Blue Grass Night at the Kempton Rod and Gun Club- A Little Slice of Americana

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We heard the music wafting through the screened windows of the clubhouse before we even shut off our ignition, harmonizing with the mandolins and gee’-tars. In the parking lot, these bluegrass vocalists are competing with the spring peepers singing their hearts out in the nearby pond, echoing through the Kempton Valley. The band performing tonight, the Travis Wetzel Trio, hails all the way from Nashville and although they might perform to packed crowds at other venues, here in the secluded Kempton Rod &Gun Club, the monthly bluegrass shows are a secret. We can be sure to find a good seat inside.

After handing over the low fee of $15 (or $25 discounted for a couple), at the front table of friendly gun club wives, we pick out our seats. Scott Eager, who has his own bluegrass band, High Lonesome Sound, orchestrates these events that range from September through April.

The gun club is probably typical of thousands of little community gun clubs around rural America. I wouldn’t know. It is the only one I have been to. The decor reminds me of my father’s hunting camp in the northern tier of PA- ”- Potter Count, “God’s Country.” I haven’t been there since he died, over thirty years ago. This place brings back fond memories. The members of the Kempton Gun Club appear to be a talented group as there is art work on the dark “pine” paneled walls- framed paint-by-number creations of flushing pheasants and bucks with big racks in winter scenes. Trophies line a shelf- sharp shooter winners from the turkey shoots. Buck heads are mounted on homemade leaf shaped wooden mounts, (evidently made by a club member who is good with wood) and their antlers nearly scrape the old drop ceiling. The windows are adorned with fiberglass drapes decorated with big bursts of pink roses. Moths flit around the lights, brought in through the screened door by the audience.

All these decorations compete with my attention as I listen to the band. Not a single smart phone is being looked at. Occasionally two geezers with hearing aids talk loudly to one another, so they can communicate over the music. On the backs of the folding chairs are names, Elmer Fenstemacher, Russell Greenawalt, stenciled in black paint. These doners offered money for the brown metal folding chairs many moons ago. Their names are typical German names whose ancestors settled this fertile valley hundreds of years ago. Perhaps their offspring are in the audience tonight.

Not a full head of male hair is present in the audience, and the majority are white. Suspenders hold up their pants. It is not a young crowd but they know all the words to the bluegrass songs and don’t hesitate to sing along, tapping their feet and patting the formica tables with their hands. A few carry along their own embroidered cloth pillows from home, stolen off their sofas, to soften the hard metal chairs. It is a long night. Music begins at 6 pm with the first bluegrass band, usually local, (tonight it is Sacony Grass) followed by a second well-known famous band from afar. You get your money’s worth at the Kempton Bluegrass Night.

Travis Wetzel’s fingers fly on his fiddle faster than what looks humanly possible. His playing is unbelievable and everyone in the audience is captivated by his talent. His Trio plays a very nice mix of traditional bluegrass as well as some really beautiful folksongs to mix it up.

After a set, Todd and I walk outside while the band takes a break. Turkey vultures make quite a commotion overheard as they land in the huge spruce trees lining the parking lot, rearranging themselves, flying off and returning to another branch until they settle in for the night. They return to the area like robins in the early spring and are sought after by the locals as a prominent sign of approaching spring. A pair of Canada geese honk overhead and come in for a landing on the pond. The setting sun lights the water and the sky a beautiful rosy pink. The spring peepers are still going to town.

The Pinnacle looms directly above the Kempton Gun Club, a dark towering form in the evening sky. In fact, access through their property enables a hiker to climb straight up the fall line and get to this best view on the Appalachian Trail in Pennsylvania rapidly. Albeit it is quite a climb and a boulder scramble, but worth the inexpensive membership fee that enables hikers to park in the lot, display their membership card on the dashboard and access their trail. Of course, you don’t need to be a member to attend monthly Bluegrass Night!

It is not worth coming to Kempton Bluegrass Night with a full belly from your own dinner, or you would miss out on the delicious food that the gun club ladies have prepared for the night. Everything is homemade- soups and chicken pot pies, cakes and fruit pies. And the prices are ridiculously low. Edith and Edna and names like these -old German farmers’ wives, are behind the counter, ready to dish you up a treat. You can eat for two- including dessert and a drink and get change for a $10.

At 10 pm the music ends and the cars head on down the gun club’s long drive, turning onto the very rural winding blacktop roads. The audience drives very slowly and cautiously, watching for darting deer in their headlights. They creep over Hawk Mountain, the adventurous ones who cross the mountain from the Schuylkill County side. Two white heads in the car ahead reflect off my headlights. Oh, it normally hurts my motor to go so slow but even the drive home from the Kempton Bluegrass Night is part of the experience. It is a great thing that they get out, enjoy bluegrass music, have this wonderful local venue to support. Who would think a small rural gun club would have such amazing music and hardly anyone knows? Come on out. Let’s fill this house. Make those gun club ladies crank their ovens up longer and support music and community and celebrate life in Rural America.

Gratitude is a Mature Virtue

It was about the same time that my palms began to blister from squeezing the lopers closed over blackberry stems, striped maple, etc. after a few very slow miles into the morning. The same time that Todd nicked his leg with the machete as he swung it vigorously at the foliage that encroached on our section of the Appalachian Trail. The same time that the sweat began dripping into my eyes burning them. I was thinking how much I did not like trail work when the twenty-something thru-hiking couple came by.

I was waiting for it. Waiting for it as they picked their way through the severed branches that lined the trail, obvious what it was like just a few minutes ago. But what we saw was an annoyed attitude that the trail maintenance stopped and the briars still continued. The thank you never came.

“You know,” I said to Todd, “I don’t really like trail maintenance.”

My husband said, “You don’t really like any maintenance.”

“You are absolutely right, (I am not a big fan of housework), but I like this even less when it is not appreciated.

We are not good trail maintainers. There are a string of other things we would rather be doing and do them most of the time and tend to let our section go longer than it should. So it was in pretty rough shape today when we climbed up the side of the Blue Mountain to access it. We have to hike about 7-8 miles RT to clip our section. It is a bit remote to reach.

