Driving from Toronto to Vancouver is not driving “across Canada.” This country extends at least two further days east to the Maritimes and, from any one of several jumping-off spots, endless days north. The country is so vast that flying seems the only way. A motor trip across the country remains an adventure which requires some time and some planning. I am reminded of two trips my husband and I made which became positively perilous. Who would have guessed?
The first was in 1976 when we were moving from Toronto to spend a year living in California. We were driving our first car, a tiny dark blue two-door Toyota Corolla loaded down with all the belongings we thought we needed for a year away, including two bicycles, books and our cat. As we moved west across the prairies to Vancouver, cars and trucks would come up behind us, hit their horns and force us onto the shoulder. It was a terrifying experience, until we learned that prairie folk travel that way: slower vehicles were expected to pull over onto the margins so faster vehicles could pass.
We also noticed that the prairies are not really flat; there is a slight incline as you drive west. For us, that incline seemed to get steeper and steeper as we travelled up the ostensibly flat Yellowhead Highway from Edmonton towards Jasper National Park. Eventually, we concluded that there was something wrong with our vehicle. We found a garage in Jasper, but decided that whatever needed to be fixed was unlikely to happen on a Saturday night or a Sunday, so we opted to go on. Travelling through the park, past Mount Robson, down the Thompson River, parallel to the railway tracks going the same route, we felt like we were coasting downhill to the coast. Then we hit Kamloops, a major trade centre in south-central B.C. Kamloops is at the crossroads that leads to Shuswap Lake to the east, the Okanagan Valley to the south and two routes to the coast: the historic Fraser Canyon, or the then newly-constructed Coquihalla superhighway, which promised to get us into Vancouver within four hours.
Four hours? That’s correct, if you assume that you can get out of Kamloops. Downtown Kamloops sits in a river valley, surrounded by high, dry hills. As we headed up the hill out of Kamloops, our trusty little Corolla began to huff and puff and slow right down. We considered jettisoning some of our baggage, but stopping the car was out of the question. We were fearful the car would stop on its own, leaving us stranded on this barren hillside. We were the only ones on the wide road, left behind as speedier vehicles passed us by. How could we reach the coast if our car wouldn’t even climb this hill? It took us an hour to climb the few kilometres up the road out of town. Eventually, we reached the top and headed west towards the Fraser Canyon. At least, when on that height of land, hundreds of feet above the river in the canyons below, the car could maintain a certain momentum. And so it did. The Fraser Canyon may have been the slow route, but eventually we came through the mountains to Hope, with its promise of the flat farmlands of the Fraser Valley beyond, and then on to my parents’ home, in Burnaby.
My father was a machinist who took great pride in maintaining his own car in tip top condition. Of course, we told him immediately of our “car troubles.” He went out to the car, put up the hood, and peered inside. He asked my husband to start the car. My father pulled out one spark plug, and the car kept running. He pulled out a second spark plug, and the car kept running. He pulled out a third and the car stopped. Apparently, we had come all the way across Canada on two cylinders. We eventually had a valve and ring job done. A triumph for Toyota? We were just happy to be there.
Thirty-five years later, my husband and I decided to drive our Nissan Altima to Vancouver. It’s a largish car, spacious and comfortable for touring, with a powerful engine and good acceleration. Just prior to leaving Toronto, my husband took the car to the local garage he had been using for years to change the winter tires and have it serviced for our trip west. It was a major service job, with a hefty bill to prove it. For the first time, in all the years we had travelled across Canada by car, we were travelling west in the semblance of a luxury car.
We had such a nice trip. The Trans-Canada Highway has been greatly improved since our early ventures across the country. There are passing lanes in northern Ontario, and four-lane highways on the prairies. We were travelling fast, and no one forced us onto the shoulder. We visited friends in Winnipeg, and family in Davidson, Saskatchewan and in Calgary. We followed the Alberta foothills south to Pincher Creek, the very modest birthplace of Supreme Court Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin, marvelling at the hillsides covered with windmills supplying power for the Calgary transit system. We camped, hiked, and admired the abundant wildlife in Waterton Lakes National Park, and vowed to return again someday, later in the season, when higher trails would be clear of snow.
Travelling on the No. 3 Southern Trans-Provincial highway, we crossed the Rockies at Fernie, visited the hot springs and lakes of the Lower Kootenays, and then headed to the Okanagan Valley where friends were expecting us. We drove the long, winding switchbacks which drop the highway several thousand feet into Osoyoos far below. It’s a dramatic drop on dry, open hillsides. The splendid vista into the valley always takes my breath away. Osoyoos is a farming and resort community, notable for its lake, its desert terrain, its fruit and, more recently, its many vineyards. We stopped at Burrowing Owl, one of my favourites, to order a case of our favourite vintages for delivery in Vancouver. I went into the showroom to place the order and my husband, who hates shopping, passed his time inspecting the car.
What he saw shocked him. The two front tires of our vehicle were hot, and gave off a wretched stench. He looked more closely and discovered that both front tires were worn right through. What had been new tires leaving Toronto now appeared to be in shreds. How could this be? What to do? We decided to drive very slowly on to our friends’ home up the valley in Penticton and find a tire store in their larger community. The next morning, my husband and our friend hustled down to a specialized tire dealer. Sure enough, the two front tires were ruined. The tire experts concluded that that they had not been secured tightly when they were changed in Toronto. We had come all the way across the country on tires which could have come off at any time.
We were absolutely horrified. We thought of our fast trip across northern Ontario and the prairies. We thought of the twists and turns we had made around the lakes in the Kootenays. We thought about the switchbacks on the road from the height of land into Osoyoos. We thought about the potential for an accident, killing ourselves and others. Clearly, if we’d been cats, we’d have used one of our nine lives.
When we returned to Toronto to confront the local garage dealer, he initially denied any responsibility. Then he said that he had contracted that work out. When we insisted on compensation, at least for the cost of the tires, he suggested we could have free gas for the next few months. That was not an option we wanted. As we considered our remedies, the garage abruptly closed. The property had been sold for an infill housing project.