Calgary, 12 years later

I took the wheel for the last few hundred miles of the highway to Calgary, which were across a flat, featureless landscape. I felt apprehensive. So did the weather. Huge billowing blue/black clouds hung from the sky. We switched on the headlights and drove through heavy rain bursts. The radio reported tornados in the area. The emergency services were on a high state of alert. We stopped for gas at a small place called The Middle Of Nowhere. A sign flapped violently in the wind. On the distant horizon I could see three small twisters developing. They weren’t coming in our direction. The huge, bruised clouds were. It grew so dark that I could hardly see the dollar bills I counted out to pay for the petrol. The woman who ran the gas station asked us to come inside for a coffee, until the severe weather had passed. We declined the offer and continued on our way. There was no other traffic on the road.

First, the CNN tower peeped at us from over the stormy horizon. Then the skyscrapers came into view. Then the city of Calgary could be seen laid out in a valley beneath us. I was back, after almost 12 years, and as we drove towards downtown Calgary it felt like I’d never left the city. Everything seemed so familiar; every street corner, every building sparked memories, and the memories weren’t as painful as I thought they’d be. Jose and I checked into the Ramada Hotel on 8th Street. There was an irony here: when I left Calgary in February 1988 I caught the airport bus from outside the Ramada Hotel.

The Ramada was a bit more expensive than our usual hotels. However, we’d saved on three nights hotel accommodation while staying with Tony in Winnipeg; and besides, after more than two weeks on the road we figured we needed some pampering. Jose loved our plush hotel room. Jose also loved Calgary. I knew she would, most people do. Calgary? I know you’re just dying to ask… back in the 1870s the Northwest Mounted Police were sent to south central Alberta to put an end to the illegal whiskey trade. They built a fort at the confluence of the Bow and Elbow rivers. A jock by the name of Colonel James Macleod was in charge of the Mounted Police. He named the settlement Calgary, possibly because this was the name of his ancestral home back in Scotland, or perhaps because ‘calgary’ means ‘clear running water’ in Gaelic, or perhaps because Calgary Bay, on the Isle of Mull, was where shiploads of destitute refugees set sail for America in the early 1800s. In otherwords, no one seems to know just how the hell Calgary got its name. Personally, I think the most likely explanation is that in the dialect of the local Indian tribes, Calgary means ‘bunch of white dickheads who are stealing our land’. Anyway, with the arrival of the Canadian Pacific Railroad in the 1880s the population of the settlement boomed, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Calgary has a reputation for being a cowtown (it hosts the annual Stampede, one of the biggest rodeos in North America), but the discovery of huge oil reserves in Alberta in the 1960s transformed it into a major metropolis and administrative centre of the oil industry. Forget the cowboys, black gold is what Calgary is really about. You can see it everywhere, from the gleaming downtown skyscrapers of the oil companies, to the nodding donkeys beside the runways of Calgary International Airport. Calgary = oil, billions and billions of dollars worth of oil. The cowboy image is just an echo from its frontier past.

It felt nice the next morning to wake up in a plush hotel room. One of our company sponsors was based in Calgary. They were called Vitacorp and Jose went off to pay them a courtesy visit. Meanwhile, I picked up the phone and rang the news desk of the Calgary Herald. Thus far we hadn’t done much publicity in North America. There was no need to: all the charity fund raising was coming from the UK. It would be nice to get some publicity for Vitacorp; however, I had other motives.

During the winter of 1987/88, I was 23-years-old and living in Calgary and hopelessly in love with a girl who didn’t love me. In the subzero temperatures of a Canadian winter this little drama was set against the much bigger backdrop of the forthcoming XV Winter Olympic Games.

I could have won a medal for persistence back then, my persistence in pursuit of her. Our relationship had always been somewhat stormy and it reached a crescendo during that winter in Calgary. But it was time to bury the past, so while Jose was down at Vitacorp I took a drive around Calgary, looking at all my old haunts. For the first time in North America I was highly conscious of being in such a visible car. I didn’t want to be noticed on the streets of the city. I wanted to keep a low profile. I did not feel like contacting anyone from the old days, least of all her.

