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Living Without Walls Release date announced!

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Living Without Walls: One Women’s Journey from Fear to Wonder in the High Sierra Mountains, part memoir, part manifesto, is set to be released on Amazon e-books on March 1, 2016.

With humor and insight, Julie O’Neill chronicles her family’s journey on the John Muir trail as she battles her inner fears reliving a backpacking adventure that almost took her life 16 years earlier. Along the way, she sets a powerful case for children and adults to unplug in nature, in order to reconnect in everyday life, and in Julie’s case, find healing. Living Without Walls convincingly shows that the more high-tech we get, the more we need to take the time to introduce our children—and reintroduce ourselves—to nature and to our very own humanity. Part memoir, part manifesto, Living Without Walls is a testament to the power of nature to tend to the whole person as portrayed in this blazingly honest, entertaining, and savvy account. From Julie’s near-death experience in 1996 that nearly stopped her from setting foot in the wilderness again to the heartwarming moments that come from uninterrupted time as a family on the trail, Living Without Walls will captivate and inspire, as you join the O’Neills in their summer cruising at 2 ½ miles per hour.


Day 4 on JMT: Sprinting to Yosemite National Park

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Day 4: Donohue pass out to Tualamne – about 16 miles

We woke to a sky full of gray and white clouds. Bummer. In the Sierras, the rule is that clouds before noon mean thunderstorms are brewing. So that settled that debate. We would hike out to Tualamne and then call the trip short, missing the goal of making it to Happy Isle and covering the full JMT by 27 miles. At least we would make it to Yosemite National park.

As we packed our bags and ate breakfast, the blue sky seemed to devour the grey clouds and before we were completely ready to hit the trail we were relishing in a bright sunny, warm cloudless morning. Well, there was one little white puffy cloud over the eastern horizon but surely the rule was not going to apply after such a crazy storm the day before. The rain must be out of these Sierra’s system after that massive blast the day before, we reasoned. Maybe we could make it to Happy Isle afterall.

Happy with sun power, we eagerly hit the trail. Within a mile that little white cloud was ever so slightly larger. Optimistically, we headed on. We still wanted to combine two days of hiking into one and get to Tualamne that day which meant we needed to stay focused which became increasingly difficult to do. Every person we passed turned into a conversation. It started the usual way, “How are you doing?” “Doing great, and you?” “Oh just great.” which usually wraps up with, “have a great hike”…”Yeah, you too”…and then your 45 second encounter with a stranger you’ll probably never see again is over. But after an intense storm like the one we all had just lived through happens, the conversation’s normal quick ending was replaced with, “how did you fare last night?” or “what did you think of that storm?” An instant brotherhood between every single person we passed was evident in the shared stories and relieved expressions we all shared. We were finally dry, warm, and hiking again.

Stories began to add up with each person we passed. Stories of a spirited 78 year old lady from Eugene, Oregon who decided to hike without any rain protection at all. We first met the 30-something year old guy that told us of a lady he basically rescued from hypothermia who he first encountered hiking, despite the pounding rain and crashing thunder. His first inquiry to her of her well-being came up empty – she was just fine apparently. He hiked on and as the storm got unmanageable to continue on through, he sheltered in place under a clump of trees. When she came slowly by him, he could see that she was visibly shivering and decided to intervene. This time she accepted help. He was by her side from that point until we passed them the next day.
“I don’t even know you or her, but seriously, thank you for doing that!  You saved her life!” I told this nameless man.

“Yeah, she was in stage 2 of hypothermia. I think she had less than 20 minutes left before she would have collapsed.”

How do you keep hiking in pursuit of a 15 mile day to Tualamne with stories like that unfolding?

“You’ll pass her in a few minutes. She is slowly making her way.” And sure enough, after a short bit, a slow moving older lady joined our group. She wore multi-colored running tights with bright yellow shorts over the top and wet worn looking running shoes on her feet. Her new companion was working out a plan for her so that she could exit the wilderness by the next day, but that did mean one more night in the unpredictable conditions that the mountains were delivering. Her trail angel spoke again, “I got cell reception on top of Donahue pass. Apparently today we have a 70% chance of thunderstorms.” Cory and I exchanged quick glances. We’d have to really hurry now. No way did we want to spend another afternoon trapped in our tents. The YARTS bus left Tualamne at around 6 pm and the thunderstorms could hit whenever they decided to. That YARTS bus would provide the link from Tualamne to where our truck was parked – a 2 hour bus ride through the most gorgeous areas of upper Yosemite National Park, Mono lake, the June Lake loop, and finally to Mammoth.

“We better get going. Have a safe journey.” Cory said.

“Yeah, I think I bit off a little more than I can chew,” the colorful older lady said with a twinkle in her eye. And with that, we sped up the pass.

