from everlasting to everlasting, you are God. Psalm 90:2
Then, without anyone saying it’s time to go, the four of us stand up.
The Steam Team walk through the expansive lodge room. We notice a guest book log labeled “Bear Sightings”. People noted on the pages where they saw bears while hiking. Park rangers use the information to keep track of the furry families whose homes hikers have wandered through.
Stalker C kids, “Where’s my bell?” Her eyes look from us to the book as we read over the locations bears have been seen in recent days and weeks.
“Look,” I point, changing our focus. “There’s a restaurant on this level.”
Hunger for a meal beckons me for the first time in what seems like a long time. The restaurant has tall wood ceilings, a large fireplace and a similar view to the lodge upper deck. Other patrons have eaten and departed. We are the last potential customers of the morning. The clang of dishes and flatware are heard as tables are bused.
SunFloJo is the driver, “You girls want to get a hearty breakfast before we head north?”
You bet we do!
I can’t help but think, if we were traveling with the men in my family over the years and had eight hours of driving ahead of us, there is no way they’d want to sit down to a fancy breakfast. –But alas, we’re all women. Let’s enjoy it!
And enjoy we did. Biscuits, gravy, eggs, pancakes, bacon, grits…so good!
The sounds of “mmm” and “delicious” and “pass me another…” fills our table and the hollow dining hall.
We walk feeling full and blessed back to the CRV.
Then, before we leave the park, we stop again.
“We haven’t tried those blackberry milkshakes that people on the trail talked about,” I say.
“And we need gas,” says SunFloJo.
I love a girls’ trip.
We are relaxed and still willing to adventure.
We walk into Midway Market which is also a gas station next to one of the Shenandoah Park exits. Stalker C and Sunshine Rat consider audacious souvenirs.
“Should we get a giant deer resin knickknack or a bear family t-shirt?” They ask me.
My answer, “Neither.” We smile.
I walk over to the snack shack side, “One blackberry milkshake and 4 straws please.”
SunFloJo walks in. I have two straws in the cup so far. I offer her a drink.
She affirms, “It is as good as they say.”
I take a drink. We join the girls, and everyone tries the famous shake, “Mmmm! So good!” Then the girls go back to shopping.
I turn toward the door and what do ya know, in walks Tank and Frodo!
“Hi,” I say.
Frodo recognizes us in the daylight, “We’re stopping in here before seeing some sights today. We’re taking an off day.”
“Nah, left ‘em and all our new groceries–thanks to you Trail Angel gals—back in our bear box.”
Tanks says as the girls walk up, “We’re going to hike down to some falls and back up. We’re just carrying water for the day.”
They’re hiking on their off day. Wow.
Sunshine Rat says, “Sounds fun.”
“Is everyone done with this?” I say to the Steam Team about the blackberry shake. All agree with a nod.
I offer the cup to the guys, “Here’s one of those blackberry shakes people talk about. We have two new straws if you want it.”
Frodo and Tank shrug a “yes”. I hand them the wrapped straws.
The six of us walk outside together toward SunFloJo’s vehicle.
Tank and Sunshine Rat chat. They really could be so cute together.
Darn fiancé, I think as SunFloJo, Stalker C and I get into the car.
Sunshine Rat rejoins us in a few minutes.
“Did he say ‘see you at the wedding’?” SunFloJo asks.
“Oh yes,” Sunshine Rat responds. “He’ll see us in Vermont. I will get the details and dress together. He can walk there by Labor Day.”
Laughter starts with the CRV engine.
SunFloJo backs out of our parking spot. We drive toward Skyline Drive.
The group stares at the mountains we’ve climbed or called home for most of the week.
Soon we find our way to the valley and hit a major highway.
The girls snooze in the backseat. SunFloJo and I softly talk about life, true friendship, and family.
Hours fly by and then we hear, “Look!”
Stalker C points to a billboard that says “Jerky Mall. The most jerky you’ll ever see.”
Sunshine Rat chimes in, “Jerky is life.”
SunFloJo says, “Then we must go.”
Off the exit, the bright yellow store has sweet jerky, tangy jerky, extra meaty jerky, gater jerky, pineapple jerky and on and on. It is floor to ceiling jerky. I’ve never seen so much dried meat in one place.
I’m on my last 5 dollars. And I don’t want more jerky, so it is easy to refrain.
Back on the road with a few more miles behind us, SunFloJo shouts, “Turtle!”
We pull over and jump out to turn a turtle in the opposite direction from the road. Apparently, this is a thing.
“When you see a turtle in harm’s way, just turn them around so they walk toward safety,” SunFloJo says.
We pass around the hand sanitizer.
More exits fly by, then we see two dogs on the highway. We pull over. The dogs run down an exit ramp and back to what we hope is their home.
I think of Deb who knows how much SunFloJo cares about animals.
I text Deb—ANIMAL RESCUES TAKING PLACE ON OUR DRIVE BACK. FYI, WE ARE ALL SAFE AND SOUND.
Deb texts—YAY! GLAD YOU’RE ALL OK. NO SURPRISE ON THE ANIMAL RESCUES OTHER THAN IT MAY HAVE TAKEN A WEEK FOR THIS TO HAPPEN, LOL.
I look forward to reconnecting with her again.
Perhaps also thinking of Deb, SunFloJo says to our fully awake vehicle, “Has anyone thought more about Deb’s end of journey question?”
We begin the transition from our trail names to our given names.
“I have,” Stalker C says. Courtney continues, “I think I felt like myself on the trail. I went into the trip looking forward to the exercise. And I like to exercise, but I am forever changed because of our relationships not the exercise.”
“How so?” asks SunFloJo. JoAnn encourages Courtney, “Tell us more.”
Courtney says, “I realize that there are people in my life who are not as easy going as the four of us were on this trip. There are people in my life who would have freaked out when things did not go as planned—and by freak out I mean more than I did. I have realized they aren’t good friends. I couldn’t really count on them if the going gets tough.” She pauses, then, “I am going to minimize the number of people in my life who are not in relationship with me in a mutual way.”
“Nice,” Sunshine Rat says. And Rachel continues, “I thought similarly about those types of relationships and how not to settle so much going forward. On the trail, I liked the feeling of being my real true self at all times.”
“Interesting,” Surrender says. I continue, “Any more on that thought?”
“Not yet,” Rachel says. “I’m still pondering, but very much thinking along the same lines as Courtney.”
“How about you, JoAnn?” I ask.
JoAnn responds, “I learned that while I can do this, meaning the AT, I do not want to do any part of it completely alone. I learned the value of having a team or partner. This was an excellent recon mission. And for me personally I valued the feeling of simplicity. We didn’t over think anything.”
–out loud. We didn’t over think anything out loud.
“Aww. Simplicity. Love that.” I ask, “Do you plan to do sections each year? Like the twins we met?”
JoAnn says, “I think so.”
Courtney adds, “And you get to start a decade sooner than them. Cool.”
Rachel asks me, “How about you, Glenna?”
“Hmm. I am the same person in that I still feel determined in whatever quest I’m up to. I’m different because I’ve never spent so much time outdoors. It made me feel powerful to survive together and just figure it out as we went along. Also, I released a lot of anger. My brain feels so clear now. I love the feeling of being clear minded. I’m going to do things in my life so that I can maintain clarity and seek daily relationship with my Higher Power.”
Courtney adds, “Yes! My mind feels clear too. Clarity feels so good. No brain clutter.”
Rachel says, “On the trail, we could only focus on one thing at a time. Basic survival focus helped us stay clear minded.”
Rachel adds, “And did you notice that during our scariest times we were only a quarter mile or so from finding the solution? I’m going to remember that. Our darkest moments were always right before our best moments.”
We look out our windows, reflecting for a few miles.
We have one last gift from Deb beyond the trip questions. The peanut butter pretzels are gone. The Slim Jims are gone. The iced animal crackers are gone. The one last gift is a $50 card to Cracker Barrel. Crazy, but at the end of this long travel driving day I still feel like I could eat—a lot—and so does everyone else.
There is no Cracker Barrel along the AA Highway, but we circle around to Florence, KY and stop at exit 182 as the sky starts to turn pink in the west.
We inhale four Chicken and Dumplings dinners. Food tastes so good today after a week of not caring much about what or if I ate.
JoAnn drives us to my house.
“I’m hoooo-ohmmmme,” I say as I go into the house to grab the girls’ car keys. At her request, I drive Courtney’s car out of our garage and put it into park.
As the ladies hug, offer encouragement and good-byes for the Steam Team in the driveway, Paul and our sons smile, watching from the porch. Mom made it home. Paul leans on the rail. I see relief on his face.
Home feels good. I hear and smell our familiar suburb: the fresh cut grass, the neighborhood lights come on, children play. My annual daisies have bloomed right on time to welcome me.
I watch Courtney and Rachel pull away.
JoAnn follows them, rolling down her windows and blaring the song “Born to be Wild” one more time.
In this moment, I hold on to the peace.
I take a deep breath and exhale.
We did a thing. We climbed mountains, crossed rivers, met others including ourselves in new ways.
I wave good-bye.
What I didn’t know then was that there were more mountains to climb soon. This trip prepared my heart in ways I could not imagine at the time.
IN MEMORY OF
Kevin David Timmerding
Also known as “Flat Kevin” in the story.
You’ve done it! Thanks for reading or listening to the podcast. This won’t be the last time you’ll hear of Surrender on the Trail, so please subscribe on my home page or follow me on social media. I appreciate you.
You will keep in perfect peace those whose minds are steadfast, because they trust in you. Trust in the Lord forever, for the Lord, the Lord himself, is the Rock eternal. Isaiah 26: 3-4
Sunshine Rat says, “What if we empty the car into the bear box, lay down the back seats, and then sleep in the car?”
Body language that we barely can read in the dark seems to agree, so we get to work. First, we put on our headlamps.
As the thunder and lightning teases the atmosphere, we gather everything we can fit in our arms and take it up the small incline to the bear box.
We brush teeth quickly in the most glorious and welcomed concrete block bathroom. Then we nestle inside the CRV. The girls thrash about in the back until they make comfortable spots. SunFloJo leans back the driver’s seat, and I lean back the passenger seat.
I unfastened my bra and wonder if my legs will get a blood clot by morning in this somewhat scrunched position. I tell myself that I will wake up enough times to adjust my legs.
Into the dark car I make up a story, “Well, Sunshine. You heard him. Tank will be in Vermont by Labor Day to marry you. Your mom can rest assured you’re not going to be single forever.”
The car erupts in giggles. Of course, everyone agrees with my fiction.
