alberta alberta

I drove into Milk River, like all the little towns, and it was an island, an outport in a sea of gold and green. Lighthouses and truck-boats and black bull-whales.

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I watched for raised eyebrows among parents and teachers, because I come to oil country with a book about radicals who wish for the end of pipelines. But that's not what it's about. It's the friction point of prosperity and concern, ability and disability, the loss of bodily presence and the gain of ghost messages. It's misplaced outrage and well-placed courage. It's banjo song and smoke in your eye. Stories hinge there, swinging this way and that.

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In Milk River I met my first real-life junk pirate. His name is Pudge. They called me that when I was two. Then they kept calling me that. Now it's my name. See? He points to a sign on his house that says PUDGE. It's made of welded rebar. He scraps. People bring him stuff — a junked-out bike, a box of bolts, a rusty horseshoe or forty. He decorates his street.

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Being in the CBC Studios in Edmonton and Calgary was like peeking into the little room where the bishop gets to eat his lunch. You know? It's the Canadian church. It's the common element that unites every kitchen, every batch of cookies, every afternoon with the crowbar or the mower, every road trip. I walked through the halls feeling like I should tiptoe and whisper, peeking everywhere I could peek — at rooms full of blinking lights, at people in headsets, wishing I could hug and thank them all. They work hard, and we need them so much. We need them to be valued, not only hugged and thanked.

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Two interviews in one day, and listeners who need the quick pitch as well as a not-so-quick answering for all kinds of things — why anti-oil? Why radicals? Why pirates? Why pipelines? Why Alberta? Why Stand Off?

Edmonton's host, Portia Clark, was kind and lovely. Calgary's host (that second interview is here), Doug Dirks, was kind and lovely too, but dug a little more into the guts of all those whys. I was glad he did, though I had sprinted from the Edmonton studio into the Budget Rent-A-Car place, and gunned it the three hours to land in Calgary in 5 PM traffic, and sprinted down the hall to sit in front of a microphone with Doug. It was a flurry, the whole trip. A flurry with a 10-mile view that never failed.

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Nimbus had sent ahead signs for all the readings and signings, and it was always such a !!! to arrive and have it there, on paper: this is you and that's your book. Except that you don't feel like a writer of books unless you're writing books. Promoting doesn't count. Right now, I am dragging every limb. I am renovating and summering and rolling around with the boys, and I was wandering Alberta. Right now, I am not writing. I should be in the middle of something. I'm not. And so this sign made me shrink a little. But that's another story.

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This trip was the first time I've ever rented a car and driven myself in unfamiliar territory, turning when the nice GPS lady-voice told me to turn. Or, more appropriately, not-turn. I'd blow into little roadside motels and eat alone, sometimes with librarians. It was dusty and drifty. My head was on a swivel, so taken by the prairies. White windmills and black oil rigs, mechanical figures reaching and reaching into the sky and into the earth, and herds of cattle all lying and all standing. I'd pull over to the side of the road and get out, walking as far into it as I could before stopping at somebody's barbed wire. I'd stand there, listening to how silent the silence is when it's grasslands. But then if you listen — really listen — it's not silent at all. A resting bull heaves himself to his feet and snorts at me. He paws the earth and I back away. Can it have been romantic? It was.

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Stand Off, where much of the book happens and where the Bloods of the Blackfoot Nation live, did something to me. Everything I saw was a statement. Everything was both political and apolitical, meaningless and packed-full. Everything was a painting. I wanted something from Stand Off. I wasn't sure what.

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I fell in love with three rez dogs. They hustled me, this little posse, running to me with tongues flopping. They used me as a stretching post and begged me for scratches. They lolled in the sun in front of the school and walked me inside.

In some other life, they would be mine. I'd say Come on, you three, hop in. I don't know what I'd do at that point, other than get in trouble with Budget Rent-A-Car and with every roadside motel. I would have spent the nights picking out burrs. I would have put them all in the bath and bought them some quick-fry steaks. I've already named them, in the fantasy world where I went home in a private doggie-jet.

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Blackfoot is the most beautiful language.

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In the morning, an elder smudged us all. Her name was Harriet. I gave her a pouch of tobacco, and she had the softest hands. She talked about Blackfoot values—kindness, courage—and prayed, a spoken song. I got up to explain who I am, where I come from, why Stand Off, why pirates, why Bloods. Most important: why writing. For when someone dies, something is lost, everything goes upside-down. Art is rightside-up.

The girls in grade eight English had been to an end-of-year ceremony the night before, and came to school with comfy sweats and leftover hot-rolled curls. They asked question after question: what is a query? How do you choose which publisher? What if they don't like it? What do you do then? We talked and talked. Then one of them, the sassy one in the red flats, raised her hand and said, We should sing for her. They all nodded, and gave me (and you) a treat at the end.

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The prairies left me feeling thoughtful to the point where I didn't have any report of it at all, for a long time. This is still a total injustice to how it felt to take Flight of the Griffons to the big sky, to be there first. Stand Off was a beginning. Alberta was a beginning. 

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People keep asking me for books and I've been so worked-up and so stunned that I haven't said much about where to get it: pretty much everywhere. Chapters, Amazon Canada and US. Indie bookstores and readers in the States can order from Orca, or in Canada or really anywhere, direct from Nimbus. The only thing that makes a book real is readers. Thank you for being friendly to pirates.