A mother — it goes without saying — can have a profound effect on a person’s life. Sometimes, it takes a decade or two of careful nurturing to mould a child into an adult, but often a single sentence will do the job. That single remark can reverberate throughout life, giving a person an eternal guidepost, a benchmark to judge his or her progress towards whatever goals he or she has set.
My mother uttered such a comment when I returned from my first solo trip abroad many years ago.
It was neither an ambitious nor a very long journey, but it had its points of interest. First I took a series of buses across the United States to the Mexican border at Brownsville, Texas.
After a drizzly night beneath the international bridge, where I met a couple of friendly illegals who initially mistook me for one of them, I criss-crossed Mexico from the Gulf to the Pacific and back again on yet more buses. I visited slums, resorts, ancient empty ruins and modern bustling cities from Matamoros to Mazatlan and on towards, but not reaching, the Yucatan Peninsula.
Shrinking funds forced my return north to the U.S., where I hitchhiked the Appalachian Mountains into Atlantic Canada before thumbing to the Ontario farm where my parents still lived in those years.
I saw and experienced much on that trip that enriched and strengthened me, as well as some stuff that scared me silly. I survived storms, suspicious police, thieves, racists and con artists of all ages. I weathered one marriage proposal and several other suggestions of a similar nature — all of which I declined.
One morning, I awoke on a sandy beach with the morning sun glinting through woven fronds, surrounded and observed by an army of small red crabs who skittered away to their hidey-holes when I showed signs of life.
Another morning, I awoke with my chastity somehow preserved, or rather no further diminished, despite having innocently stumbled into what must have been one of the larger brothels in North America — my perceptions having been clouded by bus-induced exhaustion.
On yet another morning, I greeted daybreak from the top of the huge Pyramid of the Sun north of Mexico City, watching in awe as golden light flooded the plains beneath me. It was as if I stood on the very pinnacle of the Earth.
However, none of those experiences stick with me today half as much as what my mother told me when I stood in her doorway after more than two months on the road.
“You’ve lost weight,” she said.
Three decades have since passed, but no one has ever said that to me again. I live an active lifestyle, despite working in a profession that requires me to sit for long hours at a desk, but unfortunately I also have a healthy appetite that tends to stray towards the not-so-healthy food groups. I can easily lose the progress gained from weeks of dedicated gym work to a single midnight snack.
Of course, I can think of a good many reasons for retracing my steps to Mexico and then to continue on to the very bottom of South America beyond Tierra del Fuego to Cape Horn itself, if possible, without having to use the trip as a diet plan. The perpetual fascination of seeing new places, meeting new people and encountering new cultures is certainly enough.
Right now, however, there’s also the happy fact that if an election is called while I’m gone, I’ll still be able to vote from abroad, but I won’t have to endure the annoying campaigns first-hand.
So, while my mother’s words are not the main reason for my travelling from one end of this continent to the far end of the next one and back again, overland by train and bus and by boat when the roads end, I can’t help but remember what she said.
If things get tough along the way, I’ll be able to bolster my spirits with the almost certain hope that when I get home, I might be able to wear my size 34 jeans once again.
Michael Johansen is a writer living in Labrador.