Driving is one of the few simple pleasures I have in life. Nothing pleases me more than just hopping behind the wheel and going where the wind takes me. I never feel more joy than when I get back in the car after filling up with gas, and watching that little needle rise from “E” to “F.” It’s a feeling of power. The power to just go anywhere you desire. Just give me clear skies, an open road, and a full tank of gas. I was kind of looking forward to the journey ahead of me, then. My father had been organizing this family reunion out by Lloydminster, and I felt I should go to help out. My parents had headed out the day before to start setting up, so now I was going out to the camp to hook-up with them. The weather report from the night before, and a quick trip to the 7-11 close to work, had given me everything I needed to head out bright and early on Saturday morning: clear skies, an open road, and a full tank of gas.
I awoke on Saturday at 7am, with the intention of being on the road by 8. But, in the true traveler fashion, I wasn’t exactly on schedule. It took me longer to pack than expected. I was caught up in too many articles in the morning paper. As I was getting dressed, I was hit by a disturbing thought. “Dude,” I said to myself. “Today is your birthday. Just take a moment.” Yes, I was heading out on my birthday. I don’t know if it was because I was focused on this trip, or just the stresses from work, but I hadn’t gotten as moody and introspective on this July 7 as I had in the past few years. I took exactly that, a moment, to acknowledge the fact that I was now 24. I then continued to get dressed. My traveling outfit consisted of my nifty Darth Maul shorts and my Decepticon logo T-shirt. I made sure the cat was in the house, locked the cat in, and started the car. It was 9am.
My route was simple. Straight east on the Yellowhead highway until I hit the town of Kitscoty. From there, it was north on Secondary Highway 893 to the campground. One of the greatest joys of driving by yourself is you choose the music. To accompany me on this route, I had selected my greatest collection of traveling tapes. It was going to be country I hadn’t seen in ages, with the best assemblage of car music ever. As I left Entwistle and hit the Yellowhead, I popped in Space: The Imagination Compilation. My voyage began with the main theme from Star Wars.
The stretch of the Yellowhead from Entwistle to Edmonton is the most boring stretch to me. I had been driving it into the city since I was in diapers. I have ridden over it so many times, that I could probably do it in my sleep. The landmarks sit there, some built 20 years ago, some recently put up. I can anticipate their appearance on the highway, and time how long my trip is taking them. It’s a checklist of the familiar. The Magnolia Trestle. The Town of Gainford. The Seba Beach overpass. The Wabamun power plant and coal mine. Kim’s #1 Gas Station. Cougar Creek Golf Course. All where they have been for as long as I can remember.
Since I had left without breakfast, I had decided to stop in Spruce Grove for one of my coveted Egg McMuffins. My watch said quarter to 10. Normally, I’m a slave to the clock, but not so much today. That was good, because the line in McDonald’s was phenomenal. Only two cash registers open, and a line of 10 people at each one. Whenever I see lines like this, I think one thought. “You stood in line for 4 hours for Episode I tickets. This is nothing.” And so I waited. After about 15 minutes, I ordered my Egg McMuffin. I sat at my table and proceeded to have breakfast. As I looked around at the deserted dining area (most people get breakfast to go, apparently), I couldn’t help but chuckle to myself. I always wanted to have my birthday at McDonald’s. With a full stomach, it was time to hit the road again. Stopping in Spruce Grove meant detouring down Highway 16A, the Parkland Highway. It would take me 5 minutes to get back on the Yellowhead. Not a problem.
