A Gift of Experience

 

Emilio at the Whitney Biennial

A week ago David and I finished the holiday gift I gave him for 2017 — a commitment to visit at least one museum and have one outdoor adventure a month. Experience gifts make sense — we already have so much stuff — and they’ve been a needed break from the dread and disgust that’s been too present for the past year if you’re paying any attention at all to what’s happening in the world. Which we are.

Early on we decided if we went someplace outdoors we’d never been before, that could count as an outdoor adventure. It didn’t have to be arduous. Just new. We also realized early on that there are a lot of museums near us. New Hampshire has a snowmobile museum, several rail depot museums, a telephone museum, a model railroad and toy museum, and a classic arcade museum that has pinball machines and electric games built no later than 1987. We didn’t go to any of those, but we did go to the NH Historical Society museum which has an old ski-doo snowmobile as an exhibit.

So what did our year of art and adventure include?

We trudged through snow up a hill in an orchard under a full moon. We camped in Evans Notch and hiked the Baldface Circle (very arduous!), slept on the front porch three times in the last month, toasty in big down bags, swam in the North Atlantic twice in September and in Long Pond during the second week of October. Wet suits are magic in cold water, but we came out a bit off balance from the cold affecting our inner ears.

 

We walked in Ireland and hiked in Zion Canyon, Kolob Canyon, Snow Canyon and Jenny’s Canyon (Utah is amazing) and lowered ourselves into lava tubes, caves hollowed out of old lava flows. We stayed in the Mitzpah Hut near the peak of Mt. Pierce and hiked to the summit of Mt. Mooselauke twice

 

Our museum visits ranged from interesting to mind blowing. The Deep Cuts exhibit at the Currier, featuring impossibly intricate and detailed paper art, was a marvel. We took in the Whitney Biennial along with Adrienne, Emilio and Ava. We went to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston twice, most recently to see a phenomenal performance of poetry read by Jane Hirshfield (her own and her translations of Japanese poetry) and music composed by Linda Chase. The three part piece was a collaboration written in response to the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, and was masterfully done. Stunning music along with spoken words in the best weave of the two I’ve ever heard. And that was after being enchanted by the exhibit of wild and vibrant wall-size murals by Takashi Murakami.

My favorite museum visit was to the Northwood Historical Society’s museum, open on August Saturdays from 1:00 to 3:00. The town’s artifacts are housed in the small, square, brick building that was the Northwood Narrows branch of the library when I first moved to town. It’s around the corner from my house.

David wore his short wetsuit for that visit; we stopped at the museum when we saw it was open on our way to swim. The Historical Society volunteer staffing the museum that day didn’t pay any attention to the wet suit. She was too busy watching the two helicopters circling over the fields and woods of the Narrows, looking for a fugitive batterer, a man who’d come to town after abusing his girlfriend and then ran away from the police when they found him at a house on Blake’s Hill.

They caught him. It was an exciting day in the Narrows.

Boardwalk at Coney Island

Last Friday we walked the boardwalk on Coney Island, a good choice for our last outdoor adventure of the year. Closed for the season, the arcades and amusement parks were like huge broken toys. We walked with a cold wind at our backs, then turned and walked into it, along the gray water, the winter sun low in the sky. We walked for a long time.

I’m grateful to have a life that allows me to choose experiences like this, to take breaks that refresh and energize and inspire me. I hope to keep it up next year.

 

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In and Out of Clouds

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Ireland is constantly in and out of clouds, so it only makes sense that David and I have been walking in and out of clouds.

On Saturday we crossed a ridge from Ardgroom to Lauragh, climbing a steep pitch off the road into a bowl of valley with a green field on the opposite slope where we could see sheep dogs rounding up sheep in a cluster that kept moving over the bright pasture. Mist threaded around us as we followed the boggy trail and heard water roaring in streams criss-crossing the pass. The inch and a half of rain the day before was rushing off the hills and everything was wet.

Everything is always wet in Ireland. I’ve come to think of it as the land of perpetual dampness.

We passed the Cashelkeelty standing stones, one of the many circles or lines of stones we’ve seen. The stones are aligned to mark solar occasions like the solstice or equinox and the fields and high passes on the Beara peninsular have many of these ancient remains — 3,000 years old or older. It’s impossible to fully understand what it means to see such ancient constructions.

