Ever been on a road trip, and found yourself lost? You turn off the music, stop the conversation you are in, and concentrate on figuring out where you are, and how to get back to where you were heading. We need the time and space to sort somethings out. Broadcasting our intent has added an unexpected layer of complexity to this process.
We want to be transparent, but we have no desire to look like vascilating fools. We want to share, and will in time.
This messy, up and down, here then there, is an important part of this process, maybe the most important. It’s here, in this space, where we are becoming who we are really meant to be. For a family, that has only bean able to control how they would react and respond to commands and orders from the military with no regard to our needs or desires, we are learning how to identify and communicate those needs and desires. PTS and is secondary effects are very real. We have to be careful that no matter what we are doing, we examine the motives behind our decisions. Are we running from something? Are we making decisions out of fear? Are we trying to put a bandaid on a festering wound? Where are we emotionally, mentally, and most important, spiritually? As we explore all of this, we need space.
When it’s time, we will share… Until then, Happy Trails!
When we left our home in March, there was an excitement that could just not be contained. We couldn’t wait to experience all that the trail would offer. When we arrived at Amicalola Falls on March 12th, tears welled in our eyes. We had made it to the beginning of the journey. We were hopeful, but unsure as to wether we would actually ever take our first steps on the trail. When the weather turned dangerous at the top of Springer Mountain and we did not know if we were going to be able to find a reasonable ride down the mountain, we could not have imagined that we would find ourselves at Miss Jane’s home in Blairsville. We were able to sleep in warm beds, take hot showers, buy new gloves to keep our hands warm, and more importantly we got our first taste of the new friendships that this experience would bring us.
Our first day on the trail, we were completely proud of the fact that we had simply made it to the trail! We were as proud of our first 4.4 miles, as we have been over any 15+ mile day. We set up our tents for the first time, and slid into our new sleeping bags. We gathered sticks to make a fire and we sat around it with a couple of teachers. I watched pridefully as Taylor discussed American and British literature with the two of them. There could be no better reward to the end of a cold, hard days climb, than to enjoy the simplicity of a fire with all seven of us enjoying each others company.
When we returned to the trail at the end of the cold snap, we were so excited to make it to Hawk Mountain. It is there that we met Antenna, ThunderBuns, and Papa G. We would experience more memories with each of them. Again, it was not the miles, but the memories that we were chasing.
It took us several days to hike the first 34 miles to Neel’s Gap. We met the Warrior Expedition hikers there, and had a good laugh over the crazy of having seven boxes delivered to us there. We met the Graham’s in town at the pizza parlor, and hiked out of Neel’s Gap with them the next day. We all survived our first hail storm there, and we lived to laugh about it.
One memory after another, conversation after conversation… our first month on the trail was filled with trials, but more the mystery and misery mixed to make a whole heap of memories that propelled us forward each and every step of the way. Of course the newness was bound to wear off. There has to be a reason so many leave the trail. If it were all good, all the time, this journey would really have no purpose except to provide a temporary escape from the inevitable reality that we will one day live again. We trusted that the difficulties of the trail would provide opportunity to grow, to talk about the struggles that we have faced, and to be open about the hurts that we have experienced, to seek forgiveness from each other, and to find peace with each other and with God.
Somewhere, somehow, at sometime, things changed. Not all things, but some things. Even now, I struggle to articulate the changes, but over the past couple of days family conversations have confirmed that things had indeed changed, and moreover that there is so much more work to be done; not to go back to the place we were at the beginning of this journey, but to really come together as a family, and to let go of the anger that exists inside each of us. The heat of the past week has revealed immense amounts of anger that dwells in the depths of each of our souls; a brokenness of spirit that has created chasms in our core.
We were told at the very beginning of our time in service that we need to just pull up our boot straps and keep marching on. There is a sacrifice required from those who choose to serve… we had chosen to serve, therefore we would have to become intimately acquainted with the sacrifice. Our children would have to know this sacrifice as well. However, we cannot blame everything on this sacrifice; we have to own our contribution to the chaos.
