“A Place For Us All Here”

They ain’t lying when they say it’s always darkest before dawn because it’s about a quarter of 6AM and the surrounding darkness is almost suffocating. I’m on a winding, two-lane highway which slowly and repetitively climbs up then dips down between heavy pines with dangling, skeletal fingers. Signs tell me that I’m fixing to cross over the Sabine River into Louisiana.

For the first time in probably thirty minutes, another vehicle appears around the corner in front of me and I quickly turn off my car’s brights. They do the same and I have to say how much I love the respect we strangers show each other during overnight driving. Rarely in my dark drives have I ever experienced the motorist who fails to turn off their brights and I think that says a lot about how polite people are just by nature. I’d wave, but they won’t see me—I imagine they think about waving, too. As soon as they pass, I click my brights back on. Long, curvy lines of yellow reflectors. Piney fingers. Slithering fog in ditches.

I’m ashamed to admit it being a native Texan and all, but I’ve never been to Louisiana. My friends give me a hard time for this. “What? You’ve never been to Louisiana? New Orleans? But you’re so close!” I know, I know, I’ve no excuse. But then here, around this corner, I come upon a break in the trees and the highway turns into a bridge and halfway over the bridge, my only travel companion, Google Maps, interrupts my audio book and says, “Welcome to Louisiana.” I smile.

The bridge ends and here I am: Louisiana. Maybe it’s the profound darkness, the solitude, or the fact that the fog sure seems to be collecting more and more of itself, but Louisiana feels different. Not even a mile past the Sabine and it feels like I’ve entered into a distant and strange land. As they say, Google Maps, we’re not in Texas anymore. I have about ten hours left to go on my planned drive to Atlanta, Georgia. I should get there by 5PM their time which will be just in time to head on over to The Tabernacle to see my most favorite band of all time, Old Crow Medicine Show.

My decision to make this trip is barely a day old: completely impulsive and last minute and the thrill attached to that kind of pseudo-recklessness is the real caffeine I need right now, just before dawn. This is exhilarating to me and also a bit chilling because coincidentally, as I’m making my debut travel through Louisiana, my audiobook moves to the next story: ‘Bitter Grounds’ by Neil Gaiman. For y’all who are unfamiliar with this story, (and if you are unfamiliar, I would recommend picking up his book of short stories, ‘Fragile Things,’ because they’re the kind that stick with you) it’s about a man who has decided to start driving without a particular destination and, on his own, ends up in New Orleans where…well…I won’t give spoilers. I begin to imagine that I am like that man, just driving and driving. This is not the first road trip where Neil Gaiman has kept me company. I hope he knows I’m grateful for this.

“Why are you driving to Georgia?” my mom asked me when she called yesterday and I told her of my newly hatched plan. I couldn’t really give her an answer. I didn’t know why I suddenly had this red-hot urge to just go somewhere and I suppose I still don’t really know. She wasn’t a fan of this plan, her being a perpetual worrier like me. I assured her I’d be fine and also, I had a knife in the center console which I know how to wield, so…all good. I could feel her eyes roll through the phone.

On I drive through an eventual pink sunrise, a small rain storm, sheep-clouds, no clouds, acres upon acres of cotton fields, and then fields of…what is that, soybean? I’m not sure. Corn, cotton, and wheat are the only crops I think I can pick out when they’re in fields.

Mississippi,

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Alabama,

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and then finally, Georgia.

I get to the venue early. I want to be in the front row because last time I saw Old Crow, I’d ended up in seats that didn’t give me any room to dance until I hurt which is, as far as I’m concerned, the proper way to behave at one of their shows: reckless, wild, and completely unhinged from everything. When they’re on stage, nothing else in the entire world matters. They are such, sweet freedom. (And darn cute, too.)

So I dance. I dance and I sing and I clap until my hands begin to bruise and sweat is winding down my spine and there, in the glow of the shifting lights and rhythm pulsing through the room, I am free…

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…free…

“Free from what?” I wonder as I bounce and sing and slide my gaze over all the elated faces around me while completely alone in an unknown place. Then I realize it: I’m free from my worries. Oh my dang worries, my parasitic worries. They stand no chance here.

I’m not shy about the fact that I struggle with anxiety. Part of my dealing with it is constantly trying to break the stigma around mental health issues. I have anxiety? You have anxiety? Or something else? Not a big deal. Let’s love each other a little more for it so that we can create platforms to deal with our emotions in healthy and supportive ways. Our brains and hearts are so utterly complex and can feel so deeply that it’s not surprising that they can get a little out of hand from time to time. It’s up to us to not judge ourselves, but to instead be grateful for our layers and learn to explore and manage them effectively. As Mechanical Morty says, “Your feelings are not only forgivable, they are the very meaning of life that only pre-silicon, carbon-based entities can ever grasp.”

Free. Hoo boy. Sublime.

