In Memoriam, with Love and Gratitude

I’m here today because of the love and advice given to me by a wonderful, compassionate, inspiring person who isn’t here any longer.

I lost my uncle two weeks ago.

Oftentimes, moments that leave us completely shattered also render us speechless.  That hasn’t been the case for me, not now.  Instead, I’m caught amidst an upswelling of words, words desperately seeking a way out.  If you’ll allow me the space, this is where I’d like to share them, starting with some of my favorite memories.

Circa 1994

Uncle Doug, my mother’s little brother, was always an important figure in my life, but initially that was simply because of my love for his sister.  When our family tree was chopped in half 16 years ago, however, he and I became much closer.  In thinking back to that era, I’m reminded of a line of John Denver’s Wild Montana Skies:  “His mother’s brother took him in, to his family and his home, gave him a hand that he could lean on, and a strength to call his own.”

Before the dust had settled from the divorce, Uncle Doug invited me to his home in Maryland, under the pretense that I, with my twelve-year-old’s design skills honed by Geocities, could design his business’s website.  It was my first week away from home, and it was a transformative experience.  While I was there, Uncle Doug took me out on long drives, playing sentimental Tom T. Hall songs and music from a recent backcountry trip to Newfoundland.  We talked for hours, about everything and nothing.  He gave me space, on his family’s five acres, to get a glimpse of myself again.

Other important memories come from two years later, when, once my family had moved to Kentucky and welcomed horses into our lives, Uncle Doug came to help us build a run-in for the love of my life, a fussy little colt named Frankie.  It was a fast weekend visit — Uncle Doug needed to get back to his family’s business — but he made time to shower some unconditional love on my sister and me.  I enjoyed seeing the evidence of the friendship he and my mother shared, and vowed, along with my sister, to emulate their bond.

I didn’t see him very much after that.  There were occasional trips and reunions (including one when he deemed once-snarling young hound dog Ohana a “princess” and she happily sat on his lap), but no longer could the man who’d shared my mother’s aptitude for road trips — who could jump in the car with a tiny backpack at a few minutes’ notice and emerge twelve hours later — make the voyage.

You see, Uncle Doug’s health was deteriorating.  He believed it all stemmed from football injuries (and the resulting back surgeries), but he also talked about years of strange illnesses.

Our relationship became phone-based.  For a decade, my mother talked to her brother every day, often for an hour or more at a time, sharing details of our lives and listening to his thoughts and feelings.  My sister and I talked to him, too.

As relationships do, ours evolved over the years.  When Frankie was young, our conversations consisted of debating the virtues of various animal training methods.  Later, we talked about our shared love of the outdoors.  He was a big-picture thinker who soaked up new information wherever he could find it, and I loved talking about ideas with him.

In his every interaction with us, Uncle Doug seemed to insist that, much like his own children, my sister and I had hung the moon.  She was the world’s greatest singer.  My writing was going to change the world.  We were going to do amazing things, just like his beloved sister.

When you’re young and so confused and self-conscious, having someone think you’re wonderful feels both ridiculous and special.

In time, I grew up.  I headed off to New England, proudly making my own way and becoming my own person.  When an undiagnosed illness that had sentenced me to bed for ten months sent me home for surgery, it was Uncle Doug who listened to my mother’s worries with an understanding ear.  Dispensing with the maddening advice that I needed more fresh air or exercise or even rest, he brainstormed with her about what could be the problem.  Ten days after I arrived home, on his suggestion, I was tested for Lyme Disease.  Two months later, I was given a new lease on life.

I’m still not sure by what miracle he suspected Lyme.  He’d had at least one bull’s eye rash in his life (around the time doctors were first documenting Lyme Arthritis), and struggled with Bell’s palsy during his last year.  Seeing my improvement, my return from death’s doorstep, he wondered whether Lyme could be part of his story, too.  After so many years of medical treatments, his biochemistry would have made detection of Lyme difficult, and we will never know the answer now.

Thanks to Uncle Doug, I’d won my first battle, but the war was far from over.  When I was home with my fourth relapse, I cried about several years’ worth of shin splint-like pain to my mom.  The next evening, without having heard my story, Uncle Doug described the same pain.  Suddenly, I had a new data point, and it helped me put together the puzzle I’d thought was solved.  This unhealing shin splint wasn’t caused by a long-forgotten workout; the culprit was one of Lyme’s friends, bartonella.

