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In a frozen Ontario town at Christmas, we found no room at the inn


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It was Dec. 22, 1985, and my partner Bryan and I were about to embark on an epic Canadian experience – driving across the country in winter.

I really wanted to go home to Toronto for Christmas, but we didn't have the funds for airfare. My friend Thaddeus had driven his Honda Civic from Toronto to Vancouver that summer and he wanted to fly back, so we offered to drive his car to Toronto. Once there, we would use January's paycheque to buy $100 one-way flights back through the newspaper classifieds.

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We made it to Calgary the first night and to Brandon the second – 2,086 kilometres, two snowfalls and a 50-kilometre stretch of pure-ice Prairie highway later. The temperature was -30 C, or -40 with wind chill. Our car was frozen solid next morning.

After getting the car towed to a garage and purchasing a block heater, we left Brandon with just enough cash for gas to Toronto and food, with maybe $50 left over – not enough for another motel.

We decided to take turns driving and sleeping and cover the whole 2,400 kilometres in one go. We made good time to Thunder Bay, ate, carried on. Traffic died down to nothing and it dawned on us that it was Christmas Eve and people would be starting their festive dinners.

We plunged forward through snow-covered forests. About 300 km later we pulled in for gas, but the station was closed. Bryan calculated we could probably make it to the next town. We kept driving. We got very quiet.

The gas tank needle hit empty with 30 km still to go. Bryan suggested we coast down hills in neutral to conserve fuel. This was when I discovered what sewing-machine leg was. Adrenaline from fear was making both my legs shake. Lines from a poem by Alden Nowlan ran through my head: "This is a country/where a man can die/simply from being/caught outside."

Finally, we entered White River, Ont., and duly noted its proud claim, on a giant roadside thermometer, to being "the coldest spot in Canada." We floated to the only gas station in town on fumes. Closed.

In despair, we went to a motel, where we were greeted by the smell of roasting turkey and the sight of a stout middle-aged woman dressed in black. Two portraits – one of Jesus and one of Mary – hung on the wall behind her. We explained our predicament and asked if we could sleep on the floor of one of her rooms in our sleeping bags and leave our passports as collateral for payment in January when we got back to Vancouver.

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She looked at us unsmilingly and shook her head. The full $100 or nothing.

I burst into tears and said we would die from the cold outside. She stood her ground. I blurted out: "What kind of Christian are you?"

We tried the police station. A pleasant officer explained that, because it was Christmas Eve, they were short-staffed and he could not legally let us remain in the station without an officer there, and he had to be free to respond to calls.

"Let me call Steve," he said. "He's probably at the bar. Maybe he'll open up for you."

Steve was at the bar, and agreed to fill up our tank for a consideration of $10. As we headed out into the frozen night with a full tank, I thought that the town's giant thermometer wasn't just measuring the physical temperature.

The first snowflake appeared with the lights from White River still in our rear-view mirror. It was, inevitably, followed by a myriad of its fellows. A sign told us we were heading into a provincial park and the next stop was Wawa, 92 km away. I had always liked the expression "tits up in Wawa," which I had heard from friends who had hitchhiked across Canada. You could wait so long for a ride there, you'd be left lying on the road, chest to the sky.

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The snow turned into a blizzard. Sewing-machine leg returned. We made it to Wawa, still 900 km from Toronto, just past midnight. Exhausted, emotionally and physically, we considered blowing all our money on a motel and trying for funds at the welfare office on Boxing Day. But we didn't want to be, in fact, tits up in Wawa. We pressed on.

At 3 a.m. we arrived in Sault Ste. Marie incapable of going further. We stopped at a hotel and I went in. To the right of the front door was a blazing fire and at the end of a long hallway, behind the registration desk, sat a very large man with folds of flesh framing his face.

His cheapest room was double what we could afford. I explained our sorry situation and asked if he'd give us a room for $50. He assented. We parked, brought our bags in and I handed him our $50 bill. He handed it back and said: "Merry Christmas!"

The universe had righted itself within 24 hours.

When we made it home, my mother hugged Bryan and thanked him for bringing her daughter home safely. My grandmother, who had been sprung from her care home, merrily raised her sherry glass, and I felt like we'd entered Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol and Tiny Tim was about to say: "God bless us every one."

Even motel owners in White River. Especially desk clerks in Sault Ste. Marie.

Claudia Casper lives in Vancouver.

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