Sunday, December 12, 2010

A Day Well Spent

The family took a drive to Bath, MI yesterday, to spend the afternoon on Hazel Ridge FarmThis has become somewhat of a tradition for us each HRF is the home of Robbyn and Giljsbert (Nick) van Frankenhuyzen. (He is the illustrator for several Sleeping Bear Press books, including the official Michigan Children's book, The Legend of Sleeping Bear.)
We picked up Cote and Eric along the way, and the six of us spent a laid-back three hours exploring the farm and the surrounding 40 acres (wooded trails and grassy meadows). We lingered over the painted originals hanging on the barn/studio walls, and drank hot apple cider while eating too many homemade buckeyes. We dared and dodged snowballs outside, using the trees and each other (and occasionally total strangers), as our protective shields. We laughed, and joked, and enjoyed our family, as we walked in wonder.
I have two favorite spots on this property......Nick's studio (especially the corner where his desk sits, with his paints, brushes, sketches all around), and the family's cabin which is nestled inside a cove of hefty pine trees, on the edge of a small frozen pond.

The studio inspires me to 

pursue my own 
passion.......writing. And the cabin inspires me to excavate and reveal and yes, even clutter up, my real life a bit.
The studio connection is easy to understand......seeing someone else use their God-given talents, and obviously loving what they do, encourages others to follow their own dreams.
But the cabin......this is a magical place that is almost too unique to describe in words. It is a one-room, rustic collage of a family's life lived with color, imagination, and no edge lines. They decorated the small space by their own rules, their own expectations, and the result is a place that vividly tells their story, without anyone having to utter a single word.....the cabin reads like a worn-out favorite book, of a family that has lived, breathed, and become in a tiny little space no bigger than most people's bathrooms.

Inside the cabin


If you ever get a chance to visit Hazel Ridge, go. Robbyn and Nick are warm and inviting, and as real as it gets. They host a Holiday Open House every year, usually the second weekend in December. The public is invited. But, I promise, you'll feel like family by the time you say goodbye.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Write of Passage - Day 14

August 15, 2009:  Juliet, IL - HOME 
(270 miles)

"Don't cry because it's over. Smile because it happened."  ~Dr. Seuss

Mementos of the Miles We Traveled
Our Rite of Passage ended today, not with a bang or a clanging cymbal, but more with just a quiet, reflective sigh. An almost inaudible release of breath. I'm not sure what I expected after two weeks on the road, how I thought this would all come to an end. Surely not as something so big and boisterous as a scene from a summer blockbuster movie. Or, on the flip side, a sugary-sweet moment from an after-school special. I wasn't thinking Cote and I needed to have one final gut-wrenching heart to heart, or climb one last metaphoric mountain in order to "properly" end to our 6,000 mile journey. Actually, neither of these dramatic conclusions even crossed my mind. 
Instead, the morning of our last day passed by with Cote and I driving along in a kind of enclosed and knowing atmosphere. Our time was spent exchanging a few tender smiles, a couple somber looks, and occasionally reaching across the space between us just to squeeze each other's hand. Simple mother, daughter stuff. Nothing earth-shattering. (Nothing to really write the fact is, I didn't that day.) At times, we sat in complete silence, cocooned within our own thoughts, imagining I suppose what our homecoming would be like, and how we'd feel when we finally set foot back upon familiar ground.
To be honest, because of the quiet manner in which our Rite of Passage ended, I have been anxious for days now trying to figure out how to write about it. With no "ah-ha" moment to report......with no grand, over-the-top moral to close out the final chapter of our story......what was I going to say here? Was there anything even left to be said? Could I simply write that we pulled into our driveway, and stepped into the waiting and welcoming arms of our family? Would it be enough to say, yes, we had come to the end of our journey, and we will now be forever changed because of what we did? Would this simple truth be enough, for you, my reader, or would you be left disappointed, dissatisfied? Could I really just say, "The End," and then walk away and let it be just that.....the end?
After several days of berating myself, I finally decided that I could......and that I will.
And when I do........everything will be ok.
Because after all, Cote's whole Rite of Passage came to be about the art of living. Day to day. Every second, every minute. It wasn't about focusing on one pinnacle moment, one heart-stopping revelation, but instead the journey came to exemplify how all the moments of life string together like a priceless strand of pearls. As Cote so eloquently stated back when all of this first got started.....
"It's not about just showing up and climbing a tree, Mom. It's about seeing everything there is to see along the way. It's about the journey...what it takes to get there. And I want to see it all. I don't want to miss a thing."
Thus, her Rite of Passage came to be about living, plain and simple. And seeing the beauty in the every day. About exploring life's possibilities, and uncovering the deep well of strength inside herself she didn't yet know existed. For two weeks, Cote learned to immerse herself wholly into life, to rely on all of her senses.....sight, smell, and really experience her surroundings. She learned to recognize that quiet inner voice, the one that often gets blasted by the repetitive and pounding noise constantly perforating our world. Her journey became a lesson in what to do and what not to do in, should do it, fully, daily. As opposed to just sitting on the sidelines and warming the bench. Cote discovered the difference between taking a quick and easy route, in order to experience the unexpected joys and surprises along a more difficult and challenging one. She learned there is a time to Play. A time to Explore. And a time to take Risks. And she learned there are times to be mindful and walk gently with life. To not to be so fast to enforce her own will, but instead be willing to let patience and perseverance be her guiding forces. Cote's journey had her acknowledging and accepting that fear does exists, but that she could confidently step forward with the faith she already possessed. Faith in herself, in others, and in a Power greater than she could ever begin to imagine. She tested her instincts, and she slowed down long enough to hear the sound of her own beating heart. For that is where her dreams reside, she discovered, and if she learns how to listen carefully enough, she'll then be able to follow the path that will take her to them. Life isn't played out like in the movies......with one big bang, one long-awaited revelation, or one magical solution to one overwhelming is spent learning how to adjust, and reinvent, and reset your compass when you miss the mark or veer off course. And it's about waking up every morning, really waking up. And then noticing the quiet moments that take your breath away. And its about remembering to always, always, be thankful. Even when things don't turn out right. Because, chances are, eventually, they will.
Overall, we'd traveled far (both inward and outward), yet in the end, Cote and I were able to come home again. At noon on August 15, 2009, we set down our suitcases and embraced the love and safety that was there waiting for us. Home isn't always four walls and a roof, however. We realized it's the place where unconditional love resides, the place where the lights are kept well lit, even when you're too far away to see them.
My hope is that as Cote begins her next great adventure.......the one that she will now travel without an immediate family member by her side.......she will remember the lights of home will always be left burning........there will be a beacon of light on the horizon of even her darkest of remind her of the  love that will always be waiting to embrace her and welcome her home. 

