One summer I hitch-hiked some 700 miles across Newfoundland, a jackrabbit-shaped hunk of rock floating off the east coast of Canada. It was a pilgrimage of sorts; my ultimate goal was to reach the site of the oldest trails on earth, a series of fossilised runic scribbles carved into a slab of mudstone, so old as to be almost incomprehensible as animal movement. The fossils lay on the island’s southeast corner, just a day’s drive from the capital city of St. John’s. But first I wanted to see the wilder west coast, with its fjords and Norse relics. And so my journey formed a kind of geographic signum crucis: the trebled fingertips travelling north, south, west, east, and then farther south, falling to rest gently beside the hip.
At this time I was in my late twenties, struggling to write my first book amid the clatter and clutter of a small New York apartment. Hitch-hiking was a matter of practical necessity as much as youthful romance; there was no bus service across the island, and I could not afford to rent a car for the duration of my trip. Moreover, I have always enjoyed hitch-hiking. I regard it as a praxis of low-key utopianism: it gives people an excuse to willingly share resources and talk with strangers for long periods of time. It also provides an excellent window onto a foreign place. If you want to travel perceptively, I’ve found, you must not be afraid to enter the private realms of strangers – their homes, their cars, their dark inner cosmologies, their furies and dreams – and lay yourself at their mercy.
This is not to say that hitch-hiking didn’t – and doesn’t – scare me. It does. Before I left, to allay my fears, I looked up the homicide rate in the province. The previous year, only four people had been killed in a land of about half a million people. Since roughly 80 per cent of all murders in Canada are committed by acquaintances, I calculated that the chances of me being murdered while hitch-hiking were, quite literally, one in a million.
The moment my plane landed in a town called Deer Lake, I felt something was askew. The pilot informed us that the time zone was two and a half hours earlier than it had been in New York; Newfoundland is one of the only places on the planet with this odd distinction. As I rode from the airport to the motel where I would be sleeping that night – in a taxi piloted by a beaky old man named Fred – I discovered that the island looked like much of the rest of Canada, which is to say full of white people and plain, low, rectangular buildings. The differences were subtle but uncanny. Fred’s accent had an odd Irish lilt, for starters. Boy got collapsed down to b’y, while I am got disassociated, Rimbaud-like, into I is.
As the easternmost part of Canada, Newfoundland has long resided – as its name suggests – somewhere in between the old world and the new; it is among the oldest of Europe’s new found lands, so old that its newness once bore remarking upon. This makes sense. It is almost as close to Greenland as Greenland is to Iceland. That proximity lured first Norse and then later French and English ships across the sea, looking for fish, lumber, furs and other biolucre. By the nineteenth century, the island’s last remaining indigenous inhabitants, the Beothuk, had been pushed into barren corners of the island, where they died off from starvation, pox and outright murder at the hands of white settlers. They were replaced with English, Irish and Scottish people wary of severing ties with their homeland. Newfoundland (along with its historically adjoined mainland companion, Labrador) remained a British colony until 1949, when, following a fiercely divided referendum, it became a province of Canada – an event, I would learn one night over a shared thermos of Irish whiskey and a pot of moose stew, that still rankles many locals.
As I traveled up and down the island’s eastern and western coastlines, I noticed that there were docks everywhere, but only occasionally did I see a boat out on the water. Newfoundland was once populated by fishermen who had immigrated by boat, went out to fish by boat, and traveled to town by boat; so isolated were some of the villages on the southeastern shore that to this day there are noticeably distinct regional accents from one town to the next. But when fishing became industrialized, ships from around the world swarmed Newfoundland’s cold waters, pulling up a million tons of cod each year, freezing them on ship and shipping them off again, in what one comprehensive study called a ‘managed annihilation’ of the species. By 1992 cod stocks had fallen to one percent of their prior levels, and the government was forced to declare a moratorium, erasing some 30,000 jobs with a swipe – the largest single-day lay-off in Canadian history. The economy of many small towns withered. With the moratorium still in effect, much of that industry has yet to return, and people speak wistfully of the days of the cod-rush as a golden, if sodden, age.
