We’ve been talking about coming to the Maritimes for years. Seeing Canada’s east coast hung in front of us and out of reach, for one reason or another, for at least a decade. Maybe one day, we told each other. Now, that the “one day” is here, and because we’ve wanted to come for years, our arrival is tied to a few big expectations. Expectations stitched together over time, like a giant patchwork, from the things people who either were from the Maritimes, or have visited the Maritimes, told us. And ok, from a handful of films Roland and I saw that were set on the east coast: The Shipping News, Rare Birds, The New Waterford Girl.
The thing with expectations though, is that, often, they’re based on someone else’s totally subjective experience of something. And that experience is always going to be just theirs and theirs alone, filtered by the things that are relevant to them. It’s like being pregnant. Everyone who’s had a baby has a story to tell and advice on how to do this and not do that, based on what they went through with their own kids. Yet, while I collected other people’s anecdotes until my head spun, it wasn’t until I stood there, trying to quiet a baby screaming loud enough to shatter glass, or changing her first stomach-turning poopy diaper, or seeing her first beaming smile, that I began to know what having a baby is all about. Once I knew, I of course joined the ranks of all the other people dispensing advice.
Still, I’m not the roll the dice and see how they land type. Embarking on a journey to someplace unknown is tough for me if I don’t at least have a perception of some “knowable”. So Roland and I listen to directions and advice and we do end up expecting. For the Maritimes, the things we were anticipating were built around a handful of things: homegrown music, quirky down-to-earth people, and dramatic landscape. (If I’m honest, I was hoping to find people singing and playing the fiddle, or accordion, or whatever – washboard? – on every porch of every house we passed. And a big musical party at every campground). I also imagined rocky wind-and-sea-swept cliffs with a few colourful houses perched here and there with equally colourful fishing boats tied up at the docks.
Well, Prince Edward Island pretty much blew all my preconceptions out of the water. It was seeing all the grazing cows and fields of wheat and corn and potatoes that did it. Yes, I’ve heard of PEI potatoes and yes, it makes sense that people who live on an island are best served to produce their food locally if they can, and avoid the expense of bringing it in. But I also heard of PEI mussels so no, agriculture and the maritimes just aren’t synonymous for me. And yet, in our five days on Prince Edward Island, we possibly saw more farmland than we did oceanside. And we saw a fair amount of oceanside since most of the parks we camped at on PEI were right on the ocean and within access of miles of beach to walk on.
Our friend Bernie says PEI is like Saskatchewan with an ocean and she may be right. Because on PEI, lush farmland almost everywhere, dairy cows graze in grassy fields that sit next to and overlooking the Atlantic, with maybe an iconic lighthouse in the distance. Agriculture plays such a huge role there’s even a Potato Museum – probably within walking distance of a seafood place serving Atlantic lobster.
And then, there was the wind:
Listen my friends, here’s a song for the wind
let it move you into a new morning,
It comes with the moonrise, it’s never a surprise
it soothes you, softly it rises…
We heard the wind pounding into the camper for the entire crossing over the Confederation Bridge both to PEI and back. Then, once there, at the provincial parks where we stayed, it swept around us, playful or intense, while we walked long stretches along one atmospheric and beautiful beach – red sandy beaches mostly, the colour of terra cotta – after another. At Singing Sands, where the sand actually is sand-coloured and sort of squeaks when you put some umph into it and shuffle your feet forward, I watched the wind steal someone’s hat off their head and toss it into the shallow water. And I thought I heard it laugh.
At PEI’s Wind Turbine Energy Centre, they harness the wind for power. In a forest of turbines the height of radio towers, giant blades whip and howl through the air often directly above the trail that winds underneath them, right next to a red craggy shoreline where you can stand and watch distant fishing boats working the ocean. It was such an lovely contrast – modern wind turbines next to the ancient cliffs and ocean that probably haven’t changed much over centuries.
And Nova Scotia surprised us too. Hiking through forest we never imagined we’d see there we asked each other: Is this how you pictured the Maritimes? And we both agreed it wasn’t, because it was lush and green and mossy. We spent our first few nights in Nova Scotia at campgrounds with more woods than beach and greenery everywhere. Yet oddly, despite the woods, it was really in Nova Scotia that I started feeling we’d arrived on the east coast. And no, the bagpiper at the visitor centre had nothing to with it. It was the people. Sometimes you find the things you’re looking for even if they the delivery is a bit different.
In Nova Scotia we found some of the music we were hoping for. First, there was the bagpiper at the visitor’s centre in Amherst. Then in Tatamagouche, where we stopped to stretch our legs, live musicians entertained tourists in several of the shops. At Cape Breton North Highland National Park, someone near us played banjo our first night. It’s not an instrument I’d pick as my favourite but whoever was playing was doing so very well and it was great to hear it there, the notes floating around us in the dark. And at the Arm of Gold campground, a private RV park near the Newfoundland/Labrador ferry terminal in Bras D’Or, a sign in the office said: If you’re interested in participating in the jam session, let us know. Or something like that. Turns out the jam sessions only happen on certain days but still, the fact that they happen at all is as good an indicator as any of the local atmosphere. That night, when R played his accordion to the stars at the far end of the campground, a couple came out of their way to thank him and then told him that, a few nights ago, there were something like eight musicians all playing together. No accordion though they said.
