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Day 10: Sept-Iles, Que. Strange things happen on the road and then a '79 Dodge pulls over to the side


Wednesday, August 16, 2000

Strange things happen under the summer sun to a hitchhiker who has been on the roadside too long. There are daydreams of Beemers, and air-conditioned buses and anything that says nonstop. But nothing compares to the dream that came true when a Dodge camper van pulled to my side.

I had been standing for nearly two hours on the shoulder of Highway 138 in Mingan, a native reserve in far eastern Quebec, when Bernard Morency pulled up in the '79 Dodge.

He had given me a lift earlier in the day, and was now heading another 20 kilometres down the road, a short hop that I gladly welcomed. He also had an idea. He had to get both the Dodge and a cube van he owned to Sept-Iles, another 150 kilometres away. Would I be willing to drive the Dodge?

I looked at the Dodge's gauges and locks that didn't work. I noticed there were no seat belts. I thought of all the contraband he could have stashed in the back.

Then I thought about another two hours on the roadside in Mingan, and nodded to Bernard.

Before I took the wheel, the middle-aged man, a small transport-company owner and trader, warned me about the van's tanklike weight and its tendency to sway on curves.

For no particular reason, he also said how much he hated to drive on summer days, when roads like this, through thick forests and over thundering rivers, are busy with tourists, the worst kind of drivers, he pointed out.

"They're looking everywhere but the road," he sighed. "They go too slow. You could kill someone, really."

Although Bernard planned to follow in his bigger cube van, he said it was so slow that I shouldn't wait. He told me to leave the camper van in a parking lot in downtown Sept-Iles, where, he said, the people are so honest I could leave the keys in the ignition and the doors unlocked, and go on my way. He insisted on it.

No sooner was I on the road than my thoughts turned to a green BMW that had sped by me in Mingan, its front-seat passenger waving giddily from a distance, and how, if I gained enough speed, I could catch the sports car and crush it.

I was still laughing at the thought when I noticed how Bernard was right: the old Dodge was swaying like a sailboat at sea, so much so that I had to straddle the centre line to regain a sense of balance.

Fortunately, the road was deserted. After 10 days of hitching, of existing at the whim and speed of others, I also regained a sense of control and moved the camper van back to its rightful lane, pushing it to 100 kilometres an hour as the sink and pots rattled frantically in the back.

All right. This is Quebec, I thought, ignoring the 90-kilometres-an-hour speed limit, until I noticed what was happening outside. A car had appeared in the Dodge's side-view mirror, then another and another, followed by a long line of vans and trucks, each passing me at 120, perhaps 130.

When I finally reached the parking lot in Sept-Iles, Bernard was waiting at the far end, with his cube van, looking a bit disappointed.

He had beaten me by 10 minutes.
John Stackhouse's Notes from the Road will appear daily in The Globe and Mail, and on, until the Labour Day weekend. His conclusions will be published in September.

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