The joys of road trips

Fresh air, scenery, adventure ahead – life doesn’t get any better than this

(7 min read)

Since the idea for the Chaos Roads Trilogy began with my family’s annual road trips when my brother and I were children, it seemed fitting to write my first blog post on that subject.

I love road trips because they embrace and celebrate small towns and life that unfolds slowly. Road trips aren’t made in a hurry. They may have to fit a timeline, but for the duration they’re an exploration of the intimate details of The Road: picnics, small-town diners, gas stations, bathroom breaks, weird and/or awesome sights that are usually way off the tourism radar, and scenery that can’t be experienced from a high-speed sprint. You stop when you feel like it, whether it’s for a lunch break or a sign that’s caught your eye, and stay as long as you want.

Funky general store in a tiny town in northern Ontario

When I was five, our good family friends moved from Windsor to a farm in northern Ontario. We went to visit them once after that – a lengthy 11-hour drive begun in the wee hours of the morning. I don’t recall much of that first visit other than driving along the roller-coaster gravel road that branched off the Trans-Canada Highway toward a tiny community of farms in the old Parkinson-Grasett Township. We arrived after dark, and there was a thick low-lying fog that filled every dip, so that after cresting each rise my dad had to drive down into what looked like a bottomless white pit. I gave him a lot of points for courage!

When I was six, our family moved up there for a couple of years. My dad had a dream of running a pheasant-hunting farm, which didn’t turn out well, and just as I was turning eight we moved down to southern Ontario. But each summer, until I was in my mid-teens, my parents would pack our car with blankets, luggage, packets of sandwiches and a thermos of hot coffee, then wake my brother and I up (not that we’d been able to fall asleep anyway), pack us into the back seat, and hit the road.

For me, every trip was the ultimate excitement. I refused to go back to sleep once on the road – that would have meant missing something, even in the dark before dawn. My dad would be in a hurry to get past the tangled highways around Toronto before the morning rush hour began. Beyond that point, life was still extraordinarily rural, and apart from road repairs he could relax until we reached French River, our breakfast stop. The route north ran across the river, but just on the left on the south side of the bridge there was a lovely little picnic area.

Picnic areas were ubiquitous in those days. Nobody had much money since the war years, and everybody took road-trip vacations. It was a less-pretentious time when life was in the little details, not the big toys. At French River we’d sit for a while to refuel ourselves, stretch our legs, and take a potty break behind a convenient bush.

Recreation of a picnic breakfast with hubby at French River

North of French River the road ran between granite cliffs, which I still love to this day, and then the next big excitement was the approach to the city of Sudbury, which looked like a forest of industrial stacks belching smoke.

As we swung west across the top of Lake Huron, there would be signs offering smoked whitefish, and my parents would often stop to buy some to share with our friends. It was absolutely delicious. Finally, after many hours on the road, we’d pass our old farm, and then the one-room school my brother and I had attended, and then there would be the welcome sight of the lights shining from our friends’ farmhouse in the utter darkness of a northern night.

But all the way there, we’d pass dozens of turn-offs, heading off to parts unknown, and I’d always wish that we could explore those, see where they went, what it was like to arrive at a different destination, and what would happen along the way.

When I was fourteen I discovered the Lord of the Rings saga, and this passage captured my feelings about adventuring:

The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.

  The Fellowship of the Ring, Book I, Chapter 1

And then, a couple of years later I read a book that contains arguably the most intriguing road trip ever: Nine Princes in Amber, by Roger Zelazny. I wanted to see pink suns, stop by tanker trucks with ZUÑOCO in red lettering, and pay for Kentucki Fried Lizzard Partes with Drachae Regums. It was fodder for both my adventurous side and rather Goth teenage personality.

The Goth has become more mainstream over the years, and I’ve been able to explore many a road since then. I’ve never lost the joy of packing a few clothes good for getting in and out of the car, followed by the thrill of embarking on a new adventure.

Staying at the fantastic Elmhurst Inn in Ingersoll, Ontario

After several trips abroad with my hubby (to fantastic places like Egypt, Southeast Asia and Africa, don’t get me wrong), I’d forgotten how much I enjoyed road trips until the summer of 2008.

It was a summer of chronic migraines, which meant that I’d developed a new trigger. By the end of August, when I’d finally narrowed it down to soy (in any form), I was too exhausted to face the original plan of hubby and me: a trip to New York City. But I’d discovered that there is an actual town of Sleepy Hollow in upstate New York (from my favourite Halloween story), not to mention the opportunity for a pilgrimage to the area that provided so much atmosphere in one of my favourite novels, Ghostlight, by Marion Zimmer Bradley. So, we used travel points to book a hotel in Poughkeepsie (the most central location for our explorations,) then packed a couple of bags and hopped into the car in early October.

Bumper sticker spotted in parking lot of Sleepy Hollow Cemetery

What a grand trip that was! The drive was largely rural and the leaf colours were just starting to come into their glory. Sleepy Hollow Cemetery had just begun offering tours (it’s where a number of famous people are buried, including Washington Irving, the author of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow). We played a little golf, prowled around all the cool, well-preserved little towns along the Hudson River, visited the ‘summer cottages’ of New York City’s elite from the early 1900s, ate good food, did some fantastic Halloween-themed events.

Lyndhurst estate in Tarrytown, build by financier Jay Gould, used for one of the Dark Shadows movies

Looking back over the years, most of the trips my hubby and I have made could be classified as road trips, even if we fly to get to the vehicle of choice.

We’ve driven around England several times, down roads lined by hedgerows and cozy pubs; around most of Ireland; through Germany and Austria with my mum; across many states in the U.S. (all the way down to New Orleans once and then back through Alabama to do the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail); and all over both islands in New Zealand.

Driving through the land of volcanoes on North Island, New Zealand

There’s simply nothing to beat the freedom of the open road, the ability to stop any time you see something that piques your interest, or just to enjoy the ambience of a small town, a farm market, a meandering river, a local festival.

Trent-Severn waterway, Ontario

Crossing Northern Ireland from east to west on one of the longer drives of our trip, we came upon a tiny food truck on the side of the road, where we got steaming cups of tea and the best cinnamon buns ever, fluffy and with just the right amount of sweetness.

Cinnamon bun and a cup of tea hit the spot on a long drive in Northern Ireland

In New Zealand we detoured for afternoon tea at a vintage 1929 hotel beneath a volcano on the advice of our B&B host. We’ve visited Upper Canada Village, the Gettysburg Battlefield, Colonial Williamsburg, even Dollywood at Christmastime.

A hundred thousand lights embellish Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee for Christmas

We love spotting local quirks, things you need to be on the ground for, and usually doing a walkabout. Every place has its own personality – cute, funny, charming, odd. The world is like a never-ending story; there’s always something fascinating to discover.

A street-art display of dressed-up dog statues in Hudson, NY — this one was called Woofgang Amadoggus Mozart 😀
A waterside restaurant with a sense of humour in the Thousand Islands, Ontario

You’ll find echoes of our travels in my books, for ambience and authenticity – at least to places on this planet 😉 I’m also a photographer, frequently referring to photos to when I’m writing to double-check details, and you’ll usually see some of my pictures in this blog.

From time to time I’ll be sharing more adventures that have in some way given colour to my writing, and I’d love to hear about your favourites – I’m always interested to find out about cool new places to check out!

Old bridges along the Colonial Parkway, Virginia

All photos are by me unless otherwise specified, and all rights reserved.

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