When I arrived in the Canadian Badlands, I was going through all the motions…it had been a whirlwind travel day of moving, moving, moving. We did introductions quickly in the parking lot and shook hands. I never thought of myself as hurried – until I went to pull away from the handshake and he took his other hand and cupped it around both of hands and shook it collectively, very slowly. Everything suddenly went into slow motion. As we shook hands slowly and deliberately I was suddenly aware I had been rushing, frenzied, and stressed. With this one handshake, it slowed me down and made me aware. It was calming and eye opening all at the same time.
For part of my trip through the Badlands, I would be traveling with Tom Jackson, the man who was shaking my hand. Tom is well known in the region, and Canada, as a folk singer and humanitarian. However I would always remember him as the man with the calming presence who made me slow down with just a handshake. I couldn’t have asked for a better introduction to the region, I was now suddenly ready to take absorb it.
Why is it Called the Canadian Badlands
It’s called Badlands for a reason…The name “Badlands” is an exact English translation of French term “les mauvaises terres” (bad lands). In 1743 this is how French Canadian explorers described the terrain as they traveled through the prairies. They encountered the landscapes of mesas, buttes, canyons, coulees, and gullies. The land was unsuitable to farming and thus they retained the term “bad lands.” So it’s understandable that there are multiple places in the world we call the Badlands.
I happened to be in the Canadian Badlands in Alberta, not too far from our US Badlands, and surprisingly similar. These rugged, harsh, and dramatic environments were nestled among rolling landscapes of the plains where farming was fruitful. From rodeos, to farming, to landscape, to rural culture I found myself often thinking, “ Wow this reminds me of my home and family in the midwestern United States.
In fact the trip to the Canadian Badlands brought back many memories for me of growing up and spending a significant amount of time in rural environments. It’s one of those moments where you realize that borders are just meaningless lines; it’s the culture that unites us and makes us similar. A rodeo in Vulcan Alberta is pretty much the same as a rodeo in Milbank South Dakota.
Travelers often overlook the Badlands and go straight into the Canadian Rockies to the popular towns of Banff and Canmore. But I love to give these flatlands a chance, I like to go where few others go; and the Canadian Badlands is just that, a region lesser known and lesser visited. My trip wasn’t simply about doing activities, my experiences there were more grounded and local, it had a heartbeat and a feeling to it. As I traveled throughout the region stretching from the US border to Brooks, I was struck by a few experiences, feelings, and images I ruminated on; ultimately defining what the Spirit of the Badlands means to me.
My Badlands is…
The rider-less bronco kicked up dirt as the cowboys tried to coral it. I turned just before the cloud of dust hit me trying to alleviate some of the impact. The Badlands means you must be prepared to get a little dirty. From the rodeo circuit to the combines in the field harvesting corn, to the dinosaur digs – the Badlands means dirt.
How you can get dirty in the Badlands!
Rodeos! There’s a rodeo circuit that runs most of the summer around the small towns in the Badlands. The small town rodeo circuit attracts stars in a cozy, small town venue. We went to a small rodeo in the little town of Vulcan and then to a bigger Bucking and Barrels Pro competition in Lethbridge for Whoop Up Days.
Check out the rodeo schedules from 2017 here.
Go behind the scenes at the rodeo with my travel companion Susan from The Insatiable Traveler!
I stare out the window at the Badlands landscape; a completely flat horizon where you can see forever and ever. The prairies may be flat, but that doesn’t mean they are dull or lifeless. Instead, I find the flat horizon to be beautiful and predictable; there’s something calming about being predictable. I feel like a kid again with my nose pressed against the window, just watching the landscape go by in this perfect, blurry, straight line. Prairie skyscrapers (silos and grain bins) break up the horizon line occasionally, and the airplane trails across the sky just add to the texture of the landscape.
Tom Jackson wasn’t an anomaly, there’s a peace in everyone I meet, a slowness that is calming. They go with the flow, it’s a fluid society. They’ve been ravaged by a drought and fires pushed smoky haze into the area – but no one complained, they just rolled with it. They roll with it like the millions of hay bail rolls left in the fields to dry. I love the personalities in rural towns, they generally don’t sweat the small stuff, and they come together when they need each other.
I must admit – ancient history isn’t my thing, but it’s hard not to stop and pause for a moment when someone picks up a dinosaur tooth simply lying on the ground and tells you it is 75 million years old. The region is home to one of the richest dinosaur fossil concentrations in the world. When you see the fossils in Dinosaur Provincial Park, it’s hard to grasp; the timeframes are so vast. Seventy-five million years old; my brain can’t comprehend what that means. But that is what the Badlands is all about – ancient history that makes your brain hurt.
