Lost in the Undergrowth

Last night, I killed a cockroach that was crawling out of the sink drain.  Maybe it was an omen of what was to come.

Nights have been harder than I expected.  My shoulders, neck, and jaw are constantly tense and I can’t get comfortable on the bed even though I brought my own fancy pillows.  Regardless of what time I drift off to sleep, my eyes open at 6 sharp every morning.  Exhausted mid day, I try to take a nap, but 10-15 minutes pass by before I roll onto my right side to try and loosen up my back muscles and shoulders, and I can’t so I get up and try to do something else.  My mind has a grip on my body and it’s holding on tighter than I expected.

The lady I rent from left a binder of places to go and things to do.  I decided on an early morning hike this morning 8 miles away from the cottage.  The directions she left seemed simple enough and I copied them down.  The hiking spot was along the French Broad River.  After my breakfast and a cup of coffee, I got dressed and put on my hiking shoes.  Lucy hopped in the car with me and off we went.  “Edgy” is a good word to describe how I was feeling when I saw the first yellow sign indicating the road had multiple curves.  My solar plexus and the area between my shoulder blades had an odd, fearful energy.  Everything was tensing up, vibrating, and humming internally at the same time.  I ignored the sensations and pushed on through.  “All part of the mountain experience,” I reminded myself.

Curve.  Fear.  Second curve.  Fear.  Ascent.  Fear.  Descent.  Fear.  Curve.  Curve.  Curve.  Fear.  My butt muscles clenched.  A ripple ran through my solar plexus down into my rib cage, seizing hold of my breath.  I exhaled when I came to a small post office. I pulled into the parking lot and yelled at Lucy for her whimpering and pacing in the far back seat, out of reach for me to pet her or pinch her neck.

FullSizeRenderOnce I got my bearings and was reassured by the young man behind the counter that I had the right directions, I got back onto the highway and found what I assumed was the hiking spot she wrote about (turns out her directions lack detail and description).  I was at Alexander River Park and there were parking spaces and two gravel roads, one to the left and one to the right, leading down to the river.  She recommended the left loop, so I took the left gravel road.  There I was met with heavy underbrush and a small trail about 1 foot in width.  Even though this is supposedly a populated dog walking area, no one was in sight.  Wild thoughts rushed through my mind as the current rushed over the boulders.  “Will I be raped or murdered?”  “Will the story of my disappearance by on 48 Hours or some other crime scene investigation show?”  Fear crept up my spine and cinched around my midsection.  My dog was a hot mess too, turning in circles and getting tripped up in the underbrush and in her leash.

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It took less than a minute to get down near the river.  True, the scenic view was gorgeous:  mist rising off the river and fog lifting off the gray-green mountains.    The scene was less than peaceful to the ear, however.  The river moved so quickly and ramped over boulders and folded over itself.  The sound was amplified by chittering birds, chirping insects, rushing cars on the highway right above me.  The overgrowth in some areas was as tall as me and it seemed like only a machete could clear it.  And even though I could see my car through the weeds, they seemed to crowd in on me and cut short my breath.

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Fear became replaced with anger as I walked towards the car.  Beer cans, trash bags, and other random junk were scattered around.  I watched Lucy try and negotiate through the jungle of weeds and my anger became directed at myself:  “What if she gets ticks all over her and dies of Lyme disease?”  “What if that small growth on her shoulder that I didn’t get checked out before we left is cancer and she dies before my time here is over?”  Tears pooled up at the edges of my eyes.  I stepped to a clearing and tried to breathe slow, deep, calming breaths and watch the current float by me.  The current was faster than my breath and I tried to force the beautiful but fierce scene into a serene and healing one.  It wasn’t working.  Obviously.

So I cried instead.  Too bad I didn’t take the opportunity to scream like a banshee or wail like a lost soul, but I was still holding on to my fears and feeling self-conscious that I would be discovered by locals who thought I was a crazy woman.  Instead, I just let the tears stream down my face.  I crossed my arms over my chest and said quietly and repeatedly, “I’m so scared.  I’m so scared.  I just want to go home, but I don’t even have a real home to go to.”  As I cried more, Lucy sat there and looked up at me.  I collected myself before I “lost it” (although, I think I would have felt better had I unleashed my fear and anger).  We walked back to the car and I felt relief.  A little lighter.  A little more rational and sane.  I texted my sister again and told her briefly of my “crappy” experience and then just sat for a moment.

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The drive back to the cottage was uneventful.  The twisty curves were more manageable and smoother.  I was headed back to the cottage.  My “home base” so to speak.  I started thinking how people keep telling me I’m so brave for having set out on this adventure.  If they could see me now they may question their statements.  This rawness and vulnerability are strange and scary and to be truthful, I don’t really like this feeling or this experience all that much today.

Maybe being brave is about the recognition of fear within us as it’s happening?  Maybe being brave is about letting fear live alongside us but not allowing it to rule us?  Maybe being brave is about using fear as a tool to highlight the fragmented, shadow pieces of ourselves, giving us an opportunity to find that gap where the jagged piece goes in to the ever enlarging puzzle of ourselves?  As I type this, I can honestly tell you I don’t know.  I haven’t fully ridden out the wave of that fear that seized me this morning.  It keeps morphing from fear, to anger, to sadness, to loneliness, to confusion, to whatever else is lying awake inside of me, ready to strike.

All I know is that I am here and I will keep following the trails inside and outside of me until the path clears again.

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Heart Center

The white windmills on highway 47 north cut through the deep blue Midwestern sky.  I turned onto a side road and got out of my car to take in the sweeping panoramic views that included waving cornfields, blue wild asters, and a stoic barn in the distance.

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When I arrived at the conference center in North Lake, Illinois, I didn’t know what to expect.  I was there to attend a weekend yoga retreat called BhaktiFest Midwest.  I have practiced bhakti (the yoga path of love and devotion) with Saul David Raye (an internationally known teacher) whenever he comes to the St. Louis area, but this time around I was going to immerse myself in the ancient traditions of kirtan, chanting (mantra), and breathwork (pranyama) as well as yoga poses (asana), and whatever other types of classes were offered.  I was curious to know if I would come away with a “blissed out” experience or if I was fooling myself into thinking that I could let go of conventions and old ways of being and allow my wild self to be present in the sessions.

