Morning Walk. On Turning 64.

I know, I look a little peculiar:

Leggings, sweatshirt, baseball cap-

            (That’s the acceptable part)

Headlamp, fanny pack, walking stick

            (that’s the peculiar part)

I’m not in the woods, after all,

I am finishing my morning walk in suburbia.

But I started out before the sun was up and so:

Headlamp to see.

Fanny pack to carry my water and phone

Walking stick to beat off goblins in the dark should they assail me.

Today I turn 64.

The 60s are a strange time for women.

It feels like the invisible decade- 

            between active professional 

            and

            kindly soft grandma.

I round the bend,

now in full daylight,

and see the girl.

She’s about 13 or 14,

standing at the end of her driveway waiting for the bus.

She has colt-like legs and big knees, all visible because on this chilly fall day she is wearing shorts. Short shorts.

Her long chestnut hair, brushed all shiny, falls in front of her face.

She looks down, her eyes trained on her phone.

Her thumbs are madly texting.

I don’t know if she sees me.

She’s very busy.

But she may be texting,

“The crazy lady from the neighborhood is walking by.”

I want to say,

“Young woman, lift your head.

Be strong.

There is a whole wonderful life ahead of you.”

There is great promise.

a triptych in Rs.

I.  Redeemed

Yesterday we returned to the Rocky Knob Trail

to try, try again.

Just 35 feet from where we turned left, last week-

      the left that led us down the hill and into the

       Mountain Laurel Wilderness… 

        a wilderness of self -doubt, dark forests and skinned knees…

Just 35 feet further from that early mistake, was the real trail…

…the trail with its own clear marker, orange blaze and numbered sign post just like the guide book had mentioned.

We enjoyed the Rocky Knob Trail yesterday,  

another lovely summer day with a cloudless blue sky.

We saw a long, black rat snake making his lazy way across the trail.

We recognized the steep descent and the pretty vista that we’d read about.

The boulder field was less impressive, covered with sixteen years of moss and understory    since its magnificence was first heralded in the guidebook’s pages.

We had a 4.3 mile “moderate” hike, just as we’d imagined, the week before.

When we got home, the “new” edition of the guidebook had been delivered by Amazon.

(This “new” one is only 6 years old.)

I tore into its pages, eager to read the updated copy for Trail #54,

ready for vindication with the mention of a first trail to the left that might deceive and lead one to the wilderness-  

  the wilderness of self-doubt, dark forests, and skinned knees.

But the “new” guidebook’s copy on Hike #54 was verbatim to its ancient forebear.

The font was only slightly smaller and the cover of the book, changed to blue.

II. Reluctance

Jesus in the garden with mums

I raked out the garden yesterday, my semi-annual encounter with the ghosts of our former homeowners-

naturalists,

  botanists,

  lovers of hosta, bishop’s weed, Solomon’s seal and columbine.

Apparently, they were also immune to poison ivy as it features prominently in the garden- by design or default, I’m not sure.

Twice a year I step among the big rocks- 

once in the spring to remove the detritus of winter,

and again, in the late summer to clear away the fading flowers as the yellow leaves begin to weave their fall carpet on the garden floor.

Curating a woodland garden takes restraint:

      not too much fussing,

      Nature gets her way in this design.

And so, it is with reluctance that I step inside,

place the few mums that I’ve purchased for jewel-tone pop of color,

and pat St. Francis on the head, wiping a spider’s web crown off his cement dome and the lichen from Jesus’ chin.

The next day I wonder at the turn of the seasons

as I gaze at my work

and scratch the poison ivy rash blooming on my arm.

III. Rant

green Thai curry with tofu and coconut rice

When you are a vegan and you are stuck in an airport for 24 hours 

(delays, cancellations, rebookings) 

you had better bring your own food.

You see, we want comfort food, too, when we are told that 

our plane is late,

or cancelled,

  and that we will not see our home,

 or cat,

 or loved one

  until a time much later than we had imagined.

Travel weary, we want to slide into a booth, order a spirit, 

and then select from a menu that just might have among its items something like a veggie wrap, 

or barbequed lentils with mashed potatoes and mushroom gravy,

or a hummus plate with pita bread and veggies. 

But America loves its meat, covered in cheese:

Cheeseburger.

Sausage and Egg Biscuit with Cheddar

Ribs and Cheesy Grits.

We don’t want the stale, flat tortilla chips and watery salsa that you offer, 

or to be told, “Sure, we can do the Brussels sprouts without bacon, but they’ll be fried in the same fat that the bacon’s been cooked in,” 

and we don’t want to eat flaccid French fries for dinner.

If I eat another vegan “bar” as a “meal replacement” I might die.

OK, I won’t die, but I’ll be sad.

Upon arriving home, 

I was never so happy to see my stove.

Not the Rocky Knob Trail

Last month when I was doing a few days on the AT, I reflected that while one always hopes for an “incident free” and “safe” hike, the best stories come from mishaps and mistakes encountered along the way.  In fact, “trail names” are often derived from when something goes wrong.  Earlier this spring I met a thru-hiker whose trail name was “Wrong Way.”  It doesn’t use up too much grey matter figuring out what happened to him along the way.  He was good humoured about it, recounting to me not one but several times that he had stepped back onto the trail after a lunch break, or a visit in town. or just a pee in the woods, only to head back down the path in the direction that he had just traveled.  Wrong Way.

