Today is the Frontier

 winner, Jon Whyte Memorial Essay Prize, 1996 – Writers Guild of Alberta; published in Edmonton Journal and Calgary Herald

time passages in western Alberta

“We lived where dusk had meaning” — Van Morrison, Pagan Streams

Late summer, 1962. The clearing behind the Hotel slowly opens to light. There’s a cool weight in the air, beads on the gravel and on the tall, bent blades of grass. In the bush, birds flap and twitter, gather and disperse, practicing for fall. The boy climbs up, into the cab. He has been waiting for this since Mom told him they would be leaving, and asked would he like to ride with Ted Tucker? Tucker the trucker, who every week rolled silver kegs off that truck with the rolling back gate and the rolled steel bumper.

Tucker lets the boy put his hand on the shaking globe of the gearshift, wraps his own hand overtop, and they pull it down into second, up and over into third. The engine whines just right, drops to a groan, winds its way up to a whine again. Today the truck carries a chesterfield, beds, boxes of dishes wrapped in clothes, and a bicycle. The only three-speed in Lodgepole. Leaving.

The truck turns away from the knoll where the boy and his buddies always met at dusk, heading into the sun, towards Drayton. Morning is still in the boy’s eyes. He rubs them. The washboard road shakes up through the floorboard and the hard flat seat, through his ribs. He can hear the rattle in his breath, feel the trembling. Nothing Tucker would notice, he hopes. Nothing but a rough road and the sun in his eyes, a tear maybe, but if he looks into the bush long enough, into the shadows, it will dry. Tucker finds the familiar gears on his own, and doesn’t question the boy turned aside.

At the Drayton corner, they stop. Tucker walks into the ditch, calls, “Come get me some mud.” They scoop wet clay onto a roadside post and Tucker plants a handful of wild grass. “That should do it.”

It’s a message, Tucker says, a secret code. “The others are coming in the car, and when they see it they will understand. We were here, and have gone ahead.”

The boy doesn’t understand, quite. There is always so much more to what adults say — he doesn’t ask. Adults have their codes, their signals. The boys had theirs, on the knoll, at dusk. The truck is rolling again. The boy looks back over his shoulder at the post, its message. Thinks: ‘that won’t last long. We could have done better.’

The clay is drying on his hands and, as he brushes it off on his pants, the boy glances at Tucker, who sees and laughs. They laugh together, and the boy never asks what they are laughing about.

“Tiger got to hunt, Bird got to fly;
Man got to sit and wonder Why, Why, Why?”
— Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
Cat’s Cradle

For years, I have been going back, or coming back, to Lodgepole.  The words, the choices, are always significant.  A person goes  back to a place that is no longer home, but comes  back home.

The Lodgepole Hotel was home, once.  Grandpa and Dad built it when the Pembina oilfield was being drilled, in the early sixties, and Alberta’s largest hydroelectric dam was under construction nearby on the Brazeau.  “The hotel will become the centre of community life,” the Pembina News Advertiser predicted in March, 1961.  “A major scenic highway will one day connect the area with … Banff and Jasper as well as the country north of the Brazeau, which will be serviced by Lodgepole.”

A bank office and dining room were penciled in for the empty west wing of the hotel; in the meantime, between eight foot plywood partitions under twelve foot ceilings, our family was comfortable.

Unlike most communities, Lodgepole was born on a government drafting table, concentric rings drawn onto a knoll some 260 kilometres south-west of Edmonton.  It was an idea dropped into a wilderness.

The idea was to “service” the west Pembina, to exploit, to push the frontier, to settle an immense area of boggy woods.  Love and pride and energy lit the idea with life; it was a time of optimism, of masculine progress.

Yet the artificial government implant didn’t take, at least not in the traditional, expected ways.

In 1962 our family moved out, though Dad stayed on until buyers could be found to take on the hotel’s deepening debt (as if selling a Canadian football team).  On the 25th anniversary of the discovery of oil in the Pembina, a local history was published with ‘Alberta 75’ funding.  “The population was mainly of a transient nature,” it noted apologetically, and the “New Town” was already a fading hamlet.  The west Pembina country discourages permanent residence. 

But is any residence permanent, over time?  Our awareness of time gives humans a “peculiar restlessness,” a calendar-watching insecurity, J. T. Fraser says in Time: the Familiar Stranger.  We are “unable to maintain the inner peace that a satisfied animal seems to have.”

“Strange that so few ever come to the woods to see how the pine lives and grows and spires, lifting its evergreen arms to the light — to see its perfect success…”
— Henry David Thoreau

Above groundfire that cracks hissing trunks to lick bubbling sap, pine cones swell, puff with pride until they can hold themselves no longer, explode in a delirious pop, spurt their seed, scatter the code of pinus contorta  back over blackened ground.  Saviors of the forest.

‘The phoenix tree,’ jumps up from its own ashes.  Thin green tongues lick skyward.  Lodgepole pine lives, again and again, in the shape of fire.

“They appear to have no tradition beyond the time of
their great grandfathers.  Of their origin, they think
themselves … to be indigenous, and from all times
existing as at present.”

