“That’s kind of weird.” That’s the response I got from a co-worker this morning when I arrived in the office. He had read about my 700km road trip on the weekend on my quest to explore the ghost town of Retlaw and the other communities along the now-abandoned railway line.
Yes, I suspect if you don’t “get it” then it certainly must appear to be an odd way to escape the grind of the work week. Why would someone subject themselves to an early wakeup call? Why would someone put all that wear and tear on a vehicle? Why would someone drive countless miles in an era of expensive gasoline? “Weird” is probably one of the nicer ways to describe it. It is “ghost towning” and, believe it or not, I am not the only person who does it and I’m not even the most crazy hardcore ghost towner out there.
5am on a Saturday morning. While the other acreages around us are still bathed in darkness I am waking up to the vibration of my iPhone on the bed beside me. “Don’t think about it, just do it.” With those muttered words of encouragement to myself I roll out of bed and head straight to the shower. We were out late the night before. Every ounce of my being is telling me to go back to bed, to sleep in later, to put off this trip for another week. I know if I stop to think about it I’ll never get out the door.
I emerge from the shower, dressed in the crappiest blue jeans and t-shirt I can find. Ghost towning can be dirty work and this is no place for nice clothes. Once I sense some movement from Shirley’s side of the bed I am confident she will be ready to join me. She may not enjoy it, but she secretly knows she’ll sleep in the car when I am not looking.
While she makes her way to the shower I begin loading the car. Two cameras, the tripod, my tackle box of flashlights and cords, my lenses, a cooler with drinks and sandwiches, my iPod, my cell phone, the dog. Along with a couple of GPS devices, these are the essential tools of survival out on the road. Where we are going you better be prepared because you don’t know when you’ll find help if you need it.
Before 6:30 rolls around I am backing the car out of the garage. Excellent, right on “schedule”. I have a plan of where I want to go and what I want to do. In the back of my mind I know I won’t accomplish it – it’s too ambitious, too regimented, too much. My official stated goal is to be in Medicine Hat around 2pm to attend a Geocaching event. That’s seven and a half hours to do what a “non weird” person could do in around three. For me, I know after exploring the Retlaw area I want to shoot the elevator at Scandia, cut across country through to Alderson and then carry on to Medicine Hat.
Less than an hour after leaving home I am in the midst of finding my fourth Geocache of the day, this time a small container hanging in a tree outside the women’s outhouse behind a church in Gladys, Alberta. Never heard of Gladys? You likely won’t. There isn’t much there now, a couple of churches perhaps? With a little more exploration I might be able to uncover a cemetery or perhaps a community hall. No time for that now. As we cruise down Highway 547 I see a small church. “If we had more time I might stop and try and get a photo of the church with the sun rising behind it.” I make a mental note to plan for a return visit some other day. It’s only an hour’s drive – that’s practically in my backyard!
Not much later Highway 547 meets up with Highway 24, just west of Mossleigh, AB. I know I am not far from the town of Farrow – well, more accurately, where the town of Farrow once was. The landowner burned down the last remaining building back in December. With the death of that grain elevator the last tangible proof that a town once stood there is now gone. It’s just a dot on the map.
The sun is just starting to make its appearance and the sky has turned a pleasing shade of red. I curse myself because one of my goals was to photograph a sunrise at Farrow. Too late. With the elevator gone there is no point. It is a stark reminder to never put off until tomorrow a photograph you want to get today because you just never know when these relics will be gone forever.
I do stop and shoot the sunrise against an old granary near the highway. It is a great start to the day and we’re making good time.
Highway 24 turns south. I contemplate continuing to the east towards Arrowwood. Having spent hours looking at the map I know I could pick up the Retlaw rail line at Arrowwood and follow the backroads through Anastasia, Shouldice and Queenstown. Looking at the clock I decide to save that area for another day and continue to focus on Retlaw. The story behind the naming of Retlaw has been covered in this post so I won’t bother you with it again. The important thing to understand is that my first goal is to reach Pageant, which is located almost exactly where one would expect the ‘W’ town to be.
Pageant: I didn’t expect to find much at Pageant and I wasn’t disappointed. At a bend in the road I reach the spot where my topo map shows the town should be. While that often means the townsite was in the general area, I find nothing. I was hoping to find an old road sign or something but my cursory exploration revealed nothing. Perhaps some of my ghost towning friends have come across something?
