relationships

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

1963-2017

Every White Blaze, Part One

First things first:  As I was driving backIMG_20141209_115509_511 from North Carolina, I learned that the story of my upcoming thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail to benefit Lyme disease research had been published on Kentucky.com.  It was featured in the Lexington Herald-Leader today, which was really special and exciting.  If you’d like to check out the story, click here.  And, if you’d like to read more about my Lyme disease fight, you can read this post.

Anyway, what I’d like to write about today was what took me to North Carolina.

There are as many ways to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail as there are thru-hikers.  There are hikers known as “purists” or “white blazers,” who insist upon walking every mile of the AT from Georgia to Maine.  There are hikers who are more lenient about the path they follow.  They might “blue blaze” by taking side trails, “yellow blaze” by hitchhiking to a town further ahead on the trail, or “aqua blaze” by paddling up the Shenandoah River rather than hiking through that park.  (Rumor has it that there are also “sky blazers,” who take the gondolas up Wildcat in New Hampshire, but I’ve yet to meet one.)

When I thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2012, I made a point of walking past every white blaze, not because I thought there was something superior in that sort of hike but because I wanted to see the entirety of the trail.  When I got to Maine and broke my foot, I had to relax my guidelines; however, before that point, the only section I’d missed was 20.7 miles between Deep Gap and Rock Gap in southern North Carolina.

I’ve already written about the bitterly cold night I spent sleeping like a sardine in Muskrat Creek Shelter.  When that night finally gave way to dawn, I quickly packed up my gear and, after attempting to thaw myself by the fire for a little while, hiked on.

I’m generally not a hiker who enjoys spending a lot of time in trail towns; at this point, I usually sleep better in my tent than in a strange bed in a hostel or crowded hotel room.  But, that April morning, I knew that I needed to get myself to town to preserve my sanity.  As the section hikers and hikers with smartphones told the rest of us, the temperatures were only expected to drop in the coming 24 hours, which meant that I was in for another sleepless night, unless I found a way to get to town.

Checking the guidebook, I happily discovered that a shuttle to a local hostel could be procured at Deep Gap, only a few miles north.  Shivering, but with new-found enthusiasm, I hiked onward.

When I reached the parking lot at Deep Gap (a parking lot at the end of a 6.2-mile, uninhabited, gravel United States Forest Service road), I got my phone and guidebook out of my pack, found that I had a tidbit of service, and called the hostel.

“Good morning!” the owner of the hostel said enthusiastically.

In spite of the cold, I smiled at his energy.  “This is the hostel that picks hikers up from Deep Gap, right?”

“Well, normally, yep.  But, my wife and I are down in Florida.  I hear it’s real cold up there.”

Apparently, the cold brought out unusual persistence in me.  For the next half hour, I dialed number after number as I was referred to local trail angels and potential places to stay.  Had I been alone, I might have given up and just stuck it out, but groupthink is a powerful thing.  As I worked to find a ride out of Deep Gap, hikers continued to walk north and stopped at the Gap to learn about the results of my phone calls.  When I eventually reached Ron Haven — a man who owns several motels in Franklin, coordinates all sorts of hiker services in that town, and promised to come pick us up for $45 — eight other hikers planned to join me on the ride.

I was hiking on a budget, but I decided that $5 for the ride and $10-15 for a shared hotel room to avoid another sub-freezing night would be worth it.  At that point, I actually felt like getting warm was essential to my staying on the trail, and I wasn’t ready to give up my dream of thru-hiking yet.

So, an hour later, when Ron Haven pulled up in his big pickup truck, I climbed aboard, pulling my backpack onto my lap.  I shivered the whole way to town.

In Franklin, I got warm and caught up on sleep.  I purchased a neck gaiter and gloves, and I enjoyed a few baguettes and hummus.  (Because comfort food.)  When the next morning rolled around, I felt ready to brave the cold and hit the trail again.

