A few weeks ago, I received an email through my website. It was from a school librarian in Fort Saskatchewan. She and a couple coworkers were planning a photo tour around Alberta as part of a literacy project. They would visit several communities during their school’s spring break in my area of the province, capturing images of “large” attractions and meeting authors along the way. Staff members of the French-immersion school, École Parc Élémentaire, made this incredible journey to spark a love of reading in their students through local sites and local stories.
École Parc Élémentaire staff members reading my books in front of Hughenden’s large brown-eyed Susan created by Ed Larson from a really big Bridgestone tire.
On Thursday, April 1st, the three of them – two teachers and the librarian – pulled into town in their white van and up to where I waited to greet them by the brown-eyed Susan situated on the edge of town. They presented me with a thank-you card and a water bottle featuring their school’s logo. I gave them some books and a coveted Village of Hughenden pin to attach to the literacy display that they would set up in École Parc.
When they left Hughenden, they were headed to the Drumheller area and had made reservations to stay overnight at the historic Rose Deer Hotel in the nearby village of Wayne where they would visit the Last Chance Saloon downstairs for supper and in hopes of spotting a ghost. They have updated me since and, while they enjoyed their stay and their supper, they reported their disappointment at not seeing an apparition there or anywhere during their trek.
They may not have seen a ghost, but these engaging École Parc Élémentaire staff members breathed life into the spirit of reading and, along the way, they made this east-central Alberta author’s day!
For years, I believed Pablo Neruda (1904-1973) to be the soft, starry-eyed poet of the love struck. Of course he was, but this Nobel Prize in Literature (1971) recipient was so much more.
“He who becomes the slave of habit, who follows the same routes every day, who never changes pace, who does not risk and change the color of his clothes, who does not speak and does not experience, dies slowly.”
― Pablo Neruda
“Give me, for my life, all lives, give me all the pain of everyone, I’m going to turn it into hope.”
― Pablo Neruda
“Let’s try and avoid death in small doses, reminding oneself that being alive requires an effort far greater than the simple fact of breathing.”
— Pablo Neruda
“In one kiss, you’ll know all I haven’t said.”
— Pablo Neruda
“He who does not travel, who does not read, who does not listen to music, who does not find grace in himself, she who does not find grace in herself, dies slowly.”
― Pablo Neruda
“With which stars do they go on speaking, the rivers that never reach the sea?”
— Pablo Neruda
“He who has nothing — it has been said many times — has nothing to lose but his chains.”
— Pablo Neruda
“If nothing saves us from death, at least love should save us from life”
— Pablo Neruda
“And that’s why I have to go back to so many places there to find myself and constantly examine myself with no witness but the moon and then whistle with joy, ambling over rocks and clods of earth, with no task but to live, with no family but the road.”
— Pablo Neruda
“It is not so much light that falls over the world extended by your body its suffocating snow, as brightness, pouring itself out of you, as if you were burning inside. Under your skin the moon is alive.”
— Pablo Neruda
“My soul is an empty carousel at sunset.”
— Pablo Neruda
“Do you not see that the apple tree flowers only to die in the apple?”
— Pablo Neruda
“Give me your hand out of the depths sown by your sorrows.”
— Pablo Neruda
“So I wait for you like a lonely house till you will see me again and live in me. Till then my windows ache.”
When looking for photos to post to the historical society Twitter account I manage, I realized that I have quite a trove of photos from abandoned homesteads and building sites in the area. Here are some of the best close-to-home shots from over recent years. These were all taken at the same abandoned farmstead. Wherever you are, take time to enjoy the view. – Lori
Yesterday morning I dug out my old skates and walked down to the outdoor rink that the local fire department created in December. It’s situated by the local arena which lately, due to Covid-19 restrictions, has been closed. People skate on this oval all the time, but this was my first visit to the newest attraction in the village.
When I arrived at the ice rink, one of the volunteer firefighters was just finishing adding some water to the ice surface to remove the thick frost left there by the rain we’d received a day or two before. He’d made a wide, wet ring around the outside edge of the oval, but the centre was still thick with a combination of frozen rain and sleet. The firefighter had run out of water to apply to the ice so he drove off on his quad, hauling a little trailer behind, and I laced up my skates.