On the Yellowhead, it only takes you about 10 minutes to get from the Spruce Grove overpass to Edmonton. When you go through Edmonton on the Yellowhead, you are suddenly transported from a lovely rural highway to a big city freeway. When you first enter the city from the west end, I am sort of enraptured by the industrial beauty of it all. Rising like a monolith is the Inland Cement Plant, marking the western border of the CN Rail Yard. For the first half of your trip through Edmonton, that rail yard is right next to the freeway. As I child, I was often captivated by the sheer volume of locomotives and rolling stock. Now, an alleged grown-up, it still makes me smile. While heading east, that rail yard is on your left until you start getting to the City Center Airport. Then, you’ve got railroads on your left, and runways on your right. It’s all rather beautiful. But, you pass the airport, the road takes a turn, and then you are in one of the ugliest parts of Edmonton. For the rest of you drive through the city, you will see nothing but abandoned factories and run down industrial shops to your left. On your right is this big brown wall, keeping the residential areas safe from the constant noise pollution of the road and eyesores across the road. It soon just ends. The railroad starts following you on your left hand side again. You cross the North Saskatchewan River. And you’re out of the city. Time for more travel music. I put in one of the greatest road trip tapes ever made: the soundtrack to the 1994 blockbuster, The Flintstones.
Shortly after you leave Edmonton, you drive through what I consider to be one of the greatest oddities of Western Canada: Elk Island National Park. I have often wondered what makes this tiny strip of prairie on the east end of Edmonton worthy of being a national park. The people I wonder aloud to tell me it’s because it is home to one of the largest free-roaming herds of buffalo. But, seeing as to how it’s the only completely fenced national park in the country, are they really free-roaming? The Yellowhead is an expressway through the park. There are no gates like you find on the Trans-Canada at Banff, or on the opposite end of the Yellowhead that goes through Jasper. The actual entrance is at an intersection, about halfway along the Yellowhead’s park stretch. I looked down the road into the park as I drove by it. Someday, I’m going to have to stop at this park and see why it’s so park-worthy. But not on this day. Before I left the park, I smiled at one of the greatest oddities. All these trademark Parks Canada brown signposts, and road signs in the brown and yellow colour scheme, but no mountains around them. The park was behind me, and once again, I was heading east.
After Elk Island, you soon become surrounded by nothing but acres and acres of farmland. As far as the eye can see in every direction, you are surrounded by farmland. For all the fuss made of our province’s oil and gas industry, it makes you realize just what a great deal of our economy must be farming. I just kept rolling past the golden fields of canola.
Soon, I found an oasis in this desert of cash crops: Vegreville. I thought to myself, “What better place to stop for a break than the world’s largest Easter Egg?” I pulled off the highway into Vegreville. I drove down main street, seeing the requisite Dairy Queen and A & W. Those seem to be the fast food places in towns that are still too small for a McDonald’s. I continued driving, wondering how much farther I’d have to go to get this egg. And then, it appeared to me on my right. That was a big egg. I parked the car, and walked with awe-filled reverence towards that glorious, huge majestic sphere. Yup, it’s an egg, alright. Apparently, they’ve been building up a bit of a town park around that egg. There’s a smaller, less grand monument to the town’s Ukranian community in the egg’s shadow, and an old CN caboose there. I whipped out my camera and took a few pictures for posterity. There was a large gathering of tourists there that day. Others were staring at the egg. Children laughed and played in its shadow. I was soon approached by another couple of tourists wanting me to take their picture beneath the egg. This was the third time in my life that tourists have given me their camera and asked that I take their picture. I must have a non-threatening face or something. Feeling thirsty, I headed off to the information booth/gift shop/concession to get a drink.
