Instar

Mother Nature shares her secrets if we listen to her whispers. There are little nudges and nods if we tune in and pay attention. There is wisdom in the wind. Knowledge from the trees. Lessons from the animals. All it takes is for us to listen and learn.

While I was staying at Bomoseen State Park in Vermont a few weeks back, Mother Nature dangled a not-so-subtle lesson right in front of my face.

When my dog and I arrived at the state park campground, I experienced something I had never seen before. It first began when I went to the shower house which was shaded by trees. From every branch hung silk strands with caterpillars dangling down like ornaments on a Christmas tree. One strand hung down about four feet and had three caterpillars latched on swaying in the breeze. Upon further inspection, the entire shower house roof had thousands of caterpillars crawling over one another. I have spent a lot of time in nature, but the most I have seen is one caterpillar at a time, and it was always on a solo journey.

After returning from the shower house, I sat outside my travel trailer under the awning enjoying the surroundings and the quiet with the distant sound of boat motors humming. Since I had arrived in Vermont, I had been fighting mosquitoes and trying to fend off their bites. So, when I felt something on my leg, I thought another battle was about to ensue. Instead of mosquitoes though, it was a fuzzy black caterpillar with delicate white spots. I looked down and another caterpillar was resting on the strap of my flip flop. Then another one was inching along on the armrest of my lounge chair. Every time I carefully brushed the caterpillars away and sent them flying to the ground, they would inevitably find their way back onto my chair and me. It became this little game we played.

What finally made me pay attention to these persistent creatures was when I went to the beach at Bomoseen Lake which was a short five-minute walk from my campsite. I found a small tree that gave ample shade and laid out my towel. I stripped down to my bathing suit and pulled out the book I was reading. I would read a few paragraphs then gaze out into the lake. I heard the low mutterings of couples’ conversations.  The waves lapped loudly against the shore as the speeding boats’ ripples reached the beach.  The squeals of children jumping off the dock rivaled the boat motors. Then I let out a squeal myself. A single caterpillar rappelled down its silk strand to hang in front of me at eye level. It was like a character from Alice in Wonderland. I waited for him to pull out a black top hat from his fuzzy coat and start a conversation with me in a British accent. Besides this dangling caterpillar, there were caterpillars wandering over my towel and over my various limbs like they were exploring a new trail on a mountain.

It was at this point I took an interest in these insects that had no concept of personal space. I learned from a local that these caterpillars would one day be moths, and these caterpillars would eventually create a cocoon; however, there was a process they went through first.

I never knew that caterpillars molted. They shed their skin five different times, and after each molting, it is called an instar. A caterpillar’s skin can’t grow with it, so it grows a new skin under the old and sheds the old when it is time. This process really resonated with me. Symbolism is never lost on me, and I realized I experienced my own molting and instar phases as well.

I explored the idea of outgrowing my own “skin.” I thought about the times I made huge changes in my life because the way I was living and approaching life no longer suited me. It led me to this moment.

A caterpillar’s first instar starts after birth when they eat the eggshell they were born from, and they eat the leaf they are on. During each instar phase, caterpillars continue to eat and grow. (Caterpillars are around 2-6 mm when they start their first instar. By the time they make it to the fifth and final instar, they are 25-45 mm). My (re)birth and first instar began in 2011. This was the time I attended therapy and started to connect with myself and rediscover who I truly was before the world taught me to be someone else. I started to realize what I wanted my life to look like and who I wanted to be in my own life.

My first molting was in 2016 when I took everything I had learned in therapy over the years, applied it to my life, and I finally started living for myself. I left a state I didn’t choose to live in, I left a boyfriend who didn’t treat me like I deserved, and I moved to Oregon, a state I had always wanted to live in, to begin honoring myself for the first time in 37 years. I entered the second instar phase of my life. Like the caterpillar, I too devoured my surroundings and the new experiences I was having, and my soul was fed.  

The second instar phase ended in 2020 when once again I was outgrowing my skin. It was time to shed fear and doubts. My third instar, which I am in now, began on September 30th, 2020 when I decided to sell most of my belongings, give up the house I was renting, and buy a travel trailer. I have now been traveling around the United States and living in my 17-foot travel trailer for nine months. Every day I am realizing more about who I am and who I want to be.

During the time my personal and physical space was infested by the caterpillars at Bomoseen State Park, I had been gently pushed to live more primitively. Throughout my journey, I spent most of my time at state park campgrounds. There were a few overnights I spent in parking lots or in campsites down forest roads, but it was never for an extended period of time. At this point, I was on day eight out of 14 for living primitively. The first three days I stayed in the Green Mountain National Forest in Vermont. The campsite was down a forest road, it backed up to the woods, and my “neighbors” were at least a ½ mile away. The next seven days were at the Bomoseen State Park campground, but the campground had no electricity or water. So, while I did have access to coin showers, I didn’t have any amenities at my campsite. The final four days were spent back at the Green Mountain National Forest.

