The Loneliest Road in the World

Mj 618_348_the loneliest road in the world
Photograph by Josh Eells

If the point of taking a road trip is to get away from it all, you can’t do much better than the Trans-Labrador Highway. Running 706 gravel-packed miles across the Canadian region of Labrador — a vast, undeveloped, Christmas-tree-shaped area a few degrees south of the Arctic Circle — it’s a highway so empty you can drive for hours without seeing another soul. Some say it’s the longest unpaved road in the world. It’s definitely one of the loneliest.

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Although Labrador boasts nearly 5,000 miles of coastline and Canada’s highest mountain range east of the Rockies, it’s barely better explored than it was 180 years ago, when John James Audubon called it “the most extensive . . . wilderness I have ever beheld.” Only 27,000 people live in Labrador: Imagine an area the size of Arizona with the population of a Phoenix suburb. If Manhattan had the same population density, its citizens would number five.

For decades, Labrador’s coast was accessible only by ferry, and the two inland towns weren’t connected at all; the only way between them was by snowmobile, dogsled, or foot. That changed starting in the early 1980s, when construction on the Trans-Labrador Highway began. The road was supposed to knit the province together: to ease transportation, make the cost of importing goods cheaper, and hopefully attract some tourists. When the last stretch of the highway opened in 2009, it was possible, for the first time, to drive from one end of Labrador to the other. The locals called it the Freedom Road.

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But the boom never came. The road is still 60 percent unpaved, which keeps noncommercial traffic to a minimum. And when you reach the end of the line, you arrive not at some breathtaking vista, but in a forlorn Canadian fishing village with a single restaurant. Yet there’s an appeal to the place. In just a few days of driving, you can go from ancient woodlands to permafrost taiga to icy Atlantic fjords. You can dine on wild partridgeberries and spot packs of black bears and one of the world’s largest caribou herds roaming under the northern lights. All you have to do is catch a puddle jumper in Montreal and within a few hours you’re in one of the last places in North America where it’s possible to be truly alone.

By the time I went, the clock was ticking. The highway is currently being paved, and while it will never be the New Jersey Turnpike, it’s bound to be more crowded the better it gets. It was originally supposed to be finished by the end of this year, but it’s been delayed. If you’ve ever wanted to take a road trip through a few hundred miles of genuine Canadian nothingness, now may be your last best chance.

When I set out to traverse North America’s most desolate road, the fact that it was hard was part of the romance. Still, I didn’t want to be miserable. I decided to go for four days in the fall, supposedly the best time to visit — the infamous blackflies have mostly disappeared, and the highway has yet to vanish under 20-foot snowbanks. Before I left, I called a hotel at the end of the road to book a room. The proprietor’s 14-year-old granddaughter answered and asked what brought me to Labrador. When I told her, she didn’t even bother trying to hide her amusement. “Ha,” she snorted. “Have fun with that.”

With “teenage sassing” checked off my list, the trip started in earnest in Labrador City, a rough-and-tumble mining town (pop. 7,367) on the border with Quebec. At the airport I picked up my rental car — a blue Ford Escape, caked brown with mud — that had been left there by a guy named Mike from Eagle River Rent-a-Car, who’d driven my intended route in reverse a few days earlier. On the driver’s seat, he’d left a note:

Josh –

– Gravel road is rough. 70 km/h maximum.

– Car vibrates above 100 km/h.

– Steering wheel is off because I hit a pothole. OK to use.

– Don’t worry about the check engine light.

Stuck to the instrument panel was a piece of black electrical tape. Underneath, the check engine light was on.

Gripping the slightly askew steering wheel, I headed into town to stock up on provisions. There’s only one real supply point between Labrador City and the coast, so I bought enough food to last the whole trip: a box of Triscuits, a box of granola bars, a pound of cashews, a pound of cheese, six bananas, four apples, one bag of Montreal Spice beef jerky, a gallon of water, a 12-ounce tin of instant coffee, some Blistex, and a pair of camouflage insulated socks. Because there are no cell towers along the Trans-Labrador Highway, I also rented a satellite phone. At the Shell station at the edge of town, I asked the woman working the counter if I could get a map of the region. She laughed in my face. “What do you need a map for? It’s only one road!”

I set out through the boreal landscape, both hands on the crooked wheel. It was the end of October, and the birch and aspen trees were ablaze. At the northern tip of Labrador, polar bears frolic in the tundra, but down here it’s more like an alpine valley, with shag-carpet grasslands, thickets of evergreens, and lakes the color of Darjeeling tea. (A local said the water’s not brown because it’s dirty; on the contrary, it’s so crystal clear that light reflects off the bottom, so what you’re actually seeing is the color of the rocks.) Although it’s not developed in any formal sense — there are no lodges or park rangers, no signposts or trails — Labrador is essentially one giant national park where you can pull off to the roadside and wander as long as you like, kayaking, trout fishing, or just sitting by a stream. It’s a wilderness so wild you don’t even need a permit.

People who travel the Trans-Labrador regularly tended to have a few tips: Try to drive on Sundays, when there aren’t as many 18-wheelers. Always bring a spare tire and a jerrican of gas. And never — under any circumstances — underestimate the gravel.

It started about 10 miles in: I’d be driving along, a little faster than I should, and suddenly hit a patch of loose gravel and feel the rear axle scoot out from under me, fishtailing and skidding before I wrestled the car back under control. Everyone said it was safer in the fall, because the rain packs the gravel down. But the flipped-over Chevy I saw wrecked on the side of the road didn’t look like it had been there very long.

