Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Busman's Tour of the 401 Corridor

I ventured farther east today, by land at least, than I have for twenty years, having abandoned Montreal to the French in the last quarter of the 20th century. Lunchbucket to Cornwall, all in the name of commerce. A rarity, that…a direct drive package going that distance.

The tour starts with the skunk just outside Lunchbucket at the entrance to the 401 eastbound. ‘Nuff said.

The next major point of interest is the Niagara Escarpment. Several things may be said about the escarpment. It is the backbone of southwestern Ontario, winding its rocky way from Niagara north until it plunges unceremoniously into Georgian Bay. (According to the geological map, it actually then curves around the north end of Lake Michigan and winds up in Wisconsin! I never knew that…) The escarpment is breathtaking in the fall when the fall colours fall. The escarpment is apparently composed mostly of gravel, or aggregate as the road-builders like to call it. Finally, there’s a big long hiking trail on it.

Ten minutes down the road is Milton, where I spent nearly every Sunday for ten years playing in the house band at a dubious German restaurant. Frozen schnitzel, exploding Hungarian sausages, and gravy that performed the same function as Ex-Lax. Periodically, members of the Bruce Trail Hikers Association would come into the restaurant after exploring the gravel byways of the previously mentioned escarpment hiking trail. Somehow they always managed to find things not gravel along their path. They would come in, eat iffy goulash and dumplings, dance a polka or two and leave large clumps of mud on the floor.

After Milton comes the sixteen-lane metromadness stretching across perhaps 100 kilometres of alien landscape sometimes referred to as the GTA. Somewhere near the middle of this, one passes over the longest continuous road in North America (the world?) with barely a whimper.

Then, off to the mythical mystical east. Pickering. Darlington, where you see a commercial strip plaza perched precariously in the shadow of the nuclear power plant. Ajax. Whitby, home of a former world championship hockey team. Little more than GTA now.

Oshawa, where in 1937 Mitch Hepburn, the irascible Liberal premier set back the Liberal cause in Ontario for decades by organizing a private police force known as Sons of Mitches to put down the General Motors strike. How easily we forget how hard the workers had to fight in those days for anything resembling rights, and how bare-faced our governments sometimes were in their acts of repression. But then, Mike Harris did remind us now and then, didn’t he?

Never mind. Keep driving. Bowmanville, home of World Records, where the band had its first vinyl albums pressed. Personal history. Went to pick them up myself. Eleven boxes or something like that. I think we still have some!

The Big Apple at Colborne. Over 2 million pies sold. Through Trenton I whistled a few bars of In the Mood, passing by Glenn Miller Rd. and thought about the one gig I played at CFB Trenton. Belleville and the Bay of Quinte, other gigs, and Al Purdy mooning around. On to Napanee, home of a doe-eyed waitress I once knew who worked, in fact, at that same Bavarian restaurant. During that same Trenton trip, we actually did the Highway 2 Kingston Road scenic version. I always loved that Kingston Road in Toronto was in fact the road to Kingston. “Here,” you could say, “Get on this road, follow it all the way and you’ll end up in what might have been the capital of Canada.”

And we’re getting there. Stop for gas in Napanee, the cheapest along the entire route. A nod to Prince Edward County, the occasional view of Lake Ontario. See the sign for Sharbot Lake where my buddhabuddy Lynn now lives in rustic simplicity and relative solitude. I would have phoned her but discovered I neglected to load her number into the cell phone. By the map, it looks like a hell of drive north from the 401, but I’m sure she’s said it’s only about an hour.

And Kingston. Raise a glass to Sir John A. More gigs here. In particular one we played at Queens for homecoming, along with a band called Phil ‘n’ the Blanks, who, as of a couple years ago, were still gigging. We all got very drunk along with purple and yellow face-painted froshes, and went to a greasy pizza joint in downtown Kingston where the keyboard player from the other band demonstrated that he could touch his Adam’s Apple with his tongue. Ahh, those were the days.

Let us not forget that this is also Prison Alley, from Warkworth up there in Campbellford, to Collins Bay to Kingston (where I got yelled at for taking pictures of that musty old pile of bricks and broken hearts) to Joyceville.

Cruising out of Kingston I pondered the sight of the old City Hall and its farmers’ market in the back yard. Lunchbucket used to have one of those. Now, it’s Your Farmers’ Market, if you please. Anyway…the highway reminds us that we live in a land of granite and pines. Explosives. Whether you’re blowing the gates to the Kingston Pen or the Gateway to the East.

Here comes Gananoque and the Thousand Islands. I counted five of them.

And Brockville, hometown of Xena the Kayak Princess, where I caught a fleeting glimpse of the St. Lawrence. Prescott, which in latter days has bad connotations. Iroquois with its strange First Nations vibe.

The last stretch is long and straight and nondescript. It’s a headlong rush to Montreal, really. But you notice that the transports begin to have more French names on them. And Quebec license plates. And Maine, Vermont, Massachusetts. See, that’s different! In our neck of the woods it’s New York and Michigan.

Cornwall? What do I know? I drove on three streets in Cornwall: McConnell, Marleau and Campbell. In and out. It’s what couriers do. All the streets in Cornwall are French and English. Everyone I spoke to, three people I think, spoke English, though one only barely because he arrived from Pakistan only three weeks ago.

And so home. I ran the reminiscences in reverse. Stopped for a sub in Brockville and gas again in Napanee. Just over 1100 kilometres. Eleven hours there and back. And a half tank of gas from Napanee to Lunchbucket.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Ah, that was quite the journey. In paper as well as mind. And of course road. I know that route well, having travelled it many time to visit parents, and then almost every weekend there for a while when life delivered the one-two punch with sick mom and dad. I love driving the 401 - call me weird. But on a clear day, and it is smooth sailing, there's almost a hint of wind in the hair (and definitely wind in the hair if your air conditioning doesn't work, and you've rolled down your window). Now that Mom and Dad are dead, there's little to call me to that area as often - but I do intend to go soon. To the 1000 Islands - which has many more than a thousand islands in reality. They are amazing, and plentiful - too bad you only saw five!

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