Flying with the Falcon

Dreaming of Backpacking and Mountain Climbing

*Photo taken in the woods of Nelson, NH.

A couple of weeks ago, as I was brushing my teeth, I had a sudden attack of desire for backpacking. I closed my eyes for a few moments, imagining myself in the Adirondacks (one of my favorite places in the world) and I could smell the gorgeous alpine air. It reminded me how very much I value the beauty of slipping away from the rest of society, letting go of all the electronics and lights and noises, and just fall into the rhythm of walking a trail in the woods. If you hike, maybe you know what I mean. It’s almost a meditative experience once you get yourself adjusted with the pack settled just so, your shoes are tied right, and your belly is fueled with food. Your feet find their own way through the ruts, roots, and rocks. Thoughts come and go, the bugs whizz past your ears, birds sing across the spaces between the trees…you connect back with the primordial self which knows how to be in nature, no matter where you live in the world. Backpacking brings your body back into the rhythms of the sun, the long hours of travel by foot, the awareness of life in every inch of the world around you.

Michael and I walked so many trails in the Adirondacks, but one of our favorites is Avalanche Pass, where you get to enjoy the fun of scrambling over boulders, running across bridges, and climbing short ladders. It’s an absolute blast, like a playground in the woods. The water along the trail is the color of jewels, and the mountains rise upward on either side of the lake, their rocky ribs bared by erosion, too steep for any life to cling long. Taking this trail leads to many of the High Peaks most popular to climb, and it also leads directly to Lake Colden, where a lot of hikers tend to camp. If you hike Avalanche Pass, you can hike over Mount Colden as a day hike from this trail, but it’s also a good way to get to Algonquin, Wright Peak, Mount Marshall, Cliff Mountain…it’s a long list. Somehow on that same trip we also hiked up to Indian Head, where you get a gorgeous view of Gothics (one of the 46 High Peaks) and get to enjoy the top of the waterfall. To see the bottom, I don’t know what one must do, but I wasn’t willing to do it. The falls disappears over a steep cliff edge I was unwilling to scale, even in my braver state of climbing ability. We also hiked Little Marcy (I have yet to hike Marcy itself, as we didn’t want to deal with the crowds—it’s the most popular peak there because it’s the highest in the state), and during that same trip we got ourselves up and over Haystack. With packs. Zowie, but that was a feat! One of my favorite spots of all, though, was stopping at Panther Gorge, where a delicious roaring river lulled us to sleep, and only one quiet couple had hiked out that far into the wilderness.

This summer I have every intention of getting back to the Adirondacks for more hiking, especially since last summer got eaten up by work on our house in Olean. I had high hopes for hitting several peaks in one trip (pun totally intended), and had a route all planned out to hit some of the mountains in the more northerly area of the High Peaks. We’ve been back on the East Coast for long enough now that we can hopefully handle the blast of humidity which kept us from the summit of Monadnock last summer. Now that the nymph of spring is starting to knock on Old Man Winter’s door, I definitely am also getting revved up to hike up Monadnock again. I wrote a blog post about our failed attempt to climb it last summer, and both Michael and I were taken aback by this. We had hiked much higher mountains out in Nevada and California, and it was humbling to come home to the East Coast and be unable to summit a peak not even 4,000 feet high. It was especially frustrating for me, since I was out hiking every other day in Nevada, and one of my favorite hikes was out at Jack’s Valley Conservancy, where a 6,500-foot peak was one of my regular weekly hikes. I only hiked to the summit a few times while there, but I certainly hiked up a good 2/3 of the slope regularly—a demanding hike made up mostly of loose sand. It was not easy to get up that peak, and yet Monadnock pummeled me. Well, I have been forcing myself uphill quite a bit since coming back east, and I fully plan to reach the top of Monadnock again as soon as weather breaks enough to allow it. Right now the trails are probably sheer ice, and I have no doubt the wind up there is brutal. Generally, Monadnock is fairly windy at the summit, and even on a day when it’s nice at the base of the mountain you’ll be chilly at the top. This time I plan to douse myself with bug spray, unlike my last hike. Black flies ate me alive, and we were swarmed by mosquitoes. Regardless, I am going.

To solace myself until I can get into the mountains to conquer more peaks or backpack an escape from society, I have been hiking in our “back yard.” Yesterday Michael and I took a trail behind our house, following a sort of road whacked out of the trees and brush down the hill. In the spring it will probably be a marsh with all the water running off the hill to the watershed below, but right now it’s all locked up in ice. I slapped on my snowshoes and Michael bravely let the dogs run off leash in the woods while we picked through the tree branches grown over the trail. The other day I had taken this trail until I encountered a road block and had to turn back: a giant tree had broken about 12 feet up its trunk and fell right across the trail. It seemed too difficult to get under, over, or around it, so I didn’t think it would be easy to discover what lay beyond that point. But Michael brought along a hatchet and hacked away a few of the branches to make a sort of tunnel beneath the fallen tree. We got only a short way before the trail pretty much petered out entirely, but we sallied forth into the woods anyway, following the trail of one of the waterways through the woods. Eventually we turned back without ever getting the reward of a view or any very interesting trees or boulders, but I had a grin on my face the whole time. The sun was out, the dogs were thrilled, and my husband was with me in the woods. It doesn’t get much better than that.

When we returned to our house, we even got out my new bow and practiced shooting. I’ve never shot a bow before, even though I’ve wanted one for years. For a newbie, I was proud of myself. I actually hit two out of five targets. We didn’t shoot long, though, because the snow kept eating my arrows. That led to buying a cheap target block so I would have something bigger to hit, and I will be less likely to lose them in the woods. Still, it was fun, and I’m excited to get out there and do it again. Today in Southern New Hampshire we had some new snow fall, so maybe I can get out with my snowshoes again, too. If you’ve never tried it, I highly recommend it. I was able to hike up and down slopes with no trouble—but my snowshoes have claws (I’m totally making that term up because I have no idea what they really are) on the bottom, and they dig right into the snow and ice. Even though the snow was mostly iced over, my snowshoes didn’t care. My intention was to use the snowshoes as a means to keep hiking in winter, and when we’ve had enough snow to keep me off the road, I was able to do that. Mission accomplished. Now that we’re deep into February, I’m getting that itch for spring. It’s always this time of year when I get tired of piling on the layers of clothing to go outdoors, tired of shoveling, tired of having to clean off my car, tired of the short days. This may very well send me into a lifestyle as a snow bird far earlier than retirement age, but for the moment I plan to enjoy the snow if I must live in the North.

As always, I hope you are snuggled up somewhere warm and have the contentment of being able to enjoy nature in some way. Find the wild places in your neighborhood. Scout out the places where you can watch birds, fish, chipmunks, or deer. Almost every town has a park, even if you live in a massive city. Take the subway there if you must, but do it. Give yourself the gift of green or natural places at least once a week if you can. It refuels your mind and spirit in a way nothing else can. Allow yourself to drink in the filtered light from beneath a tree, find where the flowers grow in a botanical garden, or enjoy a community vegetable garden in a greenhouse. In winter, get out to parks and watch the cardinals or crows, listen for the return of the blue jays and robins. I learned from watching the stunning series Blue Planet II that peregrine falcons have made their homes in New York City, and actually delight in the canyon-like spaces between the skyscrapers. What fun to look up and see one of those magnificent birds soaring like a bullet between the buildings! And the added bonus is that they eat rats and mice, the perfect street food. Maybe if you live in the city, you could see them from a rooftop or bridge. I imagine that would be a treat. Wherever you are, there nature will be, right under your nose. Find it. Explore it. Enjoy it. The world will turn whether or not you notice, but your life may be the better for you taking the time to breathe, see, and appreciate even the littlest things, like the way the snow sparkles when the sun shines.

 

 

 

Flying with the Falcon

Walden Pond, Minuteman National Park, and the Old Manse

*Photo taken at Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts.

Saturday morning, without an alarm clock, I woke at 6:30 am. Despite the early hour which usually goes against my grain on the weekend, I couldn’t wait to spring out of bed and get dressed. Earlier in the week I had come across some information about Nathaniel Hawthorne which led me down a rabbit hole of history about his life in Concord, Massachusetts. When I looked it up on a Google map, I discovered several interesting monuments dedicated to famous authors, and on a whim decided to make a day of going to see said monuments in person. So after dressing and breakfast, coffee in hand, I headed out to Concord. The sun shone brightly, not a cloud in the sky, but the wind cut like a knife across exposed skin. Bitter. I didn’t care, even though I had to fight the wind as I drove through the countryside toward Massachusetts, where the land grew gradually flatter, and the wind blew a little harder. I arrived at Concord with a loose plan for where I wanted to go, starting with Sleepy Hollow Cemetery (yes, that’s really the name of it), where visitors can walk along what is called “Author’s Ridge.” On Google maps, it only shows the grave of one famous author: Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women, to name one of her most famous works. I am amused that only her grave shows up, despite the fact that the other three authors buried there are famous white men.

