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.

STRONGER TOGETHER

So yesterday afternoon I grew weary of seeing my husband moping and sitting in his chair every evening, dozing off from depression, and took it upon myself to switch things up. I invited our friends who’s husbands make home brew together and schedueled an impromptu dinner. And we were going to play games and laugh. When I told Todd that we were having dinner guests, he complained, “I don’t want to see anyone,” Too bad, I told him, you need to get out of your funk. We were not sure if the one couple voted in alignment with the four of us but I thought they were intelligent and gracious enough people that perhaps we could engage in a conversation and hear each other’s sides, perhaps come to some deeper understanding and empathy for one another’s political concerns. But as luck would have it, as soon as they entered they announced, “If it’s any consultation, our candidate lost too.” But we weren’t gathering together for a bitch session but a hearty laugh session. After dinner, (and a few home brews) we played Dictionary and laughed so wonderfully for hours over the silly and smart definitions people crafted and how we were fooled. We did talk politics and that was even good for us. One person knew more about one area, say banking and she gave us insight on the state of affairs under the new administration. Others had done research in other areas and enlightened us. But the real gift of the evening was joining with friends who share our emotional state, being with friends helped us move forward a bit and not stay stuck. They gave Todd and I hope. Not because they had any answers, but because we knew we were not alone and that as we always knew, we were stronger together. One can easily forget that, staying in one’s small little world, with the internet, or just simply ruminating sad, hopeless thoughts over and over again in one’s head. I encourage you to do the same…

Exploring Nature – with Autism

Autiusm is a group of complex brain development disorders and more than one million children in America are in the Autism spectrum. These two families found a sanctuary for their children on the trail.

 

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NICHOLAS BRAHM

It’s not unusual to hear eleven-year-old Nicholas Brahm singing a song for all the woods to hear when he’s hiking. He’s not picky with his song repertoire. It could be Jingle Bells (in July) or a car commercial jingle he’s heard on TV or a heavy metal Kiss song. Whatever pops into his eleven year old head. He memorizes every jingle and song that he hears and feels moved to express himself when he hikes. But he has no other functioning speech.

Perhaps this is Nicholas’s way of expressing the joy that he feels while on the trail, in the woods. Singing is sure fire proof that one is a happy soul, for he has no other functioning speech to express himself verbally. Singing makes Nicholas’s father, Rick, thrilled because Nicholas is autistic, and out here, on the trail, Nicholas shines the brightest. And so, the New Jersey Sussex County family returns to the AT again and again.

Nicholas began his hiking life as an infant, in a child carrier on his father’s back, along with his older brother, Tyler. It wasn’t until Nick turned one that he was diagnosed as severely autistic. The trips to the woods didn’t stop after that but got ramped up even higher.

I knew being outside was good for him,” Rick shares. “No one had to tell me that, I just knew it. We had to do something for him to help and the trail was Nick’s happy place. It is necessary for a feeling of normalcy as a family.”

At five years old, in New Jersey’s Culver’s Gap area, they discovered Nick’s intense love of scaling rocks. They had been sticking to safer, smoother dirt roads and then rail trails up to this point. Clamoring uphill, ever over rough sections, became great fun for Nick. He never trips or stumbles or falls. That’s amazing, for autistic folks can be challenged physically as well as mentally. “Nick might be walking down a smooth dirt road,” his father reports, “and that one stray rock will trip Nick up. Must be because his guard is down, but on the trail, he’s focused and he’s happy.”

Autistic kids have a tendency to wander off, which is a real concern for a parent when on the trail in the wilds. But with the local sheriffs dept program called Project Life Saver, Nicholas wears a tracking devise. Nicholas was slowly introduced to in minutes with the help of his school and his parents for Nicholas to get used to wearing the devise. Together with his vividly bright tie dye t-shirts that Nicks always wears hiking, he won’t be able to get lost too quick. But he rarely gets too far ahead of his family and if so, his older brother just catches him.

Nick’s father knows how much joy hiking brings to his son before they even set foot on the trail. When Nick sees his father putting on his hiking clothing and boots, he is immediately ready to explore! When they are hiking, Nick never tires, never balks or complains, no matter how rough the terrain. Last summer the boys hiked seven days in a row, covering seven miles at a shot, and Nick loved every minute.

Another way his father knows hiking is a good thing for his son, is Nick normally hates wearing shoes and opts for going barefoot whenever possible. Wearing his hiking boots, however, makes him so happy.