Sadly, the show ends and as the overhead lights turn on, I wander towards the exit, my body buzzing with fatigue, excitement, and something else I can’t quite put my finger on. People are everywhere, chatting and laughing with one another. They’re holding hands and kissing and finishing drinks out of plastic cups. They’re laughing and singing lyrics to songs they’ve just heard and when I make it back outside to the fresh air, I realize how badly my face aches from smiling for so long. Everyone is smiling…everyone…big, toothy smiles; and we’re all smiling at each other. A tall man with an impressive beard gives me a high five for no reason. A woman with a long, purple skirt and braided pigtails tells me she loves my boots. We’re this migrating flock of dazed yet connected people wandering in all directions, drunk off our asses from the consumption of Old Crow’s heavily intoxicating energy. It’s glorious.

I want to stick around to see if somehow, someway, I can meet the band so I can tell them just how much they mean to me (because they really, really do) and also by this point in the night, I’m craving human connection. For a few minutes I linger, but in the nearly midnight air, the hours of my travel and sleeplessness begins to descend heavily upon me. Also, I’ll have to walk to the nearest hotel alone and while there’s still a crowd, I figure I ought to be on my way. Just before I wander off for rest, one of the band members, (who’s a hell of a whistler, come to find out) Mr. Cory Younts, appears from between some buses and I want to thank him for handing me a guitar pick which I’m rotating between my fingers in my pocket to ensure I don’t lose it. As I stumble to find some coherent words to say (of which I don’t really find any), he agrees to take a picture with me. I wish I could thank him again for that.

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In my hotel room, I lay and stare at the ceiling still rotating the pick around and around between my fingers. It’s one of those ceilings that looks like an aerial view of intricate mountain ranges. At some point, I drift to sleep because I dream of being at the show, only this time I had a faceless dancing partner, but then suddenly, I’m wide awake and it’s only 2:00AM.

After another hour of trying to fall asleep without success, I decide to just leave and head home. I’d be able to take my time this way. I could stop in Mobile or maybe even New Orleans since I’ve never been.

So I do. By 4:00AM, I’m driving southwest through Georgia towards Alabama. The roads are empty on this early, Sunday morning but for the occasional driver. We turn off our brights and turn them back on as we pass. A silent wave. Polite by nature. I love it.
As the sun rises in my rearview window, I’m back to wondering why I decided to make this trip. The handful of people I met before and during the show who learned that I’d driven all the way out here alone from Texas were surprised that I’d do such a thing. I guess I’m a little surprised, too, but I like the idea of putting on a brave face and doing something a little crazy. I like the idea of being brave (and I sure as hell like the idea of seeing Old Crow).

On stage last night, Mr. Ketch Secor asked the crowd to turn to the people around them and tell them “you matter.” I did. And I was told, too. In addition to just loving the living daylights out of their music, I love this about Old Crow: their humanism. The lyrics of their songs touch the rawest parts of us: our vulnerabilities, our weaknesses, our excitements, our ability to connect but to also let go. I love life in Old Crow songs.

Indeed, no one should feel a world away, even when you’re quite literally, 850 some odd miles away from anything familiar. I didn’t, despite my solitude departure. I didn’t because in Old Crow world, there is no stranger. There is no worry. There is freedom to live and to love and just be without anxieties and judgements. They create this space just by being them. In Old Crow’s world without any kind of goggles, there’s just humanity: beautiful, complex, deep, cosmic, and smiling oneness. There’s a place for us all here.

I realize now as I head home that I needed that place. It’s been a heckuva summer with lot of challenges, changes, and uncertainties about what the future holds and I think I’ve allowed myself to get swept up and a little lost in it all. But last night, free as a mocking bird and alone but not lonely, I realized that whatever is on yonder past that curious and uncertain horizon is just that: yonder. I’ll get there.

The rest of the drive home is mostly uneventful. I do stop and see a few things but by the time the afternoon rolls around, I start itching to get back to check on my sweet donkeys. Upon arriving home, dazed and light-headed, a chorus of brays erupts from the pasture. Before even going inside my house, I leave my duffle bag on the hood of my tired car and head straight for the barn where a few sets of long ears are waiting for me. They nip my arms and swish their tails and I’m quite positive that if I had a tail, I’d be wagging it, too without one little worry in the whole, wide world.

“There’s a place for us all here and ain’t it enough?” – From OCMS Song ‘Ain’t It Enough?’

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Worlds in Worlds in Worlds

In addition to doing my part to rescue donkeys, I am also a yoga instructor. In fact, several years ago, I quit my cush job in oil and gas to chase a dream of teaching yoga full-time. So far, it’s worked out, although I often wonder if the corporate Grim-Reaper will come knocking one day to call me back to the cubicle.

