Jesse James and Other Scoundrels and Heroes

Growing up,  I knew folk from my community who claimed to be a relation of the infamous Jesse James. I’ve talked to more than one landowner who claims that Sitting Bull and his followers “rode right through the yard” though at the time, it wasn’t a yard yet. The Big Muddy Valley claims the #1 stop on Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’s Outlaw Trail.

All of these claims are…just that. Claims. Whether historically true or not, they conjure evocative images. Why do so many communities want to be affiliated with the tragic, political mess that was the Sitting Bull saga? Why would anyone claim kinship with a notorious criminal? Why are people proud to speak of the Big Muddy’s reputation as a playground for horse and cattle thieves?

In the Old World, there were many folk ballads concerning Robin Hood, the outlaw of Sherwood Forest who famously stole from the rich to give to the poor. In the West, similar ballads about Jesse James emerged, though there was no real evidence he ever held up trains out of any sense of philanthropy. The money he distributed to his followers was to secure loyalty. And yet, the idea of James as a folk hero endures. Sitting Bull is, depending on who you talk to, another folk hero, the man who defeated Custer and defied the American government by seeking refuge in Canada. On our side of the Medicine Line, we grasp onto the Sitting Bull story, make much of the few years he spent in Canada. Certainly, it was a historically significant event. But it is much more significant in our local folklore. Sitting Bull’s story occupies a much larger space in our imaginations and collective memory than in any history textbook.

The cowboy outlaws of the deserts and plains of western North America have been romanticized in film, song, poetry, and in the collective imagination, including here in southern Saskatchewan. Notorious outlaws like Dutch Henry, Sam Kelly, the Pigeon-Toed Kid, and others were known for rustling cattle and horses on the Canadian side of the Line, driving them down to be sold in Montana, then turning around and herding them back up across the Line to be sold again on this side. They had a few tricks to help evade capture, but in the end they all met ignominious ends – either winding up dead somewhere, in jail, or simply fading into obscurity. Their hijinks only lasted a few years, but the stories we tell about them are still going strong.

We venerate the underdog, the rascal, the ones who thumb their noses at the status quo, for they are living out our secret desires to throw off the shackles of whatever our particular life has us chained to – responsibility, poverty, unrequited love, unrealized potential.

The West is a land of myth and legend. Its landscape lends itself to these images – to people who live on the fringes, people who are as wild as the geography itself. I can’t say I wouldn’t want to be a relation to Jesse James myself.


Avonlea Badlands, September 2014.


Thoughts from the Main Line

An old town on the main line, where the trains still whistle through, even if they don’t stop very often or very long any longer. On a walk through unfamiliar streets, I suddenly reach almost the edge of town just as the brash horn blasts into the stillness of the warm end-of-summer evening. The train roars through, its cars illuminated by the streetlights and the stars above. They’re loaded with shipping containers, double decker, the type you see stacked up on the docks of large harbours. Now they’re strung out in a long, seemingly never-ending line charging across the flat landscape. As they flash by, I can see that many read “China Shipping,” a tantalizing cue to their origins and their possible contents. I wonder what’s in them, where they’re bound, from what sort of factory did their contents originate. Whose were the hands who assembled them, and what sort of life did the work of producing goods for insatiable Western consumers permit? I imagine these containers sitting on the docks in Vancouver, being loaded up, precipitously making their way around and through the Rockies, bursting out into the prairie and making a run for it straight through to the bush and muskeg before being unloaded again…where? Toronto? Montreal? To be unloaded, their contents shuttled here and there, probably some loaded on semi-trailers to be brought back West and delivered to various and sundry merchants, from Dollaramas to Wal-Marts to the local hardware store in this very town.

I missed the start of the train, but bringing up the rear was the familiar red Canadian Pacific engine, along for the ride this time, but soon enough to be taking on the burden of leading the way. Canadian Pacific. A world of meaning in those two words strung together. The CPR, the CP Line, the Banff Springs Hotel, Rogers Pass, blasting through mountains with nitro-glycerine, brand new towns named by CP surveyors, now towns without any train at all, some of them dead or dying, or maybe even thriving. Ribbons of steel, the last spike at Craigellachie, grand dining cars. All of these random and seemingly unrelated images spring to mind – all united by the CPR.

