I have to ask myself, who do I want to be when a gift arrives? Do I pause, do I give it honor, do I tell it thank you? Or do I treat it like something I don’t have time for? Do I behave like it’s a road-block, or do I appreciate the twist in the path? If two cats are sitting on the freezer, and I’m supposed to get out the chocolate chips, then what? Then I giggle, and step back to take a photo, and nuzzle both of their fluffy faces, and think to myself, ‘what a wonderful world.’
Last Friday, I strolled into Woods Hole Hostel. I had beautiful memories of this place from 10 years ago, and a bit of a woman-crush on it’s owner, Neville Harris. So when she walked up to me with an asking grin the next morning, I felt the ‘yes’ before I heard the question. “Would you be interested in a one week work-for-stay?” she said, with her arms holding themselves across her chest. She saw my eyes light up, and I laughed about impulse, and how I should think about it before jumping. She said, “Wow, good job. Teach me to do that.” And we agreed that I would walk on it. I hiked 13 miles that day and returned back to Woods Hole. I knew I was going to do it. It was the gift that I needed. The chance to pause and sink in a bit, while I was starting to get a bit competitive with….well, I’d say myself, but honestly, with no one. I was falling into something false, or imaginary, even. Miles, just because.
The day that I walked in, I abruptly stopped myself trail-side to write one paragraph. I was doing that thing I do, where I tell myself there’s no time and wish that things could be different. “What the hell are you talking about?” I said to myself out loud. “Sit down! Write!” And then I wrote this: There is a rushed, separateness that I’m creating. I would like to make more effort to pause and feel and be. I wasn’t sure where it was coming from, I just knew it was. Then came a garden and a smile and beautiful souls that wanted me to stay.
Then life happened. I opened up my heart again. There were tears and animal cuddles. There was laughter and fresh lettuce. There was music. I remembered the truth under it all. Here we are, being us, together, and that’s the good stuff. I met over 100 hikers, and had time to see them. I didn’t realize I had been poisoning myself with a thought pattern. On the trail, just days ago, I would try to avoid other hikers. To the extent of skipping a water source if there were people at it. As though spending time with them would knock me off of my cloud and my connection to the earth was something to be protective of. Here we all were, at Woods Hole, sharing it, with sing-alongs in the shower house, tooth-brushing parties, and even a family illness that ripped through us like wildfire and then made us appreciate our solidarity.
And my, my, my! How gorgeous it is to be alive. To do it with gladness for the nourishment. Gratitude circles, before each meal, brought so many gems on the faces of hikers in awe. Beautiful human beings walked in to stay with us. Like Mountain Sage, a veteran who struggles with Parkinson’s and shares his story with wisdom and humility, through tears. Nimblewill Nomad, the 82-year-old record-breaking hiker, knocked me out, when he was so grateful for the room that was donated to him, that he had to brace himself against the wall to stand upright, while his chest heaved and gratitude spilled out of his eyes. A mother, carrying her 8-month-old strapped to her chest, thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, overwhelmed me with her visible beauty, radiating like a spotlight in the dark. Neville taught me how to make bread and encouraged us to stay kind in the face of apathy. We felt like siblings, and cooked together singing along to Stevie Wonder tunes, all the while dancing the magic dance of a crowded kitchen. A place where food turns into a currency of love that can be passed around. Which is the only real kind.
I’m so grateful for Woods Hole, and Neville, and the beautiful people I was family with for one grounding week of my life. There’s a saying in the thru-hiking world; “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
Sure, this endeavor is physical. That’s the part we answer the most questions about. The mileage, the temperatures, the states, the stress injuries, the animal encounters…measurable details which most hikers were already reciting, on constant reel, in their heads anyway. Therefore, we can answer those questions readily. Now, I finally have the space and the time to really sit with my thoughts and I find words difficult. I hope to honor the unmeasurable.
