Reliving a Scene / Memory from “Scraping Heaven”

scraping heaven new book cover

As Todd and I neared Stemple Pass on the Continental Divide, it occurred to us that this was the area where our historic “windstorm on the divide” happened,the dramatic intro to my book Scraping Heaven. We went off our route for a few miles to see it and reminisce about that scary day that happened 21 years ago.

Just the day before, we were crossing this wide Montana plain where horses were grazing and great green fields of grass were growing, and the Beaverhead Mountains rose up from the valley floor.  We heard there was a cold front moving through that would lower the very challenging temps we’ve been riding through. The wind was so ferocious as the sky behind the mtns turned a bruised purple, and we raced across, sometimes being blown off balance, it was so intense. We made it to the safety of the forest in time before the sky opened up with violent thunder, and trees cracking and blowing over right behind our tent.  The rain fell in great sheets and battered our tiny nylon tent but we safe and dry.

We woke up to much cooler and crisp air, cool enough to enable us to ride 50 miles the next day and cross the Continental Divide two times. We came down to a cyclist-only cabin after a long day, and found Barb Nye who graciously opens her home and property to cyclists.

Our trail angel park ranger friend Tom Banks drove all the way from Glacier National Park to be with us and help us, and he brought along a fabulous homemade huckleberry peach pie and whipped cream that we shared with our other cycling friends.

Since Barb had llamas in her pasture, we mentioned our family’s llama traverse on the CDT, and sure enough, Barbara had read Scraping Heaven. She also remembered the historic windstorm. We walked these same national forests roads to safety that we cycled on over 20 years later.  The circle continues and sooner or later the wind blows the hardship away and let’s the sunshine back in.  We could not make it without our friends along, not on the Great Divide Mtn. Bike Trail or in life in general.

Going Gets Tough. . .

It’s hot. So hot that heat exhaustion is trying to get me to not like this mountain bike touring. Nausea and feeling very I’ll on hot sunny steep climbs. I soak my head and shirt when worried by streams so I can get up the next hill. We do a lot of walking and pushing the bikes and Todd’s is heavily loaded.

todd cycling in Montana

Mine is about the same weight as every other long distant cyclist out here but Todd’s a beast. And believe it or not, we are going semi lightweight.

Most of the time we are watching our front tire for rocks and ruts on the gravel roads. If you try to look around, in the rare instance that there is a chance, you seriously risk wrecking. We are effectively in a tunnel most of our miles.

We see Montana rural life when we enter and leave town. So as you can imagine, a stop in town is a highlight. . . A&W root beer floats with double the ice cream. Todd is losing his enthusiasm.

We are in a great green tunnel most of the time. It reminds me of the AT. Our national park ranger friend Tom Banks took us on a day hike in Glacier National Park high up at Logan Pass, and we scraped heaven and were reminded why we love to WALK trails up high at altitude. This is just ok. Bryce said, “If it isn’t that much fun. Why not quit and come home?” But it is too late for that.

We’ve begun it. Have nearly 700 miles on our bike tires. We will get to Mexico sooner or later in a few years. It is up to us to increase the fun factor where we can. It is about the journey traveling the country from north to south on National Forest service roads. It is not road touring. There are very, very few cyclists out here to hang and eat with in town.

Todd and I are enjoying each other’s company, and we must be getting stronger although I feel like a wet dish rag on most climbs. I remember climbing Mount Mousilake in Maine on the AT. I could not believe I could hike all that way and still feel so bad. It was hot and humid and I had 57 pounds in my pack including a 5 lb canned ham by mother sent to me.

I came out here to get fit., as I entered my 60th decade. I suppose that is happening. My belly is a tiny bit smaller. But a piece of duct tape over my mouth for a few days in the comfort of my home may have ALMOST done the same trick.

It should rain tomorrow we hear and a cold front go through and reduce temps from the 90s to the 70s.

Just so you know. This is no walk in the park.
Love to all. Have some fun for us.

