BREAKING NEWS! It’s Official! “A BIG LIFE” being published by Skyhorse, NYC

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Just received the signed contract from my Manhattan publisher, Skyhorse, who will release my new book, “a BIG Life- Using the World of Nature and Travel to Create a Lifetime of Family Learning. It will be published in the spring of 2018. Anyone who would like to work together scheduling a speaking gig/book signing in your town in 2018-19, message me- at a library, outdoor shop etc. Am so excited to share all that we have learned with parents everywhere.

OVERVIEW

Emily Dickinson asked, Why not have a big life?” To Cindy Ross and Todd Gladfelter, a big life” for their family means one filled with abundance, passion, and purpose, a life that requires taking some risks and thinking in new ways.

Their story begins in the Rocky Mountain wilderness on a unique and extraordinary journey: two parents leading their very young children 3,100 miles along the backbone of the continent on the backs of llamas. This singular and epic family adventure plunged author Cindy Ross’s one-year-old son, Bryce, and three-year-old daughter, Sierra, into a life-changing experience that lasted well into their teens.

The family’s Canada-Mexico trek across the Continental Divide spanned Sierra and Bryce’s formative, most impressionable years. Because they grew up in the wilderness, traveling and leading an adventurous life, encountering challenges, and having their senses extraordinarily stimulated, they were irreversibly changed… for the better. 

The Continental Divide Trail illustrated to Cindy and her husband, Todd Gladfelter, what experiential education can do. It gave them the conviction, skills, and courage to pursue education in this way. The impact was so positive, Cindy and Todd were inspired to commit to and create a whole new way of nurturing and supplementing their children’s education. They focused on two major arenas for learning: The Natural World and Travel. The result:  A BIG LIFE, an inspirational family adventure story that shares experiences from twenty-five years of extraordinarily rich learning.

A deep believer in Richard Louv’s worldwide advocacy of reconnecting children to the natural world, Cindy shows us real-life examples of how the rich environment presents a multitude of ways to teach and learn. One of the most concrete results of a childhood spent closely connected to nature is how it feeds creativity. More than ever, creative thinking and problem solving are essential to building and maintaining a healthy, sustainable world. In this age of world connection and the necessity to understand and work with people all over the planet, it is also increasingly important to raise children who are broad-minded, empathetic and knowledgeable about other cultures. This can best be accomplished by transporting our children out of their insulated, narrowly-focused lives and into the big world.

Before her children left for college, Cindy orchestrated learning opportunities for them in more than a dozen countries. The family typically spent a month or more, once or twice a year, in some far-flung destination, actively experiencing a stimulating culture. They moved about largely by foot and bicycle, living simply and being exposed on an intimate level. But just as important, and more accessible for many parents, were the opportunities Cindy provided for learning closer to home. For example, in “Learning from our Ancestors,” she traces the rich experiences they had while finding relatives in their Polish and Sicilian homelands as well as spending time with her children’s great grandmother just twenty miles away and hearing about her life. Or, in Learning from “Traveling to a ‘Developing’ Country/Community,” they visit an impoverished village in the hill country of Thailand as well as share intimate stays in New Mexico’s Navajo Country.

Although exceptional storytelling is so important to initially captivate readers, Cindy knows that after she inspires, she has a repsonsibility to help guide her readers. As they read of each new educational idea found in the individual chapter topics, they will then find concrete ways to implement change according to their own family’s needs and lifestyle. First A BIG LIFE inspires, then Cindy guides and directs…walking the talk. She maps out how take the first steps, providing solid informaton, and time-tested, nuts and bolts advice, on every individual chapter topic. All will not be boring and dry in this section, however, because Cindy has an honest, open, deeply human style of sharing her own journey of learning to balance needs, individual personalities, maintaining energy for the “job,” how to afford it, and the challenges that persuing an alternative lifestyle of learning naturally involves. At the end of the book will be an extensive Appendix of organzations, webistes, prorgrams, and clubs to help parents get started.

Besides gaining a storehouse of knowledge, Sierra and Bryce received intangible gifts from the experiences illustrated in these stories: values not always fostered in a traditional curriculum but crucially important to raising children who will grow up to be good people and creative thinkers. These values — compassion, empathy, resilience, self-reliance, and appreciation, among others — are learned more powerfully and penetratingly when children are actively engaged.

The real gift A BIG LIFE has for parents is that this type of learning opens up new possibilities, beyond and in addition to the traditional classroom experience. It empowers parents to believe they are not only capable, but actual ways that they can be their children’s best and most important educators. Playing a more active role in their children’s education will help them raise the well-rounded adults our world needs.

Adding a rich dimension and complementary voices to the book, Sierra and Bryce will share their honest thoughts and impressions about their unorthodox education, along with some of Bryce’s illustrations.

  A BIG LIFE is for parents who are seeking inspiration, who love to read a good story, and are looking for an unorthodox way to raise the happiest, healthiest and brightest children they can. Just as Cindy and Todd modeled how to live a life and craft an education for their own children, their story will be a model and a guide for others.

Being Home is Enough

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My son came home this weekend. Although we spent some very special weeks with him and his girlfriend, Calan, in Asia over the holiday, and Todd and I had been to Philadelphia to see him, we had not had him home with us for three months. It felt too long. There is something different about your child being back in your home, that is so joyous. It is hard to explain unless you are a mother.

