What kind of ending would I conjure up if I sat down to invent a story about a couple who sold their home in the city and went on a one-year journey across North America in a truck camper to, ultimately, look for a new start in some quiet and more remote place? Would I employ artistic license and a dusting of some magic realism to tie things up? Would it be similar to the ending of our story? I wonder. But I also wonder who, exactly, is writing our story? Because it seems, at least to us, like there’s a bit of magic going on behind the scenes. Like there’s a hidden hand involved. Here’s what happened.
It was the night of the one-year anniversary of our departure from Bluehaven. We were camped at Beaver Creek Provincial/Kiwanis Park, a campground just north of Trail, BC and one we’re getting to know pretty well, having been there four times already this year and once previously, last June, on our way east. We were completely alone, in a clearing of ponderosa pine, with only the sound of the Columbia River rushing past to the right below us. After a month of very little time spent in places like this, we were revelling in the solitude and stillness. Through the skylight above the bed a full moon shone down on us through the tree tops. Another full moon, we noted with surprise and then remembered the previous full moon nights of the last several months. On this particular night we were trying to wrap our minds around how, earlier that day, we bought the house that will be our new home. But not only that we bought a house, but that we did so exactly one year from the day on which we drove away from our last one and into the big unknown. What are the odds of something like that?
But, just to give some context to how we got there, I’ll backtrack a bit. A month earlier, we spent our last night in the USA all alone at a municipal campground on Osoyious Lake in Washington State. Clouds rolled in overnight and when we crossed the border back into BC it was pouring. Somehow, it seemed fitting.
We got to Kelowna, to my mother-in-law’s, dropped the camper in her driveway, and were immediately thrust right back into the whirlwind of the commercial world. Within a few days I was getting a hair cut in one of those places where everyone wears black and looks like a clone from a fashion magazine, I was eating avocado/yam rolls at a sushi place, and stocking up on Blueberry Jam tea at David’s Tea. It felt like always. Like the last time I was doing this was yesterday. Now it seems almost unbelievable that not even two months ago we were still living a life governed by a different set of priorities. Have we really been on the road for a year? Did we really visit all those incredible places? It feels like a dream.
Easter came and went, we reunited with family and with N and her fiancé, we did our taxes. And then we plunged into the third and last phase of the transition that began with the sale of our house on the coast: the search for a new home. We voted out the “buy a piece of land and build” scenario fairly soon after we started looking. Right after we realized that hand-building a house at this stage in our lives wasn’t, after all, what we felt like doing. Also, no matter how we tried, we really couldn’t see ourselves – or Melo and Pix – fitting into a condo. So that left us with looking for a small house.
It wasn’t an easy month. Too many of our days in the last four weeks were full of people and full of traffic. I’ve hardly taken any pictures or read anything besides real estate listings. Much of our time has been in Kelowna and, while many will think I’m crazy, I don’t like Kelowna. The mecca for baby boomers (um, yes, like us) who sell their homes on the coast and come to Kelowna for the climate, scenery, and wine, Kelowna is congested, traffic-clogged, and busy. Subdivisions of modular homes and cement condos are mushrooming across whatever vacant land still remains and the highway infrastructure isn’t keeping up. Going anywhere means waiting at intersections and fighting hundreds of other vehicles. It gets old very fast and makes me ache for the silence of the wild places we’ve left behind.
Nor was hunting for the perfect home, within the confines of a humble budget and while competing with other people just like us – from the coast and from Alberta next door – without challenges. There are too many buyers and not enough places on the market. It’s been exhausting. Still, as we searched, we did camp and do some hiking here and there even though, always, the house issue was topmost in our minds. But every few days we left Kelowna, our temporary home base, and drove several hundred kilometres to one of the distant communities we remembered liking, to re-expolre it and to look at houses. Initially, with provincial parks closed until the beginning of May, we kept mostly to municipal campgrounds or RV parks. We crisscrossed and looped through the Boundary Region and the Kootenays/Rockies, from Grand Forks to Kimberley and other places between, and tried to keep ahead of the storms raging through and flooding out large sections of the province. We drove through mountain passes where lakes were still frozen and snow flew into the windshield and we stayed in a couple of places that, one week later when we passed by again, were three feet under water.
