On first glimpse, Port-aux-Basques appeared a scraggily weather-beaten frontier settlement. But for its cool pastel colors it could have been easily transposed over a town in the Yukon Territory.
A semi-naked, storm-swept landscape flanked the outlying habitations. Clearly, the country had its harshness, its share of predicaments, and seeing the land led us to expect the gnarls to be reflected in the folk.Trying to catch snippets of the speech of the deckhands and dockhands as my wife and I drove off the ferry was like trying to understand elves. But opportunities for conversation would come later. First we needed a place to camp. We motored up the coastal bluff, paused to take on gas and air, and proceeded out of town.
By now the clock had crept around to 7:30 p.m. We felt hungry despite late-afternoon chowder aboard the ferry from Nova Scotia. John T. Cheeseman Provincial Park waited a few miles ahead on Canada Route 1. Although the guidebook assured us that, lacking a place to stay, we could camp on Crown Lands, we liked the idea of a good campground with running water.
Hardly anything moved in the tranquil park besides two men with a crosscut saw. The low tree line managed to obscure the modest scattering of trailers and motor homes. In the ell of the ranger's house, a deliciously attractive teenager wrote a receipt for our $6 Canadian, crossing the A of her name with a determined swoop.
"And how do you spell Michigan?" she asked, filling in our address.
"It must be hard to keep all those states from running together," I said.
* * *
The next morning, as windblown Table Mountain receded behind us, the provincial Route 460 turn off for Stephenville Crossing loomed ahead. Taking it, we entered a tidal flat. Houses were strung along the far border, again with that disorganized Yukon-look as if the village had been formed by an air drop.
The tide had ebbed out of the shallows, and dories nosed into the mud. The firmer marl along the shore had supported a motorcycle whose track led off toward a lone pine and a graveyard: a dozen white markers defied the eons and the high water table.
The living flesh of Stephenville Crossing had until now been betokened by clothes flapping on the lines, and by plain, low-roofed hovels suggesting small but steady government checks. As the houses clustered up, people finally appeared: children playing, young men in a car, old ladies on porches.
Three old men dawdled in a yard; the fat one in a red sweater clutched an implement beside a spectacled geezer whose blue shirt was unbuttoned at the collar. The third man faced this pair and tormented some weedy clippings with a pitchfork. He occupied a billowing pair of bib overalls and never looked up under his denim cap.
I hailed the men, asking, "Why aren't you two helping?"
"He don't need no 'elp. Ain't 'nough weeds," said the fat one.
The man in blue uttered something unintelligible, like a lawn mower refusing to start.
The man in red, aged about 62 and by 15 years the youngest, smiled a sprightly smile. Were we headed for St. John's? No? He assented to the wisdom of choosing the west coast instead. He and the man with the pitchfork were village natives but the man in blue originally came from Corner Brook.
They assured me Corner Brook was a nice town, a big town; though, granted, not as big as St. John's. I said we must be moving on, and for a farewell they lapsed back into murmurings and broken syllables.
Downtown Stephenville offered a post office, bank, pharmacy, grocery and rival variety stores, one with a lively lunch counter. We chose the other, with more merchandise. I bought a Newfoundland flag.
A car outside the grocery store bore Massachusetts plates. The driver, it turned out, was a native Newfoundlander home to visit her mother. She advised us to watch out for price gouging. Fortunately, in paying $2.59 Canadian for the flag, we had made our extravagant purchase for the trip.
* * *
Shallow and braided, the Humber River meandered along the road from Corner Brook through a low and heavily forested gorge. Crude residences were strung out even after commercialization had dwindled away. A clearing along the road provided a farewell salute to commerce: the semi-circular drive curved past a storefront whose entrance was boarded up. In brown letters there, partially screened by two derelict pickups, the slogan, "FORCED TO CLOSE BY THE N.F.L.D. GOVERNMENT," alluded to the universality of oppression. Some cushionless patio furniture had a place at the corner in the sun. Leading away from the side of the building was the wire that provided electric service to a camper of the type that fits into a pickup but here sat on jacks. The TV antenna indicated that, animosities notwithstanding, someone inside was leading the good life.
We motored on. Grand Lake sparkled on the right. Cabins dotted islets and the lakeshore. Finally the lake dropped away from view a dozen miles before our junction with Newfoundland Route 410 leading onto the Baie Verte Peninsula. We turned north for Baie Verte village (population 2,528); in the thinly-peopled zone ahead, every preconception we held about this land would unspool like thread.
* * *
In Baie Verte the tide was out, the bay shallow and weedy. When a pickup raised dust in a parking lot, it hung there with grim determination. Even the gas came out of the pump slowly. We popped into a souvenir shop where the errand boy could tell us zilch about Tilt Cove. But the proprietress came down presently and heaped printed materials into our arms, assuring us that although any of the coves, harbors, or bights would suit our needs, Tilt Cove would stand out in our memory.
