It’s 5:30 in the morning in Banff, Alta. and I have a column to write. I’ve been on the road with my sister and nephew. It’s her 60th birthday and because I can’t imagine a better gift than a road trip, I drove to Kelowna to fetch her and take her back to the Grasslands for a kind of ‘vision quest’ to mark this important milestone. We stopped over to be with our youngest sister and her partner, and were up late with our brother, eating and drinking, laughing and talking when I realized I hadn’t written anything yet!
We are cozily crammed in a downtown condo and there’s nowhere I can open my laptop and start writing without waking people so I went in search of a café and found this 24/7 fast-food joint. I made a beeline for the back, where it’s warmer and well-lit and far from the 24/7 news screen but not before the announcer ‘informs’ me that “Canadians could be getting less tolerant” and “Scientists predict a wild winter.” I grumble about the unethical practice of planting ‘non-facts’ in people’s heads and creating an alternate reality that dwells on humanity’s least flattering characteristics, discouraging any inclination to behave well. But good behaviour doesn’t get attention, let alone make the news.
Slowly the building fills. This is supposed to be the ‘shoulder season’ but the town is humming and it’s not even seven. I am tempted to eavesdrop. It is, after all, if not a professional requirement, at least an occupational hazard. But I realize there are so many accents and languages being spoken I can’t make out a single word. And now, besides the news announcer continuing her harangue, there is music coming at me from overhead.
It’s astonishing how easily I can slip from the silence and stillness of my life in Val Marie, on the edge of another national park, to the hustle and bustle of Banff, with its distractions and diversions in the shape of tourist shops, high-end restaurants, bars, busses and tourists. We have two stop signs in Val Marie, and few of us come to a full stop as we enter or leave town. We have no street lights and exactly two neon signs, across from each other: the new OPEN sign hanging in the bar window, which Red sometimes forgets to plug in, and Caitlin’s at the Harvest Moon. At the end of the night, whoever is sitting at table three gets to pull the cord and officially close the place. At that point the two street lights are all that’s left to keep main street from disappearing into the total darkness of the Dark Sky Preserve.
As a young woman I believed that, in order to become committed to my life, I would have to make some clear and unwavering judgement calls about good and bad places – as if that was the way to take a stand. Then, later in life, working as a broadcaster, I got to interview a famous mountain climber about his recent autobiography. He described to me in exquisite detail his latest adventure in the Himalayas. “And now you’re travelling from city to city to promote your book,” I said. “You must be dying to get back to the mountains!”
“Oh I love cities,” he responded. Here was a man who knew how to enjoy wherever he was, who knew how to be fully present, a skill I can imagine is pretty indispensable when dangling from a rocky precipice.
You have to be present in order to make wise decisions, my mentors have taught me. But you don’t have to bother judging others for their paths, however windy and convoluted they might appear. And when I think back on it, it took living in a few big cities, as well as suburbs and small towns to eventually arrive at and appreciate my rural existence. And even now the locals of Val Marie would point out that I don’t actually live in the country, I live “in town.” “In town” in Val Marie means across from a pumpkin patch and a field full of horses, where occasionally there’s pony in the back yard, or a deer. Where tractors break down in the middle of the road and are left there until someone can find the right tool or finish their lunch or both. Where two trucks often sit idling in the middle of the road while their drivers exchange vital information and the rest of us just drive around them. Just recently I saw three trucks paused in tandem while their owners held a conference on the state of the elevator. That was the morning I woke to see our mayor asleep in his truck, his feet sticking out the passenger side. It had been a rainy few days and whenever the water levels get high he has to keep his eye on the town’s water pump. So he parks outside the pump house until danger passes.
My brother has recently moved to a small island off the coast of British Columbia. He’s in Banff on a construction contract. We’ve been talking about the lure of exciting places with lots going on and how cities inspire ideas and an infinite number of possibilities. And it’s true. But people like us, my brother and I, are so entranced by everything that we can easily exhaust ourselves just listing the number of things we plan to achieve. “What I always viewed as the stimulation and inspiration of places like this I’m now experiencing as distractions,” he said. I know it’s been true for me. I seem to get more done when there’s less coming at me.
It’s hard to be in a place where there are no distractions, where everywhere you go, there you are. But it’s harder, I am learning, to be pulled apart constantly by all the promises and expectations of an economy that thrives on our fears of never measuring up. I love that I live where we have no shops, no billboards, no ads, no solicitations to buy a new product, dress or book. We have a library that will get me any book I want, and with no waiting list, because, as Judy our librarian says: “Nobody reads the boring stuff you read, Madonna.” And yes, everybody who stops by for the latest talk, sitting in the rocker by the window, is free to assess the books on hold. Which is why I wait until I go to the city to check out books with provocative titles.
The sun has risen, the place is bustling. A load of ice just dropped and shifted in the pop dispenser; the noise made me jump. Trucks are beeping as they back out onto the street. Tour busses idle while passengers fill their coffee cups. Giant ravens pick at crumbs on the sidewalk. Children watch through a street level window as candy makers fold nuts into caramel. I am drawn into the bustle, noticing how the sudden bombardment of commodity is triggering a desire to splurge. But I’ve already done my share of indulging in restaurants, bookshops and thrift stores back in Kelowna. Surely there is a way to appreciate all this without having to own it all. Fortunately, I don’t have the kind of bank account to even consider a shopping spree. I’ve done my share of retail therapy.
“Being present” is easier in some places than others, I’m learning. And it’s different for different people. When I made my first foray into Val Marie I stayed at the Convent Inn. I would eat breakfast with the guests, and to a person they all commented on the silence. Not all of them were comfortable with it. One man, a birder, flew from Washington D.C. to Regina, then rented a car and headed down to Val Marie where, according to his bird alert website, a baird sparrow was spotted just days earlier. He got his sparrow before even reaching the inn and was tempted to just turn around and fly home. But he decided to stay the night. By the time breakfast was over he couldn’t wait to get home.
No doubt my younger sister is up now, brewing tea, making breakfast. My nephew will move from the couch to a room where he can sleep til noon. He’s a night owl as it is, but he also had a stressful day yesterday: I commissioned him to draw my profile while driving (a standard, badly), while my older sister sat quietly and patiently, in the back seat, noting all the animals along the way. Now we all have one day together before the journey continues out of the mountains and into the plains and the Grasslands where she can count critters to her hearts content. Which is why, right now, in this present moment, I just want to get this column written so I can be with my family. I can wait to get home, because the truth is, with them, I’m already there.
Madonna Hamel is a wrtier and performer. Her radio docs have won awards for CBC for whom she’s worked as writer, producer, reporter and broadcaster covering the arts, religion and current affairs for over 20 years in Quebec City, Winnipeg, Windsor, Toronto and Kelowna. Born a westerner, she calls Val Marie Sask. home.