What is The Lost Highway? It's a 40 kilometre stretch of the Trans-Canada Highway in eastern Ontario and part of Highway 7 — a road that joins Toronto, Canada's biggest city, to Ottawa, the nation's capital. But why Lost Highway? Because it’s a road flanked by failed businesses and abandoned properties where people gave it their all and then gave it up for good. But what happened? And why did it happen here? And who, despite the hardship, has remained?
The road was built in the Great Depression of the 1930s. Maybe that was an omen. In the beginning it was good, with jobs for workers when jobs were scarce. This east-west slash through the woods and bogs of eastern Ontario soon sprouted motels and restaurants and gas stations. But even in its heyday it was tough to make a living out here. And the heyday is long gone.
Most travellers between Ottawa and Toronto now use newer multi-lane highways to bypass the region and its one-lane-each-way road. Is it any wonder so little remains?
It could never happen in the city. There just isn’t the space. But out here when your car gets old and dies you just shove it off the end of the driveway or push it out into a field. Why? It takes money to haul old cars away, and besides, you never know when you might need them for parts.
And who knows, maybe someone who wants your Mercury wagon for a demolition derby will come by and give you a few hundred bucks.
Bob and June Graham were looking to buy a business when they drove past the closed down motel in the mid-’90s. They low-balled an offer. They got it for one-third of asking. But the work was endless. They had a five-year plan but sold after a year. The new owners struggled and it closed, again.
Bob, curious to see what’s become of the motel in the years he’s been away, peers through the busted back door. Black plastic blocks the windows and bulbs hang from makeshift wiring. “A grow-op,” says Bob, without surprise. He walks back to the car where June is waiting. She hasn’t bothered to get out of the car.
The floors of the Land-O-Lakes motel have collapsed into the basement like the wood-paneled funhouse of a nightmare. What’s odd is that it hasn’t been looted. It doesn’t need to be. It’s been raided by time. Insulation pours through the ceiling like sand sifting from an hourglass. “Happy Vacations” is spelled out on the check-in desk but letters are missing, like teeth knocked from a mouth. A sticker of a fish clings to a fridge. A typewriter sits on a bed. And then it’s gone, plowed under by a bulldozer.
Owen Scott does not want to be photographed in front of his closed down gas station. Scott ran the garage and pumped gas and his wife ran the lunch counter. “She made the best hamburgers and apple pie along the highway,” he says. But then his wife died. Now Scott rents a room down the road and comes back to the station every day. Many times a day.
“There is no lonelier man in death, except the suicide, than that man who has lived many years with a good wife and then outlived her,” wrote Hemingway. “If two people love each other there can be no happy end to it.”
"Business slowed and we couldn’t pay the hydro bills anymore," says Tex Rind. So the Kaladar Motel died. But not quite. Tex has a sideline. He sells hubcaps. So the beds were stacked out of the way and the rooms filled with hubcaps. On top of the dressers, in the sinks, in the showers, in a pile out back that reaches nearly to the roof. Hubcaps for cars made 40 years ago, cars that long ago rotted off the roads.
Tex Rind said to hell with running a motel and hello to a business selling hubcaps. But until you’ve seen it you really can’t believe it.
Thousands of orphaned hubcaps mourn for the loss of their car. But if you don’t know if that one is for a Mercury Montego or a Ford Falcon then Tex Rind can set you straight.
Gibbs Gas, the building and the business built by Howard Gibbs’s father in the 1930s, has few customers these days, and for every car that stops a half-dozen slow, look in, and carry on. Howard drifts from the store to the yard to the house up the hill. Howard remembers when things were better, when his parents were alive. Howard wants to retire and have his daughter take over the business, but Melanie lives in the city with her young children. And what is there to pass down? All that remains are memories.
Howard Gibbs doesn’t see the decay, but each day Gibbs Gas sinks a little lower into the ground and the woods creep closer to the house. Soon it’ll be gone. Here’s how it looks today.
Howard Gibbs texts — but not in the modern sense. When business is slow (it always is these days) he walks down the highway or hops on his bicycle or jumps in his car. But not before scribbling a note and leaving it in the window of the gas station. Sometimes it’s just his cell phone number. Sometimes, it’s something more.
Howard Gibbs spends half his year in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. How does he afford it? A review of Howard’s own numbers tells the tale. Winters are long and hard at home, and his house is heated by expensive electricity. But a room in Myrtle Beach can be had for $400 a month, and Howard, by charting a course from church basement dinners to county-sponsored freebees, lives as cheaply as he would at home. But don’t take it from us. Listen to Howard read from his daily expenditure journal.
