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Having already exhausted the other three corners of the North American continent, the logical choice for our post-summer break was to drive to the northeastern extremity of Nova Scotia (Newfoundland was removed from consideration once it was discovered that a $300 ferry would be involved). We had heard from several sources that the cycling route around Cape Breton was among the best in the world and we were determined to do the whole thing. However, after looking at a profile of the trail, and finding not one but several huge mountains along its length, we decided we had better give up any crazy notion of carrying our gear on a multi-day excursion and arrange a sag-wagon. To this end, (as well as for the benefit of her delightful personality and her IPod), we invited Andie’s sister, Julie, to tag along and share in our misadventures.
The lecturer for whom I TA’d this summer held fast to his belief that I actually had some reason to be there for the final day of class, and thus, we didn’t hit the road until well after 5. Our first stop was in Jacksonville to pick up Julie, stuff ourselves with EasyMac and pizza rolls, and play a quick round of Sonic the Hedgehog. We started on I-95 around 8 that night and alternated driving (I taking the early shift, Julie taking the late, and Andie getting those ever-critical 8 hours of sleep), and pulled into Philly shortly after 10 the next morning. Since the girls had not yet seen the city, I called up my local expert, Brendan, to show us around. He introduced us to a bustling Italian market full of cheeses and choice toiletries, and then took us back to his awe-inspiring 42nd floor penthouse in center-city. We grabbed a couple of tasty cheese steaks (as I had passed up this staple on my previous trip in favor of Ethiopian food) and sped out of town only two hours after we’d arrived.
Whatever twisted soul devised the MapQuest algorithm for the east coast decided it would be funny to lead bewildered travelers straight through the heart of Manhattan. Naturally, we saw this coming a mile away, but try as we might (using our one map, the AAA “Southeastern US”), we could find no road within a hundred miles that didn’t go straight through the city. So, after shelling out around 10 bucks in tolls to get the few dozen miles from Philly to the Hudson River, we found ourselves waiting in a veritable sea of cars to enter the $6 Holland Tunnel. Half an hour later, we were speeding through the financial district without an inkling as to what it was we were trying to see or how we could go about seeing it.
Driving in New York is quite unlike any other driving experience I’d had previously; it only took a few blocks before I was longing for the streets of Bangkok, where cars share the road (unaided by signs or traffic signals) with militant three-wheeled taxis, livestock-carrying motorbikes, and meandering elephants. To an NYC driver, red lights only have meaning if the oncoming cars are less than one car-width apart, and crossing six lanes of traffic is a perfectly reasonable feat for half a block; with no room for a hesitation that could cost precious seconds, horns are used preemptively to inform you the instant the opportunity for movement arises.
After about 4 minutes of circling and about 37 near-collisions with homicidal cabbies, we resigned to park and explore the city on foot. With no map to guide us, we walked aimlessly down the bustling streets, not really sure what monuments we had set out to see, or what to make of the ones we found. We eventually located the tourism kiosk and procured a map; unfortunately, none of the employees had the slightest idea how to drive out of the city, but they were pretty insistent that you had to go through New Jersey. Daunted by the distances to such hallmarks as Chinatown and Times Square, we elected to return to the car.
We soon discovered that none of us had the slightest idea where we had left the car. We had all retained useful landmarks like an Irish Pub, scaffolding, a Bengali restaurant, and a Foakley’s merchant, but we soon found that, without exception, each one of these was present on every city block. Every few minutes, one of us would make some speculation and find a momentary glimmer of hope, only to see it quashed upon rounding the next turn. Finally, nearing despair, we came upon our long lost car, and, resolving never to park in the city again, we set off for the Manhattan Bridge.
We drove for some time down Long Island before Andie made the implausible suggestion that it might be better to stop and ask directions rather than rely on the next bridge appearing by random chance. The first two gas station attendants had never heard of 95 North, but the third called his brother who lived up the coast and could explain how to exit the city. We paid another $5 toll to get off the island and recommence our journey up the eastern seaboard.
Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island passed by without much event; Andie dropped her Nalgene bottle in a toilet (which led to a prompt exile to the nether regions of the trunk where it would remain for the rest of the trip) and I was struck with a debilitating stomach bug that could only be cured by a large Mickeydees shake. We arrived in York, Maine around 11 that night (just a short 27 hours after leaving Florida) and found a campsite on the beach; we then took note that this site went for 35 bucks a night and sought out a cheaper one in a nondescript trailer park.
We took to the coastal route and spent the morning driving through touristy towns filled with antique shops, lobster pounds, and Thai restaurants. The central industry in Maine seems to be the buying and selling of junk and we passed a few hundred permanent yard sales set up for this purpose. Every 50 feet or so, there would be a barn or lawn full of ancient fishing gear, old farm equipment, cooking devices from a century ago, and all varieties of thing that you will certainly never find a use for, but is far too cool-looking to pass up. The great mystery to me is how all of this got here in the first place; there are clearly quite a few people who make a living by diving into basements and landfills throughout the northeast and putting whatever treasures they find in a pile in their yard so that the typical Maine tourist can spend his/her whole vacation digging through the assortment.
It being Sunday morning, we visited the first church we came upon, which turned out to be Episcopal. This turned out to be mostly like a Catholic service except that the communal bread was similar to a pita and was dipped into the wine, and the celebrant only wore one shoe because he was battling a vicious foot infection. Our smell and appearance would gradually degrade over the course of the trip, but at this time, we were still fresh enough that we felt comfortable standing next to normal people and even partaking of the fellowship coffee and donuts afterwards.
The state parks along the route all demanded steep, per-person admission fees, and so we bypassed most and instead sought out the destinations held in Andie’s memories from her childhood trips. It soon became apparent that her recollections of her family’s ventures to the east and west costs had become intertwined and it was difficult to tell which sights were in Maine and which in Oregon, but we were able to track down a fort and a giant chicken coop full of old books. Fort Knox (apparently there’s two of them) was an impressive structure where you could run around the many underground tunnels and climb into the parapets for a view of the surrounding waters.
We proceeded into Acadia and grabbed one of the park’s few remaining campsites at Seawall on the island adjacent to Mount Desert. Despite Julie’s frequent protests regarding the futility of walking up hills, we hiked over Flying Mountain and, at a secluded inlet on the other side, collected mussels to incorporate into our evening pasta dish. There was some debate as to whether shellfish collected from these waters were safe to eat, but at least one person we talked to had heard from a friend that they were safe and so we returned to our site and threw them in the pot.
These mussels were easily one of the least appetizing things I’ve ever attempted to eat; they all seemed to have random organs protruding from their slimy bodies and somehow (a fact we discovered after chewing them for a bit) they all had barnacles lodged inside of them. I think it is safe to say our pasta creation was not vastly improved by the addition of these balls of goo, and for the rest of the night, our campsite, and particularly Andie’s jacket which we had used to collect the creatures, held an odor which surpassed in potency even that of my sodden shoes.
We had heard talk of a meteor shower that night and lay on the car to watch the nighttime display. The show fell short of our expectations, with a point of light streaming across the sky only every ten minutes or so, but the late evening hours at a campground are never valued that highly anyway.
I woke the girls up at the crack of dawn to drive to the top of Cadillac Mountain before the traffic arrived. From the summit, Andie and I unloaded our bikes and sped down through a light morning mist – every turn held epic views of the beautiful bays and islands that make up Acadia. We met Julie (presently sleeping at the base) and drove to a sandy beach for a quick swim in the frigid 56 degree waters before donning our hiking gear for a 5-mile, two-mountain jaunt.
The Beehive Trail is easily among the most “interesting” I’ve come across in my circuit of this nation’s parks. Many parts of it go straight up a cliff face and iron rungs have been secured in the rock to allow you to easily surmount what would otherwise be a rather harrowing climb. We went for a swim in the sheltered Bowl Lake and shortly discovered that it was infested with leeches. Luckily, none of these had latched on to our exposed skin and we were able to tackle Mt. Borham with all of our precious blood still at our disposal. Right around the time we reached the mountain-top, the skies overhead blackened, and a few dozen unprepared tourists made a mad dash to get to the bottom before they were drenched by the full force of the downpour.
