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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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:

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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:

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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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An Expedition That Never Ends

A chilly hike in quiet, barren woods was a enticing closure to 2016. We started up the Scothorn Gap Trail in the Massanutten Range, a steady and occasionally steep climb that quickly throws out a web of shimmering options as it connects to other trails. On our last visit here, in autumn, the leaves were still so full on the trees that we never saw a small pond located alongside the trail. On this winter day it was more easily seen, though still a demure presence behind a dense stand of trees. A neglected path led to the pond, half frozen in the thin December light:

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Eventually the Scothorn Gap Trail intersects with the Massanutten Trail. We turned northward, and soon the first mountain views bobbed at the horizon:

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We walked through the valley a bit before pushing steeply back up the mountain toward Duncan Knob, accessible on a short out and back from the Gap Creek Trail. The ascent to Duncan Knob is a moderate scramble up a large rock slide; at nearly a 45-degree angle climb in certain sections, it requires some arm muscle.

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At the top, endless views are to be had of the Massanutten Range and the Shenandoah Valley:

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As we descended the sky became overcast and the wind grew fierce; on this blustery day there was plenty of solitude on the trail. These woods are well-loved, however, and plenty of seekers had been there before us (though there were very few traces of them, even in the campsites–great job, people!) Many will follow after us as well, and as we walked I imagined us as apparitions in that horde of unknown, unseen fellows who also sought the essence of the mountain for a day or two. It seems an expedition of such multitudes could never end, and yet it will. Crystallized somewhere in our wonder is the knowledge of the journey’s end. No paths left to walk, nor anyone to walk them. To walk the mountain is to know that in your core, and to be fully at peace with it: because what we know and what we think are often very different things.

“It is sweet to think I was a companion in an expedition that never ends.” ~ Czeslaw Milosz

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Getting Things Done

Last Thursday we gave thanks with family, and on Friday we took to the woods. The path we wanted to take was closed to all but “ice climbers and experienced hikers properly equipped for dangerous conditions,” so deeming ourselves the latter we pressed on into the Glens Natural Area via Ricketts Glen State Park in northeast Pennsylvania. Here, Kitchen Creek flows down a steep escarpment, and trails loop through a stunning 22 waterfalls in just over 7 miles. Dear Reader, you know my penchant for metaphor; however, on this hike the waterfalls offered none. Their lessons on authenticity and persistence were literal and immediate.

Water is relentless. No matter how massive the obstacle, it will find a way.

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Water doesn’t try to be something it is not. Its true nature is its constant guiding force.

15232186_10211433573217964_8953990106787255144_nWater changes form and seeks any pathway necessary to continue moving. It follows the easiest path it can find, and creates an epic journey.

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Given the smallest opening, water will get through.

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Water doesn’t complain about the path that happens to be available. Water just follows the path.

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Water can be still, or rushing, or mist, or ice, but it is always water.

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Water does not yearn for the path it cannot take. Likewise, last Friday we gladly followed the path the water had made, hugging the rocks that have shaped the creek. Where the water was ice, we stepped to the side; where the path grew steep, we took to all fours. No metaphor. No need. No effort. No turning back.

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Escape to Jones Mountain

When I booked one of the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club’s primitive cabins for the first weekend in November, it didn’t occur to me that I’d be opting out of civilization for the last three days before the presidential election. When the time came, however, the chance to escape the endless, grueling news coverage of a nasty and downright embarrassing campaign felt nothing short of magical.

The Jones Mountain Cabin in Shenandoah National Park is one of the few dwellings from before the Park’s creation to have escaped burning as the land was returned to wilderness. The hike in is lovely, rising gradually alongside the Shenandoah River before turning steeply up the mountainside to pass through tunnels of mountain laurel and towering old-growth forests.

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We arrived in late afternoon and set about gathering wood, collecting water, and making dinner. The ancient wood stove quickly made the cabin toasty and an early bedtime beckoned us to the sleeping loft.

