There’s a Gecko in the Bathroom

At first a slight movement, a quick dart. Something shifts the stillness between the stationary objects – the open shower door, the rotary crank on the window frame, the bath mat, a pail, a toilet. A trick of the eye? I turn to face the corner from where it originates – the corner below the shower door where the soft, white bath mat settled, one edge conspicuously rolled under, creating a hollow cave if you happen to be wandering around in miniature on the bathroom tiles. I stand still and observe; after a minute I reason using only my visual sense that all is as it should be. Without straightening the mat, without unfurling and standing back, I leave the room.

With the world outside carrying on with hysterical fashion my attention soon sweeps away with it – awareness of macroeconomics and commerce and the slowing down of life – yet the steady increase of angst, the withdrawal into a self-imposed, virtually contrived world, out of touch with one’s self in the natural world. We get swept away without firm footing, like a flood pulling us away from the solid silt of the river banks. As a result, I get confused about little tricks of the eye, things I may have seen, but didn’t, what’s real and what’s not, fake news, real news, memes and posturing.

Later that evening, I catch another movement, this one dead-on which no trick could fool and no fool could discount. I recognize it as something I’ve seen outside everywhere in their natural habitat, scurrying through tall reeds and palms and up and down the lanai screens waiting for insects: little geckos. This one here, he scurries back under the rolled-under edge of the bath mat. Both of us experience the flight or fight syndrome – he definitely took flight and in a second was under the mat. I jumped, erupting a strange, visceral sound from my lungs, and stood my ground. We were obviously both thinking territory.

I stand surveying my options. I have few. The door is behind me, and the window opposite positions itself several feet above the floor, where windows should be. For now, I back out slowly, making a plan of action. Whatever that thing is probably wants to leave just as much as I do.

And yet we are told to we have to hunker down where we currently find ourselves. I’ve read articles about people stranded in the most unlikely places: in youth hostels in the Pyrenees, mud huts in a New Mexico Airbnb, with the in-laws in a Brooklyn flat over a bar whose jukebox is quiet for the first time in memory. I’m living with a gecko in my bathroom. I’m in Covid Lockdown with a gecko.

People live surrounded by animals all the time. Coyotes roam our city streets at night. Bears climb fences and see what’s been thrown out for dinner. Raccoons scurry along our rafters and mice find home in crawl spaces. I’ve seen an iguana hanging out on a tree branch outside my bedroom window, peering in the window at me. I’ve crossed paths with snakes, whose dark bodies slither across patio flagstones into the ferns. I’ve heard a cacophony of birds, waterfowl and monkeys hoot and holler across dense mangrove and cypress tree groves. It’s the life among us.

And yet for some reason, like the inquisitive iguana, they must wonder about life inside. What’s it like in there? He and his brothers, sisters, and a vast array of cousins, I can only assume, dare each other to enter through a front door left ajar for a minute while groceries are brought in, or through a back door while another cup of coffee is retrieved. Or for the ones playing it a little bit more safe and undetected: at night, through the millimeter crack in a window screen. They’re everywhere, these little geckoes: scurrying and hopping along sidewalks, through the blades of grass, sliding under rocks, crevices, under bathroom mats.

As creatures of place, we settle “down” – staking grounds, building foundations from the bottom up, rooted to a current place. Even nomads pitch a tent, driving those stakes into the earth. We claim it to be ours, shove off the animals. I think of these things while I contemplate sharing my space. This lockdown can get pretty philosophical, after all.

I forget about him temporarily when the world once again seeps into my space through the tv and Internet, drawing my attention outside of my space. It wants me in physical lock down, this world against nature, yet desires me to lament it by feeding me horror stories of loneliness, unemployment, and death. This is your punishment! It screams at me, you are unable to contain a disease through your short sighted, myopic egocentric needs of connecting with life and people! Then I’m back in the bathroom, and remember my gecko and his crafty art of survival. Yes, there he is, just as shocked to see me as I am him. Another quick hybrid shriek-gasp comes out of me and a spine curling sensation travels from my bare feet on the cool tile to my head, which in its super ability to decipher senses and translate them to a learned behavior triggers adrenaline and yep – fear. Except this is a bathroom, and I kind of need it. I can’t run away or forfeit the room over to a gecko in a peace agreement.

Like a lot of people now in lockdown, we learn new things about ourselves. We learn about our partners in ways we haven’t before. We learn about ways of life that were slowly becoming obsolete and now resurrected – the family time: conversation, cooking, spending hours in bed memorizing contours and shapes, sounds and colors we hadn’t noticed before in either ourselves or our mates. We learn about patterns and random nonorders, we listen to what drives us mad, we counsel on what makes us sad, we accept the making of the universe just because, for no reason at all, maybe for our awe and to keep us humble. Geckos are just being geckos. I figure the little guy will get hungry, and if I leave the door open, and the front door as well, it will smell its way out to freedom. I might be inviting in a bunch of his cousins to a party, but I need to give this one a chance to live. Yet this life preserver is of no avail. The diplomacy must continue.

Within a week of exercising good will towards each other, we begin to catch each other’s eyes. I stop gasping, and he stops scurrying. I keep the corner of the bath mat curled. Who doesn’t need his own little corner? We begin to share the space in the bathroom – it’s mine when I enter; it’s his when I exit. Once we vied for shower space when I must have violated our mutually agreed upon times. I opened the shower door, turned on the water – a fine, rain shower type of spray wet and then warmed the speckled brown tile. When conditions were comfortable, I walked on in, tilted my head down to let the water run through my hair, and noticed the little gecko in a corner, camouflaged in speckled brown and white, waiting for his daily hydration and probably waxing nostalgia for the Floridian rainy season. There was nothing I could do at that point except to share. I was drenched and accepting. I closed my eyes against the stream of water running down my head, and when I opened them again, mister gecko was gone. Where would he go? Camouflaged as well as he was, there was no sign of him anywhere. Down the drain? Behind the wire shampoo holder?

After sharing intimate shower space we no longer became a threat to one another. A week turns into two. At some point at the end of week two I was thinking about what we learn during life in lock down. Perhaps from hearing the drone of a “Cooking: What’s in Your Pantry?” show from a background tv, I begin to wonder how mister gecko survives on water alone until it dawns on me that he must be getting his nutrition from sources other than little crumbs I might be inadvertently leaving behind in my occupied areas. This revelation gives me a whole new pause. Indeed, if what I think is keeping this little guy alive is actually keeping him alive, he has now become my ally. A revered and sacred guest. A partner in keeping the home fires safe from vermin. I let him stay.

One day in the third week he no longer scurries into his cave when I enter. I no longer startle. “Good morning,” I say, and I’m sure he winks. He’s the soft brown color of the tiles, and I wonder if he misses being green. “We’ve become quite a team, you and I, haven’t we?” I’m not sure what I mean by that, but it’s nice talking to a life form in this lockdown. I look again and wonder if he’s even alive. I leave him be and exit.

When I return later that day, he’s not where I left him. It’s around now that I start thinking maybe this guy is seriously hungry. And doesn’t he want company? Doesn’t he miss socialization? Although his company taught me a lot, like softening my reptilian fears, sharing space with an unwelcome guest, respecting each other’s differences and skin colors, I acknowledge he’s under no quarantine – he’s just in a quandary as to how to best go home. It’s seriously time for an intervention plan to get him back to real gecko living. It may be that he doesn’t quite know how to get himself out of a jam on his own. And we’ve all been there before.

Since I now have his trust somewhat, I figure it may not be so hard to capture him without risk of his losing a limb, which would easily set me back a few weeks on my reptilian acceptance spectrum. I visualize the plan. I select the props. It’s time to go home, buddy.

I return with the escape gear: a large tupperware container and a rectangular stiff cardboard side of a box. I thought this would prove more successful than the broom idea, sweeping him in the general direction of the door. I grab the side of the bath mat opposite his cave, and gently lift and unfurl it. Out he creeps, showing off his predatory prowess on stalking a little bug whose hideout was just revealed. I hold the tupperware container over him, then let it fall around him. Suddenly, he becomes more alert. He notices something happening. I notice all limbs intact. I slide the cardboard underneath, tilt it, place the bottom of it securely on the palm of one hand and the other on top of the tupperware, and walk out of the bathroom, holding the transport firmly in place. The front door is in open ready position. Once outside, I reverse the capture moves to reveal the wide open free world beyond. He slides away into the green of shrubbery, into the wet of humid air, back to his cousins and his wild life.

I return inside. I acknowledge a new sense of awareness about tolerance and space sharing as people all over the world are doing. Then I pick up the swiffer, the bottle of pine sol, and get to work.

The Mangrove Mysteries

Since I’ve been in Naples for eight months already, several people have asked me how I like it. Yet after each query I pause, perhaps too long, in an attempt to dig through my impressions for one that seems fair, truthful and objective. Sometimes, to better understand a place, you leave it. So while I periodically tackle the Naples query, I’ve gotten myself out of it, to get to know a little bit more of Florida.

Assuming the character of a place is founded by its land, by what its rock and soil can offer a man, how the lives of a place acquiesce to weather and water patterns living within its fluidity, it stands to reason that each of its cities on this land carries a distinct personality. Character depends on being able to dig in deeply if there’s enough soil to hold it in place. Florida has a lot of sandy, loose soil yet a lot of water running around it, through it and under it. So if the roots can’t get a hold of the land, they get a hold of the water.

I took a road trip down to the western edge of Everglades National Park, to one of the earliest post civil war trading posts, Everglades City. Here I found some Florida character. Its history, although as elusive and mysterious as the mangrove roots reaching into the abyss of murky, brackish waterways, gives this place a readily palpable identity. An hour’s drive south on US 41, the old Tamiami Trail that was built in the 20s to link Tampa to Miami right through the Everglades, and then south on US 29, Everglades City is an almost neglected fisherman’s haven, far removed from Florida’s other identities of real estate, tourism, and citrus. What draws people to these Floridian outposts may be the lure of wild alligator sighting, exotic bird watching or ten pound marlin fishing – yet the Everglades harbor mysteries from the past: eons of sunken clues to Earth’s past and decades of secrets submerged deep into its waterways by the fingerlike roots of the Mango trees.

Old Tamiami Trail is of course now a paved, two-lane highway, one lane in each direction, its yellow stripe down the center mainly dashed for those needing to get to Miami faster than 60 mph. The land is flat here – from what I’ve read no more than 3 feet above sea level – so that the sky appears to consume you. Along this flat, straight road through scraggy tropical trees and brush and wetland grasses, lone billboards shoot up from the swamps, announcing fishing services, airboat tours, alligator interactives, and cuban food. The warm air finds its way into the car anyway, so I open the windows to let it billow through. and feel the promise of wet heat.

Shortly after the right hand turn onto US 29, heading due south or so it seems, Everglades City announces its welcome. Founded by a civil war veteran in late 1860s or so, I like to imagine what brought him down here, to co exist, peaceably or otherwise, with the Seminole Indians. Perhaps he found exactly what he was looking for: a place to fish, a place to make money, and a place of solitude. Before driving over the causeway to Everglades City proper, I vear right: my first stop is along an embankment from where the air boats depart. I need to get into the thick of things.

Six people to a boat, three up front, three behind, a captain named Bob. But he may have been a Chuck. What was memorable about him was his capacity for narrative. In a one minute introduction that went well beyond safety on board, he infused our intrigue with rapid, spit-fire historical, perhaps factual, factoids about the area and his relationship to it. Bitten by alligators, shot at by drug runners, scars from a stint in prison had us all assured of his credibility as a homegrown Evergladian and not a government sponsored National Park tour operator or a well intentioned foreigner from a student exchange program. Government, in fact, and the very idea it creates is eschewed down here. This becomes evident as Chuck points first to one then another boat moored along the embankment. “That captain went to prison for ten years. Behind him, that captain went for 6 years. Over there, his brother was killed in a drug raid.”

Once cleared from the no wake dock area, Chuck starts up the true engine and the fan sets into motion and begins its bellowing. which assaults more than just our ears – I imagine the very wildlife we are meant to enjoy must scramble for the dark densities below or tangled webs of the mangrove trees when they hear that monster approaching. We enter the maze of what’s known as the Thousand Islands, tunneled through by the waterways whose sign posts are particular branches, certain tree formations, a memorized map in the guides’ minds. Because they have memorized these myriad of turns and twists for decades and centuries, this area has become integrated into their lives, adapting them to one form of activity to another, some legal, some not. Chuck says that at turn of the century, entrepreneurs brought in exotic animals through these waterways. During Prohibition, bootleggers smuggled in rum from Jamaica and Puerto Rico for their journey north. In the 70s and 80s, marijuana made its debut, earning its nickname “square grouper,” referring to the square bales of marijuana that came off of boats that were allegedly fishing for grouper. Smugglers sought out local fishermen who knew these waterways blindfolded under a moonless night and asked them to transfer these bales to offshore drop points. The captains steered their small boats out into the gulf, met up with the larger Mexican fishing boats too loud and cumbersome to navigate the waterways that led inland and to transportation onward. The offer was too great to refuse, as the story goes, for small time fishermen who embarked on a new livelihood: delivering and off-loading a one time run for up to a million dollars. Chuck pulls up to a dilapidated wharf where for years square grouper first met the United States and from where it began its infiltration into American society and its journey towards legalization. It’s like discovering a ground zero of some momentous kind, a very very small point on a map that reverberates outward, affecting lives, habits, policies, protests, changes.