Two years ago, we met some irate overweight men with backpacks, coming towards us as we clipped and whacked. “Why don’t you put the trail over there where it is not rocky?” they asked, with angry voices.

“Are you serious?”

They were.

“There are rocks over there too, under that shallow soil,” I told them. “If the trail were relocated over there, in a very short amount of time, it would look like this highway of boulders. The whole ridge is covered with them. It is the nature of the geology of this Tuscarora Sandstone ridge.”

I’ve learned not to expect much in the way of thanks when we are out here.

As our day evolved, we saw more and more people, all of them were middle aged or older and they were all exceedingly grateful. We saw some coming and going as we retraced our steps after we clipped. All of them expounded a second time on how much they appreciated what we did. It made me feel good. It made it feel worth it. It did not make it more fun but that is ok.

As we retraced our steps and walked over all the cut branches, Todd’s chainsaw safely stored in his backpack, me doing hand stretches as my hands went numb from squeezing, I felt good that I spent the last seven hours clearing the trail so the hiker’s ankles don’t get scratched by briars and the tree branches don’t whack their packs…because people told me they truly appreciated what we were doing. I am glad that first young couple was not all we saw on the trail today..

Remember hikers, trail maintainers don’t have to clip trail, saw logs, sweat and give up our time. Two little words is all it takes to make us want to keep doing it.

Be Careful What you Wish for

 Annapurna 088 The first adventure my two children chose to experience as independent travelers, away from the watchful eye of travel writer Mom, was epic- Nepal’s Annapurna Circuit. This iconic route circles around one of the highest peaks  the planet, a two week trek that brings the trekker over 17,000 feet. Sierra was in Katmandu for a study abroad semester her sophomore year and before she returned home for the summer, she summoned her brother over for this adventure. They did not choose a week in Fort Laureldale on spring break or even a week’s backpack on the Appalachian Trail in the backyard as their first independent adventure. They would be tested to see if they had been paying attention their whole lives or merely following blindly. 248124_10150325804434278_527909277_10175537_165886_n Bryce was nervous about navigating alone through the airports of Russia and India, including a mandatory overnight stay in the Delhi airport. It would be quite a stretch for a 19 year old. He had to pass security, acquire a visa, and had to resort to charades when asking people help who could not speak English. BRYCE: “Multiple times I drew on what I had learned in my family’s travels, remembering how Mom had gotten us out of situations. Although I had been young, I was observing and learning subconsciously and had not realized how much information I could draw on in a time of need. I asked everyone for help and also  knew I could at least fake it and behave as thought I knew what I was doing until I got it right!”  253455_10150325806319278_527909277_10175555_7616987_nAnnapurna 249 Sierra is a drill sergeant type of leader compared to her mother and started off the trip by whisking Bryce away to the mountains, on a nauseating 10-hour bus ride before he could recuperate from jet lag. That was an adventure in itself, as they made the decision to ride on the bus roof with other young Nepalese (some who were drunk and falling off) as they ducked under electric wires and rocked and rolled up the narrow rutted mountain roads. Sierra chose to bring along a heavy gruel of roasted barley flour called “Tsampa” that Nepalese and Tibetan eat, mixing it with hot butter tea. She threw about 10 pounds of it into her brother’s pack (unbeknownst to him at first) which he hauled all around Annapurna and never once could stomach eating it. Sierra’s friend Eben, (who later became her husband) carried a whole library of books as he backpacked, never once opening them. These choices would not have been mine but this is how they learn, albeit sometimes painfully. They were thinking ‘fun” on this adventure, however, not necessarily learning but of course that occurred simultaneously. Sierra and Bryce and Sierra’s three college friends, all took turns in the leadership role at different times. Annapurna 166 BRYCE-“We all had to learn how to deal with uncomfortable things, as we coped with altitude sickness, bargained for prices, and decided who to trust i.e. the “child” bus driver who nearly got us killed on our way to the Himalayas.  Learning how to navigate technology such as electronic devices or computer programs can be daunting to me or living in a big city can feel intimidating for me, (but not other young people), whereas I find myself feeling very comfortable in the wilderness. My past experiences taught me to be adaptable, however, in whatever situation I found myself in.”   On their hike, they observed the indigenous people going about their daily lives, hoeing fields, plowing with yaks, cooking for them in the guest homes and all the while, experiencing the magnificent Himalayas.   BRYCE:”It was a cool challenge to be circumnavigating Annapurna without the leadership of my parents, just to test ourselves and see if we could do it. We all came into our adulthood in an alien land and got nose and ear piercings afterwards to celebrate this rite of passage! ”   

After their very successful adventure, a strange discovery was made. Sierra’s boyfriend, Eben was reading my 6th book, “Scraping Heaven” when he came across this excerpt in the Epilogue, which I had long forgotten about. The kids were 10 and 12 at the time.

Todd and I figure we may only have a few years left before Sierra will resist missing out on something back home, so we have the next few major trips planned. But other adventuring families have told me teenagers don’t mind making exotic trips with their families. After all, they tell me, how long will it be before Sierra and Bryce can afford to trek the Himalaya or hike the Annapurna Circuit with their friends?  DSC09251  

How could I have predicted this? I used the Annapurna Circuit as a completely far-fetched and absurd example of extreme high adventure and risk. I had completely forgotten I had ever penned those words. It was the first time I was reminded of them many years later. Todd read these words from “Scraping Heaven” aloud to Sierra before she went to bed when she was twelve and we thought, left her mind. That seed must have been subliminally subconsciously planted there as a child. She may have filed this thought away and willed it into existence many years later. This is a prime example of creating your own reality which the kids learned about on their trek across the Continental Divide. There Bryce willed grapes into his life as a one year old and hamburgers as a six year old and they both appeared shortly afterwards, delivered by Trail Angels. 248713_10150325808104278_527909277_10175586_38029_nDSC09271 We raised our children to be independent, have an insatiable thirst for adventure, a deep love of travel and a keen desire to know people all over the planet. The Annapurna Circuit was their initiation into the world of independent travel without mom and dad. The learning will continue without us and long after we are gone, hopefully stretching into the next generation.

“What it Takes to be a Freelance Writer” Keynote at Penn State’s “Freelance-a-thon” Conference

Who Am I?

