We knew that the second day of the trip would be the most arduous. Scores of others assured us that the prairies were flat, desolate, scenery-less wastelands. Moreover, we had set day 2 as the most ambitious of the days on the road: we were to exit Ontario, clear Manitoba entirely, and make it nearly halfway into Saskatchewan (to Regina or bust). We would be gaining hours as we blasted through time zones, we argued, so we could make up the difference in rest and sleep.
To make sure my impressions are clear: the prairies aren’t that bad. The way some people tell it, Manitoba and Saskatchewan are naturally like scenes from The Road, or really any other post-apocalyptic dystopia you can imagine: endless cracked asphalt, the few people around angry and murderous, the fields so vast and unyielding you question your significance to the universe. It is certainly big, and very flat, and it has a lot of wheat. But there are hills, and splashes of colour, and the vastness is what makes it beautiful, anyway. I wouldn’t live there if you held a gun to my head, but passing through it at 120 km/h isn’t nearly the bore that people describe it as.
Waking up at the camp ground, we aimed for efficiency: five of us bustled around, mostly under Shannon’s direction as she was far more capable at camping, rolling sleeping bags and de-erecting tents and repacking the truck. We got out of camp fairly efficiently, and were happy to reward ourselves by stopping for a sit-down breakfast. It was a good thing we were gaining time: others had told us that pitstops begin to balloon and absorb time as you want to flee your vehicle, and this was true.
I do wax about the prairies’ non-horrors, but I remember less about the second day. Perhaps it was the sobriety of the day: the hoot-count dwindled to a sickly six whoos, and after a while our focus turned more towards constructing playlists and reading. That first thrill of leaving, of being in motion, of being on the road, pales in the reality that you are on the road, and there is a lot of it.
One thing I remember: the sky. As the sun began to set near the Saskatchewan border, buttery flight flooded the plains, washing the fields in water-colour yellows and reds. We were driving directly into the sun for a few hours, and it seemed for a long time like we were chasing daylight: every kilometre we drove seemed to prolong day just one minute longer. Finally, there was twilight ahead of us as the sun went just beyond the horizon. I happened to look in a rear-view, and discovered night was entirely on our tail, eating up the remaining sky.
One other thing I remember, slightly less poetically: we stopped for gas as we approached Regina. The bugs swarmed us—mosquitos, black flies, other unholy bugs I wish to never again know the acquaintance of. A few times, I slapped an insect that was feasting upon my blood, but they had managed to burrow into my skin enough that I drew blood all over my legs and face. I cowered inside the station until we were full-up. Similarly, as we drove earlier that night, I kept thinking I heard rain–no, that would be the grotesque smear of trophy corpses we were collecting on our windshield, hood, and grill.
While we had planned on braving the weather once more and finding a camp site, the drive took us to Moosejaw at 1 in the morning. We caved, having no desire to try to erect tents in the dark and the surely vengeful bug colonies. We found a highway Days Inn and rented a room. (Sidebar: their “suite” reportedly only had a capacity of 4, and yet the room had 2 king beds and a pull-out. We were going to sneak in the fifth regardless of the bed situation, but it seemed all the more arbitrary given how roomy it was.)
On the road, every gain that you make seems worthy of celebration, and further it seems appropriate to reward yourself for the achievements. As such, we had planned day 3 and 4 as less drive-heavy, a time where we could actually stop and look at the scenery, rather than attempting desperately to catch it out the window with streams of motion blur.
The last of Saskatchewan and the beginning of Alberta are mostly wiped from my memory, because of what came at the end of the day. One thing: Ontario’s liquor laws have it so that you can only booze up via government controlled stores (LCBOs); Alberta, by contrast, is like an alkie Amsterdam, comparatively bacchanalian in its relaxed alcohol statutes. They had stores called liquor marts! The drinking age was 18! I was not checked for ID once in the province!
We reached Calgary early in the evening, and as soon as you leave the city, the mountains loom. It was a cloudy evening, and so at first, I could not tell what was mountain, and what was cloud: mysterious bumps cropped up on the horizon, murky and blue-grey. The temperature began to plummet, and the roadside bent and grew hills and rocks. The further we drove, the mountains grew taller and taller, becoming immense behemoths, instilling just the amount of awe one would expect.
We drove into Banff the town to pick up supplies for the evening (having already stocked up on booze back before Calgary): sausages, water, s’mores ingredients. We ended up camping in a site called Two Jacks (only days after, we later read, a bear attack at said campsite). We began to set up our tents and the meal. They sent Brianna and me out to fetch the firewood.
This was a mistake: the two of us are the youngest, feeblest, and also probably most prone to complain overzealously at the slightest bit of seemingly unexpected responsibility. The park ranger who sold us our grounds ticket mentioned vaguely that the firewood pile was near site 5; when we asked our cousins which direction that might be in, they gestured vaguely towards the forest and the route we entered through. This boded well.
The walk to find the firewood was circuitous but mostly easy to navigate, however the firewood site was a half-hour from our campsite. We enjoyed the slow sunset over the trembling aspens, but we realized: we were to carry this back over the same walk. Knowing our cousins, we were absolutely positive that we could have erected our own wood-truck and brought back an acre of wood, and they would still be disappointed. “That’s it?” they would surely say. We began picking at logs, soaked from a recent storm. I filled my arms with logs, and Brianna dragged as many sticks and piles of tinder she could manage.
Proving us presumptuous ingrates, our cousins greeted us pleasantly and accepted our wood-pile with aplomb, further mentioning that we were gone so long they were going to come looking for us. Soon all was forgotten, as we roasted food over the fire, camped under the stars, and soaked ourselves in the beguiling stench of woodsmoke.
The next day was to have even less driving, more scenery absorption, and an arrival at our western-most destination. And, very possibly, no collecting firewood!