Olympic National Park

Olympic Mountains, Washington

Last year Hamilton and I went hiking in Yosemite and loved it so much that we wanted to explore another national park on foot. We also wanted to stay in the US to let some of the pandemic travel hassles ease a bit more. Both of us have traveled extensively in the US. I have been in all 50 states—most of them more than once.  Hamilton has been to every state except Oregon but neither of us had been to Olympic National Park in Washington State.  It was an easy choice as we have some delightful second cousins just outside of Seattle. Family and nature are the perfect combination for our travels.

We happily left a heatwave in Tennessee for the much cooler Pacific Northwest. The last bits of cool, cloudy weather were receding and the first days of bright blue summer sky were on the horizon.  Our flights through Houston went well and we quickly got a rental car and headed south in a slight drizzle.  We were met by our dear cousin LaVona and her perfectly tidy house and garden.  She had done a lot of cooking for our stay and we were made to feel so welcome and loved.  Hamilton and LaVona’s grandmothers were sisters from a lively group of 8 siblings all with “L” names.  We had great times remembering Lizzie, Leona, Lula, Lillie and Laura, the five sisters who were all raised in south Mississippi at the turn of the last century. 

The first full day in Washington we visited Mount Rainier National Park, just an hour away. It was overcast and the enormous mountain was invisible behind dense clouds. I wasn’t convinced there really was a mountain (elev. 14,411 ft)  but the surrounding land was picture perfect as we drove through dense evergreen forests, past gorgeous waterfalls, over glacier-made valleys and finally to the main visitor center which still had a 10 foot snowpack.  We watched a short movie about the mountain, so large that the circumnavigating trail is 93 miles.  We had a picnic in the light drizzle and were entertained by the Gray Jays who show no fear when food is around.  Don’t tell the rangers but I fed one of them grapes out of my hand; his little feet were so soft and gentle on my finger.  The Stellar Jays kept their distance but are they ever a beautiful blue.  The rest of the weekend we visited with more cousins and Hamilton and I had our first attempt at Pickleball. I can see why it is so popular.

Mt Rainier National Park

Monday morning, we headed toward Olympic National Park, my third national park in five days—I just finish climbing Mt. LeConte in the Great Smoky Mountain the week before. Cousins LaVona, Keren and Kate joined us for our week’s adventure as they had never been to Olympic either.  On our way to our Airbnb in Forks, WA, we stopped by our first rainforest path and rocky beach, both so beautiful that we were glad to have three more days on the western side of the park.  The Airbnb was clean but otherwise basic with a strange Hogwarts theme. Hamilton and I had the Slytherin room. Forks, Washington, is the setting for the Twilight books and movies because it is the cloudiest/rainiest town in American—prefect for vampires.  I watched my first-ever Twilight movie so that I could get in the spirit of the town. Magic, Vampires and a local Sasquatch legend—something for everyone.

Rialto Beach

The next three days we spent time on the magnificent rocky beaches. Rialto beach was just a half hour away and had beautiful rock islands close to the shore. We walked about 1.5 miles to a big arch in the rocky coast and explored the tidepools filled with anemones and starfish. On the forest edge of the beach were whole spruce-tree driftwood that were like giant whalebones, gleaming white and smooth, perfect for sitting and just staring at the surf on the rocks. Or stacking the surf-smoothed stones. Or breathing the cleansing salt air. It was an overcast day so the whole world was a gray-scale wonder: green-black trees, deep-gray stone, light-gray water and sky, white caped waves and bone-white driftwood trees. Another day we walked the .8 mile path through the forest to Second Beach where we had a whole mile of sand and surf in front of us without another soul in sight, my kind of beach.

Second Beach
giant driftwood on First Beach

One of the crown jewels of Olympic is the Hoh Rainforest.  We set out early to beat the crowds in the parking lot and were rewarded with a perfectly cloudless morning and a visit with one of the resident Roosevelt elk enjoying her breakfast of weeds in the stream.  The sun shone through the tendrils of moss hanging from every tree. There were patches of sun highlighting the ferns on the forest floor. It was so hard to know where to look next, so we slowly wandered around the trails, taking pictures that will never come close to showing the beauty of this full sensory place.  The sacredness of the forest was palpable, and we kept our voices to a whisper in reverence for this holy ground.  It was so primordial that a T Rex or Brachiosaurs could come wandering by at any moment or a fairy could be flying around, flitting between trees and ferns.  We stopped by the Hoh river for our picnic lunch on one of the rocky bars in the middle of the river.  It was hard to leave the forest but the crowds were growing and we wanted more beach time.

