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.

 

Sweet Baby Explores The Bluff

A week ago Sweet Baby and her family came to visit from Saturday to the next Sunday – a luxury of time. As she came in the door from the Buffalo each morning, we heard a hearty: “Hi Granny Katee, Hi Papa Jim!”

She switches readily between Thai and English depending on her interlocutor – and uses some endearing turns of phrase, “thank you my dada” being one of my favorites. Seated next to me during a discussion about hair color, “my daddy has brown hair, my mommy’s is black,” she then patted my head and said: “cloud.”

Recently a person unknown drove into the fence at the head of our driveway and knocked two posts and the boards asunder. Having lately helped her dad build a pergola in their California backyard, Sweet Baby carried a mallet and trowel and put them to use in the repair. One day we talked to a contractor friend at a building site, and she piped up, communicating urgency with hand gestures while holding a tape measure, saying: “I need a ladder to measure up high.”

The weather was changeable, but we walked many short loops through the nearby woods, where Sweet Baby climbed over mossy windfalls, negotiated tree roots, and initiated game after game of slightly confusing hide-and-seek, “I count, you hide-and-seek!”

Low, low tides meant great beach walking on hard sand. Sweet Baby filled her yogurt container bucket with stones and shells. She slowly overcame her reluctance to touch the giant snakes of kelp her dad waved, and began to carry along a short stub – with bulbous head and topknot fringe of roots – named “Kelpy.”

At Wilderbee Farm we walked a trail behind its cultivated acres, wild roses gone to rose hips, dry mown grass underfoot, and hiding places aplenty. Sweet Baby fed the sheep and, happy to find a friendly animal after the bad attitude of our Frances, petted the huge sheep dog.

She was excited when deer wandered by our windows, and she crouched over slugs to locate their tiny horns. Rabbits, camouflaged against our brindled lawn, froze long enough for Sweet Baby to see their noses and whiskers twitch. From the house I watched her stop with her dad and gently tap the green plastic watering can on the garden steps, to glimpse a frog’s head emerge from the spout.

The final Sunday, a warm and blue-sky day, we spent on Bainbridge Island, walking the trail at Bloedel, eating lunch outside at the bakery, and playing at the Tot Lot. Then, too soon, we headed for the ferry.

Rain returned the next day, and the house seemed quiet and scattered with lonely stuffed animals and toys – but I’m grateful for a grand week!

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A Walk In The Val d’Orcia II

In Pienza we had an extra day: time for a laundromat and a break from daily walking for the little travelers. Both Pienza (a “masterpiece of human creative genius”)and the Val d’Orcia (a “well-managed Renaissance agricultural landscape”) are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. You experience both while standing in Pienza’s perspective defying, trapezoidal 15th Century square and glimpsing, through openings past the cathedral, the valley landscape. We could view the sweep of the Val d’Orcia from Pienza’s “balcony,” a low-walled walkway running the length of town, and trace our route, from hilltop to hilltop.

We were often in awe of Lady Baby on this trip – neither adult nor easily carried baby, but unfailingly patient and loving with her cousin and brother, and much of the time, an engaged tourist. Through headphones, she listened intently during a tour of the Renaissance Papal palace, elaborate rooms and a courtyard with herb garden, and inquired of the guide, “Exactly where is the sarcophagus?” Standing in Pienza’s cathedral with head tilted back, camera ready, she studied the frescoed walls and decorated ceilings and pillars, asking questions and making comments. Happily for all, a recommendation from the palace guide led us to Buon Gusto – another best gelato ever.

Early the next morning – wearing our Francigena T-shirts printed by Mrs. Hughes – we posed for a photo on the balcony and set off on the final leg to Montepulciano via Monticchiello (a revised plan to shorten to six a hot 13 kilometers).

Hide-and-seek by the side of the road and lifts from parents helped us to Monticchiello. We ate our sandwiches in a shady playground below this tiny, fortified town (important in the long rivalry between Florence and Siena), then walked about. In a bar we paused for ice cream and coffees, and the proprietor called us a van for the rest of the dusty, steep road.

In Montepulciano we stayed in the beautiful 12th Century Palazzo Ricci in a high up room, overlooking the city and countryside. Montepulciano’s playground improbably included a box hedge maze, and the cousins ran until dinnertime. We ate outdoors at a windy restaurant tucked up into the walls of the city, where a canopy overhead flapped vigorously, sounding like a tent on a mountainside. Some had a last ribolitta, and finally, the carnivores shared a long-desired bistecca florentina.

