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My mother and I shared a passion for hokey things. Happily, Alberta, where she lived, has more giant, hokey roadside attractions per capita than any place on earth.
Together, she and I saw the giant honeybee, stalk of corn, cowboy boot, oil derrick, and beer can.
We saw the world’s largest decorated Ukrainian Easter Egg in Vegreville. It’s a seventy-five foot engineering marvel constructed of thousands of colored aluminum triangles (and a few rhombi). It honors the centennial of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. (I’m not sure how.)
We’ve had our picture taken beside the forty-two foot kielbasa sausage near the Stawnichy Meat Processing Plant in Mundare.
We’ve traveled to the twenty-five foot concrete statue of a pyrogy (a potato dumpling) pierced by a giant dinner fork. Across the street, in the window of a little chinese restaurant, we liked the sign, “We sell Canadian pyrogies and Chinese pyrogies.”
We’ve traveled to Drumheller, home of the Alberta badlands, piles of dinosaur bones, and the prestigious Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology. People there decided they needed more, a sure-fire tourist attraction. So they built the world’s largest T-Rex. It’s eighty-six feet tall, four times the size of a real dinosaur. I’ve climbed up the stairs in her neck and took pictures of the badlands between her giant teeth.
But by the time Mom was ninety, her traveling days were almost over. Her heart and kidneys were failing. She was legally blind and painfully arthritic. Her short term memory was shot. But she still loved to travel, wanted to travel. My sister-in-law Patti and I decided to take Mom on one more road trip, to the world famous Gopher Hole Museum in Torrington.
Mom seemed confused about our destination but no less eager to pack and hit the road. We stopped for lunch in Red Deer, a couple of hours south of
Edmonton. Mom ordered the clam chowder. When it was served, she stirred it a bit, looking for clams. She couldn’t find any. She whispered loudly to us, how down east where she was born, you could get a decent bowl of clam chowder. The waitress came to refill our coffee mugs.
“Miss,” she spoke up. “I can’t find any clams in my clam chowder.”
The young waitress didn’t bat an eye.
“Oh,” she said sweetly, “We never put clams in our clam chowder.” And she left to wait on another table.
My mother could barely control herself.
“No clams in the clam chowder?” she sputtered. “I never heard of such a thing!”
And she was still complaining about the chowder later that day when we pulled into Torrington, population eighty-six.
We knew we were in the right place. A giant twelve foot gopher named Clem T. GoFur greeted us in the park, and all eleven fire hydrants were painted to look like gophers too.
The museum itself looks like it was once a country schoolhouse. I don’t know what I’d expected to see, perhaps historical documents related to the farmers’ long struggles against this prairie pest, or the life cycle of the Richardson ground squirrel. (Technically, they’re not really gophers at all.)
I was in for a surprise. If ever there was a museum in bad taste, if ever there was a politically incorrect museum, this was it. I gotta say…we loved it.
In Torrington, dozens of gophers are stuffed, dressed, and placed in dioramas. There is a beauty parlor with gopher customers and a gopher beautician. A church with a gopher congregation and a gopher minister. Gopher cowboys and gopher Indians. Gopher covered wagons. Gopher Royal Canadian Mounted Policemen.
My favorite is the gopher mayor fighting with the gopher hippie over a chipmunk. The gopher hippie holds a sign saying G.A.G.S. (Gophers against getting stuffed.)
We described to my mother all the wonders that she could not see. I asked the docent if she had souvenirs for sale. I was hoping for a tee-shirt that said something like, “I survived the Gopher Hole Museum in Torrington, Alberta.”
No such luck. She did let us read and sign the guest book. Amazing how many people from how many countries had traveled to this out-of-the-way community on the Alberta prairie. My sister-in-law still chuckles over the comment, “Free the Rodents!”
Someone else from eastern Europe had written,
“I think it’s just terrible what you did to those poor little rats!”
My mother was contemptuous:
“Rats? They’re not rats. They’re gophers! You’d think a person would know the difference between a rat and a gopher!”
As I recall, she didn’t express any sympathy for the creatures, whatever they were. She wasn’t that kind of woman.
The docent chatted with us for awhile. She told us that the people in town and from nearby farms get together in the winter to discuss what dioramas they’ll add the following spring. They decide who will sew the costumes and make the furniture and scenery.
“We can’t use roadkill,” she added, helpfully.
I thought about it. Made sense.
We headed to a motel for the night to rest before our drive home the next day. To be honest, I don’t think my mother remembered a whole lot about the trip or the museum. But to her dying day, one scene was etched in her failing memory. She told everyone who would listen, over and over again:
“We stopped at a restaurant for lunch. I ordered clam chowder, but I couldn’t find any clams. The waitress told me they never put clams in their clam chowder. Can you believe it?! I never heard of such a thing!
No clams in the clam chowder!”
Just so you know, some other giant roadside attractions in Alberta are a trumpeter swan, a bighorn Ram, a peace dove, a freedom-loving pig, a blue heron, a goose, a beaver, an antelope, a moose, a bison, a skunk, crows, a walleye, a mosquito, a mallard duck, a swan protecting her nest from a grizzly, a mushroom, dancing potatoes, a sunflower, a Pinto Bean, a brown-eyed susan, a pumpkin, a crown, a cream can, a milk bottle, a lamp, a piggy bank, a badminton racket, a softball, a baseball bat, a golf putter, 100’ survey markers, a giant wind gauge, a sundial, a weather vane, giant pincers, a chuckwagon, a saddle bronc and rider, a wagon wheel, a cowboy, a brahma bull, and a 215’ teepee. And I almost forgot–a UFO landing pad and a Vulcan space ship with greetings in English, Vulcan, and Klingon.
And you thought Alberta was just Banff, Lake Louise, Jasper, the Calgary Stampede, a really big shopping mall, and oil fields.
Copyright by Margaret French