Finding the Ocean – The Final Chapter

On September 1, 2017, I did something a little crazy. (Again.) On a complete and utter whim, I took off on a 4,700 mile road trip to go find the ocean. Just me… and the dog.

Continue along on my healing and soul-inspiring journey below, or start from the beginning

Today is Jacob Wetterling’s 41st birthday, so I thought it would be a fitting day to wrap up my “Finding the Ocean” story. Here goes.

In my last post, Chapter 13, I shared what I had written on September 6, 2017. It was exactly one year to the day that Danny Heinrich had confessed to killing Jacob and I was still trying to block all of it from my memory. It’s why I had taken off on this cross country road trip in the first place. I didn’t want to think about it… didn’t want to remember.

Looking back now with some fresh perspective, I’m glad I was able to be there. It was devastating and traumatizing, but I went because I felt I was somehow a part of it all. I wanted to see it through to the end, but there was definitely no “closure.” There was just raw, painful, deep SORROW for all that poor boy had to go through on that night in 1989 and all his family had to go through in the 27 years after. It was just so utterly devastating, and again, for the millionth time, I wondered whether this was better. Was the knowing better than the not knowing? Logically, I knew the answer was yes. But there, in that moment, in that courtroom, the answer was definitely no.

I’m going to finish my “Finding the Ocean” story with a journal entry I wrote on the last leg of my trip. This was the first time I had ever written about any of this, and as I read back over it now, I realize how long overdue this catharsis was.

Thank you for taking this journey with me, and for all your kind words and support. As you have probably gathered by now, Jacob is pretty special to me. He came into my life at a time when I was desperately searching for purpose, and he was my light through a very dark tunnel. He renewed my faith, my spirit, and my hope.

This journal entry picks up just after I had made it out of the Federal Courthouse after Danny Heinrich’s confession on September 6, 2016. I had finally made it back to my car after getting locked in the stairway and nearly passing out.

Journal Entry – Days 6 & 7

Somehow I made it back to my car. I sat in the parking ramp and tried to tune in to WCCO on my iPhone so I could listen to the press conference. I could have stayed, but chose not to. I just needed to get out of there.

The reception inside the parking ramp was terrible, so I started the car and headed out. I found my way to 1st Avenue and started heading northeast toward the freeway entrance on 3rd Street. I just wanted to go home. I had my iPhone connected to the Bluetooth stereo on my car, so by now, I could hear that the press conference had started. Sheriff Sanner from the Stearns County Sheriff’s Office and Andy Luger, the U.S. Attorney, had just finished speaking, and now Patty was going to make a statement. I couldn’t believe it. I was in such a sorry state, barely able to drive or think, and here she was, about to make a public statement in front of millions of viewers, just moments after hearing Danny Heinrich confess to her son’s kidnapping and murder.

I wanted to see it, so I pulled over and parked across from the Loon Cafe, just as Patty was starting to speak. I was watching on my iPhone and had tears streaming down my face when all of a sudden, someone started pounding on my driver’s side window. It startled me so much, I screamed and threw my phone across the car. I turned and saw a biker pounding on my window and yelling at me to get out of the bike lane. I’m not sure if I said anything to him; I’m not sure I needed to. Between the scream and the tears, I think he felt it was best to just get back on his bike and keep going. I scrambled to retrieve my iPhone, which had landed under the passenger seat after hitting the door.

Patty spoke through tears. What hurt the most is when she said, “To us, Jacob was still alive… until we found him.” It didn’t matter that it had been 27 years. To her… to all of them… Jacob had just died that day, and with it, the hope that he would ever come home.

I sobbed. I watched life go on around me – people walking, talking, driving, biking – and I marveled at how different life felt, even though it still looked the same. Everything about who I was and who I had been felt different. What I had done had mattered. In the end, the Paynesville cases had mattered. Jared’s case had mattered, and all the research we had done together had mattered.

And then… Patty thanked us. In her darkest and most trying moment, she thanked Jared and me for what we had done. I couldn’t believe it.

After she finished speaking, I pulled back onto 1st Avenue and continued heading toward the freeway entrance on 3rd Street. Suddenly, I felt the need to hug my mom. More than anything, I just wanted to drive to her house and let her wrap her arms around me. I wanted to feel safe, and loved, and normal again.

So, that’s what I did. I drove to my parents’ home in Oak Grove, and when I walked in, my mom was standing with her back to me listening to the radio. Frank Vascellero was on WCCO Radio talking about the live press conference which had just ended. My mom turned just then, seeming to sense I was there. She wasn’t startled; it was as if she just knew it was me. She had tears streaming down her face, and so did I. All she said was, “Oh, Joy,” and then we hugged and cried for a long time. As we stood there, I heard Frank Vacellero say my name. He credited me for helping find Jacob, and then I cried harder.

My mom had been out running errands and had also been listening to the live press conference in her car. She had raced into the house and turned on the radio to catch the rest, and that’s where I found her when I walked in.

“Were you there?” she asked me.

I nodded.

I couldn’t talk about it… any of it. I didn’t mention being locked in the stairway, or almost fainting, or the biker who made me scream and throw my phone across the car. I just sat there and let her make me a toasted peanut butter and jelly sandwich with a glass of milk. Later, we opened a bottle of wine, and maybe I shared some of it. All I remember is feeling safe and loved, and so very grateful to have someone to cry with.

Later, around sunset, I was on my way home and driving through – of all places, Paynesville – when Patty called. She and Jerry were also on their way home, and they had called to check on me. They told me they were worried about me because they hadn’t seen me after the court hearing.

They were worried about me.

I marveled at these kind and caring people. In their deep grief and sadness, they had called to check on me. I didn’t tell them much, but I did mention I had gone to my parents’ house because I needed a hug from my mom. “This was the hardest day of my life,” I remember telling them.

I know that sounds hard to believe, and even harder to explain. I had been through death before – the loss of children, tragedy and grief – but nothing like this. I had never been through evil before. A child – a happy, smiling child with blue eyes and a yellow sweater – was gone because of one man’s evil and selfish act. And to have lived with it for all this time without telling anyone – to watch this family suffer for 27 years – that was incomprehensible to me.

Patty thanked me then. She said if it wasn’t for me, this day would have never come. Through tears, I said something then that even surprised me. “It wasn’t me, Patty,” I said. “It was God.”

I couldn’t believe I’d said it, but I believed it all the way down to my core. And, in that moment, I knew they believed it, too.

“It was God, and you, and me, and Jared, and everyone,” she said. “We all helped bring Jacob home. We all mattered.”

I’m done with this chapter now. After sitting at that picnic table on the Fort Hall Indian Reservation – after finally telling this story and putting all these words and feelings down on paper – I can finally think about that day without crying. (Well, without crying as hard or as often, anyway.)

I made it to Jackson Hole around 7 PM and had a great time drinking wine with Inger and her daughter, Annika. We laughed and reminisced and watched our dogs play. All felt right with the world again, and it was such good therapy on a really hard day. (Thanks Inger and Annika!)

One more thing, and probably the most important thing. I left Jackson Hole on Thursday, September 7th and started heading to Whitefish, Montana to meet Ross. He and his brother, Rob, had driven their 81-year-old dad out to Whitefish to visit his sister who was suffering from Alzheimers. I pulled into the Rocky Mountain Lodge where they were staying just before 10 PM. Ross was waiting for me in the parking lot as I arrived, and as I rolled down the window to talk to him, Zoey leaped all the way from the back seat as soon as she heard his voice. Her tail wouldn’t stop wagging.

I parked the car, got out and gave Ross a huge hug and a kiss. I’m not sure if I’ve ever been so grateful and excited to see him. He is so supportive and understanding of all my “crazy.” I can’t think of another husband who would be so understanding when his wife tells him on the Friday of Labor Day weekend that she is taking the dog and going to find the ocean. How truly crazy is that? But, he gets me, and he let me go.

So, off I went, without telling a soul because I didn’t want to explain it to anybody. Honestly, I couldn’t even explain it to myself. It started as a bucket list thing and ended up as something so much deeper.

Life is, indeed, a journey. Every milestone I’ve passed up to this point, every bump in the road, every missed turn, and every sweeping breathtaking view has brought me to where I am now. It all mattered, and it all made a difference. And sometimes, by running away for a few days, you actually end up closer to where you’re really going.

Biggest lesson? Follow your heart, believe, and focus on the love. These are the things that have brought me to where I am today.

I’m not sure what my next story is yet. I spent a long time researching the names on that big rock, thinking it might be fun to find those people’s descendants and see if they knew about Register Rock along the Oregon Trail. I didn’t get very far though, so not sure on that one.

We’ll see what comes up…

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Finding the Ocean – Chapter 13

On September 1, 2017, I did something a little crazy. (Again.) On a complete and utter whim, I took off on a 4,700 mile road trip to go find the ocean. Just me… and the dog.

Continue along on my healing and soul-inspiring journey below, or start from the beginning

First, I know it’s been a while since my last post… almost a month, in fact. Sorry about that. I think I’ve been putting off this post because I knew it would be hard to write, but for those of you who have followed me on this journey, I sincerely thank you for hanging around and being patient with me.

Second… JAYME CLOSS. I get goosebumps just typing her name. At the end of my last blog post (published 12/27/2018), I mentioned Jayme, the 13 year old girl who had gone missing from her small Barron, Wisconsin home on October 15th. For almost three months, everyone had been frantically searching and praying for Jayme, whose parents had both been found shot to death in their home on the same night she went missing. The details were frightening and her successful recovery seemed grim, but still… hope remained.

Eighty-eight days later, my husband and I were watching Mom on CBS when I noticed a crawler going across the bottom of the TV screen. I though I’d seen something about “Barron,” but that’s all I caught. I grabbed the remote from Ross and rewound the DVR, carefully reading the entire news crawler from the beginning.

Jayme Closs had been found. Alive.

Ross and I stared at each other in complete shock and amazement. I couldn’t believe it and was overcome with sheer BLITHERING happiness. I just kept repeating, “I can’t believe it! I can’t believe it! I’m so happy!!”

Minutes later I received a joyful text from Patty: “Jayme Closs found alive! I was right! I knew she was alive!” She and Jerry just happened to be in Washington D.C. when they got the news. Patty was there to attend a Board Meeting for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, so just imagine her excitement the next day when she got to enter that building and celebrate with all her NCMEC colleagues. Patty said the energy was absolutely electric. It’s what these people go to work for every day… to bring kids home safe and alive.

Score one for the good guys!!

To Jayme’s credit, she was the one who finally found the courage to escape and save herself. For this brave act, Jennie-O Turkey, who had been the employer of both Jayme’s parents before they were killed, donated the $25,000 it had offered in reward money to Jayme, herself. I just have to say, Jennie-O is an amazing philanthropic company founded and headquartered right here in Willmar, Minnesota, and I am so proud of them for their unwavering support and generosity throughout this highly emotional rollercoaster.

Today, I send continued prayers for Jayme as she continues to heal and navigate her way through a new normal. She will probably never know how much her safe return meant to all of us who followed her case and desperately prayed for a happy outcome. Kudos to all. We really needed this.

OK. Back to September 6, 2017.

Ugh. September 6th. Talk about swinging the pendulum 180 degrees in the other direction.

I began writing my “Finding the Ocean” story on Labor Day Weekend, over four months ago now. It’s all been leading up to this… that horrible day in the courtroom on September 6, 2016… a day that I desperately wanted to forget. It’s the whole reason I took off to go find the ocean in the first place. I didn’t want to dwell on what had happened that day. Instead, I wanted to replace those bad Labor Day memories with good ones, so with very little planning or forethought, I packed a bag, a few groceries, and my 5-year old black lab, then hopped in the car, and started navigating my way west until I hit the ocean.

Here’s the rest of that story.

I woke up on September 6, 2017 at a Super 8 in Twin Falls, Idaho. I was on my way to meet my husband Ross in Whitefish, Montana the following day (Thursday), but first, I was hoping to swing through Jackson Hole, Wyoming to visit my friend, Inger. I sent her the following email at 9:03 AM that morning:

Hi Inger!
Are you busy later today? I’m currently in Twin Falls, ID and will be swinging through Jackson Hole later today. I’d love to have a glass of wine with you if you’re around!!

Her reply a few minutes later:

OMG! Would love that! Keep me posted as to when you’ll be “swinging by”!!

I love spontaneous friends.

Around 11 AM, Zoey and I hopped back into the Explorer and set our sights on Jackson Hole. I couldn’t wait to get there… to be able to sit and unwind with a glass of wine and have a real face-to-face conversation with someone besides my dog. Heaven.

I smiled as I remembered all the fun and crazy times I’d had in Jackson Hole over the years. It began in college when my friend, Betsy, invited me to go skiing with her over Christmas break one year. I said sure, without asking for any further details. It wasn’t until we were in the car somewhere in the middle of South Dakota that I found out we were actually on our way to Wyoming and not Colorado. I had no idea people could ski in Wyoming, but… whatever.

A few years earlier, Inger had also gone on a ski trip to Wyoming with Betsy. The thing is… Inger fell in love with Jackson so much, she never left. She just stayed. For many years to follow, Betsy and I would return to Jackson Hole to visit Inger for skiing, two-stepping, card-playing, pool-shooting, tire-changing, moose-spotting, START-bussing, sight-seeing, mountain-hiking, horse-riding, wine-drinking, talking, laughing, and all around poor decision-making.

Man, we had fun.

Over the years, we have all raised our kids to also love Jackson Hole, which is why I would be returning to Minnesota with a snowboard in the back of my Explorer. It had been left at Inger’s house the previous winter when my son, Jordan, went to visit Betsy’s daughter, Lainey, who was living with Inger’s family and working in Jackson at the time.

I love Jackson Hole, and it was the perfect place for me to be on this horrible day. I was sure it would bring me much healing and happiness, but first, I needed to get there.

Around noon, I had to go to the bathroom, so I veered off on an exit for a state park. At the top of the exit ramp, it showed picnic grounds to the right, with a sign that said “Register Rock Historical Site.” Perfect. I had no idea what that was, but I figured picnic grounds would have bathrooms, so I hung a right and hoped for the best.

After much winding around and heading back over the freeway, I finally found the place. It was remote and I was the only one at “said picnic grounds,” but I quickly found the bathrooms and prepared to head out again. I decided to let Zoey out for a few minutes, so while she was doing her business, I ended up glancing around a bit. What was this place? I noticed a pavilion in the distance, so I walked over to check it out.

Under the pavilion was a rock. A REALLY big rock. I moved in a little closer to read the sign.

Register Rock
After their meals were cooked and their livestock grazed, early pioneers took time to record their presence on this and other rocks in the area. The land around Register Rock was a common camping area along the Oregon and California trails. It has been preserved by the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation so that the modern visitor may enjoy a landmark of the past.

Huh. Well, would you look at that. Without even realizing it, I had found myself on the Oregon Trail.

Next, I took a closer look at that rock and noticed all the names that had been carved into it. Without really understanding why, I stared at that rock for a really long time.

I wondered what life had been like for these early pioneers. From what I could recall of my days playing “Oregon Trail” at the Brooklyn Center Public Library back in the late 70s, the challenges were many. Between having to type “P-O-W” to ward off Indian attacks, trying to stay nourished to ward off dysentery, and keeping my horses fed to avoid the impending doom of foot travel, it was rough work.

I decided that these people who had inscribed their names on this rock were MY people… dreamers, doers and risk-takers. Just as I had asked myself before starting my own journey, I’m sure they had asked themselves the very same thing before starting theirs… “How hard can it be?” I liked their spirit.

As Zoey and I headed back to the car, I stopped to read one more small sign.

The Indian head and preacher head carved on this rock and dated 1866 is the work of J.J. Hansen at age seven. At this time he was traveling along the Oregon Trail with his parents to Portland, Oregon. In 1908, after becoming a sculptor, he returned to review his work. During this visit he again dated the rock under the Indian carving.
Indian head
Preacher head

Time to move on, but I will come back to this later.

I don’t know what it was about Register Rock, or the Oregon Trail, or September 6th in general, but suddenly, I was a train wreck. I got back in the car and started driving, but for the next 45 miles, all I could do was cry. I had avoided thinking about any of it for the past five days, and now, suddenly, after staring at a giant rock in the middle of absolutely nowhere, there it was.

