Monday, September 28, 2015

They Were The Best of Times, etc...

About a month ago, after more than a year apart, we were finally reunited with Ndoto, our 1973 Series III Land Rover in Africa. We worried if she would be just the way we left her, or if she would be there at all. Emails sent to her minder/mechanic had gone unanswered of late. We began to say, “What will be, will be” and “If she’s gone, I hope that she’s having another grand adventure” and we made plans to fly back to Africa anyway. Though “plans” is stretching it. The time we should have spent thinking about an itinerary, much less planning one, were mostly taken over with readying our home for lease. How did we not notice that leak in the roof before? Or the dry rot on the deck that had to be removed, repaired, and resurfaced? Or that crack in the tank on the toilet? And why did the washer and dryer have to go kaput in the same week? In fact, there were lots of kaput things on the house. If we hadn’t noticed them, our German tenant would have I’m sure. I’m sure because I’m half German. It’s my Do it Right, or Don’t Do it at All side. The other side, the Irish part, usually wants to have a beer and think about it tomorrow like that O'Hara Irishwoman. So if we had leased our home to an Irishman or if I’d been in a more Irish mood leading up to our departure, I might have used epoxy on the toilet tank and been done with it. But I knew that wouldn’t be right because our tenant is German not Irish. At least this was the excuse I used to get Scott to do things that have long been on my wish list for the house. “I’m German. Believe me, we must buy the nice Kohler toilets and a new washer and dryer too, and paint the walls….” I also lobbied for a re-do of our bedroom closet but Scott put his foot down saying, “Look Scarlet, we’ll think about doing that when we return in ten months” which means we’ll have a beer instead which is actually fine by me. “Plus, they don’t seem that picky to me,” said Scott.
“I didn’t say they were picky.” And they aren’t. They are very nice and their 2-year-old son loves elephants as much as I do.

In between trips to Home Depot or Kelly Moore Paint, we took care of business. We had the usual,"We can't really afford to be gone for ten months. But we can't afford not to go. Life is short" discussion. We also spent some time updating our wills. There’s nothing like an impending flight to Africa that spurs us on to think about the future—if not for ourselves, then for our heirs.

And then there was our wild thing, our cat Pika. We had to find a home for Pika for the ten months we planned to be away. Generous friends and neighbors offered to take her, but they had cats or dogs or both, and Pika is like Greta Garbo in that she vants to be alone. Enter my best friend since first grade Bonnie Fine Johnson (growing up, if she responded, “I’m okay” I’d always say, “No you’re not. You’re Fine! Hahaha!”) Bonnie and her husband had recently lost their cat Simba. “Can’t we take her?” she asked. This was a perfect solution. Except for one thing. Bonnie lives 6 hours away and Pika only tolerates car rides of up to 30 seconds. Suffice to say, I lost a lot of sleep worrying about how I would get Pika to Susanville. I asked friends for advice and they said, “Sedate her.” I asked the vet and she said, “Sedate her.” But Pika gets morose on sedation so I knew that wasn’t going to be any better than her yowling and barfing for 6 hours in her zebra stripped kitty carrier.

I don’t know why I didn’t think of it before, but the night before Pika and I were to make the journey to Bonnie’s I tried a different set of search terms on the Internet. It turns out “Traveling long distances in a car with a wigged out cat” elicited the answer I needed. I scrolled through the results and all answers were the same. “Kitty Calm.” “Use Kitty Calm.” “Kitty Calm saved our marriage.”

First thing next morning I was at Petco buying a spray bottle of Kitty Calm. A short but assertive blast into her carrier and onto her favorite blankie ten minutes before departure was all it took. I put her in the carrier and she assumed a position that remained unchanged for the entire journey. The stuff is magic. Or perhaps it was the soothing British accent used by the reader of Circling the Sun, the book on tape that we listened to without pause the entire way. When I pick her up in ten months I’m going to pop Circling the Sun into the CD player again, but without an assist from Kitty Calm and I will report back the results.

Pika, I am happy to report, is being loved and spoiled by Bonnie and her husband Scott and is becoming more Garbo-esque by the day.

In addition to house repairs, and a long drive with Greta, something else took up the time we should have spent planning an itinerary. Scott was flying. He was doing a lot of flying. He was so close to earning a private pilot license from the FAA, something he has been trying to achieve off and on since he was sixteen, and he wanted to finish all his requirements before we left. I knew he would pass. Everyone we know had no doubts he would pass. But he exhibited an uncommon lack of confidence in the two months leading up to the examinations. Adding to the stress was that Scott didn’t want to book Africa flights until he passed the exams. “Just focus on your flying and we’ll book the tickets once you have passed your tests,” I said not really meaning it but trying to be supportive. Friends and family began offering spare beds beginning September 1st when our tenants would move in and I thought about a road trip back to Susanville to see Pika. On August 27th,  four days before our tenants moved in, Scott came from the airfield and said, “I’m going to go ahead and book the flights to Africa. If I don’t pass the test, I’ll just do it when we get back.”

