The Stillness

Some of you are going to read this post and know exactly what I’m talking about. The rest of you are going to think, “Yep, this chick is nuts!” But don’t write me off just yet…

 Gravel crunches beneath my tires in the Hume Lake parking area. I turn off the engine and sit for a minute to squelch my frustration. Today’s adventure plan was to hike to the Boole tree (a giant sequoia free from paved walkways and fences), but compliments of the man who set over 1,600 acres of the Sequoia National Forest on fire last year while tending to the 2,000 plus marijuana plants that he was growing in the national forest, the Converse Basin Trail that would lead me there is closed.

Rocky hops off my lap and presses his paws against the passenger-side window then looks back at me, his brown eyes expectant and mouth wide with a doggy smile. I laugh and clip the ridiculously-too-big-for-him canicross leash to his halter, snap the other end around my waist, and together we make our way to the trail.A breeze, cool from its journey across the lake refreshes me. Sunlight breaks through the branches of towering evergreens creating a shifting patchwork of gold at my feet. My day is perfect. Ahead a swarm of flying insects blocks the path. I consider going back for the insect repellent that has been tucked away in my trunk since before I started this gypsy life. Instead I choose to brave the biting beasts.
Ten steps.
Hundreds of lady bugs surround me—drifting, floating, twirling, swirling. One lands lightly on my arm, resting for barely a second before returning to its aerial dance. Slowly the magical swarm moves away, forming a ribbon leading into the trees. I can’t help myself. I leave the path to follow the ladybug trail. Pine needles blanket the ground beneath my feet as I weave between the trees. I’ve only traveled a few feet from the trail when the stream of ladybugs breaks apart and disappears through the branches.
I follow.
The lake stretches before me like a sea of sparkling sapphires. A pair of grebes drift along its surface. 


Rocky’s nose finds the ground and leads him in an erratic pattern along the edge of the water as I settle onto a nearby rock to watch the grebes as they take turns diving beneath the water, each time rising farther away from me.The birds are nothing more than two dark spots on the blue water and Rocky is once again staring expectantly at me. I rise from my observation perch and make my way back to the path. We wind our way through a clearing. Bushes bursting with tiny pink bell flowers are scattered among the gold and green California grass.

Beyond the clearing, evergreens reclaim the landscape. Although dwarf-like in comparison to their sequoia cousins, these trees hold their own majesty. And I love that I am alone here. I have craved this solitude. I pause near a large red fir and press my hand against its cinnamon bark. I feel its energy flow through me as I gaze up into its branches and wonder…


How many birds have built their homes in those branches?
How many squirrels have called this tree their playground?

How many feet have pressed down the earth over its roots?
How many hands have pressed against its trunk as mine does?  
I close my eyes and breathe deeply of this pure air.
And a stillness settles over me. It soothes me, energizes me and fills me with joy.
It is a stillness that can only be found in the forest. A stillness born from great trees.
Which person are you? 
  

That Place

On each assignment, I search for That Place.

It only has a few requirements.

      It must be nearby.

      It must bring me closer to nature.

      It must allow dogs (I do make an exception to this rule when Rocky doesn’t travel with me.)

      It must center me.

Sometimes I’ll be almost through my assignment before I find That Place.

In North Carolina, it was Battleground Park in Greensboro. I so loved walking along the winding paved pathways sheltered beneath the branches of great trees, as I watched bluebirds, woodpeckers, cardinals and the occasional vulture. The best part….I shared this time with my closest friend, Jeanne Curtin.

In South Carolina, it was Lake Conestee.  I watched baby herons grow to adulthood, discovered red-shouldered hawk nests, glimpsed a beaver and discovered one of my first tree creatures in this preserve.

In Maine, it was a magical trail in downtown Corinna. It began as a boardwalk at a small dam and wove its way through a marshland rich with touch-me-nots, ducks, butterflies and the occasional hummingbird. It connects with the rail trail, bordered by wetlands on one side and farmland on the other.

In Florida, I never found That Place. There were very few trails nearby that allowed dogs. I considered risking bringing Rocky along in his pouch and throwing out the argument that you can barely consider him a dog.

Today I found That Place here in California. It took some searching, but I knew that it had to be here.

I had tried the Avocado Rim trail. It was disgustingly dirty and really more of a road than a trail.

I had parked at the dam and walked along the river. It was clean, but once again, more of a road than a trail.

I had tried the other side of the river. But the trail petered out into a field of burrs that clung to my socks then worked their way into my shoes. Rocky didn’t like this field any better than me. He insisted on being carried through the burry grass.

