Of Mice and Mountaintops

 

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Bernard and I breakfasted together the morning after our introduction. Honestly I would’ve kept him around longer, but he had boundary issues and tried to run up my leg while I was driving, a major no-no.

I am writing this at 10:09 PM on a Thursday night in a WalMart parking lot. My car smells overwhelmingly of curry. My car doesn’t normally smell of curry.

When I committed myself to a solo road trip—a mini foray into the shallows of vanlife—I was ready for the Big Stuff. Mountaintop vistas. Sunsets on beaches. Sitting in the woods with my feet propped up, beer in one hand, book of Rilke’s poetry in the other. I thought everything I Instagrammed would also be the most profound, enjoyable moments, as if the physical grandeur of the landscapes around me would reverberate at the same internal frequency of awe.

And they do.
Sometimes.

But sometimes I hike 10 miles, look around, shrug my shoulders, and head back down. Sometimes I don’t leave my car to take a picture and it remains only that—a photograph with no backing behind the veneer. Empty.

What I didn’t prepare myself for was the Small Moments. Like when I forgot my garbage outside my car for a couple of hours and then discovered at four in the morning when I felt something scurrying across my sleeping bag that I’d accidentally brought a mouse in along with my empty Pringles’ cans. It wouldn’t leave, despite me opening all the doors and asking nicely and waving a spatula about. My tent smelled of onions and peanut butter the next night as I curled up in the woods with all of my groceries, hoping the mouse traps in my car worked. (RIP Bernard. In the words of Fall Out Boy, thanks for memories even though they weren’t so great.)

Similarly, I was under prepared for the curry disaster of September 21, 2017. Knowing the tupperware was prone to leaks, I’d wrapped my flannel around it and stabilized it with my pillow. And then, because I’m an idiot, I forgot about it, only to suddenly remember it when I came back to my car after brushing my teeth in WalMart and wondering why my car smelled so weird.

It wasn’t even good curry, mind you. I’d made it myself on the bank of the Sol Duc River in the Olympics with coconut milk, spices, and WalMart-purchased vegetables. So it was very mediocre curry. And it smelled not great.

It had seeped into my flannel, drenched my pillow, and pooled onto my air mattress. It had been a long day of driving, and all I wanted to do was sleep. My body tightened in frustration at the mess before me.

But I had soap and a sponge. I had a towel. I cleaned up the mess, rolled down the windows, and ate an entire bag of gummies in the driver’s seat to make myself feel better.

My car regained its normal smell about three days later.

When you go out into the world things will happen to you. Yes, there will be beautiful mountaintops and sunsets, but there will also be field mice and mediocre curry in your sleeping area. And the mountaintops will give you better pictures, but the mice will give you better stories. And that feeling of overcoming an unexpected crisis—even if it’s mouse-sized, even if it’s in the WalMart parking lot—may feel more rewarding than that 10 mile slog.

So say yes, go out into the world, see what’s there, cry a little, feel inspired, feel proud, wash your hair in rivers, sleep in your car, say hi to strangers, see what the world hands you when your eyes are closed.

Curry-tinged dreams are better than no dreams at all. Even if they involve mice.

 

Women of the Wild

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I didn’t get a picture of the actual grizzly because I was busy getting the hell out of there. So here’s a sign.

“Where’s your boyfriend?” a man asked me on the summit of Slide Mountain, the highest peak in the Catskills. It’d been a bad week, so I’d left work early that Friday and escaped to the mountains, my go-to move when the world’s feeling extra heavy. This was my third summit of the day, and I was still feeling great.

The man wasn’t alone. Both him and his male friend were in their late 40s and donned expensive hiking gear. They went on trips together as frequently as they could. The Presidential Traverse, Devil’s Path, most of their hiking was in the East, but they hiked out West and abroad when they could.

“Who do you hike with normally?” one asked as we hiked down the mountain together.

Sometimes my dad, I answered. Occasionally friends. Mostly myself.

“Someday you’ll find a boy who can keep up with you. Shame you live so far away. We’d invite you to hike with us once and a while. Take you under our wing, you know.”

