Six Month Reflection

It’s almost impossible to believe that today marks six full months of travel. If you had told me this time last year that I would be in Bulgaria, having been on the road for 26 weeks, been through 15 countries, seen countless incredible sights, made so many wonderful friends, and managed to add seven more dogs to my Menagerie (oops), I would have rolled my eyes and told you you were crazier then I am, and that’s saying something. Yet here I sit, tucked in the little caravan that has been my home for the last six months, and I have done all of those things and more. It’s weird to contemplate how different my life is then I thought it would be a year ago, and more, to really grasp how I feel about the changes.

I “knew” travelling with all my animals around Europe with no plan and little money was going to be challenging. Everyone knew that. But I had no idea just how plain hard it would be. I could never have anticipated the stress involved with not being able to afford campsites, food, gas, and vet care. I couldn’t have known how often we would be coasting in to a truck stop on the last fumes of gas, or what it would be like to not be able to find any rest stops as the last rays of sun were setting behind yet another mountain. When we lost phone service and reliable WiFi we faced a generational challenge that I know our parents would have laughed at… but you can’t find truck stops on a map!!

The reality of six large dogs and five cats cooped up in a tiny caravan and car is actually brutal… there is nothing fun or exciting about it. It’s dirty, hairy, smelly, and crowded. No amount of vacuuming or wiping down can keep the sheer volume of animal at bay. On the days when there’s no place for off leash walking, the dogs pick fights with each other and the cats to work off energy. Or they bark incessantly until your head wants to explode and you can’t think straight.

I’ve struggled with nightmares and insomnia for years due to PTSD, but on this trip sleep has become a distant memory. The few hours I do catch are often interrupted by high beams at truck stops, drunks throwing up in front of the caravan, or dogs and cats simply stepping all over me in an effort to find a place to lay down. And the fact that I haven’t had any sleep doesn’t stop the fact that they all want breakfast, potty breaks, and walks at the crack of dawn. There’s no option to just throw the door open and let them run around the yard for a bit like back home… it requires fully getting up, getting dressed, putting on leashes, yelling for everyone to shut up and sit down so you can do all those things, and then being dragged out the door and across a parking lot to the nearest grass so the business can get underway. This is rain or shine, snow or blazing heat, day and night. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve closed my eyes and wished myself back to England in my great big house with my huge fenced garden and a husband to lean on when it gets to be too much for me. That’s not an option out here on the road so we just get on with it, albeit with plenty of griping and swearing at the animals and at each other when Trav and I have reached the end of our ropes.

Other challenges are more unexpected. Laundry has been our biggest shock. Laundromats such as we have back in the States are not a thing through much of Europe, especially not in small town, rural Europe where we spend the vast majority of our time. We can go a month between finding laundry options and while I have enough clothes to get through it, poor Travis suffers. More, the bedding suffers. Usually I would change sheets once a week at minimum… I’m used to hair but this is a whole different ball game and it drives me crazy. Showering is another issue. In countries with good truck stops we did okay, but when we entered the Balkans, things weren’t so easy. Here in Bulgaria we have access to a house and shower, except it’s winter time, and the pipes freeze regularly. We’ve gotten real good at washing by baby wipes or showering in 60 seconds when there’s enough hot water to do so. They claim that not washing your hair too often is actually good for it… well mine is being put to the ultimate test; I’m not sure I’m impressed.

The reality of life on the road is that there isn’t a lot of what you see in the photos or on those travel shows. We sight see once in a blue moon and in some counties have missed the best sights altogether because they aren’t practical with dogs in tow. It’s not one big adventure day to the next; most of the time it’s just trying to stretch the last few dollars to feed us all until next month’s pay check and be able to afford the gas to get us to the next country or safe place. It’s wondering how to cook food with no stove and no place to start a fire, and how to stay warm with no electricity when the temperatures drop below zero (the animals are real helpful there)! It’s never knowing where we are or where we’re going next, and often not being able to read the signs that are directing us there. It’s a lot of communication by hand and Google translate and often knowing that neither party has a clue what’s been said. It’s hard and it’s depressing and it’s frustrating and it’s often lonely even with each other and the animals for company.

