When I was in my second year of university, my parents went crazy.
I was in Ottawa at the time, subsisting on spaghetti and self-absorption. The calls started coming on Sunday afternoons when I was studying for mid-terms.
Their voices would cut in and out as they drove, reception fading around valleys and switchbacks. My teenaged siblings would be in the back seat while CBC blared on the radio. I couldn’t remember the last time I had been on a family drive.
Naturally, I viewed this development with suspicion. My parents were used to beautiful places – we could see the Rocky Mountains from our house in Calgary. And growing up, we would eat lunch next to waterfalls on drives through the Crowsnest Pass.
But I felt around nature the way some people feel around small children, best viewed from a protected area. Though my dad, trained as a geologist, had spent countless summers in Canada’s backwoods, our family camping trips had always been comic misadventures. On these occasions, I spent most of the time in the tent, reading, sulking and fending off the insect life.
This time was different. My parents, both Easterners, had suddenly, after more than 20 years, decided to become fake ranchers. They had fully embraced the Alberta of corn roasts and rodeos. They had been to the Porcupine Hills, and now – it was impossible to deny it – they were obsessed.
The Porcupine Hills are a rolling foreshadow to the Rocky Mountains, pinned against the border of southwestern Alberta. It’s ranching country, so there are rust-coloured horses, the rumours of cougars and bears. Pickup trucks release funnels of dirt along the roads, and white stalks of wind turbines face the steely wall of the Livingstone mountain range.
When I returned home from university that summer, I treated the whole thing as a joke. But the signs were alarming. There were stacks of magazines with glossy photos of log cabins. The family dogs were suddenly wearing bandanas. The Calgary Stampede came and went, and everyone was still wearing cowboy boots.
One day, my parents bought a pickup truck. As I looked at the thing, aptly titled a “King Ranch” and about the size of a condo on wheels, I couldn’t disguise my alarm.
“Oh, sweetheart,” my mother said, her smile widening. “You think we’ve gone crazy, don’t you?”
Some families make over their kid’s bedroom when they move out, rip down their posters and rejig it as an office. My childhood home stayed exactly the same. But on the weekends, I was the only one there, nursing my resentment. I was the oldest child, unbending in my belief that I should always be the star – until I was ready to move on. Watching the family drive off with a picnic and their fishing rods, I couldn’t help feeling like they were moving on from me.
At the end of that summer, they bought a cow-pattied chunk of land, high on a muddy back road. Next came the barn. In the fall, they drove the barn’s pre-assembled loft along the highway, where high winds flipped it off the flatbed like a scene from The Wizard of Oz. They were undeterred. After the new barn came the fire pit, a horse shelter and a Canadian flag the size of a bed sheet.
That winter, I went on exchange to Denmark. In a flat, quiet place populated by blondes and bicycles, I began to dwell on the smell of manure and the view of the mountains, the sting of smoke from the fire pit. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t ride a horse to save my life. Somewhere on the other side of the world, my family was on that hill top. When I talked about home, I talked about the Porcupine Hills.
There’s a writer who lives near our barn, a former park ranger who writes books about the rocks and trees of those hills, about the reservoir and the Old Man River. And he writes with disdain about “urbanites sniffing around for recreational property.”
I can see that he’s referring to people like my family, people like me.
But it’s impossible to deny the pull of the Porcupine Hills. The way they turn prim city dwellers into people who love the smell of hay and the thrill of the lightning storms. The way they pull people into thinking about giving up everything and maybe, just maybe, never going anywhere else.
Or draw people like me, who move away and try to grow up, only to weld home and family to that place forever.
He can’t deny it, and neither can I. The Porcupine Hills make people go crazy.
Katherine Dunn lives in Toronto.
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