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Miki and me on the Cabot Trail, Nova Scotia

Dan Kirwan, the 93-year old author of this lively memoir was orphaned during the First World War when his father was killed at the first Battle of Ypres. Later, his mother died of pneumonia. Following a spell at a military school for the orphaned sons of soldiers, he emigrated to the United States of America when sponsored by an Irish uncle. During the Second World War, he served in the U.S. Army.

The year was 1951 and I had been out of the Army for six years.
We had bought our first home, thanks to the GI Bill under which veterans could buy a house with no down payment. My wife, Miki, and I had obtained our first driving license at the age of 37 and, in 1950, bought our first car, a 1939 Plymouth.
I had now worked on the railroad for six years, so I was entitled to two weeks vacation, but where will we go on such a limited budget? I said to Miki, "You know I have two weeks vacation coming. Have you any ideas what we could do?" and she said, "I have it all planned."
I was surprised, so I said, "You know the cash is limited. What have you decided on?"
She said, "I want to see Cabot's trail before they build a highway over it."
That was another surprise, so I said, "Cabot's trail? Isn't that somewhere in Canada? How can we afford a trip like that?"
Miki said, "I have that worked out also. We'll camp and cook our own meals. We have all the camping equipment, the tent, stove, lantern and the icebox. Your vacation is in two weeks and I have already been buying canned food and I'll buy more. Your job is to contact the AAA and get the route and mileage. It is on Cape Breton, which is at the end of Nova Scotia. According to what I read, they are going to build a road over the trail. I want to see the original trail!
Well, of course, I was taken aback at that, but I figured if she wanted it we would do it that's what we'd do. The more I thought about it, the more I liked it. And so, on a lovely spring morning, we set out in our trusty, but not rusty, 39 Plymouth on our trip to Cabot's trail. There were no interstate highways at that time, so we took Route One, which ran from Maine to Florida. The first highway to go from north to south, it was built in the 1930s and went through every town, so it was a long day, but we reached the Canadian border that evening. The problem was there was no place to pitch a tent, so we treated ourselves to a motel room and dinner in a restaurant, also a light breakfast in the a.m. Then we crossed the border into Canada, but where I don't know.
We followed the route given by the AAA and found Nova Scotia OK! We drove to Cape Breton, stopping at a pull-off to have a sandwich and coffee. We had bread and cold cuts and a thermos of coffee Miki had made and at dusk we pulled off into a field behind some trees and set up our tent where Miki made dinner on the camp stove and we had a good night's sleep. We were up early next day and, after a light breakfast, were back on the road.
We made the end of Nova Scotia and had to take a ferry to Cape Breton. Once there we found a village and a couple of stores where we brought some meat and found the beginning of the trail. But Miki was right. They had started to build a road. We got on to that, but it was only finished for a few miles, so we had to ask how could we get back on the trail and he (a local) said,
"Well, there it is. Do you see that opening in the woods down there? That's the entrance to a logging trail, a lot of trees are being cut down and that is the way the trucks bring out the trees. It will be a little rough, but I'm sure you will be OK. Just follow that trail and you will come to a bridge over a stream. Cross the bridge and follow the logging trail and you'll come back to the (Cabot) trail! Good Luck!"

