Wednesday May 7
With a breakfast of links sausages and eggs under our belts, we’re rolling with the first streaks of dawn.
The fog lifts in an hour to reveal Northern Ontario.
Here, along the roadside, the provincial disparity between north and south is obvious and profound.
We pass shanties and cobbled dwellings where souls scratch out a meager living on the harsh shell of the Canadian Shield, where the lakes stay frozen well into May. Most of us southerners couldn’t deal with this type of isolation and the distances involved.
We’re uncomfortable without a shopping mall nearby.
“I’m hoping to get the Chev delivered in Thunder Bay tonight. I’ll phone the customer later,” Ross announces.
“I also have an old friend I want to see in Thunder Bay, Rudy Croissandt. He used to drive a Leyland Comet in the old days.”
Up here, every trucker waves and expects one in return.
The process makes you aware of the name on each truck and provides a brief glimpse of the driver, but my arm tires soon enough.
The oncoming trucks are predominantly Manitoulins, TransXs and Bisons from Winnipeg, Erbs and H&R Transports, and a few Yankes and Reimers.
A few carriers are from Quebec, hauling plywood or lumber across the country.
Obviously some freight, mostly frozen meat, is still moving east/west in Canada.
So far we’ve counted two dead moose and a small squished bear. Almost all the local trucks, from pulp wagons to logging trucks sport impressive moose catchers mounted on the snouts of their tractors.
No doubt $3,500 seems expensive for an aluminum grille, but it’s the cost of doing business in the north.
One large animal strike can end a driver’s career, or write off a $160,000 truck.
“This is where I nearly froze to death,” Ross says matter-of-factly. Here, the road is rough in spots, bounded by scrub brush and a pencil-thin shoulder. Kilometres float by without any sign of a homestead or a fence.
“This part of the highway is called, ‘The Stretch,'” he says, shifting into storytelling mode. “137 miles with nothing in between. One winter night, I stopped for a coffee in Hearst, just back a-piece.
“Some of the older drivers told me, ‘You better think twice about heading out tonight.’ But I wanted to get to Vancouver and when you’re young you figure you can do anything.
“It was probably about 30 below Fahrenheit. The gearshift in that White was real sloppy, but it got so cold that it wouldn’t shift properly.
“Then my steering box froze up on me so I couldn’t steer. I was stopped on the shoulder and the wind was just howling.
“By then my truck had shut off, too. I wrapped myself in furniture pads trying to keep warm and thought for sure I was going to freeze to death.
“Eventually, a snowplow come along with two guys in it. They took me inside and warmed me up a bit. Then they gave me a lecture and told me I should have known better. Today when I hear some young guy complaining about his lower lumbar, I think ‘You poor bugger. Don’t you have it tough!'”
Almost at random, Ross takes an exit off the TransCanada that lands us into a residential area of Thunder Bay.
We pull up beside a soccer field and the proprietor of a diner lets us use the phone in her restaurant.
We buy fried chicken to go, but it’s almost too greasy to eat. There’s no time, anyway.
The new owners of the 55 Chev, a buoyant thirty-ish couple with matching haircuts arrives to escort us to their house.
Good thing, it’s a dead end street and difficult to back down. But the vista is exceptional, overlooking Lake Superior and the harbour.
The Chev starts easily and backs off the hoist.
We’re secure again in half an hour, and the couple insists on giving us an escort to Rudy’s house.
Good thing again, because Rudy lives on a crescent behind an old shopping mall.
Ross tries not to knock down too many tree branches as we pull around the street.
The two men hug and walk off arm in arm as soon as Ross steps out of the cab.
It’s been 20 years since they’ve seen each other.
Rudy is 89 years old, gaunt, and well preserved. Inside his bungalow, he keeps the shades drawn and the television loud.
His wife died a few years ago and his main companion, these days, is a furry tabby cat stretched on the couch.
“I have a bottle of whiskey,” he says to Ross. “Rudy, I quit drinking 26 years ago.”
Instead, the two pour over stacks of Rudy’s photo albums. Old black and whites show him as a young man beside his Leyland Comet in 1953.
Rudy’s claim to posterity might be that as a young German soldier he drove Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s headquarters bus in North Africa.
A page from a German newspaper shows Rudy with Rommel, himself, and the bus in the foreground.
Another clipping, this one in English, reports on the time he escaped along with five other German prisoners in 1943.
After being captured in North Africa, he was sent to Canada and jailed as a POW in Kapuskasing.
With nowhere to go in the dead of winter, the six were quickly rounded up.
Evidently, Rudy liked northern Ontario enough to return here with a German bride after the war.
Ross met Rudy in the 1950s when they both drove for North American Van Lines.
They’d see each other at points along the highway.
At other times, Rudy would drop into Mackie’s Oshawa warehouse to pick up a return load for Thunder Bay.
“So Rudy, are you going to come to Oshawa and visit me? I’ve got a Harley dealership, now. You can go for a ride on a motorcycle.”
“I’m not going to Toronto. I’m too old,” says Rudy.
“Do you think we can make Vancouver by Friday night?”
Rudy counts off the days on his fingers.
“Yeah, sure. I used to do it.”
They embrace again. I snap a couple of pictures of the two friends beside the cab of the Peterbilt, Rudy with a cigarette sticking out of his fist.
“Hey guys,” Rudy shouts as we pull away.
“Keep it on the rubbers!”
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