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Write of Passage - Day 13; Part 2

August 14, 2009: Chamberlain, South Dakota - Joliet, Illinois (746 miles)

“I soon realized that no journey carries one far unless, as it extends into the world around us, it goes an equal distance into the world within.” – Lillian Smith

The Palace today
Cote and I had one of our biggest days of driving ever, today. We logged well over 700 miles, cutting east across the midwest. We made one mini-stop in Mitchell, South Dakota around 10:00 a.m., to check out the great Corn Palace, a unique landmark which over-time seems to have put this town on the map. Thirty years ago, I had my first visit here. Along with my mom, my dad and one older brother. Once again, the passage of time has altered the pictures I had stored away in my memory. Back then, I remember this building being the only thing in sight as I stood in awe before it. (Or at least, it was all I could see from my child-size view.) I remember how it seemed to sit in the middle of nowhere, popped right up out of the ground, huge and monstrous. "Palace" was right! "Palace" was fitting! And the fact that it was totally constructed out of corn, was just too mind-boggling for my 12-year-old brain to handle.
The Palace in 1978
Today, I found the building still impressive, but not nearly as much. The under-
taking to create such a carousel of corn murals deserved our time and attention, though. The "paint-by-number" pictures were cast by using 13 shades of corn, and other "cropped" material, and every year the building sprouts a new theme, a never-before shucked and shingled showcase of corn-fed art. As Cote and I looked over this year's canvases, it was hard to imagine the time and energy it took to construct such "paintings," one by one......only to have them dismantled, re-designed and replaced with a whole new set of kerneled-collages at the end of every twelve months. The whole concept seemed a little bit crazy and a tad bit sad. But I tipped my hat to their dedication and commitment.
This year, the Corn Palace committee seemed to have chosen a theme tailored-made just for us.......America's Destinations! The scenes were vibrant and detailed, and of course included both Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse. We did one walk-through inside the building, bought a few gifts, and then wandered around its perimeter. We collected some stray kernels and bits of husks we found caught in the cracks on the sidewalk outside. Cote and I would later add these to our journals, our "write of passages" we'd been working on since we left home. Overall, we enjoyed our little detour to discover Mitchell, South Dakota's very own "Field of Dreams." They had built it, and we had come. Was it corny? Yes. Absolutely. But, it was also so very......a-maize-ing!

The rest of our day was spent in quiet driving. I was surprised to discover just how far away from Chicago we really were. Cote and I drove and drove, and yet the Windy City remained just beyond our grasp, always still farther down the road. When we left Mitchell, we jumped easily back onto Interstate 90 East, and soon crossed the border into Minnesota. A little over half way through the state, we came upon 35 South, and took this expressway to drop back down into Iowa. When we reached DesMoines, we turned east again, taking I-80, and for the first time since we left home, Cote and I found ourselves back on the same road that originally led us West. How strange it was to pass through this land again. To see it from a different perspective. To live it from another angle. As much as we didn't want to re-trace any of our steps during our entire two-week rite of passage, taking I-80 made the most sense today, being that our goal was to get as close to Chicago as possible by nightfall. But as we drove through the same vast cornfields and green, grassy landscapes, Cote and I realized it didn't matter that we'd come this way before. The scenery was the same, but we weren't. The two of us had grown over the past two weeks, we'd been changed by both our experiences and our discoveries. We were bolder in some ways, less afraid in others, and more certain of who we were and where we were going. There was a new confidence about us.......or maybe "new" for Cote and kind of "renewed" for me. The giddiness that had filled the air inside our vehicle back when we first set our sights west, had now been replaced with a quieter sense of reflection, respect, and remembrance. The landscape surrounding us may have been the same, but the two people driving through it would never be again.
Isn't this true for all of us? Can anyone really claim to be the exact same person he or she was just two weeks ago? Or even just yesterday for that matter? The roads we take in life change us every day. There are times we find ourselves speeding way too fast on the smooth, sleek highways, and other times when dirt roads have us slowed down to a mind-crazy crawl. Both routes have their drawbacks......pits, potholes, dust, and flying bugs that smash against our exteriors. But both have their beauty and blessings as well. Renewing rains often come and wash us clean, while brilliant rays of sunshine will warm us through the windows of our souls. The roads in life dent, they scar, they expand, and they define us. There are days when they push us beyond our limits, and days when we're simply stuck for a time along a lonely stretch of highway. But the journey never stops. The roads of life continue to beckon us, they turn and twist, and point the way towards new and exciting destinations......those places on the horizon where all our hopes and dreams and aspirations lie. We choose our roads, every day, marking miles and making memories. And when the time is right, if we're careful and patient and paying attention, we can turn and take that one specific road which will lead us back home again. 
The stuff life can throw at us...
Conceivably Cote and I could have made it all the way home tonight. By the time we stopped in Juliet, we were only 4 hours from our front doorstep, 4 hours from the arms of our loved ones. But it was late, almost 9:00 p.m. To surprise our family and force them to celebrate our homecoming at 1:00 in the morning, didn't seem fair to them or right for us. So Cote and I found one final roadside motel, and pulled in for the night. We decided to savor our few remaining hours together, quietly, and mindfully. There was a hint of sadness in the air of our small room, as we huddled together and watched a video clip of our trip that I had made on my laptop. Cote and I relived our fourteen days of adventure through pictures pasted together and set to music. I had chosen the same songs that had played across our radio waves for the past two weeks, lyrics that had somehow captured the feelings we'd had while on the open road. By midnight, we finally gave in to the sleep that had been pulling on us for the past three hours. We sank softly into our covers and softly into the knowledge that with the dawning of tomorrow, our rite of passage would come to its end. 
Yet we were filled with a peace in knowing a lifetime of miles still remained stretched out before us,  far and wide and unknown.....

