Click. Clack. Click. Clack.
The heels of Anne’s leather boots pounded the empty cobblestone street. The leisured cadence echoed in the brisk night. A brilliant full moon hung above the village and lit thin streaks of clouds in a pale yellow hue. Orion’s long frame dominated the sky and lunged at the natural satellite just beyond his reach.
Without forethought, our feet carried us to the eastern battlements of the village’s ancient hilltop fortress. The last week had been a tour of medieval walled cities–Siena, Volterra, San Gimignano, Montalcino, Montepulciano–as we blazed through Tuscany and ended our Italian road trip in the Umbrian commune of Orvieto, the launching pad for the next morning’s descent on Rome to catch a flight out of the country.
Two months in Italy had been a dream, and on the eve of our departure I wanted to wind back the clock to redo everything that came before: the road trip through southern Spain, the week in Paris, even the moment that commenced all the planning when my wife’s persuasive and persistent arguments finally broke me down and convinced me to leave comfort and home for the adventure of a lifetime.
Anne took my arm and huddled closer when a breeze nibbled at our nose and cheeks. The wind carried a brutal chill, but we braced ourselves to savor our last night. In time, slow fretful steps led us back to our rented studio apartment off Corso Cavour. Warmth greeted us but packing awaited, as did our uncertainty about our next destination.
Housesitting had been the backup plan all along, kept safe behind protective glass: “BREAK IN THE EVENT THAT ALL THE MONEY IS GONE.” When our ability to afford lodging evaporated, we trolled websites such as Trusted Housesitters, Nomador, and Mind My House. Particularly popular in the United Kingdom, durations of stays ranged from days to months; locations varied between cities and remote Scottish islands.
We connected with one couple from northern England planning a three-week holiday to Africa in December. After a single Skype call, we allayed their fears about leaving four pets in our hands, and we committed to Christmas in Yorkshire as our time in Italy sped toward its conclusion.
Morning in Orvieto commenced an odyssey of planes, trains, and automobiles: a drive to Rome, a flight to London, a bus to Leeds, a train to a northwestern suburb of the industrial city.
Weary and wary, we disembarked at Guiseley Station, shoulder to shoulder with a throng of rush hour commuters. Standing out among the sea of faces on the platform, the warm smile of a recognizable stranger beamed at us through light rain.
“Ricky?” Anne asked hesitantly.
“Great to see you two!” Beneath his thick northern accent, the warmth of Ricky’s tone matched the wide, genuine smile that accompanied his greeting. He studied us, something imperceptible and pleasant flashing behind his eyes, then took hold of Anne’s suitcase. “Let’s get you out of this rain. Jan’s made a stew.”
Anne and I smiled at each other as we followed him to the parking lot. The doubts and worries that had accompanied us on our long day’s journey washed away with the steady rain.
We only had a day and a half together before Ricky and Jan’s flight to Addis Ababa, but in that limited window they went above and beyond to make their home feel like our own. Upon their departure, it became more and more the case.
Our first week alone in the house a thin sheet of snow covered Guiseley. The air hung above freezing and the sun hid behind a blanket of clouds. The hamster hibernated in his cage and a brother and sister feline tandem warmed our laps as we watched holiday movies in the evening.
Rusty, the sensitive centerpiece of the household, needed time to adjust to the two foreign strangers who appeared out of nowhere one black rainy night. In the beginning, the scruffy gray terrier with a sweet disposition kept his distance. He allowed us to take him on three walks a day but let us do little else.
A cold that had stalked Anne since Italy jumped to me once she turned the corner. The month progressed, the mercury climbed and the snow melted. A rotating diet of soups nursed me back to health, and my renewed vitality demanded an adventure greater than Rusty’s walks around the webbed streets of the subdivision.
A midday ritual took shape. A network of Public Footpaths connected Guiseley to nearby villages and carved up the surrounding countryside. We embarked on a new expedition every afternoon, and Rusty signed on to each assignment with increased enthusiasm.
Throughout the month, ominous gray skies conquered any fleeting glimpses of the sun. England never stayed dry for long and sludgy paths were a consistent feature of our adventures. Though Rusty knew an unwelcome bath awaited him at the house once we returned, he always vanquished the soggy soaked earth without hesitation.
The afternoon of our boldest mission, a curtain of fog devoured Guiseley and concealed houses more than three doors down. Undeterred, I zipped my layers and laced my boots while Rusty impatiently yelped and hopped at the front door.
We started our journey with a vague sense of where the next path would lead. Rusty fought my short lead on Hawksworth Lane–he countered his affinity for the wide-open freedom of nature with an inability to relax alongside a high-trafficked street–as we marched in a mist that tickled my cheeks.
At Hawksworth Village, a green sign pointed down an alley wedged between two cottages. Beyond, footprints embedded in the high wet grass of sweeping fields marked the path that ran parallel to a mossy stone wall and led away from the road.
Squish. Squash. Squish. Squash.
The soft ground absorbed each step, and the wall led us toward a tree line piercing the clouds. Sparse, bare trees spotted the gently rolling green land. Noisy traffic faded and each stride made us increasingly alone.
We charged through thick woods and hopped thin but raging streams. We trudged across spongy fields that swallowed each imprint of our boots and paws. Each step carried us further from home along sloppy and sluggish dirt roads, each turn revealed a fresh and flattering angle of the world.
