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 floors 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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