Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Just Around the Corner to the Light of Day

I have just returned home from a quick day trip from Washington, DC to New York City and back. Knowing I would have to be up and ready to go by 5am this morning in order to catch my bus to Manhattan at 6:15am, it was difficult for me to sleep. Add to this the fact that I had a report to finish and e-mail to New York before my arrival. This said, I was up and at the train station in plenty of time for my departure.

I settled into my seat and lightly snoozed for the short trip up to Baltimore. There we would pick up additional passengers before continuing non-stop express to Mid-Town Manhattan where we were scheduled to arrive around 10:45am. It was still dark as my bus pulled into Baltimore, but the sun began to peak over Fort McHenry and the harbor as we slipped out of the city on our way to points northeast. I snoozed some more as we cruised the Maryland and Delaware turnpikes to Wilmington, and I awoke for good as we crossed the Delaware Memorial Bridge into the great state of New Jersey.

From there it was a beeline up the Jersey Turnpike to the Big Apple, passing through the forests and marshes of South Jersey, the bedroom suburbs of Philadelphia and the western edge of the Pine Barrens, passing Trenton and finally into the outskirts of New York City. Soon the skyscrapers on the lower end of Manhattan came into view, the superstructure of One World Trade Center, under construction on the site where the twin towers stood until the morning of September 11, 2001, now rising over the skyline. At Weehauken the bus descended into the Lincoln Tunnel only to emerge a few minutes later in the shadowy morning canyons of Manhattan where it delivered its passengers to Penn Station at Madison Square Garden.

I spent a delightful day on the Upper East Side and before I knew it I was on a subway back to Penn Station to catch the bus to Washington. Still, I had time to duck into the Blarney Rock Pub, certainly one of my favorite Irish bars in New York (and there are so many to choose from), and enjoy a corned beef on rye and a couple pints of Harp before it was time to board the bus waiting outside the front door. Everybody is friendly at the Blarney Rock -- excited, perhaps, that the Giants are going to the Super Bowl -- and the bartender asked me more than once if I was enjoying my sandwich. I was! When I inquired where I might find the head, I asked him to watch my beer while I was gone . . . a request he fulfilled most graciously. I found my stool reserved when I returned. You gotta love a place like this.

The Manhattan skyline was twinkling as the bus emerged from the Lincoln Tunnel and climbed the Weehauken palisades to the Jersey Turnpike and the long trip home. The driver turned the lights down and I curled up in my seat and watched the city at night eventually give way to the long string of headlights heading to where I just came from. I closed my eyes, plugged in my ear buds, and listened to some Springsteen tunes until I drifted off somewhere near Bruce's old stomping grounds at Freehold. I stirred as the bus was disgorging it passengers in Baltimore. Another hour and I would be back in Washington and just around the corner to the light of a new day.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Up West and Downward?

Dateline: Sturbridge, Massachusetts
This visit to Halifax has been too short and today we began our long return trip to Maryland. We got a very early start, departing the Lord Nelson Hotel around 4:30am Atlantic Standard Time (3:30am EST) and drove through the nearly empty streets of Halifax on our way out to the 102 for the first leg of our trip. The headlights of some early commuters greeted us as we passed by the Stansfield International Airport, one of the day’s first arrivals passing over us. The lights of Halifax slowly disappeared behind us.

We crossed the 45th Parallel for the first time today at Stewiacke where we stopped at a Tim Horton’s around 5:30am for a bag of donuts and I welcomed a very large cup of steaming hot black coffee. The ground was snow-covered - the first real snow we have seen on this trip - and the parking lot was crunchy with black ice as a few flurries of snow ticked through the morning darkness.

Soon enough we were passing around Truro where we turned generally east on the Trans Canada Highway. And as we did, we began to climb into the snowy passage through the largely uninhabited Cobequid Hills running across the isthmus of Nova Scotia between the Minas Basin of the Bay of Fundy and the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The plows had not been out yet and the snow was quickly accumulating on the road surface. This is a lonely stretch of road until you finally chance upon the toll booth where we were told that the weather would clear once we descended the western slope. And it did just that.

