Canadian Rockies: Best Scenery, Worst Road Trip

Jasper and Banff national parks are arguably Canada’s most luminous crown jewels.  The first and last time I drove through the Canadian Rockies was in July 1986, when I helped two friends, Valerie and Dave, drive a 1967 Chevy Malibu convertible from St. Paul to Anchorage via Fairbanks (see previous blog).  We drove through Glacier National Park in Montana, then Waterton Lakes and Banff in Alberta.  Here’s a photo I took in Banff on that trip:

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Val pitching her tent in Banff, July 1986

In those days we were free to pitch a tent on the grounds near the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel, where we could just about afford a cup of coffee in the lounge.  It was a fun road trip, one of the best, and I’ve been to Glacier several times since then, but we didn’t get to Jasper National Park north of Banff, so I wanted to revisit the area and get some shots I missed.  I also thought of hitting Glacier again and maybe even Yellowstone and Tetons on the way back to Boise, for a total of two or three weeks.

The timing was right last week, as I’d recovered from a productive but long, second Alaska trip five weeks earlier, the smoke from the wildfires in British Columbia had dissipated, the low tourist season had started after Labor Day, the fall colors would be peaking, and the winter cold and snow had yet to arrive.  A bonus incentive was the 150th anniversary of Canada’s national parks, for which the entrance fee was being waived through the end of 2017.  I wanted to see Mt. Robson, the highest mountain in the Canadian Rockies, and my photographer friend Greg Jahn recommended a hike to Berg Lake next to Mt. Robson.

Even though an overnight hike to Berg Lake was a tad beyond my reach, a day-hike to Kinney Lake was doable, and I set out to follow the western route from home on Google Maps, using Jasper as my destination by way of Mt. Robson.  The western route would take an hour longer, but I’d be starting my Rockies tour from the north and arriving at Mt. Robson first, then working my way south through the park scenery as the week progressed, ending up at Banff before crossing back into the U.S. for Glacier National Park.  And Kamloops in British Columbia was one city on the way to Mt. Robson where I could get a Discovery Canada pass for free entry into the national parks, according to the Canadian website.

Sunday, Sept. 24: Despite having packed most of the food the night before, I was still rushing to meet my own departure deadline of 8:00 AM. In my haste I forgot to pack the outdoor sending unit for my indoor-outdoor digital thermometer, and a dish towel, and a water bottle for bedside access in my camper. By the time I gassed up at Flying J (which always has the cheapest gas around) and got on I-84 West towards Oregon, it was 8:40.

At around 1 PM on I-82, nearing Kennewick, Washington, I’d been on the road more than four hours, listening to the audio book Pontoon by Garrison Keillor, which I recommend.  I noticed the tire pressure warning light was on (who knows for how long!?), so I decided to stop at the nearest service station about two miles ahead. But as I slowed on Rte. 395 for the traffic into Kennewick I started to hear an ominous noise from the rear getting quickly worse, and I realized I shouldn’t even try for the next intersection a quarter-mile ahead. I pulled onto the shoulder and parked, and I was shocked when I saw the right-rear tire. It had been disintegrating, and I was almost driving on the wheel rim. The tread had separated and the steel belts had been breaking apart and the rubber was smoking.  These were 10-ply tires that I’d bought from Big O Tires in March 2015 and had been wearing well, albeit the treads were more than half-way worn down.  But now my comfort level was as shattered as the tire:

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Right rear tire looking a bit tired out.

I figured it was time to replace all four tires.  An internet search showed that Big O Tires didn’t have a store within 100 miles, and the Les Schwab Tires store two miles ahead was closed on Sundays.  I was stuck for the night.

I called AAA.  I’d changed a tire on this truck before, back when I still had the stock, 4-ply tires in the fall of 2014, but I had just renewed my AAA membership only a week ago, and I wasn’t in a hurry, so I decided to get my money’s worth and have a tow service do the work.  I listened to more of Garrison Keillor while I waited for an hour and twenty minutes for the tow truck to arrive. A huge tattooed man put on the temporary spare and put the destroyed tire in the camper for me.  He speculated that I’d run over something unusual at the road’s edge for the damage to be this catastrophic, and said I didn’t even need to ask Walmart for permission to camp overnight in their lot, as it was a routine thing.  I could see the Walmart sign a half-mile ahead.

