Less of a promise and more of a hint? Of spring, that is.
I was sitting at the top of Dry Island Buffalo Jump earlier this week. The evidence for spring was all around. Prairie dogs were out in the bright sun, squabbling and tussling with each other. I didn’t know they scampered with a skipping jump. I’m more used to seeing them scurry for their holes. The jumping was fun to see. Maybe it was a spring thing?
It was human noise and nonsense free up there. A spring break Monday, I was in desperate need of space, wanting to be out of the city, and finding some quiet. Figuring the mountains might be busy, I headed east instead of west, and once off the highways and onto dirt roads, I could feel the tensions of a long term start to fade.
Some small ponds had a layer of ice, but like the banks of snow in ditches and sheltered spots, it seemed winter was receding. Empty ridge roads, bright sunshine, bare trees, brown fields with a glint of gold, and washed out blue skies were all sights to see.
When I stopped to take a photo of some old shacks (couldn’t resist), the racing shadow of a bird caught my eye. Spinning and scanning, I saw a hawk glide overhead, searching for a meal. At first I thought it was a red-tailed hawk, although the colouring seemed muted, so perhaps it was a rough legged hawk instead? Either way, it was a wonderful moment, and so positive. Unless you’re a prairie dog…
I was hoping to spot another hawk from the buffalo jump but it wasn’t to be. Instead, a wheeling raven soared over the badlands – I could hear the wings beating as it passed. All the sounds were soothing. Birds singing in the bare trees behind me, the grass being torn by the ground squirrels, the buzz of a bee (in March!) and the sound of the Red Deer river, in thaw and flow far below. The last might have been my imagination, or the sound of a light breeze, but I fancied it to be the river.
All the promise of spring! And a promise to myself to lighten up, and take the negative human constructs of our world less seriously. As I get older, I find the world harder to understand. It can’t always be ignored, but I aim to deflect some of the 21st century madness that appears to be on us. It seems far less pressing when you’re atop a prairie buffalo jump!
It was hard to drag myself away, so I didn’t, not immediately. I sat and wrote much of this piece, and hung out a little more with my prairie dog buddies. It was fun simply to hang with the buffalo jump gang.
The thread through this post is a little frayed, and a bit twisted – less thread and more like an old cassette tape that has unwound from the spool – but there is a line…
One thing leads to another, if I can borrow an old lyric. Where to begin? A splendid piece, Monster Blues and Salmon, Too, by Walt over at RivertopRambles was the starting gun – it got me thinking and following movies and music along a winding trail. A long and winding (oh stop it, PlaidCamper! Or get your own lyrics…) Walt linked to a video (you can go watch and listen to it at the link above) that had me jumping down a musical rabbit hole, chasing old memories and digging out old albums.
The Big Head Blues Club pointed me to John Lee Hooker, I took a detour with Van Morrison, and ended up traveling through Springsteen’s Nebraska. I heard and found echoes and traces of all these and more after Walt’s blues pulled the musical trigger. Hanging out in Nebraska got me back to the Terrence Malick movie Badlands, and that reminded me I was planning to watch Malick’s Days of Heaven. So I did.
What an astonishing movie! Set in 1916, it is a rural drama played out in the fields of the Texas panhandle. Murder, loyalty, poverty, identity, family breakdown, and the threat of industrial scale farming production are some of the themes in the mix. If that doesn’t appeal, don’t be put off, simply watch the movie as a series of painterly scenes. And Brooke Adams, Richard Gere, and Sam Shepard are all quite pretty.
The actual story is slight, fairly conventional, and the dialogue is rather stilted and spare. Fortunately, what overrides the plot and dialogue deficiencies is the voiceover delivered by the most interesting character, a teenage girl played by Linda Manz. Sometimes I find voiceovers irritating; it can seem as though the movie is unable tell a story effectively without a clunky voiceover explaining everything. The voiceover in Days of Heaven is exceptional. It reveals the real story in the movie, told almost in parallel to the events unfolding on screen, and the commentary presents the most affecting point of view.
Days of Heaven is beautiful, with frame after frame of striking images. For the look of the film, Malick was inspired by Edward Hopper, and if Hopper had ever made a movie, it might have looked something like Days of Heaven. The house in the movie was built as a set based on the painting below:
Malick’s aim was to shoot in natural light, which he mostly did and with striking results – the harvest scenes are breathtaking. The cinematographer, Nestor Almendros, won an Oscar for his lighting.