 

I followed the foot path up the ridge, coming across Nathaniel Hawthorne’s grave almost immediately. It surprised me that his grave would just be right there next to the path, the stone quite weathered and worn, and readily accessed by all. No walls or fences to keep anyone out, other than a low chain easily stepped over to enter the grave site. People obviously had done just that, as the gravestone was covered with small trinkets, mostly various sorts of pens. It struck me as sweet that perhaps other authors enamored of the works and character of a man such as Hawthorne would come to adorn his grave with the tools of their trade in homage. Next, and equally astonishing in its simplicity and small size, was the head stone of Henry David Thoreau. His grave had quite a few more trinkets, flowers, and even scattered stones, pine cones, and branches heaped on the ground surrounding the small stone marker which reads: Henry. The only way I knew it was Thoreau was due to the family’s name on a prominent marker on the plot. Farther up the hill I came to the slightly more elegant Alcott family plot, where Louisa May Alcott’s grave is located. Again, however, her own stone marker was even smaller than the others, a simple rectangular stone sunk into the ground, but again decorated with a haphazard array of pens, pencils, stones, and flowers. Lastly, I came to my favorite of all the headstones: Ralph Waldo Emerson. His was more difficult to find, but I knew it was there because signs at the bottom of the hill pointed in that general direction. When I finally found it I laughed: a boulder, uncarved and rough, stands on his plot with a copper plate as the marker. Of all the graves, his was my favorite.

 

Author’s Ridge was a good first stop, a sort of beginning at the end, as I said in my Instagram Post, shared in real time as I took the trip that day. As soon as I finished visiting the sites, I uploaded my pictures to Instagram, too excited to wait. My next stop: Walden Pond. It only took ten minutes to drive to the pond from the cemetery, and because I went in the dead of winter I practically had the place to myself. This is one of my favorite travel tips, to go places in the off-season to avoid the crowds. If you don’t mind being out in the cold, sometimes you get the luxury of taking your time with a place, which for Walden Pond was a perfect experience. When I pulled into a parking space, I could see a building that looked like a visitor’s center, so I took myself there first, much like my trips to National Parks. I have found that visitor’s centers are a wealth of good information about a park so you can discover what all the best places are to see before you go running around to all the most visited spots. Sometimes the park rangers can offer tidbits of gold about where the best places are to capture a good view or enjoy a quiet moment. In this case, a park attendant told me about a movie produced by Ken Burns, featuring a tribute to Thoreau. I gladly took the card with the info so I could watch it later, and then off I went to peruse the displays which offered up a wealth of highlights about Thoreau’s time at the pond, and his overall life. One thing which surprised me was discovering that Thoreau’s family owned a pencil factory, and that they were the first to use numbers to categorize the hardness or softness of the graphite. Apparently ecologists also appreciated the copious notes taken by Thoreau while he lived at the pond, because they later utilized these notes to help document effects of climate change. I had no idea.

 

After perusing the lovely visitor’s center, I walked down to the pond. The water had only a thin skin of ice which was broken against the shore in chunks. A sandy beach made me wonder if the beach were man-made so people could come swim in warm weather. I could see an opportunity to walk around the pond on a trail might be nice in warmer weather, and with less to do, but I had too many places to visit to take time for a long hike. Another day, I thought to myself. I need to go back. Next, I went to the cabin built by Thoreau’s own hands, a tiny house furnished minimally with a small bed, a desk, a table, and three chairs. A stove at one end for cooking and heat stood directly across from the door, and light filled the small space from only two windows on the other walls. “Snug” is all I wrote on the guest book. Exactly right, and a man after my own heart. I sort of fell in love with Thoreau while I stood in his cabin. A simple life by the pond, his “only appointment with a birch tree” he wrote in his notes, or maybe a maple or just to sit by the water. I could see myself doing such a thing, to live in a tiny house in the woods, observing nature and writing, reading books, and occasionally venturing out into the world when I need food or company, maybe inviting over a friend for tea. Yes, exactly this kind of life would be the life for me, which is what I plan to do.

 

I could have easily spent the day at Walden Pond, but my belly needed food, and I wanted to scoot over to the Concord Museum to see their modified display during renovations. Into the car I went, uploading my photos to Instagram. Back to downtown Concord, I found a busy place called the Market Café. When you find a place where the locals flock, you can bet it’s probably good. They seated me at the bar in the back section of the restaurant, and I ordered one of my favorite things to eat out: fish tacos. I wish I could say they were delicious, but I’ve had much better. It disappointed me to eat such a lackluster meal, since I sort of expected something yummy, but maybe I got unlucky in what I ordered. I know if you go to the Beef ‘n’ Barrel restaurant in Olean, NY and order fish, you are going to be disappointed; any beef-related meal will be fabulous, and it’s what they do best. Maybe the Market Café is known for their sandwiches, and I just ordered the wrong thing. It happens. The fries were good, at least. After lunch, I drove a few minutes down the road to the museum, which only had a few rooms of items on display. Still, I paid $5 for a tour from a spectacular storyteller who regaled the small group of us with information about Concord, mostly based on European settlement. At least he mentioned our forebears with a discussion about the ancient tools and weapons discovered in digs, and at least talked briefly about the Wampanoag, who interacted with the settlers. After that, we learned a good deal about English settlers’ way of life, and, of course, the Revolution.

 

It did interest me to see Thoreau’s desk on display prominently in the foyer, probably the most interesting item of all those I saw on the tour. Almost as if Henry reached out from beyond the veil to nudge me, connecting me to the place, to be present, to learn. I listened avidly to the historian and did learn a good amount of interesting detail about the Revolution which began in Concord, a story I had heard for many years during my public school education. Good to be able to match the stories with a real place, and the history bonded a little deeper later in the afternoon. More on that later, but I did come away from the museum with a sense that the white people are beginning to get clued into the fact that we mustn’t always insist on being the center of attention in every story. The last room we visited on tour centered around a freed slave whose belongings were preserved. We were given an inventory of what was left when he died, and the historian mentioned that life must have been difficult for him with so little liberty. Well, life hasn’t changed all that much since then, in my opinion. And yet it struck me that I had just come from Thoreau’s cabin, which had not even half the supplies we saw on the list of belongings of a former slave, and Thoreau learned what I also know: you need very little stuff to live a full life. In fact, the less you have, the easier your life can be. More photos uploaded in the car, a happy smile of glee on my face.

 

With my head full of Revolutionary history, I dashed over to a home called “The Old Manse,” so named by Nathaniel Hawthorne after he lived there. I actually went to Concord for this very reason, not realizing I was about to learn an even more surprising history of that house than the one I expected. Fortunately I arrived for the last tour of the day, and I got the young historian all to myself. We had more of an interesting conversation than a canned tour, which I absolutely loved, and he told me afterward that he enjoyed it as well. The first room he showed me contained a gorgeous old Steinway and Sons rectangular piano, a true gem of an instrument because so few were made. The shape of the piano made it difficult to tune, so Steinway discontinued the line shortly after production, but there sat the golden wood-framed piano, all its ivory keys still intact, and the bench still there as well, preserved for centuries. I learned that Hawthorne’s children, along with Emerson’s children, all learned to play piano on that very instrument, in that very room. As I stood admiring the piano, I could just imagine the scene of the children running their fingers over the keys with an adult sitting on one end of the bench, while the child’s legs probably hung, dangling over the foot pedals. On a sunny day, that room must have been a joy for listening to music. A standing desk—which I didn’t even know was a thing in the 1700s—took up space along one wall, the desk of the Emerson family’s patriarch. Indeed, I was surprised to learn that the home was actually the property of the Emerson family, not the Hawthornes.

 

For the first couple of generations of Emerson’s family, the Old Manse was their home. Emerson’s family legacy was that of the church, as both Emerson’s father and grandfather were ministers of the church, and enjoyed a sizable income due to the number of parishioners who attended services. Once the Unitarian Universalist Church split away from Christianity’s old values, Emerson’s father lost half his income when half the church left to become UU members. It was quite a blow to the family, and Ralph Waldo Emerson convinced his father to rent the home to Nathaniel Hawthorne and his new wife, who needed a place to live. Thus, the Hawthornes came to Concord, but they were apparently terrible tenants. Oddly, his wife, Sophia (and apparently Nathaniel himself), carved inscriptions into the window panes with her diamond ring, destroying the integrity of the glass. Now it seems amusing, but I’m sure the Emersons were horrified. Nathaniel also didn’t pay rent for the last two years of living in the home, which is what most likely forced the Emerson family to kick him to the curb—the Hawthornes only lived in the home for three years total, but the Old Manse remained in the Emerson family until 1939. At that point, the house held so much history it was handed over to the Massachusetts Reservation committee.

