The Great Migrations of Animals

Winter begins to close in on the Okanagan and the seasonal claustrophobia is compounded by the high mountain passes that comprise every means of egress. I’ve recently driven the Coquihalla and the Pacific Rim with Wanda, coaxing her up the inclines so steep and so gradual that I start to wonder if the van is breaking down until I arrive at the summit, to careen wildly down the narrow, winding highway lanes with grades of up to eighteen percent. One day after driving the Coq back to Kelowna my brakes give out completely and I can't allow myself to think about if the catastrophic failure had occurred between Kamloops and Merritt. Snow tires become mandatory as of October first, and on October third, the weather changes and snow flies in Rogers Pass, leaving behind thirty centimeters of treacherous snow. The weather changes at the drop of a hat. I don’t like the idea of not being able to leave if I wanted to, knowing that I could be landlocked by mountains, work is less than thrilling and rental prices in Kelowna are nearly as bad as the GTA, let alone availability. Just as we left Northern Ontario in mid July, I spend a nearly sleepless night before departing in the morning. Fuck ‘em, I think. I owe nobody anything and leave without goodbyes.

What is there to say about driving solo across three quarters of the country, one of the largest on Earth, other than it is long and tiring and contemplative. The days bleed into one another and every truck stop is a welcome respite. Coffee snobbery is shelved in favor of whatever caffeinated beverages are readily available and I dub the Husky House, especially those with showers and twenty four hour restaurants and a dark corner to park between silent eighteen wheeler behemoths the sacred alter of tired drivers everywhere. Since Hearst and a wise Francophone waitress (or maybe that was just the acid) the Formica tabletops and showers, available in exchange for rewards points redeemed from gasoline purchases, have been a bastion of comfort and civilization and comfort.

Kelowna BC-Brooks AB

Jude co-pilots through the Rockies, settling in to the passenger seat with resigned stoicism. This is a brisk drive without the leisurely enjoyment of touring around Vancouver Island and stopping at everything that piqued my interest. I almost leave immediately once I decide but refrain in a rare exhibit of pragmatism and organize and pack and prepare, charging batteries and checking oil and tire pressure and sleeping, a bit. Before departing the Okanagan, I check the BC highway webcams to make sure the roads are clear. The grade combined with snow and the size of the van could be catastrophic. Wanda sails to Golden no problem where we fuel up one last time before hitting the mountain passes. Check the oil, check the fluids, suspiciously eye the tires, and carry on. The sun breaks through the clouds as we start the ascent, but I’m hesitant to take it as a good omen. Taking the good means taking the bad, too, means the menacing clouds on the horizon or a black cat could become foreboding.

Rogers Pass, after the Coq and Pacific Rim, is a breeze. We make a brief stop in Banff for gas and to let Jude go for a run at the off leash dog park and to take in the mountains for the last time for awhile. It’s smooth sailing to Calgary, except for construction through the pass and the evidence of the snow a few days ago- there are still several vehicles in the ditch all the way into the city center. I miss the turn off for the bypass and we’re stuck driving through a downtown Calgary rush hour. A few years ago before setting out on a short roadtrip from Toronto to Manitoulin, having borrowed my ex’s parents car, I had such bad anxiety I didn’t sleep all night, dreaming about merging onto the DVP and 401 catastrophes. Funny, in retrospect, given I’ve now driven across the country four times and all over B.C, Northern Ontario and Quebec, as well as back into and all around Toronto and the GTA. Winter has descended swiftly and mercilessly upon the prairies on the east side of the Rockies and we settle for the night in Brooks, Alberta, completing the last leg from Calgary in herky-jerky little steps, stopping in Chestermere for dog walks and hot coffee and to kick at the foot of snow on the ground distastefully.

Driving while exhausted is one of the worst feelings in the human condition. The road rolls out for miles and miles and miles before you, kilometer markings taunting with their impossible slow passage. Its a weirdly dreamlike feeling, and one of acute danger- “Do not sleep,” your brain commands. “Do not sleep or we die.” But even that isn’t enough to stave off the involuntary eyeblinks and head nods that presage the necessity of finding a place to park for the night. The great thing about having the van is simply having to park, and having the bed, the kitchen and all the amenities right there in the back. It’s been home for months and it’s comfortable. Parking can be iffy, but residential streets are usually a good bet, as are the vast majority of Walmart parking lots and Husky lots. We sleep a few hours on a side street in Brooks before waking up to frost on the inside of the van from our breaths. As I’m chipping away at the layer of ice on the inside of the windshield, I hit the rearview mirror and the ancient and frozen glue crumbles and it topples, to rest sadly on the floor beside the passenger seat. No Canadian Tire is open (it’s ten to four in the morning) and I’m not fucking waiting. I can see with the side mirrors and the rear door windows so we carry the fuck on.

Brooks AB-Austin MB

Early in the morning in the still darkness of Medicine Hat, deer roam the streets, comfortably ambling the median of the Trans Canada and foraging for grass. They’re on the lawn of the Tim Hortons I descend upon, ravenous, and they’re looming in the residential areas with all the stealth of suicide commandos who may or may not choose to destroy my van. I feel significantly better about my odds in a van vs. deer collision than I do in a BeBe vs. deer collision.

