Osceola East

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I venture into the mountains with one enduring self-indulgent purpose: escape. If you were to ask my ego, she may admit other ambitions- adding a notch to the proverbial belt as she rises to meet a new summit, perhaps. But escape is the only force that drives hard enough to pull me from pajamas into hiking clothes early on a Saturday, calling me out into a world beyond my steaming morning coffee.

Escape is the lightness underfoot fueled by the addition of steps between my boots and parked car. And she’s like a bad habit, escape, luring me to her with promises that this will just be something sweet, and innocent, and fun, a lighthearted romp in the woods. But then by the end of the day as I trudge ever closer to my parked car the heaviness of my boots overtakes me again and I know, as I’m released back into the world, I will return for more. It might not be tomorrow, or even next week, but sooner or later I will find myself back in my car, racing from my home and my life, bursting out onto the trail, and as I run to her, my muscles screaming and my dry throat aflame, she will meet me, my escape, and I will be hit with the realization that I had never left her behind; I’d been tethered to the promise of her all along.

And then there are days like today, when the long weeks have accumulated on my shoulders and tired my eyes, and I tear into the woods yearning for escape like a junkie moving in on her fix, and she evades me. I find my path, instead, lined with hikers who have insisted upon bringing the whole world with them- their screaming kids, their yapping dogs, and technologies that ping and ring and capture images so overrun with the faces of all who travel the trail that there is no space for trees, rocks, or vistas within their frames.

At first, I make friends with denial and walk with her for a time. She speaks kindly enough, drawing me to her side with reassurance that my escape is just around the bend. But before long even she is drowned out by the sound of trekking pole armies scraping against granite, their bearers whooping battle cries through the trees. I hike faster, but around the next turn is another battalion, this one led by a fat anxious dog whose equally endowed owner refuses to step aside, thereby forcing me to yield to his stodgy pace. Together, owner and dog beat down my already weakened denial until she walks with me no more.

In her absence, I realize there will be no escape for me here. Not on this trail. Not today. I am angry at her for evading me, and at myself for craving something beyond my grasp. And then it is just the mountain and I, enveloped by the world I was so racing to leave behind. My pack tugs at shoulders that have gradually crept toward my ears as if mirroring the stance of a vulture crouched, scavenging. At least the weight of the pack draws them down. My feet sweat. I feel no lightness there today.

They trudge me on to the summit, to a view that is at once beautiful and empty. And as I turn on my heels and begin my descent to the car, I am struck by the awareness that I am just another member of the army of noise, the yapping dogs, and the selfies whose cameras click on in the absence of shutters. And I wonder, what mistresses drew them out their slumbers to the call of the mountain this morning?

Perhaps I am not the only one who set to trail today chasing my escape. Did any of us wanderers find her in their travels, or are they, like me, stumbling home with boots muddied and hopes downtrodden? My eyes look to the trail who has failed to bring my escape today, but has nonetheless led me through another journey, its rising and its fall. My pride shines in the realization of this feat, light that nearly dissolves the shadow of her absence. And then, tugging from a deeper, less visible space, temptation whispers she will be so much sweeter, my escape, next time. Spinning silk persuasions that lure me in, a fly to a web. I will find my escape. I am tethered to her, after all.

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Grid Lock

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Ever since our little cabin was introduced to the grid, I’ve been struggling with what to write. It’s as if gaining a functional bathroom and kitchen cost me my credibility (in addition to our savings). I no longer read by candlelight, carry in drinking water, nor depend upon a gravity fed hose for a shower. I’ve considered writing about living in a tiny house, but it turns out the cabin doesn’t qualify! According to Wikipedia, the information superhighway’s most reputable source, our 550 square foot home is too big to be a member of the tiny house club. With an area of less than 1,000 square feet, it is considered a “small house,” but really who wants to read about someone who lives in a small house? It just sounds noncommittal to me.

While I’m in love with our new home, I miss writing about our off the grid adventures. Would I trade it all in if I had the chance? Dismantle the electric lines and channel the well water back into the earth? Jim likely would, but I’m not so sure. I love being able to cook again, and grow veggies in the garden that is, as I type, being sprinkled with water from our well.

So, while I ultimately have no desire to turn back time, I do question what I could possibly bring to the table now that I’ve surrendered my off the grid status.

