Just a week ago today, my new puppy, Merlin, and I were rambling down another one of Prince Edward Island’s red dirt roads with my good friend and fellow writer, Toby Neal. This particular road is a favorite of mine, because it takes us through fields of blueberry bushes and deposits us at a path to the beach.
It’s a particularly fragrant path, one that tunnels through wild rose bushes and Queen Anne’s Lace, lupins and boneset before arriving at the base of a steep dune. Up and over the dune we go, and then we arrive at what I call “Sea Glass beach,” because of the quantity and colors of sea glass you can collect here. Toby and I walk along the water while Merlin dashes in and out of the waves. As we walk, we keep our heads down, talking and poking through stones to find the bits of color. I’m so relaxed that my jaw actually feels heavy.
We’ve had a lot of meditative beach walks on this trip, Toby and I, as well as the excitement of the Rollo Bay Fiddle Festival, dinners and teas with friends, and an evening caleigh just down the road. All of this has helped us dive into our new books during long hours of morning writing.
It’s a different rhythm for me here on the island than I used to have, way back when I first started coming to PEI twenty-five years ago as a newly divorced mom with two young children. I couldn’t afford to rent a vacation cottage on Martha’s Vineyard or Cape Cod, or even in Maine. Then, one morning, I read a classified ad by someone renting “a dreamy seaside cottage in Anne’s Land” for $300 a week. (Anne, of course, is Anne of Green Gables, the plucky orphan in the books by Lucy Maud Montgomery.)
Even I could afford that. So I called my friend, the poet Emily Ferrara—another single mom—and the two of us drove up to PEI in a rented van with our four young children. You could only get here by ferry, before they put in the Confederation Bridge—eight miles of miracle engineering—and so it took us nearly fifteen hours. We arrived at midnight, and I drove on my first red dirt road by moonlight to a small cottage, unlocked the door, and fell into bed.
The next morning, I woke to fiddle music. I went to the window and saw that my first red dirt road had led me to Rustico Bay. Great blue herons stood like sentries along the edge of the water, and the white church across the Bay had a steeple striped in red like a barber pole. The fiddle festival was at the church, and away we went to glory in the music.
That was the start of my love affair with the island. Eventually I invited another of my best friends, the writer Susan Straight, to come with me. She flew to Boston from California, and together we caravanned up to PEI with our children to rent side-by-side cottages. After spending several more summers together on PEI, Susan bought a house on the island. By then, I had married my second husband and introduced him to PEI. The two of us bought a cottage after our fifth child was born, and then sold that and bought a year-round farmhouse, because we realized that we wanted to be able to come to the island all year long.
“What’s so special about it?” friends have asked, and I’m hard-pressed to describe the appeal. I’ve been to magnificent cities and beaches and hiking trails around the world, from Nepal to New Zealand to Spain, yet I always want to return to PEI, where there are homemade biscuits with every meal, fish and chips for dinner, an East Coast music scene that redefines Celtic fiddling and traditional music, a hundred different varieties of potatoes or more, people who still have time to stop and chat, and long red dirt roads leading to a different paradise every time you ramble.
Our turn-of-the-century blue clapboard farmhouse is a quirky place—one of our son’s friends once said, “What is this, Little House on the Prairie?” because of the three shingled barns and the view of sheep grazing below and the potato fields across the street, and because of the quirky kitchen, which has five doors but neither dishwasher nor washing machine. The tall windows have to be propped open with sticks, and every room upstairs has a different floral wallpaper pattern. Oh, and the shower ceiling is low enough that I barely fit, and I’m only 5’4”.
But the woodwork is all original, including the gorgeous floors, and I love how the newel post is worn smooth from so many hands reaching for it over the years. A few days after arriving here, I always feel like the steady breezes of the Canadian Maritimes have whisked away all of the usual worries I carry around back home, and the writing always comes more easily here.
“It’s a pilgrimage for you, isn’t it?” Toby said, and I suppose it is, now.
There is always a moment, during that long, long drive to Prince Edward Island through the pine trees of Maine and beneath the wide open skies of New Brunswick, where I think, “This is too far. Why do we have this house? I ought to just sell it. This is stupid.”
Then I cross the Confederation Bridge and there’s the island, with its red cliffs and verdant fields and Victorian farmhouses, and those red dirt roads that lead to the light sparkling silver and pewter and blue and deep purple on the sea, and I take a deep breath and know I’m where I was meant to be.