From sea to shining sea.
“And in the end, it’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years.” ~ Abraham Lincoln
Riding Across America for a Cause
Before leaving home, I walked into Picky Bars in Bend and told them about the Long Bike Ride I was preparing for. Jesse Thomas is one of the owners, a five time Wildflower Triathlete Champion. He stood from his chair, walking over to me, taking a genuine interest in my story. Along with a few of the others who work there, they agreed to supply me with a sampling of their delicious real food bars. They’re designed for picky champions just like Jessie and I was able to eat a lot of them, fueling my body as I pedaled my way across America. For this, I’m grateful…
Kristina, she’s a veteran, an entrepreneur and has created a meal replacement bar for dogs. She’s full of love. You may have seen her on Shark Tank receiving the funding she deserved to grow her company. One of my friends asked her to call me before I left, and she did. Kristina understood my passion, my pursuit of the dream, and wanted to support Jo and I. She offered to feed my best friend from coast to coast, providing nearly a thousand dollars worth of TurboPUP meal replacement bars for Jo, bacon flavored. For this, I’m grateful.
Joe works at Newport Avenue Market. He keeps in stock several of the bumper stickers I’ve branded and also places my coffee beans, Elf Brew, on the shelf at Christmas time. When I approached him, asking for support, he was instantly on board. He introduced me to Lauren, the COO who makes things go vroooom. She handed me a check and a gift card, sending me shopping in their store for some delicious goodies to take with me on the adventure. For this, I’m grateful.
Julie wrote me a note out of the blue. You can find her smiling face at Straw Propeller Gourmet Foods. She invited Jo and I over to their warehouse where I was able to meet all of the wonderful ladies that make their products special. And when we left there, I had two cases, a huge assortment of individually packaged oatmeal that provided me with the delicious calories I needed to ride a bike from one state to the next. For this, I’m grateful.
Mike oversees the operations at Hutch’s Bicycles in Bend. It wasn’t to difficult to track him down, and when I did, he offered to send me on a shopping spree. I was able to pick out some biking shoes, a pair of shorts, and some other accessories I needed. I also walked out with a single pair of socks and one red bicycle jersey, which I’ve worn thin, wearing them for 80 days in a row. For this, I’m grateful.
Despite the name, Shoeless Jo, he actually does wear shoes. It was Blair who welcomed us into the Ruffwear headquarters in Bend. And it was Susan that met us in their showroom and loved on Jo. She helped him choose everything he would need to be safe and comfortable as he too made his way cross-country by bike. Jo wears their pack, is tethered by their leash, loves their shoes, and eats from one of their lite weight collapsible bowls. For this, I’m grateful.
I’ve never met Noah before, but I did talk to him on the phone for awhile on the day we were leaving Oregon. He works for Burley Designs in Eugene and offered to cut me a “pro-deal” on the Tail Wagon, half price. It’s an aluminum trailer built specifically for man’s best friend, weighing only 22lbs and that’s where Jo cooled his paws when he wasn’t running alongside of me. For this, I’m grateful.
Mike Hargous works for McDonald’s in Central Oregon. In the past, he has helped me with my mission by placing “Elf Boxes” in each of their restaurants. They encourage the community to place new unwrapped toys in them, and by doing this kind act, they are creating a brighter Christmas for children via Operation Elf Box. All it took was a call, asking him for a few Big Macs along the way, and he said yes. After talking it over with the McOwner’s, they offered to feed me for free every time I passed by the Golden Arches from coast to coast. For this, I’m grateful, and i’m lovin it.
The Gilstraps and the Claytons are popular and it’s not just because they are the proprietors of Cuppa Yo and Woof, two of Bend’s favorites; a frozen yogurt shop that neighbors their self service dog wash. People love these two families because they are lovable and do many wonderful things to support our community. And aside from helping us gather gifts at Christmas time, they were happy to support the mission, handing me a check and a hug before I left. For this, I’m grateful.
It was Ervin who owns EMR Logistics, a freight broker in Bend who provides the details for people moving things across the country. I sat in his office a week before I left, with a near empty wallet and a heart that was brimming with a dream. He was one of the first I shared it with. Ervin has watched me over the the last few years, both us having occupied spaces in the same building together, an Elf Shoppe located down the haul from his office. Ervin didn’t hesitate, handing me a thousand dollars, sending us with well wishes and the hope that our dreams would come true. For this, I’m grateful.
