“In The Woods We Return to Reason and Faith”

…says Ralph Waldo Emerson, and I’ve never doubted it. This week not only woods, but also craggy peaks, wildflowers, gray jays, marmots and mountain goats worked their magic on me, and I finally feel like blogging again.

It’s been a month since I last posted, not that anyone’s keeping score. A month since I decided, y’know what? I don’t have the heart for this right now.

I can’t promise how long Nature’s “cordial of incredible virtue” will last. But while it does…please, allow me to share some of her bounty, in the form of Goat Rocks Wilderness in southern Washington. All photos are by my Ironwoman goddaughter and adventure buddy, Allison. (Apologies for the haze–parts of the Cascades are on fire.)

Heading in

Above tree line on the Pacific Crest Trail

Paintbrush gardens everywhere

Up above 7,200 feet–still plenty of snow patches

This section’s called The Knife


Goat! (Allison’s camera has a great zoom)

A whole goaty family!

Goats + Rocks = Goat Rocks

Larkspur thriving under the harshest conditions

Goat Lake, far off but calling to us…

Smoke from fires further northeast just made us grateful to be there at all.

Y’all come back soon, hear? (Yes, please.)

Road Trip V, Days 21-23, Durham, N.C.: Let Us Now Praise Famous Trees

…or not-famous trees (which was kinda the point of James Agee’s title). Trees that are famous only to ourselves, perhaps. Special. Dare I say sacred? Do you have one in your past?

I do, and I visited it today. Actually, I visited its ghost; the tree itself died many years ago. It’s a sycamore growing by a creek in the woods outside Durham where I grew up, and once upon a time it looked like this:

(Courtesy Wikimedia)

(Courtesy Wikimedia)

Sycamores are special. Like madronas, which I wrote about at the start of this trip, they start unremarkably but show more individuality with each vertical inch. Twisting, curving, pied, spotted, toward the top they gleam creamy, crazy white–so white you can spy them from 100 yards away through winter woods. They also have the quirk of growing solo, so that a single sycamore will stand out amidst hundreds of gray and brown fellow tree-citizens. (I try, but usually fail, to avoid thinking of sycamores as tree royalty reigning over their patch of forest.)

My sycamore was solo. She grew in some woodsy acres my family bought when I was in high school, and we discovered her while exploring. Not only did this single tree stand out, her roots supported the banks of a little creek with tiny rapids and wild violets growing in the crevices. I was enchanted. When my school’s annual Mini-Session came around, one April week for high school students to pursue special projects, mine was to camp alone in our woods, in the company of my sycamore.

This was hardly Outward Bound. I was only a couple of miles from my home, but deep enough into the woods as to be safe from outsiders. I had my tent and a little cooking stove, and I spent my days reading, writing in my journal, going for walks, or just lying on a log watching the creek. (Can you tell my Senior English teacher had assigned us Thoreau and Annie Dillard? Yeah, I was quite the teenage Transcendentalist.) I had to leave the woods twice to attend college classes I was taking, and my then-boyfriend (now my Mate) even came to visit me once. So, hardly Annie Dillard either. But mostly I kept company with my tree.

Years later, The Mate and I enjoyed taking friends, and then our young boys, to look at Gretchen’s Spot and visit my sycamore. We could always sight it long before we could reach it through those tangly southern woods. Then some years went by without visits, until we finally went back to find my tree looking like this:

The ghost of my sycamore--keeping company with our friend's son

The ghost of my sycamore–keeping company with our friend’s son

But in my mind? She’s still a queen, and she looks more like this:

(In Big Sur last year, with our sons)

(In Big Sur last year, with our sons)

Do you have a special tree, or did you? Care to share?

Get Lost: Why Hiking Feels Like the Most Important Job in the World

The logline of this blog is “Will Backpack for Chocolate,” so I thought about titling this post, “No, Really, I WILL Backpack for Chocolate,” just to be cute. Because I went backpacking this summer and did indeed eat an awful lot of chocolate. (Mac & cheese too, but that doesn’t sound as snappy.)

But then I went for a day-hike last week and realized, all cuteness aside, chocolate has nothing to do with it. Descending from a bright, sunny ridge full of the vestigal summer wildflowers into dark fir woods felt like the most important thing I could possibly be doing. Never mind that it was a Tuesday in September and nearly every non-retired friend I could think of was at work. I felt completely justified, even proud of myself, for walking on a mountain.

How can this be? I’m pretty Type-A: I love making lists and checking things off. Days are for Getting Things Done, as much now, in my part-time baker/part-time writer “career,” as when I was schlepping through the school year as a mom/teacher. I check my watch a lot, even when I don’t need to. I schedule time for everything from thawing ingredients for tomorrow’s dinner, to catching up on DVR’d Daily Shows.

Why does hiking feel so…productive?

I have a few theories. Ready?

1. I’m a nature-girl deep in my soul, raised on runs in Duke Forest and trips to the Blue Ridge Mountains. My Senior year of American Lit. focused on the Transcendentalists, so I imbibed Thoreau & Emerson & Annie Dillard at a tender age. Of course I’m an environmentalist, if by “environmentalist” you mean I believe in marshaling communal resources to protect the natural world as much as possible. Therefore, spending time in nature feels like political witness: putting my money where my mouth is, walking the talk.

2. I am also very, very social. I love my family and friends, and I value the extra closeness that a day of hiking, or a night in a tent, creates. That validation you get from calling your mom long-distance and reconnecting, despite your hectic schedule? That’s what a day in the woods with friends or family feels like.


3. As a lifelong athlete, I’ve also been trained from a young age to put exercise of any form into the category of “Necessary and Good,” along with personal hygiene and music practice. Hiking is making me stronger, therefore it is good.

4. Emerson wrote in his essay Nature, “In the woods we return to reason and faith.” I have found this to be true even when I wasn’t thinking about it at the time. Nature has always been my church. (And, come on, what other church encourages the eating of M & Ms?)

Am I over-thinking this? Well, duh. I over-think for a living these days. But it’s interesting to tease out the strands, isn’t it?

Enchantments 2013 027
What about you? Does Nature give you another gift that I didn’t mention? Is there another completely self-indulgent activity you enjoy with equal lack of guilt? Or are you hopelessly infected with “There are better things I should be doing with my time”-itis? Let us hear!