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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.

By 3 p.m., having been catapulted through toll-road Chicago onto the open-faced dairylands of milk-fed Wisconsin, I begin to notice incessant billboards for Private Pleasures, an adult superstore. The Private Pleasures billboards are followed by more billboards for the Antlers Motel. Perhaps they are related. I am too velocitized to care.

This is the unconscious stage of the road trip. At a Culver’s restaurant – a Midwest legend – I inhale a late lunch: a double patty Butterburger (don’t ask), handcut fries and Wisconsin’s most famous specialty – frozen custard, in this case chocolate Heath bar crunch. The food is like a sleeping pill. I pull off for a 20-minute nap. I dream about my dog nipping at my toes in a swimming pool. She is trying to bring me to consciousness, but she cannot, because I am in a state of road hypnosis.

Stages 3 and 4: Acceptance and Bliss

It isn’t until Minneapolis the next morning that I begin to notice things. This is the middle of the road trip, the best part, when you’re well on your way but not yet into the frenzy of the home stretch. There’s a lot to look at, and nothing else to do.

The land flattens in Minnesota, and seems to lose its shoulders. Seventy-five per cent of what you see is sky. There aren’t many trees, and the ones there are, leafless in the winter, reach out like fibromyalgic nerve ends of the earth. Sometimes they contain flocks of sparrows.

I see large white birds – I think they are swans – flying north, ghost ships in the sky. On the radio, powerful preachers pray for teens. People tend to be kind.

At a truck stop, I hear a couple talking to another pair while they gas up. (Pump nozzles in the Midwest have auto-fill clips on their levers, a brilliant invention.) “Safe trip, safe trip, yah, yah, yah,” one of the men says when they finally take their leave. It is all strangely moving and Minnesotan, but maybe I am just lonely.

You get lonely a lot on a long-leg drive, but in Stage 3 and 4 loneliness starts to feel like a gift. I order some coffee at a truck stop in North Dakota, and the waitress hands me a knife to stir it. “Because the spoons are too short to reach the bottom,” she says. I want to kiss her for this thoughtfulness.

Billboards for pro-life groups line the road all the way from Michigan west: a baby, a graph and the headline, “My heartbeat 18 seconds from conception.”

In Casselton, N.D., a dime-sized town, a single building houses the Country Kitchen family restaurant, the Governors’ Inn and Conference Center (five rooms) and a waterpark for kids.

The restaurant serves a brain-meltingly good Reuben sandwich, which turns out to be a Midwest specialty.

The waitress winks at me every time I speak to her. Boy, I think, she must be lonely too. Then I realize it’s a facial tic. She has to be the most popular waitress on I-94.

Stage 5: Intensive investigation

Early Friday afternoon, I ask a woman behind a gas counter in Bismarck, N.D., which way I should go. She points me north and west. “It’s beautiful up there.” Later, I decide she was having me on. Because of her, I end up driving north of the hills that stalled the Keystone pipeline, through Minot and the oil fracking boom that has transformed western North Dakota into an inferno.

Thanks to fracking, the population of Minot has grown by a third in three years. Houses – two bedroom boxes – sell for $350,000. For every passenger car on the road, you see 25 tankers: oil trucks caked in brown fracking sand, semis hauling freshly painted drills. Every 20 miles, a new colony of Lego prefabs pops up – the so-called lodges, or man-camps – housing roughnecks. A room runs $600 a week. The roughnecks can make $120,000 a year for 100-hour weeks.

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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