A Roadtrip with Author Dean Koontz Results in Tears (and a surprise ending)

A recent article in the New York Times by Rachael Bedard, a geriatrician and palliative-care physician in New York City, attracted my immediate attention this morning. It was titled, “The Case for Writing Fan Mail.”

“When I’m truly possessed by an artist’s work, I let them know,”
Bedard writes. “It’s a way to turn distant admiration into intimacy, even
when they don’t reply.”

Her thoughts immediately brought to mind the wonderful writers’ class I’d
taken in Asheville, “The Literary Ecosystem.” And that, naturally, led to thoughts of a roadtrip Tom and I had once taken with author Dean Koontz.

Lauren Harr and Caroline Green Christopoulos of Gold Leaf Literary Services, (both of whom have an association with Asheville’s wonderful independent bookstore, Malaprop’s), taught the class, which revealed the inner workings of the publishing world, along with insights for how to work with agents, publishers, and bookstores.

I loved the class. Our weekly homework was to write a letter of appreciation
to an author whose writing we admired. As a big fan of letters & letter writing, this appealed to me. Letters were composed and written to Swedish author, Fredrik Backman (sent with a photograph of my own ‘wurse’-chewed copy of My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry); Liz Gilbert (thanking her for coming to Asheville on my birthday); and Frances Mayes, author of Under The Tuscan Sun,  thanking her for her recent visit to Asheville during which she shared with me a fascinating anecdote about Italy and Ethiopia, which, despite years of research, I was unaware of. I don’t know if my letters ever reached them, for none of them responded.

But, as Bedard says, you don’t necessary write in order to get a response.

“Writing fan mail creates an opportunity to take pleasure in my own
intemperate passions,” she says. “Articulating what turns me on about beautiful work transforms distant admiration into intimacy. I do not send these letters to receive a response. Instead, my fan mail is correspondence in the same sense that prayers or blessings are correspondence … making no demands of the recipient.”

I write my own mash notes to authors both because I admire someone’s work, but also to convey that sense of connection, which is so important to me in my own writings. I know how heartwarming it is to actually get a response from someone ‘out there.’

morning coffee with my girl

Not long ago, my beautiful and slightly ridiculous large white dog, Klejne suddenly passed away. I hadn’t realized she was ill until the very last day of her life. Like so many who have lost pets, I couldn’t find words to express the enormity of the loss of my beloved companion of more than a dozen years.

img_6676

Almost everything I did, Klejne did with me. Each day, she was by my side in my studio. On the evenings and weekends, we explored Asheville and the mountains of  Western North Carolina hiking thousands of miles together.

And so, when Tom showed me photos of a litter of puppies his cousin Celeste’s dog had recently given birth to, I shook my head. It was too soon, I didn’t want a puppy. I just wanted Klejne back.

Two weeks later, he showed me another photo of the puppies. This time one of them – “little boy green” – reminded me of Klejne as a puppy. I took it as a sign and said okay.

img_2554

To my surprise, Tom said he would get one of little boy green’s siblings. And a few weeks later, we were on our way to Grand Rapids to pick up our new pups.

In preparation for the 22-hour round trip journey by car, Tom had thoughtfully downloaded several books on Audible. We passed through Tennessee listening to A Confederacy of Dunces but lightened things up a bit in Kentucky and Ohio with James Herriot’s All Creatures Great & Small.

Somewhere in Ohio or Indiana, Tom said, “Hey, I downloaded something especially for you.” It was Dean Koontz’s A Big Little Life: A Memoir of a Joyful Dog Named Trixie.

I was skeptical. Koontz writes suspense thrillers that often incorporate elements of horrors, fantasy, science fiction, mystery and satire – not my go-to genres.

“I think you’ll like this one,” Tom said with a smile, pushing play.

He was right. Koontz has me with his opening lines.

“She arrived with her name, Trixie. I joked sometimes that it sounded more like a stripper than a dog. But if it sounded more like a stripper than a dog, it sounded more like an elf or a fairy than a stripper. Elves and fairies are magical beings, and so was she.”

The miles rolled by as Koontz read to us. So much of what he had written about his golden retriever, Trixie, reminded me of Klejne, my half-golden. Close to midnight, we stopped in Greensburg, Indiana to sleep for a few hours, pausing to save the last chapters of the book for the final part of our journey.

