First Rule- Always Pull a Sled Behind You

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Was it worth it?” I asked her.

“Absolutely.”

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

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

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

“I think so.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Let’s do it.”

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

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

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

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

“Deal.”

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

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

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

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

Make winter fun.

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

First rule, always pull a sled behind you.

THE MAGIC OF BRICK WHEELS Bike Shop

(this story will appear in Traverse Magazine)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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STEVE CHAPMAN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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JOHN JOHNSON

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

RAY MYERS

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

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

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

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

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

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

BRICK WAYS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Secret is Keeping Your Bed Small

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Ceremonial Burning of the Sock Dolls

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He has a point.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who is dying?” I ask.

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

“Burn it.”

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

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

A Long Distance Hike Would be Good for Anyone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lit up. Good word choice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SIERRA

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

BRYCE

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

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

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

Reflections on Tossing and Getting Tossed as the New Year Approaches

I only ever tossed one friend in my life. At the time, I viewed it as more or less as “shelving” not out right permanently tossing.

My GF was bio-polar and occasionally went off her meds. One day, I met her in my driveway as I was heading to an out-of-state writer’s conference, extremely late. She pulled up and got out of her vehicle, visibly agitated.

Where’s Sierra?” she demanded.

In the house. What’s wrong?”

A lot. We need to talk right now.”

I explained that it was impossible and to call me later that night to share what was on her mind. She was being very cryptic about the topic but was angry and very upset.

I left but my GF did not. She found my daughter inside our home, got in her face with a pointed finger and proceeded to yell at her for nearly half an hour. She told her what would happen to her at Temple University where she was heading in only a week or two as a freshman.

My GF’s son attended the same school and made very poor choices while he was there- became addicted to drugs, slept with a prof, got in trouble with the law. It wasn’t the university’s fault nor the city of Philadelphia’s fault and his choices had absolutely nothing to do with my daughter.

In an attempt to get away from my friend, Sierra ran out of her home, into the forest and hid there sobbing until my GF left. Sierra tried to call me, her father at work, many family friends trying to get help.

I was pretty upset when I found this all out. I know that a person’s tongue responds to the condition of their heart and I knew this was about my GF’s personal pain and fears. My GF soon realized what she did and wrote a 6 page letter of apology. I didn’t need to forgive her, I already had but I did want some space. Sierra and I both felt raw.

Time got away from me and after 1 ½ years, I heard that my GF hung herself. The pain in her heart and in her life exceeded what she could handle. I felt partially responsible. No one commits suicide if they feel loved and needed. I vowed that I would never do anything even remotely similar to tossing a friend again, not even part-time.

Interestingly, when I look back on 2014, the thing that stands prominently out is tossing. I was tossed multiple times.

At this time last year, I was deeply involved and committed to a veteran’s organization that helped struggling veterans transition from the war by hiking the entire Appalachian Trail. I became the director’s assistant and dedicated much of my energy promoting the organization and writing about it. But he derailed in a mean and hurtful way and so I was led to begin my own organization, River House PA for hurting veterans. I believed that I knew a lot about the healing peace found in the natural world and had dedicated my life to pursuing it and writing and encouraging others to do the same. But through this process, I lost two very good friends of over 25 years, for reasons, I am not sure of.

No matter how many times I apologized for the possibility of hurting them unintentionally, my friends have decided that their lives would be better with me not in it, as I decided of my bi-polar GF years ago. I must honor that. We cannot be expected to change who we are after decades.

My kids say I needed to get rid of a few to make room for all the new veterans who have come into my life but I don’t buy that. There is room in a person’s heart for everyone. My kids question if this new endeavor of helping veterans is responsible for losing my long-term friends and if it is worth it. Sometimes, I allow that thought to pass my mind and wonder what I am doing. I am very glad that none of them ask me what I think about war and killing and all that horrible stuff, these new friends who are usually conservative Republicans. I am glad we never go there. I read over a dozen books about what happened in the Middle East and what is happening to these suffering Veterans now and I have even less of an understanding of WHY and if it was worth it and is still worth it, when I see what it has done to our young people.

But thankfully, no one is asking me. My family and I (as well as all of River House PA’s supporters) believe we know how we can be of help to them. By taking them out into nature- in a boat, on a trail, by a campfire, and allowing the peace of the natural world help soothe them. I’ve spent my whole life discovering the natural world and writing about it so others can learn too. With my children grown, River House and my veterans seems like a very good purpose.

