Sometime back in May, I passed the halfway mark of The Grid.
So much has been happening over the past month that this milestone came and went without my noticing.
Other milestones distracted me, good ones and rough.
A college graduation of sorts, to start. Despite a miscalculation in credits, a canceled hockey season, and classes over Zoom, the oldest earth-boy finished his educational journey and is off to the Big Apple to chase dreams.
In lieu of a march across the stage – there wasn’t one – frowny face – he and I walk the campus visiting old haunts and marveling at the time in-between. Four years ago, his convocation was also a bust when we had to rush him out of the line to the hospital, deep in abdominal distress. The absence of pomp on either end seems meet somehow.
Later, I’m weepy driving his stuff to New York.
I’m not sure I can handle another departure.
Back at the ranch, his brother, more gifted, shall we say, in the organizational arts, redecorates their room. I suppose a new area rug can say I miss you as much as a hug.
Then there’s the other boy.
Five years is a long time, but we are blessed by the full funding of his scholarship. The radical generosity of friends somehow makes this milestone more bearable.
The final push is actually a party where I eat too little and drink too much (Jesus. Take. The. Wheel.), but the joy of seeing his myriad friends and hearing how they are living their beautiful lives enthralls. Maskless and giddy, I toast and tear with those who knew him well.
Then there’s the littlest one.
So like her mother in sass and smarts, her milestones race by between visits and I can’t keep up.
And somehow, in the midst of it all, the season changed.
576 is a lot of peaks.
Month by month and year by year, I’ve been chipping away at them, faithfully filling in the form, until, somehow, unacknowledged, the midway comes and goes.
In many ways, The Grid has saved me.
It’s the place I go where I can always depend on God showing up.
He’s everywhere, of course, but sometimes just more everywhere than most.
Sometimes He’s veiled and sometimes on full display, but He’s never, ever not there. It’s easy to lose oneself in all His showy splendor.
Halfway in The Grid is 288 4,000 footers.
It’s meant hiking in negative degrees, rain, wind, fog, bugs, and heat.
It means planning routes, nutrition, hydration, footwear, and gear.
It means checking trip reports, weather updates, forest road closures, parking lot conditions, and water levels.
It means leaving my itinerary with the kids because I mostly hike alone. Texts from trailhead, summit, trailhead, and home are what have kept me safe; or, if not safe, at least findable, should that become necessary.
I don’t take stupid chances because there are some milestones you just don’t need to rush. Mistakes are part of the process, but I mitigate as best I can.
I want to make it to 576.
The thing is, we may not know when we are halfway to something.
It’s easy to forget when you’re in the thick of something craggy that you could be halfway through it – or even a wisp away from the terminus.
I didn’t expect to find myself once again this March huddled in a tent on the Florida Trail, listening to big-somethings crashing through the night on the other side, but, once again, Covid interrupts in ways none of us foresee.
When the virus hits our school, opening a brief window of opportunity, I do some counting. Are there days enough to drive 1,400 miles, hike a 160-mile section, then drive 1,400 miles back? Enough to quarantine for 2 weeks before I must return to work?
If I walk fast enough.
Walking fast was not a problem on the previous two sections I had hiked in 2019 and 2020. The trail between the northern terminus at Fort Pickens National Seashore and Blountstown was sandy, dry, and gloriously, ludicrously flat. One only slowed to marvel at a cypress knee or the surprise greening of a freshly sooted controlled burn.
I had heard of the soggy sections south of Blountstown – the Bradwell Bay Wilderness, Apalachicola, the Aucilla Sinks – but had no frame of reference to comprehend the magnitude of what was ahead.
It wasn’t until the end of my first half day of dirt-road-walking, where even the swamp dwellers seemed happy and dry, that I realized my miscalculation.
To be fair, Florida had been experiencing a heavy load of rain over the weeks previous, so perhaps the swamps might have been, in other years, merely ankle deep.
Or perhaps the trail sections now ankle-deep in mud might have been, in other years, just a thin patina.
No matter. The trail is what the trail is on the day you choose to hike it, so hike it as it is you must.
I suppose I should be grateful for that first half day of dry; it marked the end of dry-anything for the rest of the week.
When I came to end of that first half day, it had gotten dark and I was navigating by headlamp and Guthook. The app told me that I was .1 from the tent sight I had been shooting for, but the trail ahead disappeared into a vast expanse of murky water. I shone my beam as far as I could, but there was no way to tell how far the water stretched, nor how deep it was. One thing was certain: I was not going to try to find out that night.
