To the water hole

Today I walked to the spring with my cat. The thing about going for a walk with a cat is, you’re really only going to get to go where the cat wants to go, unless you’re okay with losing your cat. So although there is a beaten path between the caravan and the well, I ended up bushwhacking, getting slapped in the face by branches and slipping in the mud while my cat slunk through the underbrush, making his own path, awed as he is to be in “the wild.”

It’s usually only a five minute journey, but after about twenty, we were still spiralling our way there, me a few yards ahead, pausing every few seconds to make sure he was still coming along, waiting as he sat down to clean his normally white paws each time he stepped in a puddle.

As I filled four jugs of water, he laid down on a patch of moss and I guess he liked it there, because he was not prepared to move, no matter what tactics I tried to lure him back in the direction of the caravan when I had finished filling. Cats.

It’s slow living, being in the woods. This morning I bumped into Francis on my walk. He needed a hand cleaning one of the sap tanks, now that sugar season is done. So I found myself inside a big metal vat, scrubbing and rinsing with creek water, which he handed down through the hatch in a bucket. Why not?

I continued on my way, following the rapraprap of a woodpecker, but was sidetracked by a small pond. Frogs dove for cover as I approached, and from the edge I could see hundreds of eggs, clinging to sticks, the edge of the pool, or just floating in gooey clumps. I’ll have to remember to go back tomorrow.

Found some feathers, saw a deer, spotted the woodpecker, sat in a field, wandered back, drank some flat beer. And it’s not over yet.

Strange times.

It’s been a week since I moved to a hundred acre maple forest in rural Quebec. First it was was chop wood, stay warm. Boil tea, stay warm. Bury myself in blankets, stay warm. Try to embrace the cold while my bare ass hits the seat of the outhouse first thing in the morning, then light the stove to stay warm. But the rhythm has changed, since the sun came out. I now have an outdoor kitchen, with a two burner cookstove, a jug of water, and two basins for washing dishes. I have a solar shower hanging from a tree, behind an old white curtain, the result of which is finally clean hair. I slung my hammock between some birch trees, and can read in the sun while my cat snuffles around, following deer trails here and there only to zoom back at top speed at the slightest sound of anything.

At night, sometimes we sit by the fire up at the camp drinking gin and sugar water, boiling the last of the sap under the stars, or sometimes I curl up with a book by the light of my borrowed oil lamp. I can no longer see my cat’s breath when he meows for food in the morning. Coltsfoot are pushing up through the soil, turning their sunny yellow faces towards the April sun. My laundry, washed in a bucket early this morning, flaps in the breeze.

The other day I was sitting on a patch of moss, my cat beside me watching the dust trails in the sun, slanting through the trees in that golden, late-afternoon kind of way, and I had that feeling, that everything is so strange. It’s so strange, to be here on my own, when a month ago I was paying three dollars for laundry in an apartment with gleaming hardwood floors and original light fixtures. So strange that my legs are sore from riding horses in the woods, my shoulders sore from hauling buckets of sap, but that I’m finally sleeping well. I feel optimistic, that someday I’ll find my little place in the world. It’s not here, soon it will be time to move on. But it’s somewhere, near water, and it will have trees and fires and bookshelves and oil lamps, and I’ll see the stars at night, and dig in the dirt in the day…

“… beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.“ – Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.

Hello from far away.

Today I drove just under seven hundred kilometres with my cat in the passenger seat to a trailer in the woods in Quebec.

The further east I drove the more the temperature dipped, and as I pulled into my new corner of the world, everything was covered in a thick wet blanket of white. Good thing I had my snow tires removed last week.

Up the muddy, snowy laneway until a rusty old trailer came into view. We’re here, I said to Murray, who had finally squeezed himself onto my lap, sandwiched between my legs and the steering wheel.

Through the door, with the classic creak and bang of any old trailer door, was a wood stove, a table, a little kitchen area, a bed. With numb fingers I lit a fire, then scrambled back and forth to the car to unpack my now very meagre belongings, as fat snowflakes settled over everything that wasn’t moving.

First order of business, find water from the “beautiful natural well” where my water for cooking, washing and drinking will be hauled from for the next month or so.

Followed the sign for eau in faded blue paint, through the muddy woods to a small wooden shed. Inside was a murky black hole with dead frogs in the bottom. Texted Marie, who rented me my hiding place a few weeks ago.

Just sweep away the cobwebs and dunk your bottle bottom first. It’s perfectly fine!

… maybe boil it first, just to be safe. But I’m sure it’s perfect!

Good. Great. This is what I wanted. The adventure(?) begins.

On the road to Virginia.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.