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

Death on the Precipice Trail

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Fear doesn’t always have the same smell, but it usually has a smell. This time it was metal and salt and something too earthy to be palatable. I looked up at Em, climbing 3m above me, and then down at where we’d come from. We were halfway up a mountain on the almost-vertical Precipice Trail in Acadia National Park, and there was no turning back. We’d passed three signs on the way up saying this was a one-way trail, meaning that if I ever wanted to grow old with my genderless children, I’d have to climb this motherfucking mountain.

We’d taken a shuttlebus to get to the trailhead, herded on by a driver who was told once by a well-meaning aunt or cousin or deranged librarian that he was funny, and he quite obviously clung to the compliment without having any further raw data to back it up.

“The Precipice Trail,” he said when we told him where we wanted to go. “You know you have to go through a psychiatric evaluation before you go on that one.”

Em and I laughed, but obviously not hard enough, because the driver pulled out his microphone so the entire shuttlebus could hear his joke.

“Folks, these two young ladies here seem to have a death wish. They’ve just told me that they want to climb The Precipice Trail, the most challenging trail in the entire park.”

We looked around at everyone else on the bus all looking at us. They were all between 30 and 300 years older than us, and every one of them was wearing a lanyard from a cruise ship they’d just gotten off of.

I nodded at them, and Em nodded at them, but our driver wasn’t done.

“Take a good look folks,” he said. “We lose at least one person a year on The Precipice Trail. There’s a good chance these two will be coming back in body bags.

I looked at Em, capital D Dazzling Em who was rarely ever phased by anything, and she wasn’t phased by this either. It was easy for her, though. She was made of lightning, arctic wind and a little bit of silver dust from who knows where. Meanwhile, I was made of rocks and chewing gum and splintered popsicle sticks, and if one of us was going to die on this hike, it would definitely be me.

“Should we be doing this?” I asked.

“He’s just exaggerating for the crowd,” Em said.

And when we got off the bus five minutes later, the driver made all the oldies from the cruise wave to us like we were doomed sailors on our final voyage.

We waved back and laughed, but now an hour had gone by, and I was on a thin rock ledge looking up at a series of metal rungs shoved into the cliff face. If I slipped while climbing, I’d fall about 20 stories, and maybe I’d die instantly or maybe I’d die slowly, feeling the blood pour out of everywhere all at once, but I’d most definitely die.

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“I don’t know about this,” I called up to Em who was now on the next rock ledge about 15m up.

“Just take it slow and don’t let go.”

“Sure, that’s easy.”

“It’s just like climbing a ladder. The only way you’ll fall is if you let go.”

“But what if I spontaneously become paralyzed or have a seizure?”

“What if you have a seizure when you’re driving or riding an escalator?”

“You’re right, I shouldn’t do those things anymore either.”

“When have you ever had a seizure anyway? she asked.

She was right, but that didn’t make me any less scared.

I put my right hand on the first iron bar and then my left. There was the smell of metal again and wind coming off the ocean. I tried to breath, and I tried not to die. Then I stepped onto the rung by my feet and pulled myself up.

“You’re doing it,” Em said.

I climbed to the next rung and then the next, at first not looking below me, and then sneaking glances at the ocean shining in the sun and the grey face of the rock where someone fell off and died every single year.

Here, I said at each rung secured into the side of the mountain. Someone maybe fell from here.

And then my foot slipped, too, the smallest wobble of over confidence and nothing but air below me for way too long. I was not a bird and I was not a mountain lion and I was not graceful enough to be attempting something like this, but somehow I caught myself, and most surprisingly of all, a laugh ripped out of my chest.

It was a slip more than a fall with Em looking down at me and my hands sweaty and smelling of metal.

“Holy shit,” I said up to her. “I almost died just then.”

“No, you didn’t.”

“I guess not because here I am.”

I pulled myself up again, and found myself on the next rock ledge, looking down at where I’d almost died but hadn’t and feeling something blooming in my chest, wild and uncontrollable.

There were the rocks and the trees and the ocean, and there was this almost vertical cliff face were climbing with just our hands and our feet.

“This is so fucked up,” I said, but I was smiling and Em was smiling, too, something wild in her eyes and not exactly human.