Here in Sparwood, British Columbia

photo
We thought that cycling the 190-mile Icefields parkway from Jasper to Banff would help get us in shape but we have learned in the first 4 days on the Great Divide Mtn Bike trail that it is no walk in the park.

Our nephew Clint is with us for these 9 days of cycling down across the border and into Montana. He has proven to be very helpful as in only a few days we have experienced multiple gear breakages where the boys had to use bolts, tape, rope etc to fix gear.  Very hard on the equipment on these downhill rides over rocks and roots. It rained hard one day, and we were freezing and wet and came across an open cabin for cyclists and there were other cyclists there with a wood stove fire going.  So nice. The dirt road was so muddy that my fat tires kicked it up and covered my wheels and gear so much that I could not even push it along while walking.

We had to find a stream to wash the mud off of the gears and brakes.  But I am thrilled with my 3 inch tires, which give me stability on the trail.  Thank you to Tim Brick and Surly Bikes. I have not experienced any dizziness since I have been riding, thank goodness, which I think it is from turning my head as I look around constantly.

We have been riding some fun single track but also pushing our bikes uphill a lot. My arms are not that strong but I guess I must be getting more in shape.  I do not feel that strong yet after traveling over 300 miles

We are meeting many cyclists from around the world:  France, Germany, England. Some going faster , others intersecting our trail as they travel cross country. We are seeing more moose than anything.  Eating is good. Stopping at restaurants and mini markets for salty snacks.

In two days we will reach our own country and be able to make phone calls. I miss everyone but Todd and I have settled into the rhythm of a long distance journey which enables the process of separating from the rest of the world and focuses on the goal. Even the day’s goal of just getting to camp for the night.  Todd is happy out here, and is kept busy fixing things and is trying to push us along, but he is relaxing from being a drill Sargent, as we are doing fine and on schedule

We look forward to seeing more friends as we cycle thru Montana. Some whom we have not seen since our llama packing days 20 years ago.

My nephew is learning a lot about the freedom and independence of self propelled travel as he gets strong to compete for the green berets. We love his company
Here on Sparwood, British Columbia, we see huge coal mines on the sides of the mtns.  And supposedly “the world’s biggest truck,” but we think we have that same animal in Schuylkill County coal pits.  Makes us feel at home!!!!  Love to all.

Joy on the Ride

 

The Athabaskan river flows by our side, pale blue and creamy, completely contrasting with the dark green conifers shooting skyward like arrows. It was frozen solid in the Athabaskan glacier hours ago. glacial flour is suspended in the water as it rolls toward the ocean . We roll past the river on our mountain bikes.

Day 1 of our 6 week 1500 mile ride and today, cyclists and even the biker dudes on their Harley’s give us the thumbs up. We feel silly. Our bikes are loaded with stuffed panniers, dry bags and foam pads wrapped in garbage bags giving us an air of homelessness.

We pedal rapidly on the climbs like gerbals on a spin wheel. We did not have our cycling legs yet nor our Canadian Rockies lungs. We were day glow yellow construction worker shirts that practically glow in the dark, wrap around sunglasses for speedy downhills and flying insects. Our Hornet bike horns, loudest in the world are mounted on our handlebars and our bear spray holsters with the quick release are strapped on our handlebar bags. I ride first, then Bryce then Todd with his rear view mirror. ”

Motor home!” Or “bus!” He yells and we move as far over to the far right of the Icefields Parkway as we can We are cycling nearly 200 miles on this “most beautiful road in the world” making this bike ride on the Icefields Parkway the most beautiful too. Bryce is here to break us in before we begin our major trek on the Great Divide Mtn Bike Trail.

First day’s ride we see a herd of elk, a herd of bighorn sheep, Mtn goats and a black bear swam across the Athabaska River, climbed up the bank in front of us and over to the roadside berry bushes. There were 6 rainbows after 6 showers and after glow on the granite peaks that completely made us breathless.
We rode through Jasper & Banff national park past monster granite mountains lined up like walls, glaciers calving and melting light blue water that fills the rivers and lakes making them look radio active . The Canadian Rockies are some of the most beautiful range in the world.

