Fort Bragg, CA – Coastal Autumn 2015

As per the note in my previous post, I think I’ve begun to delete the first hours of any given travel day from my conscious memory – the subtle trauma of uprooting from all one’s immediate connections, affections, and securities being rendered worthy of hypocampilly fuzzing over, I suppose. Plus traveling involves a certain amount voluntary disorientation, so maybe some of that sticks, even after the fact…

Either way, what I do remember of my trek out of the city (ah! It begins to come back now) is a good deal of traffic – although the weather was pleasant and I enjoyed airing my arms when I could avoid asphyxiating myself with car fumes at the same time – and trying to ignore the spiritually atrophying (to me) aridity of the area surrounding San Fransisco in anticipation of releasing my powers of perception on beneficiaries of a lusher and more tender tendency. This I did poorly, when the time came, as I tried to have a long overdue phone conversation with a Dearest Bestie (the one who’s parents treated us to fish in Coos Bay and to whose rescuing, Fort Braggian aunt and uncle I was growing increasingly nigh again). Alas, for my service provider was inadequate to the task of following me around the tight, narrow, and constant turns through the hilly, sunlit-shadow patchwork of the forest road to my destination and I kept losing service, re-calling, etc, etc. Quite sad, because we had a lot to catch up on and little time to do it in anyways, as she’s a busy woman in D.C. at the moment, but we managed to exchange enough information to satisfy us enough until our next opportunity, and – as you may have ascertained already – it wasn’t the best road to be trying to navigate while on the phone anyways…

The journey thus proportionately lengthened as the curvaceousness of my route hindered the Intrepid‘s pace, I arrived at my destiny at approximately four-o-clock in the afternoon of a pleasant Californian Sunday, which also happened to be September the 1st.

Said destiny at this moment had the face of an old white building within which a vivacious and – as I would soon discover – entrepreneurial later-middle-aged lady proprietor greeted and outside of which stood a sign bedecked “Weller House Inn“. We had a nice conversation (the lady, not the sign, and I) and were mutually pleased at meeting each other and our agreed-upon arrangement. It was decided that I was to help organize and manage her office, which at that point was labor I found myself much more favorably inclined towards than the manual sort, since my college gears were starting to feel neglected already and I had manual-labored by way across multiple states by now.

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I spent a little while chatting with her about logistics and getting acquainted and then set about settling my things in the little back-boudoir (a storage room with a bed, really, as I believe the rest of the house was full) near the kitchen. After said tranquilizing of my equipage, I set out to my next quite necessary mission of – much like Texas – finding short-term work in this small town, in not-yet-tourist-season, on short notice (this time on a Sunday afternoon even) since I would be unable to ever leave if I did not (ruling out hitch-hiking, anyways). I figured, at the very least, any shops open at 6:00pm on Sunday probably had enough business that they might be hiring.

The “downtown” area of Fort Bragg is essentially three blocks long and two blocks deep (and very conveniently one block from what was now my new abode). The town as a whole extends a good deal past that in all directions, but that was the entirety of the main shop area. I figured if I was going to be working off room and board, something close by would be convenient, so I thought to try that area first. They were nice, cute shops too, although I wasn’t really noticing at the time. I just started at one end of those series of blocks and popped in to every shop or restaurant that was open, inquiring after the possibility for work. A few places gave me applications, just since I asked, and I left my phone number with one lady in a posh little restaurant for her manager, since they were actively looking for someone. I decided to keep going an additional block past the main downtown because, well, first of all I just sort of felt like it, but I had also seen a Jewish building and was curious to inquire, as I have many Jewish friends and a Messianic bent to my theology as well.

Since it was later in the evening by now I was a little surprised to find anyone in at that time, but there was a nice little gift shop with seaside-themed items as well as Jewish jewelry and traditional items. When I mentioned I was looking for work the jolly bearded gentleman behind the counter (and the lady in the back he kept calling questions to) tentatively said that they actually did need help editing their website, but had limited means. When I mentioned that much of what I would need over the next month was just groceries, we ended up enthusiastically working out a form of HelpX where I would help edit (although I warned them I was unfamiliar with their software platform, but enjoyed editing and aesthetic work) in exchange for the “board” part of room and board, since my hostess provided breakfasts but only occasional other meals. After leaving with appreciation for the fact that I had made a couple pleasant new acquaintances and at least had my current expenses covered, and while on my way back to the Inn, I got a call from the manager of a the restaurant (in very fact The Restaurant) in which I had left my number. She wanted me to come in soon and asked me when I could. I said I was two blocks away right then and she said she was free! I was so excited! It was now close to 8:00pm.

After showing up and becoming acquainted with the proprietor of that establishment, we found that my coming temporarily might work out very well for them as they were at an interim between employees leaving for college and finding replacements. Of course they preferred longer commitments, but, given the circumstances, so long as I didn’t mind being ousted I had a job.

Woot!

So by the time I got ready to actually use my new bedroom on the first day of my arrival – in fact five hours after pulling in and only three hours after going out to inquire about work, on a Sunday evening, in a small town – I had two jobs! One for current expenses and one to earn money to get up and down the coast a couple (*cough* three) more times and (*hopefully*) home for Christmas! I blame my FOBGA again (my Flock of Balding Guardian Angels – balding because I imagine them with silver hair already and I needed a way to visualize the impact of the stress I put them under) for such successes ^_^. The next morning I had yet another boon, as the Innkeeper had been so pleased at the idea of an office manager that she invited me to stay until January if I so desired! So I had no more worries about trying to find another place to go for October and November unless I wanted to.

I awoke the next morning and jumped straight into orientation on my tasks with all three jobs – Air BnB, Website editing, and bussing at The Restaurant.

The following weeks were a nice flow of feeling rooted again, moreso even than when I was in Montana, because I had a rough plan to get me round until I was home again, whereas in Montana I knew there was a large unknown in front of me. For the first week or two I was the only HelpX helper there, so I was able to get comfortable in my own introverted way. I enjoyed working in the office by day and The Restaurant in the evening, with some web editing work in the middle. I enjoyed chilling in the library (she has great collection!) in my free time for the first couple of weeks.

I also discovered this paper pertaining to a record set by the proprietors father (!):

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Things livened up a bit once more helpers started coming in. First there were two sisters and their boyfriends who were artisans of different kinds (two crafts-people, a chef, and a yoga aficionado) who made for good conversation in the evening and our hostess ended up making us a beautiful dinner once or twice which gave us all a good chance to chat. They brought on a movie night of The Never-Ending Story, and other such oldies, as well as an extended jig-saw puzzle attempt, which was quite fun, as I didn’t grow up with that as an activity. Then a philosophical photographer/scriptwriting joined us. She and I ended up checking out the local fitness center I had been interested in and going sight-seeing and window-shopping in Mendocino, which is just a bit south of Fort Bragg (and even smaller! Which I thought was curious since I was more familiar with the name) during which we had a great time deeply engaged in a very enriching spiritual conversation, beginning in a graveyard. It also gave me sufficient motivation to check into the sports-center, such that I decided to get a month’s membership, both to get back into swimming and hopefully get to some of their zumba and yoga classes, which I had been wanting to get involved in for a couple of years without much success due to access struggles and ignorance…or something akin to a lack of motivation.

The Mendocino area was full of cute, artistic shops and the coast itself, with the gray overcast, was quite calming and adventurous.

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I was beginning to realize by this time what amazing sunsets Fort Bragg has. And everyone knows that pictures do sunsets no justice, right?

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View from the top of the Weller House Inn tower

I was also blessed by the loan of a sewing machine by one of the artisan sisters, as I had a necessary uniform for bussing in The Restaurant, but could only afford a pair of thrift-store pants that didn’t fit. Got by with a makeshift I finagled on the floor of the below boudoir, like I have almost always relied on as a difficult to fit size:

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By this time I was getting enough into the swing of things I really wanted to make good on some of the excellent bike trails around, since my new Jewish friends offered me the use of one of their bikes and my employer at The Restaurant was an avid biker and always talking about it. I spent as much time as I could bring myself to (which wasn’t as much as I should have) checking out the amazing sunsets and gorgeous trails.

 

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My birthday, in late mid-September, was one of the best I can remember, as my brother came up from San Fransisco and I got to share all of this with him! As well as catch him up on some of the same stuff I had been mulling over with my Bestie – life and stuff, y’know. Since he’s lived in CA for years, we don’t really get the chance to catch up on a deeper level that often, as we don’t prefer those convos over the phone within the fam, and we were all more just enjoying hanging out while we were all together a couple of weeks before. It’s one of the only chats I can remember with him that was all about who we are, who we could be, who we’re becoming, etc., which are basically my favorite conversations (aside from quests for ultimate Truth) and I particularly adore that with my big bwudda, as there’s something about a big brother caring enough to share and ask that’s just super special ^_^, and I think he brought the subjects up too! His treating me to a steak dinner, cocktail, and cheesecake (at my Restaurant – a desert I’d craaaved) over a discussion of the dynamics of true feminism was also kind of amazing. And OOOoh. That. Steak. O_O…. One of three or four things I’ve ever consumed I can still remember the flavor of and drool over because it was so amazing. And we got the cheesecake from my Restaurant, that I had been really wanting to try :). Then we had a long walk along the beach at sunset and well past dark on the easy-to-follow, yet quite foggy, lamplit bike path that follows the coastline.

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It was also greatly cheered by the compliment a friend of mine sent me with her gift (we have the same birthday, so we always remember each other). I have always adored this poster and she made my year by saying she thought of me every time she saw it ^_^ (a mutual sentiment) (…and sorry for all the smiley-emojis… Bad blog form, but for this post, I don’t care):

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One of my best days there occurred when I had an awesome 8-hour walk along the beach including a several-hour chat on the phone with that Bestie I couldn’t reach on the drive over (such a lovely chat – and aaall that processing over life to do!). Even on sand my bare feet were pretty raw by the end of it, but maaaaan was it worth it! I also bumped into a world-famous photographer by the name of Henthorne who was in the middle of a project called “Between the Worlds” with an artist my brother had introduced me to via Youtube several years before who does sand art. Check out their project website! All of those pictures, to my knowledge, were taken right along the beach I had been walking all day. I was stoked to watch it in action. I had so much sand and shore time that day and can still use that memory to revive myself when I soul-crave sunny beach time ^_^.

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I had a good little while with an intense swarm of birds for a stretch of beach:

And it was fun following my footsteps back for 4 hours. Also, I was impressed with… well, my impression. I was wearing Levi’s, apparently… and packing one’s legs in damp sand is pretty much awesome. The Hawaiian-looking kelp-palm-tree scene below was the imaginative artwork of some beachgoer:

And I saw this great strip of mini-dunes that made me craaaaave a dirtbike right then:

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The remainder of the following month carried along much the same way, with a pleasant work schedule, beautiful beach-town surroundings, amazing sunsets, and continued community.

In fact! Spanish Javier (HA-vee) and Eve (EH-ba) and British Tom (TOM)… 😉 … showed up on the scene and made my days so much fun. Such a blast! And Eve decided I needed to be greeted every day with an enthusiastic “Ahhhhh! Briguita! GUUAApoooooo, yeah??”. I mean, who doesn’t want someone crying out to their bloated-from-living-off-of-bread self “sooo beautiful!! ;D ” every morning?? And Tom had the best idea for that rough-cut Scottish oatmeal (mostly just eating it – I hadn’t heard of it before) to go with his dry, snarky, lovely comments.

Another highlight within that excellence, though, was that my close friend from Oxford’s mother, whom I had met immediately before my trip to the British Isles on my way from Texas to Michigan…

Uh…

Er…Ok, *ahem* backing up a touch (… you can look up where I glossed over that very briefly at the end of that post or skip this paragraph altogether), as I mentioned in my first British Isles post, I had been to Oxford for a summer trip, my first time really abroad (if Canada doesn’t count) when I was 19 (best. trip. ever… I mean. Firsts are always best in a way, right?? Someday another post for that…) and made a really awesome friend in my student housing. We stayed friends partly through his introduction to me of a leadership seminar series. When I happened to be driving back from Texas to Michigan, he happened to be back home right where I was passing through in Ohio, staying in his family’s home as they waited for the arrival of his first baby. His parents very hospitably put me up for the night and I became friends with his Mom through our shared experience in those leadership seminars and mutual love of nutrition (they are all doctors). She became something of a mentor to me through a nutrition product I began to sell under her (Juice+ – this is her video – which is awesome, although I don’t sell it any more). A lovely Christian woman with a very down-to-earth, forward-thinking, encompassing worldview and perspective on life.

Anyways, she apparently just happened to have a little vacation home in Mendocino, which she just happened to be visiting for a few days, and seeing that I was in the area, invited me for a chat in her brief window of available time.

That small snippet of time was so perfect to what I had been learning over the whole month and my traveling year generally. She showed me around her adorable little house and then, meandering along the jagged coastline (right up to where my friend got married, which I didn’t know until I walked into exactly the scene I had creeped on Facebook through his wedding photos! Stunning! My camera was dead, alas, but he’s permissioned me to share his, below).

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We chatted about my adventures since May and my conundrums in deciding where and how to go in life. She shared about meditation and an amazing book by a Christian woman that she ended up giving me when we got back called “One Thousand Gifts“, by Ann Voskamp (book review someday). It’s a very poetic read about appreciation for all the beauty in life, even when it’s hard – not just hard circumstantially, but when we separate ourselves from that appreciation by feeling like we have other things we need to do first, and then, of course, never get around to being done with all of that. My mentor discussed meditation from a Christian context and the importance of being still. “Be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10) has been an anchoring verse for me since a couple years before graduating and my sister got me a ring with that for graduation without knowing it was special to me. It is very difficult for me, though, and even as I’m writing this a year and a half later, that’s still a huge theme for me, always working on bringing that to a new level (I mean, so far this blog is all about Gypsying, right?? It comes from somewhere…). I will definitely write on that at length at some point, but at that time, we finished our chat and I said goodbye to her. Then, before heading back to all the “stuff” I had to do (which I had been getting aggravated by and absorbed in), I determined that I would sit along the incredible coastline and just absorb and appreciate its beauty for three minutes (all I felt like I could discipline myself to do) instead of speeding to my to-dos. So I sat and watched the waves.

At three minutes I decided a couple more (30 seconds or so) would be good.

At ten I decided to continue to sit.

