Northeast America sola trip - a 62-year-old Israeli/ American camping journey through nine American and Canadian states, with a focus on Nature, culture and self management. Prologue provides easy navigational tips and a "warning".
As a kid I would sit on my grandmother’s couch and flip through the pages of the world atlas. Nothing, except finding where she hid the Belgian chocolates, gave me a bigger thrill… The wondrous countries beyond, the seas and the ways they interact with land – islands, peninsulas, fjords, straits, ice caps, snowy mountain tops shrouded in clouds – the mystery, the other.
That fascination with maps never waned for me, but later on, a painful awareness gradually crept in: the world’s forests are being cut, turned into toilet paper or cow pastures, the seas get polluted, depleted, the beautiful coral reefs bleach. And, of course, what we do to each other and to the animals…I was not aware of any of that sitting on my grandmother’s couch, flipping through the atlas, learning strange exotic names….
It is magical to first look at a map, a few lines and colored-in areas on a piece of paper, and then to actually travel it. The contours of a seashore translate from the paper into rocky or sandy beaches. The homogenous blue of the seas turns into the myriad hues the watery expanse takes on at sunrise – rippled by winds, traversed by deep currents.
It was awesome to follow the St. Lawrence northeastward, as it widened into its elongated estuary, just as it did on the map back home. I still get jealous of discoverers and explorers, who saw those wonders with fresh, untainted eyes. Squatting by the river side, I lick the water: so what is it then: fresh or salty?
I sit and watch those huge river-faring ships coming down from Canada…Ah…
As a kid it was mostly pictures and sounds, romantic foreign names of places: Kamchatka and Sakhalin, The Black Sea, Yellow River, Greenland, Iceland, Kandahar, Newfoundland, Cape Horn…
Now as an adult, my more educated brain tries to also understand how the “infrastructure” of our Planet shapes our very experience and existence. I was awed, for example, by the effect the St. Lawrence River has on the vast region I travelled in both countries. There’s always a story: the glacial history and how it shaped topography, climate and lifestyle throughout this territory. New york State, Quebec, PEI, Cape Breton, Newfoundland, the Gaspe Peninsuala and even Labrador, are all part of this enormous system, interacting with the North American continent and the Atlantic ocean on a grand scale. The ancient Appalachian Mountain range surprisingly reaches as far up north as Gaspe and Newfoundland, creating even further interesing interactions.
I still harbor this love for the paper map. The border officer at Fort Covington was impressed with my use of paper maps. “Nobody uses those anymore, ma’am. Good for you”.
I love paper maps because you can actually see the wide picture without putting yourself as the center of the universe. There’s no need to drag, zoom and move screens. Nothing is slanted. As in the map, so in my travelling. I like to zoom my mind from the grand picture to the details, from micro to macro and vice versa. Using both paper and digital maps is great aid, as high tech and low tech complement each other.
The Choice of Destination
I am fairly well travelled.
Prior to this trip, I had been to several countries in Central and South America: Mexico, where I lived and worked for a year and visited several times thereafter, Guatemala, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Panama, Ecuador, the Galapagos and northern Peru. I’ve also been to Puerto Rico and Hawaii, and in the continental U.S. to New York, Massachusetts, Virginia, Washington D.C., California, Oregon, Colorado, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Texas and New Mexico, where I built my home and raised my family. I passed briefly through other Midwestern and East Coast states as well.
In Europe I travelled England, Scotland, Wales, the Scottish Isles (Orkneys, Shetlands, Inner and Outer Hebrides), Ireland, Sweden, Norway, Italy, Greece, Spain (Catalonia), France, Croatia and Switzerland. In the Middle East, Jordan.
I’d been to several trouble spots: El Salvador during the war, Guatemala, where soldiers were routinely rounding up peasants from their homes, Mexico City, when city center was locked down due to a teachers’ strike, Nicaragua, suffering from the trauma of an earthquake. And, of course, home sweet home Israel, at the heart of the volatile Middle East. There’s no need to elaborate here about wars, intifadas and terrorism.
This time, I chose to travel at the “heart of civilization”. Being sola, I needed my vacation to be both an adventure and an opportunity to repose my soul. I looked for places where climate and geographical circumstances keep human populations relatively small, where law and nature lovers protect, as much as possible, large swaths of land and sea from “development”. I was fortunate to have a good friend in Maine, who allowed me to use his house as a base. Thank you!
So, why North America? Why Canada? Well, choices depend on one’s travelling philosophy, internal needs, circumstances and the call of the heart. As an Israeli, there is an added dimension: polarity, opposites attract. There’s also the escape element.
When the extraordinary beauty of our short spring, rich in flora from three continents …
…turns into the harsh reality of prickles, fires and thistles …
[Click on an image to see the sliders in a lightbox]
…that’s when I start feeling “The Call of the North”…
This irresistible call, like that of a migrating bird, had so far taken me up to the Land Ends of the Scottish isles – Hebrides, Shetlands, Orkneys, Ireland and the Swedish and Norwegian subarctic, but not to the northern parts of North America until this trip.