On the road again the following morning, we pressed play and settled back in to spend time with Trixie. Within moments, however, it appeared that things had suddenly taken a turn for the worse in her life.

Driving 70 miles-an-hour along the Interstate, tears began to flow freely as we listened in horror. Trixie’s happy life had suddenly taken a medical turn for the worse, mirroring exactly the ailments and trauma I had just gone through with Klejne.

“How could you do this to me?!” I asked Tom, crying.

“I forgot how it ended!” he answered, crying.

img_2525

We arrived at our destination with red-rimmed eyes.

But isn’t it a wonder how the scent of a warm puppy wriggling in your arms can dispel even the bleakest of moods? All was forgiven the moment I picked up little boy green. I decided to name him “Kiitos,” which means ‘thank you’ in Finnish.

We returned to Asheville with our new puppies in time for my weekly “Literary Ecosystem” class. This week’s homework, I decided, would be to write a letter to Dean Koontz telling him the story of driving to Grand Rapids in tears. I mailed the card with a photo and the story of Klejne to him and soon forgot about it.

Two weeks later, however, a package arrived covered with beautiful stamps.

IMG_4233

To my great surprise, it was from Dean Koontz.

I tore it open and found a hardback copy of his book with a handwritten note to me from him inside.

IMG_4236

IMG_4234

I was overwhelmed.

That an author of his stature and success would take the time to pen the perfect condolence note to me on the loss of my dog created an emotional moment of connection I will never forget.

So yes, for whatever reason – connection or simply to express yourself in words – write a letter to someone whose art or writing or music has touched you. Let them know how they made you feel.

photo by T.
In loving memory of Klejne [photo by Tom]

 

 

 

 

 

Asheville ~ City of Strangers

“Where are YOU from?!”

The words, coming from the disembodied head that suddenly appeared from a split in the curtains at the back of the little one-room boutique I had wandered into, startled me.

“Murdock Street,” I said.

“Oh, you’re from here!” the head exclaimed, looking surprised.

“Yes,” I replied, irritably. “Some of us are.”

With just four words, Where are you from? the woman to whom the head was presumably attached managed to hit one of my rawest nerves. A child of peripatetic parents, these words have haunted me my entire life. Where am I from?

That this happened in Asheville, the town where I have lived for the past seventeen years, the town where I’d finally found a home, the town where my boyfriend of nine years is a fifth-generation Ashevillian, in a little shop that used to be owned by a friend of mine, turned an innocent question into a heat-seeking arrow to my heart.

Once upon a time, Betsy’s shop was a place for a reliably friendly greeting and a leisurely exchange of gossip about men and dating and people we knew in common as I browsed her latest collections. Our tastes were similar. Almost every time I bought something, she would say, “Oh, I have that one, too!” And we would laugh and promise not to show up at the same place at the same time wearing something from the shop. Betsy always gave me “the Asheville discount” – something the downtown shops reserved just for ‘locals’ and which no longer exists.

One day, I happened to wander in while she was getting ready to have photographs taken for an upcoming ad in a local magazine.

“Hey,” Betsy called out. “Want to be part of our shoot?”

An assortment of friends and family had chosen clothes from the boutique and were getting dressed. But that day I was already wearing something I’d bought from her a month or so earlier – a similar top, as it happened, to the one Betsy herself was wearing.

Betsy wanted the photos taken at Pritchard Park, a triangular area of rocks and plantings just around the corner from her shop, best known for its homeless population , open air chess games and Friday night drum circle.

We spent the next 45 minutes assembling ourselves in various groupings on the rocks, laughing and chatting and posing for the camera.

And that’s how Asheville once was. A town of welcoming smiles, easy conversation, friendships and spontaneous adventures. A community you belonged to, just as it belonged to you.

Mulling over the concept of belonging, I looked the word up and found it dates back to a Middle English verb, belongen, from be + longen “to be suitable.”

According to Cornell University, which has an entire page dedicated to the concept on its website, belonging is the feeling of security and support when there is a sense of acceptance, inclusion, and identity for a member of a certain group.

This is not a frivolous desire. Social belonging is hardwired into our DNA and a fundamental human need, according to the authors of a recent article in Harvard Business Review.

