We seven stood at the base of the trail up Bear’s Hump. Ember was eager to go. So were the Doram’s. I wasn’t. As they stepped purposefully upwards, I stood on the spot. More remembering. Forty-six years ago, Glen Reid and I had sat in the staff caf of the Prince of Wales Hotel. It was after supper and we were bored.
“Glen, how about if we do something crazy?”
“Let’s crawl up Bear’s Hump.”
(Unremembered response) However, we did seek out carpet scraps and other padding for our hands and knees, and accompanied by several employee onlookers, we began our epic quest. And yesterday I lingered at that spot.
As I began trudging upwards on the sometimes steep trail, I saw the exposed roots and lots of rocks sticking out. After a few switchbacks, I found the little side trail that leads to a fairly level green meadow. I spent about two weeks there in 1973, camping illegally in my little green tent (hoping I would be sufficiently camouflaged). That was the summer I spent backpacking in Waterton, Banff and Glacier National Park in Montana. I even tossed in a hitchhiking interlude to visit friends in Saskatchewan and Manitoba.
Back in the present, I wondered at how I had done the crawl. How did I get around those rocks? I remember Glen being faster than me and that I didn’t see him again till the top. But some friends stayed with me, encouraging me upwards. The knee pain grew. Should I stop? No. I have no idea how long it took for me to summit but I sure remember the last thirty feet. At that point, the trail was a slab of rock, and the pain was huge. I was lost in some other area of consciousness. As left hand replaced right, all I saw ahead was sky. A little more up and still just sky. A few more hand placings … and then … mountains! The whole of Waterton Lake spread below me, surrounded by applauding peaks. Such ecstasy flooded with such agony.
Yesterday, I stood at the lower end of that slab and remembered some more. I heard myself talking to a young man, “Thank you, Bruce.” And what came back to this current fellow was also “Thank you, Bruce.” For the person I’ve become, I guess.
After sitting with my family for awhile, I went in search of a gravel spot that resided in my memory. And there it was. A few times as a PW employee, I slept there with my sleeping bag and foam pad, in the company of perhaps ten wonderful friends. Such a view upon waking but more importantly such an unspoken love among us.
And then there was the Prince of Wales. My home. I worked there as a laundry boy (1969), dining room bus boy (1970), and laundry manager (1974, 1975 and 1976). I can describe experiences I’ve had there, past and present, but words will totally fail to give you what I feel. How can a large Swiss chalet hotel sitting on top of a windy hill do this to me? I don’t know and I don’t care. The Buddha talked about being home everywhere and sometimes I feel that. Sometimes there is no yearning to stand anywhere else. On another level of consciousness, however, the PW stands alone, a place where I learned to delight in the presence of many others, not just those who lived in the same city that I did – Toronto.
I walked up the highway and turned onto the access road to the PW dorms – three three-storey wooden buildings. The gravel under my feet reminded me of a young man who once camped on this road after a rainstorm, next to the newly christened Dorm Lake. Another memory was not so savoury. For the last time in my life, I got thoroughly drunk at a party in someone’s room on the third floor. I tottered to the end of the hallway, opened the fire exit door, stumbled down three sets of outside stairs to the ground, and ended up a few yards away under some bushes, where I vomited it all up. I awoke in the morning covered with the stuff. It was a pretty effective cure.
Monday, in a far more pleasant circumstance, I talked to a waitress from the Czech Republic about my history. “You climbed that hill for five years!?” The dorms are down by Waterton Lake while the hotel sits on the hill above.
As I climbed the path, I veered off towards the laundry, a separate building. I walked in. More storytelling, this time to Denny, the laundry manager. I talked of things we did back then, such as taking a foot-long tube of grease, getting up on a chair and applying the stuff to big leather belts that were turning as fast as the eye could see. He gaped and smiled. We had a fine time, sharing common experiences that were separated by only 40 years. I mentioned names that he had never heard of, naturally.
Next up was the staff caf, where Glen and I devised our crawling plan. I had a momentary thought that I’m not a staff member anymore and therefore shouldn’t go through that door. But I did. “What the heck, I’m an alumnus!” It was a lot smaller than I remembered. The room must have been downsized, at least in my head. I talked to a couple of smiling faces and then exited stage left.
Now into the lobby, with the huge dark wooden posts and the towering chandelier. I just stood. There were the comfy chairs and couches, the two-storey windows looking down the lake, and a harpist playing for folks enjoying afternoon tea. Above me were four wooden balconies. In the fall of 1974, Johnny Haslam, the hotel’s caretaker, invited me to stay on after the Labour Day closing, to drain the toilets and board the place up. Sometimes Johnny was away from the hotel and I was alone in the PW. I often leaned over the fourth floor balcony and sang. Within the acoustics of the old girl, my voice was deep and rich.
I took the stairs down into the basement to look for my name. Back in the 70’s, behind a closed door, there was a hallway filled with the signatures of former employees, some from the 40’s. Way back when, I added mine, including the jobs I did each year. Sometime in the 90’s, Jody and I visited the PW and I was shocked to find that the walls down there had been painted. All that history … gone. Such sadness. In 2011, we returned with Lance and Nona, and magically names had reappeared, mostly from recent employees. Again, I added mine, with a renewed appreciation of the human spirit.
On Monday, I looked at wall after wall for me. Lots of big Sharpie displays but no Bruce. I remembered doing my art work at about shoulder level but I just couldn’t locate that ancient laundry manager. Until … I did. Pretty indistinct but still seeable. I sighed. I was tempted to get a black marker and do it up right but then thought better of it. Let my history at the PW be as it was. No embellishment. Good times and bad ones. Mostly good. I’m glad this grand old hotel has been a major part of my life. She has coloured my spirit.