For about 15 years I was a scaredy-cat white knuckle flyer…. nervous as a perilously plumped tom-turkey in December.

My heart would thump wildly like an African drum when any plane I sat in took off or landed. I would try to look calm on the outside while my insides flipped and turned like Olympic trampolinists. Were we really meant for reading, sleeping, talking and eating at 35,000 feet while floating weightlessly suspended miles above the ground we walk on? My inner child wanted to cry out for my Mommy…

I know I wasn’t alone in my fears here.

I only have to quickly glance around the cabin of any aircraft to spot the anxiety-ridden face of a passenger whose fingernails are leaving indelible crevices in the armrests. White-knuckle flyers abound.

We all know it’s irrational thinking, but that doesn’t hold back the cold sweats for some. Mind you, it’s possible I could be misinterpreting. I can imagine myself reassuring the person in the aisle seat next to me as a small bead of sweat trickles down their forehead:

       -No need to be nervous, those are just normal sounds the plane makes when the flaps are being extended to slow us down. 

       – It’s not that… people were staring at me when I came back from the washroom. I think all the passengers have figured out that my girlfriend and I just joined the Mile High club. 

Ohhh…THAT! I should never presume to know the back stories to my seatmates.

Airplane!_movie2

“…Just sit back and relax, folks…” Are you kidding me?

My flying life began years back in a nonchalant and calm way. But then came some flights I took in the Northwest Territories in the late ’70’s that struck near-terror inside. I probably could have used a fresh set of adult diapers on some of those roller coaster rides through the cold, dark Arctic night. I wasn’t sure what would be worse, being torn apart in a ferocious fiery crash, or surviving the impact and freezing to death in the bone-chilling -40C temperatures of the tundra.

Thankfully, after toting my young kids along who could distract me from my airborne fears by crying or vomiting, and after dozens of smooth, carefree flights, my adrenal glands have gradually settled and I take to the skies once again with gusto and anticipation… hallelujah!

At this time of year many winter-wearied Canadians, Americans and Europeans alike turn their backs on the snowy winter gifts surrounding them and pile into squishy, tetris-like airplanes that transport them to places with exotically familiar names such as Puerto Vallarta, Maui, Ft. Lauderdale, or Sevilla.

But, unlike earlier years, it’s no longer only for the affluent. Hell, newborn babies collect enough cash in their monthly government cheques to fly south for at least a week or two each year.

This is the beauty of travel in our 21st century world. Winter one minute, summer the next. We have an ability to chart our own seasons with the flick of a boarding pass.

BUT… travelling “down” to “up” the degrees was not for me this year … no sir.

Last week it was “across” … VANCOUVER TO SASKATOON … Tulips to Igloos!

The jet arced from mild, coastal Vancouver to snow-bound, prairie Saskatchewan like a long-bomb football pass from a great quarterback. It soared upwards effortlessly defying gravity before gracefully drifting down into the arms of the runway receiver. A friendly family visit in early spring was the game plan.

After settling down to ground, I hopped into the grey 2003 Honda Civic borrowed from my kind brother Robert. Motoring from small city Saskatoon to smaller town Kindersley and then even tinier burg Dewar Lake, I knew I was in new pastures when I came to the intersection of BuffaloBerry and Toad Roads. This is W.O. Mitchell territory.

Here I was steering the flat, straight ribbons of blacktop in late April where great white smooth oceans of snowy fields awaited their overdue seeding of wheat and peas and canola. Peering out for miles over the ivory sea, there were isolated copses of clumped trees in the distance looking like ocean barges or sea freighters carrying their loads across the great expanse.

Snowy Sask

This is the Canadian prairie heartland.

For more than 100 years, huge swaths of golden grain have stood tall and swayed in the swirling winds of this vast area. Dwindling numbers of soldier-straight grain elevators store the wheat that is then finely ground and made into bread and pasta to nourish the world.

Pinning the fields down to the earth at regular intervals are oil pump-jacks, bobbing and bobbing, sucking oil and gas upwards from the depths. These nodding cranes pour thick, black, regular cash flow not only into the mega oil companies bottom lines but also into farmers’ bank accounts for the lean years when weather and insects decimate harvests.

Oil-jack

This is not a land or climate for the weak or frail. It’s a life of isolation and challenge. The simple joys of curling and Saturday night dances and jellied salads. And despite the apparent simplicity, I don’t think this is a place for me to live or to fully understand.

.

That Saskatoon moon

Is calling to me

It rises so bright

In my memory

I long to see it shine

On the river below

And walk arm in arm

With this sweetheart I know

                                                                                                                                                                                                         Connie Kaldor

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My wife’s brother-cousins farm an enormous plot of land covering 2700 acres (almost 11 square kilometers) under the expansive skies. This is major ranch-size farming in most Canadian provinces, but here on the plains, it’s just a small chunk by today’s grain farmer standards.

Cousins Cliff and Don are typical of the European settlers who have grown grain here for generations- warm, good-natured and stoic. They love the land they live on and farm, and accept all that it throws their way.

They talk in a farmer’s unhurried cadence with acceptance of whatever happens, happens. They have rough, weather-worn hands from fixing combines and seeders on days of freezing cold winds and blistering sun. And then there’s Cliff’s wife Barb, the effusive and optimistic glue that holds the home, the boys, the kids, and the operation together.

This year their acreage will be split into equal portions: wheat, durum, peas, canola, and fallow (rest). There is little to no tillage anymore to avoid worries of erosion that plagued the prairies in the dust bowls of the 1930’s.

They’re high-tech, knowledgeable farmers with expensive and complex machinery equipped with air-conditioning, stereos, gps’s and internet connectivity that allows them to oversee and seed a huge patch of dirt.

And like any farmer, some years produce abundance, others disappointment. Cliff matter-of-factly tells me of last year’s pea crop that was decimated by hail and fungus. All part of the chess match of farmer versus nature.

The landscape of the prairie appears simple. I encounter people who feel little or no affection for the prairies, describing them as barren, empty, and devoid of interest. I look around and I can see how this impression would be easy to fall into.

But just because the land is flat, doesn’t mean it’s empty. There’s a great sublety to the plains that needs a sharper eye and ear to understand its beauty. Animal life is craftier in hiding to protect itself. The rabbits, the squirrels, the prairie dogs covertly rustle about while pronghorn antelope and white-tailed deer shyly graze in the distance. Owls, sandhill cranes, ducks, orioles and hawks frequent the sloughs. And yes, summer heat brings out the oppressive mosquitoes and grasshoppers.

pronghorn+antelope+on+the+Prairies

Pronghorn antelope

We said farewell to the farm in its windy, spring freeze. But the visit left me feeling a warm connection to something that strangely makes me feel more Canadian, like listening to Peter Gzowsky on CBC radio in the 1980’s. This country has a tapestry of climates and geographies and people that define who we are. We’re more than the stereotypical beer-swilling hockey players with toques that say “eh”!

The Prairie farmer and the Maritimes fisher and the Bay Street banker are a part of who I am as a Canadian.

Sitting in the small jetcraft, it was time to wing my way back to the west coast.  I stared at the scuffed, grey leather seat-back inches from my face, sipping clamato juice in a small, clear plastic cup, snacking on butter-flavored pretzels.

I glanced out the rectangular plane window. The skies were bright and clear – I could easily see the gradual changes in the land below…the flat patchwork-quilt prairies melded into the budding foothills and then the Rocky Mountains and then the Pacific Ocean.

I really have shed my old days of fear of flying.

It’s a good feeling.

view form plane

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