Twenty minutes later, I drove up to Starbucks at the next intersection to relax for an hour. Walmart was across the street, so I found a parking space oriented toward the southwest, popped up the solar panels and camper roof, and went shopping for an indoor-outdoor thermometer ($10), a dishtowel ($2), and a BPA-free water bottle ($12) for bedside.  I planned to camp in the parking lot, wake up early for a Starbucks breakfast, wait for the Walmart auto shop to open at 7 AM to get an oil change (the last one was in Fairbanks last month, almost 5,000 miles ago), and then make it to Les Schwab to buy four new tires when they open at 8 AM.  I hoped to be on my way to Canada by 9 AM.

The most prominent characteristic of this Walmart parking lot was the obsessively slavish followers of the noisy muffler craze.  Apparently, Kennewick man dates from the early American Graffiti period.  And the Kennewick I saw is just another concrete and asphalt jungle of chain stores, a suburban sprawl totally geared to the operation of private vehicles, with no place for pedestrians or bicycles.  This was the worst campsite ever.

Monday, September 25: Hopped up on a double-tall latte I was the first customer at the Walmart Auto Center, which changed my oil.  It took a half-hour longer than normal because the mechanic found that the transmission was low on fluid, actually half what it should be, and it took a long time to refill.  I then drove to Les Schwab, which had the tire I wanted: All-Terrain 10-ply tires that are low-noise, and they got me on the road again in a little over an hour, and $1,400 poorer.  The things we do for peace of mind.  I wanted to be prepared for snow in Canada, for one thing.

At 10 AM I headed north, following the GPS directions.  An hour later, nearing Spokane, I realized that my two-mile detour for repairs and maintenance in Kennewick had caused the GPS to recalculate my route for a crossing into Canada 150 miles east of my original plan, and now I was headed toward the panhandle of northern Idaho, and headed for Jasper by way of Banff, making Mt. Robson my last stop instead of my first!  The tire blowout had already turned my trip on its head.

I decided to split the difference and head for Revelstoke, British Columbia, another town where I could pick up a Discovery Canada pass.  Entering the Rockies about mid-way at Lake Louise, I would drive first north to Jasper and then south to Banff, making Mt. Robson as a northernmost spur trip from Jasper.   The Canadian officer at the more remote border crossing expressed skepticism that I was headed for Jasper, being so far east, and he took my passport to the back of the building and disappeared for a couple of minutes, which was pretty disconcerting.  But he accepted my explanation of the tire blowout and GPS recalculation, and I was on my way.

I made it to the ferry at Shelter Bay by nightfall.  As soon as I drove off the ferry at about 8:00 PM I parked at the rest stop and camped, short of Revelstoke only by 40 miles or so. I made dinner and hit the hay. Ten hours on the road had wiped me out.  I fell asleep to the sound of several owls, which is always a calming note for me.

Tuesday, Sept. 26: I awoke at 7 AM, made breakfast and hit the road at 8 AM. A Starbucks appeared on the south edge of Revelstoke, so I pulled in for a latte and wi-fi.  I then picked up a Discovery Canada pass at the Chamber of Commerce.  By the look on the attendant’s face, I was probably the only one ever to ask her for one.  She didn’t know what I was talking about at first.

I soon found out that I didn’t need the parks pass, since all the booths at the park entrances were shuttered, devoid of attendants.  I’d diverted to Revelstoke for nothing.  I arrived at Lake Louise at around 1:30 PM and the visitors center was a mob scene. The parking lot was almost full and the “family” restaurant I first tried was packed and noisy and there was a huge crowd of Chinese tourists waiting to get in. I opted for a quicker cafeteria line next door instead, which was also packed but did get me my lunch within 10 minutes, and I took it outside to eat at a picnic table in relative quiet.

I couldn’t wait to leave the bustling center. As soon as I finished my lunch I stopped in a book store and bought a Canadian Rockies map, overhearing the manager claim to a customer that the road from Lake Louise to Jasper offers “probably the best roadside scenery in the world.”

