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Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Day 33: Moose Jaw

If you are a small town looking to attract visitors, a good name doesn't hurt. Moose Jaw is a good name. We couldn't drive past without stopping.

Besides which, two days camping on the TC had left us frazzled. We were bound for the Grasslands but felt the need to regroup. So one hour after pulling out of King's Acre, Regina we were pulling into River Park, Moose Jaw...On the plus side, a little patch of green perched amidst a labyrinth of cycling paths and far enough off the TC to hear the birds chirping; on the not so plus side, the tiniest scrap of grass upon which to perch Carmella, her back end pressed up against the back end of the neighbouring rig - euchre-playing fanatic Eileen from Calgary - whilst her front end barely cleared the gravel road. It all felt pretty tight and we were grumpy. So we grabbed the bikes and headed off into downtown Moose Jaw.

One of us wanted to see the big giant moose that sits at the entrance to the city. The other didn't. The first one won, so we were cycling through the stinking heat to see it, leaving behind the attractive amalgam of buildings that make up the downtown core and peddling on...and on...and on through a dusty industrial wasteland. As the old saying goes, the one who wins the battle doesn't necessarily win the war. And it was all seeming like a very bad idea by the time we finally reached the moose.

Beside the moose, there was the tourist office. A big banner strung across the main drag of Moose Jaw many moons and moods earlier had announced that the annual Festival of Words was currently underway in the fair city, alerting us to the existence of said festival. A small poster on the billboard at the tourist office provided the roll call of Canadian writers who were appearing at this year's event...It was a pretty impressive line-up, but one name stood out from the rest.

To backtrack for a moment...Several weeks before, while staying with Ann at Peninsula Lake, a book of poetry had been handed out at bedtime.

"Read this," said Ann. Ann is a librarian. She hands her guests books as they go off to bed in much the same way that other hosts would hand out warm milk or a hot water bottle.

Read this, she said. So read it you do. Reading late into the night. Picking it up early the next morning and finishing it off before breakfast.

The book was Phil Hall's 'Killdeer', winner of the 2011 Governor General's award for poetry. It was profound and funny and heart-breaking and shocking and gentle, all rolled into one. A line in a poem provoked one of those rare and rupturing punctum moments... Regular wwp salon attendees know all about those! The poems in their entirety pierced to the core, just spoke in a way that was special, unique. The book was handed back to Ann over breakfast: a new voice discovered, a new title added to the 'must buy' list. And we headed west.

Fast forward to Moose Jaw's Festival of Words, and there's Phil Hall on the playlist. There are no programs for the event in the tourist office, but the woman at the desk searches on line, prints up a schedule. Phil Hall and the current 'Big Name' on the Can Lit scene - 2012 Giller Prize winner Esi Edugyan, for 'Half Blood Blues' - are 'on' at 2:40pm. It is now 1:30pm. The venue - the Moose Jaw public library - is but a short sweaty ride away.

We hit the road with a new sense of purpose, bad moods abandoned beside the moose. We cycle like maniacs back into town. We manage to get tickets to the event. We even get food and drink included in the price: wolfed down in the 20 minutes to spare before Phil and Esi hit the stage. We talk about synchronicity and serendipity and all those other 's' words that speak to those magical collisions of time and space and circumstance. Things are definitely looking up.

Phil is a standout. He even sings an old British mining song for us all. Esi is great too. AND she is wearing the most fabulous pair of red shoes! We buy the books, get them signed, chat about this and that with each of them...And cycle off again into the steamy hot afternoon.

But everything feels better now. Even getting caught outside in a thunderstorm feels fine, the beautiful patterns the clouds against black sky produce outweighing the hassle of getting soaked. We find an out-of-time little bar to weather the storm in...the decor is Scottish highland meets art deco meets down home country kitchen: bizarre, but strangely effective.

We take in the train station, now housing a liquor store. We eat at Nits Thai restaurant along with half the Canadian literary establishment...The decor is interesting, the food is amazing, personal Saskatchewan tour guide Rae scores again.

We teeter off on those bikes into the hills overlooking Moose Jaw as the sun sets...Mule deer scamper up and down the ravine, a coyote is out on the prowl.

Moose Jaw has worked its goofy magic...On the signs around town the city announces that it is "surprisingly unexpected" and this it certainly is. Back on our postage stamp sized campsite, we eat poisonously sweet Moose Jaw fudge and consider how appropriate a home town this is for 'Corner Gas' creator and star Brent Butt. You feel funny just hanging out here for a day!