But all that being said, I wouldn’t take back a single moment of the last six months. We maybe be living rough, we may be taking the longer, tougher road, but damn are we living life to the fullest. No one can say that we haven’t taken the bit in our teeth and ran with it.

I’ve bathed in a lake in Denmark and stood on the spot where two seas meet. I’ve traversed most of Poland in an attempt to enter the Ukraine (which admittedly failed). But I’ve walked the castle in Krakow and gazed through the gates of Auschwitz. I’ve ridden native horses in the Czech Republic and watched traditional song and dance at one of their local village fairs. We made friends there, from both the Czech and from all the way from China. In Austria we may have seen some of the worst of life, but we also saw some of the best. I drove Standardbred racehorses and summitted my first mountains. I rode in ski lifts with my service dogs and danced on the streets of Hallstatt with Wasi. I saw Vienna through my family’s eyes, rediscovered Austria’s beauty through them when it had all gone a bit sour. The friends we made it Austria will be ones we keep for life: we’ve revisited some already and have others coming to see us next month! I finally made it to Italy, and the magic of Venice. There’s more to discover there but at least I got a taste. A dear friend joined us there and made it all the more special.

Entering the Balkans, we had no expectations, no ideas of what life would be like here. In Croatia we were introduced to Rakia (ewww by the way), perfect beaches and the friendliest people around. Bosnia and Herzegovina stole my heart with its unexpected charm and harsh mountain beauty. There I rode horses free across lands littered with the ruins of ancient people’s. The recent tragedy only made the people’s determination to move forward all the more inspiring. We lived in a town that had been at the center of the war, where houses still bore the bullet holes and bombed out craters of the violence. Our hosts there has experienced the war first hand, one on the front lines, another having to give up his eight month old daughter to keep her safe. The shadows of what they lived through was often still visible in their eyes and their hard exterior, though when you got to know them, they were people just like us who wanted peace and prosperity just like people everywhere. They shared their stories and it was impossible not to feel their pain. It was humbling and frightening and inspiring all at once.

Our time in Serbia was too short but we reunited with one of the friends we made in Austria and he shared life there with us. We met his family, had dinner made by his grandmother (amazing by the way). We helped move a (very large) pig and played with some piglets. Our friend shared his family’a story with us, how life had improved for them but there was still more they hoped to do with the house. We talked about the protests in Belgrade and how politics are the same no matter where you are in the world. And again it was brought home to us how very alike people are, no matter where they may be… we’re really all the same at heart.

Now we’re in Bulgaria. In the last six months we’ve rescued two dogs and successfully rehomed one. The second dog has a home waiting for her when she weans her puppies. Somehow I’m once again raising a litter of six puppies born on my bed, nearly seven years exactly since my Nefsi was born. I was just divorced then too; how’s that for life coming full circle? My own dogs and cats are happy and healthy. Wasi will celebrate his one year birthday tomorrow; he will have spent exactly half his life living on the road. That’s one well travelled pup! We lost our precious Sami but we’ve never forgotten her, not even for a moment… she’s still apart of our Menagerie in spirit.

I don’t know what happens next. I don’t know where we will go when our time in Bulgaria is up, or how we will get there. Outside factors have made life all the more difficult right now; especially financially, but I imagine we will get through it. I long to return to England, to my horses, my friends, my life there, but I know it’s not possible right now. There’s so much more to see, so much more to do, and we’ve finally gotten the hang of this life on the road so I suppose we should take advantage; lord knows I’ll never do a trip quite this way again! But it’s certainly been one hell of an adventure so far, and I’m glad it’s not over yet!

DOG RESCUE: Gabrova

As most of our followers already know, we were only a few days free of Kova before our second rescue dog entered the picture. Upon arriving in Bulgaria and meeting our hostess Dee, it quickly became clear that we had one major thing in common: animals. Specifically, animal rescue. Less than a week after we arrived there, we were asked by Dee and her friend Krissy if we would be willing to step in and save a street dog that had been running around the village for a few weeks.

My instinct at the request was initially to say no. First of all, we’d already seen what having a seventh dog along was like with our travels, and it was exhausting. Though we hoped to stay in Bulgaria for a few months, I was concerned that if the host arrangement didn’t work out, we’d be stuck with another dog on the road. Second, the dog in question didn’t meet the criteria Travis and I had agreed to when we acknowledged we were willing to rescue animals on this trip; namely, she was not starving nor was she in what we would consider crisis since a couple locals were feeding her twice a day. So I was reluctant to say the least.

