It’s Saturday, October 8, and we’ve just wrapped up our last visit as travelers carried ’round the nation in “Thor,” pulling battle-scarred “Joey” behind us as we depart Jaffrey, New Hampshire, and begin the final 50-mile stretch toward home; the dogs, Dave, and I are headed to Concord…and I don’t know how to feel, or exactly what I’m feeling. As I sit in the captain’s chair (with Boots still riding shotgun—of course) staring ahead through the windshield at autumn’s rainbow, I take note of the unease in my midsection. My conflicted self wishes for a Harry Potter moment—wherein I could simply “apparate” and just be home instantaneously—and simultaneously longs for a limitless trip extension.
I know I will miss the freedom to just “wing it”…to land wherever we land, to stop whenever we feel inspired to investigate (or simply need to stop), to read in cozy quarters without the lure of beckoning television or distracting news, to happily converse with total strangers, to jump on the motorcycle which sits eager for exploration, to enjoy long-overdue visits with long-ago friends, to indulge in that carefree approach to hygiene, to sing too loudly to music—or immerse ourselves in fabulously narrated novels, to eat when and what we feel like, to talk to each other about whacky (and not-so-whacky) ideas, to be truly present—for each other and the world around us, all the while shielding ourselves from a daily routine, from those pangs of duty calling…
…And yet, we can’t seem to get home fast enough.
Now that we have indeed landed here at 268 North Main Street (Readers, forgive me, for I have failed. It’s been three weeks since my last entry…), it appears I have some makeup work to do with this blog. We left readers in Montgomery, Alabama, if I recall correctly, and since that time, we dipped down into Florida for family (and Cardigan alumni) visits and then made our way north, stopping for stretches with both friends and former colleagues in Georgia, North Carolina, and Connecticut…bringing our adventure to an eventual close with still more family in New Hampshire.
The overarching theme of that final leg? “People are awesome!”
The visits differed greatly; the human warmth did not. Dave would tell you these “people” stops got him across the finish line.
More soul food, for sure, and we feasted.
I won’t drag you through every moment of every stop, but a few (among numerous other) highlights include the following:
Santa Rosa Beach…
Dave’s mom and her husband, Gary, provided a welcomed opportunity to simply relax, converse, overindulge on good food from their Asian-fusion restaurant, splash in the Gulf, enjoy a televised Sox game, take in the first presidential debate together, and enjoy their sunlit—and later moonlit—veranda.
(Above): My dad and his wife, Marsha, fed us home-cooked meals; shared photos from their recent Colorado trip and from Marsha’s daughter’s wedding; took us on an extensive golf-cart trek (20+ miles!) through their community; reconnected us with one of Dave’s former coaches (Dave M.) and his wife, Sandy; and seemed to genuinely enjoy having our dogs in the house.
(Our Villages shenanigans included switching their political alliance in the wee hours one night during our stay…all in good fun, of course…and inadvertently pruning their (forgiving?) neighbor’s palm when attempting to park.)
While I spent one morning blogging and doing laundry at my dad’s, Dave hopped on the bike to connect with a few Cardigan alumni at nearby Rollins College. In a bit of serendipity, one of the young man’s parents happened to be visiting too—and the father just so happens to be one of Dave’s own CMS buddies.
A table full of CMS Cougars! Clockwise from bottom left: Hayden Holland, Dave, classmate Graham Boyle and wife Heidi, Ben Johnston, and Billy Boyle.
Just a few hours north of The Villages, we were able to squeeze in a second visit with Dave’s “swan” brother Chip; this visit included a bonus, however: the company of his wife (Helma) and kids (Tom and Claire) as well. The Haskells live in the Inman Park section of Atlanta, and on-street parking might otherwise have been questionable if not for some nifty (albeit temporary) street-sign maneuvering.
Let Freedom Ring
The cause for justice knocked on my conscience again when I took advantage of the Haskells’ proximity to the Freedom Path both mornings, with dogs in tow. The walking trail wends its way through a beautiful park, with the Carter Center anchoring one end of the path and its other end spilling walkers into the neighborhood where MLK, Jr.’s birth home, his gravesite, and the Ebenezer Baptist Church (where he served as pastor) are located. The winding sidewalk is dotted with informational displays about both Jimmy Carter and MLK, highlighting their shared vision of advancing human rights, each in his own way.
