Taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the one who takes refuge in Him.
Stalker C startles awake. She whispers, “What is it?!”
My words barely enter the air, “I. Don’t. Know.”
We are frozen, sitting up. We do not peek behind us yet.
I continue slowly, “We are going to have to turn around. I think it is in my backpack. Or outside. Or maybe both. I am hoping it is outside.”
We listen. She hears it too.
“Ok. I’m going to pull down my buff and look.”
“Ok, me too.”
We slowly tug fabric and turn. My eyes adjust. I don’t see anything moving on top of the pack. Thank God.
I gulp, then crawl closer to look. Nothing obvious is inside that I can see without putting my hand in the bag. I am too scared to place my arm inside or to widen the opening.
Then I hear something with four legs move away from the outside wall. It sounds big, bigger than a rat. I wince to stand and then look through a tall window.
I can’t see past the darkness. I hope the animal is small. However, the sound is what I imagine a curious bear might sound like.
What do I know? Maybe I am wrong. I dismiss my fears by thinking: It was probably a skunk or possum. Mostly I am glad it was not indoors with us.
My heartbeat slows down, “I am so sorry I woke you.”
“I was afraid.”
Stalker C nods.
Next door in the lights-out room our friends continue snoozing.
We try to get comfortable and go back to sleep with buffs back over our faces.
But Stalker C whispers, “Something is behind us.” And we become a fit of giggles.
When we stop giggling, the quiet somehow makes us start laughing again and again. SunFloJo and Sunshine Rat must be deep sleepers. They do not stir.
Ok. I’m going to try to sleep. My back may split in two from the hardwood floor, but morning will arrive. I need legs that are ready to climb the next mountain.
“Surrender!” Stalker C whispers.
I don’t move. Through the buff I say, “What?”
Stalker C sits higher than me. She says calmly, “There is a centipede barreling toward your head. I don’t know if you care or not, but if you do, we should do something about it.”
A centipede? Barreling?
I think it over, then pull the buff below my eyes. Sure enough the centipede scoots along a crack coming from the baseboard and heading my way. We will soon be face to face.
“Fine.” I stand up and do a short pace back and forth considering what to do. I don’t think I can kill it. It is too big for me to stomach squishing it.
I need a plastic bag. Stalker C watches my body language. The nearest available plastic bag is on the hygiene product table in the front room. If I go in there, our neighbors’ motion activated light will turn on.
Stalker C reads my mind, “Don’t worry. They won’t wake up.”
I slip past our lightly snoring friends and grab a plastic bag. No one moves when their light comes on.
Back in our room, I realize I need a pen, stick or something slender. I eye Sunshine Rat’s pen on a small table. I walk back in to grab it. Still no one wakes up.
Whew! This is good. Those two will be rested and able to go for help tomorrow when Stalker C and I are not physically able to finish.
I twirl the centipede onto the pen and deposit it into the plastic bag. I poke a tiny hole in hopes of giving oxygen to the centipede and place the bagged friend on the windowsill. “I’ll let you free in the morning, Little One. Hope you make it.”
Back to “bed”.
Stalker C whispers, “Surrender, there’s a spider.”
Oh, dear God. Where?
I roll over toward her and remove enough of my buff to expose my left eye.
“Right there.” She points high on the wall on her side of the room and above our feet.
I say, “That’s like five feet up.”
“It’s been there for a while.”
I have nothing left. “It will go away.”
Or drop right on us. I look toward the window to see if there is any sign of daybreak. Seeing nothing yet, I roll over and slip back into whatever sleep level I can.
I look at the sky through the window. That is not black. I see a little blue.
We can’t let Ted down. I’ll get my stuff together, change my pants and then wake the others.
Assembled, I try to say gently, “Good morning girls. We gotta go. Make sure you have everything.”
Stalker C mumbles, “We can’t disappoint Ted.”
Now that the party stirs, I slip outside to add the wet socks to my dirty laundry bag.
Sunshine says hopeful, “I wonder if Ted is making coffee for us.”
SunFloJo says, “Oh I hope so.”
I pee outside to start the day well–the outdoor bathroom expert that I am. I search each room making sure we haven’t forgotten a single thing or left any crumbs.
The centipede is set free on a porch rail—possibly still alive. It was hard to tell.
The last thing I grab and put on my feet are the socks from the security cameras.
Then we shut the door behind us.
We pass the fountain in the center of Rapidan Camp. Last night Ted told us how the fountain still works, but no one is sure exactly how it drains. I think the fountain looks lonely with no buildings around it anymore. I picture the bear walking by it in the mornings.
The bear isn’t here today, is it? Hopefully it will sleep in after such a stormy night. I keep an eye out just in case.
