Monday, December 31, 2012

First published poem

I've read Diagram since 2008, when my friend Marissa published her beautiful "Wish List" in issue 8.5.  I loved both Marissa's list and the publication itself.  Since 2008, I've probably submitted somewhere between eight and ten essays to Diagram.  (All rejected, but kindly, Ander Monson is a great writer, a generous reader and a great advocate for the writing community.)  Last spring, they accepted one of my poems and today it went live.  It's my first published poem and I'm super stoked to have work published in a journal I've admired for over five years.

Check it out: When you say you're from Detroit by Rachael Button

Saturday, December 29, 2012


The Nervous Breakdown--a smart, funny online journal that I've read for over a year published an essay I wrote about New Years Eve.

Check it Out:  For Auld Lang Syne by Rachael Button

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Las Posadas

Tonight in Holden Village we celebrated Las Posadas (Spanish for "the inns)--a festival which recalls Mary and Joseph as sojourners searching for refuge in Bethlehem.  Before we began Scott, our village pastor, compared Mary and Joseph to the homeless lined up in front of shelters, waiting for a warm bed.  In the United States 700 of these people die from cold each year.  Scott reminded us of the world's 13 million refugees, flung far from their homes who, like Mary and Joseph, wander in search of shelter and safety.

During Las Posadas we moved from building to building, following a sculpture of Mary and Joseph, holding candles and singing, In the name of heaven, I ask you for shelter because my beloved wife can continue no longer.  At each building, characters dressed in costumes turned the crowd away: This is no inn, continue on your way.  I walked bundled in a hat and scarf.  Snow dusted my boots. My candle flame wavered in the cold.  I showed a little girl with dark hair how to keep her candle lit by sheltering it with her mitten.  We moved side-by-side, our breath smoking in the air: singing, sometimes in English, other times in Spanish.

As I walked, I thought of a close friend who moved to a new city without a job or a place to stay.  As a young women in her twenties, she worried about checking into a shelter, so she squatted in yards or slept in her car for days.  She shivered through November nights bundled in her jacket and sleeping bag.  I pictured her each time the song rose in my throat,  In the name of heaven, I ask you for shelter.  I remembered of a man I passed each night when I lived in Cambridge who slept wedged against the glass door of the grocery store where I shopped, wrapped in felted blankets, his face covered by his hood.  I thought of a woman I'd served at a shelter in Detroit, who hugged me when I gave her stereo-foam cups full of water to take out into the summer heat.  She'd spent days too dehydrated to move and when I made her to promise me she would drink every cup of water I handed her, she pulled me to her and hung on long enough for me to smell her hair.  The next week I saw her naked, paper-toweling vomit from her skin in the shelter's bathroom--she didn't recognize me--but to this day her face and smell stay with me.  Gray curls and stale sweat.  A body thin enough to snap, depleted and shaking, without a soul to care for it.  I saw her shape tonight as I sang, In the name of heaven, I ask you for shelter.

Las Posadas ended in the dining hall, with everyone welcoming Mary and Joseph into a warm well-lit room.  We sang Joy to the World, in Spanish then ended with Marty Haugen's hymn All are Welcome.  Holden, a four-year-old whose parents named him after Holden Village, collected our candles in a helmet he'd worn for his Las Posadas skit.  I shared sheet music with my housemate Kari and sang as loud as my lumpy throat would let me, Let us build a house where love is found in water, wine and wheat: A banquet hall on holy ground, where peace and justice meet.  Kids batted at a star shaped pinata and people flocked to tables to drink hot drinks.  When I left the dining hall, Las Posadas candles still stood upright along the stomped-snow paths marking Mary and Joseph's trail in the winter dark.
Here in Railroad Creek Valley, daylight dwindles as we near the winter solstice.  On the 21st of December, the day I leave Holden to return to Michigan for Christmas, we'll reach the darkest day of the year.  Holden Villagers will walk a prayer labyrinth lit by luminaries, holding candles to both mark winter's darkness and anticipate the coming light.  Meanwhile, the sun stays behind Buckskin Mountain's peak and dusk begins at three in the afternoon.  When we get direct light, we bask, taking our lunches out in the snow, and raising our sun-starved faces toward the sky.

This week we celebrated St. Lucia Day.  Holden's kitchen staff prepared St. Lucia buns and aggkaka with lemon sauce.  The children in the village held candles and wore wreaths on their heads as they distributed baskets of bread and poured cups of coffee.  They walked through the dining hall in a procession, lighting the space with costumes meant to draw attention to the coming solstice--the mid-winter turn from darkness to light. 

The night before St. Lucia Day, my friend Alex led a vespers on light.  She told us she grew up hearing from her mother that we were all balls of light--and that when we die, we'll shed our skin like jackets, unearthing shining shapes for all to see.  She read a passage from Zora Neale Hurston's novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, which compared human beings to sparks which have a shine and a song, made from the glitter of God but covered with mud so deaf and dumb that we struggle to see the shine in ourselves or in each other.  Alex passed out scraps of paper and instructed us to write the things that dulled our shine and broke our spirits.  We sat in silence, recording brokenness.  Then Alex asked us to walk outside into the cold night.  We gathered around a bonfire on the luggage-loading dock.  Alex told us we could burn our scraps.  Another woman started to sing and we followed her voice.  The fire got bigger as we fed it.  Smoke wafted through the air.  Flames sparked the snow.  Our song grew stronger.  We saw each other glow in a fire we'd built together.  We watched each others' faces flicker in the light.  
In Rebecca Solnit's beautiful book A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Solnit writes about the importance of darkness to projecting film onto screen to make movies, comparing it moments where a runner's foot leaps above the ground, creating the space for another step forward.  She concludes, We fly; we dream in darkness; we devour heaven in bites too small to be measured.  In the past month, darkness and light have meant star-lit night skies and mid-afternoon sun beaming off the snow, St. Lucia wreaths and insecurity consuming bonfires, luminaries lit prayer labyrinths, candle-marked paths, and darkness so thick I have to feel my way with my feet and fingers.  It's meant remembering the lonely, who sojourn without a home, and lighting candles in hope that they find shelter and safety.

This Friday, I'll come down to a mountain to a culture less still than the space I inhabit here.  I'll come back to shopping malls and cable television, to cars and planes, paved  roads and hot showers.  I'll return to people I love.  I'll hug my brother.  I'll linger over dinner dessert with Mom.  I'll listen to Dad play guitar.  I'll get to slip between the sheets of the bed in my childhood room and wake up to the sound of dishes clanking in the kitchen and the smell of Mom's coffee.  But as I board the ferry Friday, I hope I can hold tight to some of the stillness I've gleaned from this place, sheltering it as I head toward Michigan--my mitten-shaped home.

Monday, December 3, 2012

My Favorite Things

(Inspiration: Hiking Copper Basin. We picnicked in the snow. A friend pulled a package from his backpack, wrapped in brown paper and tied with a string, containing Danishes. We sang while we ate pastries in an avalanche chute.)

