Sunday, December 30, 2007

Miles from Ottawa, in the best sense

The title of this entry was shamelessly taken from an article written for The Edmonton Journal by Lorne Gunter reviewing a new book titled, And God Created Manyberries. As Gunter implies in the article, the mention of Manyberries isn’t going to get too many folks excited, but it did unleash a flood of memories for me – memories of the summer of 1976 and one of those experiences of a lifetime.

Having been in the workforce for all of six years at that point, I had decided that an extended vacation was needed. Looking back on it now that was probably the one time in my working life I least needed a long break as being low man on the civil service totem pole wasn’t exactly a stressful occupation. But then again, I was working for Canada Post and they sure weren’t going to miss me for 10 weeks, so I strapped a tent, sleeping bag, and an extra pair of jeans on the Honda 500 and headed west to Vancouver, where I would meet up with my wife (then girlfriend) who could only get sufficient time off to make the return trip.

While in Vancouver we stayed for a couple of weeks with friends of friends who turned out to be terrific hosts, making us feel welcome and right at home from day one. So to show our appreciation, on our last night we gave them a copy of the then-new photo book, Between Friends. As it was our last night, the beer and the hippie lettuce were in abundance, and we were all well under the influence when we came across the photo of two grizzled cowboys standing in front of a grain silo in a place called Manyberries, Alberta. For whatever reason(!) that photo struck us all as particularly hilarious at the time.

So it was that a few days later, when we came upon a road sign on Highway 1 pointing the way to Manyberries, we just had to detour to see the town now made famous by Between Friends. I'm not sure what we expected exactly, but I grew up in a small village in western Quebec, so I'm no stranger to small towns. But this was small-town living on the edge. A few low buildings, a grain elevator or two, and that was it. Surrounded by endless prairie, Manyberries was the quintessential small prairie town – beautiful, but in a very Spartan kind of way. And there was no sign of the cowboys; just a very attractive young lady driving a bloody great tractor through town wearing cut-off jeans, a bikini top, and a straw cowboy hat. An injudicious remark that she should have been in the book instead of the two guys earned me a quick jab in the ribs from the girlfriend and a reminder that it was going to be a long ride home if I didn't behave.

But we took a quick look around, and since the road in had been pretty dry and dusty, we stopped in at the local watering hole for a quick pint. It may have been the Southern Ranchmen’s Inn mentioned in the book, but I don’t remember its name. I do recall being the only two people in the place besides the bartender though – and I don’t think he was too pleased to have a couple of long-haired “hippie bikers” in his bar. But our money was good, and he was keen to take it, so we quenched our thirsts, saddled up, and headed back out of town, north to Medicine Hat.

It was a beautiful day for riding - hawks circling in a clear blue sky and antelope in the fields. One of those rare, perfect days that you just know can't last. And sure enough, it didn't.

There is only one hill between Manyberries and Medicine Hat, and it was just as we crested that hill that we came into intimate contact with the gumbo that’s used to surface roads in those parts. A mixture of water, oil, and dust, this goop is spread and graded until it packs down and dries into something of the consistency of concrete. But while it’s being worked, it’s more like molasses, very, very thick molasses. Which is what it was when we hit it. At 70 mph. At the same instant we saw all the heavy equipment all over the road. We went down so fast I didn’t even have a chance to say, “What the f....?”

Some of the workers immediately raced over to help us up out of the mud and their safety guy dragged out the First Aid Kit to patch the scrapes and minor cuts. Fortunately, aside from a bit of road rash, a broken turn signal, and a bent handlebar, we and the bike were fine. It was only when they told us how lucky we were because “The guy last week went right into that grader there. Killed him.” that I got a little irate and suggested, very politely under the circumstances I thought, that they should put up a FUCKING WARNING SIGN! With that, we prised the mud out from under the fenders, got on the bike, and continued on to Medicine Hat, me driving with the left handlebar pointing to the sky and both of us covered head to toe in oil and mud.

We managed to find a dealership in Medicine Hat that stocked the spare parts we needed (As we entered the store, the parts guy took one look at us and said: “Coming up from Manyberries?”) and found a campsite just outside town where we could pitch our tent and affect the necessary repairs. It turned out that the campsite was in between Highway 1 and the major east-west CP Rail line, and a favourite camping spot for the Hell’s Angels, but that’s another story.

Yup. Manyberries. Miles from Ottawa, and in the very best sense.

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