EDIT: I get asked for this story – a lot. So I’ve presented it here, by itself, for posterity. (I will now go look up the word ‘posterity.’ In case it doesn’t mean what I think it means. I only used it here because it sounds good…)
A year after my husband died, my family was falling apart. Myself, my five kids, we were each drifting along on our separate paths, disconnected, aloof, and wandering aimlessly. I could see it happening, but couldn’t figure out how to fix it.
It was January, and my Number 2 of 5 started talking about taking the road trip west that he’d started talking about when he was about four years old. He was mulling around the kind of trip he wanted: to take the friend or the girlfriend or the dog, to drive or fly and drive, camp or hotel. Each of the variables would mean a completely different trip. I was familiar with his sense of adventure and recognized his need to reach for something beyond his present world, so I encouraged the conversation with more envy than I’d expected.
Until an idea struck. And anyone who knows me knows how that turns out.
I texted him.
“What do you think about a family road trip, PEI style, out west, this summer?”
We’d thrown the kids and the dog in the van with an hour’s notice a few years before and just drove east through the Atlantic provinces. A whirlwind week with no plan or expectation turned into memories to last a lifetime.
Within a single minute, he replied, “I’m in!”
We spent the next few months deciding on the type of trip, opting for an RV road trip from Hamilton to BC. Maybe a month. All five kids and Nana were on board. Ben and I shopped for an RV, being forced to buy one so he, at age 20, could drive it with insurance, and the trip was begun.
We drove and explored and laughed and cried and fought and learned and made up and connected over the month-long confinement in a 240 square foot tin can. 13,000km. Without actually succeeding in killing each other. (Though there were moments…)
We made it to Watson Lake, Yukon, south to Vancouver, north to Jasper, south to Banff, and west back home. With memories to ignite the light in our new family of six.
In buying the RV, I’d opted to put my husband’s last license plates on it: 7BROWNS. In my mind, taking his Bucket List Trip, we were able to take 7 Browns to Yukon. Watson Lake has this place called the Sign Post Forest. Tourists from all over the world have been leaving signs there for decades, and strolling through the maze of signs and posts is a most interesting way to pass a few hours. But we were heading back home through Saskatchewan when it dawned on me quite suddenly and loudly that I should have left the front plate there. The instant regret was crushing.
Ben was driving at the time. He just looked at me and said, “Well, Mom, you’ll just have to go back…”
Fast forward five years, and I’m writing a book. I created a character, gave her my circumstance – made her a widowed mother of five – and hung her out at the end of her rope. She woke up one day with a nasty case of “Fuck It!” and ran away from home.
I hung the map of our trip on the wall and sent her on her way.
As she tells her story, I have no idea where she’s taking it. I am the scribe while she steals emotions and adventures from my memory, while she makes up her own anecdotes. I simply type and watch.
And then she gets to Watson Lake.
She sees a licence plate there. 7BROWNS. And the story takes a turn.
I join my Cracked Pots the next day, exhausted, eyes burning from crying through tears all day the day before. And I tell them, “I think I have a problem.”
“She’s gone to Watson Lake,” I explained. “And she saw my license plate. Except that my license plate’s not there.”
My Cracked Pots eyed me suspiciously.
A week later, and the story has passed the point of no return. It will be a book. And people around the world will read the book. And they will go to Watson Lake and look for 7BROWNS. But it won’t be there.
“I think I have to go to Yukon this summer,” I told them.
They listened skeptically.
A month later I finished the story. The first draft was done, and I was beside myself.
“Okay,” I warned them. “I’m going. I have to take my plate to Watson Lake.”
And what do they do? These amazingly incredibly supportive and loving friends of mine?
“Okay! We’re in!”
Shit! This just got real!
Seriously. If you say you’re going to the ends of the earth, and your friends all jump in and unanimously agree to go with you, like it’s some kind of good idea, you dedicate the book to them.
Then comes the scramble to find a rental RV in Edmonton, put together some kind of loose plan, figure out how to pack and fly these days, figure out an Instagram account, and pray beyond any real hope that we’re still friends when we get back.
So in the end, people are asking me what’s real and what’s not in the book. That’s my business, and something I’ll mostly keep to myself. But I wanted to share the story of how 7BROWNS and five Cracked Pots made it to the Yukon. Because in my world of Overwhelming Gratitude, that’s a big one.