We four adults also had the pleasure of enjoying a leisurely 10-mile walk kind of day…largely along the artsy, funky, shop- and restaurant-lined “beltline” into downtown (urban renewal in progress!); replete with walkers, good-cause marchers, joggers, bikers, ’bladers, and shoppers, the beltline’s offerings epitomize the vitality of this city. Oh, and Dave couldn’t resist exercising his music muscles along the way…
Gone to the Dogs…
As we approached our botanical gardens destination, we noted that a city pool celebrating the end of its summer season had quite literally “gone to the dogs.” Yes, a doggie pool party was in full swing, with music, tennis balls, poolside food and drink for the dogs’ human guests, and so on.
Soon after—and not far away from the pooch party—we found ourselves utterly sucked in by the magical glass-blowing works of Dale Chihuly amid so many botanical wonders:
Another bit of serendipity… On the long walk back to Chip’s house, our small world shrank further still with a (one in a million?) chance encounter: It began with Chip’s taking a moment to say hello to a gentleman (Paul Bianchi, who happened to be headmaster at the Haskell kids’ school) just as Paul was exiting his car in a nearby lot. A round of introductions followed, and then, when Paul noticed Dave’s Sox hat, the Boston-area-roots connection was quickly made. But things became a little more other-worldly when the geography narrowed further still and a more-specific Melrose (Mass.) link was established between Dave and Paul’s wife, Barbara Dunbar. As the two compared notes, what surfaced was the realization that Barbara and Dave’s mom had been best friends and neighbors in elementary school; Barbara had in fact grown up in the very house on Holland Road in which the family of Dave’s own dear childhood/neighborhood buddy (Jack Malley) had dwelled years later. Given that Barbara and her husband have worked at Paideia (in Atlanta) for at least 45 years, it must be well over 50 years since the Dunbar family moved away from Melrose, and thus since Dave’s mom lost the long-ago connection to her young pal…
As chance would have it! …Dave with his mom’s long-lost childhood friend, Barbara Dunbar.
Lost ‘n’ Found…
The next morning brought with it a reunion of a very different sort: that of a lost dog and its worried owners… Helma had come across a loose and frantic hound during her early-morning trip to drop off Claire at the stables across town. She was able to save him from the risk of injury in heavy traffic by coaxing him into her car, and back at home she immediately went to work to locate its family. One neighborhood yahoo group led to another, and within an hour or so, its panicked and search-weary owners were notified. As it turns out, the young couple from Greenville, S.C., had just arrived to Atlanta to visit friends the evening before (about four or five miles from the Haskell home), when someone left the door ajar and this sweet, youthful shepherd mix slipped out—only to be grazed by a passing truck. Out of sheer fear, he’d bolted, leaving the couple devastated and searching well beyond midnight. Based on his reaction, there was no question to whom “Fitzy” belonged (and thus not a dry eye in that kitchen) when these folks later entered the Haskell home to reclaim their lost pooch.
Helma stood ready to adopt this sweet fellow if the owners weren’t to be found.
Speaking of Greenville, S.C., we’d been encouraged to make it a pit stop en route to North Carolina—and it didn’t disappoint. Another story of a city reborn! Greenville was home to Shoeless Joe Jackson and, currently, the Red Sox minor league affiliate squad, the Greenville Drive. (We weren’t able to get into the stadium, but it’s apparently a replica of Fenway.) While in town we stopped in at the Pour Taproom to watch the Pats suffer their first loss.
