Peace In A Tin Can

Peace In A Tin Can

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

I Got Lucky at Tahquamenon Falls

Every year, I venture to Michigan's Upper Peninsula to experience a real Yooper Winter.  All alone, I have hiked, snowshoed, crawled, and pushed my way through 3 feet of snow (or more) in sub-zero temperatures to live outdoors under harsh conditions.  I have driven in blizzards, witnessed a fatal car accident during a white-out, and generally been so scared and cold and miserable,  I question my sanity and motives.

But this year I got lucky.  When Mike Wendland, of Roadtreking: The Group, posted an open call to Roadtrekers for a Winter No Rules Rally at Tahquamenon Falls, I asked if I could join him, even though I don't own a Roadtrek or any kind of Class B Motorhome.  Mike assured me I was welcome.  I packed up my Yukon for a winter weekend of car camping and headed north.

I decided to leave a day early, giving myself time to figure out the whole "living in my car like a homeless person" thing before the others arrived.  I got lucky with clear skies, clear roads, and mild temperatures in the upper 20's, making it to the U.P. in a record 5 hours.  Arriving at Tahquamenon Falls State Park, I set up a small tent, placed a tarp on the floor, and created my own bathroom with the Luggable Loo, a folding table, and a bowl to pour hot water in to wash up.

The Yukon was then converted to a rustic cabin, with an electric extension cord running through the window, an electric heater set on high, and an electric blanket in my sleeping bag.  Everything I needed to survive was in the back of the vehicle, including warm layers of clothing, food, a Jet Boil Stove, jugs of water, a lantern, and a good book, which I never read because I was having too much fun all weekend.

At the suggestion of a Roadtreker from the group, I bought an insulating product called Reflectix.  For $23, I easily cut pieces from the roll to fit every window in my car.  It made all the difference in keeping the car warm with just a small space heater.  However, I didn't plan on spending much time in the car, so I started looking for the fire pit outside.

The staff at Tahquamenon Falls State Park had plowed enough sites for our group, one of the largest groups the park has ever seen winter camping on the same weekend.  Unfortunately, when they plowed my site, they buried the fire pit under 6 feet of snow.  I got lucky again when one of the rangers came by and gave permission for a ground fire.  With 30" of snow on the ground, it was a safe bet I wouldn't burn down the campground.  I dug a path through the snow, dug a hole, and started a roaring bonfire.  My evening was perfect.

The first night in the car was less than perfect.  I folded the backs of the rear seats down and spread a camp pad door-to-door, with a sleeping bag and electric blanket on top.  This left me no headroom, so my first challenge was undressing while lying down.  Once settled in the sleeping bag, I quickly realized that I didn't have enough room to straighten my legs, forcing me to sleep on my side.  Then my other side.  Then the first side again.  I tossed, turned, rolled, and contorted myself all night, never getting comfortable and sleeping little.  With the insulated windows and the space heater, I was too hot.  I turned the space heater off.  Then I opened the sleeping bag, tried to straighten the tangled mass of the electric blanket (while still lying on it), rearranged myself, and tried again.

I was up before daylight, just so I could stretch my legs and move my aching joints.  Opening the door and stepping outside, I was greeted with a winter wonderland.  Snow falling, complete quiet, sun just starting to rise.  I went for a walk, and met the first Roadtreker who had arrived last night, Malu from Canada.  We walked in the snow and got to know each other a bit, then started greeting other Roadtrekers as they pulled in.  Unfortunately, the temperatures were still mild and the falling snow was very wet, soaking my coat and boots.  By lunchtime, I was wet and chilled, and wondering how I would dry my stuff out.  I got lucky when Malu came to my rescue.  She invited me to sit in her warm Roadtrek for a cup of coffee.  I hung my coat just inside the door, put my boots in front of her heater, and sat back for engaging conversation and hot coffee.