There are so many others also who have provided for Jo and I as we’ve been making our way. Many of those stories, the kindness, the love, the generosity, I’ve already shared with you in my blog. I think it’s important to share the kindness of others. It breeds more kindness, more love in the world.
I believe it’s even more important to give thanks. It hasn’t always been easy for me, especially when there was some trouble I was dealing with in life. But I know now that even trouble has a purpose. I’ve learned that by expressing my gratitude, in all situations, regardless of the circumstances, that I’ve become a happier person, more able to love myself and to love others. I see the blessings now in everything. For this, I’m grateful.
These are the things I wanted to let you know, that I’m grateful for you, and that I love you.
Anita was happy to let me sleep on her couch for a few nights while I was busy organizing my next adventure. I had just returned from several months of traveling through a number of the western-states, making music along the way and working on a few love projects. I spent that summer living mostly out of my van.
For about a year I had been spending time researching the Pacific Crest Trail after having a discussion with a couple who was hiking the entire length of it, 2700 miles from the border of Mexico to Canada. Their stories inspired me and got me thinking that I might like to follow in their footsteps.
Everything I had, I borrowed. With the help of friends, I filled a backpack that was to big for my frame, loading it with a sleeping bag, a tent, a camp stove, a water filter, a ukulele, and a few books. And there were lots of other things too that I carried with me. I added to it a list of objects I felt were needed to address all of the fears that I was creating in my mind. I was preparing to defend myself against everything from a bear attack to loneliness.
Another friend, Amy, she dropped me off on the side of the road, snapping a photograph of me weighted down and leaning forward. After saying our goodbyes, I disappeared into the forest. It was the first time I had ever gone backpacking and I still I had a lot to learn.
Trekking through the wilderness, I was making my way south to Crater Lake. I had planned on going further but physically I wasn’t able to. My knees ached, my tendons were on fire and both of my feet felt broken. But the following month, on a cold October morning, in the rain, I did it again. This time I went north, covering another section of the trail through the Cascade Range mountains of Oregon. And another time, I wandered through the Russian Wilderness, the Trinity Alps and eventually ending at Castle Craggs near the base of Mt Shasta.
The following summer, after riding my bicycle the 650 miles from Oregon to San Francisco, I hitched up to the Sierra Nevada’s. It was there where I climbed at least a half dozen or more of the twelve thousand foot mountain passes that stood in my way and also forded a few streams that could have swept me off my feet if I wasn’t careful.
Somewhere along the way as I shuffled my feet on that trail, I eventually began to realize what it was that I was to be learning. I learned that I was never alone, that there was nothing to be afraid of, and that the bears didn’t really want to eat me. I discovered that I was capable, powerful and that I could trust and believe in myself. My insecurities turned from worry into a humble self confidence. The restless ground beneath my feet became a path of peace and comfort.
I recall taking a seat on a rock beside a stream where the birds and I were having a drink and I remember thinking how I felt so small, so humbled, and so full of love in that moment. I began to see how the Creator who had shaped those peaks and valleys was also shaping me, preparing me for what was to come next. On the final day, I arrived on the summit of Mount Whitney at 14,505 feet, the tallest peak in the contiguous United States.
Last January, I became inspired to lead a group into the wilderness this coming summer. I’d like to take a few young men, teenagers, those who are finding their way. It was Picasso who said, “the meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away”.
If you’re thinking of someone who might benefit by going out and discovering the gift that I received, the beauty that I found in the hills and eventually in my heart, please write me…
In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks. ~ John Muir
I turned my back on the Atlantic and pedaled the last two blocks from the beach to where Dorothy lives. She was expecting Jo and I to arrive here on Vilano Beach Island. Dorothy is a cousin of Sharon’s, a friend of mine who lives in Bend. She connected the two of us, being the Angel she is, she figured she would line us up with a soft place to land after reaching our destination in Saint Augustine.
Jo and I are welcomed, then pointed to a cozy room in the house where we could make ourselves at home. Dorothy is a chef. She was out in the kitchen preparing a delicious feast for us, and also offering sample after sample to Jo who sat there looking up at her with those eyes.
