I’ve become a frequent flyer. These days that’s not such an odd thing to say. The airports I’ve become a regular in are crammed with travellers any day of the week. Our whole idea of place is marked by an immediate ability to exchange it for another seemingly at a whim. Nodding off in economy class and waking up on the airport runway of a far-off city is as common as easing into our driveways. But for me, it’s still a strange event.
When I was a young man my idea of the country came from long days spent hitchhiking. I crossed Canada numerous times that way. My recollections of those days are framed in the context of a loose shrugging off of time and the casual air of the drifter, the nomad, the gypsy. Indeed, my late teens and early twenties are marked forever by the charcoal ribbon of a highway stretched out westward in the fading glint of a setting sun.
As a free spirit then, I stopped and worked wherever I could. I never stopped for long, usually a couple days or whatever length of time it took to get paid and continue on down the road. At times I have been a tree planter, ditch digger, sugar beet picker, farm hand, railroad crew labourer, dish washer, fish cleaner, marina helper and a big rig washer. It seems sometimes that I worked in every whistle stop west of Thunder Bay.
But all that travelling did less to inform my idea of Canada than it did to allow my transience to continue. I was less emotional then, less aware. Sure, there were romantic moments when the song of the open road filled me and I could gaze about in a Whitmanesque glee, but most of the time I just wanted to get going. It’s only now, in my early 50s, that I glean meaning, intent and a philosophic learning from all that time on the road.
This past week I had the chance to drive those same highways I thumbed so long ago, and the stark contrast in modes of travel enlightened me. I came to realize that from 30,000 feet the country is a mere patchwork of territory. I get the sense of size and scope from the porthole windows but the feel of the country is missing. This week, seeing it again from the ground up, I came to understand what I missed in my youth and in my frequent flyer miles.
We drove from Kenora, Ontario, to Kamloops. We moved from the jut of the Canadian Shield, across the Prairies, through the undulation of the foothills and on into the enormous push of cordillera in the BC Interior. Through it all, Canada became a living, breathing, wonderful place. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, traffic was light and watching it whizz by captivated me like no other time I’ve seen it.
I rediscovered the quaint, rustic sense of space and timelessness in the mist of early morning in Whitewood, Saskatchewan. There’s a pioneer spirit that still exists in Moose Jaw, Swift Current, Gull Lake and Maple Creek. In the cow country of Alberta you can still feel the presence of the buffalo. Gazing back eastward, as the sun sets in the foothills, the enormity of the experience that is Canada presents itself and you can’t help but be moved.
Canada from the ground is awesome. I got that, in the fullest sense, perhaps for the first time on this trip. Everywhere, people are doing their thing, making the country work: truckers, wheat farmers, ranchers, hoteliers, and work crews. Everywhere, Canadians are engaged and beneath all that energy is the land, still breathing, still pulsing, and continuing to define all of it.
Sure, there are hard political issues. Certainly there are problems; my people continue to suffer the brunt of government indifference, Canadians in general still feel the stiff economic pinch, climate changes, prices soar, disease threatens and we have yet to find a political party that can generate sufficient enthusiasm in its policies to form a majority in the House, to lead us. But despite all that and more, Canada lives and shines and sparkles. It’s heartening and cheering.
We live in the greatest country on Earth. The potential for social greatness still exists here. You can feel that when you get out and stand on her. Whether you are Ojibwa like me, Greek, Scot, Anglo, French or Turkish, this country enhances you. It frames you in the context of her exuberant, spectacular wholeness. She offers all of us hope.
My frequent flying experience will be different from now on. Looking out as the land passes beneath me I will remember the feel of the territory. Oh Canada. The true north, strong and free.
Richard Wagamese is Ojibway and the author of Keeper’n Me. He won the Canadian Author’s Award for Dream Wheels and his new novel, Ragged Company, is out from
Doubleday. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org