The Great Smoky Mountains

Rainbow over the Great Smoky Mountains

About a century ago—in January 2020–I planned to visit Ireland in September and Alexandra had reservations for Japan.  We all know what happened next: plans changed, life took a detour and staycations became the new way of life.  Fortunately, one of the major tourist destinations in the United States is in my own back yard so to speak.  Every time I drive to town, I’m treated to a perfect view of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  Daily, I get to see these ancient mountains in all their glory.  Many days they are clear with gradations from deep purple to lavender.  Then there is the winter with snow and clouds turning purple to pure white. Many days the clouds reflect the name “Smoky” and a misty haze covers the horizon.  I don’t often make the hour drive to the park itself but, when I do, I love the rocky stream beside the road, the dense tree-cover overhead and the sweet wet smell of the moss and ferns.  The Smokies really don’t have many vistas; it is more like being in a massive Zen garden where Nature herself has curated every inch to be perfect.  In the autumn, the Smokies put on a magnificent show when the trees are ablaze, and the air is cool and dry and the sky is bright blue.  I am so happy to have a staycation in this magical place.

When Alexandra was little girl, we would go play in the cold mountain stream on hot summer days but never hiked.  But ever since we walked the Camino in 2014, hiking has become such a joy and a priority. And we are very compatible hiking pals. We are also wanting to make the most of her extended time in East Tennessee since she will be working from home until at least next year.  We are using this time-out-of-time to make the most of our lives here and now. So let me tell you about our September adventures in the Great Smoky Mountains.

For our first hike, I chose “The Chimneys”.  This is a well-known trail that isn’t very long but very steep with hundreds of stairs up to a rock outcropping and a beautiful overlook.  The path starts flat and has several bridges over a wide, rushing stream that tumbles down massive boulders.  If we had just stopped there, it was worth the hour and a half drive. But then the trail starts the assent which means at least it is downhill coming back. Fortunately, we have a trail on the farm with a steep hill and so I’m use to the incline but it was still a big challenge.  Everywhere you look is a feast for the eyes—deep green moss, dark tree trunks, rock outcroppings and leafy canopy. The fresh air and rushing water fills in what the eyes miss for a full body experience.  We were tired at the end, but I was glad to get to mark that trail off in my hiking book as a trail well done.

Sunshine illuminating the path

As we were driving to the hike, Alexandra mentioned she would love to pet a deer as we love seeing the deer on our lawn feeding at dawn and dusk.  I had her google petting zoos and amazingly, there was a deer park and exotic petting zoo just 30 minutes from the trail in the next town over.  You know we had to go right then! Instant manifestation of desired deer petting, and did we have fun.  The Smoky Mountain Deer Farm and Exotic Petting Zoo is full of goats, deer, horses of all kinds, ostrich and emus and beautiful reindeer.  Most of the animals you could feed either a corn mix or apple slices.  We started in a big pen of Fallow deer. They loved the food and we were quickly surrounded. If you weren’t careful some of the deer would give a light nip from the rear so they could get some too—I must say a bit overwhelming but fun. We enjoyed the pen of goats with docile babies that love being held,  I loved cuddling their warm furry bodies. But our favorites were the Sitka deer and reindeer—so gentle and beautiful.  We were dirty and tired by the end of our day but so happy with our mini vacation. Plans are already being made to return to the deer park, maybe with some outlet shopping first.

Sitka Deer

Fallow Deer

A few weeks later I chose a hike on the famed Appalachian Trail that runs from Georgia to Maine, over 2000 miles. We did a four-mile section to a point called Charlie’s Bunion, an outcropping of rock with a magnificent view. This is the part of the trail that starts on the North Carolina/Tennessee line and is at 5000 ft elevation.  The trail is rocky and the rainy remains of a hurricane made the trail like a small stream.  I definitely had to be careful not to turn an ankle. This higher elevation had a special feel with dense moss and hemlock trees which smelled like Christmas, so we chattered on about this year’s Christmas plans. Unfortunately, the beautiful vista was a pure white cloud, so we hungrily ate our PB and J sandwich and headed back down. I did slip on the way back, my legs were getting like rubber by then, but fortunately there was another hiker right behind me who took hold of my arm which softened the fall so I wasn’t hurt.  We were happy to see our car and the vista from the parking lot. Some ibuprofen and a latte got us home to hot showers and beef stew in the crockpot. The hike was 8 miles of rough trail but I felt like I had a big accomplishment and a magnificent adventure in our beautiful world.

