Ungrounded yet camping. Sleeping in a truck yet I’m paying for the flat in town. Essays written and needing to be rewritten. Editing. Prose and poems combined. Campfires. Sleepy foggy mornings. Cat on a pillow. Cat in a tree. Cat out and about. Cat back for dinner. Dogs play sleep nap sleep eat play nap sleep deep. Dog on a pillow. Purring cats. Guilt at not working enough. Never enough. I need to let myself take time off, play nap sleep eat come back for dinner. I’m driven. Furiously working inside my head if not on the computer. Taking in ideas, gaining momentum, hungry for conversations to help me grow as a writer and as usual wanting more than is here in front of me. Dog on a pillow. Cat on my head. Waking up in a truck by a river in the fog needing coffee wanting to write but nothing to say beyond how this summer is different when the sun shines and you have goals and you get to laugh and play by rivers with friends in the muggy heat and full belly and it’s time for a nap but instead I do laundry and think about critical theory in my sleep.
It’s not as expected, this apartment. It’s in a basement. To look out the windows, I have to stand up. The dogs see only fake wood paneling. The cat sits on the windowsill, unhappy to be trapped inside. I can’t breathe. The landlady shows us around, quite the good cheerleader, and nodding and smiling, I suppress a panic. What can I say? We’re outdoor dogs, even Little Stevie, or should I call him Cat Stephen now that he’s an adult? Go deep, I tell myself all the time, go deeper. That doesn’t mean into a basement.
In my twenties, I worked for a metal worker in Santa Fe. Taken by the piles of steel in the yard, the shapes and weight, the sounds of the mig welder and that raw sharp smell of the grinder, I walked in, scruffy as usual, looking the part already. Within a short conversation, my unskilled self had an internship with Flip. I worked with him mostly, but helped Larry, the tall twiggy owner, by spraying polyurethane and paint onto finished lamps, tables and gates, sniffing deeply in the afternoon thunderstorms. Flip, or Phillip to his parents, was a stocky thick set local, blackened by the work, and with a huge laugh that flew out of him like a startled rabbit, Flip had ways to box people on first impressions.
“You’re an outdoor dog. There are indoor dogs and outdoor dogs. You belong outside.” Flip chuckled, as he looked me up and down, both of us a similar age and height. “Yep. Don’t be fooled. You’ll not be happy with a desk job. So, anyway, if you can carry that angle iron, the ten-footer over, I’ll set it up for you to grind the edges smooth before I tack weld it to the rest of the framework. Got it?”
Yes, an outdoor dog. Still scruffy, I sit in this basement apartment and plan an escape. It’s been three nights. I can’t do it. This dungeon will kill my spirit, my energy and me. Each night, I close the computer, try to read, and hope for night to fall so I can sleep and start again. Count down to moving out. It’s four o’clock, the rain thunders against the window, the lights are all on, and for a summer’s afternoon, it’s a dark cold afternoon down here. Can I go back to bed? Please? Yes, it’s been three nights. I drove over 2450 miles from New Mexico to move here, into a ‘downstairs apartment with windows overlooking the lawn’ and technically, that’s what I have here but –
But. I see the lawn at eye level. Harold and Rosie admire the fake wood flooring. Stevie makes his escape and sits under a shed by the van. With coffee in hand, I head out with the dogs who run for the trees and lift legs with glee. The clouds hang low over the pines and the many other tall deciduous trees that I no longer recognize after a lifetime in the Southwest. Breathing deeply, I crouch down onto my haunches, sip coffee and watch the trucks and cars fly by on this busy highway. What have I done now? Oh shit. I wanted a challenge. This might be too much. Not a quitter, there has to be a way. A ladder up and out of this dark pit. The mozzies find me and after a shuffle to the van for another layer of pure DEET, I sit back down and consider the options. Harold and Rosie ask to sit in the van, a Dodge conversion van that I’d stripped out and installed with a platform bed, some drawers, stocked with clothes and a basic kitchen set-up, for three pets and myself to drive slowly cross country. It’s a better home than this. Can we simply move back in? Yeah, why not. It’s home. Fuck it. I’ll live in a van.