It seemed that overnight lives of these pelagic people were changed by this new business opportunity. Luxury cars pulled into driveways and remodeled one bedroom clapboard houses that ordinarily blew away in a tropical storm now stood out, tall and strong. The government took notice of these quick changes one way or another, especially after passing a law that called a lot of the surrounding fishing waters “protected,” preventing fishermen from even making a meager, rough $17,000 income. How else could they survive but to adapt and conform to the newest form of trade? I like to think about what they talked about around the dinner table on those evenings. Family roots run deep here, and character manifests itself in loyalty. In a small town of 500, the land and sea aren’t the only things that define you. According to one source I read, most of those 500 people are related in one way or another to one of five families. Everyone knows someone who was part of the scheme, and often members of the same family took part in at least one drug run. “Which was kind of hard to do,” Chuck admitted. “They thought, yea, I’ll do it this one time, make a lot of money, and then stop. But few could stop. It became too tempting to do it again if you didn’t get caught.” Eventually, people started getting snagged, but not from snitching. Fathers would sit for years in prison without turning in their sons; friends never violated the honor code. Federal agents had to move in, slowly acclimate as fishermen, get offered a gig or accumulate hard evidence from a disparaging third party. This kind of trust often took years. However, once the evidence was found, according local folklore and our tour guide, the dominoes fell: at one point around 80% of the adult male population was put away for drug smuggling.

Despite Everglades City earning the reputation as the epicenter of illegal activities, I feel it’s a place which harbors more secrets than the dossiers in court cabinets can prove. People can disappear out here. Hermits lived out their years in the Everglades; arriving before the National Park created its boundaries, they were allowed to stay, hidden away from the rest of the world. They granted a few interviews to the senior Everglade City high school students, who put together a booklet on their lives as a final project which can be found in the annals of historical documents. I can also imagine stowaways making the break from ship holds once they came near enough to swim ashore; escaped convicts rattling through the mangroves with chains still tied to their ankles; emancipators turning south instead of north. Who sings out here? What sirens emerge from its dark, green depths below to mesmerize and seduce and to lull us to sleep?

Disembarking the airboat, I make my way back to the car, passing souvenir shops, fishing charters, and a fishmonger. Making a right turn back out onto US 29, I head over the Barron river causeway and into Everglades City. Barron River (named after Barron Collier, A New York real estate tycoon of the 20s who bought large swaths of the land for development) runs along the city’s west side and empties out into the gulf, where not far off shore those “Thousand Islands” – a labyrinth of swamps – act as break waters between the gulf and the land. Simply named “Everglade” in the 1860s, one can see and feel the town’s underlying weight of importance in the role it once had, and now the exhaustion it may feel. A city as we know it it is not. A few bordered up motels, others with full parking lots and “no vacancy” neon signs, manufactured houses, some with foreclosure at the ready; a town grocer, fishing tackle and supplies, a gas station, a large, two story, columned greek revival, pristine white city hall with flags flying in proud perseverance. Once the County Seat of Collier County until the 1960s, it still keeps its pride and tourists, as the motorcycle gang from Quebec demonstrated, lining their bikes and riders up for a group photo. The town is clean and quiet; a palm tree lined medium runs the length of its main street. A wooden barracks on stilts which was the town’s former laundry is now the historical museum. Spending an hour in here will give visitors the low down crash course on the more noble side of Everglades City’s history. It has the expected black and white silver turn-of-the-century enlarged photographs of pioneers and homesteaders, captions and histories, moonshine kettle drums, dredging tools, journals and ledgers. The pioneers envisioned something great and macheted their way through the entangled jungles to lay ground for a railroad which opened up the way for commerce and connection from the north. Livestock was no exception. According to Tampamagazines.com, Andalusian Cattle roaming around freely in Florida, brought over but then abandoned by the Spanish in 1700 when they left for Cuba and beyond, were rounded up by Crackers, whose name was given to the cowboys whose whips slice the air to get the cattle moving. The cowboys “would flail the whips with so much force that the tips would actually break the sound barrier, creating a cracking sound — actually a small sonic boom. Thus, a name for these Florida cowboys was born” (A HIstory of the Florida Cracker Cowboys) Over time, the cattle and cowboys headed and herded out west, creating the images glamorized by movies and recognized today. The railroad was decommissioned in 1957, but tracks of it and the cleared area running along US 29 can still be seen. Leaving the museum, I find the Rod and Gun Club at the end, one of Everglades City’s attractions outside of sport fishing.

The Rod and Gun Club is the oldest establishment here; in fact, it was the original trading post erected by the aforementioned civil war veteran, turned post office, turned hotel, turned restaurant and accomodations. Walk through its doors and be transported to the early 20s. The decor hasn’t changed; the fixtures remain fixed; the mahogany and Floridian Cypress wood paneling and flooring will remain for our lifetimes. Along the walls in the entryway wall, lacquered newspapers articles tell about the drug smuggling years, the Hollywood film stars who came to film, the musicians who came to kick back between gigs. Mick jagger, Sean Connery, John Wayne, Sally Fields and Burt Reynolds; Presidents Franklin Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, and Nixon. Walking further into the restaurant, I enter a plush hotel lobby, with upholstered chairs, low coffee tables, a pool table, a mirror-backed solid wooden bar, an enclosed phone booth – probably the only hurricane proof structures within all of Everglades city. Antiques like rifles and guns and heads of wild game adorn the walls, a red carpet leads to the now cordoned off upstairs rooms. The rooms that once were let to seasonal visitors and honeymooners remain closed to the public; now the hotel part of the equation defers to cottages along the Barron River. The dining room remains the attraction though, and seating is offered both inside through double glass doors into an adjoining large, airy room, or outside on the screened-in veranda under the soft revolving whir of long-bladed, low hanging, bamboo bladed fans. The menu is basic and after some post menu research, find that little on it differs than what was offered in previous decades. Fried or grilled meat and fish assortments – yes, mainly grouper, frog legs, cole slaw, seasoned fries and of course key lime pie. It’s the perfect oasis for life on the water, undercover, from the sun or from the law if the need or want arises; for whatever reason life brings one to the Everglades. It’s definitely worth a trip back to ease the disquiet from a hectic week and reminisce the history lessons in a slow afternoon haze, gazing at the river buoying the boats whose lips will never loosen to reveal the trips made under a new moon night.

An Extrovert’s Exercise

For the past several weeks, isolation has been all the rage. I work remotely. I make coffee in the morning and tea in the afternoon. I listen to the PBS news in the evenings, make myself light suppers. I choose a book to read, a thought to write, a language to learn, a show to watch. I roll out my yoga mat diagonally in narrow quarters to accommodate lateral stretches, and when the sun goes down and the heat retreats, I go for walks. This is my routine, this is my habit, today, last month, last year.

Looking east on Immokalee Road, North Naples

The streets are empty, those wide, long stretches of concrete avenue eerily deserted, stricken with edicts that enforce inside living, an idea so adverse to certain lifestyles it feels inept to comply; but slowly, fewer restaurants stay open to accommodate the take out orders, as slowly, pop-up residents pack up their lives and head back early to summer residences. As the numbers inch higher along the trajectory paths of TV and phone screens, the traffic streams dip lower, and cities across many parts of the world have become landscapes from the past. Because really, now that the office suites have their employees working virtually from home, now that businesses are offering online versions of services and goods, do I need to make the trek and fight the traffic to go into an office, store, or business ever again?

Space has opened up where less existed before. The land below the sky and next to the oceans has seemingly spread wider and farther. And maybe, after all, there is now space for everyone, if we take turns in using it. A peace of certain kinds has accompanied these new spaces, a peace through which one might suddenly become aware of new sounds by turning off old ones. Sounds that have space to move through; pick up a listener’s ear, a platform, a sound wave on which to travel. A whole new exercise in auditory discrimination is available in this rediscovered and ironed-out peace and space. A department store’s invasively loud jingle and an impatient customer edging right up back-to-back in check out lines are two violations of peace and space that come to mind, although many others have insidiously wrecked havoc on sensibilities before closures and distancing became mandatory.

The media try to help the extroverts with this stay-at-home exercise. They offer ways to work out at home, games to play with the kids, books to read, upgrades to premium for free, ingredients from the pantry to extract for innovative meal recipes; ways to clean and declutter, to reevaluate financial portfolios, and of course space to get your Covid-19 meme to go viral. I know it’s all out there, I know the extroverts are talking and singing over balconies, using open doors in hallways and driveways in subdivisions as forums; I know the extroverts are calling people and checking their phones for posts and the Internet for camaraderie, and the TV for updates and the radio for talk shows; but try this: check yourself. Use the new space and sound scape to closely inspect the silence and listen to how you respond to yourself, not necessarily how someone else responds to you.

These days are a suspension in time, a floating through space that is not confined to a clock or calendar. Slightly analogous to a wind-chill deep freeze in the dead of a midwestern winter, businesses and schools would close for up to three days. The frozen space zipped up both city and people-made noise, allowing the tightening of house beams to crack, the faucets to slowly drip in preventing pipes from cracking. The shutdown might recall a time suspended by a pending or post hurricane, or by a tornado that wipes a city from a map. Time came to a halt – somehow, someone, something gave you permission to do that – for only those numbered days. Either you let yourself go stir crazy, or you let yourself stir up an imagination that lay dormant for too long. It gave you just enough time to assess your life, prioritize your family and health back where they belong, or think of a terrific project to start before a generator would arrive, or a Com-Ed truck found their way through to jump start life, or somewhere in a thermometer mercury would drop, and house doors across a cold nation pushed open and wiped an embankment of snow off the stoop. Some of us said thank God, others said oh darn.

And some today are breaking the rules by driving out, walking out, the edict too strong to ignore, pressing the accelerator far out onto the highway to feel the gears shifting into movement, the wind whipping and the sun spilling through an open window; others are pacing inside, moving from one screen to another, looking out the window, checking a watch, checking their contact lists, using household goods, pets, siblings and other props to post, to connect, to exercise their right for social closeness. Others are bent over a box pulled from storage, spending hours going through old photos, old journals, old recipes; or over an old book pulled from a bookcase, long ago shelved for that one-of-these-days days or weeks, a book for which dinner must wait and space becomes larger.

Thank you to the extroverts who’ve spent hours utilizing their platforms to post a youtube video, a meme, a social media post which occasionally have been forwarded to me by friends who know that despite my laconic nature I can still belt out a good laugh. And when things get back to normal (I hereby concede early to this fact), when you’ll soon be spinning out from crowded pubs, attending lawn concerts, rubbing up chest to chest in a subway, spewing invectives to the driver squeezing into the smallest of spaces in your lane on the beltway, I will pay homage to all you do to keep this world interesting and the economy going. I appreciate all you do for us introverts, during this, perhaps your most difficult exercise of all.

From Pine to Palm

Gazing out over the steel grey, silent sky of Puget Sound, trapping fog between the Olympic and the Cascade Mountain ranges, I packed up my Subaru with eight boxes and a couple of suitcases. The job offer was secondary to the experience, in terms of why I moved. I thought a new state, a new school, and a new climate would be the next perfect challenge, and Florida sounded just sunny and exotic enough to haul out. After 6 days on the road, I stopped at the Florida visitor center over the Georgia border where I caught sight of the first palm trees swaying fronds in a warm breeze. A song bird trilled out the joys of a mid October Sunday. I changed into a sundress in the bathroom.

During a three day layover in Tampa with friends, I drove down to Naples to attend to administrative tasks and procure an apartment. Finding none to my liking, I reverted to a response I received on a roommate website. I met J. at Jason’s deli where we got to know each other over a couple of dripping, succulent reuben sandwiches, perhaps making the arrangement that much more appealing to both of us. I followed her to her house, she showed me around; it all looked good to me and I seemed to have garnered her trust, so she wrote up a lease and I wrote her a check. I moved in two days later, set up my new room and went exploring. What draws people to Naples is not just the endless sky, the copious light, sun dresses and shorts, but an attitude such a climate and location not only encourages from you but expects of you. Endless summer! Happy hours! No sales tax! I had a weekend before starting work on Monday, so I crammed as much in as I could. I found a Whole Foods, a library, a beach, a 5 pm mass, a downtown that reminded me of a city on the French riviera, and a bar with live music afterwards. I attended to all of it, and since then, am slowly meeting the boulevards, places, and people that lead to more discovery.