Passing The Creel house, Sunshine smells for coffee. Nothing. Ted doesn’t have to be up this early. Hopefully we get to see him tonight.
We walk across the bridge and over the river so Stalker C and Sunshine can use the outhouse. They take one step in and walk right back out.
SunFloJo asks the girls, “Smell too bad?”
The girls nod. No way they can accomplish anything in there.
SunFloJo and I stand on the bridge and look over the river that is easier to see from here today in the morning light. Wow, we crossed that yesterday?
We walk on, looking for our next trail.
It is early. Maybe 6:15am or so.
Sunshine looks at her boob-o-meter, “With any luck we’ll be back to Big Meadow by 3pm and have time to shower before Ted arrives.”
That’s a good thought ‘because we need showers. Desperately.
We walk behind Rapidan Camp now. To our left is clearly marked Fork Mountain Trail. But in front of us we have a dilemma. There is a small width trail left of a trail marker post. And about eight feet and to the right of the trail marker is a wider width trail that kind of looks like a road up the hill.
Which one do we take? Which one is Laurel Prong Trail?
We guess that the trail marker being next to the smaller width trail must be the correct answer. So we begin.
Morning sun sparkles through the trees. This trail closely follows a tiny creek that I assume is Laurel Prong Creek. I think about how this looks like where Smurfs might live. There are mushrooms and many moss covered rocks. The landscape is wet and cool from the downpour last night.
We continue half a mile and then the mossy creek trail ends. There is no right, left or forward choice. We picked the wrong trail.
Sunshine says, “Great start, Steam Team. Good thing it is so early.”
Stalker C, “Yeah, we didn’t disappoint Ted. Early start and already an excursion.”
SunFloJo, “We have plenty of time to get to the Tap Room before 6pm.”
Sunshine, “Because that’s trash and laundry time. We gotta be there by then.”
We spread out along the thicket. Sunshine says, “Hold up.” We pause to give Stalker C a moment to pee ahead of us.
Back to the trail marker post we switch gears and head up the hill on what must be the real Laurel Prong Trail.
Uphill.Ouch. My foot to shin angle feels like about 45 degrees.
Soon we enter what feels like an enclosed wet wood forest with more browns than greens. There are many twists and turns.
The tall trees intertwine their branches above our heads to form a roof of leaves. A sea of ferns gathers on the lumpy and bumpy mountainside. The ferns are not as thick as we saw in places yesterday, but their bright green waves contrast the many fallen logs and large rocks.
Occasionally the three front runners pause so I can catch up. We are a human slinky; widening and closing our gaps as we walk.
Surely, we are getting close to the top. This is supposed to be a 5.7 to 6.7-mile day, but I must remember: the trail lies.
Mentally I am prepared for and 8 to 10-mile day, but if it’s all up hill like this I am going to be in trouble. My heart rate is up as if I’m midway through a Jazzercise class or something.
When we have walked 2.5 miles according to Sunshine’s boob-o-meter, we see something.
We stop to look left. Probably 40 feet off the trail is a clearing where someone made a big circle of cut back trees and bushes.
“That must be the fire ring we were supposed to stay in last night,” SunFloJo says.
Stalker C eyes the vast forest in every direction of the burned space. She says, “Oh thank God for Ted. We would never have found that at night.”
“And the mud would have made it rough,” Sunshine Rat adds.
We shake our heads and shiver at the thought. We would have missed it. No doubt.
SunFloJo says, “Well if anyone asks, we stayed overnight at the Fisherman’s camp just outside of the national park just down from Rapidan.”
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcomes it. John 1:15
Yep. It is urine.
Dehydration and the highest level of exhaustion in my lifetime wreaks havoc on my body.
No one notice. Please no one notice. I beg the room to turn me invisible.
Silently I blame the numbness and pray no one smells this new discovery.
Ted leans against the front door frame. I remain seated in a puddle. He says, “Well. Get some rest and just shut this front door good–both tonight and in the morning.”
Sunshine assures, “Oh, we absolutely will.”
“Ok. Good night.” Ted grins, then saunters toward the porch stairs to head back to The Creel House. Rain continues pouring beyond these old walls.
For now, we leave the solid door open. A screen door allows the flow of outside air and the sounds of drenched nature. I thank God for a bit of wind outside.
I take off boots and socks. I place the socks under my bottom.
Mentally I inventory what is left in my pack that could be useful. So much stuff is back in the bear box at Big Meadow. I have a pair of shorts that will work to sleep in overnight while my pants dry. I have a change of underwear and two pair of clean socks. Oh, and “Wilderness Wipes” to clean numb girl parts.
I miss out on the bliss happening four feet from me. Three fourths of the Steam Team glow pure joy through their sweat and dirt.