I love teaching yoga—I love it because there are few greater social joys to me than providing a space in which class attendees can unplug and de-stress. I’ve talked at length about how donkeys have served as a major component to my ever increasing awareness (and quest) to slow down and enjoy the simple things in life but yoga, too, has aided in that journey. People tell me often that they’re “not good at yoga” or they’re “not flexible enough to do yoga” and to that I always ask, “What is being good at yoga?” I rarely get an answer, but a half-laugh with a tiny light bulb that I could swear appears over their head.

The fact is, there is no such thing as being good at yoga, there is only continual practice of trying to be better in the way you treat yourself and others with a bonus of strength and flexibility gaining along the way. It’s a healing process of body, mind, and soul. It’s focusing on your breath because think about it: you can’t breathe two minutes ago and you can’t breathe two minutes from now—you can breathe in this moment. Focusing on your breath and making it slower and deeper pulls you to the present and away from phone notifications, that argument you had last week, and the worry over that meeting you have next week. It allows you to exist right now.

There’s no doubt that we live in a frantic world—one that moves faster and with more fury than I think any of us are fully equipped to handle and I think it’s become really easy to withdraw behind walls in our minds in order to cope and behind those walls, no matter how many friends you have, you’re alone there.

Here’s the thing—you’re NOT alone. Everyone you’ve met and will meet has experienced pain. We’ve all had our hearts broken, we’ve all made mistakes, and we all have something in which we’re self-conscious. Nobody has all the answers and isn’t that grand? That means we still live in a world with mysteries and magic. We can still wonder if there are beings in the shadows that watch us or even guide us when we’re lost. We can still imagine that there are brilliant energies that surround us on a light spectrum that our eyes can’t see that cause us to gravitate towards one another resulting in serendipitous meetings that can’t quite be explained. We can wonder what peers down at us from the billions of stars and galaxies that blanket our night skies—sometimes so brightly that you swear you could just reach out and grab a few to place in your pocket. We can look into the eyes of animals and see whole worlds within their pupils and imagine that they see things about us that we will never know and isn’t that badass?

Our oneness as a society comes from our communal exploration of the worlds around us and within ourselves. Try this: place your hands over your heart and close your eyes. Search for your heart beat. With every inhale, your chest will rise and press into your hands and with every exhale, it will fall. I’m doing it, too, and in that, we are connected—your heartbeat and breath and mine. We all breathe the same way and we all breathe the same air. We all have hearts that are stronger than we know that endure so much so slow down and listen to it for a while.

I teach yoga because I need yoga, too. I need blocks of time where my focus is the moment. I need to remind myself not to compare, to break down walls, and to love from my insides out. I hope you’ll try it, too. At the very least, try to breathe a little more deeply today when you think about it. Look deeply into someone’s eyes—even if they’re your own in a mirror and see the way the light dances off the colors like the sun reflecting off the ocean—a million diamonds. As Neil Gaiman once said, “People carry worlds within them,” and never has that been a more profound realization than now because we live in a world with so much division and we don’t even quite understand our own selves. How can we expect peace if there is no peace within?

…And if you’ve never gone to a yoga class because you don’t think you’ll be good at it, maybe give it a shot. You might be surprised.

Namaste. Or rather, NamasBRAY.

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And Then There Were Four: Saying Goodbye to Ali the Foster Donkey

Sweat ran down my spine in slow, chilly lines as I stood in the driveway with one hand shading my eyes from the sun and the other waving goodbye to a man and woman from central Texas who pulled away carefully in their large, white pickup truck. Attached to the back of their truck was a black horse trailer and peering at me nervously and seemingly confused through the slits in the side was Ali—the first foster donkey who’s left my ranch to live out his life in his new, forever home.

Earlier that day, I spent some time in the pasture securing halters on all five of the donkeys that I had available for adoption. I brushed them and wondered who, if any of them, I’d be saying goodbye to today and equally felt excited at the prospect and dreaded it. I studied each of them closely trying to remember every detail of their faces. I watched the way Ethel, the 10 month old jennet, stomped her back foot when she got frustrated that the other boys took her place around the hay. I watched how Charlie, a two year old all-brown gelding, slowly blinked in what seemed like relaxation when I brushed him. Beans, the two-year old wild-caught burro, had just started becoming comfortable with me, allowing me to pet his nose and actually brush his back—unless I made any sudden movement, in which case he’d dart away. Simon, the eight-year old black and white gelding, has been quick to steal my attention since the five fosters originally arrived. One of his eyes is half black and half white—not the actual pupil, but the lids around it; half black and half white like a little yin-yang. I wonder sometimes if that’s what makes him so balanced. Then there was Ali: a 6-year old gelding and a mix of gray and white. His background prior to being rescued is unknown but whatever has happened to him, it’s caused him to be overly affectionate. He rests his head on yours and leans all his weight into you and when you rub his jaws, his large, black eyes close behind long, black lashes as he sways gently.

