You can drive to Toronto from Halifax in a single day. I did it myself once. Fun, it was not.
I covered more than 2,000 kilometres in just under 21 hours, and had almost no memory of the trip - I recalled nothing but the white centre line weaving before my eyes and a blurred succession of gas stations and drive-through windows.
This summer, my wife and I decided to take the slow route: No superhighways, no fast food, no schedule. We had to get from Nova Scotia to Toronto. How we did it was up to us. We pulled out a map and drew a highlighter pen along a series of secondary roads, the kind that author William Least-Heat Moon travelled in 1978 for his book Blue Highways: A journey into America.
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Who knew what we'd find? The routes looked like tangled strings dropped onto the map, their direction determined by factors no modern highway designer would entertain - they wound their way toward farms and churches, twisted through deep forests and skimmed along ridge tops. The roads were old, they were slow, and they were probably risky, bristling with unmarked driveways, blind crests and sharp curves.
We liked that. Risk was part of the journey. We didn't want to be insulated. We wanted to feel the road and see things. For years, North America's roads have morphed toward a generic superhighway system, with standardized features that erase regional differences - the same off-ramps, outlet malls and fast food joints. Out on the highway, Kentucky could pass for Ontario, and New Brunswick seems little different than Ohio.
My wife and I were looking for the back roads, hoping to find a lost world. We started our trip by going backward, heading up Route 337 on the north coast of Nova Scotia. It was like the Cabot Trail, but it was empty, an undiscovered sports-car paradise set on the edge of the Atlantic ocean.
We arced through curves that spooled their way past white wooden churches, hand-painted shanties and green hills. We stopped in a fishing village and watched as a crew unloaded a crab boat, shovelling ice on to the crabs as they were swung up onto the dock. An hour later, we were in Ballantyne's Cove, where the fisherman hunt bluefin tuna that can grow to the size of a small car.
The next day, we were headed for Hartland, New Brunswick, my mother's home town and the site of the world's longest covered wooden bridge. The new Trans-Canada offered a high-speed route - it had four lanes now, and the curves had been straightened out, allowing the highway to arrow west with relentless efficiency. But we didn't take it. We stayed on the old highway, which glides past the green, tree-lined banks of the Oromocto river, a landscape straight from a William Wordsworth poem.
Attractive roadsides and roadside attractions
The beauty came at a price. We'd been on the road for three days, and we were only about a quarter of the way to Toronto. But this wasn't about a schedule. We crossed into Maine, then New Hampshire, sticking to the back roads.
We ate at mom-and-pop restaurants. One had more than a dozen different kinds of home-made pie. Another had some of the best fish chips we'd ever tried. But the quality varied - we stopped at an Indian restaurant near Bangor that made us consider a stomach pump. It was all part of going back to a world where corporate homogeneity hadn't taken over yet - we were in the land that Boston Pizza forgot. At least for now.
Like the food, the driving varied. Sometimes we zoomed along at superhighway speeds. Other times we found ourselves stuck behind farm tractors or wayward RVs that had blundered in off the interstate. But going slow was fine. We saw racehorses grazing in a field. We stopped to visit a dog standing near the road. We were in a timeless, green universe of rolling hills, small towns and roadside attractions.
In Northwood, New Hampshire, we stopped at an antique mart, which is usually pure torture for me. But this one was actually good. I found flintlock rifles, stacks of old Popular Mechanics magazines and scrapbooks from the Eisenhower era, filled with clippings about fighter planes and nuclear submarines. There was a globe that showed the Soviet Union , and stacks of vintage licence plates. (My favourite was New Hampshire, with its Live Free or Die slogan. The state still seemed to take the slogan to heart. Motorcyclists rode without helmets, and about half the drivers weren't wearing seatbelts - under state law, it's your choice if you're over 18.)
We were now five days into the trip. According to the odometer, we'd driven far enough to go to Toronto and halfway back again, but we were still more than 750 kilometres from home. Our back tracking had cost us, and the blue highway route was definitely longer. But we were getting there, and our sense of time had altered. We drank in each mile.
Outside Albany, we ran into a hot rod club that had gathered at a local drive-in. The parking lot was filled with beautifully restored muscle cars and custom-built machines. Among them was what appeared to be a 1934 Chevrolet that had been rebuilt by NASA - it had a late-model Corvette engine and suspension, digital electronics and the body was spacecraft-quality. The owner was John Demichele, who had spent years building his dream machine, assisted by his wife.
Few people work on their own car any more. People buy cars, and pay others to fix them. But Demichele and his friends showed that the spirit of Henry Ford lives on. In a world that is increasingly virtual, they work in metal and meet face to face. And by taking the back road, we had found them.
The next afternoon, we were at Harris Hill, N.Y.. You may not have heard of it, but it's sacred ground for glider pilots. I'd always wanted to fly here, but the timing never seemed to work out. This time, it did. I strapped into a sailplane and flew out over the green valley, air hissing over the wings. I noticed some roads beneath me that looked good. I landed, jumped in the car, and headed for them.
Toronto was only four hours away. If we hurried, we could be home that night. But there were new back roads to drive. My wife and I headed along the side of the mountain, found a turn, and took it.
Who knew where it would go? When would we get home? It didn't matter. We were on a different kind of trip this time.
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