Unpacking my stuff and setting up my tent right on the trail, I wondered if any other hikers might happen by. Though unlikely, I thought they could walk around. Nothing to see here – just a deep dark swamp with suspicious splashing. As you were.
Turns out this was just the first in an endless cascade of varying types of water features through which the trail slopped.
There were the sinks – eroded craters set in limestone where the Aucilla River flowed, disappearing underneath your very feet only to reappear a half mile up ahead in a different hole.
There were deep gullies v’ed with water, steeply banked on either side; in one attempt to leap across, I miscalculate and am shredded by a nasty saw palmetto.
There were levees, spillways, streams, flooded jeep tracks, the ever present swamps, rain, and even the St. Mary’s River, where hikers have to call a marina on the other side to be shuttled across.
It was no use trying to stay dry.
If the miles were to be hiked, there was only through. At times, my battered feet even enjoyed the soothing wet, though every morning was a struggle to wedge them back into cold, sandy shoes.
Later, when I get home, it takes multiple soaks before I trust my socks to the washer.
They’ll never be the same.
This year, I am fortunate to run into a few thru-hikers and even hike some miles with them.
The Florida Trail is not one of the more popular of America’s long distance trails (see previous section), but it seems to be gaining in stature, particularly during Covid, when other types of travel are restricted.
It is impossible to stay on pace with them – they’ve hiked over 750 miles and I’m just out for the week – though I spend one morning chatting companionably with two young guns who, when they hear what I do for a living, ask, “Do they know their teacher is a bada**?”
Of course, I could not have completed this section without the help of some amazingly generous friends and trail angels. Wilton, who supports hikers through the Altha Hillcrest Baptist Church, drives me the 160 miles to my starting point and keeps an eye on my car for the week. Talking theology with him is always a treat.
I meet Mr. Tom at Porter Lake Campsite after I mistakenly bushwack a two mile section that apparently had been closed due to a property owner dispute.
I’m in an grumpy mood, scratched and bloody from the fight, but he offers me an orange. I put it in my pack, where, like a pearl, it shimmers all day, the thought of it enticing me forward. I eat it as a reward, later, for dinner.
Steps, a thru hiker I meet last year, offers to walk the longest swamp with me, but I elect instead to do the high water bypass. When you have to pull yourself across the first water crossing in a boat on a rope, perhaps it’s just not the year to attempt Bradwell Bay. Walking Fire Road 329 instead, I see a truck bumping up the track and out he hops with a cold Gatorade and a Subway sandwich. We catch up in the shade, talking trail and hikers we know.
No trip to Florida would be complete without visiting with my friend Nancy, who helps hikers on the Panhandle. I’m down to dregs in both food and water, ready to be back in civilization.
After 10 miles of marshy Apalachicola and another 7 of road walk, I’m so blessed to have her take my pack so I can finish the last 8 miles into Blountstown, thus connecting the dots from where I left off last year.
Frisky as a calf, I run the first 4.
Riding together back to my car, I am happy to share my last miles with Nancy. As with the trail, gap and distance make reunion all the sweeter.
When You Pass Through the Waters
Hiking the Florida Trail this year was a surprise treat; despite the challenges, I am grateful that the timing worked out.
I got to see my first alligator.
It’s close enough yet far enough away, if you know what I mean.
And perhaps because it was cool and rainy much of the week, the only snake I see is on a paved path.
A tentative poke to the tip of his tail confirms what I suspected: this fellow wasn’t going to bite anyone ever again.
Safe at home again, I realize that the prayer my besty gave me for this section has worked. I had whispered it under my breath, pleaded it through clenched teeth, sang it when my feet were finally firm beneath me:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. Isaiah 43:1-2
I was in the woods last March when Covid hit. The year ahead was a dark swamp, and we, unable to peer through to what lay on the other side, had to stop, hunker down, wait.
There were no maps we could rely on – only the One who sees the end from the beginning and is with us in the waters.
So we walk on, confident that we will see the other side.
What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly. ~Thomas Paine
Have you ever been so thirsty that it is nearly impossible to drink?
I didn’t actually think this possible, but this past week, back on the Florida Trail for another spring break, I found myself huddled behind a propane tank display in front of a Dollar General desperate for some relief from the sun and unable to choke down any fluid.
One of the many challenges of the Florida Trail – besides the obvious, like swamps, snakes, and alligators – is the frequency of road walks.
While Florida Trail chapter volunteers try to parcel together more and more sections off the roads and into the woods where a trail belongs, gaining permission from landowners and other entities to allow smelly people to walk across private land is oftentimes problematic.
