My sister and I planned an epic road trip for my birthday, reminiscent of our cross-Canada adventure from last summer/fall. We didn’t really intend for it to be so expansive – I looked up ‘cool things to do in Ottawa’ and the internet came up with seeing Rocky Horror Picture Show in Stratford. So I booked it, and reserved one night at the Ottawa Jail Hostel. Then, when I mapped it out, I realized where the fuck Stratford actually is. Cue my sheepish phone call to Christine, asking if she’s still in or if I should try to cancel something. She was, of course, game – so off we went!
My girlfriend Kai had a weekend planned with her best friend, so she was able to get off early on the Friday and let me hitch a ride with her to Newmarket, where I met my sister. I swapped passenger seats and put the Avon Theatre into the GPS.
It only took about two minutes on the road before the GPS betrayed us and told us to get off the highway and make two more rights – basically, deciding we needed to turn around. This had been an ongoing curse during our 6 week cross-Canada road trip on my sister’s phone. So we put her phone away to think about what it had done, and I got mine out instead. We were promptly told to get back on the highway, so we obeyed. It was a couple hours to Stratford and we were on a tight timeline.
It was great to be back on the road with my sister. I spent countless hours in that car, seeing stunning sights and having life-altering conversations with my favourite person. It was as though no time had passed, and before we knew it, we’d arrived. We parked in the lot for a pizza place to avoid paying for closer parking, and started the walk to the Avon Theatre. Neither of us had been there before (if we had, we’d’ve known it wasn’t anywhere near Ottawa…) and it was quite a lovely area. I got discounted tickets for being alum of Western University (not… entirely true) and we couldn’t find our seats and got buffeted back and forth between ushers until we finally settled.
We were on the floor level, which I hadn’t expected based on the online ticket purchase, so that was a nice surprise. Christine and I had been raised on Rocky Horror, watching it long before was appropriate for our ages. We know the songs, the lines, and as we aged, understood the jokes. The show was spectacular, and we had a blast. We’d never seen it in theatre and we were shocked by people yelling out lines and heckling the cast. But we quickly learned it was the way of the play. The only thing I didn’t like was the characterization of Janet. I felt it was really poorly done. They had her as a vapid, ditzy woman who was more enamoured with the engagement ring than her fiancé. That wasn’t the Janet I knew! She was smart, reserved, prudish, and comes into her own. Other than that disappointment, the characterizations were wonderful and the moderation had us in stitches.
We danced in place to the Time Warp, too!
After the show, we hurried across the street to Gilly’s, a pub type restaurant. We hadn’t eaten because of our rush to get there, so we were beyond thrilled to learn that it was half prized appetizers! We got four: deep fried pickles, macaroni bites, a quesadilla, and an amazing artichoke dip. I also tried the local Black Swan EPA, which was quite nice. Needless to say, we were stuffed.
While we were at the restaurant, an older man was causing some issues on the main road, possibly harassing people. He also tried to get into the restaurant but the bouncers repeatedly removed him. I’d seen him earlier in the parking lot by the pizza place, talking to himself and walking erratically. The police got involved as we watched from inside the restaurant. It was very distressing, and I can’t imagine how it must have felt for him, as he clearly had some type of developmental delays or mental illness. Because of the audience, I think the police handled it better than they may have otherwise, because I could tell the one cop was getting very frustrated. They let the guy go but he came back within moments and at that time I believe he was arrested.
When we left the restaurant, a bunch of bros were singing Wonderwall accompanied by an attempt at acoustic guitar. I was told, “Be fun! Be more fun! You have blue hair, why aren’t you fun?” My sister and I crossed the street to avoid the group – there is no way of telling what kind of fun they wanted us to be, since my loved ones think I’m an absolute delight.
Once in the car, we drove past the group and I had my sister roll down the window so I could yell, “SING BETTER!” and we were, shockingly, told to fuck off. Hmm, not fans of being told what to do, eh?
We went to the wal-mart parking lot and found a spot under a streetlight. It did have a sign that said no overnight parking, but I doubted they had any kind of security so we went for it. Unlike our road trip, this time we didn’t have to maneuver six bins, two tents, two camp chairs, a 10L water jug, two coolers, and various loose items. This time we had all the space in the world, we just hopped into the back and lay out our sleeping mats and bags. It was a quiet night, a little cool, and we woke up to bodily discomfort and decided to get on the road.
We made our way to the Tim Horton’s to plan our route to Ottawa and see what else was happening in the area. We also grabbed some food from the grocery store so we wouldn’t have to eat out. The drive from Stratford to Ottawa is about 6 hours. We stopped a couple times to get gas or have a bit of lunch, and we arrived in Ottawa around 5pm. When we went to check in, we discovered that parking on the street was free, so we went to move the car. We returned and checked out our hostel room, which was absolutely awesome. I like small spaces and I like top bunks, so I was really excited. The history of the jail is pretty intense – learn more about it here.
