Tag Archives: Alberta

Shamone (Part 1)

Michael Jackson was dead, though we did not yet know it.

Summer 2009. A road trip through southern Alberta had taken us across the badlands, past the mushroom-capped hoodoos in Drumheller, in rough tandem alongside the undulating trail of the Milk River, and on to Writing-On-Stone Provincial Park.

Our direction now, vaguely north. Back to the Calgary, toward where this whole thing began, then home again.

It had been a long time since anyone had spoken. After days spent wandering the park, after days, in fact, of traipsing through the various nooks and crannies of the province, we were dirty and tired and severely dehydrated.

I remember Terry’s bloodshot eyes as he drove on, the only one of us who knew how to drive stick and, therefore, the only one of us to do all of the driving (he resents it still). I remember Mae’s feet sticking idly out the open window, her shoes long abandoned somewhere inside the car, and I remember Stephen slouched over in the front passenger seat, snoring gently despite the hour, the rumbling of the Toyota a kind of lullaby in the afternoon haze.

Terry fiddled with the radio as he drove; mentioned something about how it was the only thing keeping him (and, therefore, us) alive at the moment.

And I remember, in strange succession, on radio stations whose frequencies seemed more like obscure mathematical formulations than simple identifiers (101.1 CIXF, 93.3 CJBZ, 90.0 CBRA), came all the classics: Bad (1987), Beat It (1983), Billie Jean (1982).

Thriller (1982).

And (my favourite), Smooth Criminal (1987).

Annie are you okay? So, Annie are you okay? Are you okay Annie?

Then came a few lesser known works, interludes between the real, genuine hits: Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin (1983), In the Closet (1992), You Rock My World (2001). Underrated, perhaps, in their day (or maybe just unremarkable).

Yet, they remained undeniable.

“Why is he following us today?” Mae said this, feet still out the window, toes lightly kissed by the sun. She asked this more than once, as the kilometers ticked by:

“Why now?”

“Why here?”

“Why MJ?”

There was an unease in her voice that spoke to our mixed feelings towards Michael Jackson – the one and only King of Pop, the man who revolutionized music and dance and fashion as we knew it – whose status as a cultural icon remained undisputed, yet marred by garish speculation of his (apparent) eccentricities (his health, his features, his monkey) and unproven (and hence all the more lurid) talk of his dark predilections.

A tarnished idol; a fallen star.

(But an idol, a star, nonetheless.)

The fame, the scandal, the infamy: he made for a formidable apparition. That he had become our unsolicited chaperone, just as we found ourselves at a loss at what to do and where to go, made this impression of him (made him?) all the more uncanny.

 

…to be continued.

 

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Alien Screech, Robotic Bleats

The way I figure it, you can’t blame a place any more than fault an individual for their mutual incompatibility.

People sometimes ask me why we moved back to Ontario after spending only a year or so out west, in Alberta.

It’s a hard question, with many answers.

Mostly, I tell them about the cicadas.

The alien screech of those delicately-winged insects, eyes set far apart on a squat, almost dumpy body, has a way of bypassing common sense. I only realized later that I never noticed it until I wasn’t there to hear it: that screech, that electric buzz rattling off the treetops, sounding off the frenzy of new life.

It was the white noise of childhood summers, and now provides a semblance of nostalgia for an admittedly scattered adulthood. That wretched, wonderful screech suddenly as gone, as removed as I became and then replaced by the robotic bleating my new city’s ubiquitous magpies.

You hardly ever see a cicada unless its dead, after having spent itself at last in the trees and then having fallen unceremoniously to the ground from the branches way up above. It is quite the journey, emerging from underground, taking flight, mating and dying. It is everything.

I never heard the cicadas in Alberta. They remained an unfulfilled promise of a rather unremarkable summer. My memory of that time is rather blurred and indistinct. I did see magpies, though, and almost every day.

Bleat-Bleat-Bleat!

Some cicadas emerge from the dirt in 13-or-17-year-cycles (and only in 13-or-17-year-cycles), in numbers so immense as to betray the mathematical import of the cycle itself.  These cicadas, obviously, cannot be divided among themselves. They are prime.

