THE GREAT FATHER-DAUGHTER ROAD TRIP By Pierre Beemans (Article)
Pierre and Adrianna Beemans
It had almost become one of those some-day-when-I-win-the-lottery things. For years now, it had been that one day when Adriana got her driver’s licence we were going to take a road trip together through deepest Middle America, going to neat places and out of the way towns and catching up on some serious father-daughter bonding.
Well, it wasn’t quite Middle America and Adriana didn’t quite have her driver’s licence, but we did go to some neat places and out of the way towns, and we did do some serious father-daughter bonding. By the end Adriana had clocked over 1200 km. behind the wheel and was more than confident enough about taking her driving test. We drove down county roads and provincial highways through small towns and rolling farmland; we turned right when we felt like turning right and left when we didn’t; we slept in palatial mansions and on bucolic farms; and most of all, we enjoyed each other’s company.
We didn’t turn on the radio once nor play one of the various CDs we had brought along. We just talked and talked about politics, friends, religion, world affairs, family history, books, work, our lives and loves, language, the countryside, or sometimes just sat silently while the beautiful green fields and the serene blue waters of Georgian Bay, Lake Huron and Lake Erie went by. And then we talked some more … and when we weren’t talking, I was poring through a mushrooming collection of maps, brochures, tourist guides and historical leaflets.
When we finished, we understood and felt some things about Ontario and Canada more deeply than we had before: a common flavour that connects these small ruralesque towns - the similarities in architecture and layout, the straight county roads that link them, the cheery friendliness of the people in the restaurants and the stores, the prominence of family and faith, the pride in local landmarks and history, the way the countryside reaches in to the towns. And also, lest I make this sound too victorian, the way all this has blended with changing ethnic and generational demographics, cyber-technology, the blowback from the current recession (unemployment, foodbanks, women’s shelters and other signs of social stress), and the latest in cosmopolitan lifestyles.
To roll back the tape a bit: in early August, Teresa was away for a month with her sister and expecting niece in Spain, 5-year old Thomas was in full-day day camp, and Adriana at 32 was tired of family jokes about not having her driver’s licence. She had her learner’s permit, she had taken a driver’s training course, and all she wanted was a week or so of practice before the test. And I had the van.
So I drove down to Toronto on Friday night; on Saturday we bought supplies for the food cooler, dropped in on the Hiltons and Helga Stephanson, and went to the afternoon Mass (no harm in a little insurance, just in case Adriana’s driving wasn’t quite up to par.…). Sunday noon we drove north out of the city on Hwy. 427 and when it turned into a two-lane road I moved over and gave the keys to Adriana. For the first hour or so we worked our way up from 40 km/h to 90 km/h, eventually winding up in Midland. Orillia was too big, Barrie was too busy and Gravenhurst was too far.
The first B&B we checked out was a grand, handsome old Victorian house called, appropriately enough, The Victorian Inn, and we went no farther. The room was comfortable, the ambiance was relaxed, the breakfast was tasty and filling, and the owner (John Ross) served us tea and cookies in the reading room. (www.victorianinn.on.ca)
Midland was where the Jesuits found a mission station and settlement, ‘Ste. Marie au pays des Hurons’, in 1639. By the late 1640s there were over 60 Europeans living there during the summers and several hundred Hurons, both Christian and non-Christian. In the winter of 1648 the surrounding Huron villages were attacked and wiped out by Iroquois war parties and the Jesuits and remaining Hurons burned and abandoned Ste. Marie. Several hundred Hurons left with the French and re-settled around Quebec City. Eight Jesuits were killed by the Iroquois in that year and collectively they are known to Catholics as ‘The Canadian Martyrs’.
Our local church in Ottawa is called Canadian Martyrs Parish, so Adriana and I were curious to visit both the church that has been built nearby as a Catholic shrine and the reconstruction of the Jesuit settlement on the original site. Based on plans recorded in the reports of the Jesuits at the time and using the same techniques and material, the reconstruction includes workshops, barracks, hospital and school, the stone houses of the French and the long houses of the Hurons, on 15-20 acres surrounded by wooden palisades. Adjoining the settlement is a large modern building with a superb presentation of both the European and the indigenous cultures and history of the times, a theatre, archives, restaurant, gift shop, etc.
As a historic site I found it more impressive than Upper Canada Village or Old Fort York. As a tourist attraction, it has to be one of the hidden jewels of Ontario. If you can’t get there, look up the website here. There is also a smaller municipal museum in Midland with more Huron art and artefacts, as well as paintings by lesser known members of the Group of Seven and odds and ends from the history of Midland itself.
