The world's best living travel writer

Read John Gimlette and you'll want to go wherever he's talking about -- even frozen, rocky Newfoundland

Published December 16, 2010 1:20AM (EST)

John Gimlette in Newfoundland
John Gimlette in Newfoundland

"At Cape Spear, I stood next to a lighthouse and admired the blur. The edge of the world had washed itself of form; land, wan and shapeless; the horizon rubbed out; the air blank, howling colourless streaks, sparkling with cold. It was strange to think that, every day, America's first dawn had to struggle out of these smudges on its way to New York, 1,200 miles to the rear. Cape Spear seemed so much more an end than a beginning ..." 

What I wouldn't give for the DNA to concoct a passage like that. It reads like something out of "Moby-Dick," but it's actually by the British author John Gimlette.

Gimlette is the world's best living travel writer. Or the funniest, it can hardly be argued, at any rate. A shame he has but a trio of books to his name (plus numerous magazine essays).

The best and most hilarious of the three is a book called "At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig: Travels Through Paraguay."

It can be said that the truly gifted travel writer is the one who makes your life feel incomplete, through prose so compelling that the reader is unable to forgive himself for not visiting whatever country or region the writer is tackling, no matter how uninviting such a place would ordinarily seem. That's how I felt about Paraguay after reading "Inflatable Pig" two summers ago during a swing through northern Argentina.

Paraguay was right there, all verdant and misty on the opposite side of the Parana River. I could have hit it with a Frisbee. But the bastards wanted a visa and I didn't have time to get one.

The above quotation, though, in which the author describes a visit to Cape Spear, the easternmost barb of the North American continent, is taken from another of Gimlette's books. This one is called "Theatre of Fish: Travels Through Newfoundland and Labrador." Maybe it's not his best, but once again I'm Googling road maps and scoping out hotels, this time in the "Canadian Far East."

While the book has stirred my interest, I also have a peculiar, aviator's attachment to this oddest of Canada's provinces. (Newfoundland and Labrador do not actually touch, reaching out to one another from across a watery strait, but they comprise a single provincial entity.) What I mean by that is I'm constantly flying over the place. Any pilot who regularly crosses the Atlantic has a certain high-altitude connection to this gale-thrashed nether region, with its boulders and forests and frozen black rivers, clusters of icebergs bobbing in the bays. We look down -- at least I do -- mesmerized by its jaggedy, end-of-the-world remoteness.

"God built the world in six days," writes Gimlette. "And on the seventh he pelted Labrador with rocks." That seems about right, looking down on it.

At one point in "Theatre of Fish" Gimlette drops by the airport in Gander, Newfoundland. I was hoping he'd get there.

Before the advent of long-haul flying, little Gander was one of the world's most important airports, a critical refueling stop between the United States and Europe. Well into the 1980s you'd still catch a chartered 707 or one of Aeroflot's Ilyushins sloshing in from time to time. I dropped by a few times myself, crewing cargo jets for DHL in the late 1990s.

Nowadays Gander is almost exclusively a diversion spot. I'm always circling it on the plotting charts and measuring out the coordinates, just in case. If you're calling at Gander, chances are it's a response to some misfortune, like a failed engine or a passenger's failing heart.

Gander Center, meanwhile, is one of the busier air traffic control facilities, helping choreograph the hundreds of commercial flights that traverse the North Atlantic every day, coasting in (or out) along the great circle routes. This is the ultimate flyover country; the controllers must be lonely in their bunkers -- all those planes and people merely passing overhead. I've called in countless position reports, crackling over the HF radios: "Gander, Gander ... over?" I love just saying it. There's something romantic and evocative in the name alone: Gander.

Historically, Gander isn't unlike its transatlantic counterpart, Shannon, another strategic pit stop whose salad days have similarly long passed. But in addition to supplying kerosene and whiskey (Shannon's transit lounge included the world's first duty-free shop), Shannon was and remains something of a destination unto itself in a way that Gander has never been -- a jumping-off point for throngs of tourists headed to the counties of western Ireland. I've been to Shannon in April, the landscape all warm and spongy green. Four hours later I'm in Gander, in a pall of ice-fog thicker than a pillow, waiting for a storm to blow through.

The funny thing is that Shannon sits at a higher latitude. Even the Gulf Stream snubs its nose at poor Newfoundland, saving its rewards for the other side.

As if the climate hasn't provided enough ignominy, Gander was also the scene of one of history's worst air disasters, the crash of an Arrow Air DC-8 on Dec. 12, 1985. The plane didn't "miss the runway" as Gimlette states, but rather went stalling off the end in a doomed, pre-dawn takeoff, plowing into the woods below. Nobody knows what happened. Some say it was a malfunctioning engine and erroneously set power. Others say the wings were coated in rime. A third opinion says both, and a fourth blames sabotage. On board were 256 people, including 248 U.S. servicemen returning from Egypt. There were no survivors in what remains the third deadliest crash ever in North America.

Gander's isolation feels fossilized in the meaningless jumble of its airport identifier: CYQX, the letters clattering like blocks of ice. Cold, empty, forgotten. If there is a sub-zero equivalent of tumbleweeds, they are blowing across the apron at Gander.

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By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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