Archive for the Prose Category

Return to Paris, Part One: Arrival

Posted in Prose on October 15, 2019 by 1writegirl

My first stop after leaving the UK is Paris. I haven’t been to Paris since the 80’s when I was a young student traveling first around France, on breaks from studying at the Université Paul Valéry in Montpellier, then around Europe in the aftermath of my tenure there. What is ironic is that at the tender age of 18, alone and in possession of very little disposable income, though I was robbed and almost raped on two separate occasions while visiting Paris, I continued to think of this large, impersonal city as nothing but vibrant, exciting and attractive. It personified, for me anyway, everything that made France unique and alluring: it was a culinary, cultural, linguistic, artistic and historical island that I found mesmerizing. Yet all these years later, as often as I’ve wanted to return, I’ve felt intimidated by the idea of going to Paris on my own. Thus it wasn’t until my aunt Alice, a former French teacher and frequent visitor to France, and Paris in particular, suggested meeting here that I seriously considered coming back. She first broached the idea five years ago, but circumstances contrived to prevent it from happening until now. We’ve never been particularly close, but I’ve always loved her and felt comfortable in her company. So it was with a sense of dormant anticipation that I emailed her over the summer and asked if she still wanted to do it, and it was gratitude I felt when she replied, Yes. It is a cautious though willing heart with which I now approach this at once stranger and friend, Paris.

I take a night bus from London, arriving at Charles de Gaulle airport early in the morning in order to meet Alice when her flight lands about 11:30. I don’t remember the airport being this big and quickly realize it probably wasn’t when I was here last. Still I have plenty of time to find the closest, and as it turns out, only place I can wait for her without having a boarding pass myself. I drink a cup of coffee, then another, before edging closer to stand there, alongside other anxious family members or friends as well as taxi and Uber drivers (holding iPads as often as poster board printed with the names of their incoming fares) until I begin to wonder if I could have missed her, or perhaps misunderstood where we agreed to meet. Hoards of people are gathered in the large waiting area as hoards more bustle through the massive, one way doors from Baggage Claim and meld into the crowd. At last I see her, walking slowly and looking tentatively around her, as if she too is wondering if we got our signals crossed. I wave to get her attention, anxious to reassure her, and push forward between bodies tightly packed together until I’m standing in front of her. We embrace, both of us relieved, exhausted. We follow the signs to the taxi stand where we are greeted almost immediately by a driver waiting for a fare. We give him the address of our Airbnb apartment in the 16th arrondissement, and within half an hour we are there. I follow the directions of our hostess, who emailed me yesterday to say she’d be unable to meet us personally at the apartment, and find the key, then we are in. 

It’s a two bedroom apartment in an old, six story building, two units on each floor. It has the air of a grand old dame, wearing the family jewels she has managed to hold on to throughout her lifetime as well as a bit too much powder and rouge, applied hastily and in dim light. The ceilings are high, the floors polished wood but coming unglued in places, the walls accented with scrolled woodwork in corners and above the fireplace and baseboards. The color scheme throughout is white and gold, regal and cool, the few bright or warm touches coming from the framed prints of classic French paintings on the walls. A faux marble bust of a Grecian goddess adorns the mantle while the fireplace below it is crammed full of white battery operated candles of varying size. We have been given strict instructions, among other things, not to “burn” the candles (Does she mean turn on? Could she actually think anyone would be stupid enough to try and light a plastic, wickless candle?) – they are “for decoration only”, as are the barrage of ornamental pillows piled atop our beds. Our other instructions include removing our shoes while in the apartment, not taking anything from the apartment (even the umbrella that appears to have been left out for us to use?), and telling anyone from the building we run into, if they inquire, that we are “friends” of the owner, who mysteriously refers to herself alternately as Sarah and Jennifer in the emails and texts I’ve received from her. 

Two chandeliers hang from the ceilings of the adjoining living and dining rooms, each with half its lights burned out. I wonder if this is on purpose, given the abundance of natural light streaming in from the double French doors looking out on to the street, until I find that two of the three lights in the bathroom are burned out, and conclude it’s more a case of thought-less than -full design. There is a dishwasher in the kitchen but its contents are dirty and stained, and the washer/dryer contains the pillow cases and towels, still slightly damp, that should have been on our beds or laid out for us (Only after a text from our hostess the next day, in response to our inquiry, do we locate these.) Though the listing claimed to offer breakfast among its amenities, there is none to be found. The fridge is empty except for a can of Red Bull and a jar of mustard, while the food cupboard is crammed full of miscellaneous items such as half eaten bags of pasta, cans of vegetables, packets of soup, candy and boxes of tea. All stuff, it would appear, that the previous occupant(s) have left behind, or that Sarah-Jennifer herself makes use of when staying here. The drawers are likewise packed with what look like personal possessions interspersed with what could also be guest amenities: plastic wrap, foil, and coffee pods for the machine on the counter. The other cupboards are laden with service for 20 in the form of wine glasses and outsize china, sharing space with delicate crystal and gold rimmed antique porcelain dishes that I’m afraid to touch, much less use. In the bathroom the medicine cabinet is brimming with someone’s partly used toiletries while the shower contains three bottles of half empty body wash and shampoo, and a big pink netting sponge hanging from the spigot. The trash can hasn’t been emptied. 

I am puzzled by the contrast between the stark formal living area, with its carefully arranged furniture and copies of Architecture Digest or the like on the coffee table, and the kitchen and bathroom with their casual, personal footprints. I feel like I’m sitting in a hotel lobby while I’m in the one, but eavesdropping uninvited in a stranger’s personal space, not sure what I’m meant to hear or see, in the other. Both my aunt and I find it slightly discomfiting, as if our stay here was last minute rather than reserved weeks in advance; as if we are displacing the owner, who is doing us a favor by letting us stay, rather than paying the exorbitant sum of money we did (or rather Alice did. Knowing how strapped I am financially, she generously picked up the bulk of our lodging costs) for the privilege of residing in this nice neighborhood in Paris for a week. Ultimately, we both make a sort of peace with our lodging situation, with its contradictions and somewhat shady nature, and vow we will not let it interfere with our enjoyment of this adventure together, our first and perhaps our last, so long in coming. 

