This piece is excerpted from Imagine a City: A Pilot’s Journey Across the Urban World by Mark Vanhoenacker. Copyright © 2022 by Mark Vanhoenacker. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
As a London-based pilot of the Boeing 787, Calgary—near so many beloved summer and winter attractions of the Rockies, as well as the energy-rich regions of northern Alberta—is one of my most frequent destinations.
It’s only September, I remind myself, but the chilly and overcast weather makes it impossible to forget that this city lies deep in North America’s interior, and that among Canada’s large cities, it’s by far the highest. At 3,606 feet, the elevation of Calgary’s airport is barely higher than the peak of Mount Greylock, my reference mountain near Pittsfield, my hometown in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts, where the views encompass five states, and the trees grow stunted and bonsai’d by the wind; and so the easiest way for me to appreciate the magnitude of the elevation here is to imagine Calgary, if not as a city in the sky, then as one whose towers are perched on the summit of a snowy Mount Greylock, and whose suburbs and provinces are cantilevered out over its fast-falling slopes.
Through the thick windows of my high hotel room I can see but not hear that it has started to rain. I want to go for a run, but cold, damp weather like this makes it hard to commit. I’ll feel chilly only for the first minute, I say to myself, and maybe again when I stop at the edge of a road, as pedestrians do so faithfully here, until the lights indicate it’s safe to cross. Soon after, I’ll reach the riverfront and there will be no more lights or cars.
Whenever I read that “being present” is the key to equilibrium and happiness, I’m reminded that I have no idea how mindfulness is meant to relate to the act of imagining, that is, to the ability to be somewhere other than where I physically am. When I was young and struggling with being gay, and with my speech impediment, and with whatever else loomed large then, it felt almost lifesaving to be able to travel to my imaginary city—a dynamic, specific metropolis I’d conjured for myself, one I loved to map and draw—or to imagine myself in a real one that was sufficiently distant to feel safe. Even now, in a reasonably content adulthood, I find that the ability to be elsewhere easily is often a joy, or at least a means of ensuring that dishwashing, dental procedures, and delays—in traffic, on public transit, or in falling asleep—pass more agreeably.
It can also make exercise easier, at least on days like today, when I’m not in the mood for it. I know I should try to run outside, rather than on a treadmill in the hotel’s climate-controlled gym. Outside, I’ll be present enough to see something of the city and the world—present enough for honest Canadian rain to pelt me, and for me to nod to and be encouraged by other runners as it does. In contrast, in the hotel’s gym, I won’t get wet. I won’t be cold for even a second. I’ll likely speak to no one; I’ll put in my headphones and run fast to my favorite music and think of anything or anyplace I like. And perhaps, I say to myself, this hotel has those newer treadmills on which you can run a virtual course through a forest or up a mountain trail or—my favorite—along the waterfront esplanade of a pleasant but unidentified city, one I run through only virtually, but again and again, in the often windowless gyms of hotels on six continents.
I put on my shorts and sit on the floor as I tie my sneakers. The wind must be picking up, I think, as I watch the raindrops silently smack the panes. Inside or outside? I berate myself for my indecision, and half scowl at the idea of mindfulness, too. Still, on this occasion, the scolding (but potentially mindful) Puritan in me wins out. I leave my knotted white headphones on the desk by the room-service menu I may use to reward myself later, and head down to the lobby. An elderly couple are standing by the doorway, struggling with their wet umbrellas as they stare at me and my running shorts as if I’m a fool. I want to tell them that, yes, I agree, it’s stupid, but I’ve promised myself a hot chocolate after, and a bowl of pasta after that. I nod as I pass them and run out into Calgary’s cold drizzle, where I shiver—but only for a moment, the scold dutifully records—and start down to the riverfront.