Because of all the superb exercise and fresh air they enjoy on their hikes, Nick sleeps much easier at night, which can be a challenge for the family of an autistic child. They can now knock out 10-12 mile days without a problem. Nick’s mom, Lynne, is an antique “picker” and explores venues for her business while the men in her family hike, dropping them off and retrieving them after their mileage is completed.

Nick is not a fan of an out and back route so his dad tries to select loops or lolly pop trail designs to keep him interested. It comes as no surprise that the boys goal, is to complete the whole Appalachian Trail someday. They have already hiked everything consecutively from Virginia’s Blackburn Center to Vermont’s Route 9. A more immediate goal is to hike in each state and rehike NJ for the fourth time.

Nick will on occasion stop and look at a white blaze. It’s so strange he has passed thousands with no reaction and out of nowhere he points one out. Autism really is a puzzle.” The family’s hiking adventures can be found on the website Trailjournals under the name Flippertree for Autism.

Another goal is to incorporate camping and then backpacking, but Rich did not know how to start. I suggested getting a summer, lightweight, free-standing tent whose body is mostly net. Put it up in Nick’s bedroom first, and then the yard without the fly so he can see through it and feel secure.

Nick loves the subsequent nature of the trail. The footpath stretching before him draws him out as though its coaxing him to follow. He’s big into power lines too and it is a similar drawing nature for him. The exploring nature in him wants to see what is next and around the next bend.

I love the fact that the AT takes us to places we would never go.”

Rich isn’t sure about cycling and if he could get him to stop. Paddling is another winner though, and he enjoys tandem kayaking with his dad and adores swimming. Nothing quite beats hiking however and the Brahm boys will continue racking up the miles and the states and the happiness as they work at their goal. What a fine use of the trail.

The family’s hiking adventures can be found on the website Trailjournals under the name Flippertree for Autiusm.

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CARSON BURCH

For Carson Burch, the act of looking at a tree in the woods and then tracing the trunk up to the canopy does huge things for him. It’s a simple act that most of us do automatically when we are out hiking, but for a boy who has Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism, it was therapeutic.

It began when Carson’s mother, Melanie, questioned her son’s continued delays in fine motor coordination specific to handwriting. After taking Carson to a developmental optometrist, she learned that although her young son had perfect visual acuity (20/20 vision), he had delayed visual skills in the areas of eye tracking and teaming, convergence, and near-far focusing. It is believed that Carson’s poor visual-motor skills caused problems in school when he looked up from his notebook on his desk to the blackboard. Carson’s eyes could not efficiently make the transition in focusing. Also, although Carson read well above his grade level, the smaller print of higher level reading books highlighted his eye tracking problems. Carson’s mom thought vision therapy would be prescribed, but was floored when she received the very unusual advice from the developmental optometrist to, “Take him outside. He would benefit MOST from being in the natural world and walking.”

Melanie is a science teacher and has been in love with nature all her life and has raised her children there. She was no stranger to knowing how our senses are incredibly stimulated in the outdoors, as opposed to a limiting classroom. Carson’s form of autism includes a challenge with how his brain organizes the information coming in through his senses. He has a visual-vestibular dysfunction which involves the part of his inner ear system which works with the brain and his sight to control balance and eye movements. In the natural world, Carson’s eyes are challenged to focus differently and work together. Carson naturally looks up and down and side to side as he tracks the abundance of movement that is constantly happening outdoors. The muscles in his eyes actually strengthen, grow stronger as they “track.”

So Melanie began to hold “class” in the big outdoors – hiking trails and stopping at Carson’s favorite spots to read books. They also hiked along the beach, built primitive shade shelters on the beach and read in them; they routinely conducted learning in the great big arena of the natural world.

As far as hiking goes, the family’s activities always included hiking as Melanie loved the sport her whole life and shared it with Carson beginning when he was a few weeks old. “For all practical purposes he has grown up on the trails,” Melanie said. “At first, Carson was a passive hiker either carried by me or pushed in a jogging stroller. As he began to walk, our hikes were sometimes shorter but always included him meandering and leading the way.”

Although Carson was not formerly diagnosed with autism until he was seven, the early signs were present. Carson’s most prominent issues were in the areas of speech and sensory processing. Early on, Melanie found that having her son outside and simply listening to birds seemed to be soothing. Many days he enjoyed listening to a bird call CD when he was inside playing.

