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After a pandemic and 5 years in politics, former Saint John mayor says it was time to ‘get out there and live’

After the pandemic, Don and Patty Darling decided they weren’t willing to put their dream adventures off for even one more day. They’re currently in Banff, Alta., a place they describe as ‘absolutely magical.’ (Twitter/@dondarlingSJ )

No one could blame Don Darling for wanting to get away from it all.

During his five-year tenure, the heart-on-his-sleeve mayor of Saint John presided over a tumultuous series of events that included an oil refinery explosion, devastating floods, a cyber attack and a pandemic.

Even before the municipal election dust settled in May of this year, he’d made no secret of wanting a change of pace. Months later, he made that change happen in a most unexpected and inspiring way.

Darling and his wife, Patti, recently sold their house in Saint John, bought a fifth-wheel RV, bundled up their golden retriever, Gus, and set out for a cross-Canada road trip with no particular end destination in mind.

On Friday, Darling spoke to Information Morning Saint John from his “absolutely magical” latest stop, Alberta’s Banff National Park in Alberta.

“We’re staring right out our window at nothing but mountains,” he said. “It’s spectacular.”

It’s a far cry from the trials of running a city, with all the stress and social media trolling that comes with it, and a drastic life change.

But it’s a change Darling said he and Patti have been mentally moving toward for several years now, even before the pandemic crystallized their plan.

“We’re in our 50s now and combined [we] have worked almost 70 years. Despite the fear, we chose the courage to leave the place that will always be home for us, and our home base, and to get out and live and have these amazing experiences.”

Later today, he said, they’ll be going to the hot springs to experience 47-degree water. Yesterday, they travelled from Banff toward Jasper and went on a tour of the area’s fabled turquoise glacier lakes.

“These places are absolutely breathtaking,” Darling said. “And that is fulfilling the mission, to live now, to do purposeful and meaningful work, to live our values and to wake up every day with a smile on our faces.”

Of course, he said, RV life isn’t all roses.

The words “smiles” and “fulfilment” don’t immediately spring to mind while navigating a vehicular behemoth through Montreal traffic, and there are challenges that come with living “two feet away from each other,” Darling said. “There isn’t a day that hasn’t had some hiccups in it for us,” he said. But neither has there been a day when they haven’t had opportunities to be grateful and to see things they would never have seen in their former lives, he added.

“We have a place to cook, we have a place to clean, we have a comfortable bedroom, Gus is comfortable as well … we have everything we need.”

The Darlings’ golden retriever, Gus, has adapted quite nicely to RV life, Darling says. ‘He naps, look out the window, plays a bit and, is not one bit stressed.’ (Twitter/@dondarlingSJ )

Plans to remarry in Las Vegas

In three weeks, the Darlings have already made 14 of a planned 91 stops on their 14,430-km adventure. “We’ve got a huge trip ahead of us and we’re just at the beginning of this epic journey,” Darling said. A week from now, they’ll head to Vancouver and Vancouver Island and down the West Coast toward San Francisco.

Then, as the U.S. opens up, it’ll be on to Las Vegas, where they’ll get remarried and celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary. “If the Vegas chapel will allow Gus to have a tuxedo on, that’s the chapel we’re going to choose,” Darling said with a laugh. Darling said there’s no question the restrictions and eye-openers of the pandemic helped persuade him and Patti to take up this freewheeling adventure.

And for those who think they’d like to do something similar but are feeling stuck in a rut, he offers this advice. Ask yourself, “What are the things in your life that you’re happy about, and what are the things that you’re not?” If you don’t like the city or the job or the life you are currently in, he said, if there is something you’re dreaming of doing, take the leap and change it.

“What COVID taught us is how fragile life could be,” Darling said. “We were no longer willing to put off the dreams we had for some other day.”