Several years ago, now, when we arrived in Pennsylvania, we were given a number of gifts to welcome us to the Commonwealth.  One of them was a book titled 60 Hikes Within 60 Miles of Harrisburg (PA).  If you look it up, you will see that this is one in a series of books that details hikes and walks around major metropolitan areas.  It’s a brilliant concept and a great way for new residents to discover trails and parks in their area.  Spoiler alert:  the phrase “several years ago” should serve as a tip for where this blog entry is headed.  It is now 2022.  The book that we received was published in 2006.

It is a bad idea to hike from a guidebook that is 16 years old.

And to be fully transparent, we have had problems with other hikes in this book for reasons of its age:  a hike that we took on the 4th of July had us looking for “a piece of orange surveyor’s tape tied to a tree” as a trail marker.  Guess what? 16 years later that tape wasn’t there, and we ended up scrambling down a super steep rock field for about a half mile, crabbing our way down and across the mountain like two old goats with shaky knees.

Yesterday’s hike brought some unplanned fun that included a rock scramble, a water crossing, a descent into a sunless forest and, best of all, a long passage of bushwhacking uphill through a tight thicket of mountain laurel.  “Just keep climbing towards the sun,” I told myself, as I moved on all fours up and over and under and through wiry shrubs so dense that all but a tiny speck of blue sky was occluded by leaves and stalks and trunks.

Entr’acte:

In my years of hiking, I have been trained in the “Leave No Trace (LNT)” and the “Ten Essentials” principles.  The first, LNT, is about good stewardship of nature, respecting the environment, and leaving the natural world as pristine as possible for the next traveler. (learn more about LNT at  https://lnt.org/why/7-principles/ )  The Ten Essentials are geared towards hiker safety and making sure that one’s trip into the wilderness is as safe as can be.  It is focused on traveling with what you need to assist with what you may encounter.  The Ten Essentials include: Navigation device, Headlamp, Sun Protection, First Aid, Knife, Fire starter, Shelter, Extra Food, Extra Water, and Extra Clothes. https://www.rei.com/learn/expert-advice/ten-essentials.html   On our various outings, I usually carry the 10 Essentials. (I’ve learned a lot from “Jester” who has a podcast for Section Hikers titled, appropriately, “Jester, Section Hiker” and an Instagram page on “Hiker Safety.” I commend them both to you!) Sure, a five-mile hike in Central Pennsylvania in the middle of the day that never takes us more than 3 miles away from a road should not require a shelter or headlamp, but to be honest, on yesterday afternoon- and other times that I’ve been lost-  I was glad to know that if I had to spend the night in the woods, I was set.  Yesterday- full transparency- I was only carrying 6 of the 10 Essentials.  I did not have my headlamp, sun protection, fire starter or extra clothes.  I did have my smart phone and my GPS tracking device, first aid, a knife, an emergency blanket (shelter), snacks and plenty of water.  (Note to self:  put the missing items in my pack.)  What ended up saving us yesterday were our electronic devices and three apps: Google Maps, Strava, and Far Out. “Find my Car” also helped.

(End Entr’acte.)

So what happened?

After all this build up, it had better be good!  Bears!  Cliff hanging! A groundnest of bees! Wild boars!  

Nope. None of that.  

It was really just a case of missing landmarks, going off trail and needing to forge a path back to the car that had not been trod by other humans- ever.

The day was sunny and bright.  There was not a cloud in the sky. We had just arrived home after a week in California loving up our grandchildren, drinking wine, playing at the beach and wedding dress shopping with our youngest.  We sat in our house on this beautiful day, each of us with our eyes fixed on our computer screens, tallying up the number of emails that we’d received in our week away.   I don’t know whose idea it was, but we both came to the realization that we were still on vacation, and it was too nice outside to stay inside. And so, we ate a quick lunch, picked a hike from the aforementioned book (we’ve been working our way through the 60 hikes and have about 15 of them crossed off), and set off, later than we should have.  The trailhead was about 50 minutes from our home. The hike was a modest 4.5 miles and the book said that it was “moderate.” It was a loop trail that went down along the shoulder of a ridge into a holler to a reservoir, and then back up another way on a gentle ascent through a mature forest.  The guidebook entry started out by saying, “If you have any doubts about what mountain laurel looks like, this hike should alleviate those doubts forever.”  Check. I got to see plenty of mountain laurel up close and personal on this hike. (For those who are keeping track, this was hike # 54, “Rocky Knob,” somewhere near Caledonia Park in Michaux State Forest.)

looks pretty innocuous, doesn’t it?

The fact that it took us an additional 30 minutes to find the trail head should have been our first warning. The directions in the book named a road that we could not locate.  We drove up and down that very road twice looking for the alleged trail head giving up too soon both times, and only when Google Maps finally kicked in (no bars for most of the trip) were we able to see that we were, indeed, on the right road… it had just lost its sign.   We started off on this short hike at 3 PM, about an hour later than we probably should have.

As we studied the map later that night, at home, it appears that we zigged early, when we should have zagged.  None of the landmarks that the guidebook mentioned were evident, but the trail was so clear, and it was even marked with the same orange blazes that we had been told about.  And so we traveled downhill to the west when, apparently, we should have been traveling to the east- something that sounds so obvious and easy to figure out but… it wasn’t.

What we thought we were going to hike
What we actually hiked (a completely separate loop off to the west of the Rocky Knob trail)

Glenn’s expression sums it up.

