Saturday, June 20, 2015

Black Canyon, Part III: Sitting

“Fragrant grasses and white clouds / hold me here. / What holds you there, / world-dweller?” – Chiao Jan, Inscribed on the Wall of the Hut by the Lake (translated by J. P. Seaton, The Poetry of Zen)

The juniper sets a good example: find a beautiful place (in this case, along the Rim Trail, facing upcanyon), then dig in
“What are you going to do today?” people keep asking.  It’s a perpetually interesting question in a place like Black Canyon, where beauty and adventure are just a short drive and/or hike away.  Park Service folks often head down to Ouray or up to Grand Junction, maybe all the way over to Moab on our days off.  (I did that last time I was here, plus Buena Vista, Denver, Yellowstone…) This morning, though, having returned from my sunrise walk, I now sit in the front window, eating a cinnamon roll and sipping coffee, gazing out across the mesas and mountains and nearly cloudless blue sky, wondering, what am I going to do today?  It’s going to be a lovely day and I don’t want to waste a moment of it.

On Friday, anxious to stretch my legs after spending half the week sitting inside for seasonal training, I walked the whole park road again.  Didn’t see anything new, but it was a lovely cloud day—stratocumulus breaking open to reveal a sweep of incoming cirrus. Yesterday, I aimed for East Portal (the only place in the park where visitors can drive a steep, windy road down to the river and the country’s first major diversion dam and tunnel), but didn’t quite make it to the bottom before a thunderously dark hailstorm chased me back up.  Admittedly nerve-wracking (not to mention the bear that popped out of the brush only a car’s length away), but also exhilarating. 

Today, then—what to do today? Although, as usual, I feel obligated to do something exciting, meaningful, and/or  memorable, really all I want to do is walk to the canyon’s edge and sit.  
Sit and listen, sit and look, sit and feel. The birds, the river, the rock walls and the space between them—these are best experienced from a center of stillness. 

Yes, I think I’m going to go sit today.

Important point: find a beautiful place... with enough water (and soil), then dig in 
Some of the best moments I’ve had at parks—the richest, the deepest, the most transcendent—have occurred when, or perhaps because, I’ve been doing nothing but sitting.  Sitting at Pintado Point at Petrified Forest when the sun slipped between dark clouds and the horizon, illuminating everything but the basaltic neck of Pilot Rock.  Sitting on my little cedar-draped island in Tongass National Forest when a loon’s melancholy wail echoed through cool, thick mist.  Sitting on Primrose Ridge in Denali when a caribou trotted boldly across the tundra, curious to know who I was and what I was doing there. Sitting atop Algonquin Peak in the Adirondacks when the cloudbank lowered to leave mountain-islands poking out of a sea of white.  Sitting by the shores of Heart Lake at the Adirondak Loj when the landscape was so clearly reflected in the water that it was hard to tell which was the real world and which was the mirror image.


Rim Trail juniper catching the rising sun

For all my praise for walking—the rhythm, the freedom, the promise of new sights—it’s only when I stop moving that I fully feel a part of a place.  It starts with heightened perception: in the exact opposite of zazen (seated meditation), when I sit outside, instead of freeing my mind from distractions, I become more acutely aware of my surroundings. I begin to recognize how the world is changing around me—I see light move between cracks in the canyon, smell juniper baking in the hot sun, hear the soft rustle of wings when ravens stop craawing and soar away.  Then, like Ed Abbey in Desert Solitaire, I start to “feel myself sinking into the landscape, fixed in place like a stone, like a tree, a small motionless shape of vague outline, desert-colored, and with the wings of imagination look down at myself through the eyes of the bird, watching a human figure that becomes smaller, smaller in the receding landscape...” Eventually, if I sit for long enough, the concept of “I” wholly dissolves into what David Hinton describes as “Presence in all its silent radiance” (in his beautiful, beautiful, insightful and luminous “Field Guide to Mind and Landscape,” Hunger Mountain): “there is no ‘I’ perceiving, there is simply perception, the opening of consciousness become[s] wholly [that which is perceived].” In my case, I become wholly rock, juniper, raven, air, light.

View of the chasm from the visitor center, sunset

View from my front porch -- rays of light before the storm clouds fill back in

It’s a fleeting presence, though.  Inevitably, it starts to get hot. Or cold. Noisy. Boring. The spell breaks and I return to “I”-ness, feeling self-conscious and guilty for just lazing around. Shouldn’t I go for a real hike? Shouldn’t I leave the park one of these weekends? Shouldn’t I be writing or preparing for autumn? Am I squandering the summer, missing something important? I can’t sit for a full hour without anxieties and desires creeping in, or what Hinton knows as a “restless hunger” and “dragon-nature,” as in: “thoughts, feelings, memories, desires… [that] all keep relentlessly appearing and evolving and disappearing into the forgetfulness that is the texture of our day-to-day lives.”

On that note, right now, shouldn’t I be outside? The sun is only getting higher and hotter, the sky a hazier blue; it’s time for me to finish my coffee and head to Rock Point to sit and see what the day will bring.

View downcanyon from the Visitor Center, river glistening in the gathering dusk

[Addendum: I began writing this last Sunday, but before I could finish and post it, headed out to spend the rest of the day walking and sitting and walking again, including a guided wildflower walk during which a volunteer ranger pointed out several dozen species that I’d never before bothered to notice. Larkspur! Claret cups! Tiny little white somethings whose name I’ve already forgotten!  