The Steam Team agrees to meet in Vermont for Tank & Sunshine’s big day.
As the car occupants consider sleep, I add, “Guess who is camping next door?”
“Who?” Stalker C asks.
“What?!” SunFloJo strains to see. The car windows begin to fog up.
“No way!” Stalker C sits up.
“True story,” I say.
Sunshine Rat snorts a little, “I could NOT believe when he barreled by at the top of the mountain at our last intersection!”
I say, “Me either!”
SunFloJo says, “And now he’s here wondering why in the world he can’t shake us!”
“Oh no,” Stalker C is looking at her phone. We have slowly realized that we can connect with the outside world again. Stalker C is searching on Facebook, “I think Tank may be engaged.”
I insist, “I do not hear that.”
Sunshine says, “Aww.” I detect sarcasm and sleepiness.
“That won’t last,” I say. “The real wedding is still on. Vermont. Labor Day. Be there.”
SunFloJo cracks the windows a little to relieve some of our fog.
The youngest of us begin to fade.
SunFloJo whispers to me that she is going to unlock the doors, “This way the first one up doesn’t disturb the whole campground with the car security alarm.” This is not her first sleep-in-the-car rodeo.
I stare at stars in the sky through the sunroof until intermittent conversation, giggles and foggy windows give way to sleep one person at a time.
SunFloJo is the last to speak. She touches my left arm, “I’m so glad you came with me and that you were able to finish.”
“Me too,” I whisper. “Thank you for the invite.”
As the sound of silence outside the vehicle circles the sound of breaths drifting away inside, I notice Flat Kevin’s head poking out of SunFloJo’s bag. I move slowly to avoid disturbing others and pull him out of her bag gently.
You can watch the stars with me, Kevin. I smile at his pleasant face. I set him on the dashboard and use my shirt sleeve to de-fog a little starry night view just for Kevin. I pray for him and his family.
Sigh. My body can truly relax now.
Dear God, I surrender. I make room for Your will and the supernatural. Show me, lead me. Amen
Steady rain arrives, rocking my brain to sleep.
JUNE 4, 2016
I need to use the restroom. I quietly roll my knee opposite from the passenger door. Can I open the car door and close the door without waking up my friends?
Friends. The word hits me in my gut after a week of bonding.
I’m going to miss them.
My cell phone camera near, I manage to take a quick pic of our final night’s accommodation.
SunFloJo is curled in a ball facing the driver’s side door. Stalker C is sleeping on her tummy with her feet crossed in the air against the hatch door. Sunshine Rat is buried deep in her sleeping bag.
Ok. I can do this. I slip out the door and gently shut it back. No one stirs.
I half walk, half stumble away and around the CRV so I don’t risk making noise near the car.
Brrr, the morning air is chilly. I see mountain top clouds or fog all around me.
Deer! There are deer in all four directions. One is right next to the bathroom and doesn’t flinch as I slip by her and into the little building.
I splash water on my face and refasten my ponytail holder. When I walk back up the small hill from the bathroom, Shut-Up-Guy is walking down the path toward me. Another full circle moment.I wish the other Steam Team members were seeing this.
I tip toe beyond the CRV, into the tall grass of our would-have-been camp site. I open the bear box lifting the door carefully so that the metal doesn’t squeak.
Dew is heavy on the grass. I notice my one-person tent is sagging from the weight of the dew. I line up our bags, odds and ends on the picnic table. I take my tent apart, flicking slugs off which soar toward a nearby tree.
From the picnic table, I collect garbage and take it to a campground waste can near the showers. I repack my backpack and take a seat to watch the sun rise in its fullness until the gals wake up.
SunFloJo is next to roll out of the vehicle.
Soon the girls follow making quick work of reassembling the back seats so we can load the CRV.
I marvel how quietly we all work together with common goals today and every day this week.
With the car packed and Campsite 2 empty, we walk up to the lodge.
It looks different than when we went to the Tap Room last night. The large wood and stone building stands stoic, solid as if to say it endures the test of time beyond those who pass through it.
Today we sit in the row of upstairs rocking chairs to read Deb’s last question. I look through the large windows to the blue haze of mountains and valleys. I’m going to miss this view.
Sunshine Rat & SunFloJo sip coffee.
“Ready?” I ask.
“Yes,” all nod or speak in agreement.
I say, “This is from the envelope marked ‘Journey’s End’:
‘Dorothy & crew were in one moment both exactly who they had always been and also forever changed by their journey. How is this also true for you? Why or why not?’”
“Hmm.” The rocking chairs softly move. We ponder the question and stare out the windows silently.
Technically part of the little slip of paper from Deb had said, ‘for the car ride home’.
As we ponder, I suspect none of us are quite ready to answer. I know I’m not yet. I offer, “This is a deep question. Maybe we need some time to think about it?”
Sunshine Rat says, “Yeah, let’s think it over and talk about it on the drive back.”
Human beings ate the bread of angels; he sent them all the food they could eat. Psalm 78:25
Brieanna James gives Tank a music shaker and Sunshine Rat a tambourine.
They stand on either side of Brieanna and play their instruments on the beat as she sings her version of I’m Yours by Jason Mraz.
“…I tried to be chill but you’re so hot I melted….
“I reckon it’s again my turn to win some or learn some…”
Our audience sways and sings along. Brieanna smiles at her helpers.
“We’re just one big family and it’s our godforsaken right to be loved, loved, loved…”
The room claps as Sunshine and Tank raise the instruments to add a splash of drama to the last line. They bow with a head nod and return to their seats.
Frodo jumps up to be next. He does not have a partner. I look toward a frozen Stalker C who makes no move to stand up. Brieanna gives Frodo a shaker and he moves it like one of those Shake Weight commercials. He is a puppy that could not glow more with happiness.
Pizzas and wings arrive. We dig in as Frodo returns to the table. He says, “What talent to only be 16!” Someone reminds him that Brieanna is jailbait.
As the fun continues, I ask, “Ted, how do you spell your last name? S-h-e-p…like a shepherd in the Bible or something different?”
His body language says yes, “Yep like the Bible.”
SunFloJo points away from our table, “Would you look at that; the sunset is gorgeous. Almost dark soon.”
We soak in the sunset colors through the windows and wipe sauce with napkins away from fingers and faces.
Sunshine Rat scans the table and says to the Steam Team, “Oops. I guess we should have put our tents up before we came here.”
Tank’s face turns serious, “That’s the first rule of the trail. Always put your tent up before dark.” He appears disappointed.
Oh, there are official rules? Feeling a little slap happy, I want to laugh but hold it in.
Tank continues, “And we’re supposed to have bad weather tonight. Heavy rain and possible thunderstorms.”
Frodo listens to hear what we’re going to do.
SunFloJo waves it off, “We’ll figure it out.”
Frodo offers, “One night we found a bathroom to sleep in because it was storming so bad outside.”
Tank, possibly concerned with how that admission might sound, adds, “We put down a mat, so we weren’t all the way touching the bathroom floor or anything.”
“Oh honey, no judgment here,” SunFloJo says.
We finish the food and appetizers. Delicious.
“Hey,” Stalker C says to the young guys. “We have lots of trail food left over if you want it.”
Tank’s face brightens, “Oh, that would be great!”
I offer, “It’s already bagged for the trail.”
Frodo says, “Perfect.”
Brieanna leans into the microphone and smiles, “Now I want to play a song that I wrote. It is called Whatever Happened.”
She plays soft cords and shares verses with us. The song talks about sunshine days and moonlit nights.
She sings, “There’s beauty in every direction, everyone teaches a lesson…”
I feel thoughtful about the lyrics.
My adult life has gone by so fast. Our babies are nearly grown. One is leaving.
My husband–while not ambitious beyond our home, certainly always seeks to spend time with me. Not a social butterfly, a little grumpy at times, but his love is genuine. He still wants to be with me even after all these years. How many people receive the gift of consistency in a relationship?
I reflect on the day we met in May twenty four years ago. The day we pretended not to look at one another. The day I rolled my eyes at God because I knew with all my being that life ahead involved Paul by my side. Not one day since have I ever questioned if Paul wants to be with me. I feel…blessed.
Inhale. Exhale. Pause for oxygen.
I sense he may be missing me and wondering about our progress right now.
Grabbing my phone off the charger next to the wall, I send Paul a text—I AM SAFE AND SOUND AT OUR LAST STOP. GOING TO SLEEP SOON AND DRVING HOME IN THE MORNING. HOPE YOU GUYS ARE OK. LOTS OF ADVENTURES TO SHARE IF YOU WANT TO HEAR ABOUT THEM. I LOVE YOU.
Paul returns a text immediately—I LOVE YOU TOO! CAN’T WAIT TO GET YOU HOME. AND, YES, I WANT TO HEAR ABOUT THE ADVENTURES. SEE YOU TOMORROW NIGHT. BOYS AND I ARE FINE. TTYS!
Brieanna rounds out the lyrics of her song, “Put the pieces away one last time…there’s beauty in every direction, everyone teaches a lesson, which way will you choose…”
The common denominator of anything that really matters is family, friends and love. Everything else can be rearranged, sold, donated. Just because I want things a certain way does not mean that is the only way. Life can evolve, and I’ll be just fine.
The room begins to clear. Campers go to bed with the sun.
Ted smiles in a belly full kind of way. He reaches for his wallet.
“Uh, no sir,” says SunFloJo. “We’ve got this.”
In his jovial manner he says, “Thank you.”
“Ted, we appreciate you. And thanks for coming up here tonight. It was good to converse when we weren’t falling apart from exhaustion,” I say.
He smiles, shakes all our hands. Then with a quick so long, he is gone.
We girls chip in our funds, and SunFloJo finishes the bill business. Tank and Frodo say thank you.
While Brieanna is packing up with her dad, we exit. The Steam Team plus Tank and Frodo make our way up the wooden stairs and out the lodge front door. Crickets dominate the cool night air.
We carefully step through the darkness down the hill toward our car. I do not want a sprained ankle. Not even at this stage in the game. Flip flops don’t fail me now.
Lightning highlights the sky. A low thunder sound is not far away.
The guys stand as we gather gallon size bag after bag of trail food, some from the back of the CRV and some from the bear box. Frodo’s mouth drops and Tank’s eyes widen as they say, “This is a lot of food!”
We are giggly but do not want to disturb the campground. I peer around to see how many people are still outside. Some people are still awake, but most seem to be tucked away in their tents and campers.
On one of the bear box retrieval trips, I happen to notice a familiar person. You have got to be kidding me!
