How I was Saved by a Sense of Belonging

through the trees onto prairie

My dilemma: I know from my own experience that being a pilgrim on a certain bit of the planet helps a person identify better with that bit of the planet. I’m not Norwegian. But I feel more of a connection to Norway having walked several hundred kilometres of the mountains and streams my ancestors knew. I AM a prairie person – sort of, still – even after thirty years in Quebec. Remembering my appartenance (belonging) to the prairie was hard-won with every gust of wind, every blade of speargrass burrowing into my foot, every sunburn, every call of the coyotes at night and every Pils beer consumed in a prairie tavern. If you haven’t tried it, do. It’s great. Not just the Pils. The whole pilgrim experience.

So my thesis for the conference to be held at the College of William and Mary, in Virginia, is simple: walking pilgrimage helps ‘ground’ people like me as Canadians, in our land, so long as we are mindful of the land’s history and of its First Peoples (in other words, so long as we walk honestly).

Then I remembered that “pilgrim” actually comes from the word ‘foreigner’ or ‘alien’. How can a foreigner gain more of a sense of belonging by practicing their pilgrimage (ie foreignness)? I thought my paper was ruined. I stewed on this for several days before it occurred to me. For Newcomers like me, being a pilgrim describes my status EXACTLY. The foreigner (pilgrim) doesn’t own land. Pilgrims only go on by humbly accepting generosity from the land and its inhabitants. The pilgrim needs to be in relationship with others, or they perish. Belongingness (if there is such a word) is reversed. Not the land to me, but me to the land. For a non-First Nations person like me, it means seeing that my belonging to this land in Canada has always been by hospitality. It ONLY comes through recognizing my foreign-ness and the ways in which I have been invited to share in belonging TO the land, by those – ie First Nations – who have belonged to it for so long already.

That makes a whole lot more sense. I think I can present that at the conference.

Lyndon walking with paint

Blue Moon over the Riverside Motel

arrival Jack's cafe

blue moon over main street

There’s no better way to reach a destination than to ford a stream and arrive on its banks. Even if you don’t have to. Stew Tasche, writer and producer of “The Cypress Hills will never be the Same”, and his wife Cindy arrived at Chimney Coulee this morning just as we were packing up our tents. They walked with us the short, half-day, five miles into Eastend. It was like Stew knew every inch of the way. “We used to cycle out here and find old NWMP shell cartridges”. “That’s where my uncle lived. The Metis chimneys were still here when I came out to see him.”

When we crested the hill and looked down on wooded Eastend, Hugh asked if we’d like to ford the Frenchman River at the old crossing, rather than walk across the bridge. Since I’ve been looking at that water enviously for days, he didn’t have to ask twice. We inched down the steep incline, came to the water……

“That’s the highest and fastest I’ve seen it in a long time,” Cindy said. Stew agreed. Eventually, probably because he’d suggested it, Stew grabbed a thick pole of a branch and inched across. He was fine and so we followed, one by one. We came to the ranch-house that has been in his family for generations, the first house in Eastend.

And for me, eventually, to the motel, for the first shower in many days, a working toilet, and a cold beer. Ed, one of the owners, was playing blues in the other room when I got to the desk, and couldn’t hear me ring. When he found out I was one of the NWMP walkers, he gave me the family rate. Tonight is Friday night. Tomorrow the SK History and Folklore Society have a number of events scheduled, finishing with a banquet and readings by author Candace Savage. I’m looking forward to meeting this author who has so changed the way I see my prairie homeland. But in the meantime, it’s a blue moon, a very quiet town, and I’m going to sleep comfortable and clean in the Riverside Motel.

blue moon over the Riverside Motel

Rhubarb Wine among the Saints

cactus on the plain

Tonight we;re in a grove between caragana hedges, on the Duke farm near Eastend SK. Now that the dark has descended, it feels like a secret, hidden place, with only the sound of cicadas and crickets to accompany my typing. No coyotes as yet, although the moon is full and just waiting for their chorus. The farm is located along the Frenchman River, with the steep walls of the valley rising miles away at either side of a great, wide, flood plain. We walked that plain all day….tawny hills on the left and the right, white mud cliffs that leave your fingers stained, and a river I wanted several times to jump into for some kind of break from the heat. For the first time this trip, we’ve had to contend with mosquitoes, so setting up tents was a hurried affair.

