Becoming Airborne Again

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I like to think that things happen for a reason. I like to think I’m usually on the right path in life, that I’m being guided by Divine Providence. And things are all good. I had serious doubts however, this past October when I attended the Appalachian Long Distance Hikers Gathering at Williams College, MA. I was so unbelievably scattered. I was giving multiple presentations and I could not keep track of my shit. I left my car keys, my jacket etc at multiple places around campus and spent much of my time walking all over town and campus to look for them. I was growing ever more disgusted with myself when I lost my purse. It had my wallet and credit cards in it and I was departing for a trip to Turkey very soon. I have always been forgetful but moving into menopausal years has taken this lifelong flaw and blown it up.

After hours of searching, I gave up and began the long drive home, completely disgusted with myself. But it occurred to me that although my comrades that I was staying with searched our hotel room itself, perhaps the front desk might have had someone turn it in. They did. I turned around and began to drive the half hour back to the hotel. Out of the many hundreds of friends at the event that were concerned for me and my lost purse, I only chose to call one- Travis Johnston, to share the good news.

Travis was an Airborne Ranger who just got off hiking the entire Appalachian Trail to “walk off his war” and for the memory of his fallen Airborne Ranger brother, Zach Adamson. Zach hiked the whole AT in 2013 and then four months later was found dead from a gunshot wound to his head. His death rocked the whole AT trail community as well as all those close to Zach. Besides hiking the trail in Zach’s memory, Travis orchestrated a memorial climb up McAfee’s Knob in Virginia for Zach, which I made a YouTube video on.

The 6 month long hike proved to be very good for Travis. His Ranger friends watched his transformation through the many happy photos that he posted on Facebook. Spending all that time in nature, walking, was visibly healing Travis’s heart wounds. And as soon as he climbed Mount Katahdin, his friends began calling, looking for help, hoping for counseling, “Do you think hiking would work for me too?” Travis and I sat over lunch and he told me of a dream he had to be counselor/therapist as an occupation. But instead of sitting on some couch in an office, they would have their session in a canoe on a river, or on a trail in the woods. And perhaps my non-profit organization, River House PA would benefit from his gift someday, leading my veterans and being a part of our mission.

Travis does possess a gift. Extrovert by nature, (unusual for long distance hikers) he is a people person but has a command of the language and articulates very well what he is trying to get across. And he talks veteran’s language. I don’t have to go into detail what Ranger language sounds like. He doesn’t take any bullshit. He was in a leadership role in the military and he knows how to delegate. But his heart is as wide as the ocean. And he is not afraid to shed tears, or hug or tell you flat-out, “I love you, man.” This is exactly what these struggling veterans need, and some direction on how to pick themselves up and find some happiness and peace in their civilian life.

One of his Ranger friends, who is presently struggling happens to live in Pennsylvania. Travis planned to go visit him on his way south from Massachusetts to Savannah, Georgia. I told him to let me know WHERE in PA his friend lived. PA is a very large state, but just maybe he was down the road and Travis could stop in and visit us en route.

So when I called Travis to tell him the good news of the lost purse, he said “Hey, I just found out where my friend lives, in Reading, PA.”

Wow, I said, “pretty weird. That is ‘right down the road.” I grew up there.

So besides the gift of the purse, I had Travis’s company and could give him a ride all the way down to PA.

(When I told my daughter Sierra this and told her there was a REASON that I lost it, she said, ‘Nice story mom, but you still have to become responsible for your shit.”)

Travis came back with me and I gave him my car to go see his friend but I got an idea. His Ranger friend was becoming a recluse. Staying in his home, where he lived alone, for months without going out. He was very depressed and felt as though he was living a nightmare. He suffered from back and knee pain because on his last jump, his chute collapsed and he hit the earth from 120 feet up with no shoot.

Then he proceeded to come home from deployment and had a motorcycle accident where he “stopped his bike with his head.” For the next three years, he was in eight different hospitals, psychiatric wards, rehab centers, trying to get better.

I told Travis to go fetch him- bring him up to our log home, get him out of the city, his home and his head. It was a stretch for him but he trusted his Ranger Leader Travis and he packed his overnight bag and came.

We took Airborne Ranger Danny Stein up to Hawk Mountain Sanctuary for a hike to see if his body could handle the hike and it was okay. The hike in the beautiful autumn woods did him good. There were people there counting hawks and although we sat over to the side, he had a short anxiety attack where he had to hold onto our hands and squeeze them until he felt calm and safe again.

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We made a campfire and cooked dinner. We acted as though Danny was part of the family and no different from anyone else. The men slept in my writing cabin- the first time our Danny was away from the security of his own home and bed for a long time. He did okay. He stayed for two nights and two days.

When Danny left, he paused at the door and abruptly turned around and said, “October 15. I will never forget this day for as long as I live. Because on this day, a family reached out to me, who never met me before and welcomed me into their home and that has never happened before, and because of that, I will never forget this day.”

I was holding back the tears when I threw my arms around him for yet another hug. My goodness. This is easy, having people over and welcoming them into our home, feeding them, getting to know them. We do it all the time. And lately with veterans.

I told Danny that I was going away for a few weeks to Turkey but I would call him when I returned and take him for a walk in Reading. (He cannot drive right now as he had a seizure and must wait many months before getting behind the wheel again.) He told Travis and I that everyone forgets about him and I did not want to be added to that list of those who just give lip service.

Since I returned from Turkey, I was feeling a bit overwhelmed with the business end of my non-profit organization, River House, which was not my forte and I needed a secretary to take notes, compile a list of e-mails etc, etc. Danny said he would love to help. I would love to have his help. We made a great team.