Shut-Up-Guy is outside of his tent next door to us in campsite 3. He shakes his head perhaps in disbelief too.
We pile plastic bag after bag into Tank and Frodo’s arms all while they marvel about the types of food inside: jerky, marshmallows, crushed pop tarts, fruit chews, pretzels, peanut butter, and more!
Tank says, “Wow, this will save like 4 days of grocery cost for us. Thank you so much.”
Frodo adds, “When this happens it’s called Trail Magic! And that means you four are Trail Angels.”
Trail Angels. I like the sound of that.
“Here,” Frodo sets down the bags for a moment. “We have to hug. Thank you so much. This was a great evening.”
Frodo and Tank take turns hugging each one of us.
My heart is full by their gratitude and admiration for their journey. How awesome is it that they are thru hikers halfway along on their full route AT adventure? Our trail magic gets to move on without us through them.
Stalker C says, “Do you mind if we follow your journey on Facebook or Instagram or something?”
Both guys say absolutely and give us their real names.
“We hope to be in Vermont by Labor Day,” Tank says.
“And finish in Maine by end of September or early October,” Frodo adds.
I say, “We’ll be cheering you on.”
SunFloJo adds with a chuckle, “Virtually.” Even her wonder woman of a body is tired now.
We smile and after one more round of hugs, the guys carry their food off into the night.
The Steam Team leans silently against the CRV bumper.
All of us look toward the dark campsite thinking how set up at this point would be difficult without light—and probably noisy.
In all the travels of the Israelites, whenever the cloud lifted from above the tabernacle, they would set out. Exodus 40:36
SunFloJo says, “I’ve got an idea!”
She announces as we eat, “Let’s start offering to meet folks at the Tap Room tonight. If they’re already going that direction, then we’ll mention it. Since Ted is meeting us anyway, let’s make a party of it.”
Absolutely. Of course. Let’s dream up a party right here in the woods. Anything is possible.
After hours of seeing no one today, we are surprised to see someone approach the trail intersection right on queue after the idea is born.
A man walks to us from the south. He is on the path we will eventually walk on the AT.
“Hi,” he says.
I wonder, What is he eating?
The man pulls plants from the side of the trail and munches on them.
Upon closer look, he is not mountain man romance material for the younger gals.
Sunshine Rat asks him, “So what is that direction like?”
“Not too bad. Up and down some, but I’ve seen worse.”
Yeah. If he’s talking about steep inclines and declines, we’ve certainly seen worse too.
He heads north.
Then we see who I assume is a man and wife couple in their sixties perhaps. “Oh,” I say to the woman. “I love your shirt!”
Her navy t-shirt has a simple AT blaze splash on the front as if someone took a paint brush stroke from a tree and painted her shirt instead. She appears to be very clean. The shirt is crisp, like brand new.
I hope these clean people don’t smell us.
My shirt and pants cling to my body. When sweat drips from my hairline, I am careful to wipe it away from my eyes.
“Thank you,” she says. “I think I got this in a gift shop at Harper’s Ferry.”
SunFloJo chews pepperoni and the last of her cheese. She asks, “Are you hiking the whole AT?”
I smell the man’s aftershave, so I guess the answer is no, but he does surprise us with a sweet story.
“We have friends in Florida who are here finishing the last of their almost 2200 AT miles. We came to walk with them for a little while.”
“Yes,” the clean woman shrills. “They are twin 80-year-olds. They’ve been walking about 200 miles each summer for 10 years. This year they will finish!”
80-years-old? Twins? –I’ve got to get in better shape.
And what-do-ya-know, here they come along the trail! Two matching ladies walk up to us from the south. They each have short white hair, trekking poles, and the biggest smiles.
The man says, “They can’t hear too well.”
SunFloJo is all over this. This moment may mirror her in 20 years. “Hi! We hear you’re finishing up the AT?”
The twins nod.
One of them hears better than the other one and tells us a little about their journey. “We started the trail in the most difficult spots like up in Maine when we were early 70’s.”
“We just like walking. Thought this would be a good retirement activity.”
They share, “Our combined trail name is Happy Trails.”
Inspiration surges through each of our hearts. What an incredible story. The fact that these sisters have walked almost 2200 miles sinks into my mind. Wow.
And how wonderful it is that their friends came to meet them in the forest to witness and celebrate the last steps?Beautiful.
After the foursome walks on to the north, SunFloJo says, “Did you see their beautiful legs? So shapely for 80!”
We continue to eat. A redhead young man and a dark-haired young girl approach, “Hello!”
Greetings are exchanged.
“What are your trail names?” SunFloJo asks.
When they speak, we recognize their British accents, “I’m Samsquatch,” He says. “And she is The Boss.”
We snicker, “Why is she The Boss?”
He answers, “Because we were dating and trying to decide what to do in our gap year before university. We’re from the U.K. and gap years are a thing where we are from. She heard about the AT and drug me over here to hike.”
“I thought it would be cool to say we did this,” The Boss adds.
The parent in me asks, “How does your family feel about it?”
The Boss answers, “My mum worries because I can only check in every few days when we find an outlet to charge our phones.”
I bet. But really, what a great way to spend 6 months of your gap year!
“I try to tell mum that we’ve met people on the trail and that everyone checks up on everyone else. There are logs along the way to sign and people look for your name.”
Samsquatch adds, “Yeah, sometimes you hang with a group for a while. When you need a rest day a bunch of us go in together to share a hotel room, or a shelter, or a shower.”
Another dark-haired young gal walks up from the south. Clearly, they know each other.
“What’s your trail name?” I ask her.
She is adorably thin and tall. Olive Oil smiles.
SunFloJo asks, “Are you alone or do you have a partner?”
With confidence she replies, “I’m kind of alone overall, but you’re never really alone out here. I hang off and on with a group of people.”
“Like us,” laughs Samsquatch and The Boss. “And sometimes we get perks because we’re British.” There’s a chuckle between the three of them due to some inside joke along the way. “Like hotel rates or restaurant rates.”
“Americans have been good to us.”
Well, put that on a billboard. I’m glad to hear that.
The Boss continues, “We’ve got to make our money last. We’ve made it to the midway point of our hike so far.”
We exchange pleasantries, “Nice to meet you! Hope you have a great second half of the trip.”
Then we see one, two, three,…NINE men approach our lunch location. This intersection is proving to be a high foot traffic area.
These men book it to our spot like a locomotive machine. Their legs move in unison and they vary in ages and athletic ability. Some sweat profusely. I imagine because they are trying to keep up.
I look them over and say, “I see some genetic similarities among you.”
They nod with testosterone pride. “We’re the dads,” three of them say. They point down the row of others, “These are our sons, he’s a cousin, and he is a son-in-law.”
“You guys were really trucking it,” I say.
“Yes, we are heading to Big Meadow.”
“Oh, yes, us too, but via Lewis Mountain first. That’s where we left our vehicle,” I say.
Noticing some of the younger ages, SunFloJo says, “Hey, we’re inviting people to the Tap Room tonight at Big Meadow. If you want to join us, then you’re invited.”
The most senior dad says, “We will keep that in mind.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I see Stalker C’s eyes widen. She looks at me and looks at Sunshine Rat, then tilts her head south toward the trail.
Now I see what she means.
Well, well, well.
Look who it is!
Shut-Up-Guy is heading our way.
The jaws on three of our faces drop while SunFloJo continues chatting it up with the nine man train.
Sunshine Rat, Stalker C and my eyes follow Shut-Up-Guy as he passes behind our visitors and continues at a fast speed. His eyes meet our eyes only briefly at one point.
SunFloJo is still talking, “And do you gentlemen have trail names?”
Main Leader Dad says, “No.”
He shakes his head as if none of his crew deserve the gift of a trail name. It’s starting to make sense to me why so many of his crew are an out of breath, sweaty mess. They’ve been trying to keep up with Main Leader Dad. Ah hah. That’s your trail name in my book.
Main Leader Dad takes a pepperoni stick from Sunshine Rat’s hand without asking.
Perhaps dude needs a manners life skill workshop from the non-profit back home?
Stalker C, Sunshine Rat and SunFloJo eye his behavior as he lightly fingers the length of the pepperoni.
My ballpark interpretation is that he thinks this is good packaging for meat, easy to transport. Has he not ever seen pepperoni sticks?
He nods approval and hands the stick back to Sunshine.
Then Main Leader Dad looks at SunFloJo. She is wearing her moisture wicking khaki shorts and fuchsia shirt with a black bandana around her head.
Time stops. I hear a metaphor of angels in heaven open with an ascension chorus “ah ah ahhh”.
The sunlight shifts through the trees and casts a spotlight onto SunFloJo. The man lifts his arm and points to our friend, our leader, our SunFloJo.
He says with all authority as if he is knighting her or blessing her through the air, “You are SteelCut.”
The Steam Team freezes over this announcement.
The men who we later affectionately call The Nine Testes have spoken.
And just like that, they walk off quickly in unison.
I think that name does fit as an alternative for SunFloJo.
Stalker C says to SunFloJo, “Did you see who sped by while you were knighted with a possible new name?”
“Shut-Up-Guy from our first night.”
Sunshine Rat chimes in, “What are the odds we would see him again?”
Seeing Shut-Up-Guy makes us all laugh. We replay a key event from night one.
I say, “I promise” and Stalker C says a low, “Shuuuut Uuuup!”
While we laugh, two guys approach coming from the south. They introduce themselves as a father-son team. “We’re staying at the resort.”
There’s a resort nearby? I had no idea.
“Cool Shirts,” I say referencing their neon gym workout t-shirts.
The son shares, “We work out at the same Cross Fit together.” He pauses then adds, “To get ready for hiking we added cardio.”
Something about the way he said “added cardio” makes the Steam Team stifle giggles.
Our rest and refuel window of time is closing.
I say, “Hope you have a great hike. We’re about to take off in the direction you came from.”
Let the rivers clap their hands; Let the mountains sing together for joy.
Psalm 98: 8
We step back from the edge to set our backpacks on a large rock next to an underwhelming sign in the shape of an arrow that reads “Lewis Springs Falls”. I remember from researching the trip that it is 81 feet tall and the fourth largest falls in Shenandoah National Park.
I reach behind me to separate my shirt, sweat, and skin. Feels good. My shoulders are free.
A wood burned sign says we are at an elevation of 2800 feet. SunFloJo removes her shoes and socks.
Sunshine Rat’s eyes meet mine. Then Stalker C and I exchange a look. What is SunFloJo doing?
I choose to trust her. There is a cliff and deep canyon to our right. To the left is a narrow rocky path toward the waterfalls. SunFloJo navigates the damp route. I grab Ben’s old camera. I pull the wrist strap over my hand.
