Finding the Ocean – Chapter 4

On September 1, 2017, I did something a little crazy. 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: https://www.alpinetrek.co.uk/base-camp/self-inflating-sleeping-mats/ ]

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 “missing” poster and a mountain sunrise…

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. 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:
https://goo.gl/maps/doLFZwM3xJ22

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.

CHECK LEFT REAR TIRE PRESSURE.

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. 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.

Paynesville.

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. 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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