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Travel

Wanderlust

On the other side of the waterfall

August 24, 2017

We pulled up the drive to a sparsely lit cabin, the sound of stones popping under our hot tires, dragonflys and moths dancing drunkenly together around the nearly blinding porch light. It was after 9 o’clock. We’d arrived later than we’d planned, but we were here. The girls faces, cast in a muted bright blue from the small screen playing Cinderella, were peering out of the fingerprint-smudged windows, Sweet Nightingale crooning in the speakers.

The property owner, Bridget, walked us quickly around the house. Her husband, Conor, decided to take up building cabins as a hobby years ago. There were two others up the road. This pastime, of course, came after he thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail.

“Have you done any of the trail?” Bridget asked, sincerely interested.
Just a couple of sections,” I conceded. “Ya know, with young kids we don’t get out there as often as we like. But eventually, in our lifetime, we hope to complete the whole thing.”
“You will,” she said, nonchalantly.

I asked about restaurant recommendations, though I had some from a facebook post I’d put up earlier that afternoon.

“Those are a bit of a drive. You’d have to go all the way to Brown County,” she said. (Just so you know, I thought I’d booked a cabin in Brown County. Turned out, I had no freaking clue where we were in southern Indiana. But I didn’t want to tell her that. Or Hank. This trip was a birthday gift to him from me and the chicks. I played it off.)
“Oh, yeah, I wasn’t sure just how far they were.”
“You can totally do it! It’s just a bit of a haul.”

Quick, change the subject. You reek of rookie airbnb user.

“It said in your bio you’ve been to Ireland?” I inquired.
“Oh, yeah. A few times. Actually Conor has family there, so he’s been more than me.”
“Ya know, Ireland is at the top of my bucket list. I want to go backpack around there for my 40th maybe … I don’t know … it’s so overwhelming.”
“If you want to, you will.” she said. Again, unflinching.

She took the girls up to the loft, lined with perfectly made twin beds. The setup was a vision straight out of a Three Little Bears illustration. She showed them the books she’d set aside for them, a worn, treasured copy of “The Giving Tree” by Shel Silverstein among them. She invited the babes to dig around in the drawers for treasures and games she’d stowed away for young visitors. She was so relatable and transparent and warm, a true traveler’s soul, I’d say.

She opened the creaking screen door and wished us a good weekend before slipping out into the darkness. I surveyed our space for the next 48 hours and smiled. I was instantly enamored with Bridget and Conor and their rustic log cabin. I felt soothed by the smell of simplicity and optimistic talk of wanderlust. And I wasn’t even planning on going to Solsberry. (That’s where we were.)

The next morning, we went to the local “greasy spoon” Bridget recommended. It was one big open room of locals, and as out of towners, we were certainly the minority. The girls ate the ears of their Mickey Mouse pancakes while Hank and I tried to enjoy cups of diner coffee between Sloppy Joan’s 500 trips to the potty. Public restrooms are as entertaining as playgrounds at this point.

Bellies full, we went back to gather supplies, change shoes and head out to McCormick Creek State Park, which was just 10 miles away. We picked the trail the woman at the guard station recommended; the one that led to “the waterfall”.

Shortly into our hike, I realized I’d left my phone in the car. As had Hank.

“Aw shoot! I don’t have my phone.” I said.
“That’s OK, Mom,” JoJo responded. “Sometimes it’s good to leave it behind. You just have to protect your memories in your mind. Or your heart.”
“Yeah, it’s OK,” Spike chimed in.

I turned to my husband and exchanged the look I often shoot his way when I get absolutely schooled by our 8, 6 or 3 year old. Too often to feel good about myself as a grownup.

We came to a flight of stairs that led down to a small river. Crossing was an exercise in calculating risk, as one by one we worked our way from shakey stones to more reliable boulders that wouldn’t budge. Eventually we came to the other side, and more rocks to navigate, just on land this time. As a self-proclaimed future American Ninja Warrior contestant, JoJo was like a pig in slop. She pulled her Cheryl Strayed boots off and wrapped her bare feet boldly around the stones. No fear, just adrenaline. This was her ultimate obstacle course.

We closed in on the waterfall. It was a petite pour, though it splashed thunderously onto the rocks below. The bedrock was coated in a natural oil slick. The girls would timidly waddle across the river, slipping sporadically and crashing to their knees with a cautious giggle.

I sat on a boulder off to the side, their little muddy shoes and soaking socks lined up to my right. My mama bear commentary echoed in the hollow of the mineral slabs that enveloped us. “Careful, Spikey!” “JoJo … not so far.” “Girls, help your sister.” As their bravery swelled, they got deeper into the stream and closer to the waterfall. While watching them, I started to notice people climbing down from the top of the cascading water.

JoJo noticed, too. Before I could make it that far, she was halfway up the jigsaw puzzle stones on the side of the waterfall. A kind man stood behind her, coaching her while simultaneously searching for her parents.

“Now she’s got it,” he smiled at me, relieved this child belonged to someone. “You really should try to go up there. It’s pretty cool.”
“OK, gotcha,” I said. Thinking there was no way in hell, kind stranger, I would be pulling my 34-year-old ass up the side of a slippery waterfall.

Then Spike showed interest and I knew I was screwed. I stood behind her, a tiny tush in the palm of my hand. I had no choice but to follow now. I tempted gravity, placing my foot about 12 inches off the ground on a bulging rock. The stones were dark and slimy, promising a concussion, or an embarrassing slip as best case scenario. Now it was my tush in Hank’s hand.

As my eyes crossed the crest of the downpour, I saw what the stranger had seen. A shallow stream laid out before me, curving off into the horizon. My JoJo was there, bouncing back and forth across mounds of sand and shards of stone. Spikey was following less confidently in her sister’s shadow. The trees formed a whimsical canopy over their heads, creating an intricate masterpiece of sun and shadow on the shore. I took in the scene, inhaling it into my memory.

I leaned over the ledge to Hank. “You should probably come up here,” I conceded. “It’s pretty cool.”

