Chapter 15 Part 2: The Mountains are Trying to Kill Us

Away to the mountains

I stood at the base of the steep, steep mountain that Em and I had just hiked 6km down, and I felt a sense of peace that I hadn’t in weeks. The cool ocean breeze dried the sweat on my skin, and the waves crashed into a little cove where we’d be camping that night. We were totally fucked and at risk of dying, but we didn’t know it yet. In that moment, everything felt perfect.

Before we left on our trip, we imagined moments like this, the power that comes from hiking into the woods with everything you own on your back, and the feeling that you can do anything. Two years before, we spent a month hiking and camping through Iceland, and while we hadn’t done any hiking or camping since then, we were right back into it now, the confidence that comes with knowing how to survive in the wilds, and the joy you find in the simple things like a meal you cook on a fire or a hot cup of tea in the morning.

Em began to set up the tent while I blew up our sleeping pads, falling back into the routine we’d had on our month in Iceland, knowing we knew what we were doing and that we’d finally have a good night on our trip where nothing had seemed to go right for the past three weeks.

I blew up Em’s sleeping pad first, then mine. I’d bought a new one before we started our trip, and in the rush to get on the road, I hadn’t thought to take it out of it’s bag before we left. I knew camping gear, and I knew exactly what sleeping pad would be the best, anyway so why bother checking it out?

Only now I was at the bottom of a mountain, 6km from our bus, holding the exact sleeping pad I wanted, only instead of it being an adult-sized medium, it was a child-sized medium.

I blew the pad up, anyway hoping it would grow somehow, then lay on it on my side, I would have sucked my thumb if my hands weren’t so dirty.

“I’m a little baby,” I told Em, curling so that most of my torso fit on the pad.

“Shit,” she said.

“It’s past the 30-day return time, so I guess this is mine.”

“Sleeping on a hard surface is good for the spine?”

“Something like that.”

HooksEm went back to the tent, and I pulled out our water filter next. It was an old one that Em had used camping as a teen, and it was another thing we hadn’t thought to test before we left on our trip. Now, we were 6km from the nearest tap and after years of storage, the hose on the water filter had melted closed.

“I hope you’re not thirsty,” I told Em. I held up the water filter and then the one liter of water we had left in our bottle.

“We can just boil water if we need more,” she said, standing back from the tent and looking out at the mountain we’d climbed down and the ocean in front of us.

She was right, we absolutely could have boiled water if we’d remembered to bring fuel for our stove.

Em and I surveyed what we’d brought with us, and then looked up at the mountain. Even if we physically could make it back up that day, we couldn’t make it before it got dark, and the park rangers had given us detailed pamphlets about moose, coyote and bear attacks and how they were common in that area.

I looked at Em who seemed brave and confident even then, and then I looked at the mountains again which seemed closer and bigger and darker now, and I wondered if they wanted to kill us, and I thought maybe they did.

“What do we do?” I asked Em.

“We camp,” she said. And so we did.

We sat on the beach in the early evening and played cards and wrote in our journals. As the sun set, we ate cold beans and veggie dogs and rationed sips of our dwindling water. As the dark came in, so did the mosquitoes, so we sat in our tent and looked at each other for a bit and hoped that bears wouldn’t eat us in the night.

In the morning, it felt like someone had taken my bones out in the night and had sanded them raw.

“Do you think as a birthday present you could break my leg so I could be airlifted out of here?” I asked Em, rolling off my child-sized sleeping pad for the 28th time in eight hours.

“It won’t be that bad,” she said, only it was that bad.

Instead of the oatmeal and tea we’d had planned for breakfast, we had granola bars and tiny sips of water, and by the time we made it the 6km straight up the mountain, three hours had passed and both of us had almost passed out more than once. We’d broken down and were drinking river water filtered through our teeth and had been sharing a single carrot, passing it back and forth for the past hour, and finally, finally, finally, our bus came into sight.