It’s now the following Saturday. I've returned from a pre-dawn walk all the way over to High Point at the end of the park road, leaving in the coolness of dark, following the dim light of the Milky Way until it was superseded by an assertively orange-pink sunrise, getting home just as the hazy sky has begun to bake.  Along the way, I paused for a soft half-hour at Rock Point again—bright sun, long shadows, cool breeze, river rushing and foaming far below.  One raven sat with me, silent.]

Rock Point (aptly named)

Friday, June 12, 2015

Black Canyon, Part II. Walking

Better to idle through one park in two weeks than to try to race through a dozen in the same amount of time.
—Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire

Post-storm, pre-sunset walk out on East Portal Road (light breeze, cooler air, grouse booming at me from the brush)

It’s a privilege, I know, to get to live in a national park. While others have to fly or drive from far away—or even just up from town—to experience the landscape I see from my front porch, I can just step out my door and be in what Congress agreed is one of the nation’s most important and/or scenic places. [Side note: that’s also a liability.  I meant to write letters last Friday, but found myself repeatedly dashing outside whenever I glimpsed something beautiful through the window, i.e. dawn walk! Cloud walk! Noon walk! Mist walk! Rainbow-at-sunset walk!... I’ll contemplate the significance of that later. In the meantime, apologies to everyone who didn’t get so much as a postcard this week.]

Rainbows at dawn!

Full moon at dusk!

More than the accessibility, I have the luxury of time.  Time to slow down, time to relax, time to reflect, rinse, repeat.  Rather than desperately try to plan which trail to do and which overlook to stop at in the course of a few hours—or, worse yet, to try to race through all of the short hikes and cram in a stop at every overlook, plus maybe a ranger program and of course a look around the Visitor Center—I know that I can always wait and do something another day. Equally as importantly, I can return to do something again another day—experience it at a different time, in a different mood, with different weather.  (It poured all Saturday.  After a week of blaring, bleaching sun, I thought it was lovely to see the canyon alternately obfuscated and gleaming wet, exhaling mist, but also feel sorry for the visitors who stood at the rim and saw nothing. They’ll know its mystery, but not its distance or depth.)(Interesting, will they remember the place in terms of other senses: the roar of the river, the pungent wet sage?) 

Clouds swallowing up the canyon...

...And the canyon, belching out clouds

I’ve known the canyon in the rain, then, and in the snow, and with the sun beating down.  I’ve watched light slowly creep down the cliffs at dawn, and darkness rise up much more rapidly at dusk. I’ve seen afternoon cloud-shadows skitter across crags and linger in crevices.  I’ve smelled serviceberry bursting into bloom and felt the whoosh of cliff swallows swooping too close to my head. The last time I was here, I met a mountain lion, who paused to glance unconcernedly at me over his shoulder, gave his thick tawny tail a sinuous flick, then padded softly away into the unforgettable morning.

All of this happened while I was out walking.

Rim Trail on a rainy afternoon

I love to walk.  It’s my meditation, my celebration, my favorite means of exploring the world. Everywhere I go, I walk. Walk around cities, walk around parks. Walk to explore and, more often, walk the same routes over and over again, day after day. There’s comfort in the rhythm, freedom in the familiarity.  Instead of concentrating on navigation (Where am I? Where am I going? How do I get back?) and/or trying to sort through a barrage of new observations and sensations, I can turn my feet and mind loose, leaving them open to any and all psychological and/or environmental subtleties. Granted, some days, I’m wholly preoccupied with work or other concerns and hardly notice where I am.  On other days, though, I brim with curiosity—will the clouds build and break into rain? Will the snow finally stop and open into sun? Will the dusky grouse be there and, if so, will he boom at me from the bushes or puff his tailfeathers in silence when I approach?

In the three weeks I’ve been here, I’ve walked the entire park road—over to High Point and, yes, down to and back up from East Portal—been twice out to Painted Wall with stops along the way, once each just to Chasm View and Rock Point, looped Oak Flat three or four times, gone up the hill by the entrance booth just about every morning (looking for that mountain lion!), and taken the Rim Trail to Tomichi Point more times than I can count.  I have no idea how many miles that adds up to (not to mention long days hiking around the backcountry for work), but I’m pretty sure that I’ll wear through yet another pair of sandals this season.

Overlooking the San Juan Mountains from a gap on East Portal Rd.

Seeing me striding along the shoulder of the road, several visitors have kindly stopped to ask if I need help or a ride.  “No, thank you,” I tell them, “I like to walk.” (“Yes, even in the rain,” I assured a nice couple from California last Saturday.)  Several more have expressed surprise or admiration at my mode of transportation. “Thank you,” I tell them, “I like to walk.”  (It’s nothing special, I don’t tell them but I could, it takes no skill or special equipment. In fact, it could free you from what Ed Abbey calls variably your “metallic shells” and “back-breaking upholstered mechanized wheelchairs”—allow you to encounter the park firsthand, eyes and ears open, legs swinging, heart pumping, breath steady, except on some of the hills.) I dare not launch into Abbey’s full Desert Solitaire diatribe:
Look here, I want to say...look around; throw away those goddamned idiotic cameras! For chrissake folks what is this life if full of care we have no time to stand and stare? ... roll that window down! You can’t see the desert if you can’t smell it...take a long quiet walk straight into the canyons, get lost for a while… stand up straight like men! like women! like human beings! and walk – walk – WALK upon our sweet and blessed land!
But I do wish that more people would walk. 