I see some of my blog subscribers discontinued following me. I figure they grew fatigued of hearing about the plight of our veterans. But they who have nightmares every single night over and over or who struggle with learning how to live without limbs, they don’t get much of a break. The least we can do is be there in the darkness with them and try to lift them towards the light. Sometimes I go to bed feeling very sad and think that I spent 58 years being a happy positive person and this doesn’t feel good but they aren’t feeling good either.

So here at the turn of the year, I am reflecting on tossing and that empty feeling of abandonment but also the uplifting feeling that we can work together to make it better. With 22 veterans committing suicide a day, if I can buoy even one of them up enough to not feel hopeless and alone and learn of a place in nature where they can find peace, to be a friend, then it is worth it. I do miss my friends and wish I could bring them back, especially the impossible one who decided to toss it all.

Shopping for a Wedding Dress

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It is one of those epic moments in a girls’ life and a mothers…shopping for a wedding dress. I thought I might be able to save Sierra the trouble of finding and buying one and dug out my own 30-year-old wedding dress for her to try on.
“You can cut the sleeves off and the collar and change anything you want if you like it.”
She was gracious. “It was a great dress for you mom, but it’s not quite my style.” That was fine. I wanted to at least offer my dress, as did my best friend from childhood and the family friend down the street. My son, Bryce did not mince his words. “It looks like you’re wearing a curtain.” Someone else said I look like I’m starring in a western movie.

And so Sierra gets home from grad school four days before her fiance and the task at hand is to find a brides dress. The wedding will be held two weeks after the semester ends in May and living in Boulder makes it impossible to shop any other time but this Christmas holiday.

Our first day of shopping, we went to 5 bridal stores. She tried on about 8 dresses in each one. Many were hideous. Most of them were huge and the attendants clasped the fabric together with huge plastic clips down her back, giving her the illusion of fitting. Except for the boobs. The fabric gaped open and Sierra is far from flat chested. Nothing could be done right now about the gaping boobs. The bridal stores buy them large to accommodate more brides. That doesn’t help if you want to truly see how it will fit. “We can make the dress fit you, don’t worry.”

She was worried. Some said she would have to come back for three fittings. That wasn’t going to happen in Boulder or sit well with the budget. She wanted to buy a dress that fits NOW.

All the bridal shops were different. One lady was alone in her tiny shop and on the phone the whole time and left us completely alone. Another large shop told me needed to sit down in a parlor area and she would go alone into the dressing room with my daughter. I said, “I’d like to come in too.”
She said, “That’s not normally our policy.”
Tough shit. Sierra tried on 5 dresses in there and immediately took off every one, she hated them so. I would have been sitting out there and never saw her model a single one.

On the way home that first day, Sierra felt weepy. I told her this was supposed to be fun. I told her this was not supposed to create stress. But you learn a lot brides dress shopping- about yourself and who you are.

Sierra was not poofy. She was not heavy with a long satin trail that felt like an albatross and hindered you from dancing lightly around the dance floor. She was not sequins and pearls nor expensive.
“The dress must be under $500,” she’d announce as soon as she introduced herself to the clerk.
“And I like simple. My favorite style is a halter and I prefer ivory.”
That narrowed the search down rather radically. Now wonder after 5 shops we had struck nearly completely out.

There was only one dress that she found that she could possibly be content wearing to get married in. It did not excite her at all. It was just okay.
“I think your wedding dress should be more than just okay,” I told her.

We spent all that night looking at dresses online on the computer, which felt scary thinking about ordering one sight unseen but we may be reduced to that. We found multiple ones that looked gorgeous on the models but that is deceptive. The next day’s search would be in a different city- Allentown.

David’s Bridal is like the Wal-Mart of bridal stores. The internet was full of complaints about them but the dresses we loved on the computer were David’s dresses. Some were online only- others shop only- others still- both. The ones Sierra and I loved were supposedly both. She found one in particular that she adored and I saw another that was my absolute favorite. We were excited.

But at the shop, we were fortunate to find Sierra’s favorite (my second favorite) for only $250, but to hem it would cost $120. To sew a bustle onto the back, another $75.To take up the halter top, another $75. They said Sierra needed a long lined bra and that cost $55. And Sierra was concerned she looked a bit “hippy” in it. This had been her favorite online but on your body can be another story.

