Motor City Madness

November 15, 2002

“Motor City madness has touched the countryside…”

—Gordon Lightfoot, Black Day in July


We Yukoners are so innocent, so naïve, so supremely confident in our ability to get from Point A to Point B in less time than it takes to say it out loud. Never more than ten or fifteen minutes from any destination within our town or village or city limits, we zip down alleys to avoid traffic that might add 2 minutes to our ETA, whip kitty-corner through parking lots to eliminate the inconvenience of driving all the way around our tiny-town blocks, and on the open road, we daringly tramp ‘er, adding 5 or 10, even 15 klicks to the posted speed limits, bad ass to the very bone.

When you get right down to brass tacks, none of the above is terribly surprising or even interesting. After all, we have only a few major roads and even fewer minor ones, a couple of large-ish towns, one small city that is becoming less-major all the time, and most of the time, fewer than 30,000 people trundling around the landscape. No wonder Yukon drivers feel so secure: we know exactly who we are, where we’re going, and how to get there.

Just recently, I decided to take a little holiday. “Going to visit Uncle Aksel?” my daughter asked. “Yeah, spend a couple days with Ax and Lorene on Van Isle, then bop over to Edmonton and check out the Mall.” I paused to take a sip of coffee. “Might even rent a car and go drive about, go down to Camrose to see Betty, over to Bluffton to check on the Grindes, fly home from Calgary,” I added, nonchalantly.

Lise looked at me, her blue eyes round with shock. “You’re gonna rent…? Drive?” Her voice rose. “You’re going to drive to. … Calg’ry?” Calgary came out in a strangled squeak. She cleared her throat and tried again. “Mom, it’s been twenty-two years since you and Dad last went to Edmonton… you have no idea…”

“Pish!” I exclaimed, then added a “ Tush!” for good measure. Well, I may not have used those words, precisely, but close enough.   “Edmonton to Calgary, what, two hundred miles on a 4-lane divided highway with a few stops in between? Piece a cake.”

She tried again. “But Mom, you have no idea…the traffic…going every whichaway…” Her words had petered out then but came back to me, loud and clear, as I screeched to a halt facing three lanes of traffic barreling at me in a one-way underpass right in the heart of beautiful downtown Edmonton. “Pish!” I thought. “What the tush am I doing HERE?? And more to the point, how on earth do I get out of this?”

I’d flown to Vancouver Island where I’d had a pleasant, if wet, week with my brother and sister-in-law, and then had flown West Jet to Edmonton to spend a couple of days, see the sights, pick up a rental. Ross Regan, our good friend who has lived in Edmonton for years, reluctantly took me to an Avis dealership. “I dunno, Ellen, it’s not a kiddie car drive to work like you’re used of…”

“C’mon, Ross,” I wheedled. “I’m not exactly a babe in the woods. I’ve been driving for fifty years. I can do this.”

Ross took me over to the Mayfield Avis where, with astonishing ease, I picked up a nice green Malibu which I promised to leave, full of gas, at the Calgary airport five days hence. The plea- sant young lady behind the counter flinched only slightly when I handed her my driver’s license with it’s 4-diget number. “You’ll probably be wanting full-cover insurance,” she said in a faint voice. “Nah, I don’t think I’ll be needing…” her big, dark eyes got bigger and darker… “but on the other hand, sure, okay, sign me up.”

The next morning, map in hand, Ross’ explicit instructions (“Awright, you go down 135th over to 137th avenue, turn right onto 97th and then left onto the Yellahead, stay in the middle and Bob’s yer uncle..”) for an efficient exit from Edmonton ringing in my ears, my heart beating only slightly faster, I turned triumphantly onto the Yellowhead Trail, headed east and looking for an exit to Highway 21. The traffic was thick and moving faster than I was used to but I was smack in the middle lane and feeling pretty comfortable. Just like driving in Whitehorse, I thought. All you have to do is obey the traffic signals and watch the other guys. Shoot, I could even pass that big truck ahead of me, maybe pick up a bit of time.

I edged over into the left hand lane and sped up a bit to match the faster speed of the cars ahead and behind me, feeling like a chip of wood in a fast flowing stream. Hmm. Ross’ advice to stay in the middle came back to me and I decided I’d better get back where I’d been. But now the truck I’d thought to pass seemed also to match my new speed and the hole I’d left had filled up so getting back seemed out of the question, at least for the time being. But now… WHAT THE…? the line I was in was splitting off from the rest and… OH NO!…I’m being swept off the Yellowhead towards an underpass with no apparent proper lane, just big red “X’s” and what did they mean and at this speed where was I supposed to go?

