This is my story of how I crossed Canada on the TransCanadian Highway from Montréal to Banff on my own, as a girl, with my car and remote working.
Before I start, I wish you all a Merry Christmas! I had been writing this article for a while but it just comes out today!
I KNOW. It’s been almost a year since I have posted around here (in a few days, actually). I just didn’t have the motivation after work to sit down at my desk and write a bit. I also didn’t have a real vacation in two years and a half, since COVID really. Well I had ten days in August 2020 but it didn’t really feel like a big break.
I have been so stuck in Montreal that I kind of lost myself and got stuck in my head as well. This summer, when everything started to open up again (because yes, COVID in Montreal has been pretty intense and closed down), I felt the need to go away, to go back to the mountains, to the ocean. I needed to see something else, be somewhere else. I wanted to drive my van and explore what I couldn’t for two years.
For those who follow me on Instagram, you might have seen it go through this summer. My big plan was to go from Montréal to Banff with Chris (my van) and stay in Banff for a bit, maybe go all the way to Vancouver’s Island… It would have depended on how the trip went.
Because of circumstances out of my control (wild fires, no internet connection), I couldn’t reach the West coast and I had to go back to France for a while. (Maybe I will post about it later). But the idea didn’t leave my mind.
When I got back to France in September, the idea grew stronger. We lost my uncle tragically from a cancer and for twelve days, I was with my family. Supporting my cousins, my mother and my grand parents. It was a really intense and difficult time. What do you say to your grand parents who just lost their child? There is nothing you can say that can make it better.
But during those hard times, we had time to think. Talk. Reflect about our lives. We discussed our dreams. We discussed how our uncle was the better man and how he helped changed lives of a lot of people. He was a brillant neurochirurgien for children. If you want to do some research about him, his name is Michel Zerah.
That’s when the idea came up again. Life is too short. I have been waiting for too long to go back to the West coast of Canada. A friend of mine just moved there and she had a room and she was ok to have me over so it was the perfect time to go. What was holding me in Montréal except me? My job is already remote since COVID, they agreed for me to go remote from there… I have friends but everyone has their own stuff to deal with and I knew I was going to see them again. I have no house, no husband, no kid, no dog (yet!). So let’s go!
I wanted to act fast also because I didn’t want to get stuck in a snow storm or something and let’s face it… in November, snow storms in the Northern Ontario are quite frequent. I found someone to occupy my flat just for a few weeks, I took my skis, my ice skates and my car and I went.
TransCanadian Highway: Trip details
The trip is supposed to be 38 hours (google time). So if you add the stopping time (as I was driving on my own), I estimated to stop every 3 or 4 hours for 30 minutes (for gas, food, coffee (of course coffee!). This would add 4.5 hours to the total so 42.5 hours. Aka two whole days. No sleep.
My other problem is that I was remote working as well (I don’t have any days off left until new year). So I would have to be at reach of an Internet spot every day and drive at night. Knowing that night is coming up quite early at that period of time. So my rough estimation was to be on the road for a week. From Sunday to Sunday.
(This map contains the itinerary as well as the wifi spots where I stopped)
Day #1 – TransCanadian: Montreal, Quebec to Sault St Marie, Ontario – 11h30
I left Sunday morning Montreal, quite early in the morning. The sun was shining and the TransCanadian Highway was mine. I knew the road I was about to do already because I had done it before. My first stop was Sault St Marie, Ontario, where I went with my roommate and her boyfriend in 2020 (the last big trip I did since COVID). On the map, it was 10h30 driving so I was not sure I would make it. I had never driven that much on my own before!
The truth is, it went by quite quickly. I only stopped for gas and picking up some food or coffee. I tried to stop every 3 or 4 hours MAX MAX. I didn’t really feel tired then. I put on music and by the end of the day, when I had enough of the music, I put a podcast called My Solo Road, which is one by my favorite van lifer: Sydney from Divine on the road. If you don’t know her, she is a female van lifer with her two dogs, and I just love her!
I arrived around 7pm in Sault St Marie. It took me around 11h30mins.
I had decided to take a full day off driving after that so I stayed in Sault St Marie until the day after. I booked a hotel with wifi so I could work from there.
Day #2 – Sault St Marie, Ontario
Working from Sault St Marie was a bigger challenge that I thought.
On a Monday morning, everything was closed. Including the public library (which is my to go when I am looking for a free wifi spot). I wander around for a bit before going back to the hotel empty handed. All the coffee shops were closed. The Starbucks didn’t have indoor seating.
After my working day, I ended up eating at a chain called Montana’s before heading back to bed at like 8pm. I wanted to get up early to reach at least Marathon (which I knew was a big-ish city with restaurants and a library) before I had to get on with my work day.
