GRAN’S CANADA HIGHWAY – EPISODE 1 by Jaimie Vernon


Travelogues can be a matter of personal taste, and I expect that this one is no exception. However, I’d like to think that setting my family’s road trips against the backdrop of Canada’s geographically challenging countryside, and history, will not only entertain but maybe, hopefully, inspire others to do the same. [once we’re free to travel again, of course].

2020 marks the 45th anniversary of one such road trip my grandmother took me on to see Canada – live and in person.  She’d convinced my parents – and my school principle – that yanking me out of school with two weeks left in the year was going to be far more educational than anything I could do sitting at a desk. She was right.

I’d been moving a box of old photos from this adventure, along with some rather quaint diary entries in the handwriting of my former 11 year-old self, from home to home ever since.

I’ve kept a mental note to myself for a long time that having these photos lying around rather than carefully stored in photo albums might cause me to one day regret procrastinating the preservation process. After all, in a previous incarnation – before becoming a music industry weasel – I was as an archivist. Archiving my once-in-a-lifetime cross-Canada journey should have been a no brainer, but I’d continued to put it off for three decades.

When my father passed away in 2007, my mother had the unenviable task of weeding out the clutter to make her living space more manageable for only one person to live in. Photos from their years together were used in the memorial service for my Dad which I had gladly scanned and organized. This set me on a path to find out not only more about my Dad, but my Dad’s family.

In amongst the wedding photos, and family portraits, and generational gatherings were several photo albums along with an unruly box of my grandmother’s and step-grandfather’s photos that were left to my Mom and Dad when my Granny finally passed in 1990.

Along with the hundreds of family-related photos of parties and gatherings of my Granny’s, there were unfettered travel pictures from destinations and locations waiting to be re-discovered. And tucked inside one of the many Kodak processing envelopes (we used to have to send out photos to a lab and wait three weeks for them to be mailed back to us, kids!) were pictures from that wonderful adventure I’d taken with her in the summer of 1975. They were shots I’d never seen before.

I grabbed the photos and scanned those for myself which, in turn, inspired me to finally commit my own batch of poorly organized pictures from the same trip to the scanner and preserved them in digital form once and for all.


It soon became apparent that I wasn’t entirely sure what I was looking at; yes, I’d stared at these cross country photographs a million times. But having been there and done that, I took for granted the memories I had of the trip. Worse still is that the pictures weren’t in any order or even dated and few had any description on them at all. Was this a shot from Kenora or Thunder Bay? Was this Banff National Park or Jasper?

It was time to refer to those quaint little diary entries I’d made as a pre-teen to shed some light. And that they did; the names, places, and dates were all there. I’d even written down how far we had traveled, when and where we stopped for the night…even motel names and room numbers!  Here was a blow-by-blow travelogue in the making. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t make for a very long one.


As I sorted through my grandparents’ other travel photos, it became obvious that the trip I’d taken across Canada in the 1970s was not some one-shot excursion that my Grandmother pulled out of a travel brochure. She’d been there before – many times before. My photo evidence wasn’t just a series of snapshots from a moment in time, they were re-visitations to the scene of those previous holiday “crimes” as it were. I began to see a definite theme. Grandma Vernon had taken me to all of her, and my step-grandfather’s, favourite haunts. Many of their photos looked like my photos.

Meticulously, over a period of nearly two months, I archived the remainder of other travel photos in my grandmother’s collection of keepsakes. Though disorganized, the pictures were usually identified, and because these were all Ektachrome and Kodachrome prints, there was usually a date embedded right on the photo itself (at least until the early ‘70s) which gave me a general time-frame.


With three generations of cross-Canada photography in hand – either taken by me, my parents, or my grandparents – a story was emerging of a family that loved to travel and venture outside the 30 mile comfort zone that most humans, statistically, cling to all their lives. With my own collection of roadmaps, postcards, and matchbook covers from each of these journeys, this modest tome is a visually rich geographic and chronological glimpse into the growth of a country, its highways, and a family who loves it.

CONNECTING THE PROVINCES
The word “wanderlust” comes from the Germanic wandern (to hike) and lust (desire), although the English usage misrepresents the word as a desire to travel rather than hike. The Germans have a separate word for that altogether. They call it Fernweh – which literally means an ache for the distance.  To that end, I consider myself filled with Fernweh.

By the standards of most Canadians, I’ve traveled quite a bit but I don’t think I’ve seen enough of Canada to qualify as an expert tourist. There’s just too much to see and not enough time to see it. However, if you will indulge me, I do have experiences to share, and I hope they will inspire others to go out and see the country that many of us take for granted.

