RUGGED TERRAIN

July 7, 2017

Grandpa Sid and Uncle Lyle had always been good friends, even though they are related by marriage and not blood. They are strong men, salt-of-the-earth men, built-their-business-from-the-ground-up men. Both lived and worked the stubbled plains of Southern Alberta, a place that leaves your hands dirty but your mind clean.

 

Uncle Lyle inherited the ranch from his father, my great-grandfather, as a small homestead north of Brooks, Alberta. By the time he finished expanding, he owned 82 sections of land, measured at 640 acres each. 52 480 acres of Canadian badlands total. The earth there, arid and unbearing, lent itself only to livestock. He cannot say just how many heads of cattle he raised during his career, only that it must’ve been well into the tens, maybe the hundreds, of thousands. He named his property the Curry Cattle Company, and branded his signature triple-C into every animal before giving them free reign over the soft slopes and dunes of wild grassland.

 

When I was ten, my family and I went to visit the ranch, now split into three separate farms—one for each of his sons. Cousin Darcy takes us to see my grandfather’s childhood home, abandoned on some forgotten corner of his plot. We drive on gravel—and sometimes grass—until we reach a two-story farmhouse. Greyed and overgrown, the house is a husk of wood and stone. We spend an hour tiptoeing around rot and broken glass. I find it hard to believe that anyone lived here, but then I find a single leather shoe. Who wore that shoe? Where has it walked? How long has it been waiting for another sole? Suddenly it is easy to imagine this place that exists only in my Grandfather’s failing memory.

 

Grandpa Sid and Uncle Lyle are well into their eighties and nineties now. Most days they still speak on the phone. The last time they sat face to face was over a year ago, when I took them out for dinner before we moved Grandpa back to Saskatchewan. “Growing old ain’t for kids,” says Uncle Lyle, to which Grandpa nods and laughs. They have traded homesteads for nursing homes, places that will remind them to eat, to change their clothes, to take their pills. They remember the names of their children but not always their grandchildren. Some days they don’t remember the ranch at all.

 

Outside the farmhouse are half-a-dozen wooden rectangles protruding from the ground. Cousin Darcy explains they are fox and mink traps. He says they were a lucrative part of my grandfather’s business. My sister and I take turns peering inside of them, counting the spiders that now call them home. In the last one I check, my eye catches a scrap of orange under the flapdoor. It’s something soft and sleek and half the size of my fist. Cousin Darcy tells me it’s a fox foot. A lucky find. He says I should hold onto it. I keep the foot wrapped in a cardboard box for the remainder of the trip, along with arrowheads, coloured rocks and snakeskins—jewels of a successful summer. I save it for special occasions, like when company came for dinner or for classroom show-and-tells. Somewhere between those late childhood years and now, I’ve misplaced it—put it in the wrong box or bag or shelf and now it is in that place where lost things go. Treasures have the cruel habit of vanishing while our backs are turned. Lucky pennies fall out of pockets. Snake skin dries and crumbles. Old houses fall down.

 

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