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The Trail: Day 2

Monday, September 26: Moose

7pm wrapped in my sleeping bag. Dripping rain off the trees after the torrential downpour just after we arrived here at the Moose Mountain Shelter. A long slow day. A hot Pad Tahi dinner and yoga stretch in the lean-to as the rain pours down has revived me. A cup of hot lemon tea. I am so glad I stopped to get the tea. 

The hills across the valley glow in a catch of light. As I’m cleaning up, we hear voices up the trail. Two very cheery very wet old men appear out of the dark woods. They are delighted to have made it to the lean-to. I wonder how they are so very happy while being so very wet. Tomorrow I will learn they are brothers from Michigan, section hikers like Pat.  

Last night, after sharing slices of cheese and stories with Drew, I nestled into my tent about 7 as well. I have no trouble with these early nights. The trail asks a lot and I treasure the rest. As if I needed more to think on before I went to bed, I thought again about my water supply. Water is scarce and it will be 5 miles to get more. I wish I’d known. Wish I’d carried extra up from town.

Perhaps it is prudent and it is. I know I have to be prepared out here, have enough of what I need.  There is no faucet on the nearby tree to turn on when I’ve run dry. On the other hand, I still want too much, try to carry too much. Worry on things like this too much. It’s all what slowly needs to be emptied out of me and I know in time it will. I have been here before. The woods need time to do its work in me. 

Sunday morning at church, I handed out bright little paper boats and invited the congregation to write on them what they hoped for our journey together.  

I hope it’s a long journey, young Curran wrote.  

I hope this trail too is long. Long enough to relax into presence, into the gift of this time.  

After a morning breakfast bar and apple (and not my favorite oatmeal in order to save water), we said goodbye to Drew and headed off down the trail. Took a wrong turn and were headed back down to Hanover when we turned around to see the white arrow directing us north. The signs are right there, they so often are. But in the exuberance of morning, in the joy of a good nights sleep, we miss them all the time as we are paying attention to something else.  

It’s a beautiful trail, just like yesterday – smooth dirt and rolling. No rocks or roots. 

It’s so unusual, as Dad told me, so very different than most of our New England trails. Not the steep and boulder strewn trails in the Whites!

Pat and I have had this week on our calendars for months and decided on this route thanks to a suggestion from my Dad and the planning Pat has done. My father hiked the AT across New Hampshire, all forty-eight of the 4000 footers. Just a few years ago at 85 he hiked up Washington one last time. I wear his pack now to take him with me out on a trail he can no longer navigate. If only it was ten years ago we’d both be out here. He remembers all the details. All the names and twists of the trail. The shelters where we’ll sleep at night. These particulars of the trail stick for him, last and stay. 

We rest into the swing of a gentle trail. Meet a sweet young man with two little dogs doing a 10 mile circuit. 

I’m not surprised someone is living at Velvet Rocks. My parents used to be the caretakers there when I was growing up. There were always people living up there for the summer.

After we leave him we think of all the questions we didn’t ask.  What does he do in Hanover? Perhaps he works in the admissions office? Maybe in med school? A doctor?  

No other hikers on the trail all day until tonight when we meet the two wet brothers from Michigan. 

At a small stream we stop to fill our water. Fill extra bags of water for tomorrow as well. We have five miles up to Moose Mountain Shelter and no water for miles on our way down.  I look around for the straps to tie on my extra water bags. Where are they?  They were just here!  I look everywhere, figure out some other way to hold them on, lift up my pack and of course – there are the straps!   

Here by the trail, a red cooler marked “Trail Magic” with fresh tomatoes! So delicious. We add our names to the list of hikers with lots of exclamation marks of thanks.  

Further down the trail, more Trail Magic! Two cushioned chairs. Even after just a day on the trail, the opportunity to sit on a blue cushioned chair in the woods is the height of luxury. A half mile down the trail I drop my pack by a stream we didn’t expect to find and realize my bags of water I’d tied on have fallen off. But when and where? 

I leave my pack and head back down the trail thinking that maybe they fell off when I sat on the chair. Sure enough, there they are. And this discovery as well – from the time I noticed my bags of water were gone I knew that if I never did find them it was going to be okay. Pat and I could share a water bag to filter our water. It would be slower but okay. And I must say I was overjoyed to see my two blue bags of water sitting right there on the chair like their own Trail Magic.  

Thank you St. Anthony, patron saint of lost items!

It’s a slow heavy slog up Moose Mountain. Not that far and the trail smooth and sure, but with the extra water weight our packs are heavy!  