As we sort through the heap of emotions, we are only now beginning to see the magnitude of the task. Before now, everything has been somewhat stored in compartments created by expectation. As parents, we have told our kids how to store and deal with their emotions. Regardless of the pain brought on by deployments, we have tucked emotions away in order to survive. “There is nothing that our emotions will change.” But after living through the consequences of thinking this way, nearly losing everything, we refuse to let our kids walk into adulthood without allowing them space to unpack all of that junk, and learn again how to let go of the negative and identify the positive. It isn’t as simple as just throwing it all aside and moving on.
Lately, we have been to see the lack of milage as failure, rather than a part of this journey. My ankle injury, as disappointing as it was, provided Ryan some time to be alone with the kids. New York, a great interruption to the flow of this journey, was necessary. Though I won’t go into all of the details, things are being made right, and the time Ryan spent there was a huge contribution to that. The disruption turned up the heat, now real work can begin. Only if we slow down!
There is simply not enough time to hike 18 miles, relax and enjoy the little creek we pass by, and sit around and just let the conversations take place for a long as they need. With this in mind, we have decided that we are going to slow down, but we are going to keep going. We have decided that we will stay out here as long as it takes. There are many unknowns, and there will be many more obstacles to overcome, but we have gotten back to the heart of the journey. We all are climbing into bed tonight with an immense amount of excitement; similar to the first day we began our journey on this trail.
We came out to the trail with such enthusiasm. We worked hard to get out here. We overcame so much just to be a family. Many days out here have been beautiful, even when the weather was not. We worked together and embraced what God and the trail had to offer us that day. We have made memories that we never could have imagined. Others have given us the gift of “trail magic”, but more they have given us things to remember as a part of the journey.
Today was not an easy day. From the weather, the condition of the trail, and the challenges we faced relationally, we almost quit. We almost gave up. We fell apart, all of us. Today brought out the very worst in us, and serves as a reminder just how quickly we can fail. How quickly we can fall back into the unwanted cycle of dysfunction that we have worked so hard to come out of.
We could have called home, and been asleep in our beds tonight, but instead we are in Manchester Center, Vermont. We got to town later than we had hoped to resupply, because honestly we were falling apart on the trail.
Someone at the local convenience store asked if we have wanted to kill eachother. It was not funny, but it was one of the crazier questions we have been asked, and sadly, we had just been in the worst of conditions only moments before. I replied we are learning to reconcile faster. That is the truth. We are humans, and there are seven of us. We are going to have moments where we dont see eye to eye. There are going to be moments where we hurt eachother, purposely and otherwise, but we are learning to fail forward. We are learning to forgive and to listen.
Whatever the reasons are that led to where we found eachother this morning, this journey is about not quitting. We may or may not finish this trail in its entirety, but we will not leave, and did not leave the trail because of anger and resentment toward eachother. If we left the trail today, we would have failed. We would have given in and quit on eachother. We didn’t though.
Tomorrow, we will return to the trail. We will have to slosh through the nastiness that is the Vermont trail, and again find ourselves being drenched by the rain… but we are going back to the trail unified, having forgiven and been forgiven. This is not about a destination, but about the journey. Today, we were reminded why we are out here. We are going to fight to grow, to learn, and to live life with eachother.
Today we failed, but today we failed forward. The sun has not set on our anger, so in that we have won.
Happy Trails, Ribbons.
In Hotsprings, North Carolina, Ryan and I sang karaoke together. It was a random thing that we did, and not something we have ever done before. We chose to sing a song called “Home” by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros. The first time I had ever heard this song was when we were in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, at a Western BBQ and dance. We were celebrating our 13th wedding anniversary. I have loved the song since then, and every time I hear it I think of Ryan.
We have never had roots in a place that we call home. Our roots are planted and entangled in one another, in the place where we are when we are with eachother and our children. Alabama or Arkansas, no matter how much we love our ma or pa, there is something different about how we love one another. We have never had a physical place that we look back on, since being married, that we feel was home.