Asheville suited me. It was in Asheville that I felt I had finally found a place where I belonged.

Everything is ephemeral, however, even small towns. And Asheville has been changing. Having been overly successful at promoting itself, the precarious balance between community and opportunity began to tilt – disproportionately some might say – in favor of hard economics.

In recent years, developers and visitors to Asheville have been rapidly taking over. Since 2015, new hotels have sprung up all over town like unwelcome mushrooms after too much rain. A plethora of breweries spawn legions of beer happy visitors who cycle around town on open air buses or float down the river in boisterous clusters of linked inner tubes. We no longer recognize the people we pass on the streets. We can play the license plate game in one of the downtown garages and score better than we would on an interstate. Asheville’s authenticity, what has made it so unique and special, is rapidly dissipating under the onslaught of tourists who swarm the city sidewalks like ants on a honey spill.

Betsy sold her little boutique a few years ago to someone from out of town. I don’t know if the Oz-like apparition from behind the curtains is the new owner of her shop, but her apparent surprise at someone “local” coming into shop said it all.

“I just like to know where in the world everyone is from!” she exclaimed brightly, trying to salvage the first impression, but only making an already awkward conversation worse.

I had wandered into what had once been Betsy’s boutique this past week, hoping to connect for just a moment to how things used to be. To touch, even if briefly, that sense of belonging.

But, as with so many places in Asheville, there are new faces in the old spaces – and the magic that once was, has vanished.

Stared Awake

I was awakened yesterday morning – on my birthday – by a growing awareness of another presence quite close to me, hot breath on my cheek.

I opened my eyes slowly to see a rather large golden muzzle and a pair of big brown eyes staring intently at me from their resting place at the edge of the bed.

This vision unexpectedly brought up a hazy but happy image of my big sister doing the exact same thing to me, long ago and far away, when I was a young teenager and she, a university student in her early twenties, was visiting from New York City. Something I hadn’t thought of for years. I laughed out loud at the memory.

In those days, my parents and I lived in an historic 1880s home many miles outside of Philadelphia. It was an interesting old house, one with a nearly impossible amount of character. Over the many decades of its existence, various homeowners had added several stone additions to the original log cabin, each with its own personality traits.

The resulting jumble sat on two acres, surrounded by big old climbing trees. There was even a magical wishing well on the back stone terrace, surrounded by shady gardens.

Behind the house, there was a wooden carriage house of uncertain vintage, large enough to accommodate three vehicles, with tall wooden doors that swung wide open and needed to be anchored in place by sliding long metal rods down into rusted old metal holes in the ground.

On the backside of the carriage house, there were more gardens and an old stone stable with two stalls (for horses we didn’t have) and a hayloft, accessible only by a rickety pull-down ladder.

Even in the dead heat and stillness of long and lazy summer afternoons, I would climb up, throw open the large hayloft window and hang out either with one of my best friends or just by myself, reading or writing. It was my first studio, my first loft apartment.

Inside the log cabin portion of the main house, which my mother used as our dining room, there was a large hundred-plus year old stone fireplace with a cooking area on one side and an eating side on the other. The fireplace was so big that if you took care to stoop way down, you could actually walk right through it – providing there was no fire going. An enormous, black cast iron antique pot hung from a long iron arm anchored into the stone and could be swung in either direction across the fire, as needed, to increase or lower the heat on the contents.

The old wooden floors creaked a lot in this, the oldest part of the house. It took me awhile to learn which part of which steps to avoid if I wanted to creep up or down the back stairs, to or from my bedroom above, soundlessly.

And it was up there, under the eaves of the old log cabin portion of the house, in one of the twin beds, that my sister slept next to me when she came for a visit.

If she happened to wake up before me, which she usually did, she would get up quietly and kneel down on the old wooden floor next to my bed. Then, without touching me, she would stare at me fiercely until I startled awake from the sheer psychic pressure of her intense gaze. The moment she saw my eyes open in surprise, she would throw her head back and chortle with laughter, delighted at having awakened me by her sheer force of will.

This never, ever failed to amuse her.

Unnerving as it was for me, I liked that my big sister wanted me to be awake with her the moment she was up.

