Thursday, February 12, 2009

Prairie Dawn

It’s a beautiful, clear morning. The setting moon, just a couple of days past full, is so bright as it shines in my bedroom window that it wakes me up a little before dawn. The stars are still sparkling like jewels as I climb out of bed, eager to be out.

I am going in search of a prairie icon – the grain elevator. These enormous structures were once seen next to the railroad tracks in almost every small town and village. Their main function was to store grain until it could be shipped by rail, but they also served as signposts visible for great distances, with the name of the town emblazoned on the side. Sadly, these once-important structures have mostly disappeared, and the rural landscape just isn’t the same without them.

I know the elevator in my home town is long gone, but I am hopeful that perhaps some of the nearby villages may still have them. I head out of town, dressed as warmly as possible on this frosty -20 degree C morning, in the predawn dark.

South of town, with the eastern sky just starting to get rosy, I pause to admire the simple beauty of the dawn. Wide expanses of empty farmers’ fields with a frozen blanket of snow stretch before me as I watch the sun come up. A few wispy clouds above welcome the rising sun, as behind me, the moon grows large before it fades to pale blue and disappears among the pastel clouds in the west.

Off to the left, I can see an unusual sight. A layer of fog, only a couple of feet thick, hangs about six feet off the ground, creating a horizontal streak of white against the background of a line of tall evergreens.

I wait here in this peaceful spot to watch the sun rise. There is no traffic, not one vehicle passes me and no sound breaks the stillness. I keep ducking back into the nice warm van, as my camera doesn’t like these -20 temperatures, and I think I'm getting frostbite on my fingertip where I press the shutter button.

The sun rises with spectacular beauty. The rosy glow intensifies, the clouds above turn pink underneath, and soon I can see a tiny edge of brilliant orange. Swiftly it becomes a crescent, and the Sun leaps into the sky, announcing her presence with a symphony of subtle colours in the east. The brilliance is reflected in the snow, and the pinks and yellows roll out before our home star like a welcome mat, the crystal blanket sparkling like tiny stars bowing before their queen.

With my heart singing gladly at the privilege of witnessing this offering of Nature’s best, I stop in to grab a coffee before I head out to the next town down the highway, hoping they still have their elevator. No, I’m told. They too had their elevator torn down a couple of years ago, but perhaps the next town after that.

By now, I am enjoying my rustic ramblings so much that finding the elevator has become secondary. I head out west of town, sipping my hot coffee gratefully, and turn south off the highway just a couple of miles out of town. I am heading generally west and south, taking random turns and driving slow, just enjoying the country landscapes and wide open spaces of rural Alberta.

I pull over to stop often to take some pictures. The open beauty of the farmers’ fields and small woodlots touches my heart, and I am smiling to myself as I drive slowly along the gravel roads. Only twice did another vehicle pass me by, farmers in their pickup trucks, and each time they nod and wave to the stranger in their country.

On my way home now, I see a sight that’s too good to pass by. A paddock full of cows, including some calves, is right next to the road. I get out of the van and cross the narrow strip of snow to stand by the fence, breaking through the icy crust and sinking up to my knees in one spot. One cow notices me and looks at me intently, perhaps hoping for food, or perhaps just aware of a stranger nearby. Soon other cows stop what they’re doing to turn and look, and in a moment the hundred cows or so are all milling around, agitated and starting to moo. Louder and louder they bawl, with a sound that I’m sure is carrying for miles in the clear, cold air. More of the shaggy beasts pick up the cry, until I retreat hastily back to the van to let them go back to their peaceful morning.

I am pleased with my day’s photos, and I head back home to warm up and have some breakfast. I still haven’t seen any elevators, but I know that there is one left at least. It stands in Leduc, Alberta, a small city about fifteen miles down the road, preserved as an historic building. I hope I will be able to get there before I have to leave.

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