So what’s so bad about a dungeon? I mean, a basement? Claustrophobia. Depression. Panic attacks. Trouble breathing. Trouble eating. Eyes flicker. Heart races. Blood pounds. Clammy neck. Feet sweat. Trouble waking. Trouble sleeping. Lack of creativity. Lack of room to move. Lack of windows to stare out of as I write and sketch. Lack of light. Did I mention panic attacks? Oh, yes, well, more of those. I can’t do it. I can’t. I can’t.
The coffee is done, time for more. Not one of the critters will come back inside. As I wait for the kettle to boil in this kitchen with no windows, I mentally write a list of my ideal place.
- Walks and gardens for critters to explore
- Under $600
- Two vehicle parking
- Well-lit, sunshine, windows, all that good stuff for outdoor dogs
- Heat and internet included
- Space and quiet to write and draw
Within two days, I’m offered a few places. One is so far out of my budget that I don’t bother checking. The other two appeal. Most of the boxed checked positively, and so with hope, I load up the van with dogs, trick Stevie into the dungeon with wet cat food and a taste of cream. Then we go a looking. Fingers crossed. Toes unstuck from fake floor, I clean myself up quickly but not thoroughly. The usual.
“Up the first street at the lights in town, left after four miles, across the dam and past the pond, drive 1.8 miles and I’ll the first home on the left,” says Carol.
The drive was refreshing, the lake tempting, and with hope in me, we parked outside a single story home in the trees on five acres. Yep. I could do this.
Yes. I can do this. Carol’s dog is a sweetheart, a shy timid Collie rescue called Jim. She’s a forthright, messy and friendly woman of a similar age to me. We get along great, easy conversation, but the room is small even though it has good windows facing south. Carol chats away as she tells me of the room she’d make for me, emptying this shelf, this table, this box, yes, the place is cluttered. “I haven’t had roommates for about six years though, so let me think about this again. Women of a certain age…”
Yes, she said that to describe me. Me! Really, I only just turned fifty dammit, and it’s already begun? Wow. Not a good wow.
“Up County Road, past the Corner store that is also a post office and a pub, head another few miles when it turns to dirt and you’ll see a log cabin set off the tracks a ways,” says Anne.
The road to Anne’s is through open agricultural land, farms, log homes, up and through the trees and past the store. I stop in and poke around the shelves, ones full of healthy dried goods, quality coffee beans, fresh veggies, and beer. In the back is a tavern that’s open four evenings a week with live local music. I like this place. They are looking for help. Hmm…
Anne’s on the deck sweeping off a few leaves. Her shitzu pup wanders over to meet mine and tails wag as Anne laughs, a hearty booming breath up to the skies. She’s a full soft woman of a ‘certain age’ like me, yes I said it, and we hit it off. She shows me her apartment. It’s a dungeon. Even worse than where I am now. I stifle the panic and climb up and out, staring at my camper van with longing. Yep, fuck it, we’ll live in the van.
“I can’t do it. I’m sorry.” I explain the fear and terrors that come with dark and closed in spaces. Hands twitch and heart races within my one and only clean tee shirt; humidity kills laundry. Fear does too.
“Well, would you like a coffee any way?”
In the kitchen, we prop ourselves against counters and keep chatting. It’s a shame that the apartment is down in the ground, not even one window to sit at except from the toilet. I know. I know…who could live like that? Not me obviously. Nor my critters.
Anne and I chat about writing, college, and animals. Her big dog died last fall. Her old cat soon after. After mentioning Cat Stephen, Anne shows me a cat door, mudroom for the litter box, and when we put away the now empty coffee mugs, she takes a breath.
“Do you need your own space? What about sharing this home?” She grins cautiously.
“Why? What do you have?” Messy hope slips against grainy hope to live in a nurturing home like this. If only.
