An excerpt from the account I wrote of a ride taken in late 1997 "across" the Prairie Provinces - well, just snip the corners of Alberta and Manitoba and properly traverse only Saskatchewan. But it keeps my Flatland Cred up - I don't JUST bicycle across the Texas Panhandle! I hadn't looked at this manuscript since shortly after I completed it, and pardon me if I say I am still happy with it: it not only feels like good melodic writing but it is something I hardly ever achieve, which is a period piece. The references to Quebec separatism seem quaint, because the phenomenon itself has failed so signally to loom. It seemed to, back then; it still exists now; it, like Quebec itself, will of course never go away; but if anything good has been achieved in the first decade of the 21st century, the trading of these regional bores for other regional bores has to be it. Makes you optimistic that by 2023, shrilling Waziristanis will likewise have been tuned out.

Before departing Medicine Hat, I reminded myself to do the only uniquely Medicine Hat-oriented thing I could think of, which was to scan the motel parking lot for Prince Edward Island license plates. There were none, though all provinces from B.C. to P.Q. inclusive were represented. I was doing this because sixteen years earlier, on a train in New Brunswick, I sat next to a girl from P.E.I. who told me, in a high astonished tone, that her sister had moved to Medicine Hat, Alberta. The Maritimes are the true Canadian wallflowers. This was my Newfoundland trip, and even ignoring the boat ride in the North Atlantic in November, I'd thought it superlatively distant, farther even than the Northwest Territories had felt. Maybe it was that girl's sniffing skepticism. Or maybe it was everybody's bad teeth. I enjoyed my visit, and I would like to go back. But to reside there seems doggedly unambitious, a prolonged exercise in looking quietly hurt.

However Prince Edward Islanders relate or avoid relating to western Canada, today's Calgary Herald wasn't interested. I read it over breakfast. I cased it for headlines like QUEBEC: SECESSION IMMINENT, or QUEBEC: SECESSION FAIT ACCOMPLI, though QUEBEC: HAVIN' A BIG NERVOUS or QUEBEC: NOBODY WUVS US was far more likely and I knew it. Seemed like the right thing to look for first in a Canadian newspaper, though. As for Quebec, the only mention had to do with demographics: there was net depopulation in the province, yet one-tenth of landed immigrants were choosing to land there. (Which made me, but not the reporter, wonder where in the world these immigrants were coming from.) Newfoundland and New Brunswick were people-losers any way you looked at them. But the article said nothing at all about Prince Edward Island, whose emigration statistics are either a state secret, or just hard to find because they're filed under T, for treason.

The Herald seemed a fair newspaper, but then I am smitten by typo-free typography, by evidence that the profession of "proofreader" still exists. There was a little item concerning the Alberta Elevating Devices and Amusement Rides Safety Association, which is not some bizarre hobby group with single-digit membership but a respectable organization prepared to lose as much sleep as it takes should a ski lift snap a cable. There was also something about baby-boomers and their weaknesses in certain retail-merchandising environments. To which you might say, What else could an article on baby-boomers be about? But remember, this is Canada. In the U.S., "baby-boomer" translates as "person who objected to the Vietnam War, not so long as the war lasted, but only so long as the draft lasted." Since Canada was not a belligerent in that conflict, it cannot be assumed that "baby-boomer" means the same thing here.

Time to go. There was no hurry to get anywhere; I was just anxious about my knees, which had abruptly switched off their pain receptors before I'd gone to bed last night, and I wanted to know what they had planned for this morning. Challenged, cautiously, on the ramp to the Trans-Canada, they were submissive enough, though, and I came up to speed with the wind behind me. As quickly as it can be done, I was out of Medicine Hat, and going so fast I whipped past a pair of hitchhikers, never hearing the end of their question: "Do you know how far it is to -"

I should have stopped; once, in Uruguay, I had done that for a hitchhiker, and he gave me food. I probably should have stopped as well at the Wal-Mart, to see how this aggressively Umurrican operation presented itself in Canada. And I certainly should have stopped by that roadsign that read LOGGING TRUCKS TURNING, because if they were doing that, it could only be "around, back to someplace that actually has logs." That sign was mysterious in the extreme. There could be no question - from me, anyway - that here was a Prairie Province, and this was the road to another.

But I didn't stop, because all the machinery below was working so well, and I had no idea why. I highballed east for two full hours, with not much company except the low blinding sun and the humpy fuzzy hills and some very long, very fast freight trains on the parallel Canadian Pacific line. In a settlement called Irvine, close to the Saskatchewan line, I bought a ginger ale and walked in circles while I drank it, and decided my legs, which had been reacting to this trip the way they'd probably react to being chop-blocked by an enraged car battery, were going to get stoic and behave after all. I saddled up, glanced at a tiny sign across the highway warning of loose buffalo, and slipped back into the wind.