With tears still streaming down my face, I finally decided to pull off the freeway just past Pocatello. I needed to get a hold of myself. I couldn’t show up at Inger’s doorstep in this sorry state. I needed to sit for a minute. I needed to write.

So, for the next hour and a half, that’s exactly what I did. I found a picnic table just outside a convenience store on the Shoshone Bannock Indian Reservation in Fort Hall, Idaho. I went inside, bought myself a Diet Coke and a box of Hot Tamales, sat down at the picnic table with Zoey by my side… and I wrote.

I never really intended to share what I wrote that day at the picnic table, but after much deliberation, I decided to just go ahead and do it. So… here we go.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017 – 1:00 PM

I left Twin Falls, Idaho this morning around 11 AM and have been driving along on I-84 for the past two hours, heading toward Jackson Hole.

I’ve had a lot of alone time on this trip… lots of time to process and think. I am so grateful for this opportunity, but mostly, I am so incredibly grateful to have an understanding husband who supports me in these crazy endeavors. I must admit, this one may just be the craziest.

I suppose that’s why I didn’t tell anyone I was doing this until I actually did it. I didn’t even know myself that I was really doing it until I suddenly found myself piling a few items of clothing on my bed on Friday. That’s how it started. With five pairs of underwear and a swimsuit… and no plan whatsoever. Except, to get in my car and drive until I hit the ocean.

This has been a great trip. A lot of driving… but so worth it. Zoey has been a great companion, and she makes me smile every single day.

I am so grateful. But today… I am so sad.

It snuck up on me. I knew this Labor Day weekend would be hard, which is (I think) half the reason why I decided to just up and do this thing. When I talked to Patty last week, she mentioned that she wasn’t going to let Danny Heinrich ruin Labor Day weekend for them, too. October 22nd is hard enough… that’s all he gets. They’re keeping Labor Day weekend.

I thought that was great advice, so I decided to follow their lead. Instead of focusing on the sadness of this weekend, I decided to do something fun, and memorable. So, I decided to take off and find the ocean.

But today… this day… September 6th.  Dammit. I thought I had a handle on this, but I guess I don’t.

So, right now, here I am sitting at a picnic table on the Shoshone Bannock Indian Reservation in Fort Hall, Idaho. There’s a small grocery store, a gas station, and a casino in this tiny town. And a picnic table. Right now, I just need a minute to sit here with my laptop at this picnic table.

I’m on my way to visit my friend Inger in Jackson Hole. I only told her this morning that I was coming because I wasn’t really sure if I’d be stopping or not. She was so excited to hear I was coming and she can’t wait to hear all about this crazy “bucket list trip” of mine. Soon, there will be lots of wine and laughter. But first, I need to get this out of my system. 

It was exactly one year ago today… September 6, 2016. I was all alone in that courtroom when Danny Heinrich confessed to killing Jacob.

Of course, I wasn’t alone-alone. Jane Straub and Alison Feigh from the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center were on my right, but I had only briefly met them on the day we left for the Wilderness Trek just a few weeks earlier. On my left, there was a random couple who entered late, after the press had taken their seats, so I assumed they were just part of the general public. What kind of people wait outside the courthouse for a chance to witness something like this? I hated them and wished they were sitting anywhere but next to me.

My people… the ones I knew and loved… were sitting in the front row. I had watched them enter single-file from a door behind the judge’s bench. They came in, sat down, and stared blankly ahead.

I wanted to leave then. More than anything, at that moment, I just wanted to bolt. But, I couldn’t. The room was deadly silent. I was stuck.

And then… it started. That horrible man with his horrible voice. 

“Yes, your honor.” 

“No, your honor.”

That horrible monotone voice. Over and over.

And then… the true horribleness began. 

I stared at that seal on the wall above the judge and tried not to hear what they were saying. It was an eagle. He was holding a leafy branch with one foot and a bunch of arrows with the other. I stared at that eagle with tears streaming down my cheeks. And when I couldn’t stare at that eagle anymore, I shut my eyes and wished I was anywhere but there.

After it was over, I walked out. Everyone was crying and hugging, but I didn’t know anyone. I had never felt so alone in all my life. I just wanted to leave.

I got in line for the elevator, but when I looked up briefly, I realized everyone was looking at me. They were all reporters, and the last thing I wanted was to get stuck in an elevator with a bunch of reporters.

I glanced around and noticed a sign for the stairway, so I made a beeline in that direction. The door closed behind me, and it was blissfully quiet and peaceful. I started to cry again as I began my descent.

I went down four flights of stairs and realized I was still only on the 13th floor. I’d forgotten we’d taken the elevator to the 14th floor. I wasn’t going to walk down 14 flights of stairs (or 56, considering there were four flights per floor), so I decided to get off at the 13th floor and just take the elevator from there. I’d wait a bit to make sure most of the reporters were already down.

I tried the door and found it was locked. Crap. I wondered what was so important on the 13th floor that required them to keep the door locked. I went down another four flights of stairs and found the door for the 12th floor was also locked. Crap, crap, crap.

I turned around and went back up the eight flights of stairs to the 14th floor again. As I reached to grab the handle, I realized it was locked, too.

Are you kidding me??! I was locked in the stairway of the U.S. Federal Courthouse.

I sat down on the steps and started to cry.

As I sat there, sobbing and cursing my own stupidity, the lights in the stairwell started to go out. First, the ones two flights in front of me went out. Then, one flight in front of me. I realized they must be on a timer. I stood up and waved my arms, terrified that the light above me would soon go out and I’d be drenched in darkness.

I started walking. One flight, two flights, three flights, four flights. It went on and on. No air conditioning. I was so shaky and nauseous, I was sure I was about to pass out, but every time I stopped to sit down, the lights would go out again. I kept walking.

By the time I finally made it down the last flight, I blasted out the door and found myself on a random downtown sidewalk. I had no idea where I was. I started walking and tried to get my bearings. I walked two blocks before I realized I was going the wrong direction. It was so hot. My ears were ringing. I leaned against a building, and tried not to pass out.

I kept walking. Every time I found a bit of shade, I stopped. When I finally made it back to the courthouse, I realized there were media vans surrounding the entire front of it. I turned and walked several blocks the opposite direction to avoid them. Somehow, I made it back to my car without passing out.

I haven’t been able to think about that day without crying. Still. When people try to talk to me about it, I cry. Every time, no matter who it is.

For the life of me, I just can’t get a grip on this.

I didn’t realize I’d be “thinking Jacob” so much on this trip. I spot references everywhere. “Be kind” on a billboard outside of Sioux Falls. “Create joy” on a brochure they handed me at my hotel. The #11 spray-painted on the back a road sign in Rapid City. 

And an eagle standing on a road sign near Watertown, spreading its wings, facing the wind, and drying its feathers after a brief rain shower.

So now, here I am again, alone on this day, sitting at a picnic table at the Shoshone Bannock Trading Post, with Zoey by my side.

It’s been a year. I want to quit crying. Or, maybe I just want to understand why I can’t quit crying. Maybe I never will.

But, for now, I am just so grateful for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to spread my own wings, face the wind, and try to dry off a bit.

Thanks, God. Thanks, Jacob. Thanks for choosing me.

Now, then. 

On to Jackson Hole.

Next time… the final chapter…

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Finding the Ocean – Chapter 12

On September 1, 2017, I did something a little crazy. (Again.) On a complete and utter whim, I took off on a 4,700 mile road trip to go find the ocean. Just me… and the dog.

Continue along on my healing and soul-inspiring journey below, or start from the beginning

After spending a few hours hours walking the beach and admiring the views at Crissy Field, Zoey and I headed back to our hotel room. I was looking forward to getting a good night’s sleep, then getting up early and seeing more spectacular views of the Pacific Coast as I drove north toward Oregon on US 101.

We made it back to the Hotel del Sol around 7 PM and I immediately slipped into my pajamas, excited beyond words to finally sleep in a REAL BED and not in the back of my Ford Explorer. I turned on the TV, plugged in my iPhone and decided to check-in and see what was shaking with the rest of the world.

I texted my friend Stacey (Stephanie’s mom from Chapter 6) and sent her a few videos of Zoey playing on the beach. She asked me where I was heading next, so I told her I was heading north on the Pacific Coast Highway into Oregon, then cutting across through Idaho, and up into Montana so I could meet Ross in Whitefish on Thursday. I was planning to go to bed early so I could wake up and get out of town before rush hour started. It would be the Tuesday after Labor Day… a work day… and I had seen enough of the crazy traffic in this town to know I wanted to avoid that scenario at all cost.

Stacey texted back:

They evacuated the other side of the lake where Mitch lives and then sent him and two other guys to the evacuated area to protect the boats.


Stacey’s youngest son, Mitch, lives in Montana and works for Glacier Park Boats on Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park. After telling her my plans, she gave me an update on the Sprague Fire that was devastating Glacier National Park at the time. By that evening (September 4, 2017), the fire had spread to over 13,000 acres and was only 35 percent contained.

I asked Stacey how in the world Mitch was supposed to protect the boats. Shouldn’t he be evacuating, too??

Mitch had told her the plan was to take all the boats into the middle of the lake and stay with them, swabbing them down to make sure the sparks and ashes didn’t start the boats on fire. Included in the fleet were at least 3-4 historic wooden tour boats that were each over 100 years old. Mitch was in charge of guarding the DeSmet, the flagship vessel in the company’s wooden boat fleet.

Here’s a very cool picture Stacey sent me of Mitch guarding the DeSmet. It may look very tranquil and peaceful, but it wasn’t. Normally, there would be beautiful views of the mountains and glaciers behind him, but the smoke was so thick you could see none of that.

Good Lord. I asked Stacey if she was a nervous wreck.

“Yep,” she replied. “Maybe you should skip Montana on your way home.”

She sent me one other photo that Mitch had sent to her. How incredibly amazing is this?

The Northern Lights and Sprague Wildfire from the shore of Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park Montana. The Sprague fire was started on August 10th 2017 by a lightning strike. This shot was taken in late August just days before this wildfire burned the historic Sperry Chalet. Photo credit

OK. Wow. Perhaps it was time to reevaluate my plan. By now, I had caught a few news updates on TV that told me Montana wasn’t the only state experiencing wildfires. In fact, the reason the sun was so hazy over San Francisco Bay was because of the wildfires burning throughout northern California and Oregon.


That’s exactly where I had been planning on going. I got out of bed, pulled out my laptop and started searching for more details about these wildfires. I learned that the wildfires in Oregon had shut down several roads, and I worried there would be no way to cut across the state without driving right into the thick of it. Even worse, I worried I might find myself trapped as the winds were constantly changing and whipping up the intensity and direction of the fires.

Here’s a map from September 5, 2017 that shows the smoke forecast from the wildfires. As I studied the wildfire map and compared it to all my route options on Google Maps, I realized there was no way I could get to Whitefish, Montana by going up the Pacific Coast Highway through Oregon. It was time for a new plan.

Photo credit:

Wine Country!!

I took another look at Google Maps and figured out I could still follow US 101 across the Golden Gate Bridge and get to Napa in about an hour. From there, I could cut back across Nevada, then head north into Wyoming and maybe drop in on my friend Inger in Jackson Hole (which just so happens to be one of my very favorite places on earth). Perfect! It was about as good of a Plan B as a person could hope for.

I set my alarm for 4:30 AM and was up, showered, and ready to hit the road by 5 AM. I fed Zoey, took her out for a quick walk (it was still dark), then packed all our belongings back in the Explorer and prepared to hit the road. Before pulling out, I entered “Napa” on my car’s GPS and started on my way.

By 5:30 AM, downtown San Francisco was already a madhouse. I was happy I’d made the decision to leave extra early, but even still, I marveled at the crazy amount of traffic in this town. It was still dark, but I was hopeful I’d be able to snap a few photos of the Golden Gate Bridge as I was going over it. I continued to follow my car’s GPS, completely oblivious to where I was or which direction I was heading. And then… there I was… going back over the BAY BRIDGE instead of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Noooo!!! How did THAT happen?

I was so mad. I thought about turning back and trying again, but the line of cars heading into San Francisco on the Bay Bridge from the other direction was at a complete standstill. There was no way I was going to try and navigate that fracas, so I decided to just keep driving.

So, again, here’s what I missed.

Upon arriving home, I was told by countless people that the scenery on the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge is absolutely stunning. This is the site of Muir Woods National Monument, and home to the coastal redwood trees… the tallest living things on the planet. The tallest one in Muir Woods is 258 feet, which is almost as tall as the Statue of Liberty. And I missed it.

Photo credit:

I also missed the Muir Beach Overlook which provides expansive views of the Pacific Coast…

Photo credit:

…and I missed the Marin Headlands, with their beautiful hiking trails and spectacular views of San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge.

Photo credit:

Ah, well… next time I promised myself I would do this trip better. For now though, I was off to wine country. Napa, baby!

It only took me about an hour to get to Napa from San Francisco, so there I was at 7 AM. Everything was closed and it was too early to tour any wineries, so the best I could do was just drive around for a while. It was still hazy because of all the smoke from the wildfires, but I imagined this place would be absolutely gorgeous on a clear sunny day with the sun rising over those beautiful vine-covered hills. I tried taking a picture out my driver-side window, but it’s not pretty. This is not the beautiful Napa Valley I had envisioned in my head for most of my adult life.

Once again, I felt like I was zigging when I should have been zagging. I figured it would be at least noon until any of the wineries opened, but I wasn’t willing to just wait around for five hours. The drive to Jackson Hole was at least 10 hours from here (not including stops) and I wanted to make it as far as I could before having to stop for the night. A five hour delay just was not in the cards. But, by God, I would not be leaving wine country without any wine.

I started Googling again. The best I could find was a Safeway grocery store about 10 miles away that was open 24 hours. Good enough. I hit “start” on the GPS and found my way there.

I spent the next half hour wandering the “Spirits” aisle at Safeway, studying the wine labels and trying to decide which ones I wanted to buy for gifts. This is one of my favorite things to do, and while most people probably pay more attention to things like vintages and critical reviews, I spend the majority of my time looking at the labels. I love the ones with a creative name, a cool design, or an intriguing backstory.

In particular, I wanted to bring back a bottle of California wine for Patty, so I narrowed it down to six labels that reminded me of her. In the end, I couldn’t decide on just one, so I bought them all… along with a few others to help fill the case.

As I got back in the car, I promised myself I would return to wine country one day and do this place justice. I would have a plan, an itinerary, reservations, discretionary income, friends, and no dog. In the meantime, I was grateful for a 24/7 Safeway and a full case of wine in my backseat.

Now then… on to Jackson Hole.

(Incidentally, there was a terrible wildfire that hit wine country about a month after I returned home. It started northwest of where I was, near Calistoga, and moved quickly south, propelled by dry conditions and high winds. The worst area hit was Santa Rosa, where several people lost their lives after being trapped by the flames. As of October 31, 2017, the Tubbs Fire had burned 36,807 acres and had a death toll of 22. Altogether, there were at least 43 fatalities in the 2017 fires in northern California.)

I drove back the way I had come… over Donner Pass and across Nevada on I-80. When I reached Wells, I hung a left on U.S. 93 and continued north until I reached Twin Falls, Idaho. It was dark and I didn’t want to drive the pass into Jackson Hole at night, so I decided to stop and find a hotel. I figured I would get a good night’s sleep and be able to take a shower in the morning before heading to Inger’s house. I hadn’t told her I was coming yet and wasn’t even sure if she’d be around, but I figured I’d email her in the morning and see if it worked out.

I found a pet-friendly Super 8 in Twin Falls, so Zoey and I stopped for the night and took a much-needed break. I had been driving for over 11 hours and had covered 700 miles. That was a lot. I was happy to stop driving.

As I got into bed, I opened my laptop to plot my route and see how long it would take me to get to Jackson Hole. I opened a browser window and noticed a bold red “Breaking News” banner running across the top of my default home page… the West Central Tribune… my local newspaper in Willmar, Minnesota.

Jasmine Block had been found.

