The Sylvan Sanctuary

A church owns some land in my neighborhood.

It’s a small, wooded plot in otherwise urban space, maybe as much as ten acres.  It is bounded by a four-lane road, a cul-de-sac, where a neighbor pounds out open-garage-door drum solos on a Friday night, and a parking lot—for a church that already exists.

It’s nothing impressive, really.  Not enough to really “get away from it all.”  It’s hilly and there’s a big sewer entry manhole and exhaust pipe stuck in the middle of it—the intersection of a few lightly trodden trails that criss-cross the vast expanse of the glen.

But these trails are less than a five minute walk from my house, and all told create about a mile of total walking in the woods.  Perhaps it is a paucity compared to the great trails of the world.  It is no Inca Trail.  It can’t contend with the Tour du Mont Blanc.  But on a fall Friday, it was the perfect antidote—the perfect pocket of sunlight in the dusk hours to take the dogs for a nature walk.

When we first moved into our neighborhood almost a decade ago, our whole street was trees, with only a few houses.  It was certainly more wild then.  Hawks and Owls filled the skies over my backyard.  I could walk the dogs through winding trails, where I would dream of carving a legit mountain bike track.  But all was not sylvan utopia.  On more than one occasion, the urban seclusion of a wooded cul-de-sac drew those who wished to hide their activities from public view.  On multiple occasions, I came off the greenway to find teenagers exploring their new-found sexuality or thieves exploring their new-found cars.  The police said, “There are places like this all over the city, and people know where to find them.”

But then more and more lots were cleared…no doubt funded by our house purchase.  More and more houses appeared.  More and more people moved in.  Lots of families.  Lots of kids.  For better or for worse, the seclusion of the woods gave way to the bustle of a neighborhood.

The kids play football in our front yard.  It’s the largest, flattest open space on the street.  We don’t mind.  We’ve sent some ground rules, and they’re generally nice kids.  One of them comes up to me last week.  Morosely, he informs me that the two wooded lots next to his house have “For Sale” signs.  “They’re going to cut down the trees,” he says.  “And that’s going to hurt the planet.”

I remembered when we struggled against this incursion in our neighborhood.  For Sale signs mysteriously found their way into the nearby woods.  But after years of watching the inevitable, I shrug and channel an old man somewhere on his porch.

“Yup.  Gonna happen.  Back when we first moved to these here parts, there were trees far as the eye could see.”

I’m not trying to burst his enthusiasm.  He’s young, and two lots of wooded area is a vast forest for a child.  When I grew up out in the sticks, there were acres and creeks and deer and snakes that misled me to the true faith of being lost in a vast wilderness, mine for the exploration.  A place to wander—body, mind and soul—through downed trees and crunchy leaves.

These days, I usually drive to my wild spaces—often hours away—to walk in the woods.  The child is, of course, bound by the physical limits of transportation.  But soon, he will mature enough to cross the street to the greenway, a strip of social asphalt snaking beside a creek through the trees.  Within a mile’s journey, he will be able to reach the civilizing forces of three Christian churches and a Hindu temple on its meandering paths.  There he can explore the ancient texts and evolving traditions of finding the spiritual, the transcendent.

But as for the church who owns the lot at the end of my street, the lot adjacent to an already existing church, a church with bi-lingual services, I hope they really enjoy the lot they purchased.  I kind of hope they are a small congregation, small enough that I can meet them on the trails sometime, small enough that an informal, unmarked system of trails is sufficient for their spiritual contemplation.  Otherwise, they’ll probably need books to sing songs, then cabinets to hold those books.  Some members might need stairs or ramps.  Soon, they will need more organizing seating, as the random assortment of dead logs will be insufficient for their gathering needs.  They may need a sound system to reach the masses, and they’ll probably level the land so it will be easy for everyone to see everyone as they congregate.  Then they might decide they need some loud bells to announce their service for all the neighborhood to hear, which if successful will mean their further expansion.

That will probably mean a parking lot.

And—to put it selfishly—that will be the end of the small patch of unmarked trails at the end of the street.  It’s beyond my control.  This small, humble wood, my spot of simple contemplation on a Friday afternoon, where for a brief half an hour I can wander aimlessly with my head in the trees while Juno and Atticus smell the smells and feel more like the wild beasts they believe they are, will be no more on this Earth.  I will find other spots, though not as easily.  The kids in my neighborhood probably won’t be that lucky.  It’s a morose thought, kid, so enjoy those beautiful afternoons watching the leaves trickle down as you peer through the twilight to make sure you’re still on the trail.  And when you do, feel free to hold on the perhaps-naïve hope that the church will want nothing more than to preserve a quiet place where they can come and seek the voice of God.


Not with a splash but with a whimper…

Friday—as mornings go—got off to a funky start.  Perhaps it was the music—disruption of my normal morning NPR diet.  “Jungle Boogie” blaring as I pulled into the parking lot.  Deltron filling my head as I climbed the stairs.  So I popped on YouTube and found this gem, blasted for all my hall to hear.

This set the gait for the day, and by third period, I found myself in a common paradoxical place in my teaching: crushing it on the intellectual side—moving between explaining ineffable truths, Platonic Forms, and argumentative structure—while ignorning basic mundane tasks like putting an empty cup under the Keurig where I’ve just turned on the hot water.  My brain does this, getting ahead of my body, out of sync with the simple tasks. Luckily, no physical mess was made, but my brain was chaotic. I was glad I had a hike on the horizon for tomorrow, an activity that always seems to align my balance

2:15 hits and I’m loading my backpack.  On my desk—a small book of Zen koans, picked up in a dusty philosophy section of some book store in the UK last summer and lost in the stream of life until I found it in my truck that morning.  Strange it should happen that way.  It looked the perfect size to fit in my hiking pack, so I grabbed it and hit the weekend in a furious blaze.

Koans—funny little Buddhist stories that make very little sense.  In many ways, it seems they are meant to prompt imbalance,  to create tension in the mind, disrupting the normalcy and complacency one finds in endeavors sacred or profane,  whether making teaching triumphantly or  seeking “the gateless gate.”

Like this:

A monk asked Ummon “What is Buddha?”  Ummon answered “Dried Dung.”

Lightning flashed,

Sparks shower.

