Recently, I was reintroduced to the wonder that is Alberta.
I spent some quality time with Mom and friends, albeit under rather sad circumstances, camped atop Alberta’s green waistline near Camrose. Life is slower here, although bearing the weight of a daily regimen of tasks that would shame a comfy city dweller like myself. Folks are simple, genuine; their politics bespeak as much. I need these types in my life to remind me of life before the city, before we traded green for grey, heart for hurry.
Calgary, that sprawling spray of suburbanism, welcomed me back into her bosom. It is the visual race-for-more set deceivingly in the beauty of rolling foothills climbing their way upward into the Rocky Mountains to the west. She eyed me closely however, untrusting of the broader perspective, gleaned from years of life elsewhere.
The bare shoulder that is Cochrane, held aloft against the Rocky Mountains to the west, provided some jogging (more slogging really) at nearly a mile above sea-level. It was backdrop to a spacious visit with my sister and her husband.
Okotoks. A once-proud cowboy town among the lemon-lime valleys south of Calgary, now Boho-wannabe with more yoga pants and boutiques than boots and hankies. She played host to the auspicious (suspicious?) occasion of my wife’s 35th High School Reunion. As much as an event aimed at aging 50-somethings could be described as ‘epic,’ I’m willing to give us the benefit of the doubt.
The unattainable majesty of Lake Louise, made impenetrable by the ant colony of one-eyed, phone-clicking tourists. Paradise through a view screen.
I’m surprised, even shocked, at my close and immediate affinity with the place. There is much more of me here than I ever suspected. My guts tighten a little whenever my senses get re-assaulted with the pungency of rape seed and peas. My eyes widen at the foothills, frolicking, green with spruce, poplar, birch and aspen, or the salutary pomposity of the Rocky Mountains. My ears still cringe a little at the old crone call of the magpie. My heart swells with memories clamouring for space.
There is a regal order, a persistent danger to this place, in equal measure to its complete lack of pretention. It sits in your lap, comfortable and familiar, like an old farm dog. But, treat her with due respect or she’ll reveal her strength.
It’s easy to forget the relative wealth of the place. Alberta practically drowns in money, choking at times on oil vomited from her broad, black belly. It has made her insanely rich and her people a little myopic with respect to the rest of the world. The furious pace of new construction and the larger-than-life cars, hardly suggests the unforgivable economic downturn so bewailed by her inhabitants. But, lest I come across as ungrateful, that same controversial landscape made for an upbringing much of the world would crave. I am as thankful as I am uncomfortable. It’s an uneasy tension I live with to this day.
The folks here are as big-hearted as the landscape – expansive and verdant – looking for something to grow. But decades of oil and gas revenues have created a monster that lives below, quietly snoring, biding her time. Have the best steak and potatoes of your life one day – cigars, laughter, and foot-stomping music in tow – and all is well. Dance to the beat of the oil drum and they’ll give you their shirts and a layer of skin to boot (cowboy style, that is). But, reveal yourself, even casually, as someone uncomfortable with fossil-fuel damage, global warming, and the need for alternatives and you throw in your lot with the cattle headed to be your own supper. They are a strong and proud folk, duly protective of their fossil-fed way of life.
So, conversations stay safest where family starts. They wander in and out of the calf-pens holding the warm and grazing words of easy strangers who feel like friends. These are those whose unadorned view of the world around them makes them quick to laugh, quicker still to pray for rain. Their hopes are found tucked in saddle bags and blue jean pockets or Esso attachés, and slumbering in the subterranean black. Their hands, farmer’s tans, truck culture, and souls are of a piece; indistinguishable parts of a whole.
It’s me through a macro-lens. It may not meld perfectly with the bio-me, but it is the stuff of who I am nonetheless. Born and raised an Alberta boy, now with complicated Celtic-progressive overlay, I can’t deny it any more than run from it. Who I am today, even this very moment, is still the product of wheat and soil, mountains and laughter, horses and magpies, oil and prairie tornadoes.
And, it’s good.