Hills, here and elsewhere


My office window faces north and from here I can see the edge of Calgary’s Nose Hill Park. The park is a vast stretch of grassland that has avoided the encroachment of subdivisions and suburbs. A miracle in Calgary. I used to run along the trails on Nose Hill Park when I was a teenager. It is the first place I ran out of my own volition. (Before that I’d only endured the forced marches of Phys-ed class). My hill run began on the pathway behind my house and stretched up through the brown and tan suburbs, underneath busy 14th Street, and up onto the Hill. The pathway ended at a picnic table made ragged by pocket-knife graffiti. Initials added to initials framed in lopsided valentines. The mathematics of teenage lust.

Sometimes, when I was lucky, I saw a young deer at the end of the pathway. I don’t know how many times this happened – in retrospect, it couldn’t have been often – but I remember it very well. The morning moments with a young deer was the reward for my panting and sweat.

Other things happened on Nose Hill, of course. A parking lot on one edge of the hill, just out of sight from my office window, was called, charmingly, ‘Pecker Point’. An archaeology of beer cans and condoms lays beneath the gravel bearing witness to what happened here. There were fires, too, started by careless smoking or illegal fireworks, that often blackened the hill to its edges. Sometimes we could smell the ash in the air from the St. Helena Junior High down the road.

My times on Nose Hill were decidedly more chaste. Just the morning runs and the hope of spotting deer at the picnic table.

I am writing about other hills right now: the Khasi Hills in northeastern India along the border with Bangladesh. The Khasi Hills, of course, have little in common with the dry Calgary park I can see from my window. On the Khasi Hills, moisture from the Bay of Bengal collides into the cliffs and pours down in a rage. These hills endure the world’s highest annual rainfall, and Indians come in the dry season to stare over the cliffs and imagine the storms. The rains turn the Khasi Hills into jungle, but Nose Hill is only green in the weeks after a grass fire – a brief transition between the black and brown.

Instead of the white flowers that hang along the Khasi roadside, Nose Hill enjoys a brief blessing of crocus. I remember my kindergarten teacher bringing us onto the hill to see the tiny purple flowers. Mrs. Bloy told us to find a blossom and lay on the grass beside it while she told us the myth behind the Chinook wind. I cannot remember the story, but I remember my puffy winter coat and the feel of the dry grass on my face and the velvet petals of my flower. That day on the Hill remains one of my fondest childhood memories.

I mention it here because I became a father three weeks ago and I’m feeling nostalgic.

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