A Long Way to Nowhere

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This race was not like the others.

I have never actually run to nowhere before. All my past events were point to point, or out and backs, but this event ran 10-mile circles through the wilderness. Around and around and around with nowhere to go. In this race, the journey was the destination.

I knew in the days leading up the event I would have to get my head around this idea of ‘nowhere’ if I had any hopes of crossing the line. In any case, 50 miles is a long way to travel, and the idea was not only to cover that ground but to cover it as quickly as possible. After we finished the first loop, we’d know exactly what was ahead of us. The idea of running 50 miles, while knowing most of the way what is to come – with the option of tapping out every 10 miles – is not a recipe for success. Jenni and I knew we would need a different head game.

I might not be able to run 50 miles of trail, but I could consistently and quite easily log 10. This was no longer a 50-mile race. This was a 10-mile race, stacked one upon another in a way I would never let my mind think about. A 10-mile run with a chance to stop for just a sec and refuel before we crossed the start line of our next event. No reason to worry or feel sorry for myself. This was a good game plan, and I decided my mind might just have a shot at processing the miles and miles to come.

Jenni and I had spent the drive up hashing out the word ‘race.’ Sometimes the whole ‘race’ concept seemed so loaded to me. The idea of ‘race’ appeared as something only the leaders could stake claim to. But the more we processed, the more we realized the race for us was never against other people.

Against other athletes, we would never stack up. But for us, the ‘race’ was – and always has been – internal. It was a race against ourselves. It was rarely about overtaking others, but about overcoming our own minds and each of us applying our personal best (which was always a sliding scale) to registration, to all the miles in training, and to whatever number of miles spanned from the start line to the finish line.

So today, in the cool dark of the morning, we would bring the best we could to the miles to come… because we were about to run a race.

But our personal best got off to a rocky and disorganized start. The tent was a mess, and although we had packed and repacked our running gear the night before, it was a very tight space to both quickly get dressed in. We had let ourselves sleep at least 15 minutes too late, I thought, as I crammed a blueberry bagel with a smear of peanut butter down the hatch to the light of my headlamp. Nothing to do but make the best of it, so we headed out and quickly set up a rest stop area outside the tent for the miles to come.

The moments before the start of an event are never the time to begin making a list of all you have forgotten. Comfort, like so many things, also functions on a sliding scale, so there was no sense being a baby about it. Seemed to me the only reason to keep a list of things now was to better prepare for future events. No sense in derailing today because of yesterday’s mistakes.

We laughed it off… stopped off at the potty stop, and made our way to the line.

The quiet meadow and starting line are now littered with headlamps and pre-race buzzing. We huddle around the announcer as he gave us some instructions which I was almost too nervous to listen to. I realize it has been a very long time since I was actually nervous before a race.

But 50 miles was a new distance for me, and it was already taking its toll on my mind. We lined up next to a woman from Arkansas who was excited to meet Jenni and who knew of several of our past events. Judging by the looks of her she was a seasoned athlete. Once the race began, we likely would not see her again. She offered some last-second encouragement, and then we all made our way through the line.

I love it when we start a race before the sun comes up. There is something almost spiritual about seeing a trail lit by a steady stream of headlamps as far as you can see in front and behind you. The miles before the sun rises never seem to count, and they often pass quickly. We could not fully know the ground we were covering, and honestly, I am okay with that because we had plans to cover it again 4 more times later in the day.

It was not long before we turned out of the grassy meadow and headed into our first muddy climb. Our shoes sank down badly, as did our hearts, and mud poured in over the sides. We were less than 2 miles in and already I could feel the moisture making its way through my wool socks. No sense in thinking about what is to come, nothing could be done, but I began to recognize it might be a long day, so I started to prepare myself emotionally.

We laugh it off, as we typically do, and covered the beginning miles rather swiftly. Before long we came to a considerable climb, with terraced pools of mud stepping their way up the sides. Someone had been kind enough to tie a long thick rope to a tree higher up the climb, and one by one we took our turns ascending. We came to the corner in the climb only to find another rope end dangling. As I grabbed onto the second rope, I tried not to stare out at the steep drop-off only a foot away. Jenni and I made it to the top and consoled ourselves. Well, we only have to do that 4 more times today.

