I ended up leaving Fort McMurray the day after I arrived. I knew it wasn’t going to be as beautiful as a Bow Valley national park like Canmore or Banff, but I also wasn’t expecting the dirt-covered streets and sheer ugliness of the small northern Alberta city. It turned out my friend was lying about a few details surrounding our plans. The ice cream and fry truck idea was owned by her boyfriend – not her – and the room I was expected to pay for was being shared with a guy who admitted to having a criminal record and co-owned a strip club. I knew the place wasn’t for me (I swear you can’t make this stuff up. Truth really can be stranger than fiction.). It was interesting to see northern Alberta though. It was wild in a eerie way – it wasn’t inspiring or beautiful to me like the Bow Valley in southern Alberta. I remember thinking the city of Edmonton was rather dull when I passed through it on the way to Fort Mac, but on the way back it looked stunning in comparison.
When the bus took me into Banff, tears streamed down my face at the sheer beauty surrounding me again. I was so happy to be back in the area. Thanks to my time in Canmore, I had the chance to get to know Banff since I’d take the bus there from time to time (And I knew how fun it was at night after that amazing evening out with the group from Canmore). I checked into a hostel and started applying for jobs. I only had enough money for a few more nights at the hostel since I’d spent most of my money on getting to Fort McMurray and paying for a room I didn’t end up staying in. I noticed a “work for stay” program show up at the HI, so I applied and heard back within the same day. Since I didn’t have a lot of options for a new job yet, I took the work for stay opportunity. The volunteer accommodation was in the basement of the hostel. I was happy to have a place to stay where I could comfortably look for new jobs. I worked in the kitchen as a dishwasher and it was a genuinely chill job. The cook who worked that day would always make me a free meal which helped me get through the day on such a low budget. The reality that I needed a job was not lost on me, but I also wanted to enjoy the experience for a month or so. My GST cheque was coming in soon so I’d have something to hold me over until I found something.
My fellow “volleys” at the HI were mainly from Germany. One girl was from the Czech Republic, but she worked full time on top of her volunteer shifts so we rarely saw her. There was a couple from France who were in their own little bubble and a guy from Japan. I hit it off specifically with three German girls and two German guys. The hostel had a karaoke night and free pub crawl. We’d often play pool together on the slower nights and we’d go on nature walks by the Bow River or on Tunnel Mountain.
I’ll never forget my first pub crawl in Banff. Everyone else was volunteering for an evening shift, so I walked into the pub alone. A guy from Newfoundland sat down at my table and we started talking. As other people streamed in, more sat at the table and we drank, laughed, and talked. Nothing boosts your confidence like going out solo – you learn how to walk into a room and talk to new people. It was an excellent experience for my personal development. I hadn’t drank until I was twenty-eight years old and it was sporadic, so I was quite the lightweight at thirty years old. The hostel called cabs to take us to the next pub in town. It was then that I focused on a handsome guy from Israel. His blue eyes looked piercing against his tanned skin. I started telling him about my writing since he asked me a lot of questions. I’ll never forget this conversation.
“What do you write about?” he asked.
“I write about a lot of things, but they tend to be on the darker side. I write about the truth … sometimes things don’t work out for people and those are the ones who need a voice, too.”
He stared at me intently. “But what if things do work out? Why not write about those things?”
I shrugged, mildly annoyed. “Isn’t that what most people write about? The cliché happy endings? I want my work to be more based on reality.”
He stared at me with a smile. “I think you should try writing something happier, because many stories end happily, too.”
My annoyance wore off when I realized he was trying to be helpful. When the group reached the dance club, I was in my element. I love dancing. It’s more about connecting with the music and feeling free than getting drunk and hooking up. We danced like no one was watching.
