This unexpected detour is just what my soul needed.
If you’ve been keeping up on my stories you’d know that I flew to Nashville in late January to buy my trailer and by the time I flew home four days later, I had an offer on my house. It wasn’t even on the market yet. Six weeks later I walked out the front door of The House At Pooh Corner for the very last time and as emotional as it was, it was the next stage of my plan and my biggest step towards moving forward with my life.
So meet my new tiny home! I’m naming her Gratitude for many different reasons. She weighs 3100 lbs, is 21 feet long and tows like a dream. I drove her back to Minnesota from Alabama after spending the weekend in West Virginia with a bunch of Girl Campers —where we learned all about trailer maintenance—and she fits me like a glove. She was to be parked in my friends driveway for six weeks while I sorted through and organized my things. I needed to fit my entire life into 180 square feet of trailer space and the back-end of a pickup truck.
Then the detour happened.
My plan was to stay at my friends place until early May and then head to Chicago taking Route 66 to Oceanside, California, where Klink requested his ashes be scattered. Things took an unexpected turn when their trip was cut short due to a family emergency. This meant I had to find a place to park my trailer, and me, until I could get “moved in” and situated before I took off. In Minnesota, campgrounds don’t typically open till late April, early May, but I was lucky enough to land at the Disabled Veterans Rest Camp up on Big Marine lake for the next four weeks.
I could’ve never anticipated what was in store for me there.
I had phoned ahead to the camp to say I would need help parking my trailer. My first and only attempt doing this was upon coming home from Alabama and trying to back into a perfectly straight and perfectly long driveway. Which I totally couldn’t do. Half in a panic and half laughing at myself, I phoned the new owners of my house (two blocks away) and they were kind enough to come and rescue me. When I finally reached the Vet’s Camp a few weeks later I knew I wasn’t capable of backing into a campground space solo and I was assured there would be help waiting for me.
I was a hot mess when I arrived at the camp—my truck and trailer plum full of my belongings from scrambling out of the house. Realizing how difficult of a campsite I was pulling into, the two guys that came to help me took care of backing in, leveling and unhitching my trailer. I’m a pretty capable person but there was absolutely no way in hell I could’ve done this. So I watched and learned from them and absorbed everything they said like I was a sponge in a puddle. We chatted for awhile afterwards and I was honored they shared their stories with me. An Iraqi/Afghanistan vet – a Katrina First Responder. They, along with many others at this camp, would soon become my friends. By 9PM I was exhausted, starving, and still had no room to move around inside my trailer. I cleared a spot big enough to sit down on the bed, found a bottle of wine, a jar of peanut butter, and a fork.
In the days and weeks that followed, I would learn my campsite was nestled in-between two Marines (I’m quite certain Klink set that up), an Army guy who lived in a revamped green bus and who would leave firewood in my fire pit everyday, and a couple from the neighborhood where I grew up—Rice Street. I was introduced to the canteen one night and felt like I had stepped back in time 23 years to when Klink and I first met at Kraus Hartig VFW; hanging with the gang on a Friday night, sing-alongs with the jukebox, dancing with the girls, shooting pool, and lots of laughter and good times. I was also, quite literally, surrounded by Rice Streeters everywhere I turned which blew my mind. I grew up in the Rice Street/Como neighborhoods of St. Paul and there’s a special camaraderie about being from this place that, unless you lived there, you’d never understand. At 10 years old I was hanging out with boys who stole cars to take us girls out for a drive, smoking cigarettes in the alleyways and getting high in the bathrooms at St. Bernard’s Bowling Lanes. We’d match joints behind the Bradshaw Haugh funeral sign and then go drink under the railroad trestle till curfew. We watched the boys get in gang fights at North End playground, and then afterwards, watch the boys get arrested and sent to Totem Town for 3 months.
Nothing quite like the bond of Rice Street.
Besides my two camp neighbors, there was the campground manager and an old Marine who played baseball with my dad, worked with my gramps Lucky Havlish at the railroad, and bowled/gambled with him at the Stahl House. Both from Rice Street. Everyone knew Orlando’s Grocery Store—my other grampa’s store—my aunt Jean Havlish the bowler and of course they all knew Bones, the homeless vet who lived on the street for 50+ years. As I spent more time at this camp, I started to see a camaraderie that was similar in nature to what I grew up with, yet when I really thought deeply about it, it was inarguably quite different.
