Monday, August 6, 2007

On The Rock - 11 Days in Newfoundland

So I finished work three Fridays ago and decided it would be a good idea to drive to Newfoundland. I thought I'd adequately prepared myself fo just how long a drive it was going to be. But obviously I was wrong.

We left the City at about 7 o'clock Friday night, and we were booked for the Ferry in North Sydney, NS at 5:30 Sunday afternoon. 2,100 km in less than 2 days? Not a problem, despite the fact that both my mom and Foley's mom declared that there wasn't a hope in hell of us making it on time.

We drove Friday night until close to midnight, stopping for the night in Lancaster, Ontario, at a place called the Glengarry Campground. Nothing to report. We set up the tent and went to bed, waking up the next morning at 8, hitting the road hard and only stopping once, in Beaumont, Quebec for a large Poutine. Fascinating adventure so far, I know. The next thing we knew, we were cruising through New Brunswick alongside the Saint John River whose setting reminded me entirely of that stretch of Highway 15 alongside the Susquehanna River in central PA... except, you know, without all of the rundown porn shops. We stopped off for dinner in Fredericton, NB, a cute little capital where we ate and watched the sun set from the banks of the river before immediately jumping back into the car and driving until just after midnight again, stopping in Amherst, NS. If you're still waiting for this trip to begin, you're not alone. Had it not been for Sirius Satellite radio... and Sandra's supply of witty banter, or course... it's safe to say that I would have killed myself by this point.

We arrived in North Sydney around 3 o'clock on Sunday afternoon, having made such ridiculously good time that we even allowed ourselves the luxury of taking the scenic route Sunday morning (that's right, Mrs. Foley - just tell me something can't be done and watch what happens), a little detour that took us through the town of Tatamagouche and alongside the Northumberland Strait, with PEI in full view all the while. Of course, we pulled into the ferry docks only to learn that our ride had been delayed for two hours, which meant that it was time to chow down on the greatest food product ever invented (the East Coast Donair), and to call an impromptu parking line rehab assignment for the Griffins currently listed on the 15-day DL. And in case you're wondering, The Alfredo Griffins are my co-ed, non-competitive softball team... And yes, you read those words correctly: "co-ed", "non-competitive", and "softball". When my seamstress screwed up the hem line on my pink dress I had a breakdown and decided that I could still consider myself a man even after joining such a league. The fact that I now live for Monday nights (GAME NIGHT!) is an issue my therapist will have to sort out for me somewhere down the line. My vagina hurts. Let's just move on.

We boarded the boat and took off somewhere around 8pm. I'm not sure if you've ever taken a six hour ferry boat ride to Newfoundland, but let's just say it isn't exactly the Circle Line Sightseeing tour of NYC. Because, really, you're out in the middle of the ocean and, well, there's really nothing but ocean to see. And after that sun sets, well, there really isn't much left to do except to hit up the bar... which we most certainly did. You can't beat an ice cold Black Horse Beer while bouncing around in the Cabot Strait, and with the one-man-band up on stage singing old Newfie ballads after two days of seemingly endless imprisonment in the ol' VW, life was pretty fantastic. By the time the band finished up around 11pm, we figured it was time for some shut eye, and found a couple of seats; much like the kind of seats you find in an airplane; and settled in for a few winks. I should mention at this point that these seats were separated from the bar area by the kind of divider you'd expect to find between cubicles at a telemarketing outfit; which is to say that they were room dividers in name alone. This fact is relevant because at about midnight, the one-man-band decided that it was time for his second set, and for the next two and a half hours, we were treated to an endless barage of Tell My Ma When I Go Home and Barrett's Privateers (I wish I was in Sherbrooke NOW), all at a sleep-annihilating volume, and all to little or no fanfare whatsoever. Everytime this guy would finish one of his tunes, there would be one guy in the back clapping unenthusiastically, while the rest of the drunken Newfs continued on with their conversations, which to the untrained ear trying to sleep in an airplane seat sounded a lot like: "Fuck ye fuckin bastard! How do ye fuckin mean ye never fuckin fished for cod - Jesus H CHRIST!!!" and "I's only fuckin tellin ye cause I FUCKIN LOVE YE LIKE A BROTHER!!!" These conversations were also taking place at the loudest volume possible while children were running up and down the aisles at 1 o'clock in the morning, presumably taking it all in.

