This post is mostly for me, to remember what I wrote there on the trail, following the assignments and so I don't have to keep track of the wrinkled and dirty notebook pages on which I wrote them. I have to say, they are not my usual blog writing material; they are much darker and stylistically more "artsy-fartsy" as I like to call it. But still, they are what poured forth from my pen as I sat beside a high mountain trail and I want to keep them. Enjoy.
Thurs PM, late.
The earth, reassuringly solid, felt hard and chill under my back. I lay back, an anomaly in the circle of seated women, my aching spine crackling like the hungrily licking campfire. Above me the dark, silent sentinels kept watch over us, framing the open sky.
The tears began to flow. Although I could have checked the flow, I did not try but let them course silently, freely down my cheeks. Across the circle a woman spoke of grief, the pain in her voice my mirror. The realization dawned on me that this trip is about grief for all of us, me included. A grief and a letting go. An embracing and a release.
My grief fragmented tonight. Each tear meant something different but the thought at the forefront was my inability to see the stars. A few blurry points of light managed to pierce the darkeness that was closing in on me but hearing the others exclaim in wonder I knew the remembered depths I lacked.
Another tear fell.
I wrapped my arms tighter around myself, protectively.
Fri AM break.
Assignment: "I remember/I don't remember" Ponder a place or way of life that is out of reach of your own memory. How does walking/hiking change your thoughts? Use the details of walking in real time to plot a walk in memory time.
Ashamed (me): I remember crawling out of the swimming pool, dead last, gasping for breath at age ten.
Unashamed (earth): I remember when these trees stood mighty, tall and proud. Now they lay in unsightly piles, decaying.
Apologetic (me): My lungs close like a sponge filling with soapy water, tighter and tighter, a drawstring closing around my throat, hands reaching to strangle me.
Unapologetic (earth): The sun shines on the path, unchanging.
Self-conscious (me): One foot plods in front of the other, my spirit shrinking away from the years of torment, criticism and always being the last, the tail, no good, unable, weary, a weakling.
Unselfconscious (earth): My trees stand tall, raising arms high into the blue, rising, growing, praising, rejoicing.
Casting Off (me): Peeling off layers of worthlessness like the long-sleeved shirt I just threw on the ground. Underneath somewhere there is new growth. Where is it? I don't remember.
Receiving (earth): Walk on my back. Learn my lessons. You will find it. I remember.
Fri PM before dinner.
Dust. I think that will be my primary impression of the trail in memory for the coming years. Just the effort of putting one more footprint on the trail occupied my entire attention. On the occasion that I allowed myself to stop for a few minutes, panting, I would look up at the absolute grandeur around me, the towering mountains, their rock faces dotted with the eczema of trees, the still silent rocks to my left, watching, keeping their centuries-old tryst and the chattering stream, far away downhill to my right, hidden behind a screen of uneven landscape falling away in empty silence.
Wearily then I would turn back to the trail, my focus once again narrowed, my attention wrested from above me to rest once again on the next footprint I would make in the dust.
Thousands, millions maybe. Hundreds of footprints, one following the next in powdered dust on the narrow trail punctuated by rocks which swallowed the footprints and never gave up their secrets. Then one footprint happened to be at the top of a small hill. And we were there.
Fri PM before dinner.
Anticipation of the coming darkness fills me as I glance again at the sun, poised on the top of the western mountain, set to slip down the other side and leave our valley to the mercy of twilight. We sit in a meadow, tired bodies sprinkled around on the grass, surrounded and hemmed in by crowds of silent trees, their presence overlooked but never entirely forgotten. For a few moments still, the sky is that deep, unfathomable blue that only comes in August, its collection of cumulus clouds resting as if they were as tired as we.
A line of twilight advances across the flat meadow grass; now it is nearly to the brown horse standing at a distance, the sun still shimmering on its flanks as it complacently grazes, occasionally lifting its head to snuff the wind.
Hidden in a fold of the earth not five yards from where I sit, the stream trickles endlessly, ever changing, always the same. Hills surround our meadow, ringing it with beauty and the contrasting colors of evergreen and granite basalt bleached nearly white by the fast-sinking sun. The trees fringe the to in a ragged line, crossed here and there by gullies where storms have washed out a slashing scar of earth.
