Manchester, NH

After only one night in Labrador we crossed back onto Newfoundland and rode up to the northern tip of the island. One thousand years ago the Norse had a settlement there at L’Anse aux Meadows; we spent two nights just a stone’s throw away. That beautiful green rolling land might be the Vinland of the sagas; those bulges in the ground might be the remains of Thorfinn Karlsefni’s failed colony. I can believe it; it’d be a fine place to live.

Three days ago we left to begin the long burn home with less than full enthusiasm. I’d left my head behind me somewhere; minor miracles and people met. It seemed like a beautiful day, warm and sunny, until we got out into the wind. I’ve never had to ride in a wind like that before — there were times we could hardly get over 40 mph. It slapped me from side to side with such vigor it was all I could do to stay in my lane; when a truck or tour bus would appear going the other way I ‘d concentrate: “DON’T HIT THE BUS. DON’T HIT THE BUS.” Even on straightaways my bike was canted into the wind as though I was going around a corner. My head flopped from side to side and my face was mushed around into surely entertaining expressions, even behind the visor. At one point my engine cut out; mystified, it took me several minutes to realize that I’d run out of gas after only 90 miles instead of the normal 120. It was like wrestling with a motorcycle-shaped animal, or how I imagine it must feel to ride a jet-ski in heavy surf. The wind could do anything it wanted up there because there was nothing to stop it; I was grateful for every moment that it didn’t simply flick my wheels out from under me. This continued for 200 miles.

We watched three movies consecutively on the ferry from Newfoundland to Nova Scotia. We heard so many stories about the ferry: the boat is designed to make the passage in three hours but the ferry company didn’t make any money from the cafeteria on such a short trip, so they lengthened it; the ferry leaves at odd hours to insure that you miss a meal and thus have to buy food on board; the day boat only takes four hours but at night they shut off one engine so the trip takes six or seven hours and the crew can receive more night pay. If these stories aren’t all true, they’re at least an example of our human need to explain and assign blame for our suffering.

The ride back across the middle of Cape Breton Island was slow as we arduously leapfrogged past long caravans of campers and trucks on the hilly two-lane highway, so after we crossed back onto the Nova Scotia mainland we left the highway to look for an alternate route. Ofcourse we failed and rode around in circles for a while, then got back on the highway an exit or two down. Now the road was smooth and fast, a four-lane divided highway- Heaven! We rode in oblivious glee for ten minutes before it occurred to us (simultaneously) that we were the only vehicles on the road; we hadn’t seen a single car or truck going in either direction. Laughing hysterically we exchanged gestures of bafflement, then pulled over and looked at the map which told us nothing. Still silence on the big beautiful highway. We rode on and about five minutes later came to where the blacktop ended and the construction crew began; this was a new highway being built to replace the old one and for whatever reason the exit we’d got on at just hadn’t been blocked or marked. The construction people directed us back to the old road.

At dark, after riding all day from North Sydney, we crossed back into Maine, took off our helmets and then rode all night toward places called home; 22 hours by the time we got back at dawn on Friday.

Behind us, from Manchester to Red Bay, lay 1350 miles of road.

L’Anse Amour, Labrador

Just after the boat left shore at St. Barbe we saw our first iceberg, the first iceberg I’ve ever seen, a white chip against the horizon. Then we saw two more, then a handfull, all grazing along the coast like ancient things out of H.P. Lovecraft. A little later we saw our first whales. I’ve never seen a whale before, except maybe once when I was little and someone pointed out a black speck in the distance and told me it was a whale. These whales made their leisurely way across the straits blasting geysers of vapor , dorsal fins rising and falling. Boats, icebergs, and whales were gathered in that water like three strange tribes of giants, but if they had anything to say to each other, I don’t know what it was.

The paved road in southern Labrador is a single ribbon along the coast about 50 miles long. We rode up to Red Bay at the northern end, then turned around and rode back; to go farther we’d need something other than these bikes. 500 years ago Red Bay was a Basque whaling city; for us it felt like a long way from anywhere else, but the store still had Pepsi and Star Wars: Episode I promotional displays.

