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ty burr

Do you speak Canadian road sign?

Let us pause to ponder the poetic inscrutability of Canadian highway signs.

Hopewell Rocks

I’ve just returned from a week of car camping up the coast of New Brunswick, a long and leisurely drive along the edge of the Bay of Fundy. Gorgeous country, and I suggest you check it out if you haven’t already. But what began as a minor puzzlement for my wife and me bloomed over the course of a few days into a full-on obsession: What in the name of Rob Ford were the road signs trying to tell us?

Some of the meanings were obvious. This sign above, for instance.


It clearly means Please direct your attention over here. The moose is about to speak. That was one of the easy ones.

But what to make of this white-on-blue design (right)?

It appears to point the weary traveler to giant Easter Island statues in the shape of Dr. Seuss characters. In reality, it’s a directional sign to the eroded seaside geological formations known as the Hopewell Rocks. Which is more or less the same thing.

Just when we thought we were getting the hang of it, though, we passed this sign just west of Saint John.

What the hell? I put that one up on my Facebook feed and fielded input from 2,845 of my closest friends and family. Fiddleheads was the general consensus, but why? Maybe there’s a farm stand just off the highway during the few weeks the ferns are harvested in the spring, but what could this possibly mean in the middle of January? That spring might actually come some day? Can a sign be used as community therapy?

Obviously, we’re all surrounded by language systems beyond the ones we actually speak: turn signals, smoke signals, hand gestures explanatory and profane. Someone has translated “Moby-Dick” into emoji and put it online; Herman Melville’s spinning in his grave but it reads pretty well. As anyone knows who has cracked open a copy of Edward Tufte’s 1983 classic “The Visual Display of Quantitative Information,” signs can convey hugely complex meanings with clarity and elegance when they’re done right.


The signs of New Brunswick’s highways and byways aren’t exactly done wrong, but they seem to require a cognitive leap of which our American sensibilities, enfeebled by reality TV shows and Katy Perry songs, are incapable. My wife and I found ourselves gazing across a semiotic void, one that necessitated a more elusive process of conversion than miles to kilometers, English to French, or American quarters to Canadian dollars.

So we did what any sensible tourist would do. We made stuff up. Here follows a gallery of signs passed during our travels and our interpretations thereof. In some cases, the actual meaning isn’t that hard to suss out, but we still prefer our readings. On long drives, you’ll take what you can get.

Only charcoal-filtered cigarettes may be smoked on this road.

Twerking in a national park is punishable by stoning.

I understand that all available lodgings are booked, but you are welcome to stay in my hayloft for $250 Canadian.

Because we are Christian, we will charge you only $150 Canadian.

Should you happen to die during your visit to Canada, we will ship your remains home in a decorative urn made by one of our many talented local artisans.


Or, if you prefer to prolong your stay, you may be interred in a Canadian mausoleum of your choosing.

Beaver in utero just ahead.

Genetically modified giant produce for sale.

Remember what we said about dying in Canada?

A man is dreaming about being an egg. Or an egg is dreaming about being a man. Which came first? Philosophical quandaries addressed at the Inter-Province Deconstruction Centre, 2 km.

Of course, you could say the last one is a directional sign to a bed and breakfast, but that’s not nearly as much fun. And none of this solved the tautological conundrum of that maddening fiddleheads sign. In desperation upon returning home, I called Sarah Bustard, communications officer in the New Brunswick Department of Finance & Transportation and Infrastructure. With a cheerfulness that would have her summarily fired from any US governmental bureau, she informed me that this —

— is simply a signpost to the 512-km River Valley Scenic Drive, one of five such provincial jaunts recommended by the tourist board and a route that transects some of the most fertile soil for (wait for it) fiddleheads in the Maritimes.

Fine. Very logical and not without its own Tuftean eloquence. And I’m sure Canada won’t mind if I go with the first interpretation that flashed into my travel-fevered brain: Roadside genome sequencing booth just ahead.

Ty Burr can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.