Friday, March 21, 2014

My home, my grief

I went to the woods, my home, my happy place for a few days. I didn't know it when I was planning this backpacking trip, but spending time in nature would be a dire necessity; I would need to go to the woods to share my grief with the trees.

Late Friday night, Power Pack and I met in a dark parking lot near the trail head. I haven't seen her in 9 months, because she had spent 6 of the last 9 months living and working in Nairobi. We did the usual greeting of hugging and cursing and insulting each other. The last time I saw Power Pack was at her send-off party on her parents farm, where everyone consumed too much alcohol and told ridiculous trail stories.

Power Pack and I night hiked to the first shelter. After about a mile, the trail turned into an old service road that was wide and grassy and lined with a white deer fence enclosure. Instantly I remembered that section from 2009. I find it so strange to have seen every inch of that trail for only minutes, seconds, and I can still remember so much of it. I can look at any photo, and it doesn't have to be my photo, but I almost always know exactly where it was taken. The trail is still so alive in my mind, like a downed wire vibrating across the ground, pulsating and buzzing and zapping.

We arrived at the shelter after about an hour of hiking in the the dark. We chatted quietly and shared trail stories and drank wine and ate too many lime Tostito's and briefly talked about the TED talk I listened to on my drive and we laughed and laughed. At the end of the night, I laid down in my sleeping bag on my back and smiled while staring up at the bright, moonlit sky. I listened to the creek as the water flowed smoothly over the mossy stones, thinking about my cousin Eileen, who had been admitted to Hospice only hours earlier. I knew that sunny Friday afternoon would be the last time I would see her alive. So I spent all day in the hospital with the rest of my family at her bedside, watching her life slip quietly away as she lie underneath her fuzzy brown blanket. Together as a family we laughed and we cried, we listened to her favorite Irish music and we ate Peanut Chews. That night in the woods I went to sleep on the hard shelter floor, feeling content that I had spent, what would be some of Eileen's final hours here on planet earth, with her and our family weather or not she knew of my presence.

I woke up the next morning realizing I had slept incredibly well. I never sleep well in the woods unless I'm in my tent balled up within it's silnylon walls, but the cubby-hole-of-a-shelter was cozy and comfortable and something about it made me feel like I was, once again, living in the woods. I stayed in place for a little while, wondering if Eileen was still alive and tugging at the oxygen lines in her nose, or if she had crossed through the pearly gates and into the loving arms of her long-gone son. A text from my mom told me she was still the same. Still, I knew, it was only a matter of time. After a slow morning, Power Pack and I shouldered our packs and walked.

The day warmed up as we hiked through melting snow. The ground went squish squish squish where the snow had melted away. We walked, and we rested. I ate macaroni and cheese for lunch, and Power Pack and I shared snacks. I toyed with my new camera and plunged it under water to record the rush of water over the rocks, capturing the mini waterfalls from underneath. We talked about family and I talked about my father and how my mother has played the role of my both mother and my father and how I think I've done a good job of avoiding what I'm hardwired to be: a drug addict. But maybe that's because my mother has done her best job possible of playing two roles.

When I was done playing with my camera, Power Pack and I walked again. I thought about how I miss the simplicity of walking every day and talking about nonsense. Life then, was easy.

We picked a spot to camp that had a large fire ring with a bundle of gathered wood that had been left behind. I was thankful to whoever did the hard work of collecting the wood, because the day had already grew so cold and I just wanted to build a fire to get warm. There was smaller pieces and twigs, medium branches that I could snap over my knee and larger ones too big to break by stomping it over a log. Power Pack and I chatted and laughed and ate and drank wine and told more trail stories. We talked about wearing makeup to work, what might be around the next bend in life for each of us, the people we've dated and horses. Her greatest passion in life is horseback riding, and I've always been intrigued by the enormity of horses; they scare the shit out of me. I asked how to control an unruly horse, and learned that it's all a mind game that the horse's human will always win.

When it grew too cold to be outside of our sleeping bags any longer, I crawled into my tent and turned on my phone. There it was, the dreaded message from my mom: Eileen had died a few hours earlier. She was now somewhere floating above us. Maybe she was in the woods with me, maybe she was making her famous potato salad that I'll never taste again. But she was no longer in her own body. Eileen was now with her beloved son and everyone else who had gone before her. I was incredibly sad, but grateful she was no longer fighting for life. I curled up in my sleeping bag filled with more sadness than I had the previous night; I didn't gaze up at the sky with a smile on my face this time. That night I sent my grief out into the woods, up into the treetops, and tried to sleep. I never slept, it was 20 degrees, so instead I shivered all night in my sleeping bag that should have kept me warm, but it has taken the abuse of a thru hike. So many of those feathers have shed and drifted off into the wind long ago, and the DNA of my sleeping bag lives infinitely along the Trail.