I grounded my feet on a patch of dry rock and reached for Sloppy Joan, who was determined to reach the summit all on her own. As the pads of her two little feet pitter pattered into the water beside me, Hank’s hand reached the top.

We spent the next hour splashing and stomping and jumping in and out of the afternoon sun. Each set of footprints was different. We all went to the same place, but took a unique path to get there. Five souls, connected by love and blood and the most important stuff, just going on an adventure before summer escaped entirely.

There weren’t many people here; A couple trying to find some alone time. A trio of exchange students. We sloshed our way past them, a disorganized circus on parade.

Eventually, we came to a large stone bridge. Hank decided to hike back the way we came and collect the girls’ shoes and the car. He would meet us on top of the bridge. I found a significant, sturdy rock in the shade of the overpass and sat down. I watched the soldiers in my little tribe. One always going too far, out of my sight. Brave and bulletproof. Another the observer; Always dipping her toes into the water rather than catapulting herself all the way in. And then my baby. Unaware of anyone but the reflection staring back at her and the bug inching toward her toes. So in the moment. So breezy and independent.

I felt gratitude. For this stone, for this time, for these humans. Everything that came after the climb, brought such unexpected peace. Such beauty. Such natural curiosity. And we weren’t even planning on going past the waterfall.

We tackled a 2-mile hike to a small cave next. I wore Sloppy Joan on my back like an impatient gorilla. She rested her head between my shoulderblades, only lifting it to ask, “What was that?” each time a woodpecker went to work. We came to a cave and Hank volunteered to take them through. My claustrophobia was ranking at Code Brown just thinking about it, but through they went. They loved the cool, black cavern, and begged to go through once more on their own. Why not? This was a day for exploring.

And then, the thing they’d been waiting for since the moment we descended the wooden staircase earlier that afternoon. We went back to the waterfall. We let them take off their shoes, their socks, their fear of reprimand, and we just let them go all in. After all, how often do you get to swim in the plunge pool of a natural wonder, small as it may be?

After Spike and Hank spotted a water moccasin that could, as she put it, “kill 99 people with one bite,” we loaded the swamp sisters into the car and made our way back to the cabin to clean up. We decided to take them into Bloomington to see the campus and grab a bite. After 500 more trips to the potty, and a mediocre meal, the troops were fading, and I was adamant about ice cream. Thus began a Google maps goosechase Hank is not likely to let go anytime soon. Every place we went looking for miraculously disappeared from where it was supposed to be. But – and this is a very important but – God had a plan.

The creamery we eventually came to, Hartzell’s, had homemade flavors and a variety of toppings. Including puppy chow. Puppy chow! I had puppy chow on top of from-scratch cookie dough ice cream and the entire world could have fallen away and I wouldn’t have cared. And we weren’t even planning to go to Hartzell’s.

We went home; exhausted, satisfied, full in many ways. I curled up on the couch with the girls and read “The Giving Tree”, and it made me think of family. How I would give everything I had for these people. Everything. Because this love we share is that good. Have you read the book?

“and she loved a boy very, very much – even more than she loved herself.”

I fell asleep right there, a daughter in my nook. The smell of lumber in the air. I was so content, there was nothing to fight or contemplate. Just rest, drunk on nature and sentimental thoughts.

The next morning, we woke up to Sloppy Joan announcing her poop in the potty. The victorious No. 2 stirred the four of us and we slowly came to life. The girls played for a few final minutes up in their loft. I went about packing and sweeping the treated wood floor. We all looked out the window and said, “Goodbye, cabin.” with frowny faces as we drove away.

We made it to Martinsville, a small town north of Bloomington before the demands for breakfast rose from the back seat. We pulled off into a diner and followed the friendly hostess to a corner booth. Here, Sloppy Joan would only go potty three times, a record, perhaps made possible only by one very special distraction. An older gentleman sitting at a small booth that backed up to our table felt our hurricane of a 3 year old bumping up against his arm. In a world where we don’t often notice each other and interaction is often viewed as an inconvenience, this man spoke to my little girl. He was playful and kind and smirked at all the same things that make her grandparents smirk.

He was a retired sheriff, we would learn from his friends. And a real softie it would seem. He gave each of our girls a quarter to buy a gumball on their way out. Which they did (chocolate for Sloppy Joan), and held them up against the window to give him a thumb’s up before climbing in the car. Aside from my unforgettable cinnamon roll french toast, that stranger was the sweetest part of our journey home. Such a kind, restorative display of humanity. Such a lovely exchange. And we weren’t even planning on going to Martinsville.

The more we replace things with experiences, the more we let fate be our travel guide, the more unexpected joy is revealed. The more I stop trying to drive this bus, the clearer I see that the best things can’t be planned. They are 100 percent organic. They’re found in modest cabins in cities that don’t make most maps and on long, winding trails. In rolling the dice and twists of fate. They’re in strangers with pure hearts and that rare, generous nature you have to be born with. They’re what you see when you leave the filtered lens behind and protect your memories with your heart.

The best things are just beyond the waterfall. But you have to be willing to climb.

Laughs

Taking the good stuff when you go

May 10, 2017

I stood in the sticky, stagnant air of a sweltering cinder block room, smelling the unfamiliar perspiration of strangers I hadn’t yet met and staring down at the yellow bedspread with purple flowers I’d purchased a week ago at Bed Bath & Beyond. Now, standing here, it felt so Lisa Frank, so ridiculous. I couldn’t have predicted how different it would look to me in this light, on this day – The day I fractured off from the safety of my nuclear family and stepped into the role of pseudo-adult. I thought if I looked at the childlike petals long enough, a semester – and this feeling of coming out of my skin – might pass.

My brother, who was moving me in, heaved an off-white square of carpet into the middle of the space. Sweating like a Texas farmer in a ghost pepper-eating contest at the summer fair, he turned to me. “Do you need anything else?” he asked, answering the question for me with his expression. His friends were waiting. There was no time for tears, or assembly or the emotions other freshmen got.

