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Seen on the Fraser Canyon stretch of the Trans-Canada.IAN BROWN/The Globe and Mail

When people in Banff need to get out of town – and they do, at least twice a year – they often aim their cars at Vancouver. Vancouver is the closest place you can find the sea, the nearest infinite horizon beyond the hemming mountains. I know a woman who has made the dash to Vancouver 40 times in 20 years; she always overnights in Kamloops. Everyone has a preferred routine. Upon their return someone always asks, "How long did it take you?" The question is standard competitive mountain etiquette, like asking after the kids.

The reigning local Banff-to-Vancouver speed champion – everyone in Banff knows who I'm talking about – once drove the 792.9 kilometres from Lake Louise to downtown Vancouver in six hours and 15 minutes. He did it in a supercharged Jag at a steady pace of 130 kilometres an hour, with extended bursts north of 180 km/h. "I don't like to go much over 180 with the top down," he once told me. "It messes my hair." He has very little hair. He likes that joke. His young wife has hair, however, and any faster makes her nervous.

You can also do the opposite and take four days to drive what most people do in one. It's the Trans-Canada Highway, after all, the national asphalt that officially opened 51 years ago last month – the super-concentrated and most harrowing part of the drive, the western bit that takes you through all the phases of the history of the country and back again. The stretch that was hardest to build and last to be finished. The journey has the most unlikely effect: As embarrassing and old-fashioned and naive as it might sound in a pan-global, ultra-technological, postmodern, surpassingly ironic and multicultural age, the highway from the mountains to the sea makes you feel Canadian. And then, shockingly, grateful.

You start out beside the Bow River and the railway, and after Lake Louise you follow the Kicking Horse River and the railway. You're always following a river and the railway. I set out on a Thursday, at 1 o'clock on an afternoon so clear and bright it made life look simple.

This is what I can tell you from the start: Very few people pack light these days. There are RVs the size of buses, with the names of their owners in script on the sides, and guys in pickups with two motorcycles in the flatbed and a boat in tow behind. Giant carnations of bicycles bloom off car racks. Canadians refuse to say no to any leisure possibility.

Also: The road is under constant repair. "We're relaying the road bed?" an orange-chested youth named Jude told me. "We've been doing it for about three months?"

The heart-attack driving starts when the twinned highway stops after Lake Louise. Road-sign warnings come at you like text messages on your day off. Avalanche Zone! Rock Slides! Construction Zone! Wildlife on Highway! Brake Check! Sometimes all these signs show up at once.

Bud Van Driesen, who'd pulled into the layby at the top of Ten Mile Hill, before the big whoop into Golden, informed me there are seven compulsory brake checks for trucks between Calgary and Vancouver. He was large, 52 and hauling a full load of fresh meat from Lethbridge to Vancouver. He planned to be there by midnight, seven hours away. The stretch of road from Field to Rogers Pass was the biggest challenge of the entire Trans-Canada. "Your right foot controls all that weight," he said. "And you're going downhill."

Still, he figured only one in a thousand truckers had ever had to use a runaway lane, the short uphill chutes of gravel that angle off the steepest downhills in the B.C. mountains. Regulations and better brakes have made them almost redundant. There was one just over the crest of the rise, as the 7-per-cent slope got rolling. The runaway lanes always remind me of people losing their memories. I don't know why.

At Kicking Horse Pass, coming off the Continental Divide, the highway follows the infamous Big Hill, the original railway route between the summit of the pass (1,627 metres) and the village of Field (1,243 metres). The track was notoriously difficult to build and exacted a human death a week. A 15-car train needed four engines to push it up the Big Hill, but coming down was the real nightmare: The first train to try it derailed and killed three men. Twenty-five years of accidents ensued before the CPR cut the grade in half (to 2.2 per cent) by spreading it out through the famous spiral tunnels that worm their way through not one but two mountains. Suddenly two engines could push 18 cars five times faster. It was a Swiss idea, originally.