I decided to stop checking after that for a while, and I think I sat for an hour and a half, completely absorbed in the soothing sunshine and the rushing of the waves below me, before it started to get darker and a chill came up, gently inviting me out of my investment. The spot I was sitting was (I didn’t realize until later) immediately in the background of another of their wedding shots. The waves below are absolutely mesmerizing as they swirl into and out of the curling rocks.

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One of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I highly recommend it. Such better clarity. So much of the soul-reviving beauty we all have access to (although not always a beach scene) that we shed by ignoring it every moment and wonder why we’re dry.

It made a huge impact on my perspective, because I didn’t just think about the difference of perspective. I engaged in it and it so, so quenched my inner coarse desert of anxiety and angst.

Soon after that, conveniently, the Bed & Breakfast hosted a Yoga retreat, led by another Christian woman, and they invited me to join them in any of their sessions. I had been wanting to learn yoga and had been playing with it a little, so it was really nice to be able to join in a group setting, led by a very spiritually conscientious and grounding woman.

Then, as I celebrate the Jewish Feasts and I had a community to share them with, we ended up having a celebration with all of my HelpX buddies with the Messianic family and their small congregation. I made challah, which is suuuch a yummy bread, and we had a really lovely time together as a little miss-mashed community of Jews, Spaniards, a British fellow, some Californians, and a Montanan. It’s moments when you look around at true friends and cherish that evening, because you know you’re almost certainly never going to be in quite the same celebration with those same souls all together again, but it is so real if you can accept the day as it is at the time. So those conversations became quite applied.

That was shortly before I decided to leave the area, around when I had tentatively planned on anyways, and those recent soul-developments sent me away with an adjustment to and depth of perspective that has stayed with me since.

I had a very rich time bidding all of my HelpX friends adieu, although, alas! for English “Tom” (the bearded one) I thought was gone already and I left without giving him a hug when, apparently, he had waited for me so that he could do just that D’: . If you’re out there Thomas, I still need that hug (and we never could find you on Facebook! 😦 ). (Eva, thou darling, is on the right selfie-ing, Javier is on the left, and Lena is the craftswoman).

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I knew I was eventually going to end up back in Montana for Christmas by December 1st, but I appreciated soaking in the last bit of stability and community before I took off for another whirlwind several weeks, anticipating those several trips along almost the whole length of the coast between this mid-October departure and the end of November!

But, looking forward to visiting with my good college friends’ parents, who had warmly invited me to stay with them for an annual duck barbecue, I had enough of a spiritual oasis (and dinner!) to look forward to that, after *ahem* driving back to the BnB once or twice having forgotten my phone charger and maybe some shoes or something, I drove away from the coast, and beyond the redwoods, into and through the great Sacramento Valley.

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Into the West

I look down a year’s length of road and, picking up my hitherto neglected tale as of August 2015, allow me, dear friend, to continue.

I had a lovely time resting in Montana, although I had planned on working more than I ended up actually doing. I didn’t realize traveling could be so tiring! I did, however, revisit those long, meditative trenches of pig-weed engulfed Montanan crops with which I had acquainted myself in the previous anum. The earthiness, while an unenticing way to spend my precious days at home (which was, perhaps, why I didn’t spend as many of them there as sounded logical beforehand), did invite a pleasant earthy-roundedness to my homecoming. There is something very soothing to the spirit about literally rolling up one’s sleeves and getting one’s hands into the ground of a place.

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The view of the mountains just down the road from my house.

I went on a lot of walks and loved getting to go to The Event at Rebecca Farm – the largest English Equestrian event in Montana and one of the largest in the world of its kind now, I believe – which almost always draws a few Olympians to compete and a variety of international horse and rider teams as well. The Flathead area also has an amazing sky, no?

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Having grown up training and having planned on going professional with horses before being shanghaied by college, it is a real treat to go see such a posh event near the beautiful Flathead Lake, a body of water in which my sister and I took the liberty of indulging (not pictured above).

The jumps look significantly larger in person…

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My 5’8″ sister…

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The event also attracts a large number of local and traveling artisan booths – tons of incredible artwork, which I neglected to photograph. This, however, was one of my favorites:

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On the way home I passed this sign, which I found helpful since I had been thinking that being back in Montana was less exotic than some areas recently explored:

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I also finally hiked one of the biggest peaks in our Mountain range (Trapper Peak) with a college friend who I had discovered lived in the same area! After a drive up to 6,000 ft of altitude, one hikes the remaining 6,000 ft over the course of 5.5 or 6 miles.

Trapper Peak (Peak 1)

Can you see me? (While the sky is impressive, I wish my comrade had caught some of the space below as well, since it was essentially a cliff that winds all the way down into the valley and would have shown the height well – this wasn’t actually even the peak).

The peak is all boulder hopping ;D.

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Trapper Peak (Slope)

Trapper Peak (Peak 2)

La Peak!

A lot of my time, though, was spent trying not to stress, as I had decided way back in January (right after I knew I was going to Texas) that after making it to the British Isles if I could, I wanted to land myself in Northern California for a bit and maybe think about finding longer-term work out there.

This was another of those “I think this is where I’m supposed to go, so it will work out somehow” things…

It was difficult, though, as I was starting to feel the effects of uprooting more and more acutely every time I left somewhere I had been staying – the security, affection, familiarity. I had, in fact, been getting sick almost without fail every time I had to travel, either immediately before or immediately after. I think my body was becoming sincerely protestant over the issue.

It had worked out like this, though: after I had made the decision and while in Texas, I found it would work out perfectly with my little sister’s plans to attend a college in Oregon. My Mom hates traveling, so if I could take the sis on the way that would be great. We also planned to go visit my brother in San Fransisco. It was a bit of a leap of faith for her, as we were going to take all of the stuff she would want for the two years the degree would take her before she had technically been accepted, as they wanted to do the in-person interview before deciding. The tickets she had bought long before also ended up being rather synchronistically oriented within the plans we already had to visit my brother (she, unusually, had a layover in Portland before coming home, so if she was accepted she could just get picked up from their shuttle at the airport and if she wasn’t she could go home).

Sistah TARIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIPPP!! XD

This was the first time us sisters had done a road-trip together! And she hadn’t done any major ones since she was a tiny tot, so this was a bit of a special event, especially since she was going off to college! And that meant I wasn’t doing this bit solo! Which was also really nice in a lot of ways.

After frantically trying to get my things together very last minute (and unfortunately delaying our trip by several hours), we swung by the Silverwood Amusement Park  in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, that we hadn’t been to in eleven years. It was, alas, a little lack-luster compared to our perspectives as kids (when it was a very special event – it was awesome when we were younger!) and we got there late with some long lines, but it was still nice to relive. Water slides are always good. I also made the mistake of disrecommending a burger  to her when we were about to go on a roller-coaster, but the line was long enough that she probably would have been fine and the food vendors were closed by the time we got out, even though the park was still open for a couple more hours! She (unintentionally, I’m sure) paid me back by insisting on going on a water ride that left my soaked to the bone and shivering for the remainder of our time ;). After the park closed, we drove to a random back road (I was hoping to find one with trees, but there were only fields), rearranged my carful of her things, ate a me-style travel meal of canned chili and romaine lettuce (she lamented her burger) and snuggled under blankets in the back of the Intrepid’s fold-down seats. My dinner choice was, perhaps… not thoroughly thought through…

In the morning we changed under blankets, brushed our teeth again out of water bottles, and started off for Portland. Sis drove a fair bit, as she would continue to do periodically throughout the trip (which was a fun “new” for her, since she had never done any Interstate driving) and it was amazing how nice it was to be a passenger for a while after doing a couple full laps around the U.S. solo and be able to look out the windows for extended periods of time without worrying that I was probably drifting off the road (again, not *cough* saying I hadn’t looked out the window for long… but the peace of mind was a nice addition).

After an uneventful ride we stopped for a bit to hike the beautiful trail around the 611ft Multnomah falls outside of Portland – the tallest waterfall in Oregon and the second-tallest year-round waterfall in America. We then had a lovely visit with one of my college housemates as she hosted us overnight.

The next day we got sis dropped off for an unexpected overnight visit at the college, and then set off the next day to visit another couple of college friends – a nearest and dearest and, in fact, a couple – who had just had their baby the night before! (In fact, she had asked me to delay my planned visit a day or two a few weeks back and lo! Baby birthing right when she thought it would be – exactly a week early). That was the first baby of my friend-group in college and being able to meet the mini-them (that was weird – baby of TWO friends) and share their first moments together was a unique and very special treat.

I only got to spend a couple of hours with them as we had to nip straight over to the coast to make our way down to San Fransisco and had a schedule to keep. We were again blessed by, well, another family of friends – this time the parents of another one of my closest college friends – in Coos Bay, within view of the coast – but we didn’t have a lot of time to get down there if we didn’t want to keep them up late. Now, my sister has a very romantic bent (in the classical sense of the dark-and-stormy, windswept scapes, and moving imagination sense) and had always had a thing for her idea of the ocean, but couldn’t really remember it since she was probably only 7 the last time she had been. I wish we had had a bit more time to indulge her thirst to soak in the sea air, but we were able to  at least get a taster on our way down. It was absolutely painful insisting that we keep moving as she was indulging in every grain of sand between her toes, every crest reaching the shore, every hair that whipped across her face and sea-themed garb…

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We arrived only a little late with them welcoming us heartily and driving us happily to search town, which had mostly closed down, so that they could take us to a fresh fish dinner. We almost never eat out and almost never have access to fresh fish, so that was a special treat. I adore them anyways, so the little bit of time we got together was incredibly nice and the dinner they took us to gave us a proper sit-down chat, which was lovely, along with the amazing meal :9”. I honestly am having a hard time trying to summarize what could be a very lengthy narrative of this trip without stopping every paragraph with my almost overwhelming sense of gratitude for everyone who welcomed and hosted us along the way. I’ll let you read between the lines in that regard, so long as you promise to do so.

I think this will have to be a two-parter also…

With a morning farewell after a good night’s rest we continued down the coast. We had originally planned on going all the way to San Fran, but when we got home from the restaurant we realized that that would be a really long day of driving even if we didn’t want to stop and smell the redwoods (again, my sister had never seen them and I mean, seriously, how can you drive just past or through that stretch of country and not?), so my friend’s parents had called a brother and sister-in-law in Fort Bragg, four hours north of the city, to see if we could stay with them. It worked perfectly for us. We were able to say a quick hello to my uncle in Grants Pass and then nipped over, if memory serves, to Hwy 101 so we could zip through the redwoods on our way to our next oasis. I had already been looking on HelpX to see what sort of places I might be able to find to stay after the week with our brother was up and the top of my list was a BnB in Fort Bragg! So I thought we might be able to catch a glimpse of it. We took our time a little bit, always with me cutting things on the short side, but still able to get some cool stops in. At one point we saw a sign for a little trek just a bit off the road towards – something I had never seen – the Chandelier tree, and it was a momentous occasion to record the Intrepid‘s passage.

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It was also really funny because we kept passing and being passed by the same mustard-yellow hippie van the entire afternoon (we’d pass them, then later pull out, pull back in and pass them again…) and the second or third day after we arrived in SF I saw what I am sure was the exact same van in the same neighborhood as us (although I suppose if ever there were to be two mustard-yellow hippie vans in the same area it would be there…). It made for a fun sense of adventure community.

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We had a close shave as gas stations were, er, not very frequent in the forest (fellow adventurers take note please) and I kept thinking we would see one at sooome point. We ended up coasting as much as possible down the hills in the very hilly, windy Hwy 1 just North of Fort Bragg at about 10:00 at night. I was crossing my fingers hoping we wouldn’t get caught in the bottom of a very narrow strip of road, in a dip, on a turn, with periodic pickups with campers behind them going both ways – which was essentially every turn for that last quarter tank of gas at least. It was a bit of a nervous hour, quite especially half-hour, and most certainly especially ten minutes…. I kept thinking that when we were driving either up or down the fumes would loft to the wrong side of my tank and we would be either hiking or camping O_o.

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It wouldn’t be so bad if I were alone, but I had my little sister with me! Such bad form for a veteran. Heaven be praised, we did puff and sputter our way to a gas station just north of town (which was super expensive, but hey, it was gas – and of course that’s what they’re, literally, banking on). After something of an unintentional exploration of the area looking for the house, we finally made it to my friend’s aunt and uncle’s home. They had stayed up and had kept a beautiful meal warm for us, which was entirely unexpected and so nice – my travel and nutritional habits not inclining me to eat much en route, but valuing food immensely. It was so homey too. I tend to think of survival ability as the biggest boon, but when people go above and beyond with true hospitality it truly touches my spirit and I realize how I think that it’s actually that which is the most nourishing to a human. It is so humbling. They let us shower and set us up in a lovely guest room to rest again with appreciation before arising and removing ourselves first thing in the misty morning.

We set off again and enjoyed the beautiful scenery of the Mendocino coast before going inland to continue on Hwy 101 (again, if memory serves), as Hwy 1 would have taken nearly twice as long. My sister got to impress me with her ability to navigate the treacherous part of the coastal road (an initiation rite, as well as an excuse not to drive for a while ;)) before it bent inwards from the coast.

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We arrived in the, at the time, warm and sunny city in the late morning/early afternoon and got to soak in the California feel of the colorful stucco houses in the Bernal Heights area, where my brother was waiting for us.

We had a glorious week.

It was the first time outside of Christmas breaks that the three of us siblings had time to spend with all three of us, and just the three of us, in probably six years – and such a fun adventure!

