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Pacific Northwest, December 1998


I forget how it all started out, precisely. Joanne, I think, had made some off-hand comment about how nice it would be to experience a white Christmas. Neither of us ever had, so it seemed worth looking into. We had a close friend recently moved to Vancouver, whom we had yet to visit in his new home. Surely it snowed in Vancouver over Christmas … perhaps we could work something out? I thought I would add a few embellishments to the trip without telling Joanne, as a surprise. The ferry trip up the Inside Passage sounded like a great idea. I’d long had a hankering to visit Sitka.

I had been to Alaska once before – fifteen or more years before – and my experience had been that the local New Zealand travel agency had made a complete balls-up of organising the trip. Unless you are doing some bog-standard package tour (of the “ten European countries in fifteen days” variety) then the typical kiwi travel agent is about as much use to you as tits on a bull. You might as well just go there and take your chances; your trip will probably go more smoothly.

But the young fellow in Thomas Cook assured me that things had changed – they could organise things much better these days – and, like a sucker, I believed him. To be fair, they came up with a pretty reasonable itinerary for all but the most difficult part of the journey, from Skagway to Whitehorse, but at a price I figured to be about 50 to 75% more than the cost of each item added together. Their commission for ‘packaging’ the trip, no doubt. So I asked him to cancel the package, to book the flights and one or two accommodations I thought might be tricky, and got onto the Internet to do the rest myself.

We would need Greyhound passes. The Greyhound Canada web site (Greyhound Canada) allowed me to plan the overland parts of the trip with timetables and fare schedules. The best kind of ticket for our trip was the one valid for a certain number of days and I was able to buy them through the travel agent at no great mark-up. It cost us about NZ$350 per person for 15 days unlimited travel.

We were willing – or I was on behalf of both of us – to undertake some long bus rides (up to 30 hours) and just sleep on board. Otherwise we could spend all our time travelling and none seeing the country. For example, the ride from Prince George to Prince Rupert in the winter is simply stunning, but the only way to see it is overland. Even a short commercial flight is going to cost half a day and the only thing you’ll see is the inside of an airport lounge. (Thirty hours on a bus is pretty grueling though: it’s not for everyone!)

I wanted to take the Alaska Marine Highway ferries. The AMH is a lot more economical than the cruise ships, which cost an arm and a leg, and they are quite fine for us ordinary mortals. The cabins are better than a good number of motel rooms I’ve stayed in. Again, the AMH web site (Alaska Marine Highway System) had timetables and fare schedules allowing detailed planning. I booked on-line, and a day or two later received a call and a fax confirming the details.

The trickiest part of the whole operation was getting through from the top of the inside passage back into the Canadian interior. Normally you’d get off at Haines (road connection through Haines Junction) or Skagway (road connection through to Whitehorse and the Alaska Highway) but I didn’t have time for the former and Greyhound didn’t seem to cover the latter. In the end, I opted to get off at Skagway and charter a small plane. I e-mailed Skagway Air ( for details and promptly received a reply from Lori who told me I could have my wish for US$280, but that winter flights were always “weather permitting.” I decided to risk it anyway and … well, you’ll see how it turned out if you read on.

So that was it: all organised. Time passed....

Wednesday, 09 December 1998

The first of the three flights which would take us to Vancouver was a local leg to Auckland, so we fronted up to Air New Zealand at Wellington domestic airport. The woman at check in counter #1 told us – once we had worked our way to the front of her queue – that we had to go to another check in counter, since we were connecting to an international flight. There were, of course, no signs to distinguish between the different counters, so we’d just wasted 20 minutes in the wrong queue. It is so dismaying when even the simplest things are done badly.

Since we had the domestic flight before the international connection – three hours before! – I think it is a safe bet that we were among the first passengers to have our boarding passes printed; the first of those passengers who did not have their seats selected by their travel agents to have their seats allocated. Yet we were issued centre seats all the way through to Vancouver.

While we were checking in, the clerk from the next counter asked our clerk how to do something. Well, naturally, rather than make the other queue wait, she stopped right in the middle of serving us to go help her colleague for a few minutes. Once she’d done with us – riffle, tear, print, babble – she abandoned the queue althogether, with our luggage still on the scales and accessible to anyone who felt like picking it up and wandering off with it, to go assist her colleague more comprehensively. I hung around to make sure our luggage did finally make it as far as the loading conveyor, thinking: Strike three. Air New Zealand joins BA right up there at the top of my list of the world’s crappiest airlines.

Like Air China which, let’s face it, is struggling against far greater odds, things improved once we actually made it on to the plane. The 50 minute flight to Auckland was uneventful. Once there, there are some pretty decent transit facilities at the international terminal. I used the opportunity to purchase a copy of Paul Theroux’s The Happy Isles of Oceania, a book I’d long been curious to read. I’d heard, correctly as it turns out, that Theroux takes the opportunity to slag off my homeland, and, indeed, my home town, at some length. Mainly, though, it appealed to my sense of symmetry for me, an Oceanian, to read a North American author’s travel book about Oceania as I travelled through North America.

For an hour or so we wandered idly among the duty free shops; a last few stimulating moments before the numbing, almost dream-like haul to Hawai‘i. We arrived about 2230 into a bare hall where the only available distraction was watching the antics of an enormous and particularly frisky cockroach as he ran around the walls and ceiling. Still, that fun-filled excitement began to pall after an hour or so. Eventually, even the cockroach seemed to tire of the performance and disappeared into a light fixture. A small crowd waited anxiously to see if he would perform and encore but, after another 30 minutes, disappointed, we were filed onto the Air Canada plane to Vancouver. At least this time there was some leg room with which to console myself.

Entry formalities were minimal: immigration barely glanced at our passports, and the full extent of customs’ concern seemed to be that we hadn’t left any of our bags behind. We were so convinced that there had to be more bureaucracy somewhere, that we instinctively joined the first queue we saw, and spent several minutes shuffling along towards the ‘connecting flight’ window before David’s frantically jumping and waving figure beyond the glass room partition caught our eye.