Rte. 93 from Lake Louise to Jasper has the most spectacular scenery I’ve ever seen, and with the best possible weather. I couldn’t resist taking a few shots from the driver’s seat as I was driving north:

 

 

I got to Jasper by dinnertime and ate at an upscale restaurant: Carrot ginger soup, spinach salad, toasted parmesan bread with oil and vinegar dip, and a dark ale. Delicious, a nice break from my dehydrated chili.

I drove back down to the parking lot at Athabasca Falls about 20 miles south of Jasper, thinking I’d catch the first light on the falls in the morning. I was the only one in the parking lot, so I figured I could shoot the falls from a good vantage point that I scoped out before camping.

Wednesday, Sept. 27: Silly me! At 7 AM the noise of a large vehicle woke me up.  I thought it was a trash truck collecting garbage, but by the time I got to the falls with my cameras I realized the noise had been a bus full of Chinese tourists who had mobbed the viewpoints at the falls.  I was barely able to wedge myself in for some shots, but my preferred vantage point was already taken.  As I anticipated, the morning light wasn’t the greatest here, anyway, but I love the color of that glacier water…

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Athabasca Falls in morning light.

When I hit the road for Jasper again an hour later I was dismayed to see the tire pressure light was on once again, and after spending so much on four new tires I was pretty miffed.  I stopped and checked the tires and they seemed okay, but I made a beeline for a service station in Jasper and noticed that the warning light switched off on the way, which put my mind more at ease.  In Jasper I pumped air in all of the tires.  Contrary to my instructions to Les Schwab Tires in Kennewick, the rear tires had 40 lbs. of pressure instead of 50 and the front tires had only 35 lbs. instead of 40.  The warning light indicated not that the tires had low pressure per se, but that there was a loss of pressure over time, probably because they were under-inflated in the first place, making for a poor seal around the wheel rim (the tires are rated to 80 psi).

Anyway, being cautiously optimistic that the tires were now hunky-dory, I hit the road for the Miette Hot Springs about an hour away, since I needed a shower.  First I saw a coyote hunting for a vole, which it caught and ate while we watched each other, and then I came upon a mother bear and three cubs:

 

 

Despite being 100 feet away the mother bear was bothered by my presence and turned to look at me every time she heard the engine accelerate, while the cubs were bounding all around her.  She finally lunged at me when I was close, but instantly reversed when she heard me gun the engine in reaction, and she jumped back into the woods and disappeared with her cubs.

The hot springs were fantastic, with world-class mountain scenery all around, and a nice little cafe that made a mean wrap for my lunch. After soaking for about 20 minutes I admit I got lazy and decided to punt Mt. Robson and the Kinney Lake hike, which would take an additional hour of driving west out of the park from Jasper.  To this day I kind of regret that decision, but my interest was already piqued for shooting the sites to the south that I’d already blown passed in my mission to reach Jasper.  (It’s ironic that in July our detour around the British Columbia wildfires en route to Alaska took us along a road within a 15 minute drive to Mt. Robson.)  But I’m not ruling out a trip next year to Mt. Robson and Haines, Alaska, to shoot bears and eagles again, and hopefully see the aurora borealis, which some hot springs customers mentioned seeing recently.

I headed back to Athabasca Falls for the afternoon light, which I figured would be better than the morning light.  Again the site was packed with Chinese tourists, but I managed to stake out some vantage points in between:

 

 

I took a few shots on the drive to Sunwapta Falls, which was also jammed with Chinese tourists, but I was the only one who jumped the fence for a better viewpoint:

 

 

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One concerned Chinese man saw me about to jump the fence on my way back and reached out to offer help, which I didn’t need, but I appreciated the gesture.  I almost said “Gracias” in a knee-jerk response, but I just nodded and smiled instead.  Funny how your only foreign language fluency surfaces in such situations.

It was time to find a campsite, so I drove farther south and found a deserted picnic area at around 8 PM and camped against the rules, well hidden from the main road, just at sunset:

 

 

 

 

Late at night I heard a large vehicle pull into the gravel lot, and I held my breath. It paused and then retreated, so I went back to sleep.

