Melanoma Blood Test on the Horizon?

If you follow the news regarding advancements in melanoma detection and treatment as much as I do, you may have seen the news story that researchers in Australia have been working on developing a blood test that could identify early-stage melanoma. This is really exciting news because as we all know, the earlier you detect melanoma, the better the odds of long-term survival.

So, let’s clear up something right now… I know there are some people that think that running blood tests can tell the doctors exactly what’s wrong with someone. Some cases, this is true. For example, you can check the levels of iron present in the blood and based on the results, make a definitive diagnosis of anemia. And if a doctor suspects you have leukemia, that can be discovered through a blood test. However for many diseases, including most forms of cancer, a blood test won’t provide this information.

There are blood tests that can provide information about tumor markers present in the blood. It will not surprise you to learn that these are called tumor marker tests. They measure the level of a chemical that some tumors produce. The bad news is that normal cells also can produce these chemicals. The use of these tests as a diagnostic tool causes some controversy as a result. But a doctor may ask for one of these tumor marker tests to help determine what’s going on in a patient and guide next steps. Here are the tests that can be ordered and the cancers that may be present:

  • prostate-specific antigen (PSA) for prostate cancer,
  • cancer antigen 125 (CA 125) for ovarian cancer,
  • calcitonin for medullary thyroid cancer,
  • alpha-fetoprotein (AFP) for liver cancer, and
  • human chorionic gonadotropin (HCG) for germ cell tumors, such as testicular cancer and ovarian cancer

OK, so we know that even when you’re looking at specific chemicals in the blood, you may not always get an accurate diagnosis of cancer. And there isn’t a blood panel workup that can screen for a variety of different cancers (yet). So why am I excited about the new test being developed Down Under?

This test looks for antibodies that the immune system would create in the presence of melanoma. If you’ve ever had a viral infection like the flu, your body has created antibodies as a result of that infection. Same thing with melanoma, your body recognizes the melanoma cells as an invader and mounts an immune system attack to deal with the melanoma, creating specific antibodies. Now because of the ability of cancer cells to evade the immune system, it doesn’t mean that your immune system can keep up with the cancer. Obviously the immune system, while an incredible feat of nature, isn’t perfect. HIV is a virus that successfully manages to evade the best efforts of the human immune system. And your immune system can sometimes target your own healthy tissue and cause diseases like lupus, IBS, and psoriasis.

OK, so we’ve got these antibodies in our blood as a result of melanoma. How does that translate into action? The researchers screened 245 blood samples, some from melanoma patients and some from healthy volunteers. They were able to identify people with melanoma with 79% accuracy and people without melanoma with 84% accuracy. That’s pretty good but most want to see 90% accuracy before they would say it’s a success. The researchers are next working on a trial with a larger pool of participants to refine the accuracy. According to the team, if all goes well, the blood test could be available in the next 5 years.

That would be great if we could see a level for melanoma antibodies in a standard blood screening, just like you get results for cholesterol, glucose, and iron levels. That would go a long way towards helping people discover melanoma earlier and get lifesaving treatment earlier.


Since my blog is focused on melanoma, I didn’t really talk about the other development that happened earlier this year. A group of researchers developed an experimental blood test to potentially detect cancers of the ovary, liver, stomach, pancreas, esophagus, colorectum, lung and breast. They did this by assessing the levels of circulating proteins in the blood and mutations in cell-free DNA. Basically, they looked at these 8 different proteins and combined that with DNA markers. The test had widely varying rates of accuracy for the different types of cancer and the earlier stages of the cancers had much lower levels of accuracy. So there’s a long, long way to go to get to the point where we could see this deployed in doctors’ offices. But the fact that there is so much research in this area is promising. Maybe not in my lifetime, but maybe someday, discovering you have an early stage cancer by a blood test can be a reality, saving the time you would normally take just trying to get an answer on what’s wrong with you and use that to get treatment instead.

 

Advertisements

Bday Trip 2018 – Why I Will Never Fly Air Canada Again (Part Two)

(I know what you’re thinking… wait, did she accidentally repost her earlier rant about Air Canada? Read on…)

In Halifax on my last day of my trip, I woke up late, loitered around in my room until a late checkout time of 2pm, and then fired up Thor, my most favorite rental car ever. I put the top down since it was a sunny, beautiful day and drove out of Halifax towards the airport. I needed to return the car with a full gas tank, but the first gas station I went to must have had a malfunctioning shutoff. I even looked at the readout thinking that it was cheaper than I expected, but went inside to pay when the pump wouldn’t dispense any more gas. It was only after I started up the car that I saw that it had shut off at 3/4 of a tank. Damn it, that meant that I needed to stop at yet another gas station before I could drop the car off!

But obviously, I really didn’t want to drop off Thor, my bright-ass orange Mustang convertible. At the car return, I lingered for a moment, thanking the car for being so much fun to drive all over the Canadian Maritimes. According to the trip computer, I had driven over 33 hours and 2600+ kilometers (1630 miles). The photo below didn’t include the first 40 minutes of driving because I hadn’t figured out where the setting was to hit reset yet.

Thor

Not even the full total of kilometers or hours driven!

It took just a minute at the Air Canada desk to confirm both flights (Halifax-Montreal and Montreal-Newark) were on time and I checked my suitcase through to Newark. It seemed that most of the dining options were prior to security, a fact I did not realize until after I had gone through the checkpoint. So, I just wandered and figured I would grab a bite in the Montreal airport between flights.

Finally, it was time to board and say goodbye to Nova Scotia. Oddly, Air Canada has an Airbus A330 to make the hour and a half flight to Montreal. (The A330 is big, like going on an overnight overseas flight kind of big.) We made our way to the lineup for takeoff…and then pulled over. Apparently, the plane’s computer was showing some error message and the pilots needed to call the mechanics to see if it was something benign or required additional mechanical inspection.

Despite me saying that they should first turn it off and then turn it back on, we sat there and waited for 20 minutes before the pilots came back on the speaker to tell us that is exactly what the mechanics said for them to do. So then we had to wait for the engines to power down and then restart. I watched the amount of layover time I had in Montreal dwindle away. Finally, after a delay of 45 minutes, the pilots said that the mechanics said it was ok to take off.

In the air, I fretted that I was going to miss my connection to Newark. I had a 6am flight the next morning from Newark back to Austin and was trying to tell myself that surely Air Canada wouldn’t jack me over twice in the same trip, right?

So in Montreal, we had to wait for the slowest group of people ever get their bag out of the overhead and glacially make their way to the door. I practically ran over groups of people to rush as fast as I could to the U.S. bound connections. Out of breath, I got into this hallway where we are forced to wait while the baggage personnel unload our luggage and put it into the system before we’re allowed to progress to U.S. Customs and Immigration. Let me tell you right now, that tiny hallway was not nearly big enough to accommodate the hundred and fifty people jammed into it. Whoever designed that system should be forced to parade through the airport wearing a dunce cap so everyone can throw rotten vegetables at him (and you know it was a dude because a woman would have made it wide enough for a damn stroller at least).

After 20 minutes, my name finally got the green light and I sprinted to Canadian passport control, then customs, then U.S. immigration. My Global Entry kiosk couldn’t find my connecting flight and told me to progress to an actual person, which took even more time. Frantic, I knew I only had about 10 more minutes to catch my connecting flight and was hoping that my stress wouldn’t be construed that I was actually planning something dastardly.

