Flying with the Falcon

Stories from the Heart

*Photo taken at Sequoia National Park. It’s hard to tell the way the photo cropped, but the shape of a heart appears in the tree, with the graffiti word, “rage,” above it.

I had a blog post about self-care all set to go, an article about prepping for the trail and the importance of diet and exercise…but I decided instead to share some stories with you, reader. Next week I will get back to trail prep, but for a moment let me take your hand. Hear me say I love you, no matter who you are. I do. Your purpose in this world is important. Be here with me for a few minutes, and know that I realize we may be miles apart, but that does not change how I feel about your importance. We all have stories, we all tell stories when we meet; stories string us together like knots in a net, and we are all tied to one another whether we know it or not. For a short time, let me tell you a few stories because I feel right now it is important. My purpose in life is to tell stories and hopefully change lives, or at least draw attention to the need for humans to take care of each other. My first story begins at the Canada-US border on the Peace Bridge.

Long, long ago I went on a trip to Canada with my parents and a family friend. After so many years, I have no idea why we went to Canada, or what we did there. What I remember is sitting in the back seat of our family car, hearing the conversation of the border patrol officer as he questioned a man I cared about, a man accused of being a foreigner attempting to gain entry to the US without documents. His name was Gordon, and he was a Seneca. The accent heard by the officer was not foreign, it was more American than my own. After several questions and answers fired back and forth, the officer insisted we pull over and park, saying that Gordon needed to go inside to answer more questions. My concern grew like a balloon filling with water, the weight of my anxiety trembling and contained only by the confines of my inability to understand what was happening. When we pulled into the parking space by the concrete building, my parents asked Gordon if he would like them to go with him. Gordon said no, he was used to this, and he would be fine. I didn’t feel like it was fine. I knew this was wrong, and I was afraid for him to go into the building alone. I knew this, even though I was under the age of five or six.

We sat waiting in the car, though I don’t know how long. My fear held me prisoner while I watched for Gordon, a man I knew as kind and funny. He made me laugh, as did many of our Seneca friends, and I associated our visits to the reservation with a great deal of joy. Campfires and dancing, stories, delicious food, beautiful colors on hand-sewn outfits that jingled and whirled as if alive. I sat in the seat, waiting. In my memory, I am cold. I don’t even know what time of year this happened, but I remember being cold, and dark. The wait for Gordon didn’t last terribly long, according to my parents, but it seemed infinite. When he returned to the car, he was full of assurances that he was fine, but that exchange at the border remained in my memory, rooted to me as a lesson of the reality of how people I love might be treated because they speak with an accent. To me, Gordon’s accent sounded beautiful. To border patrol, it sounded an alarm to protect the country. Though both points of view may be valid, what is the truth? The officer’s fear, or my love? My love caged with fear?

When I was a few years older, we had moved to a small town in Western New York. My parents wanted to move away from the Buffalo area, where we lived back when the border patrol incident happened, because they thought small town life might be safer and better for my brother and me. The town they chose had a population of about 650 people, and was situated close to Houghton, a town where a conservative Christian college is located. At school I befriended children who lived in Houghton, and who were vocal about their beliefs. I was not Christian. When my “friends” at school discovered this, it became routine for them to tell me I was going to hell because I wasn’t saved. They thought I didn’t believe in Jesus, and that I was condemned. My retorts always revolved around the fact that I didn’t believe in hell, so it didn’t matter, but those accusations still stung. My “friends” labeled me as an outsider, a heretic, a person undeserving of the compassion of God because I didn’t share their religion. For all the years we lived in that small town, those girls kept at their consistent denial of my right to heaven. Their judgement of my right to God’s love left an indelible rift in my spirit, and anchored a deep well of insecurity in my desire to discuss religion with people. I felt the need to hide my beliefs in God, and the fact that I was raised to believe all people are equal, no matter what. It also bred a sense of shame about being different, and I still believe now as I did then that no matter what religion (or lack of it) we choose as our community, I don’t think God, if God even exists, cares. I think what matters is whether or not we are kind, take care of other people, and express love for each other. What I felt from my friends did not strike me as love. Later in life, the religion to which I clung in my childhood and young adult life also left me reeling, bereft, and lacking in love. I left.

In sixth grade, I still lived in the little town next door to Houghton, and we were learning about the Holocaust. I know what you’re thinking. Oh, no. Here we go again with another Holocaust story. No, it’s not really about the Holocaust so much. Our teacher, Mrs. Cummings, was a sweet, kind, mild-mannered woman near the age of retirement. I remember she wore glasses which she kept on a chain around her neck, and I used to think I wanted to have such a necklace because I liked the way the chain looked when it dangled from the sides of her liver-spotted face. One day Mrs. Cummings brought in the movie projector, and we all got excited, as kids did back in the 70s and 80s, because movie time was fun. The lights went out, and the screen shone bright white before the film caught, and then the black and white images of people in labor camps flooded my head with nightmares which revisited me for years. I have no memory of what Mrs. Cummings said during that footage. I do remember the outrage in her voice, uncharacteristic of her usual soft-spoken tone. One particular image of a man in a barber chair stood out as particularly horrific: a man having his hair pulled out by the roots. Even now, it brings tears to my eyes. I was in sixth grade, and it was too early for such images to be tethered to my soul. Sixth grade.

Yesterday, a woman I only know through Twitter posted a response to a tweet about the children being separated from their parents at the border. She said she understood their pain because she had been abandoned by her own mother at the tender age of five. Fortunately she had a grandmother who took care of her, but she said her experience left her with scars she still must manage today. I tweeted back to her I was sorry she had to experience such a loss, and that I understood her pain as a survivor of my own past abuse. She thanked me for my comment, and I was glad I connected with a woman I never met in person, a woman who deserves to know her compassion is recognized, and that someone cares. So many of us do care. We care deeply, and many of us are deeply troubled by the knowledge that children are being taken from their parents, especially when we learn many of the people suffering this fate have come asking for asylum. Certainly there are those crossing illegally, but do we know why? Are they fleeing danger in their home countries? It’s possible some are criminals, traffickers of humans or guns or drugs, or maybe they have gang affiliations. Even if that’s true of a few, the number of people in the world who do harm to others purposefully is much smaller than those who want to do good. I am willing to believe most of the people coming to the US only want to be safe, get a job, take care of their children. And now babies as young as three months old are showing up in Michigan in need of shelter because the border patrol took those babies from their parents.

I grew up knowing and loving all kinds of people, from all parts of the world. Thanks to the religion I left, I did learn the value of multiculturalism, equality, and the beauty of honoring our differences. Individuality was seen as a strength, and I learned to take care of people because they needed help, not because they belonged to a certain group or had a certain skin color. I have a lot to learn about prejudice and how it affects people of color, but I do understand being treated as “other” even though my skin is white. As a woman, I have been subjected to plenty of unwarranted abuse which I must work hard to overcome. When I became a mother, it turned a key in my subconscious. Any time I hear a child cry, it urges me to run to the rescue, to help, to hold, to reassure. The cries of babies, toddlers, grade-schoolers, mothers, and fathers stirs up the memory of cold vinyl in the back seat of our car, cold condemnation of my religion, a cold black and white image of a man having his hair torn out, and the cold white background of Twitter when a woman speaks of the loss of her mother at a tender age. We cannot afford to be cold now. I cannot. Those babies need their mothers and fathers. Every single one of us who knows about this horror, we are all part of this cold, despicable network of agents who are parting parents and children, often losing the children in the chaos of detention centers spread across the nation. A child as young as three months has absolutely no means of advocating. How will that child’s cries be interpreted? Who can hear the names of a child’s parents in her cries? Only the parents, and they are lost in prisons, waiting for who-knows-what behind bars, possibly to be deported while their children are still in the hands of those who took them.

