Category Archives: adventures in nature

finger rock

Finger Rock is a lean, delicate spire, daintily extending out of the craggy Santa Catalina mountain skyline as though it were a little girl’s pinky finger counterbalancing an invisible porcelain tea-cup. This feature can capture the eye from almost anywhere in Tucson, including my driveway. Many novice day hikers have tasted the bitter tang of regret when they realize that the popular Finger Rock trail they have been huffing up for the past 2 hours doesn’t actually bring them to Finger Rock, which after getting closer, closer, slinks out of view like a beautiful stranger at a cocktail party. But for the intrepid, she is reachable; for those that wish to ascend her, 100 feet of easy technical climbing is the reward after hours hiking up the steep, loose approach. And once you make it to the top, standing on a shifty summit flake, you can regard magnificent views of the shimmering Tucson valley below, or the limitless bowl of azure sky above.

But here’s the disclaimer: I’ve never climbed Finger Rock. I’ve never breathed hard on the challenging ascent, skin burning where the ubiquitous shin daggers drew blood. My eager, calloused fingertips have yet to explore her contours, her secret holds.  I have yet to balance on that unstable summit flake, sweat and satisfaction dripping off me in equal volumes. I’ve dreamed of this adventure through. You see, I’m an untalented if enthusiastic rock climber; I am the kind of hiker that’s happiest if the journey takes all day. In short, it would be the perfect adventure for a person like me.

Or, to be more accurate: would have been a perfect adventure for someone like I was.

I shrug away the longing as I unload groceries from my Subaru, my newborn daughter snoozing in the backseat. A year ago, Finger Rock seemed like an ambitious-but-feasible Saturday plan; now it sounds as remote as visiting the moon. I can hardly manage a trip to the rock climbing gym for a few hours, certainly not an all-day excursion up a mountain. Overweight, overwrought and over-tired, my muscles have atrophied, my ambitions to climb mountains transformed into the goal of just trying to get to the goddamn grocery store. I am soft where I used to be hard. I am stretched where I used to be comfortable. I am winded where I used to be strong.

My daughter frowns, half-awake and smacking her lips. I slide her out of her car seat. She is all warmth and softness; we exhale in the sweet relief it is to be holding, to be held by. Her eyes, twin glacial pools, have started to focus on the world around her and she takes a moment to regard the mesquite tree in our yard. I bring her to my breast after I take a seat on the red Adirondack chair jauntily positioned on the front porch, Finger Rock still squarely in my line of sight. She latches on and I breathe in. She is exquisite. I feel the full, ridiculous weight of the love which flash flooded my life the moment I gave birth a few months ago and somehow keeps rushing and rushing from an invisible, inexhaustible spring.

Even in this sublime moment, my eyes flicker north, to Finger Rock. I am content, yet somewhere inside of me a wild cat paces in a secret jungle, silent, patiently insistent. She can wait, she will wait, but she claims the right to remind me of a different path, the wilder world beyond caregiving. No matter how sweet the gifts of mothering a newborn may be, her shadow makes me tingle, a specter from my old life of physicality, of independence, of wildness. She reminds me of dreams I’m not sure even make sense anymore. Afterall, I’m still figuring out this new landscape since my entire life blew open with the birth of my daughter. In many ways I feel like a stranger to myself, my new world a drawn-out zen koan. Opposites find symbiosis; contradictions are the norm. I have never felt weaker, and I have never felt stronger. I am contentedly consumed by caring for this precious and demanding newborn, yet I miss my old life, with all its adventures and micro freedoms. I fantasize about rocks I haven’t climbed, may never climb, and perhaps these flights are sustaining a part of me through this time of early parenting. Or maybe I’m engaged in a reflex fantasy, simply playing out old thought patterns, scratching old itches. Maybe that life is over.

But I don’t think so.The ground under a mother’s foot is never solid, after all. I feel myself sinking as soggy sand beneath me is sucked into the tide. I wobble and catch my balance as I stand on the shoreline of mystery, waves lapping around my ankles. What is true today ceases to exist tomorrow. My daughter is growing, the days are getting shorter, and everything changes, but there is so much more possibility balled into each and every moment than most of us dare to realize. The same miraculous force that pulled me off the mountain to nurse a baby on an Adirondack chair may one day push me back up into the wilderness. And these dreams are the red thread tying together then and now, proof that something original remains after the cracking, the flooding, knitting together a changed woman, a brave new mother in a soggy, strange world.

 

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This post took me ages to write- another casualty of new parenthood, I suppose. My baby is one year old now. I still haven’t climbed Finger Rock. But I haven’t stopped gazing at her and dreaming of the day.

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he gave me a backpack, he showed me the way

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His last gift to me was a backpack.  A royal blue, 60 liter, Gregory backpacking pack. Rugged, heavy, built for the wilderness and paid for with drug money, or maybe it was stolen. He smiled while he extended the pack and I felt his glassy, bloodshot eyes trying to read my face. I hesitated, as this gift-giving stank of another tactic to delay me in throwing his ass out of the house we bought three years earlier with the blind optimism of newlyweds. A new build, as young as our marriage. I can recall the smell of the fresh plywood as we wandered through the partially framed-out structure the day we signed the purchase agreement. We were two children playing house in a half-built skeleton, wondering where the ceiling fan would hang in the living room.  If I had known what demons lurked in the shadows of the not-so-distant future I would have fallen to my knees in the construction dust and screamed.  Instead, I innocently grasped his sweaty hand with mine and contemplated ceiling fans. It was better that way, better not to know of the impending storm. It wasn’t long, after all, before the demons stepped into the light; we saw their faces and whispered their names, and began the long slog of suffering which brought us, too-thin and broken, to that moment under the whirring ceiling fan when he handed me a backpack. A bulky manufacturer’s tag swung back and forth in the circulating air and the body of the pack was slightly slumped, begging to be filled with camping gear. My toes curled on the standard-issue, builders-grey carpeting while I steadied my face, trying to suppress delight at the pack so as not to confuse the giver, for I had no delight left for him. But I smiled, I couldn’t help myself, and I took the backpack from his shaky grip. Sliding it on my thin shoulders it felt foreign, but somehow right.

