Goin’ Down the Road

In which the writer recalls a lifetime of Trans-Canada road trips, first with her parents, then with her family, and, with her nest now empty, alone with her husband. Is this the end of something or the beginning?

Illustration by Tomio Nitto

My husband likes to drive, and I am inclined to daydream, so, mostly, that is what we do on car trips, as the landscape flashes by and the kilometres accumulate. He was born in Saskatchewan, which may explain his driving fetish. The urge to cross that vast, undulating prairie was embedded in his psyche as a child, and it never dissipated, not even in the lush rainforest of the West Coast, where his family moved when he was twelve. The only child in the back seat, he amused himself on long journeys by reading billboards and highway signs back to front and pronouncing them aloud. His ability to speak “sdrawkcab” in complete sentences caught my attention in the late ’60s, and while the novelty has faded over the decades, a rapid-fire blast of incomprehensible speech can still impress and sometimes tickle me.

By contrast, I grew up stranded in the suburbs of Montreal, desperate to flee. Even now, I get empathetic hives when I go back there and see teenage girls standing by the side of the road in their skinny jeans, the wind whipping their long, shiny hair as they silently implore that blasted commuter bus to lurch around a distant curve. Escaping the suburbs usually meant being squished in the back seat of the car, snarling and scratching with my three sisters as we made the almost annual trip to PEI, my father’s birthplace and still our family’s reservoir of idyllic summer holidays.

Daydreaming and reading comic books and trashy romances were my survival techniques, the same way my own children took refuge in electronic gadgets and Tintin when it was their turn to wrestle for space in the back while my husband and I sat up front and set the itinerary and the route on our family trips.

As Canadians, we are hostages to our geography, especially the transportation routes along the St. Lawrence River and the Great Lakes. Consequently, we tend to drive straight east or west with minor detours along the way, and we do it at three distinct stages of our lives: carted along for the ride in the back seat of our parents’ car; as adults with our own children strapped in the back; and on our own after the kids have departed to seek their own travelling companions and destinations. Having experienced all three, I’m convinced that what you see and visit on these trips isn’t nearly as important as being hermetically sealed for days on end with family members or their ghosts. To me, the real definition of Canadianness is not the contortions you execute in a canoe, but the intimacies you share sitting in the dark, staring straight ahead, while the flickering beams from your headlights seek out cars approaching from the opposite direction.

Given our disparate childhoods, the fact that my husband and I have bonded over road trips is as mysterious as any of the other encircling links that conjoin two people in a long relationship. In my earliest driving memory, at age three, I am hurtling out of a car on a heavily trafficked Montreal boulevard. At the time, my father was a graduate student and my mother was in a body cast following serious back surgery. A more affluent, and childless, couple offered to take us all on a Sunday afternoon excursion in their Nash sedan. Dressed in matching green wool coats with velvet collars, my older sister and I had each hogged a window seat, with my father between us to keep order in those days before seat belts, when unrestrained children roamed around the car like cats on the prowl.

The chrome handle was irresistible, and after I jiggled it a few times it did what it was designed to do, and the door flew open. As I tumbled out, my mother managed to twist one arm around from the front seat and grab the belt of my coat, but it came off in her grasp. Fortunately, I rolled onto the shoulder—more surprised than hurt—picked myself up, and started screaming in outrage as the cars whizzed by. I can still remember later that day standing on newspapers spread out across our kitchen floor, while my father, under my mother’s direction, delicately picked bits of gravel from my hair.

You’d think, with memories like that, I’d shun car travel but the opposite is true, at least when my husband is driving. It has a lot to do with the fact that he takes charge in the car, leaving me to float in a miasma of memories, dreams, and anxieties. Because reading, unless aloud and from a guidebook, is discouraged, I idly carry on unfinished conversations with old bosses and dead relatives, explaining tensions, rectifying mistakes, refuting accusations. Sometimes, I inadvertently voice a sharp rejoinder to an unseen adversary, shattering a companionable silence with a snarled “How dare you? ” or evoke an ancient abandonment by emitting a heart-rending “Nobody loves me,” in what our son affectionately calls “Mom’s Tourette’s.”