 

I’m really an artist masquerading around like a writer. Or at least if you look at my formal education, over 4 years of learning as a fine arts-painter, attending Indiana U of PA and  the Pennsylvania Academy of Art in Philadelphia, the oldest art school and one of the most prestigious in the country.

But before I could try to make a living as a painter, I went and had a life changing experience. I backpacked the 2,100-mile National Scenic Appalachian Trail. I kept a journal and sketched along the way and because there were few female long distance hikers  in the early 80’s, let alone ones who could draw, I was able to publish my first book, entitled A Woman’s Journey on the Appalachian Trail, written in calligraphy with 125 drawings illustrating it.  It has been in print for 33 consecutive years and has become a classic.

I was fearful that if I took off 6 months off to backpack and not paint, I would lose it. But my art instructors told me, if you don’t go out and live your life, have experiences, especially life-changing ones, you work will grow stale. On the trail, you will paint with your eyes and when the time comes to put brush to canvas, you will have grown, as an artist and as a person. The same goes for writing or any creative endeavor

Henry David Thoreau, author of Walden, wrote, “If a man advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life he has imagined, he will be met with a success unexpected in common hours.”  Reaching Mount Katahdin in Maine, the end of that long trail and getting a book published that I wrote and illustrated, proved that.

I had one writing class in college and got a C. Pretty mediocre, but keeping a journal on the trail, made me fall in love with writing. My success buoyed me to go on to hike the 2,600-mile Pacific Crest Trail (the one Cheryl Strayed of the book and film “Wild” attempted.) I wrote and illustrated a book about that long distance trail. In fact I had three books published before I ever wrote my first magazine article, which is not the normal route a writer takes.

 

I am not the normal writer.

I will soon have  7 published books, get about 50 magazine articles published a year and have made a successful living as a writer for over 30 years.

I do have some wisdom to share with you that I have gleaned from all these words.

Your life does not have to look like anyone elses. The route you choose to take to become a successful writer can be completely different than the norm. You do not need a degree in journalism or writing or English. You don’t need any degree. You don’t even need a single class in writing.

 

These are the things that you DO need in order to be a successful writer.

You must love to read and love to write. These have  to be in the top 3 things you love to do in your life. If you love them, if you are impassioned about expressing yourself in words,  telling stories, communicating, you will already be writing. You won’t be able to help yourself.  It’s what you do, it’s who you are. It can be as simple as keeping a journal. JUST KEEPING A JOURNAL can make you into a writer.

My girlfriend’s husband was helping edit my second book, Journey on the Crest.  He earned his Bachelors at Temple U in Communications/Journalism, but he was working full time as a mailman. He came to resent me because I was getting my second book published. I was an artist, for God’s sake.  He was the writer.

So I told him. “The definition of a writer is ONE WHO WRITES. That’s’ it.” He did not write anything. That was what stopped him from being a writer.    

 

So if writing is not something you adore and do because you can’t NOT do it, change your major, because the life of a freelance writer is even harder.

If you want to be a freelance writer, Money cannot matter. You cannot be in love with material things, aim for the high life, seek creature comforts. Sometimes the money comes in, sometimes it does not. It is a very unpredictable risky lifestyle.  If you are someone who needs security, switch your major.

You must get out of debt if you are in debt and it has to be top priority. Then you can relax and strive to live a rich, full and exciting life. Because that is what you need to do to be a successful freelance writer.

There are stories everywhere. Orson Scott Card said, “Everyone walks past a 1000 story ideas every day. The good writers are the ones who see 5 or 6 of them. Most people don’t see any.”  WE ARE THE STORY TELLERS. It is the most important work we can do.

Why? Because we are the voice of our people. We speak for them. We share what is inside them, what is inside us, creating connection. It is one of the fundamental needs of a human being- to connect and as writers, we are the conduit.

My daughter Sierra first enrolled in Journalism at Temple U and her professor told the students in the very first class, “I don’t know why you are here. Journalism is dead.”

I do not believe that. I can sell a story to almost any editor if I can get them on the phone. That is because I have the most amazing story ideas. With amazing stories, you can find outlets for your work. You will be passionate and enthusiastic about your story and the editor will be more easily convinced to allow you to tell it. You will be able to sell and make a living from your work.

You can’t be a meek shy introverted writer and be a freelancerIf you are, practice being assertive, develop your other side. It is a jungle out there and some editors want to eat you alive. Cultivate a very healthy positive belief in yourself and what you have to share with readers. This affirmation will help grow you and toughen your skin.

But you have to be willing to do things like hike the Appalachian Trail, take home a homeless person, ask the fire department if you can be a Ride Along on fires, captain a houseboat down the Mississippi River, buy a motorcycle and travel on it, learn to fly fish, volunteer to build a house with Habitat for Humanity, become a part time rafting guide, jump out of an airplane, deliver Meals on Wheels, snow tube with a double amputee Wounded Warrior. LIVE YOUR LIFE. DO SOMETHING. Every person you meet has a story to share and every experience you have is yours to write about. You have to leave your house, push past your comfort zone, engage, scare yourself, stretch. These will be your best stories and be your best writing. And when you find something you love to do (besides reading and writing) be the best you can be at it. I became a writer because I loved to backpack and hike and began to write about it. I was good at hiking so I got good at writing about hiking.

I want to tell you a story about my friend Corey Rich, one of the most successful and prestigious photographers in the outdoor world. He recently documented the historic first free ascent of El Capitan’s Dawn Wall, a climb of 19 days. Corey did not take a class in photography. He began as a climber who started to take photos of his fellow climbers on the wall. Everyone else was too busy climbing, Corey managed to do both and got so good at it, he is a world famous climbing photographer. He was just following his bliss and wanted to communicate what he saw.

There is one life philosophy that tells folks to figure out what the world is missing and give that to them, be the one to fill that need, even if it means creating a job. But another philosophy of Howard Thurman says, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and do it. Because what the world needs is more people who have come alive.”

As writers, if you strive to be that kind of person, to live that kind of rich full life, there will always be stories to tell and stories to sell.