As I am writing this, I am sitting on my warm comfy king sized bed. I slept in Ryan’s arms last night without the hinderance of sleeping bags to separate us. I love that place. In a few moments, I will take a hot shower without the use of crocs, and use a towel that has not touched a strangers body. I will have to choose what I will wear (though because all of our clothes are packed away, it will be whatever is on the top of the box). Then I will make breakfast in our fully stocked kitchen, with a full sized oven, pulling things from a fridge and utilizing a myriad of spices. After we have all eaten, we will slip our dishes into the dishwasher, instead of heading off to find water at a nearby stream and getting our single cup and spoon as clean as we can. I thought that I missed all of these things, but aside from being able to sleep next to Ryan, I dont. In fact, this weekend has been harder than I could have imagined. I am grateful, yet unsettled. I feel more a stranger here, than I do out there. I cant wait to be on the trail again tomorrow.
Showers, laundry, cooking, shopping… all of those things are easier for certain when we are home, but the emotional and mental freedom that we have experienced on the trail makes the challenge of those things so worth it.
All to often, we assign the word home to a building. We work hard to have this home. We work to fill the home with beautiful and pleasing things. We dedicate hours to the upkeep of the physical building. Often there is a never ending “to do” list of projects that need to be done to assure the functionality of the building. And these homes become a litmus test for the success or failures of a family. The days of knowing our neighbors and relying on them, for the majority, are past. We drive cars to places where we can gather with people that are like us and that we choose to like. None of these things are wrong. But what we have experienced over the past couple of months is something so completely different, and in that difference I feel “home”.
What we are doing is not “normal”, but what is happening within each of us individually, and in all of us corporately is so amazing that I don’t know I ever want to live “normal” again. We have time for eachother. There are no walls or doors to divide us. We depend on eachother daily. We are united in the mission. There are times when the trail is hard, but it is never harder than the things our family has gone through in the past. Some of those difficulties can be attributed to the challenges faced from our time served as a military family, but others are because we made the choice to be bound to the typical American lifestyle. In our attempt to have, we lost. On the trail, we are stripped of the comforts of things, but we have found and will continue to find comfort and security in eachother.
Out there, we are known as “the family”. We are known by who we are, not what we have, not what we do… simply who we are. “The last one to finish wins” is a common reality check on the days where we might feel we aren’t making the forward progress that we wish we were. We are surrounded by a community of people where everyone wants to see eachother find what they are looking for. There is no judgement for those who dont finish (for the most part), instead of quitting, they left the trail becasue they had found what they were looking for. We circle around eachother to make sure that no one is quitting on a bad day, but if they are leaving the trail, they are doing so at peace.
I fear that I will finish the miles, but not necessarily be ready to leave the trail. Having experienced the freedom that outdoor living provides, I am not sure that I am ready to bind myself to a building… and the common definition of home.
Maybe one day, this restless being will leave the trail ready to settle, but not yet. None of us are there yet. The place where awe at the beauty of creation and the continuous emerging of life within us and around us daily draws us to continue on. This is the season we are in… And I love it, even on the hard days.
When we started to plan this journey, we had just found out that Ryan was going to be medically retired from the military. He had been in the military for 17 years at that point, and had been diagnosed with PTS and a TBI. This diagnosis came after over a year of treatment. Ryan tried to return to duty, feeling strong enough to do so, but after an honest attempt it was obvious that it was not in his best interest or the units for him to continue to serve on active duty.
While Ryan was in treatment, we were simultaneously fighting for our marriage and our family. As his wife, I learned everything that I could about the various ways that PTS manifests itself. I learned so much about how a traumatic brain injury has impacted Ryan, and consequently how it has impacted our marriage. Understanding became the solid platform from which we could launch into the next chapter of our life.
When it was clear that Ryan was going to be retired, we started thinking about what we were going to do next. We decided to head out on the trail. Here we are two months later… 550+ miles behind us, many many more ahead of us. We aren’t much closer to knowing what we are going to do next, but some things are much clearer than they were when we started up the trail on March 12.
Earl Shaffer hiked the trail to “walk off the war”. What I know for certain is that one cannot simply walk it off. It is not the walking that helps one to deal with the trauma of war, but the trail provides a natural boundary from outside influences and stimuli that sometimes hinder the healing process. When we are on the trail, I see such peace in everyone’s eyes. When we get into town, there is an initial excitement for showers and clean laundry, a little snack and sometimes even a real bed, but that excitement tends to last no more than about 24 hours. Past that time, the excitement turns to anxiety and an itch to get back out to the trail.
