A Road Twice Taken

October 2, 2012

Words by // Photography by Nita Breibish

The morning in St. Anthony starts quite nicely. The sun is shining, the breeze is cool and we have a wonderful light for the days trip back to Cow Head (or Cow ‘ead). However, by the time we haul our bags down the two flights of stairs and load the bikes, a mass of clouds starts to obscure the sun in a way that seems to confirm the forecast: rain all day. With drops of rain dotting our visors, we skip breakfast in town, hit the road and settle in for a long day.

Crossing inland we begin to feel a jet of air hitting us from the northwest. The rain clouds are passing quickly and blue breaks in the sky start to form around us. At first we’re happy to see the rain go, but as we start heading south we quickly discover that rain is the lesser of two evils.  As harsh as the wind had been heading north two days ago, this wind is far more violent. We’re blown one way then the next, until it becomes a persistent gale blowing us toward the middle of the road. The bike leans, our heads snap back and forth, and we work against it. Then, suddenly, it changes into something that feels like a flurry of punches. On and on it goes, for hours.

Since landing in Newfoundland (and even before) we’ve been hearing about the moose – it seems as though everyone has a story about someone who’s tangled with a moose here. An hour out of St. Anthony, just as we’re beginning to think we won’t see one, I spot a female moose standing regally atop a 10 foot ridge. The sound of us shifting causes her to look at us with a very smug face indeed. I point her out to Nita and we decide to leave her be. She’s fantastic though and I find myself happy to have skipped the burger! The next moose I’d see would be a bull with a huge rack of antlers, in the back of a pick-up truck; a prize for a group of hunters.

Even with the rumbling of our stomachs we don’t stop. We’re tired but we definitely feel like it would be harder to start again than to just finish the days journey. The view is compelling; large waves break hard against the rock that lines the coast and the birds even seem to stick mid-air, powerless against the wind. Heavy clouds are starting to move in from Labrador and with them they start to bring the rain.

As the rain begins to fall the winds begin to ease. That seems to be the trade-off in Newfoundland at the moment – you can have sun and wind, or rain and still. We somehow manage to skirt the impending storm long enough to make it to Cow Head only slightly damp. We feel and unreasonable amount of euphoria about this fact. Our necks and shoulders are incredibly sore but our spirits are high.

Immediately after seeing “Cod on a Stick” a couple of days ago at the Gros Morne Theatre Festival, we purchased tickets for this evenings show – “Newfoundland Vinyl.” The actors in this festival participate in a number of plays with two different shows a night in neighboring theatres. Most of the actors from “Cod on a Stick” are also in “Newfoundland Vinyl” and we know we’re in for a great night. Rather than a musical, the actors are simply a band and the venue becomes a bar with the story of the two Ed’s unfolding between songs. The crowd laughs start to finish and again; we’re so impressed with the calibre of the actors and musicianship.

After the play, we relive it in the pub as the actors filter into an open mic night. The bartender from two nights ago is singing songs very well, then makes room for actors as they perform songs for the crowd. It’s a wonderful way to spend the night!

The next morning, we run into Rory Lambert and Sandy Gow who play two of our favorite characters in both of the Gros Morne Theatre Festival productions. We thank them for their work and they seem genuinely grateful that we’d take the time to let them know. After some time interrupting their breakfast (sorry!) we find out that we’re just missing them in St. Johns but they recommend a couple of places for us visit along the way. Just lovely.

Moments after the bikes are loaded the rain begins. While hurricane Issac is still thinking about battering the southeast, a large storm-front has moved in from the west and has finally settled above much of Newfoundland. We retrace our steps through Gros Morne, but it’s beauty is shrouded in heavy clouds and a thickening curtain of rain.

We rejoin the Trans-Canada highway at Deer Lake and press on towards Grand Falls-Windsor eager to get inside. The rain is belting down now; it’s one of the heaviest rainfalls we’ve ridden in. While we’re dry and mostly warm (I remembered my Gore-Tex socks today!), our visors are fogging up regularly and the frequent splash of oncoming semis creates moments of utter blindness. Finally, about an hour from our destination we have to stop.

Almost instantly, I feel sorry for the owners of the tiny diner we walk into. We create a huge puddle that makes a run straight for the tables of other customers. They’re incredibly friendly though, and he quickly runs up behind me with a mop.