She was the 15 year old girl from Alexandria, Minnesota who had gone missing on August 8th. I’d seen a “Missing” poster for her at a rest area in Lusk, Wyoming, back when I had first started my road trip. Now, she’d been found alive and was finally home safe.

I couldn’t believe what I was reading. She’d been kidnapped by a 32 year old man, Thomas Barker, who lived in a nearby town and was an acquaintance of the family. Jasmine was held captive and sexually abused by Barker and two other men for almost a month. She was kept in the back part of a house, often in a closet with her hands zip-tied, and was transported in a duffel bag whenever the men moved her from place to place. They’d even tried to kill her on several occasions, but she managed to survive. Finally, after almost a month, she was able to escape after being left alone for the first time in the suspects’ truck. She ran from door to door looking for help and then swam part way across a small lake until a local farmer found her and brought her to safety.

Read the story here…

I had been thinking about Jasmine a lot on this trip and had been praying she’d be found alive. Now that she had, I was all sorts of happy/sad/confused/angry. Who are these people? Who does this to children? Why hadn’t investigators been able to find her sooner? Why does this keep happening? How can we do better?

As I write this, I’m also thinking of Jayme Closs, the 13 year old girl from Barron, Wisconsin who disappeared (presumably kidnapped) on October 15, 2018… the same night her parents were found shot and murdered in their home. Why? What happened? Where’s Jayme? What are we missing? How can we do better?

Next time… facing September 6th and that horrible day in the courtroom…

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Finding the Ocean – Chapter 11

On September 1, 2017, I did something a little crazy. (Again.) On a complete and utter whim, I took off on a 4,700 mile road trip to go find the ocean. Just me… and the dog.

Continue along on my healing and soul-inspiring journey below, or start from the beginning

The friendly staff at the Hotel del Sol had my room ready by noon, and Zoey and I immediately made ourselves at home in our cute new digs. I unpacked the YETI cooler bag, rinsed all the peach and strawberry slime off everything, then put the two remaining yogurts, bag of goose jerky, and knee surgery ice packs into the mini fridge. I rinsed out the cooler in the bathtub, gave Zoey a fresh bowl of water, then went to take a shower.

Ahhh…. a shower. The date was Monday, September 4, 2017, and I hadn’t had a shower since I’d left my house in Minnesota three days earlier. It was heaven.

I got dressed and dried my hair while Zoey eyed me with mild curiosity from the other room. I often wonder what goes through a dog’s head in moments like this. Did she wonder what we were doing, where we were, or why we were here? Did she even care? Did she realize we had just traveled over 2,000 miles for no better reason than to “go find the ocean?” I will always marvel at the blind faith and absolute trust Zoey has in me. She goes along with my every whim… never questioning, never judging… and is just so happy to live in the moment. She stares at me with those big brown eyes, with nothing but love on her fuzzy face, and waits patiently for me to make my next crazy move. She is such good therapy. We could learn a lot from dogs.

I grabbed my iPhone and checked the time. It was a little before 1pm (PST), and I was starving. Time to go find something a little better to eat than yogurt and goose jerky.

I popped into the hotel office on my way out to the street and asked where I could get a bite to eat. The nice man at the desk handed me a walking map of the Marina District and directed me two blocks south to Union Street. He said there were all kinds of restaurants and cafes there with sidewalk seating so I could bring Zoey. Perfect. I was starting to love this town.

I headed toward Union Street with a smile on my face and a new skip in my step. Just a block from my hotel, I noticed a message on the sidewalk and had to stop to take a picture.

When I reached Union Street, I quickly saw that my nice hotel man had not steered me wrong. The street was lined with sidewalk cafes, all up and down. Sidewalk cafes and people. Sooo many people. I walked along and weighed my options, stopping to read the menus posted outside the doors and hoping to find an empty table anywhere. No luck. Once again, I realized it was Labor Day and the whole world had apparently moved from Fisherman’s Wharf to Union Street for lunch.

I cruised up and down Union Street a few times, taking in the amazing salads, pastas, and sandwiches people were enjoying while I grew more and more desperate for a bite of real food. Finally, I noticed a pizza place with an open table outside… Extreme Pizza. I sauntered in, ordered two slices of pepperoni pizza and a cold Corona, then went to join Zoey on the front porch. Maybe it wasn’t wine in a REAL GLASS and I wasn’t eating my pizza with a REAL FORK, but I was deliriously happy. Never had pizza and a cold beer tasted so good.

It was just after 2pm and I had gone straight from starving to exhausted. According to my walking map, I was only about two miles away from the beach at Crissy Field, but that was about two miles more than I could muster at the moment. I had officially hit the wall.

I needed a nap.

Zoey and I headed back to the hotel and we slept like the dead for two hours. Finally, around 4pm, I got up, fluffed my bedhead-hair, put on my crooked aviators, and set out to go find the ocean.

We hung a left out of the Hotel del Sol and followed Lombard Street to Fillmore Street where we hung a right and headed north. As I walked along, it seemed to me there was a lot of creative parking in San Francisco. Wherever there was a spare sliver of space, random parking spots appeared… even if they were right in the middle of the road. Crazy, but clever.

Finally, I made it to Marina Boulevard. I could see the bay straight ahead of me and I was so close I could smell the water. I crossed the street and headed left along the walking/biking path, toward Crissy Field.

As I passed the marina on my right, I came to a big grassy field and picnic area with people and dogs everywhere. This really was a dog-friendly town. I crossed the grassy field and headed straight for the water. Unbeknownst to me, there was a spectacular view waiting for me right behind that row of trees.

And then, there it was… the Golden Gate Bridge. We had finally made it.

Zoey was dying to get in the water, and I was dying to see her reaction when she got her first taste of the salty water. I took her off her leash and let her go.

I couldn’t get over the view. While Zoey played in the water, I just sat and stared, mesmerized. The Golden Gate Bridge. I wondered why they called it that, since it was clearly orange and not gold. I would have to get to the bottom of that later. For now, I needed a picture. I stopped a random passerby and asked if he would take a photo for me. He graciously obliged.

As it turns out, it was U.S. Army Captain John C. Fremont who originally coined the phrase, “Golden Gate.” The Golden Gate Bridge is simply the name of the bridge that crosses over the Golden Gate.

On July 1, 1846, two years before the discovery of gold in California U.S. Army Captain John C. Fremont gazed at the narrow strait that separates the Bay from the Pacific Ocean, and said “it is a golden gate to trade with the Orient.” The name first appeared in his Geographical Memoir, submitted to the U.S. Senate on June 5, 1848, when he wrote, “to this Gate I gave the name of “Chrysopylae” or “Golden Gate” for the same reasons that the harbor of Byzantium was called Chrysoceras, or Golden Horn.” (SOURCE:

I also wondered about the name “Crissy Field.” It seemed an odd name for a beach. I found out later that Crissy Field was named in honor of Major Dana Crissy who was killed in October 1919 while participating in a U.S. Army transcontinental demonstration flight. Crissy Field was the military’s first Air Coast Defense Station on the Pacific coast.

According to Wikipedia:

Crissy Field, a former U.S. Armyairfield, is now part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area in San FranciscoCaliforniaUnited States. Historically part of the Presidio of San Francisco, Crissy Field closed as an airfield after 1974. Under Army control, the site was affected by dumping of hazardous materials.[1] The National Park Service took control of the area in 1994 and cleaned it up, and in 2001 the Crissy Field Center opened to the public.[2] While most buildings have been preserved as they were in the 1920s, some have been transformed into offices, retail space, and residences.

I found a section of sea wall to sit on so I could just sit still for a minute and take it all in. Throughout my life, water has always made everything better. It is my calming agent, my happy place, and the first place I want to go when things get stressful. I was a swimmer throughout junior high and high school, and no matter how hard (or early) the workouts, I couldn’t wait to get in that pool. It was the one place my mind could just be quiet. No noise, no distractions, no deadlines. Just me and the water, back and forth.

I am still drawn to the water. Lakes, oceans, rivers, waterfalls… it doesn’t matter. Whether I’m swimming in it, floating on it, walking by it, or just plain staring at it… it is the one place I always want to be.

Now, as I breathed in the salty air of San Francisco Bay and stared at the gentle, calming waves, I was happy to be sharing the experience with the one friend I knew loved the water as much as I did… Zoey.

Crissy Field’s East Beach was filled with people and dogs. Zoey fit right in and was soon making fast friends.  She fetched up a paper plate for me to throw for her, and when that didn’t work, she found an empty Play-Doh container which kept her busy for another short while.

I could have sat there and watched the ocean show all evening. It was about 5:15 PM, and as I looked west, I realized the sun would set right behind the Golden Gate Bridge. I wondered what time that would happen. It was hazy, but I could see that the sun still had a ways to go before it sizzled into the ocean. I figured I had a few hours, so I decided to bide my time until sunset.

I walked down to the water and Zoey followed me with her Play-Doh container. I tried throwing it for her, but it was so windy, the container just flew right back at me. To make it heavier, I filled it full of water then threw it again. That worked. Zoey swam after it, then returned and dropped it next to my feet again. I did this a few more times, then started walking down the beach, heading east.

I watched a bunch of crazy kite surfers for a while. As the wind caught their sail, they would fly out of the water, board still strapped to their feet, then glide along in mid-air before landing back on the water again. I wondered what would happen if they lost their grip and the kite flew out of their hands. As I watched and contemplated all the potential hazards of this crazy sport, I noticed a small island off in the background. Hey… was that Alcatraz?? I pulled out my phone and Googled it. Sure enough, it was. I had no idea. I zoomed in and took a quick photo.

As I watched the kite boarders and continued to throw the Play-Doh container for Zoey, I noticed another black lab swimming off in the distance. It was a little way off shore, and I wondered if it had swum out to fetch something and lost sight of whatever it was looking for. I glanced around looking for the owner, but I didn’t see anyone watching. Then, suddenly, the dog sunk and didn’t come back up.

I panicked. I started hurrying down the shore looking for the owner. I knew Zoey well enough to know that the same thing could very well happen to her. She would never give up if she was trying to fetch something, and maybe the strong current was just too much. As I got closer, I still couldn’t see anyone looking for the dog. Where was the owner?? I was just about to say something to a random stranger when I overheard someone say something about the seals in the bay. Seals? Here? In San Francisco Bay? Again, I had no idea. Sheepishly, I realized my mistake. It wasn’t a black lab I had seen; it was a seal. I turned around and started heading back the way I had come with Zoey happily carrying her Play-Doh container alongside me.

The whole thing unnerved me so much, I took Zoey’s Play-Doh container away and threw it into the nearest garbage can. Do seals attack dogs? At the very least, I knew sharks did, and from what I remembered of Escape from Alcatraz, the waters surrounding that island prison were infested with sharks. I shuddered. Sorry Zoey. No more swimming for you.

I put her back on her leash and headed back to the safety of our sea wall. As the sun started to work its way closer to the water, I suddenly realized maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to walk back to my hotel after dark. I put my shoes on and decided to start heading back. I had at least two more days to drive north along the Pacific Coast Highway into Oregon, so I knew I’d have more chances to view this beautiful ocean shore. I couldn’t wait. Tomorrow morning, I would get up extra early and leave before rush hour so I could drive over that beautiful Golden Gate Bridge on my way to the Oregon coast.

It was a good solid plan. Or so I thought.

Next time… road closures, forest fires, and a missing teen comes home…

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Finding the Ocean – Chapter 10

On September 1, 2017, I did something a little crazy. (Again.) On a complete and utter whim, I took off on a 4,700 mile road trip to go find the ocean. Just me… and the dog.

Continue along on my healing and soul-inspiring journey below, or start from the beginning

After four days of solid driving and three nights of sleeping at interstate rest areas, I had finally made it to San Francisco. I’d driven almost 2,000 miles in my quest to find the ocean, and now that I was this close, I could practically taste it.

But first, there was one thing I was curious to know.

I’d been staring at that checkered flag on my GPS for four days now. Somewhere around Watertown, South Dakota, I’d finally given up on my fairytale notion of trying to find the ocean by simply “pointing my car in a general southwest direction” and resorted to modern day technology. I had pulled over and typed in “San Francisco – City Center,” not really knowing where that would take me. Now that I was within striking distance, I was really curious to know where exactly that checkered flag was. I figured it must be a pretty important landmark if it was truly considered the “city center” of San Francisco.

I kept following the green line on my GPS, my heart swelling with excitement as I inched closer to that checkered flag. I wondered if there was some kind of monument to mark the center of the city. Maybe it was a historic building, like the Minneapolis City Hall. Or a courtyard with a statue in the middle of it like they have in France. Or, maybe there was an actual checkered flag on a flagpole! Wouldn’t that be cool? I was giddy with anticipation. Within minutes, I would finally arrive at my destination… the CITY CENTER of San Francisco.


Per usual, I had built something up in my head to be a lot grander than it actually was. Gah.

I kept driving north on U.S. 101, mostly out of curiosity. I had no plan; I was just making random lefts and rights and trying to get a general feel for San Francisco. Overhead, I noticed the old streetcar cables and ended up singing the Rice-A-Roni jingle in my head for the next several miles.

At some point, I realized all the signs on the buildings appeared to be in Chinese and I wondered if I was in Chinatown. I took a few more random turns and ended up on streets that went up and down at 45 degree angles. I wondered if this is what they meant when they named that old 70s show, “The Streets of San Francisco.” Hmm. I pondered that for a bit, happy to be driving an automatic and not a stick shift, then started humming THAT theme song in my head for the next several miles.

Finally, I’d had enough.

It was time to find the ocean.

I pulled over, grabbed my iPhone, and Googled “places to see in San Francisco.” I scrolled down to the picture section and my top three choices were:

  1. Pier 39
  2. Golden Gate Bridge
  3. Fisherman’s Wharf

I wasn’t sure what Pier 39 was and I figured I’d get to the Golden Gate Bridge eventually, so by process of elimination, I decided Fisherman’s Wharf was the place for me. At the very least, I knew it was on the ocean.

I  hit the “Directions” button, and off I went in pursuit of my new checkered flag.

Holy wow.

Apparently the entire population of San Francisco had also entered Fisherman’s Wharf into their GPS, because that’s exactly where they all were when I arrived. It was a mad house. I inched along, stuck inside a throng of vehicles all trying to find a parking spot. Suddenly, I remembered what day it was… Labor Day. No wonder the whole world was here.

Even if I had wanted to stop and explore some of the cute bayside shops and clam chowder cafés along my route, I couldn’t. I was stuck in the throng, with no options but to keep inching along with it. Eventually, I came to the final intersection before the land met the bay.

Fifty-fifty chance.  Left or right?

I chose left.

Per usual, I was wrong.

The road was blocked by a fence, and I was stuck again. Blazes all to hell!!

I slowly and carefully turned my monster-sized vehicle around in this tiny space, inching forward and backward a thousand times before I was finally turned back in the right direction.

I stared at all those happy people on the grassy hill next to me and wanted to go slap the happy right out of them. Them… with their clean fluffy hair and their well-planned itineraries. I wondered where they had found a place to park. Probably in all their pre-planny wisdom they’d taken the damn Rice-A-Roni streetcar to get here and enjoyed it immensely.

Stupid, happy idiots.

I parked my car in the middle of the road and grabbed my iPhone again. To hell with the beach. To hell with San Francisco! I needed a hotel. And a nap. And a drink. (Not necessarily in that order.) I started to Google furiously.

I looked up briefly to see a traffic cop walking my way with a book of parking tickets in his hand.

Really? Really??

I rolled down my window.

“You can’t park here, ma’am.”

I tried hard not to lose it completely. “I know… I’m sorry. I’m from Minnesota and I have no idea what I’m doing. I’m just trying to find a beach and a pet-friendly hotel.”

Zoey came bounding up from the back and stuck her nose out the window to greet the traffic cop. He laughed and patted her on the head.

“Well, this probably isn’t the best place if you’re looking for a beach,” he said. “You should go to Crissy Field… it’s just a few miles west of here.”

I asked him which way west was and he pointed for me.

“And, if I were you, I’d look for a hotel on Lombard Street. It’s just a few blocks north… that way,” he said, pointing again. “San Francisco is a very pet-friendly city, and you should be able to find a nice hotel within walking distance of Crissy Field.”

