Open Roads and Simple Reminders

Having traveled outside of my country far more than I had ever travelled the surroundings of my own province, I’ve often felt rather guilty and disloyal to the great and beautiful Canada. It was my mission since moving East to see my homeland in its most stunning form.  I was asked questions about where I lived many times while abroad and always struggled to answer them truthfully. That being said, I was never the only one to stammer and studder when asked about their own backyard. It’s so common to spend your life visiting the most romanticized destinations around the world and miss the beauty sitting directly in front of you. Perhaps it’s the size of Canada that stopped me or curiosity of the far away fairytale land of Europe took over but frankly, travel is travel and being in a new environment no matter how close to your home town is always exciting and new. Living here has inspired me to see every inch of Canada from top to bottom and my appreciation has sky rocketed.

I will always be a solo nomad at heart. There’s nothing I appreciate more than my own company. Which is why I decided to take this small, two day journey on my own. I needed to disconnect from the world (and the internet) for a little while and just breathe. Ever since returning home from my trip, I try to incorporate small moments of solitude to recharge and re-evaluate where my mind is sitting and what my priorities need to be. If this isn’t something you already do, I highly suggest you take the time to do it. Taking care of yourself is super important and allows you to move forward in such a healthy way. The only way one deserves to move forward, really.

The drive up was about 4 hours and nothing but open road. The highways in Nova Scotia aren’t anything like the highways in Ontario. They are much less intimidating and are surrounded by lush greenery. None of this big-401-concrete-wall-4 lane-crap we have to deal with back home. People take it easy here and it’s so much more relaxing to drive such a long distance in an environment that allows for sight seeing along the way. When I had listened to Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros for so long that the CD was skipping on track 4 every time and even CBC radio had fizzled out, I drove in silence for a while, almost in a meditative state by the endless road ahead.

I was very excited to be staying in a hostel again. Yes, I know I work in one every day but the hostel experience is extremely different behind the desk. I was happy to be a guest that night and delighted to finally meet Carmen, the owner of Bear on the Lake hostel right at the foot of the Cabot Trail. This adorable place felt like somebody’s home. It was warm, welcoming and simple. There were 3 girls in the kitchen when I walked inside. Two of them I had already recognized as previous guests from my hostel back home. We all introduced ourselves and the conversation flowed instantly. Each of us came from a different part of the world (a circle I was grateful to be a part of). There was England, Switzerland, Germany and of course, Halifax, all represented in this cozy little kitchen. It was Carmen’s idea to take us all to a remote trail off the beat and path for a hike before it got dark. I’m always a sucker for the abnormal routes so I jumped at the chance. I was already itching to snap on my pack, tie up my shoes (that have truly seen their fair share of the world at this point) and walk again. How long had it been since I had just walked to…well…walk? To be honest, almost one year ago to the date in Ireland. How silly of me for forgetting the beauty of walking for the sake of walking. I made a mental note to do this at home.

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This trail really was hidden and I never would have been able to find it on my own. Once the 5 of us began trotting up the steep hill, panting away and chatting about everything we could think of, I felt alive again. It had been a rough couple of weeks and I had felt unfocused in many areas of my life. This had been what I needed to show me where I felt compelled to direct my energy. What made it even more enjoyable was the friendship I made with a beautiful lady named Stephanie. We seemed to connect in ways I hadn’t been able to find in anyone over the past year. There is something about a fellow traveller that is like no other. There’s an air about them, a mind-set and an energy that is indescribable. Our conversation was interrupted by excited exclamations of “ME TOO!” and “I know exactly what you mean”, every second it seemed. I missed feeling that and I missed conversation that made a 2 hour walk seem like a 5 minute stroll. The scenery was beautiful and I felt like I had gone back in time to the Camino days where I would look down at my feet and listen to the sound they made as they stomped against the dirt path. I missed connecting with a similar soul. My mind and body felt refreshed and relieved when we reached the end and with adrenalin pumping through our veins, we headed off to one of the most famous pubs in Cape Breton: The Red Shoe.