And all these years later, I love that Kiitos, my 8-month-old puppy, who has never done this before, woke me up in the same way on the morning of my birthday. It brought to the surface this long ago memory of a cherished sister who has not slept by my side for more than twenty years now.

It felt like she was here, with me, on my birthday – the first to greet me, the one to have, once again, stared me awake.

Best of all, she reached out to me through a dog. She loved her two dogs more than just about anything else in the world.

kristin & karen.jpeg

Except maybe me.

What a gift.

 

 

Giving Death Space

I have yet to watch Halt and Catch Fire, but some words in a recent review of the series by Todd VanDerWerff caught my attention.

“The important thing about a TV death isn’t how it happens,” VanDerWerff writes.

“It’s not the shock of the moment. The important thing about … death comes in the aftermath. Do the characters get time to grieve, to live with that pain?

The reason the deaths on Lost and Game of Thrones are so resonant,” he contends, “is because those shows give their deaths space … what’s important isn’t the death itself but everything that unspools afterward.”

His words stayed with me because these days I frequent that space, as do many others this year, surrounded by the unspoolings of our lifetimes.

IMG_3649.jpg

Throughout our lives, we move in and out of that space, depending upon where we are in the trajectory of our own life events. It’s an archeological museum set in a jungle of memories that we visit in our minds – a museum where the exhibits are photographs and letters; the artifacts are gifts received and things passed down; the audio-visual components are fragments of conversations, the memory of a laugh, the reciting of a little poem written long ago and captured on a cellphone.

But what’s really on display is the magical realism of memory.

In the beginning, when the loss is fresh, the museum never seems to close. But as days and weeks pass, the museum – almost imperceptibly – starts changing its hours. It pops up unexpectedly during dark hours, like the Night Circus or Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere. Or at an art gallery. Or sprinkled throughout the 65,000 hand-painted frames of Loving Vincent. 

I learned about art and books from my mother, and I like that she’s still alive in these moments, popping in for surprise visits – never staying long enough for a cup of tea or chat, but leaving an impression every bit as vivid as what I’ve always thought of as reality.

IMG_7067.jpg

Like dreams, these memory moments are ephemeral, yet still wickedly visceral. I’ve come to count on them in that empty stretch of space, the wake of her leaving.

And so, I decided to take my house off the market and I’m not going out as much for now. Instead I’m giving this recent death space, while staying open to surprises and marveling at what pops up to play with my mind when I least expect it.

Like this fragment of an interview with Father Greg Boyle I happened to catch today on NPR. He was asked if he was scared of death. No, he replied. Then, quoting the Dalai Lama, he explained:

“It’s not the end, it’s just a change of clothing.”

 

[all photography by me ~ from Barcelona, Seattle & Asheville]

 

 

 

The Serendipity of Shoji

I love how serendipity surprises you when you least expect it, like some mischievous little sprite waiting in the shadows for just the right moment to jump out and startle you.

A week before my mother died, as a respite from the stresses of caregiving, I booked myself into an Asian-style spa called Shoji – a nearly hidden little refuge tucked away on a mountaintop outside of Asheville, not far from the Blue Ridge Parkway.

I didn’t know when I made my reservation that I would end up there only a few days after her death. What I did know was that my body and mind needed the healing powers of warm bubbling waters interspersed with hot, cedar scented air and cold plunges. In a primal and intuitive way, the only therapy that felt right to me was a sauna.

My son introduced me to the Finnish sauna experience last year, when I spent Christmas with him in Helsinki. Many Finns consider the sauna essential to their wellbeing, as evidenced by the ratio of one sauna for every two people in the country. [‘Sauna,’ interestingly, is the only Finnish word to make it into everyday English.]

Unaware of a Finnish-style sauna in Asheville, I headed to a quiet and reclusive Japanese mountain spa called Shoji.

IMG_2962.jpg

In addition to the hot sauna, there is a private hot tub and a cold plunge.

I stayed at Shoji for a couple of hours, alternating between heat and cold, air and water, pondering life and death, and the newly raw absence of my mother from my life.

IMG_1370.jpg

I drank tea and read a book, and let the water and sauna therapies do their transformative magic.

After a few hours, I felt more at peace and – at least temporarily – physically restored. And so I returned to Shoji each week that month until I felt ready to tackle the world on my own again.

