The maple leaves are everywhere: red ones on white T-shirts, white ones on red T-shirts. They’re screen printed on bunting, chalked onto sidewalks, painted on faces, emblazoned on dog collars.
It is July 1 in Banff, Alberta, and residents are celebrating Canada Day as the country readies for the big bash in 2017, when Canada marks its 150th anniversary as a nation. The food stalls sell bison jerky and fruit juices and vegetable samosas.
Performers are attired in costumes from many lands. Singers belt out a universal message of love and harmony in various tongues. A stranger hands me a paper Canadian flag, and we make our way to the parade route along Banff Avenue. Many of us are from the U.S. or China or India, and we know only two words in the lyrics of the national anthem. But we all gamely chime in with “O Canada” at the right spots.
From the red and the white all around me I look up and see blue and green. Banff is no ordinary small town. It sits in the middle of Canada’s first and arguably best national park, 2,500 square miles of Rocky Mountain splendor carpeted with pine and spruce trees and riddled with glaciers bleeding blue into clear lakes—a space big and bold enough to support huge numbers of wildlife, including wolves, elk, moose, cougars, lynxes, black bears, and grizzlies. A thought strikes me: People are puny; nature is the grand marshal of this parade.
A FEW MONTHS AGO I HAD AN ANXIETY ATTACK. Racing heart, tight chest, cold hands. My doctor told me my cortisol levels were elevated. He prescribed vitamins and supplements to counteract the effects of a limbic hijacking and urged me to “meditate and eat dark chocolate.” So, besides popping chill pills, I’m biting into a Godiva daily and listening to a playlist of nouveau spiritualism by pop sages of the modern age. Had somebody close to me died? Was I experiencing some newly surfaced childhood trauma? Did my husband leave me for his secretary? No, no, and well, yes, but that was 20 years ago. So what was going on? Something embarrassingly trivial: I’m a recent empty nester trying to write her next chapter.
If that diagnosis is clear, the remedy is not. Our bodies have minds of their own. I felt as if I’d pushed off from one shore and hadn’t quite reached the other. So I escaped to Canada, like a late-in-life runaway. I’m not unhappy. In fact, I had long anticipated this period after the kids went to college. But I live with a nagging question: What on Earth do I want?
Right now I want to be in Banff. To be outdoors, hike, make new friends, and try to lose the thoughts that cobweb my brain in my suburban home office outside of Washington, D.C. This corner of the Rockies seems to me exactly what my meditation podcasts were telling me to visualize, but here I don’t have to close my eyes. I can open them.
I JOIN MY NEW BANFF FRIENDS Sally and Alison one morning for their daily stroll with their dogs up 5,500-foot-high Tunnel Mountain, just east of downtown. We’re three 50-somethings in cropped yoga pants talking about nothing and everything.
From an overlook we can see the turrets and dormers of the area’s oldest and most famous lodging, the castle-on-a-hill Fairmont Banff Springs hotel. Near the summit, Sally and Alison touch the trunk of a hr tree, its gnarled bark worn smooth by other hands. They touch for sick friends, for dogs long gone, for the fallen. I touch too, “for sisterhood,” I say.
I had a short unhappy marriage and a long unhappy divorce. It was a slog, marked by custody battles for our two sons, tears, and trips to the therapist. I marvel at those who do it without family and friends—I had both. Looking back on those turbulent years, I realize I had an enviable clarity of purpose. My goal was the well-being of my sons; everything else was secondary. Now I miss the focus that gave me such direction.
After the hike I meet up with Alexia McKinnon at the Banff Centre, an “arts and creativity incubator” at the base of Tunnel Mountain. McKinnon manages leadership programs for indigenous people. Hailing from the First Nations tribe of Champagne and Aishihik, up in Yukon Province, she tells me that Tunnel Mountain is also called Sleeping Buffalo Mountain. And, she adds, “according to the elders, it is a place of healing, especially for women.” Really? The mountain I just climbed with the gals and touched wood—that mountain? “No doubt you felt its energy,” she says.
The town of Banff, at the convergence of three valleys and two rivers, was a place of gathering and trade for native nations, including those of the Stoney Nakoda, the Blackfoot, and the Tsuutlna. Their influence continues to resonate.
When I ask McKinnon what wisdom today’s elders offer, she smiles.