A Ceremonial Burning of the Sock Dolls- reposting

did not mean to delete this- an older post

A Ceremonial Burning of the Sock Dolls

by cindyrosstraveler

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“Whitey the Camper Cat” has a serious injury on his paw, is almost an amputee. He got caught in the spokes of Sierra’s bike trailer when she was 1 ½ years old and we were traveling the length of the entire C&O Canal on our bikes. But thankfully, Whitey was tethered to a length of parachute cord in the event that this small child accidentally tossed her kitty overboard, which is exactly what happened.

We found Whitey the Camper Cat in a storage container along with Heidi, the rubber baby doll that 3-year old Sierra used to practice how to be a mother or a big sister on before her baby brother Bryce came into the world.

There were other toys in there too. Tons of stuffed animals and a handful of very primitive looking sock dolls that look out into the world through plastic button eyes that were hand stitched on. Their bodies were stuffed and decorated with magic markers and had lace and bows hot melted to them… the most basic early toy making. This is how my children learned to sew.

Todd had already started the fire to burn the stuff we no longer wanted. Bags of the children’s favorite baby clothing- handmade sweaters, little leather shoes, their first hiking boots, hand stitched with black thread on the Colorado Trail when the seams burst. Hand sewn fleece clothing that the kids wore as they traveled the rooftop of America on their llamas.There are photographs of them wearing every single piece of clothing saved here, but although they were clean when they went into the bag, the stains surfaced and no adult child of ours would put them on their own babies, or even a reminiscing grandmother. They had to get burned.

Years ago, Todd decided to clean out the kids’ stuffed animal toy box without telling anyone. However, just then Bryce happened to wander out to the garden to the burn area and there he saw his clown, the one whose legs you pulled and then he sang, fire flames licking its eyes. Bryce swore it was singing its song as it died and he is forever scarred from that experience.

The kids are not home as we go through the storage area of our log home, cleaning out, making room. Since Bryce graduated from art school and moved his apartment stuff home and Sierra drove out to grad school in Boulder with only selected material things in her tiny Yaris, Todd and I can hardly move…it was time to toss out.

In the dress up box I find my old faded swim team sweatshirt, my teenage boyfriend’s HS football jersey, “Kurpiewski- 44.” “THAT goes,” Todd said.

I find my senior prom dress that my mother sewed for me, my mother’s net bridesmaid dress with a wooden hoop. My father’s bowling league shirt with “Joe” embroidered on the front pocket, my brother’s baseball caps that had “Little Slugger” embroidered on it, Sierra’s ballet slippers, my white leather majorette boots. My grandmother’s beaded dress that she gave me when she was in her late 90’s because she thought we were about the same size and it had been one of her favorites. My grandmother, who died peacefully at 103, never saw herself as old. I did wear that dress at a-celebration-of-her-life picnic a year after she died, when every member of my family wore a hat or a necklace of hers and we all cooked and baked the foods she was most famous for.

“I hate to get rid of this stuff,” I tell Todd.

“Who’s going to wear this? Are you and I going to play dress up?”

He has a point.

I find my mother’s champagne satin bedspread that she put on her wedding bed and matching satin curtains. I have an old black and white photo of her opening this present at her wedding shower. There is enough fabric there that we could have sewed Sierra a new wedding dress had we discovered this find before she made her dress purchase.

“This stays. I can sew a satin drawstring pouch for Sierra to carry at her own upcoming wedding to collect her wedding gift cards.”

When Sierra finds out what made the cut she asks if she can put the satin bedspread and pillow shams on her own wedding bed. Really? We just visited the cabin at the resort her and her fiance Eben will rent after her May wedding. It will be my supreme pleasure to wash and iron and make her wedding bed for her. I am sure her Grandmother Ross will be smiling down on her.

There are boxes of the children’s artwork- a box for each every year of their childhood. “I can’t go through them now,” I announce. Later. I want to find Bryce’s “Whale with a party hat” drawing- his very first drawing he made as a 4-year-old. The very first thing he drew when he picked up a drawing tool, and now he is rapidly progressing as an up and coming illustrator. Where does the time go? I have a feeling Todd will be making multiple frames when we go through those boxes.

“I want my baby shoes for my child,” Sierra announced. I assure her that we saved them and with a little saddle soap, there was much life left in them. The majority of their clothing got burned, however.

“What good is it to keep this stuff?” I ask.

Time passes so quickly. These things remind you that you had a rich full life, stuffed with memories. Do we keep these things around to make us happy when we touch and feel them, connect us to people who have passed on? But do we need stuff, memorabilia to conjure up those memories? They sure do help. But we have a small home and Todd believes, if we bring more into the house, something has to go out. That hasn’t been the case in these last twenty years. I need to purge and start new in this next stage of my life. Sierra is getting married, Bryce is finding his way and building a business and a life for himself. Although he has returned home in this interim period, his days are numbered too and we will soon lose his happy presence.

Todd said “our kids will have to go through all this stuff when we die.”

“so who is dying?” I ask.

“So keep this stuff around for a few more decades to go through another time or two?”

“Burn it.”

I was thinking of having a ceremonial burning-of-the-dolls campfire before Sierra flew back to Boulder to represent her morphing into a new chapter of her life. Much of the talk and planning around the house this last Christmas holiday revolved around wedding plans. But I decided to pass on that ritual.

I could not bring myself to toss the children’s sock dolls in that fire. Instead, I am thinking of having Todd make me a wooden shadow box to display them in. That can go on the wall along with “The Whale with a Party Hat.” Some things should not get burned. Not singing clowns nor sock dolls.

Mourning the Death of my Backyard Forest

I needed to get out of the house and stretch my legs, free my mind of words, after a day of editing, so I headed for the trails along the top of Red Mountain, the long ridge on which we built our log home 25 years ago.

These are the trails we walk when we don’t wash our hair, when we don’t feel like changing out of our fleecy pants, when we don’t want anyone to see us. It is our place to hike when the winds are too wild down across the road and in the open valley, or it looks like it might rain, (like this afternoon) and we want to stay protected and able to get back home quickly. This forest is my literal back yard.

