This month's "The Mirror" column was written by Susan Dalton © 2012, all rights reserved.
Although I was only a sixth kyu, I knew the stories. Well, maybe not all of the details, but enough to know someone was in big trouble with Sensei. Something about our young adult Japanese guest and one of our young adult black belts, too much to drink, deciding to walk, cutting across a field, ending up in a ditch, and having to call Sensei. In the twenty plus years since this story originated, I've heard several different versions, but they all end with Sensei's lecture on hospitality, responsibility, and appropriate care of guests. So now that I'm dojo cho and hosting guests and making arrangements for their stay--sometimes I'm the sensei lecturing--I try to do right. I make lists and phone calls, exchange hundreds of emails, scrub my house, submit testing paperwork, plan a seminar, and try to get my dog to behave. That part really doesn't matter because by day two the dog (Mr. Stinky) is crawling into bed with our shihan, but I do try. Luckily my husband is 100% committed to me and the dojo, though he's never gotten on the mat in his life except maybe to fix the ceiling or install a fan. I can always count on his help. And we have great folks in the dojo; they pitch in to make the dojo work. However, if you've known me longer than five minutes, you know tight organization and finding my way around are not my strengths. I have to think a minute about where my phone is, what I did with my keys, where I parked the car. I need to look at my hands to tell left from right.
This trip my shihan was bringing his daughter, her best friend, and another teacher with him. The women wanted to sightsee—the friend doesn't do aikido—and the men wanted to train with us as much as possible. Although our teachers have visited the US many times, this trip was the first for our shihan's daughter and her friend. So on that first full day, I was going to skip class and take the women bike riding on the Virginia Creeper Trail. It's an easy, beautiful ride, 20 miles all downhill from Whitetop Mountain to Damascus. I've driven to Damascus many times, taken the shuttle to the top, then ridden down. But Whitetop is closer to North Carolina, where I live, and Highway 58 mercilessly twists and winds. If I met the shuttle in Whitetop, we'd only have to travel 58 once, back up to get the car. I had all the arrangements made, who was picking up our teachers for class, who was taking them to lunch, what was going on afterward, where we were meeting later, what time the shuttle was meeting us, where we were eating lunch, and the route I'd take. I even knew where we'd stop on the trail to take pictures. We were good to go.
The women were tired from their long trip, so we got a bit of a late start. I left our teachers with J, our chief instructor, happily eating breakfast at, if I do say so, my beautifully set table. Hey, I can be flexible; I packed up some of the breakfast in cute little containers, poured their coffee in to-go cups, and my fellow travelers ate on the way. At my house, J would just have to do the dishes. Maybe I drove a little faster than I should have, but we were right on schedule. My guests oohed and aahed over the scenery, then fell asleep. At 11:10 we were turning onto the road that led to Whitetop, less than one mile from our destination. The shuttle was meeting us at 11:40. I had done it with time to spare!
But nothing looked familiar. Or did it? Wasn't that Christmas tree farm the same one we always passed in the shuttle? The road kept climbing and we crossed the Appalachian Trail. Uh. I didn't remember that from before. And had the road turned gravel and maybe I just hadn't noticed when someone else was driving? Now we were high above the clouds, looking down on the tiny farms and forests below. The view took my breath, but it definitely wasn't a vista I'd seen before. Oh no, did that sign really say off-road vehicles only? I fervently hoped my guests couldn't read it. "Breathe, Susan, breathe," I told myself. Falling in a ditch with a fellow inebriated black belt? How about getting my shihan's precious only daughter lost on a desolate mountain? What about having to be rescued by a search team and helicopters? What about driving all this way, missing the shuttle with the bikes, and having to turn around and go back home? What about—stop that. "Breathe, breathe, breathe; just deal with whatever comes." My little Nissan bumped and wound around the curves, until finally the road, if you want to call it that, dead-ended at a fire watch tower. At least my young dojomate had an excuse for getting his charge lost. They were drunk. I'd gotten into this predicament stone cold sober.
I probably drove too fast back down the mountain, and I tried another road that wasn't it, but we were still laughing and joking when we got back to 58. My watch said straight up noon. My shihan told me once that we all have an omote side and an ura side. Omote is what we show the world—ura is what's inside. Omote, we were having fun. Ura, those were some ugly, scary atemi coming at me. "Breathe. I like ura. Relax and find the joy." By now, we all had to use the facilities. "Relax and lead where the attack is taking us." I guessed I would drive on to Damascus and we'd catch a shuttle there. At least I knew where to find a bathroom. Of course my cell phone wouldn't work, no service, not even 411. Wait, that sign said to Whitetop Community, obviously different from Whitetop Mountain. I hung a quick left. (Sometimes I do know my right from my left. Maybe I just need to be in crisis mode.) An older gentleman in overalls passed us in a red truck, waving. I rolled down my window. "Sir, are we close to the trailhead for the Virginia Creeper Trail?"
"Honey, less than a quarter mile. You just keep on the way you're going and you can't miss it." I didn't offer a bet on the matter, though I thought about it. But then I saw trucks and vans shuttling bikes and riders and up ahead the old train station that had been converted into a visitors' center. Inside, the nice lady let me call the shuttle service. "He's probably still up there waiting for you," the owner said. I invited my guests to peruse the post card selection, calmly walked out the door, and then took off running back up the mountain to the drop-off area. Nope, no white van. I ran back to the visitors' center and bought the postcards. The lady called the shuttle service again. Sorry. I'd just missed him. They wouldn't be coming up again for several hours. But there was a bike rental store here at the top (which I now knew wasn't nearly the top.) They had another store in Damascus; we could rent bikes here and someone there would shuttle us back up. I just needed to go back to 58.
After I loaded everyone up, I ran back inside one more time to be sure I had the directions straight. We only had one turn—I could see it from where we stood. Okay, I could do that.
The bikes weren't the greatest. I eyed the sign about flats being at your own risk, but hey, what were our options? My friends chose serviceable bikes, ones in their favorite colors. I found a good enough bike—though I found out on the ride that the seat kept slipping down. Still, it beat walking. That would be ninety dollars. Ninety dollars! The other guy was going to charge me forty-five. I didn't even argue, just pulled out my credit card. Luckily I didn't have to root around in my pocketbook too long. We'd have to bike fairly fast—we'd stop for lunch in Taylor's Valley, thirteen miles in, then race to catch the last shuttle to the top at 4:30. And we were off! Gorgeous rushing stream beside us, wind through our hair, quiet forest and majestic scenery surrounding us, the mountain mostly all ours. After a lovely (joyful) ride, we made it down with two minutes and six seconds to spare.
A week later, taking my yondan test, what were a few attackers coming at me? What were a few bokken and jo? What was sitting in seiza hours on end? I'd vanquished my most formidable foe up on Whitetop Mountain.
"The Mirror" is a collaborative column written by a group of women who describe themselves as:
We comprise mothers, spouses, scientists, artists, teachers, healers, and yes, of course, writers. We range in age from 30s through 50s, we are kyu ranked and yudansha and from various parts of the United States and styles of aikido. What we have in common is a love for budo that keeps it an integral part of our busy lives, both curiosity about and a commonsense approach to life and aikido, and an inveterate tendency to write about these explorations.