The Kennet and Avon Canal, Day Five: The last day

Posted in Prose on September 19, 2019 by 1writegirl

Last night it got cold, too cold for me with my two lightweight sleeping bags. Mark in his Rab 750 was toasty, but I shivered all night long and barely slept. We were planning to end our walk tomorrow in order to return to Mark’s house in Devon with a couple of days to spare before the next phase of our journey together, but decide to make today our last day instead. Mark wants to service the bike, visit his father, and cut the grass among other things, so he doesn’t mind the extra day. 

My step is noticeably lighter as we start walking and grows increasingly more so, due in part to the psychological advantage of knowing this will soon all be over, and in part to the fact that I haven’t managed to time my body’s clock with our arrival at the precious few toilets we’ve encountered for two days now. I’m walking with purpose to the first toilet we come to. 

As it turns out, this ends up being the first town we land in, called Hungerford, and it’s almost noon when we get there. I am practically running down the street toward The Tutti Pole, located directly off the canal on the High Street. When we step inside we’re greeted immediately and asked where we’d like to sit. It takes all my self control not to scream “Never mind that! Where’s the toilet?!” We ask for a table outside, where we can shed our backpacks and not worry about them being in the way of other patrons. As we walk towards the patio a young man approaches us and asks if we’ve been greeted yet. I wave him aside and make a beeline for the first picnic table I can see. No sooner have I slipped my pack off than a third staff member appears, this time to hand us menus and tell us about the daily specials. Clearly this place prides itself on its customer service. I leave her in mid-sentence, unable to sit, or even stand, and wait. I dash back inside and through the door marked “Toilets” where I find not one, not two, not even three, but four whole toilets. It has been so long since I’ve gone that my body freezes up momentarily. I force myself to relax and breathe deeply, almost screaming then crying with relief when at last I am able to go.

Unburdened, I return to our table by way of the dessert counter, where I size up the possibilities. Outside, Mark is drinking a cup of coffee and pondering the menu. He decides to go with just a dessert. I tell him I’m having lunch followed by dessert. In the end, we eat the same things only in reverse. I’m eating cake while he has a sandwich. 

After lunch we find the train station and check the schedule of trains going to Bristol, thinking we’ll walk to the next town and catch the train there. But it isn’t as straightforward as we thought it would be. Perhaps because it’s the weekend, perhaps they are doing work on the track at some point, but the only way to get to Bristol is to go in the opposite direction, toward Reading, and catch a direct train from there. If we catch the next train to Reading, we’ll get to Bristol by around 4, which will get us back to Mark’s place just before dark. Our walk is over.

Two trains and a bus ride later, we are back in Bristol retrieving the bike from Mark’s friends’ garage. Karen greets us at the door with Jax like last time, only this time Jax is wearing a blue puffy collar like a life vest, a newer and more comfortable (so she says) version of the cone that dogs wear after surgery to keep them from licking or biting their stitches. He doesn’t look bothered, so she may be right. “Paul’s just out in the garden planting some roses” she tells us. Soon he comes inside and we make polite conversation, then we load up the bike and leave.

The next morning, back at Mark’s house, I like to think I’m just a little bit tougher, stronger, both physically and emotionally than I was when we began our canal walk. This may be an illusion, I don’t know, but now that I’ve stopped walking for hours on end, I have the sense that I could have kept going because I’d passed the tipping point. That is the plight of a softie like myself, a “poof” Mark would say: when we test ourselves, throw ourselves into something difficult and painful, the temptation to quit because it feels overwhelming, it feels like too much, is great, and depending on your situation – how much you’ve bitten off, what motivates you, how great the disparity is between how you are and how you want or need to be – you will turn back too soon, just in time, or too late. When I walked the Camino de Santiago five years ago, I willingly tolerated the physical pain, even craved it as an antidote, a distraction from my emotional pain. Unfortunately it didn’t work that way. There was no relief from the pain, there was only compounded pain. I ignored what I could until it would be ignored no longer, though ignore isn’t the best word. I was aware every minute of all of it, but parts of me, body and mind, took turns being numb, which is not to say pain free; it was simply a matter of degree. When I finally stopped walking I was not stronger; on the contrary, I was weaker, more damaged, further broken. On that occasion, I turned back too late.

The knot in my shoulder has dissipated and my feet feel almost normal. By stopping to rest and stretch every so often and concentrate on keeping my core as tight as possible as often as possible, I was able to avoid a recurrence of the lower back pain that escalated into crippling muscle spasms along the Camino. While I’m tired and desperate for a long sleep in a soft bed, I feel better overall for our several days’ walk along the canal. 

Now if you’ll excuse me, dear reader, I must go. It’s a lovely day here in southwest England, and Indian Summer is short lived in this part of the world. Now that I’ve put this all down on (metaphorical) paper, I feel inclined to get out there, into the fresh air and sunshine, and go for a walk.

The Kennet and Avon Canal, Day Four: Slow meets Sloe

Posted in Prose on September 18, 2019 by 1writegirl

When I get up this morning I feel rested, and even have the feeling that I’m growing stronger. This may be an illusion, but I cherish it nonetheless.The view from our campsite stretches for miles: lush, grassy hillocks, grazing cows and clumps of trees. Mark asks for some toilet paper then disappears for a long time. I need to go to but not that badly yet.

We pack our tents wet, as it rained in the night and the sun isn’t hot enough yet to dry them. My pack feels heavier as a result, and we haven’t walked far before that familiar knot under my left shoulder blade makes its presence known. When we stop for a rest, I change out of my sandals into my boots, hoping my feet are recovered enough to handle them, and that the difference in weight will be noticeable. My feet feel more comfortable in my boots today, and I cross my fingers they are broken in sufficiently to be able to say the worst is behind me.

As the day wears on however, the trail narrows, almost disappearing in places, and is filled with ruts and small holes. Several times I twist my ankle, but quickly right myself before I can go down. I’m glad I’m wearing the boots, as I know I wouldn’t fare as well in my sandals, but the twisting and turning from side to side means they are rubbing all my sore spots over and over. I feel the need to stop and rest frequently; we sit down at almost every bench we can, which admittedly isn’t often. Mark, damn him, is chipper, chatty and seemingly pain free. His only complaint is that he doesn’t have the patience for walking when he could be covering the same ground in probably a quarter of the time on his bicycle. If he ever decides to go along a canal again, he tells me, he’ll cycle rather than walk. I can appreciate that, though I find there to be something comforting, almost reassuring, about slow travel, as if by taking my time and observing the people, creatures and environment surrounding me, I’m expanding my world rather than merely passing through someone or something else’s. 

