Dear Alberta, I Love You

Author’s Note: The OKC Barons coverage on this site has seemingly gone away momentarily. There is a reason for that. For the first time in my life, and certainly not the last, I had the opportunity to visit a few friends in Southern Alberta. We hung in Calgary, visited the mountains, visited hot spots around town, but mostly enjoyed the people. This post is a glimpse in to that trip. For some, who live in Alberta, you will likely be interested in an outsiders view on a fabulous area of the world. For others, if you haven’t visited the province of Alberta, hopefully you will make plans soon. Alberta, I love you.

I walked to the counter of a coffee shop in Cochrane, Alberta where the line was long, winding out the door, and spilling over to the parking lot. Yet all seemed fine with their wait, and were content to chit-chat about everything that popped into their minds. They talked junior hockey, the cost of Albertan beef, vinyl banner printing, and ‘The Martian’s’ take on real-science in a sci-fi loving world. Their ages were diverse – young chatting with old, suit chatting with ranch hand, small home chatting with deluxe home – and they were content to just be there.

I made my way to the counter where I had learned to order properly, “Medium, Dark Roast, double, double”. I smiled at the Timmy’s hostesses taking my order, and she returned the smile with a farm girl twinkle. My dark roast crested the round pick up counter, that stood 5 feet tall, and I made my way to a window seat nearly scolding my hands as I had forgotten to ask for a cup sleeve.

I removed the lid, sniffed the intense arabica, and watched as the sun peaked over the hills to my West. The sunlight pushed through the waves of steam fanning from the lid of my medium sized cardboard cup. I left my jacket on, the room still felt crisp despite it being completely full, and in the distance I spotted a mule deer leading his family pack across a valley that was less than a mile from where I was sitting.

I greeted my company for the day, they too armed with their piping hot coffee cups, and we began a healthy discussion on all things Alberta.

Bob, seated across from me, was a well-spoken man who had migrated from Winnipeg many years before going full Ablertan. He tells me how much he loves motorcylces, and subsequent trips near the Bow River, and how there is no quiet like the quiet of an Albertan road in to the mountains in early Spring. I would find out later that he was right.

We continued to discuss his love for the community he now found himself in, and how he felt compelled to serve not only Cochrane, or Calgary, or event S. Alberta, but rather the whole province. He loved the place, the people, the surroundings, and the things that make the community unique.

A few spoke up, but most were riveted by Bob’s stories. He was a sagely person, not worn out by life, but happy to embrace another day, another hour, another minute.

We all downed the remaining slugs of our coffee, packed ourselves in to a Chevy Silverado with a cab for days. The mountains were beckoning us, singing through their green and brown hills, and the tune was heaven sent.

Onward we pressed as the mountains in West Alberta grew larger with each kilometer. The rocks jetting out of the earth filled the entirety of the dashboard, and I pulled from my bag a camera to catch the rock formations that were unlike any I had seen. The Canadian Rockies have a feel all their own. I’ve seen the US Rockies from various angles, and while they are dazzling themselves, Canada has the rustic, untouched feel that often hinders its southern counterpart. They are monstrous in their make up, but feel inviting nonetheless. You feel both hemmed in, and a welcomed visitor.

We passed the Olympic Nordic venue, the peak of the Three Sisters, a moose, three elk, a black bear, mountain sheep, and a slew of coyotes.

A pit stop in Canmore, a lovely city that borders the Banff National Park, introduced me to a little slice of pie called Red Rock Pizza. Maybe it was the greasy undertones, or maybe the atmosphere, but my appetite was briefly animalistic. Locally owned, and locally heralded, Red Rock hit the spot. It invigorated every one of my senses in a way only a good slice of pizza can do. I’ll dream of the True North on that menu for the next six months.

Lake Louise Ski Lodge reminds me of the great 80’s and 90’s straight-to-video movies that I loved watching on late night USA. Small, old-world charm, but with the new bells and whistles of kiosk lift ticket ordering, and semi-okay food options. With lift ticket in hand, I hoped on the closed gondola labeled “Grizzly”, and I headed towards the top of the mountain.

