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Prarie Shadow © Brad Zembic

A Modern-Day Cowboy: Cycling the Canadian Prairie

By Brad Zembic

Greeters at the Commercial Hotel © Brad Zembic

Greeters at the Commercial Hotel © Brad Zembic

I thought I'd sussed out the perfect place to sleep – behind the tourist information building at Walsh, Alberta, a hamlet only a few kilometres from the Saskatchewan border. It was dark, the grass was thick and comfortable, and I laid my sleeping bag out feeling like a modern-day cowboy (except for the campfire). I even heard the yapping of coyotes from somewhere out on the prairie. A million stars glittered above me, and I marvelled that after almost a decade of car dependence and twenty years since my last long-distance bicycle trip, I was still able to pull off a good half-day on the saddle without whining for a hot bath.

At about 2:00 a.m. the water began to fall. It was funny – I remember thinking – rain on a clear prairie night. Then it dawned on me why the surrounding countryside was bone dry and brown as a badger's back while the grounds of the Travel Alberta tourist information bureau were green and succulent.

“Sprinklers!” I moaned, as I quickly gathered my sleeping roll and ran to a part of the surrounding park that wasn't being spit upon. I spent the remainder of the night reinacting the scene, jumping like a jackrabbit from dry patch to dry patch as each section of the park was watered in turn. It was sleepless, that first night on the trail, but I felt excited that my adventure had really begun.

I started my ride at Medicine Hat, just east of Calgary, and chose my native Winnipeg as a destination because, as a prairie dog by birth, I was taught very early the importance of returning to the den. After driving the 13,000 km from my new home in Vancouver, I ditched my car on the edge of town and proceeded to cycle down the long asphalt snake commonly known as “Number One” – the Trans-Canada Highway. Forty kilometres later, a road sign emblazoned with a wild rose the size of a grain silo bid me farewell from Alberta's foothills, while another with a giant sheath of wheat warmly invited me into Saskatchewan, “Canada's breadbasket.”

My first real taste of prairie life was Maple Creek, a small town nestled like a grouse at the edge of Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park, a 25,000 km2 island of rolling pine and spruce woodland that once gave refuge to Sitting Bull after his military success at Little Big Horn. Established in 1882 near a major post for the North West Mounted Police, who were trying to halt the flow of illegal whiskey from the United States, the town still maintains the charm of a bygone era with its sleepy, shaded streets, its grain elevator, and its quaint shops. I was discouraged and saddle sore, so I decided to hole-up in the historic Commercial Hotel, where I enjoyed a hot bath as the acrid scent of rotting crab apples drifted in through my open window.

Not Another Tim Hortons © Brad Zembic

Still Not Quite Tim Hortons © Brad Zembic

The following morning, after a hefty prairie breakfast, I cycled back to the main highway, praying that the soft southwesterly breeze would turn into a gale and blow me all the way to Regina. It wasn't to be. As I approached the Trans-Canada the wind shifted, and I was soon facing a second day of blustery resistance.

I left the Trans-Canada for Highway 363 near Swift Current and was greeted by a landscape as featureless as a sea. The terrain was treeless and flat, the long stems of wheat waving like mermaid's hair in a great ocean. In the distance I could make out farmhouses and imagined them as freighters carrying cargo to western shipping ports. Silver grain silos glinted in the sunlight and everywhere crickets chirped, grasshoppers jumped and telephone wires buzzed. The mid-day sun was relentless, and I instinctively began scanning the horizon for a place to replenish my supply of water.

“Only four more kilometres 'till Neidpath,” I said as I surveyed my map. I peddled faster, anticipating a cold glass of ice water from yet another prairie-town cafe. What I found, though, were the scattered remains of what was once a flourishing south Saskatchewan village. A parched skeleton of a decrepit grain elevator, some fallen buildings, a pile of rusting farm equipment and the wooden shell of a little farmhouse were nearly all that was left. In the end I cycled further up the road where, at a homestead concealed behind a wall of cackling poplar trees, I was fed well water by a burly Jehovah's Witness who encouraged me to relocate to Saskatchewan.

“It's paradise here,” he said. “And land's cheap. Where else can you get a view like this?” He swept his arm across the open prairie as if he was trying to part a sea. I had to agree. The view was stunning – a rich tapestry of rolling farmland and a sky as clear and blue as the eyes of an angel. The idea of cheap rural property was attractive, I admitted, but life in Vancouver had thinned my blood and one blast of a cold winter wind here, I knew, would send me galloping for the coast.