This was one of those trips when we realized that we were lost when we were really lost. Really, really, lost.  Like down in a dark forest gully crossing a stream with just a hint of sun peeking through the ridge waaaaay up yonder and a thicket of mountain laurel and a near-vertical rock climb away from what might have even been close to getting us on the right path again towards civilization.  Did I say that there was mountain laurel?  Growing up in CT where mountain laurel is the state flower, our father scolded us any time that we would sit on the back steps and pick at the leaves of the flowering shrub that grew at our elbow, as we were disrespecting nature- and the state. (My father was a state senator and took his vocation seriously.). He would not have been pleased to see me stomping over, wriggling under, and roughly pushing back large boughs of the stuff yesterday as I scrambled towards the sun.

setting off up a power line trail trying to re-connect with the original trail

Devotees of the Appalachian Trail, we knew that we were not far from the simple one-lane, well-blazed, hard-to-get-lost-on-friend-of-a-trail, and so, as we emerged from the thicket of mountain laurel and found ourselves standing under a power line tower on top of a ridge, I called up my Far Out app which showed with its GPS beacon exactly where we were:  about a half mile from an AT shelter,  two miles from our car, and within a few yards of intersecting the AT which would bring us back to the intersection- where we started- on the Rocky Knob Trail.

See how there’s that nice power line trail in the distance? That was fine. See how there’s no trail in the foreground? That was not fine.

Yeah- no broken bones, no wild animal encounters, no new scrapes or scars to remind us of the 1st of September when we nearly hiked the Rocky Knob Trail, Hike #52.  This could be, in fact, with a tip of the hat to the Bard, “Much Ado About Nothing,” but, thank God for that.

If anything, this is a cautionary tale to go prepared for anything- even when you think it’s going to be a “moderate” hike up a “gentle ascent” on a gorgeous late summer afternoon.  And, it is also an urging that with the appropriate preparation, there is no reason not to go outside and explore God’s great creation.  There are some marvelous trees, insects, wildflowers and forest creatures to study. Even the mountain laurel is worth a close-up view.

Until next time, be safe!

The Old Goats.

PS I ordered a new revised edition of 60 Hikes within 60 Miles of Harrisburg this morning. It is from 2016. Here’s hoping.

PPS There are no pictures of the sunless forest because… that was a little panicky moment and I wasn’t into taking pictures, I was into getting out of there.

gift

There is a saying in the hiking community: “You pack your fears.”

I fear that I will not have enough water when I hike.

I fear that the springs will run dry.

I fear that my 5-inch water filter will jam up and not work.

This filter that stops 99.9999% of bacteria-

salmonella, cholera, E. coli

and 99.9999% of protozoa-

cryptosporidium, giardia

from passing through into my bottle… and my stomach.

A water filter is an essential tool on the trail.

And so-

I bring two.

One to use,

and one to calm my anxious mind.

Todd from North Carolina didn’t check his filter before leaving home.

Todd didn’t seem like an anxious guy.

He went on and on about his recent retirement from a career in software development as we squatted near the spring.

“You should do it- now,” he urged. “Retire. You have a life to live.”

I offered: “I have a job where I’ve made a plan, have a commitment, set a trajectory. I can’t retire now. I don’t want to retire now.”

Todd snickered and leaned over to fill his empty water bottle, full of clear mountain spring water. The water looked so good- clear and cold.

But Todd’s filter jammed.

he backwashed it- the remedy for jams.

nothing.

he shook it.

nothing.

he swore at it.

it was silent in return.

Todd was screwed.

I offered to Todd that I had an extra filter, up the hill, at my campsite.

I’d be happy to give it to him.

I had packed it for a moment such as this.

He said, “no.”

“No???”

“Nah, I’ll be ok.”

“Uh, no you won’t. Giardia will give you days of puking and diarrhea.”

I insisted on giving Todd my extra filter.

He took it, with great hesitation.

Later, he approached my tent and handed me a $20.00 bill.

“It was a gift, ” I said. “I’m happy for you to have it. “

He insisted.

I shoved the $20.00 in my first aid kit.

But it was a gift. Not a transaction. A gift.

How do you receive help from others?

psalms, rogues and rain

five days on the Appalachian Trail

August 2022

Note: the title of this blog and some references in its body have been changed since its first release on Aug. 19th. A friend wrote to enlighten me about the term “gypsy” (The original title of the blog post was “psalms, gypsies and rain,” ) and in her email she taught me that use of the word “gypsy” could be construed as a racial slur. I did some research and learned that “gypsy” is a slur used against people who originate in South Asia and who live a dispersed and itinerant lifestyle across Europe and North and South America. They speak a language called Romani that is related to Hindi. (Oxford dictionary). My friend also told me that the Roma people currently face discrimination as refugees from the Ukrainian conflict as they flee to places like Moldova.

I am grateful for the learning and apologize for any disrespect.

Note: this is long. Longer than I had intended.

This past week I’ve been on an AT (Appalachian Trail) adventure.  Since Covid came to us, I have not made my annual retreat at the monastery that I usually visit, but have instead, taken to the woods.  I love the AT. Its 2,194 miles offer plenty of space for contemplation, physical challenge, appreciation of the out-of-doors and opportunities to meet other pilgrims along the Way.  It is not specifically a spiritual route, like the Camino de Santiago or St. Cuthbert’s Way or the Inca Trail… but for me, just being out of my element and in God’s creation is inherently spiritual and opens plenty of opportunity for an encounter with the Divine.  This year’s retreat-hike offered some different notes.  Before I share some highlights, a couple of preliminary comments:

