Beneath the dry, cracked soil, the tufts of sage and prairie wool, lay the graveyard of the ancient dead. Even after weeks of exploring the open range, Todd Ellison still shivered at the thought, as if ghosts were walking at his side. The sun blazed in the cloudless blue sky and a fitful wind billowed in from the west, swirling dust in its path. After a relentlessly dry summer, the land was parched.
The weather was still hot in late August, but Todd had packed a pullover and windbreaker in his backpack. This was Alberta, after all. Full of surprises.
He tilted his cowboy hat back and turned in place to take stock. The rolling grassland seemed to stretch on forever, broken only by a scattering of Hereford cattle, occasional clumps of trees and farms, and an oil derrick bobbing lazily against the distant horizon. His backpack stuck to his sweaty back as he pulled it around to get at his water bottle and binoculars. He needed shade and rest. According to his GPS, he was not far from a coulee, which carved a deep crevice through the ancient sandstone.
Coulees promised the shade of bushes and outcrops, but more importantly, they were where some of the best secrets lay. He trained his binoculars toward the eastern horizon, where a smudge of grey humps suggested the edge of the coulee. Nearer still was the slumping shape of an old outbuilding. Exactly what he’d been looking for! After a quick swig of water, he looped his camera around his neck and slipped his pack into place. With a fresh burst of energy, he started forward, picking his way through the sage and keeping an eye open for the vicious spikes of cactuses.
The wind blew in gusts against his back, tugging at the dry grass and driving fine sand into his eyes. His hiking boot struck something hard. He parted the grass to reveal a smooth stone partially buried in the soil. A quick search revealed other stones arranged in a circle about twelve feet across. Excited, he photographed them, taking care to capture the iridescent oranges and greens of the lichen and the sharp shadows of the sage. Once, the Blackfoot had roamed unhindered across this prairie, hunting buffalo, but now these occasional stone circles were all that remained of their camps and tepees. The stones would make a spectacular photograph for his book.
Closer to the outbuilding, a pair of craggy grey posts poked up out of the grass, and soon he could distinguish bits of rusty barbed wire still clinging to their sides, remnants of a long abandoned fence put up by a farmer or rancher in earlier times. Todd nudged his boot into the soil, which was too dry and sandy even for grazing here. Like the stone circles, the fence posts were testament to long-dead dreams. A title for his photographic history book was beginning to take shape: Ghosts of the Ancient Dead. Snapping photos, he walked around the posts and adjusted settings and filters as he knelt to highlight them against the sun. Subtle hues of lichen glistened in the light. He studied the effects on the screen and smiled. This was going to be good.
As he drew nearer, details of the outbuilding took shape. Barely fifteen feet square, it listed badly as if weary of its battle against the relentless wind. Its sun-bleached walls still propped one another up, but its roof had long since fallen inside. The door hung open, creaking in the wind, its wooden hinges and bolt splintered as if someone had tried to break it down. Holes gaped where the two small windows had been. Todd peered inside. All but a few primitive furnishings had been scavenged, but a willow sapling was flourishing in the relative cool of the shade.
After taking dozens of photos outside, Todd bent his head to squeeze his six-foot frame through the door and adjusted his camera to capture the gloom. He noted now the scorch pattern on the wall where the woodstove must have been, the nails in the walls where the few clothes and implements would have hung, and the single shelf on which sat some chipped cups and an empty whisky bottle caked in dust and oddly out of place. A message had been carved into the wall next to the window. He leaned in to photograph it. It was barely legible, and he blew the sand out of the cracks. A horizontal line, and next to it Snow, March 1907.
More ghosts. Todd smiled as he photographed it, documenting history. In March 1907, some poor beleaguered pioneer must have been nearly buried in a spring blizzard that had blown in from the Rockies. He had probably been forced to crawl out through the window. Todd wondered whether he’d been alone or whether he’d had to rescue his entire family from the storm. A trip to the local archives or land registry should tell him the identity and fate of the settler who’d once tried to survive on this land. He retreated back outside to look for more clues about their early life. There was almost nothing left except a nail keg and a broken sleigh runner. He dictated his impressions into his phone. First impressions and a dose of imagination made for powerful reading.
Afterward, he checked his watch, mindful that he had to retrace his steps to the range road before nightfall. In August, the days were already getting shorter and the nights cooler. But it was just past two o’clock, still plenty of time to reach the coulee. The best pictures would be there, amid the old cottonwoods, the ripples of eroded, multilayered rock, and the curving shadows of light. With any luck, maybe even a dinosaur bone or two.
He came upon the coulee quite unexpectedly as the prairie floor fell into a yawning crevice of barren hills and steep slopes down to the ancient riverbed. In the spring, snow melt would tumble down through the gully into the Red Deer River farther east, washing silt and debris with it, but in late August, the riverbed was dry. Willows and gnarled cottonwood trees clustered along the shoreline to sap the last drops of water from the parched soil. The v-shaped valley snaked ahead into the distance, forming an eerie moonscape of colours and shapes.
The wind picked up as it swept through the gully, racing over the barren hills and tearing at the bushes nestled in the crevices. Tufts of sagebrush and prairie grass clung to the desolate southern slopes, but hardy green and gold bushes grew in the lee of the north-facing hills. Todd picked his descent carefully down a crevice through sandstone and popcorn rock that crumbled underfoot, dislodging cascades of debris. Amid the debris, rocks and pebbles glinted in the sunlight. He bent to pick them up, looking for bits of ancient shellfish, seeds, and bones, imprints of leaves and flowers, the ancient dead from a time millions of years ago when this had been a swampy, inland sea teeming with life.