A deceivingly small town on a map of Southwest Florida, Naples stretches its avenues and malls and pastel-painted, cinderblock-built communities, the ramparts against the hurricanes, far into what were once farm fields and swamps. Distances are far greater than they appear to be on a map. Perhaps the flat land and large sky have something to do with the perception of space. Extending 20 miles in length and 15 miles wide to the east, Naples still finds more land to develop and widen, naming these places North Naples, East Naples, and Golden Gate. As a migrant state – a wildly diverse, constant fluctuation of creeds and colors – Naples nevertheless maintains its ever burgeoning bulge of cash and class distinct from crops and croppers. Although the immigrants and hispanics run the machines’ underbellies as cleaners, cooks, service, and landscapers in restaurants, resorts, hotels, and mansions along Gulf Shore – the self-made men and women who found Naples to retire to, who found Naples in the 70s when beach front land was going for $1000 an acre, who intuitively know the stock market and how to play it – these benefactors of capitalism are enjoying a lifestyle bolstered by the labor of the immigrants, of a young Jay Gatz who can see a remade vision of himself on the deck of a yacht, promenading with Hugo Boss tote bags along 5th Avenue, dining at the Capitol Grill, bathing at Vanderbilt Beach and later entertaining scores of people in mansions whose yard space is given over to breeze ways, Roman courtyards, pillared porticos, verandas, fountains, circular drives, and butlers’ quarters. From these outposts live the clients who keep the doctors booked for a full year, the church coffers weighted, the humane society a resort rather than a mere shelter, the airport private, and concierge services available for the health of both body and portfolio (on-call, ready-at-the-asking medical and financial services). Yet the iron gates that separate the classes of Naples open out to broad avenues that accommodate access to a lifestyle for everyone, effusing happiness, health, and wellbeing.

People arrive in Florida with the capital they have and set up a homesteads; as anywhere, there’s a community for everyone: RVs, manufactured houses, rentals, condos, ranch houses and palatial houses. Prices range from less to high from the eastern side of Naples towards the beach. Ambition might catapult those so driven over the hedges and into one of the mansions along Gulf Shore Avenue. Besides the major sources of state income from tourism, sugar, citrus, watermelons, and tomatoes, medical practices, clinics, and surgeries are on every street; investment houses sit comfortably next door to them, golf courses hide behind avenues and palm trees and restaurants…. According to the Naples Daily News, in 2015 there were 950 restaurants in Naples, so today there are at least 1000. Whether this number includes fast food joints is insignificant, because you may never venture in one ever again. On the menu of restaurants in Naples, an ethnic selection exists representing nearly every country in the world, yet in order to survive here it needs to be out of this world good. And they are. Fish, steak, vegan, vegetarian; Cuban, Lebanese, Greek, African, German, French, Italian, Korean. Walk into a Greek restaurant and walk onto a Greek island; the octopus is grilled with a hint of lemon, olive oil and sunshine. Enter a German restaurant and feel the sway of an Oktoberfest underway as the jaeger and zigeuner schnitzel sing alpine glories.

However, weekdays provide the necessary temperance from the abundance of Naples. I get up at 5, leave the house by 5:45 to drive the 40 minutes east and north to Immokalee, a small farm town, where I work at the high school. The three lane streets leading east and out of Naples are bare; the traffic lights at intersections blink yellow. In only ten minutes Immokalee Road narrows its lanes to one in each direction, street lights complete their mission, leaving vision to headlights and the moon. Soft silence and patches of hovering fog blanket farm land and fields. Old white and blue painted busses pass by, bringing the migrants in from Immokalee to pick and harvest the fields. The cooks, the cleaners, the service drive west into Naples from Immokalee to start their day as the sky lightens. Palm trees and cypress trees stand black against the horizon that gradually turns orange. I open the window to catch a cool breeze, turn off NPR, and think my thoughts as I head into farm country. As of today, 21,989 residents plunder the space in Naples. In a state that will be one of the first to experience sea levels rise, drowning wetlands and sinking communities, inhabitants still buy and use plastic everywhere – from drinking water to shoring up groceries. Developers are digging into swamps and soil – building above, around, through, slowly eating away at the extensive fertile land, demanding more concrete for the current average of 845 new residents every day arriving from all directions. Despite this astronomical number, I haven’t yet heard of any initiatives in keeping Florida sustainable. A statewide green movement is slow to take and an engineering plan to accommodate this convoy curiously absent from readily available media. World problems and world temperatures exist only in an abstract definition, leaving these conundrums for other states and countries to figure out. A retired person might finally feel released from thinking about such heady matters, and a conglomeration of policy makers might only see the green in development rather than in the natural habitat. The farm lands that I drive through to reach Immokalee might be gobbled up within ten years, and similar to what happened in East Naples, a whole ethnic community dislodged to make way for million dollar homes and communities.

Returning my attention to my drive east and inland, I pass lemon and orange groves, fields of fruit. The sky is layered in color now, from deep red, to orange, pink, varying shades of dark blue. Still early, by 6:30 I am entering Immokalee, indicated with a sign for the Immokalee jail down to the right. After that a billboard announces “Let the games begin!” – an advertisement for the Immokalee Casino; followed by a “Welcome to Immokalee, my home” sign (Immokalee means “my home” in Seminole language); followed by the imposing structure of the Immokalee Casino, dwarfing all the cottages and shacks around town and into where several of my road companions turn. After the casino, the next big sign shouts out “Jail Bonds” on a stone building which sits on the corner of Immokalee Road and Main Street, where I pull up to a red light, roll down a window to hear the roosters crow good morning. A bunch of them, some hens and newly born chicks wander around a small public square across the street on the left next to the piñata gift store. Also across Main Street and down just a half mile position the promise to Immokalee’s youngsters: the grade school, the public library, and the high school. A church also nestles somewhere close by, and everyday towards noon and while I eat lunch I hear the bells peel. Together with the roosters that greet me at the corner of Main and Immokalee Road, these are two sounds I look forward to every day.

My return trip is meditatively serene. With windows open and sun and warm air billowing around, the fields are now open to view, released from the cool air fog of the morning, drenched in heat and open sky. The pickers in the white and blue busses return to Immokalee, passing me by. The space of openness fills me with joy and calmness. The simple one road back west towards Naples can be maneuvered going 60 mph, but often a produce truck, full of tomatoes, watermelons, or lemons will slow my speed, and so the return trip will often take 55 minutes, including the doubling of time getting back into Naples once the road opens back up to three lanes. This is especially true during the most notoriously dense “seasons” of Florida.

The “in season”- mid November through April – flood the streets with cars from northern states whose traffic vies for space on the three lane boulevards slicing through the city north and south, east and west. This is the winter traffic, driven by a hunger for sun, warmth, golf, beach, outdoor eating, Monday night dancing, flip flops to the bank. Winter residents buy up tickets to the opera, symphony, concerts, art fairs, rotary club bonanzas, outdoor cover band concerts, food fests, foreign films, lectures, wellness seminars, and museums, each providing exhibits and shows to keep consumers entertained and coming back. Why simply attend a Beethoven quartet when you can enjoy a Beethoven quartet followed by wine and cheese and a discussion of Beethoven’s love of wine? Why not meander through the weekly Sunday farmers market or art fair beneath a big band blowing out brass classics from the 50s? Distinguish this from the “high season” – January to March – when parking spots at malls, restaurants, shopping centers and public garages become products of prized entitlements, when patience among drivers becomes just as squeezed, when coordinating errands becomes a manic competition with street lights, U turns, left turns, Maseratis, and Google’s inaccurate ETA. But eventually one arrives at the intended rendezvous point, a point that is both flush with fame of some kind, promising a market for everyone, for anyone, for every taste, vying for attention and recognition from the people who are secured by connections and collateral. “Off season” – summer – is when the year-round residents reclaim their city – although the heat keeps most people indoors, insulated against the heat and humidity, whether in home, car, restaurant, or fitness center, usually all four in that order.

As a result of the wide boulevards and immense traffic that weaves from lane to lane like knitting needles, walking around Naples for pleasure is quite unpleasant if not impossible. A bus runs the length of Naples on Tamiami Road, US 41, the spine of the city, paved in the early 1930s linking Tampa to Miami, and hence its name. Although there are other bus routes, most everyone would rather drive. So out they come from their communities to eat, to work, to play. Several parks offer walking trails and boardwalks through mangrove trees and over swamps; North Collier Nature Preserve in North Naples, Gordon River Greenway centrally located by the zoo, and Sugden Regional Park at the south end of the city. For barefoot walking, many beach access points welcome an unobstructed 20 mile walk along the sandy coast whose warm gulf water rolls up to about a hundred yards of sand inland before the hotels and single family homes stand sentinel, watching the pelicans dive, the sandpipers scurry and gulls waiting patiently for a chip.

Today I am on Spring break. I will rent a kayak and paddle along the Gordon River, winding through Naples. Mangrove trees line the river, their roots pulling out only the fresh from the salt water, but further in, the southern pine trees take root, the ones with long needles and scruffy trunks that remind me of the camping grounds in Oregon and of the dry, sunny sides of the Olympics, and they still remain my favorite.

A Naples beach
North Collier Regional Park
3rd Avenue Pier (Naples), where dolphins come to visit.
A Mangrove tree with exposed roots and camouflaged raccoons, lining the Gordon River and other water ways throughout Naples
Downtown Naples, 5th Avenue
My Naples friends
Sunset any day
Wildlife
Walking with a sandpiper
A home along Gulf Shore Avenue, Naples
Waiting on a fish

A Semi-retired Kind of Life

I’m swinging in a patio recliner gently rocking back and forth with my bare feet. The screened-in patio, in Florida known as a lanai, faces the lane, one of many quiet one-lane asphalted roads that wind around and up and down a semi retirement community in Riverside, Florida. Occasionally a member of the association drives by going the adhered-to 15 mph in a new sealed up Cadillac sedan that probably desires more excitement than his owner can offer. Maybe a trip up north in the summer to his daughter’s house; but today at the end of October it’s a luxury air conditioned ride to the grocery store or the doctor’s office. Chimes hanging from the car port on my left quietly pick up the wind and sound a repository of peaceful vibrations that usher in memories of long summer days, weekends at a beach cottage, or childhood afternoons with the grandparents. 

I arrived outside of Tampa a few days ago, the last leg of my six day voyage driving diagonally across the US, from the northwest corner of Washington State. While operating from here for a few days, securing a place to live in Naples, getting administrative tasks completed before my teaching job at Immokalee High School, and reclaiming my walking legs, thoughts on this community roll out like the warm gulf breeze, reminding me indirectly of episodes from the Golden Girls. Insulated by a gate that requires a key card for entry, the community is a perfect world in microcosm, where every day is protected from the maelstrom of life outside the gates: climate change, recycling, unemployment, underemployment, war, poverty, elections, hate crimes, #metoo, ocean pollution, PTSD. Inside the gates, life promises visits from grandchildren, martinis on lanais, Christmas pudding in July, laps in the pool, a guaranteed income, a new car, attending a big band concert in town, air conditioning, and the freedom to not have to think about the distant future. When a future does loom, lawn decorations indicate what’s coming  – any impending holiday or shout out boasts flags, lights, inflatables, whirligigs, flowers and an arcadia of garden art. Besides the joy involved in living a carefree life one day at a time, members participate in weekly coffee socials, Friday pot lucks, quilting corners and shuffle board clubs, any of which may or may not turn into medical chart review roundtables. 

The heat and sun must play an integral part to the life-style here, promoting a justified ennui. Cold weather denizens, by contrast, ardently move: they hustle about, warming exterior limbs, accomplishing tasks and errands as efficiently as possible. Human nature expects this. Summer, however, allows for a respite to the hustle and bustle of winter life. School, work, our muscles – our lives seem to relax in kind. Dress codes slacken, three-day weekends extend to four, summer school rings its bell at noon, breweries release summer themed refreshers with a lemon kick, camp fires blaze under the stars, kids reclaim the streets after sundown. Until the dawns delay and the evenings hasten, days will stretch their offerings all the way downtown to street fairs, summer festivals and evening fireworks. Soon, with a lingering regret but appreciation that all things pass, yellow elm, scarlet maple and rust oak signal the rite of passage into fall, and pumpkins, dried corn cobs, spiced drinks and specials on leaf blowers make their way into our lives. School has started, labor day demands the white shorts retreat to the bottom of the drawer, and people shore up on sweaters and boots from the catalogs. What happens down here at the 27th latitude? Summer shouts all year long.

I go for a walk around the large complex. Each wide style, manufactured house displays unique properties. Unlike some subdivisions in new suburbs of some cities, which line up identically constructed prefabs in redundant array, these offer a homeowner a chance to keep an individuality while still belonging to a community. Each house has a cottage picturesque quality to it: large picture windows, either a front, side or back screened lanai, a driveway with a car port. The accompanying land on each property is the bare minimum: about 10 yards wide on each side. With these ten yards, flowering shrubs, palm trees, fountains, fica trees and tropical plants that bloom all year long hog their space and soak in the sun. Some homeowners put up plaques near the door indicating last names and where they originally hailed from – similar to flags from around the world on the masts of sailing ships that are docked at a foreign harbor – a lot from New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Minnesota and Illinois. Those without mention nevertheless wave the banner of a favorite northern football team, hockey sticks, or an old license plate. Frank Sinatra blares from someone’s windows as a man hoses down his garden; from another house, Ritchie Valens croons how we belong together as a neighbor washes an already clean car; two seniors meet in the road and discuss a recent operation. 

Naturally, once inside these houses, each life dictates its own rhythms of challenges, difficulties, hopes and accomplishments according to what and how it was lived out there in the real world, but as a visitor who ponders on the front lanai this place looks and feels like Pleasantville or Hill Valley from Back to the Future. Leaving the community requires a car, as the exit, invariably only turning right onto a three lane boulevard has few sidewalks. The air conditioned cars will take one to a fitness center, grocery store, restaurant, pharmacy, doctor’s office, or office, all lined up along the boulevards in fascinating regularity. A quarter mile down the road is another community, and on the other side of the boulevard, and past the three lanes going the opposite direction, are other communities and other commodity storefront. People come out to get what they need and do what they must before retreating once again to the safety and familiarity of a self-proclaimed identity. 