The next morning was incredibly cold, and having to shit in the woods was not fun, though I'm no stranger to that. In mild weather it's liberating, but with a frozen-solid ground, an easy task becomes laughable. Numb fingers and frozen toes. I used my heel, trekking pole and stick, but still, the ground was hard. I did the best I could to Leave No Trace.

After my less-than-successful hole-digging session, I made some coffee and oatmeal in the vestibule of my tent. Hot coffee felt so good as it made its way through the food pipes of my body and into my stomach as it slowly warmed me. Power Pack and I broke down our little silnylon homes and hiked on; I never took off my mustard yellow down jacket, it was just too cold. We walked along a reservoir where we stopped to smash through the ice with our poles; It was so satisfying to watch the ice break into millions of little shards.

The forest along the reservoir had a soft, pine needle floor that reminded me of the trail in Vermont. It made me think of my hike on Long Trail when Persistent had joined me; I was still on the solo part of that adventure, and for a few days it was just the two of us. I remember we had joked about Cabernet Sauvignon and spoke in funny voices while descending a mountain, laughing at nonsense. Everything becomes funny on a long hike, maybe it's the punchiness of exhaustion.

I refocused on the present and thought about Eileen and the rough few days that would be ahead for my family, which are now all behind us. Watching loved ones grieve a significant loss is so damn difficult. Watching my loved ones cry in pain makes me fall apart on the inside, but the pieces always seem to come back together with time.

A few days in the woods were therapeutic; I got to be in my happiest place on earth before facing few difficult days with my family. Though the feeling ended abruptly, it was rejuvenating to walk, laugh with a good trail buddy and sleep under the stars. I wish I could do it more often.

Cosáin sásta, Eileen.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Traveling means adapting

My epic plans to bike to Baltimore were foiled when I started having crazy knee pain with every pedal stroke, 30 miles into my ride. But I rode it out for another 30 miles, making for a beautiful 60 mile day to Lambertville.

As soon as I left home, I thought, "How the hell did I pedal this heavy bitch all the way across the country?" It's been a year since I rode a loaded bike, and it felt heavier than I remembered. But I loaded it just the same way I did a year ago, spare tire on top of the rack which was on top of my tent, nestling a loaf of bread under the cargo net. And after some miles of the sun beating down on the bread, I had the same thoughts I did a year ago: Ahhh, a steamy hot loaf of bread, just as if it came out of the oven, only not even close. McKinley would approve.

Ten miles in I met a fella (Rich?) from the next town over. He was on his first ride in 2 years, on an old steel frame road bike with down tube shifters, and wore ancient leather road shoes. Relic! We rode together for maybe 30 minutes, and we discussed his ride down the Pacific Coast after college, my ride across the country, and his college-aged daughter wanting to do Bike and Build next summer.

The ride to Lambertville was magical. If I didn't take up cycling, I don't think I'd have a new found love for NJ. I keep finding gorgeous open land in this most densely-populated state in the nation. The route led me through beautiful farmland, and quiet country roads. And a lot of those 60 miles felt like western and central Oregon – my favorite state on the TransAm. Big, beautiful blue sky, a cool breeze, and the warm sun beating on my face. I thoroughly enjoyed the ride, even though I was pedaling through pain.

Rocket scooped me up in Lambertville, and we headed back to her house. The highlight of the night was finally tasting Rogue's collaboration with Voodoo Donuts' creation of bacon maple porter. I'm still not sure what I think of it, but I kept sipping it.

I decided to take a train home the next morning, it was the smart thing to do. I had this pain in my knee a few years ago, and it doesn't go away if you keep riding on it.


I drove to Baltimore and still spent a few days with McK and Andy. Many beers were drank, celebrations of a year anniversary of completing a ride across the country together ensued, and life stories were exchanged. We listened to records (Andy doesn't do technology) and we chatted for hours. It was awesome to see those fools, and even better knowing my road dog lives 600 miles closer now. In bike time, we're 3-4 days apart, rather than 2-3 weeks.

Though my trip didn't go as planned, I was not upset. It gave me a little down time at home, which is something I haven't had in months.

This is the only photo from Baltimore

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Elefante and Haribo ride again

In a few days, it'll be exactly one year ago that I dipped my rear wheel in the Atlantic, signifying the end of my ride across America. I've been dreaming of the next bicycle adventure since then, but was never quite sure what it would end up being. All I knew was, I wanted to ride my bike long-distance this summer.