Contemporary map of the Cabot Trail

With acknowledgement to the
Department of Tourism, Nova Scotia

We looked at each other and Miki said, "We have come this far. Let's go for it." So we set off along the logging trail. It was very bumpy, but not bad and we took it easy. After a while we saw a big truck coming towards us.
There wasn't room for passing, so I pulled over. The truck driver stopped his truck and told us, "You can't go any farther. The bridge is down. With my truck I could ford the stream, but you won't be able to in your car." So I said, "Well, how can we get back to the trail?"
He thought for a minute and then said, "Follow me. There is an old logging trail back a little ways, but if you follow me I'm sure you'll be all right."
So we followed him and he got us back on the trail. We thanked him and he said he hoped it would be the end of our troubles and Miki said, "At least we have a story to tell" and we went on our merry way. By now it was getting late so we started to look for a spot to pitch our tent, which we did. Miki cooked the meat we had bought and some canned potatoes and peas and two apple turnovers we had also bought, so we fed well and had a good sleep.
Next morning we were up early and had a light breakfast and hoped it would be smooth sailing from now on. After driving for a while on a lovely day, we came upon a village and imagine our astonishment when we found it was inhabited by Scots. Their accent was so broad it was hard to understand them, but in a little while it got better. It was just like being in the Scottish highlands and they were very angry at the road being built because it ended their isolation. We talked for quite a while and they said they liked their life and were very sorry to see it coming to an end. They insisted we have lunch with them and then we were on our way. We didn't go very far as we had spent a lot of time with the Scots. They had a store there and we bought some meat and a lady had given us a cake so we had a good dinner and ended a lovely day.
Up early again the next day and after another light breakfast we were off again. We were travelling with the forest on the right and the ocean on the left. The ocean was a long way down the embankment and we had no guard rail, but we were driving slowly anyway. As the afternoon wore on we came to another village. This time it was all French. Some of them spoke broken English and we got along well and they also had a store and we bought some things, but they had 'no meat'. We had some left that we had bought from the Scots, so we were okay!
This was a good stop as there was a camping site with a fireplace and a platform for our tent. So we took a chance for a good rest and got well acquainted with the French who allowed us to take a shower. After we left there we drove for quite a while between the woods with a big drop to the ocean. We finally came to a winding hill and after a while we ran into a deep fog with nowhere to pull off. We drove very cautiously and eventually caught up to a truck so we just followed his tail lights and hoped he didn't go over the cliff edge. He didn't, so we wound up in a small town. We had driven a lot of miles so I thought I should check the tires. At the time tires had inner tubes and when I looked at one of them I could see the yellow of the tube and even I knew that shouldn't be. So we found a garage and they put on our spare and sold us a used tire for a replacement spare. By then, our money was shrinking. I think this was the end of the trail, but not our journey. It was in 1951, so I only remember the highpoints. Somewhere on the way back we were going to a camp ground. It was the only one that the AAA had given us and then, as we made a turn, the car stopped - and it wouldn't start again. We were deep in the woods and I knew nothing about cars, so I just kept trying to start it. Then we saw a light coming towards us, which turned out to be a man with a lantern. He said he lived in the woods and asked if we needed help. He said he knew something about cars, so he opened the hood and tried everything he knew, but the car wouldn't start.
By now it was 11.30 p.m. and he said, "It beats me, but I know a friend who has a garage out on the highway. I'll call him and ask him to come out, which he did. Soon, here comes a tow truck. The driver tried to start the car with no results and we are wondering how we will pay for all of this.
Finally, he said, "Do you have a radio in that car?" I said yes, we did, and he said, "I think I know what it is, so he traced the wires from the radio and took out a small battery or something and said, "Try it now" and "VROOM!" The car started.
By now it was 1 a.m. and we waited anxiously for the bill. I can't remember, but it wasn't much. It couldn't have been as we didn't have much. That night we found a pull-off on the road and slept in the car.
I can't remember anything about the last few days but we didn't go to any motels, so we must have found places to camp. Anyway, I remember the last night very well. We were back in America in one of the northern states and in a town with no place to pitch our tent. We had no money for a motel, so we figured we would sleep in the car. Then, suddenly, in the headlights, we saw a street that was blocked off with a large sign that read "NO ADMITTANCE".
The houses were to be razed to allow for the building of the interstate highway. That system wasn't built yet. I looked at the barricades and said to Miki, "I think I should drive past that" and she said, "And then what?"
I said, "Maybe around the back of one of them would be a porch and we could spend the night." She looked dubious, but said, "okay", so I drove in and down the driveway of the first house. There was a screened-in porch and the door was not locked, so we got our sleeping bags and stove out and Miki prepared a quick meal and coffee and we bedded down for the night, being sure to set an early alarm.
Up at 6.30 a.m., Miki made a pot of coffee and we ate some donuts we had left over and then we were on our way. Before leaving, we wrote a note saying, "Thank you for your hospitality. We enjoyed our visit." We often wondered if or whoever found that note and what they thought about it.
From then on it was an uneventful ride home. We got home on the Saturday evening, which gave us Sunday off before returning to work.
So Miki saw the Cabot trail before the road was built and it was a very interesting trip and a lot of things happened, so we sure had good memories.


About ten years ago, when we were living in South Carolina, we were looking at a travel-vacation show on television and imagine our amazement when they showed Cape Breton, but not the Cape Breton we knew 46 years ago. Now there was a causeway and you drove to the Island and it was just like any other vacation spot with lots of motels and restaurants, but we never heard a mention of the Cabot trail. I wrote to the producers about it, but I never received a reply.

© Dan Kirwan
NJ, September 2006


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