SunFloJo filters water from the creek. Stalker C and Sunshine eat and smile regarding our salvation. I hear Sunshine giggle words through cracker chewing, “Remember when Surrender was totally relaxed walking along the ridge and then snapped when we thought we were lost?!”
They mock together in unison, “We shouldn’t have crossed that #*&%@%^ river!” Laughter fills the tiny cabin built for a Prime Minister.
I half smile to blend in. No one can believe how lucky we feel right now as even more thunder and lightning fill the sky. Someone says, “We get to be dry tonight!”
Well, they may soon be dry.
I am not so sure about my situation. There will be no food for me until I recover. What should be easy to clean up is excruciating. My body shoot pins through my muscles every time I move an inch.
My socks are yellow. I roll them up and manage to stand. We do not have a sink to rinse anything, so I make my way along the wall, around the girls without getting too close. Surely by now their noses are consumed by their own body smells. A girl can hope.
Flip flops are near the top of my bag. I grab them. Out on the porch, I walk to a railing near the flowing creek below–one of the creeks that empties into the now infamous river.
Thank you, God, for this rain that acts as a faucet. I hold out the socks and wash them as best I can in the rain. The rain is so heavy that this is not a bad solution. Isn’t it interesting that the very thing (rain) that was a burden minutes ago is now the exact thing I need to accomplish a task?
Oh, my. Do I need to pee again? I think so. Man, I am messed up!
After rinsing and wringing multiple times, I determine that the best place for the socks is outside the cabin tonight. I leave them stretched on a wooden bench farthest from the door. Hopefully, that does not attract animals. Or maybe my scent will keep them away?
I hold up my hands to rinse them in the rain. I take the steps down to gravel and enter a path that leads closer to the creek. I wonder if Ted is watching from a distance.
Oh well. I cannot worry about him in this moment, and I cannot risk ruining these pants. I need to wear these on the hike tomorrow. Shorts might be good for dryness overnight, but pants in the deep woods is best. I stress about not falling off balance. My legs are weak, but my determination is strong.
I ponder the power of my Boy Scout pants. I think they will dry quickly. I thank God for fabric made for outdoor living.
SunFloJo comes outside for similar reasons. I go back inside and pause to keep the screen door from slamming. I observe there are three total rooms to this building other than some doors that have locks on them which may be closets.
I move my backpack to the room adjoining the main room. I dig out a Ziplock bag of clean underwear, new socks, and my shorts. I also grab the pack of Wilderness Wipes.
Walking into the main room where they still are eating, I announce, “I’m going to the back to change.”
In the back room, I eye small cameras overhead in the corners of the room. Hmmm.
I put a clean sock over each camera—just in case. Perfect!
The white wooden windows have no curtains, but there are many evergreen branches touching the glass from the outside. I pull off clothes being careful to put dirty underwear inside a plastic bag. I read the instructions on the Wilderness package, clean up and put the used wipe in the plastic bag too. I remember “Leave no trace behind, aka leave no garbage. What you pack into the woods must come out of the woods, etc.” I do what I can with deodorant and accept the result.
Ahh, I feel a little better. My numbness may be awake again. The rest of me aches as if beaten by a baseball bat.
I return my belongings to the red backpack, thinking of Amy who allowed me to borrow it. She is among the friends and family who think we are out in the middle of the woods right now. Well, I suppose we are, just inside a building inside the woods. I wish I could tell them so they do not worry.
I stuff everything back in the pack except leave my pants out to dry. Surprisingly, the pants aren’t wafting any obvious odors. Thank God.
Finally, I can eat something.
“My Houdini needs attention,” Stalker C mentions. We giggle of course.
“Wilderness Wipes,” I offer.
“Me too,” say the other ladies. “Hygiene matters.”
We make a body cleansing station right on top a President Hoover history placard shelf. Team members take turns in the back room. Each time someone notices the socked cameras, we hear giggles. “Genius,” says SunFloJo.
Sunshine and SunFlo begin to tour the museum pictures and read signs in each room. I have been observing as well.
“Lou Henry Hoover was ahead of her time,” Sunshine says.
“Yes, she was. Looks like she graduated from Stanford with a Geology degree in 1898,” says SunFloJo.
“That’s where she met Herbert Hoover.” I chime in and read, “She was an avid outdoors person. She oversaw the design of Rapidan Camp and she spoke proficient Mandarin Chinese.”
Stalker C says, “What an amazing woman.”
“Check out some of her quotes,” SunFloJo points out. We read:
“The independent girl is truly of quite modern origin, and usually is a most bewitching little piece of humanity.”
“I majored in geology in college but have majored in Herbert Hoover ever since.”
“I was a Scout years ago, before the movement started, when my father took me fishing, camping and hunting. Then I was sorry that more girls could not have what I had. When I learned of the movement, I thought, here is what I always wanted other girls to have.”
