Comforting Strangers

When I drove to Seattle last year, I unexpectedly found myself turning into a rest stop. I worry (unnecessarily, perhaps) about my car not starting up if I stop along the road, so I never visit rest areas when I drive. Although my Bug is reliable, it’s . . . not new. I figure it’s better to wait until the next fuel station in case there is a problem. But something seemed to pull me into that rest stop. I walked aimlessly around for a bit, not sure what I’d expected to find, and then returned to my car. When I got back to the parking lot, a big wind came up, and the door of the car next to mine flew open and dented and scraped the paint on the fender of my newly restored Bug. An old lady sat there, just staring at me, as if I were the one in the wrong. “It was the wind,” she said. And it probably was since she seemed too frail to have held the door, but I wanted more of an acknowledgement of the damage than that.

A younger woman came, entered the old woman’s car, and started it. I stood behind their vehicle so they couldn’t drive away. I’m not sure what I wanted, but I wanted . . . something. Soon the younger woman got out of the car and told her mother was sorry, that their insurance would pay for it. The old woman started to cry, which made me feel bad for being so stubborn about the situation. I told her it is was okay, that I didn’t expect them to pay for the damage. Then younger woman explained that the tears weren’t just about my car, but that her father (the old woman’s husband) had just died, and she was trying to give her mother a little vacation.

Oh, my, that broke my heart. I hugged both women, comforted them, and then, before I drove away, I told the daughter that her mother would mourn a lot longer than she would, and please be patient with her. I cautioned her not tell her mother to move on or get over it. She thanked me. I hugged both women again, refused to take their insurance information, and said that every time I saw the dent, I’d think of them. And I do.

I often think about these women, and not only when I see the dent. I’ve never known what to make of this incident. I’m not a big believer in fate, but it makes me wonder if sometimes things happen to benefit not us, but someone else. Maybe fate needed me to be there. Or maybe the woman’s grief called to me.

I don’t have the answer, but I still have the dent.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of Grief: The Inside Story – A Guide to Surviving the Loss of a Loved One. “Grief: The Inside Story is perfect and that is not hyperbole! It is exactly what folk who are grieving need to read.” –Leesa Healy, RN, GDAS GDAT, Emotional/Mental Health Therapist & Educator.

Life in the Slow Lane

The gas guage in my car still works, which is a bit of a surprise considering that both the speedometer and odometer have died, and they are all part of the same mechanism. I am already gauging gas consumption by mileage, and have been adopting a policy of keeping the tank topped off in case the gauge fails, too.

Oddly, having neither a speedometer or an odometer makes no real difference. I can keep track of mileage via sign or Google, and I have a good ear for how fast I am driving by engine sounds. Since my ancient VW hasn’t the power of more modern vehicles, I can’t keep up with interstate travel anyway. I drive in the slow lane and take things as they come. I was a bit worried about driving on two lane highways without being able to track my speed, but it was the same as always — I drove at whatever speed felt safest, especially around curves, so I was still slower than most drivers. If there were too many impatient drivers behind me, I pulled off to let them pass, and then continued my life in the slow lane.

Yesterday was a fabulous day. The car drove like a dream — well, maybe not. Let’s say it drove like a well-tuned and cared for Beetle, which of course it is.

But then, I wasn’t really driving — according to my car instruments, I went zero miles at zero miles per hour. Since I somehow ended up in Oregon last night, I can only assume that while I sat back, taking it easy, going 0mph, the world kept spinning beneath my wheels. The earth must have done a lot stuttering or backtracking during all those hours, because I ended up crossing the Sacramento River at least five times.

But that’s not the only river I crossed or the only body of water. I also saw lagoons, creeks, lakes, ponds, and an ocean. Wildflowers decorated the side of the road: sunrise-colored poppies, cheerful daisies, languid wisteria, chartreuse fields, spots of pink and purple and fuchsia blossoms. I went from desert heat to coastal chill, moving through agricultural areas, towns, cities, forests, mountains.

It’s hard to pick out the best thing I saw as the world passed by outside my window, but at the very top of the list was the small herd of elk crossing at an elk crossing sign.

Ah, life is good in the slow lane.

***

(Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Madame ZeeZee’s Nightmare, Unfinished, Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.”)