But there’s only so many times Peggy Sue can get married. I’m leaving tomorrow for Naples,150 miles further south towards my new temporary digs. 

Into the Deep Blue

The motel key was attached to a light blue, tetragonal pendant with room #24 stenciled on one side. I stepped out, locked the room, placed it into the front pocket pouch of my hoodie, and headed to the beach to walk the shore of southern Washington State. A long, thin, multi-mile peninsula from north to south separates the coast from the mainland, creating a vast sand causeway for walking, running, driving, and wandering. 

I left shortly after breakfast and two strong espresso-built coffees, turned south, planting each step firmly upon the recently receded waterline that succumbed to the moon’s pull into low tide. The wind was coming from the east, off the shore and into the ocean towards the west, bringing with it warmth from the heated and protected inland. This warm wind pushed the sounds of the crashing waves out to sea, muting the incessant drone of continuous breaking into shallow and peaceful rolls. The sun was on my left, rising gently upward into an unobstructed, cloudless, limitless blue sky. The footpath between the motel and the beach meandered through dune grass and sandwort that created the foothold for scotch broom, shore pine and bay laurel. Without fixtures or landmarks of any kind, a return to this same spot would be unrecognizable if not impossible, so I dropped a digital pin on my coordinates

I canvassed my mind, I scanned my body, I sought my soul as I usually do on my walks and my momentum forward. Usually I look at and identify – no, I label – what I see and the label will determine how I feel; I might pass the same tree every day on a walk yet recognize in me a different feeling once I see and mentally measure it. It bounces my energy back to me in a decipherable code. Out here I couldn’t find any sounding boards. The sky absorbed me, stretching from horizon to horizon in all four directions, permeating a 360-degree space that bisected all four geometric planes. Without a cloud in the sky, promising at least a transient if not fixed location from which depth of field could be discerned, the stark, blue space tricked orientation into vertigo, where suddenly up seemed down, and bearings weren’t as easily held onto, physically nor mentally. Returning my gaze to the horizon in front of me, I experienced a dizzying feeling, and floating away into the vastness became suddenly palpable without any fixed, familiar landmarks that I could name and rely on. What creatures of habit we are. To my right the vast blue ocean, its churning and rolling starting from far out and from far away, its spent energy storming the beach in exhaustive fury, pulling my breath back out to sea with each flattened roll. The returning wave left a shimmer of water on the flat packed sand, reflecting likenesses from above like a sheet of glass or a silver plated mirror. Peering closer into this mirror, the millennia and the universe reveal themselves. Fossils of plant and animal life etched into stones and sand dollars, spiral shells reflecting the cosmos. The soft landing of sand in varying shades of brown, resting in the indistinct and irregular patterns formed by wind and tide each carry the gravity of their own story. These minuscule granules lifted and whipped their way into and around my face and hair. 

I walked on, humbled by my surroundings and entertaining once again the direction I’m going in – and how similar to this nondescript, empty beach is that of a new beginning – without beacons, lighthouses, banners, flags, signs or sails, just an emptiness into which I trust to a vast, wide-open clean slate. I can go in any direction and now be anything. My options are as vast and open as the beach is wide and the shore is long, as the sky is deep and the water is fluid. And yet as beautiful and sublime as it was, I couldn’t help but feel somewhat antsy. Where were the familiar landmarks to confirm my movement? A tall, sturdy, reliable tree, a steady, strong boulder, an emerging, tough tree root from a worn down, foot-treaded path were nowhere to be found. Without a basis to measure momentum, it was suspect that I was going anywhere at all. Why has the idea of an anywhere become so important?  Am I going in the right direction – or is there any right direction? When will I know to stop, to turn, to keep going, if I’ve arrived? Suddenly, the very rules of walking and the purpose of walking that we stick to on familiar roads became less important. I walked further on and remembered my breath. I began to use it as a measure with my footsteps, five steps on the inhale, eight steps on the exhale. I found a far off drishti that kept my head straight and my focus sharp. Soon I felt a serene reverie take over, a peace that was not only soft but also strong, a guide that wasn’t external but internal. Although my feet were planted, my mind was free. I was nothing and I was everything. An indecipherable euphoria swept through me and I gasped in glee as I felt it rush through me like the waves to the shore.

What followed was a peace that settled over and in me. What thought I stumbled upon to make it so was unknowable; which unspoken resolve offering a solution unrecognizable. Then at some point, after a wave pushed its water further onto the shore, creating a small estuary of sorts, I noticed the tide returning on its journey inland. From the short rolls dragging themselves to the ocean, the water stream pulled sediment with it, reshaping the sandy edges and ridges. If this small wave has such a force, the ocean body itself is reshaping the entire landmass that surrounds it. The brackish wind reshapes and reforms anything in its path. Landmarks change. They disappear then appear into something else. This mutable movement punctuates our lives without us being totally aware of it. We’re surrounded by far less permeable structures in which we live, work and travel, and become inured to a false sense of stability. From a plane’s window at 30,000 feet above a coast, the waves appear as standstill lines, never reaching the shore. But down here, right next to them, the water, the sand and the air move, and they move things in their path and in their wake with deliberate, steady movement. A place is an arbitrary, liquid fixture, trusted to move randomly and indiscriminately. 

I felt the same resolve as the tide to return. I turned, yet faced the same mystifying emptiness this time heading north. The sun was now stronger. A man passed with a dog. A family got their feet wet. My mind became empty. A visual meditation, this is: a big sky, big water, big sand orb. At one point, I felt for the motel key. Since the beginning of my walk this was a deliberate practice, to feel for the key and its physical presence, the only reminder that I came from someplace stationary. Yet when I reached to feel it, it was gone. It wasn’t in my pocket. At first I felt the panic that comes with a loss of something important, although in that second the ramifications of that loss were not immediately clear. I looked around my feet and then around a ten-foot circumference of a neat and easy accidental drop. But all I saw was bare, smoothly packed dark sand. I’m reminded of a recipe. A half cup of firmly packed, dark brown sugar.  I always enjoyed that part. Don’t just pack it. Firmly pack it. Get as much moist sweetness as possible into the measuring cup. 

I needed to retrace my steps, all the way back to the estuary, where I felt my peace. There was no choice: the ramifications became clear, or at least became hazy. I was remembering a lost key fee – $5? $10? $20? I will have to pay it regardless. Then I wondered if it was even safe to stay in a motel room with a key by now in someone else’s possession. What was written on the pendant besides the room number? The hotel name? The phone number? A WiFi code, I remember now. I walked on, convinced I would find it. It had to have fallen out when I reached for the camera to take a picture of a shell or the sand or the waves or the sky or the silver mirror of a reflective tide pool. And yet no key appeared. In fact, my footsteps that I followed back were quickly disappearing. Were these even mine? Did I walk by that heap of seaweed before and not notice it? The sand, the waves, the shore itself were all unrecognizable because they all looked the same to my untrained eye, yet I couldn’t be absolutely sure I had passed this far down. The changes that occurred were slight in scope but large enough to transfigure the entire landscape. 

My heart sank. I arrived at the peaceful place and found no key. Every step backward was a retreat into a past that no longer was as I remembered. Each wind current shifted the sand slightly more, rolled the waves differently. Each minute the sun climbed and the Earth pulled brought a new dance to the elements that left their imprint for a few moments only. And like this shifting shore, so our shifting presence. Our absence from a place shifts things around differently just as our presence in a place will do. We can’t go back to how things were, any more than I can walk back along this shore and recognize it. Elements and our own energies are constantly reshaping the environment. 

I was disappointed in myself for losing the key when I had so deliberately and purposefully attempted to keep aware of it. Somewhere along the way, my awareness shifted to the intangible. At some point my awareness shifted, like the landscape I was traveling through, from the key to my internal focus and breath. The key’s disappearance must have happened when I let go of the need for stationary objects that normally mark my way, like a motel door along a road. I couldn’t help but recognize the loss as something trivial yet important – not because I needed to get back into the room and return to civilization – but because I had perhaps lost the need to do so; that this key not only unlocked the door to the motel but also locked me out from a freedom I needed in order to see clearly and into the next steps of my life. 

I turned back once again, accepting the new freedom, resolved to let the past go, embracing the joy I felt that had been whipped up somewhere between sand shaping and wind scaping. I dropped the key in a past that was not there when I returned. It stayed somewhere in the past. 

Half way home, two men approached me.

“Are you looking for a key?” One of them asked.

“Yes!” I called out, my voice lifting away into yesterday. 

“We found it.”

“How did you know it was mine?” I asked.

“The way your head was down, moving from side to side. We figured you were looking for something. There’s not much to see down there but sand.”

Oh, but there is, I thought.

I thanked him and held the key in my hand. It was back in my possession, but I didn’t find it by going back. It was given to me when I was ready to let go of it. 

Later that afternoon I sat comfortably with a book on a fold-out chair nestled in the firm sand. I drove the car out to the shore, onto that firmly packed dark brown sugar, and used it as a wind block. The book tried to hold my attention, but really it was the ocean that drew my gaze back, again and again. The seagulls floated and careened, preened and waited. 

I noticed the black sedan off to my left, caught in a patch of light sand that must have fooled the driver. It sunk into its deceptive malleable jaws, left dry and loose, out of by the tide’s reach. The car sat, back tires spinning, trying its best to do what it always does, at the mercy of fine, granulated sand. If the tide comes in, the car will be lifted away, as light as a seagull’s feather that spins and swirls in the air. 

I felt compelled to help him as best I could, unable to sit idle without offering something, even a sense of compassion. I had very little in way of makeshift towing ropes or chains. He seemed grateful that someone recognized his dilemma, and together we dug out the sand that piled around his back wheels, formed by his frenzied depression of the accelerator that only dug him in deeper.  An effort at the impossible, he couldn’t gain traction or get himself out. Greater physical help would be necessary to release him back on his way. Soon enough another friendly soul came by, extracted a yellow cable-towing strap, hooked it to the car’s front end and pulled the sedan out in seconds. I felt his release, his joy, his relief. He may have felt a similar extraction from the earth as I had when walking on the shore just that morning, looking up into the vast blue – seeped deep in whorls of wind and freed from a menacing, tethering key. 

By Tube if not by Foot

London, June 30

Arriving back in London from where I started, after the trip around the UK, brought a beautiful circular ending to my time in the country. Thrust into city energy was palpable: I felt the hustle, the busy metropolitan streets populated with well dressed men and women, steering through Temple Lane and Bank Street with chartered courses and EU agendas on their minds; spilling out from the Olde English Pubs after 5 to discuss perhaps more honest matters on their minds; the smokers, the vapers, the one pinters, all mulling around in the nebulous cloud of uncertainty in a looming Brexit and the aftermath. What the rest of the world was doing during my insular, nostalgic, and quiet charm of a month outside of it fascinated me. The quiet, seemingly independent life outside of London and the busy deal making, banking world in London creates a distinct chasm between its heartbeat and nerve center.

I had one additional day for which to procure accommodation before my flight on July 1st, and after some more interpretive readings of hostel reviews, found an excellent hostel that caters to quiet types and families. Youth Hostel Association (YHA) attempts to minimize the pub crawling, party atmospheres of the typical inner and old city hostels I experienced on visits to Prague and Krakow. I learned this not from the reviews, of course, but by talking to a dorm mate woman my age who had done her own share of hosteling. Not only was the hostel (YHA Earl’s Court, London) quiet, but it was on the opposite end of London from where A. and I stayed earlier at the end of May on Brick Lane in Shoreditch, a Pakistani, Indian, and Jamaican area. Earl’s Court is just south of Chelsea, which is just south of Kensington, which is just south of Kensington Palace and Gardens, whose affluence and prestige still trickles down through avenues and mews such as Queens Court, Elizabeth Street, Prince of Wales Street, and Duke of Wessex Street. As the English countryside provided a good opposite impression of London, so did Kensington offer a good opposite from Brick Lane, and I felt that a better way to wrap up my impressions of London could not have been had. As I strolled down Elizabeth Street, past the very posh shops and perfumed women and moneyed men, past the white stone, Victorian and Edwardian facades, past the high, shuttered and sheer curtain windows, behind black wrought iron fences and gates, into the vastness of Kensington Gardens, my mind wandered back to the opposite side of town, to the first week of the trip, the last week of May.

May 26

I arrived into the familiar jet lagged surrealism of a watercolored world, an artwork of landscape and monument that bleed their historic beauty onto a mind’s canvas, already primed for romanticism by the sheer mention of travel. Arriving at 7 am into Gatwick Airport, I easily found the National Express bus depot, from which I had previously booked a ride into London to Aldgate stop, which is just north of Tower Bridge, the closest stop to the Airbnb apartment in Shoreditch. Getting my first introduction to London’s winding one ways and seemingly circular roads, close to two hours later I emerged from the transport with the backpack strapped to my back, quickly discerned my orientation by finding the names of the nearest crossroads, opened google maps to follow the blue line from my current location to 43 Hanbury Street, and soldiered forward. The first impression of London will also be my last: its populated streets and sidewalks, its numerous construction projects underway, its occupied cafes, Pret a Mangers, pubs, no vacancy shingles, men and women walking in quick tempo, fully packed tubes and busses, and its leashed and collared happy dogs. These impressions have reassured me that London has been keeping calm and carrying on. 

