To the stranger keeping her place: a reflection on losing someone to dementia

I wanted to touch your hand but knew I couldn’t, knew you wouldn’t like that.  So I sat and I watched your eyes dart around the room, fixed on anything but me. The resemblance was unnerving. There was so much I wanted to tell you, tell her, but I knew it would feel unsatisfying, futile.

I was calm and patient, but only through practise.  I knew that if I showed my anxiety you would pick up on it, so I suppressed it as best I could. In truth, the reality of your dementia horrified me. It wasn’t just forgetfulness, it was erosion, reversion, destruction. Sitting before me was a child, but one who was never going to grow, to develop, to be.  It made me question everything about the nature of human identity and whether, if so much can be erased when the brain starts to rot, there is ever an ‘us’ in the first place. I had become an expert though, in burying these thoughts deep, and maintaining the illusion of a purposeful life.

Right then, I concentrated on you. When your eyes paused for a second in their searching, and you looked at me and smiled, I felt a warmth and a tenderness that for a moment made it all a little more bearable.  Looking at you, I felt she was there with me again; my mum.  I got my smile from her, and my laughter.

I decided to tell you about her.  About how she was unconventional. How growing up, there had been no boundaries between us and I felt I could tell her anything; others envied that. She made me believe anything was possible, that I could be anyone I wanted to be.  Even in my darkest days, when we sat up all night through my insomnia and depression, she never lost faith in me.

Chaotic and troubled, yet enthralled with life, her greatest fear was to end up like you, reliant completely on others, her mind no longer present.  I think of that as I watch your presence next to me, and I note to myself that you seem quite content.

As for my mum, I learned to surrender gradually to her illness.  At first I fought against the idea, refused to acknowledge what was really happening; I would become annoyed with her when she couldn’t do what she used to.  Then came the sadness, and the tearing pain inside me when I saw her suffering, casting a dark shadow over every aspect of my life.

I got help, I started talking to someone.  I talked about all that she meant to me, and in doing so, I revealed that the past was not as ideal as I had constructed it to be. In order to accept her leaving I had to get to know her again, the real her, not the idyllic fiction I had created. I discovered anger, resentment and a child who had taken on too much, who had carried the emotions of others inside her for far too long. But underneath it all was love, and when I confronted the rest and made the decision to leave it behind, it was this that remained.

It was around this time that I met you, I looked at you that first day and realised I had started to let her go.  I read you her favourite book, and I told you about my life, about who I was.  You couldn’t communicate verbally by then, and though the sounds you made meant nothing to me, the animated way in which you told your story with your face and hands, captivated me.  I caught glimpses of the past you, the stubbornness, the gentleness, something in the back of your eyes that told me you knew who I was.

When I looked at you I felt affection for the old lady sat in the chair. I wished I could restore her but I knew that I couldn’t.  I knew then that we would always be strangers, as there was no way to truly reach you.

So, I will visit, and we will sit, and sometimes if you are calm, you will let me hold your hand or even cuddle you.  It will always be these times when I cry.

As I got up to leave, a new member of staff walked by and commented on our resemblance. ‘You’ve really got your mum’s smile, haven’t you?’ she said.  I had to agree that I did.  I held on to you and wanted never to let go, but you looked at me with impatience.  I told you that I loved you and I meant it of course, but I knew I was talking to someone who had left a long time ago.  I grieve for you every day, but I will keep coming to see the stranger who is keeping your place.


BC Wildfires and the cast of a Jim Jarmusch film…

You may be wondering why the strange title for this post, well it’s been a strange couple of days…

On Sunday 9th July I left Vancouver with the intention of driving to Prince George, British Columbia.  However, my limited access to the news and the quickly evolving events in BC meant that I was unprepared for the chaos I was driving into.  High temperatures, arid landscapes, lightening storms and high winds had led to extensive outbreaks of wildfires across BC and lots of displaced people.  Unlike myself though, most of those on holiday managed not drive themselves into the centre of the worst affected areas.  In my defence this was due to no phone signal, limited information availlable and unclear road closure signs.  As a result I ended up slightly stuck at  Ashcroft,   a small town next to one of the worst fires, and just over from Cachecreek, from where everyone had been evacuated.  Due to the road being closed behind and ahead of me, my only other option would have been to take the one remaining open road west, but having already driven for 8 hours I didn’t like the idea of a night time drive, low on petrol, with wildfires all around.

So, I stopped.  And that’s where it all got more and more surreal.  Firstly there was the apocalyptic setting – dark skies and an orange setting sun caused by smoke clouds, ash in the air, no internet connections meaning that no card or cash machines were working, and no access to petrol as deliveries could not get through. At least this was better than the day before however when apparently all the power had been out as well.

