Cannon

I think you’ll like these. A guy yesterday took them out and had a blast on them.

I’m not looking to have a blast. In fact, that’s the furthest thing from my mind.  

I’m simply looking for a pair of skis that don’t go too fast and can get me safely down this Mountain where I’m not sure I want to be.

I’m here at the foot of Cannon, our neighborhood 4000-foot monster. As you take the last bend through the Notch, she’s suddenly looming right there beside you, scarred with ski trails dropping steep and fast into the frozen lake below.  

I’m really a novice, I interject.

Intermediate…I add indecisively, not wanting to sound totally incompetent. 

I’ve been skiing since I was a little kid. Just not often and never terribly well. I reached my peak with the stem christie, long since abandoned in the late ‘60’s on these slopes. I’m competent enough to get myself slowly and safely down the Green (Easy) and (less-happily) Blue (Intermediate) trails.

I hold out my phone and scroll through all the pictures I took out skiing last week to find the picture of a pair of skis I’d liked. In fact taking pictures out here is what I especially like. Not so much blasting on skis as the killer views.  

He finishes adjusting the skis that are a blast and hands them to me with a smile, Once you get them under you, you can lean out and let ‘em rip.

Has he not been listening?

Out here on the slope, everyone is rippin’.  Right, left everyone is flying by me. Is this really a Blue trail?  Is there nothing Green? Does Green even live up here? Alas it seems our only options are a Steep Blue, Narrow Blue or Steep-Narrow-Icy Blue. 

I’m definitely NOT on top of these ski. In fact the whole Mountain is weighing down on me. I can’t cut, can’t slow, can’t get these skis to do much of anything but take me fast and furious down the Mountain.  

My ski friends glide ahead of me, swaying with ease down the slope.

I follow cutting and slow, quick nerve-gripping turns to avoid tumbling off the cliff at the side of the trail.

Today’s my fourth day of downhill skiing in the past few weeks, my winter splurge for moving up here to the North and living next door to a two ski areas, Cannon and Bretton Woods. In fact we even have our own little ski hill right in town (tiny Mount Eustis) that opens if we have enough snow which so far this winter we have not. I figured I better take advantage of what is here and besides I’d met a few folks at church who are avid skiers and thought what a great way to spend time with them. 

This morning Tonya texted that she was a cautious skier and didn’t want to slow us down. I texted her back that for sure she would be waiting for me. I’m cautious too. Perhaps, just plain slow. 

On the next chair ride up, Henny tells me that World Champion and Olympic Legend Bode Miller from neighboring Easton learned to ski here. He was home-schooled and his parents not much into it. Instead they took him here everyday, all day, to ski.  

What an education!  

Cannon is a “Real” Mountain I’m told. Not like Loon, the Mascara and Musk Mountain down under or the Geriatric Mountain of Bretton Woods up the road – which is in fact where I love to ski! Wide gentle trails, so much Green. No cliffs or ski-bombers. Just local school children lined up on the slopes for midweek ski lessons. Perfect! 

By the fourth run, I’m overdue for a break and tell my ski friends I want to try another pair of skis as a chance to take a breather. 

Do you have anything slower? It’s really fast out there.

Skis with brakes… hmm…

These are good for edging, if you like to cut-in.

Do you have anything shorter?

He hands me a pair that “act” like they are shorter.  

I have no idea what that means but say I’ll try them.  

Suddenly on my next run, the World turns. Instead of the Mountain being on top of me, I’m on top of the Mountain. In fact, I can ski. Not like Bode but I can cut, turn, no longer fighting for control. I have time now to think about all the other things – where to put my hands, when to bend my knees, when to rise and fall, where and when to lean….

If only it took just a change of skis to put us all on top of whatever Mountain is now weighing down on us in all its sheer icy heft and terror. If only it took just an aptly named pair of “Mindbender” skis for the world to turn and put us on top of the Mountain.  

I have fabulous fun runs. Perhaps I’m having something of a blast.  

Not willing to settle for the perfect fit, however, I try another shorter and swervier pair and quickly turn them back in for the skis that fit.  

Soon the dreaded Cannon wind howls and swirls. Sharp snow snaps at our faces, pushes us back up the Mountain we are struggling to descend. I welcome the braking except when the wind whips around to the side and threatens to topple me off the dreaded cliff. 

Back at the base, I ask if my ski friends are done. Relieved when they say, Oh yes

In five days I leave for the desert, an eleven-day wilderness “adventure” that includes a three-day solo experience (February 6-8) in Anza-Borrego State Park in southern California. 

This particular trek with the Animas Institute is called a “Soul Quest” and while I don’t come with a particular longing for anything to happen to my Soul, I come knowing what I want.

I don’t need a Mountaintop experience, just a time that I can open and give myself to, curious what I may discover.

I know that the ways of Soul are such that it sometimes takes the Mountain being on top of us to discover the way to finding ourselves on top of it. Perhaps it is a Soul Quest that sends me down the slopes at Cannon and off to a solo-immersion in the desert.  

