I’ve managed a quick escape to the September 2013 edition of the Barrie Automotive Flea market. The weather hasn’t been cooperating over the past three years, though—when things are dim and soggy on the field, there seems to be less and less to find. I had been optimistic about the weather through the week leading up to my departure, as there was nothing but sun and stars in the forecast. Unfortunately, what was a consecutive string of sunny days has been marred suddenly by a single rainy day in the forecast. The Saturday of the market, the day when I show up, is going to be wet.
It seems that as the years pass, the drive to Barrie through the Opeongo / Monck corridor becomes almost as important as the market itself. That, strangely, is a solace if my junk-shopping there ever fails to live up to past experiences. For the first time in a while, I have no side-trips planned to meet Kijiji sellers or buy Beetle parts in Welland, thus requiring me to boot it home on the 401. This means that I’ll be returning via the same roads at a leisurely pace. I haven’t had such a relaxing two-way trip in a couple of years, so I start snapping pictures.
On my way through Kanata, the newly-renamed Canadian Tire Centre is being fitted with its signage. The Ottawa Senators’ pre-season games aren’t far off. The traffic thins out beyond the Highway 7 interchange, and it’s not long before I’m approaching Arnprior. The four-lane extension of Highway 417 past Arnprior is now complete. What used to be a frustrating series of traffic lights has been reduced to some light standards and a single interchange. I fly through it. A short distance later, the divided highway reduces to a two-lane road. So it will be for the next four hours.
I leave Highway 17 and take Gillan Road into Renfrew. It’s a former alignment of the highway, from what I’m told, and it provides a more direct route into town. The Renfrew fair is on, as it always is when I make the drive to the fall Barrie show. Things are not too busy, and before I know it, I’m on the Opeongo colonization road, now incarnated as Highway 132.
132 is about 30 km long. As King’s Highways go, it’s quite narrow and bendy. It starts with some pretty rolling hills and farmland, but nearing its end, around the town of Dacre, the Canadian Shield starts. I can tell because it's where I start seeing rock cuts on the roadside. The Shield is an ancient mountain region that has been beaten by glaciers and reduced to a series of rocky hills.
It is just past six in the evening. Highway 132 merges into the much longer Highway 41. It runs from Napanee, through the Shield, all the way up to Pembroke. My route only traverses about 35 km of its distance. It’s a fairly remote section of highway. I pass through Khartum, which contains two houses. The signs marking opposite ends of town are something like 600 metres apart. I have no idea what used to be there. There’s no trace of anything—not even an intersection. Then the winding road turns into a straightaway through a stand of pine trees, and I enter Griffith. It has a gas station, general store, and a bridge that crosses the Madawaska River. The longest time I ever spent there was five minutes, a few years ago when the bridge was reduced to one lane during some construction.
I turn right onto Highway 28 at its northern terminus. The speed limit is only 50 km/h here, because it runs through the town of Denbigh. It’s large enough of a town to actually have street lights on the highway. It’s about six-thirty, so the sun is setting, but the lights are not yet lit. I’m hungry, and I see a curious fish-and-chip shack that I’ve never noticed before. It’s Betty’s Fries and Fish, and it’s open. I wonder if their fish is locally caught, but it turns out to be haddock (an Atlantic species). No matter. I’d rather try this place than settle for McD’s in Bancroft, so I order a basket of haddock and fries. My timing is impeccable—the guy doing the cooking says it’s his last piece of fish. When I get my meal, complete with lemon and tartar sauce, I wander over to a picnic table and dig in. It’s deep-fried heaven! Next time I pass through Denbigh, I’ll be sure to stay hungry and stop for some fish.
I hit the road after around half an hour and continue westward. I like Highway 28—I’ll be spending 70 km on it. It starts off narrow, and takes me winding up and down some hills, and past the interestingly-named Big Yirkie Lake. It also takes me down the longest hill of the journey. At a 12% grade, I have to either lean on the brakes, or shut off the overdrive to stay safe, because it curves sharply at the bottom. I pass a “cattle crossing” sign that was not yet installed a few years prior when I actually had to stop to allow unattended cattle to cross the road. Soon, the road stops at a curious T-intersection near Hardwood Lake, where I take a hard left and dive uphill.
