The Beginning of the End and a New Beginning

        The day I boarded a flight to Atlanta was the first day of what would become one of the most memorable years of my life.  It was also the day I said goodbye to Alan, my partner of five years, who reluctantly supported my decision to abscond into the wilderness. In three days, I would be setting out on the Appalachian Trail, a journey that takes six months to see to completion if everything goes according to plan (everything did not go according to plan).
        So, Alan and I drove to the airport and reminisced about the last five years, all the laughter and tears.  There was that time we ran three miles to St. Paul’s Cathedral as my legs practically gave out (after walking all day in London) only to have the door slammed in our face at closing time; the day we went to the pub with his family and only realized after we had all sat down and got drinks that Alan was still trapped in the back of the car thanks to the child safety locks, pawing at the windows for help. Then there was the night we captured a raccoon that had been breaking into the house in one of those have-a-heart traps and loaded it into the back of the car for relocation, only to discover that the trap was not inescapable when the raccoon stood up in the rear-view mirror causing me to slam on the breaks and sending us both screaming out of our respective doors… and the night I uncovered five years of faithlessness.  Alan would be there when I returned, but we both knew everything would be different after this goodbye.  Friends going forward.
        We stood toe to toe at the departure area of the Richmond International Airport and shed a few tears.  I was sad to leave, excited to arrive, scared to be alone in the woods, but thrilled by the thought of getting some ground beneath my feet.  I like to move, to keep moving.  When I was growing up I used to walk everywhere; it didn’t matter where I was going or why.  I’d walk seven miles for a cup of coffee if it meant stretching my legs. My Grandma would say, “Flossy Bell, you are the walkinist girl I know!”  Now, I didn’t have to stop, not for a long time.  I used to imagine that every step I look left a piece of my troubles behind.  Six months of hiking would equate to a lot of baggage lost.
        So, Alan vanished behind a set of double doors, in an instant I was on my own and for the first time in five years I felt it.  I took a deep breath and groaned under the weight of my backpack as I headed to the check in counter.  The flight was largely uneventful.  Tiny bag of pretzels and a can of sprite.  My only real complaint was that there was some movie on featuring a place crash because really?  I am by nature an anxious flyer.  I pop a valium anytime I’m taking to the skies and usually it leaves me feeling pretty devil-may-care.  The wonders of modern medicine, eh?
        Once in Atlanta I hailed a cab and turned up at the Airport Marriott.  The first thing I did was go down to the bar and ordered an overpriced steak – celebration for one.  Afterwards, I dragged my bags up to my room and stared out the window watching planes take off.  They looked surreal in their hugeness as they soared past opened curtains. Every time one lifted off I couldn’t help but wonder if there another person like me on any of those planes?  Someone leaving everything behind?
        Sleep was restless and I awoke early to room service before stuffing everything in my pack and heading down to the lobby to await my sister.  Oh, my sister.  When describing her most people use words like: free spirit, eccentric, unconventional, unique, quirky, erratic even – you get the point.  So, while I was surprised she was on time, I was not surprised when she showed up with the passenger seat removed from her two door hatchback already stuffed to the gills with ‘things’.  I commented a bit dumbly, “Amy, your front seat is missing…”
        “Yeah, I took it out.  I don’t know why more people don’t do this.  I have so much more room in my car!”
        “Probably, so their passengers have somewhere to sit?”
        “Oh, huh….” and she’s clearly thinking about that now.
        “So, where am I supposed to sit?”
        “In the back,” she scrambled around and cleared a spot heaving piles of clothes and books into the rear of the car.
        “And my bag?”
        “Where the front seat used to be.” Obviously.
        And then I spent two hours with my head pinned to one side as the slanted back window of the hatchback did not provide ample room for, you know, a human head.  Every time we hit a bump I think I suffered a mild concussion.  On the road, Amy darted in and out of traffic, smoked a bowl, very likely drove with her feet (not that I could see anything), and blared music into my ear which was wedged against the back speaker. We briefly attempted some small talk which devolved into screaming back and forth – not because we were fighting, but because she kept inching up the volume and refused to turn it down.  As far as driving around with my sister went this was pretty standard-fare.