For the past week I’ve been unable to get on top of my packing list. Can’t sort out what I have to take, what’s in the laundry basket and what else I’ll need. Worry about giving up my beloved morning cup of coffee and know I need to try forgoing it soon – I keep saying perhaps tomorrow.  

But yesterday, the last of my work responsibilities were cleared out.  

I heard from a guy on the trip that he is super-excited and thought perhaps I might let myself be as well.  

So despite last night’s snow squall, I took off to pick up my last bit of supplies. I found them all: matches, moleskin, watch, ground cloth and plastic trowel.

At the register, the cashier holds up the trowel, There’s no UPC code.  

I don’t know whether to apologize or explain…

Glancing at the line growing behind me he says, Why not come back tomorrow and pick one up then?  

Oh, I can’t wait. I have to have it tonight. It’s why I came. I’m going camping and we have to bring a trowel.  

He glances out the window at the falling snow.  

Oh, not in Littleton, out West –  as if that explained it.  

The line behind me grows as the UPC code is found. Nobody seems in a rush. Perhaps no one wants to face the snow.  

The trowel found. 97 cents just like he called it.  

It’s silly I know. As silly and superfluous as alpine skiing but with my bag of supplies and trowel in hand, I feel like Bode. Feel in fact I can now take on any Mountain.  

I’ll let you know what happens. Back in a few.  

Backyard Mountain

It’s my backyard mountain, 1900 foot Parker Mountain just out my door and up the street to the trailhead.  The kind of mountain that because I live at its base, I could so easily overlook, avoid, spurn just because it is HERE. HERE rather than THERE where all the newness and discovery and wonder lies, the new views and vistas in the peaks OUT THERE.

It’s just the mountain that’s HERE, ordinary and undramatic. A smooth wide trail up a floor of gray and brown moldering leaves. Small patches of bright ice easily navigable along the edges. Nothing too much, too hard, nothing like this something I’m carrying around inside me heavy all morning.  

Maybe its because it’s the last day of my time away. Maybe wondering what happened to all that energy and excitement I had about being HERE when I was away that seems to have gone ELSEWHERE now that I’m back home. What happened to all that passion about the connections I wanted to make, the conversations I wanted to have? Where did it all go?

A heavy gray cloud covered morning. Another disturbingly warm green lawned day here in the North Country when I came looking for cold and snow. 

Looking out here now on the trail for my credit card which I seem to have dropped when I pulled my phone out to take a picture. I wind back and forth over the spot I think I must have dropped it. A 50-50 chance that it landed on the blue side up. If its flopped down on the gray, I’ll be surprised if I find it amidst all these gray leaves. 

I negotiate making peace with myself. I can call and cancel the card. I imagine that I actually didn’t take the card out of my wallet. Give up on being kind and berate myself for putting the card in my coat pocket so it could drop out. When will I learn? Oh the gray day is doing its work!  

No card all the way back along the trail. None of the hikers I pass ask, Did you drop this?  

Back at the car, I open the door and there it is, HERE it is. Right HERE at the start of my journey. Right where I stepped out of HERE to go THERE. I kiss the card as I told myself I’d do if I in fact found it.  

But before even finding the card, I’d already found what I came looking for. 

A wander in the backyards mountain that took me from the woe of “Where is the snow?” and “What happened to my card?”, the discombobulations and confusion of a morning I planned and expected to be otherwise, to the wonder of all that is HERE. Including that bowl of hot soup waiting for me when I get back home.  Oh how fortunate and blessed I am truly to be living HERE!  

Cahoots

In order to let in the living world, I must be completely vulnerable and learn to be truly defenseless, in a state of utter precariousness, like all of my cells are from moment to moment. I must exist in absolute uncertainty in order to completely perceive reality.  (Andreas Weber, Matter and Desire

Where are they? They were just here and now gone. I mean they were just in my hands and now nowhere to be found. Mom says that it happens to her all the time but that I’m too young for this. 

I’m getting ready for my first try at winter hiking this afternoon in late December and I have Dad’s backpack stuffed for survival with my first aid kit, a pair of socks and emergency blanket. A bag of bars and matches and… But without my Kahoots micro-spikes I’m going nowhere today.  

Dad has an old pair of crampons. Old but workable. They’ll do. I’m out the door and up the road. The most snow I’ve seen around here is at my parent’s retirement community 80 miles to the south. As I drive north I look up at the blue mountains beneath the gray sky. A few lines of white on a few of the higher peaks, some long icicles dripping along the cliffs at the edge of the highway, but otherwise the mountains look barren and brown. More like November than late December northern woods. 

Dad says they usually have their first snowstorm between Christmas and New Years. This year, nothing but 40 degrees and rain. Its been that kind of a late fall now turned to winter. A few inches of snow last week were drained away a week ago in inches of rain. I heard remarks in last summer’s heat that we should enjoy the coolest summer we’ll ever see. Maybe this is the coldest December we’ll see.  

I turn around on 93 at the exit for the Cannon Tramway. The steep lower slopes of Cannon have long patches of manmade snow that is rapidly being encroached on by green grass. I turn off the exit for Lafayette Campground and into the ice rutted road to the trailhead to Lonesome Lake.  

