In the years that I’ve been writing 2 Cents articles for probably no one but me, I’ve made a point of retelling the story of each swap meet or flea market to which I travel. This column, when in its infancy, was more of an opinion piece. It was new and fresh at a time when blogs, such as they are now, didn’t exist, and there were relatively few people on the Internet. There was a clunky e-mail list for people who wanted to talk plates, but that’s it. There was no Facebook, no Yahoo Groups, and very few collectors out there knew how to develop a website. I myself took a course to learn the coding and uploading. As the years have gone by, people have been using various online site editors, which does the hard work of formatting and lets you focus on your content and appearance. But this old site is operated by an aging dog who is unwilling to learn new tricks, so each page that you see here is manually coded using HTML in a text editor. It’s the same thing I’ve been doing since 1997.
That was just a preamble. I’m not writing about my site. Rather, I’ve simply been reminded of this website’s origins, and how I’ve never really written about much that happened beforehand. Things like the 1996 ALPCA Convention in Peoria, or my solo trip through northern Ontario in the summer of 1997 to look for plates. So I think I’m going to spend time writing about those things. This is still a preamble. Onto the story.
So there I was, a fresh university graduate, with a degree in genetics, and my future a blank canvas. It really was blank. I had the degree in hand, but I had no prospects and was not sure of my further options. I had applied to graduate school at McMaster and been declined. I wasn't too crazy about the whole idea of grad school, so I hadn't applied elsewhere. I had earned my degree, but my cards had all been played for the time being.
With it being August, and me not knowing what to do with myself, my mother offered me her car keys one day and told me that I should take a little road trip up north. I had never been up to northwestern Ontario before, and August is the best time of year to drive along the cliffs of Lake Superior and see the sights. Well, she didn’t have to mention it twice. I spent a couple of days with a roadmap at the kitchen table, plotting my route, and dubbing a couple of mix tapes. Naturally, as a license plate collector, my attention turned to junkyarding, so I looked up whatever salvage yards I could find. Back in those days, northern Ontario motorists didn’t pay an annual fee to renew their plates. It was literally zero dollars to get a new sticker. That meant that some people didn’t care whether their plates stayed on their vehicle after it was scrapped, and so there were actually Ontario plates to find in the northern salvage yards. Nowadays, there is a renewal fee and there is a heightened paranoia / sense of security surrounding license plates. But back in ’97, the worst that could happen is that some northern yard boss would look at me sideways before saying, “Sure, bub, whatever. Fill your boots.” I could handle that.
The morning of August 9, I packed up the vehicle --a Geo Tracker-- with my tent, sleeping bag, clothes, towels, swimsuit, and, of course, my PAK (Plate Acquisition Kit). The PAK contained an adjustable wrench, various screwdrivers, needlenose pliers, regular pliers, a chisel, and a hammer—everything I might need to remove plates from old vehicles in the rough. And with that, I departed Goulais River and headed north on Highway 17 toward Thunder Bay.
I stopped a few times to marvel at the scenery (and once to pick up a roadkill plate). I visited some ancient pictographs along the shore of Superior at Agawa Rock. The trail passed through the bottom of a sixty-foot deep chasm with walls of rock that were somehow ripped apart through the millennia. The roadside terrain between Sault Ste. Marie and Wawa was similarly rugged, full of steep hills and cliffs. Things flattened out after a while, and a strong westerly wind rocked my boxy vehicle around, but the wind subsided as the terrain became rocky again around Marathon. I filled up with gas in Terrace Bay and the twit attendant left my gas cap on the roof—the check engine light came on and I didn’t realize why until I topped the tank off again outside Thunder Bay. A wall of rain developed and soaked the area, so that was the end of my plan to camp out for the night. With no outdoor options, and roadside attractions closing up for a Saturday night, I drove onward to Thunder Bay and found room 5 vacant at the Strathcona Motel—a small, old establishment, but impeccably clean. It was only $55 for two nights—cheap even for 1997.
The next morning, I decided to explore the area surrounding Thunder Bay. None of the junkyards that I planned to visit were going to be open on a Sunday, so, I reasoned, what better way to spend the day than a scenic drive? The previous day’s drive notwithstanding, I was eager to pick a town and just see what was there… so I picked Kashabowie. I probably should have gone to Kakabeka Falls, but I didn’t know about it.
I considered going further, but at nearly 100 km west of Thunder Bay along Highway 11, I figured a return trip to Kashabowie would be the perfect distance that I could still take my time and get back to Thunder Bay before dark. I crossed over into the Central Time Zone—a first for me within Canada—and my turnaround point was Tertiary Highway 802. There are only about five “tertiary” highways in Ontario. It was paved with gravel and tar, and didn’t seem like much more than an access road to a lake somewhere. As a highway geek, I couldn’t help but take a self-portrait while hanging off the 802 signpost. It sure was a far cry from the 401. The traffic was light and the scenery pretty. The two mix tapes with which I had equipped myself played continuously on my Walkman, and the songs I picked still remind me of that day when I hear them. On the way back to Thunder Bay, I visited historic Fort William, just when they were re-enacting the siege and subsequent unlawful occupation of the Fort by Lord Selkirk and the Hudson’s Bay Company. Interesting stuff.
