A Joan Freed Life Changing Mystery/Adventure
by Alexie Linn
All characters are fictional, places and events are possibly true.
Copyright © 2016 Alexie Linn
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[_ MA Deeter Publishing_]
Stanfield, AZ 85172
Cover images provided by Wikimedia Commons. Thank you for sharing.
Backcover image by Frederick Eschbach
The season is over – wish you were here
Once upon a time in the desert southwest of the continent of North America lived two women. The desert is called the Sonoran Desert. It’s the place where Saguaro (pronounced sa-wah-ro) cactus grow 70 feet tall and stand like sentries (many with several gnarly arms) guarding the flora and fauna below. But the saguaros have nothing to do with this story. They’re just an awesomely cool spectacle that Joan Freed fell in love with the first time she felt like an ant under one of the towering giants.
The saguaros are one of the umpteen dozen variables that went into the decision to make the desert southwest her home as a sunbird, (not to be confused with a snowbird — any mention of snow makes Joan shiver like a skeleton dangling in the wind.)
The other woman went by the name of Jenny Crawford, although that’s not the name she was born with or married into.
Jenny was a client of Joan’s — Jenny a recovering widow who made the break from ‘the family’ to save herself.
She (Jenny) changed her name, became a cracker-jack landscaper, and was happy in her new life — until ‘the family’ appeared at her job site, out in the middle of nowhere and a thousand miles from anywhere that she’d known them to frequent. Jenny escaped again, knowing now that she had to keep her landscaping business mobile to stay safe.
Jenny called Joan, who was at Wellton, Arizona working with another client — Elaine, who had been accused of being a hoarder.
Jenny caught up to Joan there, at Wellton, and the two have since become close friends. Traveling companions that almost depend on each other, but neither will admit to it.
It’s March. The desert is beginning to bloom — the Palo Verde trees are colossal bright yellow balloons made of teeny, tiny flowers that line the roads and washes. Hedgehog cactus are almost finished with their fuchsia crepe paper cup blooms and bright yellow stamens that suck bees in like a vacuum. Orange Globe Mallow waves in the wind, and the Fiddleneck is popping up, uncurling its sticky stem into a ribbon of orange yellow blossoms.
Joan inherited asthma from her dad and allergies from her mother. She’s a mess at this time of the year in her beloved Sonoran desert. That is where and when Joan’s latest adventure begins. Let’s catch up with Joan and share the journey of the Aurora Borealis Affair….
1 – The Decision
I approached Jenny’s domain, a little old revived Scotsman trailer that she pulls with her ‘71 Chevy pick-up. The door was open, the screen door latched. Patches, the black and white spotted Chihuahua that joined our team in ‘’, yapped a welcome before I could sing out a greeting and raise my fist to rap on the door.
“I know, Patches! It’s… been f-o-r-e-v-e-r!” I greeted Patches, “Is your… mommie… to home?”
“Come in, Joan, I’d recognize that snoughy rasp anywhere,” a slightly sarcastic voice came from behind the screen door. “The water’s hot — shall I pour you a cup of tea?”
I opened the screen door, caught Patches in my arms, stepped in and slid into the booth before I let Patches off my lap onto the bench. “Sounds… delicious. Thank… you.”
“It’s…time…to…go…, Jenny,” I choked the words out between snoughs. “Allergies, asthma, 92 degrees, stress from all the above…I don’t know if it’s one or all, but I have to get out before I snough myself to death…literally.
And,” I yanked a tissue out of my blue flannel shirt pocket and slapped it over my nose, “I remembered this morning that I have a client up near Mormon Lake that’s ready to fast-track… through… my program.” I snoughed into the tissue and blew my nose. “We’ve been working over the phone some…, but she feels she needs a face to face as soon as I can survive in my RV up there in the cold north…”
Jenny was nodding, “I understand completely, Joan.”
“In a nutshell, I’m headed to Mormon Lake direction as soon as I can get my rig together and this place secured, cold or not.
What are your plans for summer?”
Jenny sipped her tea, looking over the landscape plans she had spread on the table, “Well, I’m not sure. I have a couple of options after I finish this project,” she tapped the drawings then reached for her Day-Planner. “I think I have a job or two in the Flagstaff area.” She stopped at a page, “Yes, I’ll make some phone calls — here’s one in Camp Verde. That will get me headed north.” Jenny looked up from the map, “Where are you thinking to camp?”
I pondered while I sipped my Jasmine Green tea and helped myself to a chunk of bannock, “Hmm…” I chewed and swallowed, “Perhaps a ways up Stoneman Lake Road would be good — a little lower elevation for warmth, but about 20 miles to Mormon Lake and 20 miles to Camp Verde would be good. I’ll suggest that to my client and see if it will work for her. My program does seem to work much better if we can work away from daily distractions.
This bannock really hits the spot, Jenny. I’m so glad I taught you how to make it…”
Jenny snickered, “Yes, Joan, I know…one of the good things that came of your time in Alaska.”
I slid out of the bench and wrinkled my snoughy nose at Jenny, “Smart aleck, one would think you’ve heard that story before. Hey!” I turned to look back at her on my way out the door, “Maybe we should go to Alaska this summer…,” I said before I decently flounced out the door and meandered back to start packing up to leave.
Jenny yelled to my back, “I’ll get back to you on that…”
I waved without looking back.
Considering my own options for summer, another journey to Alaska persisted in nagging me — a real vacation, to experience life as a tourist — to see and do all the things that were impossible to do on previous trips. Trips that were supposed to make life better…… or …… is there some other reason I’m being pulled?
Jenny and I had tried to take R & R time, but each effort had wound up in some drama that required both of our expertise’ to escape from with our lives — let alone dignity — intact.
