Tree Guru, Part II: Let Me Learn From Yew Too

Here’s one of those “discovering” something that was always in plain sight stories. And of course it has a moral.

A few weeks ago I was walking my favorite woodsy path on our beautiful isle and my eyes came to rest on the trunk of a tree I must have passed literally HUNDREDS of times. “Funny,” I thought, “that looks like a juniper. But they don’t have junipers here.”

It’s true. Here in Ecotopia we have Western Red Cedar and we have Douglas Fir, but juniper’s an eastern thing. I knew right away this was something special. And that’s when I remembered hearing about a handful of ancient Pacific Yews still surviving on the south end of Lopez Island. I stepped in for a closer look.

Much closer look.

Thirty+ feet in height. Flat needles. Red bark. But the width–whoa! I couldn’t get my arms around the trunk, not by a long shot. My wing span’s a good 5 feet, so this trunk’s circumference could be 80 inches. And yet it looked SO modest, tucked into the larger forest, that I had ignored it for a good six years of walks.

Not much to yew, is there?

A botanist friend tells me a yew this size is “hundreds of years” old. Impossible to tell how MANY hundreds, of course, but who cares? This unassuming tree, much smaller than the firs around it, could be their great-great-great grandma (overlooking the whole different genus thing, of course).

The obvious moral to this story is, PAY ATTENTION. Who knows what you may be walking past? The more subtle moral…well, several come to mind.

Perseverance and strength–the qualities of heroes–may come in drab packages.

Flashiness often distracts us from our best, truest role models. And of course…

Yew are who yew are.

Do you have your own story of an unobtrusive hero or role model you came to notice after much time? Do share, won’t yew?

Family Pranking: Fun New Resolution for 2018?

Meet Ali the Gator:

“Could someone lick me clean, please?

Oh, why’s he covered in whipped cream and jam? Therein lies a tale. Allow me.

Ali joined our family a couple of years ago when the Mate was out doing yardwork. Spotting a lizard near the compost bin, he decided to catch it, in honor of Wing Son One, who does such things. So he stalked it, for several minutes, before realizing…

a) it was plastic

b) it was an alligator, not a common lizard,

c) it was missing two of its feet (likely a lawn-mower accident)

So he brought it inside. Of course I decided to place it under Son One’s pillow the next time he visited. (Gratifying yell of surprise.) Ali then showed up successively in…

a) the soap dish in the shower

b) my tin of Earl Grey

c) the Mate’s tin of coffee beans

d) my hiking boot

The hiking boot prank was especially good, because I was putting on that boot at the visitor center of Haleakala on Maui, last winter. So I sent Son One this photo of “Ali in Paradise”:

Later, he took a hula class and attended a luau.

From Maui we continued our Epic Journey to New Zealand, so there I took another photo of “Ali with Kiwi Mate”:

“Hey, it’s OK–I can’t fly either, mate.”

This past summer, both sons + Mate gathered in Vermont for a construction blitz on our cousins’ “new” old house. Ali flew there in a care package of cookies, to make a legendary appearance inside an ear of corn the Mate was shucking. (Sadly, no picture of that.)

Don’t know how Ali made it back to the Wet Coast, but he reappeared this past month, folded inside the ferry commuter ticket in our glove box. I decided Ali must have a special Christmas. So I stuffed him inside the yule log cake (Buche de Noel) I was creating.

In you go, lil’ guy!

Don’t eat too much whipped cream in there!

Of course I made sure that one of our sons got the “special” piece of cake. (Son One got the honor.)

Alligator? What alligator? Have a slice of Yule Log! Merry Christmas!

We actually borrowed this idea of family pranking from our Vermont cousins. They did the same thing with an evil-looking doll they called “Malice.” The idea of finding a creepy doll inside, say, one’s freezer, veers too close to heart-attack-land for my taste.

But a cute little alligator? All he does is make us laugh, and think of how much we enoy each other. 

Anyone else out there have an ongoing family prank to share? Anyone want to start 2018 with a new tradition? Be sure to take pictures!

Best Relationship Advice EVER: Take a Walk. Anywhere.

Parents of adolescents and teens know this better than anyone: the best place for a neutral, non-threatening heart-to-heart is…the car. Think about it: enclosed space but no eye contact, no discomfort with long pauses, plenty of scenery to look at while processing responses. And it works even better when it’s dark.

