We fell into the routine of travel: canoe, cooler, kitties, and all. At each motel, we first emptied the car of the cats–who always dashed out of the carrier and to the nearest hiding places–and their litter, then took my food out of the cooler and crammed it into the mini fridge, then brought in our bags. After this lengthy ordeal, Ron would try to exercise by jogging around the small towns where we stayed, and I would rest or begin the next ritual, which was microwaving and eating my macrobiotic dinner.
Miso is central to Virginia Harper’s macrobiotic plan. It’s made from fermented soybeans, and is beneficial because of its probiotic properties. Like most fermented foods, it needs to be kept cool and should not be boiled, since boiling kills the beneficial bacteria. I suspected it shouldn’t be microwaved, either. But microwaving was my method of cooking on this trip, so my solution was to cook all my miso soup ahead of time without the miso, heat my bowls of soup in the microwaves at our hotels, then add the miso after heating the soup. Each time I stood at a kitchenette mixing miso into a hot bowl of seaweed and tofu, I willed the bacteria to spread through my colon and heal my gut.
We would allow the kitties an hour or so to cower in whatever nooks they had found. Usually they wedged themselves between the bed and the wall, or at least on the floor beneath the draped bedspread, making themselves as small as felinely possible. Then we coaxed or, more often, dragged them onto our laps and petted them till they came to their senses enough to nervously sniff their ways around the room, no doubt smelling all the previous animal occupants. At last, they grew comfortable enough to eat a little, use the litter box, and snuggle uneasily with us on the bed in front of the TV till we all fell asleep.
My optimism persisted as we crossed from Minnesota’s lush forests into the rolling plains and approached the Rockies. The possibilities of Portland seemed endless. As we cruised down the highway, me slightly reclined to avoid squishing my still-tender stomach, listening to Neil Young or Ella Fitzgerald, I gabbed to Ron about all my ideas, often pausing to research things on my iPhone.
I found us MeetUp groups to join: nature-loving groups like Portland Mushroom Hunters, and active groups like Southwest Portland Hikes. I looked up fun classes we could take, French for me and Spanish for Ron, the languages we each wanted to work on. There was an active Returned Peace Corps Volunteer group in town. We could go to Mom’s UU church.
We’d be staying with Mom and Lanny until we bought a house. Every day, new homes were posted on Zillow and Reddit or sent to us by our realtor, Angie. I perused them and reported to Ron as he drove. We wanted two or three or even four bedrooms, so we could have a kid or two, but still have an office where I could write in peace. I wanted two bathrooms and thus an end to my days of humiliation, of needing the toilet for hours while Ron squirmed, or of asking Ron to read as far away from the bathroom as possible so he wouldn’t hear me. In the pictures on my phone, I drooled over kitchens with pendant lights over sprawling stone countertops, with stainless steel appliances that I could use to cook elaborate meals, and ample seating for visitors. Our little Madison kitchen had barely had space for the two of us.
We’d be purchasing this house with help from my family. Had I been healthy, we might have opted to rent first, then get jobs, then eventually make a down payment all by ourselves, delaying homeownership. But this was one more way my disease was affecting us: The thought of being in transition, with uncertainty dragging on for years, was too overwhelming. I doubted we’d be moving to Portland at all, with its insane housing market and me having a disease, without help from my family to buy and settle in quickly. We were swallowing our pride and accepting the assistance, keenly aware that for most disease sufferers, this option would not be possible. My family’s wealth was buffering us from great misfortune: having to choose between remaining far from family, or risking worse health through the inherent stress of long-term housing transition. It was humbling, and an immense relief. It also made me want to somehow help other disease sufferers have more options–to become an advocate. I stashed this thought in my mental files, in a space marked for “the future, when I’m healthy again.”
For now, I needed to stay focused on myself. On a whim, in a checkout line I bought an O! Magazine whose cover had captions about remaking your home and yourself. The magazines I usually read were newsy and serious, and lately my books were all about health. Disappearing into O!’s glossy pages, with their feel-good anecdotes and frivolous purchases, felt like eating one of the desserts I’d had to forego all year.
The magazine had decorating tips that I squirreled away for the future. Put each piece of furniture either all-the-way on, or all-the-way off, your throw rugs. Hang curtains several inches above the tops of small windows, for the illusion of larger windows.
There were tips for wearing makeup, too. I never wore makeup beyond cover-up for acne, but to my own surprise I bought mascara, shimmery eye liner, and lip gloss at a Walgreen’s on one of our stops. I suddenly wanted to try stopping biting my nails, and to experiment with make-up to cover the acne that had plagued my face all year. My illness had warped my appearance–my skin was oily, my arms and legs were even thinner than usual and weaker, my stomach was bloated. I was going to wrest back control over how I looked. In my new life, I would remake myself.
We stayed an extra night in Rapid City, South Dakota so we could leave the kitties in the motel and do an outing. After visiting Mt. Rushmore and Crazy Horse, we chose a short hike in the Black Hills, where a trail wound up from the parking lot through fields of wildflowers. I doubted I could make it to the top of the hike, but I told Ron to just go on ahead if I needed to turn around. When we began, my legs, weakened after months of barely exercising, felt leaden…but as I panted behind Ron, a happy glow overcame me.
How rare, for me, to be outside in the fresh country air, light breeze playing over my skin, brilliant colors dotting the meadows! This was a sacred place, and the day had been infused with rich, poignant histories of stolen land and ongoing injustices done to Native people. I tried to tread mindfully on the ground, sacred to the indigenous people of this area and also, today, to me. My whole body reveled in walking a dirt path and not pavement. I loved the chance to be someplace important that brought me outside of myself, a place to learn about the wider world and my place in it. My eyes filled with the irregular shapes of nature, of rocks and ravines and winding trails. As we climbed higher, to my surprise and delight, my energy improved. I thought of John Muir, climbing a mountain when ill and finding himself healed when he neared the top. Healed by the climb.
We drove the last leg of our journey at nightfall, evening sky lighting the Columbia River Gorge and Mount Hood, which rises whitecapped on Portland’s horizon. I beamed as we cruised down I-84, texting Mom and Lanny that we were almost home.