 

Interestingly, I learned that it was behind the Old Manse that the first shot of the Revolution was fired. Emerson himself stood watching the battle take place, in the company of his mother and other siblings, from the window of the study where he would later write his famous work, Nature. From that window, you can still see the bridge where the British and American soldiers faced off in that famous battle coined as the “shot heard ‘round the world.” That same room where I stood looking through the window with the inscription from the Hawthorne couple was also where Hawthorne composed Mosses from an Old Manse, his collection of short stories which brought him fame as an author. Emerson apparently also penned a letter to his sweetheart, asking her to marry him, in that same room. Who can guess what other acts occurred in that room, what feet walked on those floors, or what words were spoken? I felt happy to be in a space where I knew so many influential people once sat, worked, and loved. Later I found out that even Thoreau was involved in the little triangle of friendships, as he planted a vegetable garden for the Hawthornes as a gift for their wedding. An appropriate gift for a man of nature to provide.

 

After touring the manse, I went out to the bridge behind the house to see the monuments in what is now called Minuteman National Historical Park. I stood at the grave of the British soldiers, then crossed the bridge to the monument dedicated to the American side. By that time, the bitter wind had killed my phone battery and was biting right through my clothes. I had no choice but to return to my car, numb and chattering. Again, I believe it would be a nice day to enjoy going back in warmer weather to actually walk around Walden Pond, perhaps walk the path of the National Park, and this time tour the home of the first freed slave. Either way, I drove for a look at Louisa May Alcott’s former home to take pictures of the outside, through the windshield of my car because I had to charge my phone. I had already determined I wasn’t going to tour Alcott’s home because the fee of $20 seemed a little high just to walk through a house, especially since other homes of famous writers were much cheaper. I did learn that yet another remake of Little Women was filmed at the house recently, so I won’t need to pay a fee for the tour—I’ll just go see the film. Back downtown once more, I found myself standing at the door of the chocolate shop. Of course I had to buy handmade chocolate. I was even nice and bought some for Michael. It was delicious.

 

The capstone of my entire trip came the next day when I read the famous essay titled “On Duty of Civil Disobedience,” which has become an emblem of many civil rights movements over the last couple of centuries. From women’s liberation to Ghandi to Dr. Martin Luther King and beyond, Thoreau’s essay written after spending a night in jail for not paying his taxes informed countless movements on the importance of abiding by one’s conscience, especially in the face of the people in power. It filled me with awe to read that essay, especially now. We do not live in a special time of harrowing power struggles—this has been a problem for millennia. It’s just that now we have a taste of freedom, of democracy on our tongues, and we see how deeply it affects us when liberty is denied. We are growing as a global community, and getting ever wiser and more knowledgeable as science and medicine and technology widen our horizons. I watched a movie produced by Ken Burns, called The Walden Woods Project, and it briefly shares the impact Thoreau had on the world, both through his writing and his way of life. It astonishes me that I know so little about a human who probably could have changed my life, too, if I had known to read his work in my younger years, but time reveals knowledge when it is needed, I suppose. In any case, if you love literature and history, Concord is a delight for the mind. Plenty of shopping is to be had in the downtown, right along with all the historic spots to visit. I imagine you could spend a whole week there to really take in the vastness of the stories, but I was happy to have my day to touch down on each author’s residence, grave site, and to take in their lives as I did. It was quite personal, and maybe I’ll even fork out the $20 to go see Louisa May Alcott’s home if I go back again. As I sit here and think about the impact of seeing the other homes and hearing the stories, it might be even more wonderful than I imagine.

 

Friends, I encourage you to go find adventure, feed your mind, make a balloon of your spirit. You only live once. Transcend the doldrums of daily grinds, and go make space for growth. And if you care to see my Instagram posts from my day in Concord, you can click the link in the sidebar of this post. Enjoy!

 

 

Flying with the Falcon

For Love of the Earth

*Photo taken in Devil’s Postpile National Park in California.

I grew up a child of nature. As young as two I would be left to my own devices outdoors, back in the 1970s when it was still considered acceptable for children to play alone outside. Maybe it was unwise of my parents to send me outside for hours on my own, but I never felt any fear about it. To me, the grassy yards of my childhood were a wonderland of activity, and kept me very busy. One of my early memories occurred in the back yard of an apartment building in Hamburg, NY, a suburb of Buffalo, and I distinctly remember one day opening the heavy steel door, through which I had passed so many times, to discover a miraculous transformation. The cement pad outside the door, a sort of square well which often filled with rain, was alive. Caterpillars crawled over literally every inch of the surface of the cement, their brown bodies wriggling like a living carpet. I was utterly fascinated by this sudden appearance of the creatures on my doorstep (because even though the building housed several apartments, few others ever used the back door, so I claimed it as my own). Where did they come from? Why were they there? The mystery remains, well over 40 years later. I don’t know how long they stayed. Only the filter of that miraculous moment remains: opening the door like a curtain to reveal that astonishing revelry of life burgeoning, beckoning me to come out to witness their departure. The oddness of their transit as they scrunched and stretched upon eraser-like stubby feet caused me to watch a long time. Later I learned they were wooly bears, and I recall stroking their backs in wonder at the softness as they undulated toward the grass.

For as long as I have been alive, I can remember being in love with the earth, even when I moved to cities for a time. Countless hours of my life have been spent lollygagging in the grass, digging in dirt, scrambling over immense rocks, climbing trees, splashing in streams, wandering through forests, watching clouds, enjoying storms, and eating the green things that grew in my yard. As children, my playmates and I would adventure the yards in a grand discovery of what was good to eat or do. We tasted the sweet ends of tall fronds of grass, plucked carefully from the crook of the stem, and the gentle sourness of clover when it’s young and bright. We found the touch-me-nots in summer to be an endless joy, the jewel weed bushes which grew on the property line of our Fillmore, NY home would produce fat seed pouches which would spring open when squeezed. It was like a game to pinch them and laugh as the seed pods would roll backward into curls after releasing the seed as a projectile. Even as a teen I loved the outdoors still—at a time when many youth my age were far more excited by MTV and experimenting with drugs and alcohol, I was terminally geeky and read books and played D&D—my brother and I often went to the park around the corner from our house, spent hours outside riding bikes or playing badminton, and we still sought out animal life to observe like self-appointed scientists.

Those were the early days of my teen years, and they didn’t last. I was riddled with misery as I aged, very self-absorbed, and quite depressed. I hated the town where I lived, school gave me stomach aches, and I became obsessed with fantasy as an escape. I thought I wanted to live in cities to experience all the fun of things to do in those hives devoid of wild magic, thinking perhaps that I would find some other kind of magic in its place. So I spent my college years testing out the life of a city girl. Eventually I came to realize the city didn’t nurture my true self, the child who grew up wandering barefoot outside, camping in several states and many places in Canada, and visiting state parks often for fun in all seasons. Still, even while I lived in the city, nature didn’t leave me completely. I remember living in Savannah, Georgia and being distressed by the lack of ability to see the stars. Even though Olean was a city, you could still see a few stars bright enough to compete with the street light pollution. And I will never forget living in a townhouse where I rented a room with a lovely balcony screened by a gigantic live oak tree. I used to relish sitting on that porch from my perch above the street, a sort of tree house away from the world. One day I came home to the scene of what felt like a murder: my beautiful old friend, that elderly, wizened oak was being cut down. I still can’t help but think of cutting trees with that same sense of utter loss for its life. To me they are sentient organisms, and I have felt so since I was young. Everywhere I go, I find at least one tree I grow particularly fond of, like a unique tree in Olean by the river where a trail meets the dikes. The tree there is an old, gnarled oak so massive that it would probably be difficult for two long-armed adults to touch hands around the trunk. I know I’m not the only person who feels this way about trees or animals, but few people will admit it out loud.

Wherever I lived as a child, my family always did two things: planted gardens in the yard, and frequented the nearby parks. I remember many of the homes where we lived through the lens of vegetation that grew on the property, and then by extension I grew to know the nearby state parks as friendly neighbors we would visit regularly. What comes to mind are the open, sunny grasses surrounding the apartment buildings in Hamburg, and the rough scratchy sensation of the crab grass on my skin. It usually left red marks on my arms and legs when I went out to play. Our home on Highview Parkway in Hamburg reminds me of the pale lavender and yellow bearded irises. They smelled faintly sweet, and fuzzy bumblebees would lazily enter the inner sanctum of the massive blooms, their heads weaving in the breeze. The bees would silence themselves during the reverent gathering of pollen, their legs rubbing the yellow fronds of the stamens, and then maneuvered out to the opening of the blossom as if standing on an extended tongue touching a chin, then once again taking to the air in a slow, meandering pattern. Our Fillmore home was my favorite yard, and it still saddens me that after we moved the entire yard was bulldozed in order to put in a new sewer system. For years I learned to love that yard, with the delicate dogwood at the edge of the flagstone courtyard, the forked birch at the center of a triangular field of ivy, the jack-in-the-pulpits beneath the birch, the orange spotted tiger lilies as tall as my child’s height where they grew next to the stacked stone wall, the pine tree taller than my house which became my first teacher in overcoming fear of heights, the patch of rhubarb under the log fence, the patch of raspberries behind the barn where the dark pink berries would grow as big as my thumbs, the vegetable garden where my brother and I often snacked on green beans or tomatoes or peas, and then finally the apple tree where I was first stung by a yellow jacket as I picked up a fallen apple in the grass. Other things, splendid and scary, happened in that apple tree, too.