No matter what time of year one chooses to walk the trail, however – most start at the southern terminus sometime in January – there will be countless stretches along roads, paved and un, exposed to a ceaseless, punishing solar barrage. To say that thirst is one of the side effects of these portions is a wild understatement.
While toiling away on one such section, I made some lists in my sunburnt head.
Benefits of Road Walks
No coyotes howling on the other side of your thin fabric’d tent, oftentimes from the same direction toward which you are about to walk
Strategically positioned convenience stores (like the aforementioned Dollar General I found myself at, two bottles of cold liquids in front of me, too tummy-tied and dehydrated to sip even the tiniest amount)
Hard (but not impossible) to get lost
Guys in pick-ups roaring by while honking and giving you the finger for no apparent reason
Disadvantages of Road Walks
Same view, mile after endless mile
No coyotes: it’s strangely thrilling to hear these magnificent animals yipping and howling OUT THERE while you are burrito’d in a sleeping bag IN HERE. Shivers.) Also, snarly dogs, chained and un, that charge as you cruise by, scaring you out of your very pants
Convenience stores, right on the very trail – where’s the challenge in that? – with the only options for a gluten-free-dairy-free eater being jumbo pickles and Slim Jims. No more Krispy Kremes for this girl. Frowny face. Also, creepy guys in the parking lot who ask where-you-going-honey-I-saw-you-walking-in-Ebro-yesterday?
Loot: not willing to walk by a SINGLE PENNY despite the head rush that follows one of these swipe-and-grab episodes
Getting lost – at almost every intersection, in spite of carrying the Guthook app which basically makes it criminal to ever go off-trail
Flat. And hot. And did I mention no shade? And pavement, which causes massive blisters on the bottom of one’s tender, un-trail-toughen’d feet
Guys in pick-ups roaring by while honking and giving you the finger for decidedly nefarious reasons
Lest you think, dear reader, that the Florida Trail is nothing but a paved paradise, let me assure you of its staggering beauty and never-ending surprises. Here’s one more list.
Good Stuff on the Florida Trail
Soft paths that go on forever
Pines, everywhere, nascent and established
Boardwalks and bridges (especially when alligators are suspected)
Tannin-tinged, sandy-bottomed streams flowing high and cold
Fruit of the many selfless hours spent by trail volunteers clearing away damage from 2018’s Hurricane Michael. There would be no trail without these amazing humans.
Evidence of nature’s incredible resilience
Cypress knees (Haha! Trees with knees – Florida is so weird)
Trail angels, especially Nancy and Wilton, who become instant friends
Other hikers. Shout out to Steps and Flattop, with whom I shared my last stretch of 2020, most of which was on the road. Of course.
Random beauty everywhere
Other weird things, like tires in trees and gnomes in the forest
Sunrises and sunsets
I had planned on walking 100 miles this year on the Florida Trail. I only had five days, and I was eager to get back North to watch the youngest’s lacrosse games, hug the middle guy, and spend some time with The Princess and the grandbabe. While I was in the woods, however, oblivious to what was happening out in the world, a tiny, germ-y threat was snaking its way across the sea and canceling everything everywhere.
They say the darkest hour is just before dawn, and I discovered why this time around.
I suppose I never really noticed before, but it became obvious with the moon full throughout the week: there was always a stretch between moonset and sunrise when all went black.
It was a spooky time, especially when you are trying to wend your way through jumbled swamps, skirting sink holes while looking for the orange blazes that mark the trail by the light of a single headlamp.
Perhaps that is where we are right now.
As this virus rages across our lives, our families, we need to remember it is only the in-between. Like those fire-ravaged pines, we humans are resilient in the face of affliction. There will always be new growth.
We walk through valleys dark, knowing there is a Good Shepherd who has water waiting ahead, a place at the table. We don’t need to be afraid.
When I finally add up the miles I have walked this time around, I find it to be only 98.
Two miles short.
Another time, I might have beat myself up for coming so close.
But there is no need, not now.
There are plenty of miles ahead; this is the time for grace.
“Living things carry an imprint of their environment recorded in isotopes.” ~Jason Moon
I love high places.
I’ve been visiting a few favorites this past week, and also paying calls to some I have not seen in almost a decade.
On the weekend, while hiking a section of the Appalachian Trail my son and I did in 2010 and knocking off some peaks on The Grid, I binge-listened to a podcast a dear friend suggested.
Bear Brook by Jason Moon chronicles the mystery of four murder victims discovered in New Hampshire’s Bear Brook State Park beginning in 1985, their eventual identification, and the capture of the serial killer responsible for their deaths.
