When We Became Forest Women. Pt. 2

“I think we have to back up,” I said to Em. She was still in our bus’s driver’s seat, and I was still on our bus’s stairs, soaking wet and covered in mud. We were stuck in the middle of the forest, thirty miles from the nearest town, with no cell service and no one to hear us scream.

“Back up?” Em asked, and I nodded. We’d made it about ten feet through the sixty feet of impassable mud we had to get through, but now, a particularly large tree root was stopping us from going any farther.

“I think I really need to build up these twig ramps I’ve been making, and then we take a running start at the roots.”

“It’s taken an hour to get this far, though,” Em said. “If we back up, won’t we just lose all the ground we’ve just gained?”

“We might, but I don’t think there’s any other way to get over these roots.”

Em and I stared at the water coming in a steady stream from the trees. It had been raining for twelve hours now, and I had a feeling it would never stop.  I had a vision of the Great Lakes lifting into clouds and pouring themselves down on us, the oceans turning to deserts, and a great flood of water from all over the world turning into a wave from the sky and washing us away. At least if that happened, we’d finally be out of that goddamned forest.

Em looked through the rear-view mirror at the ten feet of mud we’d managed to gain.

“Okay,” she finally said, and we both stepped into the rain.

We had to go farther into the forest this time, collecting small branches as wide as our fingers to line up behind and in front of our wheels to use as traction. If the branches were too small, they wouldn’t provide enough traction, and if they were too big, we wouldn’t be able to drive over them.

The sticks were heavy with water, and my clothes were heavy with water, and I wasn’t sure if I’d ever be warm or I’d ever be dry again. I imagined myself in the future, standing in a boardroom, giving a presentation with lots of charts and lots of figures. I’d be wearing a pinstriped pantsuit of some kind, but I’d still be freezing cold and wet and covered in dirt.

I came back with a pile of sticks and Em did as well, and we started laying them behind and in front of our tires, parallel to each other, making a ten-foot track out of thin sticks placed half an inch apart.

“I guess it can’t get much worse,” Em said. “I mean as long as we don’t drive off this cliff, the worst that will happen is we’ll end up exactly where we started.”

I nodded and used my muddy hand to push the wet hair out of my face again.

A jester carrying a lute stands laughing in the rain pouring from a sky filled with clouds

“And besides, look what I learned to do with this stick.” Em had a long straight stick that she twirled like a really shitty baton twirler, and at first I wanted to tell her to focus. We had hundreds of sticks to line up before we could pull the bus back, and I was at sure at any second my hands would fall off from the cold, but then again, what was the rush? As long as we got the bus out of the mud before Sunday or Monday, we’d be winning.

“Beautiful,” I said.

She spun in a circle, threw the stick into the air and almost caught it.

“I meant to do that,” she told me.

“So Avant Garde. So compelling.”

I picked up a stick, too, and used it like a wand to cast a spell on our bus.

“Eye of frog, spooky toes. Get this bus out of the mud until it goes.”

Em was right, as long as we didn’t accidentally drive off the cliff behind us, things couldn’t get that much worse.

Em eased the bus back, and I filled in the latest holes where our tires had sunk into the mud.

When we’d made it the ten feet back down the slope our bus was on, I went to the back to push, just in case it would help.

“Okay,” I shouted.

Em shifted the bus into drive. At first, the wheels turned slowly, and then they spun out, spraying me in another sheet of mud, and digging the whole bus into the ground again, planting us in the exact same place we’d been stuck over an hour ago.

“Well, this sucks,” Em said, looking back at me from the driver’s seat. She was still trying to smile, though. It was stretched across her face like she was having a hard time holding it there while the rain tried to wash it away.

The hole we were in was a complete swamp now, and I started raiding the bus for something beyond sticks that would give us extra traction.

I threw down our dish cloths, tea towels, and all the wood chips we used in our composting toilet as well as way more sticks.

“Let’s try again,” I said to Em, but I could tell she was getting tired.

“Maybe we’ll get service if we climb higher up the mountain,” she said. “Or we can walk down. There might be a house or something.