Vancouver is a small, orderly, city of half a million of so. Certainly there is far less traffic – both automobile and pedestrian – than somewhere like Sydney or even Auckland, so our drive back to David’s was quick and quiet. Even though David grumbled about the traffic, it seemed less congested than in Wellington even. It was dark still, and raining. Today we stayed within the city limits, visiting the library, which reminded us of the nothing less than the Colosseum in Rome, and a couple of department stores – Hudson Bay (a whole half floor of ‘petites’) and Eatons – which between them provided Jo with a bright red woollen hat and the first of several wardrobes she would eventually acquire on the trip, me with a pair of sports shoes striped black and yellow, like bumble-bees, and a traveller’s alarm clock. Next, the Geological Survey Map Centre. About now I recall that I have left my geological hammer at home. Damn! Also, Duthies, a not-too-bad book store. I understand from David that Duthies closed some time in 1999, to Vancouver’s loss.

It rained all day; cold, but nothing worse than a Wellington winter’s day; no wind. Around 1600 it was starting to get dark, so we took a scenic drive home. Sadly, we were not really in much condition to appreciate it, being tired from the flight and dozing off in the car. Back at David’s we had a nap for a couple of hours. Then we picked up Liz and went to a Japanese restaurant for dinner. It was very nice but full-on Japanese cuisine: not for the squeamish.

After dinner, another book store – Chapters – which was also quite good.

My cell phone doesn’t work here. Shit.

Thursday, 10 December 1998

Woke up (sort of) at 0545 for a quick shower and shave, then a 0630 cab to Vancouver Greyhound depot. This was the scene of Joanne’s first egg-nog latté – an experience which was destined to be repeated all across the Pacific Northwest. Here, too, I was finally forced to tip my hand about our next destination when having our tickets issued. Hilariously, Jo had left her map at David’s, so she still didn’t know where we were going other than that it is called Prince Rupert.

As we waited for the bus to board, the rain teemed down. The brilliant white lights on tall poles surrounding the bus park seemed to undulate behind the curtains of rain. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it reminded me of an X-Files episode. Any moment I expected Mulder to come scuttling out of the shadows somewhere, into the light; water running down his face. It didn’t appear to have stopped for a moment since we arrived.

The bus left on time at 0730 and we drove through the dark, wet morning, eastwards through the city, over bridges, and up the Fraser River valley into the coastal mountains. Here we caught our first glimpses of snow, with coniferous trees, steep gorges, waterfalls, kilometre-long trains, sawmills and logging trucks, deserted RV camps and mountains of bare rock. Canada.

Just before lunch, which was at Cache Creek, we ran out of the rain and it remained more or less dry as we drove north to Prince George. This section of road roughly follows the Fraser River all the way. The scenery was postcard pretty: Christmas trees in the snow. About 1630 the sun lost itself behind the mountains to the west and by 1700 it was as black as any midnight I’ve ever seen. Remarkable.

The bus arrived at Prince George around 2030. We were late because the driver had actually waited at one of our intermediate stops for a late middle aged woman who had become stranded when her ‘ride had broken down’.

Setting off from the Prince George Greyhound depot to find something to eat, we were able to verify Bill Bryson’s observation that US – or, in our case, Canadian – cities are not built for pedestrians (except, perhaps, for the heart of downtown). The 200 or so metres we had to traverse involved quick dashes across multi-lane roads for which there were no crossings, broken up by treks across car park wastelands, each with its heaped up pile of dirty snow in one corner.

Mama Panda’s ... what can I say about Mama Panda’s? Having mentally noted a prominent McD’s sign, as a contingency measure, the next place to attract our attention was Mama Panda’s. The entrance door was locked, but the prominently advertised closing time was 2100 – it was now 2045 – so we went in through the exit door and walked up to the counter to inquire. The gentleman there looked pleasant enough, despite the small moustache on his lip: a sign which always makes me suspicious. His teeth were widely set, with gaps between them. “Are you open?”

According to their sign, they should have been, so it was a legitimate question, but in any event we were guests and deserved a respectful answer. But, instead: “Well, now, was the door open?” No, we replied. “Well ... then I guess we’re not open.”

He said it with that contrived politeness which is intended to insult. I would have enjoyed watching somebody shoving the bastard’s splayed teeth down his fucking throat, but was not about to get into a fist-fight myself. If Jo and I had still been stressed-up in work mode, I’m sure we would at least have made a scene for the ignorant prick to contend with. But we were on holiday, and the bastard wasn’t worth it. So, instead, we just left and wandered on until we stumbled upon Ricardo’s Pasta and Pizza, instead. Ricardo comes from the opposite end of the hospitality spectrum, inviting us in, expressing interest in where we came from – Ricardo himself is Chilean, from a town I didn’t know near Santiago – and, best of all, he makes a damn fine pizza.

Back on the Greyhound, our departure was delayed for some unaccountable reason that appeared suspiciously like disorganisation: we got away at 2345, half an hour late. Of course it was pitch dark but we sat in the front row and, in the light of the headlamps, could see the snow heaped up along the roadsides. At some point Joanne abandoned me for the next pair of seats back.

Friday, 11 December 1998

With a double seat each we pretty much slept through to Terrace where we had a short stop and walked around a little. We left around 0730, when it was just beginning to get light.

Driving west, it started to rain again.

This part of the trip was fantastic – Vincent Ward could make a film here. We drove along the north side of a broad river valley; black tall trees in silhouette against the brightening south east sky; icy rivers, partly frozen over; snow on the iced over pools and edges of the water; masses of little waterfalls streaming down the steep hills to our right, reminding me of the Haast Pass in winter. At some places, one corner in particular, the rock wall was only inches from the bus window, and may have overhung us. A cascade of water drummed along the roof as we passed.

The bus arrived, maybe a quarter hour behind schedule (this is significant, because this was a really tight connection and I had been worrying about making it from the outset) into Prince Rupert which is certainly a whole lot bigger than I remembered it from 15 years earlier. We walked to the ferry depot, initially going the wrong way because I had misunderstood the directions. It was a long walk – maybe 30 minutes – and, again, the ferry terminal was clearly not designed to be approached on foot. We used the same entrance the cars did and walked through the parking lot. I’m sure Bill would have felt vindicated.

The Alaska Marine Highway seemed to have the world’s slowest ticketing mechanism. I’m sure the guy in the queue ahead of me pissed around for a good 15 to 20 minutes before finally getting his ticket and buggering off. It’s an old joke that if you lock a troop of monkeys in a room with a typewriter for long enough, they’ll eventually type Hamlet by sheer accident. I think the AMH monkeys must be equipped with something less efficient than a quill pen. Whatever, I reached the counter a full 8 minutes before the ferry sailed. Mercifully, U.S. immigration was quick and easy, the only (slight) delay occasioned by the circumstance that one official was training another, presumably showing her what to look for in potential subversives.

