That Time

There is no off-season for hiking (at least not in Virginia), but fall may be my favorite. It’s a season of remembrance, of transitions, and of grounding; and there is no better place to fully experience all of these than in the wilderness. Our history together has been steeped in our love of the outdoors, and in fall the memories quickly come calling.

That time we hiked mountain laurel tunnels for miles on Austin Mountain (our very first hike together):

austin mountain (2)

That time we took our first camping trip together, at First Landing State Park, and stared into a campfire for hours in blissful silence.

first landing

That time we hiked Rose River and Dark Hollow Falls in Shenandoah National Park on a crisp and still Thanksgiving weekend:

dark hollow

That time we spent a day hiking the Niagara escarpment at Christmas in a light dusting of snow:

bruce-trail

That time (the first of many!) that we laughed at danger and went beyond the warning sign (at the Trail of Ten Falls in Silver Falls State Park in Oregon):

10-falls

That time we hiked for endless hours in Ohiopyle State Park in Pennsylvania, and hid in a cave beside a waterfall to wait out a downpour.

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That time we came upon those deer along the Appalachian Trail, posing in a pool of sun as if awaiting their photo op:

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That time we humiliated ourselves by setting out underprepared for a simple two mile hike into an unexpectedly icy gorge and were forced to climb back out up a slippery cliff. We settled for an ice-encrusted Niagara Falls as our consolation prize:

niagara

And that time we returned to the site of our ignominious defeat to finally reach the Eternal Flame Falls:

eternal flame

That time we got stuck behind a wild pony traffic jam on the Appalachian Trail on Magic Pony Mountain (aka Mount Rogers National Recreation Area):

ponies

That time we paddled into the perfect island campsite at sunset in Algonquin Provincial Park:

algonquin

And then were graced by a moose swimming out in front of us the next morning:

moose

That time we rock-hopped for hours in the bogs of Dolly Sods:

dolly sods

That time we went winter camping and he snuck behind me at sunrise to take the most beautiful photograph:

sunrise

That time a thunderstorm chased us up a trail in Rocky Mountain National Park and we huddled inside our hastily-pitched tent until it passed, before tumbling out onto the most amazing beach:

sandbeach

That time he gave me an aurora borealis for my birthday, at a beach bonfire with hot chocolate, and deep, sharp lungsful of Arctic air:

auroraThat time six months ago when we hiked Old Rag Mountain in utter solitude, setting out before dawn and watching the sun rise as we climbed.

old rag

And then, that time this past Friday when we ascended Old Rag again, enveloped in the joyful energy of a group this time around as we kicked off a weekend of celebration. The journey itself has indeed been a stunning destination these past five years, but we had a chance last Saturday to stop for a particularly lovely view.

Reader, I married him.

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A Night on Halfmoon Mountain

There’s a certain kind of tiredness that can leave you mentally depleted while at the same time the flesh is practically squirming on your bones, restless. That’s mountain-climbing time. Pick a steep one, and within minutes your flesh will settle into your stride. Your thoughts will pop like bubbles, the air will rush into your skin, and your breath will become deep, strong, and then, finally, imperceptible.

Pitch a tent with your head pointed north, and in the late afternoon lie down inside it to watch the ants and spiders explore the strange mesh that suddenly blossomed in their woods. The September leaves will shimmer down the light, and joyful winds will gust high overhead; the remnants of a hurricane that displaced tens of thousands from their homes just days before. Thirteen hundred miles away, you chose this: to sleep for a night on a mountain with a small bag of things to keep yourself alive until tomorrow. How do you measure the size and the shape of this privilege?

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Eat your dinner out of a plastic bag at the edge of a cliff, keeping an eye out for timber rattlers. See only a skink with its skin torn at the shoulder, perhaps the survivor of an avian attack that’s lived to see another day.

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Scramble up to an outcropping that looks to the west, and sit for every minute of an hour waiting for the first splotch of orange molasses to drip down behind the clouds.

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Make a small fire and watch till the last embers glitter; spit water at it until they go up in a hiss. Zip yourself up in your tent and breathe the woodsmoke in your hair as your body releases into the ground. Home.