Despite the fact that our legs are longer and seemingly stronger than our kids’ legs, for the third day in a row, we could not keep up with their pace. They raced ahead, whether hiking up the pass or hiking downhill towards Tualamne. “Stop if you can’t see us!” we called after them.

Safely off the pass we began our descent down the other side and through Lyle’s canyon, a gorgeous lushly forested and flat section of trail that ran parallel to the Tualamne river. This was the same river that less than a day earlier had flooded it’s banks, overflowing over the trail. The lone little white cloud that teased us at breakfast had turned into massive black clouds that swirled overhead and eventually began to thunder and drizzle on us.

“Let’s stop right now. I don’t want to hike in this. It could turn into yesterday’s torrential event any second” I complained.

“No way. We need to just go. If we hike fast, we might outpace this storm. I don’t want to spend another night in this stormy weather! We need to get to Tualamne, catch that YARTS bus, and dry off in our trailer!” Cory argued back.

Tension rose but we kept hiking, amidst the thunder which was not overhead yet but definitely chasing us. We hiked fast and furiously, much like we had for the past 3 days, continuing the sprint that was supposed to be a relaxing, first trip shake down trip. We met up with a family that was cruising equally as fast – a pastor from Portland Oregon, his wife, and his older 28 year old daughter – also sprinting to avoid the storm as well as attempting to hit the post office in Tualamne by 5:00 to get their pre-shipped resupply box.

“I wish we weren’t racing through here. It’s so gorgeous, but at this frantic pace we can hardly appreciate it!” Cory said. It was true. The light-hearted joys of backpacking had been replaced by focus, fervor, and high-mileage goals. But at last, we entered the Tualamne area and dashed to the wilderness permit office where we had previously stashed 3 days of food for the remaining 27 miles to Happy Isle. It began to rain at this point and just as we found shelter under the covered porch of the permit building, the little white cloud from the morning unleashed it’s alter ego on the earth. The drenching downpour came with crashing thunder and huge raindrops that sealed the deal, we were done. Maybe we could pick up a permit and hike Tualamne to Happy Isle some other day, but this family was done fighting the moody weather.

After picking up our food, we all slowly made our way to the Tualamne store where the YARTS bus would pick up our tired and sore bodies and deliver us to our truck. Once there, more stories surfaced from other groups. Tales of a tent that literally floated away during the downpour brought a comic relief to the predicament we all found ourselves in. The pastor and his family were staying on the trail. The rest of us were calling our trips short and hitching a ride on the bus. Thankfully, our time at the store included warm food and sun breaks, shared stories, and camaraderie. All the stuff that keeps me coming back for more, despite the setbacks.

Day 2 and 3 on JMT: A suprising Day 3

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Day 2
Mineret Lake to the Ediza/Garnett lake junction cutoff ~ 13.8 miles, 3000 feet of elevation change

Day 3
Cutoff junction to “Whirlpool campsite” ~ 9 miles

On the third day of walking under grey skies as we listened to the applause of the thunderous clouds, we had begun to grow weary of the storm that refused to stop following us. Are those clouds with all that noisy applauding cheering us on or taunting us?
The day before, we walked through cloud bursts, sun bursts, and chilly air intermixed throughout the day. Despite a long day under cold and wet conditions, I was impressed with the kid’s attitudes. They hiked and chatted and played trail games. No complaining. Just continued excitement for the accomplishment of this JMT goal.

This third day of hiking, the sun won out for center stage for the morning, lightening the mood as we hadn’t had that much sun since the trip started. We easily reached the pass and enjoyed a flower lined trail all the way down to Garnett lake. By the time we reached the bridge to cross the outlet of the lake, we felt our first raindrops and paused just long enough for one photo. On we climbed up the pass to drop down into Thousand Island lake where the clouds were even thicker, limiting us to a short twenty-minute break to eat a snack and snap another photo.

Our goal was a stealth camping spot positioned about one and a half miles south of Donahue pass that we had discovered two years earlier. This spot had quickly won our hearts that year as the warm, sunny skies of our time there highlighted the massive peaks that surrounded us in a magnificent 360 degree view. Listening to the kids describe this spot made me smile, realizing that these moments were memorable to them too. They had nicknamed the spot “whirlpool” and began to reminisce about it as we narrowed the gap between ourselves and our resting spot for the night.

“I just loved that campsite! Tons of slab!” Cade said.

“Remember how I discovered that whirlpool after soaking my blisters in the stream? We sat there for hours and watched pinecones, twigs, and bugs get sucked into that whirlpool! I can’t wait to see it again!” Bekah added.

