Intermission

Posted in Prose on October 16, 2017 by 1writegirl

I leave John in Brighton to attend to business and catch a train for Devon, to spend a few days with Mark before John is ready to ride again. Mark is heading off to the US (Fresno California) for a visit with a friend in about 10 days. She is recently diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, the disease that killed my mother. I remember how quickly she went after she was diagnosed, and I hope Mark’s friend is in one of the earlier, more treatable stages.

He’s shipping his bike over, planning to ride around the Pacific Northwest and the western states before heading south to Baja Mexico and from there Central America. “Care to join me in Belize this winter?” He asks. He knows I was bummed when I learned he wasn’t going to India as he had previously considered doing from November to April, because I’d hoped to be able to visit him there in late November or early December, after John and I have completed our ride. “Maybe,” I say, although I know nothing at this point about when I’ll be returning to the US and thus that part of the world.

He’s working on his house, getting it ready to rent out, and scrambling to find a tenant. Over the next week we ride around a bit on the 1980’s BMW he’ll ride on his trip, and I read, walk and write while he’s busy sawing, fitting, arranging and painting. He finds a tenant at about the same time as John calls to let me know he won’t be ready to leave again till early to mid October. Mark tells me I’m welcome to stay on and house sit for him when he goes, as the tenant isn’t moving in till the mid to latter part of October. I accept his offer gratefully, as accommodation is expensive in England, as is eating out.

One evening I come back from the village store to find a friend has dropped by, a woman called Ingrid. They are having a cup of tea and talking about places they’ve traveled. I sit with them for awhile then go into the kitchen to fix dinner, an asparagus in cream sauce pasta recipe I found online, but finding no asparagus at the market I’m substituting broccoli. I ask Ingrid if she’s staying and she says no at first, then after a while she changes her mind. She’s a tall blond woman, a few years older than me, and she exudes warmth and perceptiveness, as if she’s seen many strange and wondrous things and is hoping for more. She is so skinny that I wonder at first if she too has cancer or some other ravaging illness, perhaps anorexia. It turns out (after I’ve known her longer, the subject of weight arises, and I’ve confided in her that I was anorexic for a few years) she has always been naturally skinny without any interference or complications (“I do eat, really I do!”) She does in fact eat the entire portion of pasta she’s served, and generously proclaims it to be delicious. She once co-owned and managed an Italian restaurant so I appreciate the compliment.

She, too, has been to India, and more times than Mark. She’s been going for about eight years now for a few months each winter, and purchases clothes, handbags and blankets while there which she brings back to England and sells over the summer. She is eking by. She asks about my plans. When I tell her about riding with John she asks, “And then?” I say I don’t know. “Come to India,” she says. “Maybe,” I say, heartened by this, my second invitation in the space of a week to visit a warm and exotic place this winter in the company of someone who has knowledge of the area.

Before I know it Mark has gone and I’ve got the house to myself. It’s the first time I’ve been alone for weeks, and I need it. I call my grief mentor, who lives in Las Vegas, and tell her about some paperwork I received from my attorney’s office. It took me right back to the moment when what has happened became my reality and all those emotions that I’d experienced – shock, disbelief, rage, hatred, anguish, remorse, helplessness, sorrow, and feelings that don’t have names for them so far as I know, but are dark and ugly and wretched and bring to mind maggots and cobwebs and tight crevices and scalding water and flayed skin and what it might feel like to lay trapped under a burning tractor trailer – were upon me once again, as if we had never even briefly parted ways. She understands – her daughter, slightly younger than Jackson, was killed in a freak auto accident eight years ago – and knowing this calms me. She doesn’t say stupid shit like, “just breathe,” “don’t think about it,” or one of the worst offenders, the pseudo-philosophical “everything happens for a reason.” I want to strangle people who say that last one, then tell their relatives “everything happens for a reason.” Instead she asks me if she can do any of the paperwork for me, or if she can contact someone back in California who can act as my advocate to get it done.

A few days later Ingrid invites me over to her house for dinner. She tells me that in India, grief, especially for a child, is treated with much more respect and compassion than in Western cultures. You aren’t treated like a pariah with a contagious disease, nor are you expected to “get over it,” “buck up,” or by all means “keep it to yourself.” You don’t cry alone, she tells me, and you cry for as long and as much as you need to. A shrine to your dead child isn’t considered creepy, it’s considered natural. She takes my hand. “Come to India.”

I’ve decided to visit two friends in France while I’m waiting for John, so I book a ferry crossing, train ticket and accommodation at a hostel in Plymouth. As I leave Devon I regret that I didn’t get the opportunity to sample scrumpy, a home-brewed cider version of what we Americans lovingly refer to as rot-gut or moonshine. Maybe next time.

If you are looking for an eloquent and interesting read that blends history, travel writing and memoir, I suggest Ghost Riders: Travels with American Nomads, by Richard Grant, a Brit who emigrated to the U.S.

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The Grand Alps Part Two

Posted in Prose on October 7, 2017 by 1writegirl

Graeme, Johnny England and I come to the end of the Route des Grandes Alpes in Nice, where we turn left and ride into Italy, camping for the night at an extremely crowded and cramped campground that has no grass whatsoever as far as I can tell. The ground beneath out tents is covered in a mesh-like material that, while likely intended to make staking the tents easier, proves quite difficult to penetrate with our small flimsy pegs (included with the tent, they’ve done the job so far but after half of them are bent and smashed by the rock John uses to anchor them, he regrets having left behind the larger, sturdier ones he bought separately last time.) It’s dark and late after we get settled and the nearby restaurants are closed, so we make do with cheese sandwiches from the on-site snack bar, generously offered to us and prepared by a shy girl who could pass for 14 or 15 (and may well be), and cold draft beer. Her English, though broken and elementary, is better than our Italian (nonexistent) and we are grateful to her not just for the meal but for the way she, like the French, trusts us both to pay the bill whenever we get around to it (any time before we check out the next day) and to volunteer an itemized account of our consumption.

The next day we ride east back to France and spend a few hours in the very charming border town of Menton which it was too dark to really see the night before. There is a soft pastel theme to the color of the buildings and we notice elaborately painted borders around many windows, giving the illusion from a distance of shutters and railings. I’ve never seen this done before and wonder why, in the land of shutters and balconies that France is, they would bother with this deception, artistic though it may be. We ride up into the hills where I spot a wild boar running into the bushes and the view, when we can find a place to safely pull over on the windy narrow roads, is lovely. When we ride back down we walk around the town before walking across the main road to a stretch of rocky beach and swimming in the Mediterranean Sea, no longer warm from summer’s heat but tolerable, at least for a few minutes, to a wimp like me. 63A90F97-D1F0-469B-AEE6-D4B39B48D37F

After lunch we head back into the mountains and begin our return to England, which entails some new roads and some backtracking, although scenery from the bikes appears different when viewed from the opposite direction. We don’t find a campground until dusk, and it is gated. Coincidentally a man comes walking along behind us and using a key card opens the gate, explaining as he does so that we’ll need to speak into the intercom next to the gate to be helped if we want to check in. John pulls the bike up to the intercom facing down the driveway, and I press a button. When a voice finally asks “Oui?”, I offer my usual recitation (“We are three people, two motorcycles and two tents, is there one place we can share for tonight?”) to be told it is too late, reception is closed. “We have to go in to turn the bike around,” John says, and I begin to convey this in French to the box but stop talking when I can’t come up with the word for gate. “Laissez le…” John either assumes I’m finished or he’s too tired to care because he takes off down the driveway and Graeme follows. We get to the bottom of the hill, turn the bikes around, and start up again. The gate has closed.

In a matter of 30 seconds we have ascertained that there are two tents up, several vacant spaces, and a row of dark RVs around the outside. The man who let us in with his key card is standing in front of one of the tents so I approach him and ask his take on the situation. He tells me what he paid (€9) and suggests we stay and square up in the morning. He points in the general direction of the bathroom. I walk up the driveway toward the reception office on one side and a large house on the other, on the off chance a campground staff member has materialized, but both buildings are dark and shut up. A big black dog with a muzzle on is resting in front of the office. His legs are crossed in front of him and he lifts his head as I approach, then cocks it to one side. Poor thing, I think, having to wear a muzzle. Probably a barker.