Nevertheless, the codfish remains as central to Newfoundland’s auto-mythology as the bison is to the American West or the panda to China – its near-extinction gives it the glow of the rare and bygone. In order to become an honorary Newfoundlander, tourists are told they need to kiss a codfish. Stores sell T-shirts bearing slogans like in cod we trust. And cod was on the menu at nearly every restaurant I visited. (I later learned it was most likely shipped over frozen from Russia.) One of my first dinners was a local delicacy: a plate of fried cod tongues, which were battered and fried to a crisp, McNuggety shade of yellow on the outside, but which remained pale and gelatinous within. The cook had piled them so high that by the time I reached the bottom layer, the tongues had all turned to mush.
I caught my first long ride up to the northern tip of the island in a pickup truck, with a tattooed, stubble-headed man named Paul. He was heading north to do some dirt biking. From time to time, Paul would drive with his knees while he rolled a joint; the car filled with a grey air of vague mutual distrust. (We were, after all, two strange men, slightly stoned, lashed together only by circumstance.) He was from the capital city of St. John’s, which he referred to simply as ‘town’. I noticed that his accent was unstable. When he was talking to me, he sounded rather like a Torontonian, but when he began speaking to other locals, it shifted into a more esoteric form.
Outside our windows, alabaster skies hung over dead harbours. The tundra bristled with patches of low, wind-menaced vegetation. The stunted spruces, their trunks covered in silver scales, looked like they wanted to cough. As we wound through the small villages (or ‘outports’) of the northwest peninsula, Paul told me that an island of ice the size of Manhattan had recently broken off of Greenland and was floating towards Newfoundland. All along the north coast, he said, huge icebergs were drifting into harbours. Minutes later, we rounded another bend and there atop the green waters of the inlet floated creamy blue-white dollops of iceberg, some as large as a house. We pulled over and fished out some chunks of ice. Paul took a bite of one and crunched on it thoughtfully, then handed it to me. It was dense, numb, cloud-white. Up close, the clouds dispersed into tiny bubbles, like those embedded in handmade glass. It shattered between my teeth, tasting first of brine, then of sweet water.
As we drove on, Paul told me about his work as a carpenter. He said that when he was building a cabinet, he liked to hide cryptic messages on the inside, where no one would ever find them, but he would know they were there. I would come to learn that many carpenters do this. I was pleasantly haunted by the thought that there might be a shadow library of messages hiding behind our walls and inside our furniture – wise and profane words scribbled on the dark, inner, unfinished surfaces of our world.
That night, after drinking beers at an empty bar called Skipper Hot’s, Paul and I slept on the side of the road in the lee of his pickup truck, I on my thin sleeping pad beneath a rainfly strung between two trekking poles, he in a tent, on a huge rubber camping mattress he spent many minutes inflating with an electric pump.
The following morning, we drove along the ‘Viking Trail’ (in reality just the highway, cleverly re-branded) to the site where the Norse explorers, led by Leif Ericson, landed and built the earliest known European settlement in the Americas.
In the gift shop of the Norse village, the old man behind the counter struck up a conversation with Paul.
‘Where ya fellas comin’ from?’ he asked.
‘Oh, I’m a townie,’ Paul replied, flexing his accent, torquing each vowel into new shapes.
‘Ah, be comin from St. John’s, is ya?’
‘Oh yes b’y. I comes up with the dirt bike. And this feller here is from New York City.’