Travellers love to get out of their cars and gaze down at the spiral tunnels and read about those numbers. We like to take in the ingenuity of man's violence against nature, as the poet Tony Hoagland once put it – the way we take revenge on matter that will outlast us. We glorify voyageurs, but it's the engineers who dynamited their way across the country that we really admire.

Then the road spills you into tiny Field, whose sunlight is blocked by the mountains in the winter. I pulled into a cafe called The Siding and was served by a young woman in a hand-knit beret (the cafe sells them) so huge and cascading it looked like an avalanche slouching off her head. The RCMP notices pinned up outside the post office next door reported Gregory Winter, 49, missing, and six juniper plants stolen. In Field, you're inarguably in the mountains.

At Golden, where the clear-cuts of lumber companies become more noticeable, the Columbia River shows up, slow and fat and glossy like a millionaire taking a Sunday stroll. The local art gallery was displaying the latest work of John Hartman, the Canadian landscape painter. Wandering between projects two years ago, Mr. Hartman began to drive the Columbia River valley, stopping his car to make fast watercolour sketches of the mountains whenever a view struck him. The paintings catch the careless, inevitable way the mountains steer the river, organize the towns, determine the fates of the people who live there. Mr. Hartman was trying to understand something eternal in a passing way, which is the way we do it these days.

The novelist Hugh MacLennan famously wrote in Seven Rivers of Canada that "in Canada the time-sense of the people was abruptly fractured when the railway age began." He meant that this country was first experienced in real time and real space on its rivers, floating at nature's pace. Trains and cars and airplanes (and computers and smartphones) obliterated that direct experience.

"In a vast country like Canada," Mr. MacLennan went on (he often did), "space in our daily lives can only be measured by the time and expenditure of effort it takes for people to cover it." Today we do it technologically, effortlessly and at second hand, which is maybe why the country sometimes seems to have "out-traveled its own soul," as Mr. MacLennan put it, and why our history and especially our politics seem disconnected from our real lives. Motoring the Trans-Canada isn't the same as prying down a rapid – although it has its moments, as when some oncoming dolt decides he can pass three cars in your lane as you drive toward him – but these days it is the next best thing. At least on the highway you can watch yourself react to the land that made us, can feel how slowly its enormity wheels by. You can roll down the window and smell sawdust, mine tailings, pulp fumes, pine trees, water, diesel. But then you come to Rogers Pass and you have to pay attention to the road again.

Rogers Pass was an idiotic choice for a railway and a highway. Two winters ago, 1,684 centimetres of snow fell on the mountains of the pass – more than 55 feet. There are 134 named avalanche paths coursing down the steep mountains that line both sides of the highway as it winds through the crack of the pass, and most of them have multiple starting points. It's like driving through a canyon of giant anvils. Two hundred people were buried alive during the construction of the railway alone. In 1889, as if to drive the point home, an avalanche wiped out the Rogers Pass train station.

Today, a Parks Canada interpretive museum sits on the only patch of the 18-kilometre pass that isn't on an avalanche path. The avalanches documented in the museum are gargantuan: The infamous 1910 monster that killed 62 railway workers (most of them Japanese) swept away a 100-tonne railway engine. After that, the CPR drilled a tunnel through the nearest mountain and abandoned the old railway line – which is now the Trans-Canada. The highway closes regularly due to mudslides and avalanches, despite the efforts of the 1st Regiment of the Royal Canadian Horse Artillery, which in an average winter can fire more than 1,500 105-mm howitzer shells at the surrounding cornices and slide paths to bring threatening avalanches down in a more controlled fashion. The bombing starts in early October and ends in late May.

For all that, when the road opened on July 30, 1962, traffic jumped tenfold. People liked the idea of following the native path that became the railway that became the road that is still one of the world's pioneering feats of engineering. It's best not to look up at the deadly slopes that drape the highway, but you can't help it.