Upstairs are two bedrooms in the roofline of this log home. One end of the house is hers, a master bedroom and a bathroom. The other corner has two small rooms looking out onto her twelve acres, a field full of apple trees, and there’s even falling down wooden shed in the meadow that needs help, perhaps for chickens she offers.
“I’m sorry but the curtains don’t close, it’s very bright in here. Too much for me. And in this room,” she shows me the other one, “this room was my crafts and books and storage. You could have both rooms, if you like. This could be a writing studio. If it’s not too bright.”
Looking out of the window, I breathe and imagine sitting up here with a desk and laptop, reading and writing, watching the dogs play in snow as Stevie sits in an apple tree.
“Yes. This is perfect. This.”
Well, you asked for it. Here we are. The first volume in the ongoing series of comics. Available in all the usual spaces…and for now, get it at https://www.createspace.com/7125650.
Thanks everyone for the incredible support.
Part One: Well, what is it? A crisis? Or fun times? I can’t tell. Mid-life is often described as a challenge at best and a crisis for the rest. So where am I within that spectrum? I don’t know. I honestly don’t really know. Bloody moody though…
Mid-life, yep, I’m turning 50 next month. The number doesn’t worry me. But. What is the “but”? I’ve been restless for a few years now, needing more stimulus than a small village can give me, new conversations, new challenges. So what did I do? Apply for Graduate School. Me? The not so great student of my twenties applied for a masters degree without telling many. I didn’t want to explain the rejections I envisioned, ego got in the way. I’m glad though I kept it quiet.
Months passed, I worked on my home, finished a new outhouse, painted floors, fixed fences, and planned my escape. Just like when I was a teenager. I feel very much like a teenager again, all grown up and leaving home for new adventures. Sorry, Mum, I’d needed to leave home then. Sorry, Madrid, I need to leave home now.
It’s not an escape, not purely a running away, but with the acceptance to Vermont College of Fine Arts with their relatively new MFA in Writing and Publishing, I’m leaving home. My home that I built, foundations, walls, windows, electric, plumbing, stucco, all of it done by my rough hands and impressionistic nature. I did it. Now what’s next? The thought of spending the rest of my life here doesn’t appeal. In fact, it scares me, there’s such a huge world out there, I can’t stay in one place any longer.
So how did I decide on a masters degree? It was tough, a rough road to map out. The application process is draining yet inspiring. My biggest challenge was finding references as most here know me as a gardener and writer. They don’t know of my educational background, my time at London University, or Freiburg University, or studying spanish in Valencia. The classes I’ve taken over the last twenty years here in Santa Fe or San Francisco. My cover letter focused on a full life of making my own stories, communities I’ve been part of, what I’ve done with myself, self-taught, and productive on a daily level. It was enough aparently, and I’m offered a place at Vermont in Montpelier.
One of the faculty wrote me to introduce herself, praising specific lines and images from the writing sample I’d sent in. Julianna spoke highly of the emotional undercurrent and how it intrigued her, and that she was looking forward to working with me. I wrote back, “But I haven’t been accepted yet, have I?”
“Oops,” she wrote. “Let me check.”
Yes, I was in, a final reassurance and yes, I’m going to grad school! At fifty! In Vermont! Only 2100 miles away, the complete opposite climate to here, five months of snow, bugs the size of black beans, and… well, I don’t know what else. I’m trying to find out by spending hours online researching the area and the curriculum.
I’m moving. Oh wow, I’m moving. When I finally told my friends and neighbours here in Madrid, Andrea squealed, others hugged me and one focused on how she’d miss me. I get it. It’s like I’m jumping ship. I am, but I’m a good swimmer. I’ve been practicing once a week at the Chavez center in Santa Fe.
The logistics though are becoming a nightmare for me. Trouble sleeping most of my life, this level of anxiety and excitement is draining me with dreams of disasters, or rather details. Too many tangents to grab hold of, each with its own alley way to wander down, looking for loopholes and issues. One or two vehicles? How would I take my stuff across country? Do I fill the 4Runner with stuff and have a friend drive it while I follow in my camper van? Or do I drive the 4Runner with my pets and fill a Uhaul trailer?
