Cypress Hills Trip

One of the all time great trips Dad and I did was early May, probably 2006, to the Cypress Hills and Southeast Alberta. We left in the afternoon, it felt like the world was truly alive, not just green and growing as in May, but farmers seeding, rigs drilling, irrigation pipe being trenched and laid, busy busy beehive world. We had a bite in Medicine Hat, stayed overnight in Shaunavon, drove South, checked out pretty little Eastend tucked in a coulee, where Wallace Stegner lived a while as a boy. At the time Dad and I had both read ‘Wolf Willow, where Stegner talks about his childhood and the historical context of the area and the West as a whole so we were excited to see what we’d been so absorbed in with our own eyes.

We went to Fort Walsh, the first NWMP post in the area, on the edge of the hills. It felt like a long ways from anywhere, and would have been that much more remote in the days before rail, road, flight. We drove into the Cypress Hills proper, and across the Gap, we were worried about getting stuck in the bottom, as the road was wet and mucky with spring moisture, and there were only wary antelope for miles around on the wide open fenceless steppe.

The next day we went through, Manyberries, I loved that lots of people there had old painted up pumpjacks as lawn ornaments there. Prior to our trip, Dad had spotted a road that cut down to the Milk River, and made a map to it. He was always interested in the idea of having land where you could put your back up something like a big river or a grazing reserve, and have no visitors, real quiet like. We made our way to the road across real wide open short grass prairie, not a fence for miles, just cowboys riding with their cows.

At the bottom of the road was a beautiful little ranch and a well site. The type of ranch dreams are made of. In the road cut we spotted a shell bed and got some neat fossils when we stopped on the way back up. There was a big dinosaur leg bone too, we noticed it had been flagged for recovery,, almost thought it was petrified wood, but no that was a big ol leg that would make a cows leg look like a chickens by comparison.

Then we went back up and across the bottom of Pakowki Lake which was totally dry alkali at that time., across and down to Writing on Stone Writing On Stone. Writing on Stone in May is one of God’s true gems. Swallows flitting about above the river, everything leafing out green and fresh. The petroglyphs are absorbing and make you think deep thoughts about the primal power of the earth and the people that, although they hunted with stone arrowheads, felt the same things we feel in spring, and perhaps wrote about it, on stone.

We talked about all the things fathers and sons talk about. That and the roads Opa built down there in the 40s and some wells dad drilled, success and failure, the natives and Stegner and early settlers. Looking back it almost seems odd, we didn’t take any pictures, and what’s more didn’t feel the impulse to,. This was before cell phones had good cameras and it was expected that people document everything for social media. In some ways I wish I had some to help me remember, in others, I’m happy that we were just on a road trip, father and son. It’s been said before but is worth drilling home – savour those times with your family.

Ruling engines and lapping the ultimate screw

The story of the ruling engine is one of those bizarro incredibly important things that has slipped into obscurity, only really known by people still directly involved in this sort of thing. I was briefly involved in this area working at LBNL’s Advanced Light Source, measuring diffraction gratings, their efficiencies, and attempting to estimate how […]

Ruling engines and lapping the ultimate screw

Sky Burial

Ran his fingers through his hair he had just shaved real close. Fingers pricked over stubble and the boy felt like a monk. His left hand remained on the wheel, held low, below the level of the dash. Repeated running his hand over what was left of his light-blonde hair as though he might want […]

Sky Burial

Russia and Ukraine

Russia and Ukraine are at war.

Once again, we in the West, safe from the immediate consequences of the war, take brave stands. These brave stands include Conservative politicians demanding the expulsion of Russian diplomats, reluctantly reducing the flow of Russian oil, (we’ll bravely pay a price at the pumps they say as though this was some sort of solidarity with real people who are being killed instead of an exercise in vanity), and otherwise calling for what amounts to war, more war.

CCM drops Alex Ovechkin from their marketing. Junior hockey stops bringing over teenagers from Russia. A University briefly bans Dostoyevsky. More brave stands.

Isn’t it odd that our society has taken great pains to understand and educate ourselves about the struggles of people of colour, and other oppressed peoples and now we turn around and collectively dehumanize people for their ethnicity? Have we learned nothing, or even regressed? We wear a pose of being at the apex of progressivism, and behind the mask we give vent to the same ‘othering’ that humans have always had lurking inside in the dark corners of their hearts. The same impulse that led to pogroms and slavery and countless other atrocities, Rwanda, Auschwitz, the Killing Fields of Cambodia.