Maybe it would work if we were totally out of reach…ignoring the fact that the drama had nothing to do with previous clients reaching out. In fact, it was quite the opposite — I, Joan, the rebel life coach, independent, self-sufficient, proud — did I mention proud? — reached out to previous clients for their expert help… I, the rebel life coach grinned at my own ludicrous argument, ‘I am the Queen of Denial’ played in my head while I dropped the wheel barrow that I was wheeling to the generator shed to dodge in and snatch a handful of tissues for the upcoming snough sessions. I’d popped an allergy/asthma pill earlier — a last resort effort — but it hadn’t kicked in yet.
I heard Jenny’s engine start and rumble out the lane, going about her own business. Now I’m alone and free to argue an Alaska adventure over summer with myself— a guarantee that I will win the argument. I likened self-talk discussions to playing pool with myself — I will always be declared the winner, eventually.
But before the winner is declared, the game must be played. No cheating if you want to enjoy the prize.
Dragging the generator out of the shed, I spoke freely to myself.
“What’s at stake? I haven’t a clue.
What will it cost? A lot.
Is taking the Alaska Marine Highway — the ferry — out of Bellingham, Washington an option? You know you always wanted to do that. But that means going to the west — the ‘wet’ side — of the Cascade Mountains a requirement — can you make yourself do that? Maybe. Maybe I can do it one more time since I’d be going for the ferry ride of a lifetime — the inside passage — because I want to make great memories, not grapple with old, daunting ones.” I stopped the discussion long enough to rest my hands on my hips in my best ‘Grandma’ pose and to plan my next move.
I retrieved the hand truck out of it’s easy access slot and wheeled it into the shed. Next came the ladders before closing it up and locking it, “At least the lock will slow them down a little,” I mumbled.
With a fresh supply of tissues and the key to Creampuff — the name that seemed to fit my vintage Chevy truck the best because ‘Calamity’ might carry a curse with it — I started the engine and continued my conversation while it was warming up.
“What if Jenny doesn’t want to go? That’s about 7,000 miles of no one to share the oohs and ahhs, the egadses — there are always egadses — and the fun times with. Do I want to do this alone?”
I backed Creampuff up to the generator I’d left parked in the driveway, swung the crane over the back edge of the tailgate, harnessed the generator, and cranked it up into the bed. “I’m so glad I sprung for this gadget — if cranes could talk, this one would have some stories to tell, for sure – not necessarily all for publication, now that I think of it.”
The conversation went on and on, finally ending with, “Why am I becoming obsessed with making this journey?”
I heard Jenny’s Old Blue rumble in and park. I dove out my door, intent on having the Alaska decision made. The driver’s door opened and Patches leaped out the door, yapping and barking around the perimeter of her domain before diving her snoot into her favorite blue water dish and lapping like she was dying of thirst. Jenny followed, her arms laden with the stuff to transport into the trailer. I met her at the door of the trailer and almost let her drop her load onto the table before pouncing…
“So do you want to go to Alaska this summer, or not?”
The last parcel in Jenny’s juggling act thunked to the table. She faced me. “Do I what?!”
“Do you want to go to Alaska this summer, or not? You said you’d get back to me on that.”
“Right now?” Jenny asked, putting groceries away, lighting the burner under the tea kettle and reaching for a tea bag. “Can I wash my hands and have a cup of tea first?”
I chuckled, “You’re right, Jenny girl. You haven’t been privy to the activity in my head all day.” I plunked onto the bench and rested my elbows on the table while Jenny took another mug from the cupboard and prepared tea for two. “I’ll take a breath while you shift gears and try to find the same junction I’m at.”
“Thank you, Joan,” Jenny smiled while my fingers tapped on the table and fidgeted.
“How’s your job coming?” I asked, trying to calm my own swirling thoughts.
Jenny poured water over tea bags in mugs and set them on the table with a paper towel torn in half for a saucer before she spoke, “Very well. I only have two more trees to plant, the mulch to cover the flower beds to spread, a rock to decorate, and the watering system to check-out.” She shrugged, “A day, or two, at most.
Now tell me about your day. Obviously you’ve been very busy with something yanking your chain.”
Laughing, I said, “Yanking is the understatement, but I’ll try to be coherent while I bring you up to speed.”
“You have my undivided attention, Joan.”
“Have you ever been up the Alcan Highway, Jenny?”
Jenny shook her head, “Nope. Never been to Alaska at all. I haven’t even been to Canada.”
“Are you interested in seeing Alaska?”
“Maybe. Enlighten me. How far is it? How long does it take? Why do you want to go there?
“About 3500 miles one way, abut a week — depending on the variables, and because something is tugging me, but I don’t know what it is.”
Jenny laughed, “Okay, Joan. I deserved that. Let’s start over.
Why do you want to go to Alaska?”
“I don’t know.”
“Okay, that’s clear as mud. What’s there that I can’t see anywhere else?”
“The Aurora Borealis.”
“What’s the Aurora Borealis?”
“The Northern Lights. They happen when electrons from the sun are pulled to the magnetic centers of the earth. The electrons collide with earth elements and awesome light shows happen. The visible colors depend on the elements — oxygen or nitrogen — and how far above the earth they are when they collide.”
Jenny nodded, “I have heard of that, now that you mention it. But aren’t they visible in other places?”
“Well, sure, but I’m not being drawn to Minnesota or Sweden. Are you?”
Jenny sipped her tea, “No, but I’m not being drawn to Alaska, either. When it comes right down to it, Joan, I’m really tired of having to live on the move.”
