Building a Road in the Name of Jesus


Today’s destination in “Magical Kenya” is the remote and infrequently visited Ruma National Park, home of the rare Roan Antelope. It is obvious it is not one of the more popular parks by the state of their toilets at the entrance station. This one simply has a hole roughly hacked into the tile floor. No porcelain squat toilet with ridges where you are to place your feet. At one time, it probably had a western toilet atop its gaping hole but no more. This should have been an indication of the conditions ahead.

It is the rainy season and although the frequent bursts of rain produce lush gorgeous green land, they can make roads impassible and rather quickly. Our bus driver, Tony, swerves and curves as if his van is drunk as we look for animals in the bush. After not spotting a Roan Antelope but many others and one treat in particular, a leopard, we are not disappointed. Our guide spots him lounging on a hefty branch of an acacia tree, his mighty paws and forelegs hanging lazily down, while an impala carcass sits stuffed in a nearby crotch of two branches. The leopard does not have to stretch far to enjoy breakfast in bed. We were just feeling like we had a good adventure when the van comes to a quick standstill. Tony guns the engine and tires spin, shooting mud and water up like a geyser. We are stuck badly.

Tony gets out to access the situation. He walks down the four wheel drive road looking for rocks and comes back with a few pathetic small ones in the palm of his hand. That’s not going to do anything we women say inside the van. He removes the shovel from the back end of the vehicle and pathetically attempts to fill in the water holes. The mud is sticky and dense and he chips at it like concrete.

Call for assistance!” Suzanne, our spokesperson from Kenyan Tourism instructs.

We pile out, as the van feels stifling hot, despite the fact that some are unnerved knowing the leopard could be nearby.

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As Tony works with our guide to free us, we hear a motor from behind. A large white bus approaches with the words, “School Bus” written on the front- seventy elementary school boys from a missionary school out for a field trip to see wild animals.

The teachers pile out as well as the bus driver and guide. They have already gotten stuck three times but managed to physically push the big bus through. They have no idea why the park officials did not warn them of the conditions ahead.

They want to strike a deal before they will help us. Suzanne says, “How about doing it in the name of Jesus? You help us just to be kind?” Indeed, on their shirts are printed the words, “Impacting Lives, Expressing Mercy, in Jesus’s Name.” We have them there. They consent.



They first attempt to bodily push our van out. The females teachers help out right alongside the men.

When that does not work, they creep the bus closer and attach a wide nylon tow rope to the front of the bus and pull us backwards. Cheers! But then the men decide we must go forward again through what we just got pulled out of! All the women protest. “You will get stuck again!” they say. I think Tony should at least aim his one tire for the higher dry ground and the other for the section inbetween the tire tracks, but I certainly don’t push my idea and discuss the situation amongst ourselves.


The teachers are exasperated. They stand with their hands on their hips while the men decide to go forward again, right back into the deep muddy chasm of a track. They body language is screaming, “This makes no sense! This will not work! This is stupid!,” but clearly in this patriarchal society, driving and deciding procedure for this type of situation is clearly “men’s work.” Our suggestions fall on deaf ears. Suzanne once again instructs, “Call for help.”

The men take off their shoes, roll up their pants cuffs and get into the muddy sloppy challenge ahead.

Before long, it is obvious that the men want to basically build a new road, as ridiculous as it sounds to us women. They disappear round the bend and come back with large flat slabs of busted up concrete in their arms. Who knows how they found them. They toss them into the deep water and they splash with a kerplunk! The women teachers are good sports, despite the fact the men will not listen and in their dresses, they too help the cause by carrying slabs of concrete.


We writers go back and talk to the cute little boys hanging out of the windows, arms draped down the side of the bus, crowding at the door, dying to get out and a few claiming they must pee in order to break free of the prison of the bus. We have fun shooting their portraits. They ask our names and call to us individually, waving.

When Tony finally calls and a tractor appears, it pulls us through the mess in short order. This entire event took close to two hours.


We travel writers just observed and documented the whole event in photos. And, filled out a Visitor Evaluation Form where they got an earful, from the state of the bathrooms to the state of the roads. We did find it fascinating to watch the men’s behavior and the way they attempted to rectify the situation. Suzanne had it right from the get-go. Just call for help. But then again, what do we women know. At least no one got picked off by a leopard in the process.

A Memorable Visit to Mama Sarah Obama’s Home & School, Kogelo, Kenya

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As far ahead as we can see, there are children, walking hand in hand on both sides of the tarmac road. Small groups of boys and girls in bright blue, clean uniforms- girls in modest jumpers to below the knee, boys in blue trousers and white shirts. School has just let out at the Mama Sarah Obama Elementary School in the Kenyan village of Kogelo and they walk lightly in the afternoon sunshine. They look up at us in the open windows of our van, their large liquid eyes shining, waiting to see if we are friendly. When we wave and yell, “Jambo!” they light up, wave, and return the greeting.

On our drive here, every ¼ mile or so, there have been wooden signs announcing yet another school. Many of them have religious names, the result of Christian missionaries coming in to do good. In this area alone, 70  kilometers from Kisumu, the third largest city in Kenya, thirty-seven schools each serve approximately 1,000 children. That is 37,000 children attending school in this area alone.

A lot of good seems to be happening in this part of Kenya, where the most educated people can be found and if the prolific amount of schools is any indication for the future of Kenya, then a brighter one is on the way.

Mama Sarah Obama is the step grandmother of President Obama and she has made a life out of helping orphaned children and educating them, many who are the result of the AIDS epidemic on this continent. Once their parents pass, their elderly grandparents are left with the task and it is daunting.We have called ahead of time to see if Mama Sarah would accept us for a visit.