The Hendersonville area
To say that we miss our Cardigan colleagues would be an incredible understatement. When you live, work, and “play” so closely with folks, boundaries between work and home are inevitably blurred, and co-workers quite quickly become friends and then family. With that context in mind, heading for our reunion with Dave’s longtime assistant (our dear, dear friend Lynne Lenihan), who retired to North Carolina as soon as our Cardigan gig came to its conclusion, felt like heading toward “home” in a way that’s hard to adequately describe. We were able to park Thor and Joey in Lynne and husband Jim’s driveway for a couple of days and spend time catching up, going for walks, trying out Jim’s model-plane flight simulator, exploring the Blue Ridge Parkway on the bike, and eating near the top of Mt. Pisgah at the Pisgah Inn. The big added bonus to plunking down in the region for a bit: Another dear Cardigan colleague and friend, Elizabeth Perryman, who had recently relocated to nearby Black Mountain, was both eager to welcome us to her rural “goat farm” rental and available to join us on both afternoons for a couple of dining experiences. The gravy? Elizabeth’s really fun and “Whacky” mom, Bess, was on hand to socialize for a bit as well!
And, of course, we couldn’t leave the inn without first befriending a “local” biker gang from Korea! (In all seriousness, these Harley enthusiasts waved us over for a photo op; they hailed from South Korea and were exploring the East Coast atop motorcycles via a south-to-north route.)
There isn’t much that’s sweeter than the blessing of friendship, but when it comes from unexpected circumstances, it feels, perhaps, that much more special.
Enter Boots and Micki…
(Some context is in order!) Rescued in the nick of time from a North Carolina “kill shelter,” with nine newborn pups (vying for eight teats) in tow, Micki received her second chance at life about 10 years ago.
The foster angels who rescued her (and ultimately adopted her and the runt puppy of that litter—a.k.a. Boots!) were Joan and Kathy of Huntersville, North Carolina.
(“Angels” might be an understatement; Joan and Kathy have fostered dozens of dogs over time, helping to find “forever homes” for sweet beasts who have been abandoned for one reason or another…and providing a “forever home” themselves for a few pups along the way.)
Micki and Boots enjoyed their North Carolina home for nearly eight years, until it became clear that they could no longer live well (well-behaved, that is) among the other smaller fosters.
Enter Steff (that’s me!) a couple of springs ago, aching to have a dog at my feet once again. And two? That’d be a first, but why not? Yes…one dog for each foot! I will spare all the details about how I found this mother/daughter pooch pair online (though some credit and a “thank you!” shout-out here to Devon Rinkin is in order), but in the end, a 36-hour visit to North Carolina resulted in a new home for this canine couple…and two new (human!) friends for me as well.
And now, two and a half years after that adoption, the girls were able to reconnect with their former mommies (with whom we’ve remained in close touch), and Dave had the pleasure of meeting and spending time with them too. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that, just prior to our visit, a tiny part of me worried that the girls (especially anxious, sensitive Boots) might not want to climb back into that RV once we spent the night at their former home with their two initial rescue angels, but in the end, it seemed to us that the reunion couldn’t have gone better. The girls clearly remembered to some degree, Kathy and Joan received lots of grateful wags and kisses, and Boots and Micki did climb back into the RV the next day. Our visit included a boat ride on the lake, dining and conversation, our learning all about the sport of “flyball”—with which Kathy and Joan are heavily involved with their Boston terriers, a shared interest in (and viewing of) that night’s vice presidential debate, and, of course, lots of wonderful spoiling of Boots and Micki.
(Photo credit to Kathy!)
Mount Holly…in the parking lot of a church across from Catawba Coffee Shop…
How fun to reconnect later the next day with a young lady who had babysat for and driven my boys to school 10-plus years ago and who had since gone on to college and vet school…ultimately landing in the Charlotte, N.C., area a few months ago with her college-sweetheart husband. Isabel and Keith graciously carved out an hour or so for us (in the parking lot of a church, where it was easiest to get Thor and Joey situated) as we were traveling through, and our conversation–and introduction to Keith–proved to be another “People are awesome!” highlight.
I’d like to take a moment to address any readers in the Charlotte area and put a shameless plug in for Keith, a Kenyon College grad, who has since earned his MBA and would like to put it to use—preferably for “good.” Please message me if you’re interested in helping him connect. Talk about a bright, engaging, good-energy guy…You picked a good one, Izzy!