Malu had traveled alone from Ontario, Canada.  Her Roadtrek was bought used, and she had made some minor modifications to fit her needs.  The Roadtreks aren't roomy, like a larger Class C Motorhome, but you can stand up straight, her modified bed was wider, she had a kitchen, and even a bathroom!  Because it was winter, all the Roadtrekers had winterized their vehicles, using water from jugs just like me and dumping it in a tub.  They flush their toilets with RV Antifreeze.  I was a little envious.

Malu and I stayed in her Roadtrek until my coat and boots were dry, then Mike Wendland, our
Jennifer and Mike
Photo Credit: Mike Wendland
Captain for the weekend, arrived with his wife, Jennifer, and Tai the dog.  We bundled up and went outside to greet them.  Others were arriving as well.  Everyone stood together, greetings exchanged, when a man walked up to us, not quite dressed for the weather.  It turns out, Darryl and his wife had driven all the way here from Georgia to experience their first winter.  Ever.  In their Roadtrek.  Awesome.

Photo Credit: Roadtreker Jeff Martyka
Dinner at the Upper Falls Brewery brought more new faces, all Roadtrekers who enjoy the freedom of simply unplugging their vehicle and driving off to the restaurant.  A nighttime walk to the falls, then a bonfire back at the campground, where I met my RT neighbor Jeff.  We didn't see much of Jeff, because this necktie salesman was off Fatbiking and snowshoeing and hiking, and even going solo to the falls at night to experiment with his fabulous photography.  At the first bonfire, one of us may or may not have introduced Fireball as a means for keeping warm.  We had a group of 25 hearty winter campers, all ready to play like kids again in the snow.

Sargeant Carolyn 
I got really lucky Saturday morning when I met Jim and Rhonda, who invited me into their Roadtrek for warmth and coffee.  Note to self:  One-cup coffee makers do not work with distilled water.  But once Jim figured out the problem and used regular water, I had a nice, hot cup of coffee with their dog, Cricket, in my lap.  We all got lucky with unseasonable temps in the mid-thirties, and throughout the day, we snowshoed to the lower falls as a group, with Sergeant Carolyn leading the way and not putting up with any foolishness.  Some of us did our own thing later, and I drove out to Whitefish Point, which was 20 degrees colder with a monster wind coming off Lake Superior, while others snowshoed some more, explored the area, or napped in their warm Roadtreks.  One Roadtreker, Jeff, even went exploring on his Fat Tire Bike.

Lake Superior at Whitefish Point
I've never been much of a "group" person, choosing to go it alone and welcoming the solitude.  But Roadtrekers are not your average group.  The No Rules Rally was quickly becoming one of my favorite trips of all time, due to the warmth and grace of the people who embrace exploring, new experiences, and lots of laughter.

There is good reason why they all travel in their Roadtreks.  I was welcomed into many of the Class B Motorhomes, and they are very comfortable.  I would have thought the smaller size of a home on wheels would feel confining, but through ingenious design, the Roadtreks feel spacious, even with 3 people and a dog inside.  There is much more storage space than I have in my Airstream Trailer (and certainly a lot more than inside my car!), with useful space conveniently arranged for ease.  The best part of a Roadtrek, though, is the versatility it offers for travel.  Completely self-contained, a Roadtrek allows it's proud owners the freedom to go anywhere, for long periods of time.  Many of the Roadtrekers modify their homes with solar panels, extra batteries, wider beds, and additional tables, which just adds to the ease of their travels.  They can boondock, which means they can park overnight (often free of charge) with no hookups and still have full functionality.  Because of their compact size, parking is not a problem, small campsites are easy to access, and a Roadtrek can handle the dirt roads that lead to some of the best places in America.