Our cabin on the M/V Taku was spacious (by the standards of ferry cabins) with its own shower and toilet, and a bunk. Breakfast (pancakes and bacon for me, two eggs over easy and toast for Jo) was freshly cooked before our eyes and no dearer than we’d have paid for the same in Wellington ... well, not much anyway. After that, a quick – very quick because it was raining and cold – promenade around the deck, followed by an hour and a half nap. (I guess we slept on the bus but it somehow doesn’t revitalise you the way a “proper” sleep does.) Our nap was twice interrupted by the ooga ooga of the ship’s warning siren and various messages about abandoning ship, as the crew took safety drill. But we hardly noticed.

The islands are mist shrouded, snow capped; small fishing towns glimpsed through veils of rain. It is stunning. We took a half-hearted few photographs – our first this trip – but that really only rubbed in how little point there was. This kind of scenery can’t be captured on 35 mm. Maybe Craig Potton could do something with it; we can’t.

About 1530 it began to get dark and it was pretty much dead of night by 1600. The Taku arrived at Ketchikan at 1630. Ketchikan is reputedly the fourth largest town in Alaska, which doesn’t really say much, but it looks quite impressive by night: there are lights all over the hillsides and cars hurrying back and forth. Of course there is nowhere for them to go. Trucks and trailers drove on and off the ship for a few minutes, presumably loading salmon, then after 45 minutes the ship was underway again.

The rain was teeming down.

Dinner in the ship’s restaurant – salmon for Jo, a cheeseburger for me – and an early night; not much else to do.

Saturday, 12 December 1998

Awoke late, 0930 or so, and had a brief wander around the deck (forest clad islands with a light powdering of snow, dolphins porpoising, mist and clouds and a sunrise worthy of Turner) before the cold sent us scuttling indoors for pancakes and strawberries. The fine weather didn’t last long though; by 1100 it clouded over and was raining again, on and off.

It was a good day for spotting the wild life. There had been the dolphins before breakfast, then after it we were roused from the table by an announcement over the PA that a small pod (3 or 4) of killer whales were breaching ahead of the ship. Without pausing to lay down my book I sprinted for the deck and stood watching them, the Happy Isles trailing from one hand in the Turneresque morning: Paul Theroux with Sea Monsters.

I even managed to take a picture with Joanne’s camera on maximum zoom. On a really clear day, you can imagine that the fuzzy blob in the middle is a whale.

Later, I noticed something on the water too small for a dolphin but it didn’t behave like a bird. An otter for my money. Shortly after that, a bald eagle flew across our bows. Bald eagles are huge, magnificent beasts. This one was a little too far off to really appreciate but, even so, this fellow was a beautiful sight and clearly the master of his element. I was happy not to be, in the words of Piglet, one of the smaller animals.

Some distance out of Sitka, the crew launched the rescue boat. It was only an exercise but, even so, I did not envy the three crew making the journey into port in the small open boat, through the rain and lumpy seas. Despite their parkas, they looked to be soaked to the skin even before casting off, and we guessed they probably had at least a couple of hours ahead of them.

We arrived into Sitka, in driving sleet, about 1415, and took the shuttle bus to our motel, the Super 8. Our driver works at the Raptor Centre. We were his only passengers so he drove us around the town a little and told us some of the points of interest. Told, rather than showed, because already it was getting dark and visibility was terrible in any case. By the time we’d settled into our third room (our motelier was most embarrassed and very apologetic) and re-emerged it was snowing properly: great feathery flakes drifting down. We wandered into town catching them in our mouths.

Sitka is a delightfully civilised and refined little town. Cars stop anywhere if you look like you might even just be thinking about crossing the road. Although the town is tiny (population 8700) it manages to support a wonderful bookstore which, that afternoon, was hosting a performance by the local recorder society: a mixture of medieval folk tunes and Christmas carols. ‘Old Harbour Books’ can’t rival the big chains, Amazon or ABE for the size of their selection, but may equal any of them for breadth (Dante, Rachael Carson, Darwin, Homer, plus local topo maps and navigation charts). Great browsing and the attached café serves an excellent hot chocolate.

[I am reliably told that Sitka has become “touristy” since our visit there. A pity.]

By 1600 it was pitch dark so we wandered back to the Super 8 – via Subway – and whiled away the rest of the day watching the telly. A nearly perfect day.

I turned 42.

Sunday, 13 December 1998

Rose around 0900 and wandered downtown to an Internet cafe. I wanted to let my work know that my cell phone wasn’t working over here. We thought we got a message away; the system showed errors and the staff were no help. (In fact the message did deliver successfully.) Jo got an eggnog latté there – $3.60 – outrageous, so we didn’t stay for breakfast. Instead we returned to the Back Door Cafe off the bookshop for freshly made cinnamon rolls, then trolled around town waiting for some shops to open. We walked up to ‘Baranov Castle’ – all that is there now is a lookout – to see fine views of the town and surrounding mountains between the snow flurries. After that we walked over to the Sheldon Jackson College; a nice campus but, sadly, the museum was closed.

Returning to the Super 8 for a coffee, our hostess gave us a drive around town in her 4 by 4 (although, without chains, it was more of a slither around town) and dropped us off at the Raptor Centre. It was the Centre’s end of year Christmas function, so not only was the usual $10 entry fee waived, we were fed as well! Staff brought in a variety of splendid birds to meet the folks. These were all birds which could not be returned to the wild for one reason of another, and which had consequently been kept at the Centre for long enough to become almost tame. The undoubted star of the show is a magnificent bald eagle – a huge bird – named Walter (or something like it) but there was also another hawk and some beautiful owls. One in particular was large and grey and astonishingly attractive.

After an hour or so, we walked through a small snow-storm back to the motel, to savour the sybaritic delights of the Sci Fi Channel until it was time to go to dinner at the Channel Club – “the restaurant every Sitkan recommends.” It wasn’t bad, actually. Any place that can satisfy Jo and me at the same time has its work cut out for it. I couldn’t eat all of my steak – the smallest they offered – but I gave the edges a damn good nibbling.

