The next morning, I awoke bright and early. It was only 5:00 AM and Josh was still dead to the world, so I quietly took a shower and dressed for the day. With Josh still sawing logs, I unpacked my laptop, fired up Microsoft Visual Studio and began working on the multimedia authoring program that I had conceived of the night before.
I'd been pounding out code like a man possessed for more than two hours when I felt Josh creep up behind me and enfold me in one of his world famous bear hugs. "Morning Dad," he said as he wrapped his arms around me and cuddled briefly against the back of my neck. "Whatcha doing?"
"Morning son," I replied and turned my head to kiss him lightly on the cheek and gently rubbed his arm. "I'm writing a computer program. I had a great idea last night for a program that will make it really easy for us to put together all the video and pictures that we're taking, and make it into a movie. If I do it right, I could market the program, and make a lot of money," I replied.
"Sounds cool, but we're supposed to be on vacation," Josh admonished. He remained clinging to my back and looking over my shoulder with keen interest. "That looks like Chinese to me," he said with a chuckle.
"It's called C++. I'll teach you one day if you're interested in learning."
"I want to learn everything you know," he replied before giving me another loving squeeze and then heading for the shower.
I saved my work and packed up the computer as Josh showered. Within 15 minutes, he was done and dressed for the day, and we were both ready for breakfast. We were both elated to learn that there was another Humpty's restaurant just around the corner from the motel. We made a bee-line there and chowed down once again on lumberjack breakfast platters.
It was June the 30th and we had a pretty fun day planned. The highlight of the day was going to be the RCMP museum located at the RCMP training depot right in the city of Regina. Every RCMP officer who ever wore the uniform was trained at that facility. It was a sprawling complex and most of it was closed to the public. Only the museum and a couple of small park areas were publicly accessible.
After devouring our giant breakfast platters, we started with a road tour of Regina. Regina is a very scenic city with tree-line boulevards and neat, tidy streets. Its population is small compared to the main cities in Ontario, Quebec, Alberta and British Columbia, but it has the feel of a much larger metropolis. The city is somewhat of a cultural Mecca for the province as well as for nearby US states.
We drove up and down the Regina's main drags as Josh shot a lot of video. The downtown core of the city is immaculate and well laid out. Actor Peter Ustinov once said that "Toronto is kind of like New York if it were run by the Swiss." In my opinion, Regina did a much better job of fitting that bill.
We parked the Jeep and did a walking tour of the downtown core. Josh, as always, worked hard to charm the people we encountered and we got a lot of really good material for our project. Regina, unlike Toronto, seemed to run at a slower, more relaxed pace and the people seemed to be friendlier and more welcoming. I'm sure that Josh could have charmed people just about anywhere but, here at least, he didn't seem to have to work very hard at it. The whole place had a warm and inviting feel to it.
With our tour of the city completed, we returned to the Jeep and made our way to the marvelous provincial legislature building. The legislature is a large white stone building with a central dome. Close to the Trans-Canada highway, it is positioned south of the downtown core on the south shore of Wascana creek. It is set well back from the street on a lush green, well manicured lawn and it is surrounded by trees. The interior of the building is breathtakingly beautiful with marble floors and ornate decorations. As anxious as we were to get to the RCMP museum, we took a tour of the legislature.
Part of our goal on the trip was to see as much of Canada as possible and to get to know each and ever part of the country. Touring the legislature certainly helped us in meeting that goal. We intended to visit the provincial legislature buildings in all the provinces and we were planning on touring Parliament Hill in Ottawa.
Following the legislature tour, we headed back to the Jeep and made our way to the RCMP training depot, known as "Depot Division". We followed the clearly marked route to the museum and parked the Jeep. Josh jumped out and ran ahead.
"Check this out," Josh called back to me.
I caught up and found him standing in front of a remarkable mural. It was a picture of the facility's main building with a platoon of new graduates, proudly decked out in their scarlet tunics, riding britches and Stetson hats. Behind the platoon, which was standing at attention, ghostly images of men in the original RCMP uniforms (which featured pillbox hats instead of Stetsons), some marching and some riding horses, passed behind them. The mural was intended to convey the history of the place. The whole place gave off a feeling of pride, history and tradition. "That's pretty amazing," I said to Josh as I placed a hand on his shoulder.
"This place has a feel to it," Josh said thoughtfully. "I can just sense how important this place is."
"Well, the RCMP played a big part in our history and they still do today. The scarlet tunic and Stetson hat the Mounties wear is one of the most well known symbols of Canada. People all over the world know who the Mounties are and what they do."
"This picture sends a shiver up my back," Josh said.
"I know the feeling bud."