We set the tents up quickly and not for the first time, in the dark. We’re hungry by now, and think about riding back into the town a couple miles down the road for something to eat, but realize we have no way to open and close the front gate. We decide I’ll ask the man who let us in. I walk over to his tent but he is no longer sitting outside it like he was before. I walk up to the tent and say, “Allo? Excuses-moi.” Silence. I listen for rustling or snoring sounds, and hearing none, repeat my query. Nothing. I do the same thing to the other tent, which is equally devoid of any sign of life. I return to John and Graeme. “Maybe we can just walk somewhere close by,“ I suggest. That’s when we explore the campground for the first time and realize that the entire place is surrounded by an 8-10 foot high barbed wire fence, with an even higher rock wall in the corner closest to the main road. The RVs along the perimeter and a few scattered trailers near the bathroom are all vacant. The odd piece of dry laundry, pegged to clothesline hung between a tree and a trailer awning, flutters in the breeze, as if the occupants left in a hurry and only took what mattered most.

On the far side of the campground parallel to the main road we stop and gaze longingly up at a small food truck parked in the lay-by. It has “pizza” written on the side and we can see its lone occupant, a woman, busy preparing food. We can hear faint music. I call up to her but my voice is lost in transit, and eventually I give up. “Where’s John?” I ask Graeme. He’d been standing beside me only a moment ago. Graeme points to the far end of the property and the high white wall. I squint, and can just make out John’s figure scrambling up it. “Jesus!” I say. Seconds later he’s standing next to the pizza truck. He walks to the edge of the grass and peers down at us. He says something but we can’t make it out, so he ambles down the hill and stops above the wire fence, grinning. “What’ll it be?” We each want something different but we compromise and pick one pizza to share. “And beer,” adds Graeme. John climbs back up the hill, goes over to the truck, and begins the transaction, but moments later he’s back. “I’ve got no more euros,” he says. “I’ve got some,” I tell him, and throw him my wallet. With the light from his phone he digs through it, only to discover that I too am out. Graeme returns to his tent to see what he can scrounge up, but returns empty handed. By now the woman working the truck has ambled over, curious. She calls down in French, asking if she should make the pizza. I explain to her that we’ve just realized we have no cash. She looks at me, then Graeme standing next to me, then finally at John. “Between three of you, you have no money?” Her tone carries disbelief but no judgement, and we all sort of shrug our shoulders sheepishly. In the darkness I can feel myself blush. There is a moment of silence during which I accept that we will go to bed hungry and acknowledge that it won’t hurt any of us to do so. Then she herself shrugs and asks how much our order will cost. John quickly calculates the total for a large pizza and 3 beers and tells me, then I tell her. “Twenty euros.” She says we can get the money from the ATM in town in the morning, and leave it in her truck, which she leaves parked on the premises overnight. I gush out my gratitude for her kindness, to which she replies, “Nous ne sommes pas sauvages, n’est pas?”

It feels like hours later when John finally hands the pizza over to me up by the front gate then returns to the wall by the road and climbs down. I tell him how impressed I am by how casually and skillfully he scaled the wall. (Secretly I’m turned on by it, but keep this fact to myself.) The pizza is delicious, with a thin crust, tender pieces of chicken, sun-dried tomatoes, carmelized onions and real cream in the sauce. We scarf it down in minutes.

The next morning, though it’s easily 9:00 when we get up, the campground feels even more like a ghost town/prison yard than it did the night before. The two tents are still there but they have no occupants, and both the office and the house by the gate remain closed. The only living presence we encounter is the dog, whose muzzle has mysteriously disappeared, skulking around the grounds like a soldier doing a perimeter check. We begin to wonder how we are going to get out. Finally one of us spots an open door of an RV and I approach it to find a man sitting inside listening to his radio. I explain that we can’t get out and after a bit of back and forth, he agrees to call the owner for us. I assume this means that a campground staff member will physically show up and go through the process of registering us, taking payment, etc. Instead, the owner informs the man that it will cost us €21 euros for our site, and instructs him to collect the sum then use his key card to let us out. I explain that we have no cash, which once again inspires disbelief, then amusement; finally the man agrees to let John and Graeme leave to get money from the ATM while I stay put as collateral. He then tells me to come back and get him when they return.

While they’re gone I charge my phone in the bathroom and gather up the last of my things. On my way to and from the bathroom I encounter the dog, who has, for reasons known only to him, taken a sudden and fairly dramatic turn in the direction of distinctly unfriendly. He snaps at my ankles. He growls. He barks briefly before growling again. “It’s okay,” I say as calmly as I can manage, and perhaps a tad indignantly. (After all, one, I’m an animal lover – can’t he smell that or something? and two, minding my own business.) “I’m not going to hurt you.” As if. I look around for something with which to defend myself and see neither a rock nor a stick, bearing in mind that, except for the man inside his RV with his radio on, I’m completely alone in the “prison camp” as we’ve come to call it. I’ll have to kick the dog if it comes to that, or possibly shove my cell phone charger in his open mouth should he leap through the air, fangs bared, going for my throat. Fortunately he gets bored with scaring me and wanders off and I’m able to return to the road where I wait halfway between the gate and the RV, close enough to hear the bikes but far enough away from Dog Vicious. Finally the guys return, we pay the man and leave money in the food truck for last night’s dinner, and we are on our way.

We spend the next two days and nights on Lac de Castillon, camped at the Camping du Lac campground in Saint Julien du Verdun which has closed for the season. There is a barricade at the entrance but it’s our good fortune that it is only wide enough to keep out full sized vehicles. We can just squeeze through on the bikes. There is evidence that the campground has only just closed – there is still hot water, for example, and toilet paper, as well as one or two trash bins that contain plastic bags as well as a bit of rubbish. We set up our tents behind the only outbuilding present on the “green” (which is actually brown) to lessen the chances of a village resident spying our presence and reporting it. Honestly, I can’t imagine they would care, or why, but we are determined to remain unnoticed as much and as often as possible when we are “wild” camping. Then we hurry to take showers while they are still hot, convinced it’s just a matter of time before they run cold. As it happens, we have hot water for the duration of our stay. We ride around the deep, turquoise lake and over to the Gorges du Verdun, with knockout roads and views that we can’t believe, again, we’ve stumbled upon. BE8453DD-1805-4921-A272-F756B7024B5A

We ride northwest and spend three nights, the longest period of time at one place yet, in Laragne-Monteglin. We choose this place because John has good memories of hang gliding here more than a decade ago. We stay so long because Graeme is having mechanical problems and needs time to fix his bike. From here we’ll need to ride with purpose to get to England by September 12, when both John and Graeme need to be back. We ride around till John sees a road that looks familiar, which we follow to the campground where he stayed all those years ago. We check in, but even before we pick our site we see hang gliding in progress at varying stages, and John stops to chat with an older man with a small caravan and a hang glider out front. He turns out to be a retired NASA engineer from Florida named Don, who now spends winters in Florida and the rest of his time hang gliding around southern Europe for the most part. While Graeme works on his bike, John shows me where he used to take off and land, and we do a bit of exploring around the area.  840B4111-FC9D-4EFB-BF9B-DEA7A5E43B49

Before we leave Don invites us to join him hang gliding in Spain in October; it would mean collecting John’s car and glider and borrowing Graeme’s trailer to tow the bike. John is sorely tempted, I can tell, missing those years when he practically lived in the sky weekends and holidays. He hems and haws though, reluctant to commit or refuse. For my part, I’d definitely be interested in giving it a try. As we get on the bike Don hands John his card, then waves at me. “You come down to Florida next time you’re in the states and I’ll take you for a flight,” he says. “Guaranteed.” I thank him, and say I will.

 

The Grand Alps Part One

Posted in Prose on September 26, 2017 by 1writegirl

On this segment of our journey together, Johnny England and I are joined by his friend Graeme, who, recently retired, has three weeks to spare before flying off to Spain for some sort of dance (modern jive he tells me) event. We catch the ferry from Dover on Friday evening, John and I on his Suzuki V-Strom 650 and Graeme on a 1998 Honda 1100 something or other. We disembark the ferry in Dunkerque after dark and ride for about an hour and a half before pulling over to the side of the road in an agricultural area and setting up camp on a grassy strip between a field recently tilled and a grove of trees, roughly 50 yards from the road. There are no lights out here and it’s a cloudy night so we set up the tents in absolute darkness so as not to draw attention to ourselves and our “wild camp” (illegal in France but widely tolerated if you are discreet and respectful). This proves a tricky matter for John as this is only the second time he has assembled the new tent, and an impossible one for Graeme who just bought his tent on the way to the ferry. Much to my consternation he resorts to a large, brightly lit camping lantern to assist him. I ready the air mattresses and sleeping bags and tidy up the straps and cords around the panniers.