One of the ways they uncovered the identities of the victims, who were (sorry about this) cut to pieces and shoved into barrels was by examining the isotopes found in their bones.
Environmental isotopes are naturally occurring atoms that carry the signature of the geographic region where they are found, and they make their way into rocks, plants, animals, and even us, revealing our history with a mark that is as distinct as a fingerprint.
Map by Sarah Plourde
While I listened and walked, walked and listened, I marveled at the complexity of isotopes and the unique map God creates for all of lives.
What is in our bones?
God’s vastness is so incomprehensible, and his thoughts and ways so much higher than ours.
We are so small.
The prophet Isaiah once observed: He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth, and its people are like grasshoppers. He stretches out the heavens like a canopy, and spreads them out like a tent to live in. (Isaiah 40:22)
Jesus, too, was drawn to high places. He frequently slipped away to a mountaintop to pray and spend time with His daddy. I’m sure they had a lot to talk about: bumbling disciples, plotting pharisees, the hurting, the sick, and the dead.
Jesus needed this time to strengthen Himself, gather courage for the way ahead, listen to His father’s voice.
Things always seem so much better up there.
Perhaps they even discussed Jesus’s answer to an expert in the law who once tested Him with this question: Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?
Jesus didn’t hesitate: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself.
So where do we go to find the map of own lives?
At times, the way seems so obvious, so well-defined.
Other times, we come to a crossroad and freeze, hardly knowing which way to turn.
It’s murky. Unclear.
We stumble and curse, wishing there were some way to control the swirling chaos and the deep ache inside of us like an imprint in our bones.
Isaiah reminds us that those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength; they will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint. (Isaiah 40:31)
Spending time like Jesus did, up high, with our heavenly Daddy gives us a sense of proportion. While there, we also percolate in the immutable character of God, absorbing His most perfect isotope: love.
When we are confident of the Father’s relentless, passionate love for us, things down here seem less awful. We find ways to cope, to fight, to overcome.
It allows us to weigh Paul’s words against our own experience and see the wisdom in his testimony: for our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. (2 Corinthians 4:17)
Whether or not we can see the way, we can be confident that God sees. He is the ultimate map-maker.
It ruined a decades-long streak of clean driving and made me a little crabby, not appreciating the heft of the fine.
The truth is, though, I wasn’t paying attention, and this is something against which we must guard with all fury.
I had spent the previous weeks feeling marginalized at work, wishing the landscape of my life would change, and wondering if I was ever again going to be anything but alone.
Probably the best place to be when self-pity rears its wretched head is at a boarding school, where pace and duty leave no room for despair, where the presence of middle school boys presents endless opportunities for surprise and joy.
Oswald Chambers writes that “No sin is worse than the sin of self-pity because it removes God from the throne of our lives.”
Ouch. Thanks, O.C.
Determined instead to de-throne myself, I tuck the ticket in the back seat, wish the officer a nice day, and drive on, albeit much slower.
It was Saturday, it wasn’t raining, I was done with school for the day, and I was headed to a mountain.
Thankfully, Tecumseh didn’t scold as I moved up her flank, her bottom half determined to be spring while her top half remained stubbornly mired in snow.
Ill-prepared hikers skidded and fell in their sneakers and shorts.
Were they simply not paying attention?
The other day in chapel, I spoke about nostalgia and the need to be fully present. To not look to the next-next thing, lest we miss something along the way.
The lyrics of a Talking Heads song came to mind, the song “Once in a Lifetime,” where David Byrne croons same as it ever was, same as it ever was, same as it ever was, same as it ever was over and over and over.
There is a not-so-subtle warning there; we must be careful to fight against the complacency of routine so as not to wind up, years hence, asking ourselves in bewilderment, “Well, how did I get here?”
On this, Tecumseh-climb #9, it would have been easy to roll up and down, to not notice.
Red growth on a rock.
My friend Chippy, who still doesn’t trust enough to come near.
Life, pushing through.
Signs, everywhere, if we pay attention.
Each day a gift.
A marvel of complexity.
But we must be sure to look.
On the way home, I plant bulbs at the base of the tree where my son died. Leave some pennies, a new bracelet to replace the one dissolved by weather and the years.
Nothing really is same as it ever was.
So we find joy in hope, soldier on through tribulation, devote ourselves to prayer. (Romand 12:12)
My family, the one-once-intact, used to drive to Florida every year.
