It was a perfect day for a road trip: bright sun on an azure ocean reflecting a cerulean sky. A day like this is not to be taken lightly in soggy Newfoundland.
Julia and I had started early from Cow Head campground at the north end of Gros Morne National Park. We were heading up the Viking Trail to where the road ends in the cold Atlantic at L’anse aux Meadows.
This is the only place in North America that is an authentic, bona fide, expert-approved spot where the Vikings landed in the New World 500 years before Columbus. Thus, it is also a UNESCO World Heritage site at the north end of the Viking Trail. Since Gros Morne is the UNESCO site at the south end, travelers on the Viking Trail get a two-fer.
I had informed my friends, who were traveling with us, that I probably couldn’t make the trip to L’anse aux Meadows in a day.
“But it’s only 200 miles,” they said, slightly dumbfounded.
“Yeah, that’s what I’m saying. Two hundred miles. Can’t make it in a day.”
“Really, it won’t be that hard. You can do it.”
“Not so sure.”
So they took off, promising to save us a campsite for whenever we showed up, and my daughter was stuck traveling, once again, at a tortoise pace.
The Viking Trail runs the length of Newfoundland’s Great Northern Peninsula, mostly hugging the coast. The road turns inland eventually, branching into tiny arteries that reach most of the tiny coves and bays scattered along the island’s northernmost coast. (The rest are only accessible by boat.)
This stretch of highway is quintessential Newfoundland, just like I imagined it. The Long Range Mountains to the east aren’t spectacular, but they have a certain lumpy beauty with their feet in the bog and their heads in the mist–like some people. Tiny villages that still live precariously by what they catch or what they scrounge are strung along the coast: Flower’s Cove. River of Ponds. Deadmans Cove. Nameless Cove. On and on.
Firewood in all stages of readiness is stacked along the highway. Each family has its own pile, and pilfering is unthinkable—the ultimate act of betrayal, like stealing your widowed mother’s wedding ring. Firewood for the following year is gathered in the winter on sledges pulled by snowmobiles. Newfoundland has no hardwoods forests, and the fir is spindly–no splitting required. I imagine the stuff burns fast with lots of creosote. If you wander into a village on a chilly morning (even in August), the air is redolent with woodsmoke.
In some places trees are becoming scarce, which means folks have to travel farther to find firewood, and gas is obscenely expensive in Newfoundland. So, life is as it has always been on the island—between a rock and a hard place.
I also began to see the ditch gardens. These are small garden plots beside the road that are fenced against the critters and planted mostly in root vegetables. While the island is rampantly green, a proper garden is hard to come by, what with the peaty soil and short, foggy summers. I never saw a tomato or sweet corn plant in all of Newfoundland.
We made it to our provincial campground late in the afternoon. It had been an easy drive. And that’s unfortunate because you tend to blast by the little villages and coves since the destination is so alluringly close. But it’s also possible that, aside from their quaint-ish appearance, the villages don’t offer much to stop for.
We pulled into Pistolet Provincial Park with that delicious tired-but-refreshed feeling of a good day on the road. As with all Canadian parks, provincial or national, Pistolet is delightful and perfectly positioned to explore the tip of the peninsula.
We backed into our campsite without issue or incident, and I sauntered over to our friends.
“I wish you’d told me this would be such an easy drive,” I said.
Next: Before Columbus there was Leif.