I hesitated as I pulled in the parking lot next to a hippy van painted with a rainbow cosmic scene of Saturn and a guy on a surfboard.   A sense of loneliness and self-consciousness came over me as one of the volunteers wrapped the green band around my wrist and welcomed me.  Guys with man buns and lots of jewelry and women covered in tattoos and hairy armpits intermingled with men in kahki pants and Birkenstocks and women in all white with scarves around their foreheads.  Were “these people” part of my tribe now?  Did I fit in with hippies, love gurus, and mystics?  There were vendors selling their wares of mala beads, scarves, tie-dye, loose-fitting tops and pants, statues, and even cosmic readings.  I pulled my yoga mat closer to my chest and searched for the yoga room.  I wanted familiarity.  I wanted to distance myself from people who smelled like patchouli and rose water and roll out my mat and go through the motions of poses I’ve been doing for 15 years.  Thankfully, I didn’t get what I was asking for.  FullSizeRender

By the time I got to my second session of the day I had chastised myself for being so judgmental and dared myself to be more open-minded and open-hearted.  These people were fellow seekers of the heart.  People wanting to experience more than the ordinary and to be touched by the sublime.  And isn’t that what I’m doing too on this new journey?  Seeking a place where I can creatively express my emotions and experiences.  Seeking a way of being that is different than my traditional role as a mainstream English teacher, good and responsible daughter and sister, wild aunt, and single woman in a big house.  All roles I upheld by determination and default.

As I laid down on my back, preparing to be guided through a 2 hour session focused solely on the breath, I realized I don’t know that much about life or love as I pretended to know when I got to the conference. As Michael Brain Baker (the teacher, who was dressed in all white, had dreadlocks, and smelled of some heavenly rose watered scent) played cosmic sounds and chanted lullabies in Portuguese, Sanskrit, Hindi, and some other exotic languages, my body became awakened by my deep breathing (two deep inhales through the mouth and one long exhale through the mouth for 7 minute increments that were followed by periods of rest and then breath retention).  The breathing mimicked a buildup to a good cry.  The effect in the room was that of a wounded child sobbing for her mother.  I heard others wailing, crying, and moaning in anguish while my eyes were closed and we were all covered in darkness.  Anger and frustration awakened inside of me.  I wanted them to be quiet so I could have a peaceful, blissful experience.  I focused on Michael’s voice and directions.  I kept breathing, deeper and more fully, willing others to quiet themselves.  The more intense I became with my breath, the more my feet tingled, and then my hands and arms began tingling as well.  I got worried when my scalp tightened and my mouth started to go numb as well, but still I kept breathing faster and more intense.  One of the helpers in the room must have sensed my intensity and she came over and I felt some warm drop of rose scented liquid on my forehead.  Then, I heard her breathing, softly, sweetly, and calmly.  I took her cue and my short-circuited nervous system stopped going haywire.  She stayed with me for what felt like a long time.  Her presence at the crown of my head.  Cool air from the central air spread across my chest and I shivered then breathed, shivered then breathed.  I kept hearing her rhythmic breath and she was never far away from me, even as others cried and giggled and eventually burst into wild laughter and howling.  Next came pure silence as we rested our controlled breathing.  I felt like I was floating due to the fact that we had been oxygenating areas of our body that rarely get the deep benefits from our shallow daily breathing.  Peace flooded the room.  And silence.  And then it happened.  My heart cracked and I began crying.  The man who was moaning in sheer agony and pain across the room suddenly became my brother and I cried for him, imagining I was holding him in my arms, cradling him and rocking him through his pain.  Tears flowed from my eyes, and the man eventually quieted.

IMG_1464In the morning, I went to a nondescript workshop conducted by a 60 year old man with a scruffy white beard.  He was wearing jeans, a buttoned down long sleeve shirt, and tennis shoes.  He played the dulcimer and talked in a meditative voice.  The topic was on freedom and liberation of the soul.  We all have attachments and deep fears and the yogis and mystics say all attachments and fears stem from the greatest fear of all:  death.  He strummed the dulcimer that was in harmony with the pulsating, warping sound coming out of an amplifier.  This grandfather of a man told us we were all safe and that we had been in this cycle of birth and re-death for thousands of years, and would continue until we learned to face our own mortality and welcome it fully and with great love.

He instructed us to close our eyes and take an inhale through our nose, saying to ourselves, “Thank you, Great Spirit.”  And as we exhaled, he said, “I’m coming home.”  It sounded too simplistic for me to see how it could be a profound experience.  Yet, I listened to my intuition and allowed myself to be guided.  Eyes closed, I began to shed my inhibitions.  I tuned in to his voice, his words, his wisdom and guidance.  For awhile, my thoughts and breaths were mechanical and methodical.  The man literally struck a chord on his dulcimer right as I inhaled and said to myself, “Thank you for this breath, Great Spirit.”  I retained my breath for a few seconds; as he struck another reverberating chord, I gently exhaled and said whole-heartedly, “I’m coming home.”  A tenderness and warmth spread over my heart center and I started crying heavy tears that ran down my face and dropped onto my chest.  I kept my eyes closed, but I cried, and I kept the mantra and breath work going.  More tenderness, more tears.  Until after maybe a half an hour the breath became seamless and the words became truth.  A clarity came over me and it excited and frightened me at the same time.  I broke the moment by opening my eyes and looking at the teacher at the front of the room.  Too much to handle all at once I suppose.  Life turned back to the ordinary matrix we function in.  I had caught a glimpse of the sublime, however, and it was no other place but at the center of my heart.

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(P.S., I added this last picture in because it’s true and it’s also a reminder not to take myself too seriously either.  Ha ha!)

Birds of a Feather: A Return to the Wild Mind, Part 2

The first morning after arriving at Shadowcliff Lodge near Grand Lake, Colorado, I decided to get up early and do yoga on the rocks that faced the looming mountains in the east.  I dressed in layers, zipped myself up in my black jacket, and pulled on sparkly red, fingerless gloves.  When I walked outside, the cold mountain air was a shock to my system and I was a bit confused that I could see my breath in mid-August.

I climbed up on an outcropping not too far from the lodge.  I started breathing in while reaching my arms overhead and breathing out while lowering my hands to my side.  I noticed one of my group members, Sarah, on another outcropping not too far from me.  She was doing tai chi with grace and ease.  Meanwhile, I was fumbling to hold myself upright with my left hand pressed up against the boulder behind me while my right ankle was over my knee as I was squatting so as to get a good hip stretch.

The sun slowly began inching its way over the top of the mountain as frustration and tension began rising up my spine, lodging into my tense neck and facial muscles.  “Why am I not doing my yoga right?” I thought to myself.  “Why doesn’t this feel as organic and beautiful as it should?  I’m in the Rocky Mountains as the sun is coming up, damn’t.  This should feel like a profound and heart-opening moment right now.”  I chalked it up to the chill in the air and the fact that I had just spent the night on a bunk bed in which I could feel every spring and wooden slat in the mattress.

