When our boys were younger, our lives revolved around their busy schedules–which meant that family vacations usually amounted to little more than a weekend trip to Grandma’s house or an occasional excursion to an overcrowded amusement park. If we’d managed to save enough nickels and dimes throughout the year, we might even throw in a few educational pit stops along the way–science museums and art galleries and commercial caves that seldom held their interest but allowed us to feel as parents that we were doing a decent job of “broadening their horizons.” Sure, we would have liked to travel more with them, but the preparation before and the recovery after was exhausting, the backseat bickering was headache-inducing, and the cost of filling the bellies of three hungry boys on the road was roughly equivalent to the gross national product of Liechtenstein.
And so, most of the time, we stayed home. That is, “we” stayed home until our boys grew up, moved out, and started stocking their own refrigerators. It’s amazing how much cheaper two can travel than five, how little bickering takes place when it’s confined to the front seat, how much more enjoyable the preparation can be when it’s fueled by anticipation, and how much easier the recovery can be when thirty loads of leftover laundry are reduced to five.
My husband and I have come to the mind-blowing realization that we’re not getting any younger (I know, shocking, right?) and that now is a good time for traveling and exploring, now while we still have bladder control, now while we look old enough to get senior citizen discounts without our bodies actually feeling like we deserve them, and now while our combined memories are good enough to get us to where we want to go and help us find our way back home again. We still have to save our nickels and dimes (and dollars) to afford these occasional trips, but even the necessary scrimping becomes a fun part of the process when it slowly transcends into airfare and hotel accommodations.
Last year we were fortunate to join a group of friends on a 100-mile bicycling trip through the Florida Keys. The trip was the perfect mix of exercise, sightseeing, sunshine and laughter, and we had such a good time that immediately upon returning home (before he could forget) my husband started researching online for a different locale where we might have a similar experience. And that’s when he discovered Prince Edward Island, Canada.
Known for its pastoral beauty, its gently rolling hills, rocky red shores and dozens of bays and harbours, Prince Edward Island is a small Canadian province located north of Nova Scotia and east of New Brunswick. Even though it is the most densely populated province in Canada, it is still largely rural, and its economy is based mostly on agriculture, tourism and shellfish harvesting (oysters and mussels and lobsters–oh my!). Travel brochures refer to it as “The Gentle Island,” and cycling magazines rate its Confederation Trail as one of the best bicycle trails in the world.
It sounded perfect. And it was. Except . . .
When my husband contacted a bicycle shop there to set up a touring package for our group, his first questions were about the terrain and weather conditions: “Is it very hilly? And how windy is it?” Not at all, he was assured, on both counts. The highest elevation was only 466 feet above sea level, and that was on a part of the island we wouldn’t be riding anyway. And as for the wind, why, it wasn’t windy at all. That sounded almost too good to be true, so I contacted a blogging friend who happens to live on the island–and received similar information from him. And so the planning, the scrimping and the delighted anticipation began.
Have you ever asked a doctor if the shot he claims you need is going to hurt? “Not a bit,” he’ll respond, or if he’s feeling particularly forthcoming that day, “It might pinch just a little.” And then, as soon as you exhale a nervous sigh of relief, the nurse rams an acid-filled hypodermic the size of a cucumber through several layers of your skin, muscles and ligaments before lodging it in the anxiety-soaked leather cushion on the other side–and you suddenly realize that pain is relative, dependent entirely upon which side of the needle you’re on. It’s all a matter of perspective.
And yes, our biking trip to PEI was something like that. I couldn’t fault the bicycle shop, though, because all the staff there were experienced cyclists who were used to the terrain and the weather conditions, so of course it didn’t seem like a big deal to them. And I certainly couldn’t fault my friend Charles–how could he possibly know that the gentle breezes cooling the back of his neck while he was working in the yard would feel like hurricane-force winds in the face of a cyclist struggling to get up a steep incline?
I had no one to blame but myself–the High Priestess of Stubborn who failed to adequately train, thereby providing my husband with yet another opportunity to say “I told you so.” He had tried to get me to practice riding hills, but I didn’t want to–and I didn’t think I needed to. Applying the same uninformed, nonsensical thinking that last year allowed me to believe Key West was simply the southernmost tip of Florida (and not an island that would require this non-swimmer who’s afraid of the water to pedal across 42 bridges to get there), I let myself believe that an island couldn’t be that hilly or that an island–surrounded on all four sides by water–couldn’t be that windy. (Common sense has never been one of my stronger characteristics.) The cycling I did on the highways and back roads of Prince Edward Island during the first three days of our five-day, 150-mile ride (before we switched over to the trail) was the most challenging cycling I have ever done–and even so, it wasn’t that hard–but if I had known beforehand just how challenging it would be, I wouldn’t have wanted to go.
And that would have been a terrible mistake.
I would have missed out on some of the best food I’ve ever eaten–delicious halibut, haddock, and lobster rolls, scrumptious seafood chowder and melt-in-my-mouth wild blueberry pancakes better than any I’ve ever made at home (and mine are pretty darn good).