I could have kissed him.

In fact, I can honestly say, if it had not been for that friendly traffic cop with his fat book of parking tickets and his dog-lovin’ recommendations, I would have beat it out of San Francisco and never looked back.

Instead, I drove a couple blocks north to Lombard Street and happened upon the most absolutely perfect hotel I could have found in that moment… the Hotel Del Sol.

I pulled into their beautiful little driveway, parked, and went inside the office to see if they had a room for Zoey and me.

They did.

The room wasn’t quite ready, so the nice man at the registration desk handed me a brochure and a fresh-baked chocolate chip cookie. (A. fresh. baked. chocolate. chip. cookie.) He invited me to sit in their courtyard while they finished cleaning my room. As I walked back out to my car, I happened to glance at the brochure he’d given me. It was for the hotel’s “Joy of Life Club.” At the top, it said, “Create joy.”

I smiled.

Create joy.

It was Labor Day… exactly one year earlier… when Patty Wetterling had shared this exact same message for an entire state that was mourning right along with her. We were at a loss… devastated by the news that Jacob’s remains had been found… and in the midst of her own grief, Patty put out the following statement on the Facebook page of the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center:

“Everyone wants to know what they can do to help us. Say a prayer. Light a candle. Be with friends. Play with your children. Giggle. Hold hands. Eat ice cream. Create joy. Help your neighbor. That is what will bring me comfort today.”

Thank you, Patty. It was exactly what we needed to hear… at the exact moment we needed to hear it.

I parked my car, put Zoey on her leash, then nestled into an Adirondack chair next to a palm tree while I watched a family with young kids play in the pool. I broke my chocolate chip cookie in two, then gave half to my adoring black lab.

Sometimes happiness can be so simple.

Next time… a slice of pizza, a cold Corona, and the real Golden Gate Bridge…

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Finding the Ocean – Interrupted #2

Before I continue with my “Finding the Ocean” story, I want to acknowledge something pretty big and monumental that happened yesterday. Jared Scheierl, the “other boy” in the Jacob Wetterling case (the one from Cold Spring who was abducted and sexually assaulted just nine months before Jacob), finally got some vindication in his own case.

Yesterday, a Stearns County District Court Judge awarded Jared $17 million in a civil lawsuit against Danny Heinrich. And though Jared will likely never see any of that money since Heinrich has no assets, it was an important win, nonetheless. For Jared, it’s the first time he’s ever had a chance to hold Danny Heinrich accountable for what he did to him on January 13, 1989.

Jared is a good friend and we have been through a lot together on this journey. During the time we were working together and  trying to get answers for both him and the Wetterlings, we knew the statute of limitations had run out on his childhood assault. However, we’d been told there was no statute of limitations on kidnapping, so, all along Jared thought he had a criminal case of his own to pursue. He thought that one day he would have his day in court.

That turned out to be untrue.

In 1989, the year Jared was kidnapped, Minnesota did indeed have a statute of limitations on kidnapping. Unbelievably, it was only three years. On a federal level, the limit was five years. So, either way, the expiration for filing a criminal lawsuit for kidnapping had long since passed by the time Jared and I started looking into his case. That came as a sucker punch when Jared finally learned this hard truth in 2015.

But, thankfully (and somewhat miraculously) he had another option. In 2013, the State of Minnesota enacted the Child Victims Act, a new law that allowed victims of child sexual abuse a three-year window of opportunity to file a civil case, regardless of when the crime had been committed. It was enacted, largely, to address the many cases of clergy abuse that had taken place within the Catholic church. Jared qualified to file a civil lawsuit under this new act, which had a filing deadline of May 25, 2016.

So early in 2016, just months after Danny Heinrich had been arrested on child pornography charges, Jared retained his own lawyer, Doug Kelley, who agreed to represent him pro bono in this case.

That was almost three years ago.

And yesterday, they finally won.

It’s been a long, grueling journey, and I will admit there have been many times I have struggled to understand Jared’s need to move forward with this case. I questioned why he would want to put himself through all the agony if there was no money to be made. But, he was adamant. He wanted his day in court. He felt very strongly that Danny Heinrich needed to be held accountable for what he had done to him.

It took me a long time to understand this, and it probably wasn’t until Jared took the stand in his own civil case that I actually started to get it.

Yesterday’s ruling was important… not only for Jared, but for all victims of childhood sexual assault.

First, it gave Jared some sense of power back. For almost 30 years, he has been a vicim of Danny Heinrich. In 1989, he was powerless to fight back as a 12 year old child, and then, because of ridiculous and outdated laws, he was also powerless to fight back as an adult. That all changed yesterday. Of course, Jared is well aware he will likely never see any of that $17 million, but he can rest easy knowing that Danny Heinrich will never be able to profit from what he did to him, or Jacob, or any of his other victims… not now nor any time in the future.

Second, this ruling sends a strong message. As Minnesotans, it says we will not stand for this. Aside from the physical harm and trauma that results from childhood sexual assault, there is now a clear price to pay for the lifetime of healing these children are forced to navigate and endure. It tells future perpetrators, yeah, maybe you can plea down your sentence or get out early for good behavior, but here’s the deal. You took away an innocent childhood and there is a real, monetary price for that. You brought in darkness, and confusion, and fear where there was once happiness, and wonder, and joy. You have forever altered the path of a child who will now experience a lifetime of hurt as they try to process, adjust, and overcome.

You did that, Danny Heinrich.

And for that, you will pay.


Next… Finding the Ocean – Chapter 10…


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Finding the Ocean – Chapter 9

On September 1, 2017, I did something a little crazy. (Again.) On a complete and utter whim, I took off on a 4,700 mile road trip to go find the ocean. Just me… and the dog.

Continue along on my healing and soul-inspiring journey below, or start from the beginning

It was Monday, September 4, 2017 – Labor Day.

By 4:30 AM, I was wide awake and ready to hit the road again. It was dark and I knew the sun wouldn’t be up for another two hours, but I couldn’t lie there anymore.  I pulled the plugs on my self-inflating air mattresses, rolled them up, and put them back in their storage bags. Good riddance. As happy as I was to have them, I never wanted to see them again… at least not for the remainder of this trip. Something had snapped in me the night before, and I’d decided I was done living like a homeless person. It was time to start enjoying this vacation.

The Donner Pass rest area was packed-full of vehicles of all shapes and sizes. Cars, vans, trucks, campers, semis. People had been coming and going all night, and I was grateful to see I hadn’t been blocked-in by some yahoo who had just pulled in during the wee hours and parked all kittywampus.

I moved Zoey into the front seat so I could reorganize my traveling homeless camp. I put all the seats back into their upright positions and immediately felt better about life. I folded my blanket and put it into a neat pile on one of the middle bucket seats, along with my pillow and tightly-rolled air mattresses. Next, I moved my suitcase to the other bucket seat and positioned it so I could easily access it from the back passenger-side door.

I noticed my grocery bag poking out beneath a pair of haphazardly-tossed hiking shoes. I grabbed it and took a quick inventory of my food situation. Yuck. I threw away anything I was sick of eating… which was pretty much everything. Wheat Thins, gone. Scrunched and dented bread, gone. Raisins, gone. I hung on to the peanut butter, my half-eaten bag of Tostitos, and my one remaining jar of homemade salsa.

Next I checked the cooler situation. I pulled out the hummus container and an empty Ziploc bag. My once-frozen strawberries and peaches had leaked into a soupy mess on the bottom of the YETI bag… gross. I tossed them all. I fumbled around and found a roll of paper towels in the seat pocket behind my driver’s seat and cleaned out the cooler as best I could. By the time all was said and done, I was left with two yogurts, a bag of unopened goose jerky, and two slimy ice packs we’d probably acquired from my husband’s knee surgery a year earlier. Classy.

I shook the dog hair off Zoey’s hammock seat cover and re-positioned it over the far backseat. Such a brilliant contraption… I wish I had invented it. “Here Zo-Zo!” My sweet, patient, forgiving black lab bounded back to me and settled into her nice, clean, organized spot. Even she seemed happier about life. Next, I grabbed my freebie toiletry bag out of my suitcase, locked the doors, and went into the Donner Pass rest area to work some miracles.

Good Lord, where to start.

I washed my face and brushed my teeth, then got down to business with some wet wipes, eye drops, and dry shampoo. I put my hair in a pony tail, applied some deodorant, and called it good. Well, good enough anyway.

On to the ocean!

I took Zoey for a quick walk, then loaded her up and hit the road. It was still dark, and I was grateful to have gotten a little sleep before trying to maneuver this mountain pass in the middle of the night.

Donner Pass sits atop the Sierra Nevada mountain range at an elevation of 7,056 feet. I found out later it was named after an ill-fated party of pioneers who were trying to reach California in November of 1846. When they arrived at present day Donner Lake, they found the pass completely blocked by snow, so the settlers were forced to spend the winter there. The conditions were harsh, and when the settlers began dying of starvation, they eventually resorted to cannibalism to survive. Of the original 83 members of the Donner Party, only 45 eventually made it to California. Most of them were women and children.

Around 7:30 AM, I was starving and refused to eat any more yogurt (or goose jerky or Tostitos) for breakfast. I spotted a blue freeway sign that told me there was a Starbucks coming up, so I veered right at the next exit and was soon enjoying a grande latte and a blueberry muffin while Zoey enjoyed her bowlful of Iams.

I was at the Starbucks on Pinole Valley Road in Pinole, CA. According to the GPS, I was only about 30 minutes away from San Francisco, and I was all caffeined-up and ready to go. Zoey and I took a short stroll around the beautifully-landscaped parking lot of the Kaiser Permanente Medical Office, then we were on our way. San Francisco or bust!

Less than 15 minutes later, I passed a little brown sign off to my right. “McLaughlin Eastshore State Park. Next exit.” It was my first hint of the ocean, and what luck! A state park! Maybe they had a nice campground where Zoey and I could stay. Even though the thought of sleeping in my car one more night was more than I could process at the moment, the thought of falling asleep to crashing waves and waking up to a beautiful sunrise made it sound all the more appealing.

Just a short distance later, I noticed that this was also the exit for the University of California Berkeley. Oh how fun! First, I would go dip my toes in the ocean, and then, I would go explore the campus of UC Berkeley. (Just look at me being all pre-planny. Such good, solid logic here.)

I pulled off I-80 at Exit 11 and got a glimpse of something I’d never seen before… a homeless camp. At the bottom of the cloverleaf, just before the entrance of McLaughlin Eastshore State Park, was a makeshift camp of some sort, with tarps and pieces of cardboard tented around the base of a tree. It was surrounded by piles and piles of stuff, most of it garbage.

How bizarre. Didn’t this city have any restrictions against this sort of thing? Especially right here, outside the entrance of a state park? My P.R. brain immediately thought of the poor soul who was responsible for promoting this beautiful oceanfront state park, while at the same time, my Journalism brain immediately wanted to park the car and go knock on that tarp. Who lived there? Maybe it was because I felt a certain kinship to these people, now that I’d been living like a homeless person myself for the past four days. Seriously though, I couldn’t help but wonder what drove someone to live like this. What was their story?

Curiosity aside, I decided to stay focused and stick with my quest to go find the ocean. I pulled into the McLaughlin Eastshore State Park and couldn’t wait to stroll along the beach and see the look on Zoey’s face when she lapped up some of that salty water.

I pulled into the park and prepared myself for something wonderful. The first thing I noticed was a sign for a restaurant named “Hs Lordships” that was located somewhere to my left. Cool! A mimosa sounded pretty good at that moment. I wondered what time they opened. But… as I glanced around… my happy thoughts started to turn progressively south.

There was a long pier that went out over the bay, but on closer inspection, it looked a little sketchy. A locked gate blocked my admittance, and just beyond that, a cement building near the entrance was covered in graffiti. Hmm.

I surveyed the parking lot and was shocked to see several cars, vans and RVs with coverings over their windows, and garbage piled outside. Was this another homeless camp?? I took a photo of one of the cars, but immediately got a little paranoid wondering if anyone was watching me. Maybe they thought I was taking pictures of their license plates. What if there were criminals here? I quit taking pictures.

My hinky alert was going off at full tilt. Suddenly, all thoughts of dipping my toes in the ocean or enjoying a mimosa at Hs Lordships were replaced by concerns over my safety. It was about 8:15 AM and I was ready to get the heck out of there. I was curious about the restaurant though. I wondered if it was closed down and boarded up. Seriously, how could it remain open when its parking lot had been taken over by homeless squatters? I decided to go check it out.

As I drove past the restaurant, I could see it had been beautiful once. I imagined weddings and events that had taken place there over the years, with guests enjoying beautiful views of the bay and the San Francisco skyline. How crazy that this entire beautiful place was now in such disrepair. Could it ever be saved and revitalized? Was anyone even trying?

(UPDATE: As it turns out, the historic Hs Lordships closed its doors less than one year later, on July 1, 2018, after nearly 50 years in business. Here’s an article about the closure, along with several photos of the restaurant. Within days, the city of Berkeley evicted everyone at the Hs Lordships homeless camp. Their displacement did not even begin to solve the problem though. It’s a complex issue that Berkeley is working hard to address.)

Before leaving the park, I decided to throw caution to the wind and walk around a bit. This WAS, after all, my first glimpse of the ocean since I’d started my trip, and I wanted to get a picture of it. I decided to leave Zoey in the car for fear of her racing into the water or diving into someone’s pile of treasured garbage. Instead, I walked along the edge of Hs Lordships, and imagined what this beautiful place used to be like back in its heyday. I snapped the following picture as the sun was coming up across the bay, looking toward Northwest Berkeley.

You might notice that the sun looks a little hazy, and I’ll get to that later. For now though, here’s a video of Zoey and me, back in the car, crossing the bay into San Francisco, and going over what I THOUGHT was the Golden Gate Bridge.

Holy mother of pearl, I’m such a dork.

Next time… more signs of Jacob and a perfectly-timed parking ticket…

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Finding the Ocean – Chapter 8

On September 1, 2017, I did something a little crazy. (Again.) On a complete and utter whim, I took off on a 4,700 mile road trip to go find the ocean. Just me… and the dog.

Continue along on my healing and soul-inspiring journey below, or start from the beginning


After leaving the Sinclair Truck Stop on the Bonneville Salt Flats with a full tank of gas and a new respect for the desert heat, I was anxious to put Utah behind me and cross the Nevada border. I’d been staring at nothing but flat white ground for the past hour and a half, and I was ready for some new scenery.

Just before reaching the town of Wendover, I had a pretty view on either side of me and was optimistic that I was in for a nice, scenic stretch. These two rocky bluffs on either side of the road were the most beautiful things I’d seen since leaving Salt Lake City.

As I passed through the tiny town of Wendover (population 1,454), it didn’t take long before I hit the state line. And yes, the scenery changed abruptly, with three large casinos announcing my arrival into West Wendover, Nevada (population 4,305).

And just like that, West Wendover was behind me and I was in for the longest, hottest, most boring stretch of driving since I’d started my road trip.

It went on, and on, and on.

Driving along I-80 in Nevada reminded me of driving on the bottom of a dried-up ocean. It was all sand and weeds for as far as the eye could see. On occasion, I would see a herd of cows and wondered how in the world they could survive in the heat. It was 104 degrees, and after my previous mishaps with a flat tire and a near-empty gas tank, I worried what else could possibly go wrong along this long, desolate stretch of road.

I turned up the radio and kept driving.

About an hour and a half later, I made it to Elko, Nevada and stopped at the Food Mart, mostly out of sheer boredom. I topped-off the gas tank (because I was logical and pre-planny now), made myself a peanut butter sandwich, and took the dog for a quick stroll. Before taking off, I decided to check Google Maps to see how long it was going to take me to reach San Francisco. I’d been driving since 6 AM, and though I was anxious to find the ocean, I was determined to find somewhere to sleep that wasn’t a rest area. I wanted a real bed… or at the very least, a shower.

I checked the map. Reno was still four hours away, meaning I’d probably roll in there around 7 PM. After that, it was another four hours to San Francisco. Dang it. That wasn’t going to work. I’d never be able to find a dog-friendly hotel in San Francisco at 11 PM. Well… one thing was for sure. I couldn’t sleep in the car in this crazy heat. At the very least, I needed to get the hell out of Nevada.

