Wednesday, March 26, 2014

A pilot, a cemetery and a three-legged dog

I'm in Woodbridge, Virginia for a few days, visiting my niece, who is a Navy pilot.  She just moved here and knows no one. Plus, with the winter hanging on, there's not much opportunity to meet the neighbors, even though she owns two dogs.  Walking the dogs is a great way to meet new people. 

I needed a change of venue, and so did Billy, I'm sure, so I came up on Tuesday to keep her company for a few days.  Tuesday we had yet another snow storm, but I-95 was clean and dry. 

Woodbridge is located 20 miles south of Washington D.C. and is growing.  Growing is an understatement.  Exploding is more like it.  Once I left the interstate, I saw miles and miles of houses in new and nearly-new subdivisions.  Woodbridge, located in Prince William County, is a popular bedroom community for D.C, to say the least.  

Wikipedia calls Woodbridge a "census-designated place" (CDP), which means that it's not an incorporated city or town, but has a dense population so it is "designated" solely for purposes of counting people. I had never heard of a CDP before. 

Most of the neighborhoods I passed appeared to be built on old farms.  I say this because I saw very few native trees in the subdivisions. Usually builders leave a few trees standing when they clear the land.  Here, instead of old trees, every house sported one or two saplings in the yard.

The houses looked lonely in the waning afternoon sun as I arrived.  When I rang the doorbell, it sounded like hounds had been unleashed from hell.  The sidelight windows were covered with blinds, but I could hear dogs banging against them.  I heard not one dog barking, but three.  And there was a bird screeching as well. It was a comical sound to me. 

Well, I thought, Mel doesn't have to worry about being burglarized!

Turns out Mel only has two dogs, not three.  The third dog I heard was from next door.  And only one of them was throwing itself against the front windows! 

She has two dogs, both quintessential mutts. Both are short-haired and medium sized.  The female has white fur with black spots on her legs, neck and belly, a sign that there's some Dalmatian mixed in there somewhere.  The male is mostly black.  Even though they are not related, they both have brown spots above their eyes that look like eyebrows. 

This morning I walked them around the neighborhood. There was not a soul about.  No commuter traffic, no service vehicles, nothing.  Certainly no one else out walking--it was 34 degrees with a harsh wind blowing.  Yet the dogs, even though both are short-haired, didn't seem to mind in the least.  I think it's true that mutts are hardy; these two certainly were.

We walked to the tot-lot and in the middle I saw something unusual.  A cemetery surrounded by a black metal fence.  A very old cemetery.  I could see less than a dozen headstones.  Most of them were so worn I could not make out the inscriptions.  The ones I could read dated back to the mid-1800's-- pre-Civil War.  The names were mostly the same--a family cemetery.  This confirmed my suspicion that this used to be a farm.  There was a sign outside the fence that read "Maddox Scott Cemetery." 

When I returned to the house I did some digging.  I hit paydirt almost immediately when I found a website with a list of cemeteries in Prince William County.  According to the website, there are more than 400 of them.  

The description for the Maddox Scott cemetery said it contained 33 graves, but only eight with headstones.  The dates on the headstones ranged from 1826 to 1857.  The oldest person in the cemetery was 83, which was old for that time.  The youngest was 29. 

Personally, I think its pretty cool to have a cemetery right in the subdivision.  I wonder, though, if all the residents feel the same way.  It reminded me a little of the movie Poltergeist.

And the three-legged dog?  His name is Foster.  Before Mel and her husband rescued him, he had been attacked by a gang of dogs and when he managed to escape, he was hit by a car. Yet you cannot tell he is missing a leg when you look at him from the front.  He stands with perfect balance.  He has a little hitch in his step when he walks, but when he runs, there's not difference.   

He, like his friend Shandy (the one who charged the blinds), is a sweetheart.  After we walked this morning, they both snuggled against me while I watched T.V. 

Oh, and Shandy talks.  I just heard her. 

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters

Being famous and gorgeous does not make a person immune to depression.  Just ask Jon Hamm or Ashley Judd.  They have both endured depression.

Mad Men star Jon Hamm guest-starred on a couple of episodes of 30 Rock.  The premise of these episodes was that good-looking people get special perks from society and can get away with more crap than the average person.   Yet in real life, being DDG (drop dead gorgeous) did not prevent Hamm from getting sick. According to Health magazine, when Hamm was 20, he experienced chronic depression after his father died.  He relied on the structured environment offered by college plus medication and therapy to pull him up out of the black hole.  Now, of course, he spends most of his time drinking bourbon for breakfast and chasing women on Mad Men.  Talk about eye candy.

Then there's Ashley Judd.  I remember her as a teenager on the show Sisters.  She played Sela Ward's daughter.  I thought she was so beautiful.  Later she played the young Vivi Abbott Walker in The Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood.   Remember that awful scene when she lines up her children outside in the rain?  Chilling.