We continued up the path to the entrance, stopping a couple of times to admire old RCMP vehicles parked along the way. One vehicle in particular caught Josh's attention. It was a 1945 Bombardier snowmobile. Not the little skidoo type, but a full sized, multi-passenger vehicle made for getting around the arctic.
"This is cool," Josh said as he opened the door and climbed into the driver's seat. "There's more room in here than in the Jeep!"
I climbed in beside him. "It is pretty roomy. I guess you'd need a vehicle like this to patrol the arctic in winter. Thankfully, we won't need one of these when we head up there in a few weeks!"
"I'm really looking forward to that," Josh replied. "Is it true that it doesn't get dark up there during the summer?"
"Yep, it sure is. In fact, it'll be light for 24 hours a day during the time we'll be there. It won't get any darker than it does down here at dusk."
"It must be hard to sleep like that."
"I guess you get used to it. We might want to pickup blindfolds or something since we're not used to it." We left the snowmobile and headed into the museum building. There was no charge for admission, but they did have a donation box setup just inside the door.
"I've got this," Josh said as he pulled out a $20 bill from his wallet and dropped it into the box.
The first thing that we saw after the donation box was the Scarlet & Gold Gift Shop. The gift shop features all manner of RCMP merchandise. Everything from Barbie Dolls wearing the RCMP uniform to clothing items was available. Talk of the coming arctic leg of our trip got me thinking; so I bought Josh and me each a nice gray fleece pullover with the RCMP crest located on the left side of the chest.
"Thanks Dad!" Josh said happily as I presented him with his pullover.
"Let's get something for Mark and Bryan," Josh suggested.
"Good idea kiddo. Any ideas?"
"How about one of these for Mark," Josh replied as he held up a scarlet coloured sweatshirt with RCMP embroidered across the chest. "Bryan would probably like this," Josh continued as he picked up a navy blue fleece vest with the RCMP logo embroidered on the left side of the chest.
"Perfect on both counts," I said. I took the items from Josh and went to pay for them. Josh insisted on paying half the cost.
With our souvenir shopping done, we headed into the main part of the museum and began the self-guided tour. It was a truly amazing place. It was organized chronologically so that it started with the early history of the RCMP (originally called the Royal Northwest Mounted Police) and ended with displays related to the force, as it exists today. Displays includes weapons, vehicles, uniforms, photos, documents and even a mockup of an RCMP detachment from the 1800s, complete with jail cells. Josh, the lovable little bugger that he is, tricked me into entering a cell so that he could take my picture. He took a picture alright, but then he laughed and walked off, leaving me locked in the cell.
I managed to reach out and unbolt the door and chased after him. "Now I owe you one, old son of mine."
"Oh, I'm real scared," Josh taunted. "Bring it on old man."
"Old man!?!? I'm only seven years older than you, you little turkey!" I chided him lovingly. We bantered back and forth a bit as we continued with the tour. We often play-teased each other like that and we had fun doing it. We both knew that there was nothing serious about it; it was just part of our relationship.
One of the most impressive displays in the museum was the section which dealt with Canada's wars. Displays showcased some of the medals won by RCMP officers in wartime service. They included an impressive display of four Victoria Crosses - Canada's (and the Commonwealth's) highest military award for valour. It was a very rare medal which was only awarded for the most incredible acts of bravery in the face of enemy fire. Seeing the medals reminded me that we had a very important stop to make in Winnipeg on the way back east.
There is a street in Winnipeg called Valour Road. Valour road used to be called Pine Street until the First World War. During the war, three men who lived on that street CPL Leonard Clark, Sgt Maj. Frederick William Hall and Lieut. Robert Shankland were all separately awarded the Victoria Cross. When the city of Winnipeg learned of the incredible achievements of those men, they renamed the street Valour Road.
Towards the end of the tour, there was a cockpit section of a DeHavilland Beaver aircraft. Josh and I climbed in and sat down at the controls. "I'm really looking forward to learning how to fly when we get back," Josh said.
"You're going to love it. Being a passenger is pretty good, but nothing beats actually flying the plane."
"Is it tough to learn?"
"Not really. There are some parts which are tricky, but you won't have any trouble. I've never seen anyone take to flying as quickly as you did. Anyway, I'll take you up in between your lessons and give you some extra coaching."
"You're the best Dad," Josh said warmly. "We've only been gone a week and I already feel as if I've had the time of my life. Just being together with you has been great. I love you so much."
"I know kiddo. I love you too and I'd have this much fun watching grass grow if I was doing it with you."
We climbed out of the plane and resumed our tour. A display of modern weapons caught our eye. An FN C1A1 rifle was prominently displayed in a glass case.