 

 

 

 

Peacocks

Brunhilde, Figaro and Mimi

I’ve always loved peacocks. There is something about their iridescent blue-green color and magnificent tails that calls to mind the exotic and extravagant.  Over the years I would be drawn to journals, pillows and clothes with peacock images.  I didn’t overdo it. I wasn’t a crazy peacock lady, just a reminder here and there of this beautiful bird. I also imagined having peacocks on the farm, wandering around the yard and making their haunting calls—it would be so beautiful. I worried about predators so I never investigated owning peacocks and peacocks remained a dream.  But things changed this year. I stopped traveling and Alexandra came home to ride out the pandemic. Suddenly, there was time and space for new opportunities I would not have otherwise and the dream of owning peacocks became a reality.

The end of June, I showed Alexandra a video of baby peacocks on my favorite YouTube channel, The Chateau Diaries.  She started to research peacock care and look for breeders and the next thing I knew we had reserved three baby peacocks to be picked up a few days later in the next county.  We already had plenty of space for them to roam and a shed that would make the perfect roost to keep them safe at night. It seemed like destiny, all with the help of Alexandra’s persistence and love of animals. We finally succumbed to the lure of farm animals, albeit vanity farm animals whose sole purpose is beauty and to make us happy.

Since Alexandra and I both love opera as well as birds, she thought it would be fitting that our babies have very distinguished names from our favorite opera composers.  We have hatch-mates, Figaro, a male and Brunhilde, a sweet dove-colored female.  Figaro is already turning green and struts around like he is in charge.  The third baby is Mimi, a white peacock, beautiful if a bit neurotic, so we are forever pleading “no no Mimi”. Caroline is the official bird wrangler and likes to hold and cuddle them. Alexandra has become a farmer with pitchfork and straw to clean their roost.  Every night, I fix them a lovely supper of lettuce and white bread. In a few weeks, they will be old enough to start exploring the yard and the bread helps lure them back into the safety of the roost at night.  We can’t imagine life without our peacocks.

The challenges of 2020 are bound together with the changes we make this year that become this iridescent experience as the highs and lows are seen from different perspectives.  For me, the loss and sadness has been inextricably bound with gain and joy. I mourn the loss of how life use to be when we could gather with friends and be in the world. But there has also been gain with time as a family and deepening connection with farm and home. I’ve been reading Life is in the Transitions by Bruce Feiler, a book that came out at the beginning of the global transition to an unknown future.  The book is a guide through the transitions in life that come more quickly and last longer than we would probably like.  Sometime, the big shifts in life come voluntarily, but most of the time, it is involuntary, and it is these big changes that make up the fabric of our lives. This year, I’m glad to add peacocks to my life tapestry and the lore of my family. We have also a new tradition born from our transition. Every Saturday evening, we gather on the patio for “aperitif” (also inspired by The Chateau Diaries). We have a glass of pink wine and some “sexy cheese” or other special foods and enjoy the end of the week.  We enjoy the planning as much as the eating, a mini-celebration of life and joy which has been the highlight of our summer and will sure to continue on for many years. Peacocks and aperitif are part of the new colors of our life that we will remember as part of life in transition.

 

 

Noticing

A couple of weeks ago, Alexandra was ready to have a trip to town.  Since she was working from home she had not been anywhere in a couple of weeks and was hungry for a Dairy Queen vanilla cone. I needed some plumbing parts from Home Depot to fix a leaky faucet.  The ice cream was just what she wanted and we headed home through the countryside to our small rural town.  About halfway home she saw some cows in a field, including several calves. I promise, she has seen baby cows before, but even though she is closing in on 30, any baby animal brings a delight usually reserved for toddlers.  She made me turn around so she could admire the babies. We found a driveway to pull in to and had a perfect view of a mama giving her baby a bath.  The little one stood patiently as mama’s rough tongue cleaned under its chin, each lick making the baby lift up a bit, yet the bath happily continued for several minutes.  It was a mini-magical moment for Alexandra and me.  In the background, were the purple silhouettes of the Great Smokey Mountains. The rolling spring-green field contrasted with the dark angular bodies of the Black Angus cows. It was a simple, bucolic moment but yet one of perfect contentment for the mama and baby and me and my sweet girl.  At that moment, all was right with the world because Alexandra had noticed.  She noticed the simple beauty of babies in a field and wanted to savor that moment.

Noticing. This is how we pilgrimage to the present. This isn’t remembering the past or anticipating the future but finding those little moments of everyday life as special and beautiful. Currently our physical worlds are reduced in size as we tend to the business of life and health. But our internal world is infinite when we take time to notice the beauty of life. It is in connecting with nature and the amazingly creative human mind and spirit that we find those timeless moments that feed our soul.  It is so easy to get caught in the negative and the difficult and forget to see, to notice the abundance all around, the opportunities to enrich our minds and souls.  I’ve enjoyed the operas, ballets, gardens and museums that are online for us to enjoy in a way I haven’t before.  I’ve had time to read and tend my house, cook and take a daily walk to enjoy the spring flowers and budding trees.

