a place with
its own harvests.
.-Kay Ryan, Patience
|Larches at Hilgard Pass|
I spent the summer of 2009 living in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, splitting my time between the northern coast of Lake Michigan and the Southern coast of Lake Superior. I gave tours at the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point and barista-ed at a coffee shop off Highway 2. I read a book a week and baked my own bread. I wandered the woods, hiked sand-dunes, and explored the ruins of abandoned logging villages. I slept in a tent, in a bed at my parents’ cabin, in an apartment above a movie theater at the shipwreck museum, in the basement of a 19th century coast guard building. I vagabonded. I read. I recorded notes. I hardly wrote at all.
In the fall, when I returned to graduate school in Iowa, I confessed to a professor who I loved and respected that I hadn't finished an essay all summer. I told him about my adventures and asked him for advice on how to balance exploration and reflection.
He paused then gave me an answer I didn't expect: "Summer is for going out, drawing material, filling up the well. Then when the weather turns, you come back to your desk and write."
This summer I traveled by car for five weeks. I stayed in a hostel in the North Cascades and ate my way through small town bakeries as I drove Highway 20 toward Spokane. I herded sheep, burnt invasive Alyssum, served meals at a shelter, learned about tree grafting, and built shelves from wood taken from the forest service burn pile in Hotchkiss, Colorado. I ate horse, venison, and elk, bull testicle, and alligator. I hiked to a hanging lake and summited a 13,000 foot mountain. I bottle-fed baby goats, swam in Iowa rivers, and walked dirt roads bordered by fields of fireflies. I went rock climbing at the ledges near Lansing and drank home-brew with my brother. I canoed and stargazed. I went to my cousin's wedding and walked 170 miles--from Stehekin to Canada and back on the PCT.
There’s a freedom to travel that I needed this summer. After spending nine months living and working in a mountain village that spans less than a quarter mile, I wanted to wander. I wanted to the smell of high desert sage in Eastern Washington and feel the smooth surface of slip rock in Moab, Utah, I wanted the cool mountain air of Rocky mountains and the thick humidity of midwestern summer. I needed to walk myself tired then return to my little mountain village, full of experience, ready for another year of being grounded in light and darkness, the changing of the seasons, and the rhythm of community.
I returned Holden Village twenty-two days ago. A new school year began. I've hiked mountain passes and swam in lakes. I've sat out under the stars and soaked in the hot tub. I've taken our two second grade students on their first hike to Holden Lake. I've baked bread from mountain blueberries. I've started cross country training with the high school team.
I know how to live with urgency. I know how to wake up early and how to stay up late. But this morning, when my alarm went off, my eyes felt watery from allergies and my body spent from hiking. Outside, clouds covered the mountains and the air felt damp with the potential for rain. I let my body settle back into bed, pushed snooze and decided that today would be a day for writing and rest, a time to transition into a slower season.
Today is the fall equinox--the halfway point between the solstices, the day of the year when the hours of darkness and light are almost equal. It's a day to strive for balance and celebrate the turn of the season. As of tomorrow, the days will begin getting darker.
This morning, after deciding to sleep in and not hike, I went to the chalet next door for Sunday morning coffee and scones. I bundled in a sweatshirt and a puffy vest, sat cross-legged in front of the fireplace, and joined in slow-Sunday conversation with my neighbors. Outside clouds cloaked most of the mountains. After about a half hour of coffee-drinking someone pointed at the peaks.
We all looked at Buckskin’s summit--its peak dusted white.
I don’t feel ready for winter. I love snow and sledding, fireplaces, and sing-a-longs but there’s still half a dozen places I want to hike to before the snow comes and even on a rainy Sunday, I feel guilty about the miles I didn’t walk, the places I didn’t visit, the adventures I didn’t have.
And after a summer spent traveling, writing feels more difficult than usual--in a way that makes me question what I do and why I do it. I have half a dozen unfinished essays started. After so much movement, so much travel, sitting by a computer makes me squirmy--hours spent staring at a screen working through my thoughts feel wasteful compared to time spent outside. I have to retrain myself in slowness and reflection, in the art of staying in a place and sitting with a feeling.
There's a momentum to the seasons but in the mountains, they seem to shift without warning. Last weekend I swam in Domke Lake, Lake Chelan, and Holden Lake. I lay back and let the water hold my body's weight as I looked up at the mountains all around me. The sun beamed off the water, and it seemed like we'd have months more of summer. Then the weather changed. Autumn began and suddenly there's snow on the summits and as much dark as there is light in the day.
I'm a better climber and a better hiker than I was when I moved to Holden. I know more about the mosses and lichens, more about the texture of bark and the shapes of leaves. I know more about living in community and caring for children. I've slowed the pace of some of my hikes. I've stopped to pick berries and swim naked. But I'm still learning how to live here, still learning how to slow. I want to keep recording, reflecting, writing, and balancing. I want to cultivate wonder and practice patience--and on a fog-shrouded Sunday I want to linger in bed, look out the window at the falling rain, and feel at peace.