Intruder

This past week was a challenge, topped off with the night I heard an intruder in the house. Yes, that’s what I said, an intruder. I was completely alone, getting ready for bed, and someone was in the house.

The kids were for sure in Boston at a concert and nobody has a key to my home.

I chose this house because of it’s comfort, light, coziness and sense of safety. I shopped for it as a newly single mom with my two littles, just barely three and five years old. I took a bunch of things into consideration – making sure we weren’t on the first floor, that we had double door entranceways, decent locks, and some privacy. I had so many choices and this ended up being, and has always been, our safe haven. As my girls say, “there’s not one scary spot in our home”.

But of course, if someone wants to get in, they will find a way. I know this. Despite my deafness, I heard the intruder walking around down there – I thought I may have even heard him coming up the stairs . I put on my hearing aids, locked the bedroom door, held my phone in my hand and listened hard to the footsteps.

You know, I am proud of the fact that I can do so much on my own. But, THIS people, is when ya’ll (I) need a man in the house.

Scared of the dark back in the 70’s/80’s and some of the 90’s (yes really), you couldn’t pay me to go into my closet at night.

Just…forget it.

I was sometimes left downstairs to finish my vegetables. I’d sing and talk really really loud to myself to scare away the monsters I imagined lurking around the dark doorways. I figured they were standing in the back garden, leering through the windows as I gagged down a bowl of peas- hurrying to join the rest of the family upstairs.

In all the years I camped and backpacked, the dark was scary. This means, as a teenager, I still hadn’t outgrown it, but I didn’t let on – I was hiking around the mountains with a lot of cute boys for goodness sake. It was “cool” to (pretend to) be a tough girl – that alone gave me courage.

Apart from wild animals (in my case, I saw a bear from afar one morning and ran into a few skunk and porcupine through the years, otherwise, nothing), the random “crazy” that could be lurking in the woods was unnerving. There was a story about a guy named “Gumbus” who lurked in the woods near where we used to trek. THAT, my friends, was ninety percent the reason I would wait until the sun came up to unzip my tent and go to the bathroom. The smaller reason was because there were rumors that someone had escaped into the mountains from the prison that was nearby. Yes people, every Summer, “someone escaped” (not).

Don’t laugh, didn’t you read about the “male subject assaulting hikers on the Appalachian Trail“? He was arrested in April – then let go – and then this week it was bad. Kevin is not phased of course. But, really, you hang your food in the trees every night in case a bear comes along, but you aren’t wary of crazy strangers carrying a “machete-like knife” and assaulting (and murdered) folks on the trail?

For the first time in the 13 years I have owned my home, someone or something was inside my home who wasn’t supposed to be. Unfortunately this isn’t as exciting as it could be. But I will tell you, when things quieted down, I risked my life by slowly opening the door. I heard nothing when I went down to the living room – it was quiet as I toured the rest of my house.

Then the footsteps sounded again – down the stairs behind me, bare feet padding heavily with each step – and then he appeared at the bottom of the steps – one of my big fat Puerto Rican cats, Jesse, letting out a bit squeaky “meow”.

Evidently, “overnight”, he started walking like a person, his footsteps echoing up and down the stairs.

Said intruder – There’s nothing more to the story. I’m fine.

Little Luxuries

Despite my upbringing – trudging through the mountains of Colorado, Mammoth, Yosemite, trails outside of Los Angeles, I just don’t think you could pay me enough to take “half a year” (as my kids say it), to walk over 2,000 miles with a pack on my back and live out of it.

I get it though. I know the feeling of walking for a few days past some amazing scenery, looking for the trail as it disappears in a swamp area or rock outcropping, finding the perfect place to pitch a tent and start a fire, having everything you need right there with you (or not, but you can improvise and feel super great about it!). It’s kind of like spending a rainy Saturday in the fort you built in the living room – and you have all the stuff you want with you, a good paperback book, a smuggled box of sugar cubes perhaps – and the lunch that your mom slips to you midday.