I knew those weren’t the real reasons why I felt a resistance inside of me, however.  It was because I was trying to force my mind and body into a meditative and serene state of being by doing linear poses that were in alignment with my inhale and exhale.  My breath was forced.  My poses were forced.  My beliefs that this specific moment would bring me instant inner peace and knowing were forced.  The whole experience was forced.  So, I forced myself to stop moving and to watch the woman in front of me instead.  She is in her early 50s, tall, athletic, with her brown hair cut in a youthful and pretty bob.  That morning, her down-filled vest looked like the color of the morning’s sky.  In my mind’s eye, she seemed to be surrounded by a soft mountain mist that artfully blurred the edges of her and her surroundings.  She was so fluid and smooth in her movements:  leaning and pushing with her arms, swooping down and around with her hips and knees, holding and steadying herself before her body took on another fluid, organic shape.

About this time, I heard a solitary wind flute as if a Native American ceremony was happening somewhere in the valley below us.  The sun’s angle transformed her into a silhouette.  Every rise and fall of the notes from the flute moved her more gracefully into herself then out into the air, the trees, the boulders, the creek below, and the mountains in the distance and back again.  I took all of this to be a sign and closed my eyes and forgot about the fact that I could tumble down a rocky outcropping.  (I reassured myself if I did fall, I would survive by landing somewhat ungracefully on the gravel trail not too far below).  I grounded my legs and feet and started moving with the flute sounds.  This grounding and slow movement turned into my breath, which then in turn circled around inside of my body and breathed out into the crisp morning air and back again.  My hips circled and swayed.  I moved my fingers and arms as I opened my chest and pulled back my shoulders.  I felt as graceful as the osprey and the eagles that glided on the wind in the valley below me.  I was as alert as the two chipmunk that scurried around my feet and the shrubs around me.

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The flute music came to an end and I opened my eyes.  Sarah was walking towards my area and we greeted each other.  The breeze, the chill, and the brightness of the morning sun had brought water to my eyes and I had already the beginnings of post-nasal drip.  I laughed and wiped away the tears that probably looked like they belonged to an emotional basket case.  I asked her if she had heard the flute player as we were practicing our morning movements.  She grinned and told me that was the music she had on her cellphone and uses every morning for her tai chi exercises.  Albeit, the revelation of this fact was less glamourous that my romantic notion of a rustic, magical mountain man stepping out of his log cabin below to greet us and the morning sun; yet I couldn’t help to think how lovely everything synced up this morning to pull me out of my stuck thoughts and back into my body and my heart center.

We chatted a few more minutes and then she went inside to eat breakfast.  I stayed a little longer in hopes to capture the sun’s rays on my face, and to also hold on to the brief moment of fluidity and sensuality that arose in my body not more than five minutes ago.

I stood there, facing east, waiting again to feel a sense of enlightenment or rapture at being out in the wild.  A breeze blew over me and I filled my lungs deeply, cursing slightly at the slight headache and dryness in my nose, both lingering effects of yesterday’s altitude sickness.  I turned and began walking back to the big lodge.  Just when I thought the magic had faded from my morning, two hummingbirds swooped up over my head.  Hoping for a drop of nectar, they dove down, hovered over my hands, and brushed up against my red sequenced, fingerless gloves.  I stopped in the middle of climbing the stairs and held out my hands, palms up.  I heard the motorized fluttering of their wings and tiny chirps of communication between the two of them.  As fast as they had arrived, they left and landed in a pine tree a few feet away.

I got to the top of the stairs and leaned up against the banister of the deck that wrapped around the dining lodge.  Sage, one of our guides, came out with her cup of coffee and stood next to me silently, like a patient teacher waiting for the curious yet guarded student to ask a question or spark a conversation.  I took the bait and told her about my two hummingbirds.  I laughed off the encounter as a fluke due to the fact that I was wearing bright red.  She took a sip of coffee and leaned up against the banister as well.  She simply nodded her head and said, “Mmmm. . .”  I smiled, recognizing that as both acknowledgment of my statement and a prompt to really dig deeper and trust my intuition that the encounter was also a sign or a communication from the larger world that houses both the outer and inner wilderness of ourselves.  These hummingbirds were reintroducing me back to my natural, beautiful, sweet, sensual self that I had lost along the way as a full-fledged adult caught up in the railroad track of life (to paraphrase Henry David Thoreau).  At least these were my thoughts I finally uncovered as Sage stood there listening to me babbling on and on.  She gazed off into the valley below us and paraphrased what I had just said, adding on, “That sounds like a lovely way to start this journey.  I wouldn’t be surprised if your hummingbirds came back to check in on you.”

Later that day, I went farther down the trail by the lodge and spotted two huge boulders.  I started to climb up one, and heard some rustling right below it.  It was Bernard, one of the older men in our group, and a great lover of the Earth.  He had nestled himself next to the boulder that was balanced on and supported by another smaller boulder below it.  He told me it was solid but that it wasn’t the best idea to climb on top of it.  I asked him if he was Ok if I sat on the boulder next to his for the afternoon’s contemplation exercise.  He welcomed me and I climbed a little ways up the hill and scampered up the boulder.  I shrugged off my backpack and unzipped my black jacket to use as a seat cover.  I pushed up the red sleeves of my thin shirt and faced east again.  I could see and hear the running creek below.  I got very quiet, settling in to simply watch the full afternoon sunlight dance off the rippling waves.  That’s when I heard the beautiful, light drumming coming from Bernard’s direction.

He was humming with a lovely sing-song voice in sync with the constant drumming of his handheld Native American drum.  He was there to offer prayers and blessings to the four boulders in that area that he called “Grandfather Rocks”.  My thoughts and worries dropped away from me and I was lulled by the sound of the creek, the beat of the drum, and Bernard’s shamanistic humming that was soothing and rhythmic at the same time.  Tears swelled up to my eyes, real ones this time.  The modern world faded away and I no longer saw the town of Grand Lake with its telephone wires, speed boats, early afternoon traffic below.  Instead, the creek came alive even more and I watched as a hawk swooped down and skimmed the surface of the water.  Chipmunks came out of their hiding places and danced around in the brush below me.  Grasshoppers with snapping-sounding wings jumped and danced around me.  A butterfly flitted by and was carried on the breeze.  Still I heard the rushing of the creek, the constant beat of the drum, and the rhythmic pulses of Bernard’s humming, which all now sounded ancient yet alive at the same time.

