On a snowy day nearly three years ago I shat my last shit in my own house. Soon thereafter we crossed the border into Mexico and I saw a cinderblock shanty on the side of an embankment. It had a broken down truck next to it and there were various rusty signs in Spanish around it littering the roadside. I thought to myself, I have shat my last shit in my own house, and I’ve stepped out of my comfort zone for the next three years, and there will be nothing I can do about that. Our driftwood raft had lost sight of land, and one day, inshallah, we would find land again.
It was skydiving. A first kiss. The last click of the climbing roller coaster car before gravity takes over, and then the acceleration. It was that feeling of pure and unbridled ecstasy, and we went to sleep with it. And then we woke up with it. We surfed with it, ate tacos with it, and brushed our teeth with it. We shat behind cactus in the desert with it. And behind palm trees, and on volcanoes and beside rivers with it. We were walking into the unknown with a thousand days ahead of us and nowhere to be, except farther.
So we drove farther and farther and farther, and wherever we went, it was always farther. But Galileo was right, and when we arrived in Nova Scotia after driving almost all the way around the world we were no longer driving farther, but each day drawing nearer. The chute had been pulled. The rollercoaster was decelerating. There was no more farther, only nearer.
When we landed in Halifax, David was there to meet us at the airport. It’s one of the unforeseen joys that has resulted from the sharing of our private lives through stories made public: we have a global family. We drove an hour out of town to where he and his fiancée live, and promptly fell asleep on the couch.
Sherry prepared breakfast in the morning. She set the plates out on the table, shuffled around the kitchen and then sat down nervously.
“I have to tell you guys,” she said, “when David told me that he was bringing over some people who live in their van, I was pretty nervous. What if you guys were murderers or something?”
I stared into Sherry’s eyes, letting an awkward amount of time pass before speaking. “You were right to be nervous,” I said. I forked some egg into my mouth and continued to stare at her with my beady eyes.
“Oh my. Do you want a coffee? I have some K-cups.”
K-cups are just one of many things that have risen to common household status while we were away, and which made our arrival back in North America feel much like the emergence from a mother’s womb to gaze cluelessly at an unfamiliar world of new and strange things.
There’s Instagram, for example, to further complicate your digital life; TaskRabbit to manage to your already overcomplicated physical life. The resurgence of foods once enjoyed by devolved humanoids during the Paleolithic era, like squab quiche and walnut coconut tofu shakes and lobster eggs benedict. People share photos of their #paleoquiche on newly popular Instagram. Kale. Leggings as pants. E-cigarettes. Phones with no buttons. Shaving one side of your head.
David and Sherry introduced us to the Canadian side of North America, which, despite having spent nearly 10,000 days living within two days drive of it, we’d never experienced before. Maple syrup. Funny accents. Tim Horton’s. Fish n’ chips. Ellen Page. Being nice. Maple syrup. And as the days passed we came to regard Halifax, despite its reputation as the wild and lawless eastern outpost of the Dangerous North, as the coolest city in North America east of the Rockies. Sorry Cleveland.
When the slow boat arrived from Belgium, we collected Nacho at the port and carried on down the coast. In Lunenburg we were met with more Canadian hospitality, and our new hosts Dave, Paula, and Paula’s daughter Claire, treated us like family. With each passing day we hiked through coastal forests, went cliff diving from waterfalls, and cooked up freshly caught and hand-delivered lobster and scallops with Paula’s parents. Meanwhile Claire, an up-and-coming singer and songwriter, took time between local performances to zip around the coast with Sheena.
Dave, a TV stuntman, tried throughout our stay to convince me to run over him with Nacho.
“But Dave, Nacho doesn’t have a hood, so you wouldn’t be able to buckle and roll.”
“Yeah, but maybe I could jump right before you hit me and I would fly over the van.”
“But what if you smash our solar panel?”
He later suggested that I wear a special stunt hat that would allow him to break a broomstick over my head, which I was keen to try. But in the end we settled for a real life stunt, in which the two of us attempted to install new rear Syncro springs on Nacho, graciously donated to us by the good folks at GoWesty when they heard that we’d driven all this way with nearly bottomed out rear suspension stuffed with tennis balls.
In this stunt, Dave lay on his back and forced one spring into place with his feet after my usual improvisational and highly dangerous ratchet strap spring compression method failed to work. I expertly kept my hands in the way, and ended up smashing my fingertip when the spring released its energy and snapped into place. When we moved around to do the other spring, our factory VW jack buckled, causing Nacho to fall down onto the sidewall of the tire, which I’d pushed under the brake drum just moments before.
I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again, Canada is a land of risky danger. But David, Sherry, Paula, Claire and Dave are the real deal. The friendly, smiling ambassadors of the Dangerous North.
At last the time had come. After exploring more of Nova Scotia on our own, we found ourselves in the parking lot of a grocery store with a bag full of maple syrup and tea towels featuring pictures of hockey players and lumberjacks. There was nothing left to do, nowhere left to go, except America. Sheena mustered some courage and then spoke.
“Bradley, it’s time,” she said, scratching at the ground with the toe of her mary janes.
“Time for what, my sweet?”