“I’m so, so sorry.” I say. “Not a problem at all. Please sit down and dry off!” is his reply.

He has a warm smile and is sure to make us feel at home. He’s amazed that we can ride in this weather. The young waitress is also lovely and is soon bringing us coffee and some warm soup. It’s a perfect break. On the TV there’s a DVD playing that seems to be a homemade family music video – it all feels very good in here. Outside, the bikes are now sitting in about 5 inches of water.

A brief easing of the rain gives us enough time to make it to the Hotel Robin Hood in Grand Falls-Windsor where we lay our heads for the night. We’re beat and it feels like heaven. Even more heavenly is the forecast for the next few days: no rain.

The morning is overcast and chilly. Every ounce of us is hoping for a better day than the previous. Our gear is almost dry which starts things off on the right foot but the skies are threatening so we rush to load the bikes. We head back to the Trans-Canada and stop for breakfast in Gander at the local Tim Hortons. We’re met by a couple of guys who couldn’t seem more different from one another. One seems funny, if a little off his rocker, and insists we’re not bikers. “Is that a GPS? What the hell is that? What are you wearing? You’re not bikers – we’d do a trip with a bottle of something in our pocket. No helmets.” We smile – it’s not the first time we’ve heard this dialogue either. He does seem genuinely interested in the bikes though and he’s got a great smile.

His friend, Bob, is quieter and also has a kind demeanor. We chat briefly then head inside. As we grab our food Bob comes into the Tim Hortons. “I’ll grab something to eat and sit with you.” He’s picked up his bike from home and parked it next to ours. He’s riding a lovely Chang Jiang BMW R71 replica. As he gets his food we watch throngs of folks gather around his bike. It’s quite the head turner and he rides it daily which is pretty sweet.

Over lunch we mention that Nita’s side-stand needs to get chopped – it’s too long for her lowered bike. Bob offers up a friend for our trip back but we’re pretty certain that making the ferry in Port aux Basques will make it an impossible stop. It’s unfortunate since the person we’ve lined up in Nova Scotia, Mad Fabrication, will prove to be a no-show. After lunch, Bob joins us on the highway for a while before sharing a wave and turning off.

As we head east, the wind starts to whip itself into a furor, only proving our original thoughts regarding weather here: rain or wind. The landscape is changing again as we close in on St. Johns with the heavily tree-lined roads of Terra-nova National Park giving way to open and rugged terrain. The ocean is back in view and with it violent winds that batter us senseless until we reach the city.

It’s been 11 straight riding days and our bodies are tired and sore from the weather. We need a few days off and we’re happy to take them in St. Johns. Nita’s birthday is also quickly approaching and since we’re not exactly sure where we’re going to be, we spring for a nice hotel here and settle in for a few days.

The hotel we settle on is the Murray Premises, right in the heart of downtown. Some confusion with our room ends with an upgrade to an absolutely stunning suite. At times, luck and patience have a way of rewarding a traveller right when they need it. We haul our gear to our room and almost instantly crash. We only leave our room for dinner at the Yellowbelly Brewery, on the recommendation of Rory and Sandy from the Gros Morne Theatre Festival.

We chat with the bartender and discover he’s just returned from a 3 month trip through southeast Asia. He’s a nice guy – though his co-workers call him a “perv” after he flirts with a waitress. Actually, the waitress recognizes us from Cow Head! It turns out she was there with her boyfriend to see the shows and hike Gros Morne as well. It’s all in good fun though and there are plenty of smiles to be had.

The room is calling and we’re in no position to resist. Tomorrow we meet up with Fran and Sean whom we met in Cow Head.

In the morning we’re reminded of how terrible our gear smells. The boots have been wet for a while now and even the cuffs on our jackets and pants are starting to get sour. After a coffee, I begin a regimen of inserting hairdryers into various bit’s of kit and letting it run until it throws a breaker. Wait and repeat. This is part of our new reality – the glamorous life! Also, did I mention that laundry day is now one of my favorite days?

Rather than a peaceful night’s sleep, the exodus of drunks and some guy screaming into a mic until 4am keeps me up. At 3am, I start watching people flop messily about the streets, stopping to pee on cars and buildings, unable to walk more than 10 feet without falling. It’s amateur hour on the streets. Ah, we’re 2 blocks from the infamous George Street. Now it all makes sense. Two exceptionally intoxicated drunk girls, dressed like mirror-balls, take about 90 minutes to walk, fall, and roll their way half a block until a friend finally picks them up. Slowly, over the course of an hour, the streets fall quiet.