Next day we meandered westward along the shore of Georgian Bay, stopping off for an hour in Penetanguishene at the local archives and museum where I looked up a branch of my mother’s family, the Pilons, that had settled there in the 1840s. By late afternoon we were in Owen Sound and ready to call it a day. As the sun went down we stumbled across what has to be one of the grandest B&Bs in Ontario: the Butchart Estate mansion, built around 1880 by a prominent local merchant whose son, Robert Butchart, made a fortune in manufacturing portland cement. Robert moved to Victoria BC in 1908, where his wife turned one of their abandoned limestone quarries into the world-famous Butchart gardens.
The Butchart Estate B&B has kept all of the original atmosphere (even the bathroom fittings), with the enormous indoor pool from the early 1900s still in working order. We slept well in luxurious beds, read our books in one of the living rooms, and chatted over a great breakfast with Bill Barrow, the jovial and helpful host. Bottom line: a night at the The Butchart Estate alone is well worth the drive to Owen Sound (www.butchartestate.com) but the town itself is attractive and there was an engaging, eclectic restaurant called Rocky Raccoon’s run by a Nepali chef, since closed.
Midland, Penetanguishene, Owen Sound …. in many ways this is the archetypal small-town Ontario that CBC TV shows love to idealize: nice old Victorian houses surrounding a few blocks of downtown with the usual hardware stores, ‘family restaurants’, real estate offices, banks, etc. staffed by sensible people with friendly faces. This is still very much part of the real world, however, and it didn’t take Adriana’s professional eye long to spot the signs of the times: empty shop windows here and there, the women’s shelter, the cluster of job-seekers outside the Employment and social services offices, the food bank, and so on. Not quite so idyllic for some of the people as we urban tourists might think as we drive through on our way to the cottage...
By now we had perfected the half-wave from the window or easy two-finger salute to the flagmen (more often than not, flagwomen) who slowed or halted us every 20-30 km to squeeze us between orange pylons onto the shoulder of the road where we crept past bulldozers, graders, cement mixers, asphalt layers, steamrollers, all busy resurfacing a road, rebuilding a culvert, widening a bridge, adding a passing lane … As Adriana wryly remarked, sometimes it felt as though we were on a monitoring tour of Mr. Harper’s economic stimulus program.
Tuesday was Bruce Peninsula day and, even though it started off grey and rainy, we had both been looking forward to it because we had heard so much about the spectacular scenery. After a couple of hours of driving down the middle of the peninsula along Hwy. 6 through run-of-the-mill farmland and scrub woods, it dawned on us that people had been referring to the Bruce Trail: the hiking path that skirts the coast and along the edge of the cliffs and headlands overlooking Georgian Bay.
We weren’t about to forsake our warm dry van to tramp through soggy grass and dripping forest, so we turned around at Lion’s Head and headed back along the Huron shore - but not before stopping at Vicki’s roadside bakery stand and stocking up on butter tarts, raisin buns and brownies. Now there’s an enterprising young farmwife - she turns out delicious pastries and pies and flogs them to passing traffic from a net tent in her driveway just outside Lion’s Head. This year she has arranged with UPS to ship them across Ontario. Next year across Canada. Go for it, Vicki! (http://vickiskitchen.com). ps It didn't quite work and Vicki was selling out, but hopefully has found new fields of endeavour.
We rolled into Southampton around suppertime, another one of those former shipping ports that line Lake Huron. Nice little town, with a boardwalk (well, paved now) that runs along the shore for a couple of km. and some more beautiful old homes converted into B&Bs. Not for us, though - they were all full, but we lucked out at The Strong Tree Inn. Lucked out because the Strongtree had just been sold and gone out of business. Still, they gave us a room and we had the house to ourselves. Too bad the Starkebaums (whence Strong Tree) are moving, we enjoyed talking to Nancy and her son, Ian, over a wholesome breakfast.
We could have made things easier by booking ahead, but we had a firm principle about improvising - besides, we never knew in the morning which town we would end up in that night. Another firm principle was to scarf down those wholesome breakfasts and never lunch in a restaurant (let alone McDonald’s or Tim Horton’s). That’s what the cooler with pate, salami, cold ham, dijon, cheese and the thermos of lemonade was for. The third principle was to indulge ourselves by always taking a room with an ensuite bathroom, but we compromised on that one a couple of times with no regrets.