“But what kind of house?” I asked, imaging a toothless hunter living alone in the woods in one of the most conservative states in America. What would he do when he came across two queer women from Canada who were stupid enough to get their purple school bus stuck in a mud pit?

Em and I looked at each other, waiting for the other to say something, her inside the bus and me still outside, blinking raindrops out of my eyes. Both of us were trying so hard not to snap at the other that I was sure we would both break down crying at any second.

“Can we just try?” I asked.

I arranged a few final sticks under the wheels and along the track leading up to the roots we had to drive over.

“If we get going, try to keep the bus as straight as possible,” I said to Em. “And don’t stop until you’re sure it can’t go any farther.”

Em nodded. There was something washed-out and grey in her face, and I knew she was only doing this for me, and I knew she was tired and wanted to break down, or at least take a break, but I wasn’t willing to give up yet.

“One, two, three,” Em shouted. She stepped on the gas, and I pushed, and the wheels caught. The bus rolled itself forwards, first slowly, then faster. It went one foot, then two, then five, and three more. The rain was making it hard to see, and the wheels kept splashing my body with mud, but we were going.

Em kept the speed up and kept the wheel steady even with the skidding.

“Come on,” I shouted over the rain and the engine and the mud splashing in my face. “Come on, come on, come on.”

There was a pause, and then the bus went forwards again, groaning over the root. The bus jerked and skidded to the side, but Em got hold of it again, catching the wheels on a few more twigs, and getting its speed up as the back wheels hit the root.

There was a pause again, and it had to have been less than a second, but it felt like a lifetime, individual raindrops falling from the sky, and everything happening in some alternate reality where the earth spins slower and time is stretched out.

In that quite half second, a miracle happened, maybe it was luck, or maybe it was the spell I’d cast, but the back wheels went over the root, and the bus landed in a pit of mud and skidded again.

We’d come to a stop, but it didn’t matter.

We were over our biggest obstacle now, and beyond that was another forty feet of mud, but we knew how to handle that.

Em opened the driver’s side door and shouted into the pouring rain, and I did, too, my throat feeling raw, my fingers freezing into claws, and something animal coming out of me again. I was a prehistoric human digging in the mud and the dirt and finally, finally, looking up to see the stars. The rain was washing the mud off me, showing underneath that I was more than what I thought I was. I was stronger than I thought, and smarter, and braver. I could get a bus out of a mud pit in the middle of the woods with nothing but sticks and dishrags as tools. There was nothing I couldn’t do.

HooksJust over an hour later, we’d made it to the safety of the pavement again, looking at the pit we’d emerged from like phoenixes rising from the ashes, except damper.

Em got out of the driver’s seat and hugged me and hugged me. I was still caked it mud, but it didn’t matter. Nothing mattered because we were free, and we’d done it all on our own.

We could do anything now, fight rabid bears with our bare hands, pull screaming children from burning orphanages, save the world from any sort of imminent destruction. All of that would be easy now. Everything in our lives would be easy from now on. We’d live happy lives, out in the wilds or in cities or anywhere else. No matter what happened to us, we could handle it.

“We are amazing,” I shouted into the sky, and Em shouted it, too. “We can do anything,” and we stood there with the rain washing down on us, ratty and cold and covered in mud, and we really believed it, and we knew that no matter what, the world was ours, and we could take on anything.

When We Became Forest Women

A woman with her cape and dress floating around her stands in a dark forest looking scared“Stop,” I shouted over the rain and the engine and my heart beating so loud I was sure it had grown legs and was about to kick its way out of my chest.

The bus slowed.

“Stop, stop, stop,” I yelled again, and finally, our bus shuddered and held.

For a second, we were absolutely still. The bus motor was still running, and Em was still in the driver’s seat, and I was still outside, the rain coming down through the trees in fat cold drips, soaking my hair and sliding down my forehead while my shoes sank farther into the mud.

We were in a forest on the side of a mountain in North Carolina, thirty miles from the nearest town in an area with no cell reception, and only one vehicle had passed us since we’d parked there the night before. That vehicle was a pickup truck that had driven by at about 3am with huge spotlights mounted to its roof and about eight deer carcasses in the back.

