Dead Brides and Dishpigs: An Appreciation of the Canadian Rockies

(This, from 1989 — the second piece I ever published — was a national scandal, causing Saturday Night, Canada’s oldest and most prestigious magazine, to be pulled from newsstands across the Rockies. It went on to win a National Magazine Award.)

Peerless natural beauty? I’ve always found it annoying. If you’re staying at the Banff Springs Hotel or Chateau Lake Louise, there’s no getting away from it: everywhere you look they put a view in front of your nose. When you turn your head in hopes of finding something dreary to soothe those dazzled eyes, it happens yet again. In the frame of a pleasant Romanesque window, some inconsiderate genius has placed, with sensitivity, a perfect mountain. Or a valley dark with conifers. It can wear you down. Thus I found myself repairing to the steam tunnels, those warm, slimy underground passages that lace the foundations of the old hotels. And it was there by chance that I met a class of human being rarely encountered by the pampered guest: a small society that hardly sees the light of day, that has its own customs, politics, and mythology.

Tammy, the ingénue, wears bright overalls partly unbuttoned down the front, and has the buoyant smile ordinarily associated with a cheerleader from Brandon. Tammy, eighteen and counting, is a cheerleader from Brandon. “We live like rats,” she says cheerfully, in response to a query concerning the quality of life as a chambermaid at Lake Louise. I’ve come close to quitting ten times.”

How long has she been in the mountains? “Five days.”

Tammy is anything but a quitter. “I’m starting to get into this routine. You think of your work as this nightmare you had the night before. You try not to think about it when you’re off work, until the next day, when you have another nightmare.

So what’s it like when you’re off work? “A nightmare.”

There’s the problem of status. “You want to be a waitress. Or a wine steward. A chambermaid’s just a ‘chamberslut.’ People won’t even dance with you.”

The male equivalent of a chamberslut is a dishpig. Dishwashers work horrendous hours, are yelled at and drenched with filth, and also have a hard time finding dancing partners. An argument ensues between Tammy and a dishpig over who enjoys the more ignoble position.

Greg, a worldly eighteen-year-old from the University of British Columbia, settles everything. “It doesn’t matter. What’s really low is a houseman.” Everybody concurs. Better a pig or a slut than a houseman.

What’s a houseman? “Chambermaid’s slave,” Tammy chirps gleefully.

Greg used to be a houseman, until he was promoted. He now sorts dirty laundry. Of course, nobody calls a houseman a houseman. The word commonly employed isn’t publishable. Imagine being known throughout your place of work by a job title unfit for the pages of a national magazine. Your self-image begins to suffer. Dishpigs learn to call themselves dishpigs, as in “I’m a dishpig.” Chambersluts begin to weave a wry sensibility into their work: although they are supposed to knock on doors and announce, “Housekeeping,” they sometimes sing, “Sluts from Hell!”

Surely there is adequate compensation for this soul-destroying profession. “About four dollars an hour. And sometimes tips.” Tammy muses: “Actually, I’m making less money than I would be back in Brandon, working at the local Bonanza or something.”

Of course, the mountains themselves are supposed to be the compensation. Jacqueline Johnson is the social director at the Banff Springs Hotel. Charming and sympathetic, Jackie loves the mountains, but is concerned about the most pitiable class of teenager at the hotel: the ones who have run away from something at home, and are not in a position to run back when things go wrong. Jackie has stories of chambermaids who become pregnant, clean rooms until they are no longer sufficiently mobile, then find their way to a cash register where they can continue to work without moving.

Promiscuity in the staff quarters of the mountain hotels is legendary. The big three, Banff, Lake Louise, and Jasper Park Lodge, are sometimes referred to as the Herpes Triangle. Most of the employees share rooms, which poses a problem for roommates when visitors are being entertained.

Jackie and I are having dinner in the Rob Roy Room, the most elegant of the restaurants in the Banff Springs. She is thoroughly versed in the history of the hotel. Walter S. Painter, a fashionable architect in his time, was commissioned in 1910 to design the present building, and it was constructed over the next eighteen years out of limestone quarried from Mount Rundle, the sickle-shaped peak that looms over the town of Banff.

When the Canadian Pacific Railway gave Painter the commission, they sent him to the Loire Valley to soak up French medieval tradition. Painter came home to design the hotel in a mixture of styles, the most prominent being Scottish baronial, and the most glaringly absent French medieval. (If they really wanted Chambord, they should have sent him to Scotland.) The resulting chateau is thought by most a positive jewel, a judicious melding of human design with the divine shape of the landscape. Personally, I find it notable for its steam tunnels, which are superb.