We camp at campgrounds that find space for long distance cyclists no matter if they are filled with large cooking shelters with wood stoves and wood to warm us. We meet cyclists from around the world and wonderful people everywhere.
We got hit with hail twice and rain everyday. It is so cold in the morning that our eyes water on down hills and it looks like we are under water and can’t blink fast enough. We covered about 35-40 miles a day, had a few campfires and only got a flat once so far.

After the first 6 days on the road, enjoying black top with our son’s marvelous company and the exquisite Canadian Rockies he is ready to return to Philadelphia and we will welcome our nephew, Clint Ross who will join us for 10 days down to Glacier national park. We have single track and dirt and gravel roads ahead, as Todd tried to find ways to lighten our load and make it easier on us. Two hundred miles on our tires and a little stronger legs,here we come GDMBT. And on our last day on the parkway, there was a Griz chomping on berries right by the road, we hear they are down low chasing berries and hopefully not cyclists.

 

“Crossing Saskatchewan”

photo photo photo

Cycling Back to the Divide

Blog post #2

Things changed immediately when we crossed over the border from North Dakota into Saskatchewan. We left behind the depressed towns of the northern tier raped by the fracking industry and entered the brilliance of the rape fields, that crop grown for its canola oil. The yellow flowers naturally glow with a light that appears to be radioactive but on this evening, the lowering sun dripped honey-colored light over the entire landscape. A long freight train kept pace with our loaded Ford pick-up, running parallel on the tracks alongside our road. (Tracks ran along our route across North Dakota too but we never saw a moving train, just hundreds of parked gas tank cars.) It was a fun race to see who was faster. It was us. The words “Saskatchewan” and “Canada” were printed on the sides of the cars, as well as a line drawing of a lily, perhaps the providence’s flower. Along the base of the cars was graffiti, rounded letters spray-painted various colors.

Abandoned barns sat along the road, their rectangular window holes were vacant and black, like hollow dead eyes. The weathered grey barns have been replaced with small round galvanized silos, dotting the fields. On the horizon, there were
no tall office buildings or even church steeples announcing a town was ahead, but monolithic grain elevators, towering many stories above the plains into the sky. They are situated right alongside the railroad tracks for ease in loading and unloading.

As soon as we crossed the border, the American establishments and businesses gave way to unfamiliar Canadian companies. Dunkin Donuts was replaced with Tim Horton. No recognizable American songs filled the radio waves but songs by Canadian artists. It was good to see that this close to American soil, our foreign neighbors maintained their own identity. In a land enveloped with wheat and rape fields, we listened to an appropriate talk show on paranormal activity, particularly the phenomena of crop circles.

We drove through lake and pond country and when we saw a moose crossing warning highway sign, we searched the roadside bodies of water for the magnificent creatures but only saw ducks with their butts in the air. Through this area, a Canadian talk show host interviewed a cadaver search dog trainer and heard an appropriate story where the dogs searched for the remains of a 5-year-old, missing for 42 years on a family fishing trip. The dogs located the body in the lake underwater, as they sniffed the gases that the submerged bones gave off on the surface, in invisible bubbles.

In the tiny roadside village of Borden, we stopped for gas and at the cash register were small homemade packages of beet seeds for sale for $2.00. The words “Bathroom Fund” were written on them, the proceeds going to a much-needed potty in the local museum.

Along this rural Canadian highway, huge bales of hay sat alongside the road like after thoughts. Hay is cut and baled here on the medial strip sand on the road side banks. All the roads are straight as arrows in Saskatchewan, looking like they could all double as air strips. This is the heartland of Canada, where a slight hill or a change is elevation is noted and appreciated. There are towns with the names of Cut Knife, Moose Jaw, Eyebrow, Foam Lake and Fairy Glen. A sign in ne of the towns announced an entrepreneur’s business, Ice Skates Sharpened. Up in the cloud studded sky, long jet lines streaked the brilliant blue, paralleling our trans-Canadian route. They ran in the same direction that we were headed, on this fourth and final day`s drive from Pennsylvania…on an angle towards Edmonton, Alberta, the capital airport. Our son, Bryce is flying into this airport and will join us on our first leg of our bike ride down the Rocky Mountains.