At first, it was challenging to motivate Carson to want to hike,” his mother shares. “Often times the first mile was the absolute worst. He would throw fits, sit down on the trail and refuse to budge, and complain incessantly. I pushed Carson because I knew it would help him develop a more efficiently functioning sensory system.”

But over the years and many miles in his hiking sandals (he prefers sandals with socks as opposed to tight hiking boots), Carson’s creative mind transforms each hike into a fantasy that comforts him. Melanie claims that Carson has never been afraid to dance in the rain – unless there is thunder!

So when the national park system neared their 100th anniversary, Melanie challenged her son to become involved. Their young neighbor friend, Katie, had fallen very ill with Spinal Muscular Atrophy- Type 2 (SMA) and is wheelchair bound and on a ventilator. In order to raise funds and awareness of what she was going through, as well as celebrating our national park system, Melanie suggested they set a goal of hiking 100 miles in July 2016.

Mother and son kept a log of all their trips and mileage and recorded their progress. They experienced a very slow start to their 100 mile month as they had to deal with an intensely hot summer and excessive rain, making it more uncomfortable than usual. But “Carson was a trooper,” his mother reported. When motivation hit an all time low, the reasoning, “Let’s do it for Katie,” helped them rise to the occasion and continue, because they could and Katie could not.

Carson is highly intelligent and completely aware that although his 100-mile hiking goal was a challenge, it was also good for him. It was making him more coordinated bilaterally, as he utilized his left/right discrimination process as he walked, for even tying his shoes is a challenge. Carson knows he needs to be challenged physically and the trail is a perfect place for this to occur. Like Nick, Carson too prefers a loop trail as opposed to an out and back design.

Carson is quick to comment, however, “I hate walking/hiking because it makes my feet feel like they are going to fall off.” However, his mother is quick to point out to him, his feet have always seemed to remain attached to his legs!

I am not convinced about his supposedly “dislike” for the sport for his 100 mile challenge presented him with a big dose of adventure and novelty, which his mother admits he thrives on.

Both mother and son learned a lot about perseverance through the experience and not surprisingly, the impetus to set more goals for themselves and even bigger adventures is a future plan. Like Nick, Carson has his eyes set on the entire Appalachian Trail. He says, “Mom, why can’t we just hike the AT and get it all over with at once? After all, it is long enough.”

This story appeared in the Nov/Dec issue of AT Journeys- the official magazine of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy

 

Veteran Bob Hamilton gets Back his Leg & his Life

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You’d never know by watching Bob Hamilton hike that only two years ago, a sniper’s bullet shot though his gut, fractured his pelvis in six spots, ripped through his spine, blew out all but seven inches of his lower intestines, and totally paralyzed his left leg. The young retired Marine steps over this rocky Pennsylvania stretch of the Appalachian Trail without even a limp. He is beaming happy as he hikes on this renowed trail.

After sixteen surgeries, Bob spent three months in physcial therapy, having his leg manually moved for one hour, three times a day. No progress was made. His leg continued to skrink and deteriorate. The therapist said, “Give up. Accept your new life.” but Bob was not about to. He had dreams, and one of them is coming true today as he hikes on the AT.

Bob is out for a hike with River House PA, my non-profit for Veterans, which I started two years ago. Twice a month, two long, navy blue vans arrive from the Lebanon, PA Veteran’s Hospital, with Veterans enrolled in a rehab program. They are accompanied by their recreational therapists, Amy Cook and Ida Carvel, visionaries who believe that recerating in nature heals. Throughout the year, (about 20 x) I take the Veterans hiking on the trail, paddling on lakes, innertubing down the river, and cycling on the rail trail. We make campfires and serve them homecooked meals, and provide a safe space to experience comraderie in the beautiful natural world.

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This week’s outing was an experience on the AT. We would walk a section of trail, following the white blazes to Hawk Mountain Road, then head down to the Eckville Shelter, the rustic hostel that Todd and I ran under the Volunteers in National Parks Program back in 1988-90. Our friend, Mick Charowsky lives there and has been running the shelter ever since, under the jurisdiction of the local Blue Mt Eagle Climbing Club. With any luck, there will be a long distance hiker there and the Vets can hear their story.

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At the Eckville Shelter, we show the Vets the bunks and the register, where Bob is thrilled to find an entry of a fellow Marine, Steve Clendenning, who thru-hiked in 2013, who also happens to be a close friend of mine. A long distance section hiker cooks up a pot of rice at the picinc table and the guys quiz him about his life on the trail. Mick shares some stories of running a hostel and how many hikers he serves in a year.

