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Icons of Our Roads

Posted on May 17, 2016 by Maple Creek

The Story Pool by Madonna Hamel

Yesterday the potholes on Centre Street were filled, leaving a shiny black ink spot on an otherwise dusty road. No more driving like a drunk monkey stung by a bee. No more wide berths around the road and up along the sidewalk, which involves dodging the big trucks parked in front of the store and the bar. While the holes served as natural speed bumps; the rollercoaster nature of the main street was so bad that even at 10km you would lose spare change from your pockets.
To pave or not to pave, that is the question. Sometimes all that is required is regular upkeep; a grader can just fill puddles with a bit of gravel and call it a day. And in some cases, the best route is along grasses flattened by truck, deer and wanderers. Tamper with a road or a trail too much and you get down to the goo and quicksand of ‘gumbo’. And if you happen to be walking it in after a recent rain, you can return home three inches taller than you were when you left.
However, if you’re a highway leading into a national park, it behooves someone to keep the road navigable. My first year here, Highway 4 was so bad that it was all people spoke about. It’s our only way in or out, unless you take 18. But then that’s just really a matter of choosing your weapon of destruction. One year, Robert Ducan, the mayor at the time, got the attention of the province by staging a performance piece of sorts, be-knighting a paving crew from his own village and getting ‘er done, one pothole at a time. It worked well enough to get a TV crew down, and the roads were spiffed up for the season. Only to reveal sinkholes again the following year.
A resident once told me that the last police officer down here said he choose who to pull over by the way they drove: all over the road meant you had your wits about you, dodging major drop-offs and upheavals. In a straight line meant you’d obviously been drinking. My first experience of number four was to wonder if I’d somehow gotten lost leaving the TransCan as ‘this thing seems to just be tapering off….”
I hoped I was wrong, though, because the deeper into country I got, the more thrilled I became. After Cadillac, it’s an adventure, a beautiful, breathtaking, stunning, portrait of a country too few Canadians have experienced.
In 1996 the planet shifted from a primarily rural demographic to an one, wrote Barbara Kingsolver, a writer determined to keep us abreast of the plants and animals beyond the safe fringes of suburbia,(a place too often reviled but with inhabitants still eager to live among trees and birds!) That same year 1996 I began battling against the wave of city-bound young professionals, even if just on weekends and days off from my writer-broadcaster job. Days on I would beg for the gigs “in the field” and shape a story around events taking place off tiny dirt roads in the hills or the woods or on the sea cliffs of Quebec.
What I miss most about Quebec are the bells. They ring their lauds, complines and vespers, still. And the best thing about the villages of Quebec, after the people, is that you can see the church steeples of the little white churches from miles away. In the cities the banks and corporate kings have overtaken the church steeples in their mad race to ascendency. But, in the villages, the churches are reminders that not everything is about commerce, that morals still matter even when money talks louder.
I met Laurent Fortin around that same time. In his late seventies, Laurent was a wood carver, birdhouse builder and Adirondack chair maker, living along the St. Lawrence River in St. Jean-Port-Jolie, at the inland tip of the Gaspe Peninsula. Laurent was a true artist. His works were often part of the outdoor sculpture festival that happens every year along the shores of Fleuve St. Laurent. His houses and chairs are elaborate curlicued originals and, if I’d actually slowed down and stayed put, I’d probably have learned how to build a chair in which to sit and muse. As it was, I watched Laurent work from the stoop attached to the cabin he built for poor artists who, for five dollars a night and a bottle of wine, could escape the noise and pace of the city. Laurent worked quietly and always at a distance. What wood he didn’t use he piled into a heap and said: Feel free to build a fire if you like.
I built many fires. I walked the beach dozens of times, even slept on it, one hot summer, the same summer I made a vow I’d move to a village. If not this one, some small enclave of people not interested or impressed by credentials, awards, and degrees. Then, I continued on my life`s trajectory, driving thousands of miles all over Canada and United States. Once, my American beau, another road dog, and I drove Route 66, some of it in bits and pieces, all of it a thrill, demanding constant attention to the hand drawn maps of Jerry McClanahan, and authored by Jim Ross, both highway historians from the territory.
Our final destination was Tulsa and the Route 66 convention where, as the Canadian rep for the Route 66 Federation, I interviewed some of the most eccentric, passionate, ebullient storytellers in the world. There’s nothing quite like talking to a big man with his shirt off, showing me the various Route 66 icons tattooed all over his body. Or to Johnny Neon, dedicated to preserving and restoring all the neon signs along the route. One of his favourite things to do was get a beer and a lawn chair and sit on the side of the highway in his hometown in New Mexico and “just watch as the lights take over as the sun sets.”
Perhaps the most enlightening were the Strickland sisters who wrote a book about The Mother Road, the name given the road because it was the first highway across the States, the mother of all roads. The Stricklands lived the life of the Okies, written about by John Steinbeck in Grapes of Wrath, originally titled The Mother Road, by the way. Their jalopy contained beds for all the family, a travelling show including a monkey, and even the kitchen sink. The sisters wrote their book to set the record straight about a few of the romanticized and demonized characters in Steinbeck`s book.
Then there was the former owner of the Bluebird Motel who willingly woke a couple and asked if they might move to allow a woman and her daughter to stay in their room. The woman, you see, had gone into labour with her daughter in that very room, nineteen years ago. The couple obliged. The Route will do that to you. It will also find you holding your breath as you round the next corner, anticipating the sight of a Route icon. Because, the upside of the American predilection for packaging and PR is that the historians among them know a beautiful artifact when they see one! Americans spend more money than we do on turning their highways and bi ways into historic paths, protecting them from total extinction. And this year being the ninetieth anniversary of Route 66, the funds will be flowing. My own sought- after icon was the Blue Whale of Catoosa, a huge, smiling, concrete whale painted bright blue, bathing in the middle of a pond. The pond is pretty slimy now and apparently full of snakes, but the whale still smiles over it, as happy as it was the day it was presented as one man`s anniversary gift to his wife.
Ross writes, on the back of the maps: “Today Route 66 is an ill-defined brew of fragments and access roads and highways. Yet almost all of it is remains to be driven, enjoyed, and experienced. And despite some deteriorating roadbed and decaying ruins…even the bureaucracy that initially laid it to waste are now working to save it.” Well, Highway 4 has its own icons and historic sites, it’s own “neglected and ill-defined brew” of haunted habitats and native species: the Great Divide, the tipi rings on either side, the dens and nests of wary critters, the little white Lutheran Church with the wedding bows still tied to the pews, Beaverdale Cemetery, and, above all, quite literally, the grain elevators. There`s the red one on the edge of Cadillac. And then there`s the one at the foot of bumpy ol` main street here in in Val Marie. It stands silent and sentinel, like the quiet head of the table. It guides me in, like the little churches of Quebec or the giant banks of Toronto, and it reminds me of a time when trains and grains brought homesteaders out west, for good or ill. And they stayed.
Madonna was a CBC writer-broadcaster for a couple decades and won awards for music documentaries. She lives in Val Marie, working on a book and continues singing and songwriting. For comments you can reach Madonna at madonna hamel@hotmail.com

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