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Long white buildings sit back from the road, with a cow or two grazing in the foreground. We turn down a lane and approach a metal gate. The guard tells us to park and walk up to Mama Sarah’s home. Chickens strut around the grass and peck absent mindedly while a small girl in oversized flip-flops smiles and waves shyly…evidently one of the orphans that Mama Sarah keeps in her private home.


From down the gravel drive, I can see a large painted mural of America’s First Family and Mama Sarah standing behind them. How very strange yet how welcoming this makes me feel in this foreign country so far from my home. When my children were home-schooling teens, for their political science class, they canvassed for the then Senator Obama. In New Hampshire and Pennsylvania, they went door to door, spreading the word of this Presidential hopeful. We are a Democratic family who voted for and supports our President and it is thrilling to me to be here in his family’s Kenyan home.


We interrupt a woman who is preparing greens, who then escorts us up to where Mama Sarah will receive us. A row of plastic lawn chairs are lined up on the front porch and the elegant woman has positioned herself in the middle. She smiles as we approach her. Her modest block home was recently built for her where she personally cares for a few orphaned children. One small girl carrying a hen in her arms, shows us a basket of peeps inside the door of a clay covered shed.

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We ask Mama Sarah questions about the ongoing projects she has in the works of building an Early Childhood Center, etc. When I ask the spokesperson, Marsat how many children Mama Sarah has birthed personally, she says eight and they are all right here involved. I ask Marset if she is related in any way she laughs and says, “She is my Mum.”

What would that make you to President Obama?”

He is my nephew.”

Wow. How wonderfully strange. The whole Barrack Obama family visited in 2009 and then again this past year meeting in Nairobi. The Mama Sarah Obama Foundation has a headquarters in California and Marsat travels to America on a regular basis. When we request Marsat to ask her mother how she keeps herself so young and strong at the age of 94, she translates,

By serving God and supporting those less fortunate.” We quietly nod our heads in approval.

I feel so very privileged and proud to be here in this moment.


I am at a loss of words and questions to ask her. She is the type of larger than life person that makes you just want to sit in her presence, bask in her light, drape an arm around her shoulder. She is the kind of exceptional human being we should all strive to be- willing to work at lifting up our fellow-man, to share what we have and spread around the love. Mama Sarah receives guests every day all day long sometimes, from all over the world. Before we depart, we visit her husband’s grave, Barrack’s father.

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As we move down the driveway, I think of the work I have done my whole life, writing about how important and necessary it is to disconnect our children from technology and reconnect them to the natural world and suddenly it feels so absurd. These Kenyan children just want to learn. They spend their free time in the villages, outdoors- jumping rope, playing ball, rolling narrow bike tires with sticks, all in the company of one another; not alone indoors using their thumbs to type texts in an attempt to connect and communicate. These Kenyan children live in the jungle, witness firsthand the sweeping thunderstorms that green up the land and turn their paths to mud; they know the bird songs, and the animals roaming everywhere and nature is a part of the very fabric of their lives. How far our American children have come from this- a place they once lived and thrived also- the outdoors. And this is called “progress?”

Nature- deficit disorder is the phrase coined to describe this condition which can contribute to childhood depression and ADD. If I could share this information with these Kenyan children, they would find it completely absurd and here in Africa, so do I. What have we done to our children? As I wave to them and yell out “Jambo!” with their bright innocent eyes and openness, I wonder who is the better off.

“Just Enjoy the Sit” Reflections on Bus Riding in Nairobi, Kenya

When the blacktop two lane “highway” heading towards the Ol Pejeta Conservancy tuned to dirt, huge piles of rubble appeared on the right side, like a wall. The roadway itself was smooth and passable, however, until we were stopped in our tracks by a man, sitting on a horizontal concrete block, hunched over a small hole about 6 inches round. He laid small boulders across our path so we could not run him over. Our bus driver put the bus in gear and we watched. We watched as the solo road worker selected a few stones, took a hammer to crush them fine, and then ladled the mixture into the hole with a spoon. A spoon, really? After many minutes of watching, our bus driver had enough and told him to move the boulders and let us pass.


A little further down the road, the road morphed into what looked like a narrow field ready for cultivating and plowing instead of a highway. Bulldozers pushed the red rich soil that was elevated above the surrounding Kenya countryside by a few feet. Our driver missed the detour sign and was not interested in turning around. He couldn’t if he wanted to because three more buses had pulled up to his sides as if they were gawking observers looking at a spectacle.

This behavior is called “overlapping” and is rampant here in Nairobi. There was arguing going on and before long, our bus driver won and we plowed through the loose soil like a tractor instead of a bus. Bus drivers seem to hold tremendous power in this African country.

We had been in Nairobi nearly a week at the Africa Travel Association’s Annual Congress,

co-sponsored with the Kenya Tourism Board

before our excursion out to this conservancy and so by this point, we had experienced some bizarre and unmanageable driving conditions. The worst, we learned, was during the rainy season.

When it rains, you can expect the ride to take hours when normally it would take minutes. The poorly drained roads flood with deep red water, thick with soil. Nairobi-ans drive old small vehicles that are purchased from Japan, which quickly break down and drown in deep water and turn into road blocks. (These vehicles have to be at least five years old before they are brought in and only the very wealthy can afford to buy cars new). There are also thousands of small public buses called matatus on the road competing for space, which are the main people movers in Nairobi.

It rained hard one evening when we were enroute to a dinner gala at the conference center in Nairobi. After we loaded our bus, we sat around the corner from our hotel for an hour. Four buses abreast filled the street, coming at us like immobile hungry sharks, anxious to devour us to get through. At our sides, vehicles from behind had flanked our sides. No vehicle could come towards us and none could go forward. It was a stand off, and there we sat for hours. When we moved inches, all vehicles moved inches at the same time, never allowing any distance to open up. This isn’t gridlock like at back home where everyone stays in their lane and waits, as patiently as they can. Aggressive driving is fined in America. It is a way of life here in Nairobi.