The birds will wake you at the first rays of sunlight, so that you can hurry from your tent to find an easterly view. Then oatmeal, and fresh socks, and a gathering of the things that you needed to stay alive (so much more than you really needed, of course); and then a leisurely walk back down the mountain, through gullies and runs, over ridges and tree roots. It could be the woods, but perhaps sometimes it is the ocean floor. It’s always both, anyway.

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Break a bone here and this mountain, or one of its minion rocks, will leave a tiny mark on your skeleton for the rest of your days. And you with your footsteps among legions of footsteps dating back thousands of years, all the way to the mound-building cultures that lived in these woods long before this was a “state” or a “country”: you are leaving your mark, too. You are wearing this mountain down, and after it gave you a home for the night, no less. How do you measure the size and the shape of this gift? How will you ever repay it?

At Play Where the Devil Bathes

On our way home from viewing the North American solar eclipse of 2017 we took the long way back through southwest Virginia in order to finally visit the Devil’s Bathtub. A relatively short and easy hike (more on that later), it is almost a 6 hour drive from Richmond so it was never going to be a simple trip for us. At long last, the day presented itself like a shiny apple on an ornate silver tray. “My dear children, you will be driving right by. You simply must stop. It would practically be rude not to.” Old ‘Bub knows it doesn’t take a whole lot of tempting to get us to stop for a promising hike.

The trailhead is many miles off the highway and down a deeply rutted Forest Service road that would be very unkind to low-clearance vehicles. Shortly down the road a large sign with a skull and crossbones on it loomed alongside the car. Beware of wispy green smoke around the Bathtub? Do not speak to the talking fox at the first stream bed crossing? Nope–just a good old reminder of snake and bear safety. Got it.

We started up the trail, which first travels mostly upward at a mild grade. Very quickly we came upon the stream, and the first of many crossings. Wending our way back and forth across the stream for a mile or so, our only companions in the quiet woods were the gnarled mountain laurel (did they bend just so in order that we might pass? or was that the wind?), and the little newts that kept sentry at the stream crossings.

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Rounding a section of the trail that clung to the cliff using a rope bolted into the rock, we laid eyes on the first swimming hole, a blue-green oasis on a hot and humid day. I promptly stripped down to my bathing suit and headed in; my intrepid companion scrambled up behind it and out of sight.

swimming hole

A few minutes later I followed my disappearing associate over the twisty tree roots and moss-slippered rocks to find the trail’s true treasure. Invisible from the swimming hole, tucked into the sandstone walls, lies the famous Devil’s Bathtub. The devil likes his baths cold (very, very cold), but the setting and formation are stunning.

devil's bathtub

We lingered for photographs and then, mission accomplished, we headed back down the trail toward the parking lot (we did the quick 3.6 mile out and back version of the hike; there is also a 7.2 mile loop).

I can’t end my little tale without a Public Service Announcement on behalf of this beautiful area, which speaks for itself quite eloquently but in a language too few humans remember. Are you new to hiking and want to see the Devil’s Bathtub? Great, welcome to the hiking community! Please know that this area is fragile and overused, and this seemingly innocuous little hike could easily be very dangerous. With the slippery rocks and multiple stream crossings (some can’t be rock-hopped and must be forded) this is definitely not a hike for small children. Coming here after heavy rains would be asking for trouble: the creek is rapid and deceptively deep; you could easily be swept downstream and end up with a head injury (or worse).

Too many visitors to the Devil’s Bathtub have apparently not heard the very first maxim of hiking: pack it in, pack it out. There’s so much litter marring this beautiful spot. We encountered a pair of hikers carrying Big Gulps, and one of them threw his onto the ground while talking to us (his wife saw the horror on my face and immediately picked it up).

For a great experience at the Devil’s Bathtub, try to go on a weekday as early in the day as you can. Take a high-clearance, 4WD vehicle and drive all the way into the parking area. Parking on the Forest Service road will block others and make it impossible for two cars to pass each other; we encountered someone driving in while we were driving out, and by that time there were so many cars parked on the road the other driver had to back all the way out. Parking on the county roads, or anywhere you see a No Trespassing sign, will get you towed in an area where there is no cell service. And if you want to be a true angel, take an empty trash bag and pack out all the trash you can on the way out. I doubt the Devil will mind one bit.