We go all morning and into the afternoon without coming upon a place to get food. There are blackberries growing all along the canal which we’ve picked and eaten as we’ve walked. I’m especially glad of them today, and for the pear I found yesterday along the way. We pass bushes bearing a reddish-purple berry I don’t recognize, which Mark identities as the Sloe berry. He easily recites his recipe for making Sloe Gin, which leaves me wondering if I can come by Sloe berries back home. I’d like to give it a try. At last we come to the town of Bedwyn, where we make our way to Wendy’s Community Cafe and Juice Bar. It’s located behind a playground and next to a neatly manicured lawn-bowling green turned into a croquet pitch. Several men and one woman, none of them a day under seventy-five I wager, are taking turns. The sound of wood smacking wood is broken by the occasional low murmur of cheer, comment or critique. The cafe is decorated in a combination Rastafarian/Hollywood/cute animal photo style, with a corner couch covered in cushions away from the main seating area. This is where we settle in to peruse the menu and chill before our food is ready. We both order the lasagne which comes with cole slaw and salad and is both plentiful and delicious. I expect to get a desert as well but don’t have room for more than a cup of tea.

We putter on for a few more miles before stopping for the night on the top of a lock surrounded by countryside. It is the first night we’ve spent actually on a lock, number 66, and we set up camp with a good hour or so of daylight still ahead. I revel in the feel of the thick soft grass beneath me as I lie down on the wide, green expanse, vast compared to the thin swaths we’ve carved out for ourselves along the canal previously. Nobody else comes around except for one person, a woman snapping photos periodically. Mark naps briefly while I scribble in my notebook, then we prop ourselves up against our packs and drink the beers we bought before leaving Bedwyn: Dinner. Soon the sun begins to dip and the air cools. In the waning vestiges of daylight we walk a short ways up and down the canal hoping to catch sight of the elusive water vole, endangered and protected, written about on the signs posted along the canal. It feels so good to walk unencumbered that it’s tempting to just keep going. 

The Kennet and Avon Canal, Day Three: A little sugar goes a long way

Posted in Prose on September 17, 2019 by 1writegirl

Again we awaken and set out early. There’s no point in having a lie-in in a tent when you can’t get comfortable, so sleep is limited, not to mention we are attempting a version of “stealth camping” given the somewhat criminal nature of wild camping here as previously mentioned. It won’t do to be seen crawling out of a tent next to a stranger’s houseboat at 9:00, stretching, then leisurely making breakfast. Our goal, as a unit, is to get up and at least packed, if not walking, before the boaters, dog walkers and joggers are out en masse. That way it appears we have simply paused for a few moments and are resting at the side of the trail. My goal, quite honestly, is merely to stand upright. Mark is kind and boils water for my coffee first thing, which helps.

I put my sandals on instead of my boots from the get-go today, having discovered yesterday that the pinky toe on my right foot screams less loudly without anything pressing up against it. The trade off however is the extra weight my boots add to my backpack, and the lack of stability; my feet tend to slide around on the grass more in the sandals which have less tread on the soles. I start walking, resigned to the pain I know is lurking in my immediate future. Much to my delight however, we soon come to a cafe by the side of the canal and we stop for a cup of coffee. Never mind that we’ve only just eaten breakfast, I get my cake (a lovely slice of shortbread layered with butterscotch and chocolate), having quickly learned you have to grab your culinary opportunities as they present themselves in these circumstances. It is so rich that, although I eat the entire thing, I soon wish I’d saved half for later. 

I waddle out of there and back on the trail, where the significant difference today is the appearance of a long series of locks fairly close together and on an incline. Here we can see how the boaters must take precise care in letting just enough water in and out of each section of the canal as they prepare to pass from one to the next. It is a slow tedious process for them to travel this part of the canal. Mark gives me a history lesson as we go about the origin of the canals and the early days when horses were used to pull, and I suppose guide to some extent, the boats from the trail alongside the canal. I look down at my feet on this alternately wide and extremely narrow path and wonder what it must have been like for the horses, and if it looked different back then.

Eventually we come to the small village of Honeystreet where there is a cafe and a pub to choose from, both right on the canal. We’d been told about the pub, called The Barge Inn, but it’s closer to lunch than dinner time so we opt for the cafe. It proves to be a good choice. We both order a panini which comes with a salad, chutney, and potato chips. I glance lovingly at the wide assortment of homemade cakes on offer, in particular at something new to me, a gin and tonic cake, but I decide one piece of cake a day is enough, and I don’t want to carry anything not absolutely essential. I could probably make a convincing argument – at least to myself and let’s face it, that’s all that matters – that cake is essential and worth toting on my back, but the miser in me wins out. We use the bathroom and fill our water bottles at the handy spigot on the patio meant for that purpose.

We carry on until about 5:30 at which point we come upon the Waterside Bistro and Pub; it is, according to what I’ve been able to determine on google maps, the last canalside eatery for miles. We have not passed any stores. There is a very small one here with basic essentials, so Mark buys milk for the morning, then we go upstairs to the pub and order a beer each. Neither of us is very hungry after our late lunch, but feeling the need to eat something with the beer and to stave off hunger later when we’re camped and settled, we buy a couple of packets of chips from behind the counter and nibble on those while we drink. We sit at a table by the window, from which we watch a soft spray of pinky-red roses spread across the sky. The throbbing pain shooting down my legs subsides as I sit quietly, to remain dormant until I stand up and start walking once again. It has been a warm day and the breeze gently drying the sweat on my brow is a delightful sensation, one of those simple pleasures we often fail to appreciate until we’ve experienced something difficult, physically or mentally, that encourages us to concentrate on something positive, no matter how small. 

