Besides what little clothing I had, I didn't bring much with me except my oilcloth map of Newfoundland, a fishermen's union pullover with its codfish-emblazoned badge, which I planned to wear while working at the Call,
and my father's History of Newfoundland.
My parents and brothers and sisters went with me to the railway station to say goodbye, and though they made quite a fuss, especially my mother and the girls (my father and the boys manfully shook hands with me and clapped me on the back), they were upstaged by the entire Jewish community of St. John's, about whom I had written a laudatory feature in the Telegram
two months before and who were surreally on hand to see me off, waving their black hats and weeping as if one of their number was leaving them for good.
Because of them and because of my oversized nose, many of my fellow passengers took me to be Jewish, a misconception I did nothing to discourage, since it made them less likely to sit with me, not because they had anything against the Jews, but simply because they doubted they could sustain a conversation for long with so exotic an individual. Normally, there is nothing I would rather do than talk, and I knew if I got started I might well talk all the way from St. John's to Port aux Basques, oblivious to the landscape we were passing through. I would, many times in the future, spend cross-country train trips in just that manner, staying awake twenty-eight hours at a stretch, hardly noticing when one exhausted listener made way for the next, but on this trip I wanted to keep to myself and that, for the most part, is what I did.
The building of the railway had been one of the few great ventures in Newfoundland not connected with the fishery. Its primary purpose was not to link the scattered settlements around the coast, but to convey passengers and freight back and forth between the eastern and western seaports, St. John's and Port aux Basques, to give Newfoundlanders access to both the ships that crossed the ocean to England and those that crossed the gulf to the mainland. Its route was not determined by the sea, nor was the sea visible at more than a few points along the way.
We started out from St. John's just after sunrise. In two hours, we had crossed the Bog of Avalon, a sixty-mile stretch of barrens and rock scraped bare and strewn with boulders since the ice age. This gave way to a lonely, undifferentiated tract of bog and rolling hills devoid of trees because of forest fires that had burned away even the topsoil so that nothing would ever grow there again that was more than three feet high. It was September, but not so far into the month that the browning of the barrens had begun. An overcast day with a west wind that would keep the fog at bay. There was beauty everywhere, but it was the bleak beauty of sparsity, scarcity and stuntedness, with nothing left but what a thousand years ago had been the forest floor, a landscape clear-cut by nature that never would recover on its own. It was a beauty so elusive, so tantalizingly suggestive of something you could not quite put into words that it could drive you mad and, however much you loved it, make you want to get away from it and recall it from some city and content yourself with knowing it was there.
No one, not even aboriginals, had ever lived on this part of the island. It was impossible to speak of its history except in geological terms.
On one treeless, wind-levelled stretch of barrens, there were crater-like sink-holes of mud where the surface had collapsed. I saw an eastward-leaning stand of junipers, all bent at the same angle to the earth as though half-levelled by a single gust of wind.
Crossing the narrow isthmus of Avalon, I could for a time see ocean from both sides of the train. Fifty years later, after the train had ceased to run, travellers on the highway would be able to see from there the ruins of my refinery at Come by Chance; after it was mothballed, small amounts of crude oil would still be sent there for refining, so that, at night, you would be able to see the flame from the highest of the stacks from forty miles away.
Next came the Bog of Bonavista, and I began to think that Newfoundland would be nothing but a succession of bogs with clumps of storm-stunted spruce trees in between. We stopped at Gambo, the town where I was born and that I was really seeing for the first time, having been too young when I left to remember anything about it. Gambo was the one place in the 253 miles between Port Blandford on the east coast and Humbermouth on the west coast where the railway touched the shoreline, but it was not a fishing village, for the cod did not come that far up Bonavista Bay. It was a logging town and a coastal supply depot, boats sailing up Bonavista Bay to unload their cargo there, where it was then reloaded onto the train and transported inland to towns whose only link with the rest of the island was one of the world's most primitive railways, a narrow-gauge track with spindle-thin rails on which the cars swayed about like sleds on ice.
Gambo was not much to look at, just a cluster of crude, garishly painted one-storey houses, log cabins and unbelievably primitive tar-paper shacks whose front yards were linered with a lifetime of debris: bottles, wooden crates, discarded clothing, broken barrels. I self-ashamedly thanked God we had forsaken the place and our lumber business there in favour of St. John's. I saw the house where I was born -- my mother had described its location and appearance to me. I will admit that it was one of the better houses within view, a white, blue-trimmed two-storeyed salt-and-pepper house with a gabled attic window that I could all too easily imagine myself looking out to sea from on a Sunday afternoon. I had fancied, before the trip began, that when we stopped in Gambo, I would proudly announce it to my fellow passengers as the place where I was born. But having seen it, I kept this information to myself and turned sideways in my seat, staring crimson-faced out the window and trying not to imagine the Smallwood that might have been, standing out there, staring in wonderment and longing at the train.
