Connecting the Dots

When I talk about how meeting people on my cross-country trip affects me, a friend tells me that I shouldn’t underestimate how my contacts with others affects them.

I do think about it at times, especially the chance encounters — the tow truck driver in Port Richey who took a picture of “Herbie’s brother” for his Love Bug loving little boy. The men who get joy of changing the oil and doing other maintenance on such a work of art. The older women who remember the fun they had in a similar vehicle and the young ones who dream of owning such a cute car.

I saw a billboard for an automobile museum that said, “They are not cars. They are time machines.” This never seemed as true as the day I visited a VW dealer — my car looked as if it had driven straight out of the 1970s into a 2016 showroom.

And what about the girl I met in the woods? There she was, sitting by herself in sorrow, and a woman appears and offers her a hug.

But mostly I know the story from my side, at least I think I do. It seems as if we live multiple lives at once — our everday life, our spiritual life, our intellectual life, our emotional life, our mythic life. It’s the mythic aspect of my journey that I am thinking of today.

When I left Hocking Hills and drove back through Columbus, I tried following US 33 through town, thinking that despite traffic, it would be the easiest way to get out of town and on my way to Marshall, Michigan to see the Honolulu House.

I got lost in the labyrinth of detours around construction zones, not just geographically lost, but mythically lost. Afterward, I seemed to be driving to no purpose, just futilely racking up the miles, with no sense of adventure or direction.

I finally found the road that cuts diagonally through to Fort Wayne, but it turned out I was on the wrong road. I had intended visit a special candy store someone had told me about, and by the time I realized I was going in the wrong direction, I was too tired to turn around. So I kept driving and almost ran out of gas because I couldn’t see a gas station anywhere on the road.

I made it all the way to Battle Creek Michigan when I belatedly discovered a message from a woman in Ohio, who wanted to meet me as I did her. I felt terrible because it was too far to turn back, but then I thought, “Why not? Who said I always had to keep moving forward?”

So I backtracked and discovered I was still moving forward. The road was always before me, my eyes focused on the path in front of me with only occasional glances behind to keep me centered. There was not even a sense of repetition since I saw everything from a completely different viewpoint. In Indiana, bright pinkish-purple redbuds lined the road in broad swathes, trees that had not at all been visible when I went the opposite direction.

And I realized that so it is with life — even if we feel as if we are backtracking, we are always moving forward, always changing, often seeing the same things with a different perspective.

I must admit that a good part of my decision to go back to Ohio had to do with having a second chance at visiting the Coons homemade candy store. Coons Candy is a five-generation store preparing to celebrate its 100th anniversary. They make much of their own candy, toffee and fudge being specialties and, as the person who recommended it said, Coons Candy was definitely worth a visit.

I roamed the store, exchanged stories with a few members of the family, bought a sampling of their wares, and took a photo of them.

I left feeling as if I’d found the self I had lost during my previous sojourn in Ohio, as if somehow I was supposed to go to that store, as if it were a connection I needed to make like those connect-the-dot puzzles I used to like in childhood. If you missed a dot or didn’t connect them properly, the picture didn’t make sense.

And that turned out to be the case here. As soon as I connected that particular dot, the next steps of my journey appeared. I was invited to stay at an ex-sort-of-sister-in-law’s place for a few days, and a friend asked me to housesit later in the month.

And so it goes, this mythic life of mine.


(Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.”)


Searching for the Unique

Somehow on this trip I have managed to bypass some of the biggest attractions such as San Antonio, New Orleans, Savannah and Saint Augustine. If you know my aversion to traffic, crowds, and cities in general, that makes sense, but somehow I also missed the Smoky Mountains and the Appalachian Trail although both had been on my itinerary. (They now head of list of places to go on my next trip.)

During my many visits, people have suggested I visit many places, but few of those capture my imagination. One, the mention of a sign at the beginning of I 40 outside Wilmington N.C., so intrigued me, I spent hours looking for it, even though it turns out it had been stolen so many times the highway department stopped replacing it.

Another such quest was the Honolulu House in Marshall, Michigan. I have passed and bypassed so many historic houses, I have no idea why that particular house seemed vital to visit even though it was hundreds of miles out of my way. Probably the words “unique architecture” swayed me. After 9,000 miles, it gets harder to find things to amaze. (Not that the world becomes less amazing; it’s that your tendency to be amazed becomes overpowered.)