The whole thing can’t last more than two minutes, and yet so many images and thoughts swirl through my mind. How the quiet of the evening, overly punctuated, like too many commas in a run-on sentence, with the discordant whining of vehicles on the Trans-Canada Highway, was so disturbed by the sudden assault of the train. How I enjoyed the onslaught, how I’ve always loved hearing and watching trains go about their work. How it’s rare, since down in my country, in the Gap, there are no trains anymore, just decaying tracks. I think about how many hands have been involved in the common spectacle unfolding in front of my eyes – from the manufacture of the mysterious contents inside those shipping containers, to the containers themselves, to the people who operated the machines to get them on a train in China, to a dockyards somewhere in Asia, to a ship bound across the Pacific, to be unloaded in Vancouver, probably, to load them onto this Canadian train, and so on and so forth. The engineers, too, who are guiding this train, and the men who laid this track all those years ago, some of them perhaps underpaid, undervalued workers from China. Then there are the workers who maintain those tracks now, and the ones operating the schedules to ensure there’s only one train on any one given stretch of track at any one particular time.

I think all of this, and even more, but most of all I am struck by something powerful in its ordinariness.

Why I Cannot Sleep

I believe I will never quite know,

Though I play at the edges of knowing,

truly I know

our part is not knowing.

– Mary Oliver, “Bone,” Why I Wake Early


It’s one of the hardest things for us humans to do – to accept that we can never know.


Never know what is like to die, and what comes after

Never know what is inside another’s heart, soul, mind

Never know if we made the right choice, or not

Never know if we should speak up or stay silent

Never know if what we have done made any difference at all, to anyone

Never know if things could have been different, if only

Never know if tomorrow’s tomorrow will be better than today

Never know if any of it means anything at all.

And yet, that’s all there is to know. That we can’t know. That there is no real certainty. That life itself is a giant gamble, and we don’t even know the stakes, though the terror that claws at us from within hints that they might be higher than we ever imagined.

Or perhaps the fear is that there are no stakes, never were, and we’re just hurtling around on this planet imagining that we’re here for something other than just to live for a little while, and here we are wasting time wondering if it means anything.

It’s a Sunday night, when that familiar existential dread creeps in, and all the rustling of the desiccated autumn leaves and the golden glimmer of the harvest moon are reminding us of the tenuousness of everything. Soon those drying leaves will fall and even sooner the robust moon will have shrunk away to nothing.

But among these morose thoughts, almost despite my own melancholy leanings, I recognize something else, something that I can know. Whether or not I or anyone I love is here to witness it or not, those fallen leaves will give life to something. And new leaves will grow. And the moon will again appear, first as a delicate curvature of fine silver, and then, without fail, will grow proud and full again, whether the clouds cover her or not.

So I contradict myself, or perhaps return to prove the point. I know so little that it’s almost nothing, but what I do know is enough to recognize what is precious.





When I consider…the small space I occupy and which I see swallowed up in the infinite immensity of spaces of which I know nothing and which know nothing of me, I take fright and am amazed to see myself here rather than there: there is no reason for me to be here rather than there, now rather than then. Who put me here?

– Blaise Pascal, Pensées

Standing on a hill with the land tumbling down before me and the immense sky seeming fit to swallow everything whole, it’s impossible not to feel small. But, in being alone here save for a few deer grazing nearby and an unidentifiable bird wheeling high above, I can’t help but feel large, too. I don’t know if it’s just the prairies that can make a person feel both infinitesimal and grandiose at the same time. I think of all the billions of people who are not here, never will be here, have never heard of here, and even if they had, likely would take no great pains to get themselves here. And I wonder, like Pascal and countless others since have, “who put me here?”

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to find a ghost

Andy — today I went looking for your ghost in Wood Mountain. Rounding the last curve on Highway 18 heading east, it appears suddenly. But without three elevators, without even one to announce itself, it must be content with an oversized sign.  A grand introduction, as if to challenge the assumptions of the uninitiated that this tiny place might be unimportant.

