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.

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.