Saturday, 12 February 2022 21:49

Rats in Violins and Other Encounters in North Carolina

Written by

“Pre-Trip: Jacksonville”

I’ve always believed Christmas is a time to travel towards friends or family. It’s a time to surround yourself with loved ones next to blazing fires, sipping hot chocolate, while A Christmas Story plays on the television. It harkens delicious smells of roast turkeys and casseroles and the sweet aromas of pies for dessert. Just thinking of those things brings them to the center of your pre-frontal cortex, striking feelings of joy and excitement that race down to your core.

This is the picture so many of us have, myself included. I reflect back to the first Christmases after my mother died. They were ironically the most vivid. It seemed the adults wanted to make sure my siblings and I got everything we wanted, and so treated us like pampered royalty. Tons of boxes and bags in garish Christmas wrapping concealed the floor under the ornate trees at our house, Nan and Pap’s house, and Gram and Pappy’s place.

A massive turkey waited to be carved and served, while smaller dishes lined up in prostration around its succulent form. My whole family sat with expectant faces, taste buds ready to dig into the feast sprawled out before them.

Years later, by the time I got married, my own family’s traditions were slowly fading. My grandparents had passed on. My aunts were getting too old to host meals like they used to. But my husband’s family was bigger, younger, and still did all the Christmas traditions, so I was lucky enough to enjoy a few more years of the iconic Christmases.

That is until December of 2020, the year everyone’s Christmas changed, and mine even more so because it was the year my husband told me he was leaving me.

The pandemic was an unexpected monkey wrench in the world’s plans. Death, destruction, and the unknown hovered over everyone. In the midst of holiday pandemic plans, the fear, the loss, and the desperate hope for a better four years politically, I had lost everything in a different way.

I know loss of any kind is devasting. Loss of a parent or loved one. Loss of a friend or beloved animal. Loss of a marriage to the person you thought would be your partner forever. All loss resonates with us in similar ways. We feel an overwhelming sense of sadness. Our minds do not seem to function in the same way. Our bodies become tense and unfamiliar. We either cannot eat at all for the lump in our stomach, or suddenly depend on eating as a way to cope. My head knows all this and should have been prepared. But can we ever be completely prepared for the emotions and feelings associated with what is our loss, our life?

Months of pain, confusion, anger, blame, guilt, and tears brought me to my first Christmas holiday post-pandemic and post-divorce, alone and wondering who I was and who I was becoming.

I knew I could go home to the safety and security of my dad, my aunt, my sister, and brother. But there wasn’t much else. We would not have a typical Christmas celebration. There wasn’t a need for it anymore. We had no grandparents from the old generations and no children for the new. I would be going back for a visit, not a holiday gathering.

My ex-husband’s family was out of the question. Not one single person reached out to wish me a happy birthday in October let alone invite me to their Christmas meal. If my ex and his new partner were there, it would not have been a possibility anyway.

This realization led me to consider what I wanted to do for Christmas. Did I want to stay in a city in which I lived for almost 10 years, triggered by memories of my ex, or did I want to leave the bitter-sweetness of my adoptive home and explore uncharted territory? I chose the latter. I chose North Carolina.

The reasons were simple: North Carolina had both of my favorite things: mountains and beaches. The state was also conveniently half way between my home state of Pennsylvania and my current home, Florida. I considered living there, hoping for a magic message when I arrived, nudging me in the direction of this fresh start. I planned on spending two weeks exploring the areas of Asheville, Maggie Valley, Charlotte, and Oak Island.

“Asheville, NC”

 

Asheville is known for its art and hipster scene. It has quaint shops and boutiques, trendy restaurants with vegan and vegetarian options, and Civil War history for history buffs.

It had the feel of a typical college town, like State College, PA or Athens, GA. Many of the buildings looked dilapidated and in need of renovations.

I found Asheville’s botanical garden using an app on my phone. It brought me the moments of peace I so desired on my trip alone in unfamiliar territory. I sat on a bench beneath the sun, listening to the rustle of the windy outbursts amongst the trees every few moments, and the whoosh of the cars on the highway, an unwavering contradiction of how humans share the earth with nature.

The trees were barren and all the leaves dropped, already a crispy brown as I crunched over them. The temperature was in the 30’s, a chilling reminder of how spoiled I became in a milder climate like Florida’s.

The sun warmed me enough to meditate and reflect on where I wanted my life to go. A published author. A world traveler. And of course, someone to spend my life with. This was my dream. It wasn’t a question of what I wanted. It was how I was going to get there.

Disappointed that I didn’t feel that “call” I so badly wanted, I chocked it up to a worth-while adventure nonetheless.

 

“Maggie Valley, NC”

My next venture led me to Maggie Valley in the Lake Junaluska area. The first thing I did was walk the perimeter of the lake, along gorgeous cerulean water reflecting the cloudless sky, and ash-grey mountains in the distance. Swans nose-dived into its depths and ducks paddled in flocks near the water’s edges. Beautiful yet crisp, the weather couldn’t have been more perfect for a stroll around, not once, but twice. I found solace there, but no distinct call.

Along the loop, I found a small coffee shop and gift store where I sipped on a soy latte, admiring the lake’s placid waters and impressive mountains. I began to imagine what, in a different season, the incredible colors popping across the mountain’s peaks would look like: mint greens in summer and blazing scarlet, glistening gold, and fiery auburn in the fall.

I continued exploring the mountainous environment of Maggie Valley, sometimes driving 30 or 40 minutes straight up the side of a cliff. The treacherous roads made me second guess my decision, but with no spot to turn around and go back down, I kept going.