But what if the person you’d like to connect with doesn’t naturally spend car time with you? Another relative, perhaps, or a friend, or a co-worker. I would like to propose an excellent substitute to the car for close, productive conversation: the walk. 

Ready? Let’s walk & talk.

***benefit: EXERCISE!***

I recently rediscovered this on the walking tour I organized for the Mate and me with my 80-something parents (plus another Senior friend) in Ireland. The #2 purpose of the trip: seeing Ireland. The #1 purpose: talking. And I was not disappointed.

IRELAND! Just what you imagined.

Think about it. As in the car, while walking, your eyes are generally forward. No intense eye contact as when sitting at a dining table. No awkwardness with long pauses (especially going uphill when you need your breath!). Plenty of scenery and time to process responses. And even better (unlike in a car), plenty of shared joy in that scenery, which serves as a magic carpet to whisk you over any emotional toughness in the conversation.

Spread out as necessary…then come back to talk when you’re ready.

Most of our conversation, over the course of six days and sixty miles of hill-walking (around the Sheep’s Head Peninsula in Southwest Ireland, in case you’re curious), was light. But as it happened, I did have some deeper, more difficult relationship issues to discuss with my dad. And the rhythm of our steps, the green hills, the shared forward movement–all contributed to the depth of that conversation, removing the difficulty.

And when you need to rest, rest. Whole new possibilities of conversation arise then. (Necessary pun: Ireland, I like your stile.)

But why go to Ireland? Why go anywhere further than around the block, through the park, over to your favorite cafe…on foot? Invite someone. Go somewhere that takes an hour or so. Let your feet and the scenery carry you past the difficulty and into the depth. 

And enjoy whatever local scenery you have: sheep, alley cats, sparrows…all part of the harmonious background of communication.

Repeat as necessary. I intend to.

Ireland, Aging Parents, and Pubs, or, Why Go Halfway Around the World to Go For a Walk?

In my experience, there are three reasons why Americans travel to Ireland:

  1. Their heritage is Irish. (ethnic pilgrimage)
  2. They’re in love with Irish culture music or whiskey, or both. (cultural pilgrimage)
  3. It’s so greeeeeen! (photographic pilgrimage)

There are probably a few other reasons, and some hybrids. But here’s the reason the Mate and I are going:

my parents

That’s it. (And no, they’re not Irish, nor do they live there.)

The Mate and I made a list a few years ago of trips we hoped to take one day. Then we put those places into three categories: a) need to go as soon as possible; b) can go any time in the next 10-15 years; c) can wait until one or both of us is no longer mobile.

Many countries and special places made the list (like New Zealand and Grand Canyon). Ireland did not. So why are we going?

Well, turns out one of the “places” on the “as soon as possible” list was, “somewhere we can go with Gretchen’s parents while they’re still as active as they are.” They are GREAT travel companions. But since they’re also great travelers, finding a spot to visit together was actually a bit tricky. Slovenia? They’d just been. Ditto Croatia, and various parts of Italy.

Then, last year, my folks did a walking tour of the coast of Cornwall–you know, the kind where they carry your luggage for you from wee hotel to hotel, or inn, or B & B. Very local, very low-key. They LOVED it. So I tried to find another bit of the U.K. to walk, and quickly found that the chunk of Cornish trail they’d walked was the flattest available, and it had challenged them.

(Did I mention that my folks are 82 and 87?)

So I started looking around…and this bit of southwestern Ireland seemed to be rated gentler than its counterparts in the U.K. The tour company could be totally blowing smoke. We might ALL be challenged. And, if I know anything about Ireland in September, quite wet.

OK, so it looks a LOT like where we already live…but hey, cute little hotels, right? And that accent! (courtesy Hillwalktours.com)

But we’ll be happy. And feeling blessed. And I’m pretty sure I’ll learn some Irish sayings about that.

So please don’t bother sending me lists of ancient sites we must see or pubs we must visit or bands we must hear. We’re going to Ireland to do something we can’t do in the U.S.: walk together for days, from quaint hotel to quaint hotel, meeting mostly sheep along the way.

I also fully expect–hope!–to be slammed by love for a culture I know mostly through music.