The last time we were here, I remember the hysteria well. It led to war with Iraq, and twenty years in Afghanistan. How many dead, how many shattered families, and for what exactly? I remember thinking at the time, why are we going into Iraq, how do we get out, what’s the endgame. and being alarmed when Nancy Grace, George W. Bush and Hillary Clinton all spoke with the same voice. That was a new experience for me. Just as there is darkness in our hearts, there is an instinct to run with the herd. When these two primal forces align, and walk hand in hand, there is no more dangerous time.

It’s wrong to invade another country, wrong for soldiers and especially civilians, to be harmed and die, this is already tragic. But ask, why? Did this war was start in a vacuum? Do you think this is skin deep, the work of one evil man, or are there layers to the onion? What is really going on, who can you trust for information? Ukraine? Russia? The foreign press of various countries? Random social media accounts? Is it possible that people are trying to manipulate you? And where do we go from here? These are just questions.

I am a big boxing fan, and to see the Klitschko Brothers on the front lines, and Oleksandr Usyk, fly from London to Ukraine, leave a position of safety, and take arms to defend their homeland, it puts a human face on the struggle, and that of World Champions, men of honour and achievement, whom I admire. They could die. Kiev is well on its way to being encircled as I write this. The contrast with our leadership in this country is stark. Our leaders run, in every sense of the word, from difficult things. The contrast too, between the emergency they declared regarding Ottawa (which was certainly illegal) and the emergency that the Ukraine is facing is stark. How would they respond to an emergency of this nature? Enemy tanks and rockets, civilian casualties, destroyed airstrips and power plants? They are already, in the midst of this war, in Parliament discussing ‘environmental racism’. Is anything serious to them, or is it just another pose? They’re always looking for the next safe thing.

I don’t blame them. What is rewarded in our society is the safe thing – not the hard thing. The safe thing is to run with the herd, whether that means looking down at anti-vaxxers yesterday or Russians today, or Japanese-Canadians in the 1940s. That’s how you move up in a company, a political party, a bureaucracy, blend in, say the right thing, when the winds change, go with them. What we will find in time is that, after too much of always doing the safe thing, there is no more safe thing.

Don’t give in to the safe thing. Do the hard thing. Refuse to generalize and demonize people. Refuse to add your voice to the chorus, the chorus that is calling for the blood of others. Stand for reason and fairness, for understanding and peace.

My Opa went on technological exchanges to the USSR in the mid-seventies, their focus was on drilling rigs. On the trips they were briefed by Canadian intelligence to keep their lips buttoned, and I assume the Soviet engineers got a similar talk from the KGB. They had intelligence escorts to keep an eye on things throughout the trip. This was the Cold War, the last time we had ‘othered’ Russia and they had ‘othered’ us.

Opa told me that one night they all got drunk on vodka. He said that they talked openly (as one tends to do after a bunch of vodka and arm-wrestling) with the Soviet engineers, the intelligence escorts turned a blind eye. So what did they talk about? Did they let ‘state secrets’ which they didn’t have anyways, slip?

No. They talked about their families and children, and the challenge and fun of being an engineer.

That always stayed with me, and bears remembering now.

The Truckers Convoy

At a Federal level, I am without a party. It’s a hard game to play when both the elections are won and the land is governed from a small strip of land between Windsor and Montreal, thousands of kilometers away.

It’s impossible not to have seen the Trucker Convoy that is currently dominating Ottawa, having flowed there from every corner of this great land in a blaze of horns and flags, and become global news.

In the past we’d seen another convoy, one which seemed to have lost direction, caught up in fundraising and attention issues not uncommon to grassroots causes, reach Ottawa only to fizzle out into nothingness. I can’t even remember what it was called.

This is not that convoy.

To me, the liberal strategy of leaving Ottawa under the full court press of the Trucker Convoy was wise. Ignore it and don’t give it any oxygen. Or would have been wise if this Convoy had turned out to be just a slightly bigger version the last, ineffectual convoy was.

