CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. John 1:5

We exchange a good laugh about the Fisherman’s camp and continue walking. 

I send a telepathic check-in to home base: I’m ok, Hon. You know I am a survivor no matter what. Hope you can feel my soul speaking to you.

I imagine Paul is happy to wake up this morning having had no knocks on the front door from police delivering bad news. Knowing the Steam Team’s darkest night is over may provide relief both to us on the trail and to those who care about us. I find it funny that our darkest night involved sleeping with a light on the whole time.

The terrain changes from the abundance of browns to tall, wispy lime green grass and blue sky on the horizon as we climb higher and higher. I think the bright blue is a good sign at first.

Looks like the top of the mountain is just ahead. We’re almost there. 

I remember on the trail plan that at the end of Laurel Prong Trail we will turn left back onto the AT. 

The top, the top of the mountain. I can see it! –or so I think.

The girls await my caboose at a trail marker post.

When they see me approach, they turn right.

Why not left!?

Sunshine points out that the trail post says Laurel Prong continues this way. To the right. There’s more Laurel Prong to hike. We are not to our official turn yet.

“Sneaky trail,” says Stalker C.

Yeah, it is!

To the right we go. SunFloJo lifts the mood, “Isn’t this beautiful?!”

From the back of the line, I quietly huff, “Breathtaking.” –which had a funny double meaning if anyone had heard it.

I look right and down over the mountain side trail we just climbed. That is an impressive view of how far we’ve come today. 

To my left is the mountain ridge and a majestic crisp sky. Between me and the ridge is soft flowing grass. I mentally immerse into the beauty. We are on top of the world.

I pause to look across the sky at many mountains in the distance and contemplate how this mountain is among its friends. This is an overlook without a drive or pull off parking spot. There is no road. We’ve earned this glorious view by climbing.

While one foot follows the next, I enter a prayerful time of reflection while thinking a lot about my relationship with God. 

I sense my Higher Power say:

What if you spent more time with Me? What if you stop trying to make things fit and simply give it all to Me? Give me your marriage. Give me your work, your children, your journey. You don’t have to figure it out. All you need to do is do the next step and then the next step after that. The supernatural comes from Me. Allow and invite me into your whole life, not just your heart.

I ask: But why haven’t you moved in our finances? Why are things not better in Paul’s work and body? What do we need to do to improve our situation?

Have you asked Me in faith to handle those challenges?

Verses come to mind as if I can hear the Word more clearly from this elevation.

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the LORD.  “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” Isaiah 55:8-9

Trust in the Lord with all your heart; and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your paths.  Proverbs 3:5-6

And then my mind hears:

What I’m saying is make room. You chose the name Surrender for a reason. Make room and allow Me to direct your path.

I ponder the many ways I have not asked for God’s help in recent years. I think about what it would mean to make room for supernatural blessings. I think about my friends who say, “trust the process.”

My mind hushes. I seek time with God. My mind churns to a pleasant blank nothingness while feeling fully embraced by love.

~

We march on with heat friction between our backs and backpacks. Sweat drips down faces, necks, and arms.

The trail changes to extra narrow. We enter a path about five inches wide of dirt between billowing grass. I am unnerved by the grass brushing my calves.

Please don’t let anything climb up my leg or inside my pants leg! I make noise and swish the ground with my trekking poles.

I am torn whether to look left to the poetic mountain tops or to keep my eyes on every spec of dirt in my path.  

Look! A bright orange salamander type creature ahead of my feet. That is cool.

I am careful not to squish him. I step over it and then nearly step on a fuzzy orange-yellow furry caterpillar type guy. There are some brightly colored things up here that don’t seem to have camouflage options.

I take in a deep breath and exhale. The air grows thin. I repeat the deep breathing.

Keep walking, Surrender. Keep breathing too. 

Then trail changes again. We begin a rocky edge along the tip top of the mountain. We step up and over many rocks to make our way, big and small rocks. 

I encourage my ankles to remain strong. The slightest slip could cause me to slide left off the cliff and down the side of the mountain. The trail is narrow with nothing but empty space to my left and a wall of rock just taller than me to my right. 

The narrow footing is a challenge. If we run into anyone going the opposite direction, then we will have to cling to complete strangers to figure out how to pass one another.

The Steam Team walks close together now. Everyone wants to make sure we get through this ridge. No one talks. Concentration is high.

I think about how snakes might like to sun themselves on the rocks to my right and how much I hope they don’t choose to do that here today. I hope we make enough noise to keep such creatures away.

A large rock blocks our path. As she scales it, SunFloJo slips. My heart skips. The girls gasp.

SunFloJo falls wisely toward the rock wall side and hangs on to jagged stones until she regains footing.

Sunshine Rat asks, “Are you ok?”

“Yep. I’m good.”

“Good save,” I say. 

We are a tired, dirty crew. Flies buzz around my greasy head. I notice Stalker C bats flies from her forehead too. I am kind of surprised flies hang out at this altitude.

We pause to put our sleeping buffs around our heads. That keeps flies at bay somewhat but not completely.

I step with my trekking pole and the pole sinks. I slide down with the pole face first into rocks. My belly saves me by catching on the rock I was trying to climb over.

“Surrender!” Sunshine Rat sees me go down.

I glance at the cliff to my left. “I’m ok,” I say but don’t believe. 

Surely, we are near the AT intersection. Surely.

“Wanna rest a minute?” SunFloJo asks me once I crawl over the rock.

I nod. The girls hike ahead. 

The two most senior of the group need a break. Tiredness is becoming a liability.

SunFloJo and I sit on a 3-foot log that somehow is stuck on this short-width trail. I try not to think about the rocks or critter holes behind or under me. My feet touch the edge of the mountain. Hopefully whatever lurks nearby stays at bay. 

From our seated position we face the deep valley and mountains as far as we can see. Falling to our death is easily possible. I cannot see how far down the mountain is below my feet. 

Far, very far. Steep, very steep.

Yet how beautiful is this?! When in life have I ever had the opportunity to be wedged on the side of a mountain this high up? Um, never.

Overcome, I sense dry tears could flow. I am too dehydrated for wetness to form in my eyes.

“Are you tired?” SunFlo asks.

So tired.

I nod and wipe sweat with my shirt collar. The sun is intense.

“We’ll just sit a moment. We have plenty of time.”

I drink the water we purified earlier this morning. I’ve been thirsty for a while. I’m not sure how I’ll be able to make my ration of water last if the rest of our day is like Laurel Prong Trail has been.

SunFloJo hands me a dried mango slice. I eat it without hesitation. It tastes good, sweet. I need nature’s sugar.

We breathe and rest for a few minutes. We can not afford any more stumbles on this stretch.

Regaining some strength, I share, “I’ve tried to throw my anger and sadness off cliffs, over waterfalls and into fire this whole trip.” 

SunFloJo nods.

I pause, “Not sure how many more opportunities I’ll have.”

“Do you feel better?”

“Maybe lighter emotionally.” I continue, “I’m happy for our son. He’s going to go live his dream. I would never choose the risks and lifestyle of a military career for him, but it is what he wants. I’m going to miss him.”

SunFloJo listens.

“You have a baby and everyone warns you that they grow fast. Man, that’s the truth…. And maybe I need to let go of the non-profit dream. Perhaps I’ve laid the foundation and someone else will rise to take on the next steps. Maybe I need to make room for others to carry on the work. I am going to be open about whatever is next. I’m giving God back the dream. We’ll see what happens. When it is time to quit, I trust He will make it clear. It is so hard to turn away from doing something you love.”

More listening. We stare at the valley and mountains.

SunFloJo is completely still. I sense that I have however long I need on this log.

I can talk with God, her, or both. It doesn’t matter to her. She could say something. That would be ok.

But she doesn’t.

