Friday, May 23, 2008

The road to Acadia

I left Toronto in my fully packed truck on Tuesday afternoon, headed to my brother's place in Barrie, about an hour north of Toronto. I had promised I would visit him before I left for Nova Scotia. My intention was to leave first thing in the morning, but packing for a long trip being what it is, it was almost 3pm before I finally headed out. At the end I was just throwing things in the truck, afraid I'd never get out at all! Of course on the drive to Barrie I started remembering each item I had forgotten to pack. Spring jacket, well I think I can get by without it. Goretex jacket, well I did pack a spare raincoat so I suppose I can live without that too. The roof rack... hmmm, I don't think I can get by without that. I am headed to Nova Scotia to build a kayak, and I want to bring the kayak back to Toronto with me, I really can't see how I will attach it securely to the truck without the roof rack. Damn!

By this time I am outside Toronto, and it has taken me a good 45 minutes to get out of the city. Rush hour is descending and there is just no way I want to turn around for the roof rack and then sit out rush hour so I can arrive at my brother's place still reasonably sane but late at night. Double damn!

So continuing to drive north, I mentally search for a Plan B. Go back to Toronto tomorrow. Well, this is not a pleasant prospect, but it is doable. I'll still get to Nova Scotia by the end of the week, my target date. So that is what I settle on.

I had a wonderful but brief visit with my brother and sister-in-law. Laurene's Mom Madeleine is in respite care so they are on holiday! They are really relaxed and happy. My brother and I spend some time reminiscing over our childhoods, I am so grateful to have a sibling with common experiences! I run my roof rack problem by him and he agrees that returning to Toronto is really the only option. Briefly I toy with the possibility of doing without the roof rack, but it just doesn't make sense.

So on Wednesday I return to Toronto for the roof rack (and the Goretex jacket), Isaac makes me a cup of coffee and I prepare some sandwiches for the trip. And I'm off again, this time by noon. My plan is to break the trip up into three legs, arriving in Wolfville Nova Scotia mid-afternoon on Friday. The weather is cool with sporadic rain showers, actually very cool with a risk of frost at night. But since my truck is not air conditioned this is perfect driving weather for me. And I love sleeping in the back of the truck when it is cold, all bundled up in a sleeping bag and comforter with only my nose exposed. I have built a small bed with storage space underneath in the back of the truck (the canopy), And a kind of bedside shelf with little lamp and all the things I may need in the night within easy reach. It's a cosy space, and in a pinch I can even cook a meal in there if there is heavy rain.

There is something very relaxing and enjoyable about driving all day. When I reach my first overnight spot, it seems too soon, I just don't want to stop. And remembering something my brother said about how driving through Montreal late at night is far preferable to any other time of day, I decide to just keep going, get through Montreal and start looking for a place to park overnight after that.

Montreal is a driving nightmare. I'm sure it is a wonderful city to live in, I've heard lots of good things about it, but there is just no way to get to Nova Scotia on the Canadian side of the border without passing through Montreal, and it is white knuckles all the way. Complicated highway system, heavy traffic, signs in French which I have to take time to translate (too often discovering I should have made a left turn at the sign, when I am already several hundred yards past it), constant lane changes required, and crazy French drivers who zip in and out and glare at my obviously non-Quebecois truck. Very scary. I'd rather drive through in the dark when the traffic is a little more sane and I have time to read and translate the signs. No matter how many times I do this trip I still cannot memorize the complex route through.

While driving through Montreal I pass a very large field full of snow! The snow is piled in long mountain ranges easily 30 feet in height, and is black not white. The snow is covered in dirt scraped from city streets during the winter. I wonder how long it will take to melt...

Once outside Montreal I am free on the Autoroute. It is still light out and I believe I can put a fair number of kilometres behind me before I stop to sleep. One thing Quebec has is good highway rest areas, although more and more of them are being closed. I will drive till I am tired or it is dark, whichever comes first, and then head to the nearest rest area. That turns out to be just past Quebec City. It is cold and rainy and I just transfer myself from the cab to the canopy, put up my "curtains" (old bedsheets with velcro strips that attach to matching velcro strips inside the canopy) and go to bed with earplugs, to shut out the sound of the big semis running their engines overnight. I feel safe here, surrounded as I am by half a dozen huge trucks, albeit with running engines.

I'm awake at 5.30am on Thursday morning, shades of Belize! I putter around repacking and making cereal and yogurt for breakfast. I left a window open overnight by my bed and it rained heavily so there is a big wet spot I have to dry out. My curtain helped to keep me dry, but my foam mattress is a bit wet, as is the curtain. By 7am I'm back on the highway.

I do love these road trips. I love to listen to CBC radio and daydream and watch the scenery go by. I love to see the changes. Most of the St. Laurence corridor is experiencing about the same stage of spring as Toronto, lilacs in bloom everywhere. I see the few remaining stately elm trees. And finally the huge expanse of the St. Laurence estuary, so wide I can hardly see the other side.

While listening to the radio in the truck I chanced upon a talk being given on NPR. I came in on it right in the middle so I did not catch the name of the woman speaking, I listened in rapt attention, hoping I would not lose the signal before I got the name of the speaker. It turned out to be Frances Moore Lappe, talking about her latest book. Something about Getting a Grip? It sounds excellent though. I have made a note to look for it. Its focus is democracy in the U.S., but she is talking about far broader issues, applying to the whole world. What a wonderful lucid woman!