We heard other horror stories throughout the conference week. Colleagues were waiting for a transport to take them to that same dinner gala our first evening but their transport never showed up. They waited in front of our hotel for 1 ½ hours, figuring they were being blown off by the driver and went and found their own dinner. This was the first night of our conference in Nairobi and no one was privy to how bad the driving is and how long the wait can get. I happened to chat with that same bus driver days later and he informed me that they were certainly NOT forgotten. It had taken him 5 hours to drive the 1 ½ kilometers and arrived at the hotel entrance and lo and behold, found no waiting passengers.

Woman as a rule, don’t drive in Nairobi and you really can tell if there is a lone, usually terrified woman behind the wheel in the car ahead. The vehicle moves timidly. It allows vehicle after vehicle to cut in front of it. It gets run over. Woman naturally are caregivers, peacemakers, want everyone to get along. That personality doesn’t fly here in on the roadways of Nairobi. I am a fairly assertive driver at home. I overtake often and I drive over the speed limit most of the time but I am still considerate. I would need to step up my game here in order to stay alive. The alternative, always being a passenger, would also not fly with most American women I know.

While we drove around the conservancy on a game drive, Fred Muari of Africa Safaritours

told me more stories of traffic gridlocked in his fair city. One time a man hired a taxi to take him the 8 kilometers home. He got stuck in traffic and took 12 hours to get home. He went into his home, grabbed a sandwich and asked the taxi driver to wait and turn around and take him back to work, never getting a sleep in. Fred tells me that when people enroute to the airport get caught in traffic, they often get out and walk and just abandon their luggage before they’d miss a flight.

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On our way home from the conservancy, traffic suddenly stopped again. Vehicles came up from our rear on either sides of us. Then they came up on the other sides of those vehicles until there was a wall of vehicles five wide. The farthest ones out were in the bush. The line across might have grown to be 6, 7,8 across perhaps if it were not for the trees that began to grow the further out you went.

I sat in disbelief. No one beeped a horn in traffic jams like this, nor yells. Everyone moves quietly and aggressively. Do they stay off their horns because they are polite? That is hard to believe, for this behavior appears to be every man out for himself with no regard for their fellow drivers. I found the Nairobians to be patient, kind people in general so what occurs in them when they get behind the wheel?

First off, there are educated drivers and there are professional drivers on the road. The number of matatus in Nairobi alone number in the thousands, moving tens of thousands of people a day. This is a phenomenal number and because many of these are smaller vans, the roads are even more crowded with these aggressively driven vehicles.

The matatu drivers get paid by the trip. Even taxi drivers do not transport with a running tab of a meter. The incident where the passenger spent 12 hours one way in the vehicle only to turn around again, was paid through a negotiation. The driver’s time is taken into account along with the passenger’s wallet over this misfortune and lack of control. An agreement is made between the two.

There are also more vehicles on the road every year and those drivers are new to driving and do not possess the skill to be good drivers. A whole generators of poor drivers is evolving.

A police must be called in when one of these spectacular grid lock road blocks occurs to supervise. The officer gets into the thick of it and directs individual vehicles where to go. But these frequent and long lasting jams happen on a near daily basis and the police are at a loss of how to mitigate them. I myself was not frustrated but watched in a state of fascination and disbelief, but it wouldn’t take too many of these jams before I would be feeling like I was about to explode. I asked Fred what it feels like to live this way? “Doesn’t it make you crazy?”

“No,” Fred says. “You play music. You look at the headlights in front of you You chat and connect to the people in your vehicle. You just enjoy the sit.”

“Just enjoy the sit.” Wow. We Americans move so quickly, like to move quickly and expect to. When something stops us, we grow impatient almost immediately unless it is an accident. Then we accept our misfortune and stay parked in our lane and feel fortunate not to have been in a wreck and maybe dead. If someone does drive in the break down lane because they want to get off at an exit and avoid the back up, they are liable for a fine. But in a country like Kenya where corruption is rampant and they have much bigger problems than writing fines and collecting them, it may feel useless. Besides, you can always pay the police or anyone off, so why bother. Perhaps driving in this manner is an opportunity to be take control of one aspect of their lives. Africa struggles with an overall feeling of hopelessness, where so much is beyond their ability.

I learned years ago as a young mother, that it was never the child who was bad, they just exhibited poor behavior. Same for these Nairobians. They are good people. Many of them just drive like jerks.To accept such horrendous traffic conditions and behavior is beyond my American comprehension. I would want change and want it quickly and have order enforced. But that may be the difference between a citizen of a country who feels as if they have a voice and one who feels as if they are mute.

On my last evening in Nairobi, Fred and I planned to hop a matatu for a few kilometers so I could experience one. At the bus stop, he checked out each matatu that pulled up and peered into the window, for good matatu rides are “all about the vibe.” These mass transit, privately owned buses are painted on the outside with graffiti art and paintings. Some are gorgeous, some are gaudy. They share quotes depicting the driver’s private philosophy. After selecting an appropriate one, with loud African music and a deep percussion beat, we quickly climbed the few steps, for it was already moving away. We grabbed hold of a chrome bar overhead. Black faces, the color of night, filled the seats, standing room only. Posters of Malcome X and Bob Marley decorated the walls of the bus. The other passengers knew I was a tourist, of course, and so they smiled and said, Jambo!” and just watched me, fascinated by my behavior.

Fred and I hung near the door, watching the driver’s assistant swing out into the street as he held on with one arm, signaling where the bus was headed to the folks standing on the street. He tapped loudly on the side of the bus, indicating for the driver to continue. There was an overall feeling of fun on the matatu. I felt like busting out some dance moves but controlled myself. The matatu driver rocked and rolled through the streets, overtaking, overlapping, moving his people through Nairobi as fast as he could. From the inside of this lively bus, I didn’t mind his driving at all.

