I’m a city girl. I like cycling to the theatre and taking the streetcar to yoga. But there are lots of cities with lots of amazing plays, yoga studios and public transit systems, and to experience more than one of them, you must pass through the suburban, the rural and sometimes, the soulless. For my frequent Toronto-Montreal trips, I tend to favour VIA Rail, but when you’re moving printers and boxes of books, it’s easier to drive. I hadn’t done the six-hour road trip in less than year, but while the stretches of asphalt hadn’t changed, the rest stops sure had.
Gone are the ubiquitous trio of gas pump, Tim Horton’s and chain burger joint. Instead we have glossy ONRoute service centres on highways across Ontario. They’re very nice, to be sure, with polished tables, big windows and easy-to-find ATMs. It’s refreshing to pay too much for a salad and smoothie at La Brioche Dorée instead of queuing up for a double-double and a Boston Cream. You can still get gum and Gatorade at The Market, a convenience store exclusive to ONRoute centres, but they also offer, as their website says, “gourmet foods to go.” The bathrooms are clean and well equipped, and you can dry your hands in ten seconds flat with Dyson’s Airblade hand dryers.
But… the five ONRoutes we stopped at were entirely interchangeable with one another. It’s a little disorienting to step out of the car and be in the exact same space you pulled out of three hours ago. I was never a huge fan of the grubby gas stations where the only snack options were Cheetos or Doritos, but is ONRoute that much better? While it might be comforting to know exactly where the bathroom is, be you in Mallorytown or Morrisburg, it starts to take the sense of adventure out of travel. Sure, the old rest stops weren’t that original or exciting, but I would be a lot more tempted to take the car instead of the train if the service centres weren’t clones of each other. One stop could have the best cherry pie, another roti to die for. They could be run, not merely staffed, by locals, who would surely be more engaged if they were working for themselves instead of making minimum wage by pouring coffee. But as it is, it looks like we’re ONRoute to Stepford.
~ Sara Tatelman