My article appeared in the Halifax Chronicle-Herald on Saturday, August 4th in the Living section.
Road Trip's More Than Sticky Seats and Cows
On the day we set off for our yearly road trip to Nova Scotia, the scene in our Toronto driveway was always the same. My Dad grunted as he tried to slam the overfilled trunk of our Chevy Citation shut. My sister got in the car, the dog was coaxed into the middle seat and I was pushed in after her. The three of us would sit as my Dad packed us into place, tucking beach towels under one arm, a sleeping bag under the other, a camping cot, dog dish and cooler under foot. Relieved that everything fit, he would still be wiping his brow when my Mom's head popped out the door, "Room for one more?"
My first novel, The Line Painter, was published in April by HarperCollins. When I first started collecting ideas for the book, my mind kept going back to road trips. For many people a road trip is like a ritual, friends driving to Las Vegas, a young couple going west, or retirees flocking to Florida. Our car trips to Nova Scotia were a ritual of family bonding and provided inspiration in many ways. In my writing, I started inverting the happy memories and merging them with others to create a suspense-filled story. It's a slightly twisted thing to do, but it's a way for me to infuse emotion into experiences I can only imagine. What if, instead of travelling with those I loved, I was running from them? What if I was travelling with a stranger, a man? What if, suddenly, I realized he was completely different from what I first thought? These kinds of questions helped me build the story of The Line Painter.
All packed, my Dad would triumphantly start the car. We'd barrel off down the road and swoop onto the 401 headed east to Pictou County, where our family and our cottage awaited. We'd cheer as we got outside of the city limits. We would hoot when we saw the first cow in a field. We would fight over the can of Mountain Dew at the first rest stop. And, once back in the car, we sat. We sat for hours. Then we would sit some more. Some of my most vivid memories are of just sitting, my legs sticking to the vinyl seats, shoving the dog so she'd drool on my sister and my Dad's impossibly long arm reaching back to swat me.
After all the anticipation involved in packing and planning, very little actually happens on a road trip. Sure, there are brief stops and nice moments, but if I took a snap shot of most road trips in action, I'd probably see a bunch of people sitting in a car. Someone might be reading, sleeping, staring, driving or eating, but mostly you just sit. Why, then, do we have so many myths and stories surrounding road trips? Movies like Fandango and Easy Rider depict a road trip as a right of passage, or in Thelma and Louise or Britney Spear's movie Crossroads, as a way to discover your true self. What did I discover about myself on our trips, besides that my legs stick to vinyl seats? This is a truth about road trips. The events that happen, taken out of context, don't mean anything much. It's how you shape the memories of the trip that gives it meaning. It's how those memories shape you.
It took us three days to drive to Nova Scotia. My parents, thinking it merciful, would plan a route with many stops along the way. As academics, they were sure to include many sites and museums. I've seen many historical plaques. My parents did their best to keep us occupied during the drive. My sister and I would sing along with Abba warbling out from the speaker of our portable tape player. After the batteries wore out, we'd play eye-spy. Anyone who saw a cow got a mint. We would roll backwards up the magnetic hill. When we stopped for a huge lobster dinner, I knew we were getting close.
The moment of triumph, arriving, was sweet and well earned. So much so, that we stretched it out into many moments, when we first crossed over from New Brunswick and heard the bagpipes, when we first saw the ocean rolling along beside the car, when we first saw the 'Upalong Beach' sign for our group of cottages, when we caught a glimpse of an old friend, a cousin and a brother.
From the moment we arrived at the cottage, something did happen. For one month of the year, I was from Nova Scotia. My young mind would adapt and absorb, my hair thick with salt and my skin brown from the sun and I became a creature of the cottage. I left behind my world in Toronto and my life was about collecting mussels, torturing Barbie dolls and building forts on the beach. My best friends were from Truro and Halifax and my cousins were like sisters. That's where I found the significance of a road trip, it gives you the opportunity to step into a different world and, if you want, a different life. That's what the main character in my novel, Carrie, toys with when she goes on her trip. Maybe there is a different life out there for us all? Or, perhaps the patterns of life are too firm for that. Maybe, for an adult, it isn't realistic to think that going on a long drive will change a thing?
My family recently moved back to Canada from London, England. Soon after arriving home, I found myself carrying a bucket car seat containing my 6-month-old son to the car. We were going on a road trip. My husband, an academic, noted a few interesting sites along the way. We planned a route with lots of stops. Anyone who saw a cow got a mint. I held my son up so he could see the historical plaques.