So, can we get more opposite than Israel and Canada? Barely!
|Dense: ~8.7 million over ~21,000 km2||Sparse: ~35 million over 9,984,670 km2|
A few dead polluted streams,
one freshwater lake, one salty lake
|Innumerable rivers, lakes, streams, ponds and other water bodies|
|Over-saturation with news||Low news density|
|Warm-blooded people||Relaxed human beings|
|10 beeps per minute per intersection||No beeping|
In 1969 Pierre Trudeau said: “Living next [to the U.S.] is in some ways like sleeping with an elephant. No matter how friendly or temperate the beast, one is affected by every twitch and grunt.” Well, we in Israel, though more than 10,000 km away, are clearly affected by every twitch and grunt of our friendly indispensable ally…
Benefits of Traveling – Learning
One can travel easily without knowing much about their destination. I, for one, certainly did not! I came to Canada vastly ignorant. You can either read about the place before the visit and come well prepared, or fill up on missing information during the trip or after. As an example, I have never heard of Acadians before, but after meeting some in flesh-and-blood, and visiting historical Acadian sites in Cape Breton, I got interested in their story and searched the subject…
In Israeli schools we learned about the American Revolution, the Tea Party, the Civil War, Slavery. We even read and studied the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights… Everybody knows about the Conquest of the West and the wars with the Indians, America’s role in the first and second world wars, even the war with Mexico. Any kid can name 10 American presidents, and almost all the American States. But Canada? Saskatchewan? Nunavut? Where’s that? And why do we call the United States “America”?
It feels good to acknowledge the ignorance gaps, and try to close them. When years before I landed in Mexico City, I did not know Mexico was a federation of states, or that they also had a revolution, just like its northern counterpart…
There’s nothing like traveling to promote curiosity and interest, a learning grounded in real Life. Studying about ferns in school can be boring. Taking a guided walking tour with an enthusiastic fern expert, as I did in Fundy Natioanl Park, got me to start browsing the webpages…
When in Ireland for our honeymoon, we met an American tourist, an educated lab practitioner with a second degree in biology. She was physically there, but was not aware Ireland was an island, or that it was Catholic… I was shocked then, but why should I? I can barely name all the African countries, not to mention capitals and locations. But that’s OK. There’s just so much to know, and the hierarchy of what “everybody should know” is artificial and subjective.
It is a bit sad if you go up and down a country and never bother to learn anything about it, though. Even so, the experiential input retains and merges with everything else that constitutes your concept of the world and of yourself in it. You change and learn without noticing it. We will never have all the info in our brains anyway, so it’s up to us to pick and choose, no judgement.
You learn a lot also on the more mundane, smaller scale. For example, I visited a town in upstate New York as they were wrapping up an October Fest celebration. I didn’t know this festival ever left Germany’s shores (later I found out it was now celebrated in Israel as well!!!). I did not know there were Indian reservations on the Canadian border, I couldn’t imagine the American army had jazz bands…
There’s always something new to find out, discover. The world is “out for grabs” for the curious traveler.
Traveling as Skill
Travelling is a skill developed over time with experience.
Normally, traveling does not bring in money, it spends it. Even the cheapest trip is felt in the pocket. But traveling affects functioning positively on so many levels it cannot fail, in the long run, to benefit one in “ordinary life” as well. You learn how to manage yourself in the world, widen your horizons, communicate. You are physically challenged, and mentally have to build new neuron paths to figure out on-going novel situations. It is crucial to understand how systems work (or don’t work) in a different country: transportation, communication, accommodation, even how to operate the showers.
Travelling can be viewed as a mega-skill with many subskills, major and minor, on board, and much of his can be put to use, if indirectly.
Nothing one knows from one’s own country can be taken for granted. There are surprises everywhere. You live, you survive, things are different from what you are used to. Stereotypes you might have had are challenged, broken (for example, I’ve never seen people work as hard as in Mexico). A traveler has to take care of him/herself under constant change and motion. You endure, you enjoy.
From one trip to another, the skills sharpen. You learn how to manage with fewer belongings and how to choose the most adequate ones. You adjust to climate and weather changes, and to differences of terrain and cultures. There are always obstructions, unexpected difficulties, challenging encounters. There might be a linguistic challenge, even that cute Scottish accent…
If you came with a partner or partners, or if you met them on the way and joined together, you need to be able to manage your own relationship under the intensity of a voyage and the constant challenge of choices and decision-taking.
Above everything – you keep studying yourself, what you, at your particular age, time, stage in life and general circumstances, can expect of yourself. How to keep your body and soul in the right balance. You can never prepare for all eventualities, but overtime and over trips you build a certain resilience and a certain wisdom. Some skills transfer over and awaken every time you board that new plane towards a new destination…
Camping as an Exercise in Deprivation
It’s good to practice voluntary deprivation once in a while. That’s why fasting and food restrictions have a spiritual value. The Jewish holiday of Sukkot stipulates moving into a Sukkah (a temporary shelter) for 7 days to remember the hardships of the Exodus from Egypt. Changing conditions and environments increases flexibility and adaptability.
