Jason’s Guide To The 16-Hour Drive Between Saint John and Toronto – Part 2
Here is Part 2 of the 16 hour drive guide by Jason Ogden – lead singer of Penny Blacks.
Settle in. There’s still one more day!
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My Guide To The 16-Hour Drive Between Saint John and Toronto
I’ve done this a few times now
By Jason Ogden
Drive at night
In my opinion, driving after 7 or 8 at night has its advantages. Obviously this is because there is much less traffic. After midnight, you can really cruise and there’s lots of room on those big four lane stretches (driving these multi-lane sections can be pretty tense throughout the day when it’s bumper-to-bumper at high speeds). That being said, the main concern then becomes watching the road and roadside for animals. There are more of them on and around the road at night, so you have to be aware and alert. If you tire easily driving at night, that’s something to take into consideration; I suggest hitting the road at the break of dawn to still be able to get some personal space on the roads.
I think any person who loves to drive will tell you that night driving has it’s own thing goin’ on. It creates a very specific atmosphere and vibe that feels more lonely, cinematic and mysterious. Music sounds different in the car at night. Frequencies seem to adopt a warmer, more golden, full feel. The car is surrounded by darkness save for the movie projected before you by your headlamps. And although the action is at a pace you determine, you’re never sure exactly what might jump into frame to make a guest appearance. It’s that whole sensory-deprivation thing I mentioned earlier. Exterior sounds so present throughout the day have receded. The yellow dashes and streaks disappear under your wheels.The half-seen shapes of trees, buildings and houses are there for a moment, then gone. On a clear night the moon reveals a little more, bathing the landscape in the grey tones of film noir. Driving through cities, the modern towers look like giant, futuristic, sleeping cyborgs . Old brick and stone become the hollow remnants of an apocalyptic event that perhaps only you have survived. And then there is the always comforting sporadic appearance of neon signs. Route 185 between Degelis and Rivière-du-Loup has its share of these.
Everyone has their favourite night driving music. I like stuff that suits the ambience – sort of dark and atmospheric with some contrasting bright guitar tones. Some of my mainstays are Swervedriver (Raise), Sonic Youth (Daydream Nation), Songs: Ohia (The Lioness), Black Sabbath (Vol. 4), Karate (The Bed Is In The Ocean) and BBNG (II). Another good one is Dirty Projectors’ Slaves’ Graves and Ballads.
Be your own entertainment director
If, like me, your main source of music when driving is an iPod, it’s a good idea to have playlists all programmed and ready to go. Don’t be messing about on a multi-lane highway at 100 km/h trying to find that fucking John Legend track. I’m always creating and amending playlists on my iPod for road trips. There’s usually one for chill night driving (My current night driving playlist is called “The City That Never Sleeps”), one that’s intended to get the party started and wake me up should I need a boost (“The Pretzel Wagon Way”) and then there’s one that’s just meant for singing along to at the top of my lungs (inexplicably titled “CatPEE Achieved”).
However, there usually comes a point during a long drive where I can’t take any more music. When this happens, one of my favourite things to do is to just aimlessly search the AM and FM dial looking for talk radio. I’ll always try this first. If it fails, then I’ll go the audiobook or podcast route. I’ve discovered a tonne of great programs this way – The Phil Hendrie Show, Coast To Coast AM (Art Bell only, please and thank you), and American Icons to name a few. You can find the strangest, most interesting things scanning the dial at 2 or 3 a.m. in the morning. Sometimes you get the luxury of hearing a whole broadcast, other times the signal fades out after only 20 minutes, never to be found again. I suppose if you have satellite radio, you don’t have to deal with the moody nature of old-fashioned radio waves (but where’s the fun in that?) One time, while on tour with Hospital Grade in the U.S., we locked onto a station that was playing old hard-boiled detective radio plays from the ‘40s and ‘50s. We managed to stay tuned to that one for a couple of hours before it blended into static or sports and disappeared – just one of those amazing treasures you find when playing radio-roulette in the middle of the night.
Audiobooks have also served me increasingly well during these drives. If I can’t find any stimulating talk on the radio, I’ll put on something I’ve downloaded ahead of time. As far as audiobooks go, you really don’t want anything too heavy. Something like Stephen King’s Cell is perfect for driving; not too deep, just the right amount of pulp. A great story. Keeps you awake and engaged without making you think too much. I tend to be picky about what I listen to as far as books go, though. I have this weird part of me that doesn’t want to cheapen experiencing a great book by having it read to me by Balki from Perfect Strangers. Some fun ones I’ve listened to the last few times I made this trip include the first two books in Dean Koontz’ Odd Thomas series, Robert R. McCammon’s Speaks The Nightbird, Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith and Shadowland by Peter Straub.
