Caleigh and I have been friends since we were three. Since my mother babysat her and her sisters after school. Since we spent afternoons, into dusk, running around the tall grass and taller trees on Emerald Isle, a small spit of land in Ennismore, Ontario.
When you are three your friends are friends by circumstance. Friends by proximity. We lived a short walk from one another. There was a trodden path from my backyard to hers, one which I would run from start to finish with a towel on my head for fear of getting stung by a bee as I traipsed through the wildflowers.
We went to different schools, and then different universities, and I guess we lost touch. We still wrote each other every few months, or maybe once a year, to say “Hey, how are you?” Sometimes we would get cup of tea when home for the holidays.
We used to swim, catch bugs, bounce on her trampoline. That feels like a long time ago. Now she’s lived in Thailand, and travelled through Cambodia, Vietnam. And I’ve lived in Italy, travelled Europe. This winter, we had a cup of tea. It was the first time we had connected in a while…maybe years. But the most amazing thing about childhood friends of circumstance is that sometimes, much later, you realize you’ve grown up to have much more in common than a path running through back yards. We both love literature. We both love to write. We both love mood oils and and yoga and laughing way too loud in public places.
So over tea, I told Caleigh about a writing retreat I had seen happening in Virginia in June. Can I come? She asked. Well I don’t really want to go alone, I said. And so we hatched a plan.
Actually, we really didn’t plan much at all, beyond signing up for the retreat and paying for it. We didn’t really begin planning until the week before, at which point we organized some camping gear, food, and the morning of departure downloaded a map to the states.
I think we both worried that with so many hours in the car we might run out of things to say. We didn’t. We talked from Ennismore all the way to the border, paused to take out our passports and show them to the unsmiling woman in the wicket, and then resumed whatever story we were in the middle of.
We talked our way through New York state, and into Pennsylvania, where I had booked a campsite at Bald Eagle State Park. It had drizzled on and off throughout most of the drive, but was now clearing up and we were feeling hopeful. It was evening by the time we were following camp signs and realizing that the site I had booked was somewhere called the “rustic loop”, where there were no people, no rangers, and no facilities.
We pulled up to a large map which showed our site and one other, on the other side of the loop, as the only two that had been reserved. We were all but alone in this little pocket of woods. Fire wood could be purchased on the honour system…take a bundle, leave some money in the box.
We set up our tent which once assembled seemed much too small for two, cracked a beer, and started heating up the soup I had pulled from my freezer before leaving. Once on the cookstove and thawing, the soup started to look mysteriously less like soup, until I realized I had grabbed a jar of gravy by mistake. So we ate gravy and bread for dinner.
After our lousy dinner which we laughed off, light was disappearing fast and we felt very optimistic about lighting a fire, though the bundle of fire wood had not come with kindling, and we of course had no hatchet. The forest was wet from the day’s rain, but we had some newspaper. About forty minutes into coaxing a tiny spluttering flame to bite at the large chunks of dampish wood, I paused. What’s that sound? A pitter patter on the leaves. We both went still for a moment, before the sky opened up and the pitter patter became an absolute roar. Rain.
Rushing around to throw everything into the car, we dove into our tiny tent, barely room to sit up side by side. Luckily we had been quick enough to grab the wine before battening down the hatches, so we spent the next hour or two drinking in our humid little dome, before nodding off to sleep. It rained all night long. At about four a.m, a train thundered by on the track we had not noticed cutting through the forest, terrifying us as we tried to discern what the rumble and flashing light could be.
We woke up in the morning soaked and exhausted. Stuffing our wet gear back into its bags, we threw everything in the car and took off. As we crossed into West Virginia, the sky was blue, and when we stopped for lunch, the sun was blazing and we dried our feet at a rest stop where we had a picnic.
The retreat was to be held on a farm in Radiant, VA. When we rolled up, we were sweaty and tired, the sun still high and hot. We picked a spot in the field to sleep, near but not too near the other tents, as we were feeling anti-social (and smelly). We spread out the tent, fly, our sleeping bags and blankets on the grass to dry, and went in search of a shower. A little water and shampoo can go a long way after a damp and sleepless night.
Now feeling like new, clean, dry women, we were ready to begin our weekend of writing and literature. We assembled the tent, and joined the group of aspiring writers in the barn for dinner, complete with corn bread and sweet tea.
The rest of the weekend was spent in workshops, author talks, seminars and bonfires. We walked up the lane to the little free library and loaded up on books. We explored the farm, met people from all over the states (and one other Canadian, too!), and got inspired, sun burnt, and happy the further away from real life we felt.
On the way home, we camped at Kiasutha in Allegheny National forest, and it was the clearest, starriest night I had seen in some time. We drank mugs of wine by a roaring fire we had coaxed to life ourselves, telling stories and talking about the future, watching the stars through the treetops and tracing fireflies in the underbrush.
I’ve been on North American soil for a year now, almost exactly. Sometimes it makes me sad. Sometimes I miss my foreign adventures. But then sometimes, I realize how many adventures I have had the chance to have here: sleeping in yurts in forests, driving to the coast, camping our way to Virginia for the love of literature. And I’m with my people. I’m reconnecting with my family, with old friends. I’m getting caught up by bonfires, swinging on porches and sitting on docks. I’m listening to my brother play the ukelele, swinging in my sister’s hammock, and listening to my grandfather speak endlessly about birds.
I suppose you could say I have no regrets.