During the night John and I are both woken up by an increasingly loud whooshing sound that I interpret as a large farm implement gradually making its way across the field toward us. While snores emanate from Graeme’s tent two feet away, we whisper back and forth. I say I fear it will either knock us about or roll over us altogether, and wonder if we should move the tent(s). John, inclined toward a supernatural explanation, suggests aliens are hovering about nearby. He pokes his head out the door of the tent to see what he can see, which isn’t much as it turns out, but as no large, dark shadowy shape is either heading toward or looming above us, we lay back down and wait it out. It crescendos then fades away and eventually we fall back asleep. In the morning light we learn that we are only a very short distance from train tracks, whence large passenger trains whizz by, from which we conclude that last night’s visitor was a slow moving freight train.

We are up and packed, about to ride off, when a small white car ambles off the road and makes its way over to us. Shit, I think. It’s the farmer, come to chastise us for camping on his land without permission. Quickly, knowing I’m the only one of us who speaks French, I run through a script in my head, scrambling to translate words like ‘trespass’ and ‘we’ll leave immediately.’ A man steps out of the car holding a paper bag. He’s smiling. As he nears us I return his smile and say Bonjour, hoping he’s seen the bikes are loaded and assumes we just stopped for a brief rest. He hands over the bag, which contains half a dozen croissants and a liter of orange juice, asks us where we are headed, and shakes our hands. “Welcome to France,” he says, “enjoy your visit.” Again I think, I love this country.

We ride further southeast and wild camp again, this time in a small public park near a river in a tiny village. It is the boldest choice yet for a campsite, and I worry we are too much in the public eye, but again we are tolerated, if not welcomed. We sit on a park bench and eat our dinner, food and wine we bought at a supermarket on the way, and watch the sky turn from amber to scarlet to indigo in what feels like minutes.

The next couple of days take us around Lac Leman, from France to Switzerland and back again. The one campground we stay at in Switzerland proves a disappointment: it’s expensive, the sites are small and all run together, we have to pay extra for hot showers, and the bathrooms are a far walk from the tent sites and supply no toilet paper, soap or towels/dryers. That night we have a beer in the onsite bar where a heated argument turns into a fistfight among a couple of men who appear to be locals and quickly becomes a brawl as men on both sides join in. Out on the deck we scuttle for cover as chairs fly in all directions, then John grabs my arm and propels me off into the darkness, away from the melee. Our unpaid bill remains on the table behind us. Ten minutes later we can still hear the shouting and commotion from the safe distance of our tent by the lake. Graeme, who has already retired to his tent by this time, goes into the bar the next morning for a coffee and, unaware of the previous evening’s goings-on, is presented with our bill and unquestioningly pays it. (By contrast, the campground where we stay the following night in Les Gets France called Camping Le Frene has large green sites neatly separated and treed, free hot showers with soap, toilet paper and hand dryers, a large warm swimming pool and a hot tub. There’s free wifi and two washing machines provided for guests’ use free of charge, with laundry soap thrown in. A drying room blowing hot air dries our clothes in a mere couple of hours, even my armored jeans. From our tent in the morning we can see Mt. Blanc and we eat fresh croissants just delivered by a local bakery. This is the best campground we land in during the trip.) IMG_0046.JPG

That morning we make a late start for Thonnon les Bains, the beginning of the Route des Grandes Alpes. It is apparent by now that three travel much more slowly than two. Whereas John and I were generally on the road by around 10am at the latest when it was just the two of us before, we haven’t gotten packed, loaded and prepared for the day’s ride before 11:30 or noon as a threesome. This irritates me, and I silently blame Graeme for it; he is both a chatterbox and a know-it-all, and just four days in to our 3 week ride, I am growing both impatient and weary of his company. John, however, feels encumbered by Graeme’s presence in an altogether different way – despite this being John’s trip and John’s itinerary, Graeme has appointed himself what he refers to as “group leader”, setting both the pace and the tone of the ride and causing one altercation after another by riding off ahead of us, not stopping when John does to take a photo, failing to either pull over and wait for us or double back to find us after leaving us in the dust, and/or not checking his mobile phone when we’re separated. Before leaving the Swiss campground they have it out and soon they are going in circles, neither of them hearing the other nor budging from their stance, their tempers escalating. After a fruitless 15 minutes (Graeme: “I have advanced motorcycle driver training!” John: “This is meant to be a casual and fun adventure, not a Nazi drill!”), we call it quits and wordlessly get on the bikes and head south. Though they don’t speak to one another again until they have to, John turns to me after we’ve set off and says, “Right, if he goes off on his own again, sod him, he can bloody well take his own trip and we’ll take ours!” For the rest of that day and well into the next they verbally tiptoe around one another, and both men seem to make an effort to stick close together while riding. After that I notice that Graeme pulls over when he can if John does, and on more than one occasion he pulls over before we do, having determined the location to be an “ideal photo opportunity.” He still, however, consistently drives away first (“A natural born leader” John mutters and rolls his eyes, clearly irritated but given now to counting to ten and only losing it once when we get separated for several hours, wasting daylight, petrol and riding time in trying to find one another.) Like good Brits they don’t discuss the matter again for the duration of the trip, instead cutting themselves off after a spiteful word or two and swallowing the rest in favor of more neutral territory.

Once underway down the Route des Grandes Alpes, we all quickly become awed to the point of mesmerized by the beauty around us. While I was impressed by the Pyrenees, I am gobsmacked, to use a common English expression, by the Alps, with their dramatically high and jagged peaks, their endless range (360 degrees on some passes) and the variety of geological features they encompass (year round glaciers, for example, canyons, forests and turquoise lakes.)

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We climb higher and higher on roads that twist and turn like switchbacks of a hiking trail, passing cars, even motor homes, but mostly other motorcycles. Some, like us, take our time and stop frequently to take it all in, while others appear to be there not for the scenery but for the experience of riding these roads as fast as possible. I suspect some of them will only ever see these mountains days or weeks later when they replay the footage they captured via the Go Pro attached to their helmets. IMG_0058.JPG

After several days we meet a lone rider on a BMW at a pullout when we stop for photos and a bathroom break (which entails the men turning their backs and whizzing over the side of the mountain, no toilet paper, and all of 30 seconds, and me, if I have to go badly enough and there is no toilet in the vicinity, finding a bush or tree that has sufficient greenery to shelter me while I disrobe as little of my motorcycle gear as I can manage, pee on as few of my garments as I can manage but almost invariably my boots, and takes no less than however many squares of toilet paper I can rustle up in my pockets that I’ll now have to pack out used, and ten minutes.) His name is Alan and he’s Scottish like John, though he still lives there. Graeme, the gregarious one among us who I imagine wouldn’t hesitate to talk to anyone anywhere under any circumstances, quickly begins a conversation with Alan, and upon hearing his accent, John joins in. Within the space of several words John has identified where he’s from down to the neighborhood, his social and economic class. Listening in, I can barely make out a word Alan says, so strong is his accent. I realize that had John not lived in the south of England so long, I probably wouldn’t understand him either and thus our travels together would have been significantly more problematic. After awhile Graeme makes the unilateral decision to invite Alan to ride with us for as long as he likes which Alan accepts. Fortunately he’s a likeable guy, and we all get on well for the next two days and nights, after which he heads on alone for the duration of his ride through the Alps, an annual event we learn. Though married, his wife doesn’t enjoy riding motorcycles, so for 2-3 weeks every spring and fall he journeys by himself, once to someplace new in Europe and once through the Alps.

For the next week we ride through one mountain pass, or col as they’re called here, after another, reaching such high elevations that we have to stop repeatedly en route to layer up. I regret having left the lining to my jacket back home, as the polartec pullover I’m wearing underneath is bulky and not as warm as I’d expected it to be. I discover that my cotton neck wrap provides little warmth, and when it rains, that my heavy gloves are inaccurately labeled “waterproof”, nor are they much warmer than my summer gloves once the wetness seeps inside. The nights too take a sudden turn in the direction of cold, and the cheap sleeping bags from our ride through the Pyrenees in July are no longer adequate. Though it is only early September we are soon sleeping in our clothes and using our jackets as blankets.

