Breaking Free, because sometimes we just need to

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Allure of Owls!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Cambodia- On the Road Back to Recovery

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

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

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

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

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(building a second lane)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cambodia blog- an initial downer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Circling & Cycling Back to Eagle’s Nest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stone Soup Party

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

STRONGER TOGETHER

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

Exploring Nature – with Autism

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

 

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NICHOLAS BRAHM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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CARSON BURCH

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Veteran Bob Hamilton gets Back his Leg & his Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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