Canadians buy gasoline for about one dollar a liter. But they talk about fuel efficiency in miles-per-gallon. If you ask an old-timer for the distance to somewhere, he’s just as likely to give it in miles as in kilometers, sometimes adding with a smile, “I’m from the old school.” All the signs show distances in kilometers, save the occasional advertising sign that tries to seem old.
Farmers talk of wheat yields in bushels per acre—100 on average. When they get $1.60 per bushel, as it seems they will, they complain that fertilizer costs $100 per acre. Farmland sells for $50 to $100 per acre, an impossibly high price if buying it for wheat crops.
I entered the prairie at elevation 900 meters above sea level on June 11. Twenty-two days later I am near its edge at elevation 200 meters in the richest farmland the Canadian prairie offers. Many different crops grace the fields here, even corn, that commonest of grain, but the first I’ve seen of it in Canada. You can see in the picture that it will not be ready for the Fourth of July, like mine was in Tennessee, if I planned right and was lucky. Grain has built the lifestyle of this prairie, mostly wheat, mostly spring wheat. Grain has driven the economy for many years.
And the hub of Grain is Winnipeg. I felt sucked into the city on the only road you can take eastward through eastern Manitoba—the Trans-Canada Highway; and even it has a gravel shoulder. Imagine the I-10 Freeway having a gravel shoulder. I avoided it where possible by taking some frontage road or riding on the left side if that shoulder was paved. But mostly I trudged ahead, drawn to the edge of a prairie and a lifestyle.
I felt drawn out of normal life as the city closed in around me, into a place where the order of things has changed. It’s still my life and I recognize it, but people and places have changed. Big businesses live here—car dealerships, computer stores, office buildings—things that seem strangely foreign, even though I used to walk by them almost every day. Drivers honk at each other when annoyed, something you never hear in a small town; he could be your coffee-mate tomorrow morning. Their horns sound like people screaming at each other.
Refined young women flaunt their sophisticated nonchalance. I understand refinement as a point of view but have been away from it so long it irks my sensibilities. I feel like a shoot of spring wheat, insignificant in a field of millions, all just the same. In small towns, people stand taller than wheat shoots.
I will stay in Winnipeg until Tuesday when I fly home.
The ubiquitous raven lives in Winnipeg too
Sharon Hawley has finished her bicycle trip in Canada for this summer. She hopes to complete the adventure in another year. Please follow her winter adventure at http://sharonswinter.blogspot.com/