— David Thompson, Journals

The people we call Peigan were Niitsitapiwa,  the Real People, and made their home from Otahkoiitahtayi,  Yellow Stone River, to Ponokasi’saahtaawa,  Red Deer River, and from Miistakistis,  Rocky Mountains, to Kaayihkimikoyi,  Cypress Hills, explains Peigan writer Bernadette Pard.

Niitsitapiwa followed the buffalo.  In flower moon the buffalo traveled north, and Niitsitapiwa followed.  By berry moon they had crossed the plain, and in deer-mating moon were near the foot of Miistakistis.

Niitsitapiwa hunted in the woods, but did not stay.  Too many animals, too many trees.  The women chose new lodge poles from the many skinny trees with few branches.  Twenty maannsstaamiksi  for each tipi, skinned and dried in the sun.

Their dogs could not pull one tipi’s 25 skins, so the women had to sew each tipi in pieces.
One day, Niitsitapiwa warriors raided the Crow people, beyond Otahkoiitahtayi.  They found the Crow people riding strange ponokaomitaawa,  elk dogs.  The warriors brought back ponokaomitaawa to pull a whole tipi, so the Niitsitapiwa could journey quickly through these woods where no real people stay.

Veteran ‘rig pig’ Harry says he remembers the early sixties like yesterday.  “I was young and perfect.  Everybody remembers their perfect years.

“We were all in a hurry.  Those oilfields took a zillion years to fill but everybody wanted them drained now, or sooner.

“We lived on Pan Am F Lease, drove lease roads out, lease roads back, company truck of course, lived in a company skid shack.  ‘Mobile home parks,’ some were called.

“It wasn’t bad money if you could hold it.  Trouble is, there was nothing to do but roughneck, play cards, and drink — drink at the Frontier, drink in tin trailers, steal a nip in the cab of a pickup.

“Myself, I was always saving for a Parisienne, but roads in them days, rrrgh.  Built ’em fast, with tons of heavy rock cuz everything kept sinking, eh, boggy and all.  No place for a car.

“But those Parisiennes, I tell you, low?  Wide?  Long?  They was it!

“Wanted a red car cuz everything else was black.

“I stayed ten years, if I’m countin right.  Longer than most.  But nobody goes in there with a one-way ticket.”

“Time is the soul of the world.”
— Pythagoras

First Report, Grade 3, Lodgepole Public School, 1961: absent nine days in October, present 12.  The flu?  Measles?  I don’t recall, although a distant ceiling swirls, cloud-like, through my memory.

At eight years of age, everything that matters is palpable, moving, immediate.  Now.  Caves, foot paths through the woods’ deep tangle, wild eyes, bear’s breath, or the snort of a pipe truck pulling up a nearby hill.

We attach great significance to the places of childhood, because in childhood we are briefly aware, yet satisfied.  Satisfied animals.

Without knowing it, children take time in their hands — twisting, winding, stretching, wrapping it tight and springing it loose.

A child’s time is elastic — it has some give and take, some play.  If only it were not so easily lost.

“The images we see on the landscape are but reflections in our social mirror
of the way we treat ourselves and one another.”

— Chris Maser
The Future is Today

Summer, 1992.  The smooth highway hums, pickups and logging rigs outbound from Drayton Valley each morning, back at dusk — a rush-hour metal stream through the woods.  Few brake at the Lodgepole sign; the new asphalt slips past without pause.
The shrinking hamlet is grown over with layers of humus and debris and time, sticky compressed strata I long to explore.  The only remaining gas station, Tuks’ green and red B/A, wore Gulf blue and orange last time I visited.  Now it displays Petro Canada red and grey.

On the business licenses behind the counter — Boliantz, an old time Lodgepole name, if the sixties can be ‘old time.’

We struggle with names, Duane Boliantz and I, as he fills — it doesn’t take long — I don’t really need gas.  I say it’s been twenty years; he corrects — thirty.  It might not have been Duane, it might have been his brother, the Boliantz I remember (forget?).

“The highway,” I commiserate, “it must be tough, passing by.”

“Yeh, they’re trucking the forest out and they don’t even stop for gas.  It’s not like the sixties,” he says, and I’m warming to the nostalgia when he excuses himself for another customer.  “So long,” he says, getting my name wrong.

I consider stopping by the Hotel Tavern where, as a boy, I helped Dad sweep the linoleum floors on Sundays.  The side door is propped open by one of the originals — a chrome and green vinyl chair.

I drive past, unsure why.  A green vinyl chair.  There were red ones too.  But this one propped casually under the door handle — how many times did my father move that chair, to sweep?  How many stories have been told from its thinly padded seat?  How much has escaped into air, been committed back to earth?

I must blame that one simple, stupid, chrome and green vinyl chair for outliving my grandfather, for outliving my father, for outliving my childhood. 

I arrived here chasing the memory, and I leave with the memory chasing me, pushing me on.  Transient.

Time does not cooperate.