Apparently her childhood was no picnic.  While her mother and sister (Naomi and Wynona Judd) were out touring, she was mostly left alone to fend for herself.  She wrote a memoir in 2011 called All that is Bitter & Sweet in which she revealed that in 2006 she spent 42 days in a rehab center for depression.  Did you know that she recently earned a Master's Degree in Public Administration from Harvard?  Not only is she gorgeous, but she's smart too.  And she likes to hike.

When I was a kid, I thought that if I was perfect, nothing bad would happen to me.  And the converse was true also -- because I was bad, bad things happened to me. (You'll never guess who helped to fuel that perception).   Then when I was 30 and went through my first big depression,  I read The Road Less Traveled  by M. Scott Peck.  The opening lines of the book were mind-blowing to me: 
 “Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult-once we truly understand and accept it-then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.”
Could this really be true?  It wasn't me?  It wasn't because I was not as obedient as I should have been?
It was an epiphany.  And just as Peck predicted, once I learned that simple fact of life, my life was no longer difficult for me inside my head.  I was finally able to stop those awful tapes that ran inside my head, tapes planted by a parent who wanted to control me no matter how old or independent I got.

And this truth also meant that it didn't matter how good looking or accomplished a person was.  Life is difficult for all of us, even people as beautiful as Jon Hamm and Ashley Judd.

Until you've seen this trash can dream come true
You stand at the edge while people run you through
And I thank the Lord there's people out there like you
I thank the Lord there's people out there like you

 While Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters
Sons of bankers, sons of lawyers
Turn around and say good morning to the night
For unless they see the sky
But they can't and that is why
They know not if it's dark outside or light
Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters, lyrics by Bernie Taupin

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Why Laughter is almost as good as an Orgasm

I have to keep this blog PG rated, so I'll try to describe this as delicately as I can.  You know how an orgasm feels like a release of energy that courses through your body?   And how it releases stress?  Don't you always feel better afterwards?  I know I do.  This has been the silver lining for Billy, if you know what I mean.

The same goes for a good belly laugh.  I always feel better afterwards.  An article in today's Wall Street Journal claims that humor increases intelligence, creativity and stress tolerance.  "It's Funny How Humor Actually Works."   Ok, I'll buy that but I don't need to dissect humor like that.  I just need to laugh. 

Anyone who knows me knows I'm a smiler and I love to laugh.  I love all kinds of humor-- from sophisticated to sophomoric. I love droll British humor and slapstick.  Any movie with Steve Buscemi in a comedy role will have me hooked. The Wedding Singer?  Hysterical.  Some of my favorite comedies include Local Hero, Napolean Dynamite and Airheads.   Oh, and What's Up Doc.  It was Madeline Kahn's movie debut.  She was brilliant. 

When I'm feeling blue I don't look for raindrops or roses.  I look for a movie with lots of laughs.  No apocalyptic dramas for me.  Hunger Games?  No thanks.  I'd rather watch even a lame comedy like Forgetting Sarah Marshall, although if you watch the unrated and uncut version its much funnier.  But really, a little Russell Brand goes a long way.  

Sheldon Cooper and his merry band of nerds, on the other hand, never gets tiresome to me.  Perhaps its because I see much of myself in Amy Farrah Fowler. 

My sense of humor may not be the same as yours, but it doesn't need to be.  Whatever makes you laugh makes you laugh.  It doesn't matter.  Just find it and watch it. You'll feel better, I promise.

Friday, March 21, 2014

10 Ways to Show Love to Someone With Depression

10 Ways to Show Love to Someone With Depression 

I'm re-blogging this because it is so good.

Dancing in the End Zone

They say every dark cloud has a silver lining, and this unfortunate sabbatical has had several.  Today I want to talk about one of them-- football.  Yes, football. .

I did not grow up in a sports family, far from it.  My dad taught me how to play the piano, not how to throw a curveball.  We went to see the Symphony, not the Redskins.  I saw George C. Scott at the Lyric Theatre in Baltimore, but never saw one game of the 1969 World Series, which was played a mere 20 miles away. Saturdays were spent listening to the New York Metropolitan Opera on the radio, not watching sports.  My dad's idols were Mozart, not Montana, Beethoven, not Butkis. Joe Namath was just a guy who wore pantyhose.

Naturally I did not play any sports in school, either. I was always the last one chosen for volleyball and softball teams. I was the Sheldon Cooper of Glen Burnie High School (but not nearly as smart).  My college required two semesters of a sport, so I took tennis.  I loved the game so much I took lessons all through law school and during the Missing Years.  I played a couple of times a week.  But I was never able to get the ball over the net more than three times in a row.  I'm not exaggerating. Picture Sheldon's girlfriend Amy Farrah Fowler trying to play tennis, and you've got me.  After a while, no one would play with me because I was so bad.

