A LONG WAY FROM MANY PLACES
Intergalactic Day Tripping
The sign by the highway at the corporate limits of the town of St. Paul, Alberta reads A People Kind of Place! Space aliens are welcome too because the town’s best known attraction is a UFO landing pad. Even more welcome on this Sunday afternoon are various members of Opus@12 Chamber Concert Society, an Edmonton-based revolving collective of skilled amateur musicians. Ann is one of the group’s violinists. I’ve signed on as Ann's roadie to hump her instrument, music stand and stage outfit.
Originally founded as a Métis colony prior to the turn of the 19th century, St. Paul is about two hours east across the northern prairie from Edmonton. The land between them is rolling, wide-open and near empty. The sunlit spring greens of the grasses and aspens are strikingly vibrant. Freshly turned earth in the fields is a rich, moist black. Scattered here and there are long-abandoned homesteads, sun-bleached cabins and outbuildings of an indeterminate age, each in a unique state of decrepitude and slow-motion collapse. There is a temptation to stop and photograph, sketch or paint each tumbling ruin.
To get to St. Paul you must drive through other places. The main divided highway takes us through Elk Island National Park. I spot three bison grazing by the wildlife fence; they are either wood or plains bison, I don’t know one from the other. We turn off at a junction and follow a secondary highway through Mundare, a town renowned for the quality of its Ukrainian sausage. The roadside attraction is a massive kielbasa ring situated in a park; it doesn’t look good enough to eat, in fact it rather resembles… We drive on bypassing Hairy Hill and then through the Saddle Lake Cree Nation. There are loose livestock warnings posted on the shoulders. I can see for miles in all directions. A hawk coasts on an updraft over our heads but nothing’s moving on the ground, anywhere.
The Opus@12 program is titled ‘Ancient Airs’ even though, as founder Rock Larochelle joked at a previous performance I attended, ‘We basically cover 300 years in an hour.’ The concert will take place in the St. Paul Cathedral, an elegant red brick building with a shimmering gold cap atop the pointed belfry. The parking lot is scorching hot. Instruments are removed from baking car trunks and quickly hustled inside the church where it is merely stifling. Ann and the other musicians must change into their black costumes.
The late morning mass is running behind, many local kids are receiving their First Communion. In the parking lot I hang about the car smoking and discreetly sipping a beer chilly from the cooler we’d packed alongside Ann’s stuff; I wonder about the nature of Hell as the main church doors finally open. The proceeds from this afternoon’s Opus@12 concert will be donated to Development and Peace, an organization operated by the Canadian Catholic Church dedicated to Third World development and disaster relief. Funds raised today in St. Paul for Nepal will be matched by the Government of Canada. There are some 5400 souls in St. Paul. Not all are Catholic. Chamber music is not to everyone’s taste. Ann and I learned today that the final matched tally was in excess of $18,400. Music matters.
Following the cathedral concert the Opus@12 string players reassemble on the UFO landing pad and unpack their instruments and music stands on the hot, elevated circle of concrete. They will reprise ‘Jupiter’ by Gustav Holst (1874-1934). The mayor and a photographer from the St. Paul Journal are on hand. A curious crowd orbits the intergalactic tourist site.
The pad was erected in 1967 as part of St. Paul’s Canadian centennial celebrations. Who knew what the Space Age would bring aside from universal peace and goodwill? Honestly though, if aliens were to navigate all their way to Earth, it’s difficult to imagine them touching down in St. Paul needing directions to a world capital. A time capsule to be opened in 2067 is embedded in the pad’s low, whitewashed cement wall. Beside its brass plaque is a relief map of Canada; Nunavut is missing, late to the party.