RISK in Veracruz, Mexico…the rest of the story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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Join us as we experience the never-before-seen film "The Appalachian Trail: An American Legacy" on the big screen! www.appalachiantrail.org/relive #RelivetheAT
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When my 20th anniversary of thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail came about, my family traveled to Baxter State Park to climb the greatest mountain. The weather was not the greatest however, mist and occasional light rain- no wind. The plan was to traverse the Knife Edge after celebrating at the summit so we made the decision to go after evaluating the weather and how we all felt- strong and confident.

My children were pumped for the crossing. They were ages 7 & 9 and had just recently hiked the last 250 miles of the Continental Divide Trail in Colorado and cycled 650 miles of New Mexico on the Great Divide Mountain Bike Trail. They were beasts as far as fit little kids go.

Since the drop offs were all fogged in, you had little clue of the extreme exposure, if this was your first time. My kids thought the rock scrambling was great fun. My girlfriend who had been on the mountain numerous times, knew too much. She gripped Sierra’s raincoat sleeve with such force and frequency that she ripped it right out of the socket.

A few of the adults along were quite fearful and not as fit. We had to take care of them- wait for them and encourage them. When we reached Chimney Pond and our cabin for the night, the adults collapsed on the chairs, my kids asked if they could go outside to play. The 12 mile day had not phased them. Certainly “the emotional drama” of the Knife Edge had not exhausted them.

I wrote a feature story for The Appalachian Trailway News Magazine on my anniversary hike and Sierra’s portrait on the Knife Edge in the fog in her raincoat was on the cover. The image sparked readers to comment which were published in the following issue under “Letters to the Editor.” Todd and I were chastised for our irresponsible parental behavior, we even got accused of child abuse. These comments were made by elderly Girl Scout leaders and Todd and I found them amusing. In our defense, we responded back with information about who these cover children actually were, what they had accomplished in their short lives and who their parents were- Triple Crowners. We also had a sleeping bag and stove for emergency purposes which our accusers did not know. Everything in its context.

Baxter State Park has rules pertaining to when the officials feel it is safe to climb Mount Katahdin. Our anniversary day had not been a forbidden climb, it just had an advisory warning attached. And Todd and I had heeded that advice and proceeded with caution, wisdom and experience. We were not breaking any rules or laws with this decision but numerous times in our children’s upbringing, in the midst of an adventure, we did.

I’d like to look at those times, of risk, of breaking laws, of trespassing, of questioning authority, and examining what we are teaching our children, good and bad, by bringing them along as accomplices.

In our marriage, Todd has always been the one who feels it important and necessary to follow rules, heed laws, do not trespass, etc. I, on the other hand, do not always feel so inclined to. We usually can balance.

One particular time, Todd’s vote was to trespass. When we were llama packing on the Continental Divide Trail in Wyoming, we were following a guidebook whose route took you across private property. The other option was a long road walk. We knew we’d be trespassing but the country was so vast, we rarely saw a soul.

Out of all the days to be in mountains, that particular one, the landowner chose to move the cows down from the high country. A solo backpacker could hide but not a family with a string of llamas. A wrangler on a 4-wheeler stopped us to inform us that we were trespassing and had to walk another ten miles to get off even though night was falling. We claimed we were lost to appeal to his emotions. He instructed us to pull out our map. There was a bright highlighted route right on the exact path we were on. We begged to speak to the owner and asked if we could camp somewhere out of the way and he finally consented. The kids were 5 & 7 and did not have a say.

When the kids were 14 & 16, we were adventuring in Hawaii and they did voice their opinions. We visited a local friend who offered to lead us cross-country over the newly formed lava flows in Volcanoes National Park, to where the lava was dumping into the ocean. Armed with headlamps and warm clothing, the plan was to walk out the 2-3 miles to the cliff and watch where it dumped into the ocean by night. We followed the Chain of Craters Road stepping over piles of hardened lava that had broken up the blacktopped road. After 200 yards, a yellow-tape blocked our way and warned that it was dangerous to proceed and that we should not go any further. Stepping over the yellow tape was easy. Dozens of people did it every night.