Instead this Convoy has exceeded even the most outlandish predictions as to it’s size and impact. The footage from Ottawa is mind blowing. The support along the way was an absolute hinterland groundswell from coast to coast, I was surprised at every step of the way, including the protest I’m Calgary today. People can try and smear it with charges of racism, but such a tactic has never been more hollow than it is now. People are tired of it.

For the Liberal government, the decision to let the convoy burn out is now a problem. Because now the Convoy is not burning out, but burning strong, burning up the governments oxygen in the Capital.

Parliament is supposed to be in session Monday. The Capital is shut down by protest. How do the Liberals regain momentum? It doesn’t seem like the Convoy is in a hurry to move on, despite the inevitable pressures of jobs, family, funds. In part because many of them feel like those things are already threatened by the government, so they have little to lose.

Funny how often swords cut both ways, and the Convoy must remember this too.

I pray that this stays peaceful. In the back of my head I hear a distant alarm bell. Big groups of people can become irrational and unpredictable, particularly without clear organizaion and as time and pressure mounts.

Outside the Capital, in Alberta, the main highway with the USA has been closed by protesters. They seem to be mostly local farmers. Getting them to move does not look easy. Just another problem for a government to deal with that isn’t even in its own capital, and seems rudderless.

Do the opposition parties call for a vote of non-confidence? This is a minority government remember. Do they want to go to the polls again? Do they sense opportunity or fear an anti-establishment backlash themselves?

Does the government start to negotiate? They appear reluctant to engage anybody at the moment. If they fold do they look soft, or do they look pragmatic?

There are many questions. I always hope for the best for my country, one of the finest places on earth to live, and have nothing but faith in her wonderful people. As such I sleep well, and hope you do too.

Cold ramble

I was hearing the call of the wild on Saturday. My wife was under the weather, and I didn’t feel like driving too far, so went to Glenmore Reservoir for a walk. It was firmly in the minus 20s but with not much wind, and the Sun was shining which was a change after a grey month. I went down on the edge of the reservoir and saw nobody else the whole time, which is a good goal for this sort of day in a City of 1.3 million. I started following coyote tracks. The coyote seemed to like to work its way along the ice. It’s a pretty smooth way to move and probably there are a bunch of little mice dens in the bush near the edge of the water where they can sneak down for a drink. Plus the coyote is out of sight of the road up top and most of the people on the path.

Coyote sniffs something of interest and runs a little buttonhook pattern.

A coyote ran across the tracks of another coyote. Gave it some thought, and then headed for better hunting grounds.

There is a beaverlodge in the distance on the left. I love the wave pattern in dry, drifted snow, not unlike sand in a desert. The snow drifted in deep on the river ice and was a slog to walk through. It would have been a perfect spot for some snowshoes.

There were no fresh tracks around the beaverlodge, but this hole had been kept open, and the beaver had tossed chunks of ice out of the way. I think beavers do walk around outside in the winter and likely swim some under the ice. This was towards the end of a a long stretch of below -20 C, approximately two weeks , with one day’s respite where it got to -7 C , so I think that it makes sense for a beaver to stay denned up and not do a whole lot outside. (FYI the charitable high on this ramble was -17 C, sunny with light wind). Animals are pretty smart like that.

I was drawn to this odd shape of frosty, crystalline snow protruding from a twiggy hummock

When I turned around to look down it I could see that it was a hole that had been kept open. Possibly a vent for a muskrat house, or an entrance that they hadn’t used in the cold, again there were no recent tracks. I could smell the warm, awake, smell of the lake and found it refreshing, like a short trip to spring in the middle of winter.

Adventure is all around us

In the summer of 1992 we pushed off from shore late in the afternoon of a long early August day, and paddled down the Columbia. Myself (about 9), my Brother, and Dad in one canoe, and our neighbour GG and his son CG in theirs. We started down the Lake, in the light chop of boats, past the last of the cabins and Pete’s Marina. At that point the mouth of the River started to draw us along and the paddling became easier. Around one bend, the sound of boats and cars was no more, there was just the river, a baking hot day, birdsong from the wetlands on either side.