The response came to me this past Sunday en route to the summit of one of New Hampshire’s 4,000-footers. It was a particularly steep section of trail; the kind that reduces me to a series of footfalls and labored breaths. For a moment the obsessively goal-oriented cogs in my brain ceased their spinning in a sort of forced meditation. I was a left, then a right. An in, then an out. I was heat. And salt. And wet.

And I was awake. I was again the woman in a small, off the grid cabin. The introduction of convenience had not erased her. But it had made it harder to listen.

Here she was, not at the trailhead nor the summit of the mountain, but somewhere along the meandering trail that bridges the two. Here, in the quiet space between departure and arrival where I am nothing but a set of feet rising from and falling to the earth.

And she reminded me on Sunday that we are all wanderers along the trail. We build ourselves up with sturdy boots and reassuring maps, but at our center we are a teetering balance between lost and found. As I crept up the side of that mountain, this acknowledgment of my own precariousness filled me with certainty. It was the familiar wave of abundance and gratitude that swept over me in the cabin as I read by the light of candles or showered from a hose. It is the space of being without. The emptiness, that if we resist or exhaust the impulse to fill, will move us closer to ourselves and connect us more intimately with each other.

She is what I hope to share with you. The voice that I hear in these still places. Perhaps from the side of a trail, in the dip of a paddle, or from the turning of a ski as it floats down through a mountain of white. Maybe on occasion we’ll hear from her in the cabin, on evenings when the lights are switched off and the candles lit.

Those who enjoy being with her as much as I do may continue to tune in to this journey, though I give no guarantee or endorsement of where it will lead. For others more interested in the technical side of outdoor adventuring, I’ve begun writing gear reviews for a website called Trailspace. I may occasionally post those reviews here in an effort to balance my cerebral and philosophical minds (you can see examples of past reviews by clicking this link to my Trailspace Profile).

Here’s to making space for listening. And for holding hands through yet another leap of faith.

Fishing

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Jim has developed a new habit of fly fishing in our front yard. Knee deep in the spring snow that still blankets our little corner of earth, he casts his line out across the field of slowly melting white. Rolling arcs thread their way from rod to sky, the thin song of their back and forth, back and forth, transforming our home into a tibetan singing bowl. Our dogs bound circles around him, inserting themselves into this confusing game of fetch.

Our mountain holds many things, but not fish. Aside from a few murky pools where springs have managed to eek their way between cracks in granite ledge, all that is liquid melts to the valley of streams and rivers below. But still Jim casts his line.

It is spring in New England; we are fisherman without a pond. The promise of above-freezing temperatures and lengthening daylight call us out of our dark, slumbering caves. But heaps of unmelted snow maintain the chill in the air. Spots of emerging earth form melting pots of ice and mud, which suck my boots into the slop and, as I wrestle myself free, thrust me across skims of frozen puddles, threatening to crash me into the muck from which I was just released. It is April, and she has at once filled me with equal parts hope and despair.

I sit on the deck and pretend I can see through the white mask into the green sprouting up from below. I shake packets of seeds and allow the maraca-like sound to carry me into our future garden, a world of vining snap peas, blushing tomatoes, and carrot tops announcing their offerings that grow beneath a cloak of warm earth. I dream myself into the version of spring that speaks in crocuses and daffodils and smells alive. And when I realize that my monkey mind has wandered from the present into the future, just this once, I do not call it home. I cast it, like Jim’s line, into the warm months ahead that are speckled with new promise and the comforting echo of perennial traditions. From my precarious perch on this land of freeze and thaw, I set my intention for warmth and light. I look to Jim with his boots in the snow, knowing his place while trusting that in time there will be water, and perhaps even a fish to dance on his line, and I am reminded to open to all that I hope for but cannot yet see, and to trust that it is on its way.

Peaks and Valleys

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I moved to the mountains to connect with the experience of hiking, of discovering a path that is clear and marked and certain when my world begins to feel nebulous, and following it to the top. I didn’t realize my little home would also come with a gatekeeper. The sometimes snowy, sometimes sunny peaks mark my comings and goings like an immortal doorman. I feel their heavy eyes upon me as I speed out of the notch, usually late, on my way from the land of the familiar out into the great unknown. And when I return, whether I am invigorated by fresh energy or beat down and looking for a place to rest my head, I sense their welcome, the earth lifting up around me, swaddling me home.