I found a secluded spot in the Great Smoky Mountains where, for once, all that surrounded me was nature. No trace of another human or man-made construct. It didn’t take long for me to become addicted to hiking mountains again. Regardless of how strenuous and how much my legs ached, I found enjoyment in feeling the ground beneath me, hearing the crunch and snap of leaves and twigs. The path sprawled out in front of me as I tasted the air, expectantly waiting for me to partake, not unlike so many Christmas meals. The crisp air was my sustenance.

On Christmas day I located Max Patch, essentially a giant hill covered with lifeless, straw-colored grass. It’s part of the Pisgah National Forest. Getting there was another perilous journey, where the roads were so narrow that if another car would have been barreling down, one of us would have toppled off the cliff.

I kept going as before even though I was scared and had lost service on my navigation system. I kept going because I was curious, but also stubborn. I had made it this far. What was awaiting me when I finally reached the peak?

As with my physical journey to the top of a mountain, I had been going through a spiritual and emotional journey of arduous tasks too. I wanted to stop, give up, give into my dark desires and take the easy way out. But I kept going, if not in spite of fear, but because of it. I was afraid of what would happen if I stopped. I wanted to see what awaited me at the end of my journey.

I spent the first Christmas in 36 years entirely alone on top of a hill overlooking the small parking lot below. The breeze cut like a knife when it picked up, but immediately after, the sun warmed me. The loneliness is real. It was never what I sought in life, but sometimes it’s necessary to see how far you’ve actually come on your journey.

 

“Charlotte, NC”

I ventured onward to Charlotte where I found Freedom Park, a popular place for tourists and locals to walk, run, play sports, and do Yoga. A beautiful pond with a spewing fountain spotlights the park, where people gather to watch the Canadian geese and ducks swim contentedly.

I couldn’t help but people watch on my stroll through the park. Moms and dads with their children picnicking in the grass. Children screaming with delight as they ran, fell, and got right back up without a blink of an eye. Children know instinctively that they cannot stay down if they fall because if they do, they’ll never be able to continue their game, or continue exploring their world and making new discoveries for themselves.

Somewhere along the line, I forgot about my own desires and dreams. I forgot about my instincts to keep going no matter what, and instead took the easy way out by settling for what my circumstances gave to me. During my marriage, I was that helpless child who fell and did not want to rise again. I see now how stuck I was, staying on the ground for fear of failing or being rejected. For fear of not being good enough and not being loved.

As I thought back to that girl I used to be, I don’t even recognize her. She’s me, but she’s grown so much. She would have never made this adventure alone, exploring unfamiliar places and without a soul she knew. Like a phoenix rising from her own ashes, I am stronger. Braver. Wiser.

That night in the hotel I reserved, I couldn’t sleep. However, it wasn’t because of the realization I had at the park. My room was on the first floor, next to the lobby. One of the front desk employees engaged in a very loud, very obnoxious phone conversation in a language I did not know. I could hear both him and the person on the other line because he audaciously displayed the person on speaker. On top of that, the music he listened to sounded like a rat got stuck in a violin.

It seemed as if the violin needed a major tune-up, or the person brandishing it had never played one before. It lacked any melody at all and definitely no rhythm for even the most talented dancers to find a beat. It was the kind of music even guards in prisons would be deemed inhumane and cruel if they played it for the prisoners.

If there was any kind of calling here, it was the call to get the hell out. I left Charlotte with a bitter taste in my mouth and ventured on to the last leg of my trip, Oak Island.

 

“Oak Island, NC

Oak Island, a small coastal town, with small shopping plazas, local stores, cafes and restaurants, is within a short distance of a beach.

I stayed in a hotel 20 minutes from Oak Island beach. I had the entire fourth floor to myself, a stark contrast of all of the previous hotels on my trip.

The first day I walked along the shores, taking in the smell of the salt and watching the glistening waves crash into the sparkling sand. The wind raged, but the sky shone blue with few wispy clouds.

Bystanders gawked at an imbedded sailboat a few yards away. An ocean rescue truck parked close by, but there was no indication that the sail boat would be rescued from its sandy prison.

I thought, there is no hero to come rescue me from my own mind. I needed to pull myself out of my emotional cell.

The next day I visited the beach again. As I sat in the sand, arms wrapped around my knees pulled into my chest, the sun disappeared and a humongous gray cloud, the size of a Blue Whale, drifted overhead. The wind picked up, as if in challenge to the storms raging within me.  

It appeared ominous and full of winds and a deluge of water. But there was no rain; just darkness. The cloud was so thick, it looked like God himself had built a wall between Heaven and Earth to keep humans and our violence out.

I hightailed it back to my car, shaken, but not afraid. I was more so in awe of nature’s capabilities. We really have no control over nature, despite what the weather prognosis tells us. 

By the next day, the storm-covered clouds had given way to azure skies once again. It was as if the phenomenon I had witnessed was only a dream.  

I thought about how so often our lives appear to be full of raging storms with no clear path in sight. But just as quickly, our circumstances change, the grayness clears, and we see the path before us again.

Something about the ocean leaves me feeling relaxed. Maybe the roar of the waves blocks out my current pain. Maybe the flow of the water metaphorically grabs my pain and takes it back out to dissipate among the trillions of other people’s pains and sorrows.

Though I didn’t get the illustrious call in North Carolina, and I don’t know exactly where I want to go or where I want to be in the long term, if there is one thing I discovered from my first Christmas alone was that I am capable of being by myself. I have grown stronger and braver. That realization is priceless. That thought gives me peace and expectant things in my path.  

  

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