“Does Your Husband Know Who You’ve Been Kissing?”


I watched the people at the Giraffe Center in Nairobi put compressed oval pellets between their pursed lips and present it to the giraffes. The gorgeous animals came right up to them, lips to lips and took the pellet. Their tongues were incredibly long, whipping out nearly a foot, looking for food. We stood in a roofed hut that was on platform legs so the giraffes could walk around below us yet stick their heads into the side to be at eye level. These were endangered Rothchild Giraffes, with only 120 remaining on the planet when the center opened back in 1979. The actual non profit organization is called the African Fund for Endangered Wildlife Kenya (AFEW). Located in Karen, 3 miles from Nairobi city center, it has since evolved into an outstanding environmental education center for Kenyan youth.

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The giraffes were sometimes wet and sloppy kissers and left some saliva on the human presenters’ mouth. Attendees go around with a can of the enlarged rabbit pellets and offer them indefinitely to guests. One would think you’d hold them out in your hand and present them as you would feed a llama or a goat but giraffes prefer you to drop the pellet into their tongue which they curve into a convenient trough for you to deposit it. Besides the compressed pellets, they eat grass, carrots and lick salt with their incredible tongues.

The attendees call the giraffes by name of course, they wander at will from the 120 acres of land that they live and raise their young on. They live happily alongside wart hogs that hang out at their feet.

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It is quiet amazing to be eyeball to eyeball, with a magnificent creature that usually safari goers only see from a distance in their land rovers. I watched others present their mouths and although many had to wipe the slime from their chins afterwards and it at first seemed a bit disgusting, I thought to myself, when are you ever going to get to do this again? Go stick that pellet between your lips and get intimate with that gorgeous creature. Skin wipes clean. A memory like this lasts forever.

It was really something to have a giraffe come so close that he touches you, takes his soft lips and gently takes the pellet from your lips. There were all kinds of silly comments being tossed around by my travel writing colleagues, “Go get a room!” “He was quite a French kisser,” “Does your husband know who you have been kissing?” I teased back and said, “I kept my lips pursed tightly. There was no penetration!”


Ever since the center opened, over 50 Rothschild giraffes have been successfully raised and introduced back into one of Kenya’s protected wild areas. And I got to kiss one. Lucky me. And to think I almost missed out because of being squeamish of a long wet tongue. How foolish.

The Gift of Not Seeing Dirt

I could not sleep the other night and kept thinking about the freezer, go down and get berries out so you can have some with your morning yogurt. I couldn’t shake this idea and so I got up at 2 am and went down to the basement. Low and behold, there stood the upright freezer- open for 3-4 days. The interior was a nightmare of frost.

In the morning, I asked my husband if he would help me defrost it that evening. It is stuffed full of basil from our garden for making pesto in the winter- strawberries, raspberries, peaches, peppers, green beans, the list goes on. It is only one of two large freezers that we store our organic food in that we (my husband mostly) painstakingly grows all summer long. Luckily for us, we have a ton of coolers to throw these giant zip locs in of food so they don’t defrost while we execute the defrosting. I heat up pots of water on the woodstove. Carry them down the open wooden basement steps, splashing hot water on my husband’s neck who was underneath getting more coolers out! Whoops! I thought I would help- after all I DID THIS three days ago when I got out frozen food, he told me.

As Todd worked on some evening woodworking projects nearby to check on the defrosting progress, I came down with a butter knife to begin chipping off chunks and make it go faster. He yelled, “be very careful, those wires are very fragile.” It suddenly struck me, when the last time was that I had a butter knife in my hand and was defrosting a freezer. Thirty five years ago!!! I was single and had the same tool of choice in hand. That resulted in stabbing the freon container in my fridge and needing to get Mr Teter on a house call to repair it and fill it back up. My God, has it been that long since I did this chore? No wonder I stayed away after that. What a pathetic specimen of a housekeeper you are, I told myself.

I said to Todd, “Oh my God, I haven’t defrosted a fridge or a freezer since we are married.”

He said, “I know, I do it all the time.”

“How many times have you done it? I asked “and how come I don’t remember you doing it?”

“You were probably out hiking somewhere,” he replied.

I told my girlfriend Maryalice this and she laughed hard and said, “That’s why you are my hero.”

Wow, not too many would agree with that statement. Certainly not my parents who figured they failed in this department way back when I was a teen and they were still alive. My dad would follow behind me when I lived at home and say, “Cynthia, don’t you see that lint on the carpet? Pick it up when you see it.”

Dad did not believe me that I actually DID NOT SEE DIRT. I do not hold it in my mind’s eye and so it doesn’t appear. Only when I must turn my attention over to it when someone of note is coming to visit. At those times, when I vacuum the floor and dust and the guest arrives, I announce that I have not had the chance to clean (even though I just did clean- MY KIND of cleaning ) and that I am not a good housekeeper.

“My sister once got me a T-shirt that said, “A clean house is the sign of a wasted life.” You have to watch who you wear that one in front of. Women liked the one that said, “A man’s house is his castle, let him clean it.”

I guess that has been the philosophy that I have adopted. As I moped up the pools of freezing water with towels, swept the concrete floor with a dustpan and brush, I was reminded why I hate cleaning. I just don’t find it much fun. And I try to avoid activities that are not much fun.