“And those girls.” I point to the right although the girls are well beyond us, “They are so smart, young and have such good attitudes. Lord, please don’t let them settle for anything that holds them back or weighs down their spirit. They are encouragers. They are free from restraints. Keep them free. Keep them blessed and upbeat like they are right now.”

I wipe my face. This is a new sensation; crying without tears because my body can’t produce any. 

SunFloJo asks, “That’s really more about you, isn’t it?”

 “Yes.” I choke on air, “It is.”

Silence.

I say, “I remember being like them.”

We sigh.

“I hear you, sweetie. Me too.”

Silence.

We stare and breathe, taking in the moment.

Guess we better get going.

I stand. SunFloJo hands me her last piece of dried mango. That should be enough fuel to get me to lunch. My legs went to sleep while sitting on our awkward perch. I fight through the sleepy muscles and get my feet moving.

Soon the rocks change back to tall grass. We are no longer on the edge of the mountain.

It takes a little while to catch up to the girls. 

“We see it!” Sunshine says about the trail intersection we’ve been looking for. “Just up ahead.”

The four of us approach our last trail marker. 

Sun rays filter through the trees to shine gently on the intersection spot. This is where Laurel Prong Trail dead ends into the AT making a very big T.   

It is finally time to eat lunch. We have not seen another human all day so we make ourselves at home in the intersection which is perhaps the widest path we’ve seen today. SunFloJo spreads out her sleeping mat for seating. I sit on a stump with my pack on the ground next to me. Stalker C is to my left with her legs stretched straight out on the ground. She starts to munch some chips.

I go for protein from Teriyaki Beef Jerky. I tear pieces of a tortilla to eat and unwrap ginger candy to hopefully boost my body. 

Sunshine sits on the mat with SunFloJo. She offers insight about the time she and Stalker C were alone, “We had a little moment.”

Stalker C rolls her eyes, “I kinda lost it. I am not going to make it much longer. My body and attitude are done.”

My head tilts.

Sunshine adds, “Her foot issue is getting worse. But maybe we won’t go up any more mountains from here. It looks pretty straight in the direction we’re going next.”

“Lies,” Stalker C says. “The trail lies. Can’t trust it.” She swats a fly, and then another. She shakes her head. “I’m losing it.”

“Oh, Honey,” SunFloJo laughs. “We just had a moment where Surrender was breaking down and then talking about how great your two girls’ attitudes are.”

The irony.

Sunshine snickers, “I wasn’t having a very good attitude the last few miles. That trail marker back there saying that it was another mile before we reach the AT just about sent me over the edge. I wanted to jump off the mountain for sure.” She sighs. “Alas, but now we’ve made it.”

Stalker C says, “We couldn’t believe how positive you two were being when we had to scale those rocks!”

“Us? Positive?” I say.

SunFloJo requests half chuckling, “Tell what you were hoping for their lives, Surrender.”

We laugh through the dirt and sweat on our bodies about how I hope they’ll maintain positive attitudes like they have today and be wise about sticking with positive people, to never let negativity hold them back.

Stalker C scoffs and her shoulders go back, “But now I’ve lost it. I’ve got a bad attitude.”

Sunshine Rat offers, “Stalker, you’ve had a great attitude. This is tough. We just lost it a little for a moment. We own it. We’ve got this. We’ll work it out.”

I smile. We are all humans on a mission managing the best we can with our minds and bodies. I look south down the AT as far as I can see, “Homestretch now.”

SunFloJo says, “I think it is funny that we were having separate meltdowns at the same time while admiring the opposite two.”

Laughter cleanses us.

After our revelation, we take time to breathe. I adore how our unique foursome respects quiet time. We are our authentic selves through strain, laughter, and peace. We value reflection time unanimously.

I stretch and recline for a few minutes.    

Sunshine Rat breaks our silence, “Stalker C, we haven’t hit our goal yet. We’ve only got one trail left,”

Sunshine turns to the older of us and says, “We thought we’d meet our dream mountain men this week and be swept off our feet.”

Stalker C says, “That’s right. We’ve gotta bring home our true loves from this graduation trip to our parents.”

Hmmm.

I offer, “There’s still time.”

This chapter is available on the Surrender On The Trail podcast too.

CHAPTER SEVEN

CHAPTER SEVEN

So do not fear, for I am with you;
    do not be dismayed, for I am your God.
I will strengthen you and help you;
    I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.

Isaiah 41:10

JUNE 1, 2016

It is Zero Dark Thirty.

My body stirs. I am unsure if I have slept hours or minutes.  

Did I bring the flip knife into the tent with me? My hands survey the darkness.

I promised Jacob that the knife would be in my pocket, but I forgot to get it out of my bag.

My eyes open to the nothingness. I hear a creature!

Maybe two? Three creatures?! 

Little snorts and sniffs graze outside the tent near my head. I guess these animals are not opposed to the scent of moth balls. I roll my eyes. 

Sniff, sniff, sniff.

Leaves rustle under whatever kind of paws they have. Sniff, sniff. 

My body freezes. What if it is a skunk? And it startles? What if it sprays a horrible stench? 

Or, what if it is the type of animal that will run away if I make noise? 

What should I do?

I contemplate.

What if I turn on my flashlight? Maybe that will create a shadow showing me what it really is? 

But–what if knowing what it is will make me feel worse? Knowing could be scary.

Nope. No shadow images. Thanks. I do not need to know!

I shiver in the cold night air. My arms cross inside Paul’s wind breaker style golf sweatshirt.

Is that a stick in my back? Ouch. No, it just hurts to sleep on the ground

While I am five feet ten inches tall, the borrowed sleep pad is two feet five inches long. Not much padding is under this body. I visualize the much longer pad I saw at a store for $59.99. That was too much to spend when a borrowed pad was available. 

Sniff, sniff.

While the nocturnal visitors continue to scurry near me, I think about the budget at home and how the boys wanted macaroni and snacks the week I said no to $59.99 for myself. My mind wanders on to thoughts about the timing of bills and the cash left behind that should get the guys through this week. Jacob is going to work a summer lifeguard job. That will help.

Arms tight and legs curled in an effort to find warmth, I fall back to sleep.

DAYBREAK

I awaken to chirping birds. My body hurts when I roll over inside the tent.

The birds are loud.

Anxious excitement arrives. This is it! Time to hike. It is about to be the real deal with no opportunity for escape to a nearby parked car. We are going into the woods!

I learned yesterday that Dick and SunFloJo revised the plan so that we will drive to our hiking end point today to meet Dick. That is where we will leave the car. Then Dick will drive our group to the start point for drop off. This way we will end hiking the trail back at our car.

Genius new idea? Yes, but this is not what Paul is picturing back in our family room. I think about him looking at our trail plan, probably reviewing it repeatedly. I can feel his mind visualizing our steps. He thinks our car will be at the starting point, not the end.

My phone no longer works in the national park so there is no way to update him. I trust that a search team would check both ends of the plan for our car and clues if needed. Let’s just hope we do not get lost. I am fine. Everything is fine.

When we purchased gasoline yesterday, I sent the last text to say I love him and the boys. I shared that I was putting the phone away until the end of the trip. I turned off the cell and put it in SunFloJo’s glove box.

I do not know what time it is. I recall that my backpack is in disarray. I have got to fix that. Maybe I can quietly do this before anyone else is awake.

The sound of my tent unzipping does not seem to disturb the young girls’ tent, but it turns out that JoAnn and I are unzipping in unison. We crawl out of our tents both with the same need to pee. 

We do not talk. We stumble around looking for a good spot. My back is on fire from the hours spent on the ground. My legs are numb. Also, I am not a morning person. I wave her toward the direction she seems to be interested in anyway and I head the opposite direction toward the parking lot.