The tour, when it finally began, was rather unremarkable; the archeologists who had excavated the Norse village had reburied it, so now all that tourists can see of the former village are lumps and depressions of grassy turf, ghostly outlines. But the history of the place was fascinating. The Norse sagas, a series of orally transmitted epics dating back roughly to 1000 ad, describe Leif Ericson and his crew landing on a series of coastlines west of Greenland, which they bestowed with characteristically blunt names: Flat Stone Land, Forest Land and the famed Vine Land. Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, scholars studied the sagas like an arcane treasure map, combing the eastern seaboard for evidence of these settlements. Finally, in the 1960s, a Norwegian explorer and former fur trapper named Helge Ingstad and his wife Anne Stine Ingstad, working off a tip from a local fisherman, discovered a series of buried long-houses on Newfoundland’s northwest corner. There, researchers gradually dug up objects that could only have belonged to Norse men and, somewhat surprisingly, Norse women: a bronze cloak pin, a stone oil lamp, small spindle whorls, iron boat nails, piles of slag left over from metal-working, and, most suggestively, a burl cut from a butternut tree, which only grow hundreds of miles further south.
What I remember most distinctly from the tour is a bronze-green statue near the entrance, which rises up over the path like two great, misshapen horns. This, our tour guide explained, was an abstract representation of the history of our species: 100,000 years ago, a small group of humans left Africa, heading north. Some turned west, ending up in Europe and finally Greenland, while others went east, eventually crossing the Bering Strait and finally making their way to Newfoundland. The Norse sagas recount Ericson’s party encountering a group of nine native people, whom they derisively called skraelings. The Norsemen promptly killed eight of them; the ninth escaped and later returned with a war party. This pattern appears to have repeated itself throughout the Norse occupation, until they finally retreated back to Greenland, and then subsequently to Iceland – an absence that was filled by the Inuit, a seafaring indigenous people from North America armed with superior survival skills, who still reside there today. This statue and this place, our guide informed us, represented the grand story of our species: a single extended family becoming divorced from itself, and slowly traveling around the planet to reconnect with its lost brethren. ‘Sadly, the sculpture is not joined together,’ the tour guide said, pointing up the gap at the apex of the statue’s arch. ‘Because when they finally met again, they had grown so alien to each other that they saw one another as enemies.’
When I wasn’t camping out, most of the time I slept on the couches of strangers I found online. The first of these was a 72-year-old Scoutmaster named Dave. He lived in an apartment complex for retired people. It was not a retirement home exactly; but for convenience’s sake, there was one next door, so that when occupants wilted into senescence or infirmity they could be carted over to the adjoining building. It was, I thought to myself, rather unkindly, a kind of halfway house for the soon-to-be-dead.
This realisation came upon me slowly. When Dave buzzed me in, empty halls and closed doors hid the other tenants from view, though the subaqueous warble of daytime television coming through their doors should have provided a hint. Dave greeted me at the door of his tidy apartment with a kind, gappy smile. Though we had no intention of leaving town, he wore a safari vest, flip-up sunglasses, and a gunny hat. A long, white, lichenous beard hung down his chin and over his neck, as if he’d been sitting there in an armchair by the door for decades, and had only just awoken.
Dave and I spent the afternoon driving around Gander. Never had I seen a town so thoroughly obsessed with the sky. As the dual meanings of its name suggested, Gander was a town of flyers and watchers. Like most places that look upward, it was paradoxically horizontal: a series of long low rectangular buildings, runways, and parking lots. Dave showed me the town’s main attractions: the aviation museum, where I ran my palm down the smooth flank of a Voodoo CF fighter jet. The plaque informed me that it was powered by two Pratt & Whitney J57s, two shaft turbo jets, maximum thrust of 16,000 lb, and a maximum speed of 1200 mph or 1963 km/h with an initial climb of 17,000 ft per minute. (I found this information so wonderfully, uselessly arcane that I jotted it down in my notebook.)
Next, Dave took me to the runway where, on September 11, 2001, a flock of planes bound for New York City were forced to make an impromptu landing. For four days that month, he said, the town almost doubled in size. The shell-shocked strangers were taken in to people’s homes. Dave gleefully recounted stories from that odd half-week: The Tale of the Hasidic Rabbi Who Set Up an Impromptu Kosher Kitchen in the School’s Faculty Lounge; The Tale of the Rockefeller Foundation Executive Who Donated a Row of New Computers to the School; and best of all, The Tale of the Chairman of Hugo Boss Who Was Forced to Buy New Underwear at Walmart.