“The independent girl is a person before whose wrath only the most rash dare stand, and, they, it must be confessed, with much fear and trembling. “
I think about how Lou Henry Hoover probably stood where we stand tonight. And how she helped lead the way for girls to earn college degrees long before the four of us in the room pursued our own education.
The lights in the three cabin rooms have motion sensors. If you sit still in the front and back rooms the lights will turn off. The small side room light where Stalker C’s and my stuff is; however, stays on no matter how still you sit.
Sunshine Rat and SunFloJo lay out their pads and sleeping bags in the front room.
“We technically should go in the back room,” I think out loud as we lay in the bright light.
Stalker C says what I also think, “Seems secluded back there, though. I’m afraid of the mice Ted hasn’t seen in a while.”
“Me too.” And I shouldn’t have added, “I’m afraid of why those mice are missing.”
Stalker C shivers, “Surrender.”
She sighs, “Darn snakes in the rafters next door. Wish Ted hadn’t mentioned those!”
“I can sleep with the lights on.”
I look toward the front room where Sunshine and SunFloJo settle in to sleep. They practically cocoon. They know how to make the most of this roof and walls. My sleeping equipment won’t allow such a full body and head wrap like them. Even with an extra-long sleeping bag I do not fit all the way inside comfortably. I eye the wide hardwood planks and decide which location I will try to place the useless small mat to meet part of my body.
We may have walls, but they are old walls. I see the cracks and holes big enough for a mouse to enter. I hear the rain smack the porch wood about three feet from me. I lay right next to what I assume is a storage type room. A padlock and a light under the door are inches from my nose.
Stalker C lays next to me. On the other side of her is the doorway to the front room. We hear SunFloJo get in rhythm with dreamland Zzz’s. Sunshine and SunFlo are physically still long enough that their room light goes out.
Stalker C and I squirm to get comfortable in the light and harsh floor. At our feet is the door to the back room. The light goes out back there. We should try to sleep in there. But I just can’t.
Stalker C and I look at each other. I suspect we share the same thoughts. Something about that room isn’t quite right. She looks toward the back room, then at me and shakes her head “no”. I agree with a nod.
My eyes dart to the storage door next to me and then at the no longer used second porch door behind my head. My backpack sits near the unused door. I pull a brown buff up over my face. If something crawls on me, it is not touching my eyes, nose, ears, or mouth.
“Good night,” I muffle.
I see light through my buff.
And I hear something.
Eek. It sounds like a small animal is walking around or inside my backpack.
Like, a mouse. Or a rat!
I wait. I listen.
Scurrying continues. Buff still on my face, I contemplate the number of inches between the top of my head and the backpack. Not many. 25 inches. Maybe.
Is the scurrying inside only? Or are there paws moving around outside too?
Lord! Help me! There is something on the outside wall. It sniffs and walks back and forth.
AND I hear the inside movement. Maybe. I am not sure if something is on the inside or just outside on the porch.
Whatever it is, is it going to get us?
US! I remember. Stalker C is still sleeping.
Stalker C told me once months ago that she cannot hear well out of one of her ears. Maybe I should not bother her. Or maybe she would want to be bothered so whatever it is does not crawl near her.
My heart pounds.
The fear takes over.
I sit straight up, buff still over my eyes.
My hand raises straight up and straight down onto Stalker C’s leg. I whisper through my buff, “Something. Is. Behind. Us.”
For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord. Plans to prosper you and not to harm you,
plans to give you hope an a future. Jeremiah 29:11
I feel terrible immediately that my words slipped out the way they did. I became the person on a trip that I do not like.
Also, my mind flies to what time is it? Where are we going to stay tonight? There isn’t anywhere we can get to safely before nightfall. We are trapped out here wherever here is. At this hour, we could never walk out as far as we walked in. We are LOST?!?!
I want to say no one is to blame, and that we’ll figure it out, don’t worry. But I am certain more words won’t help after what I already blurted out.
Stalker C turns to Sunshine Rat. She holds horizontal to her chest one of my poles, “Spear me. Spear me now.”
Sunshine Rat is unfazed.
Stalker C says, “Right now.” Her jaw is clenched with determination.
I attempt to give Stalker C comfort. I try to express “don’t worry” body language. Clearly I can’t trust my words right now!
Sunshine looks at her boob-o-meter. She states calmly, “It is 6:35pm.” I look to the sky. It looks every bit of 9pm.
Sunshine Rat and SunFloJo converse over the map.
I think we might as well keep walking because, well, really, what options do we have other than that? They come to the same conclusion. We continue down the hill.
I hear Sunshine mention that she really needs to pee. I am in and out of reality in what I can hear or think. Is that the exhaustion, the stress or both?
We pause for needs and then continue our descent.
