Grand Canyon: The Summer of Endless Miles, Day 14

On Day 14, we left the Phoenix area with weary hearts and swollen eyes. I was exhausted in every way but determined to press on. After all, our itinerary for the day was sightseeing at the Grand Canyon. Our first stop was for copious amounts of caffeine.

 

Fully armed, we set out for the infamous hole in the ground, detouring through Sedona. I spent much of that stretch of the trip on the phone and responding to texts from friends who were checking in to see how I was holding up.

As we approached the national park, Anna proposed that we keep the shenanigans to a minimum.
I wasn’t prepared for the sight that awaited us. Pictures cannot do justice to the magnificence that is the Grand Canyon. It was breathtaking.

Much to my dismay, my camera battery died right after I took this picture of this California condor at the first outlook.

There was a definite heaviness on me that day, and although I was excited to see one of the Seven Wonders, I was also very subdued. Staring into the crevice that stretched for miles before me, my brain struggled to makes sense of the vastness of what my eyes were seeing while my heart wrestled with the reality of what was happening on the other side of the country. Neither scenario made any sense to me. Just as I couldn’t possible see the entirety of the canyon, nor could I comprehend the enormity of the loss I was facing. Directing my gaze on sections of the rock formations around me was the only way I could take in the sight; focusing my mind on the very next moment was the only way I could keep from falling apart completely.

 

Alongside the ache in my heart, I was able to dig up a little lightheartedness—especially when I ventured closer to the edge of the cliffs to get those more adventures camera angles.

If nothing else, Jess taught me how to take cool pictures. Anna, who has an acute fear of heights and drop-offs (as I was quickly learning), did not appreciate my forays toward the edge.

Who knows—maybe she was afraid I might try to pull a Thelma and Louise sans car in my distraught state? At any rate, she actually grabbed my arm and pulled me back toward the designated path at one point. (I wasn’t even close to the edge, y’all, but it made for some hilarious pictures.

When I walked on an outcrop and directed her to take my picture beside a tree, she moaned and groaned and whined. Then, I somehow convinced her to pose as I had. (Notice the death grip she’s got on that tree.)

Just before sunset, we turned around on the trail and began our trek back to the truck. These huge boulders sat just off the path, and as we approached, I handed my phone to Anna. I climbed atop the rocks (no easy feat for my short legs) and posed while she snapped away. Back on the ground, I scrolled through the pictures, gasping at the perfection of one of them in particular: my silhouette back lit by the waning sun, arms outstretched.

Having spent almost two decades as one of Jess’ main photography subjects, I’m kind of judgy when other people photograph me. (Sorry, it’s true. Being photographed by a sister who knows all your peculiarities about pictures ruins you for life.) But Anna had nailed it.

“Jess would be so proud of this picture!” I gushed.

When I posted the photo on Instagram later, I captioned it with the lyrics from Imagine Dragons’ “On Top of the World.” Since then, I can’t see that picture without hearing the song in my head or hear the song without picturing this shot.

 

Like the book tour as a whole, Day 14 was both one of my favorite days and one of the hardest days; the pain and joy of that day are inextricably mingled. Holding the tension of both those emotions wrapped so tightly around this one memory is a task I struggle with daily. But the ability to write about it displays a small measure of healing, and for that I am grateful.

The Longest Day: The Summer of Endless Miles, Day 13

My Timehop app and Facebook memories are sparse on Day 13, but the images and emotions of that day are forever burned into my mind. Out of all the days we were on the road, this one felt the longest. I awoke to a text from Mom asking me to call her as soon as possible. Since we were in Phoenix, I was two hours behind her. Barely awake at 7:00 a.m., I called her back and was met with news that Jess’ heavily sedated state was actually a drug-induced coma to attempt to let her body rest. The doctor’s assessment was that she would not wake up again.

I hung up the phone and went into shock. I stumbled to the bedroom next door where Anna was sleeping and knocked, hoping she was awake. She was; I opened the door and fumbled to get the words out of my mouth. She sat up, drew me to sit beside her and the tears started rushing down my face.

My absolute worst nightmare was suddenly staring me square in the face. My whole body was shaking, couldn’t stop crying, and just repeated “this cannot be happening” over and over as Anna hugged me tightly. I texted Mom and told her tell Jess a few things for me.

Anna was scheduled to meet Naomi E., one of her former teachers, for lunch about an hour north that day. There was no way I could go with her, but she felt terrible leaving me in such a state. She offered to cancel and stay, but I told her to go. There was nothing she could do and I didn’t want her to miss her lunch.

 

I had a decision to make that morning: get on a flight out of Phoenix or stay until I something changed. Anna was ready to put me on a plane, but I was thinking about what Jess would tell me to do. She’d already given me her blessing to go on the book tour when I’d gone home in February. We’d chatted one afternoon, and I expressed my misgivings about going, about being even further away from her that summer. She told me to go, and I did. And Mom had told me that morning that she was okay if I didn’t come home immediately.