I set my cup down harder than I intended and really looked at Jenny, “Wow, Jenny, what’s up? You aren’t sounding okay……”
Jenny wiped invisible crumbs from the table top, “I don’t know, Joan. Maybe I just need to sit in some tall timber and play with this puppy dog that adopted me.” She massaged Patches’ head, “Maybe I need to smell the ocean, build a sand castle, or climb a mountain just to see what’s on the other side without looking over my shoulder constantly.” She shook her head, then raised it to meet Joan’s eyes, “Or … maybe I need to quit being a negative Nelly and count my blessings of a friend like you, this little dog that needs me, and my safe little abode that has a secure place to park — most of the time.” She smiled and emptied her tea cup, “All right — let’s do it, Joan. Enough of this pity party. I can’t let you go it alone, anyway, you’ll just get yourself in a pickle that I won’t be there to save you from.
When do we leave and what do we have to do to get ready?”
Wow! Just like that — a sort of decision is made.
“Well, first of all, do you have a passport? I have to get mine. It’s just as well that we can’t go until about July.”
Jenny looked perplexed, “Passport? Why do I need a passport? Alaska’s a state.”
“A state with a whole different country between us and it,” I said. “The last time I went to Canada, after 9/11, I had no problem crossing the border into Canada — but I needed my birth certificate or a passport to get back into the United States. That was quite the revolting development since I didn’t have a passport and had never considered that I should drag my birth certificate around with me.”
“But Joan, is that going to spike a present-day trail to find me?” Jenny shook her head, “I don’t want to jeopardize my desert safe haven for anything! You saw what those people are capable of on our way back from that ‘’ you got us into,” she shook her head, “I still can’t believe he recognized me with the new hair, the new eye color, all the changes I thought I made to my stance and demeanor.
And what about that? Do we have to pass through the coast — or, clearly, no longer safe — Ely, Nevada?”
I raced the rough route in my head while I drained my mug of tea, “Not at all. We can cruise up through Utah, across Idaho, into Montana, and cross into Alberta, Canada — or we can cross the border into British Columbia through Idaho. Washington doesn’t even enter the equation — unless we decide to take the Alaska Ferry through the inside passage — something I’ve always wanted to do….
We can travel west in Canada on Highway 1 and side trip into Jasper and Banff National Park if we want to. It will add some miles, but do we care? We’ll pick up the Alcan at Dawson Creek — at the north end of the Cascade Mountains.
So, the answer is, ‘no’, we don’t have to go through Washington or Nevada.
As for a flag pointing to a new trail to you,” I tilted my head to think, “I don’t know. There’s no such thing as privacy these days anyway.
Did you change your name legally, or just start using Jenny Crawford?”
Jenny suddenly dropped her chin to her chest and sighed, “I was hoping I’d never have to share this tidbit with you — or anybody else. Ever.” She was silent for an eternity, “I bought my new identity on a street corner in Portland. I didn’t want any kind of a paper trail to my old name. That’s another reason I do everything with cash — no paper trails. I even file my taxes on the 1040 EZ form and pay them with a money order.”
I sunk back against the bench wall, “Really! You are, at least, 100 times more courageous than I have ever thought of being.”
“Or more stupid. But, Joan,” I heard the agony in her voice, “ you know I was desperate and couldn’t think of any other way to disappear. Those people are positively unstoppable once they decide they will win!”
I thought a minute, pondering the options, “And you never had a passport — ever?”
“I did. But it’s under my old name — if it isn’t expired.”
“Do you have it with you?” I asked.
Jenny raised her head, “Yes. What are you thinking?”
“I’m thinking that you won’t need it until we get to Tok Junction. That’s Alaska, deary. Why does it matter if Marion shows up in Alaska?
Find it and see if it’s still good. You could even renew it in Alaska if that’s what you need to do — providing it’s still good and we can get there from here.” I said, pleased with myself. “Talk about a perfect red herring!”
Jenny perked up, “I hadn’t thought of that. Hang on, I’ll get it.” Jenny opened her special hidey hole and rooted around in a fireproof box, “Here it is,” she opened it, “It expires next year.” I saw the wheels turning in her head.
“Okay, I give up. Maybe next year I can settle down for awhile.
Let’s ‘do’ Alaska, Joan,” she said with a heavy heart. Then she glared at me and all but sneered, “Sometimes you are such a conniver.”
“What?” I looked at her in disbelief, “Where did that come from, Jenny? Maybe we should re-think this journey…….” I slid my legs out from under the table to stand up with the intention of leaving. I’d never seen this behavior in Jenny — and certainly never directed at me. Personal attacks are absolutely unacceptable in my new life.
“No, Joan, please don’t go,” she shook her head and peered out the front window, “I get so frustrated at those people having such control over my life — still! I shouldn’t have to scheme and buy identities on a street corner to live my life in peace from them.” She reached across the table and laid her hand on my forearm softly, “I’m so sorry it came out that way.” Jenny gave me time to adjust my own reaction before she continued.
“Let’s ‘do’ Alaska, Joan. Let’s make some memories, and get on with it — whatever ‘it’ is……”
My defensive huff was diffused for the moment, but I still had to get my licks in, “Call it what you like, Jenny. That’s my job. Pondering the options is what I do. I do not connive or manipulate — I search for ways out of seemingly impossible situations. And… I don’t force you into anything, girl.” I clamped my mouth shut and tried to sip tea from my empty cup, replacing the punch someone in the kisser picture with the view of Tabletop Mountain in the distance. The wretched asthma symptoms of the morning threatened to return with a vengeance if I didn’t douse this extreme stress fire fast.
I hopped up from the bench, “But, sometimes it’s more a matter of quit talking about it and just do it.
I’ll get my paperwork started to get my own passport — right now time is on our side.” The screen door swung open with a gentle push, “I think I’ll head out in the wee hours of the morning to get through Phoenix before the freeway turns into a 350°oven. I’ll stop in Camp Verde to get my passport going and load up on supplies before I head into Stoneman Lake Road.
I’ll text you when I get set.
Jenny was lost in space somewhere, I hoped it was a pleasant jaunt, but from the set of her jaw, I’m guessing it was not.