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My heart swelled and I felt so alive in not only my body but in the moment.  Nothing else mattered.  No one desire welled up inside of me yet everything I’ve ever wanted seemed possible and tangible.  Just then, two hummingbirds danced around my head.  One dive-bombed my shirt and I felt the ripple of its wings caressing my back left shoulder as I heard their motor-like hum purring in my ear.  A slight wind from the fast motion of its wings lifted wisps of my hair and tickled my neck.  I sat as still as I possibly could.  It kept flying away into the air and back again, this time moving to the center of my spine, right between both shoulder blades at the back of my heart.  Back and forth, keeping time with the drumbeat.  And I could swear that I felt my heart pounding more strongly than I have in my life.  The sound of the creek became more distinct.  The hummingbird’s wings created a tattoo of small pulses on my back.  The drumbeat stayed constant and strong.  The ancient voice issued forth from this modern man connected to the land.   If this was being alive, truly alive, then I was experiencing it, not thinking it.  My heartbeat, the drumbeat.  My heart’s desires, the hummingbird’s wings.  My tears, my heart’s song flowing like the voices of the ancient ones.  All gathered here on this rock:  unwavering, feeling, and living in sync with the wilderness both outside and inside of myself.

Into the Woods: A Return to the Wild Mind, Part 1

photo 2The guides take us into a small clearing under pine trees and next to a small, rushing stream.  We plop our backpacks down, our breath heaving a bit as we try to recover from the rocky, uphill walk to the trail head.  Some have portable camping chairs while others of us brush away the pine needles, tiny pine cones, spiders and ants before sitting.

“I can’t believe I’m finally here,” I think to myself as the group settles in and the guides begin explaining the first exercise of the 5 day retreat.

For the past few months, I’ve felt the urge to somehow mark my 40th birthday in a big way.  I feel, for whatever reason, that this is a year of transition and manifestation.  A year for me to finally take root and fill out the shape of who I am as a woman.  Since the time I was 5, a tenderness and artistic sensitivity were present in my heart and mind.  When I was 8, 9, and 10, I would walk to the edge of the woods behind my house, breathe in the scent of the earthy ground mixed with the sweet decaying smell of oak leaves, and get excited because inside those woods mystery abounded.  I would take the longer, darker path and wait to hear some whispering of imagination or my spirit speak to me or reveal something important or meaningful to me.   In those woods, I felt large, alive, and magical, like a woodland spirit or sprite, or when I was feeling particularly powerful and imaginative, like Artemis, the goddess of the hunt and the moon.  In my room, I would write poetry, draw my ideas, and dream of the wild things that lived not too far from my backyard.

Flash forward some 30 years later and I found myself quite removed from those childhood fantasies, dreams, and other-worldy connections.  My heart was tucked away for safe keeping, and I became dominated by my mind.  I was a functioning neurotic with an oddball sense of humor, a high sensitivity to other’s words and emotions, and a thirst for knowledge and wisdom.  I was wracked with guilt, fear, shame, loathing, contempt, and anger at myself and my life.  I secretly longed for love, passion, connection, and expression.  I was having an “existential crisis” without labeling it that.  Somewhere along this path, some part of my guard around my heart cracked open and I began to question if 40 would finally mark the time in my life where I stopped fearing not only my impending death but also fearing my existence.  I decided to get brave and took it upon myself to find out.  That’s how I found myself in the forest of the Colorado Rockies with 9 other like-minded individuals and 2 guides willing to lead us not only back into the woods but also back to our true selves.photo 1

I can not recall what the group talked about a few moments ago.  On the break, I pick up a small black pebble near the creek bed and turn it over and over in my hand.  It feels warm to the touch and I press it up to my face and let the sun’s baked-in warmth soak into my cheek.  My head and ears are still muffled from this afternoon’s earlier altitude sickness.  I hear one of the guides calling us back from break and impulsively I dip the small rock into the stream and press it again to my cheek, this time noticing the drastic difference of the cool water that surges and prickles my nerve endings.

I carry this rounded pebble with me, hold it, and use it almost like a worry stone when I hear the instructions for our first solo hike.  “You probably won’t encounter a bear,” they say.  “Or a mountain lion.  But if you do, get really large and yell.  Hold your pack over your head and show no fear.  Do not run.  If you see deer or elk or moose. . .give them plenty of space. . .Carry your whistles and blow really hard if you find yourself in need.  Don’t stop blowing the whistle until someone finds you.”

We are instructed to find a place, preferably off-trail, that calls to us and to walk into that space and sit with that feeling of being welcomed back into the wild world.  As silly as it sounds, our guides tell us that it may be beneficial to even have a conversation with the place and introduce ourselves.  “Silently, right?” someone asks.  One of the guides laughs and gently says, “You can.  But why not speak your heart out loud?  Let yourself be known.  You’re being watched as it is.”

We all walk out of the clearing and like birds searching the ground for food, we begin cocking our heads, turning in circles, looking at the ground, and then looking up and down the trail to find our place.  We slowly break from the flock and go our separate ways.

I begin walking up the trail, wondering when I will know where to go.  I’m mindful that the creek is to my right.  It’s comforting to hear the rushing waters at all times.    I walk, searching for the place.  My mind begins to wander with each step I take.  My old patterns of worry and fear start playing their one-track song inside my head.  I notice that I am no longer in the present and this noticing actually helps bring me back to the moment.  Just then, I look to my left and see the sun streaming softly through the trees.  This place welcomes me and invites me in.

“It’s like being in Sherwood forest or in King Arthur’s Camelot,” I muse to myself.  I creep to the edge of the trail and peer through the underbrush and the overgrowth and see, at the top of the hill, a log, perfect for sitting and contemplating my life. Without any hesitation, I venture into the woods.  Twigs snap under my hiking boots, tiny limbs catch on my sweatshirt, pants, and backpack.  I walk on and gingerly cross over small, rotted pine trees and push aside brambles and weeds.  The birds become quiet and the scramblings of squirrels and other ground animals stop as well.  I have arrived at the log and I look up and see a clearing of sky between an aspen to my left and two beautiful pines to my right.  There, in the blue sky and the muted sunshine is the quarter moon on its slow journey to becoming its full, luminous self.

It’s breathtaking to be able to experience sunshine, the moon, the whispers of pine and the rustle of wild grass in the breeze.

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I sit down on the log and look up at the moon.  The trees in front of me slightly sway, left to right, back and forth.  Nature’s way of saying, “Hello.”  I smile and without even thinking I wave back to the trees.  I take a few deep breaths of the fresh mountain air and settle into myself.  Suddenly, it doesn’t matter that I’m alone, in the forest, with mountain lions, elk, moose, deer and whatever slithered away behind me.  I’m supposed to be here, in this moment, with all the other living, breathing creatures of this planet.  I’m supposed to sway slightly like the trees as the wind from the mountaintop breezes through this space.

