DRIVEN: Dirt, Desolation and Joy: Mercedes-Benz ML350 BlueTEC

March 19, 2012
Mercedes Benz ML350 BlueTEC Front Right Side View
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.
Mercedes Benz ML350 BlueTEC Front View Track
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.
Mercedes Benz ML350 BlueTEC Left Side View
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.
While my companions looked around, I relaxed in the cockpit, snow spitting at the windows, my coffee in a heated cupholder, and read in a local newspaper about Dying Hard, a one-woman play that examines the lives of six fluorspar miners in Newfoundland, Labrador's sister territory, where we were ultimately headed. I was impressed that the editor gave so much ink to this story in a place built on iron ore and booming because of iron production worldwide. But that's Labrador for you. Despite its small population, about 26,000, the place is oddly futuristic. It contains big modern conflicts: mining versus the environment, wild-and-free river riders versus energy conglomerates, natives versus whites. Slightly larger than Colorado and shaped like a wind-racked Christmas tree, it's a natural treasure trove waiting to be exploited in a warming world.
At this point in the trip, I wasn't thinking about the future. I was thinking that the landscape didn't exactly exude the vague and happy feeling of escape that I longed for as we motored farther east, having picked up an emergency phone from a friendly lady at a hotel, courtesy of the province ("Just turn it in when you leaves Labrador") and done a quick drive-by of the Iron Ore Company of Canada mine. In fact, the real Trans-Labrador Highway reminded me a little of The Road by Cormac McCarthy. Empty, high bluffs to the south. Island-dotted bodies of water. A wrecked car, abandoned beneath a soggy sky. Still, when the setting sun broke through, spraying spokes of light over the stunted trees and water, a surreal ease prevailed. And when the sun went down, driving 80 mph on slick dirt produced a thrill of sorts as the Mercedes sustained grip with its 4Matic all-wheel-drive system, shifting power to whichever tires had traction. Not that there was much of that. One of the raw truths of driving on wet dirt is that there is a loose, almost icelike slickness at speed, four-wheel drive or not. Rather rusty on such a surface, I wised up and slowed down to a speed where the traction was palpable.
Sitting In Ship
The next day our luck changed. After leaving Churchill Falls, we drove hard through more fog and mud, which covered our slow-roller like a dirty blanket in which we fingered future destinations: Goose Bay, Red Bay, Saint Anthony. But then the weather broke and we hit a road-adventurer's triple dip: a wild-animal interaction, a raconteur, and an evening of cod tongues and cook-it-yourself steaks at a grill in Goose Bay, where a bottle of wine was a liter and a half, not the little old standard 750 milliliters served in the U.S.A. The animal event occurred on Popes Hill, an elevated scenic spot. The sun had popped out, and Andrew set up a shot of our mudmobile coming up the hill. As Peter drove down through the sun-dappled wilderness to turn around, a red fox came out of the black spruce and approached Andrew's tripod.
"I'm not very good with wildlife," he said, but showed British resolve, held his ground, and snapped it.
I was watching his back, in case a truck came flying over the hill after the eternity of dirt. As for the fox noodling around the camera bag, Vulpes vulpes seemed a bigger danger than a trucker. "That's kind of odd behavior for a fox," I said. "It might be rabid."
Clutching his gear, Andrew trotted across the steamy tar. A well-aimed, softball-sized stone and the fox, tail down, slipped back into the forest. "Did you see its eyes?" Andrew asked. "It was doing this move with its head, his eyes on me."
Not two hours later, in a former Hudson's Bay Company trading post in North West River that's now a museum, we met an old trapper/fisherman named Perry Michelin who -- no joke -- said he'd had a pet fox he adored. "I'd dearly like to get another. He'd hunt with me. Tow birds out of the water like a dog. It never, never followed me into town. A wolf got it." When we asked if the fox we'd seen might be rabid, Perry said, "That's rare. Very rare. But it do happen."
A guide at the museum, Perry described how, as a young man, he used to go by canoe from North West River, near Goose Bay in central Labrador, toward Labrador City every fall. He lived in a tilt, a small shelter he built with an ax out of logs and caribou moss, and tended his trap line, returning by ice on the rivers near Christmas, pulling a toboggan piled with furs, mostly lynx. While Perry and Peter chatted away like soulmates from a previous century, I wandered outside into the chilly sunlight, then to a nearby grocery store where I asked a couple clerks what they thought about the TLH now going all the way to the busier coast. Until December 2009, you had to take a ferry or fly to get there from here.
"That new road has turned people off," said Susan Penney, who'd moved here from Newfoundland. "A lot of people like getting on the ferry [and traveling to Cartwright, on the coast]. We had it taken away."