He stayed at the house for two days and two nights. I got him on a longer more strenuous hike to see how his back and knees held up. I would like to get him to the point where he could go out for a backpack trip. He was OK with it, took some Ibrofrofin.

Danny fetched hay with my husband, which was big to trust being in his company. We took him to Sam’s Club and he food shopped and made healthy food choices and talked and laughed with the check out girls. We played Rummy at the kitchen table. He said that interacting with three other people in close quarters was a huge step for him.

He needed help to play and I looked over his shoulder to help him with his hand. He said, “I forget what I’m doing, what cards are in my hand, on the table,” and I felt like I have found a kindred spirit when it comes to forgetting. When I couldn’t find something on my desk, I was complaining to Danny, “I’m losing my mind,” and he brought me back to reality and responded, “I HAVE lost part of my mind” as Danny sports an impressive 12 inch long curved scar on his skull, clearly seen through his hair. Danny aligns my perspective 

We teased him. We told him to get used to this, he was going to do more of it. More experiences, more people to meet, more time in nature…but small steps. We didn’t baby him nor feel sorry for him. I would like to pick him up every week and take him with me in my life.

Danny was sitting at my desk, working on River House material when he said, “You know, this organization could really take off. There is a real need for this.”

I know that. When people ask if they can come see the actual physical River House I give them the “build it and they will come” speech. If I had a River House now in Port Clinton, my Ranger here could help run it, he could live there and be with like-minded comrades. He could be helpful and useful and be productive and feel needed because he is, even now. That is the secret of helping them get better, finding a purpose, besides showing them how nature heals.

When my husband Todd and I were in the Florida Keys for our anniversary last year we met a psychologist on the ferry, and we got to talking about River House. She has been working with veterans with PTSD her whole life. And she said to me, “It is extremely rewarding work, because they get better.”

Yes, they certainly can get better. I hope to catch one or two so they don’t have their lives cut short like Ranger Zach Adamson. I have seen my Ranger friend get better in only two short visits. It is completely remarkable how much better he seems, something that can’t be faked nor imagined.

I do get frustrated because I had to cancel some of River House’s programs this past summer because I couldn’t motivate the veterans to sign up. But I have my faith restored. I can help, even if it is only one veteran at a time. The change occurred in me on our walk yesterday. My son grabbed a wild grape-vine and went for a swing. And after watching a few times, Danny grabbed the vine with his hands, tested it to see if it would hold his weight, trusted it and swung out over the mountainside, catching air. He was laughing. He was being playful. He was Airborne again.

(see related story/video)

A Journey of Remembrance – YouTube13►:13
www.youtube.com/watch?v=qOwRs3YNms0

COMING HOME- In Honor of Veteran’s Day

 

Coming Home

We’re Safe Here Because They Cared Enough to Go There.

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This November it is an honor to tell the stories of three local veterans. Each of their experiences of life after deployment is unique. Each carries its own weight and meaning about the aspects of coming home again. Let us be forever mindful that stories like these are being told across the nation by the hundreds of thousands who have served.

ERIN ROE

National Guard // Emmaus

Erin Roe was not exactly sure why she was going into the military back in 2002. She was quite young, so young her father had to sign for her, just 17. A recruiter called her home while she was still in high school. It seemed like an okay thing to do, joining the National Guard, besides her best girlfriend was also signing up. It was 374 days after 9/11. Many young people signed up during that period. While she was serving in the Guard, she got married, had a son and then—she was deployed to Iraq.

She was trained as a light-wheel vehicle mechanic and serviced BRADLEES, a tracked vehicle, in the Habbaniyah area of Iraq. This was an old British base with palm trees located in the Suni Triangle, on a Forward Operating Base (FOB).

Roe was shot at once, but did not see any action, although mortars were thrown into the FOB from time to time. She participated in many convoy runs.

Her son, Neal, was eight months old when she left and was two years old when she returned. He lived with Roe’s parents, who raised him while she was deployed. She called every Sunday.

“I set myself up for failure, getting married and having a child so young, getting divorced, but I overcame what was put in front of my face.”

Roe doesn’t know how she would have dealt with being away from Neal had he been older at the time of deployment. At least at that age, he doesn’t remember the time apart. For Roe, however, it is burned into her brain and has been one of the toughest things she has dealt with since coming home.

Re-entry. Going from a tight-knit group of brothers and sisters in arms, who share the same concerns back to civilian life where people in Walmart are more concerned with buying things and being consumers. Going from being told what to do and when to do it, to being in charge of your life, your child.

Roe struggled with her son’s natural rejection as he clung to his grandparents. It took several years of readjustment until they settled into a comfortable mother/son relationship. Roe claims to be nurturing only to a point, but more of a provider.

“Neal is way more love-y and homey than me. He gets that from his grandmother, who raised him those years away. From my father, who is a lawyer, he gets drive and ambition. I tend to adopt the ‘suck it up’ and ‘keep moving’ attitude,” Roe admits.

Neal received all the family’s good traits during those years, all mixed into one young boy. Roe’s family was Neal’s extended village. “I think he is better off,” Roe says.

Today, Neal is very proud of his mother. His eyes particularly shine on Career Day when she arrives at his school in uniform and explains what it’s like to be in the National Guard, serve her country and be deployed to the Middle East.

“You did such a good job,” he praises her, “they loved you!”

The recruiter did such a good job on Roe that she became a recruiter herself as an occupation once she returned home. Now she sets up table displays during lunch periods and calls high school students from lists to encourage them to join the National Guard. She serves the Allentown, Whitehall and Northwestern Lehigh schools. Lately, she recruits more women than men. She is a good example.