The mountains. They witness my rising and my falling. This past weekend, Jim and I celebrated his birthday with an overnight ski trip to a little cabin perched on a familiar peak. With packs strapped to our backs and skis underfoot, we made our way out of the truck and onto the trail. We were carrying more weight than normal, and Jim- in an effort to fend off the cold- was especially gravitated by a bundle of seasoned firewood. The sun was shining, and welcome beads of perspiration formed against my skin in what felt like the first time since summer whispered her warm goodbyes eons ago.

Reaching the door of the cabin with hours of daylight to spare, Jim set to work building a fire in the small wood stove. Sun trickled in through the frosted windows. I channelled my reptilian self, stretching out on a wooden bench near the fire, willing my body to soak in the warmth in preparation for a winter night in the mountains. At sunset, the temperature in the cabin read 30 degrees fahrenheit. We melted snow, boiled water, and enjoyed warm meals. Eventually, we settled into our sleeping bags. Mine is rated for 20 degrees, Jim’s for 35. Knowing that our summer bags were the weak points on this trip (I’m more of a warm-weather backpacker), we smothered ourselves in wool base layers and down jackets. As I settled into my cocoon for the night (at the late hour of 8pm), I was aware of the chill in the air, but also the relative comfort of my body from within my insulated shell.

At 10pm I awoke in a full-body shiver, as if my chattering teeth were rippling their vibrations through each bone of my skeleton. For half an hour I willed the movements to warm me. And then reason convulsed its way through (in the form of Jim announcing that the temperature in the cabin had dropped to 20 degrees even with the wood stove running, and we would not have enough firewood to keep it burning all night). Our grand idea of wintering in the mountains for the night crumbled. And so, with our tails between our legs and our headlamps stretched around our hats, we gathered our belongings back into our packs, and surrendered ourselves into the night.

Our shame was temporarily mitigated by the thrill of a spontaneous full moon ski tour down an icy yet overall skiable trail. What portions of my consciousness were not dedicated to the ski became wholly occupied by the fear of encountering a mountain lion in my path (Jim recently joked that they are known to attack small women, such as myself, and my amygdala tells me they would be much more likely to do so when startled by a rogue backcountry skier in the night).

Despite my concern, we made it out alive. Tossing our belongings and ourselves into the pickup, we crept out of the parking lot and down the road in silence, not wanting to call the night’s attention to our failure. I was tired and, despite the hot air blasting from the truck’s heater through my layers of down and wool, I was cold.

As we wound our way toward home, my eyelids drooping with exhaustion and disappointment, the mountains swooped in around us. I realized then that I’d half expected them to turn us away. We had failed, hadn’t we?

Looking up from the foot of the notch toward their great cliffs illuminated in moonlight, it occurred to me that my job in the mountains is not to accomplish, not to summit, not to be great. It is to be small. To listen to, rather than compete with, these forces that are exponentially larger than I. At the end of my day it is humility, not achievement, that returns me to my little cabin in the woods. I am still learning to listen. And as I am released and received, nothing more than a whisper of breath against the cheek of a great rock face, I am coming to know surrender not as a marking of failure, but as a guide helping me to find my place; it is the voice of the mountain, the gatekeeper, calling me home.

 

the Cat came Back

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My mother loves to tell the story of her childhood cat, Patience, who, after going missing for something like a year, reappeared at the door of the family home demanding to be let in. According to Mom, Patience marched directly to the former location of her food dish, and promptly protested when she discovered there was no longer any cat food to be found.

I am that cat. In the past three months I’ve tried journaling and failed, dappled in poetry just enough to realize that I’m no Dr. Seuss (who, according to Wikipedia, celebrated- from the great beyond- his 111th birthday yesterday), and even experimented with a period of abstinence from writing under the false assumption that I could learn to live in the moment if I spent less time on the page. So, now, just as you were getting used to the idea of being able to sit down on the couch without coating your derriere in freshly shed fur, of never again sharing your bathroom  oasis with a litter box, and of learning to walk outside without the risk of being greeted by a headless rodent on the doormat, here I am.

What do Patience and I have in common? The answer is certainly not in the name. Patience, as a trait, has never been my strong suit. The cat, in contrast, was purportedly known to crouch behind bedskirts for hours awaiting the opportunity to leap out and latch onto the ankle of an unsuspecting passer by. What connects us, rather, is our parallel expectation of reward without the obligation of effort. We both somehow expect there to be food in a dish we last frequented more than a year prior.