I was walking along, minding my business, which happened to be hunger. It’s here. I was thinking about 10 years ago, as a hiker on the AT, and the kind of things I thought were delicious. I almost don’t want to admit it, but I was thinking about junk food. The kind that really didn’t appetize me at all a month ago, cherry pie, to be precise. You know the ones that come in a little paper box, 390 calories and acquired, generally, at a dollar store or gas station. “I could really go for one of those right about now” I said out loud. Then laughed at myself. “Welcome back, Kiddo.” Fair enough, I was on a hearty itinerary that day. 34 miles through the Roan Highlands. I knew I was somewhere in the teens and approaching lunchtime, which meant over 20 miles to go and the climb was just after this next road crossing. Well, one of the climbs, at least.
I caught sight of the road, and was debating whether I should hold out for lunch on top or stop to fuel up for the climb, when I noticed the white van waiting at the bottom. It had an AT license plate and some hiker friendly symbols on it’s side doors. I tried to cool my passions. As a vegan, I find I do a lot better if I accept that I’m un-feed-able (in life and on the trail) and then if there happens to be something I can eat, it’s a pleasant surprise. A man popped out of the driver door. “Hello. Got some trail magic for you.” He made his way to the back where I had just arrived. He swung open the back doors to reveal a hiker’s lounge. He had removed his back rows of seating and replaced them with a sideways futon. On the floor near the boot, where a cooler and a plastic bin full of snacks. And guess what…..cherry pie! “I have plant-based jerky left over from trail days, if you would like some. There’s cold beverages, just give it a good pull to get it open.”
I had to pinch myself before I could respond. “Wow,” came out weakly, “thank you. I’m a vegan, actually.”
“Well, there you go. Take as much as you want. And take a load off.” He patted the floor of the van. I obeyed, pack off, butt down. Then reached for an orange soda and that cherry pie, which was lovely, and vegan. This man was all kinds of magic, a trail legend, named Rob Bird. Known for his generosity far and wide. He had a hostel in Massachusetts for years, called the Birdcage. Where he charged every hiker no dollars and declared that he feels moved to pay it forward and hopes we continue the gesture. He’s also fostered 6 teenage boys in his lifetime. People like this give me more than hope, they give me peace and gratitude. Here is a link to a documentary about this amazing human. https://thetrek.co/appalachian-trail/watch-trail-angel-documentary-one-wing-fire/
“When you get to The Station, ask if there are any hiker-donation rooms available. Dave wouldn’t advertise it, but there are a lot of rooms already paid for by generous strangers. You just have to ask.” He smiled. He didn’t treat me like I was crazy or stupid to think I would make it there tonight, even though we were 21 trail-miles from it. He was right, too. When I arrived at 8pm, after a glorious walk through some vast highlands that reminded me of certain tunes about certain hills being alive, some nice people I will never know the names of bought me my stay. I wrote and played the guitar and ate fries, thinking about humanity.
The next day was the whole reason I was making crazy miles, Bob Peoples. One of my biggest regrets from my 2011 hike was not making time to meet this man. He has a bust in the AT Hall of Fame for his dedication to helping hikers. He has put in thousands of hours doing trail maintenance and leading groups of volunteer trail crew. His hostel, Kincora, is tucked into the woods, all but swallowed by plants and animals, and feels like home. He only charges 5 dollars, and you get whatever space is available. I got a hut out back. He drives hikers down the switchback mountain road to the grocery store every evening and insists on doing your laundry. The most special thing about Bob, is that he'll make you laugh. He sits with you on his patio like you're as family to him as anyone ever was.
As if that wouldn’t have been enough, a man I was told to look out for as trail royalty was there at Bob’s hostel, Nimblewill. Going for a record to be the oldest man, at age 82, to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail. Or maybe not even, I’m not sure how much the record means to him, he simply keeps walking. He speaks with tears in his eyes about the blessed life he’s lived and recalls funny moments with Bob over the decades. He’s quick-witted and kind. Making his acquaintance was both inspiring and comforting. You can see his hiking bio on his website, which is nimblewillnomad.com. I would list some of them, but it will hurt my wrists. He has more miles than anyone I’ve heard of.
There’s so much love out here on the Appalachian Trail. I’m in Damascus, VA for my 7th zero day. Last time I hiked this trial, I took 9 days off for the whole summer. Now, it’s been a month, and I’m already at 7. I’m glad. Also, I’ve gained a pound. That feels like winning. But none of that matters. What matters is that we’re all here, being together, while we’ve got the chance. Long May We Walk!
