“The Gap country, as it was called when our first pioneers came, was rolling prairie land covered by native grasses. As the settlers followed the Willow Bunch trail, they entered this area close to where the town of Brooking would be built and as they looked westward they could see this large gap between two ranges of hills, hence the name Gap country.”
– Joyce Catherwood, “History of the Gap,” Builders of a Great Land.*
My great-great grandfather Thomas and his seventeen year old son Sherwood were amongst those first settlers to this part of the country in 1905. The surveyors had not even come through yet. Saskatchewan would not be a province for another two months and was known still as Assiniboia, Northwest Territories. But they were not the first people to set eyes on it. The First Nations doubtless travelled across it countless times, though it appears they did not live in the area for any significant duration. Also, there was the Willow Bunch trail. It connected Winnipeg to Assiniboia and passed through the Willow Bunch region sixty miles to the west, which had been settled by French ranchers in the 1870s. The trail was comprised of giant ruts dug into the virgin prairie by the cumbersome wheels of Red River carts. Apparently the ruts were visible for decades after the Gap country was settled. They’re gone now, perhaps replaced by the Correction Line grid road which forms the northern border of the Gap, just a quarter mile north of my farm.
Perhaps it was one of my grandfathers who suggested the name “the Gap” for the new municipality which was formed in 1911. Maybe my great grandfather Sherwood, who because of his minority had had to request special permission for the right to file a homestead, said at the inaugural meeting: “let’s name this the Gap country because of that gap in the hills, the one we saw when we first set eyes upon this land that we would break so that we could make ourselves new homes.” He might have done. Or maybe it was one of the other men. Or maybe the whole story of the Gap being named the Gap because of a gap in the modest ridge of the Missouri Coteau is all folklore and there’s little truth to it all. Whatever did happen, or who said what, this place is called The Gap, specifically, the Rural Municipality of the Gap No. 39. R.M. of The Gap for short.
The municipality, like those all around it, is 324 square miles in size, which can also be measured as nine townships (36 sections in a township; four quarters in a section). The gap in the hills for which it is named comprises only a small part of its overall area. But it is in that part that my family has lived for 109 years. The gap in the Missouri Coteau is not dramatic. No one would drive for miles and miles to see it. But it’s my home and it’s the landscape that shaped me. No matter where I go in the world, all of my experiences are filtered through my perspective as a girl who grew up in the Gap.
There are a lot of different definitions for the word “gap.” No matter which definition you prefer, the etymology of the word remains the same. It’s one of the roughly 20 percent of basic English words that comes from Old Norse. It was exactly the same word in that ancient language, though today it is translated as “chasm.” It’s also related to the Danish gab for open mouth or opening. A chasm is a deep, dark place full of secrets, at least in my personal dictionary. And so I hope this blog will be: a place full of secrets. The secrets of the world we see around us every day, but rarely stop to ponder.
Of all the many definitions of gap, I like the first one best: 1. a break or opening in a wall, fence, etc. Since it’s a dictionary (specifically, dictionary.com) there’s no connotation or implication provided, though at first glance it might seem to be a negative one. Who wants a gap in their fence or wall? But one could use a gap to wriggle through into a secret garden, or peer into the dusty gloom of an ancient castle. A gap is really a gateway, an entrance into another place. Folklorists like to use the word liminal a lot. A liminal space is an in-between place, a threshold. It can be literal or symbolic, though folklorists usually use it symbolically. A gap is a liminal space. A place in between.
The second definition is good, too. 2. a break in continuity; an interruption; hiatus. Again, this definition might be perceived negatively at first. But I think breaks in continuity, interruptions and hiatuses can be good things. Necessary things, in fact. I need interruptions to my daily life, to routines and schedules. I may not always want them, but I need them. We all do. This blog, and the adventures I intend to create in order to fuel it, will be a hiatus from the daily grind – a gap in the orderly routine of everyday life.
There are several more definitions, but I’m going to stop at the third one. I like groups of threes; there is a long history of folkloric and mythological significance in the number three. Also, this third definition brings us back to the beginning. 3. a break in a line of hills or mountains affording a route through. The rolling hills of the Missouri Coteau are not overly rugged, and the thought of finding a pass through them seems a bit silly in this age of all terrain vehicles. But in a Red River cart, the flattest route possible would have been vastly preferable to a hilly alternative. And so the Gap was a pass of sorts along the Willow Bunch trail. In “affording a route through” it allowed travellers to make their way more easily from one place to another. Perhaps this blog will allow me to afford a route through the mundane to show that there is another destination: one full of mystery and, dare I say, magic. To find out what I mean, you will simply have to keep returning here to the Gap.
* Builders of a Great Land: History of The Gap No. 39 Ceylon and Hardy. 1980. Ed. History Committee of R.M. of the Gap No. 39. Altona, MB: D.W. Friesen & Sons Ltd.