A Love Letter to my Wife on Thoreau’s Birthday

It’s Tuesday morning when I call you.  By 9:00, you and I hang up, and I point the ship westward.  This happens quite a bit at our house.  We often get pulled in two different directions over the summer.  You’ve been pulled to Denver to train for AP Capstone, while I have been pulled by the song of running water and the rustle of trees to go sleep in the woods for a couple of nights.

What’s odd about this week, however, is that it’s our anniversary.  Maybe not odd, actually.  In the seven years we’ve been married, we have had almost half of our July 12’s with us in different dots on the map.  We try not to let it be a big deal, and we try to make something up for not being there on the actual day, but our hearts miss each other nonetheless.

Tuesday afternoon, I arrived at Lake Watauga around 1:30 and hit the AT south just before two.  Short time to hike, so I needed to bust it.  Over a paved road, the trail begins to climb.  I see three hikers coming off the trail—the last three people I would see until I emerged on the other side of the mountain.  The area is called Pond Mtn. Wilderness.  It is an empty, empty space, one path winding over a mountain and back down it.  Once I got off the lake shore, the buzz of humanity came to a calm.  Then for the remainder of the mountain—silence.

In silence, the daily chatter, the constant stimulation of modern life begins to fall away, and I begin to hear the truth within my heart.  I enjoy the solitude.  And while I wish you were with me, I know this might make you miserable—the dirt, the sweat, the bugs.  We don’t always want the same thing, a fact that sometimes has us moving in two different directions, and when I move in this direction—out to the nether regions, out in the middle of nowhere–you worry over me.  But such is the open space we hold for each other, to let us explore our happiness, whether together or apart.

On the other side of the mountain, my legs are weak and my knees wobbly.  The descent is like a rocky goat path, and I take a break near the water.  I aspire to push further—at least another four miles by sunset—but as I continue on the path, I realize that a secure campsite for the night is better than a hypothetical one down the trail.  It is perfect—secluded and quiet.  The dogs rest, I start a fire, and doze in an out, lying in my hammock, reading Alan Watts and staring at the stars.

I wake up on Wednesday.  It’s our anniversary.  July 12.  I’m in no rush to get out of camp.  I see if I have enough of a signal to send you a happy anniversary text, but by opening that portal on my phone, a flood of updates and chatter comes to me.  I turn off the phone again.  I want you to know that I’m safe and that I love you.  I don’t want to be distracted by what is on my phone with all this beautiful wonder around me.

It’s Thoreau’s birthday, and perhaps by the accident of chance, I find myself waking up underneath the canopy of trees beside the rushing water on this day.

When we set a wedding date, we chose the summer because we are both teachers.  But you suggested this day because of the birthday of one of my favorite writers of all time.  I wonder if you knew what you were gettng into, marrying a guy who was honored to share Thoreau’s birthday.  After all, Thoreau himself was a notable loner of a crank, a guy who could be stubborn and aloof, a guy who feels like he has to get away from people and into the woods to feel fulfilled, full of contradictions, all qualities that—for better or worse—I see in myself.  But after I have broken fast and had my morning meditations, I am off to fulfill the purpose of this day.

I cut out a climb by crossing the water twice and find myself at the base of Laurel Falls, a primeval cascade that over millennia has carved a pool beneath.  When I was 22 and living in Boone, this was one of the first places I learned to hike by myself.  I would hike here, jump off the cliffs a few times, nap, and hike out.  There are already people here snapping pictures of themselves in front.  I plan on making a morning visit then looping back for an evening swim.

Transcendentalists are–by nature–animists, believing in the living spirit in all things.  Of course, Thoreau was reading Vedic texts by Walden pond, but it’s important to see this as a more primal relationship with the natural world around him.  At a basic level of walking through the forest, we recognize our biology as harmonious with those beings around us, and recognize them as beings much like ourselves at a molecular level.  Trees, mosquitos, moss, snakes, frogs–we are all the same building blocks.  The mid-day sweat and my mind are rolling, and I find myself melting into the sea of green that rolls over the mountain, and over the next and the next, an intricate network of roots and limbs that stretches further than my ability to see but not my ability to imagine.  Soon, I come upon a waterfall in seclusion, and as Atticus plops in a pool, I too bathe in its waters to cool me down.  I hear you imploring me to be careful, knowing that taking the time to cool down in this heat is the most careful thing I could do.  Later up the trail, I find myself crossing deep stream after deep stream, wading knee deep through rushing currents.  By the time turnaround approaches, the path has led me to an open and quiet pool embraces by giant rocks, large enough for swimming and treading and sumberging myself beneath the cold surface.  We all rest as I wash off the sweat of the last two hours, a final ablution before I return to the mothership.