I do offer to drive at least once a day, and sometimes my husband relents, but reversing our customary positions sets us both on edge. He can’t resist pointedly checking the speedometer, glancing in the mirrors, and alerting me to oncoming vehicles, no matter how tiny the specks they form on the horizon. The surveillance makes me twitchy, and we end up bickering. That is not a harmonious environment, especially if you intend to log 600 klicks a day over the course of a week.

Thinking back now, I realize that our last cross-country road trip was as much about our car as it was about us. Skipping the winter in Toronto, we’d spent four months teaching and writing in Victoria to see if it might entice us as a retirement haven. We had shipped our ancient Toyota Camry—with its exasperating screech whenever we activated the turn signals—westward by rail on a bitter New Year’s Day. The trip back to Toronto would mark its farewell tour after eleven years and more than 380,000 kilometres (if it lasted that long).

Our plan was to hug the US border through BC, Alberta, and Saskatchewan before heading north at Regina to the Trans-Canada Highway, stopping in places I had never been and that my husband had first visited while in the back seat of his parents’ 1958 Caddy—“a car,” as he liked to remind me, that “could pass anything but a gas station.” The trip also signified a change in our lives: alone again. Our daughter was teaching in Asia, and our son was getting married. Suddenly, I could imagine a time when we would end up in the back seat of our kids’ cars. Was this the last long car trip we would make on our own, or would we morph into a pair of wizened creatures in a gas-guzzling RV, criss-crossing the country from one mobile hookup to another? All of this imbued our journey with emotional freight: it was either the beginning of the end, or the beginning of a new beginning, as we tried to reclaim the people we used to be before marriage, kids, and “the whole catastrophe” (as Zorba the Greek famously described family life) took over. Who knew which it would be?

The sun was shining, we had ticked off the last five items on the penitent’s checklist—scrub the fridge, do the laundry, make the beds, take out the garbage, put the keys under the mat—and waved goodbye to our rented house in deepest, darkest Broadmead, the leafy Victoria suburb we had shared with towering rhododendrons, and brazen deer that munched placidly on our neighbours’ prize shrubs.

Our pre-dawn diligence meant we had time for a farewell breakfast in Sidney, or rather Sidney-by-the-Sea, as it is called in tourist brochures. “What isn’t by the sea in this place? ” my husband grumbled, as he turned right into the parking lot while jiggling the directional signal like an out-of-control handshaking machine. I glanced in the back seat and suddenly remembered the computer. “Did you put it in the trunk? ” I asked. Our eyes locked in one of those moments that can escalate into nuclear warfare, especially when the combatants are ravenous and overtired. Going back meant missing the ferry; but moving on without the computer activated our back-to-work anxieties into unknowable threats hurtling toward us like the headlights of a runaway truck. Spewing blame, as we might have done in our younger, feistier days, would waste too much time, so we silently wended our way back to the rented house.

The computer sat waiting forlornly inside the side door, like an offspring at the school gate after all the other kids have been collected. We grabbed coffee and sandwiches at a takeout place, picked up a newspaper to do the crossword (one of the few collaborative pastimes two people can engage in while sitting up in a moving car), and set off for the ferry for the second time that morning.

It was smooth sailing, a metaphor that held up as we crossed the Strait and headed inland into the “sea of mountains,” as they were called in Lord Dufferin’s day. The air at Nk’Mip, the Aboriginal winery in Osoyoos, on the northern tip of the Sonoran Desert, was so dry after the soft dampness of Victoria that I felt blasted by a gigantic hair dryer when I finally stepped out of the car. We were too late for a tour of the winery, but we slaked our thirst with one of its reds over dinner in the restaurant at our resort. The meal was punctuated by a nearby couple dropping their forks and fleeing their table every time a roar from the television in the adjoining bar heralded a goal by the Canucks in the 2010 Stanley Cup quarter-finals.

The next morning, we hung around just long enough for the winery to open, so we could buy a couple of bottles to stow away for later in the trip. The road climbed so precipitously that Osoyoos was soon a mere speck at the north end of the town’s sparkling, finger-shaped lake. A few hours later, we were breathing the crisp, clear air of the Rockies in Fernie, a skiing mecca surrounded by jagged peaks that poked vertiginously through the clouds. Instead of the “armpit” of a coal mining town from my husband’s youth, we found a couple of surprisingly good restaurants. So we treated ourselves to oysters on the half shell, roughly 750 kilometres from the sea, a gustatory gesture that celebrated the distance we had covered and the miracle of modern transportation.

