Fort McMurray

When I first drove into Fort McMurray on April 30, 2012, it was a gorgeous sunny day. I’d just spent the past three days driving through Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta, finishing off with my first-ever drive up Highway 63, just a few days after a fiery head-on collision claimed seven lives on what is commonly referred to as ‘The Highway of Death.’

I was 23 years old, and had just done something I never thought I’d be able to do: graduate from college. I was restless, bored of my hometown and, finally equipped with an education, I was ready to get out of town. In fact, at that time I was exclusively applying for jobs out of province, that’s how badly I wanted to leave Winnipeg behind.

Fort McMurray answered my call.

I vividly remember hesitating for just a moment when I was officially offered my position as a reporter at the Fort McMurray Today daily newspaper, my false bravado finally giving way to anxiety and uncertainty as I realized all at once everything saying ‘yes’ to this opportunity would mean.

I sold the large majority of my possessions, sublet my apartment, packed everything I owned into my brand new 2012 Toyota Corolla, hugged my mom and dad, and I drove away.

I called Fort McMurray home for 13 months after that. From fist fights at black-tie galas to 8-hour city council meetings to black bears shot in backyards, I became a journalist, made lifelong friends, fell in love with photography, and grew into the person I am today.

Fort Mac wasn’t perfect. Far from it. Everything you’ve heard about the place is probably true, to a lesser extent, and everything you’ve heard in defense of that is probably also true, to a lesser extent. People like to exaggerate. So just marry the two opinions together and I’ve got a crisp $5 bill that says that’s a perfectly accurate depiction of Fort McMurray.

But to me, Fort McMurray was an opportunity that nobody had to give me. I wanted to find out what I was made of and Fort McMurray was there for me to make as much or as little of that opportunity as I chose.

It’s been an interesting feeling the past few days, watching footage of the city burning, the journalist still in me longing to be there just for that one photo…

I may not miss the city, but I would be ignorant to deny owing it a massive debt of gratitude, and I think that sums up many people’s feelings toward Fort McMurray lately. Much of the time it’s but a pit stop for the transient who are looking for something missing in their lives; in many cases, you’ve had it with you all along, but people seem to find it in Fort McMurray.

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