I would have missed out on some of the most breathtaking landscapes and seascapes I’ve ever seen. The roadside wildflowers, the wharf at Charlottetown, the dunes at Cavendish, the sun rising and setting at Montague, the rugged red coastlines, the many lighthouses dotting those coasts–even the travel brochures didn’t prepare me for and my own photos didn’t do justice to the beauty that awaited around every curve in the road.
I would have missed out on so many memories made with good friends, most of whom were struggling just as much as I was but still found countless reasons to laugh–reasons that will no doubt be repeated at gatherings for years to come (but that I’m smart enough not to repeat here).
I would have missed out on the opportunity to finally meet my blogging friend Charles (of mostlybrightideas fame) and his lovely wife Maria. We spent several delightful, relaxing hours enjoying their kind hospitality (a courtesy we hope to extend to them someday), touring the island and learning about their life there, and discovering that relationships between parents and sons are pretty much the same everywhere.
And I would have missed out on the tremendous sense of accomplishment I felt at the end of our journey. I crashed (only once), but since nothing was bloody or broken, I got up, pretended I was fine and pedaled on. I battled against 40-mile-an-hour wind gusts and labored up hills that seemed impossible from the bottom looking up–but I never stopped pedaling, astonishing my husband (who never broke a sweat) and discovering that a young, strong badass still resides within the body of this wimpy old woman (surprising, I know, but I swear it’s true). And I watched as other members of our group accomplished the same feats (apparently they’ve all got an inner badass, too).
I learned a few other things, too. I learned it was almost impossible to get a glass of iced tea (finally realizing I could order a kettle of hot tea and a glass of ice instead), but every waitress in every restaurant wanted to pour gravy over my fries (um, no, but can I have ranch dip?). I learned retailers everywhere would gladly accept U.S. currency from strange-talking yahoos who were “from away,” even though no one could correctly identify where exactly “away” was. (“Georgia? Texas? Minnesota?” Really, Minnesota?) And I learned a new word–kerfuffle–that I’ve got to use in a future blog just because I love the way it sounds.
I learned I could survive and even mentally thrive without my daily dose of Facebook dramas and media-generated horror stories. For a few precious days, I was oblivious to the world beyond my handlebars, and my only concerns were checking the day’s predicted wind speeds and making sure I had enough ibuprofen to get me through. I may have been physically exhausted, but leaving the world’s worries in someone else’s care left my mind at ease–and I’m pretty sure there’s a lesson in there.
And I learned, upon returning home, to look at the little world around me with new eyes. Do the people of Prince Edward Island appreciate how magnificent their little island is, or have they–like most of us–become immune to the beauty of their everyday surroundings? How often do we (and they) rush to work, rush to complete errands, rush home to dinner without ever truly seeing the charm and allure of our own locales? As a visitor to PEI, I was mesmerized by its exotic loveliness, but on the drive home from the airport I tried to see my Ozarks as a visitor might–emerald hills rolling on forever into the hazy distance, brilliant reds and oranges blazing on scattered dogwoods and maples, majestic bluffs lining lazy rivers, sunshine glittering on glassy lakes–and I was reminded that the familiar is no less beautiful.
I didn’t have time to do everything I wanted to do on our trip–I wanted to photograph the Confederation Bridge (an eight-mile bridge connecting PEI to New Brunswick), I wanted to attend a ceilidh performance of Gaelic folk dance and music, I wanted to spend more time with Charles and Maria, and I would have liked to venture into New Brunswick and Nova Scotia since I was already “in the area.” Regrets, yes–but all reasons perhaps to make a return visit someday.
And that’s the thing about traveling, isn’t it? As much as we love returning home to the comfort of our own beds and the familiarity of our regular routines, it doesn’t take long before wanderlust emerges anew. Once we’ve realized that traveling allows us to escape from everyday stressors while providing us with a wealth of life-altering experiences and stunning vistas, it’s hard to stay put for long.
Or, at least, it is for me. My dogs have forgiven me for abandoning them, I’m finally caught up on laundry, and I might get around to putting the suitcases back into storage today–but more importantly, I’m still smiling over the cherished memories created, and I’m already saving nickels and dimes (and dollars) for the next grand adventure.
“I haven’t been everywhere, but it’s on my list.”–Susan Sontag
Sunset clouds over the Montague River at Montague . . . Montague is sometimes referred to as “Montague the Beautiful,” and I can certainly see why.
The dunes at Cavendish . . . The tall sand dunes are created by crashing waves and blowing winds and then stabilized by the roots of Marram grass, helping to prevent erosion of the shore and providing a habitat for wildlife and rare plants.
A small harbour near Stanhope in the Prince Edward Island National Park . . .
Look at the grass–can you tell it was a windy day?
One of the lighthouses at Port-la-Joye-Fort Amherst National Historic Site of Canada . . . PEI has 1,100 miles of coastline, with 63 lighthouses and rangelight buildings dotting
its shores (40 of them are still active).
The red rocks of Rocky Point . . . The ragged sandstone cliffs contain
a high concentration of iron, which creates the red color.
Wildflowers in the wind . . . These wildflowers (New England asters, I think)
were growing everywhere on the island.
And my favorite photo, sunrise over the Montague River at Montague . . .
the perfect start to a beautiful day.