When Hardship Does Not Feel Hard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Desire to Become White Trash

IMG_5428

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

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

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

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

IMG_5426 IMG_5427

A description…

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

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

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

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

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

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

979ea5e2e18b382706dab5ea6434632d1411136537656_wps_43_Anglia_in_the_woods_1_JPGecb86d73c5067f4330bdb93bba354844

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

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

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

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

Focusing on Football- or NOT

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_0028

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_0273 IMG_0255 IMG_0271 IMG_0261 IMG_0269 IMG_0253 IMG_0259 IMG_0248 IMG_0243 IMG_0264 IMG_0265 IMG_0268 IMG_0250

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Glamping” in the Laurel Highlands

It’s a bit if a lame name- Glamping- “glamorous camping” and it sounds sissified to real adventurers, but let me tell you, it is one cool experience. It is LIVING outdoors- cooking, eating, bathing, in the open air, surrounded by nature and beauty. Breezes pass through and birds dart and flit, hummingbirds zip about on their way to and from the many strategically placed bird feeders, while the cooing of the mourning doves fills the air with soothing peace. And “out there,” in the distance is the magnificent view of the Laurel Ridge and the Youghigheny River gap. You can watch the light change on the mountain as you do the dishes or stir your supper or soak in the clawfoot tub- nothing impedes your view. At the 65-acre Campbell Farm www.campbellfarmglamping.com in the Fort Hill area of the beautiful Laurel Highlands, Somerset County, glamping appeals to almost anyone, but especially those of us who love the natural world and can’t get enough of it.

I was attracted to the whole idea of Glamping when I saw the photos on their website. The large canvas wall tent reminded me of my fond memories of “camping” in the Tanzania bush. But Todd and I were even more impressed when we arrived. A wagon sits by the parking area to pull your belongings over the grassy hill to your secluded camp spot. A constant breeze blew so bugs were never an issue. Gas stove, fridge, tub and bathroom, are all completely outdoors except for one wall to each “room.’ The bedroom is separate, inside the large 12 x 12 foot screened in wall tent, complete with queen sized bed (mattress warmers which we did not need in August!), oak night stands, electric lights, rugs etc.

In the evening after dinner, we sat on the 8 x 12 foot porch in our bath robes and sipped wine after going for a walk on the many mowed paths around the 1786 historic Campbell Farm. That was after we soaked in the tub listening to coyotes and screech owls call and watched a doe and her two fawns come out to feed as well as watch the fingernail moon rise in the night sky It was all so very lovely. I sat there and realized how little of “my stuff” that I really need. I was aware of how little stuff we really need to be happy from all my experience backpacking all my life. But for whatever reason, we tend to gravitate INSIDE when we are at home- that is where our STUFF is. But I told my husband that I want him to think about building an outdoor sleeping space and a cooking space. We already have a few picnic tables that we drag every meal out to when the weather is nice and “Nice” is stretched into the “shoulder” seasons.

Glamping made me want to live outdoors. Maybe if I lived in this style, I would not long to go away so much and leave my home and my stuff- if I pared living at home down to essentials and much of that was spent outside when weather permitted.
“The way to avoid housework is to live outdoors.” Glamping proves that to us. With an experience like glamping, Todd and I were ready to go home- throw out STUFF, live and work outside as much as we could. Outside we are happiest. Glamping reminded us of that. Being in nature does not have to be reserved for outdoor adventures, it can encompass every day living. Many who vacation here at Campbell Farm see it as a get away and must return to a life in an urban area. But for people like us, it can be a life changer.

(a version of this story will appear in Pennsylvania Magazine next year….www.pa-mag.com)

IMG_2345 IMG_2378 IMG_2385 IMG_2400 IMG_2418 IMG_2441 IMG_2443 IMG_2444 IMG_2448 IMG_2454 IMG_2461 IMG_2488 IMG_2504 IMG_2518 IMG_2529 IMG_2551 IMG_2559 IMG_2362 IMG_2370 IMG_2571

Friends in the Sky- When you Cannot Sleep

I found it slightly annoying when my mother told me as a teen, that she could not go to sleep until I was safe at home from a date and in bed. I was only slightly touched that she cared. I thought she ought to put me out of her mind and get some rest. Impossible.

Last night, my son had to drive back very late to his apartment in Philadelphia. I had to lend him my new car as the old one he uses developed a very disturbing belt squealing sound. I was not excited about him driving back so late and being unfamiliar with the route (he just recently moved there ), let alone driving my car with an unfamiliar clutch.