Upon leaving, we struggled with the vexed question of tipping. Now tipping is a moronic custom: Why do people bother? Why the hell don’t they just build the damned charge into the bill, like we do? I understand the argument – it provides a direct customer satisfaction feedback mechanism, which should logically lead to better service – but anyone who has ever travelled will promptly tell you that there is equally good and bad service to be sampled both in counties which do and which don’t practise tipping. For example, the very concept of service is totally unknown throughout England, a country where tipping is not only expected, it is demanded with menaces. In Australia and the United States, which don’t and do practise tipping respectively, you’ll be treated similarly (and generally quite well) despite the different practices.

When we eventually returned to our room, I immediately wrecked Jo’s spectacles by sitting on them. We lovingly wrapped the mortal remains in tissue paper and stowed them in a bag, watched an episode of the X-Files, then turned in.

Monday, 14 December 1998

The lady on the front desk rang us at 0400 to tell us to be ready for the shuttle at 0515. Our driver was the same guy that had driven us into town two days before. He offered me the front passenger’s seat, whereupon I embarrassed myself by heading for the driver’s door. I opened it, saw the steering wheel, and just stood there vacantly for a moment, thinking “what the hell’s that doing there?” The other passengers thought it was hilarious. I assured them we drive on the other side of the road in my country, but I still think they thought I was simple. Rustics.

The ferry left Sitka at about 0615. The lights in the lounge went off almost immediately, so I had to abandon Paul in the Happy Isles. Jo had little sympathy, not being able to read herself on account of the ... ahem ... unfortunate incident involving the spectacles.

The breakfast selection on this boat, the M/V Le Conte, was not as great as the Taku and seemed more expensive. Jo had toast; I had French toast with bacon. Yum.

The first stop was Angoon. The actual town is some way from the ferry terminal – out of sight – but upon the good advice of one particularly friendly, bushy bearded crew member we got off and explored the immediate area. First we slipped and skated our way over the icy road and parking area to head off up an unsealed track into the forest, soon coming upon an old cemetery. There were a number of very old graves here, mostly of young children, plus that of Chief Something-With-Many-Hyphens Saginaw Jim. The chief’s grave seemed quite elaborate, but only by comparison with the simple markers elsewhere. This was a humble place. A few steps further on and we came out onto the beach, where we saw a couple of bald eagles flying about overhead. I think it was the quiet, “small” moments that made our whole expedition so memorable. This was one of them.

We had quite a wander around the beaches both sides of the ferry terminal before we had to return to the boat and the friendly crewman. He told us he had visited New Zealand some years before, staying with friends in Wainuiomata – not far from our home – and had cycled over much of the country.

After that, I seemed to be overcome by lethargy and slept much of the day away. Jo wandered around the boat. About 1300 she went for lunch and bought a muffin ... an error of judgement, as it turned out. She opened the package to discover the muffin was quite mouldy. Upon returning it, the chap behind the counter instantly said “ok, go get another one” but Jo overheard him confide to one of his colleagues “I really don’t know how old these muffins are; I think they’re pretty old when they get to us.” Needless to say, her enjoyment of lunch was somewhat diminished.

At some point during the trip, I awakened long enough to catch another brief glimpse of a whale: a puff of steam and a grey shape on the surface for a moment. I saw no big dorsal fin, so assume it was a humpback this time.

The Le Conte is altogether an older, shabbier boat than the Taku, and whereas the crew of the Taku had wrapped Christmas paper around many of the fixtures, there was not as much festive decoration on the Le Conte. Still, some of the crew – especially the guy with the beard and good advice, who had cycled New Zealand – were very friendly.

Next stop was Tenakee Creek: a single muddy track about 2 km long with some houses. The folks drove four wheel farm bikes. No cars here. There were many dogs, from tiny, friendly ‘Rosie’ who vaguely resembled a Westie and followed us into the general store, up to three magnificent sled dogs, any one of which was a small pony to Joanne. Later, in the State Museum at Juneau, we would see stuffed wolves. They were no different.

About 1830 – well after dark – we put in to Hoonah. I went ashore to ring ahead and let our hotel know we were coming in on the late ferry. What a performance. The pay by coin service (1-907-etc.) didn’t work at all (“AT&T Alascom. Your call did not go through. Please hang up and try again.” Could there be a less useful message?) and the operator service (0-907-etc.) didn’t take Visa.

While I was fussing (the guy issuing tickets was working at a leisurely pace) Consuela got on the phone (there was only one) for some protracted and obviously stressful conversation with, presumably, her boyfriend. She was a good kid, though, and wrapped it up quickly when she saw I was waiting, then rushed off sobbing into the ladies’. Poor thing.

Finally, in desperation, I used my employer’s MasterCard which proved acceptable to AT&T Alascom, called the Driftwood Lodge, and told them when we’d be arriving.

“Please call again when you arrive in Juneau.”

After dinner – chicken chow mein for Jo; a hot dog and chips for me – we wandered around, read, Jo watched Dr Dolittle in the side lounge (it played twice that afternoon) and generally killed time until we arrived in Juneau at 2300. As directed, I called the Driftwood again.

“He’s not going to be there for a minute or two; he’s planning to leave about 11:25.”

Come again? A minute or two? The driver’s not even leaving for another 25 minutes? Why did I even bother calling ahead?

“I was afraid something like this might happen.”

So why didn’t you do something to…. Oh, what’s the use?

Sigh. We waited 45 minutes for our ride to materialise. Got to bed about 0030. Do you expect a tip for that or what? Stupid Americans.

Tuesday, 15 December 1998

We slept quite late. Shortly after consciousness returned, I tried to book a boat tour of the Tracy Arm from the company recommended by the Let’s Go travel book I had lugged half way around the world with us. I got through ok, but they’d ceased operating for the season. Insufficient demand. It’s good to know that even the Last Frontiersman, as the Alaskan male likes to think of himself, retreats to his fireside when there are insufficient tourist dollars to lure him out into the cold. The spirit of Joe Roddy – the intrepid Irish boatman who had whisked just the two of us through high seas to Skellig Michael for not much more than the normal fare – hasn’t made it this far west, obviously.

A word about Let’s Go: Let’s not. The Pacific Northwest guide we used was dismally incomplete (e.g. there was no warning of the limited season we’d just run up against; not even a mention of the world famous Buchart Gardens near Victoria, for God’s sake!) and so obsessed with saving money that the whole point of the trip is lost. If I’m going to go to the trouble of travelling half way around the world, then I want to actually see what’s there. Stick with Lonely Planet or Rough Guide. We will from now on.