“What is wonderful about the military is that you can be from any walk of life, any nationality, etc., and you can fit in, have genuine comrades who will look after you. I love the military. The friendships you make are phenomenal. ”

“People still want to serve their country and so the National Guard appeals to them. They enjoy the college tuition benefits, the close to $600 a month you can make from working only two days a month, and today, odds are very slim that you will get deployed. But you never know, there is risk involved,” Roe says.

Roe does not believe in allowing fear to control her life.

“I learned a lot in the military,” Roe says. “I still struggle being surrounded by people who don’t appreciate all they have, who mosey through life staring at their smartphones, who don’t live within their means nor look out for one another. The military taught me to be so appreciative.”

That alone is a huge gift.

Roe plans to become a “lifer”- stay in the National Guard for 20 years. She’s presently majoring in business at Kutztown University and recruiting students based out of the Allentown Armory. She’s pretty good at it. When you believe in something as strongly as she does, you can be pretty convincing. If she wasn’t quite sure why she went into the military back at 17, as she is quickly approaching 30, she’s rock-solid sure about why she is staying.

 

Coming Home

We’re Safe Here Because They Cared Enough to Go There.

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BRANDON ZITTRER

Army & National Guard // Bethlehem

Even though Bethlehem’s Brandon Zittrer served in the Middle East for three-and-a-half years as an Army cavalry scout, when you meet him, it is hard to find a happier, more grounded man. This is most unusual, as Zittrer was conducting reconnaissance and surveillance missions and saw a lot of action. He returned home in 2009, has been in the military for a total of 11 years and is currently serving in the National Guard.

The transition home was not a big one for Zittrer, contrary to most veterans. One of his supervisors suggested that a soldier will probably acclimate better if he or she can differentiate between THEN and NOW. Easier said than done for most veterans but for Zittrer, he was already blessed with the right frame of mind before he entered the military.

“I am the make-the-best-of-a-bad-situation type of guy. I have done without, on foot patrols in Iraq. No day was ever easy over there but attitude is the most important,” says Zittrer.

Not an emotional guy, Zittrer has a light switch in his psyche that he can turn on and off. He says that’s how he was able to cope and perform well while being deployed.

Upon his return to the Valley in 2009, Zittrer was given the assignment of bestowing Military Funeral Honors. In full dress blues, he sometimes attended seven to ten funerals per day. Over the course of 18 months he participated in more than 1,200 services and says he felt privileged to do so.

“It was an amazing job and it was an honor to do it well.”

Life at home includes marriage to his Freedom High School sweetheart, Brandy, and being a role model to his 11-year-old stepson.

Zittrer transitioned slowly from bestowing Funeral Honors to starting his own business, a company that does all aspects of residential construction such as stonework, tile, hardwood floors, remodeling and refinishing interiors. As you would expect, no job is too large or too small—the tattoos on his arms depict two long zippers, unzipping a world of bricks and gears and construction items.

He named the business Soldier’s Construction. He now employs seven others and hires vets whenever possible. Four of the seven on his current crew have served.

Childhood experiences have proven useful in his post-deployment experience. His mother, Sonia Huntzinger was extremely involved in the Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce so he grew up meeting people, learning how to run a business and was exposed to aspects of economic development in his community already as a youngster.

He selected the title of his business so people would know his background and the folks of the Lehigh Valley would support it. He credits the Chamber with being a huge influence on his business, and networks regularly at their events. He genuinely enjoys getting out and meeting people in order to grow his business.

“I learned from the military that no one wants to work for a jerk,” says Zittrer. The military, he says, demonstrated to him that there were many different ways to lead. “If I show respect and value my men, they will be loyal,” he adds.

Zittrer admits he does get frustrated at times, for no one works as fast and furious as he does. Although he gets angry at times, he rarely barks at employees.

“When I get fired up, the Army comes out. My guys are not afraid of me. I am a very positive person, but they know I don’t take any bull. All my guys are incredible,” he says. With workdays sometimes adding up to 12 hours a day, Zittrer says he likes to frequently take the crew to breakfast and lunch.

“I go to a job, I understand what my clients need to be happy; I relate that to my guys and give them the flexibility, maneuverability and freedom to take their ideas and run with them. I have faith that they will do it properly,” he adds.

One of his workers, Devon Reilly relays, “I’ve worked construction before. Working with Soldiers Construction is different.

Something about the way Brandon is able to please the customer. It gives us all a crazy level of pride and excitement. We are all deeply involved in the job. There is a lot of positive energy buzzing around. It sometimes amazes me what Soldiers Construction is able to accomplish, seeing these beautiful projects evolve from start to finish. The owners’ happy faces make it completely worth it.”

And herein lays one of the secrets of Zittrer and his Soldiers Construction success.

“Every day I get up and look at my family, my new truck, my motorcycle, my home that I built, my dog, and I appreciate everything. I am living the dream. I am filled with gratitude,” Zittrer says.

Like so many of his brothers and sisters in arms, Zittrer has seen many horrific things as part of his military service, but he has been blessed with a happy, positive, grateful attitude toward life; one that he makes every effort to impart to his crew men and his clients, hoping they will pay it forward in their own lives.

 

JARROD KAHLER

Army // Northampton

Physical wounds to the body, especially those incurred during combat, are obvious to spot and usually very challenging to treat. Psychological wounds are inherently different. Bandages and surgeries can’t treat those. Neither does self-medication with drugs and alcohol, but there are alternatives.