  • Yes, I travel alone.  No, it’s not as safe as it could be, but there are others on the trail who are also on their own and it is common to camp together at the end of a day of solo hiking. I carry a Garmin satellite communication device (with an SOS button that will call Search and Rescue if I need it) and a cell phone.  One tough lady from Utah that I met this time scoffed at my Garmin saying, “yeah, the SOS button only works if you are conscious to push it.” Thanks, lady. There are some “tricks” that women hikers, specifically, use to stay safe.  One, which I used this week, was to tell (when asked by a single man where I was headed that day,) “Oh, I’m not sure yet how far we are going today… I’m waiting for my husband and his buddy to catch up with me, I’m a bit ahead of them…” (Clearly, there was no “husband and his buddy” behind me, but no one except for me knew that.)
  • My “spiritual agenda” for this trip was to read through the psalms.  I brought a packet of the psalms and a pen and my reading glasses to read and journal my way through.  I had figured that a disciplined 30 psalms per day would get me through the whole psalter by the end of the trip… and… I didn’t get to the end. Spoiler alert:  I’ve read them all before, of course, and will enjoy continuing my project of reading, praying and journaling now that I am “off trail.”  It’s a good project.
  • The section of the trail that I covered this time was in Maryland.  Glenn and I drove to Harper’s Ferry, WV last Saturday night and spent the night at a motel.  In the morning I set off across the footbridge into MD, headed north, and he drove back to PA.  The MD section of the trail up to the PA border is just 40 miles. Doing it over 4 nights and 4.5 hiking days is leisurely, allowing plenty of time for reflection, hanging out in camp and enjoying the vistas along the way. Along with following some of the blue blazed trails to overlooks and water sources (the springs are always at least half a mile downhill from the shelters) I figure that I logged about 45-48 miles, total.
Potomac River crossing at Harper’s Ferry, WV
footbridge from WV to MD
  • On the AT (and other backpacking adventures) you carry everything that you need with you.  Everything.  This includes a “sleep system” (sleeping bag or down quilt and pad and tiny inflatable pillow), a “shelter system” (I have an ultralight one-“man” tent that is rain-tight and just big enough for me and my pack), a “cook system” (I carry a small propane fueled backpacking stove that is used only to heat water), and food (I drag along a heavy bear canister filled with all of the food that I will need for the entire trip. There are dehydrated vegan meals, snack bars, dried fruit, granola, Gatorade packets, and… instant coffee- yuk.)  Many people use the “bear bag” method of tossing a line up into a tree and suspending their food bag in mid-air at the end of the day, but I prefer to carry the big durable plastic container called a “bear vault”  because 1) I am too tired to go looking for a suitable bag-hanging spot at the end of the day 2) I have a bad line-tossing arm 3) I like the peace of mind that no bear (or racoon or skunk or groundhog or mouse or rat or …) is going to eat my food. Other supplies in my pack include a first aid kit, a map, a water filter, a rain cover for my pack, raincoat, a jack knife, and a toiletry kit with a small titanium spade for digging “cat holes.”  I pinned a small pewter pin of a pilgrim-traveler that I bought this summer at Canterbury Cathedral to the outside of my pack- to remind me that this was, indeed, a pilgrimage, a walk in search of/to/God.  There is something that I love about the efficiency of backpacking- carrying everything that you need and not one thing more- has its own spiritual lesson of independence and inter-dependence.
looks like my “first day at school pic”
slug, considering its breakfast options from my food canister

Some themes that were highlighted on my hike:

Loneliness

This was an important spiritual and yet, surprising aspect of my trip: the emerging of a pervading, deep, aching, empty loneliness that I experienced a couple of times on this trip.  It is surprising because I’ve felt this way before on other solo trips and thought that gaining experience in solo hiking would help me to overcome it, but… no.  Pulling into a designated stopping point at the end of the day, tired from a challenging rock climb or steep descent down a hillside of refrigerator-sized boulders, setting up camp and completing all of the camp chores (put up the tent, find and filter water, get out the stuff to make dinner)…there then descends a creeping and profound sense of hollowness, homesickness, and uncertainty that is alarming, exhausting and overwhelming.  I wish I understood the chemistry behind this. I’ve been studying the limbic system and how it responds to our emotions (the old flight-fight-freeze response) but this is something different.  It is a mixture of anxiety and exhaustion and a deep discomfort that I know could be alleviated easily by a short car ride home and dinner with my husband and a cuddle with our cats.  This loneliness has been the place of deepest spiritual growth for me, as I have had nothing other than God to turn to and say (“Be pleased, O Lord, to deliver me, O Lord, make haste to help me.” Ps. 40:14)   The psalms have a lot to say, actually, about those who feel alone and who are despairing… but I’ve never really felt that they applied to me- certainly not my upper-middle-class-white-privileged-bougie-hiking-girl-discomfort.  No, the psalms were written by those in exile, those under occupation, those in physical danger… who cried out to God for help and salvation. But sitting alone in a soggy tent at a camp site at dusk with rain (again) pelting down and fearful of being alone… suddenly the psalms- and God- seemed like a good thing to cling to.  I prayed that night for God to send another hiker to this desolate campsite so that I would not be alone all night… but that didn’t happen.  I had journeyed on to this site because it was an open field that offered a chance to sun-dry my tent (if the weather forecast changed) but the rain persisted.  The friend that I made on the night before stayed at a different shelter to sleep out of the rain, under a roof.  When she appeared the next morning, hiking up to me as I shook out my tent’s sodden rain fly, my heart leapt, and we decided to camp together at the end of the subsequent days.  The loneliness factor goes beyond the consideration of introversion/extroversion (I am an extrovert who prefers the company of others). It touches on themes of self-sufficiency, what I need to feel comfortable, and how I make room for God in the space of my days and relationships.  An extrovert whose boxes are ticked off by being with others, connecting with people, exchanging ideas and stories, can create a tight circle that fences out contemplation, self-awareness, and interaction with God.  A wet night in a tent with a tight stomach and a feeling of desolation turns out to have borne some spiritual fruit…?