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We laugh it off…

It was time to cross the river. It was not deep, but water in your shoe is water in your shoe. My tights were wet and cold higher than I would have liked.

We laugh it off…

We pass another aid station; the course was well stocked with encouraging volunteers and impressive food options. Good to note, we could drop some of the food we were carrying on our upcoming laps. Next up was a short loop heading out from one of the stops. The loop added an extra few miles to the course. In the daylight or the dark, it would prove to be my favorite part of the path. We restocked and pressed on to the final miles of our first lap. Jenni looked tired, and it scared me, but I knew she would likely bounce back. We crossed another river and a section of trail so boggy I was concerned I might lose my shoes. Already I was feeling the hot spots on my feet, but we laugh it off.

I needed to pee, and finally I could no longer avoid the thought. We passed an ancient and unstable bathroom stop, and I skipped for joy into the air. I was afraid I would have to squat in front of all these other people. As soon as I head inside, I realize my mistake… remote villages would offer a more suitable place to relieve yourself. Comfort functions on a sliding scale.

We turned a corner and saw our little tent set-up. Ding, ding, ding. Round 1 was over. We fumbled through the rest stop. It was – and always is – difficult to think straight when you’ve pushed yourself that hard. Once again Jenni and I realized we probably should not have undertaken this event without a point man. We sat down on the dirt and tried to clean the mud out of our shoes and quickly tended to our hot spots. The sympathetic man named Lee in the tent next to us took notice and wasted no time. Before we knew it, I was in his chair, and this man I’d never met was washing my feet and applying preventative measures to help me cover the miles to come. Lee took care of Jenni too and helped us run through a checklist of things we might need in the lap before he sent us on our way for Round 2. Maybe we were not alone after all.

We passed through the line for Lap 1. Still smiling and laughing, we snapped a selfie together and headed out into the rest of our day. I was embarrassed at how badly we had fumbled our first transition area pass. We knew all the rules, and yet we forgot to drop half the crap we were planning to and forgot to pick up half the crap we intended to carry into the coming miles. I felt we needed a better system. Jenni and I complained to each other about our failures and wondered how we could handle future pit stops more efficiently. It seemed like common sense, but your mind cannot be trusted in such moments.

I decided we needed an acronym. Jenni was annoyed but played along. “How the hell can you come up with an acronym at a time like this?” And just like that, it shot out of my mouth… DREAMS. It came to me too fast to possibly be my own. D stands for Drop (as in drop or dump whatever you needed to leave behind, and yes this can also mean – go to the bathroom) R is for Reload (pick-up all you might need in the coming miles. E is for freaking eat. A is for Apply (sunscreen, body glide, trail toes, bandaids, etc.) M stands for massage, (we also used for Memories as we snapped a photo of our drops) S stands for Shoes and Socks. It was cheesy, I know, but man did it help!

Laps 2 and 3 (meaning up to the first 30 miles), passed effortlessly. We ran what we could and hiked the strenuous climbs, the muddy trenches, and the boggy marsh. We were having a blast, enjoying our weekend away from the world. We knew we had Lee in our corner and even if he was not around the rest area when we passed through, we could feel him taking care of us. He would leave out provisions for us, spread out a mat for us to lay on, and even closed our tent when we forgot to zip it up.

At mile 38 Jenni had pulled away from me. I ran alone a bit and watched the ground for tree roots. Then at the very last second, I hurdled a snake which looked like a stick sunning in the middle of the trail. It was an impressive jump if I do say, and with the new burst of adrenaline, I was able to catch Jen to brag about it. Turns out she had hurdled a snake too, and we thought for just a second, they were the same. But they were different colors… I guess we had each made a new friend. We tried not to think too hard about it as our feet again sank down into the marshy grass. Surely there were not more than two snakes out on this course.

We laughed it off…

I was in dire need of something substantial to calm my stomach. I asked for hot food when we passed the aid station, and they had little still available. My option was brisket. I know it is not appropriate for me to criticize beef – being from Texas and all – but honestly sometimes beef really is difficult for me to stomach and being nearly 40 miles into a race I probably should have known better. The aid volunteer sold it well and talked me into a few bites. A few too many, and I would come to deeply regret them in the miles to come. When we hit the shoot, I threw my pack at my tent and sprinted past the line to the port-a-potty. Everyone cheered. If they only knew I was just desperately trying not to crap my pants in public.