Em put the bus into drive again. The wheels spun, mud skidded, and the bus stayed in the exact same place.

Over the engine, over the rain and through our bus’s walls, I could hear Em shouting, FUUUUUCK.

I walked once around our bus. There was a cliff directly behind us and a tree to our right. If we went any further back, the tree would knock our right mirror off and then we’d immediately drive off a cliff.

Em tried the bus again, flinging a sheet of mud behind us, and then she turned the engine off.

Through the fogged-up side door, she could have been an impressionist painting, her forehead on the steering wheel, and maybe those were tears, or maybe it was just the raindrops on the outside of the window.

Without the engine running, the whole forest seemed to still. It was water falling in slow motion, the cliff our bus might slide off of, the tree about to knock our mirror off, and even the hunter we’d seen in the middle of the night. I imagined him stringing a dead deer up by its back legs, a streak of blood on the hunter’s chin and the way his back might bend under the strain, blue eyes and a scar above his lip that he’d had since he was a kid.

I looked at my phone but the miracle of time standing still didn’t extend to the miracle of cellphone service, and then I went into the bus and stood there, facing Em with water dripping down my forehead.

“It’s only supposed to rain until Saturday,” I said. “If we wait, the ground will probably dry by Sunday or Monday.”

“What day is it today?” Em asked with her forehead still on the steering wheel.

“Wednesday.”

She counted on her fingers.

“Six days?” she asked.

“I’m pretty sure we have enough food and water.”

“You’re pretty sure?”

I shrugged, and Em peeled herself off the steering wheel and got out of the bus. She circled once while I followed.

“Maybe we just stay here forever,” I said.

“Or maybe after four days of rain, the ground will get so swampy that our bus will slide backwards down this cliff,” she said, pointing to the steep drop about three feet behind our bus.

“Right,” I said, and I bent to look at our bus’s wheels.

HooksWhen we got in the night before, the camping spot seemed perfect. It was a little pull off on an incline with a firepit and plenty of trees to give us privacy from the road. The same trees that had given us privacy, though, had left enormous roots in our path as well as a thick layer of slippery leaves covering the sandy mud our bus was sinking into with each minute.

“Right,” I said again. I looked at the cliff and then Em and then our bus’s wheels again, then went into the woods and started gathering twigs.

“We need traction,” I told Em.

We didn’t have anything to dig with, so I went in with my bare hands, pulling up globs of slimy leaves and mud and replacing them with twigs, trying to shove the twigs under our bus wheels, first the back two, then the front.

I wiped raindrops from my forehead and smeared my face with mud in the process.

“Try that,” I said.

Em started the bus again. For a second it seemed like it would go, and then it skidded and sprayed mud again.

“Fuck,” Em said.

“Almost,” I said, and I went out and laid down more twigs with the rain coming in through the collar of my coat and Em waiting in the driver’s seat with her head on the steering wheel again.

I took my time this time, finding sticks that were as wide as my finger or smaller and carefully shoving them under the wheels as well as lining them up in front.

This time, the bus caught, going four whole inches before digging itself into the mud and sliding.

Em swore again, and I stepped back out into the rain.

I laid sticks behind the wheels this time, and got Em to carefully back up before laying twigs in front of the wheels again.

This time we went eight inches.

Em stopped the bus and looked ahead of us at the sixty feet of mud we still had to get through.

“It’s not like we can just do this the whole way,” she said.

“I don’t have any other ideas,” I told her.

An hour later, we’d made it ten feet. I was soaked through and covered in mud, and now we’d reached a root sticking five inches out of the ground, and our bus could not seem to make it over.

Em backed up a few more inches, and I laid down more sticks, and on my shout, Em drove while I pushed the back of the bus, just in case it would help somehow.

The wheels caught, the bus went forwards, and just as quickly stopped, spraying mud up my entire body.

We tried again and again and finally stopped.

A bird is sitting in an decorative tree with a background of interlacing patterns and foliageWhen I came around to the front of the bus, Em had her forehead pressed to the wheel again, and her body was shaking. It wasn’t until I got inside again, though, that I realized she wasn’t crying, but laughing.