Thursday, Sept. 28: It was 40 degrees F when I got up at 6 AM and drove the Icefield Parkway to the Glacier Skywalk viewpoint before first light, which occurred at about 6:45 AM.  The skywalk was closed, but I parked off the road and was satisfied with my tripod on the wall of the parking lot:

 

 

I drove to the Columbia Icefield Centre in hopes of getting a latte at the restaurant. I arrived at 8:20 and took a few shots of Athabasca Glacier across the road from the center as I walked up the stairs:

 

 

I was the early bird, the only one in the huge parking lot, and I deployed the levelers under the wheels, tilted the roof toward the sunrise and switched on the camper furnace to 55 degrees for making breakfast later. I went inside the facility and found that an espresso machine wasn’t part of their amenities, so I used their wi-fi for a few minutes and was soon mobbed by Chinese tourists. I walked out to make my own coffee in the parking lot.  I’d spent about 40 minutes inside the center and now the lot was full.

I made coffee and breakfast and then headed further south to Bow Summit and Peyto Lake Viewpoint, which is a “don’t miss” attraction listed in my guide map. It took longer than I thought because a road crew had to clear the road of boulders from an avalanche, which took about 30-40 minutes.  I took these photos along the way:

 

 

When I arrived at Peyto Lake Viewpoint at about 2:30 PM I had to circle the parking lot completely because it was so jammed. I hiked the 10-minute trail to the overlook and was blessed with this view, which was crowded with tourists, many of whom then followed me beyond the viewing platform:

 

 

I decided to check out Bow Lake for awhile, only about a 10 minute drive south, but it was packed with tourists, which limited my shots:

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I then returned to the Peyto Lake viewpoint when the light was better at sunset, with fewer tourists, too.  Again I found a spot as close to the edge of the cliff as I dared, beyond the viewing platform in order to keep other people out of the shots.  As I settled in my perch and set up my tripod a fearless jay visited me within two feet, maybe expecting a handout…

 

 

Now it was time to find a campsite. The non-commercial campgrounds in the park were closed for the season, so my choice was between paying for an RV park or finding a day-use picnic area like my previous campsite and hope no one chases me away. I found one on the south side of Bow Lake, and I hid as best I could, keeping the roof down in stealth mode and sleeping on the lower bunk. Sleeping proved difficult for some reason, maybe because I kept hearing unsettling noises all night, including two visitors who actually used the metal trash bin. But no one chased me away.

Friday, Sept. 29: I got up at 6 AM on this frosty morning to catch the first light at the Peyto Lake Viewpoint. When I arrived I noticed a couple of RVs and a car had overnighted in the parking lot, so I started to think my midnight fears were unfounded. When I got to the viewpoint only one other photographer was there waiting for the first light. We greeted each other and he took my advice to get as close to the edge of the viewpoint as he dared, as the area was bound to be swamped by the Chinese hoards at any time, and they would block his view. Within ten minutes the first light appeared on the surrounding peaks at about 7 AM:

 

 

As I was leaving at about 7:30, a busload of Chinese tourists arrived and the viewpoint started to fill up. Undaunted, the other photographer mentioned he was from California and would stick to his spot until the sun illuminated the lake, which I had captured the day before, since it was a long way to travel. He said he missed the “Moraine sunset” last night because he took too much time dealing with his tent at his campsite. I filed that remark and took it to the Lake Louise Visitors Center.  Despite the apparent orientation of the peaks on the map, the information booth also claimed that the sunset illuminates the peaks surrounding Moraine Lake, so I resolved to be there when it does tonight. They also pointed out an “overflow” lot a couple of miles away where I could take a nap. It was also my free campsite for tonight. They also told me that camping overnight at day-use areas was “technically against the rules” but “being around at night was okay.”  I was beginning to get the picture.

The parking lot at Moraine Lake was full, so traffic control personnel in the street prevented more vehicles from entering the access road. I asked the flagman about taking sunset shots at the lake and he said the access road would be “clear sailing” after 6 PM, so I made it to the overflow lot and took a nap, made lunch, prepared my film camera, fed the house batteries with solar feed and caught up with this blog. The lot was huge and almost full, but sunny and quiet and free. The fly in the ointment was one RV that ran a diesel generator, stinking up the lot all afternoon. I moved my spot once, but the offending RV was upwind, so the whole lot was contaminated with the fumes. I resolved to find a spot as far away from that RV as I could when I returned from Moraine Lake tonight.

