Bankhead is long since gone to ghosts—both upper town and lower without further distinction. But in the bottom of the long valley, from the abandoned kitchen gardens of the shanties of the Chinese mining workers vanished in the 1920s, rhubarb has gone to seed, and grows wild over the slag heaps.
It is a place both mute and eloquent with human absence. Coal has given the valley a sooty cast.
The rhubarb grows over what was the prosaic—the gritty—quarter, where the mining operations were. Of all the immigrants it was the Chinese who worked there in the tipple, appropriately named—the place where loaded cars were emptied by tipping.
By a trick of perspective the heaps of slack and slag, the wastes of coal considered too inferior to sell, seem to dwarf the great mountains behind. The reaches of the vast Canadian Rockies. And the homely rhubarb growing in the coal and rock has outlasted the church and school, the pool hall and hotel.
You can follow the meandering trail, one of those irresistible footpaths that rambles off through overgrown grasses and wildflowers toward the distant saturated evergreens and indigo blue mountains; a two-wheel path stained black with coal dust; parallel tracks that have no purpose anymore but to suggest a way of going—back, and on, into the heart of the suddenly heightened afternoon.
They lead unerringly to the vanishing point.
And if you climb up through the birch groves to the upper town, you find meadows open and sloping, and here and there small pines grown through with cinquefoil, fireweed. Lovely light-speckled groves, like Gustav Klimt’s blue-dappled Tannenwald, woods where the summer sunlight sheets like rain.
Then later, with the evening coming on, whether or not you have expected them, bits of rock walls and foundations appear quietly out of the abandon. A roof tile. The grander houses of the more advantage have vanished as surely as the shanties—the music and porches of the mining bosses, their moustaches and kisses.
Bankhead, Alberta: a poetry of loss.