I want to be bendy and spiritually grounded without the hassle of a daily yoga practice. I expect a recipe to taste amazing on the first try, even after I’ve omitted a key ingredient. And I can’t seem to understand why I must read an entire book before claiming mastery of a given topic.

Here’s the thing. I’m not lazy. I’m terrified. Of putting myself out there. Of working at something day in and day out with no guarantee. I was recently listening to an interview with Eunice Schroeder regarding the ancient practice of walking a labyrinth, and she spoke about the concept of treating each bend in the road not as a dead end but rather as a necessary turn in an ultimately beautiful and complex path. I’ve never been good at turns. I’m more of a let’s ride this train until I reach the end of the line and then jump off and find a new track kind of traveler.

I’m afraid that if I were to zoom out now, my path would be a series of straightaways, haphazardly blazed splinters with no overlapping cohesion. So, here I am. A cat returning to a previously abandoned doorstep, clawing my nails into the wood and hoping that eventually the door will swing open again. Either way, I intend to keep showing up.

Anniversary

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One year ago Jim and I arrived home after a Thanksgiving weekend away. One year ago, the inside of our little cabin was below freezing, colder than it was out in the snow. Our water bucket had turned to ice! Jim made a fire and I relocated our bed to the living room futon, which, with its close proximity to our wood stove, would be warm long before the heat climbed its way up the ladder to our usual sleeping spot. The idea of writing about our adventure was born from that night, as we lay cocooned in down sleeping bags, watching our breath dissolve into the night air. 

On Sunday, we returned home to a cabin whose electric heaters had maintained an indoor temperature of sixty degrees. There were new bamboo floors underfoot, a bathroom with a toilet, sink, and shower, and a kitchen with a refrigerator, sink, and dishwasher. We still use our trusty attic ladder to climb up to our bedroom, but it will soon be replaced by a steep custom stairway, designed by my father and crafted by my brother. Plywood serves as a temporary countertop, but a shiny new one is on its way. Our gas range, washer, and dryer represent our current living room furniture, but they will soon find their respective places. We have light, heat, and water. All else remaining to be done is bonus material.

Time has changed our little home in so many ways it is hardly recognizable. And yet today I feel the same as I did one year ago; I’m standing at the beginning of something new and wondering how the journey will unfold. I’m a few steps past the trailhead on my way to an unexplored summit. I’ve cracked the cover of a new book, and even if I put it down now, the crease of the spine will hold my imprint.

But as our boots leave their shape along the trail, as a folded spine reveals our presence, we are also marked by our travels. We meet each new beginning wearing the impressions that have been left by those before it. Actions, equal and opposite.

Today, I realize that while my attention has been consumed by renovation, the cabin has marked me. It’s like every game of chess I’ve ever played. Here I sit, so intent upon my acquisitions that I neglect my own defenses, and…check mate.

Turning inward to examine how I have been marked by this little cabin, I see that I do not glean with shiny new floors, nor do I radiate with electric warmth and light. There are parenthetical lines surrounding my smile that I don’t remember seeing at this time last year. Still, if I’m to develop wrinkles, I suppose it’s not bad to begin with etchings of laughter and joy. Most of me agrees with this assessment. Most of me. But there is also a more visceral change. It feels like a downward current.

I used to feel flighty, like I would be carried away if the wind blew too strong as it wound its way around our mountain. This part of me is not gone, but it’s as if she sits with a counterweight in her lap. A gentle drawing down of the cerebral into the experience of embodiment.

Do you remember what you first wanted to be when you grew up? So often, we begin with the desire to be great, to change the very rotation of the world. We want to end war, cure disease, or launch ourselves into space. I aspired to be a great writer, then, years later, an olympic runner.

Over time, reality bullied me into submission. My dreams became less lofty. But I still want to be great in my own way. I want this world to remember me, for there to be some impression of my presence. And so, I have reached out in an effort to grasp hold of the spectacular. I have drawn myself up, climbed as high as my feet will allow, to connect with something higher than myself.

As I examine the mark the cabin has made upon me, as I move into the downward current, I realize that I had been turning in only one direction. How many times had I begrudgingly stepped outside in the past year to do something completely mundane and been met with greatness? The sky, ablaze with the setting sun. Fireflies, inviting me into their dance.

