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.”
For the Lord your God has blessed you in all that you have done; He has known your wanderings through this great wilderness. These forty years the Lord your God has been with you; you have not lacked a thing. Deuteronomy 2:7
It is after 5:00PM when we return dirty and depleted.
We had thought we would be done and back to Big Meadow by 3:00PM at the latest.
The Steam Team opens the Bear Box at Campsite 2 as if greeting a long-lost friend. We gather quarters and personal care products.
In tall grass a few feet from the box, my 1-person tent maintained our faux occupancy well while we were gone. I nod in thanks for its service.
I grab the attention of a stranger in front of the shower house and ask them to take our “after” picture. We force smiles through physical pain while our souls smile with ease knowing that we completed over 33 miles on foot via rocks, trees, mountains, and valleys. My legs may separate from my body at any moment. I doubt the picture will fully capture the layers of grime on our skin.
Sunshine Rat points out, “We’re running a little behind. Ted is going to be bringing his garbage up soon.”
Stalker C says, “Yeah it’s almost 6pm.”
“Ah, man. We don’t have shampoo,” Stalker C notes.
Sunshine says, “We’ll make the best of it.”
“Oh no you won’t,” my maternal instincts kick in as I dig through my “after bag”.
I continue, “We are entertaining tonight. You gals need clean hair. Here is my travel shampoo. I’ll wait and shower after you’re done.”
Wow, how fast I sound like a mom post trail!
Stalker C and Sunshine Rat laugh. Stalker says to Sunshine, “You know time is winding down. We gotta find our grooms to bring home.”
Sunshine says, “That’s right.”
I gladly sit in a white plastic chair in the laundry room. I am filthy but resting feels glorious.
A pair of hikers come in to wash a small load of clothes. I think we’ve seen them before on the trail. It is tough to tell because now they are freshly showered.
The girl goes back in the bathroom to blow dry her hair. I ask him, “Did you two come on the trail together?”
His face scrunches, “Nah. We just met up and are hiking together.”
I note the “just” in his sentence.
She returns with long blonde hair mostly dry. She looks at him with affection. He does not return that vibe. I’m bothered by the notion that he may not be as attracted to her as she is to him. Even her backpack is bigger and appears to be packed heavier than his. What the heck? He puts some of his clothes in her pack.
I remember now. They are the couple from the bobcat sighting. I recall learning their trail names. She is Murph and he is MudPuppie.
I ask her, “So why is your name Murph?”
She smiles, “Because the first few weeks out on the trail anything that could go wrong for me did, like Murphy’s Law. My name was later shortened to Murph.”
Murph tosses her hair a bit and smiles toward MudPuppie whose eyeroll reaction basically says this is only a summer thing.
I envision that she’ll be stronger because of the months long hiking. When he breaks her heart at the end in Maine, she’ll be ok and ready to move on. She doesn’t need him.
A clean Sunshine Rat and Stalker C are almost unrecognizable when they return my shampoo. I may barely feel my numb feet, but I know they carry me to the shower stalls.
I don’t bother trying to save underwear or the Ziploc bag of urine socks. Anything beyond cleaning easily or likely to smell in the heat of the car on the way home is tossed in the trash. Feels good to get rid of stuff.
Then I savor the clink of quarters into the machine that turns on the water in the shower.
I have wilderness soap which is little slips of paper that turn to suds when joined with water. My shampoo lathers like total luxury. Layers of dirt sink to the drain. Still soapy, I add quarters to rinse the rest of the me.
Oops! I forgot to bring up my sham towel.
I air dry as best I can before pulling on a clean set of clothes. It’s been a while since I’ve felt cotton on my skin. How wonderful!
I fluff my hair with a community hair dryer and use a mini pop-up travel brush to comb through my locks.
The Steam Team meets back at the car and bear box.
No one attempts or mentions putting up tents for the night. I should look to see if my 1-person tent is still clean and critter-free inside, but I don’t.
We head to the Tap Room without delay.
“I wonder how many party goers will show tonight?” Sunshine says as we walk up the hill along a thin blacktop path that leads to the lodge.
My feet remain flames of fire, but I am clean! My toes are free from boots. The air flow around my flip flops makes my heart leap with joy and appreciation. I wobble and catch myself from falling a few times.
