Driving from Ottawa to Calgary

Holy Crap Canada is Big

Near the end of May, I moved from Ottawa to Calgary to look for teaching work, hang with old friends, and stir things up a bit. I figured it was time to chronicle my experience, including a couple of strange and serendipitous events for which I am truly grateful.

Ed’s Note: Don’t get too excited. He just drove a lot and hotboxed the car. Woo-hoo.

Day 1: Ottawa to Some Wide Spot on the Highway

Things never go according to schedule, especially driving trips. Which is why I always set ridiculous goals about how early I will depart and arrive. That way, when I’m late by a couple of hours it’s no big drama. Like today, when I left Ottawa at 4:00pm instead of 11:00am.

My car was so jammed with gear that when I finally draped my comforter over the junk in the back seat, I couldn’t see a thing out of the rear view, the side view, or even over my shoulder. Luckily, I called Jen, who was coming to visit me in a week, and she agreed to be my mule and transport two enormous bags of clothes courtesy of Air Canada. Did-you-pack-these-bags-yourself my ass.

On the road. Rush hour. Ah yes: this is why I had planned to leave before noon. An hour later, I finally escape the outskirts of the nation’s capital. Not that there was anything to indicate this fact; the whole greater-Ottawa area is basically farmland, and by the time you see any signs of life you’re practically downtown.

Did I mention how much I liked Ottawa?

Anyway, the first day was quiet and the roads were good. I queued up CD after CD of internet-downloaded comedy albums.

Ed’s Note: Yes, Josh realizes that this is incredibly hypocritical considering his self-righteous stand against pirating music. But he really, really doesn’t care.

I quickly fell into a couple of old driving trip routines:

  1. Refusing to fill up anywhere but Petro-Canada,
  2. Always having Doritos, Dr. Pepper, Reese’s peanut butter cups, and beef jerky strewn about the front seat, and
  3. Stopping at every Dairy Queen for a Skor blizzard.

Those first two things actually dovetailed nicely: by filling up at Petro-Canada and collecting Petro-Points, I could get my snacks for free! God love the loyalty programs.

Being without a general plan for the trip, and also badly, badly misled by an internet-based distance estimator, I found myself ripping along the No. 1 at midnight, drowsy, and nowhere near a major (or minor) hotel-wielding town, so I pulled off into one of those make-shift rest stops around 2:00am and killed the engine.

Charlie (my car) was performing admirably considering the cracked windshield, heavy load, and the fact that I hadn’t driven him all winter, waiting until Calgary to give him the tune-up he deserved.

Ed’s Note: He STILL hasn’t gotten that tune-up, or even a much-needed wash, wax and vacuum.

Oh shut up.

Anyway, it was raining, and I was in the middle of nowhere on the side of the road. There were no lights and no stars, only the steady thrumming of water on the tin of my car. And me, wedged into the driver’s seat, trying to find a good napping position. The complete blackness was unnerving. I can’t remember the last time I felt so isolated and vulnerable. A moose could have walked right up to my driver’s side window and I wouldn’t have seen it.

I didn’t sleep so well, or so long.

Day 2 – Middle of Nowhere to Winnipeg

5:45am. I’d had enough of this so-called rest. It was still raining, and I knew I wasn’t completely awake, so I took it slowly.

After a couple of hours I found an A&W that was empty, but open for breakfast. Finishing my bacon and eggs, I went in search of jam for my toast. In my groggy state, I apparently took a jam packet out of the jam rack the wrong way. Two aging female employees were chatting at one of the booths, and one of them pointed out, suppressing a snicker, that it was “easier to take them from the bottom.” I suppose when your life culminates in the morning shift at A&W, you are able to find humour in things subtle and sublime. And I guess I looked like a big-city jackass. Either way, I was glad I wasn’t at the end of my trip.

Eventually the skies brightened, and with a meal in my belly and a tank full of gas, things seemed right with the world. I love a good road trip. I wished I had someone to act as navigator/stay-awake shaker/food handler, but otherwise I was enjoying the experience.

I recognized the town of Dryden from my trip east back in August. Headed the other way, I did things in the reverse order: Dairy Queen first, Petro-Canada second.

The roughly 300km stretch of road between Dryden and Kenora was under construction, so a friendly police officer stopped me as I tried to leave Dryden to give me a hand-drawn detour map.

According to the map, instead of driving 300km west, I would now drive 300km south, then 300km west, and then 300km north, bringing me to Kenora. Essentially, I was driving the long way around between two corners of a huge square. Piss. Me. Off.

During the 300km west portion, in the town of Fort Something-or-Other, I looked at my atlas and realized that I could continue straight west and eventually the road would curve northwest and join up with the Trans-Canada in Winnipeg. Using my grade 9 geometry, I concluded that a curvy northwest line was a shorter distance than a straight line north and a straight line west. There was only one problem: I had to cut through the United States of America.

Why would this be a problem? My passport was expired. My car had no plates, and was travelling under a temporary permit from Ontario. I was unshaven and had a car full of junk. I was a flashing neon sign of suspicion. Decision? “Let’s take the shortcut! U.S.A here we come!”

At the border I was greeted by a friendly customs agent who cheerfully asked me about my trip, amicably inquired about my unlicensed vehicle, and then politely suggested that I pull over and come in for a chat and some good ol’ American hospitality. Dammit.

I brought in my atlas to show the officer why I was taking the detour. He nodded appreciatively and commented that indeed this was a good route and would save a lot of time. He looked at my shirt. I looked at my shirt. It said: “Canada Kicks Ass.” Dammit. I said, “If I’d known I was coming through, I would’ve worn my ‘I Love New York’ shirt.” He smiled politely and asked for my keys.