My father attempted to build me a tree house in that tree, but it was a terrible disappointment to me. He labored to place several boards across a pair of branches, boards he retrieved from the barn, possibly as old as the barn itself, and then placed several smaller slats up the trunk so I could climb up to the crooked platform. Because the “fort” was so disappointing, I didn’t spend much time up there, which probably disappointed my father in turn, but I don’t remember him saying anything about it. What I had wanted was more of a house with a roof and windows, a protected place which could offer privacy, much like the balcony I so enjoyed in Savannah. Instead I got a platform which only served to sit me up in the low branches of the old tree, quite visible from all sides. Later my cousin came to visit and we ventured up to the treehouse, where I had left a few items long forgotten. She upended a container and out skittered a large-eyed field mouse that scared me more than it should have, but I believe now that I learned a fear of mice from my mother, who often got upset about them getting into the house. Still, that apple tree produced more apples than we ever used, many of which hung from the upper branches unpicked, and then would later fall, rotten, to the ground. It seems a waste to think of it now, and I thought it even as a child. With a bit of resourcefulness, we could have learned how to nurture the tree to help the fruit to grow healthier, and then we could have either sold or shared the apples with our neighbors. It would have been a bounty for anyone who wanted them, and I’m sorry I didn’t think of it back then, for the tree is long gone and its days of bearing usefulness of any kind are far in the past.

After Fillmore, our first Olean house had a comparatively small yard dominated by forsythia bushes in back, and ugly evergreens in front. My mother planted tulips under the evergreens. Two old cedar trees grew right behind the house and were easy to climb up to the roof which allowed us entrance through the window of the bathroom. Whenever we were locked out (which wasn’t often—we usually didn’t bother to lock the doors back then), my brother or I would climb one of the trees and open the window to gain entry to the house. In each of these homes comes also a wash of memories of all the parks we frequented. In Hamburg, we visited Chestnut Ridge, where I remember one particular day of sledding, hot cocoa, and a warm fire at a lodge with a large group of families. Deep in my memories I can recall picnics there in warmer weather, but I was young then, and the memories are dim. In Fillmore, we drove to Letchworth, by far my favorite of any state park I ever visited, a utopia of natural beauty and history. I loved Letchworth, and came to know it almost as well as my own back yard. It was filled with the sweetness of playing in cool creeks with our pants rolled up, our shoes and socks tossed on the bank; of wandering the paths next to the rushing river which fed the misty set of falls; enjoying picnics at Wolf Creek, which was my favorite place of all because of the cascading falls and the footpath nearby; on special occasions eating at the fancy Glen Iris Inn and watching the fountain at the pond; being thrilled and terrified by the dizzying depths of the massive gorges; and dreaming about the history behind the old cabins of the Seneca Tribal Council and Mary Jemison (a hero to me), or the museum which still houses the bones of a mastodon which was originally dug from the ground of a nearby farm in Pike, NY. When we lived in Olean, we went to Allegany State Park, and typically picnicked near either Red House or Quaker Lake, where we could either swim or canoe. Lots of spots at the park became sites of family events like birthdays or weddings. The stone tower, Thunder Rocks, and the various trails all became frequent places to explore.

So much of the natural world informed my spirit about how to be a good human. Without ever meaning to, I fell in love with the trees, who became my staunch and reliable protectors. I fell in love with the food I could pluck from the gardens, nourishing me when I was peckish. I fell in love with the blossoms which rose up mysteriously, but without fail, every season, often scenting the air with perfume both heavy and light. I fell in love with thunder storms crackling across the hills, pouring sheets of hammering water on everything it touched, and left the clean fragrance of ozone and hot earth in their wake. I fell in love with waterways where they swirled both rapid and lazy, clear and cool over stony beds full of secretive gray crayfish, darting silver minnows, awkwardly graceful frogs, and darkly elegant snakes. I learned how to skip stones on the streams of Western New York. My body remembers all the seasons, embedded in my cells which are still informed by the redolence of coming weather on the breeze, the color of the sky, the rise and fall of the sun’s hours of the day. When the wind barrels through the woods, I still feel excited, as if in expectation of something spectacular about to happen. The damp, mineral-heavy aroma of lichen-spotted boulders still fills me with a sense of adventure. A path leading into the woods always tugs me forward with a desire to discover where it will lead.

My heart is magnetized by love for this earth. Mary Oliver has just reminded me of it more desperately, more deeply, along with several Ted Talks about climate change and oceanic health. Once I became a mother, I did my best to gingerly open my palms to gift to my children the same serene pleasure of exploring outdoors. We walked daily and often visited nearby playgrounds, sometimes walking along the river or having meals outside. We went camping nearly every summer, many times returning to Fish Creek Pond in the Adirondacks, usually a whole week in which we parents insisted they put down the electronics and enjoy the woods and rivers and ponds. Those days were glorious love affairs of pine-scented walks, hushed canoe rides in the unspoiled wilderness, and reading in a hammock tied between two trees. We played cards in a screenhouse erected over the picnic table or later in the camper my parents bought, and toasted marshmallows over a roaring fire my brother often enjoyed building. As my son got older, he developed a love for building a good fire, too. Stars glittered in a vast light show overhead, a reminder of our remoteness in the rapidly spinning galaxy. I did my best to water the germinated seeds of love for the earth in the hearts of my children, but only time will reveal whether or not I succeeded. My son, at least, seems to appreciate the wilderness. He has always been a willing camper, even joining his step father and I for a backpacking trip once. I hope to do it many more times while my body allows it. My daughter, sadly, seems less enamored with outdoor interests, and is far more content to live her life indoors. But when I was her age, I was somewhat like that, too. At that age I was convinced I was more interested in what excitement cities had to offer, until I finally came back to the center of my compass of the natural, wild world again. Maybe she will, too.

Within the starry nights, the sun-studded afternoons, the fog-shrouded mornings, or the purple-hued evenings, our bodies have a way of remembering our legacy. If we give ourselves time to sit, walk, or paddle within the wild places, the green spaces, that dormant love can be rekindled, even after generations of life in tall buildings which battle the wildness tooth and nail. The fire of old memories from our ancestors can light up pathways in our biology like a trail of gasoline touched by a match. Is it the mitochondria at work? I don’t know, but some ancient knowledge still chants deep in our physical forms, hidden in the ladders of our DNA and waiting to be unlatched from its moors. Release the river of your love if you can. Look at the quality of the sunlight while you walk from your car to the door: is it the wan light of late autumn or the hopeful energy of lime-green spring? Is summer filtering leafy patterns on the path ahead, or is winter creating a cross-hatch of branches over the road? Be present. Cultivate your awareness of the aroma swiftly carried from far places, the scent of rain or snow, the encroachment of grass at the edge of the driveway, or the unexpected and sudden flourish of the yard popping with colors overnight. Notice the wildness of nature rushing against you, nudging like a cat against your leg as you open the door. The earth suffers us unconditionally; our symbiosis, however, is temporary. At any moment, earth can deliver herself of us entirely if she wishes, and we would have little to say or do about it.

Volcanoes, floods, earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, tidal waves, forest fires, draughts—any of these choices are hers to employ, and despite our tyranny on her oceans, forests, rivers, lakes, ice floes, and alpine spaces, she endures us with patience. For how long is uncertain now. She has been warning us for a while that the balance is upset. The animals rush up to heaven and down into the depths of the soil with rapid and frightening numbers of merciless extinction. Garbage even fills the space surrounding the planet, floating in the finite gravity of earth’s orbit and becoming a hazard to the eventual hope of expansion to new worlds, if we ever get the chance. We who still love the earth can still use our voices, our pens, and our hands to communicate this love to the rest of humanity. Do not wait to balloon with boldness; it isn’t boldness that will reach out with a golden finger of perspective or trust. Rather, nurture the wildness of your heart, the crisp apple of your youth, the rich amber sap on your hands, the dirt and grass on your knees, even the burrs on your jacket when you returned from your adventures in the yard, the park, the forest, the desert, the field. Let it enter through your throat and thunder in your chest. Climb the lofty branches of your childhood and sway in the height of your mastery, from the security of the branch, that tree which lovingly supported your weight and made you fearless. Give that to the people you know. Carry them in your boat in the silent slip of waterways. Walk with them under the open skies of birds. Bring them to see the curious rock cairns carefully stacked by willing hands which love the paths into the wild as much as you. Let the wildness spring from your eyes when your heart melts for what you see and know is disappearing. You are the messenger of love now. Be a good missionary of nature’s temple, go forth with flowers as gifts, and watch the joy blossom on the faces you love.