I’m amazed again that I have the privilege of living here, this trail up to the hut is only 20 minutes from my apartment. My nephew and I hiked up here at the end of his workday a few months ago. My neighbor runs it most every night.  

Like the parking lot, the trail is ice. Dad’s crampons however work great. I can walk straight up the trail much more confidently than I do stepping carefully over rocks and roots like the last time I was here.  

Ahead of me a group of five tall young men from Massachusetts. Its disconcerting to see them at a standstill, walking with small slow careful steps and outstretched arms like old men on a trail they would have bounded up and down in no time in the fall.  

We’re obviously not prepared the leader tells me looking down at his boots with no Kahoots, blue jeans and no packs with water and supplies.  

We heard it was a gentle trail through the woods. What’s it like up from there? I tell them I don’t really know, its my first time out here this season. Hopeful myself that the ice will give way to snow on the trail ahead. What I know is that it’s a mile and a half to the shelter and they should watch their time. 

Around the next bend in the trail, I come upon a wide-eyed couple who warn me that it’s a glacier above Lonesome Lake. They look stressed, more than ready to get back to their car. We saw fools in blue jeans out there – totally not prepared.  They look very prepared with slick bright packs and better crampons than mine. I tell them about the guys behind me. They head off to warn them off the trail so they don’t fall and crack their heads open.  

I move on crunching up the chipped ice trail. I will certainly not be alone out here today – all the better for my first solo winter hike in case I crack my head open. The next couple up the trail stop and inquire, Are you with the group up ahead carrying a keg between hockey sticks?  

I don’t know whether to be proud or perplexed that they think I might possibly be in cahoots with what sounds like a college party ahead. Perhaps they’re hoping I’m the responsible adult with the group.  

They shake their heads, declare on passing, We will NEVER stay up there. NEVER.  

I meet the group of young adults with the aforementioned silver keg indeed carried on a stretcher between two hockey sticks. Besides their packs, they have assorted ice skates slung over their shoulders.  They seem to me like a jovial and friendly group albeit a bit naïve to think they might actually be skating on this forty degree afternoon.  

I would love to be a chaplain on the trail and every time I’m out here I get to be one again. Listening to stories, sharing advice, cheering folks on and wishing them a good day.  

Suddenly, I’m here and happy. What sometimes takes me days to rest into – this immersion in the woods, this presence to what is here. I’m feeling like I’m on day five in the woods and I’ve only been out here just under an hour. This is heaven – walking out with sure footing, gorgeous glassy ice over the rocks. Ice crushed like snow cones.  

The trail flattens to snow. I take the long way around the lake, step off the trail for other hikers to pass.  Pause for pictures. I meet again the crew with the keg, a mom who is spending the night at the cabin with three of her children – three of four she calls back to me as she continues past me around the lake.  

As I circle the lake on this most perfect of afternoons (albeit with the right equipment), I think this could be a habit, a new found joy to walk in the woods in the winter. Know again how happy and privileged I am to be living here in these woods at this time. 

At home, my neighbor has posted his tenth lap up to Lonesome Lake in as many days. “Trail conditions are dire.”

January Thaw

Yet another rainy day

In a Winter that has never

Stopped feeling like November

Grey-limb and grassy lawn

Wet copper leaves under the oak

Everything that had been for a moment

Icy and hard today is flowing down the street

Pooling in puddles 

And splashing up nonsense of 

Hauling out umbrellas in January

Standing here by the rain-streaked window 

Reminiscing on how it used to be

I feel something move, my anger melt away 

My disappointment in the audacity 

Of this warm day I would not have chosen

Release my hard-wired ideas of what Winter 

Should be like up here in the North Country

Step onto the slippery sidewalk

Soaked in the vulnerable uncertainty of 

A season unfamiliar to itself

Where everything melted

Into a softer ground 

A muddier and messier 

More relaxed and gentler version 

Of myself 

In Praise of Idleness

We gave ourselves to the water and it carried us.  (Andreas Weber, Matter and Desire)

Today is the close of my fourth week away since starting my new position as the interim pastor at the Congregational Church in Littleton, New Hampshire.

Not sick time away although I’ve had those weeks as well this fall, leveled by a couple of nasty non-COVID viruses. Not vacation time either, those weeks will come later this year. 

Instead, these weeks away are part of my new schedule and routine of pastoring three-quarter time. Three weeks full-time at the church followed by one week and a weekend away. 

When I talked to the search committee last summer it was clear that they couldn’t afford a full-time pastor. They could, however, have a three-quarter time pastor and a schedule that I felt could work well for them and me. 

For the past year since their pastor retired, the church had done a good job of running and being the church. They’d coordinated worship and pastoral connection and care. Made decisions about moving forward. I didn’t want them to lose that muscle of leadership they’d been developing. It would be an easy time for a full-time pastor to take over and take away the empowerment that the church was learning to claim and live for itself. 

