September 2nd, 2021

on the res

Fernie → Pincher Creek → Cardston → Milk River

There is little more tacky than conservative small business owners putting signs in the front of their stores "due to the federal government giving people free money, our service is reduced". Like, way to fucking shift the blame because you aren't paying your employees enough for the high stress jobs they are normally forced to do just to survive.

It's not just an Alberta thing. I saw the signs in a few places in BC too. It's beyond pathetic that these business owners are getting mad at their own employees who were given a bit extra to survive the pandemic and now realize their pitiful paycheck wasn't worth the toil, while not making a peep about corporate behemoths like the motherfucking airline industry who received epic government bailouts. These oblivious business owners apparently still don't appreciate the struggle of having to do exhausting shift work just to pay the bills, even when the past year has made it perfectly clear just how economically undervalued frontline workers are. And yet... I don't boycott their restaurants because i generally don't think people's political views should be punished outside of the ballot box. Also, in most of these small towns, there is only one choice of small business, and it's the conservative one. When in Rome...

This all makes me a bad activist, a deliberate noncombatant in the culture wars, and probably a sellout. But, for fuck's sake, i'm tired of letting people's ignorant political opinions impact my quality of life. I'm not going to try lecture strangers on gender or race or class, i'm not going to deprive myself of a meal because a self-centered restaurant owner blames their own workers for staffing shortages, and i'm not going to break off friendships because some of my friends are conspiracy theorists, or gun advocates, or property-owners, or meat-eaters, or car-drivers, or whatever. Life is too short to make every damn thing you do into a political argument. 99 times out of 100 you will never change anyone's mind. I do what i can to minimize my own carbon footprint and shape the world how i would like it to be, i write what i believe in my journal, but out there in the real world - especially when i'm traveling - i pick my battles. End of the day most people are pretty friendly in person, regardless of their political views. And if they're not friendly in person, then that's when they can fuck off. You get one chance. Don't be an asshole.

Anyway. Welcome to Alberta. Their roads are for shit, despite all the fossil fuel money and gung-ho car culture. They don't have sidewalks. There is no mask mandate or vaccination push, despite the fact COVID hospitalizations are now delaying surgeries and other medical treatments. It made me think of politics.

Cycling over the Rockies was almost underwhelming. There were some spectacular peaks, but i very leisurely cycled along a pissant little pass in between them. At Crowsnest there is a beautiful mountain lake that i didn't stay at because the wind was extremely strong and cold. Little did i know it would get worse. I did have a breakdown at a very inconvenient spot on the highway. My chain fell off and got all jammed up. I reseated it, and the first thing i saw after getting moving again was a Christian camp, so it was probably God reminding me that Alberta is conservative AF and fuck you for being a stupid bicycling heathen.

Heading down the pass, i kept waiting for that "ah-ha" moment when the mountains dropped away and it was all prairie all the time. But it's a bit of a softer transition than that. The mountains turn to hills, the hills turn to coulees, and eventually you realize you're in the prairies. When i did see it, it was epic. Humbling. I have been living in Guangdong and BC for the past 4-5 years, so to be in a space again where you just see nothing for miles, no mountains at all, where you can almost see the curvature of the Earth, it makes you feel so tiny and the world so huge and majestic... It's truly awe-inspiring.

One of the most interesting bits coming down the pass was the Frank Slide, where basically half a fucking mountain broke off and completely buried a coal mine and part of the neighboring town. The highway and railroad still go through there, and it's just rubble and boulders as far as the eye can see. Really weird, it's like a moonscape.

I stopped at the Pincher Creek municipal campground to pitch my tent. Little did i know Pincher Creek is the windiest town in Alberta. Average winds today are 40kph, gusts up to 50 or 60. It was fantastic riding east along highway 3, it's like i barely had to pedal at all. When i turned south on 6 to get to town ("only" 3km off the highway) i got buffeted around like you wouldn't believe. It took all my strength to stay balanced. I have set my tent up directly behind a tree trunk that slightly breaks the wind. We'll see what happens overnight.

