Hello friends and family!
I’m a bit of an open wound, I realize. Living in a van means the barrier between myself and the wider world is very thin – just a sheet of metal, a half-inch of insulation, and a quarter-inch of plywood. When it’s cold out, I am cold. When it’s hot out, I am sweating. When it rains I am kept awake by the tattoo of raindrops on my roof and even though I’ve duct taped every hole in the van wall somehow all my clothes end up damp. When the wind blows I can hear the rasp of branches brushing up against my walls, and when the wind drops I suffocate in the stale air. I am constantly aware of the outside trying to press its way inside in a way that people living in apartments and houses don’t ever have to consider.
I don’t have great emotional barriers, either. Ever since my divorce I’ve been a bit more permeable than I used to be, apt to cry at pet food commercials and more sensitive to everyday ups and downs. The past six months have been a period of transition for me, and I spent the spring feeling pretty lonely. My love was moving across the world, so we broke up. I moved to a new town in Prince Edward County, an up-and-coming wine region that bulges into Lake Ontario east of Toronto, where I knew nobody. I started a new job at a hip motel and while I made lots of friends among my coworkers, I also worked pretty much every night and was never free do anything in the evenings. I tried to fill the void by dating, but I gave up after a few catastrophically bad first dates: an alcoholic about to be sentenced to house arrest, a self-proclaimed enlightened time traveler (?), and, thanks to the Catholic profligacy of my Cassidy forefathers, even a distant cousin. Though I loved my job as a motel concierge, I felt the usual discomfort of adjusting to a new life, and coped in the usual ways. I laid on the floor a lot. I felt “at loose ends.” I drank a lot of wine.
But here’s the thing: it would be impossible for me to live this lifestyle if I were to succumb to despair, or claustrophobia, or fear of the unknown. This is now my third year of vanlife, and I have by this time figured out how to build better barriers between myself and all the outside shit trying to work its way inside my van and inside my head. So I committed to myself, and refused to feel lonely even though I was, technically, alone. Between my shifts at the motel I took myself on dates and walked myself like a dog, even and especially when it felt like a chore. As a result of this summer fling with myself I’ve garnered a sort of travelogue for loners, a guide to all the best things to do when living or travelling alone in Prince Edward County (or, as I shall pretentiously refer to it henceforth, the County).
There’s plenty of things you can do alone in the County without seeming like a weirdo. It is a primarily agricultural area, dotted with vineyards and cornfields and cattle, where the only traffic jams are caused by slow-going tractors. On the weekends and throughout the summer the County explodes with tourists from Toronto and Montreal eager to swim at Sandbanks Provincial Park and bachelorette parties in white sashes who drunkenly wander between the wineries. The little towns throughout the County are full of fancy restaurants and knick-knack boutiques and t-shirt stores and ice cream parlours, just like any other tourist town. Since my motel shifts involved a lot of chit-chat with tourists, I steered clear of the crowds on my days off. I took a lot of long drives on rainy days to gawk at the mansions along the Lake Ontario shoreline. When the weather was nice, I walked along the County’s bike/hike path past wetlands and wide fields bordered by wildflowers, gathering little bouquets as I went, or stopping to huff the heady scent of springtime lilacs. I watched sunsets from boat launches as flocks of sailboats glided across Picton Bay. I paddle-boarded to a “secret beach” that is inaccessible to tourists. I stopped at farm stands for fresh local produce and popped into a roadside butter tart shack that operates on the honour system. I took day trips to the Trent River, to Amherst Island, to the Thousand Islands Parkway. Since I had no friends with boats, I rode the nearby 5-minute car ferry back and forth a few times just to feel as though I was getting out on the water. Hey, it’s free, and this counts as fun when you’re living in the middle of nowhere!
A big draw of the County is the beaches, though the well-publicized ones tend to be overcrowded and jammed with teenagers, loud families, and – shudder – French-Canadians. Instead, I spent lots of time at free beaches that are well off the beaten path, the sorts of places the locals won’t tell you about. Point Petre is a litter-strewn provincial wildlife area that borders the southern tip of the County, while Long Point is a federal bird-watching area on the County’s easternmost peninsula that is barely Google-Map-able. These aren’t sandy beaches; they’re comprised of huge slabs of limestone, much like the rocky shores of the Bruce Peninsula. The waters of Lake Ontario are such a jewelled shade of turquoise that the beaches resemble the Caribbean on a sunny day. I spent many mornings storm-watching, skinny dipping, sunbathing, and reading on the sun-warmed rocks at these beaches, and often was the only person around for miles. Occasionally other people would pass by, dog-walkers or old men out for Speedo-clad swims, but there’s a tacit agreement between lonely people not to disturb one another, and we all respected the silence.
Since I spend most of my time travelling alone, I’ve learned that certain places are safe for loners, where you aren’t gawked at or disturbed when visiting alone. Walmart, casinos, movie theatres, laundromats, Applebees, etc. Breweries are a good option, because you can bring a book or a crossword puzzle and nobody will think it particularly strange – and I’m lucky, because the County has all sorts of great breweries (and cideries). On the other hand, visiting a winery alone is sort of weird, because then you’re just sitting alone at a big table with a bunch of tiny glasses of wine in front of you while a teenaged girl recites the tasting notes in a bored, rote monotone. Wine tasting in the County is a very social experience, meant to be shared between 15 of your drunkest bachelorette friends, so showing up alone at a local winery is awkward and unexpected for everybody involved. Besides, all the wine in the County tastes like blanched limestone, and all the wineries are a variation on “big barn, string lights, long wooden tables, and backdrops that will look good on your Instagram feed,” so if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. I always asked motel guests what they were looking for, good wine or cute photos, because most of the Instagrammable wineries serve barely drinkable swill, and some of the best County wine is served out of ugly little Quonset huts.
I’m walking away from the County a little less permeable, a little bit wiser, with pride in my ability to start from scratch time and time again. It’s not always easy to do new things without the security blanket of a romantic partner or pre-existing social network, but I think it’s important to be capable of going it alone, to put in the work of being alone. All in all, everything turned out okay, and risk was worth the reward. I made money, explored new places, met some incredible people, and found a line of work that I truly enjoy. Now I’m preparing to head south for the winter again, so stay tuned for further updates!
3 thoughts on “A Loner’s Guide to Prince Edward County”
Thank you for sharing your summer travails. Always value your insights.
Great update Jenny! Now I want to go to Prince Edward County for a visit.
Thanks for this latest update. I’m glad to hear you’ve enjoyed the time in The County. I think you’ve confirmed my theory that the best bits of any area can’t be found among the recommendations in the Fodor’s guide. The challenge Sheila and I’ve had in the past is that we’re both keen to make sure we ’see everything’ when we travel somewhere so we can get too focused on the well-publicized list of must-see sights. Hopefully I’ll remember your letter as we make our plans for travel this winter, and remind myself to just get out and enjoy the place without a list.