It was a jetstream by the time I entered Saskatchewan. Since I was riding with it, it made no sound I could hear; but the highway contracted from four to two lanes, concentrating traffic. With or without the rush-hour illusion, though, Saskatchewan did not feel like Alberta. Right at the border, I thought, there went the radiant carpet of mown grain, to be replaced by rangeland, which always looks poor and unlucky. And while Alberta was one of the provinces frankly gaining in population, its neighbor (on today's newspaper evidence) wasn't doing anything Prince Edward Island wouldn't do.

Of course there wasn't that much difference between the two Prairies. But I could confidently surmise that the sales tax on my motel accommodations was about to go up.

Double, in point of fact - but I'm getting ahead of my own narrative. After approximately thirty miles, approximately six farmhouses, and exactly zero towns, I decided to take a five-mile detour south on Saskatchewan 21, to a place called Maple Creek. I hated to sacrifice all that free propulsion, especially now I'd be taking this wind broadside, but I was still chary about my lower hingework, besides which I felt some responsibility for some fraction of that fraction of Saskatchewan that had people living on it. So I trundled on in.

It wasn't too bad. Following some inconsequential ripples, a valley opened up - not a deep one, but hereabouts depth is not necessary. Well to my right, west, was a small body of water, just a glacial pond, but even from here I could see whitecaps as the wind raked it. And then, directly below me, a chromatic streak of foliage, thick enough to obscure most of the rooftops, but with grain elevators giving away the train tracks and therefore the whole town's layout. This was Maple Creek.

Though there was no evidence at hand except some signs for businesses on "Pacific Avenue," I immediately thought Maple Creek was a place apart. I therefore resolved to check in at the first motel I found, that I might establish a base for exploration as soon as possible. I did hesitate, however, over Jack's Motor Hotel, before living up to my resolution. Jack's looked, even sounded, disreputable. It was some kind of finned warehouse. The vehicles corraled alongside it were big old gas-eaters, most equipped with block warmers - I imagined, not necessarily unfairly, that their owners liked to be ready for liquor and ammunition purchases in any weather on no notice. There was a cartridge, a long one, lying in the gravel. And nearly all the cars were down by the lounge end of this motel-and-restaurant structure. All the same, I marched in.

"I'd like a room for a night."

Jack, a practiced ironist, said, "Well, that's good news for me." He did not act like the recipient of good news, but I'd already caught on to the circumspection that is meant as courtesy in these parts. Registration was efficient. I filled out the slip. There was on this a pledge of sorts, something about the undersigned agreeing that "excessive noise, abusive conduct or partying after midnight" would expose him or her to summary eviction and forfeit of all monies paid. I asked if I needed to sign this.

Jack said no. "That's for wedding parties."

All first impressions to the contrary, my room was very good. A note taped to a neighbor's door read, "Brad, call Jane - Not an emergency", so, like Brad, I stayed cool. I stowed my gear, then headed back out. A friendly German shepherd, the sort of dog that loves to share the back seat of a big old gas-eater with crushed beercans and loose shotgun shells, gazed up at me. I angled over to the highway, past the baseball diamonds and the hoarding advertising a Cowboy Poetry Gathering, over the level crossing with the three crucifixes planted nearby, and onto Pacific Avenue, to see - as if I hadn't yet been shown - what Maple Creek was about.

Except for the cowboy poets, Maple Creek was small-town central Canada, at its prettiest. The lyricists, by the way, were meeting at the Cultural Center, a stolid brick building dated 1910; I might have gone in, except it cost $4 and the sign out front promised satisfaction to the needs of multicultural groups. Instead, I visited the BC Cafe, in a building about as old, with a glass front, a trapezoidal foyer, and high, sculpted-plaster ceilings. I could have tried the Star Cafe, or the Commercial Hotel, but the BC it was. Only after I sat down did I discover it was a Chinese restaurant. I had an impressively, precariously tall heap of beef chow mein.

Speaking as I (or Jack) just was of weddings, I overheard other diners talk about one they'd just come back from. One of these was wearing vinyl pants. Another, a tall gawky long-haired fellow, was turned out in a green double-breasted suit. For Maple Creek weddings, it's wise to dress as if you're going to end up in the punchbowl, the only question being head first or feet first.

But back onto the streets of Maple Creek. All twenty of them, I guess - the town is only a little larger than Foremost [Alberta], which is to say it is about the same size as every single town on the Prairies. But my first thought was of Medicine Hat. Maple Creek had at least as many "old" buildings as Medicine Hat did - this was what "historic" Medicine Hat should have looked like. Strangely, I will concede, my second thought was of Vancouver. This was because my chief Vancouver memory was of lone crabby Scotsmen expectorating in the vacant streets - I could hear them around the block, block after block. Maple Creek, I am pleased and relieved to report, was nothing like Vancouver.