My fingers are icy and clammy while I type, despite the comfortable temperature of the room. The temperature of my heart has dropped down into the hypothermic space of hate, a gray lining around the bubbles in which we live, the hazy cloud of misunderstood meanings which we create around “others.” There are no others. There is only us. Humans. We belong to the same family. Those babies are our babies. Those mothers are me. Their hearts are mine. Their grief is my burden. I already donated to the ACLU and Together Rising to help get lawyers to advocate for the human rights of the families being broken apart. If you believe in God, your prayers are not enough. If you are a parent, hear the cries as your own children, because they are. Those are your children sleeping in cages, being given to strangers to hold them if they are fortunate, begging for their loved ones. We cannot undo the suffering our nation has already caused, regardless of how long this has been happening, but we can begin building a future bound to love. Let love be your fuel to propel you to whatever action you can take. This is my action today, to ask you, reader, in your importance, to make a choice of love. An action list can be found here to give you ideas for ways to help, if you feel inclined. You may want to call your US senators to tell them to support the families, deny funding to ICE, or whatever else you believe is in their power. Do what your heart tells you, and know that I love you no matter what you choose.

Flying with the Falcon

On Life and Gritting It Out

*Photo taken from Summit of Mt. Herman, overlooking Olean, NY.

Last week I woke to the news that Anthony Bourdain was found dead from an “apparent suicide.” What?! After years of success traveling the planet, bringing the world’s cultures into the homes of those who watched his shows, giving us all a reality check for what it’s like to live in the social structures and microcosms of every conceivable country, after overcoming his own demons of addiction to heroine, and finally becoming a father in his 50s, how is it possible that now the world must live without the snarky-voiced narratives of Anthony Bourdain? The world cruelly rips open the bellies of any and all who dare to live well, you might think. Though I feel despair for Anthony’s choice to die rather than face whatever troubles provoked his decision, I believe there is always a reason to find a way to live. Every life is made for greatness, even those busboys Anthony liked to joke about in his writing, the poor unfortunates who lived on the skids in cities, broke and barely getting by on the meager tips scraped from the bottom of the barrel. Even the homeless, the destitute, the indebted, the migrants, the beaten, the tortured, the addicted, every single person suffering in the world right now deserves to know that even when life is at its most miserable, your life is meant for greatness if you can find the formula for what you are meant to share with the world. This alone will not save you, though. Tony found his greatness, but he didn’t believe it. He didn’t see it for what it is, or he would still be alive.

Last week I failed to climb a mountain I thought should have been a sure thing, an easy achievement to get back into shape for summer backpacking. To say the least, I was surprised and dismayed that the mountain conquered me. I got to the tree line and had to retreat. This surprise could have turned me toward a path in which I started telling myself the story that because I am nearing 50, because I felt so exhausted from a climb without weight on my back, because I am in better shape than ever and I still couldn’t climb, for all these reasons I am doomed if I go backpacking again. I could tell myself the story that backpacking is no longer possible for me, but that would be shortchanging my ability to rally and overcome obstacles. My past is littered with failures, all of which I have overcome, and by overcome I mean that I am still alive and have continued to improve on my own inner workings. Even though life can be a grind, I kept gritting my teeth and moving forward. Believe me, I have had many moments when I wanted to give up, to run away (and I did run away from a lot of things), to escape. What I learned is that no matter how often you run or hide, the same problems will keep coming back to the kitchen door, rapping at the window in the middle of the night, and whispering the worst of your fears through the cracks in the sash. You can rob the world of your life in those moments, or you can decide to find a reason to live.

Lately the world seems like an apocalyptic novel. Every world culture hinges to the others, social media has bonded us all together in a strange and sometimes upsetting web of real-time updates to the especially tragic horrors we visit upon every kind of life, whether human, animal, vegetable, or mineral. We can view humans as a cancer or a magnificent wonder of ingenuity, and both are true, depending on who you are and what you experience. While one person celebrates victories, another wallows in losses so excoriating just breathing can seem impossible. Why is it that some people who have lived through the worst humanity has to offer can overcome those nightmarish experiences and grow into happy, well-adjusted people who genuinely cherish life? Why do some people who appear to have it all figured out and live a life of fame and fortune suddenly decide to check out in a mysterious suicide in a random hotel room on the other side of the globe? It boils down to belief. Not belief in God, not belief in humanity, not belief in being positive. None of those things will bring you comfort, not really. Plenty of people who take their own lives or falter through life on the edge of wanting to die believe deeply in God or their religion. Just saying positive mantras all day will not bring you to believe in them. The kind of belief that will change your life lies only in what you choose to see in the world, and whether or not you believe you can be, do, or have anything you want of it if you are willing to make the time for yourself.

After my failure to climb Mount Monadnock, only three days later I dragged myself up the steep slopes of another mountain. Granted, this other mountain gave me less than half the elevation gain of the hike up Monadnock, but it was still a challenge to climb. As I said in my last post, East Coast hiking tends to be harder in terms of the steep grades. The slopes are far steeper than most out West. No matter how little nor how much it required of me, I made myself go so I would get two things: 1) I gained the success of a climb, and 2) I get myself in better shape so I have more assurance of future success. We have the option of giving up when we peer into the periscope and discover danger ahead, or we can train ourselves for battle so we have the chance to win. If you look at the failure as a chance to grow and improve on yourself instead of an insurmountable obstacle, then failure becomes a friend, a teacher, an opportunity. It’s easy to look at the world through the lens of horror, hate, and division, but why? Because it’s what we are trained to see. The world also happens to be full of loving, thoughtful, generous people who are doing inventive, creative, astonishing feats of human ingenuity. We hear often that lessons must be learned “the hard way.” Who says? Lots of people. Does that make it true? For them, yes, and for anyone else willing to believe it. Belief, as I said, is the key.

If you believe the world is flat, you will find proof because your brain is trained to find the proof of any beliefs you consistently tell yourself. Whatever you heard or saw in your lifetime, if you internalize those experiences into your belief system, your brain spends its day looking for signs of proof. Two people with completely opposing beliefs will see proof of their beliefs in the world around them, and they will both believe their experiences tell them they are right. This is why we have so many people fighting about fake news or the nuances of why New York pizza is better than Chicago’s. Just because you have a belief system which allows you to see what you want to see in the world does not mean you’re necessarily right—it just means your mind finds proof for your beliefs to seem real to you. Truth is still truth, even if you deny it. I mean, no matter how much you want to believe the world is flat, it’s not going to shape itself into a pancake just for you. The only reason you can believe the world is flat is because you’ve never traveled to space to see that it’s actually round. Until then, you can tell yourself all day and all night that the pictures of earth from space are all just a hoax. Like I said, belief systems are built on proof. Plenty of people believe the world is flat. Lack of experience will shape a mind to believe a lot of things that aren’t true. This is also what happens when people don’t believe in themselves.

Obviously, the world is full of a lot of scary people doing a lot of bad things. But how many times in your day do you experience those things? Compare that to how often you encounter people who are kind, thoughtful, polite, or just nice to you. I have a feeling the latter is more correct, though it’s possible you live in a very scary, unhealthy place where you have to fear for your life every day. Those places exist, and I do not doubt their power to keep a person trapped in fear and despair. And yet, I was homeless once. I struggled through vast amounts of trauma over the first 25 years of my life. Most of my life I lived on the edge of poverty and in relationships rife with chaos. Did those experiences make me miserable? Sure, but somewhere inside me I knew there was a better life to be lived, and I searched for it until I learned how to create it for myself. Even though I had no idea how I would find a way to make my life any better, because I saw people living happy, fulfilled lives I knew it was possible. And it is possible. For anyone. For you. Belief is the key.

