The solitary drifter is a character that’s romanticized in American literature and film. Most Westerns trade on this motif. A lone, mysterious stranger rides into town with a job to do. That wasn’t quite the scene when I went out West. There’s nothing particularly romantic about the life of an academic migrant worker, although it is solitary. Instead of hardtack, I subsisted on instant ramen noodles, but that’s where the similarities end. When I went out West, to Saskatchewan, it was to teach philosophy. I was filling in for a professor who was on sabbatical for a year, so I knew that the prospects of long term employment were slim, but I wanted to work and moving out West was an opportunity to do that.
I must confess that I had preconceptions about Western Canada. I should preface this by saying that I was born and raised in Toronto. I’m used to city life and enjoy the access to culture and entertainment that a large city affords. From my perspective, Regina was in the middle of nowhere — fly over country. It was a cold, bleak landscape. I assumed that my entertainment options would be limited to Canadian football and rodeos. I imagined that the people there were good ol’ boys and girls. They probably wore plaid and drove pick-up trucks with bumper stickers that said ‘my other car is a truck.’ In other words, I thought they’d be relatively unsophisticated and uneducated. I’m not sure I ever thought that consciously, but such was my vague and uninformed impression. I was pleasantly surprised.
I grew to like it out there. There’s a certain austere beauty to the wide open spaces on the prairie. The expanse of land and sky makes one feel small and insignificant. It fills one with that feeling of awe that Kant called ‘the sublime.’ I miss the space, the elbow room. I can drive for hours, in any direction from where I live in Toronto, and never leave the urban sprawl. Twenty minutes from Regina on the Trans Canada Highway, and there’s nothing but open country. It’s a liberating feeling. Again, it’s the romantic notion of not being hemmed in, of being free to roam.
The people were also not what I expected. I didn’t know a soul when I arrived and, being an introverted person by disposition, I’m not great at making friends. However, the people I met more than compensated for that with their friendliness and hospitality. They were the least pretentious people I’ve ever met. This was a humbling experience since I realized that my preconceived notions of prairie folk, even if they were naive rather than mean-spirited, could aptly be described as ‘pretentious.’ They also introduced me to the game of curling. It’s a lot harder than it looks, but learning to curl was great fun. It’s a very Zen-like game. I tend to obsess about decisions and mistakes that I’ve made, but in curling — like other sports — if you make a bad shot, you have to put it out of your mind and concentrate on the next time. It helped me ‘get outside of my head’ and was therapeutic in that respect. Of course, an important aspect of the culture of the game is socializing afterwards. I met great people over post-game drinks and was impressed again with their lack of pretension. It was a university league and people with different roles — faculty, administration, IT, maintenance — all socialized together. There were no class distinctions or social hierarchies of any kind; just people enjoying a game and each others’ company.
I enjoyed my time teaching there as well. I had some very bright students and did, in my humble opinion, some of my best work. I taught courses I’ve always wanted to teach and, for the first time in my career, taught a full three-course semester. I would have been happy to continue teaching there but all good things — and contracts — must come to an end. So, like the loner at the end of many a John Ford film, I had to ride off into the sunset. But life on the prairie was a good experience for me. It challenged my preconceptions about the people who live in that region and their way of life. It broadened my horizons, both literally and figuratively. Maybe one day, I’ll make my way westward again. In the meantime, in the claustrophobic atmosphere of the big city, I fondly remember the wide open spaces.