I have been thinking about prairie gumbo ever since I visited Saskatoon recently. That such an interesting word with its obviously gastronomic overtones could occupy my thoughts days after I have left its realm is, in itself a gumbo, don’t you think? At any rate, casting aside any tautological ramifications, I would like to focus on its more relevant aspects. Like what it does to peoples’ psyches -their Weltanschauungs, not to put too fine a point on it.
Strictly speaking, it is a curse –nothing religious, you understand. It does not seek to undermine whatever gods may be, nor does it pretend to be other than what it is: sticky, nonporous and horribly adhesive wet soil that had previously lived a rather mundane existence as, well, dirt. Rather Jekyll and Hydey, in a way.
I first encountered it as a child in Winnipeg, and then promptly buried it where I hid all my other transgressions, deep within the collective unconscious of a million other six year olds. All it took was earth –better known as clay in those days- and a soupçon of moisture, and suddenly you had heavy shoes that transported mud from field to house better than a wheelbarrow. Every door had a scraper and a mother that stood guard over her linoleum like a jinn. The proper disposal of one’s gumbo was conscience’s teething ring. It was how every prairie child learned to cope with being yelled at from an early age without developing ego dystonia. Without dialling 911 from the neighbourhood phone booth citing child abuse. Things were different then…
I have to admit that I had neither seen nor thought about gumbo since I moved to the west coast more years ago than I can remember. But I suppose all expats deserve a flashback now and then, eh? Something that awakens their latent post gumbo stress disorders –that urgent need to find a scraper before getting caught, that fear of awakening in the deep of night with heavy feet. It is an under-reported affliction here though -a region of the country where waves roll onto the shore with other news from other places. The world everywhere else is messy too, and with far more serious things to worry about; gumbo is simply not a bête noir out here.
And yet, despite the West Coast’s famous solipsists, there are prairie waves that lap silently at its back door mountains that cannot be ignored for ever. Saskatoon is whispering at the window.
I didn’t hear it, though, and drove blithely Eastward like a compass-blind settler, hypnotized by a land sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans… Sorry, but it was like driving over a stained and wrinkled tablecloth, green to the horizon, infinite in all directions –I’d forgotten that, too. It’s amazing how we can sublimate entire childhoods.
I’m not sure what I was expecting really. A pancake city? Or maybe a sudden 3D concrete oasis glued to a piece of unfolded green wrapping paper like one of those little fake houses you put on a monopoly board? Well, it was not like that; Saskatoon was beautiful –a warren of deep-green trees lining the South Saskatchewan river with the city snuggling into it like a cheese into rind. I loved it, despite the faint whiff of Mother that greeted me at the door of the little B&B I had booked. There were signs everywhere requesting –no, demanding– the removal of footwear before proceeding inward –prefixed, of course, with an ample dose of Canadian politesse: Please was ubiquitously on display. But I still felt like a child at a kindergarten class forced to walk around in socks, carrying his shoes and pretending not to mind.
There were no scrapers, though, as if their very presence might grant an insufficiently scraped shoe entry into the sanctum sanctorum. A synecdochical Prairie might appreciate the transgression, but no one else –especially one in need of lodgings for the night. It had rained that morning, apparently, so the matron (is that what you call the woman who greets you at the door with a fake smile?) was on Defcon 3, her eyes, trained falcons each waiting for its little hood to be removed. Hoping for prey.
Apart from an atavistic hardening of the hairs on the back of my neck and a frisson of anticipatory guilt, I hardly noticed, however. After the long, and may I say soporifically boring trip across both an unending and untitillatingly naked land, I needed to stretch my legs and don my Adidas for a run along the river trails -a run through the pseudo forest. Mother eyed me suspiciously, but Canadian to her roots, she only smiled at my foolishness.
I am no forest virgin, however; I am a mountain trail runner, used to roots and creeks and hills with obstacles a Prairie could only dream of. I had no fear of running in flatland.
