I have these girlfriends I met when we were toddlers.
Photos of us at our birthday parties, with three candles on the cake, lie in boxes in basements of our childhood homes. We made more friends, and by the end of high school there were seven of us.
A few years ago, we lost a friend to a rare blood cancer; “Mostly men of African descent working in toxic industrial settings get this cancer,” her doctor told us. Debbie was six feet tall, blue-eyed with long blonde hair, and had a cigarette in her hand since age 13.
Two close friends, Sally and Patty, are widowed; I’m twice divorced. Without each other, we would not have survived the losses and pain of our hearts breaking. At age 62, over a span of 18 months, Patty lost her best friend Debbie, her mom, brother, infant twin granddaughter, a favorite aunt, and her husband of 40 years. She was down, really down; so we planned a trip to England to scout out the Beatles’ old haunts and threw in the Scottish Highlands for kicks and grins. That perked her up.
We are aging gracefully; we live in our minds and from our hearts, where we remain forever, oh, about 38.
We had talked about visiting England together since childhood; two of us saw the Beatles at Red Rocks when we were 10. Their music and friendship profoundly influenced our lives. When Debbie died, our remaining time became precious and significant, so much so that we took that trip to England.
When we are clear about what is important to us and share that with friends, magic happens. We had always intended to pay homage to the Beatles on this trip, but we also added our hearts’ desires. Somewhere in London during our first two days, the trip took on a life of its own, merging these desires and our expectations of the trip into what became a magical adventure for us. All we had to do was trust each other.
We landed in London and walked for two days, often lost; we saw that city on and off its beaten paths and left telling ourselves we’d return for all that we missed. We thought getting lost in London was challenging until we left Cornwall’s Newquay Airport in our rental car. Sally was behind the wheel, shifting gears with the stick on the floor using her left hand, and driving on the left side of the road for the first time in her life.
The coastline, sea air, and light conspired and seduced us. We followed them, becoming lost, while heading toward Port Isaac and Middle Headra, our bed and breakfast destination. Maps couldn’t help us, people we asked for directions sent us in opposite ways, and we passed through roundabouts coming and going. We’d been forewarned about driving in Cornwall. Full-size cars pass in opposite directions on narrow, winding roads never touching their brakes! Blind curves slowed us to a crawl, leaving us peeking and creeping slowly forward, and sometimes frozen at a stop to let others continue; it was exhausting. We had wandered lost for over three hours when we came to a road we had been told not to take—Sally turned anyway. We descended down to the sea and a familiar village slowly came into view. We’d found Port Isaac!
The sun was setting when we arrived, frazzled and happy to meet Virginia and Michael, our hosts for the next three days, and Tibby, their black Cocker Spaniel. We were surrounded by green pastures stocked with black and white Holstein cows, ancient barns and homes, and the ocean. From our bedroom windows, views of the coast and sea stretched on to the horizon.
There was mention of a great hiking path just out the back door: the South West Coast Path that’s part of a 600-mile designated and maintained national trail. To access it, we had to go through the cow herd, open and secure two gates, and walk down toward the sea to reach the path on the sea cliffs overlooking the coastline below. The hike into Port Isaac from Middle Headra is about an hour. The trail conveniently continues through and beyond Port Isaac. Roughly a mile from town, the trail brings hikers off the cliffs through a resident’s homestead and gradually merges into a rough-paved, narrow road that winds tightly through the heart of Port Isaac for another mile or more before reaching a central car park. Early the next morning, Virginia and Sally worked out a plan to leave our car in Port Isaac. It’s safer to drive than walk on the roads back to the farm from town; we didn’t question Virginia—we knew.
I see full moonlight through my closed eyelids, sense it on my face. It’s early. I am awake now, thinking about our hike in Cornwall. I smile, remembering someone saying, “It’s just an hour hike.” I heard that as a kid, too, from these same friends. They’d end up half carrying me off Longs Peak or some other mountain every year at summer camp. This hike, though, was different. It exposed the heart and soul of a lifelong friendship of women and a love like no other.
For each of us, there was a sense of “we’ve got your back” punctuated by laughter, grumbling, and perseverance. There was amazement of the unparalleled beauty of what we were seeing and of our physical ability, our ability to laugh some more, and encourage each other to keep going. The “pokey-plant” we each grabbed only once out of necessity, the wind-driven rain that soaked through every fabric we wore, and the shoes—the smooth bottom, all-alike leather walking shoes we bought together that two of us wore, and my Vibram-soled light mesh sneakers that were good on the wet, clay soil and slate rock. Both slicker than a runny nose, but they felt more like wet sponges tied to my feet.
