• Highway 401

Rant Triggers Feelings of Affection for the 401 

Highway 401 can be very serene and calming – after you get away from Toronto, of course.

Norris McDonald By: Norris McDonald September 15, 2020
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A columnist for a daily newspaper in this city said this about Highway 401:

“Who doesn’t deplore that highway gauntlet of car filth? That generic nowhere between destinations?”

I felt sorry for her when I read those words. She doesn’t sound very happy. Angry, even. There’s something missing when somebody feels the need to denigrate something that millions of their fellow human beings enjoy and that some even love.

On top of it all, she doesn’t seem to know what she’s missing.

Highway 401 – hell, any highway, for that matter – means adventure, freedom, a way out or a way in. You get on the 401 and you can go anywhere on it and from it. I can get in my car and the possibilities are endless. My maternal grandfather – and boy, what a story I could tell you about him – is buried in Sioux Lookout, Ont. I’ve never been there, but I’m going next summer. On a highway.

Young adults, mostly men but some women, participate in sports to get out of the house. They go bowling, or play tennis and golf, or old timers’ hockey or softball. Whatever. It’s a way to relax and fantasize about turning pro.

I was a car racer. And there was an attraction beyond the obvious excitement: in order to participate, you had to not only get out of the house, you had to get out of town. Every municipality has a bowling alley, a golf course, tennis courts, arenas. Not every place has a speedway, so to go racing, down the road you must go. And as you head out, there is this incredible sense of anticipation, of intensity, of wonder.

My kids used to love to come with me. If they stayed home with their mother, they’d have to go to the cottage, to eat their veggies, to paddle their own canoe, to visit the beaver dam and watch the baby loons learn to swim. They came with me and it was chips and gravy and Pepsi at the truck stops, thunder and lightning at the speedways and I never cared if they ever went to bed, figuring they’d go if they got tired enough. We still talk about those days and our affection for our time together, on the road.

Talking about love of the road, and the relaxation of driving, I once went to Indianapolis with a pal who owned a Bricklin, the New Brunswick-built sports car with gull-wing doors. On the way home, he drove to Detroit, where we stopped at a downtown sports bar, the long-gone Lindell AC, for the world’s greatest cheeseburgers. I drank Coke and he drank six Miller High Lifes and handed me the keys for the run along the 401 to Toronto.

He promptly fell asleep and I got into a groove and made it to Toronto a little after midnight. I felt so good that I just kept going. He woke up four hours later and asked where we were. “Cornwall,” I said. “Breakfast in Montreal, then?” he suggested and I said, “Why not?”

I commuted on the 401 from Kingston to Toronto for several years. I went back and forth every weekend and sometimes in mid-week if one of the kids had a birthday or a school concert. I knew that road like the back of my hand; I knew exactly where I was every second of the time I was out there. I drove by the clock, not the speedometer. And you watched as things evolved. Once, near Belleville, there was a barn in a field. Next time past, it was gone and you wondered what had happened.

Mostly, though, I loved (and love) the tranquility of the 401. Not around Toronto, which is crazy. But once you get out past Port Hope to the east, or Kitchener on the way to London and Windsor, and things settle down and you turn on the satellite radio and you’re alone and the kilometres just slide by and it’s wonderful. Just you, your wheels, and the road.

Somewhere on the Internet is a painting – it could be a print, even a photograph – of the 401 around Cambridge. It’s a long-ago scene of a mostly empty highway with very few buildings and an overpass. It was done by someone, obviously a romantic, who felt about the road the way I do.

I thought it was a Ken Danby painting, but it’s not on any of the Danby websites. In fact, I can’t find it anywhere.

I’d like to track it down, though. I’d love to send it to that columnist. It’s a very serene and calming scene. No filth anywhere.

Norris McDonald is a retired Toronto Star editor who continues to write for Wheels under contract. He reviews the weekend’s auto racing every Monday at wheels.ca 

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