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The next day we continued up the mountain for a stop at Bear Church Rock, one of my favorite overlooks in the park. Here, there is no hint of civilization upon which the eye can land; there are only mountains, exuberantly rolling westward.

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We pushed upward a few more miles to Cat Knob, before looping back down the mountain beside the river once again, through a dark, chilly hollow filled with bright green ferns and moss. At the cabin we chopped and sawed more wood for the night ahead before carrying our hard-earned treasures inside at dusk (fact: a fire fueled by wood you have labored to prepare yourself is exponentially more cozy and rewarding).

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A small collection of local history books sat atop the mantel, and after dinner I sat at the table and read one about Jones Mountain. Millions of years ago the mountain and its valleys knew conflict only of the geological kind; volcanoes erupting, mountains sinking, seas rolling in, and then mountains rising once again, higher than ever as the seas receded.

I went on to read, though, of the cruelties inflicted by English settlers on the Native Americans who lived on and near Jones Mountain; of the lives of slaves on nearby farms; the deer and bear who were hunted into oblivion; the ravages of the Civil War; and the forcible evictions in the 1930s of the mountain-dwellers whose land would be taken to form a National Park. The Jones Mountain Cabin itself figured heavily in the story, and a middle-aged man gazed out at me from the pages of the book in a 1979 photo. He was sitting beside the very hearth in front of which I read: his first visit to the cabin since his parents were evicted from it by the federal government when he was 2 years old.

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So in the end, I escaped the horrors of the 2016 presidential election, but was reminded that those horrors are but one particular modern expression of a long history of interpersonal violence, of one kind or another. Jones Mountain is a very peaceful place today, but its previous inhabitants would have many different kinds of stories to tell, both joyful and sad. Their history, long known to me intellectually, briefly entered my soul in a candlelit cabin in the dark of night.

Of tomorrow’s election I have little to say (I did intend to escape, after all). As individuals we may often feel powerless, but our hope lies in the individual relationships we nurture; the connections that come to fruition when we least expect it; the chances we have, every day, to make every single human encounter one of peace and love. No regime, no matter how misguided, could ever stop such a power.

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For Those About to Rock (Scramble)

Something about autumn just calls out for a good rock scramble. The crisp air, the crunchy leaves, and the endless blue above just make you want to travel upward with your whole being, and all your senses. In Virginia, your quintessential rock scramble would be Old Rag, but it is also more of a party than a meditative experience. We turned instead to Strickler Knob, at the southern end of Massanutten Mountain, which is just as fun and challenging as Old Rag but much more secluded. It does have its following, however, so we started just after dawn in order to have the glorious rocks to ourselves.

The Strickler Knob trail is technically a bushwhack, but it is more lovingly maintained than many of the official trails in the Massanutten area. Until you reach it, the hike is a rather mundane climb, occasionally quite steep, though yesterday’s hike held several autumn splendors, including a magnificent orange fungus (’tis the season), and a tiny toad practicing his camouflage skills amid the falling leaves:

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As you turn onto the Strickler Knob trail, the ground quickly grows rocky and soon you are hopping with graceful abandon. Ascending the Knob itself requires hand-over-hand climbing as the tantalizing view bobs just out of sight.

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The trail ends at a lesser summit where you are looking up at the rocks above: keep going!

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When you finally crest the highest rocks there are 360-degree views of Shenandoah National Park and the Shenandoah Valley:

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In hiking as in life (hey, hiking metaphors are what I do!), a map, a plan, and a sure and steady pace will almost always get you there. It will rain, snow, or hail; you will get sunburned; you might have to go thirsty sometimes, and you will occasionally wonder what the heck you were thinking (though fortunately the truly catastrophic events are statistical improbabilities). Work the map, work the plan, and just keep putting one foot in front of the other. You will get there. And when you reach the false summit, don’t settle: you know darn well you can see your true destination just ahead. Rock it.

