How I Found My Own Spirit in the Canadian Badlands
I fell in love over and over again with the Canadian Badlands, it’s history, it’s people, and it’s landscape.
“Did you have a good time up there on your road trip through…where were you?”
“Huh. Did you like it?”
I’ve been asked this a lot since I got back from Southeast Alberta. I don’t know why it surprises me so much to answer yes with such enthusiasm. When Canadian Badlands Tourism first invited me, I was a little unclear on what such a vast region filled mostly with fields and livestock had to offer.
This is a region with no central gathering point, no one defining attraction, and no fancy distinctive landmark (unless you count the world’s largest pinto bean). To fully take in the Badlands I had six days to drive, often several hours by myself, past cow after cow after cow. Yet, after that week I was filled with joy and this gratifying feeling, like the battery life on my soul was charged up to 100%.
Lately I’ve been wondering why I travel. We live in world where we can bring any place to us immediately via our phones. I’ve been asking myself seriously why the heck I keep going out there. Why do I keep sling-shotting myself around the globe? What, in all that is smashed into a carry on, am I searching for? What is my WHY?
The People of the Canadian Badlands
Morning number four and I found myself inside my third Tim Horton’s, grabbing a maple donut and a coffee. Even I was surprised when I realized how fast I had taken to my daily Tim Horton’s stop. I was indoctrinated so quickly. It felt like somewhere a scoreboard clicked over with a “DING,” and the crowd cheered as another visitor converted to Canadaism.
What struck me were exactly how many total strangers said “Good morning!” to me (six), and how many people held the door open for each other as they came and went from the donut shop. It was like a daisy chain of politeness, each person handing the open door responsibility to the next. Really, it’s a wonder any doors get closed in this country at all.
The people here are a renewable source of energy and really every interaction was giving me life. If you allow yourself to slow down and simply converse, your paper Tim Horton’s coffee cup will runneth over. The first place I felt this was at the beginning of my trip in the little town of Hanna.
“We’re trying to create relevancy.” Trish Sewell with Hanna’s Chamber of Commerce says to me as she looks across an assembled “main street.” We’re standing in a park with century-old buildings lining either side.
“Most of these buildings have been moved here, and it’s sort of a small representation of our history. We’ve taken them from different areas and said ‘let’s preserve ‘em.’” She laughs as gestures over to the general store, filled with canned and dried goods, once for purchase sixty, seventy years ago.
“Our kids look at this store and go “what? What do you mean there’s no ATM?” It’s a different concept for them. We want the museum to be a gathering place where people want to come together as a community and share and do things.”
Now a railroad town without a railway, Hanna was once a big thing, a divisional point between Saskatoon and Calgary. It was a juncture and meeting point. After the railways were taken up, the town reinvented itself as a coal producer. Now that coal energy is giving way to clean energy, they find themselves once again in a state of forced reinvention. And it seems they are looking to create that future by refocusing the lens on their past.
Surrounded by an old prairie school, a two-room hospital and several other buildings Laura Ingalls Wilder surely frequented, I talk with John Kaster. The septuagenarian is the former mayor and chiropractor in the town of Hanna.
“This is the 51st year for the Fall Fair, but only the third year here. There are gonna be games for kids. We’re trying to make the museum interactive so there’s more than one reason to come here.”
We’re at the old train depot looking out at one of the only pairs of tracks left. It runs a couple hundred feet, for display purposes only, the rails fighting the tall grass for attention. He remembers a time when the town was bigger, before people left to make their living in the cities.
John tells me about his grandfather from Missouri who forged a check to buy land near Calgary, which he believed would be the “next Chicago.” How his great-grandfather drove back and forth between the United States and Cochrane, Alberta paving roads and getting a Studebaker sponsorship in the bargain. He recounted how one of his second cousins was in the RAF, and wound up as King George’s stand in for an official portrait painting while in England.
It’s like being part of a historical relay, and John just handed me the baton. It’s a better souvenir than any t-shirt or mug, this opportunity to listen to someone else’s life story. I love sharing these moments with strangers. They begin to feel like friends as they pass their history from a bygone generation into the future.
Creating relevancy, one family story at a time.
My week continued like this. I fell in love over and over again with the Canadian Badlands, it’s history, it’s people, and it’s landscape.
My second night, I attended an open mic in Duchess. Started by Rita Wildschut, a wildly vibrant Dutch woman with a boundless artistic sense, it had become a popular event. Her property was filled with maybe sixty people, sitting around her pond. Locals drove from all around for the opportunity to get onstage and share a song.
Though I was staying next door at her B and B, I found I couldn’t put myself to bed afterwards. Somehow there I was, once again, sitting and talking with Rita, her husband and two of her grown children and their friends till early in the morning. The warm and generous spirit of the people of the Badlands is irresistible.
I’m fairly certain I asked them to adopt me. I’m definitely certain I asked them to make French fries. Dearest Wildschuts, if you guys are reading this, the adoption offer still stands. Also, I’ll take more fries.
The Landscape and History of the Canadian Badlands
It’s a land where towering dinosaur sculptures still loom over towns like a Japanese Godzilla film. They also have a respectable share of the “world’s largest …” roadside attractions. But the Canadian Badlands is more than a quirky drive through the prairies.
It’s a treasure chest of human-interest stories, blown far and wide across the landscape. But it’s also a toy box of unexpected beauty. On the sixth day I set out for Drumheller, which is about two hours northeast of Calgary.
Miles and miles of flat wheat fields begin to wave and bunch up like a flaxen Shar Pei’s rolls. As I continued to drive I noticed that wet, marshy ground became more frequent. Cattails sprung up, catching dandelion fluff like nature’s lint rollers. I loved seeing little ducks float and splash in tiny roadside ponds and then – bam! the ground dramatically cleaved apart revealing millenniums of history.
It’s a dramatic encounter with the eponymous badlands, they kind of appear out of nowhere. Rain worn and sandblasted, these landforms of hoodoos, ravines and mesas appeared along the drive with almost no warning, like an impromptu grand canyon.
This 35,000 square mile region has the largest concentration of dinosaur bones in the world. The town of Drumheller embraces that fully. Between the prehistoric rock formations and the dinosaur statues it felt like I had been sucked into my own Land of the Lost.
The landscape seemed so completely like an artist’s rendering of another era that it was hard to believe I was seeing it in real life. Just add about thirty or forty dinosaur statues literally everywhere and it altogether becomes a picture book come to life.
I pulled over at least twelve times to take pictures with the Jurassic sculptures. My favorite were T-Rexs trying to look super scary but also like they might fall over laughing. I grabbed selfies with purple Brontosauruses, crazed-looking Velociraptors, and a really confused looking Stegosaurus.
What the Spirit of the Badlands Means to Me
Part of the delight of exploring the Canadian Badlands is having no agenda other than to see where the road takes you. You never know what you’ll see or whom you’ll meet, but you’ll always feel welcome. It’s the kind of trip that is all about slowing down, pulling over and savoring things you don’t experience every day.
It’s like a real-life choose-your-own-adventure. And this adventure I chose people. I chose touching 35 million year old exposed earth. I chose letting my imagination run crazy with dinosaur follies.
If you let it in, there is a spirit in the Canadian Badlands that heals, that connects, that reminds you to play. After months spent tethered to a device that delivers perfectly curated lives and angry trolls alike, the small towns and wide-open spaces do something not all trips can. It renews your faith in authenticity and humanity.
That kind of travel is priceless. I do believe it is my why, and I have the friendly, vast, gorgeous, playful Canadian Badlands to thank for helping me find it.