As we headed out on our last loop we were still in good spirits, but it was becoming harder and harder to push thoughts of pain out of my mind. Lee had helped with my feet again earlier on, and I had tried on my own during this loop to prevent any further damage. But it was a losing battle. There is a point in distance running when you balance preventative care with acceptance – I was there. We found some dry socks and hot food, solid reasons to remain thankful. Comfort functions on a sliding scale.

I started mile 40 praying, and I am not sure I ever really stopped. We tried to run our first two miles out of camp. It was probably pathetic to watch. When we hit the aid station, there was another woman behind us. The three of us stopped and dug through our packs to prepare for the sun going down. The man at the aid station was probably trying to be encouraging, and I would like to give him the benefit of the doubt, but he blurted out, “Come on, ladies” and hung on it in almost a condescending way. It stung a bit more than I care to admit. I get it – the real athletes were ahead of us. We were just wives and mothers with day jobs trying to enjoy something we love. I could feel shame start to lurk and I was afraid of it. Of all things, shame is the one thing I can rarely outrun. I put it out of my mind for the moment.

We moved steadily until mile 45, enjoying what was left of the evening and watching the sun go down. Usually, I love seeing my headlamp lighting up my footsteps-but not tonight. We had passed this ground 4 times prior, and I knew outside of my next lit footstep there was information I needed to see. The trail was dangerously muddy, and now I was at the mercy of climbing and descending only what I was within my limited view. There was no longer an option of charting the best course. As the mud continued to spill over the tops of our sinking shoes, it took some effort not to cry.

We had dumped one hydration pack at our tent last round and decided to share the burden of just one pack between the two of us. My core was giving out, and the added weight was almost intolerable. At the rest stop by the loop, we decided to stash the pack and take our chances running the two miles without it. We could pick it up again when we passed or just throw the freaking thing in the trash. I honestly did not care anymore.

By now, there was no longer anything about this race which was funny.

We passed a man sitting on a rock with his head in his hands. We were worried but had nothing to offer him. We asked if he needed medical attention and all he could utter was, “wall…hit wall.” Ha. Those damn things were everywhere tonight.

We kept going, caught up with and passed a group of women who we were astonished to find we had lapped. I was quite worried about what was to come for them since they would spend at least 3 more hours on the course than we would, and no one could claim we were in good shape.

We crossed the river at the wrong place because we were held hostage to the light and could not see the best place to navigate a little to the left. Again, we were wetter and colder than we wanted to be. We met an incredible man, likely in his 70s, who was about to log his 90th mile… and to think he was the one encouraging us. I carried him with me in my mind for awhile, and it helped. One cure for feeling sorry for yourself is to think about someone else. We were in awe of our new friend and yet concerned for his welfare, but we hiked on.

At this point, the pain in my feet was beyond excruciating, and it took all of me to put it out of my mind. Jenni and I passed the hydration pack back and forth, taking turns trying to carry the ‘weight’ of it - not that it is heavy on another given day. I strapped it to my stomach instead of my back hoping to redistribute the weight to a new group of muscles to save what was left of my core strength.

At nearly 48 miles, we were cold, wet, and hurting in ways we might finally have to admit, but we kept putting one foot in front of another as we were programmed to do. The tears came silently at first and I hardly even noticed they were there.

A 30-mile race had started right after the sun went down, and slowly were being to be passed by a steady stream of fresh legs making their way through the dark. It hurt my spirit to be cast aside by those still strong at the beginning of their journey. Shame ambushed me there in the night. I had left myself unguarded and highly vulnerable to attack. We had hoped to be across the finish line by this point, but that was not the case. If I was ever racing others – here was evidence I was again not enough. The silent stream of tears grew louder to the point that Jenni heard it. She was concerned but had her own demons to battle.

We had two miles left, and I had found my wall. I was desperate to talk with someone who could give me strength. I longed to hear my husband’s voice and wanted to reach out to him, but I knew I would just break down. I thought about calling my friend Theo, but I was not sure I could hold it together even for him. I decided I could not take the risk of being vulnerable to anyone no matter how bad I wanted it. I made every decision which led me to my current predicament, so I should embrace the good and the bad of it on my own. If I heard a loved one’s voice, I would have likely come undone.

