Flying over America you watch snaking rivers, pointed mountains, large deserts sprinkled with towns, and patchwork farms slide underneath. Of course, mostly you read or distract yourself from the journey, peering out only now and then to get your bearings below.
Driving, however, is different. You have to pay attention to the road and the areas around you. You see how the landscape changes, sometimes slowly and sometimes with the passage of a river over to a new world. You climb into the shadows of snaggled mountains, blink into the blinding light reflecting from ice and snow. Most of all, you see the sky.
In the east, the sky is hemmed in by trees and buildings, blue but small. When you cross the Mississippi, the sky begins to open, an ever-widening vista until you reach the Rocky Mountains and can see from one set of peaks across the valley to the next, the vast sky whirling above unbroken by anything more than a short building or an RV park.
This summer, we headed north, taking a boat through the Thousand Islands in New York. Skye absorbed the tour guide’s bad jokes as absolute fact, River learned how to say “Chris-Craft!” every time one crossed our path. The sky there was a wide channel lined with Canadian and US trees and islands of both nationalities sprouting up with video-game randomness.
Further north, in Prince Edward Island, we went on a Green Gables pilgrimage. The wildflowers were out in abundance and Skye could hear Anne singing their praises, but the White Way of Delight was no longer in bloom. We found the Lake of Shining Waters, many beaches, farms, goats and horses, drank Raspberry Cordial, sang and danced with the pipers, and I sat on the playgrounds and watched the sky. It was different, as though clearly belonging to a small island floating among the clouds.
The rolling landscape meant you never saw much past the next hill, yet the sky wasn’t broken by trees. In this, it was like a smaller-sky version of Minnesota. And the clouds were lower, giving us the effect of being high up in the clouds. The perfect temperature days drifted together in meals of PEI potatoes, musicals, and excursions to learn more about the island’s history.
The ferry boat to Nova Scotia served breakfast. You had your choice of 1 or 2 eggs with toast – potatoes optional. Or just toast, if that’s all you wanted. Local musicians played on deck and locals regaled me of all the places I was missing in my tour of eastern Canada.
Getting off the ferry we turned north and boarded another ferry, this one overnight. I’d booked in advance, but not far enough to get a cabin, so we curled up in the defunct internet lounge, making a bed for the kids on the benches while I looked out into the night to watch the water slip by below. Even if there were whales, there was no way to see them until the sky begin to lighten, well before 5am. Our clocks had slipped off an hour and a half and we were coming into dock in Newfoundland.
Our first ride up the Trans-Canada Highway was through steeply sided mountains whose tops were covered in mist. So even if there was a large sky, it was obscured by the dense fog. And we had to focus on driving as the winds gusted and could quickly blow you out of your lane. Thankfully, there was rarely any other traffic.
North, north, north. Finally the sun came out in time for a tour through Gros Morne, full of exquisite trees of true forest green and steep glacier-carved fjords. We stayed in a school converted to a hotel, exhausted from our lack of sleep on the ferry and missed our chance to see the aurora borealis dancing in the sky that night.
The next day was again wet, a constant thick fog that coated everything in raindrops. Despite preparation, better foul weather gear was needed to truly enjoy to archeology and everyone appreciated the re-built Viking houses, insulated with sod and heated with large central fires. The blacksmith happily put Skye to work pumping his bellows, though she would have preferred to learn spinning. But if you don’t work, you don’t get to eat if you’re a Viking, so work she did.
At the tippy end of Newfound land, looking out to the sea, we ate in a bright green trailer at a gourmet restaurant. Perhaps not worth the trip in itself, but excellent seafood well prepared and comforting in the ongoing drizzle. The iceberg that had been floating off the coast only the day before had finally melted, so we missed seeing an iceberg, but the whales put on a show, blowing and surfacing right out the window.
When the rain did stop, we learned of the black fly, a tiny but horrible insect that ignores even deet repellent. Where it bites, it leaves a trail of blood and we were all soon covered in tiny bleeding bites and hiding in our tent instead of exploring the crystal clear water of the lake or looking for the moose that was wandering along the shoreline.
The tableland mountains looked exactly like you’d expect, with flat tops hidden in mist above, thick cloud formations disguising the height. I was busy counting all the different versions of the watch for moose road signs. There was the standard moose, the moose with extra-large antlers, the moose with no antlers, the moose head in profile, the moose towering over the car, the moose trying to step on the wreaked car…
At a seafood restaurant at a lighthouse, one of many, River made friends with the small baby on the next table. The dad, also chatty, shared that this was their first road trip with their new baby and they’d tried to do too much. I was able to share some tips on timing and looking for playgrounds and other kid-friendly stops between the various things the adults want to see.
“I’ve been traveling with River since he was about that age,” I said, “I know he doesn’t get much out of it except the time with us.”
“Yea, but you get a lot out of it,” the dad responded. “It’s nice to be traveling again and I want to take my kid along.”