In one blink of your eyes

You have missed seeing.

Not exactly a gripping read, but like I said, it fit in the top pocket of my trusty green backpack.  By 8, I meet my homie in Mt. Holly for breakfast.  Grub up and hit the road to walk many miles among the trees.  Soothe my soul.  I hold the door for an older gentleman, a life lived full, no doubt, but now hobbled with age.  I keep swearing to myself that I want to be able to hike until the day I die; I’ve come to close in the past to never having this chance again.  But try as I might, I watch him hobble and know it will still be out of my control in the end, that the frailty of the flesh may inevitably make this the path on which I am going.  Still, I’ve sworn to my small tribe to keep this ritual—long hikes with friends—and forestall the inevitable as long as possible.

Perhaps it’s a treacherous hope, destined for disappointment, but not as treacherous as the trail this morning.  The bands of Hurricane Irma swept through earlier in the week.  Not only is the river a churning maelstrom, but the trail itself reveals itself in abundant fungus predicting slippery rock after slippery rock: at times each step is its own new challenge, a new threat to balance.  Linville Gorge trails are by nature technical and windy as they descend into the belly of the beast, but the battering of the storm has added a new layer of danger to our trek.  No land speed records to be set today.  The trail meets the river again.

We find a tree that the swirling storm has uprooted, blowing out a ordinarily gnarly trail into a nearly impassible field of unstable boulders and terrain above our heads.  In chaotic winds and furious water, the tree met it’s end, disrupting the path as it fell.  The dogs whimper, but we prop them to higher ground before grabbing eye level roots to pull ourself back on the trail.  Soon, we find the first break, a swimming hole at the bottom of a waterfall.

The climb to the bottom is more slick than ever, and we have to crab-crawl to the water to make sure we don’t fall.  As I change and nudge toward the edge of today’s first baptism, I feel the chill of fall in the air.  The water is always cold, but there comes a time when the air’s chill makes swimming in the river a much more dangerous proposition.  The cold will always shock you, but if the air refuses to warm you up, the results can be devastating.  I ponder this as I pick the best spot to jump in—which jump will be the last jump?  I leap.  The cold crushes me and I gulp water.  The current is strong and begins to push me away from the falls, away from the cliffs on the other side where I want to climb.  I regain may bearings and make my way to the ledge next to the falls.  The water is in furious roar, and what was a simple jump earlier this summer now threatens to push me against rocks.  I take more time than usual to consider my safety, but leap twice as hard off the dry rock and fight the current back to shore. You 

Dry again, we make our way on the most demanding part of the trail—between the swimming hole and the Cabin Trail intersection.  It is mostly all rock, and with the humidity in the air and the wetness of the soil, each step over and down seems a carefully measured one.  “Good thing we went hiking today,” Doug says.  “You know the rapture’s coming next weekend.”  Ah yes, another day for the apocalypse.  We chuckle.  We wonder why people love these stories. We break into dialogue. Doug points out that prophecy is open-ended and can be applied to any time period.  I retort that having prophecy gives meaning to a world constantly in chaos and flux, make it easier to experience.  It seems like we’re getting somewhere.  My mind is moving fast while my body moves on auto-pilot.

Snake.  Copper head.  Medium-sized.  Sunning himself on the one dry rock.  For whatever reason, the dogs missed it, but it sees us, and shakes his tail in anticipation.  It arrests our exploration into eschatology and re-orients us to the step-by-step of the trail.   Doug flicks him off the trail with a trekking pole, and we keep picking our way over the slippery rocks.

Soon the trail evens out.  Just past the intersection marker, we can see Babel Tower in the distance, and soon we here the incessant babble from beneath us at what is perhaps the most famous swimming hole on the West Rim.  We slide to the bottom, and there are about twenty people and five dogs spread across the rocks below.  We agree to be patient, tie up the dogs, spread a hammock.  A good time for a snack and a book.

The waterfall pours into a wide pool below rounded cliffs.  It’s not difficult to imagine that at one point—perhaps millions of years ago—the water whipped through this part of the Gorge and shaped these rocks in a torrential eddy.  For this place in geological history, it is a place where people stop, picnic, swim, photograph, slide down the waterfall and jump at least forty feet off the cliffs into the pool below.  We are content to watch this all.  A good time for some peaceful Zen comfort, no?

The koans seem to follow some pattern, a conversation where a penitent asks the monk a question and receives an answer that—on the surface—has, at best, a contradictory relation to the question, if any relation at all.

Q:  What is the nature of the Buddha?

A: This flax weighs 3 pounds.

It seems that so much of these conversations are wrapped up in either the futility of knowing or the futility of searching.  People get so wrapped up in searching for the Buddha, looking for truth, or verifying that their life has had significance, has been successful, or that they have bested the anxiety of death and emptiness.  Paradoxically, it seems the more you seek getting too wrapped up in looking for the Buddha, the more it detracts from a true path.  Huxley argues similarly in The Perenial Philosophy that in many religions, words, stories, and ritual become the focus of the devotee—lost in questions and debate—and they become distracted from the path itself.  And yet, how can one express this in words?  In one koan, the Buddha simply remains silent and the penitent—a philosopher—feels he has received his answer.

Very confusing.  But the motion of the sun and people stirs my thoughts from that particular rabbit hole.  Some of the swimmers are leaving, the sun is getting low enough that if I don’t jump in the water soon, it will make no sense to do so today.  I read one more quick one to carry with me to the water. A monk promises another monk on his death bed to show him the way of “no coming and no going.”  Then I slip on my trunks, next to a dead stump that has flourished with fungus in the moisture of the storm.

I jump off the short ledge, and the current carries me.  I’ve done this before—no big deal—and move toward an eddy on the far shore and climb up the cliff.  I’ve never been up this far, but saw enough people jump today to pique my interest.  I come out to the ledge.  It doesn’t look that bad: lots of flat space.

“No. Go down further,” yells one of the remaining campers.  I go back over the trees and find where he was pointing.  I have to hold onto a tree to lower myself onto a small step, perhaps twice as wide as my shoulders, perhaps two feet out into the air, saturated with treacherous, mossy moisture.

