Story by Tom Jackson. Photos by Dax Justin/Canadian Badlands.

Hot rods, horses, and hope

Discovering the spirit of community in Three Hills, Alberta

We got to Three Hills, Alberta, a well-revered Bible Belt zone, around lunch.

The town was a buzz. The normal population is 3,200 and a couple hundred vehicles – mostly trucks and fixer-uppers. Today, 600 super stock, vintage, restored and polished vehicles line both sides of Main Street in addition to 6,000 visitors!

Today is the annual car rally. Lawn chairs adorn both sides of the street. The older folks sit in the chairs protected by shade. The younger sit in the sun protected by sunscreen and little else. Either way, it looks awesome.

Made acquaintance with Richard and Jan, a former town councilor and his wife, born and bred in these parts, living three minutes west of town on their ranch. He raised a little hell here in an earlier time and now lives the good life raising horses. I told him I’ve never ridden. He says there is nothing better than being on the back of a horse as she runs full gallop! He loves his horses and they love him. He has taken a lot of soil samples in his day.

Jan said she once watched him lay down on the ground face up in the corral with a wild horse running around. He waited until the horse came over and stood still next to him. He took his belt off and placed it over the neck of the horse. And then bridled him.

Richard had a twinkle in the eye as he invited me to come out to his place. “I got a new stallion,” he says. “Come on over – we can break the both of you in at the same time.”

As the sun reflected off a dark blue, very vintage Model T (I think), I felt an obligation to speak to the man with calloused hands, spit polishing the rear fender. I mean, he was workin’ it. His name was Harold and he came here in ‘96 to settle down with his wife in what seemed like a pretty friendly town.

The kids are all grown up now…she (his wife) doesn’t get around much any more. I asked about the car. He says the car is younger than him. “How much younger”, I asked? “5 months”, says he. “What year”, I ask? 1927.

I invite him to come for coffee and listen for a while as I brought my guitar and was looking to play in the coffee shop at 3 o’clock. “Bring the wife”, I suggest, but he tells me she has to stay at the home. “Maybe when I’m done we can go visit?” He nodded his head in approval. We never got to it, but I’m going back in a couple of weeks to make that visit happen.

After walking the crowded streets of Three Hills for 1.5 hours, I searched out an empty lawn chair in the shade. I saw a couple of guys who looked like they were fishing but not actually wanting to catch anything. They immediately started talking to me as if we were long lost friends. Barely through introductions, I was startled by an outreached hand in my face. I took a firm handshake and was pulled out of my lawn chair in an instant by a strong woman. She was surrounded by three beautiful daughters, a son, and a bedazzled husband who was as surprised as I was. “Hi. I’m Gretchen, and this is my husband Kevin. My daughter saw you up the street but was too shy to bother you. What are you doing here in Three Hills? You have a car?” I said, “Nope, but I am going to be playing at Moments Café very shortly.” I asked Kevin what he does. “Cattle and a little guitar”, he tells me. “He’s really good”, Gretchen pipes in. Kevin is feeling uncomfortable and pulls his family away. “Leave the guy alone he’s trying to get some shade.”

I head off to the coffee shop as the fishermen bid me ado, “Nice to see you here in our town! Funny how nobody can afford a new car!”

June 12, 2016

Find this slice of land in between Three Hills and Brooks, AB. Then wait hours for the damn birds to be in the right spot. #mybadlands

Just as the door closed at the coffee shop, someone behind surprised me. “Hey Tom, is that you?”

Thomas jumped from his seat. “I’ve been following you for years and I finally get to meet you… I heard your story!” His eyes are a little glazed and he seems nervous. We exchange a few words but he doesn’t link into the conversation. I suggest we go to the back of the shop and have a chat as I want to know more about him. I find out he has First Nations blood, battling addictions and has making a life here for the past three years.

Now he is speaking coherently, clearly, and very intelligently. He has a checkered past…wanted to be a priest but got caught tasting the wine in the church and a few other things in life that sent him down the lost highway.

He came to Three Hills after being released from Drumheller Penitentiary, wanting to start over again. He had come here to find a bible. He’s had a bit of a rocky start, but knows this is a good place to re-start. He’s been clean five weeks.

We made a deal – I gave him my contact information and asked him to promise that the next time he felt the urge, to close his eyes, take a deep breath and then go and help somebody. He agreed, and we parted.

Thomas will never be the same.

When I came out of the back, the room was full. Included in the audience were Richard, Jan, Harold, Gretchen, Kevin and family.

I had a great time playing tunes! One of the highlights was having Kevin bless us with a couple of songs. One was about his life, one was about his wife, and the last was about his favorite cow.

Before the show was over, Thomas came back in just long enough to give me a big smile and a thumbs-up along with a little cheer as if to say “It worked”.

After finishing my most excellent ‘icecap’ we wandered outside. What a shock! Main Street was totally deserted! Nobody, nothing, no chairs, no cars, zilch, nada… ghost town! The track where the real cars rally is across the highway… DUH!

It’s very quiet as we make our way down the street. Nearly every shop is now closed except one – The Tickle Trunk. This store has dresses in the window that look like they were made for a princess. The door is open.

Inside we met the owners Vicki and Darrell. They had been waiting for us. Really?! This is another place where one can lose themselves in a time warp. This is a costume shop with thousands of costumes from the beginning to the present and into the future.

Vicki shared her stories – she is Mrs. Dress-up. This is our world… we dress the world. Who knows who wants to be a pirate next week, or an 80-year old Cleopatra? If you like yellow, be a duck. People come here and play dress-up for hours. We can, and you can be a little crazy here.

This is not just a costume shop, although you should look no further if you need a disguise for film or TV in Alberta. This is a community of children of all ages.

Vicki and Darrell have a special needs child and this family needed a home. “This community loves my child and I love this community.”

Vicki talks about the business and Darrell talks about Vicki. “She started a theater for little ones. Not everyone fits in with the ‘in’ crowd but everyone is a superstar at The Tickle Trunk. She loves to work and I love her.”

If you’re coming to the Badlands you need to come to the Tickle Trunk. You need to come to Three Hills.

Tom Jackson
Tom Jackson is an actor, singer, producer, activist and fundraiser. He is known for the Huron Carole, and roles on North of 60, Star Trek and Law & Order. He is a passionate advocate of Canadian food banks and disaster relief efforts, as well as an Ambassador for the Canadian Red Cross. His mantra of being in service to others is secured with his choice to engage if it’s good business, good for the world, and good for the soul.