Our first night in Maple Creek, Saskatchewan, population 2500, we were having a night out on the town. We were in un-tamed, Montana-style setting. The type of bar we went to had dead animal heads and old beer signs hanging on the walls, employed an old, woman bartender who yelled at you, and looked like no improvements had been made on the place in decades.
Our in-town host, "Canada Matt", loved beer and drinking like most people love their moms. He was actually a very clean-cut twenty-four-year-old, with a smile wide like a slice of cheese, with perfect, baking-soda-white teeth. He spoke in the way I imagine the average Canadian to speak. He spoke firmly and pronouncedly, yet with a softness that suggested he still enjoyed the finer things in life, like all of Canada's nature, or - in Matt's case - going out to strange pubs and getting tanked with strangers.
He told of a recent work trip to, and subsequent night out in, Montana. He got excited and described Montana as, "One word: lawlessness!" He said he'd befriended a guy at the pub who took him around late. The guy was drunk upon entering his big truck, he sipped a beer as he drove, he sped, and he showed Matt his guns.
It had actually been Canada Matt's crazy tales which had first made me fall in love with travel writing. I met him while we both studied overseas in Australia. Afterwards, I received an e-mail from him detailing a night out in Sydney, in which he got kicked out with a bunch of hooligans from a bar, started a congo line in the streets, and passed out with a girl on the steps of the Opera House. Later, he sent tales of being chased by natives in Papau New Guinea, and of pushing his way, broke, onto a bus in Malaysia so he could catch his flight home. Those e-mails always filled me with such awesome feelings of a world of adventure.
Now, Matt was working as one of "the original Mounties," for the government, at Canada's Ft. Walsh Historic Site.
Matt wasn't just a drunk; he was a politically active one. He'd been elected Student Body President at his university, which is such a big position in Canada that it sits in on national discussions.
Over dark Molson's and other tasty Canadian beers, Matt ranted on to us now about his country's bilingualism law. Man, he was angry. He hated that law. The law stated that only people fluent in both English and French could get Canadian government jobs, as in national parks and historic sites. He said this law was unimportant - that French was never needed in the West - and it just ensured jobs for rich kids whose parents had the money to educate them bilingually.
Man, that law steamed Matt.
We walked home to Matt's apartment, and he pointed out that small Maple Creek had surprisingly a lot of drunks in it. "Like you," he said, as I fell off the curb, drunkily.
Matt worked early the next morning at the Historic Site.
Johnny, Adam, Julie, and I tried to hitchhike there after we woke up. We all got a ride in Laura's van, along with her sons Riley and Nolan.
The country road here was one of my favorite drives of the trip. It looked like Patagonia. The sky was big. Cattle fences ran along the side of the road. The ground was light-brown pasture, rolling slightly for miles and miles. The earth rolled, folded, dipped, and rose up beyond us. It was like having the world to its horizons as your own personal wandering ground.
Julie sat quietly between Laura's kids in back. Laura's youngest, Nolan, was a jabbermouth. He wants to ride in rodeos when he grows up.
Laura stopped at her family's home, seventeen miles south of Maple Creek. We met her gentle husband, Tracy, a cattle rancher. Their house lay off the quiet road. It looked so isolated. It was low, below a fold in land, to avoid the wind.
"Why do we live in a hole?" said Nolan.
Laura drove on, taking us the final fifteen minutes to Matt's work. She said her family's neighbors in this lost land were the German Hutterites, who worked the land communally for great profit and refused to pay taxes.
From out of nowhere, the flowing pasture popped up big, lumpy hills, full of green, tall christmas trees. The road wound tightly up a hill, through rich forest, and to the Ft. Walsh Historic Site.
Matt awarded me and my friends four free passes. He wasn't dressed as a Mountie, though. Instead, it was his day to shuttle visitors around in a school bus. As he drove, he told about the first Canadian Mounties, and he told jokes. He asked if anyone in the bus had any questions.
Adam nudged me, and told me what question to ask. I raised my hand.
"Were the first Canadian Mounties bilingual?"
Matt's slice of cheese smile showed, in the front of the bus. "That's a very good question."
We toured a re-creation of Ft. Walsh, an early Canadian Mounties' fort. There was also an old whiskey trading post, where furs used to be traded.
Steeply bouncing, light-brown hills veiled and blinded the trading post and held in arid, steaming hot air. A stream passed by the trading post, and it was here that drunken frontiersmen perpetrated the Cypress Hills Massacre and killed dozens of friendly Canadian Indians, in the early 20th century.
Near the Ft. Walsh Historic Site was Cypress Hills Provincial Park. We'd been hearing about this place in cars we hitchhiked in since Nova Scotia. Matt took us there after his work. Cypress Hills roads led us on wrinkled tracts through claustrophobic forest. We drove beside humbling, straight-up hills and around spilled-out, un-trimmed lakes that made us wish we were kids again.
We raced each other up a hill and observed look-outs where you could see down for a hundred miles across yellow-brown plains and cattle-land that opened up like a sea. The gray threat of a storm approached.
By the time we'd had dinner (and a few beers) in the lodge, the storm was over us and torrential. Power went out in the lodge and streets. Lightning flashed spastically, thrice every five seconds, illuminating the cats and dogs that drenched the Cypress Hills. Strong wind splattered the rain sideways beneath the lodge's front door overhang, creating a pool where the parking lot had been. The lightning allowed quick glimpses of dark, four-story-tall cypress trees heaving and ho-ing in the wind.
The soaking storm created memorable scenes. On the drive back to Maple Creek, we "wow!"ed and "ah!"ed as thick cataracts of lightning cracked sideways through the sky, sometimes staying visible for seconds, never approaching the ground.
We stayed one more day in Maple Creek. All we really did this day was play Risk at night.
There were five guys playing and Julie, so, without asking, I immediately passed the pink team pieces to her. She was offended.
Canada Matt had never played Risk before. I said, "What do you mean? Don't Canadians also sit around planning global domination all the time, too?"
Matt got the hang of it, all right. He shared victory honors with Adam, and then he took us back out to Maple Creek bars where he regaled us with stories of drunken nights that he afterwards forgot. There's Matt for you: world leader/inebriate.
Later, Modern Oddyseus
with Johnny, Adam, and Julie
Thanks to Darren; Laura, Riley, & Nolan; and Omar, Lu-Ellen, Dara, & Lana for the lifts!
Much thanks to "Canada Matt", Jamie, & Jacklyn for the place to sleep!