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Death of the road trip?

The reaper at the pumps
Photo by Dave Buzzard

Big Red Betty

She’s had many names, Betty has, but she’ll take this one to the scrap yard. A 1998 Honda CRV, four cylinders and decent fuel efficiency, I bought Big Red Betty used in Ontario. She came to me a pristine, mud-toned red, the 185,000 km logged on her odometer representing no burden to her performance.

But that was then. Shortly after purchase, I sat behind her eyes, sent obnoxious music vibrating through her mechanized biology, and pointed her headlights northeast, the beams eventually to fall upon the spruce-flanked gravel roads of Labrador. And from there back to the two-lane shotguns of Nova Scotia. And then across the Cabot Strait to the crater-strewn stretches of Newfoundland. Next, like a javelin tossed by some colossal juggernaut, across the whole country, arching over the Prairies and tearing through clouds gathered round the Rockies, finally piercing the stony soils of 100 Mile House, where boredom quickly unstuck my spear and sent it tumbling end over end to Squamish. All this sustained by the meager pittance gained from the newspaper business – and supplementary loans from the family unit.

I owe a lot to Betty, no doubt. I’ve tossed my whole life into the back of her britches more than once. And when roofs were scarce, I found shelter and succor behind her dashboard or under a blanket next to her frame.

But all that meandering has taken its toll. Big Red Betty’s back window has been smashed out, and her body still carries the scars from duct tape used to fix poly across the jagged hole. Her indicators come on for no obvious reason. If I don’t start her for a couple days, she needs to suck off another man’s woman just to get her juices flowing again. Her catalytic converter rattles like snare wire. I got crazy in her guts with some red spray paint. She’s all covered in dents and her bumper’s falling off thanks to stalling on it with skateboards. Her rear beams are bent and her driver’s side door won’t open from the inside. Nor will the window come down. Sometimes, when I switch her from park to drive, her tranny makes a desperate thunk, and I know she’s not long for these roads. Her odometer is pushing 250,000 and she doesn’t mind whinging about it.

See how Betty holds my hand? See how she strokes my knee? I took her door panel off once, then twice, trying to get the window to come unstuck. Lost some screws while I was at it, and now her interior handle hangs from the housing to my thigh, mess of wires making it so. I give the handle a squeeze on the way to and from work.

“I’m expiring, sweetie,” her engine rumbles. “But don’t forget me. I’m your first. Your only first.”

I nod and thumb her latches, then quote Bruce Springsteen: “Everything dies, baby. That’s a fact.”

It’s a love affair

Of course, despite her deathbed romanticisms, it’s not me that Betty truly loves, not I for whom her engine revs eternal. It’s the road.

The love affair between car and road has been torrid probably since Henry Ford and the Model T. There are some in cyberspace who posit that the sparks flew well before that, that wheel first became enamoured with road in the days of the Crusades and all its carriages, that John Cabot and others took the idea to the sea, that Genghis Khan did it on horseback, that such excursions were the ideological and imperial forerunners of today’s road trip. But that’s a stretch.

The modern day romance between rubber and road truly began with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters. In the young years of the ’60s, the Pranksters loaded up on acid and struck out in some hippie van, wandering from California to New York with Tom Wolfe in tow, their escapades dutifully recorded and published under the auspices of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. And, although the Hells Angels came together in the late ’40s, it wasn’t until the ’60s, when they crossed roads with the Pranksters, bounced someone to death at a Rolling Stones concert and got wasted enough to launch Hunter Thompson’s career, that they fully entered the popular imagination.

Like all great and storied love affairs, this one comes with a host of forces pitted against its continued fruition. Perhaps the first push from those forces was the 1973 oil crisis. The Yom Kippur war crackled in Israel, as a coalition of Arab states gunned for lands lost in tussles gone by. The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), driven mainly by its Arab faction, slapped an embargo on Israel’s allies, and the cost of gas went gangbusters.