I think of every rock I’ve slipped on today, every time I’ve lost my balance, feeding the unsteadiness of my legs.  I’m worry I will slip one last, fatal time and consider the worst possible scenario from atop this ledge.  This is the way the world ends.  I stand to jump, but I don’t.  I know I’m going to, but I lack the courage to do it at first.  I look down.  Bad choice.  All the rocks I could hit.  I know I will jump, but now all thought has left me.  I’m empty.  I feel the fear extend to my limbs.  I sit down to calm myself before the jump.  It doesn’t work.  Soon the fear overwhelms me, out of conscious control.  My senses began to bend.  The rock in front, the cavernous bowl marked by thousands of years of rushing water, begins to bend and swirl with the sound of the water.  Is this vertigo?  Will I black out over the ledge? Will I be lost in the dark and swift current of time?   Just typing this brings a tinge of that familiar to my fingertips.  It is a jumpy anxiety—an unnamed twirl of excitement and dread.

Finally, I spring from my crouched position.  Down, down, down forever into the dark womb of the water.  The current carries me, and I swim for the near shore.  I’ve caught my breath, but the lights that flickerd on atop the rock are still burning at all of my nerve endings.

Often, a jump in the mountain water invigorates me, but this has ignited a new and caustic fire that smolders whimperingly in every millimeter of my neural pathways, past the pont of getting dry, past re-packing my pack and rejoining the trail, up the ascent out of the belly of the Gorge.  This babble, this running narrative, burns away.  In the silence the answer is heard, and I walk away, step by trudging step.


The Tribe Stumbles on Unmarked Trails

It was an inauspicsious start.  I put my boots down on the railroad tie behind my truck.  Atticus promptly pissed on them.  I told him he was a bad dog, but I guess if he’s trying to spread his scent all over the woods, he wins for ingenuity.

We make our way down the Pine Gap Trail, the first trail on the West Rim of the Gorge that makes its way to the main Linville trail, looking to make it to Babel Tower and back in the afternoon. We are down at the water after twenty minutes of twisty trail.  Atticus jumps in the water and stares at me like “Yay! We made it!”  But someone’s already put their hammock up, and we have more miles to hike today.  He stares at me in disbelief, as if he can’t fathom why we would ever leave this perfect spot.

But leave, we do, and the trail climbs to the intersection of the Bynum Bluff trail.  It’s and odd intersection, and I accidentally head down a side trail that heads for the river.  I even pass an older couple who have stopped to evaluate the map, but I somehow miss seeing that omen and keep pushing ahead.  I’m worried about the bend in the trail that offers a straight drop over the cliff, worried that Atticus will make haste over that edge.  But he and Juno are hiking methodically, patiently.  And soon we are at the river, walking up on three other perfect spots–glorious campsites, filed away for future use.

I know I have missed the main trail, but it doesn’t concern me.  As long as the river is to my left, I know my bearings. I briefly consdier climbing back up, but I follow the path in front of me.  This isn’t the first time I’ve ended up on a side trail and discovered some hidden nugget in this place, and it’s not the first time I’ve had to bushwack to get back on the main trail.  After all, the main trail hugs the west side of the river, so as long as I keep to the West Bank, I should eventually run into it.

This is going on swimmingly.  Large, even rocks protrude from the west bank into the Linville River, and we are trucking at a good pace. I come upon several hidden, secluded camping spots next to deep pools fed by roaring cascades, and I file them all away for future use. I feel like this trip’s post is going to be all about lucky missteps or being willing to take an adventerous route and being rewarded or some other such bullshit like that.  Then the trail changes slightly.  I’m climbing over fallen logs and through roots.  The journey has slowed.  I consider turning around again, but—too late!–I see the Bynum Bluff Cliffs (of insanity!), and sense my reunion with the main trail is near, so I push forward.

As the cliffs near, the progress grinds to a halt.  The bottom of the cliffs drop to a sheer, impassible, vertical façade into the water.  There is no way to continue on this side.  My two choices are to return to the original trail or cross the river.  I look to the other side:  a shore line of large boulders and rocks jutting from the East shore.  Boots off.  Water shoes on.  Making my way down to the waterfall on the other side—in my not so humble evaluation–should be no problem.

To be fair, my hiking has involved many river crossings this summer, so I am undaunted.  My four-legged companions are less enthusiastic.  Juno is supsect of the water on general principle, and Atticus—though he likes to slosh around in water when the can see the bottom—becomes frozen when he is unable to judge the depth in running water.  No amount of wheedling or cajoling can get them to come forward, so I perform my version of the old joke about keeping the wolf away from the sheep while crossing the river.  I drop my pack, come back, get Juno to the other side, come back, get Atticus—who has stood statue-still on a rock for the last five minutes–to the other side.  I only fall once but I soak my backside to the waist.  I catch my breath and we continue downstream.

There is, of course, a problem.  I am a biped, six feet tall with hands that grip. My body, despite a battery of age and lingering injury, intuits a relatively swift passage to the water fall.  My companions are quadrapeds, 1-2 feet tall at the most with bulbous paws.  They’re really good at staying on a trail in front of them, or chasing a rodent off the trail and finding it again.  But in a place where there’s no clear path, they’re kind of lost.  They watch me for cues, but what is easy for me is not readily availible for them.  I stand ready to pick them up by their pack, but they are not always eager to hike in this manner.  Atticus will get to a point and stop, getting this “I need an adult!!!” look on his face.  Juno, on the hand, whimpers and runs back, looking for an alternative route, or perhaps hoping I’ll follow her, back to the more sensible part of the trail.

Each time I have to climb over a rock and return—one at a time—to shepherd the dogs, I become frustrated.  I take treacherous steps—a knee-to-nose climb—and realize that this is a full-body leap for the dogs.  They stop and look at me, and I cross wobbly footing in reverse, then walk it forward again, dog in hand.  Atticus looks at me like “Is this really worth it?” I wonder this myself.  But we are on the dark side of the moon.  The only way out is forward.  Nevertheless, I can’t convince them with my powers of logic.  They keep stopping and stopping, and running up the hill and running down the hill.  Could they just follow me instead of making this such and ordeal???

