Two Days in Normandy, France

Today is the 75th Anniversary of D-Day.

So many brave men landing on beaches, flying in aircraft, and dropping from the sky into enemy territory….. brave men…..

I had read about World War II in books and had seen the movies about D-Day and the war.  I could see it and imagine what those brave men did and saw, yet nothing really prepared me for the reality of that war.  It was not until April 2000, when my husband, our sons and I visited the beaches of Normandy, that I truly understood the enormity of the sacrifices and bravery of the men that day on the beaches of Normandy and on the surrounding land and in the sky.

19 years ago, we traveled to Normandy, France, to visit the beaches and see for ourselves the history of that day.  We planned the trip and the stops we would make in order to show our boys what happened and to show them the bravery of our men in uniform.  It would be two days, packed with history.

st mere egliseWe started out by stopping in St Mere Eglise, where the 82nd Airborne Division parachuted in on D-Day.  The paratroopers landed in and around the town and fighting began with the Germans.  We were there to see the Airborne Museum and to see the church, where John Steele landed, his parachute getting caught on the steeple.  He hung there for two hours while the fighting raged on, until the Germans cut him down and took him prisoner.  I couldn’t imagine it, even after seeing the movies in which this scene was depicted, yet there on the church steeple was the effigy of John Steel, hanging there.  How frightening that must have been for that soldier, to be so exposed to the enemy with no way to escape.  Seeing that church and the museum, I knew this was going to be a trip that would have a long-lasting impact on me and on my family.

Utah beach was the first beach we visited.  Here American soldiers landed on June 6th, 1944.  We had to see the beach first, before the museum… we had to see where those brave men landed that day…. I thought it would just be a beach by now with no evidence of the war.  It had been 56 years since the landings of D-Day.  I was surprised and shocked to see so many of the obstacles used by the Germans still on the beach, where they were placed to deter any invasions.  We could see the wreckage in the water of the American watercraft that brought our soldiers ashore.  The gun mounts used by the Germans and the remains of cement bunkers were scattered throughout the dunes.  This made the war real.  Here it was for all future generations to see.  The Utah Beach museum was built around W5, a German Block House.  It was eerie to see what remained, to know that Germans were here, waiting…..

We started our second day in Normandy by stopping in a little village, Graignes, to see a the church at Graignes (2)church there.  On D-day, paratroopers were dropped here, accidently.  This was not where they were supposed to be, so far into German held territory.  And the villagers here helped those American soldiers, hiding them and helping them to go back into the marshes to recover their gear and equipment over the days following D-Day.  When the Germans discovered the Americans were there, a fight ensued, and the village bore the brunt of the German revenge.  The remains of the church, set on fire by the Germans, now stands as a memorial to the American soldiers who lost their lives here and to the villagers who were killed by the Germans in retaliation for their kindness to American soldiers, to include two Priests.  A solemn place.  Standing in what was left of the church, I couldn’t help but feel the strength and courage of those villagers as they helped the soldiers there to liberate them.  Their courageous spirit lives on in that memorial to their sacrifice.

omaha beachOmaha beach was more of a beach, with monuments along the road above the beach, reminding visitors what happened here.  But unlike Utah beach, the debris and obstacles were not visible, long removed.  I watched others walking on the beach and wondered if they knew what occured here on that day in 1944.  So many fought here to defeat evil.  We then went to the museum just up the road.  The museum told the stories of those who fought here and those who died here.  Our boys were learning so much about a war that was way before their time.  I could see the impact it was having on them….

