The second largest country in the world is home to just about 40 million people — spanning about 7000 kms from its Atlantic coast to its Pacific one. The vistas in Canada are mostly the kinds that would stare at you from a desk calendar or the kinds that your desktop screen will display on booting up. Be it its natural beauty, its bitterly cold winters or its warm people, Canada quite really is in a league of its own.
The Rockies beckoned
In the summer of 2011, when I was pursuing a course in Automotive Business, it came time to look for a co-op placement or what we commonly refer to in India as an internship. In a typical Canadian college course curriculum, co-ops were a regular feature and these added to classroom learnings. Canadian employers paid regular wages to these ‘interns’ just as they would to any other employee on their payroll.
This was especially appealing to cash-starved students who were extended a four-month opportunity to both learn valuable work place skills and replenish their bank balances. Usually, the earnings in this period were enough to pay for the forthcoming academic semester. Well, if one thought these Canadians had their towns and cities planned, they surely were even further ahead when extending solid enabling tools for students. Provisions like co-op work terms were perfect towards helping students fund their post- secondary education. Meanwhile, there is valuable work experience imbibed even before graduation.
And so in April 2011, the college employment portal was active with job listings for the summer co-op work term. I, for one, had my sights firmly set on a job that was advertised for Calgary, a major city in the western province of Alberta. The college I was attending was located in a small city called Barrie, an hour north of Toronto, Ontario.
The travel costs would be reimbursed
The primary attraction for me was to be able to sample life in a different city and also the fact that the company in Calgary was willing to reimburse travel expenses. In my rather one-track mind, I interpreted this as fuel money to travel across a vast chunk of the country and embark on a solo road trip. The icing on the cake was the fact that there was even a job at the end of this long drive. And the ‘cherry on the icing’ was the Rockies were only a quick drive away from Calgary.
Fortunately for me, I sailed through the interview and I was extended an offer to join in two weeks’ time. It was June 2011 and the first thing I decided needed attention was my rust bucket – a 1999 Hyundai Accent with 2,20,000 kms on the clock already. Hyundai products of this era were considered subpar and most would have avoided one with a barge pole. But, I really did not have the privilege of considerations such as air conditioning and air bags. The AC could be done without and the air bags – well, I took my chances.
The little Accent needed some brake repairs and before long, the trusted mechanic I visited waved me a thumbs up and he assured me that if I drove reasonably, the car would hold up just fine over the 3500 odd kilometres. Never one to stress, I took his word for it.
‘One Week Later’
I was to begin my journey on 8 June 2011 and following a Google search, I asked a few of my local Canadian friends on places to stay en route. Rather surprisingly, only one had actually driven west and he too had last travelled maybe a decade ago. However, his basic information gave me one useful pointer – I could drive the first day for 800 kms and halt at a little hamlet called Wawa. I liked the name and decided that Wawa it was going to be on day one.
As I began packing my worldly belongings a day or two prior to setting out, I turned on Netflix and found a documentary called One Week Later. In a freak coincidence, the protagonist in the film decides to drive along the exact same route that I was to embark on in only a few days. Much as the film was entertaining, it also served as a route planner for me. The other key route planning variable was where my friends were located. I was in touch with one who had begun living in Regina, Saskatchewan and I knew he’d sure have a spare sofa for me to crash on. With two halts in the itinerary already defined, the only other place I would have to break journey at would be Winnipeg, Manitoba.
West bound on the Trans Canada
With the little hatchback packed to the gills, I set out north bound; my trusty GPS firmly attached to the windscreen. I was Wawa bound. Now, Canada with its sparse population meant roads with little traffic as I travelled further north. Once I crossed the city of Sault Ste Marie, traffic was intermittent at best. It was quite normal to travel for a good ten-fifteen minutes without any other vehicle crossing you in either direction.
This was because west bound Canadian traffic—comprising mostly truckers—would cross into the US from Sault Ste Marie. This was a shorter route that wound its way south of the Great Lakes. I did not want to drive via the US and miss out on Ontario’s beautiful forests. I wanted to drive north of the Great Lakes and for fairly long stretches, I’d be able to drive alongside the shores of Lake Superior.
The drive was almost meditative, what with picture post card scenery and undulating terrain. I was just happy to be behind the wheel and take each mile as it came. Beyond Sudbury, the highway wasn’t a dual carriageway anymore. Rather, it was more like a three lane; at regular intervals, one direction traffic would have an extra lane. This allowed cars to overtake the slower moving trucks and although the terrain was hilly, one could comfortably maintain cruising speeds of about 90 km/hr which was also the speed limit. Every so often, I would overtake a travel trailer and mostly, they were senior folks exploring the beautiful countryside. In fact, the tag-line on Ontario licence plates read “Yours to Discover”.
Some ten hours of driving later, I arrived at Wawa. It was probably a common halt for Trans Canada travellers because there were several quaint motels lining the highway as one entered the town. I checked into what was called the Beaver Motel; it looked the least like the ones seen typically in thrillers.
Pardon my digression but in the few thrillers I have watched in my lifetime, a common theme seemed to be unsuspecting travellers checking into a lonely motel. This would be followed by some creepy serial killer or some other unsolicited spooky element. But this one looked well inhabited and I was glad to finally recline after a long drive.
Along the way, I made sure to eat light and my preferred food choice was the ever-popular Tim Horton’s. They served up inexpensive and healthy fare and their coffee was excellent. Even the most remote locations seemed to always have a Tim Horton’s outlet and usually with a gas station. This way, one stop was adequate to refuel both man and machine.
This is the first part in a two part series. The second part can be read here.