Through immigration and rushing to the gate, I happened to spy the flight status monitors…and came to a complete standstill. My mother-f’ing flight to Newark had been cancelled! In the back of my mind, I was confident that I was being secretly videotaped and I was going to end up on the stupid Just For Laughs prank show. But no, that red CANCELLED didn’t vanish…

You have got to be f’ing kidding me, I whispered to myself. Some gentleman who must have been on the same flight walked up to me. Newark? he asked. Yep, you need to go to the Service Desk over there. Good luck… I found myself at the end of a line that didn’t move an inch for over 45 minutes. I called Air Canada again while standing in line, and waited 20 minutes on hold with their excruciatingly awful hold music before a young woman picked up. Yep, she confirmed, I was SOL on getting to Newark today but I had been rebooked on a flight tomorrow evening at 4:30pm. Well, that did not work for my 6am flight I had tomorrow! I tried to get her to book me something directly to Austin to make up for the second full-scale meltdown that Air Canada had during this trip and while she was willing, apparently her supervisors are the most hardhearted bunch to walk the planet. I was truly f’ed yet again by Air Canada.

To make matters worse, they had this horrible and completely uninformed agent walking the line basically taunting us, telling us that they weren’t going to cover a hotel unless we had just come off an international flight. It took everything in my power not to lunge at this woman and wrap my hands around her neck to shut her up. Why she wasn’t actually helping the lone woman rebooking every single one of us instead is a mystery to me, but suffice to say that Air Canada personnel rank behind wardens at maximum security prisons in terms of their focus on customer service.

After standing in line for over 2.5 hours, I finally got the front of the line where the woman reconfirmed that I was on a flight tomorrow afternoon and there was nothing she could do to try to get me on the last United flight from Montreal to Newark (because being alliance members count for absolutely zero apparently). However, she did mention something about a hotel voucher and 15 minutes later, when she was trying to dismiss me, I had to remind her that she still had not provided one. Oh, here you go… Quality Hotel (which I tried to google to see if there were any bedbug issues and the damn hotel couldn’t even by found by Google). However, apparently all of our bags were being unloaded and would be available at Baggage Claim 3.

You know where this is going, don’t you? I make my way through Canadian Passport Control where I confused the hell out of the agent (Where are you coming from? Halifax. What, why are you in this area? Well, my flight to the U.S. got cancelled and now Air Canada has stranded me for the night. Can you please let me back into Canada?) Then I go to Baggage Claim 3 and wait…and wait… and wait. And then the carousel shuts off. The woman who had been behind me in the line upstairs at the Service Desk grabs her bag, looks at me standing there forlornly, says, “Oh no” and came over to give me a hug.

So I walk over to the Air Canada baggage desk and wait forever for one of the two agents to get off the phone before I can explain to them that my bag was supposed to be at Claim 3 and it is not. The man there tries to explain that all “disconnected” flight baggage gets held but when I tell him that another person on my same flight get her bag, it got more complicated. So he calls some dude working the storage and finds out that yes, all of the stranded passengers were supposed to get their bags and my bag is not where agent dude thinks it should be. With this news, he takes my baggage claim ticket and disappears to go see where it might be.

I waited 45 minutes before he returned empty-handed. No one has any real idea where my beloved purple suitcase may be hiding. “But don’t worry, it might take a few days, but we’ll find it.” I retorted that it didn’t help me right then, and that I was heading to Texas after Newark (that is, if I could change my reservation) and I had absolutely nothing, not even deodorant or a brush with me because I put too much faith in Air Canada not fucking me over twice on the same reservation. Although he claimed that the hotel should have some amenities, he finally handed over a “Sorry we lost your bag” parting gift to get rid of me.

I was basically on the verge of tears at that point and then had go through customs (no sir, I don’t have any baggage aside from the huge chip towards Air Canada on my shoulder) and then to find my way to the proper door for the hotel shuttle pick-up. I found a small group also waiting to be transported to Quality Hotel and together we waited 20 minutes before I broke down to call the hotel to see when the shuttle was actually supposed to arrive. Because other hotels had swung by twice already. After promising that someone was on the way (and apparently he drove in from Ottawa because it was another 35 minutes before he showed up), we finally all jammed into the shuttle. There were people standing in the van’s doorwell because they didn’t want to wait for the next shuttle, which may possibly arrive before dawn.

Naturally, the hotel is located in an industrial area with nothing around it. And it is sandwiched between a trucking company and a condemned building. The check in process took way too long and the ladies working check-in must have received customer service training from Air Canada because they were the rudest bunch of bitches I have ever seen in a hotel staff. They didn’t want to give me the promised voucher for food (the kitchen is closed and we do not have room service; here is a menu for the worst pizza place in the province and they will likely steal your credit card information…) and oh yeah, they had zero amenities (yes, we need to place an order for them, we have nothing to provide). The woman next to me looked like she was about to go over the desk to throttle someone (I would have thrown out my back giving her a boost over the counter). Sadly, I made my way to my depressing room and googled directions to the nearest McDonald’s because at that point I was about to chew my arm off, I was so hungry (remember, I hadn’t eaten at all in the last 24 hours). The nearest restaurant, let alone a McDonald’s, was 3.4 miles away and with the sketchiness of the surrounding neighborhood, I finally threw the towel in. I was going to bed hungry, angry, irritable, and close to the edge of a nervous breakdown.

The only saving grace is that United agreed to change my flight tomorrow from 6am to the last one at 8pm at no charge (just this once). The next morning, after having a nightmare that Air Canada delayed my Montreal to Newark flight just long enough for me to miss that United flight, I called Air Canada again. I explained the situation, noting that my suitcase was missing and the debacle of my inbound flight, and asked if I could go standby on an earlier flight. Of course, but you have to be at the airport, have your baggage claim check with you, and wait at the gate until the very last second before you know if you are on the flight. OK, all of these I can do. So I call the “Quality” Hotel desk to ask if there is room on the 11:00am shuttle so I could go an hour earlier.

I want you to imagine the scene. I’m in a dumpy little airport hotel room, starving, no baggage, wearing the same clothes from the day before, anxious to leave even earlier so they could turn the room over faster, and get me out of their hair. Instead, they tell me that there is no shuttle if you don’t make a reservation and because I allegedly made a reservation for the noon shuttle when I checked in, there is no shuttle at 11:00am period… WHAT?? This is an airport hotel, contracted by Air Canada to put people they’ve fucked over because they can’t get their operational shit together, and the hotel doesn’t even have a regular cadence of airport runs??? Are you fucking kidding me?

Apparently the spawn of Satan at the desk was not. So I had to wait until noon and then jam myself into an overcapacity van for the 20 minute drive back to Trudeau Airport. I go back through the security line, then back through the U.S. Immigration process (wait, weren’t you just here yesterday?) and then finally onto the sterile side where U.S. bound flights take off. I find the gate for the next Newark-bound flight (oh yes, there were four earlier in the day that Air Canada couldn’t find a space for me, thanks for nothing) and wait for a gate agent to show. And once she did, guess what? Apparently, because I had a checked bag, I could not fly standby. I completely lost it and broke down in tears. Why did the woman on the phone tell me to make sure I had my baggage claim ticket handy for you then? The agent seemed apologetic (the first and only Air Canada representative I dealt with face-to-face who seemed that way) and told me that basically I was screwed. I had to wait for my scheduled flight.

I morosely wandered the airport. At that point, I was so ticked off and upset I didn’t dare eat for fear of a ballistic stomach. It was a long four hours and I sat near the gate half expecting a delay notification to show up any minute. Although we were scheduled to board at 4:05pm, we didn’t even start the process until 4:15 and then we had to wait while 6 wheelchair passengers were laboriously taken one at a time down the jet bridge and seated on the plane. Finally, the rest of the passengers were called up and I walked onto the plane at 4:45, 10 minutes after the scheduled departure time. Then, we couldn’t push back because the tug had a broken towing arm. So we sat…and sat… and sat. At 5:45pm, a full one hour and 10 minutes late, we pushed back.