We still had to walk back along the coastal cliffs to return to our car. Unfortunately, on the first vista, Julie tripped and got a small scrape on her leg. Andie, with a year of volunteering for the ER under her belt, switched over to crisis mode, exclaimed that she “saw bone”, and commanded me to run back and get the car while she prepared to immobilize her sister to prevent further injury. Julie and I did our best to calm her hysteria and we all walked back together along the trail, though we sadly had to skip the remaining lookouts over the dramatic, cave-riddled rocks.
Exiting the park, we drove through the traffic-clogged streets of Bar Harbor and left the island. For as long as I can remember, I have been under the impression that lobster was cheap and plentiful in every corner of Maine. But this year, probably as a result of increased exports to every corner of the globe, the cheapest lobster roll we could find was right around 12 bucks. We ventured into shack after shack, but could find no trace of the crustaceans going for a reasonable price. Disillusioned, we drove west, stopping only to grab fish n’ chips shortly before the Canadian border.
There are countless border crossings throughout the world where the less developed nation caters to visitors from the wealthier side of the border by offering dirt-cheap goods and services. Sadly, at the US-1 crossing into Canada, it is our side that plays the part of the impoverished third-world nation, and at a distance of only 100ft from US customs there are situated no fewer than 5 gas stations with large signs proclaiming “Welcome Canadians” with our rock-bottom prices displayed in liters and Canadian dollars. Since the gas in Calais is a good 80 cents/gallon cheaper than anything in St. Stephen or the whole of New Brunswick, hordes of our northern brothers flood our border each day in pursuit of a cheap tank of gas.
Unlike our previous run-ins with the Canadian border guard, the crossing this time around was quick and painless. Without even glancing at our passports, the guard waved us through, and our trunk full of invasive plant and animal species went unquestioned. At the welcome center we picked up a few dozen free temporary tattoos so that we could cover our skin in lobsters, whales, and other prime examples of Canadiacana, and dispel any suspicions that we might be foreigners.
We reached Saint John around sunset and viewed the famed Reversing Falls. Supposedly, at some point during the day, the flow of the water is supposed to change such that a small waterfall is inverted. We did not arrive at this time, but still got a chance to be mesmerized by the bizarre whirlpools and seemingly random flow of the tidal river.
Our campsite for the night was right on the Bay of Fundy, which is world renowned for rising and falling as much as 18 meters in a single cycle, and we wondered whether we might not wake up and find our tent completely submerged. Posted here were several signs reading “POISON: Do not ingest any shellfish from any Fundy waters as they contain deadly paralytic toxins”; naturally, we anxiously awaited the sudden onset of paralysis for several days afterward. In the morning, we explored the St. Martin sea caves which are only accessible at low tide – these would be more aptly described as “big holes in the shore” rather than “caves”, but they made for an interesting hike nonetheless.
Since entering Maine, I had made it a habit to always use a “moose blocker” when speeding down country roads; on our drive toward Fundy National Park, we learned just how essential this was. We were going about 90kph down a lightly traveled road with one car a hundred yards in front of us and another one behind when a large moose galloped out of the surrounding wood and careened into the side of the first car. The driver came to a screeching halt and the moose nonchalantly ambled back into the forest. We stopped to see if they needed help (no injuries or damage besides a dislodged mirror) and the car behind us sped ahead – this was convenient as we just then happened to be in the market for a new moose blocker.
The park was rather uneventful with only one lookout and few other points of interest; fortunately the entrance station was closed and so we avoided the universal $21 per day fee. On the other side, we found a quiet fog-enshrouded beach where a friendly dog served as our guide in a brief tour of the rocky shore. We next visited Cape Enrage, which was a rocky beach and lighthouse operated by around 40 high school and college students who, for a substantial fee, helped people jump off the rocky cliffs (with the proper ropes of course). The final attraction of New Brunswick was a Disneyesque park where you could walk around bizarre, towering rock formations at low tide and kayak around their tips later that same day; despite the fact that we’d seen next to no one on the roads up until then, the parking lot held several hundred cars. Not wanting the pay the $8/person admission, we made spaghetti in the Daffy lot and headed for the next province.
