Trucking from Montreal to Vancouver. It was my first cross-Canada trip and the sights were amazing. I captured a few images while bouncing along in the passenger seat. See my August post for more details on our trip. Suffice it to say that I don’t want to go by truck again. There was almost no time to see the sights or get to know the countryside, but enough to be in awe of its beauty. If we ever go again I would bring containers to pick blackberries, a good appetite to eat the blueberries from the roadside stands, a traveling coffee maker (nothing out there except the few and far between Tim Horton’s stops) and hiking boots to explore the land. Probably some mosquito repellent too and a jacket! It was cold even in August. And we would take time, lots and lots of time.
On the Trans Canadian Highway we do not travel the same way that we do when we travel in the U.S. Actually, the traveling is different almost everywhere we have gone on Canadian highways outside of the greater Toronto area. In short, this is not your typical interstate highway system at all, despite the fact that we are almost always within 100 miles of the U.S. border and traveling on the major highway that runs east to west across more than 7,500 km of the second largest country in the world.
We drive beyond the truck stop chains and the creature comforts they offer with fill-up deals of free coffee and clean updated showers, 24hr services and (usually) large parking lots. We drive beyond the cottages and beyond the places where even the bathroom may no longer be free or working, onto the road where there may be nothing at all, not even a gravel spot to pull-over, where NIGHT DANGER MOOSE signs or images of prancing deer and dashing elk prevail. The passing lanes dwindle to rarer sightings but luckily our fellow travelers, even trucks, dramatically decrease at a similar rate. Rather than Hail Hail to Tim Horton’s individual washrooms, I say Hail Hail to the man who pumped out and hosed down the outhouse on the Coquihalla highway at a brake check area just as we were pulling into it. As we drive further and further out I begin to think that many of the billboards for hotels with free internet and free breakfast are like sirens song. I then realized even the mile markers (km in Canada of course) and exit numbers in the U.S. are a statement about population density and luxury akin to remote control devices or rose garden sightings.
The TCH is not the Yukon or as far out as Yellow Knife nor lawless nor unpaved. However, we do travel through small towns that pass as quickly as we can pronounce their names; Vermillion Bay, Moosomin, and the more challenging names like Assiniboine and Ochiichagwebabigoining (ok, we didn’t pass that last town, but very near to it). There are countless villages with a single trading post/gas station/convenience/gift store with populations that statistically hover around 1000 but appear more like 10 to a few hundred at most. We don’t see the best of these towns. We don’t buy live bait or leaches that are so prolifically for sale, or get out on the lake and trawl along the grassy edges of lake Superior or the hundreds of other pristine lakes I wish I could just dive into straight from the truck window. We can’t take the time to climb the mountains to their foggy and stony peaks. We don’t see the rodeo or the local artists. We don’t learn anything more about First Nations people except that they seem to hug the wilderness to them and with that the beauty of Canada. We just barely enjoy the fresh smell of black spruce forests and spot hawks holding court on the tops of hay bails and we occasionally squint at the tiny ducks swimming with even tinnier baby ducks in salt marshes.
The highlight of the trip, much as it was in crossing the U.S. was the expanse of protected and undeveloped land that even southern Canada can boast about. Although I advocate for the conservation of open space and often long for silence from other human beings, what strikes me as we drive along these struggling small towns is that the shame is on the same principle. I look out across the thousands of kilometers of mostly hay fields and I have to believe that the world can do better, and by better I mean, can’t we share more of this.
Why are we planting acres and acres of hay for cows we don’t need to feed the wealthy of the world, while hundreds of millions of people die for lack of some potatoes, green vegetables, and a few humble carrots? Why are people so crowded up the hills of human waste in mega cities, sprawling along coveted ocean sides for water views in million dollar bungalows, and elbowing each other off of trains and buses from Boston to Mumbai? Now dear reader I understand that city does not have to equal misery and that the efficiency and lower ecological footprint of multi-story housing are strikes against my ideas of rural transplantation, but I want to suggest here a radically naïve and idealistic notion to voluntarily transplant people from urban congestion and suburban super-sprawl to rural towns; not as laborers or based upon some kind of imperialist or racist scheme, but to develop self-sufficient rural living. I will further admit my bias is that I am more entertained by the “Moose on the Loose” signs than by any Tony award winning theater and that my desire to plant a large vegetable garden borders on obsession.
Still, as the hours go by and by and by, and my one arm hides from the burning sun and my husband’s other arm turns as brown as the waters of an Ontario creek all I see is a sprinkling of mobile homes and a remarkably small number of ranch houses and even fewer farm houses. I can’t help but imagine that there are a lot of people in the world that would cry for the injustice of a land so poorly used. I can’t help but imagine that there are hundreds of thousands who could benefit from a combination of entrepreneurial creativity, the values of self-sufficiency, and green living ecology. Skilled people, doctors and engineers, ecological scientists, vegetable farmers, and artists from all over the world could create and build on a more subsistence, self-sustaining way of life in rural Canada and the U.S. What more do we need than local food, a small health center, school, hardware store, library and a mechanic, and some solar and wind power? The number of settlements that lacked these basics were too numerous to count. The exceptions in towns like Opasitika remain quaint and precious.