The poor bastard had to search my car. My car, crammed with boxes and pillows and gym bags and old food wrappers, steaming with two days of fast-food farts and a crusty, unshowered driver. I wondered what he hoped to find. After about ten minutes he returned and handed me my keys.

“What’s ‘Cape Spear’?” he asked.

My stomach dropped. Two and a half years ago, driving across Canada, I had stopped there and filled a film canister with ocean water. “It’s the most eastern point in North America,” I said. “I collected a water sample and was hoping to have another one from the western most point one day.”

“I figured it was something like that,” he said. The canister is still in the passenger side door pocket, roughly 900 days later. Guess he found it, good little searcher that he is. I imagine him prying back the lid and hearing, “Parkay!” Poor bastard.

Driving through the quiet American countryside seemed to take forever. The sun set down the hood of my car, making it hard to read road signs, and for a while I thought I’d missed my turn-off. The Canadian customs officer let me through without a hassle, and I was soon in Winnipeg, where I found a cheap room at the Howard Johnson. It felt like a huge indulgence to have a big tub and two big beds all to myself. The only drawback was that my TV remote control didn’t seem to work. But when it suddenly flickered to life around mid
night, I figured that some wise-guy must’ve switched remotes with an adjacent room. I unplugged the set.

Day 3 – The ‘Peg to Cowtown

In the morning, I packed my gear back into my car, and was about to pull out when I noticed there was a Toyota dealership right across the street from the hotel. Now remember that Charlie needed a tune-up. What were the odds of my being right across the street from a dealership just before starting my last leg of the trip? It was too coincidental. Even though I was anxious to leave, I walked over to see if they had an appointment.

They were closed for the weekend. What a waste of time to walk over and find that out, right? On my way back to the car, I noticed that I wasn’t wearing my ring; I’d left it in the room, and had I not taken the time to check about Charlie, I’d have left it in this godforsaken motel on the outskirts of the ‘Peg. That’s why you have to listen to your guts; they always give you the right answer, but usually in a round-about, Yoda-like way.

Back on the road. And here, the road means business. The speed limit is 110km per hour. Fantastic. I jacked my cruise control up to 125 and sat back to enjoy the ride.

Turning on the local radio I heard that there was a horrific traffic accident in Kenora the day before. So horrific that it took them an entire day to find the bodies of those killed in the crash. I couldn’t be exactly certain about the time, but without the road construction, detour, and decision to head through the states, I either would have either been in the accident or seriously delayed by it. Unluckly in cards, lucky in travel. Or so it seemed.

I zipped under an overpass and then around a bend. Moments later I saw a cop car on my tail, lights flashing. Dammit.

“Do you know why I stopped you today?” he asked.

It has always been my experience that when you break the law and get caught, if you are polite and honest, cops are very friendly and accommodating. “I’m guessing speeding,” I said.

“Did you see our spotter on the overpass?” he asked.

This question baffled me. Was he asking to see if the spotter was too obvious, or mentioning it so I would know what to look out for next time? Did it matter? I mean, do I get a discount for spotting the spotter? And if I see the spotter, hasn’t he already measured how fast I’m going? It was all too much. “No,” I said.

“We clocked you going 125 in a 110 zone,” he said. This was accurate, but I really didn’t think they’d be pulling anybody over for a measly 15km/h. Then the other shoe dropped. “It’s National Road Safety Awareness Week,” he said, “so we’ve got extra officers enforcing speed limits.” Looking at the road in front of me, I saw three other cars pulled over by three other cop cars. That was one hell of a trap.

He went back to his cruiser and did whatever it is cops do before they give you a ticket. I sat quietly until he came crunching back along the gravel shoulder to my window. “I’m giving you a ticket for 125km per hour in a 110 zone,” he said. So much for getting it knocked down.

“OK,” I said, “but be straight with me, ’cause I’m moving to Calgary and I’ve got a long haul ahead of me. What do I need to keep it under to avoid getting pulled over again?”

He looked away and said, “Honestly, with all the cops out this week, you have to stay under 100.”

In my mind, it was a bit excessive, but fair enough, to pull me over, even to give me a ticket. But in all my life, I’ve never heard of a cop not taking a km or two off the radar reading. To then add insult to injury by not letting me know how fast to drive was downright unsportsmanlike. Then I looked at the ticket. It had my temporary permit number. It had my Ottawa address. It had my Ontario driver’s license number. I was moving to Calgary: new plates, new address, new license. That ticket is $230 Manitoba isn’t seeing anytime soon.

Ed’s Note: Josh was too shell-shocked at that point to consider that the cop knew all of this as well, and might have written the ticket that way in order to be a nice guy. Maybe politeness with authority does work after all.

As I got closer to Calgary I got a call from Aliza, a friend living there. She gave me directions on how to quickly and easily get to where I was heading. The only sticky point: she wasn’t aware that the main road I was to take was under construction. The result was 45 minutes during which I literally drove in circles trying to find a way in to the subdivision I needed. Calgary’s “convenient” way of breaking the city up into quadrants (NW, NE, SW, SE) and numbering north-south corridors as sequential “streets” and east-west corridors as sequential “avenues” isn’t good for a toss when most of these roads end abruptly at rivers or disappear mysteriously: 26th Ave, 27th Ave, 28th Ave… 30th Ave. And yes, I was looking for 29th Ave.

I eventually found my destination, but not until well after midnight. Almost 4000km later, bedraggled but satisfied, I left the unpacking for the next day and curled up in the attic bedroom, feeling at home in my new home.

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