 

At Play in the Heavens

We’d planned the trip a year in advance, centering it around a Monday afternoon in August on which, for two and a half minutes, we’d see the moon fully block the Sun from the Earth’s view and cast us into a temporary night. Totality.

The nearest place for us to experience it was in the mountains of southwestern North Carolina. We kicked off our trip by camping for two nights in the Cataloochee area of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Hiking relentlessly, as if we’d never have the chance to hike again, we soaked up miles of soaring views; forded icy mountain streams; and communed with the famous Cataloochee elk, including an adorable calf that frolicked among the impassive adults of its herd.

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On the Day of Totality we broke camp at 3:49 am and made a beeline for our chosen viewing spot: Wayah Bald. We’d hoped the early departure would give us a jump on the crowds, but we’d underestimated the will of our fellow eclipsers: many had already camped out on the tiny hilltop the night before. Nonetheless, we arrived in time to snag a decent parking spot, set up our little day camp in the shadow of the observation tower, and watch the Sun take the stage on the day of its big adventure.

sunrise eclipse

Perhaps there is no point in telling the story of an eclipse. It has been told so many times, by gifted writers, storytellers, philosophers, and scientists, that what can there be to add? And yet, its story has never been told; there can be no unitary account of any eclipse. The highly subjective nature of human perception quite literally means there are millions of stories of the eclipse we watched this past Monday, all different and each entirely accurate. There are billions more stories of the eclipses that preceded it; all different and each entirely accurate. To reflect on this is to reflect on the wonder that we ever think we are certain of the accuracy of any perception at all. (Thank goodness for physics, which at least anchors us to the universal truth of the trajectories of Moon and Sun.)

And so, on our little chosen hillside, we watched the Moon eclipse the Sun alongside hundreds of fellow souls. As the partial eclipse began, whoops of joy went up from the watchers. For 90 minutes the Moon moved imperceptibly but inexorably across the Sun and then, just before the last sliver of Sun disappeared, I experienced a palpable crackle of collective excitement course through the crowd. Throughout our two minutes and 31 seconds of totality I felt intensely fused to a indivisible, shared human energy. This sense ebbed and flowed during totality in what felt like a physical wave moving through my body.

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Time seemed limitless, even meaningless. I stared at the eclipse, watched the wonder on others’ faces, and felt a complete absence of urgency as the moments stretched out like a giant rubber band. There was no processing, only sensing, knowing, and being–as if I had been plunged into a deeply meditative state without preparation or intention. In a flash the rubber band snapped back, and a murmur rushed through the crowd before people began to slowly gather up chairs, blankets, and snack bags. Our walk back down the mountain road and the ensuing procession of hundreds of vehicles was quiet, orderly, and completely calm.

This is not the story of the eclipse, but it is exactly what happened.

Eventually the Forest Service dirt road gave way to winding country roads, which led to suburban highways and a return to a version of reality with which we are more accustomed: traffic. We inched along for hours before accepting we’d not be camping in southwest Virginia that night as planned, and we stopped at a roadside hotel. Much-needed showers, sandwiches, and sleep were obtained, and the next morning we made our final push into Virginia. One last wonder was in store before journey’s end, and for that, dear reader, I am afraid you must wait for the next thrilling installment.

Here Be Dragons

sThis past January a dragon roared right into my face. Today I climbed onto its tooth.

Usually I write about hiking and travel, but this time it’s an inward journey. Almost six months ago I was diagnosed with Bell’s palsy, and it’s been a rough go. Although I didn’t plan to write about it, I’ve benefited so much from reading others’ stories online I felt I owed the internet mine as well. If you’re here because you love hiking, don’t go! It was a beautiful weekend in the Blue Ridge and I’ll share a few photos to prove it. If you’re here because you or someone you love is facing Bell’s palsy, perhaps my story will be another piece of the puzzle as you chart your own way forward.