Meanwhile, more modern stones stacked in walls covered with moss, fuchsia, ivy, brambles, and all the other green growth that makes Ireland seem like a jungle are everywhere, and often mind-boggling beautiful.

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Once we got to Lauragh we visited the Derreen Gardens, an estate transformed in the 19th century into a sub-tropical garden at the head of Kilmakilloge Harbor. The tree ferns and tree-size rhododendron made it seem we were walking some place much further south than Ireland.

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Yesterday we crossed a ridge  of mountains from Lauragh to Kenmare, starting out in mist and walking into sheeting rain. We passed the Uragh stone circle, with a ten foot entrance stone, set on a hillock between two lakes. We felt particularly isolated and lost in time, as we stood in a pocket of rain and fog.

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Climbing our second ridge, the fog got thicker and soon all we could see was each other and the boggy path a hundred feet ahead. Thankfully the Beara Way is very well marked, and just as I would feel uncomfortable about whether we were still on the path, I’d see another sign post ahead with the familiar, bright yellow image of a walker and an arrow pointing us on.

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Nearly at the top of the ridge David and I talked about the views we were missing, wondering what mountains and hillsides we’d be seeing if the mist cleared. I looked across the open land to the top of the ridge on our right and realized it was clearer. Then I turned around and the mist was gone, revealing the last mountain we’d climbed, bright in the distance. I could even make out the gray of the Uragh stone circle far below.

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When we finally cleared the top of the ridge, there were the mountains of Kerry, patched with bright green fields ahead. It’s become clear that worrying about poor weather here isn’t productive and makes no difference. Days are sunny then cloudy then rainy then clear then misty then back to clouds breaking open to blue skies again.

IMG_8929In the moments of hiking, there is only what I see ahead of me, the sound of water finding its way downhill, and planning my next footstep to avoid as many muddy sink holes as possibleFullSizeRender (17).And then there are all the flowers.

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Ireland – U.S. Cultural Exchange: Craft Beer and House Painting

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Eyeries

The Irish have certainly figured out exuberant and charming paint color for houses. The villages we’re walking through on the Beara Peninsula have houses painted in over-the-top colors, but it works.

What doesn’t work is the craft beer. In Cork, and here in these tiny villages, people talk about the new craft beers from local breweries. I’ve been trying them all and have yet to find one that comes any where close to what I can get in the U.S. There’s a hollowness in the middle of the taste, with no complexity and or layering of flavors.

But then, houses are usually painted boring colors in the U.S. I think we need a cultural exchange. Brew masters and house painters from each country should travel to the other and exchange ideas and recipes and tips. Then we could all have flavorful beer and cheery villages.

Meanwhile, heavy rain is whipping past the window of our B&B, blown horizontal by 40 mph winds. We left Eyeries early this morning, knowing a storm was coming. We got about halfway to Ardgroom before the rain started, and at first it didn’t seem that bad. Then we traversed a ridge to come into the village and by then the wind was fierce. I got blown off my feet a couple of times, staying upright only by planting my hiking pole downwind and leaning into it. It was wild and exciting and a bit scary, then very satisfying to get to the B&B with a friendly hostess who put our wet gear in her dryer.

Today is the exact opposite of yesterday. We had bright, warm sunshine and gentle breezes as we crossed the Slieve Mishkish Mountains with Coulagh Bay below us. We sat in the sun for the second night in a row and watched the sun set over the ocean to the northwest, green green green everywhere we looked.

That’s what all this rain does.

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Coulough Bay

And We’re Off

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Derreenataggart Stone Circle

David and I have been in Ireland since Monday morning, but didn’t start our walk of the Beara Way until today. We spent Monday and Tuesday in Cork, which is a lively and scruffy-around-the-edges small city. We walked a lot, sampled a few pubs and had an amazing meal at Café Paradiso, a vegetarian restaurant that’s one of the most popular spots in the city. The new potatoes with butter and mint was one of the most delicious dishes I’ve eaten in a long time.

We visited Sin É, a highly recommended pub with trad music, eclectic customers, and a riotous display of posters (many of Led Zeppelin), signs and cards tacked on all the walls and the ceiling. We met a lovely young woman there, who asked what I was drawing and when I said I was sketching, trying to get better at drawing after a life time of writing, she agreed that it’s always good to be learning new things. She’s a photographer, cyclist, dancer, writer, and most importantly, a plámáser. A plámáser? It’s an Irish word that has no English equivalent: someone who can sweet talk others into doing what she wants them to, but not in a creepy or manipulative way. Kinder and more clever.