At that point, I had been doing frantic calculations in my head trying to figure out exactly when we would actually land and how much time I would have to get off the plane, wait to see if my suitcase made an appearance (and if not, find time to file a claim for a missing bag), run to the Air Train and take the train from Terminal A to Terminal C, get to United’s desk to check my bag in (in the timeframe that they would accept luggage for the flight – that is, if I actually had my suitcase), go through security, and make it to my gate before the doors closed. It was not looking like a leisurely stroll in the park.

We took off and I immediately switched on the seat back monitor to keep an eye on our flight’s progress. The woman next to me was fretting about being late because her husband was coming from work to pick her up. I was like, at least you know you’re going to make it home tonight – shut it. But of course, outwardly I looked sympathetic. Meanwhile, I was thinking of the two prepaid hotel nights (one in Halifax at the beginning of the trip and the one in Newark last night) that I had forfeited already and mentally watching my bank account dwindle as I was looking at yet another hotel night in Newark and a change fee from United (who I doubt would have been considerate enough to waive two change fees).

Just as I thought there might a snowball’s chance in hell that I would maybe get into Newark before 7pm, I felt our plane begin to circle for a holding pattern. I almost burst into tears at that point because if you’ve ever been stuck in a holding pattern over Newark, you know that you could be up there for a good couple of hours making circles. The pilot came on to tell us that we were in a hold because air traffic was changing runways and he had no idea how long it would take. The woman next to me got huffy and by that point, I was unable to summon any sympathy for her situation.

So I mentally started talking to my Dad, asking him if he could please pull whatever strings to help me make my flight home that night. Lo and behold, a few minutes later I felt the plane straighten out and before I knew it, we were in our final descent into Newark. Wheels down at 6:42pm. The taxi to the gate seemed to take forever and then the slow herd of passengers getting off the small plane seemed to take longer than that; but at 7:01pm, I was in the airport walking briskly to baggage claim and wondering if I might be able to pull this off after all.

The wait at baggage claim was excruciating, not only because it seemed to take the Air Canada baggage handlers forever to get the bags to the carousel, but I also didn’t know if my suitcase had been recovered from wherever it had been misplaced in the Montreal Airport and loaded onto my flight. Finally, at 7:18pm, my beloved purple monster made an appearance. I was so excited and relieved to see him, I actually exclaimed out loud (yes, a few people looked sideways at me). Forgetting that I still need to be careful of my back, I hauled him off the carousel and took off running to the Air Train station. I even carried my suitcase while walking up the escalator to make the train that was just about to pull out of the station. Two stops later, I was hustling down the staircase and hoping that I wouldn’t trip while carrying my suitcase because I was banged up enough and ran over to the Elite check-in to drop off my bag. “Just under the wire,” tutted the agent. I breathlessly explained that one of their alliance partners was responsible for making me late. Thankfully, she took the suitcase and I made the dash to the TSA Precheck line that was 25 people deep.

Through security finally, I took a glance at the time. I only had 5 more minutes to get to the gate that was located at the furthest point in the terminal. Ignoring my aching back, I walked/ran and dodged other pedestrians like a running back in a football game evading tacklers. I got up to the gate, only to discover they were late boarding… Seriously…

I made it onto the plane with a huge sigh of relief. My horrible Air Canada experience made for a great story that elicited sympathy from my row-mate who bought me a snack box as well as a flight attendant who was so relieved that United wasn’t the cause of my problems, she bought me a drink. We landed in Austin after midnight and I was ready to kiss the ground, I was so happy to have finally made it home…

While I loved Canada and want to visit again someday, you can bet your ass I will never fly Air Canada again. I would maybe have given them a pass after one horrible day and unexpected overnight; but two in the same trip is symptomatic of much bigger issues, both operationally and in regards to the customer service I experienced. Don’t say I didn’t warn you (twice).

Bday Trip 2018 – Waterfront Wandering

I woke up the early in the morning after the storm grateful that the air temperature had fallen enough for me to get a few hours of good sleep. I blinked the sleep out of my eyes and got packed up, opting to skip breakfast. I had to catch a ferry and there seemed to be some discrepancy online on how often the ferry actually ran. Rather than missing the boat (literally), I figured the safest course of action would be to get to the ferry as soon as I could.

As I drove down Digby Neck, a peninsular stretch of land that juts into the Bay of Fundy, the fog seemed increase in intensity until it was hard to see more than a few feet in front of me. After 40 minutes of driving through the mist, I arrived at the ferry crossing. A small vehicular ferry that probably held less than 20 cars had just reached capacity as I arrived. The sign indicated that we should stay in line on the shoulder until the next ferry arrived. I was slightly concerned that it appeared that the ferry only ran once an hour, based on the signage. But there was nothing more to do than to shut down the engine, grab my Kindle, and wait. You could hear the noise of the waves, the foghorn of the boats on the water, the sea birds – but you couldn’t really see anything except white mist. It was interesting to realize how much you can focus your hearing when you don’t have sight to overwhelm everything else. I didn’t quite realize how much we are a species that is so vision-dominant.

Luckily, another ferry pulled up only 10 minutes later. After waiting for the few cars to disembark, we proceeded onto the boat. I wasn’t sure how long the ride was going to be since I couldn’t see the other side through the fog, but I barely had time to hand over the $7 CAD toll before we were docking on the other side. In addition to putting an address into the GPS, I had a general idea of where I needed to go next. My GPS decided that the address I input wasn’t valid and instead provided directions to the center of Tiverton. Fortunately for me, I caught a glimpse of the Ocean Explorations sign in front of an older house right past the ferry ramp as I drove past.

Ocean Explorations is run by Captain Tom Goodwin, who’s been in business for 30 years. He has lots of experience as a conservationist, running whale watching trips and more importantly, he does it in a zodiac. This is important to me because the zodiacs are so much smaller than the average whale watching boat, meaning you are closer to the water and closer to the whales when you spot them. (And it means that you’re not stuck on a boat with a large group of people who make a ton of noise and scare the whales away. Best of all, it’s actually rare to get seasick on a zodiac.)

At noon, the rest of the 11 passengers started showing up and after signing the waivers, we got suited up in orange full-body floatation suits. I felt like the Sta-Puff Marshmallow Man trying to climb down the ladder to the floating dock but fortunately, I did not tumble down (because you know that it was a possibility with my clumsy ass). I took a spot in the boat at the bow and away we went, motoring in the persistent fog into the Bay of Fundy.

We picked up speed once we were in open water. Whipping through the foggy air, my hair and face were drenched in the first 3 minutes. The guy sitting on my left was joking around how windblown I was but it was exhilarating to be on the water. After about 20 minutes, Captain Tom stopped the boat and cut the engine so we could all listen for the telltale sound of a whale coming up for a breath. Well, we didn’t hear a whale but suddenly a pod of dolphins appeared right alongside the boat. I was so enthralled watching them cavort that I didn’t even think about pulling out my phone for photos until the teenager opposite me in the boat elbowed me aside as she was trying to take a shot.