"But that's progress," added her associate, Gail McLean, a weathered woman who then declared, "Labrador's got to open up. It's the last place."
In a nearby reservation in Sheshatshiu, after cruising the mean streets in our Mercedes that stuck out like a dirty sore thumb, I found an elder of the Innu First Nation named Patrick Rich. I asked Rich if having the road finally completed to the coast and points south was good or bad for the Innu. "Bad," he said. "It's easy access to drugs for kids." They could buy heroin and coke with their social welfare money, part of the Canadian legacy of dealing with its native peoples. A young guy named Michael Rossignol was listening to us. He said that he'd moved to Montreal as a kid, then came back to Labrador at eighteen. Now he trained and educated the youth. Rossignol praised the upgraded, completed road but said he was worried about the sudden access. "It's not as serene here as it used to be."
Stop
That night, after the local delicacy of cod tongues and steaks with cheap wine, we checked into Goose River Lodges in Happy Valley. The owner, a curious local named Marty Williams, checked out the Mercedes, idling by reception. "That's the quietest diesel I've ever heard," he said. And he was right, it is remarkably quiet, thanks in part to something that Mercedes engineers call "miraculous pilot injection," which is basically small blasts of fuel preheating the cylinders a few milliseconds before ignition, thus eliminating the ping-pong-ball sound many people associate with diesels.
Williams, 37, gave us some of the history of the TLH. He'd traveled it as a boy with his dad, who used to pull over and shoot caribou. "Before '94, you probably wouldn't have called it a road. But it was. It was rough, twisty, and turny. There were cliffs and hills and drop-offs. The question always was, 'Are you going to make it over Popes Hill?' You did, it was thirteen hours to Churchill Falls. [We'd just covered the distance, 180 miles, in four hours.] I'd never travel that road without an ax." Then Williams shifted to something most Labradorians remain familiar with: dirt-road etiquette. He said, "You drive that road in the middle. A guy comes up behind you, pull over." As for the oft-maligned truckers, he defended them. "You get in trouble, they'll help you."
Before leaving the hub of Labrador, we were treated to another display of local hospitality. AdBlue, a diesel exhaust fluid (DEF), was getting scarce in our rig, according to the instrument panel. No DEF, and the engine wouldn't start. So we pulled into a multipurpose enterprise whose sign said Ford/Budget Rental/VW/Used Cars. There were four guys inside. One found some DEF, another held the jug high like a prize liquor, a third ceremoniously poured the fluid into the holding tank. And the fourth made sure he got it all in. Problem solved, no charge.
We crossed the Mealy Mountains, another vast, boreal zone, one just designated a Canadian national park nearly the size of Yellowstone and Yosemite combined. Except for potholes, which we hit hard, sending up geysers, the road was flat, its surface a coal-dust-like mud that put the ML350's stability control to a test. Which it passed like an arrow. The suspension easily absorbed blunt four-inch lips of steel as we hit new bridge after bridge. Then we came down the coast and turned into Mary's Harbour. What a treat! The air smelled of salt and the hard-blue sea. There was a hotel and a pub with darts. On the dock we saw sea dogs and a trawler, nets and traps. The three of us rolled out of our now Arctic brown Mercedes, eager to hear voices, maybe even the famous Newfie accent that Annie Proulx, author of The Shipping News, once described as a linguistic tangle misread by ears not accustomed to it.
"Certain places there's crabs," an amenable fellow named Roy Spearing said, then grinned devilishly. "Knows what I mean?"
Not exactly, Roy. So he explained that crab and shrimp now kept guys like him alive. "I was born," he said, pointing at the sea, "out there, on Battle Island. Went to school there. I moved in here at sixteen."
Joining us was Roderick Pye, captain of a shrimp trawler. Wearing rubber boots, gloves, overalls, and a watch cap, the friendly captain told me that the cod moratorium of 1992, an official decree that ended more than 400 years of cod being the king of the North Atlantic fisheries, "changed our whole world. Now you got to be working harder than ever to have nothing."
Mercedes Benz ML350 BlueTEC Front Right Side View
Pye's small crew slyly watched the boss gesticulating, in command, entertaining, like he's on TV and explaining how to catch shrimp. "Where do we fish?" he asked rhetorically, back on his boots. "Depends." He leaned forward, like I was a confidant. "Depends on the time of year and where your buddies got good catches." I brought up the road and he stiffened a bit. "That's what killed our fishing settlements, was the road. We was the generation that begged our kids to not stay around Labrador." Not smiling, he said, "Fish? My son, twenty-one, he don't like it. Gets seasick." His daughter, though, he added, laughing a little at me taking notes, "she wants to be a writer."