There are way too many things about Cape Breton that remind me of Ireland. It looked the same, smelled the same and felt the same as the rural and open spaces in Ireland did. I felt like I had magically shown up there by mistake. Which I couldn’t complain about, obviously. Stephanie and I had just shared our deep love for that stunning country and I felt it in my veins again how much it meant to me. This pub was packed to the brim and we had just walked in from out of the rain. It was warm and low lit inside. It had that feeling all the Irish pubs do. They’re like a safe haven from the harsh weather and snuggle you like a blanket. Bright fiddle music filled the air and I had a smile across my face the entire time, tapping my foot and thinking “one year ago, I was actually in Ireland and this year I get second best.” I felt pretty blessed to be there right then. Our arrival back at the hostel was greeted with a family that had come to stay. We spent the evening cooking dinner and listening to classic Canadian artists belt their tunes while we sipped beers. It was such a spontaneous end to a first day away and I loved every minute of it.

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My alarm went off at 5am the next morning and I got ready right away to get my start on the Cabot Trail before the sun came up. What I wasn’t aware of was the trail’s length. I thought it was something you just walked but it is, in fact, a provincial park and it takes 5 hours to drive the length of the road. You get to pick and choose what trails to hike and there are so many available. I planned an itinerary the night before and was on my way at the exact time I said I would leave. The morning atmosphere couldn’t have played out any better. There was a magical fog casting its glow over the road and tips of the trees around me. I was lucky enough to be driving as the big, flaming, orange and blaring ball of sun rose up from the horizon and cast its glow behind me as I drove forward.

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I can’t even begin to describe to you how stunning the colours were on each and every tree. Somebody once told me that Cape Breton feels like an entirely different part of the world and my god, were they ever right. I felt so secluded and safe driving around the twisted roads and alongside the coastline. It’s safe to say that every 5 minutes I was hopping out of my car to take a photo or gawking with my tongue hanging out at how incredible the scenery was. I even started talking to myself at one point because I needed to express, out loud, how amazing my surroundings were. I just kept thinking to myself “nobody is going to believe me when I tell them I was in a place this beautiful.” It was that stunning. I started developing a thing for roads as I moved along. Probably because I spent hours and hours staring at one but I was captivated by the way they photographed. I loved their crisp, straight lines and the way they all lead to nowhere in particular. They symbolize so much and depending on the surroundings of the road, each one is different. They all have a different vibe. That’s the way I felt, at least. Which compelled me to daringly stand in the middle of the road several times to snap a shot.

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My biggest fear while hiking was the risk of bears. If you’re going to see a moose or a bear, it would be on the Cabot Trail. What I wasn’t prepared for was the coyotes. I sauntered up to the entry of the first and most popular trail named Skyline and prepared myself for the hike before noticing a sign at the entrance. It read: Coyote Habitat and then proceeded to give me clear instructions (with pictures) on what to do if a coyote approaches you. In a nutshell, you fight back. You actually throw stones at these bastards until they leave you alone. I kid you not. I didn’t think that wildlife would ever be a fear of mine but I was petrified to the point of not moving. It clearly said to hike with friends and a walking stick, neither of which were with me. I began to panic and debate with myself over how stupid it was that I was letting a one in a million chance deter me from taking a pleasant hike with myself. I was so grateful when a couple walked over to me and were more than happy to have me walk alongside them. What didn’t help was the story they told me about a young girl my age, from Ontario at that, who was killed by a coyote attack on this exact trail a few years ago. Just what I wanted to hear stranger! Thanks! Actually, he was a delight to walk with aside from the warnings. Him and his wife seemed to have done a lot of travel themselves in the past so we spent most of the walk talking about Italy. Reaching the lookout point took my breath away. There isn’t an undesirable area of Cape Breton, I am sure of it. Every inch tells a story, every inch is full of history and every inch is appreciated by its locals. I was thankful to experience it with the kindness of strangers. For the record, no coyotes were seen that day but needless to say, I didn’t walk alone from then on. I wasn’t even going to think about risking it.