It was warm, like mid-50’s warm, and the snow was melting off the roof of the lodge as I looked back down the mountain. I had a lift of my own, and the sound of the wire rope quivering over-head was drowned out by the absolute silence of the hill on that day. Despite Spring Break still, well, breaking, it didn’t take long to catch a snowboarder curving back and forth through the hills. There were kids, ranging from age 3 to 12, that meandered by as a part of a 10 team ski school. They looked frightened, but excited, and I immediately waited for one to intensely bottom out, but it never happened. A roll of smoke loomed outside of the gondola in front of me, I ignored the stench (you might too), and laughed at how jolly they appeared.

I reached the summit, the doors rattled open, and I caught a deep breathe of Rockies air. It filled my lungs with great vigor.

As the heavens opened, the temps at the top dropped significantly. Large, steady flakes fell from the sky. The flakes reminded me that I was no longer in a place that was familiar. As the steady snow turned a bit heavier, the lens of my camera became snow packed, I tucked it under my coat, and turned my shoulders back to the West. Wedged between massive rock faces, evergreen filled mountains, and skiers was Todd.

Todd’s tourist radar must have been attracted to my gawking and grinning as he sidled up next to me on his Burton snow board. He un-clipped himself momentarily, and asked if I had ever skied Louise before. I said, “No, but this place is great.” He pointed out the less touristy, and often less expensive snow hills in the area, but was quite insistent that Louise is a great place to “grind” and “beast”. Todd was a regular, and a September to April instructor. On his off days he did what he did on his on days, and that was board. He had done this for eight straight seasons with no plans of returning to the service industry from whence he came. His parents, white collar oil managers, did’t approve of his “hobby”, and that spurred him to be great if only in his own eyes. He spoke of the history of Louise, said “Dude, come back, give me a ring,” as he handed me his crumpled business card that doubled as a bumper sticker. He disappeared over the side of Pika, his green jacket whipping in the wind behind him. For a moment I paused, thought about Todd, and was jealous of his “hobby”.

Snow again turned to sunshine at the bottom of the hill as “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” roared through the outdoor speakers. The patio was full of those that had skied the mountain all morning, their unzipped jackets resembling a fifteen minute fad that you just had to mimic. I wandered the lodge for a bit, felt compelled to move on, and jumped back in the truck to continue the quest.

The Fairmont at Lake Louise is a pretty pony. A dog that greets resort guests as they walk through the grand entrance, staircase to the right. The nightly numbers are absurd for this traveler (Holiday Inn Express, please), but they welcome quests to browse the interior in its entirety. Through the lobby, down a flight of stairs, and on to the back porch – Lac Louise is glorious. Still frozen from a not-so-harsh winter, the lake hugs the evergreen shoreline as if it might disappear in a day or two. The warning of “thin ice” kept me from the make-shift rinks on the banks, but the vast sheets of ice that covered this beautiful place made me feel so small, so insignificant.

Up one side lie a tea house in the densely wooded area of the right half of the lake. Imagining folks, in the summer, traversing the switchbacks to get to that point had me already counting my frequent flyer miles in my head for a return visit. There is something inspiring about not just these types of places, but the thought of entering into a wooded area where you won’t see another human being for hours. It is exciting, terrifying, and troubling all at the same time. Like wilderness explorers from hundreds of years before, I want to take that journey. I want to see the ground meet the tree trunks.

Diva, I’m told is her real name, came from Sweden to serve as a tour guide upon Lake Louise. Her gently twisted hair that was carefully placed to the right of her shoulder, was yellow in comparison to the surrounding white and green landscape. She traveled here on a one year visa, and had done so previously. She considers herself a near permanent Calgary native, and spent two weeks here on a trip around the world before deciding to one day make it home. While she awaits permanent residency, she works, praying for the one year visa to not expire too quickly. She gives guided tours, serves in a local restaurant, and does what every good Swedish traveler does in a mountain resort – skis as much as possible. Her English impressed me about as much as her knowledge of an area that was otherwise foreign to her. Frank, a long time guide in these “hills”, had been her mentor in previous years. He passed along the wealth of knowledge he possessed to someone that could accurately handle it in future scenarios. Diva told this story with a feeling of great pride. After all, she was now a part of the story, not just the teller of the tale.

