Following the “Old Roads” with Fire Next Time

It’s a dismal, grey 17C today with a chill in the air; autumn already feels like it’s on the way in Edmonton.  It’s the kind of day that hints at the winter to come and brings a familiar longing to be jammed into a warm bar with some good beer and a great loud band. Thankfully, I’ve got Edmonton’s own Fire Next Time to round out the daydream and to look forward to this winter.

Most members of the five-piece band are well-bearded to survive the Edmonton chill that seems everywhere in their songs, most literally in We are the streets which opens with  “Edmonton winters are colder than hell” and takes us later to “Protest the snow at the city hall doors.”

Old Roads, though, is a more all-season choice: a mostly instrumental folk-punk burner to get the toes tapping. The vocal chorus is lyrically fairly simple, and the heavy percussive banjo provides the hook. The genius though is the slight yanking back and forth of the tempo that jams the listener into the back of a wagon for a heaving late night ride on a winding dirt road.

Old Roads will definitely be on my playlist as the winter driving season hits, and it will be fitting. One thing I’ve learned about Edmonton is how much the highway conditions factor into everyday life. As a skier, the highway that leads from Edmonton to Calgary (so we can then head towards Banff) becomes a well-worn and familiar sight. And it’s an old road indeed.

Now known as Highway 2, the expressway runs a straight three-hour shot south from Edmonton, with a stop about halfway in Red Deer. Historically there have been several crossings of the Red Deer river used by Blackfoot and Cree and later fur traders. Inter-glacial paths and fossil evidence suggest that, even earlier, this might have been one of the major routes of southward migration into North America by its first inhabitants (though the matter is far from settled).

The northern part of the current route, though, was originally cut in 1873 to drive cattle down from Edmonton to Lone Pine (near Bowden). After the Canadian Pacific Railway reached Calgary in 1883, a profitable business developed to ferry cargo and people on the 4-5 day trip up to Edmonton on two-wheeled Red River Carts. A one-way fare would have set you back a shocking $25.

Weather treachery on Highway 2 is always compounded by the inevitable weather change in Red Deer. One can leave Edmonton (or Calgary) warm and dry only to be completely blinded by snow for the second half of the drive. In August. Early users of the trail found it to be no different as the route was often flooded out and impassable. Apparently a common saying about the trip was that “death rides a wet horse.” I’ll have to remember that one on my next trip.

The trail fell into disuse only a few years later in 1891 when a railway shunt cut the travel time from 4-5 wet or frigid and dangerous days to a comfortable 12 hour steam-driven journey. Only the turn of century and the advent of car culture brought the route back to life. A Mr. G. Corriveau and his son made a brave 11.5 drive in 1906, re-opening the road. In making such good time, they reported reaching a top speed of 40 mph. Those top speed stretches were expensive, though, apparently using a gallon of fuel per mile and a full gallon of oil about every 20 minutes. (It is perhaps their descendents speeding past in giant gas-sucking trucks and SUVs).

Thanks to Fire Next Time, my next trip to Calgary will not only have a great soundtrack but will be enhanced by the reminder that the roads we take (both literal and figurative) are rarely without history. We’re jostled and bounced around as we try to speed around the same old twists and turns.

Irving, B.D. (1994). Drive an historic Alberta highway. Rangelands , 16 (2), 55-58

Author: mcshanahan

Science education researcher and writer

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