For many Mays, this meant getting on Interstate 75 at the last Michigan exit before Canada and following the signs until the last exit in Florida, a thousand miles and a climate change later.
It was always an adventure: 6 bodies in a minivan, the oldest throwing up in New Jersey, the youngest throwing a tantrum in Georgia, books on tape and gas station snacks and music marathons until, at last, we’d arrive, sometimes still talking.
My then-husband and I would drop the kids at my folk’s place and spend a week dining out, conversing with other adults at his work convention, and sipping frozen drinks on hot-white sand.
As a young homeschooling mom, I relished these days, looked forward to them all year, mourned when they came to an end.
I loved my kids, of course – even managed to spend one “special day” with each of them during our time down there – but the break – O that break! – from the routine of math and meals and domestic mania.
Naples and the swanky hotel where we’d stay was how I remembered Florida: $8.00 drinks, valet parking, new cars and old money.
But this spring, I took a break from my now 200 school-sons and drove instead to the Panhandle to hike a section of the Florida Trail, a 1,000 mile corridor that snakes from Fort Pickens National Seashore in Pensacola down to the Everglades, south of my beloved Naples.
I discovered that the Panhandle is not only a different time zone from Naples, but it also felt, in so many ways, like a whole different planet.
The first person I met on the Panhandle drove an hour out of his way to deliver me to the northern terminus of the trail. Matt, one of the Florida Trail’s many “trail angels,” almost talked me out of being afraid of alligators as we crossed the many bridges from Pensacola to Fort Pickens and snapped this picture on the cold Tuesday morning I began my hike.
The cold lingered for the next few days as I walked 12 miles of sugar sand (hard) and even more miles of road (harder).
Unlike many of the trails up north or out west, the Florida Trail must parcel together brief bursts of nature linked together by longer stretches of pavement or dirt roads.
Had I done my homework better, I could have carried a much lighter load, as I passed convenience stores and even restaurants every few hours my first days on the trail.
Road walks are a cruel necessity, but the time hiking in and out of communities allows one access into that community’s heart.
I remembered the opulent vehicles that were the norm in Naples, but folks on the Panhandle drive pickups you can work out of, splattered with the red clay of back roads and farm towns and carrying lumber and table saws and hound dogs.
I watched as a lady trooper, unfazed, donned rubber gloves and dragged a dead deer out of the road. A man pulled over one day and told me he had “seen me walking all day and wondered if I need a lift.” Haha. Thanks but no need, kind man.
I found 9 pennies one day on a 21-mile road walk. A friend calls these “God-winks,” and I always seemed to find one when suffering a low point of the day.
I found that folks on the Panhandle still say yes ma’am and no ma’am, hold the door, linger over coffee.
I loved everyone I met, particularly one ridiculously generous trail angel who let me stay at her house, slack-packed me for two days, and, along one sketchy piece of road, drove her car between me and a driveway full of 10 snarling Mastiffs guarding what looked like a trailer cooking meth. When I was finished, Nancy drove me the 100-plus miles I had walked back to my car. Unreal.
But I went to Florida to walk in the woods, and despite the many road-walks, I found myself in some beautiful but alien terrain.
I was surprised by the sandy-bottomed streams, clear and cold, that criss-crossed the trail and some haunting spider domes that appeared one foggy morning in the trees.
Some prettier sections of the trail wended through Eglin Air Force Base, and it was a bit of a logistical nightmare to time walking these bits when my permit allowed so as not to be taken hostage by training rangers or bombed into oblivion. To be allowed on the base, you actually have to pass a quiz on what to do should you encounter unexploded ordnance along the trail. It was a little tense, but some strange scenery kept my mind off being blown up.
I thought I would see more wildlife, but in the week I was on the trail, all I saw were a few black vultures feasting on some dead thing along the road, a dead squirrel behind the payloader I tucked in back of to pee, the aforementioned dead deer, a huge tick that crawled across my foot, and two snakes.
I managed to snap a photo of the cute little green guy, but I was too busy screaming and running away from the other monster to consider pulling out my phone. Yikes.
Oh yeah: and on the beach, I saw a dead jellyfish and some shore birds, so there’s that.
Are there gators on the Florida Trail? Apparently, yes, but I didn’t see any, and I’m not at all sad about that. Some northbound thru-hikers told me that when walking through the swampier areas, alligators “sense your vibrations and swim away.” Alrighty, then.
I had planned on hiking longer, but a nasty blister under my foot and a seriously sore quad forced me off sooner than I would have liked, but isn’t it always better to leave wanting more?
I’m finding that it’s okay to do things alone, to be alone with my own itinerary, my own thoughts, my own path.
