The journal entry begins : “Today I am camping in the Adirondacks. I got to this remote spit of land led by Dick, who grew up exploring these parts. Jim is here, too, of course, and Gordon, still on honeymoon with his bride, Su.
We are tenting in the woods along the shore of Lake Lila, beneath a 360 degree sky with no sign of anything manmade. We started the day paddling into a creek with a lot of beaver activity. We portaged around a couple of beaver dams to get to the back of the creek.
The whole experience immediately made me feel like I was looking deeply into a painting by Neil Welliver. His work was a beacon for me when I was very young. And now that I am often without signal in places without roofs or roads, his work seems even closer to me. This was his landscape. These were the trees and the colors he saw in the forests of the Northeast. Not my drowsy southern swamps. “A hostile environment”, Dick says. As much as I am living Neil Welliver here, I am also witnessing Winslow Homer’s camping watercolors brought to life.
We paddled into our campsite three days ago and set up tents in a fine forest of pine and birch with a pine needle floor. There are patches of Indian Pipe everywhere I look, and wild blueberries, ferns and mosses.
It was windy and cloudy when we set up tents, so three people contributed their backpacker’s tarps to make one large dry spot in the forest, and soon after we finished, it began to rain.
The wind picked up, got wild, and I wondered aloud if my own tent, in the direct route of the wind, was still standing. It was its maiden voyage— my new ultralight, and the wind thought it was ultralight too. Gordon sprang up, and ran out in the rain to right it, and as he pushed in a stake, lightning struck a pine tree fifteen feet away. We shouted for him and it felt like I moved in super slow motion, getting up from my chair to find him. He was thrown to the ground but somehow recovered enough to stumble back to us. One foot and one hand were numb. One finger was ghostly white. Su wrapped him in her coat and we suppressed panic, just glad he could walk to us, and talk once he got there. I can only just bring myself to write about it as record-keeping. I felt every emotion, sane and insane, but over the course of an hour Gordon returned to a shaky normal. The storm dropped back to just a downpour.
When I headed to my tent a few hours later, the bathtub style base had collected several inches of water, as had my sleeping bag and clothes. I hauled some things around in a shock-induced state of mind, thinking of sleeping under the rain tarp, but reversed that decision when I realized how cold it would be. I untethered my tent and poured off the accumulated water, shaking it hard upside down, anchored it and started to refill it with anything I could find that was dry, and remove everything that was soaked. I remembered that, with only one’s body’s warmth you can dry a set of wet wool socks in your tent, so I decided to build on that principle. I tucked into the tent, wearing long underwear and sleeping on an air mattress, using a garbage bag as a sheet and my raincoat as a blanket, my whole world some degree of cold or damp, the zipper on the new tent’s rainfly stuck on open. Sometimes you just have to flow with what there is. Against a background of famine, war, terror and homelessness, not to mention electrocution, such tiny travails are a cipher. I kept that in mind.
But what followed the deadly first day was a deep drop into rock, soil and water. We all had small backpacking chairs, and we spent a lot of time, sunk in those chairs on a huge stone outcropping watching wildlife and the movement of light. I sense we all unloaded a world of care.
We hiked a small mountain, and canoed into secret wild gardens of aquatic plants buzzing with bees and dragonflies. We heard the loon many times. All the primary loon calls. We saw loons flying. We watched a mother and tiny loons swimming. And we were the chosen rock outcropping for a little colony of Canada geese. In the forest, Dick pointed out to me the call of the wood thrush.
Dick is teaching us all the biology he can in four days. I found a rectangle of birch bark on the ground and did a drawing on it with a ballpoint pen. We all hustle to assemble each night on the giant rocks to watch the sun drop behind the pines and birches across the shore.
Slowly, over long exposure, and many meals, paddles, walks and talks, we have connected or reconnected in more relaxed ways. “
I wrote this two days ago, and today, in my car, I sang my way out loud and out of tune, through a whole jubilant playlist, headed south through the Shenandoah Valley, my head still full of gratitude and open sky.