Again, I know that because I’m living here—I’ve been here before and have another whole summer to explore—my plans can be flexible, my pace measured.  And I’m also desperately, delightedly aware that this country is rich with beautiful and unique parks, monuments, forests, rivers, refuges, seashores, etc.—it would be impossible to travel to, stop at, and truly see them all.  But if people are going to take the trouble to turn at the brown sign and drive the narrow, windy road from State Rte 50 up to this park, hopefully they’ll have the time or inclination to park their car at the Visitor Center and walk the trails, walk/run/bike/ski/snowshoe down the road, and/or really stop at any of the overlooks (I’ll write about that next.) Anyone would need at least 3-4 hours, preferably a day or two—enough time and at a pace to let the landscape awe, then change, then cut.

Painted Wall freshly washed and gleaming with light

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Black Canyon, Part I: Driving

What one thinks of in any region, while traveling through, is the result of at least three things: what one knows, what one imagines, and how one is disposed
—Barry Lopez, Arctic Dreams

Where tumbleweeds go to die (Cimarron National Grassland, southwestern Kansas)

Disclaimer: Although I enjoy the autonomy afforded by an auto-mobile, I hate to drive and do anything I can to avoid using my car.  Poor thing has been parked for most of the winter, only for me to, mid-May, test its squeaky brakes, give it new tires, and ask it to carry me halfway across the country.

Another Disclaimer: Although I usually avoid interstates, preferring to meander along backroads and “blue highways,” I wanted to get back West as quickly as possible.  My car and I zipped mind-numbingly across 600 miles one day and 700 the next.  Aside from visits with family and friends, we barely stopped or slowed until past Salina, Kansas. Once the landscape began to unfurl—aah, open plains undulating beneath a broken grey sky—we escaped from I-70, cutting more leisurely southwest towards Elkhart.

I think this is my final Disclaimer: Although I hate interstates and really, really hate driving in cities / anywhere there’s traffic, I do thoroughly enjoy rolling along empty roads, windows open, car filled with the scent of sage and songs of meadowlarks.  U.S. 56 is now my second favorite drive in Kansas (behind Rte. 36)—mile after mile of windmills and pastures, punctuated only by the occasional intersection or town, all exposed to that indomitable sky.

My car and I were aiming for Cimarron National Grassland and the Santa Fe Trail. Luckily, I’d scribbled down directions to the Conestoga Trailhead—gathering dusk plus poorly-marked roads plus entirely unmarked turns would have made the spot to find otherwise. The USFS website had given me the impression that this was a popular location, but there were no signs that anyone had been down the rutted road for weeks. I had the whole place to myself—just me, my car, some livestock, and several gas wells humming away on our public lands.

I spent a cramped night in my front seat (I’d had neither the time nor desire to pitch a tent), then woke with the sun, or rather to cattle curiously mooing at and rocking the car.  My plan was to hike for a few miles out and back—not the entire 19 mile trail, but enough to stretch my legs and get a feel for the landscape.  After getting my pack ready and signing in at the trail register (first person for 2015—do people not use the trail, or just not sign in?), I set off.

I didn’t make it fifty yards before I lost the trail. There was a lonely sandstone marker, then nothing. Um. Knowing I was supposed to head westward, I just started wandering, keeping an eye out for prickly pear and, eventually, another stone marker.  Then I repeated the process all over again—wander, watch, aha! A marker! (At least, in grasslands, it’s easy to roam and hard to get lost.)

I felt vaguely sorry for tromping around so widely--the sign at the trailhead had asked me to please stay on the companion trail so as to not damage the historic Santa Fe Trail itself. But, then again, the "historic fabric" was pretty well ruined by the dozens of gas wells (plus wellpads, roads, etc) visible from each trailmarker.
 Maybe a mile later, a stone marker tried to send me right into a fence and tidy field.  There was a gate nearby, and, at its foot, broken signs announced private property and politely asked hikers to secure the gate behind them.  Looking more closely at the signs, I realized that they hadn’t just fallen—they'd been very purposefully cut. That decided it.  Feeling lost, unwelcome, and increasingly indignant (“I have a right to experience American heritage,” I held an imaginary conversation with the sign-cutter, “and explore public lands”), I turned around and headed back to my car, skirting yet another herd of curious cattle en route.

Less a matter of "Please stay on trail" than the message "You're not welcome here; Please go away"

"Who are you?" mooed the cattle, investigating the interloper, "And what are you doing here?"
Fine. So much for Cimarron. On to Comanche National Grassland—my main destination. For years, I’ve been hoping to hike to Picketwire Canyon, home to one of the largest dinosaur tracksites in the country, preserved in the same geologic formation (hooray, Morrison!) in which I’ll be working this summer.  I’d tried to visit the locality four years ago, but my low-clearance, front-wheel-drive sedan had been thwarted by thunderstorms/diverted to Vogel Canyon—a nice enough, though dinosaur-trackless, area to hike. This time, my only-slightly-higher-clearance-but-AWD Subaru and I arrived eagerly at Comanche early afternoon. We proceeded to navigate the rough, muddy road, growing increasingly nervous as the local radio station forecasted several days of rain.  Judging from my odometer, we made it within about 2 miles of the Picketwire Corrals (which are, in turn, 3 miles from the trailhead) when we encountered an impassable drainage—over half a foot of standing water, with thick oozy mud on either side.  