Finally, we make our way to the top ledge of the waterfall.  I see the older couple across the river, taking a small break.  Atticus lets me lower him down.  But Juno is tired of this tomfoolery.  As I try to reach for her backpack, she sprints back through a fallen tree and up the rocks.  I’m tired of chasing her.  And I’ve hiked with her so long that I know I don’t have to.  I leash Atticus to the rock below, climb back up to the ledge, and sit and wait for Juno to come to me.

I wait.  Within a minute, she has walked beside me and is licking my face.  I hold her backpack and begin to lower myself down to help her. But she refuses, leaping 7 feet down to the next ledge on the falls.  We are at the pool.  It’s not Babel Tower: it’s the swimming hole at the 90 degree bend where I was going to rest on the way back up the trail.  But now it is the turnaround, and the trail is still on the other side of the river.  So, I slip on my swimsuit and take my dogs, first Atticus then Juno, by the handle of the backpack, and swim them across the river.

It’s 4:00, three and half hours since I left the car at the trailhead.  In some ways, I try to take this accomplishment as a measure of solace after a long, grueling trip.  Neither of my dogs have swum any great distance.  However, all of my muscles are so tired that it is difficult to feel celebratory.  I throw down my pack and dig for snacks.  I string up my hammock and begin to feel like myself again.

I turn to head back to the swimming hole, about 25 feet up the river.  There’s a guy in a blue shirt.  I think he’s talking to me.  I walk closer.  It’s my amigo—a fellow teacher from school.  We talk camping talk all the time in the halls, and we have randomly run into each other a two hour drive and a four mile hike from home.

Atticus nuzzles up to him like he does with everyone, and soon we delve into the trail and the camping and what we’ve been doing all summer.  We trade in knowledge.  “I saw an older couple from Vermont,” he says.  “They haven’t even broken a sweat.”  Soon, I am jumping back into the river to clean off my hard-earned miles of sweat with an afternoon swim, testing the depths, leaping from the rock face, feeling the frustration of the trek wash away in the chilly water.  By 5:30, I’m packed and up the trail, back at the car in an hour.

On the way back up the trail, I watch Atticus and Juno climb.  A proverb comes to mind:  “if you want to travel fast, travel alone:  if you want to travel far, travel together.  A couple of times, Atticus needs a boost, but Juno shows off her still fresh vertical leap skills.  They are short, sharp-nosed quadrapeds.  Amazing in many ways, but perhaps not as prepared to brave the nefarous terrain as a bushwhacking, boulder-hopper like myself. But this walk in the woods is a walk in the woods compared to the hike to the bottom of the Gorge.  This place always has a way to humble your expectations, to present a more grueling experience that you had imagined.  But in the end, the day was fresh air, strong exercise, a swim in a sunlit waterfall, a chance encounter with a friend, smiles and ear scratches and dog kisses and the whole posse coming safely home to sleep the best sleep in the world.  The tough steps of the trail and the refreshing calm of the woods all wash over us as we drift out, as always, better for having made the journey together.

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.

Sanctuary Sunday and Mid-Week Pilgrimage


Sunday morning is my sanctuary.  One of the dogs wakes me, and I slowly roll out of bed and walk ten minutes to a yoga class in my neighborhood.  When done, I walk ten minutes back in a neighborhood of old-growth trees and creeks.

This past Sunday was beautiful, with just the right flavor of breeze to make the trees sway a hypnotic dance and remind me that I hadn’t gone on in a long hike in a couple of months.  It was enough to make me rush home, grab Nic and the dogs, throw everything in the car and head west.  Unfortunately on my agenda for the day?  Home repairs.  Yes, in this extra wet summer we’ve endured here in the South, one of my gutters decided it needed to be free, and I need to convince it to stay, lest I continue to have rain leak behind the paint of my bedroom wall.

Ordinarialy I enjoy home repair as well as a root canal.  Look, I get the virtue of it, and the cost/benefit analysis for it.  But do I enjoy it?  No.  I always find myself mulling the opportunity cost…where I’d rather spend the money and time, which takes a ding on the “job well done” feeling.  Not to mention I feel our culture has a strange fetish with home perfection that I never have been able to buy into, what Kahlil Gibran calls a “lust for comfort” that “murders the passion of the soul.”  However, today while in the last few still minutes of class of yoga, I found myself at peace with my chores, and realized that if approached them thankful that I had a sound house in which to dwell that my attitude toward repairing it might improve, that I should love my house and love the work I do on it.

It also didn’t hurt that I was going to go hiking later in the week, making the tedium of the labor easier to endure with that on the horizon.  When your only day off is a weekend or a holiday, spending that time sweating on housework is soul-crushing.  However, when you’re on vacation, not only can you wait patiently, you can wait until there are fewer people with the day off and you can have sweating on the hiking trails all to yourself, a sentiment posed beautifully in the song below–when you have every day off, weekends and holidays is when it’s crowded for you. One of my friends once posed that this NOFX song should be the summer anthem for every teacher, and that remains to this day the smartest thing he has ever said.

So while everyone else went back to work on July 5, I threw the furry beasts in the back of the truck and headed west to Wilson Creek, kind of a modern no-man’s land, if you will.  All the trails are off dirt roads, and you can’t really use a conventional driving GPS to plot it, so it feels like you are going deep in the middle of nowhere to get your hike on.  If Sunday was working on building the sanctuary from the storm, Wednesday was my mid-week pilgrimage to hike unknown (to me) paths, to find undiscovered (by me) waterfalls.

The goal for the day is Grogg Prong Falls–I know, a mouthful–for a turn around.  According to one website, it will be about a 6-7 mile out and back.  According to the same website, this hike and this waterfall can be treacherous when wet.  As I walk down the trail, I hear a distant drum roll of thunder and realize that my rain coat is in the car, not in the pack.  Too far down the trail to want to turn back around at this point, I shrug it off and make my peace with the potential rain.  It’s summer.  There’s always some threat of thunderstorms out here.  When it does rain, it’s usually just enough to cool things down.  Unless it dumps, then, of course, you’re all wet in the muggy, muggy woods, hiking yourself into certain rashes and abrasions.  If only there were a roof and gutter system to keep me dry and comfortable.

