After we lost our dog last month, we decided as a family to take a short trip, to get the hell out of Dodge for a quick minute, where “Dodge” is the large, silent house with the tufts of fur I still can’t bring myself to vacuum up. My son and I are interested in skywatching, and the Perseid meteor shower was supposed to be in full swing, so I spent a few hours looking for a precisely located, contact-free Airbnb in a sufficiently dark place.

I found one nestled close to the Green River in a remote part of central Kentucky. No matter how old I get, and despite all my experience to the contrary, I’m still silly enough to think that trips like this are going to unfold in some magical, uplifting, healing way. Nope. It’s not wrong to think that travel contributes to healing. It can! It’s just that it’s so much messier than I ever fully anticipate. It’s a jagged, uneven, sometimes downright weird process. If I’m not careful, I could mistake some trips for a complete failure.

The entire enterprise was a comedy of errors from the beginning: They had forgotten about our reservation so the place wasn’t ready. While we were waiting in the driveway for the owner and his employee to clean the place, we decided to get some food out of the cooler, and I went to open a plastic package with my husband’s knife. Somehow, mistaking my own fingers for the summer sausage I was trying to open, I thoroughly slashed my thumb and index finger, and began dripping copious amounts of blood on the gravel while my husband frantically looked for something to wrap my wounds.

Fishing, one of the primary attractions of the trip for my husband and son, was a wash. Rains came and flooded the river, lines got tangled, and tempers flared. Until the last night, the meteor shower was invisible, thanks to the cloud cover. Each of our worst traits was on display and chafing everyone else. We were all in different stages of the grief we were feeling, both for our longtime canine friend and the losses inflicted by the pandemic. As for myself, the routines I experience at home that serve as a silo for my emotions were completely gone, and the entire range of feelings swept in on me.

Circumstances were demanding my complete, unconditional surrender.  I didn’t fully comply — I never do right away — but I sort of dropped the rope. Sometimes we do things, like take a trip, because we want to feel better. But we don’t need to feel better; we need to engage with the process. When I was home, the demands of daily existence limited my ability to truly feel things that needed to be adjusted or addressed. Curiously, just being uncomfortable in a different place, in the middle of Kentucky in August, with its humidity and rain, and the same three people I’ve been with since March, brought some things into clearer focus.

The last night, the clouds parted a bit and we were able to make a fire and do some stargazing. Four meteors. Not bad.

The next morning as we were packing the car to leave, I was redistributing a few of the fallen twigs we’d gathered that we didn’t use for the fire the night before. Walking around the side of the house that backs up to the forest, my eye was drawn downward to a broad rock underfoot, scattered with broken nut shells. There I encountered the highlight of my trip, a tiny Eastern Box Turtle.

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Box turtles grow slowly, so this one might be a year old or more. Although they are members of the pond turtle family, box turtles tend to stay on land, and are therefore somewhat tortoise-adjacent. We spent a little time together, and I just sat with the privilege of getting to meet this youngster.

I think a lot about the part of Joseph Campbell’s idea of the Hero’s Journey that involves magical helpers — think Yoda, Obi-Wan, Galadriel, Gandalf, etc. The creatures I meet on trips feel like my magical helpers. They aren’t mentors, exactly. More like faith-restorers.

After awhile I called my family over, and we all enjoyed the encounter. Then, I told my turtle helper to stay off the roads, and I climbed into the car and headed home to the tangled mess of things to sit with and work out.

More than a week later, my fingers are healing, talks have been had, steps have been taken, and I still enjoy thinking about my young turtle friend. So by that measure, it was a good trip.

4 thoughts on “A tortoise-adjacent Gandalf

  1. You are very brave to have ventured out and to have left home, not just because if the COVID threat but the unpredictability of the weather of late. Grieving the loss of a beloved dog is a hard process and I hope this trip allowed you to work through some of it. I hope your fingers and heart are both healing…

  2. I have come to embrace the truth that trips are not so mcuh about the about the destination as the journey itself- the getting there and back again (and if you accomplish the “back again” part it’s a relative success, even with a few scars) Glad you found this trips Spirit Guide . Hugs to all.

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