Nathaniel is a gifted singer songwriter. There’s a few guitars laying around the house so we sat up until it was late, picking a few strings, exchanging songs, filling their living room with the sound of music.
Dorothy wanted to show us around and I wanted to see Nathaniel in his element, performing an afternoon set at a pub in downtown. We didn’t leave the house until about three o’clock, first dropping Casey off, a housemate, at the marina where she planned on sailing away for the afternoon.
But she never left the dock because a storm blew in all of the sudden, dumping buckets of rain on everything for about an hour. The thunder that accompanied the showers had Jo wanting to hide under the chair at Stogey’s. It’s where Dorothy works and where we arrived to watch the street gutters nearly overflow as we stood inside, dry, looking out through the front door. Because of her love for music, they feature a regular cast of folksters, Dorothy booking the acts, those who perform live for an audience that is puffing on Havana’s.
After the storm passed over, we walked the streets of Saint Augustine, exploring as the original settlers might have, finding a place to sit and have dinner.
And now it’s a new day. I’m out here in the backyard, beside the swimming pool, under the umbrella that shades me from the morning sun. It’s a very peaceful place with a palm tree and a lounge chair and feels like my own private oasis, it feels like home.
It’s all a mystery to me. I don’t know what lays ahead in the days and weeks to come. I’m okay with not knowing. That’s what I tell myself anyways. I’m living by faith, just here in this moment, listening for that small voice to speak up inside me.
It was like I was throwing myself off of a stage, surfing the hands of strangers. But instead, I was taking a leap of faith, pursuing a dream that’s rooted in love. I threw myself into the arms of the universe, being caught, and gracefully carried across America.
There was no red ribbon stretched across the finish line for us to blast through. No string of bright colored balloons hanging in an arch up above it. I did not see a band set up on the shoreline, playing The Eye of The Tiger. The rows of people lining each side of the path, applauding and cheering us on for the last half mile, they were not there either. And on the podium, where the tall attractive blonde lady stands with the bottle of champagne that I corked and sprayed into the air, celebrating, none of that existed.
What actually happened was this…
The sun was warming things up outside in Gainesville. I had just finished gathering my stuff together, squeezing it into my panniers. And then at noon, I rolled my bike out toward the street, in my awkwardly tight shorts, tossing a leg over the bar. Jo and I set out to ride the last eighty miles or so to the Atlantic coast.
A breeze helped to push us further east, rolling along the final stretch of the Florida highway. The clouds in the sky provided temporary shade as the sun dodged in and out from behind them. Thunder was clapping in the clouds to the north, the sky beginning to transform to a darker shade of gray. And then the heavens opened up and poured rain down on us for a half an hour. There was no better feeling.
Shoeless Jo seemed to know that we were arriving at our destination, getting a good look of everything while balancing on his wagon.
Behind the soulful lyrics of Into The Mystic that Fogerty was singing to me through my head phones, I was recalling many of the experiences that Jo and I have shared along the way. I was picturing the faces of the people, all of the angels we have met and have been blessed by. I pictured everyone online, those that Jo and I know, and the others we haven’t met. I imagined that each of you were pedaling along with us, a parade of friends on bikes.
I was crossing over the last bridge, the Atlantic was in sight. I veered onto the Coast Highway and made another turn, pedaling down a sleepy street that led to the oceans edge.
Where the sidewalk ends, and the sand begins, I stood there looking out at the water, considering for awhile, all of the love that has been exploding all around us. I know this is all part of a grander plan, so I lifted up a silent prayer, thanking the Spirit for grace and mercy and abundance, for love, and for you.
Every dream that becomes a reality begins with a leap of faith.
Almost everything I work at, I either do it with fearless passion, or I don’t do it at all. There’s no dragging me in to something I have no interest in. I like to have variety in my life, so I involve myself with a number of different projects, hobbies, loves, hopping from one to the other, working at building the dreams that have come to me. I do my best to do what feels right in that moment, and I keep things as simple as I know how to these days.
When I was young I enjoyed reading, penning myself in one place, taking in an authors work, sometimes from cover to cover. I still spend time reading on occasion, exposing myself to the minds of others, the stories they share and the pictures they paint with their words.