Um.  Option 1: try driving through (and, almost surely, get the car stuck; ruin the road.)  Option 2: park and hike the 5 miles to the trailhead then the 5+ miles to the tracks, hoping to make it back before storms and/or dark. (Darn it, I was going to see those tracks.) Option 3: Option 2, but starting early the next day. (I wanted to actually study the tracks, not rush in and out.)

Sigh. Opting for #3, I turned around and, on a whim, decided to return to Vogel Canyon.  I’d never expected to see the spot again, but at least it afforded an area to park and a trail to walk. I was surprised to find my memories of the place vivid—yes, this was where I’d lost the path before (and again); yes, I remember the curve of that cottonwood; wow, I photographed the sign from the exact same angle, emphasizing the daunting sense of space.  The last time I was there, though, I’d witnessed a transcendent transition from late afternoon to soft dusk to brilliant night, with a spectacularly fat full moon illuminating every dusty shrub and distant mesa. On this evening, thickening and lowering clouds cloaked the sky, convinced me to spend another night curled uncomfortably into my car, and, worst of all, portended rain.

Along the Prairie Trail, Vogel Canyon Trailhead (Comanche National Grassland, southeastern Colorado)

Sure enough, it started pouring at midnight. Waking to the pounding on the roof, I wondered whether I’d be able to get as far down the road toward the tracksite trailhead. As it continued to rain the rest of the night, I sleepily began to worry that I’d be stuck at the Vogel Canyon parking area.  When day dawned bright and new, I strolled out to see the prairie, fresh and alive, only to realize that the road was pure mud—boot-sucking mire, difficult just to walk on. There was absolutely no way my car would get out to the tracks; it was barely (nobly!) capable of slipping and splattering the several miles to solid pavement.

Beautiful morning!  Until the mud tried to swallow my boots, then my car
Relieved, but also tired, stiff, and disappointed, I drove to La Junta and rewarded my car with a tankfull of gas.  From there, I gave up on adventure—plans to visit Great Sand Dunes, Durango, and Silverton shriveled.  Instead, I decided on one last push—300 miles to Black Canyon.  The drive was uneventful, the scenery spectacular.  My car made it through narrow Canon City, over Monarch Pass (complete with a sparkle of snow flurries), into Gunnison, and from that point into ever-more familiar terrain—along the shores of Curecanti (hello, reservoir! Hello, Dillon Pinnacles!), past Cimarron (hello, train!), up the winding road to the park quarters (Grizzly Ridge! Green Mountain! The West Elks, and, of course: hello, Canyon!), where it’s been sitting ever since, resting and slowly sloughing mud.

Five days.  More than 2000 miles.  Traveling far and fast, only sometimes stopping to visit new things, what did I actually see of the country? My impressions and now my memories of each place are dependent on the time of day and weather while I was there, and, more subtly, my expectations and my mood. To me, Cimarron = cattle, gas wells, and a forlornly trailless trail; Comanche = muddy defeat. All of the Midwest = Interstate. Everything west of Gunnison = old friends.

Spiraling in and slowing down, I’ve now had two weeks to revisit most areas of the park and, better yet, have gotten to explore on foot. More thoughts, observations, and photos to come.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Widely, deeply, well : An intro

Trail to Mt. Marcy, Adirondack High Peaks (2014)
Upland trail, Black Canyon of the Gunnison (2015)

“To live WIDELY, DEEPLY, WELL,” I scrawled into a notebook years ago, after a discussion (well, argument) about the merits of staying put and gradually, perhaps boringly, burrowing into the same old place, as opposed to whirling, exhilarated and exhausted, from shiny new place to shiny new place. The friend with whom I was debating [arguing] was a fellow traveler / perpetual peripatetic / seasonal park service employee who, like me, was faced with perennial dilemmas—to return to work at the same park each year? Once at a park, to spend free time exploring the backcountry or visiting the surrounding area?  Travel by bus, by car, by foot? (By helicopter, by kayak, by sled dog, …?) Although we shared a desire to see as much of the world as possible and both did our best to really see the world—to not just skim through scenes, snapping photos and moving on, but to try to learn about each landscape and culture—we’d somehow found ourselves embroiled in this vehemently polarized either/or inhabit vs. travel discussion [ahem, argument]. He was driven to explore ever father, ever wider—to venture to physical and geographical extremes; I was content to explore ever more deeply—to attune to places' every mood and minute change.

To live widely, deeply. What is “well”?  

