“An early morning walk is a blessing for the whole day.” ~Henry David Thoreau
The seasons have changed again without my expressed consent. Fall, with its kaleidoscope of colors and blazer temperatures and soup recipes, does have its allure. But it’s not summer anymore, dammit, and fall is the harbinger of the upcoming cold, grey suck of winter. It has been dark and rainy here for the better part of a week and a half, and my dog and I are tired of dampness and soaked feet. In Denver, fall traditionally arrives with blue skies punctuated by rippled cirrocumulus clouds, a landscape bathed in yellow rabbitbrush, and ideal hiking weather. Pumpkins come out, indian corn goes up, hay bales and scarecrows adorn yards swathed in fallen leaves. I often slip into fall with only a twinge of sadness at the loss of summer. This year with the rain landing me unexpectedly in the middle of seasonal affective disorder months earlier than usual, however, it’s felt like a 55-mile-per-hour rollercoaster descent into disappointment. Combined with relentless barrage of heartbreaking news over the past five weeks, from Harvey to Irma to Maria to Las Vegas, I have been living in a why-even-get-out-of-bed state in my head.
This morning the sun reappeared, not in a cloudless sky but more obviously than she has shown her face recently. I jumped at the opportunity to walk the dog in dry conditions before delivering our sons to school. As Ruby and I padded along, scores of butterflies scattered before us. Hundreds of them, migrating through on their way to the warmer climes of New Mexico and Arizona, flitted across our path making it impossible not to stop and stare. For the first time in weeks, the clouds in my head lifted, borne upwards on the wings of painted ladies.
When I need it the most, this planet slaps me with its marvels. The intricacies of our connections to the earth and its flora and fauna are miracles too immeasurable to overlook. It’s common to check out of the moment and to check into problems that are either too big for adequate and timely solutions or too meager to stress and belabor. In times like these, I always benefit by pulling a Henry David Thoreau and taking a walk to remember what beauty is and where peace lies. Turn off the television when the news is too much. Go find yourself again where you didn’t know you lived. The only certainty we have is this moment. Don’t waste it.
“There are moments when all anxiety and stated toil are becalmed in the infinite leisure and repose of nature.” ~Henry David Thoreau
A couple weekends ago, I noticed our dog was staring a little too zealously at the dwarf blue spruce tree near our back patio. Ruby counts that tree as her personal property. Since the first night that she arrived at our home, a tiny border collie puppy accustomed to life outdoors, she’s claimed ownership for that tree and used it as a protected spot for sleeping. She guards her tree like an old man sitting on his porch and waiting for the next interloper to happen by so he can angrily shout, “Get off my lawn!” But in the spring, nearly every year for the past 11 years, a few renegade birds have chosen to brave the threat of dog, and employ the dense, weighty branches of that tree, branches that barely sway in the wind and provide excellent coverage from rain, as their prime nesting spot. In years past, many nests have been built, many eggs have been hatched. One year, our dog Buddy made a meal of two sparrows from one of those nests and broke my heart. I didn’t care if he was a bird dog. That was bad form. The sight of Ruby staring with a bit too much interest into the middle branches of the spruce gave me PTSD. There were more birds there. Birds Ruby was interested in ingesting.
I shooed her away and started poking around to determine the source of her interest. About midway through the tree on the back side, I found her draw. There among the clustered branches was a Eurasian collared dove sitting on a nest. It eyed me cautiously. I began to move some branches to see if I could catch a glimpse into the nest, and with that the bird flew to a nearby tree to watch me. I used one hand to hold the branches down and my other hand to position my phone for a photo. My suspicions were confirmed. Two small, white eggs sat cradled in the center of a nest made from fallen, Austrian-pine needles. I grabbed Ruby and headed back indoors, curiosity satisfied. I waited about fifteen minutes then snuck back within viewing range of the tree to make sure the nesting bird had returned. The bird was there.
Over the next couple weeks, I watched the nest waiting to see if the eggs had hatched. We had a cold, rainy and snowy spell in Denver, and I was anxious about my little yard guests. When the sun finally returned today after a nearly 6-day hiatus to dry our drenched yard, I went out to check the nest. There was a bird on it again. My presence shooed it away, and I peered in and found the two eggs replaced by two dark-colored birds with sparse and pale-yellow feathers. I had to do a double take because the birds, at least I thought they were birds, looked more like threadbare tennis balls with the fuzz nearly rubbed off. With the snow melting from the weekend, the temperature was hovering around 45 degrees so I hurried inside, not wanting those babies to be left in the cold for a second longer than necessary. When I checked on the nest shortly thereafter, the father bird (it is the male birds, I read, that nest during the day while the female remains on the nest at night) was in place on top of the babies. All was right with the world. Good papa.
