Our Trans-Canada Vacation: Part 1 – Life in a van and a tent

We didn’t take a lot of vacations when I was a kid. The money just wasn’t there for a family of 5 living on 2 teacher’s salaries. Somehow though my parents managed to save, probably over the course of a couple of years, for us to do a road trip across the country. In principle this sounds like a great and fun idea. Hitting the open road to see the country we live in from Montreal, Quebec all the way to Victoria, British Columbia. It would an education about Canada that we wouldn’t get in school. Seeing places first hand instead of reading about them, seeing different museums and small towns and big cities. In practice, though it was all those things, it was 5 people trapped in a Plymouth Voyager for 8 to 10 hours a day and 9 year old me getting increasingly bored with driving every hour.

The van was the typical minivan layout. Two seats in the front, and two bench seats in the back. I shared the middle bench seat with my sister, while my unnaturally tall for his age brother had the entire back bench seat to himself. The reason given was that he needed more space to stretch out, but I suspect it had more to do with keeping him separated from my sister and I to minimize arguments and sibling harassment. Parents can only tolerate so much yelling and screaming from the kids assaulting each other in the back of the car before they say to hell with it and drive off a cliff. For the most part their plan worked. My brother stayed in the back seat and slept most of the time on the road. I’m not sure how he did it. The car didn’t have air conditioning and with the rear window only opening slightly the car could get unbearably hot.

I tried to entertain myself as much as I could with my comics and books. But eventually I would have to sit and stare out the window. Watching the forests and lakes pass by. So many forests and lakes. Tree, tree, tree, water, tree, tree, tree. Much of the trip along the Trans-Canada Highway runs through rural farmland. Cities in Canada are hundreds of kilometers apart and in between it’s forest, lakes and farms. In terms of scenery it gets old very quick. Especially during our first day going to see family in Pickering, Ontario just outside of Toronto. It was a trip we had made many times before and I have made probably close to 100 times in my life and will likely make many more times. I’ll be honest, Canada is a gorgeous country but it gets repetitive fast. Especially when you’re 9 and trapped in a van with your brother and sister.

We did our best to make the van as comfortable as possible. We had pillows to lean our heads against when we were tired or just bored, we had books, snacks, and I had my Gameboy. Yeah the original Gameboy. We took pit stops along the way to stretch our legs and go to the bathroom and get water or food if we needed. Because this trip was on a budget the luxury of restaurants or unnecessary snack food was rare. Lunches for the most part were premade and kept in a cooler along with snacks that my parents decided we needed. Thanks mom but I don’t want another peanut butter sandwich and an apple. I want a happy meal and some chips.

When we stopped at the end of each day it was at a predetermined camp site or national park. We’d put up the tent set up our sleeping bags and cook dinner on the old Coleman stove or over the fire. For the life of me I don’t know how this trip ever got planned. My dad hates camping. With a passion. Though in retrospect that may have occurred after this trip as opposed before it. I know he hates convenience store hot-dogs and those containers of condiments where you have to push down on the top to get the mustard out because of this trip. But that’s a story for later. It’s a good story.

I love camping. I find it peaceful and quiet and relaxing. It allows you to disconnect from the hectic online life. However when 5 of you are crammed into a tent it tends to get less restful and serene. Between snoring, farting and grinding teeth it can be downright brutal. It was, however, the only way to be able to make this trip. There was no way we would have been able to travel across the country if we stayed in hotels every night. That being said the few nights we did end up staying at a hotel were like mana from heaven. After days of sleeping on foam mattresses, in a tent smushed together with 4 other people sleeping on a bed was incredible. A much needed respite from sleeping on the ground. And continental breakfasts, oh my God, were those good after camp fire pancakes.

Life in the van and tent weren’t so bad in the end. It provided us as a family an experience we still talk about today, 30 years later. We still talk about memories from that trip and the experiences we shared. That’s something I don’t think many families that take the generic trip to Disneyland or Florida or wherever get. Sure they have their shared memories and probably occasionally talk about it but they would be much the same experiences that hundreds or thousands of families have had before. Our trip was unique, it was a once in a lifetime vacation that showed us and educated us about the country we lived in. One day I hope I could do a trip like that with my own kids. Be able to show them more than the few cities they’ve seen in Canada. Show them the town in Saskatchewan where their great grandmother grew up, the badlands of Alberta and the Rocky Mountains. And have stories we will talk about for years afterwards.

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