I continue to gaze at the moon and just breathe.  The slight chirping of birds turn into their full songs.  A little squirrel begins cracking a nut at the other end of the log.  We look at each other and he decides I’m not to be trusted with his bounty, so he scampers away.  I laugh and I hear some creature behind me make a noise that sounds eerily like a grunt.  I speak out loud to him, saying, “I hear you.  I promise you I’m not here to hurt you.  You’re safe. It’s Ok.”  I hear him retreat and let out a sigh of relief and giggle in amusement at my bold 10 year old self talking to the woodland creatures like a loving Artemis or Snow White.

“Why have I come here?” I ask out loud to the trees that are framing the moon.  “What desire lured me out West to sit on a log away from a well-worn path?”  I get no response except for their gentle swaying and the glorious views around me.  Suddenly, I have my answer:  I am here to simply be myself.  All of me.  All of those parts of me that I have hidden away for whatever reason, for whatever necessity, for whatever excuse or fear or desire or need or longing that I have denied.  I am to be like both the sun and the moon.  The light and the shadow.  The wind and the trees.  The scurrying squirrel.  The hidden beast.  The chirping birds.  The clinging vines.  The broken twigs.  The resting log.  And I don’t have to choose; for it all has been chosen for me simply because I am a living, breathing creature of this earth.  And all of me has been waiting for this part of me all along.  I have been welcomed back to my wild, beautiful, natural self.

Day 1: The Dubliners

Forgive my nerdy reference to James Joyce in my title, but I would be remiss as an English teacher not to allude to one of Ireland’s premiere authors & the title of one of his most famous collections of short stories & his place of origin.

It’s 7p.m. Dublin time and I am done for the day. I arrived in the city at 6:30 a.m. & got to the hotel around 7. I couldn’t check in until noon, so I had to check my bags at the hotel & figure out what the hell I was going to do with myself for 5 hours! The first thing was to locate an ATM because I had spent all of my Euros I had converted in North Carolina on the taxi ride from the airport to hotel. Dublin isn’t cheap, and Euros are deceiving. The prices seem so Americanized but are higher than US dollars. I think I better find an Euro converter app on my phone otherwise I’m going to be guesstimating how much I’m spending daily the I’ll overspend & won’t be able to buy my mom & sister these ridiculously funny black sheep & shamrock key chains & magnets. Nor will my dad get his Fathers’ Day present of Irish whiskey.

Once I got cash, I spent way too many Euros on the hotel’s continental breakfast. Being a self-proclaimed cheapskate, I decided to take them for all they were worth & loaded up on everything offered on the buffet, regardless if I liked it or not. Soggy cornflakes in lowfat milk? Sure. Sour grapefruit with apples, pears, grapes & melon mixed in? Of course. Croissant? Oui Monsieur. Greek yogurt? Scoop that on my plate, please. I would like weak coffee (2 cups please) & yes, I’m going to wash it down with tart orange juice, too.

Satiated & satisfied I ate my 8.50 Euros worth, I headed out to St. Stephens Green Park. The desk clerk recommended it & it was a brisk and beautiful sunny morning. I wound up meeting a nice young woman from Lithuania who is working here in Dublin. She helped me navigate the tricky street crossing (look right first, not left because of the reverse way of driving) and showed me around the park telling me that I will love Dublin because of how friendly the people are. She was right. It was fun to talk to her & throughout my morning I had brief conversations with Dubliners who were happy to point me in the right direction or tell me there are no toilets in the park (in which I had to race back the mile to the hotel due to the coffee, water & orange juice I drank at breakfast). My only regret while in the park was that I didn’t strike up a conversation with an elderly man who had the quintessential Irish look: beautiful, ornery smile, tweed jacket, fedora & hiking boots. Guess I will have to kiss the Blarney Stone & acquire the gift of gab.

To end my first day in Dublin, I walked down to the shopping square near Trinity College. This area is where tourists & Dubliners converge to eat, shop, listen to & watch street performers. I thought maybe I would go to a pub & eat a sandwich & drink a Guinness, but I was feeling too tired & a little overwhelmed & intimidated to mix with locals in that way just yet. Instead, I opted to go into M & S department store & eat at the small cafe that sits on the corner & has big glass windows & seats that look out onto the square. I ate my grilled chicken & cheese on hot Texas toast & drank my chai tea as I read a newspaper, listened in on the locals’ conversations (ah, the lovely Irish brogue), read a local newspaper & sat & people watched. About an hour later, I felt my second round of exhaustion kick in so I trekked the mile or so back to my hotel in need of some rest & relaxation before a full day tomorrow when I meet my touring companions. Today was a great introduction to a beautiful & charming city filled with equally beautiful & charming people.

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This April Fool

Spring time is finally here in the Midwest.  Today it was 70 degrees and sunny.  That could change seeing how just last week we had a foot of heavy, wet snow with overcast skies and biting wind.  However, mud puddles and small pools of water are all that remain today.  I will take the murky pools and squishy grass even though walking and being outside is still a bit of an inconvenience.  Just the whisper of what is to come is enough to keep my hopes of a new beginning alive.   I fall for it every time.

A moment along the path
A moment along the path

At times, it feels as if life is merely a series of highways, bi-ways, country lanes and ruts in the road.  Right now, my life seems to be bumping along down a meandering two lane highway in an unknown part of the country.  It’s beautiful, exciting, a bit intimidating, and confusing.  One wrong turn onto an intersecting, unmarked lane seems to throw me off course and then I have to retrace my steps and figure where I’m going all over again.  Occasionally I get sidetracked and at other times I get afraid and begin to lose my faith on this journey of mine.  Sometimes I feel like I can’t put my life on cruise control and let the road take me where it will.  Instead, I try to arrange my dreams and goals in life in an orderly, linear, precise fashion:  trying to dictate to the road how and where it will turn and wind and arrive at the end destination I had in mind.

Spring's promise
Spring’s promise

Like any seasoned traveler, I should know by now that the journey is what matters, not the destination.  But, my brain isn’t always wired to think like that.  It seems I have to train and retrain myself every couple hundred miles or so.  I fall for the false advertisements of an easy life in which I should conform to the societal pressures and assumptions someone my age, my status and my position/role in life dictates.  I want to buck the system and find an empty, deserted and inviting road to travel down and explore my dreams, my wishes, my fantasies, and my ideas, but I am afraid sometimes to go down that path alone; and so I exit off the ramp and idle myself until I get brave again.   Occasionally, I cave to the external pressures that are out there in our world and let friends, family, acquaintances, and strangers somehow latch onto my dreams and try to tell me what I could or should do to the point that I become confused on what I want to do (or not do).  There are times I let my neurotic thoughts and own personal pressures get to me and I even try and talk myself out of what I truly want and need in my life because I don’t fully believe in myself or have been conditioned by past experiences to not trust my own intuition.  Those are dark days where traveling the open road seems arduous at best, and impossible at worst.

