My road trip narrative starts from the day we left Calgary. Over the past 11 years of living in Canada, I’ve done the Alberta-British Columbia drive a few times with stops in different towns. But I’ve seen nothing between Calgary and Toronto, these 3000-something kilometers that house historical significance and years of Canadian heritage – not to mention my friends’ hometowns I know by name, but have never visited.
Our original plan was to head out at dawn to avoid the heat, since we were looking at six hours of driving without air conditioning. The flatness of eastern Alberta and Saskatchewan posed a problem: while we could avoid direct sunlight on a mountain road, this wasn’t an option in the prairies. So we hit the road at 11, expecting to make a stop halfway for gas and lunch if we were hungry.
Drivers who have done the cross-country trip warned me of the Canadian prairie perils: homogeneous landscapes, a speed limit that’s impossible to maintain on such a flat road, careless wildlife wandering onto the highway. But the novelty of the experience (or maybe it was anticipation of describing it in writing here) kept me alert throughout the drive. The Trans-Canada highway in Eastern Alberta cuts through crops of canola, cow pastures and oil fields. When everything in front of you is flat and sparse, man-made objects look surreal and invasive. Among herds of healthy Holsteins, the oil wells are like creepy mechanical birds, slowly bobbing up and down in tandem. Granaries break up the expanses of Albertan fields, giant gleaming cylinders that can be seen miles as you approach them.
Pretty soon, we started passing through towns with familiar names like Medicine Hat, Swift Current, Moose Jaw. Both Kaelan and I shared the sentiment that we’ve heard of these places before, but never really had a chance to confirm their existence – or even picture what the towns are like – until we drove by the welcome signs. Those same signs also made us ponder on the process of choosing a town slogan. For example, Medicine Hat has a very Mad Max vibe with “The Gas City,” whereas Swift Current simply informs you that this is, finally, “Where Life Makes Sense.”
But for every familiar name we encountered, there were two or three smaller towns in between that hardly anyone besides the residents would know. One of such places is Herbert, a Saskatchewan town with an old grain elevator and a big Co-Op gas station/store combo – a common sight along the Trans-Canada. We stopped in Herbert to grab some snacks and drinks; the heat was getting to us, and all we had to quench our thirst was lukewarm water. Our initial choice was a family restaurant advertised with a sign on a road, but it was shuttered and looked long closed. We drove further into town in search of alternatives, but the town ended after about three intersections. This has taught us a valuable lesson: unless it’s a major point on a map, don’t try to look past the roadside gas station and snack bar (or, in most cases, a Tim Hortons and an A&W). After settling on a couple of Gatorades and pepperoni sticks from the Co-Op, we got back on the road.
One of my least favorite parts of driving on a flat highway beside fields is the inevitable high-speed insect massacre. Kaelan warned me of grasshoppers smashing into the windshield. However, my most common victim on this section of the highway was cabbage white butterfly (Pieris rapae), which normally looks like this:
But after meeting my car, it looked like this:
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean to make light of this sad event. I watch enough BBC nature documentaries to know how short a butterfly’s life is without factoring in a 2007 Toyota Yaris. But there is plenty of roadside evidence that shows a large variety of wildlife can fall victim to vehicles on the Trans-Canada highway. So while the Pieris rapae splattered onto my windshield in pairs and threesomes, I was just thankful that most living creatures know better places to look for a mate.
We got to Regina on the seventh hour of the drive, when my right foot was starting to feel the lack of cruise control. After some Chinese food from a restaurant beside our hotel, we looked through some photos from the day. These mostly consisted of things I wanted to commemorate but was unable to do from the driver’s seat, so I bugged Kaelan to take a picture for me. We came to a sad conclusion that midday prairie sun doesn’t make for a photogenic landscape, especially when you only have a moment to snap a photo of something before it blurs past at 100 km/h. But what these photos did capture (in addition to the numerous bug splatters on the windshield) was the incredible expanse of pale blue skies, a view where land barely claims a quarter of the frame. So I found Saskatchewan’s slogan very fitting: “Land of the Living Skies.”