I spent my birthday camping near Gull Lake with my sister, my friend and my daughter. The last time I camped was around 2003 when my common-law husband and I loaded up his kids and mine and hauled his father’s trailer to Bield, Manitoba for my family reunion. I put my back out on day two of a 10-day “holiday”. We never made it to day 10…but not because I ran out of Robaxicet.

The ensuing days saw a cougar in campground number two, unrelenting 100-degree weather, and a swim in a Saskatchewan sulphur pool that smelled of death and whose edges were scattered with the prosthetics of a dozen or so elderly people “taking the waters”. Two kids attached themselves to me in the pool; the other two stood on the sidelines begging to leave. Over the next 24 hours, all four kids were in various stages of crankiness and on day eight which just happened to be my birthday, I demanded to go home. It resulted in my mate giving me four hours of silent treatment during the six-hour journey back to Sherwood Park. The silence was broken at Lloydminster when, in an attempt to get to a Tim Horton’s, he pulled the 10’8″ trailer through a 10’6″ high portico of a hotel, ripping the cover off the air conditioning unit in the process.

We left Lloyd and met a tornado coming straight towards us near Vegreville. We got the last hotel room in town. Six people, two beds. Nobody slept. It was the first and the last time I camped with my ex.

The circumstances, I am happy to report, were much different for my camping trip last week.

The timing was great—something neither my sister nor I could have known when she reserved the campsite in May. With chemo, I never know how I’m going to feel from one day to the next so I find it hard to commit to anything until the day of, or sometimes hours before, the event. On the morning of the 15th, I felt great, so I packed a bag of camping clothes and a cooler of food and drink headed south.

Monday was a gorgeous day under a blue sky and brilliant sun. We set up camp, cracked a beer and got a fire going. We roasted hot dogs and stayed up late letting the flames draw out deep thoughts about life, love, and paranormal activity. We belted out partial lyrics to ancient country tunes and embarrassed my daughter with ribald humour borne of sex, childbirth, marriage and menopause—something she didn’t sign up for, but got, regardless.

We explored the beach, walked the trails and tried our hand at birding. When it rained (and boy, did it) we threw on ponchos, sat under the awning of the trailer and sang some more, covering everything from The Mamas and Papas to Chris Cornell. Sometimes we’d stay inside, crawl under the covers and watch movies or drink wine and work on jigsaw puzzles. Cell reception was lousy which meant social media was off limits. Perfect.

To switch things up one day, we drove to nearby towns and snooped through antique and thrift stores.

I not only found the perfect wig for my current situation, but I’m also set if I ever want to dress up as the Little Mermaid for Hallowe’en.

I was with three women I love and adore. We ate like queens and drank like (ageing, tired) sailors. Our days started with campstove breakfasts and Baileys in our coffee. My sister whipped up homemade pizza dough and topped the pies with pears and gorgonzola and baked them in her portable pizza oven.

We broke out the red wine for Happy Hour to compliment a platter of finocchiona, bresaola, Stilton cheese, and Cerignola olives. On the night of my birthday, we feasted on baked trout with baby potatoes in cream and dill and finished with an outrageously decorated homemade chocolate cake topped with edible(?) emojis and pieces of candy bars.

They lavished me with gifts and wrote beautiful sentiments in the cards. My daughter gave me identical socks to the ones I gave her last Christmas. How fitting to receive them for this birthday which marks the halfway point of my chemo treatments.

What she wrote in the card gave me pause:

“I have been really admiring your adventurous spirit I’ve been noticing recently. Mountain biking with bears, solo road trips, kayaking, camping! I love watching other women run full force into the next adventure.”

To her, this was a new mom she was seeing. To me, her words were a flashing neon sign stating what I once was.

I used to be someone who took chances (to the dismay of my parents); I used to love camping and the outdoors. I used to do anything to be in, on or near water. Back in the day, nothing held me back when it came to exploring; I just went. What happened to me? Where did that person go?

Well, I left home just having turned 18 hellbent on a mission to embrace and figure out life. Instead, I partied and was married by the time I turned 22. I succeeded at having babies but failed at marriage and thought going into other relationships without getting centred first was a good idea. It wasn’t. As the Dixie Chicks song goes, “There’s your trouble, there’s your trouble.”

Occasionally, over the years, I recognized that “trouble” for what it was, and in an effort to steer my girls from that same path, I interspersed regular motherly wisdom—like fair play and how to treat others—with nuggets like why it’s important to figure out who you are and what you’re made of before settling down with someone.

So, as I laid in bed on this most recent birthday listening to the thunder roll and the rain beat on the roof of the trailer, I realized that while I did a great job of leading by example when it came to teaching my girls how to share candy and not wallop playmates with a sand pail, I did a lousy job of leading by example when it came to me taking care of my self. I definitely wasn’t walking like I was talking.

It took the ending of a 15-year relationship in 2016 to set me on the path back to me. Funny how that works.

I found solace in nature by exploring nearby valleys and faraway canyons. I drove country roads to gorge on prairie vistas. I said yes to horse rides and I road tripped to places just to get my fill of the smell of saltwater, sweet clover and fresh-cut hay.

Nature inspired my poetry: I wrote about a bridge in the Badlands, a feather in Santa Fe, the futility in trying to catch up to a rising sun, and the desire to be like water.

My curiosity returned. Admittedly, it put me in a couple of uncomfortable situations like the time I engaged in conversation with a racist lawyer in a dive bar in Tucson, and when I met a mother bear and her cubs on a bike trail near Hinton. Would not recommend intentionally engaging with either, by the way, but glad to have survived both.

My daughter sees a new me, but I just see the old me returning. It’s a gift I’m giving myself but one that Mother Nature wrapped up in the most spectacular package, and this time, I’m never letting it go.