The Sweet Bride, Sweet Baby, Lady Baby, and I retreated from the dinner table and sat on the cathedral steps on the austere Piazza Grande, empty at dusk, surrounded by venerable palazzos. I said, in the way of adults, “Oh isn’t this amazing! “Just a town,” replied Lady Baby. I said “Really? Like Anchorage?” She said, “Anchorage has trees and grass!” I came back, too quickly, with something flip, then begged her not to tell her parents what I said. Nothing is more ruthless than a five-year old with power over you! I’ve never seen her laugh so hard – “I’m gonna tell them!” she shrieked and giggled, as I tried to convince her she’d get me in trouble – more peals of laughter.

I like to think of her someday bringing a grandchild to that historic square – and laughing.

A Walk In The Val d’Orcia – Part I

Arriving in Montalcino, a small and walled hill town, famous for Brunello wine, we piled out of the van into midday heat and were led down a little street to our apartments in an old building (angled walls, wide wooden floorboards, and high ceilings). Later in the afternoon, we climbed to the ramparts of the fortezza for stunning views, walked part way around the town walls and up to the Duomo, and had a cheerful dinner on the edge of the town square. Under our windows that night, cars roared and accelerated up the narrow streets, noise amplified by stone buildings.

So the next morning a sleep-deprived group set off for our first day of walking – 11 kilometers to Castelnuovo del’Abate – up, along a ridge, and then down, often through forest on a rough track littered with stones slippery underfoot. The heat was a dehydrating bludgeon. (At some point on this journey, Mrs. Hughes allowed as how “choosing to be uncomfortable on a trip” was a Gilmore thing. Some truth to that.)

At first, kicking a soccer ball with the little travelers on the strade bianche and lots of snacks helped us along. But soon Mr. Carson loaded Baby Brother in the Ergo on his front, Lady Baby into the backpack, and then ferried his sleepy children the rest of the way! We carried so much water, but bottles nearly emptied by lunch where we stopped in the churchyard of a tiny hamlet. A passing resident led us to a spigot.

Exhausted, we arrived at the base of Castelnuovo del Abate at a guesthouse with kind owners. While the girls ran about the courtyard (using stored energy), dinner revived us, and we talked about the next day. An ominous warning in the route booklet: “please note this is probably the most demanding leg of your walk” – led Mr. Carson to offer to ride with the baggage and his children. Then we all decided to ride, except Mr. Carson who opted to run.

Always in Italy, comfort and delicious food can mitigate much self-inflicted hardship. In San Quirico d’Orcia, we found the Tuscan hotel you dream about – Palazzo del Capitano – with cool, spacious rooms and a beautiful garden fragrant with rosemary, lavender, and jasmine. Near the town square we ate the best chickpea soup ever, followed by vegan pistachio gelato! Soon enough Mr. Carson appeared, dusty but happy, confirming that the route would be brutal and relentless as a walk – all down, all up, and all hot.

The next day, nine kilometers to Pienza, followed stretches of the Via Francigena – for hundreds of years a major route from Rome to the north, and now small gravel and dirt lanes. The floor of the Val d’Orcia is a series of steep, short, ups and downs over clay hills, the roadsides ablaze with red poppies and yellow broom smelling like sweet peas and jasmine.

Every once in a while someone would exclaim, “ooh!,” – a reminder to look up at Monte Amiata in the distance, scattered cypress near farmhouses perched on hills, and wheat fields – all orderly, all beautiful. Occasional cars passed – stirring up clouds of white dust until they saw us (crazy Americans, the Italians must think). The topo map would indicate a little patch of trees near a stream, but we’d find a dry dent and scrub shrubs.

At lunchtime, we deviated off the road to an empty farmhouse and a tiny chapel “dedicated to the Madonna di Vitaleta – the suckling Madonna.” Because our group included one so honored, we excused our probable trespass, and gratefully ate in the shade of a lollypop-shaped tree.

And this leg Lady Baby walked almost the whole way, with only occasional lifts from one of her parents. She speculated about an abandoned farmhouse with an outer staircase intact but no wooden floors, an echoing empty well, and a stone outbuilding with a large oven. Toward the end of the day, water bottles reduced to hot dregs, we stopped at the 10th Century parish church of Corsignano, once the center of paths and roads on the Via Francigena, with a spooky crypt to explore and a fountain outside for thirsty pellegrinos.

Up a little road, walls looming on either side, to the square by the gate into Pienza. All the hilltop towns amaze, but Pienza is perfecto!

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