In summer, wooden shacks selling blueberries line the highway. They look small-time, but the blueberry trade is big business. And big business has bosses. Isobel Wood has a 40-year history in blueberries, and while the competition between sellers is mostly good-natured, a few years ago Isobel Wood’s compound in Northbrook was robbed. Wood won’t talk about it. She refused to be photographed. And her sellers are loyal. Once you’re with her, you’re in the family.
Joan Moore, now 64, has been into the blueberry racket since she was a teenager. About “30 years,” she says. She’s a small operation, with “two and a half stands.” She’s a cousin, and a competitor, to Isobel Wood. But unlike Wood she doesn’t sell tame berries. Tame ones are “yucky.” Wild are wonderful. Moore has standards.
All blueberries are not created equal. Howard Gibbs takes us into the woods berry picking and dishes on the subtle differences between blueberries (it’s all in the sweetness) and the health benefits they bring.
Standing on the main street today, it's hard to believe that Arden once had a hotel, gas station, hardware store, and three competing general stores. In the last 40 years the businesses here either closed down, fell down, or burnt down.
The Friends of Arden association wants to breathe new life into the village. They want to haul junk from people's yards and attract someone who’ll open a general store again. But it’s a tough sell. Many here don't see their stuff as junk and they’ve become accustomed to shopping at big box stores 100 km to the south. Long-time Ardenite Joan Moore has her own revitalization plan: "Burn it down and start again. It's just going downhill every day."
Arden, says Sarah Hale, is “one of the world’s special places.” She certainly thought so 40 years ago when she moved there with her late husband and made an old hotel her home. Back then the village’s main street was lined with businesses. But fires and financial reality have left none but Hale's remaining. Sarah takes us on a tour of Arden, to show us what’s there—and what isn’t.
Helen Praskey is not your grandmother. Standing in front of the Arden glee club, she’s impatient when the group misses a note. She has them do it again, and then again. “I demand of lot of them,” she says. Helen studied music at the conservatory in Toronto before marrying. She and her late husband lived in Vancouver, and then in Montreal during the FLQ crisis. "It was a crazy time," she says. “It was wonderful.”
She calls her glee-clubbers “a dedicated bunch." "We have this little love affair going on," she says. "It’s like family. It sounds corny but it’s true.” Watch as she leads them in a spirited rendition of Swing Low Sweet Chariot.
Howard Gibbs’s 80-year-old gas station needs new tanks or the inspectors will shut him down. Nearing retirement, he’s desperate to lure his daughter back from the city to help carry on the family legacy. Next-door, things seem better. A couple who moved from the city are set to open an upscale B&B. But what would lead them to build here, along a stretch of the Trans-Canada Highway so poor that it could be mistaken for darkest Appalachia?
Once the main road between the nation’s capital and Canada’s largest city, this highway is now a black ribbon of failed businesses and derelict properties. What happened? And why, despite the hardship, do some think it can be turned around?
Toronto-based filmmakers Derreck Roemer and Neil Graham have worked together for over 20 years, producing everything from super-8 art films to feature length documentaries. In late 2000 the pair formed their first production company and began the Gladstone Hotel project — a film six years in the making. Last Call at the Gladstone Hotel premiered in 2007 to critical acclaim and sold out screenings at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival, then played festivals worldwide before television broadcast in Canada and Israel. The film garnered Roemer and Graham a 2008 Gemini Award for Best Direction in a Documentary Series, as part of TVO's documentary series The View From Here. In 2009 the pair formed Insurgent Projects, a company that creates everything from web videos to one-off documentaries for theatrical release and TV broadcast.
Directors' Cut Screening - Empire Theatre, Belleville, ON - September 26, 2015 at 7:30PM
Directors' Cut Premiere - April 6, 2014 at the Revue Cinema, Toronto
World Broadcast Premiere - April 23, 2014 on TVO at 9PM
Yorkton Film Festival, Yorkton, SK - May 23, 2014 at 2:30PM
Television Broadcast - August 6, 2014 on TVO at 9PM
European Premiere - DOK Leipzig, Leipzig, Germany - October 28, 2014 at 12:45PM
Belleville Downtown Docfest, Belleville, ON - February 26, 2015 at 4:15PM
|2015 Canadian Screen Awards
Nominee: Best Documentary Program