There was dead and there was alive and there was this third state that Em was in and I was in, an unlocking of some secret way of being that maybe I’d felt before and maybe I hadn’t, close to dead, but more alive than ever.

“I’m scared,” I said to her. “I’m scared because I’m scared, and I’m scared because I’m so happy, and I think being scared like this shouldn’t make you so happy.”

Em laughed a laugh made of silver confetti. She held onto a metal bar bolted into the cliff face, and leaned until she was half hanging over the edge.

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“At least we know we’re alive,” she said, and I held my breath and she pulled herself back in.

“For now at least,” I told her, and she just smiled at me, this smile that had the whole world in it, sadness and happiness and the fact that we were born. The fact that we met each other and were married and in love and lived in a bus. The fact that we could climb a mountain with just our hands and our feet and nothing holding us except ourselves and the fact that we wanted to live, live, live.

“Should we keep going?” Em asked.

“We have to,” I said.

And so we did, the metal under our hands, the rockface before us, and the feeling that we could do anything at all.

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Chapter 18: A Quest Across the Empty Ocean

A Quest Across the Empty Ocean

We stared at the flat wet sand where the ocean should have been and the little sliver of water far, far in the distance.

We were at the eastern edge of the Bay of Fundy, famed for having the highest tides in the world. 160 billion tons of water flow in and out of the bay twice a day, and that’s cool and awe inspiring and whatever else, but it isn’t the most convenient when you’re trying to show someone a good time at the beach.

It was Em and me and Em’s brother John, who was giving up his only free weekend that whole summer to get a taste of our glamorous, nomadic vanlife.

John had a steady job and a roomy apartment, and we were trying to show him we weren’t insane for giving all that up to live in a 7×10’ tin can on wheels.

He had slept on our couch and peed in our bucket, and now, to show him the freedom and luxury of life on the road, we’d decided to spend the day at the beach.

It was the perfect plan, only it was a little rainy and a lot windy and while the sand went on and on, there wasn’t any water to go with it.

Em and I looked out our bus window at John who had followed behind us in his car, and then we looked at each other.

“Is there a museum or something we could go to instead?” I asked.

“No.”

“A visitor’s center?”

“To do what?”

I looked at the time on my phone. It was Saturday at 10am. We had a full day to fill with exciting and adventurous activities that made us look like we had our shit together and that shitting in a bucket and eating cold beans from a can for 19% of our meals was worth it.

And then John came around to our bus door.

“We can walk along the beach for a bit,” he said.

“Yes,” Em told him, putting on an enthusiastic face. “Let’s do that.”

There was supposed to be some sort of rock formation a little ways down the beach, but when we looked it up, a little ways was actually 5km, and the farther we walked down the beach, the farther our shoes sank into the sloppy mix of sand and mud that made up the ocean floor.

Hooks

Our feet were heavy and slow, and then the rain started. It sprinkled at first, but there were ominous clouds in the distance.

“Should we go back?” I asked.

“Let’s just see what’s around this next point,” John said, and so we kept going.

There was a cliff up ahead, and we rounded the corner to find more cliffs, three or four stories high and the line where the tide came up well above our heads.

It was different than the beach we’d come from. There, it seemed as though the sand just extended into infinity. From here though, we could really understand that we were walking on the ocean floor, the seaweed growing up from the sand and the thought of the ocean rising twice a day to erase where we were.

“Holy shit,” I said.

“Holy shit,” Em said.

And John didn’t say anything. He ran forwards, mud splashing the backs of his legs and the sludge of the ocean floor almost tripping him up. He ran and then slid, leaving a line of green slime behind him while his body glided effortlessly.

It was like we’d entered another world, trees clinging onto the edges of the cliffs above our heads and branches burrowed top first into the sand at our feet.

We followed along the cliffs and began to wonder where we were. On Earth yes, and in Nova Scotia yes, but it seemed as though a shift had taken place. The quietness of the ocean without any water in it, and a single set of bare footprints we’d been following for an hour at least.

We hadn’t seen a single person since we left our bus, and it wasn’t hard to imagine that something had happened in that time. We thought maybe were the only ones left on a barren earth in the middle of the emptied-out ocean.

John ran and slid again, and I did, too, landing my right foot in a patch of mud that went well past my ankle, and then we heard voices up ahead.