So I never watched sports and I can't play sports.  As a result, I have no interest in sports, either playing or watching.  That's why I like to hike. At least I can put one foot in front of the other, although I do fall down a lot.

I had never seen a football game until I started dating Billy.  His family would spend Sunday afternoons watching the Redskins and picking crabs.  Since I didn't watch the game, I was able to pick a lot more crabs than anyone else.  Early in my marriage, my mother in law told me if I loved my husband, I would learn to love football.  Well, it took me 32 years to do that.

Last fall, Guido was one of the captains of his football team.  They had a great team and an excellent chance of winning the state championship. I promised both Billy and Guido that I would attend as many games as I could. I knew that the boys checked the stands at every game to find their parents.  I had to be there.

The games were played at 4 p.m. on Fridays, which you would think would be a good time to get away from work. But I spent much of Guido's first game behind the bleachers, on the phone for work.  This was just a few weeks before my breakdown and I know it helped to precipitate it.

When I sat down on the bleachers, I made the mistake of checking my e-mail.  I had a message from a VP, who needed me to do some legal research ASAP for a very URGENT MATTER!!.  This was at 4:15.  I called outside counsel, who was an expert on the topic.  I can't say what the question was, but the answer was a resounding NO.  There was a teeny tiny loophole, but counsel said it was a long shot and would require a written opinion from the agency, which would take months. The VP needed the answer by Monday.

When I told the VP the answer was no, he told me to keep looking anyway and see if the loophole would apply.  I spent most the game and half of Saturday hopping down this rabbit hole.  It turns out that the question had been asked many, many times before and the answer had always been NO.  And the VP knew this.

While I was dealing with this pointless fire drill, I missed the first touchdown of the season, which was scored by-- yup, my son. I was livid. If the legal issue had been legitimate, I wouldn't have minded missing my son's first game as captain.  But it was not.  The purpose had been to help another VP avoid being embarrassed. I knew then that I could not go on like this, no matter how much they paid me.

Two weeks later I broke down.  As a result, I got to watch every one of my son's games, both at home and away.   During the first month or so, however,  it was all I could do to get to the games.  In addition to depression, I had agoraphobia.  I did not want to leave the house.

But now I'm glad I did.  I finally began to understand and appreciate the game.  Football has a reputation for its toughness, but I realized that good players have to be smart too. It's still hard to follow, but I'm getting better at it.  It helped when I sat next to someone other than Billy who understood the game and didn't mind explaining things to me. 

Guido's team had a 10-2 record.  They beat their biggest hometown rival to make it to the state championship.  Even though they lost the state championship game, they had an amazing season.  You can see Guido's highlight tape on YouTube.  Guido's highlight tape.

Go Cougars!

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Hi. I'm Art Buchwald and I just died.

I used to love to read Art Buchwald when I was a kid.  He was a political humorist for the Washington Post.  He was like Will Rogers before him and Dave Barry afterwards.  His column was funny and fun to read.  He won two Pulitzer Prizes for Outstanding Commentary.  He also wrote an astounding number of books--44 according to Wikipedia.

He was also famous for being in hospice care for over a year!  Hospice care is supposed to be end of life care; typically people last a few days or weeks.  But Buchwald went in and out of hospice for over a year.   Every time he went into hospice he would get better.  Talk about having the last laugh.

What makes this all the more amazing is the Buchwald suffered from depression.  You would think that someone with depression would want to die. But this was not the case with Buchwald.

He wrote about it in an article in 1999.  Celebrity Meltdowns   As usual, he wrote about it with humor:  "One of my major fears during my depression [in 1963]  was that I would lose my sense of humor and wind up in advertising."  (This was before Mad Men, obviously, because advertising looked like a lot of fun in the 1960's as long as you were a white male.)

Buchwald's message was this:  "You do get over depression.  More important, you are a better person for having had one . . . You become more sensitive and kind.  In my case it was so."

The article goes on to discuss other famous people who suffered from depression, including Sigmund Freud, Marilyn Monroe, Ted Turner, Greg Louganis, Alanis Morissette, and Abraham Lincoln. 

Wow-- such brilliant (in most cases) company.  These people were (and are) creative and successful.  However, the article also claims that "history shows that brilliance often goes hand in hand with mental illness."  Lucky me.  I guess I can't have one without the other.

Ok, I'll take brilliance and creativity with a side of Welbutrin, please.  I can live with this.  And I mean just that-- I can live with this.

Thank you everyone for all the positive comments on this blog and on my FB page. They help me more than you know.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Please no naked men in the men's locker room

Billy showed me this comment card on our way out of the Y yesterday:

Someone else must have written the "OLD MEN DON'T KNOW BETTER."   For some reason, this comment really ticked Billy off.  I didn't understand why until we got into the car.  As we were driving home, Billy said:  "I shave naked in the locker room." 

