Look a Little Closer

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SONY DSCSONY DSCOn the twisting backroads to the YMCA camp I worked at for 19 years there was a flower farm–a single-wide home on a large lot with an enormous flower garden to the side–at the edge of the garden there was a worn, wood park bench with an old coffee can sitting on it.  Around the can was a handmade wrapped sign “Flowers 10c”  and a pair of garden shears balanced on the lid.

It was the honor system.  I especially liked that.

In the summer on our time off, the staff would often swing by, dig into our pockets for extra cash and bring back armfuls of flowers–dahlias mostly–their mix of color and shade in a blossom that looked like the fireworks we watch off the dock at 4th of July.  The flowers were never for us.  They were for some unsuspecting friend or friends back at camp.  We would bring them into the dining hall and place them in a plastic bucket we’d borrowed from the kitchen.

We bought dahlias because their personalities were big and their message was bold, just like we were.

Yes, I quoted Oprah. So sue me. A tree lover’s guide to cancer and the woods.

What I know for sure regarding grief and nature.

Yes, I did it. I quoted Oprah. I’m not proud of it but the line came to me and I’m going to own it.

This weekend I was reminded of a few things I know for sure.   I escaped this weekend. Broke the chains of laundry. Tore off the shackles of dishes and vacuuming. Late on Friday night—in a moment of spontaneous decision-making—I hopped online, booked a hotel room and packed a bag. Then, like a kid who’s just gotten away with something, I smiled, crawled into bed and set my alarm to make an early ferry.

I had to.

Maybe it was the residue of the previous weekend.   I’d spent the evening with a 25-year old friend who is knee-deep in the trenches of pancreatic cancer. Not good.

Not just not good. Bad.

I am so tired of cancer. I am tired of its systematic and relentless pursuit of people I love. I resent the way it takes who it wants regardless of circumstance, character or age. So you can appreciate why I didn’t give a damn about my dishes or the fact that there are three Amazon Prime boxes sitting in my living room with their contents strewn about. All of this warranted ACTION on my part.

Get the hell out of town. Run for the woods. Head to the Hoh Rain Forest.

It needed to be a little inconvenient. The ferry ride, the 3+ hour drive. You see, the inconvenience underlined the significance of leaving. I needed to be away, tucked beneath Sitka Spruce and Douglas Firs well over 200 feet. Moss blankets everything from boulders to every inch of branches that reach out like fuzzy fingers. I needed the serenade of the Hoh River, its conversation, a loud party full of light chitchat. I longed for the solitude of a trail where I go at my pace and stop when I want to take pictures (even if I already stopped a minute ago.) I want the freedom to jump when thunder booms above me and to leave my hood down when the downpour comes. I want to take the untouched side trail—the soggy ferns soaking my shorts as my thighs pushed them back with each step—up to the waterfall to get a better photo and to stand there and close my eyes.

Normally, whenever I return to the trailhead, to the comfort of my car and whatever snacks I’ve left behind, there is a sense of pride. An I did it. This time I felt that, but it was different. Something about the forest opens me.

I text a video of the waterfall to my 25 year old friend.

Me: I sent you a waterfall. Early birthday present.

My friend: Thank you!!!!!!!

Me: I mentally took you on the hike. I hope you aren’t sore.

My friend: It was like I was physically there!! My legs are killing me! How many miles was that again?

Me: Just shy of 6. I have to tell you, you weren’t very helpful when we found ourselves on the trail with a big elk about 30 ft. ahead and another one about 30 ft. behind (with their family peering in from the bushes.) Otherwise, you were a trooper.

My friend: Oh my gosh!!! I bet I was useless. “Oh look, large and dangerous mammals. LET’S PLAY WITH THEM!!!”

Me: I thought when I had to tell you to stop trying to pet them was the real low point.

My friend: That was the low point. Even their antlers are furry!

Somewhere during the texting conversation the tears started. Tears of loss, of pent up energy, of fatigue. These were tears of relief. Relief that we could still play. Relief that we could pretend we had hiked and faced down some elk together. Tears that sometimes the best way to connect is to talk about what you wish you did rather than what you have to do.

Hoh waterfall Hoh River

What is summer to you?

photo (10) water sunset self-portrait sunset boatSummer has a way of sliding over me like my favorite t-shirt. It takes a little while for me to settle into my summer stride.  Maybe you relate. You know, first I have to fight off the nagging feeling that I should use my vacation to be productive, that I should EARN my vacation by a lot of work.  But then I went camping recently (and totally lacking anything productive) and suddenly it felt real.  There was a precise moment (sitting in the camp chair, feet on the picnic bench, joking about our state park neighbors) when I actually said, “This feels like summer.”