It’s been weeks since I’ve been there now, and I hadn’t given Shoji much thought until yesterday, while looking for something else, I came across the writings of Frank Ostaseski, co-founder of the Zen Hospice Project.

“There is no separation between life and death,” he writes in his book, The Five Invitations: Discovering What Death Can Teach Us About Living Fully, “other than a small hyphen, a thin line that connects the two.

“Death is not waiting for us at the end of a long road. Death is always with us, in the marrow of every passing moment. She is the secret teacher hiding in plain sight. She helps us to discover what matters most.”

In Japanese Zen, Ostaseski went on to say, “the term shoji translates as ‘birth-death.'”

Birth … death … mother … daughter.

IMG_2953.jpg

I had no idea of the meaning of its name when I headed to Shoji to begin sorting out my head and heart after the death of my mother.

I only knew that, for reasons I couldn’t explain, Shoji was where I needed to be.

 

 

 

Never Never Land

When I was in middle school, my mother succumbed to what was then the new trend of writing and sending out copies of “the Annual Christmas Letter.” Each of the five of us had our own small paragraph in which she deftly summed up an entire year in just a few lines.

The year I turned 14, I was a bit dismayed to read that my paragraph in the Christmas letter contained the following: “Kristin once again dressed up for Halloween, perhaps this will be the last year.” The sigh of “will she ever grow up?” was not lost between the lines.

Fortunately for all, the appeal of writing an annual missive soon waned for my mother and she resumed sending each friend and relative a handwritten card.

And I eventually moved to Asheville – the land where everyone, regardless of age, still loves to dress up.

Every day of the year.

IMG_1797.jpg

 

 

The Best Conversations

The journey through mind and memories continues….

Many weeks after my mother’s death, my heart holds a simmering stew of mixed emotions where moments of peaceful acceptance are spiced with shards of regret and seasoned with fragments of conversations that pop into my head, often when least expected.

My mother had her favorite places in Asheville – Malaprop’s Bookstore and 5 Walnut Wine Bar among them. But I think her favorite of them all was Battery Park Book Exchange & Champagne Bar, pictured above.

There, over a glass of wine and a cheeseboard,

DSC02719.jpg

she and I would have long discussions about the affairs of the world, my kids, and good adventures from days gone by. Although her short term memory was terrible! – as she often exclaimed in frustration – she was clear and sharp in her stories from decades past of her travels and the places we’d lived. We could (and did) talk for hours.

This past year, however, she became a little reticent about leaving her little garden apartment, even to visit her favorite places.

DSC08168.jpg

When I suggested going into town together, an awkward look would pass over her face and she would say, somewhat apologetically, “How about if we just stay here?”

And so, every week I would join her in the dining room at her retirement village for lunch or dinner, and listen once again to the stories. Often we were there, still talking, after everyone else had left. She loved that.

“We have the best conversations!” she would exclaim when I eventually walked her back to her little flat – even if she had done most of the talking.

She’d call a few days later to thank me for coming over and tell me how much she’d enjoyed our visit, often ending with the same words, “We have the best conversations!”

Last February, I offered to take her out for a glass of wine in celebration of my sister’s life. She started automatically to demur, but when I suggested we go to Battery Park Book Exchange & Champagne Bar, she couldn’t resist. And so we celebrated Valentine’s Day and my sister there together in the usual way – a glass of wine, some cheese, and of course – stories.

DSC02724.jpg

“We have the best conversations!” she remarked on the drive back to her place in Black Mountain.

It was to be her last visit to the Book Exchange & Champagne Bar. In the weeks that followed, she became increasingly reluctant to leave her little home.

She did admit, some weeks later, that she would love one more trip there. A mischievous little girl smile of hopefulness and delight lit up her face at the very thought of it.

But somehow I didn’t have the time, or make the time. I wasn’t sure she could manage it. Nevertheless, it still bothers me greatly that I didn’t somehow work it out for her.

Second guesses and regrets are part of the pain of dealing with death, but I’ve realized that trying to mentally outwit the sharper edges of remorse is often unproductive.

Rather, the best antidote to the relentless head-tricks and mind games we put ourselves through in the wake of loss might just be an unexpected little piece of magic.