Since treating that coinfection, I’ve been healthy for nearly one year.  I’d so wanted to be able to return the healing favor.

Uncle Doug and I talked frequently during my recovery.  He was the last person I got to talk to in the airport, when I was heading for Spain.  This past fall, he was so thrilled that I was going back to school, but then he was equally excited to hear that I was helping Mom with her business and pursuing art.  When I got into the Kentucky Guild of Artists and Craftsmen last week, he insisted that I was going to be world-renowned.

In our last conversation, he gave me advice for my debut art show, which will open tomorrow, just four days after the 54th birthday he’ll never get to see.  For him, I’m working on a large-format piece, the largest original piece I’ve ever created.

On my blog, I’ve shared the photo I’m basing the felted piece on before.  At the time, I’d captioned it “Top of the World.”  These days, the felted rendition is going by the second part of that lyrical line: “Looking Down on Creation.”

In Loving Memory

Douglas Alexander Ramsey


Finding My Way to Orienteering

I think I may have found a new outdoor athletic passion.  On the registration form for Orienteering Louisville‘s Return of the Otter meet, there should have been a disclaimer warning about addiction.

A few months ago, I had no idea that orienteering was a sport.  I was still planting trees up in Vermont and dreaming of my upcoming thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail.  I was researching desert hiking, West Coast flora, wilderness first aid, and compass skills.  Looking for some instruction regarding the latter, I googled “compass class.”  Because Google thinks class and course are synonymous, most of the resulting links were about compass courses, which weren’t instructional but rather routes through the woods that people followed with maps and compasses.

Intrigued, I clicked from one website to another, reading through lots of orienteering jargon to figure out just what orienteering was.  How had I never heard of the sport before?  How, in all the time I’d spent outdoors and with adventuring types, did I not know anyone who’d mentioned it?  What was I missing out on?

While I’d hoped to attend a class teaching compass work with a bunch of other newbies rather than head off onto a competitive course and figure it out as I went, I vowed to embrace vulnerability, venture to a different edge of my comfort zone, and attend an orienteering competition once I returned to Kentucky.

The first opportunity I had was this weekend, when the nearest orienteering club hosted a meet roughly 2.5 hours away.wpid-wp-1426456080184.jpeg

Excited and nervous all at once, I waded down our very long and very muddy driveway in the dark to get in my car and make it to the meet in time for Orienteering 101.  When I entered the meet headquarters building, I was immediately greeted by warm and welcoming people, and I began to feel just excitement.

Louis, an older member of the group, took me through the basics of the sport.  There were maps with more detail and more symbols than I’d ever seen; a map lover at heart, I was fascinated.  There were courses of various levels and hieroglyphic markings denoting the various “controls,” or checkpoints, along each.  Then, there were these magical devices called “fingersticks” that recorded each participant’s journey through the forest.

I decided to enter at the advanced beginner level, cleared and checked my magical fingerstick, plunged it into the start control, and headed off into the woods.

Three minutes into my first run, I was covered in mud, my feet were soaking wet, I had a scratch on my leg, and I had decided I loved orienteering.

Yesterday and today, I attempted four courses. I completed my first in surprisingly good time, was less speedy and more tired on my second, and couldn’t complete the third yesterday. During today’s long events, I attempted the 8km orange course (which was more difficult than either of the courses I’d completed), but I had to stop halfway through because I was too tired and had a very sore IT band. Basically, I wimped out, but, given that it was only 10 days ago that I was able to start working out (lightly) again after this past Lyme flare-up, I was proud of myself for running through the woods for a few hours.

I was more proud of how much my orienteering skills had improved in two days. I’d gone from being unable to confidently take a bearing to being able to navigate (by either compass or landscape features, albeit a bit slowly sometimes) to controls sprinkled throughout the forest. On today’s orange course, there were a number of controls that I couldn’t see from the place in the forest I’d arrived at while searching for them, but I was confident in my navigating and simply looked over a knoll or into a ditch to find them nearby.

Conversational blue blaze: I am a firm believer that the right level of confidence is essential in outdoor adventure settings. While it’s important not to be overly confident and get in over your head, it’s also important not to have your actions rooted in fear.