Today I headed out intent on settling for a walk along the road across from the dam. As I drove along the Pine Flat road, I passed a sign that said ‘River Access No Camping’. As I rounded the corner, I spotted a Kiosk a few feet beyond the parking area.

Kiosks mean trails!

I made a U-turn, turned into the access point and my oh-too-low-to-the-ground car crept down the partially washed out, steep drive.

The moment I stepped out of my car, I knew I’d found it. This was That Place.

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The river drifted lazily around a tiny island crowded with sycamore trees. A few people fished along the river, but not so much to feel crowded. And there, beyond the Kiosk was a trail. Not a road, but an actual trail.

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And it was perfect.

Scattered craggy trees with their branches twisting over the trail.

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The river’s melody plays alongside me.

Swallows perform their acrobatic aerial dance as they gather their dinner.

Stalks filled with yellow flowers, wild roses, and some tiny flowers that remind me of miniature dragons border my path.

A scrub jays squawks as I pass beneath the branches of its tree.

I scramble up a hill of granite boulders that makes me wish I’d worn my hiking shoes.

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Tiny birds, not much bigger than hummingbirds flit about on giant thistles with variegated leaves.

A waterfall of yellow flowers spills down a rocky hill.

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A red shouldered hawk soars across the river

I climb to the top of a hill that is solid rock. From here I can see the dam, the rolling golden California hills and the mountains beyond. I realize that I’ve made my way almost to the trail that had petered out into a burry field.

Across the river, crows and vultures perch, waiting on bare branches.

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Beyond the rock hill, the trail becomes more difficult to follow. Two picnic tables, one overtaken by tall green grass spur me forward.IMG_8553.JPG

A rustle of grass and a glimpse of a ground squirrel scurrying out of site.

Two quails dash into the underbrush. I’ll remember this spot, because I’d love to get a picture of them.

Across the river, a cow ‘moos.’ I looked toward the sound and spot what I believe is a cormorant with a speckled white upper body and brown lower half.

I stand quietly, my eyes closed and listen to the sounds of the river, birds and the solitary cow. The peacefulness of nature centers me.

Yes.

This is That Place

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Day 6: A Short Day

I’m up, but tired. 

I start my day interviewing my neighboring camp mates. No they didn’t hear anything last night. No they didn’t come down to check on me.

But the creeper will not ruin my day or my trip. I set out to explore Collosal Cave Moubtain Park.  I am to see a roadrunner. 

I see some sort of orange ringtail critter.

A deer. 

Lots of birds. 

No roadrunner.

I took pictures of these with my regular camera. Once I get back to civilization I will update this post with the photos. (I’ve typed all these blogs from my phone!)

I’m off to Saguara National. This is an unplanned excursion, but it’s only 10 miles away.  And it is so worth it. I drive the 8 mile loop taking pictures of the desert.  

    
    
 There is a cactus forest. I never thought of cacti all together as being a forest.  But they are as big as a tree and birds do build nests in them. 

I look at the time and gauge how long it will take me to arrive at my planned camping destination. And I realize, I’m just to tired. 

I choose a site only 3 hours away, call for a reservation and I’m on my way. 

The roadside views are breathtaking

And the camp is beautiful.  

 I’m sitting by my fire. The stars are brilliant in the night sky. There are two families and bunches of kids on either side of me. And you know what?  I don’t mind their noisy kid sounds one bit!  

Day 5: There and Back

 I am awake. And I’m excited, not just because of the amazing sunrise or the way the sun sets the mountains behind me on fire! 

    
 I am excited because today,  for the first time, I know where I am going. Years ago I visited Collosal Cave Mountain Park and fell in love with the surrounding desert, so when I realized that I could make this one of my stops I was ecstatic. I am ready to go back! But I’m also working on embracing the here and now, so before I hit the road, Rocky and I set out to explore one of the trails at Rock Hound State Park. 

On our journey, I spot a cottontail. He freezes on the path, waits for us to get closer than hops a little farther down the path. I can’t help wondering if I’m following Peter Cottontail down his bunny trail or if I’m Alice being led to wonderland!   

 At the end of my walk, I notice this sign. And I think: if this was the end of the road for me, it’s a good place to be.  

 On my way back to the interstate I discover a Walmart!!  Yay! So happy to stock up on real food.

In the parking lot I meet, Tim.  He strides over to my car with his white cowboy hat, black vest, faded jeans and cowboy boots wearing a smile beneath his oh-so-western mustache and a sparkle in his blue eyes and says, “Maine, now you’re a long way from home.” 

