The summer that I was ten, turning eleven, my parents shipped me off to Twin Falls Chalet, with my Auntie Fran.
This had nothing to do with punishment, though to a pre-teen girl being told I was spending the summer away from my bicycle, my best friend, my Pokemon cards and my TV it was an adjustment.
I think that at ten years old you don’t have the proper scope of severity for the events in your life. Therefore upon the drive through the mountains when my aunt slammed on the brakes suddenly, I was too busy cracking up at her yelling, “Meese!” to pay attention to the moose standing in front of our car. Our brains aren’t quite yet wired enough to live in the particulars of certain moments.
When we arrived at the trailhead of Takkakaw Falls and I learned that my Auntie Fran adamantly wouldn’t let my Discman or Gameboy leave the car, I sulked, and I pouted the whole way up. I recall stopping for a break and there was a dried out lake I ran across and when I returned, Fran gave me a Werther’s candy.
The few days leading up to our departure for Twin Falls were spent in Calgary, bouncing between my aunt’s friends houses. There are poignant memories for me – watching Legally Blonde on television and deciding I wanted to be a lawyer, discovering one of her friends’ daughters had the entire Sweet Valley High book collection and devouring each one, and my aunt taking me shopping for hiking boots and a cowboy hat – I picked out a leopard print one. Even as a kid, this girl had style.
When we arrived at the chalet I was grateful for the brand new boots, which now in my adult perspective I realize may have cost her a small fortune only for me to outgrow within months. Even at her age (then) we made the climb within only a few hours. I’m sure I complained.
I recall walking up the path and seeing the cabin for the very first time, and lately I’ve been revisiting that moment. Up until this moment any mention of Fran’s life outside of caretaking for my Granny on Vancouver Island to me, was myth. When I first saw Twin Falls Chalet, both of these sides of Fran collided, and I noticed a visible comfort overcoming her, a tension that just slid away. Fran has notably said over the years that, ‘these mountains give back,’ and I cannot imagine somebody as relaxed as Fran was then, though it was time to get to the hard work.
The volunteer team got to work. There was water to be brought up from the stream and boiled, wood to be chopped, beds to be made, dishes to be done, and so much cleaning. This is where my childhood memory blurs because I can’t say if I even bothered to lift a finger. I was outdoorsy then and free and it was a time where you could let a ten year old girl run around in the woods on her own, and so I went down to the creek and started playing in the rocks. I walked up to the chalet bored, and was taught by one of the volunteers how to swing an axe. I loved to crack it down upon the wood and watch it split. I chopped wood until my arms were sore with built muscle, and then the next day did it over again.
There was a library and I was a voracious little reader, always hungry for written word. Without a Discman or Gameboy, I would make do with books. The one I chose was It’s Alive!, a horrific tale about an evil mutated baby that had my young self asking my aunt what ‘birth control’ was, her shaking her head, and me being too terrified to use the outhouses in the middle of the night, with images of the Davies baby chasing me about with scythe-fingers and sharpened teeth.
When my Auntie Fran took me hiking one day over top of Twin Falls themselves, we stood precariously on the little bridge and peered our way over. She told me a story about a couple who had been on the bridge, and the woman had fallen to her death. It was another haunting thought to add to my collection keeping me awake and in bladder pain at night – the Davies baby, AND a murdered soul. On the way down from the falls we were walking along the trail and I inconspicuously grabbed at a dirt clod, pressing it between my hands back and forth and chipping away until I found a perfect quartz crystal hidden inside, like it was waiting for my grubby little paws. I held on to it, and when Fran broke her ankle a few mornings after that, I stood next to her and without her knowing, placed the crystal gently upon her ankle as it was elevated.
“It doesn’t hurt so much now,” she commented. The mountains really are magical.
She was lifted out by helicopter and sent me down the mountain the next day with a Mennonite couple who were guests at the chalet. She trusted them. Before departing they put me in a cotton ankle-length dress and braided my hair in two French braids for the first time. I felt like a different version of myself. They dropped me off at the hospital and upon departure gave me their address, and I began a pen-pal friendship with their daughter who was my age.