The past couple of weeks have not gone as planned. With an injury, Trail Days and a meeting in NY, we have spent more time in town than we are used to, and it is during these times that I have been able to truly see how far we have come, and how far we have to go. There is no set destination, but there are definitely things we need to address and work to overcome.
It is so hard for people to understand the complexities of PTS. Many times things look totally normal to the outsider, but with anxiety of being in crowds, conversations that are initiated by well meaning people about the war and our governments position on foreign policy, and the like cause an emotional distancing amongst us. Though Ryan is the one diagnosed with PTS, there is a very real presence of secondary PTS within each of us… To varying degrees. I’ve never really had issues with crowds, but now crowds cause me anxiety as I prepare for the way that Ryan reacts to them.
As we prepare to head back to the trail, these are issues that will be at the forefront of our conversations. With each trip to town, we will focus on growing in these areas. Each of us have to face how things that are out of our control effect us, this includes how we react to how each of us react.
We have met many people along the way that have left the trail because they have found what they were looking for. We may not know much, but we do know that we are not ready to go home yet. Yet. One day we will be there, but it is not right now.
We had the most wonderful day on Sunday. When we arrived atop Carvers Gap, we had entered a new world. The moisture in the air had crystallized on the surfaces of every tree, and plant. It was obvious that fierce winds had blown, as the crystals themselves protruded straight out from every plant, in the same direction. The winds had to have been fierce, but the scene was so beautiful now. The sun was glistening off the blanket of white that covered the earth.
We hiked several miles through this strangely quiet place. It took two hours to hike 3 miles, because every turn seemed to bring with it another scene to be studied, captured, and enjoyed.
So far, this day, has been my favorite day. But this day, also was my worst day. As we were descending from the top of the mountain, back down into the gap, I placed my foot on an unsteady rock, and found myself writhing in pain. A twisted ankle can be the end of the trail for some. It was so painful that I cried my last couple of miles down the trail. I knew that I really had no choice but to keep going, though all I wanted to do was to sit and cry. So many thoughts ran through my head. My tears were not only over the pain that I was experiencing, but also the fact that I knew I was not going to be able to continue on with Ryan and the kids for atleast a few days. I was angry, frustrated, and in intense pain.
Rest. Breathe. Let yourself slow down. Trust. Release.
Rest. We’ve gotten plenty of sleep out here on the trail. Without electricity, hikers tend to find themselves asleep the moment that the sun goes down. Rest, however, is not the same as sleep. Rest has not been a part of this trip thus far, atleast not for me. I am constantly planning, constantly trying to communicate how we are doing with the outside world, constantly checking and rechecking to make certain that everyone has everything that they need, when is there time for rest?
Breathe. The trail is a path cut through the woods. It isn’t going anywhere, yet our plans to conquer it must remain fluid. Plans and expectations must be adjusted to move forward successfully. So take a deep breath, take it all in, and let go of the “ifs” and “whens”.
Let yourself slow down. In the attempt to move quickly, a sacrifice is made. If our goal was to make it to Katahdin in a certain number of days, so much would be lost. There is a saying out here in the trail, “The last one to the top wins.” It means that the person who has taken their time has gained more, experienced more, and has enjoyed all that nature and the trail have to offer. I am learning that it is indeed OK to have alone time in these woods. And suffering the consequences of trying to move too fast… Now that I am away from the family.
Trust. This is an adventure that will never be relived. It is an opportunity that will never come back around. There is so much happening in and around ourselves, and life transformation is happening in front of our very eyes. I need to trust that we will accomplish all that we are to accomplish in whatever amount of time we are out here, as long as the journey is enjoyed, and the time is spent wisely.
Release. I love the verse in Proverbs that states how a man makes his plans, but it is God who orders his steps. In His perfect wisdom and goodness, He is ordering our steps. It is our responsibility to follow them, and trust when we really don’t want to… When it hurts, and when it is hard… It is our responsibility to surrender!
“The fiery furnaces are there by God’s direct permission. It is misleading to imagine that we are developed in spite of our circumstances; we are developed because of them. It is mastery in circumstances that is needed, not mastery over them.” – Oswald Chambers.
I am learning to see beyond the trial, and to the expectation of transformation. The story is just beginning to unfold!