Armada: Again, not much. There is a sign that reads “Armada” but it appears to be newer and not an original. Likely something that one of the landowners in the area placed in his yard. Again, with my packed agenda my search is cursory at best. South of town I spot a great abandoned house, the sort of spot where I would love to do night photography. Unfortunately, like many great spots in Alberta, it is behind a barbed-wire fence and not legally accessible. I settle for shooting it from the road and dream of what might have been…
Lomond: Lomond still clings to life. We pull into the UFA cardlock and top up the tank. We didn’t use much fuel to get here but when you’re out exploring you don’t pass up a service station because you just never know. The mural of Bobby Badger has a bunch of locals standing in front of it so I opt to not get a photo but instead carry on.
Travers: The dot on my map is marked a bit northeast of where the town actually was. Fortunately the street grid is still marked on the map. In fact I get a chuckle when the voice on my Nuvi tells me to make a left on Centre Street. So optimistic were the people of Travers! Considering the street grid on the map shows it was only four blocks total the urge to specify which one was Centre seems laughable now. The town isn’t very photogenic and, in fact, it gives me the sense of “the locals probably don’t like to be disturbed.” We move on and locate the Travers cemetery and also photograph an old homestead complete with windmill and barn before reaching Enchant.
Enchant: My summer of working for the Alberta Wheat Pool in Enchant has been pretty well documented. I see the name of the restaurant in town has changed, although for the life of me I can’t remember what it was originally called. Both the Alberta Wheat Pool elevator and the original fertilizer plant are long gone – again, I feel a twinge of regret for not documenting them photographically when I was working in them. After failing to locate a Geocache in the town’s historical park I take some photos of the train station and we move on.
Retlaw: Ah, Retlaw. I may comment how Dorothy was one of my first ghost towns but that’s only the partial truth. Retlaw was my real “first”. I remember the day I was heading home to Vauxhall from Lethbridge when I decided to detour up Highway 864 from Taber rather than taking the standard route up Highway 36. The pavement ended and turned to gravel and, as I was cruising along kicking up dust, I saw a church off to my left. With my curiosity piqued I turned off and made my way over to the townsite of Retlaw. I was immediately fascinated with what I saw. The abandoned church was standing guard over a number of decaying buildings and foundations. I simply had to learn more about this town I had never known of. Up until then my image of a ghost town was like what you see in western movies – a series of abandoned false-fronted buildings along a street with swinging saloon doors and a ghostly player piano inside. I had never realized how many real ghost towns were around in various states of decline. It wasn’t until several years later when I first met writer Johnnie Bachusky via email that I even learned there were others who shared this same passion.
Retlaw has changed a lot since I first was there. A number of signs have been erected at various sites around town highlighting what used to be located there and talking about some of the history of the town. The church still stands, having undergone a significant renovation not long after I “discovered” it. I spent a lot of time in the town on this trip and took a fair number of photos. I explored the empty prairie where the CPR line once ran. I poked around the inside of one of the buildings. I took the time to really listen to the wind rush across the prairie and into the voids in the walls where windows once protected the inhabitants from the elements.
Whether it is fire, vandals, or just the endless march of nature reclaiming what was once hers I really stopped to appreciate Retlaw as it stands today knowing it will not be here forever. Entropy always increases and cannot be stopped.
A visit to the Retlaw cemetery followed, a place I had never even seen before, let alone visited. I love pioneer cemeteries and the stories they have to share with us. From the baby who only lived for ten days back in 1913 to the young man who died on his 22nd birthday, these are the places where our ancestors can still speak to us.
A quick stop in Vauxhall to look for another Geocache (another one we failed to find) and then up to Scandia. Scandia has a pretty interesting historical park with lots of pieces of machinery. There also appeared to be some restoration work taking place on the train station there. On a different day, with more time, I could have taken a lot more pictures there, I think.
Onwards to Alderson. My Nuvi wanted to route me all the way up Highway 36 to Brooks and then back down the TransCanada Highway to Alderson. I’m sure that’s how most normal people would do it. But, for me, those are roads I have travelled hundreds of times. While I am not egotistical enough to say I’ve seen it all along those roads, I know my odds of finding some hidden gem are much better on the roads less travelled.