Two things convinced me to change my mind. The first was the news that the Kmet (the village mayor), who hates dogs, had decided the dog in question was a nuisance and had arranged to have her picked up by local animal control and transport her to the shelter. On the surface, this may seem like a positive option for a dog, it gets them off the streets at least. But animal shelters in Bulgaria aren’t like animal shelters elsewhere… the reality was that this was a death sentence for the dog. The second was the first picture of the dog I saw. It was, for a moment, like looking at a ghost.

Nearly a decade ago, I rescued a puppy in a national park in Kentucky. I named him Zilpo after the park we found him in. He was one of the best dogs I’ve ever had, and ultimately, he lived his life out with Travis’s family after I joined the Air Force. We lost Zilpo only a few months ago, far too early. When I saw this dog’s pictures, it was like looking in to Zilpo’s sweet face again: I couldn’t say no.

We went to pick her up on a Saturday night. She was waiting with Krissy in front of the apartment complex, and she came straight to me, shy but sweet. In the first glance, I once again balked… she was very clearly very pregnant. To be honest, in that moment I almost backed out. Seven dogs temporarily is one thing; but puppies? In my tiny caravan? And an intact female who would not be able to be spayed promptly with my intact Wasi who is quickly becoming very aware he still has his balls? It was a recipe for disaster. In the end though, it was the very fact that she was pregnant that swayed me to follow through: if the shelter option has been a likely death sentence before, it was a 100% certainty she, and her puppies, would be dead within the day if we sent her there now.

I named our new rescue Gabrova on the five minute ride back up the hill, for the region of Bulgaria we are in. I call her Gabbie. She spent the first night in the car since it was too dark to try a pack introduction. I barely slept that night, worrying she was too cold and too pregnant. The next morning I woke up, put her on a leash, and brought her in to the caravan. It was a risky introduction, completely unlike me. But some instinct told me that it would be okay with this dog.

And it was. Gabbie was the perfect mix of submissive and stand her own ground. My other dogs took to her like she’d always been a part of the pack. Only Wasi was initially a problem, because he fell head over heels and abused her constantly. She put him firmly in his place until he got his hormones under control. The other dogs barely seemed to notice she was there. Even Moomkin liked her straight off.

Over the next few weeks, Gabbie stole my heart. She is sweet, faithful, silly, and just plain wonderful. In all my years of animal rescue, only Syn has been a foster failure. I am very good at rehoming the animals I take on. With Gabbie, it was a daily struggle to even consider finding her a new home. She just… fit. So you can imagine my heart break when the perfect family came forward for her. I was torn completely in two. I didn’t need a seventh dog by any means, but I love Gabbie, fully and completely, in a way I rarely do even with my own dogs. It took all my common sense, and the fact that it truly is the absolutely perfect family to convince me to commit to letting her go.

Gabbie’s new family is waiting patiently for her in Scotland. They keep in touch and are already as in love with her as I am. I know she will be happy there and that I made the right decision. I’m trying to savour every moment I have with her now, since I know one day soon I will have to give her up. In the meantime, I’m not only getting to love Gabbie, but I’m also getting to love the six healthy puppies she gave birth to on the night of January 2, into the early hours of January 3. Sadly, I only had 48 hours with tiny puppy number seven, Zagora, who was just too small for this great big world… but at least I got that with her.

To bring this story full circle, one of Gabbie’s puppies will be returning back to the States with Travis to live with his family there… because I am 100% positive that Zilpo was born again in this litter, and we’re getting our very own version of A Dog’s Tale. It’s a fitting link in a rescue tale that almost didn’t happen because she didn’t “fit the criteria.” Gabbie brought us new life in more ways then one, we will always be thankful.

