What is the ideal landscape for human habitation? According to our basic physical and psychological needs? According to Steven Pinker (“How the Mind Works”), the African Savannah strikes an ideal compromise between the contradictory feelings of safety we get from wide open spaces and from ‘nooks and crannies’ where we can hide. That is to say, wide open spaces are comforting because of our ability to see far into the distance (to be on the lookout for predators, fellow human beings, etc.), but if they’re too open, with no brush or trees to provide visual points of reference / landmarks / hiding places, they merely become disconcerting. Are we programmed to seek out Savannah-like landscapes because the African Savannah was the cradle of humanity, or is it the other way around? Hard to say.
I found myself thinking about these two opposing geographical forces when I first encountered the wide open spaces of the southern Manitoba prairie, emerging so suddenly after the densely-forested northern Ontario bush. Northern Ontario can be a dark, scary, vaguely threatening place for a pedestrian traveler: the constantly evolving landscapes of the Boreal Forest and the Canadian Shield leave you wondering what lies right around the corner, on a road (Highway 17) which is relatively narrow and prone to twist about. You don’t know what’s coming next, and you have to be prepared for anything. This is even true of the weather, which I found liable to change far more quickly than on the prairies: in Ontario, if you see thunderclouds way off to the west, you have to start formulating a plan for that storm immediately, whereas in Manitoba or Saskatchewan, you may see lightning and stormclouds for hours before the storm reaches where you are (if it even does).
These kinds of fundamental geographical differences can form the basis of modes of social interaction which characterize entire landscapes. Thus, there might be said to exist a “Shield” of paranoia and distrust just beneath the surface in Northern Ontario. Perhaps it manifests itself most clearly in the ubiquitous “NO TRESPASSING” signs which line the road. Why are they there? What exactly are you afraid of someone doing in your God-forsaken patch of rocky bush? There are “NO HUNTING” signs posted next to open fences on the plains, implying that the owners wouldn’t be much bothered by somebody walking in (though, of course, why would they want to?) My friend Brian Mealey railed against the No Trespassing signs of Northern Ontario when I was there, wishing that people were more open with their property, as he certainly is, inviting people he hardly knows to stay in his cabins or fish off his docks. To me, “NO TRESPASSING” says, “I fear what I cannot see. I don’t want people on my property, because I won’t be able to know what they’re doing in there, or even if they’re there.” Perhaps there is also an element of insecurity in the knowledge that the Northern Ontario landscape is brutal and primal and incapable of being tamed into pasture or farmland; thus, landowners try to exercise control over it in the small ways they feel they can, whereas the prairie farmers are confident in having mastered the land, and so they feel more generous with it. The easygoing nature of Southern Manitobans could be a product of that panoptical landscape (which, nonetheless, is bound to make a traveler feel more exposed… where to pitch a tent where it can’t be seen? Where the heck do you relieve yourself?) What I’m getting at is, geography forms the basis of narrative.
Southern Manitoba, just before crossing into SK – it really doesn’t get any hillier than this.
Now consider Southern Saskatchewan, which so many people had led me to believe was the flattest, the most treeless and the most boring stretch of road I would traverse. I didn’t find that to be the case. Rather, it seemed reminiscent of Pinker’s ideal human landscape, the Savannah, neither disconcertingly flat and open (like Manitoba) nor excessively dense and opaque (like Ontario). Some of the first explorers to see Saskatchewan said that it was such an inhospitable land that not even trees would grow there – they were ignorant of the fact that it is some of the best and most fertile farmland in the world, simply because trees are not really a natural part of the ecosystem of the prairie / tall grasses. Saskatchewan appears more open than it really is, because the “canopy” of the tall grasses forms a smooth layer resembling shorter grass. Peel it back and you realize what it conceals: wetlands, sometimes, and an astonishing array of wildlife that somehow finds a place for itself between endless fields. Snakes, weasels, gophers, skunks, raccoons, foxes, etc. Beneath the tall grass is an underworld, like the tunnels of Moose Jaw, SK, which hid from public view an entire population of illegal Chinese immigrants – when one died up top, a lucky underground friend or relative would assume their identity as a legal immigrant. An entire world which can’t be glimpsed on the surface; the forks beneath the forks. The severed ear in the unmown grass in “Blue Velvet” is a symbol of the same idea, with the close-cropped, manicured lawns of the film serving as wishes to present the illusion of a clean, exposed interior. In SK, you can even see “the Trans-Canada Highway beneath the Trans-Canada Highway,” bizarre spots where the old #1 – largely parallel to the new one, but no longer used, sprouting up grass, and spontaneously turning into or seeming to emerge from the grass:
The #1 beneath the #1, an illegitimate highway.