It had been two years since we were there last as evidenced by their longer legs and their unstoppable hiking pace (Cory and i could not keep up with them!) Taller, faster, and more efficient at setting up camp yet still completely captivated by this unplugged place. I started to realized that perhaps these deeply shared memories is what was creating the cordial chatter between these two siblings that seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time rivaling against each other when at home or in past years on the trail. These deep roots, created together, revealed the beautiful strands that wove an intricate fabric of sibling bonding.

And more bonding was in store at the memorable whirlpool site and that is what lured them forward in an excited pace, to reconnect with a fun memory. The dark clouds also pushed our pace and allowed us to arrive at camp by 1:30, famished but before any rain fell. Four and a half hours was a record pace for clicking off over nine miles. Long legs and dark clouds could really do wonders to speed away trail miles. The gorgeous scenery of these special nine miles also made the day go fast, too fast really. It was the kind of scenery that we wished we could have dawdled through. These storm clouds were starting to really get on our nerves.

As we ate, the clouds gathered up the final momentum they needed to unleash the first clap of thunder, cutting even our lunch short. No resting allowed. Like a well oiled machine, the kids got busy setting up their tent. Things happened fast, not allowing time for directive conversation. The rain began slowly but heavy enough to motivate my retreat into the tent. Cory hung around by the stream, getting water but this storm was picking up momentum fast. The winds got stronger and the rain began to pelt our tents. Suddenly, Cory was at the tent’s door, unzipping and squirming in.

“It’s getting too wet out there!  I need to come inside!” he said, dragging into my dry sanctuary mud and wet puddles.

“Really?” I asked squirming away from him to stay dry and resuming my journaling. No sooner had I looked down to start writing did a flash of lightening race through the sky followed within moments by deafening thunder.

“Woah, that was close!” I said with a furrowed brow. “Are we OK here?” I asked thinking about our location on the edge of the forest, on a plateau halfway up Donahue Pass.

“Yeah, we’re fine.” But just then, another flash accompanied, simultaneously by a thunderous explosive boom, brought forth torrential rains and Bekah’s fearful cries.

“Daddy!!  DADDDY!!  I’m so scared!” We barely could hear her screams even though we were only less than ten feet away as the thunder crashed and the rain pelted the ground with such ferocity that all other sounds were drowned out.

“Hunny, it’s OK. We will be fine!” we called out to her. The rain was flowing so heavy that it would have been dangerous to let her get out of her tent to come to ours as she would have gotten soaked and chilled. With hypothermia being a number one killer in the mountains, we knew our priority was keeping everyone as dry as possible so we hunkered down and waited for the storm to lighten up. Nearly 45 minutes passed before we sensed a subtle let up in the rain, allowing us to let the kids quickly escape their tent to enter our small two-man tent.

And that is how we remained, cramped in our little tent, the four of us trying to find a place for all our legs and arms to rest as we waited for an indeterminate amount of time for the storm to pass. Thunder crashed as the lightening hit all the surrounding peaks. The cell was right over our heads, producing hail and mini rivers that were flowing under our tent, creating mini puddles on our tent floor. We laid every one of our egg crate pads down to create a dry space between the tent floor and our bodies, again, doing what we could to stay dry.
Despite the dampness and chill in the air, listening to the kids recount their time alone in their tent warmed my heart a bit. “Oh mama, I was so scared I was just clinging to Cade and he kept saying to me, ‘It’s going to be Ok Bekah. We will be fine. It’s going to be OK.” I looked at Cade, the older brother who can’t keep his hands to himself as he taunts his younger sister, just quietly smiled as he caught my eye. “What a great kid!” I thought. I smiled back at Cade.

“Are your sleeping bags wet guys?” I asked them, knowing that when the storm hit it was too loud to yell out reminders to them. We sat helplessly in our tent hoping they were making good decisions. Their response reminded me that in a blink of an eye they weren’t the 9 and 11 year olds they were the last time we stayed at “whirlpool” campsite.

“Oh yeah, my bag is dry. I stuffed all my clothes and sleeping bag in my plastic liner bag and then put that in my backpack.” Bekah assured us. And Cade had followed suit. They kept all their items in the center of the tent, avoiding the wet walls. And they did all this without one reminder from us. Just like mini-pros. And they cuddled up together to keep warm and to feel safe.

