Sunday, May 30, 2010

Pheasants, Old Cars and a Changing Landscape

Ah, Missile Silos - one does tend to see them in the rural areas of America like Kansas, North Dakota and Montana. Thankfully they are now silent, a reminder of a past that one would hope never gets resurrected. I could not help though doing a compare and contrast between the Cold War era of detente and what was unfolding that day in Iraq. Had much really changed? Oh well, muse about that later perhaps, after we found the right watering hole for political discussions in America should be held in places like bars and diners and not on some over-produced talk/schlock fest whose hosts were really out of touch with reality.

The landscape, we both knew, would be fairly consistent in its bits of flatness interspersed with small hills until we got further west. Sometimes we could go on for long periods of time not saying a word to each other, so involved we were with the drive and then magic would happen in the form of a deserted farmstead that we would have to poke around in. There are many spots like this on the prairies, reminders of a past that will most likely never come back. North Dakota, South Dakota, and the three prairie provinces are peppered with ghost towns, most of which disappeared when the secondary rail lines that they existed beside were decommissioned in favour of the great tarmacked ribbons of the Interstates and TransCanada Highway. Local wheat granaries, those lone sentinels that dotted this region, had been torn down and replaced with soulless behemoths of concrete courtesy of Cargill and other multinationals....the co-ops, there are still a few, gone and with that an era of the truly independent farmer.

I remember driving out with some friends a few years ago to show them my childhood roads and told them the story of the little settlements like Mowbray and Jordan on Highway 3 in Manitoba, places which no longer existed. They did not believe me until hours later at home I dug out the old maps that proved their past existence. Just because something is not there anymore does not mean it was never alive.

Whenever Spam and I came upon one of these places we never got sad but instead got out the cameras and went exploring for evidence that these farmsteads had been vibrant and full of life. To me, finding old postcards yellowed and stained with mud, these were treasures to be savoured. The flowing cursive lettering, a lost art form these days, and eloquent sentence structure....I could never understand how one could not save these treasures but I suppose that those who composed these notes of visiting past big-city fairs, their Grand Canyon honeymoon that would have involved driving the infamous Route 66 - they were not there to vouchsafe the importance of those moments. Life goes on, people migrate so it is up to those of us who are crazy artists and travelers to remind others of their heritage.

As we pushed more to the southwestern reaches of North Dakota, destination Bowman, we started to see pheasants, brilliantly plumed and not scared to pick for grubs and seeds on the graveled shoulders of the secondary roads. We were getting close to Teddy Roosevelt territory. The landscape became more undulating and there were far more sloughs, populated of course by the many varieties of ducks that were returning to the prairies.

Off in the distance, glinting in the sharp afternoon March light was a sight that had the two of us transfixed for we did not know yet what it was we were looking at as it was a good two to three miles away. As we drew closer the telltale shine of chrome, acres of it, came into view. This was a car graveyard but not of the forlorn kind that one usually sees on these roads. These cars had been arranged methodically in rows with military precision. I kept thinking how some dudes from California, given the chance to play here, would be in heaven. We too were drawn in enough to consider stopping and exploring but I wanted to make Bowman before it was too late as I had no desire to run into deer once the sun went down. I made a note of the location in my road atlas, vowing to someday return.

It is something that now, I tend not to do - keep driving past something or not go out of my way to check a place out. Who wants to regret missing perfect light or perhaps on returning to the scene someday to find it changed or gone? Somehow though, I do believe this place of cars will still be around.

America owes a debt to the vision of Teddy Roosevelt. He too was a road tripper but when he went venturing there were few roads.

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