Michael broke into a quiet rendition of “Snowbird” as we passed by Springhill, hometown of Canadian songstress Ann Murray as well as the Ann Murray Centre and a hockey arena named in honor of her parents. She’s still big up there! It was not long before the twinkling red lights of the massive Radio Canada International transmitter array near Sackville, New Brunswick came into view and we crossed the Missaguash River, passing out of Nova Scotia and taking one more step closer to home.

The sky began to lighten into a slate gray overcast around 8am when we jumped off the Trans Canada, which continued west to Frederickton, and turned southwest on Highway 1 through the Kennebecasis River valley toward St. John. The sun was just beginning to peek over the horizon when we stopped at the Bluebird Café near Sussex. The place seemed to be popular with truckers and we enjoyed a decent breakfast of eggs, bacon and coffee.

The rest of our trip through New Brunswick was uneventful as we passed through St. Johns and continued down along the northern edge of the Bay of Fundy. We did not stop today being that we traveled this route back in August when the weather was warmer and sunnier. We reached the border at Saint Stephen shortly before 11am expecting the usual long wait to clear US customs. Instead, there were only a few cars ahead of us and the wait was short. The Customs and Border Protection agent inspecting my passport commented on my Chicago birthplace and asked if I was a Bears fan. I told him I favored the Packers only to discover that he, too, hailed from the Windy City. He winked and said something about deportation proceedings before waving us into Maine. The St. Croix River is narrow here yet we still gained an hour as we entered the Eastern Standard time zone.

We returned across Maine on Route 9 - the Airline Highway - to Bangor, crossing the 45th Parallel for a second time. There was snow in the air as we continued south on Interstate 95, but the ground was bare and many of the ponds and rivers are still remarkably free of ice for this time of year. Shortly before 3pm we arrived in New Gloucester - my wife and I live here during the summer months - but it was still too early to call it a day despite our departure from Halifax in the wee hours of the morning. We stopped at Cole Farms, one of our favorite local haunts, where we enjoyed a quick late lunch, and when we departed around 4pm, we were treated to a gorgeous sunset.

Darkness fell as we drove southward across Maine, coastal New Hampshire and around Boston. A light snow fell without accumulating. It has been a very long day since Halifax and we have stopped for the night here in Sturbridge. A quiet dinner and it is time for bed. Tomorrow will be another early morning as we strike out for home.

Thanks to Michael G. Stewart for sharing his photograph of today's sunset.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Along the Edge of Nova Scotia

Dateline: Halifax, Nova Scotia
What a difference a day makes. As promised, yesterday’s rain and wind were gone when I awoke this morning, replaced with overcast skies and temperatures above freezing. You can’t ask for much better than that this time of year in Nova Scotia. We were on the road by 8am, and after a quick stop at an Irving station on Quinpool Road to get a mug of coffee, we were on Highway 3 and heading southwest along the coast in the general direction of Lunenburg.

Once you reach the Head of St. Margarets Bay and the cut-off to Peggy’s Cove and the Aspotogan Peninsula, there is not much to look at but pine trees and an occasional glimpse of water. So Michael and I settled back and listened to a Radio Canada French-language broadcast of a rather eclectic collection of music and tried to visualize what the DJs must look like (“dark hair and eyes with pouty lips” . . . “long blond hair with green eyes, large round glasses and a turtle neck sweater” . . . and other descriptions I can’t remember now).

An hour or so later we arrived at Mahone Bay, a former boat-building community at the head of the Lunenburg Peninsula and now an upscale yachting and tourist center. It is probably best known for the “Three Sisters” - three prominent and picturesque churches (Anglican, Lutheran, and United) situated along the harbor’s edge. We stopped in at Eli’s Expresso, on Main Street, for breakfast and sat in a small back room where we warmed ourselves by the fire. While we ate we chatted with Eli, who is originally from Montréal, while he fed the fire. We were later joined by a rather beguiling woman in a tight, black leather dress who, interestingly enough, resembled one of the DJs we conjured on our morning drive. There is a story here; we just have not figured it out. Same goes for the big chair on the edge of town.