To be able to wake up and have them be there in the flesh is such a wonderful way to start your day. Seeing that face, which you love so much, and landing a kiss on that cheek, inhaling their own special scent. Making them coffee in the morning and delivering a hot cup of tea in the evening, it sounds very small but it is very big.

We went for a daily walk in the woods, him letting me discuss my latest ideas for my new book, him sharing his feelings of progress teaching his new illustration class- checking in with each other. “How are you really doing?” and honoring them with the gift of paying large attention. How many people in your life take the time to ask that and want to hear the truth.

We cooked special meals for him- his favorites- bar-b-que spare ribs, pesto with pasta from our own basil leaves, strawberry/raspberry cobbler from our orchard- the fruits of the warm summer frozen away for weekends like this. We worked side by side cutting up veggies for a salad and shared sentiments over the daily depressing news. We lit the candelabra and poured glasses of wine and held hands in prayer and thanksgiving.

We let the silly goats out and played in the snow with them. He and his father made a huge snowman and gathered sap in jugs from our maple trees to boil into syrup. Most of the day and night Bryce helped his father design a magnificent new website for his chainsaw art. He dedicated his whole weekend- his choice, and neglected his own personal work to do it, happily.

I went to bed tonight after kissing my son good night and telling him to sleep well and said, with some regret, that we didn’t do anything special this weekend. And then I realized that everything is special when your children are home. Just knowing they are sleeping in their bed is a gift. I recently read in a wonderful novel, Small, Great, Things, ” by Jodi Picoult, “I have such a short amount of time to be your Mama.” I agree. I wish that I had two whole lifetimes to spend with my children. One is certainly not enough. (Sierra- it is time to come home too)

Quilting for a Good Cause

I knew where I was headed- to a large shed outside Dryville, PA that had been used to pack and sort apples when the farm was a working orchard. Dozens and dozens of old Order Mennonite women were coming together to this farm to quilt. Some driving their buggies from up to 6 miles away, others hiring van drivers to bring them. Only one car, that of my midwife, Patti Lee, was in the pull off, besides mine. I thought I knew what to expect, but I wasn’t prepared for what I saw inside.

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When I opened the door, I was shocked to see six large queen sized quilts stretched out across the room, with anywhere from 12-20 women seated on all four of the quilt’s sides. They older women wore dark colored dresses with small flower prints, the younger women- light colored dresses with small flower prints- all wore little white caps. Every age was represented from late teens to their seventies. Most had only had one hand on top of the quilt, needle and thread in hand, and a metal thimble on their middle finger to push the needle through the fabric. The other was mysteriously missing, under the fabric applying pressure and guiding the needle back up as they made their perfect measured stitches.

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There were quite a lot of children, all breast-feeding age – maybe a few dozen, and most played quietly in groups on the floor or sat in teenage girls laps on chairs alongside the window. These girls were the baby minders, brought along to help with the babies and toddlers. No child yelled or threw a fit while I was there but played happily.

Many women looked up when I entered the room, me feeling conspicuous in my canary yellow down jacket, big hoop earrings, long hair and an armful of silver bangle bracelets. Patti introduced me and announced that I was the woman who ran the non-profit for Veterans, River House, which will be the recipient for the one quilt Patti was sponsoring.

They looked up at me and smiled shyly. I waved. Patti brought me over to our quilt and explained that the design she chose to have made for the auction was called the “Ragged Star.” It is an 8-pointed star design is a Depression era pattern. The design creatively turns fabric scraps and rags into useful bedding.

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Laura Brubaker, a former client of Patti’s, has a quilt shop just north of Kutztown, just off Rt 222. A hand painted and lettered swan sign directs friends and customers to the shop. Patti visited Laura’s shop and selected the pattern first, the “Ragged Star” design, then spent another hour or more going through bolts of fabric and a box of fabric scraps. They pulled together colors that were reproductions of fabrics from 1810-1865. Patti also purchased the thread, needles, batting and backing for the quilt- part of her donation to River House’s November Auction. Edna Leid, also a former client of Patti’s, was paid to cut out the fabric pieces, arrange them into the Ragged Star design, and machine stitch the quilt top. Machine stitching the pieces into the quilt top design makes the quilt much stronger than hand sewing the individual pieces.

The ladies showed me how the quilt was stretched on a quilt frame that allowed the quilt to get wound in toward the center as the outer stitching was completed. As time went on, the women got so close to each other across the frame, one one playful older Mennonite woman commented, “Pretty soon I can kick her over there.”

The women who were quilting the layers together, were all friends, and shared lively conversation while they worked. They all took time out of their busy lives to do this service out of the kindness of their hearts. One full day, from 8:30- 3:00 they will work nearly unceasing except for an amazing pot luck lunch. Our quilt top will be completed in one long day!

Patti brought me around and introduced me to each group of women and told me the story behind each quilt, and who would be honored to receive either the quilt, or the money from auctioning it off. All the quilts being stitched that day in the former apple sorting building, were being made to raise money for good causes- toward medical expenses for a young man who had a liver transplant, as a thank you gift for work done by a friend, for an auction to raise funds for special ed at one of the one-room schoolhouses.