At last, Moose Shelter, and yes, we beat the storm brewing in the dark clouds to the south just behind us. A little bench looking over the valley. Notes in the shelter book from those who stopped for lunch here and wondered why they always stayed at the lousy shelters and missed staying overnight at ones like these.

Tonight, we are the fortunate ones. I’m tired but feel so much better after a hot dinner and stretching in the shelter while the rain pelts down. We already have our tents up and they stay up in the wind and rain. I will sleep well again tonight. 

We turned around this early morning and found the trail sign we could have walked right by again. I found the straps I couldn’t find and the water bags I dropped. As for the moose? He was there all the time, standing so still, watching us pass by.

The Trail: Day 1 (continued)

Sunday evening, September 25: Drew

Once we’re back on the trail, off the sidewalks and out past the playing fields, oh what bliss. What a gift to take these first steps on a dirt trail and into the forest. I’m a chatterbox. Maybe its the joy of someone to chatter with, perhaps the joy of the dark trees and trail that have made me forget about whatever rain or weather we’re having. We’re here! We’re on the way.

Pat seems distracted, preoccupied. Maybe she’s nervous about the trek before us and whether she’ll be up for it. Maybe that hurricane that she mentioned last night at dinner that is growing off the coast from her home that she says she isn’t worried about. Maybe something else or maybe its not even true. But whatever it is or is not I never ask.

I’ve been struggling with my nervousness before worship Sunday mornings. Its nothing but an old pattern that doesn’t serve me anymore. As a younger pastor I wanted to get it all right, to be downright perfect, to make a connection and something meaningful happen in that hour of worship.  

Perfection and getting things all right are values that have left me behind. And while I no longer believe that I am responsible for holding all things in the universe together, something in me still believes I do. I take seriously those Sunday morning responsibilities that are mine and holding an attention to details of all I need to remember. Work hard to craft the saying of the right words to help make a space of welcome. But ultimately as a wise elder told me recently, it’s not me that holds the space, it’s the space that hold me, holds all of us. If only I could remember that. If only I could really believe that. If only I could let go.  

This morning was my third Sunday service here in Littleton, my second service on my own. Worship went well and yet on the trail up to Velvet Rocks I go over and over all I forgot to say and do, the prayers I neglected to pray. All that didn’t unfold as “planned” in my imagination and instead turned out as it did. It was good, just different than I’d imagined. 

Over the coming week I will have much such rumination. Step by step over past decisions and regrets, choices and challenges that I wasn’t able to navigate with grace and agility. I am hard on myself, carry incrimination as an added weight. 

I ask Pat what she wants out of this time. I forget what she said. I ask for presence in my steps, presence in the walking, that presence I’m not feeling this afternoon. 

Around the bend, the gray metal roof of Velvet Rocks Shelter, 3.3 miles up the trail with all our detours and missteps from the Connecticut River crossing. I’m ready to stop. 

There’s someone camping here at the lean-to in an orange and gray tent. A well-tended fire. A line of drying clothes across the front of the lean-to shelter. A lot of gear spread out on the floor. As we set up our tents, out of the shadows steps a thin tall man with long straight  hair, a shaggy beard. His name’s Drew. 

That evening in the growing dark, Drew and I will sit at the edge of the lean-to where he will give me fresh tomatoes to eat and slices of sharp cheddar cheese. The distant shouts of fans and players on the field below. White lights through fog.  

He tells me about living with his mother in Bethlehem Pennsylvania and how his mother died and the house got sold and he took off hiking. That was two years ago, his second year on the trail. 

Tells me about waiting for a friend he met further down the trail who is due in to Hanover on October 1. About his hopes to hitch a ride with him to Florida where he’ll spend the winter. Tells me his friend doesn’t yet know about that plan yet.

Tells me how different people are out here – so friendly and nice, so different than they are in town where the clerk at the 711 Store where they offer free cups of coffee for thru-hikers told him he needed to leave or they were going to call the police. 

I’m just finishing my coffee – here’s my phone if you want to can call them.  

Drew looks like a guy you might cross the street to not walk by. Looks like someone you’re not so sure of and yet, aren’t really worried about either. He’s not dangerous or scary and here in the woods, in this grit and dirt, in this isolation and vulnerability of the woods, a connection is made. A gift and grace.  

Who is he? Who are any of us out here? Are we only our former selves?  Does the vulnerability of being out of our element and familiarity change us? Is his story true? Has he really been out on the trail since March? Is there really a friend he is waiting for?

Perhaps that’s something the trail offers us all, the chance to be different. A chance to get a new name and see each other outside the stories and considerations we hold against each other back at home.