As if on cue, my father texted me. I was hesitant to read his words. He asked if I was finished with the race. My hand began to shake as it held up the weight of my phone. I was too far gone to fake anything, so I told the truth. “Dad, I’m not done yet. 48 miles in and crying.” 

I held what was left of my breath while I waited for his response – the cell silence was heavier than my tears. I wondered if he was embarrassed by me for not finishing before dark, or if he might make a joke of our situation. But I never received such a response. Instead, what came was harder to process, “Honey we are so proud of you. I am pulling for you with every ounce of me.” I read the words over and over again. If my tears weren’t loud enough before they surely were now. I was ugly crying, and I did not actually care who heard me. 

We were now only a mile out from the finish. We entered a clearing and scanned it with our headlamps for the reflection of a marker but found nothing. A mile from the finish and we were freaking lost. We came to a complete stop in the middle of the clearing and did a 360-degree search but came up empty. This was our 5th pass through, but somehow in the dark everything was different. We decided we should rely on our instincts – which pointed us absolutely in the wrong direction. We took off.

Fortunately, call it fate or provision, a man 80 miles into his race came up from behind and called out to us. “You guys looking for the marker? It’s over that way…” And just like that, we were saved from a night of wondering off in the wrong direction with almost nothing left in our hydration pack. We gave thanks, and he celebrated us, knowing we were about to cross our line.

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We came through the line side by side – together, as we often do. Someone handed me a finisher buckle which I held so tight it hurt my hand. I knew I should eat, or drink, or dry off, or something, but I could not. Once again, we recognized we needed someone in our corner.

The race line was buzzing with new energy. A 10-mile race was also running now, and it produced an influx of new finishers. I stumbled off to find a bathroom, so I could get sick in private. When I resurfaced, I found a young man who appeared about college age in line for the port-a-potty. He was visibly agitated at the much-older man who had inadvertently cut in front of him in line.

But the older man was a familiar face to me, and I was ready to battle for his honor. “That man has just covered 90 miles of ground. I believe he deserves our respect.” The young man fell regretfully silent, and we watched together as the pillar of strength disappeared into the night, alone, to cover his last 10 miles.

For me, the sick which followed at this point was unlike any I’ve ever experienced. I somehow made my way back to the tent and fell onto Lee’s mat. I knew better, but I just couldn’t help it. The shaking which followed became violent. I knew I needed to sit up and put on some dry clothes – my tent within two feet of me, but I just could not do it. A damp, muddy blanket we had used earlier in the race was within reach, but it took all of me to figure out how to cover myself with it. Once I did, I was content to lay shaking on the ground while staring up at the stars. I could have camped outside on that matt for the night, but Jenni had overheard rain was coming. The silent tears came back.

Jenni was smarter and stayed upright. She called her family and learned her son had won several games during the day and was unexpectedly still in a tournament. Maternal instinct kicked in… these days before we were athletes – we were wives, then mothers. The call for home was real, and she wanted to make it to the game to support her son.

One possibility was to pack camp at 4am and head home, but then we never could get our heads around another cold night and packing our camp in the rain after all we had been through. With heavy hearts, we discussed leaving camp in the night. This would mean there was no chance to give Lee a hug and thank him for his care, no chance to check in on the group of ladies we were worried about behind us, and no chance to cheer for the strongest old man I have ever met as he crossed the line of his 100-mile race.

Nevertheless, at 11pm, we somehow managed to find the strength to pack camp, hike our gear back to the car, and drive ‘till 3:30am. Rest assured, it was altogether another marathon. We consoled ourselves with a warm shower and a dry bed in a hotel I cannot even remember. Comfort functions on a sliding scale.

Looking back, I am thankful for the memories. If it was a race against others, we come in 65th and 66th out of the 98 people who finished that night, though 130 people had intentions of finishing at some point or another. We brought in the last quarter of racers, as we typically do. But again, this was no race against others.

In my race to nowhere, I battled my mind for 5 rounds (16 hours and 44 minutes) in the wilderness. I clearly had won the first 4 rounds, and I am content to call the 5th a draw. On this day, I was strong enough to claim victory in the war of Me vs. My Mind.