And speaking of music…I’ll leave you with this heart-rending version of Mo Ghile Mear by the silvery-voiced Mary Black.

So thanks, Ireland, for the grand excuse. And readers–I’ll check back in on our return. For the next two weeks, I’ll be walking and talking and looking at sheep. And hoisting a Guinness or two, with my very cool parents.

Road Trip VII, Days 32-34, Sheridan, WY back to Lopez Island: Going to America, Big-Time

When we Lopez Islanders take the ferry to the mainland, we call it “going to America.” We are literally insulated–“insula” being Latin for “island.”

Road trips take Going to America to a new level. 34 days. 23 states plus one Canadian province. A (rough) total of 65 friends and family members. More bike paths than I can remember.

…like this rails-to-trails path along the Illinois River Canal

The Mate and I set out on our seventh Road Trip more or less as usual: same camping gear (barely used, thanks to the weather), same cooler, same road food. (Remind me to tell you about Noodlebag sometime!) And of course, same ol’ Red Rover.

In the ferry line: almost home!!!!

But something felt different this year, striking out across this huge, gloriously varied country. That something was our new president. Knowing I was driving through state after state where the majority had voted for Donald Trump made me…cringe a little. Mainstream Republican is one thing. But this pussy-grabbing, egomaniacal, racist ogre? How was I possibly going to relate to my fellow citizens in the rest areas, parks and motel lobbies?

The answer: focus on our American commonalities.

Commonality #1: Sports. We sports fanatics share as much passion–maybe more–as political parties. Tarheel Nation probably comprises a lot of Trump voters. When we’re cheering our beloved Heels to another possible national championship, we love each other.

Haven’t made it to the Dean Dome since ’15, but–there in spirit!

Commonality #2: Love of landscape. Whether we love it for loud recreation like snowmobiling and hunting, or more quiet pursuits like hiking or horseback riding, I know our love of the beauty of the land is the same. We might use different language–“sacred” vs. “awesome,” “transcendent” vs. “niiiiiice”–but we are talking about the same thing.

“Whose woods these are I think I know…”

Best way to appreciate nature: be a tree!

Commonality #3: Judgementalism. Somehow, I find comfort in knowing we all share this flaw. A small example: I find myself feeling “judgy” when staying with friends who don’t compost or recycle, or who buy produce that comes from halfway around the world. But at the same time, I have friends who probably judge ME for my ginormous carbon footprint, with all the driving and flying I do.

A larger example: Indian Country. We passed, and passed through, many reservations across America. Somehow the land that makes the most impression on me is in the rural mountain West–probably because, unlike the eastern states and the west coast, the swath that runs from Montana south to New Mexico LOOKS THE SAME as it did 150 years ago. (Again–not talking cities here. Just the land.) Driving past the site of Little Big Horn or Sand Creek, for example, I have no trouble visualizing exactly what those warriors and soldiers would have seen as they confronted each other, or the view families would have had from their encampments.

All that land was theirs. Now almost none of it is; it’s been swallowed up by a dominant, unsympathetic culture. If I were Native, would I be able to contain my rage? So who am I now to feel like my country’s been hijacked by the supporters of Donald Trump? I’m still part of the mainstream.

I’m not saying “it’s all relative.” Of course there are extremes I don’t hesitate to call Bad: pussy-grabbing, for instance. Big no-no. But this trip has helped remind me that the people I struggle to understand probably have just as much trouble understanding ME.

 

In the middle of a long day crossing Montana on I-90, we stopped at the Missouri Headlands State Park.  It is, as the name implies, the beginning of that body of moving water we call the Missouri. It’s a good place: Lewis and Clark’s party camped there for three days.

Not a bad camp spot.

Lewis and Clark were sent by Jefferson to stitch our country together, west to east, by waterways. They failed, of course–Mighty Mo don’t cross no Rockies!–but the land routes they found served the same purpose in time. And of course, as American culture spread across the continent, other cultures were soon shattered.

“This rest area is your rest area, this rest area is my rest area…” See you there, America.

The lesson here? “This land is your land, this land is my land.” We may not agree on much. But in asserting my love for this big ol’ country, I’m not going to whine about it having become “unrecognizable” to me, as some on the left like to do. I DO recognize American culture, warts and all. And some of those warts are mine.

