I’m back in Alberta for a few days, driving around through my memories. This evening we drove west on the Trans-Canada Highway. About 80 km west of the city, we passed a significant sight from my childhood: the sign on the Trans-Canada Highway that says North ↗ Morley Road. That was where we would turn off the highway on the way home from Calgary. Up the off-ramp, turn right, then two sounds: “krrrrchung” and then “khrkhrkhr” – the sound of a cattleguard followed by the sound of a gravel road.
What is a cattleguard? You may know it by some other name – cattle grid, stock grid, stock gap, cattle stop, or Texas gate (which is what some signs in Alberta also call it; I’ve never cottoned to that – we’re not in Texas, we’re in Alberta). Or, if you don’t live anywhere near where ungulate animals need to be kept on one side of a fence through which a road must pass, you may not know what it is at all. Here is what it is: At the point where a road passes through a fence, in place of the road is a stretch a couple metres long of metal bars over a trench. The bars are far enough apart that a hoof could slip through, but close enough together that a car can drive over it without too much trouble. It’s a brief bumpy stretch; the sound you hear as your tires rumble over it sounds something like “cattleguard” if you drive at just the right speed.
A cattleguard is the sound of being in ranch country. It’s an Alberta sound for me, and a piece of my childhood. I sure don’t hear that sound in Toronto. When I hear it, I know I’m driving back into a landscape of memories, memories that roam freely like grazing beasts. They could cross the road of my mental journey at any time. Sometimes I have to slam on the brakes for them.
But memories are memories; the past is the past. When, returning to your present, you drive back across the cattleguard, the animals of your past cannot follow you. Some of the places of the past persist to the present, but the memories of what happened there are forever in the past, forever just echoes. And some of the places of the past are simply gone. At the Morley Road exit, there used to be a restaurant, the Chief Chiniki; my brother worked there for a while. It’s not there anymore – it burned down a few years ago. So, several years ago, did the house I lived in 30 years ago as a teenager, a bit farther west at the foot of a mountain.
Not all changes are bad: the gravel road into Morley was long ago paved into a nice, smooth, safe two-lane road. The cattleguard is still there, of course. But we didn’t drive over it, because we didn’t turn off at the Morley Road; we continued west to the Highway 1X exit, south onto a snow-covered gravel road, over a different cattleguard and in to the Rafter Six Ranch, a guest ranch owned by friends of ours, full of memories for me. I worked there one summer; my family spent a Christmas there in one of their cabins after we had to move out of one house and were not yet moved into another; we’ve eaten in their restaurant I don’t know how many times…
The lodge at the Rafter Six is unchanged since I was a preteen. Everything looks the same. The log walls, the hand-carved signs, the wooden tables, the gift shop. The restaurant booth where I made a stupid comment about a co-worker’s weight. The spot in the hallway where I referred to a prospective employee as “scruffy,” not realizing he was right behind me. The table where I got a tongue-lashing from someone who thought I was a racist because he took literally a sarcastic remark I made about a news item. The place where I had a breakfast buffet of greasy food while afflicted with a horrible hangover induced by ouzo. Up the hill a bit, the place where I drank all that ouzo the previous night. It’s all still there.
For two more days.
After nearly 40 years, the Rafter Six is closing. Not because they don’t have enough business. No, because they made a deal with a resort company to expand and build more guest rooms, and then the resort company hit a rough patch because it was overextended in the economic downturn, and when it went under it it dragged the Rafter Six with it. Now the ranch is closing at the end of the last day of 2013. So we went there and had one last dinner in their dining room, chatting with Stan and Gloria, our friends, the owners. One more piece of my childhood and youth, disappearing.
After dinner and conversation we stepped out into the great cold country darkness, the glow of the lodge behind us, the stars up above and the black nothingness of the woods surrounding. Like the land of memory, where your piece of history is lit up with night lights while its context is gone from view. A threatening, consuming darkness. I never liked being in the country at night. But I did like the warm welcome of the Rafter Six.
Then we drove away, over the cattleguard and onto the highway.