Back to the Divide BLOG #1

photo

July 22, 2016

My husband, Todd busily chomps on salt & vinegar chips while sipping a Pepsi and driving at high speed on I-80. We’re heading west across America towards the Rockies. He can’t do multiple things well so his speed suffers as he slows to 10-15 miles UNDER the speed limit. “You’re becoming a hazard,” I tell him, but he is hungry and happy.

We’ve made this crossing five separate times before, all 20-25 years ago but many things have changed since then. For one, we were busy in the truck cab, tending to kids needs. That Ford truck had a king cab with a full back seat, where our young children sat for the crossing. We fed them snacks, passed back sippee cups of drink, climbed back to help them sleep and let them lay their heads on our shoulder. Todd spent much of those crossings smashed in the seat between young Sierra and Bryce as I get car sick, so I drove the truck.

We were pulling a stock trailer of llamas in those days, as we headed west to hike another 500-mile stretch of the 3,100- mile National Scenic Continental Divide Trail. There are no llamas and no children in the truck today, but we do have Surly mountain bikes strapped in the truck bed. We’re gonna ride the Divide this time instead of hiking it , 20-25 years later, and we are unsure how it will be.

Walkin’ Jim Stoltz is playing on the CD, songs about the long trails, even one on the Continental Divide, where we are headed. Years ago, the kids wanted to hear Jim’s “A Kid for the Wild” tape. They knew every word to every song. They felt like those words were meant for them and they indeed had more than one private concert as Jim sang to them in their high chair with his guitar when he visited our home. Walkin’ Jim is dead now, taken from us prematurely from throat cancer. That man sang his heart out for all us wandering wilderness lovers.

I’m sitting in our quiet truck cab (except for the munching potato chip) and while I listen to his lyrics, I’m wondering why I am not more excited. I think I should be. Fifteen hundred miles is an epic adventure on this longest mountain bike trail in the world. But we are concerned about the grizzlies. They will be thick the whole time we travel through Jasper, Banff NP, then Glacier, the Bob Marshall Wilderness, Yellowstone, the Wind River Range, and the Tetons. Years ago, we had bubbly, babbling children with us, other adults and two strings of llamas to keep the bears at arm’s length.

A New Challenge

Todd and I are also hoping the trail will not be too hard, that we can physically do the miles AND have fun at the same time. I glance over at the eastbound lane of the interstate and know that when we will be on our return drive home, we will have a whole slew of memories to think about. Some of them may include encounters with this top of the food chain critter.

I look at my husband who in place of his thick dark curly hair has thinning white hair now. But he is still beastly as his muscular arm dives into the chip bag. I think we have many more wilderness adventures remaining in life. I’m hoping this long journey will set the bar high again and I want to stay fit like that for the rest of my life.

Before we left on this trip, I contacted some of our old friends who helped us on our family’s 5 -year llama pack trip. (The subject of my 6th book, Scraping Heaven, just now out in soft cover). They were friends associated with the llama industry who helped us be successful 20-25 years ago. They met us at road crossings, trailered our llamas to their home, fed us, did our wash, helped us re-supply.

“Of course they remember us,” they said when I called and want to help us again when we cycle through. We wonder if they still have llamas. All of ours are dead, filling the pet cemetery in the orchard back home. I packed photos of my adult children to show them. It will be great to reconnect with these Trail Angels, these people who helped make our dream come true.

It suddenly occurred to me what this mountain bike trip is mostly about. Cycling back and reconnecting. To our old friends AND to my husband over there across the cab. Reconnecting to him after our kids have grown and moved on to their own lives. This is our first wilderness expedition without them and I hope we will have fun and enjoy each other’s company.

