I was probably five or six. She’d come over every few days, sit in the living room, and fold baskets of laundry. With five kids under the age of 15, there was always laundry to be folded.
Sometimes she read books to us. Other times we played cards, mostly Skipbo.
I remember that her hands would tremble if they sat still too long, and so she liked to keep busy.
At church, on Sundays, she played the organ.
My older brothers would go over and mow her lawn in the summertime. I was jealous that they got to go see her more often than I did.
When she passed away, her family gave my parents the little white sedan she drove. They gave me one of her china dolls. And one of my brothers got the Skipbo cards.
But out of all the things I remember about her, I remember the laundry.
I have no memory of her asking if she could help. I remember her coming in, putting her coat aside, and diving in. When she ran out of laundry, she’d send us to go check and see if there was any more on the clothesline.
With the clothes folded and put back in the baskets to be put away, she seemed to feel like her job was done, and done well. She’d sometimes stay and read, or play games, but sometimes she would just leave after the laundry was folded.
I’ve always held onto that. She saw a need — what mother of small children doesn’t need help with the laundry? — and she helped out. Not once or twice, but consistently, for such a long time that I don’t remember when it started.
Being there when someone needs you is important, but sometimes it looks unexpected. Sometimes it looks like laundry baskets.
(Note: this is about as “preachy” as I ever get. I’m not a historian or a Bible scholar, just a journalist who asks too many questions.)
My dad taught me, from an early age, to pay attention to what lens I am using to view the world. He plays a very annoying game called ‘Devil’s Advocate’ and makes me defend myself when I say a declarative statement, even if he agrees with me. He pushes me to explore all the perspectives I can find and explain my own, and weigh them out. It’s been really useful, given my day job.
Years of studying the Bible tells me that the Bible is viewing the world from a primarily masculine lens. There’s nothing wrong with that—it is part of the human story—but it doesn’t show the whole picture.
Did you know that the Bible you read today was carefully selected and arranged centuries ago by a large counsel of religious leaders, primarily men? I do believe that the Bible contains the Word of God, and that it was prayerfully and carefully chosen, but it’s not like God set up a printing press and personally autographed each copy.
(This is when I usually get called a heretic, but really: the history of the actual book you hold in your hands is a fascinating story and should be talked about more often.)
There is more to the human story than the words written in the Bible, and I have always wondered how many stories we’ve lost. On average, half of humanity is missing from the Bible. The stories are primarily about men and were primarily written by men. I studied Bible History for about fifteen years and to this day I can only name a dozen or so women. Their stories—my stories—are largely absent.
Mother Mary is, of course, the most well-known and the most frequently discussed. It’s Advent, leading up to the Christmas holiday, so her part of the story is open for discussion: but it seems only the verses in the Bible. The two books that discuss the immaculate conception and the birth of Christ were written by men, largely translated and selected by men. Nothing in Mary’s story is a man’s story.
For me, Mary’s story has more questions than answers.
Scholars believe that, given the time and culture in which her story took place, she was likely between the age of fourteen and sixteen.
Consider: a fourteen-year-old is engaged to be married when an angel of God appears and calls her ‘favored one’. The angel tells her that she has been chosen to bear the divine child; the embodiment of God in human form.
But take it farther. Explore the possibilities. Did Mary remember the story of Moses, when he begged for a chance to see the Divine Creator? Did she remember how God placed Moses in a cleft of the rock and only allowed him to see His back, otherwise he would die? Did she wonder if becoming the bridge between humanity and divinity would kill her?
Did she hesitate, knowing that conceiving a child before her marriage was consummated would shame her and her family, destroy her relationship with Joseph, and potentially ruin the life of this child?
Mary said yes. It’s a tiny little verse in Luke and again, it seems to me to only be a part of the story, but she said yes.
I’ve always felt that she DID have a choice. I’ve always felt that she could have said no and gone on with her normal life. But she said yes.