How did he know I needed that backpack? He was nearly as shattered as a person can be, consumed by addiction and rocked with grief. Was he informed by whatever love for me that remained lodged in his big, broken heart? Was some higher force working through this tortured man, transforming selfishness into charity? I may never know, but this gift, this final act of generosity in our doomed marriage, was the answer to the question I had yet to articulate.  In giving me a backpack he showed me the door to my salvation , although I didn’t walk through it in earnest for many more years.  I had more suffering to do.  I had to fall further before I was ready to rise.

Oh, and I have risen!  Nature has soothed me.  Freedom has saved me. And this pack has been with me through it all, my trusted companion while I strolled through forest meadows, gazed at the sea, smelled temple incense and gulped thin mountain air. We shared the adventures he and I only dreamed of. It has traveled in trucks, planes, trains, but mostly on my sweaty back. We have been rained on, hailed on, snowed on, and baked in the desert sun. I have kicked dust on it, I have thread wildflowers through its numerous straps. I have dropped it, propped it, hung it, slugged it. It is starting to show its age, but I still adventure with it proudly.  From misery to ecstasy, we have been through a lot together.

the lesson of Yellowstone

If you have been there, you understand.  You have breathed the sulfurous aroma near the geysers and gasped at the wildlife and crunched lodgepole pine needles beneath your feet and smiled, transfixed the intoxicating combination of the timeless and transient in this very special place. I was recently in Yellowstone with my family, and it is everything that has ever been said and more. It is that great.

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The visitation happened at the Mud Volcano. It was a relatively warm day, and between the geothermal heat and foul odors belching from fumaroles, it wasn’t entirely pleasant to stand near the features. My 7-year-old niece was crying from the bad smells, while the older girl, a Chinese exchange student, said wistfully “I wish I could see a bison right now!”

And then he appeared, a solo bull, lumbering towards the Black Dragon’s Cauldron, emerging through the steam from the mudpot. He approached the banks of boiling, murky water and stood silently appraising his onlookers, the only perceptible movement being an occasional swish of the tail. The chatter of the crowd died off  to murmur and an occasional, breathy oh, wow.  

His eyes were shiny, black orbs, and I felt as though he was gazing at my very soul. I saw myself as if through the eyes this enormous creature, a survivor, one of the few of his kind which continue to roam in the wilds of the American West.  In the act of releasing that which I loved the most, have been driven nearly mad with sadness. Loss has broken my heart into a million pieces that rattle like bones in the quiet of the night.  I am not often the stoic bison, gazing upon the loss of my kind with an accepting tail swish.  I am hurt, I am angry, I fight futile wars which leave me depleted and even more brokenhearted.  

But still, somehow, I am okay. And so are you. This is the message I received from the bison on that hot afternoon in Yellowstone.  Change is constant, loss is inevitable, and sometimes even the earth beneath our feet can feel unstable, volatile. Our vision may become clouded by the smoke from fiery destruction, the steam from cooking up a new life, a new beginning. Sometimes, our heart hurts. But in the end, we somehow find wholeness in our losses.  We have, as living beings on earth, inherited the legacy of courageous survival.

I take pictures of birds because I can

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It might have been a little foolish. I lost my savings in the divorce, and I really had no business spending money on things I didn’t “need.”

But I wanted to take pictures of birds.

So I bought a camera, a nice one.  I don’t even really know how to use it yet- my high school photography class was in the previous millenium, long before digital SLRs. But I’m able to take pictures of birds.

So I do.

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the encounter with the bighorn

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They grazed near a crystalline stream, in the prolific fields of wild grape which covered the reddish deser rock in thick layers of green, snaking tendrils. A group of six female Desert Bighorn Sheep, accompanied by a rambunctious lamb, thrilled with bouncing off his elders’ rumps and frolicking through the leafy vines. With their appearance the canyon went quiet- as though the hikers and the birds and the insects knew we were in the presence of holy beasts, animal sages here with a message, or a blessing, or maybe for a delicious sunset meal. We caught the words, the buzzing, the song in our throats and quietly watched in suspended awe. I crouched on the cool sand, unobtrusive as I could be, and snapped photos. The sheep appraised me with yellow eyes and a cool stare but kept chewing on grape leaves, bottom jaws rotating in an exaggerated swing.
 

 
 
I had longed for an encounter with these rare creatures, and my day finally arrived. I gazed, transfixed, while my eyes welled inexplicably with tears. Maybe from appreciation for their gentle reminder to enjoy the tenderest leaves of life.  Maybe from the overwhelming joy at being in a beautiful place, in the presence of beautiful creatures. Or more likely, I cried from the gratitude that, even in the soup of heartbreak, dreams can still come true. They may not be the dreams I had before, the dreams that built the walls of my former life. But new beginnings give birth to new dreams, and they are coming to fruition