I kept driving.

I stopped one more time in Lovelock, Nevada and topped-off my gas tank again. I grabbed another water from the back seat, opened a jar of Ross’s homemade salsa, ripped open a bag of tortilla chips, and started again.

Oh my Lord, the monotony. There wasn’t enough 70s music in the world to pull me out of this funk. I just kept eating Tostitos and driving 80 miles an hour, hoping to eventually find the end of Nevada.


FINALLY I made it to Reno. Outside my passenger window, I could see a huge outdoor event taking place. It spanned several city blocks, and there were THOUSANDS of people packed shoulder to shoulder with dozens of tents and food trucks lining the street.

What was happening down there? What were all those people doing? What was I missing?

DANG IT! I wanted to stop.

(I found out later that the big fun thing I missed was the annual Best in the West Nugget Rib Cook-Off – “America’s biggest free-entry grilling competition,” located at the Nugget Casino Resort in Sparks, Nevada, just outside of Reno. The six-day event features two dozen of the world’s best barbecuers who serve up more than 240,000 pounds of ribs on Victorian Square over Labor Day weekend each year.)

I REALLY wanted to stop. Suddenly, I wanted a shower, and a bed, and a real meal. More than anything, I just wanted to STOP DRIVING. I was sick of feeling like some kind of homeless convict on the lam.

For a brief moment, I gave some serious thought to sneaking Zoey into a hotel and trying to pass her off as a therapy dog. I looked back at her and wondered. She stared at me in curiosity, then jumped to her feet and thumped her tail in excitement. “WHAT’S HAPPENING?!” Sigh. It would never work. Zoey was just too damn happy and enthusiastic to be a therapy dog.

I kept driving.

Hot. Tired. Hungry. Cranky.

I was seriously starting to hate Nevada.

And then… I saw a pine tree. In the middle of all that heat and sand and sage brush, I saw a PINE TREE. And then I spotted another, and another. Before long, there were pine trees lining both sides of the road, and on the honor of my Christmas-tree-farmin’ father, I can honestly say I have never been so happy to see a pine tree in all my life.

Over the next few miles, the flat, sandy land started to morph into rocky, pine-covered hills. I opened the sun roof and breathed in the cool, pine air.

And then, suddenly…  there I was.


I had finally made it.

It only got better after that. The difference in the landscape between Nevada and California was so vastly different, it made my head spin and my soul surge. This is what I was talking about. This is what I had in mind.

It was just after sunset when I pulled off I-80 and into the beautiful little town of Truckee, California. I was just north of Lake Tahoe, another place I’d wanted to visit my entire adult life, but in that moment, I didn’t care. I had fallen in love with Truckee.

Photo credit

I cruised slowly down the main drag, looking for an open parking space. There were none. Everywhere, people were seated at sidewalk tables under strings of lights, drinking, eating, laughing, and listening to music. It was finally cool enough that I could leave Zoey in the car, but after a quick look in the rearview mirror, I realized I not only FELT like a homeless convict on the lam, I also looked like one. No problem. I just needed a shower and a place to stay for the night. I started Googling.

I found a listing for Donner Memorial State Park and clicked the “Directions” button. I found it without a problem and fell immediately in love with the place. Unfortunately, it was closed. Oh well. There were two other campgrounds within a one mile radius. I drove by the first one… no vacancy. I drove by the second one… same thing.

Hmm. Well, no worries. By now I had discovered beautiful Donner Lake and realized there were cabins for rent all the way around it. I slowed down for each one. No vacancy. I remembered at that point that it was Labor Day weekend. Tomorrow was Labor Day. I was near Lake Tahoe. No wonder everything was full.

Regardless, I wouldn’t allow myself to give in. I was determined to find a place. I followed Donner Pass Road along the north side of the lake, stopping each time I saw anything that resembled a cabin, resort, or motel. No luck. Everything was full.

It was well past dark and I was feeling pretty defeated when Ross called. I told him about this beautiful little town I’d discovered, and he immediately knew where I was. I told him I wanted to come back to this place some day, to stay on this lake, and eat in this town, and take a moment to just breathe it all in and enjoy it.

That’s when he said, “There’s a nice rest area near there, on Donner Pass.”

I’d heard enough.

I wasn’t a trucker. I didn’t want to sleep in another rest area. I wanted to take a SHOWER, then go back to that little town and order a glass of wine in a REAL GLASS and eat some pasta with a REAL FORK. Then, I wanted to return to my dog-friendly cabin and sleep in a REAL BED and finally get a decent night’s sleep. I would wake up in the morning, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, find a charming little place to buy a scone and a latté, then I would be on my way to go find the ocean.

But, instead, I kept driving.

I pulled into the nice rest area on Donner Pass, crawled into the back of my Ford Explorer, and tried to fall asleep next to my snoring dog for the third night in a row.

I fell asleep wondering what all the logical and pre-planny people were doing at that moment. Probably having a glass of wine in a real glass and eating pasta with a real fork. I hated them and hoped they all had to drive back home through Nevada.

Next time… THE OCEAN!!


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Finding the Ocean – Chapter 7

On September 1, 2017, I did something a little crazy. (Again.) On a complete and utter whim, I took off on a 4,700 mile road trip to go find the ocean. Just me… and the dog.

Continue along on my healing and soul-inspiring journey below, or start from the beginning


I left Stephanie and Conrad’s house in Roy, Utah around 10:15 AM and started making my way back toward Salt Lake City. As I got closer, I started wondering what this lake actually looked like. Where was it? Would I go past it on my way?

I zoomed out on my car’s GPS screen and noticed that I would indeed be passing along the south end of Salt Lake. Awesome! I couldn’t wait to see it. I wondered if people could swim in Salt Lake. How salty was it? Were there beaches? Could Zoey go for a swim? I had no idea.

About 45 minutes later, I caught my first glimpse of the Great Salt Lake. There was a barbed wire fence that separated the road from the lake, and I noticed a lone railroad track that cut between the prairie grass and scrub brush that covered the ground for several yards. Beyond that was a long stretch of white. What was that? Salt? If so, where did the salt end and the water begin? Hmm. This isn’t exactly what I’d expected.

What I didn’t realize at the time, is that the place I was staring at was very near to the original location of “Saltair – the Coney Island of the West.” I learned this when I noticed a marker on Google Maps that said “Historic Saltair Location” while writing this article and decided to click on it. Next, I Googled “Saltair” and found this great little video that explains a bit about the history of what I was looking at. So, in answer to my own question, yes, apparently people could, and did, swim in the Great Salt Lake.


I continued driving and happened to notice the time. It was 11:09 AM. In two minutes, it would be 11:11, and in that moment, I immediately thought of Jared and the Wetterlings. When I first met Jared in 2013, he always used to point out when it was 11:11 and say, “Make a wish!” I never knew what he was talking about at the time, but always thought it was sweet. Of course, after Jacob was found and the #11forJacob movement took off, 11:11 took on even more meaning for me. Now, I marvel at how often I notice when the clock says 11:11, and every time, I make a wish, think of Jacob, and say a little prayer.

Now, in this moment, I began to feel very alone on this long stretch of road ahead of me. When I’d taken off on this impulsive road trip, I hadn’t told a soul what I was doing except my husband. I didn’t want to explain anything to anybody, and I didn’t want anyone to worry about me. I just wanted to get away and not think for a while. I especially didn’t want to think about what had taken place on this holiday weekend exactly one year earlier. But now, I felt really disconnected and lonely. I wondered how Jared and the Wetterlings were doing. Even though it was all painful to remember, this incredible journey was something we all went through together and we would be forever connected because of it. And in that moment, on 11:09 AM on September 3rd, 2017, I realized how much I missed them.

I pulled over to the side of the road and took this picture at exactly 11:11 AM. I sent it with the caption “11:11” to Jared, Patty, and Jerry.

I explained that Zoey and I were on a road trip and headed to the ocean. I told them I’d made it to Salt Lake so far, and when I happened to notice it was 11:11 AM, I pulled over, took a photo, and wanted to let them all know I was thinking of them.

Jared texted back to let me know that he and his girlfriend were spending the day together with their kids at Sibley State Park, not far from my home in New London. Patty and Jerry were also spending the weekend with family, and I was so happy and relieved to hear from all of them.

Next, Jared replied with the following text:

“I learned how to drive a semi-truck at age 20 on the Utah flats. Take care and safe travels everyone.”

Hmm. I never knew he’d learned how to drive a semi in Utah. I wondered what he meant by the “Utah flats.” Was I on the Utah flats? I had no idea. I got back in the car, feeling much more at peace, and continued on my way.

Oh my.

It is hard to explain the weirdness of the next 37 miles.

Again, I must stress that even though the spontaneity of my trip was, in part, the very glory of it, my incredible lack of a plan or any knowledge of where I was at any given moment in time was certainly a detriment. One year later, as I relive this road trip on Google and Google Maps, I am learning so much about what I saw (or should have seen) along the way.

Apparently, the stretch I was just entering is known as “The Bonneville Salt Flats.” Having never heard of such a thing, I can only say that it felt like driving across a frozen lake in Minnesota in mid-January. The flat ground looked like it was covered in snow for as far as the eye could see. Here’s a quick snippet from Wikipedia that explains all this a little better:

The Bonneville Salt Flats is a densely packed salt pan in Tooele County in northwestern Utah. The area is a remnant of the PleistoceneLake Bonneville and is the largest of many salt flats located west of the Great Salt Lake. The property is public land managed by the Bureau of Land Management and is known for land speed records at the “Bonneville Speedway“. Access to the flats is open to the public.

Of course, I knew nothing about any of this as I continued to drive across this hot, white, not-frozen, not-lake. After a bit, I passed a big building with a logo I instantly recognized… Morton Salt. Huh. In all my days, I guess I never wondered nor realized where Morton got its salt. And now, there it was… a big white mountain of it… piled directly behind that little girl with her white umbrella and yellow dress. I took this quick picture as I flew past at 80 miles per hour (because that, my friends, is the speed limit on the Bonneville Salt Flats).

As I drove along, I kept noticing small groups of things… pipes?… sticking out of the white ground. What could that be? I passed these groups of pipes every so often, and finally I couldn’t take it anymore. I had to stop and see what these things were. Why were there pipes sticking out of the ground?

I pulled over again and walked over to one of the pipe groupings. Turns out, they were not pipes at all, but beer bottles turned upside down and stuck into the salty ground. What in the world was that all about? I took a picture and got back in the car.

Now that I knew what these things were, I kept spotting them more and more often. Seriously, what in the world? I could come up with no logical explanation, and made a mental note to Google it once I got home.

A year later, I don’t have much of an answer. Apparently people sometimes write their names or messages using empty beer bottles, but that’s obviously not the case here. Maybe someone stopped at each of the places where there were bottles strewn about and decided to poke them into the ground to create a series of cheap and quirky art installations. Hmm. Interesting. Again.

And, speaking of quirky art installations, holy crap. How do you explain this? I could see this odd monstrosity coming up on my right for miles, and once I finally got close enough to get a good look at it, I still had no idea what it was. I was sure it must serve some kind of purpose, like a satellite antenna, cell phone tower, or radio transmitter, but no. It’s art… in the middle of absolutely nowhere.

“The Tree of Utah” (aka “The Tree of Life”) was designed and built by Swedish sculptor, Karl Momen in the 1980s. The pieces lying on the ground (which I assumed were broken pieces of cement balls that had crashed to the ground, thus resulting in the installation of a safety fence) are actually intentional and supposed to represent leaves that have fallen from the tree. Oh, and ironically, the inscription on the trunk of the tree is from the song/poem “Ode to Joy.”

You can read more about it here.


By the time I reached “The Tree of Utah,” I had been driving for over three hours and just happened to glance at my gas gauge. It said I had 35 miles to go until empty. Hmm. It occurred to me that I hadn’t seen a gas station since I’d started my journey across this not-frozen, not-lake almost an hour and a half ago. Oh well, no worries. I was sure I’d hit the end of it soon enough.

I clipped along at 80-85 miles an hour with cars passing me like I was standing still. Another half hour went by and there was still no end to the not-frozen, not-lake. I was starting to panic a little bit. What if I ran out of gas? It was almost 90 degrees outside. There was no way I could walk, nor could I stay in a hot sweltering car with no air conditioning. Maybe I could get a ride from someone to the nearest gas station, but what about Zoey? Would they take her, too? I couldn’t leave her alone in the car in this hot salty desert.

Another fifteen minutes went by. I glanced at the gas gauge… 15 miles until empty. OMG, this was really happening. I was going to run out of gas in the middle of a desert. This is the stuff that happens in horror movies and you don’t even feel sorry for those stupid people because they deserve whatever happens to them because they should have planned better.

By the grace of God and my own dumb luck, I reached the Sinclair Truck Stop just outside of Wendover with only 13 miles left on the gas gauge. Phew! Lesson learned. After taking Zoey for a quick walk on the salty ground, I chalked it all up to a learning experience and vowed to be a little more pre-planny and logical than free-spirited and curious.

Next time… a long stretch of nothing and a creepy white van


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Finding the Ocean – Chapter 6

On September 1, 2017, I did something a little crazy. (Again.) On a complete and utter whim, I took off on a 4,700 mile road trip to go find the ocean. Just me… and the dog.

Continue along on my healing and soul-inspiring journey below, or start from the beginning


According to the clock, it was officially Day 3 of my road trip, and as I lay in the back of my Ford Explorer… not sleeping for the second night in a row… I was seriously starting to question the sanity of my plan (or lack of one). Maybe if I was 25 this would have been a good idea, but honestly, what was I thinking?

I fumbled around for my ear buds, hoping I could overpower the dog’s snoring with the white noise app on my iPhone. I found them in a side pocket of my purse, then climbed back onto my double-stacked self-inflating air mattresses and tuned in to the comforting sound of a commercial air conditioner. Zoey watched me with mild curiosity, then immediately fell back to sleep. If only it were that easy. After several more tosses and turns, I finally managed to drift off for a few hours.

I was awakened by a cold nose to the face and the flapping of ears. Zoey needed to go out. Sigh.

I got up and took Zoey for a quick walk. It was dark and chilly, but I could see the hint of a sunrise behind me in the east. It had been dark when I’d pulled into the Echo Canyon Welcome Center the night before, so I was excited for the sun to come up so I could see the mountains all around me. Rather than wait around, I decided to get going again so I could find somewhere beautiful to stop and watch the sunrise.

The GPS took me south, along the shores of Echo Reservoir (which I couldn’t see because it was dark) and around Lewis Peak (which I also couldn’t see because it was dark). I imagine both of these places would have been beautiful sights to see, had I only known they were there.

Here is a lovely photo of someone else’s dog sitting on top of Lewis Peak. (Sorry Zoey.) If you want to read more about it, click the picture.

As the sky started to brighten, I found myself driving faster and faster, trying to get past the annoying foothills on either side of me that were blocking my view of the mountains. Completely unbeknownst to me, I was just seven miles north of Park City, Utah… a place I have wanted to visit my entire adult life. But, in a classic case of not seeing the forest for the trees (or, in this case, the mountains for the foothills), I kept racing down I-80, trying to beat the sunrise and hell-bent on finding somewhere beautiful to watch it.

The sky kept getting brighter and brighter in my rearview mirror, and at my mad pace, I started to worry I was going to miss the sunrise altogether. I pulled off at the next exit, turned right onto a frontage road, and found myself traveling alongside a beautiful little golf course, nestled into a canyon at the base of a bluff. I pulled into the parking lot, hopped out of my car and took this quick video of the sunrise. It wasn’t exactly what I had in mind, but it was still pretty!

I watched the sunrise show for a few minutes more before I was interrupted by Zoey flapping her ears at me again. She was hungry. I was afraid to letter her out at the golf course because she tends to get a little OCD when it comes to retrieving balls of any sort… golf balls included. So, I got back in the car and travelled a little further down the frontage road until it started to narrow and meander its way down into the canyon. The road was so narrow and secluded by this point, I started to wonder if I had mistakenly wandered onto someone’s private driveway. I was just about to turn back when all of a sudden the road opened up to a small parking lot, and just like that, without even trying, I had found somewhere beautiful – Washington Park, in Parley’s Canyon.

