One warm September Saturday, our car was stopped on the 401 highway with thousands of westbound travellers. My Karen and our six-year-Nigel onboard, the speeding traffic had abruptly come to a standstill. Minutes of braked idling shifted to park until one by one, each ignition was cranked off. After a quarter hour, myself and other drivers tentatively stretched out onto our side of the six-lane highway. Each lane was a chain of glinting metal — visually endless behind and beyond.
I walked over to a young man of Asian descent who, with a skateboarder’s flair, had hopped up onto the concrete divider. “I can’t tell,” he shrugged and we both hazily registered the empty and silent eastbound lanes. He gestured back to a mini-van full of friends to join him and I returned to our car.
This was before smart phones were ubiquitous and could tell us, with immediacy and precision, what was happening. Eventually, the radio advised detours but for all of us suspended between exits, there was nowhere to go but wait.
We’d been on our way to an annual outdoor gathering so while Karen snapped open lawn chairs, I took the hand of our restless son and began weaving to the east and westbound divider. I hoisted him up onto the concrete barrier and he walked confidently, sometimes reaching for my hand, sometimes pushing it away. When I spied a dead rabbit nestled on the other side of the barrier, I lifted him onto my back and we rambled through clusters of drivers, and passengers, children and dogs all taking in this suspension of life.
The strangeness of walking the 401 was enhanced by insects chirping from a culvert while cicadas buzzed and birds sang from intermittent stands of trees sentried between highway and farmers fields. Deep summer sounds and the sky a vivid blue, the sun harkened me back to the hot stillness of late July — a sharp contrast to our recent rushing agenda that the back-to-school season brings.
A svelte cyclist with short black dreadlocks had unloaded his mountain bike and was carefully cycling the gravelled shoulder. Four pot-bellied white men sat in a speedboat playing cards, their goatees jumping with laughter, baseball caps bobbing and meanwhile, the youth had left their minivan to throw frisbee around in the empty eastbound lanes.
We passed people lunching from their picnic coolers, people visiting, people wandering among the tall grasses in ditches beside the highway. And there were pipers. Two men of Scottish ancestry, tall, thick-bodied and neatly bearded, squeezing the bags hugged under their arms as they faced one another in matching kilts. A few older women, grey hair under babushkas and paper plates in hand, offered us potato salad. We listened together and I was transported from parade to ceremony before the pipers ended their recital with the beauty of Amazing Grace.
My son was drawn to the cowboy hat and pick-up truck of another traveller, her friendly face deeply tanned and lined like she’d worked the fields her whole life. She offered us water and let Nigel play in the back of her cab. She was returning home from a stay with her daughter who raises cattle in the Frontenac region and had recently adopted a baby girl.
It was a cornucopia of peoples– all of us having departed from and travelling to singular destinations. And suddenly thrust together in happenstance like crowds celebrating a city championship or neighbours emerging after a tornado. Common strangers sharing an uncommon occurrence.
Some late for weddings, some late for funerals, each and every plan upended. And everyone of us, at some point in the hours of stoppage, frustrated and impatient and doing the math of “what if I’d left just a little later or a little earlier,” and “well, this changes everything.” Mutterings of vexation that are quickly muted when the air ambulance flies overhead.
Karen always says when we are stuck in crawling highway traffic, “It could be an accident. Let’s just be grateful we’re stopped and not injured or dead.” Wise words that extinguish my fuming. Nigel and I returned to our car to lounge in the lawn chairs and play I-spy with Karen.
This new state of being had taken such hold that we couldn’t grasp why two men in short sleeved shirts and ties, turbans and long beards were running toward us and yelling something, their arms waving wildly. The men launched into their car, engine ignited and just as suddenly as the stoppage, vehicles were flying past. We snapped up our chairs in a panic and buckled Nigel in.
The group of young men and women who’d been playing frisbee on the empty lanes were trapped between the concrete barrier and the now rushing cars. Others were running along the shoulder back to their vehicles. We’d expected a gradual resumption but instead got no-warning, mayhem and endangerment.
Quickly getting up to speed, I drove for about 10 minutes until new congestion slowed us. The flash of trauma as palpable as the child’s running shoe, stuffed animal, and bloodied denim swept up with glass and metal debris on the side of the road.
Just last week, online with friends, we mused about what life will be like after the Covid lockdown is lifted and we all go back to normal. What shape will normal take? I recalled then how, with thousands of strangers, we were stopped one afternoon on the 401, caught between exits, and I remembered with fondness and gravity, the convergence of lives suspended and the cost of lives lost.