Train from Anchorage to Denali Natl Park (2012)

It’s an old debate, certainly not resolved in our afternoon’s argument or my subsequent years of wandering and wondering. From Basho’s “wind-swept spirit” to Dickinson’s adage to “dwell in possibility” (and at home), people have always felt torn between adventure and familiarity— the stimulation of travel vs. the safety of the hearth; the inspiration of a journey vs. the certitude of home.  Most famously (at least, among those who grapple with these sorts of ideas), humanistic geographer Yi-Fu Tuan has devoted his career to pondering “Space and Place”—the former signifying freedom and desire, the latter security and devotion. It’s not an either/or, he insists—in order to live a rich, fulfilling life, people need freedom as well as security, desire as well as devotion.  (Think William Least Heat-Moon’s Blue Highways and then PrairyErth, Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods and At Home, Barry Lopez in the Arctic and on the banks of his beloved McKenzie, Gary Snyder in Japan and at work in his watershed…)

Widely + deeply = well.

What’s the balance, then? How much freedom vs. how much security? To complicate matters even more, how much physical/geographical exploration vs. routine; how much mental stimulation vs. contemplation?

Road in upstate NY, relatively insignificant but for the fact that I've walked it hundreds if not a thousand times, in all seasons, in all weather (2012? or 2013? or 2014?)

I’ve been thinking about this recently, as I’ve left New York and my happy habits (daily walks around the same small college town; summers hiking up and down the same Adirondack High Peaks) to return to Black Canyon of the Gunnison in Colorado for the field season.  My time here is limited (granted, not quite to the same degree as most visitors—I have three months rather than three hours), and I’m not sure how best to spend it.  The West Elks and San Juans gleam tantalizingly to the northeast and south, and Grand Mesa flattens off the northwestern horizon. There’s Gunnison Gorge Conservation Area! Dominguez-Escalante! The Uncompahgre Plateau!, how will I ever see them all? Can I make it to Canyons of the Ancients? The Maroon Bells?  Oh, Dinosaur National Monument!... Part of me wants to spend every weekend spiraling out to any wild place within a day’s drive.

As far out into the Denali wilderness as I ever went -- mountains upon mountains upon mountains I'll likely never step foot upon (2012)
Heart Lake, Adirondacks. Also mountains upon mountains upon mountains -- pure wilderness to some; to me, a favorite spot for near-daily contemplation (2014)

Another part of me wants to spend every moment sitting at Rock Point, listening to the river thrum, watching the light change over and in the canyon, and trying to fathom the immensity of time and space I see here. It is beautiful. Rock, river, sky.

I’ll begin (or continue, I guess, in a slightly more organized manner) thinking through different means and quality of experiences by describing the past two weeks—driving to the canyon (new places!); once here, walking the park road and hiking into the canyon (semi-familiar places!); and, finally, sitting still. Widely, deeply. Well, we’ll see. 

Back at Black Canyon: Painted Wall (2015)

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Trying to be there

It was, as usual, a busy week on Mt. Marcy.  Superlatives tend to garner the most attention – as the high-est, the tall-est, the top of the state attracts the larg-est, most determined crowds. Each week, hundreds of people trek to the summit, cheer, and snap a photograph or three to memorialize their accomplishment. (Upon discovering that they have 4G service up on the peak, some of those with smartphones also immediately post their photos to facebook. Sigh.)

I try to at least chat with everyone—to say hello and ensure that they know to walk on rock surfaces (not vegetation or soils). Given the opportunity, I prefer to start real conversations—to share and/or engender a sense of appreciation for this place. (And by “place” I mean all of it: ranges and ridges; valleys and passes; rivers and streams and lakes; bogs. And all of the wild life therein.)  I want to hear hikers’ stories—what brings them to Mt. Marcy? Have they been to the Adirondacks before? Hiking all 46, or hitting state high points? Had they planned to “do” the peak, or “get” it, or are they just out to enjoy their day?

Skyscape over Skylight

Mainly, I wonder what it is that people expect to find and/or learn (if anything) by climbing a mountain. What can wild places teach us? What do we actually observe and absorb among and atop the high peaks? [How] are we shaped by the wind and the rock, the rain and the sun and the sandwort? (Ever, ever, those questions asked by Barry Lopez in Arctic Dreams: “How do people imagine the landscapes they find themselves in?  How does the land shape the imaginations of the people who dwell in it?  How does desire itself, the desire to comprehend, shape knowledge?”)
Sometimes, when people ask “Wow, do you ever get tired of the view,” instead of replying “Never! It always changes,” I want to tell them “I don’t get much time to enjoy it.” Hiker after hiker, question after question (photograph after photograph)—three then four days of chatting for seven, eight hours straight and I begin to question myself—what am I doing or getting; what am I seeing, feeling, absorbing, becoming on these peaks?

Pause. Breathe.

Sun halo!

There are always moments of beauty, signs of grace. Just when I’m least suspecting, something comes to take me out of myself.  (Annie Dillard, Piilgrim at Tinker Creek: “[B]eauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.”)

Usually it’s clouds. Mist swirling up from a valley; cirrus wisping overhead; thunderstorms building, building, breaking—my mind is on and in the sky.  