At Riviere du Loup I turn south to New Brunswick and there is an abrupt change in the scenery. Rolling farmland suddenly gives way to rocks and spruce trees and leafless birches and poplars. Spring has not arrived here yet! It seems strange to see bare trees. Gone are the farms. Here and there the pale yellow haze of trees about to leaf out. I feel suddenly transported to northern Canada, the boreal forest of short evergreen trees and exposed granite outcrops. This is the Canadian wilderness I love, it seems odd to be driving south now.

Sometime around 11am I cross into New Brunswick. I stop at a lovely rest area by a river to make a burrito for lunch and set my clock forward an hour, as I have passed into the Atlantic time zone. I spend the rest of the day driving south through New Brunswick. Some time in the past ten years they completely redid the Trans Canada Highway through New Brunswick, I hardly recognize it. Now it bypasses most of the towns along the way, it is four lanes all the way and it has a huge fence on either side with periodic gates. There are long stretches of highway without any exits or signs of human occupation, just the forest and the fence.

I am guessing this fence is to keep wild animals off the highway. I imagine this fence system running the entire length of the province, separating forever all the non-flying animals of the province into two populations, east and west of the fence. I imagine families separated at the time the fence was built. But never once do I see any roadkill along the highway. The crows and ravens must find some other dinner source.

The old Trans Canada used to take you right into the city of Fredericton, capital of New Brunswick. In downtown Fredericton there's an Odell park, I always got a kick out of driving by that park. But now I don't see Fredericton at all. I also remember the highway out of Fredericton, a two-lane road packed with big trucks and frustrated car drivers tailgating for the chance to pass. Death Alley. This four lane highway makes it safer but more monotonous.

Periodically I catch glimpses of the Saint John River as the highway follows it almost to its mouth. In southern New Brunswick it has flooded its banks, there are long rows of large willows standing in the water. I can see the old highway running along the new shoreline, now paved in a thin layer of mud from when it too was under water.

By evening I am at the Nova Scotia border. I know it is another three hours to my destination, it makes sense to just keep driving. No matter how many times I do this, crossing that border is so exciting to me! I'm back!

Coming south, the land drops away into a huge lowland, the Tantramar Marsh. To the right you see water or the mudflats (depending on where the tide is) of the Minas Basin at the head of the Bay of Fundy. To the left the marsh extends beyond sight, eventually to the Gulf of St. Laurence. Radio and microwave towers rise from the marsh, an eerie sight. You drive across the marsh on a kind of causeway, eventually reaching a rise with the big Cead Mille Failte ("a hundred thousand welcomes") sign, the Nova Scotia border. St. Andrew's cross, blue on white, flutters over the welcome centre. Briefly, you are up on a hill overlooking the marsh, then back down you go on the other side of that little hill. An hour or so later I am in the little town of Truro, and I stop for gas there. Then for the first time in two days I get off the four lane highway and head into the back roads of Nova Scotia.

It's almost dark and this particular stretch of back roads is as complicated as Montreal, but to me it is familiar and inviting. I could stay on the highway a little longer but I really, really want off. The Rawdon Hills are what I've been waiting for since I left Toronto. Stan Rogers wrote and sang a song about this bit of country, just called The Rawdon Hills. The line that sticks in my memory is "The Rawdon Hills, once were touched by gold." A reference to a mini-gold rush that occurred here a couple of centuries ago. But the way he sings it, you can hear the affection in his voice. And I feel it too. Very twisty little back roads, up and down, back and forth. Tiny little shacks, tiny little farms, occasional nineteenth century mansions dot these roads. I have to trust to the road signs, I know that my destination on the other side is a small town called Windsor, I am simply looking for arrows pointing to Windsor. The road is terrible, potholes everywhere. And it is quite dark now, I can't see the potholes coming. If it were daylight the scenery would be wonderful, but that's OK, my memory fills in the darkness. Here, a meandering river. Over there, a limestone cliff appearing to rise out of nowhere. An ancient general store at a crossroads (the arrow tells me, Turn Right). Hayfields, forests, salt marshes and dikes along the rivers because the tide comes in this far.

Then finally, Windsor, and back on the highway again. But now, I am only a few kilometres from Wolfville and this stretch of highway will give me a wonderful vista of Blomidon in the distance, if it were daylight. I know exactly where this vista will occur, my memory fills in the darkness. When Blomidon rises over the last crest in the highway, I know I'm in the Valley.

I arrive in the small town of Wolfville just before 11pm and pull up in front of my friend Carolyn's house. I know she stays up late, no danger of waking her up. But although she knows I am arriving this week, emailing her my arrival time was one of things that fell through the cracks in my haste to get out of Toronto. Anyway, this is Thursday and I would have told her I was arriving Friday. I ring her doorbell and eventually she peers out the window at me, who can it be? Her son who has forgotten something? No, it's me!


Anonymous said...

You drove right around my neck of the woods in Maine! And it's true: the closer you get to the North Atlantic, the more grudgingly spring arrives.

I haven't been in New Brunswick in decades, but your travelogue makes me want to go!

Zabetha said...

Hi Pete, yes I did! I've gone through Maine on occasion, but invariably I get lost! So I played it safe and stuck to the Trans-Canada this time.

And I am glad that spring is late here, it means I get to do a retake. I am enjoying watching spring unfold all over again!