A lonely road sign proclaims that the border with the Canada's Northwest Territories is less than 100 miles away. It has been two days since we left Vancouver, 1,000 miles to the southwest, and we finally had evidence that our destination was at hand.
The road to the border, Highway 35 in the province of Alberta, is poker straight. The traffic is sporadic, mostly double-trailered Macks and freightliners hauling supplies north. Roadside service centers no longer exist and by the time we reach the border and get "north of 60," my cell-phone coverage is a southern memory. Checking the map, my wife, Lisa, expects services at three, possibly four, places on the 325-mile drive along the MacKenzie and Yellowknife Highways into Yellowknife, the capital of the sprawling NWT.
The Audi A6 Avant is ideal for this kind of trip. The sleek all-wheel-drive, six-speed automatic wagon affords a state-of-the-art comfort capsule for the long haul to the diamond capital of Canada. Adaptive Cruise Control, heated steering wheel and an endless array of convenience and safety features offer sharp contrast to the immense wilderness slipping by the windshield.
I've been in the North before, a few times up the Alaska Highway and once to Inuvik and along the ice roads of the Mackenzie River delta to Tuktoyaktuk high in the Canadian Arctic. I find a sense of isolated security in the North and I'm always keen to get back. Strip away being forever "online" and motor through wide-open spaces on uncluttered roads.
After crossing the border into the NWT, we spend the night in Hay River, a full-service town on the south shore of Great Slave Lake. We check out a local beach where the lake looks like an ocean. Lisa is disappointed because she can't see Yellowknife on the other side.
We take in a school soccer tournament in the soft evening sunshine then dine on ginger-beef pizza at the Boardroom restaurant. The place fills with wound-up soccer players from all over the NWT. They were having a ball just like kids you would find anywhere. And so were we.
The next morning we drove an hour and a half to the ferry that crosses the MacKenzie River near Fort Providence. In the fall, after the freeze-up, an ice road is maintained to get traffic across the half-mile-wide expanse.
On the crossing, I survey the scene. The river is much bigger than expected, like the Mississippi. It's the relief valve for Great Slave Lake and the drain for almost 1 million square miles of Great White North as 6 million tons of water a minute makes its way to the Arctic Ocean
After the ferry, we settle in for the 200-mile drive along the Yellowknife Highway. The two-laner cuts through the countryside like a laser. The forest is trimmed far back from the ditches so the visibility is excellent. We're rolling through pristine wilderness, endless stretches of uncluttered forest. No telephone poles, billboards, "for sale" signs, junkyards or fast-food joints. Nothing but the North plays out under an unbelievably brilliant, almost fluorescent, sky. I'm in absolute motoring bliss.
The tight and agile A6 Avant Quattro plays the perfect host. Its six-speed automatic puts the 3.2 liter V-6's 255 horses to any one of the four wheels should traction become iffy. The Quattro all-wheel drive makes you want to give this road a shot, even when the temperature drops to 40 below.
There's little traffic save for a couple of lumbering tanker trucks fueling the North. We pass a flat-bed with a Texas-registered air boat strapped to it, a half dozen cars and that's it. The few road signs we encounter announce places like Reindeer Creek and a Bison Management Area. We slow up for small groups of buffalo feeding on the side of the pink-hued road.
Close to Yellowknife, telephone poles appear but they're made of steel. We pull into the city surprised by how normal it looks. We'll find a hotel to hole up in for the night, look around town and check out a band called Rick and the Relics at Le Frolic, a local eatery.
I stop at a traffic light, the first one we came across in days. My head is full of the images of our stunning afternoon out on the Yellowknife Highway. But now ... the people, traffic, office buildings, the hustle of it all.
"I don't want the drive to be over, Lisa." The A6 Avant and I were just getting warmed up.
Then, I mouth a little grin. Because tomorrow we'll turn around and start the drive back.
Garry Sowerby, author of "Sowerby's Road: Adventures of a Driven Mind," is a four-time Guinness World Record holder for long-distance driving. His exploits, good, bad and just plain harrowing, are the subject of World Odyssey, produced in conjunction with Wheelbase Communications. Wheelbase is a worldwide provider of automotive news and features stories.