I was born in Calgary but spent some of my youngest and most impressionable years in Exshaw, and went to school there until high school (excepting grades 5 and 6).
I wonder whether it had any appreciable effect on me that the first place I was aware of living in has an x in its name. And not just an x but an x followed by an s. That rather seems like a bit of excess, doesn’t it?
Where is Exshaw? On the way from Calgary to Banff – if you take the old highway, the 1A. If you take the Highway 1, the Trans-Canada, shortly after you pass the first mountains, you can see across the valley a large cement plant at the foot of a mountain subpeak that has been half blasted away. Exshaw. A dusty, windy, windy, dusty town in the mountains, mainly a working-class town, with that one big industry: cement. And that peak is a lot smaller now than it was when I was a kid. They blast more of it away every so often. You may have walked on that mountain… in some concrete made with a bit of it, perhaps in a sidewalk or a building.
Of course to small children everything seems different. Language has tricks you’re still learning. My brother said he’d give me five bucks if I sat on his back and let him throw me off five times. So I did. Having bucked me off five times, he told me I had just gotten my five bucks. Ha ha. There are train tracks leading to the cement plant, with a siding that – at least in the early 1970s – had a large dandelion plant at their abrupt end. When I asked my mother where trains come from, she said the train plant. I had the idea that that dandelion was the souce of all those freight cars. A cottage community across the valley, I was told, was Lacta’s Ark. I wondered who Lacta was (like Dracula?). Actually it’s Lac des Arcs.
And so we learned the names for places. We learned the names that you will still hear from people there. They are not in every case the official names. We would walk to a swamp east of town we called Dragonfly. I doubt it has a real name. We could go crocus picking on Cougar Mountain (not too far up – wouldn’t want to meet a cougar) – or, as the maps call it, Exshaw Mountain. We would walk up Canyon Creek – or, as maps call it, Exshaw Creek – or on the road next to it, towards a smaller set of houses called Nolerville or, as the maps call it (if they call it anything), Molnarville. We would look across the valley at a mountain that looked just like a nose – we called it Sproule’s Nose, because it looked like the nose of Mr. Sproule, one of our teachers. It’s actually Barrier Mountain, as it sports a notable rock face if you look at it from 15 mintues east. Actually, it was years before I realized they were the same mountain.
And Exshaw is dominated by Heart Mountain, a mountain the top front of which is ringed by a band of cliffs that make a heart shape. But the mountain is across the valley. You can see it, but you can’t just walk to it: you have to go ten minutes east to the Highway 1X, then several minutes south on that to the Trans-Canada, then back on the Trans-Canada to get to it – or to Lac des Arcs, at the foot of Heart Mountain and right across the river from Exshaw… but without a bridge. Just to the west is a big lake: Gap Lake. Or, in French, Lac des Arcs. I don’t recall ever seeing anyone sailing on it, though I could be wrong. It’s a very windy place, so…
The Exshaw of my youngest years is not entirely there any more, however. There was a main street with a curling rink, a grocery store, even a hotel with a bowling alley. In 1974, in order to expand the cement plant, all of that part of town was levelled. I’m still not sure why – the cement plant doesn’t occupy most of the part that was levelled. It’s just all empty ground now. Since then, there has been one store – connected to the gas station on the highway – and the only place to go for food and bev is the Legion or, as I thought of it as a kid, the Leejun: normally open only to adults, and I remember that the few times I could go in there it had a pervasive stale cigarette smoke smell. The town’s water comes down from a reservoir above the town. It’s held back by a dam and there are pipes bringing it down. They at least used to be leaky. In the winter we would hike up to look at the ice castles: remarkable structures of ice caused by the leaks spraying up from the pipe. I think they’ve fixed the pipes long since.
So Exshaw for me is quite a lot of memory. We stopped living there when I was in grade 4, though I continued to go to school there until grade 9 (except for grades 5 and 6). Now I live far, far east of there. And there are gaps and errors in my memory. Of course. But there’s no going back to 1973 to review it all and see it all again. We can drive there now, of course, and see what’s there. There’s still a lot of it there. Even the house my parents had built, and then moved out of a year later. There are new houses, too. People are moving there and enjoying it – it’s in the mountains, after all, and outside of the national park but convenient to it. But this is now and that is then. It’s a gap in time. And memory is a pipe that spings leaks from its gaps, and sometimes those leaks make ice castles.
And there are new gaps, and not just in memory. Exshaw has also suffered from the flooding that has made a mess of much of the rest of southern Alberta this past weekend. Exshaw Creek is a small creek that flows in a wide, rocky bed. Except for when it fills that whole bed. This week it washed away some of the highway, making a gap between the east and west parts of the town. It also flooded some houses and washed away at least one; at least a quarter of the houses are reported to be damaged beyond repair. The town is just now reconnecting with the rest of the world, and with itself, and it will take some time.
Why is it called Exshaw? The town was founded by Sir Sandford Fleming, a railway engineer, surveyor, explorer, et cetera – and the inventor of time zones. Fleming named the town after his son-in-law, William Exshaw, a gold medalist from the 1900 Olympics – in sailing. Fleming and Exshaw helped establish the Western Canada Cement and Coal Company. Exshaw has been a cement plant town from the beginning. (Now the plant is owned by Canada Cement Lafarge, as it has been as long as I’ve known it.)
And what do you call people from Exshaw? One of my parents once commented that it should be Exshavians, on the model that the adjectival form for Shaw is Shavian. But if I had ever used that term, my fellow students might well have held me down and shaved an X into my hair. No, there is a different model, one rather more mineral. Residents of Banff are Banffites; residents of Canmore are Canmorites. And residents of Exshaw are Exshawites. Which is said like Exshaw with ites, no pronunciation of the w. (Oh, yes, for those who don’t know, Canadian English has a low-back vowel merger: caught and cot are said the same, and the latter vowel of Exshaw is the same one as in la. It’s a four-phoneme word: /ɛkʃɑ/.)
Am I an Exshawite? Not now. Not for many years. I am an ex-Exshawite. But it is a mineral vein in my memory, one I will always strike if I mine deeply enough.