Mine was the only car in the parking lot, so I let Zoey out to run while I filled her bowl with dog food. This place was gorgeous. It had a big beautiful pavilion with a stone fireplace, perfect for weddings and events, plus several cozy fire pits for people to gather around. There was a playground, softball diamond, horseshoe pits, volleyball court and a separate building with large, clean restrooms.

Zoey and I strolled around a bit, admiring the beautiful little park. It was a nice break, and we were both happy to get out of the car for a while. But, after 15 minutes or so, I  was ready to get going. I was excited to surprise Stephanie and Conrad at their house in Salt Lake City, so I loaded Zoey into the back of the Explorer and got back in the driver’s seat.

Suddenly, out of nowhere, Zoey started howling in pain. Panicked, I ran back and opened the liftgate, terrified of what I might see. Somehow, she had managed to get her foot stuck in between the two stowaway seats. She continued to howl and scream as I tried pulling her foot out, but it wouldn’t budge. Finally, I pulled the latch on one of the stowaway seats to loosen it and her foot slipped out.

From the way she’d screamed, I was sure Zoey’s foot was mangled and broken. My mind jumped ahead to how I was going to find a veterinarian on Labor Day weekend, but on closer inspection, her foot seemed to be just fine. I helped Zoey out of the vehicle, and though she was favoring that foot a bit, she seemed to be putting weight on it. I breathed a sigh of relief and went back to inspect the problem with the stowaway seats.

I figured out that one of them must not have locked into place when I folded it down into the stowaway position, so when she got in, her weight must have caused the seat to buckle then lock tight with her foot caught in the middle. Poor thing. I positioned the seats into a backseat again, then helped Zoey back into the car. With my heart restored to a normal rhythm, I decided to take a quick video before we took off again.

OK, exhale. Back on the road.

According to my GPS, I was only about 15 minutes outside of Salt Lake City, but I figured it was too early to pop in and surprise my niece and her husband. I needed to kill some time, so I decided to just follow my GPS to the “city center” and see what there was to see.

I continued cutting my way through the foothills on I-80, finally catching my first glimpse of the mountains after crossing under the I-215 bypass. Beautiful! I love the mountains. I kept following my GPS, and eventually found myself right in the middle of downtown Salt Lake City.

I drove around a bit, noticing that Salt Lake was a clean, beautiful city that reminded me a lot of Minneapolis. There was a light rail system, artwork on the sidewalks, and a lot of pretty landscaping and green spaces.

As I drove along, I noticed a sign with an arrow that said “Temple,” so I decided to see where that went. Turns out, it went to the temple… THE SALT LAKE TEMPLE. I had no idea this was right in the middle of downtown Salt Lake City.

Curious, and with time still to kill, I pulled over and parked in a shady spot so Zoey would stay cool. It was Sunday, so all the meters were free, which was both good and bad… good that the meters were free, but bad because it was Sunday. That meant people were walking downtown in their Sunday finest heading to church while I was on day two with no shower and very little sleep. Oh well. I tucked my hair behind my ears, put on some sunglasses, and decided to go see what there was to see.

Oh my goodness.

I had no idea.

The Salt Lake Temple is ENORMOUS and GORGEOUS! It looks like a shimmering white castle with six towers, each topped by a tall spire. The property is surrounded by beautiful landscaped gardens, bronze statues, water fountains, and walking paths. The Tabernacle, which is separate from the Temple, is also immense. Because I knew very little about what I was looking at, I took a lot of photos, hoping to catch up on the history a little later. However, I did manage to find one sign that explained a little bit about the temple, itself:

“The temple is used by Church members for marriages and other sacred ordinances designed to strengthen families, both now and for eternity. Begun in 1853, it was completed 40 years later. Granite rock used in its construction was hauled 23 miles by ox-drawn wagons from Little Cottonwood Canyon. The walls are nine feet thick at the ground level and narrow to six feet thick at the top. The east center tower is 210 feet high and is topped by the statue of an angel heralding the restoration to earth of the gospel of Jesus Christ in the latter days.”


After wandering around a bit, I started taking some short videos and sending them to Stephanie on Snapchat.

“Hey Steph, guess where I am?”

“You home? Wake up!”

Sadly, I knew as much about Snapchat as I did about the Mormons, but since I didn’t have Stephanie’s cell number, I figured this would be the best way to catch her once she woke up. In the meantime, I decided I needed some coffee. In fact, I decided I needed some breakfast. A real one. With eggs, and bacon, and hash browns, and toast. I’d been eating carrots, celery, hummus, Wheat Thins and yogurt for three days. I was ready for a real meal.

Luckily for me, I happened to find a perfect spot, directly across from the temple, and about a block from where I’d parked my car. I walked in, got seated, and continued to send snaps to Steph while I sipped my coffee and ate my breakfast. Finally, she responded.

STEPH: “Where are you? Are you in Salt Lake City??”

ME: “Yes! Can I come visit!”

STEPH: “Of course! But I don’t live in Salt Lake City. I live in Roy, near Ogden.”


The minute she said that, I knew it sounded familiar. Roy, Utah… yes… that is where I sent her Christmas card every year, now that I thought about it. However, in my head, Stephanie and Conrad lived in Salt Lake City. Definitely Salt Lake City. And yet, here I was, and they were not. They were 30 miles north, near Ogden.

Honestly, Joy.

Well, no worries. I had driven this far, I could certainly drive another 30 miles to see “my Stephy.”

This girl.

Stephanie’s dad is my first cousin and her mom is my best friend. In 2010, Steph married her high school sweetheart, Conrad, when they were both just 19 years old. He had joined the Air Force right out of high school, and not long after their wedding, Conrad was transferred to Rapid City, South Dakota. They had just started their new life there, and Steph was busy making new friends, working, attending college, and getting used to life on an Air Force base.

Then, she started getting sinus headaches. Severe ones, that she couldn’t get rid of. She went to the doctor, and after several more weeks of being treated for a sinus infection that wasn’t getting better, she and Conrad finally learned the devastating truth.

It was a tumor.


All our worlds collided and fell apart for a while. Steph moved back home to live with her parents in Sauk Centre while she received intensive chemo and radiation treatments at Mayo Clinic in Rochester. Stacey took over as Momcologist, while I pitched in and helped where I could. I started a Caring Bridge site for Steph and tried to provide regular updates, but the news was rarely good and always scary.

Rhabdomyosarcoma, or “Rhabdo” as it is more commonly known, is an aggressive childhood cancer with outcomes that get progressively worse for patients who are in their teens and early 20s.

But, this girl. My Stephy. She beat it.

Stephanie is an amazing person. She is one of those old souls who is wise beyond her years… the kind of person that people just naturally gravitate toward. She is kind, confident, and fun to be around. Throughout her cancer journey, she was always positive, serving as a role model for other Rhabdo kids on the Pediatric Oncology floor. She played with them, read books, sang songs, cuddled and loved them.

Throughout it all, she remained steadfast in her faith, often holding us up when it should have been the other way around.

Honestly, there just aren’t enough words to say how much I love and admire this girl.

I didn’t stay long once I finally made it to Steph and Conrad’s house in Roy. I got big hugs from both of them, a tour of their beautiful home, and a chance to catch up and unwind for a bit before I decided to hit the road again. They wanted me to stay (and probably I should have at least taken them up on a shower), but I was anxious to get going. The ocean was calling my name, and I couldn’t wait to find it.

Next time… the Bonneville Salt Flats and more bad planning

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Finding the Ocean – Chapter 5

On September 1, 2017, I did something a little crazy. (Again.) On a complete and utter whim, I took off on a 4,700 mile road trip to go find the ocean. Just me… and the dog.

Continue along on my healing and soul-inspiring journey below, or start from the beginning

After getting my oil changed, my tire patched, and purchasing two self-inflating air mattresses, I finally left Rapid City and was back on the road.

For about an hour and a half, I continued across the rolling prairie and pine-covered hills of South Dakota and finally hit the Wyoming border around noon. The smooth four-lane highway had transitioned to a bumpy two-lane road, and I was now staring at a vast landscape of flat ranch land as far as the eye could see.

After another hour, I finally reached a town: Lusk, Wyoming, population 1,599. As I drove down the main drag trying to decide where to stop, I suddenly found myself on the outskirts of town, and then, poof… I was back on the highway again. In the blink of an eye, I had missed the entire town altogether.

I was trying to figure out where to do a U-turn when I spotted a sign for a rest area just one mile ahead. Perfect. No U-turn required.

I pulled into the Lusk Rest Area, which was very clean and lovely. It had a playground, picnic shelter, outdoor grills, and a landscaped walking path. As it turns out, this was Wyoming’s very first rest area, constructed in 1966 after the passage of Lyndon B. Johnson’s Highway Beautification Act of 1965. Interesting. I’d never heard of such a thing. If you want to learn a little more about it, click the photo and read the sign.

On my way out of the restroom, I happened to notice a flyer taped to the window of the entryway. It was grainy and a little blurry, but something about it seemed familiar, so I walked over to have a closer look.

It was a “Missing” poster for 15 year old Jasmine Block who disappeared from Alexandria, Minnesota on August 8th. I knew Jasmine’s story because it had been in our local news for the past three weeks. Jasmine had last been seen at her home in Alexandria (or “Alec” as we call it) on the night of August 8, 2017. She’d been lying on the couch in her living room, watching TV, and trying to recover from a migraine headache. Her mom, Sarah, left to attend to a family emergency, so Jasmine was home with her older sister and her sister’s boyfriend. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. When Sarah returned later that night, Jasmine was gone. She left her keys, cell phone, purse, bike, and scooter behind. Local police, Minnesota BCA, and FBI were all investigating the case. There had been searches, a reward, and pleas for information on the news, yet Jasmine still hadn’t been found.

I took a picture of the poster and tried to memorize the details so I could keep an eye out. I wondered what kind-hearted person had cared enough to tape up this flyer inside a rest area all the way out in Lusk, Wyoming. I silently thanked that kind person, then said a little prayer for Jasmine, hoping she had just run away and would return to her family very soon. (Much more on this later.)

After letting Zoey run around and sniff a bit, I got back in the car and prepared to hit the road again. Before taking off though, I took another quick look at the map on my GPS. I noticed I would be heading straight through Salt Lake City on my quest to reach the west coast, so I made another impulsive decision. My cousin’s daughter (who is more like a niece) and her husband had been living in Salt Lake City for several years and I’d never been to their house before. (For that matter, I’d never been to Salt Lake City before.) I decided it would be fun to pop in and surprise them the next morning. It was still eight hours away, so I figured I would find a nice little place to camp just outside of Salt Lake and get to their house early on Sunday. Perfect. I had a plan.

I left Lusk, Wyoming around 1:30 PM and continued to drive… and drive… and drive. It seemed like that little red arrow on my GPS barely moved as I inched across Wyoming. Still, I pressed on, snacking on carrots and celery sticks, Wheat Thins and hummus. All I could think about was a thick, juicy burger, but I kept going.

After four more bathroom breaks and 616 miles, I finally decided to call it quits. I was about an hour outside of Salt Lake City and too tired to try and find a campground. Instead, I just pulled into another rest area for the night… the Echo Canyon Welcome Center.

Trying not to look like a homeless person, I unrolled my new sleeping mat in the back of my Explorer and tried to go to sleep. No go. After about an hour of tossing and turning, I unrolled the second sleeping mat and added it to the first. A little better, but still no go. No matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t turn my mind off.

It was Saturday, September 3rd. Labor Day weekend.

I thought about what had transpired on this day one year earlier.


I can’t sleep. As Friday turns to Saturday, I keep looking at my iPhone. First it’s 11 PM. Then it’s midnight. Then 1 AM. Then 2 AM.

Patty’s words keep ringing in my ears.

“They found him.”

It was all I could think about. Over and over, the details churn in my head. He was buried on a farm in Paynesville. We can’t say anything. It’s part of a plea deal. Heinrich’s hearing is on Tuesday, the day after Labor Day. He’s unstable. Might change his mind. He needs to sign the plea deal. Need to keep it out of the media. Don’t say anything. We’ll put you on the list for Tuesday.

I watch the television all night long, terrified the media will find out. I’m amazed and irritated that Ross can sleep through anything. Finally, around 4 AM, I drift off to sleep.

I’m awakened a few hours later. The phone is ringing. It’s our landline. Hardly anyone ever calls the landline. It’s early, before 7 AM. Who would be calling this early? Must be for Ross. Where is he? He couldn’t have gone too far… he just had knee replacement surgery 12 days ago. I let the answering machine pick it up. It’s someone I used to know through work, many years ago. He says something about a crawler on the news. WCCO is reporting that Jacob Wetterling’s remains have been found.

I bolt upright, my heart pounding out of my chest. I reach for the remote and turn on channel 4.

Oh my God. It’s true. WCCO has a live crawler running across the bottom of the screen. I grab my phone and see a text from Jared. It was sent at 6:41 AM.

“Channel 5 aired the story this morning.”

What?? KSTP broke the story? How did they find out?

I switch to Channel 5 and watch the breaking news.

I am sick with worry. Who leaked the story? What if Heinrich doesn’t go through with the plea deal?

My cell phone rings. It’s Jennifer, the clerk from the Tom Thumb store who rented Jacob the movie on the night he was abducted. The two of us have become friends. I pick up the phone and can’t remember if we even got words out. I think she said something like, “Oh, Joy,” and I said, “I know.” And then we both fell apart. She is the first person I talked to.

My phone is blowing up. Reporters are requesting a comment. Friends are sending condolences. Well-wishers are sending congratulations.

I just want to crawl back into bed and pretend this isn’t happening. There should be some sense of relief, but there’s nothing. Just emptiness and sadness. Deep, profound, dark, overwhelming sadness. I can’t help but think about the Wetterlings. I worry for them and wonder how they’ll cope over the next few days. And I think to myself… my God… I did this. I took their hope away. And nothing about it feels better. It just feels so profoundly sad.


Next time… an early morning sunrise and a trip to Temple Square…

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Finding the Ocean – Interrupted

Before I continue my “Finding the Ocean” story, I feel the need to share a few quick thoughts about the press conference and subsequent release of the Jacob Wetterling case file that happened last Thursday, September 20th.

Mostly what I want to say is… wow. That was really hard.

I’ve been sharing this story about my random 2017 road trip because it was something good and happy that turned out to be a very healing journey for me. It brought me peace and helped me replace all those bad Labor Day memories with good, happy ones. However, last week was a jarring reminder of why I’d wanted to take off in the first place. It was hard to relive and remember. In fact, it was like ripping the Band-Aid off all over again.

We have all struggled with the release of this case file… for obvious and different reasons. From my end, I dreaded to think what tips I might have shared in private that were now to be made public. It makes me wonder why anyone would EVER want to submit a tip in a criminal case, knowing their personal (and sometimes painful) information might eventually become public. These were good people who did the right thing. They responded to our pleas for help and shared their tips in good faith. Is it fair to them that their personal information should now become a part of the public record? In some cases, is that even safe?

As it turns out, very few of the tips I submitted to the Stearns County Sheriff’s Office ever made it into the case file. While I’m happy and relieved about that, it does make me wonder why. It also makes me wonder about the Paynesville incidents. They have referred to “eight cases.” Of those eight, Jared and I knew about five of them. That means there were another five cases we found on our own. That makes at least 13 Paynesville incidents in all. Heinrich said he was “involved in a couple, but not all of them.” What does that mean? Was someone else involved? I really don’t even want to think about what that might mean.

As for the press conference itself, I watched the entire thing in shock… with tears running down my cheeks much of the time. Never in a million years did I expect the new Stearns County Sheriff to lay it all out there like that… slide by slide, mistake by mistake, missed opportunity by missed opportunity. While I was happy to hear him admit fault and take responsibility, I thought it was completely unfair to “name names” and throw people under the bus the way he did. Yes, mistakes were made, but it’s not like those early investigators weren’t doing everything humanly possible to solve this case. They cared deeply and tried as hard as they could to bring Jacob home to his family. I felt that was unnecessary and unkind.