All the way up we couldn’t peel our eyes off the icebergs creeping along the shore, sneaking into the bays- they were much closer than they’d been from the boat. There was one maybe 50 feet off the end of a pier; it looked like a porcelain sculpture of whipped cream- hard, shiny, rippled, whorled, dazzling white. An hour later when we went by again it had flipped over. There were others with that crazy blue color inside that you hear about, an alien electric glow like radioactive gel toothpaste — really, the last color you’d expect to see produced by snow. One had three thin spires like steeples, seemingly too thin and delicate to support their own weight.

What does it mean when you see icebergs? You look it up in your dream dictionary and find out if she likes you or not, because icebergs aren’t a part of the waking world. They’re not even real things, they’re ideas, symbols, icons. My brain is not equipped for icebergs.

There are minke whales surfacing 100 feet from me — probably the same kind of whales we saw from the ferry, but right here, come into the cove to feed. One comes toward the pier and surfaces and its back breaks the water not 50 feet away. I wonder how much closer it came, unseen beneath the surface. The cove at L’Anse Amour is about a half mile across and has a nice sandy beach: cozy, safe, with whales in it. From where I am, I have to look inland to watch the whales — it’s not like they’re in the ocean, it’s like they’re in the backyard.

There are five houses in a line along the shore at L’Anse Amour and one of them rents rooms. It’s as modern and comfortable as any suburban house, and it could be anywhere except for the whales out the window; that, and the piano in the corner of the living room which was salvaged from a ship that ran aground here in 1922. The H.M.S. Raleigh, crew of 700, also provided the kitchen chairs. The chairs have been reupholstered to match the more recent tubular metal kitchen chairs; I’d never have noticed them.

Rita, our hostess, gives us bakeapples over vanilla ice cream and they are absolutely delicious. When the woman who Sean didn’t hit with his motorcycle told us about the bakeapple festival, we tried to picture apple trees in Labrador. But a bakeapple is a little orange berry with a shape like a raspberry that grows singly on the ground. They have little white flowers which, we’re told, collapse inward and then change color before the bakeapple emerges from within; first the berry is reddish, then it turns bright orange when it’s ready to be picked. They’re tart and sweet and yeah, a little apple-y, but they’re not just a quirky local food, they’re delicious. They strike an unexpected chord of food-joy in me; how could we have never heard of something this good? In their own way the bakeapples are as amazing and surprising as the whales and the icebergs; they must be one of the fruits we forgot about when the Gate was locked behind us.

A boy named Jordan, maybe 5 or 6 years old, rides up to me on his bicycle and starts talking. He’s slightly pudgy with a big grin that never stops as he tells me all about the other day when his friend’s bike broke down in the ditch and they had to tow it out with Jordan’s bike and then tow it all the way back to the house (about 100 feet away). He shows me the flimsy orange plastic cord they used for this salvage operation, wrapped under the bicycle seat in case of further emergencies. He peels out in the dirt a couple times to demonstrate how powerful his bike is. He’s a great kid and I could talk to him all day. He starts telling me about all the different kinds of whales, their names, sizes, where you can see them; he’s like an encyclopedia. It never even occurs to me to doubt his knowledge until I ask him about the whales in the cove and he tells me that they’re killer whales and they grow to be 138 feet long. Oh well.

It’s later now, the sun is about to fall, and the whales are still there. They were there when we checked in, they were there all afternoon, and they’re still there as the dark comes; not a dream.

How much can you see in one day? How many times can you see the rules of your world broken? I’d better go inside, and close my eyes.

Hawke’s Bay, Newfoundland

You reach Newfoundland and you cross over; there’s no doubt anymore; this is one of the edges of the world.

There are alot of people who live here, regular people with regular lives, who’d laugh if they read that, but it’s the only perspective I’ve got.

Yesterday we rode up and around the northern peninsula of Cape Breton Island, a full day’s ride. We passed Farley Mowat’s old boat, the Happy Adventure, on display by the side of the road. That’s the boat the saga of which he wrote about in the very funny book The Boat Who Wouldn’t Float, which I read years ago. It was a funny little surprise- I had no idea that boat even still existed. It had to be an auspicious omen, Farley Mowat being the patron saint of the north.