I stepped outside and closed the screen door, “And now I’m going to climb into my space ship and fly back to my place.”
Jenny chuckled, back from her spacey journey, “Yes, fine. I’ll see you in a few days, weeks, or whatever, Joan.”
2 – The Escape
There’s a perfectly good, logical reason that I always say I won’t drag my trailer up Stoneman Lake Road, only down it. Stoneman Lake Road is a forest road shortcut from Interstate 17 to Lake Mary Road — aka County Road 3 — aka Forest Highway 3. You’ll find the freeway exit about 35 miles south of Flagstaff and 15 miles north of Camp Verde. Driving it yourself, you leave the 17 at about 5,000 feet elevation and arrive on Lake Mary Road at about 7,000 feet elevation. The 2,000 foot climb — or descent — happens in about 11 miles, over dirt and gravel forest road. Sometimes it’s graded — usually it’s not. Washboard is a common term for the road bed. It’s a tidbit wider than a cow trail the entire length.
The Camp Verde end is high desert brush, Juniper trees and open spaces. Tall pines take over the landscape soon after the pavement ends. During the summer months, stuffy air turns crisp and fresh where the tall pine trees thrive. Stoneman Lake Road cuts off roughly 50 miles if Mormon Lake Village and its vast forest surrounds is your destination. It is well traveled.
On the plus side, if you do decide you should drag your oversized RV with your undersized truck up Stoneman Lake Road and can’t quite make it up that grade, somebody — with any luck, a dump truck or a logging truck — will be along soon to tow you up.
Most people will help in whatever way they can to rescue you. I choose to save myself the stress and embarrassment if I’m pulling a trailer and go the extra miles around.
But this time is different. This time I want to camp and work with a client. I want to be warm with my door open, get my allergies under control, and be available to Jenny while I’m spending quality time with Geraldine to get her over her hump and on with life as she desires it to be.
This time I must take the exit with my trailer tagging along and find a safe place to call home for the next couple of weeks before I start up the first grade and find myself in a fiendish situation.
Anticipation causes paralyzing fear.
I anticipated — saw in my mind’s eye — being stuck at the bottom of a grade — or in the middle of a grade — being unable to continue up, having to back a trailer down switchback city with no visibility of what’s around that corner I’m backing down, and no 40 acres to get headed down the mountain in a forward direction.
I was pretty much paralyzed from that picture in my head — ignoring the fact that my trailer was small, my truck plenty big enough to pull it wherever I wanted to go — when I rounded the corner that ended the pavement and normal width road onto cow trail dirt/gravel road with deep run-off ditches on both sides. I experienced devastating symptoms of pain in my back, my legs, my shoulders, and my arms. I had trouble breathing. I shook, inside and out, remembering Mama’s Parkinson’s symptoms and wishing she was here to help me keep control.
I pulled off onto the wide spot corner to take a breath, pour myself a fresh, hot cup of coffee from my indestructible Stanley thermos, get control of myself and think it through. Negotiating Phoenix traffic, applying for my passport at the post office and loading up with supplies at Basha’s was a piece of cake compared to this.
Most of me wanted to scurry back to where I started — my safe haven. That wasn’t feasible by any stretch of the imagination — although always an option from this point, since options are what I need to proceed with any endeavor.
Sliding down out of the Creampuff, my shaking coffee mug in hand, I paced, listing my options in my head:
Take a long walk, checking out each access on foot
Drop the trailer (not my first choice by any means) and drive into each access
Continue on with hope, a prayer, and paralyzing fear
I opted for taking a walk first. If I couldn’t find a place to camp, perhaps I could locate another wide spot to repeat the search on foot.
Disconnecting the trailer and driving further if I couldn’t find a place was my last resort choice.
Very good. I’ll walk until I can’t see my rig, first one way, and then the other if I don’t find ‘home’. As I trudged, all of my symptoms went away.
I found a place less than a mile away that would work nicely — and I got some good exercise in after my long sit behind the wheel. What could be better? Oh! Yes! Skipping over the anticipation in the first place. Maybe next time….
3 – Geraldine
“Putt, putt, putt” woke me up to daylight sneaking through the edges of the blinds. The snoughing had finally stopped, breathing was a joy once again. I peeked out the corner of my blind at what was making the noise. A battered ATV with an old, leather faced man sporting a saggy Aussie hat driving it popped and sputtered past me, seemingly paying me no mind. I hadn’t noticed any signs of range cattle, but that’s insignificant when it comes to grazing in these country sized forests of ours. I decided not to worry about him for the moment. Geraldine would be along shortly. I got the coffee going and prepared my morning tonic while I reprogrammed my head for coaching.
We’d only talked on the phone to date — I had no idea what to expect. She said she was a rancher, suddenly alone in the world about a year ago, and couldn’t make herself get past trying to undo what she’d done. But she’d managed to sidestep telling me what she’d done to beat herself up for. I could only hope it was something as simple as not being available when her mate needed her.
With my thermos filled, my rocker, my dry camp table and chairs set up between Juniper trees for — I hoped — shade in the afternoon, I busied myself by refreshing my memory through Geraldine’s thin client file and more fresh, hot coffee. Breakfast was a leftover flax and hemp seed pancake with yogurt and raspberries perched on top — finger food. It was properly messy and delicious.
Gravel didn’t even crunch when a bright red object caught my eye out the door. It was a fire engine red Prius v. No rumble of an engine — just abruptly there. I stepped to the doorway and peered out, relieved it was warm enough to entertain outside.
Behind the steering wheel was a very round faced lady with a very short dark bob like my Grandma wore. A floppy, flowered hat sat on her head and the biggest gold hoop earrings I’d ever seen swished on her shoulders. The window rolled down just enough to talk through.
“Are you Joan?” a familiar sounding gravelly voice asked.
