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

Ahknaten

The last trip I took in 2019, just before the beginning of the pandemic, was an arts weekend with Alexandra in New York City.  It was a quick trip into the city but we had a big agenda.  The Metropolitan Opera was performing one of our favorite operas, Akhnaten by Phillip Glass.  Words fail me;  it is so amazing. I always love being in that iconic opera house with the best musicians in the world, from around the world.  Fast forward to 2022, The Met Opera was performing Akhnaten again and you know since we are now officially groupies (very enthusiastic followers) that we had to repeat our trip of 2019 except for a longer visit and with warmer weather.

This was our third arts trip to NYC. Alexandra dearly loves the Big Apple and during college spent a semester and a summer interning and learning her way around.  I’ve had just a few short visits, but with Alexandra’s city smarts and a free place to stay (thanks to my sister), we’ve decided to have an annual arts trip.  There are plenty of fun and interesting things to do in NYC and something for everyone. But we have a particular interest in opera, ballet and art museums so we concentrate on those things. Plus some food/restaurants not available in my small town—real French croissants–yum.

We wanted to make up for the couple of years without live performances, so we made an ambitious itinerary to fit in everything we wanted to do.  I went up early with a friend and saw Akhnaten on Wednesday and several museums.  Alexandra joined me Thursday and we went to the New York City Ballet’s production of Midsummer’s Night Dream.  I got very close seats and we enjoyed the nuances of each dance.  The production was pure fantasy, the costumes were extravagant and sparkly and the new principal dancers were polished and gifted. We wished we had tickets to see it again just to delight in the beauty.

Temple of Dendur The Metropolitan Museum of Art. 15BCE Aswan, Egypt

But Saturday afternoon was the main event, Akhnaten.  So why am I so obsessed with this opera?  Well, first I just love Phillip Glass’s music: minimal, repetitive and hypnotic.  It puts me in a decidedly altered state, a reverie that calms my soul and opens my heart. Second, you know how I’m obsessed with ancient Egypt and this reimagine of a Pharaoh who first changed the world from polytheism to monotheism—we are still living in his influence today.  Needless to say, he was not popular with those who wanted power and was wiped from the record books after his death. I encourage you to read about this remarkable Pharaoh. Akhnaten believed there was only one god, The Sun, Aten.  My favorite part of the opera is The Hymn to the Aten, words written by Akhnatan, 3500 years ago. Always sung in the language where the opera is performed, the words are of love and dedication to the Divine.  “You are in my heart, There is no other who knows you, Only your son, Whom you have taught your ways and your might.”  As the hymn of praise finishes, Akhnaten slowly turns and becomes one with The Sun hanging low over the stage. It is one of my favorite moments in all of opera.   The staging, singing, story and music all culminates in a grand spectacle, and I just love it.  It will be several years before I have the opportunity to see it live again but the recorded version is on the Met Opera on Demand and I highly recommend taking the time to enter this remarkable portal into another time/space of ancient Egypt.

Cleopatra’s Needle–Central Park- 1500BCE Heliopolis, Egypt

Alexandra and I wanted more, so we purchased cheap seats in the 4th balcony for the evening performance of Rigoletto by Verdi, a much more traditional opera but equally delightful in classic opera style.  The cheap seats kept us from seeing the singers’ faces and costumes but the sound was crystal clear and beautiful. This was our second time to do two operas in one day and we would do it again.  With a nice dinner in-between, it just seems like a perfect day to us.

 

4th Balcony at the Met Opera—A long way from the stage but excellent sound.

We finished our time in NYC with more of The Metropolitan Museum, concentrating on the European paintings and some time on the lawn in Central Park soaking in the perfect late spring weather. I was a bit worried that I had scheduled a bit too much time in the big city for this country girl but in fact I enjoyed every minute of my visit dedicated to the arts in so many forms. 