Atlases. Audiobooks. Back roads. Baking bread. Bare feet. Beer. Book Club. Bonfires. Brunch. Canoeing. Cardamom. Ceramic mugs. Christmas Eve. Chunky sweaters. Clean linens. Daffodils. Dark chocolate. Dirt beneath my finger nails. Drinking coffee on my parents’ porch. Homemade earrings. High fives. Hugs. Family time. Farmers' markets. Flannel shirts. Foxes. Fresh grated ginger. Kale. Knit hats. Knowing someone really well. Inscribing the inside of a book. Peeing outside. Picnics. Podcasts. Prayer flags. Poetry so good that it shapes the way I think. Porches. Postcards. Leather-bootsLibraries. Lingering over a meal. Live music. Making the first set of footprints in the snow. Mason jars. Mittens. Moonlit walks. Mountains. My hair right after I take it out of a ponytail post-running, when it’s still damp with sweat and wild from movement. Muffins. Quilts. Rivers. Road trips. Rock climbing at Ledges. Running. Sand dunes. Scarves. Scars. The scent of soil. The shifting of seasons. Sitting in silence with someone I love. Sledding. Sleeping outside. The smell of sawdust. Signing letters "Love." Starting the day slow. Stretching. Sun-shadowed floorboards. Stony beaches. Swimming at night. Used bookstores. Vegetable gardens. Walking long distances. Waking before dawn. Whiskey. Wood burning stoves. Wood floors. Wool socks.  

Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Big Two-Hearted

“If I were called in
To construct a religion
I should make use of water.”-Philip Larkin, “Water”

Four months ago, my brother Keith and I traveled to the Two-Hearted River in northern Michigan.  We drove with my friend Dave and Keith’s girlfriend Erin after another friend’s wedding.  We left the wedding after midnight and didn’t arrive at the Two-Hearted until almost dawn.  Dave drove.  I slept against the back window with my cheek pressed to the glass and woke only once, when the headlights of our car illuminated the silhouette of a black bear blocking the road.  Keith and Dave shouted and the car jolted, making my body lurch forward, before the bear ambled off and I fell back asleep. 

I woke stretched across the backseat of my brother’s car, still wearing my contacts and jeans I pulled on after the wedding.  Sun shadowed my body and when I opened the door of the car the air felt dry and crisp.  I walked past pitched tents down a hill to the Two-Hearted River--the namesake of Hemingway’s story: “The Big Two-Hearted River.”   When I splashed river water on my face it felt cold enough to numb my fingers and redden my cheeks.

I borrowed a compass and bushwhacked the mile and a half from our campground to Lake Superior.  Ferns whipped my legs and sandy soil filled my canvas slip-on shoes.  I scrambled up hills and down a dune, stripped to my underwear, and waded into the water. I dipped my hair under the waves till it hung damp at my shoulders.  I drifted on my back.  I let myself go limp in the waves, baptizing my body in lake water. 

That day, we walked from the campground to a bridge above the Two-Hearted.  I cut my jeans into shorts using my brother’s Leatherman so I could stand in the river and fish.  We took photographs of each other in cut-offs and cuffed pants, t-shirts and flannels, drinking Bell’s "Two-Hearted Ale" and casting in the same river Nick Adams, Hemingway's protagonist, fished after returning from the first World War almost a century ago.  Later, we traveled to mouth of the Two-Hearted, where we let the speed of the river sweep us into Lake Superior.  We ran and jumped.  We tucked our legs into our stomachs so our torsos moved through the river faster.  We bruised our butts on river stones and swam in the cold water till our skin stung.  Then we read Hemingway out loud, popcorn style, passing the book from one person to another.  I watched my friends drinking beer, huddled around a book I loved, and felt like Hemingway’s protagonist, Nick Adams: “there in the good place,” “in my home where I had made it.”

Before we left the Two-Hearted, Dave and Boot wanted to jump from a fallen tree into the river.  I stood on the bank, watching them climb weathered limbs.  The top of the tree had been cut, creating a spot the size of a dinner plate, flat enough to stand on, about fifteen feet above the water.  I watched them jumping into the sandy-bottomed river. 

“Wanna try?” Boot asked.

When I told him that I did but I felt nervous, both Boot and Dave assured me that it was normal--that humans should fear falling.  We don’t want to let our bodies sail through space.  They told me it would be scary, but also fun and safe.  I looked up then looked at both of them.  I set down my backpack.  I dropped my towel, stepped out of my shorts, curled my bare feet around the stubs of severed branches and started to climb.  Boot followed me.  He told me which limbs were loose and which could support my weight.  He helped me pick a spot to jump from.  I let my body submit to the sensation of falling.  The river zipped me into it, smooth as a stone, and when I burst up from the water, I knew that the next four months would be better than the last four, that the world is big and wild and I planned to let myself succumb to it—with all its joy and pain and love and fear.

I’ve tried to explain to half a dozen people why that day at the Two-Hearted meant so much to me—why I needed that day to move from one part of my life to the next.  That day started so much of what was to come, setting the tone for my move west and my time in Holden Village.  I needed to cut my jeans into shorts with a pocket knife, stand waist-deep in water casting, and swim until it hurt with people who made me laugh until it hurt. I needed to read out loud with friends and I needed to do something that scared me.
I spent Thanksgiving in Holden Village, three hours from the nearest city, store, or cell phone signal. Holden Village starts its Thanksgiving celebration with a Turkey Trot.  But Holden’s Turkey Trot is unlike any road race I've ever run. Participants were asked to predict their times and the runner who ran closest to his or her anticipated time won. No watches allowed, costumes suggested, cheating encouraged. We all started in the middle of the village and ran a road that looped around the mine. Everyone chose which direction he or she wanted to start so when the gun went off, the crowd parted, running both ways down the road.  I ran with my friends Peter and Dhiraj. We led our half of the crowd, ran way faster than our predicted times, and talked the whole way. We finished at the dining hall where the kitchen served egg bake, fruit salad, and applesauce. 

I spent the rest of the morning snowshoeing with my friend Scott on the second level of the old Holden mine. We wandered through snow-stacked trees to an old mine shaft. We walked and talked and looked  Cascade Mountains which scraped the sky with snow-capped peaks. Later, we ate Thanksgiving dinner in the dining hall: turkey and mashed roots, Brussels sprouts and double-buttered rolls, pumpkin-spice pie and homemade apple cider. I did dishes for a crowd of one hundred fifty with a team of seven who danced and laughed as we washed, swirling and spinning to pop music as we fed dishes through the Hobart.

That night, my housemate Kari and I went sledding. Hoarfrost sparkled the snow and the clouds parted enough for us to see stars over the silhouette of mountains. We tried to keep our voices quiet as our sleds scraped down the hill, bouncing over icy jumps, but by the time we finished each run, Kari and I collapsed into a heap of laughter. We felt so lucky to sled with bellies full of food and wine. We couldn't contain everything we felt in the silence of the night.  We brimmed with gratitude.
Saturday, at Kari's birthday party, a group of friends sat around talking about the good things in life. We made a list, circling from person to person. Gardening.  Fresh Baked Bread. Wood Floors. Dark beer. We kept listing for almost an hour.  The way campfire smoke lingers in your hair. Walking barefoot.  Sleeping in. The moment before you kiss someone.  Someone remarked: I like when other people do my dishes and I like doing dishes for other people but I don't like doing my own dishes. Someone else said she likes the way beans feel when she sifts them through her fingers. 

