All the past summer, I had been taking small therapeutic road trips one or two hours out of town. One reason for these trips was the stifling heat that had come down on us that summer, especially in August. Sitting in my rented room without air conditioning proved to be nearly unbearable, so I would get into my car with nothing but my phone and my wallet and just head somewhere to get the wind moving through the windows and dry out my sweaty, overheated body while easing my troubled, overworked mind. I had just freshly ended a marriage that I had spent two years trying to rebuild, with false starts and vain attempts, and was just newly becoming acquainted with life alone. I spent the earlier part of that summer wallowing in the notion that loneliness was the worst state imaginable, until I realized that being alone meant that nothing was holding me back. It was then that I decided to get out and explore the world I had been passing by all that time. The road trips proved to be helpful, showing me things I hadn't noticed before, answering questions that I had kept silent for so long as I sought new roads and placed faces to names of little towns I had only seen on roadsigns before. I was up and moving, moving on and moving up.
On the second day of the storm, I took my car in for an oil change and to check why an engine light was coming on. It turned out to be nothing so, heartened by not being seated with a repair bill, I booked it the next day to get the crack in the windshield fixed. I resolved that if the weather improved, I would be out on the road as soon as that repair was done.
The next day the sun was out and the sky was a deep blue. A stark contrast to the bleak hostilities of the days before. The temperatures rose to just beneath freezing, just enough for the salt laid down to work on the road. I took the car in at 10 o'clock, then sat in the Tim Hortons across the street to wait it out. There, coffee at my wrist, laptop before me, I plotted my course. I had been wanting to see where Mitch Owens Drive went, knowing it went east. I had never seen the eastern part of Ottawa, and it stayed an unanswered question for so long. I supposed there might just be a lot of snow-covered farmland, but still; I wanted to know. Some might call it the Middle of Nowhere, but the middle of nowhere is always someone's somewhere, someone's home. Someone always knows that seemingly desolate road you get lost on. It's funny that this Nowhere is actually part of a city that I live in. So many of us don't know our own towns or cities, so many still need a GPS to get around a city that they'd lived in all their lives. That never sat right with me. I want to know, because I know there's no such place as Nowhere. It takes ignorance to call a place that.
My plan was to follow Mitch Owens Drive from Manotick as far east as it would go, then slip up to Highway 417 and continue east until it reached the elbow where it would head into Quebec, where I would turn the other way and follow County Road 17, fording the Ottawa River back into the city. That would satisfy my curiosity, I thought. At 12 o'clock, the window was done. I gathered my things, got the car and hit the road.
Driving into Manotick, I thought about how the town definitely had money, judging by its cleanliness and character, but it wasn't pretentious like some towns liked to present themselves. It still held a small town personality, letting it's own geography do the advertising. That geography was the Rideau River, which split itself in two to create Long Island, upon which Manotick proper was established.
It has touristy historical features here, like Watson's Mill, Dickinson House,which was once the campaign headquarters for Sir John A. Macdonald no less, and there is picturesque A.Y. Jackson park, named after the Group of Seven artist who lived in the village for ten years in the late fifties/early sixties. But I wasn't a tourist, I was a traveler. I had someplace to go without anywhere to be.
I hit Mitch Owens Drive, which was named after a city councilor who was briefly Mayor of Gloucester in 1984 and had served with the RCMP and had a stint on the schooner St. Roch, which was the first ship to completely circumnavigate North America through the Northwest Passage. Worthy attributes to warrant naming a county road after you. I was surprised to learn that he had died only last year as owner of a trailer park right there on the Drive, which I noted as I passed it by. Mitch Owens Drive is otherwise known as route 8, which is a throwback for me to Old Highway 8 in Niagara, which goes from my old stomping grounds in Queenston, all the way to Goderich on the shores of Lake Huron. It was an important road for me as I always took it to get into the urban center of St. Catharines, but it was also significant with all the stories attached to it from the days of the War of 1812, which defined the area like no other event in history. I was happy to discover another route 8.