As we drove through streets named after sky-gods like Earhart, Lindbergh and Yeager, Dave told me about his days as a code breaker during the Cold War. He pulled the car onto an abandoned-looking road to show me the Wullenweber AN/FRD-10 radio tower they once used to intercept Soviet messages. This type of radio tower is aptly nicknamed a ‘dinosaur cage’. A circle of towering steel posts, each held to the ground by a tension cable, were linked by a 400-foot steel ring. In the center was a small concrete rectangular building. The overall impression was of an ultra-minimalist coliseum; it was the most beautiful thing in town. It was also, to me, one of the most wondrous. These pylons of ethereal connection, stringing together continents, are often tucked away, out of sight, in weeded backlots and on remote islands. Some years later I would run across the only other one of its kind ever built in Canada, on the Pacific island of Haida Gwaii, looming up along the roadside like an apparition or a forgotten dream.
When we returned home, Dave, ever the Scoutmaster, braided me a ‘survival bracelet’ out of jungle green cordelette. In return, I showed him how to make an ultralight camping stove out of two old aluminium cans. That night over Guinness – one can apiece; afterwards each was meticulously washed and set aside for stove-making – talk turned to another type of survival. With an oaken grimace, Dave confessed to me that his wife had passed away in March, and asked me how soon I thought was too soon to start dating women again. Many of the elderly ladies in his building were interested in him; he was, in effect, the new rooster on the farm. But he was afraid he couldn’t survive another heartbreak. He turned to me, pained. I stammered unhelpfully, assuring him that I – at an age that was a near numerical inversion of his, emotionally abstracted, and (though I did not tell him this, not knowing how he would react) a contented five on the Kinsey scale – was precisely the wrong person to ask. And anyway, wasn’t he, the wise old man, supposed to be giving me life advice? I was a blank map, whereas he was full of lines.
The next morning, I caught a ride with a married couple all the way to St. John’s, some 300 kilometers away. The wife – whose name I either forgot or never caught – was a curiously bifurcated creature: the right side of her body steered the car and chatted cheerily with me, while the left was busy ashing her cigarette out the window and snarling curses at her fellow drivers. Her husband Buck, so nicknamed for his childhood dental woes, was covered in the most fantastically – as in, folklorically – long body hair, which swirled up around the straps of his white undershirt like dry weeds growing through the carcass of an abandoned truck. He appeared to suffer from a muscular tick that only alcohol could calm, because halfway through the drive he stopped and, with the air of a man filling a prescription, picked up a six-pack of Pabst Blue Ribbon at a gas station convenience store. Almost immediately he was transformed: twitchy and stammery one moment, he became calm and chatty the next. Once we were back on the road, at regular intervals he would casually reach down to decouple a can from its plastic yoke, his wife would snap, ‘Aww, Buck, what did I say about the focken beer?’ and he would slowly retract his hand. Nevertheless, by the time we got to St. John’s, he had somehow managed to finish three cans.
In St. John’s we stopped to visit Signal Hill, where tourists shrieked with delight as the wind blew the hats from their heads. Buck snuck a fourth beer while pretending to marvel at the view of the Narrows. Afterward, the couple dropped me off at a home where I had wangled another night’s couch. The lady of the house – I never met her husband – greeted me at the door with a wan smile. She had the bottle-blonde hair, angelic face, Slavic inflection and weak teeth of a mail order bride. I imagined if a klieg light were placed behind her, it would show through, opaquely.
We sat for some time in the kitchen making a neutered attempt at conversation. Her glazed affect put me ill at ease; staring fixedly at her computer screen, she ignored most of my questions. Occasionally she would realize she was being spoken to, look up as if startled, and hum: ‘?’ Some minutes later, when I gradually sidled around to her side of the desk, I found she was staring at a blank desktop screen.
