My sleeping bag rolled out across a bed of soft pine needles beneath huge trees, I awake in the middle of the night to splashes of water hitting my face. I curl deeper into my non-waterproof down sleeping bag and try to hide from the rain. By daybreak I’m soaked. In the gray drizzle, Marcus, Rob, and I pull ourselves out of sopping bags and trudge back to the car. We knock on the windows to wake up Ronan, and when he unlocks the doors we stuff our wet gear into the trunk and hit the road, miserable and exhausted and damp. We all feel an uneasy tension as the skyline of Vancouver finally appears over the bay through hillside bends. We find a coffee shop and park. These four travelers, bedraggled and dirty, wet and smelly, torn clothing and dirt-stained faces, we tumble into the café and slump into a corner beside rain streaked windows. After eight days on the road, sleeping outside and cooking our meals over campfires, we feel even more out of place than we look here on the streets of this metropolis.
We have traveled together for eight days and 2,500 miles, and we sip our coffees quietly, each recognizing that our journey together is coming to a sudden end. Ronan and I pull out our computers; I transfer some music to Marcus’ hard drive, I look up directions to the airport, we all exchange contact information. I realize that I don’t even know their last names or their jobs at home. Ronan finds a rideshare down to Seattle, and we leave him at the café. In the pouring rain, Rob and I take Marcus to the airport so he can find a last-minute flight home to Germany. We unload the packed car in a parking garage and separate out Marcus’ belongings, and then he shoulders his pack and the three of us walk inside. He has just finished reading Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, and he leaves the book with me. With that stomach-heaviness that always accompanies departure terminals, we say our goodbyes. The Breaking of the Fellowship. Then Rob and I head back out into the rain.
For lack of anything else to do, we head to a café in downtown Vancouver and sit outside under a dripping overhang. We’ve talked about the fact that it doesn’t really matter where you go; much more than that, your experiences are shaped by whatever you carry with you. Which must be the only explanation, because Vancouver is reminding me of Calcutta. I have that end-of-the-journey, so-close-yet-still-so-far feeling. Summer 2009, after two months of vagabonding across the wild mountains and rivers and farmland of Nepal, India, and Tibet, Joe and I spent the last 48 hours of our journey on the streets of downtown Calcutta. Torn up and exhausted, we haunted the Italian café and the street food stall with the Rs15 chow mein as we waited for the morning of our flight home. We were so close to the end, yet we still had two days and then 24 hours of airplane time until we would part ways in New York, and then I had two hours in the city, four hours on the train, and a late-night ride from Washington Union Station to my bedroom. All of this between my mud-stained body and a hot shower. Sitting in that café sipping too many stale coffees, I sat in front of an open notebook and tried to figure out what to do or write to bring some sort of closure to the journey. On our last night, we sat on a wooden box in a rough Calcutta alleyway downing glass bottles of Fanta beside a decomposing rat carcass. There was a strange beauty and holiness to it all; the pounding in my chest, the knowing it was the end, it all made everything sacred and incredibly vivid. And the feeling I have now in Vancouver is too similar. Of course, the differences between the cities couldn’t be more striking; instead of on a wooden box beside a dead rat, I’m sitting in a comfy Starbucks chair beside a lady with toy poodles, but once again I am approaching the end of a long journey. And sitting outside the café with Rob, I feel the same restlessness that I felt in Calcutta. Only 48 hours left on the Indian subcontinent, but I had done all I needed to do, so each hour ticked by at a slug’s pace and I was just ready for the whole thing to be over. I feel the restlessness now as the others embark upon their homeward journeys; Marcus must be in Germany by now, Ronan has passed out of my life, and in the morning Rob will hop on a 16 hour Greyhound to Edmonton and then catch his flight back to England. And what about me? I don’t have a transoceanic flight to teleport me through time and space and separate the journey from the return. I used to think that faraway journeys necessarily had to take place on other continents. But I just took a “faraway journey” on my own continent, without realizing that’s what it was becoming. Thousands of miles into the north, probing the edges of the Arctic Circle, standing beneath the northern lights, visiting the Into the Wild bus, driving the road to Inuvik, living in a gazebo on the banks of the Yukon River…. When I left Colorado almost two months ago, I had no idea that it would be this way. And now, I feel that long-journey-ending sensation, the fluttering of excitement for it all to be over and for a homeward return, yet I feel strange because I am NOT going home, I am not going anywhere, I am here in Vancouver, I’m minutes from the US border, but even once I cross I will still be 3,000 from Miami or DC or any other place that might contain traces of home. I don’t know where I’m going. It’s strange for a journey to end without actually ending. It merely transforms without seam into this, this next unknown chapter. This is the first time a major expedition will not culminate in a scheduled homecoming. I’ve showered twice in the last six weeks, my gear is wet, I need to do laundry badly, yet I can’t just seal my dirty dishes into a plastic bag and head home to throw it all in the sink. I still have miles and miles and miles to go. But what now; where?
Rob and I sleep in the car in a darkened parking lot, and in the morning we part ways and he heads to the Greyhound station. Once again by myself, I wander into a café and sit beside a window as the gray rains continue.