Archive for November, 2009
As a blogger, sometimes I struggle over how much to say about thoughts or events. It’s not that I’m particularly shy about sharing what I’m thinking, but more that I wonder if some people will find this stuff too hard to handle. Perhaps it will seem too painful to some readers. I wonder if perhaps I should preface a post with a warning. I suppose this piece could be labeled with the “Beware! This content not intended for those who would rather avoid hard stuff!” tag. If you’re inclined to heed that warning and wander off, don’t fret as I’ll soon be putting up another post about one of the many wonderful places we’ve been during this trip. Anyhow, read on if you dare.
There’s much more that I wish to write about this trip – and I will. Although we’ve arrived at our winter haven in Bisbee, I intend to continue writing a fairly chronological account of our wanderings. Hopefully, those will be interspersed with life as it happens to us while here in the desert. However, before writing anything more, there are a few things that I’d like to say about traveling, and what I’m feeling these days.
Yesterday was my birthday – but I’ll admit to having felt rather glum for most of the day. Two years ago, I spent my birthday, sitting on a fold-out cot in the corner of Don’s room in the cancer evaluation wing of a large, modern hospital. He (and I) had been there for most of a week while various scans and other tests were completed after he’d been admitted with a serious infection secondary to as yet undiagnosed cancer. On my birthday, a succession of doctors came and went throughout the day, dropping one bombshell after another concerning the extent of the cancer. The radiology specialist showed up with bone scans and told us, almost verbatim, that instead of telling us which bones had cancer, it would be easier to tell us which didn’t (legs and arms below the hips and shoulders, and skull). Everything else was riddled with cancer. The medical oncologist who would be setting up the chemo said that she could only offer “months, not years.” The good news was that, unlike most people with advanced NSCLC, no tumors had appeared on the scan of his brain, and what had previously seemed to be something on the liver and spleen might not be anything.
After the last of the doctors had been and gone, we laughed darkly at how we could be rejoicing over them not finding evidence cancer in the brain, liver and spleen. Yippee! Hurray! Several days on a very powerful course of IV antibiotics had left Don feeling sufficiently well that he suggested we order take-out chinese food to celebrate my birthday (a tradition we’d had for years), and that I should go down to the hospital gift shop and pick out a card. I did so, and returned to the room. He wrote me a love letter inside – it’s now among my most treasured possessions. We picked at the chinese food – neither of us having much appetite after such a bad day of news. We always made a point of ordering fortune cookies, just because the fortunes were so lame that they were good for a hoot. When I broke open my cookie and unraveled the paper, it said, “Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.” I remember feeling shock and anger wash over me. When Don asked what mine said, instead of swapping fortunes to laugh over, I deftly shoved the nasty scrap of paper into my pocket and came up with some typically lame line such as, “You will impress all with your charm.” I suspect Don knew that I was making up my fortune, but he didn’t press me for a reason. After dinner, we sat on his bed, musing over how quickly life can turn from pretty good to mush, and how this cancer thing had come out of left field. Of course, it was that way when my dad was diagnosed too, and with several of our dogs. It’s probably no great wonder that I have such an incredible hatred for cancer.
Anyhow, that was yesterday. My birthday has become little more than a reminder – a footnote to some evil story that’s probably best forgotten. It’s now another day and I carry on as that seems to be what you do in these situations. But, I thought some of you might be wondering how it feels to “come in from the cold” after almost three months spent on the road in a van with two dogs, so I’d like to write a little about that.
On the wandering life, I have mixed thoughts. On the one hand, I was beginning to feel a little weary from the driving and the making and breaking camp – but just a little. On the other hand, I wonder if my restlessness is so great that I’ll find it hard to remain still. While on the road, five days has been just about my limit for any one place. After that, I’m antsy to be on the move again. I’m hoping that I’ll find enough to do this winter, to be able to settle down to do some of the art and writing that I’ve contemplated while on the road.
What about life on the road? How do I feel about that way of life after almost three months? I’d be lying if I told you it was easy. It isn’t. Traveling in a van with two dogs takes a load of tolerance on everyone’s part. Living this way has very little in common with traveling in a large motorhome. Personal space was at a minimum, particularly during the three weeks when a good friend joined us while we tripped around together in California. However, I think we did okay. At times, Sabrina, Sage, or I, would be growling or snarling – either their canine or my hominid version of “Hey! That’s my spot!” or “Dammit, you’re lying on top of my legs!” But all in all, we managed not too badly – perhaps even gracefully to anyone watching from the sidelines.