The country around Moose Jaw, SK epitomizes the mild hills and brush which make a compromise between open visibility and “nooks and crannies.”
Further west, the Cypress Hills create interesting chiaroscuro effects.
If there is an ideal human landscape which strikes a balance between openness and concealment, and if narrative is a reflection of landscape, then mustn’t there also be an ideal human narrative, which both conceals and reveals? Storytelling which is simultaneously transparent and opaque? In reflecting on the kind of writing I’ve done on this blog so far, I wonder if I’ve established too much of a pattern of complete disclosure. Isn’t it rather boring when someone tells a story, and all there is is, then I did this, then I did that, then this happened…? Having established this precedent of providing so much information on my day-to-day existence on the road, an unexplained temporal gap could stand out. Or have I already concealed from the narrative in a qualitative, rather than a quantitative, sense, in order not to offend with totally faithful impressions? In other words, have I prioritized the positive aspects of people, places and experiences? In the interests of balance, whether geographical (open, hidden, plains, hills) or in terms of equanimity of attitude (positive vs. negative impressions), the bitter must be taken with the sweet.
The following are some incomplete & elliptical impressions of my run across Saskatchewan.
My arrival in SK was a gloomy time, I’m sorry to say. After ten perfect days of sunshine and warmth, literally as I saw the border-crossing sign in the distance, there were stormclouds gathering directly ahead of me. In itself, a storm is not a gloomy thing, after so much sun, and I like to think I’ve developed a certain amount of indifference towards current weather conditions, but the timing made it symbolic. That afternoon – a hot and sunny one – in the shadow of a church on the highway, the only structure for miles around, I called C. in the hopes of resolving the sense of unease/anxiety I’d been feeling. I’m not going to dwell on that conversation here, but rather just stick it behind a conveniently-placed hill or a bale of hay in the narrative. I did manage to resolve the sense of anxiety, but my happiness and good humour went with it, temporarily.
Shooting the shit with trans-Canada motorcyclists Lorenzo and Norm at the SK welcome centre, I debated the merits of pushing on into those stormclouds. Some of my stormy runs have made for amazing experiences, maybe even transformative ones, so I decided to go on toward Moosomin. The whole point of my trans-Canada run is that running is occasionally capable of improving my state of mind, so I figured now was a good time to embrace and enjoy the reality of what I’m doing, regardless of the circumstances. An incredibly slow sunset, and the incredibly slow approach of thunderstorms which must have been many miles off to the north and the south. Amazing to see the lightning on the prairies, so far off in the distance! Along with the lonely whistle of the train, very far off, but its light still visible in the dark. Getting a little wet, getting a little bitten, a cool but not overpowering wind, and these sights and sounds: a definite moment of life.
When I passed through Wapella, I saw this goofy sign and logged it for novelty value:
Wapella, proud home of the Holloway brothers.
That evening, as I dined on the Special of the Day at the Only Place in Town, a very old man came up to me, stuck out his hand, and said, “Hi, I’m George Holloway.” “The George Holloway, the one in the sign!?” I asked. The very same – George and his four handsome brothers were all hockey players on the same local team back in the day. I suspect that an out-of-towner has never recognized him from the sign before, and he was so tickled he bought me dinner.
Camping just west of Indian Head, I got treated to quite the light show that night. All night, huge lightning flashes lit up my tent, pitched in a ditch on the side of a dirt road off the #1. The rain came down hard and I got soaked in spite of my precautions! The next morning was sunny, of course, so I spent a while drying my things out in the road.
Indian Head at sunset.
I was headed into Regina, where I’d spend the night and a whole rest day at the house of Glenda, a distant connection made through C., and about whom I knew practically nothing. She turned out to be one of my many guardian angels on this run, a person who understood my kinda ethos without actually knowing me, and gave me no end of help and kindness. Glenda and her house in the northern suburbs of Regina are a bit like the tall grass – beneath a seemingly placid surface, there’s a lot going on. I think she was as happy to have a guest as I was to have a host, and we had a lot to talk about once the ice was broken. We talked about endurance sports, literally and metaphorically. Glenda was hoping to do a half-marathon (her second) soon, but has had some setbacks due to knee complications… right now, the doctor advises her to run only for stretches of one minute! A brevity, a focused intensity of running that I can hardly imagine! Yet she puts on her running gear, gets out and does it.