We headed towards the plume in the sky, across the broken undulating lava over gorgeous ropy, curving hardened flows. Sometimes it looked like a frozen, black waterfall. We stopped at the cliffside. It was possible for the cliff to peel off and drop huge sections into the ocean unannounced, but we took our chances. In some places, the lava was still warm to the touch. We sat out there and watched the most amazing light show of steaming bubbling brilliant orange and red lava flow into the ocean and hiss and steam like a wild hot animal. It was incredible. We sat mesmerized for a long time. Clouds of silica particles blew in from time to time, making it sometimes difficult to breathe.

After a few hours of watching the show, we picked our way back, the sky completely engulfed in stars all the way down to the horizon. The ocean, we kept at our side and nearby. Some people get lost out here at night but we kept our directional skills sharp and everyone close at hand. It was one of the most amazing nature spectacles of our lives.

Park officials did not stop visitors from going out. They were aware of it. We went at our own risk and we risked our children’s well-being at the same time. It was  a situation where had to weigh the risks and the consequences…being cited for trespassing, perhaps fined, maybe hurt, a remote possibility to all die if a chuck broke off and fell into the ocean. We all wanted to take the chance and have this life experience. The kids had a voice in the decision and they said, “let’s go.”

As parents, we could have trumped their decision and said the risks are too high, but we did not. We all have a sense of adventure in our family, but as parents we must weigh the pros and cons, judge how much safety you are willing to compromise, if what we are doing is disrespecting property, and any time you go beyond the “No Trespassing” sign you are disrespecting property. Sometimes, you evaluate if the sign is an attempt to keep out vandals, which category we do not fit. We would never harm the land or the property nor leave any indication that we were present. We believe in behaving ethically but that does not necessarily equal legality. You need to qualify that every step of the way. If the experience far outweighs the risk, we sometimes chose to just do it.

When we were traveling in Sicily by bus, we found ourselves in the town where the Zingaro Nature Reserve was located. After hiking all day, we discovered that there was no room in the hotels, all the rented rooms were filled or were too expensive and no buses would be entering or leaving town until the next morning. We walked the streets and told everyone in our group to keep their eyes opened for potential “stealth” camping spots. An abandoned pizzeria on a hillside was the accommodation of choice. We waited until dusk feel and then creeped up the one-way gravel road that looped around the property to the restaurant’s patio. We cleared away the glass chards and trash and set up our tent as the mosquitos were horrendous. Every time someone unzipped a tent fly, the neighborhood dogs would bark. We tried to keep silent.

Down the road was an inexpensive but very fancy restaurant- with white linen tablecloths, three crystal glasses at each place setting. We ordered pizza.  The kids whispered, “We’re living like the homeless but eating like the rich, this is great.”

After dinner, we kept our headlamps off and walked in darkness back to our abandoned pizzeria. The plan was, Todd would sleep outside the tent, keep watch and rouse us at the first crack of light.  We’d pack up and leave before anyone knew of our presence. However, in the early grey morning, Todd was wildly awoken by the crunching of tires on the gravel. My god, someone is coming up the drive! AND, they are shooting a gun! A car spins by and Todd sees a man’s body rising out of the open rear car window, with a rifle in his hand and he is taking aim and firing. Incidentally, the Rough Guidebook to Sicily states that this town had one of the worst reputations in Sicily for Mafia violence in the 1950’s . Eighty per cent of the adult males had served prison sentences and one in three had committed murder. Todd held this thought in his mind as he watched the passing car.

Because of the way we were situated, the gunman would have had to turn backwards after he passed in order to see us and he was too intent on seeking small game, rats, other trespassers, who knows what to shoot at, and didn’t bother looking behind. The car circled the pizzeria, shooting away, and went down the gravel drive. It took twenty minutes for Todd’s knees to stop shaking. We tore down the tent in a flash and slithered out the road. The kids gave us a “high 5” when we reached the blacktop public road and announced, “That was the best night of the whole month-long trip.”  And Todd and I looked at one another and thought, what is wrong with our parenting? IS there something wrong with our parenting?  What have we created in these children by our example? What are we modeling for them and is it a good thing?

When Todd turned 50, eighteen-year old Bryce announced to his dad that he needed to do something adventurous on this day, to set the precedent for the next decade. We would take him on a mountain bike ride to the Port Clinton fire tower, which is surrounded by a chain link fence with razor wire up top. It is clear that the forest service does not want people climbing it. However, local kids always do and the fence door is yanked up so you can crawl underneath, albeit in the sharp stones and glass chards but a normal sized adult can smash their body underneath and through. Todd was not excited about doing this. He believes all trespassing is wrong. All rules are created for a reason and should be followed.

