Adventures With Electricity

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.  

Sleeping in Snow

https://drive.google.com/file/d/1Xa3QWB1ltlh7mEDzqVL7Jf9gwvIeC7rn/view

We hiked, last week, to a valley beside Cove Creek, surrounded by tall pines, some of huge girth. The ground was blanketed in pine needles and the sun was so warm we worked in sweaters to set up camp.

A tornado had swept through the forest and rangers had cut trees off the trails so there were dry pine logs scattered all around, even some split wood someone had left. We put together enough kindling and firewood for night and morning fires, filtered some cold creek water and set off to explore.

There was a trail that ran alongside Basin Creek that had probably been a wagon road 100 years ago. We started our gentle ascent on that trail.

It felt remote— like we had left the 21st century and dropped into some other world. I lagged behind the others, photographing roots and limbs and picking up stones.

Our trail led us to the stone chimney that remained from a house long gone. You could approximate how long it had been since the house had melted away by looking at the size of the trees growing out of the foundation. The chimney’s construction was elegant, its edges still crisp and square, its lintel an enormous nearly perfect rectangle, unphased by all that had happened around it. I went to work creating a story about who had lived there, trying to imagine the people who grew up with that dancing, rushing creek as their nearest neighbor. How would your mind work if all your life you heard the low soothing sounds of that creek, so much like a mother soothing a baby…shhhhhhh.

We speculated on where their fields had been— where they had grown their corn and other sustenance crops. I wondered if the father of the family had built the chimney, or if that remote community had one man who was the favored stone mason. The artistry of the chimney made me think the latter, but perhaps, as in barn raisings, the community of men worked together, and as one body had developed their skills.

A little farther down the trail Dick pointed out a millstone half buried in creek sand. We looked for any remnants of the mill that would have powered it, but they were long ago erased.

Every place we explore has its own quirky treasures to share with anyone who will look closely. Backpacking with our own scientist always takes us deeply into a place. It seems like Dick knows the name of every plant, stone, fish or tree.

Back at camp, he picked up a stone and showed it to me— it was micaceous schist with garnets embedded in it. Like walking on gemstones. They were everywhere….iridescent from the tiny particles of mica, striated and studded with chunks of garnet.

The pine fire was hot that night and kept us all warm until late. I sleep really well when I’m beside a creek. Maybe it’s the Earth Mother whispering “shhhh” to me all night. Maybe it’s from the exercise, or maybe the bourbon. I slept in late, hoping someone else would get up in the cold and build a fire. Finally I heard Dick climb out of his tent and exclaim that he’d spooked a buck who was right beside our campsite, and that the whole world was white with snow.

Our firewood had spent the night under a tarp, so it lit quickly and the fire leapt from the fire ring while snow floated down all around it. We made oatmeal with fruit and nuts. Jim and Dick sat under the tarp enjoying the show. So it was– better than any movie–the low slush sounds of the creek, the falling of fat flakes of snow, the leaping of flame, and the occasional visitor.

White Man

 

When I left the grid and headed up a steep and curving road into one of the folds of the Blue Ridge, the world was abuzz with tales of white male misconduct.  There was a headline case of white privilege used to mask acts of aggression against women. In social media, under the phrase “me too”, my friends, my community’s leaders, my former students, my colleagues— every woman I know— was using that phrase to make a political statement about abuse of power, intimidation and shame, and to stand strong in truth—usually long-buried truth.

The other bookend to my journey— on my descent from the Blue Ridge—was the opening of Bob Trotman’s exhibition at Davidson College, also about toxic white male privilege. It was no less pointed than Goya.  Bob is outraged. The work was beautifully and imaginatively crafted and full of bite. This show about white men in suits (as well as one suited woman), was  created by a white man who acknowledges the ironies of his position in the society his work is about— just as Goya was a courtier in the court he mocked. I don’t remember ever being present at any other gallery talk with an audience so full of powerful white men. I found that a little startling. May they be the change-agents .

In the days between these two political experiences, in the company of five best friends, I camped. We shared everything from the smallest twig to four story waterfalls, slept in the beginnings of winter’s cold, cooked over oak fires, ate, drank beer, and told stories. My phone had no signal. I slept beside the South Toe River so I could hear its music all night.

My friends all had interesting campers— one designed by the engineer who created the interior of the space shuttle, another custom-made to accommodate living and serious mountain biking, the third cozy and complete. I slept in my mid-sized tent, full of goose feathers that had escaped my sleeping bag, and ratty disorganized piles of clothing. I really must get organized I always tell myself. I take everything I need, and then can’t find it and have to borrow someone else’s. But, feathers aside, I found that the longer I stayed in that place, and walked those trails, the less wounded I felt, the less need I had for anything other than being. There was a first aid kit of bourbon I never felt the need to drink, and chocolates I never ate. I felt satisfied. I felt peace. I wasn’t trying to soothe some internal beast.

There were long soulful conversations with whomever you happened to be hiking beside. In the dark of clear night, beside the fire, a million stars overhead, deep wounds were talked about and as old and trusted friends, we brought what balm we could find to offer to those wounds. Among this group the predominant theme is always love and tolerance. Acceptance of exactly who you are at all times. If you are judged at all, you are judged to be worthy and wonderful. How I came to be blessed by such friendships I will never know. Some act of unfathomable grace. I believe I was soothed and loved back into living as much by these friendships as I was by the strident beauty around me and the eternal assurance that the earth we stand on is vast and powerful, intricate and interwoven, patterend, textured, and colored— the highest possible art form. And the “civilization” I’d left behind a silly, empty, mean-spirited joke.

Lost

What I remember most is the simple act of staring always at the rushing water.  This week we hiked the long tough hike to Lost Cove Creek.  That name describes it perfectly– it’s lost.  Lost from the clatter of now– where we all live. Lost in time.  So lost there are no other humans.  Lost to signal.  Tuned instead  into the frequencies of  the arteries and veins of creeks and the sons and daughters of creeks, the mothers and fathers of rivers.  I love how water seeks its own level.  Such an odd way to put into words the punch and recoil of water moving at last to  an uneasy equilibrium.

I pitched my tent on the same mossy spot overhanging the river where I’d camped before.  The sound, the buzz, that lives always in my ears grew quiet next to the loud thousand part water music all around me.

It was like being washed by way of  the eyes and washed by way of the ears right down to the bottom of the soul. How is that received in the soul?  Like being stunned, silenced, adored, suspended.

 

We tried to keep up with the Hear and See by tasting things–spinach and nuts and packaged stews, intense dried cantaloupe, freshly caught and grilled trout washed down with bourbon or creek water, or both.

We used any excuse to bathe in the river to drop into the Touch part of being there.   Smell was clean dirt and rain.

My firsts:   crudely casting a fly fishing line and feeling in my arm the connection to the line’s motion;  the almost invisible blossoms on a ginger root; learning the habits of the three kinds of trout in those waters.  I saw my first ever wild lady slipper.  And without really wanting to at all, we packed ourselves up and hiked away.