What was it like, telling Joseph? Joseph was a righteous man—I understand the verses to mean he was a kind man. He wanted to protect her from the shame and harm that would befall her if it became public information that she was pregnant out of wedlock, but he planned to ‘quietly’ send her away. An angel appeared to him in a dream and told him not to, and he listened in the morning, but imagine Mary’s feelings through that night.
During her pregnancy, did she have morning sickness? I have been told before that she would have had an easy pregnancy and birth, but the Bible is very clear that this was God made Flesh—this is where divinity and humanity reconnect. There is no real reason to believe that Mary’s pregnancy was anything other than a normal human pregnancy.
Did her back ache? Did her ankles swell?
Late-term, she had to do a road trip, with none of our modern comforts. I remember my mother’s struggles with traveling the month before the baby was born: frequent bathroom stops, constant adjustments and fidgeting to get comfortable, lots of naps and resting. What was it like for Mary?
Did she know that she was too close to her due date? Did she know when they left home that she might have to give birth in a strange city without her mother and sisters there? Did she know that she wouldn’t have her own midwife there? Did she pack swaddling clothes in her bag?
My understanding is that men weren’t involved in the labor and delivery at that time and in that culture. It was women’s work. Did Mary know that she may have to deliver this baby entirely on her own?
When did the contractions start? Were they rushing to Bethlehem to try and find shelter as she experienced the first pains of childbirth?
How long was she in labor? How long before the holy child was born?
He was holy, divine, but he was human too. Did he scream? Did she? How did she wash him clean?
A barn, even a three-sided shelter for sheep, is better than giving birth in the street. At least she could rest the baby in the feed trough with fresh sweet hay, and I’ve had enough farm experience to know that the animals generate warmth and barns are messy but not filthy–again, better than the streets.
Did he nurse? Did he latch on right away? Did her milk come in, or did they both lie there and cry in frustration?
How long did she rest in Bethlehem before she had to travel again? How many nights did she spend in that barn?
When he was a toddler, did he ever provoke her? Did she scold him and then see in his eyes the whole knowledge of the universe? Did he throw his food on the floor if he didn’t like the taste of it? Did he cry at night because of the weight of being human? Did she pace the floor, holding him close, and cry herself because she couldn’t calm him?
There is so much of the feminine story that is left untold and that means that part of the human story is left untold.
Why do so many men in the Bible hear and see angels in their dreams, while it seems that Mary essentially had an angel over for coffee and brunch?
For so many years I felt disconnected from the Creator because I experienced divinity in a very physical, tangible way—and God rarely seemed to embody physical form to interact with men in the Bible. In fact, the Bible is very specific about it at times. Men travel to holy places and sacred spaces to speak with God. I felt that meant I was interacting with God the wrong way: I interacted with Him with my hands, not my head. But it is clear that the angel came into the house where Mary was and spoke with her, face to face. Maybe, after all, I am living the part of the story that women have always lived? Maybe when God speaks with women, He comes and stands by the kitchen sink while they wash the dishes.
Every year when I hear Mary talked about in church, I am left holding these unanswered questions. At the same time I know the answers in my bones. I know this story better than any story I have ever read: it is my mother’s story and my grandmother’s story and the story of all the mothers who came before me. Women’s bodies remember things for generations: I was first a possibility while my mother was still in her mother’s womb. There have been four women in my family line in the last 125 years: me, my mother, my grandmother, and my great-grandmother. Only four.
Mary reminds me that in the beginning, we were created human, and we were not just good—we were very good. Mary reminds me that this part of the story, the part where we get our hands dirty and our hearts broken, is so important that God came and experienced it, too.
Mary reminds me that it’s not wrong to be human and that being human is, in fact, part of my divine calling.