I return to Laurel Falls around 6, snack, make my sacred offering, and dive in.  I’d love to tell you what it was like to swim in those waters, to stand under the waterfall and feel the water pounding on my head.  But I can’t.  The words are insufficient for the experience.  The best I can say is that it filled me with song. A song I know but sometimes forget to sing. A kiss from the heart of God.  A song I carry with me today.  A thick, rolling song from deep within my chest, exploding to the tree tops and through the sky.  As night falls and the fire dies, it is the song that sings me to sleep, infusing my dreams with the gentle rhythms of the forest.  I have met my soul on the path I have walked today.

It’s Thursday morning.  Time to pack up.  Time to go back over the mountain.  Time to rejoin the world of paved roads, smart phones, and automobiles.  Up the goat path with wobbly rocks, back over the hump, and back down to the Lake.

On Tuesday, I had wondered what I would do when I came home on Thursday afternoon.  Somewhere in my reading out here, Watts discussed anxiety over the future as that which disassociates the mind from the body.  Plus, I know this will be a strenuous journey.  As I climb the rocks, I have no capacity to think so far ahead as when I get home.  So this morning, it’s just one step in front of the other.  Left.  Right.  Left.  Right.  I’ve told myself I’m going to be patient.  This mountain isn’t going anywhere.  I take a break at the top.  And as my foot starts getting hotspots, I consider pushing through, but then wonder why I’m in such a hurry, and opt for self care: I won’t get any medals for getting their quicker with painful blisters

There’s been time in the last few months where our life has had to take this plodding, deliberate pace, when we have had to sacrifice time and planning for self-care.  Sometimes it was hard to tell what the next weekend or the next day might bring and we have had to walk our path side by side, putting one foot in front of the other.  On the mountain, it is relatively easy, as the mountain isn’t going anywhere.  In life, it can be much more daunting, as we have often wondered which hairpin turn or treacherous descent may come next in our path, and we can worry for all the opportunities that may have passed us by.  But as we’ve taken this pace down our path, I see your resolve.  I see your capacity to care for others.  I see your grit and determination.  I see your vulnerability.  I see your ability to move and adapt to the contours of the land.  While we are thousands of miles away as I walk the miles on this path through the Pond Mountain Wilderness, I am and will be your companion and the paths that matter most.

We’ve started daydreaming about where next summer will lead usMaybe next year on Thoreau’s birthday we’ll stand under a waterfall together or traveling foreign lands.  Or maybe we will again find ourselves apart in two different points on the globe.  But on the path that matters most, I will happily walk with you side-by-side, singing the song of my soul to you.


Into The Summer Air


3:oo Thursday.  Hit the East Parking lot, and it’s already full.  A group of middle school girls start on the trail as I ready the dogs.

I’ve often dreamed of a perpetual summer life.  I could plan outdoor trips that stretch for days, come back and write some insight I’ve gained, pick up new supplies and a check, then head right back out.  I thought it would give me all the time in the world to play outdoors.  And I would still accept a sponsorship.  REI?  National Geographic?  Are you listening?

It’s okay that it hasn’t materialized that way, but in the summer time, I still play this game.  For this week, it’s a three day trip to P-Town, with an option for a fourth, based on how things go.  Hike in Thursday.  Meet up with my friends on Friday.  They have jobs, so–lol–they have to leave on Sunday morning.  I can stay another night or so if I want.  For at least a brief moment, I have all the time in the world.

Teachers can complain about lots of things, but one thing they can definitely be grateful for is time off.  At least in America, few professions sniff the amount of vacation teachers get.  Do we sometimes have to work harder to make ends meet?  Of course.  But the value of free time is not to be denied.

4:00  At the base of Schoolhouse Falls.  20 minutes and a 400 ft climb later, and I crest Little Green.  There are the girls’ backpacks.  My desired spot is taken, so I head down the trail toward Tranquility and find a little pocket in the trees, just enough for a hammock and two dogs.

6:00 Switch to the day pack and head back down the trail.  Let all the girls meet the dogs with backpacks.  By 6:50, I am at Devil’s Elbow and Red Butt Falls, 25 minutes before my turnaround point–when I need to turn around to make camp by nightfall. I jump in the water and thunder threatens.  The swim is short, and I am soon back on the trail for camp and dinner.