Stalker C says, “I wonder if Ted will really be here?”
The anticipation is fun and drowns out the parts of me that hurt; shoulder, neck, back, arms, thighs…so much pain!
Will our hero, Ted, really come to take out the trash, do laundry, and hang out in the Tap Room with us?!? Will he? Will he?
We reach the lodge that sits perfectly on top of its mountain. The interior is rustic and comforting.
A stuffed bear catches our eye, so we pause to take a pic of Stalker C posing with her worst fear.
We walk into a large lounge with both broad and tall windows. I eye a row of rocking chairs.
SunFloJo says, “Let’s have morning coffee here with the view tomorrow.”
We all nod absolutely. “And we’ll read Deb’s last note here,” Sunshine Rat adds.
“Yes!” we respond.
Our sore bodies find the way to steep wooden stairs that lead down to the Tap Room. I step down the flight of stairs sideways and hold onto the rail to manage.
We are greeted by the red checkered tablecloths, a bar in the distance, wood tables and chairs, wood covered walls, and a row of wood French doors with a partial mountain view.
A band or something is setting up to play here tonight. How Fun! A man and young woman bring in a guitar, speakers, and microphone.
SunFloJo tells the server, “We need a long table because we don’t know how many people might show up to visit us here tonight.”
The group giggles as we help place four small tables together to create one long table near where the band will play.
The sun is low in the sky. Blue hues and warm yellows glow through the windows.
“Margarita, please. And a water. Thank you,” I request with just enough cash in my wallet to have one appetizer, a drink and maybe something from a fast-food dollar menu on the way home tomorrow. Plus, of course I have trail food bags that I’ve barely touched all week.
SunFloJo points to the margarita that arrives in a Mason jar, “That one is on me. This is a celebration of perseverance.” She gives me a look that says no ifs ands or buts about that.
Ok then. “Thank you.”
“We did it!” SunFloJo holds up a beer, and we all oblige to toast this great adventure. “So much fun girls!”
Our glasses clink together. Stalker C says, “And not a minute more.” Her eyes widen like they seemed often to do on the trail, but this time with wide eyed satisfaction.
Sunshine Rat offers, “Yes. A wonderful experience, and we’re all still alive!”
SunFloJo’s shoulders laugh. She texts home to say we are safe and sound.
I was happy to find my phone in SunFloJo’s car before we journeyed to the Tap Room. The girls and I take turns plugging in our phones to charge them in a nearby outlet.
“I wonder who is going to show?” I ask.
“The whole forest perhaps,” SunFloJo says. She types into Google, “Now, I’m looking up Steel-Cut. I’m still perplexed by that.”
I shake my head. It was a well-earned compliment, friend!
Sunshine Rat notes, “That bothers you a little bit, doesn’t it?”
She responds, “I’m just trying to understand it.” Then, reading out loud from the internet, “1. Ground or crushed between rolls fitted with cutting teeth, like steel-cut coffee or steel-cut oats. 2. Faceted with a steel tool, used especially of buttons, buckles and beads having allover design of facets.”
“Oh, the second definition!” Sunshine says, “You are faceted with a steel tool.”
“With many facets,” Stalker C says. “Basically, you’re a badass.”
We toast our drinks to that.
“That is awesome,” I say. Then I touch SunFloJo’s arm and add, “It was a divine moment. There was no need whatsoever for that Teste Team Leader to say anything about you. He picked up on your aura or something. You are Steel-Cut. And you led us beautifully with your badass self.”
We laugh. I add, “And we appreciate you. Thank you for including us on this journey.”
Recognizable faces begin to fill the room. I notice Sushi and a trail friend or two at the bar. I’m too tired to go invite them to the table. That would require standing up.
Whoever comes to the table is welcome. We’re not walking even another twenty-five feet unless we absolutely must!
Through the patio doors I see MudPuppie and Murphy outside. I think she wants to come inside, but he doesn’t. She is pointing to the fact that they could leave their gear outside, but he shakes his head no.
Leave him, Murph. Leave him right now. But no, she slumps her shoulders a bit and puts her pack back on. He’s already walking away. I am disappointed that she follows him.
“Ooh, we left some clothes in the dryer.” SunFloJo remembers.
“I’ll go with you,” Sunshine joins her.