“We’re screwed,” she said. “I think we just have to live here forever now.”

And then I started laughing, too, because there really didn’t seem to be anything else we could do.

I sat on our bus steps, dripping wet and covered in mud, and Em stayed in the driver’s seat with her forehead on the wheel.

“What are we even doing out here?” Em asked. “Who just buys a bus and decides they’re going to live in it?” look at us, we’re freezing cold and covered in mud and we’ve only made it to North Carolina.

“This is our home now,” I kept saying back and laughing. It was this wild and thrilling laugh with panic rising in me. “We have to become forest women now. We have to hunt for our food and eat berries and live amongst the beasts now.”

Em howled like a wolf, and I started making owl noises then barked, the hysteria growing until we couldn’t control ourselves, shouting and making animal noises, and it didn’t matter how loud we were because we were too deep in the forest for anyone to hear us and we were fucked and we would have to live here from now on.

To be continued…

The Time We Met a Monkey

The First Bus

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.

Read:

Chapter 15 Part 1: We Have to Sell the Bus

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.

Screen Shot 2019-08-08 at 10.25.25 AM

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

Chapter 9: Welcome to Cartoon World

PEC 1Everything felt like a story book, and it was hard to make sense of anything. I knew that one day I’d die and my flesh would separate from my bones and my bones would turn to a fine white powder that was absorbed by the earth, but everything seemed impossible right now, Em, my brother, and the field of flowers in front of me.

Two days before, Em and I had sawed a hole the size of a fist straight through the side of the bus. It had taken us three hours, and we’d sworn and cried and snapped at each other the whole time. We were trying to make a vent for our solar-charged battery, but everything was going wrong the way it had all week.

In the days before, we’d covered ourselves in hot glue, super glue, epoxy, and liquid nails, trying to put our screens in. We’d exacto-knived pieces of our fingers off and had broken more drill bits and jigsaw blades than we could count. Everything was harder and was taking longer than it was supposed to, and we were sure we’d never make it onto the road.

And then, two days later, there we were in Prince Edward County, Ontario. It was July 13th, 2019, day one of our year-long road trip across North America.

Em put the bus into park, and both of us climbed out like real-life characters who had been transported into cartoon land.

The sun was just setting and every color seemed too rich, like someone had painted them in just to fuck with us.

We were on the organic farm my brother lives on, works on and grows flowers on, and I could see the flowers bending in the distance and everything looking golden, golden, golden as my brother came up to give me a hug.

“You’re here!” he said, but I still couldn’t believe it as he led Em and I directly into the fields to show us flowers on top of flowers on top of flowers. There didn’t seem to be a way that you could take them all in and still breathe and speak and do normal human things after, and so I looked, but avoided looking too closely for fear of how I’d be punished for seeing too much beauty all at once.

Afterwards, we drank beer and ate tortilla chips and salsa, and that night Em and I slept in our bus and it felt like any other night sleeping anywhere at all, and I didn’t know what was wrong with me or with our bus or with our trip, but probably with me.

I think I thought that going on this trip would make me different in some way. I imagined myself instantly transforming into someone from the internet who drinks matcha and does yoga by the seaside and who is open and honest and welcoming to all, but going to bed that night, I was the same person I was when I’d left that afternoon.

Minutes before we left, Em and I stood in front of our bus and held each other tight like something was about to fall out of us.

“Is this happening?” I whispered.

“It’s happening,” Em whispered back. But I still couldn’t believe her.

We’d gotten married three weeks before. The week after that, we’d moved, and had spent the following two weeks working frantically to get our bus ready. For over a month now, my constant feeling was that I’d swallowed two to three tablespoons of baking soda and then climbed into the back of a pickup truck driven by a sixteen year old whose dad has given him the keys for the first time.

Leaving that afternoon, I was exhausted and overwhelmed and still gripped by the wedding, packing, moving, building, packing stress that had become my new normal, but I don’t think I realized it yet.