One of the cool things about this experience, (staying behind) was watching Kev get ready to go. It isn’t completely foreign, I know how a camping stove works (we used to have to pump it 410 times to get it started), what it’s like to sleep in a tent (and to have rain in a tent) or to hike through the gorgeousness of the day, either alone or with people you really like (for the time being).

One of the beautiful things is that I know what’s it’s like to eat a PB&J and have it taste like a filet mignon on day four (I stole that from a North Face magazine ad from the 90s). I imagine that a cup of instant black coffee in the morning when on the trail for 2 million days, must taste as delicious as drinking a cup of just ground dark roast organic coffee, leaning against the pillows of a big king sized bed while watching Good Morning America. But then…I sent Kev a care package the other day and included some little packets of fair trade instant coffee. I kept a packet for myself and just had a cup while sitting on the cold hard stone of my front stoop in the drizzle (just to see what it’s like). It was terrible.

The aforementioned care package included a jacket (with much persuading), finally, purchased at my sister and brother in law’s store, Real Cheap Sports in Ventura, Ca. I somehow remember that while hiking and camping, even during warm months, it can get REALLY cold. Add rain, wind, and high elevation – it can be July and you can freeze your butt off. He, for some reason, didn’t believe me. (Weren’t you in the Army?) But, he finally caved and now has in his possession…a jacket.

I said before that I didn’t feel sorry for him when he said mentioned how cold he was night after night. If you don’t take a jacket, and you’re cold, it’s nobody’s fault but yours. (I say this to my teenagers – they are slowly catching on that a hooded sweatshirt isn’t a -20 New England jacket replacement). The fascinating part about it all is that he never complained. He just sort of haphazardly dropped “yeah, I was cold”…and “It was freezing”…as if he was saying “the flowers are beautiful this time of the year” – and then moved on.

Undeniably, I worry – especially when days later he might slip and say “I was near hypothermia – I know what that’s like from being in the Army…” or “They had to rescue a guy last week who was hyperthermic and he’s off the trail now…” I know even a jacket can’t always save you, but at least if you have hypothermia, nobody’s going to say “well, he didn’t have a jacket, he kind of deserves it”…I am pretty sure the other guy had a jacket. The fact that Kevin wasn’t the one brought off the trail that time shows some resiliency and some smarts perhaps – good timing or just sheer luck. Anyway, now that it is in the 70s in North Carolina, he has a jacket in his possession…how’s that for good timing. : )

When I first backpacked through the Collegiate Range of Colorado, I was going into eighth grade. I can’t even remember how old I was then…Thirteen? Fourteen? I had already done a significant amount of hiking and car camping, but never supplied myself with four days of food, never tasted iodine in my water, or felt the pain of a pack on my shoulders and chafing against my hips. I certainly had never climbed a whole bunch of “fourteeners” before and I am still proud that I was able to do it.

Buena Vista, Colorado – Summer 1995

My “expeditions” took place in the 80s and early 90s, it was before the days of lightweight gear, clothing that wicks and stoves that boil water in 90 seconds. Now that I am in my mid-forties (okay, I just passed the very mid-forty-part) and the gear has gotten far far better, I would like to think I’d do it again one day. But then, I think about my bed, and fresh ground coffee, and my therapist has been far more helpful than days hiking in the freezing rain. Sunshine, maybe. Rain, which you cannot control, no thank you.

Let’s talk about luxuries on a backpacking trip – there ARE some. A great sleeping bag and Therm-A-Rest – two Snicker’s bars a day, and tortillas are always great to heat up quickly and eat with whatever beans or rice you cook up.

I ask Kevin every now and then if he wishes he had a paperback book. He said he didn’t feel like he was missing that at all. I would have DIED of boredom without a stash of paperback books. I didn’t mind the extra weight and I wouldn’t mind now. Somehow paperback books and backpacking go hand in hand for me. I had a compartment on the top of my pack where I kept chapstick, a few snacks and a paperback book.