I had a pretty good feeling that I was gonna get along just fine with the Newfs.

We arrived in Port-aux-Basques at about 2:30 in the morning and drove for about 15 minutes before coming across the J.T. Cheeseman Provincial Park. There was nobody at the gate, so we just picked a site (that's another great thing about Newfoundland. Pretty much everywhere you go, you're on the honour system. Of course, we made sure we paid the park the next morning, not wanting to mess with the good karma, but you could just as easily camp for free every night) We got out of the car and breathed in that beautiful crisp clean Newfoundland air and looked up into the most amazingly starlit sky these eyes have ever seen, complete with an endless array of shooting stars, making the three day drive seem all worthwhile. I slept like a baby that night, even though Sandra was under the impression that there existed a very real possibility of us being attacked by a pack of vicious, man-eating moose.

The next morning saw us swimming in a pretty sweet little waterfall (the requisite fat-guy-flex was a no-brainer) and then driving to Gros Morne National Park, stopping at the Irving Gas Station Restaurant for breakfast (honest to God, Irving; who I'd never heard of prior to this trip; is like a pre-Valdez Exxon on the East Coast: all good vibes and world domination, with a trucker's delight breakfast special that quite possibly the best basic breakfast going), Cornerbrook to score a free map from the Tourism girl, and then Deer Lake for some groceries. It was about 3 o'clock in the afternoon, and we pulled into an empty parking lot, and my thinking was, "sweet, we're the first ones here" a la Clark Griswold (minus the nut-huggers, but with the same "Chariots of Fire" playing in my head). But instead of being closed for 2 weeks to clean and repair America's favourite family fun park, the Foodland was closed because it was "Deer Lake Day". I have no idea what "Deer Lake Day" encompasses, but it must be pretty damn impressive because the entire town was shut down, leaving us with no option but to buy all of our sustenance from what basically amounted to a convenience store and souvenir shop in Rocky Harbour. It dawned on me that they didn't have the same kind of farming as Ontario does when I asked the girl at the register if they had any corn on the cob and she said 'of course', before leading me to the canned vegetable aisle. I had no idea corn on the cob came in the canned variety. I guess you learn something new every day.

Anyway, Gros Morne Park is one of the most beautiful places I've ever been, and the pictures we took don't even come close to doing it justice. It's just one of those places you need to see for yourself. Honestly, when you're driving along the winding mountain roads, with the lakes and bays and countless waterfalls everywhere you look, you feel like you're driving in a car commercial... you know, if they made car commercials for '99 VW Golfs. In an effort to conserve fuel, I made sure I put big red into neutral every time we were cruising down a mountain, which is pretty wild when you hit 130 with all of the turns and oncoming traffic and moose (6 / square km) with the propensity for stumbling obliviously into the middle of the road. (By the way: the most dangerous animal in Newfoundland? Oh yeah. It's the moose. Try not to hit it with your car. Especially if you're in a VW).

And this nearly happened to us. We were driving down this ridiculously bumpy dirt road that led to the Lomond campground, luckily going no more than 20 km/hr at dusk, and this dumb fuck just walks out onto the road in front of us. We were in absolute awe. I stopped the car, and it lifted its head and stared at us for a good ten seconds before jumping over this bridge into the creek. It was one of the most surreal things I've ever seen.

In any event, the Lomond campground was one of the most secluded I've ever been in. Again, the honesty policy was in full effect, although this was the double-bonus honesty policy because you're supposed to sign yourself up and then drop your money into this box with a quarter-inch thick bicycle lock on it that could have probably been busted open with a pair of nail clippers. But again, the trust and the karma. We spent the night drinking a few Quidi Vidi beers, smoking... ahhh... Newfie tobacco... and getting schooled in frisbee by a thirteen year old girl from New Jersey who's high school apparently invented Ultimate Frisbee. Good times all around.