This day of driving, to be honest, is a complete blur and my recollection of it is grossly inaccurate. Somewhere outside of Brooks, the Rockies out of view behind us and the real stretch of Prairies beginning, we descend into a bank of dense fog that billows on and on for hundreds of kilometers. It’s a long and staggering day in which we stop and start for naps all over the place. There’s another stop after Medicine Hat when I realize I’ve cheated myself of enough sleep, and we’ve gone as far as we can for now. I park between rows of trucks at a truck stop in, I believe, Indian Head, although there were two similar stops that day and I couldn’t say for sure where the other one was. In the early morning light, we continue. We stagger all the way across Saskatchewan, stopping at any roadside distractions and points of interest. Some people have never done this in their lives- this is my fourth drive across the country. At Reed Lake in Saskatchewan I scream with joy, pointing at the lake and frantically looking for a place to pull over. Thousands upon thousands of birds of all types are upon the lake, honking and squawking and flapping. We’ve gotten here at just the right time of year to witness the great migration of animals from all across the north to their winter homes in the south. Jude runs across the Prairie, free and unencumbered for the first time in days and I could weep. It’s a Farley Mowat moment in a few different ways, the prairie slough, the animals, my mutt dog.

We stagger along in this fashion until Austin, Manitoba, just short of my trajectory of Winnipeg. A night beside a grain silo in the comfortable darkness and silence.

Austin, MB- Thunder Bay ON/Thunder Bay ON-Manitoulin Island ON

Winnipeg is a comfort to reach the next day. A hot Husky shower and breakfast almost makes me believe there is a god. I feel nearly human, though surreal, travelling the vast distances between myself and my family and my home, wondering the entire time about the meaning of the word and what I want out of my life. I love this vast and aimless wandering and the pure joy of the freedom of the highway. I can be wrapped up in all sorts of dilemmas and sadness and confusion and as soon as I start driving, it goes away. Its an absurd sort of joy and one I can’t quite seem to find any other way. Jude’s a wonderful co-pilot and passenger but I can’t help but think how amazing it would be to have somebody in the passenger seat to bear witness to some of the utterly mad and wonderful things you see when you’re on the road. Weird and wonderous and beautiful. My friends are dotted across the country and throughout my travels they’ve been there again and again at all different stops. The flocks of migrating birds and roadside coyotes pouncing on mice in the cut grain fields, roadside oddities and giant papier mache geese and animals, lakes and mountains and rivers and the sad, almost bleak and intimidating expanse of the land- you don’t know until you’ve seen it.

Getting to Ontario is not the end of the journey. In fact, it is the start of the worst part. Kenora to Sault Sainte Marie is the worst part of the drive. The highway goes down to two lanes, narrow and twisting after the fourlane stretch of fast driving through all three prairie provinces. It seems to become further between towns, a theory I inadvertently test when I fail to buy a coffee before leaving Thunder Bay. “Next town,” I think, but there, an eighteen wheeler cuts me off and I can’t find a good place to turn around so we carry on. “Wawa,” I’m hopeful. I pull of the Trans Canada in Wawa hours later to go to Tims and enjoy, finally, a hot tea and maybe some sort of awful prefabricated snack. Their debit machine is down so I leave to go and find cash. I lost one of my debit cards somewhere between Winnipeg and here, I’m suspecting in Amaranth when I pulled down my pants to pee in the parking lot of an abandoned gas station, so I’m trying to e-transfer myself money to my other account so I can take out cash to buy a god damn coffee and the e-transfer is refusing to go through and I am on the verge of meltdown because the Soo is still hours away. “You god damn whore,” I swear in ways I haven’t sworn since a harried service in a tiny kitchen with the missing tip of an index finger. We peel out of Wawa, and my bad mood and surly tempter tantrum continue until we get into the stunning fall colors all along the shores of Superior and the Agawa Canyon.

Much like the migrating birds, this is one of those things where the timing was just right. Every tree from Tamarack to Poplar is bright with autumn color and the weather is clear and fresh. Four hours of driving in absolute unbroken beauty. This is around where I get into the landmarks of home and become sentimental, passing turnoffs to White River and Manitouwadge and knowing that there is no return to Northern Ontario imminent the upcoming spring. Not so far from here somebody once played the accordion in the darkness of a North Ontario night to a small crowd invisible in the pure inky blackness of the bridge over the Pic River. These are the names of home I know, on my map of Algoma Manitoulin. The familiar names are an incantation, they hold power, they’re attached to memories deep in my psyche and soul. Pancake Bay elicits a cheerful smile, remembering a summer weekend spent there with the Italians and the frigid, clear waters of Superior. In the Soo I stop to visit a family friend. I’ve missed Thanksgiving dinner, now, a few hours away on Manitoulin. It’s less than five hours to my final destination there, but it’s three in the afternoon and my memory is garbled and my logic is skewed and I’m riding an emotional rollercoaster centered around the availability of coffee and the distance between gas stations. The last leg from the Soo to Espanola, and then, to Manitoulin, is familiar and easy. The Espanola Hills, once daunting, now seem tame in comparison to the highways of the mountains of B.C. I run into family at the Tim’s in Espo, which only seems right, and Manitoulin is a welcome respite from four days on the road- a journey completed solo in the same amount of time it took three or four of us to do the drive cross country earlier in the year. And we sleep and wait for the next adventure, anxiety building and cabin fever mounting as winter draws in.


Prairie Copilot

Jude, Saskatchewan, 2018


Carter Bay

Manitoulin Island 2018