“You’re doing it,” Bryce announced. Once we were up top, in the glorious breeze and far-reaching view, it was a lovely place to celebrate fifty years on the planet. Had a forest service truck pulled up, we would not be able to race the steps downward before we were caught. The parking lot is also a popular drug dealing spot too, but Bryce and I rationalized and said that it probably occurred at night. “Relax and enjoy the view.”

Here, an adventure involving a trespass was initiated by my adult son. What does that say about his upbringing? What have we created by our modeling? What do we expect?

A few years afterwards, Bryce thought that Todd and I were getting a little too comfortable and needed to stretch ourselves. Climbing up a slanted tree trunk over the Little Schuylkill River on wooden slat steps to a branch 20+ feet above the deep swimming hole was just the place to stretch his parents. We didn’t want to. I have jumped off my share of things as a young adult- metal RR trestle bridges, cliffs etc. But I HAVE gotten more timid as I’ve grown older and Bryce believes what I have always repeated, “If you’re not living on the edge, you’re taking up too much space,” a quote brought to you by mountaineer Jim Whittaker, a quote Bryce has taken to heart. Todd and I knew he had us. We consented to jump on a stinking hot afternoon and wanted to just shut our son up.

Todd had no problem handling the climb as he is on ladders to house paint far above the yard and never minds the dizzying heights. But standing on that tree limb, looking down, brought the fear of god into him. He mumbled and swore for twenty minutes about how ridiculous this was, how badly he DID NOT want to do this. Bryce and I treaded water for that whole time, growing chilled from the cold water, Bryce throwing out every accomplishment Todd had done to date in his life- a Tripe Crowner, building his own log home from scratch, a famous and successful chainsaw carver and blacksmith artist, in hopes to build his confidence. “Dad, you got this, just jump.” And so he finally did. Todd enjoyed it so much, he got right back out of the water and did it again. Bryce called it “Jumping off the Tree of Courage.”

So what does this say? What did we teach our children for them to arrive at this point and encourage HIS PARENTS to do the adventurous. Even though here at the Tree of Courage, we were not trespassing or doing anything illegal, we WERE however, making decisions on what is safe and how much risk is involved.

My son wants to climb everything he sees, every rock outcrop and pinnacle. He has only rock climbed twice in his 22 years but he longs to gain height. As a very young boy, we would occasionally wander out of camp and up a rock face. Our friends would run to his rescue as he could not figure how to descend and needed to coached back down. I tell him now- take a class, learn to do it right.

When we paddle rivers, he longs to jump off every rock cliff and bridge. I tell him he needs to swim and search what is under the water first before jumping. He could paralyze himself, hit something that dislodged and floated down the river when it flooded and is buried under the murky water. I tell him I am not interested in wiping his drool and diapering him as a paralyzed adult.

I don’t want to sound like a frightened mother, one who does not want her child taking risks and living an adventurous life. I have lived longer, heard more stories of fatal accidents and want my children to WEIGH the risks. I am sure I am partially responsible for creating this monster and did I model a good example all his life or a poor one?

Todd and I have balanced one another throughout our 30+ years of marriage and our 20+ years of parenting. Our children have both the cautious example and the adventurous example set by their parents and can hopefully, somehow come to a happy medium philosophy of taking chances and living on the edge as they create a life for themselves.

A Message From the “Other Side”

When I was hiking on the Appalachian Trail with my friend Joe Donmoyer the other week and his son, Shawn, we came upon a family of thru-hikers. I was immediately impressed and learned that the Canadian family had an 11, 13, and a 15 year old with them. They were already half way finished with the epic trail. After I congratulated them, I looked at the kids and asked, “Are you having fun? Do you like it?” They shrugged.

I said, “I get it. A little boring in the great green tunnel? “

They nodded. “My kids would have a hard time too, I believe, but then again I spoiled them out on the Continental Divide.”

And the mother looks at me in disbelief and says, “oh my God, are you Cindy Ross? It’s because of you and your book, Scraping Heaven that we are out here. If you could take those babies across the Rocky Mountains, I knew we could take our family across the Appalachian Trail.”

She went on and on for awhile and then asked if her husband could take a photo of us together. She whipped off her hat and her glasses, smoothed her hair over and affectionately put her arm around me. I felt as though I looked pretty darn bad after hiking and sweating all day but I was happy to stand there with my new favorite fan.