Look! There is a gravel road. We all see it, hoping it is not a figment of our imagination. We pick up our steps.
The gravel looks familiar. The whole scene looks slightly familiar—like maybe I saw this online in a photo?!
SunFloJo sees a bridge and across it is a parked white truck. She says, “We can sleep under it if we have to.”
I veer slightly right and forward motivated by our change of landscape. Then I see it! “Hey, this is like the website. I think this is Rapidan Camp!”
We see a wood sign that says Creel House. This is it! This is it!
We walk toward the building that blends in with the forest around it.
An image emerges from the wooden deck. It is a man. A guy who looks dressed for a golf outing in the middle of the woods? Is he a mirage?
“Well, hello,” he says seeming surprised to see us. Yep, he is real.
“What are you ladies doing here?” Oh, thank God. We are still recognizable as female.
SunFloJo leads with enthusiasm as if we all were not having heart attacks just .25 miles back. “We came to see Rapidan Camp. Can we still get a tour?”
“Well,” he chuckles. “This has to be the latest that I’ve ever had visitors arrive. I have already begun to have my end of the night cigar and glass of wine on the porch. I took off my park ranger clothes and put on casual clothes.”
The Steam Team snickers about our late arrival and give sideway glances at one another.
SunFloJo kids, “You can stay in your casual clothes.” He wears a white t-shirt and salmon-colored shorts. He is protected from the rain by the porch roof. We stand dripping wet on the ground below his steps.
This backpack is even more heavy now that we are standing in one spot. I hurt all over. My mind is somewhere between wondering where his wine is so I can chug it to numb the pain and fearing that I may pass out at any moment.
“Where did you come from?” He half grins, but I suspect he is wondering if we are a threat. At the same time, I wonder if he is a threat. Could we take him at this point of the day if we had to defend ourselves?
Ah, the words of Dorian comfort me from lunch time: No man would ever approach 4 women.
He continues, “Most people who come from Big Meadow are down here by 9am.”
Sunshine’s face laughs without a sound.
He is measuring if we are just this…dumb, inexperienced…? Fill in the blank. The answer is: Yes, probably.
“My name is Ted.” After asking us a few more questions, he determines we did not come the fast way from Big Meadow.
There is a fast way? Really? Shocker. We went the long way indeed.
“Sure I’ll give you a tour. Why not? You’re here,” he says and grabs his keys and an umbrella.
Yes, we are here. I am believing that this mirage continues to be the real deal.
We walk drag ourselves further into the camp property. Ted locks into the full swing of his tour guide job. He points to where small cabins used to be but have been torn down. He says, “And some mornings I see a bear walk right through here.”
He just had to mention that! I peek at Stalker C. Her face tightens.
“And this,” he points to a giant stone structure. “People tend to think this is a fireplace left from when a house was torn down, but it is not. It was designed to be an outdoor cooking area from the beginning.”
We follow Ted to a brown painted set of stairs.
“Welcome to The Brown House.” Rain changes from drizzle to pour. My hands and fingers wrinkle like I have been in a bathtub all afternoon. “Put your packs on the porch. We can’t take them inside.” No problem. The indentions in my shoulders thank you.
The Brown House is the Hoover House. President Hoover called it brown because it is somewhat an opposite name from the White House.
“Do you care if we take a quick picture in front of Hoover’s House?” I ask. Where did I muster the strength or desire? But I want to remember this.
“No, go ahead.” Ted is accommodating and pleasant.
We pose in the rain, click, and leave the packs. Ted leads our bodies to the back of the house. The wrap around deck overlooks the river. Water flowing over rocks back here sounds amazing. I picture President Hoover sitting outside to clear his thoughts.
Ted steps up the back stairs and pauses, turning to us. He points to a mounted video camera and says, “You can be watched by security at all times.”
We nod. You are not going to get any problems from us, Mister. We have enough problems. One being that it is getting dark soon and we have not figured out where we will camp tonight.
Technically we are supposed to hike another mile and a half before finding the fire ring. I look around. We are in a deep valley. It appears that the trails out of here are uphill. I do not know if any of us can make it another mile and a half uphill in the dark and then set up camp.
Dear Lord, please give us a place safe to stay tonight. I am not sure I can walk further to set up camp. If this is a safe guy, please influence him to help us find a nearby solution. Amen.
I consider that maybe if we eat something soon, then our energy will be renewed a little bit but not enough to hike much further.
So tired. Everything hurts.
We walk into the Brown House via an enclosed porch office which Ted tells us was designed by Lou Henry Hoover.
SunFloJo says, “Ooh, look at these book holders. I love those.”
Ted, “Yes, she had them specially made just for this desk.”
Me, oh my God in Heaven, how does SunFloJo have any oomph left in her to observe and admire a detail like that?
