We were driving in Gros Morne National Park, Newfoundland, when the old van lost a rear wheel. There was a loud clunk. We pulled over hastily onto the gravel shoulder of the cliffside road, and six shirtless dudes poured out of our 2006 Honda Odyssey to assess the damage.
It was an unwelcome event for a group of exhausted travelers who still had sweat on their backs from completing a 2-day hike. Fortunately, we had not actually lost the wheel; all five lug nuts of the back left wheel had popped off simultaneously. The next 30 minutes were spent walking up and down the highway collecting the lost lug nuts. We recovered four out of five. Good enough.
The wheel popping loose was a microcosm of our entire Newfoundland trip. Things were poorly planned and trouble was often overlooked. The van we drove was a piece of crap, too. We often pushed it to its limits when we pulled over to camp for the night.
Arriving on the island
Newfoundland was supposed to be the climax of our road trip through eastern Canada. We had spent the prior weeks putting through the other Atlantic provinces. We expected Newfoundland to be the greatest experience of them all; the beauty, history, the hiking, and the moose had us enticed. I had never seen a moose and we had plans to spend about 14 days here. I would spot one eventually, right?
Our mobile abode was an old van that had seen better days. Dents on all four sides, a door that didn’t open, and no AC. There was nothing remarkable about it, and certainly nothing to suggest that people were living out of it except for the cluster of bags, clothes, and trash that filled the interior. It was humble living, and served us well.
When we first arrived on the island it was dawn. Driving off the ferry into the thick morning fog felt otherworldly. Ahead of us was a 560-mile highway drive to St. John’s on the other side of the province. It was initially daunting as I drove with tired eyes scanning for moose in the road. All my friends were sleeping in the back, as the ferry had stolen any chance of proper sleep from us. I watched as, slowly but surely, the fog grew thinner until sunlight lit up the vast scenery of the roadside. It seemed greener than the rest of Canada; the hills rolled over one another on my right, and on my left were glimpses of the Atlantic Ocean.
While we were living on a day-to-day schedule, there were three things that we certainly wanted to experience while in Newfoundland: the East Coast Trail, the George Street Festival, and Gros Morne National Park.
The East Coast Trail
I learned that the East Coast Trail was actually more than 200 miles long—a bit more than we had anticipated. We ended up only hiking the Spurwink Island Path, a 12-mile section of the trail through forest with rewarding views of the fjords of the Atlantic Coast. Even with a minimal elevation spike, the repeated up-down of the trail made for a strenuous hike. We stepped over thick roots, stones, and fallen branches. Though we were granted shade from the forest canopy, it was hot enough to warrant jumping into the streams to cool off. The waterfalls, ocean views, and wildlife were all beautiful, but they paled in comparison to the crown jewel of the hike: the Berry Head Arch.
We spent the night near that spectacular rock arch and completed the final 4 miles of the hike the following morning. The end of the trail brought us to a small town. Proud and exhausted, we sat down in the shade of the community center. We benefited from the generosity of the locals, as the first person we spoke to offered to drive two of us to where our van was parked, about 15 minutes away.
No moose sighting.
George Street Festival
There was no better feeling than the comfort of hotel amenities after spending multiple nights in a tent. We booked a room in St. John’s because we had big plans. We were to attend our first ever George Street Festival. We had one day to relax before the start of the festival. If you’ve ever pushed yourself on a difficult hike, you know that the next day is the most painful. The George Street Festival was our chance to get away from the wilderness that defined our trip and into a party. The atmosphere was amazing—this was pre-COVID, after all. Live music, drinking in the street, and hundreds of Newfies buzzing at the chance to share a drink with visitors. A place called Lottie’s, known for its White Russians, made me fall in love with the drink. We danced with sore legs, ate great food, and yes, even kissed the cod.
Gros Morne National Park
After our time in St. John’s we made our way across the island to Gros Morne National Park. Our eyes were set on Gros Morne Mountain, a notable peak in western Newfoundland. Admittedly I did not think much of its height. It “only” stands 2,648 feet above sea level and I had experienced much greater heights in the Rocky Mountains before. In total it was a 10-mile circuit that started with a 2.5-mile forest hike to the mountain base. What came next was a very steep incline of large boulders. This was where the mountain humbled me. It exhausted me multiple times over and never seemed to end. I had never been so happy to reach the summit of a hike before.
The flat top of the mountain was defined by its own East Coast touch; a thick, dry vegetation was crowning the summit. It clung low like moss. Some areas were crunchy and others soft. At times, my shoes would sink a foot down. We had some laughs about the grouse and chipmunks found at the top, as they were endlessly curious about us. Still no moose.
The view was absolutely mesmerizing. The sheer scale of the rock faces was incredible. “This is monumental,” one friend said upon seeing the glacial fjord. At the bottom was a river. The fjord was deep enough to watch, from above, as clouds flowed through it like a boat would. I thought the most incredible view of the trip was the sun glistening into the countless lakes (they call them ponds) carved out of the untouched landscape.
It was that next morning, with legs and backs made of concrete from sleeping along the trail, that we lost our lug nuts. It was our last day in Newfoundland. Later, we were driving to the ferry port. I was leaning my head against the window when I felt a jerk. Then I heard someone yell, “Moose!” Everybody looked up. At the side of the road was a juvenile moose with stumps for horns. It was hardly big enough to impress, but the whole car cheered.
We had spent so much time exploring Newfoundland both on foot and in the van. Every drop of gas and sweat was worth it. When reflecting on trips, we tend to think first of the highlights. Every person, every moment spent lost, every ocean swim, every Walmart parking lot, and yes, even losing a tire are things that I’ll never forget.
It was the perfect way to punctuate our trip out east. When you read the map of Canada, Newfoundland is the end. It’s fitting, since it epitomizes the benevolence and wilderness of Canada to a tee.