21.05.2012 - 22.05.2012
Amazingly, it looked just like I had expected, and I couldn't believe that the stereotypical image was so unerringly accurate. In front of me was row after row of igloos, each with it's own guard-moose tied up outside. People were wandering around on horseback, many of them dressed in bright red coats and wearing large hats. A polar bear was rummaging through a dustbin, whilst to the left, a mass game of ice-hockey was being played, where every single spectator had a cup of Tim Horton's in one hand and a jar of maple syrup in the other. Yes, welcome indeed, to Canada!
Actually what I saw as I slowly crested the International bridge was a scene oddly reminiscent of the first time that I saw the city of Nikel. What was pristine countryside was replaced by a huge, rusty industrial works, with chimneys and smoke belching out at all angles. A miserable sight if ever there was one. Part of me wondered if I dared make a U-turn on the bridge, and flee from this belching eyesore, but it was too late for that.
Land border crossings have always intrigued me because of who uses them. If you cross from France to Belgium, for example, due to the EU and Schengen treaty there are no longer any border checks. You drive along the motorway, pass the sign welcoming you to the new country and that is all. But what I find fascinating are the identities of the other drivers. In the same example, 500metres before crossing the border, all of the car number plates are French. 500metres after the border, they are all Belgian. You don't notice where they all go/come from but somehow they do. I have always found it a bit odd. Even in America, the transition seems to magically happen at state lines.
And here I was rounding a corner and joining the back of the traffic queue to cross the bridge at Sault Ste. Marie, I reflected on the fact that in the previous 2 days, in an an area with very few roads, I had seen only a single Canadian licence plate on a truck. Stopping in the town by the border for lunch and petrol, I had again seen only 1. Yet here I was, barely 300metres away from that point and in a long 4lane queue of traffic, whilst every other vehicle both going my way and arriving in the US had Canadian plates. I found myself asking “where the heck have they all come from?” How is it possible???
My week was not really getting any better. It took me 90minutes just to get across the bridge, and after a few minutes of which I had that deep foreboding feeling that it wasn't quite right, simply because after paying the toll I had been shepherded straight into the queue on the bridge and nobody had looked at my passport. The Americans would surely want to check me, would they not?
Eventually over the bridge and officially at the Canadian border, I picked – inevitably – the wrong line of 5, and took another 30mins to go 100metres. At the border, the two inspectors didn't know if I was supposed to have been stamped out of America (!), but seemed happy enough to allow me to enter. But that was after a 25minute discussion about assorted British sports, politics and current events, and then a long hunt for ink to stamp my passport with. I suspect it was boredom/curiosity rather than anything deeper as I was apparently the first non local they had dealt with in the last 3 days.
Once into Canada proper, I figured I would worry about my lack of American stamp when I attempted to cross back into America, and decided that my first port of call was an ATM. The town was shut and I realised that the long border and bridge queues were because it was a holiday in Canada – Victoria Day – and so people had been shopping/visiting their southern neighbour. Worryingly, it appeared that the ATMs were also on holiday. 3 ATMs and 4 different cards all declined me because of “unable to reach your bank” and similar complaints. Hmmm. Oh dear. With almost 350km ahead (yes, back into KM and even litres, having just got used to gallons), I figured I would try another ATM down the road, and if that failed pray that somebody would accept one of my cards or I could find a Forex before I starved/ran out of gas, or more likely, stumble across a toll that I would be incapable of paying.
A relaxing 320km drive through the pretty Ontario countryside and not much else followed, I managed to get some money, and had the best coffee I have had in months at a small roadside halt. I stopped periodically to gaze at the river, forest or other scenic interlude.
Not something i generally have to worry about too much in most other places i have ever driven, and (below) a more typical view
As I approached Sudbury (or Greater Sudbury as it is now officially, though don't let the “Great” part fool you), it got very dark and again pissed it down with rain. A huge, grim industrial scene unfolded in front of me. It was not an enticing scene. I somehow found my motel, 20km further East, and on taking stock of the cooker and microwave in my room and supplies consisting of about 6apples and half a pack of beef jerky, decided to set off back for Sudbury in the hunt for food. An hour later, and I was mentally preparing recipes of 'sliced apple on bed of jerky a-la carte'.
A city of about 300,000 people, Sudbury seemed to be shut. I was looking for a grocery/local store where I could pick up something cheap to cook myself (a cunning plan to save money, and one of the reasons I had booked where I was staying) but they were all shut. I found a cinema with parking lot rammed full of cars, but with films apparently all just started the only food available was popcorn. Pizza hut was shut. KFC was shut. Burger King was shut. Subway (several) was shut. Vietnamese, Chinese and Thai places were all shut. The normal preponderance of gas stations with attached stores had been replaced by gas stations selling only drinks and confectionery. I started driving aimlessly through almost endless strip malls: Strip malls are something I find soulless and depressing at the best of times: but when everything is shut, and the carparks are all empty, they are even worse. I chose directions at junctions based solely on the number of visible neon signs. Unfortunately bright, inviting neon signs remained bright inviting neon signs, even when the establishment they were advertising were shut. Eventually I found the (sadly) welcome sign of a combined Walmart/McDonalds. Needs must. But even they were shut. I was resigned to trying to re-find the only place I had discovered which was open (an upmarket – eg: expensive - pizza place, which did not do take out) when I stumbled across a drive through Burger King that looked open. A spotty 15year old said, “sorry, we are just closing”, but when I asked if they had anything left she said a few fries and a 15minute old whopper; reluctantly I said “fine” and took them. I sat in the empty parking lot, eating almost cold fast food just as the heavens again opened with rain, idly wondering why on earth everybody seemed to think that Canada is a great place to live!
I spotted this in a parking lot in Sudbury the following morning. In these parts, it wouldn't even surprise me if it was accurate!