We spend the next day walking the streets of St. Johns. It’s an interesting place filled with history, great restaurants and lovely buildings. As we walk, the Pogues version of “Dirty Old Town” plays over and over; it’s a song that doesn’t feel entirely out of place. It does feel a bit dirty here. There’s garbage in the streets and a food truck called “Long Dicks Sausage Emporium.” We see young men honk and cat-call women frequently from the safety of their moving cars, while old men seem to leer as ladies walk by with an almost palpable bitterness in their eyes. Even after Nita’s photo-walk, she comments on a general feeling of unease in the city. Nothing is subtle here, yet somehow it all fits into what St. Johns is.

Our friends, Fran and Sean, meet up with us at the Duke of Duckworth, a little pub that serves up “famous” fish and chips. Sean double-checks that they’re as good as advertised with the waitress and she gives us two big thumbs up. They’re easily the best I’ve had! After dinner we head to George Street – since we visiting we figure we should see what it’s all about. It’s also a Sunday night so it’ll be quieter. George streets dubious claim to fame is that it has more bars and pubs per square foot than any other place in North America. Everyone’s said that we need to experience it for one night – and one night only.

All of us want to hear some music and, seeing a fiddler soundcheck through a window we quickly pick our spot – O’Reilly’s it is. Fran talks with the fiddler for a while, and we’re joined by another wonderful soul, Simal. Fran and Sean met Simal during their travels and invite him to join us. He’s travelling through eastern Canada before heading to Toronto, almost entirely using buses and other means of ground transportation. After hearing about our experience in Cow Head with the Gros Morne Theatre Festival, he travels there, attends a show and hikes through the park. His voyage is inspirational in its own right but what we weren’t aware of is that Simal is also legally blind. Much like Nita with her Wolff Parkinson-White, he’s doesn’t lead with this fact and in no way lets it define him. We’ll write more about Simal separately.

When Fran returns to the table she mentions that the band is the Irish Descendants! I’m dumbfounded. We’re in a pub, with no cover, and enjoy a great night of music surrounded by new friends. After far too many drinks, we say our farewells and make our way back to the hotel. It’s only our third raucous night on our trip and a well deserved night out.

The next morning we’re hung over. It happens, especially as we get older. Thankfully it’s just our heads aching, so water helps. Our last day in St. Johns is a mellow one spent mostly in the comfort of the room, heading outside only to eat and for a nice walk along the water. The sun is out as it has been everyday during our stay here and the warmth is a welcome change from the past couple of weeks. Tomorrow begins a run back across the province, so today we just enjoy the moments this city has to offer.

Rather than head straight for Grand Falls-Windsor, we make our way along the beautifully twisty roads that lead to Cape Spear before the throngs of tourists flock to visit. As we arrive, we have the cape practically to ourselves. It’s the eastern-most point in North America (excluding Greenland) and, as we look out over the ocean, we realize that in a month or so we’ll be joining our bikes across this body of water almost directly due east. We take our time and savor this spot – it’s as far east as we can travel in Canada.

Today is flying in the face of what we know about the weather in Newfoundland. The sun is out and the wind is down to a gentle roar; something our necks and shoulders are thankful for. At Gander we’re followed by a pick-up truck almost all the way to Grand Falls-Windsor. As we approach our turn-off he passes and gives us a huge smile and thumbs-up – it’s Bob who we met in Gander on the way to St. Johns! We exit in opposite directions and in no time we’re back at Hotel Robin Hood.

Bad weather has been threatening to make a return. The long arms of hurricane Isaac are beginning to arrive and the weather here is on the verge of a dramatic change. We expect rain in the morning, and while it’s a dark sky, the drops haven’t started to fall. This is a morning for moving quickly and soon we’re back on the Trans-Canada to meet up with the ferry in Port aux Basques.

West of Deer Lake we’re rejoined by the mountains and the familiar sound of water pelting our helmets. The sky to the south has completely closed and we’re glad to be less than an hour from the port. The skies open and the road is drowned in a drenching rain. We pull into Port aux Basques with a few hours to kill before we head to the ferry. I’ve been thinking about the burger at St. Christopher Hotel since our first night in Newfoundland, and it’s a good place to wait. The burger is definitely as good as I remember!