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On our hike back, I fall in line with Bob and hear his story of how he learned to walk again.

I took two lengths of rope and tied them to the ankle of my paralyzed leg. For nine months, all day long, I pulled it back and forth. I had nothing better to do then to convice my leg to start to move again. I figured the therapist had the right idea; she just didn’t do it long enough.”

Bob’s arms got beastly strong from pulling his leg. He got caught up on watching movies.

I would stare at my leg and try to activate my thigh muscle to move, try to make it happen. And then it did, just a little bit. Then I knew I could walk again.”

His wife bought children’s Wee Fit videos and they exercised together practicing balance. He fell a lot. But now, two years later, Bob is hiking up and down the Blue Mountain, stepping over rocks like its second nature.

I look at him and say, “You are a miracle. I would have never known.”

Bob said, “It taught me not to believe it when someone tells you that you can’t do something. It taught me never to give up.”

I hear more stories like this around the campfire as the Vets take turns sharing what they are grateful for, what the hike meant to them, where they are at in their lives now.

When it is Bob’s turn, he shares, “Hiking on the AT has been one of my lifelong dreams. When I got shot, I felt like I it had been stolen from me. I’ve been afraid to go out for a hike for I wasn’t sure I’d be able to get back. This is the first time I am hiking since before I got shot and it feels really good. I could have been in a wheelchair for the rest of my life, but I’m here and I am so grateful. I wonder now, maybe I could hike the whole trail.”

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“Poor Man’s Country Club”- Frank Russo, the Port Clinton Barber, Shows us how to Live

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The white sign stating “Haircuts- $8.00” on PA Rt 61 heading north into Schuylkill County is so small and unassuming, it gives the passer-by no indication of the treasures found inside, for this is no ordinary barber shop.

The bluegrass music wafting through the open screen door, the smell of brewing coffee and the lively conversation and hearty laughter are the first clues of the fun happening inside; or it might be the variety of languages being spoken- Chinese, German, Argentinian, Mongolian.

Outside the grey wooden building with the red and white spiral barber light are a row of multi colored backpacks and trekking poles. Across the street is the Port Clinton Post Office, a regular stop on the iconic long distance Appalachian Trail. The thru-hikers are attracted to the barber shop like moths to a flame for news on the trail travels fast and far about Frank the barber.

Inside Frank Russo’s shop, customers sit on rocking chairs and munch down free donuts and sip coffee from mugs. They tap their feet to the strum of a banjo or a guitar or a variety of instruments lined up on stands against the wall, just tempting a wandering musician to take one up and bring it to life. In the Port Clinton Barber Shop, hikers mix with the professional men, foreigners mix with the local codgers, millionaires mix with the toilet cleaners, while Frank in his pointy cowboy boots and barber’s smock clips away with a smile.

They’re all equal when they walk in my door,” Frank exclaims. “Doctors, lawyers, Indian chiefs, I see them all.” They come from far away for not just a hair cut, but an experience.”

You can’t be in a hurry when you come into Frank’s barber shop. This isn’t the place for speed. Three generations come to get their hair cut here, even traveling professional musicians stop in to play some tunes and get a cut.

This isn’t Barcelona or Berlin,” Frank exclaims, “it’s freaking’ Port Clinton! Where else can you go for a haircut and enjoy a free concert at the same time?”

The inside of Frank’s shop looks like a museum. The walls are covered in historic photos, prints, and post cards from new friends around the world. Customers bring in bouquets of flowers, sandwiches and cakes. Frank’s wife, Theresa, brings in fruit from the Weis store that she works at and pizzas on weekends, for the hikers have insatiable appetites. She sometimes sends senior hikers back to their home for a nap and a meal before continuing on. At the end of each day in the hiking season, a local senior from Hamburg stops in to offer his motor services. Perhaps a hiker wants to take in a tour of the Yuengling Brewery up the highway, oldest in the country, or “needs” a roller coaster ride at Hershey Park, or a new piece of gear at nearby Cabela’s, or just a restful night’s sleep at the Microtel Hotel down the pike.

Frank always wanted to be a barber as did his now 90-year old father, who often lends a hand on busy days. A line up of a dozen different electric shears compete for the barbers’ attention, right next to the dozen different harmonicas that is Frank’s real love. A female hiker came into the shop a few years back and asked if Frank could shave her head and sculpt an AT symbol. It became quite a fad and Frank has cut over a dozen of the hair do!

