the pair. Each toast was more depressing than the next. The last one was something to the extent of, “Well, if any of us lives to see each other in five years we’ll have to do this again because it’s amazing we’re all still here for this one.” Then I think someone played a harmonica and sang them a bizarre song. I think the couple would have been happier if they’d gone out and drove themselves over a cliff. It would have been more exciting anyway.

After that Barry and I couldn’t take it anymore. We did what any self-respecting Canadian would do after a poor meal. Left it on the table, paid the bill, tipped the waitress, and left discreetly. Then we celebrated our first anniversary with fries and a frosty at Wendy’s. And got the hell out of Canada the next day, spending the day touring the North Shore of Lake Superior. In Minnesota.

© Jennifer Alys Windholz, 2011

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