In Maine, growing things have to fight to survive, and even harder to thrive. Old Mainers say that the only thing that grows here is rocks. My dad tells me sometimes about pulling rocks out of the hayfield every year when he and his brothers were kids. And me and my brothers grew up playing at my best friend’s house, perched on top of a glacial skree pile from when the last of the glaciers melted off from Canada, dragging rocks and gravel and sand in their wake.
But the rocks grow, and other things grow too in the gaps and spaces left behind. The trees climb up the mountains until the water runs out, and wild blueberries keep going past that up towards the summit. Way up there the moss grows, softened by rains and the snowmelt.
In roadside ditches as soon as the snow is gone, little yellow flowers turn their faces to the sunshine. The maple sap runs and flows and then leaf buds forms and spread into full-foliage.
In the hidden spaces in the woods, Jack stands in his pulpit, preaching to a congregation of ferns and blood root and trillium.
These are the soft spaces and the quiet places where old souls wander undisturbed.
Animals live here too, and most don’t want to see you or harm you. They are content to pass by like shadows in the night. The jays and crows are exceptions; they like to scream loudly and frequently, just because they can. Scaring the living daylights out of passersby is a fun hobby and I swear, they laugh at you if you jump.
Sometimes if you wander the woods you’ll find long stone walls running straight as an arrow through the trees. Covered in old leaves and half consumed by the forest, the stone walls remind you that sometimes, despite the hardship, people grow here in Maine.
The people here are rough around the edges, and it seems like even the babies come out looking a little weathered, and there’s a few bad apples in the bunch, but the people that grow in the rocky coastline and the equally rocky mountain ranges are most often, simply, “good people”.
They are my people.
There’s an ice breaker question I have seen many times that asks “Who would you want on your team if the world was ending?”
Often the answers are various fictional superheroes or celebrity figures. For a while that was my answer, too. “Captain America, obviously.”
My answer has changed.
I choose my brother, who comes to rescue me every single time I call him, and doesn’t ever complain.
I choose my neighbor, who plowed my driveway all winter and refused to be paid or even to take cookies, because he was “right there” and “it ain’t no trouble”.
I choose the two strangers in Phillips who came across my truck in a ditch one winter and, working together and with language as colorful as the sunset, pulled me out and set me back on my way.
I choose the people who don’t let me slip away unnoticed, who say my name when they greet me in passing. I choose the people who don’t know me but still nod acknowledgement and greeting. We are together in the same space and time for just a second, and it is good.
I choose my people.
This is my Maine. These are my people. They’re not perfect and they make me angry and hurt and sad sometimes, and lately I’ve been seeing things that I don’t recognize, traits that don’t seem to fit in very well. But under all the technology and civilization, this is still the woods. This is still Maine, and some things never will change.
Here, in the places where so much struggles to grow, kindness thrives. There are still good and kind people and I am blessed to be surrounded by so many of them.
I’ve spent the day tightening up security and removing thousands of spam accounts and posts from my website. These spam posts have been bogging down the site and I’m glad to have it cleaned up.
However, in the process of cleaning, some of my legitmate followers may have be inadvertently removed. If you find this is the case, please accept my deepest apologies. This was not my intention and I would love to see you again. You can follow the blog here:
Author’s note: my best friend says this requires a tissue warning. Mom, you’d better listen.
These are fictional snapshots, but many are based on the stories I have heard from my communities over the last fifteen months. While I am a journalist, this is not journalism writing; this began as a way for me to let go of some of the stories I have carried in my heart for so long, but the stories are not mine to keep and I think it is time to share them.
The child is nestled underneath a heap of blankets in the corner of the couch, peering through the screen at her classmates she cannot join. Learning this way feels distant and disconnected but she tries anyway because Mom needs her to try.
Mom keeps calling Gram, as often as she can, but she can’t always get through. She used to visit every week and now they drive by the nursing home and wave out the car windows, knowing deep down that Gram can’t see them. Mom can’t stop crying. The child wonders if she will ever stop, and loses track of the lesson once again.
