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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.

2016-december-8-michigan-highwayDECEMBER 8: CROSSING THE BORDER

For a night owl, it’s impressive that I’m on the blacktop just after 10. I’ve stayed up late the night before talking to my hosts about their travels to the North Pole last summer. Speaking of the North Pole, the temperature has dropped today to below zero and it’s crisp and wintry white. I’ve only been on the road for 20 minutes when I drive into a flurry of snow.

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St. Clair River between Canada and U.S.

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Bluewater Ferry

My first challenge is to cross the border into the United States. My car is loaded with “stuff” for my daughter: suitcases of bedding, curtains, books, two Ikea chairs (conveniently disassembled) and a little cube stool. So I decide to hit the rather obscure border point of Marine City, directly west of London, between Windsor and Sarnia.

I cut a jagged path across southwestern rural Ontario towards Lake St. Clair and catch the Bluewater Ferry across the St. Clair River into the States. Costs me seven bucks and takes five or six minutes. There’s a one-man booth on the other side. I’m asked a few questions and am on my way within seconds.

As I barrel through the state of Michigan towards Chicago, the eastbound lanes of Highway 14 through Ann Arbour are completely blocked. There’s a car in the ditch. There’s a tractor trailer overturned. Snow is coming fast and heavy now and visibility is decreasing. But the westbound lanes are clear, and I have the perfect trekking playlist: Gordon Lightfoot to remind me of home, Passenger’s Rolling Stone, Home (“so many winding roads, so many miles to go”) and Young as the Morning, Old as the Sea about a lone traveller, Garnet Rogers’ Night Drive, and the driving rhythm of Appalachian folksinger Colter Wall’s Sleeping on the Blacktop to keep me energized.

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Chicago

By the time I reach the lower end of Lake Michigan, the snow is coming towards me horizontally, highway signs warn of slippery roads, traffic moves slowly. In Chicago, some time after seven, the snow lightens to flurries and the roads are clear.

While my goal today is to make it past Chicago, I’m so not tired, I decide to just keep on driving, on to Milwaukee, where I will turn westwards on the I94.

I hit the 1500-kilometre point of my trip around Milwaukee. I stop at a Starbucks for a shock of caffeine, but the coffee is so bitter, I throw in a piece of my emergency chocolate to make it palatable. Nevertheless, it jolts me into high functionality and I feel like I’ve just begun my journey, even though I’ve been on the road for 12 hours, eight of them in the darkness.

It’s 10:30, but I love driving at night! I’ve filled the tank, while I’m certain of finding a gas station that’s open. The snow has stopped, and it’s a crisp minus five. The roads are free of snow and the traffic is thinning out. The night’s arms seem to enfold me into a narrow world that is my tiny car space and the few hundred metres of road in my immediate vision.

After spending most of the day circumnavigating the enormous Lake Michigan, I’m really heading west now. As I continue driving through the night, I’m excited about the possibility of the unknown path ahead.