I do admire the porch office. 3 walls of windows would be exactly where I’d want to do my First Lady correspondence and planning also.
We inch into the living room with exposed log walls. It is the size of a traditional ranch home. I find it lovely. Quaint. Humble. Sturdy. I imagine it is not what a President would want these days.
There are ropes that prevent tourists from walking further into the living room or forward into the sitting room.
We stand within the ropes. Ted is talking and talking. He has many facts to share. He mentions the original pieces and the recreated period pieces. He talks about how the windows used to be open with fabric coverings, but the Hoovers had to change that due to reasons like bugs. My eyes fixate on an old rotary telephone. My knees feel weak.
My legs will not hold me up much longer if we keep standing in the same spot.
Would Ted mind if I sit on the floor?
He is still talking.
I am going down. Slowly.
To the floor.
I tuck in my knees to make myself as small as possible. Maybe he won’t notice I’m on the floor?
So far, he is not kicking us out. I am still on the floor.
Sunshine sinks to the floor.
Then Stalker C sinks to the floor.
Hard wood. Feels good. Not standing–that’s all that matters. I notice my pants and sides of the boots are a bit muddy. Hopefully Ted and the Hoover ghosts don’t mind.
SunFloJo talks it up with Ted. She is working the tour. She is totally interested I suppose, or making a new friend, or giving us time to sit, or all 3 at once.
Oh shoot. We are on the move to the back bedroom. Maybe I had enough minutes on the floor to get me through this? Or not.
The three floor friends crawl and stand in stages to our feet. We limp ten feet into the bedroom. There is an office behind the bedroom so that the President could work after hours and not disturb his bride as she slept.
“So, people go up Laurel Prong to camp for the night?” SunFlo fans an S.O.S. signal. She digs.
My ears perk up. “About how far is that,” she pauses and adds a concerned jaw line, “from here?”
Thunder rolls outside. A lightning bolt flashes. The rain pours even harder now. It looks like midnight outside with the rain, thick forest and fact that we are in a valley between mountains. I would love this scenery if I could lay down right where we are. I’d give a lot if I could sleep on this wood floor right now.
My lady parts go numb again. I have lost mental capacity to try and figure out why this keeps happening down there. I may need to pee. I’m not sure. I finished drinking almost all of my water a few miles back, but I feel thirsty. I don’t want to drink the little bit I have left because that bottle needs to last until morning. This may be what dehydration feels like. I’m messed up more than a mild headache and thirst. My whole body is shaking on the inside.
“Oh that’s pretty far,” Ted says. He continues to size us up. Are we troublemakers? Can we be trusted? Is that one (me) gonna pass out any minute now? He scans us head to toe occasionally and I am not offended. I bet he’s had CPR and First Aid training for this job. He’s must know we’re in a dangerously exhausted state.
We stand in the Hoover’s bedroom. I resist sinking back to the floor. Ted talks about how he loves caring for the place.
He says, “I try to get family or friends to come visit me down here, but they never do.”
He continues, “But there’s really only one bed big enough to fit me let alone anyone else. They’d have to bring air mattresses or something.”
One of us asks, “How long have you been working here?” Whose mouth did that come from? I don’t know. The room spins a bit. It’s good to feel safe indoors. If I pass out, I’ll be inside and dry.
“Oh, over ten years now.” He is dedicated.
Ted describes his daily schedule, “Every morning I walk through the buildings before guests arrive. Sometimes I find snakes wrapped around these rafters.” He points up.
We all peek at the ceiling and rafters above our heads. So much for feeling safe. “And sometimes I find mice at the Prime Minister’s house next door, but I haven’t found any mice in a while,” He continues.
I imagine the snakes and lack of mice are connected.
“Oh, yeah, there’s another cabin. The Prime Minister’s house? Tell us about that.” SunFloJo is keeping us dry as long as she can.
Ted smiles. His love for Rapidan is clear. He loves the history. Oh, and the wine earlier may have softened his congenial spirit.
We walk toward the back-porch door. I see through the wrap around windows that the rain is coming down in sheets. How is that possible? The sky has certainly had plenty of water to share today.
Ted nods toward the Prime Minister’s cabin. “So, in 1929 when Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald and his daughter were coming to stay President Hoover had that cabin built especially for Ramsay.” We look toward the cabin a short distance away from The Brown House over a foot bridge.
We are about to step outside the back door when lightning sparks and thunder cracks. Paul is home no doubt watching the weather and wondering how we are doing. Anyone like Amy and Deb who also had a hold of our trail plan may be praying for us right now. Thanks, friends & family.
I wish I could tell Paul So far so good. We are ok, and we are going to figure this out.
