If there’s one thing I’d pinpoint as the worst part of being a stay-at-home parent it has to be the fact that long weekends quickly lose their exceptionality. Not only do they become meaningless with regard to my daily life, but they all too regularly become completely forgotten. Such was the case this past August long weekend, known as Heritage Day here in Alberta, when I once again was confronted with Sudden Onset Long Weekend Panic.
Although it was technically the end of July, the August long was upon us and we had made zero plans to do anything. A week shy of a major camping adventure, we had no desire for a last minute camping trip, but a last minute day trip seemed just the ticket. Luckily my brain was semi-coherent that weekend and realizing it was the last Saturday of the month, I quickly confirmed that a unique evening outing would indeed be occurring that very night. With my best puppy dog eyes and a begging routine honed over years of marriage, I convinced my family that attending Pizza Night in Rowley, Alberta would make for a wonderfully fun and unique summer Saturday night.
I had read about this one of a kind event purely by chance a year or so ago and had wanted to try it in ever since. Odds are you’ve never heard of it. There are no elaborate advertising campaigns or prominent websites. In fact, aside from a low key Facebook page, there really isn’t much to let the world know about this event at all. Even that Facebook page has limited information as to what Pizza Night is, how it operates, or how everyone partakes in it. It’s the very essence of a mysterious, grassroots tradition and that alone has so much appeal I just had to try it out.
Now, I’m making this a campground review because based on my solitary data point, and an abbreviated one at that, Pizza Night in Rowley, Alberta is all about camping.
Rowley bills itself as a ghost town. To be honest, this may be a bit of a stretch since there are actual residents still living there, eight by last count. The entire town has the same footprint as a strip mall and has its share of abandoned residences and buildings with old signs advertising old professions. It may be a shadow of its 1920s glory days but there are no tumbleweeds blowing through the streets as the soundtrack to The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly plays in your head. There are ample signs of life throughout the small prairie town including a new, painted wooden boardwalk up and down the main street as well as signs of refurbishment of various derelict buildings. In essence Rowley is a living ghost town rather than a fully abandoned and deteriorating relic.
This is the towns appeal and by and large the purpose of Pizza Night. Rowley is a ghost town in the process of renewal … as a ghost town. The handful of actual residents is slowly but surely bringing the town back to life as a pseudo home and quirky tourist destination. Pizza Night, then, is their monthly fundraiser, held on the final Saturday of each month throughout the year. And based on our aborted experience last night, it goes rain or shine.
So here is the basic gist of Pizza Night based on our brief experience. There is an old community hall across from an old, “authentic” saloon (Sam’s). Inside Sam’s saloon, besides cold brews and other refreshments as well as free popcorn, you will find little sheets of paper upon which you write your pizza order. You then join the line now forming outside the community hall and at precisely 5:00 pm, the doors open and you proceed to place and pay for your pizza order. When your pizza is cooked and ready, your name will be called inside Sam’s and you’ll exchange the bottom portion of your pizza order sheet upon which a number was stamped for the steaming hot pizza you ordered. Pizza pie enjoyment proceeds either inside the saloon, outside on the many picnic tables located in the park area near the community hall, or at your camper (more on that later).
The pizza is homemade and assembled by a dedicated crew of local volunteers working away in a non-air conditioned kitchen with a large 18 pizza sized oven. These folks are true troopers and worthy of everyone’s praise and patience. And patience you will need in spades. The pizza oven, as mentioned, only takes 18 pizzas at a time and that line of patrons ordering gets long, fast. And not everyone is ordering a single pizza. The resulting wait times can be startling. We managed to join the line at approximately 4:40 or so and were already about the 40th people in line. I’m guessing and my guesstimate skills suck but we weren’t by any means first. By the time my order was placed I was told the wait would be approximately two hours! That, my friends, is a LONG wait if you’re there with just your family of four including two single digit aged children.
We never did get our pizza so I can’t truthfully comment on the quality or deliciousness of them. The two hour wait quickly became too daunting as the skies opened up and the rain started falling. With nothing at our disposal to entertain ourselves and children notoriously unwilling to wait anywhere close to two hours for food no matter how good, we eventually decided to cancel our order and head to Drumheller for a late restaurant supper. It was disappointing to do so but reflective of our ignorance and the lack of guidance on how to enjoy Pizza Night. I’m hoping this article will help prevent that for others looking to partake in this admittedly wonderful event.