Billy Collins is a poet, one of the most read, and a former U.S. Poet Laureate. He also has a book on the New York Times Best Seller’s list, Aimless Love. He’s one of my favorites to read, and so i’ll share one of his masterpieces with you…
The Trouble with Poetry: A Poem of Explanation
The trouble with poetry, I realized
as I walked along a beach one night —
cold Florida sand under my bare feet,
a show of stars in the sky —
the trouble with poetry is
that it encourages the writing of more poetry,
more guppies crowding the fish tank,
more baby rabbits
hopping out of their mothers into the dewy grass.
And how will it ever end?
unless the day finally arrives
when we have compared everything in the world
to everything else in the world,
and there is nothing left to do
but quietly close our notebooks
and sit with our hands folded on our desks.
Poetry fills me with joy
and I rise like a feather in the wind.
Poetry fills me with sorrow
and I sink like a chain flung from a bridge.
But mostly poetry fills me
with the urge to write poetry,
to sit in the dark and wait for a little flame
to appear at the tip of my pencil.
And along with that, the longing to steal,
to break into the poems of others
with a flashlight and a ski mask.
And what an unmerry band of thieves we are,
cut-purses, common shoplifters,
I thought to myself
as a cold wave swirled around my feet
and the lighthouse moved its megaphone over the sea,
which is an image I stole directly
from Lawrence Ferlinghetti —
to be perfectly honest for a moment —
the bicycling poet of San Francisco
whose little amusement park of a book
I carried in a side pocket of my uniform
up and down the treacherous halls of high school.
You can find more of his poetry here at: http://billycollinspoetry.com
It’s been suggested to me before that I write a book. I’ve always thought that I’d like to explore that opportunity, but in the past, I haven’t felt like I was ready. As I’ve been pedaling my bike across America, I’ve been practicing, everyday, writing, sharing it with you here.
The trouble with writing is that it encourages the desire in me to write more, which is an observation I stole directly from Billy Collins, to be perfectly honest for a moment.
Sometimes I write from the corner of a hotel room, planted in a chair, my feet up on the ottoman. Or at a wooden picnic bench in a campground where the morning birds are singing from the tree that leans over the pond. I’ve written from the home of angels, those who’ve taken Jo and I in, disappearing out on to their patio or sometimes while sipping coffee in their recliners. I’ve penciled my thoughts from plenty of coffee shops, either seated outside under the big umbrella in the uncomfortable black metal chair, and other times, inside, nestled in a soft wingback. I’ve posted up in recreation rooms at RV parks, and I’ve penciled my thoughts from the inside of my tent while looking out at the neighbors who sat in their canvas folding chairs. One time, I positioned myself on the sand in Galveston and documented a days experience from there. And I’ve woke up next to a cactus and wrote from the floor of the desert in California.
And so I’m going to take another leap of faith and continue to pursue this passion in this next season of my life. And none of it would even be possible if it wasn’t for the encouragement you’ve given, the continuous out pouring of love, for letting me know you believe in me, and the support from friends, family and strangers. Forever grateful.
It was on the last day of the International Music Festival, in Lafeyyette, when I was invited to a gathering at Gabrie’l and Dokoda’s place. We sat around in a circle that night, a half dozen or more of us, telling stories and laughing at almost everything. That’s where I met Wendy. The scene looked exactly like this…
Wendy connected me with Celino, an artist friend of hers who lives Gainesville. He made a generous offer to host Jo and I at his home two blocks east of downtown. I’m sitting in his favorite chair right now, looking at the walls, where some of the paintings he’s painted are hanging. Celino just left for work, spending some time at an art store he owns not far from here, telling me to make myself at home. And so I am. I’m drinking my second cup off coffee. Jo’s sleeping on the floor in the corner of the bathroom. Celino, he’s gifted, able to turn items that were intended for the landfill, into beautiful pieces of art. Like the ones on the kitchen wall, each one a lamp, lighting the room.
I’d like to tell you about a lightbulb that went off, a dream I had back in October of 2013. I believe it’s important to share dreams. More of the details seem to surface each time I tell its’ story, coming to me in pieces, over a period of time. There’s been times when I’ve thought I would throw myself into it, but something tells me I’m not ready yet.
I picture a piece of land, it might be 20 acres or more in size, I don’t know exactly, maybe somewhere in Central Oregon, maybe on the south side of Bend. I describe it as an echo, intentional, multi-generational, commerce community, built with and rooted in love. A mouth full, I know.