I look at rentals. Well, not one offers a place for two vehicles. That limits me then. So what do I do with the van? Mary and Stacy will take it, keep it at their place inside a gated yard, with them using it every so often. That’s the latest plan. Open to changes.
My weakness has been for vehicles so it’s not just two: I have four. I need to take care of four. Oh shit. I can’t just sell them. I like them. Well, okay, I’ll have to sell one, I need the money to cross country. The motorbike then, I’ll sell that. Try to. The Land Rover though, I should pass that on. But the day I decided to sell it, five random conversations all mentioned Shorty and how cool it is to see me in it. Damn. It’s too cool to sell for school. Can I take it? Nope, but…? Nope, I have to store it somewhere safe, off its tires with the hood open, to keep it mice free hopefully. But where? Who’ll keep an eye on it?
Logistics, is this what stops others from making such dramatic life changes? Probably. Finding a home rental is the other biggest challenge. Who wants to rent to someone you haven’t met? I don’t. I’m going through the same problem with renting my own homestead. Sheesh. It’s too much. My days are highs and lows, with numerous naps between tackling the internet and filling out forms. Fun times, fun times, right?
Traveling with two dogs and a cat. Finding a rental. Finding a renter for my home. Vehicle madness. Yard sales. Craigslist. Scholarships. Funding. Moving. Packing. Decisions one after another. Where’s my dad when I need him? I crave sitting at the dining room table with my notes and brainstorming with him over a beer. Or at the kitchen table with Mum and a glass of wine, playing with ideas and options.
I’m not a teenager after all. I miss their help. I miss my mum and dad.
It must be an elaborate hoax, right? That my latest book won an award? That I’m being flown to LA tomorrow for a dinner downtown?
I’m packed, I figure even if it is a hoax, I might as well spend the weekend in LA. I haven’t been there in over 25 years, oh shit, that makes me old. Well, is there a big difference between that innocent yet brave kid and my current self? In some ways – no. I write, she wrote, we’re both restless and curious, not satisfied by the mundane but needing to find out other people’s stories and experiences. I’m excited to land in LA early in the morning and have the time to wander around, take the bus to the beach, wander up to Santa Monica to eat fish and chips at the British Pub that I remember.
The first time in LA, I was 22 years old with a backpack, a handful of dollars and one address in Venice Beach. I walked, talked, explored and stayed with a friend I’d met in Germany a year or two before. We’d gone to Freiburg University together, she was a good student, me not so much.
This time, I have a flight, a credit card, a small daypack, and no addresses. I’ll be staying at an Airbnb place near LA Live where we’re having the Awards Dinner. I can walk there and back easily and take the metro in the morning back to the beach before my flight Sunday night. Short and sweet a visit.
Is is hoax? What do I wear? What do I say at the ceremony?
What do I want from the experience? To network and talk to agents and publishers. To find a larger readership. To know that I am a writer after all these years. It’s real. It’s not a hoax.
From the website:
GREAT NORTHWEST BOOK FESTIVAL NAMES “VAN LIFE” FOR TOP HONORS
A woman who decides to hit the road with a van, three animals and her adventurous spirit is the grand prize winner of the 2017 Great Northwest Book Festival, which honors the best books of the late winter/spring.
Author Sarah Leamy’s “Van Life” (CreateSpace) is the story of a writer who decides that there’s more to living than working retail and yearning for adventure. So it is that she takes two dogs and a cat on a rollicking trip through the back roads of the Northwest, stumbling across rural villages and a microbrewery or three. Her stories of the locals, the scenery and her family of animals are funny, poignant and ultimately a satisfying read for any armchair adventurer who dreams of doing something similar. Leamy and others in the competition will be honored in a private ceremony later this month.
The Great Northwest Book Festival just honored my book VAN LIFE as the Grand Winner of their 2017 contest! I’m thrilled and delighted! They’re covering the cost of the flight out from NM to the awards dinner in LA and even are giving me an appearance fee. Bruce, who wrote to me, wrote: “Congratulations on a fun and page-turning read. Definitely one of the most fun reads I’ve seen in a while.”
http://www.greatnorthwestbookfestival.com/ for a link to their winners’ page.
