The last time we drove across Canada’s prairies, we sprinted. We didn’t even stop in Manitoba. Basically, in our haste to get to Toronto, we gave the finger to the provinces with some of Canada’s most awe-inspiring landscapes. And it was wrong of us.
Not this time. We invested heavily. No, this time we would do the prairies right. We even stopped in Winnipeg. My family roots on both sides are in Winnipeg, though I have visited just twice in my life.
After recharging on Eric and Katayoun’s magic farm, we politely left Ontario as fast as we could. It’s felt like a sticky place to leave. It’s just so big. We made the drive from Thunder Bay to Toronto in 18 hours in 2007. Our way back out from Toronto to the Manitoba border has taken us almost 10 days, a little bit slower. Our final Ontario night was spent in Dryden, our last stop before Manitoba. Finally. We craved big open spaces.
Toronto is tough for a lot of reasons. There are way too many people and you can’t see the horizon. Or even the actual sky. Shortly after crossing into Manitoba, the landscape changes dramatically. We left the close, densely forested and mountainous lake country for the ever-widening open landscape of the Great Prairies. We had also gained an hour, a nice bonus you get when driving west. Sort of like getting the occasional boost of life back as you drive. We’d bank on arriving late somewhere, only to realize it was an hour earlier than we had thought. Nice.
We spent a very short, but very sweet two days with our friends Chloe and Riva in Winnipeg. After a week outdoors sleeping on the ground, a warm, dry bed, a nice shower and a coffee maker in the morning was heavenly. It was good to see Chloe again, one of the nicest people ever. It had been a very long time. Her partner Riva is a communications hero of mine, too. Though I’d spoken to her on the phone several times, I had never met her in person. We all caught up on the last decade of our lives, then moved easily to chatting about life and everything else. Both of them are very accomplished and successful, but have a good, balanced view of life. They don’t know how close we came to kidnapping Penny, their Labradoodle. She has personality for days and a face that’d make even a curmudgeon smile.
We left Winnipeg reluctantly. The city is ok, but the company was spectacular. We drove a couple of hours on the Trans-Canada. It was a bit unspectacular. After looking forward to the beauty of the prairies, with limitless horizons of canola or wheat we were a bit underwhelmed. It’s just a highway. Lots of cars, lots of tourists, nothing special let alone quintessentially “prairie-like”. So we headed off a side road at Brandon and went North. That’s when things got interesting.
Like medicine for our eyes, the open sky lifted our mood. We’d spent so many years staring at a closed-in environment in Toronto, when suddenly confronted with landscapes that bend past the horizon, our brains rebelled a bit with vertigo. It was fantastic.
Colossal fields of canola that glow so vividly it’s eerie. Wheat fields, young and still many weeks from harvest, move with the currents of wind like waves on a dry, green ocean. Barns, silos, and houses sit amid patches of trees like islands. We loved it.
We had such a good time, Karen taking in the rich scenery, me stopping the car and jumping out with my camera every five minutes, that we didn’t notice we had crossed the provincial border into Saskatchewan. Our plan was to camp at Crooked Lake provincial park, and it was getting late. The road that leads to Crooked Lake runs through incredibly beautiful areas that feature a wide valley surrounded by dry hills. Driving the backroads is such a different experience from motoring along the Trans Canada that we decided to stay on backroads all the way to Saskatoon and on to Edmonton. This took us a lot longer. But hell, we don’t work. And with the only deadline pressing on us being Karen’s hair appointment in Vancouver, we decided to take the time.
We sailed along the backroads of Saskatchewan and Alberta all the way to Edmonton. It took us two days. I haven’t muttered, “wow” under my breath so often in so short a time since we were in Tibet. Seriously. The prairies are beautiful and rewarded these two fed up city dwellers with lots of solitude and beautiful views.
In case you’re wondering why we went through Edmonton, there are two reasons. One, we were planning to go through Prince George on our way to Prince Rupert to take the ferry to Port Hardy to get back to Vancouver. So Edmonton makes sense. But the real reason was that about a month before we left Toronto, old friends sent us an email and suggested we make our way to the west coast by way of Edmonton, to catch up with them and another old friend from the past, Jim.
Sandra and Barry are kindred spirits. They love travel. They have lived overseas in Europe and Asia several times over many years. And like us, they are best friends. In some ways, spending time with the two of them is like looking at ourselves in the future. Being around them is easy for us. We laugh a lot. They are in Edmonton working for the provincial government, and my friend Jim is there, too. I hadn’t seen him for over ten years. Jim was the best colleague I’ve ever had and I missed him.
Scott and Jim today
Scott and Jim circa 2005
We’ve known Sandra, Barry and Jim for a very long time. Some people you build bonds with through intense shared experiences and those bonds don’t easily get lost. Working in politics is like that. It is a unique experience built on shared values and a common purpose. They become more like family than simply people you happened to work with. Though it had been many years since we had worked together, our conversation picked up seemingly right where we had left off. We slipped easily into familiar patterns. I guess family is just like that.
This next life chapter is a lot of things for us. We’re committed to spending time doing more of what matters. Spending time with old friends. Taking time to smell (and photograph) the canola. We stayed three nights in Edmonton getting as much quality time as possible with our friends. We also got an insider’s tour of the Premier’s Office and the Legislature. Premier Notley is Sandra and Jim’s boss.
Premier Notley’s office
Coffee (made by Jim) on the Premier’s balcony at the Alberta Legislature
After our tour, we went for lunch. In the afternoon, an eerie, thick yellowish-brown fog rolled into Edmonton, blotting out the sun. It wasn’t just smoke from BC, we learned that parts of Banff National Park were also on fire. Obviously, the situation was changing fast. We’d booked a ferry from Prince Rupert to Port Hardy, but the earliest reservation we could get was July 26 – almost ten days away. We started to re-think things. Again.
Barry and Sandra gave us good advice. We decided to drive only part way through the park then head north again into BC. On Monday morning, we packed our car, traded hugs goodbye, gassed up, and headed to Jasper. Behind us, the prairies receded into the distance. We left knowing we had redeemed ourselves with a proper prairie visit and had been rewarded with the recovery of lost time with old friends.
Ahead of us lay the Rockies and wildfires.