pacific terminus trans canada highway - tofino b.c.

Left is West – Right is East, a journey to Tofino

by Matthew Lovegrove, Tofino


When I was younger, something would escape into the air when I would unfold the faded map of Canada that I found in my Father’s car. It was like opening up a book with an infinite amount of stories inside and in each one of those stories, whichever one it was, I was a character headed somewhere magical. With my index finger I would trace routes along the highways, imagining myself lost in a country deep with cold rivers, tall pines and sunsets that would steal me away into the great open space. I always felt as if I was joining in an age old tradition; a ceremonial air hung thick in my parent’s living room until the journey was over and it was time to rejoin the real world. What I found in that map was the possibility that the unknown was accessible; that I could drive into a fantastic landscape where my reality and fable were intertwined and somehow become apart of it. With time, life taught me that this unknown place did not exist. There were meetings to attend, fences to build and money to save-things whose structure often seemed more real than my own thoughts. Roads seemed to dead-end in alleyways or in traffic jammed bumper to bumper on an overpass. The destination was always carefully marked, precisely timed and likewise, horribly boring. One day I was driving down a country road somewhere in between cities when the memory of that imaginary landscape flashed vividly into my mind. With it an excitement washed over me: I had no clue where I was or where the road was going, but all that mattered was that whatever happened just over the next hill, it would be a surprise. As they usually say, that was that.

My map of Canada is now in the glove compartment and instead of an index finger tracing the highway; I’ve got two hands on the wheel. With my girlfriend Laura beside me, we are headed west on the Trans-Canada Highway; a road that is epic in distance, thick in legend and mind-bending in the endurance needed to travel upon it. There are not many feelings rival to having such an expanse of land set before you. It’s hard to put it into words, so maybe you should come along for the drive. There are stories out there waiting for us.


Morning: Desperation and a Good Strong Cup of Coffee

Next to gasoline, caffeine is the most crucial element in the movement of lives across this country. As such, you must treat its replenishment accordingly. It will pick you up from the dreams you left in the tent and place you behind the wheel in order to hurl yourself into the morning with jittery eyes and the illusion that you are awake. So in Sault St. Marie, I don’t mind waiting in line. Truckers discuss their hauls, old friends stand silent to gain their bearings and drifters stare intently at nothing. Me, I’m two or three back from reaching the counter.

Old trucker in front of me turns around, sizes me up and then turns back. I keep staring at the waitress who is doling out steaming cups of java and looks as if she belongs in a 1950’s furniture commercial. It is this woman who holds in her reach the essential ingredient of our morning.

The old trucker does it again, now I start to wonder if there’s something he knows that I should also know.

We are slowly getting closer to the coffee so I pay no mind.

When he turns around again, he stays and asks:

“ Are you a tree planter?”

At this failed prediction, I shake my head no and he slowly turns back to the counter without a word. What on Gods-Earth, after 24 hours of driving, 15 cubic feet of interior-car-contained madness and numerous (!) conversations discussing the “actual” lives of plastic toy animals, can someone please tell me: What does this mean!? Turning around for the last time, he gives me an answer:

“ You’ve got that look of desperation in your eye”


Just ahead is the haunting yet somehow biblical northern shore of Lake Superior. I know that it is a place where words will try but never be able to hold their own among the stark rock outcroppings and cold currents breaking on the shore. Already the monotony of sitting in the same position for so long and staring out from the same perspective is starting to affect me. When I look over at Laura, I can tell that she feels the same way. For most of the winding drive through Superior’s massive granite headlands, we don’t speak a word to each other. It is almost as if we are holding our breath for what is coming next.


Noon: Waldo

On the way, you’re bound to notice how towns across this country entertain themselves by erecting monumental replicas of almost anything. There is only one rule to this phenomenon that has swept the land and sold countless merchandise to people like me: the object can, under no exception, be that large in real life. Sudbury has that giant nickel, Wawa a pair of monstrous metal geese. On many occasions driving in Ontario, my eyes have been steered off the road by a 20 ft high rocking chair or a giant fibreglass apple inhabited by a concession stand. In Upsala, a ragged collection of houses and gas bar grown out of the harsh Superior environment, you’ll meet Waldo. He’s the kind of friend that gives destination to a days drive and plentiful fodder for you mind when it stops working correctly. From the local literature (i.e. postcard):

“ The battle took place on the third Saturday of May, 1888 and Waldo met his match, for many men and many ships, who dared sink a hook in Waldo’s lip, met their fate at Heavens Gate, on Lac Des Mille Lac.”

It is true? Does it matter? All you need to know is that Waldo is a monumental plastic and metal catfish mounted on a pole 15 ft. above the gas bar parking lot. His mouth is agape in a terrifying grin; his knife-like fins have been ravaged by the elements; but he sits proud, almost dignified, demanding your attention and respect. Waldo lets me know that we are almost done with Ontario, and in some strange way, entering a landscape where stories like his are completely possible. Leaving Waldo’s legend to gather in the imaginations of others, I gain the sense of driving into a place far too large for any reasonable reaction to it.

Growing up in suburbia, there was not much space for the unknown. Behind the supermarket was a parking lot and beyond that another collection of houses or a Dairy Queen or perhaps another McDonalds. Even mental space was staked and claimed; advertising mapped it out, designated billboards and ultimately, explained that the space was not our own. There was escape into a movie and television landscape, but you couldn’t set foot inside them and always knew that it would end sooner or later. It was in this environment that we grew the illusion of a mundane life and then later, grew the urge to leave it behind.