Back at the hostel, I’d cook mainly pasta and potatoes since they were cheap and filling. Sometimes guests would leave free food in the cupboards, so it helped a lot with saving the little money I had. While it sounds a bit rough, this was actually my favourite time in Banff. It was the freest point of my life in a lot of ways. This was my “party phase” since I hadn’t ever partied before and I’m glad I waited until this phase to do it. There’s a right time for everything and for me, the right time to party with no obligations was in Banff in 2013. I only went out once or twice per week, but it was the most consistent I’d ever gone out dancing or to pubs. When I was cooking, I’d often be doing so at the same time as Steven, one of the German guys. We liked a lot of similar music and he introduced me to the Irish punk bands Flogging Molly and Dropkick Murphy’s. He told me his favourite song was Rose Tattoo by Dropkick Murphy’s. He’d often play it while singing it out loud to me and once I learned the lyrics, I’d sing along. He became like a little brother to me – sometimes it was a little over the top, like when he watched me in a corner with crossed arms as I danced with a guy at the club, but usually it was good times.
“Is that guy your little brother?” asked my dance partner.
“No but it feels like it sometimes,” I laughed. “We work together at the HI.”
“Wow that’s really weird he’s standing there glaring at us.”
It was odd, but it was sort of funny at the same time.
The Israeli guy I spoke to from the first pub night came to visit me one day when I was washing dishes. He peered in through the little window and asked me if I’d like to go with him for ice cream later. I said yes with no hesitation and we met outside after I was finished. He told me I could find a much nicer job than dishwashing or housekeeping.
“Yerving would be a much nicer job for you.”
He offered to go with me to hand in resumes. I thought it was sweet he cared so much about my life since he was a tourist. I learned he served time in the military (as all Israelis are required to do when they are finished high school) and maybe that was where his protectiveness came from. We stopped in the middle of the sidewalk and he kissed me. It was so random, but magical. He asked if I’d want to go with him on a mountain hike, but I was worried about my ability to control myself with him alone. He wasn’t just gorgeous, but kind. When I was back at the hostel, I asked my friends if they’d want to go with us on a hike so it wouldn’t just be us two. All the girls were busy and Sebastien, the other German guy, had started a new job so he was out. Steven said he was interested in going, but when he realized the guy was Israeli, he backed off.
“Would he be okay with me coming if I’m German?” he asked with a frown.
My jaw dropped. I had no idea that would be an issue in this day and age, but maybe that would matter to some people from Israel. I didn’t have an answer. I ended up deciding not to go with the Israeli guy, which was awkward, because he saw me watching a movie with Steven and gave me a look as if to say “You’re with him when you could be with me?” I felt bad, but I thought it was wiser to stick with the people I was familiar with. Anything could happen on a long mountain hike alone with a guy you just met.
The volleys at the HI were like a little hostel family. I loved our group BBQs where we’d all contribute something. Me and Aline, one of the other German girls, had a birthday on the same day so Steven made us both pancakes with syrup. At night, the three of us went dancing together. I had a slight cold, but two glasses of wine made me feel better. I was on a natural high from being at the right place at the right time. The nights we went out dancing were just as amazing as the nights we’d stay in and watch a movie.
I never like writing with other people around, but in the hostel with them, I was able to write while they chatted on the couches. They let me work without disturbing me. They accepted me as I was and didn’t mind that I’d type away.
When Jacky and I got together, things would get a little more wild. Never going out when I was younger, she taught me some things. When I didn’t have enough money to go out that night, she said “Just find a sponsor!” It was easier than I realized to find guys to buy me drinks. Her and I would go around, dancing with different guys and not spending a dime on drinks. We’d look at each other and laugh. The other volleys would shake their heads at us, but it was hilarious to me – until I experienced what happened when you con the wrong guy for drinks. Once this guy with a big straw hat offered to buy me and all my friends drinks if I spent the rest of the night with him – he wasn’t my type at all, but I was already drunk and thought it would be hilarious to surprise all my friends with a free drink. When he bought us all the “Time Machines” at Dancing Sasquatch, I giddily rushed over to give each person a huge drink.
“What the hell did you get into?” asked Aline as I handed her the pitcher-sized cocktail.
I grabbed the other two for Sebastien and Steven.
“Wow,” they both said, looking concerned when they saw the guy coming up behind me.