We follow SunFloJo. The rush of water grows louder. We sidestep with the mountain wall against our backsides.
Silence falls over our team when we turn a corner. Our bodies gently lower to sit on rocks of varying heights. I am comfortable sitting about four feet from the water flow. Mist sprays us with nature’s air conditioning.
To our left water rushes above our heads over rocks through trees and over bright green moss. One large rock causes the water to flow left or right. Then the water rejoins and skips over the cliff’s edge to our right.
On her bottom, SunFloJo crabwalks even closer to the water feet first. Her hands keep her steady. Soon I do not see her feet or most of her legs. She knows this is water with momentum, right? She knows this is a rushing waterfall with a deep drop off, correct?
Yeah, she knows, I tell myself while simultaneously considering what to tell her family if something goes wrong. She is not far from my grasp if I need to act quickly.
SunFloJo relaxes her feet into the cool water that races past us with no view of where it goes beyond the cliff. She somehow stops short of the possibility of being swept away.
We four rest and gaze at the fast water.
My mind turns to my troubles and grasps nothingness at the same time. I am double numb and it is not a bad spot to be in for a while. I soak in the beauty of each tree in my sight, noticing that they all lean toward the water.
Here you go, God, please take my anger. I do not want to carry it any longer.
I visualize throwing a big pile of stuff over the falls. Emotions, disappointment, and fear. Here you go.
Help me, Lord. I thought I answered your call. Show me what to do.
I hope that bugs do not crawl in my pants as I sit here. I tuck pant legs into my socks.
Lord, I thought creating the non-profit was what you wanted. Was I wrong? Should I walk away? What do You want? Finances are killing me and our family. Please lead us where we should go.
The water roars louder now than I remember when we first sat down.
“How’s it going, Surrender?” SunFloJo scoots backward up the rocks away from her toe dipping spot. “Water is nice and cold.”
A nod is all I offer in this serenity moment. I wonder from her serious jawline if she has been thinking of her nephew Kevin. Or maybe about what her retirement will look like soon or both.
Someone says, “Let’s take pictures.”
I push myself up to a standing position. Ouch.
We move to a safer location. Stalker C & Sunshine pose together. Then we take individual pictures with the drop off in the background. Stalker C twirls one of my trekking poles. It is a funny picture. I laugh.
We reunite with backpacks and find a fork in the trail. Our trail plan leads us to an incline. Oh no. Not yet. I do not want to go uphill. But back up a different section of the next mountain is required. Day Hikers pass us going and coming from the falls.
The rocky ascent follows the stream behind the waterfall. Following the water provides cool air.
Trees form a canopy. It is like we move through a forest tube with a thick green roof. The terrain is steep. Rocks wiggle under my feet and threaten my ankles. I give thanks for the grace of extra ankle support.
SunFloJo hangs back to check on the caboose: me. I suspect she wonders how I am doing since there are as many rocks going up on the Blue Blaze trail as there were coming down.
We read a sign that says:
FALLS CAN KILL
STAY ON THE TRAIL
Comforting. Maybe they should post that coming from the other direction too.
“1 point!” Sunshine Rat brings back the Caterpillar Game after our time at the waterfall.
“Oh, a chipmunk, 5 points!”
We build up Tap Room points again.
I feel mostly good. At least better than yesterday. The shade protects us from the heat and sun. My feet struggle with twists and turns on the rocks as we climb.
Stalker C asks with slightly strained breathing, “How long was this section supposed to be?”
Sunshine answers, “.7 miles.”
Stalker C, “And how long has it actually been so far?”
Sunshine pauses to look inside her shirt to check the boob-o-meter then announces, “1.2 miles.”
Stalker C mumbles, “The trail lies.”
Among the green and brown landscape, a random pink stuffed monkey is Velcro strapped to a tree. We each stare at the out of place bright color as we pass by and march on.
We emerge from the thick covered path. The terrain changes to less tree cover. More sunlight filters through the leaves.
We see a door in the side of a hill that seems out of place. It reminds me of a Hobbit door in the Shire from Lord of the Rings–but taller. I hear rushing water behind the door as we pass. I later learn this is Lewis Spring House and an access road is nearby. A lot of water for the national park comes from this location.
After passing the door, we arrive at a post marker. It tells us we have reached the Appalachian Trail: The White Blaze. This is where we turn right back onto the AT. What I can see of the next jaunt appears to cut across the mountain instead of ascending or descending. Yay!
But first it is time for lunch. We sit in the crossroad of the two trails and dig out food bags. Still Bag E for me. I may never finish it. I stare at my food knowing I should fuel myself even if I don’t want any of it.
Stalker C says, “My feet are killing me.” She shares that she has corns on her toes. She takes off her shoes and socks.
I do not want to look. She thinks she might need surgery.
I give in and look. Yep, that looks painful.
Sunshine Rat and SunFloJo sit on the ground on one side of the trail. Stalker C and I sit on the opposite side on fallen timbers.
As munching begins, I ask, “Is it time to read our next On the Journey question from Deb?”
“Yes!” The group says.
“Day 2: Poppy Fields. Dorothy, et al., veered from their path through the poppy fields causing them to fall asleep. What are the poppy fields in your life that cause you to slumber and delay reaching your goal(s)?”
We consider the topic.
SunFloJo says, “Taking on too much sometimes without pausing for some me time. Recently I decided to only commit to a max of three evening activity nights out per week. That’s helping me be more centered and giving me more time for meditation or down time as needed.”
I go next, “Self-discipline. The last few years I keep working on discipline, but it’s still an issue for me to stay focused and diligent each day on the most important priorities.”
Stalker C and Sunshine both giggle and say, “Procrastination.” I suspect there is an inside joke about their college days within that one word.
We did not see many people in recent hours, but now while sitting where the AT crosses Lewis Falls Trail, people appear. Most are passing through along the AT in either direction.
From the south, which is to the right of my sitting spot, a tall athletic couple probably in their late 50’s stroll into view. They wear perfectly coordinating grey and navy moisture wicking (expensive) clothing. His silver hair is neatly cut. Her medium length gray-blonde hair is pulled into a ponytail at the base of her neck. I notice their shiny trekking poles and the fancy skort she is wearing.
“Hi,” The silver haired man says as he is about to pass on by. Then the lady stops causing him to pause his stride. I think she is glad to chat with new people. Sunshine and SunFloJo engage with them.
I finally dip tortilla pieces into a mini peanut butter container. Nothing tastes good.
Stalker C sits on the ground to my left. She mouths to me I have to pee.
Across from us Sunshine Rat and SunFloJo yak it up with our visitors. The couple has “enjoyed the marvelous AT this morning”.
He points to where we are going next, “It’s not too bad, mostly level that direction.”
Stalker C’s eyes grow frustrated as her personal emergency lingers. The couple turns toward our side. Stalker C says nothing to them and does not make eye contact. I use an old office life move. I stand up and say, “Have a nice day. Nice to meet you.” Standing up usually prompts people to move along at work.
They indeed say their farewells and continue their hike.
Stalker C waits a few minutes for them to continue toward the north. Then, deciding they are far enough gone, she walks a little toward the same direction to find a safe spot to find relief.
But what do ya know? From the south another two humans appear. I shake my head. Stalker C does not get her pants down. She walks back to us. Her body language says, “Sigh….”
I mouth to Sunshine that Stalker needs to pee, but I am not sure if Sunshine catches my message.
Oh, look, it is another happy day hiker couple with small backpacks. Man, my sugar level must be low. I feel grouchy.
After taking a better look, I am not sure if the new people are a couple or mother and son. He is tall, has dark hair, a healthy pudge going on, but is not fat in my book (because you know my book is oversized from the beginning. I try not to judge, but here I am judging). I cannot tell his age. He could be 40’s. He could be 50’s with a little Just for Men hair dye going on. No clue.
The woman he is with I guess to be in her 50’s or early 60’s. She is about three quarters of his height, much shorter in comparison. Stalker C’s leg is bouncing.
SunFloJo begins to converse with them. He responds to one of her questions, “We love the outdoors. We had a lovely time hiking in Jackson Hole, Wyoming last year.”
Sunshine looks over at Stalker C and me. We are on the ground level compared to our standing guests. Stalker C and I mouth again that Stalker has immediate needs.
Sunshine nods casually. She gets it, but then asks the couple another question.
Is that a slight smirk on Sunshine Rat’s face? Perhaps she is messing with her roommate for fun.
I notice something. What is sticking out of that man’s backpack? A teddy bear face and two furry arms poke out of the top.
The woman catches my observation. She says with a smile, “Oh we got that bear on one of our trips. We take it on all our hikes ever since.”
Hmm, so they routinely hike together. I am still not sure of their relationship.
Stalker C crosses her legs and then re-crosses, but the conversation deepens with our guests.
“So, you four ladies aren’t concerned for your safety out here?” The guy asks, a bit random, a bit overzealous.
Oh great, serial killers. Just what we need.
Sunshine Rat says, “Should we be?”
The woman says to us, “Don’t worry honey. No man”, emphasis on the no man, “would ever approach 4 women.” She tosses her hand with her wrist. The Steam Team smiles at this new thought.
SunFloJo may or may not know the situation going on over here. She is a pro at active ignoring. I have seen her use that skill at school with students to help redirect behavior. Then she says, “Now what are your names?”
Are you kidding me? I see a grin on SunFloJo’s face. She knows. She may be messing with me as much as with Stalker’s bladder.
He is glib. He loves this question, “One of us is Dorian and one of us is Kendall. Can you guess who is who?”
I interject, “Well, when you put it that way, you must be Kendall.”
I ruin his game. This visit is over. Nice to meet yous are exchanged and they move north.
“Quick, go!” I say to my young friend and point south.
Stalker C crosses an access road and heads down the trail to take care of business. Meanwhile Sunshine Rat and SunFloJo are in stitches giggling.
…. 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.
MAY 29, 2016
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.
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.
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.”
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?”
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.”
“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.
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
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.
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.
“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.
“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.”
“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!”
I write the answer to “what’s on my mind” on Facebook:
Calling all friends who have back country skills and equipment! I have an opportunity to hike part of the Appalachian Trail coming up very soon on a shoestring budget. I would welcome and take good care of any items you might allow me to borrow. Need: a less than 5 lb. 1-person tent, a trail worthy backpack, sleeping pad, lightweight sleeping bag. Plus, anything you know from experience might be helpful.
