You sure you know where you’re going? he asked.
Absolutely – Meat Cove – most northerly point in Nova Scotia. It’s at the end of this road, isn’t it?
Sure is. But are you sure you want to go there? he persisted.
I met Eric on the Cabot Trail, about 11 km from Meat Cove. He drives a gravel truck. We were stopped by a flagger on a road under construction and we got chatting. As you do. He told me that bloodlines were very thin in Meat Cove. And that the cops dared not venture in. Shoot-outs weren’t unusual and, as Chuck (another trucker) would tell me later, the foundations we would see were not new houses waiting to be built, but old houses that had been burned out ‘cuz the locals didn’t like ’em.
We were on the Cabot Trail. We’d left Margoree Harbour that morning and had driven into the Cape Breton Highlands National Park. The scenery was nothing short of spectacular. It was like driving through a Monet exhibition, had the great man ever painted autumn. As the day progressed, we wended our way in and out of the park, stopping here, there, and yonder, with little aim other than to reach Ingonish by six-ish or seven or whenever.
We ran into Chéticamp, famous for its hookers – and no, I don’t mean boats or prostitutes, I mean rug hookers…people who use hooks like crochet hooks to make rugs. The things ya learn on the road. We sailed past Pleasant Bay and declined all offers that guaranteed us a whale sighting – it was if we’d been divinely inspired and knew what awaited us at Meat Cove.
We stopped at Cape North where the North Highlands Community Museum was closed (qu’elle surprise) but the local cemetery was open – and full of McLeods. The Settlers Garden represents, in miniature, the natural and cultivated world of the early European settlers who made their homes in the North Highlands of Cape Breton. I tell you, these lads have it sussed – simplicity all the way and ten times as effective and emotive than the grandest of displays.
From there we took the road to Meat Cove, as advised by Gordon, our host the night before. Some miles in, we hit construction, where I met Eric. Some might well have been put off and turned around … but I’d never seen a thin bloodline or witnessed a shoot-out with shots being fired and I was curious. When we finally got to the end of the road, it was beautiful – yes. There was a humpback whale playing in the water, and he a shameless exhibitionist at that. Magnificent. There were two restaurants – one of which was closed and the second didn’t have enough veg in the kitchen to make a salad. Enough said.
Waiting for the flagger to take us back up the trail, I got chatting to Chuck. He’d been part of a work crew there to lay gravel for 12 days and he couldn’t wait to get home. He was a big man. A tough man. And he was casting furtive glances over a massive shoulder and speaking in whispers. We didn’t hang around. Before we left though, I did ask one of the four locals I saw (there are nine families in total….) why it was called Meat Cove. Back when, I don’t know the date, sailors used to drive by and see caribou. They’d get out and hunt and so it came known as meat cove. Enough said (I said that already, didn’t I?). Still, I got to chat with Chuck and Eric and have breaded clams from Dingwall, enjoy the thought of a salad, and see a whale relatively up close and in mammal. Not bad for a Thursday afternoon in the boonies. With the petrol light blinking a violent orange and three successive gas stations closed, we were happy to ride on vapours into Neal’s Harbour and find a gas station open. The map had conveniently pointed out the gas stations, but hadn’t said when they were open or closed. This part of the world is getting ready for the last hurray of the year – the Celtic Colours Festival – after which the place shuts up and half the occupants snow-bird it to Florida – the other half have already left 🙂
We thought we were staying in Ingonish but we were actually 45 minutes further up the road, closer to Baddeck. Prompted by some sixth sense (in honesty, more to do with the number of ‘closed for the season’ signs we were seeing), we dropped by the one liquor store we’d seen in two days. These Bluenoses are a clean living people – they don’t smoke, don’t seem to drink, and always obey the speed limit, even when there isn’t a cop within a hundred-mile radius. The place is pristine clean with not a rubbish bin in sight so they don’t litter either. Did I use the word ‘surreal’ already?
We passed plenty of churches of all denominations, shapes, and sizes. I wonder how so many of them make do with so few people – but they seem to work and what’s more, they’re open. Regular readers will be familiar with my rants about closed churches in Europe and how difficult it is to find one open and with candles. It was a pleasant surprise to see a sign, no less, saying that St Peter’s was open for prayer (without the candles though). Unfortunately I can’t remember exactly what part of the road it was on but I think it safe to say it was the Baddeck side of Ingonish because we were still praying we’d find the Sea Parrot Inn before dark.
Mind you, stopping as we did every ten minutes or so to marvel and something that was just as gorgeous as what had gone before, it was a wonder we got there at all. There are no words to describe the beauty of it all. A thousand adjectives couldn’t do it justice. Billed as the most spectacular drive in the world, the Cabot Trail, in the autumn, has to be as close as you get to perfection on this earth. I would challenge the staunchest atheist not to wonder if there is a God because it is difficult to ascribe this sort of beauty to anything other than miracle. We made it to the Sea Parrot by six, with time enough to catch the ONE restaurant – The Clucking Hen – open for miles before it shut at seven. We got a take-out and coated up, braving the cool evening to dine al fresco and watch the sun go down over the Atlantic from the deck of our top-floor room. We had the place to ourselves. And it was lovely. It’s been a while since I’ve sat looking out over the ocean with a glass of good wine (who’d have thought there were vineyards in Nova Scotia? I’m a convert…), in good company, with nothing to see for miles but a few lights on the horizon and one lone star in the night sky. An old childhood rhyme came to mind:
Star light, star bright, the first star I see tonight
I wish it may, I wish it might, this wish I make come true alright