Boom-Crash and Overnight in the Mountains – Part II

Mrs. Hughes’s welcome suggestion meant backpacking for me without any packing (only my own warm clothes and snacks in a daypack) – the dads did all the rest!

Mr. Carson gathered bikes, helmets, and bike rack (he and Lady B planned to ride the access road part of the route), food, sleeping bags and pads, warm clothes, a tent – and all the small essentials: stove parts, water filter, eating utensils, bug dope, sunscreen, stuffies, coloring books, snacks, and more.

Clouds darkened departure day, but the sky cleared as we loaded up and headed toward the mountains. Large parking lots at the trailhead testify to the popularity of Powerline Pass with hikers, bikers, and skiers in winter. Just 20 minutes above Anchorage, it’s always been a favorite destination – so close and so beautiful.

After unloading gear and downing watermelon slices, the bikers set off, and Sweet Baby, her dad, and I followed behind at three-year old speed. Sweet Baby talked the whole three miles while speculating about Lady B up ahead and singing “no bears, no bears, today.”

One of Sweet Baby’s dad’s best old friends (and backcountry hiking companion), and his four-year old daughter, also on foot, caught up with us. She wore a flouncy net skirt over leggings, and carried, or her dad did, a glittery pink backpack.

At the bridge over Campbell Creek, the route leaves the road on a steeply uphill path. We climbed, scrambling a little, glad to see Lady B and her dad signal to us. They’d begun to set up camp on a broad ridge beyond a little gully full of wildflowers.

With mountains on three sides and Anchorage in the distance far below, this little plateau is dotted with clusters of wind-bent black spruce and softened by a thick mat of lichen, crowberry, and still dark-green bearberry. I remember so many trips in this valley, and the mountains around, with our sons when they were young.

And now with these three little girls! Dads put up tents, and girls explained to each other about sleeping bags and arrangements as they ran between the tents, widely separated on the tundra and away from the designated kitchen area.

It was 7:30 p.m. by the time tents were up and water boiling for dinner. I felt like privileged royalty sitting in a little folding chair carried up by Sweet Baby’s dad, while Mr. Carson cooked and served my freeze-dried chili.

This far north, the sun sets about 11:30 p.m. – an orange ball descending past Anchorage and sinking into Cook Inlet. Then, mountain damp and chill crept into the tent. I slept in Sweet Baby and her dad’s tent, and donned a wool hat and everything I brought (borrowed from Mrs. Hughes) and then over it all, another pair of long underwear and a fleece – finally attaching to my socks, thanks to Mrs. Hughes, two “Little Hotties” (miraculous iron filings that warm up feet or hands). Toasty.

It’s quiet in a tent in the mountains, so quiet. You can hear the small creek, occasional airplanes overhead, and familiar rustles of tent and sleeping bags. In the middle of the night, when tucked in a warm sleeping bag, it’s awful to contemplate leaving the tent to face cold air and wet feet on spongy tundra. But, if you do look up and around, it’s magic – the mountains’ stark silhouettes, the sky milky with stars. And then it’s bliss to crawl back in the tent, zip and zip, cocooned again.

A mellow, sunny morning – hot tea, oatmeal, and no agenda – a little talk of climbing higher to reach snow and Hidden Lake, but no great push. I loved hearing the dads speak of past trips (backcountry adventures where I’ve just been the worrier-at-home), and most of all, it tickled me to watch them talk to their girls, offering food, solving problems, comforting. Great dads, all.

We packed up and headed down – a hot and busy Saturday now – lots of day hikers. This time the littler girls perched on top of their dads’ shoulders – above already heavy backpacks – and sometimes reached across to hold each other’s hands.

Earlier, Lady B had wandered apart. Eating a bag of peanuts, I followed her and asked idly what she was up to. “Looking for a view,” she said. I asked if I could come, and she picked an outcropping with a 360° view. Soon the littler girls joined us, fascinated as Lady B drew in her notebook, some super heroes, but also our whole group – mountains, tents, and fine companions.

I’m grateful for this trip – and for the use of this image to capture it.

Joy

In the early morning this fall, I often read Michael McCarthy’s “The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy,” and knew I wanted to write about it at the winter solstice.

McCarthy’s book acknowledges the dire environmental straits we find ourselves in – and issues a plea to our emotions – feelings we have had toward nature for all of our history. For McCarthy “We may have left the natural world, but the natural world has not left us.” It seems a slim hope in this political climate, but he hopes by reconnecting with this part of ourselves, we might be more invested in repairing the damage.

