Even while staying home, anyone can escape to the open road by picking up one of the great road novels.
Most, if not all, of the classic road trip stories that likely spring to mind are American: Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and Travels with Charley, William Least Heat-Moon’s Blue Highways or writing by Hunter S. Thompson, Bill Bryson, Tom Wolfe and Cheryl Strayed.
Maybe your mind jumps to poetry, like Song of the Open Road by the (American) poet Walt Whitman, which begins: “Afoot and lighthearted I take to the open road / Healthy, free, the world before me / The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.”
Although perhaps lesser known than their American counterparts, Canada has produced many great road novels and travelogues. There is, after all, a lifetime’s worth of long paths to discover in this country too, more than a million kilometres of paved and unpaved roads to be precise. You could drive a distance equivalent to the moon and back and still not have covered it all.
For an at-home road trip through Canadian literature, you could crack open Hard Core Logo, the 1993 novel by Michael Turner that follows a (formerly?) legendary punk band as they reunite for one last tour across Western Canada. The novel was turned into a mocumentary by director Bruce McDonald, and a graphic novel – Hard Core Logo: Portrait of a Thousand Punks – by Nick Craine.
Two of Miriam Toews’ novels – My Summer of Amazing Luck and The Flying Troutmans – involve road trips. Amazing Luck, her first novel, is about a single mother who leaves Winnipeg in a busted van with her friend to track down the father of her children.
Toews, who grew up in Steinbach, Manitoba loves road trips. “[You] get into this Zen rhythm,” she told the Globe when her 2008 novel The Flying Troutmans was published.
Nick Mount, professor Canadian literature at the University of Toronto, highly recommended Troutmans, along with several other Canadian road novels.
Michael Winter’s The Architects Are Here, “centres around a road trip from Toronto to Corner Brook with a stuffed fox full of gold and a Taser in the trunk,” Mount wrote.
He also suggested Joel Thomas Hynes’ We’ll All Be Burnt in Our Beds Some Night, which won the 2017 Governor-General’s Award for fiction, and Days by Moonlight by André Alexis.
“Hynes’s novel follows the more familiar arc of leaving Newfoundland even if it otherwise undoes every other story about the island,” Mount wrote. Alexis’s novel is built around a road trip through southern Ontario. “Most of the towns are real, even if little that happens there is,” said Mount.
Most early Canadian writing in prose is, almost by necessity, about journeys, Mount explained. Anna Brownell Jameson’s Winter Studies and Summer Rambles in Canada (1838), for example, is a non-fiction account of her brief trip, the purpose of which was primarily to finalize a separation from her estranged husband. “Jameson is nonetheless the most informed and intelligent observer of the early Canadas I’ve come across,” Mount noted.
Among the most prominent non-fiction Canadian road narratives is Edward McCourt’s The Road Across Canada (1965). In it is an early, loving account of driving across the country, but even McCourt, by the end of his journey, had grown weary of the highway and was ready to go home.
Garry Sowerby, however, never seems to tire of the open road. The prolific Halifax-based adventurer has driven across Canada, up to Alaska, down to the southern tips of Africa, South America, and around the world in record time – twice. His book Driven Mind recounts those journeys. It’s the next best thing to driving around the world yourself.
Mark Richardson, whose byline also appears in Globe Drive, followed in Edward McCourt’s footsteps. His book, Canada's Road: A Journey on the Trans-Canada Highway from St. John's to Victoria, is an entertaining account of the trip on the occasion of the highway’s 50th birthday.
None of these Canadian books are as famous as, say, On the Road, but that’s all the more reason to read them. In fact, reading about such a journey might be even be better than doing it for real in the summer of COVID-19. In literature, there will certainly be less “are we there yet?” and “did you wash your hands?”
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