SCCcCccRRRRreeeEEEEEEeeEeEEEeEeEeEEEEEEee!

You can’t always go back. But eventually we did move back because we could. That privilege was ours; the opportunity presenting itself just so. Nothing special, the difference between luck and fate remaining as firm as ever.

We drove across the country on rough roads and, inevitably, through a late-season blizzard, a five day journey in which the dog got sick, the Jeep lost all its heat and my succulents died, arriving in Ontario at end of March.

I heard the cicadas that summer. It was an odd sensation: I was struck by a feeling not so much of being, finally, home (because the notion of “home” has always seemed too neat, too trite to be of any good use), but of something’s stubborn having finally been shaken loose. The summer was no longer incidental.

We had gotten away with something, I just knew it.

 

 

 

 

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Teeth (Part 1)

We found ourselves across the street from the famed Peters’ Drive-In, just off of 16th Ave, NE, Calgary, Alberta.

Peters’, “The Drive-In You Can’t Drive By.” Peter’s, the with its thick, custom-made shakes and flame-broiled burgers and “Family-Sized” fries that could easily satisfy a small battle-worn army. Peters’, a virtual institution (established 1962, though under new ownership as of 2015) – politicians eat here (on campaign stops), weddings (plural, yes) have been photographed here, birthdays (children’s, even) happen in its adjacent parking lot – Peters’, in short, THE go-to place to go to if you happen to be on that particular side of Calgary at any particular moment.

Or not.

*CASH AND DEBIT ONLY*

(Debit since 1990)

Peters’, unfortunately, only had outdoor seating and it was a blustery, grey day in the city turned cold, unfriendly evening, and this place, a bubble tea bar with à la carte snacks (fish cakes and yam fries and wings and fried dumplings) thus seemed warmer, more welcoming.

Staying at Peters’ would have meant having to eat in the car, a tiny, overpacked Corolla that would not have comfortably seated four adults let alone a box of Family-Sized fries, a couple of shakes, a burger a piece. Staying at Peters’, institution or no, meant fighting what appeared to be a mostly teenaged crowd (and a scraggly one at that) for position and territory (seating was available, but limited). Staying at Peters’ made us feel exposed.

This is not a story about Peters’.

Yet, I wonder what would have happened if we had stayed there instead of going to the bubble tea place.

***

It had been a long day in a series of long days during which time our plans to take a road trip through the province had finally been made. In a day or so, we’d be off.

Terry[1] was in a mood. He’d come out West to see if he and his girlfriend, Mae, [2] could make a go of it; try and start a new life, etc. Easier said than done and even then, the dream was difficult to articulate.

Why out West? Opportunity, maybe, but wasn’t that years ago? What was it, anyway, to “start a new life?” Was he so completely over, and done with, his last one? Was Mae? 

When does this one life end and another, the other, begin?

Terry and Mae found temporary housing renting a unit at the nearby college (it was summer, the students were long gone from that place). Just was well, since the plumbing was busted and the electricity was spotty, at best, due to construction. Terry had a couple of leads but nothing confirmed, nothing solid, in terms of work. Mae was having a harder time even finding places to interview for. The city was indifferent to their plight; the people seemed strangely withdrawn (at least compared to their counterparts out East); the moon (Terry swears it) scowled at them from above, looming large, inescapable. It had been weeks.

So, when we visited and then agreed to join them on the road trip, Terry was in a mood. He was animated as he always was, with that look about his eyes that could only be described as “dogged”; he was even amiable (for Terry), but worn around the edges, slumped, a little, at the shoulders. Frayed, picked-over Terry.

Our server set our order – a smattering of snacks and four custom made bubble teas – on the table. I think mine was Strawberry Something. Stephen had something with mango in it. Mae’s was purple (very purple). Terry brightened at the sight of our glorious repast. He reached past Mae and speared a dumpling with a chopstick, popped it into his month, and screamed.

“My tooth! My fucking tooth!”

Terry had chipped his tooth, and badly (or to hear him tell it, the fucking dumpling chipped his tooth and so very badly).

This is a story about Terry’s teeth.

 

… TO BE CONTINUED

 

 

________________________________________________

[1] Not real name, though he really could be a “Terry” if he wanted. Alas, “Terry” wants for nothing.

[2] Not real name. No sense veiling “Terry” if I’m going to out “Mae,” is there?

 

 

 

 

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They Call Him Pinto

 
“Pinto…McBean?”

That’s Pinto MACBEAN.

M-A-C-B-E-A-N.

He flashed across our vision as we drove through the streets of Bow Island, Alberta, lost as anything. A beige and orange dollop blur that beckoned from the horizon.

PINTO, large, bold and black was stamped on the brim of his cowboy hat.

Those eyes, vast yet warm. That crescent moon smile and John Wayne-ish bandana. That lovely, pear-shaped body. His gun (a six-shooter?) hanging rakishly off his hip, his two hands impossible mittens, at once waving hello and resting just above the gun.

PINTO MACBEAN

As if to draw?

As if to give us pause?

Et tu, Pinto?

Ceci n’est pas une pistolet, Pinto.

An information booth, itself non-descript and patient, Sorry We are Closed hanging dead centre of the window yet open for business, stood in Pinto’s wake.

Coffee mugs graced with Pinto’s likeness were on sale on the one shelf set up on the one wall that had much of anything. Stationed behind an enormous counter, the old woman inside offered us bags of free dry edible beans, her head just peaking from above a vast edge Formica.

Different kinds, assorted sizes. As much as we wanted! That was, after all, why Pinto was there; to signify the importance of the dry edible bean industry in Bow Island, Alberta, letting us know exactly, You are Here.

The Bean Capital of the West.

Bow Island, Alberta, which is not an island. Population 2,025, according to the 2011 Federal census.

Bow Island, Alberta, a place, a nearby sign reads, that remains In the Heart of the Golden West. The Last Frontier.

In case you didn’t know.

I took kidney beans and black beans.

Weeks later, when we unpacked the car, we couldn’t find them. Not anywhere! Not a bean.

Kris swears he didn’t take them, but later admitted that they were spectacular in his stew.

We’ve never said another word about it.

Pinto Info?
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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@ The Gopher Hole Museum, Torrington, Alberta

 

Ice Skating Gophers
 
 
“So, do you have a taxidermist on site or how does this,” I paused to gesture around the room, “um, work?”

The woman standing next to me was standing next to me out of the same sheer curiously that compelled me to ask the question – that, indeed, compelled both Stephen and I to take a last-minute detour 130KM out of our way on this, our last day in Alberta, Canada.

The Gopher Hole Museum and Gift Shop. June 2012.

The woman standing next to me was Granny Gopher. The woman standing next to me could, in fact, be none other than Granny Gopher.

We were in the presence of the Grand Matriarch of a little speck of a place known as Torrington, Alberta.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Magnificent Torrington!

A place you could not rightly call beautiful. A two-minute walk in any direction takes you to the very edge of town, will take you to that exact spot on the Albertan horizon where the sky and earth fuse into a vast, indistinguishable one.

This has not in the least deterred the good people of Torrington, who decided to celebrate the awe and splendor of life in Torrington as they thought best.

Through taxidermy.

Through dead stuffed gophers to be exact.

The Cowboy

Why gophers?

Because, unless yet despite being employed otherwise, gophers are a bane on the town of Torrington, destroying crops and leaving holes around town, attracting still more pests in the form of predatory badgers that dig still more holes in their pursuit of Torrington gopher meat.

These holes can be dangerous. They can break legs: human, cattle and horse. They are unsightly and cause erosion.

Torrington’s residents kill Torrington gophers by the thousands.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Is the Gopher Hole Museum And Gift Shop world famous?

No. Not really.

True, when it opened its doors on June 1, 1996, there was a bit of what you could call a media frenzy – newspapers at home and abroad, including big name publications such as the Wall Street Journal and Newsweek ran stories of what could be called the Torrington’s embrace of its “controversial” museum.  But now, as we trudge on toward the end 2013, it is fair to say that Things have died down for Torrington’s Gopher Hole Museum and Gift Shop. Publicity comes at a trickle, these days.

