First published in the Los Angeles Times.
One bright, rainy September, my mother and I walked from Edinburgh to Dundee. Every day we trekked about six to 11 miles, along a skull-gray coast, on ancient tracks and lanes recently united under the banner of the Fife Coastal Path. A work in progress, the path sometimes petered out into a cow field or a tumble-down castle on a bluff above the North Sea.
Though my mother was approaching 70 and I was close to 50, our relationship was still a work in progress, full of twists and hairpin turns. And it had been ages since we had spent so much time together.
Like all trips involving more than one person, this one was built on compromise. It was a struggle to find a 10-day stretch both of us could commit to. And for this trip, my mother wanted something familiar. Maybe an English-speaking country, where you could get a recognizable meal. I lobbied for economy and for a place I’d never been. We settled on a self-guided walking tour of southeastern Scotland; our luggage would be sent ahead each day to the next inn.
We walked along craigs (cliffs) and through harr (coastal fog); locals emerging from the mist were friendly but spoke as though their mouths were full of thistle. Whenever we asked directions or just said hello, these residents of Fife look alarmed. It turned out they couldn’t understand a word we were saying either. For years my mother and I couldn’t understand each other; now we were the only ones who could.
We shared a room every night, spent all day together on the trail and tried not to blame each other when getting lost added more miles to the day’s total, or when our room at the end of the day was something to be endured rather than enjoyed.
One day, on the trail, my mother asked me one too many times to get something out of her pack and then put it back in. Digging into my mother’s daypack started to feel queasily cozy, as if the zippered compartments were recesses in our own bodies. And later, when my mother couldn’t find her medicine and started to freak out, I called her a catastrophist. For some reason she didn’t appreciate this assessment. At dinner, conversation was strained.
The great thing about a walking tour is that you can literally walk it off, whatever it may be. Walking is powerful medicine — maybe the most powerful I know. And as we walked, it became both model and metaphor: By moving forward, one step at a time, we could get through anything. Or so we hoped.
Mother-daughter closeness wasn’t all bad. A few nights later we were eating dinner at the Crusoe Hotel in Lower Largo. Three Dutch businessmen struck up a conversation. Sales reps for a paint company, they were part of a centuries-old tradition of trade between Scotland and the Netherlands. They were also excellent conversationalists and gallant flirts.
Walking back to that night’s inn, I asked my mother, “How old do you think those Dutch guys were?”
“Wait,” she said, though I wasn’t pressing her. “I have to think.”
I thought too, picturing each face. We walked half a block, the gentle slap of the waves still audible even as we made our way inland. “Ready,” we both said at the same moment. When we laughed, even our laughs were of the same timbre and duration. We didn’t come up with the same ages for the flirty Dutchmen, but our decision-making process was identical.
Putting one foot in front of the other, hour after hour, day after day, pulled us into the present like nothing else I’ve done. History was everywhere: in seaside caves graffitied with 5th century Pictish glyphs, in medieval castles featured in Shakespeare plays, in clearings where the last witch was burned in 1644. Where history is so palpable, death seems closer, inviting you to contemplate your own, or that of those closest to you.
At the 12th century churchyard in Crail, on a hill above the harbor, we admired the multicolored lichen on old stone walls. And we read headstone after headstone, as if looking for clues to our own mortality.
I could tell my mother was saddened by the short life spans on so many stones, and I reminded myself that the very time we were spending together was fast running out.
I joined her in front of a weathered stone for an 8-year-old girl who had lived and died more than 100 years ago. “Sometimes,” I said, “I lay awake and think of how much of my life has gone by.”
She laughed, because, of course, even more of her life had gone by.
“Is that silly?” I asked.
“Not at all. I do it all the time. I don’t like the system at all.”
“The system?” I asked.
“That you’re born and then you die.”
“Oh,” I said. “That system.”
On one of our last nights out, we ordered a bottle of wine and cullen skink, a thick stew of haddock and potatoes that smelled of the sea. My mother had a proposition. “People tend to dwell on the negative,” she said. “I’m no exception. But let’s do something. I’ll tell you everything I appreciate about you, and you tell me what you appreciate about me.”
I groaned. “Can we finish the wine first?”
She ignored me and told me she appreciated my willingness to ask for better rooms in hotels and better tables at restaurants. She appreciated my sense of humor, she said, and I knew that one was true: I made her laugh so hard that she had to stop on the trail and cross her legs.
I told her I appreciated how hardy she was — nearly 70 and walking long wet days with little complaint. I appreciated that when we hit a rough spot, she was quick to recover and offer a hug. And I really liked that every morning, she got us going with a cheerful, “Are you ready to walk?”
The last few days flew by, and before we knew it, we were heading home. On the flight I remembered the taxi driver in Dundee. Hearing of our walk, he appraised us in the rear-view mirror. “And could you find nothing better to spend your dollars on?” he asked.
In the hushed cabin far above the Atlantic, I thought: No, sir. I can think of nothing better than to walk along an unfamiliar coast with the person I’ve known longer than any other, sharing a physical trial that becomes a bond, traveling light so there’s no room for grudges, giving ourselves time to walk off minor irritations and ambling ever closer to a relationship that wouldn’t have been possible 20 or even 10 years ago, when I, at least, was sure I had all the time in the world.
We parted at the airport that evening, but the next morning I gave my mother a call. I said what she had been saying every morning and which I missed already: “Are you ready to walk?”