Oh and i went to a local restaurant with a misguided political rant on the sign to get a burger to celebrate being in Alberta, but after i sat down i discovered the restaurant has stopped doing burgers because i guess they are going for a more upscale crowd?! I just got a soup and salad. It was very expensive. It was fine. I'd rather support a local business - even if it is run by a toolbag - over a megacorp chain restaurant, so what you gonna do? I'm walking the walk of my politics. They're just kvetching. I bought some popcorn from Esso on the way back to my tent to improve my mood, and to confirm to the universe that i, too, am a hypocrite.

I think tomorrow i am going to bike through the rez to get frybread, then find a campsite somewhere on the way to Milk River. Now i already turned south off the main highway i kinda don't wanna go to Lethbridge any more. These small towns are more interesting.

-o-

Dear lord it's nice to wake up somewhere dry and not covered in condensation. Even though the temperature got cold last night (5 degrees), waking up was a pleasure because my tent is bone dry and the sun is shining. The first thing i saw when i opened the zip is a family of deer walking through the neighbor's back yard, into the campground, and onto the street.

Then i saw a fellow (RV) camper out for an early walk who remarked that i must've been freezing last night. He then proceeded to have a 15 minute conversation with me about the best roads to take east. I don't know if this is a southern Alberta thing or a prairies thing, but this is the second time i've gotten the whole "turn right at the grain elevator, 10 miles on there's a stop sign, go left and right again, just follow the truckers, down the hill there's a gas station, then turn left then keep going all the way through to *some town that's so small it's not listed on the map* there's a place there to get a sandwich, then there's a T, turn right onto the highway, it'll save you at least 80 miles"...

-o-

These winds are insane. Going east i can switch into top gear and it pedals almost too fast to keep up. It's like i'm flying. Turn south or north, dear lord, it's like pedaling up a hill with someone aggressively grabbing your bike from the side, trying to push you off. It's very hard work. Riding west would almost certainly be a lost cause in this weather.

I took off in a roundabout route to Cardston. If i had gotten back on highway 3, with the wind at my back, i may well have gotten to Lethbridge by now, but that would be boring. I cycled up to Stand Off on the Blood Indian Reserve to get some frybread.

Goddamnit, can i talk to you about my decades long quest for frybread? Fucking hell. I first heard about it when i watched Smoke Signals in like 2001 or something. I know it's just lard and flour and water, a dish made from desperation and more representative of the colonizers' boots on the neck than any traditional indigenous cuisine, but it has a sort of mythological status as part of American folklore. I like eating folklore because you can taste the history and the pain and the joy in the food. In Canada the First Nations made a similar dish for similar reasons and called it bannock.

20 years on, i still haven't succeeded in tracking it down. Every time i have visited a place on the rez with a frybread sign, it's either closed up for the day, or closed down for good, or there is some kind of a snack bar but it only makes burgers and fries and pizza, because that's what the local people actually prefer to eat. I'm starting to believe frybread is just a joke played on the white man and it never existed at all.

So today i rode around Stand Off looking like a jackass tourist failing to find any frybread. Eventually i continued south then stopped at a gas station in the middle of nowhere. Turns out it was owned by East Asian immigrants (not sure of country) and they had a snack bar at the back which did burgers, fries and teriyaki. For fuck's sake! I was so over it at this point i just got teriyaki chicken (no vege options). It was delicious, thank you dear chicken. I also talked to the son who was pumping gas out front and he said i was living the dream and he wishes he could bike away to Toronto too. He gave me a Powerade on the house. The frybread quest continues.

I rode down highway 2, which was a very long straight line with a brutal crosswind. But the crosswind wasn't as bad as it had been when i had been noodling north a section here, south two sections there, on loose gravel roads earlier in the day. The wind is so strong it actually blew the bike sideways on the gravel. It took a lot not to stack it. I nearly did, a few times, veering off deep into the gravel toward the side of the road before putting a foot down and recovering.