There’s been all manner of global craziness between then and now, from the 1979 energy crisis to the 1991 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, right up to the recent Russian invasion of Georgia, through which runs the world’s second longest oil pipeline. The Middle East is a geopolitical bomb exploding in perpetuity. Something bloody has long been unhinged in Nigeria. Vultures a world away circle and swoop above Alaska. Alberta is fat with pipelines, foreign investment and Newfoundlanders, and Fort McMurray is awash in the social ailments that plague towns in boom. China, meanwhile, is chums-smiley with Africa’s current poster boy for genocide, the Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir. All the while, supply shadows demand, and tailpipe emissions are partly choking out the biosphere as we know and need it.

On the face of it, the odds seem well stacked against the continued cuddle between cars and pavement. This is the petro-political equivalent of the yard stick on the prom night dance floor. Further, there are moral concerns at work here, to say nothing of environmental and financial ones. Even though gas prices have taken a small tumble in recent weeks, their continued rise is more or less assured.

It all begs the question: Is the road trip dying? Has the love affair come to its violent end?

Fear the reaper

We’ll see. A more pressing question, though, is this: Who is Kyle Gagnon? A bit portly, he sports a usually shorn head, though it’s sometimes known to burst into a wild and curly thicket. He’s the kind of guy who dreams about himself being knighted under the name of Basil, then hanging his armour on the wall to engage in a prolonged bout of coitus with one of the king’s harem. This is true.

Another relevant question: Who is Richard Stevenson? He’s the kind of guy who hates it when I spell his last name wrong, which I often do. But, on account of his height, which is less than significant, he’s among the best of companions you could ask for on a road trip. When it comes time to sleep, you just drop the backseats on red-headed Richard, and he barely notices. This, too, is true.

Together, we set out to investigate the potential death of the road trip. To do it properly, we needed a tombstone cut out of cardboard, the epitaph complete with skull and crossbones. We also needed reaper robes and creepy, white masks, which we procured in Vancouver, but only after following a friend’s directions to a “theatre” store that turned out to be a shop for tutus and frilly girl stuff. Should’ve seen the shopkeep when we walked in.

Dressed as such, we rolled out of Vancouver’s horrendous traffic, Osoyoos our randomly determined destination, eerie metal blasting through open windows as we went about our scene. There were those terrified, for sure, their faces uncomprehending, hearts no doubt aflutter. And there were those amused, as expected, goofy smiles lighting up their minivans even as the death of everything they know drove symbolically past. And there were those angered, probably because they sensed how difficult it was for me to see through the mask. But why let safety stand in the way of a good reaping?

Both Stevenson and Gagnon have near death road trip tales in their hoppers. We’ll start with the latter, who was once on his way to Vernon to enter a cage fighting competition.

“We’re driving down the road,” Gagnon said, “and there was this big fucking deer. We swerved and avoided it, and, when we looked up, we saw a truck roll.”

The driver’s business was all over the road, and they rushed to his assistance, helping him collect his belongings while signaling the disaster to approaching traffic.

The latter’s tale has him driving to Squamish from Calgary and taking Duffey Lake Road instead of the TransCanada. “I was passed out in the backseat,” said Stephenson, “and I hear my buddy yell, ‘Grand Turismo!’ And then we smashed into a wall.”

Their ride a write-off, they were helped by a passing motorist, eventually arriving in Squamish with only a slight concussion.

Highway stalking

My own road stories are less perilous. That mission across the country was my first real trip. I had done other, smaller journeys, weekend affairs magnificent in their own right, but that TransCanada migration was the first, and only, of epic proportions.

It was just me and Betty and all my worldly belongings. You get to speeding pretty nutty when you’re alone like that. Sometimes, when life is streaming by you at 160 km an hour, you encounter an equally possessed driver, and a bizarre social contract inks itself out of the blurring road lines. I call it radar shielding. Basically, you take turns leading the way at ridiculous speeds, hoping, however pointlessly, that the cops will only catch one of you.

I woke up on the east side of Winnipeg and took to the road with something near the aforementioned velocity. Along came my shield. Back and forth we went, Manitoba just a concept in the rearview. We were both running out of gas at the same time, both refueling at the same stations, both breezing through Saskatchewan like it was a two-page pamphlet with big print and one boring picture. At some point, it became obvious that this driver was drop dead gorgeous, tall and blonde and decked out in skater threads – and thoughts of another social contract quickly took hold.

Did she wink? Did she nod? Damn straight, Betty.