Unfortunately, the way I see the global future, even in the so-called developed world, is fraught with uncertainties. Practicing simpler modest life styles before we are forced into them not only promotes empathy for those who don’t have, it also strengthens us to endure undesirable global developments if they were to come to pass.
Clearly, seen in another way, a 2-month camping trip for 30$ a night is a luxury for the majority of mankind, but measured on the scale of how most middle class people vacation, it is not. Not having what we are used to having is a formative element in my worldview.
Here’s a link to a poem I wrote years ago about not taking things for granted…
Traveling as Cognitive Expansion – Connecting the Dots
Beyond the survival/skill acquisition level, you learn about the world. And that is not obvious. You have to be open to it. Some people travel from one big city to another to do shopping; or from one 5-star hotel in one country to its simile in another. People go on a cruise ship to meet similar company, then do short sorties at the ports to designated tourist attractions. Typically, they spend a large portion of their time on shore in gift shops. When they come back home, they think they’ve seen the world. Or worse, that the world is boring. Everything is the same, but yes, that one spot was spectacular. Click. I’ve been there. Check.
It vastly helps to know the local language. I’m sure I would have gotten more from Quebec by knowing French. I know how far my Spanish went to help me understand and enjoy Latin America. It helps to use public transport, walk the streets, visit neighborhoods where local people live, spend time in Nature. Paradoxically, you learn more the less you spend. Travelling on the low end (no need to go extreme here, though) allows for more “authentic” exposure.
My focus this trip was mostly on Nature – Nature galore with a few little towns inserted… The more you do that around various latitudes and climate zones, over different geologies and bioregions, the more you connect the dots, the deeper you start to comprehend how the living planet works as a whole.
The ancient Greeks understood the planet was spherical by traveling places around their empire. Darwin, likewise, got his theory from observations around the globe. He watched the unique lives on islands and looked for commonalities and sources, observed the similarities between living forms on mountain tops worldwide.
Phenomena that are considered extraordinary or exotic on this planet will be commonplace or the dominant occurences on others, like the enormous ongoing hurricanes on Jupiter, the methane sea on Titan and Saturn’s lightning storms.
The British accumulated knowledge by controlling a vast empire and by being curious, but thank goodness, that is not necessary any more. We can travel places without conquering them, we can shoot pictures instead of animals. When the dots start to connect, you understand that volcanoes, for example, are not sensations or oddities, but the very mechanism by which the planet and life are shaped. Volcanic active zones like Iceland, the Red Sea, Hawaii or Japan are visible manifestations of the huge powers at work. Those powers have been around for a very long time.
It is fascinating to see the similarities and differences of floras and faunas in extreme environments like mountain tops, to compare notes from snowy peaks in the tropics and those in the mid or higher latitudes. It is rewarding to study seashores, islands, forests and swamps in different places. What birds show up where? Plants? How are people adjusted? How come these groups of people show up in that place or another? How do they interact with the biosphere, the ground on which they live, the water bodies around them? There’s no end to questions, general and particular, and the more one sees, the more a general picture is interwoven.
Benefits of Traveling – Healing the Soul
As I write, life keeps unfolding. It is always a challenge to live in two worlds: the one you write about and the one you are currently living. You might write about an event like a presidential debate and the uncertainty of the election, but as I am writing these lines, people are queueing to vote across America, and by the time I launch the site, it will all be ancient history.
So this is a prelude for the story I am about to tell. Yesterday I met a 30-year-old woman on campus in Tel Aviv. We started a conversation regarding tuition forms and choice of classes. I soon found out she wasn’t sure what she wanted to do. She was enlisted for a master’s program, but did not have the energy to pursue it. Her face was sad and she seemed borderline teary. I asked why and she said she had recently divorced. I told her I divorced a year ago. Something inside me volunteered an “old lady advice”:
“The best thing you can do right now is go outdoors, walk in Nature. It works wonders for me. You can always find some kind of a natural setup”, I told her, “the beach, a park, something”.
She listened and I felt she heard me…. Let that be my little contribution for the betterment of the world… It’s the best way I know.
“She was taking a nice, peaceful hike through the woods. I don’t think she wanted to talk serious politics”. (https://edition.cnn.com/2016/11/10/politics/hillary-clinton-hiking-photo/index.html
The Essence of Traveling
Travelling is time away from Time, it is Time intensified, concentrated into essences. When we travel we know we are on a journey, a fact easily forgotten during everyday life. Relationships can be short, but are often highly meaningful. People cross your way and leave an imprint, trace, mark, memory, an idea, a feeling. In half an hour of conversation at Meat Cove, Cape Breton, I bonded with a woman I just met sitting on a rock on the hill. We covered wide territories, shared so much…
Is that because similar people are attracted to certain places? Or because people who travel, in that case women travelling alone, already have something in common, generally speaking?
You always learn. It is always new, even if the new itself can become kind of habitual. It’s up to you, as always.