The morning of Monday, August 11, I was back in Thunder Bay, in the sulphur-stinky south end, sitting in the driveway to Mission Island Auto Wreckers, waiting with a few other yokels for opening time at 11 am. I had time to write in my journal, and I remarked how the first wrecking yard turned me away, while the second gave me a lukewarm reception and let me go in—the guy thought I’d be wasting my time, but so what? It was my time to waste. It turned out to be one of the more worthwhile plate stops on my journey overall—I came away with nine nice plates, some of which are still in my passenger run. As 11 o’clock approached, I was hopeful of finding some goodies at Mission Island—my third stop of the day. It was a you-pull-it operation, so I had my PAK tools ready and I was simply waved inside when the gates opened. I only found a couple of plates, which wasn't too surprising since Misson Island was more of a heavy equipment yard. I came across some old GM buses, retired from Thunder Bay Transit, and pulled out a couple of destination rollsigns. For what ended up being fifty cents each, I couldn’t go wrong! Wading through piles of junk did take their toll on my boots—I had just had the soles repaired, but the constant flexing in the heat was causing them to peel off. I would get them repaired again before the day’s end.
All told, I visited seven junkyards that day—of which four allowed me inside to look for plates—and I acquired twenty plates for what amounted to pocket change. I had previously heard about the big hauls some American collectors had landed in some of the less-strict states like Idaho and North Carolina. I knew that Ontario, being one of the more strictly-controlled plate jurisdictions in North America, would never be easy to collect in this way. Nonetheless, at twenty junkyard plates in a day, I had a new record—one that I will probably never break.
I departed Thunder Bay that afternoon, and drove northward on Highway 11. I passed the Palisades of Pijitawabik, an area along the Nipigon River where the escarpments are hundreds of feet high, and they drop into a tiny lake with black sand on the shore from the erosion of the cliffs. The evening sunlight coasted downward while the wind passed strongly through the trees. I set up my camp a short time later at Lake Nipigon Provincial Park, and took a refreshing swim with the black sand at my feet. This is the Ontario I love.
The following morning, I took a walk along a trail through the park, but I somehow lost the trail, and stumbled upon a grove of spruce trees with many old, rusty cans wedged in the ground. There was an old house nearby (shuttered when I saw it, but was part of an old trading post in the 1930s, according to a sign I would read later). I reasoned that the cans could be the remains of an old dump. Ever the scavenger for old things, I started clearing the dirt and brown spruce needles from the ground. I found some porcelain, but not in the form of 1911 license plates. I did uncover two porcelain-enamelled bowls, and a jug, plus a very old medicine bottle. These were probably leftovers from the trading post. There was no obvious trail into where I had found these artifacts, so they had probably sat undisturbed from the closure of the trading post in 1930.
I spent the rest of the day driving across northern Ontario on Highway 11. I had never seen it before, and it was less scenic that I imagined—very flat with unending evergreen trees on either side of the highway, and it seemed that I was perpetually 200 km away from the next town. I wouldn’t do any more plate hunting until the following day, in Timmins. I received a cold reception from the guy at the yard, but he had no objection to me going in to find plates. He didn’t warn me about the junkyard dog that came within a couple of feet of biting me—the dog was tied up and I dashed out of range just in the nick of time. I picked up a few more plates, including the natural 1997 passenger that I still have in my run.
My travels took me into Quebec briefly and then back into Ontario past North Bay and toward Algonquin Park. I was getting tired of travelling, and I only had a couple of days left before I felt like I ought to be back home. Somewhere around South River, I located an unmanned, ungated junkyard. It appeared to be a scrapyard, with lots of metallic items, including a pile of old road signs, with some King’s Highway shields and other interesting stuff. There was no sign telling me not to trespass, so I grabbed my PAK and tried to liberate the signs, which were still attached to their posts. I tried for a good half hour, but I just didn’t have the torque or grip that was needed to make the bolts budge—they were driven on to stay. If I had a pair of long-handled channel-locks, or vise-grips, and some WD-40, I might have loosened something… but no luck. I had to leave the signs behind. On the way back out to the highway, I drove behind a pickup truck with a personalized plate: “TAX CUT”. I knew at once that Ernie Eves must have been driving in front of me. He was the provincial finance minister at the time, and been elected to represent this area, and had done a tax-cutting PR campaign the previous year—the part I vividly remembered was his picture on the front page of the Toronto Sun with his new “TAX CUT” plates that he had ordered. Eves would go on to be an unelected caretaker Premier for a short time between the resignation of Mike Harris and the election of Dalton McGuinty.
On the way back home, I passed through Sudbury and tried a you-pull-it yard. The yard was large, and I went in saying that I was looking for a fuel pump anchor for a Mercury Topaz (which I actually did need). I decided that would at least get me in, and then if I found a plate, I could worry about it afterward. As it turned out, there were nearly no plates, and I’m not sure if I did find a Topaz or a Tempo—I didn’t look very hard. I eventually did score one keeper plate, in the VYL series—very cool, as it was one of the first reflective plates made, with the new manufacture starting with the VYJ series.
That was it—nearly 3000 km and six days, and many dollars of fuel—all to collect fewer than thirty plates. But while I was on the trip, I let my mind wander and I realized that I didn’t want to pursue grad school—I wanted to find related work instead, maybe down in the USA somewhere, if the work was available. So while the trip was expensive, and pretty useless in terms of collecting large amounts of plates, it was fun, and it did constitute the genesis of what would eventually become two years that I lived in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area.