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.

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(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.”)

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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.

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(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.”)

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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.

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(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.”)

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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.

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(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.”)

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When in Rome

On my way to Rome, Georgia, I stopped in Atlanta to have dinner with Harold Michael Harvey, author of the legal thriller Paper Puzzle and a collection of essays about the American jury system called Justice in the Round. Over a delicious quinoa and asparagus casserole made by the author, Harvey Michael and his wife entertained and educated me with stories of their involvement with civil rights matters. The thing that struck me most about our disparate lives was that both of them had two sets of grandparents who were influential in their early years while I had none. It was strange to think that everything in our three lives led to that special dinner. Our rapport was so great, I found it hard to tear myself away, but I needed to get to Rome before dark. It is hard enough to navigate back roads in the bright of day — at night, it is almost impossible.

My next stop was with another author that I had waited many years to meet — Malcolm R. Campbell, blogger extraordinaire and author of several acclaimed books, including The Sun Singer and Sarabande. The three of us, Malcolm, his wife, and I stayed up most of the night talking. As with all my online-now-offline relationships, there wasn’t a single blip of strangeness as we sequed from our various e-methods of conversing to real life.

In the morning, Malcolm took me on a tour of the magnificent 34,000 acre Berry College campus where he once taught. The highlight of the day was the bald eagle’s nest, where one of the eaglets peeked over the rim of the nest, searching for its parents. We hung around hoping to see the adult bald eagles heading home but didn’t catch so much as a glimpse of them. (You can see the eaglets live at http://www.berry.edu/eaglecam)

We topped off the tour with a visit to the old mill on the campus, the largest overshot mill wheel in the world, or so the college brags. Water is piped up the stone column and over the wheel, causing it to turn. It still works, and on occasion they run it. Unfortunately that day was not such an occasion.

During these two visits, the authors and I solved all the ills of the world. Now if we could just get the world to pay attention!

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(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.”)

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The Most Beautiful Place on Earth

I visited Callaway Gardens on a perfect Georgia day. Warm. Cloudless. Soft breeze.

At the beginning, I wasn’t all that impressed. The place was scenic in a “seen it” sort of way. Roads meandering among wooded areas and around lakes. Golf course. Pastoral views. Then I reached the Overlook Azalea Garden, and oh, my!

Callaway Gardens calls the Overlook Azalea Trail the most beautiful place on earth, and although I would hesitate to agree — there are many spectacularly beautiful places all over the world and especially in the United States — the trail through the azalea garden is truly lovely. At times it seemed as if I’d wandered into an impressionist’s painting. Other times it seemed as if I’d turned a corner into a heavenly sent and heavenly scented eden.

I lucked out in that without planning it, my visit corresponded to the bloom season. Such beauty seems hard to fathom, but there it was, all laid out before me, as if the very earth were so glad I had come for a visit, it donned it’s loveliest raiment.

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(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.”)

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Gator Aid

The very word “swamp” makes me itch. Visions of marauding mosquitoes, clouds of black flies, and other inhospitable creatures come to mind, so I had no real interest in visiting Okefeenokee Swamp. Still, the swamp called to me before I had completely passed the entrance to the Okefenokee Swamp Park, so I cut across the highway and headed down the five-mile road. Part of this journey is about facing my fears, and I fear mosquitoes the way some people fear bees. The bites swell enormously at times, and often the site of old bites itch when I get a new bite as if to welcome the company. (I still have scars from all the bites I got last summer.)

I sprayed myself with the most natural bug spray I could find (some eucalyptus & lemon thing manufactured by Repel that Consumer Reports had found to be as effective as Deet) and hoped for the best.

About a mile in, I got caught behind a car parked in the middle of the road. Young boys were hanging out the window, so I glanced to where they were pointing.

Oh, my. Alligators!

I don’t know why it hadn’t occurred to me to look for alligators in the swamp, maybe because I hadn’t seen any in Florida, but it was a great thrill to see the beast less than ten yards from my car. Very respectfully, I got out of my car to take a photo, then continued to follow the car. Several other times those same boys aided in my spotting an alligator.

This wasn’t the first time I received such gator aid — at Davis Bayou, I was taking a photo of a heron when a woman walking her dog came and pointed out the alligator all but hidden in the mud a few feet from the bird.

