The sign for Saskatchewan is a harbinger of prosperity. Pump-jacks line the roadside fellating like 50’s cartoon mosquitoes pulling congealed crude from the earth. David & David’s “Welcome to Boomtown” drifts through my mind. If there is a place to let your mind roam while riding, this is it, a wide openness painted in blue and gold and measured by a latitude-straight highway.
Unmoored, my mind wanders through the big questions. How do I bring meaning to what I do? Where is my career taking me? Do I even have a career?
My current path is tied to a sensual act of riding wonderful, irreverent machines. Yet, I hold a hope of leaving some good mark on the world. Rather I find myself more frequently struggling to add value to reviewing motorcycles. The problem is reviewing is an insular form.
You can fight to introduce history, engineering, science and politics, but it’s an ill fit. Occasionally you place a motorcycle into greater social context, stumbling onto an electric bike, a Chinese brand whose mere price point grabs general attention, or legal technicalities to rail against, and produce actual journalistic pieces. Essentially though, motorcycle reviews are a self contained world of technical details, infinitesimal increments of top speed, and new models built on a two year cycle as if to meet the waning attention span of both press and public. There is a story, but its scope begins and ends with a bike.
Out of the corner of my eye I spot a hand-painted sign, the word “Forget” prominent… Recalling a CBC interview with the re-founders of Forget (pronounced FOR-jhay), Saskatchewan, I take the turn.
The Multistrada grumbles its way up the gravel road, and I pull up to a the Happy Nun, on Forget’s ghost of a Main Street.
On the restaurant’s deck, eight of the village’s thirty-eight population are sitting basking in the late afternoon light and enjoying the last late fall warmth.
Between my earplugs and helmet, I barely hear someone call out, “We’re closed.”
“Oh, I’m sorry, I heard about Forget on the CBC and thought I’d stop in and take a look around.”
Barriers collapse and I’m offered a bottle of sparkling water, tortilla chips and humus, and a seat on the deck. Orchestrated by the proprietor of the Happy Nun, Shannon Shakotko, introductions are made, conversation flows easily back and forth and I’m visiting with friends I’ve not seen in ages, despite never having met a one before.
In 2000, Shannon (a music teacher) and her husband Don (a school principal) bought Forget’s 1904 Catholic rectory, the former home of 13 priests who used it as a base to proselytize across Saskatchewan’s southeast. Shannon and Don reformed the rectory into the Ananda Arthouse, with a non-profit vision of supporting the arts in southeast Saskatchewan and providing a place for artists to perform and purvey. Then to rebuild Forget itself.
“What made you want to be here?”, I ask.
“It was the name,” responds Shannon, “Forget, before I learned it was the French pronunciation.”
Shannon shows me around the Happy Nun, like the rest of Forget, it’s something transformed.
Everywhere you look you see found items repurposed, the bar countertop is found wood from a neighbour’s barn, patterned tin roof from the kitchen has become wall decoration, the baseboard found wood from the town, sanded, stained and rejuvenated… There is a resonance that comes with the reuse. Forget itself is based on artifacts and memories reworked, not forgotten. It could be the biggest bad pun on the prairies, but it is anything but.
“The old timers remember the dances here, and the fights out front, and swinging off the chandelier”, says Shannon of the old community hall, “they love that this place is back.”
Formerly a derelict town hall, the Happy Nun now serves as a café, second-hand bookstore and performance space. History and dreams mix here within the warm dark tones, walls lined with thousands of books and pictures of Happy Nuns; nuns skiing, nuns on trams and, well, many happy nuns.
A visitor from the city and a local could walk into the Happy Nun and feel comfortable…
“Except for the couscous,” says Shannon, “there was a lot of reeducation around the couscous. See, this is what happens when you send grain to the middle east. It comes back as couscous.”
The Happy Nun’s menu is delightfully urban with as many local and seasonal ingredients as possible, except for the couscous of course. Open Friday thru Monday, I regret arriving Thursday. The thought of a proper healthy meal on the road almost has me salivating even as I take to the highway.
The evening breeze recalls the last minutes of hot-dry Cariboo summers in BC’s interior where I was raised. Step into a hay field and clouds of grasshoppers jump-launch ahead of you, a macro-god striding their micro-world.
I didn’t think the prairies would appeal, but every coffee stop reveals worn men and women chatting in with a familiar ranch earthiness and grounded sensibility. Their glances at the outsider are neither perfunctorily friendly or exclusionist, just a worn, weathered curiosity.
Overheard conversations are threaded with wry, terse, cowboy humour – even the women. There is irony, kindness, and affection here, core values that answers why this province was the progenitor of public health care.
Long winters, hot dry summers, homes spaced by kilo-hectares agricultural grid-squares, and a common ranching history that demands cooperation for success — all build a careful, cautious caring. Saskatchewan is Canada’s heart laid bare, a surface exposed below thin-cropped rolling wheat.
Clouding the view is a young, brash and moneyed dust, kicked up by pickups with dual axles, a welding rig or toolboxes in the back, and a fully depressed throttle. These Rig Rockets race down straight side roads in a mad, grab as much as you can oil-boom dash, with no care beyond the cardboard box hotel room, the bar, and another day pulling crude from the ground.
Riding under low evening sun and half-sphere sky, the moment hinges. My mind slips languidly between possible lives, blurring and focusing on potentials. High-school enrichment programs, nights listening to CBC ideas on a ghetto-blaster growing up, storyboarding, an interest in film, the urge to travel and writing… always writing. These are the found things I have to work with, the potential is to shed the jaundiced eye of critique and see the world in a better way.
It’s not spiritual. It’s not an epiphany. I don’t do those things. But, a culmination of efforts catalyze and I’m suffuse with reassuring clarity – a slippery commodity that I vow to hold onto.
I am doing exactly what I should be, traveling, finding the poetry in rare sparse places, championing a sport I love and sharing the experience. What would it be like to see still rebuilding New Orleans? Ride Alaska, visiting lakes that are disappearing into melting permafrost? Explore Africa simply to see what so few North Americans do? See Iceland, a bare exposed land with an economy to match? What do you want to be when you grow up?
On the prairies I’ve found my own Forget, I want to travel and share the found stories – travel writer, correspondent from here and away, videographer… these are all narrow. In the twilight I settle on Motorcycle Adventurist.