Dirt, Desolation and Joy: Mercedes-Benz ML350 BlueTEC

Joe Sherman

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."

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.

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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