The art of peeing in an open prairie landscape is something that must be learned in childhood.
Last summer, eager to escape the I-haven’t-travelled-in-so-long-boo-hoo-woe-is-me doldrums which stemmed from my decision to stay in Edmonton for the foreseeable future, I had the privilege to indulge in one of those great Alberta traditions: the intra-provincial roadtrip. With my friend Sydney at my side, a giant bag of Costco popcorn, a comically temperamental mp3 dock with separation anxiety issues, and an adorable hashtag for all our pseudo-fiancé selfies (#syduceontheroad), I shot off from Edmonton towards the Rocky Mountains, the rising sun lighting the course west. This was the plan: five days, dozens of destinations. Lunch in Jasper, down the Icefields Parkway to Lake Louise, where we stayed overnight with Leland, who worked as a chef in one of the Chateau’s restaurants (and who made our hashtag ‘ship-name into the far more sexy #lesyduceontheroad), before going on to Banff, Crossfield, Torrington, Drumheller, Vulcan, Lethbridge, Frank, and back around the other side of the mountains to Lake Louise.
Throughout this short trip, I got to experience the incredible variety of my province’s landscape. I dipped my feet in glacial runoff waters and sank my body into natural hotsprings. I hiked to the top of a mountain and raised my arms to the heavens in celebration of #THESUBLIME! and turned up my nose at the tourist-trap Glacier Sky Walk which hangs over a ravine off the side of the highway (after I had spent the thirty bucks to experience this travesty for myself, naturally). I watched a creepy nineties-produced informational video in the dinosaur museum and admired the weird but wonderful displays at the Torrington Gopher Hole Museum (whose manager, an elderly white lady named Bunty because of course that’s her name, informed me that they’ve had visitors from every single country except Paraguay).
In short, I barely scratched the surface. I barely took a nickel from all the treasures there are to plunder in this place. In his combination travel guide/folk history/memoir, Robert Kroetsch does a little better than I did, journeying from the Badlands deserts to the foothills to the prairie grasslands to the Boreal forest. But even this venerable piece of Alberta writing feels like it only faintly gestures at the huge complexity and grandeur and misery and bizarrerie of life in this province. As my own efforts to plumb the depths of Edmonton’s mythology ought to have taught me, it is not possible to paint a comprehensive portrait of any place. What Kroetsch does instead is ramble on in his endearing, earthy style, telling tales of the Old Timers he meets along the way and the oral histories he is able to collect from them.
Written as a Canada Centennial project in 1967, Alberta offers nothing for the reader who’s after a canonical account of names and dates and factoids. Instead Kroetsch takes us through several episodes—some far more interesting than others to be frank, but your mileage may vary—where he explores Alberta and offers his observations.
The chapter on Edmonton (subtitled The Tomorrow-Seekers) was by far the most interesting to me, describing Klondike Days as a dizzying carnival to rival the Calgary Stampede. Since 1967, of course, our beloved city has abandoned the mythology and spectacle of Klondike Days (which Kroetsch depicts as central to the Edmonton character, a city which is constantly wanting to put on a costume and only fulfilling this desire for nine glorious days in July). They rechristened it “Capital Ex,” and now it’s just “K Days.” All the pomp and pageantry and ritual of Klondike Kates and parades seems to have been replaced by booths selling Dyson vacuums and limp green onion cakes.
The Calgary chapter was equally engaging, telling me a bit more about the Stampede and the (1967, Social Credit-era) city’s conflicting desires to be both a cosmopolitan, culture-rich metropolis like the great cities of the east and a stubbornly anti-culture anti-government anti-liberal bastion of traditional Christian country values. I also loved the treatment afforded to Fort McMurray, which our cautiously pessimistic narrator knows is about to become a boomtown. Even with his knowledge of what this will mean for the rural trapper culture around the fort, his naive enthusiasm in describing the new method for extracting oil from sand is tragically comedic, given that the Mordorian tarsands now fill many of us with a sense of dread.
The rest of the book (which is the majority of the book) is devoted to rural Alberta. Written with an almost elegiac tone—the rural exodus of our population was well underway—the scenes that Kroetsch presents are at times funny, at times tiresomely banal, at times informative, but always tinged with a note of nostalgia and regret. I imagined my narrator heaving a deep sigh at the end of every third paragraph or so. The only time this wasn’t so, weirdly, was when he described his visit to a Hutterite colony. I’ve always though of Hutterites as kind of creepy police-statey restrictive religious fundamentalists who want social structures to remain as heteronormative and misogynistic as they were four hundred years ago, so I enjoyed having my prejudices dismantled by the happy portrayal of the farm’s life and the history of Hutterite persecution. Perhaps I just read this scene as happier because it was one of the most engaging rural segments for me, amidst a sea of shoulder-shruggingly mundane episodes.
Unlike Edmonton in Our Own Words, the folk history I read last summer before my big trip, I don’t think that Alberta should be required reading for all citizens. But if you want to get to know this province a little better, and don’t mind doing it in a leisurely, casual way, I’d encourage you to read this book. Ultimately, I think I would have enjoyed it a lot more if I could have just listened to Robert Kroetsch telling me his stories over a beer in some tiny town’s hotel barroom. But we can’t have everything.