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.

PERCEPTION and MISPERCEPTION in a Muslim Country

 

A Day in Marrakech (Bryce)

The time is 5a.m. The city of Marrakech, Morocco is breathlessly quiet. Suddenly, chanting begins to resound from a nearby mosque. Within moments it is followed by a chorus of guttural voices, emanating from over 100 minarets. Asleep on a rooftop terrace I am jarred awake by the thunderous Call to Prayer. This is our Moroccan alarm clock. 

From our rooftop terrace we have a sprawling view of the city. The markets form a web of convoluted streets; alleyways thatched in bamboo and hopelessly tangled. From the central plaza, the streets radiate outward in a labyrinth capable of making anyone feel directionally challenged. In the distance loom the snow-capped Atlas Mountains. 

Departing from our rooftop we gravitate towards the plaza. By the time the sun had ascended, monkey-handlers and snake charmers are already welcoming the day. People are everywhere, mummified women in shawls, filthy children, wizened old folks with canes, teenagers swerving erratically on mopeds, and beggars shielded under cardboard, aligning cigarette butts with Mecca.

After breakfast in the plaza we take the plunge into the markets. Everything is rich in color-vibrant scarves, jewelry, teapots and tasselled rugs. Tables are heaped with camel-leather saddles, daggers, spices and fresh produce. Our personal favorites are the stands piled in figs and dates. In the center of the stands are holes where Moroccans pop up to collect our order, reminiscent of prairie dogs emerging from their burrows.

One moment please!” they shout, “Just look, no buy! Like free!” 

Animals are also numerous. Donkeys haul carts containing every product from Coca-Cola bottles to propane tanks. Cats wander the streets, scavenging bits of meat and gnawing at fish bones. Roosters peck at the ground.

We wander between cracked, sunset-colored walls until we detect the stench of the tannery. The tannery is an open area with vats of water made milky with pigeon droppings. Workers slosh in the rank broth in nothing but shorts, laboring to tan sheep leather.  It looks like a vast honeycomb, where men hang skins to dry and mangy cats wander the rims. We are handed sprigs of mint leaf to sniff to dull the stench.

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At the dyers  souk, pieces of cloth are hung from lines and lifted with hooked poles. The colors are striking and vary from crimson to turquoise and cobalt blue. We climb up a spiral staircase to view the scenery from the terrace. Somehow, we find ourselves bargaining with a man who offers 8,000 camels in exchange for my sister.

By nightfall the plaza is a hive of humanity. Like moths to a flame, we are attracted towards its lit center. Men wheel in food carts and cooking tents, banishing the snake charmers and their repetitive song. Soon pungent smoke clouds the air. Small greasy chefs busily fry small greasy sausages. Buckets of snails entice the passerby. Determined tattoo artists pursue us with syringes of henna, while we pursue the aroma of frying food.

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The traffic is chaotic, mopeds swerving around bewildered tourists. The whine of motorbikes pierces the air.

Where you from?” inquires a fruit salesman.

The United States.”

A thousand welcomes,” he exclaims, grinning gleefully. We smile back.

From dawn to dusk the markets have ensnared us. We realize a week would not be fully sufficient to see all its wonders. Returning to our rooftop terrace, we hear the fifth and final Call to Prayer, while below us drummers pound out the heartbeat of Marrakech.

 

All this occurred in just twenty-four hours. The first twenty-four hours of a month-long trip. So much is packed into a single day when you travel to a foreign country such as Morocco, where nearly everything is strange, exotic and new. So much happens in a span of 24 hours, that by the end of a single day, what occurred in the morning, seems like many days ago. The passing of time is perceived as going slow for it feels stretched and packed to the brim with abundant experiences, yet it never drags or is boring. This is the treasure of travel. Your days spent on a trip are of the highest quality.

We traveled to Morocco in 2008 to celebrate the kids’ 16 & 18th birthdays. Our friend, Allen Hoppes, owner of “I, Like You Tours,” was broadening his guide service to include private trips for families. He needed a family to practice on and we happily obliged. Allen believes as we do, that travel can be much more than moving from one place to another but is about learning by experience and immersing yourself in the culture.  Knowledge is one thing; personal experience is another. We travel in order to experience what life has to offer in order that we might live life more fully. This has always been my goal for my children.

When my sister learned that we were splurging on this month-long adventure, she replied, “If that were me, I would be using that money for my children’s education.”

To that I replied, “I am.” This, we were soon to discover, was exactly what we were doing.

It had been 8 years since the Twin Towers exploded when we traveled to Morocco and fear had been driven into many American hearts, including an imperceptible fear of Muslims in general. I want to teach my children acceptance, respect and welcome when it comes to all people. The best way to have that happen is to go to an Arab country and live there for a time.

My children knew that many Arab cultures have dress codes for women, some much stricter than others. As free-thinking liberals, who relish our independence and freedom, we had a pre-conceived idea that this practice seems medieval and unnecessary.

 

In the cities of Morocco, we observed that Muslim women rarely go out in public. “The street is a man’s domain,” Allen tells us. When women do go out, they huddle in twos and walk tightly arm in arm as if one being. They do not want to look attractive in any way. We may look at this custom as being repressive when in reality it is viewed as practical and respectful in their culture.
Their homes have open courtyards with rooms radiating around like the spokes of a wheels. Here their children play, away from the streets, protected. The women go up to the rooftops to hang their wash, feel the sun, see the view, even if it is only a scene of more rooftops, but this is where they socialize and share with their women friends, as well as the hamman, the public bath where they scrub one another in long, rough strokes up and down their backs until the dead skin comes off in black spaghetti strings. The women are “safe” on the roof from the rest of the world, the world of men, as they are inside their homes. Over half of Moroccan women have little education and cannot read nor write.

As we walk the streets, dark-haired, handsome young Moroccan men, dressed in all black are everywhere, with clearly nothing to do with their time.

Sierra says, They all make eye contact with me and latch on with a desirous look. They lock their dark eyes shamelessly on mine and coo, “oh, la la.”  I look away bashfully. One stops dead in his tracks and just stares at me. And I was on Mom’s arm wearing a coat and a hat and not having showered in days, I wasn’t feeling attractive. Bryce tries to get me to walk 50 feet ahead of the rest of the group to see the level of harassment that is inflicted on me. I got quite a few marriage offers from shop owners and one offers Bryce 900,000 camels to be his wife.”

