Things move slowly on an island. By the time we actually stepped inside the house we’d bought sight unseen on Prince Edward Island (See Part I here), it was late October. The intervening weeks had given me time to hear lots of people tell me I was crazy.
“How could you buy a house you’ve never seen?” my mother demanded. “Besides, you don’t need another house. You barely take care of the one you’ve got.”
“Why?” a friend asked. “Isn’t it cold up there in the winter?”
“It’s no worse than Massachusetts,” I said, despite having zero facts on this topic.
“It’s not even on the beach!” another friend said. “If you want potato fields, drive to Maine.”
Also true. Yet “The heart wants what the heart wants,” as Emily Dickinson wrote, and I wanted this old farmhouse on Prince Edward Island.
Because we lived so far away, I had to rely on the realtor to give me the name of a home inspector. And, because the home inspector could only come in the morning, we’d have to spend the night somewhere close to the house. I found an inn online—Harbour Lights Inn, located just outside North Lake Harbor, famous for its lobster and tuna fishing village—and called.
To my astonishment, the woman who answered was actually American; she and her husband were in the process of applying for their Canadian citizenship after two decades of living on PEI.
“You’ll love it here,” Pat assured me.
Because we were showing up in late October—well past the peak tourist season—she promised to give us dinner as well as breakfast.
“Oh, gosh, I don’t want to trouble you,” I said.
“Really, it’s fine,” she said. “Maybe I’ll come to the home inspection with you. I’ve always wanted to see inside that house.”
“You know which house we’re buying?”
She laughed. “Sure. That’s Homer Robertson’s old place.”
“That’s not the owner on the listing sheet,” I said, confused.
“Right, but that’s always going to be his house,” Pat said. “You’re come-from-away.”
Driving on Disappearing Roads
“Stephen King territory,” my husband mumbled as we turned onto Airline Drive, which goes through Washington County’s crumbling houses, hunting cabins, and tired looking churches.
The snow started falling in New Brunswick. At first it was pretty, powdering the wide vistas of rolling hills and the edges of the Bay of Fundy, but by the time we reached the Confederation Bridge, it felt like we were driving off the end of the world. I remembered the sign I’d seen that summer at East Point Lighthouse, claiming that nineteenth-century lighthouse stood at the end of the world, perched above the meeting of the tides between the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the Northumberland Strait.
As we left the bridge and began driving east across the island, the wind started howling. At one point it felt like some giant hand had picked up my Honda and shaken it before dropping us back on the road.
“Uh oh,” Dan said.
On Prince Edward Island, I’d heard that the “roads disappear” in winter. I’d scoffed at that. Hey, I thought. I’m a New Englander. We know snow!
But we didn’t know island snow. One minute, Dan and I were following a ribbon of tarmac; the next, a giant white sheet was drawn over the road and the asphalt disappeared. With such an abundance of farm fields, there are few trees and bushes holding the snow at bay.
“Can you see where you’re going?” Dan asked, white-knuckled beside me.
“Sure,” I said. “I’m just driving between the houses.”
Not that there were many houses. In fact, some of the towns are named for how many houses they have, like Five Houses just past St. Peter’s Bay. There were few cars to hit, fortunately, and at last we arrived at our destination. Harbour Lights Inn was a gray two-story house that would have had a fine view of North Lake Harbor, a small collection of colorful fishing shacks and cottages on a red sand beach, if the windows hadn’t been veiled by snow.
Pat and her husband Bruce had decorated the inn with an Asian theme, since Pat had spent so much time in China, and as we ate and admired the artwork and furniture, they filled us in on the neighborhood.
Homer Robertson, we learned, grew up on Munns Road, in the house directly behind the one we were intent on buying. Most people on Munns Road had grown up on the same road or nearby. Like many remote, beautiful islands, making a living on PEI takes energy and ingenuity. Bruce, for instance, was an historian who taught at the university in Charlottetown. Homer had run a store out of our house and did some farming. The house behind Homer’s was occupied by a woman painter who also worked as a hospital technician. Her husband, a retired chemist, raised sheep and cattle. That woman’s brother was a carpenter who resided at the end of our road, and next to him was yet another of their brothers, a lobster fisherman who also raised cattle.
When morning rolled around, Pat announced she was coming to the home inspection with me.
“Thank you, but you really don’t have to do that,” I said.
She raised an eyebrow. “This is my chance to see inside that house. You think I’m going to pass that up?”
Then, when I tried to pay her for our night at the inn and the meals they’d given us, she waved me off.
“I don’t take money from friends,” she declared.
So off we went to see what I hoped would be our island retreat, accompanied by a friend.