Then, a day like today comes along and breaks through the cloudless, gray skies and shines a light upon my path and restores my faith in myself and my dreams and desires.  That’s when my load becomes a bit easier to carry and I feel like I can keep going on this journey that will deliver me to another crossroads at another time.  Wanderlust kicks in, and I pick up my things and go on with my life and follow my path.  Call me a fool, but it’s the only way I know how to travel in this world.

Down the path I must go
Down this path I must go

Nashville Uncovered

Nashville Night-life

On our way to Nashville this weekend, my friend Katie & I had no idea what we would exactly be doing, who we would meet, or where we would be going.  We just knew that we both needed a getaway weekend from our hectic lives.  We’re both high school teachers, and the added stress of taking our work home with us when it doesn’t get finished at work was piling up on both of us in different ways.  It doesn’t matter how, what matters is that we both recognized a break from our daily routine and lives would give us a chance to reconnect with ourselves and just be ourselves.  Not Mrs. McD or Ms. H, or even mom and wife in her case.  Just Katie & Megan out on the road.

That’s when the idea of Nashville came to us.

A few nights before we left, we made hotel reservations and determined that we would figure out the trip as we went.

I’m so glad we did because we didn’t fall into tourist traps nor did we have any real expectations.  Instead, we went in with open minds and open hearts and let the moment take us to wherever we wound up.  Live music, however, was a must.

We got into Nashville late in the evening.  We dropped off our luggage in the room and headed to the lobby to figure out a place to eat.  While we were waiting, we began to notice women walking by us wearing tight jean skirts, tight yoga pants or jeans, and on a few rare occasions tight cut-off jean shorts.  What they all had in common was that they were all wearing over-the-top decorated cowboy boots.  They.  Were.  Horrible.  Yet, I immediately became fascinated by them and we both asked, “Why?  Why in the world would people wear those things?”  We knew the answers:  for attention and for their own idea of sex appeal.  The prettier and more decorated the peacock, the more chances he has at attracting a mate.  Same base mentality applies to us humans.  But seriously, turquoise, hot pink and purple colors may blend together nicely on a peacock; but when they are applied to expensive snake skin and leather and bedazzled with rhinestones and passed off as fashion footwear, a person’s attention seeking ways have gone from normal to extreme.

We rode in the shuttle with 4 middle-aged men our fathers’ age.  They decided to relive their youth and flirt with us and begged us to go to a bar called “The Rebar” with them.  We politely declined, and laughed when we heard them say “Hubba, Hubba,” as we closed the shuttle van door behind us.

After eating at a nice meal at a nice restaurant with a nice cover band, we headed back to the hotel.  Once in the room, I grabbed a pen and paper and started making tally marks.  When Katie asked what I was doing, I mentioned that I was going to start a “Boot Count” tally and check off the number of times I saw women clomping around in these obnoxious things and I was writing down my count from earlier that evening.  And the weekend theme began.

Do these boots make my butt look big?

We noticed them while driving down the 2 lane streets back to the hotel after visiting Andrew Jackson’s homestead “The Hermitage.”  We noticed them in our hotel lobby and at breakfast, lunch, and dinner.  As we bit the bullet and walked into and back out of the “Juke Joints,” “Honky Tonks,” and souvenir shops on Music Row, our eyes lit up and we began a fast count of all the pedestrians walking towards us at the crosswalk.  Katie’s pretty blue eyes lit up and she nodded her head ever so slightly and said, “Get out your pen and paper, ‘cuz here they come.”  I pulled out my tally sheet on the corner of Broadway and 2nd and ticked off the 8 college girls walking our way.  They all were wearing black tights, gray sweater dresses, and hideously expensive cowboy boots in chartreuse, red, turquoise, brown-fringed, or pink and purple pointy-toed cowboy boots.  Yes!  Score!

Me & My Guitar Boots
I’m Just a Rhinestone Cowgirl
There’s a Snake In My Boot!

In one souvenir shop, I spotted a hideous Elvis jumpsuit that I tried to persuade Katie to buy for a Halloween costume.  All I got was this picture of the mannequin wearing it instead.

Return to Sender

I spotted an Elvis fortune telling machine when I was at the checkout machine.  I pressed my luck, and put in my 50 cents.  Elvis gave me some sound advice and my fortune card told me, “Recently you’ve had to make some judgements. . .The more we judge, the less we love.”  I worried that the all-knowing Elvis was chastising me for being so critical of my fellow females, and so I did a “Mea Culpa” and went into 3 boot stores and took pictures of the boots and pretended to like them.  When approached by the salesclerk and asked to try a pair on, I told her “Thank you,” but they were “too expensive” for my taste.  I made my attempt to fit in, and my reward was meeting an Elvis-impersonator and getting advised to go to “Boot Time” store so I could buy 1 pair and get 2 pairs free.

I see boots & live music in your future, darling.
A Hunk-a Hunk-a Burnin’ Love
Buy 1 pair, get 2 pairs Free

Later in the evening, we knew that we had to go listen to live music.  So, we took a local’s advice and wound up going to “The Commodore Lounge” in the Holiday Inn across town.  We were both very glad that we did.  When we walked in, 4 women were on stage.  Each one had a mic and their guitars.  It was “Songwriter’s Night.”  Each set of 2 – 4 people got a total of approximately 1 hour to perform their songs they had written and crafted.  It was amazing.  The 1st woman had so much emotional depth to her lyrics and voice that she gave us goosebumps.  The 2nd woman was so polished in her singing and playing, and her song “No Neighbors,” made me feel melancholy and realize the truth that in our culture we don’t sit on our porches and visit with neighbors, but instead we rush home and shut down the garage door and seal off the world.  The 3rd woman sang with a lot of grit and made you take the “Whisky Queen,” seriously and incensed you when you learned she was cheated on by her man.  And the 4th woman sang a tender song about her daughter, and her face glowed when she looked out in the audience and saw her daughter sitting in the front.

Each set brought an interesting grouping of songwriters – some who have known each other for awhile, and others who had just met each other while on stage.  The beauty of it was that the universe was working in the artists’ and audience’s favor that night because all the songs and styles blended so well with one another.  One man sang a honky-tonk, bluesy song, and the 2nd round he sang a country song called “Real Men Wear Pink.”  It started off funny, and then turned when the character’s wife had developed and then overcome breast cancer and he put on his pink ribbon to show his support of her.  It was a very well crafted and surprising song.