The young men behave more like hungry harmless wolves, instead of polite, respectable hosts, perhaps  they are the victims of deprivation. Remaining hidden in your home and hidden behind scarves when you do go out in public is making more sense to my daughter. Sierra is different and so she gets noticed. She has no competition with other young Moroccan women, as they are not on the streets, and we see no American tourists, especially young adults. We’re learning to navigate the streets of Morocco, not just through the maze of the souk, but also amongst their people.

The Moroccan women in the rural areas, we’re discovering, have more freedom than their urban sisters but also more work. They must go out daily to collect greens for cow food and lug huge bundles of sticks on their backs from the forest to fuel their cook fires. The rural men lean against telephone poles or alongside buildings or sit in circles. They look hard at us for not many tourists visit the places Allen is taking us. This uneven division of labor is being noted by my children.

When you travel to countries that are off the normal tourists’ radar, you get noticed, because you stick out. They can tell we are Americans. Our behavior is being noted and used as a reference to understand our people, contrary to what they might hear in the news or on television. Who they perceive us to be and who we really are can be very different.

I was once approached by a foreigner from a developing country and he was puzzled about how we are able to go out of our homes. We might “live in mansions,” he said, “but the street is a very dangerous place.” When I asked him what he was basing his information on, he admitted it was two American TV shows, “The Lives of the Rich and Famous” and “NYPD.” He thought that was how we all lived.

Others are much better informed. We met people from Switzerland while in Morocco and they said, “What a shame that all Americans are viewed in relation to your country’s politics, the behavior of (then) President Bush, and judge you accordingly.” Another asked,  “Why do you Americans think that you’re better than everyone else?”

To that I replied, “I don’t, and I am not my country’s politics nor my country’s government nor my country’s leader.”

It is very beneficial to see how other people in the world view us. Many are confused about our leaders’ motives and actions in the world. Questioning foreigners such as these make my children think and not be too hasty to accept what the American media feeds us as truth. These encounters are opportunities to take the misperceptions in a foreigners’ mind and turn them into more accurate, honest and real opinions about who Americans are. We can choose to behave as good-will ambassadors and set a good example.

 

Our most impacting experiences in Morocco, the ones which taught us the most, were the times spent in the private homes of the rural people, where we could see who they really are.

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A Berber family in the Dades Gorge of the Rif Mountains, ran a small hotel and also offered private group meals. The attractive, exotic-looking young men served us wearing head scarfs, as they poured hot tea high above our cups from silver pots, and we sat on cushions eating goat meat and vegetables out of clay tagines. One young man in particular was watching Sierra from afar and she felt smitten.

The other male family members beat on goat skinned drums, as the fire burned warm and glowing. After dinner, they taught us to dance traditional Berber dances, and entertained us with card games and magic tricks, as Allen interpreted and translated. The night was filled with happy laughter as we learned to communicate and found connection with these new friends.

When we asked to visit a local silversmith, in the hopes of buying some jewelry, the young man who was attracted to Sierra, ushered us to the village artist. After Sierra selected a particular Berber ring, he took it upon himself to pull it from the case and slide it onto her finger himself. Bryce teased his sister about a future Berber wedding until morning came and our mountain boy appeared without his head scarf. That quickly, all the allure and mystery connected to him dissipated with his exposed, close-cropped haircut, making him look like every other Moroccan young man.

 

Towards the end of our month-long stay, Allen arranged a homestay experience for us where we walked from one family’s rural farm to their relatives. This experience becomes our family’s most favorite out of  a month of spectacular memories and it is here where we connect the deepest to our new Muslim friends.

First-borns are often named Mohammad and in this particular blended family of two second marriages, there were two sons named Mohamed as well as their father, making three Mohammeds under the same roof. Back in America, many teens put tremendous energy into finding out “who they are” and creating a separate identity from their parents so my kids found this very different.

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We ate with the family around one massive tray of community food, consuming what was right in front of you, with your one hand (right)- your left is considered “unclean” (some use to clean their butts). No one gets fat here if you just stick to your little triangle of food in front of you. My kids feared they were straying too far to the left or right and stuck to mopping up meat juice with hunks of bread to play it safe.

Afterwards, they asked us questions, with the aid of Allen interpreting.

“I’ve heard that in some countries like America you eat from your own plate, but I have never seen this.”

The adults watched me. They asked if I drive, if I cook, how old I am. When they heard how old I was (51) they could believe I am able to hike the way I do. Fifty is very old in Morocco. When they learned that I am five years older than Todd, they replied that in Morocco, a woman is never allowed to marry a man who is younger than she. A woman must go to live with her husband’s family and her new mother-in-law is her now constant companion, not her husband. They will not even sleep together but the men and boys will sleep in a separate room. They then dressed Sierra and I up in their style of clothing, wrapped blankets tightly around our waists, applied black coal eye liner, wrap a head scarf around our heads, and tuck my hair in “to protect me.”

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The kids bonded very quickly. The young boys hung on my kids affectionately with their arms draped around their shoulders. They tried on Bryce’s aviator sunglasses and wanted their picture together trying to look “gangster.’ They got my kids to teach them American lyrics and sang together, giggling. They wanted to play simple card games as that is a way to overcome the language barrier.

At the end of the evening, when they directed our family to split up for the night, as was their custom, Allen told them that our family would remain together. Although we were sleeping on narrow sofas that lined the walls, not in double beds, our hosts still made a point to direct Sierra and I to the far opposite side of the room from my husband and her brother. They tried to get Allen to sleep with the men but he too said that he would be staying with “the family.” He was our guide and friend.

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When we said good-bye the next morning, there were warm hugs all around and many photos taken to preserve the memory. The Islamic people have a beautiful saying, “Guests are gifts from God,” and this Moroccan family represented this sentiment beautifully…nothing “scary” about this Islamic family! We hoped to see one another again and to that they replied with the equally beautiful Islamic saying, “inshallah” (Insha’Allah),” God willing, or if Allah wills.

My children claimed that out of the fifteen countries they experienced before they went to college, Morocco was at the top of the list. It was partially because these people were Muslim and extraordinarily welcoming hosts, a monumental lesson to learn by my children about accepting and understanding other cultures and religions. They’ve learned to look for similarities, try to understand differences and not be fooled by inaccurate perceptions.

As we wrapped up our trip to Morocco, Allen shared these thoughts with my children.

