Like so many others, I was born elsewhere. And when I came to Banff, everything changed.
It was a surprise when the rosy-cheeked attendant waved us up to the lift, offered a high-five, and said, "Last one, guys." We checked our watches for the first time in hours. It was 4 p.m. "How?" I mouthed at my friend, who smiled and shrugged. We rode uphill on one of the day's last chairs, turned our faces to the sun, and held tight to the escaping afternoon. On our final run, down to the Sunshine Village parking lot, we made loopy, silly turns in the soft powder. I took mental snapshots of the snow and the sapphire sky and the amphitheater of craggy rocks high around us. I wanted to capture this moment of happiness, with the natural world so close and so infectiously alive.
"Damn, I should come here more often," my friend, who lives in Calgary, said as we unbuckled our boots by the van. I glanced up and gave him a look that said, well, yeah, duh.
I thought this again when I packed up my car later to drive home. I thought it an hour and a half after that, when I exited the southern gate of Banff National Park, en route to the states. Many, many times since, I've thought about coming to Banff & Lake Louise more often. It's hard to leave these mountains. But I promised I'll be back, and it's a promise I'll hold true. You would, too.
You can find wild, challenging terrain at Banff's Big Three ski resorts—Sunshine Village, Lake Louise, and Mount Norquay—that rivals anything at Jackson Hole, Big Sky, or Whistler. Home to just over 9,000 people, Banff has its share of world-class restaurants, luxury accommodations, boutiques, and tourist fascinations. Yet it's unpretentious, cushioned by the kind of quiet that lingers if major development is scarce and condos don't intrude on resort runs. Beyond the townsite boundary, wilderness reaches out, undisturbed and as it was hundreds of years ago. There's no fear of losing this integrity.
Certain egolessness blossoms when humankind takes cues from nature, instead of the other way around. It draws people aching to be shaken awake, to be changed in a way that's immaterial and indelible—people like myself, and people like Vince Goyette, a 23-year-old who migrated west from his native Quebec over five years ago. His eyes have yet to wander.
"I was only supposed to stay for the summer," the skier told me last winter over a locally brewed IPA in downtown Banff. "I was already big into skiing back home, but after my first time skiing on some actual mountains, I knew this place was right for me. I haven't taken a day off from skiing this year. It's like living in a postcard."
A few beers later, we stepped out onto the bustling Banff Ave., the main artery through town, a street lined with establishments as classic as the Canadian Rockies. To the north, Cascade Mountain stood sentry, ribbed with dramatic, snowy horizontal bands and basking in the peach alpenglow. I looked up at the mountain and saved another mental snapshot, a living postcard of my own to hold onto until I come back.