Hi friends! I’m deep in packing mode and on a brief moving hiatus. My friends have offered up some really wonderful guest posts to keep the tumbleweeds from blowing through here. Today, we have a great cross-Canada adventure from my friend Lorraine. Canadian by way of Ireland, her attachment to Canada through its infinite natural beauty makes me feel guilty for not going into the woods more. Last autumn, she did something I’ve never done and never considered, driving across this great, wide country of ours. Say hi in the comments and share your own long road trip war stories!
A road trip is always a wonderful adventure. Heading west across North America, land of the free and home of the automobile, stirs the imagination like nothing else. I have always lived by the Atlantic. I used to live on the other side of it. Then I hopped over here. Last winter, I got to seven years perched at the western edge of it. The fog started getting to me. Maybe it was time to take a look at the rest. By happy circumstance, one of my childhood friends invited me to British Columbia. We decided to drive over to his house for the weekend: through Montana on the way out, and back over the Canadian Rockies.
We filled a Kia Forte with camping gear and drove north through spruce tree plantations for eight hours until we hit Quebec and the St. Lawrence Seaway. Clouds were coming in fast and the Pelerin islands were just a haze in the bay. We outran the storm for a while, but in a little town east of Montreal, we saw BBQ chicken on special offer at the Appolinaire mini-golf resort. Just as we ordered our food, a fork of lightening hit the restaurant sign, the power flickered, then it held. Rain pummelled the ground and wind tore at the golf flags, and we told each other we were lucky to be going west.
It turned out the storm was headed that way too, checking in with us intermittently over the next three days. We passed safely through the golden farmlands of Quebec and the Ottawa Valley, then met it howling across the Canadian Shield near Sudbury. As we began the endless drive around the Great Lakes, it stirred up white caps way out on the water. When we turned south and crossed the border, it tore at our Wisconsin forest campsite all night, while we prayed the spruce tree beside us would withstand it. Next day, we followed its path across northern Minnesota – power lines on the road, trees felled everywhere, cops out with chainsaws. Finally, we emerged from forest and water onto the great plains of the Dakotas.
Soon we were on the prairie proper. After days of feeling hemmed in by forest, the long, long fields of rape seed and wheat seemed to stretch out into infinity, intersected by the endless line of the train tracks and the occasional one street town. We chased hundred-carriage trains along Highway 2 waving at them to sound their iconic whistles. Above us, the sky was so huge that we could see the edges of our storm as it grumbled along the horizon south of us. The almost black clouds were trimmed in gold. The light filtered onto swamp grass along the roadside tinting it a strange yellow.
Half-way through day four, we reached Rugby, North Dakota, the geographical centre of the continent of North America. We visited the Museum of the Prairies, home to a mountain of homesteader detritus. A room full of sewing machines. One full of guns. Of preserve kettles. Of mounted animal heads. Two huge buildings full of rakes, ploughs and harnesses. Bearskin coats and wolfskin coats; horse-hair coats and bison robes, coyote jackets and rabbit furs. A barn full of farrier tools.
A jumble of worn-out dreams, covered in prints from fingers worn to the bone with work and weather and worry.
Towards Willeston, near Montana, we were surprised to see an oil derrick. Then another. Suddenly, we were deep in oil country. Derricks everywhere, bobbing their robotic heads up and down. Tankers hurtled around the roads. Work camps seethed with men in pick-ups. Construction crews swarmed over half-built apartment blocks. I think the town of Willeston was the only place we saw any construction activity between Michigan and Seattle.
We got the hell out of there and drove into Montana.
About ten miles in, it went back to us and the road and the sky and the land. Tillage pretty much ended. Wildflowers were in bloom, yellow, blue and white, and there was an odd white tail deer around. It was all very lush, but you could see the sandy earth underneath, now rising in mounds around us, getting bigger, although still soft and rounded. Soon, the trees gave up pretending they had any business in the landscape, and so did the farms. What houses there were had palominos running along a ridge nearby. A butte rose up and ran south, below the train track, parallel to the road on the southward side.