The animal I am now is something else. My wild is wilder. My free is freer. My happy is all but offensive. My favorite song writer says, “If you’re not getting happier when you get older, than you’re f@&*ing up.”
I feel strong and adapted. I feel ready, in so many ways. Or more so, shaped for this. I’m getting to a higher skill level, as this turns out to be my life’s work. I’ve been walking.
I’m not talking about my body, either. I mean my tolerance and the power that my brain has to process things. Cold…yes. Rain…yes. Mud…yes. What else is there? When I set out in the morning to walk certain miles, I set out with hope. Maybe that’s the back side of doubt; heads hope, tails doubt. But I don’t toss the coin anymore. I hold it up to my heart like a compass, heads up. I choose hope. That’s my red Fred in the shed. That’s the animal I’m committed to being.
Last Monday, I was having lunch with a friend in Hot Springs. Hikers across the patio said, “Hey Kiddo, is it true that you’re going to be in Erwin by Wednesday? We’re planning on doing that in a week.” They laughed.
“In theory.” I laughed back. “Yet, you may have noticed that it’s one pm and I’m still not walking toward Erwin.” I looked in the direction of the French Broad River. 69 miles by 4pm, the day after tomorrow. I nodded. “Yeah, I’ll make it.”
I was there by 1:30pm on Wednesday and Tuesday was an effort, I’m not saying otherwise, but it worked out. The key is believing. I finally understand that.
It’s not circumstances. It’s not money, time, age, gear…it’s my brain. You always were the only thing in your way.
Here we are. Lunch. On a Sunday afternoon. I picked a spot next to two headstones. Two dead people. Why? Because I’m like that. I thought that would be the right kind of company and I wanted to process some things that are. They are a couple, I’m pretty sure. George and Eva Gragg. She died on November 3, 1940 but her headstone says, ‘absent, not dead’ which is why I knew I could talk to her.
I don’t mean to be intense, but I know I put that out there. My German blood, my convicted tone, my desire to be alone. I could see how people on this same journey could perceive me to be a certain kind of asshole. I want my space. I want to camp alone and walk alone. Yet, it’s not because of a negative response to togetherness. I believe in community, I know that we need each other, and I came here to celebrate the animal that I am.
Yesterday evening I came to a lovely picnic table full of sweet people dining together, in front of a shelter. It was 6pm. “Just in time for dinner” a familiar hiker on the corner of the bench said. I ate my Luna bar standing at the head of the table in solidarity, but I told them I was moving on. Sometimes, it feels like choosing to be alone can land like rejection on listening ears. That’s not what I mean, but it’s also not mine. I’m not responsible for how anyone else feels, and I’ve come too far not to be myself. I do have some sharp edges and I don’t want to hurt anyone with them, but I have soft ones, too. And I’m doing the best I can.
Just around the bend, after saying goodbye to that group of hikers, I found a woman on the ground. Her pack was below her, splayed on a steep angle, with gear scattered. She had her shoes off and a smile on, glancing back at me over her shoulder with her feet on her pack.
I’ve been trained for this. I heard my teachers voice “Don’t just do something, stand there” and I recited that in my head to access the head space. “Hi” I said, in the calm tone I’ve learned from wilderness emergency medicine. “Are you ok?”
“I’m fine.” She was chipper, if anything, “I’m just waiting for the pain meds to kick in and then I’ll walk on.” She told me the story of the ankle injury, well, me, and the man behind me, who came to her almost immediately after I did. He knew how to offer up the same kind of support. I don’t think I’ll ever see him again, but we made a good care provider team.
I tested her sensory and motion in her injured ankle, he asked smart questions, and we both offered care. Care actually. Where we listen and we comfort and we ignore her refusal for the help she could use. I got her up on the trail, and put all of her things together next to her. We practice-walked a bit and she could do it, it had only been 15 minutes since she popped 4 ibuprofen.