When the press conference ended, I was overcome by emotion. It was all just so heartbreaking. I couldn’t help but think, if they had just LISTENED to those Paynesville kids… if they just would have tried something, ANYTHING, to catch that guy… Jared and Jacob would have never been abducted in the first place. How incredibly sad and heartbreaking.

Now, I just want this to be over. More than anything, I just want peace for the Wetterlings, for Jared, for Paynesville, and for Dan Rassier. This has been such a long, hard journey, and I continue to struggle with my role in all of it. When will it start to feel better? I so desperately want it to get better, but right now, it all still feels really bad.

For those of you have been following my “Finding the Ocean” story, I promise chapter 5 will be coming soon. I just really needed to get this off my chest first. Thanks for listening.

Next time… a “missing” poster and a new plan

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Finding the Ocean – Chapter 4

On September 1, 2017, I did something a little crazy. (Again.) On a complete and utter whim, I took off on a 4,700 mile road trip to go find the ocean. Just me… and the dog.

Continue along on my healing and soul-inspiring journey below, or start from the beginning


It was Day 2 of my road trip, and after receiving an alert about low pressure in my left rear tire, I also realized I was almost 2,000 miles overdue for an oil change. I exited in Rapid City, and immediately began searching for an oil change place. I found the one closest to me – Super Lube – and waited for it to open at 8 AM. I was their first customer of the day, and they took great care of me, even letting me bring Zoey into their customer waiting area while they changed my oil.

I struck up a conversation with another woman who was waiting… a fellow dog lover who wanted to know all about my crazy cross-country road trip. She told me she was also from Minnesota, but had lived in Rapid City for many years. She and her husband had raised their family there and absolutely loved it. She tried to convince me to stay and see some of the amazing sights, and though it all sounded incredibly tempting, I knew I wouldn’t have time if I wanted to fit everything in and still meet Ross in Whitefish, Montana by Thursday.

When my car was ready, Zoey and I said goodbye to our new waiting room friend, and I went to pay. I asked the service man if they had checked my tire pressure, and he said yes… all was well. But, when I mentioned the alert I’d seen on my dashboard, he went to check my left rear tire again.

“I see the problem,” he said.

I went over to see what he was looking at.

“Right here. You have a nail in your tire,” he told me.

And sure enough, I did.

“So now what?” I asked him. “Do I need a new tire?”

“Oh no. You can get that patched up. There’s a place right across the street.”

He pointed to Hills Tire & Supply, which was, literally, right across the street.

“Do I need an appointment?” I asked him.

“Usually,” he said, “But I’m sure they’ll be able to fit you in.”

I thanked him and headed over to Hills Tire & Supply. They were incredibly nice and worked me into their schedule so I didn’t need to make an appointment and come back. While I waited, Zoey and I went for a walk. It was a beautiful September day and it felt great to get outside and move around a bit.

It was September 2nd.

September 2nd.

Exactly one year earlier, I had received a call that would change my life forever.


I was at work when Patty called.

“Can you talk?” she asks me. Immediately, I can tell something is wrong. “One sec,” I tell her. I get up and shut my office door. I sit back down.

“Danny Heinrich confessed,” she tells me.

I am jarred beyond words.

Through tears, she continues.

He’s buried on a farm in Paynesville. They’re digging. Trying to find him. It’s been three days. They found Jacob’s jacket. Trying to confirm that it’s his. Can’t find his name that was on it. Found a jaw bone and some teeth. Ran tests. Not human. Went back and talked to Heinrich some more. Brought him out to the site.  He showed them where to dig. Now they’re digging again. They’ve been digging all day. Still digging.

I struggle to process what she’s telling me. I’m on speaker phone. Jerry is with her. It’s part of a plea deal. We can’t say anything. They are on their way to the Cities to be with their family.

“Is this really it?” I ask them in disbelief. “Are they going to find him?”

Yes. This is really happening… go home… take the rest of the day off… we’ll call you.

The world is moving slowly. I’m shaking, crying. I don’t know what to say. I care about these people so much, but in this moment, I can’t think of a single logical thing to say. I’m just so deeply… painfully… profoundly sorry.

I hang up.

I need to get out of here.

I tell my co-worker I’m sick, and by this time, it’s the truth. She can see that something is very wrong. She asks me if I’m OK. I don’t remember if I answered her. I leave.

I wait for Ross to get home from work. When he finally comes through the door, I tell him. He holds me as I fall apart. Together we wait. Late afternoon turns to early evening. Still, we wait. I can’t take it anymore. I tell Ross I want to drive by and see what’s happening. We won’t stop or even slow down. I just want to see if they’re still digging. Or if the media is there. Please God, don’t let the media be there. We get in the car. Drive by. I see a lot of vehicles… maybe eight or so. All unmarked. Nothing seems out of the ordinary. No media. No helicopters. So far so good. Except that they’re still there. Still digging. They still haven’t found him.

I can’t go back home and wait anymore. I ask Ross if he wants to go to the Red Onion for a burger. It’s a takeout place. I don’t want to see anyone. He convinces me to go to the bowling alley instead. They have better burgers. I’m afraid we’ll run into someone we know. I don’t want to pretend to be happy. He convinces me nobody will be there. Of course, everybody is there.

We order our burgers. Ross gets up to go to the bathroom and I’m sitting by myself when Patty calls. I pick up the phone and walk outside.

“They found him.”


When Zoey and I returned to the repair shop after our walk, the technician showed me the steel tack they’d removed from my tire. It’s hard to believe such a tiny little thing could wreak such havoc.

“Do you want to save it?” the nice man asked me.

I told him no and took a picture instead. He tossed the tack into a large jar of other havoc-inducing items, then I paid my bill and was on my way again.

I decided to make one more stop before I left the luxury of this biggish town. After my horrible night’s sleep in the back of my Explorer, I wanted to see if I could find a self-inflating air mattress like the one I’d used on the JWRC Wilderness Trek  just five weeks earlier. It had worked like magic. I simply unrolled the mat, and it puffed itself up with no further effort on my part. I was amazed by the brilliance of this thing.

[Incidentally, I hadn’t thought to question the science or witchcraftery of this device at the time I was using it, but today as I sat here writing this blog post, I seriously wondered how this thing actually worked. If you’re curious, you can find out here: ]

I did some checking online and found a nearby Runnings store that carried self-inflating air mattresses. Although I couldn’t picture Ross and me tenting together in our near future (or ever), it seemed like a self-inflating air mattress was the sort of thing a person should purchase in pairs. So, I bought two.

By now, it was just after 10:00 AM and it was already nearing 80 degrees. It was going to be a hot one, and although I had parked in the shade and left all the windows open, Zoey was panting by the time I got back to the car. I let her out, gave her some water, and off we went again. Clearly, having a dog along on this road trip was starting to present some challenges I hadn’t anticipated. No worries though. I was anxious to get back on the road and make some tracks.

With my destination still set as “San Francisco – city center,” I followed my GPS and smiled when I noticed I was on “St. Joseph Street.” (St. Joseph was Jacob’s hometown.) A few minutes later, I missed a turn somehow and had to do a few cloverleafs to get back on the right path again. I’m not exactly sure where I was, but somewhere in that misguided loop, I saw something else that made me smile and wonder. On the back of a metal road sign, someone had spray painted a #11.

I thought about circling back and trying to take a picture, but I didn’t want to be delayed any further. Instead, I kept going and decided to just commit that one to memory.

I still wonder though. Did someone do that for Jacob? Had the #11forJacob movement spread all the way to Rapid City, South Dakota?

I wanted desperately to believe that it had.

Next time… a brief interruption to my story


Graphic courtesy of Jacob Wetterling Resource Center


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Finding the Ocean – Chapter 3

On September 1, 2017, I did something a little crazy. (Again.) On a complete and utter whim, I took off on a 4,700 mile road trip to go find the ocean. Just me… and the dog.

Continue along on my healing and soul-inspiring journey below, or start from the beginning


I’ve enjoyed reading your comments and messages as I write and share this story. I’m a little surprised at how many people, women especially, don’t find this crazy at all. Maybe the super-spontaneous decision to just hit the road is a little wacky, but this idea of taking some time for yourself and “going off the grid” for a while is something that really seems to resonate with people.

So many women have shared with me how they’ve dreamed of doing this very same thing… just getting in the car and driving off somewhere. Or heading to the airport and getting on a plane to anywhere. So, why don’t we do this more often? What’s holding us back?

I worried about so many things before I actually did this. I didn’t want people to think I was having a nervous breakdown, or leaving my husband, or acting crazy, or being self-indulgent. It was none of those things. I just felt this overwhelming need to get out of Dodge and not think for a while. I wanted to see what was around the bend. No plans, no commitments, no schedules, no map.

So, off I went. And, hard as I tried to forget Jacob, I couldn’t. He was everywhere. First, the eagle, and then… the billboard.

Be Kind. What was that all about? Was it part of the #11forJacob movement? I wanted to know who had put it up, who had paid for it, and whether there were more. Was it part of a campaign? Why here? Why South Dakota?

I grabbed my iPhone and took a quick picture through the windshield. I figured I would just Google it once I got home, but then I forgot and never did. Until now.

More on that in a minute.

First though, I want to take a moment to give you a general idea of my path since I’d left my house in New London. As I was sharing these blog posts with my husband, he kept going to Google Maps to trace my route as I read the story. That made me realize that others might like to do the same thing.

So, I put together a quick video to show you my route so far, along with some helpful tips about Google Maps that I think will enhance your experience as you travel along with me. As I embed these maps in the future, not only will you be able to see where I’m heading and where I’ve been, you’ll also be able to see and experience some of the sights I saw along the route… including the exact location of that “Be Kind” billboard. Click the map below to start the video.

Here’s a link to the actual map if you want to give some of this a try:

Now, back to that amazing billboard. As I was writing this post, I finally got around to Googling and looking for answers to my questions. Mostly I wanted to know if this “Be Kind” billboard was part of the #11forJacob movement. As it turns out, I still don’t know.

I found an article about a billboard company named Newman Signs that had started placing positive messages like these throughout North Dakota in 2016. However, the billboard I had seen was in South Dakota, not North Dakota, and it was owned by Lamar, not Newman. So… I’m still curious about this. If anyone knows the answer, please let me know. Otherwise, I may just call Lamar and ask myself.

At any rate, I was incredibly moved by that billboard. I took a photo of it at 7:26 PM. Eleven minutes later, as I was still pondering it, I looked down and noticed the song that was playing… “Healing Begins.” I’d never heard of it before. I took this picture at 7:37 PM.

The thing is, I am a classic rock kind of girl… or Top 40, or occasionally country. So how I happened to be listening to a song called “Healing Begins” by a contemporary Christian band named Tenth Avenue North eleven minutes after passing that billboard is beyond me. I chalked it up to synchronicity.

By now, Zoey and I had been on the road for over 4 1/2 hours. We made our first pit stop about 45 minutes later, at the Fuel Mart in Spencer, SD. I filled up the tank, fed Zoey, made myself a peanut butter sandwich, and off we went again.

I drove for another 3 1/2 hours, crossing the Mountain Time Zone somewhere around Stamford. By the time I hit the rest area in Wasta, I was ready for a break. It was too late to try and find a campground, so I figured I would just lay my seat back, close my eyes, and rest a bit.

No go.

I’m a light sleeper anyway, and trying to fall asleep upright in the same seat I’d been sitting in for the past 8 hours was agony. I got out, moved some stuff around (including the dog) and put the seats down in the back of my Explorer. I discovered my yoga mat tucked under the seats, so I grabbed that, thinking it might make a nice little bed. It did not. One-eighth inch of PVC definitely does NOT make for a nice little bed.

I did manage to drift off at some point, and by sunrise, I was awake and ready to roll again. I had some yogurt, fed Zoey, took her for a walk, brushed my teeth, washed my face, and hit the road. Although it wasn’t camping, it was good enough for now. I set a goal of finding a nice campground for my next night’s sleep.

It was around 7:30 AM. I looked at the GPS on my car and saw I was still 21 hours and 40 minutes away from San Francisco. No problem. In theory, I could drive straight through the night and be there by this time tomorrow. Even if it took me two days of driving, that would give me plenty of time to see the sights and still meet Ross in Montana by Thursday. Piece of cake.

Not long after, a little orange light that looked something like a witch’s cauldron with an exclamation point inside it appeared on my dashboard. Hmm. Wonder what that means. I turned up the radio and continued driving.

A few minutes later, I received a sterner message from my dashboard. “CHECK LEFT REAR TIRE PRESSURE.” Hmm. I hit the “OK” button and kept driving. The message went away, but only momentarily.


Good lord, really? I had no idea how to check my tire pressure. That’s what those nice people at Walt’s Oil Change in Willmar do for me.  I wondered when they had done that last. I looked up at the transparent sticker in the upper left corner of my windshield and noticed I was almost 2,000 miles overdue for an oil change.

And this, people, is where a little planning might be helpful before embarking on a crazy, spontaneous road trip such as this.

I pulled into the next gas station, which was Love’s Travel Stop in Box Elder, South Dakota. I could fix this problem. I just needed a tire gauge. I vaguely remember getting one of these gadgets in my Christmas stocking sometime in the mid-1980s, so I had a general idea of what they looked like… or so I thought. It turns out tire gauges have come a long way in the past two and a half decades. I stared at my choices for a while, feeling a little overwhelmed. Finally, I decided on the cheapest one, which was the only one I knew how to use. Put it on the tire valve, and a stick blows out of the top, telling you what your tire pressure is. Easy.

I went back outside, found the air pump across the parking lot, and drove over to it. I unscrewed the valve and checked the pressure. This told me nothing, as I had no idea what the pressure was supposed to be. I tried looking on the tire itself, but couldn’t find anything.

Next, I rifled around in my glove box and found the owner’s manual for my car. I turned to the page titled, “Inflating Your Tires” and began reading.

Safe operation of your vehicle requires that your tires are properly inflated. Remember that a tire can lose up to half of its air pressure without appearing flat.

Yeah, yeah… blah blah blah.

Every day before you drive, check your tires. If one looks lower than the others, use a tire gauge to check pressure of all tires and adjust if required.

I eyed the people around me filling up with gas. Did they check their tires every day before they drove? Is this a thing? I seriously wondered about this.

At least once a month and before long trips, inspect each tire and check the pressure with a tire gauge (including spare, if equipped).

OK, Ford. I get it. Enough of the shaming. Just tell me how much air to pump into this GOLL DANG TIRE so I can get on my way.

You are strongly urged to buy a reliable tire pressure gauge, as automatic service station gauges may be inaccurate. Ford recommends the use of a digital or dial-type tire pressure gauge rather than a stick-type tire pressure gauge.

I looked at my stick-type pressure gauge. Hmm. Lesson learned. Read manual first.

I skipped ahead. Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. How much air was I supposed to put in the tire?? I couldn’t find anything. I back-tracked to where I’d started and found the answer on the page BEFORE the “Inflating Your Tires” section. Brilliant.

You will find a Tire Label containing tire inflation pressure by tire size and other important information located on the B-Pillar or the edge of the driver’s door.

I opened my driver’s door, and sure enough. There it was.

“Cold Tire Pressure: 35 PSI”

I wondered what they meant by cold. I didn’t care. I pulled the hose off the machine and started pumping. It sure seemed like I pumped a long time before the tire finally got to 35 PSI. Oh well, all fixed. Just to be on the safe side, I checked the other tires, too. I gave them all a quick shot of air, put the hose back on the air machine, and threw the owner’s manual back in the glove box. I bought myself a strong cup of coffee, gave Zoey a Milk Bone, and got back in the driver’s seat feeling very accomplished and empowered.

Now there was just that small matter of the oil change. I was nearing the outskirts of Rapid City, so I decided I’d better get that taken care of. I didn’t want any more surprises.

Next time… a steel tack and some spray paint

P.S. To see the yellow “Street View” guy on the map below, click the “More options” link in the box at the upper left.

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Finding the Ocean – Chapter 2

On September 1, 2017, I did something a little crazy. (Again.) On a complete and utter whim, I took off on a 4,700 mile road trip to go find the ocean. Just me… and the dog.