After breakfast we continued a few miles down the road to Lunenburg which is approximately 120 kilometers southwest of Halifax. Along with the provincial capital, Lunenburg is one of the earliest British colonial settlements in Nova Scotia, dating back to the mid-18th century. And it has a rich history connected with the consolidation of British hegemony over Atlantic Canada. Lunenburg was raided and plundered by American privateers on July 1, 1782, during the American Revolution, and turning the tables, the town was home to many privateers who attacked American shipping during the War of 1812. Throughout its history, Lunenburg has been a shipbuilding center perhaps best known for the schooner Bluenose which is depicted on the Canadian dime. Today the town is a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Site, and small as it is (its permanent population is less than 3,000), it is very easy to walk around. Despite some unpleasantness a couple hundred years ago, the local folks now seem very friendly toward Americans.

And Norwegians. When Nazi Germany invaded Norway in 1940, Norway had over 1,000 merchantmen at sea which were ordered to go to Allied ports for safety. Several of these ended up in Canadian ports, including Halifax, where they were converted for military use. Later that autumn all Norwegian merchant sailors in Nova Scotia not needed for wartime duties were transferred to a curling rink in Lunenburg where they were housed until “Camp Norway” was opened in November 1940. The camp eventually served as a Royal Norwegian Navy training depot until August 1944. There are monuments in the town park and at the site of the camp to the brave Norwegian sailors who lived and trained in exile hoping to one day liberate their homeland.

Before driving back to Halifax we stopped on the edge of town for a nice lunch at the Knot Pub. Bratwurst washed down with a couple tankards of ale. We were back in the city just as the city’s lights began to blink on.

Monday, January 2, 2012

A Hard Rain Is Gonna Fall

Dateline: Halifax, Nova Scotia
I awoke to a cold, dark and dreary early Monday morning. Like home, it is a holiday here in Canada since New Year’s Day fell on a weekend. Bundling up, Michael and I ventured from the hotel in search of coffee and a light breakfast, ducking into a warm and toasty café on Spring Garden Road just as the rain began to fall, light at first, and then giving way to a hard and steady deluge buffeted by strong winds blowing off the North Atlantic.

I was looking forward to exploring downtown on foot, but the weather soon proved this to be impractical, if not downright foolish. This did not keep us from making the rounds. In the morning, we drove to the North End to visit the Fairview Lawn Cemetery and, thankfully, there was a break in the rain so that we could get out and look around a bit. Toward the rear of the cemetery, on a hillside overlooking a large rail yard, is a plot where 121 victims of the April 14-15, 1912 sinking of the RMS Titanic are interred under rows of gray memorial stones (29 other victims are buried elsewhere in Halifax). Many of the victims have never been identified yet they are not forgotten here among those who shared their fate. Perhaps the best known grave at this site is that of “The Unknown Child.” Only in the past decade has forensic testing made it possible to identify the child as an English boy who perished with his entire family. Even during the winter this memorial is surrounded by flowers and stuffed animals.

Soon the rain and wind returned and we were joined by Spencer and Anna for lunch at Boneheads BBQ (yep . . . honest-to-goodness Southern-style BBQ in Halifax!) . . . which is just around the corner from Spencer’s apartment. I was first introduced to this tiny joint when I was up here last August. Nothing fancy about this place, but it is some of the best BBQ I have eaten, and all the better when you can wash it down with a couple bottles of Propeller ESB brewed just up the road. In fact, after lunch we visited the Propeller Brewery where we picked up six-packs for the larder back home.

The weather cleared later in the afternoon and Michael and I walked down South Park Street along the tree-lined Victoria Park, stopping so I might have a brief chat with Sir Walter Scott. And from there we moved on to Holy Cross Cemetery, the oldest (since 1843) Catholic cemetery in Halifax and the final resting place of many of the early Irish immigrants who settled here. Michael set off to photograph tombstones [http://neondreamscapes.wordpress.com/2012/01/07/cities-of-the-dead-the-face-of-christ] while I quietly wandered about, soon discovering the final resting place of Sir John Sparrow David Thompson, a former Justice of the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia who served as the fourth Prime Minister of Canada (1892-1894). He was also the first Roman Catholic to hold the office of Prime Minister, and the only Canadian leader to die while visiting Queen Victoria at Windsor Castle. The cemetery is the final resting place for many decorated war heroes; among these is Charles Robinson (1840-1896), a native of Scotland who served in the Union Navy during the American Civil War and who was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for heroism during the 1862 Yazoo River expedition, in Mississippi.