I joined Holden Village's Fullness of God Lutheran Church (FOG) the day after Kari's party.  I stood in front of the congregation and repeated baptismal vows.  I still don't know what I believe about the after life (or even this one) and I don't know how or why we choose to claim one set of beliefs over another in a world rich with ritual.  I don't think that baptism in a church is any more spiritually significant than jumping in the cold water of Lake Superior during a day of transition   But I believe in a world infused by the sacred and being part of a community like Holden makes me want to hold tight to that sacredness and serve it.  I believe in simple living, in giving grace to the people around me, in seeing God in gardens and mountains, in fresh baked bread and the sound of dry beans sifting, in the frost that sparkles the snow, the smell of campfires, and the silence of nightfall.
Hemingway named his story "The Big Two-Hearted River" because of the river's name.  "Two-Hearted" evoked Hemingway's protagonist, Nick Adams.  The story is in the subtext, in the sparseness of the sentences and the untold stories that white space symbolizes.  Nick Adams came back from the war and went fishing.  He pitched a camp on the side of the Two-Hearted to heal--Inside the tent the light came through the brown canvas. It smelled pleasantly of canvas. Already there was something mysterious and homelike. Nick was happy as he crawled inside the tent. He had not been unhappy all day...It had been a hard trip. He was very tired. That was done. He had made his camp. He was settled. Nothing could touch him. It was a good place to camp. He was there, in the good place. He was in his home where he had made it.  Hemingway's story unwinds in sentences which make tangible both the turmoil Adams felt and the peace he found.

In Cheryl Strayed's "Dear Sugar" column Strayed described her yet-to-be-written first book as, "pulsing in my chest like a second heart, formless and unimaginable."  I don't know how I'll remember this time in my life or how I'll think about my trip to the Two-Hearted in the future but now I think of that trip and this time it as a baptism, a birth of my own second heart: the pulse of unwritten essays, unwritten poems, and an unwritten book.  The beat of questions about faith and home which drill through me every day I live in this beautiful place thousands of miles from where I was born.  And when I feel the rhythm of that second heart I feel grateful to wrestle with meaning in a world so big and wild.  I feel lucky to live in a place where I can wake each morning to sun shadowing snow-capped peaks and lucky to tromp back to my chalet each night in a village blanketed by snow.  I catch my breath and watch it freeze in the air.  I follow my own footprints back to the place I'm learning to call home.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

New Things November

"The wind carried the smell of the mountains, high and sweet.  It was so still I could imagine a peace without boredom."-Pam Houston, "Cowboys are my Weakness"

The first Monday in November my friend Liz and I walked until lactic acid made our calves cramp. We walked until the arches of our feet swelled and the cushioning in our shoes compressed. We walked until the pavement echoed in my shins. We walked together for the first time in six months, across Boise, Idaho, a city neither of us knew, a city where Liz had moved less than a week before. We hiked to the Table Rock where we ate vegan peanut butter bars and trail mix made from squash seeds Liz had roasted Sunday night.

When I hike in the Cascades I seldom see another person, but in Boise, Liz and I walked a trail full of footprints, sparkled with bottle caps and broken glass. Graffiti colored Table Rock with words that bloomed together, striping the sandstone red, orange, white, and blue. Liz and I photographed broken eyeglasses and Starbucks coffee sleeves littering the trail. We scrambled cliffs too high to climb without rope, stretching our limbs till they shook with fear and exhaustion. We photographed each other’s sun-browned sweaty shapes ascending above Boise. Below us, red and orange leaves dotted the city-scape, marking the change in season. 

Liz and I meandered into conversations that could have made us cry if we’d been sitting across from each other at a table. Walking shoulder-to-shoulder, we could bear the weight of the words we’d both needed to say to someone for months: stories we needed a friend to help carry. We retraced moments. We walked and we listened. We photographed traces of people who had visited the places we hiked before us. We returned to Liz’s apartment ten hours after we left, with swollen feet and sunburned faces and I wished I could spend every day of my life outside, walking with someone I love.
Liz moved to Boise with her friend Ian, dog Sonoma, and a kitten that doesn’t have a name yet.  The kitten, who we addressed as “cat” or “kitten,” fit in the palm of my hand.  She bounded around Liz’s unfurnished apartment, chasing shadows and sun spots.  It felt like the most normal thing in the world: sitting on Liz’s carpet with my computer across my legs, watching Sonoma and kitten skitter across the carpet.  It reminded me of the countless afternoons I spent sprawled on Liz’s floor in Ames, Iowa, while we were both graduate students at Iowa State University.  We’ve both changed so much since then, and yet, when we’re together it feels as if no time has passed, as if making breakfast and going for long walks and sitting side-by-side on the carpet are still part of our regular rhythm.

I drove back north to Washington on a two-lane highway that snaked Idaho’s western border.  I drove mountain passes with signs prohibiting vehicles without chains from driving them during the winter.  I drove along the Snake River.  Mountains rose from either side of Highway 95, shadowing the asphalt.  I bought huckleberry jam and sweet onion pretzels at a roadside fruit stand near Hell’s Canyon.  I stopped at the co-op in Moscow for a six pack of beer and a baguette.  I spent the night in Spokane, Washington with my friend John and his partner Tamera.  We drank wine and ate lasagna and baklava with our plates in our laps as we watched the Electoral College map turn red and blue.  I slept in their guest room, on a bed heaped with quilts and pillows and woke before five to drive the three hours back to Fields Point to catch the ferry back to Holden Village. 
My friend Brenna sent out an e-mail at the beginning of the month rallying a group of our friends to participate in a project called “New Things November.”  Every day in November, Brenna tries to do something new and she invited us to do the same.  November first: Brenna wore bright blue tights, November second: Brenna cooked balsamic roasted cauliflower.  Brenna bought sandalwood soap and read at a poetry slam, she chalk-dyed her hair teal, learned to jack-up a car, and made breakfast hash with golden beets.  She asked us to e-mail updates about our November endeavors.

Melissa finished knitting her first scarf and made chocolate beet cupcakes.  Katie ate quail eggs, watched a James Bond movie, went to a hookah bar, and sang karaoke.  Gen started training for a half marathon, made pumpkin curry, and tried meditating.
Sometimes we need an excuse to take initiative to do the things we know we want to do.  Today, like most days in “New Things November,” I filled my time with novelty and felt the significance of that newness.  I went to my first winter waffle bar and topped my waffles with blueberries, powdered sugar, and walnuts.  I listened to a man describe the history of the Holden mine and its remediation.  I participated in a village-wide snowball fight and spent over three hours sledding down chalet hill.