Four weeks in, I’d say this new rhythm has been good for all of us. I support members in planning and leading worship during my weeks away, support and supplement the card and pastoral care ministry they continue to provide, help frame conversations and decisions they need to make. By regularly being away and not solely doing their ministry for them, their own leadership is growing and deepening.  

It’s been good for my soul as well. My first week away I hiked 60 miles on the Appalachian Trail with a friend. I spent my second week writing about my discoveries on the trail and exploring the North Country with my nephew. In early December I attended a silent retreat. I just returned from a week with my family in Maryland and helped my parents navigate their first trip down to my sister’s house in eight years. On Sundays I’ve had the chance to worship and be led by beloved and new church communities. I’ve been able to attend significant events like the final worship service for the pastor at my home church. 

Each time I’ve  been away I’ve returned feeling like I do on this Monday morning. Rested, renewed, enlivened, full of inspiration and insights from the experiences I’ve had. I see things here differently because I’ve stepped away. Bring a renewed curiosity and questions to this still strange place I call home. I’m looking forward and am ready to step into the responsibilities of the weeks ahead. 

And I do so with an awareness of the opportunity and invitation to be in time differently here during the coming weeks. Perhaps it comes with living in the North Country of Northern New Hampshire. Perhaps being on the cusp of turning 61. Perhaps, an intuition of what is needed here. But ever since I arrived here, I’ve sensed a call that the way forward means going slower and deeper. A feeling that the issues before us are so complex and critical that they require a new way of seeing and being. A way that only going slower and deeper will provide.  

As much as I feel the pull to a certain slowing, an idleness, for the sake of uncovering what action is required, I don’t find it easy.

In times of struggle and turmoil in my own life I have found such slowing to be near impossible. Instead, I’ve pushed myself hard, sought to power through, figure things out, see what I cannot yet see. Do something, do anything. Carried a weight of self-judgment that if only I was smarter, wiser, a better person or pastor I could have figured this out, solved what I haven’t known how to solve.  

As an active man who has led with my enthusiasm and energy, my passion and commitments to community and connection, I’ve found it downright disorienting to step into the call to go slower. To take time and and put things down. To not fill in all the empty spaces on my calendar with more doing. I’m still trying to figure this out – or let it be figured out in me. 

I have loved my little lists and making my way through them. Loved the familiarity of living by a scheduled day and week. I bring a strong work ethic where I use energy, passion and commitment to move ideas into actions. Not that it was bad – lots of good work got done and that time served its purpose. And that way of being at times led former colleagues to comment in exasperation that they needed to set up an appointment to see me. I just nodded and said they did.  

I have known the adrenaline rush and high of being carried away with action. During COVID I remember a colleague saying that we needed to approach this time like a marathon instead of a sprint. Despite knowing she was right, I sprinted ahead in the need to work with church leaders to reinvent and re-imagine everything about being the church. It was exciting and exhausting but mainly exciting.  

And I remember six months later, in the fall of 2020 when that spur of excitement and newness grew old and familiar and I wanted things I couldn’t yet have, namely how things were and I wanted them to be again. I missed having real connection with real people in real time on Sunday morning and not speaking across an empty sanctuary to the camera at the the top of the sanctuary door. I wanted to sit down at kitchen tables with tea to hear stories and not at my kitchen counter looking at a computer screen.  

New ways of being grow slowly and not without grief. I came to United Parish in Brookline last spring filling in for a colleague’s sabbatical with a thousand ideas of all we might do in this time. However, in my first week there it became clear that what they didn’t need was new energy or programs. Instead they needed their own sabbatical time while their senior pastor was having his. Instead of all these things that we could have done, early conversations confirmed that it was a time to go deeper.  I needed more time just to be present and take time for conversations that needed to take place. Needed to use the gift of this time to focus on a few particular relationships where listening, encouraging, clearing away barriers was needed. A time to focus on doing more by doing less. It made the work simpler, freeing, clearer. I knew, the church knew, what they wanted this time to be about. I never felt so relaxed and free as a pastor.  

I draw hope that I’m not alone hearing and heeding this call to walk differently through these present times. Three community groups I am part of have all declared a sabbatical time for themselves these past months. Several community leaders and friends have also said yes to that same call to step away from their ordinary responsibilities in order to discern what is being asked of them.  

Sometimes, I hear in the back of my mind King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” I can well place myself in the company of those white ministers who critique King’s actions as “unwise and untimely.” As injustice was there, injustice is here. As I sit here on yet another “unseasonably warm” January day, unlike anyone I’ve talked to remembers around here, I know that the climate crisis is not out there, but right here. Racism is here. Poverty, hunger and domestic violence are here. A church seeking to determine its way forward is here.

Its not that action is not needed, it is. But a different way to step into and approach that action needed as well.

Today before stepping back into the next weeks of work that begin tomorrow, I take this time to listen to what it is I am to be about. To discern with others what action to take and the inaction and listening we need to make space for. To let the work of idleness work in me and the community for the sake of deeper seeing and transformation. 

And so, put down this piece and head out to the woods for a walk when part of me just wanted to finish this. As always seems to happen in stepping away, I came back renewed and regrounded. 

