Dirt, Desolation and Joy: Mercedes-Benz ML350 BlueTEC

Joe Sherman

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.

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."

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.

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