My sweet friend Becky was reading a passage in my book about pilgrimages to your own back yard. She took that idea to heart and noticed that her own backyard needed some tending and decided to build a “pretty little garden” where she could put her hands in the dirt and find refuge from her busy “on-line” life. Every day she would pilgrimage a few short steps to her little place on earth and found healing and peace.  She shared her special space on Instagram.  It is up to each of us to find and nurture that space of time and place to pilgrimage; we just have to stop and notice.

 

Noticing, observing– brings gratitude for the details of your surroundings, the little things that are often ignored but actually hold the essence of life.  Notice the taste of simple food, the earthy smell of a cat, the softness of worn sheets, the heaviness of a hardbound book, the tattered edges of a warm rug, the brilliant purple of the tiny violets in the grass. Notice the bird songs in the early morning, the whipporwill’s call at dusk, the croaking frogs after a rain.  Each of these things and an infinite amount of other little things in our world become a moment of pilgrimage to our life as we live right here, right now.

My dear cosmic mother Rachael passed away last month. She was in very poor health, the perfect target for Covid-19.  As I mourn her loss, I think about something she would often say, “we are in the glory now”.   By noticing, we experience Now in each glorious moment.

Rachael Salley   1942-2020

A Fawn

fawn

This is one of my favorite stories from five years ago. My wild friends make me so happy.

Hamilton was on his second attempt to bush-hog the field across the street.   The first time he was interrupted by a mighty thunderstorm.   He hadn’t gone but a few times round the field when he saw an animal out of the corner of his eye.   He first thought it was a rabbit but then on closer inspection saw that it was a new fawn.   The mother had hidden the little guy in some tall grass and it was too young to walk around on his own.

He called me and I came to see what could be done.   I called the local vet school and talked to a wild life specialist.   She said it was too young for them to take so we agreed that I move him out of the 90 degree heat to the shade and hope the mother returns.   I carefully wrapped him in a towel so I wouldn’t touch him and moved him about 20 feet to the shade.  Only the size of a long legged Chihuahua, he was delicate and beautiful. I couldn’t believe I was picking up such a tiny baby.    We left the area in hopes mom would come back soon.   I did some internet research and was reassured that we did the best thing for his survival.

It is rare to see such a tiny one since the mom usually has them well hidden.   Hamilton went back a few hours later and was distressed to see him still there but on my way to check on him we were lucky enough to see the mom bounding around nearby.   We left the area with hopes that mom would find him and he would live to be a magnificent buck.

I sent Alexandra a picture of the little guy and this is her return text. “TOO MUCH TOO MUCH IT HURTS OMG OMG PLEASE BABY DEER DON’T DIE”.   When I told her the plan she sent this text “Okay good. Keep in mind; I am willing and able to raise him as my own.”    A kind offer but unfortunately illegal so we left him to his mother’s care and took the tractor out of the field so we could give him time to grow.

A week later Hamilton went to finish the field and saw the little guy up and around and able to run out of his hiding place and saw the mom in the creek bottom, a happy ending to the story.

In the language of animal totems, deer means gentleness and a new innocence being born in you.   I like to be reminded of gentleness, we all need to be gentle with ourselves and each other.   There is far too much harshness in this world.    The doe keeps her baby hidden and nurtured until he is strong enough to be in the world.   We too need to keep our deepest experiences, new insights and joys hidden and nurtured, away from the harshness of criticism and ignorance until they are strong.  Alexandra doesn’t want to talk about her Camino experience with her friends, she wants to keep it her private joy, safe and nurtured.    So try a little gentle love on your spiritual journey so your heart can have the space to be safe and grow into something magnificent.

 

Essential books for your spiritual library:

Animal –Speak and Animal-Wise by Ted Andrews

Animal Wisdom by Susie Green

 

Summer on the Farm

Isn’t it adorable!   photo by C. Bowen

My father-in-law loved land. He was only 30 when he bought an old farm which was, at that time, way out in the country and moved his young wife into the ramshackle, 100-year-old farmhouse that was free with the land. He kept his day job but enjoyed his time as a gentleman farmer tending his forest and hayfields. Now over 60 years later, I live on the farm in the farmhouse that was restored to its original glory in the 1960’s. Hamilton and I love living on the farm and now Caroline lives next-door to us in an apartment, so she can live in the country too. People ask me what we grow, what animals we farm? To which I reply, trees, hay and two indoor cats. But the farm busy with wildlife that requires no effort on my part.

