This is what I've been saying aloud, jubilantly, for the past three days. Finally, I've been able to put some major miles behind me, completing three 20+ mile days in a row with little difficulty. And while I still have an unwelcome blister beneath the middle toe of my right foot, my feet have recuperated nicely, giving me much-needed reassurance in my body's ability to hike long distances.
With feet toughened and my sickness, abated, I hiked south along Country Road 895 out of Oyen, then walked for the rest of the day over rolling prairie. A man and a woman on an ATV, seeking a few sick calves in their herd, saw me and drove over. This marked the first time, in nine days, that I was caught trespassing on someone's land. I had my map and compass in hand, and my walking sticks in the crook of my arm, so I thought I at least looked like a hiker. "I'm sorry if I'm walking on your land," I said to them. "Oh don't worry about it," the man said with a smile. I asked him where I might find water, and he said not until the Red Deer River, which was 10 miles away. He offered to go back to his house, four miles away, and get me some, but I didn't want him to go through the trouble. I made due with the liter of water I had (amazingly, I find myself content to drink only 2-2.5 liters of water a day), and walked over more rolling prairie for the rest of the evening.
The prairie is fine ground to walk on. The terrain, though rolling, provides a good flat landing spot for each footfall. There are few thorns and briars, few snakes (though there are said to be rattlesnakes in the area), few bugs (at this time of year), and neither swamp nor talus slope to slow my gait. Apart from the rare cactus plant (hardly bigger than a compact disk) and the mysterious--and potentially leg-breaking-- "prairie hole" (home to some burrowing animal), I cannot think of better ground to walk over than the Alberta prairie.
I walked over the prairie until the Red Deer River, a flat, sluggish river, but wide and ultimately uncrossable. I knew there was no way I could walk or swim across it with my gear, so I took a detour off my pipeline path so I could walk along a bridge near the town of Blindloss, several miles to the east.
The Sand Hills came out of nowhere. One second I walking over prairie, startling a pair of gray foxes; the next, I was walking amid a hidden wonder of the world. The Sand Hills were steep, furry mounds of grass that, in the dusk light, glowed pink and red. They were round, bulbous gumdrops, sculpted Napoleon hats, shaggy and half-wild. The steep hills, all sprouting tall grass, formed a canyon wall, opposite another canyon wall, and in between was a dry water drainage called a coulee. The mounds, as they stretched to the river, lessened in size, but maintained their plump contours all the way down to the flat valley floor.
I scoured my mind for an analogy, and the closest I could come were bare desert hills, made of sand and rock and ornery bush. But these were not so barren or uninviting, and to compare these hills to anything would be to wrongly insinuate inferiority. I was in a prairie mountain range, beautiful and one-of-a-kind.
In the morning, I crossed the bridge to Blindloss, where I hoped to fill up with water because ahead of me I had another long trek over desolate country with little chance of coming upon a homestead.
The town was creepy and unsettling, like several other half-abandoned prairie towns I've passed through. The school was boarded up, several homes looked to be in disrepair, and when I asked for water, a municipal worker said, "This isn't a good town to get water. It's bad water here." He gave me a bottled water and suggested I go knocking on doors to fill up the rest of my bottles. Soon I found another man who let me fill my bottles from a giant plastic canister of water.
He was a trucker, and he asked about my trip. I explained I was going from Hardisty to Texas, and said, "So your following the TransCanada Pipeline, are you? Are you an environmentalist?"
For the most part, I've kept my thoughts about oil and the pipeline to myself when talking with others. I am traveling through pipeline country and I do not wish to offend the people I talk to by criticizing something that pays their bills and is probably a big part of their lives. Plus, I don't want to have to have such conversations over and over again. So I tell everybody--as I told this guy--that I'm out to learn as much as I can. Which is true. While I will not be pro-pipeline or pro-Tar Sands by the time I reach the Gulf Coast, I have in fact embarked on this trip to gain insight and nuance.
Yet I thought there was something disturbing about his question, "Are you an environmentalist?" The question implied--and correctly so--that there people who care about the environment and those who don't. He asked the question as if I identified with some uncommon sexuality. So are you one of them erotic-vomiting transexuals?