Our beers drunk and chips gone, we move off down the canal just far enough away from the several boats and pedestrians gathered around the pub, till the boats are few and far between again. We pick a spot on the canal to set up camp, but at the last minute I spot a trail leading up the hill. I climb up it to find a field with a gate that is latched but unlocked and a sign that declares the land to be under the care of The National Trust. I wave Mark up and we quickly make a beeline inside, recognizing instantly our good fortune. We set up our tents, sidestepping the piles of cow manure that pepper the field, just in time to crawl in before it’s too dark to see without a flashlight. Though it takes me quite awhile to fall asleep as usual, I sleep almost completely through the night.

The Kennet and Avon Canal, Day Two: Please, just give me cake

Posted in Prose on September 16, 2019 by 1writegirl

Bleary-eyed, I sit on the bench by the canal and drink coffee made from single portion coffee bags I found in Tesco (I’ve been bemoaning the fact for years that nobody’s thought to invent them and at last, much to my satisfaction, someone – namely Taylor’s of Harrowgate – has). Birds are chirping in the trees around us. The nice woman who directed us to our camp site last night emerges from her boat, a floppy eared brown and white dog in tow. He comes directly over to me and wastes no time digging his nose in my backpack. His owner chastises him but he isn’t easily deterred. It’s my beef jerky that he’s smelled, I’m sure of it, unless he’s a fan of granola bars, which seems unlikely. He cocks his head to one side and looks up at me pleadingly, one blue eye and one brown. Sorry, I whisper as he is again reprimanded for his behavior. “Come on Dexter,” she says, her tone no-nonsense now, and off they go. 

The rain has stopped but it’s still cloudy and cool when we start walking, a little before 8:00. My feet still ache but I’m not as tired as I thought I’d be given my sleepless night. Mark is cheerful and says his legs are “a bit sore”, due to using muscles he doesn’t habitually use, being a cyclist more than a long distance walker. We pass pedestrians, many of them walking their dogs or jogging, some doing both, and cyclists, but they thin out the farther away from Bradford on Avon we go. We see day hikers but no other thru hikers. 

The boats have names like Snugglepug, Isabelle, and The Wanderer, with their license number and place of registration clearly printed on the side. Some are clean, freshly painted and tidy, with nothing on top. Others are decorated with homey touches, including plants and flowers along the top – entire gardens in some cases, full of color, scent and edibles – as well as neatly stacked firewood, tires, bicycles, and garden statuary placed, mascot-like, on either end. Some are decrepit and neglected, trash heaps on top of and alongside them. A few harbor downright junkyards. It is a neighborhood on water, some residents house-proud, others giving the former reason to wish they would keep up or just go away. We take note of the bridge numbers as we go, descending from 192 at the start of the Canal in Bath. When we see a sign for a store we follow it to a Spar’s where I purchase a packet of paracetamol, extra strength. 

About 11:00 or so we begin looking for a cafe alongside the canal where we can get a cup of tea and a piece of cake. I distract myself from thinking about the increasing knot in my left shoulder, pain in my right knee, and fire in my feet, with thoughts of cake. What kind will I have? I wonder. Victoria Sponge? Something chocolate? Or will I go for a scone with jam and clotted cream? Eventually, with no cafe in sight, we stop at a bench near a small park to eat the snacks we’ve brought with us – Mark his mixed nuts and fruit, I my boiled egg and beef jerky. It’s okay, I tell myself. We’ll find cake soon. Probably just after the next bridge. Or maybe the one after that.

Our break over, we continue on. My pack is lighter, it must be considering I’ve eaten three eggs and an apple since we started walking. So why does it feel like it’s getting heavier? 

Hours pass. We are in intermittently urban and rural territory now, with small towns or villages giving way to green pastures dotted with sheep or cattle, and vice versa. Places to find food on the canal, either store bought or prepared, are hit and miss. When we aren’t hungry, we come across a pub, when we are hungry, we come to nothing. We do not find cake. Someone we pass mentions a pub called The Bridge Inn along the canal at a town called Devises, a few miles ahead. We set our sights on that, figuring if we find a store first, we’ll buy something like noodles that we can cook up instead once we stop for the night.

I don’t know how many miles we’ve walked. That’s the thing about walking a canal. It all looks pretty much the same: water on one side, green on the other, a stone bridge every now and then. I find myself thinking we’ve got to be close to The Bridge Inn and wondering where I’m going to go to the bathroom if we don’t get to it before we (or possibly just I) collapse from exhaustion. This is one of the downsides of hiking anywhere but in the backcountry – public toilets are few and far between – so when you have to go, you may just have to hold it for hours. It’s all well and good for Mark, who can just turn his back between a couple of bushes. The passers-by and boaters in the area won’t even notice him. It’s more difficult to find a place where you can squat, naked from the waist down, unnoticed. When a stronger urge overcomes either of us however, the playing field is leveled and we are both, yes, that’s right, SOL. This is not, after all, India.

Finally The Bridge Inn comes into view, right next to the canal. We scout around before going inside for a place close by to camp when we emerge, knowing we won’t feel up to walking far at that point. It will be approaching dusk in any case. Once inside we plop down at a corner table and order two beers straightaway. I scan the menu for the cheapest items and decide on a fish cake mixed with spinach and convince the waitress to bring me a salad instead of chips. Mark orders fish and chips, heavily battered and greasy as usual. I have yet to see grilled fish and chips on an English menu (granted, I eat out rarely here and haven’t patronized an abundance of upscale restaurants). I admit I’ve learned to like mushy peas. 

We draw out our dinner as long as possible, both of us dog tired. Mark orders a second beer. I refrain, afraid it might not be safe with the handful of paracetamol I’m planning to swallow once I crawl into my sleeping bag. For the moment, I’m procrastinating as long as possible moving any body part with the possible exception of my hands, mouth and eyelashes. It feels so good to be still. At last we see the sun beginning to sink below the horizon and know we’ve got to get going. We ask for the bill and each make one last trip to the bathroom.

The Kennet and Avon Canal, Day One: Why did I let you talk me into this?

Posted in Prose on September 15, 2019 by 1writegirl

Mark calls me from his home in England and says, “I thought we might walk a stretch of canal when you get here. There’s one we can start from Bristol if you fancy a few days’ hike.” 

“Uh, okay,” I say. I have, after all, confessed to him my fondness for long walks on scenic trails. 

