You’ll notice that rather than a photograph next to the lead-in paragraph I’ve embedded a YouTube link to an Ian Tyson song “Land of Shining Mountains”. I’ve been listening to that old cowpoke quite a bit and there is lot in his body of work that resonates with me having spent some formative years in Kamloops which, at the time, was a rail junction for both the CNR and CPR as well as a cowtown. The fancy hotel was called “The Stockman’s” featuring dinner and floor show Friday and Saturday nights for the well-heeled. It had its stockyards, its cowboy hotels and saloons and at certain times of the year your Mom and Dad hustled you across the street just “because”; later I found out it was because a cowhand had passed out in a doorway. I still recall wanting nothing more than a pair of cowboy boots and blue jeans to walk just that way like they did in the Lone Ranger and Rifleman.
It was Stampede and I had to get out of the city. As I wrote in my journal: “it feels like my head is being crushed”. In town, the sidewalks were filled with not the cowboys I grew up around in Kamloops but the Ricky Rodeos who forgot that the bullshit is supposed to be on the outside of the boots. I’ve always loved the Porcupine Hills and the sagebrush and short grass prairie south of Highway 3 and north of the 49th Parallel so I loaded up the truck and headed south.
In a review on Amazon.com of Ian Tyson’s album “I Outgrew the Wagon” Jim Cleary writes:
“You'll smell the dust and sage; you'll feel the blazing sun and stinging sleet; and you'll hear the sound of the wind in the wire. The prairie’s infinite expansiveness, its quiet and loneliness and unquenchable thirstiness, its midday deadness and its spring to life at low sun, it's nourishing protection for the lucky and its steadfast brutality for the unprepared.”
And the sky. Oh my lord the sky. It arches over you streaming to forever. It’s different than up in the Peace Country. I always felt the sky there oppressive, pressing down on you like the Lutheran god of the Swedes and Norwegians that settled there. The southern sky just is. It passes no judgement, pays no heed to the busy-ness of man. It can be quick to anger: a prairie thunderstorm can appear and disappear in a blink leaving flattened fields, damaged buildings, flooded streams and roads. It can also caress: sitting by the side of the road, the breeze rustling the grass, brushing your face and carrying away the cares of the world.
I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not a very good landscape photographer. I find that I just can’t capture the emotions I feel when confronted with some of the vistas that I have here in my backyard. But hey, I tried. It’s something that takes time, like writing cowboy poetry.
I have to come clean that I’ve fudged a bit. The standard 3x2 “full-frame” and 4x3 “Micro-Four Thirds” aspect ratios don’t do bupkis to help me get even close to showing my feelings of expanse: I cropped the images to a 16x9 aspect ratio to try to get me there. This is truly a subject area that needs a wiiiiide canvas.
As you drive through Porcupine Hills you come across ranches, some old, some new, some gone, some not much changed from when they were founded. Some are nestled in the hills; some are out in the open. This one is long gone and only the sighing of the wind bears witness to what once was.
|Abandoned Ranch, Porcupine Hills|
The month of July had brought storm after storm roiling out of the mountains and onto the plains. After slithering up the wet gravel, I crested a hill and whompf! There it was: the foothills, the Rockies and the sky. I wondered what de La Vérendrye felt when he crested a hill like this one in 1743.
|Southern Rockies, North of Pincher Creek|
The next day I set out from Lethbridge and headed back west, heading south towards Del Bonita, now a ghost town although the two teacherages are for sale.
The sky to north would be threatening a nasty series of thunderstorms brewing, even in the early morning. This turbulent sky was to be my constant companion for the rest of the day.
|Canola and Fence Line|
Heading deeper into the south and east, as if being drawn to the Sweetgrass Hills by a magnet, the land changes from cropland to sagebrush and short grass prairie. This is the land of the cowboy.
|Short Grass and Sagebrush|
|Old Corral and Sagebrush (Thanks, Ian)|
And always, always, the sky.
South, south, further and further south on the gravel roads until you brush up against the United States. The Sweetgrass Hills, at first just a ripple on the horizon now are the landscape rising up purple, untouched by the great Pleistocene ice sheets.
|Sweetgrass Hills #2|
All through this trip the ghosts of the cowboys were riding with me: Casey Tibbs, Bob Fudge, Jerry Ambler. Authors Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour were with me too; their descriptions of the prairie and the purple sage with me. It is a beautiful land and I hope that these images do it justice: I'll keep going back until my images do.