I had been seeking greatness by reaching out and lifting up, to the exclusion of turning in and drawing down. There is a feeling of greatness in my life today. But it reveals itself through the simplistic. The sensation of breath as I gather wood in from the cold, the embrace of warm water cascading over my skin as I rinse dishes clean, and the sensation of hands joined with hands as I sit with my family, eyes drawn closed, welcoming a Thanksgiving feast. I feel overwhelming greatness in the privilege of being able to cook the meals I enjoy, and at the prospect of once again having a garden in the spring, where I will reach down into the earth, and allow the dirt to stain my palms.

Perhaps I needed to trudge into a home where the temperature had dropped below freezing in order to feel the air against my skin. To watch my breath steam from my mouth before learning to be with it. To be forced to turn in one direction in order to bring balance to a well-established habit. I have been a slow learner, and am glad this cabin is a patient teacher.

The end of this saga is drawing closed, and the beginnings of a new path are emerging. Who knows if I will write, or if I do, if you will read it. Perhaps your eyes will draw you elsewhere, into new stories, cracking open the contents of fresh tales. But the cabin must have her word now, before you turn from the page. Of all the imprints you blaze in this great world, let the greatest be the mark you allow made upon yourself. Receive your journeys, and let their impressions shape those you leave along the trail as it guides you home.

Thanksgiving

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As a child I really hated Thanksgiving. A product of two crunchy liberals who came of age during the 70’s, I adopted a vegetarian diet from a young age, and, while I was well versed in environmental and social responsibility, matters of societal and cultural values tended to be overlooked. Consequently, the primary staples of the Thanksgiving holiday had little appeal to me; I was as interested in feasting upon turkey meat as I was in the practice of watching my heaping plate of side dishes grow cold as I entertained the long-winded proclamations of thanks offered forth by each of my adult relatives. I could not comprehend the practice, which required me to squeeze around a chronically overcrowded table to suffer a seemingly endless bestowing of grace before being permitted to indulge in a dinner that on all other occasions was provided to me in the absence of such conditions.

I see your heads shaking with disgrace, your fingers wagging shame. But really, knowing the surrender that is demanded of us over the course of a lifetime, is there any other way than to begin from a stance of absolute egotistical self-interest? (Borrowing this philosophical bend from author, Stephen King, I must admit credit where it is due.) While your heads may shake and your fingers may wag, as I look back upon this unabashedly narcissistic child version of myself, I feel more jealous yearning than shame.

Since that time, Thanksgiving has moved up on my list of preferred holidays with each of my accumulated journeys around the sun. It demands less of me than any other day of celebration. (The self-interested child lives on!) And, as my values shift with the spinning rotation of time, they have become increasingly aligned with this day of thanks.

Jim and I have a lot to be thankful for this year. We are grateful for deepening connections with friends, family, and our pups, for health enough to continue our mountain adventures, and (on many more days than not) for each other. But this year, above and beyond all else, we are thankful for WATER! The gift of indoor plumbing was bestowed upon us in completion this week by the hands of a patient and diligent plumber (who has been shockingly tolerant of our unique cabin-specific plumbing requests). We are equally grateful for the removal of the portable toilet, which has marked the entry to our driveway for the past 16 months! How will we now direct visitors to our home in the absence of this beacon???

While water represents the most recent gift bestowed upon us and our little cabin, it stands on the shoulders of giants. Carpenters, electricians, earthwork magicians, friends, family, and all others who have contributed to the transformation of our lives over the past year, you hold a special place in our hearts this season.

After arriving at Jim’s parents’ home late last night where we will celebrate this turkey day, Jim Sr. and Sue laughed along with Jim Jr. and I as we reminisced upon my reaction to entering their home of lights and indoor plumbing last year at this time. I’d been overjoyed by the switching on of a light. Shocked by the vast expanse of their standard size refrigerator. And nearly brought to my knees by the prospect of indoor plumbing and a warm shower.

When we return home at the end of the weekend, we will enter into a home ablaze with electric light and heat, where water (and hot water at that) is called forth in endless supply with the turning of a faucet. Our gratitude pulses through our little cabin like electric current. Awe pours in waves through the pipes that weave through our walls.

This past week, on the day the plumbing was completed, a rainbow emerged from the darkness of a storm to arc across our muddy yard. A bridging of water outdoors to in. I am appreciative of the small, persistent child inside me who innocently and egocentrically believes that this spectrum of light was born from the universe for her, as she marks the simple yet profound emergence of water in her home. And I am grateful for the bow that connects this child believer to the adult who, with muddy boots, gazes out upon the water and the light from a little cabin nestled in the woods.

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