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The Meander Zone

Bowness forms an obtuse triangle of a community, bounded on the short sides by a corner of the Bow River, with Highway One running down the long hypotenuse, and the vivifying chord of the CPR track steeling its way between the two. The train announces its entry into Bowness a quarter mile east of the crossing at Sunnyside Greenhouse, and blasts again before crossing the twin trestles and heading west for the mountains. The trestles and the whistle once inhabited the dreams of Bowness children, who might look up from their dinners to see the windows vibrating in their frames and realize a train was passing, so used were they to its leviathan comings and goings. The river twisted into their dreams as well, played along, and added its own crescendos with the rise and fall of its flooding.

I speak of the 1980s, before the babble of the Internet, when children could still hear rivers and trains. I also talk of a time when no one paid any thought to the weather.

That carnival feel, the riparian zone Eden, seemed evident from the beginning. Especially to John Hextall, who established his ranch in the valley in 1908. He envisioned an exclusive garden suburb for the wealthy and named it Bowness Estates. In 1911 he donated his island cattle pasture to the city for a park. In exchange the City built an extension of the streetcar line from Calgary, and to cement the contract Hextall provided his own steel four-span bridge.

Bowness Park became the Calgary mecca for picnicking, boating, swimming in the summer and skating in the winter. A dance hall and various miniature golf courses and amusement rides followed. Calgarians came by the trolley-full across Hextall Bridge for a vacation from the big city, a place to “get away.” Other Bowness holiday destinations sprang up, Shangri La, Happy Valley and the Romeo and Juliet Inn. The Paskapoo ski hill emerged on the site of a Stoney Indian buffalo jump. But “away” can tip towards convenient exile, and so Bowness came to house the Baker Tuberculosis Sanatorium, later the Baker Center for the severely mentally handicapped, and Wood’s Christian Home for Children.

Bowness has a long reputation for “grit,” as well as bohemian ambitions. Duality persists today in tracts of subsidized housing, with wealthy homes on the river periphery.

In July the river slowed, the muddy tea color cleared, and the water settled on its customary malachite green for the season. When Bowness still meant getting away, people came to immerse themselves in the park experience; they came to forget, as hard as they could, the shortness of an Alberta summer. But the decades rolled on and by the 1980s Bowness no longer meant “away.” Ennui settled over the neighborhood. The paint curled off the plywood obstacles in the mini golf course at Bowness Park. The owners of Angel’s Drive-In gave up fixing their neon sign and boarded up a broken window. The no-longer-happening Romeo and Juliet Inn, with its musty basement bar, burnt to the ground in the early hours one morning.

For a teenager in 1984, summer meant lying semi-hypothermic with your belly on the sun-hot steel of the push merry-go-round, after a long float down the river. If you came from a rougher family, if you embodied more of that Bowness grit, perhaps you swan-dived from the top girder of the twin trestles, your friends watching, clustered dark barnacles against the sky. One boy bellyflopped and drifted four kilometers. You saw him taken grey-blue from the river, your belly on that hot steel, safe on the roundabout. You heard his poor deluded mother saying to the policeman, “When I take him home, he is going to get it!”

Even your parents, middle class and educated, weren’t perturbed or even conscious of your goings-on. At Bowness High in the 1980s, girls wore tight t-shirts with the ditty, “Some Do, Some Don’t, Some Will, Some Won’t. I Might…” and even if you did or didn’t, all teenagers roamed basically free in locales that would make a modern helicopter parent curl up in a ball.

The train trestles in particular held a compelling draw, the intersection of the two most powerful forces in Bowness.

A teenager in Bowness in the 1980s existed in the middle ground of discontent, fought a bit against the backwater atmosphere but still clung to the nostalgic pleasures of childhood. Summer meant walking the burnished steel track of the railway line, the sun between your shoulder blades and the small of your halter-topped back, the heat wafting sinuous creosote fumes up from the ties. If there was no getting away to be had, the trestles at least promised excitement. Crossing the trestles required longer than comfortable strides to cover two ties at a pace, and concentration against the vertigo of the sliding green water beneath.

If a train came, we knew where to jump down into special compartments constructed on a lower outside beam. Provided by the CPR, these cubbies were there for our use. Of course, teenagers will cross trestles, and some allowance seemed reasonable. Visiting the trestles in 2014, those jumping-down places no longer exist. Perhaps the CPR removed the outer railing? DANGER - NO TRESPASSING signs are prominently posted. Surely those signs hadn’t been there in 1984 when the trestles seemed more like playground equipment. Now the CPR makes no allowances for teenagers playing chicken with trains, and our collective reckless courage seems to have vanished just as irrevocably.

Memories of summer and adolescence involve my feet. Of walking on the tar-patched asphalt of Bow Crescent. Standing barefoot on the hot crust and feeling the ooze and slip of the sun-molten layer just beneath the surface. Or the snaking power of the train telegraphing itself, an anticipatory vibration through your runners on the steel rails; the mundane grey Alberta silt abrading your toes in their flip-flops while you dragged a rubber raft over the poplar roots on the river bank. Your feet washed clean by the cold water. For the river could always be returned to, glacial melt twisting across the valley, following its “meander zone.” Nosing through channels of river rock and gravel put down long, long before a teenager’s angst, or John Hextall, or maybe even the Blackfoot people.

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