After a few minutes, the engine turned back on and sped to another location that the whales apparently like. We listened again but heard nothing. Once again, we took off and at the third location, after the engine was cut off, what was that? Was that a whale? In the fog, we all strained to hear again. Yes, that was definitely a whale and coming nearly straight ahead. Captain Tom turned the engine on and we zoomed forward to catch a glimpse of a humpbacked whale surfacing to breathe. We followed the whale, watching it take a sequence of short breaths before one last huge breath and it dove down, showing us its tail as it submerged… It was really cool to experience, let alone only 10 or so feet in front of me.

After that, we picked up the trail of yet another humpback, following that one for 15 minutes. Then, the Captain looked at me and said, you haven’t taken any photos yet. You might want to on the next one since it will be our last before we head back in. Despite wanting to experience this without a screen in the way, when the whale came back to the surface, I did take video and a few photos. But I really wanted to imprint in my mind what it felt like, there in the fog and slowly seeing the whale rise to the surface for a breath and then watching the tail come up as it dove to the depths…

Whale Watching

Humpback Whale Watching, Bay of Fundy, July 2018

Sadly, it seemed that all too soon we were heading back across the water at full speed, with a pod of porpoise trying to engage us in play. We pulled into the harbor and up to the dock. The ladder was actually easier going up than down and in a few minutes, I was stripping off the floatation suit and saying goodbye to my shipmates. I’ve done a whale watching expedition before, in Hawaii many years ago, but the thrill of being so close and watching these magnificent creatures never gets old. I’m so grateful that in researching this trip, I came across Ocean Explorations and had the experience of seeing whales in Nova Scotia.

Back on land, I got in line for the ferry and 15 minutes later, was loading onto the boat for the short crossing to take me back. (The ferry is $7 CAD round-trip and you only pay once when you are crossing to Long Island.) Soon enough, I was back on the road on Digby Neck but the fog over here was much less intense, having been mostly burned off. I pulled over and put the top down so I could enjoy the nice weather. I drove into Digby where I impulsively turned into the parking lot of a takeaway restaurant that was clearly a locals-only spot since everyone seemed to know each other. I grabbed a fish burger and fries and sat al fresco at a picnic table to enjoy my meal. (I was starving at that point but very glad I didn’t eat anything prior because there is no bathroom on a zodiac.)

Meal complete, I hopped back into the convertible and took Route 101 north, then east, then southeast all the way back into Halifax metro. The drive took about 2.5 hours through rolling hills but soon enough, I was cruising along in downtown Halifax – for my final night in Nova Scotia. I parked in the hotel parking garage and checked in. Although I was windblown to hell between the boat ride and having the top down, I was so anxious to get out to explore Halifax’s waterfront, I ran a brush through my hair and then headed out. I wasn’t going to see anyone I was looking to impress anyway, right?

Halifax’s waterfront is a great place to amble, which is what I did for a few hours. I was too full from my lunch to get dinner, but I did grab a snack from one of the waterside vendors. I watched a gorgeous sunset turn the waters of the harbor pink and orange. And then around 10pm, I made my way back to my hotel room to shower and get ready for bed. I had had a great trip, notwithstanding the Air Canada debacle. Yes, there were moments of sadness, irritation, and crabbiness. I think that’s to be expected on any adventure. But there were also moments of sublime beauty and reminder that in the midst of great grief, there can be joy and fun as well.

 

 

Bday Trip 2018 – Southern Nova Scotia

After exploring Hopewell Rocks, I drove about five hours to Mahone Bay in Nova Scotia, about an hour-ish south of Halifax. Mahone Bay is a cute little fishing village that is starting to become a tourist destination due to its close proximity to Lunenburg, which is a full-fledged tourist town due to its UNESCO World Heritage Site status. Prices for lodging in Mahone Bay are lower than those in Lunenburg though, which tipped the balance in its favor as my selection.

The main street of the little town was jammed with tourists out and about on a Friday evening, enjoying the restaurants and shops and checking out the marina. I crawled along in my Mustang, trying not to run anyone over while looking for the sign for the B&B. Just when I figured that I must have passed it and turned down a side street to turn around, I saw that I actually was about to turn around in their parking spots! It was like I knew where I was going. I was slightly concerned to see a realtor sign advertising that the place was for sale. It seems like every B&B I ever stay at is actively for sale when I get there…

I was the first guest to arrive but that did not mean I got the best room… hmmmm. I dumped my stuff down and immediately changed so I could wander down the main street to find a decent dinner. I hadn’t eaten a real meal since my unexpected overnight in Toronto and at that point, the carrots were getting a little slimy.

I wandered for about an hour before settling on a seafood restaurant about a half a mile from my lodgings. Despite the fact that it was actually pretty hot even for early evening time, I opted for a patio seat so I could see the water and the boats gently bobbing with the waves. I had just placed my order and was settling back in my seat when the music on the restaurant’s speakers changed dramatically from the Anne Murray soft and easy listening to the opening chords of The Rolling Stones’ Paint It Black. I immediately sat straight up and almost burst into tears. One of my dad’s favorite groups is The Rolling Stones and I very nearly used the lyrics for Paint It Black for his memorial card (until I realized how sad and angry those lyrics are and while highly accurate for my feelings, probably isn’t something I should use for a memorial that other people would remember him by). After the song ended, the light and easy listening music made a return and I was going to remark to the server about the abrupt change in the music; but then I thought about it and felt that maybe that song was meant for me, to keep me on my toes and to let me know that my dad was still on this journey with me.

Dinner was delicious – freshly caught haddock and a pile of fresh cut french fries. It may not have been the healthiest thing but it hit the spot. I was even too full to contemplate a cone of ice cream afterwards. I made my way back to my lodging and took a shower before nestling into bed with my Kindle. I fell asleep only to wake up multiple times during the night to realize that I was crying from dreams of reliving my dad’s last days. You see, it was a month to the day that he passed and obviously I was highly aware of the significance of the date (and I’m sure the Rolling Stones’ song only served to heighten my awareness of those painful feelings).

The next morning, I was going to try to sneak out without having to eat breakfast. I’m not usually a breakfast person as it is, and I especially do not like eggs – and it seems that every B&B owner wants to make me scrambled eggs in the morning. Unfortunately, the dining room is in the direct path to the parking area and it was already full with the other guests. I smiled weakly and said that I was just going to load the car before coming back in. And then as I was walking out the door, telling myself not to trip on the awkward first step with the ridge directly in the middle of the step, I twisted my ankle on said ridge. I tumbled on the stairs while still holding my suitcase. I must have done so pretty quietly because the B&B owner didn’t rush to the door to see what happened. I picked myself up to discover that I scraped my shin pretty good and while it wasn’t actively gushing blood, it for sure would be weeping blood most of the day… Great, I slept like crap and now this?

I hobbled to the car, stowing my suitcase and backpack in the trunk and made my painful way back inside. The proprietor seemed miffed when I said that I would just take some toast and berries; but at that point, I wasn’t about to risk stomach issues during my next long stretch of driving. Nova Scotia doesn’t have gas stations every 5 minutes off of the highways and if my stomach acted up, the only available bathroom is the woods adjacent to the road. As I ate in silence, the talk turned to the recent shooting in Toronto. That brought the proprietor out of the kitchen to deliver a harangue about “the blacks”, “the Muslims” and “other minorities”. I was floored. I completely wasn’t expecting that and although I protested that no one ethnicity or religion was the representation of society’s ills, he basically over-talked me until I realized that there was absolutely no way to talk rationally with him. The other guests looked around nervously and when the owner switched topics to how poor the Canadian medical system was, I excused myself and quickly made my exit.

