Killing time in rural Alberta

I read an interview with Sarah Jessica Parker once, in which she said that she never goes anywhere without a book. Now, those who know me reasonably well think my occasionally encyclopedic-like knowledge of all things celebrity is amusing at best, a pathetic waste of time at worst. But occasionally these trivial bits of information come in handy. Or have the potential to come in handy, I should say. Because if I’d remembered about Ms. Parker’s constant companion and put my library book in my purse, yesterday might have been that much….better.

Several months ago, a consultant asked me to assist her with a series of evaluative interviews in rural Alberta. So yesterday, at the very dark and inhospitable hour of 6.45am, we hopped in a tiny blue car and headed north, east. I took my camera along figuring I might at least get a spectacular sunrise shot from a car window.

I did not.

Just before 9 we arrive at our rural destination. Population: 1000-ish. We have a Google map that seems not entirely useful. ‘It says town office that way,’ I point to the sign with the arrows. ‘I thought it used to be here,’ my colleague wonders aloud. We stop at the auto repair shop and ask, ‘do you know where the town office is?’ It’s a ridiculous question because there are surely no more than 30 buildings in the vicinity, yet we can’t seem to locate the one that is the hub of this community. ‘Mmmh,’ our tour guide ponders,’ well it burned down, but I’m not sure where they are now.’ One phone call later, we drive half a block and there is the missing town office. Beside the carcass of its former self.

Thirty minutes later I hop into the blue chariot alone, headed north to the next metropolis, my interviewee’s directions freshly imbedded in my mind. ‘Turn left at the dead end. Turn right at the cemetery. That’s the highway. Turn off the highway. Turn right after the hospital. It’s not really a functioning hospital. No, take the second right. There’s the school.’

I arrive in a village that seems to have three streets running through it. Still, I can’t find the school. It’s laughable, really. ‘Excuse me, can you tell me where the school is,’ I ask an older gentleman coming out of the….repair shop. ‘Turn left at the yield sign,’ he points in the direction of the yield sign, ‘you’ll see the school.’

I drive a block and find the school-ish building. Kids are playing in the snow. I park my bug of a car out front. ‘I’m here to see the principal,’ I announce myself to the secretary who’s also the volleyball coach and possibly a teacher too, if the posters in the hallway are to be believed.

‘He’s in [the town where you just came from]’ she tells me. I frown. The schedule clearly says we’re meeting at his school. She calls him, ‘he’ll be here in fifteen minutes.’ I sit in the hallway. I consult the vending machine, having eaten nothing but a banana. Baked Cheetos appears to be the lesser of all evils.

I crunch the scarily orange sticks without thinking. Afterwards, I glance at the front of the package. Expiry date: November 22. If it had been Wednesday instead of Monday, there’s no telling what might have happened to me.

Thirty minutes later the principal arrives. After the interview I head ‘back’ to the village. With thirty minutes to kill before my next appointment. If only I’d brought along my book, I think to myself. I duck into the grocery ‘store’. It’s got the feel of a for-rent community hall, complete with bulletin board listing items of local interest. Royal Albert China for sale. Free kittens: will be good mousers. And shelves with food. I peruse the collection [small shelf] of used paperbacks for sale. The only name I recognize is Fern Michaels. Though I am desperate, I can’t bring myself to do it. I buy a chocolate bar instead.

I walk across the street to the library; a living-room sized gathering space with laminated signs to the effect of: ‘every four weeks we get Alberta’s newest released books, when was the last time you came in to see what was new?’

There’s a carousel with another laminated card. ‘Donate today and take home one of these classic children’s books.’ I stare at the stack of Boxcar Children‘s books. I think of the twenty dollar bill in my wallet. Would it be rude to ask for change?

I head back across the street to my interview, twenty minutes early. ‘How many people live here?’ I ask. ‘Three hundred and twenty,’ the interviewee replies. ‘Do you like living here,’ I ask at the end of our time together. ‘Yes I do,’ she confirms. ‘Everyone helps everyone.’

I hop in the blue bullet and head back to the first village’s school for my next principal interview. The librarian is answering phones in the office. ‘We’re short-staffed today,’ someone explains. I finish my interview and check the time.

I have two and a half hours before I’m due to pick up my colleague and return to Calgary. With nothing else to do, I drive the thirty five minutes to our meeting point. Population: 765.

And I sit.

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