Sunday, 26 June 2016

Big Valley

Katherine and I were in Edmonton last night, up to see my brother Jim in a musical theatre performance. Jim is terrifically talented and we had a great evening watching him sing and dance his way across and around the stage. The show itself, called Murder and Mayhem, was a compilation show taking songs from many musicals and using the songs to tell the story of a murder, except it was all fairly comedic, including Jim's part. He did well.

This morning we headed back to Calgary, down Highway 2, headed south. After about an hour on the road we came to Red Deer, and I needed a rest. So we stopped. After about 30 minutes we were about to make our way to Calgary when I noticed the sign for Big Valley, a town I hadn't visited since the late 1970's. Back then my half-sister, Sarah, and step-sister, Lisa were living with their Mom, my once stepmother, Margot, and her husband Jim.

Big Valley was a dry as dust tiny prairie town of a couple of hundred people back then, serving the local farms and ranches. Margot and Jim had bought the general store in hopes to make a life of it in Alberta. Alas, this was not to be; times were hard for small town Alberta in those years, and their store was not a success. Nonetheless, their presence in the town brought me there for a visit, one I have never forgotten.

There have been many changes to Big Valley in the last 40 years. The roads have been paved. There is a new ball field and other new buildings, and the town is now the terminus for the  Alberta Prairie Steam Tours railway, a railway with an old steam engine and a number of old CPR passenger cars which does rail tours starting in Stettler, Alberta, some 35 kilometers away. People board the train in Stettler, ride up to Big Valley for lunch and tours, then head back to Stettler again.

The tour company has played a bit fast and loose with the history here. Big Valley has only been around since about 1910, but the characters on the street are all dressed in "old west" outfits, more resembling the American west of the 1880's. There's a town Sheriff, complete with a couple of six guns, something you would never have seen in the Canadian west, and particularly not in 1910. They even stage a train robbery on occasion. There are only 3 recorded train robberies in Canada, two of them by Billy Miner in BC and one in Port Credit, Ontario, and all of them well before the railway went in to Big Valley.

Nonetheless, the tourists love the train ride. So would I. The wild west part is just another way marketers in Canada conflate our history with that of our rather lawless neighbour to the south. There is the Jimmy Jock boardwalk, a property once owned by a Chinese restaurateur named Jimmy Jock. The restaurant is long gone, now replaced with a boardwalk lined with funky little tourist shops. Katherine and I got an ice cream cone, some fudge, and some locally made meat pies. We did what tourists are supposed to do there.

Big Valley has come a long way in the last 40 years, at least from a tourist perspective. The town itself still has about 350 people in it, still serves the local ranchers and farmers. But the local general store still looks like it sees just a few shoppers on any given day. Life is still hard in rural Alberta.

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