Yonge and restless
Most of you don't have a clue where Canada's most famous street goes. To find out, and to learn a thing or two about `this vague country' and its people, KEN WIWA decided to experience the 1,896-kilometre cul-de-sac for himself.
Saturday, August 4, 2001
By KEN WIWA
Graphic: Trish McAlaster/The Globe and Mail
`It's the other way," the lady at the counter said, slowly shaking her head. "Someone did that yesterday. They really should put better signs back there. Just drive 60 miles back to Baudette, and when you come to the fish - did you see the fish? - turn right."
I had slipped out of Winnipeg at noon, headed south on Highway 59 to the U.S. border, and now, six hours later, was in a gas station in northern Minnesota being told that I'd sailed right past my destination - the top of Yonge Street.
Yes, that Yonge Street, the most famous street in Canada, the one that starts on the shore of Lake Ontario and is synonymous with the big city the rest of Canada loves to hate. It is one of the few Canadian landmarks familiar to foreigners - I knew it as the world's longest street before ever setting foot in this country.
Where it ended I wasn't sure, but I thought everyone else would know. I assumed that Yonge Street, like the United States's Route 66, would be celebrated in song and literature, that someone somewhere had dedicated a poem to it, that its story would read like a metaphor, a palimpsest of Canadian history.
In reality, most of you don't have a clue where it goes. All but a few of the people I asked just smiled sheepishly and mumbled something about Hudson Bay. Look at the map - there are no roads to Hudson Bay.
This left me to wonder how a street can be so famous and yet so little known. To find out, and per-haps learn a few things about this vague country and its people, I decided to experience the historical cul-de-sac for myself. To make the most of that experience, I employed all three modes of transport that made sense - car, bus and train (the tracks pretty much run parallel to the road).
And I did it in reverse order. Yonge Street evolved from east to west, bringing civilization to the wilderness as the nation was settled. But today the flow is in the opposite direction - from rural to urban - so how does it feel to travel from the countryside straight to the heart of Canada's biggest metropolis?
For the record, Yonge Street - also known as Highway 11 - runs from Toronto to North Bay and then, rather than heading for Hudson Bay, it arcs north and west across Northern Ontario, finally falling south again to Thunder Bay at the head of Lake Superior. From there, it's more or less straight west until, 1,986 kilometres after leaving the big city, Yonge Street ends at the U.S. border in Rainy River, Ont.
The road itself crosses into Baudette, Minn., where it joins U.S. Highway 11 at an intersection so unprepossessing that I'd gone right by it. How was I supposed to know that the 30-foot-high plastic fish the Americans have put up somehow indicates the way to Canada's most famous roadway?
When I was finally back on track and back in Canada, my first Yonge Street vista featured a couple of kids playing roller hockey, not much else. Rainy River looks like an old railway stop that has been partly renovated. It once served as Canadian National's regional headquarters, but when Highway 11 reached the town in 1965, passenger rail service was halted. Now the old train station serves as a drop-in centre for seniors.