Prior to this attempt, I hadn’t skated for about seven years. As I stepped onto the ice, I made a realization: wet ice is extremely slippery. I took a few tentative steps and began staggering around like a newborn giraffe, my arms flailing in tight circles as I tried to gain some balance. Then, as I rounded the oval I discovered what I couldn’t detect from just looking at the ice rink. It has a definite downhill slope and suddenly, I was on that decline and picking up speed fast on the wet surface. With my knees locked in terror and my arms spread for balance, I made a frantic plan to leap into the snowbank I was headed for. But, even as I planned my desperate escape, my skate blades obeyed my feet and followed the curve of the wet ice oval. Here, the ice was level and I slowed to nearly a stop.
Heart pounding, I stepped off the wet outer oval and onto the frosty centre where I staggered about until the firefighter returned on his quad with a full canister of water on his trailer. By the time he returned, I was regaining a small slice of my lost skating ability. Still, I was happy to head to the bench, swap my skates for boots, and let him finish resurfacing the ice.
After my short, sweaty skate (sweaty from fear and the exertion it took to keep upright), I dropped my skates off at home and went for a walk. The sun was bright and the trees were adorned with frost. There were large ice crystals embedded in the frost and floating through the air, glinting as the morning sun kissed them.
Thanks for dropping by to spend some time with me today. Take care. ~ Lori
Hello there. Thanks for dropping by. I’ve re-posted this story for two years in a row now, but it’s one I really like, all about family history and the stories we tell to create our identity. These stories give us a place to belong and connect us to the past, as well as explaining some of our eccentricities and little habits. I wish for you a peaceful holiday season and the warm feeling of connection despite the strangely disconnected time in which we live. Take care and stay safe. ~ Lori
When she was a child, my grandmother received a locket as a baptism gift. That was in Calumet, Michigan. The family later moved to Hughenden. Then in 1931, my great uncle Elmer died from a ruptured appendix when he was sixteen and my grandma was twenty.
By her younger brother’s graveside in the Hughenden cemetery, my grandma lost that precious locket that she’d owned most all her life. That’s how it goes sometimes. Years later, in 1944, her father, my great grandfather, died. He was buried near his son Elmer, and as that grave was being prepared, the locket bearing my grandma’s initials was dug up.
Listen to me read this post:
Life is comprised of stories. My life is stories and your life is stories. These are scenarios that happened, that might happen, and that are happening right now. I love stories, but hearing the tales of the old folks who came before me leaves me feeling two different ways.
The first feeling is warm and sentimental. The old stories make me feel connected to the people whose blood flows in my veins. I treasure that connection, like time as a railroad track joining our stations along the way.
The second feeling is the stark realization that someday all that will be left of me is stories. And then, after a while, even the most colourful Lori stories will fade into time and eventually disappear. It’s true.
I like the story of my Grandma Knutson and her newborn baby, Jeannette, on their way home from the hospital following a March snowstorm. When the cutter tipped over in the deep banks, both new mother and new baby were pitched into a snowdrift. Good thing they were bundled up and that babies are typically a bit bouncy.
If you know me, you know I love ghost stories! Sadly, I’ve lost some of the belief in their plausibility. It’s too bad because the possibility of truth made those old stories especially thrilling. In this case, the truth doesn’t matter. I like hearing ghost stories and I like telling ghost stories.
Back in the day Grandma would tell me about the house she and Grandpa lived in on the edge of Hughenden Lake when they were first married.
She’d tell it like this: “Often, late at night, the door at the top of the stairs would slam shut really hard. At first this was terrifying, but after a while, we got used to it. We were startled, but we weren’t scared.”
Even so, my grandparents didn’t live in that house for long.
All the people involved in those stories are gone. The house, long since moved from the lake shore into the village, stands here in town today. I wonder if the door at the top of the stairs slams hard enough to shake the walls. Does that particular draft, uneven foundation, or angry spirit still haunt the place?
People come and go from houses. We bring stories, we make more, and then we move on.
I always tell the story of Erwin Knutson, my dad’s uncle who was found dead in an abandoned vehicle outside of Wetaskiwin. It was December, 1957. The body had no identification on it, no wallet, and no money. But there was a slip of paper in one of the jacket pockets that read: Erwin Knutson, Hughenden.
My dad told me about him being fourteen years old and traveling to the Hughenden cemetery with his dad, the deceased’s brother, to deliver the rough box used to shore up the interior of that wintry grave.
I love local newspapers and I’m discouraged that this form of media is dying out. Newspapers have always been a part of my writing life. Perhaps that’s why I understand the important role they play in keeping us connected and in giving us common information based on facts and research. Newspapers held us together and still have that power in a media scape that seems bound to drive us apart.