Northampton’s Jarrod Kahler, a U.S. Army veteran, found an alternative, an “outdoor” clinic. He is currently going there for therapy with his wife and children and finding success that the VA and his meds couldn’t touch.

The day an Afghani IED blew up under Kahler’s Humvee, it was the worst day of his life. It left him 60 percent disabled, both physically and psychologically. He experiences ringing in his ears, hearing loss, frequent and extremely painful headaches from his traumatic brain injury (TBI) as well as pain in various places in his body that includes a permanently broken wrist.

Kahler was challenged coming back to a family after living in a remote, mountain Afghan village where he washed his few articles of clothing in a sink, lived in a tent and was responsible for himself and didn’t have to converse if he felt like keeping silent.

His wife, Danielle, saw that he was emotionally distraught but Kahler said, “I felt like no one else should have to know what happened to me over there—I wanted to spare them that pain,” so like many veterans, they try to shoulder it themselves. His prescribed meds left him feeling numb and separated.

Although it is challenging for him to hold down a full-time job, with his multiple VA meetings, his therapy sessions, never knowing when a headache will descend on him, he’s working hard at it and is finally thriving in the Lehigh Valley. After three years of therapy and counseling, and getting off all his medications, the Kahlers are closer and happier than ever.

What helped to turn the corner is a recent outdoor adventure program that he and Danielle participated in. River House PA is a local non-profit catering to veterans who have experienced trauma, and their families. The event was an evening bike ride along the Lehigh Canal Trail and a nighttime paddle on the Lehigh River, called Bike & Boat. It was staged in partnership with Wildlands Conservancy and sponsored by the Keystone Wounded Warriors, another non-profit that Boyd Kahler, Jarrod’s father, is very active in.

River House PA chose the night of a super moon to stage their event, which included a stopover on an island for a campfire and sharing. The repetitive motion of dipping your paddle into the water, the calming motion of the current, the magical glow of the moonlit night, all contributed to the healing experience.

“We had a crash course in canoe safety and how to paddle,” Danielle shares. “We had to trust one another, work as a team.”
Kahler had been afraid to try paddling, with a permanently broken wrist. He wasn’t even sure if he could handle riding a bike. He had not been on one since he was a small child and had never been in a canoe, yet there he was on the Lehigh, stretching himself and pushing beyond his comfort zone, a very difficult thing to do for a veteran who suffers with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

“Jarrod was calm,” Danielle says. “We were taken from reality and forgot all about the troubles of the world. Laughter was a constant throughout the entire experience. It inspired us to learn more about canoeing and recreating in the outdoors.”

Kahler would like to go back to school to work as an interpreter for the National Park Service, but is concerned about adding more to his plate right now. Danielle would like to market her love and skill as a photographer, specializing in children.  They are also hoping to purchase their own canoe one day soon to take their family out on the river and lake.

“The only time I can really feel free and that I am not suffering with my issues is when I am outdoors in nature,” Kahler admits. “There are no stores, I don’t need money; there is no technology, people can’t call or text if I leave my devices behind. I feel very free.”

Slowly, over time, the stories are coming out and Jarrod is sharing them with his wife and father. Walking on the trails in the woods certainly helps with the release of words and stories, as does paddling a canoe and cycling alongside one another.

Since Kahler returned from Afghanistan, what he is searching for is a little peace. Laughter is an added gift. He found both while recreating with his wife. Fortunately, we have hundreds of miles of biking, hiking and water trails in the Valley where veterans can explore and experience healing. In the natural world, Kahler actually feels this taking place, holistically, and he’s healing in a more permanent way with nature’s guiding hand.

LehighValley STYLE Magazine- Nov 2014

 

Beating Autumn with a Stick

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When we were walking around the Zemi Valley Open Air Museum in Cappadocia, Turkey, there was a ground’s worker beating a small yellow-leaved tree with a stick. We stopped in our tracks of exploring the historic dwellings in the rocks and just watched him, trying to wrap our heads’ around what exactly he was doing. He wanted to rid the tree of its leaves faster than nature would have it, so he could sweep them up and be done with it.

Be done with autumn. I have never in all my life ever felt like I was ready to be done with autumn and the season should move on into dreary November. Especially this autumn.

I have a contract with New Jersey Monthly Magazine to write a hiking story and capturing the fall colors in the photographs are of utmost importance. My editor said he was hoping for peak color in the pics. That would be nice, but we had travel plans. Choosing to travel to Turkey during the last two weeks of October was living on the edge as far as timing of peak season goes. It didn’t happen before we left and I was concerned it would happen before our return.

As our plane descended into the surrounding New Jersey countryside near Newark, NJ, I could see that every single deciduous tree had ALL of their leaves still on. The trees looked stuffed- round and swollen with fall color. Excellent. I didn’t miss it. I could get out for my two remaining hikes and Bryce could do a good job photographing. A trip to New Jersey was scheduled as soon as I could unpack and do my wash.

But the weather had other plans. Although skies were clear and the rain had passed, a ferocious wind had started up since our plane landed we and arrived home. I heard the wind roaring outside, pushing its way through the jambs of our windows and doors of our log home.

Come morning, autumn was gone. All gone. It had left in the night. It had moved on.The wind had beat the trees like the ground worker in Cappadocia with his stick. But the wind does a much thorough job.

Bryce and I traveled to New Jersey to hike the last two hikes for the story today and we were hard pressed to find any color hanging on. An occasional beech tree with its fluttering, paper-thin leaves. And a small red shrubby tree down low, that had beautiful rosy pink leaves. When I touched them gently with my finger tips to examine them up close, they all tumbled off the branches and floated to the ground like confetti. Their days are numbered too. In fact, later tonight, they will drop off too as the rains come.