As I watch the line of shadow climb the eastern hill with an agility of which I can only dream, I am struck by the variation in shape and color, the rounded white rocks, laying in strewn confusion on the smooth green of alpine meadow grass, the landscape always filled with unidirectional darker lines of pine and fir, of hemlock and oak and aspen.
My eye is drawn around to the right where the mountain, scooped away by an ancient glacier still houses a trout-shaped snowfield, tucked against the side of the hill just behind a stand of trees that stand out in 3-D relief, near enough to become acquainted with me if the wandering brook did not interfere.
Debbie, sitting at the base of these trees is a mere spot of yellow; her shirt could be yet another rock-shape in my field of vision except for the warmth of its hue.
Inexorably, dimness spreads around our valley; it is impossible to see it move but when I glance up again from my paper it has traveled. A breeze stirs, lifting wisps of hair from my sweaty forehead and bringing with it the promise of chill with the coming night. The air smells like nothing and everything all at the same time. Sun-warmed meadow grasses still give off their agricultural perfume; my hand as I chew my pen smells of sweat and bug spray.
Sounds seem swallowed by the quiet valley: my companions cooking dinner, their voices discussing the niceties of garlic and vegetables seem distant and small in the still air. Laughter floats toward me on the evening breeze, shouts call back and forth from the huddle of brightly colored tents to the cluster of cooks. I lay back on ThermaRest softness, watching kaleidoscopic clouds, their bellies still coated liquid gold by the sun.
Sat PM after dinner
Assignment: In terms of natural environments, what do you find most challenging? Describe a time when you felt challenged in a natural environment. Write about your biggest fear.
Along the windy ridge, scrub trees grow, their tangled fingers of roots growing slowly down into the wedged cracks between the rocks, hanging on precariously, their branches twisted into fantastic shapes by the wind.
My eyes jerked open from sleep, roused by an insistent small voice calling my name. No, not my name, my title. My job description all hangs on that one word, the one that was being shrieked at top volume into the quiet house. I was tempted not to answer, to stay cocooned in my dark, quiet slumber and to pretend that small, loud voice did not exist.
The scrub trees anchor firmly into the top of the mountain, holding on by sheer force of will.
The sound of my walking stick, a dull atonal thud on the unyielding rock, echoed blankly in my mind. One more step. Now another. Ignore the pain. Ignore the tightness, squeezing again at my lungs. Think about something else. Another step.
"Mommy!" The cry was now a scream, angry and demanding. I had waited too long.
A storm hits the trees with full fury, shredding branches, ripping, rending; it is a snarling beast trying to tear those trees off the mountain.
The ache starts in my right shoulder blade, a flicker of pain, easily ignored. I shift my pack, trying to blow the flame out but it spreads, fire racing up and down my back. Another step. One more. Step again. Ignore the pain. Take another breath.
Bare feet on wooden stairs slap me awake. Instead of burying my body in the down quilt I have commanded it to rise, to walk, to head toward the voice of my daughter who is now joined in her insistent chorus by her baby brother who, wordless, lifts his own voice in an unbroken wail. Great. Now they both want me at the same time. They want cuddles and milk and clothes and food and toys all at once. My tired, still-groggy brain focuses on only one thing at a time. My son's bed is once again a damp swamp of smelly urine. I pick him up as my other child cries for milk.
Plodding. One more step. Why am I doing this to myself? Oh, yes. To conquer. To push beyond a boundary into the freedom beyond. to go one step past the point of falling and find that I am still standing.
The sun shines. The trees, wedged deeply into the rock, still stand.
That morning, like hundreds of mornings before it, I changed my son, taking time to cuddle and tickle him. I hurried to prepare milk, warmed to just the right temperature and give it to my daughter, her curly brown hair still tangled from sleep. I stayed with them through the day, through the mind-numbing hours of Sesame Street, one hour plodding after another. Why have I done this? Why have I chosen to relegate myself to this station when I could have a career? One more hour. One more slow day. A hundred more chores and little questions and demands. Why? Oh, yes. To push beyond myself into the freedom of total love. To stand strong. To conquer...myself.
Sun PM after dinner
Assignment: Describe the Swamp Lake environment. Interweave it with a memorable story told to you by one of your parents in the style of Terry Tempest Williams.