Roosevelt Elk
Hoh Rainforest in the sunshine

Our evenings in Forks were so pleasant.  LaVona had made several delicious casseroles, one for each evening. A salad and cake made each meal a feast. Then we would settle in for some binge watching.  Hamilton and cousin Keren watched all of ‘1883’ and I watched/slept through a couple of the Twilight movies. The five of us were happy and compatible, everyone looking out for the other’s needs and wishes.

Our final day together we headed east to Hurricane Ridge visitors center to get a full view of the Olympic range.  At 5000 feet, there was still big patches of snow and we definitely needed our warm jackets. We climbed the steep short path that gave a 360 degree view with the snowcapped Olympic mountains on one side and the Puget Sound on the other.  It was a clear, bright day and we could see Vancouver Island, Canada, and Mount Baker in the distance.  After lunch we said our goodbyes to our dear relatives as they needed to head home.  I had booked our last night at Crescent Lake where we enjoyed a picnic supper in our room with the view of the sapphire lake for entertainment.  The next morning, we took a short walk to Marymere Falls and then a hike on Spruce Railroad Trail, a former railroad bed complete with tunnels.  The bike/hiking trail meandered along the lake’s edge and we enjoyed the changing views of the mountains. We hiked to the end and back for a total of 8 miles.  It was the perfect ending to our time in Olympic and we couldn’t have been happier with our six days in this wondrous park.

Crescent Lake

On our way back to the Seattle airport we finally saw the elusive Mount Rainier and it is massive.  It made for a fitting farewell for our delightful time on the Olympic peninsula.  Olympic has rainforest, mountains, lakes, beaches, waterfalls. The only thing it lacked was a desert to be about every type of climate. We were blessed with great weather, good company and our amazing sacred earth.

Mt Rainier on the drive back to Seattle

The Hermitage

The Hermitage, Nashville, Tennessee

In between two longer trips in June, I had two mini-trips in my home state of Tennessee. I once again climbed Mt. LeConte in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and stayed in the off-grid lodge at the top with my Wednesday hiking group.  Last year was a very cold hike with beautiful hoar frost on the trees and this year was a very warm hike with the rhododendron and mountain laurel in bloom. I always enjoy a hiking challenge and this year I was rewarded with probably my all-time favorite mountain moment—sunrise over the gorgeous layers of mountains.  It was worth the journey to see the sunrise in one direction and the beautiful moon, Venus and Jupiter on the opposite side of the sky.  Fifteen minutes after sunrise, the fog rolled in and my view was instantly white but the moment of sunrise is with me forever.

Earlier in the month, I went west to my hometown of Nashville to see my dear friend Melynie who was finally able to get back to the US from her home in Taiwan. It had been several years since I was last in Nashville and I have some favorite places I always want to visit.  Top of my list is the beautiful Athena in the Parthenon in Centennial Park and then the gorgeous Bi-Centennial Park just a couple of miles away.  Both hold such a special place in my heart and no trip to Nashville is complete without a visit.  We finished off the afternoon with a long trip to the used bookstore as we are both voracious readers and then a delicious dinner at Adele’s.

Athena, Centennial Park
Bi-Centenniel Park, Nashville

There was one place in Nashville I particularly wanted to revisit, The Hermitage, the home of the 7th US president, Andrew Jackson, and the third most visited presidential home in the United States. The Hermitage holds a special place in my memory and heart.  I visited it often as a child for we only lived about 20 minutes away. I have very vivid memories of the grand Greek Revival façade and the beautiful rooms with antique wallpaper.  The beds seemed so small but with elaborate curtains flowing from the canopies. The mansion was never sold outside the family, so it still has all the original furnishings and is well preserved.  I loved wandering the gardens and seeing the carriage house with the old carriage and artifacts from so long ago.  It certainly made an impression on me as a young girl.

It was a beautiful June morning and the breeze was gentle—perfect for my return after more than 20 years.  Now there is a big new visitor center/museum a ways from the old home and we spent some time learning about Andrew Jackson while we waited for our entry time into the mansion. Andrew Jackson, the president on the $20 bill, has become a more controversial figure in the last few decades as history is revisited but the museum focuses on his illustrious war career and the power he had as president.  I’m sure this was all important, but I was only interested in one thing, the house.  I wanted to see that beautiful home again.