This was my personal way to spend time with what inspires my soul and fills my heart.  Now I hope to encourage you to take time and do what inspires your joy and restores your heart. The world seems extra full of bad news and problems right now on top of two years of pandemic.  We all seem to have our faith in humanity shaken to the core.  But now more than ever, we need to find and do what restores our hope and fills us with the best of what humans can do as a reprieve from some of the worst actions. When I go to opera and ballet, I’m reminded of the amazing gifts that we have to produce what is good, noble and beautiful.  When I go to an art museum, I’m reminded of the thousands of years of genius that shines through the hardship of life on this planet. 

Star of India, world’s largest blue star sapphire-American Museum of Natural History
Original Audubon watercolor–New York Historical Society

“Friends” Apartment Building–Greenwich Village

Friends

There was a time in my teens and 20’s when I was very lonely and days seemed to stretch forever.  I always had my precious cat Charlotte and a shelf of favorite books to keep me company but, otherwise, I was often isolated.  Something in me was determined never to feel this way again and I set out to find friends and community. In those pre-internet days, friendships were a bit harder to come by.  I was a young mother in search of community and I found it in the local Episcopal church and a play group.  I am still close to those friends I made all those years ago.  As I was thinking of my life now and what I wanted to say in this month’s blog, friendship and my many dear friends came to mind. It is spring and as my world turns green, I plant the flowers and trees I want to grown in my garden. I’ve also planted a living garden of friends in my life.  Shall we have a stroll around the beautiful colors and variety that grow in my friendship garden.

The most long-lasting variety of friends are also family.  Husband, daughters, sister, aunts and cousins are the biggest blessing in my life right now.  I love to nurture these ties that bind us through generations and DNA. Time together is the best and family reunions big and small are highlights of the year, I also love those little sibling/cousin/aunt text chains that link me quickly and easily to my family.  There will be multiple dings on my phone as stories, pictures, hearts and emoji’s come through in a flurry of activity.   There will be silence again and then a few weeks later the fun and connections will begin again.  This summer my family is gathering in northern Minnesota to bury my mother’s ashes, celebrate my cousin’s marriage, see our Swedish cousins and play with the newest member, two-year-old Nora.  Those friendships are bound by heritage but nurtured over the decades in a place that holds the echoes of our ancestors.

Childhood friends remember you as you were before—when I had glasses and braces and ugly 1970’s clothes.  Childhood friends remember your family and school and all the formative events of life.  I still have a childhood friend I keep in touch with regularly.  Mel and I met in 4th grade and have been BFF’s ever since.  Sometimes we would go long periods of time without seeing each other but when we get together it is like no time has passed and we are girls again.  We tell the old stories and play our favorite piano duet that is so deep in our memories that we will never forget it.  Our lives and interests may be different now but our past carries us forward together into the future in a special sisterhood.  A few years ago, I went to visit Mel in Taiwan where she teaches English and works on her PhD in communications.  I couldn’t be prouder of her adventurous life.

My motherhood friends and I are entwined with the lives of our children. Playgroups and school groups brought us together through circumstance and shared place and time.  We share the joys and frustrations of our growing children and the happy events along the way which for me were music and dance recitals, beach trips and play dates.  I still have one very close friend from that era, Judy.  We have so many more things in common which has bonded our friendship past the child rearing days. Now we talk about our grown children and her grandchildren with the easy of a long history already lived together.

Hamilton and I are both introverts and making friends outside of the family doesn’t come naturally but fortunately we have some wonderful community friends that get us out and around town.  Over the years we have grown a special group of friends that, like us, doesn’t have many local relatives or extended family.  These precious friends have become chosen family for birthdays and holidays.  I can count on them to bring something delicious to a potluck meal and be ready for a party of any kind.  We sit around the campfire by the river in the summer, have lavish Thanksgiving feasts, trade gifts and cards for birthdays and Christmas and are there when life passages with elderly parents gets overwhelming.  I adore my chosen community family.

