BY MADONNA HAMEL
While summer vacations flirt on the horizon for many, those of us who have made Val Marie home winding up for the tourists. Lugging six fifteen litre jugs of purified water into my car I shout over my shoulder to Robin standing at the White Mud Grocery till that I’ll be back with the empties in a minute.
“Sounds good!” she replies, then hoists the last jug to help out. Half my size and twice as strong, she handles it like a tote-bag.
Back at Prairie Wind & Silver Sage, our cozy cafe/bookstore/museum/gallery, the scent of old school-house, of chalk and slate and brick and sweaty kids, still permeates the space. New paintings of prairie critters line the walls. And in the cloakroom, now a gallery, landscapes stitched in fabrics, glow with a vibrant intensity. This year’s summer student is already demonstrating the benefits of social media to me, as well as trouble-shooting our new computer inventory system. I am more than happy to continue my domestic duties in the postage stamp kitchen, baking brownies and cinnamon buns, washing dishes, staring through the tiny white-lace curtained window at the first guests of the season walking up the path. I imagine this airing out, preparing the room, mopping the floors is very much similar to what cottage and cabin owners across the county are doing at this very moment.
Of course, nothing ever goes smoothly on the first day. The computer denies that we own several copies of “the Wild World of Coyotes”. The POS machine refuses to take our first customer’s money. Les decided to paint the windows today and he cranks up his raucous music on his ipod. But when I tell the woman buying a hundred dollars worth of new books, books I spent the winter carefully selecting, flipping through dozens of book catalogues like a gardener pining over new varieties of carrots and zinnias in a seed catalogue, she’ll have to come back later once the machine works, she just shrugs and says: “Sounds good!”
It was a winter of extreme and unrelenting cold, following on the heels of a winter with barely a skiff of snow. But when you don’t have to be anywhere but in front of a computer, next to a mock cast-iron fireplace, over-looking cottonwood branches sparkling with hoarfrost and snow swirling around your house like a scarf around a neck, winter can be a fruitful time for a writer. (It also helps when a charming rancher whisks you away for a break in Hawaii, where, instead of oatmeal, breakfast is served with an orchid on your plate and, instead of blizzard winds howling, tree frogs sing at night.) I love winter when I don’t have to get up at dawn and feed animals or drive to the city. But after six months, wood-shedding turns into cabin fever.
And then, overnight, the temperature soars. Grass turns green, trees bud, and the birds return. As do the mosquitoes. The days get longer. New faces appear on the road. We say hi, and, if we are Patty or Susan we bluntly ask: “Who are you?” Most of us still wave to cars passing us, giving strangers and neighbours alike the ‘prairie benediction’, as I like to call it. But newcomers are never sure what to do; you can see a look that passes over their faces that says: “do I know you?” After staring at a computer screen all winter, and at the same few faces at the store and the cafe, we can spot a stranger at a hundred paces. And everyone will know everything they need to know about said stranger by sundown.
Meanwhile, back at Prairie Wind, a tella-techie a few thousand miles away gets into my POS to sort out the trouble and Les switches his music selection to Buddy and Julie Miller- Americana’s royal couple – and it sounds good. More people drift in, hungry for a latte, grabbing a fuzzy stuffed animal, strolling over to the book collection. “Oh look,” says a woman to hubby, “They have the new Thomas King, honey!” Good, I note. My book instincts are still working. “Why don’t we get a latte and stay a bit. We’re in no hurry. We’re on vacation!” “Sounds good.”
The ranchers and farmers got busy a month or two ago, with babies being born and frosts lifting, but the rest of us are just gearing up for the tourists. And the tourists begin their gear down into ‘prairie time’. I’ve seen people arrive still on city time, tapping their toes waiting for the milk to steam, or a spouse to browse the books and I’ve watched them visibly relax into the silence and the wide open space, as if the world here, in its big and uncluttered capacity, is perfectly capable of containing and diluting their bound and battered life-tensions. I’ve seen them sit and stare out at the cattle and the cemetery and the PFRA and the sky for hours. I’ve heard them- as they get in touch with how out of touch they’ve been with their body’s yearning for rest and their soul’s need for silence- wish aloud they’d booked for a couple extra nights of deep sleep.
Last night I drove up to the park with three friends who arrived all on the same night. We watched as a storm slowly approached. We stood in a field of grass, swatting mosquitoes but hypnotized by the steady swirl of a Swainson hawk soaring above us. Thunderheads with their anvil-bottoms loomed over us like Hindu gods in Native head-dresses driving Greek chariots. The Mystery of Nature takes over, making all my petty worries and indignations crumble and disappear. How brief and insubstantial and embarrassing these fretful brain-noises become in the dramatic fading light of a prairie night. This is what the prairie does: returns life back to its proper perspective. Like a kind of spiritual chiropractor, it realigns us with Reality, breaks with illusion. The snipes begin their winnowing and it sounds so good.