The Places I Will Go

After my half-marathon race in Fayetteville, Arkansas

Runners were scattered like dice on a game board. We were waiting to start our half-marathon race at 6:30 am. The sky was dark anticipating the arrival of the sun. The air was cool, and I could still feel its bite through my mask.

As the seconds ticked closer to our start time, I turned my headlamp on as a circle of light unfolded on the ground in front of me. Our small group crossed the two mats that started our race time, and we were off into the night.

It wasn’t long before I was running alone. I watched the lights of the runners ahead of me fade into the night. It isn’t often I run in the dark, but I thought to myself I needed to do it more often. It was quiet except for the crinkling sound of dried fall leaves. The trail wrapped around the lake and the waxing gibbous moon highlighted the ripples on the surface of the water.

My mind took turns cycling between silence and random thoughts of failed love, death of loved ones, and even a reel of mistakes I had made in my life. With each foot strike, my thoughts jumped along like a needle on a record.

Running is therapy for me, but therapy isn’t always a pleasant experience; however the processing of feelings, thoughts, and emotions while running always makes me feel lighter.

My thoughts silenced as I noticed the embellishment of shimmering turquoise in the grass. The light of my headlamp reflected off the eyes of spiders tucked into the dewy grass.

Since all the runners were scattered out along the course, and there were no volunteers, the trail and I were able to get to know one another intimately.

I began a steady incline between the trees that twisted like a curvy road around a cliff side. One of the beautiful things about races in new places is not being familiar with the course. It can be unsettling because of the unknown, but there is excitement with every mile I run. Along the way, I learned this trail’s body: the curves, the dips, the straightaways. The trail’s adornments were colorful trees paying homage to fall, the fallen dried leaves that bowed down to the trail, and the lake that opened up to the horizon.

The sky began to turn a muted dusty pink, and the birds reacted to the sun’s arrival. The quiet woods became alive with the chatter of birds. A raccoon even popped out from the woods looking surprised to see me as he disappeared back into the curtain of grass.

I spent the last three miles of the race pushing myself. Whenever I get to mile 10 in a half-marathon, I tell myself I only have a 5K left, and I can do a 5K no problem. So I turned up the pace, and I pushed myself across the finish line where my name rang out from the PA system. “Jennie is coming in completing her half-marathon.”

I felt a sense of peace and accomplishment. I had never been to Arkansas before, and after completing this race it was my 31st half-marathon in my 22nd state. I have been on the road for 29 days now with my 17 foot travel trailer. I have run training runs and races in places I have never seen before or heard of. I have been down rocky trails, dusty gravel roads, lakeside greenways, and empty streets.

My legs are taking me places I have never been, and I can’t wait to see where they take me next.

A Moment at a Time

Camping down a red dirt road in an Oregon National Forest.

I have always been the type to push my boundaries and limits. However, I walk up to that boundary line shaking in fear; sometimes I spend days, months, or years standing at that boundary, but then something happens.

I cross it.

This current boundary I have crossed has taken me years to tiptoe across.

When my parents both passed away in 2014, I saw time through a new lens: there wasn’t enough of it. It couldn’t be dismissed or squandered. I spent time traveling and experiencing life even more than I had been. I also decided I wanted to travel across the country in a camper.

Not that I forgot the lessons I learned from my parents’ deaths, but I fell back into convention. It always seems so easy to do: to fall back in line with the status quo.

In 2018, I even quit the job I was working, which was with the TRiO program at a local high school. I told my boss I was leaving my job because I was buying a camper, and I was going to travel the states.

While I had every intention to back that talk up with action, I didn’t. I was scared. I thought I was ready, but I wasn’t. So instead, I took time off work to travel some more, and I stayed in my comfort zone.

After a few months of traveling, I started looking for a new job. I became a high school English teacher. While I loved the community, I loved the small school, and I loved the kids, it just wasn’t right. But I don’t think anything was going to be right because I wasn’t doing what I was supposed to. I started getting this nagging feeling. I had to travel the states in camper. I needed to experience the open road and simplicity.

This time when I turned my notice in at my job, I was ready to take my dreams seriously, and I did.

I was excited but scared shitless. In fact, I am two weeks in on the road, and I am still excited and scared shitless.

I have gotten rid of my house I was renting, and I have gotten rid of 90% of the things I own. I have no plan except for this moment. I have no idea what I will do, where I will live or where I will be in one year. For now, I am blindly following my path.

I still doubt myself; I still doubt my decision. Then I feel this intense freedom; I feel the joy that boils up when I am in a new place.

