Photo: A frosty morning greeting by Majestic Mt. Baker, Washington, USA.
“We travel, initially, to lose ourselves, and we travel, next to find ourselves. We travel to open our hearts and eyes and learn more about the world than our newspapers will accommodate. We travel to bring what little we can, in our ignorance and knowledge, to those parts of the globe whose riches are differently dispersed. And we travel, in essence, to become young fools again—to slow time down and get taken in, and fall in love once more.” ― Pico Iyer.
I immigrated to the west coast of Canada 17 years ago. With a continent and ocean between me and “home,” I had a perspective of my innate knowledge of the country I grew up in I was not previously aware of—the diverse landscape of South Africa’s Eastern Cape, from the arid Karro to the fertile Sundays River Valley and the endless coastline skirted by yellow sand and rolling waves—and how little I knew about the country where I had landed.
Back home, I know the birds' names, songs, and habits. The names of trees and flowers rolled off my tongue. I know their smell, their taste, whether edible or poisonous, indigenous or exotic. As a child, I played with sticks, leaves, seeds, flowers and stones as though they were ordinary things, the dirt smudged on my knees and ingrained in my fingernails. I poked at songololos and earthworms, threw small rocks at locusts, gently held grasshoppers in my hand, caught tadpoles, and marvelled at the huge baboon spiders that my mother would scoop into a jar when they sought refuge in our house from the rain.
And then I immigrated, and all that understanding of how the world made sense dissipated across the vastness of the Atlantic Ocean.
My new world, the Pacific Northwest, is cascading in waterfalls, wide rivers, rain and lakes, rugged mountains, snow, cathedral-high trees, pebbled shores of lapping seawater, raccoons, coyotes, bears, and cougars. Now I watch chickadees, towhees, and LBJ’s (Little Brown Jobs), a name that covers a host of birds from sparrows to wrens, as they battle the territorial Anna Hummingbirds for sovereignty in my garden. My world has expanded by becoming familiar with the small miracles of living in Vancouver.
This year, for the first time since arriving as an immigrant, I had the freedom and wherewithal to take off for five months and travel the US in my sturdy, slow van. I drove 28,396 kilometres through the western United States: Montana, South Dakota, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, California, Oregon, Washington and home to Vancouver, in time for Christmas.
Catching up with good friends, I recently spent an afternoon drinking coffee with Lienna and Bob. Lienna is a retired veterinary assistant, and Bob is a retired fire chief. They are bred and born Vancouverites. They understand the mountains, skiing in the backcountry, the muddy mountain bike trails and the craggy coast’s fjords and islands.
We talked about my trip, Bob and Lienna’s renovations, and our Christmas plans.
“I saw the most beautiful sight in the Skagit Valley,” I enthuse. “Swans in the fields.” I can still see the beautiful birds, snow white against the newly furrowed brown fields in the soft winter sunlight. I slowed my van down to take them in. “What an unusual sight,” I thought before rolling on to hunt for an elusive Christmas present for my son.
“Swans?” asks Lienna. “Are you sure they weren’t snow geese?” “No, they were definitely swans,” I reply. “Oh?” says Lienna politely.
While travelling solo in a van across vast tracts of country, my mind wanders. When I saw my “swans” in the barren winter tulip fields, I thought, “I wonder if they are all couples.” My second thought was, “ I wonder if this is a new sustainable form of farming. Swans in the fields to eat the bugs?” Then, too lazy to stop and take a photo and focused on the hunt for the elusive Christmas present for the Son, I drove on.
My thoughts are not so crazy. Near to where my parents live in Somerset West in the South African Winelands, there is a farm called Running Duck. We visited one morning for coffee and the entertainment of seeing hundreds of ducks let loose from their coop and sprint to the pond. After a dip, they head to the vineyards, where they spend the day eating slugs, snails, and other pesky bugs. It is a delightful sight, a river of ducks, heads out, tails up, running for the vinelands. So, my mind deduces that running ducks or white swans equals sustainable farming and pest control.
‘The snow geese migrate at this time of year,” says Lienna, interrupting my thoughts of running ducks and white swans. “More coffee?”
I drive home. It's a half-hour drive from Lions Bay back to North Vancouver along a beautiful mountain road that drops sheer to the ocean on one side and rises to high forest-clad mountains on the other.
“Snow geese.” I ponder.
Last year, I did a fun shoot for Metro Vancouver in the Delta farmlands. I had the pleasure of interviewing Christine Schmalz, Executive Director, Delta Farmland and Wildlife Trust and Richard Topp, Conservation Specialist, Ducks Unlimited, who spoke knowledgeably about the cover crop program that ensures there is enough feed for the snow geese when they migrate in the fall. I spent a day learning about the conflict of interests between the migratory snow geese and the Delta farmers, a short drive over the Canadian US border to Skagit Valley. “Oh, how foolish of me,” I scold myself. “Of course, they were snow geese.”
A couple of days later, nestled at home, watching the endless politics in the garden between my birds and squirrels, I am consulting with Mrs. Google about common garden birds in Vancouver. Mrs. Google has been my constant companion, travelling with me in my van for five months. She has safely navigated me to campsites, BLM land, sanidumps, laundries and best-coffee shops-with-wifi-near-me.
I stumble across the following in the endless rabbit-warren world of Mrs Google:
The Trumpeter swans are protected species under federal and state laws in the US. “Approximately 20,000 trumpeter and tundra swans migrate between November and April. Nearly three-quarters of the trumpeter swans that migrate along the west coast's great Pacific Flyway will winter in Washington state, mainly in Whatcom and Skagit counties.”
Snow Goose are “managed as migratory game birds under state and federal migratory waterfowl regulations cooperatively through the Pacific Flyway Council.”
Swan or goose, how l love leaning into the strange new creatures of my adopted land and vast continent. With a new pair of binoculars I have asked Santa to gift me for Christmas and the help of Mrs Google, I may be able to tell the difference between swan and snow goose with certainty, in time.
It’s time to wrap my son's elusive Christmas gift, which I eventually tracked down in an obscure Bellingham shop under the watchful Mt Baker.
Did I lose myself, as Pico Iyer suggests travellers strive to do? Most certainly, I lost my old self when I dared to roll out of town on my solo adventure to explore the United States.
Did I find myself? Yes. In the uncomfortable spaces of uncertainty, I made friends out of strangers, found my way across unknown landscapes, and reliably solved many small sticky problems.
During the following weeks, I will update my Instagram and LinkedIn accounts with retrospective photos of my travels and all the extraordinary places I visited. In the past months, I have discovered how unequivocally beautiful the United States is. I have scraped at the tip of an iceberg; there is still much to explore.
Wishing you all a merry Christmas, happy holidays, and a promising New Year.