The drive to Maryland’s Eastern Shore is always the same, but never gets old. Even in the cold, misty, wintry mix, the rain dances to the rhythmic thuds of intermittent windshield wipers; somehow finding the beat to an old mix CD. On this dull day, with a light heart and smiling soul, I sing loudly as I drive the 2 ½ hour to Chris and Downes home on the Wye River in Queenstown.
Whether Leigh is with me or not, crossing the Severn River over the Rt. 50 bridge is, in itself, a treat. I stretch from my seat, ritually looking east with hopes of catching a glimpse of the gold dome of the Naval Academy Chapel. On this day I’m fog blocked, but I still smile at the thought. I am still singing.
As I slowly drive up the stone driveway, Chris and her grown son Downes, now 28, are standing in the opened garage waiting. They are framed by kayaks, inner tubes, bicycles and pool toys. Their boat dock is 30 yards out her back door. Since my first visit I understood why Chris loves it so; serenity immediately follows even the briefest of glimpses. In the moment I fall into their hugs I know it has been too long since my last visit, and the next won’t be soon enough. Like all good friends, there is something very special about these people.
After a peak of the pool and dock, I get a tour of the latest changes. Chris has started home farming and composting. I get an overview of the plantings and an introduction to the creative steps to keep the hungry wildlife away from her garden.
She snaps a piece of sweet winter broccoli off for me to taste; it is delicious.
As we wander inside for lunch, Downes wants to show me a printout of the farm he wants to buy in Colorado, and tell me about his bike rides to the Bennett Point General Store, or a longer ride over to Kent Island. I spot the GED study books on the dining room table and ask him how his studies are going. “Yeah, whatever” he says smiling.
Generally speaking, very few weeks pass that Downes and I don’t talk on the phone. Recently he’s learned to text, and we exchange comments on the latest episode of ‘Survivor’ Then he asks, “Do you still kiss your bicep?”
I’m not sure Chris was ever really excited about me teaching Downes how to kiss his bicep! We have had a lot of fun over the past 12 years.
Chris sets up sandwiches on the breakfast bar and the laughing memories begin.
Christine Warren and I met in a hotel lobby in Denver, CO. It was August 2000. Along with 16 other participants, we hopped on the bus heading to Leadville for a 7 day Outward Bound course. While we were two of the older participants, we didn’t seem to have a lot more than that in common.
The reasons that inspired each of us to take a week’s vacation to spend in the Colorado Rockies with complete strangers were as varied as the personalities and backgrounds of each participant. I was celebrating my 5 year anniversary of being in remission from Stage III Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. It had been a slow return to physical health from that year of chemotherapy and the rollercoaster of emotions (at one point I had been given a 15% chance of surviving beyond two years if the bone marrow transplant was successful.)
Having personally envisioned a “Rambo in the woods” outdoor adventure as a way to celebrate this 5 year milestone, I intensely trained in the gym for about nine months. I also “broke in my boots” with about 150 miles of hiking on the Appalachian Trail. To simulate a heavy back pack, I duct-taped two – 15 pound bar-bells together and put them in my knapsack. By the time August rolled around, I had hikes up to 23 miles under my belt and had become very confident with my stamina and ability to navigate in the wild. In the weeks leading up to the course, I read several books I thought would help prepare me for the adventure; ‘A Walk in the Woods” by Bill Bryson, and ‘Walden’ by Henry David Thoreau.
My first impression of Chris was she was a tough, hard-nosed, self-sufficient woman who is far more comfortable in her Patagonia fleece and hiking boots than she is in dress and heels; a natural jock at home in the wild. A single mom and high school literature teacher, she is definitely not looking for a man to take care of her. She loved nature and was very comfortable in the outdoors. In fact, in many ways she was more adept than the OB Instructors pointing out different tree species, various birds and animal scat; yep, it turns out that Chris really knows her shit!
By the end of the week I learned she lives on the water and her dream is to have her boat christened “Catch Her on the Wye”. I would also learn about her nightmare. When Downsey was 8, he was involved in a tragic car accident that propelled him through the windshield. He sustained massive head trauma and permanent brain injury. Chris was in school when it happened and describes it as the worst day of her life when she was heading to the hospital not knowing if her only child would still be alive when she arrived.
While there are other outdoor adventure programs (i.e. NOLS, REI, etc.,) that may teach how to climb a mountain, it is OB that teaches why you climb the mountain. Each of us had our own mountains to scale. As Downsey was turning sixteen and quickly becoming a man, it seemed Chris’s mountain would be steeper than most, certainly steeper than mine.
We recounted our earliest memories of one another. My first memory of Chris is that she and I were the early risers, slipping out of the bunk room and headed down to the mess hall to make an early pot of coffee. On the second day, again the earliest, we found the instructors private stash of Starbucks tucked in the back of a bottom cabinet. We thought that was a lot more awesome than the instructors did! We still giggle about our ‘resourcefulness’ and the instructors reaction.
What Chris remembers of me; “I thought you had a huge ego. It was cold and rainy. We were heading up the mountain with 50 pound packs and someone gave you the map. I don’t know who put you in charge – but you sucked at reading that map.” We laugh out loud.
I am the most confident sounding, insecure man I know.
At the risk of sounding a bit defensive (I prefer to call it “clarifying the context”) In addition to the confidence I developed in my physical conditioning, during the first three days of OB we knocked off a high ropes course, white water rafting on the Arkansas River, and rock climbing, including scaling a 90’ cliff face – blindfolded. Quite frankly, I was feeling pretty damn good about what we were accomplishing as a group. The juxtaposition of my condition in August, 2000 with my condition in the Fall of 1994 is as black and white as can be. Immediately following my diagnosis, the fatigue, weakness and shortness of breath were pale in comparison to the deep discomfort that came with every glance in my direction. All I could feel was the embarrassment of the Big Red C emblazoned on my chest, burning a little hotter brighter for the world to see. I had come a long way, baby.
As Thoreau observed,
“.. if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.”
I’ve rationalized the “map incident” as that necessary twist perhaps our journey was just not meant to be an efficient, dry trek to our campsite! Sometimes the long way around is the short way home.
People come into our lives for a reason, a season, or a lifetime – yet we never really know which. We never truly know the journey another person has traveled to bring them to our doorstep, and how long they will remain if we invite them in. In the first 5 years since Outward Bound, our group had 9 reunions of at least three participants. (These have been dubbed ‘Tongo’ Reunions, hence my blog name). While that trend certainly slowed down, many of us remain in touch today. Along with getting sober and getting cancer, my Outward Bound experiences is among the top three most transformational experiences of my life.
Chris and I may have been the least likely pair to strike up a friendship among the group of strangers that literally met on a bus, but fortunately we didn’t conclude our relationship based on our first impressions. Chris Warren is a friend, a confidant, and a constructive critic. I’m blessed to have her and Downes in my life.
As for my map reading, I’ll stick with the philosophy, “Seldom right, but never uncertain!”
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. You playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It is not just in some of us; it is in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others”. – Marianne Williams