Passed the eerie ruins of a roofless farmhouse and a crumbled barn, we conquered a steep slippery slope and stood atop a hill of long trampled grass weighed down by moisture. Our perch scanned the land we had conquered: the fog that danced above the woods and fields, that obscured the Hawksworth cottages completely.
A mostly masked ridge ran east above the village and pointed at the town I hadn’t known existed one month earlier, the place I had no desire to see our hesitant night in Orvieto, my home for a wet December that allowed two months in Italy to become a fond memory I could recall without regret. The thick atmosphere screened Guiseley but couldn’t erase it; nothing ever would.
Rusty grew restless and tugged on the leash. We circumvented the northern perimeter of the town of Baildon until a footpath angled north in the house’s general direction. Darkness was total and a fresh batch of rain began to fall when we arrived at the house.
Anne smirked at the muddy sight of her two intrepid housemates that stepped through the front door.
“I’ll give him the bath,” I blurted before she could issue the command.
“Dinner will be ready when you’re clean,” she answered and withdrew to the kitchen.
Ricky and Jan’s return approached. Christmas came and went in the foreign land, and questions deferred for three weeks about what to do next suddenly arose such a clatter. Anne and I tidied the house in nervous anticipation of another goodbye, and the dog sniffed out the shifting wind as he followed us from room to room.
Rusty’s curiosity became delight when his parents burst through the front door one early afternoon. We tried to recede from the activity, assuming Ricky and Jan wanted their house to themselves, but three weeks off-grid in exotic countries had made them no less sweet and hospitable. They pushed us to stay as long as we needed and organized a New Year’s Eve party for the following evening.
We shared the home and Rusty’s affections. They told us stories about sleeping in huts atop remote canyons. We told them about our long walks to places like Chevin Park where the ridge overlooks Guiseley to one direction and the Wharfe Valley to the other.
The evening of the party, Jan hustled in the kitchen to prepare more food than the expected attendees could possibly consume. Ricky, nursing an upset stomach since his return from Africa, emerged from his bedroom and tackled his ailment with a tall can of Tetley’s.
Anne and I slipped away before the guests arrived. Housesitting had bought us an extra month abroad, but it was time to chart our way home. Though reluctant to accumulate another farewell, we had to move forward. Our doubtful night in Orvieto failed to anticipate everything we gained in Guiseley, and the unknown gifts of the next destination called to us again.
Finally, with conviction rather than misgivings, we booked a train from Leeds the next morning and a flight from London to America at week’s end.
Jake–Ricky and Jan’s towering and gregarious best friend–arrived first bearing a large slab of roast. He wrestled control of the kitchen from Jan and badgered her until she relented. Gentle and soft-spoken Catherine joined the festivities after a short walk in the rain from her house.
Our hostess fixed us gin & tonics and the six revelers settled into the living room. Ricky and Jan offered tales from their trip and explained the virtues of a vegetarian diet in the developing world. Anne and I shared insider tips on picking olives and compared the rural vistas of Yorkshire and Tuscany. Jake discussed his desire to settle in Normandy one day and promised to drive us to the sacred World War II beaches on our next visit.
We feasted in the dining room: roast beef, mashed carrots, mashed parsnips, roasted potatoes, broccoli, and a mountain of fluffy Yorkshire pudding. We doused our teeming plates in gravy and toasted our nascent bonds.
The raucous, uncensored back-and-forth of an intimate family lasted throughout the meal. Jan and Ricky excitedly introduced Anne and me to the English holiday tradition of Christmas crackers, and we ate our dinners donning paper crowns of green and purple.
The countdown to the new year neared and neighbors blasted fireworks into the night sky the way Americans celebrate the Fourth of July. Rusty moaned and hid from the commotion. Jan handed out crystal glasses and poured sparkling wine.
At midnight, our whoops and cheers gave 2018 a hearty welcome. I kissed my wife and companion for all of 2017’s adventures knowing even more lay ahead. I embraced my new friends as old pals and began the year with more hope and promise than I have since I was a boy.
Morning came too soon and, with throbbing hungover heads, we lethargically began our well-practiced art of leaving. Jan packed our lunch–cheese sandwiches and cookies in a paper bag, a sweet note we wouldn’t discover until we were halfway to London–while Ricky consoled Rusty, who lingered outside our bedroom and scowled at the open suitcases on our bed.
The hour arrived. I brought our bags downstairs and sat at the foot of the steps to lace my boots. Misreading the situation, Rusty shook with delight and stood beside his harness and jacket. My eyes teared and I pulled him close for a long squeeze, remembering how he hid under Ricky’s feet at our first introduction in the same spot a month earlier.
Anne’s glum goodbye followed, and we walked through the front door a final time. Rusty stood on his hind legs at the dining room window to watch the car pull out of the driveway. All four passengers inside Jan’s minivan adjusted to the new reality in quiet sorrow throughout the short drive to Guiseley Station.
Ricky and Jan helped us carry our bags to the platform. Everyone masked their feelings with restless conversation and filled the minutes before the 10:17 from Ilkey stopped and opened its doors. We waved goodbye through the grimy window of the passenger car until the train started its slow roll in a new direction.
Ricky gripped his wife tight and close as Jan wiped away tears. Anne caught the emotion building on my own face and urged me to look forward. The platform and our new friends faded, and Guiseley disappeared entirely. The track carried us south, away from the comfort we had unexpectedly found, onwards to the unknown we sought.