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…
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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).
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?”
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
Had a fabulous reunion with my old boyfriend, Bryan Smith. whom I have not seen since I walked out the door the night before I left for my first epic long distance trail on the Appalachian Trail thirty-eight years ago. My mom made her famous pork and sauerkraut good luck dinner and Bryan was there to cheer me on. Bryan moved on after that and so did I, down other trails, but after finding me on the internet, we had a wonderful lunch and hike to North Look Out today. Bryan would laugh or say things that I remember him doing thirty-eight years ago and it brought me right back to my youth. Why is connecting to these old friends so important? Because they remind us of who we were and WHO WE STILL ARE despite the passing decades and aging process- our spirits our hearts are still the same, and it gives us the opportunity to honor the people who helped mold us into who we have become, by their influence, their love, their support. Everyone we have met, most especially those impacting us deeply (like an old friend or a boyfriend) makes considerable impact on our lives. I thank you Bryan, for being a part of my life thirty-eight years ago, for loving me and for returning. What a gift. (Bryan is not a midget- He’s sitting- I’m standing. he’s really quite tall!! ha ha)
There was one week left to our mountain biking summer adventure. One week out of six remained. Todd and I both vowed that this last week was going to be the best week- taking our time, creating more joy, seeing beauty, making the most of our last days on the trail.
It took Todd and I awhile to figure this sport and journey out. We are no newbies to long distance wilderness travel, have logged thousands of miles on our bikes, even mountain bikes doing the 650-mile Great Divide Mountain Bike Trail in New Mexico with our kids on tandems twenty years ago and the 450-mile Camino de Santiago in Spain. But the GDMBT was different. It was much harder than we ever imagined and we never got strong enough to put in the 50-60 mile days we had hoped to evolve towards. We were in good enough shape when we left. Even after consistently biking 35-48 miles a day, we never once went to bed after taking Advil. Not a single pain killer was ingested and that is saying something for a 60 & a 57 year old. Once we accepted the fact that this was our best mileage, Todd relaxed about feeling the need to push.
We thought we were going lightweight when we left. We discovered that my loaded bike was comparable to the other male cyclists on the trail, even the young, very strong cyclists so I was no slacker. Todd’s bike, however, grew heavier and heavier as the weeks ticked by, taking more of my weight in hopes of getting me to cycle faster and farther each day. But the other cyclists were minimals- no stoves, no long pants or jackets- but SLEEVES and leggings of thin fabric which they pulled up to cover their limbs. Little food- One cyclist ate only cheese and crackers every dinner. We needed to step up our lightweight game.
Rolling along on level or downhill, the weight was fine, but pushing our bikes up and over mountains, was a real challenge. Nothing we could not do, but it was hard. The second to the last day before our ride came to an abrupt end, we had the most difficult push of the summer. We were taking our own gravel road route as opposed to the designated route, so we could cycle past an old logger friend’s home from twenty years ago. We were so excited to think of surprising him after all these years and couldn’t wait to arrive at his home. Gordon had directed our family and llamas to his log home when we were hiking the Continental Divide Trail, offering a steak dinner, homemade bread and a great friendship.
The gravel road that climbed up and over the Divide was the longest steepest we encountered. I could not push my loaded bike more than 15 yards without stopping to breathe deeply and allow my lungs to catch up to their demand for air. And my arms ached as I propelled my bike forward. I did push ups and lifted weights before we left but it seemed like it did nothing. My upper body is no comparison to Todd’s tremendous strength from chainsaw carving and wielding a very heavy saw, to blacksmithing, splitting firewood and all the manly jobs and activities he does every day throughout his daily life.
Todd was far behind me when I was on the top steepest section of the climb, (he stopped to filter water at a lake), when I became overwhelmed with the struggle and began to weep. I shocked myself. It was quiet sobbing and I hung my head and said in a whisper, “This is so hard.” When I told Todd what happened later he was surprised as I had recovered (as we always do on the downhills) and asked why. I said that I did not know, it just sprang forth out of me and I could not control it. It was cathartic.
Hard was “okay “most of the time. We told the kids years ago when we continued to return to the CDT and hike every year, despite the challenges, “It’s not always easy, but it’s always worthwhile.” Todd and I also believed this when it came to the GDMBT. We were experiencing beauty, were drawing closer as a couple, and certainly were becoming more fit- a big goal of the trip, and we so planned an attitude adjustment, to try to have even more fun next year. We had every intention to return next summer and pick up where we left off and continue making our way down to Mexico. Until, Todd woke up the morning we were in Butte, Montana, looked me in the eyes and uncharacteristically said, “I have to tell you something.”
“I think something is wrong with my heart. Last night it raced for an hour and now it is still pausing and speeding up.” I put my hand on his chest and sure enough I could feel the obvious inconsistency.
When I asked him if it actually woke him up in the night, he told me that he had gotten up to pee, which he never does, and noticed it once he retuned to our tent. We were camping in a KOA and the stupid shitter was across the campground and you needed a four digit numerical code to open the door, which he could not remember. I asked him, “Do you think you were anxious over not remembering the code and freaked out? Really? Do you think you had heart palpitations over the need to just take a piss?” He didn’t think so. “Why didn’t you just pee in the stones on the parking lot? ”
He told me that his heart does this about once a week or every two weeks his whole life and I said, “are you kidding, married to you for over thirty years and you never told me that? No, that is not normal.”