Now, while dining with the dead (or absent, rather), there are two things that stuck with me. My shift is the first one. I do want myself, I do protect my journey of much-needed time alone, but I am deeply glad to give people what I’ve got when it’s needed. Perhaps there is this hard-working jerk in me, that’s proud to be lonely, and maybe I run with that a bit excessively. It’s good to see that I can access true patients and care when the situation calls for it.
The second thing that stuck with me, is how underserving we can convince ourselves that we are. That woman insisted that she needed to walk herself out of there, on her own. I saw that she could, and gave in because I wasn’t going to insist a fourth time, but still, the next day, I’m processing some gravity. If I could do it over, I would look that woman deep in the eyes and say, “You’re worth it.” That might have made the difference.
Sara-Tide and I are up to the same shenanigans as always. She came to give me road support and then I rushed along, true to form, to meet her at road crossings for a beer and a lot of laughs. We got to spend a night in Gatlinburg with Jessie, and a night singing by the campfire and making friends at Standing Bear Farm.
We met in Georgia on the A.T. 10 years ago, and ended up hiking together from just north of Erwin, TN all the way to central Maine. Our friendship means a lot to me. The bond between us was automatic then. It felt special to meet another young woman who wants to travel the world and walk across the country. 10 years later, it still feels special, to have a friend who’s crazy like me. We had a beer together at Clingman’s Dome (the highest point on the A.T.), then another the next day at Davenport Gap, then again the next day on top of Max Patch. We sat there and dreamed together about where we want our lives to go from here, much the same way we once walked this trail together.
I wish I could send a post card to my 10-year-ago self. I’d love to show her a picture of Sara-Tide and I on top of Max Patch, working on our secret hand shake and planning our future walk across Scotland together. Still in love with adventure, still not sure where the next walk of life is going to take us.
We had a group called Dumbledore’s Army back in 2011 and we dearly miss the other member, Stephen. I’ll get to see Stephen and meet his partner and dog up in Vermont and can’t wait. Being young and alive is a gift. Sticking together through the years is, even more so. Sara-Tide (Tide Walker is her trail name) and I will be hiking together again in the Shenandoah’s. No pressure Stephen, but the D.A. should reunite! Thanks for growing me a trail-beard:)
What I know about love, is that it exists in surprising forms. Perhaps nature is the easiest one for me to access. It feels like all I have to do is breathe, or step. Yet, it turns out to be the thing on your mind, or the thing in your pocket, or the memories that walk with you. Then it picks you up on the side of the road or swells with joy when your voice comes through the tiny slots in your phone. Of all the things I’ve gained from adventure, it’s this appreciation that means the most to me.
Yesterday, I was getting ready to walk back into the woods in a raging storm, on the south boundary of the Smokies. If you’re an A.T. lover, you might have a bone to pick with that. The Smokies are the highest point on trail and they are unique and beautiful. Its a place to take your time and to properly take in. My plan was to move quickly in the rain to catch my cousin who is half a day ahead and then meet Sara-Tide at Newfound Gap the next day for some classic Gatlinburg fun (mini-golf and tacky museums, if we should be so lucky). I had taken the previous day off, because I found a beautiful distraction in Franklin, NC. Jess was ready to slow down a bit, too. No hard feelings, we both like being alone and we have different paces.
I called my family in Franklin and talked a lot about how much I love hiking with my cousin and how rich it is, for the laughter. I missed her, and was second guessing my decision to go faster. I do like to move, and it feels like celebrating who I am and what I know how to do. Still, a good cousin is worth their weight in gold. The built-in friendship, the context of a shared upbringing, the wiring that is genetically similar…these are things you can’t build. I had already felt a new calling to slow my shit down while I’ve got Jessie’s company. That’s why I came here, afterall. And there I was, standing on the side of the trail in the pouring rain, with my back turned to woods, saying goodbye to a man in the classic, beautifully consuming way, when I heard, “Hello” in a familiar voice behind me.
“Jess!” I squealed. I was equal parts concerned and thrilled. “Are you ok?” She was smiling and walking, so there was that much, but she was more than ok. She was chipper and laughing at life, with stories of getting rocked in the woods the night before. Her sleeping pad had become a lifeboat in her tent, filled with water, and a branch had landed close to her head and put a whole in the rain fly. She spent hours of the night holding the walls of her tent out while the wind whipped it around violently. And here she was, smiling and sharing the song she wrote about it with us.