For me, entering contests and festivals is a chance to find new readers as it’s mostly been word of mouth, going to events, chatting up strangers and handing off books and business cards. The opportunity of a book festival award opens more doors, tells others that my stories are compelling and that self-pubishing works. It does. I’m doing much better for myself these days although I’ll be honest, it’s a small time business, locally focused.
My goal then for this year? To find an agent. To have a chance at getting my books known nationally and internationally – it’s doable since I have a small steady following of readers here in the US and in Europe. I just need to build on that. And I will.
Tips on how to travel solo, especially as a single woman. How to. Q&A.
“Aren’t you scared?”
Just yesterday a friend asked me if I ever got scared camping on my own, travelling on my own. No. I don’t. There’s more to it than that, but simply put, no, camping on my own is where I am happiest and most relaxed. In towns, in cities, surrounded by people, traffic, noise, music, talking for the sake of filling in the silence, no, that is not where I relax.
Last year, I had the honor of being a panelist on a discussion about the art of solo travels. Overland Expo West 2016 had almost 10,000 people all interested in vehicle dependent travels, whether local or worldwide; we all were there to get inspired.
To hear the stories from others who just have the wanderlust in their blood like I do was reassuring for me. I’ve been settled for too long now, and I’m restless again. I have been for the last few years, working towards getting on the road again.
That weekend at Overland Expo, I talked about crossing the States at 22 years old, hitch hiking with a small backpack and no credit cards or money, just following my distracted ideas of what to do next. I talked about riding my 1976 Yamaha XS750 across the Midwest repeatedly even though it would break down every other day, street performing in Guatemala, and driving the high elevation passes in Colorado in a 1973 VW Beetle. I never knew what to expect — these stories are part of me. I lost my two front teeth in Tarancon, Spain. I woke up on a train in Switzerland, not quite sure which country I was in. Hitched to the Munich beer festival. And yes, I travel alone. And I like it.
I admit, I once traveled with someone. It was 1989. Steve joined me in Chicago, a friend from my small hometown. I was walking down the streets in the city, knowing we’d find each other somehow but since neither of us had phones or hotel rooms, it would be a challenge. I walked with my backpack clunking away against my hips when I saw Steve sitting on a bench smoking. I sat down next to him and took his smoke.
We crossed to Maine, New York, Washington; we took trains, hitched, and then stayed at random homes of the families we met along the way. It wore me out. Steve let me make all the decisions. It wore me out. The responsibility. The constant discussions as to what we would eat that night, where we would sleep.
There have been other moments, a week here and there, spent on a road trip with a friend, but nothing as extended as that initial travel with Steve, bless him. Since then, I tend to go off on my own, I’m happier that way.
You see, it’s that on my own, I’m free to follow my nose, or rather the signs that capture my attention. It’s usually the ones that say ‘lake’ or ‘4wd only”, and off I go. I generally have a loose plan, places I’d like to visit if I’m in the area. I set a few goals, for small weeklong trips and for the extended travels. These days with the Internet, I plan a lot more, looking at photos, reading forums, and asking for suggestions. Whether I follow the ideas, that’s another story. I tend to forget to read my own notes.
Since I’ve done a bit of everything, backpacking, hitching, motorcycles, busses, trains, VWs, trucks and now a van I’ve learned that I have to be aware of what I bring. Packing has become more complicated nowadays, as two dogs and a cat come with me. I’ve made a short list for this latest configuration, and with the idea in mind that I might have to abandon ship (van) in an emergency, all the necessary items must fit in a small backpack too. I can leave the rest. I have before, in a dead VW bus in the middle of nowhere Missouri. I never did see that red camper again. I miss that van. Oh, well. But it was an adventure…
I love that I can eat what I like and when I like. Frito pie for breakfast? Bacon sandwich before bed? Chocolate? Cheese and crackers? Veggies and eggs? Whatever I like, when I like. It’s wonderful and one of the biggest perks for me.