We come back here to search for pink lady slippers in May, mushrooms in the spring, deer tracks in the snow in January, reading them to see where the herds crossed like grand highways and intersections, where they yarded up in the snow, creating community and helping one another get through the snowy winter. We search for owl pellets along the edge of the Christmas tree farm on the border of the large evergreens where the owls love to roost. Sierra found crystals on these woods trails- hunks of white shiny hexagonal tubes sticking out of the loamy dirt. She always looked for them instinctively and always found them.

Our favorite destination is the open field about 1 ½ miles out. Here we can look over the valley and the rows of long ridges and not see a sign of man. We stand there and gaze, search for deer or turkey in the field, before turning around and heading back. There are many different loops to take but the open field is our favorite.

But on today’s walk, about ½ mile too soon, I suddenly see open sky ahead. It looks oddly strange and I feel disoriented. Have I arrived so suddenly, lost in my thoughts that I was unaware that I had crossed that last stretch of forest? I came to the edge and could not believe my eyes. A massive clear cut, with nothing left but flat wide stumps. I had not seen the likes of a clear cut this large and final since we walked through the clear cuts in the national forests in the Washington Cascades on the Pacific Crest Trail. They broke our hearts walking through deep forest one square mile, surfacing into a barren devastated clear cut for another square mile. It is the abruptness, the extreme from one to the other, from deep lush forest to death. And to make matters worse, this was my back yard, my home forest.

I walked to the end and there I found the house that was just built on the ridge top. This new homeowner did not cut the forest. Another land owner who owns a huge parcel did the deed. But he came to this top of Red Mountain to build his home, I am sure, because of this beautiful forest. He moved in so recently that his yard is a mud hole, with the excavator’s machinery still parked there.

He built his house spitting close to another home nestled in the forest on the other side of him, in trees which are still standing. This unhappy neighbor who suddenly has a neighbor up his butt posted large homemade signs stating “NO TRESPASSING” and even built a crude plank fence nailed to the trees on their border, keeping his neighbor from entering his woods. Two unhappy Red Mountain ridgeline inhabitants.

The neighbor down below who cut the forest around these two homes probably slashed the forest for he feels he needs the money. Rumors flew around that he was in a nasty divorce and lost a lot to his ex, so the forest has to go in order to maintain his lifestyle.

I was heart sick crossing back through the clear cut to find my way back to the trail but what I saw on the return trail made me almost cry. Orange flagging ribbon, for close to a mile, marking nearly the whole top of Red Mountain is slated to go, to be leveled, probably by this spring. My daughter will return from Colorado in May and find her forest world forever gone. She won’t even have the opportunity to walk it these last months as the saws chip away at it.

I knocked on the door of my immediate neighbor when I got back to our little settlement of 4 homes on Red Mountain. I wanted to know if he had any information about the future of “our” forest. He did know. He chatted with the clear cutter. My neighbor did not seem phased. He said , “It will grow back. Well, maybe not in our lifetime.”

That wasn’t good enough for me. This neighbor just moved in two years ago. He has no history in this forest. He has nothing to mourn. My neighbor reminded me, “He can do what he wants with his land.”

I guess the problem here is it has always felt like it was my land too. I feel possessive ownership of it. Not because I purchased it with my hard earned money but because I created memories on it. My children grew up on it, creating their own memories.

Twenty five years ago, I walked the short forest loop when I wanted to convince my first child who had taken up seemingly permanent residence in my body and would not come into the world although she was two weeks late. I hoped the hiking would rouse her and prevent me from chugging a bottle of castor oil. The walk was not enough. It was not enough for my second child either, two years later as Todd and I with Sierra walked the same forest loop hoping to rouse her brother out, who was also two weeks late. Another bottle needed to be chugged.

I used to get turned around and nearly lost the first years that we lived here. I would come to an intersection and it looked different coming at it from a different trail. As the trails are on the top of the wide ridge of Red Mountain, there is no mountain side that is visible to gauge your direction. It used to excite and frighten me that I could be so close to home and yet get so turned around. The idea of getting lost in my back yard made me feel as though I lived in wild country, where in reality , I would not have to travel far down the side before I hit a blacktop road.

When the kids became old enough to chart their own mini adventures, they went out with their mountain bikes, crossing the woods trails, finding access, creating a loop back to home via the road, all on their own without their parents’ direction.

We walk our goats on these trails. They are able to do a 3-mile loop, sticking close to our sides, stopping to nibble, never thinking of chasing a deer. They HATED to go for a hike if it were raining and stalled and stalled and needed to be coaxed. This was our forest to exercise the goats so they stayed healthy and fit long into old age and continued to grace our lives.

But all this is coming to a rapid close. Bryce and I and the goats need to walk these trails as often as we can in the coming weeks, covering shorter and shorter distances until there are none left, eaten up by the saw and the chipper.

Jerry & Renny Russell wrote in their classic Sierra Club book, On the Loose

One of the best-paying professions is getting ahold of pieces of country in your mind, learning their smell and their moods, sorting out the pieces of a view, deciding what grows there and why, how many steps that hill will take, where this creek winds and where it meets the other one below, what elevation timberline is now, whether you can walk this reef at low tide or have to climb around, which contour lines on a map mean better cliffs or mountains,. This is the best kind of ownership, the most permanent.

It feels good to say “I know the Sierra” or “I know Point Reyes” (or I know Red Mountain). But of course you don’t- what you know better is yourself and Point Reyes and the Sierra (and Red Mountain) have helped.

I guess my only fault is I have not lived long enough to be good at saying good-bye to things like people and backyard forests, although I suspect in the coming decades I will become greater skilled at it. Has Red Mountain served its purpose, providing a playground for both my children who are moving on in their own adult lives? The trails of Red Mountain will live on in their memories as they move away from home. It is a good thing memories can not be slashed and killed. I am the one who will feel the loss of the forest the greatest when Red Mountain is slashed and raped of its timber. The deer and I will have to find another place to seek refuge when the need comes to leave my desk and walk and think and decompress from a life of writing. It will not be happening in my backyard forest.