It is never too late to make friends.  As you grow older, it can be harder to make friends as so many people are already busy with established relationships and family.  But I have been fortunate to make a new group of friends in my small town.  Proximity to friends makes life easier and since I live out in the country having friends close by has been such a gift.  My walks in a nearby neighborhood grew into meeting people who have just moved to the area and are open to making friends.  So, thankfully, I was invited to a local book club and a hiking group formed and now I have friends that are as thrilled with books, birds and flowers as I am and are willing to hike up a mountain every Wednesday.  We are already planning more adventures further afield.  I also know that I can call on them anytime and someone is close by to lend a hand.

My final category of friends is my spiritual soul mates.  These are the dear friends I share my deepest heart with. We speak a special language developed through books and experiences. I miss my dear spiritual mentors Page and Rachael; no one can ever replace them.  But now I have my graduate-school classmates who speak my deepest inner language and my friend Val who loves a good spiritual pilgrimage/adventure to parts unknown.

There are also the people that I do business with that have become friends, acquaintances, friends in the local church and people come into my life for a time and a specific reason.  All of them are a blessing to my little corner of the world and I hope in turn I am a blessing to them.  Friends are a richness to life that smooths the hard edges and brings comfort and joy to each day.  I’m so glad that I have been able to cultivate so many friendships over the years and leave that loneliness behind.

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

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.

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

Dreaming the Future

New footbridge on the farm.

I’m a planner.  I like to think about what is next, what is in the future.  I like to organize, sifting through all the possibilities, and come up with the perfect agenda, menu or most efficient method. Then I expect it all to go perfectly—because it is all so perfectly planned.  But, I don’t know if you noticed, lately things don’t always go as planned.  I had three perfectly planned trips this spring.  One by one I clicked the cancel button on the reservations. As the days of spring rolled on, I would sometimes think, “I’m supposed to be in Taos for my birthday”, or “today I was going to be in Santa Barbara graduating”.  But strangely it was all OK.  I missed what I had planned but I also was enjoying what I was already doing. I was enjoying the unexpected, the serendipity of life.

Although we all know that life is unsure and the unexpected can always happen, in our modern world we have come to make assumptions about what life will be like in the future. I assume that things will go along as I planned and how I wanted them to go. I think we are all learning that we can no longer make assumptions about our future but can only live/lean into the future.  I don’t think my planning ways are going to change anytime soon but I will be more open to the variables that life brings and let go of my plans more easily.

Strangely the best things in my life are things I didn’t plan, wasn’t looking for, or didn’t want.  The best things have come when I was just following a hunch or synchronicity.  I think the most important part of pilgrimaging into the future is to hold life loosely and allow dreams you didn’t know how to dream to move in and let life surprise you, delight and move you in a direction outside of your plans.

Our modern world loves to plan: a 5-year plan, a career plan, a family plan, a retirement plan.  All of that is good until our soul decides it doesn’t like that plan and begins its own agenda. We have to set aside our desires and open to that bigger agenda. For the next bit of life—and we can’t even begin to plan what that will be—we can let our souls guide our pilgrimage to the heart and where we need to go. Our old plans are gone, and space has opened for something new.  So, for the time being I will indulge in some planning but know that my soul might dream of something else and serendipity will guide the way. Hopefully with that agenda gone I will notice the little things, the taste of warm cherries, the smell of fresh laundry, the waxy feel of a magnolia blossom and know those simple joys are as important as exotic travel.

For the next bit of time, however long that is, choose something to explore deeply, an idea, writer, composer, moment of history, or the natural world. Pilgrimage to the heart of that place/space/thought and let it take over your mind and heart. See where you go and let the soul be the guide.  For the quality of today’s step determines where our future steps go.

I’m featured on a podcast about life during the pandemic.  Here is the link for Profile in Quarantine with host Mary Gilbert.

 

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

Pilgrimage to the Past

Trout Lily, Spring 2020

Historically, pilgrimages were taken by people in all social, economic and cultural levels since sacred travel was about the call of the spirit to seek soul in the world. In our modern times, pilgrimages can seem to be for the privileged few that can afford the time, money of an exotic pilgrimage. Many have physical limitations that make a long pilgrimage impossible. I’ve always worried that my blog and book on pilgrimage have over emphasized international pilgrimages at the expense of the true nature of a spiritual journey.  As my tag line indicates—pilgrimage is about making every step of life sacred, a journey of the soul. Yes, pilgrimage is about physically going out into the world, discovering your inner world as you discover the world around you. But I also see pilgrimage as a perspective, a way of viewing life as a sacred journey.