The Cape Breton Highlands are beautiful, massive shoulders of land jostling along the coast, tumbling to deep gorges between them. We rode up along the plateau, then wound down to the ocean, then back up and over another part of the plateau. The land’s lushly clothed in evergreens, except in patches where the reddish rock shows through like exposed flesh.

We rode down five miles of dirt road so Sean could visit a place called Meat Cove.

In the evening we rode on to North Sydney to catch the midnight ferry to Newfoundland. During the six hour boat ride we slept on the floor between the seats.

When we get off the boat at Port aux Basques there’s nothing taller than grass covering the ropey land, running up the gorges, as though the weather blasts anything else right out of the earth. As we ride inland, the trees return: at first half-sized, then gradually getting taller over the course of a couple hundred miles.

I was right about the sky; there are stretches of road here where you can reach up and run your hand through the clouds. We’ve seen some huge clouds, too, humoungous clouds, clouds against which, if it ever came down to a fight, the land would stand no chance.

At Deer Lake we bang a left and head back down toward the coast through Gros Morne national park. Gros Morne is tear-out-your-heart beautiful, great grey sheets of rock cascading from sky to earth, shot through with ribbons of green and high thin lakes. It’s one of those places not built on a human scale but instead to some colossal prehuman standard, a reminder that “land” is not synonymous with “floor” (a floor being a kind of innocuous domesticated land); that land can have a will and agenda of its own, that it can be the mighty limbs and mysterious appendages of the earth.

We stop briefly so Sean can deal with a spectacular nosebleed. He’s stooped over for so long that there’s a hardened stalactite of blood almost half an inch long hanging from the end of his nose. He says he would’ve just kept riding but he didn’t want any of the blood to spray back and hit me; a good thing, too, because if I’d seen drops of blood splattering on my visor I’d probably have assumed they fell from the sky. Then I’d have pointed my bike off the cliff just to get it all over with quickly.

We make a full day of it and push on up the northern peninsula. The sun comes and goes, but it’s a cold, hard, windy ride either way. There’s a ribbon of low flat land along the coast, boggy with only short shrubby trees and those that have been bansai-bent and pounded low by the wind. There are flowers everywhere along the road, especially the blue wild irises. All afternoon we ride with the ocean on our left and the mountains on our right. The map calls them mountains, anyway, but they’re flat right across the top and all connected- what they look like is a wall 1000 feet high. That’s got to be the high country into which I’m told the caribou go for the summer; a great wall blocking off another world up there, a caribou world. I can see snow on the top. The map shows no roads except the one we’re on.

We stop in Hawke’s Bay for the night. There’s a beach that runs all along the shore, a wide, beautiful, gently sloping beach. We walk down to it and discover that it’s actually solid stone- one giant slab of rock, not a grain of sand anywhere.

The woman who drove the car that Sean didn’t hit used to live in Newfoundland. When we talked to her we asked her about the island, and about Labrador. She said the last time she’d been to Labrador, for the bakeapple festival, someone got so many fly bites that a helicopter had to be sent in to airlift them to the hospital.

Nonetheless, what had been only a vague notion has become clear to us. We can’t come this far and not go on to Labrador.

The Tablelands

On the western coast of Newfoundland lies Gros Morne National Park; as if that place wasn’t spectacular enough, in the southwest corner of the park lies the Tablelands.

The Tablelands is a red mesa that towers over the scrubby green land, a mad region of red rock surrounded by grey stone and ocean. To at last pull yourself off the talus slope and onto the top is like climbing into the fifth world. The land behind you, the land you knew, is hidden below the rim, and the land before you is lost in cold fog. The jumble of red boulders is not common sandstone, but something much harder and stranger- peridotite, pulled from forges deep in the earth. They say that the continental plates collided here once, far beneath the ocean, and the violence of that collision caused magma to pour up; then, 570 million years ago that piece of the ocean floor was pushed up and over instead of down and under so that now it lies exposed.