For a £5 early bag drop-off fee, I left my big back pack in the common room and planned to scout the environs until check in time at 4. This way I could also keep moving and resist the temptation to sleep for as long as possible. I found the hostel building easily enough and pulled out the paper I wrote the key pad entry codes on. The first one was for the door to the building. A satisfying click opened the narrow wooden door, which revealed a very narrow stairwell, which brought me up to the first flight of stairs and first apartments. We were in apartment 5, so I went up another flight, and then keyed in the key pad code for apartment 5. This lead me to a washing machine and dryer foyer, and then up a few more stairs, around a corner and into a common room, where I stowed my backpack. With the weight off, I felt 22 pounds lighter. Using both digital and printed maps, I headed in the direction of the Thames and Tower Bridge; on one of the streets I located one of the first Tesco grocery stores of the month, and because I wasn’t sure I was coming back this way, decided to purchase the breakfast items then. So with a bag of oats, a bag of ground flax, chia, pumpkin and sunflower seeds, yogurt, four nectarines, a pack of dates, slices of cheese and a liter of coconut water, I added some of the weight I had just shed into my smaller day back pack, and then headed for the river. 

I don’t do well without sleep, and less and less so as I get older, and so I can only say that on that first afternoon, the time between 12 and 4 was all as if in a dream. I arrived at the Tower Bridge, an iconic landmark of London, and felt both a part of its presence and a part of the observers of it; walking across from the north, I went down to Butler’s Wharf which is to the left of the bridge, named so because of the butlers who would buy the produce coming off the ships. I then walked in the other direction, which is towards the Globe Theater and the Eye, but made it only as far as the next bridge, where a WWII battleship, the HMS Belfast, was docked. I stopped and sat on steps along the promenade, with the wind and cool weather keeping me awake, and the movement of the tourists and dogs and children playing all around, and the ice cream cones and pastries catching my heavy eyes from closing.

Towards 3 pm I got up and walked back over the Tower Bridge to go back north over the river, made a left and went down by the water’s edge and viewed the Castle of London from outside its ramparts, again reading the placards along its perimeter to review my English Tudor History. An incredible time in history unfolded behind those walls, drawing thousands of visitors per day, immune to but aware of the atrocities and horror to which both court gentry and peasants were subjected; permitted by the comfortable distance of time to examine and speculate, but not rightly feel. Now we have other, different terror to fear, different reasons for persecution, different freedoms infringed upon. None of us learn from history because the past keeps repeating itself in different forms, like a slippery elusive virus. History will constantly remap its code.

At 3:45 I was back in the common room of the Airbnb, eating some of the yogurt and dates, waiting till 4 pm as if it were a pot of water set to boil. Not advertised as such, but familiar with the hostel layout, our room was one of many in a tall 1910s building, just off of Brick Lane, a perfect place for foodies and purveyors of culture. The common room and kitchen was a full flight of stairs down, and a second shower and toilet, closed for repairs, a half flight of stairs down. finally, it was time to unlock the code to our room itself, upstairs. There seemed to be stairs everywhere. The windows looked out onto a painted brick wall, and a courtyard below which was equipped with an outdoor grill and makeshift chairs and tables for a pop up Jamaican jerk chicken and goat wrap quick eat place. Beneath the painted artwork of an upside down break dancer and a white crane – how they reconciled the space is still a mystery to me – a few Jamaican flags lay limp and waiting for the evening breeze. By sometime this evening, this man’s makeshift food court will promise delicious ethnic food to passersby. I pulled the curtains over the large windows to block the still generous sun and to minimize the eastern rising sun, which on the cool days of the end of May came gratefully, but on the hot days of August would pose a problem. Besides two beds, our room had a sink and a few dishes, coffee and tea service, and a small table and two chairs for conversation or working, for eating snacks or eating breakfast; for enjoying birthday cake or wine, or all six. I assembled some things for sleeping, took a hot shower, and lay down; within minutes I was fast asleep to the sounds and rhythms of a new city. 

May 27

Sometime during the night I awoke; from my phone and short lived wakeful period, found two things I would do the next day while awaiting A.’s arrival at 6:30 pm. One, the British Library, where a free exhibit beckoned with original documents, and two, the Charles Dickens house and museum, which I would visit afterward. I closed my phone, and returned to sleep.

The next morning I got up very early and had the common room to myself, and it felt the entire building as well. After a few cups of coffee, heated a heated oatmeal concoction, I head out. I walk west along major arteries and side streets for an hour to get to the British Museum, taking note of shops, store fronts, fashion, food, buses, and definitely the traffic, which needed to be monitored consciously and continuously from all directions, not only at intersections but on sidewalks as well. I am never sure whether pedestrians adhere to the left side of the walkway as the cars do their streets, and so weaving through this mass on their way to work proved just as challenging had I been driving the streets. Unlike a US city whose streets are generally created in a grid fashion, London’s is more like multiple curves in all irregular lengths and directions, as if a child had the entire sandbox to himself in which to create his city. As a courtesy, the city paints “Look left” or “Look right” or “Look both left and right” at the curb of crosswalks, because of the indiscriminate direction or air space cars and double deckers will be veering and careening by. 

The British Museum is a large red brick building that consumes all of a city block very close to and just east of Regents Park. I found the exhibit on the first floor and spent the majority of the morning within its low lit and temperature cooled rooms, perusing its ancient religious, political and literary manuscripts, from the earliest printed and illustrated bibles to 20th century letters. Included in these archives were such gems as original music scores and scribbles from Mozart, Beethoven and John Lennon; the Magna Carta, letters and documents and writings from and between philosophers (Rousseau, Hobbes, etc) , the architect Christopher Wren (astronomer, architect, mathematician) who designed St. Paul’s Cathedral, Jane Austen, the Brontes, and many others leaving inspiration in their wake. By the time I left, I was famished, and found a middle eastern food truck and a falafel wrap just next to St. Pancras Church one block west, Next stop: the Charles Dickens museum, a half hour walk south.

A three story townhome on Doughty Street, most of the original furnishings have remained; especially meaningful for me was his desk, where he wrote A Tale of Two Cities (albeit at another residence), and Oliver Twist (at the Doughty street residence). I love these old, wooden floor, narrow stair case and tall windowed townhomes from another era and another architectural period. After spending quite a good two hours in there, I was ready to find Liverpool Station so that I could meet A. at the appointed time. I walked back in that direction, found it quickly enough and from where walked back to the apartment to drop off things I had accumulated and to refill my water bottle. Then off I went, back to Liverpool Station.

With a small bouquet of yellow tulips purchased at the station, I waited with anticipation and excitement; she found me first, coming in from the side and we spent the next several minutes just standing there, holding hands, talking and laughing. Finally, we emerged from the station a good half hour later, walked to the place, dropped luggage, and went out to explore Brick Lane. We bought some small tasty Pakistani food samplings from a corner store and meandered an hour or so before we slowly returned, unpacked, and enjoyed conversations of wide parameters and broad scope. 

May 29

We leave the apartment without any regard to time constraints. We walked west towards Buckingham Palace and along the way stopped at the Bank of England which is one of the scenes from Harry Potter that held significance for movie fans. The security guard didn’t allow allow us in, though; entry garnered to those who worked there or had an appointment with someone who worked there. A. peered in the doors, anyway, into the face of another guard. WIth no option but to turn away, we found St. Paul’s Cathedral which required visitors to purchase tickets unless they were pious enough to attend mass at 7:30 am, when they could get in for free. We decided that would be an excellent way to not only get inside, but to start A.’s birthday off. So from St. Paul’s, we walked to Trafalgar Square (by the way, that’s Admiral Nelson way up there on the pillar), Piccadilly Circus with all of its theaters, and then wandered into Soho, where we started looking for a place to eat. 

Shortly into our search we spotted a Lebanese restaurant across the street, and decided, based on scrutinizing their menu hung on the window, that this would be a suitable place. A. started out with puréed lentil soup, and after tasting a bit I called for an order myself. Following this first course, A. had a quinoa and green salad, and I had lamb and mint pockets, drizzled with yogurt sauce. It was a perfect lunch! I will try to duplicate the spectacular soup when I get home – it definitely had cumin, carrot and cream included.

With satisfied stomachs, we walked on through Soho when the rain decided to join us. Not being deterred, we found two more Harry Potter landmarks: Godwin Court and Cecil’s Court. After pictures and the let down of Cecil’s court undergoing scaffolding and renovations, we needed to get out of the now pelting rain and find some tea. Easily enough, we chose a cafe/bar/coffee/tea house where I had a pot of green and Awy a pot of Earl Gray. We stayed there for about an hour, looking at our pictures to date, talking, taking in the scenes from out the window and from within, and listened to music. 

We ventured on, and with the rain still insistent with its presence, wondered whether we should take the tube back to the apartment for the umbrellas and then re-emerge somewhat more protected; but by that time, the rain may well have stopped. So we walked on towards Buckingham Palace, and to our delight, by the time we arrived at the famous mall, the large boulevard leading straight to the palace, the rain had stopped, but the crowds and loudspeakers and assemblies increased. After an inquiry was made, we learned that today was the cricket season opening ceremony, cordoning off a large swath of mall boulevard. We skirted the crowds and went through St. James’s (sic?) Park for a bit, which opened up to the mall with the palace in front of us and the festivities behind us. The British flags were waving on either side of us as we pulled our jackets closed and scarves tighter against the chill and damp of London. Having seen this scene so often in films and news, the walk didn’t feel necessarily new, but rather familiar, and being here during one of the longest reigning monarchs in history, who was probably just behind the window with the light on, gave us pause to remember this moment as we stood outside the gates with the rest, maybe hoping for a sighting of her. But I doubt she pops out every other day or so to greet her fans. Both of us convinced that Prince Harry would show up for the opening ceremonies, we did linger for a while. With the amount of cars going in and out a side gate, and the number of dignitaries dressed up from shoe to hat, we were sure the queen was calling visitors. 

We walked on then, back through the park where I fed pigeons and geese, over to the Parliament building, Westminster Abbey, where tickets were also required, so we just went to the gift shop and looked for too long at things we would never buy. Fatigue set in at this point, and we set off for home. I realized that I speed my way through busy streets, bee lining my way out of the noise, but A. savors the experience, walking slower, looking up and around, her musings matching her gate, mine spurred by my march.

We stopped by the Indian buffet man on Brick Lane to pick up something small to take back with us. She made it clear to the man that she wanted a small container with an assortment of food in it. Well, the man at the counter couldn’t explain that indeed, she could, or didn’t know that she could, and with limited English he was at a loss for words. 

“Just one moment. I call my boss.” 

As we stood next to the warm buffet, looking at the chick peas and spinach and cauliflower curries, a moment turned into several.

“I’m finding more and more that people just don’t know how to do their jobs,” she said. 

The man returned. “My boss come. Just one moment.” He retreated behind the cash register. She continued with the flustered frustrations.

“How can you work in London, in a restaurant, dealing with people, and not speak English? It’s ridiculous!”

I agreed that the establishment begged improvement; there were, after all, zero patrons in the place and it was already evening. With new ideas about just leaving if the English speaking boss did not show up in another minute, with more exasperated shakes of our heads, out comes a boss from another door and says, “Yes you can fill it up with anything. Same price.” So finally, having had ample time to decide, she filled it up with rice, spinach, pumpkin, and fried eggplant; we walked the few blocks home, and ate our Indian dish in the common room with a glass each of the  bottle of wine A. brought from home; sweets I had procured earlier and yogurt. It was all delicious.

May 30 A.’s birthday

The yellow tulips from the train station yesterday were at their peak beauty this morning. A. was awake and dressed by 6 am and just as I was opening my eyes, said she just might go to mass by herself if I was too tired. 

“Sure not!” I said, first thing, and got myself up, ready and infused with a double strength coffee.  We were going to do a tube day today because after mass we wanted to return to the flat for breakfast and then head out to Nottinghill Gate for the famous Portobello market. Leaving the apartment at 6:45 for Liverpool station, we found the correct line, and it was so crowded I misheard A. say “let’s get off at the one after Bank Street” and only “get off at Bank Street” and when it pulled up, I flew out without looking back, as a result A. had to run after me and it caused us to be a little late for mass, quick walking all the way from the Bank of England. But we arrived still just a little late, and were ushered into the high alter, as very limited attendance required nothing larger. Mass was so peaceful and uplifting, it changed both our moods into something calm and serene. It was the perfect start to her birthday. After mass, however, when we unintentionally parted ways, pulled in different directions to view the cathedral, we lost each other, and A., ever the caretaker, thought I must have left the church when she couldn’t find me anywhere inside. Not outside, though, she asked the guard to let her re enter, as her sister was “lost somewhere inside.” She ran into me as I was coming out of the crypts with worry and admonishment in her eyes; she had looked everywhere for me, she couldn’t find me and she became terribly worried. Apologies issued, I promised I would meet her just across the street at a cafe, where she would now have a coffee, while I looked in the gift store.

