GRAN’S CANADA HIGHWAY – EPISODE 3: LOADED TO BEAR by Jaimie Vernon


In 1965, Canada was well on its way to making inter-continental travel from sea-to-sea-to-sea a lot more enticing and convenient. The Trans-Canada Highway had linked the otherwise awkward and barely passable sections of Lake Superior in Ontario and the Rocky Mountains between Alberta and British Columbia. And so, my grandparents decided to take a little trek out of province to see that the world didn’t end in Port Arthur, Ontario (merely life as we know it).

Like any trip, whether it be in a boat or a plane or a space shuttle, you can’t just hop in your car with a tank full of gas and expect to come out the other end either alive or with your car intact or even still in your possession. However, the modern conveniences of instant cash access, bigger populated areas featuring rest-stops, gas and food, and easy to maintain automobiles with mind-numbing entertainment centres to stifle one’s children from the incessant “are we there yet?” bleating has certainly made this a near possibility – today.

55 years ago a cross-country vehicular trip was only four wooden wheels short of a chuck wagon ride. Forearm snapping Rack-And-Pinion steering controlled by a satellite dish for a steering wheel, non-adjusting benched leather seats which were brittle in the cold and like fly paper in the summer (causing various exposed parts of your body to go “ppppuckkkk” when peeled from it), no seat belts, or at the very most, seat belts that were like bolo projectiles when you hit a bump (or your sister), windshield wipers the size of hockey sticks, and 24-hours of non-stop crap radio reception. And you didn’t even have the option of heating or cooling the passenger compartment. You just rolled the windows up or down as required – by hand – and hoped the temperature outside was opposite to what you had inside.


What the cars of the 1950s and 1960s did offer was a sizable cocoon to protect oneself from the careless driving of traffic coming in the opposite direction. These were the heady days when drinking and driving was what you did in the car while driving not merely before you got inside. If you thought eight drunken college football players are unmanageable during a team after-party, just imagine them in a car being used as a two-tonne battering ram. My grandparents drove a 1960 Buick Invicta 4-door Sedan. It was an aircraft carrier on wheels. White-walled wheels to be exact. There was also enough trunk space to carry all your earthly possessions or a second automobile in it. But you needed the space. It was called a trunk for a reason.

Space-age polymer materials had yet to be perfected for consumer use and so luggage was still a series of 1897 steamer trunks in various shapes and sizes – the largest had to be carried on the roof of the car utilizing pyramid-building pulleys and grappling hooks while the smallest was still able to hold a dead body should one need disposing.


According to the photographic evidence, it took three of these excessively large pieces of baggage to sustain my grandparents on their first adventure out west; 27 dress shirts, 18 neckties, 24 blouses, 5 skirts, 15 dresses, 31 head-scarves in case you wanted to roll the window down in the car, 12 pairs of shoes (all in various styles of formal wear as long as they were black, brown or white), 80 pairs of socks, nylons, stockings, underwear and one brown belt to hold up the lime green polyester pants.  In the SECOND suitcase was outer-wear: a single Volkswagon seat cover of a gingham jacket with leather elbow patches, a black Wise-Guy woolen trench coat, a gray mock-mink fur coat, a felt fedora with quail feather inserted into a red ribbon along the brim, two Sunday bonnets (one blue and one yellow),  and requisite winter wear like galoshes, rubber pullovers, toques, rabbit pelt-lined leather gloves, mittens, mufflers, and faux fur ear-muffs – after all, a trip in September would put them on the cusp of a blizzard in either Manitoba or Saskatchewan; The third suitcase – the equivalent to an airline carry-on – was used for sundries like shaving utensils, toiletries, bobby-pins, first aid kit, pens and pencils plus stationery for writing letters and postcards to home, a deck of cards and cribbage board, a sewing kit, a three watt hair dryer the size of a cannon, a hot plate, and electric curlers in a glass-encased hot house the size of an Easy-Bake Oven.

There were no cell phones in case they broke down and absolutely nothing to listen to except the fading, scattered static of local radio stations as they would ultimately pass farther from civilization and deeper into the vast unknown of the Canadian outback.

Without MapQuest to direct them (or a GPS system), the entire trip would be guided by a series of gas-station purchased Provincial road maps that occasionally indicated points of interest – like large 300 foot inclines that would test one’s mettle should the brakes give out on the car. Of course, this inevitably led to fights over who was going to drive and who was going to navigate. You see, the first settlers quickly realized you couldn’t unfold a map to read and drive at the same time without your vehicle meandering off the road and taking out entire segments of scenery, or another vehicle full of drunken footballers.

The cruel irony of riding the Trans-Canada Highway system is that it starts far out of the reach of the denizens of Toronto; the closest it comes to Hogtown is by way of old Highway 7 – better known to Torontonians as the “Mullet Line” but that’s only a convenient route for those travelling east to Ottawa, Montreal or the Maritimes.

If you want to go west to the prairies and beyond, you either take the bisecting Highway 401 west to the forty-lane Highway 400 north and follow it around the western shore of Lake Simcoe, through Barrie, Ontario where the Trans-Canada eventually intercepts it at Highway 12 in Orillia, or you go east on Highway 401 to Markham Road (aka the two lane Highway 48) and take it north to the point where it merges with Highway 12 along the eastern shores of Lake Simcoe where it, too, meets Orillia. In the 1960s and 1970s, both routes would have taken nearly two hours as traffic was impeded at 80 km/h, or rather, 50 m.p.h. as we hadn’t been saddled with a metric speed/distance conversion system yet. As it was, the four-lane Highway 400 – still in its infancy – was preferable because there were no traffic lights to slow you down.

It’s doubtful my grandparents ever took the Hwy 48/Hwy 12 route as there are no photographs from any of their adventures showing scenes from it.  Though, a diversionary trip along those highways was very scenic through old towns like Markham where it would frequently run parallel to some of the more remote railway and farming activity. As well, there was no Casino outside of Orillia back then, so it was clear sailing unless you got stuck behind a camper or a dump truck or a horse drawn buggy full of Mennonites taking their finely crafted furniture and pies to market or into the city where they could skewer unsuspecting city folk with ridiculously high prices that would cover their wages for the remainder of the season. I highly recommend a jaunt on it now during a lazy Sunday afternoon if only to see sleepy little hamlets like Mount Albert, Sutton, Pefferlaw, Beaverton, and Brechin seemingly preserved in time.

All the Grand Vernon journeys began in the east end of the inner city from their apartment on Dawes Road – and, later, Goodwood Park – up the Don Valley Parkway where it would meet with the 401 to take them west over to the 400 north; and when I eventually traveled with my grandmother out west in 1975, we went that route as well. Clearly, the message here is that expediency was preferred. With both my grandparents working for the Diamond Cab Co., a summer holiday was probably limited to a strict two weeks every year. Maybe it was only a week with the second one sacrificed without pay. These holidays happened every year from at least 1965 through 1977 – shortly before my step-grandfather, Larry, passed away – leaving my grandmother to find other interests as she was unable to make the trips alone. She would become a hell of a bowler instead. But that’s a story for another time…

So, off they went, leaving behind the noise, and the raucous, (and the smell) of Toronto in the rear-view mirror toward a new and uncertain frontier in the Canadian hinterland.

NEXT WEEK – EPISODE 4: ONTARI-ARI-ARI-O

=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

 

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