It’s remarkable to even the casual passerby because its story is so clear, so easy to read- it doesn’t belong there. It’s obviously an alien, an outcast, a county-sized anomaly. It looks like a chunk of Mars that fell from the sky, or a vast red ark that sailed off the sea and stuck in the land. Continents fought, and loved, and birthed this war-child only to exile it to a cold island at the edge of the world. It’s a story of giants and cataclysms, creation and metamorphosis, all on a scale in which we are less than motes.

You can’t see that mountain-sized red land without imagining it in motion. And the land does move, of course, geology teaches us that, but it shouldn’t be so obvious. To imply life in rocks is terrifying; to say they are not still, but still alive, and maybe coming towards us, is crippling.

North Judique, Nova Scotia

Right now is a great time to travel between the U.S. and Canada because the exchange rate is about the same as the ratios of miles to kilometers, so I can calculate how much I’m spending with my speedometer dial. Very handy.

We spent two nights and at least parts of three days in Dartmouth getting Sean’s bike repaired. Dartmouth and Halifax are twin cities separated by a harbor and linked by a couple bridges; they were also the site of the Great Explosion, which I’d never even heard of before. In 1917 two ships collided in the harbor and one of them was carrying 180,000 kg of TNT; I read that the result was the largest human-made explosion prior to the atomic bomb. The blast destroyed half of Halifax and set fire to the rest, and it was capped off by a blizzard the next day.

We left Dartmouth this afternoon and rode up the southern shore, in and out of fog. We stopped for a snack and bought some roast chicken flavored potato chips; they tasted like stuffing, and were almost as good as the ketchup flavored chips.

In the evening we crossed over onto Cape Breton Island and rode up the northwest shore to North Judique for lodgings.

Behind the house is a a sweet old hayfield. It’s beautiful, it’s more garden than field: purple thistles, vetch and clover, white Queen Anne’s lace, little yellow flowers on tall thin stems, and several kinds of tall grasses, one with a head covered in delicate purple fuzz. A rabbit jumps and runs. All I can hear are the birds, the wind, and the ocean beyond the trees. I’m still buzzing from the motorcycle, still humming. It’s an aftereffect, like being on the ocean all day and then still being able to feel the waves at night; a sensory ghost. Not just the vibration, but the smells, the pound of the air, and the roar echo under my skin as traces of electricity. It’s like gently sanding the fingertips to make them more sensitive, but for the whole nervous system.

Through the trees on the far side of the field there’s a wide grassy path to the beach, lined by bushes with floppy pink flowers. There’s a shade of rose in the clay, too, and in the beach rocks which are as big and round as ostrich eggs, but maybe smoother. The sun drops and goes pink, the sky goes pink, the clouds behind me go pink.

Dartmouth, Nova Scotia

Death may come for Sean more often than for other people, but it evens out because he’s so damn hard to kill. I only have this one shot at the world — when Death comes for me, I’ll crumple like a lily in his black-gloved hand.

Riding out of a torrential rain along the coast this morning and making a sharp right-hand curve, Sean slipped into the other lane right in front of an oncoming car. I saw him put his foot out and then try to go around the other side of the car on the shoulder, but then he shot off the road into a ditch and disappeared; I saw his body get tossed up for a second and then tumble out of sight. I thought, this could be it.

But he was fine when I got there and we spent the next 20 minutes wrestling his bike back onto the road, possibly burning out some of the clutch in the process. He’d been thrown free of the bike but couldn’t remember exactly how; the bike wasn’t even in too bad a shape, just a bent rollbar, broken mirror and turn signal, some scratches, but we had to have it towed to Dartmouth for the clutch. The impact had been cushioned by a lot of little evergreen trees. If he’d been going another five mph he probably would have gone right into the saltwater pond just a couple feet away.

It was about a half hour later that it occurred to us that we’d been able to push the bike back out of the ditch along the same path that it went in because the bike had been lying in the ditch facing the wrong direction. Since I hadn’t seen it spin sideways, then it must’ve flipped end over end. Sean had mentioned he’d felt something fly over his shoulder — that was it.