It seems fitting, then, that it was only incidentally that we found out about Torrington.  A turn of events, a kind of kismet that you wouldn’t actually call fate had lead us Torrington:

“You’re into taxidermy, right?[1] So there’s this place that you should check out before you leave. It’s got all these stuffed squirrels or rats something. It’s like an hour away from Calgary.”
“It is expensive?”
“It should be like two dollars.”
“Okay. Maybe.”

That is how it went down.

Is the Gopher Hole Museum And Gift Shop infamous?

Again no. Not really, no.

There was that scrap it had with P.E.T.A. When Torrington settled on dead stuffed gophers to attract tourists, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals wrote many, many letters. It was a campaign of protest. Of indignation. Protest letters soon followed from all over Canada, France, The United States, the Netherlands, Germany and Japan.

Eventually, Torrington sent a postcard to reply to P.E.T.A.

“Get stuffed,” is what it said.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Inside Torrington’s Gopher Hole Museum And Gift Shop.

“Television screens. The walls are full of little TVs”, is what I said to Stephen.

Inside Torrington

 
I lied a little above when I said Things have died down for the Gopher Hole Museum and Gift Shop. There was a bus full of visitors due that day Stephen and I were there. That’s also why Granny Gopher was there, in person persona, dressed up and ready – to entertain half of the group (12 people) outside in order to allow the other half to comfortably tour the very small museum. In the gift shop, which you enter and exit during your visit to the Gopher Hole Museum and Gift Shop, is a map. It is dotted with hundreds of pins representing visitors from all over the world.

But why gophers?

“Our museum is a whimsical portrayal of life in the tranquil hamlet of Torrington. There are 77 mounted gophers in 47 displays with different themes: hockey player, hairdresser, farmer, etc. Each character is dressed to compliment the artist’s picturesque background”, reads a handout I was given at the Gopher Hole Museum And Gift Shop.

“Admission:
Adult………$2.00
Under 14…… .50″

The gophers, I am convinced, could have been depicted doing absolutely anything, anywhere.

But almost all of the 47 TV boxes are of Torrington: the post office, the library, the Torrington Viscount School, Torrington’s Trinity Lutheran Church, Torrington’s Village Office, the Torrington Hotel and someplace called John’s Air Cooled Marine Engines Service.

Torrington Hotel

There is an unreal tangibility about the gophers of Torrington. Torrington’s gophers.

Because the gophers are embedded into Torrington’s very concrete, in a way, they fill Torrington’s very air.

There’s Clem T. GoFur, Torrington’s official greeter and town mascot.

Ladies and Gentlemen: Clem T. GoFur

Ladies and Gentlemen: Clem T. GoFur

Clem is 12 feet tall, clothed and smiling, and is the first thing you see as you turn in from the highway and into Torrington. There is a plaque listing, among other Things, his D.O.B (June 20, 1991). There is a nearby sign that reads, among other Things:

I am a handsome gopher
A mascot if you please
Torrington’s my place of birth
And where I take my ease

Hello to everyone of you
We’d like to shake your hand
Come in and see our heritage
Living off the land.
[2]

My feeling is that the sign is meant to compliment the lyrics of The Torrington Gopher Call Song, which includes, among other Things:

There’s millions of these rodents that are causing such a fuss,
They dig their home in the prairie loam, turning everything to dust.
If you fret and worry that the Gopher will be gone,
You can always take some with you and release them on your lawn
The moral of this story is to be wise before you speak,
Lots of us do like them, but their damage is not cheap.
There always will be gophers, their lives not in hand,
So just sit back and watch them as they dig up all our land.
[3]

Torrington’s fire hydrants are painted up as gophers – Clem’s GoFur Clan – at the apex of which sits Granny Gopher of course. You may find each of hydrants – each member of the GoFur Clan – on a self-guided walking tour of Torrington using the very thoughtful map provided at the Gopher Hole Museum and Gift Shop by the TORRINGTON TOURISM ACTION SOCIETY.

