It was 40 years ago in May that I stepped onto a plane in Montreal, headed for Banff, a string of five letters I hadn’t been able to pronounce the first time I heard them, but that would become my Shangri-La.
I was travelling with a friend from McGill, a smart and smiling girl from Hampstead, whose father was a judge. It wasn’t their relative wealth that impressed me as much as it was the quiet power her father wielded — calling a bank manager when my friend was late arriving to get some cash, to allow her in, though the doors were locked to everyone else. He had made his own friends at McGill.
I come from a small town near Montreal, the kind writers like to call hard-scrabble, although mine had a veneer of culture, conferred by the local CEGEP, which had a reputation for music and was housed in handsome stone buildings.
It is a part of the world that has its charms. Sweet wild strawberries grew so abundantly there when I was growing up that it was possible to gather enough for a bowl or two in June. There were forests to explore and a river lined with trees suitable for climbing.
But it was flat as a frying pan, as my mom used to grumble. The only elevation was a viaduct over the rail tracks. The prettiest thing in the downtown — an elegant sculpture that anchored a plaza, one of Canada’s 1967 Centennial projects — was torn down years ago. The biggest motivator for me to visit my hometown now is Chez Henri le Roi de la Patate, where I used to work overnight shifts and still serves the best fast food on the planet. That’s not up for discussion.
I was unprepared for the beauty that unfolded before me and my friend as we rode a Greyhound bus from Calgary to Banff, the foothills giving way to mountains that grew taller and taller, taller than I had ever imagined mountains could be. I craned my neck, struggling to see the snow-covered tops of them.
And when we got off the bus! The breeze carried the smell of pine trees swept across glaciers. There is nothing else like it. Two years later, I would travel to Switzerland and not find the same magic. The Alps seemed cultivated and tame to me, compared to the solemn, hushed beauty of the Rocky Mountains.
At work that summer, I sold soapstone sculptures and jade trinkets to American tourists who didn’t know what province they were in and Japanese honeymooners taking dozens of presents home.
I shared a house, supplied by a mutual employer as part of our employment package, with a shifting number of workmates. We built a couch out of discarded beer cartons. We had a contest to see who could steal the most toilet paper — someone got fired for that — she took the challenge too seriously, I believe, trying to smuggle an entire carton of toilet paper from the back of the store where she worked.
On days off, I discovered landscapes so often photographed they have become icons: the Vermilion Lakes perfectly reflecting the rugged profile of Mount Rundle; Lake Louise; and most heart-rending of all, Moraine Lake and the Valley of the Ten Peaks, which once graced Canada’s $20 bill.
Friends and I hiked a mountain capped by a snow-white glacier in June, roped together and using ice picks to summit.
On the way down, the snow was the perfect consistency for us to crouch and ski in our hiking boots, ice picks cocked to the side, to slow our descent as needed. I remember at the time thinking that life would be full of experiences like it, but the truth is, they more often happen once in a lifetime. I have climbed mountains since then, but never as challenging, and never on such a perfect day, with perfect friends.
My Banff enchantment never lifted. I returned again and again. I met up with friends there in April, a 40th reunion. Our hike was substantially less ambitious than in the past, but we laughed as hard as ever.
I am about to turn 60 and still love waking up in a tent. My husband, who spent his early childhood in a temperate climate near the Mediterranean, does not share this love but has let me drag him and our son up mountains, through caves and into oceans. He’d really rather be on a terrace overlooking water, a bottle of red on the table.
I think bonding to the natural world requires being exposed to the outdoors in a meaningful way at an impressionable age, or through an adventure of your own making, the kind that happens when you’re removed from your ordinary, everyday life and concerns, enchanted by the beauty of your surroundings and distracted by new friends.
That is why I believe so deeply in supporting the Fresh Air Fund, in words and with my chequebook. I want as many young people as possible to have the chance to fall in love with nature and have it become a cornerstone of their lives, a comfort, a challenge, a respite, an inspiration and a source of lifelong memories and friends.
“If you have been touched by the Fresh Air Fund or have a story to tell, please email [email protected].”
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