Why is what I wonder as I lay in bed. Why are we in a hostel in British Columbia? This was nowhere in the plan really. Canada had been a vague idea, somewhere along the realm of something we couldn’t possibly fit in. We had thrown the passports in the glove compartment just in case. I suppose I should be rejoicing. This, I think , is not what I had set out to do on this kind of but not really planned journey to start the summer and celebrate the end of school. Mostly we had to leave the house so my husband could tear the stairway out. I have a list of trails to hike, parks to visit, things to do. So far we have done very little from the list, except to drive by.
See it started raining. And that isn’t really fair since we went east of the mountains and away from the coast for the sole purpose of finding sunshine. And east of here is where the sun is supposed to always shine. So I keep right on driving east and then north in search of sunshine. It is in a small town near the border that I stop to ask where I might find the sun and the nearest provincial park. I don’t have a map of BC since it was on a whim I drove over the border with some vague notion of hip towns and hot springs off there to the northeast.
The woman at the tourist office looks sadly at me and my son. It’s been days since we showered, and camping as we are our crumpled clothes smell of smoke. I’d long given up on combing my son’s hair and instead tell him he has to the end of summer to grow it long and do as he wishes with it. He sincerely wishes to not brush it. The woman asks if we’ve heard the weather report lately and before I can answer she’s off to get a copy of the latest.
When she returns and before she hands me the weather report, waving it just out of reach, she announces “There’s flooding you know, just to the east and that road you want to go on, the one to the hot springs, may be washed out.” She looks at my son then me, puckering her lips, shaking her head. “You might want to think about staying here in town.” I take the paper and walk off. My son jumps up and down. “Do we get to stay in a hotel?” He asks. “No” I say and glare at the woman who is off helping someone else. “Do we get to stay in a hotel Mom? Do we, do we, do we, do we? Will there be a swimming pool?”
Now it is the whir of the fan I hear. Outside the window I see the brick wall across the alley upon which shines the glare of street lights. I think we should hear the hoot of owls or witness the soft fall of moonlight through trees. Bricks and windows was not what I wanted and I fret about how far off track we’ve gotten. What was it I wanted to teach my son on this trip anyway? What in heck am I doing? Was I supposed to be teaching anything? This is what makes me toss and turn until the street lights turn into the faint fog of dawn.
We’d already spent one night in a hotel. And it was me who’d given up, who didn’t want to cook in the rain or spend hours round a soggy campfire roasting marshmallows. My son, he is content to crawl in the tent and read after running around in the rain. He is the one who simply moves his camp chair under a giant cedar and whittles away in the rain, humming to himself. I pull stakes after lunch and it is late afternoon when we leave the wildlife refuge and head off toward civilization.
This is the one place on my list we actually stop at, the refuge I so wanted to see, the place I thought we’d spend days at, hiking and wandering through the woods, bird watching and having one amazing wildlife encounter after another, way off in the middle of nowhere. The place my son would marvel about for years after. We see no wildlife except a few turtles on the road and a frog.
By the time we leave the wildlife refuge the sun is breaking through the clouds and it seems short of absurd to drive away from a perfectly lovely albeit wet campsite with no clear destination in mind. I thought I had learned long ago that children and spontaneity do not always mix nor make for good travel companions, but there I was. That was days ago and I swore that was the last time, from here on in we endure. Grit and determination I want to teach; perseverance and how to enjoy the great outdoors no matter what. Adventure. Ha!
So I have the notion a hostel is different, not such a cop out as some nondescript hotel alongside the highway. It‘s not quite camping I reason, but still in the adventure catalog. “Like when I studied in France.” I tell my son, and traveled around Europe and northern Africa. “It will be fun, better than a hotel.” I say.
But it is nothing like that really, nothing like the hostel in London or the auberge in Paris or the visit to Mount St. Michael, the time I met the frat boys, the Norwegian and the Ivy Leaguer. It was a spacious place, the auberge near Mount St. Michael, the one with a phone number tacked to the door. A cold January wind crept into my coat, the black knee length coat I bought because I thought it made me look French. I quickly copy the number and run to find the nearest pay phone, dial the number and with my best French ask if the auberge is open. After much huffing and a few incredulous mais nons, maintenants and aujourd’huis, the woman on the other end agrees to come down and open up the auberge.