Another luxury was Jolly Ranchers. Jolly Ranchers come in 349 flavors and each takes approximately 45 minutes to dissolve in your mouth (not really, but it is slower than chocolate).

I decided after the last 5 weeks or so, my guy just doesn’t mind being cold, dirty, possibly bored (maybe not) and hungry – just because it’s totally worth being able to do cool hard sh*t. That’s pretty great – now, if I could just stop worrying…please come back safely – in one piece – and before Christmas…

Our Own Trails

Side note: Who would have thought that wearing your boyfriend’s socks from time to time and sleeping with his t-shirt would make you feel closer to him?

He mentioned one day last week that the next day would mark his first month on the TRAIL. A month of being out in the wilderness, with just his pack and his own two feet – exactly 7 months sober (virtual chip to you, Boyfriend!), plowing through pulled muscles, an ER visit topped with some morphine, Bojangles Chicken and walking a hell of a lot through some nasty weather, WITH.NO.JACKET. (still)

When I think about what I’ve done in the last month, it certainly wasn’t as physically taxing, but been getting life organized, worked a lot, managed to eek out some miles around the back shore and across the beaches and cried a hell of a lot over about a million different things for many reasons.

When cold, I cover myself with an electric blanket and crank the heat up to 75. When hungry, I eat whatever I want – and it isn’t by pouring hot water into a bag – my food is warm and I don’t run out (nor do I have to hang it in a tree). I’m getting caught up with work, have figured out college for my oldest – how to pay for it, cleaned my house for the first time top to bottom in six months, am painting a few walls, and ticking off some tasks that had been put by the wayside for a bit.

My sister once said to me ago, “You don’t get everything you need from just one person”…and it’s true – so so true.

I remembered it when I was caring for my mom this past year. I remember it now, as my guy is on this journey. I remember it with my mom now gone and will when my daughter escapes the coop for college very very…and then the next daughter…all too soon.

I flew to California recently with my 18 year old, while my youngest was in Spain. It’s weird not having the other point of our triangle with us for this trip – but she is one of my little world travelers, and she basked in the adventure.

While on paper, we were to scatter Mom’s ashes “at sea”, we made the executive decision to do a few things: scatter a bit at the beach below our childhood home in Pacific Palisades and in various places in Gloucester – including Mom’s garden, per my daughter’s request. She said her grandmother mentioned it a few times, as they weeded the plant beds together. What the kid says, goes…we don’t think Mom would have minded.

A few weeks before the flight, I sat in my daughter’s Jazz concert at Shalin Liu in Rockport while out of the blue, panicked thoughts built in my head and chest and heart – stabbing.

“How exactly do I transfer some of her ashes, to something to carry with me on the plane? Do I use a scoop? Bare hands? Do I put her in a Tupperware? Do I use a ziplock bag? Will they make me check her with baggage? Can I really do this?”

I ran to the car and called my family in California – I gulped out what I was needing – this simple answer. I think we all knew it was a physical reaction to something far greater than what I was asking.

If Kevin had been here, he’d been standing right there, coaching me along – even doing it for me, if I couldn’t. Kind of like when he volunteered to identify my mom for me at the funeral home. Kind of like when he high tailed it across the country in ice, snow, darkness to be with me, as I knew she was slipping away quickly.

And of course, he made it.

In the weeks following my mom’s passing, but before Kevin’s departure, I booked our flights to California – that always makes you feel better. I also spent time with my kids, girlfriends, Kevin , and some notable time with his family. Most of us go way back to a different time in my life and having then a part of our lives has been a little segment of comfort.

The battle cry that comes after is quite alarming. For me, it was an easing into things – my kids came home from their vacation, and they processed all over again – their grandma was no longer just across town. It was an expected thing, we knew it was coming soon, but nothing ever prepares you. You get together with your girlfriends who all have lost a parent, cared for them, stood in shock afterwards and grieved in similar ways. It is not a club you ever want to be in, but when you realize you have your people there for you because of it…well, thank goodness.