Jackie point out one of the finer architectural details, a twisting staircase in the corner of the dining room. The yellowy Tyndall stone, she tells me, is fossiliferous (full of dead things). I find something about this staircase compelling….

Jackie offers some insight into the broader social hierarchy in the Banff region. High above the town, in a secluded complex, the Banff Centre School of Fine Arts basks in its own significance, treating the rest of the town like a chamberslut.

The Centre’s arts students in particular have no time for the transients or the locals, and for good reason. When you have devoted twenty years of your life to mastery of the bassoon, you are justly appalled by those whose chief long-term goal is to maintain a tan through the winter. And wary: what if the urge to tan were to consume you, and you were to begin to drift…. What if ten years down the road you were not second violist in the Berlin Philharmonic, but a dishpig at the Springs?

The horror is mutual. The last thing a pot-washing ski bum wants to meet is a talented person with driving ambition. I spoke to an eighteen-year-old runaway from Nanaimo who had briefly shared quarters with a dancer from the Centre. “She was kind of a jerk. You know. Always, you know, dancing.”

Admittedly, the Centre breeds a supercilious attitude. The bright young things enrolled in the School of Fine Arts are thought too wonderful to be called “students,” so a bureaucrat came up the word “participants.”

The Banff Springs is currently at odds with the Banff Centre. The school has been hosting general conferences, traditionally the lucrative province of the hotel. The hotel argues that the Centre relies heavily on government funding, and is supposed to restrict itself to conferences in its own field, such as culture and education. Nobody likes a subsidized competitor.

When Jackie was first engaged as the hotel’s social director, she had vision of string quartets in the lobby, bassoons in the basement, fiddlers on the roof. She soon came up against the bitterness of the feud. In no circumstances, she was told, would a performer from the Centre be permitted a single creative act within these limestone walls. This, no doubt, has merely served to heighten the disdain the participants have developed for the community below.

 

***

 

Not that the fine artists are the most exclusive creatures in the area. While they set their sights on the peak of achievement, there are those in town who have actually climbed Parnassus. And found it a bit of a bore after K2.

Near the village of Lake Louise, on Bow Lake, is Num-ti-jah Lodge. It is an orange turtle-backed chateau, an unconscious parody of the Banff Springs, and it was built in the twenties by the notorious Jimmy Simpson. The true aristocracy in Banff consists of his type: the mountain man.

Those who stay at the lodge use it solely as a base. In the mornings they climb glaciers to wrestle grizzly bears. In the afternoons they reroute rivers with their bare hands.

There is a mountain named after Simpson. Mount Jimmy Simpson. How many bassoonists have their own mountain?

While we are discussing natural hierarchies, a word about grizzlies. They are large. They are hunchbacks. Their Latin name is Ursus arctos horribilis. They have poor eyesight, as a result of which the entire world looks edible. If you are being chased by a bear, climb a tree. Grizzlies rarely climb. If the bear climbs after you and eats you, assume it was a black bear.

Determining alpine mammals in the field can be difficult. If you see an animal that looks like a goat, it is a sheep. If it looks like a sheepdog with horns, it is a goat. Or rather, it is called a goat, but is more closely related to an antelope. In contrast to our common goat, the mountain goat has a pure white coat which grows almost to the ground, and is one of the most beautiful animals imaginable. They live at such an inaccessible altitude, however, that they are rarely ever sighted except by Swiss climbers, and crashing Cessna pilots a few seconds before impact.

Jackie is looking at me strangely. It’s that staircase. I can’t take my eyes off it. And then I realize why it disturbs me as it does: it disappears into the ceiling. There is no opening. Jackie smiles. “Wondering about the stair…?”

 

***

 

In the town site itself, the hierarchy is quite clear. Tourists are “gorbies.” They do inspired things. They rent recreational vehicles as big as space shuttles, having never driven anything larger than a Honda Civic. One legendary driver engaged the cruise control, then stepped in back to mix himself a martini. One mythical mother covered her child’s face in honey so she could photograph the nice bear as it came in for a taste. Not to worry: angels intervened. By all accounts the child was uneventfully licked clean. The snapshot was spectacular.

