Los Angeles Times - - Travel - By Erin Van Rhee­nen

DUNDEE, Scot­land — One bright, rainy Septem­ber, my mother and I walked from Ed­in­burgh to Dundee. Ev­ery day we trekked about six to 11miles 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 is 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 to which both of us could com­mit. And my mother wanted some­thing fa­mil­iar. Maybe an English-speak­ing coun­try where you could get a rec­og­niz­able meal. I lob­bied 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 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 day pack 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.

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 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 caves graf­fi­tied with 5th cen­tury Pic­tish glyphs, in 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: “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 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, 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 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 ir­ri­ta­tions and am­bling ever closer to a re­la­tion­ship that wouldn’t have been pos­si­ble 20 or even 10 years ago.

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?”

Los An­ge­les Times

Erin Van Rhee­nen

THE WRITER’S mother uses a stile to clear a bar­rier.

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