So Brave!

I used to be so brave.  Or stupid.  Or young.  Or perhaps all of those things rolled up together, each egging the other on like a group of boisterous teens drag racing at 2:00 a.m. on a school night, oblivious to–or perhaps dismissive of–all potential consequences, near and far.

On our (leisurely) drive to our current campground in Tennessee, I was lucky to get good radio reception for NPR. I love NPR. It makes me so much smarter, at least for awhile, until I forget most of what I’ve heard. Frances Jensen, a neuroscientist-researcher-author-mother, was being interviewed about her book on the developing brain (The Teenage Brain).  She was inspired to delve into the subject when her children were teenagers and she desperately wanted some clue as to why they behaved so incredibly, well, stupid sometimes.  It turns out that until you are in your mid-20’s, the brain is simply not all there. Especially the prefrontal cortex, which is the part capable of taming the wild side.

I sure did recognize myself when she talked about teenagers’ high risk-taking and impetuous decision-making tendencies.  In my wild years, I went camping in this general area of Tennessee.  On one hike I climbed to the top of a beautiful waterfall, seeking the promise of an even more beautiful view from on high.  Before the climb, I passed a sign reading “Danger! Do Not Climb Past This Point!”  It went on to say how many people had died so far that year by not heeding its sage advice.  It gave me pause–hmmm, I wonder who the people were behind those numbers–but only a pause.  Upon reaching the summit, I promptly slipped on the mossy rocks and nearly slid off the edge of the falls, straight through that beautiful horizon.  Brave?  Dumb?  Oblivious?  All of the above.

Nearly forty years later, I find myself at this lovely state park a ways east of that waterfall.  Dawny and I are enjoying our walks through the campground and surrounding area, including a gentle stretch of riverfront.  But, as usual, I avoid paths that go through wooded areas.  Dawny tugs at her leash when we come across tempting openings into the woods–I wonder what her prefrontal cortex looks like–but I generally pull her back towards civilization and try to ignore the way she looks at me over her shoulder with distinct disappointment.  I’m just too afraid of bears and snakes and wild pigs and who knows what else coming at us while we are far from any possible help.

The other day, though, our luck and our pace shifted.  We came across a park ranger who was heading into one of the wooded paths to pick up litter and check on things back there, and he let us accompany him.  We walked along a lively creek and came upon a bunch of wild turkeys.  In another part of the park, we followed a ridge trail that wound along high above the river.  In spots, if you were to slip and fall, you would be smashed on the rocks below.  Then drowned.  Then probably eaten by a bear.  I had to be careful not to look too closely over the edge, as it set my stomach churning and my imagination shooting off into dark, illogical corners.

Finding a spot not too close to the edge with a nice break in the trees, I was treated to a breathtaking picture.  Blue-gray mountains in the distance, framed by pouffy white clouds in a crystal blue sky, forest all around, and the churning river below.  What a treat!

Maybe what I used to think of as brave was no more courageous than what I’m doing now, even though I was able to do so much more then.  Now, I practically have to have an escort to stray very far off the same path that, as a youth, I would charge up without a second thought.  Now, I’m much more aware of my own, personal horizon and its steady approach, regardless of which path I happen to be dithering along.

Well, at least I’m out here, following my dream.  It’s a pretty tame dream, and pretty safe.  But its mine, and I love it.  That might be what bravery is now, at this point of life.  My brain is reverting back to some semblance of that teenage condition as my prefrontal cortex surrenders in exhaustion from everything I’ve put it through over the years. It’s throwing up its little brain hands and squeaking in a grand-motherly voice, “Fine!  Take me where you will!  Just don’t speed, eat your vegetables, wear practical shoes . . . .  And please, do enjoy that view.”

Ichabod Fog and Cotton Puffs

Driving the back roads to our campground in North Carolina, I was distressed to see white tissue along the side of the road.  Further along, there was more.  How odd that the trash didn’t include cans, or bottles, or newspaper.  It was all white tissue, clumped up as if it had been recently used.  Ick!  Then I opened my eyes wider than their normal, narrow focus (that only sees what it thinks is there before it can even hope to see beyond), and I saw small fields of cotton plants, usually just a patch behind or beside someone’s house.  What cheerful little things they are in early December.  Twisting brown sticks bearing fluffy, white puffs, row upon row, marching to nowhere in particular, until they lose their grip and blow away from home.

FullSizeRender-74Intent upon reaching Florida before the weather got feisty again, we continued on to Santee State Park in South Carolina.  I love it when you pull into a new park and the view knocks your socks off.  The campground is full of trees draped in Spanish moss and overlooks a huge lake.  A line of cyprus trees marches down the middle of the lake, their feet covered by shallow water.