I imagine us somewhere soon in the dark trying to stake tents in the mud. We, along with our gear, will be covered in mud just trying to accomplish such a task that should be easy by now. The tents may collapse around our bodies because the stakes will not hold. We will be like muddy mummies laying in the forest somewhere waiting for first light. Whew! I’ve gotta stop thinking about it!
“So, Ted, you know this area.” SunFloJo seeks more info, “We heard there is a fire ring up on Laurel Prong Trail which is where we are heading next to set up camp tonight.”
He replies, “Yeah, people tell you it’s like a mile or so up the hill, but it’s more like two miles.”
“People generally aren’t down here this time of night,” He reiterates. Yep, thank you. We established this fact a while ago.
He continues, “And you got to be careful that you don’t end up heading up the wrong hill trail. Fork Mountain Trail would be the wrong way to go.” He diverts to talk more history, “Lou Henry Hoover used to take horses and guests on horses up that trail. It is pretty steep. You want to make sure you are on Laurel Prong Trail for sure. There are 2 trails that start with the name Laurel. It can be hard to make sure you’re on the right one.”
Thunder rumbles again. More lightning and more thunder cracks and crackles. I jump at one sky whack sound.
“I normally don’t tell people this, but if you go down the access road across the bridge opposite the trails that you will eventually need…”
“Toward where we saw the white car?” SunFlo interjects.
“Yeah.” He points. “If you follow that, you actually end up at a Fisherman’s Camp that is outside of the park boundary, but much closer than if you try to walk up Laurel right now.”
Sunshine says, “Oh, a Fisherman’s Camp.” Like it is the savior information we need. And maybe it is. She nods soaking it in.
Now I have another visual for where we will lay our heads in mud tonight. Right next to a watering place that animals will visit in the morning. Great. But closer. We will take closer.
Ted says, “If you have time, I’ll show you the Prime Minister cabin.”
“Oh yes, of course. We’ve got nothing but time,” SunFloJo says avoiding the fact that it is nearly dark now.
We walk across the bridge with no rails. Ted tells us that Marines lay every stone for the bridge.
I still think I might need to pee. The numbness and dehydration has me confused. It is not like I can pee with Ted around though.
Ted says, “Yeah on this Prime Minister Cabin porch sometimes I see little critters sniffing out anything that seems odd from the day.” This is another beautiful porch wisely built with benches and plenty of places to sit and enjoy the water flowing in the creek behind the cabin which leads to the river. There is a small path that leads behind the porch to the water’s edge.
Ted adds, “I weed-eat and do all the landscaping while I’m here. Just cleared that area over there today.” He points to where I bet another cabin used to stand. At one time there were thirteen cabins. Now, just three.
“I’m not sure if the security cameras are working in this cabin,” he says.
Interesting piece of information.
He unlocks the Prime Minister door. This building is painted white.
“Where The Brown House is set up to look like it would have when Hoover used the space; this cabin is set up more like a museum.”
I note the pictures secured to the wall and plaques with descriptions throughout the first room I see.
“So, I’m thinking,” Ted says. “That maybe you four give yourselves a self-guided tour in here. You can read the museum information for yourselves.”
I pick up on a hopeful tone. We are all ears. And…?
“And if your tour takes most of the night and you are gone well before 7am then no one will probably know, and I probably won’t get fired. But this would have to be a secret. A big secret.”
Our ears and eyes are at full attention.
“You cannot post this on Facebook or social media. And I had no idea that the door here was left unlocked.”
Sunshine Rat says, “Oh Ted! You don’t even know what this means to us.”
Um, I think he knows what this means. Look at us.
This means we’ll probably live through the night…and that is what his conscience has been weighing since he met us. Should he save these wild girls or follow the rules? Oh, hallelujah, thank you Ted for choosing to keep us alive!
Stalker C says, “Oh! This is amazing. We can’t thank you enough.”
SunFloJo has worked her magic, “Ted, thank you. Would you like to eat some snacks with us? We haven’t eaten in a long time. We will snack and get the heck out of here. No one will know we were ever here.”
I pipe in with, “We will leave no trace behind. I will clean or carry out any evidence.”
Ted’s cheekbones might crack from his smile. He has faith in us. And he is literally a life saver times four.
We scoot across the bridge to The Brown House to retrieve our backpacks. We are back inside the Prime Minister Cabin within a minute. We don’t want Ted to change his mind!
Zippers are pulled and dinner snacks come out. Ted stands in the doorway making conversation as we sit in three corners of the front room. Sunshine sits on a nailed down wooden chair in the middle of the room. Smiles are everywhere. Saved, we almost forget our aching legs and backs.
“I’m sorry there is not a bathroom in here,” Ted says.
“Oh, honey,” SunfloJo says. “That is the least of our worries. We’ve got shelter in this crazy storm. We will figure the rest out. Thank you so much!”