Most of the rooms had labels for male prisoners, so it was really cool that the one we got had a placard for a woman – the owner of a house of ill-repute, no less. All of the other women’s labels talked about offenses like ‘keeping and untidy house’ and ‘vagrancy’, so you can see the misogyny here.
We explored the hostel – we’d heard it was haunted, but we didn’t experience that. The death row interpretation floor was locked, so we just read all the placards. Some of the floors housed guards, but ours was actually for prisoners. It was distressing to think of the heinous conditions that the prison was famous for. However, these human rights violations continue to happen in modern prisons in Ottawa.
We went back to the room and hung out for a bit until we decided to go to the opening of the Ottawa Art Gallery. It was kind of just a perfect coinciding that the opening was on that very weekend, and it was a really great experience. The gallery is 5 storeys and showcases lots of contemporary art and art by women, indigenous people, and people of colour. It was a really fascinating collection. We also got some free caramel corn! We took some photos outside though it was way chillier than we’d anticipated given that the previous week had been in the high teens and twenties.
The art gallery was on the same block as the hostel. It couldn’t have been more perfect! When we returned to our room, it became clear that it was going to be a noisy night. The doors were heavy iron bars with the midsection covered, but the tops and bottoms were only barred, so you could hear everything that happened on your floor. Luckily, we seemed to be one of the only pairings – most people seemed to be travelling solo. Lots of solo women backpackers, which was awesome!
Christine and I played Harry Potter Trivial Pursuit, which Sandra had given me for my birthday, and we drank honey mead and ate potato chips, pretty much until it all ran out.
At one point, I was ready to read a trivia question, and Christine raises the bottle to her lips and fakes a huge swig, saying, “This is me prepping for the exam!” and I said, “When was your last exam? Was it a pap smear?” And Christine looks thoughtful and said, “Well… when would that have been?” And we proved ourselves to be bad neighbours by laughing our asses off.
Neither of us slept that well because of the noise. At one point I thought I heard my sister snoring, until she said, “OMG that snoring!” and I realized it was another hosteller. Keep that in mind if you stay at the Ottawa Jail Hostel. They do offer free ear plugs, but I was already settled in by the time I thought of it.
We made our way to breakfast around 9:30am. There wasn’t much to do in the room, being a jail cell, so we decided to pack up. Breakfast was lacklustre to say the least: some fruit, hard boiled eggs, and bagels. After that, we went to the lobby to wait for the tour. We were there for a bit, so we played a word game on Christine’s phone. The tour was fairly big – when we’d signed up, there’d only been one other person taking it, but I think probably around 12 people did. It was so interesting, though horrifying.
It was our tour guide’s first time doing the tour alone, and she did a great job. We learned about the conditions of the jail, and how marginalized people, like immigrants, had no chance at survival because of the treatment. How quarantine was basically a death sentence in itself. And how, although there were only three official executions by hangings, there was a beam in a stairwell on the way to the actual gallows which was repeatedly used to hang prisoners. And when the bridge over Nicholas St. was built, they found 140 bodies buried on the property – and that’s only what was excavated; who knows what remains remain.
When we were finished with the tour, we went back up through death row to take photos and take in the feeling of the space. It was dreadful.
We returned to the car when it was done, and discovered it was completely blocked in: a pick-up truck in front of us had a jutting hitch inches from our bumper, and the car behind us was even closer. We were trapped! We tried calling the business number on the side of the guy’s truck, but no one answered and no voicemail was set up. We left a note on his windshield requesting that he call us when he moved so we could get free. We’d wanted to go to the Rideau Centre mall anyway, so we decided to leave it and see if we fared any better when we returned. The mall was a nightmare maze of capitalism, consumerism, objectification, and the exploitation of women’s insecurities – not a good time.
We grabbed a ‘marble hot chocolate’ from Second Cup, which is half regular and half white hot chocolate, and went to the bathroom before we left. My sister had to tell a guy to stop hanging out so close to the entrance to the women’s bathroom – he was hovering like a foot from it on his cell phone, and it was the kind without any doors. He apologized and left.
We left the mall and returned to find neither of the cars had moved. We were still stuck. Christine was ready to give it a go and see if she could maneuver out. I didn’t have faith in that – but! Then I saw the guy’s truck hitch was extendable. I levered the rusted pin out and, super done, threw it in the back of his truck bed and slammed the hitch in. There! Two more inches.
Just enough for my sister to make a 7-point turn and finally free us. I snatched the note from the windshield and we bolted. We got the joy of watching a full-sized SUV trying to parallel park into the same space my sister’s Honda Fit barely occupied. Nice try, though.
We went to Rideau Hall because they have free tours. Rideau Hall is where Canada’s Governor General lives. The Governor General is an apolitical ambassador of the Canadian people to the Queen. Our current GG is kind of cool: Julie Payette, she’s been to space twice as an astronaut! There’s a great history of amazing female firsts within the GG role. (Down with the monarchy and imperialism, though.)