But of course on August 31st at 5P.M., the day before our departure to Africa, he did pass.
Let this be a lesson to you kids. Don’t ever give up on your dreams. But don't drink all the champagne in one night.

We had so much champagne (thank you Howells for the bubbly) that we forgot about all the things remaining on our punch list. The next morning, as our tenants were moving in, we were still packing our bags. Our tenant Christian was incredibly understanding and I got to show his little boy Roger the rusty live-size baby elephant named Clover that sits in the corner of the backyard.

And Ndoto?  Clarry at Bushmaster in Hoedspruit wasn’t ignoring our emails, he was busy working on Ndoto! She had been well very taken care of and was running better than ever.
"You know, you are over invested in this old Landy," Clarry said to Scott.
"Yes, I know that but my wife loves this car," and he looked over at me already sitting in the co-pilot seat. "I'm so happy I could cry," I said as we left.

Scott and I drove into Kruger Park and to Timbavati. We drove in and out of Hoedspruit. We got to meet a sweet little girl named Sanne and see some of our Southern Hemisphere friends.

The evening we picked up Ndoto I installed a brand new memory foam mattress to her rooftop tent then made the bed with soft new sheets and plush duvet. “We’re home,” I said to Scott as he poured the first Gin and Tonic of our new adventure. Ndoto sat tall on her rebuilt chassis and murmured quietly on her new pistons. The steering was tighter, but we no longer had to downshift to second to climb hills. It was all so wonderfully perfect. For two weeks everything was going so well. We couldn’t believe our luck.
Then, on our way back into the Kruger Park, this happened:

Back in Hoedspruit, Clarry and his Indy 500 Pit Crew, leaning into Ndoto like a team of ER surgeons, had the engine apart faster than you can say, "How much does it cost to repair a cracked block?"
But since Clarry is a miracle worker, I think she’ll soon be as good as a 43-year-old Landy can be and get us where we want to go.

 Kruger Park, South Africa, in a Land Rover Discovery loaner.

Next: “I Will Speak Well of You Constable, on Facebook and Everywhere!”

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Bathing an Elephant in Sri Lanka-Dreams Do Come True


     I had an extremely vivid dream several months before planning a trip to Asia. In it, I was bathing an elephant in a river in Sri Lanka. The dream was vividly detailed down to the trousers--a pair of Capri khakis with a North Face logo on the pocket. After the dream I went on an elephant washing trouser hunt and found the exact trousers in my dream at an REI store. Six months later we were on a train to an elephant orphanage in Pinewella Sri Lanka. 

     At the orphanage one can stroke baby elephants while they are bottle-fed by volunteers. If you look pathetically desperate to hold the bottle yourself, as I did, they let you. Large families and tour groups from Colombo and Kandy arrived throughout the morning to have their picture taken with elephants before piling back into waiting minivans that would take them to the next stop on the itinerary.
     I wanted more than just a photo. I wanted to live my dream.

     I asked one of the elephant handlers, a mahout, “Where do the elephants bathe?” and he gestured with head and hand in the direction of the exit. Then he proceeded to burst my bubble. “Only mahouts bathe elephant.”

    I was mystified. "This isn’t like the dream at all," I said to my husband Scott while turning away from the mahout.
     I felt completely deflated. Why would I have such a vivid dream if it wasn't going to come true? I thought. I shrugged off my selfish desire and helped feed one more baby elephant before starting toward the exit. 
     Suddenly, I sensed I wasn’t alone. I turned around to see 85 elephants walking in my direction but at a much quicker pace. I hightailed it out the exit and watched the elephants come toward me. The elephant in the lead and apart from the others was enormous and very old. Two mahouts led him, one on each side, murmuring quiet direction.

     Aw, how sweet, I thought. Those two men are so kind and gentle with that old elephant.


     Just before the elephants reached the gate, a guard blew a bugle announcing to everyone in bugle range that in a minute all traffic would stop and that all the elephants would cross the road to get to the river. Except for one elephant. Instead of heading to the river, the the old elephant with the two mahouts turned away from the herd and began walking down the middle of the road.

     As the threesome turned, one of the mahouts looked at me and cocked his head, “Come with us,” he gestured. So I did. I looked for Scott but couldn't see him anywhere. I finally spotted him trapped on the other side of a conga line of elephants heading to the river. He took advantage of a gap in the line and cut through the elephants so he could catch up to us.
      Scott was confused. “Tris, What are you doing? Where are you going?” Scott asked when he reached me.
     “I'm not exactly sure. But I hope I am going with this mahout to bathe this elephant.” Then I asked the mahout, Rajit, through pantomime, “Why does this elephant not go with the others?” He indicated that the old elephant was blind and that the place all the other elephants go to the river to bathe is too steep for the blind elephant to navigate.

     We continued walking down the road until we came to small white bridge and a path that led to the river. We followed the elephant and the mahouts down the path. The elephant stepped carefully into old footprints that formed a ramp made by hundreds of trips down his personal path to the water. 