I’m going to be keeping my eye on Ruby over the next few weeks as the baby birds head toward their fledgling state. I’m not up for once again finding out my dog opted for take out rather than nightly kibble. I’d like to know that I helped keep these babies in my yard safe. After all, their parents chose our sturdy, protective spruce tree within close proximity of our perpetually stocked sunflower-seed feeder to raise their brood. Clearly, this shows they have wisdom, not to mention inimitable taste.
Tonight, a friend shared a news story about a toddler boy who was beaten to death in Utah, the apparent victim of anger related to his not toilet training quickly enough. I tried to read the article, but never made it past the title and the first line. I just couldn’t stomach it. When I think back to when my precious sons were three and pooping behind the couch and using their spray hose to put out pretend fires on our heavily textured bathroom walls, certainly there were times when I was frustrated. It happens to the best of us. Luckily, most of us are able to cope. Yet, we humans are animals sometimes. While we have the capacity for great good, we also have the capacity for murder. When events like this hit the news, I think about the birds that have nested in my tree. I appreciate the work they are putting into their parenting gig. Even if it is only instinct, it’s a beautiful ritual that plays out every spring, nature setting an example of patience, dedication, and duty in parenting. Maybe that’s why I am drawn to the doves in our tree. They’re a reminder of the good in the world when we’re focusing on the bad can crush the soul.
He doesn’t know the world at all Who stays in his nest and doesn’t go out. He doesn’t know what birds know best Nor what I want to sing about, That the world is full of loveliness.
When dewdrops sparkle in the grass And earth’s aflood with morning light, A blackbird sings upon a bush To greet the dawning after night. Then I know how fine it is to live.
Hey, try to open up your heart To beauty; go to the woods someday And weave a wreath of memory there. Then if the tears obscure your way You’ll know how wonderful it is To be alive.
–Anonymous child in Theresienstadt Concentration Camp, 1941
And from the Sometimes Things Just Work Out file….
A couple of years ago, someone released a few goldfish into a small lake near Boulder, Colorado. Over time, those few fish turned into a population of approximately four thousand goldfish. These goldfish, harmless though they may seem, could as a non-native species potentially damage the local ecosystem for the native fish and birds, so the people at Colorado Parks and Wildlife began working on fixes to the growing quandary. They had narrowed the possible solutions down to either shocking the fish with electric currents and then feeding them to birds of prey at a local raptor rehabilitation facility or draining the entire lake. As of last Friday, the story, which had been picked up and shared by news agencies around the globe, was still being reported on while officials determined the best way to proceed. Today, however, when folks from the Colorado Parks and Wildlife division showed up with trap nets to get a sample of the fish population in the lake, they found 26 green sunfish, two largemouth bass, 10 painted turtles, 18 tiger salamanders, and only four goldfish.
While they were trying to figure out where the goldfish had gone, wildlife biologists observed some American white pelicans feeding on the lake. The pelicans, which migrate to the area for the summer, presumably spied a lake full of bright orange fish calling to them like a neon sign for an all-night cafe on a deserted highway. After the long, migratory trip up north, I imagine they couldn’t believe their luck to find an all-you-can-eat buffet stocked and spread out for them upon their arrival. Ka-ching.
Without fuss or taxpayer expense, the fishy problem was solved. And now the folks at Colorado Parks and Wildlife can take eradicating the goldfish at Teller Lake Number 5 off their list of things to do. The pelicans, simply doing what pelicans do, unexpectedly made their jobs a little easier. You have to love it when you have a problem and, while you’re racking your brain trying to figure out exactly how to solve that problem, the universe intervenes and takes care of it for you. That, my friends, is kismet.
Still, I can’t help but think how much trouble we humans create for ourselves. Sometimes we carelessly act without thinking how our choice might play out further on down the road. And when we’re not mucking things up for ourselves that way, we’re tangled in the act of solving the problems we unintentionally caused in the first place. I swear sometimes that we’re really not that far off the ape brains we started with.