Twilight: Only Imagine Ice

West of Winnipeg, we are faced with the most expansive landscape yet and with it comes the realisation that maintaining our sanity on this trip is going to be an uphill battle after an ice storm. Logical thought has been slowly dissolving with each day of driving and it is here that I begin to feel as if the car isn’t moving at all. I imagine that the passing landscape of barns and pale yellow silos is old national film board footage that has been looped, infinitely, on each side of the road. Falling into a confusing state of restlessness, I write Saskatchewan on my bare left foot, hang it out the window and start yelling at the random grazing cows that we pass. This state is the most overt symptom of the ceaseless drive and although it is initially treatable (reading, music and conversation are typical anecdotes), it will come to a head in the prairies. More specifically, your head. Long drawn out breaths of land disperse around us; flattening my thoughts and pulling my perception north. I can picture the prairies stretching for days and days, shedding meaning with each horizon until finally—exhaustingly—I can only imagine ice. We travel through small towns along the way that appear like mirages of metal and wood. They seem to exist just long enough for us to travel through them before disappearing in the rearview with the waver of a candle. Travelling through the prairies quickly becomes a deep meditation that is impossible to resist. For what feels like hours I am immersed in a trance, lulled by the mechanical consistency of the driving and hypnotized by the highway’s yellow dotted line. It takes Laura’s concerned voice to snap me out of it. I shake my head of the fog and bring my focus back to the road, but in my mind there has been a shift.

Looking out into the fields, I can sense that there is a common thread out there, something that can connect our lives like the railway did a hundred years ago and the internet does today. My eyes grow wide with possibility and my hands clench tighter around the wheel. Teetering on the brink of epiphany, I search for a way to express it; a way to pass it on so that everyone can celebrate this beautiful possibility that lies on the periphery of our lives. It is on the tip of my tongue, just out of reach but moving closer with each moment. I can feel it gaining momentum, promising an illuminating revelation—a glimpse into that unknown Canada that I dreamt of as a child.

And then I see a billboard with a cartoon chicken on it selling insurance. I look at it and wonder why a chicken would want to sell insurance.

It seems like something a chicken would never do and therefore a paradox worthy of reflection. And for 20 kilometres, that is what I did.


On the Insurance Chicken.

Shortly thereafter and sadly several worlds away, my epiphany has dissipated and I am only left with faint footprints as to where it was going. I try to follow them, get lost and twisted in strange circles of thought and fall back to the road, deflated. But it’s ok.

Burning on into a Saskatchewan dusk, the lights of those small mirage towns have spread a thin warmness over the prairies. Like walking into a dimly-lit theatre in the dead of winter, everything else has been stripped away and all that I begin to feel is a warm and encompassing comfort.


In Southern Alberta, you are not alone. Giant wind turbines spinning their ivory white arms welcome us to our destination province as they simultaneously power toasters and hairdryers in nearby towns. It is an efficiently courteous Canadian gesture. We strain to trace the outline of the Rockies from the hazy summer clouds and as the mountains slowly reveal themselves, it feels as if we are awaking from a five day dream. Many moments of the trip have settled in my mind like sand in a riverbed, but the ones that surface do so with immediacy, in an attempt at making some sense of it all. Of course, they don’t. But it’s those pieces that you take with you that will grow to mythic proportion and eventually become the legends that you remember. It’s the people you speak to while paying for gas in Regina or the story that a stranger tells you while sitting on the hood of your car in Thunder Bay. It’s the sunrises that you’ll see in the rearview mirror and the feeling that you will have standing under a rising prairie moon. Most of all, it’s the countless stories and lives that you will somehow know just by passing them by that makes this a magical and life changing trip. As the road gains elevation towards the mountains, leaving the eternal flatness of the prairies to mingle with the sky, I feel like our own stories have been sewn into the land, left out there for some other traveller to conjure up on an empty stretch of road. If we meet you out there, I’ll be glad.


Sometimes, I feel as if driving Sutton Pass is a religious experience, a passing through from the real to the surreal and a means of entering the dream landscape I have chased across Canada. Around a sharp bend in the road and the coastline unfolds: Of rounded mountains steeped with cloud and thick with trees silhouetted by crashing waves. From up here, it all seems pretty simple: The end of the road.

The people that have collected in Tofino are among the most interesting,, playful, raving-mad and inspiring group to be found anywhere in the world. They wake up and tread through their life in this dream, conscious of how their lives have led them here and what Clayoquot Sound means to them.

Driving towards town, you begin to feel the air loosen and with it, your thoughts follow suit.

As the tall trees usher you along the highway towards the water, there are now neon McDonalds signs, abrasive billboards offering you a better life or other hallmarks of our plastic culture. When you get to town however, there is an ancient tree harnessed by rusted metal supports, leaning with the wisdom of years, anchored to the middleground between a conversation with ourselves and a communion with nature.

It has been saved by a few dedicated individuals years ago and stands like a testament to a place that is changing, but more importantly, held together by a strong community.

Welcome to Tofino, from the end of the road, there is no telling where you might go.

Matthew Lovegrove currently lives in Tofino and spends his time playing music. Contact him at

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Matthew Lovegrove desribes his journey to Tofino in this article from Tofino Time Magazine.

tofino time january 2005

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