My Imaginary (and Real) Friends

Because of family dynamics and the fact that I was very shy, I spent a lot of time alone when I was growing up. But life is about adaptability and I came to enjoy my own company. I always found things to do, to see , to ponder. When my life became too overwhelming I would ride my bike through my neighbor’s orchard, across a wide field and visit an old friend, a tall maple tree that for some reason was left standing in the acres that had been cleared so long ago for crops. Like me the the tree was alone but it was so much more, beautiful and majestic in its solitude, happy to just be. It became known as my “thinking tree” where I sat under its sturdiness and tried to find peace and some of my own strength.

There was also a woods near my home. My parents used fear to keep us safe and told us that terrible things would happen to us if we wondered there. I remember that when I was about six or seven I wished that I could own a gun, a very strange thing for a little girl to want in the 1950’s. I wanted to know the trees that lived in the cool darkness. I’m proud to say with determination and no gun, I eventually came to know them and added them to my group of acquaintances.

I am no longer shy and I have evolved into quite a people person but I still enjoy my own company and the company of trees. Last week, I returned from a camping trip near Lake Placid in my beloved Adirondack Mountains. I spent six days tenting. A friend who loves creature comforts wanted to know what I could possibly do for six days without a hotel bed and with only a gas camp stove to cook on. Here is my answer.

I set up a well organized, cozy campsite. It takes awhile but I made myself a very comfortable home on my site at the KOA in Lake Placid. I always have flowers on the tablecloth that covers the picnic table provided.

I caught up on my reading. In 2020, I’m taking an 80 day solo road trip through the southern states, going as far as New Orleans, and writing about it on my blog. Every morning at the campsite, I made coffee, build a fire and delved into two American history books, These Truths by Jill Lepore and The Half has Never Been Told by Edward Baptist. I was brought to tears as I read about the horrors of slavery in our country.

I visited the Adirondack Wildlife Refuge and Rehab Center in Wilmington. One of my sorority sister’s who lives in the area told me about this place which was not far from my campgrounds. I was thrilled to see so many animals that I had come to know and love, especially a red tailed hawk which I have chosen as my totem.

I listened to the whisper of the pines. They make their own mysterious sound and seemed to inspire me. As I looked up into their lacey beauty, the clutter of my thoughts and feelings seemed to sort themselves out into words and ideas that I might be able to write about in my blog.

I figured out a way to go for ice cream even though it was the day of the Iron Man races and all south bound lanes were closed near my campgrounds. Because of a good sense of direction and a little luck, I got my treat and was able to get back to my site by taking back roads.

I had the same bird visit me each day. I soon learned that it didn’t like bits of hot dog rolls but loved whole wheat crackers.

I thought of my dad and how he had instilled in me the love of trees and nature. He took my family to Canada to show us where he liked to fish and he bought us to Wilmington Notch Campground long ago when the white birches there were still alive.When we moved to a new house, one of the first things he did was plant trees all over our property.

Decades later, I realized that, through his example, he also taught me to take an interest in people and seek out their stories. He had a great sense of humor and loved “shooting the breeze” with anyone who wished to converse.

I drove to Keene Valley I remembered when I had passed through this valley on the Saturday after the Twin Towers had collapsed after the attack on September 11. I wondered then how something so beautiful and peaceful could exist when the rest of our world was falling apart

I stopped at Noon Mark Diner named after Noonmark Mountain. An elderly lady was looking for a table as she proclaimed to some people that her usual lunch spot wasn’t serving peanut butter and jelly sandwiches that day. Like my dad would have done, I started a conversation with her by commenting on her “Adirondack Women, Forever Wild”. I had a t-shirt that said the same thing. I asked her if she wanted to join me for lunch since the waitress hadn’t come yet and I thought that maybe two of us would be easier for her to notice.

We compared our Adirondack experiences. I had climbed eight of the High Peaks and she had climbed twenty-seven of them. Her name was Elizabeth Clark Eldridge, “Betty” for short, and her family had founded The North Country School, a prestigious progressive private boarding school attended by kids from all over world. In fact, she had become friends with one of its famous alumni, Peter Wilcox, the Greenpeace captain and environmental activist. She sailed with him on several excursions and was the ship’s cook. She was proud to say that Peter always corrected her by calling her “The Greenpeace Chef”. Betty was joyous, kind, and a very interesting person.. We are going to be pen pals and it all started with a passing word about her T-shirt.

I went swimming in The Ausable River! In Jay, by the old covered bridge, are lovely grey rocks that allow the Ausable River to jump and laugh and dance. I went there, hair tied back wearing my ugly black cover up and swam in my bathing suit in a quiet pool, unashamed of what I looked like as the younger swimmers dove and slid with daredevil enthusiasm. I’m sure I got as much joy out of the experience as them, maybe even more.

I finally visited the John Brown historic site. In my fireside readings about slavery, of course, this famous abolitionist was mentioned. Like a lot of Americans who are inadequately taught history, I had not paid attention to this man’s homestead and eventual resting place in Lake Placid. He was an quite a person, a man who wouldn’t support the injustices of his time and tried to do something about it.