The Honolulu House, built in 1860, is now a museum that happened to be closed when I got there. I took my photo, then wandered around the area, gawking at the houses on the aptly named Mansion Street. There were so many fabulous places in such a small area it wowed me.

Apparently, my ability to be amazed isn’t completely overpowered yet.


(Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.”)


Hiking in Hocking Hills

A friend recommended Hocking Hills State Park in Ohio as a place to go hiking, and since I desperately needed to make some sort of wilderness connection, no matter how tame, I visited the park.

It was worth going out of my way to visit the place — fabulous rock formations and a lovely hike through trees to a lake where I saw red-wing black birds, cardinals, and a huge bird that might have been an owl.

Although the park was fairly crowded, I took the trail less-traveled. On my way back I noticed a young woman sitting cross-legged on a wall. She seemed sad, so I asked if she were okay. She gave me a faint smile and said yes, but still I hesitated. I asked if she would like to talk or if she needed a hug. She stood and said, “I can always use a hug.” I held her for perhaps a minute while she cried, told her I was sorry for her troubles and continued on my way.

Later, back on the highway, I became tearful. It wasn’t until the unexpected bout of melancholy passed that I wondered where those tears had come from. Had I absorbed her sorrow?

Remembering other tearful episodes on this trip, I realized the tears always came after visiting people caught in grief-stricken or stressful lives. Tears for me seem to be a response to stress, so although it is possible I absorb other people’s emotions, it’s also possible I am just reacting to the stress of the situation, or maybe it’s only that their sorrow calls forth echoes of my own.

I don’t suppose it matters one way or another — whatever the reason, I process the emotion, then wash it away.

And in this particular situation, what I am left with after the cleansing is the memory of a hike made more poignant by that brief encounter with another human being.


(Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.”)


Pass the Matzo

So far on my cross-country journey, I haved traveled 8,000 miles and visited or passed through 16 states. I don’t collect souvenirs (except for the pink cowgirl hat I bought in Texas). Instead, I collect firsts. My first night camping. My first view of the Sonoran Desert. My first sip of Grand Marnier. My first taste of Greek food. There have been hundreds of firsts on this journey, but a true gem to add to my crown of experience was the first time ever I was at a dinner when someone said, “Pass the matzo.”

If you have spent any time reading the comments at the bottom of my posts, you will have come across Rami Ungar, a long-time follower of this blog and an author of horror fiction. (He has a new book coming out next month, so look for it if you like scary fiction.)

Rami and his rabbi father invited me to a family dinner when I passed through Ohio, and they apologized profusely for the poor fare. Because it was Passover, there were various dietary restrictions, but even if the food hadn’t been gourmet quality (it was truly delicious), I would have been delighted with the meal. I mean really — Passover with a rabbi? How cool is that! (Another couple of firsts for me: first Passover meal, first visit with a rabbi.)

It was wonderful to meet Rami after all these years, a treat to sit in the kitchen with him and his father as they baked the following day’s fare, and a pleasure to meet his beautiful sisters.

There was a lot of talk that night — religion, writing, comedy, travel — but what I will always remember is the joy of that simple sentence, a strange one to me, a common one to them: “Pass the matzo.”

Be sure to check out Rami’s post for more about our visit:


(Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.”)


Virginia is for Lovers

The Virginia state slogan is “Virginia is for lovers.” I can’t vouch for the veracity of that, but I do know US 23 through Virginia is perhaps the loveliest stretch of road I have been on during the 8,000 miles I have traveled so far. Of course, it’s entirely possible the route was colored by my relief at having escaped a rather chilling southern gothic episode (see previous post), but still, by any reckoning, it was a lovely drive. The only thing more beautiful would be that same drive in the fall.

Often during this long journey I have passed by a special sight or site that had to go unsung because there was no place to pull off to make a mental or photographic note. The blaze of sunset-orange poppies on a verge in North Carolina. A swathe of goldenrod in Tennessee. A median filled with daisies in Virginia. A hillside in Kentucky purpled with mountain laurel. A road lined with dogwood in Ohio. A fuchsia-colored field in Indiana.

But luckily, there was a turn-out at a postcard-perfect view on that Virginia highway. I stood there at the overlook mesmerized by the scene that lay at my feet, by the lushness that surrounded me.