When you want to learn how to climb a mountain, you go find a mountaineer, not a person who’s terrified of heights. Because I was so terrified of heights and wanted to overcome that fear, I hiked with my husband, who has no fear of heights and loves to conquer mountains. He taught me with patience how to overcome my fear, and now I climb mountains all by myself with no hint of fear. Did I have reasons for my fear? Sure. After being dangled over a 450-foot canyon by my arm, and being told I would be dropped (at a young age)…that certainly filled me with serious phobia. I still have trouble with ladders. But phobias can be unlearned, and so can beliefs. If your belief system falsely accuses you of being an imposter, that you’re not good enough, or you deserve to live in misery, then that is exactly what you will see and experience. People who have achieved fame or fortune aren’t just lucky; they usually follow a path which takes them to that success, and it has to do with belief. Those who do achieve success by accident may not believe they deserve it, and then they live with guilt, shame, a life out of balance. None of us needs to live that way. All of us deserve to be happy, healthy, and safe, and I believe the world has plenty of resources for all of us.

If you have been struggling, please, take the time to center yourself, discover your greatness, believe you deserve to be happy, and discover what you are meant to do in the world. The world needs you. Find the voice of someone inspiring to uplift you, give yourself the gift of a retreat to a place that offers you relief from the troubles of the world, treat yourself to a good meal which will nourish your tired body, go outside when the sun shines and soak it up for an afternoon, head to a bookstore or a library and get a book that can teach you how to change what’s missing in your life. No matter how much you know, there is always more to learn. A Lakota hoop dancer named Kevin Locke once said, “Every child will unlock a secret.” I believe that’s true. Every individual in this world will experience their own unique way of expressing their knowledge, and when we realize how important we all are to the health of our planet, we all win. I wish Anthony Bourdain had found peace with his journey while he was alive. His death has broken a lot of hearts in the world because he deeply touched so many of us, even without ever meeting him in person. His greatness was obvious to all those who learned from his commentary on world culture and the importance of humility. May we all learn the lesson of how important it is to attend to our inner selves, rather than rob the world of our fortunes.

For those who may be interested in delving deeper into creating a life forged around passion rather than being a slave to despair, I have created a seven-day course I am going to offer for free for the rest of the month. I originally planned to put it up on my website as a paid course, but the loss of Anthony Bourdain has urged me to give it to anyone who might need it right now. It’s more important to me that people get help they need. For the rest of the month of June, the course will be available below this post. Please share with anyone who may need it. We need to be good to each other, take care of each other, and not just offer random acts of kindness, but purposeful and meaningful acts of compassion. Love will be a lighthouse. Get out there and do beautiful things, and believe those beautiful acts will be a healing balm to both the giver and the receiver. Be a lighthouse. Open the kitchen door wide. The world will be what we make of it right now.

Click the link below to sign up for the course:

Free Yourself Email Course

Flying with the Falcon

Failure to Climb

*Photo taken below summit near tree line from the Dublin Trail on Mount Monadnock in New Hampshire.

We all have those moments in life where we fail at something, but it’s especially jarring when we fail at something we expect to achieve with ease. It’s a life lesson, maybe. Or maybe it’s just a bad day. I blamed my failure on spring allergies, exhaustion, and not eating enough breakfast. It really is my own fault, but I want to blame it on things out of my control. I really can’t. In reality, I think we all like to blame other people, unfortunate circumstances, the dog, random problems at the grocery store, whatever excuses we can find when we fail. This weekend I failed to climb a mountain I thought I should be able to climb with ease. The entire time I struggled, I sought for reasons why I was having such a difficult time. We humans often like to do that. Blame. Well, crickets, we can only blame ourselves when we fail. Good news: we can also rise to the occasion and try again. Let me explain.

Over the weekend I drove to New Hampshire to visit Michael. I miss him horribly, and because his schedule at work is so erratic, I often only get to see him once every ten days to two weeks. It’s hard for both of us, but we chose this because if I stay in Olean I can keep working on the house while he makes money in New Hampshire. We don’t like it, but it’s temporary. We plan to make New Hampshire our new home base soon, and we will continue traveling for a while because we love it, but we need to sell our Olean home in order to buy land in New Hampshire. The drive to New Hampshire from Olean is seven hours, about half of which is highway driving. It’s a long drive to make for just a short few days, especially when two of those days is spent on the road. Too short, but we make the most of it.

I brought along our Camelback water bladders so we could hike Monadnock on Saturday because both Michael and I want to go backpacking in the Adirondacks over the summer, and we both need to get ourselves in condition for the trip. Though Mount Monadnock is only a little over 3,000 feet, it’s the kind of climbing one must do in the Adirondacks: lots of scrambling over boulders and big rocks. I expected this to be a snap, since out West I climbed much higher mountains out there every other day. Heck, I climbed to the peak of a prominent mountain in the chain of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, well over 12,000 feet, though I did only have to climb the last 2,000 feet to get to the top. Still. It was high, and plenty of the climbing I did on other peaks was very challenging with a lot of loose sand and steep slopes. Plus, a few years ago I climbed Mount Haystack in the Adirondacks with a 30-pound pack on my back, and that peak was almost 5,000 feet. So you can see my thinking here. This peak which I climbed a couple of summers ago should have been easy.

Michael and I both suffered from a lack of sleep, to be fair, but I am used to having my sleep interrupted and functioning without much difficulty. We ate a decent breakfast, filled our Camelbacks, brought along a few snacks, and away we went to the Dublin trail on the western side of the mountain. If you hike Monadnock, you can go to the White Dot or White Cross trail, which is supposedly easier, but you have to pay a fee. We chose the Dublin trail because it was closer to drive, and because we wanted a little variety. When we got there it was early afternoon, plenty of time to hike the peak and back before dinner. I read a website post that stated it should take about 2 ½ hours…right. Well, if you’re not slow as molasses in January, which is what we were. At first, I got on the trail and felt fine. I was excited to hike the peak again because I remember it being fun to scramble on the rocks to get to the top. It’s a fun challenge to be free of the past terror that used to turn my legs to jelly when I saw how high I was on a mountainside. Now I climb with the glee of a Billy goat, tackling slopes I never would have dared in the past. Little by little the dirt track became large rocks to negotiate on the trail, and then the rocks became more like stairs. Stairs which went up and up and up, seemingly without end. Without bug spray, we were at the mercy of the gnats and mosquitoes under the trees, which only made the experience more difficult. Still, despite my growing fatigue, I felt determined to push onward.

By the time we reached the portion of the trail where the trees shrank in size and the exposed rocks became the norm, both of us felt whooped. I could not believe it had taken us two hours to get to the point where we still had at least another half hour (or an hour at our rate of speed) to achieve the summit. What the heck? We sat down and ate some almonds, looking at the beautiful view. From that height, we could see the dots of lakes that appear as puddles in amongst the saddles of the rounded valleys. The sun shone between the imposing clouds, birds soared in the updrafts, and the breeze kept the bugs away for a while. Despite this delicious moment on the mountainside, we felt spent. We knew it would be a mistake to try to press ourselves any farther, as both of us knew we were running on empty. At the time, we blamed the humidity, the lack of sleep, our work schedules…blah, blah, blah. We threw in the towel because we had to get back down without getting hurt, and it was a wise choice. By the time we got to the bottom again, I was in a haze of exhaustion like I had been hiking for days. In fact, I’ve felt better after days of hiking than I did coming off that peak.

What reason could possibly be blamed for such a bad climb? I have only myself to blame. Since coming back to the East Coast, I have climbed zero mountains. The only hiking I have done has been on relatively flat trails, with only a few occasions when I climbed up hills, not mountains. Hills do not qualify as training for mountain climbing. After all my hard work out West, once I got home I got wrapped up in working on tearing the guts out of the Airstream, and then working on the house in Olean. I did not climb any mountains. The last mountain I climbed was in February. February! That, in my mind, seems like weeks ago, but it’s been months. And though I have had plenty of success climbing mountains in the East, the climbing I did out West was very different. Less humidity actually works to your advantage out West, in my opinion. Your sweat actually does its job out there because it evaporates and cools you. In the East, not so much. Also, even though you have less oxygen out West due to altitude, you also have much easier climbing on the slopes because the trails are a gentle grade, even up high peaks, most of the time. For some reason, East Coast hiking means climbing much more difficult grades while also scrambling over boulders. Not so easy.