I saw from the windows of the train old men who I fancied had never travelled more than fifty miles from home, sitting side on to their windows, looking out. At the same time as I found the very sight of them oppressive and lived in horror of ending up that way myself -- which I was for some reason well able to imagine, me in there looking out, ambitionless, untravelled and uneducated, watching the water break on the rocks in a pattern of foam I had so often seen it was imprinted on my brain -- I envied them their apparent self-contentment and dilemma-less existence. For though their afflictions may have been many, irresolution and ambivalence were not among them. I did not begin to feel better until mid-afternoon, when we crossed the Exploits River into central Newfoundland and the sudden change in the landscape revived my spirits. We travelled through a leafless forest of blazing-white birch trees, tall, schooner-mast-sized trees that went on and on until I could stand to look at them no longer.
I took out my map to see if I could fix exactly where we were. It struck me more forcefully than it ever had before that virtually the whole population lived on the coast, as if ready to abandon ship at a moment's notice. The shore was nothing but a place to fish from, a place to moor a boat and sleep between days spent on the sea. Of the land, the great tract of possibility that lay behind them, beyond their own backyards, over the farthest hill that they could see from the windows of their houses, most Newfoundlanders knew next to nothing. Just as I, who knew nothing about it, feared the sea, though I believed my ignorance and fear to be more justified than theirs. I knew of grown men who hurried home from trouting or berry-picking in a panic as the sun was going down, for fear of being caught out after dark and led astray by fairies. My mother had often told me stories of people from Gambo who, fairy-led, were found weeks later at the end of a trail of clothing that in their trance, they had discarded. They had been led in a dance by fairies until they flopped down dead from sheer exhaustion, my mother believed, and no appeal to common sense or any amount of scorn could change her mind. Yet these same fairy-feeble men would go out on the sea at night in the worst weather to rescue a neighbour whose boat was going down. Here was all this land and they had not claimed an inch of it as theirs, preferring instead to daily risk their lives, hauling fish up from a sea that never would be theirs, and to kill seals walking on ice that could not, like land, be controlled or tamed.
I watched a group of loggers driving a large boom down the river, walking about with their pike-poles like the navigators of some massive raft. Even they preferred the water; they would rather ride the river than the train, though they acknowledged our whistle with a wave as we went by.
The aboriginals were gone. There was no one on the river now, besides the loggers, except guide-led sport fishermen from places like New York and Boston, and not even any of them past a certain point, just the river, which someone had once followed far enough to guess where it was headed and put that guess like gospel on a map. But no one knew where the river went. They knew where it began and where it flowed into the sea; what happened to it in between no one still alive could say.
We reached the town of Badger, where, in the one major departure from the route the highway would take years later, we kept on heading west through what, for the men who built the railway, must have been the most difficult stretch. There were so many hills the engineers had had no choice but to go straight through them. The train wound its way through cuts of rock so sheer and high you could not see the tops of them. Down the face of the rock ran little, spring-fed streams that sparkled in the sun, unseen except for the few minutes when the train was passing by.
There were rickety, gorge-spanning trestles, the gorges only thirty or forty feet wide but hundreds of feet deep. And there were ponds, lakes. When the train curved round some pond, I could see its whole length from my window. It began to rain, a sun-shower, and soon the stretch of rails ahead was gleaming, as was the rainwashed locomotive. I saw the conductor, the seamed, soot-blackened faces of the engineer and fireman and the smoke blown back mane-like above the cars. I saw other passengers in other cars unaware that I was watching them, and I felt as the people we passed along the tracks must have felt and saw myself as they must have, as impossibly remote from them as I was to the lives I had left behind and was headed towards, caught up in the dream of travel, the travel-trance that overtakes you when there are no familiar landmarks to remind you you are making progress, when it seems you have no destination and the landscape you are moving through goes on forever.
All along the line, every mile or so, were little shacks in which the section-men and their families lived what must have been strange and solitary lives. I saw the wives of section-men standing in their doorways watching as the train, the reason they lived where they did, fifty miles from the nearest town, moved past. I saw them standing with their children in their arms while their older children abandoned the tracks they played on to let the apparition of the train go by.
