"Sometimes sons find themselves taking the same road as their fathers have in the distant past. More often than not, I would suggest, for different reasons. This was, I believe, the case for my father and me on a certain prairie road, through a certain prairie valley."
In thinking about my father’s journeys by horse on the prairie, I remember his recalling that there was one favourite place of his, where he had made it his custom to stop. He had found a fine place to rest his horse, and himself, in a particular location within the Qu’Appelle Valley, somewhere not too far from the Saskatchewan-Manitoba border.
There were never too many points of connection between my father and me upon which my father insisted. Even as a small boy, for example, when I was enamoured with the Toronto Maple Leafs hockey team, he cheered for their rivals, Les Canadiens of Montreal. You could not have a greater distance between father and son than this. Mostly, the points of connection that there were, were unspoken, implied or vague ones. But this place in the Qu’Appelle Valley was one point of connection which he articulated years ago, but it is only in writing this that I believe that I have come to understand what he had intended. You see, in the summer after I completed high school my Uncle invited me to spend the summer on his brother’s farm in Saskatchewan. As it happens, my Uncle and I had to pass through that same part of the Qu’Appelle valley on our journey to the farm from Winnipeg. My father had insisted that I stop at the same place as he had.
My father recalled to me that there was a reliable pure spring at this place, from which he could drink and also water his horse. The water was sweet there. (I have tasted water so sweet at my Uncle’s farm that you would swear it had been sugared.) But I know that this was, while perhaps the main reason, really only part of the reason that he made almost a ritual of stopping there. The arresting beauty of the valley was no doubt an underlying reason too. That beauty is no doubt magnified by the contrast that is created by the flatness of the land which surrounds it. Admittedly, there can be, in certain parts of the prairies, a decided sameness, a tedium, even for someone who so completely loves them. And when you find yourself captive to that tedium, it seems as though it is only the golden plain, the eternity of the blueness of the sky, and your own consciousness that exist in the world. When there is not even another car on the horizon, these three things exist alone and together, while you make your arc across the prairie: a momentary triad of the elements of existence.
But it is easy to imagine that the experience by car would not be quite the same as it would have been for my father by horse. The beauty of the valley is quite evident when driving through it by car, as you drive into the open cupped hands of the valley from the flatness of the land surrounding it. The car, however, isolates, insulates, you from the place. Your place is to a significant extent the interior of the car itself. The beauty of the valley would, on the other hand, have been underlined by my father’s use of horse and buggy. With horse and buggy you would enter into the valley in the open air and, of course, at a much, much slower speed. Little by little, you would feel part of the place and would be able to hold onto that feeling for a much longer time. You would feel like a little dot crossing slowly across a white page, or an insect crawling over a wooden floor, only the sky watching over your progress. There would be much more time by horse for you to become part of the place. My father would often speak of one’s “soaking up the view,” as if one were a cloth and the landscape was wine, and the place simply becomes part of you. To truly soak up a place, to become saturated with a landscape, takes time. The horse and buggy gave my father enough time, it seems, to truly ground himself in this landscape.
I can imagine my father in the open- air buggy, taking in the majesty of the valley and its distant hills as he made his way to his resting place. I can imagine his large smile, his delight with his achievement of isolation within the beauty of this simple prairie undulation. In the moment it all belonged to him alone. He would have been happy in that moment, just he and his horse, solitary travellers, with likely not another person in sight. He would have looked to one side, then the other, as he steered his little horse, looking at the valley and hills, and he would have seen it with the eyes of a young man who had grown up living within the straight, flat lines of prairie roads reaching for the horizon.
The great Canadian author Robertson Davies had a similar observation of the influence of modes of travel on our experience of life (I heard him speak of this many years ago in conversation with, I believe, the great Canadian broadcaster Shelagh Rogers on CBC Radio). His observation was that of trans-Atlantic crossings from Europe to North America. He noted that before there was such convenient air travel, people took ships which, of course, took much, much longer. Davies said that on the ship people had time for conversation about politics and life, to play card games and generally have an opportunity to get to know strangers. There was the opportunity for the generation of personal connections. With the trans-Atlantic flight all of that was gone. Now people would often bring a book as a form of protection, so they do not have to engage with their travelling companions by happenstance, the newspaper not providing adequate insulation.
Now each time that my Uncle and I were about to drive through, my Father would remind me not to forget to stop at the Qu’Appelle Valley and drink from the spring. (His voice sounding at the time a little like the drone of the adult voices in the Peanuts series.) He wanted to know that I stopped at the same place that he had so many years ago.
My father was asking me to remember a place, but I think he wanted me to even remember his experience of it. In such remembering I think he might even have wanted to establish a kind of connection between those days when he travelled through the valley and the time now when I did so. I only now understand fully what he was meaning, and the importance of such a connection. I only now understand what I was supposed to do then.
I had all kinds of excuses as to why I had never managed to stop at the site. Admittedly I was always extremely anxious for the moment when I reached the farm, the first time, and every time thereafter, and so this was part of my reluctance to stop and spend time searching for something that I rather doubted I would ever find. Still, my father never got disgruntled or mad, he would just wait for the next time that I was going to make the journey… fly from Toronto to Winnipeg and then drive with my uncle to Saskatchewan…and remind me again of how he still wanted me to find the place and make a stop. Eventually, on one of our journeys, my Uncle and I did manage to find the spot. We stopped and I had a drink from the spring. My Uncle took a picture of me drinking to show my Father proof that we had actually found it; my Father had requested the photo. Interestingly, my Uncle’s automobile is in the background of the picture. A clear indicator of how much things had changed since my Father had been there.
I can imagine how my father would have stood gazing over the valley while his horse drank and then grazed. It must have been in much the same way as when he used to take a break from strawberry picking when we went as a family when I was a child. He would stand there for what seemed like a very long time (he was supposed to be picking), with his hands on both hips, arching his back slightly, and taking in and admiring the landscape of the Ontario countryside. He would be “soaking” instead of picking, I say. Maybe his appreciation for the Ontario countryside derives from his prairie upbringing and travels, when to look at the prairie landscape was, in the right light, and in the proper frame of mind, to receive the promise of seeing eternity.
What I find interesting is that it is not immediately obvious that the horse was central to the story. The story was about my father’s stopping to rest at a particular place within the valley. Yet, the horse is everywhere to be found within the story.
Still, what I have also learned here is that to truly understand my father’s experience of the place of the Qu’Appelle Valley, the importance of the horse’s presence must also be accounted for. We must imagine the horse in the memory. It was part of the entire experience for my father, both as cause of the experience, and also as part of its landscape.
Next time we will visit the Qu’Appelle valley again, and explore its legends, its beauty, and the experience of place a little more.
WHO IS DOUGLAS ALLEN?
Douglas is a PhD Candidate in History at the University of Toronto. His studies are of late medieval and Renaissance Europe. He is interested in using the lens of identity to explore and understand history, human motivation and action. He is also a writer and is currently writing a novel set in the City of Winnipeg in the 1980s, which explores the nature of indigenous and non-indigenous relations.