Thoreau, or so he says, walked 10 or 12 miles every afternoon. Perhaps I could do the same. But where to go? Thoreau walked in the woods, avoiding roads as much as possible, but that’s not possible here, given the province’s trespassing laws and farming practices; few fields have spaces around the edges for passing pedestrians. Besides, there really aren’t any woods nearby. Walking out of the city almost inevitably means walking on grid roads.
When I left the house this afternoon, I wasn’t completely sure where I was headed. I walked west along the creek for a little while. The red-winged blackbirds and grackles have returned to nest. I was carrying a lightweight, waterproof camera, and its lens is too short to get decent photographs of the birds, although I tried. I do love red-winged blackbirds; those flashes of colour on their wings, their happy trilling call. Across the creek, workers were busy doing something, their day-glo coveralls bright against the dull background. I walked north and then turned west on 13th Avenue and headed towards the edge of the city. Despite the pandemic, there seemed to be a lot of city employees out working; several white pickup trucks with the city’s logo on the doors passed me. I guess they’re essential. I stopped to take a photograph and disturbed a pair of grey partridges, who flew off noisily.
Across the road, beside the railway tracks, a small area of grass had burned, leaving a smell of ashes in the air. Meadowlarks were singing. When I crossed the border from the city to the Rural Municipality of Sherwood, the road changed: it had been recently graded, but the overnight rain had left it muddy and soft. An odd-looking machine was sweeping debris off the main Canadian Pacific tracks. At the corner of Pinkie Road, I turned south. The grain-drying facility on the corner filled the air with the smell of propane. Frogs sang in a nearby slough.
I turned again and crossed the new Regina Bypass. It’s a lot of road for not very much traffic, intended to service the nearby Global Transportation Hub. The highway cost a billion dollars, and the warehouse park at the GTH is mostly empty, struggling to find tenants. If the opposition New Democrats had squandered more than a billion dollars that way, we would have never heard the end of it, but for some reason, this government has gotten away with it. They are high in the polls and it’s hard to imagine what might happen to cause them to lose the forthcoming election. I listened to the liquid songs of meadowlarks and the quiet hum of traffic in the background. Perhaps I should follow Iain Sinclair’s example—he walked alongside the M25 motorway around London to write London Orbital—and walk the Bypass. It would be a hard walk, and a dangerous one, in addition to being cheerless, but it might be the basis of something, an investigation of P3s and political manoeuvring and corruption. I don’t know.
Walking on grid roads is like walking a line on a map. Perhaps that’s true of any road, but there’s something about the grids, laid out almost perfectly straight across the land by bureaucrats in Ottawa in the nineteenth century, that makes it seem that way. To the north, long trains of covered hopper cars trundled past, carrying potash to Vancouver and then overseas.
I wonder if I’ll ever get used to walking on these roads. There’s little sign of human activity, not even much roadside litter (a pair of rubber gloves and a couple of empty vodka bottles—evidence of some disinfection ceremony?), and yet the space is entirely shaped by human (or Settler, perhaps) activity: the roads and the stubble fields tell a story of a landscape that has been almost completely reshaped for settlement and agriculture. Even the trees have been planted deliberately. It’s a hard landscape to photograph for that reason; it’s all ground, and no figure. Occasional road signs or power poles or grain bins might stand in as figures, might give the vast space some sense of scale, but otherwise it’s just horizon and clouds and sky, an abstract in shades of grey-brown and blue and white.
The clouds moved east and the sun was bright. The ubiquitous wind was unceasing. I tried to record the frogs and birds singing on my phone, but most of what I ended up with was the rumble of the wind. A car stopped to ask if I needed help. It’s true what my friend Matthew Anderson has written: if you’re walking in rural Saskatchewan, everyone who sees you will assume your vehicle has broken down.
I turned towards Grand Coulee. It’s a strange place: a suburb with a school and a village hall that seems to double as a church, but no store, nowhere residents could buy cigarettes or milk; just houses with RVs and boats parked out front. I suppose people live there because taxes in the RM are lower than they would be in the city. Or perhaps they like living where they can hear meadowlarks and killdeer from their back decks. I don’t know. I could smell barbecues cooking meat. Someone was playing Journey: “Don’t stop believing / Hold on to that feeling.”
I’ve always found Grand Coulee rather strange. There’s no coulee there, for one thing. It’s as flat as the rest of the Wascana Plains. The sign at the edge of the village says it was founded in 1903, and there are maybe half a dozen houses that are older than 1970, but there’s no sign of a siding that would’ve served the long-gone grain elevator. I wonder if the town went bankrupt in the 1930s, if almost everyone moved away then. I’m just guessing—the village’s Wikipedia page is not very informative—but perhaps when it became easy to drive into the city from there, the village found a new life as a bedroom community. I will have to carry out more research, if only to find out what is behind that strange name.
I was tired. My legs were stiff and my back hurt. If I were more fit, and if I’d started earlier in the day, perhaps I could’ve turned around and walked home. But I had walked my 12 miles for the day, and I called home for a ride back. Thoreau wouldn’t have done that. But then again, he didn’t have to spend all afternoon walking to the nearest village, either.