Fran and I went to go live in a hotel in Banff for the remainder of the summer, while she ran Twin Falls Chalet from the ground. I remember her driving to the hotel with a broken ankle, and when we tried to leave the car she hit her head on the door and she started crying. When you’re ten and you’re near somebody crying it’s hard to find out how you should react. I think that in that moment she wanted solace, and a comfort I wasn’t yet capable of. Instead I just sat back quiet, and sorry.
I hit my head myself a few days later. I desperately wanted to go swimming in the hotel pool and Fran relented and sent me down with a visiting friend, who ducked into the little grotto. I took the opportunity to practice backflips and on one unlucky occasion hit the very back of my head, my occipital bone on pure concrete. I awoke underwater and began swimming as fast as I could – the wrong way. I turned myself upright and heaved my little body onto the pool’s edge, feet dangling in the water, dizzy and my head throbbing. When I get migraines today, I can still taste the chlorine. This ended my aspiring acrobatic career and for a long time I became very afraid of water.
Fran sent me out frequently with pocket change, and directions to art galleries and museums. I navigated the little streets of Banff and found places I adored – anything to do with geology. I returned one day and triumphantly crowed that I wanted to be a geologist and she shone brightly that day and bought me a library of books about rocks, gems, and crystals. I held tight to the little crystal I had found in those mountains. One day I found a model cabin building kit and I begged Fran and she bought it and in the hotel room I built my own little Twin Falls Chalet.
Every morning the housekeepers would replenish our soaps, shampoos, conditioners, and other toiletries, and every evening I would hide them all in my suitcase. When it finally came time for me to leave to go home that summer Fran had to buy me a larger suitcase just to fit all of my collected shower caps. They sat in the closet at my dad’s for years, along with a model of a wood log cabin with the glue coming undone.
I don’t remember the timeline of events, but during my visit Fran took me to the Stampede where I proudly wore my leopard cowboy hat. We weren’t actually at the Stampede, but a private block party. I went to purchase an Itzakadoozie from an ice cream truck and when I found out they were free, I ate eight of them and had to sit down on the sidewalk to ease my stomach pain. Later I cried when I found an events schedule and saw that my favorite band, The Moffatts, were playing one of the local Stampede events.
I spent my birthday in our hotel room watching cartoons. I phoned my parents and told them that I was bored.
When Fran sent me home at the end of the summer, she boarded me on an airplane for the first time in my life. I went from Calgary to Victoria, where my dad met me with a brand new puppy.
There are certain moments that you can only live in once. Looking back, I wish I had paid more attention that summer. I wish I had asked Fran for her recipe for muffins, instead of asking when they would be ready. I wish that I had known how to comfort her when she hit her head, and I wish I had known what to tell her when I hit my head. I wish I had clearer memories, or that I had spent more time in the mountains with her. Unlike my father and brother, who went back summer after summer, I only stayed for the summer of 2001. I wish I had bought more disposal cameras and that I had taken more photos. Every trip out I would immediately search the car for my electronics, and beg for AA batteries to tune out the world instead of listening to what Fran was talking about.
I have been asked over and over ‘why’ I would take on my aunt’s cause and I think to myself now that I wish that others can have the experiences I did have, and the experiences I didn’t have.
I look at my aunt and I see such strength – such things I couldn’t see when I was ten. She has the secret to life figured out, and for her it’s right there in those mountains. All year she winds and winds, and for her, seeing that cabin in front of her, seeing that winding trail end at Twin Falls Chalet, that is where she gets to shrug off the world and where she gets to just be.
There is an entire world that we don’t know about that goes on around us day in, and day out. There are places out there that nobody has explored, or places kept sacred. Twin Falls Chalet is one of those sacred places, kept safe, and created by Fran Drummond.
I would implore anybody to pull out their headphones, and go spend a few days in the wilderness, and let the weight of the world simply dissolve about your shoulders, when you walk up to Twin Falls Chalet.