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2016-december-10-north-dakota-copyDECEMBER 10: RETURN TO CANADA

There’s a sheriff on the scene when I pull into a station for gas and wiper fluid this morning. He’s calmly taking a report from the lady behind the counter. A car “fishtailed” out of the garage without paying.

I’m not going anywhere fast today because my car is sluggish in the minus 29 degrees Celsius weather and I’m having trouble getting my hood up to fill the windshield washer tank. A customer at another pump helps me. Thank you Mr. American.

My fingertips are so cold, my toes are numb, my car is taking forever to warm up and my phone is slow to charge.

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Within a few hours of leaving Minot, North Dakota, I re-enter Canada at a little place called Portal on the Saskatchewan border. I pretty much just drive through after I’m asked how long I’ve been in the States and if I’m bringing anything in. There are no other cars.

2016-december-10-tim-hortons-copyWhat I remember about the many times I’ve driven across Saskatchewan is that gas stations can be few and far between on the barren prairies. So I don’t want my gas tank level to fall below the halfway mark. The first town I come to is Estevan, where I top up with gas and pick up a couple of cups of hot water and a tea bag from Tim Horton’s.

Around four o’clock, I feel so sleepy on the flat, boring, northbound road to the Trans-Canada Highway, I stop at a little pull-in that says No Trespassing Do Not Remove Any Material. There are some very large lumps of earth. After a brief nap, my brain is foggy and I’m thinking, “Am I still on the road and falling asleep or am I actually in my car having a snooze.”

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After 15 minutes, I climb out and run around the car seven times. It’s minus 21 and every time I reach the driver’s door, the harsh wind whips at my face. I climb back in, breathing hard and feeling like an ice cube. But I’m ready to hit the road again.

I make a pit stop in the city of Moose Jaw just before five. I pull into a full-serve gas station so I don’t have to freeze pumping gas, then I pick up some groceries and a coffee at a nearby Safeway.

After Swift Current, I run into bad weather. The road is partly snow-covered and huge wafts of snow drift across the road, obscuring the white lines. The road is deserted and I can barely see in front of the car. It slows me down, until I catch up to a commercial truck. I keep my distance to stay clear of the veils of snow its tires kick up, blocking all visibility in its wake. Carefully, I calculate an ideal distance between being far enough away to avoid the clouds of snow but close enough to see the red tail lights at the top and bottom of the truck. The scariest part is, two or three times a truck passes me and I drive completely blind for a few seconds. I’m seriously tense as this lonely snowy drive goes on for a good two hours all the way to Medicine Hat.

There are enormous benefits to following a commercial vehicle. It warns of problems ahead by flashing its rear lights. For example, we come across a stopped truck with little triangles all around it. Further along there’s a car moving at a snail’s pace with its hazard lights on, which is kind of creepy, and the truck warns me of that as well. With the truck leading the way, I’m able to pick up the pace to between 100 and 120 kph.

2016-december-10-medicine-hat-deer-copy-2I take another break in Medicine Hat, top up the tank again and drive down the deserted Main Street – deserted except for a magnificent deer that is wandering around.

Only a couple more hours to Calgary after Medicine Hat. Thankfully, the snow stops, the road is fine, and I arrive just before midnight.

Over the past four days, since leaving Ottawa, I’ve put four thousand kilometers on these wheels. My ears are still buzzing with road noise.

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2016-december-9-north-dakota

DECEMBER 9: THROUGH THE NIGHT

Through most of Wisconsin, I follow closely behind large transports to avoid hitting any animals and to save gas by travelling in their wake. They move at a nice steady pace just below the speed limit.

The driving snow eventually clears up exposing a starlit heaven, and a pale gold waxing moon falls like a misshapen stone through the night sky to sit like a lump on the horizon. The temperature falls steadily as I approach the Prairies.

By the time I hit Minnesota, I’ve gained an hour of time and the clock slips back to four a.m. Central Time. When I reach the 2,000-kilometre mark, I’ve been driving for nearly 20 hours, only snatching little naps here and there, which aren’t really naps. It’s uncomfortable in the car, because there’s too much stuff in it and the temperature outside ranges from minus five to minus 15 Celsius. I have a good winter coat and a thick wool blanket, but I get chilled quickly when I turn off the engine.

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Starbucks is everywhere in America!

Just before six in the morning Central Time, I head over to the Starbucks near the Target, where I’ve been sleeping in the parking lot, and have a satisfying breakfast and change my clothes and clean up in their washroom.

I don’t really see the sun come up because I’m driving west. The shadows of the night simply dissipate slowly and the sky becomes light as if by magic. Eventually the sun does come over the horizon and blinds me in the rear view mirrors.

The further west I go, the sunnier it gets, and the colder it gets. The roads are bare. The sky is a jagged painting of clouds. The air is still. I’m getting nearer the Prairies, but I don’t have the same energy level I had the last couple of days at all.

I continue through Minnesota under a brilliant sun and on into North Dakota, gaining yet another hour as I cross the next time zone. Then I run into more snow.

The roads in North Dakota are mostly ice-packed, especially the right-hand lane, so I use the passing lane as much as possible, but as I turn north, the highway narrows to two lanes, which are covered with chunks of ridged hard ice. Big trucks heading south throw up plumes of snow that block my visibility.

The land is flat, the trees are bare and the low winter sun is blinding.

It’s minus 26 degrees when I stop to fill the gas tank at Carrington, and the station’s fuel pump malfunctions in the bitter cold. They tell me it’s at least another three hours to the Saskatchewan/Canadian border and the roads are like this all the way.

It’s not yet four in the afternoon when the sun has crossed the sky to hover on the horizon. I’ve had a lot of daylight driving as I’ve been rolling since dawn, but I’m very tired now and the last hour has been extremely uncomfortable, forcing me to stop short of the Canadian/Saskatchewan border.

img_4656In Minot (pronounced My Knot) in the north of the state of North Dakota, I decide to look for a hotel. At the edge of town, I pull over and check booking.com on my iPhone, and settle on the Sierra Inn, which has a room available for $71 Canadian.

I have a momentary thought that I should have brought somebody with me to keep me warm between the cold hotel sheets. The bitter cold is such a shock to my system. But it’s so nice to be in a real bed after being in my car for 31 hours!

A sad consequence of sitting for so long in my car, with my heated seat on, is that I have a second-degree burn on the back of my upper thigh. When I undress in the hotel, I realize I actually have blisters and a deep hole in the skin.

I’m hoping to make it to Calgary tomorrow in 11 hours.