Missing Out at Easter (or so it seemed)

Sound travels as if there were no walls or ceilings in our log home. Todd and I were in the bathroom taking a bath Thursday before Easter and I was whining, for I had recently learned that my son would not be home for the Easter weekend. And the daughter is in Boulder. Todd said, “You only have a few more days to prepare for Easter.”
“Bryce won’t be here Easter morning so he isn’t getting a basket. You’re not getting an Easter basket either. There won’t be an egg hunt if Bryce is not here Easter morning. No one has time for an egg coloring party, and what for? I’m not making homemade coconut cream nor peanut butter eggs. No one wants the calories. Easter is not what it used to be,” I said sadly.

A few minutes later Bryce came into the bathroom and told me I was basically being a baby. “How about if I hide eggs for you and dad?” he tried to make amends. I looked at him and twisted up my face. “Why would you want to do that?”
“Switch it up a little,” he said.

I just let it go.

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Friday morning the wood frogs returned to our little pond. At 11 am there were 3 in our tiny pond at the back of our home. An hour later there were 20. One hour after that 40. The wood frogs began croaking and copulating and boiling the dark water and it was music to our ears. This wonderful sign of spring was a message of hope. The wood frogs reminded me to feel grateful.

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Then Bryce announced that it was time for Todd and I to find eggs in the yard. He had hidden 50. He gave us each a basket and told us to “GO!” It was the first time I looked for eggs since I was 16 in my grandmother’s row home back yard in Reading, PA when the parents announced it was over. I had never wanted it to be.

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Afterwards we searched the wood pile, frog pond edge, hanging kayaks along the side of the house etc. and dumped the gathered colored eggs on the grass. Bryce announced that there was a present in every egg. Since I had told him I did not want candy, we broke open the plastic spheres and found a unique drawing of a face in every single one- 50 in all. I had no idea when he even found time to make them. The grand prizes, which were in two large bunny eggs were clues to where we would find creepy clay heads that we could now add to our Easter decorations (which we sadly left in storage this year).
Todd and I were so touched that Bryce did this for us since he couldn’t be here Easter morning.
I was feeling grateful.

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That night, we fired up our Finnish log sauna for some friends for the first time this spring. At River House’s Veteran’s benefit on Valentine’s Day, Todd and I offered a night in our sauna as a silent auction item. The friends who purchased it were coming Good Friday and we had an amazing night illuminated by the full moon and serenaded by the chorus of mating wood frogs by the sauna’s side. I was feeling more grateful.

It was also raining softly, pinging off the tin roof, making more music, but since this was the first warm rain of the season, it also meant a magical natural occurance would be taking place on a nearby blacktop road, as giant black salamanders made their way down Hawk Mountain and crossed to vernal pools where they would mate and reproduce. Only one night a year this happens and we got to share it with our saunaing friends. Armed with umbrellas, raincoats and headlamps, we assisted the salamanders across the road so they would night get flattened by cars and also assisted many very large toads, leopard frogs and spring peepers. They said the event was magical and they were grateful.

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We returned to the house and indulged in homemade ice cream that was purposely churned on the not-so-sweet side so we could pour homemade maple syrup over top, which Todd just cooked down this week. This was a new endeavor which proved to be not only fun but yielding almost a gallon of syrup- and that was just boiling in an open crock pot. I was feeling gratitude as I slurped down vanilla ice cream and syrup. Especially after we learned that a fellow member of our Unitarian Church just discovered he had a brain tumor and had only a few months to live.

Saturday night, Holy Saturday, we had tickets to see the Tartan Terrors, a rousing, rowdy Scottish band. I recently reconnected to the midwife who delivered my children and since she told me that she has seen the band 4 times and loved them, they too purchased tickets.
We also told another couple, Rob & Peg, who frequently attend concerts, that the band was coming and to get tickets. Both couples came to our home for dinner beforehand. They did not know each other and were meeting for the first time, or so they thought. But it wasn’t long into the meal that they both realized they were here together, twenty three years ago, when I pushed Bryce into the world in the comfort of our log home. Peggy & Rob were here to help take care of three year old Sierra who witnessed her brother being born. They had not seen nor talked to Patti the midwife since that night. Peggy remarked, “where did the 23 years go?” and we all agreed that we were grateful for a wonderful life so far and beautiful children. Especially because we learned that yet another cancer-stricken friend has only a few months or even weeks to live.

When we went down to York this Easter Sunday morning, our nephews, Austin and Owen, decided that they would make an Easter egg hunt for the adults, just to switch it up. There were about 10 of us large “children” running around the yard, looking for eggs and finding all kinds of fun surprises in them from candy to toys to onions and potatoes! The kids had so much fun doing it for the adults this year.

And so as I was walking this Easter Sunday evening at sunset, feeling grateful and musing over the way things were switched up and different this holiday but still searching for more for whatever reason, it still did not feel “enough.”

I was raised Catholic. We switched to the Unitarian Universalist Church when the kids were adolescents so they could be exposed to broad teachings and philosophies. I love this church but do have a hard time at Easter. The first time we attended church there on Easter Sunday, the sermon was about spring and new life and in the middle of it, I leaned over to Todd and whispered, “They better talk about Jesus. Easter is supposed to be about Jesus.” He was mentioned in passing at the end and I was left wanting.
Easter was a big deal growing up in my Catholic family, almost as big a deal as Christmas. We had the egg hunts and the decorations and the baskets of candy, but we also got dressed up in our finest and headed to Saint Catharine’s Catholic Church where the church would be decorated with tall white lillies and everyone would belt out Alleluias and even to a kid, it was moving and emotional. My father would buy his girls orchid corsages, we’d visit Grandmom for an Easter visit and eat Polish kielbasa, ham, German potato salad, then go to the Reading Art Museum and walk the grounds with our cousins. It was about new life and spring exploding but it was also about Jesus bringing people hope.

So I decided on my walk tonight, that next year, I would go back to the Catholic church and celebrate Easter with the Catholics, sing the Alleluias and give the sign of peace and remember my childhood and where I came from, remember what helped shape me. Even if that is the only Sunday I attend, Easter should be about Jesus. Then it might not matter as much if I give an egg hunt or do the hunting myself. Todd will get an Easter basket regardless if Sierra & Bryce are around. I will make homemade chocolate eggs and deliver them to friends if we don’t want the calories. And I will work at living each day in the constant state of gratitude- for wood frogs, for spotted salamanders, for maple syrup, for the delight of sweating in our sauna, for friends who delivered my babies, for memories, for change, for the fact that I have life, for Jesus, who helped teach me that way back when.

