“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.

“creeks in the darkness”

bridge over Rosebud River
bridge over the Rosebud River, April, 2016

I am currently at work on an essay about rivers and blood clots. An odd combination, I know, but I seem to have a clotting disorder (I’m waiting to see a hematologist for further tests) and it’s made me think a little more seriously about how our venous system works. How everything flows normally and then doesn’t. And of course that led me to think about rivers, the ones I love and return to, and how they change too for reasons that have some similarities to what happens with our veins. So it’s very absorbing, this essay, and I woke this morning with that kind of excitement I’ve always felt as I enter the deep waters of writing. It’s leading me to the north, to the MacKenzie River, where we were lucky enough to spend a few days in Fort Simpson at break-up, and to Englishman River, where I camped as a child and then as a young woman in desperate straits, and this morning to the Rosebud River as we drove it two springs ago very early and stopped at the aqua bridge between Wayne and Rosedale to listen to magpies. And in my mind is how to keep the various strands winding around each other, as the channels of braided rivers split and rejoin, as banks erode and are changed over years or centuries.

A deep cramping pain. Some swelling. In the Emergency room, my history is taken. Pulmonary embolism a year ago. Suspected deep vein thrombosis. 6 months of blood thinners. Many scans and tests.

A lab technician is called from his bed to take my blood for a d-dimer test to determine if there is active clot activity. An ultrasound is set for the next morning, though it is well into that morning when the technician draws blood from the pool of my right arm. I do not wait for the results because I want some sleep and the person in the other bed is on a powerful narcotic that makes her itchy, causes her to moan on her side of the screen that separates us. The medical staff is not happy I’m leaving.

We drive home on a dark highway. It’s a 45 minute journey and after 30 minutes the Emergency room physician phones me on my husband’s cell phone. In the car, the loud opening chords of “Sultans of Swing”, a moment when I regret he didn’t set his ring tone to something sweet—the Brahms lullaby or “That Sheep May Safely Graze”—as I struggle to stab in the right place to answer it. The physician tells me that my d-dimer test is positive for blood clotting, that I may have a DVT, and that I must return immediately to begin a course of anticoagulants.

As I’ll be coming in later in the morning for an ultrasound, I can’t just wait until then?”

No, I must insist you come back now.”

So we turn around and head back, my husband silent with weariness. He won’t let me drive. About halfway to the hospital, we see a large animal on the side of the highway. Not large like elk, which we see quite often. And not a coyote. Bigger than that. It takes a moment or two, and the glare of the animal’s golden eyes, for us to realize we’re seeing a cougar. I’ve lived on this peninsula for 35 years and I’ve seen just two cougars in that time. I’ve heard two more, I think, but sightings are rare.

All down the coast, we passed creeks in the darkness, Homesite, Meyer, Anderson, Maple, Haskins, scribbling down the mountains. And I would do it all again, sit at the desk with a nurse taking my pulse, my blood pressure, arranging for bloodwork, ultrasound, medication to prevent a blood clot moving up into my lungs, for the glow of the cougar’s eyes in our headlights, and the knowledge of water finding its way to the sea.


bridge over the Rosebud River

bridge over Rosebud River

When you visit a place where a difficult parent was young, you find yourself looking for them — at them — in a different way. My father was melancholic. He was given to gloomy prognostications about the world, himself, us, and maybe even life itself. He was born in Drumheller, a place we traveled to as children a time or two, to visit relations mostly, and I seem to remember a visit to the cemetery to stand back while my father paid homage (if that is the word) to two sisters buried under a single stone along one edge of the cemetery. In the complicated and slightly tangled kinship chart that was his family, one of the sisters was born to his mother and her first husband. That child died in infancy, of diphtheria, seven years before my father was born. Between her birth and death, there was also the death of my grandmother’s first husband, of Spanish flu, and someone whom I think might have been my grandmother’s brother. (I am trying to figure out dates, places of birth, etc.) My grandmother, a widow with eight children, remarried a year or two later and had a baby daughter with her new husband (my grandfather). That baby died at the age of three, also from diphtheria. Then there was my father. He was much younger than his half-siblings –whom he never considered halves. They were his brothers and sisters and in his father’s obituary, in 1959, they were listed as his sons and daughters. At some point in his childhood, my father left Drumheller to live with a sister in Beverly. My grandparents  stayed in Drumheller for a few more years. My grandfather was a coal-miner, though at which of the valley’s fabled mines, I have yet to find out. The other morning, standing on the Rosedale side of the Red Deer River, looking at the suspension bridge swinging slightly in the wind, the bridge built by the Great West Coal Company in 1931 to take men to their mining operation, I wondered if it might have been that one. (“Warning: The coal in the slag heaps has been smouldering for years. DO NOT approach smoking coal or climb slag heaps. A thin black crust may hide coal or burned out caverns underneath.”)

So when you visit a place where a difficult parent was young, and you see the bridges, the bare hills, the low buildings crouched out of the wind, the taverns “under new management”, and the remnants of hard small farms, you begin to know that parent in a different way. This country is called the Badlands, defined by the Canadian Encyclopedia this way:

Barren, scoured and eroded by water and etched by weathering and wind-driven sand and rain, badlands are dramatic landforms that develop an intricate network of deeply incised, narrow, winding gullies and occasional fantastically shaped HOODOO ROCKS.

Steep, often precipitous and densely rilled slopes almost devoid of vegetation are striking evidence of the forces of EROSION. To European settlers, such areas were clearly worthless. Perhaps the term badlands is derived from the French terres mauvais à traverser, meaning “land hard to cross,” as the French were among the earliest explorers in the interior of western North America.

I wish my father was still alive so I could ask him questions. There are so many. Was the man who lived in the next lot, the one with your grandmother’s maiden surname, was he her brother? Did you swim in the river? Did you see bluebirds? (We saw a courting pair in the hills above the Last Chance Saloon.) How often did your mother visit her daughters under the grass in the Drumheller Cemetery? Did you ride your bike as far as Wayne, as far as East Coulee, as far as Carbon? Was St. Anthony’s church the one where you were an altar boy? Were you allowed to swing on the suspension bridge while coal smouldered in the distance?  Is your mother’s first husband one of those buried in the common grave for Spanish flu victims (though he isn’t named on the plaque)? I wonder what one I’d begin with?

There are days when I know I’ll remember standing on the bridge over the Rosebud River, just after 7 a.m., watching magpies in the willows along the edge, with the sun already warm on those bare slopes. Dad, it’s a bridge I wish I could stand on with you.