We continued with the radar shielding all the way to Moosejaw, her in the lead. Desperate not to loose her in the accumulating traffic, I veered up beside her, then in front of her, making with Betty’s blinker in the hopes that she’d follow me off the highway and into a nearby coffee shop.

And she did.

Except I misread everything. Standing behind her in the coffee line, wondering how to start up a conversation, I caught her glancing at me over her shoulder. The poor girl was terrified. Just drenched in fear. All the signals, all the looks, the passing and the leading – none of it represented the highway courtship I assumed. Looks like I accidentally stalked her halfway across the country.

No doubt I find that more amusing than she did.

A colossal liquid insect

I filled up before leaving Squamish, had to, pumping nearly 43 litres into Betty’s insatiable belly at the cost of $1.399 a litre. I pulled the pump from the cradle, squeezed the trigger and watched the register tally up $60.

It is to wince.

There’s an odd degree of separation between a driver and the fuel that propels him. Unless you’re a spilly pumper, odds are you won’t see the product you’re buying, nor will you get a visual cue for the quantity you’re buying it in. It just comes from an underground reserve, gushes through a hose and collects in your gas tank.

But how does all that happen? It helps to imagine oil infrastructure as a giant insect with brain centres in many regions of the world, slow moving, yes, but vast in its subterranean limbs and the reach they represent. The closest brain centre to we British Columbians is just a provincial border away. But Alberta is one piece of a national and international picture.

Nationally, oil spending in 2007 represented $55 billion, with the Alberta oil sands making up $17 billion of that figure. Over five thousand wells were drilled, and total production was 2.765 million barrels per day (bpd). What’s a barrel? That’s 159 litres, or about nine of those water jugs that crown office coolers. Forty per cent of that barrel is turned into gasoline, while a majority of the rest goes to diesel. Producing those 2.7 million barrels generated $109 billion in industry revenue and $24 billion in government skim, all those dollars churned into being by the hands of 365,000 people directly and indirectly employed by the industry.

But Canada does not consume all that, oh no. That would be just too gluttonous for our 32 million people. Rather, we export 1.8 million bpd to the United States, which makes us their largest supplier — ahead, even, of Saudi Arabia.

The stuff we use in Canada comes to us from a variety of pipelines, which make up the limbs of this massive insect. The first pipeline in the world was probably built in China, around 500 BC, to transport natural gas. Ever crafty, they made it from bamboo, glue and twine. Today, in Canada, we have nothing that rivals the world’s longest oil pipeline, the Druzbha, which is 4,000 km long, or Baku-Tibilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, which at 1,768 kilometres in length, is the world’s second longest. Here in Canada, we have a 580,000 km network of pipelines, and oil, the blood of our insect, moves through them between four and six km/h. Those conduits ramble under our cities and towns, beneath our forests and waterways, even through our mountain ranges.

Were it not for the TransMountain pipeline, I wouldn’t have been able to fill up in Squamish. Built in 1953, it’s owned by Kinder Morgan, which is second, in the Canadian pipeline business, only to Embridge. TransMountain stretches out some 1,150 km, and it transports both crude and refined oil through its two-foot diameter from Edmonton to refineries and shipping terminals in Greater Vancouver and Washington State. Some refined products are diverted at Kamloops, which doubles as a destination for crude pulled from the grounds of northeastern B.C. It takes the stuff between 10 and 14 days to make it from Edmonton to the end of the line, much longer than it took us to reach the fruity expanse that is the Okanagan.

The knife merchant of Okanagan Falls

We woke up in Penticton, the heat unbearable even at 8:30 in the morning, especially given that we had slept inside Betty. After a failed attempt at skating the town’s stunning park, we opted to cool off in Lake Okanagan, which was warm enough to boil shellfish. Refreshed by the closest thing to a shower we would experience all weekend, we journeyed down the highway, arriving shortly in Okanagan Falls, where we had breakfast.

Stephenson spotted a market, this gravel parking lot littered with kiosks, the merchants hocking everything from peaches and cherries to confederate flags and books by Dean Koontz. In we went, quickly finding ourselves beneath a tent stuffed with knife and sword displays.

“His heart don’t work so well no more,” said the tired-looking merchant to a guy in a biker jacket, her lifeless brown hair pulled back into a pony tail. “He can’t lift nothing.”