I ask him how he decides where to go each day. My goal is to have no goal. If I reach the end of the trail, the destination, I’ll have failed, though once I got quite close.

The plan, to have no plan. I think how he is my kind of hiker, a wanderer that lives in an openness to what the day unfolds and brings. Who is present to here. 

He tells me that while he’s been waiting here these days he’s volunteered at the church and the food bank where he gets free tomatoes, cheese and pizza slices.

I’m still too full of town. I’m wary and in wonder. Sitting here sharing apple slices with a homeless trail wanderer grieving man.

A young man came to the woods with nothing, no decent pack or supplies. Everyone helped him out that night and shared with him what they had – a stove and food, a clean pair of socks, an extra pack.  He never would have survived out here alone.  

Later, I wondered if he was talking about someone else or about himself and the generosity that’s  found him.

Drew’s a good man. The kind of person, like he said, you find out here on the trail.

The Trail: Day 1 

Sunday Afternoon, September 25: Finding Our Way 

As always, a last minute flurry. Despite all the planning and laying things out there is the return to questions. Do we really need this and why not that? As always, I’ll take too much food, a few too many bars and a few too many extra meals in the belief that if they are there, that energy will somehow get in me, recall me to life. We spread out our gear on the living room floor. Pick up our packs, moan. Ponder the weight. 

What about an extra shirt and and pair socks? (Yes to both.) It’s projected to be a wet week and I think of everything getting soaked. Do we bring the crampons in case we hit ice or snow? (Me – yes, Pat – no) We don’t even discuss taking a chair. (No, too much weight.) 

On Sunday early afternoon we are still deciding and pondering decisions and then it’s time to go. We take the gorgeous winding road from Franconia to Kinsman Notch where we park the car and meet our shuttle driver Steve who drives us south to Hanover. Wow is my pack heavy. I mean, I don’t know if I’ve ever carried such a heavy pack.  

Steve drops us at a dirt parking lot on the Vermont side of the bridge to Hanover. Reminds us that he’s around all week if we run into trouble and we need him to pick us up.  

Sprinkling and not quite raincoat weather until it is. I drop my pack to put mine on. After winding through downtown Hanover, we head out of town. At the crossroads we see the Co-op across the street. Just what I was looking for – the chance to pick up a few more things I forgot – some tea and decongestants. I was leveled by a nasty sore throat and virus the past week and though I’m feeling better I’m still recovering and delighted to cram my additional supplies into my pack.

By now it is just plain raining and we are eager to get off the road to the shelter of the woods. All too eager it seems as we follow the white blazes on the telephone poles away from the Co-op and up the hill and then further up. We are full of chatter until we realize we’ve lost track of those white blazes on the telephone poles that mark the Appalachian Trail. When was it we last saw one?  

There – one ahead! Alas, it’s not a blaze, and we turn around and trudge back without the spring in our step that carried us up the hill. Back down the hill to the crossroads, to the Co-op. I pull out my map. Pat pulls up her trail app. The trail’s here – but where?  

We follow the white blaze on the telephone pole again, step around the orange tape marking off the road construction on the dirt road, start up the hill again but slowly this time.  Where did the markers go?  

Its not until we turn around, step out and around the orange tape and puddles on the dirt road one more time. that we happen to look back and see right there, right in front of us, the sign – “Appalachian Trail, Velvet Rocks Shelter”, an arrow to the left. It’s the picture I never took of those puddles on a dirt road under construction and all that bright orange tape. All that kept us distracted from noticing what was right there in front of us all the time – the way.   

The Trail

Every year over a thousand people set out to hike the Appalachian Trail (AT). Every year thousands more set out to hike little sections of the trail that one day they hope will string together and connect all the way from Springer Mountain to Mount Katahdin. 

My friend Pat is trying to “section hike” the AT before she dies. I don’t come to our hike with any such lofty ambitions as Pat. It’s my first week away in my three-quarter time work schedule and I can’t think of a better way to spend it than by an immersion in the woods.  

It was late September when we hiked some 60 miles from the Vermont/New Hampshire border to the far side of Mount Moosilauke in Kinsman Notch. 

All during the week the trees turned from muted gold to brilliant orange, yellow and red. Today, in mid-November as I look out the window of my little apartment, the trees are gray and bare limbed. A scattering of dried brown leaves that hang tenaciously on. A dusting of snow, the first of the season. Three crows and a squirrel poke through the detritus of fallen leaves.  

Something happened the week of our hike as something happens every time I set out on a trail with intention. Something that I’ve a hard time describing but something I try to recall in this little trail of stories from the hike now almost two months ago.    

