We’ve traveled 4200 miles playing the game of “those cows are my cows.” (In our family, a herd of cows counts as one, a cemetery kills your opponent’s cows, and a church resurrects them.) Yesterday’s game was particularly cut-throat. It reminded me that I need an eye exam when I get home.
Since we can’t take it through a car wash, the SUV is looking downright geological. The arctic mud has eroded, and a fresh coating of Saskatchewan dust covers everything. A license plate bolt jarred loose and our Maine plate hangs at a rakish angle.
Our current path crossed last year’s at Regina, Saskatchewan. In this area, farms are still being worked, but the old prairie homesteads are abandoned. They are elegiac, and I’ve wanted to paint one since I first saw them.
I saw several on Tuesday, when the wind blew too hard to paint. Because I knew there were some in the Regina area, Mary and I dropped off the Trans-Canada Highway onto local roads.
From the place names, we realized Saskatchewan has a significant population of French-Canadians, or Fransaskois.
In 1752 Louis de La Corne led an expedition along the northern coast of Lake Superior, through Le Pas, Manitoba and to the forks of the Saskatchewan River. These lands became the most western in the French New World Empire. French fur traders roamed the territory for the following century, establishing families with native women. These people, the Métis Nation, developed a creole language called Michif, which is a complex blend of Cree and French. Later, French immigration into the area was actively encouraged by Canada.
Stubbornly, our route refused to yield any abandoned houses. I decided to paint a windbreak instead. These stately lines of poplars seem curiously formal for the open prairie, but they are hardy and fast-growing.
I sat on a range road for several hours wrestling with the emptiness. I’m not thrilled with my solution. Thinking conventionally, I created foreground interest that’s, simply, a lie. It makes the space seem eastern and small. The painting needs editing, and I’m debating how to do it.
I find that as I enter new terrain, I stubbornly see it as a continuation of the prior environment, so gradual is the change. Saskatchewan is flatter and wetter than Alberta. Finally, I stopped and looked at what was actually there. Two abandoned grain elevators in the far distance caught Mary’s eye, and we lurched along a range road to get to them. There was one hour until sunset; I could do a small painting if I concentrated.
A truck pulled up. Gordon Kish, rancher and auctioneer, is the last remaining resident of the ghost town of Neelby, Saskatchewan. In fact, he owns all 220 building lots. Settled in the early 20th century, Neelby had a railroad line and a grain depot, but nearby Kipling was more visionary. It built a reservoir and piped water to the rail line. That made it more useful for steam engines. Neelby faded and died.
The sun faded as Mr. Kish and I chatted. I was tempted to camp in Kipling and spend another day in Neelby, but I realized I must move on. I have enough information to finish in the studio, however.