But there was a week spent on the Oregon coast when it rained and rained and rained while we tried to keep dry and wait it out in the van. It was horrible. One morning I’d finally had enough, so I packed us up and headed straight for the desert. Then there were the windstorms – the last of which happened just days ago at Red Rock Canyon State Park on the edge of the Mojave. A blow came up so suddenly that the campstove was, quite literally, torn apart and sent flying in a couple of directions. I never did find all of the pieces, so now the lid hinges have been replaced with twisted bits of wire from the roll I keep in my tool box.
How do I feel after all of this traveling? There isn’t one answer. During the times when I’ve been in places alone or almost as alone as you can get, I’ve felt relaxed and at peace. At other times, I’ve felt very stressed – usually when I’ve camped in places where there are other people around. After living on my farm for over thirty years, I’m accustomed to having a lot of unoccupied space around me (unoccupied by humans, that is). In a campground, there’s little sense of personal space. People wander around doing all kinds of odd things. Sometimes weird stuff happpens. A couple of weeks ago, I found myself in a super place with wonderful geology, but on one night, a group of wannabe musicians and a photographer showed up at one in the morning and proceeded to shoot photos using a strobe flash to light up the towering cliffs. This went on until 5 a.m. A couple of days later, a group of ORV enthusiasts camped a bit down from me and sat around half the night, lighting up the whole end of the canyon with propane torchieres. When the coyotes in the canyon began to call after sunset, these turkeys shone floodlights on them and hooted and imitated coyote calls. Predictably, that put an abrupt end to the coyote serenade. For giggles, they rode their ATVs back and forth over the 150 feet between their campsite and a vault toilet, stirring up dust that blew into everyone else’s campsites. After a couple of nights, all the beautiful geology, and fascinating flora and fauna in the world couldn’t keep me there another minute, so I packed up and left. I guess that’s one of the good things to be said about living out of a van – if you don’t like the neighbours, you can pack up and be gone within minutes – and I’ve done just that a couple of times during this trip.
Was it fun? That’s another one of those difficult questions. Since Don’s death, I’ve had a pretty hard time having fun in the usual sense of the word. The friend who traveled with me for three weeks knows me very well and says I’ve changed a lot – that it’s actually painful to see what the past couple of years have done to me. I knew that already, so it wasn’t really news, but interesting to hear someone say they’d noticed. That said, the traveling seems to have been good for me. I’m still dealing with a lot of anger over Don’s illness and death. Not anger over being left alone, or of having to deal with life on my own now. I think I’ve pretty much come to terms with all of that and am managing well – perhaps better than most people would in my position. No, this is something different. I still harbor a very intense and raw anger over the cruelty of cancer and what it did to to my best friend – a gentle person of uncommon kindness. And then there’s the more subtle after effects of the ordeal. Just the sound of a certain kind of cough, a fleeting glimpse of Boost in a grocery store aisle, an empty courtesy wheelchair in a store, any air suction noise that mimics that of a ventilator, buzzers that sound like warning alarms on life support monitors, cancer-emaciated movie stars on magazine covers, or the taste of fresh strawberries like I used to make high-protein smoothies for Don each morning…. All of these and more are now triggers to set spinning the stone that grinds yet another raw edge on nerves that have endured too much..
Traveling seems to have provided the best option for healing. If I’d stayed at the farm, I’d have been pacing my cage in a place where I felt little or no connection. Here on the road, there are so many new and unpredictable experiences each day, that it’s practically impossible to sustain any emotion, especially anger, for more than a few moments at a time. Driving the van requires at least some level of dumb concentration. In fact, to me, it seems almost a form of meditation. Exploring new areas brings constant change – maybe not a “fun” kind of change, but the kind where I can feel wonder at the geology of a place, or at the tremendous mass of a sequoia, or the raw power of waves crashing against sea stacks. Cactus wrens perching on the van’s roof racks to study me while I cook breakfast, or ravens flying over my campsite as they utter musical cronkings amid a whoosh of wingbeats, put small cracks in the hardness of my veneer. These moments don’t quite register as “happy”, but they’re pleasing at some deeper level where they manage to sop up some of the anger and make it easier for me to feel less troubled for awhile.