The Nova Scotia visitor center greeted us with bagpipe playing and an exciting rug-hooking demonstration. A two-hour drive brought us to the capital city of Halifax where the lively International Buskers Festival was in full swing. This week-long event had 17 hour-long acts that were repeated on 5 stages for 11 hours an day. The first show we happened upon was a group of break-dancers from Montreal; they displayed ever manner of superhuman spinning, but lacked even the slightest hint of showmanship; the one exception was a lackluster effort to use a crutch-dancing cripple to curry the favor of the crowd.
“Les Vitamins” consisted of a muscular Quebecois gymnast and his horned dwarf. Together, they bounced on exercise balls, tossed each other into the air, and did every manner of high-flying feat. A drummer, who was reputedly a former member of Bring in Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk, held a contest amongst a few audience members, and then made some random guy pay the winning kid 10 bucks out of his own pocket. The Flying Dutchmen perched atop 20 foot unicycles while juggling flaming torches and had the whole audience shout obscenities at the top of their lungs.
In the evening, a navigational blunder led us to a campground in a provincial park some 30 kilometers outside the city. On the way, we crossed a toll bridge where the attendants changed your money but did not take your fare – you were expected to deposit part of the change in a funnel a few feet beyond the booth. This subtlety was lost on me and I proceeded to the gate and patiently waited for it to be raised. The driver behind me noticed I was still there (poised to take off the second he dropped his change in) and sent the attendant up to collect my 75 cents before depositing his own.
In the morning, we went back across the bridge in search of a fort on the western side of the city. We first stopped at a large city park where we picked berries and played in a fountain that had been soapataged by local college students. Further down the road, we happened upon Dingle Tower, which had the feel of an old castle spire and held stone insignias from every member of the commonwealth. The location of the fort was not readily apparent so we headed down another random road to the tiny town of Prospect. This was a picturesque fishing village which had thankfully hid itself from the onslaught of the tourism industry. We scrambled over rocks in search of a deer we had spotted on a nearby island but eventually found our quest cut-off by 100 feet of 50 degree, jellyfish-infested water.
Peggy’s Cove is a quaint fishing village that has been overrun. Large parking lots hold the hundreds of motorists that arrive each hour to experience the local history, view the galleries, climb on the rocks, and send a letter from one of the world’s few post offices housed in a lighthouse. We found a shop that was selling delicious 86 cent soft-serve ice cream and juggled our cones while scaling the nearby seaside boulders.
We drove back to the city where we visited the gardens, dropped by a small natural history museum that was free every Wednesday from 5 to 8, and feasted on tasty split pea and Halibut goo on a bed of injera at an oddly situated Ethiopian restaurant. The rest of the evening was spent taking in an assortment of odd busking acts, including a gay guy from San Francisco who removed a bill from a bear trap with his teeth, a husband/wife team who managed to hula in the same hoop, a faux-Indian magician who transported a woman’s jewelry to a sealed can of creamed corn and a British comic who did Disco in purple spandex and a green wig while juggling small children. The last act of the night was particularly horrendous and involved an Australian space cadet in black leather who held a lengthy conversation with a computerized wizard-of-oz-like voice that commanded him to set things on fire; thankfully, this was cut off halfway through by a rain storm and we got an early start on our drive toward Cape Breton.
The Canadian government is very good about putting little camping signs on the highway wherever camping is available, but beyond the one little icon, they make no indication as to how far it is and provide no further direction on how to reach it. One of these signs led us a good 50km off the highway to a campground that happened to be full. Subsequently we wandered around haphazardly for another 2 hours before happening upon an open site around 2am.
In the morning, we crossed over onto Cape Breton Island and proceeded to the start of the Cabot Trail. Andie and I took to our bikes and arranged for Julie to meet us in a town some 50km up the road. This was truly a memorable experience as each turn held an Acadian village (complete with all-French signage and the requisite boulangerie) or a vista over the spectacular cliffs below. We also encountered one of the creepiest tourist attractions I’ve come across in some time – a local man had designed some 50 scarecrows complete with disturbing masks and individual philosophies printed on small index cards on their chests. Most held hands in a circle while others engaged in any number of activities while a crackly tape player belted out a mournful tune.