But rain does create other dangers as well.  Rocks slicken.  Rivers bloat.  Trails muddy and erode.  And in this part of the world, when things get wet, they stay wet.  It’s clear from early on the trail that rain has been here recently.  Slippery roots frame muddy bogs on narrow trails that overlook the river.  On one section, maybe six inches wide and thirty feet up, it seems that the trail has completely eroded.  A family camps across the river, and they later tell me the had to but slide down and wash it off.  Ugh,  river crossing, the gentle dance of the trail.  Always a game of “do I take my boots off or do I rock hop?” which includes the extra obstacle of the dogs getting them all good and wet before I start.   But seeing this ubiquitous wetness as a series of obstacles is a very “hiker-centric” orientation.  The continuous moisture animates a world of colored fungus and fauna that puts any pre-planned garden to shame: life–vibrant and unpredictable–sits around every corner.

About an hour and a half into the pilgrimage, I reach the turnaround–Grogg Prong Falls.  The water begins in a pool atop then slides down in a serpentine twist down a gradual rock face into an open valley flanked by tall cliffs on either side.  The solitary swimming at the bottom is enticing, but the path is treacherous.  Someone has even taken the liberty to paint yellow arrows to the best possible path to the bottom.

However, the rain that has glazed the rocks and churned the dirt has made its mark here as well.  Though it is sunny and warm, all the rain in the soil atop these cliffs have slowly bled down the rock face, creating a continuous, mossy slick.  I begin to inch my way toward the bottom, but Atticus is a good bellwether.  At 100 pounds he does well, but he’s not always the most feathery on his feet. As he stares at me panting,  I remember a maxim good for hiking and life in general–any thing you climb up,  you need to be able to get down, and anything you climb into, you need to be able to get back out.  True for humans, but more so since the dogs are my responsibility.  By the time I’m twenty feet down, the whole time sliding butt to ankles, I catch my center of gravity precariously turn just enough when I look and see that the sheerest part of the face is all wet and I imagine it turning past the point where I can catch myself. A few more inches and I may find myself sliding another twenty feet. I’ve reached my limit for day.  Maybe another day during drought situations this place is safer to scale, but today is not that day.

“Pushing your boundaries” is one of those classic outdoors cliches that people use to justify all manner of risk-taking.  I’m not saying to don’t push them, but I’m also not an adrenaline junkie.  Sure, I’ve taken risks when they’re available, but I’m pretty good at looking before I leap.  Also, I didn’t come out here for that “rush.” of pushing to the edge of death.  I’ve been down that trip before.  But I do make my way into the woods to find things deep inside that I can never get sitting in the four walls of my house, staring at my television.  I never really know what it’s going to be, but opening myself up to those possibilities–the touch of fingers on rock, the wild rush of water, the slight fear at the edge of danger–always yields something that makes the pilgrimage worth the effort.

A clap of thunder breaks me out of this eddy of thought.  I gauge my time, probably an hour back to the base of the trail, where Hunt Fish Falls and a gorgeous swimming hole await, and another 30 minutes to the car.  So to play it safe in case the rain decides to fall, I start to hustle back to the south. By 3:15, I’m out on the rocks underneath the falls looking for a quick dip in the water before the patches of grey overwhelm the patches of blue and break a deluge on me.

Every thread of my hiking clothes are drenched in sweat and my legs and shoulders are getting the beginning of fatigue.  I figure this will be a short swim with the storm looming, so I change quickly.  The thunder rumbles behind me to the east, so I waste no time diving into the water, climbing up the rock face next to the pool, and jumping into the waterfall current, swept back to a large, mostly flat rock jutting into the river.  Atticus romps happily through the water while Juno explores all dry areas to eventually lie in the shade with utter indifference.  Soon, I am back on the rock, and the grey has receded slightly, seemingly moving to the south of the area, so I sit on the rock to dry.

But just as quickly, the storm returns.  The leaves flutter in the soaring wind, warning of the deluge to come.  Then the water starts: small droplets, medium droplets, but curiously never enough rain to chase me from the spot. just enough to cause discernable coencentric circles in the waters surface, a slight percussion just enough to edify the dreamy melody of this perfect afternoon.  Then the sun returns, its light refracting through the river surface to create a fractured golden glow beneath the falls.  Its glow is the perfect temperature for a brief nap on the rocks, lullabied by the gushing water, the calls of birds, the receding timpani of the sky.  The very molecules of my body vibrate to this harmony.  I rise to find a part of me will always stay here, and a part of here will always stay with me.  As I gather my things, a group of fellow hikers make their way to the second level of the falls and melt into the waterfall.  The life without me and within me flows with effortless connection.  I find myself in a subtle, peaceful bliss as I head up the trail.

It’s a moment now etched in memory, one I could have never grasped had I allowed myself to be consumed by a “lust for comfort.”  Through these journeys over muddy trails and through muggy air, there are often these moments that are too beautiful and perfect for words, too unpredictable to be planned and packaged.  I cherish them in sacred space of my memory. But they come only to those willing to brave the storms to take the blind pilgrimage to receive them.  As Gibran says, those who can not be tamed by the lust for comfort see their house as “not an anchor but a mast.”  And so, the glow of the afternoon fading into evening, I make my way up the 30 minute climb out of the gorge and point my ship to the sanctuary of my home, the comfort of my bed, where I will sleep dry, rested, and sated–the best sleep I ever have–until the call for the next pilgrimage comes.

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.


The Natural Classroom



A girl sits in a high school library, headphones in, connected to the computer where she sits.  The empty glow of the screen rests on her apathetic gaze.  Beyond her–twenty feet to her right–sit a bank of windows, twenty feet high and fifty feet long, a portal on a beautiful summer morning–trees and birds and sunshine– to which she is oblivious. Sh has to be. She needs to push through, to answer the pressing question on the screen.
“Which statement best characterizes Dickinson’s view on nature?”


Ah, Emily Dickinson.  No doubt, the student would find answer choices that had to do with respect for nature with a sprinkling of morbidity and death for good measure.  Here, in her summer credit recovery program, she would sit in the air-conditioning, figuring out the answer to nature, while nature itself went on–largely ignored–outside.


I’ve had this picture with me since the beginning of the summer, when I witnessed it as I was teaching a summer enrichment camp at my school.  At first, it was a humorous tidbit of teacher irony, but the scene has been tenacious in my imagination: I keep coming back to it as a meditation on my own classroom practice.  You see, over the last few years, I’ve made it a point to incorporate the outdoor space at my school as part of the my “classroom.”  We are very fortunate to have a large wooded campus with an expansive quad and winding cross-country trails that are all a short walk from my classroom door; and whenever an activity lends itself to using that space, I try to take advantage.