This month I’ve gone on a midnight walk, chalk-dyed my hair pink, and helped judge a pie contest.  I organized a book club, presented my thesis,went to a beer tasting, ate black bean brownies, climbed Table Rock, attended my first Washington state cross country meet, and drove to Boise to visit my best friend.  It’s been a month of novelty and nesting—of being playful and vulnerable, of learning to trust and be trusted, of trying out new routines in a place I’m trying to make my home.
Today, while sledding, my friend Anna said that living in someplace so beautiful makes everything seem significant: standing on the top of the sledding hill, doing snow angels with the first graders, walking to breakfast in the morning--the way the sun shadows the mountains and the way the clouds move over the ridge, shrouding the peaks in filmy white.  "We're so lucky we live here," I whispered back.  She nodded.  Then we high-fived like high school students on a sports team, giddy about getting to spend a winter in the mountains.

I’ve been thinking lately about travel and change, community and home, about the people we attach ourselves to and the obligation that attachment entails.  I’ve been thinking about trying new things and sinking into old habits.  I’ve been thinking about the ways I feel myself changing and feeling lucky to be living in a place that supports me through those changes.  In Brian Doyle’s beautiful book, Mink River, character nick-named Worried Man describes his relationship with his wife, "She knows me.  She desires my joy.  I desire her joy.  That's the point of being married.  To want the other to be joyfully at peace."  I dogeared the page because it seemed like a statement not just about marriage but about friendship and community.  We want to know one another, we want each other to be joyfully at peace.

The village and everything around it is knee deep in snow.  At night the snow reflects moonlight, making it easier to move safely in the dark.  I like how quiet the woods get: with a blanket of powder smothering sounds and softening my footsteps.  I've been walking a couple miles most nights: to Ten Mile Falls, the labyrinth, Glacier Peak Wilderness, the bridge, or the ball-field.  My favorite part of night hikes is walking back into the village--seeing the light of the lodges and chalets, and letting the stream of brightness lead me back to my chalet. When I see the lamplight of the living room of Chalet 4, I feel so grateful: grateful for friends who push me to do new things and for friends who feel so familiar that they can make any city feel like home, grateful to live someplace so beautiful it hurts, grateful to be with people who wish me peace, grateful for the footprints that broke my path back home, and grateful to be able to slip off my shoes and walk upstairs in stocking-feet.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Country Roads (Take Me Home)

My Rand McNally Atlas, after four years of consistent use
I bought my first atlas May 8th, 2009 at a gas station in Dike, Iowa--a town with a teal water tower and just over a thousand residents.

I was on my way up north for the summer--an hour and a half into the eleven and a half hour drive from Ames, Iowa to Engadine, Michigan: the place where I planned to spend the summer, reading and writing in my parents' cabin.

I’d wanted to buy an atlas since attending the Association of Writers & Writing Programs conference in Chicago in February of that year.  I'd spent the five hour drive from Illinois back to Iowa in the backseat of my friend Marissa’s car, looking through her boyfriend’s atlas. I placed my finger on places I’d been: I found the square shape of Iowa where I went to school, near the atlas’s center fold.  I measured distances with my thumb—five inches to Omaha, seven to Minneapolis, four to Kansas. I calculated miles and travel times.  I traced road trips I hoped to someday take.

My 2009 Rand McNally atlas has hot air balloons floating across the cover and features all fifty states plus the Canadian Provinces.  The woman behind the counter thumbed through its pages as I rummaged through my purse to find my debit card.  That's a nice one, she said.  I nodded.

I pressed the glass door open and walked outside. I rolled down my window to let the warm air filter through my car.  I placed my new atlas beside my water bottle and stack of CDs with black permanent writing marking them “Misc. Podcasts,” “Driving 1,” “Driving 2,” “Michigan mix.”
In graduate school, my housemate Anna called my car, my "noble steed."  She saw my orange Honda as a character in my story: an accomplice on my adventures.  But when I bought my atlas I'd owned my car less than a year.  I had no way of knowing that I'd spend the summer of 2009 living out of my Honda, driving between Michigan's Upper and Lower Peninsulas, crashing in the 19th century Coast Guard building at Whitefish Point, sleeping in the apartment above the movie theater at the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum, driving Lake Michigan's northern beaches and Lake Superior's southern shores, running and hiking Pictured Rocks' limestone cliffs.

Packing to go West, summer 2012
I didn't know that I'd drive that same car across the country to my first post graduate school job at an environmental education center near Tacoma in 2011 or that in 2012 I would drive from Michigan to the Cascade Mountains where I'd leave my car parked in a lot while I worked in a village only accessible by boat.

Every pocket of my car is full of maps--not just my Rand McNally Atlas but State Park maps and National Park maps: Olympic and Glacier, The North Cascades and Mount Rainier--a bicycle map of the Kitsap Peninsula, a crinkled copy of Washington State's scenic byways, and a road map of Montana given to me by a friend who motorcycled across the state.  The names of hostels and grocery stores litter the pages of my maps.  I dog-eared the corners of Michigan and Iowa in my atlas.  I recorded the phone number of a girl who interned at Our Lady of the Rock monastery on Shaw island in my state byways catalog   I scrawled directions to the Amazing Grains co-op in Grand Forks, North Dakota in the corner of my U.S highway map.
Before I left Michigan to drive to the Cascades I changed my oil, installed new windshield wipers, rotated my tires, and bought a new air filter in my car.  But the first time I left Holden Village, after two months of disuse, I found my car with a dead battery and a flat tire.  The interior of my car smelled like the slip-on canvas shoes I left on the backseat and I had to unlock and lock all the doors manually.  My first three trips out of the village I had no time to jump the battery or to remove my front tire.  So I abandoned the car till I could fix it.  I drove to Pullman, Washington in my friend Kari's car.  I borrowed the Holden Village van to transport the cross country team.  I let my car sit, slumping on its front tire, and worried about it every time I passed it in the parking lot.

My last trip out of the village, I talked to a woman who worked on the ferry about my tire and battery.  She told me she knew people who lived nearby who could fix my car.  I'll talk to Jim or Tom, she said. I hugged her.  Twice.  The next time I left Holden, a man named Jim with a jump box met me beside my vehicle.  Within fifteen minutes he jumped my car and inflated my tires.  I drove to town with my windows rolled down.  It was the first time in months I'd felt at home outside Holden Village, driving a familiar road, in a car which had accompanied me across the country twice.

Today, when I drove down to the state cross country meet in Pasco, I drove solo, tailing Chelan's head cross country coach.  I listened to mixed CDs my brother made me for Christmas and my birthday.  I talked to friends and family on my cell phone.  I watched the western Washington desert sprawl out in every direction: the Columbia River basin, red rock, tumbleweed, and sage.  
Jeanne, the head elementary teacher at the Holden Village School, ends most school days with music.  The kids have chosen "Country Roads (Take Me Home)" as one of their final song several times this week.  Jeanne plays her guitar and the kids follow along in their songbooks.  Holden's students know the chorus better than the verses, and every time they come back to the lines, Country roads, take me home, to the place I belong their voices gather strength.  By the end of the song, when the chorus keeps repeating, they're belting the lines--in soprano voices so clear they make me want to cry: West Virginia, Mountain Mama, take me home, country roads.