PECThe next day I woke up in our beautiful bus on that beautiful flower and greens farm on a beautiful summer’s day, and it still felt like my brain was full of sand and safety pins. While I wanted to hang out with my brother and see everything and do everything, I also wanted to lie in bed and watch TV and not talk to anyone.

That day and the next, we did stupidly idyllic things. We rode our bikes down country roads. We picked more flowers than we could carry. We ate sweet peas directly from their vines and swam at the beach. It was an absolutely perfect start to our trip, but it didn’t feel like it. It felt like a pleasant weekend visiting my brother, and then we’d go home and go back to our regular lives.

I was starting to think maybe it would always feel like this. I imagined the year ahead as some lost year of my life. Years later, people would ask me about my road trip through Canada and The States, and I’d say how it was fantastic and how I had the best time like you’re supposed to say when people ask you questions like that, but really it would feel like something I saw in a movie once, or heard about from a friend of a friend.

I wasn’t happy and I wasn’t sad. I was the same person I always was, and I was also maybe no person at all, and already we were packing up, washing our dishes and securing our drawers, ready to head east and our next destination, Quebec City.

Read:

Chapter 8: Frank is Dead

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

Chapter 8: Frank is Dead

mapEm drove her car while I sat in the passenger’s seat clutching a bright green piece of printer paper with a hand-drawn map on it. The map had two road names, and the rest was a series of symbols showing cross streets, stop signs and churches where we were supposed to turn.

It was a sunny Sunday in June, 2019, six days before Em and I were supposed get married. We were planning on showing off our bus to our friends and family at the wedding reception. The only problem was that our bus was at a welder’s half an hour away, and there was a chance the welder was dead.

We’d shown up at our mechanic’s shop twenty minutes before, and our mechanic had come out to greet us with eyes like coyotes’.

“There’s a problem girls,” he said instead of hello or how are you?

Two weeks before, we’d asked him to put a three-point seatbelt into the passenger’s seat for us. While he’d promised it would only take a day or two, he’d run into problem after problem. In the end he’d sent the bus to a welder friend of his, only now he hadn’t heard from the welder in almost a week.

“Something about this doesn’t sit right,” our mechanic told us as we followed him into his shop. “Frank is usually so reliable, and the fact that I haven’t heard from him, well it’s just odd.”

He handed us a hand-drawn map to Frank’s shop and pulled on the tuft of wiry brown hair until it stuck straight up.

“You’ve got a spare key, right?” he asked.

We nodded.

“You go over there, and get your bus then,” he said. “I don’t know. I hope he’s okay.”

“So we just go and we steal our bus?” Em asked.

“It’s your bus. And you need it for the wedding.” He looked back down at the map, and then out the window behind us. “Jeeze, I hope he’s not dead.”

“Dead?” Em asked.A crowned skeleton symbolizing Death sits pensively on a globe, holding an arrow

“Dead?” I asked.

But another car had pulled into the lot, though, and the mechanic was waving us towards the door.

“I’ll call you in an hour to find out what happened,” he said.

And then Em and I were on our way with our bus’s spare key and the hand-drawn map, ready to steal our own bus back from a welder who was possibly dead.

Em kept her eyes forwards while I looked at green fields and golden fields and flowers on country houses and tried to think of something to say.

I’ll be honest, by this point, we’d stretched ourselves so thin we were almost invisible. It was getting difficult to remember we were supposed to be having a good time when we were in the middle of getting ready for a budget DIY wedding at her parents’ house while also moving, finishing up our jobs, and getting ready for our year-long trip on a bus which was still mostly held together with duct tape.

A few days before, a dam of some sort failed in my brain, and I found myself crying and laughing like there was a river inside me that needed to get out. Now, I felt like I would break open at any second, and blood would pour from my eyes and ears and mouth and nose.

“Try your best, forget the rest,” Em said after neither of us had said anything for what felt like too long. It was the line she’d given me almost a year before while we were painting our bus, but it was different this time. It didn’t hold the same joy, but she wasn’t saying it ironically either. It was more that she was flatly repeating a moment from our past, looking for a feeling somewhere inside, words rattling around in an empty can.

