Tag Archives: Big Muddy Badlands

Rounding the Curve

On the 18 heading east, just out of Big Beaver, and the road drops down into a steep curve. It was icy so I had slowed down, and good thing because as I rounded the curve, a half-dozen prairies chickens and as many mule deer greeted me. Only one deer was actually on the road, and he bounded off quickly into the coulee at the side of the road to join his fellows. But the prairie chickens were in a panic, and one of them slid and skidded on the ice, wings flapping frantically, little legs all askew. It about broke my heart. Who hasn’t looked silly trying to keep upright on a slippery surface? Who hasn’t panicked in the face of something unexpected bearing down upon you? The hen righted herself and scuttled away, perhaps a bit embarrassed, and a lot relieved, to join the rest of her flock.

And I continued on down the highway because what else could I do?

The setting sun had cast a pinkish hue glowing on the hills that I kept driving down and into, and I hope the prairie chickens and the deer managed to find a cozy corner of a coulee to bed down in. As for me, I was driving into my own predicament, little did I know it. One quick decision to go forward when I should have turned back and suddenly, I was stuck in a snowdrift across a gravel road.

As I waited for my help to arrive in the form of a friend who I called upon in my moment of need, my thoughts turned back to rounding that curve, how I had been just as surprised by the deer and the prairie chickens as they were by me. As night fell darker and the cold grew even more bitter, a slight trickle of unease wormed its way down my spine. I had my cell phone, and help was on its way. I knew I would get out of my spot of trouble and get on home to my own warm bed. But sitting there alone in the cold darkness, well in the “middle of nowhere”, sitting in the middle of a road that no one had driven down in a good half hour, I thought about how movement can be arrested so quickly. I thought about how lucky I was. But even more, I thought about how lucky that prairie chicken was that I had slowed rounding the curve.

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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-hoodoo
Avonlea Badlands, September 2014.

 

Badlands Solstice

To see the Summer Sky
Is Poetry, though never in a Book it lie –
True Poems flee.
– Emily Dickinson

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Badlands sky. Kristin Catherwood. June 21, 2014.

I wrote the first post of this blog on the Winter Solstice, the longest night. Yesterday was the longest day, the summer solstice. Throughout time, humans have marked the solstices and the equinoxes with special rites. They have built monuments precisely aligned with the rising or setting solstice suns. They have gathered in places that are sacred to watch the first or the last rays of the sun on these tipping points in the year.

The summer solstice is a culmination. Though the fullness of summer is still a few weeks away, the solstice marks the time of year when everything reaches toward the sun – every growing thing, every living thing. It is a bittersweet day, for it means that tomorrow the sun’s light recedes from us a bit every day, imperceptibly at first, until darkness comes earlier and we begin to approach the autumnal equinox, when everything has borne fruit and must dig in for winter.

When you live in a rural place where you can see the sun and how it moves throughout the year, this cyclical routine of the sun seeps into your bones, just as the lunar cycle does. We don’t even notice it, usually, because it’s so much a part of us.

A sacred place in southern Saskatchewan is the Big Muddy Badlands, also known as the Big Muddy Valley, or more simply, just the Big Muddy. This is a place of spectacular beauty, of exhilarating history. The Big Muddy was the Wild West. Outlaws, cattle rustling, horse thieving, rum running, it all happened there. Sitting Bull rode through it. Countless horses and cattle have grazed its grasses. Before all of this, the aboriginal peoples considered it a holy place, judging by the amount of effigies found there. Thousands of tipi rings stand in silent testimony of lives lived there for thousands of years.

The Big Muddy will be referred to again and again in this blog, I’m sure. It is a place of mystery and magic and legends and lore. It is one of my favourite places on earth, perhaps second only to the Gap country, its nearest neighbour to the east.

I travelled with good friends to the Big Muddy the evening of the solstice to watch the sun set at its late hour. No monuments are needed to mark the sacred solstice in the Big Muddy. The landscape itself is the most perfect venue imaginable for such a rite. The Big Muddy is a place of light and shadow, of constant contrasts. It is the only place I wanted to be to watch the sun set on the Longest Day.

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Badland buttes. Kristin Catherwood. June 21, 2014.

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Grass, Sky, Song. Kristin Catherwood. June 21, 2014.

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Clouds over a coulee. Kristin Catherwood. June 21, 2014.

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By the shores of Big Muddy Lake. Kristin Catherwood. June 21, 2014.

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Badlands flora. Kristin Catherwood. June 21. 2014.

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Solstice shadows. Kristin Catherwood. June 21, 2014.

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Big Muddy Lake. Krisitn Catherwood. June 21, 2014.

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Hole in the Wall. Kristin Catherwood. June 21, 2014.

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The last light of the sun. Kristin Catherwood. June 21, 2014.