My brother spoils us whenever we meet him and this week was no exception – he really went all-out to make our visit special :). He took us to all sorts of cool places to eat out – and San Fran is one of the best cities for eats in the country – several times a day and, as I said, we almost never eat out, so it’s really a treat. We frequented a lot of ethnic restaurants especially that we just don’t have in Montana. We did a little bit of helping him move from his old apartment in Bernal Heights to his new one – a much better priced, better apartment in the not-yet-as-developed Tenderloin, we went up on hilltops to overlook the city, went on a bookstore and niftiness-boutique search in the Mission district, went to the beach (and Sis spent aaaaaaall the time in the waves – I did a combo of sand-sun, wave-play, and beach-jog/shell pickup…My car smelled like fish until I left California…), had a delicious home-cooked meal and a meet-and-visit from his newly special lady, went to an aquarium (with huuuuuge sucker fish!), butterfly house, and large science museum, wandered a park and Chinese tea-garden, spent a day in being mellow, and had a surprise at the very end of the week that remained a secret until immediately prior to our experience…

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My brother noted this poem during our visit

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When at last my brother revealed our surprise! He had rented a sailboat (and captain) for us to be whisked over San Fransisco Bay for the afternoon! It even managed to be a sunny day! 😀

Aside from the sailorly coarseness of our nautical helmsman, which I opted to ignore by sunning myself at the far front of the vessel, it was a truly lovely afternoon. He was at least informative of some history and my Brother had invited two friends of his to accompany us, which diluted our rough guide. One was young lady musician born and raised in his new neighborhood of the Tenderloin (historically not the most affluent quadrant) and her style was a nice, down-to-earth, creative, evocative addition. The other was a later-middle-aged man-poet. We had some eloquent and engaging conversations ranging from the early electoral – and other – agitations in the political sphere to the living poetry of diving into the bay after a drifting water-bottle (which was very refreshing). My sister and I especially enjoyed leaning hard-over from the mast on sharp turns to soak as intimately as possible in the high-speed salty spray.

 

Finally, on the last day before my sister’s flight to start school (did I mention she had been accepted??), we took a jaunt to the south.

It was in anticipation of a special couple of days that we headed towards Monterey, driving the beautiful route down (accidentally took the road that wasn’t next to the coast, alas for my sister, but it was still lovely). We stayed in an Air BnB house in Santa Rosa (treated again by my brother), ordered pizza, and my Brother and I had a nostalgia trip over the shows Wishbone (about a little Jack-Russel Terrier dog drawing parallels between his owner’s life and classic literature) and the old Star Trek (“The Next Generation” with Picard) whilst initiating my sister into their worlds. Our Nana used to send us tapes of those shows since we didn’t have TV, but that was when our sister was a mere babe. We were all tired – especially my Brother – but we had a great time pulling a late one over reminiscences and Youtube. The next day we went down to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Us older two had been before, but sis hadn’t and it was great fun to experience everything afresh as a part of that maiden experience – and I got Urchin sucker-hugs ^_^. She got to pet a stingray that kept coming back to her and felt she made a friend too. Then we watched the new Sherlock Holmes movie starring Ian McAllen, had a sunset walk along the coast, ate a delicious Thai dinner, and walked back through trees bedecked in twinkle lights. That was a rather magical time – our anticipation was not disappointed.

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After dropping off a smiling sis at the airport for her new adventure I got on to solidifying mine. I had looked into several HelpX places within about four hours of San Fran, but the only one I actually had any interest in was that Bed and Breakfast in Fort Bragg. My brother’s new apartment didn’t have internet (which, since his job is techie, he prefers) and we had been around and about so much I hadn’t been able to do much actual inquiring. Fortunately the one email I had sent out to the proprietor of the establishment had not only been received but accepted! She had an immediate opening for the following month. I had planned on being in the area until Thanksgiving (this is still the end of August), when we all had plans to go to my Uncle’s in Southern California, but a month was a generous head-start, especially since many HelpX hosts do not like to commit for more than a week or two and, I admit, I was inclined to be in one place as much as possible by this point.

Having thus arranged another shelter for my traveling pate on the morrow, and enjoying the remaining hours in my brother’s presence and domicile, I slept.

 

And Ever On

Sooo, catching up on my last year, where I left off having just returned from the British Isles (so many hours on the road since then!):

After a long weekend back in D.C. with a Dearest of friends, I made my way via overnight train back to Michigan. After just having been in England, I’m sorry, but I have to say Amtrak disappoints terribly. It’s incredibly slow and there wasn’t even WiFi, which there had been on most of the buses in England, even for trips only a couple of hours long (I had intended to get a good start on these articles, since it was going to be 14 mostly sleepless hours). First world problems… There was this really adorable little girl getting onto the train at the same time as I, though, who struck such a caricature of the traveler as she tried to cock a hip to balance a backpack that was almost as big as she was (the angle is wrong in the pic to show how big it was compared to her) while waiting for her ticket to get checked by the conductor.

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I ended up sitting next to a lovely black woman in late middle age and I decided to make an effort to be sociable. It isn’t my instinct, but it’s so awkward to sit next to someone for hours and hours holding onto the pretense that you’re unaware of each other’s existence. We ended up having a very rich and warm discussion of our mutual faith and feeling very sisterly by nightfall. When we exchanged contact information, we had another great moment where we realized we both have the same last name! It was great – here we had been joking about being sisters and neither of us had, in the whole of our lives, met someone with the same last name (even the same spelling and there are about 7 ways to spell it!). It really encouraged me to try to make friends more often. I tend to want to contain my world and keep it small and controlled, but – even though we’ve barely kept in touch since then – it really brightened that trip (and every 14 hour overnight train ride can really use as much of that as possible) and made me realize that perhaps I should give people more credit for being additions to the world and not just extra concerns… Perhaps even myself. As we parted, she shook my hand and pressed something into it just before walking away. It was $7, which was apparently all the cash she had on hand, which she felt I needed more than she did and – as you will see – did in fact end up being extremely helpful.

I was blessed to be picked up by another of my Dearest friends in Michigan and have a nice chat about our lives over the drive and a nice last walk in the lovely graveyard behind our Alma Mater before I dusted the pollen and fallen seeds off my “Intrepid”, tanked up and got oil with the last of the reserves in my bank account, and set off for the little Northern Michigan town I had worked in the previous year. The drive is about 4 hours and I stopped about halfway through to put the $7 my “black sister” (as we had been joking about) into a little more fuel – my car only goes about four hours on a tank. With that addition, which was roughly a quarter tank of gas, I ended up arriving with about $3.50 in my account and on… a quarter tank of gas (O_O). But I had made it! I hadn’t earned any money since the last of April in Texas and had funded my way through Michigan, Washington D.C., the British Isles, D.C., and back through all of Michigan, but barely by the skin of my teeth. The only reason I was able to do so, though, was because of the generosity of all my friends and hosts over those six weeks – I think between May 1 and the end of June I had only paid cash (vs working) for lodging for five days (two in Scotland and three in England) – and the $7 my black sister gifted to me – nearly a perfect stranger who she met on an uncomfortably long train ride.

I also owe a tremendous debt to my friends in Northern Michigan, who let me be a part of their family for another few weeks while I earned more money working in the woods again and enjoying their society immensely. I was also very appreciative for audiobook downloads as I was able to listen to “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” through my phone while I limbed, hauled, chopped, and burned slash piles in the areas of overgrown or unhealthy woods. I hadn’t read it before and I’ve decided I couldn’t have made a better choice for staving off self-pity, as – while I was very appreciative for the opportunity to earn my way around – I was getting a bit tired of surviving via intense manual labor. I couldn’t, however, have asked for a better employer or supervisor. Both men treated me with so much respect and encouragement when I kept feeling like my output wasn’t up to snuff, while my energy dwindled fast. It’s amazing how much a couple of words of encouragement rather than critique can mean. I will remember that for life.

I bloodied myself a bit on an 11+ hour day with a failed log-toss (throwing short and having the top end hit a log underneath) that – due to the angle of a very long attached branch – resulted in a great *WHACK!!* right in the forehead with a little sharp knot, at great velocity, quite out of nowhere and cut a chunk of forehead out. I’m very thankful it didn’t nail me in the eye. Proved to me the purpose of eyebrows after, though, and what with sweat, smeared ashes, bark in my hair, and dirt… well everywhere, I felt very Ramba by the end of the day ;).

Again, I so appreciate the family of friends I was staying with. I feel so adopted when I visit them and miss them as my own family when I go away. I so wish Michigan was closer to Montana! I got a couple nice chances to hang out with them and the rest of my Michigan friends a few last times, not knowing when I might see them next. I had been able to visit three times in about a year, and it might be several years before I am able to see them again (well, it’s already been a year! I miss them all terribly). A beach on Lake Michigan is a great place to be at dusk with good friends.

I had previously scheduled to meet up with a high-school friend in Nebraska – where she had just graduated college – and caravan back to Montana together for just a couple of weeks after I my arrival in Michigan. With mixed feelings, I finished up my work in the woods, having earned enough money to get myself not only back to my homeplace 2,000 miles away, but also through my next planned trip across the northwest and California (… we’ll get there…), as I didn’t know how much I’d be able to earn over the few weeks I’d be back home. I drove back to southern Michigan where a lovely couple from the church I attended in college had been very graciously storing all of my things (I had stopped by several times since graduating to swap out my wardrobe) and had an intimidating project in front of me. To explain, the distance from Northern Michigan (shy of Upper Peninsula) to Southern Michigan, as mentioned above, is about four hours. The distance from Hillsdale (my alma mater) to Chicago (where I was to crash with my old roomie and her family – another adopted set!) was around another four hours. So a pretty full day of driving anyways. During the intermission I had to try to figure out how to fit all the belongings I had taken to and acquired during five years of college into my little ’99 Honda CrV. I have to tell you that no one is paying me to say I am so impressed with that little dude’s cargo capacity! With a little bit of an exercise in my spacial cognition and a large 3-D puzzle (I’m so mad that I didn’t take a “before” picture of everything on the lawn! It was a fairly impressive amount, but I was in too much of a hurry…) I actually managed to fit every item in my car (one of the main reasons I had wanted that model in the first place, when I bought it the previous year), including several oddly-shaped birch branches from the woods that I thought were beautiful and would make good memorabilia, and I was still able to see out of the windows. Super win. It’s helpful on a thirty-hour drive…

It was around the 4th of July and I was appreciating the freedom my country offers. A pretty unique experience throughout history for a young woman to be able to take off into the sunset across the county solo and feel safe and I am very thankful for it.

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After waving goodbye and booking it out of there for Act II of the day, I had a pleasant journey to Chicagoland and my bosom friend, whose family has put me up and put up with me almost every time I’ve hither, thither, or yon-ed through the area since graduation, since Chicago is a convenient waypoint to almost everywhere West of Michigan and I look for excuses to bask in their loveliness anyways.

Another ten hour day of driving through miles and miles (and miles…) of – I must say – highly meditative, orderly rows of fields and croplands, brought me to Seward, Nebraska. After getting shown around campus, meeting my friend’s friends, watching from the sidelines as my chum said the same kind of goodbyes I had been saying the previous year, and a bit more 3-D puzzling with packing her college existence into the bed of “General”, her bright blue Dodge Ram (she, a fellow Gypsy/Nomad also has a tight relationship with her vehicle), we headed West again with the aim of another ten-plus hour day and an arrival in Sheridan, Wyoming. We equipped ourselves with a splurge on espresso and kept each other updated on what radio tunes were on via text (I know, sorry).

When we tanked up a few hours later, we bumped into a couple of hitchhiker dudes at the gas station and had fun comparing travel stories and chatting about where we all had been. I don’t know if we would have opted to offer them a lift or not, but we were spared by the sheer impossibility of fitting anything more into our train. With a little concern about the stormy looking weather, we tried to finagle something of a tarp setup over General‘s exposed rear cargo while we chatted. On our way off, I whipped out my own version of travel snacks: romain lettuce and all natural crunchy peanut butter ;9’. Other than something of an issue with the tarp getup a little ways out of the gas station, we had an uneventful trip, although we had just been starting to call to chat so I could tell her all about my trip to England a couple of weeks before when I lost service and never regained it. We, alas, never ended up finishing that conversation. We gained our quarry not too long after a gorgeous sunset (the picture does no justice) that lit up the whole Western sky like a warm peach.

As we were driving into town, we realized we had lucked out as my friend had always wanted to go to Sheridan for their annual rodeo and – guess what? – as we were driving into town we saw banners on the main street that the rodeo started…the next day! After crashing in a motel for an adequate, although not ample, amount of time, we dropped into the event. We didn’t spend too long on it, since we had another ten hours to go that day, but we did stop by for a little while and it was nice to hear the metaphorical scratch as that one got checked off my Chica’s Bucket List.

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I have to say, after driving through the Midwest (I still don’t know why it’s still called that, since one has to go through all twenty hours of the entire Bread Basket before you even reach the Rockies, 1,000 miles shy of the West Coast…) how refreshing reaching the 80 mph speed limits was compared to the 55 mph standard in so much of the area I had been driving through. We may have treated them more like *ahem* guidelines than actual rules and… had some fun with that… (Also, fuzzy slippers are the way to go).

I will spare you from the intimate information of how we were testing our mechanical (in the physical sense) and multitasking prowess along the way, but I think I leveled up a couple times.

By that evening – Montana and family.

 

 

Book Review: From Baghdad, With Love

From Baghdad, With Love

Just a few days ago I finished reading the memoir “From Baghdad, With Love” by Lieutenant Colonel Jay Kopelman and I got a lot more out of it than I anticipated.

I’m not sure if I decided to read it because it’s about a puppy and I’m looking for a dog at the moment, or because I’m trying to catch up on current events and the middle east and it’s about a Marine in Iraq in 2004, or because I have a lot of military friends – have considered joining myself several times – and thought it might give me some insight into their experiences. Either way, my Mom recommended it and it was lying around. I ended up finding it hard to put down and was finished within a few afternoons.

Written over just 191 pages in a conversational style, it’s a very easy read and really invokes the sense of sitting on a couch being let in on a story well worth hearing, while at the same time being allowed to see into all the well-concealed anxieties and internal difficulties of a man who has put himself in harms way in answer to the call of duty, but who nonetheless still has to deal with all of the moral difficulty that naturally occurs in war. Extremely well-told (he has a real way with words), the scope of the moral warrior’s dilemma is made painfully evident.

Kopelman works this realization into you as he works through it himself, his reflections catalyzed by his accidental encounter with a tiny five-week old puppy while searching an abandoned building in the newly taken city of Fallujah. His language is colloquial and often course – though understandably so, given the style and circumstances – as he tells the story and the situation in Iraq from the standpoint of a Marine in – and acclimatized to – the thick of the violence and chaos and restricted by orders set in light of those circumstances. Do be prepared for authentic depictions of some of the brutalities though. He doesn’t dwell on the gruesome details, but neither does he ignore them.