With the modern penchant for grabbing a flight and jetting about from destination to destination it is easy to forget that there is a lot of Canada in between the major cities (just ask any touring Canadian rock band). Sometimes it’s these under-appreciated communities that still reflect the original pioneer spirit of settlers who ventured into the rugged heartland to trap fur and mine the natural resources for trading with our neighbours to the south or overseas to our motherlands of England and France or beyond.


But from its commercial beginnings with the Hudson’s Bay Company starting in 1670 until about 1955, Canada was merely a series of provincial territories with no direct or commonly traveled route across its face other than railways. Personal travel was fraught with unconditioned wagon trails, cow paths, gravel roads, and geographic barriers – especially in the nearly impassable Lake Superior timberland as well as through the northwest at Rogers Pass. It is interesting to note that the US-built Alaska Highway did bring automotive access from the arctic circle down into Edmonton proper  to “protect us” from the Japanese during WWII. What the Japanese would be doing 1000 km inland from the Pacific Ocean and/or 7858 km from Tokyo is something only the paranoid US government would be worried about. But I digress…

With the advent of Henry Ford’s affordable, factory-splendid automobiles (which came in any colour you wanted – as long it was black!), there was a call as early as 1910 for a Canadian highway. Like railway spikes before it, a guide post was planted in Victoria in 1912 to mark the beginning of a system of roads that included existing dirt trails and railway right-of-ways unified in a coast-to-coast tract by one Thomas W. Wilby.

Wilby, a British ex-patriot American journalist, made a name for himself doing round trip North American tours as a paid promotion for the 1912 Oldsmobile REO The Fifth with his chauffeur/mechanic Jack Haney, and has the distinction of being the first to navigate across the Great White North – starting in Halifax on August 27, 1912 and finishing in Victoria to hammer in the legendary guidepost spike on October 14 of that year.

Wilby’s journey is chronicled in his book A Motor Tour of Canada. Ironically, Wilby and Haney grew to hating each other by the end of the journey; an intrepid team of car enthusiasts – Lorne Findlay and John Nicol repeated the trip in 1997 using an identical Olds REO. Their adventure can be read in the 1999 John Nicol book The All-Red Route.

The rugged Canadian Shield area of Highway 17 along the shore of Lake Superior was paved in 1937 – a section that Wilby and Haney had to use a boat to traverse in 1912; In later years, my estranged paternal grandfather, Spencer Vernon, along with his gravel and sand company, would supply aggregate to the construction industry to widen the stretch of the Trans-Canada Highway from Orillia to the Manitoba border.


As Newfoundland entered confederation in 1949, the Canadian Government passed the Trans-Canada Highway Act as a means to finally glue all the spotty and irregular provincial highway lands together as a unified motor route. The entire highway system was completed, with the final piece being paved along a stretch of the treacherous Rogers Pass in British Columbia, on September 3, 1962 during a ceremony officiated by then Prime Minister John Diefenbaker.

The extant roadway runs for 7,821 kms (or 4860 miles for you old timers) beginning in Victoria, British Columbia and ending in St. John’s, Newfoundland; it’s still the longest national highway project in the world and has out-lived the United States’ famed Route 66.


My family quickly took advantage of this newly accessible frontier. My uncle John was a trucker who hauled materials from Ontario to British Columbia (usually in only a few days) where he eventually met and married my aunt Lauretta who lived in Chilliwack, British Columbia. With his relocation to the West Coast, my grandmother and my future step-grandfather, Larry, began making pilgrimages to the land of mountains and fairer weather thus becoming accidental tourists in the process. Over time, I would follow suit. This book follows our travels by province beginning in Ontario, where the majority of my family is still rooted, moving outward to the west and then retracing our steps to launch again from our Ontario home base into Eastern Canada.


So hold onto your jetpacks and time-travel with us between places and eras, on Gran’s Canada Highway adventure to the hidden realms located throughout The Great White North. Make sure you bring a camera too, because the view is splendid.

NEXT WEEK – EPISODE 2: TO THE FIR TREES AND BEYOND

=JV=

Skip Prokop’s “Sunny Days” is available as a 325 page book from Bullseye Publishing
http://gwntertainment.wixsite.com/bullseye-records
Or Amazon
https://www.amazon.com/Sunny-Days-Skip-Prokop-Story/dp/1698098464

Jaimie “Captain CanCon” Vernon has been president of the on again/off-again Bullseye Records of Canada since 1985. He wrote and published Great White Noise magazine in the ‘90s, has been a musician for 41 years, and recently discovered he’s been happily married for 24 years. He is also the author of The Canadian Pop Music Encyclopedia and editor of “Sunny Days: The Skip Prokop Story.” Available through Amazon. https://www.amazon.com/s?k=Jaimie+Vernon

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: