I’d like to talk a bit about my mom here. My mom who shares the same face, eyes, smile, laugh, burp, sneeze, snort, who undoubtably could easily be mistaken for my sister. I’ve heard it before from family and friends, but it’s much more striking when it comes from complete strangers. My mom is such a good sport. My mom agreed to be my sidekick for my last 10 days of this adventure. Not some half hearted sidekick, but a “lets get lost”, “lets just see where we end up”, “lets stop for a beer”, “lets drink more wine”, “lets scale a mountain…then another one tomorrow”, “sure I’ll sleep in a hut”, “sure I’ll help you build a tent around your bed” kind of companion. For the last two months I have been looting for stranger’s stories, and now, how refreshing to hear stories from someone so close. Stories that I can’t believe I haven’t heard before.
There’s been a few times when I have met someone over lunch at whole foods or in a coffee shop and been emersed in a conversation for 10-30 minutes. Sometimes we just talk about my travels, sometimes my family and friends, or my program at school. Other times its obvious they need to talk, and I listen as they talk about broken relationships, mistakes, family deaths and unsure futures. When the conversation naturally closes and its time to leave, I bid farewell and then I get that look. Its some combination of astonishment and concern. I think people are caught off guard by the deepness of our brief conversations, and they don’t know what to do when faced with a goodbye. Some people give me their number without even knowing my name, others have asked to take a picture because we might never meet again (I politely decline). I know what its like because I’ve been there too. A few times I have sat down and been offered sage advice and nuggets of wisdom, and I too have a hard time saying goodbye. I’ve come o the conclusion that everyone is interesting and everyone has a story to tell. I’ve also decided that, as a whole, we don’t listen to each other or tell our stories often enough, because when we do get a chance to speak or listen, we are left with the feeling that we might not get that chance ever again.
Recently someone explained this well to me, and coined it “catch and release”. Like I said, everyone is interesting and everyone has a story to tell. The caveat is that you can’t hold on to everyone. Catch someone, make a brief encounter rich and meaningful, and then release. Hold on to a few, hold them tight, but don’t try to hold on to everyone because you will burn yourself out. Having said that, just because you don’t intend on holding on to someone, doesn’t mean that you don’t go fishing. Be liberal with your stories and keep an open ear.
I filled my car to the brim when I left on this trip. I’ve used almost everything, and many of these things have allowed me to travel very cheaply (tent, cooler, camp stove, box of food) and also experience things in a very rich way (surfboard, hiking boots, backpacking gear, tripod). Some things are for comfort (car phone charger, pillow, loose leaf tea, many, many books, stamp making tools), others are for safety (first aid kit). Some things I thought I would never use when I was travelling down the coast (down sleeping bag, fleece jacket), some things I was very happy to have in the mountains (down sleeping bag, fleece jacket). Some things I wish dearly that I had brought (longboard, climbing gear). But when it comes down to it I have four absolute favourites.
One: A dress. One, with patterns or something that hides how many times you may have actually worn it. One that is made of something light and airy like cotton, that stays cool and dries fast, essential for when you get caught in rain or have to throw it over your swimsuit after jumping in the ocean. I know, it sounds silly. But I have three of them and I love them dearly. A dress will help you make it through the summer heat in the city, it will make you blend in with all the city folk, it will allow you to dash from the beach back to your car without googley eyes following you, it will get you invited to dinners, it will allow you to sneak into fancy hot springs and hotels and use their reading room for the evening, it will allow you to rub elbows with harvard scholars. It’s simple, when you’re wearing a dress no one expects that you sleep in a tent and live out of your car, and even if they do discover this, you all of a sudden become more interesting.