Stalker C and I exchange looks and smiles as the Tap Room capacity increases. We don’t waste energy on speaking. And this margarita is gooood.
Oops, all gone.
I will work on my water and the remaining ice to increase hydration.
As we observe, we learn that the guy with the band is the father of the young woman. And the young woman with long dark hair is only 16 years old. Her name is Brieanna James. She’s going to sing tonight. We grab one of her publicity postcards and search for her on Facebook and Twitter.
“Ted!” says Stalker C.
“Look who we found!” SunFloJo calls out.
Rounding the stage area is Ted with SunFloJo & Sunshine. I point to the seat in front of me on the table end closest to the stage. “Right here. We saved this seat for you!”
I can’t let Ted go to the other end where the younger Steam Team members are. Seating might mess up the opportunity of potential suitors for the young ones!
“Well, ok.” Ted sits down.
I hear a snicker and snort from the other end as SunFloJo slips in next to me. Oh, no. He probably thinks I purposefully want him close to me! I yi yi.
With the help of my margarita I say, “We gotta keep the single ladies with open seats down there. We invited a lot of people to the Tap Room tonight.”
More stifled giggles. Ted smiles with a quick raise of both hands and says, “I completely understand.”
I smile. I knew he would.
SunFloJo says, “We’re so glad you came tonight!”
Next to him, Sunshine Rat says, “And we smell and look a little better tonight I bet.”
“Yeah, yeah.” He smiles and looks at each of us. He’s a jolly sort.
SunFloJo asks, “Now tell us all about your connection to Rapidan and this place. Did you say to us you’ve been working here like over a decade or something?”
“Oh yes,” he says. “I love being here. My normal job is in California. I work from here part of each year.”
“What brings you this far over and over again?”
“I’m originally from the east coast and my family came to the Shenandoah National Park every summer growing up. My dad was kind of like my mom and dad all in one because my mom died when I was little.”
Lots of social worker types at the table, in unison a few of us say, “I’m so sorry.”
“Eh. It was a long time ago.” Ted continues, “One of our happiest memories and my only memory of mom was when we were here one summer. I was about five. Later that year she died. Dad and I spread her ashes over BearFence Scramble the next summer. We went back every summer since in one way or another.”
We’re in listening mode. He continues, “And a few years ago Dad died. Me and my family spread his ashes up there too.” He sighs, “A couple weeks ago I went up there on a day off and was kind of surprised to find little pieces of bone still up there from dad.”
Still enjoying the view, I suppose.
Ok. Now I’m glad for new reasons that we didn’t go up there. Maybe I’d go up on a different trip with less backpack and more as a side trip stop.
Sunshine Rat changes the subject, “You know, Ted, you are the only person around here who gives accurate trail mileage information.”
We agree. She continues, “The trail said our trip today would be about 6 miles and you said 9. It was totally 9 plus a little more.”
Stalker C and I say, “Yeah. The trail lies.”
Sunshine adds, “We appreciate you not lying Ted.”
SunFloJo says, “Let’s get you a drink. We’ve ordered some food and we can order more if you want. It’s on us.” She adds with a wink, “We owe you gratitude for that which shall remain a secret!”
Stalker C says, “You saved our life.”
I point out, “It took a long time today before we got to the fire ring up on Laurel Prong.” I shake my head, “There is no way we would have found that small clearing in the woods, in the dark, in the rain. Just no way.”
Ted shrugs and tightens his lips in a way that tells me he totally knows he saved our lives and probably saved some fire and rescue resources too. Ultimately, he saved lives and tax dollars! Funeral expenses, you name it. Some rules are meant to be broken.
“Well, don’t ever put anything on social media,” Ted says.
“Absolutely. We get it!” SunFlo says. “We stayed in that Fisherman’s Camp just outside the park. That was scandalous enough. That’s our story and we’re sticking to it.”
Ted smiles relieved.
“Mums the word,” Sunshine says.
My eyes see people coming our way. Look who it is!
Rounding the stage area are Tank and Frodo! I am delighted that my favorite groom candidates arrived for the girls.
SunFloJo smiles and waves them over.
Ted grins at how our obvious plan works when Tank and Frodo approach our table with the only available chairs right next to our dear Sunshine Rat and Stalker C. Ted understands. Ted is seasoned like SunFloJo and me.
