Meeting Your HeroesOn April 24, 2020 by Ian Gillies
All my life I’ve wanted to be a cowboy.
Sure, some (if not all) of the inspiration behind such a dream came from a childhood (and bordering on unhealthy) love of Clint Eastwood flicks and Lincoln Logs. I’d imagine while I played outside that I was alone on the prairie, with only my faithful horse and my melancholy thoughts as my companions. I’d hum The Ecstasy of Gold as I hunted birds and squirrels with my… binoculars, picturing myself as The Man with No Name himself. I’ll admit, having Ennio Morricone as a soundtrack in your backyard adventures is something I highly recommend.
Over the years, however, that dream of roaming the West faded further and further into obscurity. Sure, sometimes it would creep back in when I’d throw on a Bronson film or when I’d toss a blanket over my shoulder, call it a poncho, and have a stare down with my nephew.
…Alright, so maybe it didn’t fade all that much.
Still, as time has gone on, I may have traded my Lincoln Logs in for a Marty Robbins album or two, but my love for “The Old West” has only grown – even if my dream of one day living it slowly rolled away.
So imagine my surprise when one day, out of the blue, I was asked if I wanted to portray a cowboy out in Alberta.
I’ll spare you the scream I am sure that I uttered (There’s a pun there somewhere, I’m sure).
Before I knew it, the team and I were on a plane bound for Edmonton, Alberta. This would be my first time visiting Alberta and I was incredibly excited. Yes, some of that excitement stemmed from this deep love of my perceived notion of the West, but the majority of it came from travelling to a new and exciting place – and one that I had longed to visit.
I knew that our final destination was to be the Village of Forestburg, not too far from Alberta’s capital. I was eager for this chance to drive across some of the province and to see even just that little bit more. I will always recommend whenever anyone travels, that they get out of their main destination and journey around, even if it is for a short time. There is so much to see and never enough time to see it all. Fortunately for us, we were staying about forty minutes just outside of Forestburg, providing us ample opportunity to go out and explore.
I know that a lot of people have a preconceived notion of what the prairies and out West might look like and, in all honesty, I was one of those people. It is easy to picture just flat earth as far as the eye can see, but that is mostly a Saskatchewan trademark. For Alberta, at least in the area we travelled through, the landscape was constantly changing. We travelled along long stretches of flat earth, sure, but we also encountered beautiful forests and the truly magnificent Battle River.
Anyway, upon landing in Edmonton, we rented a vehicle and began travelling to Forestburg. Upon arriving, we were immediately greeted by Caroline, our client there. It needs to be said that Caroline probably wears the most hats out of anyone that I have ever met. I mean, there aren’t too many librarians that I’ve met that also double as firefighters (just to name a few). Needless to say, we knew that we were in good hands.
Now, I’ll admit that I didn’t fully know how the people of the village would respond to us coming there. After all, I have spent the last several years of my life in the nation’s capital. I am no stranger to smaller communities, but I knew that I had never experienced Alberta before and that I would be completely naive to the lives of the people who lived in this community. I knew better than to expect any issues, but one of the thoughts you always have before entering a new community, especially when you are about to portray a person from their history, is that you hope that you’ve done enough work to do the character justice. You want to respect the history and care for the individual you have been tasked to “bring to life.” It is a worry I have whenever I travel for shows, whether they be across the globe or a few provinces over.
As it turns out, the incredible people of Forestburg are some of, if not the, kindest individuals I have ever met. We only spent a few days in the community, but I was immediately taken aback by how welcome we felt and how overwhelming the generosity and passion was by our hosts. It was if we had been there our entire lives and while that may not be the best way to describe it, I can think of no other way of showcasing just how comfortable we were made to feel. There were many long conversations on the old train platform with volunteers who have dedicated countless hours to the preservation of history. These were conversations about not only history, but life and the differences and similarities that exist between two separate communities. I long to return to the Village, not to act or to work, but to chat and learn. I hope to have the opportunity again some time soon.
