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.
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.
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.
For 22 years I looked at the Ossipee Mountains on the far horizon across the southwestern coves of Squam Lake. From the Westwinds Cottages, where our family spent a week every summer, I could see the Ossipees behind the closer height of Red Hill, a hazy ridge of mountains I’d never climbed. I knew the Ossipees were a ring of mountains from an ancient volcano, but there were few known trails and no maps, and I was always busy climbing the higher White Mountains to the north.
Yesterday I got to stand on top of the ridge I looked at all those summers and take in a distant view of that southwestern corner of Squam Lake, along with a gloriously expansive view of Lake Winnipesaukee. The trail to the summit of Mt. Roberts passed over numerous ledges with views of the lakes to the south.
From the top of Mt. Roberts we followed the High Ridge Trail, which strings many of the peaks together. It’s an old carriage road, running along the 2,000 foot ridge, and is wide and grassy and some of the best hiking footing I’ve ever experienced.
The trails in the Ossipees have been mapped by the Trail Bandit, a man who started by mapping St. John in the Virgin Islands for hikers, then took on the Ossipees next. I don’t know what the connection is, but I’m thankful for the work he’s done to make the trails more accessible. The Lakes Region Conservation Trust has gone even further in making their conservation area in the Ossipees accessible by creating trail maps and kiosks in the Castle in the Clouds area of the Ossipee Mountains, clearly marking 30 miles of trails with blazes and signs.
With a strong wind cooling off the hot sun and flickering light through the leaves of the trees along the trail, it was an ideal day for hiking. I fell into a smooth rhythm of walking, the flow of a good hike following me long after I got to the end of the trail. At the summit of Mt. Roberts we chatted with a couple having lunch there. We talked about hiking lists we’ve completed (the man has done all the 4,000 footers in New England and the woman was working on 52 With A View) and how for the most part none of us are into lists at this point in our lives — too many other things competing for our recreational attention.
But after yesterday, the peaks in the Ossipees is a list I plan to pay more attention to.
Yesterday was finally the day I got to linger and enjoy looking far into the distance from the top of Mt. Moosilauke. The summit is broad and open, and sitting to the west of most of the White Mountains, has spectacular views of the Franconia Ridge and all the mountains beyond. Every other time I’ve hiked to the top of Mt. Moosilauke there has been some sort of unfavorable weather to deal with — mist or scattered rain or snow, and most often hard wind that makes it too cold to stay at the top for long.
Yesterday was warm, sunny and bright, with little wind and no bugs. This was the Moosilauke hike I’ve been waiting for. I hiked with a group of friends and we spent a long time at the summit, enjoying the view, the fair weather and the satisfying stretch of our muscles after our first serious hike of the season.
But even when the views were near rather than far yesterday it was beautiful. The rivers and brooks we crossed and hiked along were running clear over speckled rocks, glinting in the sun, and there were beautiful flowers along the trail — trout lily, tiny white violets and trillium. There was also a broad bush with lacy white blossoms we couldn’t identify. When I look at the ridges of the White Mountains from any summit I can name the peaks. When I look at flowers in the woods I want to be able to name them too, so I looked up the flowering bush — hobblebush viburnum.
I’ve been thinking about view and perspective a good bit the last week, because I’m taking a break from working on the memoir. Having spent three months working through several drafts, I can’t see it as a whole piece right now. I can edit individual sections and see where a word or phrase or sentence needs to change. But I’ve gotten too close to be able to see how the pieces work together and whether those pieces make sense as a book. Time to step away for a bit and see if I can come back to it with a wider view.
Getting to the top of Mt. Moosilauke on a sunny day, enjoying the trailside flowers and tumbling water along the way, was a good lesson in perspective.
David and I get ready to go cross country skiing on the community trails a few miles from Vermont Studio Center. Except now he realizes he forgot to pack his ski boots. He also didn’t bring his micro-spikes for walking on packed snow trails. We study the walking maps VSC provides and decide to snowshoe on the Long Trail where it crosses through Johnson. We get to what we hope is the trail head (the hand drawn map is completely out of scale and hard to connect to where we are) and I realize I’ve left my snowshoes in my car back at VSC. And I don’t have my hat and mittens. Luckily an extra hat and mittens are things David did pack and they’re in his car. I put on my micro-spikes, because at least I have those. David puts on his snowshoes.
