Jason’s Guide To The 16-Hour Drive Between Saint John and Toronto – Part 3
Here is Part 3 – the final chapter – of the 16 hour drive guide by Jason Ogden – lead singer of Penny Blacks.
Thanks, Jason, for these posts. I’ve never done the drive – but maybe I’ll do it for the plentiful cheese curd varieties.
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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
Of course, it’s always a good idea to stop and stretch your legs, exorcise the caffeinated demon from your pea-sized bladder, or just check out a roadside attraction. I like to take the concept of flash fiction and slam poetry and apply it to other endeavors. I am a great slam tourist. I can be out of the car, on foot and taking in the targeted view or attraction and back in the car accelerating up the on-ramp in a remarkably efficient amount of time. (Note: I was going to use the term “flash tourist” here, but that’s an entirely different means of breaking up the road monotony and a subject for a lengthy paper of its own). Here are some of the noteworthy things I have found en route, or relatively close:
To me, the most boring portion of this trip has always been the stretch between Fredericton and Edmundston. No disrespect to the !really long covered bridge! or the !potato chip factory!, but it’s just all so… familiar. Thankfully, things get more interesting once you cross over into Quebec. There is the aforementioned fromagerie, of course. And not long after that comes the abandoned motel.
As the 185 winds through Saint-Louis-Du-Ha! Ha!, you’ll likely feel the foreboding presence of the Motel Francoeur long before you see it up on the hill to your right. The first thing you’ll notice is the long, flat, stone-cobbled bunker with the word “BAR” embossed on its green door. The plaza of rooms stretches out to its right, attached to its tavern head by the distressed neck of the dining room and office. This place looks like it may have been born in the ‘60s, but experienced its heyday in the ‘70s before it stopped giving a damn about trivial things like appearance, relevance and appeal. I drove by the Francoeur many times before I determined it was fully out of commission and made a detour to find my way there. The actual route to get to the Francoeur is not difficult to find. I leave that to you so that you may experience the thrill of the chase on your own, and also to distance myself from your eventual trial.
It was not until I drove right up to the Francoeur that I realized just how run down the place really is. It is a paradox in that it is so accessible yet appears relatively untouched. People often look at my photos and ask why I didn’t grab some of the mod furniture or fixtures. The simple answer is that because it appears that no one else did. And because I do not want to tangle with the spectral remnants of a sleazy francophone motel. I have seen The Shining many, many times. I don’t need those kinds of flashbacks, man.
I love modern ruins, though, and the temptation to Scooby Doo this place was too great to resist. Plus, iPhones practically beg you to take advantage of these situations with their promiscuous little cameras. The Francoeur delivers on many levels – a dining room that still has all the tables and chairs set as if awaiting the next morning’s breakfast service; beds still in their frames, shower curtains still hung, furniture right out of Mad Men – from vinyl chairs assembled around a spectacularly retro television to conical lampshades set over a kidney-shaped end table surrounded by swivel loungers. In fact, the most modern accoutrements at the Francoeur are probably the spider webs and mold.
Of course, I am not advocating that you venture onto the property and poke around. The place is something to see just from the road. I was very careful in my exploration, but some of the floors were most definitely on the verge of caving in. The floor of the office building had done so entirely, as well as part of the roof. In my defense as an urban explorer I will say that I saw not one “No Trespassing” sign, and almost every door in the joint was open. Not to mention that there was a modern house adjacent to the parking lot that was obviously inhabited. I was there for a good half hour and no one came running out yelling “sortez!”
As far as actual, operating motels go on this trip – the kind where you can spend the night and not be stressed by the threat of spiders, mold and the potential of the floor caving in (effectively ruling out the above motel and the entire Motel 6 chain) – I’ll get to that in a bit.