The Best Laid Plans

Plans gang aft agley, but it’s hard not to feel silly after one has posted one’s plans online, and then have those plans come to naught. All these months, I’ve been talking about the big road-camping-hiking-backpacking trip I’ve planned for May, and then zap! I caught a cold. A bad one.

I haven’t accomplished much of anything the past week— the book remains unfinished, the trip preparations have come to a halt, and trail foods never got fixed. (I haven’t even been blogging — didn’t want you to catch my cold.)

I still hope to be well enough to leave Wednesday as planned, but I even if I have stopped coughing by then, I might be too weak. If I left a few days later, driving mostly straight through and staying at motels instead of campgrounds, I’d still be able to visit the people I’d planned to visit (keeping my fingers crossed!) but I would have to forego some of the sights I wanted to see and the activities I’d hoped to experience.

But you never know. Everything could go as planned. And if not, well, I still have my trip book — the binder I’ve filled with maps and directions and descriptions of parks and places along the way — so I can take the trip another time.

It’s interesting (to me, anyway), the difference in my thinking when I am feeling well and when I am not. When I am well, I feel as if I can work toward impossible dreams and maybe even accomplish them. When I am weakened by illness (or by coughing fits), I feel as if even the possible would be impossible.

But thinking doesn’t change reality, even though people say it does. If you don’t think you can do something, you can still try to prove yourself wrong and end up accomplishing what you think you could not do. If you think you can do something, you can rely too much on the belief and do nothing to make it happen, you can fail to accomplish what you thought you could.

Whatever happens next week — and next month — I’ll continue working toward the goal of an eventual epic backpacking trip. That doesn’t necessarily mean I will take the trip because as we all know, plans don’t mean a whole lot if things change and you can’t implement them, but still, it’s the work that counts.

For now, I need to work on getting better.

Hope you all are doing okay.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels UnfinishedMadame ZeeZee’s Nightmare, Light BringerMore Deaths Than OneA Spark of Heavenly Fireand Daughter Am IBertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

An Opportunity to Escape

This morning, it suddenly seemed absurd my researching narcissism and obsessing about one extremely unimportant individual in my life, and I had to laugh. Not that narcissism is absurd — the personality disorder has ruined many lives — but I have more important things to obsess about, such as my upcoming trip to visit my sisters. (One sister invited us other two to visit her around Mother’s Day to make chocolate-covered pecan and caramel turtles in honor of our mother.)  Now that is something worth obsessing about!

It’s entirely possible this narcissism thing could be a way of distracting me from the impending visit and the very real problems that could arise. Not that I am expecting problems, as such, but the truth is, my two sisters and I have never been alone together, and I mean never. We’ve all been together with other family members. We’ve each of us been alone with one other sister, but never in memory have just the three of us done anything together, possibly because we are so far apart in age. If I really thought there would be more than a little discomfort I would opt out, but I think, despite us three being almost opposites (visualize a unilateral triangle), we are mature enough — or old enough — to manage a weekend together.

Still, I am driving up to Seattle instead of flying to give me the opportunity to escape if need be. Or perhaps I’m driving because I need an excuse for an adventure, a reason to run away from my problems. Oh, who cares why I am driving. I want to. It’s as simple as that.

I am planning to take a couple of weeks to get there, which will allow me to visit friends along the way, to visit a few national parks and monuments and wilderness areas, and to do some camping and hiking and perhaps see some wildflowers.

Just the thought of being in the open feels like a breath of fresh air on my soul. I hope the reality is the same. (I must admit I have a few reservations about my arm, but one way or another, I manage to do what is necessary, so I’m sure I will be able to continue doing so.)

I’d more or less considered not coming back to the desert at all, just continuing to travel, but since I promised to be back for a dance performance, I’m paying my room rent to give me a place to return to.

I really don’t want to spend another summer in the desert — it’s impossible to do much walking, not even in the early morning, and I would like to continue my backpack practice in preparation for a long hike. On the other hand, I don’t really want to be on the road when other people are out in force, and besides, it’s hot almost everywhere in the summer. Maybe not as hot as here, but still hot.

But that is a decision for another time.

Today the only decision I have to make is what national park land to research, what maps to print out. I wish I could be totally spontaneous, and just go without any sort of plans, but my idea of spontaneity is to drive. And drive. And keep on driving. That kind of driving becomes almost a zen-like experience, because as soon as a thought passes through your mind, you’ve left it behind, but it doesn’t satisfy my need for adventure.

