26.8.12

Walking without rhythm.

I've never liked gravel roads. Who would? They're loud, jittery, bumpy, and dusty. Inferior in every way to the asphalt highway. That's all true, but every now and then, you're reminded of how incredibly valuable they are. This morning, for example, as I drove to my mysterious destination, the highway switched to a secondary highway, and then an old secondary highway. Twenty kilometres of gravel followed that, and then, the road seems to disappear into the dirt. I lost traction, my tires sunk into the fine silt, and every other previous tire track became an obstacle course. As I finished the last leg of my journey, I could only thank my lucky stars that it hadn't been raining. A gravel road, of course, would have been far preferable to this, which was essentially no road at all. Too often we take the ground for granted.


On that note, the day's excursion was an apt choice: the Great Sand Hills of Saskatchewan. A feature so incongruous to the prairies, one is initially tempted to think of it as a practical joke. I can only wonder what the first surveyors thought, as they crossed the endless grasslands, only to find one day a small desert rising up in front of them.



It's smaller than a real desert, but in a way, that just makes it more mysterious, to see the grasslands continuing on the other side, as if nothing unusual was there at all.

Besides, when walking across the dunes, you forget that any other world exists, but the one underneath your shifting feet. The sand's endless pattern draw your attention away from the horizon. Looking down, you see the fractal patterns of geology: those rifts and waves could be hills and valleys, seen from an airplane.

The uniformity strengthens the illusion: there are no pebbles here, no rocks, no skipping stones. Nothing except fine grains of sand, and the occasional plant, many of which have been pulled up by their very bed, their frail roots exposed to the sun.

 Unlike the waves of the ocean which can break rocks and push gravel, anything that exists on this beach is here only because the wind was able to lift it up.

And the wind! Friends warned me not to go there during the rain (although that would be quite a spectacle in its own right) but the wind was blowing in full force while I was there. The sand flew off the ridges like snow off a drift, skirting over the land in swirls and eddies. I'll be cleaning grit out of my teeth, my ears, my car, and my camera for days to come, I'm sure.


And oddly enough, it's still the prairies. Occasionally, you'll come across a cow pie drying out in the sun, and you can't help but wonder: what was the cow doing here in the first place? It's a fragile ecosystem, but life is here nonetheless. Beetles tumble along with the wind, and rat skulls can be found half-buried in the dunes. Cows have their reasons to be here, too.

Finally, the time came to head back home. Trying to retrace my steps, I saw that my trail had already been half-eroded by the winds. One of the rarest landscapes in the province, and the message it had for me was perfectly clear. Zero footprint.

I couldn't agree more - this is a place I'll want to visit again.

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Canadian explorer. Chemist by training, biologist by nature. Long-time supporter and participant in National Novel Writing Month. Known as "Aquadeo" in most Internet circles. Also known as "that guy with the pants" to people who have seen me in certain pants.