I asked both of my boys recently what stood out to them, and they both said the craters.  Point du Hoc was one stop on that second day and it was the one that stood out to all of us as the depiction of war.  Point du Hoc is a surreal landscaped, high atop a 100-foot cliff that overlooks the English Channel and is the high point between Utah and Omaha beaches.  Perfect for the Germans to spot any Allied Forces coming in.  It was here that Army Rangers, using ropes and rickety ladders, scaled the cliff to reach the top and take Point du Hoc.  The U.S. Navy had began bombing before the Rangers began to scale the cliff and the craters were evidence of that bombing, or as one of my sons said evidence “of the madness of that day”.  We walked the land there, covered with craters from the U.S. bombs and it felt like we were walking on the moon.  The craters were big….. not just big, but huge.  And 56 years later they were still there, a lasting reminder to the world of what war looks like.  Hundreds of craters.  Everywhere.  As far as we could see.  And bunkers.  And gun mounts.  We were shocked by what we saw.

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And then we walked to the edge of the cliff, looking down….. how did those Rangers make it up that cliff?  I could not fathom what must have been going through their minds as they climbed up the cliff, with gunfire and grenades raining down on them.  The fear.  They were being killed by the Germans and yet they persisted.  And they took Point du Hoc.  Those brave men…… giving so much for the world and for the freedom they believed so strongly in.

Point du Hoc remains the most impactful part of our trip to Normandy.  The craters.  The cliff.  The lives lost.  And the brave men who fought for freedom.

Later, as we walked through the Normandy American Cemetery, I could not help but to Normandy American Cemetery and memorialbe sad for the lives lost.  And grateful.  Grateful for the brave men.  Grateful that these men were willing to fight for and die for our country and for others in the pursuit of freedom for all.

Many fought gallantly in World War II.  And I will remember and honor their courage and their sacrifice.  75 years ago today, men stormed the beaches of Normandy and dropped inland, all willing to die for this fight and for others.  Some came home injured, but alive.  Some came home and never talked about that day or the war.  Some lost their lives, buried in American Cemeteries overseas or brought back to the U.S. for burial.  Some were never found… still missing in action.

These brave men will never be forgotten.  Their bravery will never be forgotten.  Their sacrifice will always be remembered, today and every day.

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Grand Canyon Rim to Rim 2018

Today I am letting my husband guest write this blog.  Here is his story…in his own words and in the pictures he, my son and my daughter-in-law took.  Still so proud of them!

“The Physical punctuated by the Beautiful”

49 IMG_3800 copy copyI checked my watch. 5:15 am.  Not bad, only 15 minutes behind our scheduled start time.  We adjusted our headlamps and backpacks and then stood three abreast as my wife snapped a quick photo to record the start of the adventure.  Only moments before, we all had exited our cabin on the north rim of the Grand Canyon, looked skyward, and wondered at the incredible number of stars blanketing the dark pre-dawn sky.  At 8,200’ in elevation, this less-visited part of the park was the perfect place to stargaze, if only for a few moments.

The thermometer was just dipping below freezing at the North Kaibab trailhead, so we donned our hats and gloves and then said goodbye to my wife.  My youngest son, daughter-in-law and I would use the trail to cut across the canyon and my wife would drive the four hours around to the south rim to pick us up once we finished.  Our Rim-to-Rim journey would start in the dark, and we’d have to make swift progress to ensure we wouldn’t finish after sunset.

The three of us headed down the trail, my son in the lead with my daughter-in-law and I close behind, all of us armed with our trekking poles and backpacks.  We disappeared into the forest of tall pines, yellow aspens and red maples, each illuminated by our three headlamps.  We headed towards our first stop on the trail, the Supai tunnel.  As we descended 1,400’ over the next 1.7 miles, we could see the headlamps of hikers farther down the trail glowing like fireflies.  We stopped briefly and then passed through the tunnel and pressed on towards Roaring Springs. 

We crossed over Roaring Springs canyon using the Redwall footbridge and followed the narrow trail carved into the redwall limestone. 

05 waterfallA little ways down the trail, we could see and hear the water rushing out of the cliffside on its way down the canyon to form Bright Angel creek.  As we pressed on towards the Manzanita rest area, we enjoyed the first hints of sunrise as the very top of the canyon glowed bright in the day’s first light.  We arrived at Manzanita before 8 a.m., having descended 3,600’ and 5.4 miles of trail.  My son was setting a great pace, but I was starting to worry that the soreness I was already feeling in my feet might become an issue with over 19 miles to go.  We all shed a layer of clothing and I adjusted my hiking boots in the hopes of achieving some relief.

From Manzanita we headed towards the Cottonwood campground, crossing a footbridge over the Bright Angel creek.

As the trail tracked along creekside, we enjoyed a riparian environment of cottonwoods, reeds and willows.  We arrived at Cottonwood campground having traversed 6.8 miles and descended from 8,200’ to now 4,000’ in elevation.  We took a short rest and refilled our water.  It was now around 9 am.  We had a long, relatively level stretch of 6.8 miles to get to Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the canyon. 

This would be the longest uninterrupted stretch of trail, as this section enters the inner gorge.  The trail winds through rock that has been dated at over one billion years old.  With massive cliffs and incredible beauty, the trail along the gorge was striking.  This stretch is also known to be unbearably hot during the summer months with temps well over 100 degrees, but on this October day we enjoyed sunny skies and only about 60 degrees.  We had a time goal to meet however, so we rested infrequently.  At one short stop, I was enjoying a quick snack (a Clif bar ironically) along with my son and daughter-in-law when suddenly we noticed several rocks splashing in the gravel just a few feet in front of us.  I made the mistake of looking up at the cliffside to see where they were coming from just in time to see gravity pulling another small stone straight at me.  With no time to move, I took the blow right on the forehead.  While keeping my sleeve pressed against the wound to stop the bleeding, we all quickly picked up our gear and moved away from the stony cliffside.  The kids helped clean the small gash on my head and we slapped a Band-Aid over it.  Wrong place, wrong time I thought.  Though I was glad it was only a minor injury.  I was also glad the stone had hit me and not my son or daughter-in-law.  This trip had been my idea from the start and the thought of either of them being injured along the way would have unacceptable to me.  The stone had my name on it, and I was OK with that.

07 phantom ranchWe passed over several more bridges across the creek before finally making it to Phantom Ranch.  At about 2,400’ in elevation, it is the lowest point on the trail. It was just before noon and the ranch was a warm 70 degrees. We quickly found an open picnic table and settled down for some lunch.  The kids grabbed a small snack from the tiny canteen and we rested and ate lunch.  We had covered almost 14 miles of trail.  After just under half an hour which included time to change into fresh socks, we packed up and prepared for the last 9 miles of trail.  Before leaving the ranch, I took time to read one of the historic signs on the way out.  In 1913, Theodore Roosevelt had stayed right here, back when it was known as Rust’s Camp.  So cool to think we were walking the same ground as TR.

We headed out of the ranch and past the Bright Angel campground.  Before long, we were at the Colorado river and the Silver bridge.  By far the largest bridge on the trail, it is only used by hikers.  Mule trains cross at the Kaibab bridge just upstream. 

We crossed the muddy Colorado (which is Spanish for “colored”) and start to parallel the river downstream on what is known as the River Trail.  Vertical walls of rock rose over 1,000’ on our left as we followed the muddy river, even passing through a small area of sandy dunes.  The trail led us to the River Resthouse where we took a short break before heading up the Bright Angel trail.  The trail here follows Pipe Creek.  The lush creekside environment and its tiny waterfalls made for a pleasant distraction as we started our slow climb towards the Bright Angel trailhead, still 7.7 miles and 4,400’ away.

My feet were no longer sore.  I really hadn’t noticed when they had stopped bothering me.  Instead sore shoulders and a sore lower back accompanied a slow fatigue.  But there was no stopping now, and ever since we crossed Silver bridge I knew that we were going to finish.  I just didn’t know how long it would take us to reach the trailhead.  I did have a goal in mind however, to finish in 12 hours and 59 minutes or less.  That kept me moving.  My son and daughter-in-law were kind enough to let me take the lead and set the pace.  Though I knew that they could cover the last 7 miles of the trail faster than I was hiking, I was very happy to have their company and to stick together.  Months ago, I had originally planned a solo hike on this day, not knowing that anyone would want to join me.  When the kids volunteered to come along after I mentioned my plan in a phone call, I knew the hike would be much more memorable with the three of us making the journey and my wife as our support crew.