So, I’ll close this post and go open my atlas and see where it will take me.

Wishing us all the best of adventures!

***

Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels UnfinishedMadame ZeeZee’s Nightmare, Light BringerMore Deaths Than OneA Spark of Heavenly Fireand Daughter Am IBertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

 

Adventurous vs. Disastrous

I find it strange that I like camping. I have always been a reader, not a doer, and I have always preferred being comfortable. Despite all the improvements in camping equipment, camping is not often comfortable. In fact, it can be downright miserable when you factor in adverse weather, inconsiderate neighbors, and insects. My last foray into camping included such unpleasantness as lawn mowing operations, interminably screaming children, aggressive dogs, and even more aggressive spiders. (They happened to find two places I missed with the insect repellent — jawline and knee — and one place I never even thought of putting it, the top of my head that’s still healing from my tumble down the stairs. ) I suppose the bites could be from my old nemesis, mosquitoes, but the ping-pong-ball-size swellings indicate otherwise.

And yet, with all that, I came away from that last night in Kansas at Meade State Park with a feeling of satisfaction. A feeling of being soul-fed.

Even the horrendous day of driving afterward seemed more adventuresome than disastrous. After all, if I had wanted to zoom across the country problem-free, I would not be driving a forty-four-year-old VW bug.

Heat, hills, head winds were too much for my air-cooled engine. It vapor-locked on me, once when I was driving, and once after I stopped for gas. (I had to push it into a parking space and wait until the engine cooled.) To be fair, the fault lies not with my poor old car but with modern gas and its low burn point.

As I sat in there in the blistering heat, looking around unsuccessfully for a bit of shade, I couldn’t help thinking how nice a bit of rain would be. As if on cue, the wind blew in a few clouds to offer me and my vehicle shade, and after we were back on the road, rain came. Not a lot, just enough to take the burn out of the over-heated air. And so I was able to continue my journey for a while longer. Actually, a lot longer. Five states worth. The only state I drove all the way across that day was New Mexico, but I started in Kansas, caught the corners of Oklahoma snd Texas, and stopped for the night just over the Arizona border. I wimped out and stayed at a motel. The bug bites worried me, and I didn’t want to risk more bites. Nor did I want to have to worry about my car not starting if I were in the wilds. Actually, it probably wouldn’t have been in the middle of a wilderness area but in a state park, which brings me to my final excuse for staying in a motel. Although I never felt unsafe in a national park, staying in a state park made me feel vulnerable. It was too close to civilization and access was too easy for anyone out looking for mischief.

I’d better get going while it is still a bit cool out. See you on down the road.

***

(Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.”)

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Unwitting Angel

All along the way of my as yet unfinished cross-country journey, I have been blessed by various angels in human — and electronic — form. These angels have given me shelter in bad weather, brought me companionship in loneliness, taught me cosmic and earthly lessons, gifted me with books, taken me to wondrous events. And sometimes have steered me to safety.

When I left St. Ansgar after my stint of playing innkeeper, I’d planned to take US 63 straight south to have lunch with a friend in Rolla, Missouri. I turned on Google maps to help me get through Waterloo, Iowa, and for some reason, the app sent me on a huge loop around US 63 almost to the Illinois border. As I approached a snarl of highway intersections I needed help navigating, Google maps decided to quit. Fearing I would get hopelessly lost on my own, I took the nearest exit off the highway so I could reset the app. I pulled into a gas station, did my little chores, but could not drive away — the accelerator pedal, which had been sluggish, became rusted into immobility. (Although the bug has been partly restored — paint job, new seat covers, rebuilt engine and transmission — it is still a forty-four-year-old vehicle, with the crotchets and creakings of the elderly. The bug has spent most of its life in dry climes, and doesn’t quite know what to do about the great humidity it has encountered recently except to quietly succumb to rust in inconvenient spots.)