In a phone conversation tonight, I told my brother that I thought I'd know what I was doing with my life by the age of twenty-six.  He paused.  Rachael, he said.  You are doing something with your life.  You're living it.  And I thought about the journey I'm on and the ways that journey has become home to me.

Tomorrow, I'll drive from Pasco to Boise to spend my fall break with a close friend who just moved to Idaho.  I'll drive rolling hills and high desert in a car that's taken me through National Parks and scenic byways, a car that's driven me to half a dozen different places I've considered home over the years.  I'll roll out my sleeping bag on my friend's floor and spend half a night talking to her about the hundreds of ways we've both changed since I last saw her last April.  We'll fall asleep side-by-side on the floor of her yet-to-be-furnished apartment: a pair of twenty-six year old vagabonds who have learned to sleep in sleeping bags and  live out of backpacks, a pair of people who are trying make the road our home until we can lay claim to someplace more permanent.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Creative Nonfiction Mad Libs: An essay-writing experiment

One of my favorite online journals, Brevity, posted a Mad Libs exercise, created by writer and teacher Lee Martin, on their blog.  I decided to try it--here's my result:

by Rachael Button

The first time I visited the Cascades I worked in a community called Holden Village as a gardener. I spent most of my time weeding. I weeded herb beds and flower beds, brick pathways and dirt roads. I pulled grass and dandelions, letting the tendrils of their roots rest in my palms. I flicked soil from the structure that had delivered nutrients to the plant--tying them to the earth. The strands looked like lace, a web of fragile fibers. I watched the roots wilt between my fingers before I bagged them to be burned.

I’ve moved six times in seven years.  When I moved to the Cascades more permanently, to teach in the Holden Village school (a year after my first visit to the mountains), I made stops: at a friend’s apartment in Chicago, a professor’s bungalow in Grinnell, a monastery in Wyoming, and a house in Spokane.  My longest stop was in Ames, Iowa—where I had lived for three years as a graduate student.  I stayed for four days.  I went out to lunch and lingered over breakfast coffee.  I hiked on land owned by the English department and watched Northern Exposure at a friend’s newly purchased house.  The night before I left I went walking with a friend I love, a friend I used to date.  We walked shoulder-to-shoulder through downtown Ames on sidewalks shadowed by streetlights.  He drove me home.  After he turned off his engine, I lay my head on his narrow shoulders and asked him if I could keep it there.  I knew that the next day I would drive sixteen hours by myself to the Big Horn Mountains.  But in that moment I needed to be tied to him.  I needed to let my body go limp.  We didn’t kiss.  We didn’t melt into each other.  We just sat close.  He stayed still enough for me to cry, silent enough for me to tell him I felt scared, rootless. 

When I worked in the garden at Holden webs of roots crumpled and furrowed in my fingers.  They were fitful, piece-y, like the Cascades Mountains encircling the garden where I weeded.  The stony faces of the Cascades are rugged: young and becoming.  A rocky spine jutting through Washington with summits and spires cut by geographic violence:  the scrape of glaciers and the swell of volcanoes.  

I like to think I’m more like the mountains than those plants I held between my fingers: capable of becoming more vivid as I break and change.  I picture snowfields and false summits that a person can stand on, reaching solo for a cloud-shielded sky. 

Last Friday night, a friend and I sat in the Holden Village hot tub and talked about home.  He said he wondered what made a person feel rooted in a place.  He’d felt attached to people in the past but he wanted a place he could gravitate around: a home.  I told him that I’d been writing about home and love: about how both become more difficult to find as I age.  Freezing rain fell around us.  Steam rose from the water. Clouds covered the stars and mountain summits. 

When I woke the next morning, snow sheltered our mountain valley, softening the cliffs and scree.  I thought about seasons: about the blankets that cover us and the way they melt: transplanting us in new places, rooting us to our craggy homes.

Here's the process:  
(Again I'm completely stealing this from Lee Martin but it's fun so I wanted to share)

1.  Make a list of three adjectives. Any three. Don’t think too hard. Just do it.
(Frozen, Craggy, Brittle)
2.  Make a list of three objects that have recently become “unforgettable” to you in some way. Three objects from the current time or the recent past that you can’t get out of your head.
(Roots, Scree, Snow)
3.  Make a list of three abstractions, but try to avoid nouns that could also be transitive verbs. Nothing that could be turned into a statement such as “I love x,” or “I hate y.” Stick with things like limbo” or “harmony.”
(Love, Home, Awe)

4. Choose an adjective from your list, an object, and an abstraction. Do it in that order. Add a preposition or an article as necessary. Write the title of your essay (e.g. “Pretty Dog Leash in Limbo”). Note: now that you know you’re creating a title, feel free to switch out any of the words for others on your lists.

5. Write a few lines about the object you’re chosen. Why have you been thinking about it lately? Give us a context for why this object is important to you.
(The first time I visited the Cascades I worked in a community called Holden Village as a gardener. I spent most of my time weeding. I weeded herb beds and flower beds, brick pathways and dirt roads. I pulled grass and dandelions, letting the tendrils of their roots rest in my palms. I flicked soil from the structure that had delivered nutrients to the plant--tying them to the earth. The strands looked like lace, a web of fragile fibers. I watched the roots wilt between my fingers before I bagged them to be burned..)

6.  Write a few lines that evoke the abstraction you’ve chosen without naming it. How does the abstraction convey your emotional response to the object? In what way does thinking about the object leave you unsettled, uncertain, or whatever your emotional response turns out to be?
(I’ve moved six times in seven years. When I moved to the Cascades more permanently, to teach in the Holden Village school (a year after my first visit to the mountains) I made stops--at a friend’s apartment in Chicago, a professor’s bungalow in Grinnell, a monastery in Wyoming, and a house in Spokane. My longest stop was in Ames, Iowa—where I had lived for three years as a graduate student. I stayed for four days. I went out to lunch and lingered over breakfast coffee. I hiked on land owned by the English department and watched Northern Exposure at a friend’s newly purchased house. The night before I left I went walking with a friend I love, a friend I used to date. We walked shoulder-to-shoulder through downtown Ames on sidewalks shadowed by streetlights. He drove me home. After he turned off his engine, I lay my head on his narrow shoulders and asked him if I could keep it there. I knew that the next day I would drive sixteen hours by myself to the Big Horn Mountains. But in that moment I needed to be tied to him. I needed to let my body go limp. We didn’t kiss. We didn’t melt into each other. We just sat close. He stayed still enough for me to cry, silent enough for me to tell him I felt scared, rootless.
7.  Write a few lines that evoke the adjective you’ve chosen without naming it. Give us a sense of its relationship to the object. Is it ironic, for example, or genuine?
 (When I worked in the garden at Holden, webs of roots crumpled and furrowed in my fingers. They were fitful, piece-y—like the Cascades Mountains encircling the garden where I weeded. The stony faces of the Cascades are rugged—young and becoming. A rocky spine jutting through Washington with summits and spires cut by geographic violence: the scrape of glaciers and the swelling of volcanoes.)
8.  Write a few lines about another object, story,  or memory that comes to you right now. We’re working with free association here. Look for words or phrases or images that subtly connect to what you’ve already written. If you need a prompt, here’s one: “When I think of that dog leash, I remember (fill in the blank with another object, a story, a memory).”
(I like to think I’m more like the mountains than those plants I held between my fingers: capable of becoming more vivid as I break and change. I picture snowfields and false summits that a person can stand on, reaching solo for the cloud-covered sky.