When your person was there for you through it, and then gets on that airplane to go away, you are never quite prepared for that either. Even though you’ve talked it through over and over again – and again – right before – when he said “I can stay longer, and walk North to South”…it is still a jump to the heart – one that asks, “can I do this alone?”

It took a force of courage for me to say “go do this” – because I just wanted him to get it over with. I also knew that there couldn’t be any compromise in this – I knew where he stood in his heart about his own trail and in the end it would have compromised mine. Prolonging the processing, the different kind that would happen when left alone to fend for yourself, would be too painful.

When there is nobody next to you at night when you come home at the end of the day to leave you those wildflowers, play with your hair, jab you with their toenails, even do the dishes : ) – you check your phone every hour, because on the flip side you have this small fear that they may not return – for any reason. That’s when you activate the courage to walk your own trail for a while.

Um… (my side).

After what you just read the last few days, I’m considering breaking up with him until he finishes the TRAIL. (Kidding – oh, not kidding – KIDDING (we’ll see)…)

I could never be the girlfriend of that “Free Solo” guy. Or a military guy. (so that nixes the whole “I wish I met you when we were younger” thing….)

Sorry, I just couldn’t, wouldn’t, can’t. This thru hike of the TRAIL (I might start calling it that, in all caps) is borderline iffy-ness.

I was out of cell range for a few hours while visiting my family in California this past week, soaking in a hot spring along a river in the mountains. It was VERY relaxing….and then I came back into civilization and a text blasted through:

“Am being evacuated- no joke- sickness- will update you in a couple hours please don’t tell anyone you think can be spared the drama until I get medical help/ severe dehydration- people on the way.”

It was like he was messaging me through the Army radio – in Army – speak. He forgot to end it with “Out”. (did I mention that when he sends a text before he turns his phone off to save battery, he ends it with “out”? This means “Don’t reply, I won’t answer for a while”.) It’s awesome being the girlfriend left behind right now.

3 hours later, still nothing. No answer to texts or calls. The iMessage thing is blue and says “delivered”, so you know the phone is “working” – but is the person?

They say to let go of the things in life that you cannot control. So….I sat there eating candy and thinking about all the wine I was going to drink that night once I knew he was okay.

I got the diagnosis on a group text with his twin, along with the information that he was being released from the hospital.

I know twins share a real bond and at first I was a little miffed, because I AM HIS WOMAN HERE, but then was glad to include Keith in the exchanges between us all, that said loud and clear “stop pushing so hard.”

Glad to know that this wasn’t something that would force him to abandon the trail (I am still catching up on my chick shows on Netflix – if he could stay away a little longer, please), I was (am) still alarmed.

He never did answer my question “can you leave the hospital if you’re doped up like that?” – but….apparently you can…

Not long after, he Facetimed from his hotel room to show that he was upright, alive, and doing the right thing by NOT going back on the trail straight from the ER (I wouldn’t put it past him…). When I asked him the name of his hotel and room number, he goofily smiled at me, swaying slightly from exhaustion (and whatever drugs) through the computer screen, and goes “I love you, I’m in room 204” and then hung up without any further information.

Fortunately I was able to ping his phone and find him (see map). A few hours later, he texted us his hotel and room number, which said to me “he’s coming out of this a bit”.

Do you know how many face palm moments I have had since he left?

In attempting to convince Kev to wait even a few more days other than the TWO he’s given himself before setting off again, I happened to mention that Sunday (which is today) was Easter (he has no idea what day is what when on the trail).

His face lit up. (you have no idea where this is going, I promise…)

He goes “Sunday is Easter!!!!?!?!?!”

“Yes,” I said, thinking to myself “what a good day to continue to rest, get a turkey dinner somewhere, and rest some more…” and he blurts out joyfully, “What a perfect day to get back on the trail…like…it”ll be like…. ‘HE HAS RISEN!’ ”

Do you see what I am dealing with? (Face palm)

Getting Lost

The good thing about the Appalachian Trail is that from the sound of it, you can’t really lose your way. That’s what Kevin says, anyway. The trails and trees are marked. Heck, there was even a sign as he crossed over from Georgia to North Carolina.

