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Cross country checkup



My partner and I drove across the Great White North this summer. Whistler to Toronto, the long way around through Ottawa, some 5,500 kilometres. It's a trip I like to do every few years to remind myself of the improbability of this vast country and the things that continue to hold it together — riving forces like the abhorrent Harper Government™® notwithstanding. I never tire of the fascinating geological and ecological transitions that can only truly be experienced at car-speeds, or side-trips to places like Head-Smashed-in-Buffalo-Jump (the coolest name in all of North America). Undertaken periodically, these journeys are also an opportunity to check the zeitgeist, view the march of progress and/or decay, remind oneself of the ineffability of time.

The first watershed occurred exiting Vancouver, 30 seconds after crossing the new Port Mann Bridge, when a text/bill arrived on my phone indicating I owed $1.50 and could pay through the accompanying link. No sooner had we posited the mechanism of a camera capturing the license plate and a computer automatically sending a text to the registered owner than an identical text arrived on my partner's phone — a woman unaffiliated with my vehicle, and in any event whose number could not have been known. Were we somehow scanned crossing the bridge and our numbers pulled from the miasma of electronic data?

We were still scratching our heads over that one when another troubling sign-of-the-times presented. Where once a small minority, it now seemed a majority of motorcyclists — apparent on the Sea to Sky Highway as well — operate under a strange sense of entitlement that grants random use of road and shoulder space, and wonton disregard for speed and other safety regulations. They treat other vehicles not as equals, but objects in their way regardless of speed, particularly high-powered sport bikes. Odd behaviour given motorcyclists are already 14 times more likely to be killed in a traffic accident than other drivers. A near-constant worry of bikes weaving in and out of transports at 180-kph-plus seemed to herald a new age of nihilism.

Fortunately the usual Trans-Canada constants offered comfort and connection — like the infamous parade of giant objects: a rattlesnake, a teepee, a cowboy, a sasquatch (northern Ontario — go figure), a thermometer, a goose, a nickel, an apple. Less odd, for the most part, was the happy glut of overlapping CBC radio stations, where a panoply of familiar national programs mixed with regional and local voices. Likewise we could neither overlook nor resist the spreading cancer/convenience/communion of Tim Hortons — a mostly welcome connect-the-dots despite some Facebook friends excoriating us for not patronizing independently owned coffee shops (nowhere to be found along the actual highway). But we were also moved to imagine Canada as another connect-the-dots: of ski areas.

These are everywhere, even where they shouldn't be if we were to choose their placement based on any form of rational commercial thought. And I'm not just talking well-known "dots" like Whistler, Cypress, Apex, Red, Fernie or Castle Mountain — though these figure in. I'm mostly referencing community hills found anywhere gravity can roll a ball down an incline, whether mountainside or river valley. That's because commercial thought largely wasn't involved in their genesis, most being installed as recreational diversions in industry towns (including several of the celebrated resorts above), serving not just those communities but Canadian skiing at large by sending male and female scions to national race and freestyle teams. As family or community-run entities, many have been shuttered by prevailing economics: some, like Manning Park on the height of land between Hope and Princeton, newly so; others, like Agassiz Mountain in Manitoba's Riding Mountain National Park, a while back. But the cut runs are still visible, etched on distant summer-green hillsides as a reminder of a national passion once second only to hockey (conjuring tales of the crossroads reached by many an athletic Canuck forced to choose between the two). Of course there remain plenty in operation that one rarely hears about — vital links between community, culture, geography and history. Places like big ol' Mt. Baldy outside Osoyoos and little Pass Powderkeg in the Crowsnest. Or Hidden Valley in the preternatural Cypress Hills along the Alberta/Saskatchewan line, and another border destination, Manitoba's Falcon Ridge just before you cross into Ontario. In the latter you'll find Loch Lomond in Thunder Bay, Searchmont in Sault Ste. Marie, Mt. Pakenham and Calabogie Peaks north of Ottawa, and a litany of tiny never-heard-of-it hills along Highway 401 between Kingston and Toronto.

It all adds up to a unique cross-country sense of connection for skiers, even if you're from big, badass Whistler. Even in summer with their runs fallowed, seeing a sign with the little white figure of a charging skier on it and an arrow pointing down a lonesome gravel road under a gnarly number of kilometres can make you forget about being scanned by Big Brother or the motorcycle death race, and be as welcome as... well, a Timmy Hos if you need a coffee.

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