The following morning was sunny and clear. Our B&B overlooked a bay from which Basque whalers had once pursued leviathans like Ahab's crews in Moby-Dick. The Basques came to Red Bay in early spring, killed whales, and processed tons of whale oil to take back to Europe in the fall for illumination, perfumes, and soaps. They sailed here between the 1530s and the early 1600s, then stopped because most of the right whales, which were right because they were big, slow, and bulky, with a very thick layer of fat, were gone.
Cindy Gibbons, the Red Bay National Historic Site supervisor, rode shotgun as we drove around her picturesque bay, then hopped out and said, "Beneath our feet are the remains of a bloody, savage business. The first commercial whale-hunting business in the world."
She pointed out Saddle Island, where many of the melting ovens and cooperages were located. The island protects the bay from the storms that blow off what's now called Iceberg Alley, which begins in the Arctic. Last summer an iceberg as large as Manhattan floated by out there, attracting so many tourists that an overworked boat captain had a heart attack in Saint Anthony. About thirty miles southeast in Newfoundland, Saint Anthony is close to where Leif Eiriksson and his wild bunch of Vikings landed on these shores around 1000, killed some natives, built a small settlement, then went back to Greenland. Although no Viking shipwrecks have ever been found, a Basque vessel named the San Juan sank in 1565 in Red Bay with about 1000 barrels of whale oil on board. Hauled up between 1978 and 1985, it played a soggy, powerful role in the village's survival.
"Now," Gibbons said, "we're trying to join UNESCO's World Heritage List." For us weary travelers, Red Bay is the end of the dirt. And frankly, after four days, it's anticlimactic to be back on banal asphalt. I tally up the 3.0-liter turbo-diesel's fuel usage. It's impressive for a relatively large SUV. We got about 24 mpg, just a few notches below the EPA's figure for estimated highway mileage. We rearrange our stuff in the cargo hold, ample enough for three rollers and considerable camera equipment, and check the ferry schedule to Newfoundland.
One funny thing happens en route to the ferry. Andrew wants to wash the SUV for some mud-free shots, despite the fact that Peter and I think it looks rather fine with its grime, which broadcasts where we've been. The washing effort sort of backfires because of Labradorian helpfulness. The local car wash is broken, so a sympathetic kid washes the Mercedes for free. But then, while traveling down the smooth highway, the SUV starts to wobble like a drunk. Crawling beneath the front end, which has kept two and a half tons tilt-free and even-keeled all across Labrador, Peter digs away with an eight-inch twig at mud that resembles impacted cavities in the bright, wide aluminum wheels.
One of our last stops is Point Amour, reached by a dirt lane. There we run into Rita Davis picking partridge berries, the kind we'd spread on toast for breakfast at the B&B. Down on her knees, Rita removes her cap. Her eyes glow moistly bright in the relentless wind. She looks very much like an eternal girl as Andrew drops to one knee and takes her picture. Married to a Labrador fisherman for decades ("Cecil caught anything he could: cod, shrimps, scallops"), she tells us joyfully, "I was a child bride." She's 73.
Breakfast
Finally, we're in a tiny cemetery. The HMS Raleigh sank off here in 1922, taking the lives of eleven British sailors. Ten lie beneath a lichen-blotched, wind-worn stone. A few yards away, a slab of broken marble reads:
Past the deep bosom of the treacherous main Where storming winds and howling tempests reign To seek her native fields and friendly skies In Death's cold arms the loved Elizabeth lies.
Across the dirt lane, closer to the white caps, is a modest memorial to a twelve-year-old boy who was laid there in an elaborate Stone Age ceremony some 7500 years ago. That's about 3000 years before the Egyptians built the Great Pyramid. A road-building crew back in 1973 stumbled on an unusual pile of rocks and was smart enough not to disturb it. Archaeologists followed and carried everything, including a bird-bone whistle, a harpoon head, and paint-grinding tools, off to be displayed in Saint John's, Newfoundland.
Contemplating the site as a solid wind blew, Peter said loudly into my ear, "The lady with Rita said they cleaned everything with toothbrushes!" "Yeah! And Rita said they should have left the boy here! In Labrador!"
We left Labrador on the ferry the next day, walked the steep cliffs in Saint Anthony, sat in a reproduced sod hut in Leif Eiriksson's Viking settlement, and climbed into a replica of a knarr, the single-sail, open boat his group probably relied on. But all I really wanted to do was to go back the way we'd come. Back to one of the last great dirt superhighways of this era before it's cleaned up, totally paved, and as long gone as Leif.

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