With much anticipation I walked down the path to the front of the home. It was almost as I remember with the tall Corinthian columns and beautiful old brick.  It was no longer bright white but a soft beige which apparently was the original color.  We wandered the mature English style garden but mostly I was happy to sit and look at the beautiful front porch and stately columns.  It was finally our turn to go into the entrance hall—I love that entrance hall with spectacular hand painted scenic wallpaper of the Odyssey, a Greek myth, perfect for a Greek Revival home.  The tour guide gave many details in a very sing-song style and then we wandered down the hall to hear more stories and see the main bedrooms.  The tour continued upstairs and then down.  Each room was just as I remembered.  

Looking back on my fascination with The Hermitage, I can see my early love of homes and architecture. That beautiful old mansion was the beginning of my deep love of historic homes and places.  For me, houses are people too and I love to feel their presence and sense the essence of their long lives. There is a soul to a well-loved old home that I really connect to and cherish.  I have had several more special meetings with great houses and feel they have much to say.  What I didn’t know then was I would eventually move to an old Greek Revival home and build a special relationship with my own bit of history. 

What from your past turned out to be more influential than you realized?  Have you ever had the chance to visit that person or place again?   I found my morning with The Hermitage to be so sweet and joyful.  I was meeting a beautiful old mentor again, and that home’s influence started me down a wonderful path.

Gemini

Gemini constellation stars furnished by NASA

Gemini is many things.  First it is a constellation in the northern celestial hemisphere and one of original constellations described by Ptolemy in the 2nd century. The word Gemini means twins in Latin and is associated with the Greek mythological twins Castor and Pollux.  Secondly, Gemini is the astrological sign of late spring from May 21-June 20, just before the summer solstice.  I have many wonderful friends and relatives born under the sign of Gemini and they are fun, joyful and the life of the party.  They bring so much life to my more staid Taurus personality. Gemini was also a NASA mission from 1964-1966 that explored the ability of humans to handle spacecraft that laid the groundwork for the first moon landing in 1969. Now there is one more personal meaning of Gemini and that is where I will begin my story.

Alexandra was in Houston at NASA filming an upcoming documentary about astronauts.  She is the producer and has all the intense responsibilities that come with that job.  One evening the crew was having dinner at an outdoor patio when a little black kitten jumped in her lap and spent the entire dinner snuggled up to her. Young and underfed, this kitten was a little lost stray with an amazing personality.  Alexandra is a cat person like her mother and sister. Cats are essential to our daily happiness and equilibrium and she was desperately missing her own kitty. She took mercy on this little one and took it to an emergency vet to be checked out—she could not bear that it wasn’t eating and so underweight. 

Well…things didn’t go well at the emergency vet and Alexandra felt this precious one’s life was on the line and it was her fault and so she did what all mama’s girls do —-called her mommy sobbing.  My baby had all the responsibility she could take and needed her mama to take a burden from her overburdened life.  I knew she needed me right then, so I did something I have NEVER done in my life.  I booked a plane ticket to Houston, packed a change of clothes and boarded the flight less than two hours later.  Fortunately, Houston is one of the few direct flights from my airport, so I was there quickly and picked up a rental car and was with her just a few short hours after her call.  Thank goodness for smart phone and airplanes—I will never take them for granted.

She came to the car with the precious 5 month old kitten who just happily curled up in my lap as I started to call veterinarians to get a health certificate to fly her home with me the next day.  It was Sunday and I knew it wasn’t going to be an easy task.  But after several tries, I found Urban Animal Veterinary Hospital who could fit me in and issue a certificate and give a rabies shot so I could take the kitten on the plane the next day.  The staff was so kind to me and quickly got me on my way to Petco to pick up an under-seat carrier for the plane and supplies to get us through the night.  I then headed south to the NASA area to a pet friendly hotel where Alexandra joined me for the night. I couldn’t believe what a day it had been.  One minute I was quietly drinking my coffee and reading.  The next minute I was on a mission to rescue my daughter and this very special kitten.

The entire afternoon my girls and I had a texting chain to name our newest family member.  I knew it needed to be something celestial. So after several different suggestions we decided on Gemini because of its multiple meanings and I liked the nickname Gemmi.  And she is a gem.

The next morning, I put little Gemini in the new carrier and heading north to the far side of Houston to the airport. It’s a long way up the side of this enormous city.  I passed the oil refineries with the steam making billowing columns against the pink morning sunrise.  I could see downtown in the distance as I made my way up and around the toll road. It all seemed surreal as I thought back on the events of the last 24 hours.  All went smoothly in the airport and Gemmi easily handled security and except for a few meows was perfectly content to be heading to her new forever home.  Flying with a rescue kitten defiantly gave me full lifetime membership in the Crazy Cat Lady Society and now I have the baggage tag to prove it.  