Having a sandwich down the road, waiting for the towtruck, we met the woman who’d been driving the car. She was very nice, and we talked for quite a while. She said she’d be haunted by Sean’s face as he came around that corner, the look on it, for weeks. I told her that lots of people are haunted by Sean’s face, even without an accident.

The sky gets closer the farther we go. Maybe if you go far enough, north of the Arctic Circle, it’s just all sky and you can walk right through it. Or maybe it’s not a function of latitude, but just of how long you ride.

Liverpool, Nova Scotia

Caught the ferry from St. John to Digby this morning, a long, boring, uncomfortable 2 1/2 hours. The ferry was like an airport without the release of actually getting on a plane, both being large sprawling habitrails for containing impatient waiting people. Even though the ferry was an airport that moved, it moved imperceptively slowly, and it cost almost as much as taking a plane anyway. The ferry also had the added bonus of beginning and ending with a traffic jam.

Then we rode in the rain for awhile.

We stopped for a moment on the shore of Kejimkujik Lake as we crossed the peninsula, a beautiful lake with shallow, stoney shores, the stones small and flat like tiles.

Liverpool seems like a nice town with giant old shade trees and graceful old white houses beneath them, but at the elementary school I found the remains of some kid’s jacket which had been hung on the fencepost and set on fire. All that was left was a charred cuff and scorchmarks on the chainlink — if the kid was in the jacket at the time he must’ve burned clean.

There’s a fine cold blue-grey beach, long and wide and gently sloping, backed by spruces and meadows of beach grass. No houses, no restaurants. I found alot of small black shells, maybe baby mussels, from a couple millimeters to an inch long. Lots of them, stuck in the sand like tiny crow feathers, or miniscule pieces of coal-black crow platemail.

St. John, New Brunswick

This morning I found a miracle.

Standing around in the parking lot, I looked down and saw a two-and-a-half-inch long nail sticking through the sidewall of Sean’s rear tire like a hairpin. Without flattening the tire it had passed through the side and emerged again so that both the head and the point of the nail were exposed; it was a wonder and  a spectacle, like those x-rays of  people who’ve had railroad spikes through their brains and survived. All who saw it were amazed and moved to tell their own tales of fantastic objects penetrating motorcycle tires such as pieces of fence and six-inch screwdriver shanks, inspiring tales to dwell upon! Pilgrims who came and pressed their wounds upon the nail soon found them healed, and the proprietors of the Honda/Kawasaki dealership were so touched that they sold Sean a new tire for only a couple hundred dollars. Yet another reminder that Death is just a handshake away; I always half expect my old bike to fly apart underneath me, but Sean’s is like new, a 1996 Vulcan,  beautiful and carefully maintained.

This afternoon I surgically altered my seat with a knife. Much bad foam was removed to the sound of many vertebrae cheering. The butt had mixed feelings about the operation.

Saw a bald eagle flying over a marsh near Calais, just before we crossed into Canada.

Scarborough, Maine

We left just after the thunderstorm; the air was so humid and sweet I thought I was riding home to the swamp I grew up on. It’s great to finally be on the road.

This is not properly a part of the 751 since it’s a separate trip that Sean and I have been planning in one form or another for the last year. I’d never expect him to adhere to the  751’s rigorous standards of expenditure on his vacation, and I’d be a lousy traveling companion if I just moped around saying things like, “No, no, you go ahead and get a room, I’ll just eat my can of pork and beans, then I’ll curl up under this bench.” Even though this trip is drawn from a separate fund,  it’s a chance to test  my equipment and see if this is really going to work; for that reason, and because it’s just such a damn good place to start, let’s consider the whole Newfoundland trip a prologue. In two weeks we’ll return to Manchester, I’ll take a couple days to get my act together and then the 751 will begin in earnest.

We took four hours to do two hours’ worth of riding because of the 4th of July traffic, my back feels like I dragged it behind the bike on a rope, and all we’ve got to show for it is we’re in Scarborough — but it’s great to be in motion.