"That's like Robert's rifle," Josh said excitedly.
Robert was my buddy that went to the shooting range with us. "It sure is. Robert has the British version. That's the Canadian version but it's very similar."
"What's the difference?" Josh asked.
"The Canadian version has an open breach. The top of the receiver is open which makes it easy to insert special rounds such as tracers or grenade launcher rounds. The British version has a closed breach with a small ejection port on the right side. The open breach makes for fewer feed jams and stove-pipes."
"What's a stove pipe?"
"It's when a round misfeeds from the magazine and points upwards just like a chimney."
The final display on the tour featured an actual horse. At least, it used to be a horse. It was stuffed and mounted in a glass display case. For some reason, this tickled our funny bones and we both laughed like a pair of nut bars.
"Why did they do that to the horse?" Josh asked between giggles.
"I'm not sure. I guess they didn't need anymore glue or dog food so they decided to keep the taxidermist busy," I said seriously before bursting out laughing.
"That's it Dad - back to the cell with you," Josh said in feigned anger before he also cracked up.
I pulled josh into a headlock and tickled his ribs which elicited yet more laughter. "We had better calm down before they put us both in cells or padded rooms," I told him.
"Hmmm, being fed soft food in a softer room might not be all that bad," Josh said with another round of giggles.
We left the museum without managing to get ourselves committed or incarcerated and we went in search of dinner before returning to the motel. We hadn't bothered with lunch after the massive breakfast that we'd eaten so we were both ravenous. We decided that it was time for a quiet evening before the long drive the following day, so we opted for takeout. We found a small restaurant not far from the motel. The sign advertised the best chicken wings in the west so we decided to try our luck.
The girl behind the counter, who appeared to be about 16, was making eyes at Josh as she took our order. She evidently didn't realize that he was only 13. He could easily be mistaken for 14 or so and he was really good looking which probably explained her interest. For the most part, her attempts at flirting went right over Josh's head. She wasn't as blatant as the girl in the line at Webers had been, but her interest was obvious. She seemed quite amazed when we ordered 80 wings between the two of us, along with an assortment of sauces and dips.
"You seem to be forming a little harem Josh," I said with a snicker as we climbed back into the Jeep.
"What's a harem?" Josh asked.
"It's a collection of wives, or in this case young female admirers," I said with a laugh.
Josh turned crimson. "That girl at the counter? She must have been 16! Cool!"
"She didn't look quite as ready as the girl at Webers to screw your brains out, but she was giving you the look!"
Josh, who had turned beet red, gave me a light punch on the shoulder. "How do I know when someone is giving me the look?" He asked seriously.
"You just have to watch their body language and listen to how they speak to you. It just takes practice. You're young so you have plenty of time to learn."
"Why are all these girls so interested in me?"
"You're a very good looking boy Josh. You look older than you are and you're a handsome devil. There are probably some boys who are interested in you too."
"That's kind of flattering but I'm pretty sure that I'm straight. I don't mind playing around with Mark, but its girls that make me horny," Josh said thoughtfully.
"That's ok bud. Like I said, there's nothing wrong or unusual with messing around with other boys at your age. Lots of boys do that."
"I know. I'm really looking forward to seeing Mark again. I miss him a lot. I'm glad that he's happy and safe now, but I miss hanging around with him."
"I'm sure he misses you too. It won't be long and we'll be meeting up with him and his brother to go to Ottawa. They'll probably join us for part of the Alberta leg of the trip." I had to bite my lip. I had a big surprise lined up for Josh. Bryan and I had conspired, unbeknownst to either of the boys, to arrange for us to meet up at Dinosaur Provincial Park on July second.
We arrived back at the motel and changed into athletic shorts and t-shirts. Before digging into our wings, we took our dirty laundry down to the small coin laundry located in the motel. Back in our room, we adopted our usual TV position on my bed and began devouring the wings as we watched television. The motel offered a cable movie channel which was currently showing "The Shawshank Redemption".
After consuming the pile of wings, we cleaned up, and then resumed our position curled up together in front of the TV. We only left the room twice that night, the first time was to put our clothes in the dryer and the second was to retrieve them. We spend the rest of the night cuddled up watching TV.
Josh was really growing up fast but he still lived for physical contact. Josh was a very affectionate boy and his desire to hug and cuddle didn't seem to be lessening at all as he got older. Most of the time when we were together, we were touching in some way and that's the way Josh liked it. We almost never watched TV together without him being snuggled up against my side or lying down with his head in my lap. When we were in the Jeep in long drives or walking around somewhere, one of us almost always had a hand on the other's shoulder. When we were in a movie theatre, we would rest our arms against each other on the arm rest. We hugged each other all the time and we were always patting each other on the back or on the arm. The truth was that I enjoyed giving and receiving the physical contact, just as much as Josh did.
