It’s the first Friday after Labour Day. I’m tired. It’s been a frenetic week at work, but I’m finished there for the day, and I’ve reached the light at the proverbial end of the tunnel. The next 27 hours is all mine, and it will entail a great deal of physical exertion, with all the driving and walking, but mentally, I can let go and forget about real life. And for me, that’s what this weekend is really about.
I pack very light this time, with a change of clothes, jacket, extra sweater, and a towel, just in case… one never knows when a towel might come in handy. I won’t need my tent, or my sleeping bag, or various other items of camping gear that I usually bring. I kiss the family goodbye, and head out to the open road in the late-afternoon drizzle.
I’m not worried about the weather. Even if I had planned to camp outside for the night, I still wouldn’t be worried. There is an unsettled, rainy system that has cooled things off, but it's moving out of the area. It has already left the Huronia region, which is forecast to receive a cool, starry night tonight, and nothing but sunshine tomorrow. As I make my way westward, the rain stops. The sky starts to clear overhead.
I stop in the town of Renfrew for a quick McBurger, which I wolf down while waiting for its traffic lights to change. I take the back route away from the town and meet up with the two-lane highway that heads stoically toward the forested hills to the west. I join Highway 132 behind a slow tractor-trailer. The highway curves with the hills and valleys, and I’m forced to follow it all the way to the Highway 41 junction. He heads south, and so do I. I wait another ten minutes before finding a straight section to pass him.
The sun is low in the sky, but I haven’t seen much of it because it’s hiding behind a wall of clouds. It’s getting pretty dark because of the clouds, but occasionally the sun peeks through and casts brilliant shafts of yellow light onto the trees in the distance. Now that the slow truck is behind me, I’m making good time again, but this evening is much darker than I remember it being in past years.
I turn southwest onto Highway 28 and pass through Denbigh. There are no signs of activity. A fish-and-chips shack I once tried years before is now gone, probably forever. I pass an old two-storey house with yellow tape strung around the periphery of the yard. The second floor has been burned out, with blackened debris jutting skyward, where the roof used to be. The fire station is two doors away.
My favourite part of the drive is the earlier section of Highway 28 between Denbigh and Hardwood Lake. It passes by Big Yirkie Lake, and it has two steep declines down into separate valleys, with all kinds of twists and turns in between. I once had to allow a huge turtle to cross the road, and another time, I had to stop to allow a herd of cattle to get off the road. I once saw the mother of all sunrises here. The highway stops at a curious old house, where a left turn is necessary. I’ve always wondered if this house was once a store, given the picture windows on either side of the front door. The building is old, and needs its roof re-shingled, but I don’t see it as dilapidated. I have never seen any signs of occupancy, but the drawn curtains, “private property” sign, and a neatly-trimmed lawn all tell me that someone cares for this building.
I eventually arrive in Bancroft. It’s about eight o’clock. I’m halfway to Barrie. I’ve arrived about half an hour earlier than usual, but the clouds are playing tricks on me. I can see bands of clearing twilit sky overhead, but the clouds are quite dark, and it appears that night has already fallen. I stop quickly for fuel and a take-out coffee before moving on to the Kawartha Dairy. It is open until nine, and is still brightly lit, complete with its rooftop cow mascot, but tonight, it is surrounded by a cold and darkness that is almost palpable. I step out to order a cone at the walk-up window, but I need my sweater. Somehow, the temperature is only a few degrees above freezing, even though it’s technically still summer. I’m glad I’m not camping tonight.
I text my friend Eric Vettoretti. He has just turned 40, and part of his celebration is a “get out of jail free” card from his wife. He’s taken two days’ vacation leading up to this weekend to go plategeeking. There are places in southwestern Ontario he has never explored, and so he’s indulging himself with a solo road trip, augmented by picking through mantiques in small towns along the way. He carefully plotted a route along a map of the area, visiting places like Goderich, Grand Bend, Strathroy, Chatham, Windsor, St. Thomas, Tillsonburg, Delhi and Brantford. Eric and I are splitting a hotel room in Barrie later on this evening.
Eric replies. He’s in Burlington, west of Toronto. I’ve forgotten my GPS, but I’ve travelled my route to Barrie so many times that I give him a fairly accurate ETA from my present position in Bancroft. We’ll see each other in a couple of hours. I look forward to seeing what he picked.
I drive away from the dairy into the darkness. My fuel indicator reads full, which is a source of comfort as I drive through this remote section. I pass by only darkened houses, closed stores, and the very occasional streetlight. I pass by a couple of familiar towns and the rocky hills subside into flat rock-laden meadows as I move closer to my destination. I crest a hill, and my eyes are met with a bright, flashing red light where I have not seen one before. Is it a fire truck? The mist clears, and then I can see. It’s a level train crossing.