I did not sleep. I rested my eyes, waiting for his call.

There was construction on the interstate late at night and a 1 ½ hour trip took nearly 4 hours.

Even after his call that he arrived safely, I could not sleep.

And so, I remembered what night it was. The best sky show of the year. A meteorite shower. I pulled on my long pants and wool sweater and went out to our orchard.

Although I could hear late night traffic on Rt 895, ½ mile away, it was incredible that the patch of sky above my head was a dark enough sky that I could even see the Milky Way. Cassiopeia and the Seven Sisters, Pleiades, were right there hanging in the sky, like old friends. I looked up and searched and searched the heavens for movement. My eyes darted around, trying to cover the expanse, not wanting to miss a shooting star in any of the corners and staying alert for movement. It occurred to me that it felt a lot like hunting in the woods, scanning the land, watching for the movement of animals, while I stood still. You can’t be walking out the dirt driveway while looking up, even slowly. You have to stand still and stare at the heavens.

I realized how rarely I look up. For any length of time. I mostly look out when I walk. My husband always looks down. He tells me he has to, as he is always thinking when he walks and he needs the focus. I lift his chin and say, “There’s a big world out there.” But even I do not look all the way up for any length of time and I should.

My neck began to hurt quickly and I rotated it and clasped my fingers together and supported my neck as I tilted my head way back. One, two, three shooting stars. Some were short little spurts. Some were smears in the periphery of my vision. Some were so bright and long that I gasped out loud and my eyes immediately teared up. They were so beautiful and I was all alone out there with the big sky, performing just for me. It was incredibly peaceful. I felt like all my worries of my son’s drive drain out of me and down into the earth. I seemed to focus on what was important. Beauty. That everything was right with the world. And my mind went immediately to my two deceased parents, who have been gone from this physical world for over 30 years. I do not think of them much but those shooting stars brought me right to them and my eyes teared up again. Hi mom and dad, wherever you are.

I was tempted to go back to the house and get a thick comforter and lay it on the dewy grass and just make a night of it. I had heard that the best show was between 2-3 and it was just getting to be 2 am. But I was finally getting sleepy. The stars helped. “Just one more” I said to myself. First I wanted a half a dozen, then 10, then I finally retreated to the woods after a dozen shooting stars.

My log home glowed warmly from the bathroom night light coming through the stained glass window. It’s been such a blessing to live in these woods and raise my children here for the last two dozen years. I realized how comforting the night was and how I missed being out night after night and sleeping outside as we did on our long distance hiking journeys. And I look forward to being on the John Muir Trail next summer for weeks to get back to this “night life” that I missed.

And right before my feet found our brick sidewalk in the dark, I heard the strangest sound in the woods. I had ever heard this call before and it sounded like a bark. I know multiple creatures can bark but it was up high, in the canopy. I stood still and looked up once again. The sounds kept changing until finally I heard one that I was familiar with. A screech owl! Saying hello to me and giving me one more gift of the night.

Next time I cannot sleep, which happens much more frequently now a days, I’m going to keep my clothing handy and go out into the open pasture and look up and see my familiar stars and maybe a shooting one or two. They will be a comfort to me and ground me and remind me that worrying does not add anything to your life, unless you go out and pay a visit to your friends in the night sky. Then it is a real gift to be awake.

A Writer’s Haven on Cape Cod

IMG_0010IMG_0009

Inside my cottage, it is as if the wilds of the Cape Cod pine forest are actually inside my indoor space. Many floor to ceiling glass windows and screened areas make this 500 square foot boxy cottage both airy and bright. There are even more glass panels above the wooden walls, and since the roof slants upward, it pulls my vision UP. Since the cottage is so open, I hear the ocean breeze billowing on the tree tops as it rakes through the pines, the call of the screech owl at night, and when I sleep, I take moonbeam baths as the light streams through the many windows. Frank Lloyd Wright would approve of this 1930-60-s Bauhaus style cottage, for in actuality, the architect designed it in the same line as Wright’s work for he studied at his school..

http://www.hiddenvillageeastham.com/home.html

IMG_0021IMG_0020

I am visiting my friend Dave Crary in Eastham and am the guest at his family’s historic cottages, Hidden Village on Cape Cod. It is an unbelievable space to work on a manuscript, especially a writer who would rather be outdoors. All the times a writer searches for the correct word or to understand a feeling she is trying to convey, my eyes are pulled UP in this cottage, towards the sky, a place where answers sometimes come. The clean lines of the Mission style furniture and walnut wood structure are uncluttered and very pleasing to the eye. This cottage is a far cry from my busy household back home where I struggle to focus on my manuscript.