Wednesday, we drove through Port Elgin, past the Bruce nuclear plant, and along the shore roads - Kincardine, Point Clark, Port Albert, with blue lake water as far as we could see on our right. Then Goderich: time for coffee and a walk around what has to be one of the prettiest towns in southwestern Ontario - an octagonal town square, stately old homes, independent coffee shops and the second biggest salt mine in the world. I had no idea that the Sifto salt I buy at the supermarket comes from Goderich, let alone that the mine is 2500 feet deep, more than 2 km wide, extends 4 km out under Lake Huron and is still going strong after almost 150 years. Pity that there are no tours for the public - it would surely be one of the major attractions in Ontario. Still Goderich even without the salt mine was well worth the stop.
We liked Goderich so much that we spent a few hours reading our books and eating an early lunch in the harbour park, watching a big bulk freighter loading up with salt. This was a pretty regular pattern: see a nice spot along the road or in a local park, pull out our folding chairs and our books, read, snooze, sip cold lemonade, talk and laugh. What a great province we have for that sort of thing! You know, we get so used to zipping along the 401 or the 416 or the 409 that we forget that good people live in lovely places on the other side of those fields and trees.
We were going to stay in Goderich but on the spur of the moment Adriana suggested we roll on down Hwy. 8 another hour or so to Stratford and see whether we could take in something at the Festival Theatre. I despaired of finding accommodation in Stratford and sure enough, the young lady in the Tourist Information just rolled her eyes when we asked whether there was anything available in a local B&B.
“Maybe in Mitchell or St. Mary’s, about half an hour outside town, but this is high season and everything in Stratford has been booked tight for weeks, ” she said.
“Hang on,” called the girl at the terminal down the counter, “I just had a cancellation come in three minutes ago!”
And so Adriana and I drove three blocks over to the Mornington Rose, dropped off our stuff, walked 10 minutes alongside Victoria Lake to the Festival Theatre, picked up tickets for that night’s performance of ‘West Side Story’, and just had time for a salad supper before nipping in to the show. Talk about timing. Talk about luck!
The set was simple but effective and the dancing was great, although I found the voices a bit too strident and I was put off by the director’s decision to make things ‘edgier’ by adding obscenities to the dialogue (if the F-word still qualifies as an obscenity) and having Maria raped by the Jets as the climax of the show. Maybe I’m getting old and stodgy (well, I am getting old and stodgy), or maybe it’s just that I’ve seen too many re-runs of the classic movie version (‘iconic’, the reviewers would say), which is the platinum standard nothing can beat. Adriana, on the other hand, enjoyed it thoroughly.
Nice B&B and great blueberry pancake for breakfast, but no point giving the website because the owner told us she had just sold the house and the new people weren’t going to keep it as a B&B. We walked around downtown Stratford, which is pretty and filled with cutesy expensive boutiques, and then took off southward to Tilsonburg, where we spent a delicious couple of hours in a park eating our sandwiches, drinking iced tea, reading our books and watching five young Mennonite women playing with their 23 children.
Adriana thought it would be nice to spend the night in St. Thomas and send a postcard to her nephew, Thomas. At least, that’s what she had in mind until we drove through St. T. Hard-times town: Sterling Trucks and John Deere both closed plants recently and Ford cut a full shift, putting a couple of thousand people out of work in a population of 36,000. Several other local industries been hit hard as well, closing or laying off massively. The signs of the economic times are right in your face: ‘for sale’ signs, boarded up shops, food banks, drop-in centres, and clusters of unhappy-looking people on the street. The ripple effect of these cuts and closures spreads out across a whole network of smaller towns in a region like this: a lot of the farmers work shifts in nearby factories or supply plants to make ends meet, farm wives have part-time jobs in shops and offices, house values drop, fewer purchases at gas stations and grocery stores, appliance sales evaporate, etc.
So, we figured that we’d overnight in Port Stanley instead, but there was nothing available in B&Bs and the inns were prohibitively expensive. Flipping through a tourism pamphlet over a mediocre dinner of Lake Erie perch at the Wharf Restaurant (the view over the river and the lift bridge more than made up for it), Adriana spotted an ad for ‘Conny’s B&B On The Farm’ about 15 minutes away near a village called Sparta.
What a find! Conny Keller and her husband, Jurg, are Swiss from Canton Thurgau; they built a beautiful home on the crest of a hill overlooking rolling fields and woods, with Lake Erie in the distance, sheep and llama in a nearby pasture, it’s about as bucolic as you can get. Wonderful surroundings. Just down the Fruit Ridge Line is the ‘Quai du Vin’ winery, which has tastings, harvest weekends, etc. Nearby Sparta has retained the natural charm that Niagara-on-the-Lake may have had before their city fathers tarted it up for the Shaw Festival; the 19th c. feel extends right down to the former smithy in its original 1830 building with 2 ft.-thick mud walls (now a museum).