Here’s my take. Pizza Night in Rowley, Alberta is best enjoyed by a group of friends preferable with either a trustworthy designated driver or spending the night camping in town. Campers there are aplenty, especially the night of our visit which saw two family reunions occurring in the town. There is no specified camping area in Rowley but rather the entire town becomes of rustic, non-serviced campground. There were trailers and motorhomes and tents EVERYWHERE. If there was a green space anywhere to be found there was an RV placed on it. This gave Rowley a mobile Revival coupled with a NASCAR or NFL tailgate party vibe. I have no idea how many of these campers were a part of the family reunion and how many were just people spending the weekend specifically for Pizza Night. I also have no idea if this is a regular weekly occurrence during the summer or if it was this busy with campers specifically for Pizza Night. I do know that my instincts tell me this is absolutely the best way to enjoy Pizza Night in Rowley, Alberta.
A group of friends showing up in their campers on Friday night or early Saturday, setting up camp together and then enjoying the small town hospitality and prairie beauty is definitely the way to go. Camping is free of charge, by the way. And because you are out in the boonies, as it were, and there is no indication of a town sheriff having been hired yet, the rules are pretty lax around town. This is not to say assholery will be tolerated but we frequently saw patrons strolling across the greens with beers in hand. We also left early in the evening so didn’t experience the night time atmosphere which I suspect gets a little raucous as those beers take hold and the music plays.
Music there is, too, as a makeshift stage has been built astride another derelict building beside a large green space and kids park. I suspect once people have been fed and the live musicians take the stage, a good deal of revelry begins. A notice pinned to a post indicated there would be fireworks later that same evening. Again, this is all speculation but if true, then undoubtedly a group of friends in tow is the best way to enjoy. And while kids are certainly welcome (a special liquor license even lets them enter the saloon) and there is an old-fashioned playground at their disposal, the entire Pizza Night even is geared toward those able to legally imbibe alcohol.
In the context of a family reunion or even a large group of friends, kids will find the night enjoyable. But in the context of just the four of us going, it got a little boring for the kids. They enjoyed the retro playground equipment in the park and touring around the old buildings, abandoned railway infrastructure, and the fantastic preserved grain elevators but the best before dates on that kind of fun is pretty short without other friends to enjoy it with. Rain doesn’t help either.
If camping just isn’t an option, making a day trip of it is a viable alternative, just make sure you bring a responsible designated driver. Sam’s saloon is likely where you and your posse will want to spend some, if not all, of your time while waiting for supper. It’s a wonderfully old school dive bar complete with real swinging saloon doors. Inside you’ll find a sawdust covered floor, rickety old wood finishings, and vintage advertising strewn upon the walls. There is nothing beautiful about this bar which makes it gorgeous. And behind the bar you’ll find a cowboy hat festooned tender with just enough persnickety to make it all feel like a genuine time portal to the past. Drinks, I might add, are cheap and a far cry from the $7 bottles you find in the big city. The selection may be limited and restricted to the major brands, no kitschy microbrews here, but at $3 only the most pretentious urbanite would complain.
There are little museums in the town which are supposedly open daily and tours are available but everything was closed and locked up by the time we arrived Saturday in the late afternoon. I have no idea if this is because of Pizza Night or the family reunions taking place but it would have been nice to be able to investigate these offerings. Photographers would enjoy the town too as the many old buildings make for spectacular shots though on the night we were there few shots were available without an RV in the frame. I’m sure during the week or non-event weekends the photography opportunities are much better.
When all was said and done, I’d still recommend Pizza Night in Rowley, Alberta. Weather and ignorance conspired against us and we really didn’t take in the entirety of the event. I’d certainly go back to confirm my suspicions but I think this must be a fun and unique event well worth the effort to find this strange little town hidden out in the prairies north of the Drumheller badlands.
As a grassroots, local event that has grown solely by word of mouth, I appreciate the lack of advertising and information available out there in the e-world. Such an event could quickly grow too big and become an utter failure. Still, it would have been handy to have more information about what the hell is going on. Knowing that there was a family reunion occurring might have better prepared us for the long wait for pizza. We really were blind heading out there with no idea of what to expect. It’s figuratively and literally Southern Alberta’s best kept secret.
Knowing what I know now, I’d certainly go back but with a group of family and friends in tow. I’d look to make a weekend out of it and camp. We’d undoubtedly get terrible sleep and feel pretty rough come Sunday morning, but the spectacle of Pizza Night I suspect would be worth it. Just be prepared for a healthy dose of country music.
Considering we left early I don’t think it fair to bestow a baby dill pickle rating on Pizza Night in Rowley, Alberta. I will definitely try it again, better prepared, and I heartily recommend you and your friends do too. The ghost town that lives is both mysterious and wonderful and definitely worth a visit. And if pizza isn’t your preference, a notice at the community hall advertised as steak and lobster even in September that might be more to your liking.