Dunvegan to Englishtown, NS, via the Cabot Trail – Waking up by the ocean where I could’ve stayed forever, I pack my tent and continue north to the beginning of the Cabot Trail. Locals warn trail pilgrims like myself to have good brakes for the drive which winds and wraps for 105 kilometers (60 miles) around the north end of Cape Breton Highlands National Park.
I pay an entrance fee and begin the drive down the reddish road which is edged with at least three stories of foliage. The first town on the loop is Chiticamp (pronounced SHIT-ee-camp). In one of the small shops which lines the main street, I purchase lotion made from local goats’ milk and ask about the best place (that’s not Tim Hortons) to get a cup of coffee. A blond woman who is fascinated that I’m driving alone says, “Shit, if I had time, I’d join you but you want to go to the Green Frog down the way out of town. Claudia is the name of the woman who runs it. Great coffee.”
Chiticamp is known for rug-hooking and, after I spoil myself with espresso and French pastries, I walk to a gallery. Stunning rugs of all designs and colors hang on the walls. Yards of wool thread are twisted and hooked to a burlap backer. Locals used to make only striped rugs but now experiment with their own designs. I bought a small coaster with a bright oak leaf design before taking to the road.
At Pleasant Bay, the road turns inland, leaving the coast for the forest again. I have my heart set on reaching the end of the island. On the map, the farthest point northeast is Meat Cove, a 17-kilometer long jaunt down Bay St. Lawrence Road which is currently being repaved. I wait 20 minutes next to a very bored flagger. The woman at the visitor center didn’t think I’d be able to reach the village of Ingonish (pronounced enny-ga-NOOSH), where I hoped to find a place to camp) before dark if I took this detour but something in me must go.
When I was in Madison, WI, I realized that I had an extra week for traveling. I could spend a week in Ohio before heading down to Georgia, or I could head east across Canada to the Maritimes. The Olympics were in full swing, the BBC came in loud and clear, and, going for the gold, I decided to drive. Reaching the Maritimes, I set small goals – a ceiladh, a bike ride and local beer, camping on the beach, and now driving to the ends of the earth, as far from Washington as possible to cast my lot for a new life into the Atlantic Ocean.
The hot asphalt of the construction stank when they finally let me drive to the end of the road, at the end of a cement dock, at the end of the island next to the sea. I stepped out to stretch, surprised that I couldn’t see the Meat Cove lighthouse. The dock formed the edge of a narrow channel that spilled into a quiet cove. Across the channel, a cliff rose to become a grassy slopping hill.
A couple from Quebec pulled out a bottle of water and a bottle of wine but stopped to ask if I really was from Washington and traveling alone. His occupation was long-haul trucking. He appreciated my route. She was a ballet teacher but currently a caregiver for her mother in France. She appreciated my heart.
I snapped a few photos and left, waiting again for the pavers and rollers to make way for us tourists. We crept behind the detour truck and then I noticed a sign for Meat Cove off to the right. The Harleys in front of me turned right. No wonder I didn’t see the lighthouse – I was on the wrong side of the channel. I missed the turn because a paver had been blocking the Meat Cove turn-off on my way in. I’d only reached the small town of Capstick. All the cars and motorcycles I’d joined on the way in were determined to reach the northeasterly point. Suddenly, I was the only one following the detour truck, the only one not going to Meat Cove, the only one going back. I waved to the last flagger and turned on the radio, listening to nothing as it scanned through all the stations, landing on the same two over and over.
There comes a point when you’ve gone so far carrying hope for a place to answer all the questions of your travels that when the place doesn’t answer, you simply accept the quiet, turn around, and find a campground.
Meat Cove was to be my Olympic moment. I had planned some ritual for days where I would roll blessed mustard seeds representing worries between my fingers and throw them into the sea. I would sip wine and sit on the land where waves rumbled below. I would feel lighter once I reached the end of the earth under my own competence and endurance. I would escape the pressures of home and family with a capital “F”. I would suddenly choose who I am and what expectations I would allow in my life, or not. I’d throw to the tide all things disappointing, hurtful, shameful, and worrisome. Then the breeze would catch my hair and I would begin to glow. Tiny little Roman Candle sparklers would shoot off from my fingers as I stood on the edge of the cliff and declared to the Atlantic Ocean and all the world that from now on this was my new life.
Instead I stopped at the side of a semi-sheltered driveway where the hot air reeked like fresh pavement and exhaust. I have a bad habit of ending up in traffic with a full bladder and rushed to relieve myself. At least all the cars turned off to Meat Cove so I didn’t have to be too sheltered. Sweet relief, until I realized I forgot about cars coming from the other direction. Just past midstream, I saw I would soon be able to make out their faces and grabbed for my pants, trying to look like I’d lost a hubcap. For the love! They of course slowed down considerably to see what I was looking at up the drive (a moose?!) while I stood there, obviously tying my drawstring. Reject of my own now-wet pants, I climbed back into the car.
What had I carried this far and why didn’t I feel lighter? Was it that I didn’t reach the place I intended? Even if I’d reached Meat Cove on a second try, would I still feel the stars lined up perfectly for transformation?
I pulled over to take a picture of a moose on the side of the road. Things were the same, I thought, I’m just a little farther down the road. I hardly noticed when I drove down the Cape Smokey grade, reportedly the steepest grade in North America (some say 12, some 15%). The thing I knew most was that the car smelled like wet tent, the sun was getting lower, the places I stopped for cottages were pricey, and I wanted a day to regroup and dry out.
I pulled into a campground west of Sydney and said I needed a cabin for drying out my gear and then directions to the nearest liquor store. The manager said she’d give me a discount if I would pick up Smirnoff Ice Raspberry Coolers for her. I ran the errand and settled onto the porch swing to sip wine. My tent hung wet over the railing. I ate baguette with peanut butter and a banana for dinner or maybe that’s when I finished half-a-round of Brie and a cucumber. I read Ahab’s Wife about women and whaling and wailing and love.
I had planned to make it to the end of the earth on Cape Breton Island. I had planned to camp the entire road-trip and not stay in cabins. I had planned to make my own rituals and traditions, my own burning sage to clear the air. I planned to glow! Instead my epic pilgrimage ended at the wrong mecca. Night settled around me and all was very quiet except my tent flapping in the breeze. I’m conceding the gold, I thought. There is not always an Olympic moment.
NPR covered a story about bronze medal winners and determined that their level of happiness is higher than those who win the silver. In fact, Nasser Al-Attiyah, the first medal winner from Qatar who won bronze in skeet shooting, was pleased with himself. He’d just won the Dakar Rally in Argentina and told NPR reporters that he really didn’t practice as much as he could’ve but plans to practice more for Rio if he has time. The bronze medal was a bonus and, as the reporter pointed out, in Qatar shooting is simply a way of life. It’s like winning a medal because your heart is beating. And if you happen to win a bronze because you’re living your life, well, there’s a different thrill of victory. Call it congruency. It turns out that for the people who win bronze, happiness is being able to stand on the podium.