Our marriage has not been without its bumps in the road. Any couple that stays together this long (33 yrs) is not being honest if they say otherwise. But we are still here, liking each other most of the time, besides loving each other, and that is a big deal. And it is an even a bigger leap of faith to be heading into this wilderness adventure together with no kids along to occupy us and distract us. He smiles at me between swigs of his Pepsi. “What?” he asks as I look at him. My husband, Trail Boss Todd, would follow me anywhere, whether I was leading llamas loaded with children or on a fat-tire mountain bike. Here’s to a great second half of our lives together. What better way to kick it off than an epic ride down the Great Divide.

“I Will Not Let You Fail”

IMG_8856 (1)

Before I left on a big adventure when I was young, like hiking the Appalachian Trail or the Pacific Crest Trail, my mother would make me a send-off dinner of pork and sauerkraut to wish me good luck. The local Germans in our area adopted this long-standing tradition, eating it every New Years. They believe that eating this meal will bring blessings and wealth for the new year. Before the meal, those seated at the table wish each other as much goodness and money as the number of shreds of cabbage in the pot of sauerkraut. My mom thought, why not the evening before a great journey. One needs good luck for that too.

This Thursday, Todd and I will leave for our first big wilderness adventure in nearly twenty years, the Great Divide Mountain Bike Trail (GDMBT). This trail is the longest mountain bike trail in the world- 2,768 miles. We’re also tacking on The Icefields Parkway, from Jasper NP to Banff NP, an added distance of 144 miles. It is considered to be “The Most Beautiful Bike Ride in the World,” so why not experience it too while we are in Alberta, Canada. We’re shooting for half the GDMBT this year and the remainder next year. This summer we plan to cycle about 1500 miles.

We haven’t been out for this long since we finished the National Scenic Continental Divide Trail (CDT) with our children back in 1997. We’ve traveled a lot in these twenty years, to many foreign countries, but nothing quite of this magnitude. I turned 60 this year and I expressed a desire to want to bring in the next decade extremely fit. It was Todd’s idea to cycle the trail and I jumped on the offer.

Trail Boss,” as Todd was lovingly called those five years we spent llama packing the CDT, had taken a back seat to travel these last twenty years. He went from a “leader” to a “sheep” as we toured the world and not the wilderness. It is time to resurrect the title, I suppose he thought, and I am all for it.

Both children have moved out of the house. And although we are there to parent and advise from afar, we have more time and energy to focus on our own dreams and activities. It feels like a good time to do this. My 6th book, Scraping Heaven- A Family’s Journey Along the Continental Divide Trail” has just come back into print and into softcover after not being available for many years. Why not revisit the Rockies twenty-years later, on bikes this time instead of leading llamas. Perhaps a new book will come out of it.

BIKES

When we first decided to tackle this long ride, we knew our beater bikes would not be a good choice. We have never been about gear and rode what we had (often second-hand bikes) on many 3-500 mile trails around the US and the world. (The Natchez Trace, Camino de Santiago, Erie Canal, the KATY Trail, etc.). These old bikes were “good enough.”

But we needed serious mountain bikes for the GDMBT, probably for serious money. I went to my friend, Tim Brick, who owns Brick Wheels Bike Shop in Traverse City, Michigan, who helped us in the past, and asked his advice. Tim lent us bikes in exchange for writing about him four years ago when I landed a contract with Adventure Cyclist Magazine. I wrote a feature story on cycling the Lelanau Peninsula and as a result, Tim and I became very close friends. See Tim’s story…..

THE MAGIC OF BRICK WHEELS Bike Shop | cindyrosstraveler

https://cindyrosstraveler.com/2015/01/16/the-magic-of-brick-wheels-bike-shop/

I told Tim that twenty years ago, Santana Bikes sponsored our 650 mile cycle trip across New Mexico by gifting us two tandems. I wrote about Santana for years in magazine articles as we rode their great bikes all over America and abroad, both very happy in the win/win relationship. Tim was sorry to inform me, however, that those days are over. Tight budgets and so many people asking for assistance, made the donation pool dry up.