09 devils corkscrewWe continued to head up the trail towards our next stop, Indian Garden.  We hiked up the switchbacks appropriately named the Devils Corkscrew and then up through an area of pancaked sandstone called the Tapeats Narrows.  At one point, I was so focused on putting one foot in front of the other that I didn’t even notice the single deer grazing about six feet off the trail.  Fortunately, Daniel did notice and we stopped for a couple of pictures.  Finally, after 3.2 miles and over 1,300’ of elevation gain, we had made it to Indian Garden. 

Indian Garden was a beautiful section of the trail, with massive cottonwood trees and fed by several springs, it was certainly a garden among the desert trail.  We rested there for a while, finding some empty benches directly next to the water source.  Here we met two gentlemen who were “running” rim-to-rim-to-rim, over 46 miles!  They had passed us on the North Kaibab trail shortly after we started and here they were coming down from the Bright Angel trailhead on their way back to the North Rim.  A journey that they expected would take them to 10 or 11 pm, more than 17 hours from start to finish.

After a short rest, we headed out for our next stop, the 3-mile resthouse.  We were now only 4.9 miles and just over 3,000’ down from the south rim.  It was 1.7 miles between Indian Garden and the resthouse which included a 900’ elevation change.  Just prior to the resthouse, we hiked up through another series of switchbacks known as Jacobs Ladder. 

10 3 mile resthouseAnother short break, and then we pressed on towards the 1.5-mile resthouse.  Up another 900’ of elevation and about 50 minutes of hiking and we had made it to our final official rest stop.  I had cell service for the first time during the hike and sent my wife a quick text “ETA 5:45 – 6:00 p.m., all are well. Luv u. C,” so she would know we’re on the way.

    It was just after 5:00 p.m. when we left the resthouse and I was feeling every bit of the previous 22 miles of hiking.  The last mile and a half proved some of the most difficult steps of the journey.  As we climbed over 1,000’ of trail, I found myself needing to stop about every 10 minutes.  We hiked through one small tunnel as we approached the rim.  We knew we were close when we started seeing more tourists who had hiked a short way down the trail for better photos.  I chuckled inside when I thought of their short journey compared to the over 12 hours we had been hiking. 

11 tunnelAs we passed through the last short tunnel, and by more tourists, with only a few hundred yards left to go, we finally spotted my wife up at the top.  She, of course, had seen us much farther down the trail with the benefit of her camera and had been busy capturing the end of our journey.  I was very happy to see her—she was a sight for sore eyes and tired bones.  We made our way over the last few yards of our hike and arrived at the top of the south rim. 

We had been hiking for 12 hours and 50 minutes, and the sun was still 5 minutes away from disappearing in the western sky.  On top of the rim there were hugs and big smiles all around as well as a “we’re done!” photo.  We had descended 5,700’ over 14 miles of trail down from the north rim to the bottom of the canyon and then climbed over 4,300’ over 9.5 uphill miles to reach the opposite rim.  I was exhausted but happy—it had truly been a journey of the incredibly physical punctuated by the absolutely beautiful.  

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A Solo Adventure

It was dark.  REALLY dark.

We were on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.  It was 5 am.

Hundreds and hundreds of stars twinkled in the dark, pre-dawn sky.

49 IMG_3800 copy copyThe time had finally come for me to drop off my husband, youngest son and daughter-in-law at the trailhead.  They were going to do the Rim-to-Rim hike in the Grand Canyon.  And they wanted to get a very early… before the sun comes up… start to their hike.  The three of them planned to complete the hike in one day.  Yes, one day!  Before they even started I was proud of them.  Very proud and a little jealous of their adventure together.

My husband had been planning this hike for quite some time.  And originally he was going to go alone.  I was relieved when he asked our youngest son and daughter-in-law to go with him.  This meant he wouldn’t be alone and I would worry just a little less about him.

As I left them at the trailhead and drove back to our cabin, the darkness and silence intensified how alone I felt.  I know I have said this before, being alone and doing things on my own is outside my comfort zone.  Being alone brings back all the emotions and fear of my early years, when those who were supposed to take care of me, left, leaving me alone.  The feeling of abandonment, the fear of being left alone, the fear that those I love will leave and never come back… those feelings come rushing back.  I know that I am not alone, but those feelings send me into anxiousness and are the basis for the discomfort and fear I have when I am faced with being alone.  And the darkness only intensified those feelings as I drove away, leaving three of the four most important people in my life at that trailhead.

Back in the parking lot of the lodge, I stepped out of the van to walk back to the cabin.  It was dark.  REALLY dark.

And I was alone.

Our original plan was for our oldest son to come with us and for him and I to drive together to the south rim to meet the other three.  But just a few days before we were to leave, the doctor at his clinic said he couldn’t go with us…. They would not give him the medicine he would need while we were gone and he would have to go to the clinic every day….

It is funny sometimes (or maybe not) how I am forced by circumstances beyond my control, to step outside my comfort zone, to discover what I am capable of…. and to learn about me.

So the plan changed.  I was going to be alone on the drive to the South rim…. Only about a 4-hour drive, but the cell reception is little to none on the route, which made me nervous…. There would be no talking to anyone while I was driving, no connections to anyone…. Just me on the open road…. Alone.

So, here I was, in a very dark parking lot needing to walk back to my cabin.  Did I mention it was REALLY dark?  Like I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face, dark?  Thankfully, I had my cell phone, so I turned the screen on to help me see the path and find my cabin.  I spent the next couple of hours talking to myself, wondering how the three were doing on their hike and working up the courage to get into the van and drive to the South Rim….. telling myself it was an adventure and I should find a way to enjoy it.

I have driven farther distances by myself in the past.  To Colorado from Louisiana.  To Virginia from Alabama.  Across the mountain passes in Washington.  Yes, I was capable of doing this much shorter drive.  But each of those longer drives was about getting to my destination while only stopping for gas, food and restroom breaks.  And on each of those drives I was alone, but not really alone, as I was able to talk to my family and friends through the Bluetooth while I drove.  Ahhh, technology kept me close to others and kept me from feeling completely isolated and alone.  But this drive I would not be able to use my phone.  There would be no calls to others to keep me company as I drove.  And I wouldn’t need to stop for gas on this drive.  I decided in my conversations with myself that morning, that this drive needed to be different than those in the past, if I was going to enjoy it and make it an adventure.

Finally, it was time for me to load up the van, check out of the cabin and get on the road.  My heart was racing as I started the engine of the van and put it into reverse.  It was the stepping outside my comfort zone, doing something different that created the discomfort for me.  I like routine.  I like comfort.  I like the known.  And I like the safety of others being around.

But true personal growth only comes from pushing myself out of that safe place.  Realizations, learning and healing come from stepping outside my comfort zone.

And so I pushed myself and off I went.

The morning was beautiful.  The day before had been cool, cloudy and rainy.  This morning, though cool, was sunny and bright.  A perfect day for a drive.

I turned on some music and drove.

I wasn’t far down the road when my heartbeat slowed to normal and I began to take in, REALLY take in, the beauty around me.  There was more snow and the white covering the trees was beautiful.  Calming.  I saw deer feeding in the meadows.  And the glowing yellow and orange leaves of the aspen trees made me smile.  The scenery had me turning off my music and rolling down the window.  I was present in that moment.  Smiling.  Laughing.  Talking to myself.  And enjoying the beauty around me.