At first, the local Pennsylvania German were skeptical and standoffish to these adventuring souls as they sat next to the skimpily-clad hikers who are often in need of a bath and can look a bit eccentric. The local Germans can be slow to embrace folks who are different, so they proceed with caution; but they’ve become so fond of the hikers that they will often call Frank and ask, “Any Joy-mans there today?” and if so, they come right down and enjoy a chat in their mother tongue, even if they are not in need of a trim.

Frank introduces everyone in his shop. He networks and asks who needs what, who is selling something? He has sold over thirty musical instruments, wheel barrows, real estate in his little shop and he is known to barter haircuts with his customers for eggs, chicken feed, fencing.

The barber shop is also a free library for customers bring in books and magazines to share. Locals drop off their kids for Frank to babysit while they run to the store and he plant “sits,” permanently. A customer will say, “My grandma died and I can’t keep her plant or I’ll kill it. Will you watch it for me?” Frank drags the potted plants out every morning to the shop’s front patio and brings them back in every night.

Frank’s other love next to cutting hair and playing music is old coin appraisal. Every Christmas, he gifts his adult customers an antique buffalo nickle and a Lincoln penny to each child, amounting to hundreds every holiday season.

Frank the barber is about giving year round. “It’s a beautiful thing what happens inside my barber shop. I am a therapist, for I listen to my customers. They tell me their stories.”

It spread by word of mouth and in registers north and south along the Appalachian Trail. It spread up and down the traffic arteries of the Berks, Lehigh, Schuylkill, Bucks and counties beyond. His $8.00 hair cutting busienss is thriving. “I never planned for any of this to happen, it just evolved organically.”

Locals come in and say, “What can I do to help?’ because they see the family that Frank has given birth to here in Port Clinton.

I’m just passing through this life like everyone else,” Frank explains. “Whatever I can do to help, to make a little fun and put a smile on someone’s face, that’s how I live my life.”

Frank says that the barber shop is the poor man’s country club but there is no poverty or lack anywhere in Frank Russo’s Port Clinton Barber Shop, just riches and treasures, the best kind in life, the ones without a price tag.

(A version of this will appear in an upcoming issue of Pennsylvania Magazine).

Lamier’s Rapid Moves

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There is another Veteran who recently moved me, because of his rapid movement. (see previous blog post about One-legged Rockster Veteran Wayne)

It happened in July, when River House PA had a scheduled event with the Lebanon VA Medical Center Veterans. We were switching up the sport and heading to the Blue Marsh Lake in Berks County to canoe and kayak.

The vans were maxed out again as our nature-based RH events are becoming increasingly more popular. Everyone was pretty pumped to be there. Except for one lone young man. He did not want to paddle and he did to want to be in any photos.

Why did he come?” I asked.

I guess to get away from the VA and to get outside,” was the assumption. Made sense.

He sat apart from everyone else reading a book.

I walked over to him and knelt down, “You don’t think you want to paddle?”

I’m thinking about it,” he said.

Were you ever in a canoe or kayak before?”

No.”

Well, you can sit in the front of a canoe and just be a stoker and not be responsible for steering. It’s beautiful out there and very easy. Since you’re here, you ought to think about trying it.”

And so he stood up and left his book and his solitary spot and joined the rest of the group at the lake’s bank. Partners were already chosen by this point, and what was left was a solo kayak, which he volunteered to take. I was impressed.

Lamier was paddling in rear of the group but he could not wipe the smile off his face.

I shared some paddling instructions with him so he could stroke more efficiently and without fatigue. Before long, he was out front and smiling even broader. Something clicked and he got the hang of it.

By the time the paddle was over, he was in love with the sport and was engaging with everyone, talking about what kind of boats are out there etc. and planing to get one of his own someday so he could continue with this sport which he fell in love with.

I took some really nice portrait shots of him, FOR him, I told him, but he since decided I could post them on FB.

This experience on Blue Marsh Lake was more one feather in Lamier’s cap of trying new things and building on his confidence that he can do what he needs to do in order to have the happy, healthy life he deserves. I told him, paddling and being on the water could be his personal happy place, where you find the most peace and healing. You wouldn’t know until you try it.

