Our (ex)Boss's Bed

CANNOCK & PORTSMOUTH, ENGLAND: January 23-27, 2014

Leah: Sometimes you find yourself donning your PJs in your former boss’s childhood room and marveling at just how surreal this life-on-the-road business can be as you tuck yourself snugly into her bed and fall asleep staring at a wall of timeworn cassette mix tapes and adventure travel publications. Yes, our first stop in England was none other than a delightful house in Cannock, outside Birmingham, where we’d be staying with Patricia and Michael, none other than the endearing and worldly parents of a certain Anna McCormack our former Hetta Huskies (HH) boss.

Pat had begged us to swing by once we hit England and we were all too delighted to oblige, especially because we had so enjoyed getting to know them when they visited Hetta while we were there. The petite, spry and sharp-as-a-tack Patricia waved us a greeting as we made our way down the train platform after journeying that morning from Glasgow to Birmingham to Cannock. With a knitted cap pulled firmly over her white hair to shield against the cold she whisked us back to the house where we were thrilled to greet Mike again, the bespeckled, blue-eyed and gentle-souled patriarch of the family.

We were only just getting over the slightly bizarre thrill of feeling like voyeurs into Anna’s private family life when Patricia bade us follow her upstairs, upon which she flung open the door to Anna’s room and merrily announced that we’d be sleeping in there during our stay. Outdoor adventure gear filled the boxes and tubs festooning one wall and everywhere there were pictures of Anna: riding horses, kayaking, climbing, cycling, even marrying Pasi, our other former boss. There were toys and books for Eliel, her son, to use when he comes for a visit, along with myriad pairs of footgear, topographical maps and magazines piled high in stacks. Once the shell-shock of being in this intimate space wore off we traipsed downstairs to catch up with Pat and Mike.

As it fortunately happened, our timing coincided perfectly with being able to rendezvous with Tim, a fellow HH guide and the resident builder who was at Hetta for the duration of our stay. He had only recently left the Arctic north and wouldn’t be going back until summer, so he was passing the time helping Anna’s parents until he had to be at another job in a few weeks. Seeing Tim again--without near as much scraggly beard!--and catching up on the HH gossip was something we had been looking forward to and we eagerly settled in to listen. Apparently two guides whom we had worked with during our stay as well secretly and permanently absconded on their day off without notifying anyone (which included leaving with all their loaned and pricey kit), another left early with only five day’s notice and another came and left within a few days because he thought he’d have a lot more free time (sounds like somebody didn’t read the volunteer manual).

All this means that the workload, which is supposed to taper off temporarily in January after the December insanity, increased exponentially for the remaining guides who are now spread thin between the two farms and battling low spirits and constant exhaustion. We weren’t happy to hear any of this and our hearts went out not only to our comrades and the owners, but to the hundreds of dogs who are the ones who ultimately suffer when guides don’t follow through on commitments. In fact, we were more angered by it than anything else and had to quell our tongues and try to maintain an air of respectful decorum in front of Anna’s parents, although of course they had already heard it and were just as upset.
Bad news aside, we were spoiled rotten while in Cannock. Pat shipped us off across the street to the new recreation center where we enjoyed an afternoon swimming and sauna-ing on her dime. She had breakfast staged in multiple courses (oatmeal and then a fry-up along with yogurt and toast) and we were always provided with hearty and filling lunches and dinners as well. Of course we helped where we could (and when she’d let us), but a quiet room, warm house, endless food and treats and interesting conversation left us feeling like a king and queen.

The cherry on top came when three additional HH guides arrived on the weekend so we could meet up and have an old-meets-new reunion. Hamish, George and Jenya were as diverse as they come, but each of these guys was a joy to get to know especially since we’d heard about them during our time in Hetta and felt like we were already acquainted to a degree. Pat clucked around like a mother hen, clearly delighted at having six HH guides under her wing for the time being. With everyone arrived we set out with packed sandwiches, fruit and chocolate bars at the ready on a little hike in the nearby reserve so we could get acquainted and give her time to ready the evening meal.

Hamish is currently studying for his second master’s degree in his pursuit of his goal to be stationed at a pole and was also one of the guides who helped save our favorite dog, Theta, when she was a sickly puppy. George was the youngest of the group at 20 but he’s already an accomplished bush craftsman with a ready smile and obvious work ethic that allows him to pursue his wanderlust. Jenya is the son of Russian immigrants and is currently a trainee teacher; he also regaled us with stories of Theta as a pup, like the time he brought her in to sleep with him and she pooed and peed all over his sleeping bag. These guys were a hoot and we relished hearing stories about Hetta through the years and keeping them up to speed with what had happened since they were last there.

We made it back to the house after driving through a certifiably scary hail and rain storm, where we hunkered down over mugs of tea and coffee and tried to warm our cores. That night Patricia had made reservations at their local Conservative Club where there’d be live music and a chance to get some drinks while avoiding the riff-raff and loud club music that dominated the other bars in the area. Once again, never in a million years could I have foreseen getting my buzz on with my former supervisor’s parents. As the pints flowed, the guitarist crooned covers of golden oldies I had grown up with and the evening dissolved into a swirling cloud of warmth and family. The following day (George and Jenya spent the night as well) we were all treated to a delectable carvery lunch at a local hotel—your choice of meat, plus loads of stuffing, vegetables and sauces. We had surpassed feeling spoiled and now just felt uncomfortable with Pat and Mike’s generosity, but they really did seem to come alive with all of us around so we just tried to go with it. All too soon it was time to bid the boys farewell as they headed back to their trains and cars that would bear them home, and we followed the next day when Pat dropped us at the train platform. What a quirky and fulfilling visit—the HH family truly is magnificent.

We had another stint with a traveler we had crossed paths with earlier in our trip lined up soon thereafter in the very south of England, but since she wasn’t immediately available we had planned to overnight nearby in Portsmouth. Our Couchsurfing tenacity also paid off in the form of free lodging for the evening with Andréa, a student from Switzerland, and his boyfriend, Aaron, a lifetime Portsmouth resident. These guys made us feel right at home, from Andréa collecting us from the bus to Aaron’s witty car tour of the city as we zipped along the neighborhoods and waterfront trying to absorb it all before the encroaching darkness beat us to it. Although we didn’t get to see much, Portsmouth still struck us as a charming seaside city with park spaces and beach expanses that even reminded us of San Diego. Our hosts even made us a divine leek tart and carrot salad for dinner and when we weren’t laughing at just how much their cat reminded us of Puss in Boots from Shrek (he had eyes that could consume his face), we were gabbing for hours about travel stories and life philosophies...as all Couchsurfers do.

It was a brilliant way to enter England and even though we’re still smarting at having to leave idyllic Lismore, we’re almost into the final month countdown till we hit American soil. ACK!

P.S. I am ashamed to say that there were no pictures taken in either Cannock or Portsmouth. Nope, not even any of the HH mini reunion. Therefore, we had no choice but to leave you with snaps of a Virgin train toilet lid and a scrumptious breakfast out in Portsmouth. Blog fail.


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