Urinating in the light of day is something to figure out. I wander a bit. Decisions, decisions.

I take care of business in the grass behind a dumpster. Success. Who knew that figuring out how to pee outside would feel like such an accomplishment?

The stream runs under the dumpster and out the other side toward the parking lot and road. I will pretend like I do not see that if anyone happens to walk by. Next time I will do better in the grass somewhere deeper in the woods. I am building confidence in this new skill.

I walk back to camp quietly. The girls continue to snooze. Good, I need the picnic table space to spread out supplies. I will take down my tent, hopefully sort through my backpack, and then they can have the same space to organize if needed. Keep sleeping girls. I notice SunFloJo is back inside her tent.

But first I need to peek at the fire pit.

Darn it! The broken hot dog IS present in the ash. It did not burn up.

Uh oh. We were lucky no bears came overnight. –No bears that I know of anyway. Now I feel bad for lying. And I feel relief that we survived the night. I really believed the hot dog must have burned up. I walk the dog pieces back to the road and throw the remains into the dumpster. Good riddance.

I disassemble my tent. SunFloJo’s hand emerges from her tent. She tosses out the car keys. No words. She knows what I am up to. I appreciate that. Hoping I do not disturb her too much, I am happy to soon hear her snore again. Sleep all you can, I think. No doubt we are going to need every ounce of rest we can get out here.

Grass, trees, and the lingering fire scent smell fresh in this new day. My tent is rolled to fit into its little bag. My backpack is dismantled and reassembled. Anything I might not need goes into my overflow tote bags and into the back of the CR-V. 

As I work, I look down toward who I will now refer to as Shut-Up-Guy. He is up, out of his tent and packing his bag. He has an interesting look. He is thin, about 5 feet 7 inches tall, has bright white hair, and I think he may be Asian. Maybe. At one point he grabs what I recognize is a mini-shovel and heads north into the woods. He is gone a long time. Must be his poo time I suppose based on YouTube lessons. Ugh, I really hope I do not have to figure out the shovel thing on this trip.

When I put things back in the car, a park ranger in an SUV stops to ask if someone was in our spot last night. I had not thought much about it but as a matter of fact, “Yes.”

Shut-Up-Guy was in our spot. So, we were supposed to be in 1A1 by ourselves. We certainly would have had more room if he had not been there.

No idea what the ranger is going to do about it, but now I feel better regarding our first night that included minor noise and nervous energy.

Inside the car, I change into my outfit for the rest of the week: Paul’s Boy Scout pants, dri wick shirt formerly belonging to my sons, Fruit of the Loom Cool Blend underwear. Then I place the knife into my cargo pant pocket.

Back at the picnic table, I open my last Pepsi can and sit down to munch on a Pop-Tart for breakfast. I stare into the trees and listen to SunFloJo sleep.

Dear God,

Thank you for the beauty of nature. Please bless our trip. Keep us safe from injury and danger. Guide us and take care of our families back home.  Thank you. 

Amen.

The girls come out of their tent as I finish breakfast. I feel organized. Ready for the day.  Let’s do this. It’s almost time to meet Dick!  We told him we would see him at 9am.

“Do you know what time it is?” Stalker C asks the very relaxed me.

“No idea,” I say. Isn’t it lovely? I am awake with the birds and that is all I know.

The girls observe that my stuff is packed. I whisper, “I don’t want to be late for Dick.” Sunshine and Stalker C giggle.

Shut-Up-Guy grumbles a monotone “Good morning” toward us as he gathers items and leaves camp with supplies on his back.

The girls shared that they slept off and on through the night. They had layered up for cold, but it turned out the layers made them too hot. Also, they were closest to the mystery tent guy and it occurred to them that stranger danger could be an issue.

SunFloJo comes out of her tent as the girls begin packing up. “What time is it?” I ask.

“6:00AM.” 

“That’s all?” Wow. I have been up a long time.

Stalker C and Sunshine Rat softly scoff at my surprised face.

We will have ourselves together in plenty of time to meet Dick. 

Sunshine, Stalker C and I sit on top of the picnic table.  We reflect about the trip so far.  Sunshine brought a lightweight journal.   

“Thank you, Sunshine. I do not want to forget the details of what we see and do along the way. In just 24 hours so much has happened already and so much is ahead,” I say as Sunshine writes notes about our adventures.

Rosemary the deer returns to camp briefly. She walks near our picnic table and nods toward Stalker C. 

Everything back in the car, we drive to the camp store before leaving Loft Mountain Campground. SunFloJo and Sunshine get morning coffee. The building smells of fresh cut wood.

“Delicious,” Sunshine says about the coffee. Stalker C and I pour energy powder packets into water bottles.

The sun gently tickles the tops of our heads as we put on hiking boots for the day. The guy from the store comes outside to chat with us. We exchange where everyone is from. He is originally from Ohio. He and his wife moved here ten years ago. 

My mind leaves the group conversation. I internally marvel at a quick mental list of things like:  Wow I slept outside last night. I am not taking a shower today and that’s kind of weird. Today I get to hike to the highest peak in the Shenandoah Valley area. And perhaps most importantly, I hope Dick is not a serial killer.

Oh wait. What time is it? Will I ever get used to having no clock with me?

Perhaps we are too Zen hanging outside the store overlooking another mountain view. Sunshine asks, “Are we running on time to meet Dick?”

The store guy says, “It’s about 9:05am now.”

The Steam Team stands up!

Somehow with plenty of time to get ready we are late. We are supposed to meet Dick in the parking lot of Lewis Mountain Campground a few miles down the road. 

On the way to Lewis we try in vain to get the girls’ cellphones to work. There is no signal.  I borrow SunFloJo’s phone and send a text to Dick that says “On our way” but the screen icon spins indefinitely and I am not sure if it goes through. Calling does not work on any of the phones either.

As SunFloJo picks up speed on curvy roads, I eye Stalker C who may be getting a little nervous about going into the woods where the bears live. Me too, Sister!

“Are you worried about the bears?” I ask.

She nods yes.

“At least there are not grizzly bears here. Black bears generally will leave you alone,” SunFloJo assures us.

“Good to know,” says Stalker C.

“Generally,” repeats Sunshine.

SunFloJo shares that one time in Colorado she encountered an injured mountain lion on a trail, “He was beautiful, but dangerous to the average human.” She was able to go for help and a rescue team came and nursed him back to health.

“And there’s no mountain lions in this part of the country,” I look at Stalker C.  “We’ve got this.”

We make it by 9:20AM. Dick has not left us. 

“I received your text,” says the elderly and in great shape Dick.

Dick wears a pressed Hawaiian short-sleeve button up shirt and khaki shorts. Every remaining hair on his head is neatly in place. His large white truck with extended cab has plenty of seating.

Dick stands at the back of the truck as we clumsily put our backpacks and hiking poles into the truck bed. I sense he is sizing up our lack of experience.

I slip into the backseat. My bag has been packed for hours at this point. I savor the cushioned seating while it is available. It is going to be days before I have a comfortable seat again.

Outside the truck, the girls fumble with their socks and extra items. They make last minute decisions about what goes with us and what to toss back into SunFloJo’s car.

On the driver side visor there is a sticker outlined in red that reads “Hello My Name Is Dick”. I snap a picture of the sticker. I brought Ben’s old camera to take a few images of the experience. I wonder what Ben is doing this morning on his first week off from school. Probably sleeping. I bought this cheap 35mm camera for Ben when he was ten years old. That was the year he went to Boy Scout camp and lost his glasses at the bottom of the lake. I smile at the thought now while remembering how upset we were that insurance only covers glasses if the glasses are available to repair or replace. The fuzzy, hard to read 35m screen shows that I have a full battery. That should last the week.

I stifle nervous laughter while thinking, What in the world are we doing here?!

