Down from the mountaintop

Hike more, worry less – my motto for the week

Sabbaticals that don’t come to a planned end are usually called “retirement” – and that’s a milestone I’m still years or decades from. So it turns out that tomorrow I have to pack up from this cabin and go home and resume the mantle of daily living. (And for the few of you who have inquired as to the availability of this cabin, here’s the AirBNB listing. Weekends in August look pretty full, but September is wiiiiiide open.) This period of rest has been exactly what I needed, and even largely what I planned. I have been somewhat surprised at how much I want to be out hiking. Only one day of this entire week have I failed to lace up my hiking boots. It’s been less reading than I thought. This may actually have something to do with the chairs in this otherwise lovely cabin not being incredibly comfortable for lounging in. I have written more blog posts, got halfway through a ghost story (sorry!), but my mostly-finished novel is completely untouched. I think that the process of editing feels too much like work and too little like exploration.

Friends and mountains

My loneliness/extroversion techniques have been interesting. I have spent several days entirely by myself. Physically. But I am struck by the generosity and kindness of my friends in having not one, but two people make the drive all the way up here to go hiking with me – on hikes I would otherwise have had the good sense to pass up doing alone. Those were two excellent days for me. There may be a better way to have deep and meaningful conversations with people than hiking, but I have yet to find it. Conversation flows as breath ebbs and views wax on the horizon. I loved the hikes, but I also loved the chance to go really deep into conversation with people I deeply like and admire.

Wooded summit

And as Anthony cogently observed “I thought you were going up to the mountains for solitude, but you’re all over social media.” There is a constant dialogue in my head with … you? But in the tumult of work that’s usually with my colleagues. And so often I find that I have little interesting to say, or my interesting thoughts are still nascent and unformed. It takes time and space to take the germ of a thought and grow it into any kind of meaningful expression. And time and space are notably lacking in my usual daily life. But I definitely countered the aloneness by writing, and reaching out on social media. Perhaps I would find it less enjoyable if I actually was really alone. I am brought back to an era – I am the last of this era – where I used to write actual letters and then get responses in the mail. I think that worked almost as well, if more slowly. No one writes me letters anymore, and I write few to the remnants of generations past who do not “Facebook”.

First peak of the week!

When I first came, that first night, I wrote down my intentions for the journey: both those things I did and did not want to do. I also set some goals for myself, which were really permission to do what it was I needed and wanted. Here were my goals:

1) To truly rest and recharge
Admirably accomplished, I think. I fell into conversation at a trail head with some passing cyclists and they actually commented on how well rested, clear eyed and happy I seemed.

2) To understand myself and my desires, wants and needs better
I think this is definitely a B+ or better. I learned some interesting things about myself, with time and space. I also importantly reinforced things that I have previously believed, but had become separated from – like my passion for hiking. It’s a little divorced from reality, though, since who I am without obligations, family or work is not at all who I actually am. There is always work to be done here.

3) To sit down and recall a slower pace of life
Again perhaps a B+. When I wrote this, I imagined a reptilian torpor stealing over me where a whole day or two would languidly pass and I’d barely note their passing. Instead, I laced my shoes and went hiking. I think that reveals not failure, but who I really am. That said, today I spent almost a full hour sitting on a rock in a river doing absolutely nothing. I noted every charming, unexpected, delightful aspect of that creek – seeing things nearly an hour in that I’d failed to see in the previous many minutes. I don’t think I could have sat so still so long at the beginning of the week.

4) To write, especially fiction
I wrote, but it was mostly connectional and not fiction. I have no idea what it would take for me to actually write the fiction.

5) To hike, and use my body in joyful motion
Nailed it. This is pretty much what I did.

6) To reacquaint myself with nature and become friendly with mountains again
Speaking to that journey of self-discovery, it was interesting to watch me orient myself in place and history. I read up on geological formations and historic notes. I stared at maps. I learned the names of the peaks I could see. I went to as many New Hampshires as I could reach: biker bar, art gallery, 7-11, microbrewery, rugged trail, townie trail, literal castle, unpretentious state park, BBQ joint, etc. To the watching eye, you could almost see me laying down the filaments of roots to see where they might thrive and where they would be crowded out. You do not come to love nature in the abstract, but must love it in the most concrete. I like mountains, but I love Chocorua. I like rivers, but that stretch of unnamed river I dwelt in (perhaps the Chocorua?) for a long hour I knew and loved. I like trees, but I know the beech silhouetted against the darkening sky has one branch that has been stripped of a foot’s worth of leaves. To reconnect with nature in the abstract, I found I had to get very close to very concrete parts of it and introduce myself.

