I’ve just returned from a weekend road trip to Ottawa. Apart from a few minor in-state excursions, this was my final trip before the North American Tour. This was also the only trip I’m taking in 2017 that lies to the east of Green Bay.
My reasons for visiting Ottawa were fairly whimsical. I had passed Ottawa last fall during my return trip from Salem, but I didn’t stop for a visit because I was tired and anxious to get home. I also enjoyed the scenery of the Trans-Canada Highway between Montreal and Sault Ste. Marie. This portion of the TCH stands in stark relief to the flat dullness that dominates between Winnipeg and Edmonton, and I was eager to travel the highway again. There’s also my long-standing obsession with Erik Karlsson of the Ottawa Senators. Finally, the crossover into Canada gave me an opportunity – a dress rehearsal for the North American Tour – to make sure that I had the proper paperwork to bring Remy with me across the border.
My One-Sided Love Affair with Erik Karlsson
Like most men, I think with my dick. I’m not ashamed to say one of my main reasons for making the 13½ hour drive to Ottawa was to visit the home arena of one of my top celebrity crushes and hockey idols. Even if I were not gay already, I’m confident that I would turn gay for Karlsson – the badass who skates on fractured feet and has the best flow of any other player in the NHL.
Unfortunately, the Sens Store seemed to be the only part of the Canadian Tire Centre that was open when I was there. If I couldn’t bring Mr. Karlsson himself home with me, I had hoped to settle for a stuffed toy that I could snuggle with in bed. Alas, the closest I could find was a 6″ figurine. So I bought one of those and a pack of trading cards.
Some fanboys would consider receiving a restraining order from their loved ones to be a discouraging setback. I do not. I see a restraining order as an opportunity to copy his signature and forge it onto a marriage certificate. Erik might be an unwitting and reluctant husband, but gosh darn it, he’s going to be MY unwitting and reluctant husband!
Canada – Not Very Travel-Friendly
Road Trips are an iconic part of life in the United States of America – and almost as synonymous as apple pie. For all the bitching I’ve done lately about life in America, I must admit that its infrastructure is tailored for the benefit of rubber nomads.
At roughly the same size (Canada is a little bigger) but about 1/10th of the population (23% of which is concentrated in Toronto and Vancouver), and with almost 5,000 miles of highway running between Newfoundland and British Columbia – one would naturally conclude that Canada is an equally friendly destination for road trippers.
The reality was different. Canada doesn’t seem to have rest stops like we have in the United States. They have some. There are a series of “ONroute” rest stops between Toronto and Montreal. Furthermore, I slept overnight at a rest stop between Montreal and Ottawa last fall. But there were no such rest stops between Ottawa and Sault Ste. Marie.
Instead, they had picnic areas. Each of the ones I stopped at had signs prohibiting parking between 9pm and 5am and prohibiting camping at all times. For lack of an alternative, I stayed at one in Cobden, about an hour west of Ottawa. Technically, I parked there illegally. But I arrived after midnight and was sufficiently out of the way so as to not draw attention from the cops. If cops had bothered me, I’m sure I could have feigned ignorance and moved on.
This was my fifth entry into Canada. Between hotel stays, different routes, and different durations on the road, I never picked up on this deficiency until this visit.
The only other thing I did in Ottawa was drive around Gatineau Park, which is inconveniently located in Quebec. Quebec – the place I swore I’d never go back to on account of not knowing French, and Quebec being unilingually French.
I had researched local culture and chose three restaurants to visit while I was in Ottawa. However, Ottawa was considerably more urban than I expected and Gatineau Park was far less accessible than I imagined. Most of the dog friendly parks are not fenced. I found it very difficult to find a good, safe space for Remy to get out for some exercise. We left Cobden around 7am, and by noon, I still hadn’t been able to find a good spot for us to break. We wound up leaving Ottawa and heading back west, stopping again at the Cobden rest area around 1pm.
Pacing Issues (AGAIN)
I had planned on spending most of the day on Saturday in (or near) Ottawa, and using most of Sunday to drive back home. I don’t necessarily mind the fact that we were already heading back home by noon, since this trip was more about the route than it was the destination.
But much of what happened this weekend – struggling to find safe rest areas, struggling to find safe dog exercise areas, struggling to waste time and remain in a destination for more than a couple of hours – does not bode well for my North American Tour. I am increasingly convinced that I won’t be able to stretch this trip out the full six months. Even three months is looking to be a pipe dream.
I could point out some differences to bring me a measure of calm. For one thing, Ottawa is an urban environment. Most of the waypoints on my North American Tour are national parks and national forests – places where overnight camping is safe, permitted, and even encouraged. I will be away from most population centers, except that I may drive past a few on my way to other locations. Plus we’ll have the full comforts of the van and the added cargo, and no home or job to go back to.
Another distinction (I hope) is that the North American Tour should require fewer long haul trips. Instead, I hope to be traveling just a few hundred miles (or less) between stops and remaining overnight (or longer). The trouble with long haul trips (like 13½ hours one way to Ottawa) is that Remy sleeps while I’m driving. When I stop driving, I need to sleep, but Remy wants to play. This creates a nasty conflict between us. Hopefully, her ability to move around in the larger cabin of the van will also help to alleviate this issue.
But the core truth is that I prefer to be on the road. I prefer to be on the move. I dislike stopping, and I dislike lingering even more.
Five Minute Friends
In my life, I don’t believe I’ve ever driven past a hitchhiker. Maybe I never noticed them before. But since I began taking travel more seriously and identifying myself as a nomad, I’ve been eager to find and help out a hitcher. But the roads have been disappointingly empty until now.