Day #3 – Sault St Marie, Ontario to Thunder Bay, Ontario – 8h30
I woke up super early that day and hit the road again. It was like tiredness had nothing on me. It had been a while since I felt that good waking up at 4AM. I drove – still my podcast on – until White River for my first gas stop.
White River has an interesting story. It is the city where Winnie the Pooh was born. Yes, you read it right! I am not talking about the story, I am talking about the real bear. In facts, Winnie the Pooh comes from White River where a general decided to “import” him to England during the first world war. Winnie was just a baby bear at the time. His name comes from Winnipeg where the general was from. In England, A. A. Milne (Winnie the Pooh’s writer) and his son often went to the London Zoo where Winnie was in. His son loved Winnie so much that he named his bear toy after him, and that is how the whole book series started.
After a quick stop for gas (There is free and good wifi at the A&W there by the way!), I kept going until I reached Marathon.
I couldn’t find a library in Marathon so I ended up at the A&W. The wifi was ok to work but for calls it was really bad. I worked all morning but at lunch break I decided to head out to find a better wifi connection. I drove up to Terrace Bay where I saw there was a library.
The library was open, free and had pretty decent wifi, even for meetings! I was really surprised. Also there was just me there so very quiet!
After 5pm, I headed up towards my final destination of the day: Thunder Bay.
I have to say that this whole road, from Sault St Marie to Thunder Bay is one of the most beautiful road I have driven on in Canada. As I drove early, I ended up watching the sunrise over the windy road, lakes on all the sides, pine trees everywhere. I also watched the sunset which was absolutely mind blowing. It reminded me how much I loved being on the road and how much I missed my camper van.
I slept in a hostel in Thunder Bay. One of the best one I have ever been to. They even accept dogs if you take the private room! Super rare.
Day #4 – Thunder Bay, Ontario to Dryden, Ontario – 4h
I spent the next day remote working from the hostel in Thunder Bay. Wifi connection was amazing and I was kind of alone there. The staff was super nice as well!
The thing to know about Thunder Bay is that it is the place where Terry Fox ended his “Marathon of Hope” after he found out his cancer has spread to his lungs. Terry Fox was running the TransCanadian to raise money for cancer research. If you want to learn more about him and his fight, you can find information here.
I had no idea. When I learned that, I was moved. As I mentioned at the beginning of the article, I lost my uncle to cancer in September this year. So just a few months before ending up in Thunder Bay. I had been wanting to do something to help cancer research ever since (I know it takes this to make someone think about this, it is sad I know), and ending up in Thunder Bay learning about Terry Fox felt like a sign or something. Apparently they run a Terry Fox Marathon there every year, my goal is to enter it when I will be able to (because of COVID many things are suspended). Any how, it was a moving place for me.
Back to my trip story now.
While I was there, I started to hear things about how there was supposed to be a snow storm coming in starting two days later. From my itinerary, I was supposed to be in Winnipeg by then so I might be safe.
I sadly left the hostel after my day of work and headed to Dryden. This was the most expensive hotel I had booked (well I thought it was!) and it was just a motel. I arrived at pitch black. Snow had started falling an hour before and the road conditions had started to be difficult.
When I arrived, I had the choice of eating at a McDonald’s or at a family restaurant in front of the hotel. I decided to go with the family restaurant. When I entered, it looked like a small town party hall, you know, all lights on, very minimal decoration, only locals sitting at the bar, talking to the owner while drinking beers and watching hockey.
While I was waiting for food, I looked at the weather report and that is when I saw that the winter storm was happening right now, until the Friday afternoon (so two days later). I almost packed my stuff and headed for the road at that moment to not get stuck in Dryden but driving at night under the snow storm….Mmmm it didn’t seem like a good idea. I decided to stay and see the next morning what the weather and the road will be like.
I ended up having a nice night out, I met an older local man that told me history about the Indian Canadians.
Day #5 – Dryden, Ontario to Kenora, Ontario – 2h30
I woke up early the next day to see if I could hit the road or not. Snow had fallen but it didn’t seem too bad on the road. Lots of trucks were driving by so I decided to go and try to reach out Winnipeg or at least get out of the winter storm zone.
What a fail. The road in Dryden was ok but as soon as I hit the mountains (which I didn’t know there were), the weather was really bad. I saw some truck stuck in the snow, the snow was falling badly. I decided to stop in Kenora for the day and see after that. Well for all I knew, they decided to close down the highway in Kenora right when I arrived there, so even if I had wanted to go further, I wouldn’t have been able to.
Working from Kenora was another challenge. See, November 11th is a holiday in France but it had never been in Quebec. Though, apparently, everywhere else in Canada, it is a holiday. So everything was pretty much closed…
I found a little café in the city that was open, really nice and had wifi. I worked from there for the whole morning. The weather didn’t seem to calm down and the reopening date for the highway was set for the next day. I moved to another place to work in the afternoon as the coffee place was closing after midday. I ended up in a really nice brewery that had wifi (most of the brewery I have been to have wifi!).