Hamilton tends the land. We lease out the hayfields, but he mows the road on the edge of the forest and has made a path through the woods. He spends many peaceful hours finding his inner Jedi while mowing with Obi Wan Kabota, his big orange tractor. Then, of course, the chainsaw is pressed into service to clean up downed trees along the walking path. What is it about chainsaws that make men so happy? With the help of the new woodsplitter, we have plenty of firewood to keep us warm in the winter.

Planting trees on the farm

Caroline is the official game warden of the property. She heads out multiple times a day wearing a floppy hat, sunscreen, her well-worn Redwing boots and armed with a shotgun in case she encounters a beer can. It is a sight to behold but she is on a mission. Last year she noticed that there were a lot of dead box turtles. She sent specimens to Tennessee Wildlife Resources and found out the turtles had the first documented case of a rare amphibian virus in the state. She has cared for several sick turtles, but the scourge has decimated the population. Her favorite turkey family, Fernando, Mama Mia and Dancing Queen, have new babies. The rabbits have less exciting names: Side-yard rabbit, Back-yard rabbit, etc. The deer are always a delight, bounding around the edges of the property. Occasionally we see the babies including one fawn that was too tiny to walk—awwwww. Last week Caroline found some baby racoons hanging out in a tree. They all had a long conversation and she came away with remarkable videos of their chatter. The next day I encountered the mama. She quickly ran high up in the tree, then held perfectly still, imitating bark, until I continued on my walk.

The old farm feeds us body and soul. We love the history and the peace. Each of us has our own relationship with the land. Caroline is having her “Walden Pond” years. She goes out on the land to think and dream up new art projects. I like to “forest bathe”, the new nature craze, and revel in the green trees and spring flowers. Hamilton is always renewed by driving heavy equipment. Alexandra finds refuge from her hectic big-city life. She has a page from Gone With The Wind highlighted and framed which reflects her love for our little bit of earth:

“Do you mean to tell me, Katie Scarlett O’Hara that Tara, that land, doesn’t mean anything to you? Why, land is the only thing in the world worth workin’ for, worth fightin’ for, worth dyin’ for, because it’s the only thing that lasts.”

Chickadee

Photo by Christopher L. Wood

Every morning I look out my kitchen window into my herb garden where I have my bird feeders and watch my darling birds flit and land, throw seeds on the ground and have little spats. Nothing could make me happier for in my world my birds, specifically chickadees, are “A” list celebraties. Forget seeing humans parade on a red carpet, it is these adorable birds that turn me into a screaming adolescent girl– “OMG there is a chickadee.”

Just like the opossum, I have always had the chickadee as a totem animal. There are so many characteristics of animals that play out in our lives and its common to have more than one totem animal. But over the years chickadees and opossums have played a prominent role in the lore of my life. According to Animal-Speak by Ted Andrews, the bible of animal totem information, the black cap of the chickadees indicates the depths of the mysteries of the mind and the search for Truth. There are seven types of chickadees that indicate the alignment with the seven chakras, seven stages of alchemy and ancient mysteries. All of that wrapped up in this charming little bird that demonstrates that Truth doesn’t always have to be hard but sometime comes to bring joy and cheer to life. I’m all for that.

The other day I saw a little post on Facebook that brings new meaning to the chickadee totem. According to Audubon News, chickadees have the remarkable capacity to swap old brain cells for new ones allowing them to keep track of the hundreds of new places they store seeds. Sign me up chickadees! I want some of that. As I head deeper into the second half of life I’m taking on chickadee medicine as I am actively swapping old brain cells for new and building new neuron paths. Remember last year I went to the Joseph Campbell Library in California? Well on that fateful day I picked up a catalog of degrees offered a Pacifica Graduate Institute. One program caught my eye and wouldn’t leave me alone, Depth Psychology: Jungian and Archetypal Studies. I tried to resist with lots of good reasons including a previous vow never to go back to school. But it seemed to be the next step on my pilgrim’s path—the road deep into the infinite universe of the mind and the mysteries of life. I started classes last month and although a challenge, it is a good challenge and with the help of my chickadee pals I’m going to grow some new paths into the mysteries of the mind. Thanks for being my adorable companions on this magical journey.

This month marks my 5th blogaversary! When I tentatively pushed that ‘publish’ button that day I had no idea where my pilgrim’s path would take me but it sure wasn’t across a country or to graduate school. But there you have it. Tell the universe “I’ll go” and you never know where you will be headed next but it will be well worth the journey.