Disappointments piled up. We found an old house, perched on a hill on a third of an acre at the foot of a mountain, whose owner, a graphic artist, had completely renovated it so beautifully our hearts danced. But it was in a community that, although it boasts the “best drinking water in the world” didn’t really seem like a place with a future. A lot of homes up for sale, businesses shuttered and closed. As we walked Melo and Pix through the neighbourhood Pitbulls and Rottweilers threatened us from behind fences and there seemed to be a pervading sense of sadness. Next we found a tiny bright house that turned out to have costly asbestos issues and no place to keep our camper. Then, on one of our last excursions, we drove seven hours through three mountain passes to check out two homes whose sales were finalized just before we got there. The next day, as we looked at other possibilities, another couple stood outside with their realtor, waiting for us to finish our tour so they could go in.
Two Fridays ago I got an email from Mike Dooley who, under the pseudonym of The Universe, auto-sends me weekly inspirational messages I signed up for. This email said:
You don’t take “baby steps” for the distance they cover, Kat, but to put yourself within reach of life’s magic.
Just like you don’t hoist your sails to move the boat, but to put yourself within reach of the wind.
Hoist, baby, hoist, baby, 1, 2, 3, 4 –
As many of the messages from The Universe are, this one, seeing how we were just baby-stepping out into our house-hunting part of this journey, seemed oddly appropriate. But the message wasn’t something I didn’t already know. The entire time we were on the road, each time the topic came up, I had no doubts we’d find a new home in our price range somewhere when the time came. It wouldn’t necessarily be easy but I was dead sure of success. Now that we were out there looking, even with four realtors sending us new listing notices, it felt like we were striking out everywhere and I started to lose confidence. Worries began to creep in on the heels of the reality of too many people looking and not enough “product” to go around.
And then, three days after Mike Dooley’s email, our realtor in Warfield, a small village north of Trail, sent a new listing email. Warfield, the “Jewel of the Kootenays” nestled between the Selkirk and Monashee mountains, was one of the places we bookmarked because of its size, charm, proximity to nature, and nearby amenities. The houses there are for the most part older, built in the late 1930’s to mid 1940’s, and they are small and quaint. The streets are tree-lined. They’ve been dubbed “Mickey Mouse” homes because of their appearance – peaked roofs, bright colours, small windows and doors. We looked at the photos in the listing and a little glimmer of hope flickered on inside. The house seemed to be exactly what we were looking for. So much so that even though we’d just come back from a weeklong excursion, we made an appointment for a viewing and drove the four and half hour stretch to Warfield the next day. The rest, as the cliché goes, is history.
The house felt like home as soon as we walked in. On a small hill and quiet street, south facing and bright, and with a view of a blue snow-capped mountain in the distance. Half a block to the west, the end of the street meets a hillside forest of deciduous trees that promise to blaze into colour in the fall. A narrow trail leads up to meet another, larger trail that runs up to Rossland, a trendy ski-town 5 kilometres away. As to the house itself, it’s lovingly renovated in a style that reminded us of the little seaside homes we saw in the Maritimes last summer. Small by some people’s standards, 1,700 square feet, it’s plenty big for us – there’s room in the basement for my printmaking studio and for Roland’s music room, and ample room for a guest bedroom. Outside, there’s enough of a garden for Melo and Pix to run in (the current owners have two Jack Russels) but not so much garden as to make us slaves to yard work and gardening. Of the hundreds of listings we looked at and the dozen houses we toured, this one spoke to us like no other. Just as Bluehaven did the first time we saw it, seventeen years ago. Given all that, what else could we do but make an offer?
We left the realtor’s office and went back to the campground to take Melo and Pix on a hike along the grassy trail next to the Columbia River. They were racing through the grass and exploring, ecstatic to be running after too few such opportunities, and we were talking to a guy we found there. Sitting on a log like some benign spirit, sunning himself while his coal-black dog romped through the shallows of the river, Claude was about our age, friendly and open, and instantly likeable. He said he only moved to the area a couple of months ago after traveling across North America for the last few years and he loves it. He told us how great the people he’s met have all been and was telling us about some great hiking trails. My phone rang.
Congratulations! the realtor said and I, though I generally avoid outward displays of emotion, squealed like a kid. Or like one of the contestants on Let’s Make a Deal. And though I now shake my head in disbelief at my behaviour, after I squealed, as a surge of joy and relief rushed through me, I even jumped up and down a little and did a little jig. It just felt like the thing to do at the time.
I told you we’d find a new home in some nice place, I squeezed Roland’s arm after we parted ways with Claude and were heading back to our campsite. Right then, all the doubts and fears and worries that plagued me in the last couple of weeks felt like so much wasted time. Later, back at Snowflake, Roland stood on the river bank and played his accordion to the green river below. His accordion sounded almost like its old self, the tone almost as rich as it used to be before it was nearly destroyed by Philadelphia’s Liberty Bellows who “retuned” it last November. Now, on the day we bought our new home, Roland’s accordion sounded sweet.