So this year, on the second day of a new year, a commitment, a resolve to make room in my soul for idleness. 

Do you have the patience to wait 

Till your mind settles and the water is clear?

Can you remain unmoving 

Till the right action arises by itself?

(The Tao Te Ching, verse 15, Stephen Mitchell translation)

New Year Potential

We spend January 1st walking through our lives, room by room, drawing up a list of work to be done, cracks to be patched.  Maybe this year, to balance the list, we ought to walk through the rooms of our lives not looking for flaws, but for potential.  (Ellen Goodman) 

Shit! There’s people up here!  

The couple coming down off the overlook grab for their stout little corgi and her leash.  

I bet you didn’t expect to see someone else up here.  

And you ran up here…

Happy New Year!, we call as I head up and they head on down the trail.

Now that I’m here up top of Mount Wantastiquet what a perfectly wonderful place to mark the New Year. The view down across the Connecticut River on the scattering of white houses in Brattleboro below, sunlit peaks golden amidst the blue hills beyond. 

A granite marker with an aqua green plaque erected to the memory of Walter Childs by his loving friends in 1806. 

Like getting anywhere, getting up here is not easy. I remembered the rocky steep path from the last and only other time I’ve run and hiked up here on a fall morning several years ago. Today that same rocky path is a stream of melting ice covered in brown oak leaves. I remember what a friend told me about slippery oak leaves and I am extra careful along the trail. I step in numerous puddles, sink down in wet leaves, get a good foot soaking. My friends have no interest in a New Years Plunge so glad I will at least get my feet cold and wet today.  

Last night to mark New Years we pulled cards to reveal what calls and challenges lie in wait in the coming year. The “Mountain” card I drew was the habit that could stand in the way of my call for the year. I thought about that as I ran up here this morning – am I merely repeating an old habit by choosing to run up the mountain instead of along the river?

As I remember the card said something about warning the reader off of peak banging and noting that the journey of discovery was not in reaching the peak but in what happens along the way. Something about not pursuing merely achievement and perfection which feels like good advice on New Years or anytime. It was the gift of the wet, icy, leaf-covered trail slowed me to watching and appreciating every careful step. 

After my run, a visit to Centre Congregational Church in Brattleboro where three of us joined the pastor for a zoom church service. It was so nice to be there, so good to receive the gift of worshipping with a little community in person and on-line to mark the new year.  It made me just happy thinking of the church in Littleton and so many other little communities of faith gathered this New Years Day in cavernous sanctuaries of another world and time and around computer screens on kitchen tables for prayer and singing, experiencing word become flesh.  

That good quote from Ellen Goodman at the top of the bulletin which starts this post.  

So Happy New Year from the memory of a blessed day and view from the peak. In this world of treacherous trails, deep sorrow and trouble, such beauty and brokenness a call to Potential. Sounds to me like something worth stepping out into this New Year.  

The Trail: Day 6

Friday, September 30: Descent 

The hostel has grown on us and we leave so very happy. 

Blessed by leaving heavy black plastic bags full of pounds of stuff we don’t need to carry now up and down the mountain.

Blessed by a good nights sleep in a warm bunk room with no mice. 

Blessed by Legion and his story.

Blessed by pizza, ice cream sandwiches, hot showers, and a chance for Pat to do her laundry.  

And yes, blessed by meeting the only other guest, thru-hiker Opossum, who true to his name stays up late and rises late. I watched his favorite movie with him last night, the animated version of “The Hobbit”, which is a perfect hiker’s tale of the necessity for discovery and growth to leave the comforts of home and set out on an adventure into the unknown.  

The hostel wasn’t at all what we expected. And yes, it was just what we needed.  

It was a perfect climb up Moosilauke, as perfect an ascent as I could imagine. I gorgeous blue sky day and warm but not too warm. A steady climb up a well maintained trail and along the way the most wonderful scent of pine. And right when I thought that I was kind of done with the ascent, the vista opened into a great expanse of rock and sky. 

All week we’d been warned by south bound hikers to prepare for ice and cold on Moosilauke. But today’s tee shirt weather up here and a summit full of families out for a fall picnic. 

We grab a good seat for lunch at the top. What a day! Warm and clear and no breeze. Later we’ll learn that weather like this proceeds a hurricane that is now pounding the South Carolina coast.

We meet a man who is eager to answer all our questions on what mountains we’re looking at. Ahead of us the Kinsman’s and Presidential Range that we plan to hike in June.

But everything that goes up, must come down. The Beaver Brook Trail is just what every posting I’ve read says it is, steep and rough. And yes, today wet as well. It’s the one place I’d ever heard Dad talk about falling, slipping down off the trail and needing to be pulled up by passing hikers. We’re slow, super slow, not wanting to fall. And yes, both of us slip and slide, take some hard falls.

The hikers that have passed by going up, pass by us again on their way down. We wonder on how they move so nimbly and fast.  

And the trail is beautiful, following cascading waterfalls the whole way down.  