The movie ended and we were both feeling a little drowsy. We had a long drive ahead of us the next day but it was likely going to be a pleasant one. It was July 1st, Canada Day, so the roads would be pretty clear and the drive would be scenic. As we approached the Alberta border, the flat prairies would become more hilly and rugged. Our destination for Canada Day was Dinosaur Provincial Park near Drumheller, Alberta.
"I guess it's time we got some shut eye," I told Josh.
"Yeah, that sounds like a plan," Josh replied with a big yawn.
Josh headed to the bathroom and took the first shift in the shower. I was waiting when he got out and I jumped in without even turning off the water. By the time I was done, Josh was already in bed. He had climbed into my bed that night rather than spending another night in his own.
After ensuring that the door was locked, I turned out the lights and climbed into bed. Josh immediately scooted over and curled himself around me. "Goodnight son," I whispered.
"Goodnight dad," was Josh's sleepy reply. We were both snoring within minutes.
We awoke bright and early on a glorious sunny Canada Day and quickly hit the road. We had almost 600 km to cover that day and we were both looking forward to arriving in Alberta. For the third day in a row, we ate breakfast at Humpty's. After gassing up the Jeep we drove to the Trans-Canada Highway and resumed our westward course.
Shortly after leaving Regina, we passed through Moose Jaw, the home of the Canadian Forces Snowbirds Aerobatic team. Had the team not been in Ottawa performing for the Canada Day crowd on parliament hill, we probably would have paid the base a visit. Both Josh and I were aircraft enthusiasts and were major Snowbirds admirers. We hoped to catch up with them at some point during the trip.
We stopped briefly for lunch at a small roadside diner in the town of Waldeck We had originally planned on brown bagging lunch, but we were making such good time that we decided to stop and stretch our legs. I had a really good hot beef sandwich while Josh chowed down on a turkey clubhouse sandwich with fries. The food was delicious and had a wonderful home-cooked quality to it, and it gave us the energy boost charge onward to Alberta.
Being a national holiday, traffic was very light and we saw few other vehicles. The small towns we passed along the way were all decked out in red and white. We encountered more than a few roadside vendors selling their vegetables and other farm goods with bright red maple leaves painted on their faces. As we rolled closer to the Alberta border, we began to notice that the land was not quite as flat as it had been farther east. Sprawling fields of wheat began to be replaced by fields of oil wells.
Just east of the Alberta border, we began seeing signs for Cyprus Hills. "Hey Dad, I saw a display at the RCMP museum about Cyprus Hills. It said that Sitting Bull and his people settled there after he fled the United States."
"I saw that too. After the Little Big Horn massacre, he wasn't all that popular in the US. He came up here and reached an understanding with the Mounties who let him and his people live in peace."
"The First Nations People have it kind of rough in some places, don't they?" Josh asked.
"Yeah, conditions on many reserves are pretty bad. Drugs and alcoholism are quite rampant in some native communities and suicide is a real problem among young people."
"It's a shame. Why doesn't the government do something about it?"
"I really don't know Joshy. Every once in a while they say that they're doing something, but nothing ever really seems to get done about it."
"That really sucks!" Josh said hotly. "We live in this beautiful rich country and yet we allow the native people to live on reservations with terrible conditions."
"It's something that we, as a country, should be ashamed of."
"We shouldn't be ashamed of it, we should do something about it," Josh replied.
I really had to admire his idealism. Josh looked at the world and saw the problems just as everyone else did. Unlike most others, Josh didn't lament the problems, he sought solutions. I could see that he was going to be quite a force in business or whatever field he chose for his future.
We finally crossed into the province of Alberta just after 2:30 PM Mountain Daylight Time. We were both getting to be time zone pros by that point and we both knew that we didn't have to adjust our watches this time due to Saskatchewan remaining on standard time.
We stopped briefly at the Tourism Alberta visitor centre to get some maps and brochures and to use the bathroom facilities before pressing on. Our next major waypoint would be the city of Medicine Hat which was a little less than an hour away. Beyond Medicine Hat we'd pass the massive Canadian Forces Base Suffield, and then the Alberta Badlands and Dinosaur Provincial Park. We expected to arrive at the park just after 6:00 PM.
We rolled into Medicine Hat just after 3:30 PM and stopped briefly to admire the giant Saamis Teepee, billed as the world's largest teepee. The teepee was constructed for the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics and is intended as a symbol of Canada's Aboriginal heritage. It was moved from Calgary to Medicine Hat in 1991 and erected near the Trans-Canada Highway. The teepee stands an amazing 20 stories tall and was designed to withstand 240 km/h winds.
