A Vacation in Three Acts

by ruthpennebaker on July 9, 2014 · 8 comments


I like Canada so much that sometimes I think my husband and I should just get it over with and move there. I mean, we speak the language(s) and that country’s politics and beliefs are more similar to ours than our own nation’s.

I mention this to my husband. He looks around. It’s mid-June in Nova Scotia, the sky leaks rain, the temperature hovers in the low 50s. “I think the winters would probably do us in,” he says.

He has a point, I think, assuming Canada’s winters are colder than their summers.

And there’s another, hairier problem: Bears. We are at a resort on Cape Breton Island, and there are signs everywhere about bears. The first rule about bear-human interaction — and I kid you not — is to remain calm. Remain calm? That’s a good one. I’m not even calm reading about bear-human interactions.

You are also supposed to talk very loudly so the bears know you’re coming and can get out of the way and go eat a quiet person, instead. This accounts for my behavior today. Normally fairly low-key, I am stomping through the woods speaking to my husband in all-capital letters.





“WELL!  HERE WE ARE HIKING DOWN A PATH!” (I am not much of a conversationalist while hiking in dangerous terrain.) (I do realize that, if we run into other humans, I will be totally embarrassed about making such a racket. But, on the whole, I would rather be embarrassed than eaten.)

You are also supposed to puff up and act big when you see a bear and don’t even think about trying to feed it or its cubs. It’s OK to turn your back on them and walk slowly away, but forget doing that around coyotes.

Good grief. In the first place, what are coyotes doing in Canada? And, what am I — a veterinarian?

“Don’t worry,” my husband says. “I’m carrying a big rock.”

A couple of things slowly dawn on me: 1) My idea of nature is more like, say, Central Park or Austin’s Hike & Bike Trail. 2) If I am going to feel safe in the woods, I should probably be carrying an automatic rifle, even though I am a decisively anti-gun person the other 99.99% of my life.

This leads me to think that maybe I am more American than I thought.


We drive across the gentle countryside of Prince Edward Island. We explore the craggy heights of Nova Scotia.

nova scotia

We take a six-hour ferry to the sparsely settled towns and countryside of western Newfoundland.


We eat lobster and then we eat more lobster.


Over the years, I’ve become convinced that the enjoyment of a vacation is more dependent on whom you’re with than where you go. Go with a humorless, unsympathetic traveling companion and the most enchanting places on earth lose their sheen. Go with someone you have fun with, and even the most unfortunate trips — where you miss your connections, where the hotel sucks, where you get food-poisoning from the guacamole –have the makings of a legendary experience you can tell and re-tell (once you’ve stopped vomiting, anyway). When you’re with someone you enjoy, the scenery becomes more of a backdrop to your conversations.

So, my husband and I talked and we talked. We re-visited old trips, like the time we were stuck in a horrid hotel in Bangor, Maine, and smashed Bing cherries against the wall. (I am assuming that, 36 years later, the statute of limitations has run.) We discussed DNRs as we get older. We chatted about earlier times in our lives together — like the young-adult phase and the first-time parent phase. (Phases, it seems, only become apparent as you age; when you are living them, they are simply your life and will presumably go on forever.) We wondered aloud whether prejudice toward the obese will wane and become unacceptable in society.

We even talked about dreams. One morning, I woke up from a dream in which I was forced to shoot a dog to defend myself.

My husband, the psychologist, looked quite interested. “What did the dog look like?” he asked casually. Like I wouldn’t notice what he was up to.

I stared into the distance and tried to look thoughtful. “You know,” I said, squinting, “now that I think about it … its face looked … well … just like … yours.”


I spent years scared witless of flying. Before every flight, I would look around the waiting area, observing the other passengers — the people I was doomed to die with. But why? I wondered. I didn’t know them well enough to die with them. I wasn’t even sure I liked them.

After decades of this untoward behavior, I somehow lost my fear of flying. It came about after I’d had a bout with cancer and realized what I feared most was inside of me — not lurking in the outside world. Since then, I’ve often fell asleep during takeoffs.

But I do have my limits.

