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?

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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.

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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.

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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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.

 

 

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.

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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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Time and Choice

The thoughts we allow to enter in, and the actions we choose each moment, give birth to the next moment and all the moments that flow from there. Time will bend and shape itself to how we choose to spend it, but ultimately it comes in a limited quantity. The existence of choice affords a certain type of freedom, but none of us chooses from an unlimited menu. My mother, sister, niece and I were privileged to choose to spend this past weekend in the mountains of Virginia caring for ourselves and each other.

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It’s human nature to crave certainty. We want to know the right career; the right partner; the right place to live; the right time to change jobs/have children/retire, etc. We make lists, weigh pros and cons, and analyze our choices endlessly. In the end though, with each of these big decisions we are mostly just spinning a wheel and hoping for the best. Some of our efforts will bear fruit; others will become beautiful ruins. Regardless of outcome, all were right choices if they were undertaken with good intention.

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It is in the little decisions that our true path is charted. One moment at a time, we have the chance to choose the actions that reflect our values; define who we are; and walk in peace. We have the chance to choose kind words; to have the difficult conversations; to give the benefit of the doubt; and to spend time with the people we care about. In the end, these are the choices that are truly momentous. We walk in the dark, never knowing how much time we have or which choices we will never get to make. In each mindful moment, though, we make the small choices that light a path of purpose and love.

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It’s Always Time

As Lao-Tzu opined time is a created thing, and to say we don’t have time to do something is tantamount to saying we don’t want to. After many years of traveling to the Detroit suburbs to visit family I wanted to see the city itself, so I created a bit of time.

Automotive history holds little fascination for me (sorry, Uncle David), but public art and offbeat neighborhoods do. The Heidelberg Project was our first stop, where we wandered several city blocks that, gradually since 1986, have been transformed into a public art installation. The project started as a political protest over the deterioration of his childhood neighborhood as observed by artist Tyree Guyton.

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Entering the Heidelberg Project

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From Heidelberg Street we meandered through Belle Isle Park conservatory and the Great Lakes Museum, then rode the People Mover elevated train downtown, which features different art works (mostly tile) at each station:

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We closed out the day with a stop at Hamtramck Disneyland, a magnificent folk art installation in the backyard of a small house in a quiet, historically Polish community north of downtown:

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The next morning I walked the streets of Hamtramck, a small enclave city completely bounded by the city of Detroit, for several hours. Once a predominantly Polish Catholic community, it recently became the first majority-Muslim community in the United States. The Muslim call to prayer floated out over the rooftops while I stopped briefly at Pope Park, which honors Pope John Paul II’s visit to Hamtramck in 1987:

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I trekked to outer Hamtramck to see the Flower House, another well-known folk art institution, but alas it had been torn down and all that remained at the address was a muddy pit filled with water. Turning back toward “home”, I wandered through the sleepy Saturday morning streets of Hamtramck, admiring the postage stamp gardens and the evident pride so many homeowners took in maintaining their homes. This is clearly not a neighborhood that has had an easy time of it, but its aura is sober and purposeful. Despite the presence of many vacant and deteriorating houses I never felt unsafe for a moment.

On my return trip I stopped by the Detroit Zen Center, which sits unobtrusively on a small corner lot and blends in quietly with the neighborhood while also asserting its identity via a Japanese-style fence and a gold Buddha on the roof. In any other urban neighborhood the Zen Center might have felt like encroaching gentrification, but not here. Far from the business district on a residential street, the building blends right in with the humble neighborhood homes, and barely touts its presence with a small sign you can only read when you are right upon it. There are little to no signs of gentrification in Hamtramck, where there are no chain stores or restaurants and no large grocery stores; instead, there are tiny restaurants selling pierogi and kebabs, and corner grocers where nothing was labeled in English and I had to take my best guess.

In some ways Hamtramck feels like a step back in time, but it is not. New immigrant populations are surging in and layering on their own cultures. The Heidelberg Project and Hamtramck Disneyland both have a sad, nostalgic quality (in fact, clock images are a theme of the Heidelberg Project). However, these too will pass and in fact Tyree Guyton has announced his imminent plans to completely dismantle the Heidelberg Project, much like a sand mandala, and create something new and different in its place. As the Zen teaching goes, one time contains all times, and every piece also contains the whole. Detroit has suffered, and it is healing, but everything is staying the same and nothing ever will be again.

 

 

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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.