We follow what we think is the trail, but we never see any white blazes, which mark the Long Trail, and eventually turn around. We try a different direction on the packed road into the woods and find another parking area. This time we find white blazes and head uphill, to what we hope will be Prospect Rock. The map says it has a great view.
It does. In fact, it’s a 180 degree view, so that hiking intention for March is now met. It feels good to get something intentional done. The Green Mountains rise up across the wide valley of the Lamoille River. It’s sunny and warmer than it’s been for a very long time and we drink in the hint of spring.
We’ve been talking about the book I’m trying to pull into some kind of shape, and some of what’s been confusing and hard to grasp is coming into focus. From the distance of six years, the disorienting time I’m writing about makes more sense. How our decisions and reactions and responses to deeply felt needs and answers to those needs affected all that rippled out from that passage in our lives is clear in a way it hasn’t been before.
Spending four weeks away from home, navigating the dislocation of sleeping in one room, writing in a studio a few minutes walk away, eating in a separate building where meals include talking to what start out as 60 strangers and become a new family, figuring out where to keep my computer and books and snacks and journal and boots and toothpaste starts to feel more worth it, because it’s putting me in a place of concentrated focus on this book I’ve been carrying around as a huge intention for years. Is this an intention I’ll start to meet more fully? I’ve figured out where to keep my toothbrush, so the work is bound to go more smoothly now. Right?
When David and I get back to the car, I find my hat and mittens. They were in a bag in the back seat.
The intention David and I continued into this new year, of getting above tree line once a month, or hiking to at least a 180 degree view, was doubled for February. Not only did we hike to a view two days in a row, we got above a rainbow.
On Saturday we drove a steadily climbing and seriously winding dirt road into the Appalachian Mountains between Knoxville and Asheville to a short trail up Max Patch, a bald mountain top along the Appalachian Trail in North Carolina. We were taking a side trip from our Knoxville vacation to visit friends in Asheville, and a detour through the mountains seemed like the perfect route. It was.
Originally cleared in the 1800’s for pasture land, and kept open ever since, Max Patch has incredible views of the Smoky Mountains to the south and the Black Mountains to the east. We started off on a trail around a grand slope of dried grasses, then followed the white blazes of the AT up to the summit. We were surrounded by mountain ridges drawing a horizon in every direction.
On Sunday we drove back to Knoxville through Smoky Mountain National Park, and met up with Sam and a friend at Newfound Gap. There we followed the AT once again, this time for a few miles to a trail to Jumpoff, a spur of ridge that ends in steep, brush covered cliffs with a view of mountains to the north. As we ate some snacks at the edge of the ridge, the clouds that had been blocking the sun off and on all day rolled into the ravine below us. Now instead of forested mountain sides, we were looking down into a sheets of mist. Which suddenly picked up enough light to create a circle of rainbow below us.
There is no tree line in the southern Appalachian mountains — trees grow right to the peaks, even though many of them are higher than the mountains in New Hampshire. So instead of getting above tree line this month, we got above a rainbow. I’ll take it.
Where do three days go? There were so many moments, in the three days of the Mindful Writing Challenge that I missed, when I did pay proper attention to something, and even did some writing of those small stones in my mind, but I never got any of them written outside my head. So have I failed the challenge? Does it count that I spent almost all of Friday working on poems, with so many files open I had to keep pulling them all up on my screen to figure out what poem to jump to next, and reading poems, and celebrating the online publication of two of my poems in the new issue of Petrichor Review? (Yes, please, do go check them out.)
Then yesterday David and I met our new New Year’s intention of hiking above tree line, or at least to a 180 degree view, at least once a month, by climbing Parker Mountain. Standing on the cliffs overlooking Bow Lake, with a wide view to the cloudy horizon of ocean to the east, was a moment that got lots of my proper attention. But then we got home and had phone calls to answer and food to prep for a dinner and wood to stack in the barn and then it was time to go out and then time to sleep.
