ROADSIDE ATTRACTIONS: A Wild Road to Wildwood
Nipawin, Saskatchewan (photo by Tristan Scroggins)
My trip to Wildwood, Alberta, feels more like a dream than an actual show I played. This is likely due, in part, to the out-of-body sensation triggered by nearly dying during the drive. Wildwood was certainly an intriguing dot on the map, but the bizarre experience we had near La Ronge on the way there heightened its unlikelihood.
Many would say that it’s a bad or at least strange idea to book a tour of central Canada in February — and they would be right. The dead of winter is a great time to play on cruise ships or in states like Florida or Arizona to crowds largely consisting of Canadians fleeing the snow and cold. But our band was driven by the desire to play for our Canadian fans who stayed home for the winter. Or perhaps it was something else (money), but regardless of the reason we were fueled chiefly by a potentially unearned confidence built from years of touring and the many dangerous situations we had navigated successfully in that time. We had even been to Canada in the winter the year before for a band ice-fishing trip (not to brag but I did catch both the most and the largest fish). We had driven on the frozen Cowan Lake and escaped with our lives, so how dangerous could it actually be?
Two nights before we were in Wildwood we played in the Canadian equivalent of a Legion Hall in Nipawin, Saskatchewan, halfway from nowhere and three hours from the capital city. After playing to a dozen or so people, we packed up our gear and hit the road at about 11 p.m., despite the many, many warnings and pleas from the locals. The four-hour drive north to La Ronge, a small town on the southern edge of the forested Canadian Shield, would have been dangerous at this hour even if there hadn’t been a blizzard raging. But we had a 10 a.m. performance at an elementary school the next morning, so the lack of sleep didn’t seem avoidable.
Around 3 a.m. I woke up airborne but not terribly alarmed. After many years of touring and being put in so many life-threatening situations, the only way to cope has been to accept that I’m very likely going to die in a car at some point. Coming to terms with it beforehand reduces my panic in the moment (a skill that, while terrifyingly unhealthy, has come in handy in various other dangerous situations throughout my life).
Fortunately, I wasn’t dead — yet. We had slid off the road into a conveniently placed meadow and suffered no damage. We were only about 20 minutes from town, but the minivan was definitely not going to be able to drive back to the road through 2 feet of snow.
La Ronge, in case you hadn’t guessed, is a small town. Because it’s often a dangerous place to drive, there were two tow truck companies servicing the 2,500 people in town, but both were family run and did not open until 4 a.m., and it would have taken them some time to get to us anyhow. Similarly, we weren’t staying in a La Quinta. The family that owned Drifter’s Motel was staying up late to check us , and seeing as it didn’t seem like we were gonna make it anytime soon, were inclined to go to bed.
Staying in the car wasn’t an option as it was about zero degrees outside, maybe less. Not enough to freeze to death immediately, but eventually. Fortunately, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police arrived before we had to resort to cannibalism. My dad, the band leader, did elect to stay in the car and guard it until the tow truck came, but the rest of us rode in the police cars to town. They did offer to let us stay in the jail, but fortunately another hotel was open and we’d be able to get some sleep before teaching Canadian children about the bluegrass the next morning.
The children liked bluegrass well enough and we headed out that same day to make the 10-hour drive to Wildwood. Fortunately, we didn’t have to play that same day, but tensions were higher than normal due to the almost-dying thing and a misunderstanding about payment at the school that had caused another uncomfortable situation. So we gritted our teeth as we stopped for the night in Lloydminster, a small town on the border of Saskatchewan and Alberta.
Wildwood, a small hamlet near the Lobstick River off the coast of Chip Lake, was originally called “Junkins.” The Grand Trunk Pacific Railway named towns alphabetically as they were set up along the railroad, and when they got to “J,” they named the settlement after a Mr. Junkins, the vice president of a consulting company of engineers for the railroad. The original Junkins homesteaders were 20 African Americans coming from Oklahoma and Texas who arrived in 1908 and later changed the town name because they didn’t want to live in a place named Junkins.
We arrived in Wildwood, population 250, the next morning. I didn’t see much of the town beyond the building our hotel was in, but there was certainly a lot to see there. A lot of town amenities were housed in this simple wood-paneled building that took up less than one tiny town block. The hotel was attached to our venue for the evening: a cowboy-themed bar called the Silver Spur Saloon. I quickly noticed flyers for some other touring acts coming into town soon as well as for two different psychics who had shows there weekly.
After our sound check I wandered to the other side of the building, first encountering a restaurant that, as far as I could tell was just called “Restaurant.” They served Chinese food, but I got a coffee and sat down near the seemingly only other person in the building besides the workers and my band. We struck up a conversation and I learned he was a retired truck driver who specialized in hauling oversized farming equipment. Something had gone wrong and he wrecked the truck and got stranded.
We talked for a while before I went through the door to the next business, which was a laundromat. Sort of. I could never figure out if I was supposed to put the clothes in the washer myself or if I was paying the clerk from the liquor store in the next business down to do my laundry for me. Either way, I bought a bottle of the whisky that struck a delicate balance between “extremely cheap” and “drinkable” to try to put the near-death experience out of my head before we played our show.
Our show ran for three hours in the saloon, which at its peak probably had a dozen people in it. That number dropped to 11 before the end of the first set when two cops barged in the door, grabbed a guy, and dragged him outside and away. We ate dinner, then kept playing. Around the middle of the third set that same man re-entered the bar and sat down to finish watching the show. We asked around after and found out that he had been walking around town and saw the police car unlocked with the keys inside and thought he’d drive it around before parking it in front of the Silver Spur to watch some music. The cops found him, took him to the jail, told him not to do it again, and let him go in time for him to catch the end of our set.
We finished out the night talking to some locals. I talked for a while to a woman wearing a shirt that said “Memphis” with the skyline below it, though I came to find out she had never been to Memphis but would “probably like to go see it someday.” My band talked more with the woman running the show and I think both the bar and hotel (and maybe the other three places?). She was wearing a cowboy outfit to match the decor of the saloon, but contrary to the rough-and-tumble vibe someone might expect from a place called the Silver Spur Saloon, she was extremely sweet, earnest, and very concerned about the recent bankruptcy of the local church. She was very involved in efforts to raise money to reopen the church doors and help bring the community back together. But in the meantime she was passionate about bringing country music to the community. Once again, I felt thankful that someone was so interested in the music we were making, but after going off the road wasn’t sure if I thought it was worth it to keep making it.