Photo Credit:
The people who own Roadtreks are even better.  Darryl and Taera bought theirs just to provide a place to sleep for their two dogs and cat while the couple stayed in hotels.  Vowing to never sleep in the Roadtrek, Taera didn't need much time to change her ways and embrace a life on the open road.  Hotels are a thing of the past for them now!  There were new Roadtreks and old Roadtreks, extended versions and compact versions.  RTer's use their Roadtreks to visit family without imposing, to go grocery shopping, or to carry artwork to a show.  Peter uses his Roadtrek to raise his son, Grant, with a sense of adventure and an appreciation for being outside.  Others load up their dogs and grandchildren for day trips.  And they travel to see America the way it was meant to be seen, by parking their home and getting outside.

Saturday night, while sitting under a brilliant canopy of stars and feeling the temperature drop rapidly, we enjoyed a final bonfire and shared stories of the weekend.  We were approached by another camper, who wasn't part of the Roadtrek Rally but had pulled a huge Fifth Wheel Travel Trailer with a Toy Hauler in the back into an impossibly small campsite.  He stood there a moment, and during a lull in the conversation, he spoke.

"I've been watching you guys all day.  While I've been trying to get my snowmobile to run and hanging out in the Fifth Wheel, you guys have been outside all day.  I saw you go snowshoeing, and hiking, and you stand outside around the fire.  I'm starting to understand that you guys have got it right, that what you are doing is the way it should be done."

Squirrel House
Photo Credit: Yan Seiner
He had a point.  Snowmobiling is fun, but you miss out on conversation, and the sound of running rivers and waterfalls.  You can't hear the snow falling, or the birds singing.  You don't see the squirrel run across your path and disappear into a hole, the way Yan did.  You miss the animal tracks and the ensuing debate over whether they belong to a Pine Marten or a Coyote.  You spend half your day kicking a machine that won't run, instead of laughing at yourself for snowshoeing on your derrière.

Yeah, I'd say the Roadtrekers got it right that weekend.  At the end of it all, Mike Wendland awarded me with a Roadtrek hat, making me an official honorary member of the Roadtreking Group.  I am both proud and humbled to be considered one of them.  I got lucky at Tahquamenon Falls, meeting such a great group of adventurous people and having a terrific weekend outside full of winter activities, laughter, and new friends.

On Sunday morning, the temperature was -6º F.  My bed stayed warm, but the heat didn't travel to the back of the Yukon, and my water was frozen, my propane heater was frozen, even my toothbrush was frozen.  The tent frame was frozen together, the Luggable Loo was frozen too.  I got lucky with milder weather most of the weekend, because if it had been this cold all weekend, I wouldn't have made it.  As I was using a clicker lighter to thaw the tent poles, I watched all the Roadtrekers unplug their vehicles and drive out, waving happily to me from their warm cabs.  Maybe, some day, if I'm lucky, I will be able to buy a Roadtrek and go anywhere, in any weather, and then just drive off.  For now, I will be content to bask in the warmth of new friends, new experiences, and new goals while I pack up my frozen stuff using fingers I can no longer feel and trudge over to the pit toilet as I longingly stare at the taillights of all the departing Roadtreks.  I can't wait for next year's No Rules Rally!
Photo Credit: Jeff Martyka

If you'd like to see a recap of our good times, check out Mike Wendland's video of the Roadtrek No Rules Winter Rally.  It pretty much says it all.

Friday, January 9, 2015

The Best Snow Day Ever?

Today, my daughter had a snow day.  Again.  It's all just part of the cosmic conspiracy to keep me from writing.  However, contrary to what people think of me for hating snow days, it's not an entirely selfish reaction, it's just that I know how the day will go.  While it's true that I won't get any writing done, it's also true that my daughter loves snow days only until 9:00am, when she wakes from a glorious sleep and delights in the fact that she got to sleep in, only to remember that the day ahead will be long and boring.

The roads were pretty bad today, and the wind chills were brutal, so she couldn't call her friends to go sledding, or to come over and build a snowman.  Many of her friends live out in rural areas, and I was not willing to drive the slippery roads to pick them up, and their moms didn't want to bring them here either.  So my little Bean, while refreshed from catching up on her sleep, spent most of the day on the couch, watching mind-numbingly stupid shows on TV.  Bean is far too active a girl to enjoy a full day of TV.

