Wide Open Spaces

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.

75 comments on “Wide Open Spaces

  1. Micah says:

    I once flipped through a coffee table book about Saskatchewan, and you are right – the prairie is amazing. The photos in that book were incredible! Glad you had fun in there!:)

  2. skycastles says:

    I had a similar experience while in the Australian outback. I loved the vastness and the land and sky seemed to transcend time and space.

  3. Very nice. It so interesting I was just thinking of this song yesterday. And so I visited your site because of the title. This is a nice story.

    • danielmullin81 says:

      Yes, a friend told me that it’s also the title of a Dixie Chicks song. I didn’t know that at the time of writing. But I’m glad that coincidence brought you here.

  4. isguardiola says:

    It very funny how we develop preconceived notions about other people. places and culture without having actual experience about the subjects. I’m glad you had the experience you did and then able to dispel the ideas you had about non-city people. One of my preconceived notion is that the farther away you go from the city, the friendlier the people; I’ll have to wait on the actual experience to see whether or not my notion is correct.

  5. elkement says:

    I have just recommended this Freshly Pressed post or yours to “fellow Canadian prairie blogger with a penchant for philosophy”, Michelle Hatzel: http://mhatzel.wordpress.com/.

    I did not remember your post in detail, and I am baffled that it contains a black-and-white image of the Saskachewan prairie. So obviously the combination of the Canadian prairie and musings about the interaction of our thoughts and feelings with wide spaces triggered my clicking on the follow button twice.

    I would be interested in your thoughts about this today! Would you prefer to work in these open spaces, if possible? Delivering philosophy MOCCs from a renovated farm or something?

    • elkement says:

      I misspelled MOOCs in a funny way😉
      MOCCs –> massive online closed courses?

      • danielmullin81 says:

        Thanks for recommending the post. I noticed that Michelle was from Saskatchewan, which is one of the reasons I started following her blog.

        Haha, I don’t know if MOCCs would catch on. I revisited this post recently myself as I was doing another writing project that narrated these same events. Some time has passed since I wrote it, and I was probably wearing nostalgic glasses, but most of it still resonates with me. Now that technology makes it possible to work from anywhere in the world if you have an internet connection, I would like to live somewhere less crowded than Toronto. However, I don’t miss the harsh winters on the prairie!

  6. M. Hatzel says:

    Hi Dan, I like this post. It’s interesting to encounter people who come to live in Regina from more populated areas, and to experience their ‘reading’ of us country folk. I also liked the U of R very much. It’s interesting that Elke asked that question of you, as I was wondering if you’d come back if given the chance. You both might be surprised to learn that some of the more rural areas of Saskatchewan still operate on modems and dial-up internet, making blogging and on-line courses tricky.

    • elkement says:

      This (modems and dial-up) really comes as a surprise to me! I live in a rural region of Austria which does not offer really highspeed fiber connections (as in cities), just some reasonable DSL connections over plain old copper wires.
      But it was quite a challenge for the telcos to upgrade all the switches and other backend infrastructure located in all the villages. Given the size sparsely populated Saskachewan (compared to Austria) it is probably comprehensible that the upgrade process is slow or expensive.

    • danielmullin81 says:

      Thanks, Michelle. Yes, I probably would move back given the chance. Interesting about the internet in the rural areas. I probably romanticized the rural life a little in the post. I’m still a city person at heart, but I prefer the pace of life in a smaller city, like Regina, to that of bigger, congested cities like Toronto.

      • M. Hatzel says:

        After reading your post I became exceedingly nostalgic for my student days, and had to go snooping on the U of R Phil Dept website. There are a few familiar faculty faces still there. A couple faculty listed with the department now were actually in English, back in my day. It makes me realize how I’ve lost touch with so many old friends and mentors.

  7. […] at Hutch | These Wooden Ideas * Kokeshi Doll | illostrophy * Takehisa Yumeji | illostrophy * Wide Open Spaces [Freshly Pressed] | The Unemployed Philosopher’s Blog * DIY- Autumn Plate Topper/Table Decor […]

  8. My late father, US Army Sergeant First Class Carlos Villarreal, of Pandora, Texas, Kasserine Pass, and lots of places in Korea, always enjoyed this song. He was a Spanish-speaking kid from southern Texas who marched off to places like North Africa, Sicily, Italy and Korea and came back to Pandora only to visit. Cotton-picker turned career soldier who didn’t want to be fenced in.

    Your article brought this favorite song of his to mind (although I believe that he never heard it sung by The Killers!).


    Dan Villarreal
    Taipei, Taiwan

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