We woke up the next morning and set out to hike the Green Gardens trail, believing it to be a decent warm up for the Gros Morne Mountain hike. Warm up. Wow.

Let me tell you something. I am out of shape. Desperately.

This was one of the most beautiful walks I've ever been on. It had everything. Crystal clear rivers for swimming. Mountains for viewing the vista. The ocean crashing majestically into the rocks below. Breathtaking beaches. Wild sheep grazing on the plain overlooking the Atlantic... But by the end of it I wanted to kill myself. Seriously. I was absolutely exhausted.

It probably didn't help that Sandra didn't have her hiking boots, or that we ran out of water about halfway through (leading to the inevitable "female moment" about half an hour from the end). But really, I think 14 kilometres worth of trudging up and down the mountainside is about enough for me. I'm fat now. And getting old. I need a gondola ride to take me back to my car or I'm not interested.

We stopped in to a picture perfect little town called Woody Point for a fantastic seafood dinner at a place called "The Old Loft Restaurant". Probably the best squid I've ever had, not to mention the melt-in-your-mouth Cod, all while overlooking Bonne Bay. Thanks to my parents for the recommendation via Mike Foley Sr.

After going to bed while it was still daylight outside, we woke up the next morning and determined that there was no way in hell we were climbing Gros Morne Mountain that day (even though I felt surprisingly limber; you might even say that with all of that excercise and fresh air, and the fact that I went to bed at 8:30 after consumer zero adult beverages, I actually felt, gasp, GOOD?). Instead, we decided to drive up to the most northern part of the island to see North America's only known Viking settlement. I won't lie to you; the main reason we were going up to St. Anthony was to go to this Viking feast where you got to eat like a Viking (moose stew, cod tongues, etc., using only your bare hands), but of course, as we would later learn, the Viking feast wasn't happening on this particular Wednesday. But we were determined to drive the Viking trail, so off we set.

You know that scene in Trainspotting where Renton needs a toilet, and they give him the worst toilet in Scotland? Well, in this instance we needed a road to St. Anthony. And they pretty well gave us the worst road in Newfoundland. Between the lunar-crater-sized pot holes, the families of ducks trying to cross the highway, the Newfie drivers pulling blindly out onto the road, and the moose playing dodge-the-VW all afternoon, I'm actually astonished we made it to L'Anse aux Meadows alive. But it was totally worth the death-defying drive. Seriously, if you're ever in Newfoundland, make the drive to L'Anse aux Meadows. The terrain is unlike any in Newfoundland, with pristine lakes and tiny bogs and the greenest green outside of the Emerald Isle. It really was amazing.

(One more highlight from the drive up. Actually, this might go down as one of the great highlights of my life. We stopped off at this ridiculous rock formation {The Arches} just outside of Gros Morne Park, where a bunch of kids had made those little Inukshuk rock sculptures. Anyway, their sculptures were pretty weak, and despite my urge to use them for target practice, my more mature, artistic instinct took over and I created this. Pretty impressive, I know. But what is even more impressive than the sculpture itself is the fact that, as we were leaving, this guy and his girlfriend were making their way down to the Arches and when this dude saw my work of art, he basically proclaimed that it was the greatest thing he'd ever seen, and began posing for multiple pictures with it, assuming that it was some ancient Native marker that had been standing there for eons. Fantastic comedy. I tried to get Sandra to take a picture of the couple posing for pictures with my sculpture, but she would have none of it. Sadly, when it's all said and done, this could wind up being the high point of my existence)

In any event, we got to the Viking settlement about 45 minutes before it closed; not nearly enough time to go through it thoroughly, but the perfect amount of time in which to save the $12 entry fee because the guy let us go in for nothing, knowing that we wouldn't have enough time to get our money's worth. This would never happen in Ontario. Have I stressed how great the Newfie people are yet? In due time. Anyway, this was a special place for me because not only was it home to the first Viking settlement in North America, but it was also home to the first Green Roof in North America. Poor Sandra had to sit there while I talked to these two lovely Viking women about the ways in which their ancestors constructed their roofing system (sod over logs), what they used for a membrane (tree bark), what kind of an R-value they were able to achieve (stellar), and how they managed to keep the walls from soaking up all of the moisture (weep holes). I'm telling you, these Vikings thought of everything.