Having found her shortly afterwards, we took the underground back to eat breakfast of oats, ground seeds, dates, bananas and yogurt. Fortified, we walked to Spitalfield Market where we were held up by a unique find of old printing press letter blocks. We each got three pieces – letters that were significant for us and for those dear to us – and in our enthusiasm for what we were about to purchase, rendered all possible haggling moot. Hearing our asides as to how best to get a deal we wanted, the vendor inferred we were going to buy them regardless of how low he refused to go. In the end, it all comes down to how much you want something, and the value it has for you. We payed more than what Awy would have, and because haggling is not my strong suit, I conceded to his final offer. I could tell he wasn’t going to budge further. We bought them, and discussed the psychology behind haggling for the next several blocks. 

Back to Liverpool station and this time all the way to Nottinghill Gate: walking up to Portobello Road, we happened upon and passed by George Orwell’s house, which is currently privately owned; further up we walked and looked in at the quaint jewelry, antique, clothes and novelty shops, spilling over with flowers and roses and eateries. Soon enough, we were hungry.

Finding gluten free fish and chips is something of an enigma in London, although in Scotland and rural England the options are ubiquitous. In London, however, this became a quest, and we scoured nearly every menu outside a restaurant or pub for the asterisk that informed of gluten free options. Without any luck so far, we decided to go into a pub where she would try her luck with something else on the menu. 

“I’ll have the scampi,” she told the bartender, and I would have a portion of chips and a Guinness. We selected a table in the bar area, but it was hot and empty, and it seemed more people and atmosphere were outside in their garden. Upon closer look at the menu, I decided it would be best to ask the bartender how those scampi were prepared, and he said they were breaded and deep fried. It sounded like deep fried shrimp to me; asking whether he could simply omit the batter and sauté them, he said they came frozen like that. I guess if you’re in a pub, there’s little else besides fried meat, fried flour, and fried potatoes. I told him to cancel the order and Awy selected a Greek salad instead. We went out to the patio with our drinks, and after a while, eating our greens and “chips” she ordered us a cherry beer, which was just the ticket. Again, we spent the time looking at pictures, talking, and relaxing in each other’s company. 

On our way back to the tube, A. got sidetracked by a skirt that she really wanted, but was not able to try on because the store had no dressing room. “How can you expect people to buy something if they can’t even try it on?” She was really perturbed by the lack of foresight on the owner’s part, as sliding it over her jeans altered the look and lay of the garment; she was inclined to just not buy it on that premise alone. Suddenly R. called her for her birthday, diverting her attention just long enough for the desire for the skirt – or the decision about penalizing the shop owner – came with a flash of lightening, and we walked away without it. 

On our last full day together, we walked to the Tower Bridge, over it, through a food market that was worth a return trip to London alone; and then passed by the HMS Belfast, where we decided to walk into their gift shop/ cafe. After looking at and purchasing a WWII book for her boys, we wandered over to the cafe section to look at their sweet offerings. After noticing acronyms for dietary restrictions next to the labels, we were stumped by letters we could not recognize words for. GF is gluten free, V is for vegan, LF is lactose free, but CL? A. decided to ask one of the servers behind the counter.

“Excuse, me, what does this letter mean? We know what the others mean, but what does this C mean?” She looked expectantly to the 20 something behind the counter.

“Um… this one here?”

“Yes.”

“I don’t really know.”

“You don’t know? But you work here.”

“Yes, but I don’t know, sorry.”

“Does she know?” A. asked, indicating the other young 20 something. The other came over. The same question was posed.

“I don’t know.”

A. couldn’t believe this. “You’re telling me that you work here in this shop, and you can’t answer a simple question?”

Silence.

“How can that be? How can you possibly work here without knowing what you are serving? Just for that, I refuse to buy anything from you.” 

I slid out quickly before she had a chance to get their number and call their boss.

The Globe theater, which was nominal only and nothing historic to its name, was not worth the walk to it, so back we went to the food court, bought two Indian meals, took them back to the flat, ate them, walked to the Rituals store where Awy surprised me with a soft, silky hand cream, and bought for herself a lotion; found the Victorian Bath house which is open for private parties, hung around a sunny spot on a wall nearby as we watched people drink; walked slowly back to the apartment and on the way noticed people spilling out of pubs everywhere; had ice cream down stairs, a coffee in the chocolate shop next door; and finally had an early turn in, where we finished the wine and most of our food supply. 

A. left the next morning at 5:30 to go to Liverpool station and then the train to the airport; I left for Liverpool station an hour or so later, for the tube to Paddington station, and from there the Great Western Railway to Carmarthen, Wales. 

London provided the backdrop for our reunion, provided conversational starters and memories, situations for coloring our characters, a space for sister talks and castle talks, and a new experience from which old, familiar habits can be confirmed and recognized. It gave us space and time for ourselves as sisters.

Into England

Leaving has an excitement all its own: a heightened energy awakens me to an attention to detail that I might have otherwise left unnoticed. Looking around the caravan, again in a morning of rain and wind, feeling the damp chill seep in and around, I eye the poisonous foxgloves pointing their stalks of purple cones high to the sky, next to the jostaberries (a mix between a gooseberry and a blackberry) whose ripening I was waiting for to provide that extra glucose when I was feeling weak. The ducks forage through the grass and the magpie alight on a branch. I know, sitting in silence, that this caravan will be here long after I am, becoming ever more moldy, weakened by the rain, the cracks larger, the tires flatter; consumed by the leaves and the trees and the roots that attempt to hold down anything and trap it to time and space. Soon, I’ll leave, and I’ll never share physical space with again. It’s a fascinating experience, leaving someplace.

By the graces of one of M’s neighbors , I was whisked into Carmarthen for ten pounds, which would relieved me of both the burden of Alec’s offer and the 35 pound taxi fare. As the peace and freedom disentangled themselves from the impetuous rain, the cold, the unseasoned food, I was able to discern that overall, with emotions and comforts aside, this experience made me a tad sharper, a bit leaner, and a lot more resilient to rain. Pretty much type 2 kind of fun, as F, outlined for me adequately.  So with all the great anticipation of leaving, I trudged up the track with my belongings on my back and waited by the red phone box in Penboyr. 

The train was on time, and once settled and the drink cart came through, treated myself to a coffee with milk. It turns out that it was either a Starbucks or the Great Welsh Train line uses Starbucks coffee cups to sell their own. In either case, it was delicious. I transferred at Cardiff onto a bus, which deposited me and several others to the Newport Train station, where I caught the 2:25 to Bath Spa. 

Arriving an hour later, I looked around to get my bearings. I noticed the colors of the ancient city: mellow sandstone blocks, some of a rougher and some of a smoother hue holding up the buildings, townhomes, and shops that lined the wide, Victorian streets and small alleys webbing through Bath. Manvers Lane, which took me in a bee line up to the Bath Abbey, around it, and then up High Street, past the Waitrose grocery store and around to 21 Broad Street, where L. had secured our rental apartment. I had not heard back from her about the code or key to enter, and faced with 5 possible apartment buzzers, rang the first one from the bottom up.

“Hello?”

Lucky me, I thought. It sounded kind of like her.

“It’s me!” I shouted into the speaker, which prompted a buzz that released the door.

Looking like one would without sleeping for 30 hours, she greeted me with a panicked look.

“There’s no WiFi or TV access! I couldn’t contact you. I can’t even contact my mom and tell her I’m here.”

“There’s got to be WiFi. Where’s the manual?” I looked around for a brochure, binder, or back-of-door flyer for info that most accommodations have, and finding none, requested her to open the links to check-in procedures they sent her.

“That’s just it. I can’t access my mail to open the links.”

“How did you know the door codes?” I asked.

“I wrote those down. Luckily!” she added, silently giving herself mega points on that one.

“Well,” I continued rationally, “don’t you have data?” She looked at me with the ensuing confusion of a double martini or sleep deprivation.

“Data? What do you mean?”

“You know, like if there’s no WiFi you can still look up stuff with data.” I was no better at explaining this than she was at comprehending. “Can you access Google maps?”

“Um, no not really.”

“How’d you get here?”

“I asked this lady in the train station and she showed me on a map.”

“Oh wow. That’s cool. Well, did you send me those emails with the links? I can open them.” So I looked back through last weeks’ emails and found a link, which led me to another link, and finally, we found the WiFi codes. She was back in business. The TV was another matter, but I convinced her to let it slide.

That being settled, we got on with travel updates, and shortly thereafter I went down the street to the grocery store and picked up some breakfast foods and supplies for the next four days. She was adamant that I take the key, and lock the door when I left. Returning with my now customary oatmeal, dark rye bread, Emmantaler cheese, apples, butter and jam and some ready made soup selections, I inserted the skeleton key and attempted to unlock the door, to no avail. The key would not be persuaded to complete a revolution, slide the bolt over, and garner entry. Enough repetitions of clockwise and anti clockwise maneuvers got L. out of bed and another panicked verbal and heated exchange continued on either side of the door. L. was essentially locked in and without key or keyhole on the interior side of the door, could do little except rotate a loose knob round and round, which did nothing to advance the rotation of the key on my side of the door. I told her to look for a screwdriver as maybe the screws around the knob were loose, and as a continued to pull, push, shift and turn, she returned with kitchen tools, but then reported that the screws were all tight. At this point I texted the landlord, and explained that I was locked out; but because Leah made the reservations and communicated through Airbnb, it took a while before I got a response, they have it never heard of me or my number before. Meanwhile, though, with enough prodding and poking and thrusting, the lock unjammed, made a complete rotation, and admitted access. 

We realized we could never leave the flat again without assurance that we would be able to get back in, and so with correct info passed to the landlord, a receptionist called. Needing pictures, exact details and troubleshooting, I insisted the lock needed to be oiled at the very least or we would never be able to see Bath; they complied and would send a locksmith right away. Between conversation, tea, sandwiches and soup in the well-equipped kitchen with hardware but remiss on cooking staples, we noted it was rather chilly. Leah stated, “Oh, and by the way, I can’t get any hot water.” Coming from cold Wales and the one pail, luke-warm shower experience, this was worse news than a jammed door or non access to WiFi. We searched for manuals, eventually found by rereading the check-in info, found the manual for the boiler and with Leah’s understandably jet lagged,  limited reasoning powers still nevertheless functioning, she “believed she got it going,” and indeed, within twenty minutes we were warming up, the hot water flowed, and the locksmith arrived. 

Continuing with our tea and plans for four days, we talked through the removal of one lock, whose oiling would still not allow it to turn with complete ease and assurance, over the clanging and banging of changing locks with the speed of tire change on a NASCAR race track. I must say we were both impressed by such quick Sunday service and by one so friendly to boot. I left a good review for the man on their local website for such things, Leah went to bed, I took a shower, did some laundry, and eased myself into the second room sofa pull out bed. Warm, clean and comfortable, I listened to the new sounds of our temporary street, the shouts from the patrons leaving the bars, the honks from cars telling them to get off the street, a wailing siren in the distance. A far cry from the magpies and song birds and bleating sheep, the varied sounds of travel are always a delight.

Purple fields of Persuasion

Indications that we were getting tired became obvious by this point; I chose for a quiet day when L. went off to explore the Brontë residence. She came back with pictures and historical information that complemented insight into the Brontë sisters’ writing and settings, but a little miffed that not enough attention was payed to the moors. At the mercy of a guide who has an established route, L. saw the few dales and moors that were probably not part of a protected park, so some of the land, which was once barren in the 1800s, has since ruptured in some areas- carved up under the bulldozer and built up by a cement mixer. Not to be deterred, she booked another mini tour through the North York Moors National Park the day before our departure from York. I tried finding a different way into the park – by a city bus that would just get me into the park and from where I could find a trail that would take me through the moors, but the city buses from York only drove to outlying cities, from where one can easily walk to the desolate, barren, heather covered moors, if you can manage walking hours and hours and maybe a day or two without any rest stops, water stops or bathroom breaks. The Cleveland Way, for example, is a round the park 190 km walk that allows for camping along the trail, and the Heritage Trail goes down the east coast for a good day or two hike. There are smaller hikes and walks that provide a 5-7 mile walk around perimeter cities and which go into the park, but only into forests and fields and around Abbey ruins, and I feel I’ve done enough of those. On top of this inconvenience, a bus with its numerous stops would take at least an hour and a half or two hours, one way, and then there was the Saturday schedule to abide by, which has the last bus leaving at 2 pm. I decided not to decide at all, as we were still two days away from Saturday, and York was waiting to be discovered.