And anyway, I had no idea what I needed. How could I? I was living away from home for the first time in my life. I was 18. Terrified. Unhappy with my adolescent bedding purchase. And so consumed with trying to act like the whole situation was no big deal. My best friends are scattering like dandelion seeds? No big deal. My mom was too sad to move me in? No big deal. I had to figure out the rest of my life in four years, starting Monday? No big deal.

I surveyed my messy jumble of belongings. In a pile next to the lofted bunk bed, sat:
☻ 3 laundry bags stuffed with clothes (mostly homecoming T-shirts, A&F, Gap and Old Navy)
☻ 1 shower caddy packed with essentials and matching flip flops wrapped in cellophane and tied with a bright pink bow (a gift from a well-wisher)
☻ 1 laundry basket filled with framed pictures of my girlfriends and boxes of Easy Mac
☻ The aforementioned bedspread and sheets that, I can say now, and realized then, belonged in an 8-year-old girl’s bedroom with a matching canopy
☻ A messenger style bookbag brimming with folders and notebooks in a variety of colors
☻ So many pens
☻ A computer
☻ Cigarettes

Aside from that, I don’t remember what I believed qualified as necessary for a daily existence sans parents. My kind sister-in-law took pity on me and stayed long enough to help me unpack and plug in my computer before taking me over to my brother’s friends’ house off campus to play quarters and wash away the fear with a flood of cheap beer. (And maybe Smirnoff Ice? Which I’m sure I sheepishly requested and I’m sure they bitched about when I wasn’t within earshot.) Whatever the case, I remember being properly shit-faced walking back into my strange home. And it helped.

From the August evenings spent perspiring and repositioning a box fan in the window, through the winters with snow-crowded walkways and wet jean bottoms, to the sunny farewells on the lawn that spring, I spent just over 8 months over 2001-2002 on the 7th floor of that co-ed dormitory. I watched the aftermath of 9/11 in that building. I fell in love with my now-husband in that building. I met two of my bridesmaids in that building. I befriended independence in that building. Just a bunch of shit went down in that building.

So, when my ex-roommate sent me a news article a few weeks back announcing that the University would be tearing down the establishment, which was affectionately and accurately referred to as the “freshmen ghetto” even in our day, I felt a twinge of emotion over the whole thing. Text messages were exchanged, husbands were bribed, and it was decided: We would go back in time and place and bid farewell to the site that birthed our sisterhood on May 6.

Sometimes people get lucky with college roommates. And sometimes they get really, stupid-lucky. I was stupid-lucky. Actually, at the risk of sounding socially arrogant, I’ve been blessed with some dope-ass friends in almost every stage of my life. Except middle school. Middle school was kind of a bitch … and so were the girls. But my college friendships came on like a pair of boyfriend sweatpants from Victoria’s Secret, real easy.

Ashlie was diagonal across the hall. Her dad had built custom bunkbeds for her and her roommate and the entire floor indulged her pride in his display of expert carpentry. She had a cartoon character laugh, a heart as big as her t-shirt collection and the ability to drink any man under any table at any time. Ashlie was (and still is) the type of friend who would take you to the bar, even though she won’t be old enough to go in for 3 more months, and drop you off because it’s raining and you might get your slutty tank top soaked if she doesn’t. This is a hypothetical scenario, of course. I saw this young woman fall down and rip her pants more times and in more ways than I can count. I would live with Ashlie five other times in my life and sit next to her on my wedding day, though I couldn’t have predicted that then.

Sarah was down the hall a bit. Although I could always hear her like she was right next door. She had the moves of Elaine Benes and the laugh of Cameron Diaz with a megaphone attached to her lips. She was always down for a bad decision unless she had a 12-page paper to write and only 4 hours to write it in. Sarah’s roommate in the dorm used to buy raw steak and put it in their mini fridge. And also, Sarah was salt-sensitive. If we ate at the cafeteria, her ankles would balloon up like a set of inflated whoopee cushions. This girl would change my life with her sunshine and soul, though I couldn’t have predicted that then.

Anyway, all this to set the scene. This past weekend, salt-sensitive Sarah picked me up and we went back to Muncie –
the Seattle of Indiana – to see our big-hearted friend Ashlie and the dormitory that built us.

We started the day at our favorite Mexican joint. Margaritas all around (yes, we got carded) and lots of chips. Dear, sweet, Ashlie – who was known as “Smashlie” in her former life – recently became a mommy to two little bambinos and has taken her cocktail game down a few notches. This is, of course, a polite way of saying sister can’t handle her liquor anymore and had tiny eyes about a fourth of a marg in. God bless her. The waiter was cute, Sarah said. Then he smiled at us with his braces and we all quickly looked away. This would be the first of many times the universe would bitch slap us back into our 30s that day. We were more likely to drop this kid off at the party than tap the keg.

First stop after lunch was the house we lived in our senior year. I remember my 22-year-old self thinking the red siding was endearing. Charming. Like an old barn. The layout was a little less so. The front door opened right into Sarah’s room, which she grew to loathe. My room was attached to an enclosed storage area and had no windows. I called it “the cave”. It could be 3pm and I would just be snoozin’ away with no idea. When winter arrived that year, so did the mice. They would run across the floor and we’d all scream like idiots. In true college landlord fashion, the asshole dropped off a handful of traps and wished us the best. That house was farther from campus and didn’t have the mojo of our first house. It was, however, right across the street from both a gas station and a liquor store. I could go get a cold bottle of Wild Vines for $3.99 and a pack of Camels any time I wanted.

But the years had not been kind to the little red house. It was downright dilapidated. “What the hell happened here?” Sarah asked, as we drove down the side drive. Two pitbulls fell over each other barking in the windows. “Just keep going!” I yelled, laughing nervously at our impending doom, as Sarah countered in an equally raised tone, “Pitbulls are nice!” (Sarah has a pitbull.)

