Monday, January 6, 2014

The Great White North

Travel notes for a day-up, day-back road trip to Montreal, driving Matt and his friends, Alex and Elsa, back to Concordia University after their December break.

It seemed a little crazy, leaving a day after a foot of snow and a deep freeze Friday night, to travel  up to Quebec, just at the end of its own arctic siege, in an elderly Honda of untested fortitude. But Adventure nosed out Prudence, who had advocated for putting the trio on a Greyhound bus. No fun in that. And after all—the Abenaki brave, Throws Caution to the Winds, had promised.

So Saturday, the car full to the gills with two parents and three freshmen and various forms of suitcases, tote bags, duffels, backpacks, tripod, laptops, vinyl records, and hefty winter coats, we embarked for the frozen North. I 93 to I 89, lunch at Sarducci's in Montpelier, which wears its state capital role—compact, neighborly, gold-domed Capitol building and many-verandahed museum—with a modest Yankee dignity. And on through the northern tier of Vermont to the mysterious, minimalist, border. No reason for all these bleak governmental structures to be in this wooded, rural, zone except that two nations happen to meet here, the backyard fence of the Good Neighbor Policy, where Uncle Sam and Johnny Canuck used to hang out and sing Home on the Range and Frere Jacques, once part of the cozy, reductive world of Life magazine and Coronet educational films.

This winter day it's a bit boring, briefly bureaucratic, and a place for a bathroom break, before we resume our trip in the fast-fading daylight of a new storybook setting entirely: the small agricultural border towns of southern Quebec, the signs mainly in French, all the small houses radiating an opaque, vaguely Old World yet redefined North American, Quebecois identity, challenging the familiar with a potage of fiddle music, Canadian money, and a persistently foreign language. And northern snow. And northern wind.

White farm fields stretched away on both sides of Autoroute 133, combining two remembered images of Canadian geography—the prairie and rural Quebec— on the back of the Canadian one- and two-dollar bills when I lived in Vancouver in the 70s. 

As our invasion continued to Alasdair Frasier's fiddle music on The Road North CD, the wind picked up the snow off those fields in blinding bursts that shook the car, ballast or no, with one blast shoving the car in a bully's strong-arm toward the shoulder as two behemoth trucks thundered by on the left, glittering with halloween lights. This was exactly what Prudence had warned us about, the car on its side in a dtch, many kilometres from the nearest hostile Francophone, in brutal tundra-like temperatures. But we withstood the nudge and Carol was more jazzed than jarred. Throws Caution to the Winds laughed. Prudence humphed and went back to her tatting.

Windbreaks and a more suburban, then urban, landscape put an end to the snow snakes and wind shoves. Montreal reeled us in across the St. Lawrence River and through the Atwater Av. tunnel, finally to the familiar matrix of Rue Sherbrooke, the east-west artery that connects Matt's downtown Sir George Williams campus with Alex and Elsa's Loyola campus, twenty minutes away. We dropped them off, the car reverting to less-circumspect family vibes. 

We dropped Matt off in his former-priory dorm, Grey Nuns, to the unpleasant discovery that his room had no appreciable heat, not quite at the visible-breath stage, but barely better than outside. We left him to deal with it (well, okay, mentioning it to the security guard on the way out, receiving assurance of action on Monday and a space heater in the interim). We had supper at the same French-cuisine bistro we'd eaten at before—this time with me slightly appalling the waitress by taking mild (post-stent) exception to the ubiquity of cream sauce, not realizing how much of a staple of French cooking it was. 

Prudence had her final say, convincing us, already running late, to eschew a planned stopover in picturesque Hatley, Quebec, two hours to the east, to visit our friends, writers Steve Luxton and Angela Lueck. It would have enriched this account substantially, but likely caused spousal stress, at least in the short run. 

The Abenaki did not get involved. We made it home, emptier in many ways, especially of windshield-wiper fluid, without giving Prudence any further I-told-you-so opportunities.

Be warm, Matt.


  1. Your posts have kept us warm all through the holidays, and now into the new year.
    many thanks, old Hatch