Alberta is different. For the first time I feel we are truly in the west, and outside the realm of European civilisation – is it the right word in the context – maybe not. We still are, obviously, in the realm of European, or post-European culture, but the focus has somehow imperceptibly changed. I have heard of people having a similar experience in Russia, once they get to Moscow and beyond: the reference point is not the same, the place looks in a different direction. In Canada, it might be that the change is due to the fact that the French traders and explorers never got beyond – roughly - what's now Manitoba (Winnipeg has a French quarter, but Calgary doesn't). Or maybe it's the ranchers and the oilmen that make Alberta the most right-wing, the most American, the most gung-ho of the Canadian provinces. Or maybe it's simply because the people we stayed with in Alberta happened to be among the most well-off and right-wing (in Britain they would probably be "natural Tories") we met in Canada: though it wasn't quite how our Albertine (or is it Albertan?) adventure started.
We drive in with our ride-share, a twenty-something ska trombonist, anarchist and an audio-engineer who takes us from Saskatoon to Calgary in good humoured and chilled-out way that cool young 'uns are so much better at than even the coolest middle-aged people, filling the time with decent music and political discussion about evils of capitalism, Canada's indigenous people's struggles and the US immigration and security paranoia.
The flatness of the prairies continues from Saskatoon, although the wheat fields and grain elevators are gradually replaced with grazing land, and we see our first oil well: terribly exciting, and just like in films about Texas! The road is empty and the sky is big above our heads, maybe bigger than in Manitoba and Saskatchewan (I don't know how it can be bigger, but it plainly is). I am glad we are in a car for a change, as it seems a good way to travel this section, and we can stop (within reason) to take a few photos. But it's the driving, the steady unrolling of the grey, empty ribbon of the open road in front to us, that is somehow meaningful here in the middle of the North American plains, in the prairie that turned from the buffalo-inhabited steppe to a bread (and steak) basket of the world.
As the sun starts to go down spectacularly over the prairie, we enter the Alberta badlands near Drumheller, a stark change from the prairies. "Badlands" is actually a technical term, used particularly in America, applied to extensively eroded rock formations in an arid area, usually full of ravines, hoodoos, canyons and other – very uneven – rough terrain. The "badness" of the badlands initially referred to a difficulty of crossing such terrain on foot. It a strange and yet compelling landscape, the rocks not only interestingly formed, but also stripily shadowed, and one just can't help but expect a dinosaur to peep out from behind one of them.
And one does, five minutes down the road, as we enter the town of Drumheller itself, famous for the Royal Tyrrell Museum of palaeontology located a few miles away. We are too late for the museum (apparently world class), but Drumheller itself boasts a number of model dinosaurs, of shabby of shape and colourful of paint, including one that towers over the town car park in a significantly-larger-than-life display of claws, teeth and a viewing platform in its mouth. I told you Alberta was different.
Children are delighted, we snigger and proceed to smoke, eat and stretch our legs before the final drive to Calgary, where we arrive late in the evening and which seem to spread over a huge area on both sides of a wide river. Tomorrow we'll start exploring the city.