I arrived at Moraine Lake at about 6:30, when restriction to the access road was finally lifted. But the parking lot was far from clear, it was actually jam-packed with tourists wanting sunset shots. A sixty-foot-high moraine hill at the near end of the lake was literally crawling with tourists carrying iPhones or cameras and tripods. I scrambled to a vantage point I liked and settled in to wait for the sunset light on the peaks. It never came, which confirmed my skepticism about the orientation of the peaks, but I eked out these shots:

 

 

As I walked back to my truck a passing photographer with previous experience here confirmed my suspicion that the morning light would be better.  Instead of driving all the way back to the overflow lot I stopped to camp at a trailhead parking lot on the Moraine Lake access road, which was far more convenient.  I was the only overnight camper here, but less worried than on the previous night that I’d be shoo’d away.  What struck me, however, was the sound of freight trains rumbling on the tracks only a mile away and blaring the horn several times throughout the night, not a disturbance likely to be heard in a “crown jewel” national park in the U.S.  And it rained as well, confirming the visitors center forecast, so I knew the cloud cover might dash my photo hopes.

Saturday, Sept. 30:  I woke up early and drove the 15 minutes back to Moraine Lake, arriving at 6:30 AM, and already the parking lot was half-full.  Wearing my headlamp, I crawled back to the same spot on the rocky hill.  The clouds did prevent the first light from hitting the peaks, but I did get a shot of a lone kayaker on a morning paddle:

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I waited for the sun as long as it took to realize it wasn’t coming for the “magic hour,” and at 8:45 I packed up my gear and scrambled back to the Moraine Lodge parking lot.  I bought a souvenir cap in the store at 40% off on this last day of their season, and at 9:00 the cafe opened and I bought a latte to take back to the camper to make breakfast.

Walking back to my truck I ran into a family of five with their dogs on their way to a hike. I wish I’d captured the moment when the dogs licked each other’s face in their excitement. “It’s their favorite time.”

 

 

After breakfast in my camper, I headed for Glacier National Park via Banff.  It was cloudy most of the day.  I noticed several wildlife bridges had been built across the highway, the likes of which I’ve never seen in the U.S…

 

 

The weather around Banff was cloudy, and it was predicted to continue for the next three days.  The town of Banff was especially disappointing, being unrecognizable from the charming small settlement of 1986.  The streets were now clogged with throngs of tourists and the city now sported a suburban sprawl.  I bought some ice and fuel and headed south on Rte. 40 to Waterton Lakes National Park.

Late that afternoon I arrived at the gate to Waterton Lakes just north of the border.  Here was the first time I was asked to show my Discovery Canada parks pass for free entry.  I’d forgotten what the park was like when we stopped there in 1986 on the way to Alaska, but it didn’t take me long to change my mind.  I didn’t go more than a half-mile before I turned around.  The smoke from wildfires was obviously unhealthy and obscured the landscape.

I drove across the U.S. border and took the road to Many Glacier, the northernmost canyon in Glacier National Park, hoping to find wildlife before dusk turned too dark.  Glacier had always rewarded me with wildlife sightings.  I drove about five of the twelve miles to the end of the road when the weather turned me back.  Huge rain clouds were heading my way from the park’s interior, completely obscuring the landscape.  I didn’t see wildlife, but on my way back I spotted this scene to the south, where I was headed to camp at St. Mary Campground:

 

 

I turned south on Rte. 89 from the Many Glacier access road. Less than a minute later I found my wildlife, colliding with a small doe at 70 miles per hour and knocking it to the right side of the road.  I pulled over and confirmed the deer was dead, and inspected the front of my truck:

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I was lucky the deer wasn’t bigger and didn’t have antlers, because there was no way I could have avoided hitting it.  I couldn’t get a repair estimate from Toyota until Monday, and AT&T phone service was unavailable in this location.  This was my first-ever collision with a deer in my lifetime.  I drove to St. Mary Campground in a heightened state of alert, and hunkered down for the night in an unsettled state of mind.