He pulls a covering up over his mouth and nose before climbing out of the cruiser and approaching the house. Another call. Another isolated and hurting individual.
He knocks on the door and the weary man shuffles to open it, dressed in a worn flannel robe. They stand in the in-between space created by the doorway and they talk — it seems like hours — until the man decides he does need help. He shuffles back inside and comes back with his shoes in one hand and a blank expression on his face.
“There’s no one here to tell where I’m going,” he mumbles, seeming lost and small. “There’s no one here.”
“I’m here,” the officer says in a quiet voice. “It’s going to be okay.”
The baby won’t stop screaming. There’s no more formula on the shelves and she’s hungry. The young mother feels ready to give up, sit down, and scream along with the baby. She takes a jug of milk to the checkout line and waits, six feet away from the next person.
A pair of bright eyes smile over a colorful floral mask as the older woman takes four cans of formula from her cart — already bought and paid for — and holds them out. “Here, sweetie,” she says. “I think you need it more than I do.”
She hasn’t hugged her husband or children in weeks. She works in the hospital with patients on ventilators and she lives in the in-law apartment over the garage. On her days off she sleeps, wishing she could forgot how much her patients are suffering. Wishing she could bring them back. Wishing it was different.
He fought overseas and now he’s fighting here at home, but this time his weapon is an N95 mask and a thousand crates of gloves and gowns and hand sanitizer, and his enemy is a microscopic virus.
He’s dropping off the last shipment of the day at a rural fire station. In the mountains, they’re the frontline defense. They’re the first ones on call and they need to have protection.
He meets the chief and they exchange a handful of sentences as they unload the truck, but mostly they let the silence fill the spaces between them. There is so much to say that it’s better to say nothing.
“Thank you,” the chief says as the soldier prepares to leave. “Drive safe.”
The soldier nods to him and climbs back into the truck. Everything that needed to be said has now been said.
She spends hours among the shelves, more time than her salary compensates for, but it’s better than sitting at home. She fills dozens of bags a week with a hand-picked selection of books for the people who would normally flood the library. She needs this as much as they do.
The dirt road is impassable with the school bus, but he has a few minutes extra in the schedule, so he parks at the bottom of the hill and carries the box of food through the mud to the house perched on top. The kids run to the door, screaming happily, and he sets the box on the porch. They’re tearing into the bags before he’s gone a hundred feet back towards the bus and a smile breaks out on his face.
She was laid off and the company only paid two weeks’ wages; not enough to make up for the loss of her husband’s income and not enough to pay for his cancer treatments, which are harder than ever now. She’s pinching pennies and counting dollars and praying that they can make it through until some form of relief comes through.
The cafe was their dream. When the people left, so did the money, and now they’re standing in the middle of their space making the hardest decision of their life: to try and stay afloat, or to fold. They don’t have many options and in a few weeks the virus has killed their dreams and crushed their hopes.
She’s been recovering from the abusive relationship and slowly learning to trust people again, and now she’s thrust back into a world of isolation and fear. It’s so hard not to let it drown her. It’s so hard not to give up. It’s so hard…
They’ve been bouncing around from home to home for years. She’s stubborn and overprotective, he’s autistic and nonverbal. They have to leave another home but there’s nowhere for them to go now.
This time it really does seem hopeless.
He’s tucked away in the office late almost every night, tracking the case counts and outbreaks and research, and trying to get the information out there. People want to know. People need to know.
She’s going mad, stuck at home all the time, but the boys are at very high risk and she can’t put them in danger. She can’t. She tries to stay connected through Facebook and phone calls but it’s not the same. The boys, too, are restless and hurting. They’re rays of sunshine; they’re not made to be cooped up in a box.
Normally he’d hang out with kiddos at school, watch their sports games, read books in class, join them for a game at recess, but he can’t right now so instead he answers every call for a birthday parade that he can, and does his best to give the kids a good day even in the middle of a sea of bad days.
