It was Friday afternoon, and Team Gushue had all but sealed their place in the World Curling Championship in Edmonton. I’ll admit I’ve spent many a night lately watching the sweepers work on TV – perhaps too many a night. And now, just days before the final, I find myself in Calgary, only a few hours from Edmonton, where the gold-medal game will be held.
Tickets are a measly $45. Beer is available. There is even a room in a “hotel” (more on that later) across the road. Downstairs, in the basement of the hotel I’m staying at is a 2017 Nissan Pathfinder, complete with Canada-ready heated seats and a heated steering wheel, plus radar cruise control to help me stay on the good side of the law during long highway stretches.
I’m in Calgary now, I’ve got a run up to Banff this afternoon, then a few days sightseeing here before I drive to Edmonton. From there, it’s a about an eight-hour hop down to Regina for an appointment at 6am Tuesday morning.
My wife prods me gently, and within three minutes the decision is made, I’ll make the trek.
As an immigrant, Canada fascinates me. In defiance of a climate harsh, cold, and unwelcoming, Canadians steadfastly project gentle, warm, welcoming.
I love this country, I'm excited to see more of it.
Calgary is a hidden gem. The city has spent money on street art and sculpture, so even a casual drive through the downtown core is engaging and interesting. You’ll notice the absence of people. This is very much a central business district, and on weekends downtown Calgary is nearly empty.
I park easily near the waterfront, and stroll over a bridge to the Prince’s Island on the river. The island parkland is a beautiful space, a green oasis in the city. There’s a small “café” but it’s really a restaurant – not a place to stop for only a coffee.
The parkland is more populated than the city streets were and everyone here seems content as they wander about.
I’m killing time, waiting here until the afternoon when I’ll meet with a friend I haven’t seen since she studied in Australia over a decade ago. Together, we’ll drive out to Banff.
Banff is beautiful.
We stop by a lake, as crystal-clear and still as forged ice, set deep blue against the green and white forest. I contemplate testing the ice and walking across to a small island, but its creaking under my feet dissuades me. My friend chuckles when I exclaim, “This is beautiful, oh wow,” for the 37th time.
I drive slowly through the national park, aching to see a deer, or a moose, or a bear.
Darkness descends as we drive up into the small village and my friend explains that this is where the big money stays. Living here is out of reach of most people, and the heritage-protected village is entrenched exactly as it is now. This is a national park, and even the man-made structures within are protected.
Banff is full of hospitality staff who are billeted by their employers. “Nobody on their salary could possibly afford to rent or stay here,” she says.
I ask why Calgary was built out in the flat land, so far from the Rockies with their dramatic silhouettes and alluring secret crevices? She doesn’t know.
There’s something to be said for long drives and over 1,500 km in two quick hits. You learn about the real comfort level of a car. Sound damping, seat comfort, vibration etc. In a bad car a long drive is taxing. In a decent car the drive is enjoyable.
Long drives also let you play around with the various digital screens and gauges too, as much to pass the boredom as to help you understand what’s going on underneath you. How many fuel stops will I need? Am I on my target time? And the Nissan Pathfinder’s instrument cluster is rich with interesting details. It is available with up to eight different information screens – but you’re limited to choosing four of them at any given time. I selected the fuel, trip computer, audio and navigation screens, foregoing the screens that gave me information about the AWD system and its current division of power, plus the tire pressure system monitor and the driving aid indicator.
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It’s a mystery to me why Nissan limits you in this way. Surely you would just leave it all available to scroll through? But I’m not an app designer. A bigger mystery, and a bigger disappointment, is the lack of Android Auto – especially given the finicky nature of Nissan’s native navigation system. Android Auto’s ability to answer simple weather questions, to navigate with one-word commands and to tap into Google’s immense data mine is a boon on long drives; its absence was felt on this one.
Visibility in the Pathfinder was an issue for me too. I couldn’t get my seat and steering wheel into a decent position that didn’t leave me with the A-pillar filling an inordinate amount of my vision.
But the seats, the broad dead pedal and the steering wheel were all supremely comfortable. The armrests fell naturally to where I wanted to rest my elbows and still allowed me to grip the wheel with both hands at just south of nine and three.
Steering feel is as expected from an electric-assisted SUV, but the steering weight was adequate enough to help keep the car tracking truly. The suspension absorbed everything the pock-marked highway could throw at me, and without an excessive amount of wind noise.
The 3.5L V6 is a worthy workhorse for my drive, its 284 hp and 259 lb-ft of torque more than enough for highway passing. It lopes easily on the highway with the revs low, thanks in part to the continuously variable transmission. CVTs are brilliant at finding the exact right ratio on long, sustained sections of consistent throttle percentage. The Pathfinder is rated at 8.9 L/100 km on the highway and I’m seeing it hover just over 9.0.