I started this a few years ago on a whim, and it seems to work well.  Most students, for no other reason than a break from monotony, like to go outside.  A few years ago, I went on an Outward Bound teacher trip and began to think more how the outside space could be used for lessons that need more room than a classroom provides to incorporate experiential learning.  However, if you were to ask me why I take kids outside, the answer may not be as pedagogically sound as I would like: sometimes, I just need to go outside and stop staring at the same four walls, stop breathing the same recycled air.

Perhaps to justify this  bias,  I’ve crafted a belief that being in nature is an inherent good in and of itself, and this belief has looped back on itself to motivate me to find more ways to take my students outside of the physical classroom.  But not all students share my belief.  Some dislike the heat (or the cold, depending on the time of year).  Some vocally hate the bugs (and have the bugs that have flown in their face to prove it).  Moreover, there are sound pedagogical reasons to not go outside: students are more prone to distraction, and “classroom management” can be more difficult when spread out.  Even morally and spiritually,  the Puritan strains of American Lit attest, evil lurks in the woods, while the good and upright stays in “civilization,” a motif supported by the fact that few of the “good kids” even know we have cross-country trails while many of the “not so good kids” know them all too well.

So I have a personal urge about the student condition shown in the girl at the computer it is less important that she can answer a question about how Dickinson feels about nature and more important that she can go out and experience how she feels about it herself.  On the other hand, my professional responsibility calls this into question.  Would just telling her to go walk around in the woods for an hour really teach her anything of value?  Does the choice of a 30 minute nature walk over 30 minutes of explicating a poem about nature make that much of a difference?  Is this a form of professional malpractice for my own peace of mind?

A friend and colleague of mine turned me on to a book this summer that helped me gain a little perspective on this.  In Lit Up, David Denby follows a handful of high school English teachers over the course of a school year, analyzing their practices and reading lists and the effects the teaching seems to have on the students.  Mr. Leon, an energetic man from New York’s Beacon High, is the main focus of the story.  Seen through the author’s lens, Leon seems to place a high premium on assigning challenging  literature (Vonnegut, Dostoyevsky, and Beckett, to name a few) for his 10th grade class.  However, he does not choose the literature because kids need challenging work to perform better on tests and build “21st century, workforce ready” skills; he chooses the books he does because he wants the students to find meaning in what they read, to be challenged in ideas as well as skill.

For the girl in the library, I feel sure that reading that Dickinson poem had little impact or meaning for her life.  Is this an obvious point, as she was likely slogging through summer school just to get credit?  Of course.  But the experience of reading in this manner is not too removed from an everyday classroom experience.  Increasingly, large scale testing and a focus on work an college preparation can pare down education to answer guessing and skill development.  Texts can be analyzed but never understood.  In essence, the student does not learn about nature (or death or technology or whatever else we are reading about on that particular day).  Rather, she is playing a game of semantics, matching word patterns and incomplete images about nature but ultimately divorced from it.  She plays the game and then moves on.

The problems becomes, I think, the longer we teach in this manner, the less meaningful the content becomes for students.  French philosopher Jean Baudrillard anticipated such a problem in his book Simulacra and Simulation  (If the name sounds familiar, it’s in The Matrix, and this essay was very helpful in forming this idea).  Words represent reality, but we often lose sight of the reality we represent and only play with the words, devoid of their connection to anything actual, tangible, or in many ways meaningful.

I know.  It seems paradoxical to have a bookworm English teacher trying to pull students’ heads out of books, as much as reading about nature on a computer screen.  My classrooms is a setting where we manage  student experience to lead them to an intended outcome.    Nature doesn’t always work that way.  It doesn’t always have clean edges and correct answers.  And when I put myself out in nature, I never know exactly what kind of knowledge or contemplation will take place.  But Emerson once wrote of this, of a person finding their interest in the world and letting that be the root by which we learn excitedly and passionately.


Consider the following contrast:

Most students spend 7 hours a day in school.  In my school, it’s 90 minutes per class with brief breaks for lunch and class change.  In those 90 minutes, I sometimes try to throw as much as I can at them.  Analyze sentences for structure and meaning.  Discuss the readings they had for homework.  Do an activity that asks them to analyze or construct arguments.  Definitely some writing.  Then the leave the class and have another planned educational experience.  Maybe they stare at a screen.  Maybe they click another answer. Some times I hit home runs and they are invigorated all class long.  But on other more common days, even when they are patient, they and I are both conscious of passing time.

In this last week, I went to my own outdoor classroom twice.  On Tuesday, I kayaked the Rocky River through the southern Piedmont.  On Sunday, I hiked to the Linville River at the bottom of the Gorge.  All told, probably nine hours of time in nature.  Not once did I wish the time would go faster so I could leave.

I had physical education: rowing, swimming, hiking, climbing.  Navigated a boat through Rapids, learning to better read the flow of water.  Took a fish’s life in my hands and then let him go.  Read maps, calculated time, distance, and altitude.  Watched hawks dive for fish and egrets swoop the river. Packed supplies.  Practiced first aid…yet again.  Paddled by the remains of two dead deer buzzing with flies consuming their bloated flesh.  Napped in a hammock.  Wrote.  Paddled through slow water and thought, both deep and shallow.  Learned to fall and pick myself up again.  Identified fungus.  Trained dogs.  Laughed.  Paddled in solitude: hiked in great company.  Remembered it’s always better to jump straight in the cold water than ease yourself in.



It’s probably the dead deer that stuck with me the most, a mix of revulsion, reverence, and morbid fascination.  I heard a thousand flies buzz where they died.  Emily Dickinson, I think, would’ve had a field day.  But her poem would not have been my poem, nor the poem of any other person who happened to float by. Even if I had snapped a pic to illustrate what a memento mori is, for example,  I would be reducing it to a symbolic meaning, and for that matter reduced all the thoughts and impulses and feelings I had as floated by these deer.   This spontaneous reflection couldn’t be planned, even if I had snapped a picture, written a poem, or brought the deer in itself for a lesson.