Men and women approach my outdoors aloneness differently. Women are instantly supportive. Even if they don’t understand why I want to forgo showers and porcelain toilets for several months, they are excited and proud that I’m doing it. Good for you! cheer the older women with a nostalgic gleam in their eyes, thinking, perhaps, how this reality wasn’t available to them 40 years ago.

Men approach me with questions. Why are you here? Why are you alone? They see my aloneness as an aberration, a question in need of an answer. They look for explanations when I don’t offer one. Maybe I’m a slow hiker. Maybe I’m really fussy and no one wants to put up with me. Maybe I’m running away.

I’m not sure why women alone in the wild makes men uncomfortable. But I have a few guesses.

Flash forward a year from my encounter with the two men in the Catskills and I’m hiking alone in Glacier National Park. Copious signs warn about bear activity in the area. Hiking alone is something they strongly advise against, but besides that, I’ve taken every other precaution. I carry bear spray in the side of my backpack. I clang my poles together. I sing the new Harry Styles’ song as I walk. Noise, the signs and videos and brochures tell me. Make noise.

So I do.
And then something stirs on the path ahead of me.
It’s small and brown. But then it moves and it gets bigger and bigger.

A grizzly!

It had been sleeping with its head on the trail and its body in a copse of bushes. I know it’s a grizzly because of the distinctive hump between its shoulders. I also know it’s a grizzly because I’ve seen black bears before and ohmygod this is not one of them.

It’s massive.

I keep making noise and backing away slowly, not taking my eyes off it as it continues moving. My entire body has gone cold and my heart races. Slowly, slowly, I creep back the way I came. Not running. Never running. I walk ten minutes until I encounter the family of four I’d passed earlier. I tell them about the grizzly. We decide to approach it together and see where it has moved to. We’re only three miles into an 18 mile hike, and neither of us wants to turn around and call it a day. Between the five of us we have two cans of bear spray. Just in case.

The bear has moved off into the bushes, but we can still see it from the trail as we approach. The little boy in the family threatens tears. We make noise and can hear it moving through the undergrowth. Toward us or away from us, it’s hard to tell. All of us keep our eyes peeled for cubs. No sign.

Eventually it disappears completely.
We hike onward.

I’ve been on the road now for a month and a half now and my encounter with the grizzly was the scariest moment I’ve had so far. But it’s also the one that makes me feel the most pride.

There are countless valuable lessons for girls and women to learn from the wild, but there’s something unique to be learned by being alone. To feel empowered by your own mind and within your own body. To believe you can survive no matter what the world throws at you. To taste, even if only briefly, what the world is like with no fear, only strength.

There is no shortage of things to be fearful about—spiders, darkness, creepy campsite dudes—but we can’t let that stop us from exploring and getting our hands dirty. It’s OK to be scared, and there’s a fine line between actions that are bold and actions that are stupid, but instead of teaching girls to be afraid, we need to teach them to be brave. To face the darkness, the grizzly, the guy who tells her she shouldn’t be here alone.

Toward the end of my hike in Glacier, I meet a park ranger who is guiding a private backpacking trip for a family of three. The girl isn’t older than five. Her parents carry all of her things.

“You did the whole loop by yourself?” the ranger asks me as we make small talk.

“I did.”

“I’m very impressed,” he says.

As I turn to finish the last three miles, I hear the ranger say behind me, “See that, Mariana? You’ll be just like her someday.”

I beam.

In Their Own Words

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With over 2,500 acres, Mendon Ponds Park is the largest park in Monroe County. It’s only 25 minutes away from downtown Rochester, New York.

“One of the things I think that Rochester is lacking tremendously is a connection to the multitude of green spaces and natural gems in the bioregion that we have here. We have over twenty public parks that are all within fifteen, twenty minutes driving distance; we have the Adirondack Park, which is a state park that’s bigger than Yellowstone and Yosemite combined; we have the Finger Lakes region; and that’s just going outside of the Greater Rochester area. There are so many places to enjoy and so few people understand them.” —Lindsay Cray, Co-Founder and Executive Director of EarthWorks Institute

EarthWorks Institute

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Kids running wild, as they should, during one of EarthWorks’ summer programs. (Photo courtesy of EarthWorks Institute)

The quintessential American childhood is built upon exploration. We see it time and again in children’s literary classics, such as Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Bridge to Terebithia, and the Little House on the Prairie series. More often than not, the freedom of exploration is linked with the outdoors. Even when the kids are housebound, they often find a way to circumvent their situation—say, via a secret garden or an enchanted wardrobe—and hidden, natural worlds once again are theirs to pursue. Nature is the most accessible landscape for—to borrow a line from Dumbledore—the flighty temptress adventure.