At Lake Moraine, the equally as beautiful, but more off-the-beaten-path sister of Louise, there were only a handful of other people gracing its beauty. It is the sort of place one wants to be every day of the year in hopes that you see something new with each passing hour. The lake itself snakes off in to the distance as if to go on forever and ever, amen. The canoe launches were silent on this day, but in a few short months they’ll be bustling with red, green, yellow vessels on a sea of bright blue. The logs that had fallen months prior from the heavy snow were littered on the shore line as if they were pick-up-sticks thrown by the hand of God. Tightly around the bend were rock faces that one could stand on, evaporate the surroundings, and basically pitch a permanent tent. Dazzling.

Hikes through Johnston Canyon, around various tiny cabins, through frozen waterfalls, and near some of the seasons first bear sightings. In the distance a black bear, hungry for berries or anything with two or four legs, spotted my gaze as we hurried in the other direction. He was coal black, smaller than I would have imagined, but intensely focused on what I was doing in his neck of the woods. I quickly turned, back towards the trail, and for a brief moment couldn’t remember if bears could climb trees or not (they can).

Banff is really a town about the dogs. Big ones, mostly, that lurk around the entrances to places like Beaver Tails Pastry hoping for a scrap of deep fried goodness to land in their direction. Wondering through the streets I met a rowdy group of Edmontonians that proudly wore the Oilers colors around their necks while obnoxiously talking loud, carrying on, and whatnot. They were in Banff for Spring Break, college students apparently, and they were scoping out the perfect spot for their “group” photo. In front of the old church? No. No, wait, one with Rundle in the background? No, too many trees. They settled on one with the photographer standing in the general parking area, with an expanse background that I think maybe was indeed the perfect spot. They grabbed me, asked if I minded taking a photo, and as I prepared to press down on the shutter button I got caught in the revelry of the moment – “Say, Calgary sucks”. They replied boisterously, “Calgary sucks!”

The Old Spaghetti Factory is a franchise, I know this, but when I saw Thai Curry on the menu I went crazy tourist. $17 Canadian buys you a full meal – salad, coffee, drink, entree, spumoni – but there is no price tag on the view. Seated with the sun on my face facing a jagged mountainside, I looked down on the street and saw my new friends from Edmonton. Still prancing through the city, still loving life, still forcing those orange and blue scarves down everyone’s visual throats. I loved them.

Three hours of searching the Banff town center was quite exhausting. Lots of people to see, lots of “What’s for dinner” Banff tees featuring a black bear sitting at a picnic table (I own two). The oldish feel of the town center maybe gives me pause just for a moment. Imagine horses galloping through the streets. Imagine the sky so full of stars with no lights in your peripheral. Imagine the difficulty in getting to this place hundreds of years prior. I snap a photo of three more beastly dogs, turn back towards the East, I think, and mount the Silverado towards great things.

A day later I was 626 feet in the air overlooking a German district in downtown Calgary. The iPhone around my neck was giving me careful instructions on which way to look, peer, and listen. The Calgary Tower, in the heart of downtown, seems like a late 60’s early 70’s mammoth of a build with more than half the weight of the structure being underground – or so the iPhone tells me.

I take a snap of my feet standing on the Plexiglas, three foot thick flooring that faces the Bow Building. As I twist and turn around the tower’s nearly tallest point I see the Olympic Park in the distance, the Stampede fairgrounds, the Saddledome, the C train on its morning commute, and nothing but space in the background. In ten minutes you can be standing in a plot of land donated to the city. In five minutes you can be on Stephen Avenue with all the other hipsters. And in ninety minutes the mountains.

Sam, and his family of four, were in the gift shop at the base of the Calgary Tower. Sam is a Calgary lifer, his wife from Lethbridge, he and his kids have a yearly tradition of trips to Drumheller and Northern Alberta to visit family. They come to the Tower to get maps, not because their phone and GPS aren’t doing the job, but because it is tradition. He points out the make up of Alberta – North is oilfield, Middle is refinery, South is management. He, having worked in all three categories, started his oilfield job just after high school. Paving his way up the ladder, he brought his family to the Auburn Bay community in South Calgary for the the community safety and close proximity to “get away” spots. His three girls smile as I ask them to take a photo with a moose dressed like an RCMP.

