The Rockies: How they shape us as individuals and as a city

David Gray on why we live here and our personal relationship with the mountains.

'The mountains are calling and I must go,' said John Muir

The Alberta Rockies offer a whiff of adventure and the possibility of freedom. (Mike Symington/CBC)

This story was originally published March 5.

CBC Calgary's David Gray hosts the number one morning show the Calgary Eyeopener, providing Calgarians their morning information with a teaspoon of wit and a drop of attitude from 6-8:30 a.m. weekdays.

If the bard was right and all the world is indeed a stage, then for Calgarians our lives are enacted in front of a singular backdrop — lit for maximum effect.

From a distance the Rockies rise like the flat false-front of a Prairie town. A first line of perspective, after endless roads of unencumbered views.

Move closer and the walls of stone and ice that rise to form the Eastern slopes and front ranges can't help but take your breath away.

You have arrived, you are here, the rock wall says.

And so we settle into a bowl formed by the confluence of two mountain rivers, secure in the knowledge that the spinal column of the continent now forms our back.

Against the Rockies our city stands in bas-relief, but our lives are etched by those distant peaks. Among Canada's cities, it is what defines us.

Climbing in the Canadian Rockies. (Facebook)

Calgary is a choice

Regardless of what you told your parents or texted your friends when you crossed the Prairies to pitch your tent here, you didn't come to Calgary just for a job.

Calgary's in-migration has resembled a massive word-of-mouth house party over the last dozen years. A party it seems everyone was scared to miss. But jobs, as recent events have certainly proven, come and go.

If you're honest, you chose to move here in the prime of your life — move your family and plant down roots — because of what you saw in the tourist brochure.

It was the whiff of adventure, the possibility of freedom and the notion of a life unrestrained. The mountains called you.

Somewhere else, someone else

There are similar high wage oilpatch jobs in Houston or Port Harcourt, Abu Dhabi or Aberdeen.  All are world oil capitals that would have served just as nicely. Salaries there are even higher than here, and some of those positions come with maids and private spas.

For investment capital or service industry work, Montreal or Toronto offer abundant opportunity. Saskatchewan cries out for labourers. Nova Scotia and Manitoba need all the tech types they can attract.  

Vancouver is pretty, but endlessly damp, in temperature and character, with prohibitive real estate prices. None of those places offer what Calgary does.

If you live here, you can be somewhere else, someone else. Somewhere wild and dangerous and spectacular and unspoiled in just over an hour.

It's the world's greatest wildflower and powder-filled playground. And it's always just, enticingly, outside your window.

Literally, in fact.

David Gray says even for those who almost never take to the Trans-Canada Highway, the mountains play their role. Just knowing they are there is enough. (Trilby Jeeves)

Facing west

On rare occasions for reasons of trade and commerce, Calgarians will cast their eyes behind to look to the east. But we face west. The source of warm Chinook winds and the natural course of our endless sun.

Real estate prices in Calgary are dictated by mountain views and office status is tied to west-facing windows. What we value most lies in the direction of our distant hills. And it is little surprise that, in time, we internalize those values.

Once you live here for a while, the words of the great environmental philosopher John Muir start to ring true.  

"Going to the mountains is going home."

Not just comforting, but a constant reminder that in life, greater tests await you than merely climbing corporate ladders or indulging in aspirational consumption.

Living in Calgary means you can dream less and adventure more — that motivational slogans like, "Chasing angels or fleeing demons, go to the mountains" actually come to life.

Each fresh peak teaches you something.

Calgary's gems

There are those here who spend their time resisting the view.

Tourism Calgary tries to make Calgary more than the place international travellers land en route to Banff, with some success. It's a noble task to help fill hotel coffers and restaurant seats, but a tough sell.  

Our city's gems, however well set, always feel like those in the front room of a jewellery shop: nice, but you want to see what's in back.

When you experience the glitter of a glacier there is no contest.

Yet the city and the mountains frame each other.

Calgary is a base camp to get supplies. And the trek to the first trail head is short enough that even a half day trip can be made with ease.

Glacier-fed Moraine Lake, photographed in 1902. (Vaux Family Fonds/Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies)

Brunch or a long trek?

How we choose to enjoy the mountains also defines us. Are you a "Banff for brunch" person, or a backcountry zealot?

All Calgarians have their favourite routes: Canmore and Lake Louise are for showing visitors. Kananaskis is for keeping to yourself or camping with the family. Yoho and Kootenay are for longer adventures. Jasper is for the wild ride.

And even for those who live here and yet almost never take to the Trans-Canada Highway, the mountains play their role. Just knowing they are there is enough. The potential itself is part of our swagger.

Which brings us to the Rockies' most powerful, if perhaps ephemeral, role in our lives.

Humbled and affirmed

Somehow, the mountains stabilize our collective vanities when matters start to go wrong.

Calgary is again in the middle of a slump, and this summer in order to replenish souls and rebuild ambitions, Calgarians will defer expensive trips elsewhere to once again seek succour among the lakes, valleys and towering ridges to the west.  

It's there that we are humbled and affirmed.

Our economy rides a cycle of boom and bust, but the mountains never waver. Generations before this one have retreated to the Rockies to find strength and hope, and come out stronger.

Every grand experiment requires a constant. For Calgarians, ours is formed of rock.

Calgary at a Crossroads is CBC Calgary's special focus on life in our city during the downturn. A look at Calgary's culture, identity and what it means to be Calgarian. Read more stories from the series at Calgary at a Crossroads.

About the Author

David Gray

Calgary Eyeopener host

David Gray hosts the Calgary Eyeopener, which airs 6-8:30 a.m. MT weekdays on CBC Radio One, on the CBC Listen app or wherever you get your podcasts. He is a former travelling correspondent for CBC TV's business documentary program Venture, spent many years hosting a national TV news show, and is a frequent guest host on CBC Radio's As It Happens, Cross Country Checkup, and Sunday Edition.


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