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By Chris McBeath
(For Travel Writers' Tales)

If you grew up in the 50s and 60s, TV shows like Wagon Train, The Rifleman, Rawhide and other spaghetti Westerns were the stuff of Saturday afternoons. "Circle the wagons" was the battle cry and the Lone Ranger - "hiyo Silver!" - was our masked crusader. Today, reruns of these noirs favourites have become so au courant they are driving demand to relive the Wild West as it once was, albeit with a modern twist.

Move over Billy Crystal and wannabe cattle rustlers of City Slickers fame, Wagon Train Vacations offer roll 'em on family fun and sleep-under-the-stars romance.

Make no mistake, this is a drive-it-yourself holiday, geared to those who want to take the reins of a Clydesdale team and feel the rattling rhythm of the wheels beneath their buttocks. Surprisingly not uncomfortable although leaner gluts might appreciate a cushion.

Wagon trips are a part of Alberta Prairie Railway that is better known for its day-long excursions out of Stettler where stick'em up train robberies are all part of the shtick. Wagons, however, travel out of Red Willow, a tiny hamlet about a 15-minute drive north of Stettler-the central heart of Alberta-and a 90-minute drive northeast of Calgary. Here, wagon master Jim Long hitches up your team, and with you in the driver's seat, he escorts you in a free wheelin' jaunt around a fairly pot-holed field. Within minutes, you're a teamster. Driving horse-powered teams like these is the origin of the term we associate today with truck drivers, only on this particular route you need only Jim's blessing to roll 'em on out.

Western Basics:

Trips last between two to four days depending on the itinerary during which time your wagon becomes your castle. Accommodation is a shade more basic than a one-star hotel but is clean and quirkily romantic. Watching an electric storm dance across the wide Albertan sky is better than any pyrotechnic show or Sidney Pollock painting, and sleeping by the light of a silvery moon is way better than Doris Day's syrupy rendition of the song.

Washing facilities comprise ladling water out of a barrel and into a metal washbowl and warming it up with steaming hot water from cookie's stove. Yes, there's a chuck wagon driving up the rear, well equipped with portable BBQ, iceboxes of produce, and abundant supplies such as chili and beans. T-Bone steaks. Eggs. Bacon. Hot chocolate, s'mores, and trail mix for the road.

Alberta Pride:

The road is actually 16 km (10-mile) trail of a disused railway track where trains once hauled grain from one silo to another before technology made them obsolete and in so doing, put many a rural community on the endangered list. Some, however, are reinventing themselves with a fierce prairie pride. These include Torrington with its Gopher Museum, Wayne with its lively Last Chance Saloon, Vulcan that adopted a Star Trek celebrity, and Donalda, a one-main street, end-of-the-railway-line community that entered the millennium by erecting the "World's Largest Lamp." It stands 42 feet tall. Donalda is where wagons put down stakes for the night and teamsters get to relax, explore the hiking trails of the adjacent coulee, and poke around the town's art galleries, antique market and intriguing lamp museum that houses more than 1,000 lamps from ornamental glass hurricanes to those once used on the railway.

Time for the Extraordinary

There's a hypnotic quality to the rhythm and speed of traveling on horse-drawn wheels. The passing landscapes morph gently from one vista to another. Sweeping grasslands roll on in all directions and are sprinkled with occasional farms and ranches. Unexpected swells of alder form whispering tunnels from which you emerge along a tranquil lake, or a corral of inquisitive horses, or a hillside of grazing cattle. Mostly, though, it's a treeless beauty that inspires the imagination as to the courage and grit of the early pioneer homesteaders.

Travel further south and the Badlands take on an entirely different topography - a moonscape of multi-coloured canyons, hoodoos and gullies that early French explorers called 'les mauvaises terres' (the bad lands), a term used to describe land that was unsuitable to farming. Little did they know that their wagons were rolling over some of the world's richest fossil beds of sea dragons, three-horned triceratops, T-Rex and other mammoth reptiles of Jurrasic Park proportion. So, once you've hitched your wagon, spend a few days along the Dinosaur Trail to the Royal Tyrell Museum in Drumheller, and even dig for dinos yourself at Dinosaur Provincial Park.

But these are tales for another day.


For information:

PHOTOS: Chris McBeath

1. Wagons coming into Donalda
2. Wagons Rolling Along
3. Donalda's World's Largest Lamp
4. Wagon Master, Jim Long
5. Learning to hitch 'em up
6. Overnight by coulee
7. True Teamsters
8. Tired Cowboy
9. Trial Teamstering
10.Country Vistas
11. Face washbasin station

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