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We’re wild camping one night when I break down in front of John (or anyone) for the first time since this second leg of our journey together began. Until now I’ve managed to remove myself from the conversation or the situation when something said or done has triggered my grief, returning, mentally anyway, only after I felt sufficiently composed. Tonight it’s late and we’re lying in our tent talking. Graeme has been snoring and periodically mumbling in his sleep since about 30 seconds after he zipped his tent closed. I tell John I’ve never met anyone who can fall asleep as quickly as Graeme, which leads to both of us in turn recounting stories of former bedfellows and their sleep habits, which digresses further still into relationship stories. I’m acutely aware of the proximity of our bodies huddled together for warmth, clothed though they may be, and by now, after so many nights, so many hours spent lying beside him, many of them sleepless, I am tuned in to the sound and the pace of his breathing and in the silence between our words I hear my own heartbeat filling the gap and wonder if it might be his. I feel intimately connected to him in a way I haven’t to anyone in a long time, but the things he hasn’t said to me combined with the time and energy he still expends on staying in touch with Linda as well as another woman named Lucy (he confided in me on a similar late night a week or so ago) he became romantically involved with in Brighton while I was house sitting last month, tell me that he almost certainly doesn’t reciprocate my feelings. I suspect I’m not physically his type, which tends to be glamorous and very thin if the photos of the two L’s which I’ve seen in the photo log on his computer as we’ve scrolled through pictures together are any indication (though he surprised me one night recently by calling me sexy). I think too about the philosophical differences we have, which have crept into our conversations frequently and invariably leave us both frustrated and shaking our heads. I think about how hard relationships are, at least how hard they’ve always been for me, and about my poor track record. I wonder what I’ve learned, if anything, about yellow lights and second chances and gut feelings. As John drifts off to sleep I think about how truly alone in the world I am and how maybe this is a necessity under the circumstances as much as it is a consequence, and I fear it will always be this way. I think about the old saying that we are all ultimately alone, that everyone dies alone, and before I know it I am in Jackson’s car with him, in a way I never was, sitting beside him and watching in helpless omniscient horror as the oncoming car crashes into him, seeing with the eyes of a ghost twisted metal and blood, my child’s blood, hearing the sound of bones breaking, my child’s bones. I try to replace this image in my mind with a happy memory of Jackson the way Claire, my first grief counselor, taught me to do but it’s too late, I am gone. I picture the man who showed up on the scene, who later came to see me, who assured me that he sat next to him and held his hand and whispered to him over and over again “You are loved. You are so loved. You’re not alone”, who wanted me to know that while Jackson never regained consciousness, he wasn’t alone when he died. I picture myself there instead of him and because these things make no sense I imagine that the sound of my voice, the urgency of my words would have brought him back from the brink of unconsciousness and he would have held on until the EMTs arrived, who would have saved him, then beyond that I know if I’d been there in the car with him like I am in these PTSD flashbacks of my imagination, I would have taken the brunt of the crash, thrown myself between his body and the steering wheel, or it would have been me driving home not him. Either way he’d be alive. By now what began as slow quiet tears has turned into wracking, heaving sobs, and John is awake and alarmed. “What’s wrong?” he asks, sitting up, but when I don’t answer, just shake my head, he knows; he quickly takes me into his arms and holds me tight, alternately rubbing my back and smoothing my hair. Eventually I quiet down and he falls back asleep, and though it’s several hours more before I am calm enough to sleep, I’m intensely grateful for his presence, for his comforting embrace, because the only thing different about this night and countless other nights since Jackson died is exactly that – the feel of someone’s arms around me and his gentle shushing sounds competing with the sounds in my head and slowly drowning them out. It is at once the bittersweet reminder and the briefest of tastes of what I want so desperately but can’t find, maybe can never have, which is someone to love me through this.

In the morning my eyelids are swollen and dark puffy circles sit below them. I continue to weep on and off as we ride. John asks me if I’m okay repeatedly until I ask him to please just let me be, to let me cry because it’s what I need to do, and because I can’t stop it anyway. Graeme looks at me with narrowed eyes once or twice but asks me nothing, prattling on in his usual fashion. I wear my sunglasses all day indoors and out, and long after the sun has set.

 

Traces

Posted in Prose on August 17, 2017 by 1writegirl

 

While my friend and her family are on holiday I walk their dog (a Working Cocker Spaniel) twice a day through fields surrounding their house, a public footpath or bridleway always close by. (I have read that there are approximately 140,000 miles of these kinds of paths across the country.) It’s a rainy August here, though my friend writes to say temps have reached 45°C in Italy and wildfires blaze. Most days I grab a slicker from one of many on pegs beside the back door and slide my feet into the smallest pair of giant wellies I can find – these people all tower over me. I shuffle along, two pair of socks not enough to keep my feet from skidding front to back, not minding the rain after the first few minutes. Lottie races around in circles, tearing after hares and rabbits, real or imagined. She springs high into the air on all fours, a small silky pronghorn, then gallops up behind me like a horse, hooves thundering. She’s filled with the exuberance of being alive, of moving her body and engaging all her senses at full throttle. We walk until she begins to slow down, my cue to head back to the house where, after gulping water and eating her kibble, she will throw herself down in her bed or onto one of the armchairs where she’s allowed. Had I not had a dog so agreeable and low maintenance myself, I would say Lottie is the best dog ever. For the past two weeks I’ve marveled at how much comfort is to be had from curling up beside her, her head seeking out the curvature of my neck every so often, the gaze of her gentle brown eyes into mine. Beyond taking her out to walk and giving her food and water, she seeks nothing but affection, something I haven’t been called upon to provide regularly for over three years. She reminds me how much I miss loving and being loved.

I hear from Johnny England occasionally, by text or email mostly, and though we plan to ride together again at the end of this month when I leave here, he feels far away from me now in more ways than one. We were quickly growing close as we traveled through the Pyrenees in July, in the way that only prison, war and sudden continuous travel can accomplish between two people. When strangers are thrown together 24/7 they become intimate in a fraction of the time they would do so under ordinary circumstances. In fast motion they share stories, secrets and confidences, disposing of pretense and best-foot-forward mentality, they almost can’t help but care, trust and give.

He’s performing on Friday with some of the musicians I met last month and asks me if I want to come and see them. I say yes immediately, as if I didn’t realize until that moment that I missed him, that I’m anxiously awaiting the day when we’ll pick up riding together. It’s at a place called Iford Hall, he tells me, in a tiny village near Brighton, almost 200 miles from here, which means I’ll need to make arrangements for Lottie to spend the night with a neighbor and book a rental car. I’m eager to hear him play, to see him onstage in a live performance, and without knowing what to expect I envision a large space with tables and chairs, maybe gardens lit with fairy lights and roses in bloom, like a really big country pub. His 16 year old daughter and a friend will be coming also he tells me, and after we’ll go back to Max’s place. They’ll sleep in a small caravan on the property and he and I will sleep in the new tent he just bought. Thursday night I pack a small bag, and because I do miss him, but mostly because I want to feel hopeful again, I dig around in my backpack before my shower to renew what has lately been merely a passing acquaintance with my razor.

It takes me almost five hours to drive there on Friday because I mistakenly assume it will be less stressful if I take the back roads and avoid the highways. I’m anxious about driving on the other side of the road, but what really gets to me as it happens is shifting gears with my left hand. I’m not ambidextrous, and it takes effort and concentration again and again as I drive through small towns, windy roads and a seemingly endless series of roundabouts. I stop only once for gas and a cup of coffee I can’t even drink because my left hand is too busy grinding the gears in and out of place. It’s almost 7:30 when I arrive exhausted and nerve-wracked at Iford Hall. I park in the gravel lot outside the big stone building, step out of the car on wobbly legs, stretch my arms and inhale deeply. A putrid, acrid smell greets me. I walk toward the hall where I can hear music, growing louder and louder as I approach – they must be rehearsing. It’s dark inside so I take a moment and let my eyes adjust. It’s a small room, it turns out. There are no tables with chairs, no bar, no seating area, just a few chairs lined up in a row against the opposite wall, a long table in the back where a couple of men are setting up audio-visual equipment, and the naked floor in front of the stage upon which the band is now playing so loudly that I wonder if I’ll suffer permanent hearing loss if I go in; momentarily I linger in the doorway, considering my options. Then Carlos and Jerry, the bass player and one of the singers, see me and wave, and I notice two young girls sitting in the chairs closest to the stage looking at me. I can hardly back out now, so I walk across the floor to a chair close to the table in the back and sit down. I can’t see John, who’s at the back of the stage, but I can see his drums. I know this song, it’s one he has played for me in his car and sent me a recording of in an MP3 link. I’m amazed how different it sounds live – less smooth but more vibrant – how many more nuances the physical presence of the charismatic female singer lends it.