Caroline picked me up at the airport and Gemmi had a heroine’s welcome with a fancy ride in friend Anthony’s Tesla.  We got her set up in the guest room until we could make sure she was disease and parasite free before we introduced her to my unsuspecting elderly cats Persy and Tim.  Gemmi continues to be a spunky but very snuggly kitten. She has no fear but is happiest curled up in my arms while I read or watch TV. She is a cat lover’s dream kitten.  I haven’t had a kitten in 12 years and I feel like a little girl again with my new kitten to carry around and play with. 

Well, that was an adventure for the record books.  Never in my life have I done anything like that.  But you know it was fun, a big adventure and I never doubted that I needed to go.  The Call came and I knew what I was to do. I got to find out if I was up for the mission.  My daughter had the comfort of knowing her mother was there for her no matter how old she is.  And little Gemmi is now a precious member of the family with a big story.

Sandhill Cranes

Photo by D. Cone

I’ve always loved birds. I love everything about them. I like all sizes of birds — the tiny hummingbirds at the red feeder and feisty little chickadees flitting around.  I love the cardinal couple that is almost too big for the feeder.  I have a special place in my heart for the mourning doves that patiently wait for the chickadees and nuthatches to throw seeds out of the feeder so they have a bit to eat and then make squeaking noises when they fly. I love the Canadian geese in September when they fly in formation honking guidance to each other in the fog.  There are now Osprey and Bald Eagles in my neighborhood, and they are always breath-takingly majestic.  And the wild turkeys and the clever crows in the yard—I could go on and on.  Last but not least, are my precious pet peacocks that give a special rhythm to my day as I feed them morning and evening.  I just wish they would let me cuddle them; I’m sure they would love it.

In January, my Wednesday hiking group was working on a list of hiking adventures we could take when one of my friends suggested going to see the Sandhill cranes. Wait, what? How have I miss the Sandhill cranes? A 90-minute drive from my home is the one of the largest wintering grounds for the Sandhill cranes in the eastern US.  The Hiawassee Wildlife Refuge hosts around 14,000 wintering Sandhill cranes as well as Bald Eagles, Whooping Cranes and who ever happens to be flying south and needing a rest.  This adventure went to the top of the list as January is peak wintering season and they start migrating after that.

On a very cold but bright blue day my friends and I migrated south to the refuge. We easily found the viewing platform down a short gravel road.  It only took a few seconds to find the cranes—there are thousands of them everywhere: in the fields, by the water, in the air.  Sandhill cranes are around 4 feet tall and have a wingspan of 6 ft.  They are a magnificent sight with their long legs and necks, ruffly gray feathers tinged with gold and bright red faces. But what I love most is their beautiful voices, honking and trilling as they fly.  Every few minutes, a small grouping would fly across the cloudless winter sky, calling and soaring. Then a wildlife management truck drove by them and a mass of cranes took flight, filling the air with wings and song.

Photo by D. Cone

I could have stayed all day just enjoying this remarkable experience, but it was bitter cold and we all needed to warm up. We got some great pictures and videos to remember the morning. I know I will be back—it was just too much fun. Mother Nature in all her feathered glory and I can’t get enough of it.

The happy hiking group then migrated to the little town of Dayton, Tennessee, and visited the famed courthouse and toured the museum and courtroom where the Scopes Monkey Trial became the first “media circus” trial.  (Here’s a link to a previous blog post about Dayton and the trial).  Then on to a delicious lunch in a historic former boarding school. We never did hike that day but enjoyed being on an adventure. The drive home went quickly as we all chattered happily about future hiking plans. We are looking forward to the spring when we start hiking again in the Great Smoky Mountains. But in the meantime, we are happy with shorter hikes and lunches out close to home, enjoying the beauty of our own delightful part of the planet.

Rhea Co. Courthouse, Scopes Monkey Trail Courtroom

Gifts for the Journey

As we enter the season of giving, I want to share with you some of the gifts to take with you through the darkest time of the year and on into the growing light of next year.  These are the gifts for the pilgrimage, out in the world or at home.  These are intangible gifts that don’t come wrapped neatly in a bow but gifts that grow the heart and remind us of our essential nature.