Conny has four rooms with their own entrance off the patio, and we were the only guests. Breakfast was home-made muesli and home-made bread with home-made jams and cheeses. Oh yes, the soap in our bathroom was made by Conny from the milk of her own goats! She is a delightful friendly woman with a charming home-schooled daughter. I have already promised Teresa that we will spend a couple of nights there the next time we go down to visit Adriana in Toronto. Hers's a link to Conny's.
After that breakfast, we rolled eastwards along the lake shore by neat farm houses with little signs outside reminding us that we are loved despite our sins, skirting the wildlife areas and provincial park at Long Point (for another day - it needs more time, besides, I wanted to drive through Messiah Corners … never can tell who you might run into), past Turkey Point, Port Dover and the huge Nanticoke gas-fired power plant that the provincial government is going to shut down one of these years, until we reached the scattering of houses and cottages near Selkirk where our old and dear family friend, Manolo, lives.
We stopped in Port Dover to stretch our legs and check out a fair-cum-flea market. If the prices being asked for kitschy antiques were any indication, this is a very prosperous enclave in Ontario. There was a local butcher from nearby Dog’s Nest or Lambs Corners (yes, these are real places) who had a mouthwatering selection of his own salamis and smoked sausages. Big, fat, long, sinister-looking things like jurassic swamp creatures, wrapped in dark cloth or gleaming brown casings, reeking of garlic, pepper, garlic, more herbs, garlic, unidentifiable meats, garlic ... well, you get the picture. We bought a half dozen, wrapped them tightly in plastic bags, opened all the windows in the van and drove on.
Teresa and I have known Manolo since the early 70s, when we were living in Peru. At the time, he had just married a CUSO volunteer nurse whom he had met while working as a veterinarian at the tropical livestock research centre in the Peruvian Amazon. Later he moved to Canada, did a PhD in immunology at Saskatchewan and became one of the bright lights at Connaught Labs, developing vaccines and helping set up vaccine plants in countries around the world.
When he semi-retired about 10 years back, he bought a little cottage sticking into Lake Erie right on the tip of Hoover Point, surrounded by a few farms on land that was settled back in the 1820s. The cottage was pretty run down, but after a decade of fixing, extending, decking, planting, it has been transformed into the kind of retreat that retirees dream about: book- and record-lined rooms, an open kitchen, an office annex with satellite hookups, fruit and nut trees rustling with squirrels and songbirds, decks and walkways terracing down to hang over the stony shore, and blue water stretching out to the USA on the horizon.
We lunched on the lower deck, caught up on the 12 years since we last met, talked about food, Canadian and Peruvian politics, children, music, Adriana’s job, life in the country, aches and ailments, and agreed that we wouldn’t wait so long for the next time. At our stage in life you can never be too sure whether there’s going to be a next time, so you want to savour those old friendships as often as you can.
By now it was late Friday afternoon and we decided to push on to Toronto rather than spend Saturday threading through weekend lineups in the Niagara peninsula, even though Adriana had spent a fruitful summer there in 1996 with Frontier College, picking peaches and tutoring Mexican migrant labourers in English. So we cut straight up to Hwy. 5 (aka Dundas St.), bypassed Hamilton, and zipped through Burlington, Oakville, Mississauga and Etobicoke into downtown Toronto. A few white knuckles (mine) on the six-lane stretches, but Adriana was cool and took us easily across town and into the parking garage under her building.
As usual, Adriana put it best: it wasn’t about getting to know each other (we were already pretty good at that), it was about finding the time to be together with no particular agenda, catching up on where we are now and what we are doing (like the boards Adriana is on or the selections for my book club), playing scrabble and telling funny stories, filling in some of the blanks in our personal or family histories, soaking in some of the history and geography of our province. And the route and the landscape reflected in a way the exact spirit of the trip: the joy and beauty of the everyday and the ordinary.
Is this something I would do again? Is this something every father/mother should do with a daughter/son at some point (or many points)? You betcha. Already I am thinking: the south shore of the St. Lawrence through Gaspe to Cape Breton, or north of Superior through Manitoulin, Sudbury, Wawa to Lake of the Woods, maybe even the Appalachian Trail or the Mississippi Valley. Or maybe you just pick a direction on the compass and start driving. But don’t think too much about it - just do it.
Tags: Pierre Beemans