I hiked away marveling at how you never know whose life you are going to touch when you are a writer. I have spent the greater part of my life as a writer expounding on the virtues of taking your children out into the natural world and how to do it. From a quick paddle to an epic 3,100-mile traverse of the Continental Divide. I have hoped that I have inspired a few families to at least try car camping at their state park, but you never know what kind of an impact you have.

Taking your family on an epic 2,100 mile traverse of the Appalachians is life changing stuff, and to be even partly responsible for making that happen makes me feel like my life and my work has not been in vain. Like a teacher, every now and then you get a positive affirmation to let you know your seeds have been sown on fertile ground.

These moments help writers when they are struggling with a monstrous project like writing a new book. Especially when it spans a monumental amount of time like 25 years of material. Especially when the content is controversial and your daughter, your #1 editor, screams at you that you can absolutely CANNOT write about family bath time nor hardly anything else that’s private and personal.

That’s ALL I’ve ever written about- personal and private stuff. I have been told that that is where my real strength as a writer lies (not in grammar or punctuation or any other mechanical skill that most good writers possess because my formal education was in the fine arts, not writing) and in my blatant honesty, helping my readers connect and believe they are not alone in their feelings.

When I wrote Scraping Heaven, I did give the manuscript to my husband, Todd to read and edit. But afterwards, my writer friend, Mary Alice got ahold of it and would ask me, “What was REALLY happening here with you and Todd?” and prompt me to tell her the rest of the Paul Harvey story. I’d delve a few layers deeper and hit upon richer material and she would say, “That needs to be in there,” and so it got added.

When the book was published, Todd began to read it aloud to Sierra before she went to bed. He would come down from her room and reply, “I don’t remember reading that before,” and I broke it to him that it probably was in the second edit that he didn’t get to see and smile sweetly to him.

My daughter Sierra said that there will be a stiff price to pay if I do not respect her wishes and privacy when writing Modeling a Life, about raising and educating my children alternatively. She said our relationship will suffer. “Is it worth it?” she asked.

I teased her and replied, “That depends.”

She was too young to put her two cents in when I wrote Scraping Heaven. Todd just shakes his head and knows his wife is completely unmanageable. Sierra has her mother’s mouth and opinion.

This may be some of the reason I have been dragging my feet these past years and have not displayed the level of commitment that one needs to see a book through to publication. When half of a chapter has big X’s crossed out- not just sentences or paragraphs but whole graph, it is not exactly encouraging.

And so I allowed myself to be sidetracked, by veterans and their cause and a whole slew of excuses. But the time has drawn to a close. Bryce has graduated from art school and if I want him to illustrate it, I’d better get my dibs in for his time before he commits to other projects. And, both children are well on their way to impacting the world positively. I did want to be able to walk the talk.

Dedication has been renewed and work at turning the manuscript into an attractive package for a publisher is underway. And to verify that I am on the right track, I had a message “from beyond” this weekend.

I was attending the Elk EXPO at Benezette. I was standing there minding my own business licking an ice cream cone when a couple came up to me followed by two children. They said, “Are you Cindy Ross?”

I said, “yes.”

“It is because of you that we are here with our children. You are the reason we travel and go everywhere with our kids, having adventures in the outdoors.”

I smiled happily.

Then they asked, “Did you get that book published yet about raising and educating your children yet?”

I said, “Funny you should ask. I have recently gotten back to work on it with renewed passion.”

“Well, we need to read it. Please hurry up and get it published.”

And I said, “Thank you. I needed to hear that right now.” And they walked away.

I have no idea who they are, or where they are from. I didn’t want to know. I viewed them as angels, messengers from the other side. And I am going to listen to them.

The Result of the Love of Thousands


When my Sicilian Grandmother Borzellino died, my mother and her brother had issues over my grandmother’s wedding and engagement rings. He kept them, although my mom was supposed to get them. Mom was not a spiteful, mean person but she was easily wounded. This broke her heart (after her mother’s death broke her heart) and she could not find it in her to talk to him… for ten years.

My siblings and I woke up to this fact sometime in our pre-teen era and decided this was completely ridiculous and unacceptable. She HAD to make peace with her brother and move on. Life was too short- he WAS family and important. We would not take no for an answer, no matter how uncomfortable it would be for her. We ganged up on her, all four of us kids and she listened.

