The Back Story

Self photo Aug '09


Who is Joannie?

I am a twenty-something little redhead with a brass sense of humor and a morbid outlook on life who is never bored, doesn’t believe in luck and finds something to enjoy everyday. I taught myself how to read at age four, and never stopped reading since. Starting in childhood, my love of travel has by now grown to something of… well, an addiction. But my love of animals outshines even that.

Originally from Eagle River, Alaska back when Hiland road had two houses on it (Old Pete’s and ours), I spent a mind-boggling amount of time on The Farm in Southeastern Tennessee, where it could casually be said I was raised.  And somehow I made it through fifteen years of Southern exposure without becoming Baptist or adopting the accent, something the locals never let me forget. I also might have been accused of being a Witch (among other things), on account of my outdoor skills, pagan ways, and love of knowledge.

I’m the oldest of nine (yes, nine). And we’re not Mormon, Catholic or any other type of religion that loves insanely large numbers of children. Mom loved kids; had four of her own and then, being the Saint that she was, adopted an entire sibling group who were being fostered out. I love every sibling, blood or not, and try to do everything I can to be there for them. My three biological siblings are all boys, and four of the adoptees are also boys… Sadly for me, the little sister I’d dreamed of was twelve years younger than me and only had eyes for Mom (understandable at age 2…).

And that, people, is how there were nine, seven of which are boys. I still am not sure that I can put makeup on properly… And I don’t hit or throw like a girl. But having changed three diapers at once, I know I will never need to have my own children. I’m told I would be a great Mom– but I’m also told I’d be a great ring girl, fitness coach and drill sergeant. You don’t see me signing up for the National Guard! So no kids for me.

I experienced an amazing existence on the Farm, with tons of animals and outdoor life; I rode horses with the rest of the family, and had one to call all my own.  Handsome, tall and dark with brains to kill, Lenny was the best first horse a little girl could ask for. He was one who embodied those fabled “girl and her horse” stories that inspire some people to spend the rest of their lives searching for the one perfect horse they can bond with, usually falling short in the end. Lenny was already a seasoned veteran of the equine world and had a lot of experience. He knew to walk very slowly and carefully with a toddler, and how to speed things up when someone with more ‘go’ was riding him. He was fiercely protective of me and those I cared for. My love with Lenny grew from a spark into a smoldering fire that burned hot. He and I rode on many adventures together, and taught many people just what was possible from a girl and her horse. He went on to greener fields in his thirties, and is still missed.

I felt like I had to ride, and always wanted to go to new heights. Because Lenny was already old when the urge to jump horses came, I resisted hurdling the old guy over fences, much to his chagrin. Instead I took my Mom’s younger mare, Shadow, and taught her (and myself) how to jump. As usual, once I had a goal I kept at it and my parents had little choice but to follow, in fear of losing track of me altogether. Two years after putting Shadow over the 2×4 and cinderblock jumps, I had my ‘jumping’ horse, Georgia. She was young — four years old — but great to me… Until the day I took off her harsh bit, gave her some head room and let her out of the arena, at which point she promptly lost her gods-loving mind and almost killed me. After that, I decided it was time retrain my jumping horse. And that is how Joannie became a horse trainer.

Now I had started with my own filly, Brandy (Shadow’s baby), a year or two before all this. But getting a horse to ride is a little different from unteaching all the bad and reteaching all the good. Over the next three years, I studied many methods of horse training… And quite suddenly, I was my mother’s right hand man when it came to horse lessons and teaching camps. By the time I was eighteen, people paid me big bucks to train their horses and teach them what I knew. My horse training went to amazing heights and seemed destined for greatness (and maybe even a living) but alas life had hurdles of its own in store, and for the moment the horse training is over. And that in itself is a long story…

Joannie With her horses

Journey, Domino & Joannie Winter 2011

Something else besides puberty happened in my teen years that changed me forever. When I was around eleven or so, my father gave me a book:  ‘The Tracker’ by Tom Brown, Jr. It changed my life. Tom Brown not only had these amazing natural skills, but he taught them to those brave enough to seek him out. I knew I had to learn — problem was, I was eleven, and Mr. Brown only taught adults.