After getting plenty of pictures and video, we pushed on. Our next planned stop was Dinosaur Provincial Park and we planned on spending several days there. The park is located in one of the most remarkable places in Canada, the Alberta Badlands. The Badlands is a dry and arid chunk of territory spread around the Red Deer River. It looks as if part of Arizona was dropped into the middle of the lush Canadian prairies. It was going to be one of the highlights of the entire trip.
As we rolled north on Highway 876 towards the Badlands, we passed the main gates to CFB Suffield. CFB Suffield is large Canadian military installation and it is home to the Department of National Defense Research and Development branch, and it played host to a large British Army training unit: British Army Training Unit Suffield.
We were about 5 kilometers past the main gate when we began to hear it. It was a low rumbling sound just barely audible. I reached over and turned off the CD player. "Do you hear that?" I asked Josh.
"Hear what?" Josh asked with a questioning look on his face.
I pulled the Jeep to the side of the highway and put it in park. We were on the crest of a hill overlooking one of the bases training ranges. I grabbed my binoculars and Josh grabbed the video camera as we exited the Jeep. We had just approached the fence when all hell seemed to break loose. A column of armoured vehicles surged over the hill at the far end of the range. The chatter of machine guns firing off blank rounds filled the air and the din of battle was punctuated occasionally by the louder thuds of main battle tank and infantry support vehicle main guns. Dismounted infantry, swarming like ants followed closely behind the armoured columns. At the opposite end of the field, another column of opposing tanks and APCs broke from cover and charged towards the attackers. There was a mighty roar overhead as a flight of USAF A-10 tank killers streaked overhead and buzzed the defenders. Josh and I had stumbled onto the sight of a major NATO training exercise!
I could clearly identify Canadian Forces LAV-III Infantry Fighting Vehicles, Coyote Armoured Reconnaissance Vehicles, Leopard Tanks, and an assortment of other vehicles. US Army Abrams Main Battle Tanks, Bradley IFVs, along with British Challenger Tanks, entered the fray. The loud crump of exploding artillery simulators filled the air as the attackers armoured spearheads overwhelmed the defending forces and captured their positions. In 10 minutes it was all over. I looked at Josh, who had filmed the whole thing and I couldn't help but smile. He wore the biggest smile on his face that I had ever seen. I swore that an astronaut standing on the moon could have seen the radiant light given off by that smile.
"THAT WAS AWESOME. IT WAS THE COOLEST THING I EVER SAW!" Josh crowed. "You used to do stuff like that didn't you?"
"Yep, I sure did kiddo," I replied a little sadly. "That was how I got hurt. It was a winter exercise much like that one, but it was much smaller."
"That was totally amazing. We just arrived at the right time," Josh enthused as he stood beside me and wrapped his arm around my shoulders. "You miss it don't you?"
I couldn't keep anything from Josh. "Yeah, I miss it sometimes, but I have no regrets. Remember, if I was still doing that, I would never have met you, and we wouldn't be standing here right now."
"I know. I hate that you got hurt, but I'm glad that we met. I don't know where I'd be right now without you." Josh rested his head against my shoulder and we stood arm-in-arm for a few minutes watching the armoured vehicles file off the mock battlefield.
With the show over for now, we climbed back into the Jeep and hit the road. We were less than an hour away from our destination. We were getting hungry and had to setup camp before we could eat.
Our arrival at the Badlands was almost as dramatic as the mock battle that we had witnessed. One moment we were driving through lush green prairie, and the next moment, we were heading down a steep hill into what looked like a desert. The change was astounding. The badlands formed a valley of sorts which framed a narrow stretch of the Red Deer River. The Red Deer River was all that remained of what was once an inland sea which had covered most of Alberta, British Columbia and Montana to the South. It was dry, arid and dusty.
The bright green of the prairies had been replaced by a drab, dusty brown colour. There was no grass to be seen and there were few trees. The only vegetation seemed to be scrub brush and cactus. The rough and hilly land was dotted with odd landforms known as hoodoos. Hoodoos are tall, narrow spires of rock which protrude from the floor of the badlands. They had been formed over thousands of years by wind erosion. They consisted of multiple layers of rock, each one clearly visible to even the untrained eye. Some were no taller than a human being, and some were as tall as buildings. Some formed odd, intricate shapes.
Dinosaur Provincial Park is a designated United Nations World Heritage Site because of the massive deposits of dinosaur bones and fossils. It has been said that you can randomly pick a place in the badlands, dig down a few feet and find some prehistoric remnants.
"Holly shit!" Josh chirped. "This place is amazing. It's like we drove through some sort of worm hole and ended up on another planet!"