Secondly, was the awful reality of the situation for many of those at the small hotel I ended up staying at – those unable to return to their homes in Cachecreek and wondering if the fire would reach the town leaving them with nothing to return to, as well as those from the nearby reservation who had already lost their homes to the fire.

Thirdly, was the fact that I had apparently wandered into some arthouse movie, a cross between Northern Exposure and a Jim Jarmusch film, populated by the most eccentric and eclectic cast of characters.

As I sat outside trying to get a signal for my phone I noticed the hotel maid wandering by, around 60 years old, decked out in cowboy boots, a mini dress, bright blue eyeshadow and a huge cowboy hat with feathers in it. We struck up a conversation in which she informed me that I could in fact play the guitar depsite me believing I couldn’t (I really can’t!).  She went on to suggest that together we could probably form a band and give ‘Little Big Town’ a run for their money.  She also mentioned our resemblance to the female duo in the band – here’s a quick photo below for those of you wondering…

I’m guessing I’m the blonde…

Next on scene was a young woman wearing thigh length boots and what appeared to be some kind of matching fluffy bra and shorts set.  I later learned she was a prostiute working from the hotel, the bit I never figured out though was where the cat she was carrying with her came into it…

To pass some time I also found myself playing a game of horseshoe – which basically involves throwing horseshoes at a stick to see how near you can get them.  My competitors were a young boy, who had fled his previous home with his mother so they could start a new life, only to be caught in the wildfires and stranded at the hotel; and a man evacuated from his home and anxiously awaiting news of which way the fires were spreading.

All these encounters set the tone for the evening, and as I watched the smoke clouds spread further across the night sky, I heard stories of infidelity, fear, despair, loss, and illness, as well as beautiful acts of kindness. I went to bed astounded at the tapestry of the human race, and priveliged to have yet again met so many interesting people. That being said I did also make sure to lock my door…

The next day, the sadness of the situation struck me once again as the day started under a thick layer of smoke and those without any place to go sat outside watching to see which way the wind may blow the fires.  I was struck again by people’s capacity for kindness when a woman, who just days before had lost her entire home, helped me to plan a route of the town to try and reach a petrol station and figure out if I could head further north.  I offered to stay and help if I could, but for those left it was now just a waiting game as they had nowhere else to go.  She seemed more concerned that I reach safety and drove ahead of me for a time to make sure I reached the right intersection.  As I left I drove for hours through the awful smog of the fires, thinking about those I had met and hoping that soon some kind of end will be in sight for them soon.



From the US to Canada – Portland and Vancouver

Portland – 5th to 7th July, 2017

Throughout my journey I have decided almost from day-to-day how long I would stay in a place and where I would go next.  I have had only one lovely ‘deadline’ throughout, which is to be in Anchorage on 16th July to pick up my friends Sarah and Anna who are joining me for the last part of my adventure in Alaska. WIth this date in mind I realised I needed to get moving North and decided that in doing so I would call in and see two cities I have always wanted to visit – Portland and Vancouver.

Throughout this trip I have tended to take the same approach when visiting cities, with the exception of San Francisco where I was lucky enough to have someone to show me around.  This approach involves booking an Airbnb somewhere on the outskirts, to both save money but also have the chance to see areas where locals live and get some tips from them on where to visit away from the tourist traps.   I normally try and pick somewhere that is also a good location to be able to run in the mornings.  My choice in Portland proved to perfect in all these respects.  Situated next to the Arboretum and Forest Park, I stayed in the beautiful home of David (and his dog Buddy), a really interesting Airbnb host – a writer, musician and linguist.  As well as having lived for a while in France, he was also the first American I had met on my trip who not only knew where Newcastle, England was, but had actually been there!  He was a great host and even left coffee and fruit outside my room in the morning.

On my first morning, after a great run (in which I got completely lost on the labyrinth of trails available), I headed into downtown Portland using the MAX light rail.  I always try not to drive in cities as find it more relaxing to use public transport  and it also gives me a better sense of orientation.  Once downtown I normally set off on foot as find this is the best way to get to know and explore a city.  So far it has served me well and I often stumble across unexpected places this way – nice cafes, little galleries etc.   Portland was no exception and I happened upon a great cafe where I indulged in a delicious high cal and high carb brunch of fried apple fritter filled with egg, cheese and spinach :-). Feeling replete, I then headed to Powell’s City of Books, which takes up a whole city block and claims to be the largest independent used and new bookstore in the world.  As a book lover, I was probably slightly overly excited at the prospect but was certainly not disappointed.  I spent at least an hour browsing and going through a lengthy internal struggle in order to finally decide on what to buy, given my self imposed limit of two books.