Perhaps you know what I mean. Something mysterious happens in and to all of us as we move through the trail of our days. Some days an ease like the start of our hike on a smooth trail with no rocks or roots and you are both delighted and surprised that trails like this even exist around here.

Some days it’s one careful foot in front of another, the trail steep and slick like coming down Beaver Brook Trail off of Moosilauke. That afternoon we both skidded on stones, plunked down hard on wet rocks. One rolling fall for Pat and yes, at the end of the day both of us humbled but okay. 

Something happened that week that was so much more than a sore hand and wrist. More than a sharp pain in my right heel that now, weeks later, I am slowly recovering from. I’m not as patient as I aspire to be when it comes to the slow healing of my body that interrupts all I want to be out and doing. I don’t want to give in to the slow work of healing and time, no not yet. I’m still young enough, still hungry for more. 

Whatever happened was certainly more than getting something checked off the list, another trail complete. That’s not why I hike and what I seek on the trail. But what is it?  What happened? What found me out there? Today I retrace my steps, climb up and down the trail again in my imagination to discern that something that happened that week that’s made all the difference.  

The Old Road: Agassiz

I cannot afford to waste my time making money. (Louis Aggasiz, Swiss Naturalist)

I forget who told me about the mountain. But sometime in the past week, a passing comment about Agassiz which I’d gone off to find this Sunday afternoon.  

An old abandoned house at the bottom of the road. A steep climb up an old paved road.

Its warm. Unseasonably and not a right kind of warm. 70 degrees here in early November. At church this morning thank you’s for warm weather and concern about the weather. Something feels wrong, very wrong that I can’t just feel good about.  

The old road is steep. I stop at the bench half way up to take off my outer shirt. Tee shirt weather in November.

Along the road, snags offer themselves to the wind and birds. I pause to place my hands here, drawn to them in this season of my life. I want to live like this, as an offering.

Along the road after church, a vibrant crowd at the crossroads with signs standing for the integrity of women’s rights over their own bodies. All these years later and still bodies – Black Bodies, Brown Bodies, Women’s bodies, LGBTQ bodies are under surveillance and attack. A little group out there this afternoon offering themselves where they never expected we’d be again. I’m glad to meet them. Glad to stand with them for a while.

The old road continues up, up

Past the chattering of an insistent squirrel – 

Keep going, keep going. 

D’vonne

It’s the words you never want to hear

Murder, Young Dad, Seattle

You didn’t hear

But as the words go on

Central District, Postman suddenly 

That young man becomes oh no not that young man, no

Until all you are full of is a hollow grief 

You cannot hold

And the memory of that day 

When that kind young man with a bounding spirit 

Helped you move forward in your time of need

It was January 2020

The first COVID case in the news

And the moving van stuck in a snowstorm

When I’d flown in to pick up my 37 boxes 

I’d left behind in a friends garage

Since the moving van wasn’t arriving 

And I didn’t want to leave this problem behind 

I heard about the Postman just down the street 

Wondered if he could help

We can do this, he said

And box after box D’vonne and KeAnna 

Helped me ship and weigh with care 

Send off to my new home on another coast

Weeks later the boxes went to the basement 

Vowing I’d someday sort through them  

A day that did not come until weeks before I left that place

As there were so many other things to do

I’d rather do

Than look through boxes

In this terrible time, in these heartbroken days

For all who love you

I light a candle for you, D’vonne

For that meeting in time

Your kindness in a storm

Your making a way when there was no way 

Years later, I went to the basement

Pulled out the boxes

Remembered, grieved, gave thanks

Emptied the boxes 

And found in the emptying 

A breath of air 

I never could have imagined was there

For a new beginning

Thank you, D’vonne.  Thank you. 

Infinite Imagination

“These mountains grow water, so I just don’t understand what happened. They said he had his ten essentials but died of of dehydration up there. How does that happen?”

We’re at the little green tent at the Ammonoosuc Trail Head talking with Bill. He’s arrived here early this morning to check out the hikers like us who are out to ascend Washington. He’s not sure nephew Peter’s pack is big enough to carry all the stuff he says we need but smiles when he sees my large stuffed one.  

A gorgeous day is forecast. All these bright yellow suns running across the hours on my weather app. So Peter suggested a few days ago that we climb Washington. So we’ve risen in the 5’s and he up before I am. I heard him stirring and want to roll over. I wonder if my foot feels okay. Do my stretches in bed before getting up. He’s made bacon and eggs and we’re out the door at 6:15.  

Twelve years ago on the week of our climb today, a young man from Maine took off in sneakers and shorts to climb Mount Washington in a snow storm on what he planned to be the last day of his life. 