Soon we went downstairs to ask our hotel’s receptionist for advice on getting Jo’s glasses repaired. Unlike the dolt from the previous evening, this woman was most helpful and directed us to a small shopping centre half a block away, and Dr Kemp, Opticians. This was the other side of the coin: Dr Kemp’s receptionist couldn’t do enough for us. The various bits of Jo’s really rather mangled spectacles disappeared into a back room and returned 15 minutes later, fully repaired, cleaned, and at no cost at all.

Morning tea in town and a hunt around the three or four streets – short streets – that constitute Juneau’s shopping precinct didn’t take long. Aside from three or four cafés, a Taco Bell, a McDonalds, and a nice second hand bookshop, it was all tacky tourist shit and over-priced mantle-shelf dust-gatherers calling itself “native arts and crafts.” This crap might well have been fashioned by “natives” – that is Inuits – but I doubt there is anything traditional about it. It’s all tour boat fodder and it reminded us of Queenstown and its two (at last count) opal shops.

(For anyone who doesn’t know: Precious opals are not found in New Zealand. But the Japanese are fond of them so we import them from Australia in order to sell them in New Zealand tourist shops. Go figure.)

There was a little art gallery with some good stuff (in the western tradition) in it, though nothing we fancied buying; an interesting wildlife video at the Forest Service Information Centre; and the State Museum with a lot of real Indian craft work (harpoons, knives, clothing, dolls – no twee soapstone bears or walruses) and a selection of stuffed wildlife. We walked through the rainy afternoon back to the Driftwood, where the Sci-Fi channel was showing an old, original series Star Trek followed by Howling III. Having slightly differing tastes in such matters, a spirited conversation ensued….

Dinner at Fiddleheads was great, from the friendly service to the excellent Chianti. Rather uncharitably, I thought, given the time of year, Joanne ate reindeer.

Wednesday, 16 December 1998

This morning we decided to return to the museum store, which had closed by the time we got to it the previous day but had looked promising. After wandering around town for some time and having muffins and coffee/hot chocolate for breakfast we made our way back to the museum. Of course the store was still closed. While we sat outside on a bench seat ‘admiring’ possibly the planet’s most hideous modern sculpture – not even Henry Moore has ever conjured up anything in quite that nauseating shade of green – the obliging custodian at the front desk rang most every extension in the building, trying to track down someone to open it for us. After about five minutes someone arrived to open the store for us. Upon admission we quickly realised that promise was the only worthwhile thing contained therein, but having put everyone to so much trouble we felt bad about leaving empty-handed. Jo purchased a tasteful calendar and we fled.

By now, of course, we were running late and had to dash like mad back to the Driftwood to catch our ride out to the ferry terminal. If we missed it, god only knew when the next one would be. Once at the terminal, we were – natch – early, but didn’t mind too much because it started snowing and was rather pretty.

A few moments after boarding, Jo disappeared ‘for a few minutes’ but ended up watching a movie. Not knowing where she was or when she’d be back, I remained in the forward lounge, where they had thoughtfully turned off all the lights so nobody could read, waiting … waiting … but I no complain.

In between the snow flurries, there were glimpses of snow covered islands and mountains, but generally poor visibility. It was completely dark by the time we arrived at Haines, so we couldn’t see anything. Finally, we pitched up at Skagway around 1930 and decided to walk to our accommodation: the Mile Zero B&B on 9th and Main. Snow and ice were thick on the ground, so perhaps this wasn’t the greatest idea we’d ever had – at one intersection my feet shot out from under me resulting in a spectacular flop, flat onto my arse – but it was hardly life-threatening, either, and we made the trip in 30 minutes or so. Our hosts, the Mallorys, were very pleasant, our room was lovely, and we discovered as we chatted that Clinton’s impeachment vote had been deferred by a day so they could resume bombing Baghdad without that particular distraction. We spared a thought for Mustafa, an Iraqi friend of ours living in New Zealand, who still had family living there.

Thursday, 17 December 1998

Next day was unbelievably clear and sunny. We called Skagway Air and learned our flight would be late getting away, but probably would actually get away. This was a huge relief because this connection had always been the weakest link in the chain. We later learned that this particular day was the only day when the flight we planned was possible, for a week either side. We walked into town and into Skagair where I finally met Lori, my erstwhile e-mail correspondent who had arranged the booking for us, and left our bags. We killed a few minutes at the Visitors’ Centre – the only thing open – then returned to Skagair and waited some more.

Eventually, about 1030, we got into the trucks with our pilot and co-pilot to drive to the airfield. We overheard the pilot talking about an ETA of 1230 to 1300 “local time.” Oops. Beginners’ mistake: I’d forgotten about the hour time difference between Alaska and the Yukon. Still, too late now….

We had a fantastic flight through the mountains – clear skies and unlimited visibility all around. I can’t describe it; it was almost sublime.

Our pilot landed the 4-seater Piper Cherokee perfectly – a virtuoso landing – at Whitehorse, and taxied to a phone box near the flight control tower. The small plane had been pretty chilly flying over the mountains so we were rather looking forward to getting out. But when the co-pilot cracked open the door and the wind blew in, we just couldn’t believe our senses. We were stunned and literally could not quite work out what was going on. Sure, we have cold days and frosts and snow at sea level, sometimes, in New Zealand but Whitehorse that day was sculling around the minus 30° C mark and if you’ve never experienced those sort of temperatures before in your life, it is a genuinely formative experience.

If that particular phone had worked, and everything else had gone smoothly, we might have made our bus connection out of there. But it was not to be. We would have a chance to get used to the –30 temperatures and, unbelievably, we did.

However, our pilot had a similar experience with the phone as I had at Hoonah: he could talk to people, but not the right ones. We ended up trooping up to the control tower to use the phone there. Customs clearance was like a credit card check: the pilot gave them our names and passport numbers over the phone, they gave him a clearance number, and that was that. We called a cab and drove to the Greyhound depot. We had missed our bus by 20 minutes and there wasn’t another for two days. So we walked a block up the road to the Roadhouse Inn, a slightly down-at-heel place costing us US$55 per night for our own room.

Later we went out for a walk, first to a shop to buy woollen hats and scarves, to a tiny mall, then into town to the local bookstore. Walking even the one block to the first store without a hat and scarf was enough to freeze my face. My ears stung like crazy as they thawed out in the woollens department. By the time we’d reached the bookstore, my legs were shaking and could hardly hold me up. I had only been wearing my jeans. Thank god I’d packed some polypropylene long johns. We spent the afternoon holed up in our room – marooned and entombed in Whitehorse – but togged up and ventured out again, across the road to a Chinese restaurant, for dinner.