I click “post” then grab my son’s empty L.L. Bean backpack. I put a couple text books inside to add weight to the pack, lace up the stiff new Swiss hiking boots, and begin going up and down the hill outside my house. We leave this month. I’d better do anything I can to get my body ready. From the trail plan, I know that climbing hills is going to be a tough part of the experience.
Three times down and up my perfectly paved suburban sidewalk leads me to take a break. I sit on the porch with my love handles drinking water while out of breath. Then I begin the descent and climb again and again until I am certain Netflix calls my name to go back inside the house. Sweat is overrated.
MAY 7, 2016
Today is Saturday. I am at my second job. A beautiful spring day is outside through the window and beyond my grasp. I miss the boys.
My supervisor gave me a quarter raise above minimum wage last week like it was exuberant cause for celebration. I try to be grateful. I tell myself: this is a season in your life. Carry on. Having to clean bathrooms at the end of each shift when the body already aches is the most humbling. I have gagged more than once.
I convince myself that the small additional paycheck helps with groceries for two hungry teenage boys. They are worth it.
Some of the worst moments here are when people I knew from better employment years come into the store and eye me with questioning eyes or pity. They are in a rush on their way to a bridal shower or stopping by for luxury beach accessories on their way to Florida. They complain about trivial things like a broken nail or how on earth they could possibly pick a fine china place setting pattern from so many choices. Today a guy visiting the customer service desk asked me, “Didn’t you used to be my boss at…?”
“Yes,” I smiled and did not offer one bit of explanation.
I hustle upstairs to my locker on a ten-minute break in hopes of a text or sign of life outside the walls of me saying “Would you like a gift receipt?” and “Would you like to purchase the item of the month?” to every single customer. You never know when the next customer might be a Secret Shopper who will report back about our store performance to the general manager.
I unlock my phone to find texts from JoAnn. Yes! Texts on break breathe life into me.
She sent a picture of a picture.
JoAnn—THIS IS FLAT KEVIN! HE IS GOING WITH US!
Flat Kevin is a 2D image of JoAnn’s nephew. She cut the background away from a candid photo of Kevin and laminated the remaining shape of his body. He is tall with dark hair and a kind smile. I recognize the wide bright eyes that JoAnn and many in her family seem to have. She says Flat Kevin will fit into her backpack perfectly. I guesstimate he is about 5 inches tall from the text.
JoAnn fills me in about his story and why he is going. The real Kevin is 44 and the father of 6 children. His youngest is 3 years old. Kevin is fighting Renal Cancer. He has gone through a round of Interleukin so far. She tells me Kevin is living life as best he can right now. JoAnn is dedicating her hike to him. We will take a bunch of pictures with Flat Kevin during the hike so she can share those pictures with him after the trip.
My heart acknowledges his struggle. I have nothing left to internally complain about today. I text back my support for Flat Kevin on the trip and she continues with more news.
JoAnn—GUESS WHO ELSE IS GOING WITH US?!! DRUMROLL….
No idea. JoAnn knows I am on a work break, so she does not leave me in suspense.
JoAnn—COURTNEY!!!! AFTER GRADUATION SHE HAS A LITTLE BREAK WHERE THIS TRIP WILL FIT IN PERFECTLY.
So, she WAS interested in going. Cool. Courtney is a nice addition.
Courtney and I ran a Girls Circle® group for 5th grade girls together during the winter. Before the students learned our names, they called her the “blonde one” and me the “dark haired one”.
Courtney has an old soul in a 22-year-old body. She was a reliable partner. I enjoyed her occasional surprise over what some of the young girls had to say. One of my favorite moments was when the girls mentioned that the next day school was going to have “the talk” with them about puberty. Their parents had to sign a consent form for them to participate. They asked Courtney if we knew what this means. Courtney replied, “Yeah, Glenna and I went to that class a long time ago.” The girls burst into an exchange of giggles.
The retail break time clock is ticking.
A group text pops up.
Courtney—MY ROOMMATE RACHEL WANTS TO GO WITH US ALSO!
JoAnn—OH WONDERFUL! WE HAVE FOUR SEATS. THAT WORKS!
The car is getting crowded, but I do like even numbers on trips.
Courtney—GLENNA, RACHEL IS TO ME LIKE DEB IS TO YOU. WE COMPLEMENT ONE ANOTHER.
Oh wait. I recall some difficult stories with one of her classmates.
Glenna—RACHEL’S NOT THE “CRAZY ONE” IS SHE?
Gotta verify. I am too old for petty, jealous girl stuff.
Courtney—LOL. NO, RACHEL IS NOT THE CRAZY ONE, BUT WE ARE TRYING TO FIGURE OUT HOW TO TELL THE C.O.
I pause, then send a text to Courtney directly. I know that Courtney was involved in and valued her past experience in high school church youth groups, so this idea might go over ok.
Glenna—DO YOU WANT ADVICE ABOUT TELLING THE C.O.?
As a personal rule, I attempt not to give input without asking if people want advice first.
Glenna–BEFORE YOU TELL HER, PRAY FOR A GOOD TIME AND AN EASY PATH FOR COMMUNICATION. THEN HOPEFULLY A CONVERSATION WILL OCCUR NATURALLY, NOT FORCED.
I have been to the movie of dealing with a few Crazy Ones over the years. Jealousy filled and irrational relationships wear me out. I have found that God has a way of working out the crazy upfront when you take the time to ask. So, perhaps I will pray right now too.
Please help Courtney and Rachel tell the friend that they are going on a trip without her. Soften everyone’s hearts involved and allow there to be a peaceful exchange.
And please work out the crazy circumstances in my own life too.
Then I think about how even if Rachel is not the Crazy One, she is still an “unknown” for me. I hope she is not someone with a bad attitude. I do not like when there is a dud on a trip.
The time clock makes the punch back in sound.
MAY 8, 2016
Jacob hands me the Mommy Boot Camp notebook I made him. For the last month he has been completing household tasks along with preparing his body for basic training and working. The home version boot camp is not because I want him to clean or repair our house (a nice benefit), but because I want him to know how to do things when he is living on his own.
We tried to teach him life chores as he grew up, but he is a dismissive one. He often surprises you later that he was paying attention at all.
Mommy Boot Camp has been a bit like Karate Kid’s “Wax on. Wax off.” He has done laundry, yard work, made calls to get information, wrote paragraphs about the dangers of drinking and driving, cleaned the crevices of our 6 panel doors, reviewed articles about youth who made big mistakes while abroad, prayed, looked up helpful life Bible verses, swept, mowed the lawn, drove his brother to appointments, was left alone with a banana and condom (while also having conversations about the benefits of waiting), folded clothes, Googled various topics like how to reduce anxiety, wrote down the Serenity Prayer, did countless sit ups, pushups and more.
“Mom, I’ve learned and done everything you asked.” He continues, “Now I’d like a few weeks off to relax before I’m gone for most of the next 6 years.”
“Ok.” I hug him. My tall handsome boy smells faintly of manly cologne.
I go to a quiet spot in the house to let a few tears pass.
MAY 13, 2016
May 31st is 18 days from now. My mind is racing about all I need to prepare and what I need to learn before we depart.
I realize that I have never put up a tent by myself. Maybe I helped once or twice in the past by holding a tent pole for someone else while they did the real puzzle work.
Fortunately, there is YouTube and Google. I search for videos, articles and how to information about hiking the AT: what food to pack, how to select and put on a proper hiking backpack gear, how to protect yourself from the elements, how to keep bears and critters from your campsite, how to sleep in the deep woods at night (Eek! It is going to be DARK!).
Sounds like the most important things are to not leave food out to attract animals and to not be smelly yourself. And by smelly, I do not mean smell good or fragrant with normal wash products. It is important to have as little scent as possible.
Oh, and apparently people have trail names. You can have a special name just for the hiking experience. Given my recent life challenges, I could use a departure from reality. I ponder what my trail name will be.
News breaks that a man, age 49, was bitten through his tent by a bear while sleeping along the Appalachian Trail in the Smoky Mountains. Through his tent!?!
It was just two days ago that I felt peaceful that I probably will feel safe enough at night once I am inside a 1-person tent. The dark will remain outside. I will zip up at dusk and not come out until daylight. That was my solid plan.
And now I am thinking, bitten THROUGH his tent by a bear?! I yi yi. He was inside.
I group text the story to Courtney, Rachel and JoAnn.
JoAnn—THAT GUY PROBABLY HAD FOOD OR AN ODD SMELL IN HIS TENT.
JoAnn—ALSO, I’M BRINGING BEAR BELLS AND A BEAR BAG.
Courtney—I’LL GLADLY CARRY A BEAR BELL.
Rachel—DOES THE BEAR BELL ENCOURAGE THE BEARS TO STAY AWAY FROM US?
JoAnn—BEARS DON’T LIKE BEAR BELLS. AND AT NIGHT WE PUT ALL OUR FOOD IN A BEAR BAG AND SLING IT WITH A ROPE HIGH OVER A TREE BRANCH ABOUT 200 YARDS FROM CAMP. I’VE BEEN PRACTICING.
Rachel—OH, OF COURSE. BELLS, BEAR BAG, ROPE, GOT IT. THIS IS ALL NEW TO ME! CAN’T WAIT, LADIES!
JoAnn has been practicing. Good to hear.
JoAnn—IF YOU’RE GOING TO WEAR DEODORANT, MAKE SURE IT IS UNSCENTED. NOT EASY TO FIND, BUT THERE IS A BRAND CALLED TOM’S THAT MAKES UNSCENTED.
IF we are going to wear deodorant? I add to my shopping list:
I do not think I can give up deodorant. I also do not want any rodents or bears curious about me.
At an after-school club I tell co-worker Maria about the trip. I know she is an outdoor person. Maria had many adventures around the globe in her 20’s.
“I think you’ll love it,” Maria says. “And you need to read Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods.”
“Is it a book about the AT?”
“Yeah. You will learn a lot of tips.” She continues, “Like cotton is rotten.”
“You don’t want to wear anything cotton. Cotton stays damp and gross. You need to wear things that are synthetic. Synthetic materials dry fast.”
“Really?” I’d already been planning cool cotton attire and a couple of my favorite summer outfits. Do I own anything NOT cotton?
“Oh, yeah. Very important. No cotton.”
Once again, I am re-thinking what to bring and what to wear.
I stop at the Half-Price Bookstore. I already looked online to see that A Walk in the Woods is checked out of the library.
Ah-hah! Half-Price has a few copies. I use a bag of change to purchase a copy of the book plus a blank journal and head home. I want to keep thoughts and lists for the trip in one place.
I walk down the neighborhood hill and back up several times.