I don’t need to tell you that kids spend a lot of time in front of screens these days. If you haven’t witnessed it yourself, then you’ve definitely been bashed with a dozen or more headlines about it. Like the debate on artificial sweeteners or millennials choosing avocados over houses, screen time for children is a hot-button issue that never lacks in “news” coverage.

It’s something Lindsay Cray has noticed, too. Lindsay is the Co-Founder and Executive Director for EarthWorks Institute, a nonprofit that focuses on connecting residents in the Greater Rochester, New York, area with the world and community around them. Typically this is done through developing a closer connection with or a better understanding of the outdoors. Although EarthWorks offers classes for a variety of ages, its emphasis is on kids.

“Kids are lost,” Lindsay told me in a phone interview. “I’ve met children who literally don’t know how to climb trees, or don’t know how to cross a creek. And I’m not talking a raging river creek. I’m talking a creek that’s five or six feet wide with stones to step on. I’ve worked with children who have stopped dead in their tracks in front of a small body of water and looked at me like, ‘what do we do from here?’”

Before dedicating herself to outdoor education, Lindsay worked as a research scientist studying facets of the human condition, knowledge which influences her work today.

“We’re not as far away from our primitive ancestors as we like to think we are,” said Lindsay. “Doing things like climbing trees increases your balance and also helps you become good at math. Being outside and learning how to push your physical limits helps you to control your mental limits as well. Kids who are constantly dealing with sensory overload don’t understand how to process information and that information can either be schoolwork, or it can be social emotional learning, or it can be critical thinking skills. They’re losing that because they don’t physically challenge themselves in ways that are healthy.”

EarthWorks has many programs designed to get kids reacquainted with nature. They offer courses in tracking, foraging, primitive tools, zombie slugs, and even a Jedi-themed summer program where kids will learn “the true power of the FOREST AWAKENED.”

And the programs are working.

Lindsay says that the response from participants—both kids and adults—has been overwhelmingly positive: “A lot of people tell us that the work we’ve done with them or their children has changed their lives, that the children have become people that the parents didn’t even realize they could be, or that it’s brought them out of their shell. Kids beg to come back, especially for our forest school and our summer camp program.”

In 2016 alone, EarthWorks reached 2,180 participants. They conducted around 700 hours of programs, 620 of which were oriented at children.

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn would’ve been a very different story if Huck had been given an iPad in the beginning. Forget building a raft. He could have rented a kayak and booked Airbnbs along the way. But where’s the rip-roaring adventure in that?

We need adventure in our lives, especially the wilderness variety. As adventurer and indie vanlife god Chris McCandless once wrote, “I also know how important it is in life not necessarily to be strong but to feel strong. To measure yourself at least once. To find yourself at least once in the most ancient of human conditions.”

So let the kids run wild. A little bit of mud never hurt anybody.

(Interested in learning more about EarthWorks? Click here!)

In Their Own Words

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Bones found at the site of the Medicine Wheel in the Bighorn Range, Wyoming.

“I am an old woman now. The buffalo and black tail deer are gone, and our Indian ways are almost gone. Sometimes I find it hard to believe that I ever lived them. We no longer live in an earth lodge or teepee, but in a house with chimneys; and my son’s wife cooks by a stove. Often I rise at daybreak and steal out to the cornfields. As I hoe the corn I sing to it as I did when I was young. No one cares for our corn song now. Sometimes at evening I sit, looking out over the river. The sun sets, and dusk steals over the water. In the shadows, I seem again to see our Indian village, with smoke curling upward from the lodges. But it is an old woman’s dream. Our Indian way of life, I know, is gone forever.” —Buffalo Bird Woman, Hidatsa (taken from a National Forest plaque at the Medicine Wheel)

Medicine Wheel, Wyoming

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Scarves tied to the rope surrounding the Medicine Wheel. The National Forest representative said that different colored scarves, as well as their placement, can symbolize a variety of things depending on the tribe.