"No kidding. The pictures on the Internet and in the brochures don't do it justice"
"I didn't even know that we had places like this in Canada. It's like a desert." The wonder in Josh's voice was plain as day.
We followed the dusty road deep into the badlands until we encountered the Royal Tyrrell Museum Field Centre which served as the park's visitor centre. The Field Centre features interactive dinosaur displays and information about the park and the badlands in general. As much as we wanted to stop in, we had to get to our camp site and get settled in for the night.
Just beyond the visitor centre was the main gate to the campground. Before departing, I had conspired with Bryan and we had booked side-by-side campsites deep in the north campground. Josh and I had site 110 and Mark and Bryan, who would arrive late that night, had site 111. Both sites were located side-by-side and shared a common fire pit. After paying the required fee to allow us to camp for the next three days, we followed the directions provided by the park warden to our campsite. To our amazement, the warden also warned us about the presence of black widow spiders, rattlesnakes and even scorpions in the badlands. I knew that there were rattlesnakes on the prairies, but neither of us had any idea that black widow spiders or scorpions lived anywhere in Canada.
The two sites were located on the end of a dead-end fork in the road. The shared fire pit was located directly between the two sites and the Little Sandhill Creek ran behind them. There was little vegetation to be seen other than some cactus growing along the creek bed and a scrub brush hedge forming a border between the sites.
I pulled the Jeep into the far corner of the site, as far from site 111 as I could manage, and we setup the tent next to it. My hope was that the tent would keep the Jeep largely hidden from site when Mark and Bryan rolled in late that night. We planned on springing the surprise on the boys the next morning after everyone had enjoyed a good night's sleep.
With the tent set up, I left Josh to inflate the air mattresses and lay out the sleeping bags while I drove back to the visitor centre to purchase some firewood. By the time I returned to the campsite, Josh had our sleeping bags setup and was in the midst of assembling the camp stove on the edge of the picnic table.
As Josh completed the setup of the camp, I assembled some logs in the fire pit in preparation for a nice campfire that evening. For both of us, the campfire was the best part of camping out. Whenever we went camping, we always sat close together in front of the fire and talked late into the night while simply enjoying each other's company.
With the campsite setup for the night, we both boarded the Jeep and drove back to the visitor centre, and popped into the camp store to purchase some food and ice. Given that this was to be our last night alone together for several weeks, I decided a special meal was in order. I purchased two really big prime Alberta T-bone steaks which I would grill to perfection over the roaring camp fire. We also picked up some coleslaw, macaroni salad, and other trimmings. Finally, we purchased some large 2 liter bottles of coke, some hotdogs, hotdog buns and marshmallows. Prices at the camp store weren't great so we planned on driving into Drumheller the next day to stock up on supplies for the rest of the stay in Dinosaur Provincial Park.
"Wait until you taste these steaks Josh," I said as we got back to the campsite and began preparing for dinner. "I promise you that you've never had a better steak before. Nothing beats Alberta steak."
"I can't wait," Josh replied as he licked his lips.
With the steaks marinating in Tupperware containers, we got out our folding chairs and sat down to relax. Josh cracked open one of the bottles of coke and poured us each a glass. "Cheers," he said as he raised his glass. "To the best Dad in the world."
"To the best son in the world," I replied as we clinked glasses and drank. "Just think Josh, we're only 1 week into this trip - we still have 9 weeks to go!"
"This has been ever better than I imagined. It's so cool being together all the time like this. I'm not sure I could stand being with anyone else 24/7 like this. I'd probably go crazy. With you, I wish it would last longer."
"Me too kiddo. I've always wanted to do a cross country drive and I couldn't imagine doing it with anyone else. We're a team bud."
"It won't be long now until we see Mark and Bryan," Josh said thoughtfully. Little did he know that the wait was not going to be the 10 days that he thought, rather it was going to be about 12 or 13 hours.
"It'll be nice to see Mark again. I don't know how it happened, but in those two weeks that we knew each other, I came to love him like another son," I said.
"He loves you too Dad. He sees you as a second Dad. I feel like he's my brother."
"I'm glad Josh. He's a special kid and I'm just glad to have been able to help him."
I stretched my neck a bit as I sat there drinking my coke. "Neck a little stiff?" Josh asked.
"A little," I replied. "600 km is a lot of driving for one day."
"Alright, in the tent you go. Get that shirt off and it's time for a massage," Josh ordered in his drill instructor voice. There was no refusing him, not that I wanted to refuse. His massages were so full of love that they were absolutely heavenly.