Hooks

We rounded one the next point to see another empty cove with figures dotted across it. There were twenty maybe, and it took us another half kilometer of walking to figure out what was happening, only then, we still didn’t really understand.

They were in their pajamas mostly, and barefoot. A lot in their twenties and thirties, some older and some younger. They were calling out to each other, running across the bottom of the ocean brandishing golf clubs and wearing Santa hats at the end of August.

Some were hitting golf balls far across the flat expanse of sand while others were chatting with beers in their hands.

When they came into view and we came into view, we all looked at each other, startled like we had all thought we were the last ones on earth, and we’d already forgotten how to behave in front of strangers.

We nodded and they nodded and moved out of the way for us, revealing a river of sludge we’d have to cross.

“Should we keep going?” I asked, but John said, “Yeah,” and Em said “Yeah,” and I stepped into the sludge first.

The golfers in their Santa hats stood back and watched us for a minute, and no one spoke like something sacred was happening or about to happen.

My feet were mostly covered in ocean sludge by then, and so I embraced the swampy insides of the ocean floor, letting cold water and grey slime slide around my ankles, as I forded the current of fresh water heading out to where the ocean was supposed to be.

John followed after me, then Em, the three of us covered in mud by that point and turning back to the golfers who were still there. The white pompoms on the ends of their Santa hats blew in the wind, and still no one spoke.

We nodded, and the golfers did, too, and then we kept going.

We hadn’t intended for this walk along the ocean floor to be a quest of any kind, but it was now, all three of us needing to see what was beyond the next point and then the next, getting as far as we could before the tide came in and we headed back to safety or we drowned.

It started raining again, but I didn’t bother worrying about whether to turn back or not. It seemed impossible to think that we would do anything but keep going, and so we did, the cliffs coming up beside us and something new in the distance, the rock formations we’d read about, and maybe we’d been aiming for them all along.

HooksThey were these enormous arches of red stone, jutting up from the ocean floor, and something shifted in us on seeing them, the long and bizarre trek with our feet wet and the swampy bottom of the ocean all around us.

“There,” we said. “They’re just ahead.”

And at first we were walking, and then we were running. We ran and slid and ran and slid, needing to get there faster now, our destination revealing itself to us and the feeling of wings.

The rocks were almost too far away to see and then they weren’t, coming into focus now, and larger than anything we’d seen before. We raced each other and slipped and raced again, coating ourselves in more and more mud and the desire to make it to these enormous red archways jutting out from the bottom of the ocean.

“It’s worth it,” we’d said to ourselves over and over for the past month and a half. “It’s been challenging and it’s been surprising, but it’s been worth it,” we’d said again and again, only we didn’t need to now.

We were under these huge red arches at the bottom of this emptied out ocean and we were damp and we were cold and we were kind of hungry, but we were filled with the idea that we were doing something huge and real and important.

We put our hands against the rock formations, and felt how they were part of the earth and we were part of the earth, carbon and nitrogen and whatever else bodies are made of and rocks are made of and everything is made of.

We were alive and we were at the bottom of the ocean, Em and I and John and all those golfers in their pajamas and their Santa hats.

We were doing something real, maybe, and we were doing something different to everything we’d ever done before. We were standing at the bottom of the ocean and seeing the world in a way we hadn’t before. Endless stretches of sand, and the tide coming in to hide it all away.

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Chapter 17: The Wild and Untamable Night

Chapter 17: The Wild and Untamable Night

The night was a hot mouth that had closed around us, unseen molars to come down on us and a tongue to fling us into oblivion.

It was Em and I in our tent, and acres of damp blackness in every direction.

“What was that?” Em asked, and she froze, and I froze, and I could feel her body beside mine, a living thing among living things, and I wasn’t sure what was beyond it.

“It’s probably nothing,” I said.

And then there was a rustling again, and Em wrapped her cold hand around my waist and pulled me close to her.

I blinked, but I couldn’t see anything, and blinked again to make sure my eyes were open.

“It’s probably just a squirrel or something.”

“It sounds bigger than a squirrel.”

“A racoon then.”

The forest was breathing, and we were breathing, and I tried to remain calm.