I arrive at Heathrow Airport after almost two full days of travel. Fortunately, passing through Passport Control and Customs/Immigration is a breeze compared to the last time I flew into England from the U.S. via Gatwick. From there a bus takes me to Woking where I catch a train to Axminster, where Mark is waiting for me. 

Three days later, rested and revived, we load up our backpacks in preparation for as many days as it takes to walk the 87 mile Kennet and Avon Canal. We ride to Bristol where Mark’s friends Paul and Karen have generously offered the use of their garage for parking. We chat briefly with Karen and meet their friendly Staffordshire Bull Terrier, beautiful blue-grey in color, named Jax who, after giving us a good sniff-over, retires to his stool conveniently located by the window where he can bask in the warm afternoon sun. After changing out of my riding gear I’m suddenly sleepy and think how nice it would be to join him. Of course that’s not an option; instead we catch a bus to the train station where we find a train to Bath. This lets us off a few hundred feet from the canal where we begin our walk. It’s 2:30 pm. 

By 7:00 we’ve walked just past the town of Bradford on Avon, a distance of about 11 miles.  We are each carrying a sleeping bag, tent, and sleeping pad as well as clothes, bits of food, water, and sundry personal items. Mark carries a small stove and I have an additional sleeping bag, as the other one I’m using isn’t warm enough on its own for fall camping. Overall I’m carrying more weight than I’d like, by which I mean more than I probably should (what I’d like is to be carrying no weight. Backpack-less camping, that’s my dream.) As it is I’m exhausted, my feet hurt, and I’m having flashbacks of my lower back going into spasms along the Camino de Santiago five years ago. I am frankly trepidatious about this adventure. Mark reminds me the canal parallels the railway and we can abort any time we want and catch a train back to Bristol. 

We plod on a bit farther looking for a suitable place to camp alongside the canal. This is a high traffic area in terms of narrow boats, both holiday rentals and permanent moorings, so we are hard pressed to find a spot not directly next to a boat. Twice we think we’ve located a decent patch of grass, and both times we’ve received disapproving stares from the nearby canal residents, and have moved on. While wild camping in England is, strictly speaking, against the law, it is generally tolerated as long as you are not bothering anyone, or otherwise drawing attention to yourself.

It’s almost dark now, and we are running out of time, when a woman riding her bicycle passes us and asks if we’re looking for a place to camp. When we say yes, she tells us there is a nice wide swath of grass just past her boat, and points it out to us in the distance. We thank her and walk in that direction. When we get there we are both so tired we plop our backpacks onto a nearby bench and just sit there for a moment before wordlessly setting up our tents and sleeping gear. Too tired to cook anything for dinner, we eat a couple of the hard boiled eggs I have brought with me along with two packets of potato chips and two beers that we picked up in Bradford on Avon, then crawl into our tents. 

I think I will fall asleep instantly, but as the night deepens and I lie there listening to the hum of boat engines, the occasional passer-by on foot or bicycle, the voices of nearby holiday makers, and eventually, the gentle pitter-patter of rain, I can feel only the ache of every muscle, the throbbing of hot, tender soles of my feet, and find I cannot sleep at all. I toss and turn, sliding around on my mat, wishing I had thought to buy pain relievers along with the antihistamine I picked up at the pharmacy in Bristol, massaging my legs and feet, and wrestling with the question of whether or not to get up and pee. Wobbly with fatigue, I fear, I’ll fall into the canal. I remain inside, reminding myself I’m a pro at holding it. A foot away from me the occasional snore emanates from Mark’s tent, and I know already he will be up with the sun, which means we’ll be on our way shortly thereafter. On this night, for a change, I am glad of it.

The Lost Art of Bird Watching

Posted in Prose on June 16, 2019 by 1writegirl

Gardiner, Montana 

We are staying for two nights with Michael, my father’s former colleague and hiking buddy from Yellowstone, and his funny black and white cat Sinbad that he obviously adores. The weather was terrible for the drive down, cold and windy with intermittent rain, hail and sleet. Our first night I feel like I’ll never warm up. We stay in and listen to Michael tell us about his trip to Botswana, a country I dearly want to visit, with accompanying slideshow. Then we watch the old Mel Brooks film Young Frankenstein while Sinbad entertains us with his antics. The next day we go out for lunch to the nearby Wonderland Cafe. Their menu is impressive with its abundance of local ingredients, including beef, elk and bison, and fair prices. After, Michael heads off to work while Mark and I take a walk, forewarned that it’s elk calving season so look out for hidden babies in the tall grasses and run for your life should you get too close to a protective mother. We do see quite a few elk, all females, but none with calves or obviously pregnant, as well as a few pronghorn and a multitude of beautiful yellow breasted birds with bright red faces I learn are tanagers. That night we play Trivial Pursuit, a game I haven’t played since at least a couple of years before Jackson died. I find myself laughing for a sustained period of time for the first time in ages. I’m sure I manage to give Michael the distinct if false impression that I’m just fine these days, even normal.

Salmon-Challis National Forest, Idaho

We spend two nights in Salmon, at a private campground on the edge of town (Century 2, very nice). The weather has turned hot and it’s a lovely sleeping temperature inside the tent. The following day we continue southwest on Highway 93 and 75 toward Stanley, where we spend a night at a USFS campground at 6,000 feet elevation about 12 miles east of town. I freeze my ass off. Beautiful scenery though. In Stanley, while Mark puts gas in the bike after food shopping, I see a young couple hitchhiking on the main road. I recognize them, by the sign they have taped to their backpack and the leggings she is wearing, from the parking lot of the Big Sur Lodge where we’d seen them about 5 weeks ago. I walk over and speak with them briefly. They are German, hitching their way from Patagonia to Alaska, with very little money at their disposal. So says the sign anyway. I ask them when they expect to arrive in Alaska, and they say three weeks. I would enjoy talking with them further, hearing about their experience thus far, but Mark has filled up, and they have their thumbs out.

Boise, Idaho

We’re staying with Dennis and Julie, a couple I guess to be in their late sixties. They are well educated and friendly with interesting stories to share. A former school teacher, she is more talkative than he, a retired structural engineer. Their dog, Sarge, is a 4 year old mix they know to be a Hurricane Harvey survivor and believe to be a Havanese mix. With his fluffy, soft white fur, intelligent eyes and somewhat clownish/somewhat standoffish personality, I can believe this, and think longingly of Mugsy.

