Ottowa? I hardly knowa.

“I’ve lived here my whole life,” said the teenager behind the counter at one of the many quaint eateries along the locks of Sault Ste Marie, “and I’ve only been to Canada five times.” The five or so members of the restaurant staff were all high-school age, and were quite baffled and excited by our request to take coffee to go (there were plenty of old-timey ice cream shops and bakeries touting their fudge, and the only promise of a cup o’ joe was an abandoned storefront teasing us with a giant sign that read, “KOFFEE”).

Once it was indeed confirmed that we could, in fact, get coffee to go (encouraged by a plea that the coffee at the hotel had been scarce and unsatisfactory), the group huddled together behind the counter and ogled us, as the tourist lunch rush hadn’t hit and we were surely the most interesting thing that had happened all morning. We were on our way to Canada, and we were ensured by the kids who had been across the border that it was quite nice for a vacation. We didn’t let on that our destination was something more than just a touristy vacay.

We were, however, required to fess up to border control – and our confessor a plump and curt official jammed in a tiny metal booth. She inquired of our business in Canada – transit to Maine – and then of our business there. Barbara pointed to the backseat, “They’re hiking the Appalachian Trail!”

“And you’re going to watch?” the official squawked, her perhaps unintentionally humorous remark meant to catch any fibbers off guard. Barbara surmised that she and Alan might watch us for a moment, but mostly they were serving as our chauffeurs (for which Milam and I are quite thankful – the other options were train or plane, and at great expense). “Hm,” the official considered Barbara’s comments, and in her pause I thought she was questioning the integrity of our plans. “I’d rather do it than watch.”

We were in.

Our route through Canada is, in a word, scenic. And not just by way of its  picturesque landscape of rolling hills of pine and rock, but in the residential areas as well – the architecture here in rural  Western Ontario reminds me of parts of Memphis, in the way that everything seems to have been built in (or in the style of) the 1950s and was never changed (and, maybe, never cleaned). It all has that tinge of being lived-in for 60+ years, like the grungy lung of an old-lady smoker, the ones who have been behind the counters under the neon EAT AT JOES sign all this time, the towns like the waitress both becoming a little more out of breath as the years go on. But under the grunge is some serious charm and history, and I find these towns much more interesting than the more developed areas. I wonder if that high-schooler in Sault Ste Marie will ever live anywhere else.

The towns are in such stark contrast to the landscape, which is something I appreciate. The sky is clear, the water is vividly blue – birds are everywhere, and a few red cranes were spotted. (I’m realizing I need to develop a broader vocabulary for describing nature…). For a while we were in an area primarily populated by people of the First Nation (at the moment, I’m not quite sure how to describe it – Native Canadians?), and the foyers of every gas station at which we stopped in this area were covered in literature and petitioning against GMOs and pesticides – and this doesn’t seem to be specifically the opinion of this demographic, but the wider populations as well. Canada seems pretty chill.

The luckiest moment of the day was when we stopped at the only possible stop for miles to rest and refuel – a gas station attached to the Mamaweswen Northshore Tribal Council. We had been somewhat apprehensive to stop there, as there was a large gathering of folks outside the main building, but our route is seriously rural so we gave it a go. Turns out we pulled off just in time to see the passing of the Toronto 2015 Olympic Torch, carried by what I presumed to be an important (if not just an elder) member of the tribe. The ceremony was accompanied by drums and singing – it was quite moving, actually. And humorous, as we weren’t the only bystanders to accidentally stumble upon this momentous occasion, though we were certainly the most amused by it.

We’re hoping to get to Ottowa in enough time that we can continue onto Montreal, which would be an ideal checkpoint in order to get to Baxter State Park at a reasonable time tomorrow. The weather is supposed to be great on Thursday and absolutely crummy on Friday, so we’ll need to summit the morning after our arrival. We’re still in a limbo of being so close and yet still not hiking…

It is exciting to be nearing Montreal, though. The signs along our route have been in both French and English, and as some of our party know (or know some) French, they have been the subject of small discussions in our vehicle. The candor of the sign text is very different than American signage, which is pretty much straight-to-the-point. Canadian signage has this softly implied (I would say subtextual) encouragement: Don’t be a dick. But they do say it in such a nice way, and the signs are this great shade of royal blue with a mustard yellow border. Maybe it calms road rage.

Pretty soon the only signs we’ll have will be painted white blazes on the trees of the Appalachian Trail.


[for more on our adventures, click the menu icon on the top right of this post]


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