Even with my world crashing around me, I knew Captain Jessifica would kick my a** if I abandoned this trip. We’d dreamed on a cross-country road trip one day, and in the deepest parts of my heart, I knew she would want me to see it through. She wouldn’t want me sitting at her bedside, wishing I could change things. She wouldn’t want me crying over her when I couldn’t do anything to change the outcome. She wasn’t that sentimental. In fact, she often made fun of me for being all touchy-feely. I also knew I didn’t want the image of her tube-laden, emaciated body to be lodged in my mind forevermore. I wanted to remember my strong, determined, feisty sister the way she deserved to be remembered. Healthy, free-spirited, with a thirst for adventure and a mischievous gleam in her eye. I wanted to remember the sister who dragged me into kooky photo shoots with palm fronds outside the walls of an abandoned seaside fortress. I didn’t want the image of the sister who had been my best friend for thirty years to be tarnished in my mind’s eye by the cruelty of cancer for the rest of my living days. Even today, I’m grateful that I see my sister when I close my eyes and not the shadow of herself that disease brought upon her.


We were scheduled to visit the Grand Canyon the next day, and all I could think was, “go for Jess. Go see what she can’t. Be her eyes.” My heart was shattering into a million pieces, but I had enough peace to decide to stay put for the time being.

Anna brought me coffee and ibuprofen before she left, placed a box of tissues by the bed, and told me her brother would get me to the airport if I changed my mind while she was gone.
I curled up in a ball in bed and stared at the wall between brief naps off and on all day. By the time Anna was headed back that afternoon, I had a massive headache and a definite craving for comfort food. Luckily, there was a Chick-Fil-A nearby.

That night, in an attempt to distract me, Anna’s brother’s family invited me to play cards with them. At first, I said no. Then they wore me down and I agreed to sit at the table and watch. Eventually, they convinced me to join them. We had loads of fun!

I must give a shout out to the LeBaron siblings, here. I’ve never met such a persistent, warm-hearted bunch of people as those LeBaron’s. And because they are all well-acquainted with loss and heartache, they all extended such grace and gentleness toward me on the book tour. Every single one of them who I met along the way made space for me and my bleeding, raw heart. I’m forever grateful to them.

When Life Gives You Lemons: The Summer of Endless Miles, Day 12

Hi! If you’re just joining me here, you might think I’m currently on this trip. Let me catch you up: I’m not on the road. On April 1, 2017, my friend Anna and I set out on the #EpicBookTourTPD (TPD denoting Anna’s memoir, The Polygamist’s Daughter). I never got around to writing about our grand adventure in detail, so when the anniversary of the journey rolled around this year, I started writing. Nifty apps like Timehop and the On this Day feature of Facebook make recalling the daily details easier than asking my brain to bring them back with crystal clear clarity. 112 days of detailed storytelling is a lot to ask. So, throughout the summer, I’ll meet you here with a throwback tale from the open road. Enjoy!
~*~



As the sun rose following a fitful night’s [lack of] sleep, I checked my phone and was met with a slew of text messages from Mom about Jess. She’d had emergency surgery the day before and had been stable, but by mid morning her condition had rapidly declined. Between my less-than-stellar cell service, Mom’s preoccupation at the hospital, and my and Anna’s schedule, I was mostly out of touch for the rest of the day.

Honestly, in hindsight, I’m kind of glad I couldn’t move during the night because my immobility meant I couldn’t reach my phone, which I most certainly would’ve been scrolling. Facing the realities of what was happening in S.C. would have been so much worse in the middle of the night.

With a bag of fresh-from-the-tree oranges Donna picked right then in hand, Anna and I hit the road, headed to Phoenix to spend the afternoon at #the4500-er Heidi P.’s house. Anna had an interview that afternoon that required a landline, so we’d arranged our schedule to visit Heidi (who conveniently had a landline).

While at Heidi’s, Anna picked fresh lemons straight from the tree in her backyard. Let me tell you—I don’t even like oranges and lemons, but I’d eat them straight from the tree every day.

After Anna’s interview ended and Heidi’s kids arrived home from school, we jumped in Heidi’s car and set out to sign books at two area Barnes and Noble stores.

 

Later, we said goodbye to Heidi and headed to meet launch team member Karie B. and her family for dinner before heading to our host home for the night.

The Night Our Friendship Almost Didn’t Survive: Summer of Endless Miles, Day 11

After a restful night’s sleep in Tucson, we loaded our suitcases in the truck and headed north. Our drive was relatively short; our destination was Casa Grande. Donna K. had invited Anna to speak to a group at her retirement community that afternoon. We sat on a common area patio outside, shaded by umbrellas—and while this Carolina-girl-turned-Texan appreciated the absence of humidity, the heat was intense! After the gathering ended, we headed back to Donna’s home for dinner which we ate on her back patio overlooking a lake as the sunset. It was so peaceful.