I nodded and smiled, “Geraldine, I presume?”
The door opened, feet appeared under the door and landed onto the ground —pudgy bare feet in Berkinstock sandals, each toe featuring a toe ring. The head rose up above the door. She looked to be about 5’4” and exceedingly round under an orange, purple, and red flowered silk caftan. The gold chain around her neck — the links about an inch in length — held a natural quartz crystal at about where her belly button should be. Rings adorned each finger on both hands.
I don’t know what I expected — maybe blue jeans, plaid flannel shirt, boots, and a straw hat? But she had my full attention now.
“Did you have any trouble finding me?” I asked.
“Oh no. My ranch is just a few miles up the road — on the Mormon Lake end. I know this road very well.”
I tapped a chair, “Have a seat. Can you go for some coffee or tea?”
She sat, “I’d enjoy some green tea if you have it.”
“I do,” I said, popping back into my trailer to prepare the brew. I wondered how well she traipsed through the forest in her Berkinstocks. Walking and talking does so much more to promote client healing. “So tell me about your situation,” I half yelled at the doorway. “You don’t look ready to camp…how do you want to do this fast-track program?”
“I’m the only one on the place since I became a widow, Joan. I have animals to feed, water, and love.” Silence. “I was hoping you could either come to my place or I could come to you during the day. Is that possible?”
A chuckle escaped as I stepped out the door, tea for her and coffee for me. “Anything’s possible, Geraldine. But, unless you need me to come to your place, the program works better if you’re away from your everyday distractions. This is all about you. What do you want?”
Geraldine wrapped her hands around her mug of tea, leaving the tea bag steeping in it, “I want — no, I need success. I can’t go on this way. Let’s try me coming to you daily first. Is that all right?”
“Yep. We work with what we have.” I opened the new notebook in front of me, “Go ahead and open the notebook in front of you. We’ll both be making notes. We’re going to start with playing 20 questions.”
She took a sip of tea and opened the notebook. She picked up the ever-sharp pencil I’d provided, examined it, and set it down again. “I’ll get my favorite pen,” she said, going to her car and dragging out a red, orange, and purple striped burlap book bag. She left the bag on the hood of the car and carried a Cross gold barreled pen back to the table. “Okay, Joan. Ready when you are.”
“Let’s start with some background on you. How long were you married?”
I heard a lump forming as she spoke, “George and I were together for 20 years. I’m an only child, I think — an orphan now with both my parents gone — so we, George and I, were totally dependent on each other.
George was very private. He abhorred socializing as a couple. We bought the ranch soon after we were married and just grew with it. He, like me, was an only child to parents of means. They left us well provided for, so neither of us had to go out to make money. It’s all in investments. The money arrived — and still does — monthly.” Geraldine swallowed the lump, took a slug of tea, and continued.
“We made monthly trips to town for supplies, worked the garden, raised the animals,” she shrugged, a tear running down her cheek, “and just lived.” She took a breath and kept talking.
“With the internet, Amazon, UPS, and FedEx, there’s just no need to get out there in the world. The thought of it scares me to death.”
I wasn’t taking down her words verbatim, but was making notes here and there, trying to think of a tactful way to ask about her attire — from pure curiosity. COLORFUL was the first word on my list.
“What would you like your new life to be?” I asked.
“My old life.” She said without considering even for a second.
I shook my head, “That’s not possible, Geraldine. You are, right now, living your new life. How would you like it to be different? Have you not ever even considered or wished for something to be different? Is there a dream you haven’t fulfilled?”
Geraldine shrugged, “I’m wearing it,” she fluffed and smoothed the caftan, swished her head, and waved her hands, “and driving it,” she waved toward the bright red SUV. “George wanted me in bibbed overalls, plaid shirts, and hiking boots. He was my life. I complied happily — most of the time,” a slight, mischievous, grin appeared on Geraldine’s face. It was a pretty face with a spark that reassured me Geraldine has the desire to take on — and succeed — at a second chance. I just have to find the button that will engage her go gear.
4 – Geraldine’s Decision
“More tea, Geraldine?” I asked, stepping into my trailer to refill my coffee mug. I didn’t hear a response. “I’ll put the kettle on…”. I really wanted time to consider how to fan that spark I saw without blowing it out. I had to refrain from planning her future with my — as yet — unfulfilled dream of a retreat for people to learn to live again after devastating grief — whether from loss of life (or limb) or from escaping abuse in any form. A place to realize and launch your own wonderful life.
“Yes, please,” a gravelly voice said at my door — jerking me back to reality.
I reached for a fine china plate (Walmart’s Great Value paper) and my cookie jar — an aged Quaker Oatmeal can with the recipe on the back — to put Mama’s Ginger Creams on. I usually put the can out, but I was afraid Geraldine’s pudgy fingers with the addition of the rings wouldn’t fit into it. I have a little tact now and again.
She leaned in at the door, “Oh my, this is cute. May I come in?”
“Of course,” I responded, “You can tour the whole place from the bench.”
“My goodness! You have a kitchen, a bedroom, a bathroom…is that a refrigerator?”
“Yes, it is.
Are you thinking you might like to travel?”
“I just don’t know, I hadn’t thought about it. We had a Volkswagen van in the beginning, before we bought the ranch. Living in it was roughing it, to say the least. But this,” she looked around and showed the mischievous grin again, “this is luxury. I could be very cozy and comfortable in this.” She picked up the plate of cookies and the fine linens (paper towels) before she disappeared out the door. I carried the refilled mugs.
Geraldine dipped her tea bag and munched on a cookie, “Mmm, these should have a ‘could be habit forming’ label on them, Joan.” She swallowed, took a swig of tea, picked up another cookie and chewed while she stared out at the juniper dotted expanse with the Mogollon Rim in the distance. “I’ve seen this country for over 20 years, but never in this light. Thank you, Joan, for coming here and helping me through this.”