There aren’t enough Boston Pizza’s, Chianti’s, and Fatburgers in the world to curb my hunger for Southern Alberta.

The week-long trip to Calgary (thanks to a few friends who hosted me) has given me a hunger for this particular area of the world. Heck, I’ve even listened to Paul Brandt more than once since returning. I have decided Calgary is everything I love about Oklahoma – friendly people, tall prairie – and everything that I wish it could be – breathable air, mountains. It is a place that embraces the wide-open landscape, but has the economic push in the city to make the surrounding areas very enticing.

I try not to see new places through the eyes of a hypertensive tourist, but sometimes it just happens. I don’t fly around the world weekly or jet set to London every now and again. It is rare that I leave the country of the United States, not necessarily by choice, but because life is just so busy.

Over the years I have developed long-distance relationship with those in Alberta through this little website called Tend The Farm. The relationship is surface level at best, based solely on the distance and mode of communication, but it is a relationship. This is not a commercial for Match.com, but for the way we can make bonds in 2015 that we simply could not in 2005 or 1995 or 1985. Through those relationships, photos, words, maps, and blog posts, I have been somewhat enchanted by the kind-hearted people of Alberta. I think it is safe to say that it is the people that lured me there, and quite frankly, it is the people that will lure me back.

Woven throughout my week-long trip were great sights, but it is the people that tell the real story. From Beaumont to Banff, Cochrane to Crossfield, Wainwright to Whitecourt there are people that demonstrate what it means to be Albertan – to be Canadian.

Throughout much of our conversations the topic of religion comes up. Perhaps my full-time minister status lends itself this way, or maybe I give off some kind of glow (nope, not that), but these conversations turn inward. They get deep. They get personal. They tell of historical blood lines. Fables that clearly mark important events in the timeline of a person’s life. From these conversations you learn much about people. What they value, how they got here, and what the future holds. These are insightful conversations to have with an Albertan.

You learn that Canada Day is a celebration of diplomacy. That Good Friday is a national holiday, and should be spent outdoors, under the stars, and with people that you love the most. Thanksgiving, Family Day, and the late year holiday season are treasures.

You learn that people are humble. They admit wrong-doing, and are quick to nudge you along. They take a universal approach to life. They know that they have to do their part for the community or else.

They embrace the bigness of the world, mainly because it’s right outside their door, but also because they aren’t driven by conquest but rather by being, doing, and celebrating.

Good grief if I don’t sound like a tourist.

I digress. Folks like Todd, Diva, Bob and host of others were my silent guides through the city and wilderness of Southern Alberta. I didn’t tip them for their time, but they were inspirational in my yearning to return. I have friended them on Facebook. They know this blog exists. They know a little bit about my life, my accent (who knew), and that poutine just isn’t for me. They know that I like medium, dark roast, double-double, and that my camera is always with me. They know that I like Elmore Leonard, Tim Dorsey, Carl Hiassen, and a good teen sci-fi novel. They know my shopping habits at places like Indigo, Future Shop, and at the Chinook Centre. They are Canadian, full Albertan until they die, and I like them. Hopefully they like me to.

Alberta, I love you.

2 comments on “Dear Alberta, I Love You”

  1. Well Neil, as you were touring Alberta, I was mourning the seeming fact that you have given up on us in Northern Alberta, Oiler Country, as we have apparently given up on you. You do realize, though, I hope, that you would be a celebrity here, a prince of sorts. You would have discovered if you had ventured into Edmonton and visited Lowetide, or Gregor etc. on the radio, that you are famous up here, you probably would have been housed or hotelled and fed etc, for free just from readers and sports talk listeners. You might have found a similar experience to Calgary with what Edmonton and surrounding area has to offer. We have foothills and mountains in Jasper up here west of town too. Fun to think about.

    I want you to know that you will be missed, as no one will tend our farm like you do. I liked what you had to say, and I appreciate that you are a man of the cloth.

    John Pullen,

    1. John. Thanks for the comment. I visited Calgary in March, but my plan is to expand my trip to Edmonton a bit in July. Thanks for the kind words, and thank you for reading. I’ve always said that I created this blog because my grandma likes to read what I write. She still reads, but apparently so do others. 🙂

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