     At the river the elephant immediately began sucking water up into his trunk and spraying it on his back and over us too. Then the mahout told the elephant to get in the river, which he did.
     “May I get in?” I mimed with giddy with anticipation.
     Rajit motioned that I should wait. Then he told the elephant to lie down in the river, which he did. Then I got in the river.
     The mahout showed me how to scrub the elephant with a coconut husk. At first I wasn’t scrubbing hard enough but then I remembered how I did it in the dream and I quickly got the hang of it. I scrubbed his whole body. I had to kneel on top of him to reach his back. I washed his tusks, which were incredibly smooth. I gently stroked his eyes with my hands. When the mahout asked the elephant to stand up and turn over, he did and I washed rinsed and repeated on the other side. As I scrubbed the elephant, relaxed and content, fell asleep in the river.

     I could barely believe what was happening. It was my 50th birthday and I was exactly where I wanted to be doing exactly what I wanted to do. Dreams do come true.

     The next morning I waited in the road outside the orphanage to watch the procession of 85 elephants head down to the river. As Rajit turned the blind elephant away from the herd he looked at me and gestured, “Come with us.”

Friday, January 16, 2015

The Money Shot - Charged by Hippo on the Zambezi River

Excerpt from Safari Jema, A Journey of Love and Adventure from Casablanca to Cape Town. The entire adventure is available on Amazon.