Many cultural norms (what we eat, when we eat, who we marry, which God we worship, how we dress, what is important to us) are simply arbitrary. They carry the weight of habit, history and peer pressure. When we travel, we begin to see that other people do things differently, think differently, etc. and they also may think their ways are the best, right, natural and true ways of doing things/being. They might even think they are sacred and come directly from God. With enough travel and enough exposure, an intelligent mind recognizes that much human activity/ways of doing things, is arbitrary. Somebody made the rules up and we follow them. Travel can open a traveler’s mind that there are other ways of thinking/doing/being, that life can be a smorgasbord from which we choose what we like best. You don’t have to eat only what is put on the plate in front of you. 

You don’t have to listen to Fox or CNN to find out what Muslims think or what dog tastes like–you can go find out personally. You can educate ourselves and decide. You don’t have to accept the ideas of the media. You can go to Philadelphia and eat an Ethiopian meal, or you can eat with an Ethiopian family somewhere in Ethiopia and see where they live, what they do, hear what they think and create a connection which the Ethiopian meal in Philadelphia will not provide, no matter how good the meal is. 

 

It was seven more years until Bryce and I returned to a Muslim country, this time to Turkey. Bryce created an illustrated travel guide to Istanbul for his Illustration class in art school and I thought Turkey would be a fitting destination for a graduation trip. We could visit the attractions he spent a semester researching and then painting. Here was another opportunity to hammer home this whole notion of preconceived opinions and fear and how they can be very inaccurate and ill-founded.

But eleven months after I purchased the airline tickets, ISIS had begun to wrack havoc in the Middle East and the Syrian/Turkey border was a dangerous hot spot. Our friends and family questioned the wisdom of this destination.

I sought the advice of my diplomat nephew and he told me that as long as we stayed away from the border, and diligently watched the news, he certainly advised going. In fact, we bought a ticket himself and joined us. And we understood that Turkey, like Morocco and Turkey are two of the “safest” Muslim countries in the world.  Having free rein to walk in the marketplaces and out in the rural countryside might not have been so easily achieved in other Arab countries.

It was in a Cappadocian bus shelter that we were once again reminded of how often our misperceptions come into play and how we can reach out, connect and see what is real.

The old woman’s scarf wrapped around her neck and head and covered all visible signs of hair or what color it was or how little was left. I couldn’t be accurate in judging her age. On her robust body, she wore a long gathered skirt, a blouse and a long knitted button down vest…sneakers. She held a cloth bag by its handles. She sat in the bus shelter waiting for a bus to take her to Avenos and watched me, smiling. She was trying to figure us out.

In broken English with a strong Turkish accent she attempted a conversation. “Are you from America?”

“Yes.”

“Is that your husband?”

“No, it’s my son.”

“More children?”

“Aa daughter.”

“Is THAT your daughter?”  (a Korean girl standing next to me whom I exchanged small talk with.

“No!”  We all laughed. She blushed and laughed too.

“I said, “She could be my daughter if I had two different husbands.”

When the bus pulled up, my new friend got in first. Bryce and I carefully picked our way down the narrow aisle trying not to whack anyone. All the seats were filled. When I passed my new friend, whom had scored a seat, she patted her knee and offered her lap for me to sit in. I was floored.

I thought about our friends back home who were fearful of this trip, these people. If they could see my old lady fiend now, they too would feel foolish. We may have to travel to their homes to see for ourselves, sit in their laps, so we can accurately decide  who these people truly are and have them understand who we truly are. Had it not been a short bus ride, I may have taken her up on her offer.

 

 

The Continued Adventures of Danny, the Airborne Ranger

It had been a few weeks since I called up my local Airborne Ranger Veteran friend, Danny Stein. It was time to check in.
“What have you been up to?”
“Nothing.”
“What did you do yesterday?”
“Sat and stared at the walls.”
“OK. I’m coming to town. I’m picking you up. How about a walk?”

Danny asked if I could take him to the trail along the Tulpehocken Creek. There is a bridge there that he remembers from his childhood. His mother took him there when he was about eight years old and he would really like to see if he could find it again. I knew just the covered bridge. Ride my bike there all the time in nice weather.
I picked him up and bought him to the parking lot. We could not see the bridge but I knew it was around the corner. Danny sees a red roof off in the distance and said disappointed, “It must be somewhere else.”
But when we went around the corner, there loomed the long-span of the Red Bridge. 
“That’s’ it!” he said excitedly.
We walked through the dark recesses of the bridge, seeing the dancing light of the water coming through the cracks. Once we surfaced, we went down on the bike trail and Danny positioned himself exactly where he stood thirteen years ago, before he went to war, before he jumped out of the plane and his chute got tangled and he hurt himself, before he got in a motorcycle accident and hurt his head putting him in the hospital for 3 (or 300) years. Back when life was simple.  He asked me to take his photo in the same spot he stood as an 8-year-old.

We walked in the snow. The sky a brilliant cobalt blue, the strikingly white limbs of the sycamores in sharp contrast. I made him stop and look at them up in the sky. We said they looked like capillaries and the main artery was the trunk; or a river and stream tributaries seen from above the planet. I don’t think he ever looked at trees like that before. I know he didn’t know what a sycamore was. He couldn’t stop taking photos.

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I used to do this with my children. Point out things in nature. Listen to bird songs. See shadows. Learn to use their senses. These kinds of experiences can’t happen sitting indoors with the blinds pulled tight, staring at the walls or even the large screen monitor. There is life out here.

After our walk, I needed to stop in and see my Aunt Dot, an 82-year old power house whom just celebrated a birthday. She was babysitting my cousin’s very lively triplets- three, 8- year old identical boys. I hoped it would be okay. My aunt recently jumped out of an airplane in a tandem jump. Her and Danny have something in common.

When I asked Danny if he wanted to spend the day with me (and overnight at our home), I listed all the things we would be doing and asked him if he wanted to. He definitely  did, but he only had so many anxiety pills.

Purposely creating potentially anxiety-causing activities? Really? This was a good thing? Danny assured me that it was and he wanted to do it all. He unscrewed  his pill bottle and downed one without water.

The boys engaged Danny as soon as we walked in the door. They are  affectionate. They love to hug and show you things, get you to play games, ask you questions.The triplets loved Danny and vice versa. They weren’t too much for him and my wonderful silly aunt teased the hell out of him and loosened him up considerably.

“Was that okay?” I asked after we left.
“They were great,” he admitted, “No stress at all.”

Next stop was my farmer friend, DJ’s home. We were having dinner with his family (Todd would join us after work), snow mobiling by the full moon was next on the activity agenda, followed by a hot tub soak.
But shortly after we arrived at the huge Robesonia dairy farm , Danny informed me that he had never seen cows milked before.