Last Friday night, a friend and I sat in the Holden Village hot tub and talked about home. He said he wondered what made a person feel rooted in a place. He’d felt attached to people in the past but he wanted a place he could gravitate around: a home. I told him that I’d been writing about home and love: about how both become more difficult to find as I age. Freezing rain fell around us. Steam rose from the water. Clouds covered the stars and mountain summits.)

9.  Make a direct statement about where the second object, story, or memory takes you in your thinking. Here’s a prompt: “I begin (or began) to think about (fill in the blank however you’d like).” The emphasis with this last step is to let the texture of the writing invite an abstract thought, conclusion, question, speculation, etc., thereby allowing the central line of inquiry of the essay to grow organically from what precedes it.
(When I woke the next morning, snow sheltered our mountain valley, softening the cliffs and scree. I thought about seasons: about the blankets that cover us and the way they melt: transplanting us in new places, rooting us in to craggy homes)

Friday, October 19, 2012

Detroit, Holden, Home

A sense of home is, it seems, worth more than any other comfort. And one of the questions I want to answer now, for myself, is what makes a place feel like home.-Eula Biss, “Back to Buxton”

In graduate school study becomes specific.  Instead of majoring in English, graduate students study “depictions of domestic women in late eighteenth century novels of social criticism” instead of studying biology, graduate students study, “the PH of soil and its role in urban farming.”  The graduate students I know are people able to pour themselves into fields so specialized that they may know more about the subject of their dissertation than anyone in their department, their university, or even their state or country—which is why, when I try to explain what I studied in graduate school, I struggle to articulate the subject of my thesis or the aims of my research. 

During my three years at Iowa State I completed a book-length project titled, When I Get Home.  I checked out dozens of books on Detroit, Michigan, the Midwest, and the rust belt.  I studied my home.  I read about the concept of home.  I learned that there is no word in the French language for “home.”  In Mandarin (“Jia”) and Cantonese (“Gaa”)—“home” and “family” are synonyms.  In Spanish, the word for home, “hogar,” translates closely to our English word for “hearth.”  The Spanish phrase for being far from home: “hallarse ausente” literally translates to “seeking and finding distance.”  I ended my graduate thesis, my book, with my own image of hope and home: a description of standing on top of the Guardian building in Detroit looking out on the city, “a garden of towers scraping the sky.”

But I didn’t move back to Detroit after graduating.  I applied for jobs at Cranbrook and Wayne State University.  I searched Metro-Detroit job-finding websites weekly.  After sending out dozens of cover letters and applications, I ended up on the west coast teaching outdoor education, helping students near Tacoma, Washington learn about their environment and claim their landscape.  I stored the furniture from my graduate school apartment and moved cross country with a glove box full of maps, a cardboard box of books, and two suitcases bags full of my most weather-durable clothing.  I moved into a room with white walls and a twin bed and woke every morning to the sound of pop music playing on the dining hall stereo and the clank of students setting breakfast tables.
I moved cross-country for the second time last August, to Holden Village, a place so isolated that it’s only accessible by ferry or on foot.  I arrived August 31th, six days before I began working as a para-educator in Holden’s “remote and necessary” public school.  I’ve been in Holden Village for just over a month and a half.  I live with three girls in a chalet with a wood-burning stove and a front porch swing.  We host knitting circle every week and bi-weekly tea parties in our living room.  I have book shelves lining my wall and prayer flags hanging above my bedroom window.  There are pots of basil in our dining room and checkered curtains hanging on the window above our kitchen table. 

My mom visited Holden in the beginning of October.  I watched her ferry chug up to Lucerne landing.  I greeted her wearing a sweater she’d bought almost thirty years ago in Scotland on her honey-moon.  We rode the school bus up the ten miles of switchbacks and ate soup and salad together in Holden’s dining hall. 

What makes a place feel like home?  The night my mom came to Holden I invited people from the village to my chalet after vespers for snacks and conversation.  I served wine my mom brought from the Safeway in Chelan, trail mix, pumpkin cookies, Wheat Thins and goat cheese.  Friends filtered in and out.  We sat in a circle in my living room, drinking wine and tea and laughing.  The crowd that congregated in my living room ranged from people in their twenties to people in their sixties—professors and pastors, social workers and students, musicians, artists, writers, and cooks.  We belly-laughed about totaled cars and cross country road trips.  We talked about hiking and mountains and the sacredness of sharing food. 

My mom and I walked thirty miles during her weekend in Holden.  We hiked to Holden Lake and Cloudy Pass, places I’d walked to by myself in the days between arriving in the village and starting my work at the school.  We sat at the top of the Lyman switchbacks, stretching and drinking water while we looked out at Dumbbell mountain’s glacial snowfields.  We picnicked on homemade granola, plums, green peppers, and cheese and hummus sandwiches at Cloudy Pass.  We crouched on boulders beside Lyman Lake and photographed its turquoise water.  We dined with villagers of all ages and talked at our dinner table about big families, counseling at camps, applying to college, and crashing weddings.  At night we sat in the Holden Village hot tub where we let our muscles soak in the hot water and looked up at the smattering of stars which spanned the sky from one horizon to the other.

I’ve been living in this mountain village for over a month and a half.  It’ll be two months on Halloween.  Last week, after my mom’s departure, I left the Cascades for the first time since August to travel to my housemate Kari’s cabin in Coeur d’Alene with my friends Cecilia and Jericho.  When we left the village, we referred to our chalet in Holden as “home.”  It’s a word that’s been slipping back in my mouth for the first time since I left my graduate school apartment in Iowa and it feels good to have it back on my tongue:  Home.
Tuesday night, at a party, a friend asked me what I missed most about the world outside Holden.  I paused and told him that I missed the diversity of places like Detroit: the assortment of economic, religious, and racial backgrounds the city offers.  He said he missed movie theaters and going out to eat and access to the support network he’d built in the city where he lived.  I told him that I missed my family and friends from Michigan and Indiana and Iowa but that I’d struggled to build the same kind of close cluster of friends during my first year in Washington.  I thought about the things I didn’t miss: driving, malls, traffic, texting, spending money. 