I am going to reveal a little hiking story – I’ve heard Kevin tell it, not embarrassed in the least bit, so I am going to just go for it (sorry Dear). It’s a way I can reference some of my discomfort in having my person following a trail across multiple states with just a guidebook and herd of other hikers – drifting in the same direction.

We’d been spending time together for about a month and decided to take a little day hike in town here. I suppose we were at the “like like” part of the relationship.

“How about Dogtown?” he said.

“People get lost in there, I hear,” was my response. And honestly, this is why I had never, ever, EVER hiked in Dogtown.

“Pffft. You realize I was an Army Ranger, right?” he replied.

(you know where this is going….)

We started off at 9am, we start the loop that he showed me on a laminated map printed from the internet (he loves his laminator). As we hiked, we talked, held hands – the epitome of a romantic day date, hiking through the woods. He didn’t even use the map, I figure he has a much better sense of direction than me. Heck, I didn’t even have to pay attention to where we were going.

I suppose it was my beauty that distracted him, because we eventually found ourselves down along some train tracks that he was sure would lead us to those cool engraved rocks that I had seen in everyone’s photos on the internet. We followed them, guessing where we would pop out (or not), clearly lost – but that was left unsaid. As we approached some guys repairing the tracks, Kevin stopped me, turned me to face him. Looking me square in the eye like I was one of his soldiers he said firmly – “Do NOT ask for directions!!!!…”

Guys.

I didn’t. We got yelled at by the railroad men, there were words exchanged (not by me) and we made an immediate right into the brush, stumbling into a gully before bushwhacking our own trail.

He got quieter and quieter.

It was when we came to what was obviously a homeless camp that I looked at my phone and turned on the GPS. “Find your parked car” popped up. It was in this moment that I thought long and hard about whether I should show it to my new kick ass boyfriend.

We made it out, thanks to Kev and my cell phone. He said he was “just concerned I wouldn’t get back in time” to pick up my kids from school – otherwise he’d have naturally led us out by using the sunset.

Don’t laugh, but I actually just dug up some photos from that hike, including the train tracks (none of the homeless camp) and the photo we took of ourselves, after we stumbled down the trail to the car. We were four hours passed our planned return, scratched ankles, hungry for a Virgilio’s sandwich and not in the tiniest bit annoyed with each other. Ah fresh new love.

Since then and so far, we have done tons of hikes here in Gloucester (yet to return to Dogtown), big long trails in the heat of the Arizona, hiked down a few hours into the Grand Canyon, and hot air ballooned over the Sonoran Desert.

Fortunately, he recently informed me that he has an app. Yes, there’s an app for the Appalachian Trail! I suppose it’s just as good as “find where I parked”

Oh you know, I survived another week

When I asked Kevin the demographics of his fellow thru hikers, it made sense that many are retirees as well. I suppose if you’re entering the world of “no structure” after a career of any sort, this would be a good time to do something outrageous.

Me? I think when my time comes I might rent a villa in Tuscany for a week, a few months in Arizona by a pool – perhaps spend a Winter in my sister’s garage in Southern California. Now that is outrageous. Kevin has hinted around that perhaps I would want to hike the Pacific Crest Trail with him in a few years when my nest is empty – um….actually, since he started this trail, he STOPPED talking about the PCT. (whew)

I think in the end, anyone with the opportunity (and the dream and drive) to hike the Appalachian Trail, must feel super super SUPER fortunate. People, there’s a slew of super dirty, tired, hungry people hiking through a few seasons on the AT – but – they are one bunch of grateful ones!

Nothing like spending your free time, walking over two thousand miles with your belongings on your back, rationing your freeze dried food and peanut butter and drinking instant coffee – turning your underwear inside out to get another day out of them (assuming you are still wearing underwear).