In between the sets, Katie and I struck up a conversation with a young man by the name of Mike Everett.  I usually don’t post people’s full names on this blog, but in his case I’m making an exception.  He is a songwriter with substance.  He’s shy and unassuming, but very observant.  Throughout the evening, we learned that he has been playing since he was 14 (he’s now 22), and he moved to Nashville a few months ago.  We thought it was just to focus on his music career, but he later revealed to us that he graduated from a military school and is working as a Mechanical Engineer at a company in town.  He only started writing music a year ago, but he’s known that music is part of his life and that he really does want to make it his life’s focus and passion.  If we stayed for his late set, we would miss our shuttle back to the hotel and have to take a cab late at night.  We decided that since he was all alone (his roommate was out touring with his band, and he has no relatives in the state) we would be his support system.  Feeling like his big sisters, we told him to leave his jacket and go get his guitar and get ready.  We wished him well, and then we sat back and waited.

Once the soundcheck was over for him and the 2 other men (both in their 60s), he volunteered to go first.  His scrawny physique immediately changed, and the lighting hit his sharp, angular cheekbones and nose just right that his demeanor changed the minute he hit his first chord.  With his dark, curly brown hair and black t-shirt he looked like a cross between a young Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen.  His voice was strong and his rhythm was tight.  He brought a range of emotions to his song called “Words,” and he even got the attention of a woman in the crowd who clapped and said, “Whoo hoo!” as he was playing.  The 2 other men on stage sat in their chairs and smiled and grinned as he continued.  His second song, “On the Fence,” was about trying to break up with someone, but being afraid to lose her forever.  His voice was gritty and the vocals were raw and straight from the heart.  It was obvious that this song was fresh and new, not because he just wrote it, but because he was connecting into those emotions that he obviously went through to write that song.  It was pretty great to watch and listen to him.  We wound up visiting with him the rest of the evening and shutting down The Commodore Lounge.

High school students even got up there and performed as well.  The youngest one was a 14 year old girl who played the keyboard and sang songs about being in touch with nature, and finding herself while trying to work out the chaos of life as a teenager.  They even had great lines. The 16 year old girl played a waltz-rhytm on her guitar and sang, “Next time I’ll let my heart speak through my mouth.”  The 17 year old boy told a story about falling in love with a girl and referencing It’s A Wonderful Life and says he’ll “. . .be like George Bailey and lasso the moon for you.”  It was fun to watch these 3 kids have a chance to speak their hearts and minds and share their talents in this small, off the beaten path, venue.

Oh, and how can I forget Ken & Jeannie Veltz?  A husband and wife duo.  They performed 2 songs, one called “You Like Me,” and “Before You Take Me Home.”  I’m actually listening to the latter one as I’m typing this just to try and recapture the feelings I felt as I listened to them sing in this intimate venue. They have been married 38 years and have children and grandchildren.  Their songs have such a lovely, positive overtone and such soul and depth in them.  There’s humor, love and passion and compassion in their lyrics and melody and harmony.  Katie and I both got teary-eyed listening to them and very uplifted and grounded at the same time.  Katie leaned over to me during the second song and said, “Could you imagine having them as grandparents?  I mean, you would get to experience this every time you were with them.  How cool is that?”  I agreed.  They’re something special.  I encourage you to check out their website:  http://www.veltzmusic.com/Adventures_Veltz.html You won’t regret it.

And there you have it:  Nashville Uncovered.  Though it has its tourist traps, silly styles and its own culture and way of doing things, like every city, the real Nashville lies in the people who bring Music City to life.  Those unsung heroes of singing and songwriting.  Those who know that it’s more important to work on your craft and put your vulnerability, heart, and soul on the line.  Those who will never make it on the radio or get a wide range of attention (unless maybe if they buy some of those boots).  Those who create because they know it’s about the process of creating and sharing that process in the form of art.  Those who connect to us out there in the audience for a brief moment and share a part of their lives for 3 – 5 minutes at a time.

Searching for the Ghost of Mark Twain. . .

One of the mannequin displays in Mrs. Thatcher’s Attic, an antique store in Hannibal, MO

It’s been years since my sister, Katy, and I got the chance to go on a mini-road trip, but we finally made it happen this past weekend.  Destination?  Hannibal, Missouri.  Why not?  Don’t laugh.  It was as far as we could go in the time given.  Katy wanted to junk shop, and I wanted to be an English teacher / nerd and find out more about our nation’s teller of tall tales, Samuel Clemens.  Mark Twain to you.  So, after looking up our destination on the map and our iPhones’ GPS systems, we headed out.  Oh, and Katy, being the radio DJ, had me listen to old school Michael Jackson songs as we pulled out of her driveway.  (Don’t judge.  You know if you heard “Billie Jean” and “P.Y.T.” you would be singing along too.)

Me (left) and Katy (right, in her heart-shaped glasses) on the 1st leg of our 2 day road trip.

We didn’t make it too far (only 3 songs in) before we stopped about 20 miles down the road to get coffee in the small town of Monticello, Illinois.  A little gem of a town, really.  It has a beautiful downtown with small shops on main street, and a sweet coffee shop that once was an old, small  church.  They serve great cafe mochas with soy milk (hold the whip cream).  Cue the angels on harps ad a light from heaven shines down on us.

Always the savvy traveller, Katy grabbed a few tourist pamphlets before leaving the heavenly coffee shop.  As we strapped ourselves into our seats, she mentioned that Monticello has a street once known as “Millionaires’ Row”.  Only a few wrong turns later, we found it.  The homes ranged from the Victorian Era to The Arts & Crafts Period.  One house looked like something out of a Jane Austen novel, complete with a long, wrought iron, gable-roofed greenhouse in the side yard.  People walking by waved at us as we lurked and gawked at the houses (even stopping to photograph a few with our cell phones).  Thankfully our windows were rolled up so they couldn’t hear us saying, “Oh my God!” and “Holy Shit! Holy Shit!” as we drove under the speed limit up and down the lane (twice).

The coffee shop that used to be a church in Monticello, IL

As we left town, Katy put in her Billy Joel Greatest Hits CD, Part 1, and we sang “Uptown Girl” as we headed towards Springfield, Illinois.  We spent the majority of our day there because we took our time touring Abraham Lincoln’s Museum and Library.  Katy loves history and I wanted my picture taken with the life size figurines of Abe Lincoln & his family, so it was a win-win situation.  Truthfully, the museum and library are well worth the stop and it is very interesting and moving, especially when you get to the gallery that documents The Civil War.  We rambled around downtown on foot in search of somewhere to eat, and landed at The Feed Bag restaurant (excellent potato soup, and old school slushy ice for your soft drinks).  After that, neither of us could resist spending more time and money in an old used book shop next door.  Both of us left with treasures and a bargain.

