Vacation Dreams

For months, the word claimed ownership to weeks on our calendar. It feels like a lifetime ago that Rich and I sat down and plunked “Vacation” on three separate chunks of winter and spring. I knew the drill – if we didn’t dedicate the time early on, we’d fill up the calendar and never get away. But this time it wasn’t being busy that posed a threat.

As Rich’s eyesight issues progressed through the fall, we put our lives on hold. Ordinary outings like going for a walk, having dinner at a restaurant, attending a party all assumed an onerous significance. Could Rich manage it? The future meant later today, maybe tomorrow. Beyond that we could not see. The words languished on the calendar.

As winter’s cold, dry climate and brilliant snow reflections wreaked havoc with Rich’s eyes, we began to ponder the unthinkable. Might we have to become snowbirds? Would Rich have to give up his love of the Northwoods, his hunt for winter owls, and his passion for cross-country skiing to hibernate in a warm and humid climate that was kinder to his eyes? If that’s what it took to regain his eyesight, so be it.

Fortunately, the magic of Rich’s botox treatments turned our world around. With each stride forward, Rich regained aspects of his life he feared were lost forever, and we tenderly ventured to believe we could make plans again. So it was that I deleted late January’s “Vacation” week and replaced it with “Florida.”

Through the generosity of our friends, Arlene and Steve, we spent a glorious sunny week with them in Fort Myers. Rich and I were both there, but had distinctly different experiences.

For me, it was a week of indulging in long walks with Arlene, biking with Arlene and our friend Myra, lapping up the friendships. The constantly sunny days in the 70s salved my winter body. Ventures to Sanibel and Captiva delivered my requisite doses of beach and waves.  Dinners in the company of good friends capped each day.

Arlene and Molly at Ding Darling

Arlene and Molly at Ding Darling Myra, Arlene and Molly bikers Molly and Rich on Captiva beach Cocktail hour at Arlene and Steves Molly Steve Rich dinner outside at the club

While I reveled in the pure Florida vacation, Rich still faced a series of trials. If Rich’s eye troubles have taught us anything, it’s that nothing can be taken for granted. What the blepharospasm took away from him will take months to regain. Things that used to be second nature, now require conquering anew. His confidence is badly shaken. Even the air travel proved stressful.

On this trip, bicycling posed a major hurdle. Battling fear of failure, Rich took Steve’s bike out for a spin in the safe environs of the development. Hesitant at first, belief dawning gradually, he covered eight miles on the quiet roads. His text to declare success contained four exclamation points, five smiley faces! Over the remainder of the week he expanded his distances, braving the real world, even biking to a birding spot. It remains to be seen whether we will be able to resume our bike touring. For now we celebrate one success at a time.

Ever the birder, Rich researched wildlife preserves and stalked local birds with great success. Perusing his photos each day, I reveled in the beauty – envious of his finds, but fully aware of my lack of patience to find and watch these rarities. Photos would do. Virtually guaranteeing success, Rich lured the three of us out early one morning in search of burrowing owls. Sure enough, we found eight tiny owls perched on their burrows in the vicinity of a ball field in Cape Coral. They weren’t hard to spot – the hovels of this threatened species were cordoned off by plastic piping, their holes marked by wooden crosses. Birding for dummies, perhaps, but they were gosh darn cute.

Burrowing OwlPainted Bunting

Florida may not become our winter home after all, providing the botox keeps up its work. But our sojourn south had many healing benefits.

Merely going on vacation – something so basic, so normal – felt like our re-entry to the world. Rich started to believe again. The future began to stretch out ahead of us once more. And we renamed another Vacation segment on the calendar. Costa Rica, here we come! We might as well dream big.

Ski Medicine

It might not have been what the doctor ordered, but it was the best medicine I could take.  I was still coughing and dragging from a bout with the flu when Erik called.  “Would it be all right if I came up tomorrow night to ski the North Shore on Monday?  You’d be welcome to join me.”  Of course it was more than all right!