Chickadee World

Opossum

It was a perfect early October day here in east Tennessee and it was time for an annual customer appreciation picnic at the local wildlife/nature center. This is one of my favorite days of fall for not only is the atmosphere beautiful but I love the food and each year there is a theme, this year it was ‘America’. After I had my dinner I went in the main building to see this year’s exhibit of birds of prey. The featured star was a bald eagle named America. He had been injured as a young bird and so had a long and illustrious career teaching children about his species. It is amazing to be so close to this magnificent bird, so regal. There was also a beautiful small screech owl with an eye injury that keeps her from hunting. It was too bad these lovely birds were no longer in the wild but they do so much to teach about birds and conservation.

But what does that have to do with opossums? Well nothing really, I was just setting the scene. Now on to the opossum. When I arrived at the picnic the head naturalist Lyn Bales was holding an opossum named Olivia. I’ve certainly seen lots of opossums, alive through the window having a midnight snack on my back porch and also unfortunately dead on the road, a way too common sight. But this was the first time for me to see one up close and personal, I love opossums. They are odd little creatures with pointy noses, beady eyes and a long hairless tail—I’m not much on the tail. They are the only marsupials in North American and they can be seen carrying their babies on their backs. The babies are beyond adorable.

I went straight over to Olivia and was totally enchanted by her whiskers and soft round gray ears. I mentioned to Lyn that I had just read the day before he had written a new book, Ephemeral by Nature. I guess I looked harmless and he let me pet her! I got to pet an opossum. Well here is why I was so excited—the opossum has long been one of my totem animals (symbolic personality traits). Strange, I know, most people have cool animals like wolves, bears, hawks or owls. Not me, I have an opossum but I’ve learned to love the gifts that opossum gives me. The gift of the opossum is to play dead. (Actually the faint when scared and give off a scent of rotting carcass.) That doesn’t seem like much of a skill set but let me tell you it is mighty useful. When you play dead you don’t have to use any energy fighting off detractors or criticism. “Nothing to see here” and then you run off as soon as the danger passes and go about your business. It is a good way to stay out of trouble and arguments with nary a scratch. It has saved me lots of suffering.

I loved having the opossum on my side but after awhile I needed some new techniques that were a little more empowered so I took on a bit more strength with the black panther. But every once in awhile the opossum keeps me out of trouble or is just the most expedient choice. Olivia the opossum was just the medicine I needed that day to remind me that opossums are not just helpful but cute too.

Iona

Iona had been calling me for a long time. This tiny island, the last bit of land before the great Atlantic, is at the end of the earth. Ireland is 40 miles to the south but other than that the only thing west of Iona is the vast unknown. It is serious work to get there: fly to Edinburgh, take a train to Oban, then a ferry to Mull, cross Mull on a one-way road in a bus and then one more ferry ride to Iona, walk to the Abbey and you finally arrived. Why would anyone feel the need to go to such a remote place? Why would this tiny island call me?

The story goes that St. Columba got in a bit of an argument over the Psalms at his Irish monastery so he was banished to Iona and built a monastery there in 563 and thus credited for bringing Christianity to Scotland. The monastery thrived and the Book of Kells was written on the island. It became a major pilgrimage site and great honor to be buried on the island. The first major Celtic crosses stood in front of the Abbey and the remaining pieces are in the museum. But there is a power to this place that seems otherworldly. It is often said that “the veils are thin” on Iona and it is easier and quicker to reach heaven if buried on the island. Many years ago I read that it is an “Atlantis Priestess Portal”, I can’t remember where I read that but I never forgot that description. I can’t say for sure what the power is–history, geography, geology, myth– or what this island means to other pilgrims in the past but what I can say is that I had one truly perfect day on earth on Iona.

I didn’t go to Iona on my 2009 trip to Scotland, I knew that time wasn’t right. On this trip it was the final destination that all the holy sites on the way prepared me for. It was raining and foggy on the one-way road across Mull and the traffic was very heavy. I couldn’t see the landscape and felt like I was in a cocoon in the very slow moving bus. Every few hundred feet we had to pull over and wait for an oncoming vehicle. We finally arrived at the parking lot and I got my suitcase and walked through the rain down to the ferry and across the waves onto the ramp; no tourist cars are allowed on the island. I got to the hotel and settled in and then had a group tour of the Abbey. It is plain but it is hallowed ground. I visited the museum and took a walk. As I walked the path to the ocean I had the same overwhelming feeling of joy that I had on the Camino. Three black sheep grazing by the road added to my happiness.

That first evening after supper, most of the group went to the service in the Abbey. The Iona Community, which is dedicated to social justice, conducted a beautiful ecumenical service with singing and sharing of bread. Coffee and dessert in the hotel lounge with my dear friends ended my first partial day on Iona.

