August 14th, 2013. Now, this is a beautiful morning.
The sun is already making my scalp tingle with heat, even though it’s only 9 a.m. A flirty breeze plays with my hair. The birds are in full, glorious concert. It’s everything an August morning should be, and I have the rare pleasure of having it all to myself, thanks to my friend Eva.
I’m sitting on a tiny deck attached to the south side of “The Farmhouse,” a place in Purple Valley that Eva rents every summer. It’s an old house that appears to have popped up like a mushroom in the middle of acres of unfenced farmland, and I am soaking up the sun, the solitude and a steaming cup of coffee all at once.
Eva herself was nowhere to be found this morning when I picked my way down the steep stairs from my bedroom to the kitchen . She must be on one of her walks, looking for blackberries or bears or both. My friend is a true disciple of nature. I’ve known her for years, but discovered a few things I didn’t know on our hike yesterday: she doesn’t use bug spray or sunscreen, doesn't say a word when hiking in 40 degree heat, swims in the melted icicle waters of Georgian bay and calls it “refreshing.” I think I admire her even more this morning than I already did.
To Eva, who lives in the city and whose neighbours are a stone’s throw on either side of her house, the Farmhouse in Purple Valley is pure heaven. Close to the water, the Bruce Trail and within range of mild-mannered small towns, the Farmhouse is all butterflies and birds and tall grass during the day. At night, coyotes play in the driveway, stars write bright messages across the sky and fireflies appear like iridescent popcorn in the pea fields. She and her partner and their daughter used to rent the house for a week or two every year; this summer, Eva came up for a week by herself and asked me to join her for a few days. I was honoured. I know how special her time is here, and how few opportunities she’s had to take time for herself over the past decade. I was also a little worried; I’d always wanted to explore the Bruce Trail, and Eva had promised that she’d take me for several treks while I was there...but could I hack it? I’ve never been much for heat, or strenuous exercise, let alone strenuous exercise in the heat. Eva would be a machine out in the woods; I was, at best, a wind-up toy.
“Does Eva have any idea how grouchy you get when it’s hot?” D had asked as I stuffed clothes into my backpack the night before I left for my adventure. I was sweating. It had been humid and sticky all week and my mood had not been pleasant.
“I don’t know,” I said, trying to mentally picture what the trail would look like and whether I should bring two pairs of pants in case I fell down a cliff and ripped one. I threw in my knee brace instead. “She loves the heat. It’ll be fine.”
D grinned. “This could be the end of a beautiful friendship, Sweaty Kim.”
I promised myself that no matter how hot and dehydrated and crotchety I felt, I would not complain about the heat. I would tough it out and make Eva proud. Better to be Sweaty Kim than Whiny Kim.
The Bruce Trail didn’t disappoint. It was fascinating - deep crevasses, steep lookouts, rocks that looked like fossilized lava, covered in ferns and wild ginger. It was a challenging hike in that I had to keep a sharp eye on the trail ahead, as there were a hundred ways to twist an ankle or pitch headfirst into patches of poison ivy. Rocks, roots and ruts abounded. When we stopped briefly to wipe perspiration out of our eyes and catch our breath, I noticed the peculiar stillness of the forest: sporadic birdcalls, no wind. The leaves didn’t rustle, the trees didn’t creak. There was only my panting breath, our voices and our footsteps making hollow thumps on the densely packed soil.
Since I loathe the heat and freak out at heights, the hike on the Bruce Trail was an accomplishment for me. I don’t often push myself physically, but with Eva as my guide and coach, I was able to hike for over four hours in humid weather over challenging terrain. Sometimes we talked about everything and nothing; sometimes were silent and companionable. To me, the measure of true friendship to see how long you can be quiet together without feeling the need to talk. Eva and I are true friends.
We finally turned around at about 4 p.m, trudged back to the car, and set off for another part of the trail to find Spirit Rock and go for a swim. I held my head near the open window like a dog, trying to catch a breeze and cool my tomato red face back into an acceptable colour. Because Eva is an amazing friend, she sensed that I needed a break before tackling the next leg of our hike. So we drove to a little ice cream shop in Wiarton. She ate cherry ice cream, I drank a giant mug of coffee, and we sat in oversized orange leather chairs and let the air conditioning chill the sweat on our backs. It was perfect.