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Since the mid 80s, this one day quilting blitz event has been happening, initially to sew a quilt to auction to raise money for the Pennsylvania chapter of the American College of Nurse Midwives. It expanded over the years to include more women who were or had been midwife patients and more quilts as fundraisers various good causes. One year they quilted in the Rotunda of the state capitol in Harrisburg! All the other years, the midwife’s quilt went to a midwife group in Haiti, where Patti does service work, teaching their midwives the important and necessary skill of safely delivering Haitian babies. This year however, Patti wanted to donate the quilt to my organization, River House PA.

The ladies who were making River House’s quilt asked me some things about my Veterans, who they are and then shared how much compassion they felt towards them for what they are going through.

It was heartwarming to watch the women sewing away for me, for my organization, for my Veterans and I was so grateful. But what was even more moving was the fact that Patti delivered almost every single woman’s’ babies in that room. Some of the older women birthed a dozen babies each and now Patti is catching babies for some of those original babies. Patti also delivered mine over 25 years ago and she has been delivering babies in this community of old Order Mennonites for 28 years. Wow. What a lot of LIFE GIVING.

That’s how I see the work that we do at River House PA too, helping to give the Veterans their life back, by showing them a healthier, more joy and peace-filled way to live. Whether its hiking through the forest, floating a wild river, stretching in a stress-reducing yoga class. And when our Dinner/Dance/Auction comes around on Veteran’s Day, November 11 at the Topton American Legion, Patty’s Ragged Star Civil War era quilt will be front and center on the auction block. Don’t miss seeing it and bidding on it and you might be lucky enough to win it and take it home to grace your bed. If any of you have a piece of art, or craft or item or an outing you can offer for auction, get in touch with me. Proceeds go to help with operational costs of the organization (liability insurance etc).

We are so grateful to dear Patti Lee and Mennonite ladies of the Kutztown area!!!

Breaking Free, because sometimes we just need to

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The day was bright and clean and exquisite when I woke up today with the first beautiful snow of the year. It clung to the branches, coating everything in white beauty. I left the radio off. I did not want to hear what Trump did lately. Not today. He wasn’t going to spoil my morning. I pulled on my high rubber boots, looped a knitted scarf around my neck, slid a pair of sunglasses over my glasses and went out for a walk in the forest.

As I walked the trails around our Red Mountain, I had to duck and detour as the evergreens were so heavily laden with snow that they hung down and blocked the trail. They looked over burdened, pushed down. But they leaned on each other, supported each other in their heaviness. They reminded me of how so many of my friends feel now.

I had to shake my husband awake four times last night, as he was having nightmares and needed to be released from them. It’s the news. NPR raises our blood pressure and sinks our disposition. Todd is staring again at the end of the day. He lies in bed and looks at the ceiling and I bug him to hug me, engage. What is it? What is wrong? Trump. Every day it is something new and bad that Trump has done. There’s not a day that goes by that some new sadness doesn’t takes hold of our happiness, caused by him. Five weeks in Asia was good for Todd and I to disengage and live without politics. Since we are home, it is back to the same anger and sadness.

My daughter spends the first half of her day signing petitions, making phone calls, reading the news. She is supposed to be writing her thesis paper at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Her work and her life is dedicated to helping marginalized people and their land- victims of flooding, droughts, climate change disaster. She takes what Trump and his administration is doing, personal. That’s why she is moved to fight, resist.

I am proud of my little girl but she struggles to find joy, hope, even time to do her important graduate work. I told her that I, personally, had to back off. With my looming deadline for my new book rapidly approaching, I have to disconnect and get my own work done. For it is important work, as I craft a way to help parents take their power and responsibility back and help educate their children. Our family’s way is through experiential education but after Betsy De Vos does her damage, parents are going to need to hear voices crying in the wilderness for alternative help. I can help. I can help more that way than making phone calls and being miserable. I cannot be a good writer and be depressed. So I have to limit my connection. I told Sierra to think about it too. It feels like we are deserting our sisters and brothers who are charging on but it is difficult to learn moderation and balance and honor the fact that we need and deserve to take care of ourselves too, to be happy. We are no good to anyone if we sink so deep that we hit inertia.

The wind blew like a howling wild animal when I left the forest and entered the open field on my walk. I contemplated not walking that particular loop out by the open field, but then thought, why not. Why not feel the fury, the passion, the discomfort. The top layer of snow blew with such force that it reminded me of walking down the beach at Cape Hatteras 27 years ago, when Todd and I went on the 70 mile backpack to conceive our little girl. The sand particles blew by our feet in sheets like the snow did in the field this morning. The wind sculpted the snow into miniature hills and valleys, like contour lines on a topographic map, looking remarkable like the sandstone formations in the Desert Southwest, where the wind does its creating too.

I felt alive out there in the wind, snow blowing around the land and the sky like it was going crazy. It feels better to feel this than the pain of stillness, emptiness, hopelessness. I felt invigorated to return to my desk and continue work on my chapter, “Learning from History.”

I’ll give Sierra a pep talk when I return home. I’ll put on some Irish music for my husband instead of “Morning Edition.” And when I went back through the trail, I took my time and shook out the evergreens, releasing the snows hold on them as it fell to the ground and they, sprang up straight and free.

The Allure of Owls!