Probably the element that I appreciated the most in reading through his account was that, in true Marine style, concerning all of the most difficult-to-swallow aspects of his experiences he shows the reader how he was affected, rather than telling them, by simply describing what he was thinking in a way that feels obvious, though they are the observations of a man with understated awareness. Specifically, akin to the recent movie “American Sniper”, I thought he did an excellent job of describing the circumstances in a way that puts the reader into the boots of the men and women on the ground and makes the unfortunate result of PTSD seem like the only way a well-adapted person could be expected to adjust to peace. That sense of familiarity – as well as his (again) understated vulnerability – might well help give loved-ones insight into the mind-frame of recovering veterans by letting them see for themselves and figure out how they think they might want deal with adjusting to the change if it was them.

Also, with my self-education in mind, I thought he did a great job of outlining the difficulties of the war on all sides from the perspective of someone intimately affected by all elements – be they logistical, cultural, legal, or emotional.

Overall, while the story is set around a little (and it turns out, understandably troublesome) puppy, it turns out that, for me at least, the main character is Kopelman himself – and perhaps his fellow Marines, if giving him credit for a voice that could speak for more than himself.

What makes this book so heart-warming in my opinion was to see how much of what is best in man can be evoked by innocence and true vulnerability, even in a time when callousness is not only more expedient, but can be necessary to stay alive. This story shows an example of when that humanity did awake – even with a somewhat resistant participant – and not just in Lieutenant Colonel Kopelman, but by countless others who allowed themselves to feel affection for something they had no reason to care about when that emotion could be literally life-threatening and took that impetus to rally through countless obstacles to help the Marine try to accomplish a rescue, however small, in an area where brutality ruled.

British Isles: Hospitality Part III.3 ~ England: Oxford

Well, I left off after having safely laid me down to sleep, with sore feet and a grateful heart in Windsor.

~WINDSOR~

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The following morning I was able to utilize an empty room, offered by the aforementioned manager of the premises as a morning abode, it having recently been vacated by the recent tenant, to rest in an extra bed that was still made and take a glorious shower. He told me not to worry about the check-out time, but pulled the breakfast tray back out for me and I sat making plans on the wifi in the lounge for the best part of the morning. He then gallantly gave me an extra umbrella and escorted me to town, where I stopped into a couple of quaint (but very expensive) shops and enjoyed a lovely cup of tea at the Tower Brasserie at The Harte and Garter Hotel directly across the street from Windsor Castle for the rest of the early afternoon.

Sorely and slowly I shuffled to the train station in the early evening, relaxing and enjoying the company of a wandering dog (which I found to be attached to a homeless fellow) to make my way to the only town between Windsor and Oxford with a hostel in it (apparently): Streatley-Upon-Thames. I thought I would continue my walk from there.

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~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

~STREATLEY-UPON-THAMES~

While it was a little late, the short walk from the train stop (a mere platform which – as simplistic as it was – had my bearings entirely in a muddle as to which path to take to the teeny town) was such a pleasant stroll through one of the quaintest villages I’ve seen. The very friendly host advised me that it was still about 40 miles to Oxford, so I planned to take a train the next morning most of the way there, calculating that I could probably recover my tootsies enough to do 10 miles or so. After examining my feet, I felt a little bit of a wuss as (predictably), my feet didn’t look that bad, but I still appreciated the rest and the subjectivity of the trip allowed for a little self-indulgent pedal pampering. Just to be gross:

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😛

The next morning was lovely as I walked through the town, getting a much better look at it in the daylight and taking in the brick, tall hedgerows, stone walls, a WWI memorial, and the general village atmosphere (and coming across a “Bag Row”, which instantly put me in a Tolkienian frame of mind), stocked up on what I planned to be enough for full day or two of food at a local grocer (sadly not the one shown below – that was the inside of a market inside The Swan) for a very small sum, and enjoyed breakfast in a quaint graveyard, just on the other side of a wall next to the river.

 

 

 

On my way to find a spot to sit I enjoyed the site of a lady and gent landscaping, with her in very neat, formal-looking black attire. I appreciated the effort and it made me feel I’d stepped straight into the Edwardian era for a moment.

 

One of the loveliest villages I’ve seen, right next to the apparently famous Swan pub on the river, which was absolutely enchanting to see the night before, with lights glimmering off of the water and the silhouettes of little boats lending their charm.

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~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

~THE WALK, CONTINUED~

I felt a little silly taking a train almost the entire way to Oxford, then taking another train part of the way back, in order to get to the Thames Path again, when I was still sore and tired (sheesh, didn’t take much to dampen that ardor!), but I was determined to WALK into Oxford, from the Thames, even if I only ended up doing 40 miles of the river over 3 days, instead of the entire 140 over the course of a week. I had less of a bounce in my step and when it threatened rain for over an hour (and did rain for a bit),

I was sorely tempted to knock on some strangers house – one of the ones with the hospitable-looking rose-bushes out front – and ask for a lift to the train, but I had steeled my soul against the (very manageable) elements with the blindness of a romantic idea and my leather backpack with a big black trash-bag (which, while awkward and not in keeping with the original aesthetic point in using that pack, worked to its purpose very well). Thus equipped against the moisture and eventually too far from the houses to render quitting at all practical anyways, I trudged along, occasionally drifting from the path to muddy by-ways overgrown by weeds, and felt a tremendous surge when I started seeing college-age bicyclists and joggers just around the bend from where I knew the city to be.

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This was the most beautiful sight ever…

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

~OXFORD~

After a triumphant entrance into the city – trash bag-covered pack and all – and some little trouble finding the right hostel, I entered the YHA Hostel in Oxford (which I cannot recommend more highly compared to the Central Backpackers, a bit nearer the center of the city – the former: clean, bright, nice coffee shop, wonderful lounge; the latter: dark, dirty looking, less respectable-looking company, and the exact same price).

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Hard to read, but the entrance sign to Oxford from the Thames Path

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The Head of the River at the Southern boarder of the city

I began with splurging a comparatively handsome sum on a voluptuous triumphal feast of espresso, pumpkin soup, a roll, and some fruit, along with my pita, cheese, and hummus of that morning and got online to see if I could find a HelpX or couch-surfing place to stay for the remaining week I had, as – besides low funds – the hostel was also completely booked out for at least the next, and possibly several days.

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An absolute glory – the pumpkin soup alone satisfied me to the core

~NEW FRIENDS & PHILOSOPHY~

While working silently on a little tiny table that I was splitting with a ginger-bearded gent next to the only available outlet, I – through some slight comment – discerned that he was Australian and what began as a question of origin and purpose of travel turned into a 6-hour long conversation, incorporating another hostel-goer that began as discussions of travel (it being not our first trips abroad, but our first by ourselves and him taking almost the same route as me through the British Isles, but from the other direction), the effects and interests of travel on personal development and perspective (us both being psychology majors), and eventually metaphysics, philosophy, and the comparative claims to truth of different worldviews. I always heard that it could be fun meeting people in hostels, I keep to myself enough not to have assumed that would be the case for me, but I suppose the law of attraction makes it possible even for introverted amateur philosophers.

After making the proper acquaintance of the other philosophic gent who joined our conversation and learning what I should have known better of from my previous trip to Oxford (a school trip for a class on C.S. Lewis) of the C.S. Lewis society, I made a point of trying to go to the next meeting, on the following day. This was also a tremendous and serendipitous boon as the society was frequented by another academic gent, whom I had met only very briefly in my previous trip, and who had just given the best commencement speech I had ever heard for my Alma Mater – Dr. Michael ward (commencement speech heredo watch!). I had it in the back of my mind that it might be possible to bump into him in Oxford and let him know just how much his address had amused and touched me and all my closest friends only a few weeks before. I was able to make his acquaintance and awkwardly voice my enthusiasm. I had wanted to include him in my friend-group’s post-commencement revels on Facebook over his speech, which I was then able to do, although unfortunately the posts were so buried that my friends did not see their ensuing opportunity to thank him themselves. He gave us all so much joy, besides much mirth.

In the morning I was thrilled to find that a HelpX situation that I had been really hoping for worked out (it can be hard to find one in Oxford, due to the many tourists) and they could take me for the entire rest of my trip!

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

~TIME SPENT~

The rest of my week was a bit of a laid-back zoning out through meditative firewood chopping and chilling in my host-home. Oxford proper was an hour walk and – while a lovely walk it was – my goal had been to GET there… I had no real plans once I was there and my wallet was too tight to entertain myself with anything other than sightseeing, and I had seen the sights before. I just enjoyed the “pinch me – Oxford is still real!” feeling. I can’t explain why, but to me, a great deal of the adventure is just feeling the air of a place. Sitting as if I just live there and being a part of that life, if only for a few days. Really living that alternate version of my universe, and – in general – I’m actually quite the home-body (no, really). Once I GET somewhere, I really just want to be as local to my homeplace as possible. (Did I mention that in my Texas posts? It was a chore to drive 2 miles into town or cross over to the other side of the pop 2,114 town :P). Anyways, I was happy, the weather was sunny, and the work – while work – wasn’t too hard.

(Can I just say their sinks make no sense? Options: scald, freeze, or a little of each…)

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The park next-door to my host house

 

I did make sure I took one full day to go on a long walk (10 miles or so) up the Thames from the West side of Oxford to a nearby town (Wolvercote) up to The Trout Inn as I had gone followed that same route on a jog the last time I had been in the area and was looking for a ruins that I had passed the last time. I ended up accidentally taking the wrong branch of the river to find the ruins, but that was neat in its own right, because I got to see a path I hadn’t before. The boats along the way felt like a celebratory water-bound gypsy band out of a fairy-tale. The gentleman fishing with an old radio at hand made my day, as did the swans carefully escorting their fledglings through the water.

I treated myself to a drink at the Inn (a pretty expensive spot, but lovely atmosphere and absolutely hopping!)

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~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

I ended up transitioning to a couch-surfing place for my last two days with a young woman my age who was getting her PhD in Refugee studies at Lady Margaret Hall (a college of Oxford University), got to have dinner inside Magdalene College with another, and – due to a serendipitous meeting with an american theology professor – even got to visit Christ Church College for free :D, as well as have a drink and a lovely conversation with a very accomplished woman. I thoroughly enjoyed meandering around appreciating the beautiful architecture and even had a couple of sunny days to do it!

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I was able to take a quick visit to The Kilns (C.S. Lewis’ home) to have a chat with the resident scholar, whom I had met at the C.S. Lewis Society. She was (and I assume still is ;)) a lovely American theologian and through the course of our conversation I was able to ask her a great many theological questions that I had been frustrating myself with. She gave me beautiful answers to all of them and genuinely helped the agitated state of my soul a great deal (on the Wiki page for “The Kilns” the picture of the “Interior” is exactly where we visited, her on the couch to the left, I on the chair to the right). I also took a quick trip into the Ashmolean, which I hadn’t spent much time in before. I found an exquisite painting of the Scottish highlands that absolutely took my breath away with its life-like detail. Probably the single most beautiful painting I’ve ever seen. And I always love looking at all the royal trinkets. The front lobby also had a side-by-side picture of a 19th century (I think) painting of High Street as well as a contemporary picture to compare it with. Stunning.

 

The young woman (my age) who I was staying with really reached out as I was really hoping to spend a couple of days closer to the city center and have the free time to explore again a bit. She was in the middle of studying for her dissertation, but still took the time not only to meet with and host me, but invited me to the pub with an academic buddy of hers and spent several hours in another long chat with me – this one on NGOs, humanitarian aid, and the mixed – or often downright destructive – impact of white attempts at international aid, which was extremely interesting to me, as I had been seriously considering making a career of NGO work (still am, but with an altered perspective – more in another article perhaps).

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

~LUXURY & APPRECIATION~

I spent my last day in town visiting all the shops I loved (the one below: a journal shop that I could get lost in for hours just flipping the luxurious pages and feeling the covers), buying souvenirs for friends and family, and treating myself on my last bit of money to an espresso and croissant at The Grand Cafe on High Street and tea with desert later on at a tea-house in the same area (whose name I can’t remember!). It was a lovely day of looking out the windows and indulging just a bit in absolute appreciation for the place.

 

The two things I missed doing that I will have to put on a to-do list for later in life: on my first study-abroad there (4 years prior) I had the opportunity to go to a symphony concert and didn’t, because I was attending to my studies (not the right decision in retrospect, but part of that home-bodyness) and I had sorely wanted to attend one this time around. There were several, but most of them were £40 or so, which I couldn’t afford. I could have made it to one that was £12, but alas… The other thing was a friend I had met in Oxford the first time (and visited a few weeks before on my way north from Texas) gave me a trinket of Oxford memorabilia to leave as a time-capsule for him to gather later on. I had it in my pocket for the last three days there and had found the perfect spot to leave it! I was in a rush to get to the bus station on time to catch my plane from London and forgot it completely :(. I’ll have to beat him back and plant it…

 

Other than that, the luxury of the last two days was such a treasure. Waitressing off the moolah in the previous months couldn’t have been more worth it. I just wish I’d saved a liiiittle more (I did a little shopping in Texas that was more fun than necessary).

I extended that enjoyment just a little when I got to my overnight (again – they plan it that way) layover in the Reykjavik airport and – after resettling into my familiar temporary homeplace – chilled for most of the evening in their cafe there, getting a couple of espressos and a couple of the amazing fresh-made juices, while I worked on copying quotes into my journal and just reflecting – trying to just appreciate where I was, without feeling guilty about how indulgent I was being in life.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

~CONCLUDING THOUGHTS~

I really think our culture – while its work ethic is largely what has made America the great country it is, and in many ways that same work ethic is being thoroughly undermined (a topic for another day) – there is a sense in which Americans really don’t know how to value stopping and smelling the roses – being allowed to. We sort of abstractly recognize it as something we “should” do, but our culture doesn’t actually act like it’s worth doing, because many people don’t actually disengage from the day for long enough to do it. I don’t mean we should act entitled to a life of luxury and ease, but that the work ought to be for the end of not only serving our fellow man and society, but of enjoying life for its own sake. Looking for the beauty around you and dwelling in it. I wanted to go to Oxford to enjoy that beauty, but the same act can be done anywhere and we ought to cultivate that skill – that ability to perceive – as something at least as worth our money as keeping up with the Joneses with the flat-screen, the car, etc. I realize that many people do not have the luxury of the time and freedom to travel as I have been able to (although many could if they let themselves think they could), but please, try to stop and appreciate, if only for a moment, wherever you are and whatever your circumstances.

That’s what I took away from my trip, besides immense appreciation for hospitality and the beauty of the British Isles.