Later I’d learn that despite Cory’s seemingly confident air that we were going to be fine, he too felt a bit nervous at how close this storm was hitting. Lightening is unpredictable and being in tents does not offer an ounce of protection. Only about 60 folks die a year from lightening strikes, but nearly 600 suffer injuries from lightening strikes each year. Only five people have died in the Yosemite National park area over the last 100 years. Still, if you happen to be one of those five, then the statistics matter not at all.
During the four hours we hunkered down in our tent, the storm remained strong. Storms generally are shorter than this one was, but it decided to hang out on this gorgeous ridge, showing off it’s might for hours while we killed the time with some readings of Mma Ramotswe and games of Blackjack. Probably due to a bit of claustrophobia, I felt a bit light headed towards hour three and tight in my chest. The rain had lessened a bit and I had to get some fresh air so I braved the elements and darted for a tree. Even with the shelter of the branches, I was getting wet and chilled and realized I needed to go back into my cave. Would this go on into the night and into the next day? How long is this going to last?!
Cory decided to make us dinner which was so kind of him to do. “Hey, we can just eat a cold dinner – lunch stuff. Really, it’s OK!  Stay dry!” we all said to him in various ways. Perhaps he just needed out of the stuffy confines of the grey tent too, because despite our pleas, he disappeared into the rain to make dinner. It was so wonderful to eat warm food a half our later and mid dinner, the rain let up to a mere sprinkle, prompting my evacuation of the tent. Within a few minutes, the rain had stopped completely and a bright rainbow formed against the eastern dark black sky. Overhead, blue sky began to crowd out the black clouds and for 10 minutes, the sun shone through the clouds before disappearing behind the ridge for the night. “The sun has come!” I sang loudly with both my hands thrown high in the air.
It turned into a lovely evening, with beautiful pink clouds swirling with blue sky. It was as dramatic as the storm had been. We began to investigate the area and went over to the famous whirlpool section of the stream. We had talked about this quaint attraction off and on for the past two years but the storm had swelled this little stream into a raging river. It had risen from an ankle deep stream to a mid-thigh high river, pouring over the whirlpool spot in a raging waterfall. All the streams were flowing hard. We learned the next day in talking with people we’d pass on the trail that the river had risen four to five feet in sections, overflowing onto the trail and making some areas impassable.

We went to bed that night warm and safe knowing that if the next morning was not a blue bird, cloudless day, we’d hike out to Tualamne and catch the YARTS back to our truck instead of continuing all the way to Happy Isle. We needed some time to dry out and relax as this trip had been nothing short of a sprint every day as we tried to beat the storms that raged.

Day 1: JMT “In Need of a good washing”

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July 14, 2014
Day 1: Devil’s Postpile to Mineret lake ~ 8.4 miles

My heart, mind, and soul have been in a horse race, jockeying for position. It’s not as if I don’t quickly find myself at home – right where I left off last summer. Within miles from our start at Devil’s Postpile,as soon as the crowds were left behind, the familiar rhythm of clicking along on the trail calmed my soul, just like it always does.
And it’s not as if I am battling with that same fear that once plagued me – the one that had my mind shackled to the ever nagging question, “What if it happens again?”

And furthermore, it’s not as if I am battling an injury that threatens to cut our trip short. All my parts are working good this year. Hips, knees, and feet are all feeling great.

No, all the important things are in place, lined up, and pointing to a great trip. Most of my trail thoughts were just that, “Wow, we are actually doing this – the full JMT – the real McCoy! And today is just the beginning!” I found myself wondering at what lay ahead, this time I did so with excited anticipation of the places we’d see and the interesting people and potential new friends we’d meet.

My mind, soul, and heart, like three horses pulling my carriage, seemed to be trotting along in equal strength and in unison. And then my heart would stumble – sending a jolt through the horse trio that was pulling my carriage up the trail.
My mind attempted to reason with my heart but found it began to falter too. Then my soul stepped up its pace, pulling the other two along and steadying the troop back into rhythm.
This is how I spent the 8.4 miles we hiked since lunch. As memories of recent ER traumatic events popped to the surface, I found my emotions struggling to stabilize.

May 17 was the fateful day my dad shocked us all with a massive heart attack. A silent, lurking killer – my dad narrowly escaped with his life. Nearly two months later, he was just starting to gain strength but progress was slow and peppered with uncomfortable and confusing setbacks.

We spent three separate visits to his home, helping as we could and have decided he was stable, freeing us up to vacation a little. But guilt sets in, what’s a “good” daughter to do? Well meaning and not so well meaning texts filled my phone, confusing me more. Some induced guilt. Some encouraged us to carry on. Some elicited fear. The little girl in me instantly responded to the guilt and thought I should abandon my family to fly to his side. But my mind reasons with that internal little girl that my dad will be fine and just needs a lot of time to find strength again.

God knows how long we all have, reminded my soul to the other two horses, delivering the final and closing arguments that even in living and dying, I need to learn to let go. I am not in control. Stay calm and hike on. Stay calm. Let go.

