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07.05.2003

Quebec Road Trip

I got back from Québec on the night of July 3rd, having logged over a thousand miles of driving in three days. My mother and I had been prepared for even worse, but those mile markings in the atlas turned out to be kilometers on the Canadian pages. The red squiggle in the map here tells the story. map of Québec trip route

The trip was a wonderful success. That first night on the Lac St. Jean, I belatedly learned an important vocational lesson: if you check your email on vacation, you will end up working on vacation. Dave Sifry, that old fox, had taken advantage of my absence to blow past the Blog Census (has no one else noticed that Technorati has grown by 200,000 sites in less than a week?) Crises and major events took place at work, and my assistance was requested. I spent half an hour and twenty two Canadian dollars on dialup before throwing in the towel. Man was not meant to be online in the Great North Woods. Life became instantly easier.

Our first night in Roberval turned out to coincide with the Canadian national holiday (which, if memory serves, is called Canada Day or something equally non-threatening). We were probably in the place least likely to celebrate it, since the Lac St. Jean region is strongly separatist. The Québecois are cunning enough to have made July 1st their "moving day", when every lease in the province apparently expires, and the streets fill with moving vans. I have searched high and far to learn more about the origins of moving day, to no avail, so I must ask my Canadian readers to help me out. I did find vague rumblings to the effect that the July 1st superimposition is intentional, and meant to distract people from the Federal celebrations, on account of they have to load their sofa into the truck. I like this conspiracy theory very much. It's comfortingly low-key and modest, as conspiracies go.

The country to the east and north of Lac St. Jean turned out to bear a depressing resemblance to the Illinois prairie. All the houses had flat roofs and were decorated with things like faux brick siding - it was a picture straight out of Skokie or Des Plaines. The lake had beat a hasty retreat away from the highway, and for many miles it was sedate farmland, ugly houses, and not a hint that past the treeline in the distance there was nothing but taiga and giant dams until you reached the Arctic Ocean.

We had a lunch at the Maison de Friture, and plowed through more farmland until we reached the city of Chicoutimi, which is kind of a French-Canadian Chongqing. In both places, people saw a bunch of huge hills right over a river, far from the sea, and decided it was a great place to put a population center. Chicoutimi has the advantage of being on an honest-to-goodness fjord, the only one on this side of North America. Also, Chicoutimi is a very fun word to say, especially in French. Add to this the encouraging number of nice restaurants and cafés, and you have three great reasons to get into a car and drive north until your arms go numb.

The fjord extends east for some seventy miles before hitting the St. Lawrence river, where there is a free ferry crossing with majestic views. South of the fjord, there begins a claustrophobic, tunnel-through-forests road to Québec City. We crossed to the other side of the St. Lawrence by ferry as soon as we could, hoping for a more scenic route south, and got to spend an hour watching wild ducks during the long crossing. The wide river at this point was a prime location for whalespotting, and I strained my eyes for belugas, but all I could see was thousands of happy birds of all kinds, dashing around the water. I wondered how the early French explorers must have felt, sailing down the St. Lawrence, as it gradually narrowed from an ocean bay to a plain old river, dashing their hopes of a passage to the Indies. For the nine hundredth time on the trip, I noticed my sixth grade American history class hadn't quite given me all the information I needed to flesh that thought out. Biology class hadn't helped much either - water! birds! - but at least there was a helpful duck identification poster on the ship.

Québec City is about to celebrate its four-hundredth anniversary. As no guidebook will omit to tell you, it's the only walled city north of Mexico (which, I have to infer, is just crawling with them), and the tiny streets and wall around the Old Quarter give it a European feel, complete with giant delivery trucks trying to make tight turns in streets not equipped to handle them. The city still seems to be recovering by a massive attack of 1960's architecture, including a skyscraper that looks like it was erected as some kind of punitive measure, but the old parts of the city are beautiful. I had never seen the place in the summertime before. It looked like the residents couldn't get enough, a happy place to live. Eating crêpes on a summer day in Québec City, one is tempted to just sign a lease and have one's furniture sent up from the States (hey, it's Moving Day). But then that skyscraper heaves into view again, and puts things back into perspective.

If there is something interesting and beautiful to be seen anywhere between the St. Lawrence river and the Maine border, I'm not the person to ask about it. But you can find the Platonic supermarket (the kind of emporium that the French would call an hypermarché) and stuff yourself silly on delicious Qubecois pâtés and crusty bread, the perfect way to get all garlicked up for your interview with the American border guard. When they wince when you roll down your window, you know you've got it just right.

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