In Praise of Older Highways

January 29, 2007 by  
Filed under Destinations

***

Vacations are a popular topic of discussion among Canadians,
whether it’s due to the long winters, the humid summers, or the simple desire
to get away from it all. Some people, when imaging their ideal vacations,
conjure up images of sunny beaches, tropical islands, and other relaxing
environs. Others might prefer cultural landmarks, major international
metropolises, or destinations of historical importance. I prefer highways.

In a time where the automobile is rightly viewed either as a
necessary means of transportation or a quite unnecessary evil that pollutes and
diverts resources better spent on public transit, this probably doesn’t make
much sense. They are sentiments more at home in the 1950s and 1960s, when
society was still in love with the car and, in many cases, people were quite in
love with them too. I’m not a big car lover either, to tell you the truth, but
I’d still take a day on the highway over one at the beach any day.

I’m not talking about the 401 or the Queen
Elizabeth Way, mind you. I’m not even referring to
the Autobahn, although I wouldn’t mind paying it a visit one day soon. I’m
talking about the two-lane highways, most of which were built in the early to
mid 20th century, that today serve to connect small towns with other
smaller towns but which, in their day, were the only way to get between big
cities. Most of these have been rendered obsolete by their larger cousins,
those numbingly impersonal superhighways that are differentiated only by the
number of lanes they feature and the speeds that they permit. That irrelevance,
however, is what makes them so interesting.

These old highways are, first and foremost, a compelling
history lesson. If anyone doubts that small town life in Canada
is dying they only need to visit any of the small towns that are connected by
an old highway. Most of these clearly enjoyed better days, with humble
residential districts and quaint downtowns that have been boarded up, closed
down, and in some cases wiped right off the map. The influence of the car is
unavoidable, too, as the most common sight along the side of these highways is
the defunct gas station, which actually outnumber functioning ones by a
substantial margin. Hubcap stores, another anomaly of a bygone age that you can
only find on the sides of these highways, add yet more texture to this mosaic.

Motels, not franchised ones like Super 8 and Comfort but
genuine, Psycho-quality motels like the Pond Motel in Carleton Place that is
literally a low-rise and gravel parking lot planted next to a swampy, grey
pond, theoretically offer respite for you and your fellow travelers. Defunct
rail-yards, empty commercial plazas, and curiously prosperous bingo halls with
information billboards like the one in Norwood that reads “Norwood loves you, Glenda” round out a landscape that, for a city
dweller like myself, is as foreign as the moon itself.

Like the moon, these highways can be a dangerous and
forbidding landscape. On superhighways like the 401, if you fall asleep at the
wheel you’re gently reminded of the task at hand – driving – by the dull
shuddering produced when your wheels cross the grooves that line the sides of
all major highways. On small highways, falling asleep at the wheel is often a
death sentence, and for that reason it happens much less frequently. The roads
are also far less linear, a result of the fact that when they were built their
engineers couldn’t blast their way through the landscape as they do today.
Instead, they’re defined by the shape of the land they traverse, by its twists
and turns, its gentle inclines and declines, that together making driving a
more challenging, more dangerous, but also eminently more enjoyable experience.

But the best part of these roads, aside from their
ever-changing pitch and the seedy motels and roadside hubcap stores
that frame
them, is their inescapably social character. That probably sounds like
an odd
way to describe a road, not unlike describing a cat as tall or a house
as
friendly, but it makes perfect sense once you’ve driven one of these old highways. On major
highways,
driving has been deliberately re-cast as a purely mechanistic
operation, an
exercise in getting from point A to point B. On an old highway, on the
other
hand, driving is a team sport. The police, of course, are the other
team, and
these old highways encourage a kind of fraternal co-operation that
would make an elementary school teacher proud. It is common for drivers
to reach an unspoken agreement
to share the burden of leading the pack, which exposes the lead car to
the
dangers of a speed trap or a police car laying in wait. This risk is, however,
mitigated by the requirement, observed by virtually every car on these
older
highways, to flash oncoming drivers with your high-beams as a friendly
warning
that a cop is ahead. I’ve tried doing this on major highways and have
received
nothing but puzzled looks and, occasionally, honks of frustration from
drivers
who must think I’m trying to blind them.

My favourite old highways in Canada,
for what it’s worth, are the Crow’s Nest Highway linking Hope and Penticton
in British Columbia and Highway 7
connecting Ottawa and Peterborough
in Ontario. The Crow’s Nest,
which was rendered obsolete by the infamous Coquihalla toll highway, clings to
the side of the Pacific Coast mountains as it winds up and down through snowy
passes, alongside creeks, and through mining towns, anchored centrally by – for
my family, at least – the Mr. Frosty restaurant in Princeton. The last time I
drove the Crow’s Nest, I was crestfallen to see that the Mr. Frosty had been
replaced by an antique store, driven out of business by the Tastee Freeze
franchise that had been planted across the street, and I’ve made a point of
taking the Coquihalla, as dull and impersonal as it is, every since. In Ontario,
I recently discovered Highway 7 after years of taking the 401 from Ottawa
to Toronto, and unless I find
myself in the middle of a blizzard I’ll never the seven’s big brother again. It
is, in the truest sense of the term, a pleasant Sunday drive, even if it takes
an extra hour or two. If anything, that’s part of the fun.

Cars are rapidly becoming the cigarettes of the 21st
century, a socially and culturally stigmatized product whose users must pay a
variety of financial and social penalties. While drivers haven’t had to face the kind of overzealous social bullying
that smokers have been subjected to in North America in
the past few years, their day in that unpleasant spotlight is rapidly approaching. This is
to the good, I think, if only because it’s clear that cars have played a major
role in global warming, a threat far more lethal than second-hand smoke could
ever be. The downside is that, like my beloved Crow’s Nest Highway, the small
highways that crisscross our country are about to disappear, whether as a
result of purposeful planning or through simple neglect. They are both
monuments to our past, when drivers shared a social bond and the term road rage
didn’t exist, and museums of alternately endearing and appalling small town
eccentricities. Get out there and enjoy them before it’s too late.

 

Toronto, January 29th, 2007 – 1,128 w.

 

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Max Fawcett is the former editor of the Chetwynd Echo, a weekly newspaper in the small northern town of Chetwynd, B.C. He currently lives in Edmonton, and works as the managing editor of Alberta Venture Magazine.