As I was watching, the natural lighting had me thinking about The Revenant, how that was filmed in a similar way, in natural light at the start and end of the day. I’m such a nerd – some quick research revealed the production designer, Jack Fisk, worked on both movies. The cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki won an Oscar for his work on The Revenant. I ended up watching The Revenant again, wanting to see and compare the cinematography. What a nerd, but what a delightful landscape-heavy double feature. Shot in different seasons, and forty years apart, both movies were made (in part) in Alberta. Oh the winter grandeur of the mountains, and the late summer beauty of the rolling prairies.
What a wonderful music and movie journey I ended up taking. OK, so it was through an iPad screen, and the hour got exceptionally late, but it was as close to being out of the city as I could get midweek.
There you have it. I’m not so sure I’ve managed to wind the cassette tape back onto the spool, but the music and movie trip was good for me (and for Mrs PC – she didn’t have to listen to me complaining about my nature deficit – and she seems to like my noise cancelling headphones even more than I do. Apparently they really work…)
Little end note tangent: I stayed up late and watched movies because I didn’t have “real” work the next day. Instead of teaching, I attended a workshop designed to promote positive mental health in students (and teachers) – I was a little drowsy later in the day – and one repeated theme was about being outdoors and/or in natural environments and having time to play.
The profile of the class I’m teaching this year includes many students with a mental health diagnosis, and there are several others with mental health problems. It’s quite the challenge in our communities these days, and, sad to say, increasingly prevalent amongst our young people…
I know I’m preaching to the choir here, but I firmly believe that being outdoors and involved in the natural world has a fundamental part to play in maintaining good (mental) health. We are better human beings as a result. In that spirit, we are planning on being out in the mountains and on the slopes this coming weekend. Winter playtime!
Thanks for reading, please feel free to share a story, a music or movie recommendation, or a tip for positive mental health, and have a wonderful weekend! If you are in the USA, or from the USA, and you celebrate, I hope you are enjoying a happy Thanksgiving.
Another little end note: to meet the overwhelming demand (erm, one request) the butternut and black bean chilli recipe will be included next week – there was no need (or demand, PlaidCamper) to squeeze in more squash after last week…
Many nations celebrate, and today is Canada’s turn! This won’t be a long post, and it features some photographs I’ve included previously, but I hope you can forgive that.
I simply wanted to pull out a selection to show the True North across the seasons and in different lights. I feel so privileged to be a citizen of this wonderful country.
It isn’t perfect, but when we live in increasingly challenging times, Canada and many Canadians are choosing to be inclusive, welcoming, and fair-minded.
Many countries, and many citizens in those countries, seek to be positive. They choose collaboration, mutual respect within and between nations, valuing and celebrating diversity in all forms, and extending an open hand of friendship, rather than angry raised fists and pointing fingers.
I’ll say it again, Canada isn’t perfect, no nation ever is, but a positive effort by each citizen in each country has to be made. What is the measure of a decent society? Perhaps how that society chooses to behave when times are tough?
As an approach to making the world safer, how is building walls, rejecting collaboration, abandoning treaties, making threats, and fear-mongering to pursue personal and political ends that are only designed to seek profit or control, really going to help? We can do better than that, want to be better than that. Don’t be misled, or exploited. Let’s be amigos, not enemies…
Time to stop – getting a bit bossy. I’m keeping it short and positive this week! If you are in Canada, you are Canadian, wishing you were Canadian, feel Canadian in your heart, or simply love maple syrup, then happy Canada Day!
…like a red-tailed hawk over river valley badlands.
We were sitting on the edge of a buffalo jump, overlooking the Red Deer River, when a hawk flew up from below, higher and higher, rising and wheeling in the sun. It seemed to hang for a perfect moment, just above our heads, the sun shining through the wing and tail feathers. The hawk’s silhouette glowed at the edges, brick red and orange fire against the blue. What a sight! It continued to climb, glide and ride the thermals, seemingly effortless as it soared away and across the badlands.
Can you imagine being the hawk? Surely some of the flight is sheer joy? I know, it was out and about the hawkish business of feeding and survival, but still…(I wish I had a photograph to share, but we were so taken by the sight, a photograph was very much an afterthought – and then there is my speedy reaction time with a camera. Pretty sure I’d have taken several pictures of sky!)