On the Panhandle, I never felt truly alone, and having a new tradition in Florida – spring break on the Florida Trail – seems like an exchange I can live with.
It may take me years to hike the whole Florida Trail, but I learned a ton this time around and I’ll be more ready when next spring break rolls around.
2019: The Year, if it is anything like 2019: Day One, has the potential to blow expectations out of the water.
The night before, celebrating New Year’s Eve with colleagues I am also blessed to call friends, the hosts dropped a cascade of balloons onto a bevy of squealing, twirling children at midnight-is-really-8 o’clock, so I was home in bed by 9:30. Perfect for an introvert like me, easily fatigued by conversation and social situations.
Waking up to snow always makes me happy, like memories of school closings scrolling across the bottom of a TV screen, hours of expectant potential right outside the front door. I was already imagining the sugar-dusted boughs overhead on the hike that was only a short drive away.
No way this day could be sealed with anything more prophetic. Capturing it while driving on the backroads of New Hampshire was a bonus.
It seemed fit to tackle timid 4,003′ Tecumseh as my first hike of the year, my first winter 4,000 footer, and the maiden voyage of the snowshoes I gave myself for Christmas.
Tecumseh, although least-by-height in the clan of the 48 New Hampshire 4,000 footers, is steep enough to call a work-out and a worthy proving ground for figuring out how to walk with clown shoes attached to my legs.
The Princess and her hubby were gracious as I tripped and apologized up the trickier parts and even agreed to a summit selfie.
The predicted 50-70 mph winds picked up as we headed down, but most of Tecumseh is protected by a wooded barrier of hearty pines, so aside from a brief moment at the top, none of us minded the cold.
I didn’t even mind, back at the car, discovering the shredded hems of my rain pants, evidence of an embryonic spacial awareness between where shins ended and sharp claws of snowshoes began. Oh well – I needed a new pair anyway.
An exit on the ride home took me by the boy’s bench, so I stopped by to say hello.
Anna had left a wreath, and once again my heart swelled with thanks for the friends my son made while he was still here with us.
Do you know how much they loved you, silly boy?
Not much snow on the driveway and stairs when we arrived home, tired. Nothing that a quick shovel and a nap couldn’t fix.
Later, under winking lights, I eat dinner cooked not-by-me and watch some football with the fam.
2019, I have high hopes for you.
Given the carnage of past years, the lightness I feel on Day One seems miraculous.
Perhaps this will be the year that God does exceedingly abundantly more than I can ask or imagine (Ephesians 3:20).
This past Tuesday, I found myself sleeping on a picnic table in the parking area of Cardigan Mountain State Park. How this happened is a bit of a tale.
It started a year ago, when I thought it might be a curious experiment to climb a favorite little peak nestled neatly in New Hampshire’s Upper Valley every month for an entire year (On Climbing Cardigan: August). What might be gleaned from 12 visits to the same peak?
What might one learn?
I wanted to make the last in this series unique, epic even – or as epic as 3,155 feet can be. I wanted to take the long way up, sleep on top, travel miles around and over, walk a series of backroads to return to my car.
A full day’s “work” splashing around our school’s own sweet lake with boys and canoes in our wilderness program precluded an early departure, so I arrived at what was described to me as the way to the trailhead sometime after 7 PM.
This back side of Cardigan can be reached by an asphalt-flaking, gloomy thoroughfare called New Colony Road, which turns into a deep mudfest about a mile and half in. I thought it wise to park while the parking was good.
There had been talk about a gate and an overgrown thicket disguised as the trailhead, so I ran up the dirt road, sinking in the mire, but nothing up there looked like a way to climb my mountain. Puzzled, I returned to my car to find, in absurdly perfect timing, another summer school teacher also looking for the same elusive trailhead.
We decided on a united search.
Almost two miles passed before a cairn was discovered in the weeds with what might generously be deemed an opening to a path beyond. A few yards in, an understated sign nailed to a tree announced that we were in business.
Most of said “trail” – called Mowgli’s Trail – was swamped due to recent rains, so I surrendered my dry feet to the journey and just squashed on through.
It was delightful.
Why had I never taken this way before?!
My new friend and I chatted about NESCAC schools, long distance trails, and a supposed Civil War deserter’s cave hidden somewhere nearby as the scenery became more and more glorious.
It was getting dark when we reached a small, dirty shelter slouching in the woods (not staying here, I thought); he needed to get back to his car, so we parted ways and I continued on up Firescrew Mountain, Cardigan’s baby brother.