On a journey of this magnitude, where each turn of the road brings a new view, individual sights get lost in the collage of miles. I don’t know if it will ever be possible to comprehend everything that has happened, everything I have seen in the past few months, but there in Virginia, for just a little while, it all made sense.


(Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.”)


Southern Gothic

I met a woman at a campground who offered me a place to stay while I hiked a bit of the nearby Appalachian Trail. When I went to visit her, I didn’t find the trail; what I found was a family feud of the Tennessee mountain kind. You know what I am talking about, you’ve seen it in a dozen movies — the backwoods family that hates each other but hates everyone else more. This was the first place I’ve stayed that I wasn’t 100% sure I was going to be able to extricate myself. (Techincally, I was in North Carolina, but the mountain bordered on Tennessee.)

The visit started out fine. Since most of the characters in this southern gothic drama did not live in the woman’s house (she provided a second house for her mean-as-rattlesnake-venom mom, her indolent sister and autistic nephew) the first twenty hours were fine. We had a nice visit in the evening, and the next morning I hiked for an hour on her private trail.

We’d found a stray Irish setter at the grocery store that first evening, and despite her bad back, she spent two hours hunched over a tub cleaning the thing. She woke in considerable pain, took some pain pills, and fell asleep during the day. Her family came up during the day, got all excited and called an ambulance, even though all she needed was to sleep it off. I told them she didn’t want to go to the hospital, and so it was. As soon as she awoke and realized where she was, she left and walked twenty miles back home.

I stayed an extra day because she needed help, but that night, when her mother sent up food for the woman and her father (although the woman supports both her parents, they can’t stand each other, so the father lives with his daughter) she didn’t send any for me. Apparently, I had committed some horrible faux pas by sticking my words in where they didn’t belong.

It doesn’t sound like much in the retelling, but it was unnerving, and a bit uncomfortable, especially when I was increasingly given tasks. I felt bad for the woman — she’d gotten screwed not only by her family but by her attorneys and bankers to the tune of four houses and forty acres (apparently they tried to get all of that extremely valuable mountain property, but she finally managed to stop the land grab before they got the remaining forty acres).

But none of that was my problem, and I couldn’t allow anyone to make it mine.

I left the next day (escaped!) before anyone else was awake. (It was nine o’clock, so my sneaking out was only half the case.)

Still, as chilling as the visit was, I am glad I went. The episode falls under the heading of “experience,” and that is what I got — a glimpse of the painful reality that lies beneath the serene beauty we often accept as truth.


(Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.”)


How Could I Have Forgotten?

I see so many things in a day on this journey, that it’s hard to remember everything. Before a sight can sink into long-term memory storage, another notable sight comes into view displacing the memory-in-making. But how could I possibly have forgotten to mention that I saw dolphins off the shore of Ocracoke Island? They weren’t real close so I saw little more than black shapes arcing out of the water and an occasional fin all but hidden in the waves. But nevertheless, I did see wild dolphins.

I also belatedly remembered that on the ferry ride from Hatteras to Ocracoke, I saw crabs swimming before us and gulls flying overhead, as if in a concerted effort to lead us safely through the proper channel.

And since I am rehashing my visit to the Outer Banks, I should tell you about the result of a conversation with a woman I met. When I mentioned that I hoped to hike a bit of the Appalachian Trail before I headed west again, she said she lived just five miles from the trail, and invited me to visit her at her mountaintop home in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

I, of course, accepted. How could I not?

She said there was no cell service up there, at least not for my phone, so I will be out of touch for a few days. Don’t worry if I can’t post for a few days — I will be having an adventure of the offline kind.

See you on the other side of the mountain.


(Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.”)


Food For the Body and Soul

In the west, we are often fed stories of racial tensions that cripple the south, so I was a bit leery about traveling to such hostile territory by myself. But I have encountered no hostility, no resentment, no reserve. In fact, everyone has treated me with a warmth and kindness that feels genuine. Eyes spark with friendliness, and I have yet to see the dulled gaze that comes from holding oneself apart.

The deeper I got into the south, where I saw more blacks than whites, the more confused I became. Sometimes I am the lightest-skinned person around, yet no one has ever made me feel out of place. I have wanted to ask someone about this conundrum, this difference of perception, but I was afraid of opening a perhaps unwelcome discussion, of hurting someone by acknowledging a color difference.

