Dozing polar bear, Indianapolis Zoo

Thursday, April 26, 2007

A long meditation on the backcountry

I've been too long in civilization. Too long smelling of laundry detergent and soap, and too long coddled by conveniences. My muscles and body are soft from relative disuse, and my fingernails are too clean.

Almost everyone I know has places they long for at certain times. When the midwestern winter gray lingers just a hair too long, my brother's thoughts turn to sunsets on Mallory Square and conch chowder by the docks. One friend thinks of Venice; another pines for skiing in the Andes.

This time of year I think of a trail, and carrying the necessaries on my back. I enjoy the exertion, the heat, and the sweat. I take a perverse pleasure in the barely perceptible slide into personal squalor. I feel vaguely grubby the first and second days. After that, I know I smell like a dung heap, but I don't care, because I can't smell myself or my partners, and they cannot smell me. It's a happy arrangement in every way.

I enjoy how a trail unfolds with every step. What's ahead? Where will we camp tonight? Will it be a stream or a lake? Or perhaps by the ocean? I relish the way every muscle hurts after a proper day of hiking, so much that lying down on a sleeping pad on the ground feels like a gift. I love it all. I love the smell of the bagels I pack on each trip, the whish of the nylon as I cinch the stuff sack, and the fuzziness of hiking socks as they hug my feet.

Almost exactly six years ago (before my son was born), my husband, my sister and I were suffering just this kind of post-winter discontent. So we packed up our dogs and drove to Southern Indiana, right up to the border. Indiana is not all flatness -- the southern part of the state boasts some hills. We arrived at the trailhead on a Friday evening, and hiked a mile or so to a bluff overlooking the Ohio River. We camped there at a shelter with a guy and his two kids. We made a fire and enjoyed the kind of easy merriment that occurs when you meet someone on a trail.

We hiked together for the next two days among the blooming redbuds. We did nine miles the second day, and four the day after. We were soft, just emerging from a slothful winter, and so that was enough -- at least with full packs. That weekend we were all able to feed our urge to follow a path with the people we loved best. Tonight is much lonelier. We're all scattered away from each other; Mr. T is half a world away in south China, I am here at my laptop in Portland, and my sister is asleep in Indianapolis. Both the dogs that went on that trip have passed on.

I've never been able to do enough of this -- at least, not with my favorite partner. At first I was kept from it by a demanding job; for the last four years parenting duties have made it difficult to get away together. But the kid is almost five now, and frequently demands to be taken to a "hiking place." It's astonishingly easy here to get out in relatively short, kid-appropriate distances. There's a cobalt blue lake nestled in the shadow of Mt. Rainier that feels like the end of the earth. It is, in fact, a mile and a half off the road up to Paradise -- perfect for a quick overnight trip. After that come multi-day excursions. It's almost here.

I still ache to do the long-distance, six-month journeys. I won't get to do that for many years yet, I know. I wonder whether I'll still be in good enough physical condition when that time comes. My mother is 64 and needs both knees replaced. Will I be able to do a long trip in my early 50s? I don't know.

But for now, all I can do is get short snatches of time on wilderness trails. And I've learned that the truth is simple and immutable: the more I get, the happier I am.

Monday, April 23, 2007

I want an alpaca farm

I decided today that 1) I need to take up knitting and 2) I need an alpaca farm.

What? You think that's a bit rash? Well, it'll be awhile before I'm willing to plunk down $30k for an animal, but I'm unable to stop myself from thinking about where to put my herd on the Montana property.

My mother-in-law's here and we wanted to show her around a bit -- and we stopped at an alpaca farm. We were there last fall, and some yearnings arose even then, but today they displaced all rational thought.

Have you ever felt an alpaca, gently rested your hand on its fleece? It's like plunging your fingers into shredded silk. Of course, they look absurd once they've been sheared, like little stick figure animals. But they're incredibly gentle, and quite happy to see you, if a little dippy. They actually remind me of some dogs I've owned. That might be my only problem with an alpaca farm -- I'd be quite tempted to let them inside, and then I'd end up with alpaca turds on my carpet.

Perhaps they can be housebroken?

Sunday, April 22, 2007

So many hobby horses, so little time

So far, I have seen the Virginia Tech murders blamed, in varying measures, on:

Teaching evolution;
Gun control;
the lack of gun control;

and, by far the worst,

the victims.

Of course I understand that it's a natural and valuable human trait to connect individual events to larger themes. But let me just say that much of what I've read so far (though not all) is not the result of considered reflection, but an unseemly eagerness to trot out whatever explanation most expeditiously confirms the writer's worldview.

Intellectual rigor has also been one of the casualties of this tragedy, I'm afraid.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Tulips and a confession

I still shoot transparencies on my SLR. Yes, I know. I might as well have just told you that I own a Betamax or an 8-track player. This is attributable mostly to money, though there are other factors. I anticipate making the leap to digital soon, but for now I use, for the purely documentary purposes of this blog, a tiny little digital point-and-shoot. So the "good" photos from my trips are often not available for several weeks after I shoot them, and in the interim I rely on my point-and-shoot to convey the general idea. It's possible to take a good photograph with it, but I would never rely on it for my "good stuff."