When the man and his wife showed up to meet our donkeys, I led them out into the pasture to spend some time with them. I kept my distance to allow the couple to interact and soon, it became clear that they had begun to latch onto Ali and in turn, Ali latched onto them: he pressed his nose into the man’s chest and nosed at his inner arms. The man grinned widely and wrapped himself around Ali, whispering things like “hey there” and “you’re a sweet one, huh?” into Ali’s ear. I tried to pretend it was sweat but really, tears had started to sting my eyes. The man and Ali were bonding…like really bonding. It was touching to see the sensitive side of this man that I’d only just met. Of course, it was just as touching to see Ali reciprocating.

It didn’t take any convincing. Soon, the central Texas couple were backing their trailer up to the gate as I attached a rope to Ali’s harness and began to lead him towards the edge of the property.

Ali walked proudly beside me—his ears up and steps confident. Having rained the previous day, we left a trail of side-by-side hoof marks and boot prints in the mud and as we approached the gate, Ali suddenly stopped and resisted. He saw the trailer, looked at me, looked at the man and his wife, then back at me and froze. Placing my hand between his ears I told him that it was going to be okay before I tried tugging on the rope and on his harness. “It’s okay, bud. You can do this, it’s okay,” I said, but if you know anything about donkeys it’s that when they’ve decided they aren’t going to move, there’s nothing that can really be done to move them. The man and his wife tried to help, but this only made Ali lean his weight more heavily into me.

“Ali, bud, it’s okay,” I said.

Still, he resisted. I tugged with literally all of my strength (and as I’m sitting here typing this now, I can feel the soreness in my arms and back from the struggle) but I may as well have been tugging at a skyscraper. He would not budge.

I decided we should take a break and I sat down on the edge of the trailer, wiping the sweat from my brow. My forearms had a layer of dust that stuck to the beaded sweat over my freckles and as I lifted my hand to pat Ali on the head, it shook uncontrollably. I think I was nervous. Ali leaned his head down and placed his nose in my lap, so I rubbed the base of his ears and told him that everything would be okay. I told him that I knew this was confusing and scary but that everything would be just fine. He buried his head deeper.

After a few moments, I got back up and with the help of the couple, we managed to get Ali into the trailer.

Ali is a decently sized donkey but as they pulled away, he looked very small in that trailer. His eyes were wide and his demeanor, nervous. I wiped my eyes as they left my view and told myself that he was going to be okay. The couple was lovely and had great plans in store for him. He was leaving us and he was going home.

I knew fostering donkeys would be difficult. I’ve knowingly and voluntarily signed myself and our property up to be a bridge from an often broken and painful past to a hopefully bright and loving future for donkeys in need. My space is only temporary before they find their happily ever after. I’m only here to help them get there.

Still, it’s difficult. It is an impossibility for me to become attached to the well-being, futures, and overall existence of these donkeys. I’ve brushed them and held their heads in close to my chest when our horrible neighbors were cracking fireworks in the middle of the night. I’ve sang to them and fed them and worried for their safety knowing that at any time, it will be their time to move on.

In a way, I’m reminded of the struggles that I have with being a new mom. I constantly worry about Little Foot being out in the world and about him growing up and moving on and not needing me to slice his grilled cheese sandwich or secure the velcro on his sandals. I’m heartbroken in anticipation of the day when he tells me to go away, but I also want (more than anything) for him to grow up and be a functioning member of society who is successful at what he chooses to do. I don’t know how to walk that line of protectiveness and letting go.

In his book, The View from the Cheap Seats, my very favorite author, Neil Gaiman, has a chapter (that was actually his acceptance speech for the 2009 Newbery Medal) where he talks about how if you as a parent do your job well, then when your children grow up, they won’t need you any more. They will go on and live their lives in their own futures and it’s true. Little Foot, if I do what I’m supposed to do, will grow up and not need me any longer. That is, sadly, the goal…although I can’t find peace in it. Not yet, at least. 

The same goes for these donkeys. During my time, they require my whole heart because really, there’s no other way to have a donkey. You can’t half-heartedly move into donkey ownership…or half-ass, if you will. They’re complex, deep, thoughtful creatures that know when their owners are genuine and well-intentioned and will react accordingly. They also know when their owners don’t care and sadly, that’s where many of them get stuck and/or abandoned. They are creatures that are emotionally affected by absolutely everything.

But wholeheartedly or not, I am only their bridge. Their vessel. Their portal to greener pastures and today, I had to say goodbye. Prepared or not, it was really hard.

I suppose that means I did my job right. I trust the couple who’s taken him and I know that he’ll be happy. I know this is right. As Neil Gaiman said, it is the “…fundamental, most comical tragedy of parenthood that if you do your job properly, if you as a parent raise your children well, they won’t need you anymore.”

I did my job and now, he is home.

Happy trails, sweet Ali.

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Little Foot’s Little Books

We are nearing the end of the usual soaked, Texas spring. Soon, the clay will crackle in devastating dehydration and the treetops and rosebushes will be broiled. I give it another month until we’re begging for relief from the heat.