At last we make it down after hours of descent, so tired, so grateful we made it. The car is there and we drive around the mountain to pick up our gear from the hostel. Take Pat to urgent care to check out her arm where she fell and pick up fabulous burgers, fries and a Voodoo Beer. Pat’s arm wrapped, my wrist wrapped and my foot on ice. And we made it. We did it. So so happy.  

I call Dad to tell him we made it safely home.  Tell him too that it took us four and a half hours to come down.  

Good Lord! Did you stop to take a smoke?

I give Pat the tee shirt I bought for her at the craft fair, I Go to the Woods to Loose my Mind and Find my Soul. A pine packet for her pocket to take with her the memory of the scent of the trail on Moosilauke. 

For yes, as Thomas Merton once wrote, 

No writing on the solitary, meditative dimensions of life can say anything that has not already been said better by the wind in the pine trees. 

The Trail: Day 5

Thursday, September 29: Legion

Thus says the Lord: Stand at the crossroads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way lies; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls.  (Jeremiah 6:16) 

The hurricane hit south of Sarasota in the Fort Meyers area. Pat’s husband is already back checking on things at the house. A beloved big tree in the front yard fell during the storm but there’s little damage other than that. They came out of this storm okay. Such good news here at the crossroads of 25A. We share a big hug. 

And while there is the joy of Pat’s family and home escaping tragedy, there is also the awareness that this joy means someone else’s sorrow and loss. What about the people on Sanibel Island? 

It won’t be until later in the week, after we’ve both returned home, that we’ll see the destruction and learn of the number of people who died in the storm. Hurricane Ian was one of the strongest hurricanes to make landfall on the west coast of the Florida peninsula. Over 114 Floridians died, more deaths than any hurricane in almost 90 years. Most of the victims were older adults. Two-thirds of them were 60 or over and 30 were past their 80th birthdays.  

Sometimes a storm turns the town into a wilderness and we meet each other in our vulnerability like we do in the woods. We realize we can’t do it alone and turn to help each other. But of course it always doesn’t turn out that way and not for everyone. There are always the Drews who we don’t know what to do with.  

I think about all the Drews who had no place to go in the storm except for the emergency shelter where as Pat says no one wants to go. I think of the Drews who don’t have friends to invite them to stay with them. I think of the Drews that were walked by.  

I don’t know what I would do if I met Drew in town with no where to go in the storm. Would I invite him to come in and stay with me? I’m from town. Shaped by the values, fears, considerations of town, of caution and safety. Perhaps I’d too turn away in the storm, thinking its best just to watch out for myself and my own. Thinking someone else will come along to take him in.  

Today, I want to be present to the ways of the woods, to let the beauty and vulnerability I find here work in me. I pray for the people in Florida and others recovering from the storm. For those in the midst of storms today. For the pouring grace of the sound of the river. 

This morning at breakfast I share that tonight we have another choice as well. We could camp as we planned at Jeffers Brook at the base of Moosilauke or Dad reminded me there is a hostel just down the road at Glencliff where we could stay as well. I remind Pat that the temperatures are dropping tonight and we could leave our heavy gear there and come back to pick it up after our climb up the mountain.

Pat is ecstatic by the hostel option. I never would have thought of that! she exclaims. She is used to pushing through, doing the hard and does it well. But a warm place on what promises to be a cold night sounds delicious.  

At the crossroads, a second piece of good news – the hostel has room for us tonight!  

It’s a beautiful trail up and down these little hills on smooth dirt trails. Misty Mountain draped appropriately in morning mist. Sometimes I go on ahead, wait for Pat at the top. Sometimes we chat along together. But on the final descent to Route 25, I trudge on weary, so tired, so very tired coming down to the road that feels like it will never come. 

Nothing about today was hard – no big ascents or descents but for some reason I’m bone and body weary. I can’t seem to catch up with enough bars and snacks to revive me. It feels to me like “Buck Hill” did last year. It was our final three miles of the 100 mile wilderness trek and coming down that little hill I grew slower and slower, weariness overtaking me at every step. 

Pat tells me all the way down the trail about the wonderful hosts and beautiful hostels where she has stayed.  

It’s a half mile down the road to the hostel – a ragged, weary house on the left side and a young man with long brown hair and a scraggly beard sitting on the front stoop.  

Are you the caretaker? We have a reservation to spend the night!

I guess I’m as close to that as you’ll get, he says, then steps inside and closes the door.  

We go in the side door to the hostel entrance. The man on the stoop is nowhere in sight. What we do see is a worn, rather dingy room with stacks of assorted hiking equipment in the corner, an old refrigerator and microwave, a table with a piece of paper to register that we can’t read. Wherever the photocopy machine is around here, it needs some new toner. In fact, this whole place could use a tune-up. 

Upstairs, six sets of bunk beds, a few dirty socks on the floor, a rug that’s long overdue to be vacuumed. 

What do we think? It’s nothing like those beautiful hostels that Pat has stayed at before. The reviews on Pat’s hiking app says there could be mice upstairs…. 

And it is going to be cold tonight and the idea of being warm and stashing our stuff here while we do our climb feels too good to pass up. Besides, we are both exhausted. 

