Four pumps on the gas, turn the key, and 5.7 litres of Malaise-Era V8 struggle to wake up in minus seventeen Celsius. An old truck’s life is hard, and it wasn’t about to get any easier.
Soon, my 1977 GMC Suburban would be called upon to do what most people would hesitate to do even with a 2017-model-year vehicle: drive 36 hours across the middle of Canada in March while hauling 23 years’ worth of possessions and towing a 1968 Datsun Roadster, from Calgary, Alberta to Toronto, Ontario to start a new life.
My best friend Clayton Seams would be flying from Toronto to Calgary solely so he could jump in the truck with me and embark on the five-day journey back east.
I was anxious about moving away from the comfortable Calgary life I’d known since I was born. The stakes were high; changing everything and jumping into complete darkness isn’t something you do often. You can really only do it once, so I was going to do it in one blaze of red-automobile glory. We stuffed the Suburban full, and my family and I shared a tearful goodbye.
Hitting the road
The revs climbed steadily to some unknown number, vocalizing like Pavarotti after too much spicy food, before I smashed it from first into second, bringing the RPM back down to a more mellow didgeridoo drone—the tachometer was our only broken gauge. We were on the move, doing 25 under the limit, and getting back just 10 miles per gallon.
The first fill-up didn’t make my eyes water as much as I thought it would. I held down the trigger on the pump and thought about my unemployed wallet screaming for me to stop. Ninety-eight dollars later, and we were ready for another 300 km.
If there was a point of no return, I couldn’t see it—in the mirror I saw only my Datsun Roadster, and the thirty-dollar tarp on top of it tearing off in the wind. We removed the tarp and hoped for a dry trip.
Leaving Alberta heading east, the landscape replaces all traces of vertical life with horizontal. The truck was in its element, here, no hills to struggle with. As we stared out the windshield, we could see the curvature of the earth, and there wouldn’t be anything else to see until we hit Ontario in three days.
There was even less to see when darkness fell, except two deer that decided to cross the road right in front of us. Clayton slammed on the brakes, and the squealing tires must have been just enough to scare the deer from entering the highway—not the kind of visual excitement we were hoping for. Surprisingly, we rolled into Regina with no issues.
Flat Earth theory
At the not-so-crack of dawn, we hit the road for Winnipeg, a five-hour drive. Clayton guessed we would have it done in nine. Yuck. I turned the keys and 170 horses roared to life, ready to haul 4,500 pounds to Manitoba. Coffee’d up, and having lost yet another Roll-Up-the-Rim, we chugged along to Indian Head, Saskatchewan, the weathered facade of a grain elevator visible for miles in the distance was salvation for our glazed-over eyes.
We followed a train all the way to the Manitoba sign, halfway to our destination, and, seeing nothing else to write home about, we cruised steadily into Winnipeg.
Our morning in Winnipeg began with a brief skating routine across the parking lot. My triple salchow failed to impress the judges, but did cause me to drop a lens for my camera—not a good start to our eight-hour drive to Thunder Bay.
The day got even worse: our exhaust fell off climbing the first hill we’d seen in three days. In my haste to get to wing night in Calgary before I’d left, I didn’t clamp down the custom exhaust work I’d fabbed. Dumb. Now we had to fix it by the side of the road.
As Clayton repositioned the truck, the gearbox decided to lock itself into first, keeping him out of reverse. We were stuck across a lane of Highway One for what felt like ten minutes, until the Suburban finally gave mercy and slipped into reverse.
The fix was simple enough, the pipe was reinstalled, and a new exhaust clamp was fitted. Like a horseshoe and a hand grenade, it was close enough to work, and we were back on our way. We shot right through Manitoba like a bullet in The Matrix, in slow-motion and a straight line.
Canadian weather, eh?
Thunder Bay welcomed us with open arms and open gashes in the road—most of the potholes were big enough to stuff a loaf of rye into, and even our big tires couldn’t glide over them. If we had lost our exhaust here, we would have pole-vaulted into Lake Ontario.
Our friend Peter leant us lodging for our third night on the road, which also happened to be St. Patrick’s Day. Our planned 6:00-am wake-up call sounded like a worse idea every second.
And day four was indeed hell. A blizzard had snuck up on us and pounced. We endured hours of disgusting, slippery snow, sharing the roads only with semi trucks, a few of which had rolled into the ditch to show us their undercarriages.
Up and down steep hills and gradients, we tested the mettle of our 40-year-old engine and brakes. The only redeeming factor? The beautiful scenery, snow resting on pine trees, the frozen lake stretching beyond the vanishing point, and the red of our convoy, emanating the only primary colour on this bleached-white landscape.
Sault Ste Marie was at the tip of our fingers, the beers stowed away amongst my household items were calling us, and safe in our Airbnb, we answered.
Our last day on the road greeted us with a bright star leading us to the promised land of Toronto, Ontario—this was the easy day we needed. After one last $109-dollar fill-up, it was all taillights and passing lanes until the city limits.
Our finish line in sight, we honked our horns to our hootin’ and hollerin’ friends waiting there for us. We had done it.
This 40-year-old GMC Suburban I’d bought in the dark had no right to perform the task it had just undertaken so dutifully. It kept us warm and dry through harsh weather; awake and alert through Manitoba; and entertained through the whole trip.
I love this truck. I didn’t make its life any easier, but it sure did mine.