I like to wheelbarrow firewood. I like to mow the lawn. I like to pull weeds. I always make our bed and keep the house picked up. There is magnet on my fridge that says, “I understand the concept of cooking and cleaning, just not how it applies to me.” I DO like to cook, however and feel it is my responsibility as a work-at-home wife to have a good wholesome, healthy meal on the table WHEN MY MAN COMES HOME from work! I always prided myself as being a “good enough wife,” just a lousey housekeeper. I am a good homemaker I believe because we have so many who love to come to our home to visit and stay. So I would say I excel there! I am not a bad writer or photographer either and have an important message to share to the world and I do work hard at loving people and to be there for my friends. I am a very good mother too. My God, we can’t be good at everything! I selected housekeeping to be my drawback, downfall, weakness, whatever. We all have a certain amount of energy to expend in the world, on our projects, our passions. Having a floor that is so clean that you can eat off it is not my desire. I don’t sweat it and I am fortunate enough to have a husband who picks up the slack.

I like the quote as a life philosophy when it comes to cleaning or anything we don’t LOVE,

“Don’t try to be such a perfect girl, darling. Do the best you can without too much anxiety or strain.” Jesse Barnard. Now let’s go for a hike.

When Hardship Does Not Feel Hard

Old man Quehman used to sit on the porch of his stone home in an old kitchen chair, and face the stream across his property. He held his shotgun in his hand, waiting, passing the time. His knees would fall open and his big swollen belly heaved up and down in his bib overalls as he grew sleepy. He was looking for muskrats to exit the stream and come looking for a free meal in his steer pasture. It wasn’t as if it were a free for all and they ran like a pack when hearing the Piped Piper. Only rarely did one exit so he often grew bored and sleep would overtake him. Occasionally, his gun would accidentally go off, shoot a hole through the tin porch roof and scare the beejeseus out of him.

Todd and I used to shout a hello to him to wake him up and not surprise him when we pushed our skateboard down the blacktop road to his cellar, plastic water jugs in hand. We were renting a tiny cabin attached to our landlord’s property. Every few days we fetched water and wheeled it back to our 500 square foot cabin. Our home had no running water, nor central heat but we got a bargain of a deal at $50 a month.

As newlyweds, we were saving money, for land, to purchase a truck load of logs to build our home, to long distance hike the remaining 1500 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail. We drove everywhere with a packed bag of towels, wash cloths, soap and shampoo in the car and snagged a shower from every friend and relative we visited. We also frequented the gymnaism’s swimming pool shower at the local university. When we heated water on our two burner Coleman stove to do dishes, we immersed our hands in the luxuriously hot liquid and fantasized about soaking in a full tub. We never took water for granted after that, as if hiking through the Mojave Desert on that national scenic trail did not already accomplish that goal.

Todd and I paid a visit to that tiny cabin the other night as I recently referred to it in a blog about our old landlord’s abandoned car turned into a chicken coop. I wanted to see if the car was still there and if our newlywed cabin still stood. We had not been back for thirty years. A flood of memories overtook us as we parked the car and snuck over. It sat dark and quiet by the stream, looking the same as it did decades ago, only a little more tired and dark.

On the backside of the tar paper covered building, we had nailed discarded speed limit signs to cover entrance holes that allowed critters in. In order to maximize space, we built our double bunk bed high off the floor so we could use underneath it for storage of our backpacking gear and supplies. Our wood stove was way too hot and cranked out way too much heat for such a tiny cottage and it often left us gasping for oxygen and chased us to the floor where we lay panting and sweating. In bed, our heads were so close to the angled ceiling that Norway rats would play in between the roofing and the wallboard and roll nuts down the roof slope and scamper after them, ramming into a rafter and dropping dust on our faces. One time, a squirrel came down the chimney and got caught in the wood stove. Since we were always trying to save money, and did not believe in killing animals and not consume them, we coaxed him out of the stove and into a live trap and shoved the barrel of my shotgun in. This squirrel was so mean that he mouthed the gun barrel and made Todd’s job easier. We skinned and gutted him, dipped the meat in egg and bread crumbs, friend him up but could not even score the meat with our teeth. That squirrel was like biting into a rubber spatula.

There was no insulation in the walls. I was writing my second book, “Journey on the Crest” about our 2,600 mile walk from Mexico to Canada and had to wrap my down sleeping bag around my feet as the floor was so cold, regardless if the ceiling up by our bed was cooking with heat.

But we did not mind living like this in the least. As newlyweds, we made love a few times a day, saved a ton of money, learned to garden and feed ourselves, found affordable land that we did not have to go in debt over, attended log building school in Minnesota and built a log sauna to practice for our home. We were living the dream. Independent, debt free, and working on making our dreams come true and were together in love.

After two years living in that cottage, we moved to a property by the Appalachian Trail and operated a hostel for the local Blue Mountain Eagle Climbing Club. Under the Volunteers in Parks program, we were allowed to live on this NPS land for free. At this time, we were building our home on the other side of Hawk Mountain. We used to tease and say, “Yea, we thought $50 a month was too expensive so we looked for a place to live for free.” That home did not have plumbing nor central heat either and our upstairs bedroom got so cold in the winter that my portable pee bucket froze in the night and we gave up winter camping for good after three winters there.

Todd figured that by making the sacrifice to live so frugally, we saved so much money that we were able to buy land and build a beautiful handmade log home and never acquire debt. If we had spent $500

a month on rent during those seven years, that total would have come to $20,000. That was exactly the price of our land, well, septic, logs and all the finishings. My family used to ask us if all our hard work and sacrifice was worth it and being long distance hikers who were in love with freedom and independence, we said “yes.” Never had a mortgage, never had a bank dictate to us how to build, was always able to travel extensively throughout our lives, and certainly did not have to wait to retirement to begin to live the life we had imagined. But we had to sacrifice “hardship,” in order to get it.

Our kids are grown now. They were raised without some of the creature comforts that most children in America enjoy. We still have no central heat, no microwave, no electric clothes dryer in our log home, but that feels normal for us and to them growing up.