The overnight low was –35; by morning it had warmed up to –31.

Friday, 18 December 1998

Our second day in Whitehorse. We stayed in bed till quite late, partly to rest up but mainly just to kill time. Eventually we dressed up in polypropylene long johns, skivvies, fleeces, jackets, jeans, scarves and gloves, and ventured outside. We reached the town’s only apparent attraction, the McBride Museum, about 1130, which was a pity because it doesn’t open until noon. So we carried on the shops around Main, found a café, and warmed ourselves up with hot drinks. Amazingly, we seemed to be hardening up to the temperature: –30 isn’t so bad.

After a while we returned to the museum which was a quite splendid little affair – obviously done on a budget, but with imagination. More imagination than, say, the BM. The centre-piece naturally concerned the gold rushes to the Klondike of the late 1890s. After that, thinking there might be a movie on, we walked towards the cinema and discovered a superb little science shop on the way. The delights within included half a dozen good alt-az telescopes, 3 to 4 inchers mostly, a range (gasp) of lenses, build-them-yourself robot kits, some interesting books, beakers and Erlenmeyer flasks and other chemistry paraphernalia, and so on. If there had been one of these shops in Upper Hutt when I was 12, my poor mother would never have been able to remove me from it. But there was no movie, or anything else to do either, except return to the Roadhouse, wash our laundry, and watch TV. Oh, and a Dominoes pizza for dinner.

Saturday, 19 December 1998

Escape from Whitehorse.

Actually, I’m sure it is beautiful in the summer. And although we were rather glad for the adventure of being stranded in such exotic circumstances, a couple of days was enough.

To kill some time in the morning, between being evicted from the Roadhouse at 1100 and our actual departure at 1315, we went to the mall (Joanne forbade a return to the science shop; bitch!) where there was, as always, nothing whatsoever to see or do for anyone too large to sit on Santa’s knee and have their photo taken. I briefly toyed with the idea of seeing if I could get a photo of Santa’s rather fetching little helper sitting on my knee, but chickened out in the end. I didn’t know if the local sense of humour – or Jo’s – would be up to it. So we had a hot chocolate in Subway, Jo bought some cereal bars and a drink for the bus, we looked at a wall made of beautiful mineral specimens donated by local mining companies, and went back to the Greyhound depot.

By now the depot was bedlam as hordes of fellow escapees fought and gouged and clawed, so – demonstrating rare foresight – we reserved seats. Just as well: when the whistle blew it was all shoving and heaving and dealing to your opponent with the old handbag in the knackers.

We got a seat one back from the front, on the door side … where the overhead lights don’t work. Never mind: it was only 1330 so we probably had a good two hours of daylight left. To our left was a fellow called Paul who wore a jacket saying “US Navy Diver.” I think he must have retired some time ago, because he had a pretty soft outline which one doesn’t normally associate with active military personnel. Or perhaps divers are encouraged to keep a layer of insulation about themselves. By sitting in the aisle seat, piling up a small mountain of possessions in the window seat, and looking belligerent, Paul managed to secure a double seat for himself; a remarkably selfish feat on such an overcrowded bus. He, too, had once visited New Zealand.

In front of us was an older man with a Russian hat, long hair, bald on top when he removed his hat, beard. We got to chatting to him a little later in the trip and found him to be a pleasant fellow. Next to him was a young blonde girl – 16 or so – and pretty in that vacant Friends/Melrose Place sort of way that Americans seem to like. Her 20-year-old sister and her baby occupied the seat immediately behind the driver. The brat was actually quite well-behaved: no wailing or puking or what-have-you. Unfortunately we were treated to a steady steam of baby oglers – especially one particularly nauseating little creature – which were a nuisance. So, it was in the company of this happy crowd, that we drove off into the night.

Trees, snow, glimpses of the distant Rockies rising above the low clouds on the horizon.

Sunday, 20 December 1998

We drove all through the night on the Alaska Highway, the Alcan. We passed numerous towns – Teslin, Watson Lake, Fort Nelson, Fort St. John – plus a dozen tiny villages in between. At each we stopped for 5 or 10 or 20 minutes to pick up or drop off passengers, grab a quick snack or drink, take a piss, before finally pitching up at Dawson Creek around 1030.

It was to be an hour before our next bus left; unfortunately we didn’t realise that at first, so we waited outside by the door of the bus, talking to our friend in the Russian hat who had relatives in Wanganui, where my mother was born. It was about minus 20° C. At that temperature the fabric of my jacket became stiff, and crackled when I moved, and the remaining soft drink in the bottle in my bag froze solid while we talked.

Again, we drove through the day and into the night. The land was flatter here, and less interesting; just trees and snow. A few silver barked birches broke up the spruce down here. Grande Prarie seems quite a large city, but we spent only 20 minutes there: just long enough to slip and slide our way across the road to a fast food dump featuring the world’s thickest (and slowest) airhead behind the counter for a couple of coffees to go. Even here, in the city, cars stopped in midstream if we stood on the kerb to cross the road. We arrived into Edmonton on time at 1950. Edmonton is a large city, and might be worth a visit another time. However, we didn’t stop for long – maybe 25 minutes – before boarding the 2015 to Calgary. We arrived a few minutes after midnight, caught a cab to the Prince Royal, explained our arrival (a day later than our original booking, a day earlier than the revision I’d phoned through from Whitehorse) as a misunderstanding (it was: mine!) and pitched into bed.

Monday, 21 December 1998

The city walking tour seemed like a good way to get oriented; it was only 20 below; we’d dress up and walk. And walk….

The Eau Claire Market was ho hum; all I recall now was a small stock of New Zealand wines at one of the stores and the world’s worst coffee at another. The Chinese Cultural Centre featured a spectacular dome, reputedly modelled after the Temple of Heaven in Beijing but having only ever seen the latter from the outside, I couldn’t say. Glenbow Museum was excellent; we could have spent the whole day there. Then we found our way into the ‘+15’ elevated walkway and didn’t escape again. Much petiting was had at The Bay and at Eatons. We were able to walk almost back to our hotel on the +15. Dinner at the attached restaurant was very ordinary and expensive for what it was. Heineken was CA$4.50 a bottle.

