The phone rang as our family sat down to supper last week. It was a neighbour, sounding confused. It turned out that a man with untamed hair and a foreign accent had just knocked on her door, looking for someone who he thought lived in the small town of Kimberley, B.C. That someone was me.
She directed him, and then promptly ran inside to call me, feeling a touch concerned about the man she had just sent my way.
Curious, I watched the aging Volkswagen Westfalia climb the hill to our home. The first thing I noticed was the remarkable collection of ephemera strewn across the dashboard: a sea star, driftwood, shells, dried grass, bark, feathers, river-polished rocks, even a thriving basil plant. Then my eyes focused on the face behind the wheel. Could it be? Cedric!
It had been a decade since I had parted ways with the eccentric Frenchman on the shoulder of a dusty Thai highway. We had just spent two weeks exploring the turquoise seas and jungle-tufted islets dotting Burma's southern coast, all the while playing a cat-and-mouse game with authorities bent on turning our kayak journey back. Eventually captured, we were kicked out of the country.
Before bidding my wife and me farewell, Cedric rooted through his sun-bleached backpack, retrieving dried whale's baleen, springbok fur, even the scales of a python. Eventually, he found what he sought, and held forth a clasped fist. Inside was a dolphin's tooth. "I hope you never forget the dolphin," Cedric said enigmatically. "It still dreams of freedom." And then he was gone. Friendships forged on the road are usually as fleeting as they are intense, and I doubted I would ever see him again.
But letters appeared, every few years, addressed in fine calligraphic handwriting. Inside, decorating each long missive, were nature's gifts: a dried penguin's wing, the fin of a flying fish from the Andaman Sea, seed pods from the Mozambique coast. None of the correspondence included a return address.
Now, Cedric stood before me, hand grasping mine, same big smile, same big eyes. The same French accent too, which changed every "r" into a "w" and left Cedric sounding like a foreign Elmer Fudd: "Welly good to see you again Bwuce."
Moments later, a tanned woman in baggy yoga pants emerged from the back of the van, cradling a tiny blond bambino.
Dragging them inside, we brought food to the table, offered them beds and opened wine. Soon, the stories began to flow. Grand stories, the type that evoke wonder and disbelief; a 17-month overland journey from Paris to Papua New Guinea, treks into Uganda's Mountains of the Moon, swimming amid clouds of stinger-less jellyfish in the water off Sulawesi, paddle trips from Juneau to Portland.
Returning to Europe for the birth of Noah, Cedric and Sara were back on the road after two months. First came Egypt: "Just to get the fewl of twavelling with a beebee." Then a one-way ticket to America, and three months of camping on the Baja coast (whales are Cedric's passion).
How do they afford this life? All I can say is very frugally. They don't have more possessions than they can carry. Cedric hikes in a pair of dilapidated leather shoes he bought at a thrift shop five years ago for 25 cents.
Then, with only $8,500 to their name (a relative fortune saved during three years of work along the East African coast as divemasters), they spent $8,000 of it on a van. "In Nowth Amewica, it is impossible to twavel without a caw."
Weren't they worried? Where would the money come from? "I beweave if you wake evewy day wiff good in yo heawt, de wowld will not betway you," he told me when I asked
That sounds naive, but Cedric is neither young nor foolish. Having left France after high school, he has bumped around the world non-stop ever since. Twenty seven years of travel, and counting, making ends meet on sporadic work as a divemaster and commercial fisher.
For $500, the young family got to Sandpoint, Idaho, where they camped on abandoned logging roads, picking huckleberries and selling their bounty at farmers markets. In a few months, they made a couple of grand. The day their U.S. visa expired, they cleaned up their van and crossed into Canada, with no plans other than to follow their noses.
Cedric and Sara share an extraordinary ability to exist amid uncertainty that would prove crippling for most. Such uncertainty, rather than creating worry, is a source of hope and possibility for them.
What marks Cedric is how richly he lives. If he arrives in a village that catches his fancy, he stays – not for an extra day, but for an extra month, or three. His knowledge of wildlife and geography is encyclopedic, his desire to be outside amid the natural world, insatiable. Freedom is ultimately what Cedric seeks, making him the rarest of breeds: a modern nomad.
Few could live under such circumstances and I'm not holding Cedric out as a role model. But his presence was a reminder that a tribe still exists, living beyond the scaffolding of modern society, pursuing nothing more than human freedom. That knowledge is, for me, powerfully uplifting.