I was pondering this very question when I happened to see a billboard advertising a buffet. I took the appropriate exit to Mebane, North Carolina, and entered The Iron Skillet. My server, a lovely black woman, was welcoming, kind, and gracious. In no way did I get the feeling she was putting on a show for the sake of a tip, especially since there is a general, though hopefully fading, belief that women are poor tippers. She was simply a kind woman.

I had a wonderful meal chosen from the buffet of real home cooked dishes, the kind you would make for yourself: smoke sausage with onions and peppers. Rice, chicken, and cheese casserole. Chicken and vegetables. In addition, there was a good salad bar and a great selection of cooked vegetables: tasty squash, black-eyed peas, green beans, broccoli. All the things that are so hard to find when one is tripping the highways of the United States.

In the middle of my meal, there was a change of servers. The new woman, white this time, was equally attractive, kind, and friendly, so much so that I ventured to voice my quandary. She seemed a bit unsure of my question at first, as if race wasn’t an issue, and perhaps for her it wasn’t. She explained that in previous generations there might have been a problem, but starting with her generation, everything got mixed up. Kids all grow up together and learn to ignore the differences. That made sense to me, and I planned to drop the subject, but when I saw my original sever at the cash register, I wondered if she had the same view. I gathered my courage and told her of my experiences in the south. She didn’t hesitate to expain why she treated everyone alike. “We’re all God’s children,” she said. “We all have the same color blood.” We talked for a few minutes about the need for everyone to work together to save our country, then I thanked her for being so kind. She gave me a radiant smile that lit up her eyes, and said she was glad of the chance to have such a dialogue. We shook hands and exchanged names (hers is Tatiana, a lovely name for a lovely woman), then I headed on down the road.

I don’t suppose this encounter at The Iron Skillet will have any great affect on how we all do or don’t get along, but it was nice to come away with not only food for my body but also food for my soul.


(Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.”)


Water, Water Everywhere

For someone who has always lived in arid areas — in Denver at the foot of the Rockies, in the high plains of western Colorado, or in the parched Mojave Desert of California — it’s hard to believe that this is a water planet.

I’ve been to the ocean, of course, and visited various other bodies of water, but always the water seemed an afterthought, as if it merely decorated what was essentially a landscape. This trip, however, has shown me a different side of the world. Well, just a different side of the United States since the U.S. is the only part of the earth I have ever been to, but the eastern part of the country does seem as if it could be a different world.

Water. Water everywhere.

Besides seeing torrents of water falling from the sky (such an strange occurrence for someone from drought-ridden climes), on this trip I have seen almost every sort of water body there is.

Oceans. Gulf. Sound. Bays. Lakes. Swamps. Marshes. Lagoons. Inlets. Ponds. Pools. Puddles. Rivers. Streams. Creeks. Waterfalls. Runoffs. Reservoirs. Rills. Irrigation ditches.

Water everywhere.

I hadn’t planned to go to the outer banks of North Carolina (hadn’t really planned most of what I have done, to be honest), but it seemed an adventurous thing to do, especially since I’d never camped within earshot of the Atlantic Ocean, spent much time on an island, or been on a narrow spit of land between two immense bodies of water. (No matter where you live in continental United States, you are living between two great bodies of water, but the country can hardly be called a narrow spit of land.)

I wasn’t particularly fond of the drive down to Cape Hatteras — too much development for my taste — but I was impressed with the Cape Hatteras National Shoreline. I camped on Hatteras in the woods where I became a walking buffet for the mosquitoes that lived there. The next day I took a ferry to Ocracoke Island, which was a thoroughly enjoyable experience. I stood at the prow of the boat, where only a narrow mesh fence separated me from the water. I let the sea breeze and the sight and sound of the placid water wash away all thought. Just stood. Watched. Felt.

I camped at the National Park Service campground on Ocracoke, took walks over the dunes and along the beach, and made a friend — another woman tent camper.

Then came the best part of this leg of my journey, the thing that turned my Outer Banks adventure into pure gold (and worth every one of the hideous 50+ mosquito bites I got along the way).

The ferry ride from Ocracoke to Cedar Island across Pamlico Sound.

Oh, my. Two and a half hours of pure bliss. Twenty-two miles (the same as the English Channel) of open water.