The miles fall easily away behind me as I head north towards Edmonton.
I had wondered how a hotel literally across the road from the World Curling Championship on Gold Medal night could be so inexpensive – but it soon became apparent. The Coliseum Inn is a brown-brick, brutalist structure whose aging yellow letters stop just in time for a newer, but equally grimy banner: the one that announces the opening hours for Pinky’s – the strip club which shares the first floor of my hotel. I couldn’t help but think of the card from the game Cards Against Humanity. Something about icy hands and Edmonton folk….
No matter, I’m not here for the sights and sounds of Edmonton, I’m here for the curling. My ticket gets me into the curling party, where I am one of only 12 people under 40 in a sea of thousands. There’s a Newfoundland folk band on stage belting out a reel, and an announcer egging on a man to show us what’s under his kilt.
There’s a shuffleboard curling rink set up, and I join the queue for a turn. I’m playing doubles with a young farmer from Saskatoon against two middle-aged women from Edmonton – both of whom seem too focused on the farmer to make their shots. This is good, and we win our match.
I don’t have to drive for more than 24 hours and the match doesn’t start for three, so I buy another $4 beer. There’s a couple in maple-leaf-emblazoned suits, so I buy them both a beer too. Aussies can be warm too, but it usually requires beer.
My seats are shockingly good. I’m up high, but that just means I can see the position of the rocks clearly. The match against Sweden is tight. Blank ends abound and the two teams are tied two-all into the ninth end. Brad Gushue scored two in the penultimate end, but Sweden looked good in the tenth.
With a crowd roaring behind him, it was up to the Newfoundland captain to eject two Swedish stones and take gold for Canada. Collectively, we held our breath for the release, and the cheers grew louder as Gushue’s stone closed the distance to the Swedish rocks, clashing into them and sending them skittering out of the circle.
Gold for Canada – in a game invented by the Scots but claimed by Canucks. Curling speaks to Canada’s strengths. It’s a game of steady resolve, of quiet strength.
In the morning, there are still signs of celebration outside as I drag myself out to the car. Fittingly, it’s snowing. Not so hard it matters, but hard enough to let me know where I am.
I pull out, past Pinky’s and into the final leg.
“Wasn’t Corner Gas filmed near here somewhere?” I think as I contemplate the coffee at the rest stop. I Google “Dog River is…” and the spookily accurate search box immediately fills in “Rouleau”. It’s not far out of Regina, so I aim myself in that direction.
Corner Gas made it to Australian television. It was shown on a quirky semi-government-funded channel not unlike Ontario’s TVO. I watched it religiously and chortled at Lacey and Brent’s banter. I had a secret crush on Wanda, more for her razor wit than anything else.
When I first entertained the idea of moving to Canada, the jovial, friendly, sardonic and subtly intelligent characters of Dog River were there in my mind.
The grain elevator still has “Dog River” painted on the side and I pull over for a photo. I go searching for the fuel station and Ruby’s but don’t see them.
My father-in-law was here just a few months ago, on a road trip of his own. He shared his photos of Dog River with me, knowing I was a fan. Gentle, kind, warm, and generous of spirit, my father-in-law is a mirror for the things I love most about Canada.
Bill passed away suddenly a few weeks past. I feel connected to him as I enter the township.
In town, a friendly local offers to take a photo of me outside the Dog River pub, after seeing me taking photos of the police station where Hank would harass Davis and Karen would bicker over acquisition forms, and where Hank would hover for comedic effect.
It turns out my friendly local is Guy Lagrandeur, Town Administrator for Rouleau and aficionado of all things Corner Gas. He opens up the town offices at 6pm on a Monday, just so he can give me the map of the town and the filming sites.
I remember Bill telling me that when he was here they were getting ready to tear down the Corner Gas petrol station and diner. Guy tells me they did, in November.
I drive back out and take a photo of the car in the vacant lot across from the grain silo, where the iconic set once stood. I sit for a long time. I message my wife and tell her I love her.
Corner Gas is gone, and it’s not coming back.
Bill is gone, too.
The water tower sits off in the distance, the actual town name of Rouleau painted proudly on its side. I want to climb it, and write “but really, Dog River” underneath in big letters. Just beyond the water tower is Oscar and Emma’s house, so, with the encouragement of the house’s real-life occupants, I take one last photo of Dog River, and head out to Regina.
Where I’ll sleep, attend my morning appointment, and fly home to Toronto.
C is for Canada