When your knees don’t bend easily, or completely, it’s difficult to go down gracefully—down a cow-trail incline, down a rocky crevasse, down a narrow lane with cars in both directions forcing you to cling like bats to rocky walls, or worse. Edges, a mere shoe width from the path and overhanging 100 feet below a rocky seashore of such incredible beauty, I wanted to stare forever at it, preserving a memory that will never fade away. The Woman Down Hike, through mob grazed paddocks of cattle and sheep, sharp inclines, and at least eight fence crossings on the cliffs’ edge: up wooden steps, swing a leg over at the top, and down long-drop steps to land one foot first on the other side. A new fresh paddock and hell as the wind picked up and pushed us along.
The fine clay soil had turned an oily, slime consistency in the rain, making it treacherously slippery and impossible to catch one’s self as we slid down to the ground in slow motion, grabbing at vegetation, or each other. And the wind, relentless, forcing us to wrap any and every piece of clothing we had tighter around us, breaking an umbrella completely, and driving the endless wetness deeper into our every layer of clothes until it reached its destination of skin where it puddled in shoes, socks, waists, breasts, and underpants. The rain washed the fine clay that covered our pants and coats, legs and arms, downward to our feet and hands, wrinkled as if we’d played for hours in a swimming pool as kids.
We sang and swore, then swooned at the views and vistas, and struggled with our bodies’ sensations of soreness, endurance, and our ability to support each other. We’d go solo into ourselves until the next woman went down. By the sixth or seventh paddock, we were quiet, saving our strength to get the hell off those cliffs, but beauty surrounded us and our friendship enveloped us. We were wet and cold and knew from experience what each other needed and when. We commiserated a bit and offered encouragement and compliments. We let slip a few more errant obscenities and shared several choice memories we had sworn to never mention again in this lifetime; this was the distraction we needed that cheered us up on the spot.
Just when we were about to discuss how we could or were going to die out there, two couples came upon us, speeding by with light steps, good gear, and the correct hiking shoes. First, a mom and daughter visited us, and later a couple in their 70s. All had walking poles and dry feet, smiles, and could talk. The broken umbrella turned out to be a great conversation starter on proper hiking gear. The 70-year-olds passed us, and in what seemed like only a few moments after their cheery greeting on the trail, I saw them reach the summit of the largest hill yet ahead of us, then disappear around a bend!
We reached the heart of Port Isaac in just over three hours; the narrow road brought us near a fine restaurant. People stared, but it could have been because there was no room for foot traffic when two cars (large, shiny, new, and expensive) passed. My sloshing feet would not obey my panicking mind shouting at them, “For the love of God, please hurry up and get us off this road!” My knees were even less compliant. The cars slowed, the people in the front seats stared up close, and for the first time since we started the hike, it was each woman for herself getting to the car park.
For distraction, we checked the pubs as we walked by, discerning where we would have dinner that night and that cheery thought got us to the car. From there, we headed straight to the co-op grocery store where Patty was able to walk in and get us trash bags for our mud-soaked clothes and shoes, a bottle of wine, and apples. Sally and I stayed in the car and tried to talk over the windshield wipers and the fan of the defroster on high that wasn’t keeping up with the condensation. The humidity inside the warm car clung to us like shrouds as we worked our way back to Middle Headra.
Michael and Tibby met us at the door. Michael could only exclaim, “Oh my, oh my, ooh dear” as he looked at each of us. “Did Virginia tell you to go out there?! I’ll turn on the hot water, come in, come in!” We could not come in, so he took our shoes, lead us to a utility room, and gave us privacy to undress into our trash bags while we planned our trip to a laundry mat the next day.
When my turn came for a hot bath, I sat in that tub going over the details I’d just experienced with those two women; my appreciation for them was genuine. I didn’t think about the cliffs or my wet feet. I thought about the years of a lifetime we’ve shared and I felt uniquely blessed.
The next morning at breakfast, there were our shoes, dry, cleaned, and stuffed with damp newspaper. Michael and Virginia had dried them over warm heat on the massive white stove in the 400-year-old kitchen where Virginia cooked her traditional English breakfast for us.
I thought, life is wonderful with friends, good people, nature, dry socks, and a dog like Tibby.
I almost missed this experience entirely and many others on this trip. My friends spent months convincing me to travel. I had an arsenal of excuses why not to go; they countered each with, “We’re going.” Their persistence was admirable and, thankfully, it paid off. We returned home exuberant and full of stories; seasoned travelers will politely listen to them and smile with understanding.
I learned that travel connects us to ourselves and to strangers who become friends. Yes, it exposes cultural differences that can be awkward, but travel also reminds us of the glaring similarities of being human. The world becomes smaller and friendlier when we travel, and we become a more compassionate and tolerant version of ourselves. We don’t ever forget this.
If you, too, are hesitant to travel, here is my best advice for visiting England and other places unknown: if you like Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, you’ll love driving in Cornwall, but don’t even think of driving in London. Believe people when they tell you their travels changed them. And if a friend asks you to travel with them, go!
Life with few regrets is sweet.
Author: Mary Huey Leleiwi
Image: Author’s own
Editor: Nicole Cameron
Copy Editor: Catherine Monkman