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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 ...

Suddenly everything is huge and dangerous and filthy and loud. Flames roar out of gas flaring pipes at the side of the road. And everywhere, pumpjacks – the so-called nodding donkeys – dipping on their counterweights like grazing animals sipping up the crude. Unlike in Canada, landowners in the U.S. own the mineral rights under their property: Even a modest well can pump out $250,000 a year to the owner. I passed fields sporting six at once.

It is foggy and dark as I roll into Minot: I can hear but only vaguely see the gigantic wind turbines whirring nearby. In the fields beyond are intercontinental ballistic missiles in underground silos.

That night in the Ranger, a tiny, crowded, excellent bar (four drinks for $10), I meet Rex, Tracey and Bev. They grew up together in Minot. When Rex was a boy, his parents told him that if he ever got stranded in winter, he could trample the barbed wire around one of the silos and Air Force security would soon be by to help him out.

All three are making money off the fracking, but Tracey says he’d give it up to have Minot back the way it was, without the crime and the hookers and the crystal meth. Then they talk about what kind of ID they’ll need in a few weeks when they cross the border into Estevan, Sask., two hours north, to see Motley Crue.

“Just take a passport,” I say.

“Never had one,” Tracey replies.

Stage 6: Desperation

I drive for four-and-a-half hours the next morning before I clear the fracking fields; and four-and-a-half more to make it across Montana’s high empty plains and up to the border at Sweet Grass; then four more to make Calgary. Most road trips have a day like this, when you put your head down and keep driving. It’s almost as bad as the opening panic.

This is when I fear my luck will run out, that every oncoming car is driven by a drunk, that I’ll fall asleep or be careless. The radio helps. A station in Montana is doing move-by-move accounts of high-school wrestling matches: It takes me five minutes to figure out what I’m listening to.

Thank heavens for NPR, obsessed with sequestration and the Pope and politics. The Minnesota public station replays a speech by David Gergen, the political analyst and presidential aide, and it’s the best speech I’ve ever heard on the subject of political reform. (It can be found at tinyurl.com/axjsq9b.)

When that stops working I turn the music up louder and do anything to stay alert: sing nonsense, loudly (la la la la la la LA!), slap my thigh, hard, roll down the window and drive with my elbow on the sill for five minutes at a time, despite the -6 degree weather. Passing drivers look at me as if I were a dog steering the car.

I hit the border at 6:30, and by 7:30 the Northern Lights are leaking across the night sky over Lethbridge. Thick fog comes next, forcing me to creep blind at 60 kilometres an hour for the final two hours into Calgary. The trucks never slow down. Tomorrow will bring a blizzard for the last leg to Banff.

Stage 7: Arrival and Contentment

I step out of the car and the first person I see says, “Welcome to Alberta. You must be exhausted.” This is true.

But frankly, I’m more thrilled to be alive; my luck has held, and this is a new place. You think you know what a long road will offer up, and then everywhere you turn you see fresh wonders, new pleasures: the long swell of the plain, a winking waitress, shorty telephone poles lined up like a row of small, obedient boys. The road makes you think, and it makes you earn your rewards. I wonder if that’s why we keep driving.

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