Em and I had been living in our bus for over a month now, and that day we hiked 14km into the heart of Kejimkujik National Park in Nova Scotia.

It had been a beautiful hike, lush forests and the feeling of using of bodies to haul everything we would need in the wilderness for three nights and four days. We stopped and picked blueberries along the way, and talked about the people we’d become, strong people, adventurous people, the people we always wanted to be, but didn’t realize until then.

Only now, night was on every side of us, and it was hard to feel the way we had in the daylight.

A branch broke and maybe there were footsteps, and maybe there was nothing.

“Maybe it’s two racoons, or a porcupine,” I said, and I checked my phone, but there was still no service that far into the woods.

“Those were definitely footsteps,” Em said.

“A deer then. It’s a deer just going home to its den.”

“In the middle of the night?”

“Here.” I flicked on our flashlight and opened the tent. The zipper was too loud, and the darkness poured in, blackness like a hand over an open mouth, and our little light couldn’t reach the end of it.

I pulled back in and closed the tent.

“What was out there?” Em asked.

“Nothing.” My blood felt thick like the darkness outside had gotten in and was clogging up my veins.

“It’s fine,” I said, but I didn’t sound as convincing as I wanted to.

I lay back down on my sleep pad, and Em did too. I listened to the stream we were camped by, and then the wind maybe with a voice on it, and then came the coyotes.

I felt Em’s body stiffen beside me.

“Their voices carry,” I said. “They’re probably miles away.”

Only their call came again, closer this time, and maybe there were footsteps outside our tent again, something that had been hiding in the shadows waiting for us to sleep.

“We know you’re out there,” Em called.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“I have a knife,” she said loud, and then she turned to me.

“What if it’s a person?” she whispered.

“It’s not a person.”

“It could be. It could be someone who lives in the forest, waiting with an axe to cut us up.”

“You think a knife will help then?”

“I have a gun, too,” Em said, loud again. “I’m a trained sharpshooter.”

We waited, and the coyotes came again, heavy breaths outside out tent, the wind, the violence of the darkness and the dangers tucked inside of it.

“It’s just amazing,” I’d said that afternoon. “We can walk 14km into the woods and not see another person the entire time.”

It had seemed like a pilgrimage, some ancient sojourn back to our ancestors, two-hundred-thousand years of homo sapiens surviving in the wilds and the connections they had with nature and the world around them.

We had followed streams and gathered food, and now we would die like our ancestors, too, overcome by the wilds and with no one around to hear us scream.

There were more footsteps, louder this time, and the coyote’s howl and the call of the wind.

Two satyresses are gamboling on a grassy pond bank among wild flowers and shrubs“It could be a cult,” Em said. “A group of forest people, looking for human sacrifice.”

“It’s not a cult,” I told her, but maybe I heard chanting, far, far away but coming closer.

“Do you think we can fight them off?” Em asked.

“No.”

“What do we do then?”

I was quiet and she was quiet. The coyotes and the pounding of footsteps.

“This isn’t the seventies,” I said. “There aren’t cults anymore.”

But Em didn’t seem sure. I heard the swish of her sleeping bag as she settled and resettled, and I repeated to myself that these things didn’t happen in 2019.

We had the internet, and it was a golden age in television. People had better things to do than cut up strangers in the wilderness as a ritualistic sacrifice to the goddess of fertility. Who even went into the wilderness these days anymore anyway?

Only Em and I were both there, staring into the blind eyes of the night, and maybe those coyotes weren’t coyotes but people, enchanted with the need for human blood.

“I’m not a virgin,” I shouted, in case that helped. “I really slutted it up in university, so you’ll have to go somewhere else if you want a pure sacrifice.”

“She’s right,” Em added into the blackness. “We’re probably both full of diseases.”

“It’s true. I get raging cold sores all winter.”

“Big ones full of puss,” Em added. “It’s disgusting.”

“Hey,” I said.

She shifted and kept going.

“And we’ve mostly been eating chickpeas,” Em called out. “So if you were planning on eating us, our meat’s probably all stringy and not very tender.”

“Yeah, two scrawny vegan humans. You’d probably burn more calories killing us than eating us.”

“Not to mention the gas,” Em said. “I’m close to raging diarrhea at all times.”

“That, and we haven’t showered in almost a week.”