These moments are so necessary to my own ego, but they always made me feel awkward, like I have two left feet on the dance floor. I swallowed my own ginger cream and guzzled some water from my ever present Bubba cup, “You’re welcome, Geraldine.”
I shuffled my notebook and anything else I could find. “Shall we continue with our 20 questions and get started with Step 1?”
Geraldine got antsy and fussed with her necklace rock, “I suppose. I thought we did some of this over the phone.”
“I know we tried, but I don’t know what step, or steps, are completed,” I said, hoping that Step 1 — Get Mad! — was truly done without my witnessing it. “That’s why we’re starting at the beginning, so to speak.”
Geraldine closed her eyes, sucked in a gob of air, held it, and exhaled, “All right, Joan. I’m as ready as I’ll ever be.” She continued speaking.
“Step 1 — Get really mad! I did that. I did that for two or three days, it seemed. My poor animals went through it with me, trying to kiss my hurts away and giving me space. I got wood split to last me a year. Please don’t make me do that again.”
I made notes and shook my head, “Never, Geraldine. If you have all the anger and anguish out — if you have accepted that your life has changed and are determined to make it for the better, I’ll accept that you’ve grown and are ready to move on.
What say you?”
“I say Step 1 and Step 2 are a done deal. Let’s move on. I’ve been trying, but to what? To where? What now?” She picked up another cookie to munch and sipped her tea.
I smiled my relief, “Now it’s on to Step 3 — this is where you start to get creative and to learn — or remind yourself — who you, Geraldine Jones, really is. What has been aching, down deep inside you, to get out — besides colorful caftans and gaudy jewelry. I have homework for you. Take a note…”
Geraldine picked up her Cross gold pen and held it poised over her notebook, “Do tell, Joan”.
“Step 3 is to identify your gift.” I held my hand up, “Yes, you do have a gift. You will now identify it. Here’s how.
Answer this question with as many things as you can think of:
1. ‘What are you doing when you don’t know what you’re doing?’
Where is your head while you’re gathering eggs or milking the cow, or washing the dishes?
Are you meal planning? Are you designing something — clothes, jewelry, cars…
Are you decorating a room or setting the barn up to be more efficient?
Are you engineering roads or power lines?
Are you making up music or lyrics?
‘What, exactly, are you doing when you don’t know what you’re doing?’
It’s going to take some work, but it will pay off big time. You’ll start to see the payoff beginning tomorrow when we meet again and you have your list of what you are doing when you don’t know what you’re doing in hand.” I started gathering items from our session to end it.
“Any questions before we part company and get on with our own ‘do’s’?”
Geraldine clipped the pen to the notebook, set the plate of leftover cookies on top, smiled that mischievous grin at me, stood up and proceeded to her bright red SUV. She tossed her striped bag in through the open window, opened the door and looked at me, “Not even one. I’ll see you tomorrow. And thanks for the cookies. If you don’t give me the recipe, I’ll send you the bill for addiction recovery.”
“Hello? Who’s there!” I peered out from behind the curtain. I’d been so deep in outlining my new book that I hadn’t even realized it was daylight — except for the leather faced man on the old ATV that putt-putted by again. I was still in my plaid flannel nightgown with my face unwashed and my hair uncombed. I was not ready to face my public — but there it was, a bright red Prius v peering back at me.
“It’s me, Geraldine.”
I unlocked the door and opened it, “That’s twice you’ve snuck up on me. You need bells on your car, girl, before you get yourself whomped on.
And good morning, Geraldine!” I said with a smile. “I’m so glad to see you.”
“I’m sorry, Joan. I argued with myself over calling or texting first, but then myself said to just come ahead since we’d be camping together if it wasn’t for my animals.”
“It’s okay. We both survived — and you must have made great progress on your gift list to be hitting it this early.
Are you into coffee, tea, or water this morning?”
“I’ll try coffee, if you don’t mind, Joan. George didn’t allow caffeine in the house. It’s my house now. I may even try a cigar before this is done….”
I chuckled, a wild question mark of Geraldine’s untold background niggled at me while I reached for a company mug and filled it with fresh, hot Yuban coffee and set it on the table in front of her, “I don’t have a cigar, but I can come up with canned milk and sugar if that’s your desire.”
She watched the steam rise from the dark brown brew, mesmerized. “It smells delicious. It looks foreboding. I think I’ll try it straight.” Geraldine smacked her lips and lifted the mug with both hands, “Here goes…” she sipped, wrinkled her nose and eyed me, the mischievous grin growing on her face, “I’m not dead, am I?”
“Not that I can see,” I replied.
She lifted the mug and took another sip, “I think I like it.” She swirled the brew in the mug and sniffed at it, like she was sampling brandy, tipped the cup to her lips and downed it all. “More, please, but this time with milk and sugar.”
I refilled her mug, retrieved the Carnation milk from the refrigerator, the sugar from the cupboard, a spoon from the drawer and set it down in front of her. “Go easy, Geraldine. You can always add more, but you can’t take it out once it’s in.”
“That’s okay, Joan. I got this.” I was mesmerized, watching Geraldine get acquainted with coffee. I was also concerned about her getting too much her first time out. Having grown up with coffee as a staple — the first one of us out of bed in the morning had to brew the coffee, I couldn’t remember if there were any ill effects.
Geraldine downed the second cup, adding a little sugar and milk as she went, tasting after each addition. “Okay, Joan. I’ve done it. I like it. I’m alive,” she examined her body, “and well as far as I can see. May I please have a cup of hot water now?”
“Certainly.” I put the kettle on, rinsed her cup and took my seat again, ready for the next surprise. I decided to push it.
“How old were you when you and George were married?”