This morning we skied to Flat Meadow Brook, which was running open and loud when I was there on Tuesday. After five days of mostly single digit temperatures, the brook is closing in, with only small pockets of water showing through some ruffle-edged holes in the layers of white, crusty ice.
Now it’s a quiet Sunday afternoon with sunshine streaming into my study and that low hum of stillness in the house again. Time to step back up to the Challenge.
Eleven out of twelve is a good record. David and I realized our 2013 intention of getting above tree line at least once a month for elven out of the year’s twelve months, and it was as much fun as we’d hoped it would be. We freely stretched our definition of “above tree line” in order to make the eleven, but not so much that we didn’t admit it didn’t happen in November. Just too much going in.
But we made did it in December, yesterday in fact. Cathy, Betsy, Sam, David and I took the Crawford Path to Mt. Pierce, the first above tree line hike we did in 2013, back in January. There was far less snow yesterday than 11 months ago, a clouded summit, and trees that looked like underwater growth, which I guess in a way they are, shrouded with ice then snow then more ice and snow until there is only a slightly tree-shaped mound along the edge of the trail.
There were also snow ribbons draped in loops from the thin horizontal branches of saplings. And the always welcome ease of footing on a packed trail; even if a bit icy with rocks sticking through in spots, between new insulated boots and micro-spikes, it was a quick, easy walk.
Yesterday’s bright sun and hard wind (though not as hard as today) called for a walk in the woods. Which made me think of the Great Brook Trail in Deerfield, a three-mile walk through a variety of woodlands and wetlands, past beaver ponds and along the Great Brook, and up and down hummocks of granite ledges. There are bridges to cross, delightful hand-lettered signs pointing out side trails to vernal pools and overlooks, and best of all, a bench set on a rock outcropping halfway along the trail, positioned to look up Great Brook as it runs through a small gorge.
A seat in the woods is an invitation to be present. Present to what? To whatever has brought me outside, or even better, to what is in front of me now that I’m out. Often it’s simply the need to have more space around me, to let some of the energy radiating from my body be absorbed by the wind and rocks and trees. In my last blog post, I described my project last year at this time to write 300 — 400 words each day of the two weeks leading to the winter solstice. On the second day I wrote, I need to be outside moving around. There has been too much moving inside me the last several months, and expanding this churn of energy into a greater sphere has come to feel essential.
Whenever I pass this bench along the Great Brook I imagine coming here some day with a book and a journal and just sitting. Observing, reading, writing. I think the same on many of the hikes I do, imagining an afternoon on a favorite ledge with no ambition beyond being in that spot for as long as I can manage to stay still.
I never do it, always moving on, with some place to get to or some place to be. But yesterday I did stop long enough to sit on the bench and watch the water coming down through the rocks, noticing how light was falling into the woods through the bare trees. I walked and sat and looked. Present.
Intentions are a means of getting ourselves where we want to be, rather than letting life’s currents spin us along. Not that letting currents take you into unknown and unexpected territory is a bad thing. After all, my tag line for this blog is “Life is more about floating down river than it is marching across a field.”
Balance is the key, between letting events and experiences unfold, and making sure you have enough of what sustains you in your life. The intention David and I committed to for this year — to get above tree line at least once a month — was meant to make sure we have enough hiking in our lives, because hiking to a view is nourishing for both of us. The effort, the exercise, often the friends with us on the hikes, the reliable renewal of being outdoors, and the visual expanse all contribute to the pleasure we get from being above tree line.
So does the hiking we did in Arizona and Utah count towards that intention? Yes. Even though we weren’t technically getting above tree line, we were hiking. A lot. In fact, in the Grand Canyon we hiked down to an elevation that would be far above tree line in New Hampshire, and for the entire time we were out west we were at elevations that would be above tree line here. We had expansive views on every hike, mostly because we were below tree line, we were outside for most of every day, and there was plenty of effort and exercise, often to get to a mesa top where there were trees again, after walking through rock-walled canyons.