Over the space of three months, it feels like there’s been some change in how I feel. And when I compare myself to last year, doing much the same route, I realize that I’m in a very different place now. Last year, everything was an incredible struggle and left little mental space for observation. I was still dealing with a horrific amount of mental pain and physical exhaustion, while also attempting to do things I’d never tried before – like driving across Canada and down through the U.S. alone with Sabrina, who wasn’t doing too well either at the time. I wasn’t accustomed to driving on busy freeways, and yet here I am a year later, feeling “at home” rolling along in the midst of a pack of speeding trucks and commuters on 99 in the Central Valley, or on I-5 just north of L.A. In that respect, I’m light years from where I was a year ago. It’s true that I’ve become increasingly strong, confident and capable — but it’s just as true that the anger remains – and that’s the hard one. It burns as hotly as ever deep inside of me, like an unseen sun, whirling as it prepares to go supernova. What to do about that? It may be that the only thing that will make that feeling ebb is to give it time to burn down into glowing coals. Ten years later and the embers of a similar anger over my father’s death from cancer still occasionally crackle in some dark corner of my mind – a place reserved for the kind of pain and anger that never entirely vanishes. But for now, I just carry on and hope that some day I will be in a different place than where I am now. The traveling seems to play some part in all of this – helping to keep me going while everything gradually sorts itself out.
And so, I’ve returned to Bisbee. It has felt like a homecoming of sorts. I chose to camp at a few favourite spots in the nearby mountains on the final nights before I settled down for the winter. As I approached, familiar ranges loomed up to welcome me — the Whetstones, Mustangs, Dragoons, Huachucas, and finally the Mules. For now, it seems that I’m home.
This autumn, when I set out for the west, my intention was to explore more of British Columbia before crossing into Washington. Last year, I spent just one night in the province, traveling up through Crowsnest Pass, then staying at a motel in Cranbrook, before crossing at Kingsgate. Unfortunately, the weather that had imposed its will on most of my travels, once again played havoc with my plans. Strong winds and cold air blew in from the far north, making it risky to camp at higher elevation. Also, I found the campground situation frustrating. After stopping at a provincial tourism office to pick up a campground guide and being told that most campgrounds would be open until at least October 15th, I discovered this was not the case. Several times, I stopped at campgrounds that, according to the guide, seemed as though they should be open, only to find the gates closed for the season. However, I struck it lucky at Kikomun Creek Provincial Park, located a few kilometers before Cranbrook. The gates were open, so I drove in for a look around. I found clean, spacious campgrounds beneath towering Ponderosa Pines. There was no self registration info by the entrance, so I toured the place looking for a self-pay station. At last, I found some fellow campers – a couple touring on a motorcycle pulling a little trailer with mountain bikes and other gear. They seemed to be the only other campers in this large campground. I stopped to ask where to pay for a site and the woman grinned and shouted, “They’re free!” As I backed into my chosen site, I thought, “Hey, this is looking good!” Unfortunately, it turned out that this was one of those great beginnings that doesn’t get any better, but instead, slowly deteriorates.
The next morning, I continued on my way, stopping in Cranbrook to do a couple of loads of laundry at a coin wash. Believing that finding campgrounds would be a piece of cake, I journeyed onwards, planning to camp near Nelson. I took my time, stopping in Creston to tour the town a bit while stocking up on groceries. It’s a neat little town with many orchards and fruit and vegetable stands. It it were not for my plan to cross into the U.S. in a few days, I could have loaded up the van with produce.
By the time I reached Nelson, it was late afternoon. I drove to the park, only to find the gates locked. As the sun began to drop lower in the sky, I got that familiar sinking feeling – the one where you start wondering where the hell you’re going to spend the night and whether you should start actively looking for a motel room. I’ve noticed that my dogs seem to know what’s going on. When I look at them in the rear view mirror, they’re usually staring back at me, ears curled downwards into the “Oh no” position. I’m mystified at how they know when things aren’t going so well. That evening, my resolve must have been at a low point because, after about thirty seconds consideration, I decided that I was too tired to spend any more time searching for somewhere to pull off the road and camp. I called the reservation number for a chain of motels that are usually pet friendly. They located a room in Castlegar, so I drove onwards under darkening skies. On the positive side, I got to have a hot bath, wash my hair, and watch, “Darwin’s Darkest Hour”. And, no, Mr. Darwin, the darkest hour is when you’re driving along in pitch blackness on an unfamiliar highway through the mountains. On the negative side, the motel bill with extra “pet fees” cost $150 for the night. As per usual, there was no real place to walk the dogs before bedtime – just a steep, weedy, littered embankment. Further, there was a large commercial weed-spraying truck parked in the lot that, due to appearance and/or odor, scared Sage so badly that it was all I could do to get her to walk past. She’s a smart one.
The next day, I vowed to search for a campground before noon. On I drove, finding more campgrounds gated shut for the season. The guidebook listed one in Osoyoos, so I drove onwards with the hope that it would be open as the temperature would be a bit warmer there and surely they wouldn’t have closed already.