We decided to try out another shop close by and then have lunch and mull it over before buying it.

Shop #7 was a strike out with not a single dress worth trying on. They told us however, to check out Bella’s across the highway. Bella buys all of David’s discontinued styles and theirs.

When we drove over to the shop, it was closed in the middle of the day. That’s strange. A scribbled sign on the door said to call the owner, which we did from the parking lot. She answered her phone and said she would be there at 3 to open up. On the store front was a hand written sign said, “Wedding Dresses- as low as $50.” We were excited.

When 3 o’clock came, Bella pulled up on the grass and waved to us from the driver’s seat. She unlocked the door and said, “I’ll go turn on the heat.” It was cold inside like a warehouse.

There were rows and rows of dresses. Sierra announced, “I’m looking for a discontinued brides dresses.”
“That’s every one in the shop,” she assures us.
Sierra says, “I’m looking for dresses under $500,”
“That’s every one in the shop.”
“I’m looking for dresses that are size 8-10.”
“That’s nearly every one in the shop. Enjoy yourselves.”

There were hundreds of dresses, packed so tightly. Sierra and I found about 10 worthy of trying on and then I saw MY favorite (Sierra’s 2nd favorite) from the internet the night before. I couldn’t believe it. She tried on the dress and it fit like a glove. It was exquisite. She looked exquisite. “I love it,” I said. “I love it too,” she said. And our eyes locked and we knew this was the dress.No need to even try on the rest.

When we asked about altering she said she was a lot cheaper than David’s but when we finally noticed the dress’ hem we saw that it just touched the floor and with a small heel would be perfect. This perfect dress was already hemmed to Sierra’s height. No bridal dress comes already hemmed- all need altering.

“Was this dress worn before?” I asked.
“It was returned,” she said, “but never worn. Wealthy brides buy multiple dresses and they don’t always wear them all.”
“Are you kidding?” I ask.
“They buy three and have them all altered. One is worn for the wedding, another at the reception. This dress was purchased as the cake-cutting dress but the bride didn’t get around to putting on. A bride can’t return a dress at David’s so they bring them in here.”

A cake-cutting dress…who knew.

There was a disappointed bride in the shop while we were there who had brought in her $1200 dress to see what Bella would give her for it as her wedding got “canceled.”

But what a stroke of luck for us. Sierra’s dress did not even need hemming- unheard of. The dress of both our dreams for $300.

On the way home, Sierra said, “I got my dress, Mom, and it’s so beautiful” and we were indeed a little weepy. This indeed was a moment in a girls and a mother’s life.

Feeling Whole Again

 

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(Raymond Kusch on left and Jack Knouse on right)

Wounded Warrior (WW) Raymond Kusch picks out a leg prosthesis and an accompanying foot like a woman might make a shoe selection, depending on her activity level and function. He has nearly a dozen to choose from but today he’s selected one that is suitable for a bear hunt.

We’re up in the mountains of Potter County, Pennsylvania, “God’s Country” as it is affectionately called with a non-profit organization called LEEK. LEEK orchestrates about 5 hunts a year for America’s Wounded Warriors. It is one of many organizations who offer the gift of an outdoor experience to those who gave so much for us.

Missing limbs are not an issue for LEEK’s Wounded Warrior guests. Trackchairs transport the WW over fallen tree limbs, across rocks and wet areas, up and down steep slopes and right into wide, carpeted blinds where they can be pretty near certain to harvest an animal. There are also Kawasaki Mules and Yamaha Rhinos ready to cram WW, volunteers, bird dogs and guns into.

The WW feel comfortable with a gun in their hands, for it is an extension of their arm. The Range House has wide open windows that swing open and face a variety of targets, from 25 yards to 800 yards. The WW practice here, getting used to their gun, as the WW fresh out of Walter Reed, does not come with his own hunting rifle. They come with little more than their personal clothing.

There is a wide array of boots, coats, long underwear, socks, orange hats to select from.  Guns are provided, ammo, and licenses courtesy of the Pennsylvania Game Commission. Delicious meals cooked up by a wide array of local volunteers for the days they are residing at LEEK.

“We don’t want the Warriors to worry about anything,” shares Ed Fisher, retired Army Colonel.  Ed, and his wife Kate along with many volunteers, created LEEK seven years ago to provide injured serviceman and women a way to enjoy therapeutic outdoor recreational activities regardless of their physical condition. The all-volunteer run facility grew from 256+ acres to now having 31,000 acres at their disposal for hunting purposes. LEEK knows the life of an out-patient WW is hectic and full of meetings, appointments, therapies, operations, etc. They come on a LEEK hunt for a much-needed break.