“And I think I peed on my sock when I went pee before.”

“Really?” I asked.

“Just a little,” Em said.

She laughed, and I laughed, too.

“That’s right,” Em shouted. “Stay away from us before you catch something nasty.”

“We’re gross. We’re gross. We’re gross,” I started chanting, and Em joined in. Our voices filling up the blackness and pushing it back.

“I have a weird mole on my neck!” I shouted. “And my toe kind of bends to the side.”

We went on like that for an hour maybe, proclaiming to the darkness everything that was wrong with, and using it as our power.

“We’re gross. We’re gross. We’re gross.”

We were alone with the untamable night in every direction, but we were untamable, too, our blood hot and some memory wildness, our feral ancestors calling out into the blackness, the light of unnamed stars and feeling of being alive with everything else alive.

“We’re gross. We’re gross. We’re gross,” we called again and again.

Our voices and the voices of coyotes joining together and calling up to the heavens.

Read:

Chapter 16: Go Back to Wyoming, Patricia

Go Back to Wyoming, Patricia

A dive for life.I don’t know if her name actually was Patricia, but she looked like a Patricia, “goes by Trish.” She was in her late forties, with hair that looked like it could have been a dog wig, and she was on this whale watching tour with her husband and her parents and Em and me.

“You’re from Ontario?” Patricia, “goes by Trish” said as our boat left the harbor and we headed towards the open ocean. “That’s not that far away.”

“It’s still a pretty far drive,” I told her.

“Not as far as Wyoming.”

“I’m not really sure where that is.”

“You don’t know where WYOMING is?”

I shrugged.

“But come on, it’s WYOMING.”

“Wyoming,” I said. She was saying it so much that I assumed it must be fun to say. It was.

“Wyoming,” I said again, and Em shoved me to stop.

We were quiet for a few minutes, willing black fins to show up among the waves like our tour guide said they might.

“I absolutely love the water,” Patricia, “goes by Trish” said, breaking up the wind and the waves and the jostling of our boat. “I have a boat back home in Wyoming.”

“In Wyoming?” I asked, and Em shoved me.

“My boat’s even bigger than this one. And I love swimming too. I used to be a lifeguard.”

I waited, but it didn’t look like anyone else was going to respond.

“Me, too,” I told her.

“Well, I was a lifeguard for seven years.”

“In Wyoming?”

Another kick from Em.

“And I was a dive instructor in Jamaica.” Patricia, “goes by Trish,” said.

I was still looking for whales, and wondered if “Trish”’s  dog wig would make good bait.

“I was a dive instructor in Jamaica for years. I could have gone pro if I wanted to.”

“Is there such thing as a pro diver?”

“Oh it’s huge down there.”

“Wyoming,” I said back, but maybe I just mouthed it, and then I looked at the time on my phone. The whale watching tour was only supposed to be two hours, and 45 minutes had gone by with nothing to note but Patricia who was talking about Wyoming again.

“Wyoming is a great place for boating and fishing, probably even better than here.”

“Where’s that?” I asked.

“Wyoming.”

Em kicked me.

“Wyoming has a lot of lakes?”

“Oh tons.”

“Ok,” I said. And I looked at the water again.

HooksI’d been whale watching once before when I was a kid on a family trip to the east coast. It was two weeks in the back of a minivan while my older brother went through a phase where he whistled all the time. The whale watching tour, booked at the end of the trip, was supposed to make it all worth it.

Before the tour, my parents prepared for any and all disasters that might occur when taking three children on a boat. They put us in sweaters and raincoats, slathered us in sunscreen, and to make sure no one got seasick, we each had to take a Gravol.

To be fair to my parents, I puked on most family trips, sleepovers and Thursdays. It was logical to assume that the rocking of the boat and the excitement of the whales would turn me into a regular vomit faucet. Still, adult-sized Gravol in child-sized people had an immediate and profound effect on my brothers and me.

We were barely out of the harbor before I felt sand in my skull, packing down on itself and making my head too heavy to lift. I tried to squint at the waves and look for whales, only the sun was forcing my eyelids closed and the gentle rocking was making it hard to focus.

