I’ve always felt the urge to leave. Any place. No matter how beautiful. I want to go. When I was 18 and finished with high school, I attended my graduation ceremony, for the sake of my family, but I skipped my prom – Canada’s east coast was calling. I’d never been there before. I didn’t know what I’d find. But I was going. I made a life for myself out there, with university, work and music. I traveled up and down the coast. Cape Breton feels like a second home to me. I love the people of Maine. New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island have a place in my heart.
But eventually, I left the east. Rage, the self-entitlement that sometimes comes from surviving a shitty childhood and a need for control left me very much out of control. I destroyed a fine long-term relationship looking for who I was. I burned bridges. I did terrible things to myself and others. It was time to move on. My travels took me back home to Ontario. My father was dying. I loved and hated him for who he was and what he had done to our family. Coming home was a terror.
Uneasily settled back into my hometown, I fought to push the dogs of my recent past down into the cellar of my soul where their bark did not seem so loud. I’d gone to university for journalism, but felt too shattered by life to write. I took on a job I despised and worked it for years. I was haunted by nightmares, flashbacks and a mind full of mayhem. I met someone, even though I was in no shape to be dating. She was from what you might call a good family. They loved each other: open, seemingly honest people. I thought that, if I could be a part of something that seemed so right, then maybe there would be a chance for me. But there wasn’t. I told them the truth of where I’d been and what I’d done; why I worked a gig that required no training or thought in favor of even trying to write for a living. I wanted to be as open with them as they seemed to be with me. It was a mistake. Despite my time with them at church, which I tried to believe in and with the very best behavior that I could muster, my partner and her parents saw the darkness in me and called it madness. For a time, I gave into despair. I felt unwanted anywhere, by anyone. I wanted to do violence to someone—anyone, really.
It was the first time that I can remember feeling the urge to kill myself.
Soon after. I left my hometown once more, this time headed west, to British Columbia. I had no expectations of happiness, but I could not bear to stay in the same place as something I had loved and wanted, so dearly. Reminders of her and my rage against life were everywhere I turned. While the wounds were still fresh, I landed in a new relationship: a poisonous thing with a woman who, in her own way, was just as broken as I was. We argued loudly enough that the police would come. I would drink. She’d do dope. We screamed at each other for a decade. In the end, we were nothing but roommates sharing a bed. In the time that we were together, I had found the strength to write again. A friend, who I can never repay, gave me a chance at working as a journalist for a well-known publication. It was very part-time and paid shit. But it was a start. It did not feel like enough.
So, once again, I found myself on the move.
I briefly returned to Ontario. I had not spent more than a few weeks with my mother in the ten years since I’d moved to the west coast. My father was years dead, burned and buried. I wanted time to get to know her new husband, a good man, before moving on to whatever would be next for me. My mother had moved on from my hometown of Guelph, setting up shop in the Grey Highlands. The winter I spent there was unforgivably cold, with blowing snow and whiteouts so frequently that the OPP often shuttered the highways and byways of the region for days at a time. When I wasn’t writing, I watched a lot of Anthony Bourdain on Netflix. No Reservations. Parts Unknown. Whatever I could get my eyes in front of.
Something about how he viewed the world meshed with my need for motion and distance. He was a realist and at the same time, an idealist. He found beauty in places rank with pragmatism. He drank, perhaps not as much as I did at the time, and at times, still do. I felt that something dark followed him. I got around to reading his writing. We shared similar demons. It made me respect his looking for light in all places all the more. Driven by a yearning to explore as he did, I felt that, after a few months in Ontario, the time was coming to ramble on. I decided that I would go to Spain. I wanted to walk the Camino de Santiago. I’d start in the French town of Saint Jean Pied de Port. I’d cross into Spain and keep walking until I could smell the salt damp of Galicia and Santiago de Compostela.