Ceremony:    This is the conscious interaction of giving and receiving.   When you are at a sacred site you honor the spirit and energy of the place with a ceremony.   The ceremony is totally of you, in the way you choose.   I prefer to do a ceremony that doesn’t draw attention to myself or the act.  This is a very personal moment and can be shared with others or just for your personal connection and thanksgiving.    The elements are a prayer or words of connection and thanks, a desire to receive the gifts and energy of the site and a gift back to the site.   These gifts can be a prayer, song, holy water, traditional offering of tobacco or sage, flowers or anointing oils.   The gifts should be appropriate to the site and not interfere with the energy or physical space of the site.  

Prayer:   Formal, informal, walking or just breathing, pilgrimages are a living prayer.   These are the words that form the devotion and connection to the Divine.   All religions have prayers, and the repeating of those prayers bring power to the space and comfort to the pilgrim.   I went to the cathedral in Santiago early in the morning and sat in a small chapel with a few pilgrims that were saying the Rosary.   That beautiful prayer of longing that has been repeated billions of times was perfect for the time and place that morning.   Choose a prayer that you are comfortable with and that is appropriate for the place or find the spontaneous prayer that comes from your heart.    Thank-you is prayer enough.

Maps:  For millennia, map makers have been trying to make sense of our world by making symbols on a piece of paper.   The coastlines, forest, mountains, deserts and rivers become accessible in our minds with maps.   Without a map, we don’t have directions to find our goal.   The modern GPS may give us the next turn but there is nothing like a large paper map to see our world.   A pilgrimage needs a map to see the overall experience, to learn the terrain, see the obstacles, find the right road or path.   Our heart also has a map and as you step out into the world the map of your heart is drawing new territory.   You have the abundant rivers of the good times, the forest of the unknown, the cities of community, the oceans of knowledge, deserts of sorrow and mountains of attainment.   On a pilgrimage you will remember your personal map of your past and make new routes for your future.  

More gifts:

Joy, Silence, Music

Books, Fire, People

Time

Yosemite

The first time I visited Yosemite it was like walking in a dream. I couldn’t seem to wake myself and hold onto the immense, overwhelming reality of nature.  I could see the granite walls of El Capitan and Half Dome, I could hear the waterfalls and watch the mist fall to the rocks below. But somehow it was just too much for me to process in a short visit and I knew I wanted to go back someday to really experience this mighty land. Yosemite was at the top of my travel wish list.

Then, the perfect opportunity appeared. I had airline vouchers left from a canceled trip and had plans to visit friends in central California—Yosemite seemed the perfect socially distanced vacation.  I was able to book early enough to get a hotel in the park, allowing us a coveted entry permit.  This time, I wanted to experience Yosemite the way I love to see the world, on foot, following my heart deep into the beauty of nature.

The first day we stopped at a grocery store to pick up breakfast and lunch supplies and then drove the rest of the morning, arriving at the park entrance at lunch time.  It isn’t easy to get to Yosemite. There are long curving roads with few guardrails to protect from the precipitous drops as we climbed higher into the great Sierra Nevada mountains. We spent the afternoon enjoying the famous and spectacular Yosemite Valley.  High granite walls make a narrow valley floor with large ponderosa pines and a gentle, meandering river.  We stopped and put our feet in the river, smelled the warm pines, said hello to a deer who was complete unimpressed with our presence.  I love the dry warm air with a gentle breeze and the amazing smell and feel of the vast western United States, so different from the humid south. By late summer, the waterfalls that make the valley impossibly beautiful have dried up but we were able to walk the short path to lower Yosemite Falls which still had a bit of water.   Hamilton spent time rock climbing in the valley in his 20’s and enjoyed reliving the memory of his adventurous youth.  

That first evening we drove about thirty miles down to our hotel at the far southern end of this park which is about the size of Rhode Island. I booked us into the newly renovated Victorian hotel, The Wawona, built around 1903.  It is charming with claw-footed tubs and wide porches; but, alas no air conditioning so we made do on the hot summer nights with a fan.  The dinning room offers three buffet meals a day and I was happy with the quick and easy dinner and then back to our room to read ourselves to sleep—no tv or internet but some cell service.