And so it was the other night when a painting in a dark corner of the old Wedge building in the River Arts District caught my eye.

IMG_2066.jpg

I was wandering around a friend’s studio during a reception showcasing her work that was intriguingly titled, “Accidentally On Purpose.”

Mixed media artist Jacqui Fehl is a tiny, magical creature with large grey eyes and long ropes of platinum & black dreads. She describes her paintings as “a blend of grunge, whimsy and outsider.”

DSC04668.jpg

Influenced by music, lyrics, feelings, and stories, Jacqui’s art is unpredictable – playful, colorful and humorous with an appealing edge of darkness. Jacqui says her creative process is mostly intuitive; she may start out with an idea, but never really knows what the end result will be.

I’ve been a fan of her work for years.

“It is a dance of layering on, removing, covering up and revealing. I like my work to be loose, a bit flawed and not too precise or perfect.”

That sounds like my life, I thought, as I read her artist statement.

Even in the shadows, and even though it was not part of the show, I could see and feel there was something about this particular painting that was very compelling. The colors, the mood of it – it had a storytelling aura and lovely intimacy about it.

Another artist in the gallery caught me staring at it.

“You like this one?” she asked.

“Yes, I do,” I replied, unable, for some reason, to take my eyes off it. I was curious about – and drawn to – the random appearance of chairs throughout it.

IMG_2131.jpg

Knowing that Jacqui always gives her paintings interesting titles, I asked her if she knew what Jacqui called it.

She picked it up from the easel and in the low light of dark corner, squinted at the writing on the back of it

“The Best Conversations,” she said.

I stood there, speechless. And so she said it again, a little louder this time.

“It’s called ‘The Best Conversations.'”

A little magic, a little serendipity … remembering the many times my mother had said those exact words. My head flooded with delight – and relief. Finding this painting felt like forgiveness.

Accidentally on purpose, indeed….

IMG_2071.jpg

Jacqui Fehl’s delightful painting came home with me that night.

It now hangs in my little writing/breakfast room behind the kitchen –

IMG_2141.jpg

– just one of the many places where my mother and I often had ‘the best conversations.’

Hat Trick

In my family, a passion for hats skipped a generation.

My Danish grandmother, pictured above with my mother back in 1923, delighted in wearing outrageous and stylish hats. She also delighted in buying them for my mother.

As you can see, my mother was not as enamored with them.

When I look at this next photograph of my grandmother, I can see how my grandfather –a dashing young naval architect descended from generations of Danish shipbuilders – became absolutely smitten with Margrethe Petersen.

bedstemor.jpg

“She was a very vivacious girl, good-looking, with a wonderful complexion, and intelligent to a very high degree,” he wrote in his memoirs. “She interested and attracted me more than any girl I had previously gone out with.

“One evening after a party at home in Nordborggade, Århus, I escorted her to the door of the apartment house where she had a room with a family and before we parted, I told her that I loved her.

“I do believe that she was a little skeptical because I was not exactly the marrying type, having led a carefree existence and gone along with girls without serious intentions on my part.

Scan 1.jpg

“This time it was serious, though, and once she realized it, the foundation was built for the marriage which was to last for ever so many years.”

My mother, perhaps in reaction to the childhood outfits her mother dressed her in, seldom wore hats unless they were quite practical.

But just like my grandmother, Margrethe –

FullSizeRender (1).jpg

I, too, love wearing hats.

22049844_10210149404472298_2441156634402812710_n.jpg

photos of me by Tom Hunnicutt

The River Runs Through Us…

 

I’ve been going through my mother’s old photographs. Each day I grab a handful to sort through and scan, many of which I have never seen before.

Some I will keep, some will be sent on to someone else in the family, and some will be tossed.

This one of my mother is a keeper.

Scan (1).jpg

It offers a glimpse of her I hadn’t seen before – a little girl who liked to sit in rivers. It resonated immediately.

I remember getting into trouble when Eric Holzman and I – both just 6 or 7 at the time – played in a stream all afternoon while our parents were having a lawn party. When we eventually presented ourselves to the guests, naked except for knickers and completely slathered in mud, my mother was not amused.

Growing up, I often felt she was rather strict with me, more strict than she was with my older brother and sister. She seemed to be more afraid for me than she was for the others.

