Journey for Pure Life

That we may be overwhelmed by the wonder and beauty of it all.

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I thought I had time to tell you…

Gdaddy Britt

I was at your house today, but you weren’t there. The house you grew up in, moved back to in retirement and cared for with all your heart. The beautiful old house with the garden you carefully tended and the workshop you built my daughter’s doll bed in and the small woods you cleared for walking through and building a fort in for the littles who came to visit, the field behind it where you let the small boys “drive” your truck, and the countless photographs of all of us throughout the years placed in every last room of the house.

And you weren’t there.

I hugged my dear struggling but striving sister more tightly than she’d ever let me before, and she hugged me just as tightly back, and we cried for you.

I looked upon the lovely bathroom that was remodeled just for you, the great and long ramp that was built just for you by your own son’s hands, the hospital bed that had been brought in just for you and set up in front of the windows overlooking the backyard. But you weren’t there to use them.

I didn’t get to say any of the things I wanted to say. I didn’t get to do any of the things I wanted to do. I thought we had more time. And now you’re gone.

I let this blown-up photo on wood sit on my table for one whole week. I sat on these words I wanted to say. I let them mull over in my mind, I waited, I hesitated. Afraid of how they’d be taken, afraid it was too soon, too much of my heart. It wasn’t too soon. Maybe it’s never too soon.

Life, being the complex, intricate, crazy design that it is, has recently placed me with six little people under my care, all your great-grandchildren. So on these words I waited, I got busy. Legitimately busy, shuffling these six to appointments, visits, school. Dealing with tantrums, meals and baths. And that night was busy…your last night. We tried. Oh, we tried. But we were too late.

The call came around breakfast time, when neighbors were out walking their dogs and sipping coffee, and I sobbed in a ball on my back porch. I dropped everything. I should have dropped it all when you were still with us.

I’ll never be sure of why life robbed my little sister of those last few moments with the one true and good man she’s ever known. But I’ll forever be thankful for the moments she spent with you in your last weeks. And I’ll forever pray that she honors you with her life. You were there for her when no one else was.  You loved her like no other man ever has. Thank you so much for that.

My childhood was incredibly richer because of you. Some things I forget easily these days, but some things are etched in my memory so clearly and forever…the countless hours I spent playing with Barbies from the 70’s in your Greenville attic, the old Tomcat and the smell of his cat food, the Atari in the back bedroom, the little shadow box in the kitchen and all its tiny little pieces I can’t believe Grandma Britt let me play with, roaming your neighborhood and getting hurt on a construction site, exploring the small bit of woods behind your house, having lemonade stands with the neighborhood friends I made, attending beauty pageants for the girl across the street, being fed loads of sweet potato casserole every Thanksgiving (which is my one Thanksgiving contribution today), reading books in the hammock on the screened-in porch of the cottage at the river, taking sink baths at that river cottage, getting stung by five wasps while exploring a wooded hillside, catching fireflies and keeping them for our nightlight in a jar.

During that short union between your son and my mom, you were the silver lining. The true blessing. You let me in like I was one of you. And I was never anything but.

One month ago, on August 9 I wrote these words. I meant to share them with you. But one month later, I didn’t get the chance.

“We grew apart for a time. I got older and drifted. I probably thought I’d lost you, as I’d lost all the others. I hadn’t. Not really. Not for one second in our hearts. I just know it. I can feel it. If only I’d known then. If only I’d known what family meant, and who that family was. Family isn’t built in the blood. Family is crafted in the heart. You were, you are, a part of that family. I’m so sorry for not knowing that, for not staying in the picture, for not holding you so tight that you couldn’t go away from me even if you tried. It’s hard to know when to do that…and when to just walk. But to you, I’m sorry, because I love you. You rare epitome of love.

But I did get lost for awhile and when I came back you let me right back in, like we’d never missed a beat, like I’d never done anything I shouldn’t have, like we were real family, like you loved me. For me. And I know you did. And for that, I thank you, because that is everything. Not everyone does, even those who probably should. You did.

So I can’t imagine a world, my world, without you. I don’t want to. My sister, who needs you, doesn’t want to, shouldn’t have to. You see, it’s strong, kind-hearted, caring, genuine men like you who make this world worth living in. It’s men like you who care about people, are kind to other people, who accept people just as they are, who love them the very same no matter if they’re making all the right decisions in life or all the wrong ones. You’re the kind of man I look up to and hope my sons and nephew will one day be…and if only they had more time with you.

I have never, never known tragedy as I have this past year and a half. With each blow I say, “Ok, God, that’s too much now.” Then another comes. And that’s life, I suppose. It sometimes just does what it will. I get angry. I want to undo it and I can’t. I. Just. Can’t. With most things in life there is something you can do, some move to make even if its effect is minor. But this, but death…I can’t do anything. None of us can do anything. It’s difficult for a heart to grasp.

Like you, I will also have my time to go. Please don’t feel like you got the short end of the stick while the rest of us are to remain here, living it up. There will forever be a void. And I am only an ex-step-granddaughter. There will always be a void. I’m going to blink and it’s going to be me. Please don’t feel like you are alone. I’m no longer ignorant to the fact that one day, which will feel like much too soon, it will be me also. It will be all of us. We will go with you. Will be with you.

You. You are….stability. You are a rock. You are love. You are a foundation upon which one can build on even after being torn down. You are steady. You are never changing. You are kind. Oh so kind. You are hospitable. You are standing there with open arms. All the time. No matter what. You are golf and summers by the river and Spill the Beans and Greenville and the perfect reading hammock and Richmond with Uncle Leon and a picnic table on the porch and that hill by the river where Becky had to use her cigarette tobacco on my stings and blueberry muffins and a winding country road and Thanksgiving and slow Christmases and an old country museum.

I have six of your six great-grandchildren, like you said. I have no idea what the road ahead looks like. I pray to God everyday that He works out the right one. But I can tell you that where it concerns me, no matter what the path looks like, your loving spirit will shine through and guide us. We will make you proud. Have no fear of that.