Sunrise In Her Eye

Today was a simple day of errands: picked up the Suby (who now has had an oil change and a brand new battery), went to the pharmacy and was shocked to learn I could get refills on all my prescriptions without having to see a doctor, including my happy pills which I haven’t had for nearly two months, much to Travis’s dismay (except birth control, the pharmacists English wasn’t great, but I think she was telling me that they don’t do that in BiH… huh, who knew), and drove by the store for Snickers (my staple candy since there are no Reese’s to be had) and fire starter (because I’m still completely useless at starting one and use at least one box a day).  Really I only wrote this blog post at all because I wanted to share this stunning photo that I caught purely by chance of Nibble this morning… hope you enjoy the sunrise in her eye!

LOOKING BACK: The Shetland and Orkney Islands

Warning: Longer Post

I realised a few days after Travis left that I hadn’t been entirely truthful when I said this is the first time that I’ve been alone in who knows how many years.  Actually, I was surprised at myself for having forgotten the most recent time that I was completely and totally on my own, considering that those two weeks last year were actually the catalyst of this very trip.  So I think it might be a good time to remind myself that I actually have survived on my own before, while traveling, and having faced quite a few unexpected obstacles.

In August 2017, I was very much in denial about the pending end of my marriage.  For nearly six months, I had been steadfastly refusing to acknowledge that I was on the verge of losing the man I loved and a life I desperately wanted.  I’d been doing everything in my power to turn the tide towards reconciliation, including throwing myself whole heartedly in to a marriage renewal program I found online (Side note: While this program would ultimately fail to save my own marriage, I actually found it to be incredibly helpful and enlightening… it changed the entire way I think about marriage and long term relationships, and I would recommend it to any couple whether their relationship is in trouble or not.  In many ways, Marriage Fiteess by Mort Fertel taught me how to love, and I consider that one of the silver linings of having to get divorced, even if it came too late: https://marriagemax.com).

During this time, my husband had made a trip back to the States for family reasons, and as his return neared, I began to realise that I literally couldn’t face him.  I needed some time and some space from the situation to come to terms with what was happening, so I packed my bags one day, loaded Nefsi, Moomkin and Nibble in to my Subaru and hit the road.  I had absolutely no game place other than to drive “north” which I did aimlessly over the next couple days.  Eventually I found myself in Aberdeen, on the coast of Scotland.  I happened to drive by the ferry dock, and out of curiosity, stopped to see just where the ferries were headed.  Fifteen minutes later I walked out with a ticket to the Shetland Islands, which I had heard of only with reference to the Shetland pony and whose actual geographic location was a mystery to me.

You can probably imagine my shock when I boarded the ferry and learned that it was an eight hour, overnight trip to the Shetland Islands.  I hadn’t actually paid the least bit of attention when booking, and I assumed we were headed on a short trip to an island off the coast.  So ending up in a subarctic archipelago of over 100 islands was a surprise to say the least.  It turned out to be one of the most pleasant surprises of my life.

The Shetland Islands are not a hot spot tourist destination, which means that while people are definitely missing out, the islands remain a wonderfully pristine, almost untouched landscape.  There are pieces of Neolithic and Viking history dotting all of the islands, rarely preserved and almost never identified on any map or by sign.  The dogs and I spent a week wandering from island to island, stumbling over ruins that seemed to spring up out of the blue as we walked.  I walked through Viking places of worship, sat on beaches holding tools once used by ancient civilisations, and took in views that I could only have imagined in my dreams.  We slept in the car, sometimes at campsites, sometimes just where ever I could find.  The people were wonderful, the history fascinating, and the quiet and solitude, and absolute complete lack of phone service or wifi brought some much needed peace to my fried emotions.

At the end of my week in Shetland, I was taking a final drive up to the lighthouse on the south of the main island when I had a tyre blow out.  It was a Sunday, and thankfully, I was close enough to a major town to be able to reach an emergency car service… on the Scottish mainland.  It took a few hours and a great deal of begging, but eventually a local tow company agreed to bring me back in to Limerick, the main settlement and let me sleep at the garage until morning. First thing Monday, they gave me the bad news that they didn’t have the size tyres my Subaru Forester needed, and that it could take weeks to have the correct one shipped to them.  My best bet was to head for the Orkney Islands, which was more settled and should have a better selection.