On that same day, Pam Bales, a member of the Pemigewasset Valley Search and Rescue Team also took off hiking up Washington. When she was about to turn back because of the severe weather, she saw footsteps in the snow and followed them. 

Last night Peter and I saw the new movie “Infinite Storm” about what happened that day on Mount Washington. Though the mountain in the movie isn’t Washington, and though everything that happens in the movie didn’t all happen, what did happen is that in the midst of a terrible storm in a terrible time in a young man’s life, a connection was made that changed everything. 

We plan to hike the trails Pam hiked and on the way driving to the trailhead we narrate our own catastrophe movie of all the impending disasters in store for two fools who are out for a hike on a clear sunny day. Everyone knows a beautiful sunny day like this is a warning for a terrible storm that is brewing on the other side of the range!   

Our narration of impending doom feels a bit more real as we drive 3, 4 miles down from the turnoff to find the trailhead. I swear I read it was only a mile away.

We seem to be fulfilling most of Bill’s requirements for a safe hike however. No, we won’t need crampons but he does recommend a ground cloth which I don’t have. 

We start off up the same trail I hiked with my friend Ross in May when we summited Washington on a weekend of a rain, freezing temperatures and howling winds. However, I could have sworn it was flat as we hiked along by the Ammonoosuc River. Well, not exactly flat but not too taxing either. Peter bounds ahead. I plod behind. Rocks covered with ice.  I think how nice it might have been to have my Kahoots spikes on my boots. I go slow, slip, catch myself.  Keep on.  

At Gem Pool at the base of a beautiful waterfall, we meet up with a group of students from the Kennedy School at Harvard. They ask us how far it is to the top and whether there will be ice. We wonder on such lack of preparation, such naïveté from a group that includes a future Secretary of Commerce and Chair of the Federal Reserve!

All the way up I’m not thinking about ice. I read the weather report and expect as planned dry rocks and little wind. What I am thinking about is a cup of hot coffee at the Lakes of the Clouds hut, a second cup at the summit with perhaps a bowl of hot chili and the chance to refill our water.

It’s the long granite slabs on our ascent that slow me to a crawl. What happens if I slip?  I so don’t want to slip again after a couple of falls these past months. A friend suggests it could be vitamin B deficiency. I fear its just being 60. So I go slow and Peter waits and I catch up and at last the top of the hut comes in view. As we come around to the front, we see it’s shuttered closed but even here outside it still smells like wet boots. 

A bit over a mile to the top. From the hut you can’t see the two little “lakes” that are just up over a tumble of rocks where this spring the frogs were croaking. Its terribly silent now up here.  Up and up we trudge.

Turn aside on the trail as we are passed by a sprightly man my age springing up the trail behind. “Thank you sir!”, he calls. “Sir?” I’m feeling downright surely. Where did he get all this energy from? 

He promises he’ll see us again and sure enough before we reach the summit they’re already coming down. “There’s a great spot for lunch on the far side of the building,” he promises, “away from the wind.” 

“I’m sure we’ll see you again,” I laugh, “on your way up the mountain again!”   

We wind up and up the gray stone trail.  Around a bend, two towers appear above us. The wind picks up, brisk and cold.  

I’d finished my water on the way up to lighten my load and celebrate getting new water at the top. But as we come to the summit its all too clear that everything up here but the port-a-potties and a little shop selling tee shirts are closed for the season. Where am I going to get that water I need?  

In the tee shirt shop I ask if they have water. “Just give it to him,” the clerk says, and the young man hands me one, two bottles.  Do I look that bad off or just as desperate as I feel? I am ecstatically grateful.   

The top is covered with folks in long winter jackets and sneakers off the Cog Railroad. We stand in line to get our picture at the top. Never do find that place out of the wind for lunch. Its darn cold up here. But at least I have water!  

We venture slowly down rock to rock towards the Jewell Trail. As we approach the view over the Great Gulf Wilderness, voices call out behind us, “Peter! Oh Peter!”

Its our Harvard friends looking for sunscreen which in my overflowing pack I happen to have.  They are elated. What the future leaders of tomorrow lack in preparation they make up for in resourcefulness!  

Rocks to rocks to yet more rocks gray and green with lichens. It takes a certain concerted concentration to step rock to rock. I could see why you could be tempted to get down on all four’s and crawl your way off the summit.  

My friend’s wife says he needs to stop shuffling. As if you could just stop shuffling and walk differently. He walks unsteady and slow. Drives a big truck.  It frustrates me how slow he goes sometimes. He says its his knee, arthritis. I don’t want this for him, not any of it.  I want him to stride out like he used to, steady and strong.  