You may have heard the word “yoga” before. “Meditation,” too. Maybe “chakra” even, if you’ve participated in any of the two aforementioned words. In the past ten years or so, Westerners have become enthralled with connecting more intimately with their bodies and the world around them. They do this by tapping into Eastern practices, which have been around for at least 5,000 years, maybe since the dawn of civilization.

To neatly summarize: We, white people, took something that’s been around for approximately forever and used it to enrich our lives.

Not many cultures and/or religions have experienced this contemporary renaissance quite like Hinduism and Buddhism have.

Take, for example, Native American practices.

Placed 9,642 feet high on a flattened mountain top in the Bighorn Range is the Medicine Wheel. It’s 80 feet in diameter with 28 spokes, and specific cairns for astrological alignment. It was constructed 300-800 years ago and is still used today by over 80 native tribes.

The sky was an expressive gray when my sister and I visited, threatening rain in a far off, jeering sort of way, as if it knew we had left our rain jackets in the car and wanted to test our resolute. There were two other groups visiting, but we heard nothing but the wind and the quiet small talk of two Forest Service employees nearby. Mountains rippled into the distance, mirroring the bumps on our skin.

Standing in the stark and barren landscape, I too felt bare. As if the sky knew what I kept hidden in my bones. As if this mountain top was a platter and I was offering myself up to be judged, to be held, to stand at the mercy of the Earth in all my human smallness.

Such are the effects of the sacred.

I’ve experience parallel feelings in cathedrals and temples, and although none of these religions are mine, you don’t have to be part of something to appreciate it. Divinity can be experienced even if you don’t believe in the divine. All it requires is an open, wanting heart and a taste for wonder.

Beneath the watching sky, I thought about how the Native tribes know something we don’t. They lived in America for 12,000 years, a nearly unfathomable period of time, and then in just over 150 years, we took it all away from them. We gave them Jesus, and European names, and the promise of safety and fairness, and told them that what we were doing was a gift, that this was the best and only way to live life.

I don’t need to tell you how that worked out.

In recent years, we’ve turned back to the earth with a blistering ferocity. Organic farming, CSA programs, vanlife, and yes, meditation and yoga. We seek the simplicity of  lifestyles that we gutted and dressed in our own cotton dresses, calling it “civilized” because we didn’t understand beauty other than our own.

It seems that the Native Americans knew what they were doing all those 12,000 years.

I don’t think we should adopt Native American traditions or commercialize them the way we have for Hinduism or Buddhism—we’ve taken too much already—but I think we have a lot to learn from them.

Imagine learning without taking, without wanting a piece for ourselves. To leave an idea, a culture, intact with all its swirling nuances. Imagine if we realized that not everything was meant for us but it’s worthwhile anyway.

Maybe things would be different if we had listened more.

Farewell, Pennsylvania

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Scenery from Dorflinger-Suydam Wildlife Sanctuary in White Mills, Pennsylvania, where I’d go walking and trail running.

I never wanted to live in Pennsylvania. The cities weren’t big enough and the land wasn’t wild enough. To me, Pennsylvania was the Liberty Bell on one end and the Steelers’ stadium on the other, with the strange groundhog that rivets the nation for one lone day in February somewhere in between. Everything about it felt unremarkable in scope, which is saying something since I hail from Suburbia, NY.

But I did call it home for five and a half years. And when you call a place home, a strange thing happens: the place begins to unfold. A bakery here. A quiet park bench there. Things you took for granted and overlooked suddenly glow. The place needed you to love it first and then, only then, would it show you all it had to offer.

The Great Outdoors probably isn’t the first thing you think of when you think of Pennsylvania, but I always had great access to parks when I lived there. I never lived more than a mile from a public green space, under seven miles to the closest park bigger than 400 acres. Pennsylvania taught me the importance of accessible green spaces. Yes, we need National Parks, but we need smaller, local parks too, parks people can visit on their way home from work or early on a Saturday morning with their kids.

When I started this blog, I wanted to focus primarily on the National Parks and Monuments since those were some of the most visibly at risk. But so much of the important ground work happens at the local level. We don’t need geysers and moose to appreciate and experience nature, although, hey, I’ll take a good geyser and moose sighting any day. So much happens right outside your window, down the block, in the square you pass every single day. Pennsylvania opened my eyes to all that, and it’s something I want to continue to explore in this blog.