That was many decades ago and because that side of the Sicilian family has such pathetically unhealthy hearts, everyone dies at a young age. We lost track of our cousins over the years with no aunts and uncles to glue us together.

By my older sister, JoAnn, is one of those first born, very responsible children who reads the obituaries on a daily basis and calls me up quite frequently with yet another cousin or friend of the family who died and do I want to go to the funeral. It is nearly an hour drive for me into Reading and I pick and choose who I go in to see laid out. In reality, my sister is not fond of seeing dead people, she is very fond of reconnecting with alive people from our past who meant something to us- the ones who we can still reconnect with. I get this and agree.

I also no longer question who shows up in my life and why. I just always assume that there is a reason and to honor it. So when my cousin, Teenie died this past week, I met my siblings in Reading and attended the funeral. There, I reconnected with my cousin, Bobby, Teenie’s brother who who is my age, and whom I had no idea we had so much in common. I invited him to come up and hike with me sometime and that very next day, he telephoned for a date. Wow. That was quick. We set a date very shortly after the funeral, (today) he came for breakfast and a hike and we found scores of things we had in common- mutual loves, some that he shared with no other friends, including blood relatives. Which incidently, is a very strong one. I learned that from traveling to Poland and Sicily to find our relatives and was shocked and awed at the connection to our cousins over there. Family ties and blood lines is one of the strongest connectors in life and should be honored and nurtured, I believe.

I don’t remember EVER having a conversation with my cousin Bobby when I was growing up. He was a boy cousin and shy. I can still see him in my mind’s eye as a youngster, however. We are only 2 months apart. That in itself is a special bond. But we have a love of hiking, mountains and nature in common- he paints, is a photographer, writes music and plays instruments (like my son Bryce), is creative and believes in metaphysical principals like spiritual connection etc.

I wasn’t looking for a new friend when I agreed to attend my cousin’s funeral, but that is what I might have found. Bobby Borzellino said he would like to hike more and I told him I do this everyday, call me and I mean that. Next hike, I think I think I’ll slip my grandmothers’ rings on, just to celebrate and summon all those Borzellinos who have already gone before us to join in on the fun.

Walking, I am listening to a deeper way. Suddenly, all my ancestors are behind me. Be still, they say. Watch and listen. You are the result of the love of thousands.”…..Linda Hogan- Native American writer


WELCOME EBEN YONNETTI into the Rossfelter Clan

When my daughter Sierra was on a road trip with her boyfriend, Eben, last summer, she called me crying. They were spending all day driving through the glorious west and she was imprisoned in a vehicle. When they finally stopped, her boyfriend wanted to go into town and find a cafe to sip coffee, find a library, mediate on his yoga mat. Sierra wanted to hike. She was born to hike.

I told her to just go ahead and hike herself, leave him behind if he didn’t want to join her, but to take care of herself.

I was concerned. Eben was nice enough and loved my daughter enough but did he love what she loved and how much did it matter?… the important things, the things that are not wants in a person’s life but are needs. I know tons of hiking clubs filed with divorced members whose spouses did not share this love and so every vacation was spent away, with others, making memories without their spouse. It often doesn’t work after awhile.

Eben spent the last two semesters abroad in Nepal as a student life advisor at the study abroad school that he and Sierra met at. When he came home in May, Sierra announced that she wanted to do something epic. Like hike the nearly 500 mile long Colorado Trail.

Todd and I helped them prepare, pack, cover logistics, give advice and encouragement. Sierra whispered to me, “Eben is really nervous, Mom. He’s never done anything like this before. He is doing it for me.”

And my heart moved for the boy. Eben had grown on us over the years that he and Sierra were together and we felt pretty confident that they would make a good lifelong match. But I was thrilled to hear this and thought, “This is good. He CAN do this for you. He SHOULD do this for you. This will only be one of many epic times he will be called to rally for you.”

I thought about my own amazing husband who led our family across the Continental Divide- five summers traveling over the Rocky Mountains with small children- the logistics, the planning, the responsibility – so much of that was on the shoulders of “Trail Boss.” He knew his wife wanted to write a book about the entire 3,100-mile adventure and I could not do that if we fell short of our goal. Year after year he pressed on. Just as he did when it came to the long five years that it took to build our handmade log home from scratch, teaching himself every skill he needed- besides logwork- plumbing, wiring, wallboard, slate roofing, clay tile flooring and on and on, because he and his wife wanted to own a debt-free handmade log home. He did it because he was dedicated to his wife. And Eben would hike the Colorado Trail because he is dedicated to our daughter- as it should be.