My parents didn’t even own a car until I was at least seven. Before then, we travelled by bus or, more often, by train. That’s how I went to PEI with my mother and older sister the summer I was five, to spend six weeks with my widowed grandmother and several of her daughters, while my father, a junior professor, earned extra money teaching summer school in Halifax. Why do I remember that summer so well—the tides; my aunts, with their kerosene lamps, flitting like moths around the dark parlour; a grown-up cousin taking me for a tractor ride; my mother smoking cigarettes and lacquering her nails with geranium red polish as we waited endlessly for my father to arrive at the end of his teaching stint? Who knows, but here’s what I think: my memory banks had plenty of storage capacity, and there were no other children, nor any radio or television, to lull my sister and me into complacent silence. Everything was wondrous because we had so little awareness of anything outside our immediate existence.

For me, entertainment came from watching the adults. I would circle the bridge table like a shark until whoever was dummy distractedly played with me while offering advice on how to pull trump or finesse the singleton spade; and I would listen agog from a corner of the room or squished between the grown-ups’ overlapping thighs in the back seat as they told tales of the great-uncles who practised medicine in the “Boston States,” or the aunt who went west to teach on the prairies and suffered “a disappointment”—whatever that was.

My aunt must have travelled by ferry and train or even bus, I realized, “a Burkian rather than a Marxist approach,” I mused to my husband, leaping from modes of travel to the radically different approaches to political and social change espoused a century apart by philosophers Edmund Burke and Karl Marx. “What did you say? ” he demanded, nonplussed as always by my erratic vocalizations. I tried to explain my crackpot theory, until even he, who loves a debate, grew bored. Slipping from imaginary conversations into unexpected dialogues with car mates is my way of daydreaming out loud, or of making sense of experience: the world I’ve left behind, and the one I’m rushing toward.

We would probably never have made the effort to visit Frank, Alberta—the site of one of the biggest natural disasters in Canadian history, when Turtle Mountain collapsed in the early morning of April 29, 1903—but there it was as we drove into Crowsnest Pass. The rubble that had entombed nearly eighty people under millions of tonnes of limestone in less than two minutes still lay mounded on either side of the road, and yet every now and then we saw a lone pine rooted in the blackened rocks and stretching toward the sun.

“Relentless nature,” I murmured, which led us to a conversation about the fragility of human life. Or, rather, it prompted me to bring up the subject, which my husband tried to ignore for a few more kilometres. Worrying about what happens next is my strength, my folly, or my curse—take your pick. I love to speculate; my husband does not. He’s happy to discuss our friends and family (especially mine), analyzing their investment disasters, romantic obsessions, and personality faults, but he shuts down when the topic turns to our own psyches and prospects. I have come to heed the way he flinches when I say, “I’ve been thinking… ” because a conversation thus sparked never ends well. Where we will be living and what we will be doing in five, ten, or a zillion years are not items on his agenda.

Why we decided to move house in Toronto the same year we planned an epic trip to the West Coast with our kids has become opaque with time. We wanted to bundle them into the Camry (we are bedrock Toyota loyalists) while they were still willing to accompany us, and before teenage angst and summer jobs made a month-long car journey both impossible to coordinate and too fraught to contemplate.

We’d sold our charming Victorian semi, the “shrunken gentleman’s house,” as one of our friends described it, in the middle of June, and by the third week of July we still hadn’t found a new place. The solution was to buy a house we couldn’t afford, a rationalization now immortalized in our family as Mom’s First Rule of Real Estate.

After signing our lives away, we headed out of town, planning to drive north of Lake Superior on the way west and come back through the States. What we hadn’t anticipated was our son’s insistence that the portable stereo set we had given him for his thirteenth birthday, five days earlier, come along for the ride. Thank heavens we had paid extra for the earphones. He immediately staked out his territory, jamming one speaker next to the door and the other precisely in the middle of the back seat to demarcate the no-go zone for his younger sister. Naturally, she considered this a declaration of military aggression. We, the parents, assumed our customary role as peacekeepers.