The skies began to cloud up as we walked back to the hotel, and the cold, blustery rain returned after dark as Spencer and Anna rejoined us for a fine fish-and-chips dinner at Phil’s Seafood, a casual hole-in-the-wall restaurant on Quinpool Road. Spencer tells me this is the best F&C in town (which is saying something in Halifax) and I have no difficulty believing him. And the portions . . . locally-caught haddock baked (not fried) and served crispy with home-made tartar sauce to boot! Two great meals in one day . . . it made up for the rain and wind.

The weather is suppose to be clear and warmer tomorrow and so I think we are going to explore the Atlantic coastline south of the city. I am going to head downstairs for a nightcap. The bar has Propeller ESB on draft. I can’t think of a better way to finish off the day.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

35,000 Hits as of Today

Greetings from Halifax, Nova Scotia. What a great way to start the New Year. Thanks to all of you who have visited my blogspot.

Down East and Upward Into the New Year

Dateline: Halifax, Nova Scotia
Sending out best wishes for a happy, healthy and prosperous New Year!

I awoke around 5am this morning in Freeport, Maine. Yesterday was a long 14-hour day of discovery as we drove from Maryland to Maine via Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire. We were all very tired when we arrived in Maine and we were long in bed before much of the world welcomed the new year.

This is my first posting of 2012 and the second dispatch from the Great White North, which so far is not very white at all. We were on the road by 7am passing all the highway signs warning of snow and urging drivers to take it slow. But no snow! There was a heavy frost on the ground as we set out, and the bridges were a bit icy, but the ground across Maine and New Brunswick is bare . . . and very little ice in the rivers and ponds. Certainly not what one expects to find in early January. This being both a holiday and a Sunday, there was very little traffic on the roads and so we were able to make very good time. We passed through Bangor at 9am, and less than an hour later we were walking along Main Street in Ellsworth, the gateway to Acadia National Park and Downeast Maine. During the summers this area is clogged with tourist traffic and I usually keep my distance. Today it was very quiet . . . . and an absolutely delightful place to stretch our legs.

Our morning’s journey took us across Downeast Maine on US Route 1 and as we drove I regaled my fellow passengers with John Steinbeck’s descriptions of the area when he passed this way in the autumn of 1960, and which he later recounted in Travels With Charley. We passed Kilkenny Cove, at the head of Frenchman’s Bay, and admired the hills of Mount Desert Island and the Schoodic Peninsula in the distance. Despite signs to the contrary, just about everything along the road was closed and shuttered tight for the season, including Ruth and Wimpy’s lobster pound, the home of Wilbur the Lobster. We continued past several Washington County villages and headwaters, passing a very small church in Sullivan, until we finally arrived among the blueberry barrens near Machias, and the tidal flats of Cobscook at the far eastern extremity of the continental United States.

Around noon the sun disappeared for the rest of the day with a light mist in the air. Just like yesterday! A good time to stop for lunch at an old favorite - the New Friendly Restaurant, in Perry, Maine. I enjoyed a bowl of fresh fish chowder, the fish & chips plate (so much for the New Year’s Resolution), and an endless glass of root beer.

We crossed into Canada at Calais/St. Stephen and immediately lost an hour as we entered Atlantic Standard Time. Bad enough that we have such a long trip, but 2pm suddenly became 3pm and we still had to drive across the entire width of New Brunswick and a goodly portion of Nova Scotia. Michael and I explored the edge of the Bay of Fundy back in August and so we did not tarry today; it was once again time to put miles, or I should say kilometers, behind us. The mist thickened as we drove through Saint John and dusk descended upon us accompanied by bands of snow showers as we approached Moncton. More snow, some of it heavy, fell as we crossed the Cobequib Pass, but we quickly ran out of it as we approached Truro and finally turned south toward Halifax.

We arrived here around 8:45pm local time. Another long day on the road. We dropped Spencer and Anna off at her apartment and we have checked into the Lord Nelson Hotel. Thankfully, we will be here for a few days and I am anxious to explore more of the city that I was first introduced to last summer. And to properly welcome the New Year, I am going to go to the lounge off the lobby for a couple cold brews before turning in. Oh, Canada!