The savage dogs damn near killed my buzz. We went to the liquor store for previsions. We browsed the selection and chatted about the logistics of a cooler, ice, cups, what would be the easiest way to carry our cocktails discretely. We were planning our roadies like a 5-year-old’s birthday party. Should we have a clown? No, kids are scared of clowns. But we’ll need plenty of little wienies. Also, we walked right passed the Bacardi. This was damning evidence against our youth, as were my tennis shoes.

Now that we had some CiderBoys, we needed something to put it in. The Village bookstore seemed like the logical next stop. I’ve never spent so much time in a bookstore not getting books. We looked at all the clothes, all the cups, we washed the cups, we asked if the cups were BPA-free. Apparently we’ve become very thorough with age as well.

Then, it was off to our first house, the one I always think of when I think of college. We lived in the same place for both our sophomore and junior years (I know, we’re working backwards here). You guys, this place had all the makings of a college dwelling; a bowl full of primary colored condoms from the local Planned Parenthood in the entryway (which we pretty much only used to put over Ashlie’s phone and then call her so she’d pick up the spermicide-covered receiver), a thousand empty liquor bottles with plastic flowers in them and Christmas lights for decoration, and black mold.

When I think of that house, I think of so many random things … A sweet group of neighbor boys became dear friends. We had the same number as a local manicurist, Magic Nails. Eventually, we just started playing along. “Sure, sure, we can get you in,” we’d say. “But, just so you know, we only have black polish today.” We spent hours on this old ‘70s green couch on the front porch, drinking, talking, smoking. Contemplating who we would marry, where we would work, and how are dreams were ever-changing. People slept on that thing, which, it had to be moldy as hell given it never came in out of the elements. It was the perfect place to sit and yell at freshmen. Our landlord told us he would be like our second dad, and then shortly thereafter passed away. It was a weird period in my life where I honestly felt like we were starring in a sitcom. Of course, the Real World was still popular, so …

At some point, in the 13 years since we’d lived there, a new porch had been added. Our green couch had likely been burned. And no one was home to let us in. But that didn’t stop us from posing like we still rented the joint. I will always remember walking up the street to that house on Thursday afternoons after class, Friday nights, and early Sunday mornings. The porch light my beacon. The carpet in that house is, I’m certain, still stained with tears from my days spent laughing, watching The Sweetest Thing or Super Troopers for the 5,000th time.

We couldn’t squat on the porch forever. We made our way across campus. Fresh landscaping and signage and medians made the street I’d trekked so many times almost unrecognizable. New buildings stood where early twenty-somethings once tapped kegs and tossed bean bags till their arms gave out. It felt like we were strangers in a semi-familiar land. We’d moved on, and so had our campus. We walked past a police officer directing traffic. It was, after all, commencement weekend. I instinctively tucked my tumbler inside my handbag, forgetting I am now both of legal age to consume alcohol and only mildly buzzed and, therefore, entirely capable of carrying on an acceptable conversation.

The top floors of the dorm came into the horizon. There she was. Walking up, and then in, I must have said, “This is so weird! You guys, isn’t this so weird?” more times than anyone with a mild buzz could count. But it was just so weird.

When I was a little girl, my family camped a lot. One particular campground was on our regular rotation, primarily because it had the best playground. The slide was high, the swings let you touch the sky and there was a tire swing that made every kid puke. But my favorite, was this giant log cabin. I’d be on it and in it for hours. I’d tentatively move my feet over the grains, careful not to get a splinter or fall through the cracks. I’d recruit strange children to be the brother or the sister or the husband to my “house”. When I grew up and got a travel trailer and a family of my own, the first place we went was the campground with the best playground. But now it all looked different. The high slide with the exposed screws that scratched my thighs countless times, was gone. The swings were different. The log cabin was so small, so easy to conquer with quick, sloppy steps. It was nothing like the mountainous, American Ninja Warrior course in my memory. One thing, the tire swing, remained, and it still made kids puke.

This experience mirrors my return to the dorms.

“Here’s our chance,” Sarah said like a Bond girl closing in on her villain.

A short kid with beard stubble and a band t-shirt (the mandatory uniform for college kids) was walking out, and we slid right in. Then, as if kismet, a young gal carting her mattress off asked if we needed her to “swipe us up” to the rooms.

“Why, yes,” Ashlie responded.
I turned to the girls. “Oh my gosh! Oh my gosh! We’re really going up there! Oh my go–”
“Be cool, Court. Be cool,” Sarah demanded, stopping herself just short of smacking my face.

The elevator opened on the 6th floor. That was as high as the elevator went today, and as high as it went back then. Outside the elevator lobby was the bulletin board I’d been forced to decorate with facts about smoking when I got caught puffin’ a heater next to my box fan by the resident adviser. I believe it had a sad-looking skull and crossbones and the health facts were on clouds of white smoke. Very after school special.

A brief flight of stairs and we were there. We were standing in the hallway where we’d met, almost 16 years ago. It was dimly lit and empty, aside from one middle-aged woman standing at the end of the hallway on her phone. I stood, staring at the white board that hung on the door outside of the room where my brother had left me all those years ago. Where I’d spent my allotted 200 minutes per month calling my boyfriend, and he’d spent his calling card minutes calling me. Where I’d printed off and saved his poetic emails, predicting we’d get married someday. Where I’d counseled new friends and tried desperately to hold onto old ones.

Today, the door was locked. They were all locked.

But I could still picture the cheap oak furniture and sticky, stray hair-littered tile. I could envision my Urban Outfitters tapestry draped haphazardly behind my bunk. I could see a young girl wearing a tiny t-shirt, trying to grow into herself. It was as if I’d been there yesterday and then also never at all.

I turned to Ashlie, taking selfies in front of her door. Sarah was down talking to woman in the hallway. Turns out she’d lived in the same room as my loud, lovely friend, a little over 20 years ago. She was waiting on her own “Sarah” and “Ashlie” to come.

