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Cross-Continent Mid-Winter Road Trip

Author: Margot MacPherson Brewer
Date of Trip: December 2013

Visions of impenetrable blizzards, a dead battery stranding us on the roadside, freezing temperatures, boredom and the sheer distance of driving from Calgary, Alberta to Fredericton, New Brunswick in the dead of winter (almost 7000 kilometres round trip or 4328 miles) almost stopped our winter road trip before it started. Cold. When we first talked about driving through the USA to Canada’s East Coast for Christmas 2013, my adult daughter and I weren’t all that sure it was a good idea. But ultimately our concerns didn’t stop us and that – like the road less travelled – made all the difference.

After a day or two of car prep in Calgary (changing oil and tires and a wonky CD player), we left Calgary in the middle of an afternoon snowstorm heading south towards the USA. The first night in tiny Shelby, Montana we enjoyed what only a small town in the middle of a winter snowstorm could likely offer: a private 7:00 PM showing of The Hunger Games in the mid-20th century Roxy Theatre. Not only did we have the theatre completely to ourselves, there was free popcorn (every Tuesday night!) in the bargain. We picked up the pace on the second day and arrived in Mitchell, South Dakota around suppertime.

A flyer on the counter at the Thunderbird Lodge offered a massage package for hunters who wanted to de-stress after a long day in the duck blinds. Owner Matt Culhane could hardly contain his enthusiasm over a recent budget approval for renovations to the Corn Palace. The Corn Palace is a multi-purpose structure built as a tribute to the agricultural heritage of South Dakota and hosts stage shows and other regional events. Night Three was spent in Wauseon, OH on the eve of a menacing snowstorm drifting in from the East. While the cozy motel room tempted us to settle in while the storm passed, we were on deadline so headed out the next morning. We were soon grateful for pre-planning. Our SUV had four wheel drive and new winter tires. There was a 68 pound bag of sand in the trunk along with a winter emergency kit that contained – among other things – booster cables, tow rope, flares, candles, hand warmers, drinking water, Lara bars, extra winter clothes and a roadside emergency triangle. Knowing we could face almost anything winter might throw at us was a comfort and the extra weight of the sand may have kept us from sliding into the ditch. We passed nine tractor trailers and seven vehicles that had slid off the road and landed gently in various snow banks along the highway before our next motel pit stop. Seeking shelter from the tail end of the storm, our little SUV was dwarfed in the hotel parking lot in Barkeyville, PA among dozens of transport trucks.

The two of us spelled each other off on driving, stopped for regular coffee, snack and bathroom breaks and were struck by the distinct character and geography of each state we passed through. Rugged and mountainous Montana. Flat land with big skies in South Dakota. Rolling hills in Iowa and Minnesota. And driving into the Eastern States after Pennsylvania, an endless variety of deciduous trees were constants along the roadside. The boredom we feared was relieved by a wide-ranging assortment of CD audio books we had taken out from the local library. We either broadened our minds with audio books such as Jill Bolte Taylor’s excellent My Stroke of Genius or sang along with a variety of complicated and evocative songs on Fiona Apple’s Idler Wheel album. After stopping for a few days to visit friends in and around New York City and New Jersey, we braced ourselves for the final leg of our road trip across New England and back into Canada. We thought it would take only a day and we made great time until we hit Bangor and the third snowstorm of our trip. So we checked into a hotel for the night, ordered in Italian food and made it to Fredericton the next morning just in time to check out the famous Boyce Farmer’s Market – the last market before Christmas.

With our planned four-day stop in NYC, the journey had taken ten and a half days to get us from Calgary to Fredericton. With gas and hotels, the cost was equivalent to two round trip holiday priced air tickets from one destination to another. A bonus was having the car to drive in our destination city with no elevated holiday rental charges or iffy availability. And there was important mother-daughter hanging out time, too. For almost the entire journey – with the exception of the snowstorm in Ohio and a couple of hours leaving and driving back into Canada – the highways were as clear and drivable as in spring. We made fairly good driving time of around 12 hours every day and usually pulled off for the night around 6:30 PM. Not only was it completely dark by 6:30 PM, the sun started to set between 3 and 4 PM every day. A summer road trip definitely might have made for a faster trip and been a little less daunting weather-wise. But, carefully prepared and outfitted, we learned that a cross-continent mid-winter road trip is a huge adventure, eminently doable, and a significant family memory to have made.

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