In the first part of the book, McCarthy blends his personal story of loss with the earth’s man-made damage, and it’s painful. But then, in rich chapters, he points out the love and joy we can feel for the natural world, describing human interactions with creatures from butterflies and moths to megafauna.

He tells how he’s found “Joy in the Beauty of the Earth” and “Joy in the Calendar,” the latter through experiencing seasons, migrations, and blossomings – including importantly – the miracle of winter solstice. “The moment when the days stop shortening and start getting longer again, celebrated for millennia.” The words he uses – joy, wonder, love, beauty – are the words we associate with all this season’s celebrations.

In a short, early December trip to Downtown Abbey in climate-changed Anchorage (48° with rain-slicked ice underfoot), Baby Brother charmed me anew. He moves lickety-split on all fours around the house, stops to burst out his big smile, or to pull himself upright to explore more. He has many words, and learned to say “Kay-tee” in the most endearing way.

We got a full-size tree for the living room, and a tiny one for Lady Baby’s bedroom. We cut out and decorated cookies shaped like stars, gingerbread people, and hearts, and read “Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree.” Lady Baby demonstrated her new skating skills, flying with speed and strength across the ice at the school’s hockey rink. She was making a menorah with her class, and told me about celebrating all the holidays: “the Jesus one, the Santa one, and Winter Solstice.”

Winter solstice is a calculable moment. It occurs this year on Thursday the 21st of December at 2:23 p.m. – a perfect time to pay attention and rejoice, as we turn toward the light!

Lights For The Darkness

Sweet Baby’s parents recently sent a little video of Sweet Baby sitting on the floor next to her dad, surrounded by toys. She has a plastic flip phone with a realistic (old-fashioned) ring, even a fax tone, and she answers and initiates calls:

“Hello, I’m playing with daddy until Christmas! Bye!” Her dad asks who she’s talking to, “Poppa Jim!” When offered the phone to call back, she says, “No, I call Granny Kaytee.” “Hi. Playing with daddy. Christmas lights in the dark.”

When her parents ask for clarification, she (with a little sigh of exasperation), grabs the phone to “redial,” “Hi, Granny Kaytee. I’m just playing with daddy and Christmas lights in the dark. OK? Bye.” She snaps the phone closed with authority.

Well, OK, she’s right! For those of us who live where darkness comes early in the evening and stays long in the morning, dark defines December. And on a morning dim from clouds and rain, when Sweet Baby was here for Thanksgiving week, we lit candles at breakfast. To my delight, each day thereafter Sweet Baby requested that glow.

All the celebrations and realities of the season call for light – warm lamplight, twinkly outdoor sparkles, firelight – and trees! This year will be magic for a nearly three-year old, reading books, decorating the tree, cutting out cookies – and yes, Christmas lights in the dark!

 

George and Martha and Split Pea Soup

Not the presidential couple, George and Martha, but James Marshall’s expressive hippos from his 1970s book about friendship, “Five Stories About Two Great Friends.” The stories are about privacy, disappointment, vanity, and “what friends are for.” George says, friends “always look on the bright side, and they always know how to cheer you up.” Martha responds with a smile, “But they also tell you the truth.”

“Story Number One: Split Pea Soup,” has always been my favorite. It’s about how to tell a really good friend (or relative) that you don’t like something they cook and continually offer to you.

Martha loves to make split pea soup; George can’t stand it. One day, grown desperate but not wanting to hurt Martha’s feelings, George pours a bowlful of soup into his loafers under the table. From the kitchen Martha spies his maneuver, and says, “Why didn’t you tell me that you hate my split pea soup?” Turns out she doesn’t really like it either, just likes to make it. Now that she knows the truth, she’ll make chocolate chip cookies instead.

Such a situation has always been a “George and Martha” moment at our house. And when our younger son recently admitted he didn’t really like pie, as he was eating a piece of pumpkin pie I had made, I thought of George and Martha – and also of split pea soup, which I love. (I don’t know about our son, I think he’d like chocolate chip cookies to replace all the above.)

In this wintry weather Deborah Madison’s split pea soup is easy and so welcome. Deborah covers one and a half cups of split peas with water and sets aside. She sautés a large diced onion and two diced carrots in two tablespoons of olive oil, until the onion gets some color. Then she adds two cloves of chopped garlic and a quarter cup of chopped parsley, along with herbs (a teaspoon of dried marjoram, a teaspoon of chopped fresh or dried rosemary, a teaspoon of paprika) and fresh pepper.