So, technology is amazing.

I know that in the old days, people didn’t get to hike 14 miles and crash in a tent and Facetime their people back home. Did I mention that at the end of every day he is completely exhausted? I would be too.

The other day we were Facetiming and I took advantage of the clarity and how happy he looked in his tent to take a screen shot:

I was sitting in my car at Good Harbor, and showed him my view.

Some days technology is not so amazing and we have dropped calls, texts that come in a few hours later in “green” instead of the iPhone iMessage “blue” that gives you the “delivered” message. (some of you may know what I’m talking about, some of you will not…it’s not as mystical as it sounds, but is still intriguing and sometimes annoying).

It was only 4 o’clock, and his camp was set up and he was tired and happy and feeling good that day and he was tucked into his tent. I had an HOUR before picking up a teenager from tennis and had all sorts of things to ask, to tell, was going to just revel and be giddy and girly – in the glory of being able to have a little time – screen to screen – while looking out over the gorgeous beach in my heated car.

Ten minutes later….Oh well.

End of week 1 – by the one who was left behind.

When he started stirrings about thru hiking the Appalachian Trail, I thought, “well, um, yikes, really?” And then I started Googling “What happens to relationships when your person goes on a six month hike?”

I didn’t find much, and that was a relief. I didn’t find statistics regarding breakups and divorces – I didn’t find any hate blogs written by the ones left behind.

As the time grew closer, we talked about the anxieties that I might have over it, as a chick, because we knew that he’d have no problem being gone on this mega adventure of his life (because 30 plus years in the Army wasn’t enough). He gently assured me that there would be cell reception on the trail.

When I asked about a solar charger to keep his phone charged up (for those daily calls I was gingerly suggesting) he looked horrified at the thought.

“I already looked into it, those don’t work very well.”

Battery pack it is. Frequency of calling home – unknown.

The look on everyone’s face when they realized he was going to be gone for the next 5 or 6 months, and that he’ll be WALKING the whole way, wasn’t entirely helpful in my plight. They’d look back and forth between us and stammer…. “What? You’re letting him do what?”

That’s when I put my big girl face on and smile and say “SO happy for him!” and “We have the rest of our lives together!”

What I really wanted to say was “YEAH I KNOW HE’S NUTS ISN’T HE!?” I mean, he’s no Spring chicken – no 20 something year old Army Ranger anymore – jumping out of planes, surviving accidents and trainings out in the wilderness. Plus, he could very well break a leg and have to crawl out to a road fifteen miles away to be picked up by some random hillbilly in a pickup truck to be taken to an animal hospital for treatment.

There is a whole boat load of feelings that go with all of this. The reality is (MY reality, anyway):

a) my person left and just isn’t with me for a while

b) I worry about accidents

c) I worry about either of us changing so that when he returns we aren’t the same people, together, anymore

d) WHAT IF Bigfoot randomly choosing his tent one night and devouring him, phone and all, so that I can’t ping his last location when he goes missing.

At any rate, I always thought that it was harder to be the one who’s being left behind. It’s only been a week and I’ve mostly been okay, in case anyone’s wondering.

It might not be harder when I’m sitting at Good Harbor in June with a sandwich from the snack bar – and he’s still trudging up and down mountains eating MREs and Ramen on a bug infested trail (all of which he loves, by the way)

When he left, I threw out his junk food, put one of his t-shirts under my pillow and moved myself smack dab into the middle of the bed to catch up on Grey’s Anatomy.

It was like a little party for me, in the background of my mind, realizing the party might feel over in about a week. I will soon be missing the stealing of the covers, sharing a Maria’s pizza and gallon of ice cream, and I’ll be ready for him to demand to watch a historical/crime documentary instead of a good old fashioned RomCom.

If you want to know his final words as I dropped him off at the airport – a huge grin on his face, eager to get going – it was nothing too astounding or emotional.

But still, it was quite meaningful: “Thanks for being such a good sport about this!”

End of week 1, by the one who was left behind.