Listen to me read this post:
When I was in high school I ran for the position of press correspondent on student council. The job entailed writing and submitting pieces to the local paper about what was happening in our school community. The day of the school council election, I had work experience in the morning at the veterinarian clinic out on the highway on the southwest end of town, a long way from our school which was located in the northeast. Although I had access to my parents’ car and knew that student council elections took place at noon hour following my work experience class, I chose for some reason to ride my bicycle that day.
After inaccurately filing files and generally making more work for my supervisor, I hopped on my bike, and headed down the highway. Halfway to my destination and with little time to spare, my bicycle chain broke. Seriously. So I leapt off my bike and pushed it, half-running, half-walking, up the hill to the school.
When I arrived sweaty and flustered, it was already lunchtime. Students were assembled in the gym waiting to hear the school council candidates’ speeches. Also there was the student running against me for the position of press correspondent. My opponent was an older student, someone I respected and whom I knew to be more popular and a bit smarter than me. He spoke first, giving me a chance to catch my breath. His words were measured, and he was both articulate and amiable. He would have made a fine press correspondent.
After he’d wrapped up his succinct address, I stood up at the front. Someone commented loudly that they couldn’t see me and someone else brought me a chair to stand on. The crowd twittered and I knew right then that they could be receptive to my broken-bike-chain story. My heart was pounding as from atop the chair, I told them about dragging my bike up the hill to be with them, here in this very gymnasium, in a sincere bid to be their next press correspondent. I made them laugh. In social situations and in trying to gain acceptance, humour has often been my default. Sometimes this strategy is successful and, in this case, it was.
In the days of my youth, the local paper for a community of 2000 residents served as a connection. We all read it and all of us formed opinions, but we all started out with the same information. We found out who was mayor, who won the hockey game, who was born, and who had died. Residents researched employment opportunities and what was on sale in the local stores. Local radio played the same role and played the same darn songs over and over. But at least we all knew those songs. We shared the same references and a common cultural context.
I enjoyed writing for the newspaper so, in later years, I became a weekly columnist for the newspaper in Grande Prairie, The Daily Herald Tribune. I contributed to that newspaper and other publications until I began a full-time teaching job. My energy and headspace was mostly consumed by that work, and I gave up the weekly column. But soon I began submitting school news, local happenings, and personal narrative pieces to a regional newspaper. Now, semi-retired and with more time to write, I still submit work to newspapers.
Boring facts, the kind found in local newspapers, are what bind us. They’re what give us common ground and root us in a shared perspective. It’s not titillating to discover what bylaws have been passed, who celebrated a 60th wedding anniversary, and which grade won the pumpkin decorating contest. Real information isn’t always real riveting. Mundane facts don’t usually make our blood boil or make us feel righteous or indignant. There is no adrenaline rush to be gained from finding out what time the farmers’ market is and where to get your annual flu shot, but local information is valuable.
Speculation and gossip are tastier than dull facts, and there are many sources for those these days, many ways to effectively disconnect us from our family and neighbours. To hold us together, we need local information, facts and numbers, to keep us informed and to keep us connected. We need information without emotion and without spin.
How can we encourage the spread of information? Support local news sources and local journalism. Still have a print newspaper? Advertise in it. Submit news items to it. Subscribe to it. This way, you’ll find out what’s happening in your schools, in your municipal government, in your hospitals, and with your sports teams and volunteer organizations. Is print news already dead where you live? Resurrect it by creating your own one-page newsletter about community happenings. Got time on your hands and some technical savvy? Consider compiling a website that covers local news on a weekly basis.
Gossip and opinions are exciting, but it’s newspapers and other reliable news sources that have the potential to bring us together. The spread of information benefits us all.
Thanks for reading. Take care and stay safe wherever you are. ~ Lori
Wouldn’t it be great to live in an affordable home with a huge backyard and with sweeping views of a pristine valley in which deer graze at sunset? When you’re exhausted at the end of the day from work, doesn’t it sound ideal to avoid the traffic of your lengthy commute and instead walk up the hill to your cozy home? Do you dream of falling asleep to the coyote’s call and waking to bird song? Especially now that remote work is more acceptable and logistically easier to do, moving to a small town makes sense.
Listen to this post:
I love small towns. When on a road trip, I really enjoy pulling off the highway and exploring prairie towns. I search for churches, cemeteries, local museums, and history. I am rarely disappointed by what I find. As I drive the quiet streets beneath spreading tree branches and admire the spacious residential lots, I can’t understand why people want to live in increasingly populated areas. Especially during this time of the coronavirus pandemic, we think differently about the perils of being crammed together and we consider the perks of fresh air, a big backyard, and a vegetable garden.
