When last I wrote I was in a fast food joint in Banff, rushing to get my column finished so I could join my family back at my younger sister’s new condo. She and her partner were up, making breakfast. My older sister, Celeste, was sitting on the floor in the living room, surrounded by unpacked boxes. My nephew was asleep, somewhere. My brother would be by after work.
“I’ve decided to get a hotel room for us tonight!” Celeste announced.
“But it’s your birthday-we’re supposed to buy you things!”
“A woman at work told me about a tradition in her culture where on your birthday you buy your family gifts and I’m making that my tradition, so tonight we’re staying at a hotel!”
A hotel in Banff is not cheap, in any season. But my younger sister started looking around on the net and found a deal at The Moose, which was a place my brother helped construct from the ground up. So, when we finally hauled our bags over and headed to the rooftop, he’d stop every few paces and gawk at the finished building, marvelling at the ways the simple shapes of foundation shifted into various elegant designs. We stayed til dark soaking in the Jacuzzi surrounded by mountains bathed in aspen glow, then returned to the room to eat curry and drink Okanagan wine.
Thrown together for one brief moment, we made the best of it by all talking at once. There’s always the sibling tendency to speak louder, correct perceptions or versions of stories, speculate on the lives of those absent, re-affirm and scale-down on big dreams and plans. Being that it was my sister’s 60th, it was also a sober reminder that we are, as a family unit, leaving the decade of our 50s and now occupying the ‘sage’ 60s. All six of us.
And then of course, thoughts turned to Mom – she would have loved this! – and talk turned to Dad. While in Kelowna I went to mass with him. Fr. Pat, the parish priest, was in his usual form. When a small whining child insisted he should be able to have a communion wafer like everyone else, Pat piped up: “Ok. Kid, c’mon up, you can have one. But you’re not gonna like it. It doesn’t taste like chocolate.” After mass there’s coffee in the hall – a parishioner’s version of coffee row, but without the cussing. It’s as important as mass to me, a chance catch up on the lives of my parents’ friends who became pals of my own. They showed care and friendship when I landed, exhausted, washed up on the shore of home, five years ago.
Somehow we got on to the topic of Latin masses and, as usual, the table was split between those who missed its beauty and mystery and those who were glad to see it go. It reminded Dad of a story about his own Latin classes back when he was a teen at school in Gravelbourg:
He had a hockey game he wanted to go to but he also had a Latin assignment due the next day. So he decided to tell Fr. Stockard, his advisor, about his dilemma. He went to his office and knocked on is door and said: “Father, can I talk to you about something, I have a problem”.
“Come in, come in Harold, how can I help you?” he responded with great concern.
“No, no. It’s not that kind of problem.”
“Well, what is it?”
“Well, there’s this hockey game and I haven’t done my Latin assignment and I don’t have time to do it and I just was wondering….How’d you like to do it for me?”
“In the 12 years I’ve been here no one has ever asked me such a question,” the priest replied. “I’ll go along with it once, but never again. But tell me, are you as stupid now as when I was teaching you?”
“Yeah. About the same.”
“Ok then. I’ll be sure to put some mistakes in there or Fr. Sotello will know you didn’t do it.”
The next day, having left Eric to visit in Banff, Celeste and I continued on our journey to the Grasslands for a week of long hikes in the Park. I thought I’d start with an easy, steady walk along the Broken Hills, with its opening vista at the end of the 11 km loop. Then, a day of deep coulees and even more dramatic vistas and bluffs with certain bison encounters along the 16 km of Timber Gulch. And to top it off, a guided tour with Donny Gillespie of various historical sites along Turkey Track, where Sitting Bull crossed over from Montana.
But as we got closer and closer to Medicine Hat my dreams of warm days in the dry park began disintegrating in the growing wind and rain, until, by Swift Current the only thought, beside food, was: will we even make it to Val Marie? The rain had turned to sleet, and by the time the waitress at Humpty’s set my steak in front of me there was a full-on blizzard outside. Listening to the surrounding farmers and ranchers talking about their drives into town I asked one what it was like down south.
“You can do it, but I’d eat up and leave now, before you can’t.” So we did just that.
From the get-go I drove slowly, testing the grip of my summer tires, watching for sudden pools of accumulated water after three days of rain. When I first moved to Val Marie an older woman pulled out a map of the province to explain: “See, you can’t get where you’re going ‘cept by a blue road. It’s all blue roads to the Grasslands.” The map shows a cluster of blue veins leading to Val Marie, the red arteries coagulating around the TransCanada. The highway from Swift Current to Cadillac is still decent, it’s still a red line on a map, until Cadillac. After that, it’s all blues. That’s when Highway 4 becomes for me “Grace Road’, because, on any given day – be there sleet or snow of capsizing wind or a giant farm-house on wheels going down the middle of it – anything can happen.
Grace, the writer Huston Smith wrote, is another word for Luck. And for me, it’s a wild card that pops up, unearned, always warranted and ever-present – if we chose to let it wedge itself between a pinched fear and a willing curiosity. Every time I drive Highway 4 some kind of change occurs – whether in me or the land and sky surrounding the narrow, pot-holed ‘goat road’. On nights like Tuesday, with snow flinging itself in swirling dragon shapes at the window, use of a high beam results in the revelation of many more snow dragons spinning the whole length of the wild road all the way home. The world is a dreamscape. Best to stay low, close to the ground, hunker inward, eyes on the giant puddles appearing out of nowhere in the star-less night.
“Tell me a dream”, I say to my sister, hoping to distract her from what’s going on outside. I’m up to the challenge, but my sister has only experienced Grace Road twice in her life – and my bravado far too often. Dreams are one of her favourite topics and her area of expertise. We take turns recalling the past nights’ dreams, employing a method of examination she learned from mentor and dream scholar Robert Moss. We are a musical family and have a habit of remembering stories and instructions by putting them to a melody so she sings the formula to me as we slow to a crawl approaching the Great Divide.
Suddenly my cell rings. In the dark and swirling snow, on an empty road in one of the most remote spots in the country, a ringing cell is like a voice from the other side.
“Hi Madonna, where are you right now?” It’s my rancher friend Ervin. Ervin’s voice is, to me, the equivalent of a warm fire on a cold day. Just hearing it makes me feel like home is within sight.
“Um… just out of Cadillac…”
“How’re you doing?”
“It’s… an adventure!” A slow chuckle comes from the other end of the line.
“OK. Well, just take it easy when you get to the hills.”
“Up around the farm, where my bulls are. It can be a little tricky along there, it’s easy to slide off, but I know it well enough that if you get past there you’ll be fine. However. If you get into any trouble just call me and I’ll come get you.”
I hang up knowing everything will be fine. It won’t be the trip I’d planned. But it has already rendered up more grace than I’d planned for.
My sister and I go back to the last verse of her song: “Now it’s your turn. Now it’s short and sweet. You need a motto. Give me a motto to honour your dream.”
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.
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