Well, life got in the way. I worked, and worked, and worked, and did nothing productive otherwise. I swapped riding steel for superlight aluminum, logging hundreds of miles on day rides. It was all I could do in the way of cycling.

But here I am, happily making my last minute plans for the shortest bike tour ever: NJ to Baltimore, about 220 miles. The steel Beast and I will finally get to know each other, once again. Though it'll only be a few days of riding, I am thrilled to sneak in some touring time. Nothing but me, my thoughts, and the whoosh of tires over pavement.

Now residing in Baltimore is none other than my kickass friend and riding partner, McKinley, and also Andy. So the plan is to bike door to door. And how neat that we will get to clank beer mugs to commemorate the day we rolled into Yorktown and finished the ride.

Elefante and Haribo, my bicycle hood ornaments, get to accompany me on yet another adventure. Soon, we will ride.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

When Worlds Collide

My cross-country bike comrade, McKinley, finally visited me in the Garden State. It was balls-to-the-wall mini adventures from the second I whisked her from the Amtrak, and now I feel like I've been pummled by a herd of African elephants. Not that an elephant would ever do such a thing to me, because I adopted Winkie for Christmas (it was a gift), so lets be honest, they know I'm a friend, never a foe.

In less than a 48 hour window, we went to a brewery with Rocket, possibly almost got thrown out of said brewery with our obnoxious stories and foul language, rode a wooden motorcycle at the diner with Kelly, rode bikes around the reservation, sipped chai lattes and snacked in a cafe afterwards (we ride to eat, duh), hopped a train to the city for McK's friends art opening, drank beers at a hip midtown bar with Beav and McK's friends, and once again, possibly almost got thrown out of the establishment. I think the waitress was either A) offended by our stories, or B) hated her job. My educated guess would be the former. The beer was delicious though, and I sampled a cider that tasted like Christmas. Oh, and I dodged a bullet on a parking ticket I rightly deserved. We did a song and dance when we realized my triumph over the parking police, and relished in the glory. Take that, Linden!

The song below goes out to McKinley, who is notorious for singing the wrong lyrics, but is always confident she's right. I know you were behind me on the bike, but the lyrics are not, "I will follow you." We made it work, and belted it out anyway.

Wooden motorcycles rule, obviously. Kelly was a little more ballsy with standing up on the wild hog. 

Just a healthy little snack from Tennessee to validate my love of BBQ chips. 

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Whitney F!@#$%G Houston

My new (old) bike has finally been assembled. So, without further adieu, introducing for the first time the newest member of my fleet, Whitney Houston.

Yes, that's right, her name is Whitney Houston, but the officiomundo name is Whitney Houston, the Fresh Prince of 'merica, to appease the Wannabe. She thinks I'm lame for not just going with the Fresh Prince. I think she's lame because she crashed her bike and got a concussion. WEARING A HELMET. I'll stop though, she wrecked her bike, Rhonda, so I will have some compassion.

My adventure thoughts lately lie within another long bike tour. I've been reliving the epic adventure through my homedoggie Whitney's blog, and she was just featured on Crazyguyonabike for her insanity. Well, she was a featured journal on there because it's absolutely hilarious an extremely well written. I am flashing back to the stuuuuuupid Ozarks, and trying so hard to pedal uphill, which was a bitch to begin with in that mountain range, but having SO. MUCH. TROUBLE. because I was laughing so hard at her crazy antics. Like, so hard that I was crying. Those are the best kind of laughs. It's a shame it took McK and I from Idaho to Missouri to catch those Creepdick's (Whitney's word, not mine), but I'm so thankful we did. She always called me her Meta, as in Metamucil, because she would be all blocked up until I came around. And then BAM, she'd have no trouble dropping the kids off at the pool. Whit still calls me Meta.

I'm regressing here.

My next long bike trip will be on the Northern Tier. I don't know when, but I know I will make it happen. My momma said I was a stubborn toughass from the time I was a baby, and was even stronger than her as a toddler, so when I say I'm doing something, I do it. Maybe it's because I am a Taurus and possess those qualities, through and through. But yes, across America. By bicycle. Again. Now if I could only convince McK to pencil that into her calendar one summer.

Meta helping Whitney get ready in Sebree, Kentucky

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Other Things I've Been Doing

I've adapted to something new, a modified triathalon training plan. Modified because I'm not training for a tri, I don't have access to a pool, and don't particularly feel like swimming. But enough is enough already, the excuse of a long distance bike tour, Halloween, Thanksgiving, or Christmas is long gone, time to end the crap eating. As Susan Powter would say, "STOP THE INSANITY!!!" I want to get faster and stronger on the bike, build more muscle, put better food in my body, and get leaner. Thanks to my homedog, Kelly The Wannabe, I have a plan that I'm sticking to and working hard at (thanks, buddy). When things are on my calendar, I do them, so I have my daily plan all written out on my AT calendar to keep me in line. It's all about keeping appointments with yourself, a very wise professor once taught me.