I know where you’re headed. I’ve read about it, I’ve dreamt about it, prayed about it, thought about it, questioned it. But if you’re going, well, that’s where I’m going. No more questions. Please tell Jesus that I appreciate His example. Unquestionable love for everyone, anywhere, anytime. I appreciate His sending us the few, like yourself, to remind us of His heart.”

Heaven, universe, people, please get the message to him for me. I just didn’t get the chance to tell him.

Asheville, Cades Cove and Elkmont

In June, I was scheduled to go tent camping in the mountains of Tennessee with my three children. We were to spend two nights at Elkmont for the annual synchronous fireflies and stop at Cades Cove for a night on the way.

I had just had six children in my home from Friday to Sunday. I loved every second of it, but my grand plan for Monday was to rest. Eat good food that someone else prepared nice and slow, maybe even watch The Help. Actually sit on my new couch, possibly even for an hour at a time. Monday was looking good.

But then I got to to thinking…three nights in the mountains after driving nine hours to get there isn’t enough. “Ooooh, maybe I can leave early and stay in Asheville for a night! Ooooh, I love Asheville, though I’ve never been there. That’s it, I’ll leave early and finally see this funky, eco-friendly, hipster mountain town.” And just like that, my lazy Sunday evening turned into a whirlwind of packing for my first actual tent camping trip alone with my kids.

Lake Powhatan 1

Lake Powhatan 2

We drove to Asheville, camped at woodsy Lake Powhatan, named for Pocahontas’ father. The campsite we had here was probably one of my favorites of all time. It was tucked up into the trees on a large elevated camp pad. Once we climbed its wooden stairs to the pad we were mostly secluded from other campers. The kids played hide and seek in our own private forest area before we settled down to a hot dog dinner cooked by my ten-year-old. Before leaving, we swam in the campground lake, explored a little of downtown Asheville and ate breakfast at Tupelo Honey, where there was already at line when they opened at 9 am on a Tuesday and the biscuits and jam were the best I have ever tasted in my life and the grit bowl with avocado on top that I got was so amazing and the service was so good that my eight-year-old commented on it. I can’t wait to go back. Then we headed west. To Cades Cove.

To Cades Cove 1

Cades Cove.

“Two bears per square mile. 1600 bears. 800 acres. One was in camp last night,” the ranger at check-in told me.

Ok. O.K.

We drove to our campsite and I found we’d been given a prime bear-target spot at the very edge of the campground, the big, wide 800-acre forest directly out our tent door.

I slept with a machete next to my head.

Cades Cove 2

I awoke early the next morning with every ounce of my body telling me to stay there on my egg crate bed, sleep longer, take the day slow, enjoy the friendly neighbors we had met two sites down, let the kids ride their bikes round and round the safe campground roads to their hearts desire, rest from the packing and unpacking, the bike rack wrestling, the tent up and down, sip my tea as my kids whizzed by or got as close as they could to a mama deer in “our” woods. Just, you know, pause and enjoy.

But I didn’t. We had a plan. Ok, I had a plan. We had to get to the fireflies. I told a friend we’ll call AQ, the friend who’d given us her Elkmont campsite,  that we would. I couldn’t flake. It’s not like she would be there or we were meeting anyone, but I hate to be a flake. So, I skipped my tea altogether and rushed us down to the bike rental shop.

This is where it’s helpful to get all the little details from someone with experience. Cades Cove is a beautiful valley where wildlife and the preserved homes of early settlers can be seen and toured. Our plan was to bike the beautiful 11-mile loop of Cades Cove before it opened to vehicles at 10 am. It was the reason I borrowed a bike rack and struggled with it every single time I attempted to hook up the bikes, the reason I borrowed a large bike trailer to pull my three-year-old in, the reason I got up so early to rent a bike for myself when I wanted to sleep. Even the best-laid plans go awry.

There are no bike trailers allowed. There are no tricycles allowed. That’s it. So we simply couldn’t bike Cades Cove that morning. I was heartbroken and distraught for a moment, but once we hit the loop in the van we were far from disappointment (and given a reality check about the hill climbs and three-year-olds and bike trailers). It was gorgeous. One spot in particular we all had a hard time leaving, the Dan Lawson house. Barn swallows flitted in and out of the simple 1840s cabin to a nest they had attached to a wooden rafter. The kids found bats hanging in the loft room upstairs and were just as ecstatic as if it had been some friendly bear cubs. They told everyone who came in.

The view of the cove from that deep, covered front porch was one I imagined must have been paradise to wake up to in the quiet 1800s, before the line of cars came through, when all you could hear were the chickens pecking behind the house and an occasional rooster crow, when it was probably common to look out and see wildlife most misty mornings in the green expanse before you.

Cades Cove 3

Cades Cove 4

Cades Cove 6

By day three we had put up and taken down the tent three different times, cooked over a fire at least as many times, blown a bike tire, given up decent hair and true cleanliness, argued over one too many non-argumentative topics for my liking (is it just my ten-year-old?), searched for bear but seen a chipmunk, deer, a monarch butterfly cluster, bats and barn swallows, listened to the incessant chatter of my three-year-old, and moved to a more isolated campsite than the friendly, social one at Cades Cove, where I’d felt strongly we should have lingered.

I was getting tired. Maybe we all were.

I didn’t know it yet on that third night but the next day I would lose yet another pair of Reef flip flops in a river. My friend AQ had been all “oh yeah, there’s a river flowing past the campground and you can tube and it’s great!”

A failed rocky tube ride, a dump into an unexpectedly deep portion of swiftly moving ice-cold water and a rescue from my calm-under-pressure oldest as I balanced my tip toes on the one rock I could grasp beneath me while my two youngest screamed and cried their heads off as they clung to me was this trip’s mountain river experience.

My littlest had the nerve to say, long after the screaming had subsided, “that was ack-chewy fun.”

Cades Cove 7

The next night we sat on an unpaved road, the Little River flowing along one side of it, the Great Smoky Mountain National Park’s forest filling up all the space on the other side. Hundreds of other firefly watchers lined the path with us, all the flashlights covered with red cellophane so as not to disrupt the mating ritual that is the synchronous lighting of the hundreds, no thousands, of fireflies in the forest that June night. They shuffled past us, most in hushed, reverent tones, but just a few (of course those who landed next to us) in obliviously obnoxious voice levels. Some came from our campground, Elkmont, but it seemed that the majority of those around us had been bussed in, or rather, trollied in from nearby Gatlinburg after getting lucky in the firefly lottery.

Each year the synchronous fireflies light up the sky at Elkmont for a few short weeks. As the sky darkens and the watchers wait, a few fireflies ever so slowly become a glorious twinkling in the pitch black night. By 9:30 or 10 pm they all light up at once, filling you with a mystical, sleepy feeling, wondering if it’s real or you’re just half-dreaming there in the dark. Then the fireflies all go dark themselves. One by one they all burn out until it’s just black again and you know you must have imagined it. And then the incredible, all at once twinkling again.

It’s like an understated natural forest magic, back there where there’s no cell service and the bears are abundant and the old buildings and graveyards of a long-abandoned village loom. The kids had begged me not to go looking for those old cemeteries. As it turned out, lying there amongst the enchantment of the fireflies was quite enough.

Elkmont 1

“Is this a mom and her kids?”

The guy had passed behind me in the dark as I sat breathing in the peace the fireflies had brought. He had turned, come back and leaned down beside me. An ounce of fear struck as I wondered what this stranger could want. It was gone when he asked me that question.

“Yes,” I softly answered.

“Wow! Five golden stars to you! That’s just great! Good for you. And the three of them lying there in the dark against the white blanket…that’s a great picture. Well done.” And then he was gone.

I looked down at my kids. They were all asleep on the white blanket I had carried up the trail. Rief was on his stomach, the other two lined up beside him and curled up in their sides, their poses almost an exact match.

This is why we’d come. To see those fireflies light up the night sky in a way we’d never seen. And my kids had fallen asleep. They were missing it. And I was ok with it. Because I so needed the peace. Because, if we’re honest here and I am, I was exhausted. I was grumpy. My head hurt. He hadn’t been the only one to comment on my making this trip alone with three kids. A friend of mine recently took a road trip to Texas alone with her four. Her takeaway from that long haul: “Just because you can do it, doesn’t mean you should do it!”

The fact is, this trip of mine, three children (one argumentative, one dramatic, one wild), one mom, 4 nights in a tent, cooking every meal over a fire…much of it was new to me, most of it was utterly gorgeous, but it was hard. For an introvert like myself, the body and mind need rest. Time alone to recharge. And that’s ok.

The funny thing is, the friend who gave me the Elkmont spot, AQ, she practically planned my trip.

“I have these campsites and we can’t go…do you want them?”

“Hey, you should also go to Cades Cove…”

And if it’s AQ recommended, I’m most likely always going to do it.

I repect this fellow homeschool friend, she makes me laugh, and she has pretty grand adventures of her own. Another mutual friend once casually commented, as we were discussing camping, traveling or some such, that AQ is tougher than me. My brow furrowed, my jaw set, my inner determination grew about 1000 times bigger, and I never forgot it.

Elkmont 3

But I realized through camping with my three that I’m just not AQ. We are totally different people, with different personalities, skills, passions. The trip was beautiful, but helped me realize where I need to set limits and listen to my own intuition. At times it was clearly telling me to do one thing, and I just didn’t listen to the wisdom of my own heart.

So as I lay there in awe amidst the fireflies, I let them sleep. I woke them toward the end of our time, they looked up with a “whoa” and were asleep again. This was just for me. Some things take many years, much life and an empty tank to appreciate. And that’s ok.

Elkmont 2

Winter Along the White Oak Part II: The Sawdust Pile


Saw Dust Pile 1

I first started coming out here, really coming out here, when this yucky thing happened, or rather, multiple yucky things at once with one unresolved, persisting, that completely broke my heart and overwhelmed my soul. We’ve all had those things, those gut-wrenching, horrible, ugly, cry on your pillow, cry while driving down the road, cry from your very core when there’s little else you can do except watch it happen and endure. We all have those things. They shatter our innocence and harden us just a little more for having lived it or been witness.

Maybe I came out here to grieve some losses. Maybe I came out here to get away and find some peace. Maybe to get quiet with God and creation, away from the pounding, joy-stealing noise. Maybe to gain perspective, to know that this too shall pass, to know that God and all the good forces on this earth are bigger and grander than the fairly large pieces of yucky I’ve seen. Maybe all of that rolled into one magnificent landscape that calms an aching soul.

And so I keep coming back.

Each time it is with fresh eyes, a new corner yet unknown to me…a still and beautiful pocosin, sunning turtles having found their very own private Eden…a quick and terrified squirrel finding his way into a tree hole high above the ground…ducks at rest on a hidden water, the warm sun beaming off of its quiet surface…

And one ginormous sawdust pile.

Saw Dust Pile 3

The first day I came upon it, I had been on the Weetock Trail for a couple of hours and needed to get off. It was a gorgeous day, but I had somewhere to be, evening would be coming on and I wasn’t sure how far I was from the southern end. There was no map and according to the sign at the northern end I should have reached some pile of sawdust by now. I had begun somewhere around the middle of the trail. I had asked my husband to pick me up, thinking I was approaching a stopping point and a simple exit onto a forest road. Except that I wasn’t. There was no sign of a road or anything I was familiar with, and though I knew the direction to go I didn’t want to leave the clearly marked trail to find my husband’s truck. So, walking more quickly, I kept going.


Saw Dust Pile 2

On the trail ahead of me I saw something. Some type of path, wider than the trail, cut across it perpendicular. I stood in this new path, forest rising up all around me, and glimpsed field to my left and a dirt mound to my right, but I was far more interested in what was in the woods in front of me. The brick remains of civilization. A chimney? A foundation? It was small but seemed larger than a chimney would have been. I had read about the possibility of old homestead remains off of the Weetock Trail, and I was intrigued.

About half a second after I saw it I thought I heard faint voices. I brushed it off, knowing I was utterly alone. But then I heard it again. Ghosts from the old homestead?

“Hello?” I called.

No response. Then, the sound of a dog and I immediately thought I must have come upon hunters, who sounded like they were on the other side of that mound, where perhaps a field lay. Not only did I want to make myself known if they were hunters, but I needed to find my way out. My husband was still waiting somewhere out there.

I crunched back through the brown oak leaves that carpeted the trail beneath me to the wide path and called out again.


As I peered around the trees towards the mound I saw them. People. People! The three of them looked down on me from their high perch atop the dark mound, quietly puzzling over my appearance for a moment. I shadowed my eyes from the sun that was shining brightly directly behind them. My heart sank at their young appearance and I found myself thinking, “They’re not going to help me!”

“Hi…do you know where I am?” I asked awkwardly.

“Are you lost?” one answered.

The girl, in between two boys, yelled down to me with excitement, “This is the Saw Dust Pile!”

This is the Saw Dust Pile?” I called back in surprise, both of us speaking of it as though we were standing at the pyramids at Giza.

She smiled and laughed, “Yeah!”

Saw Dust Pile 4


Saw Dust Pile 5

A minute later I was standing at the top with these 20-somethings, doing things we won’t mention up there, but comfortable enough that they felt no need to hide, overlooking not a field on the other side but Hunter’s Creek, as it meandered down below us. Young trees as far as we could see on its far bank, for we could see above their tops. A big, black dog romped and played in the almost black sawdust.

Saw Dust Pile 6


Saw Dust Pile 7

“It’s been here since, like, the 1920’s,” the girl said. “It used to be an old mill.”

“They used to float logs from here over to Swansboro on the river,” one of the guys, the one with the shirt, said as he pointed down the creek.

“I haven’t been here since I was a kid,” the girl said, sipping on her bottle of Mad Dog 20/20. “We used to come hang out at the Saw Dust Pile, “ she giggled.

I stood there with them, total strangers, watching the dog run down the pile for a quick swim in the creek, listening to their stories about the old mill and the girl’s chatter about the weekend festivities in Emerald Isle at the St. Patrick’s Day Festival and her attempted recovery from it, the sun just beginning to lower in the sky, answering, “Yes, that was my minivan you saw parked at Long Point” and feeling old, listening to the gentle rustling the breeze made when it passed through the trees.

They walked me back through the fields, the girl talking the whole time, taking me on a route that is so easy now that I know it but one I would never have found my way through that day, where we came out directly at the spot they knew my husband would be parked.

Saw Dust Pile 8


Saw Dust Pile 9

My littlest had fallen asleep in the truck during their search for me and when he awoke, hours later, he said, “we came to find you because you were lost in the woods!”

I wasn’t lost. But in places like this, and with people willing to help you find your way out when it’s time, it’s kind of nice to feel like it sometimes.

Saw Dust Pile 10

A couple of weeks later, after spring had sprung and my kids had already been to the Sawdust Pile once, they asked to go again. We walked across the field that leads to the pile, fishing pole and worms in hand, the sun warm on our faces. Halfway across we spotted a forest service truck and trailer, and were soon after stopped by its driver, who stood waiting for something outside of it. He let us know that there would be a prescribed burn in the Croatan Forest that day, and we’d have to cut our trip short. I barely had time to register my disappointment when he asked us to step towards the truck so his helicopter could come in and land.

“Wha…now?” I gaped as, sure enough, a helicopter was landing right in front of us in the formerly quiet field. The last time we had been so near a helicopter Emma was being airlifted to the Greenville hospital after a severe head injury and we had both flown in a light rain through the dark night sky for 30 of the most prayerful, high-anxiety minutes of my life.

Sawdust Pile helicopter

The guys (and one girl) from the forest service gave us such a treat that day. We never made it to the Sawdust Pile, but we left with a new and good helicopter memory. They were incredibly welcoming, and seemed to thoroughly enjoy the fact that someone had wandered in on their fire starting. The kids sat in the helicopter, tried on the gear and would have taken off if they could have. Instead, the guys showed us how they start the fire with small chemical balls and the machine used to activate them. The helicopter pilot, who lives in Seattle but travels all over the US starting controlled fires or putting wild ones out, had me wait and meet his wife and dog, who both work and travel with him. He was smitten with our Dixie dog, who we had with us and who I’ve been, in theory, trying to find a permanent home for. So close they were to adopting her, but she just got a lot of extra love from some forest people in the end.

We ended the day at Haywood Landing, just a short forest road away but not on fire, and Emma caught a small sunfish (the first for any of us at that spot), despite the noise from the rowdy boys camping nearby.

We left hours after setting out, sun-kissed, refreshed, and soul happy. Just what we were looking for.

Saw Dust Pile 1

Winter Along the White Oak: Part I

White Oak 1

I had purposed in my mind to spend the winter outside, no matter how cold, gloomy, rainy, or dreary. There are, after all, excellent benefits to getting outside during the cold weather months. Continue reading

Misadventure on the White Oak

Old Bridge 2

“You’re not invincible. You can’t just do whatever you want.”

I unpack my little bag and look down upon everything I was able to salvage, those things that seemed of so little value when I packed them. Those things that now seem miraculous to have made it out of the river today. A completely sopping black towel, an apple, granola bar and a Little Debbie oatmeal cream pie, my Audubon Society tree identification book, also waterlogged. The White Oak River Trail map I had picked up only moments before the accident at the campground, still attached to my daughter’s pink leopard print lunchbox where I had safely stored my new camera. And the two best things, my glasses, new and necessary at most all times now, which I was wearing at the time of the incident, and my tiny green journal with a sprig of a plant and the word “Inspire” etched on the front.  I took a deep breath of gratitude for these, at least.

Those items lost today…my flip flops and phone, I never even saw them go they were gone so fast. A towel. My oldest son’s green water bottle. I remember catching sight of that bright green in the river during my distress. A pocketknife my oldest had leant me. It had been sitting between my legs…in case I saw a bear. My kayak, my actual bleeping (feel free to insert any and all words, I certainly did that day…and if you know me, you’ve probably never or only rarely heard them out of my mouth) kayak. Not that it was gone, just stuck. With hundreds of pounds of rushing water holding it in a position it wasn’t likely to come out of anytime soon, especially with more rain on the forecast. And finally to my deepest sorrow, my new camera. My days old, very expensive, the one I had my heart set on, the only thing I really wanted for Christmas, the doesn’t have insurance on it yet, camera. I got it. And then I watched as the beautiful White Oak River submerged it in milliseconds.

Old Bridge 1

I had wanted to kayak the day before, and put in at White Oak River Campground and Lakes in Maysville (not to be mistaken with White Oak River Campground of Stella). I hadn’t kayaked that far up river yet and had put in at Dixon Field Landing the day before that, just a day or two after Christmas. I planned to take my youngest two with me. No big deal, the river was tame. They’ve come with me on different trips. But by the time we drove out there it was overcast, drizzling and the temperature had dropped significantly. So we headed back home, stopping to play in the woods for a bit at Dixon Field off of HWY 58 on the way.

I received a text from my husband the next morning:  “If you want to go kayaking today I can come home and watch the kids.” My weather app showed less than ideal conditions and shortly after his text it briefly showered at my house. If I was going to blaze a new trail I really wanted it to be beautiful outside while I was doing it. So I held off…until about 1 p.m., when I saw that it was windy but sunny and warm. So I talked my husband into dropping me off at the Maysville campground launch. (Normally, I make a round trip and drive myself back home, but this time I wanted to be able to explore further without turning.) I had a slight unexplainable funny feeling, but all my experience on the river thus far had been great and so I dismissed it.

I packed up a little backpack with essentials. I waved goodbye to my husband and littlest, who stood on the bank and watched me go. I snapped a few pictures of them as I went, to which my husband shouted, “You should be using your old camera out here!” I could tell he wasn’t happy but I smiled and lightheartedly called, “No way!”  I’d done this many times by now and knew there was no way my camera wasn’t safe with me. It’s not like I was rafting down the Colorado River, for goodness sake. The White Oak is more like a lazy river. And I thought so as I sat back, a smile on my face and in my heart, happy as a clam, and let the river slowly take me.

White Oak River Campground

As I drifted away from the campground I remembered the so-called “rapids” I had read about and seen photos of. From other’s recordings it was completely manageable. Plus, two days ago I passed the first people I ever had on the isolated river, three adults and a child, who told me they had put in at the very spot I just had and seemed to have been having the grandest time of their lives. So I knew what was coming and from what I had researched, it wasn’t dangerous.

White Oak 1

The narrow river wound behind a few houses before turning away from the highway and in towards the dense forest. The sights of civilization fell away as the trees and thick brush rose up on each side. I began to hear rushing water then. I did get a bit nervous, but reminded myself it was nothing. If the others had been fine, so would I also be. And I truly believed it.

An old steel bridge came into sight, small rapids, ripples really, below it. The bridge, the whole scene, was quaint. Sunny late December day, tall pines and bald cypress lining the cool black water between, wilderness so close to and yet untamed by the world around it, and then the old bridge. Abandoned and hidden, overgrowth cutting off any pathway that would have ever been on either side. It stood at the end of the enchanting tunnel I was in.  Obviously no longer in use I didn’t wonder too much about the small bridge until later, when I discovered it was probably built around the late 1800s as a part of the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad, and is one of the few pieces still remaining. Today it stands alone and I doubt very little of the nearby residents even know of its existence, or remember it in its heyday.

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I took a quick photo, put my camera away and gently rolled over the first rapids. Ah, nice, I thought, as I smiled. At the end of that first set water came up and over the front of my skirt-less kayak, a little making its way into the front end where my bags were. My smile became a shaky one. A little close but ok, still manageable, I thought. Everything had to be fine, after all. It was then that I realized I was quickly heading directly toward a piling instead of in between them. As fast as I could move I attempted to right myself between them but was unsuccessful. I had no life jacket on.

“The ones who push the limits, discover the limits sometimes push back.”  Chasing Mavericks

I hit the concrete piling at an angle, more perpendicular to it than parallel. I used my oar to push off of the piling. The now rushing water proved stronger. A small amount of water came over the left side, reaching my bags. Problem. Bleep. Then I watched as, in what could only have been milliseconds, water rushed in, flooding every corner of my yellow kayak, capsizing it and dumping me out. It happened so fast that I don’t remember the actual moment of exit. But I too vividly recall watching with horror as hundreds of pounds of water pushed my kayak on its side, pinning it and me against the piling. In complete panic and desperation I gripped the kayak and grasped inside the black hole where I hoped my bags still were. I had no idea if they were but as the water roared around me I had to try to retrieve them. Unable to see, I plunged my hand inside, frantically swatting it from left to right and up and down, water fighting against me with each movement. My hand landed on something and I yanked it up on the piling. The blue and orange backpack that held my food. Bleep. NOT the camera bag. Not that there was any hope for it. I plunged my hand back into the darkness, deeper this time, grasping, grasping. Nothing. I couldn’t find it. Had it already been washed out? My eyes focused on nothing as my hand fought the loud, overpowering deep and dark water. And then, I pulled out that little pink bag that held my prized possession. I can’t recall getting on top of the piling but suddenly there I stood, panting, stricken with shock and horror at the sight before me, bleeping away. I should have felt cold but I felt nothing but survival adrenaline. I pulled off my glasses, covered in water droplets but thank goodness still on my head. After assessing my desperate situation, registering what could have been and what was quickly, I almost immediately began yelling. “Hello?! Help!” Over and over. Nothing. I put my glasses back on to inspect the shapes I saw beyond the steep bank on one side. Bleep. Not buildings, as I had thought. They were what looked to be those massive piles of dirt and rock, characteristic of the nearby and totally isolated quarries. I had come across another one just two days earlier, the first I’d ever seen.

