BY MADONNA HAMEL
Ten monster gravel trucks with double-load capacity begin warming their engines at six in the morning. This is not the sparrow and robin call of my usual country morning. I bury my head under my pillow and remind myself that these trucks are the conveyors of a foundation to a new road, a road badly needed way down here in wild and windy Great Southwest. This is short term pain for long term gain. I am also reminded of how I have started to take the preponderance of natural sounds for granted. Even when it’s herding season, or when the calves are taken from their mothers and the maternal wailing begins and goes on for a month, I expect birds and animals and weather to rule the sound waves.
Besides a work crew filling all the empty rooms in Val Marie, we are fast approaching Rodeo Weekend. And I will be curious to see how the mostly Punjabi-speaking crew will mix with the influx of even more cowboys and cowgirls. On top of the rodeo revelry, we are celebrating the release of a new book about our grain elevator and a video of student interviews edited and produced by Sask Heritage and a cracker-jack young folklorist who has been periodically driving down to Val Marie to light various fires under various rumps on the committee.
This weekend also marks the winding down of PWSS, a transitional moment that has me both sighing with relief and longing for a little more time with my taxidermied friends and the books on the shelf, beckoning me to read more about the people and places they explore. Some days, in the stillness and the quiet of the old school building, I swear I can hear the Come and Get It call of cooks in the range cookery mingling with Peterson’s raptor’s calls and the screech of the Red River Carts lumbering all the way over in the indigenous book section.
Although The Little Red School House is now a museum,, cafe, gallery and bookstore; it is still a school for me. I learn things here- from these books, these walls, these unearthed relics, like the large black strap used by teachers, found tucked away in an oak desk hidden behind a recently removed pile of boxes. I learn from past students who return to see what became of their old alma mater, and there seem to be more of them than the space could allow.
There is something about the building that brings on reminiscences of all kinds. A lot has to do, I believe, with the location, on the edge of the Grasslands, at the top of main street, turned at a jaunty angle to face both the highway and inward, toward the town. It’s giant windows look across at a range, a country cemetery on a hill, a coming storm. Yes, they are on holiday, which slows them down, especially the growing numbers of Germans and French hungry for wilderness, but the talk is not of where to go, what to visit, who to buy for. It is more reflective, contemplative. The heat, especially this year, of the territory can suck superfluity from your bones and force you to sit still and just be. It is no coincidence that mendicants, mystics and questers wandered into places like this, into the wide emptiness to be filled with something more substantial than getting and spending and coming and going.
This weekend, besides winding down at PWSS, I’m in a tizzy trying to create a giant slab cake in the shape of an elevator. I’ve already baked the first three pieces and traced the shape of the stately edifice onto the cooled chocolate slabs, but it’s looking a little wobbly and certainly not stable enough to do anything but lay flat. Looks more like a skate-board park, I moaned to Robyn, at the Whitemud graocery store. I need to find some bolstering devices. Icing is always the answer, we decide. It’s the best part of any cake, right?I have filled a mixing bowl the size of a bird bath with chocolate-butter-vanilla-and-a-touch-of-Bailey’s icing. I have also amassed every kind of diverting filigree-candy for the final decorative outline.
Somehow, between the cake and the closing, I took on finding canteen cooks for the rodeo. I drafted a schedule and left it at cash register, next to the Palais Royale movie schedule. Within an hour the women of the town were text -imaging to their friends: It became evident that people like to work with their friends and with veterans who know the ropes. Which will make it interesting for our book club shift. The two I was hoping I could sign on as head cooks have previous commitments as a) barrel racer and b) ambulance-driver. No arguing with that. But, how hard can it be? You fry fries, you flip burgers, you flirt with cowboy. At the last minute Stefano, a scientist at the park, offers to help. “You need some Italian blood in the mix!” he insists. He is our only Italian, and our only man. The others are next door in the curling rink, selling booze, in the “rink” manning the chutes, or riding broncs.
Last night Betty dropped by to see how I was doing with the canteen schedule she foisted on me. She is also my landlady and she commented on the work crew tenants. “One down side about living in these small isolated places is, we don’t get enough exposure to different kinds of people”, she muses. “I gotta say,” I jump in,“ that’s one thing I miss about Toronto. On the street car, there’d be easily five different languages flying over your head. As a westerner and a Quebecker I was born hating Toronto, but the truth is, when I moved there to work I loved it! You know Jan Morris, the great travel writer, said if a Martian landed on Earth and asked to be taken to an archetypal city, she would take it to Toronto, because of how so many diverse cultures live together.”
On this, the busiest weekend of the year, you cannot find parking on main street. People still wrap their horse’s reins around the still-extant hitching posts. But you will get the chance to see more than the usual suspects. Tourists, curious about rodeos will venture over to PWSS for a stuffed long-horn, or a history book, and, invariably a latte. It’s not like we ‘don’t get out much’. But we don’t get many chances to welcome the world. Until now.