When I was a kid, I spent summer weekends in a lakeside cottage, not far from the Algoma Central Railway line. The surrounding hills would concentrate the echo of the train’s horn and wheels. It sounded so loud that I felt it must be coming straight down the driveway, right at us, even though it was actually about a mile away. Ever since those nights, I’ve had a recurring dream where I encounter a train—always at a remote crossing, and always late at night. Every time I dream it, I can hear the train rumbling through the forest, but I can’t see anything. Then, the crossing lights activate suddenly, just as I’m trying to cross, bright red and louder than life. The exploding train horn punches through my ears as I look up and suddenly see its spotlight. I barely have time to finish scrambling across the tracks before the train thunders by. It’s as though the crossing lights mean “DEATH” as opposed to just “stop.” However, in real life, on my way to Barrie in 2017, I’m driving the family car responsibly, and I see the crossing signals in plenty of time to come to a safe stop. The train is a longer one, but it moves quickly by. The final car disappears into the darkness, and the gates rise. I continue toward Barrie.
I’m in the home stretch now. The music continues to play as I merge onto the busy Highway 11. I pass by the darkened Oro Family Campground, where I would usually be staying. The gauge on my dashboard tells me that it’s six degrees outside… and I’m even gladder that I’m not camping tonight. I find our hotel, and park near the back, as Eric suggested. I see his car and park nearby. He comes down to greet me.
We go upstairs. The room is clean, warm and comfortable. Eric offers me a beer, which is waiting for me on ice. What a great friend he is. He shows me the plates he’s picked during the past two days. A few YOM pairs, a couple of really nice WWII-era Quebec plates, and a couple of interesting 1971 test plates. They were punched with number combinations that wouldn’t ordinarily be found on a plate of that era. One has no paint on the numbers. Both have a corner sharply chopped off on a 45 degree angle, probably done at the factory.
We look on Facebook. A couple of our pals have already been to Barrie earlier this afternoon, and no one made any earth-shaking finds. I stay hopeful that more vendors are moving in Friday night to open up for Saturday. My previous Barrie experience tells me that could well be the case again.
We sleep for about six hours and depart in the early morning for the market fields. The entry price is the same at $5 per vehicle, plus $10 per person. It’s cold, but the sun shines brightly in a cloudless sky. It’ll be perfect later on. I note that the flea market layout has changed once again, this time for the better. The organizers, after much litigation and negotiation, have finally obtained official permission from the municipality to use the southeastern fields, which were previously zoned as agricultural. This means that the entire section of fields on the northeastern end of the property, where the market was held for many years, is empty and fenced off. The new southwestern fields, which sit closer to Oro-Medonte Line 7, allow the market to resume its customary rectangular layout, which makes it much easier for buyers to weave through the rows of vendors.
Eric and I start at the top of the field and start sniffing around for plates. Any vendor could have them. They could be laid out on the grass, under a table, in crates or boxes, or hanging from sawhorses. We’ve learned not to count anyone out. We won’t know what’s in that greasy-looking cardboard box in the back unless we walk over.
We find a few vendors with plates, but nothing we were going to buy. Ten years ago, we may have picked up farm or dealer plates, but those parts of our collections are largely complete. We spy a couple of older road signs, made of heavy steel with bevelled edges and faded ghost images of where the characters used to be. Rare indeed. We both like signs, but if I’m going to carry a heavy hunk of steel, I prefer the condition to be better.
We find a couple of YOM pairs at one vendor whom we’ve both seen before. He seems to have a different selection of older Ontario plates each year. He also has a single 1971 dealer plate, in fairly nice condition. I previously lost interest in collecting a full run of dealer plates, opting instead to simply collect what struck me as interesting, as opposed to being a completist. But this plate is interesting, because it has a plastic label stuck to the front side, with the word “TRAVELADE” neatly punched with an old label-maker. I know what that means, and so I flip the plate over to confirm it. There, on the reverse side, I see a number: 361. Three-six-one—the ALPCA membership number of my old departed friend, Ernie Wilson, who lived and collected in Sault Ste. Marie when I was growing up there (long before I knew anything about Ernie, or ALPCA). This ’71 dealer plate had come from Travelade Motors. I still remember the gravel-voiced owner doing his own commercials on local TV: “Call 256-6266. Where? At Travelade Motors.” I buy the plate on the spot, which will join some other Soo-issued dealer plates I’ve saved that once belonged in Ernie’s collection.
Eric and I move on, and we suddenly see a pair of plates that clearly were missed by our fellow collectors during their own rounds on Friday. The letters MAB catch our attention. Doctor plates! And they're the rare variety dating back to the mid-1980s, when the series bore the letters MAA. Even after 30 years, they’ve only reached MAC. It seems that Ontario doctors either don’t know about the plates, or don’t want to be recognized.