I went to an urgent care clinic on a Sunday morning after a night of intense earache, and upon noticing that my mouth drooped downward on one side. Bell’s palsy was immediately diagnosed, and I was cheerfully told that if I kept my eye lubricated I’d be fine in a couple of weeks. I bought an eye patch on the way home and was ready to go with the flow, but then I got home and started reading.

Many people do recover spontaneously in a couple weeks, but there’s a broad continuum. In my case, the paralysis continued to worsen, and I ended up at the doctor again. Then I was referred to a neurologist, and found out I had a lot of factors associated with poorer prognosis: older age at onset (a couple weeks before my 49th birthday); gradual rather than sudden onset; disruption of taste sensation; and total paralysis. The neurologist went so far as to imply he thought I might not recover at all, and that was hard to hear. I couldn’t eat or drink without dribbling or dropping bits of food, I couldn’t smile, I had a speech impediment, and the right side of my tongue felt abraded and painful. The worst part, though, was my eye.

I’ve always had an aversion to anything involving eyeballs, my own or anyone else’s. They’re useful and important things, but I prefer to pretend they don’t exist. When Bell’s palsy hit, my world began revolving around my right eyeball. I struggled to keep it lubricated, and after several corneal abrasions (fun!) an opthalmologist ended up gluing it down. The ungluing process was off-the-charts painful, and for several weeks all I could do was sit immobile, holding a compress over my eye, waiting. Afterward, I still had to set an alarm every two hours to lubricate my eye, which involved pulling down the lower lid to squirt ointment at the base of my eyeball. For someone with an eye phobia, this was sheer torture.

For several months I wore an eye patch 24/7, to avoid any further corneal abrasions.  During this time, I struggled with significant depression. None of the doctors I saw prepared me for this, but I read others’ accounts online. Total paralysis, accompanied with a poor prognosis, is a very difficult pill to swallow. I forced myself through all the motions of healthy living, but inside there was a dark well of sadness and out of it flowed all kinds of self-pitying thoughts.

Reader, it got better. The weather warmed, and one day I simply couldn’t bear to put the eye patch on. I haven’t worn it since, and nothing bad has happened. Then finally, about four months in, I noticed that a tiny muscle just beside my nose could be moved, with great effort. It was so subtle no one else could see it, but I knew it was happening. Then I was gradually able to move the right side of my mouth a bit. The lower lid of my right eye stopped sagging quite so much, and I could no longer see the white of my eyeball below the cornea.

I’m close to the six-month mark now, and my smile is about 50% back. The wrinkles around my eye have returned (so happy to see them!), and I can close my eyelid with great effort (it still can’t do involuntary blinks). I am an absolute whiz at putting ointment in my eye, and the exposure therapy of the last five months has largely cured my eye phobia. My speech impediment persists, but is slightly better. One of the little things no one told me about that I still live with: there are tons of tiny muscles in your nose that control the egress of its contents, and when they stop working you should definitely start carrying tissues everywhere.

The depression and self-pity are not totally gone, but I’ve beaten them back pretty well. On the full spectrum of health conditions an almost-fifty-year-old woman might need to face, this could have been far worse. When I look in the mirror, the person there is not quite me, but perhaps a wiser and stronger version for having battled a dragon she didn’t even know existed. This October she will put on a wedding dress, and dance, and scarf down vegan cupcakes, and, for the first time in her life, what she looks like seems pretty darn inconsequential. There may be further healing, which will be welcome. There may be none, and that will be ok.

I am officially back in the hiking saddle. The first month I didn’t hike at all, terrified a twig would snap into my frozen-open eye and blind me forever. I gradually set out on longer day hikes wearing safety goggles, and this weekend was my first overnight on the trail since the onset of Bell’s palsy. No safety goggles and no fear! I ate dinner on a rock in the middle of a creek. I rose before sunrise to beat the heat and savor the misty Blue Ridge mountains:

sunrise

I scrambled up some baby dragon’s teeth on the Appalachian Trail:

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And then I climbed right up onto the Dragon’s Tooth itself:

dragon's tooth

Bell’s palsy roars out of nowhere, there is limited treatment, and you may temporarily feel completely at its mercy. However, the best treasures are found in the lairs of the fiercest dragons. Even if your prognosis is poor, as mine was, keep the faith. There’s healing to be had, in body and soul. The dragon can be taught to take a few steps back, even if it never goes away. Eventually you may walk right up to it, laugh in amazement, and crawl right up onto its tooth. What more can it do to you? Your world is yours alone, and that fact is the treasure the dragon guards.