It is while waiting that the two students show up. I want to be annoyed. They are loud American students, from the east side of the state I live in. Really, I think, can’t I met someone more exotic? They act like puppies, eager and full of anticipation; they peek in the windows and try to climb up the gutters to get a better view. I say the owner could be here any minute and they scramble down. They are amazed I’m alone and for a brief moment I wonder if I should worry. As we wait another student arrives, this one from the east coast, more dignified and wearing loafers and a dark woolen jacket. He quickly informs us he is Ivy League and the puppies and I look at each other; roll our eyes. We wait. We start to talk to each other. We jump up and down and stomp our feet to keep warm. I swear over and over I’ve called the owner.
The Norwegian and the woman show up at the same time. We hear them chatting as they come down the path. The Norwegian has his camera on a tripod and carries it slung over his shoulder; his long blond hair flops to the side and he tosses his head again and again to get it out of his eyes. He smiles and says a loud hey to us all. We say hey back. He sets the camera down and takes our picture. He has only a very small bag. It is in stark contrast to the large backpacks the boys carry and even my overnight duffle is bigger. I’ve only come for a few nights as a quick trip from the university. The woman is brisk. And with quick French explains the rules, opens the door. She turns on the heat and lights. She shows us the men’s dorm, the women’s, the kitchen. Our voices echo. I try to understand everything. The puppies and the Ivy Leaguer follow. The Norwegian speaks fluent French and I let him answer. Then she turns to leave. The Norwegian walks her down the sidewalk and waves her goodbye. When he returns he lifts his hands in air and cries “Skoal!”
We are on our own. I am taken a little aback. It is just us then? Me and these guys? But we talk and decide to go the store and get dinner fixings. We’ll make spaghetti. We walk and talk, the Norwegian snaps pictures of us, the town, and the store; everything. Even as we shop he snaps pictures. I hold up noodles and he takes a picture. I pick up tomatoes and he snaps a picture. He throws his head back and laughs. His camera is on the tripod and he carries it everywhere over his shoulder. His English is tinged with an enchanting lilt.
The puppies are ahead of me in the checkout line and I intercede and talk for them, tell them to not shout, not to talk so loud, it doesn’t make English any more French. They have not learned words like merci or bon jour, s’il vous plait even. I want to be irritated by them but can’t. The cashier too is charmed and laughs at them and their big eager smiles. They hold up the spaghetti package and try to say le spaghetti with a French accent. Everyone laughs. The Norwegian takes a picture.
We make dinner together, the Norwegian opens up bottles of wine. The Ivy Leaguer relaxes and joins in. We talk about everything; travel, love, politics. We compare countries and customs. We talk about families and school and expectations, about what we want to do, where we think we’re going. Then we get quiet and listen to the place creak and groan, we turn off the lights and watch the way moonlight falls into the windows and across the floor. Someone starts to talk about the scariest movie they’ve ever seen and so it goes until we all get the creeps and stop, suddenly silent again. We listen to the clock tick and then it is time to clean up and head to bed. They are perfect gentlemen, all of them. They walk me to the women’s dorm, where I’ll stay by myself. A room chalk full of bunk beds, and moonlight, cold and cavernous. I pick the one nearest the door. “Bang on the pipes if you need help” they say. Then they all head to the men’s dorm. I hear them chattering and laughing into the dark and still when I fall into sleep.
The next day we all rent a taxi together and head to Mount St. Michael. We are awed. We have this place to ourselves too. It is cold, windswept and lonely. The Norwegian takes pictures of everything and us as we walk the streets, as we stand at the top looking down at the bay and the waters running out to sea, the world to the west. Later after we’ve walked and walked and are tired we stop for crepes. They are huge and warm and delicious and the restaurant we eat in is ancient, dating back to the 1400’s. We Americans are astonished by this. We part ways soon after. We take a taxi back to town; shake hands, hug, and wish each other well.
