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A Visit to Lethbridge, Alberta

When the little turbo-prop plane takes off from Calgary International Airport, I fall into a sort of half-sleep immediately. Fashionism played a show last night opening for the absolutely fabulous, ultra-gay glam-pop artist Laurice; I didn’t get to bed till after 2, and caught my flight from Vancouver at 6. When the pilot announces our descent barely half an hour later, I finally peer out the window and am surprised at what I see: It’s green. It’s my first time in Lethbridge, and everything I’ve heard led me to expect a dry and dusty brown.

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Soon, I’m back on firm ground and my boyfriend, Joel, meets me at the small airport with my car. He came out a few days earlier and as much as I love the drive, I feel pretty lucky to have taken the shortcut for once. The air outside smells like Alberta in the summertime – a smell you don’t notice when you live there, but that surrounds you constantly; a sweetness, like new hay or honey. It’s one of my favourite parts about coming back to the prairie.

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Joel whisks me immediately from the airport out to Castle Mountain, a ski resort an hour and a half west in the Rocky Mountains; his sister is getting married there in, oh, about three hours. More on that later. I’m not a huge wedding person, but in the open air, against a majestic backdrop of mountains with a gurgling stream providing the soundtrack, it seems perfect. Mere minutes after the vows are wrapped up, the skies open and the rain pounds through everyone’s fancy clothes as we run for cover. So much for the wedding photos. The slower of us congregate under the boughs of a tall conifer till it dies down. Apparently there’s been lots of rain this year. And it seems to be moving east, towards Lethbridge; a few of these downpours would certainly explain the uncharacteristic lushness.

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Late the next day, we arrive back in Lethbridge to Joel’s parents’ acreage just outside of town, somewhat exhausted from our epic hike to the ghost town of Lille in the Crowsnest Pass (more on that in my next post!). I am absolutely delighted, because there’s a pile of baby kittens waiting for us in a laundry basket in the mudroom – three tabbies and two gingers. These are the tiniest baby kittens I’ve ever seen; their eyes have just opened and they wobble dangerously as they stand on their own and take tentative steps. Their mother is an old hand at this business so she’s totally cool with us petting them—gently, gently, because they’re just so damn tiny and pink and delicate and cute! If anyone wants me, I’ll be with the kitties.

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Although I grew up in Alberta, we never really got around the province much. Edmonton is significantly farther north – five hours. As a family we’d go out to our lake lot at Lac Ste-Anne; there may have been a trip or two to Jasper; and we’d faithfully visit the British Columbia interior every year while my brother and I were on summer holidays from school. As an adult, I’ve spent lots of time in Calgary, and took one trip to Drumheller and Dinosaur National Park during which I fell in love with the landscape. But Lethbridge had yet to be explored.

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Lethbridge is new to me, yet completely familiar. Alberta just has a certain feel, I guess. In the morning, as Joel and I drive around the city, I recognize in the coulee the geology I loved in Drumheller when I visited years ago. Like elsewhere in Alberta, there are a lot of trucks, and an abundance of Tim Hortons coffee shops. Things sprawl and seem spread out, maybe even more so than in Edmonton or Calgary. I’m definitely glad we have the car. We cruise around a neighborhood of untarnished midcentury ranch-style homes I imagine are occupied by sweet grandparents just like mine. Joel tells me this is one of the nicer areas, but that despite its peaceful surface, Lethbridge can get pretty rough.

As is my habit, the first thing we do is hit the thrift shops: Value Village, Salvation Army, Bibles for Missions. I’m impressed by all the great vintage kitchen items around, and the dedicated cowboy clothing section at the Salvation Army; western style is definitely an everyday thing here. We stop in for lunch at a diner; I’m sad to say the name escapes me. I order a regular ol’ garden salad in order to make up for the decidedly unhealthy food I’ve been eating.

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Flagrant disobedience: The shop lady is glaring at me as this photo is taken. 

Next, we hit Progress Clothing, as infamous for its dreamy deadstock as for its … unique brand of customer service. Joel’s told me all about it numerous times. It reminds me a lot of Honest Ed’s in Toronto, one of my favourite places of all time; there are old-fashioned hand-lettered signs everywhere, and a slight sense of disorder. Predictably, I get into trouble: I’m shooed away from the boys’ 12–14 section and guided toward the “right” size. Then, I’m reprimanded for having Joel take a photo of me in a coat so I can see what it looks like since all the mirrors are blocked with racks of clothing. But magically I don’t get kicked out, and Joel is impressed. I buy a boys’ green nylon parka with a faux fur hood, and some deadstock packaged boys’ undershirts.

