The Challenge of Driving Across Canada During a Pandemic

On Easter weekend, my husband Will and I set out from Ottawa to drive home to Calgary. We’d spent the winter in Ottawa helping our son Dan through chemotherapy and delayed our trip as long as we comfortably could. Our stay was prolonged by our other son Matt’s return to Ottawa from Mexico. Matt needed us to bring him groceries during his two week isolation. Will and I handled the grocery shopping for three households, Dan’s, Matt’s and our own in a rented apartment.  When Matt was released, he joined us in the apartment for a few days together. Thursday, we all enjoyed a farewell turkey dinner at Dan’s house. On Good Friday, Will, Matt and I walked to the trendy Glebe neighbourhood of Ottawa to buy our favourite bagels. In the afternoon, we packed the car and played Canasta (Matt won). Saturday. Will and I hit the road, leaving Matt behind in the apartment to be with Dan for his last treatment.

On the road from Ottawa

Traffic on the highway was light, as it had been in Ottawa since the COVID-19 restrictions began and people started working from home. I realized this was one of my few trips to the countryside since we’d arrived in Ottawa on Nov 5, 2019. Our last country excursion was to a maple sugar shack in the Gatineau. We went in early March, the first week of the sugar season, and were glad we did it while we could.  This was one of our many ‘glad we went before it closed’ conversations during our last weeks in Ottawa.

Activity on the road picked up at our first stop, Petawawa, with people out for their Easter shopping. We passed a lineup outside the local grocery store, stopped at Tim Hortons for our morning break and were thrilled to find they’d kept one washroom open for customers. The other two were barred off for COVID.  At the counter, the clerk said, of course they accepted cash for payment. The stores I’d been to in Ottawa lately had only taken debit or credit cars. I opened my wallet in Tims. My fingers stumbled on the clasp as I momentarily forgot how to pay with cash. When I handed the clerk my toonie, our hands touched, another odd experience these days. While the countryside has geared up for COVID-19, residents might feel less threatened than they do in the bigger cities with their larger illness counts.

After our next stop for gas and a washroom break, we looked for a spot to eat lunch. We’d made turkey sandwiches from our leftover meal and brought snacks to use on the trip.  Sudbury’s ring road winds along an escarpment beside the city. We stopped at a lookout and ate in the car, since it was around zero degrees and windy outside. We both reflected on our first trips to Sudbury, in the 70s, when the devastation from the mining activity had reminded me of the surface of the moon. Now, trees make the city liveable.

Sudbury overlook - with distant smokestacks
With Roberta Bondar in Sault Ste Marie - a friend remarked that Roberta and I weren't properly social distancing

From Sudbury, we drove to our first night’s lodging in Sault Ste Marie. Sunshine made the landscape along the way pretty. Waterways, rivers and lakes, still partly covered in ice. We’d reserved a motel near the waterfront. Only a couple of cars were there when we arrived. We planned to stay at the Choice hotel chain at each stop on our trip and learned their current policy is to not touch rooms for several days after guests leave, during the time any COVID germs might linger on surfaces. They also don’t clean rooms each day for multiple stays and, instead of their usual hot buffet breakfast, provide a bag of cold breakfast food.

Since we’d arrived early and it was ten degrees and sunny, albeit windy, we walked along the waterfront park, looking for the bust of Roberta Bondar, Canada’s first female astronaut, which we’d seen on our cross country drive many years ago. After posing with Roberta, we picked up  a takeout dinner of ribs from Montana’s and brought it back to our room to eat, watching ships cruise down the river between Canada and the US, our mutual border now closed.

Another glad – to have day one, with our longest driving time, under our belts.  Four days to go. I’ll report on day two tomorrow.