#YEG: Coming Home

A writer revists Edmonton and sees what has changed – and what has stayed the same.

Illustration Jason Lin

It’s been at least three years since I’ve been back to my hometown. The plane lands and that familiar orange winter sky, with its slightly purple tinge, hangs in the northern night. There’s a thin layer of early-November frost on the runway. I grab my carry-on from the overhead compartment, exit the plane and bypass baggage claim. All the while, I picture Edmonton preserved in time like a snow globe, its bottom engraved 1988-2010, the years I spent growing up here.

My parents give me a huge hug and we head to the truck to drive north into the city. My dad looks back at me in the rear-view mirror. “I guess you haven’t been here since before the arena opened?” he asks, “…and the airport closed,” my mom continues.

We cross the High Level.  Downtown, skyscraper lights blink like the Aurora Borealis. We head up 109th Street towards the brand new buildings of MacEwan University as the slick LRT glides along its tracks unloading students bound for night class. Since planes no longer have to navigate the labyrinth of downtown Edmonton airspace, the short buildings I remember have been replaced by towering high-rises. At the end of the street I can see the shimmering extraterrestrial outline of Rogers Place and, across from it, a massive, sprawling pit’s been dug for what will soon be the tallest building in Western Canada.

“Just three years,” I think to myself, “And the city is almost unrecognizable.”

We cross 111th Avenue and leave downtown, towards the north side. The somewhat dilapidated bungalows, abandoned bowling alleys and rickety theatres resemble faded postcards through the back windows of my parents’ truck. Seven-foot tall piles of shovelled snow surround community indoor hockey rinks, foreshadowing the coming onslaught of winter. The flickering neon of a pub advertises glasses of three-dollar draft which find their way into the cold fingertips of the working class. The Yellowhead pummels along east and west as the CN Rail lumbers parallel, heading toward the mountains in one direction and the vast ocean of prairie the other. 

“Well, in other ways,” I say to myself with a smile, “It’s exactly as I left it.”

My dad hits a pothole and I’m shaken up a bit in the backseat. I look back at downtown through the rear window, an early-November frost forming on the outer edges of the glass. I keep staring, as though from within a little snow globe: My parents’ truck, engraved 1988-2010 on its silver frozen underside. Between the buildings I can make out a suggestion of that familiar orange winter sky, with its slightly purple tinge, the lights of downtown Edmonton almost outshining it completely.

Eamon McGrath is s musician with 300 songs written and recorded, album of the year credits, and multiple continent-spanning tours. Berlin-Warszawa Express, his first book, is due for release on ECW Press May 10. He is based in Toronto.

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