Into the milking parlor DJ led us. But first we had to get through the cow traffic jam. The 1500-1800 Holsteins were crammed together in a haphazard line, wanting their turn to get milked. We had to wade through  their wide high bodies, shooing them aside and squeeze our way through the slimy slippery concrete-covered manure. I think to myself , “will this cause Danny anxiety?”

Danny sloshed into the parlor and is amazed to learn that a suction contraption pulls the milk out of their teats and sends it along a hose to the cooler. And, that it pops off automatically when the milk has been drained. DJ squirts some foamy bright green soap all over Danny when he asks what the colorful pools are beneath the cow’s feet.  Uh oh, will this create anxiety for Danny? DJ instructs Danny to stick his finger into the udder sucker and it grabs and squeezes his index finger. I watch him like a mother hen.

After dinner, we get dressed up and go into the moonlit snow to climb aboard the snowmobiles. First Danny has to shove an extremely tight motocross helmet over his face- DJ’s daughter’s pink helmet at that. Anxiety?

DJ announces that there are two snow mobiles a new one and an old one that has no brakes.
“No brakes?” I yell. I just recently wrote a story on a bike shop owner who caters to handicapped cyclists- one is paralyzed from his nipples down resulting from a snowmobile accident.

“I’ll go on the snow mobile without the brakes, Cindy” Danny offers. “You know I like to live on the edge.”  I jump on the machine behind Loretta, DJ’s wife, and Danny hops on the old machine behind DJ. The moon is brilliant, filling the hillsides around the farm with white light, as bright as daylight. We fly over the icy covered snow, bounce over bumps. I circle Loretta’s waist and hold on and I look ahead and see Danny with his arms high in the air, above his head,  as though he is going down a hill on a roller coaster. No anxiety there.

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Never seen a milk cow.  Never been on a snowmobile. Had been in a hot tub but that was all pre-war, pre-accident. The hot tub was crowded. Five person’s legs intertwined amongst the others. We were definitely in each other’s space and we were all naked.  I watched Danny. He was having a great time.

After our action-packed day, Danny says good-bye to the Duncan’s and offers his services to help out on the farm, once he gets his wheels again. I said, “Bad move. There’s always tons of work to do on a farm. Be careful Danny. He’ll take you up on that.”

But seeing Danny extend himself like this gives me great hope. It is the alternative to sitting in his room staring at the walls. Here he is engaging in life, meeting new people, placing himself in strange and potentially anxiety-creating situations, and he wants to. He sees the value of it and it makes him happy, it makes him feel alive.

Danny helped me the next day prepare for my non-profit River House PA’s Veteran’s Benefit on Valentine’s Day. He helped untangle strands and strands of white lights that we’ll use to decorate the American Legion hall- measured them and wound them efficiently. He found a cracked mug and asked for Crazy Glue to fix it. He noticed a wobbly stool and asked for a screw driver to tighten it up. Another visit he sharpened our knives down in Todd’s shop. Everyone needs to feel useful and necessary. The lovely thing is I don’t pick up Danny and bring him into my busy active life to necessarily  help him. He is our friend. He is my whole family’s friend. My son loves him, thinks he’s a crack up, and loves his dry humor. My husband finds him entertaining. I find he’s a constant source of amazement and presents countless opportunities to show him the world. I forget that he is young- only 25, because he says he feels like he is an old man, in body and in spirit. And he has spent years in a hospital and years before that in a war. Before those two major events, he was pretty much a boy.

So I find it is a great privilege to dream up “potential  anxiety-producing experiences” in Danny’s life. I have learned from my Veteran friends that although it can be scary and their feelings unpredictable, the alternative is numbness, staring at walls. Maybe someday in the near future, Danny will be able to keep that anxiety pill bottle closed, and embrace all life has to offer with confidence and joy. That’s what we’re working  towards, one cow, one snowmobile, one hot tub, one experience at a time.

First Rule- Always Pull a Sled Behind You

When was the last time you saw a few adults in their 40-50-60’s even, pulling a sled up a hill only to just come down and do it again? A bunch of adults, even a couple, WITHOUT children? Probably never.

Does that whole act seem “unproductive” to most adults? Are only productive things the kinds of things we should be striving to accomplish most of our adult lives? And for what again? Remind me. So that we may be more comfortable? Lay around more? Is this our goal? To be able to stop moving as much as we can?

Where are all the adults if they’re not on the sledding hills? In front of their devices? They are financially comfortable enough now to have “home theatres” and there they must sit, sucking beers and having the time of their lives.

My 23- year- old son Bryce is still living at home for the time being as he grows his freelance illustration business. We work upstairs in our log home where it is warmer, me writing, he drawing, getting each other cups of coffee, taking turns tossing logs in the fire, asking advice on angles, lines, design or word choice. And while we work, I remind him that we MUST take a break every day and get outside and stretch our eyes to see far, not just stay at our desks on our computers, we must stretch our limbs and shake loose the sluggishness and stretch our minds too so we can return to our work and have fresher, new ideas and ways of thinking. I told him he must develop healthy working habits and not just strive to be a good illustrator but also have a happy life.

Bryce’s exercise of choice at this time of year is sledding so sledding it is.

The other day we went down the nearby ½ mile long tractor road they’ve grown up on but it was sluggish, so we glanced around the area and saw a pristine, smooth as silk steep hillside. We climbed up and had a passable ride down. The next would be better with a track, of course. But this land is owned by Christmas tree farmers and hidden under the snow were tree stumps that only surfaced after the second run. We let out a scream when we slammed our tailbones over the bumps.

I got injured. Bending over to pick up my fallen glove made me wince in pain.

My GF Maryalice called me as we were walking home, pulling our sleds.

“I’m sledding!” I yell through the phone.

“I wanna go sledding too!” she yells back.

Then she remembers, “The last time I sledded, the kids were young and I broke my finger. “

“Was it worth it?” I asked her.

“Absolutely.”

When we returned home, and my husband heard what happened, he said… “It isn’t worth it,” “You get hurt and it sets you back too far.”

“Really?” Bryce asked, “It isn’t worth it?

“Really?” I asked as I lowered myself into our sunken clawfoot cast iron tub and was careful to sit on the side of my butt and not straight on but still winced in pain.

“I think so.”

“It can take ½ a year to heal a broken tail bone,” he announces.

But it isn’t broken, just bruised with a lump.