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Write of Passage - Day 13

August 14, 2009: Midnight - 1:00 A.M. 
(Motel room in Chamberlain, South Dakota)

"I'll love you forever. I'll like you for always. As long as I'm living, my baby you'll be."
                         ~excerpt from Love You Forever, by Robert Munsch

An unexpected conversation happened after I closed out my journal entry for the night. It was almost midnight, and Cote and I had stayed up much later than usual. I think, subconsciously, we both knew that our time was dwindling, we were only a day away from home and giving in to sleep would only cut into our remaining time together. Closing our eyes would bring morning that much sooner, our Rite of Passage to an end that much quicker.
Nevertheless, I felt myself fading, my resolve to stay awake weakening. I finally folded up our handy road map that I'd been mulling over, and turned to ask Cote if I could switch off the light. It was then that she climbed out of her own bed and came to me like a small child from years gone by. She wrapped her arms ferociously around me, and buried her head into the crook of my shoulder. She clung to me as if she were drowning and I was the only buoy in sight. And for the life of me, I couldn't think why.
"What's all this?"
"I want to tell you something."
"Ok......I'm listening."
Then she opened up a flood gate of emotion, a gate I don't think even she knew she had been pushing to keep closed. Cote said she had just finished up an exchange of emails with a friend from back home. They had been talking about relationships, ex-boyfriends in particular, and how when you're not in a healthy situation, you risk losing so much other stuff.......other good your life. That the "unhealthy" relationship often causes you to let "healthy" ones slip aside.
"When I was dating 'M', I didn't realize until just now, how much it was affecting our and me."
"What are you talking about, Cote?"
"Well, I just feel like you and I were fighting more. Maybe not 'fighting,' I guess, but just disagreeing more. And it was mostly over him."
She went on to tell me how this friend she was emailing then wanted to remind Cote how important family is.....much more, in fact, than any other outside relationship she might ever be in......because family will always be there for you.
"I see that now. I mean, I always knew it in the back of my mind, you know, but when I was typing my answer back, everything just kind of hit me. You've always been there for me, Mom, no matter what. My whole family has been, and I know you guys always will be."
"That's true, Cote. But let me tell you were never going to lose me. 'M' or no 'M.' I wasn't going anywhere. Yes, we've had our disagreements, but your relationship with him was all apart of growing up, and by dealing with what was right and what was wrong in that relationship, you found strength and truth inside yourself. These are good things, Cote. You learned so much about yourself over the past year and a half."
Our conversation continued, while I held her in my arms. I told Cote that when the right boy came into her life, he would encourage her relationships with her family and would want to join in them, be a part of them. And when that happened, her family bonds would become even stronger. Cote told me she was excited for a fresh start at MSU, which was only two short weeks away. (How can that be???) I said I was excited for her too, and that I had a feeling when she stepped onto campus, her "base" of friends was going to explode.  Her life was about to blossom with an array of amazing new relationships.
We hugged and talked until 1 AM. In so many ways, I felt as if my daughter had finally fully "returned" to me. Yet in her journey back, I also sensed that she had somehow managed to scoot further towards the edge of the nest from which she was about to fly. Tonight felt like a turning point for us. Although we had always been close, it felt like something between us tightened, maybe even solidified. Our bond as mother and daughter now seemed was almost as if a protective covering had been poured over us, and had cemented into place. It's a feeling I hope to never lose.......nor ever take for granted.....