8:30 back on top and cooking dinner.  I shake the fuel can.  Probably not enough to make it through Monday.  The sun begins to radiate behind the mountain.  Boil the water.  Let it sit.  Darker.  Darker still.  The girls offered me leftover quinoa.  “Didn’t you have to cook that for–like–25 minutes?” I asked.

“But it’s so worth it,” she replies.

The girls chatter where they eat, and in the valley below other campers whoop and holler.  But everything eventually quiets into the disappearing twilight.

Soon, I am lost in the infinite silence of the night sky, and only the threat of slumber drags me back to camp.

Morning breaks early, and I have had breakfast and am on the trail by 8:15.  Priority 1: Secure the shelter.  Continue on the trail.  Down, down, into the flat valley.  By 9:30, I have arrived.  Shelter secured.

A storm is in the works for later in the day, so once I’ve de-packed and fed the dogs, it’s off to gather fire wood.  By 11, I have scoured the forest for every last loose bramble and stick I could find, enough that when–kept dry–it will burn brightly into the night.  Base Camp, for the day, is secure.

Now is when the time slows.    I string up my hammock.  I read a chapter of the book I’ve brought, Into Thin Air, an account of a disastrous season of climbing Everest in 1996.  They’ve just arrived at base camp and are beginning to make month-long preparations for the ascent.  Nic worries I’ll read this and start dreaming of climbing Everest–not an unfounded anxiety, I suppose.  But for now, I read about base camp, and begin to doze off, in and out of a restful sleep beneath the trees.  A humming bird, no bigger than my thumb, hovers over my hammock, fluttering, observing my daydreams.

Soon, the urge to hike, to explore strikes again.  There is only so much time before the rain, before the dark, before I return home, and so much to see and experience.  Hammock goes inside.  Dogs get packs.  Food gets hung in the tree.  But as I’m about to hit the trail and climb another mountain or find another waterfall, two sounds arrest my progress.

The first are loud, exuberant teenagers coming down the trail.  I heard them on the mountain last night.  I passed them on the trail this morning.  There are about twelve people all told.  They see the dogs and smile.  Their leader asks me if I am staying in the shelter tonight.  “I am,” I say.

“Cool, we’ll head on down the trail.”  And they do.

Next comes the thunder.  Yesterday, ominous storms threatened on the horizon all day but never delivered.  Today, their payment came due. Steady, dumping rain.  I think about the teens now building camp, and feel a twinge of guilt that I have the shelter all to myself while they set up in the rain.  I adjust my hammock and begin to read.  The day is dark, and I need a headlamp.  The climbers move from base camp slowly through the altitude while I am enclosed by rain in the shelter, thwarted in my attempt to explore.  Other hikers find the shelter, meet the pups, and get a rest from the rain.  The group of teens hit the creek to get some water for camp.  I read more in my hammock.  The climbers are within 2,000, evading falling ice and dead bodies on the trail to Everest’s peak.  The teen group’s leader comes into the shelter to try to get a signal, I think to call back to the HQ.  Rain and remoteness thwart his effort.  No signal.

“Listen,” I say.  “If I had known it was going to dump like this, I would have invited you in to wait out the storm.”

“It’s cool,” he says.  “It’s a group of at-risk youth, and I’m not really allowed to have them around anyone.”

He walks on.  The climbers are about to start their last ascent up Everest.  They establish turn-around times to ensure they return in daylight.  They leave in the middle of the night.  The glut of people complicates the climb.  Radio communications begin to fail.  Things begin to spin out of control.

Then the rain breaks.  Slowly, the percussion of droplets on the tin roof becomes merely the excess from the trees, and the sun begins to streak through the grey.  I am sore and tired from being confined to my hammock, and take the dogs to the creek where I see my friend crossing into camp.  The sun radiates through the trees.  The creek is now flooded, so we take a short hike to Granny Burrell Falls, now racing down the river.

By 9:30, everyone is in camp and the fire is roaring.  The next day brings more of the same.  Collecting new wood.  Communion around the fire.  I get the itch to hike again, but again the skies open up.  Another three hours in the shelter under the rain.  I doze in and out of sleep.  The narrator has made the top much later than he thought, and begins his descent.  Little hitches in time begin to have profound consequences.  The descent from the peak bleeds into the night and a raging storm looms on the horizon.  Wait times over ledges increase.  Oxygen runs low and then disappears, causing hallucinations and poor judgment.  People slide off the mountain.  People get lost in the storm fifty feet from their tent.  People refuse to give up the urge to reach the top and die in the pursuit.