The sky-scape of clouds above Washington D.C. was just the whipped-cream on top:

 

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~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

British Isles: Hospitality III.2 ~ England: The Thames Path

Now, the night before starting off on the Thames Path (or another link) towards Oxford, I spent probably a half-hour or so walking around in the dark, in the park, by the river (sorry…sounding Seussish?) trying to find a suitably out of the way place to sleep. Fortunately, the place felt very safe. My primary goal, then, was to find a spot of ground that seemed soft, sheltered (from the chance of rain that evening), and not in the potential path of early-morning joggers. I admit to feeling a little sketchy trying to stealthily burrow away in various bushes, flinching as I snapped twigs underfoot, but I ended up finding the perfect spot by walking just a bit further into the park, away from the street lamps. Unfortunately, my phone was languishing at this point and, thus, my source of illumination lay on the brink of being extinguished with the life of my battery. I managed by moonlight for the most part, however, and tried to discern the best place to repose by estimating how appealing the various darker blobs (which I assumed were trees and bushes) looked compared to their companions. I saw one particularly promising looking blob about 20 yards off the path, surrounded by a dense plateau of tall weeds, and I planned on trying for that one. I was a little concerned by the fact that the weeds looked very much like water-hemlock to me, from which I have before experienced extensive rashes, but seeing as I was mostly covered I went for it. After struggling with my large pack through the vines which connected the branches of what ended up being a tree to the ground, I found myself in a perfect little secluded private room. The tree formed a tight umbrella and if the vines weren’t enough to prevent anyone from seeing in, the weeds were. It was very fairy-tale like and hobbit-ish. I was so pleased.

I was less pleased, I admit, when I found out within about a half-hour of getting in my sleeping bag that apparently it was a lot colder out, and my sleeping bag a lot thinner, than I had assumed. It ended up being one of those “stick-face-in-sleeping bag-to-warm-body-with-breath…realize-that-doesn’t-work-and-roll-over-to-protect-vital-organs-from-cold-air…realize-the-ground-is-colder…repeat” kind of nights. I think I slept for an hour or so just before dawn. I have to admit, it made my fairy-tale abode a little less romantic, but I survived.

After orienting myself in the light of dawn, searching in vain for an open business with a ladies room, and making do with nature, I started my long day’s walk, with a smile on my face and a spring in my step – this is what I had come to England for! I had no idea where I would end up that day and no way of knowing exactly where I was at any given point, but all I had to do was follow the river.

I was so sad that my phone was dead at that point, because the Teddington Lock was absolutely priceless to look at. The gentle sunshine just getting into morning made a rippling mosaic of pastels that echoed with gentle laps against the hulls of the punts and canoes lining the shores. It so made me think of “Ratty” in The Wind in the Willows and I will treasure that scene forever.

After walking about an hour, just soaking in the early morning atmosphere (and trying to figure out how to make my pack more comfortable and less awkward), I started to feel ready for breakfast and was determined to sit in a coffee-shop to take it all in. I was looking for a place on the water, but the path broke away from it and I found myself in a quiet part – apparently the “High Street” – of a little town called Thames-Ditton. After getting myself a pop-top can of chili for breakfast and a head of cauliflower and an orange for lunch later (I am, again, a health-nut and was reaaaaally watching my budget at this point), I found a nice little place called IMG_20150530_032718120The Lime Tree” that looked clean, peaceful, and had a ton of fancy meats, cheeses, and jams that – while I couldn’t buy them – were lovely to look at. My latte made my morning and the shop was so light and bright that it really made the sunny morning sink in nicely.

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I had enjoyed my can of cold chili (I really had!), but it was impossible not to go in and be tempted by the stack of croissants, which I had been particularly craving earlier in the morning. I had an unorthadox thought, and – while weighing the chances of my sounding like a complete hobo, which I thought were pretty good – I asked the owner if I could exchange some services in exchange for half-off of a croissant (they weren’t that expensive, I was just seeing if I could work off half a pound). The owner – an older lady who had already been looking at my pack with a slightly cocked eyebrow – laughed and told me she would just give me one for being so audacious as to ask. Being at that point quite certain I had come across as a hobo, I insisted that I would love to still provide the service and – while I can’t imagine if it helped or not – I vastly enjoyed my croissant and the hospitality of the lady to provide me with it. This trip grew my humility in great strides. If ever anyone (especially those of you – my English friends – who live in the area!) wants to follow in my footsteps, pray add some zest to your day and patronize the lovely coffee shop for a repose and tell the owner “hello from the American hobo” for me :).

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I continued on, very refreshed and, after a little trouble wandering around trying to find out how to get back to the river, I walked along happily, even finding a shoe shop where I got laces that I was able to use to adjust my backpack straps, making it infinitely more secure and comfortable. After maybe another hour, I happened upon another gem (this trip was full of those!): the Hampton Court Palace. For the sake of brevity, I’ll let it speak for itself, but I thoroughly enjoyed the outer rose gardens, which were accessible to the public, as well as the gates (I have a thing for wraught-iron gates).

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The rest of the morning plugged away with my enjoying the company of flocks of ducks, geese, and swans, passing bicyclists, local dog-walkers, and parents playing with their kids in the park, along with, of course, every form of water-transport.

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This little dude had quite the arm for cricket!

This little dude had quite the arm for cricket!

These ladies stopped to help me get my cauliflower out of my pack for a snack :)

These ladies stopped to help me get my cauliflower out of my pack for a snack 🙂

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I got to a ferry crossing about lunchtime and I decided it would be a good place for another snack and I had remembered hearing something about a pub near the crossing and – after a brief chat with a lovely older couple who gave me directions and asked me about my adventures (laughing at my confession that I thought of trying to get to Windsor that night – roughly 24 miles from my start by the direct route, which I had already taken a few dips out of according to the site) – found “The Old Crown“.

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I had another lovely repose there as well, and my feet had been a little sore for a couple hours – minor blisters, but not too bad (as you can tell by the picture, my shoes weren’t really hiking shoes, but I had only wanted to bring one pair and it had to work with everything I brought, including dresses). The pub had a cozy feel and was decked out in rich, dark wood with a neat patterned carpet, and a variety of places to sit. The people there – both employees and customers – were very friendly and warm. I had actually saved my croissant from breakfast time and munched on it then, while I enjoyed a cup of cream tea. I decided to try my I’m-really-not-a-hobo strategy again to see if I could work off half-price on a sandwich and the result was almost identical. While I – in an embarrassed way – explained my business proposition to the owner, he too cocked an eyebrow at me and said “why don’t I just give you one, on the house?”, smiled, and went into the back to make me one. I was again somewhat mortified, since I technically had the money to just buy it, but I was trying to see if I could pull off backpacking sustainably, since I couldn’t earn money while I was there. I again protested, insisting that I would be happy to provide a service and he just as insistently told me to enjoy the sandwich and walked back to his office. Again, getting a bit of a good humbling…. It was a delicious sandwich. I will again appeal to my English friends to remember me to the owner if you choose to take lunch or a pint there, which I highly recommend as it was a lovely spot to eat and drink and on a lovely spot near the river.

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I saved the sandwich for dinner (which was a challenge) and used the WiFi to double check on the distance to Windsor and what sorts of accommodations were en route. I was pretty confident I would be able to make it time-wise if my feet held out (it was roughly another 14 miles from there and – due to side-tracks – I had gone about 13 by that point). There was one town about 6 miles shy of there that I thought I could stay at if it turned out to be too far, but I had a lot of people tell me that I wasn’t going to make it to Windsor that day and so, of course, I wanted to make it! I was having a little trouble finding information on hostels there, which I thought was odd since *surely* a town like Windsor would have some, but having found an obscure site indicating a hostel that seemed like it was outrageously priced (40 pounds – twice what I had allowed for all daily expenditures), I made the somewhat imprudent decision to just ask the locals when I got there if there was a better place to stay than that and headed off to ring the ferry bell for a crossing.

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The rest of the afternoon was a bit more trying, as my feet already hurt some and my shoulders were getting a little sore (*whine, whine*), but it was 2:00pm and I figured about my half-way point (I began walking around what I guessed was maybe 7:30am and had taken two hour-long breaks). I walked along fields, towns, and more people and enjoyed looking at all of the house-names that I passed.

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I also developed a sort of friendship with a yachting family that I kept passing and being passed by everytime I got to a Lock. IMG_20150530_131524743At one point they asked me if I wanted a ride, maybe at 4:00 or 5:00, which I declined, determined to make it myself, although if I had seen them again around 7:00 I think I would have taken them up on it.

The main gem I found during those hours was another spot I had no clue I’d run into: Runnymede field where the Magna Carta was signed! It was right there. So cool.

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I also passed this little teeny tyke runningIMG_20150530_130856077 around outside of some family-reunion dressed in full Scottish formal kilt-wear along with his pacifier (the folds in his socks took up almost his whole leg…*girly squeals!*).

Around 6pm I got to that pre-Windsor town and found a hotel to charge my phone in, tried seeing if I could reserve a room in the Windsor hostel, but the site didn’t do that, gave myself a pep-talk in theIMG_20150530_113504516_HDR (2) hotel bathroom and while I sat in a park and ate my sandwich, accidentally went about a mile off-track and had to go back to get on it again (which by this time was getting painful) and set my teeth to get there as quickly as possible. Fortunately, since I hadn’t eaten much, it made my pack-carrying arrangement a little easier, as – in order to keep weight off of my shoulders – I had looped my belt through my sleeping bag loops, but it was veeeeery snug. Worked well, though, which pleased me.

At one point I had gone a little off-track again and while re-orienting myself I realized I had gotten my internal compass a little mixed (the path winds around a lot) and had this great moment where I thought I was IMG_20150530_143546843facing away from Windsor, realized I was facing towards it and should be getting close, looked up, and the castle was right there in front of me! 😀 (just to the left in the pic). This put a little more bounce in my increasingly limp step and I gained hope, although I remembered reading that the IMG_20150530_151057740_HDRpath actually has to scoop completely out of the way of the castle and into a nearby town in order to avoid going through the royal grounds. This was around 8pm.

By 9:00 I had got to the other town, couldn’t find any accommodation after walking through there a bit, and started making for Windsor proper, which was about 2 more miles. Once in Windsor I had just enough battery in my phone left to indicate to me that the hostel was apparently on the opposite side of town, about another 40 minutes of walking. By this time I think I was starting to look pathetic, was definitely starting to feel a bit run-down, and night was falling rapidly.

I eyed the park in the center of town as a possible option for sleeping, because I was reaaaally trying to avoid walking any more as a limp at this point was basically impossible to avoid (I had been able to feel the weight of the liquid in my poorly-situated blisters swinging with each step for about 5 hours by then), but my sleeping-out experience the night before motivated me to continue on and this was a busier town.

As I crossed town I realized that, besides being a somewhat roaring weekend night (as the pubs indicated), there was also some kind of big cancer-fundraiser bike-ride going on through the night. It made something interesting to look at, at least, while I got to the other side of town through the dark.

Once to the right road, I walked up and down it without seeing a sign for the hostel and finally limped into a pub for directions, got a somewhat confused “I think it’s just down the road” (where I had just come from), and – starting to feel a little desperate – limped back down the road. I got as far as a dark graveyard before deciding that I should turn back again and, upon inquiring again in the same pub, had another person pipe up “oh THAT place? It closed down a few years ago”.

O_*

The next couple of unattractive hours consisted of my asking if they had lodging, being informed they were fully booked, limping back towards the center of town to a pub to look up B&Bs, discovering, as I lamented over a bottle of lemonade (the cheapest thing I could buy there), that the cheapest ones were around 60-80 pounds and were, anyways, completely booked due to the fund-raiser and the fact it was the weekend. I (a little tearfully) asked a couple ladies in the pub if they knew of anywhere, received a sympathetic negative, but got directions to a club that was open late, tried a couple of B&Bs on the way and got grumpy, sleepy negatives on them (it was past midnight and I felt bad even asking), got to the club and found out it was closing in a half-hour.

At this point I was thinking of finding the bus-station (although I knew it to be back towards the center of town and I was pretty much contemplating just sitting in the middle of the sidewalk to get off my feet), since it would at least be out of the expected rain that was beginning to drizzle but, as I was still a little sick, hadn’t slept the night before, and figured there would probably be a homeless population around there that would make me disinclined to actually sleep, I thought I would try for help one more time as a matter of minor desperation.

There were a few security guards outside the club and I decided to ask one helpful/approachable-looking guy if he knew of anywhere nearby that wasn’t booked. I explained a little of my plight and at this point I admit that pride was taking a back-seat to my increasing sense of misery at my having gotten myself into such a stupid situation (thoughts along the lines of “THIS is why I don’t do spontaneous things…what was I thinking???” and the like had been frequent for a couple of hours…and my blisters didn’t help) and I imagine that might have shown more than my ego would generally have liked (again, that humility, though…). He was very sympathetic, although he initially said he didn’t know of anywhere so, dejectedly, I asked him if he could point me towards the bus-station. He told me where it was, but before I left he told me to wait and said he might be able to figure something out (!!).

Hellelujah!!!

This was a first for me, as far as I can remember: getting myself into a total scrape, absolutely and completely my fault, probably not seriously dangerous but seriously desirable to avoid on a variety of levels, and having someone step in and offer to fix the problems of a total stranger at the end of a 1:30am shift for really no good reason. I cannot overstate how appreciative I was of the aid. Even just knowing someone cared to help, even if it hadn’t worked out as well as it did eventually, was incredibly comforting.

After letting me into a quiet lounge part of the club where I could sit and wait, he tried talking to some people and thinking of different options before he and another security guard drove me to a nearby B&B that was less expensive than the others. This did not immediately solve the problem, though, as the B&B was completely booked (like all the other ones), but he stayed there and talked with the manager – who was initially inclined to just apologize that there was no vacancy – until he agreed to let me sleep in a couch in the lobby, which was pretty much worth a night in the Taj Mahal to me then.

After thanking the very helpful security guards and the manager as profusely as I could, I fell onto the couch and was almost asleep before the manager asked me if I would like another pillow or needed anything.

Misery became bliss.

