Swift Current to Battleford Trail: Swift Current to Herschel, continued
When you walk close to home, you begin to develop a deeper intimacy with a landscape you already know–if only slightly. It’s quite different from walking in Europe, for instance, where I find myself guessing at the names of plants and birds. Here, while I struggle to distinguish durum from barley at a distance, and I find myself wondering if the dominant grass in a patch of unbroken grassland is rough fescue or something else, and although I can’t distinguish birds by their song very well, I still feel a kinship to this place. At times that kinship is a burden, and at other times it’s a gift. I find myself being constantly reminded of the history of this place, a history that, as Candace Savage says in her book Geography of Blood, encompasses an ecocide (the destruction of the buffalo and much of the grassland that existed here before settlers arrived) and a genocide (the forced removal of Indigenous peoples from this place, their incarceration on reserves and in residential schools). People like me have benefitted from those events, because they’ve made it possible for us to live here in the style to which we’ve become accustomed. We might not be responsible for them–we are not our ancestors, after all–but because we’ve benefitted from them, we’re still answerable in some way. Exactly what that answerability might look like is something we’ve talked about after our morning smudges. There’s some general agreement that feelings of shame and sadness aren’t productive, but still, when we stopped to look at a buffalo rubbing stone on our third day of walking, and as Rick made an offering of tobacco there, I felt overwhelmed by those emotions. It was the most powerful experience I’ve had on this walk.
Our departure from Swift Current coincided with a Métis culture camp, and after words were spoken by representatives of groups that used the Swift Current to Battleford Trail–a Métis elder, an RCMP officer–a large group of people followed us to the edge of town. Then they turned around, leaving only the most foolhardy to continue walking north. Hugh had let a Hutterite colony know we were coming, and they invited us to have iced tea and cookies. It was a hot day and the cold tea was delicious. They showed us their preserves, too–each bottle a work of art.
Then we spent the night in a farmyard, where we were served the most delicious chili I’ve ever eaten–and it wasn’t tasty only because of the day’s walk. The following night we spent in another farmyard. Gord, the farmer, told a story about his father’s experience of farming back in the 30s. “He shipped two cars full of lentils and got a bill for $17,” Gord said. That was the end of his father’s career as a farmer, but he was still drawn to that way of life, and made sure that his three sons each had a farm.
In the morning we pushed on, across the South Saskatchewan River towards Kyle. It rained a lot that day–and even though that makes walking inconvenient and uncomfortable, in a dry land like this one isn’t allowed to complain about rain–so we stayed in the hotel and treated ourselves to supper and breakfast there. I was particularly exhausted that second day, because I was carrying a heavy pack as a test to see if I could make a walk similar to this one alone, without support, at some future date, and I learned that at this point I’m not fit enough to carry 20 kilograms over 30 kilometres. I’d better make this walk, I thought, rather than treating it as a dry run for some future walk that may or may not ever happen, and in the morning I switched the heavier pack for a much lighter one. Much happiness has followed that decision.
On the way out of Kyle, we met Amy, the proprietor of the Kyle Times, who warned us that the dessicants farmers spray on their fields of peas and lentils aren’t good to breathe. “There’s always drift,” she said, “and you’ll need to have something to cover your faces.” But so far we haven’t run across any dessicants being sprayed or any herbicide drift of any kind, although while we were looking at the petroglyphs today a cropdusting plane was buzzing back and forth on the horizon.
We spent the night in Sanctuary, a ghost town that has metamorphosed into a large farmyard. Most of the buildings are gone. We made camp next to a lumber shed, one of the few remaining structures. Despite the drought this year, the nearby slough is in flood. That’s been the case throughout this walk: the land is still working through the consequences of the past several wet years.
We were scheduled to spend the following night in a farmyard at Otter Springs, one of the important stops on the Swift Current to Battleford Trail, but the weather forecast was calling for rain, so we stayed in nearby Elrose, where we had a communal meal of chili and rice and red wine. On the Camino, communal meals help to develop connections within the group, and the same was true for us in Elrose. That made a difference the following night, in Greenam, another ghost town, where we all slept on the floor of what had been the local school and is now a community hall. It’s a small room, and the chili was working its magic on everyone’s digestion. The farts and snores were easier to take now that we knew each other better–and besides, I was wearing earplugs.
The next night, we slept in an abandoned farmyard known to the locals as Cappie’s Trees, after the family who homesteaded there in 1917. They’d abandoned the farm in 1937–a year many farmers finally gave up struggling against the drought and low prices–and the foundation of their home is still there. We’d walked across the Fairview Community Pasture to get there, and it had been a great if exhausting day of walking. Several local farmers and ranchers came by to say hello. One was the grandson of the people who had lived there; another was a retired RCMP special constable, who walked with us for several miles the following day; and another was a local rancher who is part of the group who now leases Fairview from the provincial government. He told us that just an hour or so before we got there, a bull had been lost in the caraganas that sheltered us from the wind. They’d tried everything, he said, and they simply could not get him to cooperate and return to the herd. “We knew you folks were coming and we were getting a little worried, but eventually he went back to the cows by himself,” the rancher said. He told us about ranching and about the management of community pastures and the conflict between farmers, who till the land, and ranchers, who prefer to see it left as grass. “This was pretty fair country until the farmers found it,” he told us, and thinking about our hike through the community pasture, across the Bad Hills, I found myself agreeing with him.
The next morning, we headed for Fiske. Hugh was giving a talk at the community hall there that night, and we set up camp on the lawn outside. It was a good campsite: there was running water inside and a flush toilet, something I missed at Cappie’s Trees, where I found myself having to relieve my bowels the way most of the rest of the world does it. I felt a connection to the majority of humanity and broke through a psychological barrier, although I’m not keen to repeat the experience right away. There’s a bar in Fiske, and we ate dinner and breakfast there. Then we started walking to Herschel, where I’m typing this on a long table in a sunny room at the Retreat House. Tonight we’re having another communal supper–spaghetti and meatballs, I hear–and tomorrow we start walking north again. I’m glad we got this break, because I needed a rest, and there’s a huge, broken blister on the sole of my left foot that needs some attention, or at least a respite from walking. And I just heard someone say that there’s cold beer in the fridge. That seems like as good a reason as any to stop writing and find something else to do with the rest of my afternoon. The next time I get a chance, though, I’ll pull out my keyboard again and let you know how things are going.