The next day my tailbone hurt when I bent over and just the fabric of my jeans pressed against the bone, making me cry out. So I asked Bryce if we could just walk the next day instead of sledding.
“I’ll pull a sled behind me, just in case,” he announces.

But the PA state gamelands road that we walked on had an excellent hill that was exceptional for sledding.

“You can have my coat if you want to try.” Bryce offers. “You could try kneeling too, or just walk and I’ll wait for you at the bottom.”

I know that it is a HUGE GIFT that my 23-year-old son even wants to sled with his mother.

“Let’s do it.”

I folded up Bryce’s coat into a pillow shape, then balled up my fist and placed it under my one butt cheek to elevate it.

We had a fantastic run, bailed on a sharp turn, and climbed the hill again.

It was so much fun. How I love living life like this.

“From now on,” we decided, “We don’t go on any more walks in the snow without a plastic sled being pulled behind us.”

“Deal.”

I know my days are numbered with my workmate son and he will move on to his own home in his own life. Then the husband is going to HAVE to come along.

We’re going to sled in our 60’s and our 70’s and hopefully our 80’s.

And skate (who ever sees adults skating on farm ponds anymore or kids for that matter?)

I DID get Todd to X-country ski the last few days, after he cleaned out the ice in the gutters and all the other responsible things homeowners need to do.

Make winter fun.

After all, we don’t quit playing because we grow old, we grow old because we quit playing.”

First rule, always pull a sled behind you.

THE MAGIC OF BRICK WHEELS Bike Shop

(this story will appear in Traverse Magazine)

Tim Brick and his brothers Bob and  John used to ride their Western Flyer bicycles past the Traverse City State Mental Hospital because the huge manicured grounds and many roads were a joy to ride, plus they had fun with the residents. Some of the 8,000 would be out on the barred-up porches and they would taunt them and they in turn would yell to them as the boys sped away…all in good fun, typical adolescent boy behavior. Their bicycles were a source of freedom and joy

John Brick did not get adequate oxygen when he was born. He seemed a tad slow but back in the 50’s there was not the technology to measure and test it. He seemed fine. But when puberty hit, John suffered a nervous breakdown and was institutionalized- in the Traverse City State Mental Hospital , of all places! What a crazy twist of fate.  The boys used to tease friends when they did something stupid and say, “What’s wrong? Are you from 11th Street College or something?” for the hospital entrance was off 11th street.

“We always thought it was funny but when your brother is a patient there it wasn’t funny anymore,” Tim admits

So their mother, Mary Jean, a school teacher by trade, went back to school to get her masters in special ed and founded a group home for adults with developmental disabilities, called Grand Traverse Community Living Center (now called the Brick Ways), with the goal of helping them live independent but safe.

“Mom used to say, ‘We want them to be a part of the community not just living in the community.”

Brick Ways has 70 people enrolled in their TRAIL essential support programs and 50 people living in their five unique housing centers.

Mary Jean and John are no longer with us but Tim has continued to carry on the amazing work that was spurred by their rides on the hospital grounds. Forty years ago, Tim founded Brick Wheels cycle shop.  He was one of the four founding members of the TART (Traverse Area Recreational and Transportation Trails) and introduced cycling to many in this beautiful city, where over 100 miles of off-road cycling paths exist.  Thousands of folks took up cycling, giving them a healthier and happier lifestyle and making Traverse City one of the Top 10 places to retire in all of America.

But what is extra special about Brick Wheels is the clientele. On any given day, you’re likely to see a adult trike, a bike with adult training wheels or a you might see a handi-capped van pull up and the driver unload his wheelchair, then his adaptive bike. It’s normal around here.

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STEVE CHAPMAN

Nineteen year old Steve Chapman had just washed his dirt bike and was taking it out for one last joy ride before selling it when the front fork broke. It sent him propelling out over the handlebars, flipping him and slamming him into a tree. His lung collapsed and the impact of the blow shattered his spinal cord. He laid there for fourteen hours, through rain, hail, thunder and lightning.

He had passed a neighbor’s farm right before the accident and had waved to the farmer as he performed a wheelie. That farmer’s dog was going ballistic all night long, barking at the injured Steve who lay so close to the house. The dog’s owner just yelled to the dog to hush up.  Because of his collapsed lung, Steve could not yell for help, yet he was conscious.

It was very hard that first year for paralyzed Steve for he spent four months in the hospital recovering, but he soon began to play wheelchair basketball and won the national championship with the Grand Rapids Pacers. He could hold the ball high above his head for his torso and arms were so long- his frame measured 6 feet 4 inches. After the Vietnam War, high tech equipment was developed and wheelchair basketball began. Now they are using high tech gear for bicycles and wheelchairs.

“Getting into shape helped me. The wheel chair just became an extension of my body.”  Steve’s mom took his accident the hardest although she said, “God knew what he was doing when he made your arms so long.”

Steve now averages over 11 miles an hour on the TART trails (or paved roads around the Old Mission Peninsula). He put 1500 miles on his bike last year alone.

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Steve’s bicycle is aerodynamic. His field of vision is obstructed by his crank and he has to look around it. Still Steve sits very low to the ground and his butt often hits when he has to go over a crack or a bump on the trail or road. His bike has only a very few inches of clearance. His hands get sweaty turning the crank and the aluminum hand pedals get slippery so he must wear gloves. But he can easily put fifty-two miles on his bike in one day and accumulated 1500 last year.  Traverse City is a bike-friendly community (thanks largely to Tim Brick, owner of Brick Wheels.) Since there is such a large number of cyclist in the area they tend to have a certain empathy for their fellow cyclist.  They LOOK for and after cyclists on the road.

Steve has been riding with his son Dylan, who is now 14 years old. Dylan runs a very fast  22 MPH pace and Steve onlyaverages a respectable 15-18! He will have to step up his game!

He has ridden the I-Ride- Independent Ride across Michigan – a 4 day ride with the Disability Network, which helps physically challenged riders like Steve accomplish their goals.

Cycling isn’t the only sport Steve excels at – he water skis, snow skis, plays tennis in a special quick-moving wheelchair…is a lot more active than most able-bodied fifty year olds. Steve has great balance. Besides his bike, Steve rides 4-wheeler and snow mobiles, but he can’t use his stomach muscles.