I am a firm believer that everything we need as a species, everything we have ever needed, is here for us on this planet and we need only look for it. Sometimes, just sometimes, we get a little nudge to remind us of this fact. Today, it was pelicans from heaven.
I am supposed to be training for our Inca Trail hike in July, but this week the spring weather has been wholly uncooperative. Monday and Tuesday were very windy, which left me indoors to practice yoga and put time in on the spin bike. I considered that better than nothing, although it was not what I was hoping for. This morning, though, I looked out and noticed it was sunny and fairly calm. I thought the weather might be handing me a small break. I would take it.
By the time I had dropped the boys at school, loaded my pack and the dog in the car, and made my way to the trailhead parking lot, I began rethinking my decision. The skies were darkening, and the car thermometer registered all of 50 degrees. While pulling my pack from the trunk, I noticed the winds were picking up. I hate wind. I reached for my GPS-enabled sports watch only to discover it was low on battery. Of course. I would not be tracking today’s workout. I had also forgotten my headphones. Seriously? It was starting to feel like I should just turn around and find a warm yoga studio instead.
I decided to soldier on and in the end I was glad I did. While the weather wasn’t perfect, it was a great day to be on the trail. It was mostly empty and I was able to enjoy my own private hike. Without my headphones, I was privy to every little sound. Movement in the underbrush uncovered a couple spotted towhees hopping through the crumbling leaves. Bees and hummingbirds whizzed by my head. The wind whistled heavily in several spots and yet I noticed other areas the wind completely missed. Several times along the way I confronted memories of my sons, paused with their backs to me, still as stone fountain boys peeing into the wind. It was a solitary, contemplative hike filled with sensory experiences. I was 100% in the present for an hour outdoors, and it was lovely.
On the way down, I thought about how easy it would have been to look at all the negatives gathering on the balance sheet before the hike and scrap it all together. I thought about this Bunny Buddhism quote:
I would rather hop and see what happens than sit and worry about what might go wrong.
Too often we imagine scenarios that keep us from doing something we could easily accomplish. We find reasons not to do something we determine might be unpleasant. We don’t give ourselves a chance to face the situation and see how it plays out. I’ve been ruminating on this thought lately. We have a choice. We can either make excuses or we can make progress. Sadly, it’s easier to make excuses than it is to risk vulnerability. And this is where we get stuck. It’s easy to let the clouds fool you into expecting rain when none is coming.
I put myself out there today in a small way, and it paid off. Now if I could just convince my inner self to be brave enough to make progress on my book idea, then I’d really be getting somewhere. Baby bunny hops, I guess.
Simple things can be extraordinary to the bunny who chooses to see them.
As part of our training for the Inca Trail, we took a family hike today in advance of the changing weather tomorrow. I wasn’t all that excited about going, but I knew I wasn’t getting out of it. When hubby sets his mind to a plan for exercise, there’s no stopping him. I tried stalling by nursing my latte and spending most of my morning tucked in bed playing on my laptop. But when he came back upstairs at 10:30, fully dressed, and carrying his backpack, I knew I was doomed. I sucked it up, pulled on shorts, a t-shirt, and the hiking boots I need to break in, and made peace with the situation.
We planned a 6.5 mile hike at a nearby state park but had to regroup when we got there and were turned away because it was “full.” On a gorgeous, spring day in Colorado, this wasn’t surprising but it was disappointing. We fell to our back up and headed toward another hike approximately three miles due west of our home. We told our boys we’d do the 3-mile hike we usually do at this spot, but when we got there I decided on a trail we hadn’t taken before that would take us a bit farther.
Along the way on our new sojourn, we enjoyed colorful wildflowers, numerous birds, and the gurgling of spring run-off filling what is usually an empty creek bed. Small spiders scurried across the path underfoot. Squirrels barked their warnings at us from the trees. In one particularly breezy spot, I watched a fuzzy caterpillar alternate between creeping along under his own power and tumbling along windswept. I hoped the wind was carrying him in the direction he was trying to go. A small insect landed on Joe’s shirt. It was something akin to a box elder bug. It had a simple and perfectly symmetrical criss-cross pattern on its back in red and black. I examined it for a minute, sharing its magic with the boys before it flew away. For such a seemingly insignificant creature, he was impeccably adorned. The diversity of creatures on this planet and the spectacular ways they are put together are nothing short of miraculous.