We went to the study lounge. Oddly enough, this and the bathroom brought back the most concrete detail to me. I sat on this floor and confessed to 30+ girls that a guy I’d let walk me home from a party peed in our laundry room sink. I did that, in this room. I made a million flashcards in here. I killed spiders in here. I imagined I was Felicity (you know, from the show Felicity) in here. The furniture was the same. The smell was the same. The dated lighting was the same.

“Did you live here?” a woman asked from a corner table (the resident housekeeper, we would deduct from context clues).
“We did,” Sarah answered.
“Yeah … lots of folks coming back to see it. You know, they’re tearin’ it down.”
“Yeah, that’s why we thought we’d make the trip,” Ashlie offered.
“Yeah, it’s too bad, but you know, it’s time. Windows are goin’. It’s old. But, I tell ya, of all the buildings I like this one the best. They leave their doors open and talk in the showers and all that. The other ones, their bathrooms are in the room and they never see each other.”

I remember the open doors.

“The woman who cleaned when you were here, she got a bad infection and lost both of her legs. You remember her?”

I didn’t remember her.

I was starting to feel like we were talking to the Ghost of Housekeepers Past.

The whole thing felt very Ebenezer Scrooge, actually. The two flickering fluorescent squares in the ceiling cast a harsh light down on an empty shell of a place that once held the voices and sagas of so many special young women, thrown together at a time in their lives when anything was possible, but it all felt so small. But without the awkward theater girl, without the news anchor girl who put a full face of makeup on before she went to bed, without the easy girls, the stoner girls, the funny girls, the homesick girls, the smalltown girls gone wild, this was just a line of cells, all locked up.

My purse brushed my leg and I felt something wet. My spiked cider had spilled all over the bottom of my Fossil bag. I guess that’s one of the big differences between day drinking in your 20s and day drinking in your 30s. The bags, in which you hide your liquor, are more expensive. It was time for us to go.

We walked around campus, popping in and out of buildings where we spent hours plastered in seats, taking notes, prying our eyes open. Where more than a decade ago, I’d written papers on affirmative action and the importance of ethical journalism and our wishes for the health of the world.

In between recollections that blew in the wind over newly paved streets, we passed twenty-somethings who’d just minutes ago turned their tassels. They were chatting with friends and sisters about who they’d marry, where they’d work, how their dreams were ever-changing.

I brought up the elevated CRP results (a sign of inflammation) I’d gotten from a blood test I took last week to the girls, who’d known me when I smoked a pack a day. After I brought up the topic out loud, I silently acknowledged how out of place it was for such a day. I thought about how much the weight of knowing real consequences is so heavy and so affixed to me now. I envied those graduates. They walked with a lightness I traded in for a 401K and vinyl fencing years ago.

After dinner at a new bar that stood in the place where a bar we once frequented had been leveled, resurrected and eventually closed, I climbed into Sarah’s car and we drove home. As the sun dipped down to meet the farm fields, we had one of those rich conversations, where you ask questions of the other person that make you question the important things about yourself. No matter how many times I have these talks with Sarah, and there have been many, they always feel like a gift, opened slowly and savored.

They’re the kind of talks that come after years of being witness to another person’s life. That come only after you’ve identified those thresholds for how much truth and perspective a person can take, and you come right up against them. We know where each other’s limits lie. She knows how to pull out my most authentic self, as do I hers. We were in my driveway in, what felt like, 5 minutes. I hugged her, twice. And I thought about all the hugs we’d shared after other goodbyes, after vows, after babies, after quick weekend visits, and I felt a little of my grad envy quietly slip away.

We’re given a small group of memories strong enough to stick. Some stick because they’re so catastrophic at the time, others because they held so much love, others because they made you laugh until your muscles spasmed. My college years are nearly exclusively composed of moments with these women, who I’m lucky enough to still see when the stars align. We revisit those concrete cells, that green couch, the mice-invested barn, through the stories we tell when we’re together. Honestly, given the chance, I don’t know that I’d go back to the dimly lit hallway where our love affair began.

When I hug Sarah, when I smell her hair and she squeezes the crap out of me, a flood of sweet, treasured times come back to me. And I wouldn’t trade those memories, many of which came after we left campus. We still talk about our jobs, our loves, our ever-changing dreams. It’s all still there. It just looks a little different. Has a few more players to consider.

I’m glad we said goodbye to the dorm, but I think we took the best of what was there 15 years ago when we left. Sometimes a building is just a building. Sure, it was the backdrop to one of the great comedies of our lives, but paint the backdrop something different and the stories are still the same. Once I sectioned off and parceled out what I needed to take – the best friends, the best memories, the best lessons – what remained was a picked over skeleton of a place once bloated with characters and interesting plots. There was nothing left for me there.

There’s something so authentic about those transitional moments in your life journey; leaving home, starting a family. They gift you with a magic you can’t reclaim, and you can’t recreate. But you can put them in a jar like a handful of lightning bugs and look in on them with wonder every now and then. In the end, just like that log cabin, a dorm is just a dorm. It gets smaller and less inspiring the farther away from it you get. I think I’d rather have those long, rich conversations riding in cars with friends. Battle-scarred, unbreakable, lifelong friends. Friends who know my shit and stick around, even when it stinks. They were the best of those times. And I took those bitches with me on my way out the door.

But still …

7th floor Brayton–Clevenger 4 Life! Peace!

Wanderlust

Makin’ Biscuits in the woods, Pt. 1

April 13, 2016

As I walked in a staggered single-file line on a mountaintop that parted clouds, in 40 mph sustained winds, 6200 feet in the air, I had to remind myself … I chose this. I wanted this. Sure, I hadn’t predicted the slicing windburn or grueling physicality of it all, but I made a thousand tiny decisions that put me right here on this trail, on this mountain, on this walk. And truthfully, coming out on the other side of it, it was worth every, single, step.