It’s a place that myself and others hope to build, a place that we think would be a good example. I call it the NORTHwest POLE, and everyone will be able to visit there. It’s a modern day North Pole. Imagine a community of about 150 people cohabiting together on the same land, living in tiny houses, operating small honest trade businesses, supporting the Operation Elf Box mission, to create a brighter Christmas for children, nationally.
I picture us walking along the paths that would connect to the restaurant, a coffee shop, a gift store, a library, a lounge, a garden, a cobbler, a luthier, a toy-maker, a seamstress, an herbalist, an acupuncturist, a beautician, a doctor, a counselor, and even an adventure tour company. And there’s an RV park for visitors and a few tiny houses available for out of towners who want to visit and volunteer. The list of ideas go on and on.
As a multi generational community, we would create housing for some of our elders, those who might be living in a senior center now, but would thrive living in a vibrant artistic community. Granny and Gramps would be able to participate, as they’re able to, getting their hands on one of the many different projects within the community. They could also relax in the warm room, do some knitting, read, having discussions, or come in to the venue to listen to the kids open mic night, story telling night, or take in the sound of a singer songwriter who’s passing by or perhaps lives there too.
There would be tiny homes for women and children, some of them starting over, diving into their passions. And we could have apprenticeships at all of the small trade businesses, jobs, teaching others a new trade.
Considering the teen-aged, those who are out there finding their way, how amazing would it be to host a group of them for six weeks or so. We could provide for our upcoming generation an example of a community that loves, and that cares for each other.
While the teens are living with us, we can introduce them to a variety of small trades, and recreational opportunities, like rafting and mountain biking and fly fishing and backpacking in the wildnerness. And expose them to art, and poetry, and music, and story telling and dreaming. All of these experiences, I believe, might help them find something inside themselves that inspires them and helps them to develop a passion for something; to bring them closer to their purpose.
Maybe you have some ideas you can share? Or join the dream team and help us work toward it. Or maybe you have other resources, like a piece of land to build it on!
I’m zeroing in on St Augustine, waking up in Perry. I calculated the distance and set out for my longest ride in a single day ever, 93 (s)miles, It was also the hottest day, Florida feeling like it does in August, reaching almost 100 degrees and humid.
Shoeless Jo took refuge in his shaded wagon. I put a few bottles of ice back there, rolling around with him, creating a swamp cooler. He also has an aqua vest from Ruffwear, soaked in water, it’s designed to keep him cool. But he was looking a little baked so we jumped in the Suwanee River and cooled off.
The sun set shortly after a thunderstorm dropped twenty minutes of rain on us. It felt incredibly invigorating, pedaling along, the wind coming out of the east, blowing toward me, cooling me off. And then it was dark and we still had another 17 miles to go. I clipped two little red lights to the back of my jersey and made the rest of the way by headlight.
The road narrowed and the shoulder disappeared for several miles forcing me to take up one of the two lanes, the cars going around us at night. Jo was hopping in and back out again, running the few hills that roll on the west side of town.
Celino was waiting for me when I arrived at his place at ten thirty at night, helping me cart the Land Sleigh and the Tail Wagon up to his second story, handing me a cold water and a warm welcome.
If you’re still reading, I’ll leave you with this quote.
A dream you dream alone is only a dream. A dream you dream together is reality. ~ John Lennon
My parents should’ve known better than to go on vacation for two weeks and leave me behind to watch the house. I might have been eighteen years old at that time, living at home, and now I was going to have it all to myself. Days before they left, I was already planning the party.
I didn’t see any harm in bringing a couple hundred high school kids together, planting a few kegs of beer on their back patio, and putting a nine piece ska band in their living room. As a courtesy, I notified the neighbors, hoping they’d let me know if it got to loud. And out of respect for my parents and their belongings, their furniture specifically, I had a couple of buddies move it all outside onto the back lawn and cover it up with tarps. And that made more room for dancing in the house.
Jeniffer and Katie lived next door. They were friends with my kid sister and still are. I think it was their dad that had our good-times shut down, phoning the police after he walked in to the party, unannounced, just after ten at night. He must not like reggae music or the sight of the keg stands us minors were doing.