Maybe it has something to do with the nature of politics, the corruption that causes mayors and many others to resign in shame, or maybe it has something to do with the 17 or more bridges that I counted (sleep periods excepted) that were under construction just between Kenora and North Bay. Or maybe it is related to the disintegration of the Canadian multicultural charter, or fanatic post 9/11 fear easing its way into deeper xenophobia and cultural protectionism. Or maybe it’s the simple lack of a critical mass of people willing to take the risk in the great white north, but I don’t think so. I think it is a greater lack of willingness to stop competing with the Jones’ or the Sohdi’s for that matter, and to more honestly recruit and provide institutional support for a true immigrant dream of a farm, a home, a way of life under a democracy and in the pursuit of happiness through a more balanced relationship with our environment and with our community.
Yes, strengthening and populating rural communities would mean living in a place where you can’t find a store to buy the newest biggest TV, or fashionable clothes and it would be colder and snowier, but compared to the compaction and stress of urban life, the poverty and the hunger of life within many North American and international communities, wouldn’t it be better. And how can we compare the shiny (and I would say useless) wealth of city buildings and perfectly landscaped yards to the priceless resources of the land, clean water and abundant fresh air and a neighbor who knows your name in a rural town.
I think it is unreasonable to remain unquestioning while working 50 or more hours a week, commuting 2 hours a day and working until we are 70 years old just to get the house, the car and the pool and put the kids through college. Furthermore, who dreams of coming to Canada to be a truck driver or a Tim Horton’s barista? Who dreams of being a farm laborer for so many years that it is only the next generation that can dream of running a farm? I don’t mean to discount the fact that any job, though commonly exploited and dangerous is better than no job. However, I think that we settle for truck driving and similar jobs because it is possible and easily reached while we hold our greater callings and dreams at bay, keeping them close like memory stones in our pockets. I would not like to wait until we are 70, or even 50 to live that more integrated life. But for now we practice our patience, we labor, we look out the window. We are stuck in the system that drives us and keeps us in the cities. We hang on and we hope to slowly negotiate our way out of debt and out of the suburbs until we can safely launch ourselves into the great white north, someday, somewhere along the Trans Canadian Highway when we won’t have to look back anymore.
Popular advice column, seen in a lobby at a southern Ontario truck stop
I have previously posted some of my photos from our trucking adventures but will try to add in a little story here and there. At first going along in the truck was a jaunt, then a pain in the butt from sitting for so long, a serviceful journey to help my husband get through his work day, sometimes a slog, and now perhaps a journal of what I see around the US in places I would otherwise probably never go. It always, well, almost always brings new sights, people and an evolution in our relationship as well. How could it be anything less when you are sitting next to someone for 12-14 hours a day, sleeping in a slightly larger than twin mattress and otherwise sharing in something akin to camping in a moving vehicle.
I don’t know if we belong to trucking culture, or if we are simply a segment off in the corner. Well, that’s me anyway, as a small billboard somewhere outside of Little Rock Arkansas told me recently, reading my mind and my heart at once-
That was the only word on the sign, posted for me; a job title, a life’s path, an accusation, or a statement of simple truth.
Like the gentleman who called out to me as I walked out of the shower hallway, through the driver’s lounge: “Feel better now” he said. I felt confronted and revealed in an uncomfortable way the moment he said it, a man sitting in a large room with 20 or more other men, me, a woman with a turban and a fresh face walking out from a shower, but I knew he meant it kindly. Yeah, I did feel better. And I feel better with a little time and observation that although the trucking pictures are far from great, they are shaken and tilted and have bug guts on the windows and reflections from the sun and metal, but these are what I see. So now I include the reflections, the mirrors of the truck, the corner with my own fingers wrapped around the camera. I want the viewer to know how I see it, imprecise, blurred, raw, messy sometimes and beautiful all the same.
My husband and I recently returned from 3 weeks of trucking through the south. Most of my new sights were in NC, SC and around Augusta, GA. I wish I could get out more and take pictures on the ground and the really wild places I saw, but here is what I have from our moving (up down and bouncing around mind you) adventures.
Of course we saw a very very small portion of these states and all from a roadside
point of view, but my initial impressions were that NC is more prosperous, quaint, more organized, cared for.
SC is a bit wild, isolated in its abandoned aloneness, not in any mean spiritedness.
That said, we did travel through a town that looked quite prosperous and quaint more like NC. I would love to see Charleston some day.
We traveled around Augusta GA, on the border of SC, the Savannah river area. There were entire rows of boarded up houses,
a multitude of shops selling vast quantities of car tires and lots of box stores and industry. We did not get into downtown Augusta or even near its true suburbs.
I loved the wildness of it.
I was surprised by the flatness of it- it was sandy and clay soil and nearly flat like Kansas yet still far from the coast.
There were vast areas of forest, fields, lots of farming (cotton, tobacco, wheat…). We picked up a load of carrots and another of sweet potatoes. We carried down 2 loads of chocolate chips to the Kellogg plant and absorbent pulp to a decimated factory for diapers- they had something like 1200 employees now it is only 60. On the day we delivered we only saw 3 people working. Tons of not only abandoned houses but small and large businesses, buildings, factories, schools, hospitals. I imagined the difficulty of finding good jobs, the importance of an anchor of industry or technology economy, the modest but sometimes rewarding returns of a strong back of agriculture.
The humidity in summer was already discernible and the isolation extreme for us northerners for any kind of extended visit.I could envision a lovely camp on a small pond though, a retreat in spring or fall. The people were friendly, generally speaking, and I never had to open a door for myself. It was quiet and Spring was more like summer as we got farther south. I was exhilarated by the light air and ran and even skipped just for the joy of it.