Yes, the horses jockeyed hard for position and sometimes when the horse of my mind faltered, my heart would also stumble remembering another traumatic moment just two weeks earlier in an  ER room in Provo, Utah. “He’s having a heart attack” the cardiologist told us. Fear, shock, and then tears came from Cory as he locked eyes with me across the room. My focus quickly turned to Bekah, who was sobbing and clinging to me while my world went white and I thought I might faint. I got down to her eye level and locked eyes with her, letting our souls speak to each other, as her searching eyes pleaded with me to help her. As we stared deep into each other’s eyes, her soul heard the message: I’m here for you. We will do this together. You are not alone. I love you. My eyes spoke the same message my mouth did, “Daddy’s going to be OK”.

For the next forty-five minutes she cried over and over again, “Please God, don’t take my daddy” while Cade just screamed in terrified anger that his own, youthful daddy would be having a heart attack. Bekah eventually passed out, eliciting a flurry of medics around her and Cade got faint and was quickly ushered to a chair. At one point, all three of them were on hospital beds.

What a roller coaster of emotion we endured as we went from utter fear to complete elation upon learning the heart attack was a misdiagnosis he simply has an athlete’s heart which can throw the ECG off. After extensive testing it was concluded that he has nothing wrong with his heart, sorry for the scare, you can continue with your vacation plans as normal. The cause of chest pain we concluded was simply a pulled intercostal rib muscle from throwing cinder rocks around the week earlier.
Adrenaline shocks to the system like that don’t just disappear overnight. There are after shocks. Many from home have voiced concern that we would venture out in isolated wilderness travel.
So the soul speaks again – he’s been cleared. He’s healthy. Why stop living out of fear? Is not this very trip the very thing you need to reset you, shift the adrenaline button off, and downshift your system?
Come on mind and heart, said the soul, let’s canter in beat, feel the wind in our manes and let the freedom and quiet melt away this doubt. You might limp for awhile and we might be off sync at times, but don’t give up. Press on. Hike on. This is the exact journey you need to get back in unison, back in rhythm.

The moments that first evening when all three horses were galloping in unison, I had time to notice a few interesting and amusing occurrences. Bekah hiked in the lead this first day and only Cade could keep up with her. A far cry from the past years when Bekah fell back, hiking slowly while daddy kept her company. As the kids sped up the trail, they didn’t bicker. It was just the first day but they were enjoying the hike and enjoying each other. They played games like “I Spy” and twenty-questions to amuse themselves. It was how they ended their trail time last summer but last summer it took most of the summer to get to that point, and as I listened to them chuckle over a clever twenty-question answer, it felt as if no time had passed since we found our groove last summer. They just continued where they had left off.

At camp, the tents were set up with ease and Cade sped off to fish, cheering within ten minutes from his first catch. Previous years it took many nights of tears and frustration, trial and error, and a few angry outbursts before the first catch was made. By the time the evening was over, he had landed 22 trout. An expert had arrived at the shores of Mineret lake, amateurs were left in the wake of past summers.
Cory made dinner while I sponge bathed in the lake and soon Bekah and I were atop our mats journaling in compete contentedness. She paused her musings on paper to gather willow branches and grasses to create her first little doll companion of the trek. I hadn’t put two and two together until I found her in rapt attention atop a granite rock with her project that she had purchased tippit so that she could tightly wrap grasses and willow twigs together to create these nature dolls. She came prepared!

After dinner I volunteered to wash dishes as Bekah bathed. As I brought the soiled pot to the lake to fill it up, it occurred to me that we all were like that dirty pot. The year was a good one but as life does, it’s left some grease and scum on us. My dad’s heart attack. My job loss. Cory’s hospital stay. I squirted the soap into the pot, put the cover on it, and walked the requisite 200 yards from the lake, shaking the pot forcefully. As I cleaned each dish in the sudsy lake water, I thought of the same cleaning we were getting , surrounded by the gorgeous rugged skyline of the Minerets. I left the soapy dishes on a rock, emptied the pot of the sudsy water, and returned to the lake for a refill of fresh water. Back and forth I went from the lake to the soapy dishes to rinse away the scum, grease, and soap from each item. Somehow this simple ritual resonated with me. The rugged scenery, quiet evenings, warm mornings, sunrises glistening on lakes, limited to do lists, and all the majesty of this wild place would do as Muir wrote it would do, “Wash your spirit clean” (Alaska Days with John Muir, 1915, chapter 7). Muir told people to, “Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.” (Our National Parks, 1901, page 56).

I still wonder how nature does this. How God in nature does this. But it has done this for humanity in time past as it does for humanity now. Once again, we come to our summer hike in need of a good washing.


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Cuddled up on the couch with my fun loving daughter, watching reruns of James Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small  BBC episodes, we had no idea that the sweetness in the room would be shattered by an impending phone call.

Ring. Ring.

Two and a half weeks later, I am still shuddering when I hear it. Ring. Ring.  I have to consciously remind myself to swallow, breathe. Don’t tremble. 

