I have this mental image of who I want to be in my 70’s and 80’s. It’s a snapshot of a granny, loading her kayak on top of her car, or standing beside her tent in her hiking boots. There’s a relaxed smile on her face and clearly, still some hunger in her soul to find ways to more deeply drink in the fine earth. For several years I’ve been accumulating gear so I could begin backpacking. Always a camper, I had never yet hiked into the wilderness with my kitchen and bedroom on my back. I talked over my ambition with an old dear friend, an inveterate camper, who immediately offered to let me join him and another of our good friends on a trek. I was elated because I knew they would school me, but also keep me laughing while doing it.
This past weekend we set out for Mt Rogers National Park for my maiden voyage as a backpacker. Our first day out we climbed three separate stone peaks, each higher than the one before it. I struggled at first, to establish a pace, which was much slower and more measured than theirs. At the high altitude I had to grow accustomed to breathing, and to climbing on rocky, uneven trails. Each of the stone peaks was followed by a walk through an upland meadow. Formerly cows grazed this land, and rendered it open space. Now, wild ponies are allowed to graze there to keep the meadow character. The primary plant life is meadow grass, and scores of blackberry brambles and blueberry bushes, with the occasional fir tree. The view from the peaks and meadows receded in layers of mountains so numerous as to appear infinite, each growing a bit fainter. At the farthest layers they were so vapourously blue they seemed apparitions.
I had my camera and some drawing materials. One of the weekend goals was to find subjects for my next group of paintings. In the past year I have found myself less and less interested in the cultivated world and drawn instead to the wild. When I bring that imagery onto a surface to begin a painting, the synergy of what already exists in me and what is still wild and unspoiled about the world, totally engages me as an artist. From those two elements come abstractions– a thousand tiny ones, cobbled together into a mosaic that people recognize as how the world is/could be/used to be. It’s my meditation on the fragile, unnoticed earth, rambling on in its own way, thirty yards behind the shopping center or a mile off the interstate.
That evening, under a giant fir tree we enjoyed cocktail hour and cooked our dinners. I had tried to be imaginative with my choices of dehydrated foods, but the Trail Masters put me to shame. I have a lot to learn. In such a stripped down, simplified existence good food and drink take on an exaggerated importance. The hunger is intense and nutrition important. My first efforts were gruesome– oversalted, and insensitive. With almost no experience of prepared foods I was a lamb up for slaughter at the grocery store. Next time, I decided, I would try concocting my own recipes and drying my own fresh vegetables.
We found enough wood to build a campfire and enjoyed telling stories as darkness arrived. Finally, in the tent, lights out, I realized that one of the things I love most about sleeping outside is the sounds. When there is no sight, only sound, you become keenly aware of your surroundings. Even at home I will sometimes get up in the middle of the night and open the window to climb out of my hermetic chamber and sense what is out there. The rush of night air and night sounds always soothes. Oddly enough, at that high altitude, there was NO sound. There were no crickets, no frogs, no birds. When the wind blew the fir trees would make the sound of ocean waves. But if there was no wind, there was no sound. I cannot remember ever having experienced that level of silence. At home, when I turn out the light, my tired ears will roar with exhaustion from too much sound. But lying in my sleeping bag, they did not roar. I heard something tiny and faint and realized it was the sound of my eyelashes against my pillow as I blinked. In the middle of the night there was the distinct sound, very needlelike, of small raindrops on the tent roof, and close to morning, the wild ponies whinnied
On Saturday we hiked a segment of the Appalachian Trail, over a ridge, and around a valley to another ridge, making a giant loop that took all day. The ecosystem at nearly 6000 feet was so different from the lower elevations. There were fewer species there than I would have expected. I noted fewer than 10 varieties of wild flowers, but many mosses, ferns, and mushrooms. We calculated that we hiked 8 miles, climbing much of it. The first mile was such difficult going it took us hour and half. I struggled to keep my consciousness open to the beauty and peace and closed to the whining. It was a long day, and at the end we all groaned…a lot, but took pleasure in what we’d seen. I hope the paintings that come from this adventure are strong enough to carry the spirit of that place, and that hunger in my soul.