He doesn’t know how to help. He’s not much good at talking on the phone and he doesn’t have much money to give, but he has time and tools and his hands, and he builds a mini food pantry and watches with quiet pride as the community pours in to fill it.
They’re here. They’ve been holding onto each other with everything they have and they’ve been fighting for each other every moment of the way.
The loss and grief will color their souls forever and they will remember what it felt like to be so alone and so powerless, but they will also remember the tiny sparks of light and the warmth of a smile and the knowledge that they are stronger together.
Today is my twenty-fourth birthday. Cricket and I left shortly after dawn and went to hike my mountain.
We spent almost eleven hours on the mountain and it was both the best and hardest day I’ve had in a long time.
The last time I was here, I was twelve. That was half my lifetime ago, and it was before all the bad things happened.
Last night I wrote out everything bad — everything — from the last twelve years. I wrote it out and then I burned the papers and collected the ashes in a bag. I carried all those ghosts of myself with me up the mountain.
I sprinkled the ashes on the wind at the tree line.
I felt as though I was standing with the child I was before. The child who climbed this mountain twelve years ago had no idea what her future held. She was full of life and she felt like she could conquer the world.
I lost that feeling somewhere along the way, but I realized I had it again as I stood there today.
Hiking my mountain this time was one of the hardest things I have ever done in my life. I’m still dealing with chronic health issues that made the seven-mile hike tricky at times, but the mental and emotional elements wrapped up in the trip were the hardest things to deal with.
Coming back down my mountain, my heart was full of light. I felt present and connected and I was so full of joy I couldn’t stop smiling.
I’m a writer. A storyteller. But I’ve never known how to tell my own story.
I don’t want to be seen as a victim. Even to be seen as a survivor often makes me uncomfortable, because I rarely see myself that way. I mostly see myself as a human who had hard battles to fight. There is more to my existence than the trauma and I’m at a point where much of my existence is outside of those experiences.
Some time ago I wrote a poem with this line; I don’t remember the rest of the poem but this line is engraved in my mind:
“Survival is not who I am; survival is what I did. When you speak of me, call me by my name.”
I am Annie.
I don’t know what lies ahead but I do know two things for certain: one, that I am loved beyond comprehension, and two, that at the end of this incredible journey called life, I’m going home.
A few months ago I went to the hardware store to find the fire chief to ask him a question, and ended up seeing two of the fire chiefs I work with regularly, so I got dual input on my particular problem.
(In rural Maine, if I need a firefighter for non-emergency reasons, odds are good I can find one by wandering into the nearest hardware store.)
My problem went like this: one afternoon I realized the smoke alarm in the kitchen did not work. This was mildly problematic so I climbed up on the step stool and did some troubleshooting.
The problem was that the smoke alarm was unplugged. I, being a tech genius, plugged it back in.
It began squawking like nobody’s business.
I, being an annoyed tech genius, unplugged it and went to the hardware store and got a package of batteries. I replaced the battery and thought all was well.
It was all good, for a little while. Until I began heating the tea kettle.
The kettle hadn’t even begun to hum before the smoke alarm had a meltdown and began screaming in earnest.
I, being a short and annoyed tech genius with a high ceiling, grabbed the nearest cooking implement and jabbed at the smoke alarm reset button to get it to be quiet while I made tea.
The nearest implement was a chef’s knife.
I did NOT damage the smoke alarm and I DID get it to be quiet for a few minutes, but before the tea kettle was properly whistling it went off again.
THAT was the point at which I went back to the hardware store to find Fred.
“I have a hyperactive smoke alarm–” I said and before I offered further explanation, both fire chiefs informed me that I needed to replace the unit.
So, I did. Two different units, one return, and twenty-five dollars later, I had a new smoke alarm.
For the most part, it behaves. Every so often however it takes great offense to whatever I’m cooking, and sets off screaming like I’m trying to kill it. I keep a spoon handy to jab the smoke alarm when it does go off, but it’s been pretty good for a few weeks.