We were happy to enjoy a sunny Sunday after the rather damp previous weekend. Sat in shirtsleeves at the top of Dry Island Buffalo Jump eating a picnic was very pleasant. Gophers scampered, butterflies tumbled and fluttered in the wind, and trees rustled and shimmered under a bright blue sky. Throw in long golden grasses swaying in the breeze, the gentle buzz and drone of insect life, the call of birds along the valley, and it all made for beautiful views with a lovely natural soundtrack.
You approach this small provincial park by driving across rolling prairies. There is very little to indicate the presence of the Red Deer River ahead of you as you search for the buffalo jump. The paved road is straight for kilometres, until, without warning, it becomes a dirt road, and makes a sharpish left turn at a small stand of low trees. Suddenly, the badlands valley appears on your right, wide, vast, and too deep to see into the bottom from the car. Time to pull over and be amazed. The contrast with the grasslands before is simply astonishing, adding further impact to an already wonderful scene.
After eating, we wandered down into the valley, following the steep dirt road to a small parking and picnic area in front of the river. (We didn’t drive down because we wanted to hike past the fragrant sagebrush, and because, if the road is wet, it is possible you will be stranded at the bottom. After rain, the dirt becomes mud so slick, most vehicles, 4WD or not, will be stuck. Tow trucks won’t come down and rescue you! We decided that recent rains may have made it too slippery, and by the time we’d eaten, large clouds were beginning to bubble up and over…and being stuck in the mud is perhaps not the best excuse for missing work on Monday?)
The Red Deer flows slowly and serenely through the valley. We picked our way along the riverbank, enjoying the dart of a fish, the flapping and splashing of ducks on the far side, and following the blue damselflies seemingly scouting the way for us. A pair of birds skimmed across the surface of the water, no doubt enjoying the abundant bug life. All seems right with the world in such a peaceful setting. My only alarm was in almost stepping on a garter snake hidden in a patch of fallen dried brush. That set the heart hammering for a short while. I was far more attentive thereafter, and I hope the snake is now feeling fine too.
We had planned on exploring some of the trails at the foot of the jump, but it was really, really warm on the valley floor. We settled for sitting awhile by the river, enjoying what felt like a timeless place, thinking about the lives of those who’d been here before. Imagine, with buffalo, fish, birds, and berries, it must have been a Cree treasure trove…
It was difficult to stir ourselves, but the clouds were amassing. We didn’t rush, and besides, the track was steep, so it was a leisurely plod back to the top ahead of the approaching rain.
What a day for natural wonders and unexpected encounters – a day to send your spirits soaring!
Thanks for reading, please feel free to share a story or make a comment, and have a wonderful weekend!
Prairie road trips can get your imagination going into overdrive!
Spending so much time in the foothills and on the plains is great for storytelling. You might be getting away or heading towards something in all that open ground. The huge spaces are canvases for wonderful stories, real or imagined, like a giant screen on which to project our tales. But as I’ve said in other posts, the scenery is often so much more than a background for stories. It can be a vital character, or help reveal character. It can shape events, and encourage us to confront what is real or important. In fact, the background becomes the foreground, goes from being passive to active, alive, and sometimes kicking.
I was thinking about this whilst watching an entertaining little movie, Cop Car (dir. Jon Watts, Focus 2015) recently. A road movie/coming of age drama/crime thriller, it is a new addition to my favourite outdoor or wilderness movies. As before, I’ve likely stretched the definition of what makes an outdoor or wilderness movie, and decided Cop Car fits the bill. For the most part, the tale is told under vast skies, on rural roads and along two lane blacktops snaking through golden grasslands. So, definitely an outdoor movie (or an almost outdoors movie!)
The story is quite simple, almost plotless. Two young runaway boys stumble over an “abandoned” police car and take it for a joy ride. The corrupt police officer wants his car back because there is incriminating evidence in the trunk. That’s pretty much the set up. What elevates the piece is a fine performance by Kevin Bacon, sporting a tremendous moustache and in fine scary bad cop mode. The outstanding use of the Colorado grasslands creates an unusual setting for all the drama. These elements, plus a short running time and economical script, combine to create a gripping tale. It’s rural noir! The details are all there – late model cars, old pick up trucks, lots of dust, and the occasional cow – if the movie had been shot in an urban setting, it would have been less effective.