Somewhere amidst my planning and training for the 791 km (500 miles) hike, I decided that I’d like to die in the Pyrenees Mountains. The idea of the quiet that the end of all things would bring felt like a warm bath to me. I was tired – but not so tired that I could bring myself to die in a way that would leave my family with a body and a mess to dispose of. Heavy from years of alcohol abuse, a lack of exercise and too much crap food, I thought that I could work towards a heart attack at the higher altitudes of the hike. Dying of exposure, by misadventure or falling off a cliff would have been fine too. My ticket was purchased, my pack was packed and I was off. I remember falling asleep on my flight, listening to The Clash, sure of my plans.
You may have noticed, close to five years later, I’m still here.
The day before my Camino was to begin, I toured Saint Jean Pied de Port, collecting supplies, having the occasional drink and sampling the local Basque cuisine. It was lovely. The people who served it were lovely. The other pilgrims I spoke to or, when no language was shared, drank with, were lovely. They made me feel ashamed in the darkness of my intent.
The next morning, so early that I saw my way by starlight, I began my walk into the mountains. The tang of sweat in my mouth and the smell of dew-fresh fields and turned manure in my nostrils made it hard to contemplate an end. As I gained altitude, the ache in my back from the 23 pounds of gear I’d brought with me made we want to lay my burdens down, once more. But there was so much beauty. I could find no ugly place in the Pyrenees where bringing an end to my life felt fit. Hours into the day, with the sun high, burning the side of my face, I fell in with a group of hikers from New Zealand. It was unintentional. We were all keeping the same pace. We spoke the same language. I couldn’t find a way to be unpleasant in their company. It’s hard to die, for me at least, when there’s folks around you that think you’re alright. That night, still alive, I ate a dinner of pub grub and wine in Orreaga, thinking that death could wait until morning. I would meet it rested and fed. At the cusp of daylight, I was woke by a monk who wished me a good journey. I dressed and walked. I did not die.
For a month, I planned on killing myself: each day, that evening, the next morning, in the seclusion of the Spanish countryside. For a month, I found reasons to live in the food, drink and people on the trails and in the villages I haunted. Along the way, I shed pounds of clothing, fat and hardware that I did not need for my journey. I found, with each step, that my depression, PTSD and the desire to die was left just a little bit further behind me. I never lost it, but it had to jog to keep pace. In a little under a month, I finished my Camino.
The manic pace I’d set for myself came at a cost of three trips to the hospital along the way, a slipped disk in my back and two lost toenails. It was a small price to pay for a journey that gave me, with each footstep, another reason to draw breath.
Finished with Spain, I took a week in Porto, Portugal, to rest and reflect upon what I'd just accomplished.
In the time since then, I’ve married. My wife sees me for what I am. She knows what I once was, and who I aspire to be. My urge to ramble has given way to a nomadic lifestyle where I have no roots save the love that I carry with me. My little family splits its time between Canada, the Rio Grande Valley and Mexico. My writing affords me the occasion to travel from time to time. I’ll be headed to Boston and New York City this month. Last year, I roamed China and Japan. It feels like enough and more than I could have had if I’d taken my life. I still feel the urge to do it, at times. But I’ve found the strength to open myself to counseling and medication: treatment for my PTSD. My wife has so much patience for my bullshit. Mine is not a perfect life. But it has, of late, felt like a good one.
For many years, I wanted to meet Anthony Bourdain. Not for his celebrity, but to offer him my heartfelt thanks. His writing and television work showed me that there is delight and deep understanding of life to be found in the most simple of things: eating, talking and exploration. His work stoked my already burning wanderlust. I came to understand that, at least for me, inner peace is not something that one finds and keeps. It’s something that one has to search for, each day and in each moment. There could come a time where I will be unable to find a reason to keep such peace. I could take my life. But the spirit of what he showed me and what I have found since my first day in the Pyrenees Mountains has been enough to sustain me years beyond where I thought I would end.
Thank you, Anthony, for the years that you helped to give me.
Image: by Peabody Awards - Anthony Bourdain and Charlie Rose, CC BY 2.0, Link
All other images via Seamus Bellamy