All of the little result print-outs I got from the weekend declare that orienteering is “the sport for the thinking runner.” That really seems to be a perfect description! This meet was point-to-point style, and the thinking comes in when you realize that the shortest route to the next control isn’t always the fastest; it’s essential to consider alternative routes to avoid obstacles and the chance of getting lost. Some meets are called “rogaines” or “score-os.” Those have mass starts in which all participants go into the field for the same amount of time; each control has a point value, and participants choose which controls to search for.

By the end of this weekend’s meet I was bruised and bloody and sore and exhausted but completely exhilarated. I got in my wagon, turned on the radio (to “Carolina in the Pines”), and headed east, oddly unable to stop mentally transforming the “lone trees,” “gullies,” “knolls,” and “man-made objects” I passed into features on a topographic map.

To learn more about orienteering, visit Orienteering USA’s website.

An Auspicious Beginning, Part One

In a few days, I’ll be heading south to North Carolina to walk the tiny section of the Appalachian Trail I missed during my thru-hike in 2012.  The prospect of being on the trail again, even if I’m planning to spend only one night in the woods, is so exciting and bringing back all sorts of memories.

I’ve shared some photos from the southern terminus of the trail before — and I’ve written about my voyage to the trail in 2011 — but I thought that tonight I would channel my reminiscences toward recounting the beginning of my thru-hike.

Following my 2011 foray on the trail, I returned to my family’s little hobby farm in Kentucky and got a job as a “Math Instructional Aide” at the local community college to save up funds for my thru-hike.  I continued to read about the trail and enjoyed selecting gear and dehydrating food for my hike.  I also exercised extensively and ran two half-marathons.  In early April, I quit work and focused solely on preparations for the trail.  When April 14th rolled around, I loaded my backpack and trekking poles into the car, and my mother drove my sister, our dog, and me to northern Georgia, where I would begin my five- or six-month adventure the following day.


Kelly and Ohana posed near a white blaze at one of the AT crossings we passed on our drive.

Throughout the seven-hour drive, the car seemed filled with anticipation and nervous energy.  When we left the interstate and started winding our way down smaller roads, Ohana (the dog) asked for the windows to be rolled down.  We all enjoyed the bright, spring green scenery and the fresh air.  Several times, our weaving route took us to trail crossings that I would come to in the days and weeks ahead.

When we arrived in Dahlonega, we were famished.  Mom took me out to an Italian restaurant for the designated “last supper.”  I remember looking at the food on my plate and thinking that in just a few hours I’d be leaving that sort of comfort and luxury behind.  I’d spent a month on the trail the previous year; I knew what it was like out there.  While I felt as though I was ready to burst with excitement, I was also more anxious than I’d like to admit.

In the hotel that night, I barely slept.  Ohana, our 70-pound Canine American, seemed to realize that something was amiss — and, more importantly, she recognized that that something concerned me.  She spent the entire night cuddling close to me, lying on my pillow with me.  It was odd behavior, even for her, and I couldn’t help thinking how much I’d miss her while I was gone.*

The next morning, I couldn’t decide whether I was ready to start hiking or wanting to put it off as long as possible.  But, eventually, all of my gear was double-checked and packed and we were heading to Amicalola Falls State Park.

The southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail is atop Springer Mountain.  There are several ways of getting to the start of the trail, but the time-honored rite of passage is to hike up the eight-mile approach trail, past Amicalola Falls.  And so, on April 15, 2012, I walked into the Amicalola ranger station, signed my name in the register, let my little sister buy some AT swag for me (which she took home and put in my room), and then walked to the stone archway leading to the approach trail.

I worked to blink back tears — whether they were from happiness or sadness, I’m not sure.  It felt  surreal that this dream of mine was finally happening.  I knew that every day of the next 150+ would be worth treasuring and remembering.  I knew that each day would be one I “earned,” although I would not yet have described them in quite that way.  I knew that I’d find myseDSCF0114lf lonely, exhausted, discouraged, and aching — perhaps as much as or even more than I’d find myself joyous, inspired, awed, and exhilarated.  Standing under that stone arch, halfway between walking away from all I knew so well and walking toward all that I couldn’t wait to know, it was a lot to take in.

I looked down, not wanting my tears to be caught on camera.  As my vision cleared, I noticed an anomaly in the ground cover near the path: a four-leaf clover.  I’m not a superstitious person, but I couldn’t help feeling that it was a good sign.

And so, I hugged my family, passed under the stone arch, and headed up the trail.

To be continued…

*Incidentally, every time I saw Ohana during my thru-hike, she refused to acknowledge me.  We’ve since made up.