Now, if I’d been home, I would have pulled over to the shoulder and stopped, checked out the situation, consulted with the other guy who’d done the same, bumped through the vacant lot on the other side and been on my way. But I wasn’t home, I was in Edmonton, there were no shoulders and the other guys had scattered and gone and I had about 2 seconds to decide that the lit “X” meant DON’T GO HERE and therefore, I should choose the unlit one.   Well, golly, at 60 kmp it made sense to me. Unfortunately, it was the wrong choice at any speed and there I was, under the street, looking into the faces of fifty speeding vehicles approaching in every available lane.

Pish, indeed!

Horns blaring, the on-coming stream of cars split like a herd of stampeding cattle and swept by me while I sat in my nice green, fully insured, Malibu with my hands over my face like a child. When I finally chanced a peek, I found that one motorist had stopped several car lengths from me and was gesturing me forward. I cautiously pulled ahead and to the right while he, himself at some great risk of being rear-ended, diverted traffic from my lane and allowed me to exit the underpass, cross the median and merge with the flow under the flashing big “X.” I gave him a grateful smile as I eased by him and he responded with smile of his own and bit of a headshake.

I’ll never know for sure, of course, but I like to think that my saviour might have been an ex-Yukoner who recognized another babe-in-the woods when he saw one. On the other hand, he might just as well have been a born Edmontonian who was used to helping stupid tourists out of a jam. Whoever he was, I’m thankful for his courtesy and quick-thinking.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: that Lise was right, that I should never have been allowed out without a keeper. But you know what? I found my way back onto the Yellowhead Trail, made a successful exit onto Highway 21 and got to my sister’s place in Camrose without further incident. A couple of days later, I drove over to Bluffton, with a minimum of fuss and bother, to visit with John and Ginnie and all the other Grindes, departing from there the following morning for Calgary and a hot date with Air North. Piece of cake, indeed.

Well, I did take that wrong turn leaving Camrose and before I realized that if I was supposed to be travelling west to Winfield (where I would turn south to Bluffton,) it was unlikely that the sun would be shining right in my face at 9 o’clock in the morning. Of course, I was halfway to Stettler by the time I figured that out but it didn’t take me long to get turned around and headed in the right direction and I arrived at Bluffton a scant hour later than estimated.

And then there was the near miss with an empty gas tank. Intent on taking John’s advice to gas up in Airdrie so that I could return the Malibu with a FULL reading, I forgot to notice if I had enough fuel to actually get me there. Turns out I hadn’t and for about 30 REALLY stressful minutes, I drove along on a barren stretch of Highway 2 with the gas gauge nudging E. All was well that ended well, however. Lacombe loomed up on my left, I successfully negotiated the exit that brought me right onto the main drag and a Petro-Can station where I bought an astonishing $37 worth of gas at

Oh yeah, there was a bad moment or two when I glanced in my rearview mirror and found a bright yellow semi no more than a few feet behind me as we rocketed along in excess of eighty miles an hour. And another, a few miles further down the trail when a split second decision I had to make with regards the exit that should have taken me to the Calgary International Airport turned out to be the wrong one and found myself on the road again, heading north this time, and going like stink. It took me a few miles to find yet another exit but eventually I did, onto a service road that was somewhat torn-up and had detours posted every other block or so. Of course, that just made me feel like I was back in Whitehorse and I never turned a hair, simply followed it for a few miles, jogged down a back lane, across a parking lot and came out to see a big sign that said AIRPORT NEXT LEFT. Before I knew it, there I was, with an hour to spare, parked in a NO PARKING zone while I jogged around trying find out where to leave my somewhat travel-stained green rental. A gentleman in a uniform came over and told me exactly where to go and how to get there. He seemed rather excitable but calmed somewhat when I told him where I was from. I think he said something like “Shoulda known…” and waved me on

Friendly people, those Albertans. Well, except, maybe, for that truck driver in the Kenworth. I had a strange feeling that if I’d pulled over onto the shoulder and stopped, he’d have pulled in behind me and done real damage to my mirrors, explaining all the while that if I wasn’t going to use them, I really didn’t need them, did I? Fortunately, I had enough sense not to stop.   After fifty years of safe driving and a week of life in the fast lane, I decided I’d better not push my luck.

I think Lise would have been pleased.