lonely empty campsite with my tiny tent

primeval forest

Rogues, Guns, Danger

I am not naive enough to think that everyone out on trail is well-adjusted, harmless, wholesome, and benign. But when I ran into a AT Ridge Runner (a sort of “safety patrol” that offers help and advice to hikers) who cautioned me against staying at one shelter in particular, I was reminded of the dangers of the trail that come in the “two-footed” variety. (Many people fear snakes and bears and other wildlife when instead, it is the two-footed animal that poses the most significant threat.) The Ridge Runner looked at me and said, “Hiking alone is ok.  Camping alone in groups is smart.”  She went on to tell me about a “gypsy family” (her words- see the “note” at the beginning of the blog) that had taken up residence in one of the shelters just .2 miles off of a road. They had two little dogs and the man (there were a man and a woman, apparently) had waved a gun around at some hikers who thought that they might stay at that shelter.  In addition to this couple, there was a man wandering the woods in cutoff jeans and sneakers (no shirt) carrying two garbage bags and raving and ranting at hikers in different campsites.  He would circle tents and shout obscenities and mutter strange words.  This guy was apparently seen just a couple of nights before at the camp site where I had stayed alone overnight.  Ugh. He also approached a shelter early one morning and removed his pants and attempted to sexually assault a male hiker asleep in the loft.  These are real- and unfortunate- dangers of hiking the AT.    One woman that I met on my first night of hiking told me that she carried a gun.  When her husband urged her to take a whole box of bullets with her, she resisted saying, “Honey, if I need more than the 7 bullets I have with me in my gun, there’s going to be a problem.”  Carrying a gun on the AT is problematic, especially if you intend on thru-hiking the whole trail as pistol permits are not even available in all 14 states that the AT crosses. To have a gun opens the opportunity for it to be used against you, as well.   I considered the structure of our society that would drive people to set up housekeeping in a primitive shelter, and the despair of people in our culture with mental illness who need care and tending.

Remember the Trees

 After a couple of days of dodging rogues and re-arranging itineraries to avoid certain shelters and campsites and running through lots of disaster scenarios in my head, it did occur to me to Remember the Trees.  Pause on the trail and look up. Study the vistas.  Marvel in the mosses, the rocks, the wildflowers, the fog, the tiny creeping snail on a rock.  Julian of Norwich had her hazelnut (“And in this he [God] showed me a little thing, the quantity of a hazelnut, lying in the palm of my hand, as it seemed. And it was as round as any ball. I looked upon it with the eye of my understanding, and thought, ‘What may this be?’ And it was answered generally thus, ‘it is all that is made.’” from The Showings, Julian of Norwich) but I had a tiny, tiny snail/slug, no longer than a quarter inch, climbing slowly up a rock in the middle of the forest on a sunlit August morning… this slug – perfectly and wonderfully made, translucent, miniature- was just doing what slugs do. Perfectly, beautifully, without rushing, and in harmony with its surroundings.   Honestly, if you didn’t believe in God before, to have studied this teeny bit of biological wonder and invertebrate construction as it (he/she/they) made their way up that rock just might make a believer out of you.  I do marvel at the diversity and splendor of creation and, through that, of the Creator.    And so, I slowed down, forgot the gypsies, and enjoyed God’s beauty.  At one point I came upon a small deer who was busy eating some green shoots off a small sapling. The deer was blocking the trail and had no intention of giving up her breakfast so I could march on by. I clicked my hiking poles together and spoke a few encouraging words, but she was not interested in moving.  I didn’t know if she might charge at me or kick me if I passed (it was not in a spot where I could have walked easily off trail around her) and so I stood, and watched, and waited, and was reminded to send a prayer of thanksgiving for this beautiful animal.

field of ferns

tiny tiny slug doing what slugs do

Feral Living and its Commodities

I grew up as a “tomboy.”  That’s an outdated term in this age of gender fluidity, but to be a “tomboy” back in the day meant that I was a girl who liked doing “boy things” like fishing and catching frogs and snakes and building forts and playing in the woods.  I didn’t like dresses or dolls or ribbons and bows as a kid.  That seems so ridiculous, now.  As a mother of two daughters and grandmother of a little granddaughter, I am delighted that none of that matters anymore and that anyone can pursue whatever their heart desires, stigma-free (ideally). In any event, the “feral living” that backpacking delivers is not anywhere near out of my comfort zone.  Sleeping on the ground, drinking (filtered) water from a mountain spring, eating granola perched on a rock and wiping my mouth on my sleeve, sweating through my shirt and hat, and pulling three-day-stiff socks onto dirty feet for another day of hiking- it’s all cool. Fun, even. (Knowing that a shower awaits me at the end of the week at home is good, too.). And, as one makes one’s way in this feral lifestyle, there are particular commodities that are prized:  Sunshine.  Fresh running water. A level, rock-free campsite. A rain-tight-shelter.   It’s pretty simple what joy can be wrought from the relief of a smooth path after an hour of boulder-hopping, or how a white pvc pipe jutting out from a rock formation in the middle of a nowhere- hillside can mark a water source and bring relief to a parched thirst.  It is a wonder to have an arduous uphill turn suddenly into an easy downhill and to be rewarded with a cool breeze blowing across one’s face.  It is a simple and not very complicated life of elemental pleasures on the trail.