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The rest of my day was spent driving quite a bit but as I said, every minute was exciting and each turn surprised me. I was in and out of my sturdy little car quite often and photographing every lookout point I passed. There were tiny little craft shops and bakeries along the way. I had to stop for a minute and devour the most delicious blueberry turnover I’ve ever had. It was still warm and flakey but soft and gooey on the inside. I think I might write a blog post specifically about this blueberry turnover. It was that good. Anyway, everything was the East Coast at its best. It was the most maritime-y place I’ve ever been and I fell in love with it more and more throughout the day. There were moments where I was just driving along listening to some radio station playing celtic tunes and smiling like a goon. Everything about those moments was perfect and peaceful and rejuvenating. It affirmed the exact reason why I came there in the first place.

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Before heading back, I was told to stop in a place called Neil’s Harbour and try the fish and chips at the Chowder House. It wasn’t hard to miss and looked like one of those hole in the wall shacks where you get exactly what you pay for without all the frills. Everything about it was very endearing, including the checkerboard table cloths. Another thing I missed was going to restaurants alone and reading my book. I whipped out Eat, Pray, Love which I had been reading for the millionth time and waited for my meal. The fish and chips really were incredible. The fish must have been caught seconds before being battered and placed on my plate, it was that fresh. Then, without hesitation, I wandered over to this little lighthouse that doubled as an ice-cream shop. I was greeted by a very happy man in his late twenties who seemed to be so at peace working in a place like this. We ended up chatting for at least an hour about how he serves the most ice-cream in Cape Breton and runs this place all on his own. We talked about our favourite books and delved into spirituality and his adoration for philosophy. Everyone here moves at a different pace. I imagine growing up in a place like that would have its perks and its downfalls but I don’t doubt that it would cause you to be a spiritual thinker.

Driving home that night was exhausting and ended with an experience that boosted my faith in humanity even higher than it already was. The inevitable happened. After years of driving and testing fate with the gas bar, I finally ran out. My car didn’t actually come to a complete stop, but I was driving that sucker on fumes for a good half hour and still wasn’t able to locate a gas station. I started to panic and felt a slight lift when I spotted a gas symbol at the next exit. After driving another 10 minutes in tears and sure that any minute I would putter to a stop in the middle of nowhere and instantly become a coyote’s dinner, I came across the station and guess what? It was closed. Dark as can be. I don’t know how I get so lucky, I don’t know how big that horseshoe up my butt is (I like to think it’s a good mix of energy and manifestation instead), but I spotted a small shop across the road in this tiny, pitch black town that was just closing up. If I had gotten there 5 minutes later, I would have been sleeping in my car that night. Did I mention my phone also died? I banged on the locked door and the lady inside came out with a huge smile to greet my tear streaked, scrunched up face. Man, will I ever grow out of this crying thing? Probably not. I was gutted and scared and frankly just plain tired from driving so much all day that anything would have brought me to tears. This amazing woman agreed to lead me to the nearest gas station while I followed her in my car. Should anything happen, she was more than happy to make sure I got gas delivered to me. She had just closed her shop, it was 11pm and she was probably dying to get home and sleep and yet, her willingness to help a stranger like me poured out of her. I was way too grateful when she dropped me off at the Shell station and even offered to cover any gas expenses I may have needed. I didn’t take anything from her but was touched at her compassion and empathy. These are the things I remember when I come across a tough situation. I don’t remember that drive home as the time I almost ran out of gas and cried in the middle of an abandoned town. I remember it as the time a very, very nice lady showed me that people are really, really good. I really, really love them.

I slept well that night. I dreamt about colours upon colours and open roads.

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