We had another RH event this past week. Besides Rockstar Wayne (with his one leg who doesn’t seem to know he only has one leg and does what everyone else does on two legs, maybe even better!), Lamier was the only Veteran to return. We had been away for the last two months and most of the Vets that came out in July had moved out of the program. Big hugs were exchanged when Wayne and Lamier exited the van.

A hike in the Appalachian woods was on this event’s schedule, another first for Lamier. And he loved the peace, the forest, the walking. He had never before been on a hike in the woods. He also told me that he recently got to go horseback riding with the VA’s rec therapists and that too was a first and he loved that too. Seems like our boy Lamier is finding a lot of firsts out in the natural world that he is loving.

As the Vets went around the campfire, sharing what they were grateful for, Lamier said he was grateful for the opportunity to stretch himself and try new things, to be out in nature and to continue living a new life. Amy Cook, Lebanon VA’s Medical Center Recreational Therapist as well as Ida Carvell, the out patient Rec Therapist, are doing an amazing job getting these Veterans out. Besides the important work they do in the center, the meetings, the workshops, the programs, these women understand how important the healing can be while recreating in nature with their fellow Veterans.

I look at Lamier and think, what next? You’re just open and willing and confident to keep going, positively in your life. It is amazing that a simple kayak paddle, a jaunt on a horse and a walk in the forest can help do all this but it can. Along with the help of two amazing Rec therapists, his fellow Vets and his friends at River House PA who all care so much for him. With peeps who care, anything is possible.

One-legged Rockstar Veteran Wayne shows us how to do it

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The trail was a rough one- a stream ford, climbing over moss-covered, wet slippery boulders, and incredibly steep, loose, rocky descent that people often slipped and fell on and always wiped us out when cross-country skiing. The loop hike was over 3 ½ miles long. We used that trail to train our llamas on before we left on our 500-mile, 2 month traverse of the Rocky Mountains years ago, because it has varied and challenging terrain and is a sizable length.

Last evening I was to lead a group of Veterans from the Lebanon VA Medical Center on a hike with my non-profit River House (RH) PA – sixteen Veterans who are enrolled in a resident re-hab program and their two Recreational Therapists. When I saw how young and strong most of them were as they piled out of the vans, I thought the little extra challenging hike would be good for them. Normally, I lead them along a gentle, smooth old woods road paralleling the wild & scenic Little Schuylkill River.

Until I saw Wayne step out of the van on his crutches.

Wayne was with us on two other RH events and had walked one mile on a stone road with his crutches to a swimming hole where the Vets enjoyed an inner tubing outing. We had doubts then about whether Wayne would be able to do that 1 mile fairly smooth, fairly level road, but he did extremely well. He proved us wrong.

The next outing, Wayne paddled a canoe all over Blue Marsh Lake for an evening full moon outing, but his upper body is beastly from hauling his bottom body around so we expected as much from Wayne. But on this hike, there are many two-legged folks I would never take on it. I advised Wayne’s rec therapist, Amy Cook, that the group should split up and take some along the gentle woods road. A sizable steep hill gets thrown at the hiker in the first tenth of a mile, before the trail drops down to a very slippery, wooden plank board bridge across Pine Creek. I would lead the more fit, faster gung-ho Veterans. But she shortly informed me that everyone decided they wanted to do the more challenging loop, including Wayne. Wow. OK. I was certain that once they got into the rough stuff, they would just enjoy the stream-side hike and turn around when they had enough and meet us at the vans.

I went on our merry way, chatting with Vets as they told me how great it felt to be in the woods and how beautiful it was. The evening was a beauty- 70 degree temps, color already highlighting the Appalachian woods, beautiful scenery through a hemlock and rhododendron forest, paralleling a native trout stream with deep holes and fish that swam in the shadows. Anyone would be happy here but especially Veterans involved in a rigorous therapy program.

I heard from one Vet, that he had not been OUT for two years, but stayed safe indoors away from people and potentially challenging situations. Until that evening. He wrestled with coming, not coming, coming and finally pushed out of his comfort zone and committed. I was pretty happy to share the walk with him and he was extremely happy to be there.

This is my world. One that I go to every day for a shot of rejuvenation after sitting at a computer writing all day. My husband and I are fortunate to live in a peaceful natural place on our 12 acres by the Blue Mountain. We enjoy sharing our beautiful log home and property, campfire ring and woods with Veterans who need a hand up while they work on getting better and healing.