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Write of Passage - Day 12

August 13, 2009: Billings, Montana - Chamberlain, South Dakota (660 miles)

"Eastbound and down, loaded up and truckin'. We gonna do what they say can't be done." ~ Jerry Reid, Smokey and the Bandit, 1977

Today we put the hammer down and gave it hell. By the end of the day, Cote and I had put well over 600 miles between us and Yellowstone. This is not to say, however, that we were in a hurry to get home. No, not yet. There was still a lot for us to do, still much for us to discover about our world and ourselves. Cote's rite of passage (and mine?) was in full effect. It's just that when we woke up this morning, we had to face the fact that this was our 12th day gone from home. When we took into consideration that the past 26 hours had been spent traipsing around Yellowstone, Cote and I knew it was time to put some miles behind us. So we loaded up the car, and turned our attention east.
We set our sights on Mount Rushmore and the black hills of South Dakota. I hadn't been to this area in over 30 years, not since I was a young child, riding in the back seat of my parent's Oldsmobile. I tried to share some of my memories of Mount Rushmore with Cote while we drove during the early morning hours, but most of the images that surfaced were sketchy and faded, dulled by the passage of time. Only two memories remained detailed enough for me to describe.......the intense heat and a concrete wall. It was extremely hot the day we visited back in 1978. Sweltering. And, other than the four famous faces carved upon the mountainside, the only other image I could recall was of a waist-high, concrete wall. Thirty years ago it was what we had stood behind to view the national monument.
Turning off the highway at Rapid City, exiting to take the 2-lane road to Mount Rushmore, I somehow misread the map that informed us it would be another 27 miles before we would reach our destination. What the heck!?! I thought this was going to be a quick easy-off, easy-on, stop and look tourist attraction. Instead, our little "adventure" ended up being a 3-hour, unexpected mini-detour right smack in the middle of our day. It was early afternoon when Cote and I pulled up to the national monument, and the car thermostat registered 100 degrees when we shut off the engine. We climbed the seven concrete steps, and walked across the concrete courtyard, all devoid of any protective covering against the sun's intensive rays. We made our way "london-bridge style" under the stoic row of state flags, stopping long enough to find Michigan's and snap its waving picture. Then Cote and I finally approached the concrete wall that had been cemented in my childhood memories. Mount Rushmore, high above us, was still a sight to behold, it’s craftsmanship a work of art. Surprisingly however, after just two short minutes, Cote and I had a confession to make……we were both slightly unimpressed. Maybe it was the heat. Or maybe it was the “man-made-sculptureness” of it all.....but we both admitted to feeling a little let down. Looking back, I think what threw us the most was the contrast of landscapes we had experienced within a short 24 hours. Standing in front of the calculated carving of Mount Rushmore, we couldn't help but subconsciously compare it to all the “natural beauty” we had seen in  Yellowstone. And after being a part of such untouched wilderness, it was hard now to feel connected with the national monument looming before us. In many ways, Mount Rushmore just seemed a bit too distant, a little too designed. 
“Huh. What do you think?”
“It’s ok.”
“Yeah. Hmmmm. Well, are you ready to go?”
“Yep, ready when you are.”
So, with that we headed back to the car. We stopped to read some of the historical facts about Mount Rushmore etched into the concrete columns on our way out, trying to respect and pay tribute to those who dedicated so many years of their lives to this great endeavor. But as far as lingering any longer, Cote and I didn’t have the heart.
As we pulled to the end of the driveway, we were faced with yet another decision on this rite of passage. Should we turn back and make a beeline for I-90, concentrating our efforts to make up lost time, or should we keep going deeper into the black hills of South Dakota and check out one more monument.......the Native American legend, Crazy Horse?
"Let's go see it, Mom."
"But Cote, it's 17 more miles out of our way. It will be late by the time we start heading east again."
"So what......we're right here. If we don't go now, we might never get back this way again."
Of course the girl was right. After all, it had been 30 years since the last time I walked these hills, it could very well be another 30 before she did. And by then I might not be around to hear about it. So, once again I tucked my rational thinking away, and allowed the call of adventure to lead our way.
Seventeen, curving miles later, we pulled in. I hardly recognized the place, the grounds had changed so much since 1978. Thirty years ago, (if memory served me right), there had been only a short dirt driving leading to a ram-shackled visitor's center. The mountain "sculpture" was only a crude cutting of rock, a shaved 90-degree ledge which would eventually become the arm of Crazy Horse pointing towards the distant horizon. This was all I could remember, all there was to see.
Now, as Cote and I drove up the smoothly paved driveway, Crazy Horse mountain was at first blocked from our view. Beautiful buildings of various design, large log-style structures, dotted the landscape. People were milling all over, sipping drinks, looking at pamphlets, wandering the grounds. Besides the new wooden Welcome Center, timber-framed with huge plate glass windows, there was a souvenir-stuffed gift shop, a sit down restaurant, an open-air viewing deck, and a larger than life Native American museum. My excitement level jumped three notches when I realized what all this must mean! The work to bring Crazy Horse to "life" must be over! 
I could hardly believe that after 30 years I was going to get to see the finished product. The images from my childhood, tucked away so long ago, would today be replaced with new and sharply detailed pictures of the great monument in full formation.  And I would become one of those lucky enough to have witnessed the "before" and "after."