At first, I wasn’t sure if it was real or where I was or if I was alive anymore, but as the trees thinned and we stepped into the parking lot, the whole thing came into view, purple and white and absolutely magnificent.

HooksIt had a bed and a stove and a jug full of water and more food than we could eat in a day. I collapsed beside it, and Em did, too, and for a second, I couldn’t believe that such luxury existed and that it was ours. Before this, Em and I had talked about selling our bus, using the money we’d saved and going on a blow-out trip through Europe because bus life was too hard. Now it seemed ridiculous.

“We have a bed,” I said to Em.

“And water.”

“And movies on our computers.”

We sat for a long time, too tired to move even if we wanted to, and when we were ready, we went inside and for the first time on our trip maybe, it felt like home.

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Chapter 15 Part 1: We Have to Sell the Bus

Chapter 15: We Have to Sell the Bus

Hooks“Do we have everything?” I asked.

“I hope so,” Em said, and both of us looked at the enormous camping packs we’d leaned against our bus. We looked at the packs, and then at the start of the 6km trail that our campsite in Cape Breton Highlands National Park was at the end of.

I don’t think there was an eerie breeze or scary music playing or anything, but maybe there should have been. It would have been good to have some sort of natural phenomenon to warn us that the woods were not a place to enter into unprepared, and that the forest would break us if we let it.

Em went to her pack first, and for a second it seemed just as likely that her Q-tip arms would snap with her hands still wrapped around the pack’s shoulder straps, as it was that she’d be able to lift the pack on her own

“Lift with the knees,” I said, and I swung my pack onto my back, only the rest of my body swung, too, twirling me across the parking lot like a ballerina with a peg leg.

“Oh god, oh god, oh god,” I said, leaning forward so my bag didn’t leave me face up in the parking lot.

“We can do this,” Em said, struggling to take her first few steps forward.

“Can we?”

“Maybe.”

The trail was about ten inches wide and so steep it was like we were walking on tiptoes for most of it. I was pretty conscious of the fact that at any second we could trip and be dragged by our bags straight down the mountain we were hiking to the bottom of, but even with the danger, every once in a while I remembered to look up, and I saw green like the inside of a jewelry box and sunlight through the branches.

It was cool and quiet in the forest with tiny yellow mushrooms growing on the trees, and for the first time in a long time, we knew we’d be sleeping somewhere safe and somewhere we were allowed to be, even if it meant climbing 6km down a mountain to get there.

Two days before, we sat on a beach in Chetticamp, NS and realized we needed to make some big changes and fast.

It was the heat and the people making us feel like we weren’t supposed to be there and something else, too, a hangnail of a realization that we’d been trying to ignore but couldn’t anymore. And so we sat on the beach and we flipped to the back of our trip journal to finally tally up everything we’d bought up until then and acknowledge for certain what we’d suspected all along.

$531. We’d only been traveling for three weeks, and we were already $531 over the budget we’d set for ourselves.

Em and I sat on the beach in the full sun and looked out at the ocean, and the ocean looked back at us, blind and glassy, and it didn’t give a shit about us and how far we’d come and how hard we’d worked to get there.

I looked at ocean, and then I looked at Em, and I whispered something I’d been wanting to ask for weeks, but that I hadn’t been allowed to, a silent contract we’d made at the start of our trip, and how quickly I had broken it.

“Are you having a good time?” I asked.

The sweat had pasted flat the tiny hairs along her forehead, and I thought about licking them, licking her face clean the way a mother cat would, like maybe it would help somehow. I thought about pulling on her ear or holding her chin, but instead I waited, and she answered me with one word when before she had always had so much to say.

“No,” she said, and then we were quiet again. I looked at my hands, and I thought, These are my hands, and then I looked at Em and I thought, This is my wife, but it still felt strange, like something had happened that I couldn’t quite control.

“We don’t have to do this,” I said. “We’re spending all our money, and if we’re not having a good time then why are we even doing this?”