This week, while attempting to make avocado toast and baked fish, the smoke alarm decided that the scattering of crumbs browning in the pan while I made toast presented a life-threatening hazard to everyone and everything in the neighborhood.
After I recovered from jumping out of my skin, I grabbed the spoon, stabbed the ceiling, and went back to making my toast.
This sequence was repeated three more times while I made my supper.
When I made avocado toast again the next day, I was speaking with Missie on the phone and really didn’t want to set off the smoke alarm; it has really awful sound effects through speaker phone and I didn’t want to blow out her eardrums.
Avocado toast, round two, was made without harming any smoke alarms.
No smoke alarms were harmed in the making of tonight’s supper.
There is a good chance that the reason for tonight’s success was because I microwaved a bowl of pasta and made a much larger bowl of green salad, but that’s beside the point.
(Note: I am a good cook and rarely ACTUALLY burn things, I just have bad luck with smoke alarms.)
Two years ago, sitting on a slightly lumpy bed in a medical hostel in Portland, I sent in a query for a job writing at my local paper. I had no experience in journalism and I was scared stiff of the prospect, but I also knew that I needed a job that would allow me to be a part of my community, and I figured it was worth a shot.
Before I began working as the sole journalist at the paper, regularly covering a dozen municipalities and nearly all of the unorganized territories in Maine’s north western mountains, I’d heard vague chatter about “the media” and how awful it is. There was plenty of chatter but no details; no specific examples or instances of what was so terrible. I’m still hearing a lot of that chatter, and still without specific examples.
I want to take a minute and share some of my own specific examples of what my life is like as a journalist. I don’t expect to change anyone’s opinion but if I’ve learned one thing in the last two years, it’s that information can lead to a greater understanding; there is value in understanding another perspective, even if you don’t agree with it.
I do understand that there are differences between myself and many other reporters and journalists, and I cannot speak for their experiences, but I can speak for mine.
I’m always “on duty”. When I want to take a vacation? I have to shut off my phone and leave the county. I wish I was exaggerating. I’ve tried to be deliberate in making connections and relationships, and I’ve tried to make myself accessible and available. Most of the time that works in my favor, even if it’s not related to work; when I take vacation time, it is often challenging to truly take time off if I’m still in my territory.
All the bad things you read in the news? I put them there. Sometimes I rewrite a press release from the sheriff’s office, but sometimes I’m building the story from the ground up with gathered information and conversations. Regardless of how I received the information, I have to be sure I’m understanding it thoroughly so that I can correctly communicate it to others. I have to do my research and know my topics before I can begin writing the story. Imagine that your homework assignment is to thoroughly evaluate, process, and understand all the available information about the death of a child you knew, and then figure out how to explain it. Imagine the toll that takes on you.
Sometimes people aren’t nice. I have been harassed, yelled at, threatened, mocked, and abused by people in my communities. I have had people come into my office and yell at me about how to do my job. I try to interact with everyone in a friendly, open manner, but that doesn’t always get reciprocated. Sometimes I can set it aside and not worry about it; sometimes I end up sitting in my truck in the driveway after work, crying because it’s all too much.
I get to see and hear and know about the worst of humanity, without the ability to do anything to help. This is a hard one for me sometimes because every fiber of my being wants to help, and most of the time there is absolutely nothing that I can do except stay out of the way.
I have to make it make sense. I have to write about the inexplicable and find a way to explain it. I have to turn chaos into a line of orderly words on the page. And I’m pretty damn good at it, but sometimes this is what it feels like for me:
As the only reporter at the office, I covered everything from festivals and celebrations to municipal meetings to school events to accidents and fatalities.
As a reporter I wear hundreds of hats and they’re all being juggled at once to make sure that everything gets covered. I’ve had to flip a switch from writing about a horrific snowmobile accident to writing about the kindergarten class having a play day at the sledding hill with no space to breathe in between.