I then headed down to the waterfront for a stroll in the sun, before parking myself on a bench overlooking the river and getting started on the first of the books.

After this brief I rest, I continued my walk around the city, soaking up the atmosphere and the streets.

As the evening arrived, I ended up at the Armory which, as part of Portland’s ‘first Thursday’ (of the month), was offering a photography exhibition, beer, nibbles and some live music – all for free!  I don’t even particularly like beer but felt it would be rude not to have at least one while enjoying the music…

Portland is quite well known for its food carts which are all over the city, so on my way home I stopped at one of these  to pick up an absolutely delicious tofu and avocado Thai curry for less than eight dollars! At that price I figured that for a change I could get dinner for two, and gave the second one to a young guy obviously having a difficult time in his life (just to clarify I didn’t force him to eat tofu – he chose chicken!).  He was just one of many homeless people very visible wherever you go in Portland, probably more than any other place I have visited here (perhaps with the exception of Santa Cruz).  As always this made me think about how lucky I am to have had the opportunities and support that I have had throughout my life, and how easily it could all be so different for any of us.

Vancouver – 7th to 9th July, 2017

The drive to Vancouver proved to be something of a nightmare as I got caught in Friday afternoon traffic on the outskirts of Seattle.  This turned what should have been a five hour journey into nine hours!

I crossed the border into Canada in the early evening, with lots of questions from border agents about my intentions. Satisfied eventually that I did intend to leave  again at some point (they must have heard about my extended stay in California), they finally let me through.  I was greeted by a huge sign saying ‘Welcome to British Columbia, Canada – the best place on earth’! A rather bold statement I thought, and here’s me thinking Canadians were more understated than Americans…

Vancouver however did certainly live up to the hype and, similar to the way in which I had explored Portland, I spent my brief visit roaming the streets.  This of course included a nice stop for brunch in a lovely place called Wildebeest, recommended to me by a random local man I got talking to while queuing.  Whilst eating lunch at the bar, I also got chatting to the barman who it turned out was from Leicester in England, despite the fact that I had mistakenly guessed he was from Australia (in my defence he had lived there for four years).

I was a little concerned however when I saw this sign in a restroom and wondered if the people of Vancouver often contemplate drinking water out of the toilet…


I also suffered some disappointment when I found out that the false advertising below did not mean I could buy myself a mountie to accompany me on the rest of my trip…

Continue reading “From the US to Canada – Portland and Vancouver”

The road less travelled

Nearly six weeks into my trip and having covered around 4500 miles and six states, I found myself in need of a slightly slower pace and took some time to take it a little easier in San Francisco and around the Californian Coast. While here, I have had chance to reflect on my trip so far and realised that much of its beauty and pleasure has come from the journey itself, a side of the travelling that is harder to document than the specific places I spend time in. It is the sense of being on the road, of movement, of the incredible scenery you see as you drive, the small road side diners, the incidental encounters and brief conversations, the glimpses into the hearts of the small towns you pass through.

All of the above is so difficult to capture in words and to share with others. As I think about this I remember the young waiter obsessed with the evolution of language and accents, who gave me a state by state example of the differences in accents across the US (thankfully the other customers were in no rush) ; the Vietnam Veteran who told me of the irreversible and devastating impact on him of the horrors he saw at the age of 19, and his unusual transition to a career as a ballet dancer and choreographer ; the hitchhiker on the road for 32 years and running from something he wasn’t quite able to tell me.

And of course there are those I got to know a little better, the people sharing the wonders of their home towns and cities, others living far from home, and those travelling themselves. In among these, those solo travellers, many of whom were on trips that were about so much more than the sights that they were seeing.

People are sometimes surprised or concerned by my choice to travel alone, but I see it as a real privilege, as there is something about travelling alone that allows you to fully absorb everything around you. Having time and space, allows you to give this to other people, and what you get back is unquantifiable.

Then of course there is the country itself, the small towns just outside the tourist areas, struggling to keep afloat and economically barren ; the stunning vistas of a long road ; the richness of the wildlife, the elks grazing in the mist, or the birds of prey soaring in front of your car as you drive.

These are just a few of the things I will always remember and that remind me constantly of how lucky I am.

It is not easy to capture the above in pictures, but for a little flavour, here are just a few snapshots I have taken along the way.


Death Valley

17th and 18th June, 2017

After a brief (and very different) interlude in Las Vegas with Anna, I headed to Death Valley National Park. Having stopped off for a night at a lovely B and B in Pahrump (K7) to recover from the night in Vegas, I arrived in Death Valley late morning. Temperatures were already at 113F (45C) and set to rise up to 120F (49C) over the next couple of days.