Now I find myself in the position to have to work very hard to train before I attempt any hiking in the mountains here, otherwise I will most likely face a very miserable trip. At this point, I absolutely must find a place where I can scramble up a steep slope at least once a week if I want to move at a pace faster than a sloth when I don my heavy pack in the wilderness. But I am glad to have the face-slap on an afternoon hike, rather than to have the misery of unexpected fatigue and suffering due to unpreparedness on a backpacking trip. Even though I’ve been hiking for a long time, even I need to be reminded to take care of myself in order to avoid issues on the trail. Let this be a lesson, hikers. If you plan to get out there this summer, take the time to prep yourself with a strenuous day hike first. Know your body and what it can do, and then learn what you must strengthen before you have to be reliant on your body for days or even weeks on the trail. Even if you’ve backpacked in the past, if it’s been a while, take the time to test your limits before you go so you don’t have any nasty surprises. Nothing is worse than getting out on the mountain only to discover you don’t have the strength to make it over the peak to the camping area on the other side. Trust me, it’s not fun. So, get out there and get strong. Find the views. Enjoy the struggle. Drink in the fresh air and bask in the sunshine. Those of us who choose to hike know that the struggle and conquering the peak is a joy like no other, and we do it for the satisfaction of being able to say, “I climbed that mountain.” Yes, I did climb that mountain once. And I will do it again.

Flying with the Falcon

Labors of Love and Indecision

*Photo taken in front of Barlett House on Laurens Avenue in Olean, NY. 

Hello, ducks. I hope you have been enjoying spring wherever you live. Lately I have been walking the city of Olean, driving the countryside when I can, and getting out whenever I am able to enjoy the lovely fresh air for a quick dog walk. Here in Western New York everything smells like freshly-mown grass, lilacs, hyacinths, and thunderstorms. All the lawns are growing faster than anyone can keep up with their mowers, the bushes are looking leggy with long fronds sticking out at odd angles, and the trees are almost fully green with leaves. One of my favorite things about spring in Olean is to walk by the impressive Bartlett House historical society on Laurens Avenue, where the blossoms of the crabapples and dogwoods are so mature they utterly cover the branches. The gorgeous scent of those blossoms fills the air, and across the street the Presbyterian church has a wide bed of daffodils which blooms in a splash of yellow so large it bubbles up giggles every time I walk past. The bobbing heads of daffodils sway gently in the breeze, and nothing could be sweeter in a region with such a long wait for warmer days.

I had hoped to go exploring before this blog post, but Michael came home for a couple of days and I have been spending time with him while we also work on the house. Michael’s talent with construction never ceases to amaze me as I watch him slap drywall up on the ceiling like it’s nothing. Meanwhile, I have been working on the yard to make it more presentable and trying to finish the tile mosaic floor I installed in our foyer. The mosaic is beautiful, but the tile work has been cropping up with all kinds of trouble. I worked hard on making the mosaic in my usual style, with a tree as the central focal point and lots of color to draw the eye, and I felt good about using reclaimed tile to keep costs down. When I laid the tile it took me a week, and then it took almost three weeks for the adhesive to dry due to the cold, damp weather. Then a snafu with the grout set me back more time, as the grout I originally bought had been exposed to moisture before I purchased it. When this happens, the grout mix is full of hard lumps that will never mix properly. In discovering this upon attempting to mix the grout, I had to go back to the hardware store twice. I went once to replace the original bag, and once again to get another bag because one was not quite enough. Now the grout haze on the tile is so bad I will have to scrub it with a brush in order to uncover the tile color. Ugh. At least the floor is down now and is in the final phase of curing. Once I get it scrubbed it should look nice.

In the meantime, I have plenty of other work to do, like painting (yuck), sanding drywall and woodwork (yuck), and sorting the remaining junk in our bedroom (yuck). None of these jobs are my favorite, so they have been sitting for a while. Now my procrastination must come to its end…unless I can find an excuse to get outside and do yard work, which is far more interesting and rewarding to me. We recently learned that the church, which has been kind enough to host our Airstream while we work hard on the house, needs us to move the RV. Since we came back from Nevada and got the innards gutted, the Falcon has been sitting empty and untouched for over a month. With cruddy weather and lack of time, Michael has not been able to act as foreman to the job of putting it back together. Now we need to find another kind soul to host it for us, as we cannot park it on our Olean property—we simply lack the room.

While Michael has been home the last two days, he had hoped to find someone to agree to let us park it, but options have yet to reveal themselves. Tomorrow he has to go back to New Hampshire, this time for weeks before he can return. It’s going to be a tough haul. The Airstream will have to remain in the lot for now. I feel badly about it, but we are already both working nonstop to get a lot of work done whenever possible. Soon the work on the house should be done so we can offer it for sale, and I hope Michael can find a contract which allows him to be closer to Olean so he can actually get our real home rebuilt. I am almost desperate to get the Airstream rebuilt at this point, because we still have no decision on our next move. Without knowing how long it will take to sell our house, we don’t know how long it will be before we can buy land in New Hampshire. Without land, we cannot build a tiny house. If we at least rebuild the Airstream, we can still travel and live in the Falcon until the Olean house sells. For now, that’s a plan of sorts. I think. It seems to change weekly at this point.

Meanwhile, we are enjoying the warmer weather, the trees, the flowers, and looking forward to the next move. Having this particular contract end will be a relief, as long as Michael can find work close to home. If not, our lives will be rather frustrating for a while. Hopefully by next week I will have time to explore some new hiking spots, as I learned of a few new places to get out on trails. I need the outdoor time, and so do the dogs. All work and no play is making me crabby and tired. Anytime I get that way, I know it’s time to get in the woods. If I’m lucky, I’ll see some sights worthy of whipping out my phone to take a photo. Until then, get out there and see and do beautiful things in my stead. Share a comment about what you enjoyed so I can enjoy it vicariously. Memorial Day weekend is coming soon, so this is the time to get out and plant your gardens, Northerners. I hope the weather makes it possible for everyone to honor those they love, remember the ones we lost, and that you have sunshine and colorful flowers to cheer your time together.

Flying with the Falcon

Want to Live Tiny? A Few Thoughts on Preparing….

*Photo taken in Ely, NV, showing our beloved Aluminum Falcon. How we miss her! We are so ready to get back to living tiny.

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*If you like my blog posts, consider taking one of my courses, which you can find on my Resources, Courses, and Short Stories page.

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If you have been considering living tiny and have yet to take the plunge, let me encourage you to dip your toes in the pool first. Since Michael and I made the choice to live tiny in our Airstream, we both agree we have no desire to ever live large again. Living in the Airstream gave us a little over 200 square feet of space, and neither of us missed the space from our home of about 1600 square feet once we got on the road. Some folks have reasonable trepidation about scaling down a household to fit into a small trailer or RV, but there are ways to try the lifestyle without too much commitment before you go whole hog. Then again, I also appreciate those who are willing to take the risk without knowing the outcome, which is what Michael and I did to some degree. As I have shared in previous posts, we bought our Airstream sight unseen and began living in it the day of purchase, followed shortly by traveling across the country in it immediately. We wasted no time in living the tiny life, though we kept our home in Olean just in case. We did have a back-up plan of sorts, but driving to Nevada from New York really meant we would have to make it work at least for a while. If you’re interested in living tiny, I am going to share some ideas for how you might prepare yourself for such a venture, especially if you plan to travel.

