It’s 6:55 PM on the last Friday night in October. At this moment, I’d be stopping for gas somewhere outside of Trenton. The air would be cool, and the sky dark—save for a glowing orange strip through a break in the clouds near the western horizon. Sometimes I have company on the drive, but often it’s just me and my playlist. The music stands up on its own as I drive, nudged by the occasional clatter of a licence plate in one of my trade boxes.
When I’ve met new people at the Niagara-area fall meet—whether it’s been in St. Catharines or Grimsby—they’re often surprised that I would drive five-plus hours on a Friday night in order to be up before the crack of dawn in wine country. But I long ago learned to accept the commute as a part of the overall experience. Indeed, I’ve become quite fond of the drive.
I work as a high school teacher in a special education setting. My job is to help kids get through compulsory science—a course where I actively try new ideas to keep the kids’ attention. I necessarily have to project the most dominant personality in the room. And I have to be interesting to the kids, so they keep buying in. It’s magic, and it works. Only when the last person leaves at the end of the day, can I stop projecting. At the end of the week, I’m happy, but very tired. So, a tranquil drive through the evening is very appealing to me. My mind wanders in the car… My brain unwinds by thinking out some last thoughts about the kids I teach. Eventually, after a coffee, the music takes hold, and my thoughts meander among the the people I’ll be seeing the following day, or the plates that I hope to trade. And by the time I’ve reached the halfway point at Trenton, the sky is dark as I top off the tank.
I don’t always stop there. Sometimes I’ll make a side-trip off the highway to pay for plates that I’ve arranged to buy. Sometimes I’ll stop deliberately in a town I’ve never visited, just to gas up and see what’s there. Sometimes the owner’s goofy dog is in the store and wants to say hello. Sometimes, a train blasts its horn as it rumbles by. Once, I ended up at a kitchen party. It seems like every journey supplies me with a unique memory of being on the road. And then, when I write yet another column like this, the memory becomes permanent.
By the time I get to Toronto, it’s usually close to ten o’clock. The afternoon rush is long gone, and the roads are largely empty. The Don Valley Parkway—ordinarily a parking lot by day—beckons with the promise of a fluid southbound trip toward downtown. It always delivers on its promise. I fly along the riverside, under the viaducts, and around the curves, as the skyline gets bigger in the window. Before long, I’m in it, surrounded by glass towers on all sides. I'm a tiny moving speck of light, hidden amongst the others. But I keep moving past the stadiums, condos and brighter-than-life billboards that hug the slim corridor of road. Odd, that I can be in the heart of the largest city in the nation, yet I’m alone: The expressway is mine to do with as I please.
The city fills the rear-view mirror as I head toward Niagara. I dodge the odd lane closure as things become darker and more spread out. I swing directions as I hug the hairpin contour of the lake shore. I rise up the bridge over Hamilton harbour. Before long, it, too, is left behind. The orchards and vineyards on either side of me are shrouded in darkness. The monolithic form of the escarpment looms to my right as I approach my destination.
It’s windy here, on the western tip of the lake. The car rocks around. Sometimes, rain flies sideways across the windshield. No matter, though… I’ve arrived. Whether it’s at Don’s place in Jordan, or the hotel in Grimsby, there’s a warm bed waiting. I’ve spent my last ounce of energy on the drive, and I’m finished. But I'm happy, because I know sleep will come quickly, and it will soon be time to swap plates with good people whom I don’t often see. I came to know departed folks like Louis, or Sam, or Bob, from coming here each year. The faces will change slightly from year to year, but the spirit is always the same. And I’m sure it will continue to be so, even with a two-year pause in our tradition.
The lights are dark in the meet hall tonight, with the tables stacked away, despite our best hopes. But normalcy is nearly within reach. If I can’t be there—or even be on my way there—I’ll just muse about it and look forward to next year.
The journey and the destination are one and the same. At least, they are for this guy.