Down Highway 12 and Home Published in the August 2013 issue of Calgary's Kerby News
It’s hard to explain my attraction to locations where people once dwelled. When I visit places where the population is long gone or just hanging on, I have an almost visceral reaction that makes me wonder what life was like there in the halcyon days. That’s why I look for opportunities for road trips that take me to such destinations.
In May, I had some work in Red Deer. That provided reason enough to head east on Highway 12 afterward to explore a part of Central East Alberta that I hadn’t seen in several years. Leaving Red Deer late in the afternoon, I stopped in every little settlement along the way. By nightfall I was in Coronation as a guest of the Coronation Motel (breakfast included!). The next day, I drove on to Monitor, New Brigden and Sedalia, then west to Highway 36. That took me down to the Trans-Canada Highway and a non-stop run to Calgary and home. Photographs were made in villages and village remnants as well as at isolated pioneer schools and houses, some of which are now over 100 years old.
So what did I see along the way? A wonderful front yard in Erskine; Alberta Prairie Railway passenger coaches in Stettler; and the enormous and abandoned Emporium in Botha. In Gadsby I photographed the curling rink, where no one has curled for 25 years, and the brick bank building. Old bank buildings are still quite common although seldom used anymore by their original owners. This one is now home to the Gadsby Hobby Club. The village once had an International Harvester dealer and the building, with its ornate screen door, still stands. A faint trace of the IH logo can still be seen up on the pointy part of the facade. The school is perhaps the most modern building in the hamlet although no longer used for its original purpose. As if to emphasize, the "S" is missing from the school sign. Now the building is the GADSBY CHOOL. Oh well.
Halkirk was kind of nice, particularly with its restored hotel. I asked about the rate ($55 with the bathroom down the hall) and maybe should have taken a room. I would have saved $30 but wouldn't have gotten quite as far down the road as I wanted to be. Halkirk boasts a tall water tower with village name emblazoned, the two-story Snack Shop and Consignment Store and Buck's Place for Handmade Crafts.
Castor and Federal were visited but didn't merit any photographs. The light was fading and I was getting tired. Or maybe I was entranced by the endless field of wind turbines near Fleet, their synchronized red lights popping across the prairie in the deepening dusk.
Coronation was reached after dark and I settled in at the Coronation Motel. Photographs were downloaded to the Mac Book and email messages sent to family. At 5:30 next morning, I awoke and couldn’t get back to sleep, which was good, as I got a head start with the incredible dawn light. Coronation’s signature billboard depicting a crown outlined in colored lights showed from my motel window and became the first photograph of a new day.
As advertised, breakfast was included. This meant Mrs Motel fried eggs on an electric skillet while Mr Motel cooked bacon and sausages in some sort of enormous oven, from the top of which issued all the fumes and cooking odors of the food inside. It was a tasty breakfast but I smelled of fried bacon all day long. Leaving the motel, I drove around town looking for "likely suspects" and found them at a feed mill, Jack's Shoe Store, the office of the Coronation Review, and the once-upon-a-time Avalon Theatre.
East bound again, I reached my turning point at Monitor. This tiny hamlet proved to be photographically productive. The boarded up post office building, still with its sign across the front, seemed embraced in the arms of encroaching trees. Across the road I visited an abandoned house with a back porch full of intricate detail. And backed into a nearby shed sat a 1940's vintage GMC flat deck truck.
Leaving Monitor, I travelled south toward New Brigden, the site of one of the last water towers built to service steam locomotives of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railroad. About 15 kilometers north of New Brigden, I noticed strange high bluffs west of the highway, perhaps ten kilometers distant. Visiting these would be interesting but there didn’t seem to be a road that led to them. But as I continued down the highway a blue sign appeared, beckoning me to turn west to see the “Mud Buttes, a Natural Attraction.” Following a gravel road finally got me to the top of the bluffs. Had I gone any further, I could have ended up in a wreck at the bottom of the buttes, as an old K Car already had! The area is both eerie and fascinating. The distance from the tops of the buttes to the bottom of the washouts is about 300 feet. The composition of the bluffs includes strange flaky dirt on top that, when wet by rain, slips away down the gullies in mud floes and erodes the bluffs.
After an hour’s visit, I drove on to New Brigden. This is a very isolated part of the province, which accounts for the continuing existence of its little school. There is also a post office, clad in shiny tin plates, the aforementioned water tower, and St John's Anglican Church. The church doors were unlocked and the lights turned on when I flipped the switch. All the accouterments of an active church were present, including the collection plate, because it is an active church. A neighborhood cat attended with me. Apart from these buildings, there are perhaps two or three homes being lived in and about the same number of places folk have just left behind.
The Hamlet of Sedalia boasts two post offices. The original federally-provided cookie-cutter building is abandoned and the "new" post office is located in a private home. Besides gathering one's mail, some libations are available for sale, movies can be rented and snack food purchased. A baby shower gift hung from the window crank near the post boxes. While not officially "mail" it would no doubt get to its intended recipient.
Heading south from Sedalia, a solitary house sat near the highway. The building is over 100 years old and the story one of its denizens is told on a small card attached to the siding. A little girl moved into the house in 1909 when she was three years old. In 2000, she returned, read the card. "May she rest in peace."
Reaching Cereal, I encountered one of the causes of the decline of rural communities. The CNR line that once ran here has long been abandoned. Now, however, the rails have been torn up and the ties are being salvaged as well. The Marshall Wells store is boarded up but the village had a couple of interesting homes made out of former business properties.
From Cereal, I travelled west to Chinook where I saw a wonky old tumbledown building that was once a garage of considerable stature. In comparison, the Chinook Hall is practically pristine. At Youngstown, I turned south to Big Stone, and then on to Pollockville, Cessford, Wardlow and Patricia. Photographs were made along the way with the last being made at Millicent where I encountered a barn repaired with license plates and a final abandoned house situated among beautiful trees.
Over the course of a late afternoon, an evening and a long day, I travelled nearly 700 kilometers. What I experienced, I felt, was a sense of what pioneers of the region may have felt when they arrived over 100 years ago -- enormous space and distances and a sense of possibilities that might be.
This was kind of a lonely road trip, but one that I highly recommend.