How I cursed my age in those days! I couldn’t go to the horse training clinic unless Mom could attend the whole thing, too; I couldn’t get certified to teach at-risk kids until I was twenty-five; I wasn’t welcome at the horse-circus school until I was eighteen; I couldn’t go study with Tom Brown until I could bloody vote. I raged against the unfairness of it all, how I had to wait so long for everything I actually wanted to do. Driving? Psh, unless I was taking my horse somewhere, I didn’t see the point. College? Who cared. I wanted to learn real things, dammit. When I was 14 I stumbled upon the non-profit Children of the Earth Foundation (COTEF) ‘Coyote Tracks ‘ program for kids, based off of Tom Brown Jr’s teachings. I’d found gold… Except of course, it cost a fortune to attend. I’d been sent to horse camp a couple of summers in a row, but that was all I got for those entire summers — Coyote Tracks was three times the distance, and twice the price! But I had to go. I spent the next eight months working, while still doing my school work, to save for the program. I refused to tell my parents what in the world I needed hundreds of dollars for. I had to make my own goal; if I made it, then I could tell them… and they had to let me go, right?

So I saved, and saved, and they bothered me with questions but I told no one. I was also teaching the Myerson family how to ride horses at the time. One day, Barbara (Mom Myerson) was sharing her stories about the “Dolphin” trips they took during the summers now and then. Mom mentioned my love of dolphins to her; they’d had to drag me away from the flipper tanks at Bush Gardens. I mean, who wants to see Jaws, when Flipper will only jump out of the water for you? (Stupid little brothers…) But next thing I knew, I was being propositioned with a bargain: I’d teach the entire Myerson family how to ride horses for the next year, and they’d take me with them to the Bahamas to swim with dolphins.

Well I’m not an idiot and I knew who was getting the better end of the deal, so I gladly took it.  There I was, working my little ass off scrubbing and painting rental houses for money to send myself to Coyote Tracks, and teaching the Myersons twice a week how to ride to earn my spot on the boat. I finally earned enough money somehow, and my parents agreed to help me go (i.e. drive me).  I went to the Bahamas first (another story for another time), and came back slightly burnt but in love with island life. Then, off I went with my dad to pick up a motorcycle from Ohio, and then on to New Jersey. He made me drive, too! Mom and Dad had forced me to get my learners permit by now, so I had to “practice” all the time even though I’d rather have watched the countryside or just read instead.

We went up into New York first to trade bikes and get the bike Dad actually wanted… And then on to Coyote Tracks (why that order? I don’t know). Oh, how I was excited. I was going to learn to fox-walk, start a fire with sticks and sleep in a leaf hut! 🙂 At the camp we found a screened-in picnic area, an old girl scout bathhouse, a little cabin they called the ‘office’ and a bunch of army tents. Dad didn’t want to leave me… These people were obviously crazy! Hundreds of dollars and you don’t even get a bug net? Being in the southern swamps of Jersey it did stand to be a problem, but I convinced my poor father that I would be okay. He stayed somewhere close by that night, waiting for me to call and say “Get me out!” The next day I called and told him I’d survived the first night. What I didn’t say was that I’d slept not a bit, the thunderstorm had tried to blow my tent away, and I was the only person in it because they had misplaced my tentmate… But I was staying put, so he drove back to Tennessee, still unsure about leaving me for the next two weeks.

The COTEF programs changed my life. I went back many times, dragged family members and friends and was even employed by them for a few summers. I met priceless friends and learned worldly wisdom in the woods of southern Jersey. I still attempt to balance the ‘skills’ of nature and what we call ‘normal’ life to this day, and just this past summer I attended one of Tom Brown Jr.’s classes for adults! A goal I had made, and a goal I met.

Grand Canyon View

River & I viewing the Grand Canyon 2009


I went to college for a couple semesters. Studied English — big surprise to all who knew me — though sadly my editing skills are still lacking (Editor’s note: Yep).

My attention was first caught by a private liberal arts school in Painesville, Ohio. It was beyond pricey; but not only did they have a good English program, they also had a national-level equestrian school with such equine subjects as Stud Farm Management that perhaps two other schools in the nation could boast of. It was also located in the nice cold, dark, Northern part of the states, and I missed the snow. So I applied, wrote letters and tried my hardest to get accepted. I hadn’t done very well on my ACT tests, so I had to prove myself with the essay parts of the application process. As it turned out, my essay topic was a ‘life altering event’ — their choice not mine — and I wrote my little heart into that paper. Weeks went by with no response; then one day I got a letter. I was accepted… and I had gotten myself a $12,500 scholarship to boot! Okay, we thought, maybe we could afford it after all with some loans.