Although I have no fondness for wind, I stood at the front of the ferry and let the strong chill winds blow through me. Swayed with the boat as the restless waves rocked it from side to side. Imagined myself out on the open seas, and then suddenly I no longer had to imagine it. We were totally surrounded by water, not a bit of land in sight. What a treat!

Although I had never been on a ferry before visiting the Outer Banks (except perhaps in New York when I was too young to remember), I had a conception of ferries being boring. Tame. Not worth the time. This came, I am sure, from all the movies I have seen of oblivious people on ferries, reading newspapers, drinking coffee, talking, doing anything but paying attention to the ride. And so it was with this particular crossing. Most people sat in their cars as if they were in a stalled traffic pattern, while boys ran around as if on a playground. (Don’t kids go to school any more? I thought spring breaks were over with, but apparently not.)

But me? I was totally enthralled and awed by the experience. Couldn’t bear to tear myself away lest I miss a moment of seeing water, water everywhere. Of being on the water. Of being.


(Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.”)


Deep in the Dismals

Several people have contacted me, wondering if I were okay since it’s been a week since I last posted.

Yes, I am okay, or as okay as one can be with more than fifty mosquito bites and a particular sensitivity to the horrific little creatures. I have tried every salve on the market and every home remedy. So far, nothing works to stop the itching, so I just have to grit my teeth and try not to scratch.

I’d been staying with friends during much of that missing week, mostly catching up on the volunteer work I do with my publisher. It’s hard for me to write or even think when I am with others, and besides I wanted to make the most of what I thought would be the final visit of my journey. Since I don’t know anyone along the I-40 corridor, I figured I would be on my own most of the time during my return trip.

When I left my friends, and to be honest, even before I left, I was beset by sorrow for no reason I can fathom other than that I would be returning without having found what I was looking for. (My visit to the East Dismal Swamp seemed a fitting place to have such an attitude, though a little hike on the wooden walkway temporarily dampened my personal dismals.)

People had told me of a sign outside Wilmington, North Carolina, where I-40 begins. The sign gave the mileage to Barstow where the highway ends (and not far from where I had been hanging out) so I went in search of the elusive sign. I found the beginning of I-40 with no problem, but didn’t see the sign. Unlike most highways I am familiar with, in the east, often there is no on ramp corresponding to the off ramp, so there is no easy way to get back on the highway. Sometimes following signs that were supposed to get me back on, led me far from my destination, which made circling back to look for the sign a tiring task. I finally gave up and headed north on East I-40, but the next day I went back and tried again to find the sign. I even stopped at the nearest gas station, but no one I asked about the sign had ever seen it. I finally realized the sign must have been removed.

That little episode (four hours of circling back on the labyrinth of highways) seems a metaphor for this journey: driving endless miles only to find that I am searching for something that isn’t there.

Don’t you have to know what you are looking for, though? I don’t know what I am looking for, so perhaps I did find it after all, and just don’t know it yet. I had been looking for adventure, and that I have found, even if all the adventures weren’t felicitous.

When staying with my friends, I tagged along to dinner at a restaurant. One guy asked about my trip, and after I told him a few of my more memorable experiences, he asked, “Was there anything you did like?” I was speechless for a moment. Do all experiences have to be likable to have meaning? Part of my desire for this trip was a need to pit myself against the world (and embrace it), to find inner resources and a deeper sense of belonging. (A reason for my sadness, I am sure, comes from the feeling of unbelonging I get when I stay with others, especially couples. No matter how kind they are to me, no matter how much they want me, no matter how at home they make me feel, I have an awareness of being in someone else’s orbit, of encroaching on their space.)

I have to count both my allergies and these mosquito bites as experiences that I didn’t like, but they came as collateral damage to things I did like, such as camping on the outer banks. (The furthest stretch of this journey was down to Cape Hatteras where I got all the bites — I used repellant on my exposed skin but didn’t think to spray my clothes. All the bites were in unexposed areas.)

I have much to ponder in the coming weeks, such as where to go next and what to do with my life, but as long as I can see to the next curve in the road, I will be fine.

I hope you didn’t waste too much worry on me, but thank you for caring.


(Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.”)

All these photos were taken in or by the East Dismal Swamp. The lake is Lake Phelps, the second largest lake in North Carolina.


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