Meanwhile, I shoveled the sidewalks and plowed the driveway.  An hour later, I did it again.  I did laundry, fixed the dryer, and checked emails.  I tried to write, but Bean kept calling out to me from the couch.  She made plans with friends, and would yell, "Mom, can I go to so-and-so's house at noon?"  and I would holler back my permission.  Ten minutes later, the plans would fall through.  Bean made plans with friends all day, but nothing ever came of it.  I gave up trying to write, hovered on the fringes of depression, and took a nap.

But then a funny thing happened on the way to my depression.  I found a way to love snow days, even if only for a moment.

After my nap, I sat down in front of my computer and was scrolling through social media sites when Bean wandered into the kitchen and sat down next to me.  She was complaining about how bored she was, when she suddenly exclaimed, "Mom!  Look at that bird!"

Outside the window, where I keep a bird feeder filled with seeds, was a Blue Jay, one brilliant bird among the many nuthatches and sparrows.  Then Bean shouted and said "Look, there's three more!"
She asked what kind of bird they are, and suddenly I found myself in my element, teaching her about Blue Jays.

Google Images
Bean moved closer to me, and I pointed out the coloring of their feathers.  She asked how to tell the difference between males and females.  Blue Jays do not exhibit differences among males and females by their markings.  Instead, you must observe their behavior.  I told Bean to watch each bird, and tell me what they are doing.  One bird would land, and the other three would follow.  The same bird would call out, imitating a hawk, and the other three would call out too.  When the one bird flew off, the other three followed.

The bird initiating the behaviors is the female, while the males imitate her, trying to impress her.  Mating season starts soon!

Blue Jays are a close-knit family unit.  Mates are monogamous, and males are fairly involved with nest-building and rearing young, though the female has the final say in all matters.  (Maybe that's why Bean is drawn to them!) They are very social birds, and will warn other species of birds of danger.  Blue Jays are also highly intelligent, and can be a bit aggressive at the bird feeder.  Bean was enthralled by them.

Sorry about the quality, pictures taken through
windows are never good!
 Then the best thing of all happened; a Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker made an appearance!  It swooped in, ate from the feeder, then flew off to land on the trunk of a nearby tree and started pecking at it.  Bean and I laughed as the Sapsucker backed down the tree trunk, and in that moment, I was so glad she'd had a snow day.  I would have missed this moment with her, sharing what I know and am passionate about and seeing her delight.  I'm not trying to sound cliche here, but it was a beautiful thing.

I don't care about the rest of the day.  I forgot about my frustration at interrupted schedules, I didn't dwell on the fact that I wasn't accomplishing much.  For that moment, Bean wasn't bored, she was at my side, sharing something wondrous.  She wasn't a teenager; she was my girl again.

The next time Bean has a snow day, which will most likely be next week, I might even suggest a snowy walk in the woods.  Who knows?  Maybe we'll see an owl, or a red-tailed hawk, or wild turkey.  I can show her rabbit tracks, deer tracks, and coyote tracks.  It's quite possible we could simply walk silently, and she might begin to understand the serenity I feel in the wintery woods.

Bean, and my other children, are a gift to me.  I have always believed that, even when I don't show it. Today, Bean was my gift, my reminder to slow down, breathe, and take in the moment.  If I can give that gift back to her, teach her to be interested in the natural world and to learn how to really observe what goes on around her, then I was a good mom, at least for a moment today.  The rest of the day?  Eh, maybe not so much, but I think Bean cherished our moment as much as I did.  Then a friend called, and she left.  Her warmth stayed with me.

I hope you had a simple moment of joy today, and every day.  I will remember today as the best snow day ever, at least for a moment.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Kissing Fishes

In May 2014, I began my dream job, educating the public about nature.  As a Nature Guide, I was given a fantastic week of training, then given the freedom to design the programs I would present.  On being shown to my "office"(I use the term loosely, since it also doubled as a maintenance room and employee locker room, though I was told I was lucky to have a work space at all) I spent a day looking through the programs other Nature Guides had presented before me, and panic set in.  I knew nothing!  What was I thinking, believing I could educate the public in the natural sciences?  So I did what I always do in stressful situations, which also happens to be a part of my job requirement; I went alone into the woods.