That finally changed this weekend. I encountered not one, not two, but THREE hitchhikers! Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to offer any of them a ride. The first one was heading in the opposite direction. The second and third were a couple traveling together. I didn’t see them or identify them as hitchers until I was literally right on top of them because they were fishing a piece of cardboard out of their bags to write their destination. Also, since they were two people traveling together, they would not have fit comfortably in the space that remained in my truck. Even one hitcher would have been a tight squeeze.
However, I did make an effort to be social and outgoing. My therapist should be proud.
During our return visit to the Cobden picnic area, Remy was outside stretching and exercising before we continued back on the long journey home. Another car pulled in. A young man and his dog came out to do the same thing we were.
His name was Gi (or Ji – I’m not sure of the spelling). He said he was travelling from Ottawa to Pembroke. He lamented the long journey, even before I mentioned where I was going. That surprised me because it turns out that Pembroke is only 90 minutes from Ottawa, and only 30 minutes from Cobden. Frankly, I was surprised he stopped for a break at all. I’m not bragging or judging him a lightweight traveler. It’s just that a 90 minute drive isn’t really even a drive by my standards. Still, he was a nice guy. We spoke a little bit about the Senators / Penguins game that had happened the night before. I’m not sure where he was from originally, but he had a heavy accent that I estimated to be Nordic – possibly Swedish or Norwegian.
The second interaction came at a gas station in McKerrow. The pump was out of receipt paper, so I went into the station for it. The clerk was a charming young man who apologized profusely about the lack of receipt paper at the pump. I told him not to worry about it and that it was no big deal. “That’s a first!” he replied with genuine amazement. I asked him if people really griped about that, and he said they did. So much for the Canadian stereotype of politeness, eh? I told him that this “problem” was actually very common where I’m from. After I told him where I was from, he made a joke about things in America always being broken, and then – in a stunning display of Canadian stereotypes – immediately apologized to me for making the joke. Again, I assured him that I was not offended.
I don’t think of myself as better than other people simply because I’m an American. I also think it behooves Americans to show a little humility and courtesy when traveling abroad. I’ve witnessed Americans getting in a snit and throwing their country of origin around as if it means something. It’s embarrassing – don’t be one of those assholes.
During the trip, I observed that I wasn’t sure which frustrated me more – single lane highways or having to slow down to a crawl every time I approach a one-block-wide flyspeck of a town where three people live.
But there is one thing that I find more frustrating. I’m tired of border patrol singling me out for questioning and inspection.
This was my fifth entry into Canada. Of these five trips, border patrol has questioned and inspected me three times. To be fair, five trips means ten border crossings, so 60% is really 30%. But of the two trips I wasn’t pulled aside – one happened when I was a toddler and traveling with my dad. The other was last year’s trip back from Salem, where I can tell that I very nearly was pulled aside.
I can understand being pulled aside by Canadian authorities. They want to make sure I’m not smuggling drugs, raping or murdering their citizens, or taking Canadian jobs. Fine. I never expected to be pulled aside by American authorities trying to get back into my home country, but that’s what happened to me this weekend.
Is it out of line for me to ask why I’m being flagged all the time? And do I have a right to expect an answer?
They never tell me why I keep getting singled out. I can infer their reasoning based on the reactions I see on agents’ faces when I answer questions. It would seem that they don’t like that I travel alone, that I’m not visiting friends or family, or that I don’t necessarily have specific purposes in mind for my destinations.
While I realize that my travel style and habits might not be “the norm”, I don’t think there’s anything sinister about them. I’m unmarried and have no kids. None of my friends enjoy the flexibility to travel that I do. Am I really to be scrutinized every time I cross a border for that? And I like to road trip. Destinations and purposes are trivial concerns for me, and usually not a part of my trip planning (assuming I have a plan at all). Is that really such a radical thing?
When I cross the border this summer, I’m pretty much resigning myself to being stopped again. By then, I will officially be without a job and a home, and Kyle the hitchhiking corpse will be riding shotgun with me. That’s sure to raise some eyebrows, and I accept that. But in general, I’d really like it if they stopped pulling me out; especially if I’m going to be hitting more international destinations in the years to come. And I would like to know what I’m doing wrong that keeps getting me pulled aside.
You Know My Name
Speaking of James Bond (“Nothing sinister” is a quote from Casino Royale)… Chris Cornell died just before I left.
Deaths usually don’t bother me. Everyone dies. I didn’t know Chris Cornell. Never met the man. Probably couldn’t even pick him out of a lineup. The distinction between musicians and actors is that musicians spend most of their existence in my ears, not in front of my eyes. For that matter, I usually don’t even know musicians by their names unless they are solo artists like Elvis or Madonna. Take any band of any genre, and there’s a 99% chance that I couldn’t tell you the name of any of its members.
Chris Cornell, however, is one of the few musicians I do know by name. I came to know him by name because he did the title song for Casino Royale. I admired him as an artist. He had a unique ability to carry a melody while “screaming” (what we associate with hard rock and metal). When I try to sing along with one of his songs, I cannot mimic his particular vocal style.
I can’t really say why Chris Cornell’s death is bothering me as much as it is. Maybe it was how he died. Maybe it was the weekend-long tributes to his work. It could be a sense of survivor’s guilt.
Or it could be a mix of all of these things, set against the backdrop of my upcoming trip. I know I’m in for some dark and depressing days ahead. Not having a job or a home to fall back on will temper the glee of going on this adventure. Among Cornell’s last words were “I’m just tired”. I might be able to relate to that sentiment more than I’d like to.