Sunday, July 14, 2013

Road Tripping Into Unknown Territory - Visiting a new City, Meeting my Great Aunt for the First Time and Dodging the Occasional Highway Stalker

There are many things that signify summer to me. Longer days, sunshine, camping and long hot days at the beach. But I know the season is truly here the first time I pack up my car and head out onto the open road…Yes, I am talking about the good ol’ fashion Canadian road trip!

This year, I had the opportunity to mark the start of summer with a different kind of road trip, one that saw me travel to a city I had never been before to meet a person I had never met before.

As many of you probably already know, my beloved mother, Maria, passed away on April 22nd. My sisters and I were faced with the heartbreaking task of clearing out her apartment. During that very difficult weekend, we came across a number of items that evoked a variety of emotions including sadness, happiness and surprise. One of the surprising things we found was a letter addressed to my mother from a woman in Dieppe, New Brunswick. My mom had often spoken of her long-lost aunt whom she recently reconnected with but I didn’t realize that they had become so close. You see, my grandfather (mom’s father) died when she was only two years old so neither she nor my sisters and I ever got to know that side of the family.

My biological grandfather passed away in 1954. He was only 28 when he died tragically and unexpectedly and left behind a young wife (my grandmother) and a two year old daughter (my mom). My grandmother moved back to her hometown of Cheticamp in Cape Breton and a number of years later, she remarried and settled in New Waterford. Mom kept in touch with some members of her father’s side of the family but as the years passed, she lost touch with many of them.

After I found that letter from my great-aunt, I made it my mission to contact her and tell her the sad news of mom’s passing. It was very hard to contact someone I never met before and inform her of such sad news but after making that call and allowing her to get over the initial shock that her niece had passed away, I had a very heartwarming conversation with her and felt an immediate connection. Not long after that phone call, I received a hand-written letter in the mail from my great-aunt Mercedes. Her writing was so light and witty and was that of someone who embraced life and took things as they came. I immediately took a liking to her; she seemed so much like myself in many ways. I desperately wanted to learn more about this woman and not long after receiving that letter, I wrote one to her and in it I asked her if it would be ok if I paid her a visit in the near future….A last minute decision that took me on an adventure of a different kind.

I left for Dieppe early on June 22nd in my new car I had purchased only the week before. This was to be the ultimate test. I was just getting used to the low profile tires that were on it when I purchased it from the dealer and it was a bigger car than I was used to so this trip would really determine if the car lived up to my requirements; good gas mileage, fast and smooth on the highway, good handling on windy roads and reliable on long trips. I was well-rested and fully awake when I left home and everything was going well until I got a few kilometers past the Canso Causeway. Somewhere along that stretch, the monotony of the straight Trans-Canada highway hypnotized me and I nodded off. To this day, I still have no idea how long my head was rested snuggly on my right shoulder as I cruised along. I was shaken out of my unconsciousness when the car veered onto the rumble strips and after a near heart-attack, I pulled over at the next rest stop, kissed the ground, splashed my face with ice-cold water and grabbed a large coffee before continuing on my way with the windows down and the music as loud as it would go so I would have trouble nodding off again. This just goes to prove that you do not need to be tired to be hypnotized by the road. This happened to me while I was well-rested and during daylight hours. It was a real wake-up call to the dangers that we can face when driving on the highway.
I don’t usually travel with maps or a GPS system. One of my favorite things about road trips is getting lost and finding those new, unexpected places off the beaten track that can only be found when one turns off an unfamiliar ramp and makes a wrong turn into the unknown. For this trip, I did make a point to borrow a GPS just so I could find my aunt’s place easily but I didn’t have it turned on when I turned off on one of those unknown ramps and, you guessed it, made a wrong turn looking for a Tim Horton’s coffee shop where I could log onto my laptop and check my email. I was only lost for about a half hour when I finally found a place to stop. Even though this Tim Horton’s had the sign “free wifi at this location” posted in the window, it wasn’t until after I spent some money to be able to sit down in the air conditioned shop that I discovered their wifi was not working. There was also nowhere to charge my dying phone and I hate not having a working phone when I am traveling alone on the highway.