Which is odd, because in some ways, I had a lot of freedoms. By age nine, I walked myself a mile to school along the river and through the streets of London. At eleven, I was riding buses and trains by myself across the city to a different school. Seven years later, I was going to college in a different country. At nineteen, I moved to Paris for the summer to be a nanny. Those freedoms she encouraged and never seemed to think twice about.

She was a world traveler but I am more open-minded than she was, and even more adventurous. In retrospect, I think it was my free and creative spirit that worried her.

Times changed. She was the kind of girl who married her college sweetheart and I was a child of the sixties. She grew up during the Great Depression and World War II. I came of age during Woodstock, Haight Ashbury, and Vietnam protests. Over the years, we knocked heads many times over many things – and her criticisms always seemed to highlight the ways in which we were two very different people. Infuriating as they could be, however, and whether or not I cared to admit it, I knew these criticisms were rooted in her desire to protect me – both from others and from myself. In retrospect, I wonder if she was scared – and perhaps just a little bit intrigued by – the freedoms of my era.

Which brings me back to the photograph above. What I most like about it, is that it is a foreshadowing of the girl this little girl would eventually give birth to – one who also likes to sit in rivers. Even after her death, it weaves us one small connection closer.

The river still runs through us.

 

photograph of me by Sammy Fong.

 

 

 

 

Rafting through ten million years of rock layers

 

Months ago, a hiking friend suggested a whitewater rafting adventure down the Gauley, a free flowing river that cuts through ten million years of rock layers in West Virginia. With more than 100 named whitewater rapids in less than 30 miles, it is known as one of the most adventurous whitewater rivers in the east.

DSC01837

Each September, the Army Corps of Engineers provides a series of twenty-two controlled releases for the express purpose of downriver recreation. Collectively known as “Gauley Season,” these releases – the result of an act of Congress and the first law passed in the US to specifically mandate recreational whitewater dam releases – are scheduled on six successive weekends bringing millions of dollars annually to the local economy. The Gauley attracts paddlers from all over the United States and even overseas. And so, at the beginning of summer, a small group of us booked to do the Lower Gauley in early September.

Coming just two weeks after my mother’s death, however, eleven miles of Class III-IV, V rapids was suddenly the last thing I felt like doing.

21587255_10210050180391758_7735558045131762168_o.jpg

But it turned out to be the best thing I could have done.

The Gauley River, which is likely named after the historic Gaul region in Europe, begins in Pocahontas County, West Virginia, and runs through a scenic mountain area used for fishing and hunting by Native Americans for 10,000 years. It eventually flows into the New River, considered by geologists (despite its name) to be one of the five oldest rivers in the world, older than the Appalachian Mountains themselves.

Out on the river, we could feel the age of the area. Looking at the dense green vegetation on the mountains around us, it felt like we were floating back in time. A friend commented he almost expected to see dinosaurs emerge from the foliage onto the shoreline.

Even though the Lower Gauley has fewer and more spread out rapids than the Upper Gauley, a number of the rapids “pose significant challenges.” Fortunately, we had Candace – a fierce and fit, intelligent and experienced river guide at our helm, coaching us through the tricky waters.

21587255_10210050180391758_7735558045131762168_o.jpg
The Lower Gauley run begins with a series of whimsically named rapids – Wood’s Ferry, PJ’s Hole, Canyon Doors, Heaven’s Gate, Upper & Lower Mash, Upper & Lower Staircase, Rollercoaster, Roostertail, and Rattlesnake – and ends with the less whimsical, more candidly descriptive Pure Screaming Hell leading into Purgatory and Hell Hole.

Before calling the paddle sequence of each rapid, Candace gave us careful instructions as to which direction to swim should we find ourselves unexpectedly ejected from the raft.

21587113_10210050179951747_2151342299317052516_o

After a summer spent taking care of my mother through a rapid downward spiral of health challenges, ending with her death, this run was just the shock I needed to reprogram my entire central nervous system.

And it worked. We paddled hard, we laughed, we got scared, and we got soaked. Water therapy at its best.

Exhausted from the adventure, I fell asleep late that night, at peace and relaxed for the first time in months – the scent of the Gauley still in my hair.

 

photography by Tom Hunnicutt & Kristin Fellows

%d bloggers like this: