Monday, January 15, 2007

The Big Dipper - stars, emotions and bad dreams

Unlike me, Cousin Susan has long legs, beautiful blond hair and is kind and charming. When out and about she would be greeted by name, and she would know everyone’s name in return. Having finally recovered from my illness, I was looking for a small outing and suggested I accompany Susan to the supermarket. I was still quite tired and I offered to push the trolley, knowing I could lean on it for support. Susan strode up the aisles like a golden Mrs America – a woman on a mission who knew exactly what she wanted and where it was.

In almost every aisle she would meet someone she knew. She would look around for me so she could make an introduction. I would hurry towards them, pushing myself upright from the trolley and trying to look like a proud kiwi, instead of a dishevelled little brown hen. Each time Susan would say, "This is my cousin from New Zealand", I would summon the energy to stand tall and try to say something intelligent. I would see their friendly smiles, but also the concern in their eyes as they saw my pale complexion, the thin little face peering out from under a haystack of hair and how my clothes hung off me. Susan would say, "She’s not been well." Then, everyone would cluck over me and I would sag back against the trolley, a small chicken once more.

Things improved quickly with Susan’s loving care, a series of her tasty meals and lots of snacks in between. Both TH and I had shaggy mops of hair. It had been a long time since our last haircut. When I asked Susan about hairdressers or a barber, she arranged and paid for an appointment for each of us at the best stylist in town. TH looked very handsome afterwards. Even I looked more presentable and my face less starved looking. Susan’s extra feeding filled out the rest.

We stayed seven blissful days with Susan and Mort, and their son Lawson. There is something very special about being part of a family household when you are far from home. We lazed at picnics by the river, indulged in barbecues (what American’s call "cook outs") at Mort’s ranch and played computer games with Lawson. Susan and Mort were one of the contact/postal drop points for us in USA. A pile of letters and birthday cards from home were waiting for us when we arrived at Susan and Mort’s. We read and re-read them, soaking in the details of the lives of our family and friends back home. Sometimes I wonder how I didn’t wear out the words written on the page.

Joe and Sarah came over for the Easter break at the end of our week with Susan and Mort. We had a shrieking, fun filled Easter egg hunt with Joe and Sarah’s girls on Easter Sunday morning and a big family dinner on the Sunday night. I loved Susan’s "Easter tree", which is like a Christmas tree, but with carrots, eggs and bunnies as decorations.

On one of the cook outs Mort’s sister-in-law, Frances, took TH and I on a nature ramble at dusk. We had earlier seen huge hares, more like small deer, called "Jack Rabbits". They had ridiculously long ears and could lope along at amazing speeds.

Frances had us crouching behind some thorny bushes, holding our breaths and peering through the fading light. "There", she hissed as she pointed.

I had never seen an armadillo before. This little armoured, tank shaped animal was sitting on its hunches, ears askew as it listened, it’s nose tilted upright sniffing the breeze. It might have detected danger, or sensed our presence and it nimbly hopped away, a little like a wallaby, into the night. It was too dark to count how many bands on its sides, but Frances assured us it was a nine-banded armadillo. These are the only ones in USA. There are about 20 different species, including one with a fascinating name – the pink fairy armadillo. No hope of seeing that on this trip, unless we went to Mexico

Later that night Frances took me away from the light of the campfire so she could show me the northern hemisphere stars. I particularly wanted to see ones that we can’t see from the southern hemisphere - the Northern Pole Star (polaris) and the group of stars called "The Big Dipper".

Tragically, Frances was killed in a car accident some years later. On a still night at home, I often go outside to view our stars and think of her. And, even though I can’t see her particular constellations from my part of the world, I can still hear her sweet, slightly husky contralto voice describing how to find polaris using the big dipper stars as the pointers.

It was time to hit the road again. I had learned a lesson from our break in Texas. Life on the road can be very tough. Even in a civilised country, there are perils of illness and in not looking after yourself. It was fortunate that, in this case, I’d had a safe haven to recover in. I resolved that I would need a greater mental toughness to survive and, once we got back with F1 and F2, I decided I could not allow F2 to undermine TH and I, or the expedition in the way she had.

For all that fighting talk, I did have a little weep when I said goodbye to Susan. Pathetic, I know. But, this is part of learning how to cope with a long expedition. There would be safe havens I could look forward to in the future. But, each time I left a haven, it would also meant a sense of loss, the realisation I would be back to living solely on my own resources again. This sense of loss would assail me again and again on the expedition. It got progressively worse as time went on and we headed more and more into unknown territory.

I sometimes wondered if it was better never to stop at all, at any safe haven. But, I also knew that this would have probably made the whole thing unbearable. The prospect of respite from the sheer relentlessness that the journey later became, was sometimes the only hope I had to keep me going.

We left mid morning and travelled north. Texas can be dry and barren. Further north the countryside became more fertile with trees and flowers.

I particularly liked the Texas bluebonnet. This bright blue, roadside bloom looks like a little lady’s bonnet when you look at it closely. However, far from being some delicate flower or shrinking violet, this is one tough "cookie". It thrives on dry soil and minimal rain. The bonnet part of the flower is a survival tool designed to collect and store a drop of water after even the leanest rainfall. In West Texas the bluebonnet can grow up to 3 feet high

The bluebonnet is the State Flower of Texas. Not only is it resilient it can inspire people to think outside the square, as with the somewhat bizarre idea of a Texas bluebonnet tartan.

As we continued to drive past magnificent swards of these bluebonnets I resolved to become more resilient like them on this expedition, while hopefully retaining something of their beauty, and not turning into something woolly and scratchy.

Texas was also "Republican Country" and there were a lot of political messages on billboards, whether official or otherwise. Some were quite sassy, like the one about Bill Clinton: "He don’t inhale. He just sucks"

We found a Corps of Engineers campsite just out of Fort Worth at Benbrook Lake. Susan was still feeding us from afar, as she had given us a package of tasty leftovers from our farewell dinner. Afterwards, I looked up at the night sky to find Frances’ stars and I thanked whatever fate, destiny or deity that had brought my family and Susan’s back together, when our fathers had searched for each other in the 1960’s.

We settled quickly back to life on the road. After "going soft" at a safe haven, the apprehension about the trip ahead is always worse than the real thing. I was soon back to being a gypsy.

The next few days were a mixture of miles rolling past under the Land Rover’s wheels and calling in a various Land Rover dealers for promotional visits. Our visits were often impulsive, when we discovered ourselves driving past a dealership, but we were always given a warm welcome, cups of coffee and promotional items such as tee shirts. By now, our wardrobe of clothes was almost solely Land Rover branded gear. This led to many amusing comments on our journey. Once, when we stopped for more food supplies, the shop assistant had gushed at us, "Ain’t that cute. Matching sweaters an’ all."

We stopped at many Corp of Engineers campsites. Sometimes the nights would be very cold and we would bundle up in our thermals, woolly hats and even sleep with the hoods up on our sleeping bags. Although I am quite short with a small body, I always felt constrained in a sleeping bag. I would often overheat and thrash about.

If it rained in the night, it would take ages to dry the tent off before we packed up. Or, we’d do a bit of sightseeing and then return to the tent when it was drier. It would have been better, on these occasions, if the tent had been nylon. But, nylon is only fine for occasional camping in summer weather. We had selected a canvas tent for its warmth, strength and durability. We knew we’d need something robust for the amount of times we’d erect and then later decamp. Still, after numerous wet nights, I often wished we’d picked a nylon tent.

One awful night, I had a nightmare about spiders. I dreamed they were all over me, and all over the tent. I am not normally frightened of spiders, but a whole herd of them is something else. I awoke screaming and shrieking. I couldn’t shift the images out of my head. The dream was so vivid that, even now awake, I felt sure they were all still there. TH is also not used to terrified shrieks emanating out of his go-getting wife. He sprang awake. All I could scream was "spider… spider …!."

Logical as ever he started a grid search with his torch.
"Where did you see it?" he asked.

As my eyes frantically followed the beam, I said, "Not just one, there’s lots of them. They’re everywhere. Can’t you see them?"

The torch beam stopped its grid search and came to rest near my face. TH said later that he could see my eyes were popped open, I looked terrified but I appeared to be awake.

"There are no spiders", he said.

I persisted, certain that there were.

TH can be very understanding. He ran the torch light up and down himself and his sleeping bag.
"Can you see any spiders here?" he asked.
"No", I admitted.

"You have my sleeping bag, while I search yours," he offered.

I gratefully shifted to his bag and, as it was cold, I snuggled in. He painstakingly went through my bedding, showing me with the torch. He then ran the light over the entire tent. There were no spiders anywhere.
By now I was really awake and, while my breathing was still ragged, I getting more relaxed.

"Would you like to come back to your own bed?" TH asked.

I was now nice and cosy. "No", I said sleepily, "you can have it."

TH must have been quite cold by now and probably more than a little irritated with me. However, he accepted the choice I had forced on him. As he zipped up the sleeping bag I murmured, "thank you darling. Sorry."
I felt him ruffle my hair and softly pat my face, before I drifted back to sleep.

We talked about it in the morning. I often have vivid dreams, especially if I get too hot. But the dreams in the past had always been about routine things and usually related to working too many hours or studying too long.

My mother had told me years ago that I was also a "sleep talker". She’d said she’d lean over my bed to listen. My chatter was often about the day I had just had, like there was film in my mind replaying the events. She said that I never appeared distressed. But, sometimes I’d wake up mid sentence. She said I’d look surprised to find myself in bed. Like my mother, TH had got used to an occasional "commentary" from me during the night. But, neither he nor I had experienced anything like my spider nightmare before.

We thought it was an isolated incident. Unfortunately, the dreams continued intermittently throughout the expedition and for several years afterwards. I was never able to work out what they meant. But, there was no doubt that the expedition triggered something dark in my mind.

It took several long years after we returned home before I was finally freed from these nightmares.

© Eventful Woman, 2006
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