The Alberta prairie is not as flat as one might suspect. The prarie, rather, can be furrowed, and hilly, and cloud-like, dotted will lake pools and stitched with forest in the between adjoining hills. They are fields of gently undulating mounds of grassy earth, as unimposing as the chocolately soiled turned by the farmer’s plow.
The land is the color of butterscotch. There are bushy tails of waving wheat and strands of moist green grass. The character of the land is mostly pastoral, but in the early hours of the morning, when the sun slips its head above the covers of night, a thick fog settled over the land will become visible. Above the fog, all I can see are birch trees, only bearing leaves at their uppermost branches, sprouting from an ocean of mist, towering above the fog. The prairie, then, is no longer the prairie but a Jurassic rainforest, full of life and mystery. A cow “moos” from beneath the fog and behind the trees; I imagine a brontausaurus.
Today is the fifth day of my walking journey, and I feel I have enough for a book already. I set out from Hardisty, Alberta late and walked along the edge of Highway 13 from Hardisty, through Amisk, through Hughendon, and on and on, occassionally taking detours along train tracks, wherever my map indicated the pipeline would be.
This is oil country: there are pipeliness of oil and gas that seem to run beneath most of the barb wire fences. Giant tank farms, pump stations, pump jacks dipping their heads into the earth.
The walking was easy for the most part, though my right hip quickly bruised from the chafing of my hip belt, and I felt a tightness in my right ass cheek, so I decided to call it quits early, as I knew to pace myself for a marathon, not a sprint.
The next day, I walked along the southern edge of Shorncliffe Lake, then through the town of Czar, and made my way off the road system into farm country.
Naturally, I was pretty nervous about trespassing across landowners’ property, but I felt a bit more at ease when I appreciated how open the country is. The roads are few, and the houses fewer. The prairie, here, is cattle rangeland, of forest and lake and creek, but mostly curvy grassland, for miles and miles and miles. Each farm is its own national park, domesticated but wild at the same time.
As I approached a cluster of wood, I saw the behind of a great brown mammal in the woods, perfectly still. I figured it was a horse, but also thought it could be a moose. I took a few steps closer and it stepped out into a clearing, my path, and watched me from beneath its hulking mountain chain of antlers. Certainly a moose. I snapped a picture and walked away, only to startle a cow (female) moose from the same set of woods. I kept walking, briskly, only to see ahead of me, the bull moose running in my direction, to the point where I was headed. I took off on a sprint for another set of woods in the distance. My only thought was to get to the woods and climb a sturdy tree so as not to get trampled. In mid-stride, I let loose one of my backpack straps, pulled my arm around to the side of my pack, and retrieved my canister of bear spray, all while sprinting toward the wood. The bull moose, thankfully, relented, but as much as I was relieved, I began to wonder about the feasibility of this trip, which requires that I hike through rangeland like this for hundreds of miles.
I hopped over barb wire fence and I rolled underneath barb wire fence, perhaps 20 times in my third day. Cows curiously paralleled my route while other scurried when they caught sight of me. A wolf, startled by the noise of my step, leapt out of the bush, ten yards and front of me, and took off on a long spring across the prairie.
On the road, when I could, I’d ask a roadside household for water (as clean creeks and rivers are few and far between in this area), but when there were no more houses in sight, and after I’d been walking for nearly three hours without water, I gathered three liters from a lake whose perimeter was made muddy by the hoofs of cows. When I poured my chlorine dioxide mix in to purify, 20 cows from the opposite shore mooed ebulliently.
I began to feel that the tops of my feet were being rubbed raw, but decided to plod on, as I still had two hours of daylight, good hard ground beneath my feet, and all other parts of my body–back, hips, and shoulders–were in good shape.
The next day, my fourth day, I began walking over more prairie toward the town of Consort, AB. My feet were in miserable condition, and I realized that I’d erred considerably in deciding to push on the previous night. I draped my toes in moleskin and duct tape, but by the end of the day I could walk no more. The pain was unbearable, and I was chaffing my feet more with each step.
I stopped by at the public library and a teacher inquired about my trekking poles and giant pack. He’d invite me over for dinner with him and his family, and later, offer me a shower and a bed. My toes are in horrid shape, and I must take it easy on them for the next couple of days, but I know that I can go long and far, if just from the aid of generous strangers.