So off I went to Northern Ohio. Not only did I have horrible luck with roommates, but the director of the equestrian studies (who was new and young) took an instant dislike to me and refused to let me study my goal of stud farm — turned out I had more experience teaching and training horses; she was there for other reasons. I was beyond angry. This unusual degree was why my family and I were spending $15000 more a year for this wonderful but pricey college. After much deliberation, I sadly had to accept that it was not logically worth it for me to stay just for the English program. Even though I loved my Director, my professors and had been already asked to work for the college the next school year as part of the new and up coming creative writing program… My horses were being left behind, and I couldn’t get that damn stud farm degree. Torn between two worlds, I chose — stupidly, in hindsight — to transfer back to Tennessee.

Thing is, transferring in the middle of the school year is hard, and there isn’t any time to get all the paper work done. That’s how I ended up at the University of the Cumberlands in Kentucky. Dad had wanted me to go there all along (for reasons I’m not sure even he knew), and thought I would do well, so they already had my papers and all the other stuff. Dad had hoped I would join the women’s wrestling team which the college boasted highly of. My brothers were and are big time wrestlers — state titles and all — and Dad was a wrestling maniac, and wasn’t sure how else to relate to me. Problem was, I didn’t want to wrestle, or go to this stupid Southern Baptist college at all. But — somehow — I had been given a wrestling scholarship. I told myself it was only for one semester, not  two like my Dad thought, and that I would transfer to a “real” college the next school year. I was deciding between UTK and ETSU; they had no equestrian studies, but they were both huge universities, in state and affordable, with honors and travel-abroad programs.

I lasted two days at Cumberlands (another story), and against my parents’ wishes packed my shit up and went home. The local community college jumped at a student who could actuallypay money to go to their school and accepted late transfers. I figured I could get back to the original plan the next school year. Community college was a joke, but I withstood it, eagerly waiting for when I would be learning and not just doing. I never had to write a paper, never felt challenged (though my psych class was fun) and hated the stupidity of my peers. But I knew it would be short-lived and I’d be back to my stacks of books to be read, papers due, and the thrill of a real discussion in class again… If only I had known just how short lived it would be.

I never got to finish out the semester. My life was shattered one Wednesday afternoon on March 4th, 2009. The simplest way to put it is that my wonderful, amazing Mother was murdered. But when someone great is taken from us, things are never simple. The betrayals run deep. Shakespeare would be envious of this “tragedy”. It is a long, painful story that does not belong on this page, nor is it for the faint of heart or soul. Therapists cry and counselors tell me to maybe seek someone else out when I tell them my story. But I will say this; a lot more than one amazing mother was lost that day.

Which is how we come to me, here, now (2011).

A little over two years after the most senseless act of betrayal and violence one can find (I know, I googled it), I’m still trying to find an existence that could loosely be called life, and writing this blog in attempt to find the words that are locked inside my head.

So who is Joannie?– Isn’t that how we got on this terribly long tangent? Joannie was called an ‘old soul’ and ‘mature beyond her years’ before life took Mom away. So, I guess Joannie is now old as shit ,and wise as a freaking ancient tree if you are to believe the rumors.

I still love animals, though I’ve had to give up most of mine. My horse business is gone; the farm is noticeably smaller, since Mom and the economy have both left. College seems like a bad ride of debt and frustration. My faith in humanity is on strike, and I know that all we have is ourselves and our thoughts at the end of the day.

So I’m off, carving out a journey through these gods-forsaken lands in which we live. I have to stick around should one of my siblings need me; and I can’t fuck up too much, since they look up to me and all. I need to be someone they can speak of proudly, or at least not in shame.

As for the rest —  life goals, college, the big plan. Who cares? If you want it bad enough, you’ll do it. I made it to Tom Brown’s Tracker School, didn’t I? Otherwise, it’s just one of many paths twisting and turning and crossing over one another. The paths are always changing, our views are always changing as insight sheds new light so that we can see what we were blind to before. I don’t need to know where I’ll be in five years; what I need to know is where I am right now.

If someone asked you where you were in life right now, is the answer what you want? Are you happy with where you are? Do you even know where you are, what you are doing on a daily basis? If you died today, would you be okay with your last moments or is there a trunkful of regrets in your baggage?

This is how I live; this is why I wander, both in mind and body, and probably spirit too. There are only two guarantees in life- that we are all born, and that we will all die. Everything else is the journey.

People, I’m all about the journey. I’ve already been born, all I have left is dying. Whatever happens in between, I’ve got to find myself and experience. So this is me — writing my Wanderer Heart’s journey here, in an attempt to free my soul from its trials.


Joannie on a adventure overlooking the bluff

Alaska 2011