But later that night, without the buzz of people talking and drinking all around me, I thought again about what I miss.  I miss being able to talk with my parents on the phone.  I miss the colorful heaps of vegetables at the co-op.  I miss going to Grand Ledge with my brother, working climbing routes, playing fetch with Dave’s dog, and picnicking on humus and homemade bread beneath Grand Ledge’s limestone cliffs.  I miss cooking breakfast on Fridays with Brenna and Liz and Annie in Iowa, lingering over French toast casserole and breakfast salad.  I miss drinking coffee with my mom on my parents’ back porch and listening to my dad play guitar.  I miss cooking dinner with John, making fish tacos or squash soup or pesto, while drinking cheap wine and listening to podcasts.  I miss internet fast enough to stream songs and going with my brother to see Michigan bluegrass and folk bands play at college auditoriums and art galleries, dive bars and libraries. 

Claiming a home, like falling in love, becomes harder as you get older.  Or maybe it becomes more difficult if you haven’t done it by a certain age.  I could have stayed in any of the places I’ve lived in the same way I could have ended up with any of the people I’ve been lucky enough to be close to over the years.  But as a twenty-six year-old, single and living in the Cascade Mountains, my sense of home feels fragmented and there’s not a person or place I can return to that fills all the gaps.  Instead there are memories of moments when I felt at home and a smattering of people who make those moments happen more often—family and friends who are scattered across Michigan, Iowa Indiana, Oregon, California, Pennsylvania, and Washington.  And there’s Holden Village, a community of people clustered together in the mountains, trying to make a home for vagabonds like me. 

Wednesday afternoon I received a book I’d ordered in the mail, a hard-covered copy of Rick Bass’s collection, The Lives of Rocks.  I read it in graduate school for a class on “Re-inventing the West” and I bought it because I wanted to own a copy of the first story in the collection, a short story about two boys, best friends, who both loved the same girl, and, in a less common variation of the ancient story she chose neither of them but went on to meet and choose a third, and lived happily ever after.  It’s not a story about regret or mistakes, but a narrative about change and the ways we become the people we are.  The story ends, Even now, Richard thinks they missed each other by a hair’s breadth…he thinks it may have been one of the closest misses in history of the world…he marvels at how wise they were and all the paths they did not take.  I re-read the story in my chalet Wednesday evening, before heading to the dining hall for dinner, and thought about the people I’ve loved and the places I’ve lived, “husks” of my former lives: fragments of the homes I’ve had and the homes I could have had.

There are moments in the village where I feel a sense of home, “hogar,” hearth and Jia,” family: roasting marshmallows at Hart Lake with Sally, watching My So-Called-Life reruns with Cecilia, talking on the porch of Agape after Vespers with Scott, reading out-loud to Micah and Micaela in the Holden School library loft, running four-hundred meter repeats with our school’s three cross country runners, and hanging my jeans and sweaters back in my closet after a trip out of the village.  My chalet--with its porch swing, paneled walls, flower boxes, lamp-lit living room and wood burning stove--looks and feels like the kind of home I’d design for myself: homey and old-worldly, spacious and quirky. 
Thursday, I left the village for the second time in two weeks.  I went with our three high schoolers to a cross country meet in Chelan.  The school district chartered a private boat to drive Joe, Kasey, Corey, our assistant coach Thomas, and me.  We zipped along the rocky cliffs of Lake Chelan, watching the boat's depth finder.  We photographed the finder at the lake's deepest point: 1,535 feet.  At points the boat sailed through water so smooth that only the boat's wake rippled the lake's surface, at points white-capped waves broke our rhythm, sending the boat sputtering and swerving, bouncing us from our padded seats.  We watched the mountains get smaller and smoother.  We watched the groves of Ponderosa Pines and Douglas Firs thin to the scrappy dessert.  We pulled into the dock at Chelan in just over an hour, where our driver, a grizzled man with gray stubble, told us to stay seated until he'd tied the boat to the dock. 

Before we left Holden, we attended a pep-rally put on by the primary schoolers. The school's seven elementary students wore forest green and computer cut outs of clip art goats. They wore green ribbons in their hair and painted their faces. They held painted letters which, when they stood side-by-side spelled "Go Goats!" (the school's mascot) and led the entire village in pep assembly cheers.

The students ran on the golf course in Chelan, on rolling grass back-dropped by distant Cascade Mountains.  Thomas and I ran from spot to spot, sprinting our legs sore and shouting our voices raw.  All three Holden runners ran personal best times.  Two qualified to go onto districts.  

After the meet, we huddled into a pizza place in called Local Myth and ordered pizzas with Kalmata olives, tomatoes, and basil.  When I went to the bathroom, I could hear the cooks talking about how long our order of three large pizzas would take to complete.  They'll be okay waiting, one said, They're Holden people and I felt like a representative of our mountain community where high schoolers run mountain trails for cross country practice and where people show enough grace to wait patiently for pizza while sipping on water, lingering, talking, and laughing.
It snowed Monday.  The mountains look like someone powder-sugared the peaks.  The day it snowed I watched Holden Village students race around the playground, trying to catch falling leaves.  They moved in a clump, extending their arms skyward, elbowing each other in their efforts to hook yellow foliage in their fingers.  When the wind stopped, they caught snow on their tongues. 

As the day went on, I watched the snowline creep down the mountains till white powder covered not only the peaks of Buckskin and Copper but Martin Ridge and the top of the Ten Mile Falls switchbacks.  Yellow leaves skittered across the dirt road that runs through the village and frost sparkled the grass and ferns.

By November the village should be buried in snow.  When I picture winter here I imagine the smell of the wood-burning stove and books piled on the coffee table of my chalet.  I imagine learning to weave and knit and looking up at the stars on snow-lit nights.  I picture sledding down chalet hill and snowshoeing up to Copper Basin.  It'll be a different time to be in the Holden, blanketed by stillness and snow.  Maybe in Holden I'm seeking and finding my distance--or maybe making a home doesn't mean buying property or staying forever anymore than loving somebody means building your entire life around them, maybe creating home just means being in a place long enough to see the seasons change, feeling the first snaps of cold in the air and staying to watch the leaves frost.


Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Spider Gap

“The toughness I was learning was not a martyred doggedness, a dumb heroism, but the art of accommodation. I thought: to be tough is to be fragile; to be tender is to be truly fierce.” 
-Gretel Ehrlich, The Solace of Open Spaces

In his book, The Necessity of Empty Places, Paul Gruchow describes alpine flowers: the way they bloom all at once creating a “blaze of color for six weeks or so of the growing season.” Gruchow writes, “Alpine plants do not have the luxury of blooming in succession…everything hugs the thin Earth for protection from the drying, chilling wind.” In early September, when I ascended to Upper Lyman and Cloudy Pass, lupine, yarrow, gentian, Indian paintbrush, and Western pasque flowers brushed the mountains red, white, pink, blue, and violet. Now, less than two weeks later, bright red leaves replace green ground cover and only a couple gentian and pasque flowers remain scattered in the high altitude meadows.