        It may seem strange to fly to Atlanta only to take a detour to the edge of Alabama, but it was a plan hatched out of familial obligation.  In over a decade, I’d never actually visited any of my sister’s homes (One could argue that there was a reason for that as at one point she had sixty six hairless rats free roaming her old apartment).  Moreover, I’d never met her husband whom she married in secret ceremony a year before.  He was Jordanian, a stoic and devoutly Muslim young man who helped run his family’s restaurant.  That was basically all I knew about Omran. In the weeks leading up to my arrival there were nightly talks of a barbeque, a small party to celebrate my visit with a roasted goat that her husband would be fetching fresh that afternoon from a Halal butcher shop.
        When we arrived at her home in Alabama I was struck by the same-ness of it all. The neighborhood was so uniform that it almost looked like a suburban extension of the military compound.  I was shown my room with a mattress that felt oddly as though it were filled with sand.  Most people would assume that the mattress was not really filled with sand, but with Amy you never knew because that was the kind of thing she would actually do before telling you that sleeping on the beach is good for spinal alignment and aura renewal.
        We hadn’t been back for ten minutes before she was outside playing with something on her laptop, “What are you working on?” I lower myself onto a piece of patio furniture.
        At this point Amy began to tell me about all of the barking dogs in the area, “I am telling you, at least, every other house has a back yard with a dog and they will not shut up.  They bark back and forth all day and all night,”  sure enough, I could heard them, “So, I’ve been recording their howls and playing them back to them in reverse though this large speaker.” She slaps the top of a massive JBL that reached her hip.
        “And how does that sound?” I ask out of sheer morbid curiosity.  Without skipping a beat, Amy tossed her head back and gave her best impression of a reversed dog-howl.  “Huh,” slapping my hands against my thighs I climb to my feet, “well, alright then….”
        Upon deciding that whatever was happening on the porch was a project best left to my sister I  borrow her one-seater for some last-minute errands.  When I arrived home a few hours later I found my sister soused and explaining that she couldn’t take me to the trailhead after all. I knew it was going to happen, damn it, no matter how many times I made her promise and swear she could do it.  I knew it, knew it and felt in my blood.  My shared DNA knew it, but after swearing vehemently up and down that she would take me the very next day she rescheduled, “Well, let’s just like… see how I feel about it in the morning. But I can’t go until after 3:00 pm.”  I might have pointed out that it was a six hour drive to the start of the Appalachian Trail, but arguing would have been futile.
        The barbecue never took place and Omran was missing in action.  So, as Amy and I sat on the porch she regaled me with tales from memory care.  “So, Dad and I are sitting there in the day room with Mom and she says, ‘I think some of these people are crazy…’ and proceeds to re-enact at top volume the struggles of the woman in room 308.  Mom is clutching her chest, eyes rolling back in her head as she waves her other arm around and gasping she screams out, ‘I can’t breathe!  Help!  Help!’  And Dad and I are like, ‘Shhh!  Mom, stop!  Stop…  please….’  because everyone is looking at us and the nurses are giving the evil eye.”
        At this point in her life and with dementia my Mom no longer has any kind of filter.  If something comes to her mind she is going to say it even if it’s totally inappropriate, darkly hilarious, hugely embarrassing, or just the kind of shit that makes you giggle like a child.  ”Oh god, I’ve heard her do it too!  It’s terrible!”  I’m laughing, laughing in spite of myself because when my Mom is in the throws of these theatrics they are so genuinely over the top – it’s kind of amazing and awful all at once.
        “And then, they wheel in George!”  George whom is my Mom’s obsession, a 90 year old man who has suffered a stroke and, therefore, is in a wheelchair.  He struggles with things like talking and feeding himself.  He also has a giant goiter on his bicep that my Mom likes to call his ‘one big muscle’.  “So Mom’s like, ‘There’s George!’ and she runs over to him and starts mussing up his hair and asking him how he’s doing today before fawning over his one big muscle.  She’s looking at Dad and I and she’s shouting, ‘He’s just got this one big muscle!’ and then as if the all the sorrow in the know world settled over her she adds, ‘It’s SOOOO sad!’  And George is just sitting there, muttering at her, cursing her in his slurred speech…  oh thank God she can’t understand him and the nurses are trying to separate them.  So, I go apologize for Mom and the lady says, ‘It’s ok.  He’s just a little sensitive about his goiter…’”
        “She’s so into George now.  Remember, when she first got there she couldn’t even stand to look at him?  Lately,” I’m shaking my head and laughing bittersweet, “she just adores him.”  Dementia is one hell of a ride – for all involved, but there are days where you just have to laugh to keep from crying.