I was carrying my copy of The Half has Never Been Told, the book about American slavery as I walked around the grounds. A woman stopped to talk to me. I think she heard me tell the site ranger that I would be touring The South and writing about it on my blog. Her name was Marsha Southgate and I later found out she was a published author. But what was important to her was that I knew about her mom who in 2002 walked through Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, and Canada to retrace the steps of history. I have since ordered the book her mom wrote, In Their Path: A Grandmother’s 519-Mile Underground Railroad Walk. Mrs. Joan Southgate also helped establish Restore Cleveland Hope, an education center dedicated to the anti-slavery and Underground Railroad history of the area. What a wonderful coincidence to become connected to these two women.

I stopped at the iron bridge to remember Sharon. Sharon taught Bonnie and I how to fly fish on the Ausable River. The two of us came to the iron bridge after Sharon died to recognize her spirit, to thank her for all she had taught us, and to say “goodbye”.

I observed the first goldenrod of the summer. For my children and I, these yellow flowers always seemed to announce that school would be starting soon and summer was almost done. I’m retired from teaching now and my kids are grown. The message of the goldenrod is now different but in many ways more intense. These flowers seemed to be telling me to live these days of sunshine and warmth to the fullest, warning me not take them for granted.

So that’s some of what I did for six days without a hotel bed and only a camp stove to cook on. I connected with my friends the trees and the rest of nature. How could I be alone when I am a part of them and they are a part of me? They have taught me to look around and see the significance of even the smallest parts of our existence. They have opened my heart and mind to other human beings showing me that I’m connected to them, too. Thank you, trees. Thanks, Dad.

Copyright 2019@ theautonomoustraveler.com All right reserved.

It’s All About the Math-Hiking in the Adirondacks

Forty nine

One day when I was 46, I decided to hike all 46 of The High Peaks of the Adirondacks. I tend to live out my life in headlines, always proclaiming a new interest with passion and bursts of wild enthusiasm. So 46 at 46! The coincidence had a certain mystical quality to it and I was convinced that it was a personal thumbs up from Mother Nature herself.

My odyssey skyward started slowly. Having been recently divorced and with my two children away at college, I suddenly had time for myself and took up walking. It was good exercise and a way to manage my weight. But most of all I loved the freedom to finally be a self-contained unit moving forward in the the direction of my choice under my own power. I found peace in the rhythm of my steps and breathes. I enjoyed the smells, the green flutter of trees, and the ever changing perennial garden of wildflowers along the sides of my quiet country road.

I walked and walked, some days listening to music. But many days ruminating about the past and pondering the future. Soon walking was not enough and when my neighbor jokingly told me I was making a rut in the asphalt in front of his house, I decided to upgrade to hiking The Adirondacks, a six million acre protected and “forever wild”park near my home.

I carefully prepared for my new hobby: New hiking boots carefully fitted by the staff at an outdoors store to prevent the dreaded toe jam, wool socks to ward off blisters, liner socks to wick moisture, a Gore-Tex jacket to keep out the rain while at the same time allowing the body to breathe, and a day pack well supplied for survival. The High Peaks are mountains over 4000 feet tall, some having very intimidating names like Big Slide and Giant. But I was equipped for the challenge and so I climbed.

But it wasn’t quite what I expected. I found that during the first few minutes of the first few hikes, I was immediately out of breath. I realized it was the mountain’s cruel initiation. I needed to establish a stride and when my pulse started to conform to the life of the mountain, things got better. I was also required to be a constant mental problem solver. The Adirondack Park is a dome of volcanic rock worn down by thousand of years of weather. The trails are littered with tens of thousands of rocks. Each footfall had to be carefully planned as I moved from step to step. Sometimes I came off the trail covered with mud. I slipped once and left some skin from my elbow on a mountain called Gothics. And one evening, I cried alone in the woods during a group hike when our leader told us, yes indeed, we would be hiking one more mountain the next day.

But there was joy, too. I saw peregrine falcons diving toward earth at tremendous speeds and heard their distinctive whistle. I met other hikers, people who, as Thoreau pointed out, lived life a deliberately as nature. They told stories of other mountains and at night identified the constellations for all  of us who hadn’t looked up at the stars in awhile. I was a part of the first all women trail maintenance weekend. Our group picture was included in a regional magazine and, as a result, I became part of  Adirondack history.

It turns out that I didn’t reach the mystical goal I though the universe had assigned me. I only did eight of the 46 peaks. On the eighth hike, I sat on a rock summit in total surrender, the blue pure sky above me and the dark green earth beneath. I was wearing a warm jacket in the middle of a hot summer but I only felt the wind and coolness of a mountain top afternoon. I observed the smallness of the vegetation around me. The trees were miniature versions of the trees that were lucky enough to grow further down the mountain. The sum of their lives had been spent in the harshness of many cruel seasons that offered them no encouragement to grow.

I understood the mathematics of their existence and had myself experienced the strong influence of both sunny days and damaging storms. I remembered all the bonsai tree constraints of my own life; the wrong choices and regrets that sometimes pushed my soul below zero. But I also took a moment to remember all the joy I had in my heart, too. And it was at that moment that I realized life is all about the math, about constantly striving to put more pluses in our lives than minuses.

I thanked the mountain and the little trees for their wisdom. Eight out of 46 isn’t bad, I told myself. It was time to get out of the wind and cold and go down the mountain. It was time to start growing again.

Copyright 2018@ The Autonomous Traveler