“Well then what?”

“Then we go to Europe. We sell our bus and take the money we saved, and we go on a blow-out two-month trip through all of Europe.”

HooksEm looked at me. I was joking maybe, but maybe I wasn’t. I wasn’t sure what was real anymore, and I was having a hard time keeping track of what mattered.

“We could have wifi and showers and a safe place to sleep every night.”

“What would we tell everyone?”

“These are our lives and if we don’t like what’s happening then we have to make a change.”

Em stood and walked back to the bus, and I followed.

“We can’t just give up,” she said.

“I think building this bus has taught us that we can do anything we put our minds to.”

She climbed onto the bus and I climbed on after, and we sat in the dark waiting for the other people on the beach to leave, and while we waited, we came up with a plan.

We would stop arriving at free camping spots early in the day and we would stop trying to make them feel like home. We would spend as much time as we could in national parks, and whenever we could, we’d camp in the cheaper backcountry camping spots. Sure you had to hike into them, but Em and I liked hiking, and they only cost $20 a night.

Hiking into that first camping spot was a turning point for Em and I. We were making changes, and we were making a trip we wanted to have.

It was hard work winding our way down the mountain, but we knew it was worth it, the trees without eyes to stare at us and their leaves blocking out the sun. It felt like some black ink running through our veins had been carefully blotted out. We were better now. Everything would be better now, or at least that’s what we thought until we got to our campsite and realized this might not work out as well as we’d planned…

To be continued.

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Chapter 14: We Tried to Light the Sky on Fire

Chapter 14: We Tried to Light the Sky on Fire

Eisenkopf“Do it, do it, do it,” we chanted, the words building up in our chests and pouring out our mouths. We were mesmerized by the fire and the darkness, the salt from the ocean and the need for destruction. 

“Do it, do it, do it,” we said over and over, and eventually, Duncan did. 

*

Em and I walked into Jane and Ralph’s cottage in Lunenburg a few hours before, and the minute we did, I felt an unraveling. There was something held tight in my chest that was coming undone. 

Jane and Ralph had a special water jug that made a glugging sound as the water poured out. They had a mat woven from orange rope at their front door. Their fruit was in a nice bowl and they had cheese spread out on a nice cutting board, and everything was beautiful in a functional sort of way that made me want to touch everything and never leave.

I ran my fingers across the grain in the wood table and tried to hold onto the sound of ice cubes in my water glass, feeling like I’d found myself on the other end of years and years in the wilds and couldn’t quite remember how to use a knife and fork and what words were.

We’d only been on the road for two weeks, but it was a hard two weeks, following a heat wave east and forever worrying about where we were going to sleep and eat and fill up on water and drop off our grocery bags full of wood chips and human feces, and now we were safe.

It was Jane and Ralph, friends of my parents who I’d known for forever, their son Duncan who I’d grown up with, and Duncan’s girlfriend Alex who I liked so much.

I sat on the back deck and ate the lunch Jane had made for everyone, and I felt my personality changing. I was myself, but more myself, reverting back to an earlier version of myself who was smart and funny and didn’t spend half her time worrying about where to dump the cranberry juice jug full of her own urine that she’d been carrying in her backpack for the past half hour.

My laugh was louder, and my voice was clearer, and I noticed it in Em, too, beautiful see-through Em who I’d almost forgotten was funny, and charming, and the absolute best person in the world.

Series of drawings showing men marching in the country, women lifting weights, a bicycle, etc.Duncan, Alex, Em and I rode bikes down country roads, and I felt more pieces leaving me. I was molting, maybe. I was thirty and then twenty-five and then twenty, riding my bike without hands and almost going off the road.

I was young, and nothing bad could happen to me. Duncan taking me to a field across the street from his cottage and showing me how to shoot beer cans with a BB gun. I kept wanting to go farther and farther back, missing the cans again and again, but still feeling the thrill of it, a child’s toy, but also not, something wild about holding a gun that could hurt someone, aiming at the beer cans and the ping they made when they fell.