For now, a few more distractions:
After Rivière-du-Loup, as Route 185 becomes Route 85 and eventually Route 20, the view gets pretty terrific. Particularly during this time of the year. This is one of my favourite parts of the drive. The first thing you’ll notice is that suddenly there is no longer just an endless, brown-grey, caterpillar blur of forest to your right. It has given way to an open expanse of field littered with outcroppings of impressive grey rock that is stubbled with shrubbery. Before long, these monoliths disappear in favour of the great expanse of the Saint Lawrence River. Alternately a chilly blue and a tumultuous brown, the river makes for a welcome companion on this stretch of the trip. As you approach La Pocatière, the road sidles up to the banks and an inviting stretch of trail, boardwalks and foot bridges appears, carrying with it runners, cyclists and other interesting things that are blissfully not trees. Once you start seeing these things, keep your eye out for an exit that takes you down to a little riverfront park. It’s a great place to stop to take a little walk, check your texts or perform that baptism you’ve been putting off. If it’s coffee time, or you are in need of a fuel top-up, there is a Tim Hortons and a gas station on the other side of the highway overpass. One of the next two exits also has a pretty great river view with a little footbridge and boardwalk. I think I like this one better, because it’s usually far less trafficked and has a beautiful lonely feel to it.
There is a giant apple along the 401 in Colborne, Ontario that could house both New Brunswick’s blueberry and potato man. Not to worry though – A quick chop from Nackawic’s axe will put us right back on the “giant produce” map.
There are many more things I could share. However, I believe that the best part of a drive like this is discovering things on your own. I’m sure many of you have your own favourite spots to stop as well as sights that must be seen. Send ‘em my way. I’m always up for freshening the experience by discovering something new.
Rest Stops and Petrol
Rest stops in the middle of the night are creepy places, there is no two ways about it. We’ve all heard the horror stories. I find that in particular the rest stops in Quebec suffer from a Jekyll and Hyde complex. In the middle of a sunny afternoon you’re all like “Ah, what a lovely little roadside park! Look, grass! Shady trees! A place for the dog to wander! And what’s this? A sandwich truck? Thank you, Lord, for this heavenly oasis among this desolate stretch of oil and gas – soaked concrete!”
Stop in after midnight, however, and it’s just a big dark turnout full of trash, smelling of urine and suddenly any person desperate enough to actually stop there looks like a murderer or pedophile. Including you. To another person, sitting in their car trying to choke down a vending machine Red Bull and Doritos just so they can wake up and get the hell away from this God-forsaken hunting ground for the sub-slime of society’s predators, you are the creep. Even that idyllic family, all clean-cut and wholesome in their khakis and sandals, look deranged and dangerous behind the windshield of their Honda Odyssey. And just why is that guy sitting there, bolt-upright in the passenger seat of a station wagon all by himself for going on 20 minutes? What the fuck is he looking at? Should I really take a nap here? Are these truckers going to “wagon train” me?
Necessary evils for those of us who must drive by night and travel in fear, I’m afraid. When you gotta go, you gotta go. You can rest easy, though, knowing that the Province of Quebec employs an army of rest stop sentries to make sure that you don’t slip in urine or loiter too long inside the kiosk:
Once you hit the 401 in Ontario, you are treated to the highwayside mini-malls called On Routes. Located at roughly every 80 km along the 401, On Routes are large, clean, well-lit food courts that are empowered by some mysterious legislation to charge double what you would normally pay for foodstuffs and gasoline. Despite the price-gouging, I find the On Routes to be very convenient, especially when driving in the wee hours of night. The restrooms are usually spotless and plentiful. There are many options for caffeine-laced drinks – hot and cold – as well as healthier fare like fruit, nuts and salad. The free wi-fi has never let me down. The parking lots are huge and also lit well enough that you don’t feel as open to a sneak attack. In fact, the few times I have been forced to catch 40 winks at an On Route, I was more fearful of being told to move along by a security guard than of having some dodeca-nippled, The-Hills-Have-Eyes-looking dude jimmy open my door. And If you’re doing the long haul from New Brunswick, chances are that in the middle of the night, On Route will be your only option for fuel. You just have to suck it up and pay the price at that point, and just be thankful you can get gas at all.
On the subject of gasoline, I have but one tip: Make sure you stop to gas up before you enter the province of Quebec. I find that more often than not gas prices are jacked way up there, even if you make an effort to get off the Trans-Canada to find more competitive rates.