She mumbled something under her breath.
“I said I’m ready to drive.”
Up to this point I had driven every hard-earned mile of our trip since leaving home 45,000 miles ago. From time to time I would encourage Sheena to try, but she always declined.
“I hate driving this thing, it’s too quirky!” or “I never learned to drive a manual!” (A lie!)
She had recognized that we were in the final throes of this trip, and she would need to put down some miles lest I hold this over her head for the rest of her life. We situated a sleeping bag behind her back, the cable on the seat adjuster having broken long ago, and she familiarized herself with the controls.
“So I press on that and that at the same time, then push that stick and release that?”
“More or less. Just like riding a bike,” I said.
She turned the key and Nacho lurched forward and stalled. I reminded her that the clutch must always be in when stationary, and then she successfully started the engine. We were parked on a hill, so she coasted backwards, then put it in first and lurched forward.
“I’m driving!,” she wailed, and as she made a hard right turn her door flung open, and being that she hadn’t fastened her seat belt either, she very nearly fell out the open door of our moving vehicle while driving in the parking lot.
“Whoa! I almost fell out the door, did you see that? Jeez! Now how do I get out of here?” I instructed her to do a two point turn and exit the parking lot, but instead she crept forward and dropped off of the pavement at the back of the lot in between two orange cones and headed behind the store through mud and grass.
“What are you doing!?”
“I can’t stop! I need to keep it going or I’ll never get started again!”
We bounced along behind the store as I shook my head disapprovingly, and then we emerged on the other side and headed toward the street.
“Make sure there’s nobody coming, I can’t stop!”
Before I knew it we were screeching onto the highway to New Brunswick, and beyond it the US/Canadian border. It had been two and a half years since Nacho had slipped through the giant border fence protecting America from the treacherous outside world. And while we were gone, so much had changed.
We had certainly changed. Our worldview, our approach to problem solving, our patience. We had discovered that most of our homeland’s fear and negative misconceptions about the rest of the world are home-brewed, bubbling and stewing inside of those big protective walls. And of course there was the fact that every time we crossed a new border it usually involved some degree of ignorance of the rules on our part. The difference was that America can tend to take itself pretty seriously when it comes to rules, and this naturally had us a little worried.
We reached the border and stopped.
Three cars in front of us.
“Good morning,” I said as I came to a stop in front of the border guard.
“Passport,” The uniformed guard said. He grabbed our passports with a scowl on his face, trying to seem as intimidating as possible.
“Which places have you visited while outside of the United States?”
“Umm. Canada,” I said. It’s a pain to recount the whole trip every time someone asks, and I didn’t want to unnecessarily rouse suspicion. He began flipping through the pages of my passport and his eyebrows lifted in a Homeland Security kind of way. I interjected an explanation.
“Well, before that we drove through Europe.” Eyebrows still raised, still flipping pages. “And before that we were in India. And Nepal. And also Southeast Asia. And South America. And Central America. And Mexico. It was a very long trip, as you can imagine.”
“All in this thing?,” he asked, nodding his head toward Nacho. He panned the van with his eyes, noting the Indian, Iranian, and Turkish beads hanging from our rearview mirror, the broken side mirror from that bus in Kathmandu, the dented cargo box from a road marker in Cambodia, the Malaysian front license plate, and the big scrape from when I sideswiped that bus in India. This prompted a full explanation, which took a couple of minutes, during which time the border guard ran us through his mental screen to determine how likely it was that we were terrorists.
“Do you have any alcohol or tobacco?”
“What, us? Inside of here? Why, just two bottles of beer in the fridge, you know, for drinking in times of non-driving.”
“Can I search the van?”
Not seeing an elegant way to decline, we obliged.
“Where do you sleep?,” he asked, peering inside the sliding door.
Oh boy. I started to point at the couch, intending to tell him that we slept there, until I imagined him requesting that we demonstrate how the couch pulls into a bed, which would be impossible since I used power tools to ensure that the cushions would be unmovable. I shifted my finger upward.
“We sleep up there. The roof lifts up.” Sheena shot me a panicked glance, not remembering that I was the Garry Kasparov of border tacticians, and was thus already anticipating four moves ahead.
“Hmm. That’s crazy,” he said, and looked at the upper mattress for a minute. “You can close this thing up and go inside to stamp your Carnet.”
And with that we entered Maine. Back in America after all this time.
Once the initial elation of arriving back in America wore off, we almost immediately missed being away.
As I drove in a straight line on the well-groomed highway, unengaged and bored by the perfectly smooth surface and wide shoulders and tidy signage, I was overcome by a kind of sad realization.
I’ve shat my last shit in the wild.
I will no longer shit behind cactus and palm trees, on volcanoes and by rivers. The rollercoaster car has arrived at the unloading platform, the parachute has gone slack. Our raft has, after more than 900 days at sea, bumped into land, but we had found comfort adrift. Soon, I will begin a routine of shitting in my own climate-controlled house, each time staring at the same beige heater vent on the wall. This was my old comfort zone, but now I recognized that I had mistaken comfort for complacence. What I really wanted was a cinderblock shanty, a broken down truck and some rusty signs, and nowhere to go but farther.