I do understand that it’s more convenient for financial institutions, large retailers, and government to have the residents of our vast land centralized and clustered together. This way, all three can streamline (cut) the services they provide and still have us clients, customers, and taxpayers nicely within reach. Density benefits those who provide goods and services because it’s less convenient and more expensive to provide services to a scattered population. Services are often retracted to discourage people from living in rural areas and conducting business there. Our Credit Union has cut its five-day-a-week service down to two days in the hopes it can Servus better by fading away.
A Common Criticism of Small Towns
Small towns are criticized because of their intimacy. “Everyone knows what everyone else is doing.” In these days of increasing isolation, that can still be true but it’s not always a negative. It’s reassuring to know that if you get sick, your neighbours will help you out. People shovel each other’s walks in a small town and keep an eye on one another’s property while one household is away. So, yes, when someone drives by on a skidoo or with a wagon pulled by a matching team of horses, I’ll look and wave and maybe even take a picture. That’s small towns for you.
Other criticisms, valid ones, include the difficulties between people, the gossip, and the resistance to change found in small communities. But isn’t this the nature of human relationships no matter where we live and no matter the size of our community? Aren’t all interactions subject to misunderstandings and pettiness, and can’t they all (ideally) be repaired by patience and forgiveness? Change is hard and gossip is toxic. These facts remain the same whether you live in a city or in a village. The only way to avoid cruel deeds and words, our own and others’, is by living high up in the mountains in a cave alone. Some days, that does seem like an appealing option but it’s no way to build community.
In small towns, we’re more familiar with one another and so the stories are closer to us and our families, and sometimes they directly involve us. Human relationships unfold and unravel everywhere in the world, but in a small town we have a front row seat to this constant evolution. It isn’t always pleasant but it’s not often dull.
The Best Stories Come Out of Small Towns
It’s that close up, in-your-face human drama that makes many writers set their stories in small towns. Big events happen in large cities and everyone watches, but in a small town everyone is a part of most events because we know the people involved or we are the people involved. Authors weave stories about the people in small towns and create characters from the relationships formed within the context of smaller places.
I think of the 2004 Leacock Medal for Humour Award Winner, Ian Ferguson’s semi-autobiographical book Village of the Small Houses, set in the remote northern Alberta community of Fort Vermilion. Only this place and the set of circumstances it provided could give rise to these stories. Luckily, this gifted and funny storyteller was born and raised there to write the tales down.
Another great storyteller uses the small Minnesota town setting of fictional Lake Wobegon and its characters around which he has woven several novels. You see, it’s the soil of those close personal interactions within a small group of people who know each other well and know their surroundings into which writers plant their story seeds. The stories are dependent on a small town back drop and small town characters to come to life. These tales depend on closeness and relationships, and on Garrison Keillor to present as hysterical that which small town residents find, at best, annoying.
As a writer – and here I do not compare my skills to those of Mr. Ferguson or Mr. Keillor – I write stories set in small towns and about small town history. Little places on the prairies are stuffed to bursting with stories. There’s murder, suicide, betrayal, sorrow, and lust. Think of that next time you’re gliding down the highway. Depress that brake pedal and swing into that small town. Who knows? You might decide to never leave.
I don’t believe in ghosts. I think it’s fair that I admit this before I tell you a couple ghost stories (and I added a third today). Someone suggested that I call them “unexplained phenomena” stories instead, but it doesn’t have the same ring. It’s not difficult to resist a story about unexplained phenomena but a ghost story? Now that’s hard to pass up especially as Halloween approaches.
Both these ghost stories take place in churches and the third, in a cemetery.
Listen to me read this post:
When I was teenager, another girl and I were the janitors at the United Church we attended in Fairview. It was always a little eerie working in that big empty building that smelled of wood and paper. It was easy to feel spooked and to feel watched.
Back in the day, the church was left unlocked. There is a small meeting room located behind the sanctuary. It used to be furnished with a couch, a couple of chairs, and a coffee table from the 1960s. On occasion, folks with nowhere else to go would sleep there. Sounds like a very good use of God’s house, don’t you think?
The front and both side doors were very creaky, and no matter where we were working in the church, we could hear those doors screech open and slam shut. I always listened for the sound of someone entering the church while I vacuumed and while I dusted.