Having begun to think of WalMart as a second home, we found ourselves just a few hours later in the parking lot of yet another one. There we welcomed former Cardigan colleague Chris Jenkins to our humble “parking lot café,” complete with folding chairs and Keurig-produced cups of Joe. Our heartening catch-up conversation with Chris, who has been happily teaching and coaching at Summit School, gave us just the boost we needed to head north for the home stretch, and we decided to begin the journey that same evening.
A BRIEF SIDEBAR ABOUT NAVIGATION (yes, another “Steff side story,” if you’ll indulge me…)
First, kudos to Dave, who drove Thor for the duration of the entire trip, sometimes battling the “high profile” woes of strong winds, often negotiating tough lane changes or tight parking situations, and at all times getting us safely from point A to point B. (A public “Thank you!” to you, Honey!)
My roles, in turn, were many and varied—and yet arguably less stressful: navigator, DJ, dog whisperer, trip accountant, motorcycle mama, sandwich maker, spontaneous hugger, photographer, sewage-emptying assistant, blogger, and…well…you get the picture. While I’d maintain I was “adequate” at most of these positions, perfecting my navigational skills quickly rose to the top of my list of goals.
Dubbed “chief navigator” (by Dave) from the outset, the bar was set high. Too bad we waited until nearly the end of our journey to see Sully, a film that elicited in us some really cool “pilot aircraft speak” in our last days in Thor…
(Readers, please note that we are not real pilots; we just play them “in RV.” Further, readers are not advised to try this at home.)
Runway 4 clear for takeoff…
Secure the cabin!
Cabin secured; ready for takeoff.
Accelerating…wheels up…we’ve got takeoff…
Object ahead, and we’re comin’ in hot!
We’ve lost thrust…we’re losing altitude.
Stay the course…
We’ve got clearance, Captain. Disaster averted.
OK, real pilots out there are likely having a pretty good laugh at our expense (as are we), but you get the gist. Much like our Southern accents, for the remainder of that final leg we could turn on our “pilot speak” whenever we felt so moved—typically as we either exited from or merged onto highways.
More context is in order here: As I worked on improving my navigational skills, I also strove to save our cellular data overages from financially sinking us. (The atlas was handy for main roads, but as we exited major byways and needed to get to more-specific locations, I had to rely on bossy–though admittedly kind of smart–“Siri.”) I would turn Siri off once we hit a steady, lengthy stretch and estimate the best time to pull her services back up again…you know…only when directions were about to become more complicated.
As we made our way to Dublin, Virginia (toward yet another Walmart) for the night, my “chief navigator” rank took a serious hit (and even now at home, I have yet to regain the full confidence of our fearless pilot…). Let’s recount the “incident,” shall we?
“Steff? Steff? …Are you for real?! Steff?! STEFF!”
I am dreaming the first part…I think. I pull my face up off of the atlas just in time to acknowledge fully the final “Steff!” punctuated by Dave’s half-bemused, half-frustrated chuckle. “You have just one job to do,” he laughs. “Just ONE…and you fall asleep on that job?!”
I can’t believe it. I did…I quite literally “fell asleep on the job”!
Initially, I’m too drowsy to tell if he’s genuinely upset or actually finding this funny.
I eyeball my phone to catch the time… “Oh my gosh!” I begin to ramble. “It’s 10:45! I was going to recheck Siri for our location at 10:40!”
“And…ummm…I guess I nodded off! Hang on…” Silence. Amused silence? “I’m so sorry…really…” I offer as I rush to pull up Siri again, and then add, helpfully: “But I did just check, and, well…will you look at THAT?! In a mile and a half we should get off the highway to get to the Walmart. You…um…actually woke me up just in time.”
I can see Dave is struggling to maintain his feigned seriousness. “Tomorrow there will be a review of your status.” Pause. “I’m sorry to inform you, but I’m no longer certain you can be relied upon as ‘chief navigator.’ ” Pause. He blusters: “What if we were in the AIR, for goodness’ sake?! ‘Sorry we missed the runway…I nodded off’ ?!”
He has a point.
And then…we can’t stop laughing.