On the top of Coney Summit, Eben proposed to Sierra. We all knew it was coming sooner or later but what a grand place to do it! At 13,000 feet! They are planning a May 2015 wedding.

And so on the phone, I was teasing little Eben, “What would you like to call me? Mom? Mama? Ma? What do you call your own mother? We should start to practice.”

They both laughed and Sierra said, “Mom, you are so ridiculous.” But after their completion of the Colorado Trail, I feel very close to the boy and said to him, “You know Eben, I feel ever closer to you because I share a special tie with you. We have a special bond.”

When the two of them were getting their outdoor clothing together, I pulled zip necked long sleeved long underwear out of storage that fit both of them. (They wear the same size). Both shirts were blue. Eben needed synthetic under pants yet. I told him I had a bunch of pairs that I bought that were styled like men’s white BVD’s without the flap. I hated them and never wore them. “Would you like to try them?”

Sierra said, “no.” Eben said, “why not? I don’t care. No one will see them. Why should I spend a bunch of money if I don’t need to and also be a consumer?”

And so my underwear kept him hypothermic-free on those 11-12,000 Colorado ridges when it rained and thundered and lightning.

I love Eben even more and know he is a good fit for my daughter because he is secure enough in his masculinity and confidence to be okay with me writing about the underwear in this blog. And I thank him from the bottom of this mother’s heart- for caring about my daughter enough to want to hike and to successfully hike the entire Colorado Trail and of course, for loving her this much. I am so excited to think of the years ahead. Welcome son.




When my husband Todd and I got married, we viewed it as a celebration. We invited 225 of our closest family and friends, people who helped us become the people who we are, the ones who loved us and guided us, shared our life’s moments, etc. We created the reception on a budget. I sewed the men’s shirts who were in the wedding party- blue linen Missouri River boatmen shirts with handmade lace. The girls’ dresses were blue flowered prairie dresses with lace. We made our own flower bouquets but the most fun part- we cooked all our food for 225 people, with help of course. We baked 60 loaves of homemade bread- recipes from around the world and froze them. We roasted a pig. We made huge pots of chicken corn noodle soup for our Pennsylvania German relatives…a salad bar- an ice cream sundae bar. We wanted all our favorite foods there for all our favorite people. We had a bluegrass band and our dear friend called some square dances like the Virginia Reel. It cost about $2,000. We had plenty of money left over in our accounts to go hike the Pacific Crest Trail. People still say it was the best wedding they ever attended- the most fun. Todd and I say it was the best wedding we ever attended too! The great part was that all our favorite people in the world were there that day to help us celebrate what has become a fantastic marriage and life together.


BUT, the most impacting part was at the wedding itself, not the reception. When our dear priest made Todd and I turn around and look at those who were present in the church. He said, “These loved ones are here today, not just to celebrate with you but to stand as a reminder that they are there for you, now and throughout your entire marriage, for support, advice, all kinds of help should you need it. Use them. Marriage is hard. You can’t do this alone.” That made a big impression on us.


So when my daughter Sierra announced that her and her fiancé Eben Yonetti were thinking they were going to hold their wedding at a Buddhist stupa in a remote state park in New York, I was taken back. This religious monument normally houses relics and devotees walk the kora around it…moving through prayer beads and spinning prayer wheels as your prayers rise up to Buddha. Eben is a Buddhist (Sierra is not) but the stupa means a lot to both of them. They met in Nepal during a study abroad program and lived in a Tibetan exile neighborhood where a very big and beautiful stupa was the central focus of the community.


Okay. I get that. But how are we going to stage a wedding reception up there?  Where will anyone sleep? How will we get the food up there? (in the back of our pick-up, she tells me- her father and I will drive it up) Who will make that trip? Whoever wants to, she tells me. Whoever feels it’s important to be at her wedding. It IS her and Eben’s wedding.


