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Friday, August 3, 2012

Day 45: The Cowboy Trail

Highway 22 is officially known as The Cowboy Trail...Cowboys aside, it is a beautiful stretch of road: winding through prime ranching country as it makes its way north towards Calgary and beyond; taking you through quaint little towns like Black Diamond - places that look like a spaghetti western film set, and give the impression that they are all facade and no content. When you look further, however, you'll find art galleries and bakeries and all manner of services tucked into the plain box-like structures that lie behind those seemingly slapped-on decorative frontages.

Determined to make good use of our Discovery Pass which gives you unlimited access to Canada's national parks and free entry into many of its heritage sites for a WHOLE YEAR, we felt compelled to drop into one such site - the Bar-U-Ranch. This once-thriving cattle ranch dates back to the late 1800s and is now pulling in the tourists with the promise of free bannock and coffee round the campfire and a ride through the village on a horse drawn wagon.

A lot of the original buildings are still there - note the white mobile 'cook-car' that was part of the annual threshing outfit, and is described on a panel at the Claresholm museum that appears in the previous blog. Note also Rona's dexterity in the saddle...On the other hand, working out just where to put those legs on a ladies side-saddle was one challenge too many. And while we're on the subject of horses...The Bar-U-Ranch was - during its hey-day - the largest North American breeder of Percheron horses. A breed brought over from France, where they were used by Napoleon to haul his canons around Europe, a few of these heavy draft horses still hang out on the ranch to ferry visitors from A to B.

The highlight of Day 45's Canadian heritage site visit, though, was our chat with Marcie who farms locally and works 5 days a week during the summer as a guide in the cookhouse-cum-bunkhouse. Her sidekick - grand-daughter Desirae - was learning the ropes: passing out the cookies that Marcie had baked that morning in the impressive wood-burning stove; filling us in on the bunking habits of those unruly cowboys.

Marcie was a font of knowledge as regards the history of the ranch and its former famous 'absentee landlord' neighbours - Edward 7th of England (who loved at least the idea of the ranching life, prompting him to buy the property next door whilst on a visit to the Bar-U-Ranch) and Wallis Simpson (who loved neither idea nor reality, and visited only once).

Marcie also told us much about the hard and lonely lives of the cooks on these large assembly-line style ranches. Some were Chinese men who had previously worked in the makeshift kitchens of the railway construction sites. One was a local farm woman struggling to make ends meet for herself and her children during the dirty thirties. In both cases, working on the ranch meant "living in" and "living apart": lodging on site and only rarely getting home to see their own families; excluded because of race and gender from the after-hours forms of sociability enjoyed by the rest of the ranch workers.

Somewhat aptly, our resting spot that evening was the Tails and Trails Campground in the village of Longview. Known at one point in time as 'Little New York" because of its plethora of good restaurants and its lively night life, Longview today is more "Little" than "New York". Still, we did our best to live it up...Enjoying good cappuccino and excellent home-baked rhubarb pie in singer-turned-rancher Ian Tyson's coffee shop (the great man himself even made an appearance, sitting quietly at the next table sipping a cup of Joe)...Hitting the saloon later on that evening for some good times with our cowgirl friends and some bargain beer and grub.

As the old saying goes, "It is what it is." Next morning, we were back on the trail. Those ribs are for you, Chantal!