Tag Archives: Torrington

Shamone (Part 2)

We had veered off the TransCanada highway ages ago, deciding instead to follow the backroads that lined the providence – a network of ragged capillaries that spread out and fed the small places that dotted the landscape.

(There’s more of them than you’d think, these places; places such as these.)

Places that could not rightly be said to compare to the big places elsewhere, but which offered a break from the monotony of the road, nonetheless.

Places whose existence by the wayside remained contingent on their ability to attract the curious, the eager and the weary, and to capture their attention for just long enough, for that crucial moment, or two.

Places whose particular claim to fame included tours of forsaken industry (mines, factories, mills), offerings of historic (or historical) points of interest (a fort, a trading post, the birthplace of some local notable, fictional or otherwise), and (my favourite) roadside attractions toting otherworldly monuments invoking hometown character or charm, standing resolutely in place and steadfastly against time. The quirky, the bizarre, the aberrant, unabashed, on full display, for all the world to see:

WITNESS! Bow Island’s orange-footed, sheriff-hatted, cartoon-faced statue of one “Pinto MacBean,” smile askance, holstered gun at the ready, gloved hand a great, keyhole-shaped oven mitt forever waving to passersby. Erected 1992 to signify “the importance of the dry edible bean industry to the area” (so says Pinto’s commemorative plaque).

 SEE! The World’s Largest Dinosaur in Drumheller. Purportedly the largest. I never verified (it’s not the kind of thing you verify). A nominal fee lets you climb the staircase embedded in this T-Rex’s fiberglass flesh so that you can peer out of her open mouth at people standing not all that far below (you can then, like Pinto, wave to them). Erected in 2000, she stands 25 meters tall and can fit up to 12 people in her mouth at a time.

 EXPERIENCE! The (slightly deranged) whimsy of the stuffed and mounted rodents at Torrington’s World Famous Gopher Hole Museum. The critters are plentiful, and are outfitted in cute little costumes as they engage in various hometown activities, like going to church, frequenting the local pool hall, or street brawling with animal rights activists. Admission also just a nominal fee away (two dollars, but that’s 2009 pricing). Established 1996.

 Witness! See! Experience! Between work, between school, between the responsibilities and expectations of everyday life, between us, we had all the time in the world to explore these places; places such as these where MJ had manifestly refused to materialize.

Now, though.

I found myself quietly singing along here and there as the pavement rolled on under the rusting carriage of Terry’s ancient Corolla, and there was nothing much else to do but stare up, into that enormous Alberta sky, out there, at clouds as big mountain ranges and a blue so intense it made you feel somehow flattered, and somewhat ashamed.

Stephen woke up with a start, then drifted off to sleep again. He kept doing that, never fully waking, not entirely sleeping. It got to be unnerving. “More MJ?” he asked. “Still MJ?” he breathed, then dozed.

Mae pulled back from the window and tilted her head towards the radio.

Terry drove.

No. Nothing much else to do at all but surrender to the vastness ahead and MJ’s omnipresence within, hovering over us, god-like, and with such measured indifference for all his omnipotence that always seemed to me prerequisite to being one amongst the gods.

The songs flowed, one after another as Terry flipped blithely from station to station, managing somehow to prompt no apparent break in the music, failing to rouse a voice from the ether to break the spell and confirm or deny what it was (whatever it was) that was happening.

The whole world has to answer right now, just to tell you once again,

Don’t want to see no blood, don’t be a macho man,

Cause we danced on the floor in the round,

Inside a killer thriller tonight,

A crescendo, Annie.

Celebrity, unleashed! MJ in all his glory, in all his incarnations, from Off The Wall (1979), to Bad (1987), to Dangerous (1991) and HIStory (1995), and on to Invincible (2001).

Thriller (1982).

We should have known.

But since we were drifting anyway, and with no particular destination in mind as the towns blurred together and it became difficult to know for certain which name belonged to which place, which attraction meant what, and to whom, it was, admittedly, kind of nice to have something familiar along for the ride.

We found the Birds of Prey Sanctuary more than we discovered it. Just east of Lethbridge, off Highway #3. Established 1982.

The clerks inside the gift shop were friendly and politely curious. Attentive in the way that clerks are when the arrival of patrons means a long-awaited reprieve from the dusting of pristine shelves and the wiping down of spotless countertops.

“Where you from?” one of them asked.

Terry and Mae and Stephen answered easily. “Ottawa,” they said. “Thunder Bay.” I hesitated, and then answered “Toronto” and then we watched as the clerks’ faces changed accordingly, as if something had fallen into place for them. I suppose they took that as their right. I guess, anyway, that it was at least their prerogative. This is such a big country.

It was by now late afternoon.

Did they not know about MJ?

“Toronto, eh?”

***

We stopped at a place not too far from the sanctuary for dinner. It was famous for its Italian-Canadian fare (that’s what the guy at the gas station said), but it was particularly prized for its gigantic pizza bread: great slabs of hot dough, the rough size and heft of a decorative pillow, leaden with shredded, multicoloured cheese and finished off with a spray of light green parsley not at all unlike the trimmings fired from the backend of a lawnmower.

(The description above, I assure you, does not do justice to the taste).

We settled in, ushered to a booth by an unnamed hostess. Someone looked up.

And there he was again.

Only this time a vision dancing in perfect synchronization with his sister, Janet, in the legendary Scream video, two figures effortlessly swaying, pop-locking and pivoting in zero gravity on a screen affixed to an unassuming corner of the dining room, close (but not too close) to the bathrooms.

“Look!”

The Incomparable Jacksons. The Immaculate MJ. Just east of Lethbridge, off Highway #3.

“Here too!” exclaimed Terry, pointing, eyes no longer heavy-lidded.

Our server, a man with a shining forehead, thick arms and little patience, may have heard the urgency in Terry’s voice. We were, if memory serves, agog. Certainly, I was and Stephen too.

“Don’t you know?” barked the server, snapping us to attention. “You don’t know?” he added more gently when he realized he had it. “He died. Michael Jackson’s dead.” He eventually left us with our food, carefully arranging it before us on the heavy, water-stained table.

“Died?” echoed Mae. “Dead?” she said, tasting the words.

Despite everything, given everything he had been and done and had become, MJ had never done that, never been that before.

It shouldn’t have been possible: Michael Jackson was dead.

Pinto MacBean, however, remained.

Remains.

Annie are you okay? Will you tell us that you’re okay?

It should not have been possible: something of the permanence of life as we knew it had shifted under our feet and left us stumbling for purchase. As sudden as it was, therefore, absurd. It was more than enough.

It was time to go home.

Time to head back and, if possible, redeem ourselves.

“I’ll drive,” Terry said finally, attempting a laugh around a mouthful of bread.

 

END

 

 

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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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