While scoping out our old cabin, Todd and I marvel at the thirty years that have flown by since we began our life together there and wondered if our kids would want to do it, even could do what we did. How many from this generation would “choose” to give up something in order to have something larger. We hear a lot of “we deserve it” from our kids’ friends when they talk about lifestyle and purchasing material things. But you are always trading one thing for another. Sacrifice and hardship are all relative. To us, true hardship is living with debt, being controlled by bills, not being able to take off on adventures whenever you want, losing our freedom. To Todd and I, that is hardship.

The Desire to Become White Trash


I waited for the life or death prognosis phone call with trepidation. Every time my cell phone rang, I jumped and anticipated bad news. Schuylkill Automotives delivered my fear. My 2002 Toyota Echo was dying. There was no hope. My son, Bryce had it in Philly, parked on a side street waiting to bring him to his Hawk Mountain sanctuary of a home when he needed a wild fix. It grew rusty. Parts froze. One time, the wheels froze in place and had to be pushed and broken free before it could move forward. There were acorns stored in the air filter. Pools of water had gathered around the spark plugs. The tail pipe just developed a deafening hole. The fuel filter was severely challenged and the overall structure of the frame was so compromised that hunks of metal were falling off and it could barely hold together to be put on a lift. “I would not let my son drive that,” the mechanic said. And so, a page will be turned and it will take its last ride down to Joe’s U Pull It Junk yard cemetery later this week. I am sad. I am considering keeping it as a lawn ornament as so many do in these parts of lawless Schuylkill County coal country, and many rural areas across America.

Two days ago, my sister and I were going for a morning walk near our B&B outside State College while on a press trip and we passed a dead truck by a barn. “Why would they keep their old vehicles?’ she asked. Oh, I know why, two days later, more than ever. When you put nearly 300,000 miles on a car, a lot of memories are bound to be associated with it. It’s akin to wanting to bury your pet dog in yard, so you can visit the site whenever you miss it, so too with your old car.

I bought this Toyota new after my last tiny car, a Geo Metro suffered a death-defying crash, totaling my car, with both children and myself in it. A woman turned in front of me, not anticipating my speed, rammed into my front bumper, and propelled us into a light pole head on. The kids and I were shook but exited the crumbled vehicle unscathed except for emotional trauma. Both children said they never considered the fact that they could die at such a young age and now they knew it could truly happen any minute of the day- stay present and grateful. The driver of the wrecker that came to cart my dead Metro away was one of the silliest, joking fellas I had ever met. He lightened our load but I asked him, “Are you always this jovial at the scene of a bad accident?” And to that he replied, “Oh, I never get to speak to anyone. They’re usually dead. This is an unusual situation.”

And so I asked him about the myth that small cars are very unsafe and he disagreed, “You car simply collapsed into itself, folded up, and left your bodies unharmed. That is the way it is supposed to react in a collision. It performed beautifully. It kept you safe and alive.” And so I bought the next smallest car I could, a Toyota Echo. 

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A description…

I have to laugh when a friend wants to show me his new expensive car because he does not understand that vehicles aesthetically mean very little to me. They are a means of getting somewhere. I begin to trash their insides shortly after purchasing and on a road trip, especially my son and I , we can make the interior look like a land fill before we get out of the county. Bumper stickers are a must, not just for decoration, but to satisfy my intense desire to communicate and get messages to the world. I have seen many a person in my rear view mirror straining at a red light to read my car and then laughing hard and I am sure, also thinking deeply from the messages shared. Some think it looks trashy, but you know where I am going with this anyway!

The trunk is covered scratches where my bicycle pedals spun and ripped the paint off on our way to the bike trail…way too much work to wrap them and tape them to keep the paint job pristine. 

Across the dash, stuck on with double stick tape are a series of clay heads depicting our family members. Bryce made them as a present for me when he was a young teen. I always marveled that my head was so much bigger than all the others in the family. What does that say?

Both children learned to drive on that car, using a stick shift. I was their designated instructor and thoroughly enjoyed the harrowing yet entertaining episodes as they learned to use the clutch on steep inclines and had emotional breakdowns at the same time. Once, Bryce turned the corner of a small rural road and there was a horse standing in the middle of it. He freaked out. I told him, laughing, to expect the unexpected when it comes to driving.

One of the best car memories has to do with Mister Jingles, a relative of that mouse in the film, “The Green Mile.” A family of mice moved into the heating ducts one winter when we were away on one of our famous month-long winter getaways to a foreign country. When Todd discovered the nest of dead mice, he tried to eradicate them but could not access the hoses. We even took it to a mechanic and paid to get them extracted. They stank like rot and death whenever we turned the heater on. This lasted for years, as every spring when it rained and grew damp, Mr & Mrs. Jingles and their offspring would rehydrate again and fill the car interior with her memory. It was repulsive. They dried up and dehydrated with the season, and came back to life when it changed. Bryce would comment, “Mr. Jingles is back.” 

Our first landlord in rural Kutztown, parked his old red sedan in the pasture and gave it a second life as a makeshift chicken coop. The hens laid their eggs in the open glove box and it enjoyed a new life in its autumnal years as a car.


And of course there is the most famous romantic abandoned vehicle story – Chris McCandless’s home of “Into the Wild” fame in an abandoned bus near Healy, Alaska. That story has forever changed my daughter’s psyche when it comes to conjuring up dreams of wild abandonment and freedom.

I have personally come across wonderful vehicles in the wilds, kudzu and ivy and the forest itself reclaiming its territory as they become part of the landscape and really beautiful and arty. Alaska is famous for these parked and abandoned vehicles, in gold country or anywhere. So much history connected to them, untold stories, a whole life of experiences connected to them which we can only stand there and imagine.