“Let’s get lunch.” Zen said. And the three of us walked back across Fontana Dam with a gait of giddiness. Jess and I were laughing so hard that we keeled over and I had to work hard on not peeing myself. We played our family game of shanghai last night and made a non-plan plan, which we will kick off today. This means that Sara-Tide can’t meet us in the Smokies, and that’s a bummer, but it means we’re going to walk slowly and together through some beautiful stuff.
It’s funny, the ways we change as we get older. It’s equally funny, the ways we stay the same. I’m getting exactly what I came here for.
So far, things are as beautiful as ever. I noticed right away how different it feels. Walking past other hikers with a look of hope in their eyes, I stopped to talk to them about it, about that feeling. I remember it well. 10 years ago, I was hopeful… now I’m home, and both are beautiful. Still, I wanted to talk about it. To tell people that they are walking to Maine, that they are thru-hikers. I remember feeling like I was bluffing before, and adding a “hopefully” to the end of the declaration, or “if I can.” I’m glad to be here to say, “You can, of course you can. We will.” Which doesn’t mean I don’t expect a derail-er, it means that I believe in us. This time it feels like I’m flying, like I’m some kind of critter who was made for this. Honestly, I believe we all are. We are born to walk and our hearts know it, just as well as our feet.
I’ve met some great people already. My cousin, Jess, is crushing it! We played a game of cat and mouse where she started 40 miles ahead of me. It took me five days to catch her, and a good effort on all five of them. There was a keep-moving-or-die day (one of my favorite games) in which I had to laugh at myself for inviting the Appalachian Mountains to remind me that they can be cold, no matter what I’m used to. I saw a rattlesnake, fled from a place where I heard ATVs in the middle of the night, had a girls’ night in Hiawase with two amazing women, Titanium and Anita, declared Trevor, the first friend I made under the arch at the very start, with his his two dogs, to be my best buddy out here on the second day, played guitar and sang at a hostel….basically, the AT is already showing me many of it’s colors in the first week. I’m honored to be here.
I am having a hard time keeping on top of writing. I will be bouncing a computer from town to town to try to be on it, but this time, it’s lost in transit. I think that might be the universe telling me to just be here, in Franklin, experiencing the people and the music and the birds. I will try to write more soon. But for now, I feel lucky and alive and appreciate the path. Thank you for walking with me.
This is a bit surreal. I’m in Dahlonega, Georgia reflecting on what’s about to start tomorrow. Ten years ago, I hugged Jesse goodbye and left him my car, then flew to my cousin in Atlanta. Yesterday, I did the same. This time, I feel like there’s no reason to look out the car window on the way to the trailhead and wonder about myself.
I know myself. I know this road. It’s a walking road, step by step. It’s nothing unusual, just strolling, eating, and meeting people in their natural habitat. It’s rocks and dirt and water, and my brain telling itself stories. It’s listening to the sounds of the critters and making eye contact with strangers across the table. Listening, because we’re here together, and it’s now or never. Either this, or something else.
And so what. So I’m walking from Georgia to Maine. I could be raising a toddler or traveling with a rock band. I could have never left New Zealand. It happens to be this. I am a person who wants life to look this way, instead of that. I’m honored to be here and touched to be so well received. I’m ready to celebrate being alive.
10 years ago, I couldn’t sleep. I was with my friend and my cousin at a hostel, anticipating something big, something I doubted myself about, something that maybe wasn’t mine. Today I realize it’s all of ours. Or, more honestly, it’s none of ours. That’s a good feeling, underneath it all. We’re borrowing everything we’ve got, anyway. I remember climbing out of my bunk bed around 10pm last time, to go type up my expectations before I started the hike. That became a tradition on the other journeys. This time, I’m going to take inventory of what’s different.
I am less excited to eat all the Poptarts I want without gaining weight
I actually paid attention to how much my pack weighs (Base weight 12 lbs!)