Yesterday we took a three hour bus trip to Castletownbere, which turned into a four hour trip when the windshield wipers on the bus stopped working and we had to stop in the small town of Dunmanway to wait for a repair van. David sat in the open luggage compartment playing his guitar and I had time to shop for a hairbrush, since I left mine at home.

Castletownbere is scenic and charming. It’s the busiest fishing harbor in Ireland, with the hills of Beara Island just across the water, creating a quiet space for boats and a small bay for mussel farming. From there we set out this morning to walk across the ridge of small mountains that forms the spine of the Beara peninsula, headed for Allihies.

Not only were the long views spectacular, the close views were too. When I imagined this walking tour I thought about the green fields and ocean views. I didn’t expect such an abundance of wild flowers. There are hedges of wild fuchsia, heather in multiple shades of purple lining the walking tracks, small purple flowers that look like pincushions, yellow gorse, and pink foxglove. Also many flowers I couldn’t identify.

Walking in such open land, with patched green fields and ocean views in every direction, and ancient standing stones along the trail, is magical. Walking is perhaps the best possible way to spend a day. We’re delighted we have many more days ahead.

In It for the Moss

When I was first working on climbing the 48 peaks over 4,000 feet in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, I had many companions. Eric came on most of the hikes, sometimes Adrienne or Sam, and many different groups of friends. But as the hikes got longer and less rewarding (e.g. limited views at the end of a very long trek), Eric was the one who stayed with me.

Our hike to Owl’s Head, a remote peak with a steep scramble up a slide of rocks and no view at the top, 18 miles roundtrip with two tricky water crossings, ended with us walking for miles in the downpours from thunderstorms. By the time we got back to the rivers we’d used water shoes to cross on our way in, we walked through the water in our boots. They were already soaked.

The day we hiked to Mt. Isolation, a 13 mile trip that required a car drop at the end of our trail out, then hitchhiking to our starting point, was so sticky and buggy we kept stopping to puff a cloud of deet around us, hoping to keep the black flies and mosquitos away. The bonus of that hike was the isolation — we had the peak to ourselves.

Mt. Cabot is the northern most of the 4,000 footers, mostly viewless and tricky to climb because of a private property closure on the trail that has the shortest route. Eric and I climbed it on a snowy day in November of 2002, and that was the day Eric first noticed a change in his eye sight. When he looked at his pole he saw a crook that wasn’t there. It was two weeks later that we learned he had a cancerous tumor in his left eye.

Eric was still with me when I completed my list in October of 2003. Then he finished his list on Mt. Madison in March 2005. Our last hike together, in March of 2006, he complained about the pain in his back when he tried to run down Mt. Israel, a small mountain with an excellent view. Two months later he was dead, his liver and bones overrun by cells from that original tumor.

I thought about all of this yesterday as I hiked up to Jennings Peak with David and our friend Anne. The view was excellent, but much of what recommends the hike is the ridge leading to the peak, which is covered with beautiful moss. It’s not a trail to a 4,000 footer, but it was one of the first hikes Eric and I did together, and he was enchanted. Over the next several years, as Eric and I talked to friends and family about my peak bagging quest, he was often asked about his reason for doing all the hikes with me. “I’m in it for the moss,” he’d say, remembering the hike to Jennings Peak, and all the other beautiful mosses we saw over the years.

Yesterday I was in it for the exercise, the companionship with David and Anne, the challenge, the view, the chance to be outdoors most of the day, the magical ridge of moss, and the memories of Eric.

Day Fourteen — Tilting Back Towards the Sun

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December 21:  Black morning, lights over the kitchen table, coffee in my mug. Today the North Pole will finish its furthest tilt from the sun – 23.5 degrees. The sun hasn’t really been slipping down the horizon until it sets behind the old silo. We’ve been tilting away.

Yesterday David and I climbed Parker Mountain, the first hike we did together, on our first date, almost eight years ago. It had snowed the night before, heavy and wet, and we trudged up the first steep incline on snowshoes, me well ahead of him. Was I testing whether he could keep up with me? Probably. He didn’t climb as fast as I did, but he got there.

At the first peak we stopped and looked out over the coastal plain to Portsmouth, a plume of smoke from the tall chimney of the power plant, ocean a flat line behind it. David talked about his sadness, his worry about losing friends. I talked about losing Eric.