I soon learned that I was in the minority.  A few of the hikers I’d gotten the ride to Franklin with were getting off trail for good, some were planning to stay in town for a while longer, and others were content in skipping ahead a bit, to one of the regularly scheduled stops of Ron Haven’s free hiker shuttle.  It turned out that I was the only hiker interested in going back to Deep Gap, which meant that I faced a $45 bill.

I deliberated about what I should do, but determined that skipping ahead would probably help rather than hurt my psyche.  You see, there’d been a hiker who’d been “pink blazing” me (i.e., changing his hiking plans to match mine and driving me crazy) since early on in Georgia.  He had decided not to stop in Franklin but was planning to wait for me that day.  I was anxious to lose his company, and I realized that I was being offered the opportunity to do just that.

And so, I skipped ahead to Rock Gap.  As a result (and because I stopped signing shelter registers for a while), I avoided my pink blazer and met the man who became one of my best friends and hiked 1000 miles with me.  Not paying for the ride to Deep Gap was one of the best decisions of my thru-hike.

However, after hiking the remainder of the trail (even the miles my broken foot had forced me to skip), I knew that I wanted to walk the 20.7 miles that I’d missed in North Carolina.  It was logistically complicated to do so when I lived in New England, but I moved back to Kentucky at the end of November.

Since I had the last two days off work, as soon as my shift ended on Saturday evening, I jumped in my station wagon and headed south.

To be continued…

How Snoring Evolved

When you picture a snorer, a burly, bearded man probably comes to mind.  I have a confession:  If he and young, fit, female me were to share a shelter, my snoring would probably keep him up.

I’ve snored since I was six years old, and I often say that it’s the thing I’d change about myself if I were given the opportunity.  It made me self-conscious and embarrassed, and it was something that I went to great efforts to hide from the rest of the world, until recently.  These days, I just don’t have energy to waste on being self-conscious; there are too many fun things I want to do and experience.  Even more than that, I don’t worry about my snoring because I have this hypothesis that it’s actually useful.

As an aspiring and snoring scientist, I would sometimes consider how a behavior like snoring could have evolved.*  If commercials and popular culture have taught me anything (besides that I should be white), it’s that no one wants a bedfellow who snores.  And, thus, it seems as though sexual selection would have removed snoring from our species long ago.

But, what if snoring actually confers some benefit to the snorer besides scaring away persistent pink blazers**?

The Shenandoah National Park–and much of the Appalachian Trail in both Pennsylvania and New Jersey–is filled with black bears.  A few thru-hikers make it through the Mid-Atlantic states without seeing any bears, but I fail to understand how that’s possible.DSCF1571

I’ve seen many bears in the eastern woods, both mothers with their cubs and lone males.  Generally, as long as you’re not between a mother and her cubs, she won’t bother you; the lone males, on the other hand, are looking for prey.  Therefore, your goal is to convince them that you’re not prey.  Most of the time, that’s not very difficult, but it can be more complicated when they’re stalking your tent in the middle of the night, after you’ve hiked 25 miles that day and just want to sleep.

Here’s where snoring comes in.

Throughout the Mid-Atlantic, my tent sites have been haunted by a number of black bears.  Before I fall asleep, I bang my hiking poles in their direction and make enough noise to frighten them off.  When I hear their rustlings in the middle of the night, I often just roll over and keep sleeping.  My insomniac of a hiking companion laughed at this behavior until he noticed that it worked:  My snoring would scare the bears away with as much effectiveness and far less effort than climbing out of the tent to create a ruckus would.

Thus, snoring evolved as a defense mechanism.  Q.E.D.

*For the record, I’m just having fun with this idea.  I realize that much of evolution is non-adaptive and that behaviors/traits can stick around as long as there isn’t a strong selective disadvantage to them.

**A “pink blazer” is a (terribly annoying) man who changes his hiking itinerary to hike with/near a female hiker he fancies.