It was there, exploring the natural areas in which I would be working, that I found my balance again.  I saw a deer with twin fawns, their leaps and bounds awkward while the doe gracefully glided over fallen trees.  I knew she was teaching them by showing them.  I saw a snake (eeeeek!) sunning itself on the boat launch, realizing I would have to get used to seeing snakes, and not hyperventilating.  I saw turtles, birds I could not identify (add "birding" to the list of things I need to learn), and trees natural to the area; red pine, black cherry, cottonwood, hickory, elm, and countless ash trees on the ground, their majestic trunks felled by a tiny invasive bug.  I began to count how many things I did know, things I learned by being in nature, not in a classroom.  An idea began to form about how I would present my programs.

I returned to my office for additional research, and I realized my idea was not original.  There is a wealth of information available about guided nature programs, written by people who feel exactly the same way I do.

As the summer schedule commenced, it quickly became obvious I was on the right track.  I was initially amazed by the amount of science the kids in my groups knew.  Some kids even added facts to my presentation, which delighted me.  As the days continued, the realization hit me that I had learned all the same things in elementary school, many years ago.  I had just forgotten it all until recent years when I started spending more time outdoors.

It is very important in my job to be knowledgeable.  But so many of the kids I interact with are already pretty knowledgable, so I refined my focus to two challenges.  The first is to present them with relevant information that goes a little beyond what they are taught in school.  I was researching a program about owls, knowing these kids would know the basics; owls are raptors, owls can't move their eyes, owls can move their head 270º, owls glide through the air soundlessly, and they are nocturnal.  They eat their prey, then regurgitate the parts they can't digest.  Then I came across an interesting tidbit, checked a few other sources for validation, and made up a story to tell the kids while we walked in the woods at night, calling for owls.

The story is about a family a black crows who torment a sleeping owl all day.  The owl is their predator, so they bully the owl all day, diving through the air and pecking and screeching, disturbing the owl's sleep.  I never knew that crows did this.  Then one day, I was in my own back yard, splitting wood, when a commotion caught my eye.  I looked up, and sure enough, an owl was swooping through the air above me with a flock of crows in hot pursuit, pecking at him while he sought refuge in a hollow tree.  I was enthralled!  Maybe I have seen this before, but I didn't know what exactly I was seeing.  How thrilling it was to watch this phenomenon of nature and truly understand it.

Therein lies my biggest challenge as a Nature Guide.  How do I find a way to help these kids remember what they learn?  We all learned about the animals and the environment, the rocks, the trees.  As we grew older, our interests became narrower, and at some point we forget everything else. I want to be a part of creating a generation of kids who don't forget nature.  The challenge became one of connecting kids with nature, of creating a strong enough connection that they continue to seek time outdoors even as they grow into adults.

For me, seeing the crows chasing the owl created a connection.  This is the kind of thing you can't plan, you can't incorporate it into an educational program.  So I sought the help of experts, like Michael Caduto and Joseph Cornell, and my favorite, Jon Young and his book about Coyote Mentoring.  These people are a few of the pioneers of connecting people with nature, and their books have helped me guide my programs toward a more enriching experience.

I had to learn how to use a child's natural curiosity with whatever was at hand.  On one particularly beautiful Saturday morning, I took a group of kids fishing.  Most were squeamish about baiting the hook, or touching their catch.  Then one young girl caught a nice Bluegill, and before throwing it back, she kissed it.  The other kids squealed, but I threw some enthusiasm into the situation and explained that real fishermen kiss their fish before they throw it back.  I then told a story about an old man who would kiss a small fish, then throw it back in the hope that when the fish got bigger, he would catch it again and eat it.  The kiss was a sign of respect for the nourishment the fish would someday provide.  Pretty soon I had 30 kids begging to kiss a fish.