After staying the first night in Churchill Falls — a bleak clapboard-house town whose only residents are the 280 employees of the nearby hydroelectric plant and their families — I noticed the highway starts to climb. The trees grow taller — more black spruce and pine — and the landscape gets hillier, almost mountainous. Around lunchtime, I pulled into a town called Happy Valley–Goose Bay, where, in a motel parking lot, I met up with Capt. Dave Bowen of the Canadian Air Force.

“How was the drive?” asked Bowen, the public affairs officer for 5 Wing Goose Bay, one of Canada’s largest air force bases. During the Cold War, 5 Wing was part of the U.S.’s Strategic Air Command, and was later used by NATO members’ forces (such as the RAF) as a fighter-pilot training center (think Top Gun in the Arctic). But ever since the U.S. Air Force left in 1978, the base mostly has been a backup plan, kept running for emergency purposes (e.g., norad missile defense) and as an alternate landing site for the space shuttle.

We climbed into Bowen’s truck and cruised through the two-stoplight town, then headed out toward the base. He’d been stationed there for a couple of months, and he still wasn’t used to how cut off it was. “I’ve seen Eastern European markets with more selection,” he said, laughing. (This coming from a man who once served alongside the Canadian Rangers and survived a whole week on dried char and whale jerky.) We drove up to the highest point around, a blustery hill where you could see the base and the town and Lake Melville, which led to the North Atlantic. The trees looked like crayons — greens, golds, reds, and browns. Bowen took a deep breath. “I can’t wait to come up here in winter.”

The next morning, I decided to stop and talk to everyone I passed. The first guy was parked on the shoulder in a green Subaru, looking at a bog through a pair of binoculars. He said his name was Vail; he taught English in Happy Valley. He was scouting the bog as a possible cross-country skiing spot when winter came. We chatted about the highway for a bit — he asked if I had stuff to make a fire, just in case (I did not) — then shook hands and parted ways. It was a little after 9 am.

That was the last person I passed.

(Rolf Hicker / Alamy)

For the rest of the day I drove in silence. No CD player, no satellite radio. I started to become attuned to the physicality of driving — and to notice the slight variations in rocks: the golf-ball-size stones that yielded with a satisfying crunch, the pebbles that sounded like tiny fighter jets strafing my chassis. This was by far the roughest stretch of road: 300 spine-rattling miles, dotted with potholes the size of minor lakes.

As I bounced through the autumnal landscape, it dawned on me how truly empty Labrador was. There were no streetlights, no emergency call boxes, no telephone poles. The only sounds were the occasional thud-thud of the car’s wheels hitting a pothole and the hum of tires on the road. When I stopped to roll down the windows, the silence was overwhelming.

That’s around the time I met the fox. I first spotted him about a mile away, a curious red speck on the horizon. As I got closer, I realized he was moving toward me, slow and steady, down the middle of the road. I eased the car to a stop, and the fox padded up to the bumper, staring at me through the windshield. He cocked his head and, after a few seconds, darted out of sight.

I checked the side mirror, then the rearview. No sign of him. I figured he disappeared into the trees. I pulled back into gear and was just about to start moving again when he appeared through the driver’s-side window. He made eye contact, then ducked under the car again. He was playing with me.

I turned off the ignition and got out. We eyed each other for a minute, both intrigued by the stranger on our road. Eventually he got bored and trotted downhill, continuing on his way. I watched him for a minute, then got back in the car — two travelers headed in opposite directions.

I had almost reached the coast when I started to run out of gas. It was maybe 35 degrees outside. Vail’s words came back to me: “Do you have stuff to make a fire?” Finally, with the needle quivering somewhere left of the E, I coasted into a town called Port Hope Simpson — a foggy little inlet on the North Atlantic where clapboard houses clung to mossy cliffs — and paid $89 at Penney’s Pit Stop to fill up.

The next morning was the last day of my trip. As I wound my way toward the Quebec border, I listened to a podcast of the NPR program Radiolab. The hosts discussed a concept called whale time, the idea that what might seem to a whale like normal speed would seem, to a human, extremely slow.

The coast of Labrador exists on whale time. Composed of some of the oldest known rock in the world, it was carved by glaciers during the Precambrian era, more than 800 million years ago, when the equator was covered in ice and multicellular life did not yet exist. Just a few feet off the Trans-Labrador Highway, it’s possible to take a few steps in the spongy moss and be struck by the realization that literally no human has ever set foot there before.

I pressed south along the windswept shoreline chiseled by ice and waves, across the part of the coast nicknamed Iceberg Alley. (When the Titanic sank, a few hundred miles south of here, it was ice from Labrador that did the deed.) Finally I reached the end of the road: a mist-shrouded town called Blanc-Sablon, 1,100 miles east of New York. At a roadside restaurant, I dined on fresh crab, fried cod tongues, and ice cream with cloudberry jam. Then I got on a prop plane and headed home.

It wasn’t until I was back in New York, sitting in traffic on the way to my apartment, that I realized something I’d missed. I’d spent the past several days covering 700 miles behind the wheel. But this was the first time all week I’d heard a horn honk.

Getting There: Air Canada Express flies daily from Quebec City and Montreal to Labrador City.

What You Need: In Labrador City, buy food for three days at Wal-Mart; pick up a free government-provided satellite phone at Wabush Hotel.

Where to Rent a Car: In Labrador City, get a four-wheel drive; extra gasoline recommended.

Where to Stay: The chalet-style Wabush Hotel in Wabush, adjoining Labrador City, is the first (and only nice) stop on the route. Most towns have hotels, but camping is an option nearly anywhere.

When to Go: September and October offer the best scenery, weather, and road conditions.

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