Which Way is UP ? by John Rayburn
Have you ever had your car out of gear with the engine turned off and found it backing up a hill with absolutely no power? You might experience that phenomenal situation outside Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada. There’s a spot there that has been called gravity hill, electric hill, magnetic hill or other such terms. It’s actually none of those and is instead a baffling optical illusion. And, believe me, it’s an unusual feeling.
Much to our surprise we discovered there are hundreds of such so-called “gravity hills” around the world. They’re in Australia, Brazil, China and scads of other locations. They each have the necessary factors to create the mystifying action, chief among them being either a completely or mostly obstructed horizon. Without that it’s well-nigh impossible to figure it all out because there isn’t any reference point. It’s normal to assume that things such as trees are more or less perpendicular to the ground, but not so at these many sites. They may actually be leaning and naturally that offsets any possible visual reference. Trees, walls and other such things we expect to give some kind of visual cue are confounding because of leaning slightly. When you expect such objects to be straight then you’re naturally going to be bamboozled when they aren’t. I’ll tell you it’s only to be expected that when you feel you’re rolling uphill unassisted, you’re actually rolling downhill.
This was first noticed in the Moncton area way back in the early 1800s but there were no cars yet and that kept it from becoming a major attraction. Until the 1930s that is, when tourists started showing up more and more, enough so that Magnetic Hill, as they decided to call it, now is the centerpiece of a theme park. We actually saw a full-sized tour bus that seemed to back up the hill all by itself. They tell of farmers in the 1800s who simply couldn’t figure out why their horses had to exert more effort in pulling wagons that appeared to be going downhill.
There’s one such similar place in India where passing aircraft have to increase altitude to counteract magnetic interference. That in itself is enough that it, too, is called Magnetic Hill although it doesn’t really have anything to do with the optical illusion aspect.
This is just part of what we ran across in New Brunswick. The towns of St. Stephen, Digdegaush and Musquash will lead you onward to St. John and an encounter with a river that runs two ways, along with Reversing Falls Rapids. This bit of the highly unusual is caused by what are generally accepted as the highest tides on earth roaring through the Bay of Fundy. Water seems to thunder out to sea through a crag-lined narrow gorge at the mouth of the St. John River and then everything behind the onrush gets calm like mill pond. Not for long, though, because the tide keeps growing and all kinds of swirling rapids and some eddies of treacherous nature result when the ocean rises higher than the level of the river, which goes into reverse as a result. If it helps understanding from a mathematical standpoint, they say that during just one tide cycle 100-billion tons of seawater flow in and out of Fundy. Just don’t get in the way!
Something else, this of a very eerie nature, is experienced north of Moncton in the Miramichi region. The tales alone can raise goosebumps when you hear about the Dungarvon Whooper. Especially on a moonless night what seem to be blood-curdling shrieks can chill you to the bone, even if they tell you it’s just wind whistling through pine and tamarack trees.
Returning to the U.S. side of the border led us to Eastport, the easternmost city in the country, and Lubec, the town situated farthest east. The actual easternmost point is a rock in the Atlantic off the lighthouse at West Quoddy Head. This signal for seafarers was built in 1808 and the first keeper was paid $250 a year. He couldn’t get by on that so the second year he was granted a $50 raise.
Raymond Thompson works for the Maine Department of Conservation and was born just three miles away from the Quoddy Narrows. He told us about the early history of the lighthouse and that meager salary.
“That wasn’t all, either,” Raymond added, “not only was the pay low but the work was tough, too. Y’see, the bell didn’t have any clapper in it and the keeper had to hit it with a sledgehammer.”
He also told us this is probably the best spot in the country to witness the “green eye” of sunrise.
“There’s just a flash of green as the sun comes up and they have been able to get pictures of it. They can take film or video tape and let it run and get a still frame. I’ve tried to get a regular picture but it happens in a blink and your reflexes can’t do it. By the time you react, it’s gone, but it’s really there, the “green eye,” because I’ve seen it.”
We didn’t, but our route stayed close to the sea and we had constant visual documentation of why it’s referred to as the “rockbound coast of Maine.” The rugged cliffs were an ever-present source of primitive beauty marked by subtle changes in color and shadow.