And the Hiking

The section of the AT in the Mid-Atlantic region is considered to be some of the easiest hiking that there is on the entire trail.  Having just completed several days of walking the backbone of Maryland’s South Mountain and traversing up and down rocky hillsides, I would say that it may be easy compared to hiking Mount Washington or the other “Presidentials” in New Hampshire or dragging up and over the Smokies or the Shenandoahs… but/and…it was hard enough for me in my un-conditioned state.  Pennsylvania is said to be “the place where boots go to die” and is nicknamed “Rocksylvania,” but I would offer that Maryland has its own share of rocks.  Big ones, small ones, medium sized ones, sharp ones. There are also green meadows, streams, fields of ferns, impressive old-growth forests, and pine needle strewn paths.  There are no climbs over 1,000 feet (that’s baby talk in mountaineering) and enough road crossings (at least one per day) that one never feels completely out in the back country.  There is a beauty in moving though this space that, for me, is at its holiest in the early morning when the sun has just come up over the ridge and slants through the forest illuminating the weaving of a spider’s web, a wet leaf on a tender sapling, the Kelly green moss on the forest floor.  It is sacred and soft and quiet.  It is in this space that I pray, “For God alone, my soul in silence waits, from God comes my salvation.” (Ps. 62:1) and “Oh God, you are my God, eagerly I seek you…therefore I have gazed upon you in your holy place, that I might behold your power and your glory.” (Ps. 63: 1a, 2)

a few rocks. there are many more.

#

two poems in process

I. old love

You came through the door from a walk in the woods,

right hand cupped in front of you, 

your eyes trained on its freight.

Gently, you spilled out five ruby red berries onto the counter where I was working.

“For you,” you said, and walked away.

II. childhood summer

Flashlight in one hand, coffee can in the other

We knelt in the wet grass at the bottom of the long, sloping yard,

             spread out like a line of soldiers ready to advance.

Scanning between the blades of grass we looked for the long, fat

            lengths of night crawlers, come above ground in the safety of the dark.

We made our way, up the hill, shushing each other, slapping mosquitos,

and dreaming of the fish that we’d eat for breakfast- if it all worked out.

There’s a trick to catching nightcrawlers: 

  a quick pounce that pins the worm to the ground

                        and then a pause, waiting for its tensed body to relax.

That is the moment to pull, ever so gently, 

extracting the fat worm from its hole in one piece.

Too slow to pounce, and the worm slips underground.

Too fierce a grab, and the worm becomes two wriggling pieces, 

too small for any fishhook.

By the time we get to the top of the hill

  our knees are grass stained,

  our legs covered with mosquito welts

  but the coffee can is full of

wet,

slimy,

wriggling worms

just ready for the morning’s fishhook 

on the dock

  at dawn.

catching up

nearing the six month mark of living a vegan life

and

why I sleep outside

“Keeping an Eye Out.”
Spotted in a Mechanicsburg back alley

I sat down yesterday with a stack of my “weekly sheets” to review the menus from almost six months of vegan living. Every week (when I am home and not traveling) I make up a menu on Monday morning, head to the store and generally spend most of the afternoon getting our meals in line for the week ahead. Because I work some evenings and, on nights when I am home don’t roll in until after 6:00, it is a help to have things in progress before it’s “hurry up and cook” time.

I was scanning my weekly sheets to look for some ideas of what to make over this holiday weekend. We’ve had some really great meals in the past six months- and some real duds, too. As I’ve noted in this blog before, some of the best vegan dishes, in my opinion, are ones that don’t try to be something that substitutes for something in the meat kingdom- ie: burgers, hotdogs, chicken nuggets. We’ve tried all of these and, even though I return to them as last-minute go tos (they are generally processed and the equivalent of vegan “fast food”), they aren’t my favs.

Some of the duds in the past six months, in case you are curious, have been momos -whole wheat steamed buns with cabbage filling- (the dough was rubbery and dense), rice balls stuffed with veggies and vegan cheese (too much rice, not enough filling), vegan potato “cheese sauce” (a gummy, gloppy mess) and vegan carrot cake with cashew frosting (the cake needed some sugar and the frosting was… slimy.)

Some of my favorite dishes in these past six months have been tacos (so many different ways to do these with vegan fillings including my favorite chopped mushroom-walnut mixture), Thai red and green vegetable curries, Asian inspired meals featuring tofu and lots of great steamed and stir fried veggies, Indian inspired meals like dal and mujadara and saag paneer made with a tofu-based paneer. I also love, love, love, tempeh and broccoli with soy over brown rice, and good old rice & beans in many variations. A recent not-good-for-you indulgence that I invented is a vegan “reuben:” tempeh that is skillet browned and then made into a grilled sandwich with sauerkraut, a vegan Russian dressing, and vegan cheese. So good.

It turns out that Oreos are vegan. And tater tots. And Oat milk makes a pretty good fake ice cream.

And so, it’s been great. Do I feel different? A couple of months ago when we were solidly into this new plant-based lifestyle and really eating well, I did feel good. Great, even. I lost about 15 pounds and felt “clean.” Since then, a host of travel and meetings have befallen me and I have been subject to hotel/conference facility vegan menus and I have eaten too many bagels with vegan cream cheese or peanut butter in my car while driving to the next thing. This has shown me that to be committed to an eating style that is not universal or convenient has to be intentional and well planned or, like everyone else, a host of bad habits and poor choices are easily picked up.

Finally, I have been touched by the parishes that have caught wind of my new plant-based way of life and I am moved by the coffee hours that now have vegetables and hummus and fruit. One parish went all out and created an all-vegan sit down brunch for me with homemade waffles and a tater tot casserole with plant-based sausage and cheese. Wow. Thank you. I am humbled by this and grateful and… I always am happy to carry a protein bar in my pocketbook for other times.

why I sleep outside

I am a fan of New Year’s resolutions.