Tuesday, 22 December 1998

Jo slept badly so we arose quite late and didn’t escape the hotel until around 1100. Mostly a shopping day, although I did make the important cultural discovery that the Chinese food-court places actually do have chopsticks if you ask. It’s just that nobody does.

Having the address of a shop which advertised Meade telescopes and accessories, and wanting to buy a laser collimator, we tried to take the bus to 6653 Centre St S. What a performance. What we should have done, of course, was to give the driver the address and ask him if he went there. But, being a typical male and unwilling to admit the full extent of my ignorance, I dragged Jo onto the first one which appeared to be going in the right direction. Ten minutes later, out in the suburbs and clutching the transfer tickets in my hand, we got off, crossed the road, and caught the opposite bus back to town. Since it, too, appeared as if it might get us where we wanted (the driver hinted as much, but then we changed drivers at one of the stops) we stayed on for a while. Too long a while. Now we found ourselves being carried beyond town in the opposite direction; a proper Bill Bryson episode. We alighted and trudged back to town again, across the bridge over the nearly frozen Bow River – a viscous stream of sludgy ice – through Chinatown, and finally back into the warm and comforting bosom of the downtown malls. It was 20 below outside.

That day we stayed abroad until 2100 or so, but upon attempting to return to our hotel we discovered a rather fundamental design flaw with the +15: Because many of its components are commercial premises, half the thing gets closed down and locked off after 1800 or so, and it becomes unusable. It was 20 below outside.

Wednesday, 23 December 1998

The following morning we discovered another fatal flaw: it’s almost impossible to break in to the bloody thing! We had arisen, packed, then after an agony of indecision and two coffees, embarked upon a desperate race across town to engage in one last minute skirmish in the Hudson Bay petite department. We’d walked to within a block of the Bay by the time we, firstly, found an entrance (sign-posting isn’t the Calgary city fathers’ long suit) and, secondly, one which wasn’t locked (as several we’d tried on the way indubitably were).

Clutching a few last minute prizes, we fled back to the Prince. This time we didn’t bother with the +15, beyond using it to cross the first couple of streets to avoid the chilly wait – it was still –20° – for the walk light, because we were in haste. We wanted to be at the Greyhound depot with plenty of time to spare before our departure.

In the event, we needn’t have worried because there were so many people they had to put on extra buses, and we were 30 minutes late getting away. While we waited in the bus station, a group of acapela singers sang Christmas carols – very well – so we squirmed in dread of being subjected to the awful ‘Jingle Bells Rock’ which had been haunting us ever since we’d arrived in Canada.

Despite the obvious crowding with the extra busses and everything, there was still a bunch of sorry selfish slobs who tried to keep two seats to themselves. The driver dealt with two of them on our bus, but there was still this one sorry-ass in front of us with his bag in the aisle seat who escaped her wrath. He had about a week worth of scruffy ginger stubble on his face, and looked belligerent, so I don’t entirely blame the woman for not tackling him as well. This game old bird across the aisle had a go, though: “Are you keeping both those seats for yourself?”

– “You have a problem?”

– “No; just wondering if you bought a ticket for your bag, too.”

Something like that. But the guy didn’t move his bag. Arsehole.

Again we were amazingly lucky with the weather and enjoyed spectacular views all the way from Calgary to Banff. Just beyond suburban Calgary we passed the site of some winter Olympics or other: there were skiers on the slopes but nobody rash enough to be using the long jump launching pads – or perhaps they were just closed.

Almost from the suburbs we could see the Rockies, and the view just kept on getting better all the way to Banff where we arrived some time shortly before 1600. Since Banff is only a small village we knew our hotel couldn’t be very far away, so we decided to walk. But we hadn’t reckoned on the iced over footpaths being so slippery! It must have taken 30 minutes at least to pick our way gingerly around the streets to Siding 29. Someone had left the inner window in our room open, behind the drapes, and it had become so iced up we couldn’t close it. But at the end of the day it didn’t make any difference to us. A bit of ice built up overnight, but the air conditioner kept the room warm.

That evening we slipped and slid the four blocks into town for a look around the shops and a quick Chinese at a food court in the mall. A brief skid around the little town revealed the usual tourist trappings – kitsch stores, ski equipment, beautiful clothing for the beautiful people (sorry, I don’t much admire the ski set) – like Queenstown but a cut above: Louis Vuiton, Ralph Lauren, …. A magnificent complement of poorly labelled, over priced fossils – including some excellent Asaphis of the Wolchow River types, and probably from there – was on sale at one jewellers. The outrageous prices were all discretely tucked away where it was difficult to read them.

Thursday, 24 December 1998

In the morning we headed back into the village for another look around but particularly to buy some small gifts in preparation for our return to Vancouver and to visit a small fossil museum we had spotted the evening before. We had some bagels for breakfast but we must have been getting fractious for some reason because we managed to find something about them to bicker over. By the time we had settled upon some fancy chocolates to take back to Vancouver for our friends, we were not talking to one another. However, the fossil museum was closed and Joanne’s sympathy for my obvious disappointment was sufficient to make us friends again.

We walked to the Banff Springs Hotel – maybe only a kilometre or two, but the footpaths were treacherous – through what felt like a veritable blizzard. It was very cold, even for a pair of Whitehorse veterans. Returning to town, we found a small bookstore and rushed in, more to warm up than anything, but were delighted to discover it was quite brilliant.

Back in the mall we ate a Japanese lunch at the food court, then returned to the hotel for our bags and treated ourselves to a cab ride back to the bus depot. The bus left at 1530 but, although it was not yet dark, the conditions prevented us from seeing much further than the roadside. We rode the rest of the day and all night.

Friday, 25 December 1998

We arrived in Vancouver around 0645 and took a cab to David’s flat, where a full program awaited us. Mercifully, we had time for a shower before brunch as guests of Cathy and Anthony. Mid afternoon allowed us the opportunity to slip back to Dave’s for a quick nap and a read but not for long. For dinner we were guests of Cathy’s parents, the Wongs.

Saturday, 26 December 1998

After sleeping in, a little, we bussed downtown to partake in a ritual which has yet to attain its full development in New Zealand: the Boxing Day Sales. It was a full-on day of retail therapy, with much petiting to be had. Dinner was at home.

