Plaid, Pickups and Prairie Skies
Winnipeg, Manitoba to Moose Jaw, SaskatchewanRoute: Trans Canada Highway 1 WestDriving Distance: 8 hours, 652 kmFavourite Song: Wheat Kings, The Tragically HipQuote of the Day:?? “These are the gardens of the Desert, these The unshorn fields, boundless and beautiful, For which the speech of England has no name: The Prairies.” W.C. Bryant
It was an early September Saturday morning when I pulled in to the gas station on the outskirts of Winnipeg. I was on my way to Moose Jaw and I had 650km in front of me. I was rested, there were clear blue skies as far as the eye could see, and there were golden wheat fields in all directions. The drive was going to be easy; all I had to do was point the car west, put on the cruise control and sit back and enjoy the ride. Considering it was just past 7am on a weekend, I was shocked at how many people were up and at ’em. I imagined most Ontario folks, at least the ones I knew, would be sleeping in for at least a few more hours.
The fields were full of slow moving tractors and the bales of hay were rolled up in staggered rows that stretched out for miles. I could see tiny brown and black dots in the distance which, I assumed, were countless heads of cattle, and I shared the highway with a steady stream of pickups that kept passing me in the fast lane. Plaid, pickups and prairies were everywhere.
My first stop was a small town just over an hour west of Winnipeg called Portage la Prairie. I smiled when I saw the sign because my Dad had a very strong connection to it. He was 18 when he enlisted in the Royal Canadian Navy during World War II, and his ship was called the HMSC Portage. He was a signalman, the ship was an Algerine-class minesweeper and it travelled the Atlantic Ocean as part of an escort that delivered supplies to England while the convoy kept an eye out for German U-boats.
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After about 90 minutes, I saw the sign for Brandon, Manitoba and I pulled off the highway for a coffee refill. I’d been to Brandon before. I used to travel the country as a sales and product trainer, and after working a few days in Winnipeg I would drive to Brandon for another few days before catching a flight back home to Ontario. I smiled because the town is host to a WHL Hockey Team called the Brandon Wheat Kings, which happens to be part of the title to one of my favourite Tragically Hip songs.
I drove another 90 minutes, and as I crossed the Saskatchewan border I heard an email notification on my phone. The tourism rest stop was up ahead so I decided to pull off, take a picture of the sign, and catch up with whoever was trying to get in touch with me. When I opened the email, my heart began to race. It wasn’t bad news. On the contrary. Before I left for my great Canadian road trip, I’d emailed someone I hadn’t seen in a very long time who lives in Calgary; I extended an invitation to meet for coffee when I passed through town. It was a man I had met almost 10 years earlier, and as a matter of detail, I only ever spent a grand total of 8 days with him. Despite that, we had stayed in touch off and on with emails and phone calls but the communication had gone quiet over the past year or so. After not receiving a reply about meeting during my road trip, I chalked it up to ‘not meant to happen’, put it out of my mind, and embarked on my adventure.
Long story short, his email to me that day stated he was in northern Saskatchewan visiting family and would be back in Calgary in a few days. If I was able to pass through then, we could likely arrange a get together. In between my surprise and excitement, I thought about how I could alter my plans without messing up all the reservations I’d made from Banff to Tofino ahead of time. And so, I replied that I would love to see him in a few days and would figure out a way to make it happen.
As I pulled out of the rest stop I was on cloud nine: A beautiful blue sky like I’d never seen before, the chance to catch up with a beautiful man that I’d been in love with many years before, and I was about to drive through my Dad’s birthplace, Moosimin, Saskatchewan, for the very first time. It was shaping up to be a very good day.