This is not an island, I told myself, but a landlocked country in the middle of an otherwise empty continent, a country hemmed in and cored by wilderness, and it is through this core that we are passing now, the unfoundland that will make us great someday.
It seemed strange to think that some of my fellow passengers were heading home, but some were; they had a different look about them, that half-resigned, half-expectant look of people soon to see familiar sights, familiar faces, the circumscribed geography of home. I did not want to think that anyone was heading home, or that the train was moving for any purpose but to take me, and only me, where I was going.
Sometime in the afternoon, I dozed off and did not wake up until we were approaching the Gaff Topsails, a steep-sloped tract of wilderness, the highest point on the line and the place where delays were most likely in the winter when the tracks were blocked by snow. The train went slowly upgrade for a hundred suspenseful miles, the passengers urging it on, knowing that if we stalled, we might be stranded there for days. We laughed and rocked forward and backward in our seats as if to coax the locomotive one more inch until, when we felt it make the crest, a great cheer went up and it seemed we were leaving home in earnest now, though one-third of our journey still remained.
Though I had vowed not to, I fell asleep again and awoke at dusk to see what appeared to be some kind of snow-plain, flatter even than the barrens, with only the occasional train-borne and bleary-eyed observer to confirm that it was real. It was not until I saw that the stumps of trees, dead two hundred years and petrified by age, formed a kind of barricade around it that I realized it was a frozen lake that we were passing, Deer Lake, the first I had ever set eyes on that was so wide you could not see the other side.
When it was very late and the car was dark and almost empty and most of those still in it were asleep, I looked out the window at what, at that hour, I could see of Newfoundland: dark shapes of hills and trees; a glimpse, when the moon was out, of distant placid ponds; small, unaccountably located towns a hundred miles apart, nothing more than clumps of houses really, all with their porch lights on but otherwise unlit, occupied by people who, though it passed by every night, rarely saw or even heard the train.
From Stephenville Crossing, we followed the Long Range Mountains southwest to Corner Brook, going downstream along the black, cliff-channelled Humber River. Sometime early in the morning, I fell asleep again and did not awake until the sun was up. Someone said we were thirty miles from Port aux Basques. I had stayed in the smoking car all night and not even made it to my complimentary berth, though in my Telegram
article, I extolled its comfort and convenience as if I had not budged from it from St. John's to Port aux Basques.
We were to cross the gulf by night and reach Cape Breton early in the morning.
I had intended to stand at the railing of the ship until I could no longer see the island. It seemed like the appropriately romantic thing to do.
I wished Fielding had come with me, though I knew she would have made some deflating remark that would have dispelled my mood.
I was pleased to discover, after about fifteen minutes, that all the other passengers had fled the cold and gone inside. I pulled up the hood of my raincoat and imagined what I must look like from in there, a lone hooded figure at the railing. But though I stood staring at it for what seemed like hours, the island got no smaller.
After a while, all but blue with cold, I went inside. And each time I went back out to see how much progress we had made, we seemed to have made none at all. The dark shape of the island was always there, as big as ever, as if we were towing it behind us.
I settled for standing at the window, looking out. When I saw the lights along the southwest coast, I thought of the fishermen's broadcast that I used to listen to on the radio when I lived at home. It always concluded with an island-wide temperature round-up.
Every evening, there was the same cold-shiver-inducing litany of place-names: Burgeo, Fortune, Funk Island, Hermitage.
I imagined myself looking out to sea at night from the window of a house in Hermitage. Hermitage. I wondered what lonely fog-bound soul had named it. It occurred to me that as Hermitage seemed to me now, so might Newfoundland seem from New York six months from now, an inconceivably backward and isolated place, my attraction to which I could neither account for nor resist. The whole island was a hermitage.
To leave or not to leave, and having left, to stay away or to go back home. I knew of Newfoundlanders who had gone to their graves without having settled the question, some who never left but were forever planning to and some who went away for good but were forever on the verge of going home. My father had left and come back, physically at least.
In the lounges, people sat listening to the radio until, about twenty miles out, the sound began to fade. There were groans of protest, but people kept listening as long as they could hear the faintest hint of sound through the static. Finally, when the signal vanished altogether, there was a change in mood among the passengers, as if we were truly under way, as if our severance from land was now complete. The radio was left on, though, eerily blaring static as though it were some sort of sea sound.
Excerpted from The Colony of Unrequited Dreams by Wayne Johnston. Copyright © 2000 by Wayne Johnston. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.