Words put together in a carefully crafted manner have more than a lyrical feel to them. There is something mystical the way a phrase speaks to a reader who is in a quiet corner discovering a new truth about an element of the universe. The spark it creates in the mind of a lonely individual is divine, which may cause a reader to take an action of some sort. Lately I have been finding this quality of writing in fiction but I was excited to find a work of non-fiction that excites me. Peter Unwin’s book Hard Surface: In Search of the Canadian Road, has me considering take a road trip of mine own, even if it is to find another one of his books.
Pages 11-12 Introduction
Since it first wound its way through the Canadian landscape, the road has been represented as a symbol of hope, leading all those who travel on it into a brighter future and a better life. The comforting language of unity and nation building is never far off and at times a spiritual dimension creeps in. Canadian road – “Highways of Hope,” “Pavements of Prosperity,” or “Dream Roads,” as they have been called – are routinely associated with growth, nationhood, and the betterment of the individual. It is assumed almost without question that the road will provide us with an escape route from poverty, from the past, and from the class consciousness of old Europe in particular. It will also guarantee national unity, protect us from the enemy, and provide us with a lot of fabulous scenery along the way.
This is a lot to ask of the road, which, in its most basic aspect, remains what it always was: a way of getting somewhere, a long, narrow, diffuse piece of technology, a machine really, a democratizing machine perhaps, and one that facilitates movement by itself remaining still. But the road is very much a body of beliefs, a secular religion that worships freedom and individuality. It pays tribute to the primary human urge to be in motion and allows us to create a story about ourselves, even requires that we do so: the story of who we are, a summation of all the roads we have travelled, of the turnoffs we’ve missed, of all the songs we have ever sung, and an inventory of all the people we have travelled with – in short of our lives.
The inclination of the road is inclusive, leading away from the exclusionary etiquettes of the railway or the brittleness of Old World class divisions. Unlike the rail, the road requires no blind obedience to a rigid schedule set by someone else or the purchase of a ticket from a man in a serge suit who’s a slave to his timepiece. We don’t stand in line to take it. Like an idea or a sudden passion, the road can be embraced on a whim. A man, a woman, their children, and the pet parrot can pile into the wagon or the car, tie the conjugal mattress to the roof, and at any moment undertake a new life. From Newfoundland to Newfoundout, from Fort McMurray to Hope, British Columbia, the road leads somewhere else – somewhere better.
I gave up a full-time career in media because writing in a expressive and emotional style wasn’t “profitable” for a lot of publishers anymore. But Unwin has captured that desire in me to “scribble” at least here again with this book. The prose is certainly poignant and – at times – witty. But there is always a no-holds-barred look at the reality of the history and roads in Canada which is not only unique and truthful.
Pages 50-51 Breaking the Trail: “Adequate for Horsemen, but Unsuitable for Women”
The first road to be built in maritime Canada were crude trails hacked from the dense bush for the simple and even exemplary purpose of delivering mail. This means that some of the first cargo of the Canadian road included, along with the expected cannon and gunpowder, billet-doux, letters home, missives written in the face of loneliness. The mailman appears as one of the first travellers on the road, pushing his lonely way through the deer paths, the tote roads, and finally the road itself, specifically built to accommodate him. In the seventeenth century, one Nova Scotia mailman covered a seventy-two-mile (115 kilometre) route for three months without meeting another human being.
While this raises the question of who exactly the mail was being delivered to, the original Canadian road is here presented in its first and long-lasting spiritual aspect” a conduit for verse, for the gossip that makes communication worthwhile in the first place, and for dark letters that announce the death of a loved one. The story also reveals the original Canadian mailman as a mute pioneer troubadour lugging a canvas bag through an almost primordial forest, whistling to remind himself that he’s there and to warn the bears of his presence. Joseph Howe describes an old postie named Stewart who worked the route from Pictou to Halifax and carried the mail in his jacket pocket, along with a gun to shoot any partridge that he might encounter. The partridge he sold to his customers as he went along.
Unwin has used a combination of wit and seriousness with his prose here to make readers ponder about something we take for granted – that path that is under our feet or under our tires. This is one of those books that should be taken to a quiet corner and meditated over. The ‘ah-hah’ and ‘really’ and ‘how-true’ moments that come from Unwin’s observations are numerous.
Page 143 – Virgin Territory
I unload a barrage of questions, and he at once drops the tourist board gimcrack and comes clean. “Nobody comes here,” he says softly. “You`re the first.” The young people are getting out of here as fast as they can. “Calgary,” he says. An almost mystical light shines in his face. Calgary.
Next door stands the prominently mounted street sign that announces Yonge Street. In front of it is the official blue information sign, pleased to explain that Rainy River is connected by this road to the humming frenzy of Toronto, 1,915 kilometres away. This, then, is Main Street: main street Rainy River, main street Toronto – what Sinclair Lewis, in his novel of the same name, sneeringly calls “the climax of civilization.” Smart-alecky, quick-talking VJs are forever zipping up here to film this sign for television programs that will be called “Road Trip” or “On the Road.” And yet Toronto exerts no pull here. In this hidden corner of Ontario, sometimes called the Northwest Angle, the tug is tangibly westward. The roads lead there, the rivers lead there, the culture leads there, the fur trappers went there before us, breaking the routes that the highways would follow. The young people are going there too. They follow the road. West
Peter Unwin has given a well-crafted voice to the unsung elements of the road in Hard Surface: In Search of the Canadian Road. It is an enlightening and entertaining read and definitely a great piece of literature.