“There was something that I knew as we stopped by the bridge.”

Last Sunday, we drove from Edmonton to Drumheller with our Edmonton family — they were in a second rental car and their route paralleled ours going and returning so that when we got a speeding ticket on the way back, just south of Camrose, they were on a different highway and got their speeding ticket ten minutes later just north of Stettler (even though we’d texted them to tell them to slow down!). Anyway, we arrived at the little miner’s cabin we’d booked and then we decided to drive out to Wayne for lunch. (I sent a postcard from Wayne for those of you who read this blog on a regular basis.)

I love the bridges on Highway 10X. The ones between Rosedale and Wayne are painted an aqua that echoes the sky in certain lights and reminds me of robin eggs, duck eggs, the paint on fading farmhouses from my childhood. I keep thinking about those bridges, the geometry of their construction, the way they focus the way you look at the Rosebud River through them, the way you remember the walk you took with two of your grandchildren from the Last Chance Saloon, Henry confiding that mooses wear antlers (the way we might wear a favourite hat), and Kelly musing about the lights flashing from her sneakers. We were heading to the play area adjacent to the Wayne Community Campground (featuring a horseshoe pit, self-registration, and drinking water) and it seemed, in a moment when the earth tilted, that we were walking back in time, that we might not stop but simply enter the hills and never return.

our bridge

I wrote about the river and its bridges here . It’s become established in my consciousness in the way something does, without bidding, and you dream about it, you smell it (sharp scent of willow buds and muddy water). The bridges and the river I first encountered in 2016 have an added layer now, children talking quietly as we head towards the slides and swings and the opportunity to self-register. It’s cold. We all huddle a little more snugly into our jackets and stick together for warmth. You can’t hear the magpies everywhere in this picture but I’ll never forget them.

9. The Rosebud River, between Home Coulee and the Red Deer River

A Blackfoot word, Akokiniskway, meaning “the river of many roses”.

Stop, I kept saying, stop. It was cold, we’d slept one night in the honeymoon suite at the Rosedeer Hotel in Wayne after an indifferent dinner in the atmospheric Last Chance Saloon. Our room was on the second floor. The third floor was apparently haunted, rooms where Klu Klux Klan thugs hired by the mines had beaten men identified as Communists. Burned them with cigarettes. Tarred them and feathered them and sometimes went too far. Our sleep was uninterrupted by the past. We’d risen, shivered our way to the cold car, and we left before 7 a.m., everything around us silent and crisp with frost, though we’d hiked in shirtsleeves the afternoon before above the townsite to look into old mine shafts, to lean down to prairie crocus, sunlight warm on our arms. Stop,

stop. Because the river had something to tell me. I couldn’t quite hear. Something, something, about miners my grandfather might have known and hardship and what the fallen fenceposts had kept contained. Magpies squabbled in the willows. The wild roses were not in leaf, not yet, but the bushes grew on the banks, promising faint perfume and a profusion of pink blossoms by June.

There was something that I knew as we stopped by the bridge. Air, the light falling over the hoodoos on Highway 10x. Magpies, whose ancestors may have shadowed my grandfather on his way to work, my aunts and uncles on their way to school, their lunch in lard pails. My thumb on the rusting blue of the bridge rasped a few syllables I’d never heard before, a whisper, You could live here. This road could be your route home. Stop.

“Live in the layers/not on the litter.”

the layers

The other afternoon, as we were driving on Highway 10X from Rosedale to Wayne, Alberta, anticipating lunch at the Last Chance Saloon, where we stayed (memorably) in April, 2016, I was commenting on the hills on either side of the Rosebud River, the striations so beautiful in sunlight, and my husband (a poet) recited two lines of Stanley Kunitz:

“Live in the layers,
not on the litter.”

I aspire to the layers. I aspire to finding out where I fit in the silt and rock and dry paper records of land purchase and settlement, in the names on the 1926 census where I found my father’s parents (before his birth a few months later) on Midland Road, Michichi (which I first thought must mean the small village of Michichi but then realized was Michichi Creek, in Drumheller on the north side of the Red Deer River). In the mud along the river where I walked yesterday morning, finding other footprints made before my own, on the dry wide main street on Drumheller where I explored with two of my grandchildren yesterday and the day before. I felt porous in that landscape, every bit of light and scent of sage and mineral tang of water entering my body. In the cemetery where we went to pay respects to the two babies who would have been my aunts (Julia and Myrtle), my grandson Henry, age 2, told his mum that he loved his grandparents. You should tell them, she said, and he turned to me, said, I love my grandparents. He is the age Julia was when she died. He is as alive as any child I’ve ever known. When I showed him the bear skin on the ceiling of the Last Chance Saloon, just above our table as we ate grilled cheese sandwiches and hamburgers, he said delightedly, A star bear! A star bear! (It was, in a way — its skin spreadeagled against the low ceiling…)

Yes, I felt porous, the generations coming to rest in my cheekbones, the small ache in my knees as I unfolded myself from the seat of the rental car in front of the renovated miners cottage where we stayed just a block from the river, its kitchen lit by Benjamin nonexplosive lamps that might once have lit the entrance to a shaft, maybe even the shaft of a coalmine where my grandfather earned a small living for his 10 dependents on a farm near Michichi Creek. My granddaughter Kelly wanted the old story of the mermaid at bedtime, not the Disney version but the heartbreaking story written by Hans Christian Andersen in the book I bought for her in Edmonton and which we read over several days, her questions so sensible: Why does the mermaid have to give up her tail? It’s so beautiful. And her voice? Why couldn’t she keep half her voice?

Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!
How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?

Did the little girls buried in the Drumheller Cemetery love stories? Did anyone have time to read to them or hold them and sing, as we sang, the old songs, the ones John remembered, the ones I recalled? It was a hundred years ago that Myrtle died of diphtheria, 95 since Julia died of the same disease.I want nothing more right now than to live in the layers, folded into the place and the remnant lives of those who lived before me, lit by the soft light of those old lamps.

the lamp

The honeymoon suite at the Last Chance Saloon


That’s where we are tonight, old marrieds in Wayne, Alberta. I’ve been hunting for ancient Kishkans in the Provincial Archives in Edmonton and the Drumheller Cemetery. Surprising discoveries which I’ll write about later (think squatters rather than homesteaders…). A certain poignancy to finding names on old microfilm and realizing how surprised those new Canadians would be to know that three generations later, a young couple has settled in Edmonton, across the river from a later 1st generation home in Beverly; and that their little child hears magpies every day (my father loved magpies). How the world changes, and doesn’t. My father also loved prairie crocuses, which are in bloom on the hills above Wayne —