I never get USED to this happening. This sudden abrupt switch when a cold November rain nails the autumn leaves and drives them to the earth. When they have held on as long as they could, when they have displayed their beauty for as many days as they could, they release their hold and drop, often all at once, overnight. I hate it. It is so sudden, so final. I like to see them flutter down like pieces of the sun, as though the forest is raining scraps of color- red, peach and golden-yellow. I like late fall to linger. So I can get used to the change that is about to occur.

Any change in life is easier accepted if it happens slowly, in stages, so we can get used to it. I had both parents die, both very young, in their mid-50′s.- one parent hung one like the leaves on the trees, and went slow with cancer; the other parent went fast with a heart attack. Guess which one was easier to accept? Cancer gave us the gift of time.

This aggressive fierce wind, beating the beautiful leaves like the man with the stick, makes me sad. Very few things in the natural world makes me sad but this does. I wanted more time.

Just One Night in Paris

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It was just one night in Paris. One night to stay totally awake the entire night. It ought to be an easy thing to do in a city that presumably never sleeps as New York City. Bryce and I had a long layover from Turkey home on Air France- 15 hours. Although some orange leather reclining lounges in a dark area at the airport looked tempting to wile away the hours, not for 15 of them. Plus, I had always wanted to see Paris and couldn’t ever talk anyone into going with me. Fifteen hours was better than none.

Bryce’s GF was envious. Paris is the city of romance. She wanted to be there. Instead, Bryce was with his mother. It was up in the air how the night would go, however.

First off, we had to get rid of our luggage. Our day pack full of I pads, camera, books, snacks etc was heavy enough, let alone a heavy backpack. Left luggage closed at 9. We got in Paris at 9:30. Fortunately, they checked our bags all the way through.

Next hurdle, the train into the city. It stopped running at 11pm. We had to clear customs and find the train before 11. Done.

Lucky for me, I sat next to a sweet Parisian girl, Louise, who took us under her wing and babysat us through the process of finding the platform, buying our ticket, getting off at the right stop, and planning our night.

I bought a small travel guide to Paris at the airport with a pull-out map and circled highlights along our night’s walking route. We’d surface at the magnificent Notre Dame Cathedral, walk down the Seine hitting highlights. Get to the Eiffel Tower by 1 am to see the last light show, circle back past the Louve to the train station. Bryce and I figured that we would refuel at little open air cafes and pump up with caffeine in order to stay alert. No problem. We were psyched.
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When we climbed out of the underground train station and immediately saw the magnificent lit up Notre Dame Cathedral, it was breathtaking. All along the Seine were lights and people were out in droves, laughing, talking, drinking. Boats, lit up like wedding cakes, powered up and down the river. People looked strange. They wore weird make-up, strange hats and outfits. OK, this is Paris. I really didn’t know what to expect.

We marveled at the sight, looking up into the sky at the massive cathedral and looked at one another and said, “I can hardly believe we are here. Paris. From the canyons of Turkey’s Cappadocia to here in just a few hours.” It was a bit of a culture shock.

We couldn’t get over the level of energy in the squares and the amount of people. Surely we would have no time staying awake all night long. Then it hit us. It was Halloween! Halloween night in Paris. How fortuitous! No wonder they looked strange. And they will be up all night too.

We bypassed the sights and headed straight to the Eiffel Tower. Sat under its massive structure and marveled at the light show, eating black olives out of a Zip Loc and Turkish string cheese, getting powerfully thirsty. We couldn’t find water, or coffee or anything of sustenance. It was after 1 am. Drunk young people were finding taxis back to their apartments. Bryce and I were running out of steam. We needed a coffee.

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The night started out warm enough that a fleece and a raincoat was enough to keep warm. We sat on benches and rested. I pulled up my hood, thrust my hands into my pockets. I got colder. We got sleepier and more physically drained. “What time is it?” 3 am. “Let’s walk a little ways, then take another break. We walked up to the Arc de Triomphe, down Av des Champs-Eylsees to the fountains at Place de la Concorde.

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We saw homeless people wrapped in plastic in corners of magnificent buildings. We sat on stoops if there were no benches, resting. I took my son’s arm for support, laid my head on his shoulder when we sat. No coffee anywhere. No cafes anywhere. It was like downtown Washington, DC after hours. Pretty, lit up buildings, traffic going by, but no signs of life on the streets. Occasionally a drunk Parisian Halloweener would come up to us as we rested and ask for something- a cigarette, a light, money, who knows what. They couldn’t speak English. I had to pee. There wasn’t a public toilet in the 8 miles that we walked. Long wet lines were everywhere on the sidewalks where the young partiers had to relieve themselves after drinking all night. We stepped in between them.

How are we going to stay awake for the next few hours? The train began running at 5 am. We had a few more hours to get through. We sat and timed ourselves, stretching out the hours, trying to reach the train station by 5.

Around 4 am we couldn’t find the cathedral and our spot to go underground. Where could it have gone? It is so huge. I looked up in the sky and saw a dark hulking shape. There it is. All its lights had been turned off. Same for the Eiffel Tower after 1 am. Show’s over in Paris at 1 am, even on Halloween. Who would have guessed.

My hips and legs were aching and feeling stiff from walking on a concrete surface and sitting. We grew so sleepy we had to take turns resting our eyes on the benches when we took breaks.
At 4:30, we went underground and sat on the bench in the breezy passage and waited, totally alone in Paris, for that first train to run and take us back to the airport. Eight miles on our feet, not a single cup of coffee. What a night it had been. Totally worth it.