To do list

I recognize keenly how very, very fortunate I am that I was able to take this time, this distance and this week. There are so many aspects of lucky: the supportive husband, the older children, the resources to book a nice place for 10 days in high summer. But I wish that all of us could have these times and moments set aside to know ourselves and our surroundings.

Contemplation

The place I’m renting is for sale ($400k if you’re interested, with a two family plus the cabin). The house next door is also for sale, with the same gorgeous view and slightly less stuff going on and also $256k. I might possibly have called a realtor to take a look. The house, well, it’s not for me. And I know what I’m really doing is wishing I could stay in the easy-ness of this week, and look out on mountains that heal my heart. But it’s time to go back, hug my beloved family and take up the yoke of my labors again.

Victorious

Know yourself

Here on Thursday, I’m on the downward slope of this week of rest. I don’t have that panicky feeling I sometimes get late in a vacation “Hurry up and relax already! We’re almost out of time!” This has so far been a gracious, joyful and relaxed week.

Yesterday, with thunderstorms in the forecast, I just spent the entire day in my cabin doing the quiet and contemplative things I never have time to do. OK ok I played Civilization 6 almost all day and barely squeaked past the Congolese empire for my Scythians to win a cultural victory. I also wrote a section of ghost story and read a book cover to cover. This morning I snoozed my alarm, except apparently I actually turned it off. I woke up when my body was ready to arise, which was waaaaaay later than I had planned. But I didn’t, you know, miss anything. It was fine. I’m headed to White Lake today with a chair and a book and I’ll make a campfire and maybe rent a kayak. Tomorrow will be the real closing ceremonies, with a planned ascent of my beloved Mt. Chocorua. I’ll have Saturday, which looks fine, in which to do any things I feel like I should have already done. But honestly, I’m feeling pretty fulfilled.

I’ve also learned a few things about myself, in this quiet and space.

1) I only write in the first person autobiographical
I really love to write. I have been blogging for a very, very long time – almost twenty years (if not all on this platform). In fact, if you go back to my oldest (converted) post on this platform, you can hear the same longing for and love for the mountains I’m still trying to express today. (Although I’ve come around on New England mountains.) But I am like a body builder who has focused on one particular rep – one particular muscle group. I write as me, in the first person. Even when I write fiction, it’s the same voice and the same skills. The same perspective. I usually have such trouble finding time and space to get to a keyboard and get my thoughts down, I haven’t realized it. I’m an unbalanced writer. I’m not sure I *can* even write in the third person, or from a different point of view character. Now, I am fully allowed to leave myself in that state. I write for the joy of it. But noticing this makes me want to tackle it, and as gracious as this week is, I have trouble writing more than 2000 – 3000 words a day. Maybe this will be a fun thing for me to tackle and freshen my writing in the coming year.

2) I am not afraid
I’ve long known that I’m more motivated by hope than by fear. I’ve also generally known that I tend to be less afraid of stuff than our culture expects of women. But I didn’t really realize just how fearless I am. To be clear – I can still be very anxious. When I consider the destruction course our civilization is on, I’m deeply anxious indeed. But I’m not afraid of being alone in a cabin in the woods. I’m not afraid of scrambling up slick stone chimneys. I’m not afraid of falling. I’m not afraid of heights. I’m not afraid of ghosts. I’m not afraid of bears. I’m not afraid of the dark or the quiet. I’m not even nearly as afraid of ticks as I thought I was. I’m not a reckless person. I don’t go after adrenaline hits. I don’t usually take unnecessary risks or do wildly dangerous things. But it’s not because I’m scared – it’s because I’m cautious. Because I am not afraid.

