Get your motor runnin’
Head out on the highway
Lookin’ for adventure
And whatever comes our way…
Like a true nature’s child
We were born, born to be wild…
Born to be Wild lyrics
In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig describes a 17-day journey of father and son across the U.S., on secondary roads where possible, as a sort of Chautauqua:
“Like the traveling tent-show Chautauquas that used to move across America…an old-time series of popular talks intended to edify and entertain, improve the mind and bring culture and enlightenment to the ears and thoughts of the hearer.”
Before the days of the automobile, radio and TV, isolated farmers and ranchers welcomed outsiders–speakers, teachers, musicians, entertainers, preachers and even politicians–as part of an adult education movement called Chautauqua (pronounced sha-TAW-kwa). Teddy Roosevelt called Chautauqua “the most American thing in America.”
We now live in an uber-plugged in world. Citizens anywhere can access the outside world at will. And yet the idea of a Chautauqua, going on the road to visit these remote and isolated places, is appealing. I’ve been re-reading Wallace Stegner’s Wolf Willow, his story of growing up in the Cypress Hills in pioneer days. And I’m drawn to know more about these wild and difficult places, their all-encompassing sacredness and how people live in their midst. Alberta and Saskatchewan are going through tough times right now, and we’ve been through tough times before. Beyond the highlights in glossy tourist brochures, I want to understand this landscape and learn what it has to share about living in the West and about progress and resiliency.
Sitting astride a motorcycle would be a perfect way to do a modern-day Chautauqua. Nearly as perfect, my friends and I set out in early August in this Dodge Ram, to explore the wild places where the corners of Alberta and Saskatchewan meet the state of Montana. It wasn’t hard to convince Brian and Nola to join my husband and me on this journey. Their families homesteaded and kept the peace in these remote places, and their relationships with the First Nations and the Metis were thick as blood. Over five days, we clocked nearly 1600 kilometers on Brian’s 4-wheel drive truck, on gravel roads where possible. Only once did we flinch; a downpour of rain in the Cypress Hills turned roads into prairie gumbo and we had to slip and slide our way out of a sticky patch of road.
Nola aptly christened this the borderlands Chautauqua. Even within this patchwork square of Canada–a circuit through the Cypress Hills to Grasslands National Park to Writing-on-Stone in southern Alberta and back home to Calgary–we passed through unique terrains. Montane in the Cypress Hills, long stretches of bald prairie, deep coulees and wide river valleys, glacial erratics, vast natural grasslands and hoodoos. Each landscape offered up unique wildlife. Deer in the grassy knolls and antelope choosing instead the fields and ditches where sage flourished. Hawks lining fence posts along the prairies unfazed by passing humans, while rattlesnakes curled up in the coulees as far away from humans as possible. And everywhere, cows and their calves roaming the ranges, surrogates for the buffalo. Even our choice of bed for the night mirrored the diversity of the terrain: we slept, consecutively, in a cabin, a ranch-house, a tipi, a tent.
Tipis in Grasslands National Park, Saskatchewan
Locals we met in coffee shops in the villages and towns along the journey were friendly, hospitable and curious to know why we were driving through their rural geography. What did they want to talk about? Weather and fear of drought topped the list; followed by the price of commodities, their family’s history, NHL hockey teams, local rodeos, Trump and Trudeau, and sometimes God. They seemed to prefer their politics and their religion on the conservative side.
Harvest Moon café in village of Lomond, Alberta at 8 a.m. on a Tuesday morning
Charlie’s restaurant in Eastend, Saskatchewan for lunch
Riding along, mile after mile, we relaxed into the landscape. As we transitioned through the different terrains, we all sat up a little straighter and we wondered, aloud, how people survived in these places. Transitions are often enlivening. As Philip Connors shares in his book Fire Season (a commentary on his time as a fire lookout):
“I’ve always liked edges, places where one thing becomes another…… transition zones, boundaries and borderlands. I like the mixing that happens, the juxtapositions, the collisions and connections. I like the way they help me see the world from a fresh angle.”