Walking out to the viewing deck, I had no idea how wrong I was going to be.
Crazy Horse was no where near being done. Not even close. Actually, after reading through our own pamphlets, Cote and I discovered that the monument didn't even have a projected completion date. Crazy Horse, which began in 1948, is a completely non-profit venture, the entire memorial is being funded only through goodwill donations. No federal monies have ever been accepted, nor ever will be, to help pay for its carving. This is all in order to keep the validity of the project in tact. Thus, progress has been slow. Very slow. Money, weather, and mountain engineering all contribute to the challenge of bringing this sculpture to life. Crazy Horse's arm is still one long, straight, horizontal ledge with no more noticeable detail that it had 30 years ago. The horse upon which this North American legend will someday ride, still has no shape or form beneath him. The only difference, (which is huge I will admit), is that now Crazy Horse has a face.....a solid, profound, and detailed face..........with eyes that I was surprised to find, could provoke a prickling of tears in my own. The facial features cut over time and with great determination from the coarse rock on this lonely mountainside, reflected hardship and pain.......yet also hope and strength and fortitude. 
Cote and I explored all the sights at Crazy Horse, and especially took time to linger inside the massive museum. We were overcome by the history alive before us, the resolve to remember, and the whisper of forgiveness echoing softly from the pine-covered walls. We gazed through glass showcases at natural artifacts made from leather and beads, wood and stone. We ducked inside an authentic tipi, and we each made a donation after carefully choosing a rock from the famous "rock box" filled with stones brought down from the top of this legend-in-the-making mountain. We lost all track of time, for somehow on these Native American-inspired grounds, current time ceased to exist within us. Instead of being in a hurry, we felt a need to remember a time not-so-long ago. As we walked about, Cote spoke of her own Pottawatomie heritage and her desire now to research deeper into its history when we returned home. Strange as it may seem, we both felt a more profound connection here than we did just 17 miles up the road. 
When we finally left Crazy Horse, I couldn't help but think about how anxious I had been to see the finished product when we first arrived. Now, as I drove away I thought about how my perspective had slowly changed while I spent time gazing upon this mountainous project. The work being done on Crazy Horse in many ways epitomizes the way life should be valued and the way life should be lived. Real life is a journey......a journey that must unfold in its own time, in its own way, in order to retain a true sense of authenticity. As much as we might look forward to seeing the fruits of our labor accomplished today, or push to reach the "prize" at the end of some hard-won race, we must resist the urge to place all our focus, all our longing, all our attention on that goal out upon the horizon, or wish for that day of achievement to come more quickly than it should. For life is about the stories being written in the smaller moments of every day. The essence of our lives comes more from the times we tend to overlook, than from those we often view as most critical. As I took one last look back at Crazy Horse, I thought of the people who have and who are dedicating their lives to making this work of art come to life. So many of them will never see the fruits of their labor......their eyes will never gaze upon the final image they are carving piece by piece ......yet they work on......knowing that someday, generations to come will behold a masterpiece unlike any other. And I have to believe that in their work lies a hope that these future generations will appreciate the sweat, the tears, the joy, and the determination that made this mountain masterpiece a reality. 
Each of us could on some level say the same. We all sweat, we all cry, we all laugh, and we all push on.......every day, in our own way. We fight our own battles and face our own challenges, to reach our triumphs, and overcome our setbacks. We work to make a difference, big and the lives of those we touch. And we are forever changed by the lives of those who touch us. Each of us has an untold story written deep inside our hearts, and I believe most of us are trying in some way to tell it, to share it, to have it carved into our own little piece of mountain. My hope is for Cote to tell her story, and that I might set an example by telling mine. For if we do, we'll add dimension, depth, and detail to our every day living........and in turn, we'll contribute our own unique and essential piece of puzzle to the whole big picture called Life.
Cote and I didn't immediately skirt back to Interstate 90 after leaving Crazy Horse. Instead we took a remote route east that would lead us through the heart of South Dakota's infamous Badlands. The road we chose was deserted, dry, desolate. The landscape was barren, eerie, yet captivating and beautiful in its own simple and monochromatic way. It was different than any road we had traveled so far. Our lonely stretch of highway went on for miles, through a land that time itself seemed to have forgotten.
We drove until 9pm, finally pulling over in Chamberlain, South Dakota at a Super 8 motel. Cote and I washed up and readied ourselves for bed, exhausted, but content with how we had spent our day. We ordered a small pizza from a local restaurant across the street, which tasted so bad I think the cardboard box it came in would have offered more flavor. But it didn't matter. Not tonight. There was a quietness in the air between us. I think Cote and I were both settling in with the idea that we were almost home. For another hour, she "Face-booked" while I journaled. After I closed my notebook, I spread the map out before me and found we were only about 50 miles from Mitchell, South Dakota, the town famous for its great Corn Palace. This was yet another childhood memory tucked away some 30 years ago, and now, after all this time, it would be the next stop on our continued rite of passage. 

