“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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An End

The sun’s retreated beyond the piney treetops as I’m driving in my rickety-red truck due south. The heavy, low-hanging clouds are reflecting the sunset so brightly that the neon pinks and oranges seem unreal—a dramatic sky spray-painting. I’ve been on the road for over four hours hauling a trailer behind me which is carrying a riding mower and I have to say I’m proud of my old truck for making it this far with a heavy load in-tow. I never thought I’d be someone who was proud of a vehicle yet, here I am.

On the passenger seat next to me in a dog crate is my hen, Wednesday Addams, and her three, newly hatched chicks. Without a working sound system in my truck, I’ve spent the last several hours listening to the peeping and chattering of Wednesday’s new, little family. They’re not sure what to make of this trip and I suppose, neither am I. It’s all just happened so quickly.

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A little over two and a half years ago, my new, little family moved to a small town in north Texas where we met a donkey named Bunny. She was included in the purchase of our home and really, I think she’s why we ultimately decided to purchase that home. Within that little more than two and a half years, we’ve adopted two more donkeys, Tink and Tee, and fostered twenty three other donkeys until we placed them in forever, loving homes.

It’s been a little over two and a half years since we found that home and several hours ago, I left it for the last time.

In front of me, King Ranch is driving a large moving van and behind me, my dad is in his own pickup truck and together, we three drivers have caravanned across a chunk of Texas in an effort to start anew. King Ranch started a new job several hours away and so the rest of us—Little Foot, Tucker, Bunny, Tee, Tink, Wednesday, her three new chicks and myself—have all followed along.

The clouds have faded into purple and gray as evening swallows the sunset and I’m hoping my three donkeys are doing okay. I delivered them a few days ago to our new house where they have a cozy barn and just as much land as they need. It’s traumatizing for them, I imagine, being loaded into a noisy box, driven at 65 to 75MPH between other whooshing vehicles and strange smells, only to jump out of the box with shaky legs and probably sore hooves in a place they’ve never seen. But if there’s one thing I know about donkeys it’s that they’re resilient—and luckily, they’ve got each other. I can hardly wait to get to our new home to see them again.

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Wednesday Addams’s three babies have burrowed beneath her feathery belly in the now-darkness of our drive and the peeping has drifted into sleep. Her marble, black eyes are mostly shut and I realize that I don’t think I’ve ever actually watched a hen fall asleep. I wonder if they dream? It feels so silent now in the cab of this truck, the only noises left being the Rickety-red’s squeaky engine and passing cars.

I start to wonder if I’ll find a new place to teach yoga once we’ve settled in our new home. I haven’t led a yoga class in over a month being tied up in this move. I feel the tension climbing down my neck and behind my shoulder blades. Stress likes to sit back there, curled into a tight ball and it becomes more and more gravitational the longer I go without slowing down and stretching out properly. It begins to pull at the muscles along my spine and even down into my ham strings.

I think about the yoga class I led at my ranch several months ago—Yoga with the Donkeys is what I called it. I had so many friends attend that night and we raised several hundred dollars that went directly to saving donkeys. I wonder when I’ll see those friends again…north Texas will be a long way away. 

The moving van’s blinker begins to flash and as a caravan, we all change lanes in the blackness of this new night. We still have a ways to go.

An image of Little Foot’s bedroom (which I guess is now his old bedroom) appears in my mind. Hours ago, I stood in that doorway, nothing but indents in the carpet from the moved furniture and the dream-like memories left inside the room. I remember the first time I walked in there and saw him standing upright in his crib—he looked so big. He grinned with only a couple teeth, proud of his accomplishment. I don’t remember what I said to him, but he bounced up and down, giggling wildly. I remember once, when I’d come down the hallway, I heard him chattering in there and when I peeked in, I discovered that he was flipping through “Brown Bear, Brown Bear” and reciting every line as if he knew how to read it all by himself. I thought my heart might stop when I saw that. He emphasized the words just as I had when I’d read it to him. He loves his books. 

I blink my eyes a few times, the taillights of the moving van blurring through my tears and I glance at Wednesday whose eyes are still not fully shut. She must be exhausted. I am.

I wonder if the people who move into our old home will like the painting I’d left on the fence in the garden or if they’ll get rid of it. I always thought of my garden as my own, secret garden only instead of a robin, there were two cardinals.