I am in bed reading while thinking I should still be cramming exercise into the day. My legs are sore. I wish I had more time to prepare.
My eyes enlarge. On page 6 of A Walk in the Woods, the author is preparing for his AT hike. Included in his prep is awareness that:
“…there is the little-known family of organisms called hantaviruses, which swarm in the micro-haze above the feces of mice and rats and are hovered into the human respiratory system by anyone unlucky enough to stick a breathing orifice near them—by lying down, say, on a sleeping platform over which infested mice have recently scampered….”
In YouTube videos I remember seeing occasional AT platform shelters in the woods where the above quote could be a problem if we sleep on one at night. No thank you. I vow to stay in my tent. Two, I need to add buffs or handkerchiefs to my packing list! I will cover my mouth, nose, ears and all orifices while sleeping.
In the back of my journal, I make a page for my packing list:
Buffs to cover face at night
Synthetic, quick dry clothing–No cotton!
Food –what kind of food?! (need to research)
1-person tent (need to find or borrow)
Some type of pillow (or use rolled up clothing at night?)
Travel toothpaste and brush
Other items TBD
I turn off the light and pull the covers over my head. I try to comprehend what pitch-black dark will be like out in the woods at night.
MAY 14, 2016
This is really JoAnn’s trip. I remind myself of that. She has been planning to go since September.
The timing fit and the boots fit, but the origins of this trip are hers. I vow to respect that.
JoAnn turned 60 in November. She was super busy around that time and so was I. It bothered me that I did not get to properly celebrate with her on or near her birthday. But I have an idea about how to have a celebration moment for her while on the AT.
I message her husband, Steve, on Facebook to ask what her favorite candy bar is. He replies Babe Ruth. Perfect.
I saw a Pinterest video recently about making a little cake of candy bars attached to a small round Styrofoam piece. I can pick up miniature Babe Ruth bars and a small floral Styrofoam half ball from Wal-Mart. Oh, and I guess glue would be best to get the wrapped bars to stick to the Styrofoam. I can pack the completed “cake” in a Ziploc bag with a birthday candle. It will be a sweet moment while on the trail to celebrate.
I read about the importance of minimal weight supplies on the trail. You carry everything on your back: tent, change of clothes, food, etc. It is best to be as light as possible. I think this small cake idea can be lightweight.
I do not want to wait to the last minute to make the cake, so I begin working on it. It takes a while for the candy to stick to the foam, so I upgrade to a strong epoxy tube of glue. Soon the cake takes shape.
I text a picture to Courtney and tell her the mini birthday celebration for JoAnn plan.
Courtney—LOVE IT! VERY SWEET IDEA.
Glenna—THE TUBE OF GLUE SAYS HIGHLY FLAMMABLE, SO WE’LL HAVE TO LIGHT THE CANDLE AND HAVE HER BLOW IT OUT QUICKLY.
Courtney—YES! NO EXPLOSIONS ON THE TRAIL. I’LL HELP YOU ON THIS.
I am beginning to call this trip Highway 2246 in honor of our decades. Two are in their 20’s, one is in her 40’s and one is 60 years old.
MAY 15, 2016
I am struggling overnight and this morning thinking about Jacob’s departure to basic training next week. Tomorrow he has a last briefing with his recruiter. I connect online with other military moms. Turns out a lot of them are crying too. Knowing there are other moms like me out there makes me feel somewhat more normal and not as alone.
Only 1% of young people join the military in the USA. No wonder I do not have any local friends going through the same thing at this moment. This is not as common as I thought. There are few brave young men and women who sign up to protect and defend our freedom.
MAY 16, 2016
Surprise! The recruiter said we get to keep Jacob around a little longer due to his emergency appendectomy recovery time. The USAF Surgeon General wants to give him an additional 90 days to heal. Now we wait for a new ship date.
This was a practice round.
I pause to adjust.
I think about it briefly, then decide I am still going on the AT.
A group text begins as often is now the case with the 4 women of Highway 2246.
Courtney—I’M LOOKING AT OUR HIKE PLAN. WE END AT A DIFFERENT PLACE THAN WE BEGIN. HOW DO WE GET BACK TO THE CAR?
JoAnn—PEOPLE HITCH HIKE ALL ALONG THE AT. THERE’S A LOT OF GOOD PEOPLE WHO WILL PICK US UP AND TAKE US BACK.
I receive a direct message from Courtney–&^%$? IS SHE SERIOUS?
JoAnn might be serious.
Or she might be joking. I do not know.
Texting takes a timeout as heart rates increase.
Then we read:
JoAnn—I’LL RESEARCH AND GET BACK TO YOU.
JoAnn—I FOUND A REGISTERED DRIVER. HE’S AGREED TO DRIVE US. AND HE HAD A LOT TO SAY. TALKED MY EAR OFF. SOME OF IT WAS HELPFUL.
Courtney—WHAT’S HIS NAME?
Glenna—SO HIS NAME IS DOUBLE D…
I do not finish.
JoAnn—LOL. DICK PROMISES TO BE ON TIME. HE’S AWARD WINNING IN HIS TRANSPORTATION AND AT GUIDANCE.
Rachel—WELL, WE CAN’T QUESTION DICK THEN.
Courtney does her own research. She texts a picture of Dick within minutes. I am impressed by her rapid fire online investigative skills. In the photo Dick has white hair, a white beard and is holding up an award.
Glenna—I FEEL SAFER ALREADY.
Not really. But I am going with the flow. Surely JoAnn speaking with someone in advance rather than hitch hiking is a good thing. He is “registered” whatever that means.
Courtney—DOES ANYONE KNOW THEIR TRAIL NAME YET?
JoAnn—I THINK I’M GOING TO BE SUNFLOJO.
The rest of us do not know yet. We have a little time to figure it out.
My mind wanders.
My heart is heavy. I need to de-burden, defragment, and cleanse my soul.
Fresh air will be good.
I hope to find the tallest mountain ridge and spend time with God. I thought the delay in Basic Training date would help me feel better, but there is so much more going on with our family. I have no words, but I feel the stress in the space that has opened up further in my mind.
MAY 17, 2016
Paul and I watch Appalachian Trail YouTube videos. There are a lot of them.
How to cook on the AT
How to pack for the AT
Let’s talk Food on the AT
How to prepare physical endurance for the AT which totally makes me feel like a slacker at this late date!
And my favorite title: Preparing for My Thru Hike So I Don’t Die.
I watch and re-watch How to Pee Outside along with other ladies’ guides to peeing in the woods. This is vital information. I eye my backyard wishing the neighbors did not live so close. I do not plan to practice before going (pun intended!). I will be ready when there is no other choice.
I have a backup plan just in case I cannot manage to go when it is time or if I must figure it out at night.
This girl will not squat over mystery grass in the dark! So, I bought a guy version portable urinal. It is lightweight and has a smallish opening with a lid. I am confident in this Plan B because when I was in China several years ago, I cut off the top of a Pepsi bottle, made it work, then dumped the pee in the hole in the floor for waste. That is a whole other story involving dress clothes that did not work well in that country. If you have ever been to China, then you know what I am talking about.
Paul and I watch one video and then watch another and another. In-between he gives me tips or encouragement.
He is getting into this. He prints out enlarged 8 ½ by 11 pages of each part of our hike plan. He walks me through each page with a different color highlighter to mark each turn on the connecting paths.
I share with him, “JoAnn has taken classes and she told me she has an official AT trail guide map, but I’m glad for the blown-up versions so I can anticipate the experience up close on the map a little in advance.”
He knows I am visual, and he appears to want me to come home if lost. I will have more landmark names in my head than I need thanks to him.
Paul says, “Let’s go over it again. You follow the trails and make the turns with your finger. Describe each turn. You flip the pages. Let’s make sure you’ve got this.”
I begin, “We hike the Lower Hawksbill Mountain Trail first. We will climb the mountain to see the view from the highest peak in the Shenandoah National Park. Then we take Salamander Trail down the mountain to connect with….”
We practice the whole thing late into the evening.
I am amazed how much energy he can put into helping me with something like this.
MAY 19, 2016
I am tired. The next payroll week looms as I wait for invoice payments to arrive this week.
Semi-facing the inevitable, I meet with a local career strategist, Dr. Angie Taylor.
Angie asks, “So how long have you been struggling with your finances?”
“Three years, maybe four.”
Angie states, “Glenna, you know the definition of insanity, right?”
“Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results?”
“Right. The non-profit is like your baby. You don’t want to let go, but you’ve got to do something different. It sounds like your spouse’s earnings are not going to change and you’re not in a good position to sell the house.” She sighs, “If you have to answer right now, what do you do from here?”
Defeated I say, “Get another job or different part-time job so I can pay the mortgage on time.” What I do not say is that the paperwork and effort to change course, though, seems daunting.
“Alright, let’s talk about how to go about doing that.”
We brainstorm how I can make room in my schedule and obtain new sources of income. Resentment brews in my heart.
Angie is wise. I am grateful for her time, but why do I have to do this?!
MAY 21, 2016
I have begun to meet people to collect supplies. Today I meet with Amy K, who used to live and have outdoor adventures in Alaska.
“Here you go,” Amy K hands me a 45 Liter backpack. It has many pockets to discover. Best of all, it is red, my favorite color.
“Inside is a sleeping pad that you roll up and hook to the outside while hiking. You don’t have to blow into it at night. Open the valve and it will inflate on its own.”
“Wow,” I say.
She unzips a side pocket, “This is a little ring of flatware. And, I don’t know if you’ll want it, but this contraption becomes a chair if you fold it right. Sometimes a bit of back support is nice when resting in the woods.”
“I wish I could go,” I see the sincerity in Amy’s eyes. She is another person we know that has knee problems at the moment.
“Maybe next trip,” I say. “If this goes well for JoAnn, she plans to do many sections.”
“Yes, I hope so.” Amy and I hug. I leave grateful for the pack. It is perfect. I already feel one with it. It has compression straps which I know from videos will help distribute weight evenly.
I stop at other friends’ homes. The support and willingness to share has been greatly appreciated.
I return home to try out the growing pile of borrowed equipment in our dining room.
Paul is there looking through the boys’ closets. “This will fit you. And this will too,” He says.
He has a stack of shirts and shorts which are made of synthetic material.
“This is great. Thanks,” I think about the savings but am a bit sad that I’ll be wearing all boy clothes. I have stopped at a few thrift stores and not found any trail clothes that will work.
I share, “I’m a little concerned about creepy crawling things and would like to have pants on the main hiking days, but I’m not sure what pants will work.”