I understand now.  Billy is obviously one of the "excessive number of men" referenced in the comment.  Billy is not, of course, the one drying his hair.  He has no hair to dry.

"Why don't you put on your underwear before you shave?" I asked.

"Because I get out of the shower, shave, put on my deodorant and then bet dressed."

I get it.  It's his routine.  He shaves naked at home too, but I don't mind.   Billy is not about to change his routine because of some prude in the locker room.

Speaking of routines, I have settled into one also.  Billy and I go to the Y almost every day.  I feel good while I'm working out and for a couple of hours afterward, but then the endorphins drain away and I go back to feeling depressed and anxious.  I've been eating a lot of Tums lately for the anxiety.  I get chest pains when I'm anxious.

We have only had one viewing for our house.  One.  I guess it's because of the snow.

My mother has found a new apartment and is marginally speaking to us again.

I'm looking for a new job, but it has to be on my terms-- less stress.  Finding a new job is proving to be more difficult than I thought it would be.  I'd like to combine several part time jobs into a full time job:  some teaching, some free lance writing, and some legal work.  My therapist keeps saying I have a lot of options, but I wonder.

Perhaps I could get a job at the Y as an attendant in the men's locker room.  

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Requiem for a Small White Dog

Gulliver's gone to the final command of his master
His watery eyes had washed all the hills with his laughter
And the seasons can change all the light from the grey to the dim
But the light in his eyes will see no more so bright
As the sheep that he locked in the pen
There's four feet of ground in front of the barn
That's sun baked and rain soaked and part of the farm
But now it lies empty so cold and so bare
Gulliver's gone but his memory lies there
“Gulliver,” lyrics by Bernie Taupin

April 16, 1991.   While the other dogs barked and lunged at me,  held back by their wire cages, the small white dog cowered against the back of her cage as far away from me as possible.  Her white fur was scrawny, revealing blue skin underneath.   I could see each of the matchstick-sized bones that made up her legs.  She was the ugliest dog I had ever seen.

She was also the only small dog in the pound on that April afternoon.   

Emily and I had just left Kate’s baby shower.  Kate, like many of my friends at that time, was expecting her first child.   Bernice was supposed to host the baby shower at her house, but she went into labor the night before and so we held it at her house without her. 

All my friends, it seemed, where married and pregnant, or married and trying to get pregnant, or in one case, just pregnant.  I could see that our days of freewheeling socializing and antiquing trips to the countryside were coming to an end.  Instead of going to bars, they would soon be going to “Mommy and Me” classes.  Instead of driving sedans, they would soon be driving minivans.  Instead of a townhouse in the city they would live near the best schools in the county.  I was going to get even more lonely very soon.

I can’t remember if it was Emily or me who suggested getting a dog.  In either case, after the shower we drove from Bernice’s house on the Northside to Chamberlain Avenue where the Richmond SPCA was then located.     

We told the volunteer behind the desk that I was looking for a small dog to adopt. 

“We only have one small dog available right now,” she said, and then led us back to the dog cages.  Most of the dogs were labs or lab mixes.  Richmonders love their labs. Richmond has more black and yellow labs than New York has black and yellow cabs.  

The girl led us to a cage with no dog.  I peered into it and saw the small dog shivering against the back of the cage.   The girl opened the door, reached in and gently picked her up.   

“We’ll take you to one of our adoption rooms so you can get to know her,” she said.

Across from the main desk, a curved wall with glass blocks led to a hallway with several small rooms painted red with chipped linoleum floors.  We went into one of the rooms. 

Emily sat in a chair and I sat on the floor.  The dog immediately climbed into my lap, still shaking.  The stress of being in the pound had caused her to lose much of her hair, the girl told us.  The dog had a small narrow nose and dark eyes.   What little hair she had stood up like white wires.   She didn’t look up at me but instead settled down on my lap.

“She needs you,” said Emily.  “And you need her.”

Emily was right.  I had left our two golden retrievers with Billy in New Kent, and I missed having a dog.   Billy and I got our first dog, Bear, in 1985.  A year later after we moved to New Kent, we bought Lucy, another purebred golden, from a dealer in Chesterfield.   Bear and Lucy would be the first and last purebred dogs we would buy.  Starting with the scrawny terrier mix, we would only adopt rescue dogs from then on.

I was reading “Cats Eye” by Margaret Atwood when I adopted the tiny white dog, so I named her Margaret.   

 Margaret 1991

According to Johns Hopkins medical school, studies over the past 25 yeas have shown that stroking a dog can boost levels of serotonin and dopamine, the mood related brain chemicals.  It doesn’t take a study to tell you that!   Who doesn’t feel better after petting a dog’s head while looking into her eyes, those two pools of love staring up at you?

