Allen On Travel

A 30 year veteran of world travel (but knows nil about Orlando-area attractions), Will Allen III writes about his weekly odysseys by air on business and how the airlines rob him--and you--of time, the most precious commodity on earth. Time: It's all we have, and the airlines routinely take it from us. This blog challenges the airlines to keep their basic promises.

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Location: Raleigh, North Carolina, United States

Born 1948 in Kinston, NC and raised there in beautiful eastern North Carolina, I now live in Raleigh and commute around the country and the world.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Red-hot Saskatchewan
Part 2

Picking up my story from last week extolling the charms and wonders of Saskatchewan, I found myself in tiny Rocanville, a town in the far east of the province on a recent bitterly cold night in early March. The daffodils had been blooming in profusion in Raleigh for a month when I arrived, but this part of Canada had yet to see the ground beneath the snow, let alone a flower.

My client had made a reservation for me at the humble but friendly Rocanville Motel. I lavished attention on the two small dogs belonging to Gail, the friendly woman who owned the place, as she went through her check-in routine with my MasterCard (“No, not too many folks ‘round here take American Express—sorry about that!”).

Gail’s friendly little mutts shivered incessantly, whether from excitement or the cold, I knew not, but I opined at least from the freezing air, as the thermometer plummeted with the setting sun to well below zero. The wickedly frigid temps penetrated even the well-insulated motel office.

“That’ll be $49.50, and you’re in room 14 around back,” Gail said, smiling, “It’s just around the corner, but I’d advise driving. Mighty cold tonight.”

She need not have worried. Allergic to deep cold as I am, I’d left my little Hertz Toyota Matrix running outside with the heater going full blast, intending to drive to my room even had it been adjacent to her office.

“Does that rate entitle me to use the Concierge Lounge?” I asked, attempting humor.

“What was that?” she said. My joke escaped her, and I was embarrassed.

“Well, come on into the office here tomorrow morning for coffee anyway,” she said. “There are no restaurants open in Rocanville before 8:00 AM, and I know you’ll want to get going real early.” I’d asked her to call me at 5:15 AM.

I was awfully relieved to find room 14 pre-heated and with a strong fan pumping hot air in at a good rate. After shoving a couple of towels under the door to prevent outside arctic air seeping in and ruining the warm and cozy comfort of my domain, I put out my Dopp kit for ablutions and opened the tiny slivers of soap for a morning shower. Was it just the previous evening I was enjoying the luxury of the Hilton O’Hare Airport Hotel?

Yet the Rocanville Motel met my needs in most regards. Sure, the room smelled faintly (permanently?) of cigarette smoke, and the bed was a bit lumpy. But I slept well, awoke early, had a hot shower, and was ready to greet the day by 6:00 AM, feeling none the worse for wear.

A wall of polar air hit me as I cracked open the door. However, the Toyota Matrix started right up, even at 30 below zero, and I let it warm up for 20 minutes before driving around to the office for the promised coffee and a quick check-out.

Truth is, I’d stay there again. More truth: In Rocanville, I’d have to. It’s the only motel for miles around.

The day that followed was memorable, spent with my gregarious and knowledgeable Saskatchewan friends. I learned that Saskatchewan is often the brunt of jokes in Canada as a backwoods empty place full of nothing more than wolves (and it does have many), bears, moose, coyotes, and deer. And that the province is characterized by its many “indigenous people” (whom we call Native Americans) who often live in poverty close to nature toiling in subsistence farming.

One colleague told me the story of relatives from Toronto who asked him seriously what Saskatchewan was like, saying: “I went through there once—nothing there.”

While Saskatchewan sometimes gets little respect from urbane Toronto dwellers, and while some of the notions about the province seem to be true, that’s far from the whole story.

Saskatchewan people are genuinely nice. Living out there surrounded by miles and miles and miles of nowhere, nothing but plains and snow and cold, they must be, and are, survivors and good neighbors to each other. They support each other in all the ways we Americans glorify and revere about small town and rural American life in the early 20th century. Those ideals are practiced routinely among the good people of Saskatchewan.

The province is the breadbasket of Canada. Those miles and miles of plains may bring howling wild winds and bitter cold in winter, but they bring oceans of wheat and other grains in summer, enough to feed the nation and have plenty left over for export around the world.

And then there are the potash mines dotting the entire province, a commodity now practically as valuable as gold. And of course the real gold mines, and the diamond mines up north of Saskatoon, and the Chinese race for the oilsands, not taxed heavily in Saskatchewan as they are in neighboring Alberta. Oh, and there are oil wells everywhere. I saw too many to count on my drives through the province.