Lost amidst these frayed wires of communication, her four-year-old son made polite and repeated requests for yogurt, which his mother ignored. I finally worked up the nerve to open the refrigerator, pull out a cold polyethylene tube of yogurt for the boy, and then grab my pack and head out the door, making some half-hearted excuse about wanting to stay ahead of Hurricane Irene, which was then muscling up the Atlantic coast.
It took me three metro bus rides to reach the southbound highway on the city outskirts, where farms extended in all directions. An airy freedom and a bright flutter of fear stirred in the cage of my chest. On the horizon a small orange sun was lowering with mechanical smoothness down through the fertilized air, blacking in the concavities of the long, flat, sisal fields. I feared having to sleep in a ditch and being woken by some angry farmer or, worse, the langolierian teeth of a rototiller.
Fortunately, almost no sooner did I put up my cardboard sign reading mistaken point (which Dave had kindly made for me), than a van pulled over up ahead and began backing along the shoulder. In the front seats sat a smiling couple who introduced themselves as Bill and Sue Guiney. All except one of the back seats, occupied by a frowning teenage girl, had been removed so they could pack in groceries and dry goods purchased in the city.
‘As you can see, we haven’t got a lot of room, but if you don’t mind sitting on the floor, we can take you as far as Renews,’ Sue said.
I had no idea where Renews was, but they assured me it was more than half of the way to where I needed to go. Bill cleared out a space among the boxes of school supplies and crates of soda, and I legoed myself in. The land rushed darkly by as we talked, they of life in their small town on the south shore of the Avalon peninsula, and I of life in the swarming termite colony of Manhattan. Their daughter, Katie, sat mutely reading a manga comic from back to front, manifestly uninterested in either topic.
As we approached Renews, the road passed solitary clapboard houses and stands of dense evergreens. Sometimes the road curved toward the seashore and the forest opened onto wide bays where the sea gnawed into the land. In other places, gaps in the trees revealed slender spires of stone rising up from the ocean like mythic ruins. Far below, the water cupped the shore, pooling in hues of detergent blue that frothed white against the rocks.
I learned that the people of the south shore have a tendency to judge the size of a town by whether it has a store or not. Fermeuse? That’s a decent sized town. They have two stores, Sue would say. Renews, the town where the Guineys lived, did not have a store. In fact, Sue told me as we pulled into the driveway, the Guineys’ house once was the town store. It had even featured a tanning bed, she said, to my surprise. The Guineys had been renovating their house by hand for years, but had resisted putting up interior walls to partition the space, so when one walked inside, one could see from the front door all the way through the kitchen and living room to the far side of the house. Underfoot was a slat-work of wooden boards, some bright and new, some gray and worn. The house was perpetually in a state of slow but cheerful improvement.
Once we reached their home, I asked the Guineys if I could set up my hammock in their backyard, but they insisted that I come inside. Bill showed me around the house, explaining which improvements they had made in the past year and which new pets they had acquired, including a sharp-clawed little cat named D’Artagnan, who, as I sat down at the kitchen table, paced nonchalantly up my arm and across my shoulders to ascend a nearby bookshelf.
Bill’s speech had the ghost of a conquered childhood stutter in it, which would very occasionally reappear – a trait that, along with his love of fantasy novels and hobby of collecting exotic newspapers, endeared him intensely to me. As thanks for his generosity, I later mailed him copies of various New York City papers printed in six different tongues: Russian, Mandarin, Polish, Korean, Irish-American, and the barbed Manhattanese of the Observer.