It was a nice segue into a discussion of food chains, which was unplanned but beneficial.  More importantly, the kids connected to the fish, and understood the role it plays.  They kissed a fish!

My job is awesome.  I learn more from it than I teach, and together with a group of kids, teenagers, even adults, we explore and discover and connect with our natural world.  If those experiences stay with them as they have stayed with me, more people will care about life, balance, and all living things.   In even the smallest of ways, I did a good thing.
Now that winter is firmly upon us and I am not leading groups of people through the woods, I am spending my time researching even more information and finding fun new ways to present programs.  If you are a parent, or an aunt or uncle, grandparent, here's a fun winter fact:  If you see the kids eating snow, fill a glass with the snow and bring it inside to melt.  If there are tiny black dots in the melted snow, tell the kids they've been eating snow fleas, which are a good source of protein!  (Then tell them to stop eating snow!)

Happy winter, happy exploring, and try to get outside today!

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

When Decisions Go To The Dogs

I've been reading several blogs, with lively commentary, regarding the definition of Adventure.  Some say adventure is doing things you've never done before, others say the purest form of adventure involves giving up a "normal" life to hike across New Zealand or kayak the Nile or some other such extreme endeavor.  True adventurists scoff at guided tours and companies that capitalize on the human spirit by promising adventure while doing all the hard stuff for you.

I don't fit neatly into any of those categories.  Most of my adventures come about accidentally, and almost all of them involve my friend Debbie, who is not an adventurer at all.

Every year in October, Debbie and I go camping together.  At this point I can't even remember how this tradition started, but in the beginning I tried to ignite a passion for outdoor adventure in Debbie.  She gave it the old college try, but our annual trip has evolved into a few days of Debbie reading by the campfire and me restlessly prowling around the campsite.  Debbie knows how to relax and unwind; I do not.

This year I told her we would be camping in Petosky, Michigan, because Petosky is synonymous with shopping, restaurants, and luxury hotels.  I figured if she equated camping with Petosky, she would be more likely to enjoy the experience.  But camping is camping, and the Petosky State Park is a world away from the posh downtown area.  Throw in four straight days of torrential rain, and we had ourselves a true outdoor camping experience.  Sorry, Debbie.

By the third day, I was very restless, wanting to explore and hike and find myself immersed in nature.  Debbie and I had walked 25 feet away from our campsite to look for Petosky Stones on the beach.  But I found that foray into nature boring, so I left Debbie to go walk the dogs.

Because dogs are domesticated animals, they generally are not as adaptable as wild animals.  In other words, dogs are creatures of habit, and my big dog, Rooney, was having difficulty in this new environment with his digestive system.  To put it bluntly, he hadn't pooped.  In three days.  I was a little concerned.

Normally, when I take Rooney camping (which I do often), on our first morning in a new place I will walk Rooney until he picks a spot he likes to take care of business.  Every day for the remainder of the trip Rooney will go to that one spot each morning for his daily constitutional.  Even though there was a nice wide trail right behind our Petosky campsite, a 2 mile jaunt with plenty of weeds and underbrush, Rooney hadn't taken advantage of this perfect spot.  So after fifteen minutes of staring at the waters of Lake Michigan looking for that one special stone, I announced to Debbie that I was going to walk the dogs down the trail again, in the hopes that Rooney would find relief there.  I said to Debbie,

"I will be back in about 15 minutes."  Famous last words for someone who has a tendency to get lost in the woods.

As I walked the dogs down the familiar trail, Rooney pulled off on a side trail.  I thought maybe I should let him take the lead to find his spot where he was comfortable.  I left the decision of the direction of our hike to Rooney, thinking that we were in Petosky State Park; we couldn't possibly get lost.