Fortunately, we have a gazebo, and that’s where I shelter to write this. The others have gone to sleep – funny how a full day of walking makes for fatigue as soon as the sun sets. For a late supper we put together Madonna’s lentil soup, Hugh’s beans, Kathryn’s broccoli salad and some British Army ration soup. We ate the resulting mix, out of the pot, with gusto. But the best part of the meal was rhubarb white wine, from the Cypress Hills winery, donated to us by Curt and Lorie Gronhovd, the incredibly kind hosts with whom we stayed last night.

Over dinner (and the wine) we talked about saints and First Nations, about the connection between the Egyptian desert fathers and the Irish monks, and between those monastics and a pilgrimage here and now in south-west Saskatchewan. I guess it’s no mistake that this is, also, a semi-desert that we walk through. Fifteen miles today in land that, like the Biblical wildernesses, reduces the walker to the essentials. When the land is so sparse and the cactus and short grasses (and some cattle skeletons) are all you see, the wind blows and I think of Ezekial calling the four winds at the Lord’s behest, or Christ in the desert. Or Saint-Anthony, seeking white martyrdom in the wilds of Egypt.

Tomorrow we walk to Chimney Coulee, so named for the chimneys left behind by the Métis hivernants who built a settlement there in the mid 1870s. They say there are ghosts there, of the Assiniboine who died scavenging after Cowlie, the Hudson’s Bay trader, hurriedly left in 1873. I guess we’ll find out tomorrow night. For tonight there’s the moon, the mosquitoes, the dark, and the wind through the caraganas. And thoughts of the saints and their time of testing and of encountering the divine in a wilderness not so different from this one.

rhubarb wine


Listening to the Land

NWMP post Wood Mountain post

It would be presumptuous to say that we’ve learned how to listen to the land on this prairie pilgrimage. Some – Hugh for instance – already know the flora and fauna very well, and Rick from his Metis and First Nations background has a sense for how the ever-changing terrain contains messages and directions, and listens intently for them. Hayden has the stamina and openness of youth, and the local people gravitate naturally to his enthusiasm. Me? I’m not sure. I’m listening, but not yet sure what I’m listening for, exactly.

The barmaid/waitress/innkeeper at our first hotel stop last night is from Australia, near Brisbane. In talking with her we spoke about walkabouts, and it came up again this morning as Rick talked about his trip to central Australia some years ago and his contacts there. I guess in some ways this is a prairie walkabout. Or if not a walkabout, then perhaps what the Lakota elder who smudged us the first day called it in Lakota. I cannot remember the term, but he described us as taking a voyage as they once did, where a group of people simply pack up and leave the safety of the camp to go out and explore. He said it was a good thing to do, and smiled at us.

And so we walk, and listen. Yesterday, as the wind abated, we heard so many different bird calls – the eagle, the killdeer, the lark bunting, the meadowlark. The cattle were speaking to us at times, not always happily. And the wind, as it changed, and moved over the terrain, was always new.

A pilgrimage, among other things, is a journey of transformation. Yesterday as we started out Rick started humming some old classic rock tune. Then another came up. Then Hayden sang the first few lines of “Take a Walk on the Wild Side”. I guess this is a bit of a prairie wild-side walk, but the transformations in our case are quite different from the classic song! They say there might be some rough weather today. Should be an interesting time of listening.