A beautiful bald eagle high up in a mighty fir on the right bank, that may have been the first bald eagle I had seen, on that trip I remember counting three, the Columbia wetlands were then, as now, a superb habitat for birds. The water that flows from the lake is clear and warm, but I remember the water getting muddied with grey silt starting right at the where Toby Creek flows in, cold, freshly melted and unsettled.

We needed somewhere to camp. The River is mostly bordered on both sides by wetlands that don’t afford much in the way of a high and dry spot to pitch a tent and have bunch of kids run around. It was getting time to camp, and we charged up the churning Horsethief Creek. I remember pulling hard on the paddle at my Dad’s urging as we follows the G’s canoe onto a sandbar some ways up the Creek. We parked the canoes and waded across the kneedeep water to check out the wetlands on the North side of the Creek. The bugs were instantly all over us, that would be no fun for camping. However, the sandbar, having no vegetation or standing water near it, was bug free. We decided to make camp.

The first thing we did as kids was dig a latrine. This we did on the narrow upstream point of the sandbar, which was perhaps 80 feet in length, and fanned out towards the downstrem end. The Dad’s set up the tent, a big blue wall tent, in the middle of the sandbar. We shot the bb gun and made a fire. Then we went to sleep.

When I woke up in the morning, the sand was dark and wet and the sandbar seemed to have a slightly different shape to it. Apparently, we had to get up three times in the night and drag the tent to higher ground. It was touch and go and we almost had to bail into the canoes, as the glacial melt of the day had reached our point in the creek in the middle of the night. I was so zonked from the long day on the water that I didn’t even know about this until years later, without exaggeration I was sleep walking moving the tent in the middle of the night with everybody else.

We ate breakfast and left the sandbar, the current of Horsethief Creek giving us quite a push back into the main stem of the Columbia, which was further silted and cooled. I remember behind approximately Dry Gulch, where old cars had been run down a steep hill for kicks and abandoned to rust out. Nine year old me thought this was the best thing ever. I think a few old wrecks are still out there like that, though people don’t really do that so much any more. This was back in the time when the dump wasn’t open sundays and there was a tippage fee, so people would shove old refrigerators and couches of the hill at the back of town, out of sight out of mind, back when there was a shanty town up the Toby beyond the industrial park in Athalmer, where people lived in tiny shacks made of whatever they could put their hands on, we called it ‘Hillbilly Heaven’ and it brought an odd sort of wonder and incomprehension to a young lad.

We made it to the bridge across the River at Radium where we were supposed to meet our ride. I remember waiting there and shooting a fishing spoon that was tangled up in telephone wires above the river. I still remember connecting with that lure, a shimmering bluish white with a red streak. We drove back and stopped in Radium at the grocery store. GG went in and said, I’m going to get you boys a treat. We were famished from the camping and paddling, and my mouth was watering at the thought of a Mars bar. When he came back he had green apples for us, and said this is a real healthy treat. I remember being disappointed at the sour taste but taking the underlying wisdom and humour to heart.

This is a trip I look back on often. When you are young there is adventure around every corner. I remember coming back from a movie in town in the Winter, and looking up at the infinite stars, the cold winter night quiet, across the Lake, the vast forested Purcells, where I believed wolves lived. Back then, it felt like a new frontier, we saw nobody on the river. Now that’s an easy afternoon trip. The Purcells, the mountains, I have been deep into on foot, I know where the roads are, have been to the ghost towns, the old mines, have been to Jumbo Pass, have climbed, camped, skiied and scrambled, have been to the other side of the pass, Kootenay Lake, and so on. Exploring the world in some ways closes off the frontiers with understanding, maturation, a sense of your abilities and the demands of the world. You look across the Lake and know there is a road, know that there is a ski resort on the other side of the mountain, on the far other side of the pass, a road, a town. In some ways there are no frontiers left, striving to find them means risking death and is really a job for a youth that is already slipping from your fingers. But that doesn’t mean you can’t still feel the adventure if you look with the right kind of eyes.

More San Pedro de Atacama

This is a photographic recollection of a trip I took in 2013. Remember when people used to have slide shows? Think of this like that. There’s no deeper commentary, other than exploring some surreal and powerful territory in the Southern Hemisphere with a friend. Now you get to ride along. A mood. You take an early morning bus from San Pedro up to El Geysers del Tatio, as the best viewing is at sunrise.