We had the intention of going out west to center our days around being outdoors, walking in new territory, and seeing vastly different landscapes. And that’s what happened. It was grand.
Just as we were rounding the first mound of rock to disappear on the Chimney Rock Trail in Capital Reef National Park yesterday, we heard a siren whirl from the road and saw a National Park truck pulling up to the trailhead. We’d parked in a pull-out up the road and walked down to the trail. The word in town (because we’d talked to people as we bought groceries and coffee) was that all the trail entrances along Route 24 were blocked, people were parking elsewhere and walking to the trails, and if they got caught, were being given $150 tickets. David and I stopped and looked and a woman got out of the truck and yelled at us. “You need to come back and get off this trail.”
We walked back. The ranger began the conversation by being firm and telling us we had to leave, that it didn’t matter to her if we felt we weren’t doing anything wrong by walking on our public land, and that we’d get ticketed (yes, $150) and even arrested if we didn’t get off the trail.
“But we were in the park yesterday,” I said. We’d gone to the southern end of Capital Reef the day before, because we’d heard (everyone out here is talking about the national park closures) at dinner that the eastern and southern ends of the park were open. “They only have 5 rangers for the whole park,” one person told us. “They can’t patrol it all.”
We’d driven the long, gravel Notom Road down the eastern side of the park, then turned on the Burr Trail, a 35 mile road that climbs through the Waterpocket Fold of Capital Reef on steep and narrow switchbacks. The fold is an upheaval of layers of the earth along a fault that’s almost 100 miles long and that reaches over 2500 feet (it used to reach over 7,000 feet). David and I had hiked the Upper Muley Twist Canyon the day before, which follows the wash of a river through the spine of the fold after climbing to the top, providing incredible views of the jumbled rocks stretching north and south.
“We were on the Upper Muley Twist trail yesterday,” I told the ranger. “Well you were hiking illegally,” she said. We hadn’t really engaged in civil disobedience, I thought but didn’t say, because there were no signs saying the trail was closed. Instead, I told the ranger I felt a moral obligation to continue to hike as planned, in spite of the national park closures, because I truly believe the parks are public land and that the public can’t be denied access. David talked to her about his vision of national park protests and sit-ins by older Americans, the people taking back the parks. “You’d need to pick a more well-known park than this one,” she said. She argued with us for a few more minutes, but then started suggesting other hikes that wouldn’t be illegal and asked us not to continue with our protest right then and there by continuing to hike, “because then I’ll have to arrest you and take you to jail all the way in St. George, and that’s not going to be fun for anyone.”
The ranger was reasonable, she was only doing her job (without pay), she was listening to us and she was nice. We didn’t want to ruin her day, and we didn’t want to spend the weekend in jail (which the ranger had told us would likely happen if she did arrest us) so we left, after thanking her for working without pay. We drove back down the Notom Road to Cottonwood Wash, another river bed that runs west into the Waterpocket Fold, and walked up through a series of unimaginably varied, colorful and angled rocks.
We’d shifted our plans and decided to do half of the long drive back to Santa Fe yesterday, rather than a 10 hour drive today, so we came to Durango, Colorado last night. We’d heard it’s a wonderful town (it is) and the drive was spectacular, with the widely varying landscapes we’ve come to expect on this trip, including a long descent through a red canyon, 1,000 foot walls of Navajo sandstone rising on either side of us, and dropping us at a northern edge of Lake Powell where the Dirty Devil and Colorado Rivers flow in. Towards the end of the drive we got into more familiar looking mountains, forested with spruce and colored russet and golden with the changing foliage of oaks.
We expected an interesting and charming town, steeped in cowboy culture, which we found. What we didn’t expect is that this weekend is the 25th anniversary Durango Cowboy Poetry Gathering. Last night after dinner we walked into the Strater Hotel and listened to cowboy poets reading and singing and telling stories. All the men were wearing cowboy hats and all the poems rhymed.
The next four days in Santa Fe don’t include plans to visit national parks, so our days of civil disobedience might be over. Or maybe we’ll get back to New Hampshire and start organizing in a park people have heard of. A sit-in at Acadia next weekend?