Jellied Salads and Howling Coyotes

jellied salad McCord

I’m writing this from a tent behind the museum in McCord SK, listening to the howling of what sounds like a hundred coyotes. They’re making quite a joyous racket to the south and east of town. Our tents are pitched just behind the old railroad station which is the museum….I had a sponge bath in what must once have been the platform for departing passengers, since this is day three with no running water or electricity close for us. Wondered if someone on that platform could travel in time, what they would think of what they saw, and of this town.

McCord may not have a cafe or more than one main street, but it has palpable community spirit. They took us in and gave us a wonderful potluck supper, and then came out in numbers (50 people) for our presentation on the North West Mounted Police Patrol trail walk. Thelma Poirier, a poet from neighboring Glentworth, talked about how lovely it was to think of this as pilgrimage. Many others loved the slides Hugh showed from the 50s and 60s, people from this area, even one sitting in the audience.

After another day of walking (today only having to cross 4 barbed wire fences and not over 20 like yesterday), we actually got here early today. There was much less walking through waist high hay fields or over bog. Today much of our path was on a lovely dirt road and we had lunch in the lee of an old farmyard’s trees, while the grasshoppers blew around in biblical proportions.

People here, when I ask them on camera, are far too polite to say that they think we’re crazy to be walking. They even brought out the best: jellied salads, potato salad, sweet and sour meatballs, and Saskatoon pie for dessert! And sent us home with our lunch for tomorrow….

Smudgings and Graveyards

country church

This is day two without electricity so I will keep it short. We’re camped right now beside a graveyard, at a small Greek Orthodox church on the NWMP trail. When he could see us far off, struggling through the heat on the final stretch of our 15 miles or so today, a man at the church rang the bell to call us home. Now it’s dark. The graveyard beside our tents overlooks the vast open prairie. There are little solar lights beside the graves, which is perhaps nice, but a touch freaky for us in the tents.

Today was also the day that we were sent off by two RCMP officers, one in serge, and then smudged at the Lakota First Nation as we walked through. Not only that, but we happened to arrive at lunch and were given a wonderful hot meal by them.

So much to say, but not now. After all those miles, many of them through thigh-high grasses and rough pasture (fell into a badger hole once), it’s time for sleep.

field walking

Making Medicine Pouches

I love my aunt. She’s always been like a second mother to me. Especially these last years, when my own mother failed, my aunt, as so often, was forced to be the safe harbour in which our family finds shelter.

My aunt is surprising. She stays up late and at 88 years old, still likes to travel. If there are potatoes to dig, she just might go dig them. She’s tough – and still, in the ways that count, old fashioned.

But not old fashioned in many other ways. We did something together tonight that I never thought we would do. We made and tied medicine pouches, with elk leather and sweetgrass from Kahnawake Mohawk Territory. The pouches are destined to be used as gifts here in Saskatchewan.

A big part of pilgrimage is learning how to receive the kindness of others. We haven’t even really begun our local Camino – this North West Mounted Police Patrol Trail pilgrimage – and so far there have already been meals, a donated vehicle, and beds to keep us sheltered until we put up our tents.

But part of pilgrimage is also recognizing what gifts we strangers bring with us to these lands we cross, and bringing physical evidence of such gifts with us. That is why I have the sweetgrass and the red string from the Mohawk, for some of the First Nations and Metis people we will meet here. I read recently that even though the Mohawk almost never came this far west, there was a group of them that overwintered, in the 19th century, in the Cypress Hills, where so many other First Nations gathered in the final, collapsing days of the bison hunting economy.

I wonder what those Mohawk saw, and thought. My aunt and I cut the leather and together wrapped up the sweetgrass. It felt like something blessed to be doing this with her, my aunt with whom so often I’ve gone to church and sung hymns as well. Someone with whom I hold this land, this prairie, in common. I held the pouch up to her nose: that smells so good, I said. Doesn’t it. That smell of leather.

She smiled. Or maybe what smells so good, she answered, is the sweetgrass.

Isabelle and the pouches