My home and art gallery are in Val Marie, in the province of Saskatchewan, in Canada. One day a couple of years ago I participated by teleconference in a meeting with faculty and staff at University of Maryland University College, where I was then teaching online. Near the end of the meeting I had to bow out a few minutes early, so I said “I have an appointment that I’ll need to drive 35 minutes to get to.” All the other committee members lived and worked in urban Maryland. As soon as the sentence was out of my mouth I realized they had no possible way to know or visualize what I was talking about. This is for them and for anyone like them.
Val Marie is located in Saskatchewan’s far southwest, about 20 minutes north of the Montana border. According to the most recent census, the village’s population is about 100. (The organization of the census was maybe a bit flawed, and I’m pretty sure there were people who didn’t get counted. So our population could be more like 110. It’s still not many.) The town has a main street and five other streets. One of those five is a highway that borders the community’s north end, and one follows the river on the east side, and what used to be the rail line. The west and south sides are outlined by another highway, the road that heads north back into the province and south to the U. S.
For services, there’s a sewer line, electricity, and weekly garbage pickup. Satellite TV and high speed Internet are available. There’s no town water supply; every house has its own well. For amenities, Val Marie offers a hotel/restaurant/bar; a good grocery store/liquor outlet; a cafe specializing in fresh and local food; a library open two days each week with wonderful interlibrary loan service; movies on weekends at the village Hall — with popcorn!; a post office; and the Backporch Gallery. We have two bed & breakfasts, a K – 12 school and a full time daycare; an indoor rink cum rodeo ground; a massage therapist who works here on Wednesdays; a monthly visit from the public health nurse; and the rural municipality/village office where you can send a fax or make a photocopy.
In the summer you can add to these a campground and Prairie Wind & Silver Sage, the award-winning museum/public gallery/espresso bar/gift & book shop focusing on prairie subjects. Outside of town there are a couple of other good visitor accommodation options, one seasonal and one year-round, and a hairdresser who works at her kitchen table. And there’s Grasslands National Park, with its stunningly beautiful and amazingly spacious scenery, and all the access and programs a wilderness park can offer.
For climate, summertime temperatures can easily be 35 degrees C/95 degrees F, and in the winter -35 C/-30 F; the wind can be 60 kilometers/40 miles per hour any season. The wind doesn’t always blow, but it when it does, it does. Summers usually don’t rain much, and winters usually don’t snow. But if there is either, it’s usually a doozy.
For geography, the village sits in the wide Frenchman River valley, created by glacial meltwater and millennia of weather. Big old cottonwoods stand where water runs above or below ground and willows mark the river’s edges. It’s a peaceful and beautiful place.
The nearest police officer is stationed 75 kilometers away.
And that’s us.
Once you leave Val Marie it can seem a long way to anywhere. My appointment the day of that meeting was with a licensed physical therapist who operates her practice two days a week in the town of Climax, population 170, a distance of 58 kilometers/40 miles south. To get there you drive through huge tracts of ranchland on poorly surfaced two-lane blacktop, no shoulders to the road, and no traffic. That day I left home a bit late because the meeting went a bit long, and I drove almost the whole way at 120 kilometers /75 miles per hour. It isn’t legal; the legal speed on that road is 80 kmph. So I slowed down for each car I saw, and for the few curves in the road. It took 35 minutes. Just as predicted.
If you head north, the first community you reach is Cadillac, 55 kilometers away. Cadillac boasts a service station and a bar. After that you can head west to Ponteix, population 600, or further north to Swift Current, the only centre of any size for 300 km in any direction. About 15,000 folks live there. Swift Current has doctors and dentists and beauty salons and bigger supermarkets and furniture stores and car dealers and some clothes. It takes one hour and 20 minutes each way to drive to Swift Current unless the winter weather turns bad. I go as rarely as I can manage.
So why am I here? Why live in a place where you have to drive 60 kilometers each way on rough road to the physical therapist, or 120 km to buy a piece of Brie cheese? Why put up with extremes of weather, bad roads, and not much built-in structure?
To see, just look around. Look at the long rolling hills in all four directions, hills that hold and provide for bison, prairie dogs, black-footed ferrets, mule and white-tailed deer, pronghorn, coyotes, some snakes including rattlers, the rare Mormon metalmark butterfly and short-horned lizard, an amazing number of hawks and owls and other birds both ordinary and uncommon, and an awful lot of cows. Look at the space, the green in spring, the gold in fall. Look at the sky, so wide it has no ending. At night, that sky is alive with stars.
To hear, just listen. In 2011, sound tracker Gordon Hempton declared Grasslands National Park one of the world’s last great quiet places. One day I mentioned this to some visitors, and one of them said, “When we woke up this morning [in the park’s Frenchman Valley Campground], I mean, you could hear crickets and stuff, but it was so quiet your ears hurt. You know?”
And there’s this. My second winter here, we had an unusual amount of snow. One night, trying to drive home in a storm from the home of a friend who lives just outside of town, I drove off the road. After a couple of tries in the dark and cold, I was able to walk back to my house. I was okay; the car looked like it might be there for the winter. But before noon the next day, the car was parked outside the grocery store where I was working and the keys were in my hand. One person had pulled the car out of its ditch with his big four-wheel drive and another had driven it into town. To where I could most easily claim it. I hadn’t even had time to ask for help.
And this. A man from another province came into Grasslands Gallery one summer and decided to take a lovely piece of jewellery and a photograph home with him. “I don’t want to spend all my cash,” he said. “I’ll just go get my wallet and my credit card.” Then he paused. “My wallet’s in my truck. You know where my truck is? It’s parked down the street in the shade. The windows are open and the keys are in it.” He paused again. “You couldn’t do that where I live!”
And that’s us. That’s the setting of the BackPorch Gallery. The gallery is open when I’m at home and a poster in the window says so. There are signs on a tree and on the lawn to tell you that you’re in the right place, at the corner of 1st Street East and 2nd Avenue North. Or call ahead at 306-298-7782 to be sure, or to make an appointment. The gallery accepts credit cards.
I’d love to see you here.