 

 

Road Trip VII, Days 29-31: Down ‘n’ Out in Estes Park, Colorado–NOT

Getting sick sucks. Getting sick on vacation in Estes Park, Colorado, gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park? That’s a bit harder to sound-byte.

Pretty sweet spot for a town, right?

On the one hand, I couldn’t do my usual racing-around-seeing-things stuff. Hiking? Noooo.  Biking? Also a no, thanks. Shopping–nope. And it’s hard to get excited about discovering restaurants when you’ve lost your appetite.

But on the other: I’m on VACATION. I get to lie around and not feel pressured about all the work I’m not getting done! What could be more fitting?

Even better, attitude-wise: getting sick when you’re vacationing with a friend with a scary heart condition.

The one hike I did manage, at 9,000-ft. altitude, had me gasping for breath and walking in slo-mo. Which is exactly what our friend does ANY day he hikes at altitude.

Pretending I don’t feel like curling up for a nap

So, Gretchen’s pity-party was swiftly cancelled. I spent the rest of the weekend soaking up scenery from the car or the window of our rented cabin, and soaking up friendship.

Long’s Peak–a LONG way away, thanks to the miracle of telephoto

Rocky Mountain hiiiiigh….from my car window….

Oh, and that friendship that was in danger of being tested by sports fanaticism? The sports gods were kind to me: our friends’ UCLA Bruins lost on Friday while our beloved North Carolina Tarheels won, so we all cheered together on Sunday as the Heels advanced to the Final Four. Just so you know. 🙂

Thanks, Nature. I needed that.

It’s a lesson I can’t seem to learn too often: compassion and gratitude beat back self-pity every time.

Road Trip VII, Days 22-28, Shaftsbury, VT to Fort Collins, CO: The Ultimate Adventure-Buddy Challenge

You’d think, after a month on the road, that we’d be heading straight home now–next stop, our dear evergreen Washington State.

Instead, we’ve diverged to Colorado. We have an adventure-buddy date.

Seven years ago, when our retirement from our primary careers turned us into annual road-trippers, we found kindred spirits in a pair of friends from North Carolina. On every trip since 2012, we have met our Adventure Buddies somewhere along the way. We rent a house for three days, take turns cooking, and go for lots of hikes.

2012, Moab, Utah:

Arches National Park (duh)

2013, Sedona, Utah:

A little late snow that year!


2014, Yosemite:

Who took this pic? Our Adventure Buddies, of course!

2015, Yucca Valley, CA (near Joshua Tree):

…and great Mexican food nearby too!

2016, Anza-Borrego State Park, CA:

Thanks, Adventure Buddies!

At the end of each day, we watch college basketball together, men’s and women’s. See, our buddies are Tarheel fans like us. North Carolina, remember? If we meet during the eastern portion of our trip, there are regular season games to watch. And if, as now, we meet in late March, there’s the NCAA championship. In the rare years that Carolina’s not in the Sweet 16–yes, we Tarheel fans are that spoiled–we can always root against Duke together.

This year we’re meeting in Estes Park, Colorado, right next to Rocky Mountain National Park.

This place.

So, this should be a perfect weekend, right? #1 seed Carolina’s in, playing this Friday. And Duke? They’ve already choked lost to a lowly 15-seed.

Except.

Something I forgot to mention: these NC friends of ours moved to LA. As in UCLA. Whose team is also in the Sweet 16. Playing Friday.

Luckily for our mutual friendship, UNC and UCLA aren’t playing each other Friday. So we’re free to cheer for both.

Except.

If both couples’ sports-gods prayers are answered, both our teams will win. Then they have to face each other.

How ’bout that for a test of friendship?

I’d like to think that, on Friday, I’ll be wholeheartedly cheering for the UCLA Bruins to beat Kentucky. And I will be. Mostly.

But I gotta admit, more than a teensy part of me will be secretly hoping they lose. Just so we can all cheer on the Tarheels, together, on Sunday. If Carolina loses and UCLA wins, I’ll be a huge Bruins fan.

And if it comes to UNC-UCLA? I’ll be cheering first and foremost for our friendship. Of COURSE.  What kind of person do you think I am?    🙂

 

 

Road Trip VII, Days 17-21, Durham, NC to Shaftsbury, VT: Marching Madly Back Into Winter

What kind of idiots drive north into a named winter storm…when they don’t have to?