All day a song that I had in my iTunes had been going round my head, Cantique de Jean Racine by Faure. The words are in Latin so I looked up the translation, I felt there was a message. “O Christ look with favor upon your faithful people now gathered to praise you”. In my excitement to visit these holy sites and have experiences I forgot the true goal of pilgrimage—-devotion. I was on Iona not for my benefit but to give my devotion to the Divine. I was on this holy isle to sing praises and give thanks for life. I listened to the song over and over, soaking in the beautiful melody and important message.

I had been watching the weather all week hoping that we would have a sunny day on our full day on the island and my prayers were answered. I woke to bright morning sun and the sound of mooing. I walked out to find a herd of “hairy coos”–highland cattle in the nearby barnyard. The baby came running to greet me but was kept at bay by a long-horned mother with gruff voice. I promised her I wouldn’t touch, just admire. After breakfast the hikers in the group met at the ruins of the nunnery to walk across the island to St. Columba Bay. We had a few moment to enjoy this place of worship where stones stacked by man and meadows provided by Mother Nature come together to make the perfect chapel.

After obtaining a few snacks our little group started the walk. The sparkling sun, green meadows, charming animals and the chatter of dear friends made the world even brighter and more vivid. How about the ram with such curly horns that they looked like he had spectacles on. Or my personal favorite, white fluffy lambs frolicking on yellow-flower meadows—ahhhh, it was almost too much to bear. Every step was like walking in a dream. Down the final hill was a beautiful, turquoise bay. The beach is a thick pile of perfectly smooth rocks and down by the water are innumerable green marble stones polished by billions of waves for millions of years. I was surprised we could walk back to the hotel with the weight of all our treasured stones which are said to give protection.

I went over to walk the near by labyrinth and had a bit of an encounter with the head cow as we were walking in open pasture. Apparently I was on her path and she told me in no uncertain terms to get the hell out of her way. Big bossy cows not behind a fence are not to be trifled with and I quickly obeyed.

Then lunch and a bit of retail therapy—that didn’t take long for there are only a few shops. I decided I needed more time in the Abbey to wander alone. I sat in a stream of sunlight and listened to the theme song of my visit on my iPod and soaked in the glory. It isn’t a fancy Abbey but the history and devotion of 1500 years makes it a powerful place. I sat in front of the stone crosses in the museum and thought about all the pilgrims before me and those to come.

After supper I went to the Abbey for the evening service. I was the only one in the group to go but I felt called to be in the Abbey as much as possible. I was greeted by the shadow of the cross on the stone wall of St Columba’s tiny chapel and then made my way inside and found a seat in the Choir. The service was more traditional with just a handful of participants. That was fine with me because I love traditional liturgy. I know it was a time of devotion but the service was absolutely devised by the Divine for my perfect joyful day on Iona. First there was a cosmic joke—the young Englishman leading the service was wearing a bright green tee shirt that said “Dollywood Tennessee” I kid you not!! Dollywood is just up the road from my home and I have been there many times.

The first song, one I knew well, reminded me of my dad. He was a very spiritual man and would have loved my pilgrimage. A few Bible readings and then another song. This time the hymn tune was St. Columba. Wait, that is my favorite tune—I’ve played it on the piano hundreds of times—I didn’t know that was the name. I play that song like a chant. There I was singing new words to my most loved hymn, St. Columba was already a part of my life. A few more Bible verses and then the closing song. The veil between heaven and earth was nonexistent as I sang the final tune as a two-part round “All praise to thee my God this Night for all the blessing for the Light”. I knew all the words by heart. “Praise God from whom all Blessing flow, Praise him all Creatures here below”. A perfect reminder of the message of devotion from the day before. My voice echoed against the ancient stones and I held my hand to my heart in pure joy.

I joined my friends for our final coffee and dessert to share our experiences of the day as the sun set for the short night on this tiny island outpost in the north Atlantic. It was a magic day—not of big experiences but of subtle joys of our beautiful world, meaningful songs, sun and water, friends and history all bathed in the light of the Divine.

The Dove and the Stone by Alice O. Howell

Christ of the Celts, The Healing of Creation  J. Philip Newell

The Snow Leopard

photo by Bernard Landgraf

Last week Hamilton and I took my mom to see the movie Born in China. She loves nature shows on TV and it was a nice outing for all of us. So after dinner out we headed to the theater where we were the only three watching the movie. I’m so glad we saw it on the big screen because it was spectacularly beautiful with pandas, monkeys, cranes and my favorite, snow leopards. The narrator had charming and engaging story-lines about each animal mother and child. We watched rolly-polly baby pandas tumble down the mountain followed by young monkeys jumping around their forest home. In the introduction and ending are cranes flying across mountains, lakes and a giant setting sun. I really don’t think I’ve seen a more beautiful movie. But what I wanted to see the most were the snow leopards, the rare and elusive big cat that lives in the high and uninhabitable Himalayas.