First and foremost, living tiny offers you freedom. Even if you live in a permanent small structure you build with a foundation, you get freedom from having to clean and maintain a massive house, which all by itself is reason enough if you ask me. Since I’ve been back in our Olean house working on it, I have been entirely too overwhelmed by all the housework, the painting, the patching, revitalizing flooring, and especially the STUFF. All the stuff! Holy cow, I didn’t miss it at all, and I can’t wait to get rid of every last bit of stuff I don’t need. Until I lived tiny, I didn’t even realize how much all the stuff weighed me down not just in time, but in my spirit. You worry about keeping things clean and looking nice, not losing them or breaking them, but also you tend to go out and purchase more stuff when you go shopping, which only feeds into the problem. If you walk around your house right now, I imagine you probably have several rooms of stuff full of items you don’t need, don’t use, and wouldn’t miss if you gave it away. For your first foray into living tiny, try this: put a bright sticker on the side of every item you have used in the last week. Every time you use something for the next month, put a sticker on it or next to it, whether clothing or dishes or movies or tables…whatever the item is. After the month is over, you will have a general idea of what things in your house really matter to you, and that you find are necessary.

When you live tiny, you also see space differently. While you might think that living in a small space would mean that you feel confined, annoyed by the other people with whom you live because you are on top of each other all the time, or that you won’t have room to do anything, think again. When Michael and I lived in the Airstream with two dogs on the large side, we were both pleasantly surprised by the fact that our relationship got better in the smaller space. We spent more time doing what we enjoyed, more time outside, and more time having fun. The small space seems to create an atmosphere of intimacy, and I suspect that the close quarters causes one to touch the other occupants in your home more often, and it encourages sharing more conversation, eye contact, and just being closer in general. Even families with several young children who go tiny report that they feel this closeness as a win, not a frustration. It’s the opposite of what you would think, and it really does translate from a sense of intimacy in a relationship to also feeling more intimate with the outdoors. Instead of just having your own backyard, the whole world begins to feel like your playground. Exploring became the norm for us when we went tiny because we could. To test your ability to live in a smaller space, you can start by choosing a room in your house which is close to the size of tiny home you might want to buy or build. Empty the room of everything other than what you believe you need in a tiny house (especially after you did the previous exercise of what you use in a month), and set up the room with only the things you need, including your bed, couch or chairs (pick one or the other), small table, lighting, clothing, shelves, food, dishes and kitchen supplies, and anything else you know you want (but be choosy). Arrange the room so that you have a sort of kitchen if you dare, even going so far as to try cooking on an induction cook top and using a toaster oven if you think that’s how you want to go. If not, use your household kitchen, but tape off all but a small amount of counter space and cupboards. Use only what you believe will fit into a tiny house, and see how it feels to live in that space.

Finally, I suggest deciding whether or not you require mobility. You may want the freedom to roam, which means you will want either an RV or tiny home on a trailer. If you want the freedom to move, know that it comes with some compromise. I do not recommend purchasing an RV new, as the price tag is very high for even small RVs, and they lose value immediately after purchase. Instead, buy one a few years old. One of the biggest challenges of living in an RV has been staying warm when it gets cold, even in warmer areas. No place in the US can avoid some cold weather during the winter months, and it can mean trouble if you aren’t prepared. Knowing how to keep your water supply from freezing is important. You also may require skirting around the base of the RV to keep the underside warmer, and to keep your holding tanks from freezing and potentially cracking (an expensive fix). Having an air exchange is also important when the weather turns colder, as you will run the risk of mold growing from all the condensation created by cooking, breathing, and showering. Heat and air conditioning will be a must for any RV or tiny house, and the insulation must be good enough to keep out both heat and cold, regardless of where you live. I can speak to the worth of having an RV if you plan to move a lot, as our travel trailer is easy to move whenever we want. Tiny homes are certainly mobile if necessary, but a lot of thought needs to go into the build if you plan to travel a lot. Moving once a year is one thing, but moving every couple of weeks or months may be more than a tiny house can handle. It really depends on the build, and whether or not it’s equipped with the same tanks and hook-ups as an RV to allow for ease of travel, especially for long distances.

The other aspect of the mobile lifestyle is whether or not you have a job which allows for this mobility. If you work online, travel might present at least one challenge: internet access. Though this is rarely mentioned in any TV shows or articles, internet has been a huge hassle for us. To date, we have been using a portable WiFi unit which operates using the data from our mobile phone plan. It’s been quite inconvenient. If you want to stream Netflix or Hulu, it uses a lot of bandwidth (even when you set those to low frequency), and then we find ourselves partway through the month with little to no data left because our stupid phone company squelches the line after ten gigs. Though we looked for other options like using a satellite service, that requires a contract, and it was expensive. Relying on the WiFi at RV parks was usually out, since those are public networks which anyone can use, and aren’t safe for banking or making purchases online. Also, there are usually so many people using the WiFi that it gets loaded down and is too slow. Research your internet options and learn what you can do. There’s only so often you can rely on coffee shops or public internet for service, and we found most RV parks don’t have internet access you can link to your RV directly now that so many people use satellite.

Aside from the mobility of your work, be aware of hidden costs of living the RV life. Parking for a night or two seems cheap until you park for a whole month and have to pay the expense of night-to-night parking. Even the less expensive parks will run you over $1,000 in a month if you stay night-to-night, and we found paying for a full month at a time was much cheaper. Each park is different about amenities and whether or not they charge for services, so take that into account, too. The cost of driving gets pricey when you have to tow a trailer, as the gas tank will eat your money much faster when towing. Being mobile can be expensive, so you have to weigh it against how much your monthly bills cost at your large stationary home, and decide whether or not the price is manageable. If you find people who can host you at their property, that would be far more affordable if you can strike up a good deal, especially if they have a septic system you can hook into (a reason why many tiny homes are equipped with composting toilets), and a place for you to hook up your electric and water. With the tiny home community getting bigger every day, there are lots of folks willing to host tiny homes or RVs. On the other hand, if you plan to purchase land and park your tiny home there, you will save yourself loads of cash in a downsize. It all depends on your goals. Even if the expense doesn’t seem to be less, the mobility might make up for that, along with the tiny lifestyle. You will be happier with less, of that I am certain.

While you pare back your wardrobe, kitchen essentials, tool box, and knick-knacks, be mindful of the reasons why you want to live tiny. If you want freedom, mobility, and a simpler life, then living tiny will most likely make you very happy. However, if you are really attached to your collections, your neighborhood, your cars, your massive stereo system, or any other things you own, perhaps you need to find out how much you really can live without. Perhaps you need to get the RV and live on the road for a while, keeping the house and the cars for a while to see how you feel about leaving it all behind you. Michael and I kept our Olean home for over a year while we wandered the country, though we know now that we are dedicated to living tiny. We have no intention of going big again, and can’t wait to unload the weight of all this stuff in all this ungainly space.

Every family is different, but even if you go tiny, it doesn’t have to mean sacrificing everything. If you can build or know someone who can help, you can make your home to suit your needs. Michael and I plan to have a stove with an oven so I can still bake and cook food I love. You don’t have to use a toaster oven if you want a real oven. Just find an apartment-sized oven, and do the same for a fridge. Find a way to incorporate the means for your space to serve double duty (like a couch that doubles as a bed, a table that is also a desk, a bench that serves as storage for shoes, etc.). Arrange the space to serve your family needs (like building in a dog kennel under a side table, finding places to store extra seating for guests to visit, getting creative about how you can have a bathtub if you really need one). All things are possible in the tiny home, even when you purchase an RV you remodel to suit your needs. Sometimes that is a great option, because the RV is already built for travel and you can rearrange the interior to make it your own. So many options are out there with tiny homes now, and if you take the time to look up homes on YouTube or watch HGTV shows for a while, you can find a plethora of choices. The sky’s the limit. Think about going tiny. Even with some of the downsides I mentioned, you may find the lifestyle is totally worth the few annoyances. Few people who go tiny regret the decision, and maybe it’s time you find out why. Get out there and find the beauty in the tiny life!