But then we tried SURLY BIKES, a bike designer out of Minnesota who specializes in steel bicycle frames. Christina Julian, SURLY’S Global Marketing Manager/Promotions took a chance with us and offered us a great deal through Brick Wheels.

We read accounts of other GDMBT cyclists rode and what they recommend and forwarded that to Tim to decipher. We had so many questions about tire size, type of tread, specific breaks and gears, and on and on. Todd and I had to learn a new language and trust that Tim could help us figure it out. When I let out my concerns and doubts, Tim assured me, “I will not let you fail.” When Tim uttered those words over the phone to me, they took my breath away and tightened up my throat. For a person who is verbally demonstrative naturally, I did not know what to say. It gave me a clue as to what kind of friend this bike shop owner has become in these last four years.

Tim and his mechanics built these state of the art SURLY mountain bikes for us and helped us select all the gear and accessories that we would need: comfortable seats for touring, pannier racks, handlebar grips, pedals with cages etc. and gave it to us at deep savings. Tim knew that I have been having some issues with my inner ear and balance and vertigo and so he recommended I get a fat tire bike. It would help keep me safe and upright.

When I drove the 12 hours to Traverse City, Michigan to fetch the assembled SURLY bikes at Brick Wheels, I was speechless when I first saw them. They looked like sleek machines. I had never owned anything like this bike and I was not sure that I deserved it. Tim assured me that I did. While some 60-year-olds contemplate what type of Easy Boy recliner they will select to chill out with their favorite shows and flicks, I pick a SURLY mountain bike to take me to far away places and high adventure. What a good choice to ring in the second stage of my life. I am forever grateful for this ticket to health and big living.

MUIR RAMBLE ROUTE

It was only this past spring when another friend did a similar good deed for us, that too related to acquiring bikes. I once again had another contracted job with Adventure Cyclist Magazine to write a feature story on The Muir Ramble Route. This ride went from San Francisco to Yosemite, in the footsteps of John Muir, celebrating the 150 anniversary of the national parks.

We used to be able to fly with our beater bikes by putting them into a large cardboard box that went as oversized luggage. We stuffed our panniers and clothing and gear around the bike frame and never paid a cent for luggage fees. Today, shipping my, Todd and Bryce’s three bikes round trip to California would have cost us a grand total of $1200. Ridiculous. The flights were free with miles, the bike shipping would have cost a fortune. We toyed with the idea of starting to ride a day late and perusing second-hand shops for bikes, buying them and after completing the 300 mile ride, donating them to a homeless shelter.

Friends and philanthropists, Teri Graf-Pulvino and Ken Pulvino knew of a non-profit in San Francisco called New Door Ventures, a community service organization that prepares youth for success in work and life through paid internships, case management, and skill building workshops. One of their businesses is Pedal Revolution which trains at-risk youths how to assemble new bikes and repair used bikes for sale. The Pulvinos generously purchased bikes for Todd, Bryce and I and then donated them back to the store for resale as a contribution. We could have never done the ride without their help.

It is very clear to me that I could not accomplish the tasks I set out to do in my life, the adventures, the stories that I write to share and communicate, without the help of my friends. Their support and belief in me pushes me along my life like a tailwind from behind. I need their strength, especially on a journey like the GDMBT, where there are serious hazards like grizzlies.

GRIZ

A few weeks ago, a park service employee and mountain bike racer, collided with a grizzly bear on a gravel road two miles from the entrance to Glacier National Park. Yep, he was going fast, but so do vehicles on a gravel road. He surprised the bear and he got mauled to death. It was a fluke, but it gave Todd and I pause.

The last time we hiked through Glacier National Park, we had a 3 and a 5 year old with us, but also the company of another adult and about seven llamas. The back country superintendent said that there had never been an incident in the park involving stock- horses or llamas. We used the llamas as a shield and a warning system. Campgrounds were closing around us because of bear activity and our llamas sensed bears and were at high alert. We felt safe.

