Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Narrow Dogs, Narrow Boats, and Narrow Escapes

     Earlier in the year I had heard an NPR (National Public Radio) commentary on Terry Darlington’s book, Narrow Dog to Carcassonne, about traveling on the French canals with his wife Monica and their whippet Jim. Darlington had a new book out called Narrow Dog to Indian River. I picked up the two books from Neill Public Library and devoured them in one evening. Suddenly I realized my web searches hadn’t touched on canals in other parts of Europe. Better to spend the waxing hours of the encroaching winter darkness searching the web for European canals than spend them with spoon to mouth disease and my old pal Haagen Daz.
     With Darlington's books in hand I searched the 'Net and found narrow boats and the canals of England. These boats are not plastic cruisers. They are stunning! Seven feet wide and thirty to seventy two feet long, most of them are beautifully painted works of art. While the canals of France have their charms, the waterways of England stirred something in me. A far off voice echoed the word, “Home.” Home??  Really??? Clearly grief, loss, and too much time spent Googling in the dark have driven me mad. I’ve never been to England and I don’t like to travel. Let me repeat this: “I don’t like to travel.” And why is that?
     I was six years old the summer of nineteen sixty three. After a late winter suffering through chicken pox, measles, and mumps I weighed all of thirty eight pounds; a tiny flaxen-haired doll with skinny arms and legs and large green eyes. My mother and Bill--the man who would become my step father--thought a month long vacation in Mexico was just the ticket to repair their fraying relationship. It would also be a great escape from Alaska’s short, mild suggestion of summer.
     We flew out to Seattle, Washington where Bill bought a new cream colored Volvo sedan. Driving south through Oregon and down into southern California, we passed palm trees and sandy beaches. I remember the San Diego Zoo. It was where the heat began to squeeze me in its fist. The animals were wildly fantastic to a child used to bison, bears, fox, and moose. I rode on a giant tortoise and laughed with delight at the long, black tongues of the giraffes.
      We drove southwest into Texas. This was in the day before seat belts and air conditioning. It was a hundred degrees Fahrenheit in the shade—literally--and probably one hundred and five in the car. The further south we traveled, the hotter it got; the hotter it got, the sicker I got. I vomited all my meals, crying for water, only to lose it shortly after draining my cup.
     We made it to Mexico City where I fainted in a fancy restaurant. I also remember the doctor who called on our room and examined me. His hands were lovely; long fingered, brown skinned, and cool.  I recall him telling my mother,
     “Your child, she is sick from the heat. I think this little one cannot tolerate it and you must take her north right away to a cooler climate or else we will have to bring her to the hospital. She has lost a lot of weight and she will not last much longer here. It is very serious heat stroke.”
     Mother and Bill took turns driving and sleeping; the car ate up the highway at eighty miles an hour. Volvos in those days had a small compartment behind the back seat, under the curved rear window. It was there I slept, curled up in a fetal position four days and nights, passing the long, dreamless miles of insufferable heat. I recall waking once when we stopped for gas somewhere in the desert north of Mexico City. I opened my eyes and looked up to the curved window and the bright, blue sky. Three old abuelas were bent over the back window staring in at me in amazement, their skin brown and folded with wrinkles, eyes black with wonder and surprise. Wizened faces framed by scarves of dark lace, the women whispered softly, “Ang-hel! Ang-hel!” They thought I was an angel like the ones seen on the tops of Christmas trees and carved in bas relief on cathedral walls.
     The further North we traveled, the cooler the weather grew. By the time we reached Montana my appetite returned. In Canada I finally began laughing again. My body remembers every torturous, sweating, life sucking mile of that trip. I still associate travel with high speed, heat, vomiting, and loss of self control.
     I suspect my liking of small, cozy spaces is also a leftover of the ill-fated Mexico trip. The Volvo’s back cubby was small and safe. After we returned home I refused to sleep in a bed. I could only fall asleep by climbing into the black fabric fold attached to the sofa bed in which Mother and Bill slept. During the day it covered the metal hinges when the sofa was folded up. At night this fabric sling hung down underneath-- a small, dark hammock of safety.
    In the October darkness of the present moment my heart was absolutely taken by the British Narrow boats. They are form and function wrapped in art and history. I think to myself that a Narrow boat is the best of all worlds! A self contained miniature version of a homesteader’s cabin traveling at a top speed of four miles per hour. I am knocked sideways by my sense of surprise and delight.


  1. Still got me hooked.
    Don`t write so much in one go, keep them all on the edge of their seats.
    MGM made contact for film rights yet?

  2. I am an inveterate overachiever--and you are right love--I shall scale back to posting once a week. No calls from MGM yet. Perhaps Miramax will bite?
    Love Jaq XXX

  3. I think they both should then they can war over who gets the rights and you get to pick the best price!!

    Great job mom I love you to the moon and back again!