I sat on the floor in the living room sipping my coffee, watching Little Foot flip through his ‘Peppa Pig’ book while it poured in sheets of rain outside. From his point of view, the pages were actually upside down, but still, he flipped through each cardboard page, one-by-one, and studied the pictures. He flips the pages with his left hand and holds his right hand out for balance, even though he sat steadily on the floor.

I’m so grateful that he loves books. All day, when we’re inside, he brings book after book from the bookshelf in his room to me so I’ll read it to him. We read them 3, 4, sometimes 5 times in a row before he retreats to grab another.

I’ll use funny voices if there are characters, some of which make him laugh and some of which make him turn the page faster. I’m not particularly good at voices.

I’ve heard so often that “I don’t have time to read” or “what’s the point of reading fiction?”

The point is simple: you learn things. You learn about worlds that often, you cannot visit. You learn that there are other “me”s out there. That everyone is a “me.” Neil Gaiman talks about this in his most recent book (which I am obsessing over slightly) called ‘A View From the Cheap Seats.’ He talks long and emotionally about how reading fiction helps readers become empathetic. It teaches you how to see the world — real or otherwise — from someone else’s point of view. Young children learn very early on that they’re not the only “me” out there. We are all “me”s.

Little Foot stood up from his book, ran as quickly as he could back into his room, and came back out carrying my copy of Don Quixote. This made me laugh and I told him that I think this might be a tough read right now. He is, after all, only 17 months old. Come to think of it, I wonder from where he grabbed my copy of Don Quixote in the first place.

I thumbed through the thick paperback as Little Foot backed himself up into my lap, through the hundreds of pages with the tiniest, single-spaced print, and picked out a few lines to read aloud for him.

In my best, silly Spanish voice I read:

“Did I not tell you so?” said Don Quixote. “Wait but a moment, Sancho; I will do it as quickly as you can say the credo.” Then, stripping off hastily his breeches, he remained in nothing but skin and shirt. Then, without more ado he cut a couple of capers and did two somersaults with his head down and his legs in the air…

…at this point, I was laughing which made Little Foot grin and scrunch up his nose…

…displaying such arts of his anatomy as drove Sancho to turn Rozinante’s bridle to avoid seeing such a display. So, he rode away fully satisfied to swear that his master was mad…”

I couldn’t read anymore because Little Foot had started laughing hysterically, I think, because I had giggled so much. I’d also gotten louder, my Spanish accent more ridiculous. So I tickled Little Foot who squirmed onto the ground, gasping for air between belly baby laughs.

I gave him a break and stopped tickling so that I could finish my coffee before it got cold. Little Foot scampered into his room and returned, this time carrying his ‘Big Book of Animals’. The book, almost as big as him, is colorful page after page of zoo animals, farm animals, birds, house pets, and a few more categories. We go through this book, Little Foot flipping the pages while his blue eyes jump from shape to shape and me listing off the animals and making their sounds (side note: what does an Egret sound like? Besides the picture, I don’t know if I really know what an Egret is.) I skipped Egret.

This went on for sometime — I drank coffee and tried to get things done around the house and Little Foot chased me with various books, sometimes bashing me in the legs with them, sometimes plopping himself on the floor and flipping through them on his own.

I’d been thinking about books a lot lately, partially because I’m working on one of my own and partially because of the aforementioned Neil Gaiman book I’ve been working my way through. I’d been thinking that books were very important to me growing up and I was very encouraged to read as much as I could.

Where I get sad and a bit regretful is how, as a kid, I was so shy and so insecure that when I did have a book out at school or otherwise and was made fun of (because kids do this – they make fun of other kids for the silliest things) I would, instead of find a safe place to read or tell the bullies to buzz off, I just stopped reading entirely. For years, I didn’t read, even if I wanted to. I just stopped.

I watched Little Foot on the floor now flipping through a lovely kid’s book called ‘The Pout Pout Fish’ by Deborah Diesen and I want, so badly, for him to always love to read. I want him to go absolutely everywhere, reality wise and fictionally speaking. And I don’t want him to worry at all what other people say or do.

I want for him to do what he’s meant to do. Whether that’s read or build things or fly planes or drop different chemicals into test tubes to try and solve critical problems. Or if he wants to splash odd colored paints onto canvases to convey his feelings or if he wants to dive deep into the ocean to learn just a bit more about life down there — I don’t want for him to feel like he has to make those choices based on someone else’s permission or approval.

How, as a mom, do you instill confidence in your child when you, yourself, struggle so much?

I don’t have the answer to this. I don’t have a lesson that I’ve learned on my ranch yet to answer this question either. I’m hoping that I figure it out. I suspect I don’t have that much time to do so.

What I do know is that right now, more than his stuffed animals, his blocks, his trucks, and his dinosaurs, Little Foot is enamored with books. He can’t get enough of them.

