We physically become where we live and what we do. My mountain hometown—Canmore, Alberta—is packed with retirement-age to much older men and women who are still routinely guiding, running, climbing, skiing and generally living an athletic and healthy lifestyle based on the mountains around them.
It’s “normal” to take an extra hour or three at lunch to hit the Canmore Nordic Centre during the warmest part of a winter day. It’s normal for there to be 30-plus pairs of shoes in the entryway for a family of four—and none of them will be dress shoes, those are buried under the recycling. It’s normal for bicycles in any given household to outnumber cars (road bike, gravel bike, XC mountain bike, downhill bike, beater bike, e-bike). All of this inconspicuous consumption (you have to hide your bikes or they are stolen in seconds) coexists happily with bumper stickers that read, “Live Simply,” and, “Animals Are People Too.”
I’ve learned while riding my bike to watch out for any vehicle with multiple bumper stickers; that level of external emotion likely means the person behind the wheel isn’t thinking about driving, but rather their various causes.
But this is also normal for mountain towns. Mountains attract dreamers, and despite mountains being the absolute definition of rock-solid reality, the people who come here do so to live their dreams. The people who dream of money, beach retirements and stock options move to cities, then work 50 weeks of the year to afford a second home in the mountains—which they visit for two weeks. Those who dream of snow, rocks, ice and raging rivers are often idealists. And just as surely as the elements shape the mountains, the mountains shape the people who live there. In my hometown, Olympians are both more respected and more common than the visiting movie stars. If you don’t dream big, then big dreams won’t happen. (I just wish people would use their turn signals a tad more while in pursuit of those dreams.)
WHEN YOU LIVE in a mountain town, work schedules are more of a guideline than rigid, locked-in-place electrons. This reality is very difficult for those who live in cities to understand, especially when setting up meetings. What would seem like a simple question of, “Zoom call next Tuesday at 2:00 p.m.?” Might result in a reply of, “Maybe, depends if this storm system dumps a lot of snow or not. If it dumps, I’ll be out skiing.”
And if it’s a powder day, everybody understands why you missed a call—at least in Canmore. Mountain towns value movement over money, which is good because it’s really hard to make money in a mountain town, and bikes aren’t free even if the mountains are (mostly).
When you live for a while in a mountain town you start to think the whole world is like your town, botched business calls aside. But then comes the dreaded shock of leaving the mountains and venturing into the flat areas of the world. This shock can be severe; suddenly snow is the enemy and going to the gym three times a week is seen as being healthy. Dress shoes outnumber running shoes, garages have cars in them and movement falls from near the top of the priority list to somewhere below mowing the grass (a well-tended lawn in Canmore is a sign both of environmental destruction and wasting time on unimportant stuff like lawns instead of, well, moving).
The freedom to move physically is one of the greatest freedoms in the world. The opposite of free movement is jail, the worst punishment we can come up with short of death. Yet, many people willingly trade the freedom of fresh air and unhindered movement to live in a place they don’t want to be and work a job they don’t like to earn money to buy nicer sofas and cars. In my town, this would be regarded as a form of willing, planned insanity; a sort of first-degree murder of the soul.
MOVE EVERY DAY. Go for a walk with your kids in a park; walk to the train instead of taking a cab. Just move a little bit. In most European cities, people walk more because, like the mountains, that environment invites walking. A few days walking through a European city vs. a North American city will show very quickly that without motion people tend to move less—and become less healthy as a result. I don’t think we can bring the mountains to every city, but we do have climbing gyms and whitewater paddling courses in many urban centres. My local golf course bans walking (“carts only”), but in winter, some cities open their courses for Nordic skiing.
To me these activities are lifelong and help fix a lot of problems. I’m personally hoping that as I enter retirement age, I too will find the secret fountain of youth many of Canmore’s older generation seems to be drinking from. But if nothing else, I’m going for a walk outside today—and I hope you get one in too, however you can.
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2022 issue. ("Gadd's Truth," page 22).