November Thoughts

It’s Election Day – but you know that and you will vote or already have – now we just cross our fingers and hope that things will change for the better. Writing about the good, drawing pictures about the colorful can seem trivial in the face of political gloom. But the wordsmith told me that the last post, with all the fall imagery, helped to “ease her mind” – so I’ll take that to heart and just keep going.

I associate November – darkening days, blustery weather, our turning inward – with drawing some series in the early mornings. Thinking I like book suggestions this time of year (as I stockpile my favorite gift-giving solution), I’m torn between wanting to revisit books I’ve read (since last I wrote about books), and wanting to make little watercolors to keep me looking around.

So I begin with the last of the autumn color on my morning walk – always such a lovely walk – a privilege – even on this worried morning!

 

Ireland Part Three – Last Days on the Dingle Peninsula

Dingle tips uphill from a busy marina on a large protected harbor with just a narrow opening to Dingle Bay. Once known for smugglers, Dingle is now popular with tourists for seafood, still-spoken Gaelic, and lively pubs with Irish music.

On our day there, we made wet trips (the storm hadn’t finished with us) to and from our guesthouse to see the town, to do laundry, and to purchase practical Irish wool hats (and a dear fisherman’s knit sweater for Baby brother). The Bob received a thorough bike shop repair of its front wheel. Cold wind and rain discouraged a walk to the harbor entrance, but Lady B and I visited the local aquarium. I’m always curious to see her take on things, what will puzzle her, what will engage – penguins being the highlight here.

The next morning we woke to glorious and welcome sunshine! The van dropped us at the beginning of Ventry Beach, with its miles of broad, hard-packed sand. The little people ran and ran, chasing each other, and pausing to examine beach discoveries. Narrow metal bridges lifted us out of a marshy area, and just before the trail headed inland, we stopped to eat our sandwiches.

After crossing the busy main road (road encounters are few but sometimes scary), we climbed uphill for the rest of the day, skirting the side of Eagle Mountain and approaching Slea Head. We negotiated a narrow, rutted path, climbing up and down and around rocks and over stiles (a tough go for the Bob’s handler). Contained by stone fences outlining a patchwork of fields on the hillside, sheep kept us company.

Sweet Baby walked and talked the whole seven miles, pretending to be teacher or nurse, helping and encouraging student or patient (her mom and me) over rocks, close to sheep, and informing us that the farmer had given permission for this trespass.

As we rose above the coast, the views grew ever more spectacular. We were so lucky with the sunshine, clouds hovered at the horizon, but the day stayed dry and clear, and we could see the beauty of this part of Ireland. Gorgeous vistas of sea, sky, and distant mountains spread out behind, beside, and in front of us, and, one after another, the largest Blasket Islands come dramatically into view.

The next day, our last on the Dingle Peninsula, we toured the Blasket Center – a stunning modern building with exhibits giving a glimpse of a vanished way of life. Long isolated from the rest of Ireland by wild ocean and distance, the culture and language of old Ireland survived on the Blaskets for far longer than on the mainland. In good weather you can visit the islands now, but residents had all left by the 1950s.

We walked another great beach in the afternoon and built a structure of stones to leave behind. We ended the day in the wrong pub for pickup, but another cozy, fire-warmed, inviting space.

I’m grateful for all these days and our intrepid family! You could spend much longer in this way, way west of Ireland where only the wild Atlantic lies beyond the shore. You could hope for the Camp to Inch route with clear skies, for Dingle days without rain and wind, and sail to the Blaskets on favorable seas. And for sure you could eat more delicious vegetable soup in pubs along the way (in any weather)!

Ireland Part Two – The Epic Bit

The morning brought gray skies, and we tucked rain gear and lunches into our packs – hopeful we wouldn’t need the former and sure we’d find a lovely setting for the latter.

The day’s route wasn’t long – by the end we’d walked just under eight miles – but the first hill was described as “steepy.” Steepy indeed! Straight up for an hour or so along a little used, narrow road, bordered by hedgerows full of crocosmia and tall shrubs of fuchsia. Blackberries slowed Sweet Baby, as she stopped to pick and eat. Beyond the hedgerows, dotted with grazing sheep, lay fields divided by stone fences.

Scattered raindrops and strengthening wind, beginning to shake the fuchsia blossoms, should have been a warning, but focused on the rigors of uphill, we reached the top before realizing the weather had turned.

Exposed, no longer protected by the hedgerows, rain and wind hit us. With a broad open valley ahead, lunch turned into a sandwich gobbled while donning extra layers. Trying to wrap plastic bags around packs, my hands quickly grew stiff with cold. Baby Brother and Sweet Baby loaded up into their packs, and to buffer the wind, their moms tucked blankets behind the dads’ heads.