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It’s all happened so fast—two and a half years have opened and shut so quickly and now, I’m driving away from what seems like a single, snapped Polaroid photo—the memories of it all stuck in that blurry, creaminess that appears before the picture fully develops. It’s done. Our time at the ranch where this whole Donkumentary began has come to an end, the shadow of the back cover of this large book closing all around me as I zoom down this dark, wooded highway.

I don’t yet know if there will be a sequel or a continuation of this here bloggery. This feels like a clean end and an opportunity to begin building new things upon a more solid foundation than when I began before. I also just don’t know what the days, weeks, or months ahead look like. I have no clue.

It will be some time before I’ll have internet up and running at my new place, so I suppose I have some time to think on it. I’ll unpack. I’ll love on my family, two legged and four. I’ll secure fences and hang paintings and learn which light switches belong to which lights. I’ll discover the nearest pizza place and find out if we can keep rescuing donkeys. I’ll take a break from the news and from the interwebs and begin to build again.

Until then, thank you. Thank you for following my story. I’ve loved having you along the way. 

Much love and namasBRAY,
Jess

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Steady, Steady, Sweet Soul

Above soaring, jagged rocks
The world’s weight tugging
Heavily on your bones;
Her mouth open wide and
Ready for an easy meal…

Wind whipping and howling
With voices from deep underground,
Voices that you swore were buried
Beneath stone and time,
Their smokey doubts swirling about…

Above bird songs where
Clouds roll with secrets;
Air streaming thinly through
Your rising and falling lungs
Quickening with the thump thump thump of your heart…

There, plant tightly your tired feet,
Steady your scattered soul,
Reach deep into your gut, raw and rank
And realize the horizon-reaching,
Broader and more complex view within.

Realize that you are riddled with rolling secrets, too
And with beauty beyond written words
With often old voices shaping your moves.
Realize that the universe within you
Is worth beholding, worth admiring,

Worth travelling far and taking risks
To see and feel and inhale deeply into.
Realize that and
You, my love,
You, my friend,
You, my stranger,
You,

Will set your sweet soul free.

Edges

West By God Virginia

It’s hovering around 10:00PM and although the sky has seceeded into the most navy of blues, the heat and humidity of a clear, July afternoon still hovers about, sticking to our foreheads. I’m sitting on the railing of the wooden balcony that wraps around the reception hall in which two of my very best friends have just gotten hitched—my feet dangling high above the ground which, looking now, is much farther down than I initially realized. As a native Houstonian, I’m not used to structures on steep slopes like they have here in West Virginia as part of regular geography and especially not when I’m on my third glass of champagne.

Two or so dozen feet in front of me is a line of thick, dark, towering trees and twinkling endlessly in their shadows are thousands of dancing fireflies. Their sparkling song seems endless—over and over the darkness pops with glittering yellow and green flashes and as I struggle to fully exhale the smoke from a long drag I’ve just taken off of a celebratory cigar (I don’t think I even know how to properly smoke a cigar, but I had to try on this night) it dawns on me that this is one of those experiences I’ll remember for the rest of my days.

I’d gone to West Virginia three days before this—before the wedding, the cigar, the balcony and the fireflies—because one of my dearest friends (who I will henceforth refer to as Mountain Mama) asked me to be the Maid of Honor in her wedding. Having never been to West Virginia or really, any of her surrounding areas, I’d arrived with absolutely no expectations—a clean slate ready to be filled with whatever the wilderness held for us. In typical Mountain Mama fashion, we forewent a bar-crawling, explicitly decorated bachelorette party and opted to take her brother and soon-to-be sister in law on a hiking / white-water-rafting adventure in and around West Virginia’s New River Gorge. 

The four of us, Mountain Mama, her brother (The Frenchman) and soon-to-be sister in law (Hannie B) set out across the state at seven in the morning to be the early birds catching the worms on the hike out to The Endless Wall and lucky for us, we caught that scenic worm with hardly another hiker in sight.

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There were several small paths which veered off the main trail, each leading to jagged-rock ledges overlooking the valley and each one of those roads-less-traveled was worth exploring. Each careful step closer to the edge tugged at my gut and at my heart so hard that words, thoughts, worries, and cares about anything escaped me. In other words, the views from The Endless Wall Trail were literally breathtaking.

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We did this for several hours, the four of us, hiking through the wooded paths high above the river. Rhododendron bushes were in full bloom pouring over from the edges of the trail and even sometimes hanging down from above our heads—their light pink and white flowers delicately sprinkling our path…nature’s flowergirl.