It was difficult to shake off the slimy feeling the breakfast conversation engendered. I drove to Lunenburg to check out the waterfront and get a glimpse of the UNESCO Heritage Site streets, but only spent a half hour wandering before I decided to get back in the car. While the town is charming, there was a funky smell in the air. It could have just been my mood but later googling returned news stories complaining about a treatment plant causing a stink – literally…

From Lunenburg, I pointed the nose of Thor south on Highway 103. The road was really only one lane in either direction but I got the opportunity to put the GT through its paces and pass a half dozen slower moving cars. I had thought I would make a few stops along the way to Yarmouth, but it turned out the only stop I made was to pull off the road to put my top back up. It had started raining again and with the mood I was in, I was in no frame of mind to try to ride out a brief shower exposed. It ended up raining most of the way to Yarmouth so my instinct to put the top up was spot on. The road itself was incredibly foggy at some points and I half expected moose to walk out of the trees that lined the shoulder of the road.

About two and a half hours after I left Lunenburg, I rolled through Yarmouth, a port town where the ferries from Maine deliver U.S. drivers to Nova Scotia. It was also the first big town of any consequence I had seen outside of Halifax. At that point, I made a spur of the moment decision to go see if the lighthouse at Cape Forchu was anything to post on Instagram. I entered the lighthouse into the GPS and twisted and turned my way along waterfront lanes to an isolated rock where the road ended. The fog was still burning off as I walked the nature path adjacent to the lighthouse. The beach at the very end of the park was strewn with huge basalt rock formations and a ton of large cobbles of all different types of rock. I wandered aimlessly, picking up rocks that caught my attention and placing them in my pockets until my shorts threatened to fall off my hips due to the accumulated weight of so many stones. And then in honor of the function of the lighthouse, I decided to scatter some more of my dad’s ashes asking him to always help guide me…

Cape Forchou

Cape Forchu Lighthouse, Nova Scotia, July 2018

The nature walk helped my mood considerably. I decided to have a small picnic before getting back in the car and sufficiently fortified with turkey, carrots, and cookies, I got back on the road for the final push to Smiths Cove, where I would be spending the night. It was much closer than I anticipated. For some reason, I assumed that it was going to be another 2.5 hour drive, but it turned out to only be an hour from Yarmouth. I made my way to Route 101 North and then sped my way northwest.

I got to the motel on the shores of the Bay of Fundy right around 3pm and was able to check in immediately with the extraordinarily cheerful owner. I dumped my stuff in my little unit only to realize that while it had a tiny kitchenette, it didn’t have AC. Honestly, when I booked it, I am sure it never was a consideration for me because I was expecting it to be chilly, not 30C/86F! I set about opening all of the windows and turning the ceiling fan on high, hoping to cool down the room before bed time. I grabbed my Kindle to sit on the back deck overlooking the Bay to read…

Parents of young girls, I have to ask a question. Do all little girls scream incessantly? Because this family had three that would not.stop.screaming… Not like, help I’m being attacked by a child molester! Not, help I’m being stung multiple times by bees! Not even, help I’ve fallen and I can’t get up. No… they were screaming that wordless screech like they were auditioning for the role of “soon to be dead person” in a horror movie. I just about lost my shit after a few minutes of listening to that. Instead, I locked up my room and went down to the rocky beach. The beach appears to be wide in normal circumstances but with the receding low tide of the Bay of Fundy, the beach was massive and growing bigger by the minute.

I spent at least a few hours out there, picking up rocks and thoroughly examining them before deciding whether to add to the growing collection in my pockets or returning it to the beach. It was so much more peaceful out there than listening to prepubescent girls screaming at closely spaced yet random intervals and I debated on whether I could drag my bed out to the beach or if high tide would sweep me away. Finally, dusk was falling and the fog was moving in. I climbed the stairs back to the motel building, unhappy to hear that the girls were still alive and at full lung capacity. Finally, after probably listening to me on my deck saying “Shut the f-ck up” under my breath like a broken record, one of the adults (who sounded like he was under the influence of one too many beers) told them to quiet down. I then overheard how a raccoon had gotten into one of the family’s units and was apparently resisting all attempts to capture it. I snickered but then worried that it might enter another room if the girls kept screaming at it. Mercifully, darkness fell and the families herded their offspring to bed. Finally, it was quiet enough for me to attempt to sleep in my stifling hot room.

In the middle of the night, I felt a cool breeze on my leg and worried for a moment that it was the cold nose of the raccoon saying hello. But no, it actually was a chill wind that brought blessedly cool air. And then, my room lit up from lightning. Ohhhh, a storm was coming! I love thunderstorms and was excitedly watching the lightning increase in frequency as the storm moved closer. The first rumble of thunder brought concerns that the scream machine would kick into action; but only a few whimpers were heard as the thunder grew in intensity and then suddenly, a deluge of rain washed over us…


I promise, I’m nearing the end of my birthday trip ramblings…

Bday Trip 2018 – The Tide Is High (and Low)

I got to my hotel in Moncton – finally – and was told I had been given an upgrade at the front desk. I’m not exactly sure how that was an upgrade, but at least there was a clean room and king size bed. Unfortunately, there was also a loud AF French Canadian family that did not understand the concept of inside voice and thought everyone on the floor needed to hear their conversation so they stood in the hallway to conduct it. I finally yelled at them, in French, to shut the hell up and take it into their room. I must have shocked them because they did indeed go into their room. My high school French teachers would be so proud to know I retained some of the language.

I had to set an alarm clock, but it was vitally important that I get up early so I could get full enjoyment out of my destination the next day. I grumbled a bit at 7am when the alarm went off, but grabbing a bite of the free breakfast helped take the edge off of my crabbiness. I was relieved to see that it only overcast, not raining, as I loaded up the car again and put the top down just to tempt fate. Downtown Moncton is actually kinda cute, with a boardwalk along the¬†Petitcodiac River. This river is also known as the Chocolate River – no, not because it resembles the river that ran through Willy Wonka’s factory because if it was a real chocolate river I would still be in Moncton trying to drain the damn thing dry. No, it’s called the Chocolate River because of the silty brown coloration. You may think it’s a polluted watershed based on the color but it’s actually that color due to the sediment in the water (it could also be polluted for all I know)…

The river is also notable for its tidal bore because it is located along the Bay of Fundy. You may have heard of this geologic wonder of the world. It has the highest tides in the world (as much as 16m or 56 feet, the height of a 5-story building) and you can experience high tide and low tide twice a day. At Hopewell Rocks, you can walk on the ocean floor at low tide while taking photos of the 40 to 70 foot tall rock formations. And then at high tide, you can watch the water cover the ground that you were just standing on an hour ago. I know it’s totally nerdy but I had wanted to see the Bay of Fundy ever since I had read about it in an encyclopedia as a child. And because access to the ocean floor to walk among the rocks is only available during low tide, I needed to get to the park as soon as I could to time my morning visit for low tide. By noon, all access would be cut off because of the incoming high tide. I drove Route 114 south until I reached the park entrance, glad to see that I could still park in the lot closest to the entry gate. It wasn’t that crowded yet.

At the entrance, you can pay to ride the shuttle to take you down the sloping path to the rocks or you can walk a paved path through the forest. I’m assuming most people don’t mind the downhill portion but I overheard more than one person asking if they could buy their way onto the shuttle going uphill (you can’t as far as I know). I needed the exercise after being in the driver’s seat for a significant time and enjoyed the early morning cool air during my walk.