Sometimes, it seems to me that endurance sports are a kind of grief contest, and one should never envy a person who succeeds at them, because that success is often the reflection of a great loss. But at the same time, the translation of that loss into action and the cultivation of inner strength is something that I admire in a lot of runners. Glenda is one of these.
She’s also quite the gardener, and she has a beautiful sour cherry tree in her front yard. I ate a lot of those cherries while I stayed with her, since sour cherries are a potent natural anti-inflammatory. Just before I left, we took a picture in front of that tree (Glenda’s on her way to work at Canada Post):
Back to work – for me, that meant running to Moose Jaw.
Thanks to Glenda, I had a place to stay in Moose Jaw the next night, with her cousin Denise and Denise’s husband Ernie, extremely welcoming people. I guess it shouldn’t be too surprising that a lot of the households in which I’ve stayed have had some pretty serious fitness gear in them… Ernie showed me this unbelievable cycling trainer he’s got hooked up to his bike inside: it adjusts resistance on the back wheel to simulate hills, etc. in specific courses from around the world, from which it displays first-person view video adjusted to the speed of the person on the bike. Crazy…
As I was trying to work my way out of the bizarre geometry of the suburban streets in Moose Jaw, I wished I had more time to stay with Denise and Ernie, and to see the tunnels I’d heard so much about, concealing Chinese immigrants and, supposedly, Al Capone’s Canadian bootlegging operations. I didn’t realize then that I’d be in and out of Moose Jaw quite a bit, only leaving it for the last time some five or six days later.
That night (the 10th), just as I was about to call it quits for the day and find a place to set up camp, a car pulled up behind me, and out came Glenda and her friend Shobna, carrying a picnic fit for a king! They’d just come out to surprise me and see how I was doing, over 100 km from their own homes. Glenda came wearing her running gear, just so she could run with me for the 1 minute her doctor allows her:
Roadside picnic at sunset on the Trans-Canada Highway, just east of Caronport.
What better way to end the day than with surprise goodies? Chocolate milk in mason jars, Big Rock Traditional Ale, sour cherries from the yard, and more. What a huge lift to my spirits before another night of camping in some random place… this time, I was picking between a salvage yard and a cemetery. Graveyard vs. car graveyard, which is less inappropriate/disrespectful? I chose to rest amongst the departed souls of my own species (just adjacent to the cemetery, since there was mown grass just outside the fence.)
Early on the 11th, when I pulled into the town of Mortlach, a farmer pointed out that Grady had a flat – indeed, I had to deal with the first flat in over 3000 km (not a problem, I had spare tubes). Additionally, the skies were looking kind of ornery, and the locals were all talking about twisters and the baseball-sized hail they’d had a few days before, so I decided maybe it was time to find a place to lay low for at least a few hours. That’s how I first ended up in the Holly Hock Natural Foods Market, a little lunch counter / grocery stop that had just been reopened under new management about ten days prior.
Bridie and her new place.
Bridie – the new owner/proprietor of the place – and her big sister Winter had actually seen me running on the highway that morning as they drove into Mortlach from Moose Jaw. Whereas many people seem to gawk or glare at me on the road, or just treat me like a crazy person, apparently Bridie had instantly understood that I was going across Canada, and said to Winter, “I want to do that!” So when I walked into the cafe, they were ready for me! “Come on in! Take a load off!” they said, pouring me water and putting out a bowl of cherries on the table. (How did they know I’m into cherries?) They seemed so excited to have me as a visitor, and I was so glad to meet friendly and interesting people in my age range, that I was happy to stay and hang out. Eventually, that turned into camping in the back yard of the market with the chickens, but before I put up my tent, that turned into sleeping in the unused trailer out back.
This is me inserting a sizable butte into the landscape/narrative, blocking your full access to the events of the next four days. Let them retain some mystery:
You can see for a fair distance in SK, but there are times when you can’t see everything.
Bridie & me in the Holly Hock Market.
On the 16th, I restarted my journey from Morse, SK, having run there from Mortlach on my own, in an attempt to stay on schedule, a few days earlier. I made it to Swift Current that night, and I was back on the road. Most of Saskatchewan was behind me, and it had been a complex experience, neither flat nor boring, and with quite a few thunderstorms and unusual circumstances thrown into the mix. Looking back on it all, there are possibly as many gaps and blocks in my memory as there are in your understanding of my story. But experiences can’t always be communicated clearly and plainly, even when you’d like to relate them that way.