When we cycled in Alaska, we had to yell as we rode through thick vegetation so we did not scare the grizzlies. The distance between two mountain bike riders was far enough apart to surprise a wandering bear. A bike racer around Anchorage got mauled and killed by a bear during a race and that was within the city limit.

That year we hiked through Glacier NP with the kids and llamas, a few of my friends bought silver bracelets for me to add to my collection and be represented on my wrist. The idea was to be there with me through the danger and jingle like a prayer.

This year, I really do not FEEL as though this mountain bike journey will result in a fatality. But we are thinking about Henry David Thoreau’s quote, “We should go forth on the shortest walk (ride), perchance, in the spirit of undying adventure, never to return.”

So the night before we leave for Alberta, I will take off some of my silver bracelets (as dirt collects under them and they give me a rash when I can’t wash them in the tub every night), but I WILL keep on those bracelets that my friends bought me, (about half of the 20) including the beautiful one from Tim Brick, to keep their spirit and their strength with me. “I will not let you fail.” Powerful words, spoken by a powerful person. The power of love and support. It can move mountains and it can push me up and over mountains on my bike, safely past grizzlies.

And just for good measure, we’ll roast up some pork in a bed of sauerkraut for good luck. Can’t hurt.

Returning to the Days of Tom Sawyer & Huck Finn- it takes a village to heal a veteran

Veteran Jason hiked the whole mile with a stick in his hand, whacking things and playing with it. I couldn’t help but smile. He was behaving like a free boy in the woods. I raised my son, Bryce outdoors, along with his sister Sierra, and so recognized the behavior immediately. Jason was one of twenty Veterans from the Lebanon VA Medical Center, enrolled in a rehab program and out for the day in the woods with River House PA.

Jason would disappear over the steep side of the bank as we walked and we’d say, “Where’s Jason?” He was just wanting a better look at the river below, allowing his natural inquisitiveness dictate his actions and movement.

Version 3

The group looked like a motley one, walking the dirt road through the thick rhododendron with their bags in hand. It held a change of clothing or a swimsuit. A few of the younger vets went out ahead. They were free to walk their own pace.

The Lebanon Medical Center vans were parked by the river bridge on the Little Schuylkill River and my Board Member, Mike Schnur, drove the tubes the mile down to the swimming hole. There the river makes a turn where a creek enters the flow and it slows to nearly a stand still, so you can just hang out in the tube and not have to ferociously paddle back upstream. I planned to just stay in that area and switch off using the tubes. I only had 8 inner-tubes for 20 Veterans.

IMG_2865

Version 3

Recreational Therapist, Amy Cook, who is responsible for creating these events with River House, felt along with me, that a nice two-mile walk down and back would be good for them- some exercise and some fun. By the time we arrived at the spot, however, there were already a handful of young Vets in the water, on their way down the river, feeling like Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer. Unfortunately, we had to rein them in and tell them to stay in the area. “Put in around the corner and get out only a few tenths of a mile below and walk back, so we could switch off. TAKE TURNS- PLAY TOGETHER!”

Version 2 IMG_2859 IMG_2853

Amy Cook is so successful at her role as a recreational therapist at the medical center because she personally believes that besides the therapy the Vets receive immersed in nature, they were also gleaning valuable group therapy time by being together in a group outing. Besides working together, they were sticking their necks out by coming to a stranger’s home, with an organization, like River House PA, many of whom are not military. Both in-patient and out-patient services join forces to bring Vets on River House outings.

I must say though, that half of the Veterans here by the river today were repeat adventurers from the last event River House held with the Lebanon VA, only three weeks ago. We went for a lovely hike along the same river, the wild & scenic Little Schuylkill River here in Schuylkill County by the Blue Mountain. On that outing, the Vets hiked about 3 miles RT and then returned to our log home to enjoy a cook out by the fire and hand crank homemade ice cream. The Vets who were still enrolled in their re-hab program three weeks later, reminded Amy multiple times, “Make sure I am on that list to return to River House!” One Vet, Alan, told me he personally asked to stay on in the re-hab program another week so he could join in on this event.