Our reason for being there was because the community was about to celebrate its 100th anniversary. The sheer level of festivities was something that I was not expecting. A parade was planned as well as a (delicious) pancake breakfast. They were also organizing train rides, something they often do, that would allow people to ride the historic train from Forestburg to the next town over on a now decommissioned piece of track. I think that the population of the village must have at least doubled over the course of the few days we were there, as visitors from far and wide attended the festivities.
The plan for our performances was to have the three actors wander about the village in character during the pancake breakfast, partake in the parade, and then to perform one of our In Time: Unlimiteds where we animate a space for several hours. I was particularly excited for that last performance, as the space we would be animating was to be the train.
While it was moving.
I immediately thought of The Great Train Robbery and the classic image of the bandit holding up a train coach full of wealthy patrons. I thought about the limitless possibilities that awaited us and how best we could bring all of them to life. It was decided that we would stage an arrest onboard the moving train to give the passengers something a bit extra.
Oh, did I mention that the cowboy I was set to portray was an alleged cattle rustler?
In fact, he was the “Cattle Rustler King” himself, Jack Dubois.
I must have worn my excitement on my sleeve, but I remember diving deep into as much research as I could about the man. As much as I was tempted to portray him like Lee Van Cleef, I knew that it would be a disservice to the man. Those Westerns are a lot of fun and I hold them in a very high regard, but I think we can all agree that they aren’t exactly perfect historic representations – even if For a Few Dollars More is one of the greatest films of all time.
Don’t get me wrong, I definitely used such films as inspiration for the portrayal as I went about my preparations, but that is where they began and ended – as a jumping off point. As fun as it would have been to stare off into the distance for minutes on end, I had a feeling that the audience we would be interacting with might not have cared for it.
As it turns out, Dubois was much more than the simple villain that I had immediately thought him to be. Sure, he was a cattle rustler and had led a gang across a huge swath of land, but he was also a father and a man stuck in a drastically changing world. He was skilled in horsemanship (and thievery) and he was at home on the plains. He and his gang would steal cattle, rebrand them, and then sell them off to unsuspecting parties. It must have been a lucrative business, because it caught the attention of the authorities. After a long manhunt, he was taken down and retired, eventually heading West into B.C where his criminal past faded from view.
I found myself thinking about how it would have felt to live such a life while the world around you transformed. Cattle ranchers were beginning to implement fences, drastically cutting down on herds needing to be lead about. The web of railroad tracks was increasing dramatically from year to year, bringing “civilization” further and further west. In addition to it all was the discovery of coal, right there in Forestburg. The industry began to boom and the village and landscape would be changed forever.
As I walked about the village and took part in the celebratory parade as Jack Dubois, I thought of how much the world continues to change and evolve. I thought about the lives of those in this incredible community and, even as we celebrated the past, how conscious they were of the future.
As I sit here now in a small apartment, I find myself thinking back to those childhood dreams. How long I had pictured in my mind what it meant to be a cowboy. All my life I had dreamed of those open plains and the comfort they would bring a lonely soul. Now I know how off base I had been. I had played a cowboy, just as I had with my nephew when I was younger. I had gone on pretending to be the thing I had so often dreamed of. What amazed me most was by doing that pretending, I was given an incredible opportunity. I met with a strong and hardy community that had persevered for one hundred years. I got to laugh and trade stories with them. I was given the chance to learn what it really meant to live out “In the West” and the feeling that it inspires: A sense of unbreakable community, passion, and kindness. A place where everyone needs to wear many hats, for they are responsible for themselves and for each other.
During these uncertain times I think back to my time in Forestburg. I think of Caroline and the other amazing people I met. I miss the big sky, the train, and the excitement. I miss the people and the stories and tales that I was told. But for everything I miss, I reflect and remember. I think of the community and the lessons that they taught me. The importance of working together and the fact that, sometimes, even when a track has been decommissioned, the train can still take you somewhere new.
As it turns out my dream was never for me to be a cowboy.
It was to meet one.