I first learned about snow leopards many years ago when I read a book in book club called The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen. The book was written in the 1970’s about Peter’s expedition into the deep Himalayas. His companion was in search of rutting sheep but Peter was in search of himself and a rare glimpse of the snow leopard. He had lost his young wife to cancer the year before and used this journey to look deeply at his life and grieve. The two hiked for weeks through high and difficult terrain with a rag-tag group of porters to reach the sheep. During the long days of hard walking Peter reflected on his personal and spiritual life. He never did see a snow leopard for at that time less than a handful of people had ever glimpsed this elusive cat.

The first time I read this book I understood absolutely nothing. Yep, I couldn’t comprehend anything Peter was talking about. I was young and I had no context for his experience. But interestingly enough I never forgot the book for somehow I sensed that it was important and so is the snow leopard. Over the years photographers captured a few distant images of the snow leopard in the wild but now this movie gives us a look at their elusive life.

I was inspired to read The Snow Leopard again after seeing this exquisite mama and babies try to survive in such a harshly beautiful environment. Hamilton had his copy high on a shelf so I got a ladder and pulled down the small paperback. The pages were old, discolored and rough. I started to read it for the first time in 25 years. This time I understood every word. Time had given me context for this beautiful pilgrimage into a harsh land and a grieving heart. Peter is a Buddhist and now all the words and stories about the Buddha made sense and after having a long walking pilgrimage myself I now understood his journey and deep need for a quest into the unknown. I had finally grown into the book.

At the same time I was revisiting another book I read over 20 years ago, The Ecstatic Journey by Sophy Burnham about mystical experiences. This is another book I didn’t understand on the first read but yet never forgot. These two books came into my life when the words were as elusive to me as the snow leopard. My life experience had no context for the story. But time changed that, for I persevered and built the vocabulary and experience to revisit these spiritual classics and now every word is like a tonic and a blessing. Like the new and amazing images of the snow leopard these books now can be part of my heart for I can see them now, when before they were so hidden with my lack of experience.

What books and movies do you need to revisit? What is waiting to for you to read with new eyes now that you have grown and learned? When time and experience combines with learning and wisdom we build new path ways to new mountain tops and are able to finally glimpse the snow leopard.

Persy on her snow leopard blanket.  It makes her feel exotic and mysterious.

Pachamama

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The morning started early, around 5:30, when Nico brought us steaming mugs of coca tea. This not only warmed us up but woke us up, too. Coca tea tastes a lot like an herbal tea but definitely gets you going and helps with the altitude. Contacts in, yesterday’s clothes back on and a shuffle out of the tent and into my shoes and I was good to go, We all brought minimal stuff for the trail, a change of clothes, rain jacket, coat, hat and gloves, sleeping bag and walking poles—that was about it. What we didn’t carry went on the horse and that was limited to 12 pounds, everything else was stored at the Cusco hotel.

We also met the family that lives in the home, mother, father Pablito, two sons and two daughters and two grandchildren. The youngest is just two months old—Daisy Karen—and we doted over that precious baby all wrapped up and ready to go on her mother’s back. We spoke the universal language of baby admiration—aaahhhhhhh!!!! The little boy–Kevin– was not left out. He got treats and Alexandra picked him up and played with him. He informed her in quechua, “You are not my mother”. The ladies spread out Peruvian goods for us to purchase. We were happy to buy socks, hats and beautiful hand woven bags to carry coca leaves. We so appreciated their hospitality and enjoyed the intimate look at their lives so different from ours. Yet, at our core, humans have the same needs, food, shelter and love.

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Nico cooked us a wonderful breakfast: first, quinoa porridge, then pancakes with strawberries, coffee and hot chocolate. All of our meals where cooked on his two burner stove on the ground connected to a propane tank. A few battered pots and pans, a knife and a cutting board on Nico’s lap completed the kitchen. It was amazing what he could cook for us, it was as delicious and complicated as any fine restaurant. So, everyone, no more excuses about lack of counter space or small stove.

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The horses were saddled with our tents and supplies. We said goodbye and started walking, first up a steep hill then on to flatter ground. The barren land is beautiful and wild with high snow-capped mountains coming down to a gray-green valley. Well above the tree line we wouldn’t see a tree again until after lunch. There are no roads or power lines. The only signs of the inhabitants were low stone walls and an occasional thatched hut organically woven into the landscape. As we walked along children would appear beside the trail. I delighted in stopping and giving them treats. They were so gentle and beautiful. As quickly as they would appear they then would disappear back into the land to tend the sheep and alpacas.