The Unrepeatable Life

June is a season of joyful exuberance in the mountains of western North Carolina. The waterfalls are giddy and abundant, lit with love by a sun shining high and strong; and the mountainsides suddenly tumble downward with the blossoms of mountain laurel and rhododendron.

Nature absolutely adores the theme of impermanence, and in her expert artistry she layers her interpretations over minutes, days, years, and eons. In the slow, still season of winter we may meditate more on the work of eons, but in June everything is happening all at once. The senses are ablaze with the here and now, and the soul is engulfed by the wordless knowledge of connection to all that has been and will be.

The flowers of the summer mountains are showy and exotic. Once you get into your hiking groove, their brilliant presence infuses you with energy and you barely notice the miles. At the same time, every bush is in a constant state of transition: some buds are still tightly furled, others are at their fulsome peak, while the petals of those that have lived out their few days of existence are being trampled underfoot.

The tunnels of mountain laurel are cool, mysterious portals, particularly on a misty early morning. The individual blossoms sparkle with dynamism, while from a distance the plants have a soothing, quiet presence.

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mountainlaurel

Rhododendrons and native flame azaleas are like tropical birds that unexpectedly stopped for a visit in the mountains. Their neon hues and large blossoms electrify the landscape as they hopscotch out across the highlands.

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In waterfalls, though, nature is playing the long game. We can visit the same waterfall year after year–our entire lives even–and never notice much difference, if any. Of course, change is always happening, if far more subtly. The rock wears down; the river changes course; or (less subtly) a landslide or earthquake completely changes the shape of the falls.

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Upon casual observation the landscape might look just about the same every June. Your favorite waterfall, framed by bright-pink rhododendrons, is a familiar, anchoring sight. But we know that nothing is ever the same: each petal, each blossom, each bush has a brief and singular life.  Some you will outlive, and some will outlive you. Each waterfall will be what it is right now only for this moment, and you will likely never know what it will become. Even the glistening paths of our little snail friends are here but for a moment, and no two will ever be the same. This is what nature wants us to know (and really she’s not terribly subtle, although she makes up for that in so many other ways): this is it. This is your one, unrepeatable life. How will you live it today?

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Morning Time In This World

There is a great deal of company in the mountains, especially in the early-morning hours when few people go there. Every fern frond swells with anticipation of the creeping first light; the birds cheer on the sun with great joy; and paths practically tumble forward to welcome you (though they will be cautious about sharing all their secrets until they know you well).

We recently found exquisite solitude and not a whit of loneliness on one of Virginia’s most beloved and well-trafficked peaks: Old Rag Mountain, where on a weekend day there are often lines of people waiting to pass through the more challenging passages of its well-known rock scramble. Determined to have the mountain to ourselves, we succeeded by choosing a Wednesday for our hike, and by donning headlamps for a pre-dawn start up the trail.

The first few miles are a steady rise through the forest. On this May day, the abundant recent rains had left a glowing green carpet of ferns and moss. As you ascend, larger and larger boulders dot the trail, until all of a sudden you are scrambling up a bit of rock face into a labyrinth of exposed rock that goes on for a mile and a half on the approach to the summit. Here you will shimmy, squeeze, and crawl through fantastic rock formations worn slippery by legions of hikers before you (and if like me you are somewhat challenged for height, you’ll need an occasional assist).

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As you draw near the summit, the hike becomes more of a boulder-hopping adventure. We had a bright, sunny day with strong, cold breezes powering us to the top, and across crevices that looked just ever-so-slightly impossible to traverse. At the summit, 360-degree views of the surrounding mountains and valleys are a stunning reward for an expedition already thrilling in its own right. There is a significant amount of elevation gain on this hike, but the journey  is so fun you barely notice it.