York is the only city in England with the most of its old city wall still standing and intact, and no doubt proud of this fact, has built a walkway along the interior side of it, which, from morning till dusk one can access and walk the 3.5 miles around the old city to take in the views above the red tiled rooftops, with York Minster Cathedral spiraling out from the center from any point along the circumference. Not contiguous, the wall can be accessed in segments, and we chose to take the stairs down by the Botanical Gardens and St. Mary’s – yep, you guessed it – Abbey ruins. Overhearing a guide speaking to his huddled flock, Judi Dench made her debut acting performance here using the Abbey as a backdrop, and as happens when one has become attuned to something new, suddenly sees the relevance in other areas one looks: there is Dame Dench Street, and a Dame Judi Gin drink which L. and I discovered on the menu when we did a serendipitous drop-in at a pub called the Evil Eye, whose concoctions were too irresistible to pass up. (I had a rhubarb and tart apple gin and tonic drink, with a slice of ginger dropped in; L had a sweet berry mixture.) But back to the gardens: the park is small, if comparing to a St. James or Hyde Park, but has flowers and plants along its borders and also expanses of grass which can be lounged and picnicked on, and according to L. who went through a few days later, was crammed with people out craving the now warmer days and who used nearly every cubic centimeter of the grass to enjoy it. The Botanical Gardens cozy up to the River Uose, which wiggles underneath the old town and back up and around it, so we decided to walk along it until we reached Clifford’s Tower, the second highest point after the bell tower of York Minster, from which a 360 view of York can be commanded. And not only views were commanded here. This used to be York’s stronghold, and kings, lords, and landed gentry at the time used this tower as a residence. Two museums located just at the foot of this tower were once the jails that housed the debtors and criminals and traitors and all of those whose innards and heads would be staked along York’s old city walls and bars – the Viking word for gate. The Shakespeare Rose Theater is also now at the foot of Clifford – a very strange name for an ancient castle – which was getting ready for a Friday night, sold out performance for Hamlet.

From Clifford’s Tower, which we opted not to pay 6£ for an unobstructed view, we walked north and into the old town, which was packed, from store front to store front, with restaurants, take away food, ice cream, fudge, souvenirs, pubs… well, anyone who has been in a European old town can simply visualize it and know that York is really no different. Each street has a best voted for something on its storefront, the aromas of fried fish and chips, chocolate and beer spill out from alleys, and the culinary choices are tantalizing if not unfair; How can anyone decide? The best fish and chips or a roast beef Yorkshire pudding? The pork and black pudding pie or the steak and kidney pasty? The cheese and onion quiche or simply a slab of trucked in Yorkshire cheese on stone ground sourdough bread? Or should one go for the desserts instead, cake upon cake in scaffolded display cases, chocolate orange, almond and cherry tart, espresso and chocolate, red velvet and sweet cream cheese layers? Using temperance and common sense, I became adept at a type of “window shopping” but with food, something that I have since called “dream eating.” Naturally, not wanting to leave England without practicing the joy of eating from its many fine purveyors, I decided to have at least one of each item that my thoughts returned to after 24 hours, or what appeared as a product for articulation on the Great British Baking Show. Using this approach, I felt my experience and not my waist would be nicely rounded. So in the course of my wanderings, in London, in Wales and through England, I savored some of the “best”s: Lebanese lamb and mint pockets, Lebanese blended lentil soup, a falafel wrap from a middle eastern man’s food truck, Welsh mutton pie, Welsh fish and chips, lentil and cheese pie, a ground mushroom and cashew wrap, a lamb gyros, steak and cheddar cheese pie, a soft, white cheese and onion pasty, a pork and black pudding pasty (blood sausage), at least one portion of fries with salt and vinegar, Yorkshire pudding, Welsh pudding, Welsh cake, cherry and almond tart, honey and pecan fudge, chocolate and cappuccino fudge, chocolate cake, and orange liqueur cake with chocolate frosting. If I am forgetting anything, it probably had a pie at the end of it. Needless to say, all of the pasties and pies cum larde had me then craving for raw vegetables and every other day or so, during a grocery run for breakfast items and things to eat at home, I bought a bag of loose leaf spring greens, ripped it open, and ate them all straight from the bag, munching away like a goat out to pasture, without dressing of any kind. Not subsisting on pasties alone, the Waitrose grocer we found throughout England, as well as the Tesco, offers a great soups selection, and puts together unique salad combos like I would do at home, so we were well covered, whatever and however we chose to eat.

The quandary of what to eat is one thing, but hydration is another altogether. Learning how to keep hydrated when you’re in a place that does not give out free water freely and without knowing where the next bathroom is only requires a bit of logistics and smarts. If you drink a large 75 cl of water in one full swig as if it were a meal instead of a martini, then you  can predict far better when you will need to use the toilet. An hour or so after this full bottle throttle, find yourself a WC, or predict where one will be before the anticipated need arises. We found bathrooms free of charge in coffee shops, museums, on boats/ ferries, an antique shop, grocery stores, train and bus stations, churches and abbeys, ruined or not, tourist info buildings, behind the isolated bush, and even busy pasty cafes, which may confuse you with paying patrons, and may or may not have a sign “for patrons only.” You can always buy 50 pence worth of fudge if you are conscientious about such things. Once business is taken care of, don’t forget to fill up the water bottle from the cold tap at the faucet which you’re using anyway to wash up, as soon you will be thirsty and will have to buy water for an amount greater than for that pint of beer you are probably thinking about already. You are now all set and can rehydrate like above and repeat the pattern. If you think you can do without water you will become really tired and lose the stamina and energy and humor it takes to navigate and walk all day, and deal with unexpected joys of travel. 

And so eating and drinking our way through York, we came finally to the grand York Minster cathedral, to which anyone attending evensong any weeknight at 5:15 receives free entry. Evensong is a 45 minute singing of prayers by the choir, and this one was particularly beautiful. Their voices were lifted to the top spires, and their singing was as beautiful and as perfect as can be. It was an extremely inspiring and uplifting experience. Only a small organ for accompaniment, and two intermittent readings from the deacons accompanied the prayer. 

And so York city was rather wrapped up for me, this time in the journey when one old town looks just like another, and with our last day looming, we returned to the apartment. I brought back out the bus schedules to the North Moors Park, and each destination offered nothing that I was exactly looking for, and the amount of time I was willing to ride for it became less and less compelling. As I studied maps, timetables and the internet’s fickle advice, an inspiration struck me: I would just chuck the whole idea, stay “home” and find a neighborhood yoga studio, where the thought of some good intensive stretching and relaxation was just what I needed. I would get all the pictures and info from L. when she returned from her mini tour trip.

The next morning during our breakfast, we seemed to need more coffee than usual, the intake of which has been steadily increasing, at least for me, ever since I weaned myself down to a cup of instant every other day in Wales. 

“I think maybe you should go on this tour in my place. I’m just too tired. I don’t think I’ll make it,” L. admitted in all earnestness. Quite adept now in understanding each other’s cues and intentions, I knew she meant it, and because of my sound night of sleep I felt good enough to be driven around for the day. I would go in her stead, and pay her back in the currency of her choice. 

And so off I went, with a full water bottle to meet the guide from BoBH mini tours (I have a thing for guessing acronyms – and made an obvious, correct assumption of the Best of British History) and soon I and 14 others were whisked off in pleasant comfort. Letting someone else do the planning and driving and informing, every now and then, sure is worth it. 

A moor is an expanse of land that is so acidic trees cannot grow, but on which heather thrives. As a result, vast swaths of seemingly barren land can look indeed like a wasteland, but are actually covered with three types of heather: Ling, Bell and Cross Leaf heather, which when not in bloom mainly in July and August, cast their evergreen shade of murky brown across the landscape, causing wide areas to look unappealing and desolate. In between the crops of heather, which don’t grow higher than a foot, grow little stubby grasses, which the sheep, who are allowed to roam freely here, love to snack on. The moors do not comprise the entire North York Moors Park, but share with it dales that while retaining their verdancy, dip into valleys and hills on which green grass and trees and farmland is possible. Why a dale should end and a moor begin rests only on the soil, and the geological impact of the great ice sheet from the ice age, from which the Moors National Park was cut and formed. 

Created as a national park in 1952, England thought it high time they follow the rest of the world’s great ideas and create one of their own. This was also a time of the post WWII industry boom, and people had a right to escape the growing, crowded cities and get away for a while into fresh air. So that the park would maintain its natural appeal for all to enjoy for many years to come, restrictions are placed on landowners, prohibiting solar panels built onto the land (roof top panels allowed), wind farms, and chain stores. They must keep the land as sustainable and natural as possible, and tour groups are limited and are not scheduled every day. The Park’s three main industries are dairy farming, sheep farming for wool and meat, and deforestation, as a way to monitor the land’s health and prevent wildfires. 

90 different breeds of sheep populate the globe, and the UK has 30, 18 of which are in the North Yorkshire Moors Park. The Swale Dale sheep has white fleece and a black face with white around the eyes and black hooves. Both male and female have horns that curl towards the back of the neck and then around to their jaws. This sheep produces wool for rugs, which is coarser and denser. The Chipion sheep is all white, no horns, and its wool is used for clothing. I will not go through the remaining 28 kinds, as our guide was kind enough to recognize most of us were not here for sheep education, except for some useful info for the next pub trivia night. The farmers paint the backs of their sheep a certain color to mark ownership, and when they need to round them up with a dog and call them in once a year to sheer them in July, or for a routine vet check up, or for slaughter time, they will be easy to recognize whose sheep are whose.

Closer to the moors, now, we learn of another event that happens every year in the park besides sheep sheering, this one a bit more international: a Tour d’Yorkshire, a four-day bike race throughout the moors and up and down the dales. Hosted the first weekend in May, the 120-mile-per-day race starts every year from a new village but will always take the riders through Sleights, known for its 2-mile, 25% graded uphill chug. The first day of the race is a ladies only race, and the last three are open to all. The light blue and yellow colors, with which riders will decorate their bikes, stand for the Yorkshire flag and Jersey Island, respectively. 

Once we pass Huttson, the oldest settlement in the park, dating between the 16th and 17th centuries, the landscape changes suddenly from dale to moors, and from one turn to the next we are in the barren moors of Brontë fame, spotted here and there with the purple ling heather flowers that have bloomed early. Had the weather not wantonly turned warm and sunny just on that day we would have been able to see the fog rolling around and making distances and objects hazy to apprehend and time wistfully nostalgic. Taken in conjunction with the Brontës’ difficult lives out there in Haworth, the preacher father, the very early death of their mother, the early deaths of two sisters, a brother on drink and laudanum, Charlotte and Emily being sent out as governesses, and that cold and wind and barren existence, no wonder the family read extensively to bide the time; no wonder a little romance was in order through the characters in their novels; no wonder Heathcliff was such a boorish, unpleasant personality, living out on the moors. 

We stop for a photo op at a particularly lush, blooming crop of heather. It has no scent, as one imagines it might, like a bush of Greek oregano or lavender field will have, but offers just enough beauty to hold its own. I recognize now these flowers and miniature bushy bundles from the top of my Catsbells summit hike; soft to the touch and resilient to the foot; they are hardy to survive in this scant sun climate. 

After a ten minute pause here, to stretch and appreciate the long awaited for moors and heather, we hop back on the van and head to the coast for Whitby, the very real town that Bram Stoker sensationalized in his book Dracula. It’s here from the cliffs, that our guide tells us, that Stoker sat (with world famous fish and chips?) and created the idea for his book. Veering away from the crowded  Whitby mews and alleys below, I climbed up to the Abbey ruins and old cemetery, found a bench and the beautiful breeze, and imagined him looking out to the North Sea in a veil of fog at the merchant ships coming in from foreign lands, navigating into the bay and through the breakwaters. The ship he may have seen (it just takes one for the imagination to roll) was the ship that sailed by itself, rolling in without a soul on board save a lone wolf, who jumped to land, morphed into a bat, flew into Lucy’s window, and sucked her blood. Maybe old Bram was on the laudanum himself. The cemetery, whose lopsided tombstones are so weathered by the sea air and water mist have become indecipherable, looms large over the harbor, above on the cliffs, and would provide a very eerie, accurate mood to the mysterious settings and symbolic elements present in the story. After spending an hour and a half up there, walking along the cliffs and sitting at a look out, I walked back down to town, which was cram packed with people and noises more ghastly than any gothic story. I found a toilet behind the tourist center, refilled my water bottle, and waited at the appointed spot for the tour to resume.

The next stop on the tour was in the middle of the national park, to a train station called Goathland, where filming was done for, once again, Harry Potter. This was the station to which H.Potter was transported to after getting on the train from London. (That fictional platform 9 and 3/4 is incidentally London’s King‘s Cross tube station.) We stayed until the old  steam locomotives came through and stopped, one pulling passenger cars from the 1950s, the other from the 20s and 30s, all in original teak wood. The first trains used this track, from Whitby all the way to Pickering, a town along the south edge of the park, to deliver the goods, fish and wool, brought into Whitby by ship. Steam and rails replaced the coach and horse, and now the highway and truck have replaced the train. The rail is currently provided by the National Trust, operates solely for tourism, and is run by volunteers alone. 

By this time, I have absorbed as much as I want to and can, and tune most other information out. We pass Howard’s Castle, which is an Edwardian stately home, which still has a real Howard ancestor or two living in it, and then we stop one more time at a little village where a British show “Heartbeat” was filmed for over ten years, but I meander through and pay little heed, contemplate an ice cream but am deterred by the lines, and meet up with the tour guide, who tells me a little bit about his own experiences with back packing across the world.

We head back. I feel that this trip has been both informative and enjoyable, challenging and instructive in so many ways. Good travel is supposed to do that, and that’s why I keep traveling – to keep learning. Tomorrow I return to London, where it all began 5 weeks ago with A., and from where it will be a good place to conclude this journey and these writings, as it is where it all started. 