Allow us to introduce ourselves: Wing & Mate.

We did make a few prudent choices. We delayed leaving NC for a day to let the worst of Stella pass. And we stayed as far east as possible, away from the storm’s edge, even though that meant sticking with ugly ol’ I-95 instead of taking the prettier inland route. We may be idiots, but we’re not STUPID.

We also opted to take it slow, leaving late in the morning and spending the night halfway to Vermont, in a motel in Wilmington…where we got a good lesson in reality.

Reality can thin out a bit on road trips. In our little car-bubble, whatever we’re used to becomes whatever IS. So I got heartily sticker-shocked at that motel. But since it was the last room available I swallowed hard and paid–I’m embarrassed to say how much–to avoid the losing proposition of racing around the internet just before rush hour trying to find a better deal.

The motel was full of families. In summertime or over Christmas this is expected, but we could tell these weren’t folks on Spring Break. Sure enough, we learned that a major power outage had forced them from their homes. And here we are, on a purely discretionary trip! Talk about perspective. I chatted with a couple of ladies over breakfast, and when they wished me “safe travels,” I wished there were a way to say, “safe stay-at-home!”

The New Jersey Turnpike took all my attention as navigator, as other freeways snaked in and out, trying to lure us into NYC. Nothing looked attractive, even under snow, which tells you something. (Sorry, NJ…maybe someday I’ll discover the “Garden” part of your statehood.) But once safely in the Hudson Valley, headed for Albany, we both relaxed, enjoying real mountains for the first time since Asheville. 

Snowy mountains. You gotta love any scenery that calls to mind words like “serene” or “majestic.” 

Majestic, shmajestic–I wanna make footprints!

“Whose woods these are I think I know…” (snowshoeing along a section of the Appalachian Trail)

Snow angel! (We coastal Northwesterners can’t get enough of this.)

OK, snow is cool. But the REAL draw of this adventure? Cute little cousins.

…and cheese-eating dinosaurs

And their adorable sheep-herding donkey Ben:

March is a terrible time for lambing in VT. Cousin Jesse had to bring the flock into the barn.

Ben being modest. He has work to do.

So: March Madness in basketball, yes. And in the lives of good ol’ Wilmingtonites just trying to make it through winter. But the northeastern roadways? Piece o’ cake. Shame on us for doubting the Yankee ability to deal with snow.

Road Trip VII, Days 5-9, Dallas to Asheville: Graffiti and Growth

A study in contrasts: that’s what these past few road days have meant. Not the red desert west vs. leafy green east contrast; we left that behind in Palo Duro. Dallas, a few hours to the east, is firmly in the “east” quadrant, climatically speaking: they have humidity. Kudzu. Oaks and maples.

And tacos. OMG, the tacos! Sorry. Sorry. Not food-blogging today.

No, the contrasts we’ve been exposed to are cultural. Our Dallas friend David is a developer who focuses on turning blighted sections of his city into vibrant small-business centers. Most of his lessees are folks whom banks give short shrift: minorities, women, ex-cons. So when David gives us a bicycle tour through Dallas, we see it through his eyes–a fascinating lesson in demographic history.

Elvis played here once…

The most fascinating section of Dallas, to me, was what David called the “free-range graffiti place”–a blighted area whose owners apparently allow graffiti artists to roam freely and practice their skills.

Some definitely more talented than others…but the combined effect is breathtaking.

It does kinda bug me when the punk taggers have to mess up the good stuff.

I got to watch this one young artist beginning an ambitious project. His girlfriend must have a lot of patience.

 

He’s got his work cut out for him.

Leaving Texas, we drove rapidly through Arkansas and Tennessee, trying to stay ahead of a winter storm. So no pictures from those states, sorry. But on the Tennessee-North Carolina border, we stopped for a hike in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and that’s where the contrast came in.

The Mate thinks the winter woods look desolate, but I love the way they let me see the mountain’s bone structure!

That hike was a testament to what happens when you take a piece of land and put it out of the reach of human shaping. Authorized in 1926, Great Smoky is the first national park in the east, and by far the largest.

