Saskatoon Shines!

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Years ago, I learned to find peace when I traveled, respite from life. Parts of me would come alive when I left my home in Utah and stepped into a new and unfamiliar place, where I could place my feet upon new streets and breathe new air. Travel became crucial for me and for my development, and my soul cried out for it. I traveled to survive.

Now I travel simply because I enjoy it. I like frequent getaways to new places. I enjoy walking and seeing what I can discover.

Saskatoon snuck up on me. It was a word that merely escaped my lips after a stressful day at work, and suddenly I had booked plane tickets for a few months later. And now I’m here, looking out at the expanse of the flat Canadian prairie country and farmland around me. I’m staying on the 21st floor of a tall building, and my view overlooks the river and a few bridges, into the distance and over the city. The skies are grey and I can see the Earth curve on the far horizon.

There is something about being somewhere I haven’t been before, and with a place like Saskatoon it is likely a place I will never be again. The city isn’t particularly magical. It’s drab, all browns and greens and grey and blues that seem muted, like Kansas in the Wizard of Oz. The people are kind, and funny, and go out of their way to be helpful. The architecture is normal. A cold breeze blows across the river. It feels like a normal metropolitan western city, with many of the same restaurants and department stores that I would find back in America.

But for me, it isn’t about the city, it’s about the experiences.

It’s wandering into a city government building to explore and having a long conversation with the security guard about canola farming and the changing temperatures of the northern farm land and the tax incentives for farmers who are looking out for their families’ well-beings generations down the line.

It’s stopping in the tourism office and chatting with a delightful potato bug of a person named Debbie about her passion and love for the city.

It’s stepping into a random restaurant and having a friendly Asian man with much too long fingernails serve you thick noodles in vegetable broth with freshly sliced mushrooms, eggplant, and cabbage, and talking about how good life is with your best friend.

It’s seeing Canadian geese on a Canadian river in Canada.

It’s sitting down and clutching a cup of coffee for warmth as two women loudly cackle while another man rushes into the place looking like he forgot where the bathroom was, and then realizing that look never quite leaves his face.

It’s going out to a nightclub in the late evening and hoping to interact with locals and then leaving two hours later, having been the only ones in the establishment.

It’s repeating a joke to a Canadian woman: “I heard that in Saskatchewan you can watch your dog run away for three full miles.”

And hearing her take it far too seriously: “Well, I suppose, but that is more in southern Saskatchewan, we get a few hills here and there up here.”

It’s complimenting a woman on her niceness, and indeed the seeming niceness of all Canadians, and having her respond, “Well, we are nice, yes, but we are sarcastic too!”

Travel sings to my soul. It takes me to a spiritual place in my own head where I can be anonymous in a crowd and just absorb. I didn’t travel, much, until just a few years ago, and now the memories I can capture in my journal or blog or just in my own head resound within me constantly on a playlist. Ocean Beach and Provincetown and Missoula and Reno and Fillmore and Little Armenia and the Castro and Pike Market. The list extends, and each place brings a smile to my face, though nothing note-worthy happened in any of those places except for long walks and life on my own terms. Community theater, vegan restaurants, saloons, beaches, live music, coffee shops, book stores, and strangers.

Travel releases me. It puts me in tune with myself. It gives me voice. It sings to my soul and through my fingertips. It slows me down and brings me back into my own self.

Yet travel also exposes me. It strips me bare. My insecurities, fears, doubts, shames, regrets, and worries work themselves out of me. At some point on every trip, I feel small and scared. I worry about insurmountable tasks. I think of my children and get tears on my cheeks. I grieve for losses. I think of the unfinished: the book, the documentary, the fitness goals. I shift to gratitude and I wonder if I’ll lose all I’ve gained. But even these parts of me are valid, vital, crucial. They are always within me, the bones upon which I build myself, and it is freeing to feel them there and let them breathe.

When we landed in Saskatoon, the welcome sign said “Saskatoon Shines!” But I haven’t seen the sun yet here. On the first night, the sun was setting, and pinks and oranges blended in with the grey clouds.

“It’s beautiful,” I muttered, and a woman nearby took notice.

“Oh, that is pretty, yes, but we get much better sunsets than that one. That one is just okay. Sorry ’bout that. Keep watching, no worries.”

She apologized for the quality of the sunset. And somehow that single moment captures the essence of this trip for me.

As I type this, the sky is still grey, and river still flowing, the colors still drab.

And the Earth is still curving, and me with it.

Saskatoon may not shine much, but it shines for me.

the Museum of Death

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A Siamese turtle! An actual Siamese turtle. About the size of my two open hands together, were they joined on the same wrist, the turtle swam  carefully in its large aquarium, positioned on a rock, both its heads above water. The large shell was conjoined, divided in the middle, so the two turtles each had their own heads, front legs, and front shells, but shared the back of the shell and the back legs. It was simultaneously adorable, mystifying, and absolutely frightening.

“How old is this turtle?” I asked the man behind the desk.

He looked up from his phone. “Turtles. Two of them. Twenty years old. The owner got them when they were babies, and they are healthy, so they could live another twenty. Heck, they will probably outlive me.”

I ended up in the Museum of Death on accident. I had been walking around, and literally wound up on its doorstep. Not one to question fate, I walked inside and bought a ticket.

The museum was crowded, with poorly organized displays and walls covered in photgraphs, newspaper clippings, and wordy biographies. The rooms twisted into each other like an old antique shop, with random collections of things shoved haphazardly into each space. There seemed to be little rhyme or reason except for the primary theme: Death. And I had to admit, a lot of the content was startling.

The first room seemed to almost romanticize and celebrate serial killers themselves. There were framed photographs of letters written by serial killers in jail, trading cards with their photos on them, and original artwork done by the killers during their life spans. Busy wordy posters told their life stories, including terrible details about their murders.

By far the most disturbing in this room were the photos of John Wayne Gacy, a gay serial killer who murdered dozens of men, in his clown uniform. Apparently, he used to host children’s birthday parties as a clown named Pogo. He drew himself as Pogo multiple times while in jail, and there the art hung, next to the massive shoes he wore during those days. On the opposite wall, stories about Jeffrey Dahmer, another gay serial killer. I’ve recently researched both men as I look into gay history, and their stories absolutely haunt me.

In the next room, it got worse. An entire room dedicated to the Manson Family murders, along with detailed stories and something I was completely unprepared for: the crime scene photos and the autopsy photos of Sharon Tate and the other victims. In another room, more photos of the like, including the Black Dahlia victim.

More autopsy pictures. Pictures of dead babies and beheaded soldiers. Crash crashes with corpses. Bodies found decomposing in the woods. It was all shocking, horrifying, sadistic, and stomach-turning. I wondered how I was even able to look at these pictures, and then remembered that I watch the Walking Dead and American Horror Story, shows that glorify horror and violence and murder. The difference here: these were real.

I left rooms discussing mass suicides and assassinations and suicides and mass graves and concentration camps. As I walked away, nodding at the Siamese turtle one more time, I contemplated death. Everything dies and decays. Stone cracks and splits, mountains erode, and humans live their lives and pass on to the next, returning to the earth they came from. Death doesn’t bother me. It’s tragic death that gets to me. It’s human cruelty and lives cut short. It’s lost potential and broken relationships.

When I slept, I didn’t have nightmares, I just felt sad. And then I remembered the Siamese turtle, a little creature that defied all odds and has lived decades, in an aquarium in the front of a museum that celebrates and glorifies death. And suddenly that irony brought a smile to my face.