Yet, the phone call that broke me has been the beginning of a chain of miracles that should eventually serve to put me back together, but as in all things broken, healing takes time.

My dad survived! Hallelujah!

I broke at the trauma of it all while my dad broke all odds and became the first survivor of the type of heart attack he had as witnessed by one of his nurses.  While my dad’s body slowly begins to rebuild the many pieces that broke while his heart about gave up, I am working on rebuilding my own sense of stability.

Time stopped for awhile, I guess that’s what happens when doctors need to stop your dad’s heart in order to save his life.

As time begins to gain momentum again, and my soul moves from shock to belief, the tears have been flowing more easily. Signs of life. 

And I find myself, coming before God, still broken, offering up my broken hallelujahs. Broken me offering up broken me to God as I barely can whisper Hallelujah which simply translates from Hebrew as: I give you praise God.

In time my whispers will too gain some momentum and perhaps I’ll come before God a little less broken, a little more healed, and a little stronger. My Dad is making gains too, his kidneys were just whispering and so were his lungs and heart but each day doctors attest that their whispers are getting louder and stronger and wholeness is getting closer.

Driving home yesterday, this song came out of nowhere and the tears came on it’s wings. It couldn’t have been more perfect for the journey I am imperfectly and brokenly on.

Hallelujah! We now know my dad’s heart needs support. The ticking bomb inside of him has now been exposed and doctors are doing something about it.

Hallelujah! My mom choose to drive him to the hospital and happened to drive him to a hospital that was not accepting ambulances that night but they can’t turn away walk-ins.  Turns out they are the top cardiac hospital in Oregon and the top surgeon in Oregon did the emergency 7 hour triple bypass all night long.  As well, the city they live in was having some problems with their ambulance system and most likely would not have had one to send to their house had they called 911. He would have died waiting for help. Instead, he was brought to the top cardiac surgeon around who immediately got busy, saving my dad’s life.

Hallelujah! My mom was home. My dad is often home alone.

Hallelujah! My dad did not have the heart attack during the day while he spent it gardening, home alone.

Hallelujah! My dad has a larger than normal artery to the heart that was able to handle the diverted blood load, keeping him alive, despite the fact that the “widow maker” main artery was 100% occluded

Halleljuah! My dad’s amazing surgeon loves God and prayed for my dad and for his team and headed in to the surgery room to let God use his hands to do what he says his ministry is: saving people’s lives one cardiac surgery at a time. He told us he could feel God’s presence all night (he finished around 6 am) as they performed life saving surgery on my dad.

Hallelujah! God gave me this man as my dad. A man who always believes in me, always loves me, and always puts family first. I don’t recall a moment in my life where I have ever been angry at my dad or even frustrated with him (there might have been a few as a teenager). He couldn’t be easier to love and as one of my life mentors, I seek to be more like him every day.

Hallelujah! Because of my dad’s love I have no problems believing in a God who loves. My dad is my gateway to God.

Savor Life

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I was 16. All dressed up to the nines, with curled hair and matching colored shoes to my dress, ready for Prom. I had spent half the day in preparation while my dad fiddled around in the garden.  The time had come for me to go soon, prompting my dad to wipe the sweat of his brow and his dirt covered hands on his jeans and walk in to send me off.

He turned the corner of the hallway and entered the living room where I waited, nervously, and his first words when he saw me were, “you look stunning!”. My dad thinks I’m beautiful! 

A few minutes later, Brian O’Neill (I have a thing for O’Neills I guess but this is not the O’Neill I am wed to) met me on my doorstop and his first words were, “wow” (Maybe I really do look good tonight!) 

Of the two moments, the one that shapes who I am and gives me wings is by far the one with my Dad.

Because of my dad, I know I am beautiful.

My dad’s unconditional love for me over the years blows strong wind under my wings as I know, because of him, that I am beautiful and I am loved.  I am loveable.

Two weeks ago we almost lost my dad to a heart attack so massive his nurse told us she’s never seen someone survive such an attack.

The essence of my dad’s gentleness and love and support and sweetness always is with me.  He’s a part of who I am. He’s a part of me.

May I live each day, savoring every moment of life.





Sneak peak: Chapter 2

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Courtesy of Cory J O’Neill Photography – Morning Glory, Jefferson Park


Life loves to be taken by the lapel and told: “I am with you, kid. Let’s go.”

~ Maya Angelou

Chapter 2: Before and After

Raised in the fast-paced paved world of the Chicago metropolitan area, trails, quiet, solitude, bright blue skies, and even watching sunrises was not the obvious choice for a well-planned weekend or summer vacation. It just wasn’t one of my options. Nice size yards, setback sidewalks, and large trees lined our cul-de-sac and convinced the locals to stay put for their entire lives. Neighbors are to the Midwesterner what adventure is to the Westerner. Weekends are full of barbecues and pig roasts.