Taking that girl out of the library and telling her to walk the cross-country trails may not have made her any “smarter” by any measurable standards.  It surely wouldn’t get her any closer to graduation, which…let’s be honest…is the only reason she was at school on a summer day in the first place.  But there are also lessons that we don’t plan.  When I wade in the deeper waters and wonder what the most important lessons a student can take from school, I hope that I have continued to encourage their sense of wonder, not reduced it, and that they continue to be adults who are open to unplanned lessons.  To make that happen, sometimes they have to step back from objectives and screens and see the larger world that they inhabit every day.

Walking through the Sublime


My friend Vince, when I asked him lo these many years ago if he wanted to go hiking, politely turned me down and reminded me that hiking was little more than “driving two hours to walk around and drive two hours home.”

So it was likely my Vince voice that was cursing me this morning when my alarm went off some time shortly after six.  It was, after all, the first day of my summer vacation (#teacherperks) that I could actually sleep in as late as I really wanted.  And apparently in a fit of madness, I only wanted to sleep for four hours or so.   I had already reached out to Chuck, promising I would meet him at Hanging Rock by 9, then proceeded to go to bed around 1.

The lure of turning over in my bed, snagging all the sleep I could handle, and settling into a day of doing absolutely nothing was strong.  Equally strong was the lure of a productive day at home…the laundry list of neglected chores.  Even a productive day of sloth seemed tempting.  But the gig was up.  My pack was out, and the dogs were hip to the game.  After my morning smoothie erupted through the blender, I was out the door by 7:30.

Lately, I’ve been musing the mad-house urge I have to go play in the woods, to chase the sublime in nature, that has only seemed to intensify as I have aged: the drive to find new trails to trek, new waters to swim, new trees to hammock, new places to see the sky.  For all its political flaws, my corner of the world is a bountiful wealth of such new adventures.  The first hint of spring seems to ignite this fire, and from there I obsess with of time  the weather, the calendar, and the ever growing list of places I’ve yet to discover, and every year I vow to myself to spend more time going to the woods.

So, this urge kicked my ass out of bed on Sunday morning when all bets were against it. A quick stop for some road breakfast and two-hours north through Winston-Salem took me to Hanging Rock, a state park of sandy trails, a muddy, swimming-hole lake, falls and cascades, climbs and climbs and climbs.  The result of some bizarre geological processes many, many eons ago, the park centers around rock formations that rise mightily out of the piedmont: craggy cliffs, intimidating walls, precariously leaning towers, a “balanced rock” that –according to Chuck– is evidence as good as he’s ever seen for the existence of aliens.

Fathoming the other-worldly implications of geological forces is enough for me begin slow my mad-cap chase and slow down to a steady walk through the sublime, a word that means both “poetic in language” and “awe-inspiring,”  While these mountains may seem tame in comparison to the Andes, Himalayas, Rockies, or even the Appalachians they eventually become, there is something overwhelming about sitting so close to the chasm of the void in between peaks, a formation seemingly out of nowhere that allows the human eye to see its potential, spotting mountains hundreds of miles away.  There is something intricate about the formation of a cave that gives just enough room for a human to climb in the bottom and twenty feet up through the top.  There is something defining about looking back over the miles you’ve trekked, observing bright colored flecks on the lake, swimming and boating two miles and a thousand feet below where you recently left, both churning pride in your accomplishments and ensuring you know how small a bit you are in the vast sphere of just this corner of the world, let alone the continent, the earth, the universe.

The history of this sublime is as fascinating as its form.  Etymologically, sublime derives from Middle French, a combination of “up to” and “line or limitation.”  So, a view, experience, or day of hiking that is sublime not only inspires awe or the nattering rambles of the poetic faculties;  it also pushes one to a limit, and perhaps even through it.  “Testing one’s limits” is, of course, a staple cliche of inspirational work-out jargon.  Any strenuous or extended exercise can push someone to find themselves testing the limitations of their physical strength and endurance.  Going out and finding new paths always puts one in the place to find these.  Perhaps today it was the  seven hours, the 8 miles.  Maybe it was the tower-and-tree climbing combo or the 612 steps to the top of the Tower over look.


But despite the aching quads and burning lungs, walking through the sublime is much more than transcending my physical boundaries and sounding my barbaric yawp atop a mountain.  As Emerson once wrote about going into nature, “my head bathed in blithe air, and uplifited into infinite space–all mean egotism disappears.”  While many, if not most of my former students scoff at transcendentalists like Emerson, there is the value of transcending the ego in the woods.


As Alan Watts once wrote, it is a particular development and hindrance of our minds that we anticipate the future so well.  It allows us to plan and build agree upon a time to meet in the parking lot and read maps and make decisions about which way to go next.  On the other hand, the potential of future choices is virtually infinite, and pondering all the things we “have to do” in order to achieve goals we desire…be that a clean house or a well-run enrichment camp or even being well-rested…can leave us cycling constantly through the sources.  Lately, when my mind begins racing through all the things I “have to do,” I’ve been trying to tune into that voice that says “No, you don’t.”

That voice, admittedly, is so much easier to hear in the woods.  The chatter of constant stimulus diminishes.  The necessity of putting one foot in front of the other, eating only when you need energy, drinking when you thirst, is simple.  Anxieties over things that can take care of themselves or simply wait altogether seem to melt away.  All the things I get trapped into thinking I “have to do” to be “who I am” seem a dim echo in the void as I transcend this boundary.



And past that boundary is a vast openness of experience we often reject in the periphery of our laser-like focus.  On the way down the mountain, Chuck told me an off-hand story about a woman at his kids school worried about her kids being taught to meditate in school.  We laughed, but as we rolled down the 612 steps, our banter bounced down the mountain, our conversation roaming endlessly in whichever direction it would, both in silence and in exchange, none of which I could have planned or anticipated.  By the time the hike was through, we were exhausted.  Emptied.  In place of the to-do list I had left at home, was another day of chasing the sublime in a meaningless trek on the trail and walking in its gentle breeze, somewhere on a cluster of odd rocks and trees in a crazy little corner of the universe.

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.


Rage, Rage Against the Dying of the Light

Thank God for global warming.