The scary thing is we both live to fight another day…

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Fear and Racing

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Fear found me tonight as it circled around in the wilderness. Every hour it shined a headlamp in my tent, then chased the light with the sounds of defeated voices.

Jenni and I rolled into camp later than we had hoped to. It was our first time on this course and we were not sure what to expect. Judging by the emails leading up to the event the ground would be covered with athletes and we would be lucky if we even found a spot to pitch a tent. Overflow athletes would sleep on the gym floor ¾ of a mile from the start. Not wanting to hog camp real-estate, we packed light. Too light.

We felt a little stupid when we showed up with a backpacking rig while the rest of the crews seemed to be glamping. Turned out we would have had plenty of space, which we could have utilized heavily during the race. But unlike many other athletes, we had no crew or pacers, no pit station or awning to rest under, no big tent to stand and change clothes in. It was just the 2 of us and our tiny little set-up.

We found a spot at the end of the line toward the middle of a meadow. It was never too early for us to stake our claim to the back of the pack. We set up camp within minutes and made our way to registration for packet pick-up and a dinner plate. We stood anxiously in the registration line with all the other runners. (The 200- and 150-mile racers had started the day prior.)  No one spoke to each other as we watch the tired racers pass sporadically through the shoot.

There was a woman my age coming through the shoot, she was covered in mud and had a hallow expression on her face. We spotted her again later in the back of a SUV - crying. I made eye contact by accident but turned away quickly. She deserved to feel shame and defeat privately. As she cried, she spoke to her support team about dropping out of the race. I hoped she would bounce back, but it felt unlikely.  No judgment from me. My tears would find me tomorrow - I was more than certain.

We ate our spaghetti on the ground and headed back to camp where I sketched to calm my nerves until it got dark, then unpacked and repacked my running gear. Turns out we were the first tent the muddy zombie like athletes would see as they lapped their way around during the evening and into the night.

My mat had a hole in it, so I spent my rest hours shivering on the ground, trying not to give a stronghold to fear, which circled around in my mind. This was one of the biggest physical challenges we had ever been brave enough to line up for, and I knew I would again meet the end of myself on the course tomorrow. I was not frightened of that moment; rather, I was fearful of how soon it might happen.

I lay in bed and watched the lights shine in, wondering if I would have the strength to run past the end of myself, and hoping I would not have many miles ahead of me when my body and my mind stopped.

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A Path Far from Home

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I’m sitting alone in the airport awaiting my flight home, eager yet exhausted from my 12 days in Germany. It was my second trip this year to study hyperrealism with the legendary Dirk Dzimirsky. There were 13 students in our class this trip—students from Germany, Mexico, UK, the Netherlands, India, Australia, South Africa, Ireland, and the US. The talent in the room was intimidating, to say the least.

I packed an obnoxiously big bag (which we later nicked named, ‘Bertha’) because it seemed easier at the time, to be prepared rather than check the weather. I regretted the decision as soon as I stepped off the plane and realized I would have to lug the bag with me up and down several flights of stairs, through crowded train stations, and on a three-hour train ride. Spring clothes, highly unnecessary, but hey, at least I packed my running shoes. Sadly, Bertha held little gear for rain, which as it turned out was my greatest wardrobe need.

As fate would have it Regina (from Ireland) and I were able to coordinate our flights, we were scheduled to land within 15 minutes of each other in Dusseldorf. However, my plane landed early, and I waited for over an hour for Regina. My mind began to chase ‘what if’ thoughts… and I became increasingly worried she would not make the meet. When I finally saw her rolling her much smaller bag around the corner, I wanted to leap for joy into the air. Together, we found our way to the train station where I lugged Bertha up another flight of stairs before settling into the last leg of our journey.

Our course was in rural Germany, and I have yet to meet anyone (who does not live there), who knows of the place. We were staying several miles outside of a little town called Petershagen, which is about a thirty-minute cab ride from a slightly larger town called Minden. For the most part, we were in the country, which was just the way I liked it. Our hotel was quaint and felt iconic Germany with its clay-tiled, steep-pitched roof. Since this was our second visit, we instantly felt at home.

Regina was also a runner, and we wasted no time coordinating a plan for our workouts. The very next morning we were awake before the sun to explore the roads and paths surrounding our hotel. Neither of us wanted to run on the highway, and fortunately, we quickly came across a charming narrow footpath which parted the bright green fields of the countryside with a wall of trees.