Sunday, 27 December 1998

Today we were again feted by the ‘extended family’ who, I would have to say, took us in their stride as few others I have known. This time Catrina and Brian were our hosts and I spent much time talking with David’s sister-in-law’s father about the Changjiang, or Yangzi River, and the dams soon to be built there. His view, and I felt I hardly merited an opinion of my own, was if the conservationists opposing the dam had to live in the vicinity, suffer the erratic power supply, and breathe the air polluted by coal-fired power plants, then they might modify their views. For myself, I have a geologist’s vaguely comforting world-view: The Three Gorges will still be there, pretty much unchanged, long after the entire human race has disappeared off the face of the earth, and our crumbling dams with us.

Then there was just a little time to squeeze in a brief visit to the Vancouver Museum before it closed for the day. Sadly, the giant stainless steel crab was not having his bum splashed by the fountain today – perhaps the pipes froze in winter so they drained the pool; who knows? – but it was fun anyway.

Come dinner, we held court at Milestones – a Vancouver version of New Zealand’s Cobb and Co. – with Liz, Doris, David and Vijay. One of the waitresses was planning a trip to New Zealand, so we were happy to provide her with some itinerary suggestions: ‘Black Water Rafting’ at Waitomo, the traditional helicopter over-flight of the Franz Joseph Glacier, and so on.

Monday, 28 December 1998

Capilano Suspension Bridge was the order of the day, today, Jo’s birthday, although the weather was not up to much: cold and cloudy. Our visit began inauspiciously enough as we were trapped in the queue behind a family of the most ghastly Australians imaginable. The whining brats were enough to give anyone a headache and the children were even worse. The bridge itself is just a very high, very long, suspension bridge (well, shock me) across a steep sided river gorge. There are some bush walks around the far side, but the icy ground meant walking the steep muddy trails was not much fun and we gave up soon enough.

After that we drove on up as far as the foot of Grouse Mountain, but the cloud was so low and thick that we decided to save our fifteen or whatever bucks apiece and skip the gondola ride to the top.

We rounded the day off quietly with visits to Chapters, a Virgin record store, and a quiet Japanese dinner – just the three of us.

Tuesday, 29 December 1998

We decided to set off to Victoria today. How hard could it be, we thought. Well, surprisingly, hard enough. Between the long, poorly sign-posted, and infrequent bus service out to the ferry terminal and cancellation of the midday ferry, so we couldn’t even leave Vancouver until 1300, the whole trip there took far longer than we expected. The ferry crossing was uneventfully relaxing and quite pleasant. However, everything on board was closed by some kind of industrial action.

It was already about 1530, by the time we arrived, which was really too late for anything. The ‘Leonardo Exhibition’ at the museum, which Jo had been particularly keen to see, had ceased to sell tickets after 1400. I tried to convince her to stay the night and try again next morning, but after much changing of the mind back and forth, she eventually decided not to. So we had a bit of a look around the little town, then boarded a bus to repeat the long trip back to Vancouver again.

I guess any day on vacation can’t be all bad, but this one had really been pretty much of a bust.

Wednesday, 30 December 1998

We wandered to the “local” shopping centre today – a long walk. My ultimate destination was the telescope shop, but, upon arriving, I discovered it was small and didn’t have much to interest me. Certainly they didn’t have the laser collimator I was seeking.

On the way, however, we passed a number of second hand book shops and I was able to collect two real bargains: Boccaccio’s ‘Decameron’ and a cosmology textbook, both hardbacks in mint condition.

Thursday, 31 December 1998

Today was our last day in Vancouver, so we said our farewells to Crunchie in the morning, before he went off to work.

We had planned to spend the day quietly reading or watching TV, to rest up for the flight home, but at the last moment her craving to shop got the better of her and Joanne made a break for downtown and some last minute petiting. Meanwhile, Liz rang up and offered to run us in to the airport.

Before Jo returned, Starbucks coffee in hand, however, Crunchie rang back with a last minute change of plans. He was coming home early and both he and Liz would come to see us off.

Friday, 01 January 1999

Where’d New Year go? Did we have one?

Hard to tell really. Still, we celebrated two: Midnight in Newfoundland, en route from Vancouver to Hawaii, and midnight in Hawaii a few minutes after taking off for Auckland. Fireworks over Honolulu. Very pretty.

Saturday, 02 January 1999

We stagger off the plane. Jo heads off to hit duty free while I collect our bags from the conveyor, ready to escort them through customs.

NZ Customs are (or were on this occasion) more paranoid than either the US or Canadian authorities, wanting everything including Jo’s purse sent through the X-ray machine. God knows why. Let’s face it, a cache of cocaine is hardly going to show up on an X-ray and a hand-gun would scarcely have fitted in there. Perhaps any uniform exerts ‘the traffic cop’ effect on our New Zealand psyche ...

Anyway, we get through, then check our luggage back into the system for the final, local flight to Wellington. We walked from international to the domestic terminal, at first enjoying the warmth, then beginning to swelter. The distance is only about 500 metres but we arrived hot, sticky, and not overflowing with the milk of human kindness. We now faced a two and a half hour wait in a noisy and uncomfortable terminal. Because we were travelling Air New Zealand – both Jo and I usually fly Ansett and are Ansett Golden Wing members – we were unable to retire to the Koru Club lounge (although I suppose we could have sneaked off to the Ansett terminal next door).

Just before departure time, I rang Status Taxis in Wellington and requested a cab to be waiting for us when we arrived in Wellington.

Once we had finally boarded the plane, they delayed departure by 25 minutes – an absurd length of time to hold a flight which only takes 50 minutes anyway! – to wait for only three passengers whose in-bound domestic flight was late. Surely to God they could have got on the next plane? What a crappy, two-bit, airline. Frankly, I wouldn’t trust them to run a bath, and I reaffirmed my commitment to Ansett on the spot.

The ‘light refreshment’ en route was a salmon bagel. I can’t stand the stuff, so I went hungry. That, of course, wasn’t the airline’s fault, but it didn’t improve my mood.

Our cabbie, Warren, obviously possesses the patience of a saint because he was still waiting for us when we arrived. We got our gear, and went to the office. Mercifully, our car hadn’t been towed over Christmas, so we piled in and drove home quite ready to collapse into bed immediately.

But, no.... In our absence, the decorators had been and the place was a bomb-site. We could have gotten away with just stripping the bed and washing the sheets and pillow-cases and duvet covers, but Jo was having none of that. She insisted upon getting the whole place presentable before she could rest. I wouldn’t have minded so much if the bastards had even done a good job ....

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