I booked a hotel in the city (the most expensive one even though it was the cheapest one in town) and finished my work day.
When I got to the hostel, the lady gave me the keys and added a little comment:
Staff: Oh and there was a bear yesterday in the backyard so be careful when going out
Me: A what?
Staff: A bear
Me: A beer? A bear?
Me: A bear ? Like the animal a bear ?
No way I was not expecting that! I wanted to get outside at night to get some food somewhere but I was too scare to cross the path of the bear that I stayed inside until the next morning! I had nothing to do so I decided to keep working until I was tired, that way on Friday if they opened the road earlier, I could leave earlier.
Unfortunately (or not), I didn’t see the bear (even though I was looking at the window every five minutes) but I saw some deers in the morning!
Day #6 – Kenora, Ontario to Whitewood, Saskatchewan – 8h
The next day, I went back to the coffee place I found the day before to work until the road opened again. I was scared I would have to spend again 150$ for one night in the hotel (as nice as it was). I wondered why I didn’t do this in Summer instead. In Summer it would have been WAY cheaper to sleep in the van or in the car for free somewhere or even the campgrounds are cheap.
They finally opened the road around 1PM and I packed everything and went. I was not sure where I wanted to stop because it would largely depend on the road condition. I knew I didn’t want to drive for too long in the dark under heavy snow falls so 7PM would have been the max I would have driven.
I planned on stopping at Winnipeg but all the youth hostels were closed there for some “COVID” reasons (same in Calgary actually). But the road was ok, I had switched to my new favorite podcast: Les baroudeurs. It is a podcast about people going outdoors and living extraordinary experiences like diving under the Arctic or climbing a huge mountain for the first time. Just the kind of story I like. It is in french but I totally recommend it!
I stopped after an 8 hour drive in a small motel in Whitewood, Saskatchewan. YES! You read it right, Saskatchewan. It took me 6 days to cross Ontario and only few hours to cross Manitoba to reach Saskatchewan. Ontario seemed like it would NEVER end ahah.
And you know what everyone says about Manitoba? That it is flat. Well, I can now confirm, it is flat and straight and there is nothing on the side of the road except sometimes dead animals and one or two coyotes.
Oh and I crossed the Middle of Canada! There is a sign right after the Manitoba border.
I arrived by night, a little later than I would have wanted because I was driving slower than usual to make sure the road was not sliding. I went to the hotel room, didn’t even eat and went to sleep. Next day was Saturday and I wanted to reach Calgary by the end of the day. I knew I had another 8 or 10 hours to drive before that.
Day #7 – Whitewood, Saskatchewan to Banff, Alberta – 11h
I woke up right before dawn and head the road. Coffee, hash browns from A&W (they are the absolute best, no questions asked! Tim Hortons or McDonalds are nothing compared to A&W ones), and another episode of the podcast Les Baroudeurs and I was all set. Ready for those long hours of drive.
I think I was too much into my own thoughts and into the excitement of almost being at my final destination that I didn’t see the time pass. I was so close to my dream, because crossing Canada on my own had been a dream lately. Just to know that I could do it. And I was about to do it.
Suddenly I started seeing the mountains shape in the far away of the road, I think I almost cried. It was too much emotions. All that journey to get there. I had done it. I was there.
When I hit Calgary, there was only one thing in my mind: I had to finish what I started, I had to go all the way to Banff. That was my dream. Stopping before Banff would have been a small regret, even if I had gone the week end after. So I continued. What were two more hours? It was still early, around 3PM and I had nothing else to do the day after so why not?
I arrived when the sun was already setting and the dark was starting. Though that road. Oh my gosh. It was the first time that I took it that way. Because I had taken the Banff / Calgary road before but on the other way and it was in 2014 when I did a road trip across BC and Alberta with my friend Angèle. I could see the shape of the mountains around me, the road winding along lakes. It really was too much emotions. I made it. I was there, in the mountains.
TransCanadian: The end
3 831 km, 45h30, a full week.
When I said I wanted to drive by myself to Banff, my friend said I was crazy. I thought I was crazy but I never doubted I could. I just had to.
You know, since I have been in Montreal, I often take the A40, or TransCanadian Highway. I learnt very late that that road was crossing all Canada from Montreal to Vancouver and secretly I always knew that one day I would do it. I had to do it. It was an invitation.
Sitting in Banff, having a coffee in the city center, watching the snow fall and the mountains summits, I knew I was exactly where I was supposed to be. No matter what troubles would come, no matter that I only knew one person in town, I knew something was waiting for me here. And maybe Calgary is not my final destination but it is a good starting point for changing my life around (again) and go toward my dreams.
Thank you all for reading if you made it that far. If you have any questions at any time, please feel free to reach out in the comments or on my insta page (@welcomeho.me).
Again, I wish you a Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year 2021.