There is nothing particularly auspicious or festive about the Whitehorse Greyhound Station. At 4:30 in the afternoon in mid-May, the squat, square station casts a long shadow over the parking lot. Passengers in loose, colourless clothes sit with the tense laziness that comes with waiting, feet dangling, glossy magazine pages turning. One woman chews a stick of gum, smacks it, chews it again.
On the curb outside, Roger Veilleux’s wife is sitting with another woman, who is having a cigarette. The two are still laughing when Veilleux drives up in his little blue Toyota pickup.
“Hey!” the smoking woman says. Her cigarette is almost gone and she rolls the near-butt between her thumb and her forefinger. “So we gonna get to have a party on the bus tonight?”
Veilleux laughs and leans out his rolled-down window, drives into the back. He’s a short, slight man with greying hair and the rough but neatly-trimmed close beard common to sailors, bush folk, truckers and other travellers. Out of the truck, he moves with a much younger man’s step as he busies himself getting the bus ready.
A handful of his friends stand in the room behind courier desk, waiting for him amid brown paper-wrapped boxes and bubblewrap. When he comes in, his friends cheer and his wife presents him with a bouquet of yellow flowers and a blue balloon.
“We’re kicking your ass out of here!” someone says, laughing.
The balloon bobs above his head, skipping and turning as he talks animatedly. It reads, in silver letters, HAPPY RETIREMENT.
Veilleux has been a bus driver with Greyhound for 31 years. He’s been driving the same run, between Whitehorse and Fort Nelson, for the last 16. This night, May 17, when he pulls the long, heavy bus with its trailer bouncing along behind it, when he turns the bus southbound down the Alaska Highway, it will be for the last time.
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From Whitehorse to Fort Nelson, it’s Judas Creek, then Deadman. Teslin Lake stretches out on the right, long before the village. There’s the iron buzz of Nisutlin Bridge, then that long, seemingly endless stretch of near-nothing to Watson Lake. Then it’s Coal River, the bison lumbering along Liard, the turquoise water of Muncho Lake, up the arching back of Stone Mountain and then down down down again into the flatlands where the natural gas crews work. Then, finally, Fort Nelson.
Twelve hours, if you’re driving nonstop, which Veilleux did each time he made the run, 4:30 p.m. to 4:30 a.m., ferrying passengers and cargo along this same stretch of highway. Then 12 hours rest and then back on the road again, everything in reverse.
“It’s not really twelve hours rest, really,” Veilleux says. “ By the time you get in, you’re really hyper. It takes time to wind down, before you can sleep.”
Veilleux got his start with Greyhound as a sort of fill-in driver, going where he was needed, driving anywhere between Whitehorse and Grande Prairie, Alta., — some 1,500 kilometres of highway. It was simply a chance assignment that first brought Veilleux to the Yukon.
“First year, I didn’t even know the Yukon existed. I didn’t want to come here. I was sent for seven weeks to do a holiday for a fella … I wasn’t too keen on it, the first time,” he says. “All of a sudden, about my second summer, I really started to love the Yukon.”
He met his wife Christine at the tavern in Watson Lake, where she used to be a bartender. He’s been here ever since.
Of the countless times he travelled that same stretch of highway, one trip in particular sticks out in his mind.
Veilleux says he was driving a busload of 12 or 13 people up Stone Mountain, a remote stretch of the highway known for its tight, twisting passes, far from cellphone service. He was nearing the summit when something went wrong.
“A red light came on, buzzers are going off. I look at the engine and it’s overheating,” he says. “People were saying ‘what’s the matter, what’s the matter?’”
He had blown a hose and lost all the coolant in the radiator and engine. He found a spare piece of hose and repaired it, but they needed water before they could go anywhere — both the rad and engine block were empty.
All the passengers gathered together and collected empty water bottles among them, he says. Then they climbed up to a creek and hauled water back and forth in their bottles for half an hour, pouring it into the engine.
“The rad alone takes five gallons!” he says. “It was unbelievable, everyone was happy to help. They even flagged down a passing car, who gave us a case of bottled water.”
Over the course of his time as a driver, Veilleux says he has seen a lot of changes.
“Thirty years is not long, but I’ve seen — good lord — all these lodges. I’ve seen them open from 24 hours to not open at all. Even the highway (has seen big changes) in 30 years. It’s unbelievable,” he says.
Veilleux says he isn’t retiring because he doesn’t like the job, but because he’s tired of the night work — and the rough weather, driving in sleet and snow in the middle of the Yukon winter.
One time his bus had “frozen up” at Contact Creek — when this happens, moisture in the air in the brake lines freezes, causing the brakes to seize up and the bus to remain stationary — and he had to call in a second bus. When it arrived, he drove it to Watson Lake, where he took it to a mechanic. Freeze-up can be prevented by adding alcohol to the brake lines, but when he went to add some as a preventative, it backfired.
“It was -58C in Watson Lake that night,” he says. “Everything froze up immediately … now we had two frozen buses: one in Watson Lake and one in Contact Creek.”
He and the mechanic tried to thaw the lines, but couldn’t get the replacement bus working again, so Veilleux borrowed a pair of insulated coveralls and hitchhiked back to Contact Creek — 60 km away — and tried the same procedure on the first bus. Eventually, he got it running again and drove it back to back to Watson Lake, picked up his passengers, and drove to Whitehorse. The trip was extremely cold, because the bus had been sitting out and the heater wasn’t powerful enough to warm it.
“We froze and froze and froze. We had blankets but it was a cold, cold night,” he said. “We were 12 hours late getting in. I’d say that was my worst trip ever. Don’t get me wrong though — I’m going to miss it,” he says. “All I can say is that I’m glad I was on the Alaska Highway… I consider myself very fortunate. I’m energized at the end of every ride.”
“On a beautiful, clear full moon … you can’t beat (the view). It’s beautiful. You can see everything for a long, long ways. It’s incredible.”
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Over the years, he says, one of the most amazing things was all the people who helped him when he needed it. Lodges would stay open late to make sure passengers got in safely and truckers would halt their rigs to help him repair the bus during a breakdown.
“I owe a big thank you to everyone who helped us along the way over the years, the truckers, the travellers and the lodge owners,” he says. “And to my wife Christine, for putting up with me for the last 29 years of being away from home and taking care of business by herself a lot of time, being considerate when I was getting sleep in the daytime, and plainly putting up with me being grumpy at times.”
Now that he is finished his time on the highway, Veilleux isn’t quite done with driving; he’s working part time with the city as a bus driver. Still, he might have a little bit of extra time, he says, which he plans to use riding his Harley Davidson and working in his garden, where he is especially fond of growing petunias.
“This might surprise some people,” he says with a grin, “but I like to play with flowers.”
Contact Lori Garrison at firstname.lastname@example.org