By Madonna Hamel
Walking home tonight, I am witness to a sunset that has earned its place on a license plate. A woman, stands before me, back turned, in the middle of the road gazing at the same spectacle. I had served her earlier in the day at Prairie Wind & Silver Sage, where I work and where I have a series of collages hanging in the little gallery. The artworks began as explorations of the lives of the women around here through their aprons, but have grown into canvases of deeper ponderings. It is as if I have dug deep into those apron pockets and found seeds buried in the seams.
The woman standing before me was in a better mood than when she’d entered the cafe earlier that day, still in city-mode where her choice of breakfast specials were vast and her requests for condiments were met with satisfaction. Here, visitors to the park can fuel themselves with scorching strong coffees, pour over maps and life lists, ask questions about the territory, but we only serve one kind of bagel and one size of coffee and whatever jam the store has in stock.
We serve as a transition zone, giving a chance for urbanites to shift to a slower gear, adapt to the lack of goods and services, adjust to the profound silence balanced with the supremacy of birdsong. It takes a minute to wrap their brains around the fact that they are in a desert, and they should be prepared with plenty of water and not hike mid-day. They learn soon enough that credentials and connections only go so far around here, and no matter how much money you have or clout you carry back home, we won’t be able to scare up an extra data card or flash drive for you. You’re lucky if the store has stocked enough ice. Because, you’re not the only ones in transition. The village is too.
“But you would think,” said the woman insisted, and clutching her bird book, “that a town that calls itself the gateway to Grasslands National Park would carry the essentials.”
“You would think,” I reply, deciding to let her vent about her previous evening in the Frenchman River campground, blown about by a wind that threatened to rip the tent from the ground and filled everything with dust. She drove into town with the intention of giving herself a hearty supper and a nice glass of Cab Sauv at the cafe, only to find she’d arrived as they were locking up! She did manage to get a hefty plate of egg foo yung at the hotel bar but it meant putting up with the “crude bombast of a group of cowboys” while she ate.
“F-bombing like nobody’s business, I’m sure.”
“And GD this and GD that.”
“Exactly,” she finally laughed.”But seriously. Why aren’t they better prepared for tourists, I mean they’re not going to get much business with things the way they are now?”
Depends on which ‘they’ you’re talking about. This is a relatively new park and many of the locals weren’t sure they even wanted it, or, at best, were ambivalent about it. They can remember a time when the park was their backyard, and in many cases, still is. They have no interest in making sure all your needs are met because they aren’t even sure they wanted you here in the first place. They are ranchers and farmers who know full-well that the town itself has been shrinking and without the park would most likely perish, but they are still figuring out how to handle the influx of strangers just passing through. On the other hand, you’ve got the “they” at the park office who sent you here for coffee, but are responsible for your experience in the park itself and not the town.
Then there’s the “they” we often refer to as “blow ins”, the writers, artists and asylum seekers who came here to get away from the rat race and the fast pace of cities or burn-out jobs. Some of us are running from something or some one, ourselves included, and suddenly, we surprise ourselves and stop here. Maybe we feel we can finally quiet the noise in our heads. Or we know it’s just a whole lot cheaper than the cities and we might even get down to finally writing that book or painting that canvas.
Not many of us are leaving the business world only to dream up new money making schemes down here. Although a few are. They know you don’t get smaller when you live aside a national park. Me, I like that I can work here in the summer, meet interesting travelers and facilitate their transition into the wild and mysterious world that is this prairie. I can’t offer a a wedge of lemon for tea. We try to have enough milk to get us through til Monday, because the store is closed on Sunday. We can’t break that twenty for you because we have no bank. Nor doctor. Nor police. Maybe one day we’ll have more shops and conveniences on main street but I can safely bet there won’t be any chain stores. But right now we’re still adapting, we’re still in transition….Although we could use a good breakfast joint.
“But that’s what I love about this place,” pipes up another visitor before I voice my thoughts. I remember how to make-do… And I carry my packets of instant oatmeal.”
Her husband adds: “We have to drive further and further to find places like this. This is our third year here. You just gotta come prepared.”
Another woman joins in. “I like the dark sky. My kids thought there were, like, five stars in the sky and that was it! This is a Dark Sky Preserve. Like, someone actually cares enough to preserve the dark! Our first night here there was like a rainbow of stars over our heads. At first it freaked us all out!”
Transitions can be a royal pain for me, especially when I don’t see them happening and miss the inherent potential that resides only in this sweet spot before the bud becomes a bloom rather than a bomb. They can be managed in myriad ways, but to really mine them for their treasure requires acknowledgement. The poet Adrienne Rich writes: to those among us “who love clear edges more than anything, watch the edges that blur.” You can learn interesting things there. Mostly about yourself. Shamans, too, speak of such things, see things differently because they live between worlds – and always on the edge of town.
Indigenous cultures speak of shape-shiftings that occur as night falls. I call it magic hour, when the changing light changes the rocks and coulees and hills. When the sun begins to set eyes gawk upward at clouds taking leading roles in the drama of every day’s end, bearing robes of royal colours. On this transitional walk I find myself sharing a moment of awe with this woman who earlier in the day drove me nuts.
In Quebec the term for sunset is “entre chein et loup”, between the dog and the wolf. Staring at my own collages before closing up shop last night I was drawn into the faces of the characters who beckoned me to portray them: The Blackfoot boy in the rear view mirror in “Closer Than”; the poorest of the poor women gleaning what’s left of a place and a time when revolution was meant to set them free in “Gleaners, Scavengers and Foragers”; young Minnie in “Happy Captive” who was captured by natives then returned to her family, where she spent her life missing her “captours”; the farm boy in “Hurry, Hurry”, on the cusp of manhood who, in a lightning flash, catches a glimpse of both past and future in the shape of a stagecoach, a covered wagon and a racing ambulance in the valley below; the Cree girl, the Mountie, the farm woman and the ghost in “Crossroads”, eyes fixed on a single mediating object: a painted turtle on its back.
All of them are witnesses at a crossroads, between the dog and the wolf, on the edge of change, ultimately straddling worlds. They may choose to stay buried, comfortably snug in the in-between, like last year’s seeds deep in the seam of an apron pocket. All of them, like us at various times in our lives, are in a transition zone, where the next step could render up either disappointment or gold depending on how we perceive it, and if we perceive it all. There is a subtle, but enormous difference between being a witness and an enlightened witness, between seeing and knowing what you are seeing.
The last blast of gold dust and blood hits the underbelly of the sky and the coyotes start up their own ode to the in-between. I decide to walk over to the woman in the middle of the road, still staring upward, caught between the dog and the wolf.
Madonna Hamel is a writer and performer. Her radio documentaries have won awards for CBC for whom she’s worked as writer, producer, reporter and broadcaster covering the arts, religion and current affairs for over 20 years in Quebec City, Winnipeg, Windsor, Toronto and Kelowna. Born a Westerner, she calls Val Marie, Sask. home.
The opening for the collage show will be on Thursday at 7:30 p.m. at Prairie Wind & Silver Sage, the little red school house off Highway 4 in Val Marie. John Penner will also be there to talk about his photographs.