The 400 series highways were introduced in Ontario during the early 1950s.The MacDonald Cartier Freeway is the longest of the 400 series highways. Although construction began in 1947 it wasn’t until 1965 that the MacDonald Cartier Freeway was dedicated to honour the memory of Sir John A MacDonald and Sir George-Etienne Cartier and their roles as Fathers of Confederation. If you were to mention the McDonald Cartier Freeway hereabouts you might have most people scratching their heads. Ask for directions to “the 401” and they’ll set you straight on your way.
The black top ribbon of The King’s Highway 401 is born in the gritty outskirts of Windsor and stretches to the Quebec border. A peak day for the 401 can see upwards of 400,000 vehicles racing along carrying goods and people up and down one of the busiest highways in North America. More than half the population of Canada has settled along the 815 km that make up its rolling length. As I reside within a 5 minute car ride to this busy corridor I fall well within that percentile.
I have traveled the length of the 401 and some of the other 400 series as well. It was as a passenger that I first took to the road and became familiar with the Q.E.W. (Highway 451), its giant concrete lions, its comings and goings. Now living more than 2 hours away any trip back “home” brings pangs of nostalgia but really I’ve never driven the Queen Elizabeth Way. The 401 is my highway. It was the one I first drove on after earning my license and it is the one I continue to travel on weekly.
I like to drive but mostly in fair weather. I’ve done my share of winter driving and if I have to I will but I’d rather not. The weather is notorious for being fickle in this part of the country. As the saying goes, “Don’t like the forecast? Wait five minutes.”
May is tornado weather. It’s a given here and we don’t get worked up unless there’s a reason to. I was shocked several years ago when confronted by a concerned cousin visiting from the south. Everyone knows what to do if one touches down. I couldn’t understand what she was so worried about. Actually the water spouts over the lake are quite beautiful when viewed from the shore.
In winter snow squalls off the lake and in the snow belt can reduce visibility to zero. It’s always good to have a passenger to help navigate. Having someone lean out of the passenger window to make sure you’re not drifting off the road is sometimes a necessary evil when you’ve got to get home and the weather is keeping the plows off the roads.
My stretch of the highway has become familiar to me over the past 15 years. It’s said that women navigate by landmark and I’ve definitely staked my out. The best ones are those that are closest to my house. Outward bound they hold the promise of the journey and on my return they herald the comfort of home. No matter how familiar the route I never fail to see something marvelous and new.
The Monarch butterflies migrate every year flying incredible distances to rest in the southern heat of Mexico. On the way they cross the dark road. It’s only one of many that they cross but it will claim the lives of quite a few. The heat of the asphalt, the updrafts and washes of the passing trucks and cars are just one more hurdle on that monumental journey. The sides of the road are littered with just as many calico petals as the fields further on.
The mild weather this winter has changed the migration schedule of local and northern hawks. On any given day the trees and power lines along the highway play host to a pageant of keen eyed hunters. The dark black wires and frosted branches bend under the weight of feathered predators watching for the unwary both on the roads and in the fields.
The crest of an overpass draws the car level with the flights of other native birds. Flocks of Canadian geese (lingering further north as well) take off from stubble crowned fields. Struggling against gravity and air their wings push forward as their slender necks waver in serpentine curves fighting the winter wind.
Deer roam the fields and occasionally brave the road. Most don’t make it but some do. The Sybil like weather makes for incredible cloud breaks, sunrises and sunsets. Columns of light rend the blackened mists to strike the ground like the hand of God (Cecil B. DeMille would have been green with envy).
The fields roll out in Grant Wood patchwork quilts. Each season’s theme is expressed in the truest values of the spectrum. Rivers, streams and great stretches of fresh water reflect the whims of the firmament. Nature and her Darwinian cycles edge and over lap the road that leads on, a different story on each page. The jeweled cities, worlds of faces, cultures and languages anchor the road that is both a slave and a master. Drop a finger on the map and find a Shakespeare play, a Dali painting, a dim sum lunch or an artery clogging poutine for dinner. Dance to Caribbean strains, sink into the depths of the blues or rise up to symphonic heights.
Over it all is the sky, bottomless and spinning off into space. It is a cobalt, phthalo, cerulean, ultramarine, peach, harvest gold, coral, ebony, jewel encrusted, aurora borealis crowned schizophrenic beauty. The hard black top winds through the heartland joining it all together. Interchanges snake off like thin tentacles opening the way to unknown people and places. Drawing us in and sending us out. Each day is a new day and though the road is asphalt and rock bed solid it never travels the same route twice and neither do I.