* * *
The map indicated Newfoundland Route 414 was unpaved, but smooth asphalt hugged the terrain in the 35 miles before La Scie. The setting sun impelled us forward. In Newfoundland, the exact hour is always a matter of some confusion because of the unique time zone, set on the half hour. When it's 6:30 p.m. there, it's 6 p.m. in the Atlantic Zone (Halifax) and 5 p.m. in the Eastern Zone (New York, Toronto). To complicate things further, Labrador, the mainland part of the province of Newfoundland, adheres to Atlantic Time.
After the spur roads to Mings Bight and Nippers Harbour came the turn off for Tilt Cove, where a withered old woman stood without so much as a handbag. Was she waiting for a lift? She said she lived in La Scie, four miles ahead, but didn't explain her presence. About Tilt Cove she could tell us nothing.
The dusty road ran off at 125 degrees, passing a small lake where two men fished from a boat. The land stumbled off toward the sea. There was a dump, more trees, a steep grade, and on the left-hand side of the point where the road turned 90 degrees right, a private campground with large swimming lake. The ocean, however, still hadn't revealed itself.
The road pulled up over a mountainous shoulder. Starting down the far side, we noted the flat and denuded surface beyond. My inkling that it wasn't merely erosional was confirmed by the slag heap that popped into view on the left.
The top of every hill was missing and the sides descended in impossible plunges. Rusty stains and gray-black predominated in the rock; a sinister crystal glittered in the ebony surface of the flats. A dozen houses, big cubes with slightly arched roofs, backed up in two clusters against one side of the hole. The brighter pastel-painted structures seemed overly optimistic compared to the predominant, weather-beaten white houses.
Together, Susan and I had completed a 2,000-mile arc. Unbelievably, a blown-out, wreckage-strewn copper mine was insinuating itself as our stopping point at the farthest base of this arc.
We took a moment and regathered our composure. It was true that the Atlantic waited on the other side of the notch that closed off the flats. A gray building was situated in that cradle, an old processing plant.
We pulled up to the dockside storage shed. Two men stepped out of the dark interior and walked across some boards beneath which Atlantic waters pooled, black as oil. Yes, the men said, this was Tilt Cove, where about six families overwintered. "They told us there'd be good camping here," I protested. One man nodded toward the flats as if to ask how our expectations hadn't been met.
* * *
Our course took us inside Gros Morne National Park to the town of Woody Point where businesses sprang directly from the edge of the street.
Parsons' Amusement Center's gray clapboards were adorned by a utility meter and signboards from Coke and Pepsi. Three pillbox windows let in light at the front door. A rampway bridged down to the street, which curved away under a web of telephone and power lines.
The setting didn't impress a man from Pennsylvania who towed a travel trailer behind his car. He pointed to his camera: "I'm not shooting any more film. I've already seen this in Oregon. These mountains _ I've seen them in Colorado."
Not wanting to debate the scenery's merits, I replied, "We're on more of an anthropological tour. I'm interested in regional dialect." That shut him up.
Susan and I moved on into the establishment of George Butt, General Merchant. Mr. Butt kept a beautiful store. The wood floor was spotless, stock neatly arranged. There was a good assortment of apparel except in the category of marine clothing.
The proprietor caught up to me at the display case of knives and tools and offered his services. I fixed the man at 80. His gray hair toppled over like wheat and the skin around his eyelids could have been grafted from the neck of a tortoise. Nose and cheeks he'd borrowed from Ronald Reagan.
He wore a checked blazer, forest green and rusty brown, and a blue foulard necktie. The case for his eyeglasses was clipped to his breast pocket.
Mr. Butt accepted my praise about the store. He was the third Butt storekeeper in succession after his father and grandfather. The family enterprise dated back 130 years. But he didn't want me to think his fate had been predetermined. As a young man he'd lived in Boston, working, soaking up the cosmopolitan atmosphere. After a few satisfying years he returned to Bonne Bay.
During the intervening 55 years he'd addressed the needs of Woody Point while seeing World War II and the more commonplace modern disasters from this standpoint near the top of the world.
It was a place where shelves cried out to be dusted, fishermen to be fitted with boots. There are men with great missions in major centers of the world and men with small missions in remotest corners. Whether in the end one man gives more than the other will forever be a matter of opinion.
Mr. Butt and I toured the rest of the store together, and when I left we exchanged looks of understanding but few additional words and even less money.
* Editor's note: Freelance writer Ronald Ahrens is a former Utahn who now lives in Michigan. From 1984-85 he edited the Desert Beacon newspaper in Bloomington, Washington County. He is currently writing a novel of Mormon missionary life. In 1987, motivated by a love of travel to obscure places and by an imperative from the editors of Automobile Magazine to roll up the miles in a test car, he set out with his wife and dog for the fishing villages of Newfoundland. The following text is excerpted from an unpublished manuscript, "Scuffmarks on an Isle."