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Shaking, I looked around. Below me, the river was roaring, rushing and apparently deep. My brightly-colored kayak was still pinned hard directly beneath me. Several attempts with all my muscle power to free it were in vain. It wasn’t coming out that way. I walked to the other end of the piling. The water was still rushing pretty decently on this end. There was no way I was hurling myself, without my stuff, back into that mess. I walked back to the kayak, noticed my hot pink jacket attached to the seat, which was submerged, and pulled with all my might until it was free. I paced the piling. I looked up river and down river and to each unreachable bank on my sides.  I had no idea what to do. My phone had apparently been washed down the river, and my husband was obliviously on his way back home at that moment. I was completely stuck.

My eyes fluttered up, to the steel above me. They quickly followed the length of the rectangular beams upward and over the thin x’s crossing them, up to the parallel rails above, one to two foot gaps in between, that led out to the riverbanks on each side where a jump (or something) would have to be made in order to get back on land. It became clear then that the only way out was to scale the old bridge, and hope that it didn’t crumble beneath me.

I put on my coat, packed everything left into the backpack and put it on my back. Not only did I have to do this thing, I had to do it sopping wet and with weight on my back. Still trembling, I attempted a few times before finally and miraculously finding my footing and balance on the maybe 3 inch wide flat beam that had a raised piece of metal along one edge, making it difficult to keep my foot on.  I gripped what metal I could with my hands while I made my way up the diagonal beam, and then shifted my weight as it ran higher in the opposite direction. At the top I hoisted myself up onto the metal rails. Shaky inhale. Shaky exhale. I was sitting 20 or so feet above the rapids and concrete pilings. If the rusty bridge didn’t decide today was the last day it would stand there was also the good chance of slipping between the rails, to the rapids below. But I had to do it. I moved towards the middle to lessen the risk of falling over the side. Carefully and incredibly quivery I made my way to the side of the riverbank with less overgrowth, the quarry side. I made it to the end and exhaled at being over land again, despite the fact that I was still a good distance above it. Jumping was not an option, I concluded. The land was at too steep an incline. I would only topple over and down with all my stuff. I had to scale my way back down the small beams. Wet beams, now that I was dripping all over it. After a few false starts I managed to half slide down those diagonal beams and step down onto blessed, glorious, beautiful dry land. Oh my heavens, I was going to make it after all.

Barefoot, I made my way through a couple yards of underbrush, thorns digging into my feet and tearing at my clothes the whole way. Just as I emerged my foot sank about six inches into what was not a sand pile as I had thought (was I thinking at that point or just moving?) but a massive ant hill, with red ants that began swarming my feet. I barely cared. I stepped out, wiped them off and kept going. Before me were towering sand and rock piles. There were a few scattered trailer buildings. I yelled, I knocked at the closest, but I was all alone. I made my way through the maze of quarry piles and rock beneath my feet. I could hear the highway then. Thank God. I wasn’t far from it and as I came to the highway I found there was a mini mart just beyond the quarry. I made a call to my husband (“You’re camera??”), the attendant running his eyes down to my wet, dirty bare feet as I spoke. I left his floor muddy as I mumbled an apology and sat down on a log by the highway, looking and feeling wretched as I laid out all the pieces of my Christmas gift in the sun to dry…

I had received this luxurious, soft, snow white robe for Christmas. I came home and changed out of my still-wet clothes, took a hot shower, put on new pajamas and that cozy robe. I stayed in it for the rest of the day.

“You’re not invincible. You can’t just do whatever you want.” That was my husband. He barely spoke to me that evening, though he did spend a lot of time talking to the phone and camera companies. He spoke to me only to lecture me. About taking a new camera on the water, about not going out without a life jacket, no matter what. I didn’t blame him. And then: “I won’t bring it up to you again. I’m just glad you’re ok.” And he didn’t, as both of our shock and horror at the loss of my belongings turned to realization and horror at what could have been. But wasn’t. My legs were bruised from my ankle to my femur. I had cuts and sore spots and what looked like leprosy from those ants but I was ok. We were all ok.

I reluctantly went to bed that night, and prolonged the event. I wanted to stay asleep once I hit the bed. I was shaken up over what had happened and I knew all I would see that night was that horrible scene. And I did. I awoke over and over again, each time hearing the roar of the water, rushing all around me, filling my kayak, the forgotten bridge, no way out but up…and then seeing what could have happened…to me, to my children had we gone the day before like I planned….

The thing is, when we walk away from scary situations unscathed we do tend to focus on those valuables we may have lost in the midst of the great misadventure. But had I not walked away, no one would have cared about those items. A kayak and a camera. They’re just things. Just things. Nothing more. Not health, not a child, not a life. I may have pushed the limits, but I still have all of those things.

And those “what if” moments, they do happen, with no forewarning and in seconds. Things go from great to really bad, with everything on the line. Happy as a clam one moment, and then everything changes. Keeping it all in perspective. Just in case we forget how blessed we are.

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*Note: The river was several feet higher than normal the day I set out, creating a class one rapid, which I just happened to hit wrong. The people I had seen had been put in at the Quarry Lakes, a point past the old bridge because of the dangerous rapids. Campground staff just failed to tell me. I have learned to wear a life jacket always. My kayak has since disappeared and Canon was unable to fix my camera. Ah, such is life. It’s a good one.

When We Are Hurt So Deeply

  “…do everything…in a calm spirit. Do not lose your inner peace for anything whatsoever, even if your whole world seems upset.”   St. Francis de Sales

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It happens, I suppose. The longer we live the more we are given to deal with, those things that are oh so precious, as well as those things that break our hearts, haunt our nights and rob us of peace. Those people that could be, maybe should be, close, they aren’t and they cut us deep. They slander our good names, hearing only whispers of decades past, a past they were never present for, and they hurt those of us who are easily hurt. They do this even while knowing little of the daily lives we lead, without witnessing the evidence of what is held in our hearts through everyday decisions, however small, that multiply to create a life worthy for our children, worthy of great friendships, worthy of great love.

