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.

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.

We, the People. We, the Rocks.

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Cairns (rock piles) mark mountain trails in Adirondack Park, NY.

It can be difficult to love rock. Bioerosion, glauconite, miogeosyncline, they aren’t words that inspire. Even cleavage becomes a sigh when it’s all slate and dust.

But build it a backbone, give it a story, and that piece of sandstone that remembers the weight of dinosaurs 150 million years ago—as well as Jenny + Sean 4eva from 2014—suddenly has meaning. We care about it. We’ll protect it.

You’re a part of the story, too.

At some point, known or unknown, you gave a piece of yourself to the wilderness and never asked for it back. While walking through the woods, an elm branch brushed your arm and suddenly a piece of you went missing. You were watching the sun set on your friend’s rooftop, a beer in one hand and your uncertain future in the other, and a part of you flew away and painted itself into the sky. Once, when you stepped into a ray of sunlight, you felt lighter than you did just moments ago.

Empathy is easiest through a window. Backyards, sidewalks, neighborhood pines. It’s easier to care when we see it, when it’s our own lawns turning brown and brittle in the summer drought. We take care of us and our own. The mountains will be there when we want them, when we have time for them.

Right?

Like everything, rock changes, too. Foundations crumble, canyon walls erode, entire tectonic plates shift. They symbolize what many think of nature as—everlasting and enduring, changing slowly and naturally over the course of time. But that isn’t true. Not always. Not anymore. Nature lasts because we think it’s valuable and because we’re willing to fight for it. It survives because we protect it.

In 2017, change in the outdoors seems quicker than ever. There are no guarantees on what will survive the year.  It’s happening across America. You can’t see it all from your window.

This blog is a place to give a voice to the American wilderness and the people who support it. As journalist Katherine Boo wrote:

“I don’t try to fool myself that the stories of individuals are themselves arguments. I just believe that better arguments, maybe even better policies, get formulated when we know more about ordinary lives.”

This is our land, and these are its stories.