“Everyone takes their accident differently. I go to hospitals and talk to accident victims. It helps both of us for you can always find someone worse than yourself. “

 

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JOHN JOHNSON

Thirty-two year old John Johnson had no idea when he went out for his joy ride on his 600cc Polaris snowmobile that his life would be forever altered. His machine hit a rut. The impact threw his hands off and he lost control, propelling him into a tree moving at 80 MPH. His back broke. He was in the hospital for 56 days. He never walked again. He does however, ride a bike quite spectacularly. Like thirty miles in a day, a distance many walking people can’t accomplish. John moves at 11.3 MPH and last year he put 2,600 miles on his bike without the use of his legs, riding about 4-5 times a week

How does he do it? With the help of Tim Brick of Brick Wheels and his pit crew.

John arrives at the store in his modified van, that he soley uses his hands to drive and his “pit crew” greets him, like a Nascar star. John can get himself out of his vehicle on his own, into his wheelchair onto his bike and lift his useless legs strapping them in. He can even take his bike and ram his chair up the van’s ramp but 99% of the time, the crew is there to help.  Unlike Steve, John can sit up. The crew airs up his tires and checks his breaks and he’s off, using his hands to pedal. Every ride begins and ends at Brick Wheels.

When he has a flat on the trail, Brick Wheels arrives like his personal AAA road side service, they put him and his bike up on blocks and change tubes.

“If it wasn’t for these guys, I wouldn’t be riding.”

John is an inspiration for all who see him. Like the elderly couple who flagged him down to find out about his recumbent bike. Now they are out there staying fit and having fun in their 70’s.

John and Steve’s bikes both cost about $10,000 and they received grants from foundations to help purchase them through Top End Co- who also makes wheelchairs and skis etc.  Although there are over half a dozen bike shops now in Traverse City, Brick Wheels gets the lion’s share of disabled riders. Tim’s staff makes every attempt to make them feel like everyone else and caters to them.

Steve and John tell me, “They know us here, what we need and go above and beyond a normal bike shop.”

 

RAY MYERS

Ray Myers arrived at Brick Wheels after surviving brain surgery to correct his seizures, that rendered him needing to relearn everything. Like how to count, spell, read, even move his body. He hadn’t driven in many years but that was his goal. Learning to ride a bike would help him achieve that goal, Ray believed. Tim Brick at Brick Wheels was the only bike shop owner who would work with him.

Ray learned to ride his bike and rode all through the seasons, over ice and snow. He learned to balance and steer, build his stamina and his confidence. He was rebooting his brain to learn new skills.

“There are so many things happening when you ride a bike. There are horizontal, vertical angles to deal with, multiple functions had to be executed in order to stay upright and move. I had to learn to balance, focus. I knew in my heart that if I could learn to ride a bike, it would be a stepping stone to driving a car again.”

No one believed in Ray but Tim Brick. Everyone else said, “You will never drive a car, Ray. And you should give up that bike,” as Ray ended up in the hospital on more than one occasion.

After 1 ½ years of practicing on his bike, he was granted a driver’s license, but only within 5-10 miles of his home at first, then 20-then 50. Now Ray owns his own car and is leasing his own home, which is huge for this previously homeless man who lived in shelters, having seizures, on 12 meds a day, without a job or income or hope.

“I am so grateful to Tim Brick. He brought about great change in my life.” Ray believes God put Tim in his path to help him. “I have had more blessings in my life in these last six years than most experience in an entire lifetime.”

BRICK WAYS

The other unusual clientele they have are the mentally handicapped cyclists…the folks who live in Mary Jean’s very popular group homes and independent apartments under the Brick Ways direction.

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Peter Garth is one such cyclist who serves as the Ambassador of Traverse City’s Cherry Festival.  Peter makes it his duty to sell more Beer Tent pins as anyone else. Last year he sold over 20,000 via his familiar one speed coaster brake cruiser with turn down handlebars, and has been doing this work for over 25 years promoting the city he loves on the bike that he loves.  It’s actually his second bike because he wore his first one out.  The National Cherry Festival organization purchased his new bike for him four years ago.  He had it set up just the way he likes.  It’s an unusual set up but Peter is an unusual man and he knows what he likes

In a normal week Brick Wheels will service about 15-20 special needs cyclist.   “They may come in and talk, discuss sports, ask us to check their gears, investigate squeaks, see if their bell is working right, or just grab a coffee” Tim shares, “even if we checked the same problem the day before , we still do it.  To these folks their bicycles are not only their main form of transportation but also a great source of pride and status. They’ll look forward to adding a new set of streamers or valve caps like a young CEO might covet a new carbon shaft driver.   Our mechanics never pre-judge. Other bike shops may not want to bother.”

“Our employees all figure it out sooner or later that the short bus stops here and they are more than welcomed!”  Our race team is called the Brickheads and these folks are Brickheads too

Tim teases his special needs clients, gives them bike gloves, and other special presents they might need.

“Fast Eddie” got equipped with a trailer for his twenty-seven speed mountain bike. He cruises town picking up recyclables, which earn 10 cents a bottle or can. He has made over $300 in one day.

Eddie was born to a homeless couple and found in a box as an infant with rat bites on him and long rat claw scratches. He’s had a tough life in and out of foster care until he found Brick Ways.  Tim and I visited him in the hospital where he was recovering from a bout with pneumonia.  On Tim’s office door there is a handmade get well card that Eddie gave to Tim after one of his surgeries.  It looks as if it were from a pre- school student but to Tim it’s a Rembrandt.

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When we walked in his room, Tim teased him about the brown iron IV drip, “What’s that in the bag, Eddie? Root beer?” Tim never hesitates to tease his special needs friends, and treats them all as if they were family, like his brother John. I asked Eddie why he is called “Fast Eddie” (on his mountain bike he named “Hot Rod”!) and he answered, “Because I’m fucking fast!”

As we prepared to leave the hospital, Eddie put his arms around Tim and hugged him hard, and teared up. He said, “I love you Tim. You’re like my big brother.”

Mom Mary Jean and Brother John are both smiling broadly down on Tim Brick.

The Secret is Keeping Your Bed Small

When we were youngsters, we kids used to pile into our parents’ bed in the mornings, all four of us. When they put a television in their room, my sister and I frequented it even more as we used to watch “The Early Show” movies after school and “One Step Beyond” before going to sleep. So my parents bought a king sized bed to accommodate our loving family. We fit better but they both complained bitterly that it as too big for them when they slept, they couldn’t find one another in the vastness.

When I began menopause, even my husband’s knee cap in close proximity to my body set me off in a heat flash. His arm resting lightly over my middle triggered one in mere seconds. Although he enjoys when I toss all the covers off, raise my arms above my head, spread my legs apart for maximum cooling, as he gazes and fantasizes, knowing he will benefit not one bit from the exposure, I tell him, “Don’t touch me, not one finger!” No, I don’t tell him, I yell it to him.

