Travel Photo Credit: Grant Harder

Edmonton to Waterton

The long road to impressing your future in-laws.

Standing on her tiny two feet with paws in the air, the gopher pleads with glassy eyes for help. She wears a puffy red dress and she’s handing over two white sacks marked with dollar signs to the other gopher—the one with a pistol.

My overdressed gopher hostage is one of 41 displays in the obviously riveting Gopher Hole Museum in Torrington, Alberta, 30 kilometres east of Highway 2. On the six-hour trip to Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park (or, to Westerners, simply “Waterton”), there are several museums, to use the term loosely, from which to choose as my girlfriend and I travel to her family reunion and get ready to spend three days camping with Southern Albertans and Midwestern American folk I’ve yet to meet. Dragging out the journey seems necessary (if not wise).

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Janae and I could invest an extra hour to see dinosaur fossils at the renowned Royal Tyrrell Museum, or visit its nearby arch nemesis, the Big Valley Creation Science Museum. But we agree that the $2 admission to this 19-year-old gopher museum in an isolated house offered more to learn about the homo sapien.

Some homo sapiens may have coexisted with dinosaurs in Cambodia 800 years ago; they may have not. But one thing’s for sure, one current-day specimen snared, positioned and dressed 77 gophers in his image for this museum’s 8,000 yearly guests.

In recent history, the species has made other questionable decisions, such as leaving a centrally air-conditioned eighth-floor Edmonton apartment with a fraction of his possessions and only a nylon dome for shelter, packing it into an automobile and travelling 600 kilometres to rugged mountains shaped by centuries of wind, fire and flooding to cohabit with unfamiliar relatives of a woman he’s known for 12 months.

What the homo sapien will do for love.

edmonton to waterton

Fun as this quasi-educational stop is, the true worth of any road trip is measured by the snacks along the way. Located south of Red Deer in Gasoline Alley—a pit stop that somehow evolved into a strip mall with a Cineplex and a Leon’s—the Donut Mill is a cafe inside a mock windmill, a sight as unusual to highway travellers as the wind turbines were to Don Quixote.

But here we fight not imaginary enemies, but cravings for 28 different doughnuts with original recipes. Any other day I’d grab a Boston cream and a coffee and go, but seeing as how this might be the highlight of the weekend, we fill a box with Rolo and Oreo doughnuts, plus the Donut Mill Special, owners Michelle and Parry Dyck’s cream-filled, maple-glazed signature treat.

By the third hour of the drive, we’ve traversed embarrassing family memories in conversations as open as the highway. But even in our moments of silence, I’m learning new things about Janae: she has a Disney playlist on her iPod, for one. As we stream across the uninterrupted road, I contemplate whether I’ll be welcomed in Waterton as Aladdin or Jafar, but I find strength in the young prince’s refrain and decide that a whole new world is worth the adventure.

My concentration breaks when the GPS device inside my belly starts beckoning. It takes us to Peter’s Drive-Innear the intersection of highways 2 and 16 in Calgary. On the busiest summer days the diner deserves its own road report, but we’re back on the Queen Elizabeth in 15 minutes with our famous strawberry shake bounties. The 50-year-old Pete’s does it the old-fashioned way, with real ice cream and fruit, and I can taste it in the berry pulp.

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Making good time, we follow a sign that thousands of Albertans also follow every year: Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump Historic Site, 16 kilometres.

Yes, it’s a classic Alberta tourist destination (who could resist a name like that?), but somehow neither of us had set foot inside the five-storey interpretive centre built right into a cliff. After our interpreter Quinton Crow Shoe guides us through local First Nations history, it’s clear that we’ve missed out all these years. The final staircase leads to the jump above the eastern plains. Here, the rising sun would blind the bison from seeing their drop of doom. But it’s now evening, and the sun is high in the western sky like a flare calling us to Waterton.

Before the final leg of our journey, we pop into Okotoks for a bite of nostalgia at the Burger Baron. Since 1957 there have been up to 90 of these rogue restaurants peppered around the country. I say rogue, because no two are alike. It’s less a franchise than it is a meme, copied and passed down by Lebanese immigrants, including my father in the ’80s. Today only 30 exist, mostly in Alberta, and mostly in small towns. They dot the highway like a french fry-shaped constellation, and, although each is unique, they all make a mean mushroom burger.

But we shouldn’t linger unless we want to set up a tent in the dark. We’ve failed in our attempts to nab either a room in the historic Prince of Wales Hotel or one of the five tipis on Crandell Mountain, always booked up weeks in advance. As we near our destination, the mountains, blue lakes and vegetation in Waterton, which account for half of Alberta’s known flora, waft into the car and fill me with the illusion that I’m one with it all.

We pitch our tent beside Upper Waterton Lake, which offers us easy access to waterskiing, trout fishing and kayaking. The oneness I share with nature wavers slightly after I see the first of several triangular yellow signs of a deer kicking the “Do Not Walk” man off his feet. Yet somehow the deer and residents in this town coexist in peace, as do the two countries sharing the park. And if they could do it, so could this homo sapien and his future in-laws.

And if all goes south, there’s always the journey back home. wl

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