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*If you like my blog posts, consider taking one of my courses, which you can find on my Resources, Courses, and Short Stories page.

 

Flying with the Falcon

Get Me Back to the Woods by Starlight

*photo taken from Apple Hill Center for Chamber Music in Nelson, NH.

For weeks, Michael and I have been forced to live in separation while he works in New Hampshire and I work on our house in Olean to prep it for sale. We didn’t want to have to do this, but we need his income, and the work took him back to New Hampshire. As a traveling nurse, Michael can choose from positions available across the country, but he needs to have licensure to be able to work in any particular state. It’s rather annoying and complicated. The short story is that he doesn’t have his New York or Pennsylvania license anymore, so his current New Hampshire license became his saving grace. When we first started traveling, we stayed at a lodge outside of Keene, NH, a place in a beautiful wooded spot where the neighbors were far enough away to not be heard. It was glorious, it allowed our dogs, and it was temporary—no leases necessary. He’s back there again, renting a room in the lodge in the woods while I do my best to get the house ready for sale. For weeks I’ve been going through our junk at our Olean house, patching and painting walls, selling furniture, tiling a floor, and figuring out how to make the house look its best by using up the supplies we already have. In general, the work is back-breaking, so I was really happy to finally be able to visit Michael in New Hampshire for a short few days. The woods has been calling.

The day I drove out of Olean, the sun shone over the rolling hills, the grass greening and the trees just starting to bud. Spring has taken a long time to come to the North this year, with snow still falling far into April. Such weather isn’t necessarily unheard of in spring, but the number of times we saw snow in April this year was much higher than normal. It’s a rare occurrence to see snow and cold through most of the month, so the trees withheld their leaves and the spring flowers huddled in the ground with their heads poking just above the soil, waiting for the warmer weather. I loaded the dogs into the back seat of the beat-up Buick and put in my order for good car behavior on the trip, as the car is 12 years old and getting close to the end of its days. Taking it on a seven-hour trip might not have been terribly smart, but I wanted to take the dogs. Borrowing someone else’s car would mean I needed to leave the dogs at home, since they shed so badly no blanket would stop the fur from getting everywhere. I have yet to find a vacuum that can actually get up all the dog hair. Thus, I hopped in the Buick and away we went.

Most of the drive to New Hampshire takes me through the countryside of New York, with occasional cities like Binghamton and Albany to manage traffic and route changes, but mostly I get to enjoy the scenery on auto-pilot with the cruise control on the highways. Most of the rural regions of New York State consist of rolling hills, farmland, lakes, rivers winding through the trees, and small towns tucked into the valleys. Though I do not enjoy highway driving much, I find pleasure in at least getting to see the lovely green and occasional spectacular gorge or hilltop view of the region. I live for those moments, small jewels in the mind-numbing experience of traveling endless road. Once upon a time, I thought a seven-hour drive was a long time. After driving across the country from New York to Nevada, and then to California…seven hours feels like a day trip. The dogs were happy to enjoy the back seat of the car for once, too, since they usually spend their rides in a kennel in the back of the truck. I usually prefer to keep them safer in the kennel in case of an accident, but it doesn’t fit in the back seat of the car. This entire trip was all about taking chances.

Once I got to the state border and into Vermont, the driving changed from highway to mountain-climbing. This part of the drive is my favorite. I absolutely love seeing the boulder-filled streams and rivers churning through the countryside, the winding road like a ribbon of joy weaving through the woods. Vermont is my kind of place: small artsy towns with lots of lovely clapboard structures alongside the road, and quaint places to eat and shop in every little village. I love when the mountains rise their massive shoulders up above the few flat spaces, their heights tall enough to block out the sun as you pass along their feet. My heart sings in these moments. Every drive I take more than once becomes a series of such moments to which I look forward; the view from Hogback in Vermont on Route 9 is one of my favorites. I arrived there just as the sun began coloring the sky with sunset, and I pulled over to take in the vast view of the Green Mountains. Did I take a photo? Nope. I just sat there and soaked up the moment. Sometimes, life is better without a picture.

From the mountains of Vermont I hit New Hampshire on the other side of Brattleboro just after dark. I had just called Michael to let him know I would be arriving soon, and had only 20 minutes left to drive, when I see the lights in my rear-view mirror. As ever, my stomach lurches in concern. Is it me? Several cars behind me pull to the side of the road, as do I. The lights come closer, and I have hope it will be for someone else, but no. It’s me. Apparently I have a head light out, the headlight I had to replace once already. Ugh. I sit in my seat anxiously as the officer checks my credentials and insurance info, wondering what he will do. Thankfully, the dogs sat quietly the entire time, not a peep from either of them. When he returns to give me back my license and registration, he instructs me to get it fixed, I thank him, and on I go. My white privilege keeps me from even getting a citation for the light. I mentally masticate on this while I drive the remaining few minutes to arrive at the lodge in the woods. While people of color have to fear being shot or arrested for such simple traffic stops, my skin color gets me off with a warning, even a polite and thoughtful exchange. I hope in my lifetime all people can be treated so kindly.

In any case, I arrive at the lodge with no sign of car trouble other than the headlight, and the dogs were thrilled to see Michael and to visit the lodge again. The lovely warm weather allowed for doors and windows to be opened, the breeze swept out the stale indoor air, and I felt happy to be back in a place where the only lights were the ones we turned on at the house. One of my favorite things about living away from town is the beauty of being able to enjoy the night. Seeing stars, walking by moonlight, and hearing the night animals in the woods are as good as a restorative meal. When you live in the wild spaces of the world, you begin to realize that moonlight is more than enough to see the countryside, even tinted blue and washed of most color. The magic of moonlight still allows the eye to see, but other types of light need to be extinguished to adjust your sight. It’s enchanting and thrilling to walk through the woods without a flashlight at night, especially by the light of a full moon. When you live by the light of what nature provides, you might be surprised by what you can see in the woods.

By morning when we awoke, our plan was to take the afternoon to drive around looking at land. We have decided for certain that our home base needs to be New Hampshire. Several reasons added to the decision to sell our Olean home, one of which is the tax burden of New York State, another being the fact that when we went to New Hampshire on our first travel assignment, Michael and I both fell in love with the town of Keene and everything we could enjoy there. Immediately it felt like home to me, as if I found the last piece of a puzzle and snapped it into place. Whatever spell the area cast on me, when I drove through those mountains it took hold of me again. The smile on my face lit me up inside and I felt once again like I had returned home. We took to the roads in search of a few places Michael had discovered as possible contenders for land purchase. Our list of needs is short, but we have a few standards for what we want: several acres on which to enjoy quiet and preserve land against other people clearing the woods for building; a small structure already on the property with electric, water, and septic; and the possibility of a view of the mountains. Michael found a few places that fit the bill, so we drove around to look at them, but one in particular stood out to both of us.

A spit of land in a town called Ashuelot has been sitting on the market for a while, but it has a small cabin and a small barn on the property. The cabin is in need of repair, and the barn too, but what we did like was the fact that a small portion of land set aside as a pasture for horses or cows has a lovely view. Though the land needs a septic system, it does have a well and electric. As we wandered the pasture and took in the state of affairs of all the old vehicles and junk left behind, we could imagine ourselves there, building a quiet spot for ourselves as a harbor away from the business of the world. If we can sell our home in Olean, we would have the money for the land. Now the question remains whether or not we should immediately build a tiny house on the property, or if we should first finish the Airstream so we can live in that while we build a tiny house.