My navel gazing was interrupted by the car. For the last two weeks, since Doctor Doug’s operation in Toronto, the No.1 car had been running as sweet as a nut. Now, in Calgary, the brakes on the car started playing up. Every time I hit the brake pedal my foot went to the floor. There was no pressure until the pedal was pumped two or three times. Oh, brilliant. I pulled into a parking lot beside a church. A group of worshippers had to quickly step out of the way as I pedal pumped to a halt. The worshippers were Mormons and didn’t seem to mind that I’d almost run them over. They politely asked me the usual questions about the Alaska Challenge and I gave the usual answers.

I’d seen lots of Mormons during my previous encounter with Calgary. The ones dressed as cowboys had the most sinister appearance: boots, jeans, shirt and hat, all black, like some kind of Roy Rogers antichrist. Manitoba got the Mennonites, Saskatchewan got the Doukhobors and Alberta got the Mormons (also known as Latter Day Saints – LDS). In this instance, though, the Mormons weren’t settlers coming directly from Europe, they were fleeing from persecution in the United States, persecution which largely centered around the Mormon practice of polygamy. It’s a bitch being a Mormon, because shortly after the Mormons arrived in southern Alberta the Canadian authorities also banned polygamy. Despite this the Mormons stayed in Alberta because the Canadian Government’s policy of populating the west meant that free land was available under the Homestead Act. Actually, I think it must be rather handy to have more than one wife, particularly when it comes to pushing a broken down car.

The Mormons were most helpful and after I’d put some brake fluid in the system we decided that the car could be driven safely, depending on your definition of ‘safely’. They had God on their side, whereas I had to rely on luck. That luck got me back to the hotel in one piece, where Jose informed me that the big boss at Vitacorp was taking us out to dinner that evening.

The big boss was a guy called Alan, in his early thirties and wearing a thousand dollar suit. Alan came from eastern Canada and was going prematurely bald. He was a company man through and through and talked business all the time. He didn’t appear to grasp the concept behind The 2CV Alaska Challenge: it’s a fun thing, Alan, it’s FUN. Alan seemed a nice enough guy though, particularly when he said he would pick up the tab for the meal. A generous sponsor indeed, who was accompanied by Adina, his Head of Marketing. Adina came from Romanian stock. I didn’t know the Romanians had made it this far west, but there again, when the government offered free land in these parts they came from all over the world to get a slice of the action. Adina was small, slim, dark-haired and 28-years-old. I’d already spoken to her on the phone earlier that day, asking if Vitacorp were ok about us doing some publicity. She agreed to it and became the spokeswoman for Vitacorp.
“So, you’re from England, Jose’s Dutch and you’re driving a French car to Alaska: how come a Calgary company are one of your sponsors..?” a Calgary Herald reporter asked me. Hmm, good question, and one I didn’t have an answer to, nor did I have an answer when the reporter asked me what sort of business Vitacorp were involved in. I mumbled something about Adina handling that side of things and quickly changed the subject.

Adina was more relaxed than Alan, who seemed unable to click out of business mode. The restaurant was perched on Princes Island, in the Bow River and just across from downtown Calgary. Judging by the clientele, the joint was obviously the latest in-place for wealthy Calgarians. The four of us sat outside at a table. The menu had poncy descriptions of what was just basically meat, potatoes and two veg. Despite the fact we were sitting outside, smoking was banned. Jose lit-up a cigarette and had an argument with the waitress. Jose was wasting her breath. In some states of America, where they still have the death penalty, condemned prisoners are not even allowed to have a last cigarette. Political correctness, don’t you just love how wonderfully screwy it is. After we’d finished the meal our argumentative waitress brought over the bill. I looked at it and then looked at Alan, who didn’t blink an eyelid as he produced his credit card. I would have been having heart palpitations. Afterwards, Adina came back to the hotel with Jose and I and we all had a drink together in the bar.

