Framed by the windows of the Prince of Wales Hotel in Alberta, the Canadian Rockies rose dramatically from the dark blue waters of Upper Lake Waterton. As if on cue, a deer delicately stepped into this living postcard.
"Isn't this view too much to be believed?" I wanted to say to someone. Instead, nearing the end of a two-week solo road trip across Canada, I pulled out my camera and took a picture.
Companionship was the least of my concerns when I began my 3,628-mile drive to move from New England to the Pacific Northwest by way of Canada. Oil prices were at a record high, and the cost of gasoline in Canada averaged 20 percent more than in the States. "If that's where you're going," a Canadian train agent said, "you'll need a pickup truck and a spare can of gas." I was driving a 1999 Saab without an inch to spare for a gas can.
Looking at the map, it was clear what he meant. Canada is the world's second-largest country with a population of more than 33 million, the majority of whom live within 100 miles of the US border. On the map, Canada suddenly seemed remote. I started a list of concerns: running out of gas, being stranded without cellphone coverage, and stumbling into trouble.
To offset my worries I had two rules: Fill the tank at the halfway mark and never drive after dusk. What I didn't anticipate was the sense of security I would feel. Canadians were exceedingly considerate. Wherever I stayed, my room was clean, even immaculate. Drivers were civil. And despite being warned about sleep-inducing stretches of the Trans-Canada Highway, the long drive was rarely dull.
Beginning in Providence, I stayed the first night in Burlington, Vt., and drove the next day to the Canadian capital, Ottawa, by way of Montreal. Ottawa, a clean, diverse, and walkable city, sits on the southern bank of the Ottawa River, the border between Ontario and Quebec.
Parliament Hill, the seat of government, provides one of the best views in the city. A free tour of Parliament's Gothic Revival buildings focused on the country's political history. Ottawa was chosen as the capital, one story goes, to be far enough from the reach of the country's ambitious US neighbors.
That night, I got as far as Deep River, Ontario, a small town built as part of the Manhattan Project in the 1940s, and checked into a roadside motel, an adequate room with few amenities. The no vacancy sign went up after I registered. Canada, they say, has two seasons - winter and construction. For a traveler, that can mean that local lodging is scarce even in rural areas. It's prudent to reserve a room whenever possible.
Unfortunately, since I wasn't sure how far I would get each day, I rarely made advance reservations. Arriving in Sudbury on the third day, I landed in a nondescript, expensive chain hotel. My luck changed when I happened into Stella's Café where I ordered from a menu of home-cooked food - a delicious bowl of seafood chowder and cherry pie made from scratch.
Driving toward Sault Ste. Marie the next day, I heard a radio interview with a local teacher, Jose "The Polar Bear" Plante, who would compete in the 2008 Ontario Strongest Man Competition in Wawa. To get in shape, he said, he lifted steel logs and cement balls. This I had to see.
I drove to Wawa the next day and found the high school where the contest was being held. I heard it before I saw it - alarming crashes as contestants carrying 275-pound cement blocks, one in each hand, waddled down the length of the rink, dropping them like stones. I winced. The 800-pound tire flip was next, rubber tires so awkward and heavy that it took five men to lift one and return it to the starting line. (Plante took first place.)
Later I drove along the main street, stopping at Mona's Kitchen, a takeout restaurant. In the spirit of trying new things, I ordered poutine, fresh cut French fries and cheese curds covered with hot brown gravy. Wow. Afterward, I stood in the rain, thrilled at having found not only great local entertainment but a delicious meal.
What was I thinking, I mused 30 minutes later, engulfed in a fog so thick, I could hardly see the road. I began to wonder why I ever thought traveling solo was a good idea. There were no other cars on the two-lane road, only trucks looming out of the fog. It was getting late. I crept along for nearly an hour. My cellphone didn't work. The radio registered static.
Suddenly, as fast as it had come the fog lifted. There was Lake Superior and the lovely Rossport Inn. I opted for a tiny one-room cabin with polished wooden floors and a quilt-covered double bed. After a delicious meal in the dining room, I took a piece of wild blueberry pie back to my cabin. The cotton curtains fluttered in the lake breeze, and I fell asleep, comforted by the safety of the place.
The next morning I stopped at Eagle Canyon, with what was billed as the longest pedestrian suspension footbridge in Canada, and later, at the roaring amber-colored Kakabeka Falls, which plunged more than 130 feet into a gorge. According to legend an Indian princess lured enemy warriors over the falls to their deaths and her spirit appears as a rainbow in the mist.
I drove until I was famished, stopping in Ignace, population 1,400, to eat at a combination Greyhound bus stop, motel, restaurant, and a Wi-Fi lobby. The waitress greeted me warmly as I sat down and ordered a strong cup of coffee. "Try the rainbow salad," she encouraged as I pondered the salad bar, "it's good for you," and went on to list low-fat sour cream, low-fat marshmallows, and low-fat coconut. I wondered what part of that salad was good for me as I dug in. That night, road-weary and overdosed on scenery, I stayed in an old lodge in the quiet, almost ghostly town of Dryden, across the river from a paper mill.
Crossing the border on Highway 17 from Ontario to Manitoba on Day 8, the two-lane road became Highway 1, the Trans-Canada Highway, a four-lane divided highway of big sky and straight, flat roads. The radio reported that a cow had gone missing and a truck carrying 12 million honeybees had flipped over in New Brunswick. At Winnipeg, I stopped in St. Boniface, the earliest French settlement in western Canada, and visited Le Musee de Saint-Boniface, the former convent of the Grey Nuns who traveled by canoe from Montreal to Winnipeg to set up an orphanage and hospital, a journey that took 56 days. Their story put my adventure in perspective.
I continued on to Regina, a part of Canada that I had been warned about - monotonous highways, unimaginative landscapes. What I found instead were acres of bright yellow canola fields under blue skies. I visited the Royal Saskatchewan Museum to see the First Nations exhibit, with its engaging historical and contemporary stories about aboriginal people, and the hand-painted dioramas portraying the diverse landscapes of Saskatchewan. As I left for Moose Jaw and the southern Saskatchewan prairie, cannons boomed in celebration of Canada Day.
My goal was to reach the Rosefield Church Guesthouse and Grasslands National Park. My hosts encouraged me to take the back roads, so I left the highway and drove narrow two-lane roads toward Val Marie. The rural roads were beautiful, in part because of their isolation. But as it got later I grew uneasy. Gas stations were scarce and frequently closed. My cellphone had no reception. The roads became a poorly graded sea of gravel that grabbed at the car wheels. Still, when I arrived, several hours late, dinner was waiting. I stayed for two luxurious nights. I wished I could have stayed for a month.
On Day 11, I stuck to rural roads and stopped in Lethbridge for the night. I visited the Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump Interpretive Centre. Built into the side of a cliff, the building extends upward for five stories and leads visitors to the jump where tribes stampeded buffalo off the side of the cliff. From this vantage point, a line of wind turbines stands on the horizon, near where the Canadian Rockies begin. Warm winds were pushing a storm north, and long cracks of lightning hung in the dark sky and disappeared. I pointed my car west, toward the Rockies and majestic Waterton Lakes National Park, which shares a border with Glacier National Park and is said to be one of the best-kept secrets of Canada.
By Day 13, weary of the drive, I planned to push through British Columbia until I tired and finish my trip the next day. But I continued into Washington State and headed for home, happy to be back where fir trees and the Columbia River were so familiar they didn't require a second glance.
Jackleen de La Harpe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.