One hot evening July evening in Florida, we sat at dinner with my father, discussing our itinerary. We’d bought the Squid Wagon, but that decision, on top of our premature departure from Cayenne, had left us drained. What to do next?
“I was really bummed at not making it to Nova Scotia on the boat this season,” I said. “Maybe we can take the new van there.” Dad was immediately excited. Spreading out a map, he began pointing out places he and my mother had visited during a couple of unforgettable trips there in the early 70’s.
My eye was drawn even further north, to a dotted blue line stretching from the top of Nova Scotia to the edge of the map. It was labeled “Ferry Service.” It led to a tiny inset box with the outline of Newfoundland, as if the sparsely populated island was too insignificant for Rand McNally to waste paper on.
Despite the fact that we were committed to traveling over land, I wanted to get far from the USA. I wanted to find a place that felt foreign, where my country’s fast food and Hollywood hadn’t obliterated someone else’s culture. As Margaret Atwood once said, the border between the USA and Canada is a one-way mirror. The Canadians look across and see Americans. The Americans look across and think they see Americans, too.
All three of us were intrigued by that dotted line to Newfoundland. We made plans to meet on Dad’s birthday, September 8th, in Halifax, Nova Scotia and take the ferry north for a couple of weeks. From Florida, Barry and I had about six weeks to get the Squid Wagon to Halifax.
Once we started traveling, we discovered that everyone wanted to know where we’re from and where we’re headed. After explaining the former, we’d tell folks we were headed for Newfoundland. When we met someone who’d been there, the reaction was dramatic. “You’re gonna love it up there!” they all said.
The first time that happened was in a lady’s restroom in the U.S. I started chatting with two women as we were washing our hands. One of them was from Newfoundland and the other had visited her there, and they started telling me funny stories about the ferry. The three of us were in that restroom for a half hour, leaving the men to wonder why we didn’t come out.
At a karaoke event in Vermont, I met a couple from Gander, Newfoundland. Melba is a retired music teacher with a lovely voice, and her husband and I both urged her to get up and sing. I wanted her to do it because the people who were participating were horribly off key. Jack wanted her to do it so she could return home and put on her resume that she had “international” singing experience!
Newfoundland is about the size of the state of Virginia, but has only a half million people. When I told that story to someone in Newfoundland, it turned out she knew Melba!
A few days before our rendezvous, there was a minor hitch. With winds of 85 miles per hour, Hurricane Frances hit Vero Beach, Florida. Dad weathered the storm easily at his new townhouse, but the aftermath was grim. He had no electricity, water, or telephone. Worse than that, the storm had destroyed the home of his good friend, Joyce. He postponed the trip to help her sort the rubble. He’d meet us in St. John’s instead of Halifax.
Barry and I headed for the ferry in North Sydney alone, but we didn’t mind. It was our wedding anniversary, and the most time we’d spent aboard a commercial vessel since our marriage on the Flying Cloud, 13 years earlier. In a state of euphoria, we wandered the decks and chatted with the other passengers. I sat down to listen to a couple of elderly Newfoundlanders talk about boats they had built. It was my first experience with the local accent, and I could only make out about half of what they said.
Since we were only running on three engines, our 14 hour crossing was to take 17 hours. “At least we’ll be getting our money’s worth!” I quipped, thinking of the over $200 fare. One of the other passengers used the mechanical failure to make a joke about Newfies, Canada’s favorite scapegoats. “I heard they got that engine running again,” he said, “but they had to take parts from one of the other three.”
The ferry was a far cry from the small ferries we’d recently taken on Lake Champlain and the Bay of Fundy. Not only was it huge, it had a huge name: M/V Joseph and Clara Smallwood. After leaving Nova Scotia, we enjoyed blue skies and no sign of land for many hours. Eventually, we spotted the Newfoundland shore, but it was still hours before our landfall. We hung over the rail, studying the rocky cliffs and wooded shoreline, but there was no sign of habitation. When we finally arrived, well after dark, there were only a handful of lights to greet us on shore. I didn’t begrudge the 17 hours. It was just the right amount of time needed to adjust our attitudes, and we were now ready for something truly different — Newfoundland.