I thought I grew up in a small town. By big city standards; it was a blip on the map. Yet at 20,000 residents, a thriving metropolis compared to an actual small town.
I’ve been in Battleford, Saskatchewan for the past few days. The official web site for the town lists three must sees on their “attractions” list. First – the water tower; admittedly decorated quite festively in lights that must have been strung for Christmas. Second – the greenhouse (not too sure about this one; perhaps a place to grow tomatoes year round) Third – a monument built to celebrate the spot the Olympic torch for the 2010 winter Olympics stopped on it’s run across Canada.
My sister lives in an incredible old renovated farm house overlooking a lovely river valley. An island in the river, directly below her house boasts five tagged moose. This is extremely exciting, we’ve looked for those moose every day.
Walk in the other direction from her house and you find yourself picking along a few sleepy streets of aging war time homes, dotted with tired two story relics of days gone by. The Queen’s Hotel is next; and yes – it looks exactly as it does in this picture from the turn of the last century. While the saggy, pealing exterior of this once practical prairie inn, show the 100 odd years of hope – fresh dreams grace the crooked steps in the form of the new Korean immigrant owner. A hand painted sign declares Korean food is now available, not at a loss for improvements; the drive-thru liquor sales are something to behold. Despite the promise presented on another carefully hand painted sign, drive-thru is a relative term. You align your car tires with deep ruts carved in snow, bump your way along the width of the building; stopping at a back entrance. In hindsight “drive-thru” in the depths of the prairie winter; simply means you leave your vehicle running as you hop out and knock on the heavy wooden door. Liquor is sold; in a blink you’re back in your toasty car, navigating a sharp turn onto the deserted street.
As fun as that might sound, the essence lies within. We arrived around 10 PM on a Wednesday night. Just as we walked up, four men exited the bar. Stopping in their tracks; as if we were apparitions, one found his voice to ask if they should come back inside. Our polite ” no thank you” crushed a momentary spike of masculine bravado – they trudged off as we entered the completely empty bar. My sister has lived here for years; quick to point out, this is a dangerous place on weekends, I take it with a grain of salt as we down our beer, watching the lone female employee play pool with the owner’s son.
When my sister informed us that another hotel and bar was just up the street, we paid our tab, and braced against the night’s chill with giddy excitement. I never dreamed our little walk would turn into a small town adventure. She happily pointed out the “opera house”, proudly explaining it was being renovated into an arts centre.
Battleford Opera House
As we made our way up the street to the Windsor, it occurred to me that the only people we had encountered in the past hour were the four men as we entered the Queen’s bar, the bartender, and the pool playing son.Approaching the Windsor my sister explained it was owned by the same Korean family.Instantly the sign outside offering drive-thru liquor sales made sense.
In fairness to the Queen’s – a picture from the same era.
The Windsor boasts an illuminated drive-thru off sales sign, what’s more – once we bellied up to the bar the patrons grew from two to five. Minding our own business was simple at first. On some level we were pleased not to be alone in the bar, for myself ; I was starting to think it was a ghost town. Isolation was the poetry bouncing around my head when the drinks started to appear on our table. Apparently women at the Windsor, Wednesday night was a big deal. Looking back, it was like a script from David Lynch. We thanked the man who bought us a round and continued talking. Who were we kidding. The bartender brings over a tray of shots, he called them “slutty cowgirls” – butterscotch schnapps, cherry whiskey, and whipped cream (or milk he tells us if you have no cream) Yikes – we counted five. Three of us, the bartender, plus “Wayne” who has decided to follow his money to our table.
Wayne wasn’t much older than my daughter, and half the age of my happily married sister and myself. He seemed harmless enough; telling us he couldn’t make it home that night because the roads were closed due to extreme winter conditions. It had the ring of truth – I understood he was bored and lonely, so we made a unanimous, unspoken decision to be nice ladies rather than stuck up bitches. A nice theory as long as all parties are on the same page.
While certainly not universal to small town loneliness, alcohol fuels all sorts of situations. Wayne starts grabbing my leg, then my ass. OK Wayne, enough! We ask the bartender not to let him buy any more rounds, but it seems the bartender is bored as well. Round after round appear on the table. By now we are beyond drunk. Wayne has a creepy look in his eye, and we’re five blocks on foot from my sister’s house.
There isn’t a dramatic ending to this story. Much like a sleepy little town, we slip away, though I honestly can’t remember dodging Wayne. I remember walking down ice ruts in the middle of the street, and I know for a fact that in four hours and two bars we saw a total of nine people. We didn’t see a moving car, hear sounds from the homes we passed, or so much as a dog bark.
Battleford has a population of around 4000. Cross the river, you’re in North Battleford, with roughly 15,000 residents. Follow the highway and it could be any small town in North America. Gas stations, motels, and a Walmart sprawl amongst car lots, fast food, and farm equipment sales. Venture off the highway, your first block encompasses something my sister calls the “golden triangle” . An area bordered by the RCMP station, liquor store, and courthouse – need I say more? Personally, I like the old movie theatre. Pawn shops, bingo halls, and lonely retail relics line the dreary street.
It takes a certain fortitude to stay the course in a small town. I envy the ability to exist in a world without constant distraction or stimulation. Money isn’t flashed about, as most people don’t have a lot. Fashion is practical; warmth wins over style – truly liberating. Most astounding, the “arts” take centre stage.
I was there to help my sister sew dance costumes. She works for Dance Saskatchewan, on the side she makes costumes for what seems like every dance school in the province.Dance is as much a part of Saskatchewan as hockey is to Canada. Without exception, every spot on the map has a school of dance. I’ve officially mastered the tu-tu, yet despair for the fact we only completed 100 or so of the over 500 costumes facing delivery by the middle of March.
My greatest pleasure was being in a place where stars shine brighter than street lights. Sadly uncooperative, the weather allowed only one fleeting moment of the northern lights. It didn’t matter; endless skies, sunsets to rival any I’ve seen in the world, and ice fog more than made up for it.
Small towns are alive, their hearts beat to a different drummer. Life is never simple, the Battleford’s have plenty of problems; the “golden triangle” attests to the brick wall many residents face. That said – I found peace in a week away from the plastic life of the city.