I know that I have it in me to make it all the way to Maine, I also know that my people will still love me, if I don’t make it past Springer
I’m hiking in a dress! I like dresses, and if I’m going to wear the same thing for 5 months, I don’t see why it shouldn’t be something I like to have on.
I understand that the trail is for now, and now is what matters. 5 months does not feel like a long time.
I have come to understand that all guilt is self-inflicted, so it’s not walking with me.
I will not rush. I have time. If I move fast, it will be because it feels good.
I’m here to travel, and plan to take side trips like Ashville and NYC.
I’m going to play every guitar I come across.
I look forward to learning about the forest from the locals, as I pass through.
I’m not here to prove anything, I’m here to celebrate everything.
Then there are a few things which are very much the same.
I’m still supported by incredible friends and family
I’m still grateful for my health and choices
I still live and die for Harry Potter
I still look at thru-hiking as mostly an opportunity for eating
I’m still my mama’s daughter
Sara-Tide is here to send me off tomorrow. My amazing cousin, Jessie, picked me up from the airport and will be meeting me out on the trial in a few days to hike together. We are being hosted by my friends’ incredibly generous parents tonight in Dahlonega, and already, the trail magic is showering me. In the spirit of spontaneity, I decided at dinner tonight that I’m going to start the trail off as a run on the approach trail tomorrow. What the heck? When I was a teenager, a mentor of mine was running a restaurant that I waitressed at. We were busy as all get out, and I was suppose to leave to go sing with my choir. I told him I could miss it and stay, since we were packed. He said sternly. “You listen to me, Shayla. When life gives you opportunities, you grab them with your teeth! Get out of here, and go sing.” To which I said thank you and asked if there was anything I could do before I ran out the door. He said, “Just one thing, show me your teeth.”
This can be thought of as the fun part. It’s my job to put on weight, or at least that’s how I see it, and that endeavor has paired nicely with my longing to spend quality time with people I love….over ice cream. There has been many a beer-and-peanut-butter-cup sharing and I’m feeling honored and blessed for the incredible people in my life. I’m getting sentimental, if you can’t tell, for I will miss them all.
On the lighter side, I took my pack weight to the chopping block. I made big and small changes.
Boreas Lost Coast 60L Pack 52oz
Gregory Octal 45L Pack 36oz
Mountain Hardware 15 Bag 35oz
Sierra Designs 20 Bag 29.7oz
Cabela’s 2-Person Tent 50.8oz
Mountain Laurel Designs Cricket 18.2oz
Arcteryx Rain Shell 9.9oz
OR Rain Shell 5.9oz
Kovea Camp Stove 4oz
Olicamp Stove 1.7oz
Platypus 3L Bladder 6oz
Smart Water Bottles (2 1-Liters) 2.4oz
Black Diamond Headlamp 4.2oz
Nitecore Headlamp 1.9oz
Hodgepodge of Tent Stakes 3.9oz
Big Agnes Titanium Tent Stakes 2.7oz
I made a few style changes here. Like giving up my palace. My 2-person tent set up has always been an enjoyable luxury for me, but I’m going to try something different this time. Imagine a thru-hike where I actually pay attention to weight.
Like going from this…..
To This!!!! Carried so casually by Wren, the 8-year-old hiking boss.
This time, I’m thinking about how every ounce is every step. For some reason, that hasn’t been all that much of a thought in my first four thru-hikes. Appalachia grants me a few graces that the Rocky Mountains do not, like frequent town stops and warm nights. Plus, I have the two greatest gear sponsors I know of; Mountain Laurel Designs (the stud-muffin of the East) and Big Agnes (the boss of the rugged west). If ever there was a time to experience a light hike, this is it. Which leads me to making decisions like not bringing camp shoes and hoping my bare feet are all I need at the end of the day. So here’s how it all added up……
The no-camp-shoes decision
Portioning out small containers of sunscreen and water treatment
Cutting 2 feet of excess length off of my sleeping bag liner
This change shaved off 2.2oz, thanks Trenton Harper for the suggestions
I am shaving off a grand total of 5lbs 13oz! Which is comparable to removing one elephant off your back in thru-hiking terms.