Clouds over MacIntyre range

Sometimes it’s ravens.  The ravens—there are three of them, one pair and one larger lonely female—like to swoop in at about 2 or 2:15 on sunny afternoons. (I presume they’re playing on the thermals, and/or showing off for the hiker crowd.) True to form, last Sunday, they craawed a few warning craws then popped up from Panther Gorge. “Oooh,” everyone admired their skill and size and shiny black feathers; “craaaw,” the ravens exclaimed with self-delight.  After a few unnecessary (but admirable!) aerobatics, they alit on an outcrop below the summit and preened for photographs.  (I tried to roll my eyes at their antics, but couldn’t help but be awed by their intelligence and humor. I respect their wildness and envy their freedom. Imitate their calls. Eat their crowberries and covet their feathers. Ravens.)


That should have been enough for me; I need to learn not to expect much less ask for more.  But an hour or two after the ravens had given a farewell croak and flown off (presumably to check out the crowd on Algonquin), I was once again feeling tired, edgy, lost.  Four o’clock sharp and I was ready to get off that summit.  Boots laced up, pack strapped on, I made a last-minute decision to slip off the back side of the mountain and follow the longer, less-traveled trail down.

Usually, the first mile—which drops straight down the mountain’s exposed southeast face—is one of my favorite stretches in the High Peaks.  (I love the steep rock, as well as the clear views over to Skylight and across to Haystack.)  It wasn’t enough to awe or even placate me last Sunday, though; I don’t even remember hiking down into the trees or turning at the Four Corners junction. 
Then came Lake Tear of the Clouds—another one of my usual favorites. (Some people sneer that it should be called “Pond” or “Swamp” rather than “Lake,” but I’ve always considered it a quiet little gem, nestled high in the mountains. High-est, to throw in another superlative: highest body of water in the state, and highest source of the Hudson River. I love knowing that the calm, cool water I see there will, in a couple of weeks, be roiling past Manhattan.)  I barely even paused there, though—just pointed it out to a group of hikers, then hurried on my way down Feldspar Brook.

Down, down, rock-hopping, hurrying, always hurrying.  Turned right at the Feldspar lean-to and onto a trail I only traveled once last summer. I remembered it as being wet, muddy, and steep (then again, everything last year was wet, muddy, and steep), so was pleasantly surprised to find that the bog bridges were not, in fact, floating and that the ascent was, by comparison, gradual. Had I paused to appreciate the surroundings, I would be better able to describe the slides on Mt. Colden or the forested slopes of Gray Peak.  Still hurrying, though. Up, up, now, atop rocks and over logs, how far to Lake Arnold?
Last year, my whole purpose for taking this trail was to see the sundew (tiny, bright orange, carnivorous bog plants) blooming at Lake Arnold.  Last year, too, I had been hurrying—hurrying to be down in time for dinner. Hurrying, in such a rush that I’d somehow hustled right on past the slight turn for the lake without ever seeing it. (!!) This year, I was ready for it—I timed myself and paid attention to the terrain (wouldn’t the lake be in the flat area at the crest of the trail?) Sure enough, I found a sign for the lake (tucked back and facing in the other direction—aha! No wonder I’d missed it!)(Though how on earth had I not seen the water through the trees to the left of the trail?) and turned to follow.

Aah. Inhale.
Lake Arnold is but a large, marshy pool at the base of Mt. Colden’s forested slopes. Nothing remarkable. A few lily pads, a few little brown birds flapping on the far shore. No loon. No mist. Breeze rippling and ridging the water so not even a reflection. 

Ahh. Exhale.

I didn't take a picture of Lake Arnold. Somehow, it would have seemed profane to do so. Instead, Boreas Pond as seen from Mt. Marcy

Something about it—the wider view, after miles of forest; or the pause after an hour of hiking. The silence. The solitude—something about it resonated, reverberated, soothed whatever ache or filled whatever emptiness I’d been feeling.  Although I was barely there two minutes (had to hurry! Dinner! Darkness!), it was (one last set of superlatives—forgive me!) the best time, the highest point of the week.  Having been there to see it, I am happy to know, now, that that little mountain lake is there, always rippling with beauty and grace.

Back on the shore of Heart Lake

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

A Lake, a Mountain, the Wind, and a Loon

Saturday the 12th began brightly, but there was an ominous edge to the air: first, just a thickness that faded distant peaks into haze; then, a flotilla of cirrus that wisped in high above soft white cumulus puffs. The clouds thickened, darkened, and lowered until finally, at sunset, there was an unexpected sprinkle of rain. (I was sitting by the shore of Heart Lake and was surprised to hear the patter of droplets on the water; mmm, scent of fresh rain!)

The sky cleared after dusk. When the bright glare of the full moon woke me at around 1 a.m., I stumbled back to the lakeshore eager to see the nightscape reflected in the calm water. Disappointment: although some mountain ridges were sharply silhouetted in the blue-grey light, the moon itself was veiled and soon swallowed by a layer of clouds. Back to sleep.

Cirrus over Algonquin, sweeping edge of a front

Sunday dawned dark. “Cloudy. Summits obscured in clouds. Chance of rain 60 percent,” declared the weather-bot. Sigh. 

I shouldered my pack and headed up the trail toward Wright Peak, along with the summit steward for Algonquin. The higher we hiked, the stronger the winds became; trees rustled then creaked.  At the first semblance of an overlook (near the knoll known as “Northwest Wright”, a little over an hour in and maybe 2000 feet up from Heart Lake), we couldn’t see anything but mist. By the time we reached the split between the trails to the different peaks (only 0.4 of a mile but still another 700 feet+ to climb to reach Wright), we had resigned ourselves to the likelihood that it would be a “junction day”—in other words, instead of trying to sit on the very tops, we would have to stay safely tucked in the forest, warning hikers to reconsider heading above treeline in such inclement weather. (“High, gusty winds; likelihood of storms; slippery slabs of rock; no views; please don’t step on the rare and fragile alpine vegetation!”)