We had the next three days to hike so I strategically chose trails to give us the best experience of the park. I knew our hiking limit was around 8 miles a day at 7000 feet altitude and I don’t really love trails that are extremely steep. With the help of a good guide book, I chose our first trail close to our hotel—the trail to the Giant Sequoias. The largest trees on earth, they only grow in a small area of the western slopes of the Sierra Nevadas. They grow up to 300 feet tall, 29 feet in diameter and live to 3000 years.  Because of pandemic restrictions and a storm that badly damaged the trees near the parking lot, the only way to reach the Sequoias is a two mile walk to the beginning of the trail and then another mile to Grizzly Giant and California Tunnel Tree.  Further up the trail, we met Cothespin Tree and The Faithful Couple—two trees growing together.  Ultimately, we made it to the Mariposa Grove of about 80 Giant Sequoias, all identified but not named.  Our final destination was to a summit overlooking a green valley and a fire watch station for the surrounding area.  We had lunch of peanut butter and honey sandwiches, cheese, apples, cashews and chocolate.  The trip back down gave us another perspective of these amazing beings, sentient and strong, wise and resilient.  We hiked nearly 10 miles and were ready for a cold drink and a hot shower.  Hiking brings the most delicious exhaustion with brilliant memories of beauty and a satisfaction of a trail well walked.

For our second hike, we chose to drive to Glacier Point, an overlook of the Yosemite Valley and a closer view of the iconic Half Dome. We arrived early so we could miss the crowds and see the valley in the morning light, tinged with a bit of smoky haze from the wildfires farther north.  We parked at the McGurk Meadow trailhead that went to the Dewey Point trail.  The first half of the trail was through a boggy meadow.  I didn’t expect to see such beautiful wildflowers that time of year, but the purple and yellow flowers were busy with golden butterflies and fat yellow bumblebees.  Farther down the trail we climbed higher through large groves of pines, weaving through the freshly cut stumps of downed trees recently cleared by the park service.  After a final steep hill, we came to a magnificent overlook directly across from El Capitan and looking down the valley to Half Dome.  Yet another perfect luncheon spot with the same menu as the day before—peanut butter is always delicious after a four-mile climb.  I was delighted to see the flower meadows again on the way back to the trail head and happily climbed into the air conditioned car after 8 miles of hiking.  We stopped again at the market near the hotel and got gas and cold drinks. The only beer available just happened to be Hamilton’s favorite oatmeal stout.  We flopped onto the porch chairs and pulled off our boots and enjoyed our drinks with some snacks before a bath and an early dinner.  The evening was warm and the room was hot so we mostly fell asleep early and enjoyed the extra rest.

On the third day, we debated how far we would be able to hike but as we drove along and had some coffee, we made our next plan for the Tuolumne Meadows area north of the valley and in the more alpine country of the John Muir Trail.  The Elizabeth Lake trail seemed to be the right length and incline for our sore legs and time constraints, and it turned out to be perfect.  The first part of the trail was fairly steep and, at 8000 feet, I had to stop often and catch my breath and drink some water but eventually the trail leveled off and I found myself in “Alpine Hobbitland” all presided over by Unicorn Peak (10,823 ft). I’m sure if I looked closely there were fairies and water sprites–it was that picture-perfect.  We chose a log by the shining Elizabeth Lake and had the same hikers’ lunch that always seems to satisfy. Around the edge of the lake were a few other hikers with fishing poles and families enjoying the clear, cold water.  This trail was only five miles but the incline and the altitude were plenty for the third and final hike of our Yosemite adventure. 

That afternoon we drove back to Sacramento to an airport hotel for our flight the next morning. We were so hungry and dirty, the best we could find was a dinner of In and Out burgers and fries and a shared chocolate shake to end the long but glorious trip.  I enjoyed the air-conditioned room and made sure I was good and cold all night long.  The flights back were slightly delayed but otherwise uneventful and we got home safe and sound. Caroline did a great job taking care of the farm while we were away. 

I was so happy to have such a complete experience of Yosemite and feel like I really got a long and deep encounter of this iconic land. By walking into the land, I saw, smelled, felt and heard the world around me and was able to absorb nature deep into my bones. To a certain extent, Yosemite will always be a dream but now it is a dream I can hold on to and re-experience anytime my mind wants to wander down a deep forest trail or overlook a granite valley.  Dream and memory are now woven tightly together. 

Hamilton and I enjoyed our adventure so much that we are now planning to visit other parks for some extended day hikes and adventures—I’m looking at you, Olympic and Glacier.  Thank goodness the Great Smoky Mountains are in my back yard to keep me happily hiking through out the year.

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.

 

 

 

 

Mexico City

The Sun Stone

My blog posts got a bit derail by the pandemic but I wanted to tell you about our adventures in Mexico City last November, a chance for some vicarious travel.

