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Wenting Li

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Cal bought the van before we’d met, and on our first date he told me he planned to quit his job and spend this summer driving first east, then west. I told him I was planning on doing something similar: I had the framework of a book tour that would take me to the east coast of Canada, then south to the States, and there was no reason I couldn’t also go west.

This is how I came to be four months pregnant and living in a 1985 VW Westfalia Vanagon with Cal and our two dogs.

It was one of those plans made half-jokingly, after a few drinks, but on that first date, we decided to merge itineraries. Half joke, half promise. The van became a stand-in for commitment: When we talked about this trip, we were placing signposts into our future, saying we wanted to be together for at least as long as the trip would last.

We took action to make the metaphor more concrete. He bought a solar panel. I bought fairy lights.

More than once, as we lay in bed falling asleep, I’d ask in a panic: “Are you sure you want to do this with me? Your original plan was to go alone.”

“That was before I met you,” he’d say. “The plan changed.” He is one of those people who says what he means and does what he says, which can be just as disarming as the opposite.

Cal said one of his intentions was to learn how to be comfortable in the openness of time. “Doing nothing doesn’t have to mean you’re bored. Doing nothing should feel the same as doing everything. It’s learning how to be comfortable in just being.”

One thing we hadn’t planned for when mapping out the trip, though, was that I’d be doing it during my second trimester. I found out I was pregnant on Valentine’s Day, and neither one of us thought it was cause to change our summer plans.

Let me give you a little tour of the van: It’s not much longer than an average car. There’s a bench in the back that folds down to become a bed (this is where the dogs sleep) and folds up if you find yourself parked in front of the ocean and want to sit and enjoy the view. There’s a canvas tent-like extension that pops open so that you can stand upright for about four square feet – this is convenient for cooking, as it’s right above the “kitchen.” When the top is popped, another bed frame extends – Cal insists on calling it “the second bedroom,” and this is where we sleep. There are now five heartbeats in the tiny space, but at least we have the whole world for our living room.

The baby is present, but quietly. He won’t remember any of this. Before we started the trip, I suggested we write letters to the baby at the end of each day, so we can one day show him where we went together. We left home in Toronto on a Friday, and by Monday, we had our first minor disaster. That day, we stopped for lunch and a walk in Great Falls, a stunning natural gorge in New Brunswick. Two rivers collide and continue down a waterfall as one: a churning, eternal chaos reminding me of the power and mystery of the natural world.

That night, we planned on setting up camp on Crown Land in northern New Brunswick. Shortly after leaving Great Falls, though, on the highway toward the forest, we lost cellphone reception. It didn’t come back.

“Does that make you nervous?” I asked.

“No,” Cal said, “why would it?”

We approached the unnamed, unpaved road he had flagged as a potential camp spot, but it was steep, covered in snow and led to a visible dead end.

“Let’s try the next one,” I suggested.

The next one didn’t look much better, but it had less snow and less of an incline, and Cal thought the van could handle it. It couldn’t, and we spent the next two hours trying to fill the wet ditches with snow, wedge sticks underneath the tires, and push the van while reversing it. All this shifted us by about a foot, not nearly enough. Night was falling, and we were stuck in mud in a snowy forest off an unnamed road with no cell reception, 100 kilometres from the nearest town. For the second time that day, I was reminded of the power and mystery of the natural world.

In this moment, we couldn’t “just be”; we had to “just do.” We needed to get out of there. At this moment, it felt to me as though the van – this literal and symbolic home – had let us down. My grief was perhaps weighted more toward the symbolic than the literal, but my sense of urgency was compounded by fear and wanting to protect our unborn baby.

I told Cal to walk back to the highway and flag someone down to help us, and the first person who drove by stopped immediately. While François, a former tow truck driver, didn’t think he could help us get the van out, he was willing to give us a ride.

“All of us? Including the dogs?”

All four of us hitched a ride to Miramichi, the nearest town. In Miramichi, I said to myself, we would be able to get reception and call for a tow truck. We would be able to eat and sleep and be warm again.

François dropped us off at a hotel in the industrial outskirts of the city. There was a huge “NO PETS” sign at the entrance, but walking into the lobby at 11 p.m. with no vehicle in the parking lot, the receptionist could read the desperation crumpling our bodies and booked us into a room at the far end of a quiet hallway.

Lying in the hotel bed, the exhausted dogs wrestling themselves to sleep, I texted my friend. I was still deep in lingering anxiety, but also a kind of shame at having wound up here, in what felt like a worst-case scenario.

“How could you be upset?” she responded, “You’re in the perfect situation! A warm bed with pizza! And this is what you signed up for! This is an adventure!”

I think about “just being” a lot now, as we move through the world in the van together, the little baby growing – and just being – inside of me.

“Is there a but?” I asked Cal at one point. “Do I also have to be… happy?”

“No,” he said, “you don’t even have to be happy. You can just be.”

In one of his letters, Cal wrote to our four-month old fetus: "When I think about you, I think of you already as a child, eight years old or so, and of all the adventures we’ll go on, and will have already been on.

“Starting now.”

Author Harriet Alida Lye lives in Toronto.

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