"Saskatchewan, Naturally." This is the sign that greets Americans crossing the border into our fair province from Montana at the Morgan/Monchy border station on highway 4. Many years ago when my family went on vacation in Yellowstone, our car passed this very sign - in fact, it is one of the things that is most vividly remembered from entire trip. Why would a simple road sign rank with the likes of of geysers, great canyons, hot springs, chromatic pools, and other such natural splendours? It was what the sign presented unabashedly to those entering Saskatchewan, one of the hallmarks of our landscape: a morbidly deteriorated road.
To call what my family traversed over the next hour "a road" would have been exceptionally generous. The ultra-smooth Montana road leading up to the boarder could have embarrassed a bowling lane and abruptly terminated a few hundred meters from the border. The sign appeared to be more an epitaph for the condition of Saskatchewan roads than an uplifting welcome. What followed was the worst unpaved road I have ever encountered (even worse than the logging road I wandered on in Montana last year while looking for a century-old ghost town).
The car bottomed out a handful of times and my father cursed considerably more than usual. The road itself wasn't all that long. It took an hour to surpass it only because driving faster than 30 km/hr would have been suicidal. And yet, through the frustration, profanities, and desperate prayers, I was relieved to be home; perhaps the rough conditions allowed me to better empathize with the hardships of settlers that came to this province before it even was one.
These memories were reawakened last summer on my return to Saskatchewan from a two-week camping trip across Montana, Wyoming, and North Dakota with my younger brother. People we had met on our travels had told us that North Dakota was so flat that you can see a day away. We responded in kind that our homeland was so flat that you could watch your dog run away for a week. We were right.
North Dakota may be flat, but is nowhere near so by Saskatchewan standards. While there were certainly no mountains we encountered, or great valleys, we saw our fair share of hummocky fields and rolling hills. What the Americans did have right was that there was about as much in northern North Dakota to see as there is on the southern Saskatchewan prairie. As we approached the border crossing, the Arrogant Worms album we were listening to switched to the song "I am not American." Perfect timing [though sadly ironic, as I would learn the next year - but that's a different story].
Fortunately my experience was better at North Dakota's Fortuna/Oungre border station on highway 35 than my previous crossing as a grade 6 student on vacation. There was no incongruous sign to mark our arrival and the road was paved. The skyline was even flatter than I remembered, perhaps only because of lumpy North Dakota. I was happy to return to the land of the living skies. I would have been ecstatic, but a full bladder numbed my enthusiasm. My brother was in similar discomfort. "No worries, there should be a gas station nearby."
Note to self: There are NO cities, towns, villages or hamlets that have "services" from the Fortuna, ND until Weyburn, SK. "No Services" was a much different sign that greeted me on this return to Saskatchewan, and in disheartening regularity as we drove on. After half an hour, my brother became desperate. "We could just stop by a tree on the side of the road - that's all I need," he pleaded. "No worries, there should be a tree nearby."
What Saskatchewan had in the number of "No Services" signs, it lacked in roadside trees. As we scrutinized the horizon for what seemed like hours (a full bladder can do that), it became apparent that trees outside of private property were about as common in southern Saskatchewan as snowballs in Tahiti. We drove all the way to Weyburn without encountering a single suitable place to seek relief.
Am I bitter? Of course not! How else could I have gained a better appreciation vastness of our great province? What lessons could have better taught me the value in checking the CAA listings for towns with services on my planned route? The effort of crossing the mighty land we call home is something with which we can all relate as residents of Saskatchewan. It is something we must all appreciate in order to comprehend the tremendous courage of the first Europeans to settle here or continue West; or the first nations people who had survived and thrived here for millennia before colonization. If you haven't traveled far across Saskatchewan, you are missing out, just like my mother's German cousins who visited her in Edmonton when she was a teenager. They innocently asked if it would be too much trouble to go see Niagara Falls for the afternoon.