 

 

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I Have Heard the Marmots Screaming

The mountains were calling and we had to go. We spent months scouring maps and websites to plan the perfect backpacking itinerary in the southeast section of Rocky Mountain National Park–only to scrap pretty much the entire plan for a new one at the last moment. Ah well, with great risk (and a lot of huffing and puffing) comes great reward.

The rivers, falls, and lakes within the park are nothing short of magical. The flow of a river may be a gentle, distant burble for minutes on end, before suddenly transforming into a roaring wall of water at a simple bend in the trail. The waterfalls twist so fantastically, from so high and for so long, that it is often impossible to get an entire falls into a single photograph.

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And the summertime snowmelt lakes are the hiker’s solace and reward: completely clear and still, reflecting the mountains around them like mirrors, the lakes are instant portals into equanimity and ease. Ouzel Lake is modest and charming in its symmetry, as if to divert your attention from the secrets it prefers to keep hidden.

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There were small clearings alongside the shore that practically shouted “Moose drink, swim, and frolic here all the time!” We surreptitiously crept up to the lake at dusk and dawn to catch a glimpse from afar; we snuck up to a high vantage point over an adjacent wetlands; and we tiptoed down the trail along the creek in the morning; but nary a moose was to be seen (meanwhile, folks on the trail told of a moose luxuriating openly at the busiest of the falls, not far from the trailhead).

We were loudly confronted by a marmot on the trail to Ouzel Lake, however, and it seemed quite put out by our impertinence.

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We pushed onward to Sandbeach Lake, which requires a long, grueling uphill climb with few views or other noteworthy features along the way. On that particular day a thunderstorm was growling up the trail behind us (not the first time a Rocky Mountain storm has caused me to hike harder and faster than I thought physically possible), and my anxious, distracted mind was stunned into stillness when the shoreline unfolded itself:

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With little time to admire the lake given the menacing clouds behind us, we rapidly set up our tent, inside which we waited while the storm raged as if it intended to destroy all civilization as anyone has ever known it. Three minutes later we crawled back out and set off to explore the shoreline, starting with the lake’s inlet, then traveling down to its outlet, where we were afforded gorgeous views of Mount Meeker:

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In “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” T.S. Eliot’s narrator speaks of having heard the mermaids singing as a metaphor for the magic he has sensed pulsing in the world, but in which he could not quite bring himself to participate. We can live in sterile boxes and tread well-worn neural pathways, and risk forgetting the magic that cavorts on the paths we never take (and make no mistake: those are difficult paths that often require great sacrifice and uncertainty). Or worse, we can hear the magic call out and never quite find the courage or time to turn in its direction. Heed well the marmot, my friends. Follow the marmot. BE the marmot.

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An Object at Rest

Rest has never come easily to me, and my mind is most quiet when my body is in motion. Push the body long enough though, and eventually it insists–a lesson I learned the hard way some years back during a hike on a 100-degree day in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Since then I’ve learned to listen to my body, but it requires plenty of conscious effort.

On a recent trip to Colorado our first couple of days involved some intense hiking, including climbing Mount Elbert, the highest mountain in the U.S. Rockies at 14,439 feet. This climb is not just a hike but a remembrance of my cousin Andy, whose ashes were scattered from its peak, making it a challenge for body, mind, and spirit. Remembering my lesson, I planned a day of rest on our third day before we took off for 4 days of backpacking in Rocky Mountain National Park.

We headed to Steamboat Springs, and a primitive cabin at Strawberry Park Hot Springs. Arriving late at night, we awoke the next morning to an aspen forest rustling outside our window. We followed the winding paths down to the hot springs pools, which we had completely to ourselves in the dawn light:

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The pools meander through rocks and bridges and are fed by several small streams, affording areas of widely varying temperature. We soaked in silence, then headed into town for breakfast and an impromptu stop at the Yampa River Botanic Garden. This small garden is packed with lush spaces and intimate woodland nooks, and was the perfect place to while away an hour.