It is the season of long shadows, when the sun begins his descent early in the afternoon, turning the world into a shadowy realm only a few hours after the crest of noon.  But unlike most early December days, the sun has been giving out-of-season spring temperatures.


It was on such a day that we took advantage of the fortuitous weather here in the South.  On a day that would reach a high of 60 degrees (16, to all you centigradians), I drove 50 miles east to meet up with Chuck for a hike through the Uwharries.  Often credited as one of the oldest mountain ranges in the world, it lacks the verve and tourist-loving views of the Appalachians, the Andes, or the Rockies.  But what it lacks in postcard-picture vistas, it makes up with seclusion.  After a brief incident with a punctured left tire–and the generous help of a hunter from Tallahassee–we entered the arboreal maze.  For the entirety of the day–9 miles, 5 hours–we would see two humans.

Uwharrie trails are deceptively easy to get lost in.  Good maps seem rare, and landmarks are rarer on what often seems an undifferentiated wander through the woods.  Indeed, aside from wooden signs at intersections and the creek crossing, only a smattering of yellow and white blazes, often blended with the moss and lichen of tree bark, led us through the labyrynth of trees.  Couple this with the dry leaves that covered every inch of the woods, and the hike was something of a guessing game, catching turns at the last second, checking directions on the compass frequently, never keeping eyes off the trail.

Up and down, up and down.  The trail skirted an inland peninsula of well-marked private land, never settling into a flat groove.  Every quick steep ascent paired with a treacherous rock picking descent on unstable leaves.


By 2:30, we were surprisingly tired and the shadows began to lengthen here in the time of shorter and shorter days.  We began in hushed whispers to consider time and distance and float the possibilities of turning around to make it back before darkness fell.  We checked the map with trepidation as we hadn’t seen any landmarks in quite some time, as we had varying electronic estimates of how far we had come, of how far we had to go.  Generally, we were now moving straight south, which the map said was the right direction.  So we pushed onward, somewhat uncertain of the trail ahead.


Anxiety and confusion can reign this time of year.  The stories of people at the poles who suffer crippling depression in the days of perpetual night are well known, but less accepted is how much the creeping days to Winter Solstice can sap those of us in more temperate climes  of our verve as our hemisphere lurches further away from the sun, further and further toward the darkness.  I spend most of my working days inside, and by the time I leave and arrive home, the cold chill of night is biting at my heels, chasing me indoors once more.  The presence of sunlight in my life becomes scarce.

I remember a teacher telling me in high school that the triangle of Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years causes more depression, and thinking it must be about the stress of the holidays, the hustle and bustle of buying gifts, planning big meals, and family strife.  But the more I think about it, I think about the darkness that pervades the natural world.  We often look to human causes, but the more we are driven inside by the cold and dark, the more we forget our connection to the natural world and how much sustaining energy we derive from the sun.  In the darker times of year, it can be more difficult to think clearly, to retain energy.  We want to sleep more.  We tend to want to hunker down, huddled next to our individual hearths, guarded against the darkness.

It’s no surprise, I suppose that cultures across time and space have planned holiday celebrations around the Winter Solstice.  In America, we have a conglomerate of the “holiday season” dominated by Christmas, which has itself adopted the traditions of the tree and the yule log from pre-Christian traditions.  The Christian Christmas is of course joined with the more modern materialist feeding frenzy by our modern cult of St. Nick,  but our “holiday season” also encompasses the celebrations of Haunukkah for those of Jewish origin, Kwanzaa for the African American, Festivus for the Seinfeldian, and finally the modern bacchanal known as New Years for all comers.  But the Romans had their Saturnalia.  And even in the Southern Hemisphere, cultures plan celebrations around their Winter Solstice, such as the Matariki of the Maori in New Zealand.  When the days are darkest, these celebrations can form a welcome distraction from the reactions of our bodies to shorter days and scanter sunlight.  Like the animals, we too feel the need to sleep and hibernate, the confusion caused by the long shadows.  Lost in the ritual of ceremony and preparation, we can choose to ignore this natural pull toward sleep and energy preservation, we hold the darkness at bay.


By 3:00, Chuck and I finally found the intersection of the trails, which let us know we had about 2 1/2 miles to go.  The beginning of the chill was on the air, and the shadows began to stretch, but we had time to rest by a campsite, even enough to joke about lighting a fire.  Chuck had packed in a couple of beers, so we toasted to the afternoon.

As we settled in, we both admitted the tinge of anxiety we had felt before we got to this clearly marked point in the trail, at the intersection of two trails and a forest road.  The forest is vast an uniform, trees and hills stretching for miles in all directions.  The Uwharries are notoriously easy to get lost in; the darker it got, the more difficult it would be to find our way out.  And unlike the summer, where a night under the stars could be a pleasant respite, getting caught in a December night unprepared could be precarious, sickness inducing, even possibly death.  Although the hike had seemed simple enough at the outset, we had to consider our own frailty against the open night in making decisions for our safety.

Of course, the easiest and safest course of action would have been to not come into the wild, to stay safely at home, and let the brief sunlight take care of itself and forget the darkness in the glow of my modern hearth…a television playing football.  But there is value in facing and embracing the darkness as well.  The Tao claims it is from darkness that all things derive, our primordial womb that gives birth to mystery, to manifestation, to understanding.  And without a knowledge of the darkness, our knowledge of the light is incomplete.  And so, in the days leading to and from the solstice, in the days where shadows are long and light is short, I strive to be outside wandering the woods as much as I can, to grasp every last drop of the sunlight, and to know the lurking shadows.  I find my time sloshing through the trails to be the best method of meeting the impending darkness head on.  Knowing the crest of that anxiety’s break, and then the resulting calm that swims in its wake, I remember that I am a creature of the natural world, beholden to cycles of the natural world, the ebb and flow of light and dark, the tilt of the earth, the change of the seasons.

Chuck and I picked up our packs and began to make our way on the last two miles of the loop.  All was calm and peaceful as the sun began to sink lower in the trees.  Knowing our goal was shortly ahead, we walked leisurely as the shadows continued to lengthen across our path.  Even when Juno took her usual run though the woods chasing some phantom wildlife, we stopped restfully and waited the cycle of her return.  Soon, we were in the car and riding home into the beautiful setting of the sun, back to the home, back to the hearth, under the twinkling dark blanket of night.