FullSizeRender-78The next morning, thick fog blanketed the lake and the campground, creating an eerie silence:  Ichabod fog.  I kept expecting to hear the muffled clomp, clomp, clomp of horse hooves behind us as we wandered down the path.  Finally the fog lifted.  It was late afternoon by then, leaving us just a little more time to explore.

While snapping pictures of a small stand of cyprus–their knobby knees poking up out of the moist soil nearby–it struck me that it sure would be a great spot for an alligator hang-out… maybe over there near that dead turtle….  Hmmm….  I didn’t think alligators lived this far north, though.  On the way back to the campsite, I asked the camp host about that.  Not only are they this far north, they get up to 12 feet long!FullSizeRender-76

The next day, we moseyed on down to Georgia, to Crooked River State Park near the Atlantic coast.  Now this was certainly alligator country!  And snakes… and loads of spiders… and sharks!  What a horrific combination!  I asked about the local wildlife at the ranger station and it turns out that aside from an occasional snake, our biggest worry is armadillo.  And lo and behold, we saw our first armored little critter since setting out last July (not counting all the smushed ones along Texas highways and byways).  Dawny was so excited, and I so relieved.

As we join the growing flock of snowbirds heading to Florida, I vow to try to keep my eyes and my mind open.  To only see, hear, and feel what is truly there.  To try to control my fears a little better than I have been.  To work with facts, and to let that overactive imagination relax, just a tad.  Wish me luck!

(All photos for this post were taken at Santee State Park in South Carolina.)

Full Circle

Camping in Ohio today, I feel like I’ve come full circle.  Not a closed circle.  More of a gently spiraling motion.  Let’s just hope the spiral is moving up!

I’ve traveled nearly 7,000 miles since picking up my little house on wheels in Indiana in early July.  Yesterday I looped through Indiana once again, after having wandered through a dozen states in the Midwest, Southwest and far West–Go West, old girl, go West!  And what a difference all those miles of roads, all those curves, mountains, and valleys made in my confidence level!  I now feel secure enough to drive through a major city like Indianapolis, rather than sticking to secondary roads and giving wide berth to major cities like I did when I set out.

The circle touched Ohio today.  This was my first time camping in Ohio since I was in my early 20s, living in Cleveland with my folks.  I remember camping in the Fall one year, and there was only one other group of people in the campground, which was very remote.  I gathered small twigs and scattered them around my tent so that if anyone–human, bear, some other ornery critter–approached in the night I could hear them as the twigs snapped.  My pocket knife was within easy reach as I slept an uneasy sleep–for cutting my way out the other side, not for cutting anyone!  Now I have a locked door between me and the outside, and all the comforts of home inside (including the greatest doggie in the world).

Speaking of my sweet doggie, Dawny, and speaking more specifically of my circle of fears, the first post to this site mentions my fear of dog attacks while we are out walking (“On Bears and Muffins,” June 10, 2014).  One of our greatest challenges has indeed been encountering dogs off-leash around campgrounds.  Often I can spot them, and we change our path to avoid them.  Sometimes they come running towards us and the owners have to call them back.

Last week, however, we were three miles into a lovely walk around a small lake and encountered a HUGE dog coming down a hill towards us, with no owner in site.  I yelled at him and he backed off.  We turned around to retrace our steps and when I looked back, he was coming towards us again.  I yelled.  He left.  When I looked back again, he was practically on top of Dawny.  I already had my hand on my pepper spray canister and I got him right in the face.  He gave me a surprised look and went running back up the hill.  I gave myself a surprised look… sweetened by a feeling of empowerment… ah, the circle is inching up!

Finally the dog’s owners appeared, totally oblivious, including to the stream of pepper gel on their dog’s snout.  When I told them their dog was coming after my dog, the man just laughed it off and said he wouldn’t hurt us.  How would HE know?  HE wasn’t even in earshot.  He reluctantly leashed the dog so we could continue our walk in that direction after they passed.  I did not tell him about the pepper spray figuring that could trigger a case of human aggression.

So, yes, I am still dealing with the same old fears.  I suspect it will take quite a few more loops before I can master any of them…  Dogs, ignorant dog-owners, snakes, spiders, bears…  Heck, today’s news reported a young man died when a black bear mauled him in New Jersey!  A black bear!  New Jersey!!!  It’s one thing to face your fears.  It’s another to have them face you.  Time to upgrade from pepper spray to bear spray!

(Photo dedicated to my dear friend Debra, a gifted florist.  I was blessed to be able to watch her at work during my recent visit.  Now, whenever I see wildflowers and flower gardens on our walks, I think of her, and smile.)