Once at the rocks, I clamored down the staircase to walk along the exposed sea floor. The water was some distance away and I was finding it hard to believe that in a few hours, it would not only be closer, but 10 feet or more of water would be covering where I stood. The rock formations, created by the erosion of the water, are in a variety of shapes that I would call…suggestive. Mother Nature apparently has a dirty mind (or maybe it’s me). It took everything in me not to say out loud what they resembled; but suffice to say there seem to be a lot of phallus-looking rocks and sea cave openings that looked like I was peering into birth canals. My dad was just as low-brow as me and would have gotten a kick out of it. So I decided to scatter some of his ashes in a sea cave. I knew that with the incoming tide, it would be carried away by the rushing waters but somehow, that just seemed right.

But of course, I was weeping and there were hordes of rambunctious children trying to climb all over every surface they could find. So I needed to find a hidden ledge to scatter his ashes and would provide me the space to compose myself. Fortunately, the sun was burning off the misty fog and I could put on my sunglasses without looking too conspicuous once I got a hold of myself. And the rangers were starting to herd people back towards the staircase since the tide was coming in; so soon after I got myself together everyone needed to leave the vicinity of the cave anyway. Every once in awhile, I would peek around the rangers to see the water slowly overtaking what had been dry land just 10 minutes prior. Finally, a little after noon, I decided to climb the staircase as I didn’t want to have to wade through water to reach the lowest steps. I stood with some other tourists for about an hour and watched as kayakers floated between the tops of the rock. I know it sounds ridiculous but it was mind-blowing to keep looking at the water levels rising like that and submerging entire large rocks that people had just been climbing over an hour or so ago.

At 1pm, I realized that I needed to get a move on because I had a good five hour drive to my next destination. I slowly made my way uphill, realizing that there were considerably more people in the park than there were when I first got there. I was glad I had gotten myself up early to take advantage of the relative crowd-free environment. The second low tide promised to have considerably more people trying to take selfies and photos of their friends pretending to push over the rocks. (Seriously, is that in some leaflet they hand out at the entrance? Take photos with all 6 of these annoying poses and get a free tshirt or something?)

By now the sun was high in the sky and it was definitely top down weather. I got into my car, lathered up on the sunscreen, and pushed the button to create that satisfying rumble of the engine starting up. The top came down, drawing envious glances from at least three groups of people making their way to the entry gate. And I took off back up Route 114, through Moncton, eventually heading east on the Trans-Canada Highway, back towards Nova Scotia.

The damn Cobequid Pass psyched me out, threatening rain but never actually delivering. But it was enough for me to put the top up for a stretch of time. Sitting in the toll booth waiting for my change, I used it as an opportunity to rectify my earlier mistake and the toll taker woman admired my car and top-down status before handing me my change and sending me on my way to speed along the very hilly sections prior to hitting Truro.

Near Truro, I exited onto 102 South heading towards Halifax. By this point, I was less fearful of authorities looking for speeders. While I usually allowed a pace car to go in front of me to attract all of the attention, at times even those cars outpaced me, despite me going at least 20kph over the posted speed limit. I took Highway 102 all the way past the Halifax metro area, eventually finding myself on Highway 103. About five hours after I left Hopewell Rocks, I ended up in Mahone Bay, where I had accommodations in a B&B for the night.

Seeing the tides at the Bay of Fundy was one of those things that I was really worried melanoma might have robbed me of. It was definitely something that, despite my sadness over missing my dad so much, made me thankful and grateful I had a chance to go see one of Nature’s coolest and subtle experiences.


More birthday trip adventure coming up next…

Bday Trip 2018 – Island Driving

After a long day of driving the Cabot Trail and then driving all the way to Charlottetown, PEI, I was delighted by my next accommodation – Sydney Boutique Inn and Suites. Once a convent, the hotel is well-located and incredibly stylish and comfortable. In fact, it was the nicest place I stayed on my entire trip (so naturally, it was the one I spent the least amount of time in). The shower was heavenly after a long day in the driver’s seat and it felt great to wash off the accumulated layers of sunscreen. The bed was seriously better than my bed at home and I slept like a rock for the first time in months. The only small negative was that there was some weird bug in the room and when I tried to liberate it out of my room and into the hallway, the ungrateful bastard bit me twice! That was not a nice way to repay me after I spared its life. It itched like a mofo for days afterwards. I swear, it’s a requirement that I get bit by some bug at least once a trip…

After my great night’s sleep (I forgot I could sleep like that), I got up to drizzly weather. Damn it, it was not top down weather! I loaded up the car and set out. Small confession, I’m not really an Anne of Green Gables fan. I mean, I read the books when I was younger, but I wouldn’t have made the trek out to PEI just to see where the author of the books lived and drew inspiration from. And that apparently makes me an oddity in PEI tourist ranks, because you’re either on the island to go to Anne pilgrimage sites or you’re a Quebec family camping. I decided to go do the east coast drive since the central section was Anne country and the west coast scenic drive was far from where I was starting. Driving through farmland, I ended up behind a line of campers that were apparently heading towards Greenwich and the national park. Mercifully on Route 16, everyone seemed to peel off to the west while I took the deserted route east. The hilly road had trees growing practically to the shoulder. And pretty much every other homestead had a For Sale sign out front, so if you’re looking for a somewhat isolated spot to hang your hat with waterviews, there are plenty of options in PEI for you.

Eventually, I made it out to East Point, the imaginatively named eastern point of the island. There is a lighthouse there that I decided to check out. While the lighthouse itself is standard, the cliffs offered a view of the sea and the seals hanging out close to shore. And the suddenly, a red fox popped up over the edge of the cliff. The swallows that had nested in the upper reaches of the cliff were none too happy with the fox, but the small number of tourists hanging out sure were delighted. The fox knew how to please an audience and at one point, plopped down in the dirt right beyond the fence line to pose for photos (and yes, I got more than one).

PEI fox

What does the fox say? Absolutely nothing… East Point, PEI, July 2018

After a bit, I got back into the car and headed out in the drizzle to a beach that was only 15-20 minutes away. At Basin Point, there is a sandy beach popular with locals and tourists alike. And the cool thing is that the sands squeak when you walk on them, hence the nickname Singing Sands. Even in the chilly drizzle, there were a ton of beachgoers hanging out. I kept walking away from the crowds and eventually found myself in a lonely stretch of the beach.

“Hey Dad,” I asked, “how about here?” You see, I graduated with my master’s degree from a university located near a Florida beach that also has sand that sings. My mom and dad really enjoyed that beach and I thought it may be an appropriate place to scatter some more of my dad’s ashes. But I wasn’t sure. That is until a couple came into view around a dune and the guy was wearing a Cleveland Cavaliers jersey. I hadn’t seen anyone wearing sports gear that wasn’t Canadian and suddenly, right after I ask that question – here comes this guy. Oddly enough, I had also seen right at that time, someone had carved Nicole 2018 into the sand…Like I said earlier, I might be seeing significance where there is none; but I opted to take that as approval.

I found a deserted spot near a large piece of driftwood and in a shallow pit made by the wind, I scattered some more of his ashes. I was crying pretty heavily and whispered a benediction over the sand as I poured.

PEI

Basin Head Beach, PEI, July 2018

I waited some time to let the tears stop before trying to compose myself and then found a branch so I could write a message to my dad in the sand…

Only when the rain really started coming down did I decide to head back to the car to continue my journey, this time westbound Route 2. The tiny downtown of Souris is charming and the lighthouse there offered better photos than the one at East Point (although lacking in the wildlife spotting). I drove through Rollo Bay, sad that they didn’t hand out Rollos to drivers on the way into town (I would have driven through a few times if that was the case). I then picked up Route 4 heading southeast. For whatever reason, I figured I would check out the town of Cardigan but when I drove through, I have no idea what I was thinking. It took me 20 seconds to drive through the entire commercial section. It was also still drizzling and I was getting crabby.

