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.

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.

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

Books and Reflections

January might not be at the top of the list of favorite times of the year but I can appreciate the gifts of this darkest and coldest time of the winter.  Spring is still two months away and Christmas is a quickly fading memory. January seems to be a time for quiet reflection and a fresh slate to write the hopes and dreams for the coming year.  The last two years had such intense twists of fate that I’m a little reluctant to do much planning but I can reflect on what changed, what stayed the same and what new I want to explore. 

My now-annual review of my books of 2021 comes with a natural review of the last year. Last January, Alexandra was still home and working from the library. My mother was living in my middle parlor (I live in a very old home and the rooms reflect a different era).  I was reading the last of the course work for my self-directed PhD year.  I might not technically be in school, but I wanted to keep going with my classmates and that meant lots of books in a final course on Alchemy—the ancient science of turning lead to gold and the modern interpretation of turning our hearts and minds to gold.  Some of my favorite books: Anatomy of the Psyche: Alchemical Symbolism in Psychotherapy by Edinger, The Forge and the Crucible, by Eliade, Alchemical Studies and Mysterium Coniunctionis by C. Jung and finally A Most Mysterious Union: The Role of Alchemy in Goethe’s Faust by Wilkerson.  All of that was wonderful and intense and head spinning and I was very tired at the end. So what did I do? Took an on-line course on Jung’s recently published The Black Books. By spring I needed a nice break from Jung.  But, alas, I forged on to another on-line class on Archetypal Astrology and read longest book of the year, Cosmos and Psyche: Intimations of a New World View by Richard Tarnas.  This ground-breaking and alternative world view positions our cultural and psychological evolution as part of the workings of the entire cosmos.

By summer my mother was in assisted living and Alexandra was back in California and I was on to some easier reading. The warm summer air and intense singing of the Brood X cicadas brought me to the most beautiful writing of the year, Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. Robin’s combination of science, nature and wisdom wrapped in lyrical prose soothed my soul and calmed my overactive mind. If you read or listen to one book this year—this is the one I recommend.

Last year also included reading a few books that had been lingering in my library, unread but still wanting, needing to be read. That led to some delightful rabbit holes.  I started reading Winifred Gallagher’s The Power of Place which quickly led to Spiritual Genius: 10 Masters and The Quest for Meaning and Working on God.  I really enjoyed reading several books in a row by the same author.  Later in the year, I picked up another book that had been on the shelf waiting for the right moment, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountains Spiritualities by Belden Lane.  I hadn’t even finished the first chapter when I ordered two more books by this wonderful writer. I finished the year reading Backpacking with the Saints: Wilderness Hiking as a Spiritual Practice.  Seems like saints were the calling of the last half of the year because I enjoyed a vicarious trip to Italy reading On the Road with Francis of Assisi: A Timeless Journey Through Umbria and Tuscany and Beyond by Linda Bird Francke.

In October it was my turn to choose a book for my neighborhood book club. That was not an easy task since as you can see, I’m not a novel reader. But The Personal Librarian by Benedict and Murray seemed to be a good fit for my interests and the interests of my reading friends.  This charming historical fiction reveals that remarkable life of Belle de Costa Greene who became JP Morgan’s personal librarian around the turn of the last century. She curated his collection and was a force in the art and literary world all while hiding her identity as a black woman. I have been to the Morgan Library on Madison Ave in NYC and it is a magnificent building, art gallery and literary collection.  Oh, and my friends enjoyed my apple cake after the book discussion.

It is now January 2022 and my life has changed a lot since last January. I’m now back in the library after giving it over to Alexandra during the pandemic.  In November, my mother passed away after a long year of poor health. I’m now free to start a new chapter, a new season after 12 intense years of parent care.  I look forward to the change and yet it is a bit daunting, too—I no longer have any excuses.  I now must get on with my hopes and dreams for the second half of my life. Fortunately, a few days ago, my inner voice gave me a kind hint that I have repeated daily ever since—“Don’t be afraid of the open space”.   Thanks to a warm fire in the library, hot cup a tea and a cuddly cat, I’m allowing myself some much needed open space.

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.

Moving

Painting bookshelves

In July, this perpetual pilgrim was once again on the road for the first time in a year and a half. Oh, there were a couple of short driving trips but nothing that required more than a duffle bag.  So, I brushed the dust off of my carry-on and tried to remember how to pack again.  My exciting destination—Alexandra’s new apartment in California. My first trip was a working trip to get her settled after living on the farm for fifteen months. I can’t say that it was the most thrilling and inspirational destination but there was a purpose and a goal and that was to make Alexandra’s first real home her own. Since I’m really a homebody myself, I wanted her to have the space she needed to feel nurtured and supported after a busy day of work.

Alexandra found a new apartment when she went back to California in May.  Her old micro apartment was way too small and the neighborhood was no longer safe. She was relieved to move right away and make plans for a home big enough for a table and chairs and, more importantly, a cat.  She came back to Tennessee long enough to gather the new-to-her furniture she needed, some beloved family heirlooms and get it all loaded on a truck heading to LA.

I flew out just in time to meet the movers and start the challenging but satisfying task of unpacking and making a home.  First there was a lot of painting—yes I painted all the walls with the help of a good audiobook.  Then I painted two big bookshelves since she has inherited her parents’ obsession with reading and needed lots of space to put her beloved collection.  Meanwhile, her newly adopted cat, Rufus, was settling into his forever home.

Each day I worked and gradually got things in their place and boxes out the door.  Everyday there was a bit more space to move about.  I finally finished all the painting and had a couple of days to relax and enjoy the beautiful summer weather.  There were long walks along flower-lined streets, a trip to the beach, a massage and a visit to The Getty Art Museum to see the gardens and illuminated manuscripts.  I read a lot and played with my grandcat Rufus.   I entertained myself while Alexandra had to work overtime on a big project.  Each day she came home to see the progress and talk about changes in her job and life in general.  I cherished those moments at her new dining table to talk and plan.

It was a lot of work and I really don’t love painting but I wanted Alexandra to have the home of her dreams that would bring her comfort and joy.  The ultimate goal of a pilgrimage is to come home and integrate the experience into your everyday life. Home nurtures our soul and supports our journey to the next adventure into the world.  

The Getty, Los Angeles