The trail winds down and down and we lose our way this way and that. The way ahead is not so clear.  Looking down over the waist high trees, we cut over to a what we think is the trail, lose the trail, find it again. Somewhere down ahead is a dirt trail or at least it looks like one from here. Dad says this is one of his favorite trails. I need to ask him why. This top part is slow and miserable. 

At last the rock trail become rock and dirt and then dirt and roots. Now I can see the beauty of the trail. Down and further down. At last we arrive at the car. Bill’s gone home, his tent closed.  

Stiff and sore, we stumble into dinner at the pub for the burger and pumpkin beer we’ve been dreaming about for the past two hours. Poutine heavy with cheese and dark gravy. Several glasses of water.  

Sipping our ales, we determine its actually not a hiking crowd here despite what the waitress said. Not enough hiking boots and weariness in the room.  

We ask the waitress if we’ve climbed Washington if we get a free cup of water.  She smiles at our picture and brings us a second cup.  

Cooley and Cole

The tao that can be told

Is not the eternal Tao

The name that can be named 

Is not the eternal Name.

(Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu, translated by Stephen Mitchell, 1988) 

Perhaps it’s a black poplar or an aspen. Whatever it is, it’s the first thing I see. Shaped like a dew drop, a leaf that was once yellow and green now dotted charcoal gray, speckled with clear pearl droplets of rain. Tiny saw-tooth edges. 

It’s strange to look down on rain-speckled leaves on this crisp blue sky fall day. But as the woman at the spring reminded me, yesterday was wet and soggy when she was out with the crew clearing trees. I think I recall yesterday’s rain but it’s easy to not notice in the sheltered worlds in which I live under roof with central heat.  

I left my nephew Peter at the Irving Station this early afternoon to catch the Concord Coach to Boston. I’ll miss him. We’ve had fun together these past few weeks adventuring in the North Country. Hikes up Table Rock and Washington, Sunset on Bald, Sunrise on the Kilburn Crags.  

When I moved to town, I picked up a paper map to a trailhead just 20 minutes away. It feels right today, the right place to go, a 6 mile loop with two hills to summit on a most gorgeous fall afternoon.  

There is something to be said I am sure for the pursuit of ascending the forty-eight “4000 Footers” and the “52 with a view” but I know I’m up North for something else as well. I want to get to know this place beyond the famous peaks and lofty views. I want to immerse myself in the everyday, ordinary worlds of Cooley and Cole.

A series of steep winding narrow roads go up and up to Sugar Hill, Landaff, Easton. I descend slowly down the rutted dirt road, past the yellow forklift to the whirring pitch of the sawing of trees. The crew is working where the parking lot is so I ask for a good place to park. The yellow helmeted forester says a little further up, down towards the trail is a good spot. I strap on my pack, adjust my poles, head up the old dirt path past the “Beware of Dog” sign to the trailhead marker. Smooth granite slabs ascend to the yellow diamond trail to Cooley. 3.1 miles. I have time before sundown. I want to make it.

The trail is a mountain bike path and I wind back and forth, sharp angled turns up and up and up. Not all that steep or hard and just the kind of trail I’ve been looking for this afternoon. Unlike most trails around here, today I don’t have to worry about rocks and roots. A good dirt trail covered in brown crunching leaves.  

I pause to take pictures of plants I do not know to look them up when I get home. I remember when I first moved to Maine, I wanted to learn all the names. Perhaps felt that in the naming, I would gain a foothold on this strange new place to call home. Or perhaps I wanted to learn the names because I love these northern woods and if you love something or someone you want to know them by their many names.  

At home after my hike, I confirm that the first leaf with the rain drops like pearls on it might be black poplar.  Perhaps its aspen. Amidst the brown leaves, here a bright nest of common haircap moss. 

Up here on the a sea of little sails is knights plume moss. 

Here the little tree of the solitary club moss

and feathery glittering woodmoss. 

Is this how you get to know a place, by learning the names? Can we really inhabit a place if we don’t know the names of who we share a place with? But then how it is that so many like me know so few of the the names of what grows and crawls and flies in the world around us? 

I few weeks ago I invited everyone at church to stand up and have a short conversation with someone they didn’t know. “How was that for you? “ I asked. Karen said, “All these years and I’d never known who that was sitting in front of me.” 

I would like to wander these woods with someone who knows. To learn from someone who has walked these woods and can show me what I’d never otherwise see. Someone like a good outdoor docent like Sarah who I wandered through the Maine woods one cold wintery morning looking for animal tracks.  

Here by this stump, a beautiful maroon dogwood. 