Flying with the Falcon

Living Tiny vs. Trailer Trash

*Photo taken in Moab, Utah when we were traveling out to Nevada with our newly-purchased Airstream. Here we were just getting our feet wet with Airstream life, and Michael and I both miss it dearly. 

An Instagram post I saw over the weekend got me thinking about the difference between living tiny and living in a trailer park. Is there a difference? I mean, aside from the fact that the minimalist movement is huge right now, is there really a difference between choosing to build your own tiny home and having to live in a trailer? The Instagram post I read suggests that yes, there is a difference. As a baby, I lived in a trailer. My mother has pictures of my first year of life in our trailer, which in my mind was just one of the many houses or apartments we called home over the years of my childhood. We moved a lot, and in my younger years I never had issues with how my house looked. Usually my issues were around the jealousy of the toys other kids had, or the food their parents bought. Houses were not a thing I worried about much. I knew a lot of people, including both sets of grandparents, who lived in trailers by choice because they wanted to scale down from taking care of a whole house. So, my experience with trailers is vastly different than maybe some people who lived in a trailer park their whole lives, or who felt a need to escape the trailer park lifestyle for their own sense of happiness. Maybe I need to consider how hoighty it seems for me to blab about living tiny; after all, some people probably hate being trapped in their city apartments the size of postage stamps, or their run-down trailers on the wrong side of the tracks. Let’s get into this.

The biggest difference I can see between the two camps is money. Well, maybe. On the surface, if you go digging around on YouTube for videos about living tiny, you can find a vast array of fancy homes built for style, function, and the choice to live minimally. Lots of people choose living tiny for reasons like wasting less energy, wasting less time on housework and general maintenance, and wasting fewer resources by reusing products in the build. Many tiny homes are built to be eco-friendly in many ways, and it does take a good deal of cash to build some tiny homes that can be totally tricked out with electronics, solar panels, fancy lighting, and expensive finishes. People with the cash to pay for fancy stuff are certainly out there building tiny homes. On the other hand, I have seen lots of people building their own tiny homes because they can’t afford mortgage debt, need to share space with parents and would rather have their own home in the yard, or bought a house they can’t afford and need to get out from under it. I have watched a lot of videos shared by individual families or couples whose sole motivation for building tiny was to save money, not resources. Some of these people are building with a very small amount of capital, and are salvaging a lot of the materials they use in the build. Their reasons are financial…so what’s the difference between living tiny and getting a trailer? In this instance, very little.

When I think about the amount of space available in a mobile home as compared with the space in a tiny house, I actually think a trailer usually has more room. Some tiny houses are built bigger to accommodate the individual’s needs, but a trailer generally has more square footage than the typical tiny house you see built on a trailer. True tiny houses are meant to be moved, though some people do build them on foundations. A mobile home can be moved, but usually isn’t moved once you find a lot to rent at a trailer park (and I mean mobile homes, not RVs). One set of my grandparents who lived in a trailer had two full baths, two bedrooms, a space for laundry, a bumped-out living area, a screened porch, a shed out back, and more cupboards in the kitchen than I have in my current house. The other set of grandparents had a double-wide that felt more like a regular house than a trailer, especially since there were two porches on either side of the trailer, one of which was more like a family room because it had windows and was air-conditioned in the Arizona heat. That trailer was also equipped with two full baths, three bedrooms, a living room, dining room, kitchen, and breakfast nook/foyer. Lots of closets, plenty of space. Trailer trash? Not either of my grandparents’ homes. My grandparents were more privileged than many people who live in trailers in the US, if for no other reason than they were white, but I know a lot of people who live comfortably in trailers.

When Michael and I were living in our Airstream, which was effectively a tiny house on wheels, we had no laundry, a living area which incorporated the kitchen and dining in one space, one closet for our clothes, a small bathroom which had floor space barely large enough for your feet, and a bedroom that only accommodated our mattress with no floor space at all. We had storage over our heads and a dresser built into the wall. That’s more what I think about when I think living tiny. In a trailer, you have room to move around people in the living areas without having to scoot past or move aside—unless you have too much stuff, which is only the fault of the homeowner—but when you live tiny you usually don’t have that luxury. Everything is scaled down to be as minimal as possible in tiny homes, from square footage to storage to what items you choose to have for specific reasons. Most things in a tiny house serve double duty, and must be cleverly designed. A trailer has more space and usually still feels more like a house than an RV or tiny house.

In general, I think there are two different types of people who buy mobile homes, just like there are people who build tiny. You have those who must live in trailer parks because they can’t afford a traditional home, and you have people who are tired of maintaining a traditional home and prefer the life of a nice trailer park where life is simpler. It’s the same with tiny homes. There are people who choose to live tiny because they want to make less impact on the planet or they prefer a minimal lifestyle, and then there are those who see it as a cheaper option to owning a home in an economy unfriendly to homeowners. Some people retire and buy expensive RVs the size of buses, sell their homes, and live the travel life. Other people work remote jobs, save up for an RV, sell their home or escape their city apartment, and live the travel life. I think if people want to see living tiny as a thing of privilege, a choice only made by fancy white people with money to burn, then they are allowed to believe that notion. I am not a fancy person with a lot of money, but I did work hard to plan the life I wanted to live, and I chose carefully with my husband to purchase a used model of a good RV. Airstreams last a long, long time, and we knew it would be easier to revamp an old interior than to build from scratch. It also gave us options to stay at RV parks, when many tiny homes are not allowed due to insurance limits.

My impression of the tiny house movement is that there are just as many reasons and types of people choosing to live tiny as there are reasons and people who live in trailers. Those of us living in the US love our stereotypes, we love to point fingers, lay blame, and stir up trouble. If you live in a trailer, the only reason you have to allow anyone the power to call you trash is if you believe it about yourself. I don’t think anyone is trash, and many of my favorite people lived in trailers. It’s not trashy to live in a trailer, unless you decide to make it so. Whatever other people want to think is up to them, but what really matters is what you believe about yourself. No one can do anything about that except for you. Whether you want to save money to live tiny, you want mobility, you want less work, or you want to use fewer resources, are any of those reasons too hoighty? Should we have to make rich people feel bad about living tiny because they want to be kinder to the earth, or just have freedom to live where they want without a big impact on the planet? If the discussion of living tiny as a thing of privilege is the concern, I believe that’s an impression some people are entitled to have if they wish. Maybe this is more deeply concerning because we see this as a white people thing, and not welcoming to people of color, though I generally think of white people when I picture “white trash,” not people of color. Is that just me? Maybe.

Considering the fact that it does seem to be more of a movement by white people (myself included), I have no doubt that class comes into the equation. If we’re talking about middle class people, then we are certainly talking about a group of people making the choice to live tiny. They may still have to make sacrifices to build a tiny home, but they are certainly more privileged than poor people who feel forced to live in trailers due to a lack of money. Rich people living tiny can live anywhere and buy anything, so of course their tiny homes are going to be far more fancy and upscale than one you build with your own two hands using repurposed supplies. This is the kind of debate that can be unending. We can go round and round about who gets to live tiny and why, but I still maintain that even if you feel you’re living tiny because you don’t have a choice, you still get to choose how you feel about it. We all do. I could allow people to make me feel bad about my choice to live in a shared home so we can save money to build our Airstream interior or purchase land for our tiny home. But what purpose does that serve? Why should I feel bad about saving money to make myself happy, and to live in the woods where I can be quiet? A trailer is a home. That is all. If someone else wants to cut down a person for where they live, it can happen even to a person who lives in a mansion—think about some of the most ridiculous mansions you’ve seen on TV, and imagine how much ridicule people get for building them. There are some wackadoodle houses out there, but if they make people happy, why do we care?