I spent the next half hour learning bout Tim: retired after thirty years in the military, Forester, engineer and now Pecan Farmer.  He tips me off to breakfast at Si Senorita and I have my first Mexican breakfast…Yum!!   

 Per my usually ADHD while driving,  I wander off the interstate in search of another historical Fort. This time I find it!  Rocky and I head down the 1.5 mile trail to the fort. He really isn’t up to the task and I find myself carrying him most of the way. 

  

  

  

After about a mile I am stopped by two border control officers. They want me to know that they are after an illegal who is here in the woods. He’s wearing a red hoodie. I hesitate for a moment, then decide to finish my hike. 

I meet a few people, but no red hoodies. And here’s where I’ll probably irritate a few people. When I think of illegal immigrants, I don’t want them crossing the border illegally…but then I think of the person and I wonder what they are running from that would drive them over the mountains and into this desert.  It’s easy to feel strongly about a concept, but more difficult to apply that to a living, breathing person. 

 I considered another tale about finding the illegal hidden away in my car….

I arrive at Collosal Cave and it’s everything I remember. 

    
   
Camping is only $5 and there are only two other people in the section of the campground I’m. I pick a site way in the back so that I can have privacy for the first time this week!  

 The one strange thing… The gate to the campground is locked at 5 and opened at 7:30 am. There is no cell reception, but if need to, I can run a 1/4 mile to the 911 phone that rings automatically to the sheriff.  

Filled with plans for morning and thankful that it’s not dropping below 60 tonight, I settle in to sleep.  

   

Into the Clouds of Franconia Ridge

One of the things I love about photography is the way a single image has the power to spark a memory. That’s what happened to me today when I saw a picture of Franconia Notch. Its snow covered ridge rising above the vibrant fall foliage was different from the lush summer green that I remembered. Yet it held the same power, and the memory of my climb was as sharp as if it had occurred only yesterday.

At the sound of the alarm I hopped out of bed, being careful not to disturb my sleeping husband. As I slipped into my typical hiking clothes, Rocky, my three year old yorkie’s head popped up. I tapped my leg and he sprang to my side.

In the kitchen, I started breakfast and before long the aroma of bacon, eggs and toast drew my nineteen year-old son out of bed. Once our bellies were full and our gear packed, we climbed into the car and let the GPS lead us along scenic roadways to the Franconia Ridge trailhead.

The trailhead parking area is immediately off interstate 93, but the second my feet met the hard-packed dirt of the trail, the sounds of traffic faded away to a distant memory. I had entered the sanctuary of the forest.

IMG_8431Ferns, saplings and the occasional wildflower hid the ground alongside the trail. Stout maple, lean aspen and rough pine stretched their branches toward the sky, created a canopy of deep green leaves that provided welcome shade along the path. IMG_8472My son marched ahead of me, his long, lean legs carrying him one step for every two of mine. My little yorkie, tugged at his cani-cross leash, his feet scrabbling through the dirt as he tried to catch up with my son, which he does when we reach the intersection of Greenleaf and Falling Waters Trail.

The murmur of a not-so-far-away creek, draws me to the Falling Waters Trail and the tightly packed dirt beneath my feet is replaced with a path of large boulders, as if a giant had tossed them down the mountain to add to the challenge of our ascent. My son is like a six-foot-two Billy goat as he leaps from rock to rock, pausing frequently to wait for me as I chose my steps carefully grasping the trunks of nearby trees to steady my way.

Falling Waters Trail is clearly named for the water that tumbles down the mountain. Its music surrounds me as it bounces and splashes over rocks, twists around corners and cascades down miniature falls. I’m tempted to close my eyes and lose myself in its watery melody, but the threat of tumbling head over heels down the trail persuades me to keep my eyes open.

Before long the cadence of the creek changes from bubbling laughter to a dIMG_8445istant roar. I scramble up the bouldered path toward the sound and am not disappointed. Rushing water spills over the top of a semi-circle of step-like ledges, then swirls into a shallow pebbled-bottom pool before it continues its downward journey. It may not be the largest waterfall, but it is beautiful.

IMG_8459I could still hear the sound of the rushing water behind me when I discovered something I’d never seen before. It was a three-legged tree creature, caught mid stride. Only a tree could hold this pose so perfectly.

For the next three miles with my little yorkie still trotting along ahead of me with his endless energy, I
enjoyed more waterfalls, each one beautiful in its own way.IMG_8466IMG_8452IMG_8463

And I kept a close eye on the trees, hoping to catch one unawares. But trIMG_8489ee real estate is tight up here in Franconia Notch, where the trees, rocks and moss have learned to co-exist peacefully. I suppose, living in such a tight space doesn’t allow for much movement.