At that point, I thought about driving all the way to check out the lighthouse at Point Prim but something in my psyche rebelled. It was raining harder at this point and for whatever reason, the landscape was not inspiring me to continue. Finally, I realized that I had reached a stage in my trip where I was pushing myself to go see stuff that I really didn’t have my heart into seeing.

I pulled over and reset my GPS to take me back to Charlottetown. On the way out of town, I happened to drive right past the Cows Ice Cream Factory and said to myself, well this is a tourist destination I probably shouldn’t miss. So I found a parking spot and stood in line for 15 minutes to get a scoop of Gooey Mooey (burnt sugar ice cream with a caramel ribbon, small chocolate caramel pieces, and chocolate chunks) in a freshly made waffle cone. It was definitely worth the wait. Sadly, they didn’t have any baseball hats for sale in the gift shop and I wasn’t about to buy a t-shirt that had the word COWS all big across the chest. Even I know I would just be setting myself up for some ill-mannered teasing…

After replenishing my sugar levels, I made a slight detour to Argyle Shore where there are rusty red cliffs that plunge into the Northumberland Strait. I could see people way out on the tidal flats searching for mussels and oysters… And then I pointed Thor in the direction towards the Confederation Bridge, paid the $47 CAD to cross (they take credit cards thankfully), and then drove about an hour or so through New Brunswick farmland and forest to the outskirts of Moncton, where my next hotel awaited. I figured I would get there at a reasonable time, try to get something to eat that was more substantial than the turkey slices and carrots I had been feasting on for the past few days, and get to bed early.

However, I rolled into Moncton and discovered that the exit I needed to get to my hotel was closed due to construction and then I had to drive a few miles past that to a roundabout where I could effectively turn around to go back the way I came. And then of course at the exit, I couldn’t turn left. So I drove to the first place I could turn around and impulsively decided to stop at a Tim Horton’s and just get something to eat there. That was not a good idea. Don’t get me wrong, ordinarily I love Tim Horton’s but this was the worst Tim Horton’s I had ever had. The ciabatta roll was burnt, the potato wedges were mushy, and I threw half of it away. It occurred to me that I should just make my way to the hotel and call it a day…


Another installment of my bday trip coming tomorrow…

Bday Trip 2018 – The Cabot Trail (or The Day I Spent Mostly Driving)

I woke up in Ingonish surprisingly well-rested. I decided to get up and explore a bit more of the rocky beach down the path from the lodge I was staying. You see, I had to see if the beach was suitable for something very near and dear to my heart…

When my dad lay dying a month or so ago, I told him all about this trip and what I was planning on seeing and doing. He faintly smiled and said it sounded like a wonderful trip. I whispered to him that I would take him with me. And so I did, carrying a small aluminum bottle of his ashes with me throughout my birthday adventure.

Carefully clutching the bottle, I made my way down to the rocky shore. A young mother and her two young daughters, whom I had met the night before watching the sunset, were there splashing in the surf while grandpa looked on. Seeing him sent a dagger straight through my heart, thinking how fortunate this woman was to be able to still spend time with her father. I quickly walked away from their happy scene to hide my tears and get some distance where they wouldn’t try to engage me in conversation. I feared that my voice would fail me, leaving me with great gulping sobs as the only sound I could make.

Shortly, I found myself alone on a large, windswept beach littered with thousands and thousands of stones of all shapes and sizes. I stopped at one particular boulder on the beach, contemplating whether it was the right place for me to scatter my dad’s ashes for the first time. It just didn’t feel right so I kept scrambling over the rocks when I saw it, a massive boulder halfway between the sea and the tree line with a large hole right in the middle of the rock’s top. As I walked towards it, I got a sense of “yes, here is the place”. I carefully unscrewed the top and as I poured a small amount of my dad’s ashes into the rock, I whispered to the wind, “You were always my rock Daddy. My love for you will last longer than it will take to wear this stone away.” I was bawling (shit, I’m bawling now typing this) and grateful that I was able to find such a solitary space where I could weep in peace.

I stayed in that spot for a long time, until I was cried out and then let the wind dry my cheeks before I made my way back up the hill to finish packing the car.

The day was crystal clear, sunny and warm. Although I had fully expected it to be misty, rainy, and cold when I was driving the Cabot Trail, I had picture postcard weather. And perfect weather to drive a convertible with the top down. I lathered up on copious amounts of sunscreen and set off. Past Ingonish, the road basically parallels the shoreline, so close you practically dip your hand into the water from your car (not really, but pretty damn close). There are plenty of blogs that have much more lavish descriptions of the exquisite beauty, the ruggedly awe-inspiring views from the road and many scenic overlooks, and the absolute joy it is driving in such a gorgeous setting. So I won’t try to compete. What I will say is that going counterclockwise is not nearly as frightful as some blogs make it out to be (although I would not want to try it in an RV or towing a camper); but then again, I had my beautiful bright-ass orange Mustang GT convertible to negotiate the twisting roads with.

At Lakies Head, there was a turnout to park and drink in the view. When I’m on solo roadtrips like this, I make it a point to pull into every one of those that strike my fancy. And the view did not disappoint. I ended up chatting with the two women who were in the car that followed me into the parking area. One woman is from Ontario while the other flew in from Australia for this girls’ trip. They were both celebrating their 60th birthdays this year and that was their way to mark a momentous occasion. They loved my car (who didn’t) and took some photos of me doing cheese-y kiss-y faces while draped across the hood (I am really a good sport because that certainly was not my idea). They also had two stuffed moose that they took photos of with the spectacular scenery in the background, which I thought was an awesome idea. I regretted not stopping at the airport gift shop to pick a moose up myself.

Lakies Head

Lakies Head Lookout, Cape Breton Highlands National Park, Nova Scotia

By now, I’m sure you’re all wondering, what name did you bestow upon your fantastic rental car? Because as noted a few posts back, I name pretty much everything. This car gave me some issues though. I originally was trying to call it Trop, as in Tropicana, as in the orange juice. But the car resisted that frivolous name and I kept calling it Thor. Now, my own beloved Mustang GT convertible at home in Austin is already named Thor and it felt wrong to call both of them the same name. But the car was strong and beautiful and built and attracted attention everywhere we went – so very much as if I were to ride around with Chris Hemsworth himself – that Thor just seemed fitting. As a point of clarification, the Mustang I own is called Thor, not after the delectable Mr. Hemsworth (because it was like a decade after I bought the car that the movies came out) but after the old school Norse god; because whenever I start the engine, it feels like I unleash a rumble of thunder.

Anyway, where was I? Ah yes, Lakies Head… I got back into the car and wound my way up passed a number of other rocky coves and hilltops overlooking the incredible scenery. Then, the road turned inland to cut across the top of Cape Breton Island, through the steep and mountainous terrain. As I passed the turn-off for Meat Cove, I was really glad I decided not to try to find that in the dark. I would have either missed it completely and ended up in Cheticamp instead or hit a moose and then careened off the road, down the mountain slope and into the ocean. Neither would have been good outcomes…

At a lookout halfway across the inland portion, I stopped, mostly to let the car behind me pass so I could gawk without worry. But the car turned in behind me. Out came a mother and daughter who immediately wanted to know about my car – how much fun is it to drive, does it get good gas mileage, etc. We ended up chatting for a time. The daughter was in her early 20s and mom close to my age, which kinda threw me for a loop realizing that I was old enough to have a kid in their 20s if I had had the urge to procreate. We joked around about following each other around the Cabot Trail and then I revved the engine on my way back to the road so they could hear how awesome it sounded.

