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Drew Shannon

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My husband and I had just finished packing the car with the last few bits of this and that, making sure our cooler and a bag of snacks were within reach, before starting out on our cross-country trek. We were methodical in our organization so that when we were ready to call it quits for the day, our luggage would be easy to grab-and-go. We’d left one empty space in the back seat, reserved for our littlest traveller. This is where our 15-pound mutt would be spending the next five weeks.

This was not an adventure we thought we’d be taking at this stage in our life. While we’d dreamily talked about doing a winery-hopping road trip, we thought it would be after retirement. But the economy had taken a nosedive and my husband found himself out of work, with no hope of future employment in the small town where we’d lived for 10 years. So here we were, fiftysomethings with a house to sell and a future to redesign.

For the most part we stayed positive, at times even adopting a devil-may-care attitude, though deep down we knew the seriousness of our plight. But one day, my unshaven, coffee-cup-holding husband slammed down the lid of his laptop, his constant companion in his non-stop job search, and declared: “The three of us are hitting the road!” Within a few weeks we were crammed into our leased SUV and pointed west.

I was worried. Should we be spending money at this time? Would people think we’d lost our marbles, along with the job? What if he was called for an interview while we were on the road? But my husband was adamant that this was the best time to pursue the dream. It was also the first time in weeks that I’d seen him excited, a man with a mission. Maybe he was right.

Our plan was to visit as many family-run, pet-friendly wineries as we could while criss-crossing fourteen states with a foray into the Okanagan region of British Columbia. We had a list of wineries we’d wanted to visit and decided that each night we’d individually blog about our day and then compare notes. Our self-imposed production and deadlines would (almost) feel like work. We even talked about collating our blogs at the end of our travels and publishing a book. So with a grand sense of purpose we took to the wide-open roads.

Our first stop was an unexpected one. Wisconsin, land of cheese, beer and Green Bay Packers-mania, wasn’t exactly where we’d expected to find a winery. But, through pounding rain and fog, a wooden sign post appeared, pointing us to a terraced landscape of naked vines: Botham Winery. We clambered out of the car and across the empty parking lot. Bounding into their tasting room we shook ourselves off like wet dogs while the owners welcomed us warmly. Over a glass of wine at their tasting bar, we gazed out through a window and onto their rain-soaked patio, where empty picnic tables, plastic umbrellas and bare trellises lay in wait for the hum of guests. I could easily imagine the warmer months, when visitors gather for wine and conversation. I could smell the pungent air, ripe with the autumn crush. There were better days to come.

And so we continued on our journey, discovering vineyards in the most desolate of places, meeting passionate winemakers, more than happy to share their stories and in some instances their homes, for the night. And, though my partner of 15 years and I thought we knew each other well, there was just so much more to discover spending 42 straight days together. Turned out we liked each other a whole lot more.

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In five weeks, we covered a lot of land. We drove across flat, dusty prairies and climbed winding snow-covered mountain roads. Red-rock formations gave way to mesas that rose commandingly from desert floors. We marveled at giant saguaro cactuses and tumbleweed that sashayed along dusty roads. Valleys chock full of tiered vineyards captured the sun’s rays. We splashed in the Pacific Ocean in California and skipped along the foggy, wet sands of Oregon. One day in Wyoming, our pup, who spent most days quiet and cozy in his backseat bed, suddenly climbed into the front of the car, trembling, whining, in retrospect trying to warn us that we were about to slam headlong into the worst snowstorm through which either of us had ever driven.

Wind and rain and snow, sunshine, warm breezes and twinkling starlight, we saw the country in all its natural splendor. We saw the good, the bad, and the ugly and spent equal amounts of time in exultation and reflection. It gave us a lot to write about. Even though we saw the same places together and often tasted the same wines, when we sat down at our laptops each night, our words flowed in different directions. My partner was much more technical in his descriptions, explaining techniques and complexities of the wine-making process. My writings were more evocative: what I saw, what I heard, how it felt. It was fun each night, to trade laptops and read about each other’s days, even though we’d spent them completely together. I saw the world through his eyes and he through mine.

He’s back in the workaday world again after a nine-month hiatus. There were many times when we wondered if unemployment might be a permanent condition but like the empty winery and stark vineyards at the first stop on our trek, our world now flourishes with possibilities for the future.

We often drink a toast to life, to all her winding roads and detours and her lush, sun-baked valleys and majestic mountains. They are all worth visiting.

Virginia Foley lives near Windsor, Ont.

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