Kyler Zeleny, author of Crown Ditch and The Prairie Castle, tells us the story behind five of his favourite images from the project.
Johnny from Athabasca, AB is another ruralite who is just trying to make their daily buck. He works for the Buy-Low Foods. In cowboy boots, a black cowboy hat, his arms bearing old ink, he looks like Marlboro Man’s cousin and cautions me when I take a photo that doing so may break the camera. This comment is common. He looks like someone who should be on the road, not stocking shelves and driving groceries to the elderly. Johnny is on the clock and I catch him out back having a ‘dart’… so our encounter is genuine but brief.
I found Ernie when I was walking the slow streets of Eastend, SK. He sells used books from a small corner house with the overflow set out on a table on the lawn. The bleached spines of the books and his darkened leathery skin tell me that he has been at this for awhile. We drank the beer he had in the house as we were violated by the early summer mosquitos. He waves to people but they don’t often wave back. As we drink the beer he tells me that he trades a case of beer with a lady downtown and gets his toe nails cut in return. These small towns can be strange places. Ernie is unique in that not only does he tell stories but he asks questions and takes a general interest in why I’m there and what I’m trying to accomplish.
I found Larry in Boyle, AB. He was donning a ‘Canadian Tuxedo’ and asked me if I’m going on a hike as I exited my vehicle. Larry uses this as an opening. He tells me he is on social security and has a pension but it’s not enough to cover rent—he asks for change and offers a cigarette in exchange. I tell him he has a voice like a poet and a face that’s been around. He’s heard both before. Larry was a long-haul truck driver until cancer made him retire.
He reminds me that the highways of North America belong to the truck driver; we simply borrow them. Throughout his life, Larry has largely been a loner—he mentions this three times—with the exception of his two cats that joined him on the road. He tells me a story where his roommate and him got in an alcohol-fuelled fight. Larry went to sleep and woke up to a burning house.
He found an entire wall of flames as he opened his bedroom door. The cats got out and the roommate, who was wrestled to the ground on the front porch by two police, received two months for mischief. This left Larry homeless, all his clothes and pictures albums now ash, years of memories gone. A clean slate he didn’t ask for.
I found Gary in Donalda, AB and he was different. Gary is an anti-government, anti-church, and anti-establishment thinker. He is a God-fearing man who believes that the Bible’s scripture is the voice of God. His good book is meticulously highlighted, worked and reworked. He lives on ‘free land’ as a ‘freeman on the land’, by declaring his farm to be outside of Canadian jurisdiction. He doesn’t remember the last time he paid taxes and is proud of it.
My conversation with him took place over four hours and as the hours continued Gary became evermore cynical. Gary is a preacher-man, he will ask you a question so he can preach you the answer. Preacher men do not care for dialogue or debate, they are only interested in sharing their doctrine, their ‘truth’. They are grounded to the earth but unhinged from humanity. They want to sell you something and profit in self-satisfaction or the promise of eternal salvation.
I found Judy on Alberta’s ‘Cowboy Trail’ (HWY 22). She was picking up roadside garbage; her “contribution to the next generation” as she put it. Rain, snow or searing heat, she is in the ditch picking up Pepsi cans, McDonalds’ wrappers and oil tins. Her husband, Larry, sits in the truck on the highway’s shoulder, driving ahead every once in a while to keep pace. Judy tells me she once found two one-hundred-dollar bills. She said it was around the same time oil was trading at $100 a barrel. Today it trades at $51.
She said she can talk to God here. Although agnostic, I told her I agreed that this was God’s country. I wager, if there is a higher power they are not a city dweller, they are a Westerner, an open-space-loving being. They wouldn’t want to be in a high-rise hearing sirens screeching when crickets and the red eyed vireo and the American dipper song birds are alternatives. The prairies claim the sunset over the sunrise. It is of the end and not the beginning. It is where the cowboy rides off into the sunset to die, not to live.