A trip through hell

Bus service along Franklin Ave. in 1967.

Photo Ted Grant, NWT Archives/Northwest Territories. Dept. of Information fonds/G-1979-023: 0010

With bossy nuns, screaming cats and potholes you could drop a bull moose into

Dook’s Look Back

Catherine Dook

Some 35 years ago, one May, I traveled the old Mackenzie Trail by bus from Edmonton to Yellowknife. Now, at the time I was only 20 years old, and not terribly perceptive, but I did notice that everyone except me staggered onto the bus blind drunk. The ticket-seller swore to me the trip would take 24 hours, but it didn’t. It took 30, and those last six hours were the longest six hours of my life. Not only were my fellow passengers uncommunicative and smelly, but stored in the back of the bus was a cat in a cage that screamed its misery the entire way to Yellowknife.

Somewhere south of the NWT border (the passengers by this time were all hung over and surly), the driver herded us into an odoriferous bus belonging to a small local company. Grey seat-stuffing stuck out through holes, and spread over all was a kind of unmentionable miasma, indescribable in its dreadfulness – sticky in some patches and greasy in others and probably syphilitic. “Welcome to hell,” the bus driver said. He didn’t look like he was kidding. To add to the fun, the road had sometime before this switched from pavement to gravel, with potholes you could drop a bull moose into and never find the body. Thus captive in the dank belly of the rattling bus, we crawled our way north in a kind of hideous, numb-altered state of consciousness through which thrust breakthrough pain every time we hit a pothole. Potholes averaged two per minute. There was the initial flight – when we were thrown clear of our seats – then the bus thudded into the bottom of the pothole with a sickening crash, and when we landed we knocked into each other like bowling ball pins.

At Fort Providence, two mean-looking nuns climbed onto the bus and demanded that seven of us give up our seats until the bus next week, so an equivalent number of orphans could continue on to Yellowknife in time for the first day of school. Nobody moved. The cat yowled once or twice, then fell silent. “When IS the next bus?” asked a man in front.

“Tuesday,” replied a nun with a pinched nose.

“Where would we stay until then?” another man asked.

“In our residence,” the same nun replied, “for $70 a night.” A gasp went up from those passengers who could still breathe. In 1975, $50 would buy you a night in the biggest hotel in Yellowknife.

“Outrageous!” the first man exclaimed. The rest of the passengers were in too much pain to comment. The nuns stormed down the steps of the bus muttering under their breath. The driver slammed the door behind them, raising an indoor swirl of dust that choked the first three rows of passengers. As the driver ground the gears and the bus lurched forward, the passengers simultaneously emitted a deep groan most touching in its pathos.

Two summers ago, my husband John and I drove to Yellowknife from Vancouver Island in an old van, and the Mackenzie Trail buffalo chip-strewn pavement slid us north as slick as butter. As soon as we shot over the territorial border under a lowering sky with the tires singing, the ravens looked meaner and the trees looked scrappier. We camped one night. On the deck of the old Merv Hardie Ferry we watched the muddy waters of the Mackenzie River swirl past, then we swatted flies in the cab of the van clean up to the turn-off to Fort Providence. A magnificent bull stood by the side of the highway up to his hoof-tops in muskeg and stared sullenly at us through a cloud of flies.

The next buffalo was less exciting, even though he was plodding smack in the middle of the road, and by the time we spotted the herd of cows and calves thundering past, we were downright blasé. Past Edzo, past Rae, the highway uncurled like a ribbon. Then we sped around the north arm of Great Slave Lake and Yellowknife was an easy drive ahead. We gawked like hicks at the gas stations and skyscrapers and parking lots and streets crowded with cars. Our van upholstery was intact and nobody was hung over. But when we drove to my parents’ house, they were as glad to see both of us as they had been to see me 35 years earlier. Many things change, but some things really do stay the same. And that is one of the beauties of the North.

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