After I returned to my car and started to head back out onto the highway, I noticed a car parked next to me with a young man behind the wheel. Normally, this would not peak my interest but I got that spine tingling feeling that something was not right. This feeling, which I believe to be my intuition, has never been wrong; my guard was up and I took note of the description of the car, the man driving and the license plate just to be safe. The car would not be hard to spot if I were to cross paths with it again; it was seriously rusted, the passenger door was dented and there was no handle on the passenger door. It would have been hard for me to forget the man’s face too; his stare as I got into my vehicle and following gaze as I pulled out of the parking lot was just plain creepy. Sure enough, near the Nova Scotia-New Brunswick Border, I spotted that car in my rear-view mirror, keeping a safe distance behind me, presumably thinking I would not notice. I immediately swung into action. The first thing that popped in my mind was to get somewhere where there were people and assess the situation from a public place. I turned off on the next exit and lo and behold, he kept going just as I suspected he would. You almost need to get into the minds of these people to predict what they are going to do next and I knew exactly what he was going to do; park somewhere out of sight further up the highway and wait for me to come back and continue on my journey. A smart stalker learns as much about his victim as he can and, just from watching me at that last stop he learned that I was a young woman traveling alone. How did he know this? Easy. I stopped to use the internet at a desolate donut stop in the middle of nowhere, my car was packed full of stuff and I had made a phone call from the parking lot (in which I spoke with a family member about how my trip was going) before I noticed him watching me. My next move was to sit and wait. Fortunately there was another donut shop with working internet at this stop and I made myself comfortable in front of the window so I could see the road and his car if it happened by. And happen by it did…about 40 minutes after I arrived. He slowly made his way by the donut shop, perhaps seeing my car, perhaps tired of the pursuit, and continued on down the road. When I saw his car disappear over the horizon, I packed up and headed out in the opposite direction hoping to never cross paths with him again and I didn’t. I’m sure every woman who has ever traveled alone over long distances on the highway has experienced this; I know this was not the first time I acquired a highway stalker as I’ve come to call them. I’m sure they are usually harmless and bored but I still keep my guard up whenever I notice something is not right.

It was early evening by the time I crossed the border into New Brunswick and almost dark when I pulled up to my great-aunt’s apartment building. I found the place with no problems thanks to my GPS which led me right to her door. I called her on my cell and within seconds, she bolted out the backdoor and into the parking lot and embraced me. This was the first time I had met this woman, so I had no idea what to expect but she immediately made me feel welcome and it wasn’t long before I began feeling like I had known her all my life. Meeting my great-aunt for the first time was almost like an adopted child meeting their birth parents for the first time – we didn’t know one another but were connected by blood. Because of this, there was bound to be some traits and common interests that we couldn’t help inheriting. I soon learned that we both hate watching television and wasting time with idleness and chit chat about the weather and we both love the outdoors and eating healthy and living a healthy lifestyle. I just hope that when I am 84, I have as much energy and zest for life as she has!
My first full day in Dieppe was an interesting one. An early morning walk around the neighborhood to get familiarized with the area, a trip to the mall for some lunch and a drive around the city looking at all the new urban sprawl being built up took up a large portion of the day. The city is fairly small but growing fast with many newcomers coming from bigger urban centers to find their little piece of suburbia with a guaranteed larger plot of land than what was available in nearby Moncton.

While going through my mom’s things, I also came across some photo albums with old black and white photos of my mom as a child and various relatives who are long gone and photos of my sisters and I growing up and I proudly showed them to her. My great-aunt also had some photo albums that she wanted to show me and in them were photos of her brother, my grandfather whom I had never met. Growing up, I had always been interested in learning more about that side of the family that I knew little about. My grandmother rarely spoke of her first husband and my mother didn’t really know much about her father. I learned a lot about him and the rest of my great-uncles and aunts and an entire family that I knew existed but never knew anything about. I also learned that Mercedes loved to write (another trait we shared) and she wrote a book entitled The Journey about her family. She read me some excerpts from the book and although many tragedies befell the family throughout the decades, they remained happy, close and strong in the face of anything that came their way.