I excused myself to go to the washroom then got lost in the crowd. A guy from Fiji found me and we started dancing – until the guy with the straw hat found us and started to pull me away. The Fijian guy pulled on my other arm and I was like a ragdoll in the middle of a tug-of-war game. I forgot who stopped pulling first, but I ran over to find Steven and Sebastien. Steven looked pissed and wouldn’t speak to me.
Sebastien shook his head. “If you let him buy you and your friends those drinks, he’s probably going to expect you to spend some time with him. I can’t really blame him.”
I amazed me that they didn’t back me up. I was on my own in this. Jacky was off somewhere in the crowd. Aline was dancing on one of the blocks.
The guy found me again and he looked like he wanted to punch me. “You just run away from me after I bought a round of drinks for you all? Bitch.”
He walked away. The reality hit me like a kick in the guts. I was so genuinely naïve that I thought guys went out to bars to buy pretty girls drinks without expecting anything in return. In truth, most guys don’t really expect much if they do offer you a drink, but you can meet one who was hoping to buy you for the night. I mellowed out after that night, realizing not everyone was there to watch me have a good time. Seeing the look of disrespect on the guys’ faces showed me I was acting like a school girl who was out at the club for the first time. I needed to grow up. I did.
Knowing that our time together was coming to a close, I stopped dancing with random guys and stayed with my group when we’d go out. They were the people who really mattered and it was even more fun dancing and laughing with them.
Like most things, this wonderful time in Banff was slowly coming to an end. September was approaching and everyone had to go back to their home countries for work or school. I wasn’t planning to get too attached to everyone, but the good-byes were hard. They were like a family to me. I don’t feel connections with everyone I meet, but when I do meet like-minded people, it’s hard to let them go when it’s time. Jacky and Kata were the first to go. Steven was next. I remember the last day he was there. We hiked up Tunnel Mountain. As usual, I didn’t pack properly so I got cold the higher we hiked. Luckily he packed two jackets just in case I forgot (He knew me so well!) because it became windy as we hiked further up the mountain. The sudden gust of cool wind felt symbolic of our final time together passing by. I savoured the moment as much as I could, reminding myself not to mourn him while he was still with me. Once we reached the summit, we sat down and took in the view. We were in no rush to leave.
“When I go back home, I’ll be in an engineering program. There’s no women that study in it right now and I’ll be living with all guys, so I’ve enjoyed my time here with you. I don’t know when I’ll get to see a girl once I’m back in school.”
That evening, we played pool until karaoke night began. It wasn’t the vibe for either of us, so we sneaked out and walked down the big hill to McDonald’s in the dark. On the way back, a coyote trotted across the road. I thought it was amazing, but Steven became a little nervous. Banff is wild enough, but most wild predators won’t go after humans. We made it back to the hostel alive; it was the last night we’d be roommates in the volley room.
(The photo above is a snap shot from our time in the volley room. It’s an inside joke.)
It was very sad to see Steven go. Aline left the day after him. The amazing little hostel life bubble had burst and it was time to get a real job and settle into my new life in Banff. One of the cooks at the hostel helped me find a job that was, funny enough, right across the road. I walked across the street for the interview – the staff accommodation was just down the hill so I’d get good exercise walking there everyday. Even though the HI was just across the road from my new job at the resort, it was a world away. The two places had nothing to do with one another in my mind.
I will always look back at my time at the hostel very fondly. It was an amazing summer and experience.
Can’t Hold Us by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis was a key song for many of my early core memories in Banff. It captures the essence of my experience at the HI and first month working at the resort so well.
“Can we go back?
This is the moment
Tonight is the night“
Wow that’s some wild adventure. I’ve never been almost out of money and having to find a job quickly. You took some various risks but I am glad it ended well. Into the wild came to my mind. By the way a lone coyote can’t do much to an adult but a pack can. In any case it was a good story.
Yes LOL I really threw myself out there expecting that I’d grow wings before I landed. Thankfully it all worked out. This was my favourite time in Banff. 🙂
True coyotes can be aggressive. This one was just a lil thing and with there being two of us, it was pretty shy.
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