I have a long and meaningful relationship with this season.  I went to camp as a kid and then worked at a camp for 19 years.  I GET summer.  It is a magical time for me. Summer isn’t about weather for me. It is about 5 simple things.  What about you?

1) Being outside.  Getting my nature on.  Wandering into the woods or out on a dock and enjoying not being surrounded by people.  Having the view–the extraordinary view–be enough.  Be MORE than enough.

2) Relaxing.  Not I’ve got 15 minutes to sit down relaxing. I’m talking FORGETTING YOU HAVE A JOB relaxing.  This is the moment where your biggest decision is Should I make more tea or finish off the Doritos first?  It isn’t necessarily laziness–though Lord knows that’s an art form–it is about enjoying the pace of right now.  Nowhere to be.

3) Camping.  Now I know this might be sketchy territory for some folks, but hear me out.  Camping (or hiking even) gets you out of your space.  Gets you out of your home.  Gets you out of your parking spot.  It makes you small in the world.  Bye bye TV.  Hello, JUST SIT THERE.  Watch the way the fire licks the sides of the log you just turned over.  Stare up and actually notice that there are stars in the sky.  Stare long enough that you can’t count them.  Sip a cup of tea, tilt back in the chair and balance a book on your knee.  A BOOK.  Remember those? Heaven.

4) Laughter, preferably about something ridiculous and unimportant.  My friend and I, while polishing off cheese quesadillas, killed a good 1/2 hour discussing whether we could buy green vests and pretend to be the volunteer campground hosts.  We talked about what our duties would be and how we would hide the evidence if the real hosts came around in their golf carts.

5)  Being with kindred spirits.  My favorite people on the planet are kindred spirits.  They know me, they get me, they have no desire to change me, they banter, you get the idea.  True summer to me is saying to them,”I want to spend time with you” and their response is “Me too.”

What about you?  What makes your summer magical?

Who You Should Hang Out With…

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Montana surprised me.  I went there to visit my cousin–who I’ve worshipped since I was a kid–she was the cousin who, when she was a cool teenager, was nice to my innocent elementary Self.  Of course, now that I’m in my 40’s–having crossed the bridge of coolness into the land of too old to know what is cool, my cousin still manages to wow me.  When I asked her if she could find me “Some old rusty stuff” to photograph, she delivers.  And she still gets excited when I come to visit.  I appreciate that.  People should get excited when you spend time with them.  If you hang out with people who don’t get excited when you’re with them, find some new people.  Raise the bar a little.

 

Is That a Bear on the Trail? Today’s Life Lesson…

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Facing a black bear in the middle of the forest never plays out like you think it will.  It is a lot like life that way.  I mean you can prepare and plan and make lists but the reality is it rarely ever happens the way you planned. 

We were stomping along the trail, the familiar rhythm that develops when you’ve been hiking for almost 4 hours and you’re almost back to the car.  It’s when your legs are on auto-pilot, when you have to pee but you’re going to hold it because you’re almost to the privy at the trailhead.  This is the part of the hike when you start to allow your brain to wander to what you really want to eat right now.

Burger…  Pizza….

Your trail mix and granola bar suddenly seem like the boring date you’ve put up with, but certainly don’t want to spend any more time with.

So yesterday, while hiking with K and her dog—only 10 minutes from ending a gorgeous hike in the Olympic National Forest—I glanced uphill in the forest about 50 feet away and thought I saw something…a black blob behind a tree.

I know, you want it to be more glamorous than that.  You want to me regale you with something Hollywood, but it wasn’t like that.

Then I thought I saw the blob move.

“K…stop walking.” I said in the same tone I might say, “K…I like your car.”

She didn’t stop.

“K…stop walking.”  I immediately said again.  This time, my tone was more I mean it.

“Stop.”  She did.  And I pointed out Bear.

She came over next to me, put her hand on my shoulder and said, “We need to look BIG.”  Yes, big is scary.  Let’s look big.

Then I’m almost positive K stood next to me, BUT a little behind me.  As if to say to Bear, “We’re both here, but if you have to chose, take her first.”

“What do we do?” she asked.

Being the experienced backpack trip leader I was suddenly the bear guru.

“We need to make noise to make him go away, let him know we are here.”

Then K started singing “Jingle Bells” at the top of her lungs.