As a solo traveler, I interact much more with locals. Since they appreciate how trusting I am, it’s always come back to me that these strangers treat me with the same level of trust.
As a twenty-two-year-old, I was hitching through Wisconsin, heading north to catch a ferry across to Michigan. My destination was a tiny village along the small blue highways in the Midwest. A truck pulled over, and two men started chatting to me. Two men and myself as a young woman? I talked to them, the father and son, and they offered a ride, but first they wanted to call ‘Mother’ and ask about dinner. I listened in as one of them chatted away, grinned, and said it was okay with her but I had to agree to come over to meet her! We ended up sharing a meal, they put me in the son’s bedroom, and dropped me off at the ferry in the morning, after introducing me to the Ferry Master. Safe? Yes, I remember them so clearly all these years later.
You see, I’m curious. The people I meet and their stories feed me. I also found that when I first crossed the States alone that many families I met wanted my stories of other states, places, towns, ones they had never visited themselves. My anecdotes of their own country paved the way for their hospitality. It was a trade in a sense. The armchair travelers got to explore their own country through me.
But I have to admit, I’m not very safe. I go places I shouldn’t. No one really knows where I am these days. I follow roads, conversations, and dreams. I have no back-up plans. I take risks. I fly by the seat of my pants and all without a safety net. I like it. Traveling like this wakes me up. Opens me up. To answer the question I started with, have I ever been scared? A couple of times. That’s all. First was when I had to get myself back from the South of France as an eighteen-year-old who’d been fired from her nanny job. I had a passport and a plastic bag of clothes. No money. No credit cards. And this was before cell phones, not that I would have called my parents, I preferred to get back and then tell them. I didn’t like to worry them! Poor buggers. I stowed away on a train, stole food, had a guard try to rape me, smashed him in his privates, and locked myself in a bathroom on the train. That was the first big solo trip and the sense of achievement at the end was incomparable: “I can improvise. I can get out of trouble. I should keep traveling!”
And I have. Looking back, even in the last ten years of ‘settling’, I took a ferry back from Alaska and a salmon cannery down the Canadian coast, camped all over the Southwest, spent three months in the Northwest, took a winter living on communes in North Carolina and Tennessee, rode my motorcycle across Wales and Ireland, studied in San Francisco, and had many other random shorter trips in the States. Not bad, not bad…
In my twenties, I just traveled without thought, it was an addiction, a need. I couldn’t sit still for more than a few months. I settled for a while but that addiction has kicked back in. I built a home, worked, settled and now the last few years, the need to explore new places has taken over.
If you haven’t traveled alone before though, you’d need to ask yourself: Where are you happiest? How do you spend your days? Are you mostly surrounded by friends and co-workers? Or do you work alone? Live alone? What are your social needs in other words? Think about what stresses you out and what makes you relax. For me, time without words, yes, I know, ironic since I’m a writer, but still, empty heads talking at each other wears me out. I like silence. I like mountains. And I like the company of animals more than people. But that’s me…and then after a couple of days alone, I love to sit and chat to friends and strangers alike. I have the energy and desire to hear their stories. To tell mine. To connect. Knowing yourself is one of the amazing benefits of solo travels, you have to take care of yourself and you will. There’s no one else. Each time, I learn new rhythms and routines that are mine, pure and simple.
Close friends still ask, how do you find meaning when you have no one to share the experiences with? But I do. I write. I photograph. And simply sitting next to a lake in the mountains alone with my dogs, I know that our world is magical, stunningly beautiful whether I am there or not. I am a very small speck in a huge world and that is reassuring to me. I relax.
There is an art to solo traveling and the more I travel alone, the more I appreciate nature and the random conversations with people I meet. I am not afraid. I am open to life and adventures…and after doing this since I was a teenager much to my mum’s horror, I’m getting the hang of it. Finally. The question for me is where next? And when?
To hear more about Sarah Leamy’s solo travels, check out her book, Bring a Chainsaw & Other Stories From My Solo Travels.