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From view from behind the wheel in western North Dakota. (Ian Brown/The Globe and Mail)
From view from behind the wheel in western North Dakota. (Ian Brown/The Globe and Mail)

Ian Brown: What I learned on the long road trip from Toronto to Calgary Add to ...

In theory, when you decide to drive by yourself to Banff from Toronto in the winter, you shout “Road trip!” and jump in your car and go. It’s the open road. It’s freedom!

But it isn’t, really. When you have to drive instead of fly, because you have a six-month working gig and need five boxes of documents and four pairs of skis and three suitcases, the packing of which leaves you three and a half days to drive 3,530 kilometres, you jump in your car and a fist of panic encircles your entire body, whereupon the truth about road trips takes crisp shape in your mind: It’s never as easy as it looks.

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Do you really want to spend four days of your life in a car? Is it good for the environment? Is it good for your colon? What about the boredom and the loneliness and statistics about accidents? Who are you leaving behind, and where are you headed? You can’t escape those thoughts, not alone in the confines of a hurtling car. Eventually, that becomes interesting.

But this, my friend, is just the first of the seven psychological stages of road tripping.

Stage 1: Anxiety and Indecision

By the time I leave Toronto at 2:30 on a recent Wednesday afternoon, having meant to embark Tuesday at dawn, I have agonized for five days about whether to drive north over the Great Lakes – 3,530 kilometres and 38 hours, according to Google Maps; the most scenic route, but also one I’ve done – or south via Chicago (3,508 kilometres and only 33 hours, and thus more efficient). Eventually a massive storm begins to hulk its way up the shores of Georgian Bay, and I opt for Chicago.

But by the time I reach Flint, Mich., five hours and 402 kilometres later, my resolve has failed. I can’t decide whether to go north of Lake Michigan, across the Mackinac Bridge into upstate Michigan and eventually back into Canada (the smaller road never taken), or south to Chicago – and, if I go to Chicago, whether to then head up through North Dakota into Saskatchewan, where I’ve been before, or continue along Interstate 94 to Montana and approach Calgary from the south, which I haven’t done. It’s all very complicated, in my mind. I want an adventure, but I don’t want to court disaster where the roads are lousy, or too isolated in case of a breakdown.

Do you recognize any of this? The delusion of the Stage 1 road tripper is that he actually believes it matters which way he goes.

Finally, in a rest stop near Flint, I consult two truckers – one thin and bearded and old, the other fat and shaven and young, a standard trucker configuration.

“Stick to 94,” Young ’Un says.

“Because if you don’t,” the old fellow adds, “you’ll hit potholes bigger’n your car.”

These boys are pros. Chicago and Montana it is, then.

By the time I make Lansing, it is 8:30, and dark. I check into the first Days Inn I see, which naturally turns out to be the weirdest Days Inn I have ever encountered. A pervasive reek of paint fumes and chlorine is interrupted here and there by the smell of burnt wood. The chlorine comes from the indoor pool and “beach” area in the atrium. Of the motel. Doors on unlet rooms hang open. It’s like being in a Stanley Kubrick movie – albeit one with a budget of $59 a day.

Stage 2: Denial

At the outset of an overland odyssey, the solitary driver will do anything to ignore the fact that he’s hysterical. Hence my resolution the next morning to make good time.

I rise at 6:30 and buy a pair of breakfast burritos and an Egg McMouthful – they seem to be getting smaller – at a drive-through so as to eat while moving, saving time and making distance, the mantra of the long-haul tripper. The time saved is then handed back to the gods of the road when I have to make an emergency toilet stop. This is a form of panic all its own. An idea occurs to me: Perhaps one day some genius will invent the drive-through crapper. My mind spends half an hour blithely thinking how it might work.

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