I made my brain hurt and time traveled by doing a couple of special experiences at the provincal parks of Alberta. I became a paleontologist for a day at Dinosaur Provincial Park, an Alberta UNESCO World Heritage Site! I spent a day with a paleontologist in a protected area of the park actually digging for dinosaur fossils. The paleontologist, David, first took us around the park offices and explained our role and then took us around the park explaining the various levels and landscapes. Then we spent the day with a little dentist pick and a paintbrush gently breaking down a giant mound and pulling out dinosaur fossils. It was an incredible experience – and one that requires an immense amount of patience…and good knees!
We also found ancient petroglyphs carved into eroding sandstone thousands of years ago by the Blackfoot and other aboriginal tribes at Writing on Stone Provincial Park. Some of the carvings are over 8,000 years old. The best preserved ones are in a restricted archeological area of the park that can only be accessed on private tour.
How you can take a trip through history in the Canadian Badlands
Dinosaur Provincial Park: The paleontologist digs occur during the summer months and can be booked through the Park Website. Note: This is not the Fossil Safari – it’s an actual day spent with a big floppy hat working at a dig site. More work than tour so be prepared for this really unique citizen science experience!
Writing on Stone: You can visit the ancient petroglyphs at Writing on Stone Provincial Park on a private ranger tour. You can also stay and enjoy some glamping or camping around the unusual park landscapes peppered with hoodoo formations.
“Are you staying for the rodeo?” and without waiting for an answer he continued, “Oh, you have to stay for the rodeo this weekend,” a local guy remarked as we were eating our dinner at Patricia Inn. The town of Patricia is a classic Alberta Badlands town. Population approximately 108, and home to the famous Patricia Inn restaurant where you cook your own steak dinner! We missed the rodeo that was coming through town, sadly – but we did eat steak, which sort of made up for it.
No matter how small the town, each seemed to have this festive community spirit. Everyone was proud of their town and eager to show it off. The ‘showing off’ part normally came in the form of a festival or rodeo that was the local event of the summer! All summer towns have festivals, in a short week’s time we attended a number of summer festivals; Whoop Up Days, Cornfest, and the Vulcan Rodeo. It’s a time to really be a part of the community and eat bad-for-you food! (I might have had a few fried items, walking tacos, and pulled pork poutine…don’t tell anyone!)
Go to an Alberta Badlands Festival!
I couldn’t miss the Taber Cornfest while we were there. Everyone in Canada knows that Taber produces the best sweet corn, so I had to go try it. And I didn’t just try it – I participated in a corn eating contest! The town was overflowing with locals and visitors for Cornfest – I loved seeing the midway and the big community out enjoying the festival. Check out the Cornfest website for future dates!
Everywhere I went, I asked the question “why do you stay here in the Badlands?” All of the variations of answers I received were about family, tradition, or the unique land. Lollie, who I refer to as the Corn Lady, was loyal to Taber corn. She originally was from Digby Nova Scotia and left ‘scallop country’ to come to ‘corn country’; she raised her family in Taber. She stays because this is home now, where her family is. I met her at a stand in Tabor selling corn. And she didn’t just sell corn – she was an ambassador of Taber Corn!
David the paleontologist stays for the dinosaur history and digs. Pam, the waitress in Patricia, stays for the community who has helped her through hard times. Collin stays because of the diversity of birds.
Liesel, a young girl working at the corn festival cooking corn, said that despite her very international sounding name, she was happy staying in Taber. “It has everything I want, why would I leave?”
I have a hard time grasping this loyalty to stay in a place, after all, I have the ‘must move’ gene; I’m foreign to the idea of being still. Yet I do romanticize about it. The idea of growing up in a place with strong family ties and a loyalty to the area is a cool notion to me. And it is a definite trait of the Canadian Badlands. Rural environments like this bond people together in a way I don’t see in big cities.
A great place to base yourself for this Badlands trip is Lethbridge – a cute mid-size town full of restaurants, events, and Lethbridge has great places to stay. Plus, it’s the 3rd largest city in Alberta – but it certainly doesn’t feel large.
The Badlands were full of beauty everywhere I looked. Granted – not everyone thinks rural settings are beautiful; some may think they are slow and boring. But I think we all need to be reminded to slow down once in a while. Sometimes it’s a handshake that slows you down for a moment, and sometimes it’s a landscape, or a long open road, or a memory. It’s only when we slow down that we can deeply appreciate a place’s spirit.
I was a guest of the Canadian Badlands for this trip, however all opinions expressed here are my own.