It will surprise my European friends, but my first trip outside the US didn’t occur until I was 19. The blissful first summer of my freshman year of college. I had left home and gotten myself a proper college roommate – before moving in with a dude. But she and I remained close friends. And when she wanted an adventure that summer, I tagged along.
Where would we go on this first foray into foreign climes to experience another culture so vastly different from our own? Canada! Yes, that exotic place 6 hours north. Back then, we didn’t even need a passport, just a driving license and a smile at the border crossing. Gud-day! Oh wait – that’s Australia. You can see just how naive we were back then. Traveling teenage rubes.
We drove up along the coast through the old growth Hoh rain forest of the Olympic Península of Washington State, in my roommate’s quintessential 80’s car, the TransAm. All the way to the town of Port Angeles on the Straight of Juan de Fuca. (Hmm… I never noticed we had so many Spanish names in the NW of the US before.) The straight is the waterway that separates the US from Canada in the NW corner of the country. Then we took a night ferry across to Vancouver Island. Camping would be the preferred level of our students traveling budget. If there was a Four Season on our itinerary it would be The Four Seasons Campground.
Landing in Victoria Harbor with the Parliament Building and the famous Empress Hotel lit up like something in a movie, we knew we weren’t in ‘America’ anymore. My first thought was ‘Someday I’m gonna be rich and stay in a suite in that hotel, and drink champagne.’ Which I have done and it was fine. Jeff will tell you they have first-rate bed linens. But back then it seemed like a place reserved for movie stars and royalty. Wow! We were wide eyed as we drove by on our way to the provincial campground.
Over the next few days, we saw all the sights – museums, aquarium, Buschart Gardens, the stunning coastline, before heading up to the little town of Sydney to catch the San Juan Islands ferry (again, Spanish) through the archipelago to Orcas Island. But these were pre-internet days in 1985. For a ferry ride, you just turned up and got in line, hoping to get on the boat. No reservations. No view into the schedule, unless you were a frequent rider and you had it down. If you missed this one, you got on the next one.
Arriving up to Sidney, on the east coast of Vancouver Island, we found we had quite literally missed the last boat. Oh well, we thought, we’ll just camp. But the campgrounds were all full. Eek. So we headed to the tourist office in town. It was just closing up. The woman was locking the door. Gulp. It would be getting dark soon.
The quite old, very smartly dressed lady who worked there took pity on two stranded college girls from the US. She told us we could come home with her and camp in her front yard for the night. She would have let us stay in her house but she was in the middle of a family reunion and all her children and grandchildren were home from all over Canada.
Following her home, the house sat up on a bluff overlooking the sea. It was an enormous Victorian with a wide front porch. I remember the hydrangeas were huge. They’ve been a favorite flower ever since. The family came out to greet us and welcomed us without hesitation to their table. We stayed up late into the evening, sitting cross-legged on their living room floor – there were no more seats because there were so many family members – eating homemade blackberry pie and listening to them tell funny family stories from their wonderful childhood living on the west coast of Vancouver Island. The woman’s husband, who must have been well over 90 yrs old at the time, told us all the story of coming across Canada to British Columbia with his family in a covered wagon when he was 3 yrs old. Amazing.
I hadn’t thought of that trip in decades. The warm embrace of that family. It’s why Canadians hold a special place in my heart. Taking in two kids, strangers, who had nowhere else to go. Not until the other night, sitting here at our little farm listening to new stories did those memories come flooding back. Tales from a young Belgian woman traveling alone on the Camino. Over Spaghetti and fresh mangos, she regaled us of her Camino adventure, starting in Le Puy – more than 800km before St Jean Pied de Port – in France. And her other adventures in South America and the South Pacific, right before the pandemic.
Not that my friend and mine’s adventure in Canada was anything compared to this girl’s. She is truly fearless. But it’s a reminder that challenging circumstance can lead to opportunity. And that if you leave yourself open, you can experience small, yet remarkable moments in life. Those that leave an indelible imprint.
Living on the Camino Frances during this time, and opening ourselves up by providing a helping hand to Pilgrims means we aren’t just giving, we’re getting much more in return. The pandemic, far from dividing us, has actually brought us together. In life, we become part of each other’s stories. And the price of a spaghetti dinner and a little vino, is a small price to become part of someone else’s.