“Again,” I said. “Again, again.”

And then we were at the fire, drinking beer and eating chips, and something overtook not just me and Em, but Alex and Duncan, too. There was this giddiness of being taken care of, eating a good meal someone else had cooked for us, and the night and the way the ocean looked, and that’s when the spark of violence or creation or exploration or all of the above took hold of us. It was the energy we’d been using to survive for so long, building up and in excess now that we were safe and and fed and warm and by the fire.

A castle is ablaze and from the flames the figure of a horse takes shape against the sky

“I wonder what would happen if you threw a flaming piece of wood into the water,” Em said, and we all knew that nothing would happen, but we wanted to try anyway, just in case the night was as magical was we thought it might be and the entire sky burst into flames.

“Do it, do it,” we chanted, and Duncan looked around, making sure his parents weren’t coming down. 

“Do it, do it,” we said again and again, wild and with the words ripping out of us, and Duncan thrust his hand into the middle of the fire and pulled out a flaming piece of wood. It made a golden arc across the sky, and all of us held our breaths, waiting and hoping and sure that something would happen, and absolutely nothing happened.

We knew all along that nothing would happen. We knew that maybe there would be smoke, but probably there would be nothing, and yet for a second we believed in something else, some great mystery of the world taking fire and water and turning it into a great golden egg growing out of the ocean and cracking before us as we released it from its spell.

We laughed at our stupidity, for believing in anything other than physics and the hard facts of real life. We laughed, and we breathed in the cold ocean air, and after a moment, the stars and the darkness did something again, the earth and the wildness around us and the wildness in ourselves, and suddenly we believed it again.

“Maybe this time,” we said to ourselves and to each other. Maybe we would crack the spell and see what we knew would be there all along but forgot to look for. 

We had been too busy getting from one day to the next without getting robbed or assaulted or arrested for putting a bag of human feces in a Tim Hortons garbage can. We had forgotten so much, but we were remembering now. We were remembering that the world was enormous and amazing, that we were alive and that we were free and that we might not be forever.

“Do it again,” we told Duncan. “Do it again,” and Duncan did, flinging the fire and the glow it made, the opening of possibilities, knowing we were safe and young and who knows what would happen next.  

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Chapter 13: The First Bad Night

Chapter 15: We Have to Sell the Bus

Chapter 13: The First Bad Night

IMG_3649 (1)For two nights, everything went the way it was supposed to, Rivière-du-Loups and then a wharf in Mirimachi where there were public toilets and designated places for RV parking and a couple walking their pet pig, and then we were in Saint-Edouard-de-Kent, a town just south of Mirimichi, and nothing was how it was supposed to be. 

Our free campsite app had told us there was a quiet boat launch right on the beach and that we’d be safe there, but the reviews were written in the spring and fall and not on a Saturday night in the middle of summer in the middle of a heat wave.

We arrived at an overflowing parking lot full of scarecrow people who stared at us with mouths full of bullets, and it was that first scene in a horror movie where the audience looks back and says I told you so as the heroes are being peeled to death.

“We’re just being paranoid,” Em said.

“Right,” I said, and a man stepped close to our bus and stared at me through the window. I smiled at him, and he kept staring, and I waved and he kept staring, and then I just stared back until I couldn’t anymore. It was like the man was taking something out of me that he’d keep in a shiny wood box on his bedside table until he didn’t want it anymore.

Em and I had spent the day at the beach, and we were hot and we were tired, and we wanted to sit in our bus and rest and stay quiet, but a different man with eyes like pennies and skin made of safety pins had his face too close to the window now, and Em and I were starting to wonder if we were exotic birds or lewdly dressed or if we were just strange because we were strangers in a town where everything is always the same.

We closed our curtains and left our bus, just to put some space between us and the hulking purple vehicle with mountains on the side. 

