I didn’t outrun the weather

Even the dismal road has its blessings.

The open road in Minnesota. Photo courtesy Douglas Perot

“You should have been a cross-country truck driver who paints,” Mary Byrom told me. This week, that’s exactly what I am.

I didn’t stop to paint in the Badlands on Wednesday. It was a crying shame, for they were beautiful and the weather was clement. But the sky told me the weather was changing faster than I’d anticipated. “I have to get ahead of this storm,” I told my husband, and gunned it.

Our original plan was to cut down to I-80 and stop in Iowa. According to Google Maps, that would shave twenty minutes off my trip. “I don’t believe it,” I said, and stayed on I-90. Anyways, I kind of liked the idea of driving 2000 miles on the same road. We coasted into Albert Lea, MN in the late hours.

The Badlands are vast and fascinating. Photo courtesy Dwight Perot.

My dog and I did a quick tour around the shrubberies but neither of us wanted to prolong the Minnesota winter experience. It was ferociously windy and snowing steadily. That bad weather I’d wanted in Thermopolis had caught up with me.

The next morning, I borrowed a shovel to clear out the bed of the truck. We wrapped our stuff in contractor bags and eased back on to the highway. I have a niece who lives in Minnesota on purpose. She tells me that the temperature tomorrow will drop to -15° F. It’s hard for me to see the attraction when the wind is howling and the mercury is dropping, but she too is from Buffalo.

I amuse myself on long-distance drives by doing arithmetic. This trip, I calculated just how far behind we were dropping behind. After I got to -5 hours, I decided my game was too depressing. It was still better than talk radio, however.

My truck will get a tonneau cover as soon as I swap the tailgate back to the original.

My son is with me. He’s a responsible driver but he’s young. There was no way I was letting him play bumper cars in a blizzard.

Travel generally gets cumbersome east of the Mississippi anyway. There are tolls (which you can’t pay with cash right now) and the clean, efficient rest stops of the west have been replaced with travel plazas where you must run a gauntlet of merchandise in order to freshen up. And, of course, there’s much more traffic.

At a rest stop, I caught a message from Jane Chapin. A 40-car pileup had paralyzed I-80 eastbound in Iowa. It’s days like this that reaffirm my belief in a providential God. Had I not ignored my itinerary, I’d have been on that road.

That’s not to say my prayers are always answered. Yesterday an old friend died of COVID despite my earnest entreaties on her behalf. There has been no respite in the onslaught of COVID recently; another friend lost her husband to it last week. I was already struggling with those back-to-back deaths when I learned that still another friend has been diagnosed with a very serious cancer.

I realize there’s no equivalence in these things; Kathy’s death is a cataclysm, whereas a truck is just a truck. But still, I’d lose all hope if it weren’t for the occasional touch of heaven on my shoulder. When the stakes are high enough, we’re all with that guy in the Bible who cried, “I do believe! Help me overcome my unbelief!”

I’m going right through Buffalo but there will be no public funeral. That’s actually a relief since it takes the decision out of my hands. I’ve been all over the country; I ought not risk bringing more COVID to my friends and family. My uncle’s funeral back in March was private for just that reason. In this plague year, the obsequies are gone but the grief remains.

I’m not lost

"Coal seam," very unfinished. It's destined for the studio.

“Coal seam,” very unfinished. It’s destined for the studio.
“We are on the fringe of the great North and its living whiteness, its loneliness and replenishment, its resignations and release, tis call and answer, its cleansing rhythms. It seems that the top of the continent is a source of spiritual flow that will ever shed clarity into the growing race of America.” (Lawren S. Harris, 1926)
I was born exactly 144 km from Lawren Harris’ birthplace, and I understand the call of the Great White North as much as Tom Thomson and the Group of Sevendid. Still, I don’t think the Great White North is the beating heart of Canada. That honor must go to its prairies. Immense, they have a deep, diverse economy: oil, natural gas, coal, beef, grain, and wind. Once you’re away from the settlements, they are a land of enormous skies and great emptiness.
Even with easel lashed to SUV, the vibrations made it impossible to paint.

Even with easel lashed to SUV, the vibrations made it impossible to paint.
There are pumping jacks everywhere in eastern Alberta, and they were, in the majority, stilled. Canadian oil is in a bust phase of its boom-bust economy. Still, I wish we would buy whatever oil we cannot produce ourselves from our democratic neighbor to the north rather than from those who wish to harm us.
Atlas #3 coal mine on the Red Deer River.

Atlas #3 coal mine on the Red Deer River.
We set off yesterday to see Canada’s Badlands, promised hoodoos and dinosaur bones by Alberta Provincial Parks. Canada’s badlands are, like its people: nice. They are incapable of raising a frisson of fear. Still, the Red Deer River Valley is particularly lovely, with its fringe of trees golden against the scoured ridges.
Once again, I was flummoxed by the wind. The enormous windmills were making one revolution every three seconds. Parked in the shadow of a cliff, I lashed my tripod to the SUV, and set about painting a small study of a coal seam in the rock. The easel jarred and rattled even with many rocks weighing its base. My medium cup kept flipping over, so I put a pebble in it.
Going about the business of the plains.

Going about the business of the plains.
I wear a ponytail so that my cap doesn’t fly off, but even with that I was wishing for a string to hold it down. An hour later, I’d made very little progress. This painting is destined to be finished in the studio.
Our detour had taken us about 70 miles west, and it was midafternoon before we set off to our second destination: the Great Sand Hills of Saskatchewan. Northwest of the Red Deer River, the land is a little drier and wilder. There is more pasturage and less wheat. The wind ruffles grass the color of a Belgian’s hair in a motion that looks just like whitecaps on Penobscot Bay.
Pronghorn antelope notice our presence.

Pronghorn antelope notice our presence.
The internet is a little vague about how to reach the sand hills themselves, but we had an idea of where they were located, and I’m an inveterate shunpiker. Twice we set out along range roads and tracks in the general direction; twice we were rebuffed when the roads petered out into farm tracks.
That was a costly error.

That was a costly error.
It was not a wasted trip. A coyote loped across the road in front of us. Innumerable waterfowl filled the sloughs. Hawks, magpies and crows perched on fenceposts, waggling as they adjusted their weight to the wind. Herds of prong-horn antelope, startled by our approach, raced away across the prairie.
Prairie cemetery.

Prairie cemetery.
As the sun dropped, we quit our search and headed southeast to Swift Current. The well-head lights shone like fairy lights against the deepening blue twilight.
Today we have vowed to stay closer to the Trans-Canada Highway. All that shunpiking, while beautiful, was unproductive.