A LONG WAY FROM MANY PLACES
The Middle: Prince Edward Island
The screen door slams with the exact sound I imagine I hear when listening to ‘Thunder Road.’ The screen door is green. The porch is simple boards of bleached and weathered wood. Sculpted white pillars shaped like spindles support the overhang of the steep roof. There are no railings. Everything looks as I picture it in the song. The setting’s just a little off course. We’re a few minutes drive away from Malpeque Bay and the Gulf of St. Lawrence. We’re on the Island from away.
The province this year is celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Charlottetown Conference at which plans for the 1867 formation of the Dominion of Canada were first hatched. The pace of life on the Island being what it is PEI didn’t actually join Confederation until 1873. The population of Canada’s smallest province is about the size of a neighbourhood in a big city, about 145,000 – all of whom seem to be named Murphy or Gallant. The Guardian newspaper Covers Prince Edward Island Like the Dew. Rent a car on the Island and chances are it has a Nova Scotia plate. The Duty Paid stickers on cigarette packages indicate NS, not PEI. McCain Foods recently closed a plant in Borden-Carleton eliminating 75 jobs, a significant hit as the province’s unemployment rate for July had improved to 9.4-per-cent. Along Highway 2 somewhere between Charlottetown and Kensington I notice a stately white clapboard church up for sale.
My sister Anne and her husband Al own some land in Baltic. A neighbour farms the rear field gratis, Anne’s only condition being no potatoes as they require spraying. This year’s crop is barley. Anne and Al have spent sweat, money and more than a decade renovating the old house on the property. Out on the skunk divot lawn about 15 feet from the porch my sister has planted a red horse chestnut tree. It’s about three years old. Some of our brother’s ashes are buried deep beneath its roots. Anne speaks to the tree and calls it ‘Robert.’ My Ann was married to the actual Robert for 28 years. Pain and grief can bring you together even as they tear you apart. I sat up alone one night contemplating the tree’s whipping in a silver squall. I’ve seen a lot of rain in my life, but I’ve never seen it drive down in an X pattern before.
The verdant rolling hills remind me of the Eastern Townships in Quebec or England’s Sussex. Criss-crossing unpaved roads are the same rusty red as the soil and the dust raised gets into everything everywhere. On the Gulf coast the fields eventually peter into great turf-topped sand dunes and beaches. Some days the sky is as deep blue as the ocean. The Guardian reported that the regulated season’s first tuna had been landed. You can buy an actual lobster trap to take away as a souvenir for about $18; the lobsters won’t complain about one less trap in the depths, believe me.
I eat my first-ever lobster roll in a quaint, pier joint called Oyster Barn. I feel a bit like Spenser, Robert B. Parker’s Boston P.I. who ate a lot of lobster rolls through the plots of 40 novels. A day or so later we meet Garth and Roger, friends of Anne’s and Al’s for lunch in Alberton. I order a crab cake and potato salad. While we’re sitting in the restaurant I notice that the Today’s Specials chalkboard menu offers CEASER SALAD. When the staff is otherwise occupied, I get up and correct the spelling. Garth asks me if I have CDO. ‘I have CDs,’ I reply, ‘but what’s CDO?’ He grins. ‘It’s like OCD except the letters are in the correct order.’ I get it, I’ve got it.
I’m not overly fond of abundant seafood. Hot dogs are something else. At Covehead, within the boundaries of Prince Edward Island National Park, Brackley-Delvay, we grab lunch at a shack called Richard’s. I order a $7 hot dog. Anne says her lobster roll is the best she’s ever had. Ann says her fish and chips are the best she’s ever had, ever. I could’ve grilled a better hot dog back home in Edmonton. The fries are good of course, impossible not to be. The microbrew lager’s okay but it’s not the Island Red I’ve recently developed a taste for. At Scooter’s, a seasonal roadside dairy bar on Highway 2 just outside of Summerside and in view of the wind farm turbines, I munch a hot dog with cheese and bacon while everybody else licks soft ice cream. This particular whistle dog at least rivaled the ones we make at home.
A year or so ago Anne and Al were approached to be part of a photo shoot. A cast for a middle-aged couple without kids. Their pictures turn up in the 2014 visitor’s guide. They’re digging clams. Deep sea fishing. Go-karting. Drinking coffee on a veranda overlooking the Atlantic. Tourism is an essential component of PEI’s economy. The casting of Anne and Al was a subtle move away from the traditional family focus of the province’s advertising; they were not photographed anywhere near a house with green gables. Even so nightlife in a tourist trap can be cheesy and dodgy but we luck out. On August 18 in Summerside we catch ‘Remembering Elvis,’ a concert featuring Thane Dunn and the Cadillac Kings. One day sooner and the date would’ve been spooky. What’s worrisome is Thane himself, he’s the fourth Elvis impersonator Ann and I have seen this calendar year. What’s memorable is that his jumpsuit is baby blue, more live at Madison Square Garden as opposed to in concert in Las Vegas. Thane’s got a lot of energy and a little charisma, a good looking man who can really sing. The Kings cook.
We return to the Harbourfront Theatre the very next night to see ‘The Ballad of Stompin’ Tom,’ an anecdotal biography strung together along the hooks of 12 of the country musician’s best known songs. Stompin’ Tom was no Gordon Lightfoot; he’s remembered now mostly as a fierce patriot (unusual in Canada) as his lyrics walk the line somewhere between Johnny Cash and Dr. Seuss. Only in PEI will you see a Stompin’ Tom impersonator, Bud. Inconceivably, the show is excellent. Anne and Al have been friends with the play’s musical director for 40 years and here we all are by the water on a hot night on the Summerside of life.