Why aren't we all environmentalists? Caring about the environment should be as ordinary and common to mankind as having limbs. So are you one those people with arms and legs? We live in a funny age if there are people who do not care about the water we drink and the air we breathe, let alone a planet that's warming at a discouraging rate.
"Yes, I'm an environmentalist! I care about the fucking planet!" I should have beamed proudly. Instead, I sheepishly muttered something about just wanting to be on a long walk, which was true, too.
I hiked over farmland till I got to the Middle Sand Hills, now drenched from hours of rain and battered by hail. Luckily, I happened upon a campground at the Saskatchewan River, where I laid out all my wet stuff under the protection of a pavilion.
In the morning I head off, crossed the border into Saskatchewan--Saskatchewan!!!--and walked around the stinking cauldrons of McNeill, an metallic oil base of some sort with three towering pillars, each spouting red fire. As I got closer to it, I thought I'd see nothing but a bustling industrial center of security guards and oil men, but the whole place looked empty. It was within eyeshot for almost two hours, and I saw only one truck go through it.
I took a quick detour to the town of Burstall, where I hoped to fill up my water bottles and catch up on emails.
The iPad, so far, has proved indispensable. I still have some last-minute book-making duties to attend to, and having the iPad, for that reason alone, has been hugely beneficial. A cover designer has proposed a cover, and I need to be able to provide input and make suggestions about the subtitle and whatnot. Also, a lawyer, hired by my publishing company, has read the book and I must make sure that none of my characters or corporations mentioned can sue me or the publishing company. And finally, I must seek back-cover blurbs from well-known authors. I sent a few letters/emails out to my favorite authors, shamelessly asking if they'd like to read my book and, perhaps, supply a blurb. Naturally I felt quite awkward doing so, but doing so through mail or email does make it easier to so boldly ask for a favor from a complete stranger, who you, no doubt, greatly admire. And it's easier since I have no "in" with literary circles in which I may awkwardly happen upon one of them.
I sat in a bar in Burstall, with a pool table illuminated by a dim bulb, and pictures of baseball players on the wall. I came to work on book-stuff, and the only the person in there was an old man playing a slot machine.
I ordered a Macho Burger with fries. Soon four workers ambled in. They were all in their forties, except one younger guy, my age, who was clearly upset about something, holding his head in his hands. The older guys tried to cheer him up. "That's Babe Ruth," one said. "And he was a fucking orphan." I wasn't sure what his logical tract was, but I admired the effort. One of the gruffer men, a short, but stout, worker of supposedly Irish descent, who calls himself "the leprechaun," asked me what I was doing. I said I was walking to Texas. "What are you, crazy, man?" he asked. "A little." I said.
"Was that you on the highway?" asked the younger guy perking up. "I thought you were a Native vagrant," he said to uproarious laughter.
The leprechaun asked me why I was hiking and I said because I thought it might give me something to write about. "We got a writer, here," he said to the boys. "This feller here," he said pointing his friend, who called himself the ogre, "This feller here has been drinking since he was ten! Ten! Put that in your fucking book!"
"I'm not sure if that's going to make it into my book," I said politely. He kept talking, but I had to focus on my work. Every minute he'd say something to his trio of friends, look over at me and say, "Put that in your fucking book!" followed by laughter all around the table.
"I got beat up in a bar by two drunks," he yelled. "Put that in your book, too."
I'd responded with polite laughter and smiles until then, but now my face remained steely as I was insulted by the threat. "I'm just playing with you, man," he said. "I gotta do that to my friends. You're in the circle now."
He came over and whipped a $10 bill at me, which floated down and rested on my keyboard. "Be careful out there he said. Watch out for the ghosts," he said. "The ogre and the leprechaun."
While there was a moment where I was sizing up my competition and thought that a barroom brawl might make for entertaining reading, at no point did I feel threatened, as I was just surrounded my tough-talking, though harmless, drunks, who were probably too wobbly to land a direct hit anyway. Still, the road began calling me with an unusual urgency, so I packed up my things, filled up my water, shook hands, bumped fists, and took off for the road, to Richmound, SK, where I write this now.
Can anyone tell me what this is?
The Sand Hills!
Red Deer River
Pipes outside town of Blindloss.
Sandy Point campground