This is the end of the rehearsal it turns out, and once they finish the song John emerges from the back of the stage. He jumps down, stops to speak to his daughter, then sees me. I stand up as he nears me, and we hug. “You guys sound great,” I say. We chat for a moment (how was the drive? Fine, no problem) then he introduces me to his daughter and her friend, and together we walk outside and around to the back of the parking lot to a low building housing a row of offices slung together. “What’s that smell?” I ask on the way. “It’s revolting, isn’t it?” He says. “They sprayed the fields a few days ago, some kind of cow manure, fertilizer mix. You should have smelled it then. I mean, if you think it’s bad now, you would have been retching, I mean it, you really would!” His Scottish accent dances through my ears.

We enter one of the offices and find food and drink laid out in a small kitchen area off to the side. Gratefully, breakfast hours ago, I eat – salad, hummus, cheese, olives and bread. I take a small bottle of beer too, cold from the fridge. Soon the sound of cars entering the gravel lot becomes more frequent; people have begun arriving for the performance. John excuses himself to get ready, and his daughter and her friend leave with him. I wander outside, walking down the narrow road, not yet ready to go back in the hall where a DJ is playing records.

When I return to the hall intending to sit in one of the chairs along the wall as I’d done before, I can do no more than peek inside without a struggle, there are so many people, and I quickly ascertain it’s standing room only, the front of the stage already filled with people dancing. I know immediately I won’t go inside, and with that knowledge comes a wash of guilt: am I being disloyal? After the show when he asks me what I thought, if it was too loud, if I enjoyed it, will I be able to answer it was amazing, no, immensely, without feeling like a fraud? I’ve driven all this way to see him perform but when it comes down to it – the crush of bodies, hot lights, drunken strangers swaying, pumping, gyrating and bouncing – I just can’t do it.

I retreat to the fenced field right outside the hall and walk to the far corner. From here I can hear the music perfectly well, better even, without the distortion of close quarters, reverberations and microphones; suddenly I feel relieved, secure in the knowledge that it doesn’t matter what I don’t see. I’m here to listen, and I can honestly tell him when it’s over how wonderful they sounded. I lean against the dark wooden rails, invisible. In between songs I hear people hanging around outside yelling and laughing; I can see their shadows, black monsters looming into blur, receding into definition, taller than the trees in the next field over upon which they’re projected by a single green spotlight housed in a towering oak behind me. When the band plays I listen for the drums, for John, and think selfishly how nice it would be if these people were all gone and it was only the music I could hear, and in between sets silence, or maybe crickets or frogs. Then the breeze kicks up and I think I’d settle for the absence of this god-awful smell. The price we pay – those of us who can’t do crowds, groups, parties, events, socializing, without squirming and wrestling with our silent, suffering selves, furtively looking for exits and excuses to leave. The personality traits – shy, introverted, reflective, quiet, non-confrontational – responsible for these feelings are the same ones that make it so incredibly difficult to talk about my grief, though I can write about it, and the same ones exaggerated by my grief. I was these things to begin with, but I am infinitely more them now.

It begins to rain, softly, then hard enough that I trade my dark wet seclusion for shelter under the hall’s awning, where a few smokers linger in groups of two and three. Soon the live music stops and the DJ takes over. I wait for the people to start pouring out. Instead they trickle, and only one member of the band I recognize is among them. I think about going inside and looking for John, telling him how great they sounded, but clusters of people still stick to the doorways and I don’t feel up to scraping through them. Instead I walk out to the parking lot and try to identify which car is John’s. Twenty minutes later I haven’t found it and the rain is pounding down; I duck inside the office where we went earlier. Carlos is there rolling himself a joint, half eaten containers of food still scattered across the table. One bottle of red wine has been opened and half drunk, another full one sits nearby. I’ve just poured myself a glass when John walks in. “I’ve been looking for you,” he says, and I can see he’s all wound up with the tension that comes from being “on.” He picks up the bottle and tips it into an empty juice glass. “Cheers.” We touch glasses and drink. “What did you think?” he asks. “I loved it,” I say. “It was too loud, wasn’t it?” he counters, and before I can tell him that I had a great vantage point outside, before I can explain that crowds and small spaces and the singular sensation of glaring aloneness while enveloped by a hoard of people is simply more than I can manage these days, the door opens and his daughter and her friend walk in. They say it was fantastic, and John and Carlos both say they couldn’t hear themselves play, they had to feel it, and they bemoan the fact that one of the singers missed some cues. John asks Carlos if he saw the half-naked blonde dancing wildly at the front for the entire performance; they both laugh knowingly, in a between-us-guys way, couldn’t miss her. At this I feel a pang, something resembling envy but wiser, and less ambitious. More people come in, the saxophonist and the sound mixer and his wife, and small conversations break out. I ask John’s daughter about her recent trip to Africa, then she and her friend get up to go back to the hall where music is still playing and people continue to dance.

Soon John excuses himself to go talk to someone he’d seen earlier saying he’ll soon be back, but he doesn’t return, and it’s after 1am when I find myself alone in the office cleaning up the food mess. I turn off the lights, lock the door with the key Max left behind, and walk back over to the hall. I find John in the kitchen at the back with the girls and a couple of women who are organizing glassware and cleaning up. He moves back out to the stage where he had placed two video cameras to record the performance and examines them, then goes to talk to Max and the guys who set up the sound system, in the process of breaking down the set. I stand at the bottom of the stage, lurking in the shadows, not knowing where to put myself, if there’s something I could be doing to help, feeling awkward; an outsider and superfluous. After awhile John approaches me and I think good, we’re going to go now, it’s time; but it isn’t and he suggests I go back to Max’s place by myself, gives me directions with instructions to call if I get lost – “I’ll keep my phone on” – saying he’ll be along shortly.

I drive back to Max’s caravan, getting lost briefly but righting myself. I make a cup of tea and wait, thinking that I’ve hardly seen John this evening, that after our initial hug he didn’t touch me at all, even when we were alone – we touched often, small, inconsequential gestures when we were riding – wondering if it means anything, and wishing he seemed more pleased to see me. The sound mixer is outside in a small camper van, his wife taking a shower in Max’s bathroom. She emerges while I’m drinking my tea, wearing a long robe, her thick black hair wound up in a towel around her head. She asks me about my travels with John, previous and upcoming, and says she wishes me well. “You’re gorgeous, you know,” she adds, an afterthought to goodbye. “Just gorgeous.” She smiles at me, embracing me with this secret, then steps down out of the caravan leaving me to wish, firstly, that I could get my hands on whatever it is she’s been smoking, and secondly, that it wasn’t a fifty-ish married woman who thought that but a 59 year old single man. Soon I hear a car and think it must be John, but it’s Max and his girlfriend. Eventually John shows up with the two girls who retreat almost immediately to the small caravan where they’ll be sleeping. Because it’s wet outside and more rain is forecast tonight, we ditch the tent plan. John brings our air mattresses and sleeping bags into Max’s caravan; I set up a space for us on the floor in front of the couch and spread them out. He says he’s going out to the car to see if he can find pillows. I use the bathroom, brush my teeth. Long minutes pass but he doesn’t return. Finally I step out into the night and walk towards his car. I can hear his voice from inside as I get close. He says “hold on”, then opens the door and hands me a rolled up towel. “I couldn’t find a pillow,” he says, “but try this.”

“Are you on the phone?” I ask, unable to hide my incredulity: it’s after 2am. He mumbles, “Yeah, someone called me.” I leave him to it and return to the caravan, wondering who “someone” is and why he wouldn’t say. I expect it’s Linda and I feel my heart constrict at the same moment as I wonder if he knew this would be my reaction. Of course it might be someone else but that thought makes me equally uncomfortable, as it dawns on me that he may have started looking for an alternative travel companion. Maybe he’s engaged in “getting to know you” phone calls with my soon-to-be replacement.

When he comes back into the caravan much later and crawls into his sleeping bag, I roll onto my side facing the couch, the exact opposite of what I want to do, because I’m afraid of what will happen if he sees I’m awake and we start talking. He moves close to me and never mind my hopefulness in the shower last night, what I want more than anything right now is just to push back, to insinuate myself into his body so that he will wrap his arms around me, like I did so many times late at night in the tent last month. Instead I lie still and quiet, and when eventually he whispers, “Are you asleep?” I don’t pretend to be, but when he asks if something is wrong, I tell him I’m just tired. I want to ask who were you talking to, but I don’t want to sound like a jealous lover, nor do I want him to hear the hurt in my voice that I can’t disguise because even if it’s petty I can’t shake the fact that I drove five hours today to hear him play and will drive back early tomorrow morning, a mere four hours from now; that whomever he was talking with on the phone for so long, it was in lieu of talking with me in person.

