Back in my undergraduate college days, I took an English composition class which required me to read a short essay called The Yellow Wallpaper written by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. It’s about a young woman who, after being confined to a particular bedroom in a colonial mansion as a rest treatment for her nervous depression, begins to hallucinate, seeing figures in the wallpaper’s patterns and designs. At the time I thought the story of the sickly woman was strange with the inanimate made bizarrely real. However, with the passing years, I’ve come to realize that some things, in time, really do come to life. Now, having spent three-fourths of a year on a continuous pathway that extends from Florida to Newfoundland, the trail has taken on a life of its own!
Nova Scotia is known as “Canada’s Ocean Playground,” and having hiked through the province, I can substantiate the claim. The name Nova Scotia literally means “New Scotland” in Latin, and the Scottish presence is readily seen, especially on the inscriptions of tombstones. “Macs” (Gaelic surname prefix meaning “son”) are ubiquitous—MacPherson, MacClellan, MacCleod, MacIntyre, MacLean, MacCormack, and the most popular surname of all in Nova Scotia, MacDonald! Nova Scotia (Scottish Gaelic Alba Nuadh) has the largest Scottish Gaelic-speaking community outside of Scotland and many of the road signs were printed with Gaelic subtitles.
The Caribou-to-North Sydney hike of Nova Scotia was compromised mainly of backcountry roads and coastal highways but also included a rail-to-trail pathway known as the Jitney Trail and a hiking path, albeit overgrown and unmaintained, called the Durham Hill Trail. It’s a footpath that progresses with excitement as one moves from one end to the other. As described by the IAT/SIA Council, the trail in Nova Scotia “picks up at the Ferry Terminal in Caribou, NS and meanders along the coast of Northumberland Strait to the Canso Causeway where it crosses to Cape Breton Island. On Cape Breton, the trail continues mostly along the coast to Inverness, where it turns inland, threading between the Bras d’Or Lakes and then heading to the North Sydney Ferry Terminal.”
Along the deep blue ocean were coves with lighthouses and commercial fishing operations with stacks of lobster traps and fish net baskets. One imagines fishermen working diligently among tempestuous seas in their fishing vessels, sporting their characteristic yellow rubber coats and galoshes. Storms are a part of life for the hiker and sailor alike and both share a commonality in terms of persistence through harsh exposure of the elements. One may remember the chilling words sung by the Scottish singer Dougie MacClean in the song Ready for the Storm:
The waves crash in and the tide pulls out
It’s an angry sea but there is no doubt
That the lighthouse will keep shining out
To warn the lonely sailor
And the lightning strikes and the wind cuts cold
Through the sailor’s bones to the sailor’s soul
Till there’s nothing left that he can hold
Except the rolling ocean
But I am ready for the storm, yes sir ready
I am ready for the storm, I’m ready for the storm
The ship-and-ocean-themed ballad, played from my right earbud while hiking along the rocky shores and coves of Nova Scotia with their time-stained lighthouses, has been among the most meaningful songs. What’s more, it carries much significance to me as a thru-hiker who, like a sailor, must be mentally, physically, and spiritually prepared for what lies ahead.
From Pictou, the first trail town I came upon after disembarking the ferry, I steadily began working inland. Steepled churches and hilltop cemeteries graced the countrysides. The Durham Cemetery was of particular interest to me with hues of grey time-worn headstones sitting askew and projecting peacefully above the green grass. An unexpected bridge closure at Eureka required a detour up to Stellarton which involved some extra roadwalking, but, unless I wanted to swim in the river, I had to get to the next town with a bridge crossing. At the Crossroads Country Market, I ordered two carb-loaded pizza slices and packed out a cellophane-wrapped cinnamon bun. Soon I crossed and walked along, as I would numerous times, the Trans Continental Highway (Route 104) which runs across the province and through all of Canada.
Although much of Nova Scotia is pristine and environmentally friendly, old dumping grounds can be found along the sides of cliffs and hills. Despite the all-too-obvious “illegal dumping” signs put in place, some people apparently found it more economical to unload their trash from the back of their pickups rather than make the trip to a local landfill. Although one may find this a detestable practice of rural folk from times long past, it gave me the chance to explore and look for “treasure.” Akin to “dumpster diving” or “curb shopping,” rummaging through mounds of old Nova Scotian litter can bring much interest and excitement to an otherwise mundane day of walking roads! Rusty cans and lead crystal glass bottles were common finds as were whole kitchen appliances and rusted-out cars. One of my salvaged keepsakes is a chrome nameplate and handle from a 1950s General Electric refrigerator in near-mint condition. While conducting one of my “roadside archeology digs” at the bottom of one such embankment, a vehicle stopped nearby. With the engine still idling and having heard voices coming from the vehicle, I worried that I was on private property and that someone was going to come down and reprimand me for my nefarious activity. The driver, in a commercial business tanker-type truck, had apparently pulled over briefly to make a call on his cellphone. After hearing the truck pull off in the distance, I climbed back up the embankment and got a glimpse of the back of the vehicle, which had the business name and logo shown in big unmissable words—A ROYAL FLUSH. It was a septic-cleaning guy! This was a brilliant business name and stimulated a quick laugh.
