Montreal 4th Leg: Denver to Rapid City

So much happened last night. Finally met my online friend Dorothy Shapland, who took us out for Moroccan food in downtown Denver. Fiona tried every single thing, and even ate some chicken. We tried it all, too, and fought over the scraps. The high point for me was a bizarre puff pastry filled with spiced minced chicken and topped with a thick dusting of powdered sugar. Sweet and savory, sugar pastry and chicken. It was strange, then it was interesting, then it was delicious.

The hosts (it seemed like a family) were determined to give Fiona a good time. They even prepared a couple special small dishes just for her. She didn’t like much of it, but they were pleased that she kept trying. If you’re in Denver, look up Marrakech on Blake near 16th. The food has that hand-made unfussy touch that comes out of my kitchen, and the owners are determined to delight.

Arrived at Jason’s after 10:30. Sue called earlier and he said “Don’t worry about it; have fun, and get here when you get here!” We drove up and down looking for his house, but the number didn’t exist. As Sue got him on the phone we realised we were on the Drive and should be on the Street. One block over, there he was in the driveway waiting.

His wife and their baby were in bed, but Jason made us comfortable downstairs, connected us to his network (I used to work with Jason doing networking so he’s got nice equipment) and then we went to sleep. In the morning Hanh made pho, a traditional Vietnamese breakfast which is essentially noodles and tender beef with vegetables, but that’s a painfully poor description of the tingly aromatic soup it really is.

She makes it from scratch. The broth is glorious; the stuff Anthony Bourdain swoons over. Mildly spiced, meaty and hot. Plenty of add-ons on the table to toss in: bean sprouts, Thai basil, and dandelion leaves. I’ve always wanted to try dandelion, expecting a mildly bitter weedy taste. Instead, it’s a complement to the cilantro (Thai basil) which is sweet with a savory aftertaste. The dandelion is slightly sharp, then fades to an almost minty sweetness. Delicious stuff. I’ve never seen Sue eat so much.

I would have found something polite to say about Hanh sharing her efforts and her culture with us. It was a joy to be able to rave about the pho just because it was so wonderful.

Before we left Jason told us to consider their home our Colorado HQ. They made us feel right at home and we’re making excuses to come back and spend more time with Jason’s family, Dorothy, and some other folks I should reconnect with in the area.

Today, off to reconnect with my Uncle Denny, who I haven’t seen in 35 years.

This should be interesting.

We left much later than planned, as is becoming our habit. Connected with my uncle who said he’d meet us somewhere and lead us to his property, because he couldn’t believe any instructions from a computer would get us to his place. Turns out that, the way he gets home from work, he’s right.

I’ll write about the mechanics of the trip here, and cover the emotional journey in another post.

Colorado is beautiful. Wyoming, not so much, at least eastern Wyoming at this time of year. Desolate, brown.

Missed the highway change 17 miles into the state, and the next place to get off the highway was in a town called Chugwater 40 miles up. We didn’t lose much time or distance, but I need to pay attention ’cause we can’t bet getting lost in places like this.

As we got to the South Dakota state line, something strange started happening. Sue was driving, and I was pointing out the storm over the Black Hills, showing FIona how the dark evergreen trees gave them their name. I felt like I was passing on my legacy, telling them both about Black Hills gold, the storms and snow, the winding roads through dark hills punctuated with glorious bursts of sunlight.

I was born in Wisconsin; lived on dairy farms in the woods. I’ve lived my life thinking of myself as a farm boy from the Big Woods. Driving into the Black Hills of South Dakota, it came to me that I’m not; not really. As I felt the excitement in my chest and the sting in my eyes, I realised something that took my breath away.

I’m a cowboy from a long line of cowboys, and the Black Hills have always been the home of my childhood memories, even though I never lived there.

My grandmother moved from the east of South Dakota when I was pretty little, and my two living uncles lived in the Black Hills. I spent most of the clear memories of my pre-California childhood there. My uncle lives on the land where I helped dig the outhouse pit for the early cabin they built there.

He met us in Custer (outsiders say Custer City and Rapid CIty but locals just say ‘Custer’ and ‘Rapid’) to lead us home. We finally had a cell signal and called as we passed through town and the first thing he asked was “You never told me; what kinda car you drivin’ ?” We’d just passed him coming through town and when he saw the California plates, realised he didn’t know what car he was looking for.

I stopped at a fast-food place so Sue and Fiona could use the bathroom. A pickup pulled up and out stepped someone who, when I mentally adjusted for 35 years passed, looked a lot like my Uncle Denny. When the girls came out I introduced them and said “And this is my Uncle Denny.” He said “It’s Denver. I haven’t been Denny since High School, but your father just never converted.” Yeah, Dad sometimes had trouble accepting change. After 50 years of ‘Denny’ I’m still getting used to calling him by his right name, but I’d like to get along so I’ll give it a shot.

I’m too worn physically and emotionally to tell you about the whole evening, so you’ll have to ask when we’re in town (or in the comments down below.) We played music ’til the middle of the night, including playing one of the first guitars my father ever owned. He’d already given it to his next younger brother Al (now also gone) and Denver ended up with it. A cheap old Kay, and it sounded mellow and round and happy. I played one of my songs and Denver played along on Dad’s old guitar. Then, he spent an hour teaching me the instrumental my father wrote. Until his brother’s called it Wes’ Tune at his funeral, I never knew he’d written it.

I never knew a lot about him, I guess. Today I know a little more.

Last night, I came home and didn’t even realise it.


  1. POWERFUL post Joel. Family and place. That’s power.

    Reminds me of moving to B.C.’s Okanagan region in 1991. I didn’t really want to go – in spite of the move from Vancouver’s high housing prices allowing us to own a modest home with a lake view. My childhood memories of the occasional summer vacation was a hot 5 hour drive, camping or motelling in excruciating heat and ugly brown-grey hills.

    A week after we moved, I went for a walk in the dark. At 10:30 p.m. the soft wind was warm. I knew I was home. Ironically, growing up at the coast means that “home” includes sweaters after dark and wind always carries a hint of moisture and coolness. To this day, I don’t know why the warm wind said, “home” but it did, and over the years I came to love those “ugly” brown-grey hills.

    The predominant colours are usually browns and greys, but there is also blue, yellow, a purply hue, and some green. Once my eyes adjusted, I saw (like the many names for snow) a dozen versions of brown and grey that were subtle and beautiful. The womanly curves of the hills are so welcoming compared to the jagged mountains of the coast. Mountains attacked by extremes of temperature and water until they are sharp and striking in their beauty – but not welcoming.

    A couple of weekends ago, I returned to the Okanagan to visit with friends. Since then, I have been longing to go back. No, I don’t want to live there. Maybe like you don’t want to live in the Black Hills, but it sure would be great to have a place that I could call my own. A place, 5 hours down the road, that is home as much as my beloved little heritage home in the city where I work and garden. Where my family resides.

  2. True enough, I have no desire to live in the Black Hills, but I always want to have a reason to go back; people there who’ll miss me when I’m away and welcome me back.

    Thanks for always dropping by and sharing something that adds to the conversation, Caitlyn. We’re yearning for the opportunity to come to Vancouver again.

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