“Watch out for moose,” the customer service agent advised as he handed over the keys of our car rental. It was a refrain we would hear often on our road-tripping adventure of eastern Newfoundland. Even before our arrival, our host had cautioned against driving at night, defined here as “dusk to dawn,” when the moose are most difficult to see. There was only one problem—our flight arrived at 11 p.m.
“No worries,” we assured the agent, but mostly ourselves. With moose in mind but none in sight, we took to the open road, proceeding slowly, scanning both sides of the highway with our lights on high beam when not overtaking other traffic and looking for warning signs along our route, as directed. We headed to the Newfoundland town of Gambo, a 30-minute drive south, where we would be staying for the next several days.
Wild. Remote. Expansive. If what makes for a beautiful destination lies in its landscape and bountiful wildlife, and in the hearts and hospitality of its people, then Newfoundland is a travel lover’s paradise. “How do you spot Newfoundlanders in heaven?” the joke goes. “They’re the ones who want to go back.”
Otherwise known as “The Rock” for the rugged, sky-vaulting rock walls along its 6,200-mile island coastline, the land has beckoned explorers from the Vikings to the English, from logger
s to fishermen, throughout its storied history. Officially claimed by the English with the arrival of John Cabot in 1497, today the North Atlantic island, together with its northern mainland neighbor, Labrador, comprise Canada’s easternmost province.
Come From Away to Newfoundland
Come From Away, the award-winning Broadway musical written by Irene Sankoff and David Hein, takes place in the tiny town of Gander where 38 flights carrying 6700 passengers (“the plane people”) were diverted on September 11, 2001. In fact, Gander was exceptionally well-suited to receive passengers. The town’s airport has long played a pivotal role in the region’s past, both at the beginning of the transatlantic flight and later as a strategic refueling station for Allied aircraft in World War II. Afterward, Gander became known as “Crossroads of the World.”
This story of how the small community banded together to take in planeloads of total strangers from around the world at a time of devastating loss has truly cemented its place in history.
The Kindness of Strangers
Inspired to see the site for ourselves, we traveled to Gander to meet the real-life characters behind the play. For Mac Moss, Campus Administrator at the College of the North Atlantic, the first inkling that something extraordinary had happened began when his secretary asked, “Do you have your radio on?” From the moment he learned they would be housing up to 300 of the 6,00 passengers on campus, his team and many other residents rose to the occasion and sprang into action. They included a commercial cooking class of two expert chefs and 15 students, a practical nursing class with three registered nurses, and a computer lab manager. The team also tracked down language interpreters, while Moss’s wife and friends showed up with a car full of bedding, and a hotel manager in nearby Clarenville offered to bring duvets and drapes left over from a recent renovation. It seemed the entire town wanted to be part of the effort to care for “the plane people.”
Eyes twinkling, community police officer Oswald (Oz) Fudge says he spotted us as “mainlanders” the moment we entered Jumping Bean Coffee. Sporting his trademark T-shirt printed with the large letters “STFD” (Slow the F#@% Down), Fudge was one of only two police officers in Gander on 9/11; the other worked nights. When asked how he and the townspeople managed to pull everything together for almost 7000 passengers on such short notice, he responded, “We pull together and make it happen. That’s the way it’s always been.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by our host, Rose, at Gambo’s The Freshwater Inn, who commented, “Once Newfoundlanders get the word, it doesn’t take them long to get things together.”
Brian Mosher, who worked for Rogers TV on 9/11, stayed on the air for five days straight, “to the point that my eyes turned black,” he said. “I would never go out and just shovel my own driveway without shoveling my neighbor’s, too. That’s just what you do.”
Our Come From Away journey continued in nearby Appleton at the home of Derm and Dianne Flynn who invited us to join them for a dinner featuring Newfoundland food favorites.
Dishes served included cod au gratin (known in the musical as “fish and cheese”), touton (a pancake-like fry bread), and for dessert, a choice of cloudberry (also known as bakeapple), partridgeberry or blueberry tarts. On 9/11, Derm was Mayor of Appleton, where some of the 6,700 passengers were housed, even in their own homes. “We needed to shelter, feed, and clothe them,” he said. “But the one thing that everyone needed most was love, a hug, and someone to listen to them.”
Local resident, Beulah Cooper, knows a thing or two about hugs. Upon greeting her at her home, she smiled, “I don’t do handshakes, just hugs.” The mother of a firefighter son, Aubrey, who sadly died in 2017, Cooper shares how she took in the O’Roarks on 9/11 while they waited for news of their own son, a firefighter in New York City. “I just tried to ease their burden,” she says. Cooper and Hannah have since become best friends, traveling the world for the musical openings, causing Cooper to muse, “Who would have thought that a tray of sandwiches that I do all the time got me here?” She added, “To this day, Hannah never hangs up the phone without saying ‘I love you.’”
With Cooper’s encouragement, I’m proud to say we ended our stay in Gander as honorary Newfoundlanders, having succumbed to the local “Screech-In” tradition. Also called “Kissing the cod,” mainlanders are invited to respond to the question, “Is ye a Screecher?” by saying “Deed I is, me old cock, and long may your big jib draw!” (This is translated as “Indeed, I am, my friend, and may there always be wind in your sails!”) With a kiss of the cod and a shot of Screech rum, our Newfoundland road trip adventure was complete.