We do not sleep in a king sized bed, nor a queen sized bed, but a double. Most nights it feels like a 3/4’s bed or even a twin.

When menopause began, I told him, “We’ve got to figure a way to get a queen sized bed into this tiny bedroom. You are too close to me. I have no room.”

He let it slide. One of his great marriage fears is that the day will come when I will want to sleep separately. He is astonished how many of our friends have been doing that for years. Not because they have ceased loving each other but because their husband’s snoring is beyond belief. Couple that with the wife’s menopause and erratic sleep habits, it is a recipe for horrible fatigue. The husband often is kicked out and goes and finds his own bed. I have one friend who sleeps separately during the week so she can get a good night’s sleep in order to do a good job as a teacher, (her husband sleeps in and works at home) and they sleep together on the weekends and indulge in fun and games then.

The only time Todd and I sleep separately is when one of us is pretty sick- hacking and coughing and spewing mucous particles into the air of our tiny bed and bedroom, then the well person finds another bed for a few nights.

My symptoms of menopause came on late and were pretty short lived, fortunately for both me and Todd. He did not have to get a bigger bed. He did learn to inch as far over on his own side without falling off in order to make me happy, when I needed him away. But otherwise, we sleep touching, knees, parallel legs, always fall asleep holding hands. Always, even in a tent in sleeping bags.

The snoring issue has not gone away, however, but has gotten increasingly worse as I have heard from many middle aged couples. I told him about a neoprene strap I saw on the internet that hooks over your chin and around your ears which holds the mouth closed. He in turn told me of a headband the wife can wear to block out sounds. We have yet to work out this issue. I threaten separating but they are idle threats at this point.

He told me the other day after hearing a piece on NPR- “You know happiness in a marriage can be measured by how close couples sleep with one another, how much they touch. Couples who sleep three inches from one another are the happiest.” He made me smile. That’s exactly the amount of space we have from one another if we are trying to get away- not very far. You cannot go to sleep mad either in this home, especially with this wife who makes you stay up and talk until it is ironed out, even if it is 3 am when it is resolved and you have to get up for work in the morning. Priorities. No one would ever be allowed to LEAVE the bed because of anger either. That is grounds for dialing a marriage counselor in the morning. There are lines each marriage draws.

My husband and I have not been without our marriage challenges over the course of the last 30+ years we have been together. Any couple who doesn’t admit to that is not being honest and honesty is extremely important in a successful marriage. One of the things that makes our marriage successful I believe is that we both allow the other to follow their own personal dreams and support them in it. We still have plenty that we do share. When I signed a contract to write a new guidebook entitled “Best Day Hikes on the Appalachian Trail in the Mid-Atlantic” and needed to hike 40 hikes, I did not MAKE him carve time out of his busy life to go along. I found other friends to keep me company and that was okay. Yesterday however, he was at a place with his chainsaw carving work that he could easily get away and did not want to start anything new, so he said he’d go on a hike with me.

We crossed the ridge above Port Clinton on the west side, visiting Auburn Lookout, and spotted a car at the beginning and end so we would not have to backtrack. As we descended into the gap of Port Clinton, and saw the gash in the mountains that the Little Schuylkill River cut, the red brick homes of the small village where the Appalachian Trail crosses, he remarks, “You know, I have not been on this section of trail since I was a thru-hiker, thirty-five years ago.” Although this section of trail is only 10 minutes from our home, we do not hike on this stretch.

And I turned around and said, “You were descending into that town down there where you would be the recipient of some Trail Magic and you would meet your future wife and she would bring you home and feed you and let you take a bath and sleep in a bed (not hers!). And you would go on to hike half the PCT with her and the whole CDT and make babies and a hand-crafted log home, and create a wonderful life with her for 30 years. How about that, and here we are together, 35 years later, on that same stretch of the AT that led you to your destiny.” And I kissed his cold wet face with his beard and mustache icing up in the winter weather.

Our daughter is getting married this May. When she was home over the Christmas holiday from grad school we were making lots of plans. There was some stress and challenge involved and we tried to tell them, the wedding is only supposed to be a celebration, there is the rest of your lives together, it doesn’t matter really if your guests eat on paper or china or the tablecloths are fabric or plastic. What matters is how close you sleep to one another. Keep your bed small. Stay up and fight. Touch.

A Ceremonial Burning of the Sock Dolls

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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 reminds 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.”

“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.

A Long Distance Hike Would be Good for Anyone

After my daughter Sierra and her fiance Eben hiked the entire Colorado Trail this past summer, a total of nearly 500 miles across the Rockies, Eben requested that I show him my Continental Divide Trail multi-media show as a Christmas present for him. I wasn’t excited. It had been over a half dozen years seen I had shown it and who knew if it was even possible.

tc 81 IMG_6744When my 6th book, “Scraping Heaven” came out in 2003, I had many speaking engagements, from universities to hiking club banquets, to wellness conferences etc. We even had a special gig we performed at elementary schools where we brought a llama right into the auditorium, showed them how we packed their panniers, went through the gear that enabled our family to survive in the wilderness for months at a time (Cheryl Strayed, you ain’t got nothing over us!), talked about how a childhood spent in the wilderness impacted our children (The “No Child Left Inside” poster kids) and basically presented a family lifestyle choice that is so completely foreign to every other American family. Spending your formative years in the lap of wilderness is a novel way to grow up.

We brought our kids along to every show. Our audiences wanted to see and meet them, even ask them a question of two about how the experience impacted their lives. They never complained at all the shows. They enjoyed watching themselves grow up on the big screen, let alone relive wonderful memories. I wasn’t aware of how seeing the slide show would impact them, ten years later, when they saw it again, nor me.

Preparing to show my slide show felt monumental. My studio needed to be cleaned up of Christmas presents, my painting easel moved, and on and on. My CDT show is old school…two Kodak Carousel projectors with a dissolve unit that has a knob that is manually turned to fade in and out. All 8 songs in the show had their own timing. I wasn’t sure the 4 Carousels of slides were not ripped apart leaving behind empty slots which would show up as a brilliant white screen. I did not want to search for the missing slides if there were any. I have dozens of Carousels of shows that were put together for various audiences, besides slide boxes, envelopes, stacks on the light table I would have to look through. I am not an organized person.

I had no idea if the cassette tape will pull, if we even have a ghetto blaster somewhere that accepts cassettes. And the light bulbs, costing $35 a piece. I wasn’t even sure if there were bulbs in the projector and if the ones were broken or not.

