"What matters is to live in the present, live now, for every moment is now..."
- Indian philosopher-guru Sathya Sai Baba
She's refreshingly candid about it. "I've been in the service industry for 32 years," she says. And sighs. "I guess I am a career server." Her mock-frown turns to a smile. "I mean, somebody has to work while everyone else is out playing in the mountains."
Leane Grant is indeed an original. Funny, upbeat, self-deprecating — with a heart as big as her laugh — the longtime Whistler server is also a bit of a magician. Meaning? She can make you smile simply by the way she fills your cup with coffee. And no, I'm not exaggerating — I've actually seen her do it. She also represents a group of men and women in this valley who don't get the kind of kudos they deserve.
I mean, for all our big talk about respect and community and opportunity for all here, we often treat our front-line staff like second-class citizens... regardless of their experience and/or their abilities. Take this story, for example.
When I approached Leane with the idea, she was flabbergasted. "Are you serious?" she asked, as she poured me yet another cup of black gold at the local diner where I breakfast. "You want to do an 'Alta State's' piece about me? I mean, there are so many interesting people in Whistler. Why would you ever want to waste your time telling a middle-aged server's story?"
I just rolled my eyes. As you'll see, I had no intention of wasting my time...
She was born of a Quebecois mom and an Anglo dad. But growing up in Toronto, she tells me, wasn't conducive to learning French. "It wasn't cool back then," he explains. "But I still have the spirit, you know. Just not the language..."
A gymnastics junkie as a youth, Leane lived and breathed the competitive lifestyle. "At night I slept with my gym suit on," she says, "so that I could get to the gym faster in the morning. I was fully hooked."
When it came time for university, the young athlete decided to do her studies in kinesiology at York University. "That was a really tough five years," she admits. "I was juggling school, a boyfriend and a new career in gymnastics coaching..." She laughs. "I nearly blew up."
She graduated in 1990; broke up with her boyfriend soon after... and then started to travel. "I went to Europe first," she says. "And then I moved to Australia for a year. I landed a job coaching at a gymnastics club in Sydney so it was a different kind of travel experience for me."
This is where the story gets interesting. On her return to Canada in 1993, Leane realized she wasn't quite ready to settle down in Southern Ontario. "I was almost over the break-up with my boyfriend," she says, "but I didn't want to fall back into my old lifestyle... at least not yet." Another big smile. "Why Whistler? There was a buzz in the air about it while I was travelling. It was supposed to be this cool, outgoing mountain town. I was intrigued... so I moved across the country."
Leane wasn't a skier or a snowboarder — "I think I might have gone once on a school trip or something," she tells me — and she wasn't particularly attracted to sliding on snow. But Whistler resonated with her.
"I came here alone," she explains. "I didn't know anyone at first..." She lets the sentence hang. "Then all of a sudden — bang! — I had all these new friends." She looks straight at me. Wants to make sure I get it. "I never went up the mountain that first year — OK, so maybe once for my birthday — but that's not where my energy was focused. I was working at two jobs — serving at Zeuski's and Thai One On — so I could pay off my travel debts." She stops for a beat. Takes a breath. "It was the people," she says finally. "They got in my soul. I kinda fell in love with the whole community..."
Whistler was supposed to be just an interlude for Leane. But when spring came, her new friends suggested she spend the summer here too. "They all told me how beautiful Whistler was in the off-season," she says. Laughs some more. " So I got myself a third job, made a fistful of money over the summer and decided to go travelling again."
Being on the road was fun. Seeing new places was cool. But it wasn't paying the bills. Besides, Leane had other plans now. She wanted to get on with life... start a new career... get something going for herself.
"Everyone I knew in Whistler was still in their 20s," she says. "But I was already in my 30s. 'I can't be a waiter for the rest of my life' I thought to myself. So what else can I do to further my experience?" She stops. Shrugs. "At the time, Whistler had a lot of Japanese guests... and very few workers who could communicate with them. Why not go to Japan and learn Japanese?"
There's no lack of boldness in Leane. When she decides on a path, she goes for it. I mean, it's not easy being a single, white female in Japan. As for learning the language, it's a slow, painfully difficult process. But she skips over those challenges like a flat stone across a pond. "The highlight for me," she says, "was getting to coach at the legendary Tsukahara gym in Tokyo. I spent 16 months there in 2003-2004. I mean, to be living in Tokyo and coaching gymnastics at that level..." She stops talking. Laughs. "Yeah, quite the highlight." More laughter. "And I was making huge money — $8/hour. Try living on that wage in the most expensive city in the world."
No matter. She did it anyway. "I remember one day in particular," she recounts. "It was the day I climbed Mt. Fuji — a sweaty-hot day in August of 2004 — the very same day that the Japanese men won Olympic gold in the team gymnastic event in Athens... which was a really big deal in Japan! It was so classic to be there in Mr. Tsukahara's gym later that day, all of us cheering while his son, Tsukahara Jr. was awarded his medal on TV."
But Leane had a decision to make. "I was getting too skinny on my wages," she admits, "Didn't have many friends in Tokyo... and I was missing Whistler." She came home in 2005 – "I'd already bought a house in Spring Creek," she says, "it was a 40th birthday present to myself." – and immediately landed a job at the Westin as the hotel's food & beverage coordinator. But the road kept calling.
"I was still trying to work the Japan angle," she explains. "So in 2007 I decided to give Hawaii a try." She spent six months there. "I got a job working on a dive boat for Japanese tourists." She sniffs in derision. "I got paid $5.50 an hour, with $.50 extra because I spoke the language... and it was bloody hard work. I mean, you've got to greet the people, put them all in masks, snorkels and flippers, then herd them all on the boat for the ride to the dive site — meanwhile they're screeching, puking, laughing, crying...." She shakes her head. Laughs. "And all for six bucks an hour..."
Suddenly Whistler didn't look so bad. "Dave Keen offered me my old job back at the Southside Diner," she says. "I realized then that I had to forfeit the Japanese stuff – they're just not coming here anymore. But what to do?"
That's when it hit her. It was OK to be a career server... particularly if you were good at it. "That's the thing," she says. "I've come to terms with my reality. I don't have any kids at college. I'm not stuck in some expensive divorce. In fact, other than my mortgage, I don't have any big expenses. So being a server suits me fine. As for freedom — I can travel as much as I want."
Leane is still — in her own words — "a sunny-day snowboarder." But the strangest thing has happened. She's fallen in love with mountains — specifically those stellar peaks of the high Himalaya. "I really wanted to go to Everest Base Camp," she says of her 2008 trip to Nepal. "Not to climb, of course, just to see. And when I finally got there I realized just how powerful those mountains really are."
Since that trip, she says, she's seen eight of the world's fourteen 8,000-metre giants. "I'd love to see then all," she says. And sighs. "There's something almost mystical about them. I mean, when you fly over the range, the peaks are right there, right in your face. And when you're there at their base... Wow! There's just no words."
She says there'll be more adventures to Nepal and India and Tibet and... Meanwhile, Leane just keeps on keeping on. "At this point in my life, it's all about tying up the loose ends." She pauses for a beat. Sighs. "I don't have a choice," she says. "There's no sugar daddy in my future, no inheritance to fall back on. Still, I realize you're not here forever. So there's an urgency now." She smiles. Shrugs. "I just want to make sure I can live the rest of my life as fully as I possibly can."