A random little town on the way back from the geysers. I think Machuca.

Bolivian winter. Cool and damp high up in the desert. A very peaceful mood, nothing stirs.

One of the odd little streams up high. Further down there were men netting small fish out of this trickle, it looked like for a research project.

This is the view looking down on Termas de Puritama , a magical little oasis in the desert.

The Termas themselves are composed of one or two concrete pools, plus a number of other pools where the water spills on down the way

On the way back in we listened to a classic Chilean folk song ‘Gracias a la vida’. Truly, how could one not be.

Toconao, my friend Enrique who was kind enough to play tour guide for this trip. These little towns often had the feel of a 60’s western town, like in the Wild Bunch, plaza with a foundtain, church, some nice trees, quiet, desert all around.

Every little trickle out of the hills is terraced into fields, mostly corn. You can see on the other side of the valley unused terraces, how ancient they may be I do not know, however I recall that the Incas brought corn here from the North. It made an impression, that in a world not far from the airport at Calama and the metropolis at Santiago, a thread ran still to the way things were done before europeans even dreamed of Chile, on the edge of the driest desert on earth the secret of life was kindled still.

This was about as far as we got to the East, fairly close to the Argentina border, a salt lake, shallow, we broke through the crust walking towards the briny water.

Piedras Rojas, an ancient lava flow, smooth as asphalt. We drove down onto it and explored this incredible, desolate terrain

Perfectly camouflaged, a vicuna, it’s a miracle we didn’t hit one, they don’t seem to be bothered too much by cars in their desert.

This is at the Salar de Atacama, a large salty lake in the centre of the Atacama proper. Flamingos are eating whatever little bugs or maybe little fish live in the saline water. There were wonderful little lizards that had evolved skin with the white tones of the evaporated sand. DSCN0156 The Salar is best viewed at sunset they say. A wind picks up as the sun drops and the earth cools, a fresh desert wind blowing across miles of precipitate, brine and dust.

You Must Write

‘Modern culture feels disengaging to us because it isn’t designed for us anymore. The truth is, we just aren’t the target market. The culture is engineered to appeal to other demographics in order to integrate them into the system. If we’re to have a culture, we must create it.’

The author of this tweet has expressed most clearly something that we have touched on here before, whether it’s in articles on Hollywood or more broadly. This is one of the reasons I wrote a book. If you don’t see what you want to see you have to make it, and support the efforts of whatever else you can find that speaks to you. Every time you opt out of watching something not designed for you and find something that is designed for you, you win. There is already a new canon evolving in the internet literary world, a canon of works outside the official narrative, no longer out of print, published anonymously, and a new language, a new world of references has already grown in the shadow of multinational publishing houses, one that is vibrant and actually worth reading.

Big budget movies are now made increasingly generic for an international audience and whatever hangers on they can muster domestically, this means you fanboys. If you’re reading this, they’re not designed for you, it’s overly broad and blandified into oblivion. On the other extreme Canadian literature and global literature more broadly. is dominated by a set of narrow academic tastes. A huge success gets the right praise from the right people, sells as many copies as the grant paid for and, any more praise or sales is too mainstream for true critical appreciation The poetry is terrible, the fiction is sterile and hums around approved topics. Is this generalizing? Yes. But grab a recent canadian poetry book off the shelf at your local library and get back to me.

The solution is writing what you want to read. The beauty of writing is that it’s incredibly cheap to do, compared to producing a film. It requires one person, and no budget to speak of. You can publish in no time at all on amazon and market it as hard as you want. If you write what you want to read, you will have at least one happy reader: you. And any other readers that you find are an added bonus.

But Sean, you say, I don’t know how to write – I haven’t done a creative writing degree at a prestigious program. Even better, nobody has got to you, you’re not writing with anybody else’s critical voice in your head, you’re not shaped by the forces that churn out generic literary authors and have surrendered almost all the influence that the novel once had on the culture at large in a race to be pleased with themselves. Also, I have news for you: you can make your friends laugh around a campfire. You can write. You can win. You can beat the critic-pleasers. But it takes the time to sit down to work and put your heart into it, without being concerned with what the genericizers might think.

They are coming from a place of constraint. You are coming from a place of freedom. You will win. But first, you must write, you must build.