Some things never change. “Look at that,” I would command from the front seat, pointing out a Tom Thomson pine or a craggy variance in the endless drive across the Canadian Shield. “Hmm,” the children would murmur as they momentarily tore their eyes away from their Game Boys. Most people remember Wawa, Ontario, for its giant Canada goose sculpture. I always think of it as the place where we found a store that sold gimp, the strands of coloured plastic that can be woven into bracelets and key chains and all sorts of other clever things, if you have nothing better to do for eight hours a day.

Technology was the biggest difference between that trip and those of my youth. Our car had air conditioning, a radio we could tune to golden oldies for a game of Guess the Group, and a tape deck so we could all listen to audiobooks. The driver always got an extra music choice, so I insisted on cranking up the volume on Gordon Lightfoot’s “Canadian Railroad Trilogy,” as my heavy foot on the pedal urged us onward across the flat prairie while my husband hissed, “Slow down.”

The house deal fell apart in Calgary, and was resurrected by phone in Kamloops, and concluded by fax at my parents-in-law’s condo in Victoria. My daughter reminded me recently that I’d left a paper trail of $20 bills with friends and relatives to cover the long-distance charges. When we talk about that cross-country trek, nobody mentions the dinosaurs in Drumheller, the last spike at Craigellachie, or the thunderous Fraser River. Our son remembers that we kept our promise to stop every night at licensed motels with swimming pools, so they could spend an hour or two splashing and dunking each other. What we remember is the other half of the bargain: retreating to the bar for a dry martini and a snatch of adult time while they dried off in front of the television in our room. We reminisce about the weird rather than the wonderful: the early snowfall in Idaho, the pea soup fog rolling in as we climbed Mount Rushmore, the homeless man in Chicago who told my husband he was a “lucky feller.”

Look at that,” my husband suddenly exclaimed, swerving the car. Guiltily, I tore my eyes away from my BlackBerry screen just in time to see the flash of three antelope bounding across the road before they disappeared behind a mound, their tawny fur blending into the golden, rippling grasses of Saskatchewan’s Cypress Hills. How I wished the children were there to share that flickering vision of life on the prairie as it used to be. No matter how old they get, or how far away, they are always with us, our memories and their needs colliding like a kaleidoscope made from a single crystal.

Three weeks earlier, we had been visiting our daughter in Seoul; now she was fretting by email about her brother’s upcoming wedding and the impossibility of finding a dress in a city where everybody seemed to be a size zero. “Shut up, show up, and wear beige,” a friend had advised when I announced our son was marrying a young woman we had all loved for a decade. “Beige” wasn’t in my lexicon, but I was happy to take a back seat to the bride and her parents, especially since the wedding, on a mountaintop in the Green Mountains of Vermont, would take place six weeks after we reclaimed our Toronto house. My husband insists his biggest achievement in Victoria was figuring out how to get our daughter a round-trip flight from Korea on reward points so she could party in Montreal, Jay Peak, and Toronto, and only miss a week of work at her hagwon (English academy) in Seoul.

Organizing a wedding by BlackBerry, even from the distaff side—the guest list, the accommodations—adds a distracting frisson while one imagines prehistoric life at Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, pays homage to Arthur Erickson at the University of Lethbridge, or drops in on Wallace Stegner’s birthplace in Eastend, Saskatchewan. Apparently, Stegner once said that if there had been one more inch of rain during the Depression, his family wouldn’t have moved south, and he would have been a Canadian writer rather than an American one.

We also made the de rigueur stop in Regina, the birthplace of the almost-senior citizen behind the wheel, so we could slowly drive past the family homestead and determine whether the exterior modifications were an improvement on the original, or detracted from the changes we had seen on our last visit with our children. How his parents would have loved the upcoming wedding, I thought, as I visualized their elegant two-step on the dance floor and imagined them swirling past the long-armed, sweaty flailings of my son and his friends.

That night, my husband and I dined in a dimly lit Regina steak house that probably hadn’t changed since his parents’ time, judging by the clientele: ancient women in pearls and pinkish bouffants, attended by paunchy sons with slicked-back hair and sullen herds of teenage grandchildren. Our motel, on the outskirts of the city, seemed to straddle the highway. From our room the next morning, I could look across the prairie to the edge of the world.