It was only one night. One night to stay awake all night long. I may never get back to Paris again but it was a much better choice than sleeping away the last 15 hours. Bryce and I made a memory. One last memory with my son on his graduation trip to Turkey and that to me is most important.

Cracking Almonds in Babushkas …as we look fear in the face in Turkey

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There was just a touch of lace around her face, trying to pretty up a wrinkled old face, lined deeply from hard work. 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. I was trying to figure out how she kept the end of her scarf on the top of her head without a bobby pin. She was trying to figure out who I was and who I was with.

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

“Is that your husband?” (no, it’s my son). Any more children? (a 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 if I had two different husbands.”

When the bus pulled up, my new friend got in first. Bryce and I walked carefully down the aisle trying not to wack anyone. When I passed my new friend, whom had claimed a seat, she patted her knee and offered her lap for me to sit in. I was floored.

When I first decided to take my son to Turkey for his graduation present, the most frequent response was, “Why?” Followed by, “I don’t think it’s safe.” I was advised to be hyper viligant, contact the department of state about our whereabouts in the country, keep ours ears turned to the news and avoid crowded places where many tourists congregated.

As I walked down the bus asile, contemplating the old woman’s lap, I was feeling pretty vulnerable. (not!) Had it not been a short bus ride, I may have taken her up on her offer.

Canceling our trip to Turkey, planned 11 months ago- as soon as flights can be bought, crossed my mind in a fleeting momen, as I listened to the paranoia. We were not going anywhere near the border of Syria. We were too excited for this adventure to throw away $1400 and give in to fear. When my diplomat nephew said not to worry and HE proceeded to buy a flight to join us, I knew there should be no worries.

Everwhere we went, we were met with not just cordialness but warm friendliness. It made me feel foolish about considering abandoning our trip after I was in the country by about 5 minutes. WHAT was I thinking?

But it was the group of older women that lived around our hotel who really gave me pause. We saw them everyday as we came and went about our day, heading to the bus station to visit a nearby town or off on a long hike up a picturesque valley.

They sat alongside the stone cobble drive, on old foam sofa cushions. Their big skirts dipped between their legs as they sat sprawled with a cinder block between thir legs. With a smaller chunk they slammed almonds and poked them put of their shells. I chatted away in English. They chatted away in Turkish, neither of us needing to know exactly what the other was saying. They took turns presenting their plams up to Bryce and I with the sweet extracted nut kernals. We all laughed and chattered and understood everything. They were still at the slamming at 5 pm that afternoon and we exchanged the same pleasantries and scored some more nuts.IMG_0616

At the end of the next day, we see five old women laden down with plastic grocery bags, the thin stretched-tight handles cutting into their manly hands from the weight. In between two of the women, the weight of two more heavy bags were shared, each carrying a handle to help with the load. I sent Bryce running ahead to offer his assistance. They jibbered happily in Turkish as Bryce took the bags out of their hands. We didn’t realize they were our nut-cracking neighbors at first for many of these older Turkish women dress and look similar.

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The next morning as we’re leaving for the day, the women are in the open house next door, on the floor again, on old sofa cushions, rolling out dough and chopping it into tiny shapes like pastina or orzo. Their knives moved rapidly, obviously from years of acquired skill. Another women cut dough into strips for noodles. Another ran dough chunks through a pasta press. They invited us in. I wanted to stay and work with them for the day. I started to ask questions, and one ran and got our hotel owner to translate.

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“They want you to know that this is the flour that was in the bags you helped carry.”

(we figured that out).

“WHO are these women?” I ask our hotel owner. “Are they related?”

“Just friends, one lives here and one here and one here and one here,” as he points to the surrounding homes.

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“Is it a job?”

“They don’t do this for work. They have gotten together to make their pasta for the winter.”

Of course. Make their pasta for the winter.

When we returned to our hotel at the end of the day, the pasta was drying on racks, or on blankets on the side of the stone drive. The Call to Prayer echoed throughout the village. Life was good.

When I posted a photo of our neighborhood girls on FB with a caption, my writer friend MaryAlice Yacutchik- whose ancestors hail from Russia, where they wear babushkas, as do mine in Poland, said, “When we get old I want to get together and wear babushkas and make pasta and crack almonds.”

It’s a deal. Something to look forward to.

This is why I travel. To feel foolish for being afraid of these lovely people. To be reminded once again how we in Amercia are so afraid of other cultures, other religions and how it can hold us back from experiencing magic and the best part, discovering that we are not so different and people have warm hearts all over the world. And this was only two in a long string of wonderful memories as we spent two glorious weeks in the wonderful country of Turkey.

Is There a Yurt in Your Future?

Yurt 1

Into the Mystic: Paddling amid the foliage on Swartswood Lake in Sussex County.
Photo by Cindy Ross

Yurt 2

One of the five yurts available to campers in Swartswood State Park.
Photo by Cindy Ross
Yurt 3

The 16-foot-diameter interior features two sets of bunk beds.
Photo by Cindy Ross
  •  Fog blankets Swarts-wood Lake as we dip our paddles into the glassy water. A family of swans materializes on the surface through the opaque air. Nearby, an osprey dives through the whiteness and resurfaces with a stunned fish. The morning show has begun in Swartswood State Park.

We are following the Water Trail around the 520-acre lake in our canoe. There are 15 charted stops to learn about the rich natural, cultural and historic points of interest. Some of the most interesting sights are uncharted, like the red fox standing motionless on a downed tree.