My goal for the night was the dusty, agricultural outpost of Hodgeville, and two hours later, feeling like a lonely, half-broken drifter too many hours on the saddle, I checked into the only hotel in town.

”Room's 'er upstairs,” the plaid-shirted hotel clerk informed me. “Pay as you leave.” I tethered my bicycle to a post in front of the hotel and was escorted up the stairs to a paddock-like room with a bed, a table and chair, and a washbasin.

“Bath's down the hall,” the clerk continued, pointing a finger as sharp as a wheat stalk to the end of the passage. “Y'er the only one here, so it odda be real quiet.”

An Ocean of Wheat © Brad ZembicAn Ocean of Wheat © Brad Zembic

It was Saturday night, and I was determined to immerse myself in a little prairie town culture – a shot of whiskey, perhaps, after a hard day's ride. I walked down to the hotel watering hole hoping for a set of saloon doors like in Gunsmoke, Miss Kitty leaning against the bar and fell'ers with bristling whiskers, broken teeth and cowboy hats. Except for the barman (who was also the desk clerk), however, the bar was empty.

“Saturday night's the same as Sunday durin' harvest,” the barman explained. “Everyone's tired, and they godda get up early.”

The next morning I gazed out my second floor window, trying to figure out which way the winds were blowing. There are, I discovered, all sorts of ways to judge the direction of even the slightest breeze. One sure way is to watch how leaves fall from trees. Another is to track the seeming chaotic flight of butterflies, or to watch the direction small birds fly. This day the birds were soaring east, a sure sign that I had paid my dues and was in for some enjoyable cycling.

I ate breakfast in the Hodgeville Café, a rundown restaurant with yellowing walls, wooden booths and coffee that tasted like slough water. There were a few customers scattered around the room: trio of pot-bellied farmers talking about last year's fires in Alberta, a town drunk and a mousey-looking woman dressed in a winter coat. I struck up a conversation with May, the café owner, a friendly immigrant from Canton. She spoke enthusiastically about Vancouver and was contemplating a move there.

”Business is bad. There's no people left here,“ she lamented. “They're all moving to Regina or Winnipeg.” Indeed, many small prairie towns may soon resemble Neidpath as rural people seek a more urban and comfortable lifestyle in the big cities.

Hoodooing © Brad ZembicHoodooing © Brad Zembic

For the next four days tailwinds pushed me closer to the Manitoba border along roads as flat and sizzling as a frying pan full of Canadian bacon. The sun beat down mercilessly, and I daydreamed of rivers filled with ice-cold lemonade. White-tailed deer pranced away through the wheatfields at my approach, their heads bouncing like dark balls on a golden floor, and operatic meadowlarks sang to each other – things I would have missed, I thought, if I'd been in a car. Misty mornings were followed by blazing days and warm evenings, when the western sun slouched over the plains, crowning the fields with a brilliant halo.

On my last day I cycled a whopping 160 km, travelling through Manitoba farm towns that seemed as small as dots on a map: Rivers, Wheatland, Brookdale, Wellwood, and through to Melbourne – nothing like its namesake Down Under.

At Portage la Prairie, 100 km from my destination, one of my brothers caught wind of my arrival and drove out from Winnipeg to take me home. As we travelled through the night in his Ford pickup truck, grasshoppers splattered against the windscreen and the clover-scented prairie air flooded through the open windows. Kenny Rodgers was blaring from the radio, singing something about a woman dumping her husband before the crops had been harvested.

“Right across the prairies, eh?” my brother asked, his head bobbing like the head of one of those wheatfield deer. “I guess you had enough of that torture.”

I nodded, too, reflecting on my nine days on the road – the freedom, the fresh air, the people I'd met – and I promised inwardly to abandon myself more often to the call of the wild, to one day jump back on the saddle, slip my feet into the stirrups and, like a modern-day cowboy, cycle more of Canada's country roads.

Brad Zembic is a Vancouver-based writer of travel stories, book and film reviews, and fiction. His work has been published in the Edmonton Journal, the Vancouver Sun, the Cape Argus and the Cape Times. All images © Brad Zembic