And I can’t get enough of that.

Outside, the rain subsided. I thought about going outside but by the time I pulled on some pants, the Texas heat was pulling the rainwater off the ground outside in blurry waves. I would need to wait until the ground was fully cooked outside because it’d be impossible to breathe that steaming air right now.

Instead, I pulled Little Foot into my lap with our copy of ‘Love You Forever’ by Robert Munsch which, for him was a great choice because of the colorful pictures and over and over song of “I’ll love you forever, I’ll like you for always, as long as I’m living, my baby you’ll be.”

But for me, it was brutal. I bawled — big, sloppy, swollen crying — because how is this all moving so quickly? This season is ending and then on into the next. One day, Little Foot will be the one to tell me what an Egret says.

 

 

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Two Drivers, Two Rivers, and Two Donkeys – A Donkumentary Vol. II

It’s nearing 3 o’clock in the morning and I’ve just taken over driving our 2007 Subaru after stopping for gas in some mid-Illinois town in which I don’t know the name. My eyes are slowly adjusting back to the dark highway after squinting underneath the fluorescent gas station lights – greenish spots float in the edges of my sight. King Ranch has adjusted the passenger seat to accommodate his height a bit better and Little Foot is sound asleep in his car seat.

We’ve been on the road for 7 hours making the drive back to our ranch in Texas from spending two weeks with King Ranch’s family in Michigan for Christmas and New Year’s. It’s a difficult goodbye when leaving his parent’s house because we know that we can’t just randomly have a weekend get together with them – scheduled time takes planning and money. We all smile and act like it’s okay, but really, I believe we all feel sad that we don’t live closer to each other.

I accelerate onto the highway in which there are absolutely no other vehicles while flipping on the car’s high beams. King Ranch taps a few times on his phone screen to resume our spot in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. We’ve been listening to this book on both the 20 hour drive up here and now so far, for 7 hours back. We’re at the point in the story where Bilquis is running frantically away from the Technical Boy. I start to imagine the scene before my eyes – long, toned legs atop slowly shredding feet scrambling along the asphalt – knowing that somewhere behind her is a speeding stretch limo.

Suddenly there are headlights – real ones – that speed up behind our Subaru. They swerve around us. Out of habit, I slam on the brakes although the speeding car is way out of reach by now. This jolts King Ranch awake from what I imagine is light sleep.

“You okay?” he half-way shouts, sitting up.

“Yeah,” I say. “I’m fine.”

He pats my leg and leans back again. I hear our dog, Thing One, sigh and adjust in the seat behind mine – his collar falling with a tiny tinkle. I turn off the high-beams.

I won’t give spoilers, but in a few minutes time, we learn what happens to Bilquis and it really does upset me. I just keep imagining it – it – her final destination. I turn the high-beams back on just as we’re passing a massive carcass of some sort off the the right – a wolf? Dog? I pass too quickly to get a good look, but it is brown and white and has pointy ears.

Driving at night always makes me morbid, especially when I’m not driving through a city but instead, a mix of woods and fields and sometimes hills. I don’t know why, but I often wonder how many dead bodies must be hidden in those vast acreages of land that seems mostly undeveloped.

We continue to travel for another hour or so before I shake King Ranch’s left thigh. He snaps awake.

“I’m getting tired,” I say.

“Do you want me to drive?” he asks, sitting up straight and rubbing his eyes.

“You’ve hardly slept either,” I say, gripping the steering wheel with both hands.

“I think I’d be alright,” he says.

“We should stop somewhere. Little Foot will be awake soon, anyway.”

King Ranch pulls the lever on the side of his seat which thrusts the back of it straight up. He rubs his eyes again and taps his phone a few times. The bright screen illuminates his unshaven face. He’s so tired – dark, brown circles hanging heavily beneath his eyes. I’m sure mine look similar only my eye bags always have a purplish tint.

“Where are we?” he asks.

“Somewhere in Illinois,” I say.

“I think we’d do better just to push through,” he says, turning off his phone and dropping it into the cup holder between us. “I really just want to get home.”

“Well,” I say, “I don’t think I can drive for too much longer and I don’t want to leave this all on you.” I sit up a little taller too. The yoga pants I’ve been wearing keep riding down in the back and it’s driving me absolutely bonkers.

“I think I’d be -” he suddenly stops. “Cairo?” he asks.

“Huh?” I say.

“Cairo, Illinois?” (I should note that he’s saying ‘Kay-roh’, not ‘Kai-roh.’)

“Yeah, I’ve been seeing signs for it. Why?”

“Because that’s where Shadow stays with Jackal and Ibis!”

I smile. “Yeah, I guess it is – I hadn’t made the connection.” Damn my inattention to detail.

“The river delta,” he says. “It’d be cool to stay there.”

