December 20, 2013 9:45 AM | By Mark Richardson for MSN Autos

The Christmas Drive

It's snowing, it's cold, it's dark ... it's also Christmas.

Driving home for Christmas
With a thousand memories
I take a look at the driver next to me
He's just the same
Just the same
- Chris Rea

Canadian Christmas drives are always special, and usually challenging. They’re often in the dark, thanks to the short days of December, and they’re often long, over a great distance, thanks to the huge geography of our country.

And, because we’re a winter nation, there’s snow and ice and frigid temperatures, just so you really appreciate getting home at the end of it all.

The first year I had a driver’s licence, my mom made me drive the family sedan from our home outside Toronto to my grandparents’ house in Montreal. It should have been a seven-hour drive; it took 17 hours. A Christmas Eve storm created such deep drifts that long stretches of Hwy. 401 were closed, and we slogged through on the parallel Hwy. 2.

My dad was annoyed I was driving, but my mom’s theory was that I had just completed a full course of Driver’s Ed., so all the lessons for good driving would still be fresh in my mind and far better than my dad’s ingrained bad habits. I was 18 and this was my first winter behind the wheel. I went along with it.

A long way in the snow

Slippy slippy slippy!

The weather wasn’t too bad when we left, with the trunk of the big Ford LTD stuffed full of gifts and the chunky snow tires biting through the few drifts. We took it slow and steady, but traffic was terrible – everybody else was trying to do the same thing and like Santa, we all had a deadline of that night.

Once we reached Kingston, at the east end of Lake Ontario, everything just seemed to close in. The highway was shut down and the radio implored drivers to find a room for the night. But it was Christmas Eve – obviously, this wasn’t an option. My dad sat beside me in the front, his fingers gripping the edge of the dash even more tightly than my own fingers gripped the wheel, and he kept a running commentary for my mother and sister in the back seat.

“Watch out for that truck! See the car in the ditch – that will be us in a minute! If we don’t get past this plow, we’ll never get there!” And my favourite, just before I spun out but somehow regained control: “Oooh – slippy slippy slippy!”

My dad kept this up for hours. My mother sat tight-lipped behind, resolute in her conviction that her insistence I drive was the right decision. My sister just peered out the window at the swirling snow. We listened to accounts on the radio of Santa’s progress around the world, interspersed with regular doses of Jose Feliciano.

Sliding in the dark
Once across the border in Quebec, the plows just didn’t bother trying to clear snow and we drove through a white maelstrom. Suddenly, brake lights ahead showed a dim car stopped in our lane and I hit the brakes at 40 km/h, but lost control and slid wildly to the right. None of us had thought that snow tires being older than the car was a problem, but we all learned a lesson that day. We passed the stalled car driving sideways, wide-eyed at the dark shapes in the snow, and miraculously the brittle tires found traction just when they happened to be pointed in the best direction and we slipped back into the lane.

“That’s how you do it,” said my mom. “That’s how they teach them these days.”

We drove in silence the final two hours into the city. When we reached my grandparents, we all drank to our deliverance while the handbrake slowly froze solid on the car outside. It took hours to thaw it free on Christmas Day before the car could be moved.

My parents separated not long after that – no surprise there – and the next time I travelled to Quebec for the holiday, it was to leave my Dad’s place in Toronto on Christmas morning to visit my mom and her parents at the house in Montreal later in the afternoon. This time, the weather was abnormally warm, just above freezing, and the forecast was for sunny skies all week.

I was young; I was single; I decided to ride my motorcycle.

Don’t ever do this

Yeah. Don't ever do this.

I didn’t own any heated clothing that could tap into the bike’s battery – it wasn’t invented yet – so I dressed as warmly as possible and hunched over the gas tank of my Kawasaki GPZ750 sport bike and pointed her east. This time, the seven-hour drive took 12.

When you’re immobile on a motorcycle, unable to even move your head for the thick scarf and “applewarmer” neck shield that keeps out the wind, there’s no way to restore any of the heat that slowly but surely gets wicked from your body. The first couple of hours were okay, but I figured I should stop for a coffee at Belleville to warm up. Then some soup in Kingston. Then more soup in Brockville. Then every half-hour, to pee and drink coffee and nestle under the hot air driers in the bathrooms of whatever service centres I could find open.

It was a freezing, frigid, frozen ride, made worse by the car drivers who would peer across curiously, dressed just lightly in their heated cocoons. The temperature dropped once I passed Lake Ontario, of course, but I’d ridden too far to turn back. It really dropped when the sun set and the road became just a dark ribbon to be overcome, beaten to submission.

Eventually, I rode up to my grandparent’s house, warmed by the shot of adrenaline just released when the bike slipped a block away on some dark, side-street ice, and tottered inside to drink to my deliverance.

“Was it worth it?” asked my mother.

I never did such a dumb thing again, but that was still a wonderful Christmas spent with both my parents, and Christmas is for family. So yes, I told my mom, it was totally worth it. And next time, I’ll take the train.

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