So I have been thinking about this. As she and her fiancé hike the Colorado Trail, amazing things have been happening to her- people have been coming out of the woodwork to help them on their journey. People whose lives she touched growing up. There is Wally & Laura White in Durango- who were responsible for getting our family onto llamas in the first place 21 years ago. Wally saw that little pee wee Sierra as a three year old ride her llama up the Colorado Trail. They hosted Sierra & Eben when they flew into Colorado and got them started on the trail.  Next was Stacy & Grriz Boone- old friends from our long distance hiking association (ALHDA) who watched Sierra grow up at the Gatherings. They made a long drive up to a remote Colorado Pass and helped them resupply. Then there was Carolyn & Bill Schwartz, my travel writing friend who joined us on cycling the Camino de Santiago about ten years ago. They welcomed them into their home while they resupplied in town and treated them like family. But what takes the cake is Gail Story and her husband Porter. Gail wrote an award-winning book about her Pacific Crest Trail adventure, “I Promise Not to Suffer.” She is a huge supporter of me and has commented on my blog more than any other follower. She is Sierra & Eben’s support in Boulder, where they will be moving now that the Colorado Trail is over as they attend the university for graduate school.


Gail and her husband, Porter welcomed them when they arrived, allowed them to park their loaded cars in her driveway for a month while they hiked, had a welcome dinner for them when they completed the trail and insisted on buying them a huge hotel room for three days to sort out their gear and get ready to move into their apartment. At the hotel front desk, Sierra was arguing with Gail to pay but Gail would have no parts of it. The front desk clerk said, “She must be family or a lifelong friends to be taking care of you like this. “

Sierra said no, actually, we had never met before this. HER MOTHER never even met this wonderful friend who was taking care of my child as if she were her own. It makes your heart swell with gratitude that there are such wonderful, loving, supportive people in your life.


Well, Gail and her husband Porter won’t be coming to Sierra & Eben’s wedding across the country and neither will Wally & Laura nor Stacy & Griz nor Carolyn & Bill. But I bet they would like to. But there are friends right here who would absolutely love to be present as this most fantastic celebration of Sierra & Eben’s new life together, friends who played such a big part in raising this child of mine. And they won’t be making that trip to the New York Buddhist stupa, either. And that makes me sad.


Sierra tells me that this is her and Eben’s wedding and that it is. But I can’t help feeling like they will be missing out for they won’t be able to turn around and look out over all those smiling, teary-eyed faces whose hearts are just brimming over with love and support, who will be saying “We are here for you. Use us.”


But it’s not my wedding. I had my wedding.

..maybe we can have another wedding reception here later ……

There is Nothing Like a College Roommate




My college roommate, Valerie Robertson Westcott, came to visit me today after not seeing one another for 20 years. She wasn’t long in the house before she began telling stories to my son, a captive audience.

“Did you mother ever tell you about the time she turned off the light in our dorm room and said, ‘I bet I can get into bed before the light turns out’ and she proceeded to dive into her desk instead of her bed and slit her nostril open? I turned on the light as she moaned and her face was covered in blood. She could dilate her nostril and the whole soft tissue (ala) would flare up and down. When she went to the infirmary, they suggested they not butterfly bandage it and keep it open so she could breathe better with her stuffed up cold. “

“Did she ever tell you about the time she was stretching a canvas as she sat on her bed, wearing a thin nylon robe, braless and she came down hard on the staple gun and sliced off the tip of her nipple?”

My son just looked at me. I said, “That was also the year that I jumped off    the metal trestle bridge in town into the river and tried smoking cigarettes, but got dizzy and walked into a telephone pole. I decided that was not my sport.”

This was Val’s and my first year of college- at Indiana University of PA- Punxsatawney branch…1973. So small a college that only a handful of boys were in the men’s dorm and a handful of girls in the women’s. They sat directly across from one another. We had “house-moms” who lived with us in a dorm room whom we made crazy. That was their last year “taking care of students.” They never came back after our year.

We had one school building- a condemned elementary school next to our dorms. We went to college in our slippers. We all got very close.

We were all there for reasons like we applied too late to get onto main campus.  Preoccupied kids.

Then we moved on to the main campus the next year. Val and I were  both art students. She helped train me for my new profession- a life drawing model. The professional model often didn’t show up and instead of all of the students going home, I wanted to make some extra money and model. But I needed to practice, get up my nerve.

Val sent me into her crowded closet. She got on her bed with her large newsprint pad and stick of charcoal and announced that she was ready. I slid open the door, stepped out, undid my rope and dropped it. I began striking poses on our tiny cold linoleum dorm room and she helped me develop a repertoire. Shit like that bonds you.

Although Val was from Rochester, NY and I was from Reading, PA, she  married a guy who grew up in the next block from my parent’s home, who also went to Punxsy. I was in her wedding, of course.