Once loaded Dick begins the drive. He points, “When you end your hike you’ll come out of the woods about here. The quickest way to get back to your car is to shortcut through those trees. Look for the steel grate on the ground and turn left. Then go through the next set of trees and you’ll arrive 30 minutes sooner than you would have if you walked along the road.”

I could not visualize or take mental note of his instructions. If I am the one in charge of that cut through at the end, then we are already lost. Hopefully, someone else caught Dick’s logic. No one asks him to repeat it.

JoAnn sits in the front seat and is in interview mode, “Tell us about your hiking experience, Dick.”

His deep voice shares, “I have hiked the whole AT once. Did it in sections. Took me 13 years to finish.”

We learn that Dick was an international traveler for work. He trained people all over the world on “something” that he would not share when we pressed. So we conclude inside our own heads that he is former CIA, FBI, etc. Don’t be vague, Dick. We’ll make stuff up to fill in the blanks!

Now retired, Dick is the president of Hiking Helpers.

We arrive at the drop off point. My heart leaps. We are really going to do this! 

In Hawksbill Gap Parking Lot, I put my backpack on right away. I am confident in how to do it with the extra back support because I watched the YouTube video of how to wear it properly. 

Sunshine Rat and Stalker C; however, have more questions for Dick about their packs. 

And Dick has more answers than necessary while my shoulders grow weary.

But the comfort and confidence built was nice to observe as Stalker C & Sunshine learned what each strap was for, how to put the pack on securely, how to put in their Camelback water containers, thread their water tubes, and more.

I should sit down on the ground, but I am afraid I could not get back up. If I take off the pack, I risk a lecture from Dick about how to put it back on.

SunFloJo asks, “What is the number one mistake that AT hikers make?”

I am going to topple over in the sun if this conversation continues.

He replies, “Not having enough water or not drinking enough water.”

We have a way to sterilize river water so we feel prepared.

Dick instructs the girls, “Don’t be afraid to pull these straps.”

He points to both of their arm areas where the straps hang and continues, “Just pull ‘em.  They will help you make the pack more compact and these straps right here will help lift the pack and make it more comfortable on your hips.”

He emphasizes again, “Don’t be afraid to pull ‘em.”

“One last thing”, he says 25 minutes later I am guessing. Dick takes our “before” picture. We pose as a foursome wearing our backpacks.

We combine our cash and leave money on his truck seat to say thanks for the lift. We are grateful to him both for transportation and advice.

Sunshine Rat says, “You are the bomb, Dick.”

Dick says, “I’ve never been called the bomb before.” 

He offers to take more pictures and more poses, but we are ready to go. The highest peak of the trip is waiting for us

We take our first steps onto the trail.

Thanks for reading and/or listening!

If you would like to listen to the Audio Version or support this creative work, click below for my podcast.

If you would like to support this creative work, please click the SUPPORT Button on the Podcast: SURRENDER ON THE TRAIL.

© Copyright 2016 Surrender On The Trail – Glenna S. Edwards

Check back next Sunday for CHAPTER EIGHT.

CHAPTER FIVE

CHAPTER FIVE

Hear my cry for help,

My King and my God,

For to you I pray.

Psalm 5: 2

1:30PM

Courtney takes note of multiple roadside food options, “This looks like a good exit.”

JoAnn darts off the highway. The four of us strain necks to compare restaurants along the hilly terrain.

In a JCPenney parking lot we point back and forth around us, “Maybe this one.”

“No, not that one.”

Then we all say at the same time, “Maybe Applebee’s.” 

JoAnn does a 360 degree turn with the Toyota.

“Whoa!” The girls hold the backseat as we spin. 

The young ladies have not driven with JoAnn before, but I have. Wild driving here and there is guaranteed.

An arm leans forward to point, “Applebee’s is over that way.”

JoAnn parks safely. She scans the console. Finding Flat Kevin, she says, “Kevin! You can come inside with us.”

As we step outside of the vehicle, we stretch legs and arms.

Inside the restaurant, JoAnn holds Kevin so that his likeness can observe the menu.

“Hmm, Flat Kevin is going to have barbeque and water,” she says then dances Flat Kevin over to lean on the table’s kiosk tablet. “Kevin will play some electronic games while we wait.”

I notice that Courtney and Rachel plan to split food. “Ok, no wings this time,” Courtney says. I admire their agreeable relationship. 

Rachel says, “Tell us more about Kevin, JoAnn.”

JoAnn talks about Kevin and his wife Erin, “They chose to enjoy a large family with five children. Kevin coached their kids’ baseball and soccer teams. When Erin became more of the breadwinner, Kevin chose to stay home with their little ones. He has loved every moment of being a dad and husband. It is so hard to see him sick. And their kids are still quite young.”

Courtney turns to our guest, “Thanks for going on the trip with us, Flat Kevin.”

Food arrives. We munch with noticeable focus. No one says it, but I suspect we all consider the importance of savoring this meal before heading onto the trail. The group is relaxed with one another. Conversation is easy. Silence is acceptable.

Walking back to the vehicle, an observation slips out my mouth, “I can already tell this is gonna be a supportive group. Not a sh*thead among us.”

Rachel repeats with a smirk, “Not a sh*thead among us.”

“Seriously,” I chuckle. “I think we will work together well.”

Courtney agrees, “We’re off to a good start.”

Look, I love Jesus, but I cuss a little.

JoAnn places Flat Kevin on the dashboard so he can watch the road.

5:00PM

The backseat takes a nap.

I watch out the window while thinking about the prior weekend.

FLASHBACK: MAY 19

9:00PM

Paul says, “Are you going to the Women’s Conference at church this weekend?”

“I didn’t sign up. Originally Jacob was leaving on the 24th so I didn’t want to be gone two of the days right before he left.”

“You can go now,” he says.

Given the amount of time I am away from home each week and that I am leaving on a trip soon, it is odd that he is suggesting it.

He says, “I think it will be good for you.”

MAY 20, 2016

I know Paul is right, so I go. Best friend since birth Amy and her 14-year-old daughter Maggie are coming too. I save them two seats and send a text.

Glenna–FRONT RIGHT SIDE, 4 ROWS FROM THE STAGE.

The auditorium is packed. The crowd of ladies swell as the music builds.

So many people are here, but I feel alone. I am empty and numb. Life seems so messy. How did I let things get this difficult?

One of my favorite local singers, Ashton, steps to the microphone. She sings Hillsong’s I Surrender.

…Find me here

Lord draw me near

I surrender.

…Drench my soul

As mercy and grace unfold

I hunger and thirst.

…I know you hear my cry

 Speak to me now

I surrender

I surrender

I want to know You more

I want to know You more

The church lights are dark which I appreciate when tears flow. I think about the word surrender in-between droplets. 

Do I want to know God more or do I want Him to fix my problems?

A sea of worship arms raise across the room. The women are pumped for the music, an inspiring message and fun after party stations. I am standing but not praising. My head bows just trying to get through this feelings fest.

Upbeat songs play by the time Amy and Maggie scoot into the aisle. They give me a quick hug. They may not see my wet face and I am glad. I love them dearly. There is not one day in my life that I can remember without Amy in it. Our moms knew each other and went to the same church when we were little. We were born two months apart.  And now two of our own children, Maggie and Ben, are just 9 months apart.

I continue to think about the word surrender. What a complicated word. What does it even mean in the spiritual sense anyway? I barely listen to the rest of the program.

After the service, we find a variety of activities, food and desserts. We play around in a photo booth and paint pottery. I make JoAnn a mug with a sunflower on it. By the time it is fired in the kiln and returned to church I can give it to her as a “thanks for the trip” gift next month.

FLASH FORWARD:

JoAnn sees a sign, “Hershey’s ice cream!”

We hit another exit.

“Do you see where the ice cream shop is?” She asks.