We spent the night around the dinner table. It was a pleasure to watch Sue in the kitchen, where she ruled with a baker’s warm totalitarianism. She was one of those big women upon whom weight becomes a kind of buoyancy. When speaking about people who’d wronged her, she cursed lavishly, but when she laughed, her whole face rose and sweetened, lifting everyone else’s with it. As she cooked, she recounted her and Bill’s lifelong travels and travails throughout Canada – falling in love and fleeing Newfoundland when she was just fifteen, they had roamed around Ontario and Alberta before suffering a bout of midlife homesickness and moving to a town just miles away from the one to which she swore she’d never return. I had heard this story often in Newfoundland. People were constantly leaving the island to make money – to fish, to drill oil, to cut down trees, to attend university – and then returning, somewhat chastened, having realized there was nowhere better out there, and many places worse.
For dinner we ate tacos, which Sue called ‘wraps’ – crunchy corn paraboloids filled with ground beef and garnished with ketchup, shredded cheddar cheese and iceberg lettuce. I had begun to fixate on the endless series of slight, uncanny warpings of familiarity all around me: the faint Irish inflection that turned Sue’s ‘thought’ into ‘taught’ and ‘point’ into ‘pint’ (but not, as with other Canadians, ‘sorry’ into ‘sorey’.) This is what Newfoundland offers the foreign visitor: not the exotic, but the unheimlich – familiarly foreign, subtly weird. It is a word on the tip of the tongue, of a phrase misheard and then repeated, slower this time, before it clicks into intelligibility. The way to pronounce Newfoundland, Bill and Sue instructed me, is to remember that it rhymes with understand. Except, not quite.
I ended up spending a few more nights with the Guineys, so strong was the gravitational pull of their hospitality. There wasn’t much to do, so one afternoon Bill drove me a few minutes outside of town and dropped me off with the instructions to walk until I heard the sound of water, whereupon I’d find a swimming area called The Falls. I climbed out of Bill’s car and walked along a rutted dirt road until I spotted a break in the trees revealing a wide, fast stream. There was no one else around, so I stripped off my clothes, dove into the cool brown laminations, and then flopped onto a warm rock to let the sun dry me. I repeated the process, and then repeated it again.
On the paved road leading back to the Guineys’ home, I encountered an old man standing on a low bridge. His name was Frank, and every night, he told me, he walked out to this bridge to look out over the harbor and think about how things had changed.
‘Oh ya b’y, lotta t’ings ‘s changed ‘round here,’ he said, pointing a wavering finger out at the empty water where fleets of fishing boats had once moored. The sun was gone and the dusk had broken into a spray of black dots suspended in deep blue. Some of those dots were bobbing about. As we spoke, one wobbled down and bit me sharply on the ankle, leaving a pale welt.
Frank pointed to the road underfoot. That too was new. Even as late as the early 1960s there was no paved road in this part of the island, and no mail service. In the winter, people used horses and sleighs to get from town to town. Even the landscape had changed, he said; during low tide, you used to be able to walk across the bay to get to the northern half of town. No longer. The tide rose a bit higher every year, further dividing the town from itself. A man named Peter walked down the road and stood beside Frank, as he did on many nights. He seamlessly entered our conversation, and they began turning over memories already long rubbed smooth. I took the opportunity to say goodnight, and I continued my walk home.
A few hundred feet farther along, Sue stuck her head out of the window of a nearby house and waved me inside. She was taking care of a shy octogenarian named Gertie. Sue brought me and Gertie cups of tea, and the three of us sat for some time in the living room watching a grisly police procedural in which the camera occasionally swooped down into the bodies of the deceased to reveal glistening inner worlds, each strangely lit up like a jeweler’s display case. (Shouldn’t the inside of a body be dark? I wondered. But then, replied the inexorable logic of the television, how could it be televised?) Sue said it was Gertie’s favorite show. I tried asking Gertie some questions, but she couldn’t understand a word I said, nor I her, though we were both native speakers of English. Sue acted as a translator for a time, and then we all gave up and watched the mystery unravel.