I enjoyed Regina’s voice almost as much as the sunrise. I never grew tired of her strong Irish accent with its harsh inflection on the beginning of every word and the slight lift at the end. The most everyday language turned magical as it danced from her voice. I tried to keep her talking as we explored the path. We supposed the trail might lead us to the heart of town if we had the time to keep going. Something to keep in mind for the rest of the group as surviving two weeks in the country without public transportation or a car among us would undoubtedly present a challenge.

As it turns out, we were right about the path. Deter, our bed and breakfast owner, pulled out a map when we returned which honestly proved impossible for me to understand. I had heard enough, the path lead to town if we did not turn off it. In the days to follow our crew would hike it morning and evening as we trekked the four miles into Petershagen for dinner and a grocery store.

We were an unlikely set of friends. Men and women from diverse socioeconomic levels, faiths (or rejection of such), and political views… people from all over the globe were converging upon this one setting because we share the same desire to create. Artists exploring realism possess an inherent and almost compulsive sense about them which seeks to understand everything… it manifested in all of us in different ways, but as evidenced by our conversations, none of us were immune. The topics we explored verbally are typically off limits in social settings, yet we set about long-winded and analytical breakdowns of each taboo subject right from the start. With our interlaced perspectives, it felt as if one could see all the way around the mountain.

Despite our diversity, we were committed to being in relationship with each other. Our work required us to be the kind of vulnerable and respectful which allowed us to work side by side in a studio for 9-10 hours a day, for ten days. In addition to our studio time, many of us would share lodging.

The group of five who camped at our hotel shared a breakfast table and a communal kitchen with our rooms all aligning one hallway. Our group included a woman from Australia, who had spent the last two years studying drawing in Thailand. She is a joy to know, with wisdom and a worldview one can only glean from the gentle abrasion of time and suffering. She is quite possibly the most beautiful and graceful woman I have ever met. Also among us, was a man my age from India, whose call to create (much like my own) led him down a path of cultural defiance in his home country… he is a rebel and someone whom I feel strongly history will remember as he definitely peruses his art in the years to come. The other male in our group was from the Netherlands, he is a mathematician, a philosopher, and a talented artist. His complex mind examined every issue from all sides, and he entertained, challenged, and uplifted us all with his internal intellectual battles. His journal was filled with detailed pictures and notes the likes of which I am not sure the world has ever seen. On our final night, we passed his book down the table and 13 gifted students and the world’s leading hyperrealist all bowed to this man’s notes. He was embarrassed, but we began to slowly clap or hands in unison for him until we saw a smile quietly creep across his face. Then there was my Regina, a strong Irish woman whose life seemed to strike an elegant balance between the roles of wife, mother, career woman, and artist. And finally, there was me…

We took turns cooking meals from our own countries and dividing chores while we orally broke down and rebuilt the most sensitive of issues. I wondered how many of the world’s problems we might be able to solve around our table. By the end of 12 days, we were family. I felt I had finally found my tribe.

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Each morning started with a run on the path and Regina’s voice to lift my spirits. The path held joys for each of us—for me the sheep in the fields grazing with all their little lambs leaping about, for Regina—the whitebark trees she had heard about but never seen. It rained steadily during much of our trip, but we were unphased. Through the gentle rain and puddles, we discussed at length the balance of womanhood in the 21st century. Regina’s Irish accent unexplainably elevating every conversation… I worried my Texas slang might bring down the mood and attempted to filter out any y’alls and fixins’ which might have otherwise found their way into my speech.

As our time together drew to a close, we said our goodbyes with tear stained eyes and heavy hearts. With a new found hope and understanding of where I might fit into the ecosystem of humanity, Regina and I loaded Bertha into the cab which would take us to the train, which would take me to the plane, which would take me across the ocean to another plane, which would finally put me back into the arms of the other family I had waiting for me.

We drove by the entrance to little trail one final time. Someday, somewhere in the world, I hope to again walk the path alongside my new tribe. Until then, I will eagerly await hearing Regina’s voice once more sing the word beautiful.

But for now, one foot in front of the other. It is time to board the plane and look forward not back.

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