I so often rush through life without looking around and noticing the simple things. A hike is an ideal opportunity to acknowledge the intricacies of our planet and to appreciate the wonder around us. Even when I am forced to drag my reluctant and sorry butt out of bed on a sunny, Saturday morning, I inevitably find awe in and gratitude for what I have seen outside. Being in nature reminds me that I am part of a much larger picture, no greater or lesser than any other creature, just a part of the grand scheme. I like that thought. It puts my life and my struggles into perspective. I mean, it’s a little humbling when a small, flying insect has a cooler outfit than I do.
Looking out our eyes day and in and day out, it can be an epic challenge to remember that we are not the center of the universe. When we are open to things outside ourselves, however, we can discover through the countless natural miracles around us that the things that vex us are unimportant. The only way to take ourselves less seriously is to realize how many smaller things are truly great. To get the best view, sometimes you have to take the focus off the immediate and look around you at the bigger picture.
Our oldest has had something of a rough re-entry into landlocked life since we returned from our Hawaiian vacation almost a month ago. I’m afraid that on our trip Joe realized that he, in fact, is not a mountain kid but is an ocean kid living in a city over a thousand miles away from an ocean. Since returning home, he’s immersed himself in ocean research, continually forcing us to watch episodes of The Blue Planet all about the seas. He’s been on Google Earth checking out locations for snorkeling vacations. (He’s currently leaning toward the Maldives. We’ll head there right after we win the lottery.) He’s also been driving me crazy by insisting that the incredibly crappy, gravel beach at the small reservoir a mile from our house has to be a regular destination for us this summer. I’ve tried explaining to him that I don’t see myself spending my summer on a bed of gravel next to a big pond that is occasionally closed to swimming because E coli bacteria is proliferating there. He seems not to hear my negatives, simply reminding me that this is the closest he can ever be to a beach and that he’s an ocean kid and not a mountain kid. Don’t we realize we’re torturing him by making him live in Colorado so far away from the ocean? Yes. He’s a bit of a drama queen. And he keeps asking us to move.
Today was the first nice day we’ve had thus far this year. The temps soared into the low 70s and everyone was out in shorts. After nothing but snowfall this spring, today felt like our deliverance. The hope of summer was so close we could almost smell the campfires and see the columbine. We imagined finally putting away our snow gear and justifiably pulling out our flip flops. Although we’re not quite out of the woods yet (looks like we might see snow again next week), we allowed ourselves today the opportunity to imagine the sound of nails being driven into the coffin of a long, cold winter. Joe was beside himself with glee, dreaming perhaps of our warmer days in Hawaii.
Late this afternoon, he asked us if we could go to the beach across the street. All I could think was that it’s starting already…the battle I will face this summer. We told him no. We’d just gotten back from a 30 mile bike ride and we wanted to hang out at home. But Joe persisted. Finally I decided to check the web site for the state park where I discovered that the swim beach was closed until Memorial Day. When I told him the bad news, the poor kid cried. He actually cried. Unable to bear his frustration, we told him we would drive over to check out the situation.
When we pulled into the lot at the beach, we found several families picnicking and having cookouts. The boys were thrilled. There was no going back. We got out of the car and headed onto the beach. Steve and I threw the beach blanket down and settled in for the half an hour of beach time we’d promised. Although they seemed to be a bit shocked by the 45 degree water temperature (not surprising to us given that the lake had ice on it until a month ag0), the boys got their feet wet and walked along the shore. They threw sticks into the water and were giddy every time a noisy speedboat kicked up diminutive, rippling waves. Steve and I watched with wonder as our sons seemed to have nearly as much fun on this beach as they’d had in Hanalei where the strong ocean tides had prohibited them from swimming from that beach. They didn’t care that the lake is so small you can see across it in every single direction. They didn’t care that the water was achingly cold and the beach was not comprised of fine, powdery sand. They enjoyed their moment anyway. After all, they were at the beach.
I am reminded sometimes that my older, wiser, more cynical view of life gets in the way of my appreciating the smaller things. I didn’t want to go to the reservoir. I could not see the point of sitting on a rough, gravel beach with no true waves and freezing cold water. I could not see it until I was there with my boys and I witnessed the incalculable joy this weak substitution offered them. Only then was I reminded that just because a situation isn’t perfect doesn’t mean it can’t be perfectly grand in its own way. Chatfield Reservoir isn’t exactly Poipu Beach on Kauai, but it’s something. Life’s what you make it.
