A Quest for Canada is a series of articles that will appear in both my Witches & Pagans column 49 Degrees and my Patheos blog Between the Shadows on an alternating schedule between the two blogs. Links will be provided in both blogs.
It was the perfect moment.
I was driving our RV down the Trans-Canada Highway, somewhere between Grand Prairie, Saskatchewan and Brandon, Manitoba. We were heading East, out towards our vacation, and the sun was glowing redly in the rearview mirror, where it had been hovering for an hour or more. The light was purple and the sky spread in a vast field of rolling clouds, like something out of a dream sequence in a movie. The endless landscape rolled like gentle waves beneath us, oscillating up and down like a theta wave. On the radio, my partners and I were listening to one of our favourite CBC Radio programs, Tonic, which features classic and Canadian jazz.
People who do the drive across the Prairies regularly – not uncommon for Canadian businesspeople – often say this drive is boring. They claim that it’s flat and that it goes on forever. I don’t think it’s boring; I think that’s what makes it so special and so beautiful. But then again, I was born in the Okanagan Valley surrounded by mountains. The first time that I made it past the Rockies I was nineteen years old. It was nighttime, and I found myself staring deeply into the horizon, like something was off, but all I could see was mist. It was an hour or two later that it finally came to me; I was trying to see mountains! There had always been mountains; why wouldn’t there be mountains now?
I think it was at that moment that I first fell in love with the gentle rolling of the Prairies; truly the “Land of Big Skies,” as Saskatchewan claims in the motto that adorns their provincial license plates. It feels like you could go anywhere, do anything, and the sky is the limit.
Along the roadside, vast fields rolled by, golden-violet in the light of the sunset. It was early autumn, so we saw field after field of short-cropped grasses rolled into evenly spaced hay bales. There were lovely barns, some of which were collapsing and others still in use. Some were picturesque little wooden structures and others were enormous modern dairy barns. And in every little or big town, there was a grain silo.
The first time I made it to Saskatchewan I was on a Greyhound bus, heading to Maine to do some recording with my goth rock band Gallows Hill. We had crossed over the Rockies at night on a bus with broken shocks, so I didn’t sleep well. I dozed most of the following day as we went through Saskatchewan with its amazing bright blue sky; but the only way I knew we’d moved at all was because we would turn off the Trans-Canada highway every so often, and when I opened my eyes the grain elevator would look different. I remember how surreal I found the whole experience.
Truly the Trans-Canada is a wonder of engineering. When it was built, it followed the path of the Canadian Pacific Railway, a project to join the country coast to coast that was ramrodded through by shady government deals and outright fraud; but which was promised to British Columbia as a condition of Confederation and without which there would be no Canada today. The Last Spike was driven on November 7, 1885; almost exactly 131 years ago, and not far from where I live, either; it was at Craigellachie, BC, which is near the entrance to Eagle Pass near Revelstoke, BC, and you can go and see it today. Like the railway that preceded it, much of which still exists, the Trans-Canada goes right up the sides of mountains, right through enormous passes that were blasted out by dynamite over a generation, over rivers, around lakes, and even over ocean straights by ferry or by causeway or by massive floating bridge.
The Highway 1 starts (or ends) at Mile 0 in the middle of Victoria, BC; crosses Vancouver Island and the Straight of Georgia to resume on the mainland near Vancouver, BC; and carries right through to Winnipeg; where it briefly sojourns into the Highway 100 that rings around Winnipeg in a massive bypass; becoming the Highway 17 at the Ontario border. It becomes the 417 in Ottawa; then the Autoroute 40, then 25, then 20 and finally 85 in Quebec. At the New Brunswick border, it becomes Route 2; then in Nova Scotia it becomes Highway 104 and then Highway 105 across the Canso Causeway and onto Cape Breton island; or Highway 106 when you cross the Confederation Bridge to Prince Edward Island and the Northumberland Ferry back to Nova Scotia, becoming the 102. Finally, it crosses a ferry at the port of North Sydney to become the Highway 1 through Newfoundland. There are several off-branches that are also considered part of the Trans-Canada Highway system; the Yellowhead Highway 16 in Western Canada; the Highway 11 in Ontario; the various ways to get around the Maritimes. I’ll be writing about all of them at some point, save the Newfoundland Highway, which is the only portion I’ve never seen.
But on the Highway 1 in the Prairies I think the Trans-Canada carries the greatest spirit of what it actually is; a road that goes on and on over a vast expanse, connecting an amazing stretch of land and amazingly diverse peoples to one another, giving them their own unified identity.
Like most of Canada, it’s beautiful, and like most of Canada, it can be treacherous. I remember driving to Montreal for the Canadian National Pagan Conference in 2011. It was just after a major period of flooding at the Assiniboine River and pieces of the road – this being our national highway! – were entirely washed out. More than once we’ve driven over this particular portion of highway, especially near to Regina, and clutched the wheel in a white-knuckle grip as powerful winds pushed us hard enough to occasionally shove us into other lanes. This is something that Canadians are obviously acutely aware of; every so often along this highway stretch, you see a wind farm; which is a field of beautifully turning wind turbines, whirling like pinwheels, and gently and naturally generating power.
Night fell. As we got closer to Regina, we were reminded of the supremacy of Mother Nature. Rain closed in and made it difficult to see the road. To make matters worse, there was a great deal of construction going on, and I found myself trying to aim our big RV through a row of pylons that were just wide enough to permit our passage, with the road so hard to see that the cars passing way too close in the opposite lane (one lane each direction on the major highway with the construction – yikes!). I became so shaken that I pulled over at the first opportunity and let Erin, who is a far more experienced driver, take the wheel. Not long after that, a pylon that had been knocked over and flattened by a previous car came across our path. There was no shoulder and nowhere to go, so we went rolling over it. There was a loud bang underneath the vehicle, which was frightening, but we seemed to be no worse for wear.
It took us a long time, with the visibility and construction, to find a campground that night, but we finally settled on a little place maybe 45 minutes East of Regina that was a peaceful, rustic kind of place. it was closed but we were invited by signs to camp anyway and pay in the morning. We spent a peaceful and pleasant night in a site just off the highway, where the cars seemed like distant whispers despite the proximity.
In the morning, we continued our journey; but I noticed a grinding noise underneath the refrigerator, where the first of our two right back wheels was. Not long after that was a loud bang and louder scraping. We limped off to the side of the road, providentially ending up in the front turnaround of a Bible Camp. We had blown a tire. It seemed that the pylon had banged up against that side of the vehicle, flattened out our metal steps so we had to straighten them with a hammer before we could use them again, and banged back the mud flap to scrape against the tire until it had ripped it to pieces.
Well, this could have been bad, but fortunately we knew better than to cross the country without BCAA (thanks to adventures I’ll be writing about later in the series,) and so we called them on our cell phone, turned on the furnace to counter the damp of the pouring rain, and waited. We were lucky to be in an area with cell phone service; there are still vast portions of the Trans-Canada Highway without it. There are still phone booths along some stretches of the highway for this reason.
Within two hours the spare tire was on the vehicle and we were back on our way; but it was a good reminder of a fact about Canada, which is that no matter how much technology, how much civilization, we have, there are still vast portions of wilderness out there, and Nature, with all its beauty and its cruelty, is never far away.