Swartswood, in the southwest corner of Sussex County, became New Jersey’s first state park in 1914. The lake is a bit older; it was carved by glaciers thousands of years ago. For the past 15 years, overnight visitors to the park have had the opportunity to sleep in yurts.

A yurt is a cross between a cabin and a tent. Traditionally, Mongolian nomads packed these round huts for their desert travels. These days, modern yurts are springing up around the country. Five are available at Swartswood, and they can be found in three other Jersey state parks: Allaire, Belleplain and Byrne. Traditional cabins are also available at Swartswood, as well as sites for trailers, pop-up campers and tents—but a yurt is somewhat unconventional and much more fun.

A wooden lattice creates the frame for the yurt, the roof lines radiating like the spokes of a wheel. Two sets of bunk beds are positioned on either side of the spacious 16-foot-diameter structure. The floor is made of painted concrete. Natural light pours in from the skylight 10 feet above, which is easily opened with a pole for ventilation. Additional ventilation and light are provided through wide screens around the yurt walls,
with vinyl flaps that can be rolled down for warmth.

Swartswood’s five yurts are situated in a loop, with distance between them for privacy and quiet. Parking is a stone’s throw away. The area around our yurt is open and grassy, enabling white tail deer to browse nearby. Through the neighboring forest, the shimmering lake entices us to paddle. It’s a pleasant 10-minute walk to the beach and the marina (where boat rentals are available).

The entire Water Trail can be completed in a leisurely three hours, but we take additional time to get out and hike the 1.5 mile Grist Mill Trail. This loop begins at Keen’s Mill, a restored 1830s mill, on the west end of the three-mile lake.

After our paddle, we hike the 2.8-mile Spring Lake Trail, which winds through a younger forest to secluded Spring Lake. The trail is located in the southeast corner of the park and connects to the 0.6-mile-long Duck Pond Trail, a paved pathway suitable for inline skating, roller blading and wheelchairs; it is accessible from a nearby parking lot.

Back at the yurt, we cook on a fire grate provided by the park. Off in the woods, a great horned owl provides the soundtrack for our repast. Soon, we’ll retire to the yurt to read by lantern light—with little more technology than those desert Mongolians enjoyed.

Cindy Ross blogs about her outdoor adventures at cindyrosstraveler.com.

IS THIS FAIR and RIGHT?

as I work on my book about raising and educating children, I think about the fact that my children missed 70 days of public school their last year there. (with the Blue Mtn School district’s approval). The law states that I could have been jailed 5 days for every truancy- that totals 300 days in jail (as only 5 are acceptable) – with all this talk about breaking laws- what do you folks out there who think we should never break laws think about what happened to this woman? http://www.policestateusa.com/2014/eileen-dinino/

PHILADELPHIA, PA — A mother of seven died in jail serving time because her children had skipped…
POLICESTATEUSA.COM

RISK in Veracruz, Mexico…the rest of the story

I’ve been accused that my last blogs have been boring. I can fix that. There’s been conversetion lately about risk so let’s hear about what it’s really like to be a travel writer- from the back side- the Paul Harvey “rest of the story.”

I went to Veracruz, Mexico last year. Travel writers often get invited to discover countries who have recently decided to attract American tourists, either they are hoping to get on the tourism market bandwagon, or have recently cleaned up their act so that it is now safe or safer for us to travel there- we Americans who need a place to be very safe before we want to risk going there.

You may recall that it wasn’t too many years ago that there were many beheadings in Veracruz. It was a pretty corrupt violent state. (Actually, when I just Googled it, there’s been some recent beheading activity). But in 2013, the state welcomed the adventure travel trade and I went to check it out.

Veracruz made sure we felt safe, the whole 5 days we were there. Everywhere we went, we were followed by a truckload of medical folks- like docs in long white coats with emergency medical bags. In addition, we had our own armed guards- another open pick-up with a handful of soldiers with machine guns- they actually leaned on the cab and sometimes took aim as we traveled. That made us feel real safe.

I signed up for whitewater rafting, rapelling down a sea cave, caving and dune buggy riding.

Let’s start with whitewater rafting. It was Class 3-4. We each had a beastly Mexican man in the stern that yelled commands to us in Spanish. So we had to first learn AND REMEMBER what “paddle forward”, “paddle backward” meant as well as “left side”and “right side.” That was a challenge, especially as a hydraulic was about to swallow up the raft. We needed a few seconds to translate in our brains, a few seconds we might not have.

Our guide asked if we wanted to “swim” the rapids. “Here, it is safe- no rocks.” A few of us said, “Why not,” and rolled overboard. I  never swam Class 3-4 ON PURPOSE nor by falling overboard. As I ran the river and struggled to keep my feet up to prevent entrenched foot (caught in rocks- because who knew if there wasn’t a single boulder under water), the massive waves kept hitting me over and over and over again, slapping me in the face with such force. I gasped air inbetween but never knew what was behind each wave, so I began to drink in water fairly quickly, because they were unceasing. It took some time to think I should be turning my head to the side every time a wave swept over my head, that way it would not be forced up my nose at least. (we were given no instructions) I grew concerned because I could not drink much more water before I would be in trouble. The rapids ended just in time and they hauled us into the boat by our life jacket arm pits, a little weak from the experience.

Later on, I made the mistake of asking our guide if they ever surf waves. “Oh yes, would you like to try?”

In order to stay on top of the wave, as you position your raft upstream, you must paddle like crazy to remain on top of it. My group did not. They lily dipped their paddles and in two seconds, the river dumped half of them out. A few got caught underneath but the raft had not flipped so there was no air for them to breathe. They were pretty scared. They were trapped under there pretty long. One older woman blamed me for the whole event.