There are black bears in Colorado. Lots of them. In many mountain towns, Aspen and Crested Butte come to mind, bear-proof trash containers are mandatory. Campgrounds post signs with proper bear etiquette and food storage information. Bear stories populate the news, and nearly anyone you meet can relate a bear tale or two. Even in our suburban neighborhood, we have watched a bear cross the divided main thoroughfare. They are ubiquitous.
Still, they scare the crap out of people. Every time I tell someone we’re heading out for a camping trip, someone will ask: “Aren’t you afraid of the bears?” I am not afraid of black bears. A mountain lion might cause me near undergarment spoilage, but a bear? Not so much. You see, I know something that most bears don’t. I have a can of bear spray.
Truth is though, even without the bear spray, I don’t have to be afraid of bears because the camping world is chock full of people who are either unable or unwilling to read posted signs. So, my camping philosophy has largely centered around this one thought: “I don’t have to outwit the bears. I just have to outwit the dummy in the camping site next to mine.” It’s the universal law of the lowest common denominator. As long as I am a more careful camper than the guy next to me, as long as my food is more securely stored, the bear will skip right past me and go visit the ignorant dude in the next site. Guaranteed.
This morning at precisely 6:38 a.m., I heard the tell-tale sound of a bear in the campground. Some numb nuts was yelling at the top of his lungs in his Papa Bear voice.
Twenty second pause.
Then, I heard a diesel truck engine start, followed by a prolonged horn honk. In quick succession, I heard a second blast of the horn. I shook my head. Definitely a bear sighting. Was I worried? No. Our food was properly stored in our locked car and not left outside in its cooler. Our table had been wiped clean. We don’t have to be the most immaculate campers. We just have to be more clever than the next guy.
We did see the bear. It was a young and small, perhaps 200 pounds. It crossed the camp loop road about forty feet ahead of us, nose up in the air sniffing, as it was being chased off by a man knocking some large wooden blocks together. I felt sorry for the bear, thwarted from its easy meal by the same dope who had provided it. How frustrating! Nope. I am definitely not afraid of black bears. Ignorant humans, on the other hand, scare the bejesus out of me.
Over this long, holiday weekend, we decided to take our boys to see a part of Colorado they’ve not visited before. We picked them up from school, pop-up camper in tow, and headed southwest. Our destination: Durango. We arrived at Haviland Lake at 10:30 p.m. and as quietly as possible set up camp. I’d say it was a testament to the strength of our relationship that no one was maimed or murdered during camp assembly in the dark. But honestly, my husband is a saint, and that is the only reason I am still alive today.
Early this morning when the sun was just beginning its process of lighting the silent campground, Joe jumped up and begged to go “exploring.” In that moment, on six hours of fitful sleep (fitful because the dog was restless last night and her restlessness was bothering Steve and Steve’s incessant chiding of the dog was bothering me), I questioned why the hell we do this. Exactly why do we insist on loading the car with all the things we already have at home so we can sleep in a cold camper in the forest?
In desperate need of a serious attitude adjustment, at 8 a.m. we fired up the FJ and drove the 18 miles back into Durango in search of a local coffee establishment. We found Durango Joe’s small hut. Steve got a Mexican Mocha and I got the heavenly Avalanche…a white chocolate and macadamia nut flavored latte. We drove into old town Durango and were just in time to watch the narrow gauge train start its daily trek to Silverton.
By the time we got back to camp, my attitude was improving. Recently fed and freshly caffeinated, I finished setting up camp. I perched the hammock between two trees and settled in. From my spot, I watched Luke fall into the lake trying to catch minnows in a plastic cup. Joe, a child who isn’t patient enough to untie a double knot in his shoelaces, stood on shore repeatedly casting his fishing rod while in some kind of trance. A few feet away, Steve took macro shots of wildflowers. Ruby, apparently exhausted after her sleepless night, napped beside me. In the serenity of the forest, I watched an osprey circle the lake searching for a meal while my hammock swayed in the breeze and the light scent of the pine trees reminded me to be in the moment.
Then it hit me. THIS is why we do this, why we load up our belongings, drive for hours, and set up house in the woods. Camping is the one activity where we can all be together and yet enjoy different things. Out of our element, distractions gone, there is peace. There is uninterrupted family time. There is relaxation. There is only now. This is where I find my zen.
Of course, we still have latte runs and my iPhone, so that helps too.