She sighed as if she was resigned to her fate, “I was given to George in marriage on my 13th birthday. We left the community on our wedding night, after our leader told George to send me to him at sundown. I’d heard what happens when a girl gets ‘invited’ to the leader’s house at night and didn’t want any part of it. Neither did George. We left and never looked back. Both of our parents had escaped a few years before, but the only way they could leave was to abandon us. When we contacted our respective parents, they told us to disappear and how they would provide for us. We did and they did.
I really have no idea if we are orphans.”
“Oh!” My hand flew to my mouth to shut me up. Not only am I the Queen of Denial, I pride myself on being Unshockable. I am cool and calm in all situations.
Geraldine talked on, apparently unaware of my gasp.
“And you’re the only one who knows my story, Joan. I don’t know if I’m trusting you with my life. George said no one must ever know who we are. Is he right? Does it matter anymore?”
“Do you want to know if you’re an orphan?” I asked, genealogy being one of my hobbies.
“I don’t know, Joan.” She sipped at her cup of water, “Am I going to be kidnapped and imprisoned if I start digging up bones? If I’m not an orphan, will I be rejected and my source of income taken away? I don’t know which would be more devastating — I’ve never known any other way of life.
If George hadn’t gotten himself squashed under that wagon load of hay, I wouldn’t be having this conversation with you — or even myself…”
I had to bring her back to the present, “What if we do this, Geraldine? How about let’s work on Step 3 of your recovery, identify your gift, and let these questions cook for now? I think as you grow stronger in getting to know yourself you’ll be able to answer your own questions with the grit and confidence that you’re making the best decision.” I met her eyes head-on, “What do you think of that?”
“What if I’m missing an opportunity to know the people who have provided for me so greatly all these years? What if I have siblings I know nothing about? What if they’re alive today, but die tomorrow — and I missed out because I didn’t follow through?”
I threw my hand up to stop the flow of ‘what-ifs’, “Hold it, Geraldine. Take a breath — how about a cup of tea? We aren’t out of options just yet.” I patted the back of her well adorned hand, “It’s going to be just fine. Rome really wasn’t built in a day — and neither will your recovery be.”
Standing up from my own side of the table, I opened the door to the bright morning sun, pulled the screen door closed, and lit the burner under the kettle, “Now how about a shot of jasmine green tea while we slog through this one step at a time.” I faced her, my hand open to receive her mug, “Okay?”
She handed me her cup, “Yes, ma’am,” she said wanly.
I paced in the small space, waiting for the kettle to emit a stream of steam, “And let’s move our party outside in the open air. Where are your notes from your homework assignment?”
Geraldine drug herself off the bench and out the door, “I’ll get them, Joan.”
“I’ll meet you outside, Geraldine. I need to get dressed and wash my face……and, you know….
Coffee, tea, and Mama’s Ginger Creams in place on the still cool little metal table between the juniper trees, we each sat with our notebooks opened to the last page of notes. The sky was clear, the junipers pungent.
Anxious to keep her on a forward move I dove in, “So what did you come up with? What are you doing when you don’t know what you’re doing?”
“Well, strangely enough, you were right. I’m not empty headed ever, but I don’t see what this has to do with my so-called ‘gift’.”
“It’s okay, Geraldine. You will. What did you come up with?”
She shuffled the notebook around, “All right, here goes — don’t laugh, it all seems silly to me.”
“No guarantees. Laughing is good,” I responded.
“Hmph!” she grunted while a hint of a grin played on her lips.
“While I was driving home, I was telling my companion about the road conditions in winter, what corners to watch out for and how to get around them safely.
While I was milking Nelda, I was asking her how she liked her new grain mix and telling her how I came up with the recipe. She coughed and said moo.”
I chuckled and Geraldine grinned, her face turning slightly red.
She took a breath, “While I was washing the eggs, I was calculating how many eggs it would take to serve 10 people an omelet and how to get it done all at once.
AND, while I was waiting for the mule’s water tank to fill, I was deciding what I would need to hook them up for a trail ride and where we’d go.
That’s all I got. What are you going to do with it?”
“I’m going to help you sort it out to identify your gift.
What’s the common thread in all of them?”
She examined the page, “Hmmm, seems they all include people (or animals in a pinch), someone to talk to, to plan for…not so much with…I don’t know what this is telling me, Joan, besides I care about people and animals being well and happy.”
“Are you an event planner?”
Geraldine laughed, a deep belly laugh that brought tears to her eyes, “A planner? Yes. But an event planner? What part of George and me and the animals for the last 20 years did you miss? What event would I have ever planned for — but thanks for the hilarity of the thought, Joan. I don’t remember the last time I laughed that hard. However, let me think about that for a time…” she wiped her eyes and blew her nose, “maybe that is what I’ve done forever. I just wasn’t aware of it.” She looked at me, “If so, what do I do with it? So what if I can plan great events?”
“Use it to help others, girl. Play with it. See how it fits. Let your imagination and creativity soar. Spread your wings and see where they take you…” she was shaking her head — more in wonder than in negativity.
“You have another homework assignment — Step 4 — Find Geraldine. Go home and plan that event that’s been trying to get out of your head since day 1. If event planning is truly your gift, it’ll pour out of you. The work will come with the fine tuning.
When you come back with your plan, I’ll be looking for the answers to:
Who’s it for?
What do they need?
How will you fulfill their needs to make it a positive memory and more?
What do you think, Geraldine? Are you ready to leap into your new life?”
“I’m amazed, Joan. How did you do that?”
“It’s all in pondering the options given from the clues, Geraldine. If I don’t have options to ponder I’m dead in the water and sinking fast. That’s my gift. Identifying it and using it gave my life purpose and direction…as what you’re doing in this program will do for you.
And,” I continued my speech, “…I may have deduced incorrectly. You’ll know today and we’ll act accordingly until it’s right for you.