Soon, the rain subsides again.  I’ve been sitting around all day.  I’ve given up on camping Sunday and have been eating lazily through my food.  I need to walk. The dogs need to walk.  I coerce one of my friends to go find the close waterfall that I haven’t seen yet, the only hike within my grasp before nightfall.

7:00. We cross the bloated creek, climb the hill, and shimmy down a ledge to arrive. It is beautiful in the afterglow of the afternoon showers.  Maybe a half-mile from camp and right off the trail…no Everest-like effort needed to reach this point.

Krakauer got his assignment to write about Everest to explore the booming business of getting people to the summit; caught in the business, he endured one of the worst disasters in the short history of climbing Everest.  But still, he got his way paid on that expedition.   Getting paid to go all over the world and write about vast, remote places seems like a dream job, but even when I’ve explored this option, there’s already a guy with my name who does this.  He worked on a National Geographic climb of Everest in 2012.  I wouldn’t even be the first “me” up that mountain.  Everest always allures, but not enough to make me trudge the snow to get there.

Sunday morning rolls around.  Two of our posse peel off to hit breakfast early.  I work to get my pack together at a leisurely pace.  I won’t be camping another day, but by parking to the east, I’ve ensured myself a much longer hike this morning.  My friend and I hug and part ways, and I travel through the east, tromping over modest mountains and through melodious creeks.  Soon I am back to my car, back on the road, back to the comfortable life out of the woods.  In a few days, I will start another adventure across the pond, and then the adventure of another school year.  Still playing and still writing, and off the mountain with no regrets.


Harmonics, Yoga, and Happy Hour

There are things that I consciously pack in my backpack: stove, hammock, sleeping bag, food.  And so on.  All the essentials and a few luxuries my back will bear.

But in the packing process, there are other items that make their way into my pack and into the woods.  Subconscious little brain worms.  Books I’ve read.  Conversations I’ve had.  Lessons I’ve taught.  They are there just as real–if hidden–as those bomb-diggity campfire pizzas I created last weekend.  But on the long trails, when there is nothing but time and footsteps, these mind memes rise from the surface from the depths of my sub-conscious pack where they were stuffed last week.

One of those luxurious gems of contemplation is the idea of harmonics and vibration.  Last week in a study of imagery and mood in literature, I proposed this TED talk to my students.  Be forewarned: it’s a bit disorienting, exploring the relationship between sound and brain function.

At any rate, while I was in the woods, I had a lot of time to lay around and listen to the woods.  To some, that sounds really boring, as there seems to not be any sounds at all.  But when you get to the point where you get into that quiet place where you can actually hear the woods, you recognize the rich tapestry of music, a million little symphonies–the water over rocks, the mating calls of frogs and birds, the crack of sticks and leaves underfoot, the wind grazing the leaves in casual passing–repeated in cycle, over and over and over.

Such is a blessed and rare time and place where you breathe this music all day long, waking to a morning yoga and sleeping to a gentle blanket, all set to this natural harmony. One morning, I played with a technique I learned at the Hindu Center one class that uses a vibration of breath, matching that pitch of that vibration and the rhythm of the breath to the woods around me.   The body and spirit–set to the note of this harmony–radiates a palpable wellness of being.  By Monday, the bites and weary legs aside, I felt myself glowing as I approached the car to drive home.

There’s a lot to get to that natural harmony back in the city, where the repitition of tardy bells and the timber of twittering, trebling teenagers tends to  dictate the tunes.  By the end of the week, that harmony seemed a bit more distant.  But Della met me with a CD a student had made for me as a “thank you” for a rec I haven’t even written.  With an early release due to exams, I popped in her eclectic mix of down-tempo electronic, and I elected an afternoon yoga class as opposed to a decent Friday Happy hour like every other sane person.  There, the teacher bookended the class with music, but taught the class without, an option I usually enjoy.  I’ve heard lots of music in the years I’ve taken class, from new-age, froo-froo spiritual to house remixes of the Glee soundtrack.  My former philosophy students wouldn’t be surprised to know that re-mixes of chillstep to Alan Watts has become one of personal faves.  But nothing beats the silence.  Just you and the breath.  Sometimes the absence of sound is just as sweet as the sweetest harmonies.  As Keats said, “Pipes heard are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter.”

Now it’s Friday evening.  I haven’t put a post on this site in months, but the music and harmony of the woods has resonated something deep within me, and I’m sitting in the backyard, husky at my feet with the sound of incipient summer: the ice cream truck, the neighbors’ music, children up and down the street, and my back yard haven–birds and insects and a soft soundtrack of music a friend made me years ago.  Somehow, the confluence of all things coming together a very happy hour indeed.