Mists whipped across a sky above granite bare and steep.
I followed the blazes up and over Firescrew to the familiar flank of Cardigan.
Somehow, God never exhausts the ways He is able to display his grandeur. It was as if He had saved the proverbial best for last; moonrise, ripple, vapor, expanse.
Psalm 8 welled up from the depth of my very bones:
Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!
You have set your glory in the heavens. When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?
I felt so small.
Was that it?
All those trips, step upon step upon step upon step?
The absolute vastness of an uncontainable God.
And yet, in all that bigness, that unfathomable huge, He still cares for us.
Jesus told it this way: …the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost (Luke 19:10).
I just got back from a four day foray in the woods.
I was with a group of brilliant educators all participating in an inaugural program aimed at expanding place-based education, sustainability, and experiential learning in our classrooms and schools.
It was almost a crime to call this professional development.
There was something magical about this slurry of teachers, solitude, and vision; blend in some sweat, peak-y views, and a few bald eagles, and you have the perfect recipe to energize a tired soul to keep fighting the good fight.
The tide that often seems so strong against us as teachers – societal ills, indifference, lack of resource – might just be able to be turned were more of us able to just get together and dream.
One of the principles we discussed at length was the idea of leaving no trace.
Leave No Trace is the wilderness ethic of minimizing the impact of one’s passage through an environment; this includes guidelines such as planning and preparing, properly disposing of waste, and leaving what one might find in the wild – leaf, antler, stone – in the wild.
As a leader in my schools’s own wilderness program, this is often a challenge with young people.
Kids are naturally curious and want to touch, pick, throw, and eat whatever surrounds them, so it is a constant battle trying to help them to understand how what they do today will cause a profound echo into what future generations will experience in the tomorrow.
Is tossing this apple core into the forest okay? What about building a small cairn? Tasting wild blueberry?
Their sound footprint alone could drive a ranger bonkers.
I have been thinking of the story of Mary of Bethany a lot lately; she has popped up numerous times over the past few weeks, and I am curious as to why.
God does that sometimes, I think. Percolates an idea, an image, a word over and over until the grounds settle, leaving behind a rich, aromatic brew. Like coffee, this distillate can provide focus if we attend to its message.
Mary’s story goes like this: Six days before the Passover began, Jesus went back to Bethany, the town where he raised Lazarus from the dead. They had prepared a supper for Jesus. Martha served, and Lazarus and Mary were among those at the table. Mary picked up an alabaster jar filled with nearly a liter of extremely rare and costly perfume—the purest extract of nard, and she anointed Jesus’ feet. Then she wiped them dry with her long hair. And the fragrance of the costly oil filled the house (John 12:1-3).
This act of Mary’s would have been seen as scandalous in Jesus’s day – uncovered hair! a room full of men! perfume costing a year’s wages! – but Jesus wouldn’t allow anyone to criticize her, even saying her act would be remembered throughout time.
As I thought more about leaving no trace and about Mary, however, I began to wonder how they connect to the kind of mark we leave behind.
Did the Roman soldiers (as the footnote in my Bible suggests), determinedly driving iron barbs into Jesus’s feet, perhaps detect a faint whiff of that aromatic extravagance and ponder what it possibly could mean?
Surely some of the spikenard Mary poured on Jesus spilled out onto the floor of the house where they were gathered. Would others walk by, daysmonthsyears later, and sense the sweet impression of Mary’s outrageous love?
Did the scent linger long in her hair?
Because the thing is, Jesus was right. Here we are, some 2,000 years later, still remembering Mary’s sacrificial act of devotion.
Sheleft an indelible trace.
Like Mary, we have the profound charge of either being to those around us the fragrance of life or the stench of death(2 Corinthians 2:16).
Although in the wilderness we should tread as if we had never been, in life, we can – we must! – choose the kind of scent-trail we leave behind.
Mercy, not judgement.
Hope, not despair.
Faith, not fear.
May the costly oil of our lives be poured out and fill to the full the lives of those around us – a true trace that reverberates across time.
This past Tuesday, I had wanted to fulfill a long-time desire to see the Alpine Garden on the flank of Mt. Washington, but 60 MPH winds and a 40% chance of rain left me hiking in another direction.
I’m starting to learn that blindly bulling ahead with a pre-pictured agenda is not always the best option; rather, by surrendering to the circumstance – accepting what-is and trying to find the good in it – is a much brighter path.