The names of peaks and the names of plants are still new to me here in the North Cascades and I hesitate to say words like “gentian” and “lupine” because they are terms I know from only guidebooks. I haven’t had anyone help me through the nuances of Railroad Creek Valley the way I walked kids through the temperate rain-forest where I worked last year, explaining each tree and shrub by slowly saying the name, telling stories, and sharing identifying characteristics. A couple days ago, at coffee break, I asked the people at my table if they knew what "the puffy plants that grow high up in the mountain are?" When this question (understandably) confused everyone I added, “They look like something out of a Dr. Seuss book.” After several minutes of bumbling, I described the plant enough for Janice, the village gardener, to identify the “Dr. Seuss plant” as the Western pasque flower, a member of the buttercup family that blooms soon after the snow melt, budding into a tiny white pedaled flower. Janice told me that when the pasque flower seeds in a puff of feather-like hairs. I pictured the downy billows I had seen scattered in mountain meadows, floating on their stems like something out of a cartoon: pasque flowers.

I learned recently the leaves turn red in mountains is a result of the terrain: the scrappy soil, sunny afternoons, and cold nights.  In rich lowland soil, the leaves turn yellow.  Summer light decreases, leaves stop producing chlorophyll, and carotene and xanthophyll (the leaf's other pigments) kick in, painting the foliage yellow or orange.  Unlike carotene and xanthophyll, anthocyanin, the pigment that turns leaves red, has to be produced and requires additional energy.  Trees only produce anthocyanin in landscapes where the stress of mere survival would otherwise cause them to drop their leaves too soon.  Like the burst of wildflowers I witnessed in August and September, the red that has started to cross the mountain is a symbol of survival in an ecosystem that makes nothing easy.
Yesterday I went to Spider Gap, a slope above Lyman Lake where you can scramble the scree and snowfields and see into the next valley.  It was a twenty-five mile day that I had to pace, in both time and energy, so that I had enough stamina to scramble up the gap after the ten mile trek to Upper Lyman Lake and enough daylight for the hike back after the descent from Spider Gap.  I hiked fast to Hart Lake and the switchbacks at Lyman, then slowed.  I filled my water bottle at a river near Lyman, where I knew the current moved fast enough to make the water safe for drinking.  I sat in the meadows by the lake, scanning the changing horizon for autumn orange and red.  I lay on my belly to photograph the leaves and tromped off trail for better views of Lyman Lake from the trail that snaked above it.  I lingered near Lyman and Upper Lyman Lake, because (1) to me, nothing is prettier than the Lyman Lakes, turquoise pools pocketed by mountain peaks, and (2) I wanted to let my body rest before I had to scramble up the gap.

Spider Gap is no mountain summit.  I don't possess the technical skills to climb any of the peaks that surround Holden Village.  However, I had to bushwhack between the Lake and the gap.  I looked for cairns, stacked stones left by other hikers marking the safest way.  I pressed my palms against the scree when the climb got steep, I toed the snow to test iciness.  I listened for the sound of ice cracking and scanned the cliffs above me for cougars or rock-slides.  When I heard stones skitter on the other side of the slope, I froze, scanning the horizon before I continued my trek.  

In upper elevations color becomes clearer. The thinner atmosphere refracts less light and the decreased dust and moisture captures less color pigment. The sky looks bluer and the yellow and oranges in the stone seem more intense. As I climbed, my senses prickled with a heightened awareness of touch and sight and sound.

It took me about an hour to ascend from Upper Lyman Lake to Spider Gap.  I moved slow and safe.  I climbed scree, crossed a flat snowfield then ascended a slope of shallow snow.  As I moved toward the top, Upper Lyman started to look like a river, weaving between rock and glacier.  The snow shadowed the rock below.  I could see the way the mountain peaks contained the valley, walling Railroad Creek in Cascade cliffs, and the way Lyman Glacier fed the lushness: the mountain meadows and turquoise lakes.  From Spider Gap I saw a sign warning of fire danger in the next valley and the way the rock sloped down into snowfields that descended into Spider Meadows.  I saw both Lyman Lakes and Cloudy Peak.  I scurried from overlook to overlook before settling in the middle of the gap and wedging myself against the rock to eat granola and chocolate and drink from my water bottle.

According to Paul Gruchow, until the late eighteenth century no one visited mountains on purpose. Travelers who had to cross the Alps wore blindfolds and philosophers believed that before the flood and the fall, the earth had only flat smooth surfaces, filled with soil, rich enough to farm. It’s a luxury to love a landscape where "everything hugs the thin Earth for protection," where existence involves struggle, where even the trees turn different colors in their strain to survive.

This summer in Michigan, my brother tried to teach me to rock climb.  I knew I had a decent strength to weight ratio.  I knew knots.  I’d belayed hundreds of kids and taught rock climbing classes at the YMCA where I worked, but the first time Keith belayed me at the rocks at Grand Ledge, I barely ascended the easiest route.  I bruised my knees and banged my shins and held onto the rock so tight that my arms shook till my muscles pumped out.  One day, a man named Dave stood behind my belaying brother to watch me climb.  Dave watched with crossed arms, nodded, and told me in an even voice, “You have to work with the rock, not against it.”  Then he scrambled up beside me, pulling his body in toward the stone, feeling the creases in the rock with his fingers.  “You’re fighting the stone,” he told me and I imagined what climbing might look and feel like if instead of trying to muscle my way up rock I could move more like the ledge itself: gracefully sloping upward in a series of sharp steps and smooth reaches.

It's a different way of thinking: working with the rock.  As a short girl who spent her childhood in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula trying to keep up with stronger more coordinated boys, I learned to rely on speed and scrappy tenacity. I've had to get stitches half a dozen times and had two concussions. Purple scars shadow my legs, elbows, and hips. I broke my collarbone playing football during seventh grade cross country practice. I fractured my shins running too many miles on a cement track during high school.  I know how to barrel forward but I'm still learning how to live in a place where toughness requires sensitivity and fierceness means accommodation.  I'm learning to listen to the crumble of rocks and to feel my way through snowfields.  I'm learning to move slow enough to see the cairns from other hikers.  Sometimes I wonder how my time in the mountains will help me when I go to Ledges with Keith next summer in Michigan.  Will crawling through scree help my hands feel comfortable lingering on dusty rock long enough to find the good holds at Ledges? Will scrambling on snow aid my feet in trusting the small holds I need to lean into in order to work with the rock?  Will I eventually make my ascents with the smoothness of the lanky climbers I love to watch once I' m out of the harness, barefoot on the banks of Grand River?

After descending from Spider Gap, I rested on a boulder beside Upper Lyman Lake.  I scooped my legs into my chest and wrapped my arms around my knees.  I thought about taking off my shoes, rolling up my pants, and wading into the glacier-cold water.  But instead I sat.  I looked up the the cliffs and down at the pebbled bottom of the lake.  I felt the wind brush my sweaty skin.  I don't know when the trails I've walked each weekend will be buried in snow, no longer navigable.  I tried to memorize the way sun beamed off the lake, making the ripples in the water gleam.  I tried to memorize the shape of Lyman Glacier on the peaks.  I focused on breathing and didn't think about the hike back.

Spider Gap, September 2012