You get your first clue how out of the way Burlington is when you glance at your cellphone.
Cell data is sporadic all along the Baie Verte highway. On the road to Burlington, it’s all but nonexistent.
People will tell you they get a signal down by such-and-such a place, or up at so-and-so’s. Don’t believe them. They are lying, or they have extra-sensitive mobile devices.
Burlington is a quiet, sleepy town. That is, except for one weekend in August when its population of about 350 mushrooms to more than 1,000. Perry’s Cove, across the harbour, turns into a kind of refugee tent city, and empty driveways and lots along the main road turn into makeshift RV parks.
They all come for Shaun Majumder’s annual weekend shin-dig, The Gathering.
My wife and I were there with my mother, an octogenarian and the last of six children of Burlington merchant Fred Thistle.
The Thistles were big in the local lumber industry and ran a store on the Burlington waterfront in the early 1900s.
To me, my mother is a Burlington icon. But she was more eager to rub shoulders with the young crop of town celebrities: Majumder, of course, but also Rex Goudie, the “Canadian Idol” finalist who charmed TV audiences a decade ago with his well-honed vocals, straight white teeth and downhome demeanour. As a bonus, Mom also got to mug for the camera with comedian Mark Critch.
Rex had his own piece of The Gathering itinerary, Rex Goudie’s Summer Mummer Shed Crawl. By buying a T-shirt, participants got to follow Rex and a few other fine musicians to three popular haunts in town. We went to the second spot, a modest rust-coloured shed at the top of a small side road. The mise en scène included a couple of well-stocked woodpiles, a crackling outdoor fire and a cheesy Santa Claus ornament on the shed roof.
It was especially authentic given that a couple of the locals had clearly been “on the beer” before the crowd arrived. While you could cart in a beer or two or obtain one under the table, the shed crawl, like pretty well all Gathering events, was dry. That didn’t seem to dampen the enthusiasm of the dozens of onlookers who trickled up the road on foot or by bus.
While you had to be near Rex and friends to hear them, most of the crowd were happy to mingle and chat among themselves.
The main grounds for The Gathering are down by Burlington harbour. There, you can line up for delicious victuals prepared by top chefs from St. John’s, and even one from the Waldorf Astoria in New York. As you chow down on everything from coal-grilled lamb and chicken, to salmon, crab legs, bread pudding and toutons, a wide variety of musical acts entertain from the stage. Majumder and others add some levity in between acts.
For those who want something a little more, two chef’s hikes and a chef’s picnic were offered at extra cost. My wife and I joined a couple of my cousins for the Sunday picnic at a swimming hole just off the main road — a spot my mother would have frequented as a child.
There, Raymonds chef Jeremy Charles handed out boxes of Port Leamington pork pie with pasta salad and berry filled yogurt, while guitar virtuosos Duane Andrews and Craig Young provided a little musical ambiance. It was a little surreal, to be honest, and thoroughly magical. I was one of only a few who dared venture into the water. The sun was hot, and the swim was refreshing.
Boosted by the success of W Network’s reality TV show “Majumder Manor” — not to mention the host’s own boundless energy — The Gathering has blossomed after just a couple of years in existence.
Driving around town on Friday afternoon, Burlington Mayor George Kelly estimated there were at least twice as many RVs as last year, tucked into every nook and cranny of the town.
In fact, The Gathering has become, to some extent, a victim of its own success. Lineups for lunch and supper circled the entire grounds Saturday, and a few people were still waiting for grub at 9 p.m. at night.
Earlier that morning, organizers serving breakfast actually ran out of food.
Altogether, organizers estimate about 1,200 servings were dished out on Saturday evening.
Pretty amazing for an isolated little town where the economy relies mostly on a handful of copper mining jobs a short commute away. After expenses, the money raised from The Gathering is invested back in the community.
Anyone who follows the TV series knows that Majumder Manor itself only exists on paper. No sod has been turned, although one of the accompanying “pods” has been erected.
Montreal songwriter Sam Roberts and his guitarist Dave Nugent — who rocked the crowd Saturday night — were its first tenants, and joked about the fact the boxy-looking structure was still incomplete.
“Majumder Manor is like the Egyptian pyramids,” Roberts told the audience. “It takes a lifetime to build.”
Indeed, while more and more Burlington residents have bought into Majumder’s vision, few have any idea what the future holds — or who might take over the reins further down the road. But the show, and the annual hootenanny, have put Burlington and nearby Smith’s Harbour and Middle Arm on the map, and that’s no small feat.
For now, it’s more about means than end. Everyone is just along for the ride. And what a ride it is.
(This column has been edited to correct a name.)