British Isles: Hospitality Part III.1 ~ England

As I have alluded to previously, one of my goals whilst in England had become to reach out to the indigenous network of lovely nutrition-minded folk involved with a product I was trying out and curious to learn more about. I had been put in touch via Facebook with a lady highly involved in the English branch of the company since I had first left the States and she had informed me of an event going on in Manchester right when I was planning on transitioning from Edinburgh to London anyways. I really wanted to make it over, but since I hadn’t originally planned for an overnight stay in another city (the event was in the evening), I wasn’t sure if it was prudent to go to the expense while I still had a substantial amount of providing for myself to do and no guarantees of more hosts later on. So, while madly contacting Couchsurfing hosts back in Stirling, I decided to be brazenly audacious, since I was about that business already, and ask if the lady (who had seemed very nice) could possibly allow me to stay with her for that evening if I was able to make it to the event – any given 6’X3′ bit of floorspace under a roof highly acceptable. I can’t imagine what it must be like to be going about your business and have some random chick from another country ask if she can stay in your home when you tell her about a gig she might be interested in attending. She said “Yes, absolutely”.

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My view of the transitional landscape from Scotland to England (not a terribly dramatic change) was indescribably sweeter knowing I would have a safe, comfortable place to stay that night. I admit to spending a deal of time writing a long email in response to an inquiry a new contact had sent me, rather than gazing out the window, but it was a very pleasant ride, overall. We stopped briefly at a nice travel-station that had a full, upscale market inside containing loads of rich house-made loaves of various, nutty concoctions, fanciful local cheeses, fine meats, and the like. Most of it was far too expensive to justify, but – having had no appetite and therefore only a couple of carrots for breakfast on the way to Edinburgh – I had accumulated several solid hours worth of spent calories and, in consequence, a hearty hunger with which I agonized over a dark, dense, fruit and nut-filled quickbread for a solid 5 minutes. Ultimately, though, it all came to naught, as it was outrageously priced and I really didn’t want something sweet. I managed to find an adequate snack to tide me over for the afternoon and included in my discoveries was a bottle of some kind of local, very natural, effervescent lemonade that made me spend most of the rest of the trip thinking up business plans for how to kick it off in the United States. Even with my limited backpack space, I saved the bottle to remind myself to act on that someday. It was soooo good :9”.

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No one in the bus station in Manchester had heard of the event venue or the road it was on, so I pieced it together from tidbits different people said about the address given in the event flyer, locals’ familiarity with the tram system, and a little bit of direction-asking of some posh folk in an upscale bar (trying not to bump into expensive vases as I lumbered my pack in). While most of the city I traversed was somewhat sketchy looking and/or under construction, the trail led eventually to a charming walkway along the river, lined with attractive pubs. The event itself was great! Very pleasant and informative with lots of very enthusiastic, genuine, just really cool people to chat with in the bar area afterwards. On leaving the scene, the blessings of having a comfortable house and a warm family to stay with was even more appreciated because I was still sick and having everything about my evening taken care of, simply out of the generosity of someone’s heart – or possibly pity for a poor backpacker making imprudent life choices – made a huge difference. My evening was fun instead of a trial.

The next morning was lovely, as I was provided with a real shower (you have no idea how exciting that was), nutritious smoothies for breakfast (also how exciting that was), and, since they had wifi (an oasis during the trip), I was able to look up bus tickets to London and decide where I wanted to stay the night. The Thames Path to Oxford – part of a really cool network of medieval public trails that go throughout England and the main tangible goal of my trip at all, aside from Oxford itself – turned out to be much longer than I had originally thought and the first four days or so would have been spent just navigating London, so I made up my mind to drop myself off somewhere West of the city and give myself a headstart in the interest of wanting to spend as much time as possible in Oxford. That still left over 100 miles and I had been to London on a previous trip. There will always be more to see there, of course, but it’s expensive enough that I figured I’d wait until I had someone else to enjoy it with and make the expense worthwhile. I still hadn’t found a definite host for while I was in Oxford, but I also didn’t know of any en route, so getting there was still my best chance to find somewhere I could work off room and board. Hostels also seemed to be more scarce than I was previously anticipating along the Thames Path, so I agonized for a while (there was a lot of agonizing on the trip – collateral damage to spontaneity on a budget) over where exactly to put myself so I would have decent start and stop points each day, planning for about 12-15 mile days. The husband of my host, upon hearing my plan, laughed and asked me “why not 40 miles a day? Go full out!”. I couldn’t tell if he was joking, but it made my estimate seem small, so I broadened my mind a little. Expediency did have some precedence over comfort at that point.

I had originally planned to start the walk that day, leaving very early in the morning for the remaining 4 hours of travel time between myself and London, but I was enjoying the hospitality too much to dump myself in a random outskirt of London from whence I had little plan except to walk and be as frugal as possible, so I just put my goal for the day a few miles further in and figured if I got there by nightfall I’d be fine. This was the more so since I had made up my mind to sleep outside the first night of my walk, both in the interests of frugality and for the romance of the thing. I just really wanted this to be my “hobbit trip”, flying the Shire to my Rivendell, and also – being from Montana – sometimes I don’t feel like I’m on an adventure unless I’m out in nature.

A friend of the couple I was staying with was driving to a place near the bus station anyways, so the timing worked out very well for me and – after sincere thanks to my hosts, I departed. The prices had gone up overnight and so I ended up having to wait for a few hours at the station for the most cost-effective transit (is this sounding like a theme? Not trying to dwell on it, but that’s how it went) and had a nice chat with a few bus-station-goers. I was disappointed that there wasn’t wifi on the four hour ride to London as I wanted to submit host requests and look up hostels along the way, but I spent my time contemplatively and pleasantly enough.

The entry into London was fun, since we passed by minor little things that I remembered from my last trip (an interesting yin-yang statue in a park, and an ornate lamp shop I had entered on my last visit to the city).

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A pic I took of the lamp shop last time I was in London 4 years ago - this same piece was still in the window.

A pic I took of the shop last time I was in London 4 years ago – this same piece was still in the window.

With a few minor hitches in switching from bus to train at the Victoria station in London (Oyster card confusion, waiting in line, finding platforms, missing the soonest trains, and such) I managed to get myself into Teddington around 10 p.m.. It was a charming smaller-feeling suburb of London and everyone there seemed very pleasant. I had picked the place partly because I wanted to be far enough from the city to get that effect, since I had some anxiety over sleeping outside if it were more like what I had seen of Manchester and I was looking for a park to hide away in.

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Upon arriving, I was able to get a cheap bus to the river and, as there was a pub right on the water, was able to utilize the facilities to brush my teeth. I had one very lovely lady see me in the restroom and concernedly ask me if “everything was alright”, which made me smile, since I thought I looked distinctly more like a backpacker than a homeless person, despite my unusual pack, and also made me feel quite cared for, even though I was planning on doing exactly what she seemed to be worried about, which is sleep outside by myself. I smiled appreciatively and assured her that it very much was, which didn’t seem to convince her a bit, as she glanced at my toothbrush in hand and the sleeping bag on my pack, but after some further inquiry and assurance she eventually gave me an “oookaaaaay…I just wanted to check…”. I thanked her and returned to my toiletries. A few minutes later I left the pub. She was still with a friend outside and called over to me with the same expression on her face, telling me that there was a hotel not far away and was I sure I was ok? I did consider it, now that I was approaching actually acting on my plan, but I knew I wanted to do it and a hotel was out of the question really (as was asking someone even more completely a  stranger to stay with them), so I cheerfully assured her again and walked off very much in the direction of the bridge to the park, rather than towards town and started looking for a place to slumber.

British Isles: Hospitality Part II ~ Scotland

The entirety of my reasoning for going to Glasgow was, essentially, that I knew I wanted to go to Scotland for just a couple of days and the tickets were way cheaper than to fly to Edinburgh, where everyone said to go. I figured if I decided to make it that direction it would probably be cheaper to take a bus. I had no clue what to expect in Glasgow, whether there was anything particular to see there, or where I should go from there. Totally blind discovery. One of the only things in Scotland that gave me any sort of purpose other than just being there is that I have a friend who claims descendancy from William Wallace, so I wanted to find something to do with the man at some point while I was there since I wanted to get my friend a souvenir of some kind anyways. My little self-imposed mini-mission. That was largely because I wasn’t planning on getting as far East as Edinburgh and had no clue what else to do, since Loch Ness was the opposite side of the country and those were about the only places of significance I had heard of (again – flying by the seat of my pants rather than researching before hand). I also like finding things to take back to friends that actually mean something. I landed without having so much as looked up a map or a hostel, figuring I would just wander around and figure something out when I got there.

While I was deplaning in Glasgow, I had noticed a girl coming on the flight earlier who had a cute hat and as I started to exit the plane I heard her mention something about going to California. Being from America and specifically having family there, I asked her where and we had a brief exchange. I got onto the airport shuttle and she, along with three friends, arrived in the same shuttle just moments behind me. We got to talking again and they found out that I was travelling alone and didn’t have any plans on where to stay yet, so they invited me to join them in their hostel, since one of the girls who was supposed to be on the trip cancelled last minute! Wow! That’s something that definitely would not have happened if I had pre-planned a stay somewhere. They even told me not to worry about contributing to the room, because they had already paid for it. So instead of meandering around Glasgow on my own, I ended up hanging out with four Dublin girls for the afternoon, drinking coffee, taking selfies, shopping, figuring out the city, and having some drinks at a nice local pub. They all went out clubbing later that evening and I would have joined for kicks, although, alas, towards the end of the afternoon I found myself feeling increasingly unwell and ended up putting myself to bed early with a sore throat. I ended up staying on the edge of sick for most of the rest of my time, although it never got more serious than fatigue and a lot of nose-blowing with some croupy bronchitis. It also gave me a good chance to shower and rest, since I had barely slept the night before (again).

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The next morning we all met up for breakfast with a gentleman who they had met the previous night – an upstanding seeming sort of chap, had some haggis – which really wasn’t half bad!, and bid them so long and thanks for all the… well not fish, but company and hostel space (Hitchhiker’s Guide anyone?…).

It was my plan at that point to go to Elderslie, which I understood to be not too far away from Glasgow and to be the birthplace of William Wallace with a monument there. After asking directions to the appropriate bus a few times, I discovered that Elderslie might not be the safest part of town for a travelling twenty-something female to go wandering about alone in (although I didn’t look too deeply into it, so I could be wrong), so I instead relegated myself – alas – to a McDonald’s as it was the only place right next to the Central Train Station that I could find that I was sure would have WiFi, upon which my phone was entirely dependant. I spent a couple of sniffling, coughing, bleary hours looking up other things that might have something to do with William Wallace along with train times and prices on my phone and a quick google search said something about a town called “Stirling” that had a memorial, so without looking much more into it except to book a hostel, I bought the first ticket out there, fenagled my somewhat awkward large backpack (which – being a leather book-bag with a sleeping bag attached with a rope to the bottom – was a constant theme throughout my trip until I pinned down a system for maneuvering it), and took my sniffles and snorks across the street. I had a pleasant conversation on the train with a Stirling local – a children’s book illustrator – and it was nice to see that the weather was clearing up a bit outside.

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When I got to Stirling, I was immediately pleased that the town looked to be on the smaller side and very walkable, with a big sign at the exit of the train station highlighting some neat looking history of the place. I had done just a little more research on my phone and it looked like this William Wallace memorial was a fairly big deal, actually, and it was a very large tower built on a hill outside of town.

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As I crossed the street to get up the hill that the town was built on, a kilt and tartan shop caught my eye because, as I mentioned, I claim Scottish heritage (Scots-Irish, really), so I walked in to look up some clan information. The lady and gent running the shop were pleasant to talk to (we later got into a friendly, idealistic discussion about American foreign policy) and I found out relatively quickly from them that Stirling, which I had just happened upon in a spontaneous, nonchalant fashion, was apparently – besides being built on a stone-age settlement – the ancient capital and seat of Scottish rule for centuries, and the fortified castle at the top of the hill (which I had only just noticed on the map in the train station) had been established in the 1100s with a rich history connected to it’s royal heritage! So, that shows you both how much I know about Scottish history and also what fun being spontaneous can be sometimes. I was staying in the – wait for it – Willy Wallace Hostel, and after depositing my things, I decided to take a bit of a look around town. I spent the rest of the evening taking in all of the medieval treasures around me on the hike up the hill to the castle and just soaking it in, as that had been the first really lovely old town that I had been able to spend much time in since arriving in the British Isles, Dublin and Glasgow being of course cities, with a city feel. The Church of the Holy Rude – the church next to the graveyard and Castle at the top of the hill, the identity of which I remained in complete ignorance of as I walked around it – is apparently the only church aside from Westminster to have held a coronation: that of Mary Queen of Scots son, James VI. After satisfying myself on having gotten the lay of the land to explore more the next day, admired the approaching sunset, and taken a few selfies with the castle, I went to the Tesco’s – one of the main grocery stores in Ireland and the U.K.. I took my goods back to the hostel and made myself a hearty meal of steamed cabbage, potato, onion, tomatoes, and salmon while enjoying making the acquaintance of a nice Polish gentleman who worked there and two German girls who had just arrived, while trying not to disturb the kitchen too much with my frequent nose-blowing.

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The following day, after sleeping in and doing laundry, I made my trek out to my goal: the William Wallace monument. Prior to that, however, a French gent who worked in the hostel gave me the suggestion of and directions to take an alternate route, which went straight through an old church ruins, open to the public, that contained the tomb of James III, right out in the open air next to a little graveyard on the outskirts of town. On my way out of town, I enjoyed noticing the house names, as many houses in the U.K. do not have address numbers at all, just names. I traipsed through the ruins for a while, and then took a little “path” of stepped through grass through a field in a very back-country route to the base of the Abbey Craig hill, upon which the monument sat. It was a lovely walk and the view from the top was really neat, especially since it looks straight across town to the castle and the last night I had been sitting on the castle looking straight across the hill at it. The monument also overlooks the entire surrounding area, which has an absolutely loaded history (the brief Wiki article is chock full), since it was the seat of Scotland for so long, including the history of Stirling Bridge, which was the site of a major battle for the Scottish War of Independence led by William Wallace in 1297. My timing worked out well, as a lovely older man dressed in period-garb gave an informative and entertaining account of some of the history that I had been craving to hear outside of the monument, concerning the context of the Scottish war of independence and William Wallace’s contribution. I was able to find a suitable souvenir for my friend and hustle my way back down Abbey Craig just as it was starting to rain, but not before getting in a pleasant chat with the speaker.