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After seeing nary a soul through the entire scramble, we savored half an hour alone at the summit, exploring its multiple viewpoints. On this particular day I was mourning the death of a friend who had passed the day before, and there was much comfort to be found in the cool, smooth rock against my hands, and the soaring, miles-long distance into which the winds delivered my thoughts.

We then descended the back of the mountain, looping to our starting point and, as we neared the trailhead, greeting several fellow hikers starting their treks. This gentle transition back to society served to underscore the value of the treasure we’d been gifted. Few Virginia hikers would think of Old Rag when restorative solitude is the goal; yet it is there in full, glorious measure if you know when to go looking for it.

“For my panacea, instead of one of those quack vials of a mixture dipped from Acheron and the Dead Sea, which come out of those long shallow black-schooner looking wagons which we sometimes see made to carry bottles, let me have a draught of undiluted morning air. Morning air! If men will not drink of this at the fountainhead of the day, why, then, we must even bottle up some and sell it in the shops, for the benefit of those who have lost their subscription ticket to morning time in this world.” ~ Henry David Thoreau

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A Prayer For All Goodness

On the day before the spring equinox we hiked Blackrock Summit, Trayfoot Mountain, and Paine Run in Shenandoah National Park. As we exited the car in the thin early morning light, a cold and brutal wind immediately pounced; a tiny part of me wanted to jump right on the road and back under the covers. But hike day had arrived, and when it arrives, you hike. We layered on the winter gear and hit the trail.

Heading north on the Appalachian Trail the wind was relentless, the sky was gray, and a few snowflakes even whirled through. A mile or so brought us to Blackrock Summit, where the path soars out to sumptuous views of mountains and valley:

blackrock

The frigid wind was hard at our backs though, so we did not linger. We turned toward Trayfoot Mountain, which offers a viewless summit and a rolling ridge walk before reaching a view of Buzzard Rock:

buzzard rock

Here, at about the halfway point of our route, the wind began to still, the sun was noticeably higher in the sky, and the clouds began to clear. We descended toward Paine Run and spent a couple miles hopping over streams and puddles that sparkled with spring secrets.

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Finally, we started our long, steady trek up the Paine Run Trail. Hats, gloves, and extra layers had all been shed long ago and we reveled in the sunshine and a gently cooling breeze. Winter had swept us into the mountains, and spring was dancing us out.

Every season has its beauty, and its time to go. May we perceive the howling wind with the same open spirit that we perceive the fattening buds of the mountain laurel. May we see the gray clouds and foggy valley with the same unjudging eyes that delight in a shimmering creek. May our knees accept both ascents and descents with equanimity and quiet observation. May we embrace the spring that is coming with our whole hearts, and may we simply watch it go when it is time.

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Again the Light: Oslo

Oslo was probably destined to be anticlimactic after seeing the northern lights in far northern Norway, but winter travel in Scandinavia can easily be disrupted by weather, so we built a long weekend in the capital city into our agenda before returning home.

Oslo is far enough south of Tromsø that the longer days and higher angle of the sun were easily noticeable, though the light still had a diffuse, silvery quality that shimmered delicately against bluebird skies and soft gray snow showers alike. The weather was mild by Norwegian standards, and on a 40-degree Saturday in February the parks were thronged with people remarking on how warm and pleasant the weather was.

We cut a wide swath through Oslo’s museums (and yes, of course we saw one of the four versions of The Scream). However, it was the outdoor spaces that were most entrancing in a light that was trembling at the edge of dreams of spring. We started in Vigeland Park, the world’s largest sculpture garden composed of works by a single artist. Gustav Vigeland’s sculptures of nude human figures depict a raucous, expressive vision of the circle of life.

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Later that day we visited Akershus Castle, which lies along the Oslofjord, and has served as both castle and fortress. By this time it had started to snow, and the grounds of the castle evoked visions of Narnia.

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We began our last day at Ekebergparken, a large park that sits on a hill above Oslo and contains a sculpture garden. The skies were ablaze with blue and the previous day’s snow added a jaunty defiance to the human figures in the collection.