 Flying a micro light over the Zambezi River may have gotten our hearts pumping, but now we were going to do something on the Zambezi that was reputed to be heart stopping – a four-day canoe camping safari. During the day we would paddle amongst hippo and crocodile and at night we would camp on the riverbank with Cape buffalo and elephant.  Scott was very keen on canoeing the Zambezi, and he was extra pleased because he had booked it at a discount.
I was nervous.  I am more afraid of hippos than most any other African animal, and I wasn’t too excited about sleeping with Cape buffalo either.  Because they are so territorial, hippo and Cape buffalo cause the most deaths to humans in Africa. 
Scott tried to convince me that terror could be fun. “Come on Tris!  You love wildlife. It can’t get more wild than this.”
When we arrived in Kariba, Zimbabwe, we were told that others who had booked the trip cancelled at the last minute so it would just be Scott, me, and our guide, “Eddie.” Eddie looked decidedly more frightened than I did.  He also appeared to be about twelve years old.
I looked at Scott and said with my eyes, “There is no way in hell I am getting on the Zambezi with deadly hippos, crocs, and buffalo with a kid named Eddie.” I don’t know why his name bothered me so much but even “Edward” wouldn’t have made him look any older or any more confident.
Scott turned to the booking agent and asked, “Do you have any other tours leaving tomorrow?”
Yes, they did have a canoe safari starting tomorrow, but it was a luxury tour staying each night at tented safari camps along the way and would cost considerably more than our camping safari.
“Would Eddie be leading the tour?” my husband asked quietly.
“Oh no,” said the agent with understanding.  “That tour is led by Maxwell, a very experienced guide.”
We walked away to discuss bending the budget and going on the luxury safari.  I reaffirmed my position aloud, “Scott, there is no way I’m going to put my life in the hands of a kid named Eddie who doesn’t look as though he’s ever even held a paddle before. You go if you like and I’ll be here bird-watching until you get back.”
“Hmmm,” Scott said, his sense of frugality tugging at him trying to convince him that he wanted to go with Eddie, without me.  “Well, I think I’ll see if they will give us a discount on that other trip.”
And that’s what happened.  There was only one couple booked on the luxury trip so the agent decided it would be a better solution for everyone if we made it a foursome, five including the guide Maxwell.
Early the next morning, we met Maxwell along with the Australian couple we would be canoeing with over the next four days.  Maxwell gave us a spiel about what we could expect to hear, see, smell, and taste on the Zambian side of the Zambezi River.  Then he gave a “safety talk.”  
“Leave most of your gear here.  You need very little on the river so a small duffle bag with a few changes of clothes will do.  Do not bring any food, especially citrus fruit.  Elephants are crazy about oranges.”  He paused for emphasis before continuing.  “Never stand up in your canoe.  If you see a hippo, don’t panic.  Paddle single file behind my canoe.  When we stop for lunch or a pee break do not wander far from the canoe – there are elephants and Cape buffalo that come to the river each day to drink.  If a hippo or elephant charges you, don’t worry.  I have a weapon in my canoe that will stop them.”
“Maxwell, have you ever had to fire your weapon?” I asked.
“Only once,” he answered with a frown.  “I had a guest one trip who insisted on bringing a very large hard-sided suitcase with him.  He was traveling alone and kept to himself.  Each time we stopped for lunch or a break he disappeared into the bush with the suitcase.  One day as I prepared lunch, the man came running out of the bush hysterical and without his suitcase.  Behind him I could see a big bull elephant hot on his heels.  I ran to the canoe for my gun and took aim on the elephant.”  Maxwell paused.  “I have never killed an animal, and I did not want to kill this elephant.  But the elephant was coming after the man with steady determination. I made a quick decision to fire my gun into the air hoping to startle the elephant.  It worked.  He stopped charging. He stomped the ground and tossed his head before running away.”
“How frightening!  Why was the elephant chasing the man?” I asked.
“Elephants love oranges.  It turned out that the man’s suitcase had been filled with nothing but oranges.  He would take the suitcase with him into the bush, find an elephant and toss oranges to it until we were ready to leave.  That day he tossed oranges until his suitcase was empty.  Only, the elephant wanted more.  I was furious with this man who almost made me shoot an elephant!”
Before we left I discarded my citrus-scented shampoo.
The lodges we stayed at each night were simple yet beautiful.  Genteel Zambian hosts at each tented safari camp excelled at the art of conversation and made us feel comfortable and catered to.  At the end of each day they greeted us on shore with welcoming smiles and our favorite sundowner.  We had more cocktails at the bar as we watched the sun go down before dining together at a meticulously set table.  We listened to exciting stories about adventurers in Africa as we settled into comfortable chairs around a campfire before retiring to our luxury tents.  All night long we heard the rumble of elephants nearby.  Little did I know, I would soon be telling an exciting Zambezi story of my own around the campfire.
The Zambezi is the fourth longest river in Africa. Through six countries it 
provides food, transportation, and recreation to locals and visitors. Bushy trees and dense brush overhang the Zambezi’s banks like an unkempt mustache. You can hear the animals crashing through the vegetation to get to the river long before you can see them. The main river is wide and there are many narrow channels to paddle in and out of while looking for wildlife. But you never have to search for long. Opportunities to get close to wildlife are a guarantee. It isn’t uncommon to see herds of more than one hundred elephants along the riverbank. Cape buffalo, baboons, crocodiles and many bird species are also in abundance. But the most prevalent animal in the Zambezi by far is the hippo. Canoeing the Zambezi is not for the faint of heart.  Each day we had to weave our canoes among pods of territorial hippos. Maxwell took the lead. When we came upon a group of hippos blocking our path he would stand up in his canoe and hold his oar high over his head “to look big and dominant,” he said. Though Maxwell was little more than five feet tall, to our amazement this usually worked and the hippos would scurry out of the water.  Usually.  One day however, as we canoed through a very narrow side channel, Maxwell spotted a lone hippo some distance ahead asleep in the water.  He turned and whispered softly, “I think if we paddle quietly he will not wake up.  Just follow me and try not to make any noise.”
We went single file, Maxwell in the lead, the couple from Australia following and Scott and me bringing up the rear.  As I watched Maxwell slide past the hippo, the hippo continued to sleep.  As I watched the Aussies glide past, the hippo didn’t move.  As Scott and I neared the hippo it suddenly woke up with a start and sprang up in the shallow water with a look that said, “What the hell! Where did you come from?” We panicked and began flailing our paddles with such desperation that our canoe t-boned the bank directly opposite the hippo. Not more than ten feet from us, the hippo went into territorial mode. First it took a big dump, splattering its poo over the water and bank with a frantic and repetitive wag of his tail. Then it took a bead on us.  We began to paddle as fast as we could.  I saw Maxwell ahead stand up in his canoe and raise his oar high over his head.  The Aussie couple was watching us with eyes wide and mouths agape.  I noticed a look of horror on the face of the Aussie man and a look of excitement on the face of the Aussie woman.  I watched things unfold in slow motion as the woman, not taking her eyes off us for a second, reached for her fancy long lens camera and began to take shot after shot of us and what was going on behind us.
Suddenly Maxwell and the Aussie couple began paddling quickly down the river. Without saying a word, Scott and I continued to paddle as fast as we could. We were too terrified to speak. Soon we were even with the Aussies and in another minute we had passed Maxwell.  I thanked God that Scott had been on an outrigger team when we lived in Hawaii. He really knows how to dig an oar into the water. We didn’t stop paddling until we could see the lodge ahead of us.  Completely spent, I put the paddle down and let Scott guide us in to shore.
The lodge host must have sensed by my expression and limp arms that something memorable had happened on the river because as soon as our canoe hit the bank, she was by my side wrapping my hand around a double gin and tonic. 
“That was bloody terrifying!” said the Aussie man as he strode to the bar.  His wife, who it turned out was a professional film (not digital) photographer, remained on the bank snapping photos, one after another.  She shot photos of the lodge, of the reeds, of the sunset, of my hand clasping the gin and tonic until she slowly advanced the camera one last time with a sick look on her face.
“That hippo,” she said to us.  “It was right behind you.  It had its mouth wide open as it chased you down the river.  I thought it would take Teresa and half your canoe in its mouth.”  She sighed.  “I thought I had a money shot.” 
With trepidation she opened the back of her camera to confirm her fears.  The film was intact, its little tail barely out of it canister.  The entire day, it had never wound on.  She didn’t get a single photo.
I was utterly gobsmacked. “I know you are disappointed, but we could have been killed!” 
Oddly, for the rest of the trip she barely spoke to us.  Somehow it was our fault that she had missed her award-winning photo.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

There's No Place Like Home

There’s No Place Like Home

Postponing Re-entry with The Oshkosh Fly-In and The Santa Fe Trail

One starry night lying in our rooftop tent on the banks of the Limpopo River, where anything seems possible, we contemplated what life would be like for us back in America after 15-months in Africa. Could we continue eating fresh, healthy, field-to-stomach meals and foods without preservatives and sugars once we were back in the land of fast and fake food? How long would the forlorn missing-your-lover-feeling we felt each time we left Africa last? We envisioned our day-to-day life in California and tried to remember what we used to do. What we used to do seemed completely uninteresting. We decided doing something “active” upon arrival in America would take our minds off of some of the above and get us in shape to boot. Twenty years ago we enjoyed long-distance self-contained bikes trips in Europe. We consumed all the Brie, baguettes, and wine we wanted and still lost weight. “How about a bike trip?” Scott suggested while searching the World Wide Web where a surprising number of sites pop up when poking “Active trips in America” in the search box. “The Santa Fe Bicycle Trek has a trip starting in New Mexico just after we return to California.” When he added, “It says here that we will cycle pass actual ruts made by wagon wheels in the 1800’s,”  I was sold. We sent an email to the organizer and paid the deposit. We had one more month to soak up enough of Africa to tide us over until our return, whenever that will be. We returned to Hoedspruit, South Africa where Scott again fed his new passion, flying, and we hugged our 40-year-old Land Rover Ndoto, bidding her an emotional farewell (well I did) before she went into storage. We had been through a lot with the old girl. It was mostly due to her good looks and "I think I can!" attitude that we had the adventure of a lifetime. 

The timing for our return was ideal. Our first stop in the States would be Oshkosh, Wisconsin for the annual week-long EAA Airventure Fly-In, a gathering of aviation enthusiasts from all over the world. The Fly-In is a mecca of engineering ingenuity, good old-fashioned heart-warming patriotism, corn cobs dipped in vats of butter, and bratwurst the length of your forearm. There are over 1000 forums and dozens of how-to clinics. For one week a year the number of aircraft arrivals and departures during the Fly-In makes the Wittman Field FAA control tower the busiest in the world with 2000 take offs and landings in one day. Romantic looking Ford Tri Motors fly patterns all morning. The impressive Osprey military plane perform demonstration flights daily. Sleek looking seaplanes dock in a picturesque cove on Lake Winnebago ten miles away. There are daily air shows and nightly concerts. Over 10,000 aircraft – home-builts, Warbirds, by-planes, microlights, gliders, experimental aircraft (for which EAA was named), luxury jets, and helicopters line the fields in neat rows ready to be admired for all that is good in aviation. Pilots bring their planes to the Fly-In for affirmation, to see old friends, and to celebrate their love of flying, and of flying machines. Comments such as, “Beautiful” “Nice lines” “Looks slippery” (a good thing – it means the plane moves through the air nicely) will get a home build pilot talking for hours. 

Scott attended forums all day while I walked the flight line murmuring praise to pilot and plane alike. 
I was asked by almost every pilot I encountered, “What type plane did you fly here?” 
“British Airways.” (Confused look from pilot) “From Africa.” (More confusion) then, “My husband is the pilot in the family. Light Sport. He doesn’t have his own plane yet.” When the pilot couldn’t bare it any longer I would finally asked the question he wanted to hear. “What do you fly?” and out would come the iPad with a planeload of photos and YouTube videos for me to coo over. 
“Beautiful” “Nice lines” “Looks slippery” I said. “How long did it take you to build?” Eighteen years was a common answer. Since there are over 300,000 mostly male pilots in attendance at the Fly-In, I never lacked for company and I never had to wait in line to use the ladies room. The vibe was invigorating and inspiring, yet comfortable. Astronauts stood in the same line for Bratwurst as everyone else. Forty thousand people camped in green pastureland turned into tent and motorhome villages for a week. A large South African contingent camped and partied together near The Red Barn, a campground grocery store. We got blisters just walking to the ablution block not to mention the miles and miles we spent traversing the show grounds from forum to air show to concert to outdoor movie. But it was an incredibly positive week that reminded me of all that is good about America. It is the ideal place to land after more than a year spent abroad. 
If you want to learn more about the EAA Airventure I can't say it better than EAA member Harrison Ford. There's a link to his video at the bottom of this post. 

If Oshkosh provided a good dose for my Mal d’Afrique, my longing for Africa, the Santa Fe Trail was the cure.

Mid Flight-line Meeting Point

"Beautiful. Slippery."

Camped on Scholler Field

Watching the action from the flight-line


Me with WASPS Women Air Force Service Pilots

Only in the Midwest can you get corn on the cob dipped in a vat of butter.

It was always dark when we stuffed our soggy tent into its cold limp bag and made our way to the gym, then to the cafeteria for a hearty breakfast of pancakes, eggs, bacon, bagels, biscuits and gravy, hash browns, bananas, coffee, orange juice, and more coffee. Stuffed to the gills, we mounted our bikes for another long and hot, or long and frigid, or long and windy, or long and rainy day on the Santa Fe Trail. We did the same every morning for 21 days as we bicycled through New Mexico, Colorado, Kansas, and Missouri along the historic mountain route used by settlers in the 1800's. We rode up and down hills and mountain passes, along semi truck populated highways with no shoulders, down the middle of shady country lanes, and through sorghum, wheat, and cornfields of the Heartland of America. Church ladies cooked us brunch and we had a few dinners at Senior Citizen halls along the way. Once, six ladies who were members of a Lutheran Church located amongst fields outside a small town in Missouri prepared an entire Thanksgiving dinner just for our group of forty cyclists. Once again we were eating from field to stomach. The squash, potatoes, carrots and beans were all grown locally. The berries and pumpkins that went into the 14 pies we consumed had been harvested earlier that week. The food was so good and the ladies who prepared it so kind that it brought a tear to my eye. (Or maybe that was my stomach exploding.) My mom was born in the Midwest. I felt at home. “These are my people!” I exclaimed while filling my fork with the best tasting mashed potatoes and gravy I had eaten since my mom passed away 7 years ago. Everything was so good and aromatic and unselfish. Scott turned to me sated and happy and rubbing his swollen tummy and said, “Your mom may have converted to Catholicism, but she cooked like a Lutheran.”
My heroes

Bible Class still taught in German

St Paul's

Even if you are at the lowest level of fitness of your life, you can cycle the 1096 miles of the Santa Fe Trail (or a portion thereof) without dying. I proved this. My husband and I had done nothing more than drive around Africa in a 40-year-old Land Rover for 15-months prior to starting the cycling trip. Sure, we did some walking safaris, but (except for a 75 mile ride I did over 5 days to Masuna in Zimbabwe on a bright yellow bike borrowed from a Rastafarian in Vic Falls) we hadn’t been on bicycles in over 2 years. When we eagerly opened the Santa Fe Bicycle Trek packet I began to perspire. “Eighty miles?! I can’t cycle 80 miles a day! And we start the trip at 7000 feet. I can’t cycle at 7000 feet!” I toyed with the idea of driving the route while Scott, whose legs, no matter how many hours or months he spends on the couch or in the seat of a Land Rover are a thick layer of skin over rock hard muscle, cycled the route. When I emailed the organizer Willard with my concerns he proclaimed, “altitude is nothing!” and “cycling long distance with hills is simply a matter of having the right gears and using them properly.” He was right of course but there was no getting around the fact that my body was a wetsuit filled with cream cheese. Nonetheless, he convinced me to try riding the distance adding, “You can hitch a ride whenever you need.” (This is not really the case. The Santa Fe Bicycle Trek is not sag supported and from the first meeting in a gym in Santa Fe New Mexico to the last in New Franklin Missouri riders are told, “You are on your own.” I don’t recommend it unless you are an avid cyclist with plenty of hill training, or you are stubborn like me or have insanely muscley legs like Scott.) I bought a pretty new bike with more gears and less weight than my old one. Surely with a bike like this I could handle the Rocky Mountains I said to anyone who would listen. “That’s crazy,” they’d say.

Real Cyclists and me.

The first day was 72 miles. I cycled 67 because it was getting dark and I was afraid I would miss dinner. The next day and the day after, I overheard some mutterings, “She has no business. Who comes on a trip like this without training?” Humph. Of course, they were right. I had no business. Nonetheless, every morning I got on my green and silver bike, which I named Daisy after my gorgeous friend Daisy Barber because she has one green eye and one brown eye and would never do anything to hurt me. Most days I sat in the saddle for up to 8 hours and moved my cheesy legs in a circle all day long. As each cyclist passed me I called out, “Hello!” or “How are you doing?” so that they would notice that I was still in my saddle and moving my legs in a circle at speeds of up to 12 miles per hours or less. Because they were nice people and because I had no one else to talk to all day, I learned all their names. “Hi Ron! Hi Doris! Hi Jeff! Hi Kyle!” Sometimes Scott would cycle with me. Sort of.  I would see him ahead in the distance like a beacon atop a hill. A pacing beacon. As I approached breathless and sore, wanting nothing more than a chance to lie in the road and stretch my back, drink some water, eat another bagel, throw my bike in a ditch, he would mount up and say over his shoulder, “Let’s try to pick up the pace the next ten miles.” Grrrr. 

“Hi Richard! Hi Bill! Hi Ralph! Hi Michael!”

Every 5th day we had a blessed day off to not torture our butts and to do laundry. Some of the cyclists (I still didn’t consider myself one. I considered myself a determined woman riding her bicycle named Daisy through Middle America while consuming copious amounts of mostly artery clogging or jiggle-y jello-y food prepared by extremely kind Lutherans or cafeteria staff) began to converse with me. Mostly they asked, “Why did you decide to do this trip?” My answer, “We wanted to do something historically interesting while being active,” was met with a shake of the head. But by the middle of the second week I began getting encouragement and support from the cyclists. “Looking stronger Teresa!” “Energy!” “You’ve finally got a good cadence going!”

“Hi Tony! Hi John! Hi Tim! Hi Barbara! Hi Diane!”

Daisy and I started out every day determined to complete the daily mileage. Most days I did but the cyclists continued to pass me each day and I was always last. Each day our bags where transported to the next college in a Budget Moving Van. There was another vehicle along too. A former pilot named John Bryan (he was Scott’s favorite) drove his passenger truck that pulled a trailer with bike rack. He rode his bike most of the time and mercifully gave me a ride in his truck the times when I was near complete exhaustion. Another participant, Marion, shared the driving with John. I loved Marion. She ignored my pathetic level of fitness and was the first to offer encouragement. “I’m so proud of you,” she said. That felt good. 

The fifth day of riding was a rainy, cold, windy, wretched solitary day. I wore wet suit booties inside my shoes and my ski jacket and ski gloves. I was 35 miles out of Trinidad, Colorado and I was miserable. I knew the truck with bag lunches inside was waiting alongside the road in the rain at mile 40 but it was already nearing 2pm so I wasn’t sure it would still be there. I was only managing 6-8 miles an hour against a headwind. The rain stung my face. Suddenly Ken, Doug, and Don from Canada came up next to me from behind. 
“Hi Don! Hi Doug! Hi Ken!”

“Do you know how to draft? Link up with us!” they shouted. I pedaled hard and joined the mini peloton and felt the effects of the draft. Briefly. I just wasn’t strong enough to keep up. “Thanks guys, but I’m peeling off,” and I quickly fell back. But did they leave me in the mud? No! Don drifted back behind me. Suddenly I felt two fingers on my back and Don pushed, propelling me forward to Ken’s back tire. “Wow! That was awesome! Thank you!” I tried my best to stay there but when I was completely out of breath I gasped, “Thank you again guys but I just can’t do it. See you tonight in camp!” But Doug, retired teacher, now world traveler, hung back and began asking me questions about our travels to Africa. Suddenly I felt invigorated. After 10, maybe 20 minutes he said, “Teresa, your cadence is very good right now.” I looked down at my speedometer shocked to see it registering 14 miles per hour. Soon the truck came into view. Scott, shivering in the cold, and my bag lunch were waiting for me.  I gave Scott my wet suit booties and ski gloves and off he went on his bike. I climbed gratefully into John’s truck with two of the cyclists who could easily have done the distance but who couldn’t bare the cold that day.

Along the route we stayed in small town College gyms. Well not in the gyms exactly, but camped on the grassy areas next to the gyms where we could watch and smell hormone-driven athletes coming and going in the evening and predawn hours to play hard and stink harder. They played so passionately that most exited the gym with bags of ice attached to one or more parts of their bodies. Lucky for us, keeping all these corn fed competitive kids at their fighting weights required a mountain of cafeteria food and hot showers and we ate what they ate and showered where they showered. At night we ate from the pizza bar, the hamburger bar, the pasta bar, the meats-of-the-day bar and always, from the ice cream bar. Consuming nine thousand calories of food was not unusual. I could feel my stomach stretching to the brink of explosion. “Ugh. I can’t eat like this.”

“But you must! You need the energy. Besides, you’ll burn it off no problem” said everyone. They were right. Worried that I would run out of fuel on the road, I even took to cramming my handlebar bag with bananas and bagels each morning before leaving the cafeteria. Most days when there was an option of a small town cafĂ© stop for pie along the route I would continue cycling because I was afraid I would get to camp after dark. “You didn’t stop for PIE?!” said the cyclists with disbelief when I saw them at night. I learned that cyclists cycle mostly for the beer and pie to be had along the way.

Beer time

Even in the third week everyone still passed me. “Hi Betty! Hi Robert! Hi Lisa! Hi Ray! Hi Mike!” But each day I had more and more support. Especially in Kansas. Cycling Kansas is hard. It’s both flat and hot with no shade for 50 miles, or you’re battered by headwinds and dust. Eastern Kansas is just one hill after another. But I was determined to cross Kansas on my bicycle. The moment I crossed the border from Colorado to Kansas the spirit of my mom was with me on the ride. Mom was born and raised on a farm in Otis, Kansas. It wasn’t an easy life. There were 10 kids in her family, mostly girls who worked as hard as the men in the fields. I wanted to honor her by riding across her state, toiling not as she toiled but experiencing Kansas heat, dust, wind, maybe even boredom as she did. Plus, I felt so at home in Kansas. The women all looked like my aunts Betty, Hilda, Louise, Amelia, Lea, Frieda, the men like my Uncles Aaron, Martin, and Alfred. Martha, my loving mom, was on my handlebars gently leading the way with her serene Mona Lisa smile. “Just keep turning your legs around in a circle and you’ll get through this.” This was what I imagined and this is what got me through Kansas.