He pulls up his phone again, clicks away, and says he’s found a hotel. After calling them and learning they have one room available, we re-route our navigation system to lead us to the Quality Inn that is both pet-friendly and offers complimentary breakfast. It will be 38 minutes until we arrive.

I’m thrilled. I want nothing more than to get out of this car, pull my freaking pants all the way up – or actually, just take them all the way off – and sprawl out somewhere in which my eyes need to not focus on a thing. Plus I really want to take out my contacts that are suctioned against my eye balls and put my glasses on instead.

King Ranch taps a few times on his phone screen and suddenly ‘American Gods’ is back in chapter 7 where Shadow meets Sam.

“This is when he’s travelling to Kay-roh,” King Ranch says.

We re-hear Shadow and Sam’s conversation in the diner as the signs leading to Cairo tell us we’re closer. Shadow correctly guesses that Sam ‘casts bronzes’ and I’m really not sure what that means. I assume it means she makes things out of bronze and I think that’s pretty cool. I wonder if I could do something like that and make it successful.

Both King Ranch and I are trying to figure out our lives as 2016 is getting going. I’ve worked in a big-time corporate setting where I got literally hundreds of emails a day. I’ve tended bar where I became quite talented in making both vodka and gin martinis.  I’ve taught yoga full time – for a while, 26 classes per week.

I enjoy teaching yoga. I enjoy tending bar. However, now that I’m a mom in a new place, the needed schedule for those careers just isn’t ideal. And if I’m being honest, I’ll be damned if I ever coop myself up into a dimly lit cubicle where I type away at a machine in which my significance is pushing paper somewhere in the middle of please and thanks.

I’m truly hopeful for this year. I’m hopeful that King Ranch and I find our footing. The cruelty of life stands no chance against a New Year’s wish. We’re only hours into what we’re still calling ‘our year.’ I’m truly hopeful.

“Take the next exit,” the GPS commands.

I steer off the highway onto an exit with a lonesome, orange street light. Turn left. Turn right. Turn right and our destination is on the left.

The lights of the overhang that I pull under must be bright enough to wake Little Foot because suddenly he’s making a sort of cry, sort of sneezing sound. King Ranch steps out of the car and heads toward the front door as I shift into park.

“It’s okay, honey,” I say to Little Foot while reaching my hand back to touch his curly hair.

He grunts and sneezes a few more times and Thing One sits up with an awkward stretch. I fling my head side to side and crack my neck.

King Ranch slowly jogs back to the Subaru and sinks down into the passenger seat.

“Apparently it’s flooded around here so the manager didn’t show up,” he says.

“Can we not stay?” I ask.

“No, we can. But they gave us a discount.”

“Why?”

“I dunno,” he shrugs and looks out the window. He points in the direction that I should drive. “I wonder if Neil Gaiman stayed here when he was writing his book?”

“You think so?” I ask, backing into a parking spot. Thing One stands up and shakes.

“It’s the only hotel that popped up on Google maps,” he says. “I bet he did stay here! We should look for clues.”

I love this about King Ranch. He gets so tickled by close encounters of his idols. For example, a month before I found out that I was pregnant, King Ranch and I went to a ‘Jeff Bridges and the Abiders’ concert at a small venue in Houston. Jeff Bridges, along with Bill Murray and Kevin Spacey, is King Ranch’s favorite actor. He quotes ‘The Big Lebowski’ almost religiously.

After the concert, King Ranch stood in line with his big, fancy camera out waiting to meet Jeff. He was appalled by all the drunk fans who crowded Jeff and clearly made him uncomfortable. But as the saying goes, nice guys finish last – by the time Jeff reached King Ranch, he was ready to call it a night. King Ranch managed to get a picture with him, but was sorely disappointed that all the pushy fans got more of his time.

We get out of the car and it is unbelievably cold. The icy breeze blasts us as we scramble up the outside stairs. I’m holding Little Foot bundled in a blanket and King Ranch is holding onto Thing One’s retractable leash. Thing One pees on every single post.

Inside, the halls reek of stale cigarette smoke. We find our room and King Ranch fumbles with the key before opening the door.

I place Little Foot down and he takes off running for the a/c unit. King Ranch hits the bathroom and I flop down, face-first, onto the King Sized bed. Little Foot’s foot steps click-clack over towards the side of the bed, so I roll up to see him smiling from ear to ear.

“Dut!” he says, raising his hands.

I flip over and make a silly face at him while glancing at the clock on the bed-side table: 4:54am.

King Ranch washes his hands and throws himself on the bed next to me.

“I seriously bet this is where Neil Gaiman stayed,” he says with a grin.

I smile and pick Little Foot up to plop him on the bed in between us. He’s chatting and drooling uncontrollably. Thing One rolls into a ball on the small, teal sofa next to the bed with a big sigh.

At some point, we all fall asleep because suddenly, Little Foot’s chatter wakes me up. I roll over to look at the clock. 6:33am.