I come to a field that I love. Last year, I was treated to an unbelievable pre-dawn light show while looking across this field. It slopes upward with its stone walls, and goes over a crest. I’ve never ventured into the field to see what’s over the hill. I stop this time to take a picture, but no way can I explore the field. A herd of lazy cows are hanging around. I get mooed at a couple of times before a mother cow starts walking abruptly away from me. About five calves get up and scamper to safety, and a few of the other adults also drift out of range. I take some pictures before hopping back in the car.
Night is falling, so I keep driving because I want to reach Bancroft before eight o’clock, when the Kawartha Dairy closes. It’s about 7:40 when I get there. It’s a busy place during the day, to be sure, but by the time I show up, the sky is dim, crickets are chirping, the shop lights shine into the parking lot, and I’m the only customer. I order a chocolate and peanut butter cone, which is a rare treat for me. My wife is allergic to nuts, so I can only indulge in them when I’m away. I sit on a bench and enjoy my dessert. This will have to be my last stop, since I have to reach my campsite before the proprietor goes to sleep for the night.
Night has now fallen, and I turn right onto Highway 118. It used to be numbered 121 until about ten years ago when some sections of 121 were downloaded onto the counties, and the rest was just renumbered to join the existing 118. Of all the roads I have to use through the back woods, 118 feels the most remote. I only use about 25 km of it, and there’s nothing to see along the way except beautiful, rugged forest—but only when daylight is present. At night, it’s a tunnel. The tunnel is interrupted by a single piercing, flashing red light at the turnoff to Wilberforce. I have to stop here and make a hard left to stay on 118. This intersection sort of gives me the shivers at night. There are rock cuts on either side of the stop sign and nothing but forest anywhere else. Usually, when roads intersect out here, you’ll see a town or at least a few houses. But here, there is absolutely nothing, except the flashing of the red beacon. I feel like a train might hit me, even though there are no rail lines anywhere nearby.
I pass through Tory Hill, where I leave the King’s Highway system and travel along lower-grade county roads that follow the Monck Route. They twist and wind through the forest. The biggest town I encounter is Norland, where everything is lit up bright. In all the smaller towns, everything is dark. So it stays right up until the Monck Route’s western terminus, where I can see bright lights in the sky to my right—that’s Casino Rama. It’s out of sight beyond a bend, but it's only a few hundred metres away.
From there, I head south to join up with the much busier Highway 12 as it enters Orillia. I stay on it for a short distance until it empties into the southbound Highway 11. I join the traffic as it screams along. I travel for no more than ten minutes before I see my ultimate destination—the flea market—on my left. It’s nearing 10 pm, and I slow down. I am staying at the Oro Family Campground on the right, just across the highway. I pull into the driveway and slowly park the car. The office is closed, but after coming here a couple dozen times, the proprietor, Debbie, knows me. I’ve made arrangements to knock on the house and pay in cash. She sees me coming and opens the door before I can knock. She’s pleasant to chat with. She offers to cut the rate for my campsite, but after making a stupidly late reservation the day before, and keeping her awake this late tonight, I insist on paying in full. It’s the least I can do.
I find my campsite and pitch my tent while my car lights the scene. The stars are out, but I’m not fooled. Rain is in the forecast. Just how much depends on my luck.
I wake. It’s seven o’clock. I didn’t set my usual alarm, which gets me up at six, because it’s raining. The vendors at the market aren’t going to open early when it's wet. The rain isn’t especially hard, but water will soon start leaking into my aging tent. I pack up my bags and throw them in the car. The rain intensifies. I don’t want to soak myself while wasting my time with my tent, which will now have to be dried when I get home. I yank the pegs out of the ground and pick my tent up, still assembled in once piece. I carry it to the back of my car, where I pull out the support braces, crumple it up, and stuff it into the trunk of my wagon… takes all of 15 seconds.