Most years I end up returning to the same ones- read more, cook less so I throw away fewer leftovers, write more letters (a noble idea but I fail at this every year).

Last year- at the beginning of 2021- I vowed to camp out at least one night per month. I didn’t make it, but I got several trips in the log book. This year- 2022- I decided to try again. The idea of camping out in the wild was scaled back to just sleeping out-of-doors, even if it meant just pitching my tent in the backyard, and so it was “2022: Game On.” Jan. Feb. March. April, and, just last night: May. Done.

Here’s why I love it: there is a sense of peacefulness being enclosed in a snug shelter. I can “feel” the woods or forest or trees in the yard around me, and get a sense of being embraced by nature. In my tent, I can hear the slightest of sounds: squirrels making their way to bed, industrious bees finishing up their nectar gathering for the day, the snapping of twigs in the woods under the feet of… foxes… deer… opposum, ground hog. We have lots of wildlife in our back woods and even from the edge of the yard, I feel a part of it.

Last night I lay in my tent with the side panel of the rain fly rolled back so I could see up into the sky. The stars were bright. I watched for shooting stars and saw none, but would not call it a disappointment… rather, a study. Before the dawn, I rolled over and could sense the dampness of the dew that had gathered over the night. I stepped outside and ran in the house to press “brew” on the coffee pot (a benefit of back yard camping!) and then returned to my sleeping bag to listen to the dawn chorus. Wrens, sparrows, robins, finches. A woodpecker knocked on a hollow tree sounding a marimba morning anthem. A cow at the farm a mile over sounded a low moo. Two crows squawked a noisy message that was bratty sounding. The slight breeze offered a soft meditation. It was glorious.

back yard camping

I’m hoping that June will offer an adventure that will lead me into the woods and out of my backyard, but there’s more travel on the calendar and the visit of the Presiding Bishop, and a few other things. If I don’t get to the woods, I know that just off of our deck is a spot that offers me a quick overnight dose of peace and restoration.

Until next time…

be well.

close call

There is a sweet 3.75 mile loop around our neighborhood that I like to walk in the early mornings. It is not my only route, but it is a good length and on pleasant roads with some pretty views. This morning I walked it for the last time for a while.

Back Story

When I was about 3, my older brother Peter, 5, and I were playing in our neighbor’s yard. We lived in the caretaker’s cottage on a large estate in Rye, NY. The neighbor’s house was a few yards away from ours. It was a modern ranch style house and I think that one of the groundskeepers for the estate lived there with his family. I don’t remember the children in the family, but I do remember frequently sitting on their sunny cement stoop eating oreos and drinking milk that someone must have given to us. The house of the groundskeeper and our cottage were at the end of a long elm-lined road with a cul de sac. The estate had horses and farm land and a big plantation-style house at the top of the hill. I don’t know who lived there and legend has it that this farm was the original site planned for the United Nations… until it wasn’t.

My brother and I played in the haystacks and picked ripe tomatoes from the garden and climbed on the white fences that lined the property and defined the yards.

One day, as we were playing outside, one of the German Shepherds from the big house chased us, snarling and growling all the while. I remember struggling to climb up onto the lowest slat of the white fence to get away, and I remember my brother’s jeans caught between the teeth of the dog. That’s it. Since then- 60 years hence- I have been afraid of dogs.

This Morning

Moments after I took this pretty picture, I rounded the corner and came up on the rise of the hill at the one busy road on my path.

I was listening to the Morning Prayer broadcast from the Washington National Cathedral and thinking about my daughter Emma, who turns 35 today. I was listening to Dean Randy Hollerith go on about the Gospel of John and the lesson for today. I didn’t see the Great Dane until he was 12 feet from me.

I was across the road, on the edge of the cornfield. The Great Dane was in his front yard, barking, and then in the road, snarling, and then at my side. His owner- a young guy in a camo baseball cap and navy blue hoodie- was moving a little too slow for my comfort in his attempt to retrieve the dog. It’s a dangerous spot on the road. A blind hill. A dump truck screeched to a halt at the rise. The dog snapped at my leg and, just as I pulled a Tippi Hedren and shrieked, covering my face with my hands, the dog owner caught the collar of the dog and pulled him down.

Now, I know that Tippi was attacked by birds, and not by a dog… and that she had on a smart tailored suit with a short jacket and pencil skirt and that I looked like a vagrant with tie dyed leggings and a too-big sweatshirt… but in the moment that I shrieked, her image came to me. It was comical, really- Tippi Hedren, The Dean of the National Cathedral whispering in my ear about Jesus, and a giant mean dog, all back lit by a beautiful Central Pennsylvania sunrise.

I had one of those out of body experiences as I watched myself walk down the hill away from this scene. The dump truck driver put his truck back into gear, the dog was hauled off to his house, and I continued on my way. Only, my heart was beating out of my chest, my mouth was bone dry, and I was shaky.

It would have been nice if the guy had said something like, “I’m sorry.”

I missed the end of Dean Hollerith’s sermon.

I stuffed my ear buds in my pocket and headed home, thinking about why I am afraid of dogs.

#

The Day my Face Fell and the Buddha broke- but not in that order.

The Day my Face fell.

It was March 2, 2022.  If you know me and have been watching, you might give this event an earlier date, but first noticed that my face fell on the same day as the big hunks of ice on the side of the driveway slid down its ample incline, finally giving way from the warmth of the sun;  It was also the day after Ash Wednesday, so that might have had something to do with it, too.  Lent can do strange things to you.

My face falling, though, wasn’t completely surprising. It was inevitable.  I am 63 after all.  