It opens with the two young boys walking across the grasslands, repeating curse words, verbally testing where they are prepared to push the boundary, where they might cross a line. It’s a dare. They reach a literal boundary, a barbed wire fence, and choose to climb through, and push on in their attempt to escape whatever is behind them. Each time they dare each other and achieve a minor success, we know they are in fact digging themselves a deeper hole. You feel for them, recognizing their need to escape, but knowing they probably can’t.
If this all seems a bit downbeat, you might be right. However, there is an enjoyable vein of black humour and sly wit running through the movie. An example is when one boy leans over to check the speedometer, and the needle is barely flickering on 30mph. He glances at his buddy doing the driving, and then resignedly slumps back in his seat, choosing to say nothing. Haven’t we all been there?!
Parts of the movie reminded me of Rob Reiner’s wonderful Stand By Me, where the rhythm and flow of serious, yet essentially innocent, childhood conversations are captured with such clarity. Like Stand By Me, the boys treat their situation and surroundings as a big adventure, obviously mimicking what they’ve seen on TV or read in books. You know that their relative innocence is going to be lost as the story unfolds, and they become entangled in affairs beyond their understanding. When they find the police officer’s weapons and use them as toys, it is almost too hard to watch.
Because the story takes place in the wide open spaces of eastern Colorado, there is nobody about to assist the children. They are left to their own devices. The prairie setting gives the story the necessary room to breathe, the space for it to unfold. The beauty of the landscape is a contrast to the brutality of the adult characters.
There is a sense of unease throughout the movie, contrasting with the humour that raises a smile even as it unsettles the viewer because we fear for the boys. The sight of a bathrobe-clad criminal, rifle in hand, hopping from small bush to small bush by the roadside, searching for a place to make an ambush, is both funny and disturbing. And how about playing with conventions? The cop car as getaway car? A cop stealing a car? This is a movie full of small delights.
The boys’ youthful naivety in trusting adults at face value is painful, and made worse by their geographical isolation from potential help. You may predict how it will all play out, but you stay with it because it is played out so well, and in stunning locations. It might not suit all tastes, but I enjoyed Cop Car for being a little different, a blood and dust prairie road trip worth taking.
The movie doesn’t do much for police recruitment in rural Colorado, but it might encourage those in search of their own (peaceful) big adventures to take a road trip out that way. Big skies and big landscapes await you! Just don’t be tempted by an apparently empty police cruiser…
As always, please feel free to share a story or leave a comment. Have you seen Cop Car? Maybe you’ll catch it this weekend, or it’ll catch you! (All of the photos here were taken the past few weeks in Alberta during our prairie explorations – not Colorado, but a pretty good stand in!)
…to two cities. Nothing Dickensian, though. Our trip to San Francisco a few weeks ago was a delight for many reasons. A particular joy was the chance to experience spring a good month earlier than it arrives up here in Alberta. In fact, it feels like we’ve had two springs, or at least an extended new growth season. San Francisco, combined with our recent prairie and foothills jaunts, has us bursting with energy and optimism.
Along the river, over the hills, in the ground, in the sky, spring work is going on with joyful enthusiasm, new life, new beauty, unfolding, unrolling in glorious exuberant extravagance, new birds in their nests, new winged creatures in the air, and new leaves, new flowers, spreading, shining, rejoicing everywhere.
From John Muir’s My First Summer in the Sierra, and it seems to me Muir expressed the vitality of spring better than most! Oh yes, how lucky we were to experience this season in two places.
The late March warmth in California was wonderful. To be able to stroll (clamber and climb?) through the SF city neighbourhoods bathed in bright sunshine, to bask in the light and inhale the early flowers, blossoms and fresh green on the trees was enough to tempt one to think “Oh, we could live here…” Who wouldn’t give it at least a little thought, even if only as a passing fancy? It’s part of the fun in travel and exploring less familiar places.
The old buildings are quite distinctive in many of the longer established areas up on the hills. The look and feel is very particular, and far removed from the relative modernity of Calgary. There are smallish pockets of early twentieth architecture to be found in Calgary, mostly charming saltbox bungalows, but nothing like the tall buildings we saw in SF. San Francisco and Calgary are young, both in terms of average age of population, and compared to the old, long established European cities familiar to us from our previous travels and time before moving west. Great though the grand European cities are, I enjoy the energy to be found in each of these younger cities, especially in springtime!