The young males have showered also. They have big smiles on their faces. Perhaps they are happy that we are where we said we would be. And the idea of Tap Room food probably is exciting.
Small talk begins at the younger end of the table. I zone out to simply take in this moment.
Ted talks with SunFloJo about his interest in gemstones and about his plans to begin foster dog transport soon. Ted is an all-around good guy.
The young musician tests her guitar on stage. She smiles and strums to see if the instrument is in tune. The dad beams with pride. He also eyes the audience with a protective stare. Then he looks at his daughter with total admiration and love.
A sound crackle occurs, then becomes clear.
“Thanks for being here tonight, y’all,” Brieanna speaks into the microphone. “This is a good crowd.”
Hmm, thanks to us.
Brieanna smiles. I come out of my trance. The checkered tablecloth covered tables are full of folks and the bar has only one seat open. It’s hard to tell because so many of us now look clean, but I am fairly certain at least a quarter of the room are people we met and invited along the way.
The crowd gasps in a good way when Brieanna begins to sing Jolene.
People approve of her voice. Smiles are contagious around the room.
I notice that if Frodo had a tail, it would wag. He is very impressed by her.
Brieanna slows down the lyrics to end with, “Please don’t take him even though you can….”
Hands clap and whistles woot in the air.
“Thank you,” Brieanna says. “Thank you.”
The audience is ready for more. She says, “Now I need some volunteers.”
Hands raise fast at our table. That is, SunFloJo and my hands go up and point toward our young friends.
“Well, alright then. This group right here is ready to have some fun,” Brieanna says and waves Tank and Sunshine up to the stage.
To listen to this chapter via the Surrender On The Trail Podcast, click here.
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!
Before soaring on United Airlines one day in August, two TSA people panicked when I placed a pet carrier on the security conveyor belt.
I said to their reaching hands, “It’s empty. Don’t worry.”
Whew! Their blue shirts relaxed a bit.
“I am heading to get my son’s cat,” I said to more people than probably wanted to know that day.
My mission: Get the cat. Keep my emotions in check. Spend as little money as possible. Stretch granola in backpack.
One thing I’ve learned about being a military mom is that tears are the enemy to be embraced. I can be happy for our son = tears. I can be proud = tears. Saying hello = tears. Saying goodbye = tears.
Fight them and the tears are worse. I attempt to embrace and let them pass. If you’re a military parent, you know this roller coaster.
Son-1 and I strive for what we call “the good good-bye”. He tries to laugh when my face swells. There is something about military life that makes the words “gut wrenching” meaningful as an experience rather than a phrase.
Once in New Mexico, I see in our son right away that he is feeling about his cat a little like what I feel when he and I separate for months at a time. He hugs Gus, plays with Gus, and takes long looks at Gus. I imagine he is burning the memory of Gus into his soul with enough love to last for many months until they reunite.
Meanwhile on minimal sleep for a 24 hour trip, my mind focuses on how to get a cat across the country without losing him.
“Ok, Mom. You guys have to go now,” Son-1 said about 40 minutes before I planned to leave that morning. He did not want to cry. I understood.
We place a “calming collar” on Gus and put him in the pet carrier.
“Here. I got you these,” Son-1 hands me breakfast. It was thoughtful of him to stop at a gas station for Pepsi and Swedish Fish with me in mind.
I stress-nosh on the red fish when Gus begins to wail in the car. Have I mentioned that Gus and I had to drive 90 miles to the airport?
Son-1 and GF warned me that Gus does not like car rides, but I know his wail is more than a dislike of the car. Gus knew I was taking him from his people.
Hubby called once while I was stopped in the desert by a police blockade. Missiles were being tested nearby. Stopping only made Gus cry louder.
“It will be ok, Gus.” I turn him so he can see me through his net. That didn’t help. I wonder if his claws will rip the carrier netting. Then I remember that I packed a small roll of duct tape. Hopefully I will not need to figure out how to repair or get him back in the carrier if he escapes.
I hyperventilate on the phone to Hubby, “Don’t. Tell Son-1. That. Gus. Is.” Inhale, “Crying.”
“Honey, catch your own breath. It will be ok.”
Sure it will. I am in new territory: alone with a cat, saying good-bye to our son for his first deployment overseas, and driving toward El Paso, Texas which dripped with sadness in the air from recent events.