An anthropomorphic tree comes alive to catch a scarecrow with its branchesThere was nowhere to go but the beach, and so we sat there baking, the full sun crisping our skin and drying our brains while everyone else stared at us with wide blank eyes and open mouths. We were the least interesting exhibit in the zoo but the only one open due to ongoing facility upgrades, and I was pretty sure I could cut my heart out of my chest and eat it just then, and everyone else would just sit there watching with this blank hostility scraped across their faces. 

The sun set and still we waited because it seemed no one else had anywhere to go or anything to do but stare at the two women who had arrived on their beach from outer space for all they knew or cared, and when we couldn’t take it anymore, we snuck back into or bus like thieves. 

We ate a cold dinner in the dark and changed into our pajamas in the dark and crawled into bed in the dark, and all I could see were Em’s white teeth beside me, and all I could hear was music blasting from somewhere down the beach and waves and talking and the sound of teens across the parking lot. 

I was awake or I was asleep and somewhere around there, I heard one of the teens read Camp Lovesick off the front of our bus and then say other things, rude things or cruel things, their voice coming to us like smoke and everyone laughing. 

It was laughter and then taunting and then feet. It was a fist on our bus door, feet running away and then laughing again.

Em was there, and I was there, and we looked at each other in the darkness, and we didn’t move.

“It’s just kids,” Em said, and then there was a fist again, and the feeling that we were trapped, the smell of the ocean and gasoline, a beer being opened and the bottle cap pinging against our windshield.

“They’ll get bored soon,” Em said, and I didn’t say anything. It was too hot to hold each other, so we lay apart in the spiraling darkness, our middle-school bullies all over again and the night white bones about to break.

There was another fist on our door and then another, and then maybe time went by and then maybe it didn’t, the kids drifting away at some point, but soon to be replaced by others, older this time, and more dangerous still. How many hours are there in a single night and how much can happen? 

IMG_3662It was the weight of two bodies pressed against the side of our bus, shifting us out of our thin sleep. It was hot breath in the hot night, and then later, the sound of a lighter over and over again, the silence of needles. It was someone telling someone else to hold still and then morning. 

The day came came in grey like it had been washed too many times, inching its way into the horizon and showing us a parking lot without cars, an empty beach with garbage across it, and this feeling like air coming in where there was nothing before.

It was the sound of waves and then nothing, the smell of salt and gasoline again and a new day starting, better maybe than the one before. 

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Chapter 12: Night One in the River of Wolves

Chapter 14: We Tried to Light the Sky on Fire

Chapter 12: Night One in the River of Wolves

IMG_3632The sun dropped behind the mountains and the sky began to fill with pink like the world’s largest neon sign had broken open and was leaking these gorgeous chemicals over everything, and everything would have been perfect like the last scene in a movie, only we were speeding down the highway, trying to get to some ferry terminal we’d read about online before it was too dark to see anything.

“The site says a lot of RVs stay there,” Em told me as she drove. “And the pictures look nice.”

We’d left Parc National de la Jacques Cartier that morning, and tonight we would try to free wild camp again, this time following the advice of a site calledfreecampsites.net.

“You’re sure it’s allowed?” I asked.

“The site says there aren’t any signs saying it’s not allowed.”

“And of course everything on the internet is true.”

“Do you have a better idea?” Em’s voice was a hot, and I pulled back, afraid to get burnt.

We’d had a great time in the National Park that morning and then in Quebec City that afternoon, but locusts of stress began to fill our bus as soon as we got on the road again. We’d missed our exit twice, and Em had driven us in circles through screeching traffic in the screaming heat while I’d cried in the passenger’s seat.

Now, I watched the St Lawrence River to our left as it carried the chemical colors from the sky back towards the Great Lakes. It was a hot night, and it seemed like it would be easy to lie still in the river and have the current take us all the way back to the little apartment that wasn’t ours anymore and the life we’d given up for a school bus.