I played around with the pedal and the throttle. Discovered that the throttle was fine — the culprit was the hinge on the pedal itself. Unfortunately, the gas station store was out of 4D40. I explained my predicament and, taking pity on me, the manager rummaged in the back room for some sort of lubricant. When she didn’t find anything suitable, she went to a store shelf, grabbed a bottle of Dawn, told me to pour a few drops of the detergent on the hinge, and bring the bottle back. So I did. The pedal immediately loosened, and I continued my journey, wondering about the incident. Would things have worked out the same if I had taken the route I’d planned? Had Google purposely taken me to safety or was it simply coincidence? Google ex machina or a strange sort of luck?

And now another angel is coming to my aid. I’d purchased an external battery to use for enmergency phone recharges since my ancient car has no cigarette lighter or other electrical source to charge modern devices, and after a few uses the battery stopped working. I notified the company, and they volunteered to send me a new one. I gave them the address of a woman in Kansas (another online-now-offline friend) who had invited me to visit. I thought the package would arrive within the week of my visit and I would be able to head out before I became too much of a stink. (Wasn’t it Benjamin Franklin who said fish and visitors stink after three days?) What I didn’t know was that the battery pack was coming via Royal Mail. Still, it got to Chicago in just a few days but sat around untended for even more days. (It will take longer to get from Chicago to Kansas than from England to Chicago.) My friend has graciously agreed to let me stay here until the package arrives, though I am sure she would be just as glad to see me on my way. Still . . . there is a major heat wave extending all along my proposed route. And my being here a few more days will — I hope — allow me to travel in less dangerous weather.

Who knew I would find an unwitting and unintentional angel in Kansas?

Ah, I am blessed.

Of course, no one has asked my various angels if they wish to be cast in such a role, but so far they have allowed themselves to be swept up in the energy of my journey.

Yep. Truly blessed.

***

(Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.”)

Virginia is for Lovers

The Virginia state slogan is “Virginia is for lovers.” I can’t vouch for the veracity of that, but I do know US 23 through Virginia is perhaps the loveliest stretch of road I have been on during the 8,000 miles I have traveled so far. Of course, it’s entirely possible the route was colored by my relief at having escaped a rather chilling southern gothic episode (see previous post), but still, by any reckoning, it was a lovely drive. The only thing more beautiful would be that same drive in the fall.

Often during this long journey I have passed by a special sight or site that had to go unsung because there was no place to pull off to make a mental or photographic note. The blaze of sunset-orange poppies on a verge in North Carolina. A swathe of goldenrod in Tennessee. A median filled with daisies in Virginia. A hillside in Kentucky purpled with mountain laurel. A road lined with dogwood in Ohio. A fuchsia-colored field in Indiana.

But luckily, there was a turn-out at a postcard-perfect view on that Virginia highway. I stood there at the overlook mesmerized by the scene that lay at my feet, by the lushness that surrounded me.

On a journey of this magnitude, where each turn of the road brings a new view, individual sights get lost in the collage of miles. I don’t know if it will ever be possible to comprehend everything that has happened, everything I have seen in the past few months, but there in Virginia, for just a little while, it all made sense.

***

(Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.”)

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A Trip of Treats

This has been a journey of many treats. I had hoped the trip would include much hiking, but I seem to be in a sedentary mode with all the driving and the visits with friends. In an effort to break that pattern, I took a side road that was supposed to intersect with the Florida National Trail, but I never found it. (I have a hunch that parts of FNT, like parts of the California Coastal Trail, exist as an as yet unrealized hope.)

When I realized I had passed the trail, which followed a shortcut back to the freeway, I considered going back but decided to keep moving on down the road, and I am glad I did. Such a treat! It was a beautiful drive among trees, past spectacular beaches, and through beach towns. Driving across the water on intercoastal highways was a special thrill.

The most memorable part of that leg of the journey was Bonita Bay, a recreational area run by the Air Force. It seemed strange to me that a war engine would be involved in something so trivial, but it wasn’t as surprising as it would have been before I learned that the Army Corps of Engineers runs campgrounds all over the country.

Even more memorable, at the end of the road, I met in person a fellow author, Coco Ihle, author of She Had to Know. I enjoyed hearing the story behind her book, which is based on her own search for her long-lost-now found sister, and I have been privileged to see her in her own milieu.

Coco is amazing! Everything she touches turns to beauty. Whichever way you turn in her house is another fabulous piece of art, collected from her world travels, bought at a bargain from Big Lots, or created by her. To my delight, she keeps her Christmas tree — perhaps the most beautiful tree I have ever seen — set up most of the year.