From Virginia, and then tidbits of West Virginia and Maryland, we trekked upward through Pennsylvania, entering the southern part of New York state for one last night at a campground (with plans to “lighten Thor’s load” the next morning for a final time). Every inch of our northward path seemed to highlight the scenic metamorphosis…one region into the next…the differences notable.
…We are going north. Closing in on home turf. Traffic congestion increases, forests thicken, main byways narrow and feel bumpier, buildings multiply and inch closer together…evidence of human activity grows.
So, too, does the spectrum of colors before us on the horizon…
And then…a morning walk with the girls on the country roads around our campground reminds me of what “home” in the Northeast will really feel like, especially at this time of year. The sporadic patter of falling acorns and the brilliant hues of yellow, lime green, peachy orange, and occasional red provide the backdrop of our country walk. We spy on separate occasions at least six white-tailed deer; each gives us a brief and skeptical look before bounding away, slipping into the forest. Hidden. We see a rafter of turkeys on someone’s lawn. A “flying V” of some type of bird overhead makes its way—south, I presume… The roads are quiet, the trash and recycling have been put out for pickup at the ends of driveways, each a block’s distance from its neighboring drive. New York state is not my home, but the setting of my morning walk stirs in me a sudden longing for New Hampshire.
A spontaneous visit with our “Chinese son,” Long, was not without its challenges! As we headed for the Canterbury School in New Milford, Conn., where Long and Christi (Long’s new bride, who was unfortunately out of town) work and reside, we dutifully heeded every “right” and “left” command Siri issued, but we failed to consider Siri might not be aware of our vehicular constraints. There we were, just a couple hundred miles from home, encountering the very first bridge on the entire trip that could not accommodate Thor’s height.
With the help of a sympathetic passerby, we were able to stop traffic on the busy road that we’d just turned off of—and that we had to back onto again—and execute a 30-point reversal move with Thor and Joey (bravo, Dave!). Long was gracious enough to scrap our first plan and instead meet us 10 minutes from campus in the parking lot of a grocery store, and we dined on sandwiches under a tree as we caught up, our last “Long sighting” having been at his August wedding.
NEW HAMPSHIRE—and HOME, SWEET HOME!
Twenty-four hours in the Jaffrey/Rindge area with Dave’s dad, Darlene, and Brianne, Matt, and their four young kiddos meant we sort of closed out our adventure just as we’d begun it, as most of this same crew had seen us off in late August. I’ve never minded that “full circle” feeling one bit.
After watching three of the four Gaudet boys partake in their Saturday sports, it was truly time to head home to Concord—but not before one more Joey incident…
The trailer earned one last battle scar (and so did poor Dave) as we packed up to go and attempted to load the bike back onto it; the fact that the ground wasn’t level beneath Joey’s “feet,” meant the ramp was slightly askew, causing Dave to topple sideways, getting himself and that beast of a bike caught up on one of the ramp’s cables. I thank our lucky stars that Dave was not hurt and that Grampy was there with us so he and I could help stabilize the bike while Dave extracted himself from the situation—and so the three of us could then untangle the bike from the cable. (Footnote: Joey is now resting for the winter in our Concord garage; “his” injuries need time to heal…trailer surgery may be in order come spring.)
(Old photos–just to remind ourselves that battle-tested “Joey” served us well.)
Finishing right where we began…
Sixty minutes—and 50 miles—later, we pulled up to 268 North Main Street, Concord, with 40 days and more than 9,000 miles behind us…
…but oh, so much more than that when we really think about it.
…As I walk the girls down our Concord street in a cozy hoodie and jeans, I note the flip-flop tan has begun to fade; in a chance glimpse of my reflection in a car window, I detect a few sun-kissed wisps of blonde that have lingered, remnants of the journey we were just blessed with, as we chased summer around the country.
I relent. I smile at no one in particular—but also at everything—and I surrender to autumn, embracing the crisp air of a sunshiny October day. I am at peace with being home.
(And yes, by the way: We are still quite married.)
I stumbled upon a high school classmate’s Facebook post the other day (thank you, Brad McMaster!). This Wendell Berry poem (below) so beautifully captures much of what we felt during our journey.
And so, I urge readers, once again: If you have the opportunity, seize it…
The Peace of Wild Things
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.