Sunday, October 1:  I woke up early, as usual.  The campground was half-full, the area businesses closed for the season, and the contrast from the bustling parks in Canada couldn’t have been more stark.  I took a drive on Going-to-the-Sun Road towards Logan Pass about 17 miles away, and I was one of a half-dozen vehicles in sight.  I turned around about five miles short of the pass when I saw the clouds had completely obscured the landscape.  On the way back I took these shots before heading out of the park, just as it started to rain:

 

 

Maybe they were relatives of the Bambi I killed.  I decided to punt Yellowstone and Tetons and just go home.  I was satisfied with the photographs I’d taken in Canada, so home sounded nice and cozy right now.  I drove the route south all day in cloudy weather, and it started to rain again when I crossed into Idaho.  It rained like hell for a couple of hours after dark and finally cleared up at about 8 PM when I arrived at Craters of the Moon National Monument to camp.

Monday, October 2:  I woke up at 6:30 AM thinking I might get some shots of early light on the lava beds.  It was snowing lightly when I opened the camper door, and my first thought was that the white snow might be a nice contrast on the dark lava.  I drove about a mile down the loop road to the first turnout and wandered around with my cameras and tripod.  I was rewarded:

 

 

Eight days after I’d departed for Canada, I arrived back home and turned on the BBC news on TV and powered up my laptop for the Washington Post news.  Having experienced the disparity in tourism volume first-hand, I can’t help but wonder if the world’s tourists, or maybe just the Chinese tourists, are starting to favor Canada over the U.S. to avoid mass shootings.

Personally, this road trip was definitely my worst for the mishaps, crowds and camping problems and noise, but I venture to say the scenery was the most dramatic and spectacular.  I also can’t help but confirm that the worst road trip is still better than the best day in an office.

p.s. – I just remembered:  There’s a rail stop in West Glacier, so train noise at a national park is not exclusive to Canada after all.

p.p.s. – A new Tundra grill costs $460 plus $160 installation.   By chance, on Monday afternoon, the Toyota accessories manager was about to put his own grill on eBay since he replaced it with one of a different color, so he sold his week-old stock grill to me for $150 including installation.  Luck.


9 thoughts on “Canadian Rockies: Best Scenery, Worst Road Trip

  1. now that’s a spectacular scenery and adventure! I loved the autumn mountains photos a lot and the one with some sort of canyon and yellow tree branch. Did you eventually figure out what broke your tire?

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  2. Mike– It’s obvious from the blog that you are willing to go to great lengths to capture your magnificent photos. The depth of color is truly amazing, and your choice of vantage points — especially given the crowds you encountered — is outstanding. As a professional photographer once told me (quite condescendingly, I thought), she “makes photographs,” whereas I “take pictures.” She was right, of course, but you truly “make art happen.” Keep it up, my friend.

    As kind of an aside, I’ve taken up painting in the past few months, and I’d love to attempt to paint some of the scenes in your photos, if I have your permission. You will never see them because I’m still painting at the level of a middle school kid, if that. But I love doing it.

    Take care.

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  3. Your blog’s last sentence sums it up well. And to walk away safely, after the tire and the deer, with the wealth of pixels you shared, makes you a very blessed man. I particularly enjoyed the dramatic contrast of snow on lava and the autumnal colors. Thank you for sharing.

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  4. Michael,

    Finally got around to giving this the time it takes to savor it from beginning to end. You have a very engaging writing style, and your photos are striking and truly gorgeous. If it’s any consolation to you, an account of a bad road trip is in some ways more fun for the reader, even though less fun for you. It’s not that I don’t empathize with your troubles, but I know that by the time I’m reading about them they’re behind you, and they do spice up a story a bit. So feel free to throw in some fake troubles if things go too smoothly next time.

    Thanks for including me in these postings.

    Best regards,

    Rob

    >

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    1. Thanks Rob, the consolation of which you speaks is a truism too often overlooked, and I’ll keep my eyes peeled for potential trouble that I can get into and include in future blogs. Absent actual trouble I’ll try to be creative without falling into the “fake news” trap. It’s tricky.

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