She kindly let me take pictures, to post here, and even let me post the fabulous photo of herself when she was a belly dancer. (Coco is the woman who encouraged me to look into belly dancing for myself.)

Besides all that, we have been playing tourist. We had dinner at a restaurant in a Greek town on the sponge docks. (A one time, sponge was a bigger industry in Florida than even oranges or tourism.) We ate on the docks, with the Anclote River flowing by and a sandhill crane keeping us company.

Now we are off to see the Florida Aquarium, another incredible treat in a trip that has been nothing but treats.

See you when we get back!

***

(Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.”)

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Driving into the Distant Past

My night camping at Davis Bayou worked out so well, the next day I headed for Pensacola, hoping to get a campsight at Fort Pickens in the Forida part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore, but that campground was full. I did get a chance to see Pensacola Beach with its white sand and dark turquoise waters, which was nice. I felt cold on the beach, but there were hundreds of people in meager swimsuits playing in the water, sunning themselves, or walking around. Ah, youth.

I might not have been lucky in finding a campsite for the night, but I was lucky to meet someone I have admired for six years — Mike Pettit, writer and promoter extraordinaire. We had a fabulous seafood lunch at an oyster bar near the beach, and an even more fabulous conversation.

But even good friends must part, so eventually I headed down the road.

Not finding another campsite, I continued driving. But even that part of my day was spectacular. For many miles, the moon rose in the middle of the road directly in front of me while the sun set in the middle of the road directly behind me. Truly a unique sight.

As lovely as the celestial evening was, that was not the highlight of my drive. The highlight was the revelation that came as I continued to drive the tree-lined highway. Ever since I left central Texas, the highways have been forested. Trees, mile after mile of trees for hundreds of miles. And today I realized the awesomeness of what I was seeing.

Although in many cases, the trees didn’t extend very far off the road, they were thick enough to appear endless. As if the highway were cut through an eternal forest.

Once upon a time, a forest did cover almost the whole of the United States. And as I was driving, it suddenly felt as if the highway were like a path to the past, and I could see that primordial forest all around me, millions upon millions of acres, and because of those hundreds of miles I’d driven, I could sense the forest’s magnitude and magnificence. What an experience!

I thought I was spinning my wheels, just driving, driving, driving, when all along I was preparing for the great revelation. There’s a lesson in there somewhere, though I don’t know what.

I do know that in the future, when I look back on this adventure, one of my fondest and most inspiring memories will be my long and seemingly unending drive into the distant past.

***

(Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.”)

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Daunted

I’m about to head out on the next leg of my journey, and I’m feeling a bit daunted. Up to now, I have had at least a smattering of knowledge about the states I have visited, and I have known people along the way, which has made a huge difference. During the next few weeks, I will be in states that I know only by legend. I will have lunch with two or three people in Florida, and maybe stay a couple of nights with a friend there, but otherwise the coming states loom friendless. Heavily trafficked. Populated by billions of insects. And expensive.

Florida particularly seems daunting because if I merely cut across the state, which is a great distance by itself, I would miss much. And yet, the thought of traveling the length of the state twice (down and back) is overwhelming. Do I want to see the keys? Do I want to see the Everglades? Do I want to attempt a visit to Dry Tortuga National Park, a tiny island closer to Cuba than the United States?

If I were honest, I’d have to say, “not particularly.” There really is no place I’d like to visit more than any other. The truth is, everything is beginning to run together with very few regional differences. Of course the rainy states are greener than the dry states, but those seem more changes in spectrum than anything — the same but different. And people are the same everywhere — mostly kind with an occasional jerk for leavening. There are more southern accents in the south, but there are southern accents everywhere in this mobile world of ours. And many businesses are identical. (I went to a movie theater in Tucson that was identical to the one I had been in a few days and a few hundred miles before. Even the posters on the wall were the same. I had to stop to catch my bearings because for a second, I didn’t know where I was.)

Despite my momentary lack of enthusiasm for this quest (though quest for what, I still don’t know), I am drawn ever onward. There are things to see, people to meet, national parks to visit. And blogs to write.

Daunted or not, I’ll see you on down the road.

***

(Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.”)

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My Louisiana friend and I stopped to play on this adult jungle gym. So much fun! The azaleas are from her back yard.