Ensconced in our sturdy Dodge Ram, we crossed the Bow, Highwood, Little Bow, Old Man, South Saskatchewan, Battle, Frenchman’s rivers, and even a few creeks, notably Maple and Bullshead. We hoped to float down the Milk River, but it was manure-saturated, thanks to the cattle wading upstream. This is country that knows drought, and there are many man-made attempts to capture water – damns and dugouts and irrigation canals.
The Milk River winding its way through Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park in Alberta with the Sweetgrass hills of Montana in the background
Rail-lines criss-cross the land. We saw railcars loading prairie grain at elevators in small towns, hauling potash west-bound to export terminals, and tankers loaded with oil that couldn’t be squeezed into pipelines. And, the roads, especially the well-graded high-centred gravel roads in Saskatchewan, laid bold pathways through the landscape in patterns that would be straight as an arrow for a hundred kilometers then shift suddenly into switchbacks and zig-zags.
Grain elevator at Eastend, Saskatchewan, boyhood home of author, Wallace Stegner, and location of his novel, Wolf Willow
My perch in the backseat wasn’t exactly as embedded a perspective as that of a forest fire lookout. Nevertheless, it was surprisingly easy to discern the economic transitions and connect the dots of history. You could see how the North West Mounted Police evolved, at outposts in Fort MacLeod, Writing-on-Stone and Cypress Hills. I could picture men in red trying to rein in horse thieves and whiskey traders. I could see the failed dreams of frontier men and women in the abandoned homesteads, the shuttered churches and school-houses, the heartbreak in tiny graveyards. Nola and Brian’s families had been part of these raw histories, and their stories made our view even richer.
And, in more recent history, evidence of “progress” was obvious. Often, the signs for the Saskatchewan Grain Pool at small town elevators were painted over. And we found ourselves drawn instead to the gleam of steel grain bins standing in perfect rows on individual farms. Having grown up on a cattle farm in southern Ontario where we shipped in yearlings from places like Maple Creek, Saskatchewan, my own farming journey was idyllically recalled as we met the double-decker trucks hauling calves from family-owned ranches. Not wanting to lose the sweetness of these memories, we skirted around the meat-packing plants in Brooks and feedlot alley northwest of Lethbridge.
The sacredness of this landscape was at times so palpable that everyone in our truck fell silent and just breathed. In places where tourists gathered it was a little more challenging to hear the land speak. But within the safety of a truck cab, among friends, you could sometimes feel its pulse.
This land is ever-so-faintly etched with the lives of generations of our first peoples. Often, though, we had to look really hard to find these places. The tipi rings of First Nations’ tribes were often overgrown with grass. The medicine wheels at Majorville took us three separate visits to reveal themselves. Petroglyphs at Writing-on-Stone required a close eye to grasp at their meaning. Even the stones rubbed smooth by buffalo were indistinguishable from other rocks until you got close. There are many indigenous who prefer that their spiritual and wild places remain obscure, protected from public scrutiny. Perhaps like Venetians who want to limit the number of tourists visiting their islands, they resist having this sacredness contaminated.
Medicine Wheel at Majorville, Alberta
So, did we come to understand what is truly wild…and why we crave this wild-ness?
These are not simple questions. Riding along in the pickup, we debated the first question, on and off. Does man’s felling of a single tree, or a whole forest, forever disqualify a landscape as being wild? Much of this debate hinged on the question of how we regarded man—as an outsider, or as an integral part of nature. There are places, wild places, deep within the Kananaskis Valley in Alberta’s Rocky Mountains where strip mining happened, a century ago, yet hikers and cross-country skiers still navigate the terrain via “Coal Mine” trails and “Mine Scar” sites. In the Rumsey Block, south of Stettler Alberta, grazing has been tried, and it failed; the area isn’t quite a wilderness preserve, it’s described as unbroken parkland, and is nearly devoid of civilization. It feels wild. Farther north, in the Canadian Shield terrain north of Lake Athabasca and Fort Chipewyan, the landscape is home to few, and feels wild to most. And, yet, we each knew of less remote places where wild-ness existed; places where we felt the world was untamed, as it was given to us. Maybe a garden, or as Philip Connors suggests, in a few shoots of grass in a neglected corner of an alleyway in New York City. Our conclusion? Wilderness is defined by legislators and scientists; wild-ness is defined by our individual senses.