One other interesting correlation is when a caterpillar finishes molting, its new skin is fragile. It takes time for it to harden. Anytime we start a new venture we are vulnerable and exposed. We are stepping into the unknown. But, as we continue to commit to our new way of being, we do become stronger. Our convictions are reinforced.

Living nine months on the road has already taught me so much about myself and life. I am not sure when I will fully know how this time has affected me, but I have seen shifts. I was already self-sufficient and independent, but I have pushed myself even further. Traveling alone with my dog, driving cross country, setting up camp, weathering storms, overcoming obstacles, and just taking everything in stride has shown me who I am. I have been completely immersed in nature. When I am camping primitively, I don’t have as much access to my electronics. I spend more time outside, I read and write, and deepen my relationship with myself. I am living on a limited budget and have limited space, and I am surviving. There are times I actually feel like I am thriving.

When I finally committed to my dream of traveling across the United States, I was ready for a challenge because as time went on, I stopped buying into what I was told my life should be like. I wanted to live minimally. I wanted to be able to travel full-time. I wanted to live among nature and keep things simple. The things I started to want the most had nothing to do with money or material things.

I still have three months left before I head back to Oregon to reconnect to the place I love. I have no idea how I will evolve, but I know in this very moment my new skin is growing and waiting to shed.

Laporte, B. (n.d.). Caterpillar instars. Backyard Nature. https://www.backyardnature.net/instars.htm

Sachs, S. (n.d.). Metamorphosis. Butterfly School. http://www.butterflyschool.org/new/meta.html

Invisible Moon

Home Among the Woods with a leafy dance floor

When I started out on my journey 5 months ago, I wasn’t sure where I would be going or where I would be staying. I didn’t have a set game plan except for the cities I needed to be in to run my races. Now that I have a few months under my belt, I have experienced different places that I have called my temporary home.

I have stayed in RV parks with high quality amenities with access to electricity, water, and sewage. I have stayed in state park and national park campgrounds with more humble amenities surrounded by Mother Nature’s overwhelming beauty. I have set up camp in my friends’ driveways getting a taste of having human neighbors again. Lastly, I have boondocked. I have traveled down rugged, one-way forest roads with no connection to the outside world just to sleep under the cover of towering trees.

On my travels, I discovered a Wildlife Management Area that allowed camping that was along the route I was driving in Georgia. My dog and I turned down the dirt road. This dirt road was mixed with sand, hard-packed dirt, and mud. The potholes cupped the rain water as I weaved left and right through the landmines. About two miles in, we found the rustic campsites. Besides one other camper down the road, we were the only inhabitants in the woods. We (the “we” is always my dog and I) backed the trailer into a small clearing in the trees and set up our home. We still had a few hours before the night consumed the sun, and on this night it was a new moon. 

I love working with the phases of the moon. It is such a beautiful way to join the ebb and flow of nature and join her on her cycles. With every full moon, it is a time for release. With every new moon, it is a time for manifesting. For the full moon, I light a white candle, and for the new moon, I light a black candle. I have my moon journal where I document what I want to release and manifest. It allows me to focus on what is no longer serving me, and it also allows me to focus on what I wish to bring into my life. I also like to pull a Sacred Rebels Oracle card which gives me a theme to focus on for the two weeks until the next major moon phase. I pulled the “Trust Yourself” card: a beautiful, brilliantly-colored card with a young woman’s head surrounded by an array of animals. In that moment, I felt empowered to do just that. 

As the evening welcomed the new moon, I was ignited. The fresh air was like a natural drug. My pupils dilated. I needed to move; my body needed to expel electricity. The clearing in the woods became my personal club as dusk started to settle. I put my headphones in, started the music, and danced on the fallen leaves that created a makeshift dance floor. I closed my eyes as the new moon energy pulsed as loudly as the music in my ears. I spun around trees. “I’ve been on my own for long enough/Maybe you can show me how to love, maybe.” I whirled among tree stumps and fallen branches letting my feet be guided by the beats. “Sin City’s cold and empty/No one’s around to judge me.” My hands waved in the air like casting spells on the night. “I said, ooh, I’m drowning in the night/Oh, when I’m like this, you’re the one I trust.”

I stayed outside dancing until I could barely see the shapes of nature. The blackness engulfed the surroundings blending us into one.

