My good friend, Judy, and her daughter, Lindsay are setting off on an adventure that has me smiling with delight. A few weeks ago, Judy told me that after Lindsay finished reading The Boy she felt she had missed out on a huge chunk of Alberta landscape because the Calgary to Edmonton journey which the family had made regularly for years to visit Grandma, had never veered off the main highway. She wanted, she said, to take a road trip and follow Betty Jane’s path through all the towns mentioned in the book: Lacombe, Ponoka, New Sarepta, Camrose, Stettler, Hanna and the surrounding countryside. This, Judy decided, would be a very fine mother/daughter outing, so the two of them are setting out next weekend.
Judy called today to ask for suggestions of places to stop. I told her I would thumb through the book and send her some ideas. My first thought was that these two are going to enjoy the journey far more than I did in my years of shotgun trips to interview or search through archives. What better time of year than golden autumn to wander the Alberta countryside. Find the best coffee shop in town, take a walk down Main Street and then do a leisurely meander down residential streets. I’d start the trip in Lacombe, which is one of the prettiest of Alberta towns with its tree-lined streets and “Edwardian” business section. Somewhere in my notebook, I know that I scribbled “come back and see this town another time” after my interview with Doreen Scott. I’ll be counting on Judy and Lindsay to have scouted some things for me to see when do go back to Lacombe.
From Lacombe, I’d suggest a back road to Ponoka – ask someone in that very good coffee shop that I’m sure is right there on Main Street in Lacombe to point out the route. The old Ponoka Mental Hospital from which Robert Cook escaped, is now The Centennial Centre for Mental Health and Brain Injury. The original hospital has been empty since 2002 and is designated a heritage building.
Ponoka Mental Hospital
Look at the windows, ponder which one was the escape route.
From Ponoka, go east to Hwy 21 and then north to New Sarepta, noting along the way the town of Bashaw, which is where Robert Cook was taken into custody after his escape.
I haven’t been back to New Sarepta in many years, but the last time we passed through, the coffee shop that seemed a cavernous place when I was a little girl was a small liquor store. I’d suggest asking someone who looks like they would be of an age to remember if they know which building was the New Sarepta Coffee Shop owned by Morris and Martha Harke back in the 1950s. It was between Hettman’s General Store and Diewert’s blacksmith shop. The post office was across the street, Myrtle Lehmann the town postmistress.
Then back south on Hwy 21 to the junction with Hwy 13 and east to Camrose. I will give Judy directions to the house on 56th St. where I sat on the back step and tried to make sense of a brother killing his family. Camrose is a lovely city with a man-made lake in its centre and the Augustana University Campus, formerly Camrose Lutheran College. On the trips I’ve made back to Camrose to read when my previous books came out, I’ve stayed at a B&B near the college and I’ll probably suggest that to Judy as a possible place for the night.
The Stettler Museum is only open “by appointment” after Labour Day, but I’d phone just in case there’s a special event or simply a later season because of the fine weather. Stettler Museum
Archived material about the Cook case is in the old courthouse. There is an apartment building on the original site of the Cook family residence. I was disinclined during my research to visit that spot, and probably wouldn’t suggest it to anyone else either. Just a wander around the town is a good way to get a sense of this community. There’s a fine bakery café on the main street, a great place to stop for lunch.
Driving south to Hanna, the landscape changes from aspen woodland to grassland. This a smaller town still, and my own tour of it was short but I suspect there will interesting places that Judy will find to tell me about. The cemetery is just north of town on Pioneer Trail. A sad place to end a road trip, but it is a peaceful place and I rather hope that Judy and Lindsay are treated to the scrutiny of a herd of Aberdeen Angus just as I was on my quest to find the Cook family.