The thing we probably like the least about traveling through new places, the unavoidable thing, is feeling like tourists. In the campgrounds, it doesn’t happen as much because, unless you look at the licence plates of the other vehicles, it’s not easy to spot much difference between us and anyone else. Everyone wears the same uniform. But take us to a town and suddenly Roland and I may as well have “visitor” placards around our necks. Placards some people seem to have trouble seeing past, before styling their own behaviour towards us.
In Amherst, Nova Scotia, we stopped for lunch at a local cafe/health food store and, although it was obvious we weren’t from there, the girl working the counter saw right past that. She saw “us”. And she treated the “us” she saw like we fit right in. Less than an hour later, at Amherst Shore Provincial Park, I felt like I’d walked into a kitchen party. Without the beer of course. The two park attendants running the show at the office, both in their sixties and both named John, were a comedy duo. John One seemed a bit iffy with deciphering the park’s camper registration software and John Two couldn’t use a computer at all but, between them, cracking jokes and poking fun at each other for fifteen minutes, John One managed to get us booked in and then John Two had us follow him and his ATV to our campsite.
We got put into overflow because, it being the start of the Labour Day weekend, the campground was all booked up. But overflow was a meadow-like setting in what was once an orchard and we camped at the bottom of a green grassy slope surrounded by old apple trees. Do you know what Nova Scotia stands for, John One asked us before he rode his ATV back to the park office. Do you know your Latin? I did know, but could see that he really wanted to tell us so I kept quiet. New Scotland, he beamed at being able to share knowledge. Now you both learned something new today didn’t you? Then he waved goodbye. If you folks don’t have fun here this weekend, it’s nobody’s fault but your own! We stayed there for two days.
During those two days we also met Brian, the campground host who, just before we left the park, gave us pointers on Cape Breton and shared his favourite places there with us. From the very first time we talked to him, it was like hanging out with someone we’ve known for years. On Brian’s advice, once we got to Cape Breton and were in Mabou, we stopped at the Red Shoe Pub – a comfortable cozy place owned by a couple of the non-singing members of the Rankin family. We had a glass of local beer and probably our best lunch in nearly four months on the road.
We loved Cape Breton. It’s said to be the most beautiful island in North America and beautiful it was. We stayed a couple of nights at the national park to do some hiking and then took our time driving the winding Cabot Trail along the coast, taking in the scenery and regretting that we weren’t stopping as we passed announcements for live music in pretty much every pub we saw. For our last night, we bounced along a rough and rock-strewn gravel road to Meat Cove, on the northern-most tip of the island. We went there because, months ago, in the eastern block of Grasslands National Park in Saskatchewan, we met a couple who said we had to see it. After they told us about it we found it on the map and highlighted it. There were two thirds of the country between us and that little dot on the map at the time and it seemed incredibly far away, too distant to even imagine. And it remained a vaporous concept until, suddenly, those Saskatchewan days very far away, we were there. Meat Cove. I wish I had the contact info for those people. I wish I could thank them.
There’s a small private campground, perched on wind-torn cliffs above the ocean, where the camping sites seem to be laid out as if someone tossed them into the air and they landed, randomly, on the green grass. It’s really designed with tents in mind, there’s a lot of slope, but there are a couple of sites where smaller RVs can fit and we managed to get level enough. Really good to be in a truck camper. We were as close to the edge of the cliff as it was safe to be and when, that night, the gale became ferocious, we actually wondered if it might toss us into the ocean. Roland made sure the camper was well secured to the truck as we watched the tents around us expand and collapse as if they were drawing breath. Not for the first time on this trip, we were pretty happy not to be tenting.
Close to us, also in a truck camper, was a couple from northern Michigan: Gary and Maryanne. They already camped next to us at the Cape Breton Highlands National Park the night before but we didn’t really visit with them until they, too, came to Meat Cove. It was our truck campers that first got us talking but, later that night, they came to listen to Roland play his accordion and, afterwards, we sat together and talked about life, and dogs (they had a pretty yellow lab), and music, and dancing, and spirituality. It’s funny how, when you’re sitting at a picnic table with a star-studded sky above you and a warm wind brushing your shoulders and messing up your hair, conversation about the deeper things in life gets easier.
We drove away in the morning and I thought about how this life on the road sometimes unfolds for us. About connections made at one random place that then lead us to another random place where strangers become kindred souls for a brief time. Those are the things we don’t plan, and don’t expect, and sometimes it’s so much better that way.
Go to Roland’s post for his take on Cape Breton: