When I was young life was chalked full of wonders,
I built houses for fairies with my mother and brothers,
I played in the creek and built mighty forts on its banks,
I traipsed through the woods, falling in the boys ranks,
Ten foot ceilings were then like vaulted caverns,
And the woods were great forests of pines and ferns,
The clouds were boats that sailed in the sky,
that one could ride if he climbed just as high,
We played all day in the woods and the meadows,
’til we were far shorter than our copy-cat shadows,
Free to roam and adventure as far as we walked,
if as we ran home when the dinner bell called,
We warred with algae that grew thick and green,
climbed magnolias not as tall as they seemed,
pruny hands from catching crawdads and mud puppies,
fishing, well, trying, with our string, hooks and guppies,
shocking games with trampoline static,
secret spy meetings held in the barn attic,
hunting trips with spears made from sticks,
no wonder we brandished such bruises and nicks,
we spent sunny days collecting wild berries,
and don’t forget to give some to the fairies,
our imaginations were wild as could be,
and with them unleashed we were kids, we were free.
Children play with old tyres in the rural area of Mossoró, Rio Grande do Norte State, Brazil.
I was returning from my almost fruitless mission of collecting wild muscadines. Just a few small grapes rolled around the bottom of my container, dodging the flowers I threw in to press between pages later. As I walked back onto my street, I saw two ladies, who I know to be my neighbors, spritzing up the neighborhood entrance.
Side note: As a general rule, our neighbors don’t particularly like me and my cousin/roommate. They don’t like that we sometimes park on the street when we have friends over. They think we drive too fast in the neighborhood- I know I don’t drive any faster than the rest of them. They don’t like that we don’t roll up our trashcans until the end of the day- the fact that we don’t get home until then is beside the point. They don’t like that I commute to and from everywhere on my bike. And they don’t like that we are young. We are messing up the retirement feel of the street. So, I am forever waving pleasantly and smiling when I pass a neighbor. I am trying to win them over somehow. I am pretty sure it isn’t working as they hardly ever return the smile or the wave.
Ok, back to the ladies.
I walked up and started a conversation. I offered them both one of my pea-sized grapes, which they accepted. We started talking about grapes, which turned into a conversation about wine. One lady said she used to put wine in empty shampoo bottles and sip on it while she studied. I burst out laughing. What?!?! “Well, Prell, you’re too young to know what Prell is…this old shampoo company, used to bottle their shampoo in glass bottles. We’d fill up empty ones with the wine my grandfather made from his muscadines and sip on it as we studied”. ‘How much of that studying was effective?’, I wonder. Her granddad also used to make “White Lightning”. Context clues taught me that white lightning is moonshine. You learn something new every day. She said she had some of it once, put it in a smoothie (Why a smoothie? I asked myself the same question), and that it was the nastiest drink she ever did have. I asked if they ever had apple pie moonshine. We all agreed, it’s a dangerous thing. Before I left, we talked about nursing (I’m in my final year of nursing school), travel and how new teacher incentives a great, but how the seasoned teachers are neglected when it comes to pay. I wished them a nice day and turned back to my house with a smile on my face. I just made friends with two of my neighbors.
There we were, my little brother and I, signs in hand and thumbs hitched out, walking along the highway towards downtown Nashville. My sign rested on top of my head reading, “It’s Hot. Feet hurt.” My 6’3″ little brother trailed behind holding “Downtown” and a red Powerade some saint had handed us through his truck window. We had walked a couple miles (at least) by this point. We figured, if we don’t get a ride, we might could make it downtown before our dad called and asked us where we were. The guy at Walgreens said downtown wasn’t very far away. He obviously forgot the only wheels we had were the ones the good Lord gave us. Back up a few hours.
We checked out of our hotel room and my dad told us he would pick us up after he finished with work. We went to a lovely restaurant called The Loveless cafe with a couple of friends who live in the area. A dangerous place if you like biscuits. They are served warm, with butter and homemade jam. The worst part: they are bottomless. We did a little shopping and then our friend dropped us off at the place our dad was doing his business meetings. We packed our bags in the trunk and he told us he would pay for an Uber. So we took the phone and tried to download the app. Several times. No cigar. After a little discussion, we decided we would just start walking. It beat waiting around a dull office park for 4 or 5 hours. We also guessed we had a pretty good shot at someone picking us up before then. We asked a passerby which direction downtown Nashville was. She pointed and we headed on our way.
After about a mile of walking, I decided we needed some signage. We were astronomically more likely to be picked up if people at least knew where we were off to. We handed some dollars over to the cashier at Walgreens and a few minutes later we were off again. I had one shoe tucked in each back pocket of my jeans- the blisters were already a real problem on the heels. I reminded Nathan to smile. I danced a little as we walked. Sometimes I took really funny, elongated strides in an effort to get at least a laugh, if not a ride. Vibe is everything when one is hitchhiking. We met a homeless man who was in the issue of The Contributor that week. We bought a paper from him. Had a little conversation with him. Wished him luck, and he wished us the same. And we kept walking. We decided not to tell our mother. And joked about how great it would be if our friend, who we had breakfast with earlier in the day, happened to pass us with our signs and sweaty faces. She would have died. Our dad still thought we had taken an Uber.
After a while of interstate walking, a white car pulled off the shoulder ahead. I beamed over my shoulder at Nathan and we ran to it before the driver changed his mind. We peeked in. It was one man who looked respectable enough. He waved us into his air conditioned car and we were buckled and rolling down the interstate in a jif. He said he had some extra time before his flight and could take us downtown. He was a software engineer for some sort of financial consultation company. He had a kid who was going to be in the military and wanted to go to med school. He commutes weekly from Chicago. Has been doing it for 3 months. Really nice gent all around. The ride took us probably 10 minutes, going 70mph for most of it. We never would have made it. He dropped us off and we thanked him profusely. Nate and I waved as he drove away, and then turned and highfived each other, sharing smiles that held a lot of words in them. We had just done that. For the next couple of minutes we chuckled aloud at ourselves and what we’d just done. Sibling bonding at its finest. We went to an overpriced store, then walked up the road to the Frist Art Museum. Nate still calls it the Frisk, and I’m pretty sure it’s because he thinks that is actually the name of it. An hour or so later my dad pulled the car up and asked how our day was. Our eyes flashed with the hint of a smile and Nate said, “Pretty good. Yours?” By the time we got to the airport, my dad knew the whole story. He just shook his head and feigned disbelief, but I know he was impressed. It was a reminder that we are, in fact, of the same blood.
My family has always vacationed at the same beach every summer. My grandfather lived there. My mother and all her siblings romped on the same sands when she was a child. There are generations of memories on that island for my family. I’m pretty sure there are scars on the walls of one house in particular that has endured years of our rough-housing. I love that island. It always gives the illusion that all is well in life, and always will be.
When I was younger, my dad used to take us out fishing on the boat. Why we still go is a mystery to me as I don’t recall ever catching supper. Not once. We used to go to the marina to buy bait, snacks and ice. There was this weathered man who was more often than not sitting on the beaten wood bench outside the shop. His skin was leather, his eyes a piercing blue, his feet were thick and bare, and his hair a blondish white mess forever beating around his face in the wind. His clothes looked as old and worn as the man inside them. Back then, he looked to be about 60, though I’m sure he was closer to 40 or 45. He was a picture of fierceness. And I thought he was incredibly intriguing.
LJ lived on the island across from the marina. He would motor across the waterway in his little boat, the “Clamdigger”, and hang out with the fisherman who chartered their boats for deep sea fishing. When they would bring in a huge catch, I would sometimes see LJ help with the filleting. I’ve never seen a man fillet a fish so perfectly with such swiftness. I imagine after cleaning a bucketful of Spanish, or whatever was running that day, the captain would hand him a few fillets as payment.
Every summer I would see this man. When my dad would walk in the store, I would hop up on the rail across from LJ and we’d talk. Just for a few minutes, usually. But every summer those minutes added up. And this summer I decided I was going to have a real talk with him. This hermit who, for years, had tickled my curiosity and entertained my childish questions on the docks. I wanted to find out more about him. It had been a few years since I’d talked to him. Something had gone down between LJ and the owner of the marina and he wasn’t allowed on the property anymore. But I knew where he lived. And I was bound and determined to have an interview with him.
I know the fastest way to the heart is good food. My mama taught me that growing up. And I knew that LJ liked seafood. So I took my little sister out on the kayak at low tide, and we set to work. I would paddle and she would stand cautiously in the front to cast her net for shrimp. Over an hour in and we only had about 10 shrimp even close to being big enough to cook. Disheartened is not a strong enough word. But the show must go on. We paddled back and cleaned our meager catch. I made a great experiment in the kitchen trying to throw together some shrimp and grits that had a little flare to it. Paper plated it and threw some tin foil on top to keep it warm. I couldn’t go alone, for obvious reasons, so as soon as my sweet man got to the house I drug him into it. We battled the currents for what seemed like an hour kayaking to LJ’s humble island. I guarded the food from the water as best I could, but by the end Brian and I were both soaked and the food was probably a little saltier than it started. I called LJ’s name as we pulled the kayak ashore. I saw the branches being pushed aside and then there he stood. Looking a little confused, I might add. We walked up, met in the middle, and I reintroduced myself. He said he remembered me. I told him I made supper and was wondering if he had a few minutes to talk. He took the plate, turned to his campsite home that was hidden in the trees and said he’d be right back. Brian and I pushed the sand around with our feet, swatted the mosquitoes eating our legs and talked quietly for a couple minutes. There was a torn paperback with sand-filled pages rotting in the dune grass a couple feet away. Rumpled beer cans littered the path leading to his site. His house looked like a worn in bachelor gypsy camp. Trash and all. When he came back we all stood there and talked about his favorite authors, dates, storms, trapping and such. LJ doesn’t much like badgers. As in badgering people. He is a private sort of fellow, so I guess the hermit life suits him well. He has lived on that island for about 8 years. Through storms, cold winters and all. He wouldn’t really say what caused him to want to live there all alone, except that it was cheap and people didn’t bother him much. Perhaps that’s enough reason for him. He digs clams for a living. 10 cents a piece for the big ones, and 25 cents for the small ones. I guess medium sized ones are 15. He takes his little motor boat out, hops in the mud with his thick, bare feet and clams for hours. He tugged the sleeve of his shirt over his shoulder to show off his faded tattoo that reads, “Clamdigger”. “That’s what people call me”, he says. “That’s what I do”. I ask him what he does if he gets sick. He doesn’t. Ever? “Not really. I must jus’ have a strong immune system”. And what about storms? “Depends on the wind. I’ll stay with someone if it’s blowin’ the wrong way”. How many times has he had to leave? None. LJ has weathered every hurricane that has blown through the island in the last 8 years. He said he got a little worried once. The wind changed directions. And the cold? “It’s not tubad. I jus’ keep a fire going'”. We asked about his family. He wouldn’t say too much about them. I know he has a brother who keeps up with him decently. And friends will go in and check on him. I asked him if he ever thought about trying to get squatter’s rights. He shrugged it off and said he didn’t much care about all that. He is content to read a good old western by the dying light of day and go to sleep with the sun. Then wake up with it, eat some food out of a can and go to his secret clamming spots to earn enough so he can do it all over again the next day. As much as he says he doesn’t like to be bothered, I believe he just doesn’t like being bothered about things that don’t matter. LJ is a relational man. I realized this the longer we spoke. He’s also a little crazy. Not unexpectedly so. He told us some stories that made me glad Brian was standing next to me. He has a lot of good in him though. I’ll have to bring him some more suppers to learn more about his story. He still looks 20 years older than he is. His skin is still tanned leather, his eyes still strikingly blue. And I am still intrigued as I was nearly a decade ago.
1. If you ever get dried car battery acid in your eye, do not, I repeat, do not rinse it out with redness relief eye drops. Artificial tears on the other hand are helpful (but first rinse them thoroughly with water).
2. Know your aloe before slathering it all over your skin. Some varieties will give you a raised rash lasting about 8-12 hours (like the one I found at the San Diego Zoo- at least, I’m pretty sure it was aloe). Lesson learned.
3. Smiles diffuse situations, unless someone thinks it is a sarcastic smile.
4. Check to be sure a wire fence is not electric before touching it, or you will be shocked one day to find that fence was indeed hot.
5. Walk in kindness and you’ll find your path is kinder too.
6. Most people like to be sung to when you are beside them at a stoplight…most.
7. When you hide things from other people, make sure it is not in TOO good a hiding place…I could list about 6 things I ended up hiding from myself as well.
8. Don’t tighten the foot cages on your bike pedals too tight, or you might just fall over when you come to a stop because you can’t get your feet out. It’s funny to everyone else.
9. Don’t just assume someone speaks Spanish (or any other language). Happened to me once, and it will not happen again.
10. Paddle against the current first.
11. Eat BEFORE going grocery shopping. Otherwise bad decisions are made.
12. Don’t bike with eggs and a gallon of milk in a backpack. It will likely turn out poorly.
From San Diego to North Carolina, I flew standby. I watched several planes leave without me…but I wasn’t alone. There were several other wishful passengers in my boat. So, we waited together. For hours. One couple traveled with me for about 18 hours, another man for about 10. But the man was my longest companion. We flew together from San Diego to LAX and waited many hours for our late night flights. And during those 10 hours, I came to know this stranger in a very intimate way- intimate in the way of sharing pain and joy, trials, sorrows, and deep thoughts. We became fast friends, despite the near 2.5 decade age difference. After waiting in the LAX airport for probably 2 hours, he asked if I was hungry. Off we went to scour the airport for a less swindling eat spot than the cafe charging $18 for a cold cut. We happened upon a “farmers market” shop where they sold baguettes. He bought one (for $10.90) and the attendants warmed it while they spooned some dipping sauces into ramekins for us. And there we sat. At a table for four with a warm, and somewhat hard to chew, French loaf broken in half and our hearts laid bare before the nearly complete stranger sitting opposite ourselves. He shared pains he had lived through, and continues to struggle with. I shared mine. We offered each other perspective. And brotherly/sisterly love. He did not discount my words for my age, nor did I discount his for his bitterness. We were just honest and real. Maybe because we knew we would never cross paths again did we open up so readily. We knew we could be heard and known without truly being known, because we understood it was a fleeting knowing of the other. He spoke of his broken marriage. How he’d been separated from his wife for 3 years. And the pain. The bitterness. He told me their storied past, snippets that I pieced together to form some jagged picture of the brokenness and distance he felt between them. We talked about forgiveness. I told him of my dying grandfather. How, in the last couple months of his life, he had shown me the most beautiful human picture of forgiveness. The cancer that broke him also helped him mend broken relationships. Pain from years past that had been swept under the rug was brought to light and laid to rest with apologies and forgiveness. Pain from alcoholism, nonacceptance, disappointment, absence. He saw it all, had seen it for years, and finally recognized how much he had hurt those dearest to him- his children, now grown with children of their own. I told this man how I had seen these mended relationships and it showed me that death didn’t have to just be an ugly affair. There is beauty in that part of life too. He told me he went to a divorce lawyer once who told him that marriage was like an exquisite vase. But that if the vase is dropped or bumped too hard, it cracks. And you can glue it back together if you need to, but it will never be as beautiful as it once was. I said I likened it to a body. And maybe that body gets really hurt and a doctor has to sew ya up to fix the hurt. It leaves a scar, but it heals. And maybe the scar will forever be there, but it will be healed, and it will be a reminder of where one has been and how far one has come. For a couple hours we sat at that table. Sharing words and emotions. I asked why he had stayed with her for so long. I think, despite his answer, he wasn’t exactly sure but deep inside he thinks it can still work out.
He ended up getting on a flight directly to ATL, but I didn’t make it. I would first have to go to Indianapolis. So at the gate, after a near 10 hours with this man, we hugged goodbye. He turned to board and I began a slow walk to my gate to wait some more. Where he’ll end up, I guess I’ll never know. But I hope it is somewhere good.
I met others too. The couple I mentioned before- turns out, the husband and I have both done mission work in the same parts of Uganda. A man on my flight to ATL helped me sleep. And a woman on my last leg gave me a book that I watched her finish. I don’t know that I’ll agree with the words on its pages, but I’ll read it nonetheless. Traveling, of every kind, is an adventure. And there is always goodness to be found on adventures, even if one is airport hopping for 24 hours on standby.
I’ve come to know California as endless orange groves, sunny days soaked up on beaches and mountaintops alike, and adventures. It is a place full of perspective, be it in an art gallery or atop winding bridges that cross over blue bays. California is me and my dear friend riding down the freeway with the wind whisking away our voices as we belt out our new favorite songs. Our driving songs. We’ve gotten a lot of good use out of them during our hours on the road.
We camped at Sequoia National Park, braved its cold nights and hiked its heights. The views are spectacular. We went thrift shopping, found sweet stuff. And we bought some of it. Korean BBQ, snorkeling with seals at La Jolla, huge bowls of steaming pho, dollar tacos, and the Coronado Farmer’s Market. We hiked up to potato chip rock and had a kind stranger snap some cool pictures of us dangling our legs over its seemingly precariously thin ledge. She tanned, I got a little burned. We traversed the San Diego zoo, basically twice, and saw a really cute baby hippo, gorilla and leopard. The baby gorilla was like a very hairy human. I loved him. We lost our car…for a solid 15 minutes, because we forgot where we parked in the parking lot…which is GIANORMUS. We met a man who looked and acted like Matthew Cuthbert off Anne of Green Gables. He sold us strawberries. I saw my first Pacific Coast sunset from Sunset Cliffs. Here we theorized what we’d do if someone fell from the cliffs into the waves below as we dined on hot sandwiches. I touched a baby seal. And tomorrow we are driving up to Julian to get pies, because apparently they are the most delicious.
Then, the dream will come to a close when I get dropped off at the San Diego airport to head back to the East Coast. I’ll be flying standby, so fingers crossed I won’t be camping out in any airports on my cross-country return. These 8 days have been incredible. Full of fun and love and wonder. The last time I felt this stress free was before nursing school started. This week it was as if all the stress of nursing school was washed off by the sun and waves and I could finally breathe again without a thought crossing my mind that I am forgetting something, that I didn’t study enough, that I am behind the ball. Wow. I nearly forgot that was possible. But a week in nature with friends works wonders and now, I’m ready for the final push. Bring it nursing school. I’m ready for ya. Cali has me all geared up.