OKgoEast: Cross-Canada road trip moments, one year later

August 15 marked exactly one year since we arrived in Toronto. This is a brief account of how we got here.

Day 1: Calgary — Regina

Over the past 11 years of living in Canada, I’ve done the Alberta-British Columbia drive a few times with stops in different towns. But I’ve seen nothing between Calgary and Toronto, these 3000-something kilometers that house historical significance and years of Canadian heritage, not to mention my friends’ hometowns I know by name, but have never visited.

Our original plan was to head out at dawn to avoid the heat, since we were looking at six hours of driving without air conditioning. The flatness of eastern Alberta and Saskatchewan posed a problem: while we could avoid direct sunlight on a mountain road, this wasn’t an option in the prairies. So we hit the road at 11, expecting to make a stop halfway for gas and lunch if we were hungry.

Drivers who have done the cross-country trip warned me of the Canadian prairie perils: homogeneous landscapes, a speed limit that’s impossible to maintain on such a flat road, careless wildlife wandering onto the highway. But the novelty of the experience (or maybe it was anticipation of describing it in writing) kept me alert throughout the drive. The Trans-Canada highway in Eastern Alberta runs alongside canola fields, cow pastures and oil wells. When everything in front of you is flat and sparse, man-made objects look surreal and invasive. It’s not the oil wells that stand out the most; among herds of healthy Holsteins, the wells are akin to flocks of mechanical cranes, bobbing up and down in tandem. What breaks up the expanses of Albertan fields are granaries, giant gleaming cylinders that can be seen miles before you reach them.

Pretty soon, we started passing through towns with familiar names like Medicine Hat, Swift Current, Moose Jaw. Both Kaelan and I shared the sentiment that we’ve heard of these places before, but never really had a chance to confirm their existence — or even picture what the towns are like — until we drove by the welcome signs. Those same signs also made us ponder on the process of choosing a town slogan. For example, Medicine Hat has a very Mad Max vibe with “The Gas City,” whereas Swift Current simply informs you that this is, finally, “Where Life Makes Sense.”

But for every familiar name we encountered, there were two or three smaller towns in between that hardly anyone besides the residents would know. One of such places is Herbert, a Saskatchewan town with an old grain elevator and a big Co-op gas station/store combo — a common sight along the Trans-Canada. We stopped in Herbert to grab some snacks and drinks; the heat was getting to us, and all we had to quench our thirst was lukewarm water. Our initial choice was a family restaurant advertised with a sign on a road, but upon closer inspection, it turned out to be long shuttered. We drove further into town in search of alternatives, but the town just ended after about three intersections. This taught us a valuable lesson: unless it’s a major point on a map, don’t try to look past the roadside gas station and snack bar. After settling on a couple of Gatorades and pepperoni sticks, we got back on the road.

One of my least favorite parts of driving on a flat highway beside fields is the inevitable high-speed insect massacre. Kaelan warned me of grasshoppers smashing into the windshield. However, my most common victim on this section of the highway was cabbage white butterfly (Pieris rapae), which normally looks like this:

But after meeting my car, it looked like this:

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean to make light of this sad event. I watch enough BBC nature documentaries to know how short a butterfly’s life is without factoring in a 2007 Toyota Yaris speeding towards them at 100 km/h. But there is plenty of roadside evidence that shows a large variety of wildlife can fall victim to vehicles on the Trans-Canada highway. So while the Pieris rapae splattered onto my windshield in pairs and threesomes, I was just thankful that most living creatures choose better places to look for a mate.

We got to Regina on the seventh hour of the drive, when my right foot was starting to feel the lack of cruise control. After some Chinese food from a restaurant beside our hotel, we looked through some photos from the day. These mostly consisted of things I wanted to commemorate but was unable to do from the driver’s seat, so I bugged Kaelan to take a picture for me. We came to a sad conclusion that midday prairie sun doesn’t make for a photogenic landscape, especially when you only have a moment to snap a photo of something before it blurs past . But what these photos did capture (in addition to the numerous bug splatters on the windshield) was the incredible expanse of pale blue skies, a view where land barely claims a quarter of the frame. So I found Saskatchewan’s slogan — “Land of the Living Skies” — very fitting.

Day 2: Regina to Lowe Farm

The following morning, after scrubbing off some evidence of the insect massacre and enjoying our complimentary breakfast (not at the same time), we got back on the road. The rest of Saskatchewan met us with familiar sights: fields of different shades of green and yellow, dotted with an occasional herd of ungulates. As we approached the provincial border, more hills and turns appeared in the road, with taller trees adding to the landscape.