After driving around Moosimin for a minute, and wondering how on earth my grandparents survived raising 5 children during The Depression in such a tiny place, I continued on and marvelled at the statuesque grain elevators that stood guard over the next several towns along the Canadian Pacific Railway line. ?The Canadian Encyclopedia refers to them as Prairie Cathedrals, and states that almost 6000 of them adorned the landscape over the past century. Canada’s grain industry is one of the biggest in the world, and due to the sheer size of this country, most of the grain is shipped by railcar. In case you were unaware, the Government of Saskatchewan shares:?“Saskatchewan produces both spring and winter wheat and supplies 10 per cent of the world’s total exported wheat, and is Canada’s most important grain-producing region.”
In another 3 hours I would arrive in Moose Jaw. I had secured a little bed and breakfast in a heritage house instead of opting for a chain motel on the side of the highway, and I was thrilled at the thought of staying in a real house, with a real yard and eating a real breakfast.
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I bypassed the City of Regina, which from a distance, reminded me of The Emerald City from the Wizard of Oz. It reminded me of it because after miles upon miles of nothing but fields, farms and fences, the prairie metropolis of tall skyscrapers, traffic and drive-thru’s seemed to pop up out of nowhere.
I wasn’t prepared for the rolling hills that began to rise up from the flat landscape as I crossed into the municipal boundaries of Moose Jaw, which translates to ‘warm breezes’ in the Cree language. The downtown area was lovely and the heritage buildings have historical murals painted on some of the outside walls. Like so many other prairie towns, Moose Jaw was put on the map after the expansion of the railway in the late 1880’s.?? One of its claims to fame is the Tunnels of Moose Jaw; they say the tunnels were used by Al Capone during his bootleg days during Prohibition. Although I am an advocate of learning about the areas you travel through, I decided against the underground tour, grabbed a salad to go and headed straight for my B & B.
After getting lost for half an hour thanks to some bridge construction and an unreliable OnStar advisor, I stopped at a gas station to find another way around the “road closed” sign. A short while later, I pulled up to the front door of one of the oldest homesteads in Moose Jaw (1902) and I could see the view from the backyard. The house was perched at the top of a hill and the Moose Jaw River wound its way through the town down below. I parked my car, dug through the endless duffle bags to find a pair of pyjamas and a sweater, tossed a lukewarm beer in my purse from the cooler, and went to find the owner so I could check in.
Wakamow Height’s Bed and Breakfast‘s porch looked like a doll’s house; with frilly table cloths, fine china, flowers and wistful fabrics. I meandered my way through the entrance and took my time looking at the knick knacks that made me feel like I was visiting a storybook version of the perfect Grandma’s house.
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As I made my way around the corner, I was greeting by the owner who welcomed me and seemed interested in where I was coming from and where I’d be travelling the following day. She told me a little about her home; the restoration and upkeep was an ongoing labour of love and she seemed genuine when she expressed how happy she was to share her lovely home with travellers who were passing through.?? She showed me to my room, said that breakfast was served early, and told me to help myself to the tea and reading material located just outside my bedroom door.
My space was called The Wedgewood Room, and I felt like I’d just stepped into my favourite Jane Austen novel. After marvelling at my princess room for a few minutes, I grabbed my food, journal and camera, and spent the next several hours pretending I was the English author, sitting in the yard of my manor house, writing my sequel to Pride and Prejudice.
After an hour of writing and catching up on some text conversations, I decided that one more beer might be a nice way to cap off an incredibly wonderful day. I went to my car to retrieve one from the cooler and as I rounded the corner, I saw a Momma dear and her baby wander across the lawn. I had my camera in my pocket, luckily, and was able to get this shot before they dashed out of sight.
As I returned to my backyard oasis to catch the sunset, I tried to imagine what the next few days might hold. My plan was to head straight to Banff National Park in the morning, camp in the mountains, and then double back to Calgary the day after to meet my old friend. I hadn’t intended to stay in Calgary originally, no cities in fact, but this trip was as much about going with the flow as it was about knocking some bucket items off of my list.
I broadcast my change of plans on my Facebook page before I went to sleep, and my cousin made a comment about a possible snowstorm in Calgary. It was only September 6 for crying out loud. I thought he was joking.
Stay tuned every friday for the next installment of The Great Canadian Road Trip