RISING UP- Playing in the Snow with Wounded Warrior Amputees

 

 

 

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Wounded Warrior Dennis Leonard needed help tying up his shortened pant legs with cording. He didn’t want any cold snow getting up where his legs were blown off in Iraq where he served in the Army. He was planning a wild time on the snow tube at Seven Springs Resort and nothing was going to get in the way of his fun.

Although Dennis has both of his lower legs missing from an IED (improvised explosive device) explosion, he is into living large and going fast which at first thought, sounds unusual for a man in a wheelchair, but then Dennis is an unusual Wounded Warrior.

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He gets help from the Ski Patrol team here at Seven Springs Resort and Ski Round Top in the Cumberland Valley outside Harrisburg. They are here with the Wounded Warrior Patrol, a non-profit organization based in Carlisle, whose mission is to gift Wounded Warriors and their families an all-expense paid ski vacation, to help aid in the healing. This 4 day event is co-sponsored with Seven Springs Resort in the Laurel Highlands of western PA. Eleven families have come to enjoy skiing, snowboarding, tubing, along with bowling, miniature golf, spa treatments for the Warrior’s wives, kids’ crafts as well as babysitting, and fantastic meals- a dream come true for these families. Nine of the eleven are from Pennnsylvania.

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I was planning on being in my own tube, since only single tubes were available, but also wanted to slide right with Dennis. He said he’d hold onto my handle so I could hang onto my camera and take pics.

“I’m depending on you, Dennis. I’m not used to giving up control.”

“I have you covered,” he replied.

 

When we were given instructions on how to slow down at the end, so we didn’t slam into the fence,

Dennis said, “You’re going to have to cover that part,” since he had no feet.

“I got this,” I replied back. We were a team.

He told me when he was sliding here last year on his own tube, a scout yelled to him to drag his feet as he was zooming very fast, “Right!” he yelled!

The Ski Patrol got Dennis comfy in the snow tube and they zipped him up to the top of the hill behind a snowmobile. Once in the tubes, we sped down the hill together, screaming when he became airborne. Dennis loved sliding the most when he was backwards and couldn’t see the bumps coming as we flew into the air. “That split second of weightlessness. I could feel my body rising up.”

Rising up. Isn’t that what an amputee would wish for and dream about the most, rising up? As so he makes it happen.

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Last year, Dennis tells me, the slope wasn’t fast enough for him. The jumps weren’t high enough. “Any time I can go FAST, I’m all over it. He raises hell on his 4-wheeler at home and hoists his body onto a tube on a lake and becomes airborne behind a motorboat. “First thing I want to do is find out how fast it can go.”  He liked living on the edge. “It’s all about speed and having a good time,” he said.

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The next day they loaded Dennis onto a rescue toboggan, bundled him up in a “blankie” tucked around him and zoomed him up to the top of the ski slope. This time, he would careen down the mountain sitting upright on the toboggan. A skier from the Patrol team led him in front with two long rigid poles while another member of the patrol, had the rear on a webbing tether, so Dennis didn’t run his lead skier over.

Everyone on the slope not associated with the program was amazed and stared and could almost not believe their eyes, as Dennis smoked past.

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The scene of Dennis flying down the hills was only one of many inspiring images here at Seven Springs this week. There were other contraptions made to take physically challenged folks racing down the snow slopes and one was a Ski Bike.

 

Wounded Warrior Jeff Hemminger assembled his Adaptive Ski Bike together that first night we met at Seven Springs. He moved around with his intact and amputated leg, while his son, Tyler helped him.  This soldier lost his leg in a Humvee accident from an IED explosion in Iraq. Jeff’s Ski Bike takes him to new speeds that he can’t get in his wheelchair or on his prosthesis.  There are skis where there tires would be on a normal bike. He rides the Ski Bike by standing up on the bike pegs keeping his legs stationary. The fork and the back shock is the same as mountain bike. The Ski Bike weighs about 30 pounds and costs around $3,500.

IMG_7452 2  Ski Biking is a fairly new sport in America, compared to Europe where it is quite popular.  Jeff travels to Telluride and Durango along with other places to participate in Ski Bike fests.

 

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Jeff can hit 50-60 MPH on his Ski Bike. An ap on his phone in his pocket records his speed. He was reprimanded by the Ski Patrol to slow down. They did not issue a speeding ticket but they thought about it. When he wrecked pretty badly one time, flying over the snow bank, his Ski Patrol friends yelled to him to see if he was okay and he replied as he laughed his head off, “Yep, I’m still in two pieces!”

But the most amazing contraption for me was the Sit Ski. The Wounded Warrior sits in the chair and can either assist turning with two short skis that are strapped to their arms, or have outriggers on like trainings wheels which help balance and prevent them from falling over. A skier from the Three Rivers Adaptive Sports program out of Pittsburgh skis behind and holds two webbed straps as a tether. He can control the Sit Ski, make it turn, slow it down, as long as the sitter does not do anything stupid. They asked me if I wanted to try it. How else could I write realistically about it if it was all speculation? I wasn’t sure I could prevent myself from doing anything stupid however.

This was a week of trust. The Wounded Warriors trusting as they stuck their necks out, got out of their comfort zone and safe homes. Just coming to this event, for starters, was a stretch for them with strange people, many people, unfamiliar surroundings, new challenges. They are being asked to engage in scary new sports that could threaten and intimidate anyone who is unfamiliar with the ski world, let alone Wounded Warriors with trust issues and most suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). It was a lot for them to deal with and they had to put their trust in the Wounded Warrior Patrol. I may as well practice it myself.

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(photo of Jim Mennucci)

They strapped my body in the Sit Ski using multiple straps. I could barely move. Lean a bit, that was it. They pushed me over to the chair lift and multiple men picked me completely up in the Sit Ski. “Ready?” LIFT!” I became airborne, they tilted me back and hoisted me onto the moving chair. They pulled the bar down. I had to trust them.