Heading around the corner, we find our way into Urban Prairie, an antique shop where the sweet and chatty woman behind the counter offers us coffee. Who could say no to that? Spread out over two floors divided into sections belonging to different vendors, the shop carries tons of cool antiques and collectibles of a wide variety. In the basement, I am ultra tempted by the great selection of Fire King and Pyrex kitchen glassware. If I lived in Lethbridge, this would definitely be a frequent stop in my travels!

That night, back at the acreage, Joel’s mother beckons me into the basement. She opens the door to outside slowly and deliberately to reveal a huuuuuuge tiger salamander. They’re there without fail each night, she says.

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The next afternoon, we meet up with some of Joel’s old friends. After a backyard beer, I’m excited as we head out for a walk in the coulee. But literally 20 feet down the pathway, we run into an acquaintance of Joel’s friend’s coming toward us, and he’s holding his arm and breathing heavily. “I broke my arm,” he explains. His girlfriend follows behind him, carrying a pair of skateboards. One of our group runs back to the house, just a few blocks away, to get the car and drive him to the hospital. As we wait with him at the top of the hill, he sits down on a metal power box and shifts. His arm is jelly-like; blood covers his shirt and he’s pale and sweating. Soon he’s in the car, and we carry the skateboards back to the house. Joel’s friend returns, and we try again, but decide to drive down to the coulee this time. It’s a brutally hot day and we walk along the languid Old Man River skipping rocks and go as far as beneath the train trestle, watching a group of teenagers jump off the cement supports into the water – the best kind of small-town summer fun.
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Starving, we head over to the Owl Acoustic Lounge for a pint and a burger on the patio. It’s a cool place, with live music, although none on this particular night. And the veggie burger I order is really, really, REALLY good. I could see myself hanging out here often if I lived in town. One of our friends asks me for my impressions of Lethbridge; the word “bleak” and flashes in my mind, but that’s probably me projecting my own small-town teenage years and what it would have been like had I never left.  Here, the city seems small and quiet, but like there’s also the potential for growth. Like in Lethbridge, you could probably still make some cool things happen. Not like in Vancouver, where everything is financially out of reach, and the things I love are being bulldozed in favour of modernity. I wish I’d gotten to see some of the touristy things here, like typical Lethbridge travel spots Fort Whoop-Up or Writing-On-Stone Park, but it’s a family-oriented visit and I’ll have to save that for next time around.

We part ways with these friends, and I grab a mocha at a Starbucks where the barista tells me I look like I should be in a fashion magazine. I smile and thank her; I’ve been feeling like a bit of a dirtball the past few days but she manages to dispel it with a few words. Next, we’re off to another couple’s home, this one filled with bizarre taxidermy and cool collections. It’s the first time I’ve met them, and we compare stories about experiences at a particular Vancouver boutique where the owner has a knack for getting you out of your comfort zone and into something fabulous. I tell them about a pair of 1920s satin shoes I procured there, and they respond by thrusting upon me two pairs of 1930s leather shoes in my size. Joel leaves with a gift as well. I’m left with a warm impression of Lethbridge folks; there’s a selflessness and generosity that seems common to prairie people that after spending four years in Vancouver, I appreciate more than ever. That night, I open the basement door before bed; sitting there is a toad, and three salamanders.

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It’s our last day in Lethbridge and we’re up early to whip over to Vulcan, which I begged and pleaded could be a reality (although I didn’t have to beg and plead very hard!). Joel’s grandfather would be arriving for a visit in the early afternoon, so we were able to juuuuuuust squeeze it in. To my immense pleasure; it was a long-held dream of mine – more on that later. Later, we all—Joel’s mother, father, aunt, and grandfather—go to a movie at the cheapo theatre. We see The Man Who Knew Infinity, based on the true story of a brilliant Indian mathematician. And it’s brilliant. Joel and I cap the night off with a frozen yogurt from the theatre, just $3 for a mini cup, which we pile high with fruit, candy, and even Nanaimo bars. Back at the acreage, I say goodnight to the kittens, who have grown considerably even in these few days. I fling open the door in the basement, but the salamanders must be busy doing salamander things somewhere else. With that, I head to bed. We’re off to Montana in the morning.

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