 For those of us who buy our cars new and run them into the ground until their life is over, they do become friends.So I scope our property out, looking for a suitable final resting place for my Toyota Echo. I know the goats would find endless pleasures climbing onto its roof and playing king of the mountain. Our wild rescued roosters that roost in the trees would also enjoy its roof. Folks around here park old farming machinery at the entrance to their driveway as art objects, is my car so different? It would take decades, however, for the forest to begin to claim my car and make it look “arty” where it rests. Before that, we would just be considered “White Trash.” And although the price of scrap metal is down, we will still get close to $200 just for its body parts, and is only a short drive down 895 where we live.

The temptation is strong, but we cave and take it on its last ride to the junk yard with only a blog, a few photos and deep-seated memories left to keep it alive. Maybe my present Toyota Yaris will have better luck as a lawn ornament in the years to come.

Focusing on Football- or NOT

As soon as we entered the Traverse City Thirlby Stadium press box, it reminded me of an air traffic control center. Lit monitors and screens illuminated the space. Serious-looking men wearing head phones talked seriously into microphones. Cameras were set up on tripods. Sound proof rooms were separated from the rest of the important people. Smells wafted through the air and on the far wall were long aluminum chafing dishes filled with food, to feed the important men. Assorted shapes of unidentifiable foods- breaded and fried, filled the containers. Red spicy smells rose up from them. Not a crisp vegetable or a lettuce leaf was on the menu. A glass-fronted cooler of unnatural colored sports drinks lined the shelves.

The press box was filled with broad-shouldered focused men in expensive sneakers and short-sleeved polo shirts, who all looked like they had played football in a past life but had not maintained the sprints and calisthenics. There would be no need for a high energy, electrolyte-filled sports drink from this group, who would not be taking the two flights of stairs necessary to reach the press box but opt for the elevator instead, but it is the drink of choice.

I was a foreigner. Clearly these folks live for football, as do many Americans. I had not been to a football game since I tossed my baton into the air at the half time game my senior year. That was back in 1973. Still, I was here for a cultural experience and because I wanted to be in my good friend’s company. Mover and shaker Tim Brick helped raise the money to complete this amazing high school stadium, which seats 7,000 fans. It is the only one like it in the north, and boasts artificial turf. Tim himself was a high school football star in this very town many moons ago and then went on to be a college football star for the University of Montana Grizzlies. I was also curious to see what had changed in this universe and what had remained the same.

Back in 1973, my poor Pennsylvania Catholic high school had a small wooden box on a platform which served as the announcer’s box. Room for only him with a single mic. Only the folks in the stadium could hear the plays of the game. It was not broadcasted on a live radio or tv show like here at Traverse City. We were not so focused back then, nor so serious.

I went to the football games in my high school because my boyfriend was a football star and because I was a majorette and part of the half time entertainment. I watched my #44 run with the ball but my attention often wandered.

There is a photo of me in our high school year book taken at a football game. I am dressed in my homemade red corduroy, short skirted outfit and a white satin vest with red rick rack around the edge that my mother sewed for me on her machine. My feet wear white lace-up fashion boots. In the photo, we majorettes are all lined up on the white line, hands on our hips, baton in hand looking at the camera, except for me. My attention is elsewhere. The caption in the yearbook reads, “Ross hears the call of a different drummer.” I was not focusing on the task at hand. Little did the editor know that that would become my life song. Forty years later, I am here in this press box, trying to focus and watch this football game.


In the bleachers, waiting for the half time show, is the band and the band front. Few are watching the game either, even though it is a fast-moving game with closely matched teams. The dorky, pimple-faced clarinet player is turned completely around, his back to the field, attempting to flirt with the mousey-brown haired female flutist. Not staying focused on the football game either. This hasn’t changed.

I was personally looking forward to the half time show. This high school did something unusual for me- they ran onto the field, big tubas and all, and then resumed their positions. They also seemed to do a lot more choreographing too, moving in and out amongst the band and band front members that you could only appreciate from a spot high in the bleachers or in the press box in the sky like where I watched from.

The band members still wore the same high helmets with chin straps and feather plumes and jackets with brass buttons. That did not change.

The football players did not seem to have changed much, either. They did wear assorted colored shoes instead of the standard black only spikes that the guys wore in my high school days. I could make out their different body shapes, unlike the professional players who looked like muscle bound robotic action figures. Here were skinny, small running backs, fat linemen whose bells clearly hung over their pants. A few looked as if they were men already, maturing early or perhaps held back a year, focusing more on football than their studies.

I did go to one football game between this one and my own high school games and that was a professional game played by the Philadelphia Eagles. I received very expensive tickets as I was doing a magazine story on behind-the-scenes stadium tours. I found the fans around me on all four sides even more fascinating than the game taking place on the field however, as they drank and sang and hollered and laughed and bonded with the huge men around them. They stood up the whole game and I could not see over them even when I stood up for they were so tall and broad. So I resolved to remain seated and focused on them instead, which proved to be a study in human psychological behavior. They behaved differently than any other humans I had ever observed.

This Traverse City high school football game was not nearly as entertaining as the one in Philadelphia but certainly worthwhile, although there were many home runs and the game moved swiftly. Besides people watching, I also busied myself by watching a three minute egg timer that my two talk show hosts use to remind themselves to tell radio listeners what the score is, as he gets very focused on the game and forgets to announce the score for new listeners. When I saw the last grain of sand run through, I flipped it and pushed it in front of his face so he could see it and announce the score.

It was interesting to hear my friend Tim live on the radio talk show, reporting plays and making commentary about the players, which he and the host constantly referred to from a cheat sheet of numbers and associated players. It sounded like they knew them personally. On second thought, he probably does know a lot of the home team players, their football loving fathers too. He studies and watches clips to learn about the two teams playing so he sounds smart on the air.