After a brief discussion with a Ranger about the longer hikes that were possible in the Park, he suggested Telescope Peak as, due to its higher elevation, temperatures are always slightly lower. He advised me of areas where you are allowed to pitch your tent for free in the Park, one of which was Mahogony Flat, at the starting point of the trail for Telescope Peak.

I headed up there, a little cautiously as the last few miles were off road and I was worried about my rental car’s ability to make it! The effort was worth it though as I arrived at what, in terms of views, has been one of the best camping spots of my trip. Perched up high I was afforded fabulous views of both sunset and sunrise.

There was a downside though, I have never been anywhere (and I do mean that literally) with so many flys. It was impossible to sit out for any length of time without being completely covered in them, and the collective noise was phenomenal. Luckily I had pitched my tent where even from inside I had quite a good view out, and retreated there when it became too much.. Wildlife was definitely in full swing though, and I was woken up in the early hours of the  morning by what I originally thought was the sound of someone hammering in tent pegs. I had thought it was extremely inconsiderate of someone to arrive at 4am and put up their tent so noisily but, on getting up for coffee and sunrise, I realised it was in fact a pair of crows going around pecking underneath rocks with their beaks and overturning them. The pair carried on all morning, shouting to each other as they did so. So, in some respects, it was not the most relaxing of spots.

I headed out early to climb up Telescope peak, the highest point in Death Valley and the Panamint Mountain Range, at 3,366m (11,043ft).  It gets its name from the fact that it offers panoramic views for hundreds of miles in each direction.  The walk up was spectacular with views down over the valleys on the west and east.

Finally, at the top…I had a nice panoramic video to show you but nowhere I have been since has the wifi capacity to upload it, so some photos will have to do for now…

As has been the case in a lot of the hikes I have chosen, I was again lucky enough to have the spot to myself for much of the time, just passing three people on the way down.  I decided to take the opportunity to get in some running and ran the last 3 miles, which was no mean feat in the heat!

Just when I thought the adventure had finished, I discovered that getting my car back down from Mahogany Flat was a lot more difficult than getting it up, and there were quite a few moments where I wondered if I would make it without getting a flat tyre.  Once back on the road though the drive out of Death Valley proved very rewarding as a beautiful bird of prey soared in front of my car, a huge hare hopped across the road (I had no idea how high they can jump), and I saw quite a few of these fellas on the roadside…

Zion National Park

11th – 13th June, 2017

Still struggling to leave Utah, I found myself in the Zion National Park area.  I pitched up at a little campsite just outside the entrance to the National Park on early Sunday afternoon and decided to do a short walk in the Park that day. The views as you drive through the park are incredible and make it quite dangerous in terms of how much you are concentrating on the road!

Unfortunately, as every Park is different I had failed to appreciate that there was a shuttle system in operation, which means you have to park at a central point and get shuttled out to trailheads for hiking.  As a result of not realising this, I found myself driving straight back out the other side! Slightly put off by the crowds I had seen inside (it was Sunday) I decided to find somewhere else to do a short hike that afternoon and found myself on a lovely trail, that rather ominously started with this sign:

Shortly after entering, an absolutely giant hare ran across my path, leading me to wonder whether if I followed him I might find myself at a tea party 🙂 (Alice in Wonderland, for those of you who wonder what on earth I am talking about).

Once again I had stumbled on a spot where there was not a soul around, and enjoyed a peaceful walk along the Chinle trail with views of Mount Kinesava.

The following day, I managed to figure out the Park system and got up early to head out.  While I normally try and avoid the crowds I had decided to undertake one of the more ‘famous’ routes – that of Angel’s landing, a 454 metre (1,488 feet) rock formation that offers fantastic views over Zion.  A steep climb up to Scout lookout, you then have the choice as to whether to undertake the final half mile to the end of the narrow ridge that runs along the precipice.

Angel’s Landing is the one in shadow!

Angel’s landing is the one in shadow in the middle.

As someone with a fear of heights, which I have spent a long time trying to overcome this, I was pleased to find that I appear to have come along way.  It’s difficult to see on this photo, but here’s me standing right on the edge with a 450 metre sharp drop behind me – I think I look relatively calm considering 😉

Whilst on Angel’s landing I was lucky enough to run into Anna, another solo female hiker and road-tripper.

We decided to carry on past Angel’s landing along the West Rim trail, which climbs higher and offers spectacular views over the park. I have found that it is quite easy to get away from the crowds even in the National Parks if you are happy to hike that little bit further, which was certainly the case along the West Rim.