Side note: In Quebec, Irving stations are called Couche-Tard’s. Snicker.
Let’s talk accommodations. The smart thing to do on a 15 or 16-hour drive, of course, is break it up and spend the night somewhere. Over the years, I have had occasion to patronize a number of the establishments along our route in both Quebec and Ontario. The worst place was probably Motel Express in Saint-Antonin. And when I say “the worst” I mean that on a scale balanced on either end by cheap motels that don’t ask questions or bump up the rate when a van load of disheveled, smelly guys in hoodies pull up and haggle over the “best rate” on a single room at 3 a.m. Hospital Grade stayed at Motel Express a couple of times out of sheer exhaustion. I can’t say that Motel Express is downright nasty, and I can’t say that it’s Trump Plaza, either. I think I do the description of Motel Express its best service by telling you that its office is a Petro-Canada station, and that the furniture is a little newer than that at the Motel Francoeur.
My best recommendation for a cheap, clean place to stay is the Econo Lodge in Levis, Quebec. It’s just outside of Quebec City and is pretty close to the halfway mark of the entire drive to Toronto. You can usually get a decent rate if you Hotwire it ahead of time, but if you have to make the call late in the evening, it’s not going to break the bank. Again, it’s no Four Seasons, but the staff is friendly and the free breakfast is interesting. Last time through, I had a muffin that tasted like it was made with cough syrup instead of eggs. And speaking of eggs, who doesn’t want to wake up to this?
Finally, I have to give an honourable mention to the Lion Motel in Long Sault, Ont. Not because it’s a luxury resort or even because it is that far above Motel Express in quality (it’s not), but because my cat and I once crashed there during a crazy, drug-addled road trip that I came to dub “Fur And Loathing in Long Sault.” OK, maybe there were no drugs. But there were some vitamins. And, my cat didn’t go to the bathroom for the whole trip, despite having a litter box at his disposal the entire time. That’s got to alter your brain’s chemical balance. I wish I could travel with facilities like that. On more than one occasion, I found myself eyeing that rectangular pan of relief-rocks on the floor of the passenger side of the car, only to talk myself out of using it by imagining the giant clump I’d have to scoop, most likely leaving very little litter for the cat.
Also noteworthy about this motel – the nightstands had some strange ‘70s-era technological console built right into them. They had all the design subtlety of an eight-track player, and evidently at one time they functioned as some kind of master control for all the “technology” in the room. It’s an odd thought that in 1976 the Lion Motel was on the cutting edge of high-tech hospitality, offering more modern gadgetry than a $200 room in one of the popular chains today. It certainly offered more wood grain and pink cinderblock.
This was the first time my cat and I ever shared a motel room. The Lion Motel was his choice. Most likely because of the name.
Finally, Your Destination
On one of my more recent trips, my dentist turned me on to a new shortcut that begins just outside of Montreal. During busy times of day, I found it saved me as much as an hour. Late in the evening, it can still save you 40 minutes. It’s called the A-30, and Truck News recently called it “Canada’s greatest new infrastructure development since the Confederation Bridge.” And while it does share one thing in common with the Confederation Bridge – a toll – it’s only a mere $1.50, and you are spared that feeling of your bowels creeping up into your stomach that you get when a bridge surpasses 800 feet. Obviously, the new route does not appear on road signs in explicit terms like “Great New Shortcut!” or “Shorter Route to Toronto,” so as you approach Montreal, you have to keep your eyes peeled for signs that say A-30 West and Exit 98. Or, you could Google-Map it. The last time I checked, though, Google Maps did not recommend the shortcut when asked for directions.
This brings us to the end of the trip. By now, you’re hunched over the steering wheel on the 401 as it hurls you past Ajax and into Toronto. You’re surrounded on all sides by giant missiles of metal and rubber, forced to keep up with the insane pace that they set. A task that may be manageable well enough on its own, but becomes all the more stressful when you’re struggling to hear that lady on your GPS or iPhone and looking for a break in the traffic so you can get over to your collector and /or exit, which is coming up fast.
And, damn it, you just missed it.
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Remember – Penny Blacks tonight at Taco Pica! Be there!
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