I haven’t mentioned our Aluminum Falcon for a while, as there hasn’t been much to tell. With Michael working in New Hampshire, the schedule he works there has not allowed for him to come home much. The weather has also been difficult for all of March and April, so little could be done to complete the work waiting on the mostly empty shell. One of the troubling problems with finishing the Airstream is that if we do the work on the trailer, we won’t have money for a cabin. We’ll need to save again. However, if we finish the Airstream, we will be able to keep traveling. With the purchase of land in New Hampshire, we can change our residency to relieve the tax burden, and Michael will have access to compact licensure for nursing. Since New Hampshire is one of over 30 states to recognize the licensure of nurses from the other states in the “compact,” being a resident of New Hampshire would free Michael from having to pay for licensing in those other states in the compact. As it stands now, he must go through the hassle of paperwork, fees (which often cost a couple hundred on average), and then waiting for the license to be approved. It’s frustrating to say the least.

This may seem like an easy choice, to just finish the Airstream and continue traveling, but the only trouble with the travel lately has been difficulty in finding work that pays well. Lately the market has been flooded with travel nurses, which makes it hard for Michael to grab jobs before someone else snaps them up. With competition so hot and heavy, it’s been stressful to find good work in places we want to live. So we have a quandary. If we stay put for a little while, I can network with folks in New Hampshire to get my writing career going a little more lucratively, and Michael can have a more steady paycheck for while. The drawback is that the paycheck will be a drastic pay cut. Ick. Choices, choices. We have every intention of continuing to travel, but for a short time we have this tickling desire to make a little bit of land our own, a place where we can return every so often for a sprinkle of relief from the rat races. It would be so fulfilling to have a slice of woods where we can land whenever the world overwhelms us. And so we stand, in limbo, our Olean home still unfinished while I work on it alone (though I am coming along fairly well), our Airstream patiently waiting in the parking lot, the land we would like to buy hanging in the balance. To build a cabin or not to build a cabin? “Doubt thou the stars are fire; doubt that the sun doth move; doubt truth to be a liar; but never doubt I love (Shakespeare, from Hamlet).” I love the woods without any doubt.

Maybe the stars will write me a poem in the sky and I can divine their answer about what we should do. These are good problems to have, these options. Leaving a town we have lived for many years is bittersweet, but we feel ready. Olean has been our home for decades, and the time has come to learn and grow in a new place where we feel a fresh connection to what it has to offer. The excitement of creating a new place to live, a quiet retreat away from the sirens, the thudding stereos, the screaming teens, the lack of parking, the trash, and the people pulling up my flowers or twisting branches off my trees, that is a goal worth grasping. Our dilemma is one of incredible privilege, whether or not we worked hard for it. We earned some of the privilege we enjoy with hard work, dedication, and time, but it is privilege nonetheless. I am grateful. Hopefully when Michael comes to Olean this week to get some work done, we can find our way through the maze of choices and come closer to an end point. Until then, we will both try to enjoy the quiet of the time we have alone, keep our heads down while we work, and maintain our course forward. The stars will steer us right.

*If you enjoy my blog posts, please check out my Resources, Courses and Short Stories page for more reading and opportunities to learn. Remember, even though I no longer work from a classroom, I’m still a teacher. Have fun out there, and enjoy the rest of what I have to offer. 🙂

Flying with the Falcon

Remembering Great Basin National Park

*photo taken from the road through Snake Valley at Great Basin.

A year ago, my husband, Michael, and I were living in Ely, Nevada, a small mining town on Route 50, which is fondly known as the “loneliest highway in the world.” I doubt that it’s really the loneliest, since we saw plenty of traffic on the highway when we traveled it (all things considered—it was remote—it takes over three hours to get to the nearest town in any direction). The town of Ely truly tested our endurance for keeping ourselves entertained. While we lived there, we found only one restaurant we could tolerate—a pizza joint which had just reopened under new management—and little other than hiking or driving for fun. A local grocery store regularly ran out of staples like bread, eggs, or milk, and could be out of these basics for weeks at a time. All the prices in stores were jacked up madly, as if the place were some sort of high-roller escape, instead of the forgotten town everyone neglected to remodel after the 70s. Apparently all these issues have to do with the fact that Ely is now, and has been for most of its life, a mining town. Nevada has a lot of mining operations, whether it be precious metals, gem stones, or even uranium. Ely also happens to be home to a rather large prison for some of the most dangerous criminals on the coast, and at night we could see the lights atop the watchtowers from our RV park.

On the flip side, Ely did offer up a lot of hiking options, and while we lived there we explored the outdoors as often as possible. Mountain weather often whipped up in a hurry out there, so we had to take our trips between storms which often drove in with a lot of high winds. Still, I absolutely loved hiking on the Egan Crest Trail system which was on BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land, a place I often took the dogs. One could enjoy miles of trails in the desert, and some of the crests in the park deliver lovely views. Nearby Garnet Hill Recreation Area, also on BLM land, had some of the best views of the surrounding valleys, and had some leg-burning hikes that really got me in shape. Several times while I was hiking I ran into rock hunters who could be found digging for garnets, an activity which is something of a hobby for a surprising number of people out West. Cave Lake State Park was probably my favorite place to hike around Ely. The beautiful rock-studded mountains, the lush stream full of fish, the sapphire water of the lake, and the plentiful wildlife frequently left me speechless. Honestly, I never expected to find such gorgeous, colorful flowers all over the desert, nor did I expect to see antelope and wild horses as readily as I might see deer.

In its way, the high desert is a wily, untamed wilderness with more diversity than I ever realized existed until I saw it with my own eyes. I suspect few people realize how much beauty there is to appreciate in a place like Ely, which I why I believe if you care to trek out into the high desert of Nevada, you might be just as surprised as I was by the sheer impossibility of it all. This is what awaits you if you dare to take the drive to Great Basin National Park. Be aware that a trip to this park must be carefully planned. If you are an East Coaster, the amount of time you will drive without seeing ANYTHING will astonish you. Never leave any town without a full tank of gas, snacks, and drinks. It may be hours before you see another town. No kidding. If you are a West Coaster, the long drives between towns may be normal to you, but if you live in the lower regions away from the mountains…prepare thyself, cricket. The weather is a beast, and it’s no joke. High winds sustained at 60 mph are not unusual, blizzards kick up out of nowhere, and thunderstorms descend with rapid and erratic rain and cloud cover. But please don’t let that scare you away. Rather, be aware it is a possibility and be prepared for it, but also be prepared to experience a wide array of life secreted away in caves, bristlecone pines (some of the oldest trees in the world), and at the zenith of mountains which rival the Rockies in height. One of the most incredible aspects of the high desert wilderness to me is the fact that every thousand feet of elevation gain rewards the hiker with a new ecosystem of plants and animals. If you travel to this park, please stop at the visitor center to learn about it before you go out into the park. Besides, this park is quite remote and if you are unfamiliar with the high desert, you would be wise to speak with a park ranger before you wander onto the trails and go driving on the roads.

Great Basin is a newer addition to the National Parks, so it doesn’t have the amenities of other parks which are so well-traveled, such as Yosemite or Yellowstone. Instead, Great Basin is largely made up of a system of dirt roads which take you to trail heads or specific points of interest. Michael and I were disappointed to learn that the cave requires advance notice to set up a tour, so we did not get to enjoy that. If you wish to visit Lehman Cave, call ahead and reserve your spot on a tour. Also disappointing for us was the fact that Wheeler Peak still remained closed when we arrived so early in the park’s season. If you plan a trip and want to get up there, wait until late June or even better, July or August. The snow on the high peaks of Nevada can last well into summer, and some years it may not even melt completely. We didn’t realize any of this when we got there in early May, so we missed out on some of the good stuff as a result. At least we’d already had over a month of time to acclimate to the elevation—a factor any visitor would be wise to consider when heading out there from a lower elevation, particularly folks who live close to sea level. Even at the lowest point of the park, you will still be at a relatively high elevation over 6,000 feet. When we first moved to Ely, it took Michael and I a month or so to acclimate to the 6,500-foot elevation of the town, which was then surrounded by mountains jutting up in every direction. We huffed and puffed everywhere we went.