I wanted to be accessible and available, and it worked. Sometimes I wonder if it worked a little too well. Folks have told me stories that can’t be told to anyone else. They feel better afterwards and I am glad that they feel safe enough to trust me with their stories, but sometimes I wish I didn’t have those images in my head.
I don’t even want to talk about COVID-19, because that would take up two or four more pages, but that is a massive piece of the puzzle too.
I love my job, and as a general rule I wouldn’t change a thing, but it is not an easy job. I care about my people far too much for this to ever be easy.
It’s not easy, but it is worthwhile.
I get to go to the best places and meet the most interesting people and I have a whole book’s worth of my own stories that happened alongside my news articles. I get to be connected and engaged and part of these communities in a way that I haven’t been before, and it is so satisfying for me.
People have this fundamental desire to be connected with each other and to know what is going on, and meeting that need is one of the things I get to do.
I can understand, to a degree, the skepticism and mistrust of “the media”. I, too, struggle with vague and faceless entities that seem to have no connection with my world.
My advice, which may not be worth much, is twofold.
For those who are not in journalism, consider supporting your local media and avoiding national news for a few days. Local or even state media is more likely to provide you with connections, instead of just information. I think that a lot of the time we’re experiencing an information overload and that is hard to cope with.
Secondly, for my fellow journalists, I don’t know much about how you do this job, but I know that we are a part of this world and that we need to be connected and integrated. How can we expect to be successful, trusted, or respected if we treat ourselves like outsiders and like we don’t belong? These are our communities too.
Reader Notes: a book review + quite a lot of rambling
When You Find My Body by D. Dauphinee, 5 out of 5 stars
This afternoon, huddled under the blankets as the temperature in my house slowly crept upwards following a power outage, I finished reading Dauphinee’s book.
When You Find My Body is the story of Gerry Largay and her disappearance on the Appalachian Trail in Maine, right in the heart of my communities. Published in 2019, this book weaves a story that I have heard about since the beginning, but with more information and details. It helps me complete the picture.
About the book itself: the storytelling and the narrative voice is engaging and compelling. Dauphinee understands something about humanity that can be hard to capture sometimes, and he shows it on the pages of this book: the community need for survival.
He paints a beautiful but unapologetic picture of the place I call home. While the story he tells is full of grief and sorrow, frustration and even anger, hope, courage, and compassion shine through. I definitely recommend this book and will be picking up a copy for my own shelves.
That’s my thoughts on the book itself. My reaction to the story, on the other hand, is kind of complicated. I think that’s one of the reasons it has taken me so long to read it. I picked it up before Christmas and am only now putting it down.
I grew up in a little village tucked at the foot of Mt. Abram – Mt. Abraham, I suppose, to people who aren’t locals. I live near most of Maine’s tallest mountains. My hometown is also 23 minutes to Sugarloaf Ski Mountain and one hour, 8 minutes to Saddleback Mountain. (This is assuming favorable weather conditions and no delays and I tend to give myself 30 minutes and one hour and 30 minutes, respectively, because I often have poor conditions and/or delays.)
I did not grow up skiing. Or snowboarding. In the winter we amused ourselves by hurtling down an icy dirt road, bouncing off the frozen plow bank as we turned a ninety-degree corner, and continuing on down the road until it leveled out and the plastic torpedo sleds scraped to a halt, often a few hundred feet past the bottom of the hill. (It is worth noting that in 20+ years and 14+ kids, there were only two broken bones associated with these winter activities.)
In the summer, we played outside. The woods were ours, and nothing could get in our way. We built forts and shelters, made campfires, foraged for nuts and berries and greens, swam in the pond and the river, caught sunfish and frogs, wandered through the small woods in the pasture, and scrambled up and down hills, cliffs, and shallow ravines.