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It was a first for River House PA- a mostly “indoor” event, even though it had a nature theme- owls! We were frustrated because we could not help our Vets throughout the cold winter months. Hanging out at a campfire, however cozy, was just too cold in December-February. But dear River House friend, Susan Mc McCartney, came up with a solution. Her local St John’s UCC Church in Orwigsburg! They have a great indoor space for meals with an extensive kitchen and also a carpeted sanctuary open space. Susan got permission and we were in.

Since I home schooled our children for many years and facilitated their learning, I knew of some nature-based activities that we particularly enjoyed- tearing apart owl pellets, for one. Owls are birds of prey. After an owl eats the small rodents, birds, and bugs that are a part of its nightly diet, its stomach cannot digest the fur, bones, teeth, feathers, and insect shells from that food. These “extra” parts are formed into a tight pellet inside the owl and are then are later spit up by the owl, like a cat hair ball.

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I got the idea to dissect owl pellets when I was walking past some huge white pines near our home and saw bird droppings down below and thought the Vets might find it as interesting as did my kids. I was a little concerned they might think it a lame activity but was willing to take the chance. Next step was securing a naturalist/educator from nearby Hawk Mountain Sanctuary to assist us in our learning. Katie Andrews stepped up to the plate and Hawk Mountain Sanctuary granted her permission to use their props as teaching aids. I purchased sterilized owl pellets from the internet which came wrapped in aluminum foil. I copied bone identification charts and gathered paper plates and tooth picks for each Vet.

The vans came loaded with Vets from the Lebanon VA Hospital, and they piled into the warm brightness of the St John’s community center. Katie arrived with taxidermy owls, wings, bags of feathers, and talons. The Vets had a snack and settled in for a lecture, which they found to their surprise, was captivating. Katie shared her knowledge of owls with the Vets and they sat transfixed. Hands shot up every 30 seconds with yet another question. That is the sign of true connection, when you are getting your audience to wonder.

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After Katie explained what it was like to be an owl, they got to work on their owl pellets. They gently picked off the tiny matted hairs to reveal femurs and skulls. They were astounded to find tiny teeth inside the skulls, and discover which animal this owl feasted on. While they uncovered their treasures, I read aloud to them from the award-winning book, “Owl Moon,” by Jane Yolen. It is the story of a young child and her father as they search the moonlit woods for the Great Horned Owl. I figured it has probably been a long time since anyone had read aloud to them, and maybe never for some. I am always striving to find new experiences to expose my Vets too. They seemed to enjoy the story and it gave them an idea of what to expect from part two of the evening- going into the night woods and attempt to call the owls in.

We did something different this time. Todd got the idea to send out requests for donors where they could sponsor an event. If they lived nearby, they could attend and meet the Vets and see first hand, their impact on their lives. Dianne Seaman of Hamburg, PA sponsored this partiuclar event and joined us for the evening. She too dissected a pellet, enjoyed dinner and went on the owl walk. It was very healing for the Vets to be able to thank her in person for this day and good for Dianne to actually see who she was helping and how.

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The Vets did not want to quit dissecting, even when their dinner was laid out on the serving table. Almost all of them cleaned up their bones nicely and requested a piece of aluminum foil to take their bones back to the VA hospital for them for safe keeping and a memory.

Susan helped us prepare a great meal of meatball sandwiches, potato salad, fruit and veggies and cake. After nearly every one of them wrapped up an extra meatball sandwich to go, we piled into the vans and caravan-ed up to Hawk Mountain.

The temperature had dropped and the wind was brisk on the mountain top. We first stood on the deck of the Education Center and Katie used a Boz and a special AP on her phone to sound off the various owl calls and project them up the mountain. We all stood very quietly and listened hard for a reply. After no success, we crossed the street and followed the Golden Eagle Trail into the woods. We turned off all our flashlights and Katie called again and again. The wind wracked the tree tops and we were filled with its force and beautiful sound. We never heard an owl call back. A few “thought” they did far in the distance but the wind made it hard, although the powerful wind made the experience invigorating.

The Vets piled into their vans for the drive back to the hospital and no one felt disappointed. Next month is Yoga for Vets and Transcendental Meditation workshop, once again indoors but almost as important as nature healing. Everyone said they were signing up and coming back. And they wanted hugs good bye, filled with gratitude, that is the proof of our success.

From Veteran Will Wendling, he wrote “The class on the habits and lifestyles of the owls commonly found in our region was very informative and interesting. I myself have been interested in learning everything I can about all of the creatures found in nature my entire life. Going into the class I had the mentality that I’m about to hear things I already knew. To my surprise, the women giving the class explained things that I have never learned before! For example, owls migrating is something I never heard of, I just assumed they always lived in the relative area to which they were raised. She was very knowledgeable and able to keep my attention during the entire time she spoke. Owl calling is also something that was new to me. Although the weather made it hard to successfully hear an owl respond to us the night we tried, it’s definitely something I see myself attempting in the future while camping. I’m very appreciative to the preserve for taking the time to teach us more about these amazing birds and giving me even more knowledge about the wildlife I love so dearly.”

And from Dianne Seaman, the evening’s donor.. In this day and age of impersonal, distant and large non-profits for yes, good causes, I am never sure just how my money will be used if I donate. However I feel good about making a local contribution to River House, which provides services for veterans. I know the caliber and integrity of Cindy Ross, who is in charge so I trusted the money would be used well, I not only knew exactly where the money was going, but saw it with my own eyes by attending the event I sponsored. I therefore also got to enjoy and benefit from the creative evening learning about owls and a shared dinner, building community. Meeting the veterans in person put faces to the issues I have so often heard about veterans facing. I could see how they benefited from the program, which was very satisfying.