I tossed and turned all night long.  Was I crazy to spend a whole day skiing when I could barely get off the couch just days before?  I’ve never been one to hold back, nor necessarily listen to reason, so in the dark wee hours of the morning I rose and piled on layers of ski clothes.

As we drove the shoreline the sun rose in a cloudless sky, lifting over Lake Superior and bisecting the radiant band of orange hovering over the cold blue water.  By the time we reached the Sugarbush Trailhead above Tofte, it hung low in the sky sending long sinewy shadows across the trail but doing little to raise the zero degree temperature.  Pristine corduroy lay before my skate skis, crisp deep tracks for Erik’s classic version.  We entered the deep silence of the trail.Molly Sugarbush trails Erik Sugarbush trails

Erik had some serious skiing to do.  His goal was to complete the Picnic Loop and any other bits of trail he could find to ski 40 kilometers.  As a serious contender in the upcoming Birkie Classic race, he relished this extensive training opportunity.  So I waved him off, content to plod along at my own pace.

The cold snow squealed under my skis, glide eluding my fresh wax job, but the extra effort warmed my stiff chilled body.  I didn’t meet another sole for at least an hour and a half, skimming the snow, lost in thought.  Imperceptibly the sun gained strength, my fingers and toes rejoiced, and my skis slipped ever so slightly farther.  Weaving through the woods, uphill and down I lost track of time and distance.  Forgot my recent malady.

Through sheer luck, we finished at nearly the same time.  Flush with excitement over the fantastic conditions, Erik confirmed his 41k distance – to my 20k in the same amount of time!  Over lunch at the Coho Café we traded superlatives about our morning – the deep glistening snow in the woods, the distant lake views, the challenging but fun hills, the joy of skiing.

Erik Molly Coho Cafe

The Northwoods Ski Trail in Silver Bay gave us a leisurely afternoon ski.  Narrow single classic tracks wound through the woods, with snow laden pines slipping past our shoulders and towering overhead.  We skied together over the soft snow, sharing the views and even spotting a marten that scampered up a tree to peer down at us.  A steep uphill got our hearts pumping, and rewarded us with a long smooth downhill.  This wasn’t a workout, it was an experience.

Northwoods Ski Trails Erik Molly Northwoods Trails Molly Northwoods Trails

A full day, sharing a mutual love of skiing, chatting in the car, just being together.  One-on-one time with one of my adult children is a precious gift.  This one also delivered a hearty dose of healing.  Goodbye flu, I think I skied it out of my system.  And Erik?  He opted for another 15k on the Lester Trails when we returned, topping off his mileage above 60k.  We both got the medicine we needed.

Life Rearranged

I’m off kilter. I’ve been thrown off balance. My norm is rapidly unwinding, and I don’t understand the new norm much less the future.

My strong, independent husband, Rich, has suddenly been robbed of his outdoor vision, and his world is dissolving with it.  He who lives for birding, photography and just tramping through the wilderness can no longer do any of this.  Driving is out of the question.  “I feel like a prisoner in my own house.”  The couch is his “happy place.”  There he can see, and feels safe.

Rich’s bird photography often takes him deep into the woods

I try to think back on the progression of this condition. It is astounding to realize that it manifested itself well over a year ago, in rapid blinking, more than normal. I didn’t see it. Rich didn’t feel it. But others noticed, and now comment on it.

Rich managed to cope with his degrading eyesight long enough for it to grow dire. Without knowing what it was or feeling (or perhaps acknowledging to himself) the progression of this condition, it continued, steadily curtailing his sight. His coping masked the advancement. Hid the impending decline. The suddenness came when nature tipped the balance. He could no longer compensate. He could no longer deny it.

Even so, it is hard to conceive of the gap in his capabilities between bicycle touring in Norway in August – which he managed, if with great difficulty – and today. The difference between being able to gut it out, and being paralyzed with fear. Shut down by sheer anxiety. Not being able to see at all.

The lightning speed of this life change is bewildering. If I am feeling ungrounded, what must Rich be experiencing? I can name many words. Depression. Frustration. Stress. Fear. Dread. Anxiety. A deep sense of loss. It is only slowly that I realize the depth of these feelings, and just how debilitating they are.