Somewhere along the way i found a farm selling produce. It is much more rare to find that here than in BC because the farms here are massive and mostly grow grain. But this farm had a little greenhouse and sold literally a whole produce section's worth of different fruits and vegetables. Since the bear danger is less now, i'm fine to carry more food with me, so i bought a bag of carrots, two cucumbers and two tomatoes. The cukes and tomatoes we literally walked into the greenhouse and snipped them off the vine. I am going to make a salad for dinner, and maybe put it in a tortilla with some nuts. Assuming the wind doesn't blow it all away.

The tent is rocking and rolling. I had to chase the fly across the campsite earlier because my half empty Nalgene wasn't enough to weigh it down.

Fortunately the investment i made cycling south today will pay off tomorrow, because i plan to take the ghost town route along the border all the way to Milk River, which is now almost directly due east. I don't know if any buildings at the ghost towns are still standing, but from what i understand pretty much every settlement from here south and east all the way to Saskatchewan has been abandoned. Even if there are no ruins to see, the road also passes some of the very few sections of Alberta that have been set aside as dedicated land for native prairie, i.e. no agriculture. They still lease it out for cattle grazing, but i suppose that's fair since there are no buffalo any more. I love native prairie grass and it's a bummer so much of it got tossed out for agriculture and ugly green lawn grass, so hopefully i will see some nice high plains vistas.

I do really love the wide open space and straight lines. You can see your turnoff or your destination from miles away here, and it will still take half an hour or more to get there. Nobody can sneak up on you, the plume of dust kicked up by their vehicles is visible on the horizon all the way in. It's all just so vast and spacious, like being at sea, except with more people in it. Marginally more people. Beautiful country.

-o-

The contrast between how different ethnicities value their fellow man could not be more stark than here in Alberta. Indigenous and Asian people? Fully masked. White people? Universally maskless.

I picked up oats and tortillas from the grocery store for today's run. It's over 100km to Milk River (the town) which is the next place with services. If i break down half way, i will have food in my sack and perhaps water from Milk River (the river) to tide me over.

Apparently this weekend is Labor Day weekend in Canada and formally the last weekend of folks going camping. I checked the online reservations and almost every spot in the provincial parks is booked. Unlike BC, and much like Ontario, Alberta does not save room for walk-in campers. That fucking sucks due to exactly this no services problem. If the park is 50km or more from the nearest town campsite, what will i do?

Let's find out. To add to the challenge, the wind has changed to almost the opposite direction and is now a sou'easterly, i.e. i have a motherfucking headwind all the way to Del Bonita at least. Good times. A horsey just trotted up to say hello. Hi horsey! Bye horsey!

-o-

Milk River (the region) was one of the places on my Canadian bucket list. Unlike Osoyoos, it did not disappoint. It was everything i hoped for. Especially once you get past Del Bonita heading east and start going through the native grasslands, God it is incredible. There is a stretch where there are no telephone poles, no crops, no agricultural machinery, no nothing except for a road, a fence and miles of prairie. In the middle of it you can stop and turn 360 degrees and it's just prairie everywhere. The only sounds are grasshoppers and other insects. Sometimes a ferruginous hawk flies overhead and squeaks and squawks in ways i didn't know birds of prey could. There are antelope. Antelope! The space is so vast, it seems like you could walk for days and never meet anyone (in reality it goes back to farmland just over the horizon, but still). It makes me wish i had a time machine and a tipi and could just sit out there chilling for a while.

I should explain why i find Milk River so interesting, because actually it's a fairly unremarkable dribble of a river on the face of it. It's because i think borders are fucking stupid, and i am fascinated by how colonizers carved up the natural world into so-called countries based on whatever dumb bureacracy they came up with. Milk River is interesting because it is the only river in Canada that drains into the Missouri, and ultimately the Mississippi. It's similar to Red River in the US, where the reverse happens - it drains north into Lake Winnipeg.