        “I know, poor George.  I feel bad for him, but she really, really likes him.  What can you do?”  We’re still giggling when Omran walks onto the porch.  It’s about 11:30 at night and he never really explains where he’s been.  He introduces himself and shakes hands with me before sitting down next to Amy.  After that, he never said another word. The conversation got awkward then and quiet like all the air was sucked out of the room.  We make polite small talk for maybe twenty minutes before her husband stands up and just walks out of the room. I bid Amy goodnight and wonder into my room to slam myself down upon sand mattress.
        In the morning, I call myself a cab because my ride has fallen through and is now passed out on the living room floor next to a box of pineapple, jalapeno, alfredo sauce pizza.  I’m in Alabama, somewhere, and need to find a rental car of which are none available.  The man who picks me up is a nice older man named John and after explaining my circumstance he makes a call to someone he knows ‘in the business’ and secures me the last one in the state of Alabama. He also offers to drive me all the way to the trailhead in Georgia for $200, but I declined because I can’t imagine being in a cab for the next five hours with my hamster bladder.
During the forty or so minutes we spend together he tells me how I’m the last ride of his career.  He’s retiring today and he and his wife have bought a motorhome which they will be taking on the open road.  I joke that he must really love driving.  He talks about his kids, and kids today, and the problems with them before asking me if I’m a millennial.  I reply that I’m part of generation X and we both decide that this is a good thing because millennials are clearly ruining everything with their avocado toast and selfie sticks.  When he drops me off at Hertz I wish him well and we say our goodbyes.  He tells me, “Good luck on the A.T.!” and I walk away feeling like I’ve made a friend.
        My rental is a comfortable and sporty SUV that lasts me all the way to Dawsonville, which is one of the very last towns before the trail head.  It’s also the home of Nascar Driver Bill Elliott or “Awesome Bill from Dawsonville!” which I only know because Dawsonville is a crazy small town and this is their only claim to fame.  In fact, I’m told this several times, “Did you know Bill Elliott is from Dawsonville?”
        To which I answered, “Who?”  because I do not follow Nascar and to quote my estranged Alan, ‘I don’t really see the enjoyment in watching a bunch of cars turn left for four hours.’  If I’m really honest I’m not into any sports that I’m not personally playing.  I derive little to no enjoyment from watching people do things that I, myself, would rather be doing.  It’s like Twitch TV, where’s the fun of watching someone else play video games?  I got enough of that as a kid with an older brother.  Countless hours watching Dave grind his way through Mario Brothers left adult me with mild anxiety anytime someone fires up a console.  Give the controller unto me!
        At my hotel, I spend the evening trying to secure a shuttle to the trailhead since that is  the only way to get there.  I’m scolded multiple times by multiple people for not planning in advance until finally one, Ron Brown, offers to pick me up if I don’t mind sharing a ride which I do not.  Ron, my self proclaimed trail husband, would later also become my savior and one of my favorite people on the A.T. (more on that later).  The rest of my evening was spent watching Naked and Afraid, a reality TV show where they drop two naked people into harsh and unforgiving territories while we, the audience, get to enjoy watching them contract malaria and slowly starve to death.  Needless to say, it really got me amped for my trip.  

Summary

        Sometimes, when the weight of the world gets to be too much you have to strap your boots on and head for the door.  Even if for just a brief reprieve from the madness – that’s how I found myself hurtling down Route 66, somewhere West of New Mexico last September.  It didn’t start in New Mexico, however, or even Virginia which for the last decade (off and on) has served as home base.  It started in the mind and in the heart.  It started with the unfortunate collapse of my marriage and the realization that I had no idea what I was doing with my life.
        Sparing the gory details I will say that my decision to leave my husband was not one that I took lightly though in the end there was damage done that was irreparable.  I won’t shove all the blame on him and will only say there were mistakes made on both sides and leave it at that.  However, that still left me with a whole new life unfurled before me that was seriously lacking in direction.  Before, I assumed Alan (for the purposes of this blog that is his new name) and I would have children, grow old together, and eventually die.   So, I was alone and it was scary after five years to find myself back in the dating pool and flying solo.  I’ve never been the sort of woman that needed a man in my life, but as I have grown older I found comfort in the companionship that marriage brought.  I had gotten comfortable in the routine of my daily life as well, too comfortable.