They have names and a pretty involved family tree, complete with individual back-stories.

The GoFur Clan

The GoFur Clan

They are as real as it gets.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

“We don’t have an on-site taxidermist. There’s a man we send the gophers to. He stuffs them. Sometimes people send us gophers, like the albino one we have. The cowboy,” said Granny Gopher.

Why gophers?

Lacking lakes, mountains – natural attractions of any kind – without grand architecture or dramatic origins and bereft of anything you would call a vibrant arts or culture scene, Torrington looked deep into itself and came out the other side of itself.

Clem T. GoFur Too

If it happens in Torrington, it happens to Torrington, it happens through Torrington.

It had to have been always about the gophers.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

What is there left to say?

I have never encountered a place that meant itself so much as Torrington, Alberta.

 
 


[1] “Yeah.”

[2] By Carol Pfeifer, a Torrington resident.

[3] Lyrics by Dennis Oster.
 
 
***********************************************************************
 
The GoFur Clan [as described by the TORRINGTON TOURISM ACTION SOCIETY]:

1. Granny is the matriarch of the GoFur clan, the mother of Trixie, Mabel and Junior. Her grandson, Clem, is the official town greeter. Granny and Gramps were among the earliest settlers of this region, at a time when becoming a province of Canada was still in Alberta’s future.

2. Gramps is the patriarch of the GoFur clan who is getting a little too old to cut the mustard anymore but he sill enjoys a bit of barley, He’s always happy to welcome visitors whenever they drop in to see him at the south end of town.

3. Auntie Mame is Granny’s sister who married an elderly European count and went to live in Gofalia when she was still in her teens. They lived happily in their castle for many years but then the count died, Auntie Mame returned to Torrington to be with her kinfolk.

4. Trixie is Clem’s mom and the daughter of Gramps and Granny. She is a nurse who cares for the sick and bandages the scraped knees of the youngsters in town. When Homer was inured falling from a hay wagon that was passing through town, it was Trixie who cared for him and when love blossomed, married him.

5. Homer grew up in Saskatchewan and arrived in Torrington when he fell from a hay wagon that was passing through town. Trixie found him at the roadside and cared for him while he recovered from his injuries. They later married and raised their children, Clem, Tubby and Peggy Sue, in the town.

6. Mabel was the town’s schoolteacher when she met Butch on a hoilday. She is very involved with community affairs and still teaches part-time at the school while also raising a family of little GoFurs.

7. Butch is the sailor of the GoFur clan. He was a crewman on a cruise ship when Mabel met him. After a long courtship, they married and Butch settled down in Torrington. Shy and retiring, he’s often found peeking out at visitors from behind the bushes and shrubbery.

8. Junior is the bachelor son of Granny and Gramps. He’s the musician of the GoFur clan and is the leader of his own musical group which provides music for many local events. During the winter, he travels in the south but if you’re lucky, you may find him at home during the summer.

9. Ellie May [mentioned only in entry on Baby Jessie. See below].

10. Clem [mentioned only in entries of other GoFur family members].

11. Tubby is the comedian of the GoFur clan. At family gatherings, he’s always the one with a lampshade on his head, surrounded by smiling faces. Tubby is the opposite of his rather quiet, subdued brother, Clem [,] who stands at the entrance of town, watching visitors as they pass by.

12. Peggy Sue is the baby sister of Torrington’s official greater, Clem. She’s normally found just outside the Lutheran Church, dressed in her ‘Sunday best’, as she leaves church after attending Sunday School.

13. Baby Jessie is the daughter of Clem and Ellie May. She used to enjoy watching the trains that passed through Torrington. Now, even though the line has been closed and the track removed, she still likes to sit and remember those good times.

14. Clem Jr. is the “chip off the old block” who tries to imitate his father, Clem, in every way. You’ll notice that they even dress alike. When he grows up, he thinks he’d like to be a fireman. He likes to play on the swing and slide in the playground.

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