My Maine pursuit of learning the names, soon ended, however. Did I lose my longing for connection to a place as I took refuge in the familiarity of everyday duties and responsibilities? Will I do that here again?  And what does it take to “know” a place? Do my apps for plants and peeks help me to know or do they keep me from a kind of wild immersion in a place?  I do not yet know what to think. 

The Tao says, The unnamable is the eternally real.  (Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu, translated by Stephen Mitchell, 1988) 

Suddenly, something heavy thumps off through the woods beside me. A sound like something dropped from a big truck. It’s probably a deer. I can’t imagine a moose bounding like that. Or a bear. I’m reminded again that I’m not alone out here. 

Wednesday night we climbed the Kilburn Crags and saw the most gorgeous clouds whispering over the valley, up through the hills. Peter turned to sit on the bench to watch. I joined him wondering on how rare it is to stop and see. 

On the way down a strong pungent smell of sewage and sweat and something that really reeked. It wasn’t scat and we hadn’t smelled it ascending. It was growing dark and hard to see the trail much less what was in the woods. I imagine it was a bear or would like to think it was a bear and I looked behind me to make sure that I wasn’t being followed by a bear.  

The yellow trail up Cooley joins the blue trail which is now more of a hiking trail and I like it better because it is not all just switchbacks.  

Brown leaves and peeling white birch, silver and golden birch perhaps. I turn back to see a long wound in a tree that makes it stand out all the more beautiful like a fine sculpture that makes me pause and wonder on wounding and beauty. 

I have lived in the most beautiful of places, my friend Esther reminds me. It is true.  

A crossroads. I look at the time. I don’t know how much further it is up the trail to the top. I want to reach the top. I keep going.  

I pass round pellets of moose poop which makes me very happy to know that what David at the Community Dinner the other night said is true that there are moose here and everywhere and that its just that we don’t see them. I don’t want to hit one in my car. I’m not sure I want to meet one on the trail here alone in the woods. I am so glad to have found this sign that they are here.  

The trail ascends to false summits and sky to more trail and at last the concrete and steel remnants of a fire-tower and what is the end of the trail. So glad, so blessed to have come, to have made it here. A good long drink of water on the granite slab before turning to home. A brisk walk and blessing, up the Red Trail .4 to Cole, a long descent down more granite slabs, dry and smooth. My confidence strides out past a couple on the trail from Massachusetts. I tell them I grew up there and just moved here. I feel strangely, wonderfully proud to say I live here, I am from here. This is my home.  

I want to be like water and become this place, inhabit this landscape. I want to find home and be at home here. I do. 

Every morning in my various ways, I practice placing myself here, like writing this now, to put down the words, to name and remember. 

If you do not remember the smell or feel of the land then you will believe anything they tell you about it including that it is just another body to exploit. (Ben Weaver, from his poem, “Considering Leaves”)

On the way out, another leaf, spotted with pearl drops.

There is not enough time to learn all the names. I vow to learn them all.  

There are no arms big enough to hold all this place contains. I vow to be held by it all. 

There are no eyes wide enough to notice all that is here to see. I vow to witness it all. 

Before turning to home, I turn back to read the marker at the trailhead,

The Forest is created with the conviction that a healthy, vibrant future for the people and environment of our region depends on a strong connection between land and people. The Community Forest is created to enrich that relationship.  (Sign at the trailhead for the Cooley-Jericho Community Forest) 

The Spring

You must be shapeless, formless, like water. When you pour water in a cup, it becomes the cup. When you pour water in a bottle, it becomes the bottle. When you pour water in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Water can drip and it can crash. Become like water my friend.   (Bruce Lee, “Bruce Lee: A Warrior’s Journey”, Warner Brothers video, 2000) 

Before anything else, before the story begins, I came up through the Notch, down that narrowing of road, the slowing of traffic, rising of cliffs and peaks, out over the rise to where the road descends, sky opens over the North Country, my home for the coming year. Blue ridged mountains whose names I do not know, a landscape of the imagination.  

Turn off the exit for Franconia, wind through the little town past the grocery store and coffee shop, the pub where the tourists cluster outside on picnic tables. Take the sharp left at the sign for the Old Franconia Road. A few miles up, where the trees bend green and low, pull off into the dirt strip, a pickup truck across the way. 

A slow tickle of water from the white pipe at the end of the wall. Marie is filling her blue jugs, tan rawhide jacket, blue hat, jeans. 

I’ve tested it, its good, she promises me, better than the water at home with all that is in those old pipes and interacts in funny ways with my medications. Fresh and clean. The spigot flows out into a stone pool, filled with cold water.  