He said he is afraid to go back onto the trail and have something bad happen like a heart attack or a stroke and leave me to deal with a dead husband in the wilderness. I told him I did not want that to happen nor did I want him to worry so much and have it impact the fun we just decided we deserved to experience in this last week. Plus his father just had his erratic heart cauterized to regulate it and Todd was pretty convinced he inherited the same issue, (as was Bryce).
We spoke to a local nurse that we met and she said that no doctor would probably be able to tell anything without putting on a Holter monitor and recording his heart rate for multiple days and nights, which we may as well wait to get until we are home. We had pushed it that day (the next day after the weeping Divide climb), although the terrain was much easier. Every time I took a swig from my water bottle, I said to Todd, “You aren’t drinking, why aren’t you thirsty?” He said, “I’m not sweating much.” I reminded him it was windy and we were so sweating. We were out of salty snacks and were looking forward to chowing down at an all-you-can-eat in Butte. When we discovered that our Butte warm showers.org host was across town by 5 miles, up the steep hill, we grew hungrier and thirstier. Our nurse host said that perhaps Todd was low in electrolytes -sodium, potassium and magnesium, and it threw his heart rate off. We decided to not return to the trail, quit a week early, and take our time getting home, stopping at national parks and watching how Todd felt and seeing if his heart acted up again. He did not want to go to the hospital.
When our daughter, Sierra caught wind of her parents NOT getting this issue checked out, she demanded that we go to an urgent care facility in Jackson, Wyoming, and so we listened. The EKG looked fine at first, but then it showed a pause and 4 rapid beats. The doctor wanted us to go to the hospital immediately. There 6 nurses and doctors worked on him (no one else was in emerg), taking chest x-rays, blood tests, more EKG’s and finally after a whole afternoon, released him. His valves were all open and showed no signs of blockage. His blood had returned to normal after eating and drinking a balanced diet, but low electrolytes “with an irritable heart rate” was the supposed culprit. “Go to your doc when you get home and get a monitor,” were their directions. And so we went to Mount Rushmore, the Badlands, Custer State Park, and had some fun.
But then Todd’s arm and hand began to go numb. Friends and family alerted us that this could be a stroke symptom. Todd’s mind went wild again– open heart surgery, a pacemaker, not being able to cycle the GDMBT next summer or do anything physical again. When we pulled up to a minute market, he went past the Handicap space and said, “That will be me soon.” Bryce went back and forth between being very concerned and worried about his dad and also teasing Todd calling him “Pacemaker Padre.” He claimed that he had the same issue with his heart and Todd said they can both go get pacemakers- two for the price of one.
Once we got home, we called the doctor and in our appointment learned that his numbing arm and hand was caused by a pinched nerve in his neck, aggravated by pushing his heavy bike up the Divide, vibrating severely on the rocky downhills, gripping the steering wheel as he drove for hours around Chicago & Gary, Indiana with tons of trucks, and mowing with a vibrating mower only an hour once we got home, because he couldn’t stand the sight of a lawn and an orchard with long grass. No stroke, and a very clear and clean EKG- the electrolyte deficiency probably was the culprit. We have an appointment at the hospital tomorrow for a stress test and a monitor. The doctor does not think they will find anything wrong. He already had his “stress test” mountain biking 800 miles and pushing his loaded bike up and over the Divide.
So it looks like after we unpack and get back to normal life here, Todd will pull out the GDMBT maps and begin planning next year’s ride. He won’t be getting a pacemaker probably, (Bryce changed his nickname to “Paranoia Padre.” I told him the acorn does not fall far from the tree), I’m not going to need to wipe his drool and diaper my beastly, manly husband anytime soon, and we have vowed to do things differently next year. As in more salty snacks, potassium and magnesium rich foods, vitamin supplements, Gatorade drink mixes, and NO STRESS to go faster, farther, longer. I had an issue with my German gestapo husband in the beginning weeks of this ride, him wanting me to go faster, farther, longer and me, on the other hand, wanting to be happy with what we were covering and trying to have more fun along the way. I have learned that my husband was not just pushing me, but himself and got a little carried away with thinking he was invincible and could push himself to extremes. This is not a question or a problem with age. Age has nothing to do with electrolyte deficiency.
Besides learning about what is lightweight on a mountain bike and what is too much, how much is enough electrolyte supplements and not enough, we’re also learning how to get along on a challenging journey in a many decades-long marriage when we have not been alone for all these years. This bike ride is teaching Todd and I a new way to learn to live together. That is what this GDMBT is truly about- our introduction to life beyond children. The Great Divide is our theatre. Maybe there is another book in there, twenty years after we traveled this way with kids and llamas. And oh by the way, our old logger friend that we were looking for outside Butte, died five years ago, from cancer, unbeknownst to his friends in PA. We stopped a man in a pick up near Gordon’s house and asked if he knew if Gordon was around and he gave us the bad news. One more message in life to not take one day for granted, to take it slow and make the best of this life.
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.