Alberta, Canada is a huge producer of beef. Farms stretch mile upon mile in great green expanses with an occasional fence dividing properties containing the herds. The rolling plains that are the farms are dotted with little pump houses that very quietly make Alberta the largest oil and natural gas producer in the Northern Hemisphere.
Cow pies punctuate knee high prairie grasses growing unevenly as far as the eye can see. As the late afternoon sun sinks low on the horizon, wonderful purple shadows are cast upon the land by hills and knolls. Magically lonely, here is where huge buffalo herds once roamed and proud Indian warriors hunted them.
The wind blows on the prairie at a constant rate flapping trousers and jackets, turning human skin to something resembling leather, tanned and tough. In the setting sun, pasture valleys grow colder and wild animals: deer, elk and coyote, begin to wander, searching for sustenance. Not a tree exists here that wasn’t planted by a farmer and believe me that is very few. Surely, when winter winds blow across this frozen tree-less expanse, it must resemble arctic tundra.
Cattle munch on prairie grasses without a prayer of keeping such vast growth under control. It would be as if someone sat you down in a gymnasium, placing before you enough perfectly cooked steaks to cover every inch of gymnasium floor space. Probably better to just munch and not worry about cleaning your plate.
Exploring these plains, wandering about on dirt roads that lead to oil wells is a real treat to a former farm boy. Years ago, Mr. Armando, a farmer in my rural Connecticut neighborhood, allowed me the joy of driving his small Ford tractor to his lower pasture by myself (age 10) to herd-in the milk cows. This was not a careless act on his part. He had allowed me to drive on a few other occasions, teaching me the important secrets of operating a tractor without falling off the seat. The seed was set. Off across the vast expanse of the barn field (vast to a 10-year-old) I drove carefully to the gate. Get-down-and-open the gate; drive through and down the lane between the ivy-covered rock fence walls, the lane center decorated with bunches of daisies. Putt-putting along down the hill approaching another gate; open it, followed by a sharp right turn beneath the towering oak trees casting huge shadows along the stone wall to the upper part of the lower pasture.
The cows, led by lead cow Rosie who always set the pace toward home, were already moving in a choreographed line toward the fence gate I had opened and on to the lane, home to the barn. Going home meant feed and the relief of milking which most cows didn’t seem to mind if you followed the rules and kept your hands warm. In fact, if someone were there to open the gates, the cows, led by Rosie, would have come home at milking time on their own. There were times when I walked to the lower pasture because the tractor was busy and Rosie would give me a ride back.
Needless to say, when the Alberta plains open up to me with a sign that requests: “Please attend to the gate,” I turn the truck and bee-line across the cattle guard, “DDDRRRRRUUUUPPPP”. On down the dirt road with the tall grass center until it ends up at an oil rig.
Then with no road to follow I do what seems natural. Climb through the deep grass straight up the nearest hill! Shifting into low, up we go, climbing the steep grade till we see nothing but puffy clouds and blue sky over the hood! The deep grass crunches, gravity pushes us back in our seats and the engine roars with delight, all 282 horsepower. At the crest of te hill we are astounded by the panoramic view. The cab windows and sky light are open and the feeling of riding in an old stage coach fills the senses. Kate exclaims, “Is this legal?” I don’t reply because the indications in my mind are that we will likely get away with it. Spying a small cow pond below, we roller coaster on down, smelling the wonderful fresh fragrance of open grass and sagebrush breaking under the front bumper of the truck. Yeehah!
Then with no road to follow I do what seems natural. Climb through the deep grass straight up the nearest hill! Shifting into low, up we go, climbing the steep grade till we see nothing but puffy clouds and blue sky ahead! The deep grass crunches, gravity pushes us back in our seats and the engine roars with delight. At the crest we are astounded by the panoramic view. The cab windows and sky light are open and the feeling of riding in an old stage coach fills the senses.
The pond is home to clear, clear water and tiny blue dragonflies. A Mama Mallard with her bevy of tiny ducklings look to all the world like rubber ducks in a tub. Wildflowers abound here, surrounding the water’s edge with gentle color and sweet perfumes. Fowers of the tough and wiry prairie type, long and lean with blossoms able to withstand the blustering winds, sharing space with the tall grasses.
We just drive. No road. Skipping over the cow flops, watching an occasional coyote or deer, scaring up prairie quail and, at one point, a pair of short eared owls from the deep grass. Kate, standing on the seat hanging out the sunroof, gets a fine shot of the female whose triangular marked eyes look challengingly into the camera lens.
Freedom. No lines. Zooming up and zipping down hills, sweeping around corners and straddling occasional deer trails. The setting sun indicates time to quit. At the highest point of a hill, I bring the truck to a stop. Let the dogs run. Free. No leashes. No sidewalk. No path. Just tall grass. Betsy is in heaven, rolling
around in splendor. Minna, little short Minna, preferring not to put her paws down on scratchy, sharp, itchy prairie grass, slowly walks about like a stalking cat raising paws high with each step.
Off road, that is driving out on open range may not be for everyone. But when you do no harm and leave nothing behind but easy tire prints its a ball. In old westerns we watch old wagons and wagon trains crossing expansive plains and likely think nothing of it. But on this journey, opportunity is everything. So as they say: JUST DO IT!