Next she adds the aromatics: two bay leaves, eight parsley branches, six thyme sprigs together with a teaspoon and a half of salt, the drained peas, and two quarts of stock or water (water works just fine). Bring to a boil, lower heat and simmer for a long time, until the peas are a comforting, mushy, flavorful, warming bowlful. Remove the aromatics, and add more water if needed.

I’ve made this soup a lot lately, not “pots and pots” “all day long” like Martha, but I sent the book to Sweet Baby so she’ll know about a George and Martha moment. Lady Baby already knows.

A Frances Update

Last spring the vet diagnosed our 15-year old kitty, Frances, with kidney disease. Unsure whether it would progress quickly or gradually, the vet taught us how to give her subcutaneous water to fight dehydration and increase her appetite. Frances tolerated our treatments a few times, and then made it clear that further needle and tube interventions would not happen.

Nine months later she thrives, at least for now. We figured ways to have water containers everywhere she wants and to surround her canned food with a moat of water, refreshed all day. She eats well, had a grand summer in her courtyard garden in all weather, and we are thankful.

But she weighs only seven pounds at most, and is cold all the time. She’s a creature of habit, is Frances, with definite sleeping spot preferences. She watches “shows” each evening from a blanket spread on my husband’s lap, likes to sleep on his chest when he naps on the floor, and sleeps next to me – under the covers mostly. She misses our beloved housesitter, who accepted a good job in the big city, and can no longer visit to provide generous lap-sitting time. During the day, when Frances first comes indoors, she hunkers on a heat vent, then sleeps on a folded comforter at the foot of our bed or a wicker chair full of old sweaters.

Thanksgiving particularly vexes Frances – when everyone gathers here. We shift bedrooms, so the comforter and the chair are both out of bounds, and this compounds her general stress from the pitter-patter of little feet and jolly shouts of laughter. Frances is not a party animal.

I’ve wished she’d be more flexible in her sleeping places (and her general attitude), and that I could make her more comfortable. So I sent off for a thick, boiled wool cat bed from Lithuania – an ovoid cocoon with small entrance hole. The bed garnered plenty of five-star reviews on Etsy, and a couple of “my cat won’t go near” warnings. At first I feared the same from Frances – for days it sat, she barely sniffed. I put an old sweater of mine in the bottom, trying to overcome foreign smells, but no luck.

Then, on a cold and windy October day, the kind of day when I usually curl another blanket around her on the bed, I put the new possibility near her sleeping spot. Glancing that way in a little while, I could see only one ear, a black triangle against the wool, and then the triangle disappeared within the cocoon, which wriggled slightly, like when an emerging chick rattles an eggshell.

Hooray! I’m ridiculously glad she accepted a change, found warmth, and a happier Thanksgiving (her nest can come downstairs with us).

And a Happy Thanksgiving to you as well – I wish you time with family, friends, food, and cheerful pets!

 

Happy Halloween!

I have heard tell that certain little people will be transformed today – in Alaska we’d find one duckling, and one cowboy riding a horse (that part is important, the horse is handsome) – and in California,  a kitty cat with all the feline moves!

I hope you find some cheerful orange this autumn day – Pumpkin pie remains my favorite orange on a dark and spooky night!

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“Dostadning” – Death Cleaning

A friend recently hired a professional to help organize her house, not because she was downsizing, but because, as the expert suggested, she needed to “right size.” My friend liked this guidance through finding order in her home, discarding and shredding some things, repositioning others.

So there’s a word for such activity in Sweden – the country of hygge brings us dostadning, a word which combines death and cleaning – not scrubbing the bathtub, but a gradual, before death clearing out of possessions. According to the buzz of articles surrounding artist Margarita Magnasson’s book, “The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How To Free Yourself From a Lifetime of Clutter,” dostadning is a common practice in Sweden.

The book won’t be released until January 2 but this Washington Post article gives the flavor (don’t miss the video of Magnasson encountering her daughter’s storage unit). Magnasson says this is an ongoing endeavor, suggests 65 as an appropriate age to begin, but admits it’s never finished.

Billed as not so rigid as the KonMari approach (you know what she’d do, making quick work of everything with black plastic trash bags), I’m curious about Magnasson’s method of dealing with copious, accumulated “stuff” in a house.

Because Magnasson is an artist I wonder if she addresses the particular muddle created by art-making, the tools and supplies, but also sketchbooks, drawings, unloved paintings that might live under some of our staircases (not naming any names or making any admissions).

Few words are less enthusiastically embraced than death and cleaning, so I do admit that reading this book – even writing about it before publication (!) – might be just another way to avoid actually doing the dostadning!

 

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