The sun sank further, and Em was quiet and I was quiet, and both of us were aware that if the ferry terminal we were planning on sleeping at that night didn’t work out, there was no Wal-Mart fifteen minutes away. There wasn’t even a Wal-Mart an hour away, and while the coming dark would make it harder to see if the ferry terminal was safe, with our dim headlights, the dark would also make it dangerous to continue driving into the night.

I had the map on Em’s phone open and I followed the little blue arrow wishing I could freeze time or go back in time or else wishing we were having an easier time on this trip of a lifetime. I studied the red dot marking the ferry terminal, but it didn’t give me anything about whether we’d find a riverside paradise full of like-minded people on adventures towards the Atlantic or a broken-down dock full of drunken youths shouting homophobic slurs and throwing lit cigarettes at us.

A distressed woman has found refuge in a tree from a horde of wolves snarling below herCars drove past us with their lights on, and I pointed Em to the exit to a small town called Rivière-du-Loups. Because we weren’t freaked out about free wild camping already, we had to choose a town called River of Wolves to spend our first night.

Still, we were driving forwards because we had to. We didn’t have the budget to park at a campground or National Park every night or even every week, and so I told Em to take a left and follow the signs towards the ferry terminal.

The sky had almost completely been drained of light by now, and the last few rays were making everything look red and rich and full of secrets.

“There it is,” Em said, and she nodded towards a collection of boats still half a kilometer away.

In the last of that red light, I couldn’t tell whether the boats were haunted or sunken or full of pirates or zombies or what. The river looked black by then, and I wondered what time the wolves came out and how long it would take for them to turn our bodies into fleshy pieces of meat leaking our blood over everything.

Em drove closer with our engine at high volume and our bus seeming way too big for the little street we were driving down. We could feel wolf eyes peeking from between tree trunks and out of house windows where they’d eaten grandmothers, and then the terminal came into view again along with a pier to the side.

At first I thought what I was seeing was a wall of some kind, but in the yellow light of a dim streetlight, three white and square vehicles came into focus, RVs.

“There,” I said, pointing, and Em saw them, too. They were lined up in the pier lot with their fronts to the water like they were all allowed to be there, and we were, too.

A minute later, Em pulled into a space between an RV and a camper van. She turned off the engine and turned to me, smiling.

“This is it,” she said.

“This is it,” I said back, and I felt the smallest opening in my chest, a little pinprick of something, calm maybe, or else hope.

IMG_3640While Instagram pictures of people living in buses always seem to show spectacular views alone in nature, that first night of free camping, I couldn’t have hoped for a better place. It was me, and Em and so many others, all of us looking to see the world while getting around the respected systems of campgrounds and tourists centers and scheduled tours at reasonable times. We were a wilder variety of adventurers, spending the night as a pack at the start of the pier, all of us together, smelling the brackish waters of the St Lawrence and watching the last of the light leave the sky.

Em and I held hands and walked to the end of the pier, listening to seagulls and waves against concrete. We watched the stars come out one by one and then all at once, and once again, or maybe for the first time, I really felt that we could do this. This could be the trip that we’d been planning after all, and maybe in the end, everything would be okay.

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Chapter 11: Em and Me and the Deer

Chapter 13: The First Bad Night

Chapter 11: Em and Me and the Deer

“Do you have the parking pass?” I asked Em.

“Yeah, it’s right here.”

“Don’t you think we should put it in the windshield?”

“I will. I’m just changing my shoes.”

“I just don’t want to forget and get a ticket and have to pay even more.”

“I will, in a second.”

“I really don’t want to forget, though.”

“Here.” Em fished the parking pass from her pocket and tossed it to me. I missed, and the wind’s long fingers caught the pass and pulled it over our heads. It twisted in the air like it had been enchanted, or more likely possessed, and then it dropped, landing two meters away and then three.

I lunged and missed and lunged again, this time catching the corner with my toe.

“That was…” I didn’t finish, and Em didn’t say anything. She tied her shoes and climbed past me onto the bus.