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I’ve had a legit hiking excursion on my bucket list since about halfway through the pages of  Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild“. When I read it, I was a fairly new mom, in my late 20s, and the whole idea – from the balls it took to the peace it promised – just lit me up inside. For many, including the majority of my friends, the thought of spending any amount of time isolated in nature with nothing but a bag of dehydrated noodles and your thoughts is more of a nightmare than a vacation (“Where will you poop?” “But, can you have cocktails?” “What do you mean, mice?”), but for whatever reason, it whispered to me relentlessly over the years. Somehow, likely by drowning him in my insistence, I convinced my husband to spend a handful of our precious, too-few vacation days on the Appalachian Trail chasing down our inner, zenful mountain personas.

While I might have talked him into going, I had no idea how to coordinate the logistics of such a thing. Sure, I’d been bitten by the wanderlust bug and could speak in the most romantic way about how the hills were calling and what would happen to our souls once we completely unplugged, but honestly, I’m worth shit when it comes to navigation. So, around Christmas, I began researching group adventure packages through various outdoor retailers. When I asked my brother’s friend, a backpacking enthusiast, for his opinion, he offered to organize  a trip in the spring. We would leave on a Saturday, hike for 4 days, and be home by Thursday afternoon. It would be the perfect experience for two people looking to dip their big toes into the intimidating backpacking stream.

I want to tell you all about our adventure. Every character. Every victory. Every failure. Every elevation. How I came to be called Biscuits. But it’s going to take time and a little thought collecting. I’ll kick things off with a bit about the preparation.

A bit about packing 

When I was a junior in high school, my best friend Jenn invited me to join her family for Spring Break in Naples, Florida. The trip would mark only the second time I’d ever been on an airplane, an endeavor I found to be synonymous with rolling luggage. Because of this, I begged my mom to let me borrow her large canvas suitcase. Completely naive to the fact that we were actually headed for the retirement capital of the world and would not see a single person even close to our age for five consecutive days, I spent weeks curating the perfect Old Navy wardrobe for the trip. I would be prepared, with figure-flattering ensembles for oceanside bonfires and straw strappy wedges. By departure day, I had filled that generously sized suitcase till the zippers were bulging. I threw it in my Z24 and sped off to Jenn’s house. When I arrived, her dad, Freddie, a true blowhard from Boston with the kind of accent that naturally insinuates annoyance and impatience in all instances (except when he spoke to his golden retriever), was in the driveway loading up the car. “Cauwtney … ya bag in ya ca?” I nodded proudly and started toward the house. I heard an exasperated grunt and two plastic wheels hit pavement behind me. “Jeeezus!” Freddie strained. “Cauwtney, ya gotta body in here or what?” His grievances were confirmed and my humiliation rapidly swelled when my suitcase earned a caution-orange sticker with the word “Heavy” repeating over and over at the checkin counter. I’ll never forget the sight of my shameful bag with the obnoxious tape coming down the carousel and the snickering reception it received from Jenn’s family. To this day, her dad still gives me shit about that damn suitcase. I can only say this: I’ve always been a worrier. And I’ve always been an over-packer. Perhaps the explanation is in there somewhere.

So, four months ago, when Hank and I decided to go on this backpacking trip, I immediately began researching how the pros get it done.

The amount of information available to one hoping to pursue a hobby like hiking is plentiful and often contradictory. A quick Pinterest search or Google spray and pray gives hundreds of posts (much like the one I am writing right now) and reviews and suggestions. With something like backpacking, you’re talking about countless variables for each person. You have to consider the elements, the individual, the landscape … So, when I’m comparing sleeping bags or raincoats or water filtration systems, it can be tough to find an insightful voice among all the noise. I was lucky to have some experienced acquaintances and a bulging blog roll in my Feedly.

With a growing wish list, we asked for REI gift cards exclusively for the holidays and made a trip down to the closest location a few weeks before we left. There, I was fitted for my pack by a gentleman who looked much like a young Andrew Keegan (a la 10 Things I Hate About You) with hair grazing his shoulders. I made a few trips around the sales floor and decided the Dueter was it for me. We picked up some base layers and down jackets and the rest would be purchased by a click of the mouse. Amazon was our best friend, as every stranger’s blog post revealed an accessory we had to add to our arsenal.

It seemed the weeks were long but the months were short, and before we knew it we were standing over a room full of gear and grub making some serious decisions about what would come and what wouldn’t make the cut. With one modest backpack and an extensive packing list, contending thoughts of running out of TP on a brisk mountain morning and the ghost of the orange caution tape of ’99 wrestled in my frantic mind. To forget something life-saving, like my hot cocoa packets, would be devastating, but carrying too much would be humiliating. Our food alone took up an entire coffee table. I was beginning to doubt my inner Cheryl.

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The night before we left, Hank and I were up until 2 a.m. eliminating items and condensing our piles. Once we identified what would be our essentials, we began the actual assigning of said items to pockets and pouches. Moving Martha Stewart’s entire house is less stressful than filling a backpack when you’ve never done it before. I had coffee cups strapped to sleeping bags adhered to a trucker’s cap. My pack was a steaming hot mess. There was no denying it. “Just bring it all and we’ll sort it out at the hostel” my brother’s friend said. “No judgement. I won’t laugh. Just bring it all.”

The next morning, me, my brother and Hank threw everything in the cab of Matt’s truck and made the smooth, beautiful ride eight hours south to the Mountain Harbour Hiker Hostel in Roan Mountain, Tennessee. The rest of our party had already arrived, so I hauled my mismanaged Dueter up the steps to the rustic sleeping quarters. I opened the door and saw 3 young guys I didn’t recognize sitting on a couch watching a VHS tape of The Fugitive. I made an awkward comment about being in the wrong place, turned and went back down the stairs. Turns out, I was in the right place. Lesson No. 1: On the trail, strangers are just roommates you haven’t met yet.

