Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Adventures With Ludwig Van

Third place winner of 2012 Winnipeg Free Press/Writers Collective Non-Fiction Writing Contest

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For over three decades, we have looked forward to our annual camping trips. When we began this tradition, our humble abode was a cramped backpacker's tent, but we've since upgraded our home away from home to a 1978 Volkswagen campervan named "Ludwig."

Travelling with Ludwig has given us many opportunities to be both awed and dismayed over the years. We have driven through breathtaking wildflower meadows on meandering roads, and inched up a hairpin highway that ended at the toe of an angel-shaped glacier. We've been held rapt by broad swaths of autumn colour daubed on the landscape, and also witnessed the ravages of a boreal forest fire and the devastation of clear cutting.

On one memorable occasion, we were enthralled by the sound of tinkling ice shards breaking up on a mountain lake. On another, we heard the ominous rumble or an alpine avalanche. There have been peaceful sojourns beside limpid turquoise lakes, and a shocking interlude at a lake whose waters were thick with noxious blooms of blue-green algae.

Wonderful sightings of wildlife have abounded but, unfortunately, we've also seen many animals that have lost their battles with four-wheeled beasts. Once, we drove over a rise and discovered a pungent family of moose resting by the side of the road. This was much preferable to the night a majestically massive bull moose materialized out of the darkness, coming uncomfortably close to ramming Ludwig. We've seen a black bear sow teaching her cubs the delicate technique of eating dandelions by nipping off only the blossoms and we'll never forget the adrenaline rush at our first sight of a gigantic grizzly. It was thrilling to see an elusive bull elk in the rain soaked mist, his rusty bugle ringing out a wild and lonesome call. On the other hand, it was terrifying to be chased by a pregnant mule deer doe when we unknowingly wandered into her territory.

Then there was the amazing view of a bald eagle flying down the road directly in front of the van for a few miles, and the afternoon a red tailed hawk patrolling for food crashed into us. The hapless bird was stuck between our aerial and side mirror for a minute before slipping off and then soaring away.

We've been pestered by a variety of creatures, both inside and outside the van. Throngs of annoying flies and armies of thirsty mosquitoes have besieged us. We were kept on guard most of one night while we attempted to evict a persistent deer mouse. We've also been confined to our quarters by the attentions of low-flying bats, as well as by curious skunks.

Funny encounters are regular occurrences as well. Ludwig was once used as a scratching post by a herd of itchy bighorn sheep. He has been encircled by a honking gaggle of geese, and a raven tried to steal his windshield wipers. A confused wild tom turkey has even mistaken the van for a rival in love.

We've camped in the fairest of weather beneath the twinkling lights of fireflies, and we have also sweated and swatted the nights away. We've been awakened by an early snowstorm snarling outside our window, but were then rewarded with pleasure of observing sleek otters frolicking in the snow.

On one trip, a leaking window drenched our bedding during a deluge, and Ludwig's yellow and white striped canvas tent top was nearly shredded by ferocious winds.

As Ludwig ages, he is becoming more temperamental. Sometimes, steep inclines are enemies, but at others, they are the friends we're forced to park on so that we can push-start our stubborn ride. Based on previous adventures, we know that we're in for surprises of every ilk on this year's journey.

Our lime-green cottage on wheels is stuffed like a ripened melon, bursting with the essential ingredients in the recipe for a perfect holiday. Experience has shown that strategic packing helps to muffle the clatter of driving in what is affectionately known as a rolling tin can. Our anticipation has been building, and we're ready to set out at last.

The beauty of the dawn unfolds serenely as we weave through the pastoral countryside with its verdant hillocks and dales, and the morning drifts by in relaxing meditation. We stop frequently along the way to breathe the fragrant air, listening to the droning insects and the birdsong jubilation in the trembling grasses and trees.

We prefer to take the less popular routes. Sometimes they're worn to a smooth patina, singing and surging beneath our wheels. More often, though, we follow dust-shrouded gravel tracks between sloping soft shoulders, avoiding sly potholes and stones that suddenly poke their heads into view like inquisitive prairie dogs.

When the ribbon of trail becomes narrow, unruly foliage squeaks against Ludwig's sides like rummaging rodents. We crank our bug-smeared windows down and slowly approach every inviting thicket and waterfowl-dotted slough, with the hope of glimpsing shy wildlife.

Without warning, a bullying wind with insistent hands begins to pull and push at the van, its hot and humid fingers poking through every unsealed nook and cranny. Ludwig's body is buffeted from side to side, and our licence plate goes flying by, torn from its moorings. Since we are still quite a distance from our destination, we decide to continue juddering along, feeling as though we're in a dory on a blustery sea.

When we realize that the bone-jarring vibrations from the washboard roads have loosened a wheel, we have no choice but to pull over to tighten the lug nuts. Upon trying to leave, we find ourselves bogged down in deep ruts of loose sand. Frustration mounts as we try everything we can think of to extricate ourselves, before reluctantly surrendering to circumstance and sending out a distress call for roadside service.

It is the better part of an hour before we're underway, and we have barely breathed grateful sighs of relief, when we notice that Ludwig's unreliable gas gauge reads alarmingly low. Before we know it, the unthinkable has happened, and we are stranded at the side of the road again. We're beyond mortified when the same young man arrives to bail us out of our second predicament. Finally, after missing a vital turning, and much later than planned, we wearily pull into our safe harbour.

Our camp is nestled in a hollow, redolent with the spicy scents of tamarack and sage. We are sandwiched between a crust of thrumming highway, and a murmuring slice of lake -- a clamouring cacophony on one side, and a sibilant symphony on the other. There is no harmony, merely irony, in this juxtaposition of rustle and bustle.

The hurly-burly day folds in upon itself, and the frenzied traffic tango slows to a barely perceptible waltz. Churlish clouds begin to grumble and growl as the sizzling snap of fork lightning scratches the bruised sky. Restless flocks of wheeling gulls and raucous crows take wing. We huddle silently inside the camper, waiting for the hushed calm that is the prelude to a stormy fanfare.

The first rain comes sighing, humming a soft lullaby upon our metal roof. Within minutes, our ears are resonating and our hearts are throbbing to the stentorian tattoo of the thunder drums, and the din of bouncing hailstones. The keening wind whirls like a dervish through the bowing trees and over the seething lake.

When the pulse-pounding concert is over, the boisterous musicians take their final bow, and then begin to pack up nature's incredible light show. There will be no stomping ovation or shouting encore tonight, only echoes of the music resounding, and then receding into the distance.

When the tumult of the tempest subsides, and the sullen sky shrugs off its gloom beneath the arc of a brilliant double rainbow, dulcet voices slowly being to emerge. A robin's liquid trill bubbles through the air, while diamond droplets slip off the sodden trees, landing in a chorus of whispers at our feet. Canada geese resume their chatter, and a loon's lament skirls across the lake. Ponies in the adjacent field are quietly whinnying as the dusk settles on our shoulders. Our smoky firewood hisses and spits like an angry bobcat, before exploding in a crackling crescendo of sparking flame. The ululations of one serenading coyote, and the blood-curdling barking from a fox den nearby, punctuate the stillness. I strum my guitar and add my voice to an owl's plangent cry and the choir of chirruping crickets and frogs.

We end our first day on the road, entranced by the pearly moon dangling from midnight's throat on a starry chain, and by the undulating veils of northern lights rippling and swaying to the faint whistle of someone's last train home

 

TOMORROW -- SMOKE BREAK

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 28, 2012 A1

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