They are extremely generous, treating us to a home cooked meal each night and not allowing us to contribute even a bottle of wine. They have put us up in a lovely guest room with our own bathroom, stocked with soft towels and Burt’s Bees shampoo and conditioner, which I use to wash my hair for the first time since late April. My homemade dry shampoo has been working fine complemented by plain water once a week or so, but I couldn’t resist the BB. I’m loving the soft bed and down comforter, the hot shower, and the break from riding for a few days which comes at a critical time, the approach of Jackson’s death day. Weepy and irritable, I feel both sorry for Mark and grateful to him for his enduring patience and understanding. He really is a good friend, and I am lucky to have found him. Thus two nights has slipped into three, and I am conscious too of my good fortune at landing here: the kindness of these people, complete strangers, who have treated us from moment one like cherished guests, welcome and trusted; the comfort of my surroundings. It’s lovely to sit in the garden with the fountain cum bird bath burbling and goldfinches tweeting from the cherry tree, Sarge taking turns cavorting around the yard after the occasional butterfly and sleeping next to us on the cool stone. There are pots and baskets of pink begonia, Christmas cactus in bloom, multicolored pansies, aloe, ivy and something delicate and white I don’t recognize. The air is fragrant and warm. Dennis comes outside and joins me for a while; we talk about climate change, backpacking trips, cancer, extreme fitness versus extreme sloth and the associated problems of each, and finally, as a quail alights on the fence nearby and chastises Sarge for his mere existence, the lost art of bird watching. 

It’s Father’s Day, so I phone my dad. I’ve been trying to convince him to come to California for a visit soon. “Maybe next fall,” he says. “I don’t feel up to it now.” The man just drove to visit his sister in Kentucky, 550 miles away, in one day (since that’s how he’s always done it), then turned around three days later and drove back. I restrain myself from reminding him of this, saying simply, “Okay. Maybe next fall,” knowing as well as he does that after a certain age we don’t get more healthy with the passage of time, but less. He’s 89. What are the odds that he’ll feel stronger in five months than he does now? “I love you,” I say, but he has already moved on to telling me about the hard life a long-time friend has had, giving me details I’ve heard time and time again. “She doesn’t deserve the shit she’s been through, poor thing,” he says. “No,” I agree. “Of course not.” The line goes quiet, the words bouncing silently back and forth between us. Poor thing. Then he clears his throat, I wish him well, and we say goodbye, pretending, as usual, that we each said what we meant.

Bear in Mind

Posted in Prose on June 7, 2019 by 1writegirl

Late May/Early June

We spend three nights in Port Angeles with a couple named Dean and Michele, who make us feel welcome. She has gone deaf over the last 10 years, resulting from, they (and the doctors) believe, a case of the mumps twice – first as a small child, then again as a middle aged woman. She has recently acquired a hearing dog, a two-year old lab. Their 19 year-old cat is not happy. 

They are Democrats and atheists, both unusual in this part of the state.

Driving along Highway 20 East in Washington we pass a sign: May your life be as perfect as it appears to be in the Book of Faces. 

The scenery along Highway 20 between is spectacular. The Cascade divide between east and west becomes obvious almost immediately, with alpine forest giving way to high desert.

Campgrounds along Highway 20 in Washington: 

— Grandy Lake Campground, just before the town of Concrete. Lovely. There is only one other site taken out of about ten. Ours is large with a flat spot for the tent, with a picnic table and fire ring. Porta-potty toilets. $12/night. Very few mosquitoes and the birds sing all evening.

— The “Stampede Grounds” in the town of Omak. $20/night. Fairly popular place, very open campsites with no privacy, a few trees and each site has a picnic table and water. Flush toilets on site, with pay showers. We speak to a few couples in passing, each from British Columbia.

— Little Twin Lakes campground, outside Colville. USFS, free. The mosquitoes are demonic, making a possible second night’s stay out of the question. We hang our food from a tree after dinner, as all the signs warn us this is “bear country.”

Passing through the tiny town of Troy, Montana we stop for gas ($2.83 at the Exxon) and coffee at Main Street Perk, where there are antiques throughout and we meet a young German couple driving in a camper van from Canada. Then we ride Highway 37 around Lake Kookanusa, a very scenic road, to Rexford Bench Campground, USFS. The sites are spacious and treed, many quite private, each with a picnic table and fire ring. Trash and fresh water close by and extremely nice, well-equipped bathrooms. $12/night. Great hiking trails from different locations within the campground. We spend two nights.

Finished reading Grandma Gatewood’s Walk this morning. Terrific story. 

We enter Glacier National Park from the west entrance and head straight for Fish Creek Campground in order to get a site before it fills up, believing it to be the only campground with showers (4 days and counting) and having been told it reached capacity yesterday. As we ride down the road to the campground we see a beautiful female black bear. Small and deep brown in color, she sees us and stops, then bounds back to the edge of the woods where we catch a glimpse of a little cub racing up a tree. We stay still, a fair distance away but, not taking any chances, pointing in the right direction to make a quick getaway if necessary. Momentarily she ambles out on to the road with her wee one behind her. They cross the road and scramble up the other side, disappearing quickly and completely into the trees. What a sight! My heart sings.

We set up camp at Apgar Campground ($20/night, picnic table and fire ring, close to flush toilets, fresh water, trash and bear-proof food storage boxes) because we’re told they too have showers and allow for more than one night’s stay at a time. We’re expecting to stay two nights. We get in a couple of short hikes near Lake McDonald before eating a dinner of ramen noodles, the only thing we can afford at the mercenary concessionaire’s general store. It starts raining shortly after we climb in the tent and continues all night long. In the morning I stay in the tent until my bladder is so full I can’t stand it any longer, then make a dash for the bathroom. We have coffee at the restaurant then check the forecast at the Visitor Center: rain for the next three days. The tent leaked in the night so we know that, with no chance to dry it out, we’ll be wet and miserable if we camp a second night. Disappointed but seeing no alternative, we pack up and head south. 