When my alarm tings I get up quietly and gather up my few belongings. I look down at John’s sleeping face and feel a twinge of some murky, undefinable emotion, hovering between tenderness, desire and fuck-you. I wonder if he would forgive me if he knew this; if he would understand. I slip outside. The grass is wet from the rain and except for a few birds exalting the glory of daybreak it’s completely silent. I start up the car, plug in the sat-nav, and leave.

On the drive back, this time taking the fastest roads I can find, I’m overcome with a plethora of emotions ranging from fear to disappointment, sorrow to indignation, and I begin to cry. I’m struck by what seems like an obvious discrepancy between what I want to feel (aloof) and what I do feel (attached); by what I want John to feel for me (attached) and what he seems to feel (aloof). I realize that I don’t know anymore at what point two people are in a relationship. Can you be in a relationship if you haven’t had sex? If you have had sex, how many times does it take before it counts? Four? A dozen? A hundred? I think back to my previous travel companion whom I had sex with twice a day in the beginning, then less often but still regularly for the next 7-8 months, and with whom, according to him, I was never in a relationship. When is sex just casual, destined to remain so, and when is it the precursor to love, commitment, union?

I think back to late nights in the tent last month, taking comfort in John’s sleeping body next to me, from a wam beating heart in close proximity even if it wasn’t connected to mine in the way I long for. I wonder if “the right man” came along (surely there must be many such possibles out there for all of us, right, given the human population is pushing 8 million worldwide?), would I recognize him? I fantasize that he’d say things like:
— “You wrote a novel and it’s been published? I can’t wait to read it!”
— “Facebook? Nah, that’s just a huge time waster.”
— “I’d be happy to teach you to ride a motorcycle if you’d like.”
— “I wish I’d known Jackson. What can I do to help you learn to live without him?”
— “I’ve spent years engaged in wildlife research all over the world. I could really use someone with your intelligence and passion if you’d be interested in getting involved.”
— “Personally I think a woman looks better with hairy legs and a few extra pounds.”
And of course the clincher: “I’m madly, crazy in love with you.”

I have problems returning the rental car and it’s already 3pm by the time I collect Lottie and take her home. I close the front door and, exhausted, lean back against it, wanting just to sleep for a few hours. But I know if I do I might not wake up in time to take her for her evening walk. I text John, I’m back, etc, telling of my mishap with Enterprise. He writes back thank you for making such an effort to come. He appreciates it, he says. He signs it with an x. I never know if that means hug or kiss. I tell myself kiss. I call him later, before I go to bed, and ask him if he’s got an itinerary yet, any firm plans with regard to riding again, holding my breath while I wait for him to say look, I’m sorry, but I’ve found someone else I’d rather ride with, or I’ve changed my mind, I’m going to stay here and try to make it work with Linda. After all, we agreed before we ever started riding that either of us could bail at any time. But he doesn’t say any of those things; he doesn’t bail. He says merely that it will depend on his daughter’s schedule, and as soon as he knows where he’ll be on the 24th he’ll let me know so I can buy a bus, train or plane ticket to get from here to there.

After we hang up I turn off the light and lay down on top of the bed. I realize that I’m not ready yet to feel hopeful again, that I need to expect less of other people, less of myself. I can’t bear more loss yet, which means as unceasingly, supremely conscious as I am of the brevity of life, any investment I make in anyone has to be painstakingly, arduously slow. This is a sad, forlorn place to be, as far from a mother’s heart as it’s possible to travel. Three years out, and I’m still scrabbling, my fingertips torn, bleeding, barely hanging on. Words to a song by Cowboy Junkies come to me, and into the empty darkness, with no one to hear me except perhaps a six year old working cocker spaniel two floors down, I softly sing: Escape is so simple, in a world where sunsets can be raced. But distance only looses the knife; the pattern of its scar can always be traced.

If you’re looking for a good book to read, I highly recommend This is How You Lose Her, by Junot Diaz. One of the best books I’ve read in a long time.

Did you know there are (a few, Asian) lions in India, and the gibbon is the only ape that sings?

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Lovely Lottie, competing for the title of Best Dog Ever

The Pyrenees

Posted in Prose on August 2, 2017 by 1writegirl

It’s mid-July when we find ourselves in northeastern Spain, first in the tiny coastal village of Portlligat, adjacent to the slightly less tiny town of Cadaques, due to John’s early and continued interest in Salvador Dali who spent most of his life here. I don’t know much about Dali so John fills me in, and the bit of biography I keep is the part about how his wife and lifelong muse Gala required him to obtain her written permission before visiting her in the summer home (a castle in Girona) that he bought for her. (Also, his legendary fear of female genitalia and the possibility that the sole sexual consummation he ever experienced was with himself.) We walk around the hilly streets surrounding the museum that was his home, though we don’t pay to go inside – advance reservations are required, so even if we’d been willing to fork over the 11 euro entrance fee (per person) we couldn’t have. We spend the night in the only campground we can find, large and industrial-feeling, its small crowded sites composed entirely of sand, which John thereafter refers to as “the anthill” due to the abundance of the little black creatures in and on everything we left outside the tent overnight.

The next day we make our way down the coast just far enough to find a nice beach to visit so we can swim in the Mediterranean Sea before heading inland toward the Pyrenees. The coast is hot and crowded, so I’m glad when we point the bike north and begin to climb.

We spend the bulk of the next two weeks in the Pyrenees, going back and forth between Spain and France with one afternoon in the small country of Andorra. The campgrounds in Spain are more expensive than those in France and as a result, we wild camp on several occasions. Never having done this before I’m a bit nervous on the first night, fearing we’ll be discovered and told to leave. We’re in the tent and it’s close to midnight when I hear a dog barking. “What if he comes over here and finds us?” I ask John (we’re in the mountains on the edge of a farmer’s field). “What if he barks and barks until the farmer wakes up, what if he leads the farmer to us, who demands that we get off his land immediately? What if he doesn’t give us time to pack up our stuff, what if he has a shotgun and threatens us?” At which point John sighs, shushes me and tells me to stop worrying. “You Americans,” he admonishes me. “You think everyone’s got a gun.” The dog, as it turns out, either doesn’t know we’re there or doesn’t care, and neither does the farmer, because the night passes without event, and following the leave-no-trace practice, we depart the next morning without anyone, to our knowledge, ever knowing we’d been there. After that I’m more relaxed about the idea of wild camping, and it isn’t long before I prefer it when we can find a place.

I’ve been in the Alps, though it’s been a long time, and I’ve been in many of the great parks of the US and Canada with dramatic mountain peaks and sweeping vistas, so I’m not expecting to be awed by the Pyrenees, yet I am. I am awed to the point of tears, overcome by the beauty and size of what I see, by the longevity and the variety. Places like this, no matter how often I see them and especially in the last three years, give me what I can only imagine faith gives to the religious – a sense of peace, of purpose, of security – the notion that I don’t need to look to others for my well being or for validation, and that the answers to all the important questions in life are to be found right here: in the rocks, in the layers of sediment, in the bark, the water, the flowers and the sunlight; the cry of the hawk and the chirp of the frog, the smell of wet leaves, the zigzag flutter of the moth. The closer I get, the fuller I feel, the smaller I become, the roiling, churning chaos inside of me less consuming.

For a few days we rent an Airbnb room in an old farmhouse and make day trips from there. We meet a lovely young French woman named Anne Cecille who lives in the house while getting her Masters degree in Geology and working part time. She invites us to dinner one evening when she has friends down from Normandy and we all share in the cooking, then talk about climate change, politics and immigration over salad, pasta and red wine until well after midnight. At the beginning of this trip, when I shared with John my resistance to engaging in social situations for fear of seemingly innocuous but loaded questions like “What do you do?” and “Do you have children?” he suggested that we let people assume we’re married, and say “We don’t have any children,” which, as he explains it, isn’t a lie. He and I do not have children together. A technicality perhaps, but an important one when the alternatives are to remain aloof and estranged from social interactions, to reveal painful truths to strangers again and again, or to deny Jackson’s existence, the worst proposition of all, by saying I never had a child. We do this for the first time with Anne Cecille, and it proves to be successful. I’m flooded with relief as well as gratitude to John for this idea.