Don’t get me wrong. These are great things, too. The stuff that community is made of. But a wilderness adventure is the furthest thing from one’s mind. Why leave the city? All the stores, clinics, people, and entertainment are right where you need them. Big city dwellers often build adventures out of hunting for a purse to match the outfit that was bagged the weekend before.

I remember a conversation I had with my Spanish grandma on the way to the mall one Saturday afternoon that typified a common perspective of city lovers. As we drove on a curvy road through a small grove of trees that somehow had not succumbed to industrialization, she exclaimed,“Ay mia! No me puedo creerlo! I can’t believe it!” With a tone rising in frustration, she went on in Spanish how horrific it was to have all these trees present. What a waste of valuable space and how dangerous it was to not have civilized this piece of land. Where I saw a nice break in the endless Chicago sprawl, she saw a missed opportunity that created a danger for the citizens.

I never really fit in with this city mindset. I used to pretend the dark clouds laying low in the horizon were actually mountain tops in the distance. I climbed trees and built forts. I cherished the times we went for hikes in the tiny forests near our home. My Oregon-native dad had exposed me to the grandeur of the mountainous landscape on our frequent visits, which seeded in me a dream to someday live where we vacationed. Oregon was, to me, the land of the free-spirited adventurer who roamed the mountains, valleys, and ocean shores powered by mineral water and sprouted greens. I had all Oregonians elevated on pedestals in my childlike, mind’s eye. These mountain dwellers were impressive and mysterious.

I realized that I wanted to enjoy some day hiking and low-level adventuring, seeing the mountains in the distance. Backpacking was not even on my radar. Walking on the beach? No problem. Fishing? Check. Canoeing? Sounded perfect. These were the outings I had pictured when I envisioned the Oregonian-in-action I was sure to become.

That was before I met Cory. The new love in my life had a different vision, which included me pushing way beyond a sunny walk on the beach.

Cory often talked about taking me backpacking, defining it not as a hobby but as a lifestyle. He had already exposed me to the formidable sport of mountain biking on trails; now it was time to hike them. So a little more than a year after being together, I was challenged to a bona fide Oregon activity—hit the trail and spend the night. This was Cory’s sacred activity and an invitation to join his inner circle. Introducing me to the world of backpacking was on the same level, in Cory’s mind, as introducing me to his family.

Saying yes to this invitation was saying yes to letting our relationship go to the next level. We planned the trip for late August, which has the best chance of rain-free weather. I was thoroughly excited with no hint of nervousness. I pictured the days, full of beautiful scenery and easy walking, and thought the trip would be a piece of cake. I had seen plenty of pictures of happy hikers and quickly deduced that I would join the ranks of all the glossy magazine characters who graced the pages of the Eddie Bauer catalog.

My first surprise came when I attempted to lift my borrowed heavy exterior-frame backpack. There was no way I could muscle this behemoth to its resting spot on my body. Thankfully, I would have either Cory or his brother, Tim, to heave this monstrosity onto my weak frame. The next surprise came when I took my first steps. I wobbled precariously with my top-heavy load, trying to keep myself upright, so that I wouldn’t completely embarrass myself in front of these two mountain men. It occurred to me at that point that I might be in over my head.

Knowing nothing about life on the trail, I didn’t even know what questions were appropriate to ask. But being a long-distance runner and a top Illinois athlete gave me a hyper-inflated confidence in my body’s ability to handle anything. Besides, one of these brothers was the new love in my life and what can’t you do when you are love sick?

So I mustered a smile and set off with Cory and Tim to discover every inch of the 40.7 mile Timberline trail that circumvents Mt. Hood, just outside of Portland, Oregon. I did not know, however, an important fact when I innocently agreed to this adventure… that the trail has several significant vertical ascents and descents totaling 9,000 feet, mostly at canyon crossings.

We hit the trail in perfect timing with a massive explosion of wildflowers that graced the slopes under the majestic peak. Gorgeous rivers raced down the sides of the mountains, cascading into waterfalls. During the day, I was in love. I loved the motion and the challenge. I loved the sights, smells, and simplicity. My mind attempted to comprehend the immense beauty of the landscape of Mt. Hood while my body battled saddle sore hips and tired muscles.

I also loved the relaxed, confident, and carefree side of Cory that came out on the trail. Up until this point, I had only seen him in our college setting where he was inundated with homework and tests, standard for a civil engineering student. I fell in love with him even more as I discovered this new rugged, yet tender and sensitive side of him, the liberated guy who lived under the surface of a vigorous course load. I found a guy who came alive setting up camp, and a guy who took the time to notice and stand in awe at a field of flowers or the rising sun.