We pulled into Wolf Point late on the Fourth of July. The town was a melee of families cruising Main St in old cars, kids hanging out the back windows. The fireworks had already started. I stopped at a gas station and asked a very frazzled-looking young cop carrying a four pack of Red Bull and a packet of Marlboro about camping options.
Camping in a tent?
His look made us check into the motel instead. The town had shut down, so we ate MacDonald burgers with beers in our room and then my husband slept while I listened to a cacophony of bangers and screamers and candles whizzing around the sky. As I watched the moon come up over the chaos, he dreamt he was in a gunfight all night.
Next day we hit the Hi-Line, which stretches across eastern Montana, from Glasgow to Shelby. It was one of the last parts of America to be settled, and the first to be abandoned. By the twenties the water had gone and so had most everyone else. Driven out by the drought. By the wind. By the isolation.
This is big, empty country. Everywhere, barbed wire in various stages of decay guards rough grass and wildflowers. Occasionally we would veer towards the Missouri river, where trees provided some vertical perspective. But mostly it was just straight lines headed west. The railway tracks. The power lines. The barbed wire. The road. All of them a palimpsest on fainter tracks laid before us. The buffalo. Blackfeet and Sioux following them. Ranchers moving cattle south to water. Londoners struggling with a plough in their new world.
A few minutes out of Shelby, the road rose and turned slightly northward and suddenly we could see the salamander crest outline of the American Rockies. At once strange and familiar, like so many American landmarks, there is very little left of the glaciers that once crowned them. It took us another hour to draw near at Browning, centre of the Blackfeet Nation. Then we took the Marias Pass, the most northerly year-round route through the mountains.
We were in the mountains at last. We stopped for a few days to stare at the unforgettable perfection of the landscape. We hiked up to Avalanche Lake through an ancient, shaded cedar grove. It glowed green-blue under the sun. North of it, four waterfalls thundered down from the avalanche, feeding it with ice cold water. We sat on a rock and I dipped my feet in the water. A young deer hovered near us, deciding whether or not to draw near.
It is heartbreaking to think that by 2020 at the very latest, these glaciers will have disappeared forever. Nobody can predict what will then happen to the ecosystem, which is based on ice-cold water.
After a few days, we moved on, meandering through Montana’s picturesque lakes and valleys. Meeting all kinds of weird and wonderful folk. Then we drove out of the high country and down into the Idaho panhandle. Only ninety miles wide where we crossed, it was mixed forest with long, shady driveways leading to secluded log cabins. In no time, we were in Washington State and the landscape changed again, to a desert-like scree that stretches from the Okanagan Valley in BC right down to Mexico. High ridges covered in dwarf pines zig-zagged away from us north and south. Up, up, up we went through a canyon to a high peak, and then down through a series of switchbacks until we came out into the baking heat of the Columbia Valley wine district.
Cherry, apple, and orange groves stretched back from the road, and higher up in the hills, lines of vines stood to attention in the setting sun. The heat was overwhelming, even after a drive through the mid-West in July, so we pushed on and on and finally made it to the Cascades.
Camped by the Columbia river that night, we drank a nice Valley red and wondered at the diversity of this beautiful state. Nearby was Deception Falls, a magical ecosystem of cedar and pine, kept lush and cool by the river roaring through the woodland. We spent a lovely morning in the forest before slowly, slowly, the outer reaches of Seattle started to intrude. The coffee shacks got a lot more up-market. The sub-divisions began to have gates on them. So did the lakes.
When we reached Everett, the Puget Sound was shrouded in mist, so our first glimpse of the Pacific was muted. We travelled over to Whidbey Island and suddenly, there it was! The San Juan Islands lay curled up like furry caterpillars in the sun, and we thought we could see Vancouver Island beyond.
After a night there, we turned north along the coastline towards Canada. Just a couple of hundred kilometres brought us through Vancouver to the Bowen Island ferry, with its spectacular view of the coastal mountains.
Total kilometres covered, 6,495. Total states or provinces visited, eleven.
We spent our weekend with Oisin and his wife, catching up on ten years of news. Then, it was time to drive home. The blow by blow is here: http://www.hali-van-hali.blogspot.ca/