Prior to reaching Cheticamp, there is a trailhead for the Skyline Trail, one of the most hyped (and deservedly so) trails in all of Cape Breton Highlands National Park. I found a parking spot in the crowded lot and took off on the trail. It was simply sublime. The weather was sunny and about 85F / 30C; the trail dips in and out of forested sections, providing shade when you need it most; and I manage to time my arrival to get a mostly solitary hike. I spent some time ruminating about whether my dad would have approved of my decision to scatter his ashes and silently talking to him in my head. At a wildlife viewing platform, I climbed to the top where I was able to enjoy the tranquility for a good 5 minutes before other hikers reached me. And on my way down, I passed a girl who had a t-shirt with my dad’s nickname emblazoned across her chest. And then not more than 5 minutes later, something grabbed my attention and I noticed a woman wearing a shirt that read “I Feel Like a Star”. I get it, when you’re looking for signs, you will see them everywhere. But it set my mind at ease and honestly, if I’m deluding myself, at least I’m not hurting myself.

The trail ends at a rugged cliff that provides a spectacular view of the ocean and the Cabot Trail itself. I am tired of repeating how freaking gorgeous everything is up there but you’re going to have to hear it again… My goodness, what an amazingly beautiful place. On my way back, I saw the mom and daughter from earlier who were on their way to the end of the trail. I promised them it was worth the last 15 minutes left on the hike.

Skyline

Cabot Trail from Skyline, Cape Breton Highlands, July 2018

I finished the hike and got back on the road. I had a significant amount of driving left to do. Not just completing the Cabot Trail (at that point I was a little more than halfway through the loop) but when plotting out my journey, I decided that I was going to end my day in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island – about 5.5 hours from where I currently was. Granted, I decided on this plan of action prior to tweaking my back; but fortunately, the seats in the Mustang were really comfortable. And that’s not always a given in a car that is a muscle car rather than a touring vehicle.

But of course I couldn’t just drive straight through when there were still scenic overlooks to check out! I made probably another 6-7 short stops, drinking in the scenery and taking a thousand photos. I somehow ended up behind a vehicle with an Ohio license plate, the only time I ever saw one on the entire trip (another sign from Dad?). The further south you get from the Cape Breton Highlands National Park, the land becomes slightly more tamed and when the Cabot Trail turned inland just south of Cap La Moine, I opted to continue driving the entire 185-mile loop rather than extending down the western shore. I knew I was passing up some more beautiful shoreline scenery; but thought to myself, hey, now I can say I drove the entire Cabot Trail from end-to-end. The interior of the island features mountainous slopes covered in large stands of pine trees. You could actually smell the wood from all of the trees (not the resinous pine sap smell, which I was expecting). There are also a number of rivers and streams that crisscross the landscape. And for a driver, the roads inland are practically deserted. I would go 15-20 minutes without seeing another vehicle.

I finally rejoined the TransCanada Highway just south of Baddeck. I eyed up the sign that pointed east towards the Newfoundland ferries and for a split, impulsive second thought about ditching my plan to head to PEI. But I had a prepaid hotel night waiting for me in Charlottetown (and one of the reasons I prepay hotel nights on tightly scheduled journeys like this is so I don’t unexpectedly end up in Newfoundland sleeping in my car and missing my flight back home because I didn’t think through the consequences of my impulsiveness), so I turned east, driving back to Port Hastings where I crossed the bridge back to mainland Nova Scotia.

I drove the same route I had yesterday along the TransCanada Highway, but this time I was less timid about speeding and passing other vehicles. Thor, my muscle bound Mustang, actually was a little too fun to drive. The response from when I would hammer down on the accelerator in a passing situation generated some force and every time I looked down at the speedometer after passing someone, I generally hovered around the 160 kph mark. I would say that was slightly above the posted 110 kph speed limit. Gee, I wonder why I was buying gas once a day? Actually, I got really good gas mileage for saying it is a GT and I have a lead foot. The GPS system in the car wanted me to take the PEI ferry even when I purposefully drove past the exit. I couldn’t take the ferry because the ferry does not allow one-way reservations (only standby on the next ferry that has space which in summer is less likely to happen than me getting invited backstage to an Adam Ant concert and not making an idiot of myself). The day after, I had to end up in Moncton, which is way closer to the Confederation Bridge, so I wasn’t about to make a round-trip ferry reservation. The interesting thing is that PEI is like Hotel California. It’s free to go to the Island, either by ferry or bridge. But when you want to leave is when they really make it difficult by making you pay – and pay significantly. The bridge toll is $47 Canadian Dollars, while the ferry is $78 CAD if you book in advance online. So, long story sorta short, I drove the extra 100km to the bridge.

In Nova Scotia on the TransCanada Highway west of Truro on the way to New Brunswick, there is a 45km (28mi) section that has a $4 CAD toll. This toll highway cuts through the Cobequid Pass, an elevation of around 400 meters (1200ft). Geologists say that the Cobequid Mountains are three times older than the Rocky Mountains, and 200 million years ago were probably as tall as the Rockies, but erosion has obviously worn down their height. Anyway, the reason why I’m telling you this is that in a convertible, this section gets chilly and there is a better than usual chance of rain. I ended up pulling over to the side of the road and putting the top up right before a significant downpour. And behind me was the most sturdy rainbow I have ever seen (yet another sign from Dad? C’mon, give me that hope).

The rain didn’t last long and before I knew it, I was pulling off at an exit so I could put the top down again. The Canadians love roundabouts, even when you think you’re in the middle of a highway. I am deeply grateful that I had GPS in my car, even though her voice got slightly aggravated when I would make her recalculate (and oddly, she didn’t actually say “recalculating” but you could hear it implied in her voice). So I managed to take all the correct roundabout exits to finally get me to the Confederation Bridge that links New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island. Confession time… I am actually really nervous on bridges. Not pathologically frightened, but uncomfortable and worrying about whether the engineer got his load calculations correct and whether the contractors used substandard rebar and concrete mixtures when constructing the thing. Don’t look at me like that. I live in the United States where our infrastructure is crumbling daily. The 2017 Infrastructure Report Card from the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the national infrastructure a D+. So I have a legitimate reason to feel that way about bridges.

The Confederation Bridge is 8 miles (12.9km) long, one lane in either direction. It is the longest bridge in the world that crosses ice-covered water. (Now obviously in late July, there is no ice when I drove over the Northumberland Strait but…). The bridge opened on May 31, 1997. The entire time I was driving across it (and it seemed to take a very long time at the posted 50 kph speed limit) I was thinking – 1997 is 21 years ago. Has the ice and freezing temperatures degraded the life expectancy of the concrete? The rebar? Why is the damn thing so high? If a section fails, I’m going to be too far above the water to even survive the fall, let alone be able to swim to land… Yes readers, be glad you weren’t in the car with me going over the bridge…

Finally after what felt like a half hour, I made it to the PEI side of the bridge. I don’t think I quite realized how big the island really is just by looking at the map. From the bridge, I still had about 45-50 minutes before I got to the outskirts of Charlottetown. I drove through a rural countryside that looked suspiciously like rural southern Ohio, very farming-centric rolling hills. The GPS took me a dead-body way through back streets in Charlottetown neighborhoods before finally depositing me in the parking lot of my boutique hotel. I had had quite a day…I had driven 456.2 km (283 miles) and over 7 hours of total driving time, seeing some of the most spectacular scenery on the planet. And I got to do that with the top down 95% of the way!


My driving journey through the Canadian Maritimes will continue in the next installment because this post is getting way too long.