Unfiltered

Sunset views with the moon rising at High View Campground in Texas

It was only about six years ago when I realized things didn’t have to be either/or. More specifically, two emotions could hold the same place in my body at the same time. At the time of this lesson, I wasn’t even sure if I was able to feel or recognize one emotion. As I learned to tune in, I realized my body had a lot to say if I would listen. I became like a detective picking up clues and hints to what I was feeling and what it meant. I was inquisitive and began asking questions.

Now, years later, I find myself on the biggest adventure of my life. I am three months into living on the road in my 17 foot travel trailer. I am currently 3,000 miles from home on the beach in Jacksonville, Florida. Every day I find myself conflicted with opposite emotions. This adventure is one of the biggest risks I have embarked upon in my whole life. Even three months later, I feel like I am in a dream. Even more so, it feels like my body is present, but it doesn’t feel real. Mixed with this is the fear and disbelief I am here. 

I feel like my mind and body have not caught up with where I am on my journey. The beauty is I am taking a risk and putting myself out there even in the face of fear. When I allow these travels and beautiful moments to penetrate my fear, I am met with the most priceless gifts of nature.

Every single state I have visited has opened its arms like the bloom of a flower. Nature opening its petals one at a time letting me peek at the magic inside. It is my own private invitation where I am the guest of honor.

Early one morning, I happened upon dolphins swimming in a bay in Florida. Kayaking on a river in central Alabama I watched a heron hunting. She dove her head down deep and pulled out her hard earned prize: a fish that weighed several pounds. Her chest feathers glistened with beads of water and hung down like blue and white locks of hair. On the same river, I watched as hundreds of bait fish launched themselves out of the water creating ripples as they splashed back down like drops of rain. On the coast of Alabama, I went out walking hoping to find an alligator; I had never seen one in the wild in the light of day. I actually saw several. One smaller alligator was submerged in the creek with his eyes perched on the water’s surface. The next alligator I saw was on the bank across from me sunbathing on the mud. The third alligator I saw was a local celebrity, and her name was Lefty. I was also lucky enough to see of one of Lefty’s babies orbiting her like a planet around the sun. Every morning in Texas, I watched an egret walk like an Egyptian through the swampy water just yards from my trailer as she looked for breakfast. At night, the glowing eyes of an alligator stared from the banks keeping a watchful eye. I have seen sunsets all along the southern coast that rival the color of any crayon. I have seen the ocean from Texas, Alabama, Mississippi, and Florida. I have seen the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean. In Texas, the waves were warm and inviting. In Alabama, the sand was fine and white and as the sun set the beach glowed pink. In Mississippi the water was as calm as a lake on a windless day. In Florida, the Atlantic Ocean waves have been cold, white, and mushy.

I find myself in awe. It seems unbelievable and unreal. Is this really happening? Am I on this beautiful adventure? Have I really left my home and sold all my belongings to be on this adventure? This adventure which has no plan? This adventure which has no set end? This adventure that has been throwing gifts at my feet every single day. All the while, I am still scared shitless. I am stunned in awe and frozen in fear. At any moment, one thing could go wrong, and some things have gone wrong. At any moment, everything can feel just right.

Then I remember back to six years ago. I remember how I wasn’t sure how to feel. I was out of touch with my body and emotions. It was like I was blocking out all the pain and beauty in my life. I filtered my experiences. I tried blocking out the realization that both my parents were dying of cancer. I blocked out the pain of being in a relationship where I wasn’t a priority. There is no way to just block out pain though. I blocked out beauty and joy too. I could never fully be present in a moment that just seemed perfect. I blocked out the love of my friends who supported me. I was always protecting myself from taking in too many emotions. Then, I started to learn to connect with the messages I was receiving from my own body; I stopped trying to protect myself.

I began to reconnect with joy, anger, pain, happiness, bliss, excitement, sadness, loneliness, pride, and every other emotion I tried to temper in the past. When I started to open myself up to all the emotions, I began having opposing emotions at the same time. I felt gratitude and sadness when I lost my mom. I was so grateful she found sobriety, and we reconnected at a deep level, but I was overcome with sadness that we didn’t get more time together. I felt relief and sadness when I left a man who I was living with who didn’t treat me with respect. I felt happiness and gratitude for the love and support of my friends, but I felt loneliness like a shadow lurking. 

Now, I am in this present moment. I am experiencing one of the most beautiful, adventurous, and scariest moments of my life: an experience that can go so right or so wrong at any moment. I don’t want to dilute my experiences. I don’t want to filter my experiences through the lens of protection. I want to feel every single second on this journey. I want to be present: body, mind and soul in every moment. Fear is a natural response, and it can keep us safe from danger. However, I want to continue to fight against the fear that tries to protect me from the beauty, and pain, of all I can experience and learn on this unknown journey.

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.