(40 years ago- I am second from left)

Val’s dad was a big wig at Kodak. He got  his company to give me all my film for hiking the entire 2,100 mile Appalachian Trail and the 2,600 mile Pacific Crest Trail. They gave me mailers and developed them all for free. Then brought me to Rochester and taught me how to put together an impacting artistic slide presentation. I had a lot to be grateful for with Val in my life.

A few years ago Val got cancer. I got scared I would lose my dear friend. You only have a few college roommates in life. Only one as special as Val.

I said if I found out I ever had cancer, I would get in my car and travel the country visiting old friends, reconnect, definitely say hello, maybe say good-bye. I thought then- why wait until something bad happens, do it now. So I decided that when my new book is published about raising and educating my children alternatively, I would take to the open road and give myself that gift of visiting old friends who made an impact on my life. Speak at their local bookstore- make it a book signing tour. Val just beat me to it. She came to me. And when we hugged after all those years, it took us right back to Indiana University- wild & crazy girls, free in the world for the first time.  I love you roomie! There is on one else like you.


Dead Squirrel

I keep going back to this image of a full length dead squirrel stretched out on our welcome mat by the door. It actually looked as though it were arranged to show off its mature full-grown length, as though the murderer wanted to impress me with its size.

My cat is a killer. There are often dead creatures outside the door. You have to watch when you step out, especially when barefooted.

The head was missing on the squirrel. Chewed off and raw red flesh protruding from its neck.

I find it hard to believe that my medium-sized cat can run down a hyper, alert squirrel, AND what possessed it to do so and give it to me. Clearly he is not hungry.

So I Googled it- the way to get smart today.


It is a great gift from my beloved pet, it said. The larger the animal, the more difficult it is to kill it, the more frequently the gifts are delivered, that is a true indicator of your’ pet’s love for you. It knows, you could not get this tasty full length squirrel on your own, so he got it for me.
Never, ever ever reprimand or scold or heaven forbid, yell at your pet for doing so. They will not understand at all. Praise them instead.


We’ve always had killers for cats, all the years my kids were growing up. They used to take them in small cardboard boxes and tenderly take them out to “Forest Park” under a big deciduous tree and bury it in the cemetery. Chip a headstone out of discarded slate or use a chunk of brick for a headstone.


I wonder if I could find those headstones under the leaf debris. Did the mice eat gnaw on the bones after all these years since childhood passed? It taught my kids to revere life- no small thing to learn no matter the age.


I went to see my friend Dave in the hospital the other day. He is a studly rock climber for a nearly 60-year-old guy and I looked at his form under his printed blousey hospital gown and I could tell he looked as gorgeous as he did when he was 30. He works hard to stay fit and has all his life. But his heart freaked out and started pumping off the charts. He felt tired and weird, couldn’t whack the tennis ball without getting unusually out of breath. It creeped up in a few months and he chalked it up to getting a cold AND older age creeping in.


It took days to try to regulate his heartbeat, even had to shock it into beating normal. His resting heart rate is so crazy low to begin with from being so fit, that the doctors were alarmed.


Dave could have died. I sat there looking at him on the hospital bed and thought, I could have lost my friend.

That’s why I put a halt to my crazy busy life and went in to see him and  spend a few hours. Because I saw his presence in there as a gift, that he was still here. I brought a deck of cards to play 500 Rummy but we never needed to entertain ourselves. We never got off the topic of our kids, never made it to us. But I knew he was happy to be alive and was shaken by the close call. That goes without saying.


As Jackson Browne sings, “Pay attention to the open sky. You never know what will be coming down.”

It can be that quick. Like the squirrel, he never saw it coming. Regardless of how fit or how fast or how strong we are.


Always Someone Worse off than Yourself


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 and his bike are incredibly long and when I first saw him in Brick Wheels Cycle Shop in Traverse City, Michigan, he seemed to take up the whole store!  His bike cost $10,000 and was manufactured by Top End, which makes tennis wheelchairs (which turn on a dime) hand crank bicycles, etc.  Once they receive their bikes/chairs from the Florida based company, they get no support. They have to seek out bike shops like Travese City’s Brick Wheels to help them.

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 Cycles). They LOOK for 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 only averages a respectable 15-18! He will have to step up his game!

Steve has great balance. Besides his bike, Steve rides 4-wheeler and snow mobiles, but he can’t use his stomach muscles.

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

“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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