Then, I wasn’t interested in practicing my timing. It was enough I was taking the time to even dig the equipment out. Carrying it all down the steps, moving furniture, setting up the projector screen, super imposing the slides on top of one another, trying the music, I had huge doubts that I could pull it off. I would try. That’s all I was promising.

Thankfully, a few weeks earlier, my son Bryce was interested in seeing if we could get Todd’s teenage sound system working. (Since our only portable tape player only accepted CD’s not cassettes) He wanted to buy his girlfriend a vintage-looking record player as a Christmas present and wanted to hear a few of our LP’s. When Todd pulled out the turntable to see why the speakers had no sound coming out of them, he found a mouse nest with dehydrated infant mice in it- guess the mama got dead in a trap. Bryce was grossed out and almost abandoned the quest. But we got the turntable, receiver and speakers working so that hurdle was leaped in the quest to put on the CDT slide show.

The stars were lined up. I found the correct Carousels, had two working projector bulbs, only one Carousel had about 6 missing slides which we could deal with, and the tape player worked. I put the tape on to roll through and just re-acquaint myself with the music as I did the dishes and tidied up the house. But I was shocked to what occurred as soon as I heard the music.

I began to cry. And cry harder. I couldn’t believe it. Sixteen years since we have finished the CDT, 21 years since we began, the memories came flooding back. The music brought back so many memories. When I put the show together so many years ago, I chose moody music that would also move my audiences emotionally. I used “Dances with Wolves” soundtrack to Andean pan pipes to Irish jigs. The music brought back memories of Yellowstone, crossing Wyoming’s Great Divide Basin, Glacier, being together as a family and on and on. I kept busy in the house and moving. No one noticed the tears streaming down my cheeks.

Sierra was upstairs with her fiance when the tape went on, and she too was impacted. Eben yells down, “Sierra lit up as soon as the music came on.”

Lit up. Good word choice.

The one projector’s fan screeched. “This is vintage.” Bryce exclaimed when the show began to roll and no one could believe that I had most of my timing down perfect. The kids kept saying, “Oh my God, I remember that. That was so cool and began reliving wonderful stories as the slides faded by.

It was so impacting seeing that show, spanning 5 summers of my children’s early lives. Seeing their happy smiling faces as they crossed high passes in Glacier; Bryce dancing down the trail as Todd held his little hand in his, Sierra talking to her llama Berrick, storms, campsites, river fords, so many memories, over 3,000 miles of memories and 5 summers. Some of the most important moments of our lives were being relived on that lit up screen. The strongest feeling we were all left with was how very happy we were out there. Much more than happiness- outright joy.

How could my children’s childhoods be over so quickly? Sierra is getting married in 2015 and much of the talk over the holidays at our home revolved around wedding plans. Their childhood is over.

During this holiday season, our family of 4 long distance backpackers also went to see Cheryl Strayed’s movie “Wild.” The two highly seasoned LD hikers (Todd & I) had different things to say about the film than the two “children.” But it got our wheels turning.

Under the Christmas tree were two sets of trekking poles, believed by nearly all LD backpackers to positively help you backpack better and more efficiently, as in taking ½ a mile an hour off your time, as well as assist your knees and other body parts in taking the blow of descending etc. We are going to embrace “lightweight gear” as much as we can. I am not willing to be cold and wet, however just to carry an extremely light pack as opposed to laboring under 40-50-60 pounds. (I once labored under 70 pounds as I climbed Mt Whitney and headed into the snow-smothered, inaccessible trail for over 225 miles on the John Muir Trail.) But in the future, I will attempt to achieve a balance. We do want to long distance hike again. (For those of you who do not personally know our history, we have been long distance cycling and paddling these last 10 years as well as world traveling- I have been to 39 countries). But we miss the long trails. We can thank Cheryl Strayed for reminding us of that. And my CDT slide show.

The plan is to hike the John Muir Trail in 2015 as a family. Bryce just announced that he’d like to hike the whole PCT in the next few years. I was quite surprised. I said,

“That would be good. It would be good for you.”

And he said, “It would be good for anyone, wouldn’t it?”

Yes it would son, even for two 10,000+ milers who are 50 something (with one to be 60 next year). I ought to do something to usher in the next decade right. Maybe re-hike the PCT in big chunks starting with the John Muir Trail, Todd suggests.

Long distance hiking would be good for anyone. Seeing “Wild” and reliving my CDT slide show for the up and coming new member of the family illustrated that. But then again, this family already knew that.

SIERRA

Watching the slideshow of our hike across the CDT/Colorado Trail, was in many ways, a double return to my childhood. Memories of the trail, riding my llama, the rich smell of crisp mountain air and the approach of thunderstorms were lifted from my memory. At the same time, I was brought back to the decade afterward that I followed those memories around to slideshow and talk after slideshow and talk that my mother gave. The repetition somehow made the memories richer, deeply embedded them inside of me, and that part of me ached and came alive again as the pictures flashed across the screen. Although I was a child, somehow it feels like yesterday.”

BRYCE

It has been a couple of decades since I kicked back in my dad’s child carrier backpack, and he carried my diaper-clad bum over the Rockies. 17 years have passed since we finished up the Continental Divide, as I graduated from backpack to llama, to tandem bicycle. Since then I have graduated from a string of other accomplishments, including Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia, and the CDT has been placed on the back burner of my memories.

Watching the fluttering light of the projector, I entered a time warp. Each slide seemed to recover a submerged memory, sending me deeper with the rhythmic clicking of the slide carousel. It was a stirring experience. Sierra and I laughed at the images of us dancing impishly on riverbanks, and marveled at the sweeping beauty somehow captured in the pre-digital era. We noticed subtle changes we had never noticed before, the grayness creeping into Dad’s night-black beard.

Now, 20 years whiter but no less of a mountain man, Dad manned the tape cassette player, grumbling as he punched at the dials. (because he couldn’t see the dials w/o his reading glasses)  Sierra and I remembered the songs from when we joined Mom at presentations; they felt like the soundtrack to our childhood. Mom still had the pacing timed with precision. As the final melody concluded, we cheered, though we were reluctant to leave the Rockies behind and return to 2014. I was reminded of the song The Circle Game, where Joni Mitchell sings “we’re all captive in a carousel of time.” Certainly my childhood is imprisoned on my Mom’s dusty slide carousel, but it’s nice to know I can revisit the flickering memories whenever I choose.