The tiny scratch meanders aimlessly across the map until it bumps into an impassable something: an ocean or a chasm or a tractless waste.
What’s at the road’s end? Does someone live there? Is it awesomely beautiful or does it whimper away like a deer track in the woods?
A road not followed to its end feels like an unfinished book or a fizzled relationship. Stop now? When I’m so close?
Some books, of course, aren’t worth finishing. Some relationships need to fizzle. And some roads end in disaster. You have to choose your books, your relationships, and your roads carefully.
I’d heard that the squiggle of a road that turns north in the middle of Cape Breton Island National Park until it bumps into the ocean was worth the detour.
Meat Cove lies at the end of the road, and Bay St Lawrence is a little jog to the north of that–a tiny fishing village where I’d heard there was a whale-watching outfit.
I’d been checking out whale cruises all throughout the Gaspé, but I’d always chickened out in the end. They were either too expensive or the weather was uncooperative (why watch for whales when you can’t see the end of your nose in the fog?). But usually, I was just indecisive.
What to do when you don’t know what to do?
So Julia and I had moved on across several hundred miles, and now we’d reached the end of yet another coastal road. Another fishing village. Another harbor.
The office of Oshan Whale Watch was a humble dome atop a small knoll overlooking the harbor. Two-hour cruises were $30 per person, about half the cost of the cruises I’d seen heretofore. Plus, if we booked a cruise, they’d let me park for the night in the parking lot.
This probably wasn’t a big deal—I later discovered that Captain Cyril let the local teens use his parking lot as a hangout. He’d even let them warm up in his office on cold nights.
“Nothing is locked,” he said. “They don’t do any harm.”
Having already seen those same kids tossing beer cans out the car window, I wasn’t so sure.
“You probably party with them,” I said.
“Well, sometimes I come up, but the marijuana isn’t what it used to be, and I want to keep what’s left of my memory.”
“Don’t you have police here?”
“We have enough. Wouldn’t want too much of the law around.”
All this was said with a chuckle and a hint of Gaelic lilt.
Despite the humor, this outfit had to clear another hurdle before I’d fork over my cash.
What whales were they actually seeing out there on that cerulean sea? I did NOT want to chug around the bay and come back without whales on my SD card, so I hung around the dock until the morning cruise returned.
“It was amazing,” the passengers gushed. “There were pods of pilot whales all around the boat. One even went under the boat. It was totally worth it.”
I reserved our spots, leveled the trailer, and we waited for the next cruise.
Captain Cyril is the archetype of the Gaelic Canadian—lithe, charming, soft-spoken with an unidentifiable lilt. His half-muttered ad libs were hilarious. His daughter Cheryl was first mate on the boat–the sharp, young eyes that can spot a fin against a glittering sea at half a mile.
It was late afternoon. The little boat gently cut the gray, sun-dappled water. The afternoon was warm and windless, and but for the boat motor, almost silent. I decided that, even if there were no whales, just being on the water was delight enough.
Then the whales came. It wasn’t heartstopping–pilot whales are smallish creatures, like large dolphins. Dorsal fins rose at random moments and silk-slick bodies curled above the waves. In the silence, I heard the whoosh of breath as they breached the water. They didn’t stop to play or to check us out. They were intent on where they were going and didn’t really care that we were there. And they were, indeed, all around the boat.
Gradually, the whales had all gone by, and Captain Cyril, still keeping a gentle patter going, chugged back to the village, stopping once to drop a jigline that he bobbed in the water for a few minutes.
When he pulled it up, three mackerel were twisting on the string.
“If you eat them fresh, mackerel are some of the best fish you’ll ever taste,” he said.
I wasn’t sure. I always thought of mackerel as the cheap, junk fish that I ate canned on toast with mayo in my starving-student days.
“Anybody want them?” he asked as we began to leave the boat.
“How would I clean them?”
Within minutes he had them gutted and cleaned, and I had silvery fillets in hand.
Dinner and a cruise. Not bad.
The sun dipped behind the village, and a pink cloud draped its arm across the hills. Captain Cyril closed up his office (which amounted to shutting the door), and we chatted.
He has lived in this tiny place his whole life. His sisters moved to Montreal and Toronto, but the big city wasn’t the place for him. His family has fished these waters for five generations.
“Being on the water is like an addiction,” he said. “You have to have it every day.”
I sent Julia to put the fish in the trailer’s refrigerator.
“She’s my go-fer,” I explained.
“She’s a beautiful girl,” he said.
“She is.” And perhaps because I was thinking nostalgically about how utterly beautiful all young people are, I added, “I was too at her age.”
And he said, “You still are.”
I’m not. Not any more. But I ask you, what sweeter thing could be said to a woman who can no longer see youth in the rearview mirror? Who can hardly even see the rearview mirror?
The fish were good. Maybe as good as our freshwater walleye. Not better than deep sea cod. But a lovely meal after a delicious day, nonetheless.
In the morning, Julia and I headed around the bay and over the hill toward the true end of the road—Meat Cove.
* * *
Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. Today, Roman Catholics go to mass and are marked with a cross of ashes on the forehead. The words accompanying this anointing are, “Remember that you are dust and unto dust you shall return.”
The older I am the more meaningful this rite becomes. I can feel that I am closer to dust. What do I still need to do while I am still sentient and breathing? What work is left unfinished? And more importantly, whom do I want to be? What unfinished work is left on my soul and psyche?
* * *
PS. The Cabot Trail through Cape Breton Island National Park was one of the most spectacular—and accessible—drives I’ve ever done. (Alaska doesn’t count as accessible, though it does count as spectacular.) I’ve posted an album on my wanderingnotlost.org Facebook page from the Cabot Trail drive. While you’re there, check out my other albums: Death Valley, Zion National Park, the Anza Borrego, and New York City.
I’d love it you’d “like” the page. This introvert needs friends, folks. Don’t make me beg.