Tales of a 21st Century Gypsy

September 2, 2004. Oh, the people you’ll meet – the independent women

This week I met two strong-minded middle-aged single women who want to head out on their lives on their own. Wednesday night I stayed at a campground on the beach in the town of Sheguiandah, on Manitoulin Island in Ontario. As I went in to seek a spot, I was passed by a woman in a car with a sea kayak on her roof. Another kayak! We said hello and decided to go out paddling on the bay. After that we exchanged names and bits of our stories, but only once we’d settled on our kayaking plans.

It was one of those paddles that makes you wonder how you got so lucky as to be able to be there. Sheguiandah (pronounced Shegwinda) is on a wide bay dotted with islands and surrounded by low green hills. The sky was blue, the water was blue, we saw one or two small power boats off in the distance but otherwise it was quiet, just a breeze ruffling the water and a loon calling. We paddled out for an hour to a tiny island with trees and seagulls, circled behind it, and came back in with the sunset ahead of us.

Ruth Ann lives in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan – the UP, as it is called. She manages an office for a living, but her life really seems to be about kayaking, hiking, and especially cross-country skiing. She doesn’t quite think of herself as a “yooper,” but she’s been up in the UP for all of what she called her mature adult life. She’s looking forward to going back to her immature life, retiring from work and spending more of her time doing other things. She said she started out a big partier, moving up to the UP to go to college, doing lots of drinking and partying and smoking dope. That was her first immature adulthood. Then she went to work, outgrew the party life, married, had a child, and began what she described as her mature life. Her return to immaturity won’t be like the first phase – this one will be more about travel and sports and living on her own without concern for what anyone else thinks she should do.

She has a 20-year old son, but seemed to envy the independence of my life. She regretted growing up at a time when the expectation was that she would marry, and living with someone until they realized that they were incompatible was not acceptable. She regretted

that back then she hadn’t felt she could simply do what she wanted. We had lots of little things in common – a love of good coffee, ice cream, our intermittent vegetarian tendencies, our politics, our preference for living solo rather than feeling we needed a partner to accompany us. We shared stories about well-intentioned friends who thought we should be afraid to travel and camp alone, and we ridiculed their suggestions that we should travel with guns or dogs or mace. We had dinner together at the campground restaurant – solid homemade food served in huge portions. We both gaped at the blackened, broken teeth of the young woman who waited on us, and wondered what her life must be like that her teeth were like that. Thursday morning, after sharing a breakfast of granola, yogurt, wild blueberries, sunflower and pumpkin seeds, and coffee in my van while rained outside, we wished each other luck, exchanged contact information, and headed on our separate ways.

Oops, no photo of Ruth Ann. This is by Rob Lawrence.

From there I headed to Michigan to meet up with Barb. She had emailed me a few weeks ago – she had seen my website, and wrote to say that she was planning to move into her Vanagon in the spring and was delighted to find my tales. We exchanged a few emails and I mentioned that I’d be traveling in her neck of the woods – the UP – in a few weeks and I could stop by. Whereupon she invited me to join her extended family in a Labor Day weekend campout at “a real rural American experience,” the Chippewa County Fair. Sounded good to me.

Thursday afternoon I pulled into the Brimley, Michigan post office to meet Barb at her job. We recognized each other at once. She’s a six-foot tall redhead who likes the camaraderie of living in a small town and doesn’t care what people know about her life or what they think of her choices. She’s been a postal employee for more than twenty years, seven of them in Brimley. She knows everyone who comes in, chats with them, reopens the office after she has closed up for the day to get them their packages, and worries when she’s run out of duck stamps because if anyone’s planning to hunt this weekend and can’t get one they’ll be stuck. She lives in a small house a short way from the post office, with her dog Max and her cat Pauline. The house is filled with the comfortable clutter of someone who doesn’t have to make room for anyone else, the screened porch filled with boxes and old toys, the living room with stacks of books, the kitchen with dishes. The spacious yard was cluttered with sheds and even a guest house, the flowers were glorious, the lawn very neatly mown by the boy across the street. The place was full of old signs – “Volkswagen parking only, all others will be crushed,” “We don’t use 9-1-1 here” – with a drawing of a gun barrel pointed straight out, and in the guesthouse “Please don’t take the sheets lest you inconvenience the next guests” and “friends welcome, relatives by appointment.”

Barb is cheery and friendly, clearly devoted to her extended family and delighted to spend the weekend with them, talking to her sisters and playing with the young children of her nieces and nephews. Like Ruth Ann, she can’t wait to stop working, and she’s hoping the post office will offer her early retirement this winter. But either way, she’s selling her house and her other car and moving into her van in the spring – though her boss doesn’t know it yet. (I hope the postmistress of Brimley, Michigan isn’t reading this!) Her older brother, a farmer in lower Michigan, teases her about being his goofy “little” sister, but he’s going to store her stuff when she goes on the road and she can use his address and come crash at his place when she needs to.

Barb is concerned about her weight and talks openly about it, though with her height she doesn’t look so heavy. In her first email to me, she told me that she’s planning to have a gastric bypass at the end of September. Once she has the surgery she won’t be able to eat processed sugar – indeed, she won’t be able to ask much of anything in more than very small quantities. For now, she’s enjoying the carnival food at the fair. She agreed that it was a bit strange to think “this is the last time I’ll ever be able to eat these things.” But she’s very glad to be having the surgery, she’s relieved that all the side effects of her weight – wheezing, aches and pains, inability to do things she wants to do – will go away. She’s talked with many people who have had the surgery and they’ve been delighted that they did it. She knows it’s not the answer to why food is a battle for her, but resolving those issues will be easier when she’s not also dealing with their side effects.

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