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After our souls were fully saturated in the views from way up high, we ventured down low to see the gorge from a much quicker moving perspective—that of the raft.

Of the four of us, only the Frenchman had been white-water rafting so as we geared up and rode down to the take-off point, our nerves and the weight of what we were about to do started to settle in our stomachs. Neither Mountain Mama or I could think of what to say so until we were successfully out on the water, we just giggled nervously.

Lucky for us, we had two other adventurerers ride in our raft: the Miller’s out of Ohio, who, first time or no, did an amazing job rowing on down the river—better than the rest of us most of the time. And we also had the most excellent of tour guides who was completely responsible (and successful!) for keeping the six of us alive on that river. (If you’re ever looking to raft the New River Gorge, might I suggest booking with Adventures on the Gorge. You’ll be especially lucky with Chris as your guide. We sure were.)

This three hour ride down the river was thrilling for two…well….actually three reasons:

  1. When approaching the rapids, no matter how many you’ve gone through, there’s that moment seconds before you steer into the crashing, whitecapping waves surrounded by jagged rocks that you think, “there’s no way I’m getting out of this right now,” and so you clutch your paddle, wedge your feet, and row like your life depends on it—because it does.
  2. The banks and the scenery lining this river in which we rafted were stunning—there were massive rocks (which, according to Chris, are often named based on their shapes) that you could swear have been around since dinosaurs have. Wild flowers peeked from the trees and weeds and birds soared about between the mountains. Not to mention, when you come around the curve and see the New River Gorge Bridge, you can’t help but be humbled by the skill and hands of the humans who built it. 
  3. You make friends with your raft-mates. That’s the thing about adrenaline junkies—you commune in potentially life-threatening situations and, I’m not sure if everyone does this, but I look around the raft (or plane, or boat, or rockwall, or whatever the particular setting is) and think, “well, these could be the last people with whom I share breath” and suddenly, you kind of love them. It’s a connection like no other.

That night, after the rafting and a few drinks with our newly acquainted friends, Mountain Mama, The Frenchman, Hannie B and I drove down into the woods to set up camp. The sun had gone down by the time we made it to our site, and so, using the headlights of our vehicle to light our way and keep clear of stepping on slugs, we quickly set up our tent and settled in for bed. I’ll cut this part short, but, due to a few unforeseen circumstances, we had to pack up our tent in the middle of the night and rush back across the state instead of being able to complete our night of camping. I will say that, thankfully, everyone was fine and really, driving across West Virginia and through the mountains at 2:00AM was quite an adventure in and of itself. So many stars. So many deer. So many odd car conversations.

The following day, we hiked more—this time on the other side of the gorge, down the Long Point Trail. This hike made for much better viewing of the bridge and even more of an opportunity to be stunned and humbled by nature’s beauty.

 

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From there, we traveled even farther east to Mountain Mama’s tiny hometown where we romped in hidden waterfalls and forgot what it felt like to move so quickly all the time.

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This led into Sunday which was the wedding day and all I can say is that it was perfect. I’ll not go into further detail, for it’s not my story to tell but, spoiler alert: I suspect the couple will live happily ever after. They are a couple who redefine what it means to love someone and I am so honored to have been a part of it.

Which brings me back to this railing that I’m perched upon among the chorus of well-wishing fireflies…where I’m choking up because I leave first thing in the morning. I try to take another drag off of the cigar, but I cough lamely and decide to focus my breath on the air that, realistically, I’m not sure when I’ll have the chance to breathe again. I imagine this West Virginia air swirling into my lungs and around my spine in a glittering, white light. It illuminates all the darknesses lurking in my anxious body and as I exhale into the now black night, I’m left cleansed.

I imagine in this moment that a glowing piece of my heart breaks off with my breath and floats on into the wild and wonderful air—that a little piece of my glowing heart floats away leaving a dim, glittering trail tangled with fireflies and settles itself upon the banks of the New River Gorge where it’ll wait for me to come back to retrieve it. It’ll glow, even when the water and the rocks cover it up with the rising tides. It’ll be there, pulsing dimly in the dirt, that piece of my heart that never wants to leave ole’ West Virginia. That little piece of my heart that fell in love and would be damned to leave. It’ll wait there with the ghosts that linger in the mountain mist, waiting for me to return…and I will…someday.

Until then, stay wild and wonderful, West Virginia. Take care of my Mountain Mama and her betrothed…and of that little piece of my heart that’s stuck there. I’ll be back to get it.