She gathered her notebook and pen, “Yes, ma’am. I’m actually excited to get started. Give me all your cookies and I’ll be on my way.”
I shoved the plate at her, “Take them, they’re yours. I’ll see if I have time and energy to make more today…I may have options to ponder that are more important than Mama’s Ginger Creams.”
Geraldine stood up with her armload and a plate of cookies balanced on top, “Stop scaring me, I have enough to deal with.
I’ll see you tomorrow.”
With ginger creams in the oven, I worked on case notes for Geraldine and decided to take a walk to see where the leather faced man on the old ATV went every morning. I presumed he made a loop of some sort because he went in, but never came out. I waved and smiled, like a good neighbor should, but he was so tunnel-visioned that he seemed to not even notice me. Very curious, indeed.
I had no trouble following the ruts that the ATV made. I walked slowly, examining the country, the terrain, around each tree, juniper or otherwise, and bush for activity — each camp spot, fire ring, and ogling the long distance view of the rim. Nothing stood out. I didn’t even find a water tank enroute, just dried up cowpies and ruts. The ruts came out at Stoneman Lake Road. I walked the road back to my camp, refreshed from the walk, my curiosity even more piqued. I made a mental note to ask Geraldine if she knew anything about him.
According to my Smart phone, I’d missed a call from Jenny while I was snooping. I swiped it awake and pushed the handset icon. She didn’t answer. I texted, ‘tag, you’re it’ and downed a slug of water from my Bubba cup. She called back a few minutes later. “I’m hooking up now,” she said, “finished with my job and planning to bail this desert preheat early in the morning.”
“Are we still on for Alaska?” I asked. Life changes so quickly and without warning that I seem to have a need to affirm plans beyond the current day anymore. I don’t know that it does any good, it’s just what I do.
“As far as I know,” she said, unwilling to commit for the long term for the same reason.
“My passport is in process, no matter what. I guess we’ll either go or we won’t. I think I’ll check out the Alaska Marine Highway this afternoon — see if we have to make reservations, the cost — you know…
And, just a heads up, Geraldine is in the first stages of experiencing life as her own boss. She’s lived an extremely cloistered life of an expatriate. She may decide she should hit the road with us — at least for a time. Can you live with that?”
“I may grumble, Joan, about you’re collection of strays, but I was once one myself so I better not grumble too loud. I’ll go with the flow — wherever it leads,” she said forlornly, “I’ll see you tomorrow sometime — I have the directions to find you right in front of me.”
“Very good, Jenny. Call or text me when you get off the 17 onto Stoneman Lake Road and I’ll walk out to the road. It can get hairy very soon if you miss this turn-off.”
“Got it, Joan. Bye now.”
I rooted around in my refrigerator for supper, of sorts, letting the Alaska Marine Highway research cook, determined to not let Jenny’s gloom pour over to my own attitude, and tucked myself into bed with a Sue Grafton Alphabet Murder — because I could.
5 – The Waiting
Geraldine was late, so to speak. I was in hurry-up-and-wait mode, afraid to get into anything big, like working on my latest book, but had tidied my house, planned supper, written the recipe for Mama’s Ginger Creams on an index card to give to Geraldine, and started a shopping list to pick up when I was ready to check on the status of my passport. I couldn’t think of any more busywork to do.
To prevent myself from pacing and chasing what-if’s I booted the computer and searched for the Alaska Marine Highway. Here is what I found from www.travelalaska.com…
“Sail the world-famous Inside Passage aboard a ship that meets your personal needs, interests and budget. An Alaskan cruise is a convenient way to experience the best of Alaska; unpack just once and enjoy all-inclusive pricing on meals. The cruise line handles the logistics and details of travel, and partners with tour operators to offer add-on excursions and day tours (usually for an additional fee).
These are not “typical” cruises designed around shuffleboard and swimming pools. On an Alaskan cruise, the focus is on whales, bald eagles, Russian legacy, Gold Rush history, Native cultures and spectacular coastal scenery.”
It was a start that definitely had my ‘YES!’ attention. I checked out my windows for a bright red SUV. Nothing.
Next I went to Wikipedia and found…..
“The Alaska Marine Highway (AMH) or the Alaska Marine Highway System (AMHS) is a service operated by the U.S. state of . It has its headquarters in .^+]^
The Alaska Marine Highway System operates along the south-central coast of the state, the eastern and the of Alaska and , . Ferries serve communities in that have no road access, and the vessels can transport people, freight, and vehicles. AMHS’s 3,500 miles (5,600 km) of routes go as far south as in the and as far west as , with a total of 32 terminals throughout Alaska, British Columbia, and Washington. It is part of the [+ National Highway System+] and receives federal highway funding. It is also a form of transportation of vehicles between the state and the contiguous United States, going through but not requiring international customs and immigration.
The Alaska Marine Highway System is a rare example (in the USA) of a shipping line offering regularly scheduled service for the primary purpose of transportation rather than of leisure or entertainment. Voyages can last many days, but, in contrast to the luxury of a typical cruise line, cabins cost extra, and most food is served .”
This is more what I wanted to know. Cabins are optional, apparently. A passport isn’t required. But what about our trucks and trailers? Are reservations required? I searched and found that it was going to cost each of us with a truck and trailer about $4,000 for a one way passage from Ketchikan, Alaska to Bellingham, Washington. Bleck!
Something about pets caught my eye when a flash of red drew my attention. It was Geraldine. I shut down the computer and met her outside at the table.
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Hop on board with Joan and Jenny on another adventure of a lifetime – from the southwest desert to the Arctic Circle, and everything in between. Meet Spock's doppleganger at the Arctic Circle while you ooh and ahh at the northern lights. Answer the question, “Does Molly really have amnesia?” Help Joan find her horn to stop it from honking at random – she's sick of smiling and waving. And then there's Geraldine......