We ride for hours trying to find an affordable motel room. We stop at several, I go in and ask how much while Mark waits on the bike, but they are all too expensive. Riding along Highway 83 we see the words Bed Inn Breakfast in big black letters on a rock in front of a row of trees. We ride down the long curvy driveway and find a collection of several large dwellings, a barn and outbuildings. It’s a cute place, with lots of flowers, a pond, rusted antiques around, birds and ground squirrels running about the place, but no sign of anyone there. Again I get off the bike and while Mark waits, I walk around the place, knock on doors, even go inside one of the buildings where the door is unlocked, calling out “Hello!” several times. I’d like to find someone to ask about staying here as it seems to have character and charm, especially compared to the other run of the mill places we’ve passed, and it’s cold, still raining and getting late. But we can’t wait around for someone to come back, and what if they aren’t currently taking guests? But then why the sign out on the highway? I tell Mark I’m in favor of just going inside and sleeping in one of the rooms and if nobody turns up (if they went away and forgot to lock the door for instance), just leaving $50 with a note when we leave tomorrow, explaining. Mark doesn’t like the idea, claiming it makes him “highly uncomfortable.” Pansy. Begrudgingly I get back on the bike and we ride on.

An hour later we still haven’t found anything. Despite wearing five layers of clothing, I’m wet from the waist down and numb from cold, my teeth beginning to chatter. My gloves are leaking and I’ve recently discovered a slug inside my helmet. The slashing rain has all but made invisible the trees and hills surrounding us. I remind myself of how hot it was riding around India with all my gear on. I try to imagine warmth. I remind myself that I’ve been through far worse than this, both physically and mentally, that this is nothing. Nothing. Yet I can hear my heartbeat over the noise of the road, my jagged breaths steam up my visor, my thoughts plummet and darken. Tell yourself something good. I close my eyes. And I think of those bears.

Narcissism is not a flower.

Posted in Prose on May 29, 2019 by 1writegirl

Astoria Oregon 

Our hosts this evening are another Tent Space find, a couple in their 40’s with six motorcycles between them. They have two nine month old Saint Bernards (a fact which boggles my mind) called Abbot and Costello. One of them, Abbot I think, jumps up on me upon being introduced to us. As I struggle not to fall over, his master pulls him off me. 

Brian is easy going, talks and smiles out of one corner of his mouth, and puts us at ease. His wife, though… is something else. I don’t know if I have ever met someone quite so self-absorbed. Shortly after she starts talking, it becomes clear that our presence is nothing more to her than a platform, an opportunity to demonstrate how happy, fulfilled, and exemplary her life is. 

They take us to dinner at a local brewery and insist on paying which is quite generous, considering the bill must come close to $100. But the conversation (aka monologue) between Gretchen and me, as the seating plan would have it, consists primarily of her talking about her two children (the son is soon to be deployed to some military base far away, she is “so proud”; the daughter was Miss Oregon in the Miss America pageant of 2017 – which begs the question do they really still do that shit, and why?) with a bit of her personal (summered in Alaska growing up on fishing boats, how hard she worked to get her CPA and how good she is at her job) and family history (grandfather founded some foundation or other in India, dad invented some specialized boat rudder) thrown in. She whips out her phone to make it a photo essay, not once asking “Would you like to see photos?” or pausing for breath. When she tells me that she’s having a hard time dealing with her son’s imminent departure for wherever, she says, “He’ll be gone all told for close to a year and a half, and I might not get to see him at all during that time,” her eyes widening as if to say Can you imagine? Suddenly I can’t breathe and I look away. My insides feel like they’re being prodded with a hot poker. Oblivious to my discomfort, she plows ahead, a steam roller with a job to do. My attempts to change the subject are futile; as quickly as I try to steer the conversation in the direction of mutual places visited or travel planned, she just as quickly steers it back to her family, her accomplishments, their accomplishments, and so on. I feel like I’ve fallen into a computer and landed on some especially enthusiastic and competitive person’s Facebook page.

I look over at Mark, hoping he’s paying attention, hoping he’ll catch my eye, hoping he’ll give me a look that says, I know this must hurt, I wish this weren’t happening. But Mark is in his element with Brian discussing Brian’s most recent trip to the Philippines. So I sit there waiting for the moment when my hostess will grow weary of listening to her own voice, or failing that, when social conditioning will kick in and unconsciously direct her to say something along the lines of, How about you? I’m prepared with my vague, rehearsed response to questions about jobs and family, and my convenient one-liner should she ask “Do you have children?” (There’s no way I can tell her the truth, not now after she has spent the last half hour boasting about her children, as to do so would ruin the rest of our stay for everyone.) Normally, half the battle is won for me in these situations once I have crossed those hurdles and the tension that has kept me emotionally in mid-salute begins to drain away.

But in this case it never happens. Not once does she ask me one single question about myself – my life, my experiences, my ideas, my thoughts, my opinions. The closest she comes is to ask Mark and I as a couple, “So where to from here?” and “How long will your ride last?” Since there are few topics of conversation I find to be neutral ground, and dread the inevitable personal questions, perhaps I should be grateful to be treated as an adoring, if somewhat sedated, fan, my interest in her every word taken for granted. But I cannot. Having to listen to her carry on, the inability to find even one moment in which she might be receptive to something I might say, in which I might consider telling her something meaningful about anything – my life, a thought or a memory, even an observation – just saying anything really – make that impossible.

For a few minutes after the food arrives Gretchen eats hungrily and stops talking. My reprieve is short lived. Soon she’s at it again, this time including Mark in her audience. We both listen in silence. When she starts talking about her grandfather’s charitable work in India, she announces that his emphasis is on the lowest caste and informs us, “They are so far down the totem pole they have no hope of a decent life.” I think, really? Not ten minutes ago Mark told you we’d recently returned from five months in India, and you’re going to mansplain to me what it’s like there? Rebecca Solnit, give me strength. 

I look over at Mark who is sitting there glassy-eyed, his lips frozen in a half smile, and realize he too is in his own private hell: finding himself present in a small group of people with so many things to say, and being denied the opportunity to get a word in edgewise. I feel lonelier tonight than I have in months, listening to this woman yammer on ad infinitum about her children, not once considering the possibility first, that others don’t want to hear it, and second, that conversation is meant to be shared; Mark sitting less than a foot away from me but a thousand miles away in his mind, in a crowded restaurant full of laughter and camaraderie. 