If governments don’t get in the way, and if Wall Street doesn’t obstruct the finances, tiny homes could be the answer to a lot of problems created by the foolhardy greed of the housing market. Living tiny makes less impact on the planet, which is very, very important right now. If we allow agencies with the resources to build tiny homes for the homeless, we could change lives. A lot of lives. For all the people who still live with their parents because their school debt or inability to get work prevents them from having their own home, tiny homes are a possible answer. I looked at a few articles about the “privilege” of living tiny, and how it seems like a mostly white thing, a mostly middle-class thing. That may be true now, but it doesn’t have to be that way. If enough white people make enough noise about the stupidity of the regulations hampering the growth of tiny house communities, then people of color will have less concern about getting in trouble if they want to build. Sometimes those of us with privilege can make way for those who have less. That’s my goal, at least. I see it as a chance for freedom in many ways, and I think that’s for anyone who wants it, not just white middle class people. Most of my life I’ve lived on the edge of poverty, but I still know how to be smart about saving and repurposing. If I can do it, anyone can. Maybe I’m opening myself up to arguments with this idea, but my thinking falls into the camp of making one’s own way in the world. Ignore the haters, the stereotypers, the naysayers. Let them gripe about who deserves what. If you’re a person of color who wants to live tiny, go for it. Who cares what anyone else thinks? Make yourself happy, live free. If you’re a rich mofo with a ton of cash, go build a tiny house on a desert island and be happy living free there. Whatever floats your boat. And if you’re a person who can build tiny houses for the homeless and you have property where they can be parked…go for that, too. This is supposedly still a free country, so live how you like, trailer or foundation, tiny or big. Be yourself, and fulfill your own destiny. Own it. And if you want to call me either trailer trash or privileged, you’re welcome to your opinion. What I know is I’ve worked hard for what I have and I am happy to be where I am now. Get out there and live a beautiful life, friends. You only live once. Define yourself.

Comments are welcome, especially from those who feel I am being unfair in the content of my post here. Do send me your love letters, friends. I enjoy hearing your genuine concerns and am interested in keeping an open mind. All I ask is that we all take good care of each other, even if we disagree. I will love you no matter what your opinion. 

 

Flying with the Falcon

Drummer Hill before the Storm

*Photo taken from the window of our house in Nelson, NH after one of the recent storms.

The weekend has been wild and wooly across the nation, but we got lucky in Southern New Hampshire, at least in the Keene area. Projected snowfall was supposed to be in feet, but it all went North other than a few sugary inches. Cold temperatures are sawing into our tender flesh in the last couple of days, the kind that instantly freezes your nostrils and bites into your exposed skin as soon as you step out the door. Such days are not for hiking or outdoor play, but Michael and I got out on a trail before the storm. We had fun, but it was treacherous. I’ll explain.

For the first time since Thanksgiving, Michael and I had four whole days in a row off from work at the same time. Our plan originally was to drive up to Franconia Notch State Park, a beautiful park in the White Mountains, and home of the famous “Old Man in the Mountain.” New Hampshire prides itself on the famous profile of a man’s face (though I think it could just as easily be a woman—why not?) which can be seen from certain places below the peak. According to Wikipedia, the rock formation which made up the “Old Man” collapsed in 2003. It has since been repaired if you care to go there for a visit. You might want to wait for it to get a little warmer first; the White Mountains are known for their frighteningly bad weather. Needless to say, Michael and I are sturdy Western New Yorkers, quite familiar with snow and cold because we lived right next to the giant snow machine called Lake Erie most of our lives. Even though much of the worst snow fell to the north of us, we still saw plenty of it in Olean, and had lots of below zero weather in winter, too. We were prepared to head up to Franconia Notch despite the winter weather so we could enjoy a day trip out of town to a spot we both enjoyed when we went in 2016…and then the storm decided to make a mess of our plans.

As usual, the weather reports projected the worst possible scenarios, hyping up the amount of snow we should expect to fall, and then the wintry mix weather was supposed to hit…none of it really happened here in Southern New Hampshire. I know they saw more snow up North, but that is typical. Mountains draw weather like magnets attract iron. The weather always goes to the mountains. Either way, we realized that with such weather headed this way, we couldn’t chance the conditions of the road remaining safe for such a long day trip. From where we live in Nelson, it takes over two hours to get to Franconia Notch, and Michael does not rise early on his days off (he works nights, so early mornings are not happening for him). Thus, we knew the trip was foiled. Boo. Instead, we decided to take the same day and head out to a new trail locally so we could enjoy some new scenery. As luck would have it, we found an easy trail right in Keene in a conservancy called Drummer Hill.

I read up on the conservancy before we left to learn that there are roughly 30 miles of trails there, and that we could expect a 700-foot elevation gain from the bottom of the hill. That sounded perfect to me. I love a place with a bunch of trails to explore in a small area. It gives you a sense of variation when you go for a hike instead of always doing the same trail every time, something I loved when we were out in Nevada. Lots of conservancies and government land had trail systems running in a variety of directions, both along the desert floor and up on the peaks. Finding Drummer Hill seemed like we might have the same kind of luck, but this time in the woods. Getting there proved interesting, because the map makes it look as though you can jump right off Route 9 and go to the conservancy trailhead off Timberline Drive, but…not so much. If you head out to this trailhead, use your navigator unless you know where the trailhead is on the road. You have to drive through a mess of tangled streets to get to the trail from Route 9.

When we arrived, the entire entry point to the trail was a solid river of ice. We almost thought better of heading in, but we’re undaunted by winter conditions. Surely the ice would eventually dissipate as we got farther on the trail, we thought. Maybe it’s just an overflow from a nearby melt-off that froze at the base of the road, we imagined. Off we went with the dogs on leash, our Luna very happy indeed because the husky in her was getting to be outside in the white stuff. She loves winter and wilts in summer. Sasha, on the other hand, is made of pudding and does not love winter, but went along for the walk like a trooper. Up we went on the Old Gilsum Road Trail, which was apparently once an actual road used for vehicles. I have no idea how long ago it was turned into a conservancy, and since I never actually saw the “road” beneath the snow I don’t even know if the trail is asphalt or dirt. We had an interesting time of climbing up the hill, which never really cleared of the ice. It was several inches thick, and will take quite a bit of warm weather to melt it all. Still, we persisted for a good long time, often climbing up onto side tracks along the path to avoid some of the most slippery areas we simply couldn’t negotiate.

We saw several trails leading into the woods from the main trail we took uphill, and a few times even talked about taking one to escape the treacherous ice river. Every trail looked fun, but none of them looked much safer than the one we were already negotiating. Rather than wander off in the woods without a map, we decided to stick to the main trail to avoid getting lost. The good news is that we know it exists now, and are quite keen to go back and hike it again to explore more. In any case, we got about half an hour of uphill hiking in when we reached a spot where the trail began going downhill, and that looked even more icy than the uphill trail we took. Both of us were somewhat disappointed to not be able to enjoy the view we wanted to see from the hilltop, but it was still fun to find this little gem of a trail system so close to home. The woods of the conservancy are a surprise to discover so close to the city, and I hear nearby Goose Pond is also lovely. I expect to do lots of exploring when weather improves, though I have to admit I was disappointed by the low snow totals, and then the horribly cold temperatures. Totally ruined my plans to get out and snowshoe in the woods.

Whatever happens with weather next, I usually find time to get outside, even when it’s freezing. I walked today, though it was short because even Luna started limping from the cold. My hope is that the temps get high enough to go for a little hike in my snow shoes without getting frost bite. We’ll see. Then again, if it gets warm enough for a January thaw, maybe I can try the Drummer Hill trails again over the weekend. Whatever happens, I will get outside one way or another. My life requires time in the woods, like food for the spirit. Some people need to run, some people climb granite cliffs, I hike in the woods. Everyone has a thing they love, and I hope you all find what that is and go do it as often as possible. Life will not wait for you to fall into it when you have time. You must make the time. If today is your last day on this earth, ask yourself if you did enough of what you love to be able to leave it behind without regret. If the answer is no, I suggest you fix that. Go enjoy the world, ignore the news for a while, laugh with friends, and forget the dishes piling in the sink. The dishes will never be done, the house will never be clean, and the paperwork will always need filing. I’m not suggesting you live like a slob, but I am saying give yourself a break from the work, even if it’s not all done. You’ll never wish you spent more time working, but you will regret not going out to see what the world has to offer, and the people you could have taken with you.

Flying with the Falcon

Hiking 102: Stay in Shape for the Trail

*Photo taken at Vernal Falls in Yosemite National Park. I took this photo during our hike up 600 stairs (at an altitude of about 4,000 feet from the bottom) to get to the top of the trail, a hike that would have been impossible if not for my regular exercise routine.

Hello, ducks. Winter probably has many of you hibernating, grouchy, sniffling, and feeling trapped by the cold and dark days. For the first time (maybe ever) I am sailing through winter this year. I think it’s because my doctor prescribed me vitamin D. It’s like I was living in black and white, and now I can see color. Have you ever seen those videos of people who try on the special glasses for color-blindness, or videos of people who are deaf and can hear after getting an implant? That’s how I feel this winter, thanks to vitamin D. Even without the vitamins, I still made a point of getting out to walk during the daylight hours every day. I learned years ago that living in the Northlands is unbearable for me if I don’t get outside for sunshine and fresh air. A lot of people use excuses about how icy it is, how cold, or that they can’t walk on unshoveled walks, but what I know about staying in decent shape is that if you don’t use it, you lose it. Waiting for good weather, especially if you live in the North, means you are willing to sacrifice your muscles, your hard work, and your metabolism. Stop doing that to yourself. You deserve to feel good about your health. Make the time to stay in shape, make it non-negotiable, and start immediately. Excuses will not get you on the trail for fun.

