To my friend Pam with whom I share an admiration for turtles.
She first saw the thousand-pound leatherback on New Smyrna Beach. The turtle had been laying eggs and looked exhausted. Why were people surrounding the huge creature? She went to have a look. Three biologists were applying a transmitter to the turtle’s shell to track her movements over the next ten months. Two long parallel scars on her carapace—from a bad propeller injury—marked this giant sea turtle as a survivor. The biologists named her Leddy.
After the trip to Florida, she surreptitiously monitored Leddy’s whereabouts online on the turtle tracker map when she was at work. It was an interesting distraction from her dull post office job. Leddy was swimming north along the east coast, traveling alone, a solitary creature. The thought of that was enticing.
When she announced to her dad that she planned to quit her job and leave Island Falls for a while, he tried to get her to change her mind. Your mother would not have approved, he said. And you need to think about that baby that’s coming. Don’t try to follow me, she said. I’m having a mid-life crisis. But you’re only 26! I don’t care; I’m having one anyway.
The wheels of her pick-up truck spewed dust as she sped away from the house. Take care of Hershey, Dad! She yelled back from the end of the driveway. She wanted to get out of Maine, but didn’t know where she was headed. She felt like a ticking time bomb waiting to explode. She needed to escape. For now, she would drive south. Maybe I’ll find what I’m looking for. What am I looking for?
She tried not to dwell on good old Hershey. He was such a loyal companion. At 12 years, the chocolate lab probably didn’t have too much time left. Was she abandoning him? Leddy had deposited all her eggs in a sand nest and returned to the ocean never to see her babies hatch. That was nature’s way. And what about Leddy’s mate? Did turtles ever experience longing for each other?
The day that Hershey’s hind leg was amputated, she fainted at the sight of his bandaged stub. It gave her pause to rethink her future. Who am I kidding? I’m not cut out to be a veterinarian. And flunking out of school was pretty dumb. Hershey was diagnosed with an aggressive osteosarcoma and she had turned into a basket case! For the past two months, her moods were like an emotional wrecking ball, swinging wildly in every direction.
Leddy had traveled hundreds of miles up the coast from Florida by the time she pulled into Bangor to check the tracking map. She stopped at a diner and overheard the locals chatting about three lobstermen who rescued a confused young deer they found swimming in deep water far off the coast. The deer was headed out to sea and certain death. Somehow the men had hoisted the deer aboard their fishing boat and returned the extremely lucky creature to shore. No medals had been awarded; they were just ordinary heroes doing the right thing.
She wanted to stick around, but the smell of coffee—her daily morning drink for more than a decade—now made her violently ill. She fled the diner in haste.
The message from her dad was short and to the point. Are you safe? he wanted to know. Hershey is fine. Come home any time, he added. She replied I’m driving to a prison in Gardner, Mass. I’ll tell you more later. She purposely didn’t mention the morning nausea. Her dad was a worrier.
On the tracking map, she watched Leddy continue her migration further up the east coast. Imprinted deep within that turtle brain was the memory of a northern feeding ground where thousands of jellyfish beckoned. It seems both Leddy and I are on a journey … except the turtle actually knows where she’s going.
She once read an inspiring story about inmates who trained puppies to become service dogs. On the spur of the moment, she had decided to drive to one of the prisons in Massachusetts to see for herself.
The drive south on 101 was monotonous, so she thought about big decisions. Being responsible. Earning a steady income. Finding her own place to live. Becoming a parent. Should she go back to school? You discover what a person is really made of when the going gets tough. He was basically a one-night stand who happened to linger. When she told him the result of the pregnancy test, he up and left in the dead of night. The weight of one additional responsibility terrifies some people. Anyway, she figured it was better this way.
Checking into a roadside motel near Milford, New Hampshire for the night, she was relieved to discover a microwave oven in her room. She bought 12 cans of Hormel chili at a gas station convenience store along the way. Enough to have three cans a day for the next four days. Inexplicably, canned chili con carne was now the only food she wanted. And the only food she could keep down. Leddy’s singular quest for jellyfish no longer seemed so odd.
She pulled into the visitors parking lot of the prison compound with her radio blaring, shouting along to Miranda Lambert’s “Highway Vagabond.” It was a good road song that reflected her state of mind. She stayed in her truck until the song finished.
By chance, she was allowed to accompany a visiting instructor to go inside the medium-security facility. The instructor was coming that morning to take away Riley, a one-year-old golden retriever, to his new home on the outside. The parents of a boy with severe autism were hoping Riley would be the furry, four-legged miracle that would help their son.
Thus far, Riley had lived most of his life in prison, trained and cared for by an inmate. Standing at the back of the prison yard, she watched Riley and his inmate-trainer say their final good-byes. She observed that the man and the dog connected with a deep bond, clearly devoted to each other. She pulled a tissue from her pocket as she watched the stoic inmate hand over Riley’s leash to the instructor. Riley wagged his tail, unaware that he and his inmate were about to be separated, probably forever. When the instructor walked with Riley toward the exit, the dog barked once at his inmate, a final adieu.
Sobbing in her truck, she called her dad to talk about the prison visit. He said she should come home. Hershey missed her. I will dad. But, not just yet.
She drove west for two days, throwing up each morning before heading out on the highway, with five cans of chili left in the back seat. She would have to restock when she got to Omaha. Smoke the donkey lived there. She knew about Smoke from books and stories. The beast had traveled halfway around the world from Iraq to Nebraska thanks to the persistent efforts of a Marine veteran and others dedicated to seeing Smoke live out the rest of his life in comfort. She managed to find a few who had met Smoke before he passed. She learned that Smoke had not only charmed his way into the hearts of many, but helped to heal many hurting souls along the way.
Meanwhile on the tracker map, Leddy had traveled almost 2,000 miles from New Smyrna Beach. Her location tracked to a spot in the north Atlantic off the coast of Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, her primal instinct for survival having served her well. Leddy was sure to be gorging on jellyfish by now.
She felt a clearer sense of purpose on the drive back to Maine. She had even decided on a name for the baby. Girl or boy, it would be Gale Storm after her grandmother’s favorite actress from the 1950s. Conceived during a turbulent time, her baby would be resilient. She was sure of it.
Dad, I’m coming back to Island Falls to pick up Hershey. I’ll be moving back to Augusta and this time I’m going to study hard and get my veterinary science degree. I guess I had to take a circuitous route to get there.
Like Leddy she had scars, but would survive.