Two: Cracker bread. I’m talking old school rye crackers. The kind my dear friend calls hamster cakes because they are quite cardboard like and remind her of critter food. There are two brands, Wasa and Ryvita. Ryvita is undoubtably superior, but much more elusive, so the sourdough variety of Wasa is growing on me. I’ve been hooked on cracker bread for a long time, but have become even more devout on this trip. You see, I’m a bit of a bread snob. I like my bread fresh and unsliced, and I like it whole grain. Turns out its quite difficult to find good hearty bread here in the states, especially when you’re on the move. The one time I discovered such bread I also discovered that I couldn’t eat a whole loaf by myself before it went mouldy in this swampy heat. So I turned to cracker bread. Practical because it lasts forever, can be packed in on a backpacking trip, and is a mere $2.50 a pack. What I soon discovered was that cracker bread can be eaten at breakfast, lunch, dinner, and dessert, and that it can make you feel quite classy. No longer are you eating peanut butter and banana sandwiches, now you are eating an open faced nut butter cracker topped with sliced bananas. Gone are the days of salami and cheese buns, now you’re dining on an open faced rye crisp with aged cheddar and dry wine salami. Then came hummus. Hummus and peppers, hummus and cucumbers. Then I really started rummaging through my dry food box and discovered tuna and pesto as a topping. Then I discovered goat cheese as a topping. Goat cheese and pear, goat cheese and dried apricots, goat cheese and cranberries, goat cheese and tomatoes, goat cheese and greens. Sautéed wild mushrooms, carmelized onions, fire grilled eggplant, zucchini and peppers, grilled peaches, baked apples and plums.Then there’s crackers as a soup topping. Really the possibilities are endless. These days, one or two of my meals are cracker bread based, and I eat two to three crackers per meal. By the end of this trip I estimate I will have consumed 10 packs of cracker bread. I smell sponsorship.
Three: Postcards. When you’re travelling alone there are many times that you just have to buck up and go to a place by yourself because either you go in with your head high, or you completely miss out on seeing or experiencing something that you probably really want to do. Some examples are sitting down for a craft beer at a local brewery, dining out for some real southern food, or going to see some live bluegrass music at a pub. I’ve discovered a way to make this less awkward. Postcards. Hanging your head over a few postcards while you do these things gives you something to do so you don’t have to awkwardly sit by yourself. It doesn’t say “I’m busy” or “leave me alone” like reading a book, writing in a journal, or listening to music might. It says “I’m a traveller”, “I’m not from around here”, “I’m sitting by myself because I just got in to town”. It says “I have stories to tell”, ” I have friends and family back home” and “I am on an adventure”. People are naturally curious, and often these postcards draw people in. Sometimes it means that the chef will come dine with you and let you sample pretty much anything on the menu, sometimes you will get a spare room offered to you, sometimes you just write a postcard and enjoy good music and alone time. Regardless, the end result has never failed to be of value.
Four: A case of good beer. I think this is what the boy scouts were thinking about when they came up with the motto “Be prepared”. No, this case of beer is not for lonely nights by myself in the woods. Quite the opposite in fact, it’s for those impromptu campfire, party, or dinner invitations. It’s nice to have something to share when someone gifts you an invite. Local is best, and an IPA always impresses.
It seems that everyone has a different tolerance for cities. For some reason my tolerance has all but disappeared. One day. Thats about all I can do in a city these days. Even great cities. Too much cement and not enough breathing space. I think thats what it comes down to. I run from park to park like I’m being pursued, seeking refuge deep in the forests. When I’m in the city I tend to find the quiet spots and hunker down. I can smell green space from a mile away. Or 12 miles away. Even on a main highway between Washington D.C and Baltimore. Amidst freeways, suburbs, and the hustle and bustle that comes with 2 metropolises in such close proximity, there is a tiny respite called Greenbelt national park. A small pocket of heaven with a campground, hiking trails, deer, picnic tables, BBQ’s, and a huge green lawn to spread out on. I have a day to kill before visiting friends in Baltimore and this is where I will spend it. I will read, I will write, I will hike and stretch and craft and draw. I will drink strong cowboy coffee and grill vegetables over the fire. I will avoid the city like the plague because it burnt me out yesterday. I loved DC, I really did, and I look forwards to Baltimore, but I just can’t do them back to back without a bit of respite. It seems I’ve become a bit wild in my travels. After so many days sleeping outside, bathing in the ocean and rivers, and making tea on my tiny camp stove, I simply ache to be outside. Outside, where I can hear crickets and cicadas in the trees and where I can spot familiar plants. I’m a bit frightened to go back home to be honest, back to a world where these pockets are only within reach on weekends.