Who was she on about? We had no way of knowing. Just the same, Stevenson bought this ridiculous blade with a knuckle-duster handle, and we pushed on to Osoyoos, where the resort beaches are glittering with manicured sand and the water is free of craggy rocks and slimy seaweeds.

Naturally, we couldn’t afford to partake in that splendour. Instead, we drank beer and swam off the public shores, which, we theorized, are kept in such a revolting state by decree of some rapacious resort operator’s lobby. There was much in Osoyoos beyond our price range, from food to lodgings, and we wound up renting a tent plot off a nice Polish couple. The woman working the front desk took one look at Stevenson, decked out in shades and a bandanna, the recently purchased knife no doubt glinting in his mind’s eye, and charged us a noise deposit.

It was the next day, on our way back through Okanagan Falls, that we met the town’s knife merchant, the guy whose heart wouldn’t allow him to lift anything. He approached us with a bit of waddle, black suspenders pinning his blue shirt to the mound of his chest. His cheeks grizzled with gray, knitted hat pulled over his sweaty head, he removed this two-foot blade from behind the display glass and offered it to Gagnon for dreamy handling.

“You could legitimately cut down some shit with this thing,” the merchant said, his voice raspy. “People think the knife has to be sharp, but that ain’t it. It’s the weight you gotta think about. Too sharp, and it’ll just stick in the tree, you see.”

These are the people you leave home to meet.

There will be blood

But is it worth leaving home? Given the infrastructure in Western Canada, it’s safe to say none of the gas we purchased came from blood oil. But it’s a different story out east, where 90 per cent of oil is imported thanks to inadequate cross-country pipeline infrastructure. That may change as Newfoundland and Labrador wades into the oil game, but, for now, a good chunk of those imports comes from OPEC nations, places like Algeria, Iraq and Saudi Arabia.

In the Saudi kingdom, oil accounts for 90 per cent of the country’s exports, a situation that delivers 75 per cent of its revenues. This is a country that shuns the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that murders its people and persecutes gays and women. If King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz was pumping gas at a Halifax station, would you feel comfortable giving him your credit card?

“Don’t spend it all in one slaughter, eh dude?”

Then there’s Iraq, which, say media reports, is looking to ramp its 2.5 million bpd production up to 4.5 million in the next four years. Say what you will about the cause of the ongoing war, but natural resources typically make up part of a conflict’s bigger picture. International companies had a hard time getting their pipelines in the pie after Iraq nationalized its industry in the ‘70s, and a return to the free market days of old, brought to us on a seemingly interminable wave of blood and bone, is underway.

As for Algeria, that country is hoping to hit two million bpd by 2010. It’s thought their reserves number 12 billion barrels, and the government is accordingly eager to gain more control over its natural resources, of which oil is the number one export. But the country’s present, like so many in Africa, was carved out of civil war, pitched battles between government armies and Islamic rebels. Some have theorized that the roots of conflict in Algeria plant themselves in crude, which the government likes to use to maintain a vast culture of patronage. Conflict is seldom that result of one factor, but it’s still something to think about.

Defying death

Despite all this, road trip culture does not appear moribund. I myself, having driven to B.C. from Newfoundland, fuelled parts of my journey with blood oil. And even though the Western Canadian supply is less disturbing in its source, it still produces emissions we’d be better off curtailing.

But that doesn’t seem to be happening. Osoyoos and the surrounding reaches of the Okanagan were ripe with RVs towing SUVs, mess of mountain bikes hanging off the sides. I have friends who journeyed to California this summer, others on their way back from the Okanagan as you read this. Gagnon, Stevenson and I made the same journey, burning through over 100 litres of gas throughout 1,200 km of driving, Betty spewing out around 220 kg of carbon in the process.

There are offset options for that, though. Click your way through Whistler’s municipal website, and, if you’re patient, you might happen across the EcoPath Calculator. According to the math, the three of us could pony up $1.47 each to Offsetters Climate Neutral Society, who then add our money to a pool of green investment dollars.

Yes, road trip culture is alive and well, complete with its positives – music, friendship and meeting new people, both curious and stupid – and negatives – blood oil, greenhouse gas emissions, traffic jams and fist fights.

There is no reaper at these pumps, only tourists and travelers.