Bernie Harberts takes off across Newfoundland in search of simplicity

Mar. 04, 2013 @ 09:47 AM

It all started with a Goodwill in Statesville, and with the Internet.

Bernie Harberts was reaching middle age. He’d noticed his brain jumping around, skipping from subject to subject, making it harder to find any signal in the noise. It was, he thought, a symptom of too much time spent online.

Around the same time, he went home to Statesville to visit his mother, who had Alzheimer’s.

Harberts and his brother had seen better days. They needed to cheer themselves up.

So they slipped out to thrift away their sorrows. A crazy-patterned shirt or two, they figured, was as good a pick-me-up as any.

That’s where he saw it.

There was a woman in that Goodwill in Statesville. A woman with a tattoo like a vine wrapping around her neck. She was carrying a stack of old 45s, and there it was on the top: “The Newfoundlander.”

Harberts asked her for it. He went home and Googled it.

Nothing.

Here was something he couldn’t find on the Internet.

“I had to decide, am I just gonna ditch this thing?” Harberts said. “Or am I going to, in my usual fashion, take it to completely illogical lengths?”

He went with illogical. That’s what he usually does.

In 1998, Harberts was an N.C. State graduate working with computers. One day, he spilled a cup of coffee all over his desk at work.

He found his fingers twitching for Ctrl + Z — the keyboard command that erases a mistake in design programs.

“That’s when I trained a replacement and took off,” he said.

Harberts had seen enough of the inside of an office. For the next five years, he sailed around the world in his sailboat, the “Sea Bird.” He has traveled with a mule and pony from Oriental, N.C., to San Diego, Calif., and with a mule from Canada to Mexico, and with a $10 bike to Tasmania.

This time, Harberts rigged up his mule, Polly, with a trailer and set off for Newfoundland, Canada — “closer to a pint of Guinness in Dublin than a Hannah’s BBQ sandwich,” he said.

He spent the next five months jigging for cod, meeting Viking impersonators and salty old fishermen, and looking for the house on the cover of the “Newfoundlander” album.

He refused to buy a record player just to listen to the album. He wanted it to happen by chance.

Somewhere deep in the island, he met a family with a record player. As he poised the record over the spindle, he expected surprises, something mystical, some hidden treasure he could sell to his favorite Newfoundland-based band, Great Big Sea.

It was Salvation Army big band music.

“Oh, Lord, how do we stop this?” Harberts asked, fumbling to make the music go away.

One of the fishermen who’d been waiting on the big, mystical surprise chimed in.

“A hammer would be good.”

But Harberts got a story out of it. And that’s good, because stories are his currency. He has spun his trips around the world into talks, school visits, columns in newspapers.

At the Caldwell County Public Library March 2, a packed meeting room of people all knew exactly who Harberts was. Many had seen him speak before but they sat back in anticipation, all the same, ready to hear his stories.

The FRIENDS of the Library had tried to schedule the program once before, on Jan. 26 – a day that turned out to be one of the coldest of the year and coated the roads in ice.

Only one person showed up to that day’s program: Bernie.

In the end, Harberts didn’t find the house on the cover of the album. When he was on the north tip of the island, people told him it was on the east coast. So toward the east he went.

He showed the album to people. “Where’s that house?” he asked them. “Where’s that building?”

Eventually, after piles of false leads, he met a man who swore up and down he’d seen the house. It was in Trinity, he said.

Harberts went to Trinity.

It wasn’t the right house.

But Harberts wasn’t disappointed he couldn’t find the house. He still found plenty.

Harberts didn’t research his trip on the Internet beforehand. He didn’t know that Newfoundland had a mostly nonexistent horse culture, and that there wouldn’t be much for Polly to eat. He didn’t bring much for himself, either.

So they ate dandelions. Dandelion soup, and local food: salt cod and molasses bread and jarred moose.

“That’s one of the beautiful things about not knowing too much,” Harberts said. “Because if you do know that, you bring, like, 500 pounds of feed. But if you do that, you don’t learn anything about eating dandelions.”