But I thought about these faraway places; I had to. Nobody's out and about, in Maple Creek or Medicine Hat or Vancouver. Only Montreal is special, because it has managed to look neat without eliminating the leading agent of urban messiness, which is people. Canada, urban as well as rural, feeds you so little, over such a long period. You have to eke it out. And the only way to do that is by having been here many times before, doing many other things. By Maple Creek's World War I memorial my thoughts skidded wildly yet again, this time back to Banff. My friend and I had visited a bar there, and met a fellow who'd immigrated to Canada from Michigan. He didn't say, but it was plain from his age that he'd done this to avoid the draft. It seems now an adolescent overreaction. Compared to, oh, World War I, the Vietnam War now has the aspect of something too unimportant to have run away from.

The funny thing was, my Maple Creek-triggered memory told me, it looked that way even as early as 1978.

I had an ice cream cone, circulated a little, then retired to the motel for a siesta, saving the trees for late afternoon, when the kneeling sun would flatter them. Around 4:30 I went back out, and the meteorology was perfect. To the southwest, the blackened treetops quaked below the hectic wind and the fierce light, while out of the southeast, the pale sandy end of the valley, a freight train raced under an immensely high ceiling of tiny white clouds. The train was so long it extended back to the horizon, and moved so fast I wondered, seriously, if the crossing gate would drop in time. Then I heard bells - the merest chimes, really, in this spaciousness, but a civilized accent to the larger percussions of wind and rails.

Vehicles stacked up, waiting for the train to pass through. Somebody in a pickup truck gestured at me. He wanted to give me a lift. It was only a few hundred yards into town, but I accepted. I went around to the passenger side, where the passenger who was already there helped me wrestle open the door. The truck was a clunker, terribly abused. The windshield was cracked in a strangely extensive way; I instantly imagined that if you and a friend playfully heaved a coffin over the hood, this would be the effect you'd achieve.

Maybe my benefactors had done that: they were Indians, and they were barhopping. As we bumped over the tracks and turned onto Pacific, the guy in the middle told me they were from the reserve south of town. He turned to face me and said, "The reser-va-tion, man! Where all the brown people hang out!"

In a comedy French accent, I could have spluttered: "But you are a people, not a reservation!" I contained myself, however.

His was not a challenge, or a complaint. He sounded gaily hopeless, which is better than the only other option on Indian reservations, namely "just plain hopeless." All the same, I excused myself at the earliest opportunity. The driver had been mumbling in a companionable way, and it was a safe guess he was snockered. I kept thinking about those crucifixes, and knew I was lucky these gents had chosen, rationally or randomly, to sit still while the train passed.

I'd decided to drink in, myself, and made for the provincial liquor outlet to buy a sixpack. Even though it was Saturday, and just one hour to closing time, I was the only customer. "I'd've figured there'd be a hundred people in here right now," I said.

"People do their buying on Friday," said the cashier. He did not elaborate.

Because Canada looked prosperous, and because its streets were deserted, I'd settled on the theory that Canadians worked hard. Now I had the idea that their drinking was as organized and businesslike as their working. Maybe every refrigerator in Canada had a note stuck to it reading "Fri. - buy alcohol."

I'd never find out in Maple Creek. Trying to strike up conversations, I found my own voice getting too loud, too musical, as I seized on the very few folks who were, for secret reasons, in my path. I decided to relax. That was easy here. Because the village's streets were unusually narrow, the tree canopies nearly touched, making Maple Creek a grid of leafy tunnels. The hovering sun lit them gloriously. I think I strolled every street, breathing deeply the cool odorless air, breathing it as one does on mountaintops, and loving the clatter and sparkle of the leaves. Green, yellow, and orange, and (in case you were wondering) mostly not maple, these seemed as rich a crop as wheat, and at the same time an urban accomplishment. Raising trees in a place like this indicated more faith, more enterprise, more community, than raising buildings did.

With that idea in mind, I could leave Maple Creek, knowing I'd given it the credit that was its due. I trudged back up the hillside to the motel, just before the first stars came out. Beer under my arm, I remembered the notion I'd had to skip buying it, just go to the motel bar where it would be scarcely more expensive and maybe do some instructive socializing. But no; this was better. I honestly could not see myself at the rail, aggressively talkative, rounding on the drunk at my elbow and chirping: "So! Think those folks in Quebec are waiting for a German invasion? Everybody knows Frogs love to collaborate with Krauts!"

1998 J.A.Hutter

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