The Trans-Canada highway burned into my retinas.

Confession time: I was so excited for this journey that I bought a glossy, colorful map of Canada and bookmarked pages with the cities we planned to visit. I did this partly out of refusal to have complete trust in Google Maps (I’m a bad Millennial), but I also wanted a tangible record of our charted adventure. So when we set out to travel to a small Manitoba town from Regina, I expected the physical map to rescue us from perils of poor reception.

Sadly, our destination — Lowe Farm, Manitoba — wasn’t on said map. To get there, we had to turn off the Trans-Canada to take smaller provincial roads. Roadside sights of Tim Hortons or A&W drive-thrus (or a rare treat in form of the two restaurants combined under the same roof) were replaced by the diverse inventory of agrarian hardware: shiny green-and-yellow John Deere tractors camouflaged in the canola crops, hefty combines shielding themselves with dusty threshers. The ride got bumpier as we got further south into rural Manitoba. For dozens of kilometres at a time, we were the only car on the road; when we had company, it was usually a big, farm-ready truck.

…Or a house on wheels!

When we were about two hours away from Lowe Farm, we drove by a sign warning us that Holland was only five kilometres away. I didn’t expect to pass Holland on the way to Toronto, and it was a lot smaller than I imagined, but lovely nonetheless: green grass surrounding the familiar red-and-white buildings of the granary. We stopped to explore the old-fashioned windmill at the entrance. There, we found the explanation that the founder of Holland was, in fact, of English descent, and settled there as the town’s first postmaster.

I imagined what it would be like to be a postmaster in a brand new town named Holland. It might be the easiest job in the world: having to deliver mail only to yourself. Then again, maybe the letters would be constantly getting lost and you would have the headache of explaining to Canada Post that it’s not THAT Holland. I wondered if I might be better off claiming a small town and establishing myself as its first journalist. “So we’re a town now,” the cover story headline would read.

The town of Holland, with its adorable windmill, was the first taste of the wind-powered contraptions that defined the skyline down the road. We drove by one, two clusters of three wind turbines before coming upon an entire field of these spindly giants, each slowly spinning in accordance with its own air currents. This was St. Leon, a small French-speaking community known for housing the first wind farm in Canada. I found the concepts of wind farms and getting electricity literally out of thin air very strange and very beautiful, which is probably why the tiny St.Leon stretch of our 3000-kilometre drive is over-represented in our photo archive.

Just one of many wind turbine photos from our photo archive.

I was so busy admiring the magic of wind turbines that I forgot about my gasoline-powered car and battery-powered smartphone, both of which were essential to our journey and were running on fumes at that point. Google Maps promised only an hour of driving left until our destination, but the connection was shoddy and the app kept losing our coordinates. We passed through two towns without a gas station in sight, and we were plagued by the fear that Lowe Farm may not be big enough to have one of its own.

We did make it to our destination safe and sound, but I have to admit, I’ve never felt more like a city slicker than I did on that day: anxiously rolling into Lowe Farm, Manitoba with my foot off the gas, a dead phone in my lap and a useless map in the glove compartment.

Day 3: Lowe Farm, Manitoba to Thunder Bay, Ontario

Lowe Farm may not have been on the map I’d bought, but it does have its own Wikipedia entry. Here’s an excerpt from it:

“Like many towns in Southern Manitoba it has no stop lights, though it does have three churches, a Credit Union, a Recreation Centre, a privately owned grocery store, farm supply, gas station, a Cafe and an elementary/junior high school and community park.”

We stopped in Lowe Farm to visit Kaelan’s uncle, but staying in such a tiny town served another purpose. Most of our overnight stops have been planned for bigger cities: either provincial capitals, like Regina, or bigger towns with many motels to choose from, like Kamloops or Thunder Bay. Being in a small community of Lowe Farm, with its pristine L-shaped main street, unmarred by big box stores or fast food chains, was both a welcome respite and a reminder that life as we chose it was not the only viable option. In fact, the prairie provinces were a sobering reminder that the majority of Canada is home to more settled farming communities than apartment blocks full nomadic urban professionals.

Before eight o’clock the following morning, these two urban professionals were back on the road. I was looking forward to the journey, despite it being the longest leg of the drive so far: we were about to enter lake country, and I was eager to find out whether Ontario was indeed as spotty with bodies of water as it appeared on the map.