Well, we couldn’t live in San Francisco, mainly for financial reasons, the time and distance to the nearest ski hills, and the fact that my little old legs might wear out with the urban hiking. However, being a visitor allows for enchantment and imaginings, the fun of pondering the possibilities and enjoying a different city through the eyes of an outsider. It’s harder to take somewhere for granted when you visit infrequently, and fond memories are renewed, and new ones made each time.
A San Francisco spring is quite beautiful, especially if you’ve come from the semi arid Canadian foothills, where you know the arrival of spring on the calendar is one thing, and the actual arrival something much later! That said, winter was short this year, and temperatures in southern Alberta oddly mild, with many high teen and even mid 20s centigrade values recorded from February onwards. This has given us an earlyish spring bloom in Calgary (and farming fears for the coming months, but maybe this is the new normal) with leaves, blossoms, birds and bugs springing forth with great vigour. Perhaps the right rains will come, this summer won’t be the hottest on record, and we will all enjoy seasons behaving like seasons? Spring, our two springs this year, can only have us hoping…
Thanks for reading, please feel free to share a story or leave a comment, and have a great weekend! (The close up Calgary blossom pictures were taken with my phone on my walk home from work earlier this week – if you live in Calgary, and were concerned about a plaid clad gentleman stopping and not so surreptitiously taking photos of your trees, apologies, it was me, and I felt too foolish to knock and ask for permission…)
Or sunshine porcupine! Doesn’t make much immediate sense, but I like the rhyme.
Buoyed by our prairie explorations last week, this week we took another little trip, out to the Porcupine Hills. A great name – supposedly the trees atop the hills are said to resemble a line along the spine of a porcupine. OK, no more rhymes. (You’d never be able to guess what some of our recent language work in school has been about…)
The weather was warm, approaching midsummer temperatures, and that was a pleasant, if unexpected, April surprise. Driving range roads with windows rolled down, inhaling lungfuls of clean air, and encountering barely a handful of fellow travellers was delightful.
So we didn’t have much human company, but the foothills were teeming with wildlife and domesticated animals. Not a porcupine in sight, but numerous red tailed hawks, ducks, geese, horses, cattle, butterflies, bugs, and a beaver or two.
The photographs taken are a testament to my camera skills, particularly when capturing fast-moving creatures. Yup, no photos of hawks, the geese were out of range, horses almost so, and I’d swear the beavers were laughing – I could see their bubble trails of mirth. Undeterred, I was resolute when photographing cows, and managed to get one or two in the frame, mostly by assuring them I’m vegetarian. Almost worked…
As we toured the backcountry roads of the Porcupine, we let our imaginations wander. Imagine living out here! Ranching is hard work, and brutally so in winter, but the landscape rewards might help. The long views across to the Rockies are astonishing, and too big for me to capture adequately, but the fun was in seeing and trying to frame them. At least they kept still.
The Porcupine Hills stretch for mile after mile, a foothills delight, where each turn in the road, each cresting of a rise, reveals beautiful country. Creeks wind through the landscape, lined with hardy trees and shrubs, and cattle grazing close by. It is not wild land, in fact the evidence of human corralling is all about, from the orderly ranch houses and outbuildings, to the snaking roads lined with barbed wire fencing. As with the prairie agriculture, this foothill ranching speaks to determination and toughness, and a way of life I can only admire.
If you ever have the chance to drive along Highway 22 in southern Alberta, don’t blast south to the border, and don’t shoot north just to get to Calgary ASAP. Instead, get off the Cowboy Trail (a lovely road in itself, but too fast), take a turn into the Porcupine Hills, follow the eastbound cloud shadows racing up the dusty tracks, and stop anywhere along the top. Turn off the engine, get out of the car, slowly spin, spin, spin, and stretch, stretch, stretch. Breathe in, breathe out. Then set your ass down in the grass. Lay back, look up, smile, and stay awhile. You’ll be glad you did!
Thanks for reading, apologies for the rhymes, and please feel free to share a story or leave a comment. (It doesn’t have to rhyme…) Have a great weekend!