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Lily Garden at the Yampa River Botanic Garden

Afterward we wandered through town to peruse the shops and pick up food before heading back to the springs for a massage, which took place in a tiny stone storybook house, where the window was open to the joyful brook below. The remainder of the afternoon was a masterpiece of napping interspersed with reading on the cabin’s sunny front deck while entertaining visits from blue jays, chipmunks, and dragonflies. When the daytime crowds dwindled, and the evening chill began to creep into the mountains, we headed back down to the hot springs for one last soak.

Motion and rest can seem to form a dichotomy, but look closer and they form a truly integrated whole. Even during apparent motion each individual moment hangs restfully in infinity, ultimately defined only by time, which can knit those moments together into the perception of something having moved from one place to another.  In the purest sense, nothing is moving in the present moment.

At the same time, even the tiniest portion of time that we may choose to call a moment is still a piece of time. Since all things are in a constant state of change, that tiny piece of time is still a fraction of the change mosaic in which we live, meaning that even within that microcosm there is movement.

So I like to say I rested at Strawberry Park, and I most certainly relaxed. However I also rested on Mount Elbert, even during the most grueling moments when the sliding talus threatens to drag you back down the 3 feet you just battled to achieve. And in the restful moments that strung together in that delicious endlessness at Strawberry Park? Change was most definitely afoot.

 

Bring Me All the Astounding, Ordinary Things, or: The Teachings of the Tick

We wanted to hike on the holiday weekend, but we didn’t want the crowds and the fierce competition for campsites. So we shunned the popular spots and headed for a quiet section of the trails that crisscross the Great North Mountain area, a ridge that straddles Virginia and West Virginia. There are many popular overlooks and hikes here, but we headed for the lesser-traveled Opa Overlook on the Tuscarora Trail.

Our hikes are usually high-mileage, high-energy endeavors, but this time we planned a shorter, more relaxed hike, traveling just 6 miles before making camp near the overlook. An early start and low miles meant there was plenty of time to walk slowly and absorb deeply. We noticed several intriguing holloways, paths worn down for so many years that they begin to sink into the earth as it embanks alongside them. The Old Mail Path, apparently long trod by horses before it became a hiking trail, was one of these:

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Arriving at camp around 2:30, we inflated our air mattresses, set up our tent sans fly, and laid down for a short siesta under the sunlight filtering through high branches. A light breeze moved through the tent, but beyond the rustling of the leaves there was complete silence. It was astounding–and utterly ordinary. Later, we prepped dinner and carried it up to the overlook:

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The evening was a leisurely affair of gathering wood, enjoying a fire, and retiring early. In the morning, we were awakened before dawn by a light rain pattering on the tent, and which tapered softly as the light arrived. Then it was oatmeal and time to pack up, and a quiet trudge back down the mountain through the dawn’s early light.

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Ticks (which were aplenty on this hike) engage in a behavior called questing, in which they grasp tall grasses with their back legs and reach their front legs forward into the air waiting for a mammal to pass by so they can latch onto it. Given the relative passivity of the behavior, it’s an interesting use of the word quest, so often associated with journeys. It’s a reminder that some journeys can be quite still endeavors that take place entirely within a very circumscribed realm. A tick may live out its entire life cycle in the forest in which it was born, “questing” for all those years.

For the last year or so our hikes have all been in our home realm of the mountains of Virginia, West Virginia, and North Carolina. The quiet intimacy of these woods is an inward journey every time, and the slow pace of this weekend’s hike was a reminder of how rewarding it is to simply enjoy being in the woods, without any particular thought or intent about what the hours to come may look like, without worrying about making time, without movement, even. We chose a quiet, simple hike to avoid the crowds, and we ended up on a quest–for stillness.

In the end, of course, despite any insights it may have to offer, the tick is a bloodsucking buzzkill whose suggestions about how to live life should be taken with a grain of salt. A slow saunter on the Great North Mountain Ridge was just the right balm for a busy mind this weekend, but I’m not about to stop printing out boarding passes. Next stop: Rocky Mountains.