And then I realized just how much I was enjoying the “me” time.  I was enjoying the time alone.  The time with nature.  The time to think about things, to work through things and to realize how much I like me.

As I drove down the road, I talked with God.  I talked with my mom.  I talked with my mother-in-law.  There was a lot of open road on this drive.  And a lot of time to think and figure things out.

I drove down the open road, the wind blowing through my hair and my thoughts were the only music I was listening to.  Yes, I knew where this fear of being alone came from.  And yes, I understood how the choices made by the adults in my young life had deeply impacted my adult life.  Understanding the impact and how it still manifested in my life meant I could now change my response.  I realized on that open road that I could either let that fear and the emotions from my childhood continue to affect my life or I could take it for what it was and use it to make my life experiences even greater.

And in that moment I chose to be in the moment…. To know that as long as I had me, I would never be alone.  That yes, people leave, but that doesn’t mean I have to be alone forever.  I have my husband.  I have my children.  I have my extended family.  I have my wonderful friends.  And I have God with me, ALWAYS!

I chose, in that moment, to enjoy this solo adventure.

I stopped at the viewpoints.  I had never stopped to sight-see when traveling alone.  I pulled off when a pullout came along.  I got out of the van.  I took pictures.  I looked around.  I breathed.

It was pure joy!

It took me a little longer than planned to make it to the South Rim, but that was because, this time, I was enjoying my time on the road.  I was having fun.  I was stopping to see the beauty surrounding me.  I was taking it all in and enjoying the adventure!

I finally made it to the East Entrance on the South Rim.  I was proud of myself for taking some time to enjoy the day, not just to get to my destination.  And it didn’t stop when I entered the park.  I pulled off at the viewpoints.  I got out of the car.  I stood on the rim of this amazing canyon and looked down into it, wondering where the others were… were they enjoying their adventure?  Were they having as much fun as I was?  Maybe, just maybe I could see them…..

And I wondered at the beauty from God!

This was a healing and empowering adventure for me.

114 20181009_164425_HDR copy copyFinally, after many stops I arrived at our lodge for the night in the Grand Canyon Village.  I managed to get us checked in and everything in the rooms.  And then I planned to rest for a while…. But I wanted to continue my adventure, so I headed back out to explore more of what the Grand Canyon had to offer me.  Eventually I found my way to the parking lot next to the trailhead where we planned to meet.  I explored the area for quite a while, taking in the splendor of the Grand Canyon.  I was amazed and awed by the colors on display in front of and below me.  Nature’s art at its finest.  And then I made my way back to the trailhead.

I stood above the trail, watching as person after person made their way up the trail to the top.  I was watching for my three.  Hoping to see them soon.

133 IMG_3919 copy copyAnd then I saw them!  I yelled in excitement.  The people near me laughed.  Relief took over as I watched the three of them make their way on this last part of their journey.  I was not alone.  And when they finally reached the top, I hugged them.  They did it!  An amazing accomplishment for them—23.5 miles and many thousands of feet of elevation change, all in 12 hours and 50 minutes.  Wow!!  They did it!  I was so very, very proud of them (still am!).

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And though my accomplishment was not as physically demanding, I realized I was proud of me too.  I stepped outside my comfort zone, though I really did not have much choice.  But I did it.  And I found a way to enjoy my adventure instead of just getting from one place to another.  Instead of letting my nerves and discomfort keep me from enjoying the moment, I embraced it!

I stepped outside my comfort zone and in the process found that I can have fun on my own.  I can enjoy the world around me even when I am alone.  And the world around me, especially the natural world, is worth spending time in, with or without others.

And being alone does not mean I will ALWAYS be alone.

Each event that causes me to step outside that comfort zone is an opportunity for me to learn, to grow and to heal.

It just takes a leap…..

I look forward (with a little trepidation) to my next solo adventure.