I find my way to the highway, which is misty and rain-soaked. I turn into the market, where I am nonplussed as I pay $5 for the privilege of parking my car. Where else are we all going to park? I’d almost rather pay more in admission. It feels like a game to pay to park here. I pay $10 more at the park gates, and stroll past the people selling raffle tickets. This year, it’s a ’72 Roadrunner. Nice car, but I don’t wish I owned it, so I walk on.
At this stage of the game, I usually start at the top of the field and work my way down. But most vendors are still closed, hiding their wares under tarpaulins. However, I’m here on a specific mission. A vendor from an earlier Barrie visit turned out to have some plates that are very important to me as YOM stock. When I realized how important these plates were, I only knew him as “that guy in the green field” somewhere around the beer tent. I had done some serious sleuthing and figured out how to get in touch with the vendor. I had successfully expressed my interest in the plates I had seen before, and asked him to bring them back this time around. The only problem was that I couldn’t pinpoint his location in the field. I was told that he was moving from one field to another, and he got back to me yesterday, an hour before I left, with his new field coordinates. I head in his direction, and I find him open for business. I find most of the plates that I had hoped to acquire, plus a couple of unexpected others. He is grateful that I have tracked him down, and I am relieved that my tenacity has paid off, against the odds. My backpack sinks downward with the weight of the plates as I head back out into the wet field. The rain continues, but I wear a waterproof poncho, so I’m comfortable. My biggest trouble now will be finding vendors who are open.
I pass a 1972 Chevy pickup with a same-era Oregon plate on the front end, with a valid 2013 expiry sticker. It’s for sale. I snap a picture and hope to see other YOM-plated vehicles. I soon see something just as interesting. It’s a 1951 Olds 88, which was retired in 1967 and rolled into a barn. The 1967 Ontario plates are still mounted on the bumpers. It appears complete, but is not running and in need of restoration, and priced at fewer than four grand. I opt not to inquire about the plates. People tend to look at collectors sideways before laughing and saying no.
A few rows down, a 1926 Henderson motorcycle, with a four-cylinder engine, is leaning on its kickstand. It appears to have been meticulously restored, and it’s for sale. It’s a shame that a 1926 motorcycle plate, even if it did clear for YOM, would cost hundreds to acquire. A new Ontario cycle plate would look so wrong on a bike like that.
I slog around the field, and the rain, although never heavy, is keeping many vendors under wraps. The rain finally stops at around 10 o’clock, but many vendors stay under cover. At noon, while I’m lined up for lunch, the PA system comes to life to warn the vendors to open up already.
One late-opening vendor has plates on his table, which I have been able to see all morning through his rain covers. After lunch, I go back to his table, for the fourth time, and he is finally open. He has some interesting Ontario plates, both pairs and singles. “I have a set of Ontario plates, three of a kind,” he says. I indicate my interest. He’s not sure he wants to sell them. Triplicate errors (three plates having been made instead of two) are quite rare, so I suspect that these might be the same number, just made in a different year. They turn out to be amateur radio plates, with corrosion on the oldest one, and the owner must have had them remade. There is one older single and a newer matched set. They’re nice, but the guy wants a hundred dollars for them. I tell him that the day is young, and I’ll think about it. I’m lying on both counts.
I spend time looking for the sign man. He usually sets up in the middle of the main field, near the country store. He has lots of King’s Highway signs, lots of license plates, and a plethora of other collectibles. He’s not cheap, but he’s the most interesting vendor on the field. And he’s not here this time. He’s impossible to miss, and he’s always open in the rain. I wonder if he has moved, but he’s nowhere to be found. I never do find him. I do encounter a vendor who is meticulously mounting things on some recycled barn planks, including a few plates. I keep my camera ready and snap a shot of his work as he steps aside to grab another item to hang.
The most impressive vehicle that I see at the show is a 1914 Model T pickup truck. It has been restored from the ground up, right down to the use of square-shaped nuts to hold the wood together. I’m not geeky enough to know if all the parts are original or reproduced, but it seems authentic. The first $20,000 brings it home.