Mildly disappointed, I scoured for alternate routes using a road atlas, the only map I had at my “summer house.” (Ha! This “summer house” is really the only house I own, but it lies mostly vacant during the school year, when I live elsewhere, in a dorm, attempting to instill order to a hallway full of monkeys, I mean, middle school boys.) (Would-be thieves, please note: I’m a teacher. There is nothing of worth in my house, except perhaps the television, which I never watch anyway, so you can have it if you’d like. I sometimes forget to lock the door, so there’s that.)
I had planned on spending the night before my Tuesday hike sleeping in my car at a trailhead, so I looked for something that would fit that bill. Part of the adventure for me is getting outside early and being first on the trail and part of it is finding a site that’s spooky, but not too spooky, to strengthen my aging courage-muscles.
The Davis Path in Bartlett looked promising, so reluctantly entrusting the health of my house to the older boy during what would turn out to be a power-killing storm, I headed north in the dark.
Finding the trailhead in a downpour proved tricky, so I pulled into another lot instead, snuggled into some downy fluff, and listened to rain thump the roof.
Finding the Davis Path was a cinch the next morning, so it was straight up for a few miles to start checking off some of the peaks from New Hampshire’s “52 With a View” list: Crawford, Stairs, and Resolution. I had heard of this list before from a fellow author-friend, Dan don’t-even-try-to-spell-his-last-name.
The beauty of this list is, of course, that every peak has a stunning view at the top, usually from open slabs that are expansive and exposed.
I passed only two people and two dogs all day, and the reflective nature of the mountains was good for my soul. It wasn’t the wild Washington trip I thought I had wanted, but it turned out to be a much better match for my mood.
Plus, I didn’t die, so that was good.
Another time-window opened up later in the week, and Washington’s forecast was only half as nasty as before.
When the youngest and I hiked the Appalachian Trail some years back, there were many high traverses we did in crazy wind and weather, but there is a difference in having to walk through that stuff and choosing to.
Choosing to this time, with the option to bail if it got too awful, I slept a few miles south of the Tuckerman trailhead in an undisclosed spot (camping and fires are prohibited along Route 16 – but sleeping in one’s car doesn’t count, does it?) and was rewarded with a stunning sunrise.
There was no one stirring around Pinkham Notch, so I crept on through and up the Rock Pile.
Maybe it’s just me – I do have a penchant for getting lost – but with all the money the AMC pulls in, you would think they could invest in some more obvious signage. I was pretty sure I was on the Tuckerman Ravine Trail, but none of the signs was willing to reassure me that I was.
With all that vertical – 6, 289 feet – I was just looking for a little confirmation.
Confirmation arrived some two miles later, at the base of the headwall. So I was on Tuckerman Ravine Trail; I just couldn’t stay on it.
Still lacking a decent map (this time I was using an old novelty bandana – how hard could it be to find the top of New England’s highest mountain, after all?), I headed up the Lion Head Trail into the wind.
Ruggedly steep and blasted by squalls, Lion Head gave me the shivers.
One minute the view was clear and unobstructed, the next it was veiled in fog.
Vestiges of snow clung to the crags.
Hiking alone is something I both love and hate.
I love the freedom of going my own pace, listening or not listening to whatever I like, and thinking uninterrupted thoughts.
I hate being afraid by myself.
Even though my son was only 10 when we hiked the AT together, he was clever and brave. I could always count on him in a crisis, even when it was one of our own making. Spooky is one thing; stumbling to one’s death alone on a gusty peak is another.
Sometimes I get to a point where it would take more courage to turn around than to keep going, so I stopped taking pictures to focus on my footing and kept climbing up.
The last .6 was a crawl.
I had forgotten how stark and sharp all those rocks were toward the top, but thankfully the radio antennae soon came into view and I was able to settle down at the summit snack bar with a hot cup of coffee, watching the cog spew smoke and spying on a thru-hiker fussing with his gear the next table over.
At last, I felt ready to see the Alpine Garden. Somehow, in all that terror, I missed the turn-off, so I had to wind around the back side of the summit on the Nelson Crag Trail to hook up with the Alpine Garden Trail.
It added a mile to my down, but it was a mild mile, so I didn’t much care.
I would like to say that I was as excited as the two aunties I met, face buried in their alpine flora identification guide.
But I was more like their young nephew tag-along, who was counting spiders, playing the lava rock game, and quoting the Lego Batman Movie.
Don’t get me wrong – it was pretty.
Just not particularly dangerous.
And maybe that’s the point: perhaps one comes to Washington to face one’s fears, not look at flowers.
Either way, I felt blessed to have done both, even though the plan took longer to execute than I had originally foreseen.