On the official date that I'd set for my independence from my parents, I boarded a bus in Saskatoon bound for Calgary. I'd brought nothing but some cash, some clothes and a couple of books. I remember one of them being Michael Ondaatje's In The Skin Of A Lion. If I had to guess at the other, I'd put money down on Vineland.
The Saskatoon-Calgary bus is an eight hour trip. It chews up mile after mile of prairie, passing through grain elevator towns with names like Cereal, Oyen, Zealandia and Netherhill. Every so often the bus turns off the highway and and pulls up to a buiding with an inobtrusive white-on-green card in the corner of a window saying "bus". Then you sit and let the minutes flick by, or you step out for a smoke and take some command of the time with a cigarette.
I had no idea what I was going to do once I got to Calgary. Like a lot of humanities undergrads, I had no skills beyond being able to convey an air of friendliness, which made a sucker for the retail and restaurant trades. I had bought a sleeping bag and a white shirt a few days before, which I figured would come in handy. As it turned out, they did, but that's a whole other story involving comfortable sleep by night and a natty appearance by day.
The bus pulled up at a truck stop on the outskirts of Hannah. Over the scratchy PA system the driver told us all that we had thirty minutes to get some supper. The light had already begun to gather on the western edge of the horizon, and I realized it would be dark by the time we hit Calgary.
I ordered a burger and sat down at one of the round brown melamine tables. The restaurant was huge and empty, like a retrofitted small-town arena, and the bus load of passengers seemed to float along the counters and settle at benches and tables. I lit a cigarette.
A man approached my table. For some reason he reminded me of a cartoon rat - a scruffy cartoon rat in his mid-thirties with a mullet and sideburns the colour of caramel. He asked me for a cigarette, which I gave him, but instead of drifting off, he took a seat and started puffing away.
After a few words, another man came and sat down, a tall guy with a baseball cap and a smile that made him look as if he was just waking up from a really good sleep. He wasn't looking for a cigarette; he just wanted someone to talk to.
Without prompting, he told us that he was doing research on windmills on the Canadian prairies. In fact, he was following a filmmaker around who was doing a documentary on windmills on the Canadian prairies. He told us that there were a thousand fascinating things about windmills, although he didn't let us in on any of them.
The man who looked like a cartoon rat continued to smoke through the windmill guy's monologue, staring into the middle distance and flicking ashes on the floor. When the discussion shifted to techniques of filming and documenting windmills, he reared himself up and fixed his attention on the speaker.
"You're talking about windmills?" he said.
"That's right," said the windmill guy.
The man went back to smoking his cigarette.
"What do you do?" I asked.
"I'm into sheet metal," he answered.