I entered the hostel a second time – this go-around I acted like a badass fresh off a 20-miler – and threw my weighty pack on the ground. Soon I was in the thick of a crash course in hiker packing. “Court, do you really need an entire tin of bag balm?” “You might have, like, 3 extra lunches.” And the nail in the coffin that solidified my amateur status, “So … creamer packets, huh? And exactly how many creamers do you put in your coffee each morning? And you want to carry them in the box, do ya?” [Laughter] I felt my cheeks turn cherry as my stack of items to leave behind piled up. Aside from my laughable luxuries, my organizational issues were resolved with a “keep it simple stupid” mindset. All I needed in the end was a stuff sack for food, a stuff sack for clothes and my sleeping bag in the front pocket. Sure I had new underwear for every day – a luxury to most on the trail – but fresh skivvies made me feel human. So, he let me keep them. Maybe I had mildly scented Burt’s Bees facial cleansing wipes, but once I purged a few creamers and stuffed my sacks, I had the room. So, he let me keep them. Here’s what went on with me in the end* …

What's in My Pack

*It’s important to note here that my husband and I were able to divide our load a bit. He took the water purifier, 2-person tent, pain meds and part of the food, as well as his own necessities. What can I say? Sharing is caring.

Final Food ListThe system was simple: Rain gear and sleeping bag in the bottom zip compartment. Stuff sack with clothes in the bottom of the main compartment, with the stuff sack containing food on top of that. Head lamp, toiletries and any food I needed during the day on the trail were stored in the very top zipper compartment. Water bottles and down jacket (when removed) on the sides and my sleeping mat rolled and fastened to the front. Bing. Bang. Boom.

Oh, and p.s. As we all huddled around our mugs of Maxwell House the morning we headed out, guess what was the hot commodity … What all the fellas were begging for … That’s right … Mama’s creamers, baby.

To be continued …

Thoughts

Birthdays kinda blow

November 7, 2015

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On Tuesday I had a birthday. It was a day that marked the passing of 364 days since the last day I reflected intensely on and took inventory of where I was at in life.  Now, full disclosure, I don’t own a birthday foam finger. That is to say, I’m not a big fan of them. It’s not that I despise getting older (“It’s better than the alternative,” my dad, Big Rog, would say), it’s the expectation and, ultimately, letdown it induces.

Look no further than your facebook wall. “Happy National Holiday!” “You deserve the most special day ever!” “I hope it’s epic! Go do something amazing with your girls!” It’s the LeBron James of calendar occasions. No single day can live up to that hype. It’s just not possible to artificially impregnate a specific, designated 24 hours with all the joys and surprises and rewards you’ve been wishing for all year, or the well-meaning, completely unattainable dreams that cascade down from your social circle.

But we try, don’t we? It’s OK to admit it … I’ll go first so you don’t have to. The embarrassing truth is, as our grown-ass heads meet the pillow on our respective birthday eves, we entertain impossible possibilities that awaken a childlike exhilaration and anticipation, the likes of which rival only Christmas itself. Then we try to talk ourselves down from the high … “Oh my gosh, that’s crazy to think that my boss is going to just send me home for my special day.” “OK, Courtney, they are not going to name a burger after you at Brava’s just because you got older.” “A 20-day getaway to an all-inclusive hut with a window in the floor where you can see fish? He would never!”

For me, the downright preposterous delusions drown out practicality all the way through mid-afternoon of my actual birthday, when I realize that this year, much like last year, will be marked by thoughtful messages from friends of the past and present, a handful of funny cards about farts and drinking too much (my favorite things) and vanilla cupcakes from Kroger with the whipped cream frosting. They are humble, delightful traditions, and they are mine. The truth is, contradictory to what this post might imply, I relish every small, special nod I get on November 3. I do. They just aren’t on the My Super Sweet 16 scale that I uncontrollably harvest a desire for from some disgusting place in the depths of my selfish, greedy subconscious. It’s a gross internal battle and I blame the aforementioned MTV reality series.

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Perhaps most sobering, is the acceptance that there is no magic spell that befalls my home on that day. The girls still fight. The dishwasher still needs emptied. The laundry still needs put away. The workout still needs to get done. As hard as I silently send out wishes to my fairy godmother, the chores and the sibling conflicts just keep right on coming, like punches to a piñata at my mental fiesta. Again, the rational woman in me chuckles at the notion that anything would change just because of an event that took place 33 years ago. But the 7-year-old birthday girl cries a little bit.

I have friends who are great birthday people. They organize nice evenings out in celebration of their lives, and manage to mark the occasion year after year with the perfect marriage of merriment and modesty. But I shutter at the thought of planning an event in my own honor and instead choose to sit by and let it pass, all the while secretly pining for grand gestures. It’s not in my typical nature, I swear. It’s an annual internal display of obnoxious narcissism that I’ll never understand and can’t believe I’m owning right now. It’s not pretty and it’s not cute, but all of this ugliness is why I don’t care for my birthday. But I love everyone else’s.

(Editor’s note: Thank you so much to everyone who sent me a birthday message on facebook. It’s so thoughtful and truly one of the happiest highlights of the day.)

Now that we have that rant all neatly wrapped up, I’d like to take just a few bullet points to toast the things I actually managed to accomplish in my 32nd year of life. Some big, some small, all a hash mark to verify I was striving for something.

I dropped the butts. The mere fact that my smoking habit hung on as long as it did embarrasses me, but I won’t carry it on to 33. You’re welcome, lungs. And sorry about that.

Oh, did I mention I ran 13.1 miles? I might have already talked about the fact that I completed my first half marathon. I still can’t motha cluckin’ believe dat ish. Huge bucket list bullseye there.

I talked to you folks. The reality is, it’s not easy fitting this fun little writing project of mine into the gridlocked traffic jam that is our Monday through Sunday. But it’s a release. It’s a time capsule. It’s a priority because it proves I can still find myself at the crossroads of profession and passion. And I’ve kept it going for the past year, which was something I really wanted to prove to myself. I might only post once a week, but it’s still breathing.

Aluminum-free at 33. I put some persistent paranoia to bed and finally found an effective, healthy deodorant.

Ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-changes. I did the ballsiest thing I can remember myself doing in years, and switched jobs back in June. It’s been a road of small victories, lots of lessons and invaluable self discovery.