The hall tour was interesting – our guide was incredibly well informed. We didn’t get to see the GG’s offices or anything, just the historical parts of the building. But we did have to go through security.
We explored the grounds for a bit before heading back to the car.
We were so nervous about getting blocked in again that we made sure to park alongside a driveway. We made it out fine. Christine did all the city driving, and although I know it was really stressful for her, she did an amazing job and didn’t hit anyone, pedestrian or vehicle! Amazing.
We decided to walk around the Parliament area before heading to get food. We both realized we didn’t know much about Ottawa and the historical buildings because there were many, and we couldn’t correctly identify any.
We also enjoyed all the statues, with unnamed women highlighting the very important men. My favourite, however, was the Famous Five statue tableau.
Finally, around 4 in the afternoon, it was time for the Poutine Fest! Again, a wonderful coincidence for our Ottawa weekend. They blocked off Sparks St. and lined up like 15 chip trucks, all offering different amazing fry-based delicacies. After walking up and down, we decided on Golden Fries. I chose the lobster and bacon poutine, and my sister got a split between the same, and a pulled pork poutine. It was so fucking delicious. We ate in the car because it was so cold out, but my goodness did we enjoy that.
Our last Ottawa must was taking our photo with the Ottawa sign. We came at a perfect time because only a few people were around, and we roped a couple into taking our photo for us.
We had wavered between staying another night in Ottawa or returning home, and we opted to head back to Huntsville because we truly had seen everything we’d planned to see. So we got back on the road, with Christine driving until our stop at Tim Horton’s.
Now, I’ve been girlcotting Tim’s because of their abuse of staff since the minimum wage went up to $14 per hour in January – in Cobourg, the owners of the local Tim’s franchise are the heirs to the company – and they let their staff know FROM THEIR WINTER HOME IN FLORIDA, that all full-time staff had lost their fucking benefits. Shareholders can’t lose a penny, but staff get punished with no health coverage. The proletariat loses again while the bourgeoisie cry about their suffering. Unbelievable.
Anyway, I just wanted a fucking Earl Grey tea so we decided to leave the highway for a Tim’s. The first Tim’s we tried was in a giant stadium which zero parking, and the second was in a smaller arena but still quite undesirable. The third, my friends, was a ‘self-serve’ in a gas station, which I’d never experienced before.
And I truly implore you to avoid these at all costs. Now, I’m not an incompetent woman. Some even say I’m quite clever (just look at all the words I know). And yet, this self-serve was beyond my capacities. First, I had to figure out that I had to serve myself. Second, I had to find the hot water spigot. I found 2 tea bags and the spigot and left at least a healthy inch of space in my torpedo sized coffee cup (I believe that’s an XL). Then, I found the sugar. Normally, you would rip open sugar packets and dump them in, but this station had the authentic Tim’s sugar dump machine, which was fine, although it splashed some of my hot water hither and thither.
The issue, though, was the creamer. I had to press 4+ buttons just to request two creams for an XL cup. I watched in motionless horror as the creamer poured in, well above the hard limit of the top of the cup, spilling over and creating a physics-defying meniscus.
Foolishly, and yet understanding I had no other choice, I attempted to fit a lid over this liquid dome. I was completely emotionally deflated and detached as liquid gushed over the lip of the lid. I cleaned with napkins, repeatedly and defeatedly. Finally, my sister, having used the bathroom and solved global hunger by this time, entered the store and watched in silent consternation as I tried, fruitlessly, to clean my messes. She took my cup away entirely as I went to pay, shamefully unable to meet the eyes of the attendant.
After I used the bathroom and returned to the car, I saw a Honda Fit-sized splash of milky liquid beside the driver door. Sure enough, my sister had expulsed the top inch of my torpedo in order to ensure I didn’t spill it all over the inside of her car.
We didn’t speak of it again.
I drove home, stopping only for gas, at which the male station attendant hovered over my sister, making sure the innocent lamb knew how to pump gas.
Expect for periodic sun in the eyes, I drove home through Algonquin Provincial Park without incident. We decided to stop at Lake of Two Rivers for a moment for the sunset. We weren’t in the right direction for a proper sunset, but the trees were still and the light changing.
As we went to leave, a man pulled in and asked if we’d seen the full moon. We explained we hadn’t seen it yet, but as we drove on, she revealed herself to us, full, low, and bright. We pulled over and tried to take photos, but the camera didn’t really cooperate. We enjoyed it with our attention and presence instead.
Finally, we arrived at my home in Huntsville. We regaled my mother and stayed up late talking. Finally, our adventure ended, and we returned to our respective spaces.
Spending time with my sister is always so fun, adventurous, and exploratory. We get each other, we press each other, and we love each other. I’m lucky enough to have a few women in my life who fill this space in different ways, but there is something so unique and so precious about my journeys with my sister across our beautiful country.