Later in the evening, we arrived in Hannibal, MO, the birthplace of Mark Twain.  The town itself is not noteworthy, and it appears that tourism is currently the only saving grace of this river town.  However, the two of us were happy to be in an historical town that glimmered with the possibility of good food, good junk, and good sites and stories.  On all three of those fronts we were not disappointed.  Katy drove us into the Best Western hotel on the River and our parking was so steep (Hannibal is built on river bluffs and cliffs) that she had to put on the parking brake.  We were looking at our brochure guides (again, Katy  has the knack of always picking them up at every visitor station or rest area we end up at) when I realized just how steep the parking was. My head was involuntarily leaning on Katy’s shoulder, and her shoulder was leaning on the driver’s door.  When we got our luggage out, Katy set hers down and it began rolling down the parking lot and would have gone into the oncoming traffic had it not been for her quick maneuvering (with a few “Holy Shits” thrown in for good measure).

After looking through more brochures, making phone calls to restaurants, and driving up and down the main streets for almost an hour, Katy finally convinced me to eat at “Mark Twain’s Dinette”.  I was a little skeptical only because I had my heart set on eating at Lula Belle’s (which was once a brothel until it was converted into a restaurant in the late 1960s), but once we sat down in the comfortable booth and started talking about life in general, I was happy to be there.  I was even happier when my perfectly fried catfish sandwich and hot, tasty steak fries were in my stomach.  As proof that I care enough about my sister’s opinion I will admit that she was right, and I was wrong.  (For any of you who are older siblings, you know how hard it is to express this sentiment in words.)  In retrospect, I should’ve just bought the Mark Twain Dinette coffee mug that had his silhouette on the front.

Mark Twain’s Dinette, Hannibal, MO

In the morning, I was the first to wake up early.  Not because I was super excited (which I was) but because the family next to us were loud, and their conversation was bizarre.  I tossed and turned as I heard the following riveting and meaningful conversation:

Wife:  “Why did you wear your socks to bed?”

Husband:  Mumble, mumble, mumble

Wife:  “Hurry up.  We’ll miss the free breakfast.  Let’s go.”

Husband:  Mumble, mumble, mumble

Wife: “Where ARE YOUR socks?”

Husband:  Shuffle, shuffle, shuffle

Our morning tour of Hannibal began with a short walk up a bluff that overlooks the Mississippi River.  Then, we bought our tickets and toured the Mark Twain interpretive center, a recreation of Huck Finn’s home, Twain’s boyhood home, a viewing of Becky Thatcher’s house, and the iconic fence Tom Sawyer convinced his friends to pay him money for the privilege of white washing.  It sounds silly, but it was worth the $10  (especially when that includes the Mark Twain museum and gift shop at the end of the tour).  My imagination was on fire to be walking the same streets Twain once did.  I laughed out loud as I read passages from his autobiography or novels that were artistically arranged around memorabilia or photographs of him.  I learned that Twain also had a boyhood friend, Tom Blankenship, after whom he modeled Huck Finn.  Huck is one of my favorite characters in literature because despite how uneducated, uncivilized and ill-mannered as he was, he had so much love, kindness and loyalty in him.  His free spirit, to come and go and do as he pleases (though he always does the right thing), is still something a lot of us wish we could tap into more often.  It was refreshing to know that a real life Huck Finn really did walk this earth many moons ago.

View from a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River
Recreation of Huck Finn’s house (i.e., Tom Blankenship, Clemens’ boyhood friend)
One of the vignettes inside Twain’s boyhood home
Outside view of Twain’s boyhood home
Tom Sawyer’s fence

Once the self-guided tour was over, the junk shopping began.  We came upon an antiques store on Main Street, and I’m so glad we stopped.  We found treasures galore!  Yet, the treasures weren’t ones to buy (though Katy did want a gaudy spider ring and bracelet).  Instead, we happened upon a lot of life-like (and often creepy) mannequins that were displaying the different styled and themed antiques.  Words fail me, but the photos don’t.

Creepy Mannequin
Little Spooky House on the Prairie
70s creepy Melancholy Mannequin
Katy & creepy Loni Anderson mannequin

Our last stop in Hannibal was Rockcliffe Mansion, which was built in 1898 for a wealthy logger, Cruikshank.  The drive to the mansion included not only a steep climb up a tall cliff, but hairpin turns as well.  Again, Katy was driving.   I noticed she was a bit nervous, not because she was muttering, “Holy Shit.  Holy Shit,” but because she was leaning forward in her seat, chin jutting out at a 90 degree angle, shoulders hunched, and hands gripping the wheel.  I started laughing, and she looked over at me and snapped, “Megan!  Lean forward!”  This mediocre attempt at physics made me laugh even more.  She turned and looked at me again and said, “I’m serious.”  So, I appeased her and leaned forward, laughing all the while, until we came to another hairpin turn and I leaned away from it and into her.  In the parking lot, I was making fun of her again and she tried to laugh it off while simply saying, “You know I was just joking, right?”  Yeah, right.

We joined a tour in progress and were told that the mansion was abandoned for 43 years until 2 private owners bought it a few years ago and began the restorations.  The mansion is still in some disrepair, but it was beautiful nonetheless.  Fortunately all the Tiffany stained glass windows are in excellent condition, and the chair that Twain used to sit in when he visited the family is still there.  The tour guide swore that the place has the signs of a haunting, but try as we might to capture something supernatural on camera, all we got were beautiful pictures of a bygone era (oh, and one of a creepy attic housing a dismantled, nude mannequin, but no ghosts that we could find).

Dismantled Mannequin or Fainting Ghost?

Despite this drought, the ride home was scenic and peaceful.  There is something about the Midwest that tugs at my heart strings.  Maybe it’s the rolling hills of varying fields of corn, soybeans and wheat, the trees, the beautiful, blue skies with white puffy clouds.  Or maybe it’s being in the company of my little sister who sings along to the Bee Gees and ABBA which makes me recall bygone days of our childhood when a family road trip was one of the most exciting and memorable moments of our young lives.  As I took my last photo of the trip of the the haunting and graceful windmills acting like sentinels of the farmland,  ghost-like memories of my past swirled in front of me and silently whispered of a future filled with happy road trips with my kid sister by my side.

This beautiful landscape of the Midwest