The car riders are fully awake now. JoAnn drives up the hill behind a star shaped complex with several stores inside and a gas station outside. We see there are no buildings up there. JoAnn turns to speed down the hill back toward the complex.

She goes too fast. There is a curb with a sizeable drop off! She stomps the brakes just short of flying over the large empty space that could have damaged the car (or worse) and ended the trip early. Whew!

Rachel and Courtney laugh softly.

I am slightly more terrified of JoAnn’s driving than bears at the moment.

We go inside what appears to be a roadside food court to discover that the Hershey’s ice cream consists of pre-made frozen milkshake cups in a cooler.

Rachel and JoAnn purchase two cups and put them in the self-serve milk shake machine to stir. I eat a Reese’s ice cream sandwich and toss the wrapper.

We find the restroom, pass up the tourist items available for purchase like wildlife tea towels and collector spoons and mugs, then are back on the road.

6:45PM

We arrive at Shenandoah National Park! Excitement and nerves fill the car. Trees are lush and tall all around us.

I feel scared because within what seems like mere minutes, I must figure out how to sleep outside in a 1-person tent.

Our plan is to check in the first night at Loft Mountain campground, cook hot dogs and go to bed. I think the three gals are interested in a little beer too. Not my thing, but I bet that will help folks sleep. 

The CR-V approaches the Ranger Station entrance.

Ranger Anita, according to her name tag, welcomes us with instructions. We pull over for a moment and each fill out an official Backcountry Use Permit. The form is in triplicate and has a bread wire through a hole on one end. It is from the U.S. Department of the Interior for the National Park Service.

I feel pride over such a legit document. The form number is 10-404. We write our name, home address and general hiking plan for the week.

Oh. Is this like leaving breadcrumbs for a future Search Party? Probably.

We pull off the top layer for Anita and attach the remaining individual tags to our backpacks. I try not to think that these tags could be the first item used to identify our bodies if things do not go well. I see the thick forest from here and marvel. We are going in there. 

At the intersection beyond the Ranger Station, we see a male and female hiker. They look exhausted and dirty. He is limping. Maybe they are attempting to hitch hike? Not sure.

“I really need to pee,” Courtney says.

“We can pull over,” JoAnn says.

“Nah. Not quite ready to pee outside yet. I know we’re going to have to soon, though.”

Rachel and I make eye contact. We are not quite ready either. 

JoAnn says, “Oh, honeys. I have perfected peeing outside.” 

Of course, she has. Ah, if only we all felt the same.

Driving along Skyline Drive we see a spectacular view of mountains stretching far and wide. Our elevation is over 3,000 feet and rising. There is a blue haze everywhere with sprouts of bright green, white and purple blooms.

“Look!” I point to a groundhog scaling a small rock wall along the road edge.

“I bet we see a lot of creatures,” Rachel says.

“What’s everyone thinking their trail name is going to be?” JoAnn asks.

“I still don’t know yet,” Rachel responds. “How about you?”

JoAnn says, “I am SunFloJo because I love sunflowers, and I love how sunflowers lean toward the light.”

I offer, “Courtney, I think because of your amazing investigative skills you could be Stalker C. You impressed me at the speed you found Dick’s picture on the internet.”

Rachel says, “I like that. Court, you really can find anyone online in like 3 seconds or less. It’s a superpower of yours.”

Courtney says, “I’ll think it over, but I could lean that way. Sounds good.” Then she asks, “Glenna, how about you?”

I exhale. “Well, one of the reasons I need to go on this trip is to let go and embrace life changes coming up. Sometimes I try too hard to force things to fit.”

I add, “I’ve been thinking about the name Surrender.” 

There is a group murmur and collective head nod.

We continue taking in the beauty of the mountains and valleys around us. The sun drops into a sunset position creating ribbons of soft blue and gold light everywhere.

Rachel ponders out loud, “I love how the sunshine is flowing through the leaves.”

Our jaws open and eyes widen. SunFloJo, Stalker C and Surrender all say together, “Sunshine!”

And that is how Rachel was given her trail name Sunshine. 

I share randomly, “Sunshine is so much better than Rat. Before I knew Rachel’s full name, she was in my phone contacts as Rachel AT which looks like RAT if you read it too fast.”

Stalker C makes a note of that comment and will sometimes call her friend Sunshine Rat thereafter.

“Hey,” I say. “All our names begin with S.”

SunFloJo says, “Ooo. I like it!”

Stalker C says, “We can call ourselves the Steam Team.”

“Yes!” In unison we agree.

Then the dashboard begins blinking an orange light.

SunFloJo looks at me. I look at the dashboard.

We are almost out of gas! We are not quite to our campground yet.

SunFloJo has an “oops!” look on her face. She glances at me in a she might laugh kind of way. Funny, not funny.

She makes a speedy U-turn.

“How far back is the last gas station we saw?” I ask turning toward the backseat.

Sunshine says, “That exit was a while ago.”

I check my phone, “I don’t have reception.”

Stalker C is on it. “One bar.” She searches.

We are on fumes going back down Skyline Drive, back past the ranger station and down the hill toward the last town we saw. The dashboard gas light is increasingly brighter orange in my mind.

Stalker C says, “Got it. There’s a Bear Country Store & Deli with a gas pump .9 mile from here.”

“Good,” I say.

“They close at 7:30pm.”

It is 7:25pm. SunFloJo and I look at one another. She steps on the gas—what’s left of it!

We see the store! A giant faux bear is propped on top of the building. 

I run inside to tell them we are there in hopes they won’t turn us away.

We made it. Whew! We didn’t even notice this place on the approach to the park the first time. JoAnn pumps the gas from the one and only pump. 

Inside there is a tiny closet with one toilet and mini sink restroom. This might be our last porcelain toilet for a while. 

There are two large barrels with checkerboards on top inside the store waiting for visitors to play. 

Sunshine buys a bottle of local wine. I soak in the community feel of the place as the shop owner vacuums their welcome rug. There are posters and invites to summer events tacked to a bulletin board. I notice at the register a town newspaper dedicated to “The Most Wanted” people in the county. The front page is covered with many square pictures of faces, with names and a list of their alleged crimes. Watch out for those guys and gals

Sunshine and Stalker C pose for a picture outside with the store sign. The sun is getting low now. We better get moving.

Retracing our drive back into the park, we see the hiker couple possibly still looking for a ride. We have zero space or seats in our vehicle to pick up anyone. We trek on.

Stalker C shares that she is most concerned about bears on the trail. I respond with info from YouTube about how to make noise if we see a black bear and suggest we do our best not to get in-between a momma bear and her cubs because that is the main time that a black bear might become aggressive.

“Yea, we’re lucky that there are no grizzlies here. I read they are more aggressive,” I say.

Stalker C eyes me.

We enjoy the ascension views all over again.

Then I say, “Look! A Bear!” I am serious, no joke.

SunFloJo slows and stops the CR-V. Two wee black bear cubs cross the road. Their much bigger momma follows. I know from my side of the car there is no point in trying to get a picture as the bears climb into the brush and trees left of the car. From the driver’s side SunFloJo takes a few pictures.

I am not sure if this was a good thing to happen to soften Stalker C’s fears or a bad thing to make her bear fears worse.

The vehicle hums along again. We are in a wondering state of mind thinking about the bears and the nature around us.

Stalker C says, “I really would like to see a deer.”

“Aw,” I say.

SunFloJo, “Any special reason?”

“One year ago today, my grandmother Rosemary passed away. As we left the care facility the first thing we saw was a deer. The whole family thinks of her now when we see deer.”

“It’s her spirit animal!” SunFloJo says with confidence.

“I hope we see one,” I say to Stalker C. “Especially today.” 

But there’s not much light left.