When we reached the Cheticamp visitor center, we found that Julie had not yet arrived, and would not for over an hour. Not knowing how long it would take us, she had stopped off at a beach and whiled away some hours fashioning a piece of ceramic dishware out of the ever-present clay. When she did show up, we began to look for some way to occupy ourselves for the evening. A local bar offered a weekly talent show, but since this was not until 9 and none of us had any talents that we were aware of, we instead took off for the Cape Breton Highlands National Park that would shortly be presenting an informative show on bears.
We reached our campground just in time to brush up on our limited knowledge of the black bear. The highlights of the show included a lesson distinguishing springtime bear poop from fall poop, and an extensive library of bear sounds (bear vocalizations can best be described as a mix between a wookie and whippoorwill). The show concluded with an exciting round of bear jeopardy, but we were handily defeated by a group of know-it-all ten-year-olds (who we suspect had already watched the show on a previous evening).
In the morning, the perfect blue skies of the previous day had been replaced with black clouds and an impenetrable fog. We ventured down the beginning of the highly touted skyline trail but soon found it was impossible to see 5 feet in front of us, let alone the rocks and waves a thousand feet below. We saw little wildlife in the park itself but immediately after exiting and continuing into Pleasant Bay, we were treated to an excellent view of a bull-moose munching on someone’s front lawn. The coastal route took us to an excellent clifftop café which served up delicious bowls of clam chowder and offered such treats as oatcakes and tea biscuits. Another few miles took us back into the park and to the start of the Coastal Trail.
Judging from the name of the trail and a map which showed it running right along the coast, we could only surmise that the trail actually went along the coast and provided views of the cliffs and caves that we had seen from across the bay. We soon discovered however, that the first half of trail put us in the midst of a dense forest without so much as a lookout to see the shores beyond. The second half had us stumbling over countless boulders and scaling a number of treacherous crags before depositing us on a pleasant beach with a waterfall. We did not feel like doing the 2.5 hour return trip so we resolved to walk back along the road. Immediately before starting this trudge, we encountered a couple who we had met earlier and had just done the same thing in the opposite direction and was just now returning to their car; they let loose a lengthy lament about how long and boring the return walk had been, but strangely made no offer to save us from doing the same.
With some daylight remaining, we made our way through the rest of the Cabot Trail and drove down the Trans-Canadian toward the mainland. About halfway to the southern end of the island, Julie suddenly noticed that the brakes no longer worked; fortunately, we were only a kilometer from the nearest campground and we used the emergency brake to taxi the rest of the way into our campsite.
In the morning, we went to the only mechanic in town, and after waiting for over 3 hours, learned that he had no idea what was wrong with our car. The pads were fine and the fluid was topped off; for the time being, our brakes seemed to be working again, so we resolved to continue on, making as few stops as possible.
Our next stop was at the not-altogether-impressive attraction of Magnetic Hill in Moncton, New Brunswick. This is a road where an optical illusion allows you to roll “uphill.” We realized after entering the park that there was a $5 admission charge and requested to leave, but the girl at the booth told us we could visit for free if only one of us would take a picture of the staff. So, we drove down the hill and rolled back up (not really worth driving half a kilometer off the highway, let alone 5 bucks) and returned to the start so that Andie could photograph the teenage employees doing various magnet-related acrobatics. Since the entire staff had abandoned their posts, the attraction turned into one big free-for-all and we watched car after car drive up and down the hill as many times as they wished, trying ever trick they could muster to unravel the mystery.
We crossed back into America and proceeded down a dark country road to a campground just outside Bangor. The office was already closed so we drove around looking for an open spot. As we inched along, we came up next to a person in a black cloak, carrying a cauldron by his/her side; this was unsettling enough, but when he/she turned to face us, we beheld not a human face, but a ghoulish mask of fear and death. We were a bit apprehensive about staying after that, but the place seemed popular enough, so we picked out a site and set up camp. As the night progressed, several other costumes and decorations, as well as a few informative signs, soon made it clear that this particular campground was in fact celebrating Halloween in the middle of August; it was truly a shame that we had not had the foresight to bring any costumes on this trip, as we were running desperately low on candy.
