AT FIRST BLUSH, ALBERTA’S COWBOY TRAIL stretching from Mayerthorpe northwest of Edmonton to Waterton on the Canada–U.S. border, is the Wild West of your childhood imagination – a land of rugged cowboys plucked from a Charles Russell painting. On a map, it’s Highway 22, roughly 700 kilometres of Canadian driving at its finest, with dramatic scenery rising up to meet your windshield: endless stretches of flat golden prairie, rolling foothills, old wooden barns, grazing horses and the distant jagged mountains jutting into an achingly beautiful, limitless blue sky.
I’m on the southern half of the journey, a route that will take me through 10 communities – mostly sparsely populated rural villages dotting the landscape between Calgary and the country’s edge. Less than an hour after the city skyline fades from the rearview mirror of my sleek Mercedes-Benz GLK 350 4Matic, I encounter the first of these. Bragg Creek, with its Old Trading Post, looks like a dusty frontier town straight out of a Western movie. The tall, false-fronted wooden commercial buildings are an architectural feature common to the coal-mining boomtowns that sprouted up across Alberta in the early 1900s. The central hub for this town of 595 residents is Cinnamon Spoon, a country café where you might expect to see ranchers hunkered over a morning cup, but instead find creative-looking types, ex-hippies and white-collar professionals.
Among the regular patrons is Chris Sandvoss. Wearing blue jeans, a plaid jacket and wide-brimmed hat. He is the image of the cowboy I conjured as a child, but I discover that Sandvoss is actually a former concert violist turned luthier (instrument maker). Last year, he purchased 70 acres of land and converted a small cabin into his workshop. Already his cellos, violas and violins have made it into the hands of concert musicians across North America, Europe and Asia.
Sandvoss may not ride bulls or rope steers, but his choice of a hometown reveals a bit of the cowboy way. As we sip coffee on the patio, he says exaltedly, “There’s no other place I’d rather live than here. It’s stunning country – open and plain.”
REFUELLED, I START THE HOUR-LONG DRIVE to Diamond Valley, made up of the four communities of Black Diamond, Turner Valley, Longview and Millarville. The GLK’s permanent all-wheel drive and agility control suspension come in handy as I navigate the hilly roads. As I pull into Black Diamond, the sun is high and the mountain peaks glisten in the hazy distance. Main Street bustles with traffic, an echo of the town’s boom in 1899, when entrepreneur Addison McPherson opened the Black Diamond Coal Mine.
In the local antique shop I flip through the store’s vinyl collection and contemplate buying “She’s Just an Old Love Turned Memory” by country music artist Charley Pride, the only African-American to have been inducted into the Grand Ole Opry. “That’s a good one,” says the clerk. “I have that on my iPod.”
Pride’s success reminds me of John Ware, a former slave from South Carolina who rode up from Idaho in 1882 to help move 3,000 head of cattle to the historic Bar U Ranch in Longview, only 12 kilometres away. Despite being given the most temperamental horse and an even worse saddle, Ware managed the task as well as anyone else. He eventually settled in the area and earned respect for his excellent horsemanship, becoming one of the most famous cowboys in the valley. A cairn erected in his honour lies east of Turner Valley, on his original homestead. Stopping there later that day, I imagine the many hardships this black cowboy endured in pursuit of a better life.
No drive through Turner Valley is complete without a visit to the Chuckwagon Cafe and Cattle Co., famous for its hamburgers and steak-and-eggs breakfasts. Weirdly, the red-barn-inspired building was once a Korean restaurant. Inside, however, the space feels typically western, with its floor-to-ceiling wood panels, cowboy art and branding irons on the walls. I snag a stool at the counter and order a meal.
The burger is simple – nothing more than a well-seasoned, coarsely ground beef patty, fresh lettuce and a tomato slice between a lightly toasted bun. A few bites in, though, I concede it’s the best burger I’ve ever eaten. The server explains that the flavour has much to do with a secret blend of seasonings and the hormone-free Murray grey cattle that owner Terry Myhre raises at his nearby ranch. Frustrated by the inconsistencies he found in beef ordered from suppliers, he decided to buy steers and finish raising them and processing the meat himself. After studying at Olds College’s “Beef School,” Myhre chose the Murray grey breed specifically for its smaller stature, which allows him to cut just the right size of juicy New York, flatiron and tenderloin steaks to accommodate breakfast and lunch appetites.