Despite the fatigued muscles, bruised hips, and elevation changes that were unlike any terrain I had experienced in my flat land running days of Chicago, thankfully, I stayed cheerful and positive. I say thankfully because unbeknownst to me, what seemed like a friendly four-day backpacking trip was actually a “can I really date this girl” test!

Avid backpacker Cory, who often clocked 500-plus trail miles in a summer of hiking, had determined that he could not marry a girl who couldn’t athletically and mentally handle the back country. He knew himself well enough to know that his marriage would be less fulfilling if he didn’t share these special times together. To Cory, the idea of family meant time together, not leaving a wife home for weeks at a time to pursue his own passion. He wanted his wife to feel cherished, not abandoned, so he needed a life-friend who’d hike with him. He didn’t care if she cooked well, cleaned the house well, earned a lot of money, or any number of other wifely requirements. He just hoped that the lady he fell in love with also loved to get down and dirty on the trail.

During that first trip there were times of self-doubt as on the most difficult climbs or intimidating evenings I asked myself, what am I doing out here? As I experienced the unbelievable darkness of the night and the howl of coyotes, thoughts of bear attacks, cougars, and dangerous people hiding behind bushes swirled through my mind.

I was used to being surrounded by the city, the first ventures into the woods to spend the night unnerved me to the core. My grandma’s fears had filtered down to me. I dreaded the nights. Were perpetrators lurking? Were wild animals prowling? After learning that the Northwest was home to the actual mountain lion, my attempts to sleep were fitful as I imagined wild cougars or bears charging into my tent. During the day, I feared grave injuries– all outside of any cell phone range.

Stepping out from under the blanket of protection that I thought the city provided into the woods was no small feat. Maybe I was a better candidate for California beaches, populated resorts, and quaint cafes for my getaways. I should have just pulled out a map and picked my vacation options within the circled areas that included AT&T’s coverage range. No wilderness areas need apply.

Luckily, being so enamored with Cory blinded me to these potential fears when asked if I wanted to go, and they didn’t surface until I was en route, when turning back was no longer an option. And Cory encouraged me along with a wink and a smile or a kiss at a trail junction.

When we passed other hikers, I often felt like an actress, posing as a backpacker, but really just a city girl in disguise. I felt like a fraud, as if the others were actual hikers and I was just faking my way through. I wondered if they knew that when they passed me. Was I missing some kind of secret gleam that communicated to passers by that I was the real deal? I thought for sure that if stood in a line-up with all these fellow hikers, I could easily be picked out of the crowd as the imposter.

But on the final stretch as the trail ended and gave way to the parking lot at Timberline Lodge, I walked a little taller and realized one thing: pseudo-hiker or not, I had fun. Nothing attacked us. Nothing endangered us. We had just spent four days hiking through fields of flowers, crossing rushing rivers, traversing through pine tree forests, and doing so under the massive peak of Mt. Hood. For three days, I breathed the cleanest air and drank the sweetest water I had ever experienced, under the most vivid blue sky I had ever seen.

Despite the fears that crept in during my first trip, I passed Cory’s test with flying colors and a smile on my face. While he sensed my misgivings, he saw that I fought through them, kept it positive, and was physically capable of enjoying the wilderness. With each step forward, uncertainty was replaced with confidence. I could do this! All it took was that one trip to convince me that I, too, loved to backpack. And that was the final sign to Cory that this girl named “Chicago” was outdoorsy enough to be his wife. My love for Cory was the gateway to my love for Creation itself.

Before Mt. Hood, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more unlikely backpacker candidate than me. I had grown up far removed from the Wild West and had no experience in the complicated world of outdoor gear, trip planning, and survival in a wilderness. But soon I was officially hooked on wilderness exploration, and was well on my way to becoming a genuine Northwest backpacking diva, despite my midwest roots.

During those first three years in Oregon I went on two- to three-night backpacking trips whenever possible. I turned into the genuine article I had wondered if I could become. I let go of my fears of the dark woods and a self-confidence emerged, built on the belief that I knew how to do this.

Looking back, I am fascinated at the timing of this new conviction—that I had hit my Oregon-wilderness-girl groove—because this awareness came on the heels of a catastrophe that had the capacity to shatter my dreams of ever going into the wilderness again.

Some moments divide time. They have the power to split our existence into the before and the after. As the world went dark, and my body careened fast and furiously down that snow field, I was unaware that I had crossed over to the ‘after’ part of my hiking life.

It seemed quite unlikely that I would ever hike again. From then on with every trail step I lugged, not just a backpack full of gear, but also a mountain of fear that was crippling at times. I felt like an unpredictable time bomb that could detonate at any moment. Obviously, hanging out in isolated, pristine wilderness locations was ludicrous. It was time to hang up the hiking boots and stay closer to home.