If you would like to sponsor an event with River House PA and our Veterans, there are nearly 20 events scheduled throughout 2017 to pick from. If you can get to us here in eastern PA, you are certainty welcome to join in. For a list of activities and dates, contact me. A typical event costs about $200 to feed about 24, and often has some left over for props like the owl pellets. Co-sponsoring is certainly possible too if you want to just contribute half or even a quarter. riverhousecindy@gmail.com

 

 

Cambodia- On the Road Back to Recovery

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In the town of Kompang Cham, Cambodia, every year after the monsoon season, they build a bridge over to a very large and fertile island, where tons of food is grown for many Cambodians. The Mekong River is shallow here, shallow enough to drive bridge supports into the mud without heavy machinery and the river is slow enough not to dislodge them. The men use big wooden mallets and the supports that they use to construct the bridge are bamboo, cut on a very sharp angle. The whole bridge is made entirely of bamboo.

The bridge is nearly half a mile long and it can support vehicles, even trucks, and it is strong enough to have the entire bridge in bumper to bumper traffic during “rush hour.” It takes a crew of 20 men a few weeks to build it. The bridge workers come in on a floating workshop made out of bamboo that they dock alongside the bridge.

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Two thousand families live on the island that the bridge services who depend on the bridge to transport their wares to market, send their older children to school, or get to a hospital. Before the rains return in June/July, they dissemble the bridge, and can recycle a great amount of the bamboo for other construction projects. In the rainy season, the same bridge builders work two ferry boats that are kept constantly busy.

The bamboo bridge, the only one like it in the world, is a huge undertaking every year. It is a perfect example of the resiliency of the Cambodian spirit, their tenacity to not give up, and their endearing positive happy outlook, which is necessary to continue moving forward on their road to recovery.

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(building a second lane)

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After learning about the horrors the Cambodians have endured in the late 70’s( see previous post on The Killing Fields), I was greatly heartened to learn of all the recovery re-hab programs in place to help them. The Lonely Planet guidebook helps a traveler to locate restaurants where NGO sponsored programs may take young women who were victims of sex trafficking, or came from impoverished villages, and teaches them how to work in the hospitality trade. They are young and sweet and work so hard to do a good job, holding their pointed hands close to their chest in gratitude, wearing constant smiles. One such restaurant in Kompang Cham is called Smile Restaurant, located right around the corner from our hotel. They also have a weaving school and they sell the beautiful cotton scarves at the restaurant. On the menu, they ask for your patience as they learn their trade and to speak English at the same time. Their friendliness was heart warming. I’ve never been to a country of more gracious, happy people.

In the town of Kratie, Cambodia, we stayed at the Tonle Training Center’s guesthouse run by the Cambodian Rural Development Team. This NGO focuses on sustainable tours along the Mekong River. They also train disadvantaged youth in housekeeping as well as in the restaurant business. We spent three nights at this beautiful wooden guesthouse while we explored nearby islands on bikes and went out to see the very rare Irrawaddy Dolphins, only 75 left on the planet. Since the Mekong has been overfished, the fishermen now offer their little, wooden boats as a vehicle to explore the wide Mekong for the dolphins, who moving freely between the numerous islands. It felt good to support the Cambodians and contribute to a brighter future, as opposed to dropping bombs on them.

In the town of Seam Reap, Cambodia, we visited the Cambodian Land Mine Museum where one man who began his life as a soldier at the age of 13, dedicated his adult life to locating active land mines and deactivating them in villages all over Cambodia. Since he spent years laying them, he new how to make them safe again. He has found over 50,000 mines, the likes of which have made many Cambodians limbless, especially children who find them in the jungle while playing. He has turned the museum grounds into a home for handicapped land mine victims, polio victims and the very poor. They attend school, learn English, learn to grow their own food and a supporting trade.

When we realized that the US is responsible for the setting/dropping of many of these land mines, set during the Vietnam War, we were at least heartened to learn that our country contributes the most money towards locating and deactivating the mines. (It can cost about $250 to do the process of one mine).

Every town we visited in Cambodia, we learned of restaurants for a good cause that we could choose to support, many helping orphans making the step from institutions to employment. There were gift shops that promote fair trade, enterprises that help HIV positive women earn a living, a weaving gift shop that provides work for rehab landmine and polio victims, an art store that takes children’s art work (taught at their art school) and transforms them into cards, t-shirts, mugs etc to help pay for their education and art school.

But one of the most amazing experiences was at the Seeing Eye Massage, where sweet little blind Cambodians navigated the massage room by sliding their hands along the walls. They didn’t need to see your body as they mapped out your muscles in their mind. The strong little people spent as much time hovering over you on the massage table, straddling you and even walking on you to apply pressure using their weight for massaging. Todd was reluctant to go but was completely amazed at their skill level and their strength. Afterwards, he said affectionately, “Those little fuckers are strong!” Oh- $7.00 for an hour long session too!