“Are you going clockwise or counter-clockwise?” said an unfamiliar voice. I look up from the table and see two guys, Bob and Peter, who are travelling from Vermont and have just finished the Trans-Labrador Highway. “Neither, unfortunately” is my answer. 10 days of rain kept us away from the route which became our wonderful journey through La Gaspé, New Brunswick and PEI. The weather for their journey was far more favorable; blue-bird skies every day of the trip. We spend dinner talking about our adventures and looking at their pictures from Labrador.

By the time we leave for the port, the fog is so dense we can barely see the road. Our destination in Nova Scotia is Hubbards in St. Margaret Bay – about a 5 hour ride from North Sydney. We chose the overnight ferry with a berth so we could arrive rested and ride during daylight hours. At the port we warm up in the terminal and are quickly told that we’ll soon be boarding. Outside the weather has taken a turn for the worse – the flags on the ferry are strained almost upwards in the wind and the rain is pelting down. A voice over the intercom lets us know it’s time to start boarding and we can feel the unease in the room, but we get ready and head to the bikes. A worker lets us know that we’ll go on first to get us out of the rain and, unlike our first crossing, we’re on the ferry in under 10 minutes.

As I’m tying down the bike a different worker approaches me. “I don’t know if anyone told you, but we’re not sailing tonight. The hurricane is pushing bad weather in from the southwest and we can’t sail until it calms down in the Cabot Straight.” I’m relieved. The ocean looks angry from the dock and I wasn’t looking forward to crossing it.

What we don’t know is that Hurricane Issac is being closely followed by Hurricane Leslie whose eye is set clearly on Newfoundland.

After tying the bikes down, we make our way to our berth. All around us people are clamoring to get reclining seats or berths but it’s too late for many. We settle in for the night and wait to hear more news.

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I’m a Canadian writer, adventure motorcyclist and world traveller of British and Libyan descent. I’ve spent the past two and a half years travelling the globe by motorcycle as one-half of We Love Motogeo, following a route that makes little sense to anyone else, while supporting our non-profit organization, the Lost for Good Project. I’ve been chased by all manner of animal, detained as a spy in North Africa and waited out a hurricane in the bowels of a ferry. While I’m no spy (honestly), I am a lover of decent coffee and great yarns sewn around a campfire.


  1. Comment by пятрусь {peter}

    пятрусь {peter} October 3, 2012 at 11:56 am

    until now, the amazing ‘newfoundland’ dogs were all that i associated with Newfoundland – do you even see them much there these days? seems like a nice island to visit, if whether cooperates. your struggle with the wind reminded me of mine when riding through arizona and newmexico.
    hope you got to mainland without having to wait too long.

    • Comment by Issa

      Issa October 7, 2012 at 10:00 am

      Hi Peter! Actually we saw lots of Newfoundland dogs – especially in St. Johns. One corner turned into a bit of a flash-mob of dogs :) They’re a pretty awesome breed. I’m writing about our next leg which also includes our time waiting out the storm aboard the ferry…

  2. Comment by Dave

    Dave October 8, 2012 at 9:52 am

    These pictures are simply heaven. Have you guys gotten your SPOT! tracker feed up and running properly yet? Would love to see a map based view of where you’ve been!

    • Comment by Issa

      Issa October 9, 2012 at 9:58 am

      Hi Dave! Thanks – we’re really glad you like the photos. The SPOT! tracker is an interesting beast – the page only keeps the last 7 days (or so) of data then shows nothing at all. Boo! So, I’m working on a little something that’ll show everything we’ve done up ’til now. It’s something until we hit the road again in a couple of weeks :)

  3. Comment by Sean Graham

    Sean Graham October 9, 2012 at 1:20 pm

    ahhh yes great write up from our night out. where’s my rewind button?! miss you guys!!

    • Comment by Issa

      Issa October 11, 2012 at 11:14 am

      No kidding Sean! A great, great night :) We’ll do it again in some new land!

  4. Comment by Buddy of Bob

    Buddy of Bob November 1, 2012 at 6:37 pm

    Great read, just started the story. I am Buddy of Bob in Gander, good fellow, many years a friend, best man.
    Moose – antlers – Bull, not buck.

    • Comment by Issa

      Issa November 8, 2012 at 4:48 am

      Thanks! It was great meeting you briefly that day – thanks for the correction too!

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