To our surprise, we met a hiker at the junction—an avid early bird who’d been hoping to hike the whole range (Wright, Algonquin, and, beyond that, Iroquois), but had decided that he’d had enough after trying to go up Wright.  “Whew, those winds!”, he shook his head, “Hard to stay on my feet! I’ve never felt it like that!”

Hmm. Junction day.

After wishing him a safe hike down, we stood for a few moments and took stock of the situation.  Gusts continued to roar through the forest; spruce and fir rattled in their wake.

I feel extraordinarily claustrophobic in the forest, though, and get anxious when I can’t see the sky. Soon enough, I got to thinking: it’s not all that far from the junction to the alpine zone along the trail to Wright.  “I think I’m going to dash up to treeline—to see how bad the winds really are and see if I can catch a glimpse of the clouds,” I told the other steward, “I’ll be back as soon as it starts raining and/or if I hear thunder.”

Trail to Wright Peak

Up I went. Trees thinned; the wind grew stronger. Waves of mist whirled in and away with dizzying rapidity. A little before treeline, I decided to stop and put on rain gear. (Dewdrops had begun to cling to my shirt, hair, and eyelashes.) Just as I tucked into a protected ledge, I met a figure scurrying down—another hiker?  “I had to come down,” she gasped, breathless, shaking, “I couldn’t go to the top. I thought I’d be blown off.” 

After a pause to gulp for air: “They’re still coming.” Who? Apparently a group was there to celebrate one woman’s completion of her 46.  (Successful climbs of the 46 Adirondack peaks historically measured as above 4000 feet – becoming a “46er” is quite a badge of honor in these parts.)

Within a few minutes, a group of 7 came scrambling down, panting and laughing. One woman glowed with exhilaration. “Quite a way to end!” she exclaimed.  Ah, the successful 46er.  Once everyone was gathered relatively out of the wind, they all offered congratulations and tokens for her achievement—a pin, a patch, a t-shirt, and even a homemade banner.  I was delighted to share in their celebration, or at least be there to help commemorate it.  (Took several dozen photographs.)

They soon left, seeking real shelter.  I, meanwhile, decided that if some of them could make it to the top, well, then, I could too. I zipped on my raincoat and cinched on my pack cover; tied down all loose straps and turned my radio all the way up. Stashed my trekking poles, presuming I’d want my hands free. Ready? Ready.

On Wright, the entree from the spruce-fir forest into the mixed krummholz (stunted tree) and alpine zone is marked by a climb up a fairly steep outcrop.  As soon as I pulled myself over the top, a gust of wind knocked me off my knees.  Elbow and nose to the rock, I realized, Oh. So this is what they meant by windy.

I staggered to my feet for the first several yards, then, after being blown into a boulder and nearly off a ledge, returned to my hands and knees for the steepest scramble. Gasping, I made it to a slightly sheltered section partway up and, there, wondered whether I should recalibrate.  What on earth am I doing? I thought to myself, Why?

Cairn en route to the summit (lost in the cloud.) Note the patch of deers hair sedge, nearly flattened by the wind.
Well, for the experience of it all.  Uitwaaien: the Dutch have a word for walking in the wind / leaning into a strong wind for pleasure / going out to clear one’s head. I was ultra-uitwaaiening, relishing the resistance or the challenge or the raw sensation of clinging to cold, misty rock while the wind howled, the clouds raced, and the sedges bowed and bobbed all around me.

Because my full pack seemed to be throwing me off-balance (and because I was afraid the cover would get torn to shreds), I decided to stash it under a boulder.  Likewise with the raincoat, which had been flapping furiously.  Armed with just my radio, I readied myself for a mad dash to the top.

As soon as I stepped back out into the full force of the wind, though, I realized that it had been a mistake to dump my pack, which had been the only thing weighing me down.  Oh well, choice made, I clambered to the nearest cairn, paused, then crawled to the next. Summit in sight! During what seemed like a slight lull, I raced up and across the isthmus of trail that leads safely through the last patch of vegetation to the summit rock.

The summit of Wright Peak, it should be noted, is just a fin of rock. Maybe 10 feet high and not much more in width, it’s fully exposed on all sides—north/northwesterly wind gathers force across the long, low valley into which Lake Placid is nestled, then crashes into Wright; southwesterly wind tunnels around from Indian Pass and southeasterly wind swings in from Avalanche Pass, then both crash into Wright; wind swoops up from the cirque on Algonquin; wind swirls around the summit itself, into and against that smooth, slim crest.
I didn’t think I could get up it; I thought I’d be blown off.  Maybe I wouldn't be blown all the way down to Heart Lake, but I'd at least tumble into the krummholz. Surely I’d be blown off before I reached the actual top, what was the point of going to the top, the very tippy-top? What was the force—personal desire, personal drive, inherent human urge?—compelling me to complete the climb?