The next morning they make us breakfast (German pancakes with fresh berries and the real, expensive syrup), as if they haven’t done enough already, what with feeding us last night and letting us sleep in the spare bedroom. I’m a bad person, I know this, because I am counting the seconds until we can leave. Gretchen tells us the detailed story of the acquisition of their dogs: “I wanted the biggest ones we could get” and “I wanted the colors to be brown and white with a black streak across the left hind leg turning into grey across the stomach before becoming brown again leading up toward the right shoulder blade” (or some such nonsense), complete with their individual health histories and price tags. I remind myself you can’t accept the hospitality of a stranger then criticize their ideas, certainly not their values. You’ve got to seem to agree with them, or just remain silent. I remain silent. When she leans across the table and wiggles her fingers to display her nails, coated in a thick sparkly paint, then says she funded a vacation to Florida last year by attending a conference to do with this product (“I wrote off the airfare, even got the resort stay at half price, it’s all a business expense!”), I think it can’t get any worse. A few minutes later she proves me wrong, jumping up to lead Mark (I find myself thoroughly engaged at that precise moment in making sure I capture a clear photo with my phone of the recipe for the pancakes, which surprisingly takes at least five minutes) into the living room to see one of multiple life-size photos of her daughter ‘Miss Oregon’ plastered across the wall. 

After I manage to slip off to the bedroom for a few minutes’ peace, Mark wanders in and tells me they invited us to stay another day because of the rain. I say, “I’d rather not” so quickly and with such force that he looks taken aback. For a long moment he’s uncharacteristically at a loss for words. I think, If I have to spend even five more minutes listening to this woman tell us how brilliant her father is, if I have to look at one more photo of her children, if I have to hear yet again how brave and strong and smart and special they are, I think I’ll dive down onto the floor directly into the mouth of the closest dog at hand and force myself inside his massive jaws. Suicide by Saint Bernard.

As we load up the bike I start to wonder if she is not so very different from other people, from me even. Haven’t I been pre-occupied with my own problems, my own self, for almost five years now? I have. But even as I know this, I also know there is a difference between having little to no energy for others because you have been so traumatized your best recourse is retreat – from interaction, from discourse, from the world at large into your own private shell – and having little to no energy for others because you see them, on the whole, as unworthy. She hugs me goodbye and I stand there mystified, wondering if someone were to ask her to tell them something about me, what she would say. Could she name one single thing she had learned about me, outside of my physical description, if even that registered? 

An hour down the road, it is raining and windy. I’m wet and cold, and for a second I wonder if I made the right decision in telling Mark I wanted to move on. Would it be better to be there than here? Would I trade physical comfort for my mental health, that warm, dry house listening to Gretchen’s seemingly endless drivel about all things Gretchen, over riding 60 miles an hour through an unseasonable spring squall? Nah.

I am determined to see this as a learning experience. After all, I know more about scoliosis now than anybody outside of the medical profession has a right to know.

Homecoming

Posted in Prose on May 27, 2019 by 1writegirl

Portland Oregon 

It feels like a homecoming today when I walk into my aunt’s house. I haven’t seen her since shortly after Jackson died. She folds me into her arms, makes me a cup of coffee, then sits me down in her living room and tells me about her life as of late. Then she clasps her hands together and says, “So tell me about your life.”

I do, telling her little more than she probably already knows from emails between us. I talk about my varying degrees of depression. I tell her I feel a decreased interest in pleasing others, a decreased inclination to avoid hurting someone else’s feelings at the expense of my own. I confess to my need for limited social interactions and to feeling like happiness, sustained at any rate, is not only unrealistic but overrated. 

“I don’t expect to be happy,” I tell her. “I don’t know if I even want it anymore.”

“What is it you want?” she asks.

I think about it for a minute and say, “Quiet, I guess. Quiet inside and out.”

My cousin David, her son, arrives, then Mark, and we all eat a light lunch Alice has prepared. Then we get on the bike and ride across the bridge to a night with another TS couple.

Gary and Mel have a few acres close to the Washougal River. They put us in a tiny house for the night, which gives Mark all kinds of ideas. They have two little Malti-pom (Maltese/Pomeranian cross) dogs, ten year old females from the same litter. Called Sheila and Shelby, they don’t bark once, in spite of clearly being wound up at our arrival. They are adorable, just about the cutest little dogs I’ve ever seen.

In answer to their question, I tell them the lie about meeting Mark 20 years ago and the two of us traveling back and forth in our “long distance relationship”, setting the stage for the second, bigger lie-that-isn’t-technically-a-lie to come: No, we don’t have any children. Then, while Gary is reheating leftovers for us all to share, Melody takes me into the bedroom to show me the dog’s sleeping set-up. I see a picture of a young girl, then her as a grown woman on the nightstand. Before I can ask who she is, and truthfully I wouldn’t have, Melody tells me it was her daughter, and that she died of breast cancer in 2015. For a millisecond I think about just saying I’m sorry, and leaving it at that, but of course I can’t and wouldn’t even want to. I whisper my bit, and we hug each other hard. Her husband calls us into the kitchen for dinner. She doesn’t tell Gary, and I don’t tell Mark.

The next day we go to stay with my former roommate from my year as an AmeriCorps volunteer in Grand Junction, Colorado. Jackson was 4-5 years old that year, and Nicki and I lost touch shortly after our service was over and we went our separate ways. Jackson never forgot her though, and neither did I, but after so many years, I hadn’t expected to hear from her again. Then in March I found a letter waiting for me when I returned from India. It was from Nicki, saying she had just learned of Jackson’s death. She told me how devastated she was to hear it, and then she did something that nobody else has done. She filled four pages with her memories of him. Remember when he did this? Remember the time he said that? I found myself laughing and crying simultaneously. 

She finished by telling me to let her know if I was ever passing through. Now we are, and I have, and when she opens the door to her apartment I feel, for the second time in as many days, a homecoming of sorts. Nicki is one of the few people who knew Jackson and I as a family, and are still in my life. She feels like a lost link, and I am overcome with a wave of relief to see her standing there. When I hug her I begin to cry, and over the course of the next two days, I will both cry and laugh again and again as I remember what she gave Jackson, how she improved his life, and how much I hope to keep her in mine.