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OPINION: A summer tour half a century later

My trek this summer has taken me from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and it has been breathtaking
Michael Atkins, president, Northern Ontario Business

The last time I drove across this country I was in somebody else’s car, actually many cars. I hitchhiked. 

It was a little more than 50 years ago and I still remember the soft spots where I spent the night at the side of the road. It never occurred to me people wouldn’t pick me up. 

It was the 1960s. What could go wrong? I had no tent, just a sleeping bag, plastic tarp and longish hair to remind motorists to think twice about picking me up. Fortunately, there were lots of people with long hair.

This summer was less rustic: daughters to accompany me both east and west to share the drive, a surprise fetish for A&W hamburgers without hormones or steroids, handily located in the most rural of settings across the country and hotel rooms every 10 to 12 hours to rest our weary bones; a piece of cake really. 

In fact, in Hanna, Alta. (home to Nickelback, if you know who they are) we had hormone and steroid-free burgers in an A&W at the back of a gas station where Lanny McDonald (also from Hannah) must have once eaten less healthy burgers years ago.

The biggest difference today is Siri. How did we survive without GPS? Quite well, as I recall, even though there was no communication of any kind without a dime and a phone booth that worked, which was quite rare. I disappeared for weeks and no one seemed to care one way or the other. Now, if we don’t return a text we can contemplate an Amber alert.

In Yorkton, Sask., Siri got confused. The highway was closed for construction and there seemed no way out. I made two U-turns on the highway trying to find my way. After the second about-face, flashing lights and a siren. I’ve heard that sound before.

I had had an exemplary record on the trip. Yes, a couple of parking tickets in Vancouver but otherwise law-abiding and well-mannered throughout, even on those long flat stretches on the Prairies where the temptation to floor it for just a few seconds to see how fast a van can actually go was avoided. I thought I had been very mature and did not deserve what was coming. 

I shamelessly prepared my ‘Aw-Shucks, city dweller, I-don’t-know-how-this-could-have-happened’ apology for the officer as I put the window down.

Officer Jim did not ask for my licence. He did not ask for my insurance. He did not frown. He said, “After that second U-turn I knew you were lost and I thought you could use some help. If you follow this road to the next turn, just past the Shell station, and go straight for a kilometre and then turn left, you’ll find yourself back on the highway. Have a nice day.”

Fabulous, rural Canada at its best.

But things are not entirely the copacetic. In British Columbia, we drove through huge stretches of burned-out forests. In Saskatchewan, we slipped by tornadoes. In Northern Ontario, the water was as high as some people have ever seen it. 

We have one of the largest land masses in the world and so far it has given us one of the highest living standards in the world. We have lived off our resources and lived well, but the bloom is beginning to come off the rose. 

Small-town Canada is hurting. Most jurisdictions are suffering from reduced population and strains on the resource economy. It’s not hard to grasp once you see past the grit and determination of the people. They are magnificent and will only be dragged kicking and screaming from their hometowns. Generally, though, the stubborn are older.

As the bills come due for climate adaption, I have no idea how 35 million people pay the bill for one of the largest jurisdictions in the world. We don’t have the population to share the extraordinary costs of reconstruction and the higher insurance costs that come with it.

My trek this summer has taken me from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and it has been breathtaking. We are blessed.

We need to adapt our pioneering spirit from opening up the land to future-proofing it for our kids. 

It is an enormous responsibility and will not be easy. There is no place like this in the world.