At the end of the second week we had a rest day in Dodge City. Looking at the map I noticed that Otis was only 100 miles from Dodge. (Why didn't mom ever tell us kids that she grew up 100 miles from Dodge City?) The next day, through a lady at the college business office where I went to get change for the laundry machine who knew a lady who had a nephew who worked at Toyota, a brand new Rav4 was delivered to the campus for us to use so that we could visit my mom’s farm. I’m sure, somehow, my mom made that happen.

Our visit was nothing short of perfect in a going back to your roots sort of way. We saw the barbed wire museum and the stone fence posts along the way. There were corn fields and wheat fields. Everyone waved at us. The tiny town of Otis was not much changed since when my mom was last there. We saw the spot where my mom drove the wagon to deliver the grain to the elevator near the railroad and we looked off as far as we could see and remembered my mom saying, “It was just dust and wind and hard work.” The one room library on Main Street was closed for the day but the librarian using the computer inside let us come in to do some research. We found out that my mom’s grandfather, part of the German colony that came from Russia to Kansas, came not by railroad as we had always thought, but by wagon on the Santa Fe Trail making my determination to cycle the length of Kansas even more meaningful. “Oh, that’s why we’re here,” I said softly while studying the route taken by my ancestors. The librarian remembered my grandfather and the farm. “Drive 3.5 miles out of town from Main Street to a grove of trees and you’ll be there.” Just before we left she said, “By the way, my father was married to your Aunt Louise,” so I hugged her good-bye in a family way and drove out to my mom's homestead. We trespassed and circled the old barn and the ancient pickup truck sitting in the tall grass, all that was left on the old farm. I tried to recall every single thing Mom ever told me about the farm; “We had no toys so we would dress the barn cats up in the tiny outfits we made from scraps of fabric. Sometimes we played kick the can. When we had big dinners, we fed the men first, then the children, and then we women would eat. Monday was washday. We girls worked like men in the fields. I defied my father and read True Story Magazines in the loft of the barn. I would read to my mother who couldn’t read English. We had one book, the Bible, and it was in German. We weren’t allowed to go to dances….” I wished she were still alive so she could tell me more. I wished she were still alive.

Otis Library

Otis Kansas Main Street

Main Street Otis in the old days

Mom's old farm

Only the barn remains
On the third to the last day of the trip I cycled 83 miles. I was in the saddle for 9 hours. Beginning at mile 50 I sang Somewhere Over the Rainbow and America the Beautiful over and over at the top of my lungs. At mile 60 I wanted to leave Daisy by the side of the road hoping she would be stolen by a young Kansas woman wanting to run away and find adventure and love as my mom did when she left Kansas all those years ago. Every inch of my body ached. As I pushed up another hill I would pray, “Please God” and as I would coast down the other side I said, “Thank you God.” Hill after hill, all day long. Then, at mile 62 at the end of a gentle downhill run, I saw John’s truck pulled over in the grass with Scott standing beside him. “Oh, hi!” I said coming to a stop and straddling my bike. I could tell that Scott, who had been my patiently impatient beacon all day, would have liked me to load my bike on John’s trailer so that he could ride like the wind for the last 20 miles. No one spoke. I stared off into the impossible distance ahead then down at my pedals willing them to become small jet engines. “Boy, this sure is a hard day,” I said looking at John expectantly. He just smiled. “How about some ice water?” I looked at John with tired gratitude.  “Uh, okay, sure.” “Only 20 miles to go!” he said cheerfully. It was the hardest day for me by far, and when we arrived at camp everyone was already at dinner. But thanks to Scott and John and Mom, I did it.

The next day my right leg simply refused to go in a circle. I ignored it at first. Secured in a pedal cage, I compelled my left leg to push down and pull up while my right leg dangled free most of the time until I saw John and his truck pulled over at a gas station. “My knee is done,” I said. He of all people understood. He had recently had surgery on both knees. Still, he is a cyclist. When I hobbled into dinner that night one of the cyclists on the trip – amazing, adventurous, mountain climber Betty Martinsen, a former physical sports therapist for the US Ski Team (how lucky could I get?) asked, “Do you mind if I have a look at your knee?” She poked and prodded and pulled, and concluded, “Oh” in a bad news kind of voice. “You shouldn't ride on these hills. It’s your IT Band. I think you pushed too hard.” I was incredibly disappointed. I was beginning to love the way cycling made my body feel. I loved all the fresh air, sorghum fields, and nice people along the way who waved and offered me water. My legs would miss going around in a circle. But I had cycled over 750 miles when I didn’t think I would be able to do 40. And I was able to be in the company of John and Marion for the last two days and that is always a good thing.

We finished the bicycle trip in new Franklin Missouri, one of the starting points on the Santa Fe Historic route and we flew to California. It was good to be home. We were reminded of all we had been grateful for before we went to Africa. Supportive family, neighbors and friends, our cat Pika, and our home that hugs me every time I walk through the front door. Africa was beginning to become a warm memory rather than a requirement to breathe. It’s true what they say. There really is no place like home.

My compass, Martha O'Kane. With my nephew Colin O'Kane, 22 years ago.