Oct 17 2015
I remember that on the north polar route on July 13, 1967, the Air Canada pilot banked our plane on one side and then the other, inviting us to look down at our first sight of Canada. We did, and were stunned by the vastness of the Arctic tundra and the countless lakes that dotted it. We had been flying from London Heathrow for about five hours by that time, but four hours later, still following the sun westward, the view beneath us seemed unchanged. That’s when I first began to think of distances as being different here.
And then last week my brother Mike, phoning me from England, said something that reminded me how Brits, and Europeans in general, have absolutely no common ground with Canadians when it comes to understanding distance…
Talking about family matters, I told him I had driven to Edmonton some time ago to visit my daughter Jeanne, and that the 900-km drive had taken me about nine hours. He flat-out didn’t believe me and accused me of exaggerating, and I smiled, remembering my own experience when I first arrived here, in Centennial Year, 1967.
I was teaching in Athabasca, Alberta, a newly landed immigrant, and after three months I was only beginning to realize how immeasurable the gulf was between Canadian and European concepts of distance, because relative distances, and the time required to travel them in Britain and in Canada, were wildly at odds with each other and inversely related. In Canada in the 1960s, you could travel non-stop at high, largely unregulated speeds on straight, uncluttered highways and cover hundreds of miles in a matter of hours. In the UK, on the other hand, if you drove anywhere at all in those days, it was insanely optimistic—and unrealistic—to anticipate an average speed of even 25 miles an hour.
As a schoolteacher teacher in England, living in the southern coastal town of Brighton, Sussex, I had grown used to planning for regular excursions up to London to visit my in-laws. It was a sixty-mile jaunt, an hour’s travel by train, (like most Brits in the mid-Sixties, we didn’t even think about owning a car,) but it took a week’s planning for a weekend trip, including angst-filled decisions on what to take to wear and what was easiest to pack.
As a schoolteacher in Alberta less than a year later, I owned a car and my wife and I had accepted Canadian realities, so that we thought nothing of packing the kids into the station wagon with their sleeping bags on Friday evenings in summer and autumn and driving 90 miles south to St Albert to go to a Drive-In movie, then driving home again afterwards.
You couldn’t do that in England. Incredible as it seems today, there was only one Motorway in Britain in the early 1960s—the M1—and it really didn’t go very far, starting and ending in urban bottlenecks. And there were no Drive-In theatres, anywhere. A 180-mile round trip would have entailed six or seven hours of driving, and the very idea of doing that just to see a movie was too ridiculous to be conceivable in Britain.
In Canada, though, a two-and-a-half-hour round trip drive was ho-hum. And therein, forty-eight years later, lay the reason for my brother’s disbelief in what I said about driving 900 kilometres in nine hours. He simply could not grasp the scope of our distances here. In human terms, it all boils down to a consideration of geography, distance, time and individual capability.
You can’t really walk anywhere in Canada, for one thing, not as people in Britain understand walking. You can walk, certainly, and you can tire yourself out, but you won’t really get anywhere worthwhile in the short term…
As a teenager, I lived in the Scottish county of Lanark, in a village called Cleland, about five miles from a town called Motherwell, and I could travel in either of two directions to reach Motherwell from where I lived. The main road through our village connected with others on both sides to form a rough circle about ten kilometres in diameter, with Motherwell on one side of the circumference and Cleland opposite on the other. Left, to the west, was the high road and the eastern road, less busy, was the low road. The low road took me to Motherwell via the villages of Coltness, Wishaw, Craigneuk and Ravenscraig, and once there, I would take my girlfriend for a walk… Homeward on the high road, I would pass through Cambusnethan, Carfin, Newarthill and the hamlet of Windyedge before reaching my home in Cleland. It took about three hours to complete the round trip, at a 17-year-old’s brisk jogtrot, and I traversed nine communities en route, just to walk with my girl… You can’t do that in rural Canada, not in three hours, not even for love.