Rhodie thickets: what the word “impenetrable” was designed for

When I walk in those mountains, I feel a sense of ageless resilience. They’ve been inhabited for centuries, and–at least in the park–they don’t give a shit about demographic history.

Why, hello, Spring!

Seems to me, when the legally-protected woods are “bare-ass nekkid” and the mountain’s showing off its bones, Nature is its own graffiti artist, free to roam.

So nice to see the mountainside just plain dripping instead of dripping with icicles. 🙂

We’re headed now to my hometown, Durham, to watch a little basketball and eat a little BBQ. So this blog might suddenly veer from philosophy to fanaticism (GO Tarheels!!!). But never fear–all it’ll take to bring me back to myself is a walk in those bare-nekkid woods.

Road Trip VII, Days 1-4: Los Angeles to Palo Duro Canyon, Texas

Wait–Day 1 is Los Angeles? Gretchen, did you move?

No, I cheated. Starting from my home in Washington State, I flew down to San Diego for a first-ever reunion with my sisters, while the Mate followed, at the wheel of our faithful Red Rover. We met in LA and started Road Trip VII from there.

beautiful anemone in tidepool at Point Loma in San Diego

beautiful anemone in tidepool at Point Loma in San Diego

The theme of the trip so far? It’s the raison d’etre of our road trips: the joy of moving through beauty.

Our favorite way is to feel the air on our skin. So Day 1, we hiked in the steep canyons of Hollywood, startlingly green from all that recent rain, ignoring the Oscars-related bustle going on just below.

Ah, air. Even LA air. If it’s sunny in February, my skin’s not picky about pollution.

Day 2, we rode our bikes through the cactus gardens of Saguaro National Park in Tucson, marveling at the variety of the plant forms.

Make your own caption for this one

Make your own caption for this one

Can we not find a better word than “desert” to describe such arid Edens? 

dsc02176img_2210But sometimes the air-on-skin model is too rough for our tender epidermes. Day 3, approaching Albuquerque from the south, we were looking forward to biking through the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, glorying in the thousands of sandhill cranes and snow geese and other migratory fowl who vacation there. But the wind had other ideas–or rather, the wind-blown dust did.

Scenery? What scenery?

Scenery? What scenery?

With poor little Red Rover getting sandblasted along I-25, we decided we wouldn’t fare too well. Boo. Sadness.

When tumbleweed meets bike. Seriously, the size of some of those things!

When tumbleweed meets bike. Seriously, the size of some of those things!

So we pushed on to Albuquerque, where, thanks to our buddy Beth, I was able to take two long power-walks through the wonderful neighborhoods of Northwest (backyard chickens, horses, goats–even an emu!) as the wind gradually relaxed to less-than-lethal levels.

Plus Beth took us to this REALLY COOL restaurant! This is the ceiling.

Plus Beth took us to this REALLY COOL restaurant! This is the ceiling.

Mmm…and chiles rellenos with fresh, deeply-green New Mexican chiles….whoops, sorry. Not today’s theme.

On Day 4, we finally got to experience air-on-skin, moving-through-beauty in the blessed slo-mo that is camping. In Palo Duro Canyon State Park, this red, rocky wonderland astonishing close to Amarillo–really!–we rode our bikes around in the last of the afternoon sun.

Only safe way to take a bike-selfie

Only safe way to take a bike-selfie

Then in the morning we went for a hike.

Dawn's early light from our campsite

Dawn’s early light from our campsite

This was very welcome as a warmer-upper, as the blessedly still air pushed the temp down to 20 overnight. And we weren’t allowed to use our stove because of extreme fire danger. Brrr.

C'mon, Texas sun, do your thing!

C’mon, Texas sun, do your thing!

Did I mention this place is right outside of Amarillo?!

Did I mention this place is right outside of Amarillo?!

Lest you think The Mate and I are too precipitous in our appreciation of nature’s gifts, just let me add: I could easily have written a post about the joys of being outdoors while holding still. But with a whole continent to cross, basketball games to watch and a bakery waiting for me to come back and work at…my skin and I choose to celebrate our happy reality: moving air.

Almost...warm! (Sometimes air on skin is more of a concept than a reality...)

Almost…warm! (Sometimes air on skin is more of a concept than a reality…)