Being in a small community of Lowe Farm, with its pristine L-shaped main street, unmarred by big box stores or fast food chains, was both a welcome respite and a reminder that life as we chose it was not the only viable option.

It’s amazing how true the provincial landscapes are to their descriptions: as we got closer to the Ontario border, trees began to appear in thicker clusters. Before we knew it, we were driving through the dark green foliage of the Northern Ontario forests, a landscape that was to accompany us for the next three days of our journey. This wall of trees was occasionally broken up by lakes of all shapes and sizes; and while they did become a familiar sight, we were never bored by them. Some lakes had sandy beach fronts taken over by weekend crowds; others went undisturbed by the human presence, with the tranquil blue surfaces framed green with lily pads and reeds.

Despite the new variety in roadside sights, the drive seemed incredibly long, longer than the unchanging expansive horizon of the prairies. On the fifth hour, I demanded we stop at the next place that had food.

This turned out to be Vermilion Bay — specifically, a barbecue joint called Busters, where they claimed to be “smokin’ the good stuff.” Kaelan and I proceeded to drink two cups of coffee each and get chastised by the server for using our phones at the table. I’m pretty sure I mumbled an excuse about using it “for work,” when in reality I was probably trying to post an Instagram picture while we still had wi-fi.

Here’s something I didn’t know at the time: we were actually ninety kilometres past our original destination. When I planned out the trip, I divvied up the route in a way that allowed me to drive less than seven hours each day and still get to Toronto in reasonable time. However, earlier that day I decided I knew the route well enough to skip the map consultation — after all, how hard is it to remember five stopping points? Turns out it was harder than I thought, because there were six stops in the original plan. One of them was Kenora, which we passed an hour before Vermilion Bay.

A sight I learned to love on our cross-Canada drive.

By the time we got to Thunder Bay that evening, all I wanted was a shower and a long walk — preferably to a place that served delicious food. For obvious reasons, I didn’t want to drive to a restaurant, but also preferred to have dinner with a view on Lake Superior. Our motel boasted “lakefront views” in the description; unfortunately, a chainlink fence and railroad tracks separated us from the actual lakefront. But I guess we could see Lake Superior from the motel, so it wasn’t technically a lie?..

So we embarked on an epic walk towards the waterfront.

I really wish we got to see more of the city, because if I were to go on my impressions alone, Thunder Bay would be a ghost town full of car washes and shuttered diners, where pedestrians are rarer than cuisine that doesn’t involve $3-for-2 pizza specials. Our walk around the railroad tracks took a little over half an hour, and by the time we got close to a place that looked somewhat more populated than our motel strip, it was already getting dark.

Finally, deciding that we were going to see a lot of Lake Superior on tomorrow’s drive, Kaelan and I settled with Chinese takeout and the last 20 minutes of Blades of Glory on cable.

Road tripping feasts at their finest.

Day 4: Thunder Bay, Ontario to Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario

By skipping our Kenora stop, we gained one full day in our journey. We couldn’t arrive to Toronto a day early — our landlord was expecting us on the 15th — which lead to a dilemma: do we find another Ontario town to explore or stay an extra day in one of the predetermined stops? Staying in Thunder Bay didn’t seem like an attractive option after previous night’s adventure, so we moved on towards Sault Ste. Marie in hopes of finding more Northern Ontario charm there.

At one point, we passed a sign that marked the beginning of the Eastern Time Zone, which to me seemed as big of a milestone as the provincial border. We were officially three hours into the future; from now on, I’d have to subtract three from the current hour to figure out the time in Vancouver and two for Calgary. Something about that seemed vaguely symbolic.

Then again, the whole idea of a road trip across the country to start a new life, the gradual movement farther away from the familiar surroundings in pursuit of something new, is as old as the nomadic lifestyle itself. The drive somewhat smoothed the transition: the change in time zones seemed less arbitrary, as if we lost those hours by a fraction of a second with each kilometre on the drive. It also made the idea of moving to a new city more concrete, since our primary task for the next few days was moving: not packing, not cleaning, not putting up furniture on Craigslist or saying goodbyes to our friends, but moving forward in space and in time, crossing visible and invisible borders.

These are probably not the thoughts I had while traversing the 80th meridian.

We were on our thirtieth hour on the road for the week; I was experiencing the driver’s dilemma of wanting to get to our destination in the shortest amount of time while also wishing to see anything but the endless grey stretch of the asphalt through the bug-splattered windshield. We had exhausted my offline Spotify library and the CD mixes Kaelan burned for the car; we no longer had the mental capacity to follow a podcast or play a word game.