You're through the crux when you hit Craigellachie, where the last spike in the CPR railway was driven by Donald Smith, one of the original syndicate financiers of the railway, on Nov. 7, 1885. A lot of tourists stop there these days, but you can't actually touch the last spike: It was given to the son of a local factotum and reportedly made into a carving knife. The first cross-country CPR passenger train didn't leave Montreal for another eight months, on June 28, 1886. It arrived in Port Moody, B.C., 139 hours later, a minute late, on July 4.

I prefer to think about the unofficial train that got Mr. Smith, Sandford Fleming (he invented Standard Time) and William Cornelius Van Horne, the head of the CPR, out to the last spike ceremony in the first place. It, too, came from Montreal, and made Port Moody, on the West Coast, the day after the striking. I wonder what they talked about along the way – I imagine some mutual congratulation was involved. These are the sorts of things you think about when the road through the mountains eases off and you have nothing to do but drive.

After the mountains loosen their grip on the highway at Revelstoke, man, rather than Nature, begins to shape the landscape. This is not always an uplifting experience.

I found Ethel Bell, the owner of the Three Valley Gap hotel, ghost town and restaurant, which is all there is in Three Valley Gap, in her office, making coffee packages – creamer, sugar, stirrer – for her 200-room hotel. "I'm retired, so to speak," Mrs. Bell said.

She was a pleasant woman in her 70s. In 1956, she and her husband, Gordon Bell, then 18 and 20, bought 24 acres of land west of Revelstoke. The property consisted of some Columbia River shoreline, some cliffs and a slight widening in the valley.

"We knew the highway was going to go through here," Mrs. Bell said, "even though it didn't open until 1962." They started with nine rooms, one of which was a coffee shop. But "for a motel in the middle of nowhere, we had to have something for people to stop."

In 1959, Mr. Bell started building roadside attractions. He never stopped. Today, Three Mile Gap is a hotel, a restaurant, a souvenir shop, a theatre and a ghost town (an early church from Field is there, reconstructed piece by piece, as is the schoolhouse from Craigellachie, the Bellevue Hotel and the Revelstoke tobacco store), a Chinese laundry and countless other arbitrary artifacts of pioneer life in the mountains: wedding dresses, stoves, hats, saloons, automobiles, saws. When Mr. Bell died (an event mentioned in Hansard), he was finishing off the site's full-sized, fully functional railway roundhouse – the largest in North America, naturally. It houses a dozen railway cars and locomotives, including the governor-general's sleeping car from which Pierre Trudeau delivered his famous Salmon Arm salute to a band of western protesters. Of all the things you feel as you wander through Mr. Bell's monument to the idea that if you build it they will come, the thing you feel most sharply is his compulsion, which is why Three Valley Gap can feel exhausting.

But Three Valley Gap is Versailles compared to what's 10 minutes down the road. Shortly after the Bells opened their phantasmagoria in 1962, the Enchanted Forest – a loop of paths in the woods dotted with fairy-tale characters made of painted hand-cast concrete – opened its own doors. The Enchanted Forest claims to be magical, but what it really does is shrink the genuine awe you can experience in a Canadian forest to a $20 lump of regret. Afterward, you want to run shrieking and possibly naked to the entrance, to prevent other unsuspecting souls from entering there. But Ethel Bell never minded it.

"Oh, no," she said. "The more the better. We want people to stop."

The further west you drive, the less impenetrable the mountains become, the less demanding the country feels. The houseboaters of Shuswap Lake give way to the retirees of Salmon Arm, who yield to farmers in Sorrento, on the fringe of the Okanagan. From the steep valleys of survival you enter the wide plains of contentment. One Saturday at the Sorrento farmers' market, I met a woman named Sandra Marr, otherwise a landscaper, who was selling her handmade JayneGirl soaps. In the middle of our conversation a young guy dashed up and said, "Love Spice?" Ms. Marr said, "You need the love spice!" and sold him some. I feel this conversation could not have occurred anywhere else.