Margaret was probably about a year old when I adopted her.   She eventually put on a little weight, although she never lost her girlish figure.  Her skin turned from blue to a healthy pink.  Her wiry hair became thicker. 

We became attached almost immediately.  If I left the room, she would come looking for me.  She was my constant companion.  I took her with me in the car everywhere I went.  She learned which tellers at the bank drive up window gave her dog biscuits and so she would get excited if she saw one of them.  Otherwise she would remain sitting on the front seat. 

Because I had to take care of Margaret, I had to take care of myself too.  I had to get up every morning and walk her, even if I felt too depressed to get out of bed.  I had to walk her several times a day, in fact, which forced me to get out of the house and get some exercise.  

When I took her backpacking with me, small as she was, she was always at the head of the group.  Larger dogs were afraid of her, because she was fearless.  Perhaps Margaret taught me to be fearless too.   This was during the Missing Years when I went skiing in Austria, cruising in the Caribbean and backpacking in the George Washington National Forest.

Even though Billy and I got divorced, we never stopped seeing each other.  Billy would watch Margaret for me when I travelled. 

When we remarried and moved in together, we brought the three dogs together.  As devoted to me as Margaret was during the Missing Years, once Billy and I remarried, her loyalty switched to Billy completely and absolutely.   One of the issues we had during our first marriage was that Billy was not assertive enough in our relationship.  He tended to defer to me.  I paid the bills and made the financial decisions.  Billy would ask me random questions, expecting me to know the answers because I had the college degree.   When we lived in New Kent during our first marriage, we had a problem with Bear running away.  A dog trainer told me it was because Bear was looking for the alpha dog. 

We did not have this problem the second time around. We now called Billy “Big Daddy.”   Margaret’s devotion to Billy demonstrated that Billy was the alpha dog in our house.   Instead of sleeping under the bed as she did with me, she now slept on the bed, on Billy’s shoulder with her nose snuggled against his neck.  When Billy came home from work and dropped his gym bag on the floor, she would crawl into it and growl at me if I came too close.  She even snapped at me a few times when I tried to reach into the bag.  Sometimes we joked that Billy only took me back in order to get Margaret.  It was a package deal.

Margaret guards Billy's gym bag

When the kids, came, Margaret became even more loyal to Billy.  It was as if she knew that I was responsible for those noisy creatures.  She wasn’t sure how to deal with them at first, but she learned to tolerate them after she discovered that they dropped food on the floor.  She would sit under their high chair, and later under the table, looking down the entire time waiting for a morsel to drop. 

Margaret waits eagerly for Audrey to drop part of her 
dinner on the floor

 As small as she was compared to the goldens, they seemed to get along.  Bear pretty much ignored her, but she would intimidate Lucy, who outweighed her by about 100 pounds.  She would jump up and bite the skin on Lucy’s neck and hold on no matter how much Lucy shook her.   When the kids were babies and we would sit on the front lawn on a blanket, Margaret would guard them and chase off any other dogs who dared to enter the property (mostly yellow and black labs, of course).

Margaret lived a long life.  First Bear died, then Lucy.   After Lucy died we got Gus The Poodle, another rescue dog.  For a while we had two small white dogs.  

As she aged, Margaret lost her hearing and most of her sight.  She slept through much of the day.  She became crotchety and would snap at Gus for no reason.   But she kept on living, 13, 14, 15 years.

In the early spring of 2006, we took the kids to Seven Springs for a ski trip.  My mom took care of the dogs.  When we returned, Mom told us that Margaret was missing.  I had always heard that animals go off alone to die, and we assumed Margaret had done so, because she no longer left the yard.  We had stopped walking her years earlier.

A few days later, some boys in the neighborhood found Margaret in a shallow stream at the end of our street.  Billy brought her home so we could have her cremated.  Because we found her on a Saturday and we could not take her to the vet until Monday, he put her in a pizza box in the freezer.

“How does she look?” I asked Billy.

“Like a frozen dog,” he replied.  Billy always knew just what to say.  

Margaret's last Christmas, 2005

The Missing Years Part 3: The One

And all I ever needed was the one
Like freedom fields where wild horses run
When stars collide like you and I
No shadows block the sun
You're all I've ever needed
Baby you're the one*

Stupid me still went on to divorce Billy in 1991, but we kept in touch. What a patient man he was, waiting for me to come back to my senses while I had the adolescence I had missed when I was a teenager. 

In 1992, we got sued by the woman who had bought our house in New Kent.  It was a stupid case but we had to defend it.  We hired our friend Allan who happened to be a darn good litigator.