© Copyright 2016 Surrender On The Trail – Glenna S. Edwards

If you’d like to listen to the Audio Version or support this creative work, click here for SURRENDER ON THE TRAIL Podcast CHAPTER FIVE.

Thanks for reading or listening. Check back next Sunday for CHAPTER SIX.

Oh, and there is an EXTRA CONTENT B on the podcast this week! In those extra minutes, I describe some new things I have been exploring.

 

CHAPTER FOUR

SURRENDER ON THE TRAIL

CHAPTER FOUR

…. If you have the faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move.  Nothing will be impossible for you. 

Matthew 17:20

MAY 29, 2016

7:00AM

Good morning.

We leave in two days!

Hmm. Maybe the exercise is helping. I felt physically better working at the store last night even after working all day at school too. My legs might be getting stronger. 

I have another retail shift to work today. Then it is time for more trip prep.

6:30PM

I race home to practice setting up the 1-person orange tent in our yard.   

Paul sits in a lawn chair next to my scattered supplies and a 5 x 7 size paper worth of instructions. It is an open book test for me. He is hands off, but there if I need him. 

After the second time putting up the tent, I get inside and roll back the door flap.

“Take a picture.” I pose one knee up and chin on my knuckles. 

I text the pic to Highway 2246 girls with the caption “This is for Plus Size Hiker Magazine” something that does not really exist.

Laughter emojis and hearts reply.

Semi confident, I secure the tent fabric into a tight little roll and place it on the dining room table along with other camping supplies. The dining room has turned into a staging area worthy of way longer than a week. It appears I could be gone for two months given the number of items in the room. I am having a hard time figuring out what I need versus what I can withstand carrying.

8:30PM

The doorbell rings.

It is Deb!  She offers a bag full of treats for the hiking team. Cheez-whiz, crackers, nuts, Slim Jims, a question/answer book for the drive so we can get to know one another better, granola, and what I know is one of JoAnn’s favorite snacks: a big tub of peanut butter filled pretzels. 

Deb holds a set of sealed envelopes. She says, “And these are reflection questions for the beginning, during and end of the journey. In the last envelope is a gift card for Cracker Barrel when you’re on your way home.”

Reflection questions? Cracker Barrel? You can always count on Deb. I wish she were going, but I know she will be cheering us on in spirit.

Deb says, “I shouldn’t interject my thoughts into your trip, but I’m doing it anyway.”

“Are you kidding? I am so glad. This is the perfect bag. Love the reflection questions idea too. And you know I would not say that unless I mean it.”

I add, “I will miss you.”

We pause. I ask, “Should we hug?”

She and I are not random huggers as a rule, but it does seem like the right time to do a farewell hug.

She nods, “Ok.”

On my porch, we do a quick hug and laugh at our awkwardness.

Her eyes say she is a little worried about our safety.

Me too. I look at her, “I will do my best to live through the experience.”

She replies, “You better.” And adds, “I want to hear all about it when you get back.”

“Thank you.”

I hesitate, “Hey. Um. You would help Paul get through the transition if I don’t make it, right?”

“Yes, I would.” She is my logical friend. I know she, together with my best friend could get Paul through the worst if the worst happens.

“About him,” Deb offers. “This is another stepping in where I shouldn’t thing.”

I nod. Go ahead.

“He’s been helping you prepare for the hike?”

“Yep.”

I think I know where she is going. And, I’ve been thinking similar thoughts. 

She confirms my guess, “Maybe helping you prepare is his way of providing. Some guys show love by trying to excel in a career but don’t know the first thing about how to do these types of supportive things.”

We nod.

“I hear you. And it’s true.” 

I sense she is concerned about having crossed a friendship boundary. “It’s ok. I’m glad you said it.”

MAY 30, 2016

Today is Memorial Day. I am thankful for a day off to pack and repack.

I spend 7 hours portioning and obsessing over what food to place in each of my gallon size clear Ziploc bags. There’s beef jerky, trail mix, pasta bags that just need water, fruit roll ups and more. I attempt to imagine what I will feel like eating on the trail. What will my body need or want?

I use a Sharpie to label daily allotment bags E, F, G, H in case anyone else uses A, B, C or 1, 2, 3. Then I add a Before bag and an After-Bonus bag. 6 bags should be enough!

Proud, I text pics of the finished bags to the team.

Courtney—US TOO! WORKING ON FOOD BAGS.

JoAnn—PACKING RIGHT NOW!

I direct text to Courtney —SHHH! AND NOW I’M MAKING SNAKE REPELLANT MOTH BALL BAGS!

Courtney—GOOD! THANK. GOD.

For better or worse, I’ve come up with a snake deterrent plan. With gloved hands, I put old fashioned moth balls into sandwich size Ziploc bags. I poked holes in the bags with my extremely sharp flip knife, then put them inside 2 sealed gallon size freezer bags. 

There is a perfect small compartment in the bottom of my borrowed backpack where the snake repellant invention can stay during the day. Hopefully, we will not smell moth balls during the day since they are double bagged. At night I will pull out the smaller bags with their vent holes and drop them around our tents. In theory, it is a smell barrier. I make 6 snake repellant bags in total.

11:59PM

I try to sleep. This could be my last chance for good sleep for a few days. 

In the morning may be my last good shower for a while.

My mind races about what it will be like to sleep outside in total darkness.

Paul is unsettled next to me. We take turns tossing and turning in our sheets.  No one is reaching deep sleep tonight.

MAY 31, 2016

7:00AM

I sit at the kitchen table. Paul holds onto the kitchen peninsula with one hand while he packs his lunch bag with the other hand. His legs are unsteady.

“You can do this,” he says. “Recite the hike plan without looking at the papers.”

I manage to say the trail name twists and turns out loud. He gives me a satisfied head nod, “You’re ready.”

He leans in to give me a soft kiss that lingers a bit and a hug. Then he is off to work.

8:00AM

With only 2 hours remaining, I struggle to commit to how much to pack. What is vital? What can I leave behind?

I wear the hiking backpack and take a selfie in our bathroom mirror. I post the pic to Facebook with the caption “About to get real”.

My pack is too heavy. Maybe I could repack it after the first night? I need time to think, but I am out of time.

I grab two extra tote bags. One tote is for a change of clothes after this ordeal and the other is an empty bag so I can compare notes with others and lighten the backpack before the hike officially begins.

Courtney and Rachel are going to park in my garage. JoAnn is coming to pick us all up here.

The air outside is warm and still smells like spring. The grass is bright green and thick because we have had plenty of rain.

The boys are awake and curious. Their legs trot around like youthful horses in and out of the stable that happens to be their home.

At 9:40AM the young gals arrive.   

Courtney says, “I’m not good at going in reverse.”

I ask, “Like reverse in a car?”

She says, “Yes.”

I remember what it was like to be a young driver. I back in Courtney’s SUV and make the keys accessible for Paul in case he needs to move it while we are gone.

10:00AM –On The Nose!

JoAnn drives her silver Toyota CRV up the hill to our house with windows rolled down and speakers belting out the song “Born to Be Wild”. 

The street thumps to the song. We feel the vibration in our limbs. She is more than ready.  She is pumped!

JoAnn hops out of the car, leaving the music turned up. We load our bags. 

I ask our sons to take a picture of the four of us plus Flat Kevin by the car. We pose with pride and anticipation of the adventure that awaits. 

I give Jacob and Ben hugs, a good long squeeze for each of them. They watch as I settle into the passenger seat and put on my seatbelt. They stand in the front yard and wave as we ladies hit the road with “Born to Be Wild” on repeat. 

Courtney and Rachel get comfortable in the backseat. Hitting the highway, JoAnn turns down the music to give us her 4-1-1, “Let me know if anyone needs it cooler or warmer air, whatever, just say the word ladies.” Courtney likes it cool and that’s good with me too.