When I arrived back at the Guineys’, Bill was using an ATV to drag large objects down to the beach of the inlet. He waved me over and cut the engine to tell me he was constructing a bonfire. That night the Guineys’ burned everything from the house they no longer needed, starting with a sink unit and some rotted floorboards, and then later adding plastic bags, tar shingles and a leaky water jug. Cobras of black, oily smoke coiled upward, driving back the mosquitoes, which hovered at the firelight’s periphery. Katie, in a cleansing ritual, burned all of the previous year’s school papers, and then the backpack that had held them.
When I left the Guineys’ house, Sue gave me a loaf of freshly-baked bread, a container of cloudberry jam and a jar of pink-brown moose meat. I stood by the road outside their house and soon caught a ride with an elderly woman of regal bearing named Catherine Windsor and her whiskery, snarl-toothed son, who spoke softly and conspiratorially in an accent and dialect I couldn’t decipher. They drove me as far as their vacation house, a small white cabin that resembled a seaside shanty, except that it overlooked an expanse of green nothingness far from the sea. I waited there for an hour, and then, seeing my abject state on the empty road, Catherine and her son came back outside and drove me the rest of the way.
They dropped me at the door of the Mistaken Point Visitors’ Center, where I hoped to see the oldest known trails on earth. The trails, I had read, had been left behind by a Precambrian animal called the Ediacaran biota some 565 million years ago and later fossilised by a volcanic eruption. I had recently begun writing a book about trails – from small ant trails up to colossal walking paths – and so these trails held a near-holy significance for me: the ur-paths, the first traces of animal movement on earth. Here, I thought, is where my book would begin: not at the beginning, necessarily, but at the farthest point we could see into the dim past.
When I asked to see them, Valerie, the friendly young reserve manager, frowned and told me that their location was a matter of great secrecy, because ‘paleo-pirates’ had been known to carve out the more notable fossils and sell them to collectors. She said that, if I wanted, I could file for a permit with the head office, but that could take up to three weeks to clear.
‘What about a press pass?’ I asked her.
She laughed. ‘Oh, that would take even longer.’
I was crestfallen. I vowed to return the following year to see the fossil trails, with the proper permits in hand (as, indeed, I did). But in the meantime, I had traveled hundreds of miles to reach this place, so, with nothing else to do, I signed up for Valerie’s tour of the fossil site, which was free. A group of us tourists hiked down to the seashore later that day, where the fossils were located on a series of huge flat stones poised above a cataractic blue sea. We slipped on protective booties, then walked gingerly out onto the fossil surface, squinting downward, finally falling to our knees to run our fingers over the intricate fibers of their alien bodies. Though the Ediacarans are believed to be the planet’s earliest known animals, to me they are unrecognizable as such. They date back to before the Cambrian explosion, when animals first developed hard shells or bones, so their bodies are mere fleshy lobes, twisted and folded into fractal patterns. To my untrained eye, they resembled little more than strange leaves that had fallen down and impressed themselves on wet concrete. I felt a strange sadness, staring down at them. I wanted to feel something more.
A few minutes later, still atop the fossil site, a young man in a nylon wind-breaker got down on one knee and proposed to his girlfriend. (He later explained that they had met on a paleontology field trip in college.) Everyone gathered around to watch the familiar spectacle, which played out as if following some unwritten script: he nervously pulled the ring from his jacket pocket, she covered her mouth, said of course, yes. A few of the people around me welled up with tears. The tour guide joked that everyone had lost interest in her lecture. She was right. In a moment, as if a hard wind had passed through my brain, I had forgotten all about fossils, as well as vanished Norsemen, decimated tribes, dead fish, collapsed industry, empty stores, withering tradition, strangeness, muteness, mistranslation, trails, traces, collisions, extinctions, all the sphinxish riddles of the past and present. We stopped merely to watch two new human bodies holding one another, wind-whipped and smiling, atop an altar of dead things and old stone.
Photograph © Trudy Veitch
Robert Moor is the author of On Trails: An Exploration, available for order now.