I am on the road with my Subaru, my kayak, my travel trailer and my dog. (This might be a progressive country song in the making). In two weeks, I have experienced so many emotions. I have had these beautiful experiences. I have felt alone. I have felt like the whole world is mine, and we keep sharing secrets. I have felt frustration; I felt elation. I have thought, “What the hell am I doing?” Followed by, “This is exactly what I should be doing!” Things are simple, but nothing is easy.

In two weeks, I lost the handle that lowers my stabilizers on my trailer. I lost the vent cover to the back of my refrigerator somewhere between Nebraska and Kansas. I have had to beg and plead with RV repair shops to fix my 7-prong plug on my trailer. I broke the breakaway cable on my trailer. I drove through 65 mph winds as my car and trailer wiggled like a squirmy puppy. I have had to wash my clothes at laundromats. If I get to take a shower, I have to wait 30 minutes for the water to heat up. I live in a 17 foot space. I experienced a 28 degree night in the middle of a Wal-Mart parking lot. I carry all the burdens of decision making and handling problems when they arise alone.

It sounds like I might be whining or complaining, but then there is the other side of things. In two weeks, I have experienced freedom and beauty; I have experienced the beauty in freedom. My dog and I sat alone atop sand dunes in Idaho as the sun tucked behind the horizon as the cooling sand soothed our skin. Coyotes sang and their voices echoed through the silence. I ran on riverside trails that meandered through the Utah wilderness with not one human in sight. Every morning in Utah I saw the same deer family of four. I kayaked through the Flaming Gorge as the sun rose high above the red rocks; the rocks jagged edges highlighted by the rays of light. I drove on miles and miles of gravel roads in Kansas while pale blue skies kissed the golden crops. I ran a half-marathon in Marysville, Kansas which was my 30th half-marathon, and my 21st state I have ran a race in.

I still have no idea what I am doing, but I feel myself learning; I feel myself expanding. The open road only accepts patience and appreciation. I have to be willing to roll with whatever I am presented with each day. Being on the road forces me to be present in every moment.

Each morning my eyes open to whatever the day may bring, and no day is the same.

The Gentoos

The zodiac boat pushed through thick slush and ice chunks as we made our way through the Antarctic Ocean. The air was crisp and silent except for the ice crackling and snapping against the rubber boat as we got closer to the shore. The landscape was covered in white with gray rocks peeking out from under the innocent blanket of snow. The only footprints seen were the “penguin highways.” These were trails penguins made from walking them so much. They essentially create their own highways to totter in single file lines on.

The black tuxedos of the Gentoo penguins stood out against the white snowy backdrop. Some penguins appeared dead; they were draped across the snow on their bellies unmoving. They were actually molting, and during that time, they fast and conserve all their energy. Some groomed themselves with their bills in the shallow waters and on the shore. Others were slowly meandering about with their flippers pulled back behind them and their chests puffed out.  The quickest moving penguins were in the water looking like miniature porpoises as they dove under water and broke the surface in rhythmic arches.

I sat on the edge of the boat barely blinking. The cold air made my eyes water making it seem even more dream-like and mystical. When we arrived to shore, the handful of people I rode on the zodiac with decided to hike to the highest peak on land. I stayed behind wanting to experience the penguins by myself. I didn’t want to intrude, so I found a comfy rock at a safe distance away from the colony of penguins. I was close enough to see the water shimmering off their feathers, but far enough away to not let my presence impact them.

I watched this penguin playground for almost 20 minutes when one penguin walked over to me and stopped five feet away. I froze paralyzed with joy. My mouth fell open slightly like an ajar door, as a smile cracked through on my lips. The only other time I caught a glimpse of a penguin was when I was kayaking in New Zealand, and the Korora penguin zipped through the Marlborough Sound waters past my boat.  Now, I was face to face with a wild penguin as I sat on the shores of Antarctica. I took in every detail of this Gentoo as he invited me into his world.

I always imagined penguins to be smooth like black onyx, but I was wrong. This Gentoo was fluffy. I watched him run his bright orange bill, outlined in black, all across the damp feathers on his body. He stood just over two feet tall balanced on two orange webbed feet with black claws. His ankles were wrinkled liked sagged, aging skin. The white feathers above his eyes looked like a maniacal unibrow, and he had a tuft of longer black feathers sprouting out for a tail.

I took a few pictures and made a quick video, and then I sat with the penguin one on one. I wanted to be fully present in this moment with nothing between us but a few feet of distance and air. I became absorbed in the moment. I felt the air surrounding me like a cool cocoon; my arm hair rose with excitement; a smile etched on my face. I felt a surge of gratitude hit like a rogue wave. I couldn’t believe I was being allowed to have this experience. My eyes reacted to this rush of emotion, and I felt tears dripping like salt water off the penguin’s back.

Every second was a revelation, and in that moment I felt what mattered.