The highlight of our Cambodian experience was the Phare Cambodian Circus in Siem Reap. We heard there was a social justice message in the performance but we were not prepared for the superior level of professionalism and skill. Part mime, part dance, part theatre, and amazing acrobats, the performance told the story of a Cambodian woman who like everyone else in the country, lost so many family members to murder during the horrific reign of the Khmer Rouge. She made a choice to help the youth by teaching them circus skills. It takes an average of eight years to train, and while doing so, they also learn to speak excellent English as well as do their school work, get an education and gain incredible confidence. These youth are from the poorest and most disadvantaged villages. Over 250 youth have moved through the program which travels the world to many countries performing. There were times during the performance, set inside an intimate circular Big Top tent, that the audience was moved to tears, witnessing the deep emotion portrayed by the dancers as they acted out their people’s road from horror to recovery. I don’t remember ever feeling so hopeful for a people in all my travels.

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…The bamboo bridge in Kompang Cham flexes and moves as you roll your bicycle over the bamboo“road.” It is springy and organic and quite narrow when motorbikes pass only inches to your side. You must focus, hold onto the handlebars tightly, ignore the water of the Mekong only inches to your side. The river flows underneath the bamboo bridge- wide and muddy. If the river happens to swell from sudden unexpected rains, and reach the bridge, the bridge merely floats on the top of the flooding water, buoyant and resilient, going with the flow. It would not collapse but just bend and give slowly. It reminds me of the Cambodian people- willing to rebuild over and over, year after year, using what they have to work with, their spirit strong and flexible and enduring. We visitors have so many opportunities to help and it feels wonderful to choose them, propelling the Cambodian people down their road to recovery.

Cambodia blog- an initial downer

When you first arrive in Phenom Phen, Cambodia,  the chaos on the streets is breath taking.

There are no stop signs, rarely a traffic signal, at even the busiest widest streets and intersections. Anyone can go at any time and everyone does. At busy intersections, there can be a gridlock for a few seconds until someone decides on the flow. There is order in the chaos and everyone seems to know how to do it. Very few people walk anywhere or bicycle. Motorbikes are the preferred mode of travel.

There can be up to a family of five on one bike, tiny children, no helmets, even saw a mother nursing with her baby sprawled across her lap. Never mind the noise and chaos around. Walking across these streets is unnerving.
A policeman saw Todd and I hesitating and led us across to help us. You walk slowly and the vehicles and bikes part like the Red Sea. It is quite remarkable.

The Cambodian people are very friendly and quick to smile. That was good to see, especially when I learned that we trashed this place and people along with the Vietnamese. I did not know that the north Vietnamese and the Viet Cong used neighboring Cambodia territory in the battle so we heavily bombed it killing an enormousness amount of people and destroying their villages.

The Cambodians were so devastated after the Vietnam war that they were quick to allow a new Cambodian power who promised to make the country great again. Pol Pot had a vision to move all of the people out of Phenom Phen and other cities out to the countryside and create an agrarian, peasant-dominated cooperative. With very low morale, the Cambodians cooperated. The plan was to get rid of the intellectuals even wearing glasses and speaking another language was reason enough to be eliminated. And so back in the 1970’s, when I was in college and hiking the AT, mass extermination was occurring in Cambodia and I was clueless.

Like the time we were visiting Poland and felt the need to visit Auschwitz, we also felt the need to visit Cambodia’s Killing Fields and the school that was turned into a torture chamber. The Killing Fields were bad enough with the Killing Tree where babies were hung and bludgeoned to death while their mothers were forced to watch. When they found the place there were bits of brain matter and blood all over the tree. Then the mounded fields where the bodies were buried, dug up now and grass grown over. But the memorial stupa housing the skulls was terrible. How man can do these atrocious things to their people was mind boggling.

When our tuk tuk driver took us on to the Tuol Sleng Museum, the high school that was turned into a detention prison and torture chamber, we were not prepared for what we viewed. Photograph after photograph of tortured prisoners covered the walls as well as the methods used to create pain and death. For the first time I saw what a water board bed looked like too and how this type of torture was used by our own people in Git Bay prison. It did not make me proud.

We had to stop viewing and leave because we felt as if we were about to throw up.

We came to SE Asia partially to get away from American politics and take a break, but this was a harsh reminder of what can happen, right in my lifetime, when leaders believe they or a certain group of people are better and more deserving than others. This warped sense of entitlement can occur when people are weak and are looking for a new way. It made us even more fearful for what is a potential in our country, of all places. We must learn from history whether it is Nazi Germany, Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge , or Rwanda. It can happen and it did when evil people get into power.

So this was our introduction to our month long trip to Cambodia, Vietnam, and Burma. I am sure I will not have a happy day when we visit sites/museums in Hanoi.

Just as we do not believe in traveling to a developing country and staying in an insulated all inclusive so as not to experience the reality of their poor lifestyle, nor do we believe we should visit a country like Cambodia and Vietnam and not pay our respects of the hardship and pain that went before us. All is a part of our world history

I promise to be more “up” in my next series of blogs. And the happy resilient people in this part of the world is incredibly heartening. So full of smiles and welcomes they even know how to take turns and flow in traffic while being polite, without the need for traffic signals .

We have a lot to learn. I do not believe road rage or even any rage exists here and the Cambodians have legitimate reason to feel that way.

