"Go as far as you can see; when you get there you'll be able to see farther." ~ Thomas Carlyle
It was 1976 and we were driving a ’68 Chevy pick-up. No kids, no careers, no business: just a tent, enough money for food and gas, and no environmental awareness beyond loving the wild and wanting it to stay that way. Gas was cheap, food was cheap and we could always find a free spot to pitch the tent. Jobs were plentiful. We’d worked just long enough to get a month ahead in rent and joyfully hit the road with only a direction in mind. No destination.
We never knew what was going to impel us to change directions. Once, it was a pair of hitch-hikers. It never occurred to us not to pick up hitchhikers or even not to hitch-hike. Nobody really thought about the potential of being murdered by some hitch-hiking psycho in the 70s, or at least we didn’t. It was a great way to meet people and occasionally join them in the odd adventure. In those days Jim did most of the driving and I always rode in the centre of the bench seat, straddling the stick-shift. So until we got our first dog soon after that summer, the passenger end of the seat was just waiting for someone to fill it.
Only once did we regret the decision and only because the couple we happily crammed into the cab whispered to each other and wouldn’t talk to us. We resorted to whispering ourselves and soon informed them that we were regrettably heading south and would have to drop them off. And south we went.
Those were the days. Progression determined by impulse.
I’m a map-freak now. I love to study maps and dream about where I might go, but in those days, maps were unnecessary beyond a cursory knowledge of major landmarks like the U.S. border and the Pacific Ocean. The scenery dictated our direction. It was all pure Discovery. It’s not often we get to do that anymore. Somebody’s always getting married or buried or celebrating something-or-other that eats up our time away from work. But I’ve recently learned that although a year, a month or weeks of wandering is bliss, a day or even an evening meander can feed the soul with small helpings of goodness.
In August I helped myself to a few of those small servings. I called them ‘photography days’ – sometimes with friends and sometimes on my own, always without provisions for an overnighter, but always with several hours of that joyously palpable sense of freedom from schedule and purpose. Just walking or driving and thirstily drinking in everything in my view, turning and turning around with the landscape.
The photographs in this post (except for the first one, and all of which you can click to enlarge) are from one such adventure, although one not quite as carefree as some others have been. I had to travel about 160 kilometres from home one day at the end of August for work.
Leaving home in the dark I watched the light grow through a soft mist rising from the coolness of roads, creeks and fields. I marveled as the sunlight felt its way onto the earth with shimmering gauze-cloaked fingers of fog, frustrated because I could not take the time to stop when I wanted.
I was excited because I’d never been to the hamlets and towns I was going to visit. I knew the day would be filled with work and I was looking forward to driving part way home through back roads that I’d never been on.
I had no map, but trusted my sense of direction and some sketchy instructions I received upon leaving the last town.
As soon as I drove out of the parking lot in Fawcett, my cheeks wrinkled with a giddy grin and in my mind Willy Nelson was singing ‘On the Road Again’. I had lots of daylight left and planned to spend it all exploring. I headed off, keeping west and north, knowing that there weren’t many roads that went too far north of my general direction and wanting to stay at the edges of the local civilization.
My first stop was a little bridge over the familiarly placid Pembina River were I pulled over and explored for a half an hour or so. Just beyond the bridge at a t-intersection, I turned north and soon found myself in thick scrub and deep sand.
If I had had a map, I’d have seen that I was in the Hubert Lake Wildland. If I had been driving our pick-up truck I would have been thrilled to explore further, but my impractical wheels forced me to turn around and head back to harder surfaced roads.
I still chuckle when I think of the tracks I left near a parked pickup with an ATV trailer attached. I bet they checked their vehicle for theft when they saw that someone had stopped and turned around just there. There were no other fresh tracks on the road.
I wasn’t lost yet though. I soon drove past the bridge road and headed south towards the next westerly intersection. I stopped at an abandoned farm and took some pictures, but it was a fair bit from the road and there were very obvious No Trespassing signs protecting the few cattle that were grazing near the buildings.
I keep track of my routes by photographing road signs. That’s the only reason I have any idea of where I had been during the next two hours. I must have missed a few and some of them don’t even make sense when I try to trace the roads in order of my pictures. How did I get there when I’d just been over there? I discovered that the lay of the land and waterways confused the usual grid pattern of prairie farmlands. Township and range roads stopped and started and curved and turned into each other.
I honestly was never particularly worried. I know what lies north and south, and east and west of the area I was in, and figured I could only go around in so many circles before I hit something I recognized, but there was one niggling thought in the back of my mind. I was heading towards the Klondike Ferry, which crosses the Athabasca River at Vega, and on the other side of which is some more sand hills – the Fort Assiniboine Sandhills Park.
It’s a rugged and beautiful area that through experience I knew had more of those deep sand roads that my car had already complained about. The growing cloud bank to the northwest didn’t make me feel any better, and when I got to the pavement that I knew led to the ferry and saw definite rain in the distance, I really debated heading back to the main highway.
My car, however, being a typically headstrong Mustang, always daring me to test it, headed west. Down into the valley we sailed, still stopping for the odd irresistible shot.
As the only passenger on the very short ferry ride, I chatted with the friendly operator and he laughed when I told him how long I had been on the road from Fawcett. He gave me directions to the pavement and assured me it was a fairly straightforward route.
The rain hit just as the ferry docked and I drove up the steep river bank. Very soon the road forked and I took the one to the right. Again, it was several kilometers before I realized I had been mistaken and again turned around. The road was fair good dirt there, but as I headed in the correct direction it turned to the expected sand. Thankfully the rain had stopped by then and appeared to have been concentrated on the river, so the driving was better than I expected.
I followed the road to the pavement and only once forgot that I was now on a more traveled road, stopping without much warning to photograph and feel sorry for a young cow moose that had become trapped behind a fence and was agitatedly pacing back and forth.
That was my last picture of the evening. The rain returned and I drove the rest of the way home with a feeling of renewal and contentment, of albeit temporary satiation, despite a very long and busy day. The anticipation to see what treasures I had amassed in my camera kept the melancholy of the end of my little soul food meal at bay.
Note: All of the above images have been ‘played with’: some have been tonemapped, some have texture layers added, some just some curves and colour adjusted and some have all of the above done to them. As I’ve said before I love to play with pictures.