I was a cruising contradiction, racing down the highway with Manitoba plates and a surf board on the roof.
It had been three years since I'd left my prairie homeland. Since then I'd hung up my hockey skates in favour of a surf board, and although I couldn't remember the last decent perogy I'd eaten, I could now order a lattˇ in three languages. But lately I'd started feeling a gentle tug from the West, and I knew that it was time to go home.
It's a long drive from Montreal to Winnipeg, but not one without its quirks. I opted to take the U.S. route, around the bottom of Lake Michigan then back towards Manitoba from the south, and I wouldn't be disappointed by my choice. From the kitschy roadside billboards to the rustic one-pump gas stations, it's nearly 3,000 kilometres of undulating asphalt that make a Prairie boy surfer seem as regular as 35 grams of fibre a day.
Things start to get interesting around Windsor, Ont., Detroit's kid brother and longtime haven for restless American kids looking for cheap alcohol and legal lap dances. As I approach the city I'm greeted by a steady stream of teal-coloured Port-A-Potties lining the road at roughly one kilometre intervals. After passing by some of the roadside restaurants Windsor has on offer, I decide that they must be there for the emergency relief of unwary patrons of places like the Roadkill Cafe, or the tragically named seafood eatery, Crabby Dicks.
On the other side of the Ambassador Bridge I'm met at U.S. customs by a mountain of a border guard who speaks with an authoritarian American accent and shakes his head when I tell him I can't find my passport and therefore have no proof that I'm a Canadian citizen, as I meekly suggest.
Instead of hauling me down to the immigration office however, he chooses instead to give me his "Canadian test," which consists entirely of glaring at me with all the compassion of an army drill sergeant and demanding that I say "about." It was my first brush with the all-new, beefed-up American border security.
The I-94 from Detroit to Milwaukee is a blur of all-night truck stops and ultra right wing republicans rallying the nation for war on AM radio, and I ride a fine balance between a caffeine-induced high and a sleep-deprived haze.
The bright lights of Chicago's dramatic skyline snap me out of my dreamlike state, and the one-and-a-half litres of coffee I've consumed so far help me to remain alert until past Milwaukee, which I assume must be a real party town. For one thing, the whole place smells of beer. And if that's not your thing, just outside town a sign announces the exit to the Bong Recreation Area, where I imagine you may be able to relive your high school daze in a more authentic manner.
At a truck stop in Portage, Wis., I pick up a postcard depicting Wisconsin cheese being cut and salted by a couple of guys whose glassy stares suggested that they were no strangers to the aforementioned recreation area, before finally stopping for some shut-eye at a the next rest stop.
I sleep on the grass in the shadow of a picnic table that morning before being chased back to my cramped car by an early morning sprinkling of rain. Despite my contorted position in the driver's seat, I manage to sleep a full seven hours before being roused by the rumbling engine of a big rig.
After washing up in a surprisingly clean restroom, I'm sidetracked by a small newspaper box containing a modest stack of papers titled Wisconsin Singles News, the front page of which boldly advertises "18 Wheel Singles." I imagine page upon page of lonely women, each more of a man than I, and I'm tempted to pick up a copy. Just for laughs, honest. But I guess Cupid will have to wait, for I pass up the chance of romance and return faithfully to the beckoning highway.
I realize that it's going to take some time to re-accustom myself to rural life after three years in the big city. I'm startled by a billboard just outside of Freeport, Minn. that declares proudly, "We Do Cows," until I realize that it's just an ad for a local veterinary clinic. Later, at a gas station in Avon, Minn., two skinny white boys with belt buckles bigger than my head stare at me from where they stand beside a rusty blue pick-up. I quickly pay the cashier and speed out of town, with "Dueling Banjos" and scenes from Deliverance raging in my head. As I leave Minnesota and begin the home stretch up the I-29 through North Dakota the land begins to flatten out, and I'm surprised by the nostalgia that the increasingly familiar landscape evokes.
As Manitoba looms closer and closer in my mind I become less distracted by the tacky billboards, advertising places like Generous Gerry's Fireworks, where I suppose you get more bang for your buck, and Grand Forks' inviting C'Mon Inn.
At the border I contemplate cranking up the volume of my Stompin' Tom cassette when the customs agent asks for proof that I'm Canadian, but she never asks and I'm allowed back in without a hitch. No Canadian test, nothing.
North of the border the highway is rougher and the speed limit lower, but over my left shoulder the sky is awash in the vivid colours of a prairie sunset, and with Stompin' Tom crooning on about his Red River Jane, I'm blissfully heading home towards Portage Street and Main.
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