That got his attention.   He looked at us.

I yelled out at him. “Go away bear!  Get out of here.  Move along!  Nothing to see here.”  Stuff like that.

He didn’t move much.

K switched it up in her No No Bear Medley to “Oh Susanna!  Oh don’t you cry for me!”

I whacked my trekking poles together to make more noise and waved them in the air to make us seem big.  Big, with long pokey weapons.

This would have been a great place for a cartoon thinking bubble to appear over Bear’s head.  I would have paid to find out what he thought right then..or if he enjoyed it when K changed to “Oh my darlin’, Oh my darlin’, Oh my darlin’ Clementine!”

He stood still, looking down at us for a minute—time moves slowly in these situations—and eventually moved a little up the hill and stopped.

“What should we do?” K asked before starting her next song.

“Let’s keep going since we know where he is and we can keep making noise.”  I said.

So we got out of there.  Mountain bikers who showed up about 5 minutes after us at the car said the bear had come back down to the trail…probably only minutes after we were gone.

Here is what I learned when faced with a bear.  This is by no means meant to be an authoritative guide.  Just one dufus hiker to another.  Hopefully the lesson will apply to your life as well.

  1. Pay attention to the little stuff.  Not all big furry problems announce themselves at the beginning.  Notice the dark blobs in the woods.
  2. Stop.  Don’t keep barreling down the trail when something is wrong, that can make it worse.
  3. Panic…later.   Right now, face it.  You’ll have plenty of time later to talk about all the ways it could have gone wrong.
  4. Stick together.  Lordy it sound cheesy but seriously, I hiked that trail ALONE last week.  Stand over here and let’s look big together.
  5. There’s no shame in hiding behind a friend.  Sometimes you’ll be the hider and sometimes you’ll be the hidee.  I mean why have friends if your only thought is, “Go deal with it on your own.”  Come stand by me.  Let’s see what happens.
  6. Wave your poles.  Use what you have.  Don’t worry about looking stupid.  If all else fails, you entertained the hell out of a bear.  That’s something to be proud of.
  7. Sing.  K has quite a vast repertoire of songs in her head.  I’m pretty sure she never imagined those songs would be the ones to come to mind.  I’m also sure that at some time in the future I might start humming them around her just to give her a hard time.
  8. When it is time, move on…even if it scares you.

You are braver than you think.

Panorama Tells a Different Story

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Top panorama:  The mountains in Eastern British Columbia.  I love how the different shades of grey make it simpler, but give it dimension.

Bottom panorama:  This is in Eastern Idaho at my uncle’s ranch.   The panorama really makes your eye focus on what you would notice if you were standing there (the barn.)

Does This Oxygen Tank Make Me Look Badass?

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Heaving the heavy pack onto my shoulders after so many years was both familiar and forgotten.

The closest thing I’d felt to its bulky weight was the solid smack of my oxygen tank hanging loosely on the same shoulder for 2 ½ years.  “Tank’s” nasal cannula tube draped down my back, the prongs pulling in protest against my nostrils as the regulator pulsed puffs of oxygen.

The pack—which I affectionately referred to as the BMW of backpacks—had a sleek, silver design and was everything my silver oxygen tank was not.  Adventure. Activity.  Independence.  Healthy. 

But that was Hiking Me

Current Me is short of breath, fatigued by even the gentlest of hikes and aware of the way the hip belt digs into my stomach from the extra 35 pounds of prednisone weight.  Current Me hikes alone so that I can get back to Hiking Me without being embarrassed at my pace and how a relatively flat hike can kick my ass from here to there. 

Surprisingly, now that Tank is no longer my companion, Current Me savors the ability to hike at all.   My pride is on my sweaty back, my new fleece pullover and my muddy boots.

Hiking in the Rain: A Love Story.

 

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Northwest Drizzle is the weather of solitude.

On a hike I pulled my red baseball hat down further to shield me from the rain and pulled my black Gore-Tex hood over my head. By the time I left, my jeans would be heavier than when I arrived from the continual drops that soaked into the cotton.  Each step, a splotch and squish of the trail, was littered with puddles that squirted their muddy contents on the calves of my cheap and well-worn Old Navy jeans.  As the trail dipped down, dodging the trees to sneak between them, the familiar heft of my hiking pack skidded slightly against my back.  It held in place by somewhat tight shoulder straps and a snug sternum strap across my chest.  In the Northwest, the earth smelled warm and damp after a rain, a natural baptism.

I never minded the rain.

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