My heart aches. I seesaw between anger and compassion, feeling both deeply, and therein lies the greatest struggle. To feel intensely is an energy-sapper, a constant battle, a joy-stealer. Oh, to be one whose shoulder could be brushed off. But I am not, and so I ache. And I look inside, to see if there is any truth to those hurtful words thrown at me, because if there is, well, it must be fixed.

  “Do everything without grumbling or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, ‘children of God without fault…’ Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky…”   Philippians 2:14-15

But I find I have already fought this particular battle now publicly laid before me, years ago. I have been hit below the belt, and why? Anger attempts to rise. I squash it, again and again. I remember what a wise friend once told me, “Hurt people hurt people.” Deep down under hate is incredible hurt. And then compassion arises and I realize the very realness of it, much greater than my own current and temporary hurt. I know when my own hurt has at times been translated as anger, and I have an inkling of comprehension.

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Not that this excuses hurtful behavior, but it diminishes rage and replaces it with…hope. Hope for this one, hope for myself, hope for us, hope for all humanity. We cannot respond to hate with hate. We just can’t. Because hate times two is miserable. And healing will never come.

   “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.”

                                                               Proverbs 15:1

Perhaps this proverb should come with a disclaimer. The first time we react differently to a person, maybe there’s no change in response. The second time, still nothing. But by the fiftieth time, perhaps. Healing and trust take much time to rebuild. They may begin to see our hearts, they may begin to see the evidence of genuine love, they may begin to believe it, and they may no longer feel threatened. Because whatever our intentions are, they should never be to cause insecurity in another human being, another soul just like us. Because we all know how that feels.

“True love is love that causes us pain, that hurts, and yet brings us joy. That is why we must pray and ask for the courage to love.”    Mother Teresa


River tree

A Day in Edenton

Please read the very first 100 NC Counties post for background info on our quest here.

We hadn’t planned on spending the day in Edenton. We drove two hours north of home to Bertie County to deal with some family matters, but literally the second we arrived plans shifted and we were left with nothing to do but turn around and head directly home. Um, no.

I began to rack my brain for what was in the area. At the time all I could see was corn field after corn field, with a tobacco field thrown in here and there. Then I remembered Edenton, rumored to be one of the South’s prettiest small towns and a place I couldn’t remember ever visiting. We headed about 15 more miles northeast into Chowan County, across the Chowan River and made a day of it.

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We started on the waterfront, at the Barker House. Built in 1782, it was owned by Penelope Barker, one of the 51 women who were a part of the Edenton Tea Party. The women didn’t dump any tea into the Albemarle Sound, but they did let the British know they would be having no more of their tea. It was a big deal for the little town.

The house is a welcome center and it was there that we picked up information on the trolley tour, the lighthouse and other activities.

It was also there that we saw our first mayflies. As the day progressed we saw hundreds of these bugs, maybe thousands. My little bug-lovers were captivated.

We headed to Colonial Park, steps from the Barker House, to burn off some energy. The park is waterfront and has showers and bathrooms for those who dock their boats in Edenton’s harbor. The gnats fly pretty thick here; bug spray will be premeditated next time!

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After leaving the park we did a little shopping on Broad Street. It was a hot day and we soon found ourselves inside an old-fashioned drug store that advertised ice cream and orangeades on their sidewalk sign. We’d never been inside one and I was fascinated. At the back of the small building was the pharmacy for prescription pick-up, at the front was an old-style soda fountain, and in the middle you could find everything from perfume to toilet paper to Little Golden Books. I was in The Andy Griffith show and loved it! Walgreens has nothing on a quaint, friendly, family-owned store.

We picked up a few things at a cute little children’s shop called The Silly Monkey before heading back towards the water for our trolley tour.

I was a little worried about how my nine, seven and three-year olds would do on the hour tour. The stars must have been aligned just right because we had no problems, even though it was mid-afternoon.

We saw the home of Joseph Hewes, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. We saw graveyards, each with interesting stories of their own. One had been moved, all the bodies dug up and carried to a new location, save three or four. One had people buried under the church and one on top of the other.

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We saw what was recently discovered to be the oldest house in the state, a tiny little thing near the old cotton mill village.

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We even saw one of the old Sears catalog houses. Ordered in 1900, it cost $400.

Our tour didn’t last the full hour and each of my kids left the trolley happy. Whew.

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We walked a short distance to the Roanoke River Lighthouse, originally built in 1886 and moved to its current location over Edenton Harbor in 2012. It is now the last standing original screwpile lighthouse left in North Carolina. For a small cost we toured inside, which had a parlor/living room, a kitchen, two bedrooms, and the actual lighthouse light, which was not available for viewing.

After our lighthouse tour we stopped at a few cannons placed along the waterfront for my youngest to see. He pretended to fire cannons at the enemy. It was after we left that I learned a civil war battle was fought precisely where he was firing. Hence, the cannons.

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We headed back to Bertie County, where we were staying for the night. We picked up some southern cooking at Heritage House in Windsor (“best place in town,” Grandaddy B told me) and took it back to a cottage on the Chowan River, a place where some of my most vivid childhood memories were made.

The cottage hadn’t changed one bit since I had been there many, many years ago. The kids got to see the place they had often heard about…the place where I would catch fireflies in a jar and sit them beside the little bed I slept in at night….the place where I would lay in the screened-in porch hammock for hours with a book…the place where I stepped into a wasp nest while exploring the hillside woods and then screamed my head off until Aunt B came out with tobacco from her cigarettes to put on my multiple stings…the place where I swam, at the very bottom of a steep, winding road, in the river with my sister and whatever other children were visiting the other cabins at the time…a happy place where there was always family and perfect pancakes on a griddle and sips of coffee and love. I just called it The River, and if I knew we were going then all was right in the world.

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And that’s how my children and I spent the evening, in The River. Clothes and all, because you can’t miss out on memories made just because you didn’t pack a bathing suit. Sometimes you just have to roll with it.

The next day we spent a lovely morning eating blueberry pancakes and exploring forts and fields and attics with precious family that we see far too little of. Sometimes life requires that you surrender your plan, go with what’s in front of you, and let the blessings pour out.