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The trail started to get steeper and Melissa handed out coca leaves from her new bag. Normally my drug of choice is half-caf coffee with cream. Sometimes, I go wild and have a Starbucks tall latte but 14,000 feet called for something a bit stronger. Just a few coca leaves in the side of my mouth were just what I needed for the altitude. It is everything you would imagine about having leaves and twigs in your cheek; bitter, earthy and not very comfortable. But it does work, I never had a headache and I was expecting a raging headache. Coca leaves also help with thirst, hunger and nausea which is a good thing because breathing pretty much took up all the emotional and mental space.

It rained some and then there was small hail. Melanie was struggling so one of the horses came back to get her up the mountain. The rest of us pushed on from one steep slope to the next. Eventually Lisa and I started to play the “rock game”. Choose a rock 15 feet ahead, slowly walk to it, stop and try to catch your breath. When you can almost breath again, choose another one, walk to it, stop and try to catch your breath. Three long steep slopes and we made it to the top, 15,000 feet! We were defiantly on top of the world and it was stunningly beautiful. Everywhere I looked was magnificent. Down below on the other side of the pass was a pristine mountain lake.

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After a very short stop to breath, take in the view, eat some cookies and enjoy our victory we headed down the mountain. It was very cold at the top and we still had a long ways to go. Breathing is defiantly easier going down but the new challenge was making sure I didn’t twist an ankle on the large shifting stones. I walked carefully, stopping often to look at the lake and just wonder at the rugged beauty: I couldn’t believe I was there. Past the lake was another stunning mountain lake and this beautiful fence in the shape of a heart.

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I was defiantly in the heart and arms of the Pachamama, the earth mother. This day was not about something humans had built like the Taj Mahal or Chartres Cathedral. This was about walking with the Pachamama and the glories of our beautiful world. This was the special pilgrim moment I had come for, just this pristine, rugged beauty and the openness of my own heart. I had challenged myself to my physical limit which breaks down the barrier between the heart, mind and body. I had no choice but to become one with the Pachamama, the giver of life. I was on the road less traveled in the world and in my heart.

The kitchen tent was already set up by a wide swiftly running stream. There Nico was working his magic and lunch would be served shortly. Richard and Pablito were following Nico’s orders running back and forth to the stream for water and washing the pots. Most of us trekkers laid down on the tarp for a much needed rest except for me. If I got down I wasn’t sure I was getting back up so I sat on a camp stool by the water. Of course there was a lady selling treasures and so Alexandra bought some clean gloves and socks. The lady’s little girl was tending a lamb and quickly caught it so Alexandra could have an extended lamb fix. The lamb didn’t have a knit hat but Alexandra didn’t seem to care. She held that lamb until it totally objected. Alexandra is already planning her quarter-life crisis where she runs off to New Zealand and tends sheep for a year.

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After a lunch of soup, chicken and vegetables it was more down-hill walking to get to the campsite for the night. I continued to be slow so Richard held back with me to make sure I didn’t get lost. We were finally down to the tree-line in a very narrow valley with a roaring stream. I trudged along on the slippery rocks. My legs were already wobbly from the climb so I had to be careful. I eventually got a blister on the side of my foot from the uneven rocks.

It was just getting dark when we arrived at camp. The tents were set up on a soccer field and the horses where munching on the grass nearby. The big excitement was a flush-toilet outhouse with tarp walls. Dinner was served in a rustic lodge next to the soccer field. There were tables and chairs and some drinks for sale thanks to the owners living next door. We bought three big bottles of water because we were very dehydrated and the stove was being used for cooking with no time to boil water.

Nico cooked us a special farewell dinner for our last night. Each dish that was served had some fancy garnish made from vegetables, including little hard boiled egg mice and tomato flowers. The final dish was a roast guinea pig splayed out with his feet dangling off the platter, complete with pepper in his mouth. I was hoping he wasn’t part of the choir from the night before, it was best if I didn’t know. Anne was brave and had several pieces and said it tasted a bit like duck. Melissa and Lisa tasted a bit too. The rest of us tried not to watch and focused on the pasta instead. Strange meat and snakes are somewhere long past my boundaries for adventure. I plan on tackling those challenges in another lifetime.

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Time to crawl into our sleeping bags. 15 miles, 15,000 feet altitude and roast guinea pig—it had been a long but completely fulfilling day. Every moment was challenging and thrilling all at the same time. Our bodies were exhausted but our hearts and minds were filled with the love of the Pachamama.