Anne of Green Gables Could Have Lived Here
The house was built around 1900, and as the realtor wrestled the key into the lot, I held my breath. Many of the houses we’d looked at on the island had been “renovated” in ways that stripped away all of the original woodwork and character in favor of paneling, dropped ceilings, and linoleum.
Not this one. Stepping into this house was like stepping back in time. We entered through a tiny yellow sun porch furnished with a trio of ragged lawn chairs. The dining room had an enormous oil stove for both cooking and heating and was separated by a wall from a galley kitchen. There were no appliances, other than a tiny gas stove and refrigerator.
What there was, though, was the original woodwork around the door frames and windows, and the original pine floors. Some of the floors had been painted a pleasing green. The floor in the main living room wasn’t pine; it was oak, I guessed, laid in an elegant interlocking pattern. The windows were nearly as tall as I was, flooding the living room with light.
“Oh my God,” Pat exclaimed behind me.
“What?” I asked.
“The furniture,” she said, scarcely breathing. “It was handcrafted in Vermont.”
I examined it then—I’d been too busy looking at the house–and realized the chairs and couch were the sort of elegant, Mission-style furniture I’d only seen in the Sundance catalog.
“That makes sense,” said the realtor. “The current owner is from Vermont. He’s including the furniture in the sale,” she added. “Dishes and artwork, too. Everything.”
“Everything? Really?” I asked.
She shrugged. “He doesn’t want to bother moving it.”
Upstairs, the bedrooms and hallway were wallpapered in floral patterns. “I feel like Anne of Greene Gables,” I said.
“Or we could be in Little House on the Prairie,” Dan said, swatting away a cobweb.
The only anachronism was a bathroom jimmied into the original landing at the top of the stairs. There, a toilet was raised on a wooden step to allow for the plumbing below it. It was framed by one of those same tall windows.
“We’ll call this The Throne Room,” Dan said.
A Bolt Hole for The End of the World
The inspector continued crawling around in the usual places inspectors go: the basement, the attic space, etc., pointing out the plumbing fixtures, oil tank (ancient), and wiring (even older). The house was surrounded by a trio of barns, one small, one medium, one big enough to park a crane inside, and here we discovered more unexpected items: antique tools and boxes of literature about the end of the world.
Most of the literature seemed to be warning of the world ending in 1982 after a series of global disasters—earthquakes, tidal waves, and violent storms—brought about by all nine planets aligning. “Oh, yeah,” Dan said, skimming a pamphlet. “’The Jupiter Effect.’”
I had no idea what he was talking about. Apparently The Jupiter Effect was a bestseller by British astrophysicist and science writer John Gribbin and astronomer Stephen Plagemann, who predicted devastation for our planet because the gravitational pull of the sun on all planets lined up in a row would trigger sunspots, solar winds, and an increase in the Earth’s rotation, all of which would cause things like an earthquake along the San Andreas fault that could level Los Angeles.
“Wow,” I said. “So this guy from Vermont believed the end of the world was coming. That must be why he bought this place. It was his bolt hole.”
“Right,” Dan said. “And now it can be ours.”
We looked at each other. An island bolt hole, with all furniture included?
“We need to think about this,” Dan cautioned.
“Good bones, this house,” the inspector said when he shook our hands. “But you’ll have your work cut out for you. Pretty much everything needs updating, including the roof.”
“That’s a lot of money,” Dan moaned.
“We don’t have to do it all at once,” I said.
“I don’t know. Maybe there are other things we should do with that money,” Dan said.
Maybe he was right, I thought.
A Singing Beach Clinches Our Decision
We said goodbye to the realtor, Pat, and the inspector, and headed home. As we started to turn west toward Souris, I spotted a red dirt road across the street from the end of our road.
“Wait. Let’s see where that goes,” I said.
Dan grumbled, but down that dirt road we went, bumping through the ice-crusted ruts. The weather had turned clear and the sky was a hard metallic blue. The road was only about a quarter-mile long; at the end, I parked and we followed a path over a small dune.
On the other side of it was a stunning beach. This wasn’t like the red sand beaches of the North Shore, but pale pink, with the texture of table sugar. I scuffed through it in my boots and was rewarded by a tinkling whistle.
“It’s a singing beach!” I exclaimed.
Dan looked out across the Northumberland Strait. “What’s that?” He pointed to a hilly looking land mass.
“Cape Breton Island!” I was nearly cartwheeling with excitement. I might have done, except for my boots and my down jacket. And my age.
Though, at that moment, I could have been ten years old again, or twenty. This was our beach, at the end of a red dirt road, at the end of the world, and it was close enough to walk to from our house.
Yes, dear readers, we went through with the sale. In the next post, I’ll tell you all about the good, the bad, and the ugly of moving into a place my niece immediately dubbed “The Murder House” when she visited from England. Stay Tuned for Part III.