Beauty for Ashes

Please read the very first 100 NC Counties post for background info on our quest here.

“Take me deeper than my feet could ever wander, and my faith will be  made stronger…”  Oceans, Hillsong United

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In July, my oldest set off for church camp in the mountains. Ma (my grandma), my two littles and I headed for Avery and Watauga Counties.

During our four-night stay: Continue reading

Lions vs. Humans. A disgusting title.

I am shocked and heartbroken that within my circle of people and even in my beloved New York Times that it has become a thought in any mind to compare the value of a human life and an animal life. I literally didn’t even think such a thing to compare the two, as if there were a problem to be sad about both. Why is that a problem? Why do some people groups think that to think of some things you shouldn’t think of others? I have cried for people lost this past six weeks more than I ever have in my life, and I am also so hurt to hear of the African lion killed this week, when there are fewer and fewer all the time (which affects the food chain, which affects the delicate balance of life God created for all of us, which affects my life and your life and our children’s lives…it’s true. Environmental science. Study up). If you know me, you know it doesn’t begin or end at Cecil the Lion. I am horrified every time I drive down a road I haven’t in a few weeks to see another forest leveled, a habitat for many and a great resource of air quality for us. I cringe to know that today’s children are being medicated and sedated with screens instead of working hard on the land and spending peace-producing hours outdoors.

I care deeply about people, especially children. I have spent time with children living in the throes of poverty and time with children living in foster care. I know the horrors and the hardship. I also feel very strongly about our creation, which we are destroying more and more quickly with our growing population of 7 billion, while lions have declined by up to 90% just since 1975 and are now at a mere 30,000, if that. It makes my heart so sad to know that there are people out there who are angered because we care also about these 30,000, put here before us on Earth, majestic, wild, free, untainted by our human ways, a minority to be protected. We are busy getting angry, living our lives, removing THE creation, replacing it with concrete and castles in the sky and photo after photo of our tiny little selves and chemicals and self-righteousness. We are our own downfall, since the garden of Eden. Why are we getting angry at the animals? What is the threat? I see the threat clearly and it isn’t the animals.

30,000 lions vs. 7 billion humans. I cannot believe this is even a comparison to be considered. Are we so detached from our natural world that it enrages us that the death of a lion is sad to some others of us? Are we so detached from our God-given natural world that we freak out and post a photo to facebook every time we see a snake? Are we really so detached that these things cause our hearts to panic? Each of us is but a breath on earth, the world keeps spinning long after we are gone. Hopefully.

For my children’s sake and future, at least, I hope some of us DO stand up for Cecil the Lion, and for the health of our planet.

Life Lessons in Stokes County

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This past year I attended the most beautiful baby shower I have ever been to in my life. The mother-to-be wasn’t pregnant. She had adopted one little girl, was in the process of adopting a brother and sister, and was awaiting the placement of their baby brother immediately following his birth. All four children would be under four years old. Wow. I think the whole room of supportive women felt that way. In awe of this beautiful woman who saw a need and just simply said yes. Complete unselflessness.

I got so sick that night. The flu or something. So while I sat there I could feel my body breaking down and getting worse by the minute. Before long it felt like I couldn’t handle my body anymore, like I was hovering somewhere above it. Despite how awful I felt I will never forget what this woman stood up to say. She pointed out another, equally selfless, woman in the room, my now dear friend Arica. Arica was one of the first to adopt within this particular community of people. She and her husband adopted two precious children, and when they did, I’m sure they had no idea that God would use it to affect many more lives than just their own. The mother-to-be let Arica and everyone know how incredible, inspiring and important her example was. So many are afraid of adoption. Arica gave everyone a first-hand view that where there is love, there is nothing to fear. Since Arica’s journey, many more families have stepped up to foster and/or adopt.

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On a normal day, though, I don’t even remember that Arica adopted two children. I just think of them as her children, and I know that she’s funny and patient and super chill. So I like her. And my daugher, who has her for a CC tutor, likes her. And I also like her children, who are well-mannered and always smiling. So when she says to me on the last day of CC, “I’m going to the mountains this week…wanna go?” I like her even more. Smile

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What a brave soul she was. There was this one time that my husband and I went on a trip with people I didn’t know so well yet…and I barely spoke to them again. It went that badly. I knew there was the same chance, because I didn’t know Arica very well yet.

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There actually were some rough spots in my trip. I was traveling at a particularly horrid time of month, in which I become a particularly horrid sort of person. I also pulled my beloved pop-up camper up there, which had a couple of issues I hadn’t tended to before leaving. And then, seeing children stare at screens when there are wide open spaces and other people to entertain themselves with always makes me cranky. But that’s my own issue. My ideals are of little value if I don’t have love. Feel free to remind me of that each and every time you see me.

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When I lost patience, Arica never lost patience with me. She calmed me, she helped me, she encouraged me. I even had glorious heat in my camper on the last night of our stay. When each night was a forty degree one.

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She was so accommodating and gracious, as was her mom, whom I have yet to meet but who allowed a stranger and her three children to stay on her eleven acres while she honeymooned. (Yeah, she probably wasn’t worried about much.)

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She helped my daughter find a new love for horses, which she had never been around in her life. She was a natural, as Arica is with all the animals.

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She drove with us out to Hanging Rock State Park, which was beautiful and had waterfalls, one of my favorite things now that I have discovered them! We could have spent hours and hours and hours exploring Hanging Rock, but having young children makes for shorter day trips. We could see Pilot Mountain in the distance during our drive to the park, and though we didn’t make it to Mayberry (uh, Mount Airy, I mean, Mount Airy) this time as it is to the west in Surry County, I was able to breath in the presence of Andy Griffith and have Arica listen to all of my nerd talk about him.

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Stokes County was a breath of fresh air. For me, for my children. And I am glad to say that even after seeing some of my ugly, Arica does still talk to me. And I have one more friend that I admire for the peaceful, giving, accepting, loving way she lives her life. She is like the breath of fresh air that her home county is. There is a reason her children are always smiling.

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