Paul thinks for a moment then takes my hand to our shared closet. “What about these?”
He holds up his old pair of Boy Scout pants. For a few years he was one of the leaders for Jacob’s Cub Scout group.
I laugh, “Let me try ‘em.”
My brain connects the outdoor pants with images I’ve seen in AT videos. The pant vents, cargo pockets and zippers make sense for the first time.
“Tah dah!” I spin around once and stretch in the bedroom. No seams rip. That’s a good sign.
“They fit well,” he observes.
That settles it. I toss my new-found clothes in the wash and then hang them to dry. I have pieces of clothing from each of my guys and none of it is cotton.
MAY 26, 2016
I wake up at 5am to walk the neighborhood hills wearing Amy K’s backpack for an hour.
In my early morning thoughts, I face that I haven’t cared much if I live or die in recent years.
Now, surviving the AT is fresh motivation. I want to both live through it and not hold back my group.
It feels good to want to live.
I see this quote in a devotion book while getting ready for work. I dwell on it for the day.
When we are no longer able to change a situation,
we are challenged to challenge ourselves.
–Viktor Frankl, survivor of 4 concentration camps
MAY 27, 2016
Courtney and Rachel stop by the non-profit office. They come to collect excess equipment that caring friends have said we can share.
This is the first time I get to meet Rachel.
Courtney walks into the room, “Whazz Uppp?” She has been working out this morning. Her hair is in a ponytail. She wears her favorite Cross-Fit t-shirt.
“Hi.” I am wading through end of the year student survey data. A bit of spring air wafted in when the girls opened the door.
“You must be Rachel.”
“Yes, I am.” Rachel is a tall brunette with a sweet smile.
I fan out little plastic bags with fabric inside. “These are buffs from Deb’s mom. She thought she would want them when she went through chemo, but she did not. They’re all brand new.”
Rachel says, “Ooo. There’s a bunch.”
Courtney says, “Tell Deb I’m grateful for these. Nothing is allowed to crawl in my nose while I sleep!”
I agree, “Same here.”
Rachel chooses a turquoise blue. “Look, Court, it matches this backpack.”
Perfect. JoAnn had dropped off a few of her family backpacks to choose from. The girls load up.
“Yes, we’ll have to color coordinate a little bit on the trail,” Courtney smiles. “We’re off to buy food for the trail next.”
“Oh yeah, it is hard to commit to food choices,” I say.
Rachel shares, “It’s like you have to be ok with the fact that what you pack could be your last meal or something.”
We chuckle. “I’m committed to get through this, ladies. Yet, I have some doubts.”
Courtney says, “I am right there with ya.”
I offer, “I bought snack size peanut butter tubs, crackers, organic marshmallows—yum, tried some—cashews, ginger chew candy, packs of noodles that we can cook quick on JoAnn’s stove. Oh, and beef jerky in a few flavors.”
Courtney says, “Jerky is life. I’m all about the jerky.”
“We’re gonna need protein,” Rachel says.
“I hope we don’t see any snakes,” Courtney offers.
We all agree. I type into my computer and say out loud, “How to repel snakes.”
Rachel says, “Research. Good idea.”
Not as many articles or tips come up as I hoped. “Hmmm.” I point at one short piece of information, “Looks like snakes do not like moth balls.”
“I don’t know much about moth balls,” Courtney says.
“Well, they are kind of toxic for humans,” I say. “I’ll put some thought into it, though. There might be a way to incorporate them safely into some type of snakes-stay-away-system.”
I walk the girls out to their car.
It is time for me to leave for the day too. I welcome the warm afternoon sun.
On the way home, I stop at Wal-Mart.
I walk around the camping aisles for general inspiration and stop at the knife case.
Jacob has asked me a few times to take some type of protection. I purchase a light weight yet menacing looking knife that flips open easily.
This metal will be clipped in my pocket during the trip because you just never know what might happen.
The twists and turns over varied terrain and elevation changes are listed as if the line dashes on the map are no big deal. Easy peasy.
23 MILES – IF all goes as planned.
MAY 04, 2016
I wait for the right moment. I pace from the kitchen to the laundry room to the family room.
More pacing. There is no right moment.
Paul rests on the couch. I eye him. After all these years, I remember the butterflies we shared when we pretended not to look at one another the first time we met in the Young Adult Sunday School class.
He had been a visiting college intern in his last semester. I was there that day because my campus minister challenged me to go back to my home church one last time before moving my membership officially to the church where I had been attending for months. Being there was me fulfilling a promise.
If I had my way, that day was just a formality. A box to check, then move on.
But someone caught my eye. Everything changed fast.
While dating, we celebrated our total opposite personalities—bragged about it even. I would say things like, “He likes a home to be organized.” Then he would say, “She likes a home to be clean. This should work out perfectly.”
Once married, simple differences like how to set up house overflowed into differences in how we view the world. Even though we see things somewhat similar, it became cumbersome to constantly translate the nuances. Over the years, we evolved from both wanting to prove a point when we tried to talk or argue to me agreeing with whatever most days. I grew tired of expressing, “We are saying the same thing.”
I still adore his broad shoulders. I like the way he smells like Lever 2000 soap–and sometimes after shave when we can afford it. I appreciate the way he nurtures and cares for our kids. The pictures of how lovingly he looked at both newborns are forever in my mind. He acts like he is going to be fine with Jacob leaving soon, but I am fairly sure he will struggle when departure day arrives.
I am both mad at him for 23 years of reasons and mad about him at the same time. Down deep, I love him in a way that is eternal no matter what. Our shared faith has been the foundation that did not crack although the metaphoric home built above the foundation is not as strong.
It is time.
“I need to talk with you about something.”
He hesitates, “Oh boy.”
I take a deep breath and tell him about the trip opportunity. Then I get serious.
“Look,” I say. “I’m dealing with a few things.”
“Ok,” he says.
“My brain is fried. I need this hike to take me out of my comfort zone. I need to get away. Like, deep into the woods away both mentally and physically—something I can’t believe I’m saying.”
He turns off the TV.
I continue, “I am incredibly sad. Sad because Jacob is leaving. I am in denial that Ben is old enough to go to high school. And I’m angry.” Pause, “Angry at you.”
He says nothing but listens with his temples pointed in my direction.
“I am mad because it seems like you never made a solid effort to get a better job when I switched to non-profit work. I could totally accept if you tried and failed, but not trying is hard for me to accept.”
Shoot. I said the word never. We agreed long ago not to use trigger words like ‘you never…’ or ‘you always….’
We are silent for about 30 seconds. He has not moved.
I go for the summary, “So, two main things: One, I’ve got to let go of this anger toward you. Going through the motions of being nice when I do not feel nice has worn me out. I need a break.”
I exhale. “Two, I am super sad because we have to let go of Jacob. He is so young.” My eyes become wet.
“Basic training means we are not going to be able to talk with him for weeks. Then there may be times where he deploys to fight a stupid war that most Americans do not seem to know is still happening. Technically this kid is joining during a time of war. This is not like moving to a college dorm. Signing up for active duty is a change much more abrupt and final feeling. This feels like a sacrifice. I’m struggling with why our son? And, why anyone’s son or daughter?”
Paul is either tuning in deep or blocking my words to protect his own feelings.
I sniff. My tears are a steady stream now. “Plus, I may have to let go of the organization that I worked all these years to develop. I love what I do. It does not seem fair. Worse, I find myself mad at God for not providing. We have had too many years of financial strain. I picture going on this trip, sitting on top of a mountain, throwing my dreams off the side while saying ‘Take it and do your will, Lord. Take it. Take it all. I cannot carry these burdens anymore.’”
I whisper, “If word from the mountaintop is that I am supposed to let it go, then I will. Someone else can lead. Or, we’ll close the doors.”
Then Paul looks at me for the first time, “Go.”
He has an understanding look on his face—not at all the look I expected. “Do what you need to do and have fun.”
I expected him to give me reasons why I should not go hiking given my lack of experience. No doubt, he would have multiple valid reasons.
I take a breath. “Ok.”
His kindness and acceptance are a terrifying miracle. Um, maybe you should talk me out of this, Babe.
“I’ll send you a text of the hiking plan. If you want to help me plan or gather things, I’m open to your ideas.” Long ago the man was in the Army National Guard. I know he has outdoor survival skills knowledge.
Later I tell the boys. Ben-Just-Ben shrugs, “Ok”. Jacob says he wishes he could go with me, but he is pumped about going to Texas soon.
I text JoAnn—I AM IN!
MAY 5, 2016
A group of us are going to celebrate Cinco de Mayo and our friend Deb’s birthday at the local Cancun restaurant.
After working professionally together for over a decade, Deb and I have accepted in recent years that we have become good friends.
I have not had a chance to tell her about the AT trip. It would be fantastic if Deb were going too. She would be wonderful addition to team camaraderie.
Last night and this morning, Paul and I began making a list of supplies needed. He also began giving me tips like, “Don’t set up your sleeping bag on a tree root. Look for a soft spot or spread leaves out underneath where you rest.” I have been thinking about details while still processing in my own head the fact that I am going at all. There is lots to do and not many days to prepare.
Deb, JoAnn and a social work intern, Courtney, are already seated at a long table when I arrive. There is room for other guests who will come and go as part of the birthday celebration. A boxed cake is on my end of the table.
We exchange happy birthday greetings and food orders arrive. We also celebrate that Courtney is about to graduate May 14 from Xavier University.
My mind quietly thinks about the AT trip while people joke and chat. I do not plan to discuss the trip at all today since this is a gathering for other reasons. I want to tell Deb on my own when I get a chance.
One of the silent things I ponder is that the cost of this trip is an issue. I can’t make purchases. We have no credit cards and the debit card is stretched to the penny each month. I consider who in my neighborhood and friend circle might allow me to borrow equipment.
Knowing where my mind might be, JoAnn interjects, “Hey Glenna. You’re going to need a good pair of hiking boots.”
Deb says, “For what?”
I am surprised. JoAnn must REALLY be over the top excited about this trip.
All eyes turn to me. I answer, “Well, within the last 24 hours I’ve agreed to go on an Appalachian Trail section hike with JoAnn. We’ll be in the Shenandoah National Park area for almost a week.”
I look at Deb. My raised eyebrows ask if she would like to go.
Reading my nonverbal cue, Deb says, “That sounds fun, but my knees could not do that.”
Courtney, though, looks more than intrigued by the idea. She asks about the dates and if other women can join the team. Is she interested in being part of this idea?
“Are there bears in that area?”