It is a party now. Sort of.
“So where are you going to be tomorrow night?” Ted asks.
“The plan is to be at Big Meadow again. In fact, we lightened our load and right now one of our tents is set up there waiting on us. We had to make the campsite look occupied.”
“Hey,” Stalker C chimes in. I think I spotted happy tears of relief in her eyes for the last several minutes. “Tomorrow’s Friday night. Come find us and have dinner with us at the Tap Room.”
SunFloJo is all over that! “Yes! Absolutely, Ted. Our treat. That Tap Room is so much fun. Join us for sure!”
Ted replies, “Well, I should be done with guests by the afternoon.” This makes us giggle thinking about our later than normal arrival. “I have 4 dinners worth of trash to take up and I usually do laundry up there around 6pm on Friday nights.”
Well that settles it then. This is a perfect plan.
“I’ll see you there,” he nods.
“Perfect! We’ll be watching for you,” SunFlo says.
I sit on the floor by the stone fireplace. Oh no. Is that pee coming out of me? Involuntary!?!
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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?
Things are better for our family today than they were one year ago.
Or, today compared with the last seven years, seven years that got progressively worse until I thought my brain and heart might implode.
I felt fear typing the word “better”, but it is true.
And, thank people.
A key thing I learned especially the last three years was that help comes from the most unexpected places: complete strangers, acquaintances, neighbors, some friends, some family. There was a time when I would have refused help or tried to do it all my own.
I stopped being embarrassed of our mess and started saying yes.
Someone I trusted but did not know well sorted my jewelry and personal items. A team of painters from a church different from our own church came to our house for over a week, most that I did not know. Someone I barely knew out of town paid our electric at just the right time when I was debating the order and deadlines of bills. Grocery gift cards arrived. Encouragement came in the mail from both sisters (by blood and marriage) at just the right time every time. Someone ran a marathon to fundraise so that Hubby could get a mobile scooter. A friend spent 36 hours removing stubborn wallpaper at the condominium. One room had four layers! Eight women over 60 years old showed up to pack their cars with Rubbermaid containers to transport from garage to garage so that we could save time and money on moving day. This paragraph could be much longer with stories of miracle people showing up, but you get the idea.
One thing that rolled around in my head was that people do what they can when they can. I did not expect anyone to help. I think it is dangerous and mean to expect people to be there for you. For example, I am not a fan of Facebook chain posts that end with “and I think I know who will respond.” Yeah, no, at any given time, you do not know what someone is really experiencing or what they can make time for this minute or in this season of their life.
If you are going through a tough time, just be open without judgement. Say yes to those who emerge from the clouds. In addition, when you can, make sure you help others too. There are plenty of opportunities to be there for people when you can. Over the years, I have really enjoyed giving quietly when I was able. It was humbling to be on the receiving end. And, it was necessary to accept help. We would not have made it otherwise. Thank you to many.
When we have frustrating days now, I observe how quickly my mind thinks, “Thank You for my problems.” Right now involves acceptable water treading with a little space and capacity to roll with the waves. I feel the physical and mental stretch daily but nothing like recent years.
Last summer I was fortunate to visit Thorncrown Chapel in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. The building is constructed with glass walls that provide a sanctuary in the woods.
While there, I thought about its openness to nature. I considered my openness to surrender.
Surrender means saying yes to God through the stress. Surrender says, “Sure you can sort these items in my bedroom. Seems like a personal place, but let’s go for it.” Surrender says, “Thank you for adopting my son to celebrate his high school graduation in ways that I would not have been able at that time to provide.” Surrender says, “Yes, please interview and find us the best realtor for our situation.”
Surrender is also the word that came to mind back in 2016 when I was out of shape and said yes to a near week long hike on the Appalachian Trail with a team of women.
I knew the ground was sliding under our family’s footing. Something was wrong. I thought I was losing my mind over our oldest son going to the military at 17 years old. Maybe if I ran away to hike and sleep outside, then I could get alone with God to work out my mixed up feelings.
However, there was more.
And, God was preparing me.
“Surrender on the Trail” became the title of the manuscript I wrote about our wild experience in the woods. Imagine four women committed to staying outside to maneuver rocks and mountains for 35 miles. Imagine getting lost in the rain at nightfall. Imagine tears and flies buzzing with an incredible 4,050 feet view above sea level.
I am thinking about publishing one chapter a week here on the blog. What do you think?
The manuscript has been complete and edited for a long time. Something in my heart does not feel like continuing to query publishers or literary agents right now. What if I make it available here?
People from 34 countries read this blog last year. What if I simply share?
If you have comments or ideas about this idea, please let me know.
Psalm 121:1a ~ I lift up my eyes to the hills. Where does my help come from? My help comes from the LORD….