10 ways to turn a drive into a road trip

North Bay, Ontario

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North Bay, Ontario

Trans-Canada distance: 2,978 km

Actual distance driven: 8,987 km

NOW: (North Bay, Ont.) I returned home to Cobourg after reaching Sudbury last week along Hwy. 17, as described in my last blog entry. Now, I’m back in Northern Ontario after driving the other Trans-Canada that leads from Ottawa to Peterborough and then up through Orillia. Confused? I explained it in a blog entry here.

Mark and Tristan
Mark and Tristan

I’m driving now for the rest of this journey all the way to the Pacific with my 12-year-old son Tristan. His older brother has already been on his road trips with Dad and now is more interested in music concerts and teenage friends, but Tristan’s pumped for this trip. We travel well together: here’s a story I wrote earlier this year for the Toronto Star about a motorcycle ride we took a couple of summers ago to the top of Mount Washington. I’m proud of this story: “The lure of the classic road trip.” It’s the last piece I wrote in the Star as the editor of its Wheels section.

You didn’t click on the link? Here’s some of what you’re missing – my 10 ways to make a road trip memorable. I’ve already done all these on the drive here from St. John’s, but now with Tristan along, I’ll be doing them all again.

Ten ways to turn a drive into a road trip

There are a few rules to ensure the success of any good road trip:

1. You must drive for a while on a road you’ve never driven on before;

2. You must stop for a coffee or for lunch at a place you’ve never stopped before;

3. You must travel in both darkness and light, so either leave at dawn or arrive after dusk;

4a. You must have an alternative, easier or quicker route that you do not take; or

4b. You must have been able to take transit or fly, but chose not to; and

5. You can drive fast, but you must not hurry.

Those elements alone will turn a drive into a good road trip. They ensure a bit of adventurous exploration while also offering some sort of challenge. You don’t have to go far; you can drive away now and return this evening with a sense of accomplishment. This is one welcome occasion when length doesn’t matter.

But do you want a great road trip? Then you also need as many as possible of these:

6. You must cross water, preferably by ferry;

7. You must face some form of adversity, like a flat tire or heavy rain;

8. You must discover something about yourself, such as finding a relative in a graveyard, or fixing a breakdown on your own;

9. You must be surprised by something;

10. You must share at least some of the journey with somebody else.

THEN: (Scotia, Ont.) In 1912, journalist Thomas Wilby and driver Jack Haney were roughly one-third of the way into their pioneering Halifax-to-Victoria drive when they came through here, and already, the road trip was not going well.

Stuck in Scotia
Stuck in Scotia

“One poor devil does all the work, ‘that’s me’” wrote Haney in his diary. “I am hooked up with about the worst companion that possibly could be. The work is going to be hard after leaving Toronto, and not having a MAN with me, I don’t know how I’ll make out.”

Phew! Poor Haney, the 23-year-old head mechanic supplied by the REO car company to drive Wilby across the country in his sponsored car, was venting about the snobbish attitude of the 45-year-old English writer. You can jump ahead to read the capsule story of their drive here, or follow along now with me. If you want to catch up, I first introduced Wilby and Haney back in Halifax in this blog.

The pair were stuck for a day after their car was bogged down on a sandy hill, where a team of horses pulled them out with such heaving and jerking that the driveshaft twisted and had to be replaced by another shipped up by train. After Haney installed it – for Wilby didn’t like to get his hands dirty, especially not with work intended for the lower classes – they became stuck well outside of town on “a high hill with about a 40 per cent grade and a ruddy, slippery surface.” Bear in mind that few public roads these days have grades of more than about 15 per cent, and on the Trans-Canada, the grades are no more than 5 per cent. As Haney described it: “If this was a hill, I had never seen one before; it looked more like a patent fire escape.”

In winching themselves laboriously out of the sand, the driveshaft twisted again and the car eventually limped in low gear to a farmhouse near Trout Creek. “Wilby is pretty sore about the delay, is almost ready to give up,” wrote Haney in his diary that night. “The trip is a farce anyway.”

So what happened next? I’ll tell you tomorrow…

SOMETHING DIFFERENT … (Scotia) Tristan and I drove all over this area trying to find the original site of the steep sandy hill that waylaid the pathfinder drivers in 1912. Scotia is still a small community and one of its two railways is now a trail, and we could never be quite sure we’d located the right spot, and then we found this farm on a side road, well away from the main highway.

Telling it like it is
Telling it like it is

“It’s been Cow Shit Valley for 20, 25 years,” says owner Carl Marshall. “Everybody kept calling it that, so I figured I should put a sign up. I would say at least 50 people every year stop and take a picture of the sign. I’ll be working away and then I’ll see a car stopped and some people standing next to the sign, and then they’ll drive away. They’re taking photos. That’s okay.”

Carl sells top soil and his trucks have “C.S Valley Farms” written on their doors – a nod to the good business practice of not offending potential customers.

There were some complaints a number of years ago, he recalls, but they didn’t amount to anything. “If somebody wants to come up from the city and complain about my sign, well, tough.”

Carl’s family came to the area in 1868, walking the 70 kilometres north from the station at Gravenhurst to settle the 100 acres they were promised by the government. And that For Sale sign? Cow Shit Valley isn’t really for sale. Carl had put the sign on a friend’s bulldozer as a joke a few weeks ago, and the friend put it in turn on the farm sign. “I’ll never sell,” says Carl. No shit.

My accomplice, blogging
My accomplice, blogging

SOMETHING FROM TRISTAN: (North Bay) Today was my first day on the trek and my dad’s 28th!

We started off our journey across this wonderful nation by driving from Cobourg all the way to North Bay. First we drove up to Peterborough so that we could enter the Trans-Canada Highway to start our trek. We passed many towns and eventually made our first and only stop on our first leg of the trip. We stopped in a little town called Scotia which is just north of Huntsville.

We stopped because apparently back in 1912 the first people to trek across the country crashed and got stuck so my dad tried to find the place. On the three or four hour long journey to find it, we stumbled across a place called Cow Poop Valley Farms. Me and my dad laughed but there was a down side to that little chuckle – since my dad is a reporter, he just has to go knock on everyone’s door and ask questions about this farm.

The worst part is since my dad has no sense of fashion he walks around in his white reeboks, socks, shorts, grey hair (even though he prefers the term California blonde), and what he calls a tilly hat. So basically he looks like the stereotypical old person. But aside from that, today’s leg of the journey was fun and exciting. I CAN’T WAIT UNTIL TOMORROW! =P