I wriggled—literally wriggled, on my stomach like a salamander or snake, fingers and toes catching every crevice—the last ten feet to the summit.   Touched the stone. (Ed Abbey: “Feet on earth. Touch stone. Knock on wood. Good luck to all.”) 

I have no idea why.

The summit of Wright on a slightly less stormy day
Back at the junction that afternoon, I tried to explain to the Algonquin steward what it felt like: “um, it was really windy.”

“But, oh, it was beautiful!” I tried to justify it.  It was beautiful—while I staggered back down, the mist began to lift and break, affording peeks down to northwest Wright and even Heart Lake. Although the wind continued to buffet me, I sat just above treeline for nearly an hour, watching the landscape emerge. Then the sky turned a funny peachy-gold pre-storm color and I ducked back into the forest. Soon thereafter, the other steward and I hiked down from the junction (no more peak-baggers that afternoon.)

View from treeline

Safely (and early!) back at Heart Lake, I felt yet another inexplicable urge: this time, to swim.  I waded out in the rain, dove into the waves, and paddled out to where I had a view of the High Peaks, once again lost in clouds.  I was up there, I marveled—up in the sky, out in the wind. Maybe if I dive deep enough, I thought, I’ll find the opposite of the summit of Wright? 

Maybe I'm just a bit loony?

Or maybe, I realized, I should stop trying to wonder what it all means and just let myself float--float in a lake full of cloud-drops caught and channeled down by the mountains.

David Hinton, Hunger Mountain: “If I try to see any further into it, all I can see is the dragon-form way earth tips up and churns into heaven here in these mountains, and how heaven seethes down to mingle all windblown mist and sky breathing through earth.”

Reflection of Wright and Algonquin on Heart Lake, mountains still capped by clouds

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Always a beautiful day

“It’s a beautiful day to be on a mountain!”, I smile and greet hikers when they reach the summit of an Adirondack high peak.  Sun or rain, wind, haze, and/or bugs, it’s always a beautiful day to be on a mountain. Air is fresher there; food tastier. Colors are brighter, clouds closer. Though usually exhausted, people are happier, friendlier, more alive. 
Granted, some days, the discomfort of too much sun, rain, wind, haze, and/or too many bugs overrides the aesthetics. And yes, on some days, I’m too busy monitoring the vegetation, doing trail work, and/or speaking with hordes of hikers to be able to contemplate the experience.

But the beauty is there. Every single day. On a mountain.

Big Slide, seen from Wright Peak on a bluebird day

Of course, beauty is subjective, preferences variable. Although most people seek dramatic scenery or at least some sort of view—a bit of perspective—I’m happiest to hear the weather-bot announce “summits obscured in clouds.”  I love to perch on a little throne of rock, watching mist swirl up through the krummholz, over the ledges, around the cairns, and back into the other side of the grey-white world.  Just as the visible space condenses (quite literally) into an ever-changing wall of nothing, the soundscape empties of everything but wind, breath, and the occasional song of the white-throated sparrow.  Feels and tastes all become cool and rocky, slightly damp with accumulating dew. Instead of feeling disconnected and disoriented—unsure of just where I am, who I am—I almost feel more pointedly aware of myself and my surroundings; when all I know of the world is the rock, the mist, myself, well, then, that’s the world.

On these days when I can’t see the arc of the sun through the sky (and thus can’t gauge morning vs. afternoon; then vs. now), time tends to skip, leap, and stand still.  I sit and watch mist; one minute drags on. I sit and watch mist; an hour slips by. There are subtle changes—a shift in the wind; slight patters of rain—but little else to distinguish one moment from the next: the sparrows, maybe the craak of a raven; dark-eyed juncos hop into and out of my life. Every now and then, I hear trekking poles and a shape or two emerges/coalesces on the summit; the hikers and I speak for a little while (“Sorry there’s no view, but look at this fascinating, rare, and fragile alpine vegetation!”), then they disappear/dissolve. I sit and watch mist.

Clouds splitting on their own (needing no help from Mt. Marcy)

Often—almost always—the clouds aren’t there for the entire day.  Sometimes they sweep in or lower mid-morning (in which case, it’s fun to watch them coming); other times they break up mid-afternoon. Those are the most exhilaratingly, achingly beautiful days to be on a mountain:
mist, mist, mist for hours;
a moment here or there when the air seems to glow, or, oh!, a patch of blue sky appears! Hope!, then back to mist.
Mist, mist, mist;
glow, mist;
glow, glow, blue sky! And a dark form below the summit!—Panther Gorge? (from Mt. Marcy) Avalanche Pass? (from Algonquin)
Brighter overhead; sharper underneath. The shoulder of Haystack? The silhouette of Skylight? 

Haystack emerging from the steam

Pieces of other mountains come and go; the familiar landscape reassembles itself between swirls of cloud. Finally, it all breaks open: sunlight streams down into steaming valleys and shines on steaming peaks. Hikers fortunate enough to arrive at just the right time (or tenacious enough to wait it out) point and laugh and shout; we all dash from ledge to ledge, snapping photos and calling out for views.  “Beautiful!,” we exclaim, “The world! Was it there all along?”

View from Cascade: Big Slide and the Great Range in all their rugged glory, with a cloudscape to match


Every day is a beautiful day to be on a mountain.

Pre-storm sky seen from Algonquin