In the morning we attended a service at a very impressive gothic-style Congregationalist church and ate cake afterwards to celebrate the 25th wedding anniversary of some parishioners we had never met. We left the highway to experience more of the back roads of Maine. On SR2, we passed through a number of fairly nondescript towns before arriving at one where the sidewalks were covered in blue moose tracks and the residents were in the middle of a lively street fair. We got a bag of cookies and a cucumber for 75 cents and visited a museum full of the same old crap everyone else kept piled in their yards. Traveling a little further down the road, we crossed into Mexico.
Maine’s border with Mexico is considerably less restrictive than those in southwestern states such as Texas and Arizona. It was not necessary to slow below 35 or display a passport, or even a picture ID on entry or exit. Furthermore, this region of Mexico is far cleaner and friendlier than districts like Tijuana and Nuevo Laredo, and tourists are valued to such an extent that the native language of Spanish has been completely replaced with American English on all signs and informational plaques, and the residents have even learned to speak our language with an impeccable northeastern accent.
After many more miles down winding mountain roads, we arrived in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. This region offers dozens of trailheads which seemed to be universally packed with hikers. We did a short stretch of the AT which took us to a rocky ledge, along a pleasant lake, and down to the 65-foot Ellis Falls. We got lost on the return trip but made it out of the park and half-way down the state before nightfall.
We had made it a good ways into the next state when I was pulled over by one of Massachusetts finest. Apparently our right headlight was busted. Andie proceeded to explain that there was actually nothing wrong with the car, but the light just needed to be hit the right way; she got out and began to pound on the hood to no avail. Fortunately the cop was sufficiently amused by this that he let us go with a warning. Not desiring any more encounters of this sort, we pulled off at the first campground, resolving to drive the rest of the way to Florida in Monday’s daylight hours.
The following day, we drove the rest of the way through Massachusetts and Connecticut in practically no time at all. Pennsylvania would not be vanquished so quickly, however, and after driving for two hours, and making little headway, we stopped to get the brakes fixed. They fiddled with various components for an hour and a half before declaring that there was obviously nothing wrong with our car and that Julie clearly must have been delusional when the brakes mysteriously disappeared that night. Content with this explanation, we commenced to drive for another five hours through the state. Heavy showers resulted in wreck after wreck on this mountainous stretch of 81, and we were stopped as often as we were moving. I took over at the Virginia border and drove for 4 hours before handing the wheel over to Julie who had gotten us well into South Carolina when I awoke at 5:30. A few hundred more uneventful miles brought us into Jacksonville right around 10.
And thus we conquered the whole of a coast that, despite its proximity, had eluded me for many years. Unlike the veritable perfection of the weather on the Alaska trip, this 10-day venture was plagued with storm after storm (though it would seem a bit of good fortune that we opted for this over our alternative destination of Peru which was ravaged by deadly earthquakes in the same interval). Julie, like our previous passenger, seemed malcontented for much of the time and frequently demanded that we return to Florida immediately, but it was usually possible to drown her out using her extensive music library. Sadly, the opportunities for American roadtrips beyond this are few and typically not all that intriguing, but as luck would have it, the entire South American continent is in fact linked to Gainesville by road – Tierra del Fuego, here we come!
Me, Andie, Julie and Barry in Philly
Enjoying the city's signature sandwich - or at least the vegetarian version (sans cheese and steak)
Lost in New York
Maybe the Brooklyn Bridge - I really had no idea where we were
Stuck in a cannon at Fort Knox (Maine, not Kentucky)
On the run
Caught in the act (actually this section is for authors whose names start with P, O, R and N)
Almost looks good enough to eat (but not quite)
Losing a few style points
Julie got a boo-boo
New Brunswick sea caves
Random dog that followed us to the beach
I could do that
The Flying Dutchmen are the only act to juggle flaming torches while riding a 20-foot unicycle
Dancing in the street
Julie didn't seem entirely thrilled with our latest hike
Holding up the mountain
Andie in the dungeon
Top of Cadillac Mountain
Biking down Cadillac
The somewhat crazy Beehive Trail
Yet another lobster pound that we couldn't afford
Andie putting detergent in a fountain
Andie with her latest kill
Andie butchering the flowers
Strangest tourist trap ever
High-tech sound system
I'm the Indian!
Some sort of bird
Andie in a traditional Scottish hut
Would make a great car commercial
Climbing in the White Mountains