We crossed the road that leads into the campground.  On the other side, the Yellow trail began and Rooney pulled ahead.  Had it not been such a pretty trail, perhaps I would have paid closer attention to the trail markings.  But at the first juncture I simply followed Rooney, and it wasn't until much later that I realized the yellow marker was in the shape of a diamond.  A DIAMOND.  For you non-hikers out there, that means the highest level of difficulty.

We climbed a very steep hill.  We went down another steep hill.  Then we plodded up a steeper hill, with the rain turning the loose soil to mud and the wet trees I had to use to pull myself up the hill were slippery to grasp.  I won't tell you that I slid back down a few times on my knees, because in my mind that didn't happen.  The dogs and I labored up and struggled down.  Finally, we reached a high ridge and I thought the trail had to be almost back to the campground.  But then, in a break through the trees, I saw something that made my heart drop into my stomach.

Earlier in the day, Debbie had wanted to visit a French antiques shop in Petosky.  We drove 2 miles down the State Park road, and another 5 miles on the highway to get to this shop.  Across the street was a four-story brick building that had been converted into a pub.  From the top of the ridge I was now standing on, I was looking down on the roof of the four-story pub.  I was 7 miles from my campsite!

I hadn't planned on this hike.  I had no water, no food, and no cell phone (not that it would have worked in the deep woods anyway).  I didn't even have a camera to capture the amazing beauty around me.  I debated about whether to turn back and re-trace my steps, or keep going.  Because the demon hills I was traversing were on a more direct route to the campground than the road, I decided to keep going ahead thinking it would be the shorter way to go.  We forged on, down and up, sideways, upside down once, looking for any sign of the end of this trail from hell.  After a particularly slippery slide down one ridge, I looked up to see a trail marker pointing to the easy yellow trail, and the campground.  I almost wept with relief.

We still had another mile to go to connect back to the original trail.  As the dogs and I plodded down the wide flat trail, thirsty and tired and soaking wet, I was anxious to get back and let Debbie know we were ok.  She must be worried sick!  I had no idea what time it was, or how long we had been gone, but it was much longer than the fifteen minutes I had told her.  I hoped she hadn't informed the ranger we were missing.  Oh geez, what if they were out searching for us?  Debbie must be frantic!

We literally ran the last 1/4 mile, I was so worried.  As we burst into the campsite, Debbie looked up from her chair and the book she was reading, cozy with a blanket, sitting by the fire that was still burning despite the rain because I had set an awning up over it, a glass of wine at her side, and she said,

"Oh.  Did you go out again?  I thought you were napping."

What?  We were missing for three hours and she didn't even know?  She thought I was napping?

With a certain amount of indignation, I told Debbie what had happened.  I also pointed out that if I were ever to get lost for real I guess I couldn't count on her to raise the calvary.  I sat in my chair to pout, drinking a gallon of water, when Rooney stood up, walked a few steps from the fire, and pooped in the campsite.  He found his spot.

It was a mini adventure, but an adventure nonetheless.  The terrain was difficult, I wasn't sure where I was, and no one else knew where I was either.  After consulting the trail map later, I discovered that I had only hiked about 3 miles total, not the 14 miles that it felt like, but with the level of difficulty I had a pretty good hike.  I saw beautiful scenery deep in the woods, and it was all good.

I don't seek adventure.  It usually finds me when I am least prepared for it.  Spending as much time as I do outdoors, it is bound to happen.  When I leave decisions to the dogs, it is a given that an adventure awaits.  But I like it that way.  Sometimes when I plan an adventure, it falls short of the vision I had in my mind, but when adventure happens accidentally, I have a story to tell and fond memories to keep.  Maybe that's the true spirit of adventure, just going out and seeing what happens.

The dogs were exhausted that night and slept deeply, as did I.  As for Debbie, she suffered a restless night of tossing and turning, feeling deep guilt over my struggles while she sat cozy by the fire, not noticing I was missing.  At least that's the way the story goes when I tell it.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Conversations with my Mom

Conversations with my mom have always been...interesting.  I suppose the proper word would be frustrating, or possibly irritating, or just plain crazy, but I am trying to be a kinder, gentler person, so I will stick with interesting.