We hike when we can, ride out onto dirt tracks when it seems promising, and get lost in the desert. John swims in a river one day when he can’t stand the heat any longer but I can only bring myself to dip my feet in, it’s so cold. I can bear being hot more than I can being cold.
We eat dinners at dusk on rocks beside rivers or overlooking valleys, and while we eat we talk. This is a refreshing change for me, having spent so much time either alone recently or in the company of my previous travel companion who spent every tea break, pit stop or meal engaged with his smart phone, usually commenting on or responding to comments on Facebook, chatting with Facebook “friends” and reading the latest news headlines. It isn’t until John is telling me a story about some experience he had or we’re laughing about something we saw or did earlier that day that I realize how lonely I was when I realized I’d grown to love someone who seemed to have decided in the space of our first few weeks together that he knew all there was worth knowing about me. I still love him, but I wonder now how I ever let myself believe he was on his way to loving me. Why I let myself believe it is no mystery; it’s what I needed, what I still need – someone to love me through this. But the how… that’s harder to answer, in spite of my education and life experience, but I picture a horse with blinders on when I close my eyes. We so often let what we want to be true supersede what is true..

We get gas (petrol) and pay after we fill up. We have to ask at restaurants for the check. Night after night we check in to a campground (or even a hotel) to be told the fee, then sometimes given a piece of paper to fill out, sometimes asked for a passport, then informed we can pick our own site and waved away when we pull out a wallet. “Pay tomorrow, when you’re ready to leave,” we hear again and again, though in most cases, especially in the larger campgrounds, it would be very easy to drive away in the morning without returning to the office. This trust moves me deeply, so unused to it as I am, and it guarantees I wouldn’t leave without paying. When you are given the gift of trust you want to live up to its expectations, and I wonder when this practice of believing that other people, albeit strangers, are worthy of our trust eroded in my country, where it would be unheard of to be told “pay when you leave.” It’s beyond refreshing to be treated not as suspect, not as a risk, but as responsible, mature, and accountable. These sorts of experiences help to reinstill in me the belief that most people are mostly good.

By the end of July we’re heading back up to England. I’m going to dog/house sit for my friends in Herefordshire for 3 weeks while they go on holiday, and John has personal business to attend to in Brighton, including performing in a gig with the musicians I met before we left. I’m looking forward to this short break from the road, to long walks and naps with a loving dog, to reading and writing more, to cooking again, and to the chance I’m going to get in the presence of consistent, free wifi to finally skype with the woman who is to be my grief mentor, located for me by the MISS Foundation. We board the ferry to Dover alongside 2 small motorcycles, one a Honda 125, the other a 90cc of indeterminate make, both loaded down with homemade panniers made of crates and sacs, water bottles plunged into sandals strapped onto the side. John shakes his head and says he can’t imagine riding something like that, and wonders how they manage to cover any ground at all. But I get it. I get it without any imagination at all.

 

 

Ooh la la La France

Posted in Prose on July 19, 2017 by 1writegirl

“Johnny England” and I are in France after a night ferry from Newhaven to Dieppe. We arrive at 5am, losing an hour, after about three hours of what can, at best, be called rest on the hard floor in an empty corner of one of many lounges.

We ride south under a cloudy sky spitting rain, stopping first in Rouen, where we park the bike and walk toward a cathedral that John wants me to see. I remind him of my vast exposure to cathedrals on the Camino and my lack of interest therein, but he assures me I’ll be impressed. Skeptical, I acquiesce. He’s right – this structure is magnificent in its size, complexity and detail – a composite of statues, engravings, stained glass, gargoyles, filigree and spires, so high it hurts my neck to look up and see the top of it. A picture would not do it justice; I can only say if you are in Rouen, check it out. Walking back to the bike, we pass a store with a poster in the window and we do a double take, then we both start to laugh and agree that she might have the right idea. IMG_0028

This part of France, north central, is mostly flat and farmland, with the predominant crop grown, from what I can see, being sunflowers – we pass field after field, giant golden faced soldiers all standing at attention in the same direction. IMG_0031 We drive through one charming village after another, the old stone houses adorned with shutters in some cases, Juliette balconies in others, and the small shop dedicated to one particular food group (patisserie, boulangerie, charcuterie, etc), is alive and well in the French countryside. In the bigger towns this is glaringly (and sadly to my mind) not the case – enormous warehouse-sized grocery stores meld with department stores, crowding out the local small guy, calling themselves “super” this, “mega,” “ultra,” or “hyper” that. The Walmarts and Costcos of France, they are so vast I am overwhelmed immediately by all the choices on display. John counts an entire grocery aisle 5 rows deep of rose wine, and there is twice that much space devoted to cheese. This is France so emphasis on wine and cheese is to be expected, however the entire store is this way, and I wonder…how many varieties of canned sardines, yogurt or bottled water does anyone really need? It’s a question I have asked myself in the U.S. for years. In the checkout line we spot a magazine for sale that reminds me of the English usage on store fronts and billboards I witnessed in Asia last fall, and how I used to smile at those clumsy yet endearing efforts – the editor in me wanted to correct the mistakes while the traveler in me wanted them never to change. IMG_0029

We stop for a cup of coffee for me, tea for John, but he is disappointed when they bring him something that he describes as smelling like cow’s pee. This is to be a recurrent problem for John – the French do not seem able to make a “proper cup of tea.”

Our destination, though we’re taking our time to get there, is the Pyrenees. We intend to ride from east to west, crossing back and forth between France and Spain. There are rarely border checks these days between EU countries, so it is easy to pass from one to the other without hassle or wait. We camp our first night, after riding close to four hundred miles, in the Auvergne region, just outside the town of Clermont-Ferrand. It’s late by the time we set up the tent and we’re hungry so ride back into town to find something to eat – amazingly the restaurants, while still open, are all done serving for the night. Isn’t France one of those countries, like Italy, where restaurants seat customers well into the night? It used to be when I lived in Montpellier 30-odd years ago. I can’t speak for the big towns and cities but in the small ones this is no longer the case. We encounter this situation again and again as we ride and only after about a week do we wise up and make a point of looking for restaurants (when we aren’t eating grocery store meals) before 7:30 or so. On this night the only place we can find still open is a pizza place, where we share a sandwich and a pizza topped with tuna fish and olives. Surprisingly tasty.

We camp each night for the next week but one, when we get into town later than expected and can’t find a campground (on which occasion we find a room sans bath over a restaurant for 32 euros). The tiny town of Sainte Enimie in the Gorge de Tarn is my favorite camping spot, at a small campground alongside the river. Our tent is crap, too small and thin; John bought it the day we left England and the only store he could find open was a general merchandise rather than outdoor store, so selection was very limited. In any event, it does the job, at least so far in the dry, warm weather we’re having, and the setting here is glorious. The moon is full and we ride the short distance into town for dinner shortly after dusk then walk around the cobblestone streets and across a high stone bridge where we can see the crumbling remains of ancient walls built into the sides of the mountain, lit up from below.

Soon it’s Bastille Day, French Independence Day. We see heightened security in places, road blocks and emergency vehicles lining the sides of the roads, and it could be on account of the Nice shooting last year on this day, or more likely because Donald Trump has chosen to visit France today. In other places the spirit of the day runs wild and free, and as we witness one celebration after another throughout the day, because today also happens to be my 53rd birthday I secretly pretend the fireworks and festivities are all for me. John, good guy that he is, won’t let me pay for anything today, though we’ve been splitting the expenses otherwise except for gas. (“I would be paying for it even if I were on my own,” he says.) We are now riding through more mountainous terrain, nearing the Pyrenees, as well as passing small villages that seem almost carved into the land and water, reminding me how much I love this country, and reminding me also how fortunate I am to be here, doing this. IMG_0027

We are driving south toward the Spanish border when we see smoke on the horizon from a forest fire – as we approach, the cloud billows wider and darker, until it resembles the picture of a mushroom cloud after a nuclear bomb explosion we used to see as children in history class. IMG_0030 I look back from the edge of Spain as night begins to fall to see a lovely sunset, made even more brilliant by the smoke.