One step in front of another, heads down, we spread out in smaller groups along the valley road, ruts rapidly turning to puddles. Bedraggled sheep regarded us stoically.

Water ran down our faces, as fat, soaking raindrops borne on a lashing wind drenched us. The Alaskans, Lady B in the Bob, soon pulled ahead, tiny dots disappearing into the distance. The Sweet Bride and I trudged along together. When I fretted about the trail boss bringing up the rear with his dad and Sweet Baby (long out of sight), she assured me, “don’t worry, he can handle it.”

The thin wool hiking skirt I wore above soggy leggings was soaked but still warm to my knees. But a layer of nylon pants added when we stopped, now funneled rain directly into my boots. Pushed by my hood and drenched, my hat kept rolling down and covering my eyes. None of our rain jackets provided any barrier to this deluge.

At first we skirted puddles, then just plowed through, stopping no option. (It must be so beautiful in that valley on a clear day, but now mist muffled the mountains to either side. I’d imagined a walk where I thought about my ancestors tending sheep or farms along this way long ago – instead I thought about their endurance!) Pages from the route booklet, quickly turning to pulp in my pocket, indicated a “forest” a little more than a mile ahead.

At the forest – just a small plantation of conifers – not the sheltering stand of trees we’d hoped for, we caught up with the Lady B and her family, brought to a stop after the Bob’s front tire exploded. Lady B allowed as how she could walk, and her dad could push the Bob on its back wheels.

And so she did. The wind lessened a little as we headed down, but the rain still poured. At a bend in the road, we crossed a river on a little bridge by a farm and headed up a narrow trail (tough going for the Bob), and suddenly we could make out the coastline of Dingle Bay!

But we rounded a bend and found the trail become a watercourse, rushing with strong current steeply downhill. Always intrepid, the Sweet Bride, plunged right through, and Mrs. Hughes as well – while lifting Lady B across. Mr. Carson came back to guide me.

And then we were down! The wind picked up again by the sea, and rain teemed as we crossed a road to see waves crashing on the sandy expanse of Inch Beach – and the welcome shelter of Sammy’s Pub and Restaurant.

Mr. Carson unloaded Baby Brother, stuffed a bar in his pocket, and ran back up the mountain to help the others (arriving just as they reached the washed out trail). The rest of us, thrilled to be out of the storm, commiserated about our new understanding of “soaked to the skin,” ate chocolate chip cookies and carrot cake from Sammy’s large pastry case, drank hot chocolate and pots of tea – and dripped. Mrs. Hughes discovered her waterproof backpack nicely held a puddle of water at the bottom. My cell phone in a small plastic bag stayed dry, but the big garbage bags on the packs proved worthless.

Unexpectedly, Peter Galvin showed up with a pile of dry towels – soon followed by the van for our ride to Dingle. It must be a spectacular drive from Inch to Dingle – wild ocean and layers of mountains in the distance – but invisible this day as the van’s windows fogged from our damp.

The landlady of the guesthouse in Dingle greeted me, disheveled guest, with understandable irritation, “One really shouldn’t be about in this weather,” but her showers were lovely and hot.

At dinner, out of the Dingle rain and warm in a busy pub, revisiting the day (the coldest he’d ever been according to the trail boss who broke mountain rules with a cotton shirt), I learned that Sweet Baby and Baby Brother, cozy in their packs, slept nearly all the way through the tempest. His mom told us Baby Brother sighed and said: “This is nice!” as she placed the protecting blanket. Sweet Baby, when she woke, chatted, made numerous unfillable requests to see her mom or to get down and walk, and cautioned Papa Jim on the steep downhills. Lady B slogged through puddles and mud – resolute.

It was a memorable day!

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.

Wishing You A Fine Fourth

Do you remember the song, from around the time of the Bicentennial, with the line: “We must be doing something right to last 200 years!” Optimistic, patriotic, and oh so American in its celebration of just 200 years.

The line comes back to me every Fourth of July, because the Bicentennial is the only Fourth I remember well. Our family and my painter friend and her family – a backpack child each – hiked up to Lost Lake on the Kenai Peninsula. Planning to meet and spend the night, we each went up a different route, and we arrived to find a frozen lake amid snowfields. From the distance we could see the dad wrestling with a broken camp stove, and their energetic two-year old repeatedly circling the tent – both tiny in the mountain landscape.

We spent a cold night, and in the morning drank instant coffee and ate, by the handfuls, the cake with red, white, and blue frosting I’d carried up the trail in an aluminum pan. We packed up, walked down, and never forgot that Fourth.

