'We'd try to get a feel for the town': Pandemic project takes couple on a journey, but never far from home

Phil and Jan Deutscher of Regina just wanted to get out of the house during the pandemic, but they also wanted to stay safe.

10,000 photographs later, a Regina couple keeps busy during the pandemic

The Village of Odessa is approximately 65 kilometres southeast of Regina. (Submitted by Jan Deutscher)

This story is part of a CBC Radio special The Year We Went Nowhere that airs on CBC Radio One on May 24 from 4 to 5 p.m. CST. You can find a corresponding playlist by visiting Homeward Sound.

Phil and Jan Deutscher of Regina just wanted to get out of the house during the pandemic, but they also wanted to stay safe.

One Sunday last July, they hopped in the car and headed an hour east to Wolseley, Sask.

"I've driven past Wolseley a thousand times. I've never stopped there," said Phil. 

They had such a good time they started spending Sundays exploring other places they'd never been before. It became a weekly thing. 

The Deutschers say they were using a book called Our Towns: Saskatchewan Communities from Abbey to Zenon Park by David McLennan. It was a sort of guidebook to help them learn about smaller places off the beaten path, as well as communities with architectural interest.

"Sometimes along the way, we'd see a sign that would say the name of some small town eight kilometres away and we'd just go see it," said Phil. "We've been on lots of backroads. You'd need GPS to find some of the places."

A few communities really stood out to the Deutschers. 

Both spoke of Freud, Sask. There, the couple found a cairn that listed all the businesses that used to be found there in the early 1900.

"There were two doctors, there was a dentist, a watchmaker," said Phil. "And now there's nothing, absolutely nothing." 

All that remains is a few abandoned buildings — including a train station and a church — and a nearby farm.

"You couldn't help but be in awe of how everything just went away." 

How do you get away from it all when you can't really go anywhere? This one-hour special brings you stories of offbeat and wonderful ways Canadians occupied their time at home during the pandemic, and how they managed to "vacation" without going far. 48:19

Lewvan, Sask., is a place that Phil remembers visiting as a kid to play hockey. Now there's no town left to speak of.

"It's gone, totally. All it is, is bare sidewalks. There isn't even a building standing," he said.

Lewvan, Sask., is located approximately 50 kilometres northwest of Weyburn. (Submitted by Jan Deutscher)

The couple would always walk down the main street of any town they'd visit.

"We'd try to get a feel for the town," said Jan. 

"And it's not hard to socially distance when a town only has five residents," said Phil.

Sometimes they visited places because of a recommendation. Their nephew suggested going to see Tregarva, Sask., which evidently used to be a railroad town.

The Deutschers found miles of rails, hills of spikes and hand pump carts. 

"Kind of where railroad things go to die, " said Jan.

Another highlight of their Sunday drives was the food. Some of the smaller towns had fantastic restaurants, according to the couple. The Deutschers raved about the history — and the meal they had at the Happy Nun Cafe — in Forget, Sask. They also enjoyed the Cafe de Paris in Gravelbourg. 

They found a candy store in Elbow, Sask., that made their own version of a Cuban Lunch chocolate bar. The owner convinced the couple to buy two bars instead of one, suggesting they might fight over it if they only bought one. 

"She was right," said Jan.

Phil smiled and added, "I have a little bit of COVID weight from these trips." 

A group of people play hockey on the ice in Saskatchewan. (Submitted by Jan Deutscher)

The couple also used the journeys to take photos. Jan figures she has at least 10,000 shots from their Sunday road trips. She's considering using the best ones to create a calendar and possibly a coffee table book. 

In mid-winter the couple had to cease their Sunday drives when COVID restrictions had Regina residents staying put within the city, but they hope to resume as soon as those restrictions are lifted.


Sharon Gerein is the producer for CBC Radio One's The Afternoon Edition in Saskatchewan.


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