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Connecting with the world

With all due respect to Pemberton, for a long time Whistler was considered a town at the end of a road.

With all due respect to Pemberton, for a long time Whistler was considered a town at the end of a road. Actually, Whistler wasn’t much of a town, it was more like an idea, with people scattered throughout the valley and a few lifts that drew them together in the winter.

It took a few hours to drive from Vancouver to Whistler, along a notoriously windy highway that endured periodic rock slides and washed out bridges. North of Whistler, Pemberton was a farming community and had little in common with Whistler. And beyond Pemberton, the Duffey Lake Road was a perilous, pot-holed gravel strip between Mount Currie and Lillooet that few people had driven.

Today, the Duffey Lake Road is paved and while not exactly a modern highway, it is used daily by hundreds of vehicles going to or coming from the Interior, including tour buses. Highway 99 is still a long ways from the I-70 that roars past Vail in Colorado, but the paving of the Duffey has made Pemberton and Whistler towns on a network of roads, rather than towns at the end of a road.

And of course the upgrade of the highway between Horseshoe Bay and Whistler will make the drive easier than ever, strengthening the connection between the Lower Mainland and Whistler. That’s a welcome thought for some, less welcome for others.

But Whistler isn’t Lhasa and the highway isn’t Whistler’s only connection to the rest of the world that is being strengthened. Bell’s fibre optic line, capable of handling all the digital data generated by the Olympics, is being installed alongside the railway line. The railway itself has, just this year, been resurrected as a link between Whistler and the outside world, with the Whistler Mountaineer passenger service.

Other examples of Whistler’s increasing connections include the natural gas pipeline being extended from Squamish, a new B.C. Hydro substation in Function Junction, Telus’s fibre optic line, the various companies that provide wireless Internet connections, Shaw Cable’s purchase of Whistler Cable and the growing interest of Lower Mainland media in Whistler.

This expanding network of connections — each of which also represents an investment — between Whistler and people and places elsewhere will reach its peak in 2010 with the Olympic Games. It is, as with anything worthwhile, both an opportunity and a challenge.

One of the challenges is for Whistler to understand what it is and what it wants to be — because with all these connections there will surely be new people who have an expectation of what Whistler should be and what they want it to be.

In the next few years Whistler will be under more scrutiny than ever before. Thousands of definitions of who or what Whistler is will be transmitted to the rest of the world, by media, by business people and by tourists returning home.

This is not a call for Whistler to put on a façade for the rest of the world but for Whistlerites, individually and collectively, to think about who they are and what they value, before someone else defines us.

To be sure, some people know what Whistler is or means to them, but for many others it is a puzzle. At times it can feel like the town is going in a hundred different directions at once, each individual focused on their own problems and interests.

A sense of identity, of who we are, often surfaces in a time of crisis or a great challenge. These are sometimes called “defining moments.” Think of Rob Boyd’s victory in the 1989 World Cup downhill, Whistler contractors reinforcing the training wall in the middle of the night to prevent the village from being flooded, or any number of other events where people individually and collectively rose to the occasion.

There don’t appear to be any great crises on the horizon for Whistler, fortunately, but there are myriad uncertainties and some substantial challenges: labour, housing costs, ownership of Whistler-Blackcomb and, as always, the weather. How we deal with each of these daily challenges goes a little way toward how we define ourselves.

We may be living in an obfuscating age rather than a defining moment, and that could be the message that goes out through the network of connections and channels Whistler is now a part of.