It had been a tad too quiet around the house for me lately. I missed my grown kids. One is studying in Nepal, one is pursuing his illustration art career in Philadelphia. But Amy Cook, recreational therapist extraordinaire at the Lebanon VA promises she can bring me two vans of Veterans every month to recreate in the outdoors with River House. That makes me happy to share and them happy to get a break from the medical center.

As my group was finishing the loop and we were approaching the parking lot and the vans, I was looking ahead to see the rest of the group that had turned around when suddenly my cell phone rings. It was Annie Schnur, Board member Mike Schnur’s wife who accompanied the “slow” group.

We are right behind,” she says.

All of you? Even Wayne” I ask disbelieving?

Even Wayne,” she says.

I went for my camera to record this moment. The rest of the Vets that I had hiked with watched Wayne’s last steps. They applauded him as he entered the parking lot in amazement. It was a big moment for us all.

 

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Annie shared with me some of what was happening with her group in the rear. She walked with Veteran Wanda who said that she had a very serious fall and is still recovering from her injuries so her hiking was slow but steady. At the bottom of each hill she would comically moan and groan but with the constant support of another Veteran, Darryl, she would rally her determination and trudge her way up. Actually, each one of these veterans made sure that there was no one left behind. The care they took for each other was remarkable.

Annie said that two Veterans were deep in conversation about where they are in their lives right now, what brought them there and where they want to go from here. They discussed how they had gotten sidtracked from their goals but were more and more hopeful about continuing their educations. As they finally started downhill at the end, both sounded like they could do just about anything ! Annie said that it felt so good to overhear their optimism about their futures. 

Around the campfire, after dinner, Amy made a wonderful association for everyone when she pointed how the challenge and the fun that of what we all experienced had been done with out drugs and alcohol.

She then asked the Veterans to go around in a circle and share a “Gratitude” if they wanted to with the group- not mandatory. And so the speaking began. There was so much gratitude that poured from their hearts- gratitude for being alive (as some attempted suicide), gratitude for coming to a place of light after so much darkness, gratitude for a second chance, gratitude for the woods and nature and the walk as some had NEVER been in a forest before nor on a hike and many not since boyhood, and gratitude to Amy for believing in this type of nature-based therapy. I saw tears silently trickling down some of the Veteran’s cheeks as they poured out their hearts and thanked Todd and I for providing them with this opportunity.

It doesn’t feel like a big deal to us. I go for a walk every day anyway. I like to have people over and share a meal. It doesn’t matter that I don’t know these guys until they come, but then they are members of our family and are invited back, even after they leave the Lebanon VA program. But it is evidently a big deal to the Veterans. Many have trust issues and just the fact that we open up our property and lives for them, cook for them, share our time with them, give them an opportunity where they can find peace and beauty is pretty important to them.

IF WAYNE DOES NOT SEE LIMITS, How can I?” Limits in anything in their lives, including the ability to climb out of their dark hole that have found themselves in and make wiser, more healthy choices. It was hugely impacting to us all. When it comes down to it, I don’t think WAYNE knew how big a gift he was giving to all his fellow Veterans, and anyone that witnessed what he did.

Everyone said their good-byes with a full bursting heart last night and the hopes that our paths will cross again. I distributed my River House PA calling card to everyone and told them not to be strangers. Who would have thought a few years ago that Todd and I, who have so little in common with the military and that whole world, would be in the “business” of bringing Veterans outdoors in need of healing. But we don’t need to be in THAT world with them, because that world is receding farther back in their past and the poor choices that they made are too. What we do have in common is THIS world- their new healthy world they are choosing to create for themselves. This world we can share with them because we know how to go to the wild places for peace, and we have the beautiful property to base our non profit out from. There was gratitude in everyone’s heart after warm strong embraces and the big dark blue vans pulled away in the night, on their way to healing and health and a little more confidence and belief that they can turn their lives around. Sometimes that is all it takes. Seeing a one-legged Rockstar show you how to do it.

Why We Love Our Surly Mountain Bikes & Brick Wheels

When my husband Todd and I decided to cycle the entire 2,700-mile Great Divide Mountain Bike Trail for our next long adventure, we immediately went to cyclist guru friend, Tim Brick of Brick Wheels Bike Shop in Traverse City, Michigan for his advice. As I am a travel writer and plan to write multiple articles about our trip as well as a new book on our long adventure, Tim helped us explore possible bike manufacturers who might be sensitive and supportive of our plan. Twenty years ago, Santana was our sponsor and gifted us two tandem mountain bikes that we rode for a decade, advertising for years what marvelous machines they were and what a wonderful way to experience the world of travel with your children. This spring, Tim and I approached a handful of manufacturers looking for someone willing to work with us, but Surly, (as well as Tim) was the only one who believed in us enough to help. Little did I know then, that we had the best of the best working with us.