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Several abstract silver sculptures sparkled in the whitened landscape:

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And a hidden-away grotto invited a meditation on the meaning of Plato’s Cave in the era of digital communication:

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We later stopped at the Nobel Peace Center, a sobering, uplifting, and moving place that holds up its own light across the world.

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Such a brief stay in Oslo gave us little time to absorb the culture or neighborhoods in any great depth, and no doubt the city has a very different character in the warmer months of the year. But for 48 hours’ worth of a silvery sun glowing fiercely behind half-serious clouds; glimmering snow showers that swallowed up all sound; and blue skies bright as ice; we found our way back from the Arctic night into the light, and we found our own version of Oslo.

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Against the Night: Tromsø

Tromsø lies in northern Norway, 217 miles above the Arctic circle, where it experiences the midnight sun from May to July each year, and a long, dark winter that includes two months in which the sun never rises at all. We spent four February nights in Tromsø because of its reputation for being one of the best places in the world to see the aurora borealis, or Northern Lights. That mission succeeded beyond all expectations; however, we also discovered a warm, glowing lamp of a town held up against the cold, blue-gray Arctic days and deep indigo nights.

The center of town is mainly composed of wooden homes and buildings from the 18th century, and a little bit of imagination allows one to easily imagine this as the jumping-off point that it was for several major Arctic expeditions during that time. It snowed almost continuously throughout our visit, and on the first day we visited the Polar Museum, where glowering bronze busts of famed explorers looked down on the snowy streets below.

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The sun rose late and set early, and the little town harbor was aglow with lights at each transition.

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Weaving in and out of shops and small museums we met kind, good-natured people who loved to talk and laugh. As twilight neared, candle flames danced in frosty restaurant windows, beacons against the encroaching dark. We ate dinner at the same tiny vegan restaurant  each night (Sivertsen’s kafe), against a backdrop of books and Billie Holliday, and where I happily could have eaten for many more nights, embraced by the generous welcome and cozy space.

At last it was time to seek the aurora borealis, and though she can be coy she too was ready to welcome us to Tromsø. We were barely out of the city when we caught our first glimpse, along a country road:

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From there we headed to Sommeroy island, where an incredible display arced across the sky from one horizon to the next. It was impossible to take it in all at once, and I stumbled backward through the snow, neck craned upward, attempting to absorb its vastness. To the naked eye the aurora rarely appears green; rather, it is a glowing silver. The shapes are constantly shifting and yet you never quite see them move. Against the night sky behind it, the aurora weaves an incandescent, wordless, and liquid tale that simply fills your heart with knowing.The night was cold (just 4 degrees Fahrenheit), but I barely felt it as I stood in awe at the deep sense of bonding the lights evoked. Very briefly I felt infinitely connected, beyond words, to lives and realities known and unknown, everywhere, always.

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On our last day in Tromsø we took the cable car up the mountain that overlooks the town. The snow was coming down thick and fast and we barely had a view, but there was a snug restaurant perched at the top where we warmed ourselves before a short hike along the ridge.

The nights are dark and long in Tromsø, even in February, but the spirit that illumines the town is steady and bright. As in some other northerly locales there is actually a fairly low rate of depression in Tromsø, and researchers suspect an attitude of appreciation for the unique beauty of the Arctic at least partly accounts for that: the glistening snow, the glowing blue of twilight, the aurora borealis, the yellow candlelight behind icy windows, and the warm, welcoming hearts behind every door.

As we packed to leave Tromsø, I checked my email and learned a bright light had gone out at home–a woman with whom I had shared an orbit for the last 12 years around a sphere deeply important to us both had passed away. A sadness slipped over me but there was comfort to be had as well. Those lights, those northern lights, had suffused me with such a sense of connection: across generations, borders, cultures, and time. I found that sense of connection, and allowed my memories of my friend to dwell there. It seems like a dark world out there sometimes, but there is so much more light than we know, even in the gloomiest corners. Our hope, comfort, peace, and joy are what we hold up against the night, together.