Since I have the waitress’ ear, I venture a question: “Where can you find cowboys around here?”
“They’re all working right now. The only kind you’re going to see are wannabe cowboys.”
“How can you tell the difference?”
“Real cowboys wear their wranglers bunched down to their boots,” she explains. “Real cowboys wear dirty cowboy boots. Real cowboys don’t wear a buckle, unless they’ve won it.”
I head back to the GLK, take a moment to look up at the blue Alberta sky through the panoramic sunroof, and suspend my search until tomorrow.
THE FIRST DAY UNWINDS at Diamond Willow Artisan Retreat, a secluded five-bedroom guest home with picture-frame views of Lineham Creek. My room is rustic-chic, but with the 21st-century luxuries of heated slate floors and a walk-out deck. As the name suggests, the activities here are designed to appeal to cosmopolites eager to express themselves through downward- facing dog and watercolour classes. Like Sandvoss, husband-and-wife owners Doug and Pat Lothrop have chosen the life less ordinary here on the prairie. They aren’t cowboys, but like cowboys, they play by their own rules. I leave with my very own landscape painting.
Primed in cowboy identification, I am certain that the next stop – a visit to a working cattle ranch – will provide the wild west experience that visitors to southern Alberta crave. It’s a 135-kilometre drive to the Lonesome Pine Ranch, and my GLK, propelled by a smooth 302-hp six-cylinder engine, heads there eagerly. With classic country music on the vehicle’s SIRIUS satellite radio, I almost wish the journey were longer. As I near Lundbreck, the Livingstone Range to the west and the Porcupine Hills to the east dominate the view. Suddenly, the idea of galloping downslope alongside 100 head of cattle is more terrifying than I previously thought. Nevertheless, this is the reason guests come from across the U.S., France and Britain to holiday at Sierra west Cabins and Ranch Vacations. It’s a cowboy-boot-wearing, yee-haw kind of place, complete with a mini western town consisting of the Longhorn Saloon, a cantina, log cabins and bunkhouses.
I needn’t have worried about the cattle drive. Leading our group is ranch owner Ginny Donahue, who was practically raised in the saddle. My horse, Thunder, responds easily to a tug of the reins, a sharp contrast from the trail horses of my past that clung stubbornly to the path. With so cooperative a steed, I try to mimic Ginny’s graceful side-to-side sway, remembering her instructions: “Roll your shoulders forward. Relax your forearms.” Within minutes I am riding as though I’ve been doing it my whole life.
Herding cattle proves surprisingly easier than it looks. Cows move slowly – where one goes, the others follow. Occasionally, a stubborn few decide to stay put and eat grass. when this happens, Ginny and her husband Randy sweep effortlessly across the slope and hustle them back into the fray.
That night our conversation over a hearty spread of roast beef and potatoes is jovial and familiar. The Donahues are united in their ambivalence toward city life, although too polite to state it openly. When Randy says, “Guzzle your beer and we can catch the sunset,” I happily comply. At this hour, the beauty of the landscape is striking. Everything in the sinking sun’s path has been painted a temporary orange hue. The log guest cabins. The tack barn. Even thunder looks more golden than she did earlier.
The sunset also casts a golden hue on southern Alberta life. Like former slave turned expert horseman John Ware, backcountry luthier Chris Sandvoss and the artistic Lothrops, the owners of Lonesome Pine Ranch are people who aren’t bothered by anyone else’s definition of how to live their lives. They’ve written their own story.
Sure, the west has changed. It’s globally savvy and urbane. It has SUVs and Wi-Fi where once there were only pickup trucks and telephone lines. But now I see that it wasn’t so much the dusty leather boots and iconic Smithbilt cowboy hat that I fell for as a child. The appeal of the west is the licence it gives you to live by your own code. That’s what it means to be a cowboy.
Originally published in Mercedes-Benz Magazine, 2012