Last week, I wrote about prepping for the trail with ideas about footwear, food, maps, and other various and sundry advice. This week, I hope to whip you into a sense of urgency about maintaining your bodily health all year long so you can always be ready to get out into the world and enjoy yourself. If a friend walked in the door today and asked if you wanted to go on a trip to sunny California to visit a National Park, you would probably want to go, right? Let’s say you get the tickets and go all the way to California, drive to Sequoia National Park, and then just when you think things are about to be fabulous, you find yourself wheezing on the edge of the trail while everyone else speeds past. Is that really how you want to live? Did you used to be a mountain biker in your 20s, and now you believe that because you have kids you don’t have time to get out and ride? Do you work a gazillion hours every week and come home wiped out every day, so you tell yourself you don’t have time for exercise? Stop feeding yourself stories. You are the only person in charge of your health, not your spouse or your kids or your best friend or your job. No one is going to get your body in shape to go out and enjoy the world except you. Do yourself a favor and choose to commit to a few minutes of time every day, every other day, or even just three days a week to get in shape. No matter what anyone says, this is not a thing you will ever regret. Being able to leap tall buildings in a single bound is a wonderful way to be.

Here is what I know about being dedicated to consistent exercise: whenever I want to do an outdoor activity I enjoy, I am ready physically. The only thing that might stop me is whether or not I had a good night’s sleep. I eat to maintain my health as much as I exercise. This may sound like I’m a nutcase about staying on special diets and being a freak about getting to the gym. No. What I do is a simple behavioral routine. All week long, Monday through Thursday, I eat foods that nourish my body, no junk. I still eat chocolate every day, but only a little. Every morning I have my coffee, but only two cups. When I need salty food, I eat popcorn I pop myself. In general, I try to follow the Michael Pollan formula of eating food, not too much, mostly plants. Eating meat is something my body tends to require, so I eat it responsibly and mostly poultry and fish. I supplement with vegetarian meals now and then, too. Carbs, especially sugar of any kind, are off the table for the most part, except for brown rice, oat bran, and quinoa. Even though that may sound horribly boring, after eating this way for a while I have discovered that feeling energetic all the time is actually worth the sacrifice of being able to indulge in white foods that don’t give me anything but problems. On Friday night, I reward myself with ice cream, pizza, maybe some Thai food…a good meal I’ll really enjoy. Then on Saturday I might still allow for a little wiggling in the diet, and on Sunday I go back to eating well again. I find it makes a huge difference. Eat food that makes you feel good and stop eating garbage, and you will be amazed at the change in your mood, your energy, and your health.

Aside from diet, I take a no-nonsense policy to my exercise. Now that I have developed a habit of lifting weights every other day, I just make the time. You don’t have to go to a gym if you don’t want to spend the money, nor do you need to make it a big deal. Get some soup cans and do some flies while you watch TV, fill a couple of water jugs and do curls, start doing push-ups or squats, or even just some sit-ups will do wonders for your core. If you need encouragement, find a work-out buddy to keep you motivated. Try finding a group online to keep you honest. Keep a journal or mark your calendar. Do what you must to stick to it, because once you make it a habit, you’ll find it easier to keep going. If you need a reason, remind yourself that weight-bearing exercise tells your bones to be stronger so you are less likely to break them as you age. If you engage your entire skeletal structure, you are less likely to injure your back when lifting heavy things, or to injure body parts in general. Stretching before and after will also prevent injury during exercise, so make stretching part of the routine to save yourself some of the pain. Lots of programs out there can help with exercise from home, and depending on what you want, there are lots of choices. I have had good experience with DailyOm, which has some great yoga routines to keep you strong and limber (I like Sadie Nardini), and for strength training I had great success with DailyBurn. Both are low-priced options for streaming videos, and both have experts teaching their craft. The best way to get moving, I have found, is to do it first thing in the morning. If you start with a few squats, push-ups, and sit-ups (which you can do in less than 10 minutes), it gets you moving and jump-starts your metabolism. Start tomorrow. Why wait?

When you take the time to work your muscles and eat well, it means you get to have the freedom to live your life in whatever way makes you happiest. At any time, you can hop up and hit a trail, go for a bike ride, climb a mountain, go sledding, ski the slopes, or even just enjoy outside time with your kids. Imagine being able to keep up with your young children while they run around the back yard! Whatever your reasons for allowing yourself to make excuses, just stop. You can tell yourself the story that you don’t have time, but that’s not true. If your doctor told you that in order to keep yourself alive, you needed to start exercising daily, you’d find time. Well, the doctor’s orders are in: you need to exercise to keep yourself alive. Seriously, your body requires the exercise anyway, so you might as well make it fun. Get out on the trail even in winter. Buy snow shoes, learn to ski, go sledding, build igloos, get out and shovel the whole block (and make your neighbors happy), or find some other way to make snow fun. Instead of using your energy to complain about how you feel, go move your body. Get outside and find a place with a view of the snow right after it falls in the woods, see the mountains topped with white, or go for a picnic hike with hot food and drinks you bring in a thermos. If you have the right clothes to keep you warm, it will be a lot more pleasant.

I can’t stress enough how important it is to make year-long exercise a deal-breaker. Once you make the commitment to feeling good, you won’t ever want to go back to being a couch potato. Your excuses will melt away as soon as you realize how great your life can be when you embrace taking charge of your time and your health. If you love the woods in summer, love it in winter, too, and then when summer comes you won’t have to bust your can to get back into hiking shape. You’ll be ready to enjoy those gorgeous weather days in the early spring as soon as they happen. Imagine climbing a peak as soon as the buds appear on the trees, when the color is still bright lime-green, the sun is shining, the sky is blue, and your hike is just as easy on this early spring day as the last day of summer fun. A few minutes a day can keep you there, but you have to be hungry for it. Magical thinking will not give you muscles or stop you from eating stale Christmas cookies. Oh, yes, I see you over there! I was you once. Trust me, I used to eat very badly in my younger years, but middle age has forced me to behave better. If you’re young, take care of yourself now. If you’re older, the sooner you keep what you have, the better. It will not get easier with age. Love yourself enough to do what you love. Get out there and enjoy the beautiful world while you make muscles, and treat exercise like a religion; your body is a temple.

P.S. If you might be interested in backpacking, but need some help deciding if it’s for you, I have a course for backpacking beginners. It’s called “Take a Hike!” and even if you’re a novice, you might find some useful stuff in there. I have it set up as a donation-based course, so you can pay as little or as much as you want. It delivers to your mailbox every day for a week, with all kinds of goodies about gear, meals, getting in shape, tents, animal encounters, and more. Here is the link to the page. Happy trails, my friends!

 

Flying with the Falcon

Hiking 101

*Photo taken at Jack’s Valley Conservancy in the Carson Valley of Nevada. You can see Michael and our sweet Luna walking the trail into the sunset. The mountains covered in snow to the right are the Sierra Nevadas, where Lake Tahoe is nestled.

Hello, my lovelies. I hope wherever you are right now, you’re having a moment of respite, a deep breath, a seat in the sun. If not, I hope you can make time for it soon. In the past, I’ve written up some good hikes I’ve taken, some of which I have done alone, others with company, but I thought it might be time to write up a quick little set of tips for people who might not be hikers yet. I know you’re out there: the people who love the idea of getting out in the woods on a trail, but you never quite get there, or maybe you get there but you don’t go very far. When you go hiking without the right shoes, without simple things like a little water or bug spray, a hike in the woods can become a nightmare instead of an adventure. If you’ll indulge me for a few minutes, I would love to offer a bit of advice about getting out in the woods (and this is not just for you newbies—folks who love the woods and don’t make time for it, this is for you, too). Let’s get into it!

First, let me regale you with the real reason I hike. It’s not just because I’m some kind of granola-munching, tree-hugging nature lover who wants everyone to save the pandas. I like pandas, I have hugged trees, I do love nature, and I actually make my own granola, but I go in the woods for two reasons: 1) I feel calmer and happier under the trees, and 2) it’s a lot more fun to walk on a trail than on a sidewalk. If I’m going to get exercise (which I like getting, because I would like my body to work when I’m 90), I prefer having some fun. A trail in the woods is a wondrous thing to get your heart pumping, and every trail offers different things to see. Just today I talked with one of my coworkers who was delighted that I shared a new trail with her, a trail right down the road from where she lives, and she had never been there. She told me her kids loved it! The view at the top of the hill, the fun little bridges, the foundation of an old historic cabin…all of it was such fun to them that she said they’ll probably go back again and again to explore and enjoy it. It made me happy that I took the time to tell her about it because it brought her such joy. That’s what I find on the trail.