Next day was repelling. We started by being told to pile into two wooden fishing skiffs on the coast. The plan was to motor around the point where the sea cave was and the cliff which we would repel down. The sky behind the boats was dark and jagged lightning was slicing through the sky. Raindrops had begun to fall. The sea was wild and the boat rocked and rolled. Walking was an option to get to the cliff top. Since I get real seasick. I did not want to be in that boat one second longer than I had to, plus I did not like the looks of a storm brewing and being in a boat. A few of us opted to walk.

When we got to the repelling site, there was a 70-year-old Mexican man in polyester long pants, a white button down dress shirt, a cowboy hat and barefeet. He had ropes and caribeaners and would belay us down the cliff, over the sea cave, and into the rocking and rolling skiff in the sea below. I was skeptical. I asked a bonafide climber to check his equipment out and he did say it was legit.

I have climbed and repelled in the past. I know to keep yourself perpendicular to the face, legs apart and hop or walk down. As I repelled, the Mexican man up top disappeared from sight. He could not see how fast or how slow I was going. He let out line too quickly and before I knew it, I was laying flat against the wall, upside down. The rope was tight. I couldn’t move. I yelled up, “I’m in trouble down here. I’m not scared but I might start to get scared soon.” I laid against the wet rock wall completely upside-down , head first and the sea churned far below me. He begins yelling something to me in Spanish and I have no idea what my instructions are. Soon he repels down over the lip and reaches his hand out, yelling to me. I tell him in English, “I am not climbing UP this. Figure out how to get me down.”

Our travel guide interpreter up top begins to yell translations. “Get your feet undernath you and STAND UP.” They let out some rope to create slack. All my comrades were down in the swaying skiff holding their breath, praying. I figured it out and finished the repel, hanging above the cave in the air as the ocean rolled in and out of the monstrous mouth of the cave. My comrades teased me once safely in the boat and said I was doing Cirque de Soule ala Cindy. When I told my daughter back home, she behaved as though I was the child and she was the parent, telling me to be careful. “I need a Mother.”

The next day we went caving. By this time, I started asking questions. “What kind of cave? Is it a cave or a lava tube?” CAVE they said, not a big deal. We had no flashlights. We traveled to the jungle, along with our entourage of trucks full of medical people and soldiers.

We walked through the jungle and found a cave that we crawled into its mouth. It WAS a lave tube. Lava tube floors are treacherous things- full of glassy, abrasive lava rock that cuts and rips if you so much as touch it. People turned their cell phones on for illumination. The soldiers had to juggle their machine guns and phones for light at the same time. The doctors and EMT’s had smooth soled leather shoes on. They were not happy following us in there.

When we got to a section where the ceiling broke down, and the light of day entered, we all paused and talked. Someone said this was the end. I got bored and turned around with a few others and decided to walk back early. Unbeknowst to me, after I left, one of the guides asked if they wanted to go in further to see the bats.

“Seeing the bats” meant penetrating further into the lava tube with cell phones. Cave rules are THREE types of a light source for each person. NOT, with this establishment. The explorers had to crouch down and nearly crawl. The bats, which were vampire bats became disturbed and began flying out , past the people, brushing their hair and face and arms with their wings, freaking both of them out- people and bats. The soldiers were stumbling. The medical people were stumbling. The writers and travel agents wondered why they were following so blindly and had given over so much trust.

When we were all reunited afterwards, I was bummed that I had missed out but those who did not miss, were white with fear and traumatized. THIS would not go over big with most American tourists. The Veracruzians can’t lead just anyone down a cave like that.

The next day we went 4-wheeling over crazy high sand dunes. I was starting to catch on to these people and their idea of risk and especially safety, which was a tad different from ours. The folks in my group played it safe, but another buggy of American tour operators rolled and got a little hurt and a lot scared.

Our last night, we went out to dinner on the square and I noticed the young man in our group who had been in the flipped buggy was staring and was silent. I went and sat with him and asked, “Had enough high adventure, eh?” And he quietly shook his head. “I wanna go home.”

Wanna know what I got paid to write that story? $75 and it cost me $100 to get myself to JFK so I left America with a deficiet of $25 from the get go. I DID NOT have to pay for my memories however. They were provided by the Veracvruz Tourism.

PS- This is only ONE side of the Veracruz trip- there were many deightful segments making the entire adventure certainly worthwhile…but if you want to look AT RISK- depending on where you travel and how you travel, adventure and risk is fairly easy to come by…. This is what we travel writers do for you Americans to TEST whether a country is prime time and ready for our comrades.

Here’s another side…cindyrosstraveler.com/2013/08/23/bat-caves-iguana-dancing-and-other-adventures-in-los-tuxtla-veracruz-mexico/

‘RELIVE THE LEGACY’ OF THE APPALACHIAN TRAIL IN THEATERS THIS FALL

If you mention my name when you get a ticket,  and use this code “ROSS14″ ATC will take $5.00 off your ticket!

‘RELIVE THE LEGACY’ OF THE APPALACHIAN TRAIL IN THEATERS THIS FALL
Harpers Ferry, WV (August 21, 2014) – Discover the unique history of the Appalachian Trail (A.T.) in theaters this fall during the Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s (ATC) fourth annual Membership Drive, Relive the Legacy. This year’s event will showcase the never-before-seen film “The Appalachian Trail: An Am…

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Environmental Conservation · 107,785 Likes
Join us as we experience the never-before-seen film "The Appalachian Trail: An American Legacy" on the big screen! www.appalachiantrail.org/relive #RelivetheAT
Appalachian Trail Conservancy