For now, the road and my 2012 Ford Escape with hit-or-miss AC are home. Farewell, Pennsylvania. Thanks for everything. It was a lovely five and a half years.

In Their Own Words

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“We’ve been opposed to the PennEast Pipeline that’s bringing natural gas through here, but the problem is it’s almost impossible to fight. It’s an interstate pipeline and interstate pipelines are approved by a federal agency called the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. It was set up in 2005 by a bunch of secret meetings that Dick Cheney ran at which only energy executives were at, no environmentalists. And they got Congress to pass this thing, FERC as it’s called, and it’s never turned down a pipeline. So it’s very hard to fight.” —Don Miles, Executive Committee member, Pennsylvania Chapter of the Sierra Club

Sierra Club, Lehigh Valley Group

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The Lehigh Valley Group of the Pennsylvania Chapter hosted a screening of “From the Ashes” at the Charles Brown Ice House in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

If you’re involved in the outdoors in any capacity, you’ve heard of the Sierra Club before. Headquartered in Oakland, California, and founded in 1892 by environmentalist and outdoorsman John Muir, the organization boasts three million supporters, making them the undisputed king of grassroots environmentalism.

I met with Executive Committee member of the Pennsylvania Chapter Don Miles after a screening of “From the Ashes,” a documentary about America’s coal industry. The film screening was busy, but not packed, and at 24, I was on the younger side of attendees.

The attendee demographic wasn’t surprising. I see far more of my peers at events like the Banff Mountain Film Festival tour than I do at environmentalism events. Who wants to hear about how U.S. coal plants are responsible for more than half of human-caused mercury emissions when you could watch Angel Collinson ski unbelievable lines in Alaska? Adventure trumps activism. Or so it seems.

So who is strapping on their Tevas and taking up the environmental banner (a sustainably produced banner, of course)?

Well, not the people who showed up to the public hearing on wind turbines in the Lehigh Valley region that Don attended.

“[There were] 300 people there. All screaming and yelling, and all full of misinformation,” said Don. One man stood up and expressed concern about the danger turbines posed to deer, bear, and mountain lions. Don informed him that the eastern cougar (mountain lion) has been extinct for nearly 70 years, the last one formally registered as killed by the Pennsylvania Game Commission in 1874. “There’s a certain sort of person who knows what they know and doesn’t want to hear any facts. And you can’t argue with them,” he told me.

When people do show up to public forums, Don pointed out that they’re not usually supporters: “My experience in practicing law for 40 years is the vast majority of people who show up to meetings are against what’s going on, not in favor of it. If people are in favor of something, they just think it’s going to happen. It’s the people that are against something that turn up.”

I’ve never been to a public forum before. Prior to 2017, I’d never called or emailed a government representative. But apathy is a luxury I can no longer afford. The cost of inaction is too high.

There are different degrees of activism, and any type of participation is helpful. But how do we motivate people to go from hashtags to public forums? How do we cultivate passion for things we so often take for granted? How do we make films about coal just as enticing, just as attention-grabbing as films about skiing?

I don’t have many answers. But this blog, for me, is a start.

In Their Own Words

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Bethany Keene and Jason Zarnowski work for the Delaware Highlands Conservancy at their Hawley, Pennsylvania, office.

“We hope the community sees us as a resource. . . .We’re not here to tell people, ‘Don’t do that.’ We’re not pointing our finger and saying, ‘You can’t do that with your land.’ We’re helping people who want to protect what they have, who have this beautiful land and they want to say that it’ll still be a farm, it’ll still be a forest, whoever owns it. So we really help people meet their goals for their land, which benefits us all.” —Bethany Keene, Outreach & Development Team Lead

“I often get emails and phone calls saying, ‘I have this on my property, and I don’t know what to do about it.’ The latest one was about bees. ‘I’ve got all these bees, and I don’t know what to do with them.’ And while we didn’t know what to do in staff, we knew where to point them. If they don’t know what to do, they know we can send them to someone who can help.” —Jason Zarnowski, Outreach and GIS Coordinator