I haven’t worn makeup in a couple of years.  I gave it up for the pandemic.  My eyelashes are thinning, my eyebrows are also sparse, and the deep lines above my upper lip that disclose years of smoking in my early adulthood have been around for a while. My hair has always been dark but now, what there is left of it, (also thinning) is more salt than pepper.  

But my face.  My cheeks. My neck. My eyes.  It all just – sagged.  And it seemed to happen on one day.

I’ve read female humorists on the subject- Erma Bombeck and Nora Ephron both come to mind, and they are hilarious. But when it happened to me, it wasn’t so funny.  

I felt like one day I looked ok, and the next, like the hag that waits outside of the Gingerbread House waiting to lure little Hansel and Gretel in for a look at the inside of her oven.

Wearing a mask for two years has either kept my face up, or it has hidden its truth from me. 

The masks are off, now (except for my trips to the grocery store- I’m not quite sure why) and it’s a little disconcerting. Does everyone see what I see?

Last night my husband took an adorable picture of my big tom cat Wobbles sitting on my lap. He shared it on Facebook.  (He’s in some special group for Episcopal Cat lovers. Yes, he is.) When I saw it all I could do was zoom in on my turkey neck and laugh lines and the jowls that hang over my shirt collar.  Good Lord.

My mother aged beautifully.  Tall, stick thin, hair always permed and combed out, neat nails, impeccable wardrobe, and a slick of lipstick. She looked great.  Her face fell, too, but only her cheeks.  There was a soft hollow on each side of her face that my children used to stroke as toddlers, sitting in her lap. They would make little plump fists and fit them right into the hollow of her cheeks.

There’s a war in Ukraine.  There’s a new variant of the virus.  I have 4 sermons to write for Holy Week.  I will get over this or forget it.

#

The Day the Buddha Broke.

One time, about 25 years ago, we went out for dinner at the local Chinese restaurant in Brunswick, Maine. We were visiting my mother, as we often did on school holidays, and a trip out for dinner with our three kids in tow- toddlers at the time- was a big excursion.  I remember some others, too, joining us.  My brothers?  Sister?

The restaurant had a buffet which we all eschewed.  This was before sneeze guards, and the place was packed. Vacationers in Vacationland.  We looked down on them, I think, which make no sense at all, since we also had traveled to Maine for vacation.  Did it make a difference that we were staying at my mother’s house, in her guest room with the twin beds and old wash basin and pitcher?  

After the chop suey and General Tso’s chicken and Moo Shu pork and Mai Tais, we made our way to the car. Cars.  Surely, we had more than one vehicle for our multiple children and extended family.  My mother paid the bill at the counter. The hostess pushed her credit card with its bumpy, raised figures through the machine on the top of the counter, pressing a receipt through carbon paper and making two copies- one for my mom to sign and leave with them, and another as her receipt.  I waited with my mom as she worked this through, and I studied the many small buddha figurines in the glass case of the hostess stand.  There was a shrine just behind the cash register, with a larger buddha figure, a small bubbling fountain, some silk flowers and three oranges, balanced carefully in a triangle.  The little buddhas in the case were for sale.  I hurried my mom out to the car and, at the door, told her that I’d be right along, I was going to use the restroom.  She made her way out and I returned to the glass case and inquired about the buddhas.  

I bought a 2-inch golden buddha.

I don’t know why.  It seemed funny at the time, but I’m embarrassed to say that now.  The buddha was shiny and fat and had a grin on his face.  He held his hands up over his head, making the round of his belly look even rounder.  He fit in the palm of my hand, and I held him with my fingers closed around him all the way back over the causeway to my mother’s island home.

The next morning I woke early, but not earlier than my mother.  She was already at her perch in the kitchen, sitting in her cotton robe drinking coffee and watching the gulls and crows on the rocks at the water’s edge. The radio crackled in the background with the morning news.

I took the buddha from my pocket and, when my mother was not looking, I put it on the small shelf just over the kitchen counter.  His shiny gold eminence surveyed the heart of this home.

My mother didn’t notice the buddha for some time.  Grandchildren were waking, bottles and cereal were being prepared, breakfast was at full tilt.

When she did notice the buddha, she laughed.   There was no joke, really.  But it was funny.  

Today, it would be inappropriate- a  culturally and religiously insensitive act to appropriate a religious figure for the sake of a joke- and what was the joke, anyway?  That a Christian home would have such an object?  It seems stupid, now.

But my mother, it turned out, loved the buddha.  He stayed on that shelf for years surveying her coming and going.  When my mother moved off Great Island and into town to live in an apartment off of my sister’s house, she brought the buddha.  He took up residence on the windowsill over the kitchen sink.  He watched her coming in and her going out.

When my mother died, ten years ago, I took the buddha.  I don’t remember if I asked my sister for it, or if I just took it.  But the buddha came to Connecticut with me and sat on my kitchen windowsill, watching my coming ins and my goings out.  When we moved to Pennsylvania, buddha came along.  Our new house had a small pop out window over the kitchen counter with a shelf for plants – a mini greenhouse.  Buddha sat there- along with a stone robin, a clay pinch pot made by my youngest daughter when she was in kindergarten, and a few colored glass bottles.

One day not long ago, the shelf fell down.  The cat tried to jump up onto the shelf and it did not hold her weight.  All was well, but the buddha’s little raised fist broke off.

I threw the buddha in the trash.  I could not abide its brokenness and did not want it to suffer the indignity of super glue and a permanent crack.  And so, I said goodbye to the buddha.  It broke my heart as I heard myself  saying out loud, “It’s only a thing.”

#