When Amy and I discussed future events together during our last outing, I said that a late June outing could be hot. If we were going to ask them to exercise on a hike in the middle of the day, it might be a nice reward to go for a swim and cool off. I have a few tubes and thought I could ask a few friends to borrow some for the Vets’ use. Amy and I were looking for experiences that didn’t just bring them outdoors in nature to help heal, but also experiences that might stretch them, put some adventure and joy of life back in their souls. The idea of swimming and even more, floating in a tube, created a list of interested Vets too long to fit in the vans.

Version 2

But we just experienced a heavy rain the night before the outing, causing the river to muddy up and get even cooler, as well as air temps dropping to a humidity-free, comfortable temperature. I thought they might reconsider swimming and want to skip. When I asked that morning how many wanted to swim, Amy said, “All of them!”

When the first van pulled up in our driveway, the Vets from the last outing, tumbled out with outstretched arms delivering a hug. The newbies followed suit. I am Sicilian and a big hugger and their unusual show of affection can also be contributed to the love and care of their leader, Amy. She is a marvelous combination of a caring mother figure and a firm disciplinarian. She takes no shit yet she is sure to let them know she deeply cares about each and every one. Amy reprimanded the Vet who dropped his candy wrapper as soon as he exited the vehicle, reminding them that they needed to be diligent about caring for other’s property. At the riverbank, I observed how Amy stood watch over some of her more cautious Vets to make sure they stayed safe and had a buddy to be there in the water for them. Another time she sat with her arm around two Vets and they both exchanged how much they loved one another.

Version 2 Version 2

Version 2

It was great to observe the laughter, silliness, and freedom that the Vets exhibited on the river as they PLAYED. There are not many opportunities for an adult to actually play unless they create them for themselves. We tend to grow serious and forget the joy that playing, specially outdoors brought us as a child, especially adults in re-hab where there are so many meetings and sessions and therapies etc.

Version 2 Version 4

IMG_2871

Version 3

The most heart-hitting image I saw at the river however was when Amy gathered the Vets to get together for the mile walk back to the vans, there was Wayne, coming down the road from exploring, on his crutches. We just stopped and stared and marveled. He walked the full mile back to the swimming hole with the rest, his choice, up and down small hills, keeping pace with everyone else. He did not see the long walk as a hardship or his missing leg as a deterrent. The power of determination and the need to be out in nature was overwhelming.

Version 2

All the Vets displayed a healthy appetite for dinner and Chris, the other rec therapist along to help, got a few of the Vets to put on a few campfire skits like the Scouts do. It was all in good fun and it helped a few get even further out of their comfort zone and break down any barriers.

IMG_2908

Amy went around the circle by the fire and invited the Vets to share, if they wanted, on what being out here on the river today felt like and meant to them. This is what I heard:

I didn’t think about the daily stresses of life.

I am happy here.

This is truly God’s country.

It calms me, being here.

I loved sitting by the stream with my thoughts.

This brings out the best in you.

Version 2

Many said they had not swam nor inner-tubed in a river since they were kids, (one said it had been 60 years ago). It brought back fond memories of a happy childhood, sitting around a campfire, and they now have a vision of the life they’d like to return to and make nature play a major part of their lives again.

Vets who are fathers and grandfathers spoke of how they wanted to share these kinds of experiences with the youngsters in their lives. Everyone spoke as being hugely grateful to River House for the opportunity to be here today. And when we got to Wayne, in the circle, there was a big round of applause for his performance here today and his presence that inspired us all.

Gratitude is a huge part of the healing process and Amy is wise enough to know that teaching this virtue or at least reminding them of it, is a big part of them getting better, gaining control of their lives, and taking steps to creating a happy healthy way of living. We at River House, are grateful for the opportunity to share what we have and what we know to help our comrades. As Roberto Clemente said and is a River House motto,

“Any time you have the opportunity to make a difference in the world and you don’t, you are wasting your time on earth.”