I dabble in some more YOM prospecting, and I land two 1969 pairs at two separate vendors in the same corner of the green field. This is the section under the trees, near the creek, where piles of junk abound, and I never find anything but snowmobile parts, or racks of those stupid automobile “nutz” that moronic pickup owners hang from their rear bumpers.
It’s a slow day for making finds. I’m fortunate that my early-morning purchase worked out so well. I don’t have the time to re-comb all the fields to catch the vendors who were closed for half the day, even though the weather wasn’t nearly as bad as compared to last year. The weather, according to one report was supposed to clear up, but one guy wasn’t buying it. “I just use my weather rock in the yard,” he says. “When it’s wet, I know it’s raining.”
I pass by Terry Ellsworth, who has a spot in the green field this year. He has all his plates laid out neatly on a tarpaulin. I say hello and we shake hands. Terry loves sharing his latest finds. He shows me a 1933 Ontario advertising permit plate. These license plates were attached to roadside billboards. Very few survive today. Terry’s was repainted in the wrong color, so he has stripped the front side to bare metal. The back side is still the original red. He’s going to repaint it. He also shows me his big Barrie find—a 1943 trailer plate overstamp, which was made from a 1942 truck plate. It’s pretty dirty, but it will clean up, and it’s a rare bird. The rain starts again, so I help Terry move a table and cover his stuff. I do buy a pair of plates from him before saying goodbye.
It’s after four o’clock. I’m out of time. I have to be home this evening. I head to the show lot to see the thinning array of vehicles. I doubt there were many parked today during the show’s peak, due to the weather, but I see a 1969 Continental with a pair of YOM plates. The plates are mounted low on this model, with the grille in the front and the “spare bump” on the back being the most dominant features of the car. I take a picture or five of the car. The plates are dark in colour and shrouded in shadow, so they don’t stand out as much as I’ve seen on other autos. I’m glad to have spotted them, though.
The trip home takes less time than the trip there. I stop in Orillia at a Tim’s for some caffeine, and I am greeted unwittingly by a blonde ballerina-in-training, who is doing pirouettes outside the shop. She talks to her friend and doesn’t seem to care that she’s in plain view. I wonder why they are just standing outside. A cab drives over and they get in, and the show’s over.
I stop for gas in Orillia before heading eastward. I don’t have as much time to dawdle as I did before, but I do reach Bancroft at nearly the same time as I did while driving in the opposite direction the night before. It occurs to me that I can get a milkshake made with my choice of ice cream, so I order a large shake made with – what else – chocolate peanut butter. It is the best milkshake I have ever enjoyed.
It gets dark gradually, and by the time night falls, I am driving through Griffith. I own the road. Nearly twenty minutes go by between seeing oncoming cars. As I approach Renfrew, there is traffic in each direction. I see a pair of antlers to my right. I don’t have my high-beams on, as there are cars ahead of me, so I don’t see the danger until it is too late to stop. It’s a large buck. He’s played the highway game before and is wary of my car. He turns around to head back into the forest as I pass by. Had he turned to run across the highway instead, things would be different for both of us. Smart buck.
It is 8:30 when I reach Renfrew, and the bright lights of the Ferris wheel dominate the fairgrounds. It has been raining, though, and the crowd is light, and I drive by without having to wait for herds of pedestrians.
When I reach Highway 17, the Trans-Canada, I am appalled at how dark the road is. Visibility was better on the back roads I had been taking. They had reflectors on the yellow lines, whereas there is simply nothing – on the main road across the country – to help gauge whether I’m safely in my lane. Even the paint of the lines is faded to the point where it can’t clearly be seen. I nervously traverse the distance between Renfrew and Arnprior. It’s supposed to be twinned to four lanes sometime in the next decade, but in the meantime, it needs a little help. I read about head-on crashes all the time in that stretch, and now I remember why.
I am relieved when the highway divides. The lanes are faster now, but wider and better-marked. I maintain the speed limit, but no faster. I’m on time, and not in a hurry. As soon as I get home, my summer is finished. There’s no sense in rushing it.