So I booked another ferry ticket, this time for only a four hour journey south.  Unfortunately, the seas were not so calm for this trip, and the stress headache I had been nursing because of worry over the flat tyre turned in to a full blown, vicious migraine.  I hadn’t booked a cabin, and instead was sitting in the regular seating area where, about 30 minutes in to the roller coaster ride, I passed out.  I came around when Nefsi, who was traveling above deck with me (the mastiffs stayed in the car in the cargo hold), woke me with frantic licking.  At his insistence, I was able to gain my feet, bracing myself on him.  Of his own accord, he dragged me to mid ship, where he sought the first person he saw and whined adamantly to bring their attention to me slumped against the wall, blinded from the migraine.  A few hours later, when the ship captain came personally to wake me up and check that I had survived the rest of the journey, he told me that watching Nefsi work had been one of the most incredible things he and his crew had ever seen.  He was even more amazed when I informed him that Nefsi was not trained to brace, respond to migraines, or seek help from strangers…  but he wasn’t any more shocked then I was, who despite years with Nefsi at my side, couldn’t believe that he had known how to handle my sudden collapse and following blindness.  Once again, my dog had become what I needed without any training or guidance… my very own miracle.

When we arrived on the main Orkney Island, I was directed to the best mechanic in town, who was pleased to inform me that the had the size tyres I needed in stock.  A few moments later, we were both staring in dismay as not one, but two bolts snapped as we tried to remove them to change out the donut tyre.  Even worse, they did not have the right bolts available, and we would need to order them from the mainland; it would take a week for them to arrive.  I was still feeling sick from the ferry, and now I was frustrated and near desperation.  I was sleeping out of my car, unable to get home, alone with my dogs, and now I was facing the prospect of spending an entire week parked at a garage because the roads on the islands were no place to be driving on a donut.

Before I could even decide what I was going to spend the next week doing, the mechanic shocked me by motioning me over to a van parked just behind my own car.  It was his, and he didn’t need it for the week.  Would I like to take it while we waited on my bolts so that I could explore the islands and wouldn’t have to sleep at the garage?  The back seats were already out, so it would house the dogs nicely and I would easily be able to sleep in the back as I had been doing in the Suby.  I was shocked.  He was offering a perfect stranger his van so my trip wouldn’t be interrupted by my car troubles.  I gratefully accepted, marvelling at the kindness of people.

The van had no power steering, and anyone that knows me and my driving knows that made for a very funny breaking in period.  Reversing was especially challenging to start, and I spent most of the first day being passed on one lane roads by local drivers probably wondering why their friend’s van was struggling to make turns or go faster then 30 miles an hour.  But I did get the hang of it eventually, and the week that followed was truly spectacular.

The Orkney Islands are like a much more inhabited Shetland Islands, with the most notable difference being in how well preserved their historical sites are.  While it was possible to chance upon some old ruins here or there, more often then not, signs, visitor centres, and guide books were available to guide you around.  I stayed on the main island so that I would be close if my own car was unexpectedly finished, but there was plenty to see.  I bought a book that had a map in the back with each of the main sites marked and numbered.  I spent the week driving around the “Heart of Neolithic Orkney,” a UNESCO World Heritage Site, exploring Skara Brae, walking around the Standing Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar.  One of my favourite experiences was laying on a skateboard and pulleying myself in to the chambered tomb of Maes Howe.  I didn’t neglect some of the more “recent” history (and how amazing is it that 15th/16th/17th century ruins are recent there), taking time to see St. Magnus’ Cathedal, the Bishop’s Palace, the Earl’s Palace, and Skaill House.  In all, I managed to visit over half of the 40 sites on my map over the course of the week.

To this day, the Shetland and Orkney Islands are my favourite places that I’ve travelled to.  Spending two weeks exploring the civilisations and ruins that are older then the pyramids was mind boggling and truly humbling.  It was impossible not to reflect on my own situation in life and see it “in the big scheme of things.”  When I returned to England, and the man who no longer wanted me, I finally had begun to accept that the life I had dreamed of wasn’t coming true.  And the idea of travelling with my dogs as a path towards healing had taken root in my brain.  When my life finally finished imploding all the way a little over a year later, that idea seemed to bloom and grow until it couldn’t be ignored any longer.  And so, here I am, having last year visited the northernmost church in Britain, and now having taken in a service in BiH.  How far I have come, in more ways then one!