JoAnn answers Courtney, “Oh yes. We will have to put our food in a Bear Bag, then use a rope to throw the bag up and over a tree branch away from where we set up camp.”
My eyes widen.
“Snakes?” Courtney asks.
“Yes, some poisonous. Some not.”
I start to think that Courtney going on the trip could be good. She is young and probably could run for help if we need it.
Then an opportunity-to-help-look comes over Deb’s face. She says, “Boots! A few months ago, I stopped by a shoe outlet in Louisville. There was a $7.50 sale on Swiss hiking boots that were originally priced $110. I don’t hike. They were not my size, but I couldn’t resist knowing that someone I know surely will need them especially for that price! What size do you wear?”
I reply, “9.”
Deb says, “I had no idea why I couldn’t resist those boots. This must be why. I will go home tonight and let you know what size they are.”
The table oos and ahhs. “This may be divine,” JoAnn says.
Then Courtney offers, “My sister is into this kind of thing. She has hiked a lot and has all the equipment. I can ask her for advice.”
I will welcome all the advice and divine intervention I can get.
As we are in line to pay for our food Deb says to me, “This will be good for you to get away after Jacob goes.”
I nod, “Exactly.”
I receive a text from Deb with a picture of the boots—SIZE 9!
I have agreed to go on an Appalachian Trail section hike May 31 through June 4.
Sounds simple enough: take long walks, camp overnight, repeat 4-5 times, then go home. How hard could that be?
But I am 44 years old, overweight, stressed out because life is not going as I planned, hoped, or dreamed. AND, I have never gone pee or poo in the woods.
Never. Not once.
I am in research mode to prepare for the hike. So far, I read that an Appalachian Trail hiker carries 30-40 pounds of equipment on their back. I already have that much extra in fat that I carry around my waist and hips every single day. Is it possible that I can carry more than my own fat for nearly a week in the woods?
Neither friends nor family would describe me as an outdoor person. Once upon a time I was a Cub Scout Den Mom for 8 years for our two sons. I did not lead the outdoor activities. I outsourced what I did not want to do or what I had no clue how to do.
I asked other outdoorsy type parents to lead lessons that involved sweat. Or trails. Or fires. Or bugs, fishing, snakes…yeah, pretty much anything having to do with outside was outsourced. I was great at sending emails, keeping a schedule, carpooling, and leading a craft or two. I rocked soap carving and enjoyed taking 6-10 young kids to new places. Guess it is my turn to take a field trip. Yet this is exactly the kind of field trip I would have avoided as a Den Mom.
Cub Scout days are long gone. I hold onto contact information and scout files as if we could start back up at any time. I have a plastic bin filled with Pinewood Derby Car race supplies. Each year I think I will donate them to some younger mother but have not gotten around to it. There are extra car decals, paint, weights, glue, officially licensed Boy Scout of America wheels, a scale and graphite powder which I am not sure is legal in the BSA rules, but everyone used it on race day anyway.
Our children are on the cusp of being grown physically. I am 5’10. In the last year both sons have become over 6 feet tall. Somehow, I am now the shortest person in family pictures.
Jacob turned 18 years old a couple weeks ago. He graduated high school last summer at 17 because he was determined to serve as soon as possible in the United States Air Force. He wanted to clear his path to depart months ago, but the wait game has been challenging. We have taken no less than 5 trips to a Military Entrance Processing Station two hours away from our home. For months I have run back and forth to schools and doctors getting letters and documents together. Jacob finally has a date for Basic Military Training coming up May 24.
I feel sick and stressed inside. Is Jacob ready to be an adult? He is by far the child I have worked the hardest to support and coach along the way. My shy boy is becoming an adventurous man. What scares me most is his propensity to learn the hard way as a rule. When he was little the moment after I told him not to touch the hot stove, he proceeded to lay his hand flat on a burner. I am shocked by his no fear and eagerness to leave so soon. Older and wiser friends who have already been through this say I should be proud that he has the confidence to go. I try.
Last month Jacob had an emergency appendectomy. When he was recovering post-surgery, I considered it a privilege to stay overnight in the hospital with him. I stared at his sleeping face as the rain poured outside and the parking lot lights gently shone into his room. What a bookend moment it was. I thought about how the same month 18 years prior I stared at him for hours overnight in a plastic crib after he was born in the same hospital. Now he is departing soon for Texas and who-knows-where in the world after that. He is brave.
Then there is Ben-Just-Ben. He is our youngest, 14 years old. His real name is Benjamin, but he announced after coming home from kindergarten years ago that he is no longer the full name of Benjamin. With a small hand cutting motion he stated, “I am Ben just Ben from now on.” This guy, once the cuddliest child ever, is close to 6’2 tall and begins high school this year. High School?! Wow. One minute you are trying to keep the calendar straight for school age children. The next minute you grieve them leaving home.
I am a risk taker of sorts, but now it is our kids turn to take risks. No matter that them leaving is completely normal and healthy, it hurts. Down deep in my stomach and soul there is a grinding and twisting that I feel these days. I must figure out how to work through the tears of this life transition.
It does not help that other parts of my life are unstable. I run a tiny non-profit with 7 staff members. We teach positive coping and life skills to children in grades K through 12, and for parents of preschoolers. Being a small organization means I wear lots of hats. The pay is not great and sometimes the boss, aka me, simply does not get paid.
My reward is seeing children who once struggled in the classroom then learn new strategies and succeed. It is hard to imagine doing anything else because I love what we do so much. With new skills and knowledge people can make better choices and, in some cases, break negative cycles that have been passed down for generations.
The desire to build the non-profit began in 2005. I thought I heard clearly from God that this was what I was supposed to do. I was confident that if God put the dream in my heart that He would provide. Yet as some of my students say about other things: the struggle is real.
I adore my staff. I am so proud of the work they do. Most of them have spouses who are the main breadwinners. They do not seem to feel the same pain that I do trying to cover the mortgage and decide whether to buy groceries or pay the gas & electric bill.
My husband, Paul, is a loving, caring spouse and father, but striving to make a good salary has never been an actionable priority for him. We have been married 23 years. He agreed that he would seek a better job or salary when I left the corporate world and took on the non-profit, but to date the steps necessary to improve his pay have not happened.
No matter how much I say I believe in him, he will not believe in himself. He is an intelligent person. I admire his brain, but he is plagued by self-doubt, a touch of OCD and depression—in my unprofessional opinion. Basically, I am married to Eeyore. Loyal and loveable, lack of growth mindset, Eeyore.
Worse, his body is failing him. He is tired all the time. I am not the type of spouse that would say, “Get off the couch!”, but I am thinking it.
Especially due to finances, something must give. I am not sure what.
In addition to non-profit workshops, marketing, administrative duties, taxes, payroll, school activities, orthodontist appointments, plays, proms, sports, home duties like cleaning, oil changes, laundry, grocery shopping, etc., I also have a side retail job. I wish the retail money helped more than it does. I barely notice the tiny additional funds, but I do notice how much my feet hurt. My brain feels squeezed. Too much. This is all too much.
FLASHBACK: APRIL 5, 2016
I am in-between school day workshops and an evening parent workshop. I receive a text:
JoAnn–WOULD YOU LIKE TO MEET AT THE PUB RESTAURANT? I HAVE A LITTLE TIME BEFORE A GIG NEARBY.
Heck yes, I do! I love JoAnn. She is one of my favorite people on the planet. JoAnn is a high school social worker. We collaborate from time to time on projects and how best to serve students.
JoAnn is 5’2 tall. She is 17 years older than me, but in much better shape. She runs marathons and any 5K event she wants to around the city.
We connect well spiritually, and we laugh every time we are together. In the last few years, we call each other “soul sis”. Like me, she grew up in an environment with a functioning alcoholic father and hard-working mother. I sense we both work in the Urban Appalachian town where we do because it is a lot like coming home for both of us. The culture is familiar. We “get” the unwritten rules.
I arrive at The Pub. JoAnn has already portioned out half of her pot roast and mashed potatoes dinner onto a side plate for me. One, yum. Two, this is a good habit I have seen her do with food. She is a half eater. I am an eat the whole plate and may I have some more eater.
I ask, “What’s your gig tonight?”
“A compass reading class over at REI.”
That does not sound like social work continuing education to me.
“Tell me more,” I smile.
“I’m starting my AT adventure this summer,” she announces proudly.
I have no idea what REI is either, but start with, “What does AT stand for?”
“Appalachian Trail,” she says. “Oh, I love to hike.”
I have never heard of the AT, “How long is it?”
“The whole AT goes from Maine to Georgia.”
“Wow-“ How in the world?
She reads my face. “Oh honey, I’m not hiking the whole thing this year,” she laughs. “I’m doing a section hike as a recon mission to see if I can handle it. Then I might do more sections each year until I complete it. I have been planning and plotting this adventure since September. I have taken several classes to prepare too.”
Is there anything JoAnn can’t handle? Seriously.
“Who is going with you?”
Then I ask, “When are you going?” And more questions all the while thinking that maybe she should ask me if I want to go.
I do not dare interject that idea. Clearly, this is her thing. She has a plan.
Look at me. I feel the pinch of my too tight pants. I would not be a good hiking partner. I would literally weigh her down.
But…the thought of going sounds amazing.
My mind wanders. This could be the escape I need to be me-just-me for a week. I could be challenged away from my normal struggles. Lately I feel an ugly angry inside. On the outside most people may think all is well with our family, but the reality is painful. We live in a nice house that we no longer can afford. Our slow pay credit score makes me feel trapped. Moving is expensive. We have old cars that break down constantly. We are blessed with two amazing kids who each wear one pair of shoes for a year straight. Our water has been turned off a couple times and the boys knew when I rushed to scramble to get it turned back on.
JoAnn interrupts my thoughts, “Would you ever be interested in hiking sometime?”
I look at her. My head tilts, “Yes. If the opportunity comes up. Maybe after your recon mission success, then we can plan a different section hike sometime. Let me know how it goes.”
FLASH FORWARD: MAY 03, 2016
I’m driving to work. The cell phone rings. It’s JoAnn. I put her on speaker.
She says, “Crazy idea. Do NOT feel like you have to answer right now. Sleep on it at least one night….”
“My friend who was supposed to go on the AT hike with me hurt her back. There is no way she can carry the backpack required so she can’t go.”
There is something about the way JoAnn lovingly pronounces “AT” that I admire.
She continues, “Would you like to go on the trip? I have a mini camp stove and a bear bag already. I can text you a pic of our hiking plan so you know where we’ll be going….” She trails off. Pun intended.
Meanwhile, I am thinking, What in the world is a Bear Bag?
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.