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I’m sitting in Cochrane, a fast-growing town stuffed in a valley notch tied to the northwest of Calgary by a fifteen-minute stretch of highway with exactly the kind of scenery all of Alberta’s tourist guides include: wide sweeping farmland vistas with the ripped edge of the Rocky Mountains to the west. My view from this coffice space is those same mountains, seen across a strip-mall parking lot and over some rooftops.
This coffee joint has been here so long, just a few doors down from the Safeway, that it has gone through several owners and several names. It started as Java Jive. Then it was Java Jamboree. Now it’s The Gentry. It’s bright and airy with white walls, chunky-topped square wooden tables, white enameled-metal chairs and stools – just the kind of place I’m sure to sit down and work in.
I’m in Cochrane because my parents live here and I’m visiting them. Cochrane is not where I grew up; I grew up farther west up the Bow Valley. I knew Cochrane as a small town with the usual Alberta small-town things. A post office, a grocery store, a drug store, the best ice cream store in Alberta, a “Chinese and Canadian” restaurant, a saloon, lots of western-themed stuff. Alberta. You know.
But do you know Alberta? Do you really? People think of Alberta as the Texas of Canada because it has wide-open scenery, farms, ranches, and oil. But Alberta also has the east side of the Rocky Mountains and a much more northern culture and history. Alberta, especially Calgary and environs, is more like the Colorado of Canada, with some bits almost more like Oregon.
Take The Gentry for an example. Were you expecting country music? They did play one country song half an hour or so ago. Since then, at least three of the songs that have played have been in Arabic. Were you expecting western accents? Naw, not like what you think. Albertans sound like Canadians who’ve just washed their accents one or two more times. And the only other customers in here right now as I type this in the late afternoon are speaking Spanish. Were you expecting cowboys? Listen, bud, way more people in Cochrane ride mountain bikes than horses.
Cochrane is still proud of the western heritage. There’s lots of horsey-themed stuff and western motifs and so forth. But I will bet you five bucks that if you grab any random person off the street in Cochrane and ask them how much time they’ve spent on horseback in their lives, it will be less than I’ve spent. And I last rode a horse when I was fifteen.
I remember some years ago when I was visiting here I went to a local pub, and I ordered a wheat beer and asked if they had lemon to put into it. The guy at the bar looked at me a certain way and I said, “Does that sound like a city-slicker thing to say?” And he said “I wasn’t going to say it, but…”
But he said it with a British accent. And I may live in Toronto now, but I was born and raised in the southern Alberta countryside. So maybe he came here to find the true spirit of the west, but I’ve been watching the west for half a century now, some of it up close all the time, more recently on visits every year or sooner, and I can tell you what the spirit of the west is. I’m looking at it right here in The Gentry. Paintings of horses, but more people wearing Lycra than leather. Several languages spoken, no country-music accents. Not too much country music, either. Listen, all the kids I grew up with here listened to rock, not country.
And above it all, a lovely view of the foothills and mountains… but lots of cars in front of them. And a little too much suburban sprawl… but the air sure is good.
Oh, yeah, and I can sit down in a nice coffice space and get some work done.