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Write of Passage - Day 11

August 12, 2009: Yellowstone - Billings, Montana (408 miles)

*I am dedicating this post to all those who are remembering 9-11 today. May we always find good, even in the most devastating of times, and remember that above, hope, and love remain. ~Jolene

After the sun had fully broken above our majestic mountain, while its soft rays continued to spread and warm our morning sky, Cote snuggled back down beneath her blanket and returned to that distant world of sleep. It was ok, though. Having her close her eyes and feel so safe, trusting me to watch over her if only for a few more hours, felt good. We had shared the sunrise together, she had read today's letter, and now I had a moment to myself, even though she was curled up right beside me. Meditation and mindfulness filled the moments of silence that followed. It was easy to do, with such a sacred vista before me. I gave thanks for the coming new day, and for the time I would be afforded with my daughter. I was mindful of how precious they both were.
I snapped a few more pictures, then started the car up. Surprisingly, I had no urge to "go," even though I was wide awake, and that ritual is usually at the top of my morning to-do list. A hot cup of coffee would taste wonderful, though. But where could I find one? We had been "homeless" last night and it wasn't even 7 a.m. yet. There was nothing but mountains, fields, and valleys for miles in every direction, and all the Visitor's Centers were closed up tight. Chances of stumbling upon a cup of joe this early in the morning were slim to none, but like Dorothy, I had a magical road before me. Maybe not made of brick, like hers.....but Yellow-stone was proving to be just as full of surprises and unexpected delights. It couldn't hurt to get started, and see where the path would take us today.
Thirty minutes later, we pulled into the legendary Theodore Roosevelt Lodge and Riding Stable. Cote and I were 2 1/2 hours early, but this was where our horseback riding adventure would begin. The place was quiet and subtle, with a warm, rustic flair. Tiny log cabins dotted the perimeter, and hitching posts served as markers for cars instead of horses. Despite the number of vehicles, no one was moving about. The grounds were deserted, and as I left Sleeping Beauty locked inside the Edge and made my way up the wooden planks of the main lodge and dining hall, I felt like a ghost floating through an old western town.
The rocking chairs on the porch were empty but inviting, swaying slightly in the soft morning breeze. I reached for the handle of the large wooden door, thinking it would still be locked tight, but surprisingly found it give freely under my pull. The room before me was enormous. And wooden. Wooden walls, and ceiling, tables and chairs, and floor. Three young workers were silently setting up for an obviously much-anticipated and very large breakfast crowd. I gingerly stepped inside, and the smell of freshly brewed coffee greeted me as warmly as the morning sun had. Oh, was I ever in the right place!  A corral of carafes were lined up on a table by the front window, beckoning me to partake. But I felt like an intruder inside this building. I was not a "legitimate" guest of the TR Lodge. Would the staff know I didn't belong? Or worse yet, be able to tell I was a total stowaway inside Yellowstone, and have me rightfully thrown out? An elderly cowboy smiled from behind the counter across the expansive room, and waved me over. I took a deep breath, and timidly closed the space between us. I was nervous to speak, nervous to make eye contact, afraid I'd give my secret away. But his demeanor was relaxed and welcoming, he was not at all shocked by my early morning arrival. He simply asked if he could help me.
"Um, yes. I know I'm early, but is this where I confirm reservations for horseback riding?"
"Yes, ma'am, you're in the right place. Let me give you the paperwork to fill out, and I'll pull up the rest of your information in our system. (He turned to his computer keyboard.)
"What's your name and where are you staying inside Yellowstone?"
"Um, last name's Witt and well, um, we're not staying here. My daughter and I stopped at the Canyon Corral yesterday and spoke to someone there about booking a ride for this morning."
"Ok. Well, let me see if your reservation shows up in the computer then. Hmmmm..........yep, here you are. I have two riders scheduled for 10 a.m."
"Yes, that's right. Do I pay for it now?"
"Yep, then you'll be all set. Plan on being at the stable across the yard about 15 minutes early."
"Alright. Thank you for your help." (I turned to go, but then decided to take one more chance.) " the way......could I buy a cup of coffee over there? It smells really good, and I could really use a cup."
"Oh, absolutely, but it's free. Help yourself."
"But, I'm not a guest here."
"That's no problem. Just go ahead and get yourself some. It's on the house."
"Thank you. Thank you very much."
Does it get any better than this?? Waking up in Yellowstone, the place to ourselves, a hot cup of coffee, still no urge to "go," and reservations to ride horses in two hours. What else could I ask? The sun was blazing bright when I stepped back outside, and through the windshield I could see Cote was still fast asleep inside the car. With two hours of free time to play with, I got in the car and found Lamar Valley on our handy-dandy Yellowstone map. The brochure said this area held the best opportunity of spotting wildlife for early morning risers. Let's go see what we can find, I thought.
Fifteen minutes later I woke Cote up when we rounded a curve and a mountain goat sunning himself high on top a hill came into view. The morning light glinted off his grey fur, and with the use of binoculars we brought him in close and could see he was totally disinterested in our arrival. It was a far-off and simple sighting. Yet, we were excited to see something so wild and free. Little did we know that "wild" and "free" were going to get up close and personal around the very next bend.
Bison. Buffalo. By the hundreds. Widespread and everywhere we looked. In the road blocking our path, standing their ground on the grassy shoulder, and grazing in the distant fields. It looked like a seen out of "Dances with Wolves." They were poised and picture perfect, filling every rocky hillside and soft green meadow in sight. We could see the breath of the ones right next to us, and hear their snorts as they moved about. From the safety of our car we studied them in detail. Thick woolly coats, large brown eyes, hunched, strong backs. The adults were bulky in size but graceful in movement, powerful yet unhurried as they foraged for their breakfast. The babies were timid, not as sure-footed, and nuzzled close to their mothers for safe-keeping.
