By Karlie Marrazzo
Only a crazy person would drive the length of Canada from Vancouver to Halifax in a 48-year-old Volvo Amazon, purposely avoiding the main highways the whole way, right? Well, that’s exactly what my husband and his friend did earlier this summer, covering 9000km in 11 days, retracing routes from the Shell 4000 rallies that ran in the 1960s, raising money for Alzheimer’s along the way. It was called the Canada 5000, and mere weeks after their return, my Dave decided he hadn’t had enough. He wanted to give the 1965 Regina to Edmonton leg a shot, with me as his passenger/navigator. Most people, including my husband, didn’t think I would want to sit in a car for at least 21 hours, drive to Saskatchewan and immediately turn back around, but I signed up for the challenge without hesitating. Traveling is my passion, and any trip great or small is an opportunity for me to experience something new and see places I haven’t seen before.
September 19, a Saturday. We woke up earlier than anybody should on a weekend. Our bags were packed, the car loaded with food and fuel and tools. Dave got into the Volvo to attempt to start the car while I watched from the driveway. “Don’t worry,” he said; not exactly the words I want to hear right before driving 1700km in a half-century old car. After a few moments, the car roared to life and we were on our way.
It was the perfect autumn day; the blue sky was clear and the air was warm. We headed east towards Regina on the usual path, Highways 16 and 11. It is uneventful, flat and straight. For a pieced together, 48-year old car, the ride is surprisingly comfortable thanks to the Porsche seats that Dave installed, but that’s where the comfort ended for me. The smell of the exhaust in the cabin was unbearable at times, and I alternated between covering my face with various shirts to experimenting with different combinations of open windows, opening and closing vents and fiddling with the fan. Memories of the numerous winter beaters of Dave’s younger years flashed before my eyes. As soon as we crossed into Saskatchewan, I kept a lookout for the flattest piece of land I could see.
Our purpose was to get to Regina before too late, so we only planned one other stop: Moose Jaw. The small city is home to famous underground tunnels that were built in the early 20th century and served several purposes, most famously as escape routes for Chinese railway workers and then used by rum runners during the era of prohibition. Nowadays Tunnels of Moose Jaw runs two tours, one highlighting each aspect of the tunnels’ history. Legend has it that Al Capone spent time in Moose Jaw, but after taking the highly theatrical tour, it became apparent that this hasn’t been proven and is merely a tourist draw. The centre of Moose Jaw is cute with historic brick buildings throughout. Our little jaunt put Moose Jaw on the radar of places I would visit again. We said goodbye with the sun setting behind us, arriving in Regina feeling exhausted, with enough time for Dave to give the car a once over before falling into bed.
I awoke on Sunday morning before the alarm rang; anyone who knows me knows this is an amazing occurrence; I am the anti-morning person. We threw on our matching Canada 5000 T-shirts and hit the road with excitement. The starting point for this leg of the rally in 1965 was the Golden Mile Mall, so that’s where we officially departed from after stopping at the Legislature grounds for a mini photo shoot. My role on this trip was more than just to fill the passenger seat. The navigator monitors the odometer and tells the driver when to turn based on a route book that is a series of written directions and/or arrows but does not include a map. I had barely practiced at home, but was eased into my duties with half an hour on Highway 1, the odometer test section.
Saskatchewan has a bad reputation for being endlessly flat and not too exciting, which indeed it can be when you’re traveling on he main highway. Once we got onto the back roads, everything opened up and started to breathe. The golden fields of wheat seemed brighter, the sky more blue. The sun shone on the men and machinery working the fields, and everything seemed exactly as it should be. We swooped through the gentle green hills of Buffalo Pound Provincial Park and passed over the Qu’Appelle River.
We then turned on to Highway 42. Signs announced “surface failure” and that it was a “broken road”. Chunks of broken pavement were strewn all over and Dave darted and swerved to avoid hitting them. We came upon a section of roadwork, where we’re pretty sure they were turning the paved road into gravel. Traffic was down to one lane and one direction. A single traffic light stood tall, indicating when to wait and when to go. Our turn at the red light took 10 minutes. I stretched while Dave popped the hood, giving the contents of the engine bay a once over.
Hilarious-town-name-spotting is a staple on any road trip, so when we saw a sign for Eyebrow a few minutes later, we had to pull over to snap a picture. Another vehicle pulled over ahead of us to do the same, or so we thought. A middle-aged couple got out of the truck, came over and began to chat. They were stopped behind us at the red light, saw the Canada 5000 logo when Dave popped the hood, and read all about the rally and fundraiser. She told us about how Alzheimer’s and dementia have affected her life and they contributed a very generous donation. They were on their way to their cabin in nearby Mistusinne and invited us for a pancake break. How can you say no to pancakes? We were to follow them but soon lagged behind and lost sight of their truck. We followed their directions in hopes that we’d be able to figure out where they were since we didn’t quite remember the name of the community. A little while later we saw them, pulled over on the side of the road waiting for us to turn up. We spent a relaxing hour with Heather and Murray and their friends Amy, a writer, and John, enjoying the view over the surprisingly huge Lake Diefenbaker, playing with Toby the pup, feasting on pancakes and sausage and having great conversation. This was the purest form of Canadian hospitality and friendliness and exactly what you hope to happen on a long Canadian road trip.
The next few hours went by at a slow pace. Highlights were the imposing Gardiner Dam set along Lake Diefenbaker and stopping to mail postcards in cute Rosetown, SK. One secondary highway blended into the next, the endless golden fields broken up by the occasional grain elevator. We passed through the town of Macklin, SK, home to the weirdest World’s Largest thing we’ve ever seen and its World Championship – a bunnock, the anklebone of a horse that is used in a game of the same name.
As soon as we crossed back into Alberta, it began to rain and didn’t let up for the rest of the drive. Wainwright was our stopping point for dinner, just like on the original rally, and the sky fell dark as we left the restaurant. The route was to take us on some remote gravel roads between Wainwright and Tofield. With the windshield wipers on full speed, we turned onto a pitch-black road and the alternator started screaming. We took this as an omen and immediately returned to the relative safety of Highway 14.
We did keep with the original plan to pass through Elk Island National Park, where we had visited only two weeks prior in hopes of seeing some of the famous bison residents there. We didn’t see any that time, but on this pass we saw two of the giant ungulates on the side of the road. They looked petrified at the sights and sound of our Volvo flying through the night and bolted, their eyes shining in our headlights. Silence fell inside the car as we tried to ignore the screeching alternator, both of us silently praying to make it home that night with the car in one piece. Dave’s dad just so happened to text us asking how the car was holding up, and we didn’t dare respond until we reached home to avoid jinxing ourselves. After a tense 15 minutes that felt like hours driving the rural township roads around Fort Saskatchewan, the alternator only getting worse, we made it onto the smooth blacktop of the Manning Freeway and arrived home without incident.