One Saturday afternoon as I vacuumed the sanctuary carpet, my partner mopped the basement floor. Suddenly, above the whir of the vacuum cleaner, I heard loud footsteps stomping across the second-level floor above me. As I recall it, the steps were so pronounced that they shook the stained glass window panes. I hadn’t heard anyone enter the building. I shut off the vacuum and stood there frozen, listening to the racket above, heavy steps, back and forth, forth and back, making the floorboards and me tremble.
Finally, I broke out of my paralysis and into a run, leaving the vacuum behind in the wide aisle. I met my fellow janitor as she raced up the stairs from the basement. We didn’t speak. We just looked wide-eyed at each other for a moment. Then she dropped her bucket and mop, and out the side door we ran.
Before I moved out to this area of Alberta, I spent a couple summers working at Heritage Park, the historical village in Calgary. My duties there included covering staff breaks in the buildings throughout the park, so I had the opportunity to work all over. I liked this job a lot.
One morning I was covering a shift in St. Martin’s Anglican Church. In the closet just off the vestibule, I found a glass vase. I spotted a gardener employed by the park walking through the churchyard, and I darted outside to ask him if he’d cut a bouquet of flowers.
“No problem,” he answered and in no time, he was back with the vase full of water and flowers gathered from the nearby beds.
He took the bouquet to the front of the church. There was a low railing and a tiny gate that cordoned off the altar area at the front of the sanctuary. The obliging gardener asked, “Where should we put this?” The church stood on ground that is consecrated and is still used for Anglican services, and so I felt that we should be respectful.
When the gardener placed the vase full of flowers on the baptismal font, I said, “No, maybe not there. Let’s leave the bouquet on the floor in front of the altar where people can see it.” I backed up down the aisle and he positioned the vase.
“Here?” he asked.
“That’s perfect. They look good and everyone will be able to see them. Thanks for doing that!”
The gardener left me alone. It was a quiet, dreary day and my friend in the RCMP barracks across the dusty street stepped out onto the boardwalk and beckoned to me to come for a visit. Together we stood and chatted on the boards, watching our respective buildings. If visitors came, we wanted to greet them and show them around. On that cool spring day, no one dropped by either exhibit while the Mountie and I talked. When it started to lightly rain, we both headed back to our stations.
When I re-entered the gloomy church, all the moisture left my mouth and my heart started to pound. The vase of flowers was now up on the baptismal font.
Here’s a third ghost story and probably a good reason to completely change the title of this piece. And yet …
About 25 years ago, I drove out to the cemetery close to where I now live. I was in the area to visit my grandmother but wanted to see some of the old folks in their final resting place, too. I remember that it was a warm, summer day and it was bone dry in this parkland region of east-central Alberta.
I turned off the highway and onto the narrow gravelled lane that leads to the Lakeview Cemetery gate. There were no other vehicles there. I parked my car on the brown grass and walked between the concrete pillars that mark the graveyard’s entrance. The breeze was light and stirred that thick, dry air around a bit.
When I saw the two women dressed in long, black dresses, I was startled. Usually another car or truck outside the gate or in the lane way signals other visitors are in the countryside cemetery. One woman knelt and the other stood beside her with a hand resting on her companion’s shoulder; both of their heads were bowed, their eyes downcast. There was no grave marker where they were and no headstones close by.
The women looked up when I entered the gate, gravel and dry grass crunching beneath my shoes. I lifted my hand in greeting, feeling uncomfortable, as if I were interrupting a solemn occasion. I wished I’d waited longer to come to the graveyard that day. For a moment they stared at me with piercing eyes set into pale skin from under the dark scarves they wore. They seemed annoyed.
Then slowly, the one who’d be kneeling stood up, and together they walked toward the woods that overlook the alkaline body of water that was a recreational lake back in the day, full of fish and fun, Hughenden Lake. They paused at the barbed wire fence and helped each other through, one holding the wires apart while the other held her skirt out of the way and stooped through the spread wires.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I don’t believe in ghosts. I don’t want to have an experience to convince me otherwise and so I was almost relieved to see these forms helping each other through a pasture fence. That, I thought, was a good sign that they were human — humans that headed into a thicket of scrub brush that covered a relatively steep hillside that ended where the salty lake water started.
After they’d gone through the fence and disappeared into the trees, I walked to where the women had been when I first spotted them. As I’d thought, there was no marker, no gravestone. Interestingly, a decade or so later, some metal crosses were erected right about where the two forms had shared a solemn moment that hot afternoon, crosses that indicated the location of unmarked graves.
If you have a story to tell or need one edited, get in touch and I can help. Thanks for reading and listening. See you next time. ~ Lori