Follow along on my healing and soul-inspiring journey below, or start from the beginning



“A general southwest direction and a bird on a sign post”

It’s hard to describe the giddiness I felt as I pulled out of the driveway and began my quest to go find the ocean. I plugged my phone into the USB outlet on my dashboard, cranked the volume on my car stereo, and starting singing along to Led Zeppelin’s “Fool in the Rain.” I had put together this “Fourteener” playlist back in July 2016 in preparation for my 14,003 foot hike up Colorado’s Huron Peak to help raise money for the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center.

Little did I know at the time, Jacob would be found just two months later. Two months.

Now, as I sat behind the wheel belting out Zeppelin lyrics, I pulled up to the stop sign at MN Hwy 23 and then did exactly the opposite of what I had just told my husband I was going to do. Instead of “pointing my car in a general southwest direction,” I mistakenly turned left and started heading north toward I-94 out of sheer habit.

I suppose I should make an admission here. There is perhaps no one on this planet who is more directionally-challenged than me. For me to believe for even a second that I could “Jedi” my way to San Francisco by pointing my car in a “general southwest direction” was so ludicrous that I may as well have told Ross I was leaving to go swim the English Channel. But, I do love a challenge, and really, how hard could it be…

Well there’s a light in your eye that keeps shining
Like a star that can’t wait for the night
I hate to think I’ve been blinded baby
Why can’t I see you tonight?

As I happily sang along to “Fool in the Rain,” the song eventually blended into “God Only Knows” by the Beach Boys, and then into “September” by Earth, Wind & Fire.

Do you remember the 21st night of September?
Love was changing the minds of pretenders
While chasing the clouds away…..

I had the moon roof open, stereo blaring, hair blowing… just grooving along in my happy place. And then, suddenly…

There I was.


What the hell. As I realized my mistake, I pounded on the steering wheel and squeezed my eyes shut as they welled up with tears. The whole point of my trip was to try and forget all the horribleness I had experienced one year earlier, and now, here I was… Paynesville. Seriously, what the hell. I cursed under my breath, turned around, and started heading back the way I had come.

As I returned to New London, I noticed my gas tank was nearly empty. I rolled my eyes at my own ridiculous self and sheepishly pulled into the Country Stop gas station, about a mile and a half from my house. I filled up with gas – trying not to make eye contact with anyone – and started on my way again. It had been almost 45 minutes and I hadn’t even gotten out of of New London yet.

I had a good run for about 35 miles until I reached the small town of Clara City. It was there I needed to make my first major decision. Before I started my trip, I had told myself I was only going to use the compass on my car to get to San Francisco… no maps, no GPS, no Ross. My plan was to keep driving on the road I was following until one of two things happened: (1) it ended, or (2) it stopped going “in a general southwest direction.”

In Clara City, I came to my first major intersection and had to decide whether to continue on MN Hwy 23 toward Granite Falls, or go west on MN Hwy 7 toward Montevideo. Easy enough. I’d never been to Montevideo before, so I decided to go with the latter.

However, as I sat at the intersection of MN 23 and MN 7, I stared at the compass on my car. It said I was facing south, and logically, I knew that. But, to the right of the “S” was an “E” where the “W” should have been. How could that be? I resorted to my self-taught navigational skills. I pictured myself at the crosshairs of a compass, facing south with my back to the north. I remembered from my elementary years that a compass spelled “WE” across the middle, so I knew that if I turned to the right, I should be facing west… right? But my compass said I would be going east if I turned right. Admittedly, I am no Galileo, but common sense told me that was wrong.

I turned right onto MN Hwy 7, and lo and behold, the compass fixed itself. Suddenly, it showed me heading west, but now the “N” and “S” were flipped. I pictured myself on the mental crosshairs again. If I was facing the W with my back to the E, shouldn’t the N be to my right and the S to my left?? It was completely maddening.

In order to fix the problem, I turned up the music and decided to ignore the compass. Maybe it was broken.

I moseyed along on MN 7 for another 20 miles or so, admiring the beautiful scenery and the vast corn fields that were just starting to turn yellow in preparation for fall harvest. It was then I pulled into the pretty river town of Montevideo and hit my first major snag. The road that would take me west – US 212 – was closed for construction. That left me with two options. I could either go east on US 212 – which I knew to be altogether wrong – or I could turn back and go north on MN 7 / US 59 toward Appleton. I had no idea where Appleton was, but at this point I didn’t care… I just knew I didn’t want to go east. So, I turned around and hung a left toward Appleton.

I’d been on the road for about 10 minutes, singing along to ABBA’s “Waterloo”, when I went zinging past a small sign that pointed to the left and said “Madison.” Although I had never been to Madison before, I at least knew it was somewhere near the Minnesota/South Dakota border. I hit the brakes, made a quick U-turn, then turned onto Cty Rd 14, finally heading west again.

It was about this time the skies COMPLETELY UNLOOSED and rain began to pummel the windshield of my car. I turned on my wipers as fast as they would go, but still, they could barely keep up and I was having a hard time keeping my car between the rumble strips. As I inched along, it rained hard for a good 10 minutes before the clouds finally began to break up and the rain slowed to a drizzle.

Not long after, I pulled up to a stop sign and saw the most extraordinary thing. Just off to my right, a bald eagle was sitting on top of a road sign facing me with its wings outstretched, feathers ruffling in the wind. I stared at it… completely mesmerized. It didn’t flinch. It didn’t fly away. It just sat there… majestic… staring straight into the wind and drying its feathers after the heavy downpour.

I don’t know how long I sat there staring at that eagle before another car pulled up behind me and I had to move along. It was truly one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen. I wish I had a picture to share, but I don’t. The best I can do is show you a picture I took last week after retracing my route in an attempt to find this intersection again. It took me a while to remember all the twists and turns I had taken, but I recognized the intersection the moment I pulled up to it. It was just outside Madison at the corner of Cty Rd 20 and Cty Rd 25. The eagle was sitting on top of that yellow sign off to the right.

There is a reason why I’m sharing this story, and I’ll get to that much later. But for now, just trust me when I say this was an incredibly powerful moment for me. I had no tears as I stared at that magnificent bird… just awe and wonder. As I continued on, I felt comforted knowing that maybe Jacob’s spirit was with me on this journey.

I continued straight on MN Hwy 40, passing through the small towns of Madison and Marietta. Finally, I crossed the border into South Dakota, and after a few more lefts and rights, I eventually found my way back to US Hwy 212, heading west into Watertown.

All in all, it had taken me three and a half hours to get to Watertown, South Dakota, a trip that should have taken me less than two.

My phone rang. It was Ross.

“How’s it going?” he asked me with a smirk in his voice.

“Good!” I replied. “I just got to Watertown.”

“I see that,” he said.

Howls of laughter.

“Where are you?” I asked.

It was then he admitted he was having cocktails with our friends Steve and Jane at their house. For the past three hours, all three of them had been watching and laughing as they followed my progress on “Find My iPhone.”

“Hilarious,” I said. “Glad I could provide the happy hour entertainment.”

Honestly, I did think it was pretty funny, and truth be told, I found it oddly comforting that Ross could check my progress and know my whereabouts at any given moment. Of course, I would never tell him that.

After I hung up, I realized I was never going to make it to San Francisco at this rate. I was done with the compass/Jedi method. Maybe I hadn’t found the ocean by just “pointing my car in a general southwest direction,” but I had found South Dakota, and that was good enough. I turned on my car’s navigation system, punched in “San Francisco – city center” and got on the nearest freeway.

About an hour later, I was still on I-29 heading south toward Sioux Falls when I was gobsmacked once again.

Coming up on my right was a huge billboard with only two words… “Be Kind.”

Just days after Jacob’s remains had been found, a youth soccer team from Maryland contacted the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center and asked if they could wear Jacob’s jersey number, #11, to honor him at their next game.

Alison Feigh, Program Manager for the JWRC (as well as a classmate of Jacob’s), called Jacob’s mom, Patty, to get her thoughts. She quickly agreed, but decided that if a team did request to wear Jacob’s jersey number, it should mean something. They put their heads together and came up with the following eleven traits that Jacob both lived and valued in his short eleven years:

  1. Be Fair
  2. Be Kind
  3. Be Understanding
  4. Be Honest
  5. Be Thankful
  6. Be a Good Sport
  7. Be a Good Friend
  8. Be Joyful
  9. Be Generous
  10. Be Gentle with others
  11. Be Positive

The #11forJacob movement took off, and soon it was everywhere. Everyone wanted to honor Jacob and the Wetterling family by wearing Jacob’s jersey number and emulating his eleven traits.

And now, as I stared at that billboard in disbelief, I knew something was happening that was bigger than me. My goal for this journey had been to forget… to move on, to get over it, to get a grip. I simply could not understand what my problem was. Why did I feel such deep grief for this boy I had never known? I wanted to forget, but no matter where I looked… even here in Nowhere, South Dakota… there was Jacob.

Maybe I wasn’t meant to forget. Maybe none of us were.

Maybe we all are meant to remember.

Next time… a minor setback

Video courtesy of the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center

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Finding the Ocean – Chapter 1

One year ago today, on September 1, 2017, I did something a little crazy. (Again.) On a complete and utter whim, I took off on a 4,700 mile road trip to go find the ocean. Just me… and the dog. I woke up that morning with no plan or agenda, and by 3:00 PM that afternoon, I was on my way.

Over the next several weeks, I plan to take you along on this crazy, spontaneous road trip that ended up being a healing and soul-inspiring journey for me. I hope you’ll follow along…

It was the Friday of Labor Day weekend.

Exactly one year earlier, on that very same Friday, I had received a call from Patty Wetterling that stopped my heart and changed my world forever. “They found him,” she told me. “They found Jacob.”

The next day, the rest of the world found out that – after 27 years – Jacob Wetterling’s remains had been found. Danny Heinrich had led authorities to the place he had killed and then buried Jacob… in a field just outside Paynesville, Minnesota… about 15 miles from my house.

In the year that followed, I grappled to make sense of all that had happened. I tried to make my world right again, to move on, but I couldn’t. I was stuck and struggling, and the truth was, I was absolutely dreading the upcoming Labor Day weekend. I didn’t want to think about that horrible day in the courtroom… the day Danny Heinrich confessed to murdering Jacob. It was September 6, 2016, the Tuesday after Labor Day, and after an entire year, I still couldn’t think about it without crying.

I had just spoken to Patty a week earlier. I called to find out how she was doing, knowing that Labor Day weekend would be especially hard for her and her family. With strength and resolve in her voice, she told me she wasn’t going to let Danny Heinrich ruin Labor Day weekend for them, too. “October 22nd is hard enough,” she told me. “That’s all he gets. We’re keeping Labor Day weekend.”

I loved that, and it was exactly what I needed to hear. In that moment, I realized I wanted to keep my Labor Day weekend, too. I wanted to forget… to make new happy memories in place of the horrible ones I couldn’t shake from my head.

And so, with all that swirling through my head, I revisited this crazy idea I’d been contemplating ever since I’d turned 16 and gotten my driver’s license. I still remember sitting behind the wheel of my parents’ Buick LeSabre… staring off into the sunset and thinking to myself, “You know, if I just kept driving, I would eventually hit the ocean.” It was an intriguing thought, and something that had stuck with me all those years since.

I’d shared this wacky idea with my husband over the years, but for the past few months, I’d actually been considering it more and more seriously. What would it be like to just cast aside all my commitments, deadlines, and other people’s expectations? What would it be like to just get in the car, start driving, and see where I ended up? The thought was incredibly enticing.

So, on that Friday, I started piling a few clothes on the bed, thinking that if I just got a bag packed, that might prod me along toward fulfilling this dream one day. I was behind on laundry, so my pile included an odd assortment of things that I normally don’t wear. But, it was a start, and in reality, I knew I couldn’t just take off on a whim, anyway.

Or could I?

My pile kept getting a little bigger. If I went west, toward the mountains, it might get cold at night. I’d better bring some pullovers and a down vest. And my hiking shoes, just in case I decide to do any hiking. Oh, and my swimsuit.

Soon, my pile started to get so big that I decided to grab a small suitcase. When I pulled it out of my closet and opened it up, I noticed I had one of those hanging toiletry bags that I’d received as a freebie somewhere along the way. I opened it up and inspected it. That might come in handy if I need to stay at a rest area, I thought. So, I started filling the compartments with a toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant, soap, shampoo, conditioner, etc.

It was about this time that my husband, Ross, came home from work. I walked out of the bedroom with a crazy smile on my face.

“What are you doing?” he asked me.

“Packing,” I told him. “I’m going to find the ocean.”

“Yeah, right.”

Although he’d been hearing me talk about this for years, I’d never gone so far as to actually pack a bag before.

I smiled. “No, really. What have we got going this weekend? I really think I’m going to do this.”

He sort of laughed/snorted at me and headed down the basement to shower.

I kept packing as I pondered some logistics. We didn’t have any extra money, so I’d need to figure out a way to do this for cheap. I decided I could stay at campgrounds and sleep in the car. That sounded scary. Maybe I could bring the dog.

“Zoey! Do you want to go on a road trip?”

My wildly exuberant black lab bounded over to me, as if she’d been sitting there the whole time, just waiting to be asked.

Ross came back upstairs and announced he needed to run to town.

“I’m really going to do this,” I said again. “I’m going to find the ocean, and I’m bringing Zoey.”

He looked at me then, eyebrows raised, and realized I was serious. “Which direction are you going?” he asked me.

“I don’t know. What do you think?”

I didn’t want to go toward Florida since I’d already made that road trip many times. Any other time, Texas probably would have been my first choice since I’d never been there, but the recent destruction from Hurricane Harvey had taken that option off the list.

“Why don’t you head east?” he suggested. “It’s the closest.”

Ross had been an over-the-road truck driver before I met him and knew every major interstate like the back of his hand.

I pondered east for a moment.

New Jersey shore? Too scary.

Martha’s Vineyard? Too fancy.

Hilton Head? Too expensive.

I couldn’t picture myself camping with my black lab at any of those locations.

“I think west,” I said. “Maybe San Francisco.”

I really hadn’t given this any thought until that very moment. I’d never been to San Francisco before. Maybe I could go through Salt Lake City and visit my niece, take a side trip through wine country, drive along the Pacific Coast Highway, then come back through the mountains on my way home. It sounded like heaven.

Ross started rattling off all the routes I could take to get to San Francisco, but I stopped him.

“I don’t want directions,” I said. “The whole point is to just drive until I hit the ocean. I’ll just point the car in a general southwest direction and I’ll figure it out as I go.”

He laughed, rolled his eyes, and asked a few more logistical questions. I’d forgotten all about the fact that he would be leaving for Montana the following Wednesday. His aunt had recently been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, so he and his brother were driving their dad out to see her before she got much worse.

“That’s perfect!” I said. “I’ll meet you in Montana on my way home!”

He sort of laughed/snorted again. “How long do you plan to be gone?” he asked me. “That’s a long drive.”

“I’ll meet you in Montana on Thursday,” I said, not having any idea if that was even possible. “Now give me a kiss before you leave for town because I probably won’t be here when you get back.”

After Ross left, I marveled at this man I had married. What other husband would ask so few questions and pass such little judgment? After 23 years of marriage, he knew me well enough to know he couldn’t talk me out of something once I’d made up my mind. It was best just to let me do it and, if necessary, help me pick up the pieces in the aftermath.

I grabbed our soft-sided YETI cooler and a reusable grocery bag. I packed six yogurts, some hummus, carrots, celery, goose jerky, Wheat Thins, raisins, two jars of homemade salsa, a bag of Tostitos, a jar of peanut butter, and a frozen loaf of bread. At the last minute, I also grabbed two bags of frozen peaches and one bag of frozen strawberries, figuring they would help keep the cooler cold.

Next, I filled a two-gallon Ziploc bag full of Zoey’s dog food, along with seven Milk Bones. I grabbed my laptop, a case of bottled water from the garage, a pillow, and a blanket. Then, I loaded up the dog in the back of my Ford Explorer, and I hit the road.

I was really doing this. It was time to go find the ocean.

Next time… “A general southwest direction and a bird on a sign post”

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