Visiting Banff sparks a love of the outdoors

Forty years ago, in May, I boarded a plane in Montreal, bound for Banff, a sequence of five letters that I had not been able to pronounce the first time I had heard them, but which would become my Shangri-La.

I was traveling with a friend from McGill, a smart, smiling girl from Hampstead, whose father was a judge. It was not their relative wealth that impressed me so much as the quiet power wielded by her father – to call a bank manager when my friend arrived late to get money, to let her in, even if the doors were closed to everyone. . He had made friends at McGill.

I come from a small town near Montreal, which kind writers call hard-scrabble, although mine had a veneer of culture, imparted by the local CEGEP, which had a reputation for music and was housed in beautiful buildings in stone.

It’s 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 pick enough for a bowl or two in June. There were forests to explore and a river lined with trees for climbing.

But it was flat as a frying pan, like my mom used to bitch. The only elevation was a viaduct over the train tracks. Downtown’s finest thing – an elegant sculpture that anchored a plaza, one of Canada’s centennial projects in 1967 – was demolished years ago. The biggest motivation for me to visit my hometown now is Chez Henri le Roi de la Patate, where I used to work night shifts and still serves the best fast food on the planet. It is not to be discussed.

I was unprepared for the beauty that unfolded in front of me and my friend as we took a Greyhound bus from Calgary to Banff, the foothills giving way to increasingly taller mountains, taller than I expected. never imagined the mountains could be. I craned my neck, struggling to see the snow-capped peaks.

And when we got off the bus! The breeze carried the smell of pines swept away by the glaciers. There is nothing else like it. Two years later, I was traveling in Switzerland and I couldn’t find the same magic. The Alps seemed cultivated and tame to me, compared to the solemn and hushed beauty of the Rocky Mountains.

At work that summer, I sold soapstone carvings and jade trinkets to American tourists who didn’t know what province they were in and to Japanese newlyweds who brought home dozens of gifts.

I shared a house, provided by a mutual employer as part of our employment package, with a varying number of work colleagues. 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 it – she took the challenge too seriously I think trying to smuggle an entire carton of toilet paper behind the store where she worked.

On days off, I discovered landscapes so often photographed that they have become icons: the Vermilion Lakes perfectly mirroring the rugged profile of Mount Rundle; Lake Louise; and most heartbreaking of all, Moraine Lake and the Valley of the Ten Peaks, once featured on Canada’s $20 bill.

Friends and I hiked a snow-white glacier-capped mountain in June, roped together and using ice picks to the top.

On the way down, the snow was the perfect consistency for us to crouch down and ski in our hiking boots, side-tilted ice picks, to slow our descent as needed. I remember thinking at the time that life would be full of experiences like this, but the truth is that they happen more often once in a lifetime. I’ve climbed mountains since then, but never so hard, and never on such a perfect day, with perfect friends.

My Banff enchantment never lifted. I came back again and again. I met some friends there in April, a 40th reunion. Our hike was significantly less ambitious than in the past, but we laughed harder than ever.

I’m about to turn 60 and I 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 through the mountains, through caves and into the oceans. He really prefers to be on a terrace overlooking the water, a bottle of red on the table.

I think connecting with 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 everyday life and your ordinary concerns, enchanted by the beauty of your surroundings and distracted by new friends.

That’s why I believe so deeply in supporting the Fresh Air Fund, in words and with my checkbook. I want as many young people as possible to have the chance to fall in love with nature and for it to become a cornerstone of their lives, a comfort, a challenge, a respite, an inspiration and a source of memories and friends for life.

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