So, where were we? Oh yeah, in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, drinking beer with the Yoopers.
I crossed into Canada the next day and made my way across Ontario, which is way bigger and has more bears than I realized. (Roadside signs warn you not to feed them and, sure enough, about 200 yards past one of the signs there was a bear, just sitting there, watching the traffic go by and looking at the passing cars like, “Really? Nothing? None of you? Because of the signs? You people are SHEEP! Which are delicious, by the way. Anybody got a sheep in there? A goat? Cat? Hamster? Cheez-Its? Anything? Oh, Come ON!”)
I spent the night in downtown North Bay, next to Cecil’s Eatery & Beer Society, which I thought was closed because there were no cars around and it was, you know, downtown, so I’d expect some people to be visible. But, external clues notwithstanding, they were open, serving delicious beer inside and, as is the Canadian custom, showing only hockey-related programming on their over-the-bar tv’s. It was midsummer and the screen was filled with people talking about off-season trades and the greatest games in NHL history and pretty much any hockey thing they could think of. Then they switched to a movie and, swear to God, it was “Youngblood”, the greatest Rob Lowe hockey movie ever made, in which he learns how to punch other hockey players in the face before they punch him. I don’t know this, but I suspect they show it every night. I choose to believe that they do.
It had taken me 7 hours to get from Sault Ste. Marie to North Bay and it was still another 5 hours to Ottawa. That’s 500 miles of Ontario I had to cross (and, because they use the metric system, it takes twice as long. The official distance from Sault Ste. Marie to Ottawa is approximately 37,000 liter-grams.).
I spent a day at the Ottawa Jazz Festival, being bored to tears by Esperanza Spalding, who is an enormously talented bass player and vocalist and clearly a prodigy but, hard as she tries to emote, there’s something too-technical and slightly off-putting about her. She should have been Mitt Romney’s running mate.
I also should note that I parked right by the concert site, Confederation Park near the Canadian Parliament, on Nepean Street, which smelled like it sounds.
But that’s not important. What’s important is that I went 125 miles from there directly to the Montreal Jazz Festival, which did not smell like pee at all. Somehow, and I have no idea how I did this, I slalomed The Traipsemobile through the narrow chicanes of central Montreal and ended up just off Rue Sainte Catherine, approximately 20 yards from the Place de Arts, which was jammed to the brim with people in culottes and low-cut striped tube tops. Also some women. I kid the French Canadiens.
The thing is, the whole block was swarming with people who were there to hear actual jazz. I tried to get a ticket for a Stanley Clarke performance a few hours before the show and they French-laughed right in my face. I might as well have been hunting for a last-minute ticket to see Arcade Fire or Justin Bieber. I love this place. I truly do.
First of all, you can walk all over the damn city without ever going outside. Minneapolis has a network of skywalks that is pretty cool but Montreal’s is AMAZING, a whole world hidden under the ground. And, when you surface, the city is as vibrant as any in North America, although there does appear to be an unhealthy infestation of mimes and jugglers. But there are also bagels and beautiful women wearing dresses while riding bicycles and looking all French and shit. I could live here. In the summer, anyway.
I spent most of my time in Outremont, an old-world residential neighborhood, populated mostly by Greeks and Orthodox Jews. It’s where Mordecai Richler grew up. I might as well have been in Europe. There were stoops and old ladies sweeping sidewalks and, on Canada Day, a parade heading towards St. Michael’s Catholic church, a brass band following a paper Mache statue of the Virgin Mary, slowly moving down Rue Saint. Viateur. It felt like a scene from Godfather II. I left before they cut to the montage.
I was on my way to Quebec City, which I’d never visited. Because there are no Anytime Fitness locations in Quebec (you know how it is with the French and showers. Again, I kid.) I took advantage of Couchsurfing to find a place with plumbing and an electrical outlet. I got a lot more than that.
Steve Bellemare, my Couchsurfing host in Quebec, grew up there and has worked in a local sawmill, off and on, for most of his adult life. But the sawmill closes down pretty regularly, subject to the vagaries of lumber demands and union disputes. So he’s had long stretches of being out of work. During which he rode a bicycle around the world.
Seriously, with his riding partner Pierre (they called themselves the Velcro Brothers) he rode a bicycle from Vladivostok, across Siberia, across Eastern Europe, across Western Europe, all the way to Ireland. He rode a bicycle across China and Mongolia. He rode a bicycle all the way up to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, on the same gravel road that I was so proud of having survived in the Traipsemobile. On a bicycle. He is 49 years old, a volunteer paramedic and quite possibly the coolest person I’ve ever met.
His wife, Karine, speaks almost no English, but laughed at my jokes without understanding a word of what I was saying. (I know. Most of you do the exact same thing.) He took me all over Quebec City, through the old fort, the Chateau Frontenac Hotel, on the rampart of the old battlefield, down hidden pathways along the St. Lawrence River. We drank beer. We took a ferry across the St. Lawrence and back again, just so we could get a spectacular view of the city. And, when one of our fellow ferry passengers, confined to a wheelchair, had trouble on the ramp – picking up some dangerous downhill speed, Steve raced over and saved the day. A few minutes earlier that guy, and all the other wheelchair passengers, apparently on some kind of excursion, had been on deck singing La Vie En Rose, while we crossed the St. Lawrence. It was awesome.
Steve introduced me to all sorts of cool Quebecois musicians, Lisa LeBlanc, Bernard Adamus, Les Respectables. And he told me that, even though he’s ridden his bicycle pretty much everywhere in the world, he’d never been to Labrador. So that’s where I decided to go.