I fell for Emma. After years of Hank and I talking about the kind of parents we wanted to be and the corners of the world we wanted to take our kids, we finally took a step in that direction. We’re pulling our modest little popup around and putting pins in the map. It feels so good running alongside our adventures rather than just chasing them.   

Wanderlust

Emma does Port Clinton, Ohio

August 18, 2015

I have been meaning to write this post for weeks now … 6 weeks to be exact. Remember that time I agonized over a career change, and then decided to make it and cried and rolled around in the drama of it all for days? Well, after all of that was a wrap, Hank and I packed up the posse and spent a week with our popup, Emma, and my folks decompressing in Port Clinton, OH. And it was such a lovely little vacation.

We stayed in East Harbor State Park, which was clean and shaded and pleasant. The bathhouses were what you’d expect, with a laundry room in the front portion of the building. I know there was a laundry room only because, about 20 minutes after we got settled, the tornado sirens screamed through the black sky as we crowded into the 10×10 room to sweat profusely with 20 of our RV neighbor folk. I prayed the drill and the mayflies weren’t a sign of the week to come.

Let’s talk about the mayflies for a second because they were something worth discussing. There were thousands of these prehistoric-looking winged insects covering every surface of every stationary object. They disintegrated into mush when you brushed them aside, which always made me feel guilty considering their average lifespan is a brief 24 hours as it is. They exist, essentially, to feed fish, reproduce and die. So strange, isn’t it? We were told they were hanging around later than usual.

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On our first full day in Port Clinton, we took in a roadside produce stand and the Cheese Haven, which had, you guessed it, a lot of dairy. There was a cheddar blueberry wedge there I think of often and regret not grabbing to this day. We had a short hike along an inlet of Lake Erie that led around the campground, went back, packed a picnic and ate on the beach. The distance from the campsite to the beach is perfect for a quick jog or bike ride, and there’s a roped off section for swimming that only goes about 3 feet and has a smooth sandy bottom. The girls thought that was pretty sweet. Even Sloppy Joan got in on the action.

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Sloppy Collage

The following day was my favorite. We took the ferry out to Put-in-Bay (Am I the only one who thought it was Puddin’ Bay?). To my surprise, the chicks acted like the boat ride was something we do on the daily; JoJo even fell asleep on her Papa at one point. It was a clear, breezy day on the island, so we rented a family-size golf cart and putzed around. I totally get how it’s a softer Vegas. I can see the appeal of bar hopping in your cart, getting loaded and going for ice cream. We had lunch on the water, soft serve down the street and basically made our way around in a sloth-like fashion that suited all parties involved. (Fascinating sidenote: Our waitress at lunch was a Put-in-Bay resident. For away games, her basketball team took a puddle jumper to the mainland and her graduating class had like 5 people. #themoreyouknow)

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Our last stop was the Butterfly House at Perry’s Cave. Spikey loves butterflies, particularly those which land on her, so we knew this joint would be a crowdpleaser. Admission was a little salty but the look on the older ones’ faces when we walked in and saw all of the flashy, flapping wings was worth it. A gorgeous flutterbug first found a resting place on Hank’s arm. Then JoJo. But Spike, she waited … and waited … and waited. She would get so close to them with her little face; whispering sweet salutations and wishing out loud for them to come over, but nothing. Until right at the end, a very special little butterfly with very special little wings landed on her tummy and made that little girl’s day.

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ButterflyCollage

The last full day is when things got really. freaking. interesting. My parents took off around 11 am, and we planned to take in the beach, until it started raining. At first, it was an adventure. We placed the E-Z Up over the picnic table and put out the lunch spread. A game of Liar! (think Bullshit, with kids), and we figured we’d be good. Around 2:30 pm, I looked across the trailer and told Hank it was time to make a plan B. The tension and energy needed to shift. So, we improvised with a 40-minute trek to Fremont, OH, for an early evening screening of Inside Out; a cute movie that also prompted JoJo to hysterically cry over the fact that Sloppy Joan was going to grow up. (??) I, of course, cried, too. I mean, Bing Bong … you gotta be kidding me with that.

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The next morning gave us girls just enough time to walk up to the camp store while daddy packed up Emma, and plenty of time to have the kindest/strangest thing happen. We were ambling about, analyzing Snapple options and agonizing over which one treat would make the trip home easier to take … a cheap cappuccino for Mom, a powder/sucker baby bottle thing for Spikey … And this gentleman – about my age I’d guess – was also browsing the Snapple case, looking slightly agitated. I smiled. Spike ran in front of him.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “The circus is in town.” He just shook his head.
“Man, I tell ya, my heart is just racing. This little boy just ran out in front of my car,” he shared.
“Oh my gosh,” I offered, as the proper reaction.
“I know.  He ran right out in front of me, and the mom, of course, threw her hands up at me, like it was my fault. I’m shaking.”
“I’m so sorry. I know you must be shaken up.” I said.
“You know what … let me get all your stuff. Please, put everything up on the counter, my treat.”

First thought? Creeper. But then … no.  He totally wasn’t. He paid for our sugary petty treats, told me to have a good day and buzzed out the door. How sad is it that pure kindness never comes without speculation? Maybe the truth was he just needed someone to tell him he wasn’t an asshole, and that it was all going to be alright and the little boy was OK. I mean, let’s be real, it was a camp store and the total bill was like $14, including his stuff, but still. A kind gesture I’m sure to pay forward.

Hank insisted we stop by the beach on our way out of town because the chicks just loved it so much. I will say this, it was breezy. Too cold for this mama and sweet Sloppy Joan, but it made for killer waves. I smiled from ear to ear watching those clowns body surf in Lake Erie. It was so cute … until I had to dress and put those sandy mugs in the car. Have you ever pulled tiny Tangled undies over a cold sand-covered bottom? It’s a joke. But we packed ’em in and made the journey home.

 

I would 100 percent go back, but next time, I’d take bikes for sure and a plan B for what rain may fall.