I’ve always known I wasn’t observant (I’d be one of those witnesses to an accident who wouldn’t be able to tell you the color of the cars or even the victims), so I was glad of the help in getting attuned to looking for the prehistoric creatures until I could find them for myself.

Almost as big a thrill as seeing the alligators was seeing the lily pads with blooming flowers.

On my way out of the park, I again stopped by the side of the road. No alligators, but I did see turtles sunning themselves on a log. (They were shy and slipped into the water before I could take a picture.) In the quiet, I heard a long low call, too gutteral to have been a bird, but I never discovered what sort of creature made the noise.

The lovely outing was made even lovelier by the lack of mosquito bites. I can’t verify the efficacy of the spray I used because to tell the truth, I didn’t see or hear a single mosquito.

Still, I am just as glad I didn’t hang around until dusk so the day-shy denizens of the swamp could find me.

***

(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.”)

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Turtle Time

I have spent the past three days on Amelia Island, taking walks and resting. I’ve been fighting a cold or a sinus infection. I don’t know which — sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference. All I know is that I’ve been congested, enervated, and had a tendency to crankiness. Even worse, I haven’t been feeling the thrill of this journey. In my defense, it’s hard to be wide-eyed with wonder for weeks on end (eight weeks so far!), especially if one is fighting to breathe.

Still, this has been a lovely place to roam around — walks on the beach and hikes through Egan’s Creek Greenway, a 300-acre nature preserve. On all those excursions, the biggest joy, besides the lovely scenery of course, was catching glimpses of turtles. Often they were shy and slipped into the water before I could get a photo, but a couple of times they stopped and pretended to be rocks. One fellow even posed for me.

Despite signs warning about the presence of alligators, I didn’t get to see one. The rustling in the bushes that I thought might be an alligator turned out to be a rabbit, but I did see a lot of dragonflies and one lone cardinal.

My idyll on Amelia Island is coming to an end. Tomorrow I head into Georgia. I hope I can ditch the crankiness and muster the enthusiasm necessary to make the most of the opportunity. There is so much to see and experience and be grateful for.

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(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.”)

Living Artistry

Who would have thought there was so much to do in and around Weatherford, Texas? Butterfly gardens. Exotic animal sanctuaries. House tours. And gardens.

The last field trip my friend took me on was to the Chandor Gardens, a series of formal gardens created by Douglas Chandor, a renowned English portrait painter. “Living artwork” turned out to be his true calling. From 1936 until his death in 1953, he worked on the gardens, each a secluded gem of statues, waterfalls, fountains, trees, shrubs, rocks, and flowers, with surprises around every corner. (My favorite of the following photos is the tree with a tiny door at the base.)

After his wife’s death in 1970, the gardens grew wild for twenty years, but finally someone bought the place and brought the gardens back to life.

The gardens were a beautiful end to my stay in Texas. In a few hours I will be in Louisiana, hoping the rains don’t wash me away.

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(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.”)

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Where the Deer and the Antelope (and Giraffes!) Roam

I once visited an exotic animal santuary that seemed less of a sanctuary and more of a prison. All the big cats were in cages, and when I expressed my disappointment that they weren’t running free, the people looked at me as if I were a child and said, “but that wouldn’t be safe, would it?”

So it was with trepidation that I accepted an invitation to visit Fossil Rim, an exotic animal sanctuary here in Texas, but my hostess assured me the animals ran free, that we would be encaged in her vehicle. It sounded fair to me, and so it turned out to be. The animals (some nearing extinction in the outside world) are allowed to run free in huge pastures where they can live a near-normal life. The smallest enclosures were for the cheetahs, who were part of a breeding program to bring the species back from the brink of extinction.

More than thirty species, over 1,000 animals, live on the property. Most will live out their lives in the sanctuary (or so I presume), because they are accustomed to being fed by the workers and by the visitors. (Each vehicle is provided with a small bag of food pellets to feed the animals.) Since it was a hugely visited day (smack dab in the middle of spring break for children), many of the animals were sated to boredom, but others came up to the car looking for a handout.

We saw several species of deer and antelope, giraffes, rhinos, cheetahs, wildebeast and all sorts of more common creatures such as bison and ostriches.

All these photos were taken by me or my friend. Such an unexpected experience!

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(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.”)

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