I was amazed at how quickly the road had bounced back from a snowstorm only a day before. It was hard to believe that just the day before the area was under blizzard conditions. Snow was pushed aside and the temperature had risen to help the roadsalt in melting the snow that had been tamped down by traffic. The sun then did its part by drying the pavement, making conditions perfect for driving. I felt blessed, and spurred on by such an opening of opportunity to make this a memorable drive. I slid in City and Colour's Little Hell cd to join my mood. I chose it because Dallas Green's soulful singing and bluesy/folky/rocky songsmithing added some sweet melancholy to the trip. City and Colour is always good traveling music in my opinion. Another Niagara connection for me, as Dallas grew up in Niagara like I did (you may notice I am big on local connections). My ex wife actually remembers him at parties, introverted and hiding that massive genius that would bring him so much success later on.
A little further on, the highway took it's swing to the north where it would head towards the Ottawa River and then turn east again, making it's way towards Montreal. When the highway took that eastern crook, I was looking for the off-ramp to County Road 17, where I could make my way back to the city close to the banks of the river. Over time, I passed into Quebec. I didn't know its border dipped down to south of the river, and when I posted where I was on social media, some of my friends started to wonder what the heck I was doing. "Did you hit a snow bank and veer left?" asked my girlfriend, Julia. I was wondering what I'd done, myself. I should have seen the offramp at that point. Realizing my mistake, I got off the highway and doubled back. It was time to call on the gps app in my phone to re-orient myself and it told me that the off-ramp I was looking for was 12 km ahead of me. When I finally approached it, I saw there was no exit onto Road 17 from the 417 eastbound. That's one thing Google Maps doesn't tell you!
Getting onto County Road 17 at last, I can see the hills across the river, the striations of dark, bare trees imposed over freshly fallen snow, looking every bit like something Emily Carr would have loved to have painted, the undulations of the landscape with the gorgeous worn down curves of what were once towering mountains like the Rockies or Himalayas hundreds of millions of years ago. It always struck me, the disparity of the mountains on the Quebec side and the flatness of the Ontario side. What could be more illustrative of the differences between provinces and cultures?
Driving on, I began to get the feeling I had about 25 years ago when I had forgone taking highway 400 from Barrie to take Highway 27 instead. I had just finished a March honeymoon with my first wife in the Muskokas and was already in love with the landscape of Algonquin Park and the area, so to take this rural route home, looking at the rugged surroundings blanketed in snow under a clear blue sky, it was like the icing on the cake. I had the same feeling on #17, as if I had bypassed the route oft-taken to find this jewel of a road with all its treats to feast visually on. Again, I could find the Quebecois contingency on this side of the river, as every town had the spire of a church poking up from its skyline, presiding over them at whatever the highest point was. This is the same that I saw in another trip through Quebec; the heavy influence of the Catholic Church at the center of every community. Whether in the run-down facades of Alfred or the new developments around Wendover, that spire was there in attendance.
When I entered Orleans, 17 transformed into Highway 174, which would take me directly into downtown. Being the time of day that it was, I didn't want to get caught in the snarl of rush hour traffic, which would be instant buzzkill for an otherwise perfect drive. Luckily, I knew a way around it. I zipped off the highway at Montreal Road, then curled around to take the Sir Georges Etiennes Cartier Parkway, the scenic route on the east side of Ottawa, leading into Sussex Drive, avoiding the traffic of downtown commuters, keeping me along my beloved river and past the most beautiful scenery the city has to offer. It was a route I took often the past summer, coming back from Petrie Island or visiting the Aviation museum. It was a salve for my hurting soul then, and it was a welcoming sight this time around too. Coming into the downtown, I passed Rideau Hall, the Royal Canadian Mint, the National Gallery and the Chateau Laurier, then zigzagged my way onto Wellington St., then Elgin, then Laurier, then finally, sneakily, I got onto Queen Elizabeth Drive, the stretch of road that followed the picturesque Rideau Canal and took me almost directly home. It was the penultimate perfect ending for a perfect drive that had lasted 6 hours, all said. None of the barriers that I had anticipated with trepidation had presented themselves during this trip. The roads were clear and dry, the traffic was minimal, the sun was out and the sky was blue. I was tired, and my backside was in the tingles of numb-bum, but the fatigue did nothing to depress my elation for this wonderful day I'd had. Pulling into the driveway of the boarding house in which I live, I backed the car in, then sat for a long few minutes. I felt like I had awakened from a long nap. A long nap with the most delicious dream...