At Tim’s home, he has University of Montana Grizzly paraphernalia decorating inside and out. A banner waves from his porch, his vanity license plate announces his love of his team, black painted griz prints cross his driveway. Inside his home are many pieces of art depicting bears, predominately grizzlies. He loves football but he also loves cycling, which I do too and he loves people, all kinds. Me too.

When it comes to my friend here, I think of the characters in “The Little Prince.” The Prince and the Fox are both from different planets but find a beautiful shared friendship regardless. They look for similarities not differences in their friendship. They share the same heart.

Tim and I don’t need to have football in common and really when it comes down to it, that’s one of the things which makes humans so interesting- all the different passions we can focus on and still find ways to care and connect to one another. And every now and then we get to share their view of their world, like here in the football stadium press box in Traverse City, and I am grateful.

“INVITE HIM ALONG” – A Ride to Recovery with passed Airborne Ranger Zachary Adamsom

I wanted to get to know this young man who left our world way earlier than any of US wished him to….sleep in his bed, ride in his truck, drive the same roads he did, hug his childhood teddy bear, read his letters, touch his medals, slip his AT fleece over my head.

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Because I scheduled this visit, Becky & Steve were forced to go through their son’s belongings, which have been stacked in boxes in their old office room. Becky could only last five minutes at first before she fled back to the house crying. But they found many wonderful things, sweet loving letters and frightful, turning point ones from Afghanistan after a fire fight which killed Zach’s comrades who were on either side of him.

I went to a psychic while I was visiting and he told us many things. One was that Zach hangs out in a “pink room,” for something is there of his, he said. His bed. The physic said that between 3 am and 3:10 is when he usually makes his round. I went to sleep in Zach’s bed and was a little freaked out as I have had some disturbing overnight experiences in severely haunted B&B’s in Gettysburg, PA, the location of the most paranormal experiences in America (so many lost souls caught inbetween worlds.) So I told Zach before I went to bed, “Don’t scare me.” I slept fitfully for the first few hours, as every time a car drove past on their road, the light came through the window through my closed lids forcing me to throw my eyes open, searching the room for his presence.

Finally, I had to get up to go to the bathroom and I contemplated NOT checking the phone to see what time it was- but I did….3:02. I laid down, laid one hand flat against the mattress where his body laid and my other hand on my shoulder. I sudddenly felt pressure on my hand and my whole body felt wrapped in a warm blanket. I told Zach how much I loved him and how much I wanted to tell his story and do a good job for him and asked him for his help It was not scary at all and felt so wonderful. Afterwards, I immediatly fell into a deep restful sleep.

The psychic instructed us to “invite Zach along,” on outings and so we planned one and invited him along. Steve, Becky, me and Zach would travel that same route on his last evening on earth, from getting take-out at Gold Star to his stone farmhouse, where he encountered his confrontational roommate which resulted in Zach taking his life. It was a ride for recovery. It was a big step for Beck and Steve. I knew they would not want to go unless I asked them to take me on my visit.

We stopped at the Gold Star who makes famous Cincinnati chili and spaghetti and purchased supper, the same last meal Zach purchased. As Beck slipped into the Ladies room at the restaurant, I thought, what the hell, I’ll use the Men’s- it is an individual rest room and the door can be locked. As soon as I sat down on the comode, it was as if a voice spoke from the urinal next to my side, “Well, if you’re going to come into the Men’s room, I’m gonna take a piss at the same time,” and I busted up laughing out loud.

Beck & Steve said, “that’s exactly what he would have said.”

We drove the country road out to the stone farmhouse where he breathed his last breath. It was enough for his parents to push themselves to go down that grassy driveway as they have not been back since they had to identify the body and remove his belongings. They stayed in the car. It was huge for them just to have arrived at this point.

From there, we went to the community skate park that Zach raised money to build back when he was a fifteen year old. Then we traveled to the creek where he learned to fish in.

Afterwards, we stopped at the cemetery to see the beautiful stone they had made in Zach’s honor- with photos on the back of his childhood and photos on the front if him as an Airborne Ranger and an AT thru-hiker, on top of mount Katahdin. On top of the stone is an etching of Zach at Mc Afee”s Knob, his favorite view and the scene of a beautiful memorial hike orchestrated by his ranger comrade Travis Johnston in May of 2014. “It is his stance,” his mom said. They want people to come here years from now as they wander the cemetery and KNOW their son through his memorial stone and what he loved. The psychic said the spirit of our loved ones who passed do not reside at the cemetery where they are buried but it is a good meeting place to connect. They will come there to meet you.

Zach visits other people in this world too- his buddies. He often has another military man with him. If you think of him, it IS HIM there with you. “Just say hi,” the psychic said. He puts his hands on us, as he was always hugging and kissing his loved ones.

The psychic said that none of us are to use the word “Death” or “Dying.” Zach has just passed ahead into another dimension and he is very happy, well, and in heaven, which he walked into. He is very proud of who he is. We must not ask “Why?” as that hurts him. Suicide is a “mission,” which makes sense in his Airborne Ranger part of his life. He is not sure that he would do it again as he was not aware of how many people would be hurt. But he did it to prevent others from doing it. The great news, the psychic said is that at least 100 people will spare themsleves this similar fate, because of his example. And the Adamsons and I think we already personally can name a few!

So I left Mt. Orah, Ohio with a stack of copied letters and photos, a deeper understanding of who this “Boy” was and still IS- this fun, loving, warm “old soft soul.” Zach is still alive and well, and gave me his personal blessing to write his story in an upcoming book on walking towards peace, for the Appalachian Trail did just that for Zachary “Shady” Adamson and we must find peace in what has passed too.IMG_0268