It’s our last dinner in Alberta on a lovely patio on a lovely tree-lined street, and I’m feeling grateful for this man. The best trip planner ever. He planned every leg of the trip, made all the arrangements and did all of the driving so I could sit back and really see the Rockies and the Plains and the Badlands and all the other parts of this amazing province I’d never visited before. What a good time we had – every minute of it. This goes down in the books as one of the best trips I’ve ever taken, and I didn’t even have to leave Canada.
It wasn’t the first time I’d done a musical pilgrimage. Years ago, during a road trip to visit our friend Sheryl in New York, my sister, her kids and I travelled back up through Woodstock, and then tried our damnedest to find Big Pink, but there was some missing link in the road signs (we suspected perhaps the current home-owner might have caused this) and we just couldn’t find it. Many do it. Music, like all art, is a spiritual experience. And if music affects you as deeply as, say, Music from Big Pink or The Basement Tapes did Cathy and I, then you’d seize any opportunity to be in that place where it was created or inspired. It adds a whole other layer to the musical story and your experience of it.
So here I am in the beautiful town of Jasper and I realise Pyramid Lake is just a short jaunt out of town, and I have to go because it is at the centre of one of my long-time favourite Blue Rodeo songs, the trippy and joyful Cynthia. While here I learn that Jasper National Park is the world’s second largest dark sky preserve, and so how could star gazing in a place like this not inspire a beautiful song like that?
One of Ceri’s pet peeves is the way people use superlatives to describe ordinary things.
“Can I borrow your pen?”
“How was your first try at making meatloaf?”
As we were driving in Jasper National Park and I’m snapping shots and gaping in wonder at the astounding beauty of it all, Ceri said, “yeah, this is awesome.”
I’d never visited the Rockies before. I’ve flown over them, and that in itself was incredible, seeing the sheer mass of mountains below and the odd peaks poking up through the clouds. And so as we arrive in Jasper I’m feeling happy and grateful to be here in this part of the world. With every bend or dip in the road everything changes and there’s a whole new kind of beauty in front of you. I sit back in my seat and just enjoy.
Not ten minutes into the park we’re in a traffic jam. Cars are all backed up as far in front of us as we can see. I mean, it’s not as bad as all that – there’s plenty all around to keep us entertained, it’s not exactly like being stuck on the Gardiner Expressway at five o’clock on a Tuesday. We inch along for well more than an hour, and then up ahead, we see the cause of the traffic jam – the Jasper Park Welcome Wagon.
Saturday morning Ceri and I walk up in the pouring rain to collect our rental car for what is has become the annual long weekend road trip to Amherstburg to see friends at the Shores of Erie Wine Festival. After collecting Carly and Kelsey at their respective homes we get on the highway and point south-west. There is a dodgy hour or so, trying to get coffee and sandwiches behind a busload of seniors at the first available highway stop. Eventually though, the rain clears, and the sky puts on a show and suddenly we're almost there.
Time. I need more time.
Today, attempting to embark on our roadtrip from Michigan to the Manitoulin Island, we encounter a series of unfortunate events, culminating in a giant traffic stoppage due to an accident on the I-75 southbound. It doesn't take us long to come to terms with the fact that we will not get to Tobermory to catch the last ferry to the island. In the meantime, as we sit on the highway in the sweltering sun, the gas tank is dwindling, no highway exit in sight. Trapped, we pull over to sit out the traffic jam on the side of the road with the car off. It's more than an hour into the jam-up and we all get quiet and feeling dejected, wondering how many hours of this are ahead of us.
Within 15 minutes, we're approached by no less than six different cars, offering gas, snacks and water. One lady shares what she'd heard on the traffic report. At one point, we see an older woman walking unsteadily on the side of the road with a wad of tissue in her hand, obviously seeking an gentler route into the ditch where she can relieve herself. A woman who had minutes ago insisted we accept bottles of cold water from her cooler, gets out of her car to help the woman down the side of the ditch and behind some bushes on the other side. She then stands there with her skirt spread to protect the woman's privacy. After ten minutes or so she helps the woman back up to the road and sends her back to her car with a bottle of water and a hug. I've always know Americans are kind people. Today they proved it again.
Everyone's moods are heightened significantly, and our resolve to drive around to the island the long way, back north the other way through Michigan, through Sault Ste Marie toward Espanola and bridge access to the island, doesn't seem so bad. We arrive at the cottage at 1:45 am, after more than 13 hours, bloody tired, but happy to be here.
The Burlington Skyway is part of the Queen Elizabeth Way (QEW) highway linking Hamilton (west) and Toronto (east) with the Niagara Peninsula. A good portion of my family lives on the Niagara Peninsula and thus, I'm quite familiar with that bridge.
Well, not so much anymore. Some years ago when I lived in Windsor, I visited my brother Jeff and sister in law Carol for the weekend, and on my return home, suffered a panic attack at the top of that bridge. It was a nasty experience; it was all I could do to get me and my car to the other side, where I could pull over and stop and get out of the car drag some oxygen into my lungs. And plan my way up the side of Hamilton Mountain – the only way that would point me to Windsor (home).
Now, those of you that live near real mountains would laugh at the thought of this being called a "mountain." "Hamilton Mountain" is really part of the Niagara Escarpment (one of the world's Natural Biosphere Reserves), where the earth juts up in a line leading from the Manitoulin Island and the Bruce Peninsula down through to that watery wonder, Niagara Falls and into western New York.
But my point is not to discuss what people call a mountain in southern Ontario. My point is, that having come across that bridge once in a sweating, hyperventilating, shaking mess, the idea of then having to drive up the side of that "mountain" with the view of the city of Hamilton at the bottom of a breathtaking earth-slide below me, was terrifying. It took about an hour's convincing, and eventually I did it, making my way home to Windsor, stopping along the way about six times (over what is usually a three and a half hour trip) to collect myself after some minor highway overpass or other.
I'm pleased to tell you that, adjacent to the Burlington Skyway, (the thought of which still causes my palms to sweat), lies the older Burlington Lift Bridge. The Lift Bridge might only take an extra two or three minutes (getting off and back on the highway) to get onto the Peninsuala, but one does risk reaching it when a ship is coming through between Lake Ontario and Hamilton Harbour, and waiting out the "lift" of the bridge while a ship passes through.
People travelling with me might find this an inconvenient hold-up. Me – never wanting to ever experience any sort of panic attack ever again – doesn't mind waiting at all. Turning off the car and watching a ship pass through the narrow canal is Zen-like. Even on those days when my family is waiting for me on the other end. After all, we all know I'm eventually going to get there.