And aside from all of the learning we were doing (the Vikings only stayed for a couple of years, building a blacksmith shop and producing enough metal to make about 300 nails - presumably to fix their ship), we also got to try on all of the props and pose for pictures. Trying to choose between battle-axe and spear, and fox-hide and bear-pelt was a tough one, but I think my sense for fashion won out in the end.

That night, after a Jiggs dinner, we took a beatiful hike along Lacey's Train and watched the sun set over the ocean. And yes, if I had a notepad on my I would have written a poem. Instead, we settled for a couple of Black Horse beers and a boatload of romance. With a view of L'Anse aux Meadows and a picture perfect sunset, this was easily one of the great highlights of this trip. We ended up camping at the Viking RV park and getting completely eaten alive by bugs, giving further insight as to why the 10th Century Norsemen left after so short a period of time.

The next day it was back down the peninsula to take a tour of the Fjords of Gros Morne. We didn't have the boat tour booked because, let's face it, we were in Newfoundland and just about everywhere we went was completely empty. Everywhere except for the tour of Western Brook Pond apparently, because after the 2 mile hike to get to the boat, we were informed that the tour was sold out. We somehow managed to get in on standby, and spent the next two hours gawking at the power of ice, gravity, and time. Amazing what the combination can achieve.

After the Fjords, we drove halfway across the province and ended up at a fanstastic little campground called Woolfrey's Pond, just outside of Lewisport. It was about 9 o'clock when we pulled in, and we realized that we didn't have any firewood. When I asked the kid at the gate whether or not they sold any, he said that they didn't, and that there was nowhere in town he could think of that did. But he implored me to follow him back behind the shed because they had some old wood back there. When he learned that we were planning on cooking over the fire (and by cooking of course, I mean roasting hot dogs), he told me that the wood behind the shed wouldn't do because it was either painted or pressure treated. So what does he do? Calls Serle, the municipal park manager, telling him "come down for a minute". So Serle drives up in his pickup and the kid tells him about my need for wood. I already feel bad for having the kid leave his post, and I really don't need wood all that badly, so I try telling them not to worry about it, but Serle's buddy in the truck overhears the conversation and jumps out of the truck, saying "Oh jeez. I know Billy over in town has some wood. Give him a call."

I try telling them it really isn't necessary, but they won't hear of it. So they get Billy on the phone, only to learn that Billy's all out of wood. I try thanking them for their time, but Billy gives them Fred's number, telling them that Fred has some wood and he'll be happy to drive it over. The next thing you know, they're calling Fred, and when Fred doesn't pick up, I figure the saga is over, and I can let these guys get back to their lives. But Serle tells me: "I have a chainsaw in the back of my truck here. We'll go see what we can't cut down for you." Honest to God. I told them that they were really going to waaaaaay too much trouble, that it wouldn't be a problem for us to do the dogs on the Hibachi, but they were determined to get me some fire wood. It turns out Serle had a stash of kindling under his chainsaw in the bed of his truck, and he even gave me a few pieces of his secret stash of birch bark to get it all started. All of this for a stranger paying $12 a night to stay in their campground. I can't think of anywhere else in the world that people would go to such lengths to ensure some city guy gets to have his campfire. Greatest people in the world, those Newfs.

