Rolling into Rowley was akin to landing a spaceship among the busy stretch of Pitts-Memorial Drive in St. John’s during rush hour. I climbed out of Matt and Laura’s shiny new SUV, giant camera swinging from my neck like a pendulum, and was immediately met by a hundred stares. Ghost towns, as it turns out, aren’t used to a lot of visitors.
Me and Laura, Matt, Allan and Jess were spending Canada Day weekend in the Albertan Badlands. In other words, we went deep into the prairies, at the heart of cowboy country. It’s no secret I have a soft spot for cowboys and ranch life. Walking into a tack show and smelling that sweet leather is like an aphrodisiac for me. Men, throw on a pair of Wranglers and snap your reigns, and I’m yours.
My friend working with Badlands tourism had suggested visiting Rowley for Pizza Night – a summer tradition occurring every two weeks on a Saturday. Serving as a fundraiser, locals assemble handmade pizzas at the town hall to be delivered across the street at Sam’s Saloon. The whole area was quartered off by yellow rope, and inside the perimeter many happy people sat at picnic tables mowing down on baskets of popcorn and guzzling pints of ale. The Saloon apparently has a special license, allowing kids to eat inside the bar as well.
We ordered two pizzas – one with extra cheese, naturally – and made small chat with an elderly man who sat near the Bingo balls, leaning heavily on his cane. When he asked us where we were from, the others within the vicinity stopped working for a second and talked to us eagerly. There’s no hostility in the prairies, folks. Just curiosity.
As it turns out, Pizza Night is extremely popular. The wait time for our pizzas was about two hours, and so we decided to explore the area on foot. We followed the abandoned rail tracks, looking all for the world like we were in the middle of a Midwestern photo shoot, and stopped to peek inside the empty train carriage lying in the grass. It was covered in graffiti. Two tall, red grain elevators stood to the right, and beyond it, the flatlands stretching on and on in every direction.
Not willing to risk missing our pizza (and, alright, we were thirsty), we headed back to Sam’s Saloon to wait for our prized dinner. The floor inside was covered in sawdust; the walls were adorned in EVERYTHING imaginable: Mounted deer heads, old movie posters, newspaper clippings, saddles, and farm gear. There was an iron pot-bellied stove and a dusty piano. We were ordering $3 pints inside a real Western saloon, with a swinging door and everything. I mean, the bartender wore the largest belt buckle I have ever seen. Everyone in town was out to enjoy the socialness. We sat down at a simple table with simple chairs and took it all in.
Every time someone from the town hall delivered a massive stack of pizza boxes, we held our breaths. The bartender picked up a microphone and then hosted a pizza raffle. “Sherry – you got a pizza. Jon Martin – you got a pizza.” It went on, endlessly.
Apparently the wait time was longer than usual because a bunch of people was in town for a dog show. I have never seen so much cheese in my life. We devoured it — washing it all down with more beer — the cheese so thick it made eating complicated. I really should not be writing this in the middle of my month-long cheese embargo, I realize, as this kind of three-inch golden cheesy topping is enough to haunt my dreams later. It was the best goddamned pizza I’ve ever eaten in my life.
As the night went on and the people dwindled away, we slunk back to our car with bloated bellies and drove back to our hotel. And that’s how the West was won.