Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

August 23, 2017
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Alberta’s Cowboy Trail

Glorious landscapes straight out of the movies

Two British women, one an expat, the other a tourist, were chatting in an Alberta pub. “You’ll adore the drive from Pincher’s Creek to Calgary,” advised the first. “It’s just like England.”

“Whoa ladies,” I wanted to say, knocking over a few bar stools. “That there territory you’re talking about happens to be the Cowboy Trail, and it’s got nuthin’ to do with Ye Olde anything. Ain’t no cowboys named Nigel Lytton-Leggatt and you can bet yer knickers my favourite western ain’t The Crumpet Rustlers of Worcestershire Gulch.”

Nope, Alberta’s Cowboy Trail is a 700-kilometre-long stretch of masculine heaven set in the foothills between the Rockies and the Prairies. Driving its full length, you begin at Pincher Creek and the Crowsnest Pass, travel north through Longview and Black Diamond, pass the Trans-Canada en route to Cochrane and end up at Mayerthorpe.

It’s a wholly different world from the postcard peaks of the Rockies or the bleakly beautiful Badlands with their eerie limestone sculptures and spectacular Jurassic past.

This is a territory of rolling, verdant grandeur, of ranches and cattle herds, Native pow-wows and exuberant rodeos, dude ranches and trail rides, and especially, the mythos of the Hollywood western at its arresting, evocative, explosive best.

Canadians who haven’t travelled Alberta may not realize how much they’ve already seen in such movies as Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven; Legends of the Fall with Brad Pitt and Anthony Hopkins; Open Range with Kevin Costner and Robert Duvall; the Emmy-winning Broken Trail also with Duvall tall in the saddle; and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford with Brad Pitt. And, oh yes, Brokeback Mountain.

I’ve been reading that young Americans no longer relate to this purely American art form. They stay away en masse, not because it’s a Western, but because it represents history and history, to them, is a drag. That makes me sneeze in my sarsaparilla.

I’m a relic, pawdna. I’m old enough to appreciate the purity and largesse of the western, and to understand its inherent relationship with its landscape.

The confounding idiocy of the youth market fails to phase Tourism Alberta, which came up with the Cowboy Trail concept, and is pleased to see us relics dutifully following the signposts like a posse of escargots.

Wild west sets

This is big-sky, big-land country. It passes easily for the American West. The only time I can remember Alberta almost playing Alberta was in the 1954 Mountie western with Alan Ladd and Shelley Winters shot at Moraine Lake in Banff National Park. The title? Saskatchewan.

But it was more than scenery that brought the cameras north to Alberta. It had much to do with Canada’s devalued currency — temporarily threatened by the recent, short-lived parity — and attendant lower costs. And it had to do with Alberta’s ready-to-go talent pool.

Professional horse wrangler and occasional stuntman John Scott, who works from his 2000-hectare ranch at Longview, has been working with movie crews for 40 years. His first gig was supplying horses for the 1969 Dustin Hoffman film, Little Big Man.

“It was like playing cowboys and Indians,” he recalls. He started supplying horses, wagons and buggies, eventually landing a movie a year. He doubled for Patrick Wayne in Mustang Country, Joel McCrea’s last film, and for Gene Hackman in Unforgiven. He brought 400 First Nations actors to Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. He helped bring Legends of the Fall to Alberta.

“They’ve been making movies here for years,” he says. “But the real momentum started when Peter Lougheed was premier.” Clint Eastwood scouted locations here and in the Badlands for Unforgiven in Lougheed’s private helicopter. The movies really boosted tourism. Legends of the Fall brought in loads of German tourists.

“We have the ability to surpass Hollywood in making westerns,” he explains. “We have the locations, the crews, the production designers, the wardrobe people and so much expertise with horses. For Wounded Knee, I provided 200 riders — bareback riders, trick riders, chuck wagon riders, bronc riders. Now our ‘equipment’ includes everything from herds of buffalo to rattlesnakes.”

Scott provided three trailer loads of horses for the funeral scene in Pitt’s Jesse James, and the scene wound up on the cutting-room floor. “I also taught Brad Pitt to ride,” he remembers. “He rode seven different horses and I thought he looked good on ’em all.”