My fast-moving son waited for me by the sign for Shining Rock. It was a no-brainer that we would go check it out.

IMG_8483Shining Rock doesn’t shine when you’re right next to it, but I image that from other peaks, it is without a doubt a beauty! It’s a completely flat rock face that I’m guessing goes straight up to Franconia Ridge. There is a constant flow of water down its surface and when I stand at the right angle, I catch sight of brief reflections from the sun. Someday I’ll have to investigate which peak to climb so that I can enjoy it in its full splendor.

After a short break, which I spent dissuading my adrenaline-junky climbing partner from attempting to scale Shining Rock, we resumed our upward trek. The path veered away from the water and the rocky trail grew steeper. I pushed on, trying to keep up with the giant billy goat leading the way.IMG_8491

And then he called down to me that he’d reached the ridge. His proclamation of breath-taking views energized my feet and Rocky and I scurried up the last portion of Falling Waters Trail.

When I climbed up over that last rock I stood in awe trying to take in the panoramic views of the White Mountains that surrounded me. It overwhelmed me. The space, the beauty, the realization of how big the earth is and how really, truly small I am in comparison. Franconia Ridge is everything I imagined it to be and more.IMG_8492IMG_8494

I read once that when you reach the summit of a mountain, you’re only half-way through your journey.

Well, in the case of the Franconia Ridge loop, you’re just over a third of the way.
We rested, ate lunch and enjoyed the view—well, I rested, my son provided entertainment!IMG_8523IMG_8512

The beginning of the ridge trail is hard packed dirt surrounded by low growing brush, moss and alpine flowers resilient enough to withstand the cool, windy climate.

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I had tied my sweatshirt arIMG_8496ound my waist at the beginning of the hike. Now I pulled it up over my head and stepped onto the trail. I looked to the next peak (at the time I thought it was my last peak…NOT) and headed on to traverse Little Haystack Mountain and Mount Lincoln. As I descended the summit of Mount LincolnIMG_8531 I looked ahead to Mount Lafayette and I felt a thrill. The peak was hidden in the clouds. I prayed that the skies wouldn’t clear and I walked faster. I’ve never hiked into the clouds before!

As the elevation increased, so did the size of the rocks beneath my feet and once again I found myself rock-hopping and occasionally scrambling up boulders, which of course delayed my journey to the clouds.IMG_8513

But I made it. I stood on the top surrounded by clouds. It was beautiful and amazing and…..

I turn and face the  wind. A cloud rushes toward me like a monstrous white beast. My heart pounds. The cloud looks so solid as it flies toward me that I am tIMG_8537empted to duck. But I stand firm and the monster dissipates into a wave of thick fog that surrounds me. I feel victorious. I have hiked into the clouds and faced them without flinching! It’s a memory I will hold onto forever!

I could have stayed up on that peak indefinitely. Except that I was getting hungry and the 3.8 miles of the Greenleaf Trail seperated me and dinner.

IMG_8550 (2)The Greenleaf Trail starts out very steep—like hold onto trees and slide on your butt steep. This steepness slowed me down quite a bit. Of course, it didn’t slow the billy goat down. Where I slid, he jumped. The trail finally eased up soIMG_8554me and opened out onto a ledge. The warmth of the sun felt good and I took my time, enjoying the views and letting the sun chase away the last of the mountaintop chill.
And then the trail veered back into the trees and resumed its steepness.

About a mile down, we reached the Greenleaf Hut. It’s a lot more than a hut. You can hang out with other hikers in a large open room (I didn’t get to do this, because there are no dogs allowed inside). There are indoor restrooms with cold, but running water, a few co-ed rooms with bunkbeds and I’ve since read that you can get a hot meal there at specified times. I could have purchased water or a few souvenir like items, if I hadn’t left my wallet in the car. The Greenleaf Hut has officially been added to my list of things I want to do. I think it would be fun to stay for a few days so that I could hike and really explore Franconia Notch.IMG_8510

Knowing I had a 2 ½ hour drive ahead of me after we returned to the trailhead, I didn’t linger here. I’ll admit it. My legs were getting tired. Not so tired that I didn’t enjoy the 2.7 mile remaining miles, but tired enough that when I once again heard the sound of traffic, joy filled my heart and sent a final surge of energy to my legs.

The parking lot was a beautiful sight! I tossed my pack into the back seat, my little yorkie hopped in beside it and immediately curled up into a ball, and I flopped into the driver’s seat, every muscle in my body cheering in relief. We did it!

P.S. I almost caught another tree creature in action!IMG_8556