“Frank’s house is supposed to be just up here,” I said instead of responding.

The speed limit slowed to 50, and we drove past square house after square house, all with their blinds down against the heat of the day.

“How will we know it’s his?” Em asked.

“I’m assuming it’ll be the one with our bus in the driveway.”

“Right,” Em said. She turned down a side street, and there it was, a bungalow with seven different vehicles parked around it and a possibly-dead welder inside.

Our bus was parked on the side of the road, and Em pulled up close, but didn’t get out of the car.

We looked at our bus and then at the bungalow. The blinds were drawn like in all the other houses, but it seemed like this house was holding its breath, trying to keep in a secret.

A man sitting surrounded by scrolls of papers and books is handed a document by a ghostly figure“Do we knock?” Em asked.

“It’s Sunday morning. I don’t want to disturb him if he’s in there.”

“Yeah, but what if he’s dead inside right now?”

“Then he probably won’t answer the door.”

“What if he’s dead in our bus?” Em asked.

I looked at her, and then at the bus and then at her again. She’s afraid of ghosts and serial killers and the dark, and while I’m usually the sensible one in situations like this, something about the sun making everything look two dimensional and the patterned curtains on the house across the street was starting to get to me.

“Let’s check it out,” I said. I wasn’t sure if the sun would turn me to dust or not, but I stepped out of the car anyway. I ran my hands over my skin and looked out for eyes peeking through the curtains or blood spilling from our bus’s front door, but didn’t see anything, getting closer and closer to the bus and not knowing if I was breathing or alive or had turned to ash or not.

I imagined the welder’s dead body strangled by the seatbelt he was supposed to install for us and slumped over our couch. There was a smell in the air that was familiar, rotting flesh or else cow manure, and the sun was making everything look like a postcard from the 1970’s, the most gruesome of decades.

I tented my hand over my eyes and squinted into our bus’s windows, still eight feet away, and for a second I was sure I could see a bloody handprint on our bus’s front door.

I pulled Em back, then step forwards again and the blood disappeared.

“I’ll go first,” I said with a voice that didn’t really sound like my own. I pressed my face against the window, but I wasn’t sure what I was seeing, and so I eased the bus door open and looked in through my fingers.

Was that a foot?

I inched my fingers away from my face and opened my eyes to see our bus was just as we’d left it two weeks before. Frank wasn’t dead inside, but he also hadn’t touched it.

Em and I looked at Frank’s darkened house and then at each other.

“Five days ago, he said he’s start on the seatbelt right away,” Em said. “Is it weird that he hasn’t done anything?”

I didn’t say anything, looking back to the house and imagining a welder lying paralyzed in the shower, just waiting for help to come.

“Should we call someone?” Em asked.

“Who?”

Em squinted at the perfectly quiet house in front of us, and the other quiet houses up and down the street. I imagined that each of them was a movie set, false fronts with nothing behind.

“Our mechanic’s calling in an hour,” I said. “We’ll tell him what we saw.”

Em nodded and took our bus’s spare keys off her key ring.

“We just go then, I guess,” she said.

I nodded, unsure, but not wanting her to know.

Em looked around one last time, then climbed into the driver’s seat.

“Rest in peace, Frank,” she said.

“Rest in peace, Frank,” I repeated.

WeddingShe drove away, and I followed after her, watching green fields and golden fields and houses with flowers and the back of our bus, and feeling this strange calm. Frank was dead, or maybe not. In six days Em and I would be married and two weeks later, we were going to pack everything we owned into the bus in front of me and drive into the sunset.

It felt too overwhelming to have any emotion at all about, and so I didn’t. I held onto the steering wheel and followed after Em and hoped I’d make it out alive.

Read:

Chapter 1: The First Bus

Chapter 2: Ca$h Money, Baby

Chapter 3: The First Bolt

Chapter 4: Midnight Paint Job

Chapter 5: Building Will Be Difficult if You’re Afraid of Power Tools

Chapter 6: Making It

Chapter 7: Wheels on the Real-Life Road

Chapter 9: Welcome to Cartoon World

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