You would think that they would draw borders around the watersheds of rivers, but that's not the case between Canada and the US, where they just drew a straight line along the 49th parallel and fuck any settlers or indigenous people who were already living there. It's like how Africa was carved up too, just straight lines that were easy treaties to make for boffins who dick around with maps all day, who cares that you just split a community that lived there for centuries in half? Or worse, split the border along the river like a fucking asshole, as if people who live on opposite sides of the same river have absolutely nothing in common at all.

Borders are fucking stupid.

Anyway, i really like the idea that you could jump in a tiny boat in Canada and float all the way down the river till you end up in the Gulf of Mexico. I know some parts of these rivers aren't navigable, but i still think it would be an awesome canoe ride, even if you had to portage here and there.

I am thinking perhaps i should make my next goal Winnipeg, because there are multiple flights out of there to Minneapolis every day, and if i get there, then i could go south to Kansas City and rejoin the Missouri before following the Mississippi all the way down. That'd be a cool bike ride.

It was a long, tough day, otherwise. 501 has got to be one of the loneliest inhabited highways in Canada. I am sure there are much lonelier highways going north to the Yukon or Nunavut, but they have wilderness on either side. 501 has farms on either side, for most of it. But the houses are miles apart, and there are almost no vehicles at all. Aside from the deer, antelope and hawks, i also saw a calf that had escaped. Run, little one, run! Don't become a steak! It's an amazing ride, i am so happy i made it, despite the headwind. I wish it hadn't been so cloudy, but even if the photos don't come out, i will remember the colors and the shades and the lines in my heart.

I was wiped out when i got to Milk River (the town). I had half-imagined i would push on to Writing-on-Stone provincial park to score a Thursday night camp there ahead of the Labor Day rush, but i couldn't do it. Turns out this camp site is possibly even better. Yes, it's on the main highway south into the US. But it's also literally down by the river. Like, my tent is mere feet away from the bank, and situated (hopefully) to get a blast of morning sun. People who camp under trees clearly have never camped in near-freezing temperatures, because getting hit by those first rays of morning sun is glorious.

I think what i will try to do tomorrow is zoom down to Writing-on-Stone, do a typical tourist one hour walkaround to catch as many photos as i can, then get back on my bike and head to Foremost, which is the last prairie town in Alberta that has any services. Everything east of there is... nothing. The problem is, everything in Saskatchewan west of Consul doesn't have services either. My one hope is Cypress Hills interprovinicial park, which may be fully booked. That is when my map from the dude in Fernie will come into play - he told me how to get to Elkwater, which appears to be a small resort village in the park. It will be a very long ride through all kinds of back roads, but surely between all the campsites and resorts there should be at least one place to sleep?

I dunno, i might just skip Cypress Hills altogether and shoot for a bigger town. Seeing the prairies was my bucket list item. Now i've seen them, i don't really have anything else i want to see in Canada except the fucking US border officers waving me over to their COVID-ridden but hopefully warmer country.

Anyway, i'm rambling. I'll figure it out. I think i am just all buzzed from the ride today. I got Canadian Chinese food at what appears to be the only restaurant in town, and got to practice my Chinese with the people running it, apparently just emigrated from Hangzhou last year. I didn't know Chinese migrants still moved to Canada to open little restaurants on the prairie, i figured they were all gazillionaires who went to Vancouver, but there you go. The place was doing good business selling all the typical Canadian favorites like ginger beef and chicken soo guy and Singapore noodle. I got "mapo tofu" which did not have any "ma" in it, it was more like salt and pepper tofu with peas and carrots and gravy because it's the prairies, baby. I was still thrilled to taste some tofu and eat some rice.

Alright, i should stop wasting my battery and post this. Who knows when i'll find a power outlet again.