My mother used to tell me stories of her childhood, her memories of a happier time.
Swamp Lake shimmers, its surface drawing down the blue of the sky, not calm enough to reflect the faces of the mountains that hovered over it. Once in a while as I walked along its eastern shore, I glanced up from my path as its unruffled serenity but for the most part I felt distant. I never got acquainted with Swamp Lake.
When my mother was 13, she was given a horse by her doting father. For years she had begged him for a horse of her own, obsessed as most young girls are with the equine species. Mom chose a smallish mare, brown, with a white blaze. She named her Gypsy.
To me, Swamp Lake is not beautiful, housing as it does the arrhythmic edges of green marsh around its border like a dirty pan in my sink, half-full of yesterday's grease which collects around the rim in a scummy oblong.
My mom, with her pixie face, although unusually handicapped by her characteristic timidity, had a particular redeeming feature and that is her need to nurture, to take care of something. Just so did she nurture the young mare with which she made an acquaintance.
High on the hill I sat listening to the laughter of my consorts playing in the chilly lake, swimming, washing. To me, the lake seemed cold, uninviting. I did not join them.
When I was young my mother nurtured me but as I grew older she fell into poor health and no longer nurtured me. Except for one memorable weekend on my thirteenth birthday, my baby sister took what little energy she had.
Back to my mother at age thirteen. She adored her pet, visiting the horse-boarder daily, taking treats, going for rides along the railroad tracks, heading east along the narrow corridor of the Silver Valley, flanked on either side by the wooded mountains that had been her home forever. One day, Gypsy birthed a foal, a colt. My mother delighted in the new baby on its gangly legs.
Swamp Lake sits at the bottom of a mountain-bowl, cold, its surface rippled by the wind, its depths unseen, unknown. I did not know it. I stayed away, on the top of my hill, under my tree.
Boys would walk along the railroad tracks too, mean boys, the ones who would tease my timid mother, the ones who would reach behind her in Math class, giving her bra strap a painful snap. These boys walked along the railroad tracks and they saw Gypsy and her new foal in the pen. And they chased the foal until it died.
I sit up on my rock near Swamp Lake, not near enough to see it, only smell it, briny on the chilly breeze. I do not go down to it. Next day I hike out, enjoying my road, enjoying my view. The last time I see Swamp Lake it is from far above. It looks blue, a shining jewel, and from that height I cannot see the marsh-grass waving at its edges.
Mon AM break
Assignment: Intimacy with Nature. Focus on a natural object and describe it using only using concrete, specific language, not using metaphor or imagery. Do not tell us you felt intimate with it. Instead convey that through details.
Intimacy With Nature
The rock felt colder than I expected and it was farther away than my eyes had told me it was. I walked around the corner, my left hand planted on the rough granite. With it there, my body was perfectly balanced for a few precious, restful moments before I flung myself again into the upright space that hung precariously on the side of the mountain.
As others commented on the grandeur of the views, I found myself rejoicing in the smaller things, closer to me, the part of nature within my circle of vision, within reach of touch, within earshot. Rather than a hindrance, I found my slow, awkward gait at last a blessing, forcing me to think, to look, to smell, to feel.
The thing I noticed primarily as I walked with my eyes scanning only the trail was the rich soundscape all around me. The unceasing wind in the tops of the trees and the water over the rocks sounded loud in my ears but they still could not drown the more subtle sounds that passed by me in turn as I walked. My fingers brushed the branches of a spruce tree and just past it, a dead pine, tall and leaning, rubbed against the smooth wood of a live tree. Scolding, a squirrel chattered at me from an unseen perch high in a Douglas Fir.
As I walked, I breathed deeply of the cool air, scented with trees, both those flourishing and those rotting, the smell of the water, the mud of the trail. Once in a while the wildflowers when they happened to be in a patch of sunlight added a new, sweet scent to the air.
(unfinished, more added later)
So much for the sounds and smells that belonged, but I noticed just as strongly the out-of-place ones, the intrusion of my booted footfalls on dirt and rock, my walking stick thrust into the trail. All along the trail outlines of horse shoes in the dust and the smell of their dung showed their recent presence through the woods. My breathing sounded harsh and loud in my ears.