A lump of joy and anticipation sat in our throats as we saw the sign pass welcoming us to Manitoba. Small clumps of aspen trees, glowing whiter than paper birch, dotted along the highway on an endless stretch of flat land cut with rail and highway. We were beginning to believe the tales of boring cross-country drives when we noticed a big sign on the side of the highway marking the longitudinal middle of the country. Excited to have reached such a milestone, we stopped briefly to stretch our legs and take pictures before taking to the road once more.
The longer we spent on the endless Trans-Canada Highway, the more we found little nuances began to spring up from the seemingly mundane landscape: a halo-like horizon that encompassed us, a deep sense of wandering a boundless earth, and an eerie peace that hung in the vast emptiness. A soul had room to breathe here. A mind could wander. You could forget or remember here, losing yourself in a forever sky. There was far more here than nothingness; there was an inescapable feeling - much like the threatening clasps and groans of an ocean - that made you turn inward and acknowledge your small-ness.
Humbled, quiet, and curious, we drove into Winnipeg to discover our first glimpse of a bison heard at Fort Whyte. Afterward, we treated ourselves to a stone-fired pizza and enjoyed a frigid ‘Winterpeg’ stroll around the most beautiful riverfront we had seen in our travels - highlighted of course by the stunning Riel Bridge.
The road led on and on until the land began offering glimpses of old grain elevators and infinite patchwork farms with their sweeping irrigation limbs. We barely saw the sign for Saskatchewan pass by as the sun began to set all around us. Coyotes could be heard moaning in the distance. Deer and cattle dotted across pasture land. With nothing to hide them, the many beasts that roam the heart of our country wandered in plain sight - seen from all distances - nearly oblivious to the boundaries we attempt to enforce. Standing beneath an endless sky brimming with colour, an otherwise barren landscape began to awaken and teem with abundant night life. One by one, a thousand stars pierced the black sky, and a nearly-full moon lit our camp, sentient as the strange night conjured new sounds.
A curious patch on the road map encouraged a stop in a little town called Maple Creek where we based ourselves for two days of exploring. An excellent cup of coffee led to a chat with a local woman who encouraged a visit to Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park and whom provided local knowledge of how to access the Great Sand Hills. The ‘mountains’ of Saskatchewan’s Cypress Hills were a natural wonder from which one could see for miles to distant towns across the vast plains. Wildlife outnumbered people here - although we did not see the resident heard of caribou - we encountered several deer, a beautiful eight-point buck loping across a nearby ranch, and narrowly dodged a run-in with a moose grazing in the middle of the road to our hiking trail head.
The very next day I convinced Ryan to drive into the heart of absolutely nowhere down a questionable road. A Volkswagen bus heading the opposite way told us we must be on the right track. Cattle ranch after cattle ranch passed down the bumpiest gravel road making Ryan grit his teeth and sigh heavily for several kilometers. We soldiered on until just barely in sight there seemed to be a wiggle in the horizon line. DUNES!!! Soon we were rolling down a road that looked more like a white sand beach than a prairie grassland…
We pulled into the tiny parking cove and stepped outside to a completely different world. It was like someone had scooped up part of the dessert and gracefully placed it precisely where it had no business being. We wandered among the rippled dunes and passed innumerable animal tracks, thousands of wild sage bushes, and felt the hair stand up on our necks when the distant evening moans of coyotes started. The slow sunset drive back to Maple Creek entertained us with herds of exotic prong-horned deer navigating their way across the plain, always stalked by some sort of wild prancing beast - eyes glinting in our headlights.
The next few days would take us through cities with names that conjured a faceless familiarity. Driving through places like Medicine Hat and Swift Current were akin to meeting a celebrity and finding out they were only human after all.
The badlands beckoned us on and hills began to suggest mountains in the days to come. The sentient bobbing pumpjacks welcomed us to wild rose country and we set a course for Drumheller.
10 THINGS WE LOVED ABOUT THE PRAIRIES:
Meeting locals who were full of suggestions, enthusiasm, and wisdom.
The halo sunsets.
Stalking prong-horned deer down backroads.
The artillery museum at CFB Shilo.
Great Sand Hills (how is this not a National Reserve!?!?)
The MILLIONS of migratory snow geese that had us craning our necks to the sky for days on end - watching their flocks go by - totally mesmerizing. The biggest sky just FULL of snow geese. Unforgettable.
Sod houses! We got to visit one at Fort Whyte. So much science! Also, BISON.
Longboarding in Regina along the river. Also, racing longboards bobsled-style in Regina along the river lol.
The Winnipeg riverfront. WOAH.
Older-than-time grain elevators.
We are dreaming of spending time horse-back on a ranch one season. We loved the prairies!