On the trail to Spirit Rock, there was a fascinating ruin of an old Irish family’s stone mansion called The Corran. We loitered there for a bit, reading the historical signs, marvelling at the size of the place, eating blackberries and sniffing roses. “Time for a swim!” Eva announced and we got back on the trail. She had neglected to tell me that in order to reach her favourite swimming spot, we’d have to navigate a freaky spiral staircase made of clangy, unsteady steel flanking a rocky cliff.
“Oh yeah, you don’t like heights, do you?” Eva said with a wicked look in her eye. She knew the staircase would give me the heebie jeebies; Eva likes it when people face their fears head on. She sends me all sorts of spider and zombie themed stuff in the mail, ostensibly to help me “deal with my shit,” but mostly because she likes to imagine my reactions. The staircase to hell was no different, with the added bonus that she’d get to witness my reaction with her own eyes. So, with Eva grinning at me, I took a deep breath, realigned my backpack and forced my trembly legs down each step to the bottom.
To my dismay, the staircase opened onto a rocky, steep trail that could only be navigated by holding on for dear life to a series of metal railings bolted to the rock. I said a few bad words and Eva laughed at me, but it was worth the aching hips, the vertigo, and stabs of unadulterated panic. Because once we made it to the bottom, we were greeted by the glassy waters of Georgian bay, spread out before us like a vast mirror.
We stumbled over rocks to find Eva’s favourite spot, peeled off our sweaty clothes and swam in our underwear. The water was as still as the woods had been, clear as a window and cold enough to make me squeal. But oh, the relief of dunking my steamy head in the Bay, floating on my back with no sounds but my own breath and no sight but the cloudless summer sky overhead. Eva did laps back and forth while I paddled slowly in circles. Every few minutes, we’d swim into what Eva called “a cold spot” - places in the lake that felt as though a block of ice had just melted - and we joked that they were evil spots, cold hands of drowned sailors reaching to pull us under. Another thing about true friends: you have to find the same things amusing.
To my amusement, I noticed three kayakers in the distance. "I think they're headed our way," I said. Eva shrugged while treading water, which is no mean feat. Well, I'd just hiked a hot trail for many hours, so if a few strangers saw me in wet underwear, so be it. As they glided nearer, we saw they were three young men. We raised a hand in greeting, careful not to bob too far out of the water. As they passed, I caught a snip of their earnest-sounding conversation: it was about stocks or bonds or something to do with money.
"You're not talking about work are you?" I said, genuinely horrified. They stared at me. "Seriously, you guys. You shouldn't be talking about work on a beautiful day like this!" I couldn't help myself. There they were, on the still, blue, gorgeous waters of Georgian Bay, discussing business. The guy nearest to me twisted his mouth into a sour expression. His buddy smiled and they just shook their heads and kept paddling while Eva and I shook our heads in return.
We didn’t get back to the farmhouse until 8 p.m., didn’t eat supper until sunset. I drank white wine and ate sour cream chips while I made our evening meal: pasta with fresh tomatoes, basil and bocconcini. Eva drank root beer and concocted the most delicious Napa salad I’ve ever had. We both had seconds of everything, toasted our hike and swim. As her root beer clinked against my wine, I wanted to leap over the table and hug her, pull her close and tell her what a blessing her friendship was. But my legs were too stiff and I’d drunk a little too much wine and I didn’t want her to think I was weird. So I just smiled instead. She smiled back. I think she got what I wanted to say without me having to speak a word.
After supper we walked down the moonlit lane way, exclaiming with glee at the hundreds of tiny frogs that sprang out of our path as they headed for the swamps beyond the pine trees. Eva and I found Sirius and the Big Dipper, talked about bear encounters (hers, not mine), exchanged stories about my mother and her father, both dead now for many years. When I finally pleaded exhaustion, we went back to the house and Eva sat beside my bed and read me a creepy story about cannibal children in Kentucky. When’s the last time someone read to me? I wondered as she changed her voice for each character. I love this.
We said our goodnights, positioned our fans to make a breeze in the still, hot rooms, and I slept the kind of sleep only a day outside and a contented belly can give you. I woke up today feeling stiff and sore, hungry and desperately in need of coffee. Even with Eva nowhere in sight, I also felt blessed once again to have the gift of her friendship in my life.