Brokeback tours

My wife and I sit on the verandah, scanning the pristine landscape and sipping excellent Fratello coffee at Ian Tyson’s Navajo Mug in Longview. The building is a transplanted schoolhouse and church now owned by the cowpoke music star, whose own ranch is nearby.

That night, we put up at the nearby Highwood River Inn, an inviting bed-and-breakfast operated by a former cruise-ship magician who entertains guests with clever tricks. John Cusack stayed here making his downbeat Jack Bull, and Tom Selleck, making the elegiac Monte Walsh, both for TV.

Before dinner, we take a leisurely drive into Kananaskis Country, just up the road in the southeastern Rockies. The sun drops into a purple haze. Mist rises out of the valleys. Clouds swirl around blue peaks. We’ve never seen anything to equal this on celluloid.

Kananaskis, too, is rife with movie memories. Ang Lee shot Brokeback Mountain here. Local promoters offer Brokeback tours to backdrops used in the landmark western.

A day trip on horseback takes you to Canyon Creek, Elbow River and Moose Mountain, the original Brokeback. Another outfit offers a self-drive tour seven to 12 days in length, following the tracks of the unlikely lovers Jack Twist and Ennis Del Mar, so memorably essayed by Jake Gyllenhaal and the late Heath Ledger.

Finding settings is the work of location managers like Peter Horn, who started with Unforgiven and most recently served as a producer on Passchendaele, whose harrowing WWI trench warfare scenes were shot outside Calgary.

“Get me the little guy who did Open Range,” ordered Robert Duvall, at the beginning of the Broken Trail shoot. The “little guy” was Horn, who’d discovered the valley on the Hughes ranch near Longview. Audiences may remember the trail herd making its way up a sweeping valley at the opening of that one, with Costner and Duvall as cattle-driving, gun-slinging sidekicks.

Duvall, on horseback, had summoned Horn. “Best damn opening I’ve ever seen in a western,” he told him. And then, in character, turned and galloped away.

Okay, it’s a corral

In his four-wheel drive, Horn takes us to a pleasant-looking yellow frame house with a wraparound verandah. It’s instantly recognizable as the setting for the climax of Broken Trail, in which Robert Duvall and his gravel-voiced nephew, played by Thomas Haden Church, shoot down a band of baddies.

We pause at an unremarkable frame house in a shady setting. It was the James house in the all-too-leisurely Brad Pitt retelling of the life and death of the famous outlaw.

We wind up in the dusty streets of a western town. The cameras are rolling. This week, it’s the set for a German western TV series. The imagination plays with potential titles: Four-gun Fraulein, Lederhosen Cowboy, Shoot-Out at Schnitzelback Creek.

The set we won’t find is the town in Open Range. Kevin Costner had it built for the movie. When shooting wrapped up, it was dismantled and carted away.

Driving Highway 22, it’s easy to find the familiar at every turn. True, much footage is shot on private ranchlands away from the highway, the sets left intact and waiting for a new coat of paint, new heroes and villains. But the entire Trail can be viewed as one big movie set. Reel Adventures, a brochure from Tourism Alberta, maps out dozens of publicly accessible locations.

Nowadays, westerns are out of fashion, unappealing to the 13-year-olds whose tastes define the mass market on this continent. But film will never completely abandon its most indigenous form. Westerns will continue to be made from time to time. The Cowboy Trail will ride again.

Peter Horn agrees. But before we all ride off into the sunset, there’s no turning our backs on the horizon’s black cloud. Sprawling tracts of monster houses, fanning out from Calgary, appear to be marching on the Trail as inexorably as a cattle stampede.

“It’s oil money,” says Horn. “It’s giving developers the ability to break up traditional ranches for real estate. Moviemakers are forced to go further and further afield to find open country. In that sense, the future is uncertain.”

The leathery heroes who defend the land and their traditions so fiercely on screen are nowhere to be found. The developers have a clear shot at burying Alberta’s wild west six feet under the manicured lawns of 21st-century Boot Hills.

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