Driving away from Quebec City airport, we had eight kilometres in which to decide our route. Take the swift-moving Pierre-Laporte Bridge to the south side of the Saint Lawrence River, glide onto the Trans Canada Highway, Route 20, set cruise control and be home in Halifax before midnight.
Keep right, take the historic two-lane Pont de Quebec, whose 549-metre centre span is the longest cantilever structure in the world, get on Route 175 South and add three to four hundred kilometres to our route and an undefined amount of time.
Of course, that’s what we did.
Regular readers of this column may recognize this as another Lisa-and-Garry mission but, mostly, a Garry idea. How could I say no, however, when the rules of our undertaking were so eloquently expressed? No four-lane roads. No navigation systems.
This seems a shame considering our partner in crime is a 2019 GMC Terrain Denali which boasts an eight-inch infotainment multi-touch display with a perfectly good navigation system.
The cabin of GMC’s elegant crossover has excellent map and cargo storage pockets though, thanks in part to the electronic shift activation switches that have replaced the gear shift and freed up highly desirable centre console real estate.
Good thing because maps, those old paper relics requiring an engineering degree or strong origami skills to fold, plus our somewhat keen senses of direction and a desire to not kill each other, would be our main means of navigating the perilous back roads of Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. Plenty of space to store the maps we had on board for the three provinces.
If we cheated, that is, if we aborted the mission and took a four-lane highway to get out of a jam, we would only be cheating ourselves. Or something like that.
Barely 15 kilometres from our start point and we were hugging the south bank of the Saint Lawrence on a road we had never driven, the iconic silhouette of Quebec City and its dramatic cliffs visible through the mist across the river.
Rain, wind and generally crappy weather was in the forecast for the next few days. The interior of the 2019 Terrain became a mobile cocoon of coziness. The Bose seven-speaker premium audio system meant non-stop quality road tunes. Premium leather made seating refined and comfortable.
The 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine mated to a nine-speed automatic transmission makes 252 horsepower and 260 lb.-ft. of torque. The Terrain’s powerplant hummed along smoothly.
Secondary roads, poor cousins to the major highways when it comes to priority in maintenance repairs, were bumpy and full of potholes. The GMC Terrain handled all that like a pro. Our Denali version, in a crisp white paint, looked good doing it with slick 19-inch wheels, chrome exterior trim and upscale LED headlights.
We settled into a routine of sharing driving and navigating duties and telling back-road stories.
To avoid getting sucked onto the four-lane highway between Quebec and New Brunswick, we veered southeast creeping along the U.S. border on Route 289. Garry remembered travelling the road as a kid on family vacations to Montreal from Moncton. Those trips would take about twenty hours and always involved a vehicular breakdown of some kind.
We wanted to stay in mom-and-pop motels but in the dark, rainy rolling hills of a tiny corner of Quebec, there were none. We wound our awkward way into Edmundston, N.B., which seemed as lively as downtown Toronto after a day out there on back roads.
Getting out of Edmundston on drizzly Day 2 took longer than anticipated. Ominous ‘Detour’ and ‘Road Closed’ signs sent us into a map flap.
We had told friends we would stop by but we would be at least 90 minutes late. Luckily, we have understanding friends. We finally arrived and I scored a quick accordion lesson. Isn’t that what most people do on back-roads-only road trips?
Our understanding friends had plenty of questions about our latest scheme, mainly ‘Why?’.
You reach a point, in a back-roads-only road trip, where you don’t think about the destination. You relish the ‘getting there’.
It helps to like your drive partner and have techniques for dealing with tension. In-vehicle fun is important. Garry got French lessons in Quebec. We took turns spotting old jalopies, reading church marquees proclaiming ‘Exposure to the Son may prevent burning’ and ‘Sin bad. Jesus good. Details inside.’
The four-lane highway would appear like a mirage below us or above us. We would yell ‘There it is!’ In Highway World, the trucks were uncountable, the drone deafening.
Life seemed simpler away from the highway. We were taking the time to admire candy-coloured houses, tacky lawn ornaments and the bustle of small towns and villages we would normally never see.
We wormed our two-lane way into Moncton, slept soundly and awoke to a sunny Day 3 with an electric-blue autumn sky.
We sadly realized we would be home that night.
Moncton to Sackville, N.B., is usually a quick 40 minutes but overflowing rivers, construction and a missed detour sign (oops!) meant a 90-minute gravel-road detour to Rockport. We saw the roiling Bay of Fundy with its dramatic tides in action. Frolicking seabirds entertained us and spectacular seascapes took our breath away.
The biggest challenge of the trip lay ahead: The Isthmus. We knew this 24-kilometre-wide scrap of land connecting Nova Scotia to the rest of North America would be tricky to navigate without using the extremely convenient four-lane highway. That darn isthmus almost derailed us.
Map consultation saved us. It only took four hours to get from Moncton into Nova Scotia. It typically takes about 45 minutes but we had stopped comparing by then. We followed the Amherst Shore, glimpsed Prince Edward Island then drove through the beautiful Wentworth Valley.
Coming into Halifax through Bedford, we began to appreciate how much of a commitment road trip were before four-lane highways.
The 2019 GMC Terrain had been an admirable companion. It was muddy and grimy. The interior was messy and looked like a teenager’s bedroom.
We were home feeling romantic, accomplished and even adventurous.
Quebec City to Halifax (no four-lane highway)
- Distance: 1,338 km
- Time: 28 hours
Quebec City to Halifax (average trip on four-lane highway)
- Distance: 1,006 kilometres
- Time: 10-12 hours