No wonder that the locals there are excited. Over and over I heard that Saskatoon and the province are “on fire” with the rich promise of natural resources.

Later that morning, as we were traipsing around in the deep snow along the Canadian National Railway main line in the middle of nowhere exploring options for adding storage tracks for my client’s products, a CN freight train came by blowing its horn for a small crossing. It was so bitterly cold that the air horns would not work properly and sounded like a moose shrieking in pain.

The day warmed up a bit later; the high temp (at noon) was 8 below zero.

The tiny community of St. Lazare, just across the provincial border into Manitoba, is 100% French-speaking and hasn’t changed much (so they tell me) since the 1700s. At its beautiful school (Ecole) students are taught solely in French.

Just west of St. Lazare, I saw indigenous people somehow living off the land in extremely modest shacks. I was told there are many Finnish people and Germans, too, dotting the landscape at distant intervals. People are used to having lots of space around them out there. I don’t blame them; I found the openness and natural beauty of the land invigorating!

In fact I was sorry to leave for the two and a half hour trek to Regina for my flights to Chicago. To do so, I employed a number of very well-engineered gravel road short cuts back to Canadian Highway 1, the main east-west artery across the country.

At Regina airport, I met more really nice people at Hertz, then Northwest, and finally at the extremely thorough security check-point. I was selected for the full pat-down and 100% luggage search, and it was carried out with good humor, dignity, and civility.

Before heading to the gate I noted the spotlessly clean bathroom. Airport rest rooms are overused and not known for their cleanliness, but even here Saskatchewan made a final good impression.

Musing on the good people to our north, I enjoyed the return flight in one of NWA’s new Embraer 175 regional jet, relaxed in the roomy comfort of their first class cabin (see full description in last week’s post below).

Arriving at MSP, I was taken aback at the requirement to clear U.S. Customs and Immigration exactly as if I’d just arrived from Bangkok, after which I had to run the TSA security gauntlet to re-enter MSP. Good Lord! What has the world come to? The security screen in Regina was far more thorough than the TSA screen. Why jump through that hoop again? And why do Americans have to endure the formalities of customs and immigration coming from Canada? Aren’t they our cousins?

Late that evening I found myself once more enjoying the good care of the Hilton O’Hare Airport Hotel. Nice as the O’Hare property is, I judged that Gail’s good care of me 24 hours earlier at her unpretentious Rocanville Motel measured up nicely in customer service and meeting the basic requirements of any hostelry: safety and security, a comfortable environment, good bed and bath facilities. The overnight experience in both properties was therefore remarkably similar.

And they are alike in another way: The Hilton at O’Hare doesn’t have a Concierge Lounge, either.

5 Comments:

Blogger Bill said...

Nice article and well written (as usual). I always enjoy reading your pieces.

Did they have internet at the Rocanville Motel?

If they did, I bet it was cheaper than London.

3/23/2008 3:11 PM  
Blogger William A. Allen III said...

Bill,

Thanks for the kind words.

No, no Internet was available at the Rocanville Motel, not even dial-up. I had to go dark on email for 40 hours, and it just about killed me! I had something like 200 emails waiting.

It's amazing how addicted we all are to the Internet and email these days.

Best regards,

3/23/2008 3:23 PM  
Blogger Bill said...

You're a trooper! 40 hours without internet...that should be a Guiness Record or something!

We use the "net" for so many things nowadays, it is quite a shock to be without it!

The motel probably doesn't see the value in putting it in.

3/23/2008 4:17 PM  
Blogger William A. Allen III said...

Bill,

If I owned the Rocanville Motel, I probably wouldn't put in Internet, either. It's almost a relief not to have it, and since it's such a spartan place in a remote area, I doubt that overnight guests expect it there (me included).

Anyway, after paying for the heat to keep everybody from freezing solid, Gail (the owner) probably has little left in her budget to pay for frills like high speed Internet! Especially not at $49.50 per night.

Will

3/23/2008 6:40 PM  
Blogger MJL said...

Will,

Thanks for the nice article. I had my first flight at age 18, very exciting for a kid from a dairy farm in rural Illinois. I can still remember it distinctly, flying on American from LGA to ORD, with beautiful flight attendants. (It was at the end of my freshman year of college and I had gone back east to NJ to spend a week with my next door neighbor.) Wow! What memories you helped me recall. ---Michael

4/10/2008 8:34 AM  

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