I’ve come a long way since the time another hiker tried to name me “3 Books” on the AT in 2011. To which I responded, “It’s two books and a play.” This will be a different experience, though a couple of things will be the same. Come hell or high water, I’m still not getting a smart phone. I’ll take one book to read, probably not three, and I couldn’t give up my cooking style. I love cooking in the woods. I carry produce and take long meal breaks. I’m a mountain eater, mostly. That is why it seemed appropriate to take the kids I nanny out to the woods for my last day with them. We went to our spot, the foxes den, for a tea break. As I laid back to appreciate what we’ve got, I said to them, “This is the stuff. If you ever wonder what I’m up to out there, it’s probably something like this. Sitting in a ditch, drinking coffee, feeling lucky.” In my best moments, I remind myself of Baloo the Bear.
Last year, at this time, I was watching the birds. Mostly from my porch, with my partner, and the Sibley Guide. I was entranced.
“Eric, Eric! Did you know that American avocets put their wing around their mate while they walk side-by-side?”
“That’s beautiful.” he smiled.
“Oh! And blue-gray gnatcatchers build nests with spider webbing woven in. To give it elasticity. So that as the chicks grow, the nest expands.” I looked up from the book and beamed, “How cool is that?!”
He had a very satisfied look in his eyes, for they were lovingly saying, “I told you so.” Eric has been a bird nerd for years. He had been careful not to push it on me. In fact, there were times we’d hike together in Glacier National Park, where I would all but physically kick my foot into his behind to keep us moving, after the fortieth time he gets out his binoculars. My method of appreciating nature had always been moving through it.
Here we were in quarantine, not moving at all. For both of us, that had presented as a potential challenge. We are both movers, that was part of our bond. Furthermore, we were looking up, to find ourselves suddenly moved in together. Not because our partnership called for it, but because COVID had. If he lived with his roommate, in his apartment, we’d be taking exposure risks and the family I lived with would be at risk as well. So, Eric moved into the straw bale cottage I call home.
It’s an intimate space, hand-built by my dear friends who have since moved to a beautiful three-bedroom house in front of the property, also hand-built. The cottage is a loft, 311 square feet, tucked back among Douglas firs and towering larch trees with thicket in between. The kind that gets stuck in your hair and rips a run in your long skirt if you’re foolish enough to be bushwhacking around wearing one, which I am.
There’s a charming path to the steps of a large porch, which makes it dreamy to come home to. It also has no running water and a wood stove as its heat source. This, for me, is what it’s all about. Having walked over 15,000 miles in wild places, I feel a need to connect with nature this way. To have to work a bit for my comfort and see the give-and-get in a tangible way. Gathering my water helps me remember that I need it, and that it’s not a given. When I use it, I regard it as the most precious thing we’ve got, or at least, I try to, as often as I think to. Chopping firewood helps me feel prepared for cold. I welcome the nippy air for its crispness, because of the crackle I’ll hear in my wood stove, and the heaviness of the wool blanket on my lap.
At that time in our history, April 2020, we were being asked to stay put. Two nomads, who refer to this time of year as mud season. I like mud, so I think I utter that phrase a little differently than most, because the subtext reads, ‘Season-of-this-sucks’ the way that some recreational enthusiasts emphasize it. This was a gift for the two of us, and we realized that immediately. For the first time ever, I watched Spring unfold in my home. This off-season, I wouldn’t be visiting my family in the Midwest or taking an epic road trip through desert rocks or Coastal Redwoods. This time, I was watching the stalks of false Solomon’s seal pop up and stretch their limbs. Clematis flowered around us, as though it was crawling along its vines to reach its lavender arms in our direction. Chickadees were building a secret life together in the cavity of an expired birch tree. Watching them gather each little seed and twig to bring inside, was our entertainment during dinner, on the porch. There was much to notice.
The family that I live with is especially inspiring. Travis and Jami appreciate nature. It’s obvious in the things they’ve built, but even more so, in the two wild boys they’ve raised. These boys are extraordinary. They climb and run and crawl and ski and swim and paddle and do it all, with contagious joy. Wren, the 7-year-old, was giving me advice on what plants in our yard we could make into a nice tea. Ira, the 9-year-old, can skate-ski faster than me and identify sharp-shinned hawks and limestone before I can. I come to tremendous gratitude, repeatedly, for the allegiance we share, with one another, and increasingly, with the dirt we live on.