I knew my time was temporary and so I started downloading vignettes—or snapshots—as they were happening. Taking moments and embedding them in my mind so I could go back and touch them when I wanted. Friends at a bonfire, building a deck bar, loons singing on a freezing cold night, a campground tour in a golf cart, Friday nights with my new girlfriends, ribeye’s on the deck with the guys, hugs from a sweet little boy who just got his training wheels off his bike. I started to feel at home and welcome here and I truly contemplated staying for the summer. This place and these people were special and I was getting attached to them. But this wasn’t part of my plan. It was a perfect transition and a perfect spot to land before I took off on my journey.
But I wasn’t meant to stay here.
I’ve been told so many times in the last few months that I’m incredibly brave to be doing what I’m doing. Being a solo female, leaving behind everything I know, traveling the country full time. I don’t really see it that way yet I get why folks say it. It can be unsettling for people to think of leaving behind what’s comfortable and familiar and going off into the unknown. But I really don’t know or understand anything else. My life has been unconventional since childhood and I guess I’ve always been a risk taker. People ask me if I’m afraid and I tell them, yes, absolutely, I am afraid. But not in the way you may think.
My time at the Vet’s Camp was only four weeks yet the impact will stay with me forever because these people have penetrated my heart. These Vet’s have seen and done things most of us could never imagine and would never, ever, want to. They’e left everything comfortable and familiar behind them and went off into more unknown territory than we could fathom. They’ve fought battles and experienced things we could never understand. Some are still battling. They (and their families) still experience trauma everyday and they’ve lost more than we ever could imagine. They look after each other, take care of one another, respect each other. They are incredibly capable and strong and resilient and I honor and admire each and every one of them. This camaraderie that they have is established from a bond I will never comprehend, yet I could see it and absorb it and almost feel like I could touch it while I was there.
But, ultimately, it’s not for me to understand.
These people are brave. My husband was brave. In comparison to them? I’m not brave. I’m just going on a long road trip.
I do understand that there are different layers of bravery, just like there are different layers of love, and I am not trying to dismiss it in any way. Bravery, for me, has always meant speaking my truth—even if my voice shakes. It’s following my own path even when my important people disagree with me. It’s honoring myself and my core values when the whole world seems to be against me. It’s doing the difficult thing first and standing up for those who can’t speak for themselves. But what I am doing—this journey—pales in comparison to what these Vets have been through. What my husband went through. I am not brave. I’m seeking adventure and freedom and an open road. These people put their lives on the line for my freedom and it’s because of them, and Klink, that I am able to do what I’m doing.
And I know I can’t pay them back in gratitude. I can only pay it forward by living my best life.
I said my goodbyes to my family and friends. I processed all the feels. It was bittersweet leaving Minnesota and leaving my life, and in many ways, leaving my history. I know I’ll probably talk to my family and friends more while I’m on the road via video chats and texting, but there’s something about that physical touch—the hug, the kiss, the physical face time—that I’ll miss the most.
My last morning at the camp was calm and the sunrise over the lake didn’t disappoint. I sat for awhile on the dock and contemplated the last four weeks—the last two and a half years since Klink died. I thought of how he continues to show up—and show me—that he never really left. He was all over this camp in so many ways that I can’t even begin to articulate. I know he’ll be with me as I keep moving forward. Keep showing up in his quirky ways that I can’t deny.
My heart was beating loudly inside my head when I finally pulled out of the Vet’s Camp. I had said my final goodbye’s to my neighbors as they helped me unhook and move out. I couldn’t help but feel like a baby bird leaving the nest for the first time as I watched them watch me leave.
Sad. Apprehensive. Excited.
Two days later I was in St Louis, Missouri (where I decided to start my journey west) and landed at my campground safe and sound. I backed in, leveled my trailer, unhitched my truck, and hooked up all by my badass self and without any difficulty at all. I know for a fact that I wouldn’t have had the confidence to do this alone had it not been for the voices in my head of my two fine teachers at the camp. “Right is right, left is left.” “Take your WD bars off before you back in/pull out.” “Don’t forget to lift your jack.” “Half a bubble off means one inch” (I might of heard that last one wrong…)
Regardless. I left the camp smarter than when I arrived.
Undeniably, I needed to be at this camp for the transition into my new life. It’s like Klink set the whole thing up for me. The people, the music, the canteen, the help. I needed to be taught a few more things before I headed on down the road. I needed to let go, unwind, and unplug for a few weeks and not care about anything except having some easiness in my life. A sweet distraction. A lot of fun. I told my friend on our last visit together that even though Klink was sick for so long before he died, I was always happy throughout it all. My life wasn’t easy but it was always good and I made peace with how our lives had been through his illnesses. I was always happy I told her, but I don’t think I’ve had this much joy in my life in a very long time.
What a great note to start a journey on…
Breathe Deep & Live Well my friends,