Circling & Cycling Back to Eagle’s Nest

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When our friend Chuck Wood (trail name- Woodchuck- Class of 1985) came to visit us last weekend, we informed him he could not hang out with us all the next day – we had a job to do. In the morning, Todd and I had to perform a shelter inspection. Todd is the Shelter Chair for the Blue Mountain Eagle Climbing Club here in PA and we like to inspect the 5 shelters we are responsible for along the Appalachian Trail during the month of November. That way, Todd can make a list of supplies the club can budget in for 2107’s repairs.

I haven’t been on a bike for 20 years,” Chuck said, “but I’d like to give it a try.”

The cross mountain top road leading off of PA Rt 183 rolls a bit after an initial climb, but nothing severe. “I probably should wear a helmet,” he said and we agreed. I figured it would be slow going but it was worth Chuck’s company.

We rolled along the mountain top, Chuck finding his cycling legs (they say you never forget how to ride a bike once you learn and I guess it is true). The road brought back memories of our thru-hikes, all three of us, for back when we came through, the trail was on this dirt road instead of in forest.

On our thru-hikes, we traveled 9 miles from Rt 183 to Ney’s Shelter, which is long gone (we dismantled it years ago) and has been replaced with Eagle’s Nest Shelter. When I thru-hiked back in 1979, my partner, JoAnn and I were sitting alongside the road when a PA Game Commission truck sped by, splashing mud and water on us and our lunch. “YO!” we yelled and the young worker in the passenger seat felt so badly that he made the his companion, the driver, back up a far distance so he could apologize. Months later, I finished the AT and moved to the Hawk Mountain area and one day while walking near the game commission food and cover office, I met the young man who apologized. His nickname was Hoppy. He remembered me and we became fast friends, and to this day, he is one of my best.

(See related blog: https://cindyrosstraveler.com/2012/05/01/some-friends-come-into-your-life-and-stay-forever-and-continue-to-love-you-despite-the-fact-that-you-still-drool/

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All three of us, me, Todd and Chuck, were in our own heads, with our own personal memories as we biked along, but then it occurred to Todd, that the last time all three of us were here together was about 20 years ago. We had just finished the log work on Eagle’s Nest Shelter (Todd was in charge of orchestrating that job as he and I attended log building school in Minnesota and built our own Scandinavian scribed fit log home). The shelter was put together at the hiking club’s arboretum in Bernville and then the Reservists from Indian-town Gap flew the whole shooting match INTACT across the valley, across I-78, as the shelter hung suspended from a cable. Traffic was even stopped on the interstate as it crossed in the event that the cable would snap and the log shelter smash into the cars. It was a big deal. Such a big deal that the photos appeared in National Geographic hard cover book entitled, “Mountain Adventure.” Both Chuck and Todd are pictured in the book.

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Suddenly, we smelled smoke and came upon the smoldering remains of a prescribed burn, orchestrated by the PA Game Commission a week earlier. As we watched the smoke billow out of the forest duff, we witnessed the wind picking up and more smoke and even open flames erupting. I called the first one on my mind, Hoppy, whom I met on this very road 35 years ago. Even though Hop has long retired with the game commission, he would know what to do- call 911 and report it. We did and rode on, all agreeing, “That was interesting.”

Chuck, Todd and I stashed our bikes off to the side of the road and walked back the trail to the Eagle’s Nest shelter. When we approached the shelter, Chuck remembered how the helicopter blew every leaf off of the deciduous trees in the whole area, as it hovered in place, and the shelter was positioned directly over its foundation. Our children were babies then and now they are adults. Todd had dark curly hair back then and Chuck had all his teeth. Time marched on but the shelter remains solid and sturdy. The logs darkened over the years but the extremely tight scribed fit did not allow a tiny crack to open up. Eagle’s Nest had served the AT hikers well these 20 years.

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Chuck sat in the sunshine with the bike helmet on top of his blaze orange hat, making him look comical. He signed the register while Todd gave the shelter a once over. We walked through the woods to our stashed bikes and rode the mostly downward ridge top road back to the truck, sunshine warming us on this November day. Chuck couldn’t wipe the smile off his face. He was on a bike again, feeling like a kid. What a gift to circle and cycle back, as we remembered fond memories of our thru-hikes and “bringing in” Eagle’s Nest Shelter.

A Thanksgiving Story: Just How Much Fun Can a Corn Maze Be ?????

I was hoping my Veterans wouldn’t think a corn maze was lame. I don’t think running through a corn maze is lame, so when my dear friends, DJ and Loretta Duncan of Duncan’s Corn Maze in Robesonia, PA offered my non profit, RiverHouse PA a free event, I was excited. An afternoon/evening at one of the loveliest dairy farms in Berks County doing fun things- what a great release from the VA medical center that would be.

As soon as the vans pull up, the Vets tumble out with warm embraces, even the ones meeting me for the first time. They must get cued in on the drive over, but who has too many hugs in life? Rec therapists, Amy & Ida open up the back of the vans and immediately pull out snacks, like young boys who are always starving. I gave them the run down of the day:

Corn Maze exploration, with a challenge game attached; gourd chucking with giant sling shots aiming at toilet bowls and other metal contraptions, sliding down inside black, ribbed irrigation tubes, a hay ride, a farm tour to the milking parlor to see how cows are automatically milked, meet the baby calves just born, prepare Bunyon Burgers themselves and cook over charcoal, then ….. ignite colored paper lanterns, let them swell with hot air and release into the night sky. Sounds like big fun.