I tell her I’m moving here, that I’m the new pastor in town. She tells me about God and what He has done in her life, the healing of being out here in the outdoors in this good air. Tells me about the broken families, broken beyond broken, not just ordinary hurts but the kind that needs a kind of healing that can be beyond us. The trouble she’s seen.  

She tells me to back up my car. It’s easier that way, she says, offers to help carry my jug. Don’t strain yourself. It doesn’t look that far but with a heavy awkward container like that its easy to get hurt.  

I follow her advice, back up the car. She helps me carry the jug.  

I turn, thank her for her advice which she reminds me is free, free as the water here and as pure. 

Sneakers in the Snow

I haven’t written for months. Perhaps it was back in July, my last posting. The same descent into silence after months of writing happened when I moved to Boston last spring. Perhaps, along with the resettlement into a new job, new home, new doctor and dentist to be found, new routines to be discovered, a new way of writing needed as well. A new way to be writing in a place that asks something different and more than what was before. Perhaps it’s all an excuse. But there’s a pattern there that I’m curious about.

But something woke me this morning that said I have something to share and as I lay there in bed a short post came to life that I rose into writing a couple of hours go.  

And so, here I am on this early dark morning at the far end of crooked little wooden table in my little apartment kitchen that leans notably left. I feel like I’m on a ship at sea. Perhaps its why I like this place so much.

I’m now some six weeks into my new work here as the interim pastor at the First (and only) Congregational Church of Littleton, New Hampshire. When I first met the search committee on a zoom call last spring, I just liked them. It felt like a surprise to me and perhaps to them as well. I felt that here’s a group of people with whom I could have a good conversation as they wonder on their future.  And yes, something perhaps of the adventurer in me liked the idea of the North Country of New Hampshire across the Connecticut River from the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. 

I wonder why I’ve been so happy here.  Maybe it’s this strange new world that requires my curiosity. Maybe the learning and discovery of pastoring in a small church – something I’ve never done. Maybe its the mountains out the window and across the doorstep that I’ve always loved and now live in.  Maybe this crooked little apartment with room for guests.  And maybe, yes, for the invitation of this time to be in time differently.

On Labor Day, my first morning here, I proceeded out for my morning run and tripped over the curb. I’ve looked like my five year old self for weeks now with a scabbed knee and elbow. My fall was followed by a week long virus, a sorer throat than I’ve had since that miserable hot summer in 1977 with mono. I recovered in time to hit the trail for a week of hiking on the Appalachian Trail and came home with a super sore left hand and sorer heel and just this week a stomach bug that sent me to bed for the last two days.  

I say all that not to gripe but to wonder that despite all that, I have truly been so happy here. Maybe in all the mishaps an invitation to slow down that I have needed and that being in this place requires. Maybe there is something under my rigorous exercise routine that needs a discovery.

And yes, being close to my family is important to me now and I like having my folks and assorted cousins and aunts 80 miles down the road.  My nephew Peter is up here now and we’re planning our hike up Washington on Saturday. 

On October 18, 2010 a young man from Maine took off in sneakers and shorts to climb Mount Washington in a snow storm on what he planned to be the last day of his life.  On that same day, Pam Bales, a member of the Pemigewasset Valley Search and Rescue Team also took off hiking up Washington. When she was about to turn back because of the severe weather, she saw footsteps in the snow and followed them.

The other night Peter and I saw “Infinite Storm” about what happened that day on Mount Washington. Though the mountain in the movie isn’t Washington, and though everything that happens in the movie didn’t all happen, what did happen is that in the midst of a terrible storm in a terrible time in a young man’s life, a connection was made that changed everything. 

Sunday’s sermon carried a message about how curiosity leads to connection, and how connection leads to growing community. It doesn’t always happen that way of course.  As Ty Gagne, the author of the article in Appalachia Journalthat inspired “Infinite Storm” said, “We all have walked by the sneaker tracks in the snow.” And yes, sometimes we too have followed them. The connections we make don’t always lead to the creation of community, that is true too – or at least not in the ways we expect.  

“Infinite Storm” came out this spring when we were all climbing out of isolation again. And here we are this fall after another round of COVID infections, stepping back and out again. A lot of us out here wandering in our sneakers in the snow. That is, if we’re so fortunate – others of us in our bare feet. 

And yes, many of us in our stumbling ways still longing for a connection that we perhaps have forgotten how to make. All out here somewhere between losing our way and the possibility of being found on it. Perhaps that’s why I woke to write this morning, to make a connection.  Perhaps, that’s why you read this little post.  Perhaps its what we’re all looking for.