Vanessa takes me to the Millennium Trail on a sunny afternoon. We smell the heavy aroma of flowers, somewhere, and find the top of a tree covered in buzzing insects and butterflies. A small yellow bird darts through the branches.
It’s her favourite place to walk now. “I try to come here daily, and when I get here I feel like God’s here — I don’t know what it is — being out, meeting people along the way. The wildlife. It’s peaceful.”
She’s been in the Yukon for three months. She and husband, Brad Shoobridge, came up from Medicine Hat in March.
Vanessa, though, has had a longer trek to the Yukon. She came from outside London, a place called Hemelhempstead, six years ago.
She met Brad online in a chat room. “He’d come in the chatroom and he’d have these funny little actions in brackets — [walks in with cigarello, sits at bar] — and I thought, he’s mysterious.” It got her intrigued enough to say hello, which moved to chatting, which moved to exchanging e-mails, then phone calls.
Three months later, she was boarding a plane. “I decided, ‘Forget this life.’ I got on a plane and came to Canada. And as far as my brothers knew I was coming for two weeks and would be back. But I knew in my heart, I wasn’t going back.”
“Weren’t you nervous? Weren’t you afraid that Brad could be lying?” I ask her.
“You know,” she says to me, looking very compassionate and wise, “Something happened to me before I met Brad.”
We walk the blue bridge over the river. She tells me that an online relationship, right before Brad, turned out to be a 17-year-old kid who had stolen a neighbour’s laptop and pretended to be a marine living in Boston.
When she found out the truth, she was crushed. “I don’t know why my heart was still open when I met Brad — but it was. I wasn’t crushed forever. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t easy.”
After her first six months of a different culture, reality set in. She felt a wave of homesickness hit her like never before. “But I’m a survivor and God’s been gracious and I’ve been blessed with friends wherever I’ve been.”
“So, why the Yukon?” We take a rest on a bench that’s dedicated to someone’s grandpa.
“Ever since I knew Brad, he was talking about the Yukon.” She thinks he saw it early in a TV show about the North. “He always knew this is where he wanted to plant his roots. ‘I’m not going Outside again, I want to die here, I want to be buried here; if God blesses us with children we’re going to raise them here. This is where we’re going to be.’ He loves it. He loves it so much.”
She confesses, as we continue walking, that she had been an active opponent to moving this far north.
“There was no way on God’s green earth I was going to the Yukon. I am a woman with dark skin. Snow and cold don’t mix with me.”
She laughs. “I had to really stop myself and pray. And I started reading up on Whitehorse and the Yukon through travel mags and I ended up being more excited than he was. It was a change of attitude. My head had to come round full circle. And then I thought, I can do this.”
We walk past Robert Service Campground. I say, “So do you like Whitehorse?”
She smiles, knowingly. “Yes. There’s more community up here than in London. London’s very big, very impersonal. It’s a miracle if you know your next door neighbour. Here, my landlord knows us all of two minutes and we’re invited to his birthday party.”
She likes staying at home right now, making sure her husband has a nice place to come home to. “He’s already done all the work. Why should he come home and do it again? I’m kind of old fashioned that way, but I grew up watching my mother do that for my Dad. And I always desired that. I’m not popular with some of my girlfriends, but you know what — it’s what I choose to do.”
A little girl on a bike speeds past us, growling. We laugh.
Vanessa wants eventually to take a class in jewelry making. She’s adapted really quickly after jumping twice into the unknown. I think she’s brave.
A tiger swallowtail butterfly flits across our path.
She says with wonder, “I’m going to be so much more open when I come here.”
PHOTO: RICK MASSIE firstname.lastname@example.org