Up top, I was given instructions. I was pretending to be a Wounded Warrior who could not use their arms or legs but could still move their torso. So I was to lean hard left and right, slight left and right when I was told to do so. I had to find my balance point. I started off wigging and wagging until I FELT it and could manage it. My instructor, Clark Manny has been safely teaching and escorting physically challenged people down ski slopes for over 20 years. I felt safe although vulnerable. I also felt physically challenged!

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The steep slope rushing towards looked like a disaster ready to happen- the sharp turns, the other skiers, the light poles etc. all zoomed into view. I had not skied since I was 18 years old in high school. I was not familiar with a ski run. But we made it and it was fascinating to see how we could work together.

Next time, no training wheels and I had skis strapped to my forearms. I had to assist. I had to hold them out and point them left and right. Keep contact with the snow. Right off, I started wigging and wagging again, feeling like a kid trying to balance a bicycle for the first time. Clark was working hard. Twice he saved me. “That will cost you a beer,” he announced.

“Gladly,” I said.

He “saved” me again. Another beer. And two times he could not save me and I fell completely over on the slope, taking multiple men to pick me up and set me straight. I was beginning to see the huge commitment and sacrifice these adaptive skiers make in order to get immobile folks mobile again while speeding down the slope and having a blast.

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It was very challenging for even someone like me to Sit Ski, let alone a real physically or mentally challenged person. Adaptive Sports takes all ages, all challenges down ski slopes- MS victims, ASL, cerebral palsy, paraplegic. Every person is different and it runs the gamut of who can move which body part or who can understand and who can communicate on all varying levels. Even a person whose body permanently leans to one side, they can compensate and get that person skiing. It is tremendously rewarding to see the work that they do and the joy that they bring to otherwise immobile people. And above all, how these Wounded Warriors are learning to heal and live again.

 

Dennis Leonard told me after the week was drawing to a close, that he was never into whining about his missing legs. “Stuff happens in your life and you deal with it.” Some Veterans don’t deal so well, but what saved Dennis is his attitude.

“I accepted my missing legs from the very beginning. I can look at something and think, ‘This is going to be a problem,’ and then figure out how to solve it.”

“If you listen to the doctors, you’ll have a miserable life and never have any fun.”

When someone questions if an activity is going to be safe for him he looks at them crooked and replies, “What, am I going to do, hurt myself? I’ll slow down when you put me in the grave.” Good advice for us all.

 

 

A VALENTINE’S NIGHT TO REMEMBER

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It felt like a celebration. The hall was lit up with white and red fairy lights. Shiny, heart-shaped balloons were tied to the Mason jars of flowers. Red tinsel and glittery hearts created table centerpieces. Familiar fond tunes wafted through the loud speakers, setting the mood. And when the Veterans walked through the door of this Topton American Legion turned Valentine’s Day fairyland, they were greeted with a warm hug, a “Thank you for coming,” and a red carnation was pinned to their shirt. River House PA wanted everyone who was attending the Veteran’s Benefit to know who our heroes are. And there were thirty of them there that night. The Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Persian Gulf and the Iraq & Afghanistan Wars, from 70’s to their early 20’s, men and women were represented.

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Besides celebrating our love for one another, our Veterans, and River House PA, the organization staged a Silent Auction of amazing gifts from even more amazing donors and artists, to help fund and fuel the non-profits’ outdoor programs. Forty prizes in all were arranged on tables. Some had the actual artwork, others such as gift certificates had posters illustrating the prize, looking a little like middle school science fair posters but getting the point across none the less!

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The Legion’s Auxiliary crafted a delicious spaghetti dinner with meatballs, sausage, salad, and garlic bread, with monstrous trays of fresh fruit, veggies and dip, assorted cheese and crackers (donated by Harry Boyer of Boyer’s Markets) to appease hunger before the main meal. Cakes, brownies, homemade cookies and coffee, as well as a fine assortment of Valentine’s Day candy from the Port Clinton Peanut Shop graced the dessert table.

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While the enthusiastic bidding went on, Veterans were meeting other Veterans, introducing each other asking when they served, while civilians were doing the same. When Danny Stein from the 175thAirborne Ranger Battalion met Mike Schnur from the Vietnam’s Ranger Battalion, they locked eyes and shook hands and said, “It’s a great honor.” Danny said to me, “That Vet is a fuckin’ hero. I mean it.” It was all good. We even had female Ilene Henderson attend, a combat Veteran from both Iraq and Afghanistan, who is currently hiking the entire 2,100 mile Appalachian Trail with her mother. They were our proud guests at the Benefit and drove all the way from Virginia to be here with her comrades and friends of River House.

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Speaking of driving far, attendees to the event came in from Virginia, Maryland, New York and New Jersey and even Ohio, which is saying a lot as there was snow predicted, white out conditions, high winds and very low temps. It did not stop them. They came and supported this great cause and these wonderful people- our Veterans. Steve & Becky Adamson spent the weekend at Cindy & Todd’s house, the parents of fallen Airborne Ranger and AT 2,000 Miler, Zach “Shady” Adamson, whom a Utube video was made of a Memorial Hike in VA last year. (A Journey of Remembrance – YouTube:13http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qOwRs3YNms0). Becky & Steve met Danny Stein, River House’s Poster Boy, who served with their son in both Iraq and Afghanistan and had never met before this. The meeting was very sweet and touching. One hundred and forty people braved the elements to attend and bids were high, bringing in over $3,000 for the Auction Items and making about $1500 from ticket sales. A tremendous, unexpected generous income on such an iffy winter night.

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The only down side was only a handful got to dance (the kids!) for an hour and it was horrendous driving going home, with white out blizzard conditions across the Lehigh Valley. A drunk from the bar rammed Todd’s truck in the Legion parking lot but the hit and run driver is on video and the state trooper can find out who it is. All in all, it was a tremendous night and we were all deeply touched by everyones’ generosity and support.

Next event up is the monthly Wednesday hike for Veterans, followed by a pot luck and Brainstorming session for Veterans & Friends of River House alike- March 18th. Only a few days after that, River House PA is staging a Spring Equinox Celebration Benefit- a House Concert with Native American Band, Spirit Wind…March 21st. Seating is VERY limited but tickets are on sale now. Thank you all and please send some Veterans our way who could use a little time in the lap of nature.

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