Dirt, Desolation and Joy: Mercedes-Benz ML350 BlueTEC

Joe Sherman

Sometimes you just have to escape. But in this time of instant communication, of smothering safety nets thrown over acts even a little dangerous, of overhyped destinations where you arrive only to find them sucked dry and left half dead, where can you escape to?

Well, consider this: Labrador, Canada.

Not that the drive to Labrador is for everyone. First, you have to like dirt. Second, you better appreciate desolation. Third, you need to forget digitized roads for your GPS, phone service, Starbucks, four-star hotels -- none of which you'll find in Labrador, except weak phone service in isolated pockets. But most important, you need to discard any leeriness you harbor in your heart toward other human beings who mostly drive trucks and talk a little funny. For Labradorians, as I learned last fall, are a unique genus of Homo sapiens. When a stranger appears, they seem to crank up an innate sense of curiosity, helpfulness, and joy and make you feel like a hardened, cynical, fearful dude from another planet.

And then there's the road. The Trans-Labrador Highway is notorious. It stretches about 700 miles, from Labrador City near the Quebec border to L'Anse Amour and L'Anse au Clair, two windswept settlements on Labrador's southeast coast. It is drifted with snow in the winter, swarmed by squadrons of mosquitoes and black flies that can almost lift you off the ground while draining you of blood in the summer, and driven fast by truckers year round. Paved in Lab City, Churchill Falls, and Goose Bay to signal civilization (all of the TLH is slowly being upgraded and paved), the dirt superhighway crosses a high, barren, seemingly endless plateau of black spruce and tamarack, caribou moss and lichen, and a thousand lakes, ponds, swamps, and bogs all feeding dozens of rivers. Part of the Canadian Shield geological mass, some of it 3.8 billion years old, the plateau varies from 1150 to 3000 feet above sea level. It's a vast table off which water takes drops steep enough to die for if you're a skilled paddler or a dam engineer with wet dreams of hyrdrokinetic energy capture.

The starting point to all this -- a 220-mile precursor -- is deep in Quebec, about eight hours beyond Quebec City. Hence, on a wet, foggy, dreary morning last October, that's where three of us sat, in Manic-5, a Hydro-Quebec outpost with a prefab restaurant brightened by a French Canadian in a beret and his curt little wife. We were filling up on fat, cholesterol, and caffeine, the comfort group. There was even Carnation Evaporated Milk for the coffee, along with maple syrup. Our rig sat out in the muck of the parking lot of the Motel de l'Energie. It was a big, Arctic white Mercedes-Benz ML350 Blue-tec with tiger-eye xenon headlights, leather seats, and a full package of driver-assist options. My sidekick, Peter Baxter, had already deactivated some of the helpers, including lane-keeping assist and blind-spot assist, because we'd be driving a virtual eternity of dirt with little traffic and few modern road markers. Joking around, Peter informed the SUV's command center that, on dirt, "You're not as smart as you think you are."

But the luxurious cockpit sure was comfortable, and the strong suspension, twenty-inch Pirellis, and brilliant headlamps would come in handy. As would an ax, which, unfortunately wasn't on board.

If we'd brought an ax, Peter would have been wearing it. The kind of guy to have on an escape, he's a blacksmith, drives a fleet of Volvo 240s, has his own bulldozer, and speaks French. Our photographer, Andrew Yeadon, an expat Brit living in Southern California, wisely bought some woollies and boots before joining us.

With Peter at the wheel, we climbed a wiggly, eighteen-percent pitch around a dam and were off. The weather was terrible but the driving terrific: washboard surfaces that the suspension handled with aplomb, smile-inducing curves, roller-coaster-like ups and downs, dangerously soft shoulders. And already the three of us were bickering like brothers, each with his own ingrained way of seeing things.

"I told you we should have brought an ax," Peter said for the second or third time, crossing a swampy trampoline of mud, trees leaning in from the sides. "We should have brought a twelve-year-old geek," Andrew added from the back seat, concerned that the Benz's navigation system was basically useless in the wilderness. "And an ax."

More than an ax or a geek, I wanted a good map. A good map of Labrador is hard to find. Digital ones are too reductive, and our tourist map suggested that Labrador was a solid landmass with lakes up by the Arctic. Sometimes, like a good escape, what you really need to make sense of what you're getting into is a big, old-fashioned paper map.

A Canadian lynx, tufted ears and all, suddenly loped across the road. We pulled over for a few photos of the awful weather and got smacked by a squall. Back in the climate-controlled cockpit, we dripped on the leather. Another hour of gravel pinging on the muffler and, for some mysterious reason, "Riders on the Storm" came over Sirius XM uninvited and loud, boosted by an 830-watt Harman Kardon sound system with eleven speakers, bringing smiles to our leathery faces. As we drove through Fermont, with its lake the color of flamingoes -- an iron-ore processing complex beyond suggesting a macabre, giant artwork over a trashed but neatly bulldozed landscape with treadless ten-foot tires for fencing -- Andrew jumped out into a foul wind, saying, "I've never seen anything like this."

Always appreciative of change, ten minutes later, Peter said, "Hey, this looks like the glaciers only retreated twenty-five years ago." He was right. There were eskers, roadwaylike sweeps of gravel left for millennia, slag heaps, wastewater pits.

In Labrador City we were greeted by a blast of hail that peppered the side of the ML350 like bird shot. We pulled into the busiest place in town, the WalMart parking lot. It wasn't much, but there was food and coffee.

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