You Find it in the Land, You Find it in the People
Written by Issa Breibish » Wednesday, August 22nd, 2012
Sometimes it’s the scenery. It’s an unexpected view that arrives after a long corner and takes our breath away. It fills our visors, widens our eyes and leaves us feeling small in the presence of something truly grand and remarkable. Other times it’s people. They can be such a beacon of light and, at times, the opposite. Throughout Canada we’ve met wonderful folks who are going about their business – whether it’s travel, activism, commerce or aid – who’ve embraced us, our journey, our non-profit (Lost for Good Project) and shared wonderful moments with us along the way. I think we can honestly say, we’re constantly surrounded by kindness and warmth. Sure there was the one wierdo in Montréal who seemed to think Nita was stealing trinkets from his store – but he was more creepy than bad. And, really, it takes all kinds.
After a day that starts with breakfast at the wonderful Les Déjeuners du Bec and features an impromptu French lesson with a glorious woman who looks to be in her mid-seventies, and an afternoon wandering the waterfront, we return to our room and discover an email from a complete stranger.
My boyfriend and I were admiring your bikes… (we) would be happy to serve you dinner or just chat around a beer”
To say that we’re moved by the invite is an understatement. We’re honestly surprised at the interest our journey creates, and we love the effect it has on the people we meet. Nita and I have been riding through rain and fog for a week, and we need time to regroup and recharge. I also have to write, as the backlog of days is starting to weigh on me. So after much discussion we politely turn down the offer – which I certainly struggle with. I think it takes courage to invite someone into your home (vacation rental or not) and offer up a home-cooked meal. Still, our energy is low and we have an early start the next day. I have a feeling our company will be strained rather than the typical energy we’d like to invest. Still, we’d really like to thank Genevieve again!
The next morning is our last in Québec, off of La Gaspésie, and an early start for New Brunswick. I wasn’t sure what to expect in this province – to be honest we don’t hear a lot from New Brunswick out west. The breakdown of Canadian regions is often perceived along the lines of: The West (places with mountains), The Prairies (places with straight roads), The East (places with lakes), and The Atlantic Provinces (places with salt water). And, when we think of the Atlantic Provinces, we seem to neglect New Brunswick altogether. Yet this province is fantastic! Our best night on the trip so far is spent in Tracadie-Sheila – and it’s everything I hope a party night on the eastern side of this wonderful country would be.
As a side note, I love the renegade natures of Québec, New Brunswick and Newfoundland. While all are an integral part of what defines Canada today, historically all resisted confederation and have different cultural roots that seem to result in a rebellious disposition – both politically and in the people.
We cross the massive bridge from Québec into New Brunswick (imaginatively called “The Interprovincial”) and wander tight, winding ‘B’ roads through the eastern section of the province. As we deviate from the major roads we’re flanked by houses waving the Acadian flag. And not “on occasion.” Almost every house has a flag waving in the still-chilly wind. And if it’s not a flag then it’s adirondack chairs painted as the flag, or perhaps a garage door. The pride in Acadian culture here is intense. As outsiders, we definitely don’t feel excluded in any way, shape or form. In fact the exact opposite can be said.
On our second night in Tracadie-Sheila we revisit a restaurant that was recommended to us – O Vieux Phare. Our first visit was exactly what we needed – good food and friendly staff. As we enter the second night, it’s owner Mario introduces himself and his warmth is immediately apparent. “We’re having music for the first time!” We let him know we’re excited to hear the gents from Montréal and tuck in to our meals.
As the band is about to play, Mario introduces them – Jean Papineau and Grecco. Then, to our surprise, he introduces us to the packed restaurant! We feel spoiled, slightly rockstar-ish and a little self-conscious. We chat with folks from tables around the joint and then settle into watching the band – who are great. As the night progresses Mario continues to return to us, making sure everything is good and sharing a laugh. He’s got a warm heart and punctuates every question with a hand on the shoulder which reminds me of my closest friends.