“Guess what?” my husband crowed after we landed in Philadelphia en route to New York LaGuardia. “We’re flying this next leg on a propeller plane.”

Well, you might as well tell me we’re going up in the Hindenburg, for God’s sake. A propeller plane is not my idea of a safe way to travel. “Where’s the closest bar?” I asked.

“Prop planes are safer than jets,” my husband said for the third time.

“Where did you get that information?” I said. “It sounds specious to me.”

“I read it somewhere,” he said vaguely.

After I polished off a stiff Bloody Mary, we found the gate for the prop plane, stuck on the end of the airport’s seediest terminal. Passengers from the plane’s previous flight were exiting.

“I don’t know if you noticed,” I hissed to my husband, “but most of them were kissing the ground when they got here.”

My husband laughed. In fact, he laughed annoyingly most of the way to LaGuardia. “I just love prop planes,” he said unnecessarily. “You get to see so much more, since you’re down lower.”

I think seeing more is highly overrated. So is flying sober when it comes to propeller planes. As the survivor of a near-bear attack and a bumpy, highly dangerous prop plane ride, I planned to kiss the ground if we ever got to LaGuardia. New York — that’s my idea of nature.

(Copyright 2014 by Ruth Pennebaker)

Read about The Worst Houseguests in the History of the World


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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Sherry July 10, 2014 at 12:58 pm

I used to fly (as a passenger of course) in prop planes from Maryland to North Carolina because…well…the airport had two gates and that all that flew out of there.

At first I was white knuckled terrified every second. I’m not a huge fan of flying (mainly because I don’t understand it and I’m not in control) but somehow a huge 737 sounded much safer to me than an itty-bitty prop plane.

Then one day I realized something…prop planes do not take off in bad weather so you don’t have to worry about some brave pilot thinking he’s all that and a bag of chips; what’s more, prop planes fly lower and CAN LAND ANYWHERE.

Now I choose a prop plane if I have the option.


2 marc leavitt July 11, 2014 at 8:06 am


Great story!

We United-Statesers have a lot of fun joking about Canada: the accent, their almost-too-sincere politeness, and what looks to our
over-stressed psyches like a vanilla attitude toward life; but those surface impressions pale after a trip north and a bit of reflection (well-run government, universal health care without the political BS, grand scenery, open spaces).

But … (isn’t there always a ‘but’?)

I was in Montreal on business one summer, some years back. After the Sturm und Drang of my meetings, we were bussed out to a Maple Sugar plantation for some welcome R & R.

I casually asked a native how cold it got in the winter.

“Oh, about 30 below (Fahrenheit),” she said. Visions of dog sleds danced in my head all the way back to Manhattan.


3 merr July 11, 2014 at 9:12 am

Oh Ruth, the story about the hike made me laugh. Of course, I wasn’t on the hike with you…I doubt I’d be so jovial in the moment!

4 Sheryl July 11, 2014 at 8:05 pm

I, too, always tell my husband I want to move to Canada. But now I am thinking twice. Bears? Freezing winters? I have enough of both right where I already live. Who needs more?

5 HeatherL July 14, 2014 at 1:53 pm

You had such a memorable vacation, I enjoyed hearing all about it. I once stayed in a sphere (a circular tree house) and the owner said to sing “Happy Birthday” as loud as you could when going to the outhouse at night to scare away the bears. I waited til morning.

6 Melanie July 16, 2014 at 6:54 pm

Oh honey. Come visit and Terry will stick you in the aerobatic plane for some competition style stunts.

7 Kerry Dexter July 23, 2014 at 10:10 am

I’ve actually been on Cape Breton — and even colder, in the Canadian Rockies — in winter, and yes, it is *really* cold — but gorgeous.

Loved all three acts of your tale, Ruth — and hope you got to hear music whilst on Cape Breton — hmm, maybe playing a recording of such music while on your hike would keep the bears away — or at least cause them to dance so much they’d forget about eating you!

8 jeanine barone July 28, 2014 at 3:17 pm

I’ve never been a frightened flyer but after flying into a vortex a year ago at 30,000 feet, I definitely am a little more jumpy.

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