The hilariously-misnamed Trans Labrador Highway is several hundred miles of potholes, dust and gravel, some of it the size of monkey skulls. This is among the reasons why Steve Bellemare hasn’t ridden it on a bicycle and why I probably shouldn’t have driven it in a van. But one of us is an idiot.
Get out your Google Maps and follow along. From Quebec City it’s 250 miles of two-lane highway , a beautiful seven-hour drive along the north shore of the St. Lawrence to Baie-Comeau, including a ferry crossing of the Saguenay River where it converges with the St. Lawrence at Tadoussac, which was established as a French trading post in 1600. So far, so good.At Baie Comeau, you turn onto a little provincial highway, paved but narrow and head north through dense forest towards the Labrador border, which is 300 miles away. The pavement stops about 175 miles before that. With the exception of a couple of brief paved stretches around mining sites,it’s nothing but gravel from there to Labrador City.
Most of the time, that’s not really a big deal. The gravel’s easier to maintain in cold weather than pavement, and the potholes are not so unforgiving. I learned this in Alaska, driving the Dalton Highway to Prudhoe Bay. As long as you don’t get in a hurry, it’s really not so bad. Sometimes you can go as fast as 50-60 miles an hour. Most of the time, though, 40 is a better idea.
But you have to pay attention, to resist the temptation to speed up when there’s a straight, level stretch because, the minute you let your eyes wander, there’s a frame-cracking dip in the road, a place where the grader didn’t quite do its job, where the last rain left divots or the ore trucks have turned the whole thing into corduroy. It’s exhausting to pay that much attention for that long, especially for me.
The worst stretch, of course, is right before you cross over into Labrador, right when you think you’re just about done for the day. It’s a 40-mile stretch that locals refer to as “The Trail” that winds and twists in every direction and crosses over the railroad tracks (used to transport iron ore) 8 separate times. Supposedly this stretch was built by workers who were “on strike” refusing to work any harder than they had to, so they just took the roadway around whatever curve was easiest. They did very little leveling or digging or attempting to straighten things out. I respect that.
But the result is that, even if there are no other vehicles on the road – and there are always big ore trucks – you will soon be enveloped in a self-generated cloud of dust. Not just regular dust, either. The sand in this part of Labrador is this fine, white talcum stuff. (It piled up in little cones on the Traipsemobile’s rear bumper, like someone had dumped out a hundred hourglasses when I wasn’t looking.) It fills the sky as if the forest is on fire. You can’t see more than a few feet even on a bright, clear day. It was the worst stretch of road I’d ever been on in my life. Period.
After a night in Labrador City, a dismal dusty city that feels trampled by mine workers and the big mining companies who have taken their profits elsewhere, I headed east towards Goose Bay, 350 miles away. The first 80 miles is paved and smooth. After that, though it’s back to the gravel, to bigger chuckholes, skidding turns on rain-softened mud and, worst of all, a 10 mile under-construction stretch that is straight out of a Jeep commercial. You know, the one where guys drive over boulders that most mountain goats would avoid. It looks like the work of a careless giant with a broken rake.
Only one lane is “navigable” because of all the construction equipment and rockslides and such, so you invariably have to wait a half-hour or so before a flagman gives you permission to go. I was already dead-ass tired after all those hours of paying attention. I needed a pick me up. I decided to play “In A Gadda Da Vida.” The 17-minute version. With the drum solo.
And that’s what was pounding in my brain as I careened over rocks, rocking side to side, sinking into mud pits and wobbling, somehow, to the other side. It was like being on a boat in choppy seas, only dirtier and with that damn drum solo pounding into my head. By the time I got back onto “level” ground, my heart was pounding and I was borderline hallucinating.
So, of course, I found a place in Goose Bay to celebrate the day, a double-doored giant cabin of a restaurant called, appropriately enough, Trapper’s Cabin, where — I swear this is true — you have to cook your own meal. You order steak or chicken and they bring you it to you in the plastic-wrapped pack from the supermarket and direct you to the grill, where there are sauces and pans and assorted cooking implements. They do cook the vegetables for you.
And the bar itself is like something out of “Evil Dead.” Taxidermy on the walls isn’t that unusual around here, there are always moose antlers and deer heads and such. But Trapper’s Cabin has giant stuffed, mutant squirrels and some disembodied hooves. This is not a place you would want to enter if you’d been taking the wrong kind of drugs.
The people, though, were friendly enough, as people in Labrador tend to be. Some of them were there because of the Canadian Air Base, some were actual trappers. One guys told me he’d seen wolves on the “highway” just the other day. Maybe he did. Or maybe he hit his head while bouncing over boulders. One’s as likely as the other.
At that point I still had another 350 miles of gravel to go, until I got to the south end of Labrador and took the ferry, a 30-minute rollercoaster ride of high waves and sliding furniture, to northern Newfoundland. I found a place to eat just before I left Labrador, a little diner/motel, The Northern Light Inn, looking out over the Atlantic Ocean where it mixes with the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
A couple there noticed the layer of dirt on my van and assumed, correctly, that I’d come across the Trans-Labrador Highway.
“How bad is it,” the husband, asked. “We’ve heard it’s pretty rough.”
“No, it’s not bad at all,” I said, meaning it. “A few rough spots, but not bad.” I didn’t mention the mutant squirrels or In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida. They’d find out about them soon enough.