Billy and I sat together during the trial.  You might have to be a lawyer to appreciate this, but we got a directed verdict.  That means we did not have to put any witnesses on the stand or even present a defense.  Allan used the plaintiff’s own witnesses to destroy the her case through a simple, yet brilliant cross examination. 
Sitting next to Billy, realized how much I still loved him.  I also realized—finally--that it doesn’t matter what a person does for a living.  What matters is whether you love him and he loves you.   This man had stood by my side during my darkest time, even though we were no longer together as a couple.  When you have something that special and unique, you don’t throw it away.  

Thank goodness he took me back.  Perhaps it was because I still had great boobs back then.   Just kidding.  What’s even more amazing is that his family welcomed me back also.  They saw how much I had hurt Billy and they were understandably concerned that I would hurt him again. 

We got married a second time.  We keep that wedding date a secret and we celebrate our anniversary on our original wedding date, May 25.  

I got pregnant with our first child soon afterwards.  We have never hidden the Missing Years from our children; in fact I made a scrapbook about that time.  They don’t seem the least bit interested, however.  It happened before they were born, so as far as they are concerned, it’s irrelevant.   After all, the world starts when you are born. 

We made it through the Missing Years.  I think my current situation is just as bad, but Billy thinks the Missing Years were far worse.   One thing I know for sure is that this period will end and life will get better.   

* The One, lyrics by Bernie Taupin

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Boogie Pilgrim

Boogie Pilgrim
Hustled to get it
To get it together
Down on the jive talk
Down on the weather
Boogie Pilgrim
Brother I never felt better
No, I never felt better
Boogie Pilgrim lyrics by Bernie Taupin

Who in their right mind would choose to strap 30 pounds on their back, trudge up and down muddy mountains and then sleep on the ground?   Who would choose a privy over a spa?  Who would fight mosquitoes and rain and call it a vacation?   Who would willingly go without a shower, eat dehydrated food and drink nothing but water, energy drinks and instant coffee for five days?  Who would sleep in a mice-infested wooden hut with complete strangers who smell like a gym locker on the last day of school?

Me.  In 2010 I was a corporate lawyer working in a hermetically sealed office with glass walls.  I spent my days alternating between my phone and my computer, often using both at the same time.  I spent my weekends arguing with two teenage children who insisted they knew more than I did. 

When I can get out to the woods, I take the opportunity.   I love being in the woods all by myself.  It’s beautiful out there.  Except for the occasional “hiker funk," the air smells sweet.  There’s no traffic (except at trailheads) and it’s usually very quiet.  There’s no TV or raucous teenagers.  I’m disconnected from my cell phone, my email and the internet.  I don’t have to wear makeup or pantyhose.    

Walking among trees by myself helps me recharge my batteries.   It’s so simple and uncomplicated.   Not easy, mind you, but simple.  I put one foot in front of the other.  I carry everything I need on my back.  I'm a modern day pilgrim.  

During the week before Memorial Day in 2010, I completed my first solo section hike on the Appalachian Trail.  I took Bodey, my six year old terrier mix, with me.  I started on a Friday night with a small group I met online, which consisted of Joe, the trip leader, his wife Joany and their two daughters, ages 15 and 5.  Even though the girls were young, they were accomplished hikers.  We were also joined by a young woman and former thru hiker with the trail name “Ember” and her friend Jared.  A thru hiker is a person who attempts to hike all 2180 miles of the Appalachian Trail in one season.  A trail name is a nickname a hiker earns on the trail, usually after doing something stupid.  “Wrong Way,” for example, is a common trail name.

We started after dark at the James River footbridge near Glasgow, Virginia.  We stopped after about a mile and camped near a small stream.  For the first time I had to pitch my tent in absolute darkness with only my headlamp to help me. 

The next morning we hiked south for 13 miles to the Thunder Hill Shelter.  Shelters provide a water source and a privy, so hikers usually sleep in or near them.  We found a tent site near the shelter.  Joe pitched his tent first.  As soon as it was up, Bodey trotted in and took a nap.  I had to pull him out, which was embarrassing, but also he was very tired and weighed 35 pounds.  It was like trying to haul a full size mattress down a flight of stairs.    

We spent the evening enjoying stories, jokes and warm margaritas. 

The next morning I parted ways with my group and began my solo section hike—just Bodey and me.  I was happy to be hiking alone.  I’m a ridiculously slow hiker and I stop a lot to take in the view and to catch my breath.  No matter how good a shape I’m in, I get out of breath going up hills. 

People usually ask me if I’m afraid to hike alone.  Absolutely not.  A person is safer on the trail than in a city.  Crime is rare on the trail.   

What about bears?  People ask me that too.   Black bears are more scared of humans than the other way around.  I’ve seen a number of bears and they take off as soon as they see me.  I really don’t see that there’s anything to be afraid of on the trail.    