This year is memorable for the wrongs the current American administration is doing. I Googled the lyric and found it used ironically in the opening scene of Robert Altman’s “Nashville.” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TP94wyr5KB4)

I’m failing to tie this together. But I want to wish you a good holiday, and I’ll end with a hopeful phrase Lady B’s mom might remind me of: “This too shall pass.”

Settling In

Some moments in the new house feel like camping or waking up the morning after an airline loses your suitcase – not sure where things are, not sure why I forgot to pack a few table knives.

But moving day went so well, three strong guys and one equally strong young woman swiftly loaded all the labeled boxes, furniture, outdoor chairs, and pots with plants into a truck and a huge trailer. By noon we were on Bainbridge, and by early afternoon our belongings stood stacked about the new house.

The mother of my young friend came right over and set to work unpacking boxes and shelving books in the living room, and our younger son arrived from the airport to help. (I am so grateful for every bit of help we had!) Our old friends who live on Bainbridge – a quick seven-minute drive to their house – welcomed us that evening with a festive meal.

The weather couldn’t have been better – moving day dawned clear and the sun has been constant since then – five days and holding. Because of the house’s orientation, early sunshine pours in our bedroom and upstairs, fills the living room and kitchen all day, and late in the evening disappears into tall trees.

When I started on my walk early this morning – the air cool, sky clear – buses and bikers passed me heading to the ferry, city bustle in a small town. The walk is a gradual downhill through town toward a newly opened piece of protected land, tranquil with trees, grass, and benches. I pass houses and gardens along the way, get glimpses of Eagle Harbor and early morning scullers, spot herons working on fragile-looking nests in a tall stand of trees, and circle back uphill to home.

In spite of surrounding houses, each of our windows reveals huge firs and deciduous trees just-beginning-to-leaf. A Japanese maple with golden-green leaves shelters our neighbors’ porch. Birdsong begins early, loud and lovely all day.

From my work space I look out at the remains of old garden plantings, and what our younger son called “some serious rhododendron business about to begin.” A wizened, but budding crabapple, a climbing hydrangea, lilac and daphne shrubs (small and scraggly, but still fragrant), and lily of the valley emerging from moss grow in the few feet between a narrow deck and fence. Invasive ivy, Scotch broom, and blackberries hang over the fence from the vacant (for now) lot next door.

Our younger son left Vivian Russell’s “Gardens of Inspiration” on the table where he ate breakfast. It’s really fun to encounter books anew, and no matter the small scale of this garden, maybe because of the small scale – I’m inspired!

Books: Take Rooms In Your Heart

After the death of Ursula K. Le Guin, the Wordsmith sent an article by Karen Joy Fowler (Ten Things I Learned From Ursula K. Le Guin). Looking back on all this reading, I find myself thinking about one of Le Guin’s lessons: “There is no reason a book of ideas can’t also be deeply moving, gorgeously written, and inhabited by people who take rooms in your heart and never move out.”

Philip Pullman’s Lyra is truly one of those characters. Our young friend brought me the U.K. edition of the first book in Pullman’s new series, titled “La Belle Sauvage.” (It’s a dazzling physical book – printed watercolor blue waves for endpapers, embossed golden “Dust” glittering the book cloth, and a spine so fat it holds a long quote from the book.)

La Belle Sauvage is also the name of Malcolm Polstead’s canoe, a canoe that carries him, his daemon, and the baby(!) Lyra on a journey along a flooded River Thames. This book is the first of a planned trilogy (“The Book of Dust”) set in a parallel time when Lyra, the unforgettable heroine of Pullman’s singular trilogy (“His Dark Materials”) is but a wee babe.

It’s all here in the new book – a shadowy reflection of our own scary times, enchanting daemons, strange devices for manipulating time and space, big adventures, and spies. If you read and loved the earlier trilogy – welcome back – and if you haven’t, well, there’s a lucky project for the new year!

From the Trail Boss I found a tiny volume in my stocking, “How to Walk” by Zen teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh. Hanh is wise, comforting, and instructive in the best way: “Walking is a wonderful way to calm down when we are upset. When we walk, if we focus all our awareness on walking, we are stopping the thinking, storytelling, blaming and judging that goes on in our heads and takes us away from the present moment.”

Walking meditation, mindfulness aide – perfectly illustrated by the sumi ink drawings of Jason DeAntonio – Hanh’s voice stays with me (“yes yes yes, thanks thanks thanks”) as I walk back to health.

And, when it first came out, I read Michael Wolff’s “Fire and Fury” – characters so despicable they’ll never occupy my heart. And I fervently wish they didn’t occupy the White House.