That wasn’t the last time I hosted a party either. In my early twenties, I was living on the west side of Fresno, out in the country on five acres. I invited four hundred and fifty of my closest friends over to my place for dinner. I staged a live rock band, a DJ, a no-host bar and an all you can eat tri-tip buffet in my yard. We were celebrating our freedom and independence. It was the Fourth of July. But the sheriff didn’t care about any of that, making his presence in the neighborhood known, and eventually handing me a list of consequences I would face if I didn’t reduce the noise level.
Fast forward to the summer of 2011, I was living in Bend, connecting with the local music scene, and making some live music of my own. I approached a nonprofit bar and restaurant in downtown. I asked if I could host a concert series there, perhaps bringing in some more business to support their mission and bringing the community together at the same time. I had the privilege of organizing two summers worth of parties at their venue. Every Friday night, another group of talented musicians assembled and performed; a band filling the room with music, another group of happy smiling faces having a good time.
Two years ago I came up with the idea to produce an event called, The Twelve Bands of Christmas. I asked some of the musicians that I knew to contribute a set, making music for an audience that was gathered to show their support for Operation Elf Box and help spread some cheer. It’s a FREE Christmas party for all of Central Oregon and one of my favorite days of the year.
Everyone shows up to McMenamins in downtown on one day in December, writing their names on Santa’s List as they enter the Father Luke Room where the party is held. Bands rotate on stage for twelve hours beginning at noon. Santa shows up for a few so that children, young and old, can sit on him. A dozen or so local businesses contribute raffle items, supporting the cause, and at the same time, they’re sending folks home with some really amazing presents. None of this would even be possible if it weren’t for the generosity and kindness of all of those who come together to make it possible. The sound engineer, every single one of the musicians, the venue, the volunteers, all of them donating their time and space, their gifts, all of it coming from a place of love, doing their part to help create a brighter Christmas for children.
As a matter of fact, you should plan on being in Bend, Oregon on Sunday, December 20th, 2015. It’s confirmed, the entire town is going to be at McMenamins for the third annual, Twelve Bands of Christmas.
Keeping with the topic here, love, I should probably mention a few things about yesterday.
I pedaled along the jungle lined Florida highway that borders a National Wildlife Refuge. People visit the area for a chance to see alligators, moccasins, bears, bobcats, the 300 species of birds and the 14 active bald eagle nests. I ran over two dead snakes on the shoulder of the highway, steered around one frog that didn’t make it, and watched a hawk soar overhead looking for his next meal.
The town of Perry is poor, from an economical standpoint, but if we are measuring love, they are beyond rich. At least that was my experience.
I covered the forty five (s)miles late in the afternoon, not arriving until dusk. I passed the Oyster House on the right, and another house that was leaning to the left but a man was living in it. He was on the front porch, sitting on the couch, James Brown blasting from his boombox. We smiled and waived at each other as I rolled by.
I pulled into one of the first parking lots, glancing at my phone that was about to die, beginning to search for a motel. There didn’t appear to be any signage on the building that I was standing in front of but they were open so I walked inside to plug my phone in. I had just stepped foot into Whisky Bent Saloon. I didn’t know that Heather owned the place when I sat down beside her, striking up a conversation. She had been doing some cooking and pointed me to to the pork chops and the mashed-potatoes she had made for everyone, including Shoeless Jo. Heather walked one of her tasty chops outside to him where he stood guard of the bike and his wagon that I had chained to a post.
Back inside, the barkeep asked me about my long bike ride and what inspired me. I shared with her and the half a dozen others that were listening about Operation Elf Box. Robert walked over, asking me about my route, saying that if I was going to Saint Augustine, that I was in the wrong place. I smiled at him and told him that it felt like I was in the right place.
He was the first to reach in his pocket, pulling out a five dollar bill, saying, “take this with you”. Papa Tazz, (that’s what his friends call him), leaned over and whispered in my ear, wanting to support my mission, handing me a crisp twenty, giving me a half hug. And then the humble Heather, the kind woman who fed me, slipped me another forty as I walked out the door, the folks standing behind her offering me well wishes and reminding me to be safe.
In my eyes, these were random acts of love, angels providing for us. And online, several friends, one I’ve known for nearly two decades were doing the same, making a contribution, sending love notes to me and Jo along with them.
