NEWFIE OR BUST by Bernie Howgate
( Chapter 4 )
I can only imagine how it is to travel through Saskatchewan by bus. One guy who I shared a cup of coffee with in Calgary, said of his trip: 'Travelling through the Prairies is like a huge yawn, just like travelling through an open mouth'. I tried to describe the little subtleties he'd missed. The changes of roadside color, its delicate fragrances, its dips and valleys and a sky that was forever changing. I tried to point out all those little emotions that speed overlooks, but alas, they fell on deaf ears.
My first crossing by bike in 1988 left me totally exhausted. I had crossed it in a heat wave. Strange things happen at noon. The road would shimmer, move apart, then gyrate to the rhythms of passing cars. Trees would pluck apart and grain elevators change shape. Nature's hall of mirrors would have a field day. Sometimes a sea loomed up where no sea existed, then burst like a bubble. The road became a tight rope and the horizon the safety net of free-fall that never quite lived up to its promise. That was then. Today the suns heat had been tempered by a morning rain shower. A day like today can relax body and mind just like a good whirlpool. Distances mysteriously shortened, muscles relaxed and you can fast forward the daily frustration of head winds, choking dust and the occasional crazy driver. At times like these, distorted shapes return to normal and eyes so used to the daily rut of objects can slide over endless horizons.
I was now passing through places like Marengo, Flaxcombe, Netherhill and D'Arcy; such names conveyed to me a sense of belonging, of continuity and hope. The quintessential New World town of waste not, want not, preferring utility constructions over extravagance and wood over stone. They were all ten-minute wonders. From entry to exit, each community I passed through all occupied the same space, all with the same ingredient of community permanence. The red-trimmed fire halls; the white wooden churches; the standard two variety stores, clothes and hardware and the inevitable hotel bar-cum-restaurant that over breakfast turned into the rumor mill of gossip. They were all patterned from the same blueprint. A main street and a nose-to-tail block of dwellings built in tight webs, more out of shelter from the extremes of climate than economy of space. These communities broke up my day, gave me a touch of human contact, and offered not only a hook to hang my daily rhythm on but the essential landmarks with their distinctive grain elevators to reel in my daily mileage.
A Prairie grain elevator stamps its mark on the surrounding countryside in the same way church spires offer the eyes of rural England restful landmarks of community occupation. They made for strong vertical statements both defying and reinforcing of the flatness of the countryside they inhabited. Some people refer to them as huge phallic erections, barometers to a successful season or its failure. I notched them off like so many railway stations and no sooner had I put one behind me than another would prick the horizon in front. They were like fingers pointing the way and I found as much visual pleasure in their simple lines as in any temple.
If truth be known, I love the Prairies. They have much in common with the sea; romantic, anything but flat, with endless voids to dream in. Influences come from above and like a woman with smooth and inviting curves, its nature is slow to anger, but unforgiving if crossed. To really appreciate Saskatchewan, you have to chew well before swallowing. Patience is the name of the game. You don't buck the weather. You go when it tells you and rest at your leisure. You have to let go, be sucked in and, whatever you do, don't hold anything back.
It is impossible to pass through Saskatchewan without noticing the Ukrainian influence. From its vatican domed styled churches to its farmers like 'three fingered' Jack who wore their farming amputations like badges of honor, the Slavic accents and stocky build, their presence percolates through every strata of society like the rich aroma of Columbian coffee.
"Come home with us for supper." The roadside question - or was it a command? - came as no surprise. But its suddenness, without any foreplay an loosely cloaked in an East European accent, was. Twenty minutes later, I was into a guided tour. It was your typical Ukrainian household; carpet furniture and crockery were spotless and plants crowded out the sun. They grew everywhere. They hung from the ceilings, chocked up the tables and seemed to grab you at every turn. Interspersed, but by no means second place to the greenery, I counted five deaths by crucifixion, three Virgin Marys and one framed black and white picture of your Holiness Pope Paul. Formalities out of the way, I was soon seated in the kitchen and up to my elbows in cut meats, cheese and bread, then the bonding started.
'Take a sip mate? This will put some hairs on your chest?" Well he got it half right. The first sip singed my top lip. and the second almost started a forest fire. Two hours later the walls were swaying. It was time to leave. We had exhausted everything from politics to religion, and anyway, he had run out of home brew. I was finishing my second cup of coffee, readying myself to go, waiting for the right opportunity when a knock on the door brought with it a fresh stock of the hard stuff. Four hours later, I was out for the count.