Now, the tougher question: Why do we seek the wild? We had many ideas. Wildness gives us a glimpse of what the landscape was like before humans, pre-civilization. Observing wild landscape can help us detect the patterns and touch the mysteries of our own humanity, where we came from, the very ground of our being and identity, the human blueprint, our genesis, our foundation. It can peel off every layer of civilization. So, maybe observing wildness is more about unlearning than about learning? Wildness can be calming; it can be energizing. It’s like walking in the Garden of Eden—transcending and timeless. For indigenous peoples, landscape has spirit. Even if we aren’t aware of this spirit, maybe we unconsciously seek it, in the wild-ness.
Petroglyph etched on the sandstone at Writing-on-Stone interpreted by some to be an image of the landscape (the Sweetgrass Hills of Montana in the background). The two dots signify the landscape has spirit.
Henry David Thoreau, the American poet who famously said, “In Wildness is the preservation of the world” believed humans need wildness in order to ensure their survival. In his essay “Walking,” Thoreau explains how generations ago, raw nature tended to inspire fear and dread in “civilized” people; wildness represented Otherness and the Unknown. Today, wilderness is usually seen as something good, in need of preservation.
And, because I adore Wallace Stegner’s writing, let me share excerpts from a letter Stegner wrote in 1960, to the Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission on the Idea of Wilderness:
“Without any remaining wilderness we are committed wholly, without chance for even momentary reflection and rest, to a headlong drive into our technological termite-life, the Brave New World of a completely man-controlled environment. We need wilderness preserved–as much of it as is still left, and as many kinds–because it was the challenge against which our character as a people was formed. The reminder and the reassurance that it is still there is good for our spiritual health even if we never once in ten years set foot in it. It is good for us when we are young, because of the incomparable sanity it can bring briefly, as vacation and rest, into our insane lives. It is important to us when we are old simply because it is there–important, that is, simply as an idea…
For myself, I grew up on the empty plains of Saskatchewan and Montana and in the mountains of Utah, and I put a very high valuation on what those places gave me. And if I had not been able to periodically to renew myself in the mountains and deserts of western America I would be very nearly bughouse. Even when I can’t get to the back country, the thought of the colored deserts of southern Utah, or the reassurance that there are still stretches of prairies where the world can be instantaneously perceived as disk and bowl, and where the little but intensely important human being is exposed to the five directions of the thirty-six winds, is a positive consolation. The idea alone can sustain me…
We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope.”
This borderlands Chautauqua, the opportunity to drive to the edge of the wildness in this little patch of southern Alberta and Saskatchewan, was reviving. It was all at once stimulating and humbling. And, most of all, we were able to shed some of the layers of civilization and peel back to who we really are as wee humans in this mighty landscape. The innate dignity of this landscape was palpable.
Now, back home in Calgary, the idea of wild-ness, and the knowing that earlier inhabitants of this landscape endured, gives me practical hope. And the imaginative child buried deep inside me wants to open up Maurice Sendak’s book, “Where the Wild Things Are” and scream to my fellow prairie dwellers:
Have faith! We can get through this rough spot in our history and economy. We can do this. Let’s open up our imaginations and “Let the Wild Rumpus Start!”
This is my Chautauqua.
From “Where the Wild Things Are” a 1963 children’s picture book by Maurice Sendak
Donna Kennedy-Glans, August, 2017