The Hamilton and The Gandy sit next to each other. I chose the latter, a motor lodge. Parking under the awning, I walked inside and exchanged forty six dollars for a shower and a bed, a room with a/c, and wifi.
It’s the kind of place where people drag their chairs out and sit on the front porch in the evening just outside of their rooms. Some people are living here. Next door to me was a man who told me he had just been released from jail after serving his two year sentence. He choked up a little when he talked about it. Apparently he needed someone to listen, and I was grateful to be standing there with him, hearing his story, sharing with him some of mine as well.
We stood there for an hour, discussing topics like survival, the color of our skin, letting go of our past, working at accomplishing our dreams, faith, and we elaborated on love.
The heat was oppressive, beating down on my head, baking my brain, my hide being tanned by the sun as I was making my way the forty five (s)miles from Carabelle to St Marks. Shoeless Jo sits in the shaded wagon I pull behind me, the warm breeze being scooped onto his face as I look up the highway another mile. I was praying for the rain that had been forecasted to begin but there were no clouds in the sky.
Alligator Bay was our only opportunity to cool off, stripping both Jo and I down and diving into the eighty degree water. I didn’t see any alligators, but it was so hot, it wouldn’t have mattered if I did.
The pavement made a bend beneath me, turning inland, leaving the bay shores behind us along with any chance of taking another dip.
My vision became tunneled, squinting my eyes through the lens of my fogged shades. A weakness came over me within a matter of moments that concerned me slightly. I was avoiding heat stroke by slowing my pace and continuing to nurse the luke warm water from my plastic bottle. A gas station up the road presented itself just in the nick of time, parking my bike under the gazebo.
My legs wobbled at the knee like a drunken sailors, my hands shaky as I made my way into the air conditioned building. I placed my hand against the wall, thinking for a split second that I might fold in the middle, a chance of my limp body landing on the ground. That didn’t happen though, instead, I reached into the cooler, putting my head in it first as I fished for a few cold drinks.
I stayed there with Jo, seated outside on the patio, until the the peak heat broke somewhere around dinner time. I knew that I needed to eat, to consume enough calories to propel me the next twenty five miles but the heat had zapped my appetite entirely. A single bite took what seemed like an hour to swallow, chewing the same piece of food over and over again before it actually found its own way down.
I started the day off exhausted, having slept on a boat dock the evening before, the yellow flys nipping at me in the night. And there were even more of them swarming in the morning, trying to strip my flesh as the sun was coming up.
Although I’ve never met her before, I sure would like to, if only for a second to give her a hug and thank her for her kindness. I believe she’s an earth angel, making herself known to me at exactly the right time. I was sitting in a fifties diner where I had written my previous blog. A message popped up on my iPhone, Facebook alerting me; it was Roxie reaching out. She’s on the other side of the country in Phoenix. She sent me this message…
The heat relinquished its hold on the earth as the rain Gods took over and showered both Jo and I for the final mile. It was the best feeling ever. We arrived in St Marks just after supper time, making my way through a jungle, accidentally running over a snake that was slithering along the bike path.
We arrived at the Pirates Landing, a bar and grill. I thought about how earlier in the day I would have happily volunteered to walk the plank just to take a swim. The waitress welcomed us in as I flopped my tired self onto a chair, requesting from her several glasses of ice water and a few minutes to decide on a meal. She wanted to meet Jo so we stepped outside together with a container of gourmet scraps from her kitchen. She looked at him in his wagon, softly saying to him, “hi Jo, I’m Aunt Bonnie”. Jo fell in love with her, and so did I.
Aunt Bonnie shared her onion rings with me, then passed some bacon wrapped jumbo shrimp under my nose, shrimp that came right out of her backyard, the bay they live on. And then she wrapped up a huge slice of gooey lemon pie, to-go, along with an invitation to return for a morning meal, on the house.
After an hour had passed and my baked brain was no longer sizzling, Jo and I made our way to the Fish Camp, the most amazing motel room ever that Roxie had treated us to. The cooler was cranking when I walked in the room, making me feel like I had just arrived inside a penguin sanctuary, or heaven on earth.
In the south they would say, “bless your heart”, referring to the kind deed that Roxie had done for Jo and I. As I laid there in that marshmallow bed, I said a silent prayer, but knew already that her heart is blessed and that mine is too.