My dirt. That’s an ache I’ve voiced often. It’s an ongoing quest, “Until I find my dirt,” I say, “I will be a rolling wheel. When I find it, I will know, and I will care for it, and it will care for me. And it shall be my dirt.” I’m getting there, but I still don’t fully understand what I mean by that. I am learning dirt, from the ground up. It started between my toes, but I’m up to my fingertips now. When I plant seeds, my hands know the dirt and my lips say, “I honor and I thank you” as I pat down the ground. I mean it, too, as much as I can, when I say thank you, it comes from my heart. Gardening was alive in me that Spring. Jami and I put in hours and hours on our knees. The boys drove toy tractors through us and then got to work. Taking on challenges like Cottonwood roots, a worthy voyage for a boy with a pick axe. Our commitment to the garden was life-giving and not for the literal reason. It was something real and purposeful and un-messy in our brains; grow food equals ‘yes’. While so much of what our brains where processing with the pandemic and the political climate was ‘what is this?’
Eric and I went to numerous bird-watching hot spots. He brought me that world. The world, which I’d been walking through and not noticing. We squealed, delighted, when we saw our first American redstart. A pair of them were bouncing around a cluster of deciduous trees by the Swan River. Their big tails reminded me of the piwakawaka, or fantail, in New Zealand, which was a very special part of my walk across that beautiful country in 2018. The Redstart is a playful and inquisitive bird, who sounds like a rusty wheel, falling off a cart, and flicks its tail around to catch gnats and mosquitos. One can appreciate their activity level, like a frantic spaz who lost their car keys, which I like to laugh at myself about. We heard the unique squawk of a sora, traipsing through the swamp, and though we never laid eyes on it, the sight of the tall grass rocking, revealing its winding path, was more than enough. I nearly caused a wreck when I noticed the bright blue bill of a ruddy duck along the highway at Ninepipe National Wildlife Refuge. We even saw an American avocet, no mate to put its arm around, but a gift of a sight, never-the-less.
One morning in May, I did the thing I pressure myself to do most mornings, which was to lace up my running shoes while I’m still waking up. That way, fifteen minutes later, I find myself coming to, in fascination, inspired by the morning light and the loud greenery around me. It worked, and after I experienced those feelings, I found myself gratefully returning to the gravel driveway. I glanced over at the orchard, which was lush with life and color. I’d come accustomed to admiring the spring green leaves and twisted gray bark with a blanket of yellow underneath, from the numerous dandelions.
‘But wait!’ I stopped in my tracks. ‘The blanket is green. Where did the dandelions go?’ They had been here yesterday afternoon, I had spent a yoga hour with them. The grass was not freshly cut. How could this be? I walked into the yard to investigate. The dandelions were still there, they had closed. One or two of them were beginning to open. I felt like a child who had just caught her mother hiding Easter eggs in the yard.
“They open and close with the sun.” Feeling amazed by my own ignorance. “How have I never noticed?” I threw my hands up and laughed.
For it’s truly extraordinary, what you can walk by without noticing.
I’m a thru-hiker. I walk by more than most and I’m heading out for a second go at the Appalachian Trail this Spring. Since my last walk, I’ve become a naturalist by trade; guiding hikes in Glacier National Park and teaching kids about ecosystems at the Grizzly Wolf Discovery Center. These callings have really opened my eyes to the wonder of the world that we live in. It feels powerful to be taking that with me, on this next journey.
I look forward to noticing the healthy forests when I’m in them, and understanding what a big deal that is. I look forward to recognizing a bird call or two. The first time I hiked the Appalachian Trail was in 2011, and I was in a hurry, it was my first thru-hike and proving to myself that I could do it, was consuming. I laugh at those concepts now. So what? There is always more, there is always faster, but if you don’t notice the beauty of what’s right in front of you, you’re going to miss out.
My spirit animal is the great gray owl. I’ve known that for a long time now, but what I’m learning more and more from her, is how to be stillness that moves. It starts with noticing.