After our time in Teotihuacan, we took two cars back to Mexico City, about an hour away.  Bowens are very tall people and we couldn’t fit into just one regular car.  Within an hour, we arrived at our beautiful Airbnb in Roma Norte. Alexandra’s earlier trip to Mexico City helped us locate the part of the city that we really wanted to explore.  After an ATM stop, groceries and a bit of gawking at the beautiful architecture, we took a rest, got some dinner and settled in for some Netflix. I suggested the girls watch Frida since we were going to Frida Kahlo’s home the next day.

I have known Frida Kahlo’s enigmatic self-portraits for many years but last summer several of her paintings were on exhibit in Nashville along with paintings of her husband Diego Rivera.  There is great energy in these glimpses into Frida’s fractured soul. Her pain and intensity shine through each painting like nothing else in that gallery or museum. I learned more about her life and was pleased to glimpse into her creative world. I made reservations a month in advanced and was able to skip the long line of people waiting for their turn in the small house/museum. Fortunately, her home is preserved as she left it and this shrine to a remarkable soul remains available to inspire me.  I have not known the physical pain that Frida endured but through her home and work I could touch the creative spirit that came through despite her difficult life. Frida was totally and completely herself in art and in life.  The beautiful, lush courtyard was painted a brilliant blue, an oasis in a bustling city. Everywhere you can still experience her creativity and personal style be it nature, art, clothes, furniture and books.  We wandered for an hour or so, soaking in the sunlight, imagining Frida’s life, both beautiful and painful.

Next on the agenda was the SUN STONE.  I had no idea it was in Mexico City in the Museo Nacional de Antropologia.  The Aztec sun stone was discovered in 1790. It has many interpretations including the one I was familiar with, the 2012 Mayan calendar predictions.  In the early 2000’s the sun stone was the center of the December 21, 2012 end of the Mayan Long Count calendar.  There was much speculation about the meaning.  Would the world end? Would we enter a new spiritual era?  I read a lot of books on the possible meaning of the 2012 date. I don’t participate in apocalyptic theories but I did find it all interesting and I liked the history of the Mayan people.  The sun stone was a major focus for many years.

The museum is big and beautiful with different rooms for each epoch surrounding a central courtyard with a big fountain.  Each room leads to a beautiful garden.  I could have stayed all day but I wanted to see the sun stone.  It is prominently displayed as the central artifact in the largest room.  I had no idea it was so enormous and breath-taking.  I savored all the artifacts and slowly wound my way to the stone I read about for so many years. But as much as I loved the sun stone the museum had another surprise for me. My friend Karen-who lived in Mexico City-told me that everyone she took to that museum had a mystical experience but the triggering object was always a surprise.  As much as I loved the sun stone it was not my trigger.  My experience came a couple of rooms later.  Hamilton went to sit on a bench in the courtyard and I went on alone and came face to face with the Olmec head, a giant human face carved from a basalt boulder. I can’t really describe my experience but it was intense and there was something about this Olmec head that rocked my world for that moment. There are 17 of these heads around central America and date from at least 900 BC. They definitely remind me of the Easter Island Moai statues and the faces of Brahman in Cambodia.  Sun stones, Olmec heads, pyramids to the gods—so much we don’t know but I love the mystery. I revel in the mystery.

Olmec Head

Sunday I wanted to see the cathedrals. You know I have to see the cathedrals. But travel always has surprises, especially when you don’t speak the language. The Mexico City Metropolitan cathedral is in the center of the city next to the National Palace.  The traffic was intense and the Uber driver said something to us and we just acted like we understood.  What he was probably telling us –giant political rally for the presidential elections.  We could not get anywhere near the cathedral. Instead were thousands and thousands of people, hundreds and hundreds of police all around giant screens projecting the loud speeches.  We had a long walk to get where we could get another Uber.  Finally, we headed to the Basilica of our Lady of Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico.  More crowds lead the way up to the packed Basilica in the middle of one of several Masses that day.  It was the first day of Advent and close to Our Lady of Guadalupe feast day.  We watched a bit of the Mass and saw a group of young girls in white awaiting their first communion.  I didn’t see the relic or the rest of the Basilica but I experienced something special- the Mexican people’s devotion to their saint.  That day wasn’t about me visiting cathedrals but about experiencing life being lived with enthusiasm and devotion. Political rallies, venerating saints—it was real life in Mexico, so different from my world but so inspiring.

There was also good food, margaritas, craft markets and above all, family time.  We all loved our experience in Mexico and came away with wonderful memories and a deep appreciation for the rich culture and kind people of Mexico.

Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe

 

 

 

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

Teotihuacan

One of the wonderful things about having grown children is how they expand my life through their adventures and accomplishments.  It almost makes up for them leaving me with an empty nest-not quite but almost. In 2018 Alexandra and a friend climbed the tallest mountain in Mexico, Pico de Orizaba (18,491 ft). She finished out her vacation at Teotihuacan, a place that had been calling me for over ten years. Since she didn’t summit the first time, she wanted another attempt, I wanted to meet her in Teotihuacan so we made plans for the whole family to go to Mexico City for Thanksgiving.

Teotihuacan is just 25 or so miles northeast of Mexico City and at the top of my must-see list. This enormous archeological site has three main pyramids along with dozens of smaller structures all along the 1.5-mile Avenue of the Dead. This enormous Mesoamerican city was constructed over 2000 years ago but not much is known about the original builders. The Aztecs later moved in and named it Teotihuacan, “place where gods are born”.  The Pyramid of the Sun is the third tallest pyramid in the world and the equally impressive Pyramid of the Moon is surrounded by platforms and smaller pyramids.  At the far end of the Avenue of the Dead is the Temple of the Feathered Serpent. We stayed in a charming hotel that was on the archaeological site where The Pyramid of the Sun was my constant reminder I was on sacred ground.

The first morning we rose early to have our first full experience of Teotihuacan, floating gently, silently over the pyramids in a hot air balloon bathed in the early morning light. The terrain and gentle steady winds make it an ideal place for hot-air balloons. I can’t think of a more magical way to experience this magnificent place. This was my first balloon ride and I was ready for the adventure. Over the course of about a half hour, twenty colorful balloons launched into the pink haze of sunrise to drifted over the Pyramid of the Sun.  Silently, the balloon’s shadow crossed over the ancient stones and down the Avenue of the Dead.  This eagle-eye’s view of the entire site, well before the day’s visitors, was a gift from the gods. There I was, floating above this ancient world that was still so powerful that the awe of the gods was palpable.  We continued to float over the town for another hour, past the churches and schools, until we were expertly landed in a nearby field. After a traditional champagne toast and hearty buffet breakfast we had a nap before heading to climb the pyramids.

I planned two full days at Teotihuacan and was glad not to be rushed by just a day trip. After lunch, we set out from our hotel for the 15-minute walk to the main entrance. I suggested we walk all the way to the Pyramid of the Moon and then slowly make our way back. The Avenue of the Dead goes up and down stairs, in and out of what remains of the glories of this impressive city. We took our time to enjoy the walk while avoiding the endless sellers of puma calls and woven blankets.  Lots of school groups were easily absorbed in the vastness of the complex and we felt we had the place mostly to ourselves.  A climb to the top of the platform of the Pyramid of the Moon was first on the agenda.  It wasn’t a long or hard climb, but the altitude (7000 ft) made me a bit winded but the view was worth the effort. Hot and thirsty, we wandered back to the hotel to sit by the pool and were surprised by Alexandra’s early arrival.  She realized she was not up to the intensity of the summit and so just enjoyed the climb and extra time with her family.

After breakfast the next day, all four of us headed to the Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent. We wanted to beat the heat and visit what we saved from the day before.  Hamilton climbed the Pyramid of the Sun while I sat nearby listening to music and soaking in the sun on Thanksgiving Day. I was so thankful to be with my family and visit this remarkable and sacred place. Hamilton and I visited the museum and were impressed by the pottery and sculptures that had once decorated the pyramids.  In the heat of the afternoon, Hamilton read, and the ladies indulged in massages but our time a Teotihuacan had one more delight.

The glories of the ancient world collided with the wonders of the modern world with a Sound and Light show on the Pyramid of the Sun. As we walked into the darkened site we were treated to the crescent moon and sparkling Venus, a celestial light show.  The show first started with a walk up the Avenue of the Dead toward the Pyramid of the Moon beautifully illuminated with changing colors. Without the distractions in the daylight, I became part of the site and felt transported by the experience. We each had a smartphone that gave a detailed history and showed what the site looked like throughout history.  Next, we sat on cushions in front of the Pyramid to the Sun. Thanks to virtual reality I was able to glimpse into a probable past of the history of Teotihuacan. For a brief time, this great pyramid was once again decorated with color and sculptures to the great gods. All too soon, the lights faded, and the pyramids receded back to their stony silence. But, even though the ages have taken their toll and our view of the gods have evolved, this magnificent place still holds the power to transform and remains a place where “man became gods”.

Pyramid of the Moon