Whether you make your way into Ontario by heading north of Lake Superior or swinging south through the States, you can’t escape Winnipeg, with its spring floods, summer mosquitoes, and arctic winter squalls. Last time, when we were with our kids, we’d stopped and stayed for a couple of days with friends, a slightly older couple with already grown children. They’d shown us the sticky swatches encircling the city’s elms to thwart the rapacious progress of elm bark beetles; wandered with us around the Forks, where the Assiniboine flows into the Red; and supplied directions so we could pay our respects at the grave of Louis Riel in neighbouring St. Boniface.

This time was different. We’d lost our oomph, and so had Winnipeg. Once the prosperous gateway to the West, the city looked tired and desperate for an injection of fresh ideas and money. After a miserable search, we ended up in our second steak house in as many days, vying for the waitress’s attention with a rowdy group of office workers celebrating a birthday. Our pricey motel smelled stale, as though somebody had been sneaking a smoke in the bathroom the night before.

Our Winnipeg friends had retired since our visit in the late ’90s and had moved to Qualicum Beach, British Columbia. The husband had been mysteriously ill with jaundice when we’d gone up island from Victoria to visit them. As we drove by the government building on Vaughan Street, where he had once served as the Archivist of Manitoba, my BlackBerry buzzed with an email from his wife, saying he had just suffered a stroke. The coincidence was both uncanny and ominous. He died six weeks later, on the very day our son, his godson, was married.

Intimations of mortality weighed on us like a shroud. Given our gloom, the craggy route through the Canadian Shield was too solitary a prospect to get us over the halfway hump of our trek. Chicago, with its bustle and its thrusting architecture, beckoned. I took the wheel, cranked up the stereo, and headed south, seeking adventure and crowds.

We booked two nights in a boutique hotel and went for an early-evening stroll along the Magnificent Mile. Hard to say which was more potent: the relief of parking the car, or the bliss of being childless in Chicago. No need to find a swimming pool, to negotiate television choices, to separate squabbling kids, or to trade off a morning in an art gallery for the dubious pleasures of dinner at the Hard Rock Cafe.

Instead, we plotted out a full day at the Art Institute, wandering through rooms of Impressionists, reacquainting ourselves with Joseph Cornell’s boxes, checking out the exhibition of paintings and sculptures made by Matisse in response to the treachery and slaughter of the First World War, and promised ourselves dinner in a decent restaurant afterwards. As we wandered, we picked up gourmet treats before heading back to the hotel for a picnic and a bottle of Nk’Mip red in front of the television. “You’re a lucky feller,” I said, clinking my husband’s water glass, borrowed from the hotel bathroom. He didn’t disagree.

Driving across this vast continent seems archaically slow in an age of jet travel. But by leapfrogging from one anonymous airport to another, you miss subtle gradations in climate and landscape. Sure, you skip the boring parts, but those offer the best reflective times and spark impulsiveness—the urge to alter the itinerary, however slightly, in a detour that might affect the outcome of both your life and your trip. This journey had given us a taste of what it would be like to spend unlimited time together, not in the heated urgency of our early passion, but in the more contemplative arc of approaching old age, and it felt good.

We weren’t done yet. We would return to Victoria, just to visit, for a couple of winter months somewhere way, way down the road. The drive around the lakes stretched ahead of us, but we had time for a final detour to Point Pelee, another spot we had never been, even though it was only a day trip away from our home in Toronto. Meanwhile, on the television, my beloved Habs were beating the Washington Capitals in the seventh-game cliffhanger of the Stanley Cup quarter-finals, and we had a free day ahead of us before we climbed back into the car to pile on the klicks and stockpile the memories that would continue to shape our lives.

This appeared in the September 2011 issue.

Sandra Martin
Sandra Martin is a contributor to the Globe and Mail. Her most recent book is A Good Death: Making the Most of Our Final Choices.
Tomio Nitto
Tomio Nitto published The Red Rock: A Graphic Fable in 2006. His work has appeared in Esquire and Saturday Night.