The next day, Tuesday 17th August, we made it into the Calgary Herald, page 3 of the entertainment section. The headline ran: ‘Tin snails bound for Alaska Highway’. The piece carried a photograph, taken from the web site, showing the No.2 car beside a wigwam and a covered wagon. They used this photo of the No.2 car because it carried Vitacorp’s banners and the No.1 car did not. Looking at the article in the paper, I was once again dragged back to the past, to a 15th February 1988 copy of the Calgary Herald, which became the last thing to go into my suitcase before I crept out into the snow and headed for the airport.

I felt like a cad, a complete and utter cad. My luck had run out and my money had run out. Now I was skulking back to London, leaving behind me a score of unpaid bills, like losing betting slips after a big race.

Since arriving in Calgary in October 1987, I’d been working illegally without a permit and it had been a constant battle to keep one step ahead of the immigration people. After Christmas I lost my job and from then on I suffered acute poverty. I struggled to pay bills; I struggled to put food on the table; and all the while there was heartache and the hustle and bustle and excitement of the approaching Olympic Games. It really was the best of times and the worst of times, hammered home by my final encounter with her on Christmas Eve. We met amidst the tinsel of a downtown bar, where she had the last word on our relationship.

I owed back rent on the apartment. I felt really bad about this. My landladies, two young American girls, were nice people who had taken care of me. But if you ain’t got any money you ain’t got any money; and so I did a runner from the apartment, using the service alley between the backs of the houses in the hope that no one would notice me. It’s not easy being furtive when you have a large suitcase for company. I slipped and stumbled through the snow and came out on 14th Street, which at this point is a busy shopping area. It was midday. I did the dirty at this hour because I knew there was less chance of running into my landladies or any of their friends. But still some chance, so I hid behind a wall while I waited for the downtown bus. I was wearing many layers of clothing to keep out the fierce cold. The temperature was hovering at around 30 below freezing, yet I was still drenched in sweat. It’s no pushover being a cad, you know.

After the bus had deposited me downtown, I left my suitcase in the reception of the Ramada Hotel, from where the airport bus departed. My plane wasn’t due to leave until six that evening. The subzero temperatures made it impossible to contemplate any outdoor time wasting, and I didn’t fancy spending six hours drinking coffee in an airport lounge. The solution was simple: I had put aside fifty dollars, so in the meantime I would get gloriously drunk.

Every bar I visited became yet another farewell to Calgary. I eventually found myself at a hotel bar near the airport, where I got tangled-up with an Aussie businessman who had a wild mane of hair. He offered me a job. I pondered over this offer and bought the Aussie another drink. After paying the barman for the drink I had twelve dollars and fifty cents left. That was it. I had nothing else. My bank accounts were empty. I had nothing valuable I could sell. That twelve dollars and fifty cents really was everything I had left in the world.

With a resigned sigh I asked my old pal the barman for another refill. The sands had run their course. I now had seven dollars and fifty cents and I knew there was no going back. No last chances from mad Aussie businessmen. This was goodbye Calgary, for about the eighth time that day.

The bitter sweet irony of it all cracked me up. In fact, I couldn’t control my laughter. Most of the bar crowd were in town for the Games. They were in a holiday mood and dollar bills were thrown across the bar with carefree abandon. I got rather caught up in it all and almost missed my flight to London. I only made it because the plane was delayed due to technical reasons. I don’t remember the take-off. I staggered on to the plane, did my seat belt up and fell into a deep sleep. I awoke many hours later to find the plane over the Welsh mountains. I was home. The next day, nursing a hangover, I watched the opening ceremony of the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics on my television set in London.

More than 11 years later, with that article in the Calgary Herald, I was trying to have the last word over her. Childish, isn’t it.

It was Wednesday 18th August 1999 when we resumed our journey west on the Trans-Can Highway. I felt no regrets when we left Calgary. I felt no guilt either. All those debts I left behind in a previous life had been paid off a few months after I got back to London in 1988. All that remained was the emotional tug which Calgary still exerted on me. There wasn’t an awful lot I could do about this and so I concentrated on the job in hand: getting an old, beat-up 2CV all the way to the Arctic Ocean in Alaska. As Jose and I drove away from Calgary we were only one and a half weeks from our goal.

From When I Went Out One Summer’s Morn, Rob Godfrey’s memoir of 20 years of travels, available as both an ebook and a paperback from Amazon

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