The next day we took a drive up to Twillingate, stopping for lunch at a dockside stand for Lobster and poutine... and yes, I defy you to try to find a better combo than that. Fantastic. Twillingate is billed as "The Iceberg Capital of the World", and the place didn't disappoint, as we stumbled upon this beauty out on the water. It was Friday by this point, and after a week of sleeping in the tent, we decided that it was time for a little city action, trucking it all the way down to St. John's, pulling into town sometime after 10pm. We spent the night with Sandra's two sisters and Steve, Sandra's sister's boyfriend, at a bar that was hosting some high school's 25-year class reunion. The highlight was the fact that Sandra's 17-year old sister had two Strongbow's and ended up puking through her braces later that night. Good times.

The next day Sandra and her older sister got into a massive fight because they're girls, which meant that Sandra and I spent the next two nights in a hostel because they literally couldn't be in the same house together. Good times. The hostel was a total buzz, with crooked funhouse floors which were perfect for stumbling back across at all hours of the morning. We spent the next couple of days wandering around St. John's, which is a really beautiful city except for the fact that it doesn't have any kind of a sewage treatment plant. Honest to God. I thought people were just fucking with me, but it turns out that all of the city's raw sewage gets dumped directly into the harbour. We walked down to the water and the stench was almost overwhelming. There are four "bubbles" located along the harbour where shit literally gets pumped into the water. You can identify these "bubbles" by the swarming of seagulls and the non-dissolving domers dancing like jellyfish. I was in complete disbelief, wondering how the oldest city in North America couldn't have gotten around to getting its shit together. It's hard to believe that a famous Canadian city can be so ass-backwards.

In any event, with the world's biggest toilet as our backdrop, we spent the next five days with Sandra and her sister, who finally kissed and made up. We spent Saturday night at an awesome little bar on Water Street called "The Victory", and Sunday night on George Street, which can best be described as "Bourbon Street East". Making matters about a thousand times better was the fact that the George Street Festival was in full swing Sunday night, headlined by Max Webster's own Kim Mitchell. Let me tell you, with the exception of a beaver playing hockey on an iceberg while eating a maple-syrup-soaked-back-bacon sandwhich while funnelling a stubby of Labatt's, there is nothing more Canadian than seeing Kim Mitchell do "Patio Lanterns" on George Street in July. As I have reiterated in the days since the experience: I can now die a happy man. The only disappointing thing was the fact that Kim has shaved his signature, picture perfect skullet.

Even though this clip isn't from the same show, this is pretty much the same version as he did in St. John's. And let the record show that Q107's afternoon drive guy was absolutely on top of his game, doing his rock and roll duty and reaffirming the ancient Chinese proverb which states that when you go for a soda, nobody hurts and nobody cries (This has to go down as the best video of all-time. You can't even argue the point. In fact, now that I think of it, this video deserves its own entry). When he brought "St. John's FINEST!", in the form of any ready, willing and able girls up on stage for the finale, he cemented his place in my heart as the ultimate Canadian wild party rocker. That's the hold he's got on me.

We were so stoked after the transcendental performance that we ventured off into the George Street night for Sandra's birthday, stopping into the Fat Cat Blues Bar where Sandra sat down at the bar next to a girl she went to college with (Dana Parsons, who's song we heard on the radio later that week), and I sat down next to a pair of Jameson reps... This could only end badly. They bought Sandra and I each a triple Jameson on the rocks, and over the course of the night, we kept bumping into them at bar after bar along George Street, and each time they'd buy us the same triple. Ridiculous. Sandra did a killer karaoke version of Journey's "Don't Stop Believing" at a bar called Karaoke Kops, and the old man running the Karaoke night bought her a drink and gave her a birthday pin to go along with the shots of screech I bought... Ugh. We ended up at a bar called Lottie's for double white Russians with the Jameson people before stumbling back to the funhouse-floored hostel. I couldn't move the next day.

Hungover beyond belief, Sandra, her little sister (JLT) and I went off to do a drive around the Irish Loop. It started out beautifully, but by the time we got down to St. Vincent to go whale watching, the fog had rolled in to the point where I couldn't even see the yellow line in the middle of the road. But we looked anyway. It was a miserable failure.