Marginally more respectable than a gorby is a transient. What you really want to be is a local. Real locals were either born in Banff or have some claim to indigenous status. Even five-year residents are suspect. It is an important distinction, that of being a local, and the undisputed locals are vigilant that no-one cheapen the currency.

What you really don’t want to be is a ghost. They are truly shunned. Lake Louise was discovered by one. Or rather, he became a ghost years after he discovered the lake. Tom Wilson, a pipe-smoking packer for the CPR surveys, was camping out with the Stoney Indians in the summer of 1882 when he heard the rumble of an avalanche close by. Instead of packing his way out of there like a sensible human being, he asked one of the Stoneys to show him the origin of the slide. It is difficult for the layman to comprehend the silliness of this act. Avalanches are dangerous. The snow slides down with such mass and speed that it sets up a wind powerful enough to blow down tall trees. You inevitably meet people in the mountains who tell you about the time they out-skied an avalanche: how they were carried to the bottom of the slope on the crest of a 200-knot wind. (“Imagine my surprise….”) These people are liars.

Nevertheless, Tom Wilson was adamant about hunting down the source of an avalanche. What he discovered was a deep emerald lake, which he decided to call “Emerald Lake.” Later, when it became apparent that every second lake in the mountains was emerald in colour, the name was changed to Lake Louise, after one of Queen Victoria’s children.

The avalanche had fallen from the heights of the mountain across the lake. Mount Victoria is a peak of purple quartzite striped with sandstone, bearded with a bluish glacier that descends almost to the water. The lake is thick with a suspension of eroded rock particles known as “glacial flour,” and these bend the light into that characteristic green colour. Recalling his first view of Lake Louise, Wilson said, “For some time we sat and smoked and gazed at the gem of beauty beneath the glacier.”

For some time indeed. “There’s a restaurant called the Tom Wilson Room on the seventh floor,” Greg informs me with a knowing look, “and they’ve seen him up there. Still staring out at the lake.”

“Sometimes the piano plays by itself,” says Todd, a cook in the Poppy Room.

“There was a woman working the Tom Wilson Room late at night, and she kept getting phone calls, except there was never anyone on the other end of the line. So she had the call traced, and it originated in the phone right behind her.” Todd pauses for effect. “And no-one was there.”

Then there was the time in the Glacier Lounge when the waitress punched “one burger” into the computer and it came up: “Hello. I am Tom Wilson.”

The elevators are also haunted. There’s something to be learned from this. The Tom Wilson Room – in fact, the whole seventh floor – is a recent addition to the hotel. Computers, of course, are also new. And up until the latest renovation, the elevators, now electronic, were manned by elevator girls. Somebody, or something, does not appreciate innovation at the mountain hotels.

There’s a dead bride on the fifth floor at Lake Louise. She died in her sleep, and guests have since noted a woman in a white dress floating down the corridor. “They phone down to the front desk and ask if there’s been a wedding. And front desk says no.” Greg fixes me with a pale eye. “So they check out.”

“I’m afraid to do the fifth floor,” says Tammy. “I might get Tom Wilson.”

“Get it straight,” says Greg. “Tom’s on seven; the Bride’s on five.”

 

***

 

Jackie raises an eyebrow, archly. “It’s a peculiar staircase. You see, there was a wedding at the Banff Springs a long time ago….”

It seems that after the ceremony the bride climbed the stairs towards her room. Her long white train flowed out behind her, and she held a candelabra to guide the way. At the top of the stairs, the train caught in the balustrade. She tripped. She fell. The candles became tangled in the dress, and by the time she broke her neck at the bottom she was – horrors – engulfed in flames.

The manager of the Banff Springs decided to close off the stairs to prevent further mishap. Now, however, on moonlit nights, a fiery bride can be seen walking slowly up the fossiliferous steps, up, up, until her head and then her body disappear through the ceiling above.

I don’t understand this. Does every hotel in the mountains have a Dead Bride?

… It is late, and Greg and Tammy are the only ones left walking the tunnels with me. We arrive at Dick Turpin’s, the staff pub at Lake Louise. I look about. Those on the dance floor have the demeanour of waiters. Or wine stewards. About them are tables full of untouchable men, shunned women. I think to myself: the chamberslut and the dead bride are one and the same. All of that hope and expectation, and look how the mountains reciprocate! I’m briefly gloomy, in contrast to my nature. I watch as Tammy takes a seat amongst the lepers. And then, since writers are no higher on the social scale than your average dishpig, I ask her if she would like to dance.

 

 

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