Driving the Plains

It’s summer and I’m ready to drive to Nebraska, or perhaps Texas.

Driving is the best way to see the prairies and plains. Granted, walking or seeing the country from the back of a horse are very appealing, but very few of us can walk or ride far enough to see the variety of landscape that we can see in a day of driving.

Driving for me includes stopping, observing, visiting with people along the way and learning about the areas in which I’m travelling.

I’ve driven to Nebraska from Edmonton, Alberta, three times in the last 10 years: first, with a van loaded with furniture and various belongings for my daughter and her husband when they moved to Lincoln to do graduate work at the University of Nebraska; second, with five passengers, four of whom were over 80 (my parents and my son-in-law’s parents); and, third, with my elderly parents on their last big road trip.

On that last trip we drove to Nebraska from Edmonton to see my daughter and son-in-law, then to Taos, New Mexico for a conference, and back to Alberta through Wyoming and Montana. My father watched every mile and every acre, looking at crops and farmsteads, while my mother marvelled at the big sky and open spaces. She spent her entire life in a small town and on a farm in southern Saskatchewan – big sky country – and should have been very familiar with the expanse of the prairies (the slogan on Saskatchewan license plates is The Land of Living Skies). She worked very hard during her life: but on this trip she finally took time to relax and look up at the sky rather than down at the work. She loved the trip.

The prairies are not flat, even though they may appear to be from a commercial aircraft at 36,000 feet. There are hills, coulees, wooded areas, and incredible variations in soil type and topography, native grasses and introduced crops. As a result the prairies vary in agricultural productivity, although they were settled as if all soils and all areas were highly productive.

Houses – modern bungalows and abandoned two-storied homes built from designs brought from other areas and or purchased from catalogues – are located in low areas near streams on ranches and on open fields or on hills on farms. Houses and other farm buildings on prosperous farms are likely to be well painted and have flower gardens, lawns and extensive vegetable gardens.

A few of the one-roomed school houses that housed the first taste of formal education for most of us who grew up in these areas forty or more years ago stand abandoned, flanked, in a few cases, by outhouses. Most of these schools, however, exist only as photographs and memories.

I stop for breakfasts at roadside truckstops, and lunches at places with colourful names such as Medicine Hat and Broken Bow. I have coffee at Co-op stores just off the highway, and peruse dinner menus that still may include the once almost universal prairie restaurant meal: ‘veal cutlets, mashed potatoes and mixed vegetables (coffee and dessert included).’ Soul food. But no cappuccino.

Driving is not enough. I stop to smell the sagebrush, the cultivated land, the cut grain in early fall evenings. I listen to diesel-powered combines hum after dark. I see stars that I haven’t seen for years.

I chat with the people I meet: the retired school principal who fills my gas tank; the waitress and farmer’s wife who pours me four cups of coffee, one before my meal and three after; the owner of the small and wonderful bookstore in Camrose, Alberta; the customs person at the Canada/USA border who waits patiently as I find the rental agreement for my Budget car (‘Take your time, but you aren’t going anywhere until I see it’).

I stop and photograph, mostly in the early morning and late evening.

I choose my plains driving music carefully: any musician from west Texas (Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Terry Allen, Guy Clark, Lyle Lovett and their friends) and a others in the same genre such as Ian Tyson, Tom Russell, Kevin Welch and Kieran Kane. The landscape doesn’t work with hiphop or The Beach Boys. Yo-Yo Ma playing Bach works; so does Patricia Barber playing anything.

The prairie is full of wildlife – waterfowl, hawks, meadowlarks on fence posts, horned larks, coyotes, pronghorns, mule deer. I see far more wildlife in prairie areas than I do in the mountains or in many other ecosystems.

The prairie landscape is an acquired taste for some, an easy step for others. Some never see it or appreciate its beauty. Some painters and photographers embrace it and make it their home. Our European ancestors came here and saw free farmland – or vast ranching opportunities. Our grasslands have become our most fragile and rare landscape, and some of the land that was cultivated in shortgrass, arid areas has been damaged irreparably.

It’s time to make that next trip.

Let’s have lunch in Lethbridge and then just keep driving.

Jerome Martin
June 29, 2003

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