My uncle took my older brother and I on a number of hiking trips when I was a pre-teen. With him, we learned to follow a trail, to pack basic survival items and a little more food and water than we needed, and to pace ourselves and not overexert. On one hike we ended up unavoidably delayed due to injury and ended up hiking in the dark down to the logging road, where my dad and our friends met us and drove us out. That time we learned the importance of flashlights, extra batteries, and a good communication system.
The most important lesson, however, was one I learned from reading, well before we began hiking. I don’t remember when I first met Donn in the pages of Lost On A Mountain In Maine, but I do remember the most important time I met him in person.
It was September 17, 2011, outside the Cole Transportation Museum in Bangor. I say it was the most important time because I actually met him multiple times in my life, but this one was different. I was fourteen, my life was complicated and messy, and I was scared stiff about meeting him. We had eaten peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in the suburban on the way to Bangor and I was regretting that as my nerves twisted up my insides. It was, as I would later realize, an anxiety attack.
Donn was incredibly sweet. He graciously signed the entire stack of books my mother handed him and talked with me the whole time. I don’t remember if my mother or I told him that I was a writer, but it came up, and we chatted about that. He mentioned something along the lines of, maybe someday he would see my name in print.
I think, all told, we talked for ten minutes. I remember feeling embarrassed that we were holding up the line, but I also remember that he made me feel calmer. Less scared.
The most important lesson I learned from his book was twofold: if you’re lost, stay where you are; if you have to move, follow the water. It will always take you home.
As a pre-teen, hiking Maine’s high peaks with my uncle and brother, those words stuck with me. Donn was my age, and my best friend’s age, when he got lost. For a while I heard that rule in a kid’s voice.
After I met Donn that day when I was 14, however, I always heard it in his voice: comfortable and warm and soothing. And I wish I could have told him that.
Reading through When You Find My Body over the last few months, I found myself comparing notes with everything I have learned. And the thing that hit me was, would it have helped if Gerry had Donn’s voice in the back of her mind, reminding her to stay put when she first realized she was lost? Or later, when she finally settled down and made her final camp near a small stream, if she’d known to follow the water?
I don’t know. I’ve never really been lost before, so I can’t fully imagine what it must feel like. I know that the human mind doesn’t always behave rationally and that panic can make it impossible to do something unfamiliar.
One of our first trips up Mt. Abram last fall when neither my dog or I were familiar with the trail, we had a moment when I thought we’d gone off the marked trail onto a deer path. I couldn’t find the next blaze and the trail was faint, narrow, and covered in leaves. Something deep in the pit of my stomach started to bubble up into panic for a second, making me want to run and find safety, and then I remembered the rule: if you’re lost, stay put. I took a breath, looked behind me and found the trail and blazes leading back the way we’d come, and realized we weren’t lost. A few more steps led us within sight of the next blaze ahead of us. The whole thing lasted for maybe fifteen seconds.
My biggest takeaway from When You Find My Body wasn’t the tragedy of the story or the pain of losing someone and not knowing what happened or the courage and dedication of those search teams. I got all of that, certainly. But the biggest thing I was left with was much more simple and maybe a bit silly:
Maybe it’s a good thing that I hear Donn in my head when I’m hiking.
Beyind that, reading Gerry’s story has highlighted areas I may be lacking in and encouraged me to learn more. But she also has encouraged me to be brave and to reach for the stars and to fight for my dreams. “Inchworm” has inspired me to keep trying, even if I’m slow and it feels impossible. And she has encouraged me to keep faith close to my heart.
One final note:
I was able to spend a day with the Maine Search and Rescue Dogs group and the Maine Mounted Search and Rescue group last fall. I volunteered to be a subject for their training searches, and it was an incredible experience. I learned so much in those few hours and I would love to do it again.
But the thing that stuck with me the most from that day was one of the gentlemen who, when he learned where I was from, got a sad, sort of distant look in his eyes. “Oh, I’ve been there,” he said. “We were looking for Gerry.”