When the band wraps, we sit with Jean and Grecco, Mario and Jean’s wife. With a guitar firmly in Jean’s hands we close the restaurant singing classic songs, sharing tales, and a drink or two. Jean offers Nita his guitar, and for the first time in 6 years I hear her sing a complete song! It’s a night we won’t soon forget. With the evening drawing to a close Mario gives us his phone number and tells us that we’re welcome to stay with him, his wife Sylvia and Joël his son, should we have any problems finding a place to stay after PEI. Jean ups the ante by offering up a friend outside of Paris who has a place we can stay at while visiting *and* a meetup next time we’re in Montréal! It’s just another random kindness that shows the best of who we can be. Again, we feel so lucky.
In the morning we say goodbye to Tracadie-Sheila. We also say goodbye to what has been an increasingly French-only Canada. Whereas Montréal and Québec are very accessible for English-only speakers, La Gaspésie and this area in New Brunswick are almost exclusively French. We love it – being forced to speak another language is a great way to learn and we’ve been consistently treated with kindness and patience.
The sun is out, which is a great relief. The fog and rain had started to break in Tracadie-Sheila but today, on our way to the Confederation Bridge that links mainland Canada to Prince Edward Island, the sun decided to make a lasting appearance. I’ve been looking forward to PEI since we started planning our trip. I knew a spritely man in his mid-nineties that headed west from PEI in the 1930’s. He was the type of man who, at 95, offered to help me out of a van and always had the nurses checking his age on his drivers license at the hospital. His energy somehow defined PEI for me and I was excited to see the land that shaped and grew a man that was so alive.
Confederation Bridge is a marvel. It took 5 years to build, cost over a billion dollars and spans a nearly 13km gap. As you approach it, it rises steeply like a monster from the water, but in actuality it’s gentle turns are inviting. After about 5 minutes we see a kink to the west and one of the only opportunities to see it’s beauty from the bridge itself. Off it stretches to the shores of PEI. “Over there.” As the 12 minute trip ends I notice a spot to the east where we can take it in. Off the bridge, a right turn as everyone else heads straight, through a parking lot filled with drying seaweed (quite the smell), and over a small gravel road. In front of us the bridge disappears toward the mainland. It’s beautiful.
The first unmistakeable trait of PEI is it’s red dirt. The roads that stray off of the Trans-Canada like tendrils are a deep, inviting red that, in this first stretch, all lead to beaches. The landscape is also unique to this region. It’s flatter here, with rolling hills that feel more Welsh than Canadian. The roads are quiet and we flow with the undulations until Charlottetown.
About 15 minutes from our home for the next few days we notice a car speeding up, slowing down, speeding up, pulling next to us, then shooting off. I realize that the woman in the passenger seat is trying to take our pictures! At the next set of lights the window rolls down – “I didn’t get my picture!” She snaps a shot, smiles a big smile and disappears down the road.
At the hotel, the wait for a room is long and the Concierge apologizes. “My co-worker is late unfortunately.” It’s not a problem. We get the room sorted and as I walk outside the picture-taking woman pulls up. Her boyfriend, is the tardy concierge! BUSTED. We share a good laugh and, while we unpack the bikes, he gets to work.
Washed and refreshed, we walk through Charlottetown and, assess our food, drink and exploring options – which is our normal M.O., when arriving in a place we’ll get to spend time in. On this walk I notice a poster for Oliver Jones and Ranee Lee playing tonight at the theatre. As a jazz musician, Oliver has been a hero of mine for years and one I’ve yet to see. While I’m certain there’ll be no tickets available for the show Nita insists on checking. A late cancellation coughs up two cheap tickets – in the front row! We spend the night mesmerized by the facility of this 78 year old man. He’s still sharp and playful. His drummer, Jim Doxas is also mesmerizing – his quirky nature and abandon are beautiful to watch.