Wood Mountain – the overlarge sign proclaims, hinting at a grandeur not immediately obvious. But, with only a smidgen of curiosity, hints of its grandiosity can be found.

First – the land itself. It was one of those days, Andy, when the sky is weighted with scattered, puffy clouds, and the wind is strong enough (stronger than enough) to send them scudding hither and thither, so that their shadows sweep up and down the hills.         It’s the time of year when the grass is maturing, ripening into yellow. Even with the abundance of rain this year, the hills mellow to burnished gold. And on them the cattle work at their eternal grazing, as tatanka once did.

The town itself is quiet and I do not linger overlong. I find nothing of you there, except echoes of bits of remembered lines. The closed up Trail’s End with the tree growing right where people used to lounge and smoke and fistfight. The tree is big enough to suggest how long it’s been since a rye and Coke or a Pilsner were last served behind the wall it now leans against.

But just south, where the land drops down into heavily bushed coulee, revealing why the place is named what it is, there is more life, and more whispers that contain your name.     The park, with its boughs of browning poplar piled atop the stands – green a few weeks ago when they shaded spectators of the Sports. Yes, Andy, the rodeo continues, when so much else does not.

People are camping in their big trailers tucked awkwardly into niches carved out of the trees. There is a brand new swimming pool, its chlorinated water a startling blue contrast to the yellowing hills and dusty green trees surrounding it. I wonder idly at the volume of water contained within its concrete walls – such a precious thing that people paddle around in. Its newness, and the money it took to build it, seem boastful compared to the aging museum beside it.

That is where I finally find you, Andy. In the Rodeo Ranch Museum. They have some of your poems in stock this time – a glossy reprint with a stylized Sitting Bull on the cover. I’m very glad to see it, though I do prefer my own dogeared copy, the one I tracked down with some effort, a retired library book sold online. The Sitting Bull on my copy is faded, like an old photograph. It seems more fitting, somehow. But if people are going to discover your poetry behind a slick, updated cover, there’s no harm in that.

I find you in a few other places, too. But more poignantly, I find the folks who peopled your poems scattered throughout the place, their names as familiar as old friends. Like Vasile Tonita, and some of the other Romanians. I find intimate details about them, like their dates of birth and the number of children they had.

And outside the wind blew through the grass and for all that has changed, I guess that one thing at least has remained the same. I did not find your ghost in Wood Mountain today, Andy.

But I was only passing through. Perhaps if I stayed awhile, let the place seep into me and I into it for a time, I would find your ghost, or it would find me. Or maybe your ghost haunts some other place, Wood Mountain too full of restless spirits already to accommodate another one, even that of a poet.




Bill the Fiddler

Hot lunch hour on Scarth Street and I sat on the same quad of benches as the old  man fiddling. He played the same four tunes again and again. I wondered how long he’d been playing and how he learned. So I asked.

79 years, he’s been playing, since he was 4 years old. Where’s he from? Grand View Manitoba, just over the border from Yorkton. His  mother was born there, grandparents came in 1869. I asked from where, though I could guess the answer from his accent: Kyiv, Ukraine, he said proudly.

His grandfather worked for 12 cents an hour on the railroad. When he’d saved enough, he bought a homestead for 12 dollars: “it was all boosh, that country.”

His grandmother taught him to play, she played in the Symphony Orchestra back in Ukraine. He still has her violin, a Strad, he says, though he doesn’t bring that to Scarth Street of course. He brings the violin he bought at the junk shop, though it’s old, from 1604, he says.

He comes 2 or 3 times a week to Scarth Street, for it’s something to do, he says, since he’s been alone these 39 years and there’s no one to talk to at home but the walls, and they don’t answer.

Finally I asked his name: Bill. Shook his hand and tossed a loonie in his case, it bounced twice before settling into the worn velveteen beside a couple toonies, another loonie, and some scattered small change. It was all I had.

I don’t know if Bill’s tales were true or not, and it doesn’t matter. I hope he keeps on playing there on Scarth Street.



Finding places in between