“Ugggghhhh,” King Ranch groans. “Noooo”

“It’s 6:30,” I say. “Little Foot, go back to sleeeeep.”

“Dut!” he says and taps my nose with his fist. “Dut-un.”

I reach for Little Foot who begins to giggle. I know that he won’t go back to sleep now. He’s ready for this day.

After brushing our teeth, putting our pants back on, and having a quick continental breakfast in the front lobby, we pile back in the car – me driving again.

“Let’s go this way,” King Ranch says, pointing at a map pulled up on his phone. With his index finger, he traces a green path that goes right between the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. “It’ll bring us right to Cairo. Maybe we’ll see Jackal and Ibis!”

I smile, “sure.”

We pull out of the parking lot and indeed the area is flooded. Off to the right, brown water has crept up around several pine trees that I don’t believe are supposed to be under water. There are all kinds of plastic specs floating in lines. The road winds and we approach a short tunnel that unevenly spaced above it says, “CAIRO.” I remember Gaiman’s quote – “…he drove under a bridge and found himself in a small port town.”

“Okay, this is pretty cool,” I say.

King Ranch is sitting up straight and smiling.

We pass by ‘Historic Cairo’ and the government buildings that look like cookies. We pass a two-story brick building with dozens of different colored headstones in the parking lot.

“I bet that’s where Jackal and Ibis would live,” King Ranch says and scrambles to snap a photo with his phone.

What we don’t pass is a whole lot of activity. This town seems mostly abandoned. Disheveled buildings are barely held together and most windows are in some way, broken. It’s sad. Interestingly sad.

We find ourselves pulling up outside of the ‘Fort Defiance State Park’ which sits right at the meeting of these two massive rivers. As told by the Quality Inn attendant, indeed this area is flooded as well. More and more trees are sitting in flowing, brown water that don’t look as if they’re supposed to be submerged.

Two impressive bridges lead out of the park on either side – one crossing the Ohio and one crossing the Mississippi. They’re phenomenal, intricate bridges that I imagine were built around the same time as the Golden Gate bridge – but really, I have no idea. Architecture is not something in which I have any sort of familiarity.

The one that leads over the Ohio river is blocked off with dirt and road signs saying, ‘Road Closed’ so we drive over the other. It is quite grand. I’ve never seen a river so massive – so powerful. It looked more like a lake. Glitter bounced off the surface everywhere – a million diamonds.

As we exited the bridge, we passed a sign welcoming us to Missouri. Our GPS tells us we’re only 9 and a half hours away from home.

We continue to listen to ‘American Gods’ only we’re back in chapter 8 so we can hear Shadow’s story from Cairo. It’s pretty darn close to what I had originally imagined.

It’s now 9:30 at night, and we’re on the final road before out county road. My high-beams are on again and Little Foot is impatiently chattering. King Ranch and I have what I believe is a bit of cabin fever and are talking to each other in silly accents – mostly a combination of pretty poor British and Scottish accents. We’re also cursing like sailors because we know that very soon, Little Foot will be repeating us and so we want to get it all out of our system now. We’re saying all the really bad curse words very slowly and heavily articulated on the wrong syllables. Plus, cursing in a British accent is way more fun.

We pull up outside of the house and King Ranch hops out to pull open our rusty gate. Thing One is standing on the back seat whimpering because he smells home. Little Foot is in an all-on scream now.

I pull into the circular driveway and smile as I shift the car into its final park. Home.

King Ranch closes the gate with a squeal as I pull Little Foot from his car seat. Thing One darts across the yard to pee on absolutely everything.

It’s dark and cold out and I look up to see more stars than ever before. It smells like someone must have been barbecuing earlier – smoky and spicy.

Swinging our arms in front of us to clear potential spider webs, we walk out towards the pasture to see Bunny and Tee who are sauntering up to the fence.

“My GOD,” King Ranch says, “They’re HUGE!”

I laugh out loud. “Oh my God,” I say.

Bunny and Tee are enormous. They’re almost as wide as they are tall. Two massive potatoes with sticks as legs.

“Have they just stood in one spot for two weeks eating hay?” King Ranch says.

I reach over the fence with my free hand and pat Bunny’s head, “I guess so.”

I open the gate to the pasture and both donkeys shuffle into the backyard – their girth unbelievably impressive. Tee, as suspected, goes straight for Little Foot. Little Foot croaks like a dolphin.

Bunny leans all her weight into me as I pet every inch of her face. We nuzzle for some time. I’ve missed the donkeys so much. I’ve missed home so much.

I always expect things to be different when I come home from a trip, no matter the length. So far, it looks like the only thing that has changed are the donkey’s measurements. It’s adorable. A bit concerning, but mostly adorable.

Bunny lays her head on top of mine and I begin to well up. What a lovely greeting.

“Welcome home,” King Ranch says, softly smiling at me.

A tear streams down my face. “Welcome home,” I say.