The legendary, B.B King, put an album out titled, One Kind Favor. That’s exactly what Roxie did for us. And what countless others have done for Jo and I as we make our way. And now, as I head out on the smoldering highway, I’ll be be listening to the blues man through my headphones; and his song will remind me to, “Let The Good Times Roll”.
I was standing before a judge, trembling inside and out, barely able to speak my plea. I was facing a charge that I new good and well I was guilty of. The evidence they had, I gave to them, accepting my sentence and the consequences for my actions. The details of that drunken quarrel, I’ll save to share with you another time, perhaps in a book, or in a conversation when we meet again. Or maybe not ever, as its behind me now, having let it go, making room for new. I will mention this however, that the incident that occurred between me and the woman whom I had loved years ago, was one that began the process of my heart being changed forever, overtime.
Five years ago, I was going from one aid oriented nonprofit to another, introducing myself as the Resident Elf in Bend, Oregon. Saving Grace and Mary’s Place are just two of those organizations that I stepped foot into. One provides resources for families affected by domestic violence, the other creates a safe exchange for children, between mom and dad, for those parents who are unable to be in the same room together.
I was sharing the Operation Elf Box mission with them; to create a brighter Christmas for children. It was my first year operating a ‘free toy store’ in downtown. I invited them to refer their clients, so those who needed a little extra love at Christmas could come by appointment and put Christmas together for their children.
That’s when I met Amy, she works at Mary’s Place. She had told me how their reduced budget eliminated their ability to host a monthly event they had held for a long time. They called it Moms Night, an evening for the mothers that they serve to come together and make some new mom friends.
I left there that day and came up with an idea, to throw a party for these deserving mothers, an event that I named, Celebrate.
After presenting the idea to Amy, and Laura who was across town at Saving Grace, we all agreed on a date just a few weeks from then during that first December.
I enlisted the help of a half dozen or more women from the community, friends I had made who were inspiring and had loving hearts. I asked them to be Elf Angels, to be the hostesses on this one night. My mom is one of the remarkable ladies that helps to make the event extra special for those who attend.
We don’t advertise Celebrate to the public, keeping its location top secret, our guests, some of which are in hiding, some exes still threatening them and their safety.
It’s taken new shape each each year, for the last five in a row, growing in attendance to about seventy five. I’ve always said its the icing on my Christmas cake; watching as everyone arrives to a sit down dinner, refreshments, live music, a guest speaker, a DJ, and Mr and Mrs Clause. And there’s a super stretched sleigh that transports the moms to and from.
While attending, Celebrate, our guests shop for their children, wrapping their gifts with the help of the Elf Angels. And before the night is over, we present each of these mothers with a gift bag that includes items contributed by local businesses and individual members of our community. I’ve even experienced women from outside of our area, getting themselves involved. My cousin, Mikie, she nits beautiful hats and scarves and places them in the mail from California to be included. It’s her way of spreading a little Christmas cheer.
Across town, on that same night, another celebration takes place. This one is for the children of these mothers. It’s an elf party! The kids load up on pizza and cookies and juice boxes. They craft and color and have a ball. Especially when the Clause’s show up in the limo to pay them a visit and find out what they want for Christmas.
Guilty and guilt, that’s what I was, and what I felt many years ago when I stood before that judge, watching as he lowered his gavel, closing out that period of my life and sending me off in a new direction, on a new mission.
Today, I think I know what love is, feeling it in my heart, learning by example, others who have loved me when I was hard to love. I have compassion for others now. I consider it a privilege to be able to honor these women who have endured more than most. I see now how Gods mercy and grace is threaded through this story, through all of it, and that’s a wonderful reason to come together and Celebrate.
Today I’m in Carabelle, Florida. Shoeless Jo and I rolled along a beautiful section of the coastline, arriving here just as the sun had gone down. A live band was cranking out some classic blues songs on an outdoor patio. I could hear them from a mile away. They invited me to jump on stage and sing a few. The late Robert Johnson song, Crossroads, who everyone has covered, including Clapton, seemed appropriate. I belted it out with all the soul I have in me.
The skies were clear and the humidity seemed to disappear as a fresh brisk breeze picked up. I walked down to the boat docks with Jo, found a shrimp boat that looked like a pirate might live on it, and set up camp there under the stars.