Soon after I started that morning I came upon the Guillotine; in fact I almost missed it.  Here the trail ran through two giant rock formations about five feet apart.  A large round boulder hung between the two formations, suspended overhead.   It was a little unnerving to walk under the boulder, but what an amazing site! 

I hiked ten miles that day.  It was mostly a long downhill.  I met a few thru hikers heading north, but other than that, I had the trail to myself.  The only sound I heard was my own labored breath.  I saw a few deer and one bear.  The forest was lush due to the Spring rain.  I walked along lost in my own thoughts, happy to be away from the office. 

It rained off and on.  During one downburst when I stopped to put on my poncho, Bodey burrowed himself under a rotting log and refused to come out.  I had to pull him out by grabbing the straps of his backpack.  His blonde fur was covered with bits of decaying wood.   Even though Bodey loved to walk, he was not used to walking all day long. He wanted his afternoon nap!

I stopped for the night at the Bryant Park Shelter.  The shelter was located in a picturesque setting in the crux of a stream.   I soaked my tired feet in the cool water, put on my pink crocs that I used for camp shoes and then hung my bear bag.  Food must be hung high so the bears won’t steal it at night.  To hang a bear bag properly, you must find a tall tree with a horizontal branch about 15 or 20 feet from the ground.  The branch must be large enough to support the bag, but not large enough to support a bear.  Then you have to tie something heavy like a rock to the end of a rope and throw it over the branch.  Once the rope is hanging over the branch, you replace the rock with the food bag, hoist it up to the branch and then secure the other end of the rope to the tree.  It looks easy on YouTube. 

Unfortunately, many of the trees around the shelter with the right type of branch were dead, so the branches broke with a loud crack each time I threw the rope.  Worse, the right trees were located on top of a steep slope behind the shelter.  Good thing no one was around to see me slip down the slope in my pink crocs.  And it’s not easy to throw a rock 20 feet up in the air!  A few times the rock swung back and hit me in the face.  Eventually I got it done.

I was alone at the shelter.  I didn’t mind hiking by myself, in fact I preferred it so I could keep my own pace, but I didn’t relish spending the night alone.   Fortunately, a young couple came along around 6:30.  Although they kept to themselves, I was glad they were there.

Since the rain had started again, I decided not to pitch my tent but to sleep in the shelter.  I hate sleeping in shelters.  They are full of mice and squirrels and other critters that like to scamper across sleeping hikers and chew into backpacks.  Worse, shelter floors are much harder than the ground.  When it rains, however, it’s easier and dryer to sleep in the shelter.

The next morning I had the same problem with Bodey that I had had the day before.  This time he got under the shelter and I had to crawl in after him.  By now his fur was stained with mud.  He looked as disheveled as I did. 

Monday I hiked up Fork Mountain and then down to Jennings Creek.  I was tired, dirty and I wanted to quit.  To leave the trail, however, I had to walk 1.5 miles up a road to the Middle Creek Campground.   

When I got to the campground the camp store was closed.  It was Monday.  I sat on the bench in front of the store and charged my phone so I could get a ride out of there.  I had lost 40 pounds the year before and was doing P90X regularly, which is a tough workout program, but the hills still had me beat. 

About five minutes after I sat down a young woman came out of a trailer across from the store and opened the store for me.  I bought a Diet Dr. Pepper and some toilet paper.  I always seemed to run out of toilet paper on the trail.

I called my husband.  He encouraged me to keep going, probably because he did not want to drive all the way to wherever the hell I was to pick me up.  A few minutes later a Subaru came roaring into the parking lot.  A young woman got out and headed around the back of the store where the showers were located. 

A young man with brown hair and a matching beard also got out the car and immediately started talking to me.  He told me his trail name was “Two Rings” because he wore two earrings.  He said he was a thru but had been forced off the trail near Blacksburg by gout and spent some time in the hospital there.  Now he was waiting to heal so he could continue.  He was so excited to return to the trail.  His enthusiasm must have rubbed off on me because when he offered me a ride back to the trailhead I accepted.  Hiking is like natural childbirth.  You forget how bad it is when it’s over.  Then you realize it again as you start climbing the next mountain. 

After they dropped me off I began the climb up from the road.  There’s always a tough climb up from the road.  At the top I took some pictures at the Mills Gap Overlook.  The sign at the overlook said there was a nice view, but it was too foggy to see anything.  Everywhere I looked I saw nothing but tall, silent trees.  They seemed to beckon me to keep going. 