The newspaper in the area is the Chronicle-Herald, and the black tubes for the paper are easily spotted as one walks along the roads. Nova Scotians are required to put their garbage and recyclables into a self-supplied wood or metal bin at the end of their driveways as Nova Scotia does not employ the conventional wheeled trolley system. Most homes have what may only be described as “miniature dumpsters,” whereby cylindrical or octagonal-shaped bins are individualized and placed permanently at the roadside. The wood-slatted driveway refuse containers are often personalized and painted with special colors and designs to match the house or add curbside flare. Sailboats and lighthouses were common themes that adorned the bins as were paintings of crabs, lobsters, and octopuses. The creative schemes, which had become an obvious symbol of home pride and friendly neighbor rivalry, were enjoyable to view as I hiked past.
Water sources on the trail included streams, ponds, lakes, bogs, puddles, and even storm drains. Community centers oftentimes have water accessible to the hiker, as was the case at the Churchville Community Centre where I filled up my two Smart Water bottles at the spigot. Stealth camping is the norm in Nova Scotia, as it is on much of the IAT; scouting a spot in the woods becomes easier with practice.
The trail winds around Cape George. Here I met some cyclists who became intrigued with my thru-hike. Before long I came to Antigonish (pronounced an-tuh-guh-nuhsh), one of the more populous trail towns. It’s a vibrant college town, home to St. Francis Xavier University (StFX), with numerous shops, pubs, and eateries. Pitstop picked me up just outside of town, and I zeroed at Linwood Harbour Camground where he had a booking. Making the usual Italian penne dish, Pitstop and I fancied up the occasion with a bottle of Comtessa and Giacondi red table wine. While in town, I resupplied at Sobeys, a trendy grocery chain in the area.
From Linwood, I hiked across the near-shoulderless Canso Causeway and entered the renowned Cape Breton Island. On my way in, I saw many signs about puffins, a pelagic seabird that resembles a flying penguin! Upon crossing, I began walking the Celtic Shores Coastal Trail, my favorite part of the entire Nova Scotia segment. The shoreline seemed unending and the crashing water was therapeutic. Cape Bretoners are amiable people who almost always flash a friendly smile and wave. The newspaper on the island is the Cape Breton Post and it’s delivered to red plastic boxes mounted near residential driveways. Bowl-shaped antennas from satellite dishes are often repurposed and painted with smiley faces to lift up the spirits of passers-by. Provincial picnic parks are common in Cape Breton as are “highland villages,” which preserve much of the Scottish history of the region.
A free-of-charge ferry took me across Little Narrows whereupon Pitstop picked me up for one last zero day at Time Out Campground. At the campground, I was able to launder my dirt-splashed hiking raiment. The washers and dryers require “loonies,” (Canadian gold-colored one-dollar coins). Fire pits at the campground were cleverly constructed using recycled washing machine drums and car tire rims. Making s’mores over a fire became mandatory! At the close of the night, I walked down to the bay and reflected on how far I had come. It was only a short way to North Sydney, and then I would be on to my last Canadian province.
Just as I walked into North Sydney, it started to drizzle, but I didn’t bother putting on my hooded rain jacket as my adrenaline was rushing. I finished out the route and met Pitstop at Canadian Tire, the unofficial northern terminus of IAT-Nova Scotia! Since the ferry bound for Port aux Basques, Newfoundland did not depart until later that night, we walked around downtown North Sydney, visiting the heritage museum and nearby souvenir shops. Eating at a pizzeria called Bianchini’s, we learned about a popular Nova Scotia cuisine called donnair, a kebab-type snack originating in Halifax. Checking in at the ferry terminal, I boarded the MV Highlanders and left the port at North Sydney, bound for a new horizon to a dreamy ocean-surrounded land once settled by Vikings. In seven hours, I’d be tackling the last great stretch of the ECT; indeed, I was headed to, and destined for, the provincial wonderland of Newfoundland.
Much like staring at the day sky can lead to perceptions of cloud shapes of castles and animals, or gazing at the the night sky can produce recognizable images of picture-forming constellations, I’ve come to see the trail as a living come-to-life thing. It’s my yellow wallpaper—a fantastic world of imaginative activity. The more I walk upon it, the more it becomes a part of me.
Earlier in my thru-hike of the Eastern Continental Trail (ECT), I stayed at a full-service hiker hostel in Alabama called the Pinhoti Outdoor Center (POC). While there, I conversed with a kindly section hiker from Ohio who, in light of our enriching discussion about my ECT expedition, recalled the lyrics of an old song. The tune is entitled Freeborn Man and was written by a bluegrass singer named Jimmy Martin. Among the lyrics are these memorable words:
My home is on my back
I know every inch of highway
And every foot of back road
Every mile of railroad track
There is much to see and do in taking the path less walked. One is not a passive spectator but an active foot traveler being led through field and forest to the periphery of the known world. In this spirit, I live freely—if only for a brief season of time—with a house on my back.