When the man on the stoop does not appear, we knock on the door that says, “Office.” A shuffle of steps, the man opens the door part-way, What’s up?  

How do we pay? We want to leave early. Will you be up then? Can we leave our stuff here? Can we come back tomorrow and get it after our hike?

He looks at us through the doorway clearly amused at all our questions, our desire to do all things right. 

Yeah, you can leave your stuff here. Pay up in the morning, we’ve found it easier that way.  

And closes the door.

We turn to dropping our packs and devouring pizza, coke, ice cream sandwiches. Definitely a good idea to pay up in the morning.  

As I’m coming back from the outdoor shower, another long haired bearded man appears around the corner of the building named Legion.  

Last Sunday at church we’d read the story about Legion or “The Gerasene Demoniac” (Mark 5:1-20) who lives in the tombs on the far side of the Sea of Galilee. A tormented soul who breaks the fetters and chains the townspeople have bound him in…He was always crying out, bruising himself with stones.  

How did you get your name? 

I have the scripture tattooed on my arm

This is too amazing.

Jesus didn’t heal Legion.Instead, he helped him see what his real problems were and what were not real problems. 

The Legion in front of me has had his share of problems. He studied Philosophy in college which didn’t land him a job and so he went on to study recording on tapes which was outdated and obsolete a year after he started. He struggled to find work and life in the rat race so he stepped out and made a life to call his own. He works with a carpenter in the winter which is murder on his back and here in the summer which is murder on his nerves. But he loves the trail and loves being close to it and able to step out on it for a week-long trek across the Whites once a year. 

He offers to drive us to town if we need to pick up anything. I say the one thing I might need is snacks – I’m running low. 

We have a stash here I can show you.  

I’m ecstatic. Cliff Bars and Peanut Butter crackers, nuts and candy bars. I’m set for tomorrow!

He pulls up his pant leg to show us a tattooed map of the Appalachian Trail, the Continental Divide and Pacific Crest Trails. He’s done them all – several times. His leg, one of the most “liked” legs on Instagram. 

I was hiking one day and some guy behind me called out “Legion”! He recognized me by my leg.

In the Gospel story, after Jesus drove the demons out of Legion into a herd of pigs, Legion sat clothed and in his right mind by Jesus’ side. The townspeople were terrified when they say him. 

I must return and ask Legion someday why he thinks they were afraid. 

Perhaps, I think, because we are often wary of someone who is free, who has seen through the “problems” that define and confine our lives, and finds Life here where it is. 

The Trail: Day 4

Wednesday, September 28: Prayer 

When a painful emotion comes up stop and take care of it. Put your hands on your belly and breathe. When you look at a tree in a storm the leaves and branches swing and blow, looking so vulnerable. But when you direct your gaze to the trunk, you see a stability that can withstand the storm. When you have strong emotions, be like the tree. (Thich Naht Hahn on being present with strong emotions.)

Rain drips dripping on the tent. Sometime about 6 a.m. I wake in the dark tent with a silent prayer for all the people in my life, those who have been in my life and remain in my heart. It feels good to begin the day with just saying thank you.

I know that the news of the hurricane and my concerns about Dad’s health have something to do with these prayers. The precariousness and preciousness of life have found their way here to our hike in the woods. It’s not been my practice to pray on waking but it feels a good way to begin a day and I hope it might stick after I return to town. 

I slept well again which always feels to me a miracle when I’m in a tent in the woods. How many nights have I lain away listening for every scratching and footfall outside the tent, sure that a bear is out there somewhere. 

It doesn’t sound like good news from Florida with the hurricane. Pat says her husband who is never worried is worried. He calls from a friend’s apartment in the city. The power has gone out and with it the air conditioning and coffee maker. Not a good way to start the day. The predictions are a direct hit on their home in Sarasota. Winds predicted at 160 mph.

We head up Smarts Mountain in the morning fog. The gift of a stream not far from our site. I eagerly fill my water bottles. A steady climb up the trail. We are grateful we didn’t push on and attempt this last night. The woods are dark, uninviting. We haven’t seen another camp site. 

At last the top of the mountain and just up from the trail, a fire tower. I climb up the metal staircase to a beautiful view of fog in the trees below. Check out the cabin where we might have spent the night and pick up an apple from a little collection there on the shelf. What a gift to have an apple on a mountaintop to begin the day. 

A long beautiful slope down Smarts. Gorgeous views, the best yet we’ve had. A water stop at a bridge going over a stream and lunch of granola and blueberries. So delicious. 

And then the trail turns to go up Cube. Our smooth dirt trail turns to rocks and roots. Cube is definitely a White Mountain wanna-be. Lots of rocks. More and more rocks. We keep climbing, one false summit after another through the fog. Before us, a long slab of granite that I confidently walk right up and then with one step left to the ledge, slip. Fall back hard on my left wrist. Same wrist I fell on in August backpacking. 

I lie there humbled and chagrined. And grateful I did not slide all the way down the slab. What are we doing out here? This is dangerous. When will the mountain end?  