 

 

Johnny England

Posted in Prose on July 6, 2017 by 1writegirl

I have always loved England. It feels familiar but is different enough to also feel like a learning experience every time I come here. The people, the food, the sounds are ever changing, while the customs, architecture and history are pervasively constant. Last summer I went to Scotland for the first time, specifically to Edinburgh (inspired by my love of the 44 Scotland Street series by Alexander McCall Smith) where I rented a flat for a month and afterward traveled around the countryside when I met someone with a motorcycle. Those first few days with him, riding along the foggy windswept west coast of Scotland, past rocky outcroppings and green hills covered in heather and scotch broom, sturdy sheep and long-haired cattle, supplied my first living breath in over two years. Sharp little droplets of rain pummeled us in between short intervals of sunshine as we skimmed along empty curving roads and I felt like I’d never seen grass so green, smelled air so fresh. I felt free and light for long moments at a time, for the first time since Jackson died, and the possibility that I might continue to live flashed across my mind; that this wasn’t just a last hurrah before my inevitable impending demise, by my own hand or, more likely, as a direct, cumulative result of grief, what some people would call a broken heart.

A couple of weeks ago, after leaving my friends near Hereford, I took a train to Devon to meet up with Mark, one of the kind souls who responded to my travel post. We met at the 3-day HU event and got to know each other well enough that he invited me to ride around southwest England on one of his two older (80’s) BMWs, and I accepted. An intelligent, thoughtful guy, he’s good-natured and widely traveled, with plans to ride a bicycle around Nepal in October then head into India where he has been numerous times. A friend in Mumbai stores his Royal Enfield for him there in exchange for being able to ride it when he needs to. He told me he intends to be there by early November, and added “You’re welcome to join me if you like.”

We spent a couple of days in his quintessentially English village (it only takes a church and a pub to make a village, I’m told; this one has a church and two pubs), then rode through the beautifully wild and lonesome moors of Dartmoor National Park to Cornwall where we spent a few days with Tiffany, his friend and one of my roommates from the travel weekend. She lives in a small town called Porthcurno a few miles from Lands End, the southernmost point in the U.K. We hiked along the coastal path between the two towns our second day there, and on our third and final evening we saw a play at Porthcurno’s open air Minack Theatre, carved into the side of a cliff overlooking the Atlantic Ocean meets the Celtic Sea meets the English Channel. A lone seal swam and dived below us. The play itself was okay, the setting spectacular.

We returned to Devon for a couple of mostly rainy days, then I bid Mark farewell and caught a train to Eastbourne to meet John. Another respondent to my travel post, John has been a fairly regular email correspondent for over a month. His plan, he wrote, is to ride through various countries, starting in Europe, for the next four months, beginning with France and winding up in Turkey, a country he tells me he has grown to love after multiple trips there. He’d prefer to have a companion than to ride alone, so “You are welcome to join me for any or all of it,” he wrote. We agreed that I’d ride with him in July, after which I’ll be returning to England to house/dog sit for my friends while they go on holiday in August.

I arrive in Eastbourne late on Saturday night. My train was delayed so by the time John finds me and we drive back to his apartment it’s after midnight. Except for the emails and one brief phone call, I’m flying blind here. I think we’ll be compatible, I think we’ll travel well together, but at this point I’m only guessing, hoping really. And we’re talking about a month together, not just a few days like it was with Mark. I reserve the right to bail, I tell him in my last email before I catch the train. Of course, he says. No questions asked. You have that right too, I assure him. No problem. If we’re on the road, just drop me at the closest bus station, that’s all I ask.

He puts me in his bedroom in spite of my protests that he shouldn’t, and he sleeps on the floor of his living room. It’s a tiny apartment that he has just sold, and he has already cleared out most of his belongings before I arrive. The check should be in the bank on Thursday, he explains; that’s the day he turns in his keys, the day he’ll have the funds to purchase the bike he has had his eye on, the day we can start moving. Until then it’s a waiting game. He shows me around Eastbourne. He takes me on walks along the waterfront and into the surrounding hills and farmlands. He gradually clears his apartment of the remainder of its contents. We take turns making dinner. We get to know each other.

He talks a lot. Rambles I might say, except it doesn’t feel aimless, it feels pent up, like he has had no one to talk to in a long time and is trying to get everything out before he finds himself alone again. I understand the sentiment but I hold back, rusty when it comes to revelations, until he says something, an accidental trigger (how can he know, when I don’t know them all myself?) and I am in tears. He has a daughter who is the same age as Jackson, and when he talks about her he has the warmth of tone and wide wet eyes that speak my language. When I look up I see that he is crying too, slow silent tears to my messy puddle, and I am reminded yet again of how many of me there are out there, waiting to happen, praying for anything but. Please god, take this, take that, take me. Take anything but my child (husband, wife, mother, brother). He knows this kind of love, and he knows lost love too.

The ice is broken, and I begin to relax. Over the next four days he tells me about the circumstances that have brought him to this point in time, where he’s selling an apartment in a place he didn’t like to begin with and preparing to set off for several months, maybe longer, on a new motorcycle with an almost complete stranger: the failed relationships; playing drums professionally first in bands then in shows; the transition to this job and that job and finally no job when it all felt wrong; the child he had, and the child he almost had. He tells me things about growing up in the slums of Glasgow in the 60’s that wring me dry; the kinds of things that a generation ago nobody talked about, that evoked words like dirty laundry, and feelings like shame even in the hearts of their young, innocent victims. I am reminded that the power of secrets is lost when they are let loose in the public domain.

I tell him about my travels of the past year, about how I fell in love with my traveling companion against my better judgement – given my state of mind, given that he told me from the beginning he didn’t want a “relationship” – and how it all fell apart when, after close to eight months of traveling together around Europe and Asia, I realized he was probably never going to see me as anything more than just another lover in a long string of lovers. John and I have both been very clear and honest from our first email exchange to say that we don’t want anything but a companion on this ride, and I am committed this time to keeping my boundaries intact. “It isn’t that I regret my time spent with him,” I tell John. “Just that if I’d resisted the temptation to sleep with him, I’d have saved myself unnecessary heartache that I could ill afford.” He nods his head. “I know what you mean,” he says. “But you can’t blame yourself for wanting it, or for trying.” In the silence that follows I remember what someone said to me last summer while discussing men, women and relationships. She said, “We have a string that goes directly from our vagina to our heart.” It sounds crude perhaps, and overly simplistic, but in my case it seems to be true.

Tonight we are out in the country, a few miles beyond Brighton, on a piece of land where some musicians are getting together to practice one more time before John leaves the country tomorrow. I sit on an old rusted iron chair outside the mobile home inside which a keyboard, guitar, bass, drums and vocalist are all packed together amidst cords, microphones, amplifiers and miscellaneous musical paraphernalia. A gorgeous ginger and white cat called Zeus comes calling, wrapping himself around my legs. He belongs to Max, the owner of the mobile home and the keyboard player. This cat, I’m told, is from Cairo. A street cat, he was picked up by an animal rescue and taken to a shelter, where someone came along and chose him as their pet. They set sail from Egypt, taking the cat with them, for several months. Eventually they got to England where at some point and for reasons unknown they couldn’t keep him any longer. They relinquished him to yet again another shelter, which is where Max found and adopted him. “I figure that’s at least three or four of his nine lives, don’t you think?”

On the drive home John tells me an amusing story about a trip to the US during which he rented a hang glider (he is experienced in the sport and taught lessons for years) in Orlando and a couple of hours later realized he was not headed south as he’d intended. He found a field to land in, in front of a parking lot of a big grey building, which turned out to be a bowling alley. He walked up to three men sitting on the front steps, pulled out his map of Florida, and asked them if they could show him where he had landed. Quickly picking up on his accent they narrowed their eyes and asked, in a pronounced southern drawl, “You’re not from around here, are you?” “No, I’m from England,” he told them. “Well, actually I’m from Scotland, but I live in England,” at which they took one look at his hang glider and concluded that he’d glided all the way from England and crash-landed there in inland Florida. He tried to explain that he had rented the unit in Florida, that he’d flown by plane to Florida from London, but they only heard flown and England and were so stuck on the false notion that he eventually stopped trying to explain. In the end a cell phone rang and one of the men answered it to be given an earful from his mother, so loudly that he had to hold the phone away from his head so that everyone present could hear her shouting, berating him for not being in church. Eventually when she paused for breath he took his chance. “Mama!” he said. “Listen to me. We got a situation here. We got Johnny England here, just crashed his hang glider in a field.” Eventually the man was able to persuade his mother – still enraged that her grown son was at a bowling alley rather than in church on an afternoon in the middle of the week – to send someone with a truck to collect John and his hang glider and transport him the 40 miles back to Orlando.

I laugh, and I laugh, and I laugh.