We spent Tuesday and Wednesday hanging around St. John's, waiting for the tropical storm to hit and cancel the Royal St. John's Regatta - the annual oldest sporting event in North America, and the reason we were hanging around the city for as long as we did. When they went ahead and cancelled the Regatta, I fulfilled a life's dream of mine by setting foot in a town called "Dildo", which is an only slightly less humourous name than "Come By Chance", but worth the two hour drive nonetheless.

Amazingly, despite the fact that everything on the East Coast of the province had been cancelled due to the massive flooding an ensuing state of emergency; and despite the fact that we'd taken a drive that afternoon and witnessed the damage first hand; it didn't occur to me to check on the status of our ferry until about 10 o'clock that night. So it really should have come as no surprise when we learned that our ferry had been re-routed, and that we would have to wake up at 5:30 in the next morning in order to drive the entire length of the province so we could catch the ferry from Port-aux-Basques at 8pm. But we were somehow able to make the ferry in time, despite the fact that we got a flat tire 28 kms past Grand Falls, which meant that not only did I have to have somebody help me take the tire off (I'll say it was because we needed a sledge hammer to get the bolts off, but we all know it's because I have absolutely no idea of what the hell I'm doing), but that we also had to backtrack for forty-five minutes, driving 60 km/hour along the Trans-Canada Highway as those once-friendly Newfs flew past, giving me the finger at every opportunity.

Sandra and I slept the entire ferry ride back, waking up as we pulled into Nova Scotia, and driving until sunrise. We drove the next day through New Brunswick and most of Maine in an electric storm and ensuing hail-filled downpour that seemed worse than the one that shut down St. John's two days earlier. The highlight for me was stopping in a town called Skowhegan and coming across the Empire Grill completely by chance. For those of you who don't know, I am a pretty big Richard Russo fan, and this particular Diner was the setting for the HBO movie starring Paul Newman, Ed Harris, and Phillip Seymour Hoffman, based on Russo's brilliant novel, Empire Falls. Amazing what you can stumble upon if you keep your head up.

We got home Saturday night at about 11 o'clock, having put approximately 8,500 kms on my car, but grateful for every last mile of it. Thanks to Jessica and Steve for taking us in. Thanks to my mom and dad, and to Foley for all of the recommendations.


Just a few more quick notes about Newfoundland.

I love how every little cove is considered a town. You'll come around a turn on the TCH, and there'll be this tiny village with no more than a dozen dwellings, and yet these twelve or so houses are a town. And this is to say nothing of how great the names for these little towns are. Heart's Desire, Heart's Content, and Heart's Delight, to name a few. Maybe we'd all be happier if we lived in towns with names like those.

I think Newfoundland is becoming more popular as a tourist destination because there seemed to be a good number of people touring the place, most of whom had massive RVs (when I mentioned this observation to my dad, he said: "That's it. I'm not telling anyone about Newfoundland anymore." I think he's afraid of the island jumping the shark). But the thing about all of these people travelling to Newfoundland is that they are all... from another age demographic, you could say? We were the youngest people we saw travelling, which I guess is a reflection of the fact that most of the young people get the hell out of there as soon as possible (Waiting for the ferry to take us to The Rock, there was a man with a T-shirt which read: "Old Guys Rule". When I commented on it, he said "You know why old guys rule? It's because all the young guys left the island!"). But I think more young people should go east. It's a hell of a place. One of the most beautiful I've ever been, and with some of the best people. And you can't beat the seafood. Or the Toutons.

And finally, I'm not sure whether you want to call this a Newfie proverb, but we came across this great sign while driving the Irish Loop, and it read: "Happiness is a choice you make, that requires effort at times". I guess it's a principle that I've always tried to live by, but I don't think I ever knew how to properly articulate it.

What do you know? I guess those Newfie's really are smarter than we give them credit for.


Anonymous said...

I am deeply offended by your comments regarding my softball team. Prepare to hit from the nine hole for the balance of the season.


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