Start a conversation. Ask someone to watch your stuff when you go to the bathroom. Ask to borrow a can opener or matches. Ask directions. Ask opinions. Opening up a conversation opens up doors, opportunities, and invites. Sometimes those invites are for coffee or a beer. Other times they are for dinner and wine with close friends deep in the woods, in a barn that has been converted into a home. A home that has no need for an address, escapes city water, and instead makes good use of the creek out back. Sometimes dinner leads to an impromptu jam session in an underground recording studio in a converted water tank. Sometimes jam sessions lead to overnight camping and climbing trips where you sleep under the stars, jump into rivers, roast homegrown tomatillos on an open fire and drink wiskey straight out of the bottle. Sometimes these trips lead to lifelong open invitations to visit whenever an escape is needed. So start conversations, because people live interesting lives and many are open to sharing.
Sometimes I end up in surprising spaces. Often its because I don’t really do my research, but never have I been let down. I saw a poster for a festival nearby, and I suppose I was attracted to it because it had the words “wild goose” in it, and I must have been weak with a bout of homesickness. It had some keywords that resonated deeply with me and pulled me in with golden sentences like this: “We invite you to join us. We welcome you to talk, listen, eat and camp together with us as equals, captivated and challenged by the call of radical humanity, and who seek to celebrate diversity and promote the common good”. So without looking into it much more I signed up to volunteer so I could get in for a price that fit my budget. What followed was 4 days of exploring a community that I had no idea existed. This is a community of people deeply rooted in their faith but deeply committed to doing right in the world. The crowd was predominantly christian, but with a scattering of athiests, agnostics, buddists, muslims, and a whole host of other backgrounds I’m sure. This was a world of hippies and hipsters, rainbow flags and full sleeve tattoos. It was a world of people that had beers n’ hymns, moonshine mass, permaculture gardens in the church, and talks on building community and ending racism. A breed that prayed through art and meditation, invited conversation, and had dance parties in the forest. Not once was I handed a bible. Not once was I preached at. Not once did anyone try to sway my beliefs. This was a place where diversity was truly celebrated, and peace was on everyones mind. It was a fascinating scene to witness. Such a stark difference to what I once thought religion was about.
Listen to strangers. Listen to strangers that tell you to go to interesting things. Listen to strangers even when they send you to small places that you have never heard of like Swannanoa, which isn’t really even a city, just an area. Why should you listen to strangers? Because they will send you to shows like this. Nestled in the mountains of North Carolina, just outside of Asheville is a wonderous place called Warren Willson College, where students go to become great people, learning to take care of the earth, the people of this world and themselves. In the summer, the college offers one week music camps. I happened upon banjo-mando-fiddle week. In the heart of bluegrass country I was presented a show from the best of the best who were visiting from all over the country to teach eager students keen to be clawhammer masters themselves. In a dark theater, for the first time in my life music brought me to tears. I somewhat sheepishly tried to flick away the small drips that dotted my cheeks and caught sight of my neighbour doing the same. We smiled at each other, laughed openly, then cried openly through the next three songs. Following the concert I slipped out a side door hoping to explore the campus a bit more and was surprised to stumble upon a pathway dotted with christmas lights and alive with pockets of music echoing in the dark. Small circles formed under pavilions, in entrances, under tents, in the middle of pathways, and in dark nooks just out of lights reach. Students, teachers and strangers all played familiar bluegrass and swing tunes deep into the night. I left early, not because my ears were tired, but because I was invited back to a barn to continue the jam. Yes, thats right, an honest barn jam. I laid tummy down on straw bales and looked over on the boys as they plucked and plunked away on their instruments, exploring the different ways they could sound together. I closed my eyes. I heard bare feet tapping on the straw covered floor. I heard crickets and frogs competing for airtime in the open air barn. I heard music become magic and decided that for people in these parts, music is something that was gifted to them at a very young age. When complete exhaustion set in, we pulled out our sleeping bags and climbed a ladder to the loft and slipped first into mosquito nets then into a deep sleep that can only be obtained when you sleep in an open air barn deep in the forest of the Appalachians.