That’s what I think about as I lay in the bed in the hostel in Canada. I think of France. What was I expecting? My son and I play the Game of Life in the lobby, by ourselves; no one really wants to talk to us. The game goes on forever. At one point some folks sit down and my son leans forward, cups his mouth as if he’s telling a secret. “They’re speaking Australian” he says and points at the boys on the couch. Don’t point I say. I’m afraid he’s going to try some “Australian” he’s learned online like, wonkers and nosebags or his favorite, something about eating your lunch. But he doesn’t. He’s much too shy for that.
Since I can’t sleep I wake my son just after daybreak. Our plan for the day is to go in search of the hot springs. I don’t know if the road is open, if the hot springs are even worth the effort or if they are just a big tourist trap. The pictures show a cave with stalactites and stalagmites and a river that flows and that you can swim into. I am skeptical. First we go in search of coffee and breakfast. It is a spot recommended by someone at the hostel. We look and look and I’m about to give up when I see it behind thick bushes and ivy. The place is jammed and rightly so, the coffee perfect and exactly as needed. Still my melancholy stays with me, the melancholy that makes me feel I should be doing better with this adventure.
On the walk back to the hostel we look for lunch to bring with us. I find a sandwich for my son at a fast food place. I want something more exciting. I don’t know what. I wander through the coop food store, I walk through a bakery; I stand on the sidewalk and look up and down the road. I am being silly I know, and wasting time, my son is getting cranky. Then I see the small sign that points down the alley. It’s a small sandwich board, down low and easy to miss. It points to the alley way. When I look down I see nothing much, crumpling concrete and broken glass overgrown with weeds. But we go anyways. The sign says French Canadian bakery, whatever that is. Then I see a door, nondescript and unassuming; not really making itself known as an entrance to anything. But we open it and I poke my head in. “Bakery?” I ask. I’m greeted with a wall of warm cinnamon smells. “Mais oui” a voice says. “Come in”. Fiddle music plays. There are three bakers, two women and a man. They banter in French. They wear berets. One does a little clog dance and hop and they all smile. “Come in” I tell my son. “Come in.”
We look at the rows of baked goods; cinnamon rolls, baguettes, fruit filled pastries. The fougasse catches my eye. “Look” I say to my son “champignons” he shrugs. “Mushrooms” I translate. His favorite I know. They are still warm. I buy two plus some bread and a fruit pastry. They put them in bags and we walk out to the corner then down the sidewalk back toward our car and the hostel. The smell of the fougasse is overwhelming. I touch the warm bag. “Let’s have a bite.” I say to my son. We stop and I pull the fougasse out of the bag. It warms my hands. I let my son have the first bite. His eyes close as he tears off a piece and starts to chew. I take a bite, then another and another. My son clamors for more. I give him another bite and he takes the biggest bite possible, tries to stuff it all in his mouth. Suddenly I am happy. We eat the whole thing and then the second one. We stand there on the sidewalk, as cars whiz by, as people walk by, as dogs bark and the sun peaks out from a cloud, as the town wakes up. “Champignons” I say and smile. “Can we go get more?” my son asks. “Yes” I say “Indeed.”
Then we drive up to the hot springs. The road is not closed. The springs are not a tourist trap. They are just as the pictures show, steamy hot and full of stalactites and stalagmites. We have the place to ourselves for the first hour and cannot believe our good fortune. We swim, we soak, and we hoot likes owls in the caverns. We stay the whole day though we only planned for a few hours. We leave late in the afternoon. The park we hope to camp at is hours away, miles. I drive and drive until the sun sets, until the rain stops, until my son sleeps. I set the tent up in the dark. We crawl in and sleep a long deep sleep late into the next morning. And that’s when the sun comes out. It quickly gets hot and cloudless. It is the day we’ve been waiting for, the day we’ve dreamed about and the day we have to head home. We have many miles to travel; what took us over a week to travel we now cram into two days. But we return home, we do, tired, dirty and full of stories.