3 weeks in…


3 weeks into my solo trip, I have had plenty of opportunity for reflection so thought I would share some random thoughts and observations, some more profound than others 😉

• When camping alone in the middle of nowhere, years of watching horror films will automatically lead you to believe that the rustling at your tent door during the night is a crazed serial killer, as opposed to the more likely options of a gust of wind or a small animal.
• Travelling alone often results in the most interesting and rewarding interactions with other people, from brief conversations to more in depth discussions and shared activities. In this you get a glimpse of their lives and for a moment at least, your stories cross. Some people you will never see again, others will go on to become friends. Regardless, this helps to remind you that no matter how dark the world can seem sometimes, there are an awful lot of nice people out there just doing their best to get by.
• Despite the above, on seeing a hitchhiker you will do a very quick, and doubtless highly questionable, visual assessment to ascertain if they could possibly be the crazed serial killer who was trying to get into your tent the night before.
• It is impossible to eat too many pancakes, or drink too many free coffee refills. Also, you can put syrup on almost anything you eat and it will taste good .
• Total silence is something we seldom experience and it can be eerily beautiful.
• Despite there not necessarily being huge cultural difference between the US and UK, there are nevertheless multiple ways for a British person to embarrass themselves due to ignorance, including not being able to figure out how the pumps at the petrol station work. Also, a constant fear of under-tipping may possibly make you one of the most popular customers in services across the US.
• Nature is unstoppable in it’s capacity to astound.
• When taking a road trip, you can become disproportionately obsessed with when you will next get to wash your clothes. Invariably, it will be within minutes of having done so that you will spill coffee down your favourite top.
• Feeling totally comfortable being alone can be one of the most empowering things you can experience. Of course, it is made easier when you are lucky enough to have an army of people to call upon should you need to…
• Finally, it is a little known fact but the volume at which you sing out loud  to yourself in the car, increases proportionate to the number of miles you drive.




The beginning (kind of…)


When I set off on this trip, I had the greatest intentions of keeping a blog, writing every day, sharing my experiences etc. Well, 3 weeks in and I am only just getting round to setting it up. I have managed to post a few photos and couple of lines on Facebook every other day or so, but beyond that I just couldn’t seem to get going. I feel like it took these first 3 weeks to ‘settle in’, switch off from the normal rhythm of my life, and find a space where writing did not feel like a chore or an obligation.

I thought a lot, hours on the road will do that to you, but then I started worrying about having to backdate it all, an idea which I realised would stop me from starting completely.

So, here we are, it is Saturday June 9th and I am sat in a tent somewhere in the Dixie National Forest, near Escalante, Utah. I have no idea when I will actually be able to post this as have not had a phone signal for days and am relying on spotty internet in cafes and cheap motels.

I started this trip on May 22nd when I flew into New Orleans. My only set itinerary was to catch up some old friends along the way, and to be in Alaska for mid July to spend the last couple of weeks with two wonderful friends, and seasoned travelling buddies, who are flying out from France and the UK. Other than that, my plan was essentially to decide each day where I would go and do so using a combination of camping, cheap motels and Airbnb.

To get us up to date, the highlights so far have been:
• 3 days in the fabulous and welcoming city of New Orleans, including seeing the band Rebirth in residence at the Maple Leaf Bar.

• A wonderful weekend in Corpus Christi, Texas, catching up with my friend Amy, who I first met as a student when I was volunteering for the summer on the Cheyenne River reservation in South Dakota.

• The stunning state of New Mexico and the wonderful city of Sante Fe, sat at the foot of the Sangre de Christo mountains and alive with arts and culture. It was here that I visited the incredible Meow Wolf’s ‘House of Eternal Return’ – a huge interactive art installation that takes you into a variety of ‘multiverses’. I lost three wonderful hours in there and can say it is the closest you can get to tripping without actually taking drugs.

• The ‘Thelma and Louise’ half marathon near Moab, Utah. An early morning race through the imposing red rock of this desert landscape, a wonderful celebration of female friendship.

• Utah! What can I say, I only ended up here because of the race, and in honesty had not planned to stay any longer. Over a week later and I am still here and can honestly say it is one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited. From the arid vastness of Canyonlands, to the cooler climes of the La Sal and Boulder mountains, the scenery can change from one hour to the next. A nature lover’s paradise, if you take the time to get away from the crowds of places like the Arches National Park, you can find yourself so easily alone, hiking in the silence of the desert and camping out under the stars. If your lucky, like I was, you might even get to cross paths with a bear…

So, there we go, all up to date! I promise the rest will be a little more detailed: Let the rest of the voyage begin…x