So it was, on a recent camping trip, that as soon as I pulled into the State park, and a huge, black snake darted out in front of my car, I immediately reached for my cell phone to call my mom.  But then I stopped myself.

I can tell you exactly how that conversation would have gone.  I would have said "Well, mom, this trip is not starting on a good note.  I just saw a huge snake."  Then she would have said,

"That's because you've got no business being there.  It's a sign.  You should stay home with your family."

I guess I would have preferred a more supportive comment, like maybe "you'll be fine, don't let it spoil your trip"  or even "you're okay, honey, now you've seen one and you won't see anymore".  But that's not the tone of conversations with my mom.

I didn't talk to her once on that trip.  I didn't call her when I caught a Walleye for dinner.  She would have told me to throw that stinking fish away, it wasn't safe to eat because I don't know how to clean it.  I didn't tell her about the breathtaking view of the lake, or the lovely privacy of my campsite, which would have led to a major guilt trip about how she never gets to go anywhere and I should stay home with my family.  I didn't reach for my cell phone after I met a lovely American Indian woman who spent an hour telling me of her connection to nature.  Mom would have responded with a story of the woman she met who lost her job and husband and was trying to raise her kids all alone on nothing, but at least she stayed with her family.

Many times on that trip I reached for my cell phone to call my mom, but stopped myself.  My mom passed away in June this year, and won't ever answer the phone again.

What really surprises me is how much I miss conversations with my mom.  She was critical, sarcastic, and way too involved with the smallest details of our lives.  If I went to the grocery store and didn't tell her, she got mad.  She worried, constantly, that something would happen to one of us.  She was never satisfied with the way I raised my own children, she told me how I should be a better wife.  I talked to my mom on the phone 5 or 6 times a day, every day.  She knew when I paid my bills, washed my sheets, and how much I spent on camping equipment.  I told her when I filled the car with gas, what time the kids' practices were, and what time we would be home.

It drove me crazy.  I swear, she knew how many times I peed in a single day.  Or at least, she thought she knew, because that was my go-to excuse for getting off the phone with her.  Mom called me to tell me she and dad were going out for breakfast (which they did every day at precisely 8:00am), then called me to tell me they were safely home, because she assumed I sat there staring at the phone, sick with worry, every minute that they were "on the road".  I didn't.  She called me each morning to make sure we had all "made it through the night".  Why wouldn't we?  And sometimes when she called, I gleefully let the phone ring, in a selfish ha, you don't know where I am move.  Then I would pay for it dearly as she called every five minutes until I answered the phone and she would start with "where in the hell have you been?"

Yet, I miss her phone calls.  I miss her voice.  Right now, I would give anything to hear her say, "Why are you wasting your time on that computer?  You never come see us anymore".  And I would give anything to shut down the computer, drive over to her house, and have a cup of coffee with her.

She was my mom.  She was the way she was for reasons I understood, and while she may have often left me wanting after phone conversations, she was always there for me.  When the chips were down and I really needed her, she came through every time.  Mom may have loved in a very unique, and often intrusive, way, but I never doubted that she did love us.  She always answered the phone.  Always.

I still reach for the phone to call her and tell her something about my day, and when it hits me that she won't answer the phone, its like losing her all over again.  Every day.

I suppose, if I could tell her that, she would say "Oh, get over it, I'm the one who's dead, how do you think I feel?"  Then I would call my sister and we would laugh and laugh at the outrageous thing mom just said.

From now on, conversations with my mom will exist only in my head.  But I can still hear her voice, I know what she would say, and I talk to her in my mind frequently.  I know, without a doubt, that she would be absolutely delighted to know that her words are still influencing me.  She would say, "you can't get rid of me that easily!"  For once, she would be right.

In loving memory of my mom.  Miss you.

 Margaret Sue Hensley
February 25, 1936 - June 15, 2014