Next, I need to find an event to actually train for to set a tangible goal. My current thoughts are: train, ride hard, learn skills for racing, buy a race-worthy bike, and enter my first race next summer. Or, attempt a race this summer on my new (old) road bike. Stay tuned for a post about this new gem of mine. I've always said, "Meh, I'm not competitive, I would never race," but my thoughts on racing now are, "I'd love to go so fast in a group of people, and see how I stack up against women my age." Not so much for the competition, but for the excitement of it all. I never had the opportunity to join a team in college since I stopped after a year or 2, and transferred to a teeny tiny art school that focused only on art, not academics, no sports, no frills, JUST art. By the way, I'm currently working on finishing that damn degree in education. Sometimes I wish I did more as a young 20 something, but I'm so thankful I have all of these newer healthy addictions in my life.


A delightful little treat I've been addicted to lately is dark chocolate covered espresso beans, and a small handful goes a long way, yum! Plus, a few of those babies before a run and ZIP! Also, who knew the Green Monster Smoothie could be so delicious? I decided to see what all the rage was about. One sip and I was totally sold. It's like a green-colored liquid banana dream! Now, there's a few of you out there who know about my banana obsession, and I've even been called the Banana Nazi. Don't throw out a banana I was just about to eat, ok?

Well, here's to the next week of training, where I will run harder, bike stronger, and do longer circuits. Lately, it's been in the 20's or colder with the wind chill, so running and biking outside isn't allllll that enticing. I'm keeping the indoor trainer rides to a minimum though, since it's boring, but I've been watching fun Youtube videos while spinning to pass the time.

The beginning stages of soup

Barley, white beans, carrots, onions, kale, spinach, and mushrooms. MMM!

The plan (and images of the AT to keep me motivated, thanks Donna W!)

Unhappy about running in 20 degrees and high wind (the run turned out to be awesome!)

Banana heaven in my favorite bicycle cup!

Post-ride food: chick peas, snap peas, and tofu—aka the instant fart-inducer

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Every Shoe Tells a Story

This is a throwback to '09.

I was recently digging through my closet and came across a few old banged up pairs of shoes that I'll never get rid of: the lime green Solomon's I started the AT in, my Keen Voyager boots I summited Katahdin in, and my camp shoes, a black pair of Crocs.

My Solomons served me (semi) well for 747 miles—I hiked from Springer Mountain to Jennings Creek, Virginia in them. They saw me through the wicked snow storm going into Erwin, Tennessee, when I woke up to find them snow-filled and frozen. They saw the sunset on Max Patch, which was a particularly hard day for me, and Rockets birthday party in the Smokies. They saw the hellacious descent into the NOC, and a little swinging on the Keffer Oak tree. They were on my feet when I climbed on the roof of the abandoned school bus in a large, grassy field. And, my favorite hitch ever in a red 90's convertible Mustang, driven by Annette, the angry man-hater.

And then there were a few other pairs in between that made their way to the garbage, and were likely considered toxic waste (the smell was unreal). One was the affectionately named Blue-Light Specials from K-Mart. They only lasted a few hundred miles.

After my first pair of Keens fell victim to Pennsylvania's rocks, they were in dire need of replacing, but not before I put a few hundred more miles on those beaters. My final pair saw 647 miles from Massachusetts to Maine. I wore them through massive, stagnant-watery mud pits, having to outrun mosquitoes by the masses. I outran a zillion storms, nearly getting stuck by lightening a few of times (Ok, that could potentially be a slight exaggeration, but lightening was often striking dangerously close, and more than once we just so happened to be crossing under power lines). They saw the most astounding sunrise on Jo-Mary Lake, and scaled the rock slabs of the White Mountains. They tore up my feet going up Killington Mountain, but ran me down the other side towards cheese burgers and beer. They were on my feet when I befriended Alice the pig, after eating a gigantic bowl of ice cream, and then later juggled apples at the local country store. And then saw me through the proudest moment of my life, reaching the summit of Mount Katahdin.

But wait, what about the horrifically hideous Crocs that provided my feet with sweet, sweet relief at the end of each day? The front of them were melted to a crisp from the countless campfires I burned them on, trying to warm my feet on frigid nights. These gems hung on the outside of my pack for all 2,178.3 miles, so they've seen it all, even a few miles of trail when my feet were falling apart in Virginia. My Crocs still accompany me on each of my backpacking adventures. 

Every shoe tells a story. What do yours tell?