It’s just before Christmas and we walk down the block with Carl and Chelsea and their two children. A bagel walk, normally a fun outing. Rich walks ahead but seems to be faltering. I move up and grab his hand. His strong grip expresses his fear. He chokes back tears, confesses he is fighting off a panic attack. My fiercely self-reliant husband has been reduced to a dependent, sightless invalid I no longer recognize. Even though he did almost this same walk solo yesterday, today I wonder if he will make it. “It’s so much harder with people,” he says. “It shows me that I can’t interact with everyone. I have to concentrate 100% on staying on the sidewalk.” He manages the walk there and back. Says that holding my hand helped. That it enabled him to stave off the panic. On the way home, I can tell he’s reaching his limit. A simple walk does him in.

We navigate the medical world, seeking answers.  Dry eye repeatedly comes up, but doesn’t explain enough.  Finally, a specialist in the Cities nails the diagnosis: Blepharospasm.  In short, there is a neurological miscommunication between Rich’s eyelids and his brain, causing impulses that tell his eyelids to slam shut.  He cannot will them open.  It is triggered by dry eye, light sensitivity, stress, cold and other factors rampant in our Duluth winter – hence his problems outdoors.  His corrected vision is perfect.  It’s just that he can’t open his eyes.  He’s not blind, but he can’t see.  Having answers is great relief, but due to the holidays and insurance requirements, treatment is weeks away.  The wait is excruciating.

I can’t help but feel survivor’s remorse – guilt as I trot out of the house to go skiing, a passion of his.  Guilt over being able to enjoy the Christmas lights he can’t see.  Extreme guilt over wanting to be able to control my own life, which is inextricably woven into his.

There are so many ways to trip up.  I can’t find something that is in plain sight, and thoughtlessly utter, “I must be blind.”  Complaints about the car only remind him that he can’t drive.  Even mentioning the weather is a trap.  He’s stuck indoors.

Our lives are both transformed.  Our collective future is unknown.  Plans become moot, what was once routine is fuzzy.  But we’ve also grown closer.  We are far more in tune with one another, more thoughtful, more appreciative.  Yesterday’s arguments and irritations melt into frivolous trifles.  We’ve had to throw aside selfish wants for life’s realities.  Compromise becomes easier, as does putting the other person first.  We touch more often, reach out for one another readily, hungry for connection.  A burning need to feel the love.

At long last, Rich has his first treatment – Botox injections along his eyebrows to deaden the nerves and stop the spasms.  It is typically effective in over 90% of such cases.  We are told it will be seven days before it takes effect.  So the waiting resumes, but this time with hope.  That makes a huge difference.  This could rearrange our lives yet again.

Snowbound

We’re still waiting.  Two days ago at this time snow was falling in earnest.  Actually, it didn’t really fall, the wind swirled it in mad circles.  Whisking horizontally past the windows.  Sticking to the sides of the house.  Clinging to the trees.  It’s been a long time since the weather service used the word Blizzard.  This time it was accurate.  Snug inside, I enjoyed watching it rage.

Storming through the night, it finally tapered into delicate flakes as morning dawned.  Rich layered up and began the process of digging out.  Grabbing the yardstick from my sewing supplies, he took it down to the driveway.  Lest he be accused of exaggeration he had proof – 19″.  The accumulation took the life of his snowblower and required rigorous sessions of shovel, rest, repeat.  All day long.

Blizzard our houseThe news was filled with cancellations, including church services.  But no matter, we could travel no farther than the end of our cleared driveway.  Living on a remote road, we’re used to being last on the priority list for plowing.  So I donned my heavy boots and a backpack for a trip to the grocery store, grateful that it was so close.  Preparations for hunkering down.