Raymond had never hunted in his 20 something life until his wife decided to help her husband out of his slump and applied for as many outdoor mini adventure programs that are being offered our WW.

Ray has been deep-sea fishing in Cancun, whitewater rafting in Idaho, turkey hunting in Kansas and now bear hunting in Pennsylvania. “Anything to take me away from the hospital,” Ray says, “but especially being out here in nature.”

“It’s a little uncomfortable at first, arriving at LEEK from Walter Reed and not knowing anyone. I was an extroverted person before I blew up, which helped.”

“I was a sniper in Afghanistan, stepped on an IED (improvised explosive device), flew ten feet in the air and landed 15 feet away on my back. I watched my leg evaporate into pink mist.”

It’s difficult to tell that Ray is missing a leg. He limps a bit, trips some. This morning Ray demonstrated how the socket of his prosthesis has a seal-in liner and pushes out the air to make a tight seal. The foot inside his hunting boot is a rubber shell around a carbon fiber foot.  While we hunt, we sit together at our stand and wait for the LEEK volunteers to put on a drive through the thick clear cuts nearby, hoping to flush out a bear. I have his back, standing behind his tree, watching in a direction that is difficult for him to see. We talk some but mostly share the morning, feel the same cold breeze rushing up from the valley, hear the same raven calling, the same tree branches creaking. We both are on high alert, scanning the land before us.

The WW can rise before dawn and get in position for a hunt or decide to sleep in and fish instead or just relax. “It’s the WW’s hunt. It’s whatever they want to do,” says volunteer Jack Knouse.

Jack is now a volunteer but three years ago, he was in Raymond’s position- a guest, recuperating from a war-related injury. Jack is currently in the National Guard and you can usually find him at most LEEK hunts, giving back.

Once the WW scores a deer or turkey or other game, LEEK volunteers busy themselves in the processing center- gutting, skinning, quartering, packed up etc. so the WW can go home with his treasure that same day. They even send the meat out for processing and have it made into bologna or kielbasi, and shipped home. If a WW is on a tight schedule to get back to the hospital, they can turn it around in twenty minutes!

There is also a black powder deer hunt, spring gobblers and always pheasants. LEEK is licensed to raise the birds and volunteers bring their hunting dogs to help with the harvest. LEEK orders 300 day old chicks and typically releases 25-30 birds out a hunt. The harvested birds get divided up and all WW go home with meat. Last year, LEEK obtained a Regulated Hunting Ground Permit and puts on hunts from September 1- April 30. Seventy stands and blinds pepper the acreage as well as a well-stocked pond to fish.

After six hours of hunting and multiple drives, and still no bear, Ray relaxes and moves around talking freely to me. He shares his disappointment with what is currently happening in Iraq, worries for the village people who became his friends, wishes he could go back and help them. He then apologizes for his tirade but I tell him, that’s what we’re here for, to help, whether that means listening for a black bear to scurry through the autumn leaves or to a WW share his heart.

I ask Ray if sitting with a gun in hand and hunting brings on flashbacks from Afghanistan, for his job was a sniper before “he blew up.” No, “I like being in the woods.” He is happy out here.

Ray limps a bit more on our way back to the vehicle. “I try not to let my prosthesis get in the way of living.”

Yesterday’s hunt was on steep terrain, crossing creeks and Ray performed like a star. “Some days I am stuck in my chair. That occurs when I acquire sores on my stump, or I need a new prosthesis, for my limb will atrophy over time and shrink and need a new socket.”

“Using a prosthesis is very hard on your body. It stresses out my back, my whole body. I favor my good leg and will ultimately damage it. In the future, I will be confined in the chair, but for now, I can get around. I want to stay out of it for as long as I can.”

“These trips are good for taking me out of my comfort zone. It forces me to be independent. No one should live in a hospital. It’s depressing. Being in the woods, with a gun in my hands, I feel like I’m not broken anymore.”

Cindy Ross http://www.riverhousepa.org

River House PA- Helping Veterans Heal through Nature

www.leekpreserve.org

410-322-4610

a version of this will appear in “Turkey Country” Magazine- the National Wild Turkey Federation’s Magazine

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