So here I am in Calgary, Alberta. I left Minneapolis and got to Montana about eight days earlier than I needed to. I was just trying to give myself ample time to get across the empty part of the country. I managed it far quicker than I was expecting.
And so I was in Montana long before my primitive skills class was scheduled to start (on the 19th). And I’d already been planning on visiting Calgary, and I was well placed to get there, so there we go. Why Calgary? I guess partially for the sake of completeness. I was planning on doing the get-out-west part of this on the Trans-Canada Highway, which would’ve taken me right through. With that in mind, I wrote to Addy and Marian, the two girls who worked in Lagorce, France, with me, helping out that couple who were starting a B&B. Then I changed my plans, rerouting myself through the US, but I still felt like I might as well come visit. Especially since I had all this time.
Hitching in Montana is awesome. It’s so vast a state with so little inside it that everyone who’s going anywhere is probably going a hundred, two hundred miles. I did get scrutinized at the border for being a hitchhiker, but I got them to let me in anyhow. And then I hitched across mile upon mile of flat, grassy country and finally arrived in Calgary.
My first impression was that Calgary seems like a fairly middle-of-the-road city. It kind of just has the regular trappings of a city, and not much that immediately appeared unusual or fascinating to me. It took a while for it to come alive for me. The first couple days, the most I could really say for it in specific was that it’s pretty. The Bow River runs through just north of downtown; its water is unlike the water in any other river I know of. It’s a deep, translucent, even luminescent turquoise, clear and pure dashing over the austere rocks and among pines that flavor the air Northern. I could tell it’s a special river even from in the city, because they’ve had the decency to leave enough green space around it that you can imagine, if you try, what it was like before a city started inflating itself along the banks. But if I went out into the country, I might be like the flyfisher who wrote an article that I read – connected forever, always to think of it as my “home water” or at least to wish that I could.
It’s a river that I was able to imagine getting mean, like it did in June. In the days of the flood, the water was four meters above normal, and managed at one point to swell to thirty times its normal amount of water. Much of Calgary is built in a big valley between two bluffs, placing it into a big flood plain. There’s also a healthy portion of the city built on hills, but when the flood came there were plenty of things in reach for it to chew through. So far they’ve recovered fairly well, showcasing the kind of power to build and rebuild that has been Calgary’s hallmark for so long. (I saw a copy of an ad from the late 1800s, enticing people to move to Calgary, the “fastest-growing city in North America” [I think it was North America, anyway]; underneath, the person who’d put it up had penned in, “Still true today!”) As I rode around on a bike borrowed from Addy’s brother, I didn’t see a whole lot of ruination. But what I did see was plenty suggestive. Along the river there are bike paths and nature trails. Several of the bike paths I rode on abruptly ended at chain-link fences beyond which they had crumbled into the water. The nature paths were mostly still present, but the interpretive signs that talked about creeks and backwaters all seemed to be indicating features that the flood had completely rerouted, and strewn around were giant logs, torn-down trees, and washouts full of gravel. At one point I came to a road that used to run along the river, but was now blocked off for the good reason that the half of it closer to the river had fallen into the water.
I guess maybe one reason that Calgary didn’t seem like an extremely special city to me is that I came here after everything happened. That is to say, I missed the Stampede. Calgary is cowtown, and they revel in that every year at the Calgary Stampede, a giant show of cowboying and general Westernness that’s apparently unmatched. I rode through the Stampede grounds and they were indeed massive – you could probably fit a couple good-sized stadiums on the grounds. Hard to imagine what they’d look like filled with hundreds of thousands of hootin’, hollerin’ cowboys watching rodeos and horse races while decked out in spurs and leather and above all giant cowboy hats. It must be a sight.
But I gradually started coming around. Today in particular, I found a couple pockets of goodness that I’d missed before. On the suggestion of Addy’s mom, I checked out Stephen Avenue, a pedestrian section of downtown that’s wonderful for just kind of hanging around. I found an art museum featuring pictures from a children’s book about an Anishinaabe-inspired trickster rabbit named Boo, written by a woman who got her art degree at, of all places, CCM University of Cincinnati. I watched a woman playing her keyboard and singing songs that left me feeling very peaceful and almost cleansed. I ducked into a store selling Calgary cowboy kitsch, which was good for a few laughs. Oh, and I scored a lot of poutine from garbage cans. After I finished there, I headed off to Taste of Calgary, which had some tasty stuff too, and a Latino band playing old standbys like “Oye Como Va” and “La Bamba”. Besides the fact that I was eating a bunch, I liked the day mainly because I was able to just calmly walk and bike around and feel pretty welcome everywhere. Calgary is a welcoming city.
Besides that stuff I did today, most of my enjoyment of the city has come in somewhat quieter, more person-to-person ways. Yesterday I helped a friend of Addy’s harvest vegetables from his SPIN (Small Plot INtensive) yard garden and then sell them at the farmers’ market. Later on a bunch of people came over to Addy’s house and we all talked about Calgary and traveling and the environment – one of the people there, Lucy, is in the midst of taking a permaculture course, and Addy and (I think) her dad have also taken permaculture classes. We had an entertaining night featuring One Duck and backrubs and making apricot leather, and I enjoyed myself. And now I guess I’m pretty much done with Calgary; tomorrow I’m going back to Montana. Regrettably, I won’t make it out to Banff this time. Oddly, I’ve got only a week to be in Canada, because they were picky with me at the border. I want to make sure to get back into the States on time, so I’m leaving tomorrow, but I’ll be back into Canada soon enough so I can see Vancouver and Victoria Island, and maybe I’ll even make it all the way to Banff too. ‘Til then, consider yourself updated.