Having covered the basics, I could hold back no longer.  This kind of snow just shouted Snowshoes!  And I answered the call.  That unplowed road was all that lay between me and forest land, crisscrossed by multi-use trails.  Not a sole trod before me, leaving deep pristine snow to explore.  Trees hung low, burdened with heavy blankets of snow, blocking my path.  Too pretty to disturb, I tried to skirt around them carefully.  The slightest bump released a mini-blizzard and sent branches flinging upwards.Blizzard snowshoeing 1Blizzard snowshoeing 2Silence reigned.  Only the plop of my snowshoes and the swish of trying to extricate them from the snowy abyss penetrated the quiet.  The sun began its gradual reappearance, signaling the real end of the storm.  Solitude worked its magic.Blizzard snowshoeing 3Day two dawned clear and cold.  The sunlight was as welcome as a rainbow after a thunderstorm.  Glistening snow.  Endless blue sky.  Warming rays of the sun.  Still the road remained clogged with snow.  There was only one sensible response.  Ski it!Blizzard XC skiing 1

Blizzard XC skiing 27 Bridges Road was rife with snowmobile tracks, boot prints and the occasional ski track.  It made for a firm if bumpy surface which beckoned me upwards, crossing bridge after bridge.  But the real payoff was at the top.  Branching off onto Hawk Ridge the walkers disappeared.  Snowmobiles had pummeled the surface into a reliable ski surface.  Lake Superior spread out to the horizon, the city of Duluth lay in grids below.  The snowbound confines of the house dropped away as civilization lay at my feet.Blizzard XC skiing 3Returning downhill, I wondered if the snowplow had come.  If I would have to find a new way home.  I’m not sure if I was relieved or disappointed to be able to ski all the way to the driveway.  Still snowbound.  Still waiting.  Time to plan tomorrow’s snowy adventure.Blizzard XC skiing 4

Rain and Shine

Four kids ages 1 to 9.  Two parents.  Two grandparents.  Three generations in one small retirement home.

What to do when it rains on your weekend plans?  Go out anyway!  The key is to work with the weather, not bemoan it.

Inspired by Anne Marie Gorham, of Lake Superior Beach Glass (who happens to be the daughter of my best friend in Jr and Sr High School), we headed out to Burlington Bay Beach in Two Harbors.  “The best time to find beach glass is when it’s raining,” grandson Ben informed me.  He’d seen enough of Anne’s videos in pelting rain to know.

And sure enough, he was right!  We forgot all about the raindrops while scouring the beach for those glistening shards.  It didn’t matter that most were tiny white specimens.  The mere fact that they were plentiful kept us peering, bending, picking and looking for more.  I admit to feeling giddy each time I plucked one from the rocks.  We scored some turquoise, green and one cobalt blue piece too.

Looking for beach glass 1 Looking for beach glass 2

We had visions of hiking on the North Shore in the brilliant fall foliage.  Instead, we decided to check out the raging torrents at Gooseberry Falls.  All that rainwater swelled the river beyond its banks, plummeting down to the lake with a thunderous roar.  Something tells me the kids found it more entertaining than fall colors.

Kennedys at Gooseberry Falls Ben at Gooseberry Falls

Passing the remainder of the day playing games, it was hard to imagine the rain would ever stop.  But Sunday morning dawned crisp and clear.  Seizing the moment, we started at The Deeps, where we inspected the new footbridge, then made our way to the Lester Park Playground.  There we stumbled on a Park and Rec “Pop-up” event.  The collection of lawn games and outdoor activities soon lured the kids away from the playground to try the offerings.

Mya and the Pop Up Park sign

Kennedy boys playing soccer in the Pop Up Park Mya tightrope walking in Pop Up park Mya playing Jenga in Pop Up Park

Karen was still intent on getting in that hike.  “I don’t want to go for a walk,” the kids wailed.  But as soon as we reached the COGGS Hawk Ridge Trail, the oldest two kids were off and running.  “This is so cool!”  They loved the advanced structures created for the most adventurous of mountain bikers, scrambling over the steep rock formations.  Lakeside spread out below us, a collage of yellows and greens, while leaves of every color carpeted the path.  Reining them in was impossible.  Their energy contagious.

Ben Mya on COGGS trailBen Mya on trailBen Mya overlooking cityIt’s hard to say which was better, playing in the rain or the sunshine.  I just know I’d do it all over again in a heartbeat.