The source of the Bow River is Bow Lake, which lies beneath Bow Glacier in Banff National Park. At Calgary it’s joined by the Elbow River—Bow, Elbow, the names are hard to keep straight, and indeed, the city’s tap water is an aptly even blend—and together they continue toward the often frozen and featureless expanses of Hudson Bay, which many flights from Europe crisscross on their great circle tracks to places as legendarily hot as Phoenix. Most of the Bow River’s volume consists of snowmelt from the Rockies, and in some seasons its milkiness makes it easy to recall that particles of glacier-pulverized mountains are floating past. At other times the water appears clear, or emerald, as it does a little on even this gray day.
It’s only early autumn, by my Pittsfield-bound reckoning, but in this high and interior Canadian city the yellow leaves are already piling on the edges of the paths. I run over the Jaipur Bridge—In recognition of the friendship and goodwill between the city of Jaipur, India, and the city of Calgary, Canada—and then cross back and head southeast down the riverfront trail.
I’ve walked or run on the waterfronts of many cities, but Calgary’s is particularly fine: The river burbles as it curves around small islands; there are nature trails—well-tended and well-signed—and pedestrian bridges and art installations; and in this microcosm of the country as a whole, people are friendly and it’s not crowded. If I was wearing a camera, and it was a brighter day, I could be creating my own digital course for a high-end treadmill, though—and even as I wave back to a waving runner—I appreciate that it’s difficult to conceive of a less mindful thought.
I cross under a bridge, past concrete abutments adorned with a public art project for which Calgarians were photographed wearing papier-mâché masks, including a blue-eyebrowed, red-lipped mask worn, I’ll later learn, by a participant named Don, who explained that he chose that mask because its character seemed so neighborly. I stop under another bridge for a quick break, by gauges that track the river’s inconstant depth: seasonal variations, impending floods of the sort that have occasionally imperiled the city, and some measure of the Bow Glacier’s accelerated melting in response to climate change. Then I head on, pausing only to jog in place before each of the informational signs I pass.
There have always been some Calgarians who have seen the beauty and public value of the river valleys, says one.
We are still making choices that determine the kind of city we will create, says another.
I’m wet now, a mixture of rain and sweat, and when my runner’s high kicks in, it does so as a mad love for Calgary: This, here and now, is the ultimate city, I think, as my old imaginary one flickers to life as it once so often did, and alters itself even as I picture it, to accommodate and reflect the pleasing new facts of all that’s real around me.
I see a freight train, rolling not much faster than I’m running, and I want to wave to its driver, in kinship, perhaps, with my next-door neighbor from Pittsfield, who worked as a conductor on the trains that run from Albany down to New York, and with all those who spend their working days looking out through the forward windows of large vehicles. I run on, and then pause when I reach the meeting point of the Bow and the Elbow Rivers, where Fort Calgary—founded in 1875 by the newly formed North-West Mounted Police, the predecessors of the Mounties—stands. Rivers meet; a fort rises; a future city finds its name.
The rain lets up as I read an information board: If everything planned had actually been built, Calgary would have been the same size as Chicago. I jog across the Elbow on a stylish pedestrian bridge—curving steel railings, wooden benches, sleek gray cylinders with lights mounted within—and look down a street that runs parallel to this greenway. Only a few cars stand outside its houses. Most people, I suppose, are at work. They drive away in the morning and come back in the evening. As a pilot it can be hard to recall this rhythm, or to remember that nearly all of Calgary’s inhabitants will be at home tonight, brushing their teeth and climbing into their beds while I’m in the glowing cockpit of a jet parked at their airport, sipping tea as I carefully program the trans-Arctic route that will carry me away.
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I continue running, past a bear-proof trash can covered with photos of flowers, and then a little farther along the river before I decide, finally, that it’s time to turn back. Not long after, I pause to retie the soaked laces of my left sneaker beneath a bronze statue of a Mountie and his horse. Running around its gray concrete plinth are dark metal letters in sloping, cursive script: What was it like to stand in the middle of a wide open prairie and imagine a city?
So I stand, close my eyes, and try this for myself: not only a prairie, but this one; not just any rivers, but these two; until—I’m in a T-shirt, it’s raining again, this is Calgary in late September—I start to shiver, and I open my eyes and run on.