I walked a total of 13 miles that day and stopped at the Bobblets Gap Shelter.  When I arrived I noticed a young man resting inside.  This was unusual as most thrus finished up much later in the day.  He got up slowly and awkwardly.  Bad ankles, he said.  He introduced himself as Caleb—no trail name, which was also unusual.   We were soon joined by a tall bearded man about my age.   I was glad to see someone my age.  Caleb joined us for dinner and we listened to Bean’s life story.  He was a retired sales rep for a bicycle company in Portland.  He had a grown daughter whom he had raised alone.  He got his trail name from the fact that he was a vegetarian.  His daughter was sending him mail drops so he could eat the food he preferred. 

There wasn’t much room to pitch a tent so I slept in the shelter with Caleb.  Beans pitched his tent nearby.  Early in the morning I heard Caleb get up and pack.  I fell back asleep and when I woke up again, he was still there and sobbing.  He was in too much pain to continue hiking but he did not want to stop.  This was his second or third attempt to thru hike and each time he had been forced to leave the trail. I could tell he felt like a failure.  I talked to him for a while.  Since he was only 27 I told him he had plenty of time to hike the trail but he could not hike in his current condition.  I convinced him to go home to heal.  He hobbled off, hopefully to the nearest road.

After Caleb left, I heard a voice say, “Good job, mom.”  Beans had listened to the conversation but did not come out because he did not want to embarrass Caleb. 

“I hope I meet someone like you,” Beans said before I left.  Nice ego boost for a 50 year old woman!

This was now Tuesday.  It was still misty and foggy, but at least it was cool.  The hills were still kicking my butt and I had to stop often.  I started to listen to music on my I-Pod and Elton John seemed to make the climbs a little easier.  I walked another 13 miles that day.   I met a couple more thrus heading in the opposite direction.  One was an unemployed architect and another a firefighter from Brooklyn.

I spent the last night at Fullhardt Knob Shelter.  This shelter was only five miles from Daleville where my hike would end.  Fullhardt Knob is famous in hiking circles because for a time a woman lived in the shelter.  Hikers are only allowed to spend one night in a shelter.  This woman was not a hiker, however.  Her name was “Crazy Mary” and she apparently had multiple personalities.  One of them thought she was the rightful heir to the English throne.  Fortunately Mary was long gone by the time I arrived in 2010, but it seems that the homeless try to inhabit the shelter frequently because it is so close to Daleville.   

The night I stayed there I met Winston and Churchill.  Not Winston Churchill, but Winston and Churchill, two men in their 70’s from Norfolk, England.  Winston was doing a thru and Churchill was accompanying him for part of the trek.  I asked them if they had ever hiked the Coast to Coast trail in England. The Coast to Coast trail is about 200 miles long and can be hiked Inn to Inn so camping is not required.

“No,” Winston (or Churchill) said.  “We’ll wait to do that when we are old.”    

The next morning they helped me coax Bodey out from under the shelter with Froot Loops and then they headed north while I headed south into Daleville.  On the way, Bodey saw his first cow.  He had never seen an animal that big and he stopped dead in his tracks.  The cows paid him no attention but Bodey was not taking any chances.  I had to put his leash on him and cajole him past them. 

At Daleville, the trail emerged from the woods and crossed the main highway in the town.  I saw a hotel and several restaurants, including a Wendy’s.   I made a beeline for the Wendy’s and bought two cheeseburgers—one for me and one for Bodey.  It was my first fresh—not dehydrated—meal in five days!  Bodey had never been given an entire cheeseburger before so at first he wasn’t quite sure what to do with it.   Once he figured out what it was, he gobbled it up faster than I did.

I had arranged for a shuttle to drive me back to my car, which I had left at my starting point. My shuttle driver was a rotund retired nurse named Del.  He had worked in a nearby mental hospital for 33 years.   Del is what is known as a “trail angel.”  Trail angels are regular people (I won’t say normal) who, for whatever reason, like to help hikers.  The back of Del’s business card read:  “Not only have I touched your life, but also your family and friends.  Knowing I’ve helped makes me feel thankful that we’ve met and shared these few moments together in this big world of ours.  Take care.  Safe Trail walking.  Trail Angel Del.”

Del chatted about his job, his dogs and various other topics as we drove up I-81 back to my car.  I mentioned on the ride that my car was low on gas, so when we arrived at my car he stayed to make sure it started.  That night he called me to make sure I got home safe.  That’s why they’re called Trail Angels.

I drove to our house at Smith Mountain Lake, which was only about 20 miles away.  This was Wednesday and the family would arrive on Friday for the Memorial Day weekend. 

 I took a shower and a bath.  Then I made an appointment for a massage and a pedicure at the nearest spa.  It felt great to be clean and sleep in a real bed. 

I had hiked 56 miles in 4 ½ days, mostly by myself.  I hadn’t quit even when I wanted to.  Instead I kept going and conquered those darn hills.  I had hung my own bear bag, counseled a young thru hiker and received a much needed compliment from an attractive man.  Some vacation.  And yet I couldn’t wait until the next one.