My brothers didn’t fare any better, leaving my parents with three heavily-sedated children in the middle of the ocean. Our heads folded towards our chests and drool dripped down our chins while these magnificent beasts swam past, showing shining fins and no doubt changing the lives of everyone who was able to stay awake long enough to see them.

Now that I was an adult, this whale watching tour was supposed to be my redemption. I’d waited decades to see a real-life whale in the ocean, and had even had two cups of coffee before getting on the boat to ensure maximum alertness.

While I was expecting massive jets of water and huge fins swimming next to me, what I was getting instead was Patricia “goes by Trish” trying to one up our tour guide who had just mentioned a storm that had gone through the east coast a few years before.

“We get huge storms in Wyoming, too,” Patricia “goes by Trish” said. “Probably even bigger than the storms around here.”

“Is that in Wyoming?” I asked, only I said it quietly because my leg was getting sore from Em kicking me so many times.

Patricia “goes by Trish” didn’t hear me, and kept on about the storms, and after another minute, Em jumped and squinted in the distance.

“There,” Em said. “Is that a fin?”

Our tour guide looked through his binoculars and revved the engine.

“You bet,” he said, and the whole boat lifted and slammed down again as we went speeding across the waves towards a spot in the water where we could just barely make out black fins circling.

“This is it,” Em said.

“This is it,” I said.

“This is it,” Patricia “goes by Trish” said.

I nodded, and I braced myself. In one or two minutes, I might see a whale, a real-life whale like in a movie or a book or something.  I wasn’t sure what I would do. I thought maybe I’d be changed in some way, and I wanted to be ready for it.

“There,” Em said, and she pointed to a fin maybe thirty meters away. Our tour guide drove the boat towards it and another fin popped up and then another.

I held my breath, and I felt like there were stars in my blood, burning me from the inside, a real-life whale when I was sure the only thing I would get out of the day would be facts about Wyoming.

There was one whale and then two, and all of a sudden maybe ten, surrounding our boat and swimming in front of it. We saw their black shiny backs and their bulbous heads, and when we looked over the edge of the boat into the clear, clear water, we could see the whales swimming underneath us.

Hooks

“Wow,” I said.

“Wow,” Em said.

“Wow,” Patricia “goes by Trish” said, and then no one could think of anything else to say, not even “Trish.”

I stared straight down at the whales and tried to hold on to what I was seeing and to believe it. They were pilot whales, bigger than anything I’d ever seen before, and in the distance there was another one, so much bigger than the others. It was a finback whale, the second biggest mammal on the planet, and it was like a fairy tale that forgot it was pretend.

The whale swam under our boat, and came up again on the other side, its slender fin and arched back suggesting there was so much more under the water.

I couldn’t say anything, and no one else could either, and it was hard to believe that this was real. It was hard to believe that I was alive and that I was seeing this, and that I was spending so much of my energy being annoyed at Patricia from Wyoming when I lived in the same world as real-life whales.

I felt like maybe there was something wrong with me, a tissue paper cutout on top of a tissue paper cutout and I’d dissolve if the water touched me. There was this strange sadness to it, these immense creatures and then me, and maybe nothing mattered anymore.

I wanted to put my hands into the water and touch what my eyes couldn’t understand. I wanted to slip quietly off the boat and feel the vibrations of the whales’ calls to one another rattle through my chest.

What’s happening? I wanted to ask. How can I live knowing that creatures like you exist, and how will I find meaning in anything anymore?

And then one of the pilot whales swam close to the boat. It swam close like it was going to tell me something important or meaningful that would change me in some way. I stared hard into the blackness of its back, and I tried to be ready for it, whatever it may be.

I’m ready, I said to myself and to it. I’m ready.

And just before my mind opened up and I was able to embrace whatever wisdom the whale had in store for me, the whale flipped onto its back and showed me and everyone else it’s enormous whale penis.

Patricia “goes by Trish” lost her shit.

“OH MY GOD. ITS GOT ITS WILLY OUT!!!” she shouted. “OH MY GOD. LOOK AT ITS WILLY.”

And pretty soon all of us were laughing. What was supposed to be profound and meaningful, wasn’t anymore. It was an enormous whale swimming around with an enormous erection, the majesty of nature in its truest and most raw form.

Read:

Chapter 15: We Have to Sell the Bus

Chapter 17: The Wind and Untamable Night

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