When my time with my great-aunt came to an end a couple of days later, we were both sad to be once again going our separate ways. I vowed to return to Dieppe again soon and visit her and I hope that will be sooner than later. If all goes well, I shall return to Dieppe this fall and pay her another visit.
As I was leaving the Dieppe area, before I even made it to the Trans-Canada Highway, I made a spur-of-the-moment decision to take the long, scenic route home…through Prince Edward Island. I had always wanted to drive over the Confederation Bridge, the bridge that opened in 1997 and connects PEI with Mainland Canada. I saw this as a chance to finally see it and experience it while also taking a different way home with different scenery than what I had already seen on the way up. I didn’t bother to set my GPS because I was certain the bridge was west of my current location and there would be plenty of signs to guide me right to it along the way. Once again, I was wrong and found myself headed in the wrong direction. It wasn’t until I started seeing signs that indicated Fredericton was coming up soon that I realized I was going the wrong way. Fredericton is more than an hour away from Dieppe and nowhere near the Confederation Bridge. A gas station attendant confirmed it for me; I had been going the wrong way for about 100 kilometers!

I backtracked and soon enough, I was on the branch of the TCH that led right to the bridge. I was making good enough time on that straight highway with hardly any other traffic around, cruising along at 120 kmph when I spotted a tractor on the side of the road ahead. I slowed down enough to allow the woman driving to realize I was coming up behind her when suddenly, she veered the tractor out onto the highway and crossed into a driveway on the other side. With brakes screeching and horn blaring, I was able to bring my car to a halt only feet away from her. Even my screams for her to watch where she was going fell on deaf ears; to this day, I am certain she did not see nor hear me nor notice the commotion she had caused or how close we both came to becoming road kill.

Not long after the tractor incident, The Confederation Bridge finally came into view. After stopping to take a few photos and getting a good look at that architectural marvel, I made the crossing. There really wasn’t much to it and I couldn’t really see over the walls but at least I can now say I saw it. PEI is very different from the other Atlantic Provinces but it is particularly a different place for drivers. First of all, it’s a slower pace along windswept fields and rocky coastline. The speed limit is no more than 90 kmph everywhere on the island. Secondly, gas is always more expensive in PEI than anywhere else and I was glad I had filled up in New Brunswick where it was the cheapest. It was hard for me to drive at such a slow pace when I was used to the 110 kmph on the mainland and I had to make it to the docks at Wood Islands to board the last ferry of the day but I did managed to race across the island without being pulled over by the Mounties. Along the way, I noticed how meticulous Prince Edward Islanders are with their lawns and homes; some of the most beautiful properties I have ever seen are in PEI complete with lush green grass, brightly painted, large, Victoria style homes and farmhouses. Those islanders really take pride in their homes, their land and their province.
I just made the ferry in time for loading and just in time to find a nice spot on the outside deck to watch a beautiful sunset. It was dark by the time I reached the other side, I was tired and there are moose, deer and other critters who wander onto the highway at night in that area. But I had an easy fix for this; drink lots of coffee, blare the music and open the sunroof and all the windows! There wasn’t going to be a repeat of my highway snooze only a few days before. I love the highway especially on nights like that. The wind blowing through my hair, my favorite tunes setting the backdrop for yet another road trip memory, a clear sky full of stars, a full moon shining brightly through my sunroof and guiding me along the deserted highway, over the Canso Causeway and back on the 105, the highway I know like the back of my hand!

1 comment:

Suzy said...

it's great that your Mom's correspondence with your great aunt would bring you to her. What a great reason to travel! And that highway stalker sounds awful. You certainly have to be on your guard if you are traveling alone.


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