JoAnn says to me, “You’re designated navigator. I don’t like to listen to GPS telling us what to do all the time.” She hands me a small square piece of paper with directions on it. I read it. I understand the first set of directions, but later I will need to turn on my phone GPS with the sound off when directions get tricky.

The hum of the road surrounds us. JoAnn is a get after it type driver. We are on track to arrive by nightfall.

I encourage the girls to open the goodies from Deb, “Open the red bag.” 

“Oos and ahhs” overcome the vehicle as they dig into the snack contents. 

JoAnn says, “Pass me the peanut butter pretzels!” She eats half of one side of the pretzel bite with peanut butter then tosses the other pretzel bread only side into a cup. She is the healthiest and most fit 60-year-old I’ve ever known.

We begin flipping through the conversation starter books. Rachel says, “Pick a page number between 1 and 150.”

JoAnn picks 54. Rachel reads, “If you could select someone to be commemorated on a stamp, who would you pick?”

“Hmmm.  I have to think about that one,” JoAnn says.  “There’s so many great people to choose from.”

“Court?” Rachel asks.

“100.”

“Ok. If you could spend time with anyone famous who would you like to meet and why?”

Courtney thinks, then says, “Probably Oprah and Gayle. That would be fun.” She adds, “When my mom asked why I want to go on this hike I told her I didn’t want to miss a chance to hang out with the Oprah and Gayle’s in my life. You two up front are like that to me with all your wisdom.”

JoAnn and I roar with giggles and in unison say, “Who gets to be Oprah and who gets to be Gayle?”  I don’t think we ever decide. I add, “I am honored.”

“Glenna?” Rachel asks.

“52.”

“If you could hang out with a president past or present who would you pick?”

“Mmm. That’s tough. One time I was at Mt. Vernon and felt all hot and bothered over George Washington. The jawline, the deep thoughts. It got me.”

We laugh.

“History is tough, though. There’s so much icky stuff that we don’t know or that I’m learning about the more I read,” I say not wanting to commit to one president.

We nod in agreement.

“Oh, the journey envelopes!” I point those out to the gals. There is a different envelope for each day of the trip.

“Do you gals want to open the ‘Beginning the Journey’ envelope from Deb?”

Everyone agrees we do. Inside the first envelope I read out loud:

“Beginning the Trip:

Off to see the Wizard. What an incredible journey! Dorothy (and Toto), the Scarecrow, the Lion and Tin Man. The Wizard of Oz is so many stories combined. One of adventure, trust, friendship, adversity and resiliency, not to mention finding one’s way in unfamiliar territory.

It is tempting to assign each of you a character. But as in life, we are never all one thing or another. We are never fully courageous or completely lacking discernment.  We are comprised of all these characteristics in varying degrees at different times.”

Passengers look at one another. Eyebrows raise and “oos” are heard regarding that deep thought.

“So, as you follow the yellow brick Appalachian Trail, remember each of you has great courage, are wise, show tremendous compassion and have great capacity for insight and awareness to find within yourself.

Be cautious of the Wicked Witch. And May the Munchkins be with you!”

If you’d like to listen to the Audio Version or support this creative work, click here for my podcast chapters.

© Copyright 2016 Surrender On The Trail – Glenna S. Edwards

Thanks for reading or listening. Check back next Sunday for CHAPTER FIVE.

Three Days

Dear Readers,

In three days, I will begin posting one chapter per week of my manuscript Surrender on the Trail.

I plan to have fun with this project. Hope you will have fun too!

If you want to help the process, here are three things you can do.

A) Subscribe to the blog by entering your email address via the top right side of the Home page. This guarantees that you receive an email once per chapter release.

B) Like the post or comment after reading. I would love to hear how the experience resonates with you or answer questions.

C) Share the chapter with people you think might enjoy the story. After the first week, I will include a fresh page link where chapters will be in numerical order in case you want to send someone one link regarding what has been shared so far.

Thanks much!

See you on the trail,

Accept Help

Things are better for our family today than they were one year ago.

Or, today compared with the last seven years, seven years that got progressively worse until I thought my brain and heart might implode.

I felt fear typing the word “better”, but it is true.

Thank God.

And, thank people.

A key thing I learned especially the last three years was that help comes from the most unexpected places: complete strangers, acquaintances, neighbors, some friends, some family. There was a time when I would have refused help or tried to do it all my own.

I stopped being embarrassed of our mess and started saying yes.

Someone I trusted but did not know well sorted my jewelry and personal items. A team of painters from a church different from our own church came to our house for over a week, most that I did not know. Someone I barely knew out of town paid our electric at just the right time when I was debating the order and deadlines of bills. Grocery gift cards arrived. Encouragement came in the mail from both sisters (by blood and marriage) at just the right time every time. Someone ran a marathon to fundraise so that Hubby could get a mobile scooter. A friend spent 36 hours removing stubborn wallpaper at the condominium. One room had four layers! Eight women over 60 years old showed up to pack their cars with Rubbermaid containers to transport from garage to garage so that we could save time and money on moving day. This paragraph could be much longer with stories of miracle people showing up, but you get the idea.

One thing that rolled around in my head was that people do what they can when they can. I did not expect anyone to help. I think it is dangerous and mean to expect people to be there for you. For example, I am not a fan of Facebook chain posts that end with “and I think I know who will respond.” Yeah, no, at any given time, you do not know what someone is really experiencing or what they can make time for this minute or in this season of their life.

If you are going through a tough time, just be open without judgement. Say yes to those who emerge from the clouds. In addition, when you can, make sure you help others too. There are plenty of opportunities to be there for people when you can. Over the years, I have really enjoyed giving quietly when I was able. It was humbling to be on the receiving end. And, it was necessary to accept help. We would not have made it otherwise. Thank you to many.

When we have frustrating days now, I observe how quickly my mind thinks, “Thank You for my problems.” Right now involves acceptable water treading with a little space and capacity to roll with the waves. I feel the physical and mental stretch daily but nothing like recent years.

Last summer I was fortunate to visit Thorncrown Chapel in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. The building is constructed with glass walls that provide a sanctuary in the woods.

While there, I thought about its openness to nature. I considered my openness to surrender.

Surrender means saying yes to God through the stress. Surrender says, “Sure you can sort these items in my bedroom. Seems like a personal place, but let’s go for it.” Surrender says, “Thank you for adopting my son to celebrate his high school graduation in ways that I would not have been able at that time to provide.” Surrender says, “Yes, please interview and find us the best realtor for our situation.”

Surrender is also the word that came to mind back in 2016 when I was out of shape and said yes to a near week long hike on the Appalachian Trail with a team of women.

I knew the ground was sliding under our family’s footing. Something was wrong. I thought I was losing my mind over our oldest son going to the military at 17 years old. Maybe if I ran away to hike and sleep outside, then I could get alone with God to work out my mixed up feelings.

However, there was more.

And, God was preparing me.

“Surrender on the Trail” became the title of the manuscript I wrote about our wild experience in the woods. Imagine four women committed to staying outside to maneuver rocks and mountains for 35 miles. Imagine getting lost in the rain at nightfall. Imagine tears and flies buzzing with an incredible 4,050 feet view above sea level.

I am thinking about publishing one chapter a week here on the blog. What do you think?

The manuscript has been complete and edited for a long time. Something in my heart does not feel like continuing to query publishers or literary agents right now. What if I make it available here?

People from 34 countries read this blog last year. What if I simply share?

If you have comments or ideas about this idea, please let me know.

Thanks,

Psalm 121:1a ~ I lift up my eyes to the hills. Where does my help come from? My help comes from the LORD….

Capture

When a baby comes along, one hears “Enjoy them, they grow so fast” on repeat.