 

Arctic Adventures

My heart sank as the man uttered the words I feared I might hear. “It’s out in the open sea. The boat has no stabilizers, so it is likely to be rough.” He was talking about the Birding Safari that Rich had signed up for near the North Cape. I wasn’t interested in birding, but the prospect of seeing puffins, sea lions and maybe even whales was alluring. Just not under those conditions. The judge had ruled against me. I would have to pass.

We were above the tree line now, as a member of the Expedition Team explained to the gathering out on deck. The only vegetation on the rocky slopes were low tundra grasses, mosses and lichens. Many faces were shear rock. These mountain ranges were lower, smoother, devoid of the sharp peaks and pockets of snow I was used to seeing. But impressive in their own way.

The harbor in the tiny town of Honningsvåg was surrounded by colorful houses and a dramatic backdrop of mountains. As Rich eagerly rushed to his tour, I headed straight to the Tourist Info office. Soon afterwards, I emerged. Map in hand, with a plan.

So far, our weather on the ship had been far from stellar. Low clouds and dreary skies dampened the impact of the passing scenery. But as I made a circuit around the harbor filled with fishing boats, the sun staged a comeback. Reaching the far side, I consulted my map and headed uphill.

The Info lady had recommended two hiking trails. They started together then one branched off to an overlook. Indeed, it provided a bird’s eye view of the harbor, and even our Hurtigruten ferry shrank down to toy size. A nearby trail map showed where I was, as well as the trail she suggested I take. It followed a mountain pass and continued on to a lake. In theory that sounded good, but I found the wide gravel path unappealing.

In contrast, a narrow wiggly foot-worn path continued up the mountainside. In groups of two or three and representing all ages and abilities, walkers passed by and headed up the trail. None hesitated as they passed the sign. They just marched forward, conquering that hill. Soon a whole line of colorful dots squiggled up the mountainside, illustrating exactly where the path led.

I tried to want to hike to the lake. It was the sensible thing to do. But that little trail called to me. I checked the map again. Even on there, it was all switchbacks. But the other way way so ugly. “I’ll just go a little higher,” I rationalized.

The going was easier than I expected. The rise was steep, but I navigated the dirt and rocks despite my woeful footwear. Having packed for a bike tour, I brought only my Keene sandals. They served me well post bike ride each day, but were hardly ideal for the cold weather and hiking on this segment of our trip. I wasn’t about to let my lack of foresight prevent me from this adventure. One foot in front of the other, I continued.

Getting a grip going up was one thing. It was going back down that had me concerned. So far I hadn’t seen a soul come back this way. But I kept going. By then I was committed.

Nearly to the ridge line I was feeling triumphant. Scrambling up the final bit, the harbor on the opposite side came into view. That was my definition of success, even though I discovered another ridge just beyond. With the departure time for the ship weighing on my mind, I called it a summit. And celebrated with selfies.

The journey down started with crab crawling, using three and four point contact to stay on the hillside. I took pains not to look down, but when I jiggled a rock free I noted how far it tumbled before stopping. I took heart in knowing that the trail would get easier as I went.

In truth, the hike was barely three kilometers. But the path to the lake looked just as ugly on the way back down. Surely a mountaintop view was a superior choice. And I finished in plenty of time to seek out ice cream and consume it in a sunny sheltered spot by the harbor.

Rich returned triumphant. He glowingly expounded on the hundreds of puffins, the sea eagles and reindeer that he saw. I was envious. Almost. “It was really wavy out there,” he reported. “At times I couldn’t even stand up.” Just like me up there on that mountain. Only I didn’t risk getting seasick.

Making a Trade

It didn’t seem quite like a fair trade. Our two bicycles for an Audi. I felt like we lost on the deal. But it was the right thing to do.

Following our 14 days of touring the Arctic Islands with the Discover Norway Tour we planned four more days of cycling on our own on the mainland. This was more the style of touring we were used to. No more swanky lodgings. No more 3-course dinners. This involved two out-and-back trips to accommodations Rich scouted months ago via the Internet. Roads that he scoped on Google Maps.