Just past the halfway point between Thunder Bay and Sault Ste. Marie, we stopped for lunch in White River — where, in addition to the mistake of ordering a Junior Chubby Chicken Dinner at yet another A&W, all I wanted to do was lie on the grass and let the Doppler effect from the other suckers driving on the Trans-Canada lull me to sleep. Unfortunately, we had to join the caravan to avoid driving in the dark, so we got back on the road after half-heartedly posing with the town celebrity.

We planned to spend our extra day exploring Sault Ste. Marie, so the primary objectives once we reached the town were eating and sleeping. Luckily, this time we didn’t even have to venture past the motel wi-fi coverage zone to find food: — there was a family-run Italian restaurant next door. Fatigued by the journey and excessive carbohydrates, we called it a night.

The whole idea of a road trip across the country to start a new life, the gradual movement farther away from the familiar surroundings in pursuit of something new, is as old as the nomadic lifestyle itself.

Day 5: Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario

The Lonely Planet describes Sault Ste. Marie as the friendliest town in Ontario, and it lived up to the name during our stay. While checking into the motel the previous evening, Kaelan picked up a local newspaper, to which the woman at the registration desk quickly reacted by saying, “Oh, nothing ever happens here.” I believe the front-page story that particular day was celebrating an exceptionally successful crop from a local resident’s backyard garden.

Nothing happening is exactly what we needed after four days of constantly changing scenery.

Ecstatic about the idea of having a cup of coffee that wasn’t from Tim Horton’s (at the risk of sounding like a bad Canadian), I proposed venturing downtown for breakfast and riverside views.

Here is the only part of my narrative that may actually be useful to other cross-Canada travellers: If you ever find yourself in Sault Ste. Marie, do yourself a favor and grab some food at Ernie’s Coffee Shop. I have been to as many diners as is appropriate for any other self-respecting twenty-something, but no place felt as authentic, nor has a waitress’s “hon” ever felt as genuine, as it did at Ernie’s.

Plus, all the artist names and song titles on the jukebox were hand-written!

Afterwards, Kaelan and I burned off the breakfast calories on the promenade along the St. Marys river, yet another beautiful body of water we encountered on this trip. It was a weekday, albeit a perfectly sunny one, but there was quite a bit of water traffic created by tiny speedboats and international riverboat tours — some docking nearby, some across the river on the American side. (Sault Ste. Marie shares the St. Marys river with a Michigan town on the southern banks, with a picturesque International Bridge separating the two.)

While the boardwalk was perfect for a lovely post-brunch stroll, what I really wanted in the 35-degree heat (and seemingly endless sweaty hours behind the wheel in an AC-less car) was to go for a swim. There was rain in the forecast for later that afternoon, so we chose the nearest sandy beach at Pointe des Chenes, which is where the St. Marys river begins at Lake Superior.

I have to admit, I’ve always thought of lake swimming as inferior of swimming in the ocean. Lake bottoms are always either uncomfortably rocky or sludgy, the waters muddy, and the swimming itself lacks the buoyancy of saltwater. Plus, the visibility of the surrounding shores creates the feeling that you’re swimming in a giant puddle (which describes some suburban man-made lakes, in my experience). But b(u)oy, was swimming in Lake Superior ever different from— and superior to my previous lake swimming experiences. The bottom was fine sand, the water was clear, cerulean blue on the surface and warm. The sheer size of the lake could fool you into thinking you’re swimming in the ocean, were it not for the lack of salt in the water. Maybe, just maybe, I could be okay with living next to a giant lake, not the ocean, I told Kaelan.

We wanted to spend the rest of the daylight hours reading on the beach, but those plans were soon foiled by rain. Instead, we came back to the motel and allowed ourselves the luxury of enjoying a growler of locally brewed beer (our first drink since we hit the road) and cable TV (sadly, a bit of a ritual on the Northern Ontario leg of our trip).

Day 6: Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario to Sudbury, Ontario

The next drive would only be three and a half hours to Sudbury, but the weather was taking a turn for the worse for the first time that week. Google Maps also warned us about some construction on the highway. We left the friendly town of Sault Ste. Marie at nine, hoping to make it to our destination in the early afternoon.

Much of the road to Sault Ste. Marie lay adjacent to Lake Superior, which was affected the scenery. Kaelan’s photos from the passenger’s seat capture some of these stunning views: tall green trees in the foreground with brilliant blues of Lake Superior peeking through the branches; tranquil hidden lakes in the forest, spotted with lily pads; bright yellow flowers brightening up the sandy beaches by the lake.