As soon as they spotted the slingshots they were off- something to shoot!!!! Loretta gave them buckets to go into the fields and gather gourds. One came back with a huge neck pumpkin. “Not that! That’s to make pumpkin pie,” she informed them, but they would have shot anything.

They behaved like little kids, cheering each other’s accomplishments when their gourd whacked something right on. They paired off to ride the see saws, and I am sure they had not been on one for decades. So much happy laughter echoing around the fields.

Loretta finally pulled them away from the shooter and gave them their cue sheet to locate multiple locations inside the corn maze. The first one to find and gather all of them, won. They ran off in teams, helping open another and playing in the sunlight like youngsters. I stood atop the elevated stairs in the maze and happily watched them. No one was thinking about therapy or re-hab, and yet that is exactly what they were doing, returning to a simpler happier time before drugs and alcohol and depression, re-habbing.

Then my board member Tim Minnich taught them how to assemble and build their foil Bunyon Burgers with a huge ground beef patty, and a variety of sliced potatoes, carrots, celery, onions, peppers and a wide selection of gravy and sauce mixes to add along with a little water. While they cooked and steamed, the Vets went back to more playing. And when Tim announced they were cooked, they slowly unwrapped the foil, allowing the steam and the delicious aromas to escape, none believing how incredibly delicious they were and that they made it themselves.

Next, the tractor was brought down and a long hay wagon that the Vets climbed into. Up to the milking parlous where they saw how the girls are ushered in, their teats cleaned and disinfected, the suction tubes attached, and the milk extracted. The cows are so big and slightly intimidating if you are a city boy, which some of the Vets are, but they learned where our milk comes from, saw the actual process of getting it, asked a million questions about the work load, the milk quantity, how much the coats eat, their schedule, how they long they live and on and on. The were truly fascinated and excited to learn.

Next we went to the calf barn and the Vets were surprised how desperately the young things wanted to suck on their fingers as many were new borns and had the uncontrollable desire to nurse. A few of the Vets had to jump right into the pens and bond with the babies, some even talking to them in a soft voice like a cow whisperer. There were lots of teasing about the sucking too but that was to be expected.

Back at the campfire, I took out my brightly colored paper lanterns, opened them up, inserted the fuel square and we went about lighting them. The guys very gently held the lantern open and helped it expand, working in teams. The could see the colored tissue paper swelling from the hot air inside and feel it wanting to go, up, into the heavens. Soon, with just soft fingertips, they released them and we threw our heads back and watched them climb higher and higher into the night sky, bright glowing colored orbs floating and gently rocking with the stars. It was so heartening.

Before the Vets went back to the medical center, Amy & Ida had them go around the campfire and take a turn and share what this event meant to them. Loretta sat transfixed as she listened. Amy & Ida said that it had done even their heart good to hear so many of their guys laughing and being so genuinely happy. Many admitted to having had a very hard week, being very challenged and down. But all of that dissipated here at the farm.

When I released that sky lantern tonight,” one admitted, “I felt a real release inside of me, a lifting up, a letting go of my past life.”

Another said, “I was reminded today that there is a whole other life out here for me- sober.”

And yet another said, “I so enjoyed being a kid again. I realize I could be and I should be doing these kinds of things with my own son.”

Some of the Vets said that that they had experienced up to six firsts in their life there at the Duncan Farm. And one said that it had truly been “The Best Day of his Life.” And that comment stopped me, took my breath away. The “BEST” day of his life. Really? He was in his 40’s. I was beginning to put this afternoon into perspective. 

After we said our good-byes, I went up to Loretta and after thanking her for this great gift she and DJ had given my Vets, I said, “What do you think? Wasn’t that campfire talk something?

She said, “I never thought of a corn maze as being that big of a deal.”

It was to them,” I told her. “To some of them, it meant the whole world. You never met them before tonight and yet you gave them this night. That is huge in their eyes. You just have no idea what kind of impact you can have. Who would have thought a corn maze could do so much.

PS If you would like to sponsor an event for the Veterans of River House PA, please get in touch, or if you would like to sponsor dinner (about $200 an event for 24 people) get in touch- you will be invited to attend, and will have a story written about the event, besides helping to heal our Veterans! A 501C3, tax deductible!!!

Stone Soup Party

Stone Soup Party with River HousePA and the Veterans from the Lebanon VA Medical Center- a wonderful WWI story about a soldier who heads into a European town with nothing to eat and no one willing to share, until he announces that he can make delicious stone soup, but that it would be so much better with another ingredient or two. Each of the village folk run to get a potato or two and the result is a delicious dinner, plenty to eat for everyone, and the spirit of coming together to share. The Veterans stopped at the grocery store before coming and selected their ingredient. Then we went for a walk with our goats, (some had not been with goats since their deployment in the Middle East) and had a little writing exercise around the fire where everyone wrote a memory related to food and then read aloud. A great Thanksgiving celebration, reminding all of us to be grateful for what we have and for each other. If anyone would like to sponsor a RiverHouse PA event, typically we need $200 to feed the Veterans after our outdoor adventures. You would be invited to come share and meet the Vets- events held 2x a month year round, as well as get the event dedicated to you and have a blog/story written about it. Get in touch.