I stopped at a turnout overlooking Osoyoos (see above photo – click on it for a larger view). Below lay a deep valley with a large lake dividing a town joined by what must be a causeway. The hillsides were cloaked with vineyards and orchards. From above, it looks rather like a promised land. As I was standing at the look-off, a woman pulled up beside my van in her SUV. She stepped out, clutching a brass container that resembled a cinerary urn. Looking rather solemn, she walked to the retaining wall. I watched to see if she was going to release someone’s ashes. She undid the lid and then flung her cold coffee over the wall and up into the wind. It seems that things are not always as they appear to be.
After snapping a few photos of the valley, I descended to search for the campground which turned out to be locted on a “point” extending into the lake on the south side of town. From its appearance, the causeway seems manmade with about thirty campsites clustered at one end. When I arrived, all of the spaces on the south waterfront were taken, while the north waterfront was entirely empty of campers. I soon discovered the reason – a frigid wind blowing straight out of the north. Being more savvy than earlier on in this trip, I didn’t allow myself to be tempted by the waterfront real estate, but instead chose one of the interior sites that ran between the two frontages. It was a smart move as the winds that had chased us across Canada seemed to find us once again.
I tethered the dogs to the picnic table while setting up camp. A short time later, I noticed that Sabrina was missing – her collar had slipped off and was lying on the ground still clipped to her leash. She is terrified of wind, so I quickly intuited that she must have followed a pathway leading through some brush to the south side of the causeway. Sure enough, that’s where I found her, standing in someone else’s campsite, grinning and wagging her tail as she studied a man who bore more than a passing resemblance to Don. I walked up and apologized for her invasion and herded her home. I’ve since noticed how often she studies men who are of Don’s general appearance and will attempt to approach them. I’m sure she holds onto the hope that she will find him somewhere someday. How I wish that were the case.
We spent three nights at Osoyoos as the campground is almost on the Canada-U.S. border and my plan was to cross that weekend. Other campers came in saying the they had encountered snow not much further north. Even in Osoyoos, it was cool enough at night – the water in the dog bowl froze solid one night, but we were warm enough in the van with all of our blankets and a new, heavier sleeping bag which I’d bought in Medicine Hat. While I was at a local grocery store getting vegetables, olives, and feta for a salad, I noticed two young men whom I recognized from my travels — hitchhikers I’d seen along the roadside a couple of times. I hadn’t picked anyone up on my trip across Canada – partly for safety, but mainly because most of the van’s seats have been removed and it was crammed with dogs and camping gear. On my way along the TransCanada highway, I spotted other familiar hitchhkers – a man who looked remarkably like Pavarotti, carrying an old-fashioned black leather suitcase – two separate pairs of young men who were all wearing the same style of headdress that looked rather like a turban made from a blue and white dish towel, a scrawny teenage boy with a patient-looking old german shepherd. The pair in the store both had reddish brown hair braided into very long dreadlocks. Given the size of Canada, it seems somewhat odd that I would keep seeing the same hitchhikers appearing now and then every few hundred miles, but then, if you stick to the main highway, I suppose it’s bound to happen.
This autumn, crossing the border was uneventful, except that Sage has taken to jumping up against the back of my seat and resting her head atop mine, with her front feet on my shoulders, every time we pull up beside any type of kiosk or drive-thru window. I expect it looks as though I’m wearing a barking coonskin hat. She growled and barked at the customs officer as he tried to ask the standard questions about whether I had any produce or other items to declare. When he got to the one about whether I had anything with me that I intended to leave in the United States, I pointed upwards and said something like, “If this keeps up, I may consider that possibility. The customs guy stifled a laugh as he handed me my passport and waved us on. That was the extent of my visit in B.C. I hope to do better next time.
From Osoyoos, we drove southward through central Washington, along the U.S. section of the Okanogan River and then through the Wenatchee National Forest. On both sides of the border, I saw more apples than one could ever hope to see. The apple harvest was in full swing everywhere, and the orchards were full of pickers. Likewise, the highway was teeming with transport trucks hauling crates of fruit to storage and shipping facilities.
I continued on down to the Columbia River and crossed at Umatilla, then did the westward run up the south side of the Gorge, reaching the eastern limits of Portland right around dark. Last year, I got horribly lost in Portland after dark – to the point that I was just short of crying in frustration. I did much better this time, ripping through with the rest of the pack and heading south down I-5 to that night’s destination near Salem. With the passage of a year, I’ve noticed quite a difference in my ability to pilot us on crowded freeways without the aid of a navigator. That said, I certainly wish I had my co-pilot with me once more.