I went into the tent, removed my shirt and lay face down on my sleeping bag. Josh entered behind me and zipped up the flap. "We don't want to let any of those scorpions, snakes or black widow spiders in here!"
Josh straddled my back, sitting on my rear end with one knee placed on either side and went to work. I lay there and closed my eyes as he deeply and lovingly worked the muscles of my neck and shoulders. It was so relaxing that I could almost see stars as he worked. The world seemed to fade away as I dropped into a highly relaxed state. I was almost in a state of hypnosis and Josh, had he been so inclined, could have probably got me to agree to just about anything at that point.
After a few minutes, he began to work my biceps and upper back. I almost didn't hear him when he instructed me to roll over. After we rearranged ourselves, he went to work on the front of my shoulders and my chest. He finished the massage by leaning down and cuddling briefly against my chest and kissing me gently on the forehead. "Better?" He asked as he rested his forehead against mine and looked into my eyes.
"Much better," I replied and hugged him tightly.
We emerged from the tent a few minutes later and got the fire going. It didn't take long to build up a nice bed of hot coals to cook the steaks. I setup the campfire grill and threw on the steaks. The smell of the searing meat was heavenly. Both Josh and I were salivating as we watched the steaks cook.
When the steaks came off the grill, they were cooked perfectly and they were melt-in-your mouth tender. We had to force ourselves to eat slowly enough to truly enjoy the flavor. "Oh man! I don't think I can ever eat another steak again if it didn't come from Alberta," Josh gushed as he gradually made his steak disappear.
"It makes the rest taste like shoe leather, eh?"
After supper, we cleaned up the camp and then decided to stretch our legs and take a walking tour of the camp ground. It was a Sunday but being summer, there were plenty of other campers. Site 111, the site that Bryan and Mark had booked, was the only vacant site in the park. We followed the dirt road around the perimeter of the camp ground and spoke to a number of other campers along the way.
We encountered the Hastings family from Dallas, Texas who were staying in one of the RV camp sites, and we spoke to them for a few minutes. Emmett, the father, was in the software business and owned a growing software publishing company with offices in Dallas and a new office which was to be opened in Manhattan. We briefly discussed my software idea and he was very interested in the concept. He ended up giving me his business card and told me to call him when I got home.
His wife Jean handed me a tall, cold glass of iced tea.
Josh had introduced himself to Dillon, the couple's 13 year old son and Audrey, their 11 year old daughter. The three were busy playing catch with the family's German Sheppard Rudy. It was too bad that the Hastings were leaving the next day because they were very nice people.
After a while, we said our goodbyes and resumed our walk around the campground. By the time we returned to our site, it was nearly 10:00 at night and the sun was just beginning to set over the western edge of the badlands.
We restarted the camp fire and pulled the picnic table in close. We could have used our folding chairs, but they wouldn't hold both of us. Because we liked to snuggle in front of the camp fire, the picnic table was the only alternative. Forever the bottomless pit, Josh was hungry again and wasted no time digging into the cooler for the hotdogs that we had purchased and began to roast a couple of them. The smell of roasting hotdogs was enough to get me going and I promptly followed suit.
We chased the hotdogs with some roasted, often cremated, marshmallows and all the Coke that we could drink. By 11:00 PM, we were both ready to turn in. Josh headed into the tent while I put out the camp fire and secured the site for the night. A few minutes later, we were both safe and secure fast asleep in our sleeping bags. The clean, cool night air worked better than sleeping pills.
Later that night, I was awakened by Josh who was gently shaking my shoulder. "Dad, I'm cold." He said. It was a little on the cool side that night and I was a little chilly myself.
"Hop in Josh," I mumbled, still half asleep as I unzipped my sleeping bag and scooted over to make room for him. He happily climbed in with me and zipped the bag up behind him. It was a bit of a tight fit, but neither of us minded. Whenever we slept together we invariably slept as close to each other as possible in order to maximize the physical contact. Most people would have found it quite uncomfortable for two people to be packed into a single sleeping bag, but we were quite cozy. The extra warmth took the edge off the unusually cool night and we both slept comfortably.
The next morning, I awoke before Josh. I was on my side with Josh in front of me. His back was pressed firmly against my chest and I had my arms wrapped around him. He was still sound asleep, so I very carefully climbed out of the sleeping bag without disturbing him. I dressed and walked the short distance to the showers located just down the street from our campsite. On the way there, I noticed the white Ford Explorer parked next to the green dome tent on site 111 and smiled to myself.
I showered and the got dressed again, deciding to put off shaving until later so that Josh and I could shave together. I walked back to the campsite and lit the Coleman stove to boil some water for coffee. It was just after 6:00 AM and nobody else appeared to be stirring in the campground. I went into the tent and retrieved a book from my bag and then sat down to read and enjoy my morning cup of coffee.