For the Love of Dogs

A trifecta of good travel includes the decisions of food, accommodations and wheels. How to eat, how to sleep, and how to move about from one destination to another is generally the three-point key to a successful and enjoyable vacation. Because my accommodation needs are simply a bed and a toilet, I let L. organize those; because of my love of trains and buses in Europe, I took charge of those. We thought about car rentals and compared prices; ultimately, a rented car split between us would have cost half what trains and buses have cost us, but the cost of heightened awareness and stress navigating the city streets, the hassle and perhaps expense of overnight parking, and the gas price had us choose the worry-free public transportation, from whose windows we could enjoy the scenery, instead of those from a car, from whose we would have needed to defend our bumpers. 

Yet trains and busses sure take a long time to traverse the country, and we relinquished the longest day of the year to traveling from Bath to Keswick, a small town in the north of the Lake District. Because the train was triple the price, including transfers, and could only take us as far as Penrith, from where we would have to take a bus anyway, we decided on the National Express bus service from Bath to Keswick, door to door, it seemed, with one transfer in Birmingham, for a reasonable 54 pounds. It would be a long day: departing at 6:45 and arriving at 18:45. 

Once we got our emailed tickets, however, we realized the bus would be making many more transfers: from Bath to Bristol, where we would wait for another half hour, and then from Bristol to Birmingham, to wait for 45 minutes; from there to Manchester, another wait, and then finally from there to Keswick. Luckily we had nothing better to do. The bus left Bath on time; it left Bristol on time; but when we arrived in Birmingham, the bus was delayed by at first 15 minutes, then 25 minutes until finally an hour and a half later we were on the bus. Knowing that we would miss our connection to Keswick, which was the last bus of the day, I contacted the help desk person, who told me that once we get to Manchester, the attendants would see to it that we got to Keswick that evening however it took.

So we waited and waited, and finally the 212 rolled into the bay; we boarded and were on our way to Manchester, where an unknown transfer to something was promised us. Leah slept, I wrote, the country passed us by.

Once in Manchester, the bus attendants were exceptionally eager to help us out. We were the only two traveling on to Keswick from Manchester; he told us that he would issue train tickets which would get us as far as Penrith (that sounded familiar, I thought), from where a taxi would be waiting for us, shouting out our names, and which would take us free of charge the 10 km to Keswick. But first we must get on the free shuttle to the train station, which was just down the street. With a ticket voucher in hand, we hauled off across the street, jumped on the momentarily arriving yellow shuttle bus, got off at the next station, found the train station entrance, got in line where tickets were issued to us, and then settled in once again to wait for over an hour for the train to Penrith. We waited in the main waiting area until 5, making some mental, essential factoids for any future travelers going through Manchester train station: one, there are no public trash cans. You may be lucky enough to find a wandering trash man, who pushes a big trash can around on a dolly, to take your trash and such things as eagerly drunken cans of complimentary alcohol-free beer samples; and two, there is a free water bottle fill up station next to the bathrooms on the far end of the station, next to the entrance to Platform 14, the very one which would get us on the 5:26 train to Glasgow via Penrith.

Once we accessed Platform 14, down a long ramp, up some stairs, over platforms 11 and 12 and then down again onto 13 and 14, the immense throng of people was at first worrisome as this surely indicated train delays of some kind. Once we entered the crowd and became one of them, the train personnel shouted at the crowds, telling us to stay back behind the red line – which was a good three feet if not 4, behind the famous yellow line, which is the line most people know not to venture past when waiting for a train, a foot or so from the edge of the platform. Looking up at the running neon sign announcing the trains arriving on Platform 14, I realized that many trains pass through, and every five minutes a warbled loudspeaker announcement for the next train would be made, followed by shouts from the attendants to “stay back behind the red line! Do not cross the red line until the train has come to a complete stop!” – followed by swarms encroaching and moving beyond the red line. The whole experience was reminiscent of leaving Istanbul during the blackout of ‘74 – and it seemed that a mass exodus out of Manchester from a single Platform 14 was in full swing. Luckily, our train was announced soon enough and without delay, we boarded a coach whose seats all had “reserved” on them, but which most people ignored until they were kindly kicked out from. With L.’s assertiveness, we were one of the first to enter and found forward facing reserved seats that no one claimed and which saw us all the way through to Penrith, where we arrived, wonder of all wonders, at 18:45, the same time we would have arrived by bus had there been no mechanical failure delay. 

I was hopeful for a waiting, shouting-out-our-names taxi, but L. had her doubts, and our hope burst like a birthday balloon when all three taxis shook their heads to my asking if they were sent by National Express to pick us up. We waited silently with plan Bs running through our heads, thinking maybe the taxi was late, and should be here any minute, or to take a waiting taxi and simply pay, or, there it was, a bus station, finding the right bus to get us to Keswick. As one taxi and then another left, as a new taxi and then another arrived, queried and released with indifference, our joy at a contingency plan unfolded when a bus rounded the corner with our destination’s name on it. We rushed ourselves and our luggage to the bus stop, probably to the dismay of the remaining, waiting taxi who quoted us a 40 pound fare to Keswick, and sliding over 7.50 pounds through to the bus driver, were on our way to Keswick at last.

Half an hour later, we googled directions to the B&B and within 10 minutes arrived, greeted by a young, congenial woman who showed us our en-suite room, took our cheese and butter for refrigeration, and asked what we’d like for breakfast. 

“Would you like a full, hot breakfast, with egg, ham, sausage, beans, mushrooms, tomato, toast?  Or you can also have cereal, yoghurt, fruit…”

“Oh, full, please.”

“Full, definitely.”

“Full sounds wonderful.”

“You’ve been living off scraps, then, have you?” She asked kindly, lightheartedly, and all us us chuckling by what must have been the look of weary travelers, confirmed her inference. 

June 22

After the very full breakfast of poached egg, oven roasted tomato, scoop of baked beans, scoop of sautéed mushrooms, two thick slices of fried ham, a sausage that was like a bratwurst but with some kind of breaded filling, toast with jam and copious cups of dark, strong coffee, we sat back with full bellies and pondered the remains of the day. L. and I agreed we would take a “morning walk” together, up to Castlerigg, a moderate, 6 km walk to yet another stone circle on a plateau not far from the city. We set off after an hour or so, and started off with a steep beginning, to get us over a hill or two, whose views commanded breaks to pause and wonder; we went though fields where sheep and cows were grazing, through one KG and then another (I found out, finally after reading enough of these trail maps, that these abbreviations mean “kissing gate” which is sort of like a turn style to keep livestock in without unhinging and re-hinging a gate), over rock walls, until soon we were there, at a mini stone henge with un-chiseled rocks, forming a place not only for the lingering, solstice druids but also for modern day hippies who use the occasion to camp, strum guitars, barbecue and drink till sunrise. 

On our return to the room, we noticed how many dogs were out with their owners, and these weren’t run of the mill dogs, but full breeds of all kinds, and beloved pets to be sure. Named as one of the dog friendliest cities of England, one can’t help but believe that dogs are not only well cared for but probably receive just as much recognition and reverence as the chalk horses carved on the hills. I enjoyed Keswick probably solely for this reason. Not only did nearly every other person have a tail wagging companion walking gracefully by their side, many were two and three dog owners, usually all of the same breed. The border collie took top place in frequency of sightings, followed by the Welsh collie (ginger and white), all types of retrievers and labs, lots of spaniels including the little King Charles spaniel, corgis, a lot of whippets, one 15 month Bernese (couldn’t help but stop, talk and pet- they waited a year for him to be born and absolutely love his temperament) and a 5 month old German shepherd who was all romp and loves. The dogs, welcome everywhere their owners are (some signs saying that dogs can bring in their owners if they are properly trained), are naturally socialized and so know how to behave in public, never causing a nuisance. I loved being around all of those dogs; the place made me very happy for that reason, but also for the nature that surrounds it, and so still full from breakfast, after our return to the room, I grabbed an apple, refilled water bottle, and headed off to the Round-the-lake-Derwenter 12 km walk. 

Probably not the best decision after a 6 k, I nevertheless completed the walk in 4 1/2 hours, which took me along the shoreline, up into hills, forested deciduous areas and fields alike. Families picnicked by its shores, boaters and canoe enthusiasts were out – and the sun, hidden for so long, agreed to come out finally and make the going far more comfortable. The walk was peaceful, reflective and soothing, and despite the Lake District’s tourism industry, if you head to the places that call you, whatever and where ever they are, you will be pleased, believing they were made for you alone. 

June 23

This proved true for today as well, as we purchased an all-day bus ticket to explore Ambleside, Windermere, a ferry across Windermere Lake to Hill Top and Hawkside, and then return to Keswick. Grasmere would have been on our itinerary, as this was William Wordsworth’s home town, where he lived with his wife, children and sister Dorothy nearby in Dove Cottage, but upon reading the info on the website, we learned that it was closed until October for renovations. Good thing we checked. We did drive by, though, and let our imaginations do the rest. The bus then soon arrived in Ambleside, but because neither of us were called off the bus by anything compelling through the windows, we decided to just stay on till Windermere. These towns are in the center of the Lake District and the most frequented, and maneuvering the not-even-yet-July-and-already-crowded-with-tourists streets called for a bee line to the ferry. 20 minutes later, we found the right pier and purchased the tickets, which included a mini van up to Hill Top, Beatrix Potter’s village and her home, from where she wrote the Peter Rabbit children stories. 

Away from the “maddening crowds,” we melted into the soft countryside once again. Kept intact like most of the villages in the English countryside, but especially in the Lake District, Hill Top is a charming, one main street little town, with pastures, a church, a few stores, farms, stone walls, the sheep, and of course, rabbits. L. went into Potter’s house, which has been kept as is, according to Beatrix’s wishes that it remain so upon her death, and open to the public. I stayed outside and enjoyed the garden and town.

Now familiar with the early bus quitting times, we didn’t stay long, but hopped back on the van to take us to Hawkside, known for the still functioning grammar school where Wordsworth attended from 1779-87. Besides that, there are some ice cream and fudge shops, restaurants, pubs, the typical gift shops, and one bus out of there which by that time we were ready for. We transferred at Ambleside, and an hour or so later arrived back at the B&B, worn out but satisfied, glad to be informed about what the central parts of the District looked like, and called it a night. Almost every day we mention the possibility of finding some live music later that evening, but by that late time neither of us can move a muscle, except to reach for the treat bag. 

June 24

Before I left the Lake District, I needed to get up on a mountain; I needed to get onto the tundra and spines of the peaks surrounding Keswick and do the Romanticism thing that my favorite poets Keats and Shelley did and from which must have informed their writing. L., who follows the wisdom and guidance of Rick Steves nearly every day, suggested I do the hike to Catsbells, the hike to go on when in Keswick. I heeded her and Steve’s advice, and on the last day in the Lake District, despite a weariness and fatigue amassed from days of hikes and walks, left around 10 am; I told her that I may be back in ten minutes or ten hours, but in either case, I would keep in touch. I backtracked out of town on the same path I came into from the 12 km walk and this time, 2 km later, veered off into the mountains for the Catsbells. I loved the strenuous uphill climb; the path was stoned to prevent erosion, and the low mist and air reminded me of the ascent by foot of one of Scotland’s highest peaks that I climbed one foggy day. Sheep were all around, and stone then turned to gravel, which turned to stubbed grass, and then just pure rugged rocks, as the last of the ascent required use of all four limbs. I had reached the summit, or so I thought; once over it, saw that after a short plateau, another mountain, a foot path carved into its side, veered skyward again. How can its tantalizing force be ignored? What a perfect reason to lose the field trip of noisy school children, who were rewarding their ascent with a break and packed lunches. I headed off to the next summit. Soon, their voice noise receded, and I was left with my own steady breathing, the baying of sheep, and a light wind. Thunderstorms were indicated by the weather channel that day, and although a top of a mountain is not where I usually run to when such a forecast is predicted, the clouds did not yet portend to such violence, and I lay down on top of the world, in the sheer silence of high altitude, in soft, green tundra, and closing my eyes felt the beauty, the power and the glory, amen. Between the mountains and the stones, I found my peace.

Arriving back in Keswick around 5 pm with rubber legs and a steely hunger, I stopped by the grocery store with the few pound coins I had brought with me, having left my wallet at the B&B. I bought some salad materials, and headed back, thinking Leah and I would leave again for supper. Leah had just arrived herself, had just been at the store, and gotten salad materials for us both as well, so we just must have missed each other. We ate grain and pasta salad mixtures, I told her I think live music is in order for later, and then we fell on our beds, not having discussed it further. 

June 25, 26

We found a fantastically inexpensive train ticket online from Penrith to York, and with a smooth bus ride to Penrith and smooth train ride to York, arrived at our last apartment, a studio on the river that surrounds the old town of York. Arriving around 3:30, we first have tea and unpack, then found the grocery store for the last four days of in home supplies. We return, have soup and sandwiches, read the many pamphlets and get a feel for a new city and what it has to offer. L. chose a mini tour to the Brontë parsonage, in Haworth, a few hours drive west of here, but I chose to have a rest day, where I can catch up on this writing and make some homemade chicken soup. Today is supposed to be the last day of rain and wet and cold, as we anticipate the sun and heat (that the rest of the world seems to be experiencing) coming tomorrow. I was left to the task of planning for tomorrow, so with an hour or so before she arrives back from the moors, I better get on that.