Even as we are still early in 2020, our entire planet has been turned upside down as we pause life to tend to health and safety. Daily, even hourly, life is shifting with plans and routines which have disintegrated into the unknown. We are all on an untried path for a while before a new normal arrives. Although most of my family already work from home, Alexandra is here in Tennessee, a refugee from her micro-apartment in California.  My elderly mother is in quarantine in her retirement home–all appointments cancelled and no lunches out for the foreseeable future.  Our introvert natures are happy to be home with the cats and a stocked pantry.

Travel is going to be interrupted for quite awhile and maybe even make us rethink some of our far-flung vacations. It is unnerving when a much-anticipated trip is interrupted by the unexpected but that is part of a pilgrimage. Nine years ago, I was caught in the Egyptian Revolution and sequestered in a hotel before British Air sent an empty plane to rescue travelers. We expect our plans to go well—and most of the time they do—but part of the nature of a pilgrimage is a test of inner strength in the light of outer events.

Pilgrimage can always be part of our life no matter what the circumstances of the physical world. Thanks to the remarkable nature of our consciousness with the help of our five senses we can pilgrimage anytime and anyplace: past, present or future. Let’s start with pilgrimages to the past.

Our past experiences remain available to us through our memories.  Although memories are not usually perfect recordings of the event, our own imagination and the perspective of time can remake an experience in the past into a meaningful experience in the present.  For example, I bet you could walk around your childhood home in your mind or visit your grandparents house with a full sensory experience.

I can feel myself walk up my grandparent’s sidewalk on to their back porch and see the details of my grandfather’s shaving kit on the porch sink and hear the door slam shut behind me.  Now I can go into the tiny kitchen and smell the fried chicken and open the cupboard where my grandmother kept Juicy Fruit gum. I continue on into the living room where my grandmother sits in her pink velveteen chair and I sit down by her feet and watch the nightly news as my grandfather sleeps on his green couch beside us.  These memories are so vivid forty-five years later.  I can remember those ordinary moments of my childhood and re-imagine them as the cherished experiences of my personal story.  What childhood experience joyful or difficult are part of your personal history?  Can you pilgrimage to these sentinel moments and greet them, thank them for participating in your life?

Our senses make these memories come alive.  Our bodies remember our lives through the senses and we can use these memories to travel to the past and remember our lives in detail. Last year, I was at a concert listening to Beethoven’s 9th Symphony and I was unexpectedly back in my childhood home with my family by the fire listening to this monumental music on a scratchy record.  I was surprised by the vividness of the memory and realized how this calm family experience was so important to my introverted soul.  In the summer, the smell of warm pine trees takes me back to a summer vacation in Estes Park Colorado. The taste of raspberries are the reminder happy moments of summertime in Minnesota.

As well as cherished memories of our childhood, think about pilgrimages you have taken in the past.  Think about how they have affected your life now many years later for we need a lifetime to process these profound moments.  During a conversation with a fellow plane passenger, I asked her if she had a special trip that she could now see was a pilgrimage.  She recounted going to Brazil with a friend, and as part the tour, the group held a ceremony by the ocean to honor her ancestors that had crossed the ocean on slave ships. She teared up thinking about how meaningful that moment was for her.  She now remembers that trip as a powerful and life-changing pilgrimage, not just a casual trip with a friend.  Sometimes our most powerful experiences come not from intention but from the unexpected.  Often, we can’t see this until many years or decades later.  Go back through your photos and find a trip that was meaningful and take the time to remember. Maybe make a photo album of that trip or get out mementos and build a little shrine to that experience that changed you.  While we experience this moment of “global time-out” we gain the space to experience time differently and meld past and present together.