About 30 minutes later, I heard the sound of a tent zipper being drawn open. I glanced over at the next site and watched as a good looking blond boy with short spiky hair emerged from the tent. He stood up and stretched before glancing around. He didn't see me right away but he saw the back end of my Jeep protruding from behind the tent. He stared at it intently for a moment and then he noticed me sitting at the picnic table. We locked our gazes upon one another for a moment and then I saw an instant of recognition. His blue eyes lit up as his face cracked into an enormous smile.
"Tommy!" Mark shouted, not caring about who he woke up at that early hour of the day. The boy took off like a shot and vaulted over the narrow row of scrub brush which separated the camp sites and he launched himself at me. I put my coffee down and stood up just in time to catch him in my arms. He wrapped his arms tightly around me and buried his head against my shoulder. He squeezed me tightly and for a moment, I thought he was never going to let go.
I gently rubbed his back with my right hand and ruffled the hair on the back of his head with my left. "Marky! It's great to see you," I said warmly as I held the incredibly happy boy. He squeezed me tighter still and rested his head against my shoulder. I kept on rubbing his back as we continued to hold each other for what seemed like an eternity.
He finally released me and looked up at me. I was immediately struck by how different he looked. He was easily recognizable as the Mark I knew, but he had a new glow about him. He was happy, confident, and you could see that the lonely neglected boy had been replaced by a well loved, and well-treated, young man. We locked eyes for a moment before Mark once again buried his face in my chest and resumed his massive hug.
"Tommy, I missed you so much," he said into my chest. "Things are so much better now and I have you to thank for it. I love you so much."
"I know kiddo. I love you too. You're a special young man and you deserve the life you have now. Josh and I both missed you," I said warmly and gently kissed him on the temple.
He looked up at me and smiled. "Where's Josh?" He asked.
"He's still sound asleep. I think you and I are the only morning people in this campground," I said with a smile.
"Yeah, Bryan isn't exactly a morning person. We're so much alike in just about every other way, but not when it comes to getting up early. I can't wait for you to meet him," Mark said with a warm smile before he resumed cuddling against my shoulder.
"I can't wait to meet him," I replied.
"What are you guys doing here? Bryan said we wouldn't see you until you got to Calgary."
"Your brother and I set you guys up. Josh didn't know that you guys would be here either. The four of us are going to be together for the next three weeks going all over Alberta and to Ottawa for the medal presentation."
"COOL!" He exclaimed before catching himself. We heard stirring inside the tent as Josh began to rejoin the land of the living.
"Why don't you go inside and surprise Josh?" I suggested.
"Good idea!" Mark replied with a grin and finally released me from the massive hug. I opened the tent flap and ushered him in.
About 10 seconds later, I heard Josh's excited shout "Mark!"
Mark emerged from the tent a few minutes later and treated me to another enormous hug. Since he'd been with his brother in a loving environment, Mark had become almost as affectionate as Josh. I returned his hug as Josh emerged from the tent.
"You planned this," Josh said with a grin as gave me my morning hug. "Normally I'd warn you that I'd get you back, but this is a good surprise. I love you Dad," Josh said sincerely.
"I love you too kiddo. By the way, there's more to tell," I said mysteriously.
"Uh oh," Josh replied with a raise eyebrow.
"Mark and Bryan are going to be joining us on our trip for the next three weeks as we tour Alberta and the National Parks!"
With that, Josh threw himself at me again and wrapped himself tightly around me in one of his patented octopus like hugs. It was almost hard to breathe but I didn't care. The love that I felt in that hug was energizing. I closed my eyes as Josh continued to hold me in the tight hug. I didn't see Bryan approach.
"Well, I finally get to meet the legend," he said warmly. "I finally get to meet the man who gave me back my brother."
I opened my eyes and saw Bryan for the first time. Mark was standing next to him in with an arm around his shoulders in much the way that Josh often stood with me. The resemblance between Mark and Bryan was striking. They had the same short blonde hair and the same blue eyes. Bryan was a little shorter than me, standing about 5"10' and he had a trim and compact frame. His warm and friendly smile was the mirror image of Mark's.
Josh released me and turned around. "Hey Bryan!" He said happily.
"Josh my man; it's great to see you. I owe you a big thank you as well," He said as he ruffled Josh's hair. Josh normally hated it when anyone but me did that but he tolerated it when Bryan did it.
I stuck out my hand. "Bryan, it's nice to finally meet you in person," I said.
Bryan looked at my hand, smiled, and then did as his brother did, pulling me into a firm hug. "We're family Tom. Families don't shake hands, they hug,"