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I spent the rest of the day walking around town a little more and finding gifts for family, IMG_20150527_095611731but primarily at a coffee shop, still feeling under the weather (the cold, rainy day hadn’t been helping), using the WiFi, as I desperately needed to find lodging, since I did not have it in my budget to stay another night in the hostel. I was hoping to try to make it to an event I was told about in Manchester, England, the next day, but if I wasn’t able to pull off lodging, I would have to default to my plan of starting the long trek down the Thames Path to Oxford, which I had already budgeted for. So I spent a few hours frantically writing Couchsurfing requests and looking up train and bus tickets before giving up and going back to the hostel to at least make dinner out of my leftovers. I had reluctantly decided that I would just book a bus ticket that would go from roughly 9 p.m. to 4 a.m., so it would essentially double as lodging, but considering I was still sick, I wasn’t eager about the thought of probably not getting any rest on the bus and then arriving at a bus station in a strange city, ill and sleepless, at 4 in the morning with nowhere to go until evening. I was, in fact, fighting to get that bus ticket anyways, as time was running very short to achieve that option and my bank, for some reason, would not allow me to make that online bus purchase. I had been trying to call my bank and various fraud protection personnel for close on an hour, but had been failing since my WiFi connection kept cutting out and when I could connect they kept referring me back and forth to the others, before telling me that it had to be somehow resolved on my end, which hadn’t been offered as an option on all of the sites I tried to work through. Literally minutes before I was planning on just going and paying more at the bus station itself, hopping on, and leaving, I received an email from a Couchsurfing host who said she would be willing to take me in for the night! Talk about a blessing in disguise with fighting for that online ticket. I was so excited that someone was willing to pick me up so last minute, as I had only messaged her a couple of hours before. It meant giving up an evening of local folk music in a pub with my new Polish friend and some other hostel goers, which I was really sad about, but I was exhausted as it was and wanted to not be sick for the rest of my trip. So I hopped in her and her boyfriend’s car and got whisked away for the remainder of the evening.

They not only allowed me to stay in their house last minute, but insisted (despite my despairing protestations at being such an imposition) on changing the bedding in their room and putting me up for the night there, rather than in their spare sleeping place, since they were going to be up and about for a while and wanted me to sleep well. I found out that, in the midst of all this, she was in the middle of trying to pack and sort out details for her flight to Wales the following morning for a funeral! She even spent time (despite more protestations) making sure I was able to book the right bus ticket for the next day, which I got an even better deal on because they were driving to Edinburgh for her flight, so the bus to Manchester was more direct, besides giving me a chance to get a look at the city. My appreciation cannot be overstated and I felt incredibly humbled by their generosity to a complete stranger, without so much as a single Couchsurfing reference (a big deal on the site), as my self-imposed alternate options were not favorable.

We had a nice chat the next morning on the way to the airport in the lovely sunny new day and after a brief pleasant “farewell”, I hopped on the shuttle into town, where I would have an hour before I needed to depart for Manchester. An hour is really an insignificant amount of time, but the station was so central that I was still able to walk up one of the main roads – “The Royal Mile” – past a lot of neat shops and incredible looking buildings to Edinburgh castle and back, getting some final necessary little souvenirs and having plenty of time to get back to the station.

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I happily settled into my seat, and waited to watch the Scottish countryside slide along into the past.

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British Isles: Hospitality Part I ~ Ireland

Aaaaalright, So many thanks to everyone who has been following my blog so far and putting up with my inconsistent schedule, narrative gaps, and developing writing style (definitely not there yet). I hope that what eventually comes of this blog is something fun, encouraging, helpful, beautiful, interesting, and thought I provoking. I only have a small start and am nowhere close yet, but I intend to keep at it until it meets those standards. Just moving forward one step at a time.

Ok! So for those of you who don’t know or are new to my blog, May 17th I took my year of adventures out of the States to Ireland and the U.K.. I have been to Oxford before for a 5 week summer session after my sophomore year of college (I’ll probably write about that at some point) and when I was thinking this summer of all the places I wanted to go before I started doing something more stable I knew I really wanted to see it again. I also wanted to have the experience of traveling alone abroad, because I felt like that was essentially a necessary step in my self-development and all-around skills. I don’t want to be limited to what I think I can and can’t do by something as simple as lack of experience and proclivity for comfort. I knew I could do it, but I also knew it would be highly uncomfortable in a variety of ways and “knowing” is different than having actually done it. I also just wanted to enjoy the freedom of being able to make my own schedule completely while abroad. So I picked the British Isles because, first, Oxford is in them, second, because I’ve always always wanted to see Ireland and Scotland, much of my heritage originating from there (I have this thing where I like touching the ground of places my ancestors came from), and third, because I knew I wanted experience travelling solo abroad and I figured a fairly safe English speaking country friendly to the U.S. with a western view of women would probably be a good springboard for that. So, even though I actually didn’t really want to go to all the trouble and expense, I really felt like it was – as I said before – sort of necessary. I know that it doesn’t make much sense, but my motivation really was less that it would be fun (because I knew I would be a load of work and trouble and I’m actually tempermentally kind of lazy about getting out and doing stuff) and more from some instinctive pull to get beyond my boundaries and out of my comfort zone, but still somewhere that would be worth it to me to see and relatively safe. I also decided that, in keeping with my theme of surrendering control for this year (have I mentioned that yet?), I wouldn’t pre-plan everything out, but would have a rough itinerary and just wing it as it came, not setting anything in stone until necessary. So May 17th, after spending my time in Texas earning money for tickets and provisions and a few hours after my last blog post (which I wrote on my friend’s futon between 2 and 4 a.m. while stressing out about what I’d gotten myself into), I found myself on a plain to Reyjkavik Iceland for an overnight layover (cheap plane tickets), ultimately leading to London Gatwick, then Dublin.

The first flight was nice and I liked the fact that the language was different (Icelandic, which is beautiful by the way) as it definitely made it hit home more that I was leaving the country. My other flights abroad were also primarily at night, if I recall correctly, and so I ended up having a lot of Moby-Dick kinds of thoughts running through my head as we floated along over the vast expanse of Atlantic, which this time I could actually see.

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Reykjavik Airport itself has a really nice feel to it. Everything is outrageously overpriced, of course, but a lot of the shops were really posh wool articles and such which were fun to browse, it has a very open, light feel to the place, and all of the food shops were quite nice. All of the restaurants were set out in the open (no high walls), which gave it a nice airy, communal feel and they also served a good deal of healthy food, including a juice bar and the like, which – while on too much of a budget to enjoy – I still appreciated. It’s also quite a small airport compared to a lot of places, so getting around was easy. It was around midnight or 1 a.m. Icelandic time (4 hours ahead of Eastern Time) and so I set out to find a quiet, out of the way spot to camp out for the night (the cheaper airline prices all seem to have overnight layovers, I imagine to encourage hotel buying). This I managed and, since I had my sleeping bag, I was able to make myself quite comfortable. I still somehow managed to not really sleep at all, though – maybe an hour or hour and a half. Probably because, since my flight was in the morning, I was trying to sleep from what my body thought was 9 p.m. to 3 a.m. and I hadn’t really been going to bed much earlier than the latter of those times of late, as well as always being somewhat hypervigilant when sleeping alone with my stuff in airports, although Reykjavik felt very safe.

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When I arrived in Dublin, after a cheerful conversation with an initially aloof chap my age from the city and almost being turned away at border control because I had mentioned I intended to HelpX (which I didn’t realize required a work visa – I thought that was the point…), I was met at the airport by the lovely Estonian mother and daughter who I had arranged to stay with and who had gotten me through border control by assuring the lady that I was couch surfing, because it was only for a few days anyways.

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Those few days at their house were amazing! They had an Icelandic gent HelpXing with them and within the first day I felt like we were family, complete with sibling jibes and refereeing. The first evening, though, was so utterly pleasant and mellow. They had dinner already cooked, so we all sat down by the little fire – one of the only sources of heat in the chilliness of the old house – in what would be my bedroom and ate hearty homemade potatoes with a cooked veggie topping, cucumber salad, some stone-ground Irish wheat bread (can’t get it like that in the states) with homemade hummus, tea, and a homemade desert.

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I had originally planned to road trip solo for 2 days or so, over to the West coast and back, but finding that not within my budget like I thought it would be, with a little convincing of everyone, we all decided to go on a one-day road-trip south through the Wicklow mountains (which I will now always think of as the “Vicklow” Mountains, since that’s how they said it) and over to a nice beach on the East coast, and we all chipped in some funds. Since I was taking this trip completely spontaneously, I had no clue what to expect, because the only things I knew of to see were in all the remotest places of Ireland that I couldn’t afford to make it to, so it really was a process of blind discovery (another thing I wanted to experience on this trip – exploring like the old days, before internet and travel books). Two treasures that I wouldn’t have known to look for were the Powerscourt Gardens and House (which we only viewed from the outside, but still!) and the Glendalough heritage site – an old church, tower, and cemetery dating back to the 6th century (with one of the original ceilings still intact! Now THAT’S quality). Those were both real gems, in addition to seeing what I believe is the only waterfall in Ireland? I also got to check a bucket-list item off (besides going to Ireland), which was driving in the British Isles! Honestly, switching sides wasn’t nearly as tricky as I thought it would be, but the narrowness of the roads was a little intense.

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When we  got to the beach, we were able to take a closer look at some bright yellow plants that we had seen all over the place and man! They smell potently of – I kid you not – mango coconut smoothie. It would come wafting down along with the Irish Sea-smell in an absolutely taunting way. I had a hard time keeping my face out of them. It literally made me salivate. They could also challenge Texas for intensely prickly things. We also saw palm trees which was definitely not part of my mental schema of Ireland.

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I may have been just a liiiiiiittle excited about getting my toes in that Irish Sea, as chilly as it was:

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We spent the rest of our time there combing the beach for shells, taking jumping pics IMG_20150520_151521950(of course), some of which turned out hilariously, combing the beach for a ton of awesome shells that were everywhere, doing cartwheels and handstands near the surf, and munching on a little picnic of snacks we picked up at the store just previously.

On the way back home, we were blessed with a really nice Irish sunset, which, if you think about it, is not all that common. We were also in a really pretty spot of the Wicklow Mountain area at the time, which made it extra nice. My phone didn’t pick it up well, but this was one of the prettiest scenes I viewed in Ireland and possibly my whole trip:

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After getting back from our little trip, I took a few days away from my new friends to go IMG_20150521_055822953help out an older gentleman on a horse and sheep farm an hour North of Dublin. It was a minor adventure just getting up there, beginning with exploration of the Newgrange monument of Knowth, which I hadn’t heard of before but had looked up just a couple days prior, which apparently predates the pyramids!

I also got somewhat lax in my direction-following and my host, who had driven me up to go to the monument with me, was pressed for time to get our rental car back to the airport, so I wound up dropping myself off in the wrong spot and walking for probably 40 minutes trying to get back to where I was going to meet this new host, with an unusable phone. After a few stops into pubs for directions and use of the telephone, I finally found him, right when he was nearly ready to give up on me, in his very old farm Rover. He was quite pleasant for having driven around all over for the better part of an hour looking for someone he was hosting.

Happily, once we got there I was able to make myself somewhat more useful to him. I used to train horses and, having thirty or so green (barely trained) gypsy vanners, he cheerfully took me to spend the day handling them and giving them some exercise. Not, however, before hospitably sitting me down in his lovely dark kitchen, with brick shelves that he made himself over the oven, and giving me a lovely cup of tea and cream along with some left-over apple crumble desert. That evening we rode around his sheep pastures and through a nice trail-ride on his cross-country activities trail. I had been so hoping I would be allowed to ride some while I was there and I was completely blessed by his enthusiastic inclusion.

I loved his dark old farm kitchen, his old house, full of character, and the suuuuper thick duvet that enveloped me as I slept. I also very nearly packed a couple of his eight dogs in my backpack when I left. Two days was far too short and I treasure that brief time I got to spend with him and his animals. The gray horse in the pictures is about 30 years old (which is old!) and was in Braveheart.

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I also got to see just a little bit of Dublin city while I was on my way back, although after going up and down Grafton Street and missing a look at The Book of Kells by mere minutes, trudging up the hill to a cathedral (the name escapes me) and not managing to get into Dublin Castle because of a post-vote activist crowd, it was pretty much all I had in me to do to trudge back down to the Temple Bar area and get a half-pint of Guinness and some souvenirs (and a sweater! Which I had specifically not packed so that I would have room to purchase one) before finding a bus back.

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After arriving back with my original hosts I spent a pleasant day relaxing with them and being taught Jiu Jitsu from the Icelander. That wasn’t relaxing at all, but it was fun! Although I was quite bruised for the next three days (I hope you’re happy, Arnar). I packed up my few belongings while we collectively watched “Big Hero Six” in my bedroom next to the teensy fireplace, eating dinner squaw-style.

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Sitting there packing gave me a good opportunity to start thinking on what would become the theme of this whole trip: hospitality. If I had had the money to stay in hostels or hotels, I would have missed out on the most wonderful part of the trip, which was making friends with my hosts and company. Since I didn’t have the money, of course it was doubly appreciated, because it made the trip possible in the first place! But really the money – while a real concern and also a huge blessing to have saved it – ended up being less what I appreciated than just experiencing living like a family with people I probably would have never met otherwise and being blessed by them being their selves and sharing that with me.

After sitting in a state of appreciation for those facts and feeling sad at leaving my new friends who I genuinely care about, I prepared to depart for Glasgow, Scotland, where I had no plan whatever.

One Fantastic Year in the Rearview Mirror

Having just recently left Texas and all of my new friends there to have a one-year graduation reunion with my dearest college friends in Michigan, and then traipsing off to Washington D.C. for a week with one of them Dearests and tomorrow the U.K. (gah!), it seems a good time to write about not only on how my first year of travel went generally, but also the purpose of my traveling and writing at all, which I realize I haven’t done yet. I haven’t written all of the articles that I mentally drafted over the course of the year, nor have those that I have written felt complete, and maybe I will finish them, but regardless, in keeping with my mantra for the year to just keep moving forward, here is a short(ish)… (well, make yourself a cup of tea, but it feels short to me… There are more pictures than show in the first paragraphs to entertain you) review of my year, since graduating last May.