         This is probably where most people would talk to a therapist, turn to religion, pick up a hobby, or just maybe consume copious amounts of Hagen Daz.  I did a little of the later, but when I was finished with my ice cream smorgasbord I made a decision: I do not want my life to pass me by.  I want to be challenged, face my fears, see majestic things, and maybe most importantly I want to connect – with people, more people, people from everywhere, people like myself and unlike myself.  I want to steep myself in this world and be transformed from sad ex-wife to brave explorer.
        Thus, the first decision I made was that I would hike the Appalachian Trail.  I planned for a year to make this trip and gave up all my vices.  I will admit without shame that when this idea was sparked in my mind I was a raving alcoholic, but the drive to succeed squelched a 15 year habit and I have not looked back since.  In fact, the moment I decided to hike the Appalachian Trail I felt quite liberated and while I was not able to finish (more on that in a moment) it was the first time in my life that I felt like I wanted something for myself bad enough to stop.  In a way, the mere dream of Appalachian Trail saved my life – and I do really believe that.
        So, I planned and I prepared researching the best tent, backpack, socks, water filter, and on and on.  I went to the gym and I even got a personal trainer because this was happening.  Life is funny though – sometimes, you think you have a plan, but little do you know that fate has something entirely different in store for you.  I was on my way to meet my personal trainer for the first time when the phone rang.  It was my father calling to inform me that the police had picked up my Mother three hours from home in the middle of the night.  Not only was she lost and driving on fumes, but apparently she had also taken to driving through red lights and over sidewalks.  When they pulled her she could not tell them where she was going or where she had been, nor could she remember the date, or even her home address where she has lived for the past 37 years.  That was the beginning of the end in my Mom’s battle with dementia.  A year later she would be gone.
        So, that very day I drove to Florida to be with my Mother.  During the following 12 months my sister and I took turns looking after her.  I lived in Virginia and she lived in Alabama so we would rotate – I would be there a few weeks or a few months and then my sister would come down and take over.  I do not think I was ever away longer than six weeks during the entire last year.   I wanted to be there with her as much as I could as we had no idea how long she had left be it one year or five.  It was all a bit of a mystery and so we began our last adventure together.  I took her everywhere I could think of that she’d want to go because when Dementia hits you don’t have long to say goodbye to the world.
        We had lavish spa days, ate filet mignon, went to the Aquarium, rode the Orlando eye, and visited the Rhinos at the zoo.  We ate pizza, lots of pizza!  We screamed and laughed and ran her chair so fast down the posh streets of Winter Park that people stopped and stared.  I bought her every stuffed animal she touched, she had an affinity for them in the end.  One of my favorite pictures is of her clutching several to her chest in the back of the Volvo looking completely blissed out.  We listened to Elvis, sang loud, clapped our hands, and stomped our feet.  We held puppies, wore matching outfits like goons, and ate a sinful amount of cheesecake.  In the quiet moments, I held her hand and brushed her hair, and painted her nails.  I studied her face as she looked me over always managing to see me through the fog.  My Mother never forgot me.  She forgot a lot, but even on her last day she loved me as her daughter.
        It was in those in between times that I moved.  I hiked two weeks on the Appalachian Trail instead of six months.  I spent a week in Lancaster, Pa getting my fill of fireflies and amish pastries.  On my longest stint drove around the entire country which took a month and a half – roughly.  Whenever I came back to spend another month or few months with my Mom (during which time my sister would travel back to Alabama) I would show her where I had been – pictures of Graceland, The Grand Tetons, a snapshot from my tent one cold April morning.  I wish I could have taken her with me, but instead I made her videos from the road and told her all about it when I got home.  She was always so impressed – even with things that weren’t that impressive.  Only a Mother can make you feel so strong, so special, so bold – I will miss that so much, but I know carry her with me now.
        She passed away in November and I don’t stop moving for long anymore.  In the end the greatest gift my Mom gave me was love.  Love, love, love and I can feel it right now like a warm blanket.  So, this blog is about my travels, but I thought it was important to say what spurred me on because while she might not have lit the spark it’s her love that has kept it going.  To date and since April of 2016 (today being June 6th 2017) I have done two weeks on the Appalachian Trail, and driven one and a half times around the country (well, almost a half – but I’ll get to that in a later post).  Now, I’m saving up with my boyfriend to buy a Travel Trailer so we can get this show on the road in a more permanent fashion.  After we have exhausted the US it is on to Europe, or Vietnam, or Tokyo.  Who knows?  Today the world is ours.