We’ve climbed that same trail probably 50 times since and yesterday was glorious. On the north side of the mountain, we started in shadow and climbed up into the sun. The trail was a pageant of sage lichen on gray granite, dark green hemlocks, shiny green white pine, brown oak leaves burying the path and then piled alongside, deep purple stalks of bare, scrubby blueberry.

By the time we got back to the car, it was twilight, leaning over in to dusk. David and I don’t talk all the time as we did on that first hike, as we did in the first months and even years we were together. But we still talk most of the time. So much happens in our lives and, for us, in our heads. There’s always plenty to sort out.

Day Seven — Building Bridges

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Eric and I used to call short hikes up the small mountains around Northwood, more than a walk but less than a several thousand foot ascent, hikettes. Climbing to Neville Peak, an open knob on the ridge of Nottingham Mt. in Epsom, is one of my favorite hikettes.  On a clear day the peak of Mt. Washington, 100 miles to the north, is visible, a white cap behind the horizon of closer mountains in winter.

For the decades I’ve been hiking to Neville Peak it’s been mostly deserted.  Now, with a new trail reopened by an Eagle Scout and my friend Alison’s efforts to publicize this local treasure in the Epsom Town Forest, we often meet one or two people on the trail, and when I got to the peak a few months ago was surprised to find a collection of cairns scattered across the open ledge.

Though my friends and I have been climbing to this spot for decades, we’ve never built cairns. As much as I like piling and balancing rocks, and always add to cairns when I find them on a mountain top, it had never occurred to me to build them on Neville, even though the open ledge is scattered with all sizes of loose rock, mostly granite.

When I was on Neville a few weeks ago I used a long flat rock to make a bridge between two square rocks and then started a pile on both the bridge and each end. Yesterday when I was there a new bridge was balanced on the edge of the ridge, framing the horizon of mountains.

Mt. Washington wasn’t visible but there was a garden of communal sculptures at my feet.

 

France Sent Magnifique!

 

Above the Clouds on Mont Ventoux
Above the Clouds on Mont Ventoux

English translation = France smells magnificent.

As soon as I walked into Anny’s yard in Lisores three weeks ago, I noticed the fragrance.  I couldn’t place the smell.  No wonder, I don’t live in France.  Anny’s gardens and house smelled enticing and exotic, smoky and salty and earthy, almost marine which made no sense, being more than 100 kilometers from the coast.  Was it the stream gurgling through a lavoir on her property (a public place in France set aside for washing clothes — I’ve seen many in villages since being at Anny’s house), the vegetation, the gardens, France itself?

The delicious smells of France have followed me to Provence.  Never having been here, but having seen many photographs of the hilltop villages in the Luberon area of Provence, I expected a French version of Tuscany.  It’s more like an Arizona version — high, dry hills and mountains and canyons and the smell of sun-baked cedars and scrub oaks and lavender. Lovely.

Domaine de Coyeux Winery in the Dentelles de Montmirail
Domaine de Coyeux Winery in the Dentelles de Montmirail

We spent Monday doing a Cotes du Rhone wine tour, circling the Dentelles de Montmirail, a small but magnificently scenic range of mountains south of Vaison la Romaine.  Many of the vineyards we visited were tucked up against the slopes of the Dentelles, terraced lines of grape vines as high on the slope as possible until sheer rock faces made any further agricultural encroachment impossible.  We have a plan (drinking and packing with bubble wrap and clothes) to get all the wine that ended up in the trunk of our rental car to Tuscany (we have a flight from Marseilles to Rome on Saturday), and if there’s any left, back to the U.S.

Summit of Mont Ventoux
Summit of Mont Ventoux

Yesterday we left Vaison la Romaine and drove south to Bonnieux, by way of Mont Ventoux, a 6,200 foot mountain that dominates the landscape of Provence, much higher than any of the surrounding mountains.  The summit is all white limestone, giving it a unique color on the typically green horizon.  We saw as many bikers climbing and descending the road over the mountain as cars.  In fact, the summit parking area was closed because a Netherlands film company was shooting a film about biking on Mont Ventoux.  The star (or the man at the center of the cameras’ foci) looked in his 60’s, which was consistent with the bikers we saw chugging up and zipping down the road.  This is not a trip only for the super-fit — there were many older men with substantial bellies popping out of their biking shirts.

