It’s 2:30 in the afternoon. I’m leaning against a fragrant hay bale in a ditch beside Highway 2. I’ve walked 24 kilometres so far and hope to get to 35 before I stop for the day.
It’s been a good day for walking, cooler than yesterday and cloudy, although now the sun is shining. I mostly walk on a weedy gravel verge beside the paved shoulder. There’s a lime-green plant that grows only there, it seems, and when I step on it, it releases a sour stink. That smell has accompanied me most of the day. The passing vehicles create a kind of imaginary community: we’re just people trying to get somewhere. It’s just that my mode of transportation is completely impractical by 2018 standards.
I stopped at the Sukanen Ship Museum this morning. I’ve driven past many times, but I’ve never pulled off the highway to take a look. The collection includes the ship Tom Sukanen, a Finnish homesteader, built in the 1930s to sail home to Finland on the Saskatchewan River. He was heartbroken by the loss of his wife and children and in those dustbowl years he must’ve thought he’d made a terrible mistake leaving home. But there’s also a kind of pioneer village stocked with buildings salvaged from nearby towns: a garage, a blacksmith’s ship, a train station, a combination library and municipal office, a school, a church, a telephone exchange. Everything seems so small, especially the homesteaders’ shacks, which include the house where Diefenbaker grew up. It’s also very sad. Those people sacrificed and suffered to build new communities and lives, and now they’re gone and the communities they created are mostly gone as well.
There’s no denying what those homesteaders accomplished, but at the same time they were only able to make this province because the First Peoples of this place had been removed from the land, incarcerated on reserves. We tend to forget that part of the story. Forgetting makes the homesteaders’ struggles both innocent and heroic, and not part of a colonial enterprise which depended on the displacement of other people. From what I’ve been reading about the treaties, where we are today is not what the Indigenous negotiators had in mind.
I had a Coke and an energy bar and petted the resident cat, and then I started down the road. That was ten kilometres ago. What will the next 10 kilometres bring? I’m craving a BLT, but I doubt they’ll bring me one of those.
I wanted to say something about Andrew Suknaski and Wood Mountain Poems. Suknaski was born in Wood Mountain in 1942. His father was a homesteader who walked from Wood Mountain to Moose Jaw and back several times, so I’m not the first person to make this journey on foot, although Suknaski Sr. seems to have taken the road through Limerick, a town that no longer exists*. In Wood Mountain Poems, Suknaski writes about the community where he grew up, his family, his connection to that particular place. He also writes about the wider history of Wood Mountain, the place where Sitting Bull and 5,000 Lakota people sought refuge after the Battle of Little Bighorn. Suknaski overtly claims all the history of the area as his to write about, including the First Nations presence (there is a Lakota reserve at Wood Mountain), something one wouldn’t do today, because of concerns about cultural appropriation. But 40 years ago, when Wood Mountain Poems was published, it was a typical move. Suknaski took the trouble to learn some Dakota, and includes the language in some of his poems (why Dakota and not Lakota? I don’t know), but the poems about his family and the settler experience are by far the strongest in the book. He was closer to those experiences. By contrast, the poems about the Lakota are often forced and therefore much less successful.
Wood Mountain Poems was Suknaski’s first book, and I love its evocation of a part of the world that deserves to have more poems written about it. I wonder if I’ll find a plaque in his honour when I get to the village. Probably not. So I’m making this walk instead.
*Since I hit “publish,” my friend Connie has informed me that Limerick does exist. I’ll be going over to make a visit–but likely not on foot.