I took mental pictures of our tiny babes, memory videos of their first steps, wrote down funny things they said, and worked as late as it took to pull off birthday surprises and holidays.

But almost no one tells you how fast your marriage will go. One thing I do recall someone say at our wedding, “Look around. You’ll never see this many people who love ya in one place again until your funeral.”

Well, that was encouraging. Eek.

I’ve considered lately how much I cannot remember about the years with Hubby in the way I can with the kids. While there are some thoughts to revisit, it is not as easy to find the rewind button or scene selection.

So, these days I take time to freeze the frame when we laugh at a show together, when he talks the boys through a decision or when he reassures me that I’m doing pretty well considering. I even capture the kindness when he shuffles away to give me alone or reading time. He knows I need the quiet to recharge.

No one tells you that there may be a season of marriage when you feel a ping of jealousy seeing random people much older than you walking around together at a mall or on the street.

I remind myself that everyone has unseen burdens. Life sprinkles the challenges out to folks.

Still. It can be difficult to play out your hand while not wanting the game to end.

So, we’ll capture in each day what we can. The mundane is no longer dull. The hurdles mean we are breathing. It is the life we get to live each day.

Bliss Station

Lately I seek to increase the number of moments where I experience happiness by plugging into the bliss of simply being alive. I practice 1-5 minute mindful breathing and pause to notice random things or people around me. The key of being is in the noticing.

The world has been put in timeout for 12 months. I mourn for the silent voices lost: over 500,000 humans in our country. More around the globe. If those voices could speak, what would they say?

I wonder what humans have discovered inside the safety protocol walls of a pandemic. Is there a general set of collective thoughts that bubble to the top of mind as important?

While reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic, I leaned into the joy of art, creativity, writing, and the delight of doing (or not doing) what you feel called to do. She seemed to support a phrase that a friend and I discussed in recent months: “It all matters. And, it all doesn’t.” Do or don’t, Creativity will find a vessel to express itself.

My takeaway from her book was the encouragement to enjoy your art, enjoy your creative endeavors. For me, that is writing. Writing isn’t easy for me, but it is the very thing nestled and happening inside my brain almost all day long. Often my mind writes without my presence at a keyboard. What does your mind long to do?

A pleasant surprise listen from the library this weekend was The Power of Myth with Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers. This is a fascinating group of interviews about the interwoven nature of beliefs around the world.

Two of my favorite takeaways are that the hero is prepared right before the task ahead and to connect with your bliss. This audio recording is packed full of great thoughts like how marriages that sacrifice to the relationship seem to last. If you sacrifice to the other person, you may grow weary since humans are flawed.

It is also important to change up activities in order to free up the mind. In March 2018, a friend in social work said there was a seminar totally unrelated to our jobs that looked interesting. Would I like to go?

Sure. My brain needed a break. I could learn about Bitcoin for a few hours. I had no idea what cryptocurrency was!

So we went: two ladies in a sea of men. My eyes glazed over. But bonus, I did not spend any time thinking about my life stress or work. It was fun to learn a tiny bit about something completely different.

When we walked away, I noticed how relaxed I felt that afternoon compared to the week overall. My brain had escaped. I felt better. Now I know that I was connecting to my bliss, which has nothing to do with Bitcoin.

My bliss involves learning. I love to learn. Crypto was the vehicle to my bliss station that day.

In Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert says this type of experience is what Einstein called “Combinatory Play“. When you spend time creatively or across disciplines, it can help free your brain to rest and then ease the return to your work. If you’ve never tried this, I invite you to spend a few minutes crafting, writing, drawing, doing whatever sounds fun at the moment.

Free your brain. Find your bliss.

Let’s enjoy more of our days.

Valentine Antidote

It is that day when I promise once again that next year I won’t be in town on Valentine’s Day. I will be with girlfriends or on a beach, on a mountain top, anywhere else doing something–anything–not so ordinary.

Valentine’s Day is a double whammy. It’s also my birthday. Growing up, I loved celebrating with red hearts, white paper lace, pink streamers, balloons and all things Valentine.

As an adult, I realized many people have jumbled emotions linked to February 14. Happy feelings, angry feelings, dread, anger and so forth.

Then I married someone who expresses love inversely to what I anticipated. Let’s just say his first romantic gift was a bright yellow personal alarm to wear on my waist so I could pull the cord for it to wail and screech if someone nefarious came too close to me on my college campus.

We’ve worked it out. It’s taken a lot of tears and years. I’ve learned that the antidote to my occasional sad feels is to have less expectations, ask for something specific if desired, support or help others.

These days, ALS-21 plus a Pandemic make it so Hubby can’t get out to shop, or walk much, or feel good for a full day. I am happy simply when his words are kind. I like thoughtful and kind. Lately, I’ve been quietly thanking the writers of Call The Midwife. Hubby really likes that show. I call it his daily empathy exercise. Women have been through so much and that binge worthy series does not shy away from hard topics.

Speaking of writers, my feel better about Valentine’s Day activity this year was to support authors I care about. I directed Hubby to my wish list and he placed the order. I was excited to open the packages.

Janine Rosche is an author who picked me up off the floor when I received a bad news phone call at a writer’s conference. She prayed with me. Then I found out she was looking for a certain agent to meet. I am thrilled to say they met indeed and are three books into a successful journey. I now have a trifecta of inspirational romance to read:

William Klein’s book was lost in our move so I needed a replacement copy. This is a timely fictional story about a painful border experience.

And Jessica Terry is a writer that cracks me up with her Instagram stories. Like me, she was a basketball player in her youth. We’ve never met. I appreciate her work ethic and passion. So, I soon will read:

Who would you like to support? Someone creative? An organization that does something you value? Church? Someone elderly or ill? Doing a little something for others could brighten your Valentine’s Day. Earlier in the week, I called a couple people who I hadn’t spoken with in a few years. It was a good time on old fashioned phone calls.

Frequently, I think of the verse Love One Another (John 15: 12). Loving others does not result in only one direction of good vibes even when that should be our intention. When you love others, the good feels return to fill your heart and strengthen the weave of the universe.

Still in town,

P.S. Hubby also visited the Shari’s Berries website. Winner. Yum.

Still Here

There is “a lot of togetherness for families right now”, a friend said–knowing how people at home can get on one another’s nerves after nearly a year of social distancing.

I dream of hopping in the car and taking long drives. Drives that land me in other states, on a mountain or on a beach. The sound of ocean waves is high on my YouTube search list.

Our family is fortunate to have moved just in time to our condo where accessibility for Hubby is much better overall. Our youngest is attending college online this semester rather than returning to a dorm. It has been a comfort to know Son 2 is home when I mask up and go to work. If Hubby falls, Son 2 is here to help at least for now.

While things are far from perfect, I count blessings daily.

Hubby and I have opposite personalities. Often I either have a different viewpoint altogether or am mentally translating that we just said something similar in a different way. I usually recognize the style difference first while he argues his point. I wait, then eventually say, “we said the same thing” which he may or may not ever believe. This fact has worn me out for near 3 decades–long before ALS added to our mix.

I notice a lot of couples end up on opposite sides of the picket fence so I want to encourage those who end up as spouse, friend and caregiver. Caregiver is a twist of sour lemon, but you can carry on and survive. I even believe thriving is possible. Not there yet, but I’m considering what “thriving” might look like. Stay tuned.

Occasionally I have a little island moment epiphany. This week I was knocked over by the thought, “He’s still here.”

And, I’m glad.

I can still figure out how to hug him–awkward and on me to initiate, but it is possible. I can still ask his opinion about something. I can still find a moment to catch up about our sons. Once in a while something on TV makes him laugh, and that is my favorite few seconds of eye crinkling. Last night he was able to sit in a chair long enough to play a couple rounds of a board game. That was a win.

Still here is a lot better than not here.

So, we carry on.