This weekend was the third year I've photographed the tulip fields here in Oregon. I made extensive use of this wonderful tree, shooting it from all angles, with different colors of tulips in the foreground. Here's what I was working with:

I used my long lens and homed in on the tree, an effect I obviously couldn't capture in the digital images above. The place was teeming with visitors, and I stood for thirty minutes waiting for the tree to be clear of people for one of my shots. On average, I waited about fifteen minutes for every image. But that's all right; much of photography is about waiting, and I was nearly out of my senses with pleasure at the colors and lines of this place. This is the third year I've photographed this field, and I believe it may have been the most beautiful this time:

April may be the cruelest month somewhere, but not here.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Climate activism

Yesterday morning we participated in one of the actions sponsored by Step it Up 2007. We all met up at a church here in town, and marched to the Willamette River, where Focus the Nation was doing a polar bear plunge (to call attention to the plight of both polar bears and the Willamette River.) We all carried signs that read "Step it Up Congress! Cut carbon 80% by 2050." We got many supportive horn honks on our march, and only one thumbs-down. (Can you believe someone actually gave us a thumbs down? Yeah, I know, me too.)

There was a good crowd when we reached the park above the river.

Time for the plunge. Little chilly there?

Here goes:

Getting the hell out:

I didn't plunge, in part because I was kind of confused who was sponsoring what, and I signed up late. I probably would have if I'd had more notice, and time to psych myself up.

But it was a good day anyway, and it was Trailhead Kid's first real activist event. I remember when I was six years old, I had decided that Jimmy Carter was my candidate. So my dad took me and my brother down to a park in Indianapolis where he was speaking. He lifted me onto his shoulders and I hoisted my "Jimmy Carter for President" sign into the air. So I'm merely continuing a family tradition of early activism.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Summer, 1996

I stopped eating meat about eleven years ago, in the midst of a warm summer that filled my garden with tomatoes, bell peppers, watermelons, lettuces and every variety of hot pepper I could find.

We lived in a rented Cape Cod in a fifty-year old neighborhood in a small North Carolina city. The house was on a big corner lot bordered on two sides by a wooded area where we would occasionally hunt for morels. The kitchen and dining area were all part of a long, narrow room with a fireplace at one end. A door in the living room concealed a flight of stairs leading to an attic bedroom with excellent hardwood floors. Our bed was situated by the window overlooking the woods, and I would lie there sometimes in the afternoon under the sloped ceiling, reading and listening to the summer rains.

I learned to cook that summer -- not the kind of learning to cook where you master exquisite culinary techniques, but the kind of learning to cook where you create dishes that are satisfying to you, and perhaps one other person or two. I learned to make English muffins from scratch because it pleased me to do so. I spent nine hours making my first batch of croissants, and they were lovely. This was before I left meat for good, and I stuffed them with turkey, cheese and vegetables and sent them with my husband to eat by the river on the opening day of trout season.

I also grew many herbs that year, many of which I'd purchased as starts from a store in Old Salem, a nearby historical museum that was once a thriving Moravian settlement. My herb garden was a tangle of unruly, fragrant plants, and by the end of the summer, I had some left to dry.

It was, paradoxically, an easy place and time to forget about meat. North Carolina is barbecue, and everything had meat in it there, even the vegetables. But when I was home, I would just make some rice, throw in some plump cherry tomatoes, a fistful of herbs, and whatever else I had on hand. What need did I have of chicken, beef or ham? Very little.

Of course, when I declined to consume meat or meat-based items in public, the reaction was nearly identical to what one might receive upon declaring an expectation never to eat again at all. How might you do that? And whatever for? It's worth noting that eleven years has chipped away significantly at the formerly exotic veneer of vegetarianism. I think many more people, while not adopting the practice themselves, might acknowledge that North Carolina is not just barbecue, but the colors and scents of a ripened garden rooted and nourished in thick red clay.

But for me, it's a place I love, and can still see, in my mind's eye, through a window opened to the fresh air of summer.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

More Katz

I love Jon Katz's work. Katz vehemently protests against anthropomorphism, and in the next paragraph wallows in it. The tension between the logical and mystical elements of his personality makes for great reading. He has a new column on Slate every 4-6 weeks or so, so I've been clicking for the last week, because we're due. I hit pay dirt today: Go find out what happens when donkeys fall down on ice. (Short version: you need a border collie to save them.) Go to the sidebar on the left to read his prior columns. The ones about his steer, Elvis, were splendid.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

An odd realization

It would never occur to me to think I don't travel much. I certainly don't travel as much as I'd like, but that's not the same thing. So it was an odd feeling to realize that, other than a single night away to attend the Loggins and Messina reunion concert with my sister 18 months ago, I've not spent a night away from both my husband and son since my brother and I went to Spain in the fall of 2004. Since then, I've been with either one or both of them.

This is different from one of my friends, who's not spent a night away from her children and husband in at least five years, but it was still startling to me.

So it's probably a good thing that I'm going to Seattle this morning to visit one of my good friends from law school, who is living there temporarily. I'll be back Saturday.

And I might even have slept peacefully and continuously for a few nights.