So, using my handheld unit (loaded with the topo maps) I begin navigating across country. Things went fine until we hit Rollling Hills. From there both units didn’t seem to like my approach. Looking at the map now on a larger screen I think a large part of the issue is Twelve Mile Coulee and the associated reservoir. The one “road” my handheld tried to take me down quickly turned into little more than a dirt track across a field. Given that I have only a low-clearance car (and that the GPS told me I was still 24km from Alderson!) I elected to detour north through Tilley and then to the TransCanada. I might have saved time in sticking to the highway in the first place, but where is the fun in that?
I didn’t spend much time at the Alderson townsite, instead focusing on the cemetery just southeast of there. I was working on fulfilling a promise I made to a stranger a couple years ago. During my first visit in 2010 I captured a long distance shot of a tombstone and someone contacted me saying it belonged to her great-grandfather and no one in the family had ever seen it before. Through an exchange of emails I learned her name was Dayna and she lived in Chicago. I emailed her the high-res version of the photo and promised her the next time I went back I would get a better photo of it. So, Dayna, the image on the left is for you!
By the time we left Alderson it was already too late to make the Geocaching event in Medicine Hat. I also admit I was starting to get tired and I knew we had several hours to drive to get home. We made it to the town of Suffield where I found (yet another) Geocache but didn’t see anything worth taking pictures of.
The trip home was along main roads until we neared Calgary and I decided to detour off to visit Dalemead.
We were just outside of the gates of the cemetery when we met up with a local. Rather than re-type the whole thing I think my log on Geocaching.com tells the story quite well. That’s likely the best place to end this story.
“It’s after 5pm and we’ve been on the road since for 10.5 hours. We’re just looking forward to getting home when I saw this cache on the GPSr. Hey, we’ve already checked out pioneer cemeteries in Travers, Retlaw and Alderson so let’s do one more!
As soon as I turned onto the dirt track leading to the cemetery we saw a truck parked at the gates. As we approached we checked and the person didn’t seem to be a cacher so we drove on by. We carried on into town and then started back down the main road to see if they left. We passed the truck so we knew the coast was clear.
As soon as the truck saw us again the brake lights came on. Hmm, we seem to have drawn some attention. Sure enough, we had just parked and I was just in the process of starting my search when the same truck drove up and parked behind us. I was on the far side of the trees so I didn’t see what was going on but I assumed it was another cacher who came to greet us.
It was a local who was wondering who we were and what we were doing. We explained that we were on tour of pioneer cemeteries today and taking pictures. (All of this was true, of course. We opted to not mention caching because it often takes more work to explain than its worth but everyone knows photography.)
The local lady explained that the townsfolk like to check out vehicles they don’t recognize because there have been a fair number of break-ins lately. She was actually quite friendly and enjoyed visiting with Tucker the Dog as she had two dogs of her own.
She explained to us: "The town is sort of down over the hill and so when we lost our grain elevators we were kind of invisible. We liked it that way because as the city gets closer we get more and more crime happening in the area. Then the M.D. had to go and put up no less than 11 gigantic signs pointing the way to our cemetery. We don’t know why they did it. There is a grave in the cemetery from 2009 and none of us know who it is so we’re wondering if her family couldn’t find the place and complained or something. Anyway, our "mayor" — we don’t really have a local government anymore but we call him the mayor because he represents us — our "mayor" went to the M.D. and asked them to remove the signs. The M.D. replaced some of the larger ones with smaller versions, but there they are, especially that big one on the highway pointing the way to our little town."
As I said, once we had introduced ourselves and explained what we were up to (sans Geocaching) and told her how we live in Priddis and know all too well the pains that come with having the city discover your slice of heaven she was quite happy to talk with us. She explained how she has many friends and relatives in the cemetery and encouraged us to look around and enjoy ourselves. As I said, despite being wary of outsiders she was very friendly.
Once she drove off we quickly located the cache (thanks for the hint, it stopped me from spending any more time looking in the wrong place) and signed in. Coordinates were perfect for me, I should have listed to them. Second time I’ve been to Dalemead, the first being a visit while chasing the epic multi cache from Older Foster Bro. Thanks!”