“Undisturbed for hundreds of millions of years, the gas in Alberta’s bounteous substrata can sometimes turn nasty.”
— Alberta Report

October 17, 1982, 06:45 hours.  Working Nabors 14E rig on the Amoco Dome Brazeau River 13-12 lease, a roughneck hears a pop and two miles of pipe come kicking up — a thin black hair curling over tree tops.

Through October, through November, into December, the well hisses and burns.  Texas blowout crews fight it and lose; two men die.  People in Edmonton call in sick, and the rotten egg smell drifts over Winnipeg.  On December 23, the hole is finally capped.
The idea of Lodgepole, our understanding, has changed.

In early 1984, Culture Minister Mary Lemessurier nominates the lodgepole pine as Alberta’s official tree.  “A rose is a rose is a rose,” says an Edmonton Journal editorial.  “But a lodgepole is not always just a lodgepole — it conjures up, well, stench.”

Standing in the meadow, near a pump-jack that methodically sucks up oil, I know just enough, I suspect, to picture the homestead wrong — like I picture a trip down here with Dad when I was ten.  Picture the pasture, our bumping ’57 Dodge with the high red fins, remember standing over a faint grassy mound where three Peigans were buried.

We struggled with dates.  The way Dad told it, two families — ours and the Seedhouses — moved up from the States in 1920, settling on these flats at Blue Rapids.  Their houses faced each other across a seasonal “crick,”  and the two families’ stories cut into each other, overlap, like mortised logs, interlocking.  One house burnt down the year Uncle Mac came back or was torn down and he had to rebuild it because he had planned to summer there, and someone else was in the other cabin, or was it used as a granary, and Uncle Mac, who was 35 that year because Dad was 18, so it must have been 1935?

And soon the story of journeys, bold and plain, becomes the journey, winding and uncertain.  The real story is our struggle with time.

This place held the spirit of journey, the Peigans had told Grandpa.  The voice of water on rock, speaking in clear spaces between protective banks.  Every fall, according to Dad, the Indians set up camp here for hunting trips further west.

From here, I set out for the story in my heart.  Like wild game, its nature is to move away.

“David Thompson is one of the great map-makers
of the Canadian mind.”

— Victor Hopwood

From 1784 through 1812, David Thompson explored, surveyed and charted two million square miles of western Canada; his maps were still in use in the twentieth century.  Thompson also kept a meticulous and insightful journal.

In October, 1810, warring Peigans were in pursuit, determined to prevent Thompson from using the Howse Pass for trade with the Kootenays.  “My situation precluded sleep, cut off from my men, uncertain where to find them and equally so of the movements of the Indians,” he wrote.  “I was at a loss what to do, or which way to proceed.”  He had apparently abandoned his men and scientific calm.

Just upstream from Blue Rapids, near the deserted Boggy Hall, Thompson hid, “secreted and starving… where tall pines stood so thickly that one could not see the tent until within ten yards.”

Thompson was sought out and re-equipped by fellow trader Alexander Henry, then fled north, through deadfall and burnt-out lodgepole pine.  Forced to abandon the Howse Pass route, he pushed west to accidentally discover what became the main northern route through the Rockies. 

In Thompson’s Journals, the ascent of Athabasca Pass is laid out in proud detail.  About the weeks of terror, alone, Thompson is atypically evasive.

I approach the Journals as Thompson must have approached the mountains — most interested in the gaps, the passages through to uncharted territory.

Exploit: brilliant or daring achievement;
work, turn to account; utilize for one’s own ends.

— Oxford Dictionary

How we exploit: brilliant and daring were Niitsitapiwa, the real people.  Brilliant and daring was the man they called Koo-koo-sint, star-gazer — David Thompson.  Brilliant and daring, the blowout fighters from Texas.  Likewise the young man who I call grandfather, and the friends who gave dusk meaning.

We exploit, and we move on.  Always, passing-through.

Industry in the Pembina country means moving something out — oil, timber, electricity, big game.  Reviewing a newly published version of David Thompson’s journals, R. W. Sanford notes, “It is not just another time … but another place … the landscapes and peoples described in his journals exist only as ghosts.”

Leading dogs dragging tipi poles, driving a ’57 Dodge, paddling a canoe, hauling a drilling rig, the ghosts entered Alberta’s west country.  They might have stopped, for a coffee or a beer or a season or a few years.  Then slipped out again, with the rivers running east, crude oil sliding underground, electricity surging overhead.  They were here and have gone ahead.

It is easy, and sometimes right, to condemn such exploits.  But we all turn to our own, remake our time and place to suit ourselves.  From ever-growing layers of papers, maps, photographs and artifacts the writer reshapes the idea of Lodgepole one more time.
Glancing back over a shoulder, someone thinks: ‘That won’t last long.  We could have done better.’   We find passage to another frontier, only to discover that frontier is not the place, but the moment — the moving moment.  Our world is, forever, unsettled.

We live in a place, but our greatest bond is to time — we cannot detach ourselves from its inevitable flow.  It is a restless, living bond; today is the frontier.