Drizzle turning to rain. The ascent goes on and on. The climbing hard and slow. At last a long slow descent down. We are both weary. 

Tonight wisdom finds us again and we find a beautiful stealth site by a rushing stream. It will be much better camping here than a few miles more down by the road.  

Pat says its her hardest day and how could it not be? No cell service and no news from Florida. Everything we carry is wet and heavy laden, saturated with weariness and grief.  

The Trail: Day 3

Tuesday, September 27: Hurricane 

Yes, yes, I’m awake.  Pat is that you? I wake in a dream that coffee is ready and Pat has a hot cup made for me outside the tent. I’m unsure if anyone is out there. I unzip the tent and the tent fills with small birds, yellow and purple and blue, little birds flying everywhere.  

I wake to a sliver of sunrise through dark clouds. Wake yes, to an actual cup of hot coffee that Pat has made. Wake to the good news from the brothers that there is in fact plenty of water on our day ahead.  No need of extra heavy packs today.

After the news of water, I have that bowl of hot oatmeal I’ve been looking forward to for days and we start our long descent down Moose Mountain. Quiet again on the trail.  A beautiful morning and good news that it seems like the weather has shifted and a clear day ahead.  

After our descent, we climb and keep climbing.  An incredibly steep hill with no name on the map.  Agony Mountain, Pat calls it. Whatever it is I go on ahead ready to find the summit.  Keep going and going towards an ever elusive top. I circle back to find Pat and the ledges which the app on my phone says we’ve missed. 

We pass a day hiker who tells us that the ledges are indeed ahead of us. As promised, the first ledge a great place to sit and the second a better view. All the way down the trail we meet day hikers aplenty who are out to see the view. Fall feels late coming this year, a few spots of trees amidst all the green and yellow turning red and orange. 

At the bottom of Agony Hill another great Trail Magic spot – this time at the road crossing a big container of water and lots of milk jugs filled with water. What a gift!  So so glad we didn’t need to filter the stagnant brown water further down the trail. 

The woods are dry. How many years now has there been a drought here in the North Woods? I wonder when the woods here will begin to burn like in California, Oregon, Washington. This week I met a couple who moved here from Oregon. He had to evacuate his house in the last big fire, she almost lost her apartment. They too are climate refugees with the means to move. 

We met our first thru-hikers from Katahdin, a young couple, Wildcat and Gumby. After they left we wondered on the question we had never asked them, When did you start on your hike?  

We head on past the second road where were going to camp to get some more miles on what promises to be a long 14 mile day tomorrow. We’ll see how far we make it up Smarts Mountain. 

Pat has had it after a few miles down the trail. I have as well. That climb up Agony Hill took the spunk right out of me. That, and day two on the trail. My body is still getting used to what I am asking of it with a heavy pack and long days on the trail.

We’ve come to another “stealth site”, “a campsite that isn’t really a campsite” as one Boy Scout explained to me. A good cleared area next to the trail where other hikers before us have camped. We consider our options. We could continue up towards the shelter, a few more miles up the mountain. Its not clear how steep it is and it will be dark in an hour and a half. Or we could call it a day and camp here where there’s a good level spot and even a log to sit on for dinner. There’s also cell coverage so we both can check in on things at home. We choose to stop here. Its been enough of a day. 

Sometimes, like this time, stopping is easy to do. But other times we just keep going when wisdom might say its time to stop. We are lost in the rhythm of the trail or it feels like if only we could put in a few more hours or miles tomorrow would be that much easier. 

But tonight, weariness and wisdom find us. We drop our packs, set up our tents next to each other to ward off the bears.  

All day Pat’s been carrying anxiety about her husband and home which is projected to be in the eye of the hurricane. She has gone from not worried to worried. The gift of the trail can be the gift of getting off the phone and off the news. And then there are times like this when the news there at home can’t be separated from life here.  

The county has called for a mandatory evacuation. The bridges will go up in a few hours. Pat’s relieved her husband is evacuating, has a condo to stay at in the city. Her grandkids and daughter have found shelter, her family will be okay. 

I step up on the ledge to check in on what Dad learned from his doctor today – the anxiety I’ve been carrying all day. I call Pat up to see a gorgeous sunset through the trees.

I’m running low on snacks and I’m fine. I want to be fine. I will have what I need. But I worry about my energy on the trail and how I crash when I don’t have enough to eat. I’m not hungry tonight after a good dinner of beef stew and blackberry cobbler dessert – my splurge when I hear there will be water not too far up the trail before we go up and over Smarts Mountain. A splurge of dessert as well from anxiety about Dad and relief he is okay and hurricane news from Pat that looks nothing but bad.

Here we are at our little stealth site in the woods with just what we need to survive out here for a few days.  And there is a hurricane that this night could take away her house and all those particular items in it that make it a home.  

I walk after dinner up the ledge. The top of the world here two miles down from the top of Smart. A gorgeous empty terrain of trees. Just past sunset – blue sky and a warm night. I don’t think its going to rain as promised. I watch and wait for stars.