I climbed in, too, but kept quiet, feeling like there was a string tied around my throat and that my skin was made of zippers.

IMG_3594We were supposed to be happy now. We’d made it to Parc National de la Jacques Cartier just outside of Quebec City, and we were supposed to go on hikes and swim in rivers and see green, green, green for as far as we could see, only there was still something wrong with us.

Em was a mouse trap and I was a mouse trap, and every time we got close to each other, both traps snapped.

We wanted to be nice to each other. We wanted to run soft fingers across soft skin and whisper promises to each other like we were young and in love and newly married with our whole lives before us, but the day before, we’d sat in our unairconditioned bus in 35°C weather. We’d taken wrong turn after wrong turn through downtown Montreal rush hour, sweating and stressing and sure we would crash. We’d spent an entire week’s budget on gas, and had failed at our first night of free wild camping in Quebec City.

Now, we’d just paid $60 to enter the park and sleep in the parking lot for the night. We were beginning to suspect that the trip we’d planned would be nothing like we thought it would be, and I was beginning to suspect that I wasn’t the person I thought I was, either.

I put the parking pass in the windshield, and Em drove us down a potholed road with everything we owned slamming around in the back of our bus. We still weren’t speaking to each other, and every time our bus slammed into a hole, both of us winced like the other had yelled.

Em pulled the bus into a parking space at a trailhead and got out. There was a river to one side, and we were at the base of an enormous mountain, the earth in folds around us, and Em and I too small to ever matter to anyone but ourselves.

Screen Shot 2019-08-13 at 8.59.39 AM

I climbed out of the bus, too, to see green, green, green and sparkling water and Em standing there and the space between us that shouldn’t have been there.

We’d been married for less than four weeks by then, and maybe this was all a mistake, the trip, the marriage and every decision we’d ever made that had ever led up to this. Something had gone very wrong along the way, and this was my life now, and there was no way of getting out of it.

Em looked at the mountain instead of at me.

I studied the back of her neck and her perfect ear, so small you could keep it in your pocket and no one would know it was there, and I loved her. It was this aching sort of love like a meaty ball in the center of my chest, bloody and muscly and not always beautiful, but always there.

She wouldn’t look at me, and if she turned I knew I’d turn away, and I had no idea what we were doing there and how we’d turned into the sort of people who fought about when to put a parking pass on a dashboard.

I thought maybe there was no hope for anyone, that everyone is always unhappy no matter where they go or what they do, and then I saw a flash of white and Em reaching her hand to me. She was still looking at the mountain, but she pulled me forwards as she started to climb.

We stayed close together as we hiked, letting go of each other to gain our balance and then reaching out again. There were triangles of light on the path ahead, and we could smell the fresh scent of the forest that can never be recreated no matter how many candles you buy.

We walked in silence for a while and then we didn’t, one of us made a joke and the other added on. We almost felt like ourselves again, knowing each other and knowing we were there together, alive in the woods and part of everything like we were the trees and the trees were us, the plants breathing in what we breathed out, and up ahead we saw the deer.

The deer was frozen and we froze, too, then slowly moved forwards again.

Already, we’d never been so close to a deer before. We could see its chest moving as it breathed, and its black, intelligent eyes.

And then the deer moved, too, not to spring away from us, but to come forwards, cautious and curious like a child.

Em and I stilled again, but the deer kept coming. It walked until its nose was against Em’s leg and it was licking her knee.

Em stood there and I stood there, and we looked at each other for maybe the first time all day, and then we looked back down at this wild deer who seemed to be telling us something that we maybe already knew but had forgotten.

I held out my hand and the deer came and licked it, Em and me and the deer, the three of us in the forest, and this reminder that whatever happened, whatever unknown and uncomfortable experience was ahead of us, there would also be moments like this.

There would be sweat, and there would be tears, and there would be real-life deer in the forest, licking our hands and reminding us of what we’d forgotten, reminding us that every decision leads to every other decision, and wherever we are is special and important because it’s where we are.

