One More For The Road

With many readers of Further North located in countries other than Canada, I decided to devote this post to giving you an opportunity of experiencing (albeit from your mobile device) the much-adored driving route of Canadian pianist, Glenn Gould.  I am speaking of the approximately 700 km trip from Toronto to Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario.  This blog post will be about the latter portion of the trip, that section from Sudbury to Sault Ste. Marie (commonly known as “the Soo”).

Having grown up in the Soo and with family in Sudbury (the half-way point between the Soo and Toronto), I cannot begin to count the number of times my parents and I have traveled this route.  Living as I now do in Mississauga, a suburb of Toronto, I have become almost equally as familiar with the stretch of highway from Toronto to Sudbury.    

Leaving Toronto, we must first get onto Highway 400 North.  

Roughly an hour and a half later, just past the city of Barrie, we make a turn-off onto Highway 69 North.  

Continuing along Hwy 69 to the city of Sudbury, we then take the turn-off for Highway 17 West.

Traffic pares down considerably from the many lanes of the fast-paced Hwy 400 to the single lane, reduced speed limits of Hwy 17.  In between, Hwy 69 serves as a kind of transition from the urban speed and anonymity of the 400 to the natural ruggedness and pretty little towns along number 17, towns seemingly unchanged for decades.  

What strikes me about the trip along Hwy 17 is the close proximity of the small communities.  Unfolding like subject entries in a Bach fugue, towns such as Webbwood, Massey, Blind River, Iron Bridge, Thessalon and Bruce Mines punctuate the expansive ruggedness of the landscape along this thickly forested part of the province.  Every thirty minutes or so, a new town emerges before receding into the rear view mirror.

Passing through these small towns, one has to reduce one’s speed from the standard 90km to 50km/hr.  It’s as if the highway is calling upon us to slow down and take a look around, to reflect upon our thoughts, to listen more deeply.  It is as if a moral fibre has been built into the road and, while we are forced to reduce our driving speed, the resulting feasibility of an increase in the speed and quality of our thoughts is an enticing proposal.  I think this is what Glenn valued about going North, this opportunity for heightened thinking and listening. 

Another moral aspect that I’ve noticed while driving along Hwy 17 is that, unlike on busy highways such as the 400, 401 or 403, one often finds oneself either in front of or behind the same vehicle for many kilometres.  On busy urban highways, drivers change lanes with great frequency.  On quiet highways such as number 17 however, the experience of being in front or in back of a vehicle for easily and hour or more, makes for a kind of thoughtful road companion at arm’s length.

On a recent trip to the Soo, I had in my CD player, an audiobook from the public library.  The book was A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce.  As I listened and traveled, the novel spoke of retreats, in particular, retreats as representing a withdrawal in order to examine the state of one’s conscience.  The passage reminded me of Glenn’s views on the North and his idea that solitude is the prerequisite for ecstatic experiences.  

With philosophical musings out of the way, here are a few endearing road signs along the route from Sudbury to the Soo.  Each time I pass them I feel a quiet sense of goodness.

Seldom Seen Road
Go Home Lake
Still River
Friendly Massey Marathon

As well, one also finds along Hwy 17, endless train tracks and many promising sites for picking blueberries.  Blueberries in northern Ontario are very small and grow in the wild, a Gouldian fruit, you might say and they are excellent in pies!  

Along the highway, one also encounters a large and faded Imperial Oil gas sign and the Red Top Motor Inn, established in 1961.  I wonder if Glenn stayed there.  

Red Top Motor Inn, Iron Bridge, Ontario along Highway 17.  (Photo by Penny Johnson)

For as long as I can remember, this stretch of highway has also been dotted with Ernie’s signs.  Established in 1939 and with a mission of “providing Northern Ontario with high quality signage,” signs by Ernie’s would no doubt have been seen by Glenn.

Founded in 1938, a year before Ernie’s Signs, one also comes across the Husky gas station.   

Exiting Hwy 17 onto Trunk Road in the Soo, I stopped at the Husky station.  Inside, I was pleased to find an old fashioned family restaurant, surprisingly bright and spotless and serving up hot meals to weary travellers.  One older couple had just ordered a dish of apple crisp with ice cream and it smelled good.  

I remember reading about how Glenn enjoyed stopping at roadside restaurants, the kind frequented by truckers.  Apparently, he found them to provide wonderful opportunities for listening to multiple conversations in a musical, polyphonic fashion.  Likely, these establishments provided Glenn not only with fuel for his automobiles, but also creative fuel for his experiments in contrapuntal radio (e.g. The Idea of North).

For those interested in a virtual road trip along the route just described, please check out the following video entitled “Glenn Gould’s Road Trip.”  You’ll find a sequence of photos that I took earlier this Fall from various points along the route.  Accompanying the photos is a recording I made of the E-Major Fugue from J. S. Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier Book II and performed at 432 Hz.  This frequency has been known to have a calming effect.  

Glenn Gould’s Road Trip – By Penny Johnson

If you enjoyed this blog post and or you just plain enjoy road trips, then I encourage you to check out the following website which contains many old photos from along Hwy 17.  

Happy travels and don’t forget to buckle up!


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