We secured an ECR for me and an Ogre for Todd. I drove out to Michigan from Pennsylvania a week before we began our ride to pick up our bikes at Brick Wheels. Tim had his mechanics dress up our bikes with all the important and necessary gear like racks, odometers, etc that we would need in order to be successful on our ride.

Our Surly Mountain Bikes were the Rolls Royce of mountain bikes. The majority of bikes ridden by long distance GDMBT riders were Surlys. No other manufacturer was as greatly represented on the trail. And why is that? Because Surley out performed all their competitors. Most cyclists that undertake the entire 2,700 mile GDMBT do their homework. Your bike is the single most important piece of equipment. It was no coincidence that there were more Surlys on the trail than any other bike company. And MY bike, my fat tire ECR brought more oohh’s and aahhh’s from cyclists who did not have a Surly than any others. “THAT’s my next bike!” they would proclaim, or “That’s the best, right there, no better bike for this trail.” I felt pretty fortunate to be riding my rig. If anything was going to help me be successful, it was my bike. If your bike breaks, it doesn’t matter how much determination and drive you have, you need a reliable bike. And the GDMBT can be brutal on your bike. We saw broken bikes in the first few hundred miles but not our Surleys.

Before I left on our first leg of the Great Divide Mountain Bike Trail, I had a problem with dizziness and balance. While cleaning the ceiling of my daughter’s Boulder, CO basement apartment, particularly over the stove, I somehow jammed my neck by bending it way back for long periods of time. My neck muscles tightened and blocked blood flow to my ears, and so I was not stable. As the GDMBT has some single track to cross as well as considerable rough and rocky terrain to negotiate, I needed to be as sturdy and stable on my bike as possible. Tim had encouraged me to order fat tires on my new Surly Bike to help with this problem. And it sure did. The fat tires acted as amazing shock absorbers and rolled right over extremely rough terrain like a tank. Where my husband’s more narrow tires were wigging and wagging a bit as he steered around rocks, my bike remained stable and grounded. It was truly amazing. It gave me the confidence and control that I needed in order to feel safe.

Although we rode New Mexico’s GDMBT 20 years ago, which got us interested in long distance cycling, this was the first really rugged mountain bike traverse we have done since. We accomplished many other long cycling trails including the pilgrim path- Camino de Santiago across Spain (The Way of St James), the Erie Canal, the KATY Trail across Missouri, etc. but the GDMBT is in a league all its own. Although we found it more challenging that we anticipated, it was a very rewarding experience and we really enjoyed merely just riding our bikes long distance and seeing the land change as we paralleled and crossed the Great Divide of the Rocky Mountains as we headed south.

Part of our joy was crossing paths with the hiking trail, the National Scenic 3,100-mile Continental Divide Trail which we covered with our small children over a 5 summer adventure. That journey is the subject of my sixth published book, “Scraping Heaven- A Family’s Journey Along the Continental Divide.” It has been over twenty years since we followed the Divide southward and we became very excited every time our paths intersected. Where the CDT is a foot path and hugs the mountain ridges of the Divide as closely as possible, the GDMBT usually parallels the Divide, often in the valleys and utilizes forest service gravel roads as much as possible. On that rare occasion when our route took us up and over the actual divide, there we were reunited with our old friend, the CDT.

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We also reconnected with some of the same folks who helped us resupply twenty years ago. It was wonderful to be back, this time on mountain bikes. Although we missed our children’s presence, who are since grown up, the GDMBT has become a way for Todd and I to reconnect to each other and usher in this new decade of life without children. What better arena than challenging ourselves on the GDMBT.

We finished up our month long ride this summer with 600 miles of the GDMBT as well as the 180 mile Icefields Parkway, Jasper National Park to Banff National Park, which we rode as a shake-down ride before beginning the GDMBT- about 800 miles in total. We will head back out next July to pick up where we left off and hopefully cover the next 1200 miles- finishing up Montana, Wyoming and across Colorado to the New Mexico border.

We could not have done it without the support of Surly Bikes and Brick Wheels and of course our bikes themselves. Thank you and we look forward to continuing the adventure!