The trail started well: a brief sprint across some rather sparse grass, still sparkling in that just-washed fashion which only partially hid the nourishing soil, and then, only moments away, a gravel trail that begged for some company. However, by the time I reached the trail I was exhausted. I wondered if it was the altitude –maybe the prairies are above sea level… I mean they must be, or they’d be one huge and even less interesting puddle. I took it as a thought experiment, a koan requiring meditation as I ran –and yet, I couldn’t. My feet felt logy –driver’s feet. I decided to fly next time.
I slogged a few metres down the trail and sat on a little bench obviously provided by some NGO for aging people with heart trouble. It didn’t look out on the river, or anything –just the sparkling green grass. But maybe that’s what you’re supposed to do when you get old: sit and watch plants grow.
I was still puzzled with myself however, although that soon turned to an embarrassed wave as a younger, more beautiful specimen ran past, sporting thighs of varnished ivory and a compassionate smile that positively oozed pity. I am an athlete too, I thought, and while I am burnished with wrinkles not alabaster, I felt I should also be in the race.
I wracked my brain for a reason I felt so fatigued. Prolonged ennui? Car-lag? Maybe I had a new, hitherto undescribed condition that could be named after me… I brightened at the thought. Maybe sitting for long periods of time in a car with only endless lines of telephone posts for company, reduced to naming the innumerable gravel roads that branched from the highway like ribs, and watching the wind carve lines through the still-young crops, was enough to inflict worrisome damage to the unwitting driver. Maybe that’s why pioneers went mad…
Still, as I sat on the bench feeling sorry for myself, and also wondering if it was time to sell my car and find a Home that specialized in disability, I struggled to understand the speed with which the fatigue had arisen. I thought you were supposed to get a warning about these things –chest pain, or bladder leakage… Something. I got nothing. No excuse for my sudden demotion, not even a headache.
Shame heightened as I saw an old man –okay, an older man- hobbling up the trail swinging his cane jauntily like he was in Vaudeville. As he got closer, I noticed he was smiling. I thought that was odd –who smiles to himself on a trail? Perhaps he’d escaped from somewhere –a local Institution maybe- although he looked harmless enough. Anyway, when he reached me, he stopped and his smile broadened.
“Lovely day for a sit,” he said, chuckling at the word. “I see you’re not Prairie,” he continued, inspecting me from foot to head. His tone of condescension was unmistakable.
“Why do you say that?” I answered, nodding politely, and wondering how he’d guessed.
He shrugged as if the question was a silly one. “Ran across the grass, eh?” he added and inclined his head towards the little field behind him.
I nodded again, and tilted my own head at his local knowledge. How did he know that? “Yes…” I said tentatively, afraid to commit myself to something that might get me in trouble.
His eyes twinkled merrily at my admission. “How far did you get before you had to stop and walk…?”
“Excuse me?” I wasn’t sure whether to be impressed or insulted.
He smiled a devil’s smile and pointed his cane at my shoes. “Gumbo,” he said softly and reverently. “Gumbo and grass,” he added, shaking his head disparagingly, as he turned to continue his walk. “They should put up signs…” I heard him mutter as he trundled away nodding his head as if he intended to attend the next municipal meeting and suggest it.
My long-buried guilt returned with a shiver and for some reason, I felt as if I’d been caught in flagrante delicto. Deeply ashamed, I vowed to sit in the bushes and check my shoes the next time. Anyway, now more on guard, I made sure nobody was around, then quickly scraped my gumbo off on the bench seat. But there were traces of mud there already and it dawned on me I was not alone. There were obviously others who’d been caught begumboed. Others who’d probably also had to expose their inadvertent podiatral transgressions to an old man with a cane.
It suddenly dawned on me that we – the others- are simply a more brazen variety of the many patterns that are woven into Saskatoon’s quilt. So, finally realizing that I am an essential part of the societal matrix, I decided to catch up to that girl with the ivory thighs, and wave again.