Last summer was SO full of adventures! And had so many layers of mental, spiritual, and emotional gymnastics (not to mention logistic exercises!). If I could summarize my year in three words, however, it would be:

~ REST ~ FRIENDSHIP ~ SURRENDER ~

To elaborate on the spiritual context of my year and one of the primary purposes of my current series of adventures, last spring break I found myself at an internal breaking point that I had been working towards for a while. This break came in several steps. The first occurred in my sophomore year of college when I realized I had a (*sniff, sob*) broken heart (but really, though) and came to the logical conclusion that needed to allow myself to start feeling again, because shutting my heart down was apparently not sustainable since it separates one from that which makes life worth living. I concluded that I ought to open up to restoration by accepting God’s offered affection (pithy, I know, but bear with me and allow me to maintain the caveat of theology), which I accepted logically and started working towards. The second and probably the largest came when I had a bit of an existential crisis – by which I mean deeeeeply struggling – brought on by a heavy load of philosophy classes and religious research which took my faith out by the roots, shook all the dirt off of it, and – eventually … a very long eventually – plunked it back down in the ground roughly where it had been, though expanded as well as a bit dazed and shaken. The third step I found myself in the next summer when I realized I was exhausted physically, mentally, and spiritually, and needed to surrender control in order to heal from a variety of things and wound up flying home unexpectedly from a job in New Hampshire home to Montana for some apparently much needed spiritual R&R (which was *blissfull*, even though I struggled a lot with depression over my lack of internal vigor). Finally, this most recent break (as of last year) – when I actually got to such a point of spiritual exhaustion that I could surrender my stiff-necked, stubborn, German-Irish, choleric personality to the concept of accepting what was good for me, rather than hacking it out for myself.

More details on those stories in a different category of post, perhaps, but for the time being, suffice it to say that spring break (around Passover – a time when God’s people celebrate His freeing them from bondage and when Christians celebrate the culmination of that feast in Christ’s surrendering His life to free us from our spiritual burdens) I fell headlong into a crashing emotional state that I had lost the resources to get out of, which had historically been my friends and family “relying” (in my mind) on me in some form or other through anonymity of my weaknesses, or rather, my preference for not “burdening” others with my sensitivities. I found myself in a rock-bottom, which wasn’t really anything new, but this time without any reason to pull myself out. It had recently come about that my emotional weaknesses were exposed to the last of those closest to me who hadn’t seen that and so I couldn’t use anonymity as a  reason to be strong, even though my wonderful friends and family had never asked that of me. I can’t describe the extent to which I wanted to be sucked into that vortex and just top “causing problems” by my mere existence. I had a conversation the following day with a dear friend who spoke directly the words of God into my life (I’ll need to share that too at some point) and helped me actually frame for myself the path I had realized when I first recognized the broken state of my heart years ago – I needed to surrender to God’s affection and abundance in my life. Hence, this abundant journey of praying and following wherever the wind (or Breath of God) leads me, of blessings, friendship, enjoyment of the moment, sunshine, driving, meditation, and lax efforts to accomplish much of anything, leading ultimately to accomplishing that which only such a venture could – spiritual calm. It’s a very Kierkegaardian year, in a way – leaping into a state with ambiguous purpose, or purposeful purposelessness, which was what my reason had always relied upon, in order to expand my existence into one that defies the 2-dimensional nature of pure reason and enters into something reasonable only to a higher dimension.

…Sorry… It’s 1:39 a.m. … Thas’ how ah roll…

So that’s a rough outline of my background on the year. On to some of the adventures that looked like. I figured I’d draft it in a roughly month-by-month format, and I’ll admit it’s taken a few sessions to write it all down. I began typing when I first arrived at the vineyard in Texas back in January (as a “New Year’s” post, that evolved), and then again before I left Texas while I enjoyed sitting with a friend from college, in Austen – 1,500 miles from that school – enjoying a different culture and true companionship in the warm weather, and a quaint coffee shop, and now in Arlington, Virginia, just outside Washington D.C. with yet another dear friend from school before heading out to England and Ireland tomorrow.

May: Immediately after graduation I had two luscious weeks of rest to pack up my college house with one of my best friends, went to wedding #1 (of 5 for the summer) of a very close friend, had a yard-sale to get the gas money necessary to kick off my summer,then road-tripped 17 hours (should have been 14…I missed that sign! #navigationalfail. Woops :/) to North Carolina for a week with another dear college friend, met back up at wedding #2 for the summer with my house-mate friend, road-tripped back up with her and two MORE college friends through her new house near Washington D.C. (4 hours) all the way up to Roxbury New York (6 more hours). There we stayed with ANOTHER dear friend and his family to go to his wedding (#3) and because I had taken over the fiance’s position in their family business as a post-college job and so she could go get married and all that with less hassle.

June: Administrative Assisting for the family business with my “office” as 150 acres of maple forest in the Catskill mountains! What a huge blessing that month was. My room was a beautiful homey ranch-style nook in a mellow pale blue (a favorite color), with rustic dark wood flooring and furniture, soft country-style blankets, drying flowers, and lace around the windows – I have a big thing for that. The whole family became very dear friends to me. We had the best theological camaraderie and discussions about life, I made good friends with their gorgeous Bernese mountain dog Reagan, their two youngest sons – ages 9 and 13 – took me snake-hunting and we traipsed around the woods barefoot looking (garter snakes only and we didn’t find any, although we did find some lizards and old wagon trails), I read them my sisters novel-in-progress, and we practiced gymnastics on the lawn. The youngest – I’ll call him James – is a zippy little blond trouble-maker with the unfortunate quality of being smarter than is generally good for him. He’s always up to some minor manliness of adventure and is also a complete diva in the most masculine of four-feet-tall ways. He likes to put on a show and is keenly aware of any audience. I’ve been dying to write about him since about a week into June when I wanted to start my blog originally. Yes! I love culmination…

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There was one particular instance which just stuck in my head and I so wish that their iPhone’s camera had been just a little closer at hand. I was mulling around the kitchen with my friend and administrative supervisor – the oldest daughter at home – when we heard a noise that was utterly indecipherable save for being distinctly indicative of distress. We both rushed to the window afraid that James had managed to find a bee hive or some such thing, when we saw one of the goats, head up and looking a little spooked, marching quickly, but with an unpredictable looking gait, into the driveway away from its pen. Out from behind the barn marched James, with a look of consternation and determination seared into his very serious blonde forehead. He crouched and walked slowly around the goat, cutting off any route to the open road up the hill, and then prowled slowly towards its head, always with the same furrowed brow. The goat – seemingly mindless of his intentions, slowly explored around the unfamiliar turf of the driveway until out from the side the blond missile flung himself at its head, making a mad dash for its collar. The spooked animal was only almost quick enough, but if it wasn’t quick enough, it was certainly large enough, weighing probably at least half-again as much as he did, if not significantly more. His sister and I clung to the sink and countertop respectively and inhaled as we heard another garbled cry that became quickly muffled as the bodies disappeared into the shadows behind the barn. A moment later, the goat – looking very much in the same manner as before, if perhaps a little quicker of pace – trotted solo back out into the driveway and then just a bit beyond our vision. Out stomped James after the vagabond caprine. At this point we were more amused than worried, as we could hear shouts of vague assistance from his older brother out in the field and there were others outside as well. Still, a moment later there came the sounds of scuffling to the left of our view to the outside and then the goat, bearing a still-blonde bundle that was “Ah-A- Aah. AA-aH!” -ing in nearly metered staccato as his diaphragm bounced with every hoof-beat horizontally over its back towards the pen. I couldn’t see his face clearly, but I think his expression had lost some of its determination and was just possibly not trying too hard to stop the runaway in that moment, although I doubt he would admit to that suspicion. After drying our tears of laughter we decided the goat had given up its game or – as I think the more likely explanation – had declared its utter victory and was retiring in triumph and we likewise retired to our secretarial duties with an improved humor. The image stuck with me though, and I might see that boy in twenty years with a fine position in life and a very presentable demeanor, but I will never be able to remove that image of him bouncing along the back of that goat in a feigned attempt to catch it with everyone, including the goat, I expect, completely unconvinced in the sincerity of his goal in that moment.

Another adventure that month was my two trips to Union Square in Manhattan to help with the family’s farmer’s market booth selling maple syrup (again, no product placement, but it’s so good and they are such wonderful people! So if you’re ever in Union Square on a Wednesday… http://www.roxburymountainmaple.com/). To only cover it briefly, having never been to NYC before I ended up driving there (starting at 3 a.m. :P), learning to handle the traffic through the “trial by fire” method in their large cargo van – you know … the ones with no side windows. I learned that, while drivers are definitely insane there, they were actually a lot more polite than I expected, since everyone sort of expects stupid traffic decisions to be made constantly and just waits for you to muscle your way through without seeming to think much of it. I really appreciated that. I also got the opportunity to do a little window shopping and went walking through the Gouchi store seeing items that had only just come out that day, watched a section of the market cornered off for a filming, drove past the Empire State Building (luckily we were at a red light so I actually got a glimpse – we didn’t have time to stop), and ate a lovely dinner that a client provided for us in Central Park. Driving around and out of the city was probably the biggest adrenaline rush I’ve had over the year! Their van truly has almost no visibility. With taxis flying in and out of the road, throwing doors open, one-way streets throwing off my whole navigational plan (their GPS doesn’t work in the city),  somehow constantly finding the sun on a side that I wasn’t expecting it after trying to make a few turns through traffic, and having a conversation with my sole passenger sounds something like “ISITCLEAROKI’MGOINGCANIMOVEOVER*NOW*!??” for about a solid hour, I felt like I had a wonderfully authentic experience of the place that few tourists are blessed with. I think by far my favorite part of the whole NYC experience, though, was watching the artistic lighting of the skyscrapers flickering in the inky bay as I drove back home over the bridge after night had thoroughly enveloped the scene.

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Yes, June was a lovely month.

July: I’ve already written a bit on July, since I started my blog the week after I left New York, so if I ignore the somewhat nightmarish 8-hour delayed train-ride (which actually ended up resulting in a lot of joviality and some really good conversations amongst all the passengers), and the bit of a headache I went through in acquiring what has since been my sole companion for 19,000 miles of road since (my forest green Honda Cr-V), you can catch up on all the exciting stuff in my earlier posts, since pretty much all of them were from July. The one thing I didn’t write about was the absolutely fantastic farming couple who I worked for before starting my cedar forest job in Northern Michigan. For about a week or less, I picked strawberries and raspberries for them for about 9 hours a day and got lots of antioxidants and lots and lots of color (sooo burned!). I so wish I had gotten a picture of their farm – it is stunningly beautiful in a completely natural and authentic way. Other than that, just read up on everything through my “National Trek” posts, which go up to the wedding in the beginning of August.

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August-September: I was originally planning on devoting another “National Trek” post to my road-trip, but I’ll just tie it in here. This month and a half gave me much contemplation, in keeping with my theme for the summer. The whole wedding week was so lovely, but as I’m not very extroverted I found myself at a loss much of the time. The highlights were definitely bacheloretting and bridesmaiding for a glorious week with the very dear besty of a bride (the same one I went to North Carolina with in May), having an amazing bachelorette slumber party in a house on the coast, and getting to visit the homes of two dear college friends while driving home from the wedding (Oregon to Montana). I spent the rest of the month and most of September at home in Western Montana with my family. After a very unintentionally lethargic “catch-up” week, I found a job at a nearby nursery with the official and lofty title of “weed-manager” (well, I gave myself the title actually). This gave me one of the best meditational periods of my existence so far. Weeding for herbage the size of saplings for hours and finding yourself only 1/3 of the way down a row does good things for one’s soul if properly appreciated. In the picture below, please share with me that moment of completing my first row (10 hours later?). I also got a little bit of good and much-needed hiking and conversation in with my world-traveling neighbors.

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Bear-Creek Overlook

Hiking Jump Shot

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And, let’s be real: Montana is gorgeous, thank you. This was just a snapshot out the window of my car going up my family’s driveway.

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September-November: The end of September brought my next deadline for moving on as I had my 5th and final wedding for the year to attend, aaaall the way back in Wisconsin. Other than never wanting to leave home once I’m there, the drive was quite pleasant. It was the first time that I decided it wasn’t worth wasting $60 on a room for a few hours when I didn’t have much cash, so I found a safe seeming spot somewhere in Nebraska to crash… er, sleep… for 4 hours in the back of my Cr-V (a possibility I had noted when choosing a vehicle to purchase: cargo space is a lovely thing). I had probably gone about 12 hours of actual drive time, but had left the house about 17 hours before. Not gonna lie – the tail end of driving the next day was a bit rough, but when I got to my destination I was very blessed to be able to spend several days and celebrate Rosh Hashannah/Yom Teruah with my friend’s affianced and her family, which was fantastic. After that I had my forest job all set up back in Michigan, so after a quick stop back in Hillsdale to say hello to my newlywed-since-August friends who had gone back to finish school, I headed up to the lakes where I was very very blessed to stay for two months with Messianic friends from the September wedding and got to celebrate Yom Kippur and Sukkot, sleeping out in a massive outdoor tent, fully equipped with mattresses, a dining table, and a fire-pit, bundled in many layers against Northern Michigan October winds and rain. Then I spent most of my days out in the rain clearing forest, enjoying the changing colors, listening to audiobooks, and feeling like I was becoming a part of my hosts’ family. I definitely have more stories from those months, but alas, my flight to the U.K. is getting closer and closer and my bed (and your attention span, since you’ve made it this far) are calling me to hasten, so I’m going to wrap up soonish.

My Job largely consisted of turning exhibit A into exhibit B, via exhibit C:

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Like my camo?

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And we all understand that pictures do no justice, right?

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November-May: I’m cheating on the months here, but after flying back from Michigan to Montana for Christmas and getting a great job in a nice new wine shop, I spent the first two weeks home driving 20 minutes into the library to get internet access (no, most of Montana isn’t like that – just my family) so I could try to figure out a way to make Texas work, since it was the first place that I had no connections or places to stay on my journey thus far. The McLaughlin’s HelpX program made that happen for me and gave me peace of mind that I’d at least have a place to stay, since I was going whether I had figured anything out or not. Then after a fantastic Christmas with the family I flew back again in January (I got a return flight specifically so I’d have to leave to get back to my car, otherwise I might have not…), I left and did that whole Texas thing which I have posted about previously. I took the trip back North slower, visiting friends all along the way, celebrating with my alumni buds, and then road-tripping communally to D.C. and I have more stories about both Texas and all that too which I intend to post more about it in the future, but if I don’t shut this down I’ll never make it to England, so…

Onward!