Podcasts are also a fantastic way to pass the time. If radio roulette fails you for the time being (try again in a half hour), you can always dig into your personal iPod cache. Podcasts are great because most of them are free, and the selection is endless. Some of my favourites are the aforementioned Phil Hendrie Show, Coast to Coast, Here’s The Thing, DNTO, and The Ricky Gervais Show. Like with a good book, I find that an hour or more has passed before I know it with an interesting podcast.
There may come a point where you have had both enough chit-chat and dope beats. You may have to invent ways to keep yourself entertained. I like to choose a vehicle, then follow it. When in another province, my first choice is always one with a license plate from New Brunswick or Nova Scotia – you know, for a bit of the comfort of home. If I don’t see either of those, I just look for someone who looks friendly. Then, it’s on. I don’t necessarily shadow their every move or anything. I just try to keep them in sight until they exit or explode. Note: the vehicles I follow rarely explode. Last spring, I’m pretty sure I was shadowed by a Juggalo in a Honda Civic for a good chunk of the Jean-Lesage. So, don’t judge me. I’m not the only one who plays this game. There’s at least me and a Juggalo.
I have been known to pack a cooler with cold drinks, sandwiches and snacks. The idea, of course, is to save a bit of time and money. However, by doing this, you are robbing yourself of the chance to partake in one of the most time-honoured and storied traditions of the road trip: heinous but tasty and ultimately regrettable road food. My advice on this subject? Listen to your heart. It will tell you when it’s about to stop.
I have eaten at many of the roadside and exit eateries between Edmundston and Ajax. Some good, some bad. Some very bad. Some seemed good at the time, but then got so bad it became an emergency. I will say this – if you must grab something quick from a truck stop, do not go for something called a “tornado” and for the love of God, DO NOT get a microwavable burrito that calls itself “The Bomb.”
Of course, there are always your Subways, McDonalds, Dim Willies, Skobo’s, etc, etc. You know the list as well as I do. If there’s an exit with a plot of land that isn’t actually swamp, then one of these stalwarts are stacking their all-beef patties and funny-smelling bread there. Boring. I’d rather take my chances with the unknown, or at least something a little more interesting. To this end, I have three recommendations. Just three, you ask? Keep in mind we’re talking about major thoroughfares here, and for the sake of time, one can’t always detour 10 kilometres into city centres to hunt down that cute little bistro that serves the most amazing curry lentil soup.
Not long after you enter the province of Quebec (about 50 km outside Edmundston), you will pass through a place called Notre-Dame-Du-Lac. Off the side of the highway to your right, you will see a place called Fromagerie Le Détour. Do you like cheese? Do you like salt? If you do, stop here. At the very least, buy a little snack bag of filoche. It’s sodium-riffic and addictive as hell. If you’re a pro like my friend Sean Boyer who did us the favour of making us stop here on a Hospital Grade tour, you’ll get the fabled “jar of ropey knots.”
There is a long stretch of the Autoroute Jean-Lesage that I call Tornado Alley. The highway cuts through a great expanse of open wheat fields dotted with silos and farmhouses and has an eerie similarity to the landscape in every horrific, shaky, amateur tornado video you’ve ever seen. If the possibility of an impending detour to Oz whets your appetite, you might want to take exit 220 into Daveluyville. This exit will dump you directly into the parking lot of the La Belle Québécoise restaurant. If you’re hankering for an old-school, stone-and-mortar Quebec chateau restaurant experience and don’t want to deal with the touristy hordes at Le Madrid, this is your joint. The food doesn’t really elevate above that of typical truck stop fare, so don’t expect anything beyond the class of food you would find at a Big Stop. They’ve built the place up on a solid foundation of poutine. And I mean that literally; the building is anchored in a french fry, gravy and cheese curd substructure.
The atmosphere of La Belle Québécoise is definitely worth experiencing once, though. Inside, the atmosphere is positively sepia-toned. I always get a kick out of the posters inside the door advertising the local rock gigs and festivals. And while the waitress may not actually be named Flo, I’m sure it is the Québécoise equivalent.
Finally, the Amir along Route 20 in St. Hyacinthe has become a regular stop for me. Amir is a chain that offers fairly decent Lebanese fare. It’s vegan friendly and has clean facilities. The portions are generous and the price is cheap; probably too generous for someone who has to get back into a car and drive for eight hours. However, I always seem to be passing by in the general area of dinner time and I am a sucker for the shawarma plate.
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Stay tuned for Part 3 – coming at you tomorrow morning!
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