Gorges de la Nesque
Gorges de la Nesque

The biggest surprise was the Gorges de la Nesque, a spectacular canyon south of Mont Ventoux, where the River Nesque has cut through the calcareous rock of the Vaucluse plateau.  Today we found another canyon driving over to nearby Buoux to check on a restaurant and a hiking destination for later in the week.  This afternoon we walked through the ridge-top Foret de Cedres (towering cedars planted by a forester in 1860 for lumber), the town forest of Bonnieux, with striking views to the south.  We could see the Mediterrean coast in the distance, and perhaps Italy, waving to Alison and John who we’ll be joining next week in Tuscany.

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Foret des Cedres

And I kept sniffing the air, relishing the odors of a hot, dry and astounding world.

Vineyards and Mountains
Vineyards and Mountains

The Waldhaus Balance

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Our trip to the Swiss Alps was inspired by my sister Jeanne and her husband John. They’ve been coming here for over 10 years to hike, most years staying at the Waldhaus Sils, a grand and historic hotel in the Engadin Valley.  An independently owned hotel, it’s been operated by the same family for five generations.  It’s comfortable and gracious, without being too luxurious (though it is an incredible luxury to be able to stay here) and the stellar location is matched by the bountiful and delicious food.  We’re so happy we finally got here to spend time with Jeanne and John and understand why it’s a place they come back to again and again.

But there needs to be a balance when staying in a hotel with an enormous breakfast buffet (including plenty of food to take back to your room and pack for your hiking lunch) and a five course dinner every night.  That balance for us is hiking — working off some of the excess eating while relishing the grandeur of the Alps.

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Today’s hike was to an alpine lake, a direct 2,000 foot climb up from Maloja to Lunghinsee, then a long walk back along the descending ridge to the Waldhaus.  Much of today’s hike looked like England, with open slopes colored by heather and other wildflowers.  I enjoyed asking the hiking guide Cecile and Uda, a woman from Germany, what the German names were for the many flowers I recognized.

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The valley where the movie Heidi was filmed.

So hopefully today’s walk helped worked off some of what I ate for dinner, all delicious.

Iberico ham with preserved fig and crisp bread
Iberico ham with preserved fig and crisp bread
Fillet of pike perch with chervil crust, vegetable creams and kohlrabi
Fillet of pike perch with chervil crust, vegetable creams and kohlrabi
Poppy seed parfait and berry compote with rum
Poppy seed parfait and berry compote with rum

 

I Walked to Italy Today

 

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Bernina

The sun is setting behind the western wall of mountains in the Engadin Valley, making silver patches on the Silsersee lake, one of four lakes that stretch out along the Inn River as it flows through this area of the Swiss Alps.  Yesterday we hiked up the eastern ridge along the shoulder of Mt. Bernina, the highest peak in this area, getting wonderful views of the Bernina Glacier.  The first 2,000 feet of the trip was in a funicular (a cable tram that goes up steep inclines), then we climbed another 1200 feet and hiked across the open mountains at an elevation of 7,500 feet.  We passed the Segantini hut (a hut used by the Italian landscape painter Segantini) with a cafe terrace serving hot and cold drinks and food.  A chairlift carried us back down after 8 miles of hiking, a fantastically fun way to end a glorious hike.

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Segantini Hut

Today we headed south into the Bregaglia Vally, traveling through the town of Maloja at the top of the Engadin, where the elevation drops 2,000 feet.  The buses that shuttle hikers up and down the valleys deftly handle the long series of hairpin turns (and I mean truly hairpin) of the road.  The bus rides into and out of the Bregaglia, like the funicular and chair lift yesterday, were a great way to book end another incredible hike, that included walking through several villages hugging the sides of the narrower Bregaglia Valley, like Soglio, brimming with the charm of old stone houses and narrow cobbled walkways.  In Castasegna, on the Italian border, we walked into Italy and had espresso at a small cafe, enormous mountains surrounding us.

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Another View of Bernina
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Hiking in Bergaglia
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Soglio
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Soglio Flowers
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Today’s Hiking Crew

It’s a good thing we’re hiking so much, given how much rich and delicious food we’re eating staying at the Waldhaus Sils, a grand and historic hotel in Sils Marie.  But that’s another whole post, so stay tuned.

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View of Bregaglia Valley