September 11, 2001. On the way to my gym in Boston, I stopped at a travel agent’s to look into booking a hiking and camping safari during our upcoming trip to Australia. In 3 days we were leaving to attend a friend’s wedding where we used to live in Sydney, and then spending 10 days in the Outback. We’d had the flights books for over 6 months.
While I was there, one of the other agents remarked that she’d just received an email saying a plane had flown into the World Trade Center in New York. We imagined a small private plane and little damage. It wasn’t until I was at the gym, and saw the second plane’s impact on the television, that the impact of the event started to become real. I went back to the travel agent, in a bit of hesitant confusion, and said, “Maybe we should hold off on booking that safari.”
We were meant to be flying out in 3 days, September 14th, our anniversary. But we were living in Boston, where the airport would, it transpired, not be open for another 2 weeks. The city was as bewildered and stricken as the rest of the country. My husband Ian and I watched tears fall in public, the “how could this happen to us?” response replaced by the “let’s get the bastards” reaction. We considered that our two weeks off of work were already booked.
“I would really,” I said, trying not to be too pushy, “really like to get out of this country right now.” There was something going on here I did not want to be a part of, some combination of ignorance and real pain, of naiveté and insularity, of pride and shock, that worried me. It felt combustible.
We rented a car and drove north, spending our anniversary in silent contemplation of the fact that “scenic routes” marked on a map held an exasperating number of traffic lights on the actual road.
It was a September hinting at fiery autumn leaves, with crisp skies and calm seas. We’d hurriedly bought a propane camping stove and bickered as we tried to cook lunches under the fierce winds that only seemed to come up when we were hungry.
Bar Harbor and especially Acadia, despite the crowds searching out lobster tails and fishing expeditions, offered balms to remind me that, no matter how oddly or hurtful humanity might act, Nature went on unheeding. Nothing is more easily destroyed than natural beauty, but neither is anything more precious, and Acadia offered hikes, walks, and views to soothe the most troubled soul. Zipping up rocky hillsides, I tasted my first wild blueberries, slightly withered but hanging onto the tail end of the season.
Reoriented, soul-wise, we fled the States. Ian mentioned an interest in Prince Edward Island, which I had visited before but he hadn’t. It seemed a reasonable goal to begin with so we aimed for New Brunswick and the Canadian Maritimes.
“God Bless America” signs blinked at us all the way up through New England and continued thick and heartfelt into Canada. So many years later, I am still amazed at how quickly the U.S. squandered so much good will.
It was when we landed in a New Brunswick tourist information center that I found the true meaning of spontaneity. A magazine cover featured a man standing on a cliff top, arms stretched high as if in greeting or benediction of the miraculous, dizzying view before him. An elongated lake sparkled out from the bottoms of the cliffs and trees and bushes rioted all around the hillsides. I pointed at it.
“I want to go there.”
“Where’s that?” asked Ian.
“I don’t know, but we need to go there.” We asked an assistant.
“Oh, that’s …” she flipped it open, “that’s Newfoundland. Gros Morne National Park,” she specified helpfully.
“Newfoundland.” I love it when the name of a place you’ve never been just tastes good to say. “How do we get there?”
Its remoteness was tantalizing, almost as alluring as the wild beauty depicted on the magazine cover. We had to get to the island of Nova Scotia first, cross to its far side, and then take a ferry for several hours, and from there drive a couple more hours up Newfoundland’s western coast, halfway to Labrador.
It was tempting to push for Labrador, but Ian did want to see Prince Edward Island, and two weeks seemed like ages until you realized you had to drive back home, too.
So Newfoundland it was. We followed increasingly gray, drizzly weather up through the soft sands and mellow sweep of Prince Edward Island, then back down to Nova Scotia’s northern tip, which, in its uncanny likeness to parts of Scotland, more than lives up to its namesake. And from there to a rather ugly, dreary industrial fishing town to catch the ferry to Newfoundland.
When we set foot on the island’s rocky coast I don’t think I’d read so much as a badly penned travel article about Newfoundland. It would be five years before I met the native author Wayne Johnston and become smitten with his memoir, Baltimore’s Mansion, of growing up in St. John’s on the island’s eastern coast.
But in 2001, St. John’s was only a name on a road sign tagging the other end of the highway on which we were only going partway.
The weather continued bleak, and seemed to fit the landscape and the architecture. The towns reminded me of fishing villages in Scotland, with unpredictable opening times and unsure welcome for a stranger. Despite the area’s possession of a National Park, it seemed to make no nods toward tourism. It wasn’t until we were at the rim of Gros Morne itself that we found a surprisingly welcoming B&B with excellent food, and a likely café for grilled cheese sandwiches.
Like all nature lovers, I find every brand of natural beauty thrilling, no matter how different from what I’ve grown to love. I set out for Gros Morne guided by an enthralling photograph and a desire to stand where that man had stood, welcoming the existence of this place with joyful arms.
Reality turned out quite different but not less enjoyable. Our days on Newfoundland were socked in with fog and pelted with rain. The gorgeous vista I’d been aiming for turned out to be midway through a 5-day backcountry hike that was ill-advised in September due to the bogginess of the swamps, not to mention giant biting blackflies and mosquitoes that were starving for human flesh.
Instead, we stuck to a squishy boardwalk and a two-hour hike up an imposing granite hill. On a wet, foggy day we took an open boat ride up Western Brook Pond, the prosaically named lake featured at the bottom of the cliffs I was so attracted to.
The rain and fogged-in mountains felt like a tease—or maybe an invitation to return, someday, with a mind full on Newfoundland and a heart set on another adventure.
I wanted to stay, for a long time, to let the island’s marshy windswept interior wipe out the bad taste America and human kind had been leaving in my mouth. But we had to return, if only to give back the rental car.
As we were leaving, we stopped to look at a moose nibbling by the side of the road. Gros Morne was full of the ungainly-looking animals, inspiring a hilarious road sign, picturing simply a moose sniffing a crumpled car front. We watched until she began ambling over to us, looking much larger than our rental car. Her gangly legs and knobby knees turned into an oddly graceful walk, like a self-assured supermodel. Stop, sniff, live, survive, she seemed to imply. Whatever is going on out there, nothing lasts forever.