There are security options with a pet in an airport. I could take the cat out of the carrier and walk through the screening device. No way. Or I could request the private room to take the cat out of the container. Sigh.
In the private room, the TSA agents share horror stories, “One time a cat died right here at this check point.”
“Yep, the owner overmedicated the cat.”
I feel so glad we did not medicate Gus. I zip him back inside with our new bonding and determination. We can do this, Gussie-boy. G-ma will protect you.
At our layover, I bravely allow Gus to walk around an indoor pet spot.
I pose him for a picture near the airport’s USO. “We are on task, buddy.”
He and I people watch at airport gates.
Inside the carrier is one of Son-1’s worn t-shirts. I explain to the cat that the shirt is for comfort.
“Don’t worry, Gus, your owners will be back for you.”
The t-shirt also connects the dots of smells for the pets waiting at home. Once back in Greater Cincinnati, there was minimal quarantine time and/or hissing by our welcome wagon pets. They recognized Son-1’s scent. They gave us looks like, “WTH? Meow. Ok, fine.”
Gus settled in with cat toys, scratch pads, and favorite play-sleep spots. He marvels at the new sights through our window: chipmunks, leaves, grass, snow flurries. It’s different here.
And sometimes Gus hangs out near the door patiently waiting for Son-1 and GF to return.
Job 12:7 But ask the animals, and they will teach you…
Posts about Gus are dedicated to his cat parents who are currently deployed separately in the military. Please pray for the men and women who endure loneliness in the name of freedom during this holiday season.
Our oldest son, let’s call him Son-1, has been in the military 3 years.
After moving out of an Air Force base dormitory and into an apartment in New Mexico, he began considering pet ownership.
He talked the idea over with us and his girlfriend (GF) for several months. Son-1 and GF landed on a cat being the best option for them. “But,” he asked me. “If I have to deploy, Mom, would you come get the cat?”
Would I come get the cat?! The words stuck with me for a while. I convinced myself that Oh, it will be a while before that could happen. And Oh, maybe if he deploys, then the timing will work out that his girlfriend or someone else can care for the animal. I won’t really be needed.
We are the type of family that stick with a pet for life. Ultimately I am glad Son-1 got that memo. Pet care is a serious commitment. He’s turning out to be a responsible guy. I think surely my son won’t need me in this way, but if he does, I said, “Yes. I’ll be there.”
I pause here to mention that when our first pet, an insane nearly untrainable and somewhat aggressive 10 lb. dog passed away, then it was a full 9 years before we were willing to have a pet again.
And–once upon a time, I was not a cat person at all. I harbored years of judgement against cats. What I saw and smelled at various homes growing up was not something I wanted in my life. But then one day in 2010 I fell for the tiniest little kitten in Jackson County. I remember our young boys whispered to Hubby, “Mom. Picked. Up. A. Cat.” And Hubby whispered, “Yeah, something’s going down here. She never does that.”
We brought that sweet baby home.
I bought good cat litter. We established twice per day scoop policies. The next year we gave her a friend. Two cats. Clearly I lost my mind.
Fast forward back to last year, Son-1 and GF chose a cat named Gus from a shelter. He had been left behind by other people once or twice. Gus would be left behind no more.
“He is cross-eyed, Mom,” Son-1 said over the phone. “The vet doesn’t think he’ll do well if he is out in the wild.” So Indoor Gus began a sweet life with his new mom and dad.
And Hubby and I felt somewhat like distant cat grandparents.
The first time I met Gus I observed that because of his eye situation he tilts his head back to see when you walk into a room. It looks like he says, “Whaz up?” every time.
For several months we enjoyed pics and texts about their life with Gus. They were a happy little pet inclusive family.
Then GF received notice of deployment. She had several months to prepare. The couple thought they’d cuddle with their cat until she left. Then we were all surprised when Son-1 received notice that he also would deploy but with only 3 weeks notice. Eek! Gus moved up on the extended family priority list. I had made the promise, so you know what happened next.
We rapidly picked the 24 hours that I would fly alone 3200 miles round trip on a tight budget to get Gus. Hubby and I couldn’t help but feel like I was going to get our grandchild-cat.
G-ma is coming!
[End of part one. Stay tuned for part two.]
Job 12:7 But ask the animals, and they will teach you…