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MINDFUL TRAVEL: Finding the exotic and yourself in your own backyard

Travel writer Sandra Phinney set out to explore Yarmouth County and blog about it for 30 days last July.
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Sixteen months ago — while battling the longest winter in living memory — I started thinking about summer travel plans.

What to do? Where to go? What to write about? 

Then serendipity stepped in. I read a blog by travel-writing colleague Melanie Chambers titled Toronto bound. Knowing that she lived in Toronto, I wondered, What on earth does she mean? 

Melanie opened her blog by saying, “When I’m away, I become someone else. Instinct and spontaneity return. Without the stress of work, without the familiarity locking me into habits and patterns, I listen to my gut, which means, I also take risks. I become more, well, more me!” 

I found myself nodding in agreement. 

She went on to say that she planned to travel in her own backyard that summer.

Within seconds I impulsively fired off a comment which said, “Frikkin’ brilliant m’dear. You’ve inspired me to do the same.”

Before I could digest what, exactly, I had committed to, my inbox pinged with an email from Melanie. 

“What about we do it together for 30 days and blog about it?”

Gulp. 

“Agreed,” said I. 

The thought of actually doing this left me feeling giddy — much like a kid about to explore a cave for the first time.  

Psycho-what?

This all had come on the heels of reading books and articles about psychogeography — a new concept for me — although most of what I read on the topic was esoteric jargon and not easily digested. 

However, author Merlin Coverley unravelled the psycho-babble. He says in his book, “Psychogeography seeks to overcome the process of banalization by which the everyday experiences of our surroundings become one of drab monotony.” 

Coverley adds that if we look at a city as a site of mystery, and wander/walk in an area with our blinders off, we’ll discover “the true nature that lies beneath the flux of the everyday.” 

I substituted towns and villages for the word “cities,” and started looking for the exotic right under my nose. I didn’t have to look far. 

Local newspapers and online community sites provided tons of fodder — everything from bean suppers and strawberry festivals, to a display with real snakes in a local library and classical concert with world-class musicians in a tiny church. 

Some days I invited friends or family to join me for day excursions. We threw axes at bull’s-eyes in Barrington, discovered giant cannon-like guns on McNutts Island, learned how to smoke herring in Saulnierville, swam “au naturel” in a pond below some little-known waterfalls in Clare and did a night-sky walk in Church Point accompanied by a bazillion fireflies.   

As some friends have special interests, I also found myself rockhounding, foraging, and listening to titillating tales in old cemeteries. 

The 10k challenge (no, not a race)

At one point I took out a topographical map and wondered out loud, “What can I discover within a 10-kilometre radius of my front door?” 

Now, you have to understand that my husband and I live in an isolated part of Yarmouth County called Canaan. There are no neighbours in sight. Yet, spanning three days, the list of things I discovered was astounding. I called the excursion “Going Psycho.” (Short for psychogeography, of course.) And I wrote about my discoveries in The July Project.

Then as the project came to a close, on the 30th day, I cruised around Yarmouth from midnight to 6 a.m., seeing what I could see. I drove up and down the main drag and side streets in the rain and fog, visited cemeteries, went to outpatients at the hospital, visited Tim Hortons, ad infinitum. 

Every time I drove downtown on Main Street, I kept seeing an SUV with a guy behind the wheel parked in front of the Bank of Nova Scotia. At first, I assumed he was there to get money. But when I saw him in the same spot at 2:10 a.m., 3:45 a.m. and 4:40 a.m., it felt rather creepy.  

I was at the Cape Forchu Lighthouse, and as light started to sift over the horizon and the sky shifted from a shade of charcoal to grainy shade of grey, I wondered about this guy. I wanted to find out if he was looking for a pickup, or if this was his way of coping with sleeplessness. Maybe he couldn’t afford a hotel. Or maybe he was simply a weirdo.

By the time I got back from the lighthouse, I had mustered up the courage to knock on his car door and strike up conversation. I was both scared and nervous, but I was pumped.   

Only, when I got downtown, the SUV was gone. I was profoundly disappointed. I had missed my opportunity for a story. And it’s not as if I didn’t have several chances.  

Lesson learned. 

On my way home I made a pit stop at McDonald’s for a coffee. At 6:05 a.m. there was only one customer at the counter. He was wearing shorts and had the most gorgeous tattoos on his legs — a small consolation prize.     

Your turn

The entire July project was both simple and complex. A straight line of chronological events, yet each one layered — like feathers on a bird. I learned all kinds of things I didn’t know about people and places in my own backyard. 

I also learned a lot about myself.   

So, dear reader, how about taking on the challenge to see what you can see (and do) in a 10- to 60-kilometre radius of your own home? Take three days or 30. Matters not. Just do it. And how about sharing the results? I’d love to hear from you!



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