When you get out in the woods, the sounds of water running over stony creek beds, the wind rustling the leaves, birds singing, and vistas of hills and valleys all delve into the part of your brain that still remembers how to be part of the natural world. Even if you live in a city, your body still remembers the rhythms of hunting, gathering, and living under the trees. If you have trouble finding that part of yourself, you may just be underprepared for the experience. For me, it all begins with a good pair of shoes. I love my Adidas Swift R hiking shoes (no, I am not getting paid to say that—they are just awesome shoes). They offer great support for your feet, which is good for the rest of your body’s alignment, they are also waterproof (a must for me, because wet feet while hiking equals blisters), and have great soles for climbing up and down inclines. The soles grip rock surfaces very well, which I love. Recently I got a good pair of insoles for my shoes, which I now use in place of whatever comes inside any of my shoes. They have changed my life. I no longer have hip pain, and my knees are improving now that they are more properly aligned from the proper foot placement. It matters. Get good shoes. I advise going to a place like EMS or REI if you can, because the people who work in those stores actually go out in the world and do the things you want to do, like hiking, backpacking, cycling, mountain biking, canoeing…you catch my drift.

After shoes, I would say the next biggest thing for me is clothing. If you’re going on a long hike and it’s hot, don’t wear jeans and a hoodie. Avoid stiff jackets or pants, or any clothing that restricts your movement. I shouldn’t have to say these things, but I’ve actually seen people going out on trails—in the Adirondacks High Peaks area, no less—in dress clothes. Please be smarter than those people. What I love most on the trail for my own comfort is a good pair of stretchy cotton pants that are loose, have lots of pockets with zippers, and also either roll up to capri length, or zip off the legs. When on the trail, conditions can change to be warmer or cooler than when you start. Wear loose layers for ease of moving, climbing, and even sitting down for a rest. My favorite shirt is actually a cotton tee, though my husband swears by his “breathable” polyester shirts and nylon pants. I do not get along well with synthetic clothing, so cotton and wool are my standards, but you have to try things to know what you like best. Whatever you do, save your money and just use what’s in your closet for now. It’s hiking, not a night at the gala. Nobody in the woods cares if you wear Northface or LL Bean or whatever other outlandishly expensive brands you think you need. Be sensible. That goes for socks, too. I wear my wick-away cotton or wool socks. Not fancy.

Aside from clothing, make sure you bring water. I love my Camelbak because it sits well on the back and shoulders, and has pockets for snacks and other little things you might want. It also keeps your hands free so you can walk without carrying anything. If you don’t have one, just use a good backpack you have at home and carry enough water to be able to drink about 8oz an hour. If it’s hot, bring more water, but use your own common sense. You don’t want to carry gallons of water for an hour-long hike. You won’t need that much water even in the desert, unless you left the house already dehydrated. For longer hikes, use your best judgement. Even when I hiked in the hot Nevada sun for a couple of hours, I never emptied my full Camelbak bladder, which holds a liter and a half of water, and I tend to drink a lot when hiking uphill. Save your fancy sports drinks for when you get home. You are unlikely to need the electrolytes unless you’re hiking in Death Valley in midday sun. Of course, you know yourself better than I do, so use your best judgement of your own body’s needs.

When heading out into the woods on the East Coast, expect bugs. You are going to be very unhappy in the woods without bug spray, even if you wear clothing that covers everything. Ever encounter a mosquito in Maine? They’re more like helicopters than bugs. Black flies in New Hampshire will feast on your flesh, and leave you covered in pock marks. In Western New York the mosquitos rely on sheer numbers to eat you alive in swarms. Farther south, the bugs get longer life cycles, and are often rather diligent when getting after their victims. Trust me, wear the bug spray. I actually like the Herbal Armor from All Terrain or even the “Natural Insect Repellent” from Repel. Both contain Geraniol, which is what I believe is the secret ingredient that keeps the bugs at bay. You do need to apply it every few hours because sweat will cause it to run off your skin, just like sunscreen. Both of these brands are DEET-free, which I recommend. DEET is a fairly frightening chemical. I avoid it at all costs. For the record, I know several people who have used Herbal Armor in Africa, and said it kept the bugs away even there—so I think you’re covered. Spray yourself before going on the trail, and then bring the bottle with you to reapply if you plan a hike for more than an hour or two.

Bring snacks. It gives you an excuse to sit down when you catch a nice view. So many of my favorite moments on trails has been sitting on a log or rock snacking on something while I looked out at a rushing stream, a stretch of mountains, or listened to birds calling across the forest. I love those peaceful moments of well-earned rest on the trail when I can put up my feet and refuel for the walk back. Enjoying a picnic can be even more satisfying, especially if you know a really beautiful spot on a trail you’ve already traveled. I can’t think of many more lovely ways to spend an afternoon. Many of the best meals I’ve ever had were on the trail, if for no other reason than food always tastes best when you’ve worked hard to carry it. I don’t know what it is, but the satisfaction of hauling a meal on your back is like none other. A word of caution, though: if you plan to bring a picnic, pack it in a bear can or Op bags. The bear can will ensure that animals cannot get your food, even if they try, and bears in some places of the country already know the scent of bear cans and will leave you alone. Op bags, if used correctly, can be bought at EMS (last I knew) and are military grade plastic to prevent odor from escaping. I tried these with my dogs, so I know they work. I put a raw steak in one of the bags and put it on the floor; my dogs walked right past it without any clue that a steak was sitting right under their noses. Believe me, if they knew the steak was on the floor, they would have eaten it. Really, you’re smart to carry any food in an Op bag if you can, just to be safe.

Once you have all these ducks in a row, now all you need to do is find a trail. All Trails is a fairly good app to use on your smart phone, though I have found that it doesn’t always show all trails near you. I know several trails near where I live now that don’t show up on the app. It does, however, have good maps and directions for hikes, as well as geeky stuff like elevation gain and difficulty level (which I totally love). I use the app in combination with Google searches for parks and hiking trails. If you’re not an experienced hiker, try a state park near you. Park rangers are full of knowledge about the trails in the parks, and they can give you great directions to pick a trail right for your level of ability. Usually I like a moderate to difficult level with a little elevation gain, but some people prefer a flatter walk in the woods. Whatever your level of interest, I guarantee you can find a surprising network of trails near where you live. Almost everywhere in the country is covered in trails, and you may not even realize they’re around you unless you go looking. I also like finding trails in books at the library, on websites set up by local trail conservationists, or even local hiking groups (which you can sometimes meet at the local library, just ask the librarians—they may know). Please remember to bring a trail map with you. Print one at home on paper, or make sure your phone is charged with the screen of the map still up when you leave to hike—once you get in the woods you may not have cell service. Keep that map saved on your phone as a screen shot. If you aren’t certain you know how to use trail markers or follow the directions on the map without getting lost, please bring a more experienced hiker with you until you learn the ropes. Getting lost in the woods is not what you want, so be prepared with either knowledge or help to stay safe.

With all these resources and tips, I hope you feel inspired to get out there and see beautiful things. If you lack in motivation, remind yourself that you need to live for today. We never know if we’ll have a tomorrow. Don’t wait for the perfect time. Just go and do it. Make a plan for the weekend or a day off from work, and just get everything together by the door. Have it all ready so you can just jump into your clothes and walk out the door into the bright morning sun. You’ll be so happy you took the time to appreciate what the earth created near you, and the sense of pride you’ll have when you realize how good you feel while you breathe all that oxygen from the trees. Nothing cures the blues like sunshine and fresh air, unless you combine it with endorphins from exercise. 🙂 Be good to your body and stretch before you leave, and if it’s been a long time since you hiked, plan a nice hot bath when you get home. Savor all of it, and remember to save the camera for just a few snaps here and there. Appreciate the time under the trees, at the top of the hill, or alongside the stream. Make the time, and you may discover that you want to make it happen more often.

For anyone interested in learning about backpacking (not to be confused with day hiking, which is what I describe above), I happen to have a course for beginners on my “Resources, Courses, and Short Stories” page. The course is titled “Take a Hike,” and is an email course delivered over several days. I set it up as a course offered by donation, so you can pay whatever you feel it’s worth to you. I go over gear, food, clothing, tents, sleeping apparatus, animal encounters, and much more. If it interests you, here is the link to the page so you can check it out for yourself. Do send me love letters, readers! I enjoy hearing about your experiences in the outdoors, and getting feedback about my content. My aim is to please.