(Those are the only pictures I have for you today. You’ll thank me for that as you read on.)

Later, as we were preparing to spend time in the hot tub, an unfortunate incident occurred. Before heading to the pool area, we’d decided to ready the sleeper sofa where we would be sleeping so we wouldn’t have to when we got back. Anna grabbed the bar and pulled it up…but she pulled too hard and the whole couch lifted…snagging her toenail and bringing it along for the ride.

I’ll spare you all the gory details (aren’t you glad I don’t have a picture?), but our hot tub plans went out the window with that missing toenail.

Anna was in a hella lot of pain and I felt so bad for her. Once we got the bleeding stopped, the toe soaked, bandages applied, and ibuprofen administered, we got ready for bed.

Let me stress here that I felt so bad for Anna.

Let me also say that now, a year later, this night includes one of my favorite stories from the tour. I managed to keep this one to myself until just a few weeks ago when I finally confessed it to Anna.

Anna and I crawl onto this sleeper sofa. She gets her throbbing foot situated, propping a pillow underneath her leg to elevate it and making sure the blankets are touching it. I squish in beside her. (Sleeper sofas are cozy, y’all. This one was about the equivalent of a full-size bed.)

It took me a LONG time to go to sleep that night. Anna was out pretty quickly. (I swear her superpower is the ability to fall asleep fast and hard.) I couldn’t toss and turn because there just wasn’t room, but I did maneuver to a spot where the infamous sofa bed bar wasn’t stabbing my rib cage.

At some point, I fell asleep…

because I distinctly remember waking up in the middle of the night…

with the entire left side of my body pinned down.

I couldn’t move.

Anna, dead asleep, had flung her arm over mine and her good leg over mine.

I was trapped.

Being such a considerate person, I didn’t want to just throw her off me, for fear I’d cause her to jar her injured foot.

(Did I mention how good of a friend I am???)

I tried to gently wiggle my limbs free, but every time I moved, she moved, further complicating the situation. Finally, exasperated, I gave up. I don’t think I slept more than a few hours that night. I’m far from a morning person, but I’d never been so happy to the sun rise at 5:00 a.m.

Recently when I told Anna this story, I confessed, “There was this one night I came really close to smothering you in your sleep on the book tour. If our friendship survived that, I’d say it’s pretty solid.”

There you have it—one of my favorite stories from the open road!

Never-Ending-Texas: The Summer of Endless Miles, Day 10

Hi! If you’re just joining me here, you might think I’m currently on this trip. Let me catch you up: I’m not on the road. On April 1, 2017, my friend Anna and I set out on the #EpicBookTourTPD (TPD denoting Anna’s memoir, The Polygamist’s Daughter). I never got around to writing about our grand adventure in detail, so when the anniversary of the journey rolled around this year, I started writing. Nifty apps like Timehop and the On this Day feature of Facebook make recalling the daily details easier than asking my brain to bring them back with crystal clear clarity. 112 days of detailed storytelling is a lot to ask. So, throughout the summer, I’ll meet you here with a throwback tale from the open road. Enjoy!

~*~

While relatively uneventful, Day 10 marked the first time we crossed state lines. Not one, but two. Y’all, it took us three solid days to get out of Texas. I knew this state was more like a small country but dang. It’s HUGE. Even Anna, a longtime Texas resident was astounded by its vastness.

To kill time and fight boredom, I’d been reading my our-now-shared-advance-copy of JHat’s Of Mess and Moxie aloud while Anna drove. We alternately cried (Chapter 6: Private Baby) and laughed until our cheeks hurt (Chapter I-Can’t-Remember-And Am-Too-Lazy-Find-My-Book: Jen’s discussion of introverts versus extroverts).

But this introvert needs her quiet time, even in the car.

We didn’t have a planned stop that night, but our goal was to at least make it to Las Cruces, NM that day. Leaving Midland, we headed for El Paso. The flat Texas horizon had given way to gently rolling hills the day before—a welcome sight to my Carolina-native eyes. As we drove further west, mountains began to rise in the distance, bringing with them a more familiar landscape.
After a brief stop at Barnes and Noble in El Paso to sign a few stock copies, we crossed into New Mexico. It seemed like the terrain changed almost immediately. I stared out the window, mesmerized. Until April 2016, I’d never been farther west than Indiana/ Tennessee/Kentucky/Georgia. I may as well have been in a foreign country.

Because we were making decent time, we decided to make Tucson, AZ our goal for the evening. Thanks to two very generous friends who had offered to put us up in a hotel the first night we needed one, we had a room awaiting us upon arrival. (Thanks again, ladies!) The sun set as we stopped for gas just over the state line.

I lost all track of time. And [very] briefly considered moving to Arizona.

Though it was late, and we were exhausted when we finally reached the hotel, neither of us could resist relaxing in the hot tub before crawling into bed.

 

~*~

To be continued….