the first time i rode across canada was on a greyhound bus, the summer of ’72 … i was 14, my friend anne was 16, and our parents — remarkably — had given us permission to spend six weeks on our own, just the two of us, traversing the country, with stops along the way at various prairie towns. anne, ukrainian on her mom’s side, seemed to have relatives in every whistlestop in every western province, so we took advantage of their hospitality at every opportunity.
we had layovers in winnipeg, brandon, roblin and dauphin; ended up attending two different ukrainian weddings on the same day (i never ate so many pyrogies in my life); learned there’s nothing to do when you’re cruisin’ through wawa at 3 a.m. except give up all hope of sleep and join in with your fellow passengers as they chant WA-WA! WA-WA! o’er hill and dale; and discovered that when you get back on the bus after a meal stop in banff, you should make sure you board the same bus as your luggage is on because by that point, all roads lead to vancouver, and the drivers are too annoyed by the hare krishnas and their tambourines to care about your lost rucksack.
like i said, it was 1972. a different time, to be sure. i don’t know if i’d want my 14-year-old daughter travelling with a girlfriend on a bus for six weeks across the country today, but at the time it didn’t seem dangerous at all. there were people who smoked and drank alcohol on the bus, and hippie types who nibbled on their own sprouted bread and stinky cheese while the rest of us raced to the bus-depot chow lines for burgers and cokes. i don’t remember all the place names we zoomed past, but i do recall that anne and i giggled a lot during that long ride to vancouver and back.
the reason it’s on my mind now is because starting on sunday, i’ll be making that drive again. a drive i swore i’d never repeat after it just about killed me in march of 1980. i was en route to a job in fort saskatchewan, alberta, escaping my home-town of barrie … and found out the hard way that those cynics aren’t kidding when they say, “it takes you three frickin’ days just to get out of ontario.” day 3 was the leg from the lakehead to winnipeg, and not 40 minutes after morning coffee in thunder bay i encountered a patch of black ice on a blind curve, spun around helplessly in a series of terrifying 360s, and eventually came to rest on a guardrail overlooking a steep drop — somehow miraculously avoiding the semi-trailer that was slowly churning toward my little datsun b210 at the same time as i was seeing my life flash before my eyes.
ah, good times. my eventual drive back to ontario 18 months later (what can i say, i missed the humidity) was in much better weather, but that didn’t make the route any more user-friendly. it’s a slog, and you can only pound out the drum solo from radar love on the steering wheel so many times. so why am i doing it again, 27 years later?
because a couple of good friends are alberta bound, moving west to edmonton from the teeny rural hamlet of harley, ont., and i volunteered (in a moment of weakness) to help them drive their vehicles out to this great land of opportunity. because that’s what friends do.
it could end up being another road trip from hell. there’ll be gross pit stops at greasy diners with signs proclaiming “eat here and get gas,” and slow grinds behind logging trucks. but there’ll also be a glimpse of beautiful downtown kenora, which holds a special place in my heart because it’s where eva anita burr and clifford james macfayden tied the knot back in ’51. and, if the weather’s semi-decent, there’ll be tired feet danglin’ out the car windows, and miles and miles of bad singing. and we’ll take turns driving each other crazy hollering “are we there yet?” as we try not to get lulled into la-la-land by those seemingly endless stretches of prairie highway.
that’s the great thing about being canadian, eh? ya just lock your habs ballcap (oh gawd i just outed myself as a canadiens fan, gulp) into the load position, grab another tray of double-doubles from the timmy’s drive-through, slide some renaissance drivin’ tunes into the car stereo and throw everything you’ve got into high gear.
the open road does the rest.
see you on the 18th, babies, with bugs in my grill and high-octane spather
in my road diary.