IMG_0014IMG_0015IMG_0055 IMG_0050IMG_0063IMG_0079

It is a short visit this time, although Dave and I packed in a ton. A bike ride on the famous Cape Cod Rail Trail and a long walk to the outermost curling tip of the Cape’s fist past Provincetown. This 8 mile trek entailed traversing the mile long rock break wall at low tide that leads out to the Long Point Lighthouse. A dinner out for an authentic lobster roll, a homemade donut shop one morning and a visit to my college roommate, Valerie, whose family also has a home here. And, Dave took me to see his many burn sites around the cape, as Dave is the Fire ­Management Officer for the Cape Cod National Seashore. His upwards to forty prescribed burns a year keep the undergrowth under control in the event that a wildfire would take off, as well as keeping the forest open and healthy. Pitch pines require fire to open the cones and enable the forest to regenrate, so help is needed to control and manage the forest.

IMG_0086IMG_0050IMG_0039

IMG_0059I am here on the Cape after meeting my literary agent, Charlotte Raymond, who so believes in my book, Modeling a Life, and my mission. We connected emotionally immediately upon meeting and found a wonderful rapport within minutes. I loved her smiling face, her kind and interested eyes, her level of passion to support me and my work. Charlotte handled one of my other six published books years ago but we had never met. She wants to get Modeling a Life into the hands of every new parent in America as well as grandparents. She said, “You really have done a remarkable thing, the way you have raised and educated your children. I feel like I have done poorly in comparison.” It is not my goal to make anyone feel guilty but she replied, “I am dedicated to being a better grandparent.”

Although this particular visit to the Crary’s Hidden Village was not an actual work trip , Dave invited me back in the fall to finish my manuscript. My arm could be twisted. I believe I could be very productive here in this cottage, where the outdoors feels like it is indoors, the bike trail is outside my door for stimulation and all those miles of beach to walk for inspiration.IMG_0070

“No More Canoeing”

I didn’t want to hear my 80 year old friend’s response when I asked if he and his wife wanted to go canoeing. “The river is up in July- a most unusual occurrence. Will you come?”

No more canoeing.” he replied.

As in “never ever again?” I thought to myself. That sounds so final. I might think, ok, no more canoeing this summer anymore. The river dried up, have to wait for fall rains before we can get back on. But never again? That sounds so final.

I told him, “You can sit up front like a duffer and we’ll paddle your butt around.”

Nope. No more.”

I understood his decision, for he has a heart defibulator in his chest,  but I was not happy about it.

I don’t want to see my wonderful friend stop. Stop canoeing, stop enjoying life, stop living, as in some day he would not be here anymore to grace our lives.

I then went to our 70 year old friends and asked him if he and his wife wanted to come. “Nope, too much work to do around here,” he said.

Really? On a rare summer day when the water is up and we can paddle a lovely little stream like the Maiden Creek that we can barely ever run?

I thought to myself, wrong decision. In my mind, no work should be so important to stop you from a trip down the river. Not on a Sunday.

So my husband and I went ourselves and had a great time, despite that fact that we would have liked to have shared it. We saw the typical beautiful kingfishers dipping and chased the great blue herons up the river, but then we saw a huge mature Bald Eagle perched in an overhead branch, only 15 feet away. Then another. Then we saw a tiny fawn surface on the bank after it had just swum across all by itself, stumbling and laying down exhausted, looking like it nearly drowned, no mother in site. Then a loon floats by and dives and surfaces and we have never seen a loon in these parts – It was a spectacular paddle.

That 80 year old friend of mine may not remember this but many decades ago he asked me if I wanted to go on an outing. It was ice skating on Ontelaunee Lake, Reading’s water supply. It was an unusual winter and the whole entire lake had frozen over. He and his wife were going with another couple whom we all dearly loved. Todd and I opted out. We were “too busy.” Probably building our log home and thought we should keep working. At least that is what my husband probably convinced me was the best choice. It was not. I regret it to this day. There has never been another opportunity to skate like that all over the huge lake. And, shortly after that, our other friend’s wife suddenly got cancer and died. Nope, I never had a second chance with that experience. I learned my lesson.

I missed the company of our 80 year old friends on the river. And as for our 70 year old friends… he is going to get a lecture next time about missing out and putting off, because there will come a day, before you know it, when you will have to say, “No more canoeing,” for the choice will be gone.

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

cat kampton 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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