I was amazed at their gracefulness, but even more, at their willingness to share their space. For truly we were the ones out of place here. This was their territory, their home. We were the uninvited guests. Nevertheless, we were allowed to linger and roam this wild and untamed world with them. The buffalo wowed us in return. As the minutes slipped by, Cote and I found ourselves slowing to match their pace, both in our breathing and in our minds. Life in the slow lane had plenty to offer, and I was beginning to realize how much there was for us to learn out here beside the buffalo. Their power was undoubtedly evident, they were a force to be reckoned with, but their peacefulness was just as poetic and present.
Cote and I drove through Lamar Valley, stopping every so often for more pictures, more slowed moments. Before our time was through, our sightings would include several elk, a few osprey (Cote caught sight of one with a prized fish in his talons), a far-off coyote, and a couple small gatherings of pronghorns. We returned to the TR Riding Stable, full of wildlife and ready to trail-ride to explore even more. Who knew what kind of animal was out there......waiting to cross our path.......once we left pavement and motor engines behind. It was time to saddle up and find out.
After we met up with our trail guides, we were given a few quick intros and lessons. Then Cote went straight to her horse, Frito, and flung herself onto his back. I, on the other hand, having never been that bold around horses, walked over to my designated steed, Russell, and patted his neck, trying to make nice. Cote just shook her head at me, and then reminisced about the horse and rider she had seen yesterday, how they had galloped as one across the hillside just outside her car window.
"I can't wait to do that."
"Just be careful, Cote."
"Oh, Mom. Relax. This is going to be fun!"
When all ten riders in our group had saddled up, we set off single-file from the stable towards the wide open space before us. We had an hour's worth of western frontier at our hooves, and we couldn't wait to start exploring it John Wayne-style.
It didn't take long for us to understand, however, no galloping would be taking place. Nor any cantering, or trotting either. Our horses had been trained to proceed at only one speed.....super slow. Liability reasons, of course. But still, after so much anticipation, it was hard to hide our disappointment.
Tracy, Billie, and Mike (our guides), were great though, and filled our time with stories of Yellowstone. They told how the horses (over 100 throughout the national park), were turned loose every winter onto the open prairies of Montana. They were left to their own devices, to survive the harshest of seasons, alone. Then, every spring, ranchers would ride out to round them up. The horses were brought back to the stables of Yellowstone, corralled once again to serve the tourists of summer, who would soon be arriving.
I wondered if this kind of life was confusing to the horses. I wondered how it made them feel. Abandoned? Free? Loved or caged? Lost and lonely at times, or wildly independent? Did they like the security of summer, moving at this required pace, and knowing where their next meal was coming from? Or did they relish the challenge of the winter, and running free, and fast, and at will?
(Then another thought hit me......maybe the hot summer sun was getting to me, and I was just thinking too hard.)
The best (and also most tragic) story told while trail-riding came from Tracy. She recounted the events of the great fire of 1988 to us, the one that burned almost 800,000 acres of Yellowstone, a little more than 30% of the 2.2 million inside the park. Several fires raged out of control that summer, due to drought and high winds, but this one she said had been ignited by a carelessly tossed cigarette in the state of Idaho. The flame from that spark grew into a maddening, out-of-control blaze. It scorched across the sacred grounds of Yellowstone, destroying everything in its path.....a path that was headed straight for the site we had left just an hour before, the one named after our 26th president.  As we rode back to the TR Lodge and Riding Stables, we could see where the trees had been charred on the other side of the mountain. The scars upon the land were still visible, the pain was still real twenty years later. The flames came so close. I thought about the firefighters and how hopeless they must have felt back then. How useless and defenseless against this devastating force. Tracy told us how the firefighting efforts continued, despite what seemed to be a losing battle. Then the unthinkable happened.
On September 11, 1988, it started snowing. Not that a snowstorm in September was totally out of the question, but this one showed up at just the right time and in just the right place. A quarter inch fell that day, followed by several days of rain......all of which extinguished the fires that had been raging out of control for months. In my mind, this was nothing less than a true miracle. The One who had originally created this place, this majestic land of unparalleled beauty, had seen to its protection. Every wooden structure on the grounds of the Theodore Roosevelt Lodge and Stable, had been left intact, untouched. Yellowstone Park, overall, had been spared and rebirth would eventually take root.
We finished out our ride, just as Tracy finished telling her story. Cote and I realized our time in Yellowstone was quickly coming to an end, as we dismounted our trusted horses and said our goodbyes. We had 24 hours of memories safely stored away, when we left Yellowstone by the north entrance. We would take Route 89 into Montana, a highway that would eventually connect us with I-90 East........the interstate which would lead us home. Even though we still had over 1500 miles to cover, in some small way I could feel the end of our journey was as if I could actually see the lights of home flickering on the farthest sliver of horizon.
At the North Gate, Cote and I snapped one final picture, and then said goodbye to this incredible place.....with all its wildlife, and untamed spirit, its freedom and sense of adventure. We made it as far as Billings, Montana that night, where we found a simple room at a roadside motel, and went to sleep with our memories wrapped around us like soft, sure blankets. 