We don’t know of anyone who has this era of doctor plate in a collection. Both plates of this matching pair are sun-faded, and the rear plate has an expiry sticker from 1991. Of course, we start to freak out a little as we bring the plates over to the vendor. Eric asks him if he’ll take twenty dollars instead of twenty-five. “Sure,” says the vendor.
We head over to a spot under the trees, so our brains can process our incredible find. I start looking for my phone, so I can take a victory picture and share it in Facebook. Surely the comments would flow in, and our plate-collecting compatriots who were there Friday might wonder how they missed such a rare pair of doctor plates.
Suddenly, all that euphoria evaporates from my mind. I notice something. It’s a small number “73” in the lower left corner. Oh, no.
“Wait,” I say to Eric. “I think we messed up. Look here.” It’s all I can say, so I point. Eric sees it too, and then he understands as well.
“Aw, shit,” he says. “These are seventy-threes. How could neither of us notice that?”
These aren’t doctor plates. In order for them to be doctors, the letters MAB would have to be on the right side of the plate as a suffix. The letters MAB, instead, are embossed on the left side of the plate, as a prefix, and of course, the year “73” appears in the lower left corner. This means we're celebrating our momentous purchase of crappy, sun-faded, 1973 passenger plates. They’re worthless. We take our victory photo anyway, and chalk it up to a lesson learned.
We continue to look for plates, but our luck seems to be running dry. We see the occasional antique vendor with gas station or road signs, but we’re just not seeing a lot of plates, and even when we do, they’re worthless quarterly trucks, or they are too badly damaged to restore, or one sweet-looking YOM candidate plate doesn’t have a mate. All is not lost though. I buy a couple of hand tools, and both Eric and I invest in one-piece coveralls for messy shop work.
Article 3 of the Barrie Automotive Flea Market terms and conditions for vendors states that 75% of the contents for sale must be automotive-related. I was critical of the market last year, when many one-dimensional vendors littered the fields with items unrelated to the automotive theme. This year, I see fewer such vendors, but there seems to be no enforcement of that point. While searching for parts, people must walk by the occasional vendor from the GTA selling only hats, sunglasses and bongs.
We’re both hungry, but the food shacks are all very busy, with lines that are twenty customers deep. The on-site eating options are still very limited as compared to the “good old” flea market from before 2015. We don’t want to wait a long time for food, so we go hungry to finish the fields quickly. We find nothing else of interest. It has been a beautiful day, and we’re glad to see the market return to an easier layout, but we’re starving, and there isn’t as much for us to buy as in past years. Some key vendors are no longer on the field at Barrie, and they were the ones that could usually supply us with a great selection of plates or signs.
We take a quick trip through the car show field, and it’s worth the diversion. Of course, we love old cars, but it’s doubly nice to see a YOM-plated car that’s wearing plates from one’s own business! I see one of mine for the first time. Years ago, I had sold a pair of 1951 plates to a gentleman with a 1952 Ford Customline sedan, but I never did get to see the car in all its glory. Of course, now that I’m seeing the car, I snap about a dozen pictures from various angles.
Eric and I retire from the field and split our joint YOMable finds, as is our custom. We’ve found only five YOMable pairs between us on the entire day, plus a couple of minor collectibles. The day has been pleasant, and Eric is great company, but this is a very poor haul. This would be a poor haul even from the Stirling flea market, which is less than half the size of Barrie.
Eric is pressed for time, and needs to return home quickly, so he travels south down Highway 400. I have a bit more flexibility left to me, and so I take the more northerly route through Bancroft. The distance is shorter, but the driving is slower, so Eric will get home to Ottawa well before me.
I stop for a leg stretch at Furnace Falls. I haven’t been here in quite some time, and I don’t remember it being this pretty. The falls are basically rapids that roll through a drop of about a metre. A ghost town is nearby, somewhere in the forest past the opposite bank of the Irondale River. I intend to spend five minutes looking at the falls, but five turns into twenty. I notice a round, brass object embedded in a slab of bedrock above the waterline. It is a surveyor’s benchmark disk, but it is not labelled. I take a picture of it and resolve to figure out why it’s there.
I diverge from my usual route home as I pass through the village of Griffith on Highway 41. In my time looking at maps, I have noticed a different way home. I head east along Matawatchan Road, which connects with two other county roads on the way to the resort town of Calabogie.
My curiosity is immediately rewarded. I drive along century-old causeways over sunlit lakes. I pass through shoulderless rock cuts that are four storeys high on both sides. I’m treated to more causeways, then bridges, then more rock cuts. I climb and coast the steep hills, winding left and right all the way. There is not a boring moment. The road is a hard surface throughout with a solid yellow line, and I see maybe twelve cars from Griffith all the way to Calabogie. I do spill my coffee, though. I pull over to take a picture and get the towel I brought. I knew it would come in handy.
I own the road, and it makes up for any shortcomings I may have experienced earlier in the day. I must pass this way again, whether or not Barrie continues to be my destination.