In the gift shop, I proceeded to look over the various souvenirs. I chose a requisite postcard of the egg for my collection. I went over to the cooler and got myself a Pepsi. As I was looking for a snow globe with the giant egg in it (as featured on an episode of The X-Files), I noticed this elderly couple on the phone. By the worried look on the clerk’s face, I could tell that they had been on it for a while, and that they were making a lot of long-distance calls. The couple started talking loudly, and I couldn’t help but overhear them. They kept repeating one thing over and over that caught my attention: Seba Beach. Hearing the name of the place of my high school this far east had piqued my curiosity. I walked up to them and said, “I don’t mean to intrude, but I couldn’t help but overhear that you’re looking for someone in Seba Beach. I’m from that area. Is there anything I can do to help?” It turned out they were looking for a guy named “Getson” or something like that. I’d never heard the name. They told me a little more about this person. They said something about how he runs the boat launch. I suggested they try the village office, but then remembered it was closed on Saturdays. Then, the wife mentioned how he ran the hamburger stand on the beach. That clicked something in my mind. I said, “The hamburger stand on the beach? Why, they tore that down 10 years ago and built a big restaurant in its place called the Pier. That’s who you’d need to call.” So, they placed their call, and found out that this guy sold the hamburger stand 10 years ago, and retired to the smaller community of Alberta Beach. A quick call to directory assistance got them his number. Sadly, though, he wasn’t home. But now, he was found. As they went to the clerk to settle up their phone bill, I made a discrete exit. That’s the kind of exit I like to make; just slip out quietly after I’ve said my piece. I jumped in my car, put Star Trek: The Astral Symphony in the tape player, and continued east.
My journey continued with more farmland on either side of the highway. It tended to get boring after a while. I soon came over a hill and spotted the town of Innisfree. At the top of this hill was a massive Petro-Canada station and rest stop. It struck me as being kind of cool, and I made a mental note to check it out on my way home. I continued east. After another hour of driving, I soon started seeing the signs for Vermillion. I looked at the gas gauge. It was hovering just above the quarter-tank mark. Should I stop in Vermillion? From prior experience, I knew I could get about another 100 km or so out of that much gas. But I didn’t know how much farther Kitscoty was. Should I stop in Vermillion? I did a quick check of bodily functions. Stomach: full. Bladder: empty. Legs: not tired. Should I stop in Vermillion? No. With a new exhilaration, I drove under the Vermillion overpass and saw the sign saying Kitscoty was 40 km away. I could do that easy.
After 20 minutes on the road, I noticed an oddity about Kitscoty. It had a grain elevator. Grain elevators are fast becoming a rare sight on the prairies, so I took a moment to take it in. My gas gauge was now exactly on a quarter tank, and since I had no idea how far north I’d have to go to the campground, I thought I’d better stop for gas. Kitscoty is a one horse town, or in our modern talk, that would be a one gas station town. There was only one gas station with two pumps. The pumps were being blocked off by a big white van, but there were no signs saying it was closed or anything. I reasoned that the van belonged to a local named Clem, and he was probably inside talking to Jed about the weather. The van was parked in an awkward spot, and my attempts to drive around it or back in in front of it were only met with frustration. I glanced at the directions my father had given me to the campground, and saw that I had to drive through a town called Marwayne. I prayed that Marwayne had a gas station, and headed north. Since Marwayne was only 20 km up the road, I decided not to put in a new traveling tape. I was now too far from Edmonton for Power 92, so I tuned my radio to the local AM station, 1080 Lloydminster.
Luckily, Marwayne did have a gas station. Two pumps, no waiting. Now, armed with a full tank of gas, I continued north to the campground. It wasn’t that far from Marwayne, and I was treated to more views of farmland. As I pulled into the campground, It was around 2pm. It had taken me a full 5 hours to make this trip. I parked the car, and walked over to meet the parents.
Two days later, it was time to do it all over again on the drive home. How come the drive home is always so much quicker? Yes, I did stop at that Innisfree Petro-Canada, but for all of 5 minutes. I went straight past Vegreville, all the way through Edmonton, and it wasn’t until Spruce Grove that I felt I should stop for a break. After a supper at Wendy’s, I continued forth to Entwistle. None of the grand adventure from the drive out. Maybe it’s because, on the drive home, you have a much more worthy goal in mind: home. The promise of your own bed and the friendly greeting from a locked-in pet just urge you to get there all the faster.
They say that getting there is half the fun. Sometimes, it’s more like three quarters. But what if you’re going no where in particular? Is it possible that it can be all the fun? What’s that quote from The Lord Of The Rings? “The road is like a river. When you step onto it, it is very easy to get swept away.” Clear skies, an open road, and a full tank of gas. There’s nothing like it.