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Wagamese: One Native life

The question

I hitchhiked across Canada for the first time when I was 17 in 1973. The last vestiges of the hippy era still clung to the land and it was a marvelous time to be young, free and wandering. There were thousands of us. We met in youth hostels in places like Nipigon, Gull Lake and Wawa. There was a feel to Canada then, as if the country were on the brink of a huge and wonderful reawakening, a reaffirming of the meaning of the name - Canada, Algonquian for ''our home.''

It was summer and the first day I went from the Niagara Peninsula all the way to Sudbury. Standing there, on the great rock spine that is the Canadian Shield, I looked west to a magical land of mountains, coast and opportunity. The whole country lay before me and I was a part of it. The charcoal stretch of highway at my feet was my map and I felt like I could make it in no time at all.

That wouldn't happen. The northern Ontario rains came and I was stranded. I stood for days beside a railroad bridge and slept beneath it every night. Finally, a truck driver suggested I head to a place called Chapleau to catch the westbound train. I'd never hopped a freight, but the romance of it swept me up and I found myself lurking in the brush, waiting for my chance to fling myself aboard like Woody Guthrie and the great hobo kings of the past.

I made it somehow, managing to claw my way onto a slatted stock car and settled in for the ride west. I wasn't alone. There was another young man there named Mick Pocknell. He was a coalminer's kid from Sidney, Nova Scotia. He'd never met an Indian before and I had never met a Maritimer, but we shared smokes, talk and a jug of wine.

I learned about the hardships of an intertidal life, of empty nets and bellies. I learned about passion for the sea, how the salt against your lips tastes exactly like the blood that flows in the veins, and I heard sea shanties sung low and drunkenly in the darkness.

I talked about a life in the bush, about a people who endured incredible hardship and built a thriving culture, a lush language and an amazing history. I talked about losing all that because of missionary schools and foster care; how the bush had become a stranger because of it.

We talked a long time and then we watched the moon rise through the slats of that cattle car. It was big and full and bright, and threw hard shadows across the empty space. We were struck by the sheer beauty of it and, as it rose higher in the sky, it seemed to race the train. It appeared to keep pace with us, hung in the sky like a phantom, chasing us across the depths of the night and the great darkened hulk of the land. We watched it for the longest time, both of us lost in our thoughts and the magic of that sight.

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Then I heard Mick Pocknell's voice through the shadow. ''What kind of a God could make that happen?'' I sat in the darkness and pondered it until sleep came to claim me.

We separated in Thunder Bay. Mick went to take a job planting trees and I headed for the highway to continue my way west. We shook hands, he wished me luck and he was gone. I never saw him again, but I think about him every now and then and I've never forgotten his question.

Oh, I know it was parallax or some rational element of our physics, but back then, on that train that night, the Maritimer's kid and the Indian became neighbors, joined by a shared vision, complete and shining. There were no differences, no skewed perceptions and no barriers. We were community, joined by simple magic and the power of the land.

I made it to the West. I explored the entire Pacific coast of the country and slipped into the United States for a time to see what excitement lay there for me. Eventually, after working as a tree planter myself, bucking deadfall trees, washing dishes in a roadside truck stop, unloading railroad cars and stooking wheat, I arrived home in the southern part of Ontario, tired, with a wallet full of cash and an idea of the country that's never left me.

There will always be cowboys and Indians, just as there will always be blacks and whites, Hispanics and Asians, engineers and laborers, professors and dishwashers. The soul of a nation is in its people, and the spirit of North America is variegated and sublimely diverse. What makes us strong is our diversity, our differences, but what pulls us together, ties us irrevocably into a common destiny, complete and shining, is the straining of our very human hearts - the secret wish for a common practical magic.

It exists. It lives. It sails across the sky once a month as fat and round and free as a dream. You need to step out on the land to see it properly. You need to walk away from all that binds you to a city, to a desk, to a job, and stand where the wind can get at you. And when that moon comes up and begins to sail across the sky, there will come a point, if you watch it close enough, that the earth will start to move, to race that moon, and you can feel it spin in the heavens.

It doesn't matter who you stand with or where they're from. It happens for both of you; that universal magic inhabiting you, filling you, making you more, joining you, erasing differences.

And what kind of a God, I ask, could make that happen?

Richard Wagamese is Ojibway from the Wabasseemoong First Nation in northwestern Ontario. More information about his work can be found at Mr. Wagamese's column, ''One Native life,'' will appear in Indian Country Today's Lifeways sections.