Charlottetown itself is a jewel filled with excellent restaurants and a great, great coffee shop – Young Folk and the Kettle Black. In Tracadie-Sheila, Mario’s son Joël (a chef), recommends The Gahan House which doesn’t disappoint and becomes our go-to for food. The old city is walkable and folks are about doing their business. We stop by the firehouse and chat with some of the boys after noticing an FDNY shirt on their wall. They’ve a restored 1929 “American La France” Engine and have it on display in-front of the station and they offer up the seats for a pic . We definitely feel like tourists but can’t pass up the offer! The engine is amazing – and the fact that it’s chain-driven only makes it more appealing. I ask one of the lads how many calls they get per day. “One, usually,” and, as if choreographed, the alarm sounds. The crew jump into action – a BBQ has exploded and the house is now on fire. In moments everyone’s gone and we’re standing alone in the hall. Amazing.
In keeping with the theme of uniformed folks, our walk by the water leads us to a park with a police motorcycle parked in it. I’ve had a fascination with police bikes since I was a child and I always chat with their riders if they’re approachable. Today though, the bike is drawing people in for an entirely different cause – the Military Family Services Program, an organization that helps families of deployed and fallen troops. We’re quickly greeted by Charlene who has a wonderful laugh. She spends some time letting us know about their programs, and introduces us a fantastic woman who lost her son in Afghanistan. As we say our goodbyes Charlene lets us know that if we ever get into trouble, anywhere, they know people – with helicopters! It’s a generous offer I hope we never need to take her up on – but one we’re grateful for.
On our last full day in PEI we headed north for a circle-route around the central island. PEI is small enough to make a day trip out of most of this area, through Stanhope (and it’s famous lodge), the National Park beaches, Cavendish, and Rustico. The Sun’s in full bloom without a cloud to block it and, with Nita on the back of my bike, it’s a perfect day – though not for everyone. By New Glasgow we see an old pick-up driven by an ancient man that’s clipped a rental car and taken off it’s rear quarter. As dramatic as that accident appeared it’s nothing compared to the Boler camper that’s gone airborne into some trees a little further down the same road. Nestled between the brush about 10 feet from the road, the car pulling it somehow stays curbside and no-one is hurt. The trailer’s a complete write-off. Needless to say, as quiet as the roads are, there’s enough action to keep us on our toes!
After 3 fantastically refreshing nights at the Rodd Charlottetown, the ferry at Wood Islands is waiting to take us to Nova Scotia – our second-last province. About 2 km from the port I hear “OUCH!” over the headset. A wasp has tangled itself in Nita’s scarf and bites her three times before she dispatches the little bugger. That’s the first sting on the trip and hopefully the last for a bit.
When we arrive at the port we see that this ferry is, by far, the largest we’ve been on. Dockside we meet some bicyclists that are pedalling from Vancouver, BC to Halifax, NS! And people think what we’re doing is hard… The group, GrassRoutes, is fundraising and presenting to youth groups to raise awareness regarding environmental issues – worth checking out. Unlike the game of Tetris we witnessed at Les Escumins, this ship is loading a ton of logging trucks and requires us to tie-down our own bikes. We carry our own straps and spend a few minutes getting the logistics all figured out. It’s easy stuff but there’s always a little stress associated with new processes. Once aboard the ferry we meet a couple of riders, Vernon and Gord. Vernon just picked up his new Ducati Monster 1100 EVO and to say he’s quietly proud would be an understatement! I spend the trip chatting with the pair, while Nita talks to a lovely couple of ladies, Deb and Jen, a pair of sisters who moved to opposite coasts after school.
It’s their first trip together since parting and their energy is palpable! They’re in their mid-50′s and -60′s, still trying to figure out what they want to be when they grow up. We’ve had folks interested in our adventure but these two definitely win the award for most interested. We have a sneaking suspicion that they’re formulating their own travel-plan for the future! We offer up some cards and a pin for their amazing little pup, Harley, which they promise to wear.
Close to disembarking, Vernon mentions that he’s worried about running out of gas, and since we’re packing extra fuel we offer to follow him to the station – just in case – and we need fuel anyways. The trip is literally 10 minutes out of the way but the pair insist on filling us up on their dime! A final random act of kindness on this stretch of travel. We thankfully accept and ride a ways together on the Trans-Canada before saying our goodbyes. Antigonish is calling and our campsite for the night is waiting.
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