The first went off without a hitch. Mostly. Following the coast north from Bodø we cycled quiet roads that skirted the mountains and provided sea views most of the way. We traversed farmland and passed secluded reservoirs. Sheep grazed alongside the road, their bells alerting us to their presence. The lack of traffic made it relaxing, and even the hill climbs seemed milder than anticipated. After taking a ferry to cross a fjord, we had the road nearly to ourselves. The final 33 kilometers dead ended at our lodgings.

The Kjellingfjord Rorbusenter sat on a quiet harbor. Boats bobbed on their moorings, and the whole place was suspended above the water, built on pilings. Our humble rorbu had two sets of bunk beds and a small living area. I spent the afternoon on the deck out front. It felt like the middle of nowhere. Which it was.

Our return trip reversed the route the next day, and being Sunday it was even quieter. Stopping for a break at a beach, we lingered in the warm sunshine. It would prove to be a fatal choice, as we got caught in a sudden torrent of wind and rain before reaching our hotel. The duration was about what we spent at the beach… But we agreed it was worth it.

Despite that success, there were signs that we needed to reconsider our plan. Rich’s sketchy eyesight was taking its toll. Cycling was mentally exhausting. As if in cahoots, his bike had begun to complain. It’s squeaks were amplified that final day of cycling, then accompanied by persistent pinging and intermittent rubbing.

Thankful for a safe journey so far, we chose to end our cycling while that was still true. Our do-it-yourself tours gave us the flexibility to change course. Rich arranged for a rental car, and visibly relaxed. When we retrieved our bikes the next morning to ship them back to Tromsø, Rich’s rear tire was totally flat. It was just the first indication that we had chosen well.

What would have taken us all day on our bicycles required only an hour in the car. So what better way to spend the afternoon than watching swirling water?

We were eager to see the Saltstraumen Maelstrom, which was right on our way. It is acclaimed to be the world’s strongest tidal current. Four times a day when the tide changes, the incoming and outgoing tides battle and create a confluence of rough water and swirling whirlpools. It is caused by water rushing through the narrow opening between two large fjords.

We arrived a couple of hours before the peak of the action. Feeling the warmth of the afternoon sunshine we quickly talked ourselves into having a snack at the the little cafe perched high above the water flow. There we could sit out on the deck and watch the fishermen as well as the growing clash of the tides. It was easy to while away the time, and indeed it was an impressive show. I especially enjoyed watching the seagulls spin around the edges of the whirlpools.

Turning into the drive for the Kjellingstaum Fjordcamp I admit to having my doubts. It was dominated by campers seemingly helter skelter on the unkempt grounds, with a few cabins that had seen better days. The elderly proprietor showed us to a small cabin with bunk beds, a tiny table and chairs and kitchenette – more time worn than quaint. The toilets and shower were located in a building just down the way, he informed us. And the restaurant we thought they had? No, the only food option was at the gas station 5 kilometers back.

First impressions aside, the place turned out to be a gem in its own right. Situated on the edge of a fjord with the tall suspension bridge in the distance, there were ample spots to sit and take in the view. I quickly adopted the big rock as my personal favorite.

Dinner was another adventure. True to his word, the gas station had a food counter. We paid a king’s ransom for fried frozen chicken and fish, with a hearty serving of fries and a bit of greenery. At best we could say we had enough to eat. A trip to the local Coop market scored a box of Musli and milk for breakfast. Let it never be said that our bike touring meals are not memorable. At least we didn’t have to cycle the extra 10k for these!

We returned to find a campfire ablaze on the shore. The chairs were all empty, but soon other campers drifted in and we joined the small group huddled around its heat. Despite the late hour and the fact that the sun had disappeared behind the mountains, it continued to paint the clouds pink and red. A long, lazy process this far north. Gradually the group’s quiet conversations began to knit together and camaraderie grew as we shared our stories around that fire. The kind of experience that can’t be planned.

Driving back to Bodø we acknowledged the obvious. The busy road. The lack of shoulders. The repeating hills. Challenging conditions even for a perfectly sighted cyclist. No room for mistakes. We had indeed made a good trade.