There were an almost-infinite number of other ways our lives might have gone, but instead they went this way, a whole world out there and a whole lifetime of yeses and nos, and some of them were maybe wrong and some of them were definitely right, and somehow we ended up in the middle of a forest on top of a mountain with a deer licking our hands. We could have been anywhere but instead we were there, and from there, there was no turning back, Em and me and the deer, alive and ready for whatever might happen next.

Read:

Chapter 10: If Strangers on the Internet Can Do It…

Chapter 12: Night One in the River of Wolves

Chapter 10: If Strangers on the Internet Can Do It…

A man standing on a roof is stepping over the window ledge on the second floor of a houseI slowed my pace and Em did, too. We both knew what we were doing, only we didn’t want to acknowledge the ropes of fear twisting through our bodies, tying our hearts to our lungs and our lungs to our stomachs.

For the past year and a half, our motto had been if strangers on the internet can do it, we can do it, too, only the dangers were different now. We’d parked our bus in downtown Quebec City and were following advice we’d found on a forum that said it was easy to sleep for free undetected in your vehicle in cities.

“Climb into your vehicle casually, keep the lights off, keep quiet,” we’d repeated to ourselves for the past three hours as we wandered through the streets of Quebec.

After staying at my brother’s for the past three nights, this was our first night on our own, and we were determined to prove to ourselves that we could hack it. We could do free wild camping, just like the people on the internet.

“Worst case scenario, there’s a Walmart fifteen minutes away,” Em had said when we parked.

“I don’t really want this to be the Walmart tour of North America, though,” I’d said

“Me neither, but it’s good to have a backup plan.”

I’d nodded, and she did, too.

“I’m sure this will be fine, though,” she’d said.

Now it was three hours later, and the city wasn’t quieting down like we thought it would.

Two owls are sitting on a branch as two sprite creatures sneak behind them to steal hats

It was a hot night in July, and the streets had turned to rivers of gasoline, black and shiny with colors running through them, threatening to light on fire at any second.

Em and I had lived in Quebec City from September to December a few years before, but a city in the fall and early winter is not the same animal as a city in the summer.

We heard drunken singing like a lonesome dog a few streets away, and watched cars whizz by, bringing lines of white and leaving lines of red as we slowed or pace even further, the darkend doorways whispering danger and our footsteps seeming too loud.

“It would be different if we didn’t have such a flashy bus,” Em said.

“And different if this wasn’t our first night.”

A man stepped out of a bar and called after us in garbled French, his voice sounding like a baseball bat wacked against a garbage can.

Em and I both jumped and sped up again, keeping our heads down until we reached the corner of the street our bus was parked on.

“We’ll just see,” Em said. “We’ll see how the street looks and if there are people there and how they seem, and then we’ll decide.”

“Right. We’ll do a walk by and then decide.”

“No one will bother us if they don’t know we’re in there.”

“Exactly.”

“Exactly.”

We turned the corner and there was our bus, right where we’d left it and totally safe aside from a group of maybe six people chatting outside half a block away.

They didn’t look like the kind of people who’d spontaneously decide to smash in the windows of a nearby bus and bludgeon its occupants, but it’s hard to be sure late at night when the city seems alive and untameable.

Em and I got a few steps closer, and then a few steps closer again, feeling the city’s restlessness, a car alarm going off in the distance and an anticipation like the night was about to rip itself apart, turning everything around us into blood and confetti.

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We walked past our bus and kept walking, around the block, back to the corner we’d come from.

I was out of breath and my clothes felt too tight. Em’s skin looked blue in the streetlights, and I couldn’t hold onto the blackness around us.

“Walmart?” I asked.

“Walmart,” Em agreed.

We walked back to our bus a second time and drove away as fast as possible.

Read:

Chapter 9: Welcome to Cartoon World

Chapter 11: Em and Me and the Deer