Some people think it’s crazy. Others think it’s stupid, dangerous or painfully boring. To me, it’s 15-hours of pure rubber-on-asphalt therapy.
Nobody has probably ever described driving across Saskatchewan and through large segments of equally flat Alberta and Manitoba as an therapeutic before, but I guess I’m different.
I first made the trip to Jessica Lake in the Whiteshell Provincial Park when I was just five months old (I wasn’t driving yet.) During my first few years, we make the trek from BC’s lower mainland. Since then the drive has been made annually from Edmonton, save for two years where I lived in Manitoba where I drove the reverse route just as often.
For the past few years, I’ve made the journey in one shot every June to join my family for roughly a week at the cottage that my grandfather built in the 1960s. Although there are frequent flights between Edmonton and Winnipeg, which is only a 150 kilometre drive to the cottage, I never go by air. It’s not because I’m cheap. It’s because I’m probably crazy and actually look forward to the 3,000 kilometre round trip.
When I’m in my car somewhere near home, I often fantasize about forgetting about the particular destination of the day, whether it’s the grocery store or the bank, and getting on to the highway and just driving. The fantasy isn’t about driving anywhere in particular, it’s just getting on the highway, putting on my favourite tunes and pressing the pedal down. Once a year, I get to live out that fantasy. I load up my little Subaru and just drive.
It’s a bit of a contradiction because my route to the Whiteshell is predetermined as is the destination. Everything along the way is so familiar it feels like home. But it’s incredibly comforting. I know exactly what to expect and have so many memories on it. I remember the cemetery just west of the Battlefords, overlooking the North Saskatchewan River, where my family and I pulled in late one night to eat a greasy pizza on our way home. I remember how greasy it was because it started a myth among my brothers that Saskatchewan pizza was for some reason inherently greasier than pizza from Alberta. I remember the Gear Jammers Café which highlights Chamberlain, where the road narrows and slows down so you can appreciate one of the last remaining towns stuck right to the highway.
I know exactly where I am when I pass through Maidstone, Wapella, Craik or Dugald. I know that when I’m in Davidson, I’m at the approximate halfway point between Edmonton and Portage La Prairie, where I lived for the better part of two years. I always forget if it’s Saskatoon that was Circle Drive and Regina that has Ring Road, or the other way around, but I know they both link to Highway 11, which gets me between the two cities.
I drive the 1515 km without ever consulting a map, which really isn’t that much of a feat, considering that with a quick mental count, I literally only need to make 11 turns once I’m on the highway and most of the journey is so flat and straight that only the curvature of the earth restricts you from seeing the final destination.
I know I’m getting close when I make a left at the corner store in Elma, MB. I pass a strawberry farm on my left. Then I turn right on Highway 44 where there used to be a sign with a hot dog and a pop on it luring you to stop in Rennie. The sign isn’t there anymore. At that point, the boreal forest is close enough that I roll down my windows and inhale the intoxicating smell of fresh Canadian air that no pine tree dangling from your rear view mirror could even come close to replicating. As I pass Rennie, the adrenaline starts to crescendo. The sun might be setting on a long day of driving or perhaps the early morning sun is rising after a night on the road. The last few kilometres are pure torture. A twisting, narrow, hilly road multiplies my excitement of getting to the place I grew up every summer. It would be an amazing place to really unleash the car if it weren’t surrounded by deer, foxes, turtles and of course, other cottage goers.
Sometimes things along the drive do change. I used to always stop at the Dairy Queen in the heart of Moosomin. It sits right beside a Crusty’s Pizza and even though I’ve never been in to Crusty’s I can picture it exactly. If you haven’t driven the #1, you’ve probably never heard of Moosomin. It used to be the last pit stop before finally reaching the Manitoba border. It was the stop to break up what I find to be the hardest part of the drive, the long, empty section between Regina and Brandon that features beautiful oak trees but little else. But now, Moosomin is no longer a real town to the passersby, reduced to just another green sign that points to where a town is. The highway has bypassed the village, rerouted to save time. Drivers now just have to imagine what the town looks like. I don’t stop now either. Crusty’s may no longer be there and the DQ may be boarded up for all I know.
As I drive through Saskatchewan and Manitoba, I always think of the old white trash cans that were shaped to look like some sort of pod-shaped spaceship. Signs encouraged you to put your trash ‘into orbit.’ As you neared the extra-terrestrial receptacles, there were signs that read ‘Orbit in 10 seconds.” I remember asking my dad if they really sent the garbage to space. I don’t remember his answer, but it was probably ‘of course.’
I know it isn’t normal to actually want to do a 15-hour straight drive. My wife Karlie (who has a great travel blog of her own) has made the drive with me quite a few times. The first few times we made the trip together she thought I was crazy to do it all in one shot, and now it’s starting to grow on her. As for me, I can’t wait to pack up the car and do it all again.