Then I walked over to the annual Sorrento bluegrass festival and listened to Andrew Collins, a mandolinist from Toronto, play a Lefty Frizzell honky-tonk tune called My Baby Is Just Like Money ("Money goes from hand to hand, and baby goes from man to man"). Then he played a Stanley Brothers tune called Little Glass of Wine. The music was simple and intricate at the same time, as if a lot of stuff had been rolled into one thing. The highway bestows these gifts unpredictably. You set out, aching to find a thing you cannot name, and something you never expected calms you down again. It isn't love or money or pleasure or being proven right: It's the chance to be defined by the geography of wherever you are, which is the gift a country that was almost unsettled a century ago can still bestow.

I left the festival after lunch, took a roadside swim in bright, clear, rock-bottomed Shuswap Lake to wake myself up, then bolted west for Kamloops. The driving was a breeze.

Nowadays Banff escapees take the new Coquihalla Highway when they reach Kamloops, because it shortens the trip to Vancouver by an hour and a half. But the Trans-Canada is beautiful, and gets to the heart of the highway's promise. It follows the old Cariboo Road, the first real highway in British Columbia, built northward from the town of Hope in the 1860s to service miners looking for gold. Before that, the only route in was by steamer to Hope from Victoria: $25 for the voyage, $5 for a mining licence, $4 per tonne of freight, a buck for a berth. Beyond that you were on your own.

You still can be on this stretch of the Trans-Canada. It drops steadily from the shockingly open high country west of Kamloops down and down and down to Hope, where the boiling Fraser River finally slips free of the mountains and relaxes. The Trans-Canada continues on to Victoria and Tofino, its duelling mile zeros, but after Hope the view is mostly suburbs.

It was all I could do to stay on the road. I kept looking down into the Black Canyon, to see the famous Fraser seething below. Hugh MacLennan called it "the most savage river in North America," 13 per cent longer than the Rhine and at cataract force for 965 of its 1,374 kilometres. Huge logs spin in the Fraser's whirlpools for days on end, like desperate boyfriends. The mean flow of the St. Lawrence River is about 15,375 cubic metres of water per second; at its highest flood, the Fraser has equalled and surpassed that. But the St. Lawrence is 2,400 metres wide; at Hell's Gate, the Fraser is 46 metres across. And yet these are the same roiling rapids steamboats were winched over for years, where rafters bob today.

The Fraser still feels prehuman. In his journal of 1808, the year he descended the river that took his name, Simon Fraser wrote: "I have been for a long period in the Rocky Mountains, but have never seen anything like this country. It is so wild I cannot find words to describe it at times. We had to pass where no human beings should venture." He went on to point out that natives ventured there anyway, shooting the river in canoes and scaling its cliffs on vine ladders. Fraser thought he was descending the Columbia. When he discovered he wasn't, he turned his men around. They made it back up the river to Fort George in 37 days.

I drove the Fraser in three hours. It was like balancing a car on a piece of string. The road tunnels in and out through the river's cliffs. I could see freight trains inching impossibly along the canyon wall on the other side of the river. That was when the shift registered, I think, when I realized the river was moving faster than both the train and my car. We were back on Nature's scale, once again slower and smaller than the land that formed us. It was 1964 when Hugh MacLennan said Canada had begun to out-travel its soul. On the Trans-Canada Highway you can actually slow down enough, once in a while, for it to catch up to you.

In Hope the next morning I drove over to Rolly's Pancake House Restaurant for breakfast. Packed, as usual. The waitresses were all pros; you could tell because they never stopped to pause or emote. Mine called me Dear and did not tell me her name. It was like being served by a very kind and thoughtful God, one whose confidence and certainty of judgment were ample but serene.

I ordered the light breakfast – two poached eggs on pancakes, with bacon. My waitress placed two jugs of syrup, one small and one large, on my table before she brought my order.

"What's the small one?" I said.

"This is black raspberry," she said. "A lot of people like it. But this is maple."