Friday, July 30, 2010

Write of Passage - Day 10 (cont. some more)

August 11, 2009: Night in Yellowstone

Night Fall in Yellowstone
"Colors of purple and pink, As it slowly must sink. God gave them for humans to treasure.
And I do."  ~Jolene Fischer, 1975

"The colors of a sunset, are never truly gone.
They rest inside the watching soul, throughout the whole night long.
And when the light returns again, to dry the morning dew,
I promise to be mindful still, and begin the day anew." 
~Jolene Witt, today

Cote and I drove away from Mt. Washburn, and began to look for a place to spend the night. It was now after 9pm, and the sun was long gone, only a few remaining tentacles of  light struggled to reach above the mountains in the distance. The peaks were fading, the meadows were slipping from sight. Soon, everything would be swallowed by the encroaching blackness, and no street lamp would be lit to counter the attack. Cote and I drove feverishly to find the best place to park, before the fullness of night arrived.
Several miles passed, along with several pull-overs. We slowed down long enough to scan the features of each one, debating pros and cons.....location, size, view, etc. We finally found one that had everything we were looking for. It was a small half circle look-out point, beautifully situated above a sunken valley, facing east, with mountains bordering the horizon. We could point our car straight towards the picturesque view, and in the morning, when the sun came up, its warm rays would overtake the peaks, spread through the meadow and into our waiting windshield. We would awaken to the magic of Yellowstone. I could imagine it already.
We pulled in and immediately began to re-pack the car. Cote and I had to clear space in the back seat, so that we could lay the front seats as flat as possible. We pulled all our everyday gear and stowed it in the hatch, while grabbing pillows, blankets, books, and flashlights. We brushed our teeth using bottled water and washed our faces with disposable cleansing cloths. We changed into flannel pants and fresh t-shirts, then climbed back into the Edge, to see just how comfortable our makeshift "beds" would be.
Excitement over-rode any other thought for a while. Cote and I talked about our day, the challenges we had faced, the fun we had shared. We talked about our hopes for tomorrow and the adventures another new day in Yellowstone would bring. Night had now fully fallen all around us, but the possibility of a passing car, kept us from being in a hurry to use the "facilities" and closing our eyes to sleep. We were winding down, but not yet ready to call it a day.
That's when it hit me. What if it was prohibited to park overnight in Yellowstone??
"Cote, what if this isn't legal?"
"Parking overnight. What if we're not supposed to do this?"
"What? Why? We're not hurting anything."
"Yeah, I know. But still. If parking overnight was legal, we would see other people doing it. I mean, people would be doing it all the time, all over the place. And think about the mess that would be......there'd be trash left behind and everything. I bet this isn't allowed."
I rummaged through the storage compartment of my driver-side door, and pulled out the Yellowstone Visitor's Guide. Sure enough, right there in black and white was an informational article about the "Do & Don'ts" while visiting the national park.
Rule #8 -- Overnight Vehicular Parking Is Not Permitted
And here we sat like sitting ducks, proudly perched for all to see.
Now what?
I pulled my seat up and put the car in gear. We couldn't stay here, that was for sure. But what could we do? Where else could we go? The campgrounds and lodges were all full. We had no choice but to find a less detectable hiding spot until morning.
We drove down the pitch-black road, slowly taking curves and keeping a careful eye open for any moving nocturnal creature. It was hard to navigate the unknown territory, now that all visibility had been stripped down to only the width and length of our headlight beams. Twists and turns seemed to pop up out of nowhere. After one particular curve, we happened upon a red-tail fox casually crossing our path. Further down the road, a solid wall of rock suddenly appeared on our left, jutting up into the blackened sky overhead, and drastically narrowing our lane. I kept driving, having no idea where we were or where we were headed. I only knew we hadn't "arrived" yet.
Finally, we passed a service drive for a quiet, secluded picnic area. I gratefully took the turn-off, leaving the main road behind us, and then pulled into the deserted eating area off the remote service drive. Tucking the Edge as far back into the pine-tree line as I could, I put the car in park and cut the lights. Everything went black, we couldn't see a thing, and as far as I could tell....(in our jet-black vehicle).....we couldn't be seen either. This was it. Our spot for the night. Cote and I breathed a sigh of relief, and then immediately tensed again when a hoot owl voiced his objection over our unannounced arrival.
This was going to be an interesting night, no doubt. Would I be able to sleep, I wondered? Laying the front seat all the way back turned out to be not that comfortable. Listening for bears, even less so. We grabbed our blankets and tossed them over our heads. Cote and I opened our books and turned on our mini-lights. We thought that if we read for a bit, maybe we'd relax, and sleep would quietly come find us. But this didn't happen. Within ten minutes, we both admitted to rereading the same page over and over, because our minds were preoccupied with other concerns. We were nervous about having our book-lights on (would we get caught?), and more nervous about what might be moving along the brush-line at the edge of the picnic area, (would it get curious?). We closed our books, and decided it would be better to just close our eyes, pretend we were somewhere else, and pray for morning. But there was one more detail that had to be dealt with before we called it a night.
It sat only on the other side of the parking lot, less than 50 yards away. But the wood-planked outhouse might as well have been on the top of Mt. Washburn, for all that mattered. We weren't going over there. No way. Who knew what creature was lurking in the shadows, waiting for one stupid move on our part. Anything could be OUT there......or, come to think of it.....IN there.
"So, what do we do?"
"Well, I think I'm going to quietly open my door, pee right here next to the car, and then jump back in."
"Sounds good to me."
So, that's what we did.
Finally, it was time to call it a day.....and what a long one it had been. With 16 hours of adventure behind us, sleep should have come easily, and with absolutely no interruption. But that was not the case for me. Throughout the night, I lost count how many times I woke up, trying to readjust my origami-shaped spine and my pretzel-twisted legs. Several times the moon shone so brightly through the windshield that I was fooled into believing morning had arrived. Cote slept soundly beside me, though. Her body being so young, so much more flexible, much more forgiving. She could curl, and squish, and flail herself into all different shapes and sizes, and not feel a thing. Not one ache, not a single pain.
Morning Arrives Gently....
By 5:45 a.m., I gave up the fight. I unfolded my body one last time, stretched my legs, and pulled my seat back up into position. A cold chill had crept inside the car over the past two hours and had just reached the point where our blankets weren't enough. Cote stirred as I reached for the ignition, and in her still sleep-like trance, asked me to turn on the heat. I did one better, and punched the button for her seat-warmer. With the engine humming, she curled to the right, bunched herself into a blanket-covered ball, and drifted back into her dreams.
Darkness still surrounded us, but I pulled the car out onto the main road, and did my best to remember how we got here. It was early enough to beat the sunrise and I wanted Cote to wake up where we had originally intended to spend the night......overlooking the meadow, with the mountains in the distance. It wouldn't be long before the first rays of morning would paint the darkened canvass of night, but if I hurried there was time to get us where I thought we needed to be. 
....And We Awaken
Fifteen minutes later, we pulled in. I took a deep breath, and found my camera. We were here, really here. And we had survived our night in Yellowstone. The sky to the east began to warm, and I gently shook Cote awake. I handed her a very special letter, and together we watched as the sun slowly overtook the mountain peak, welcoming us to a brand new day. It was peaceful. It was spiritual. It was everything I had hoped for, and so much more. 

Powerful Words

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

You are the bows from which your children
as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with His might
that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer's hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
so He loves also the bow that is stable. ~Kahlil Gibran