The road to Sudbury, as I remember it, lies mostly through small towns with appropriate small-town speed limits. Coupled with some road work, a drive that was supposed to take just over three hours took almost five. And while driving at 30 km/h allowed us to inspect some of the quaint storefronts and road signs in greater detail, it wasn’t a welcome delay.

We also spotted these ‘beware of horse and buggy’ signs for the first time on our trip near Massey, which, as we later found out, is home to one of the biggest Amish communities in Northern Ontario. To our disappointment, we only spotted one horse-drawn carriage on our trip and didn’t want to be invasive and snap photos. Still, the yellow road signs served as yet another reminder of the existence of lifestyles far different from anything we have experienced.

In the last half-hour to Sudbury we got caught in a downpour, so reaching our motel felt like an incredible feat. It was still early in the day, so we were the first car parked outside of Moonlight Inn, our home for the night.

“Ooooh shiii —”

I would be neglecting a big part of the road trip — any road trip — if I didn’t devote a paragraph to motels. Our initial plan was to choose accommodations at random as we got into each of our destination points; however, this decision was quickly abandoned after our first stop in Regina, where the first hotel we found was a conference-hosting, executive-suites type of chain and the nightly rate made a big hole in our hotel fund for the trip. (It did have a whirlpool tub, though, which I felt was a luxury we deserved after witnessing the great prairie insect massacre in the mid-August heat.) Following this misstep, I booked each motel before hitting the road in the morning. All of them had romantic names — Alpine Motel, Voyageur, Holiday Motel, Moonlight Inn & Suites — and nearly identical rooms. Yet each one presented us with pleasant surprises upon our arrival. For example, our room at the Thunder Bay motel had two comfy armchairs, very conducive to dinners in front of the TV. The Sudbury motel had a microwave. These may not sound like great perks; however, after you spend a week cleaning and packing your possessions into a tiny two-door hatchback and then sleeping in a new place every night, it’s amazing how much your appreciation for simple conveniences grows.

This shot was taken in Sudbury, but it could have been anywhere in Canada.

Back in Sudbury, we looked for a good place to eat. Since our motel was on the edge of town by the highway, we had to drive for a while to get to the restaurant. Our venue for the day was Herc’s, a Greek food joint that Yelp promised had portions of “mammoth proportions.”

On the way to the restaurant, we drove by one of the local attractions, the Sudbury water tower. It was built in the fifties and decommissioned from its original purpose in 1998, then briefly given “a second life” as an advertising billboard. This blue, rusty, UFO-like structure towers over the other buildings in the vicinity, so its revival as a billboard made sense. Still, it’s kind of sad that something so cool-looking had to serve so mundane a purpose.

(Unfortunately, we didn’t take photos of the water tower. You can check it out here)

The storm let up a little during our brief venture into town, but by the evening the rain was coming down in buckets. It didn’t help that, by day six on the road, all we wanted to do was sleep, eat and not drive.

Day 7: Sudbury, Ontario to Toronto, Ontario

On the map of our trip, it’s obvious that the last couple of intercity trips are much shorter than distances covered in the beginning of the week. This was done partly on recommendation from other cross-Canada travellers, and partly in anticipation of our state of mind at that point in the trip.

Notice how 50% of the trip is just circling around Lake Superior.

That peculiar state I mentioned earlier — the strange form of restlessness that was impervious to the familiar cures of music, podcasts, conversation or road trip games — reached its height that Saturday morning. The weather didn’t help: it was dreary and rainy, with dips in the landscape creating patches of thick, horror film-quality fog. Kaelan and I probably discussed our game plan upon arrival, but I fail to recall any of the conversation during those four hours — probably because my mind was trying to perform a simple directive: Stay awake. Drive safe. Get to our destination on time.

We planned a prosaic end to the final leg of our cross-Canada trip — North York IKEA — because nothing softens the shock of a brand new city like the sight of a familiar blue-and-yellow furniture warehouse.

And that was it.

8 Canadian cities of various sizes, 7 days, 6 motels, a couple thousand extra kilometres on the Yaris odometer and one really great travel companion.

I’m told that if your relationship can survive a week-long road trip, then it can survive anything. I can say with certainty that few things bring you closer (or risk pulling you further apart) than six consecutive days in a hot vehicle, on your way to a new city and a new life.

Now let’s hope it’s a good one.