The day we headed out to the park, it was sunny and warm, a beautiful day to be outside. Since both Michael and I are pale and pasty, we went armed with our hats and sunscreen to keep the burn away. Part of the drive was already familiar, as the road to get there was the road we drove into Ely when we traveled from Moab, at the time so unfamiliar and stark-looking. Now that I have hiked in the foothills and along the valley floor, I know that the sparseness of green in the desert there is full of life. My mind took it in differently with the familiarity of the landscape. This new perspective excites me to think about how I might feel about the entire country one day; after lots of travel to places I have never seen, how will it change my perspective? I imagine I will feel connected to all the places we live, as we gain familiarity with a region whilst living there for a few months. The mountains we passed on the way to the park tell me a different story than they did when we first passed them, and I feel as if they are now a part of me, no longer alien. Such connection to the wildlife and land is humbling and sweet all at once.

Having to drive only an hour from Ely, it felt like the time flew. After you travel ten or twelve hours in a day to cross the country, an hour is nothing. When we first arrived at the park, we stopped at the visitor’s office to pick up a park map, and we chatted with the ranger on duty at the front desk to get updates on what parts of the park are dog-friendly (not many), and what parts were open. We learned that the one place we would actually be allowed to take our dogs on a trail (this is a dumb policy of National Parks, in my opinion, as they bar all dogs from most trails unless they are service dogs) has a road which was washed out from recent creek rise. Michael and I take a few minutes to peruse the exhibit of what types of plants and animals we might see in the park, and then we try to head out to the Lexington Arch, despite the issues with the road. The way the ranger made it sound, if one has a four-wheel drive vehicle, we should have been able to make it through and hike to the arch. Off we went to locate the dirt road which leads to the trail. Reading the map to locate the road did not give a good indication of where it will be, so I found a road using a wash as a landmark on the map, hoping this was the road we wanted. [As an aside here, in general, the National Park maps are not very detailed. Thus far, every park we have visited has been frustrating to negotiate using the maps they provide, so try using Google or find another means to print a map prior to your trip to any National Park.] The road was terrible, rocky, rutted, and we had to drive down into a small canyon and through a creek before we came to the road which was better maintained by the park service. Most dismaying, we rammed the bumper of the truck into rocks in the canyon while crossing the creek, bending the bumper. Sad face. Don’t do what we did. In all fairness, there were no signs indicating where to go—again, this is a new park which is still a work in progress.

After we drove over the creek twice more, we finally came to a wide swath of water running over the road. End of the line. Michael determined we should not drive through the water, since it was too muddy and probably too deep, and there would be no getting ourselves out if we got stuck. Wise choice. We fooled around with some fallen trees for a few minutes to see if we could make a bridge to walk across, and then we could hike the rest of the way to the arch, but no dice there, either. The water was just too wide, and we didn’t have the proper gear to wade. In snake country, I had no intention of taking off my shoes and going barefoot—besides, it wasn’t that warm. Disappointed, we went back to the more well-traveled parts of the park where the dogs would only be allowed on the road. Sigh. Still, we drove through Snake Valley, where one can enjoy the sight of bright green along the creek, where trees and plants grow almost jungle-like in the desert, an oasis of color against the more muted tones elsewhere. We stopped and walked along the road for a ways along the creek, taking in the scenery. Seeing trees lightens my spirit, a sight I missed from the Northeast. I love the forests up North, and the lack of greenery was hard for me to live without. Regardless, we snapped a few photos of the lovely mountains, the trees, and some of the plants. Then we got back in the car to head over to Wheeler Peak. On our way out of Snake Valley, Michael suddenly said from the driver’s seat, “I think I just hit a snake.” I craned my neck to look behind us, but couldn’t see anything.

“Go back and look,” I said. “At the very least we should check to see if it’s injured.” I also added that we should do the kind thing if it was injured, since I don’t believe in leaving an animal to suffer if it’s been hit by a car. Sounds horrid, probably, but I think it’s more horrid to leave an animal to suffer after it sustains injuries it can’t survive. So we went back, and there in the road was a snake, curled into a loose coil. Fortunately, it appeared to be fine, and I was relieved that Michael had not run it over after all. I got excited that it might be a rattler, as the coloration was right, but then I could see its head wasn’t big enough to be venomous (a venomous snake will have a large, triangular head, while non-venomous snakes have slender heads closer to the size of the rest of the body). Still, I took pictures. I mean, seeing a snake in Snake Valley is pretty cool. Michael leaned over me to peer at the snake, and then when it started to slither under the truck, I told him to start driving so it wouldn’t end up under the vehicle. The snake turned away, and as it stretched out I could see its full length of at least three feet. Cool.

After Snake Valley lived up to its name, we went up the mountain toward Wheeler Peak. Right away we got a gorgeous view of the basin below as we skirted the mountain on a road which has rather sheer drops to one side. We got to an overlook at about 10,000 feet, and that’s as far as the road would take us. Wheeler Peak (at over 13,000 feet) was still closed due to snow. Michael and I got out and looked at the view, and I snapped a bunch of photos while I climbed around on the rocks where I probably shouldn’t be climbing, but I got a great view of the summit. After getting our fill of the sights, we got back in the truck and went down to Upper Lehman Creek, where we walked the dogs once again on the roads in the campground. If you happen to hit this park, these campsites look very nice. Lots of privacy between sites, newly freshened up with landscaping, and a great view of Wheeler Peak from the campground. The sound of rushing water will put you right to sleep at night. If you have a trailer or RV, you might need to find room at a different site in the park, as there is a length restriction—those roads are fairly curvy and tight to navigate with a large vehicle. Still, it would be a lovely spot to camp by tent or small camper, and there’s a nice trail off the campground there, too, for a little woodsy exploration.

I should say that both Michael and I were underwhelmed by this National Park at the time, mostly because we were already living in a place similar to the park and were already familiar with its features. Though the scenery is lovely, there is abundant animal activity, there is no entry fee (they accept donations at the visitor center), and there is a wide range of bio-diversity, this park is still so young in its establishment that much of the park is undeveloped. The park does not have a lot to offer in terms of interesting things to see, unless you geek out on seeing the diversity of plant life in the desert terrain and are prepared for backwoods camping (which is very well worth it, if you ask me, but not everyone is an outdoor geek). You do get to enjoy the range of high desert diversity in all its glory, but if you want to see rock arches, go to Arches National Park in Utah. If you want to see high peaks, go to Yosemite or the Rockies. Caves to explore can be found across the country, and Mammoth Caves is one of many parks dedicated to subterranean fun. Do not expect the same types of fancy amenities as other National Parks. You will not find restaurants in or around the park. There are few places to purchase supplies, so come stocked with whatever you will need for the entirety of your stay. However, if you do stay at this park, you will get to enjoy some of the darkest skies in the country, which means lots and lots of stars. You can be mystified by the incredulity of flowers blooming in green grass above one of the driest places in the US. If you’re lucky, you might see antelope, great horned owls, bears, mountain lions, or jackrabbits. You will definitely hear coyotes at night. Best of all, this park is remote enough to keep away the big crowds you will find at other, more popular parks. Our trip to Yosemite was surprisingly frustrating due to the volume of people absolutely everywhere in the park, even the more remote places. At Great Basin, you can enjoy the wilderness with less competition. If high desert wilderness sounds like an adventure, you will be forever changed if you make the choice to brave one of the wildest places I have ever lived.