3) I am physically strong
There’s a great line in “The Princess Bride” (ok, they’re all great lines) where Fezzik says as he tosses a boulder “I don’t even work out”. I don’t think of myself as “a fitness person”, and with my 40th birthday a happy memory, I am no longer young. But put me on a hiking trail with a full pack of water, and somehow my legs are indomitable. I felt powerful and euphoric in my body, cresting mountain saddles and breaking into the light. Even after rigorous ten+ mile days, my feet itched for more. I’m not coming to this entirely sedentary – I run 3.5 a few times a week when I can. But I also don’t do any weight training (I know, I should) and am physically best described as, uh, curvaceous. It’s so empowering to discover that under all that curve is muscle, sinew and will.

4) I like the things I thought I liked
My regular life is, by my own design, very busy and full of people. I cook and eat. I gather. I play games. I am with people a lot. Adam and I mused extensively on how I would do in this week of solitude. Would I go crazy? Would I try to fill the quiet spaces with busy-ness, like I do my regular life? Would I be bored and realize I’d misunderstood my own desires? But before I began to live my adult life, I would have described myself as an introvert. I spent most days mostly alone (as a girl I didn’t have many or close friends), with the company of my books and my thoughts and the mountains. I am not lonely in my aloneness. There’s a big caveat here though. I will get to spend two of these hiking days with dear friends, which breaks up the silence. And there is the internet, which for all its flaws is a lovely connection to the people I care about. But I like both things: the people and the quiet.

There’s also some reassurance in what I haven’t discovered. My journey through the week shows me that I am living the life I want, with the people I want. Only I want more hiking. (I’m trying to convince Adam that this week should become a tradition – he’s such a loving guy he’s going along with it.) The course of my life is the right one, and I can hold to it authentically and joyfully. These are all good and welcome discoveries!

Now, to White Lake!

Ossipee Mountain Vortex: a ghost story part 1

Today I walked for almost ten miles. It was the easiest trail I’ve ever encountered, to the point of being boring. After I got bored of yet-another-forest-switchback I started telling myself the tale of my journey thus far (you know, a heady two days in) as the ghost story it longs to be. The story below is 3/4ths true. It’s me telling a story as though it was my story (I think I always write first person), but a more fascinating story than I hope my actual story turns out to be. This is part 1. I have no idea if there will be future parts, but I know what will be in them (at least somewhat) if there are.

The first night in the cabin there were thunderstorms. I didn’t mind. I love a good thunderstorm, and the windows that had been designed to showcase the dramatic mountain did a great job of giving me a dry and safe view of the pounding rain and slashing lightening. I had nine more days to enjoy the view of the mountains, I’d take this one to enjoy the view of the storm breaking over the windowpanes.

After a few minutes of watching from the hard chair in front of the window, I moved to the less scenic view from the couch and pulled out the horror book I had bought from the veritable box of books I’d brought with me. I was embracing the irony, you see. Here I was, a woman alone renting a cabin in the wild woods of New Hampshire (which means I was as much as FIVE MILES from the nearest Dunkin’ Donuts). The setup had slasher flick/murder mystery/Stephen King written all over it. So I leaned into it and cuddled up on the couch with the fury of nature breaking over my head.

You will be shocked to hear that I didn’t sleep well that night. The cabin was truly dark – at least after I’d unplugged all the decorative lights. The sky didn’t carry the sickly orange hue of the halogens on my suburban street. The rain had spent the better part of its fury and was now settling down to the business of watering trees and filling rivers. But I had been cavalier about my own fearlessness. It’s not that I thought the fate of the (incredibly stupid, unperceptive) heroine from the novel was likely to happen to me. But my skin pricked. The line rattled unhelpfully in my head, to the time of the biggest splats from the rain gutter:

By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes.

Eventually morning dawned, like morning has a way of doing. I was tired, but the world before me was clean-washed and the view of the mountain just as spectacular as I’d ever hoped it would be. Over my breakfast (Cap’n Crunch – double bonus that I didn’t have to set a good example for the children who were enjoying themselves at summer camp, and also they wouldn’t steal my sugary cereal) I perused the white folder on the rental’s table. While I was expecting a nicely ordered set of menus, attractions and house rules (and maybe the wifi password?), instead I got the most fascinating combination of takeout menus, five year old expired trash permits, letters from guests, and internet clippings.

The folder’s front insert said in a clear cursive script “Welcome to Ring Dike Cabin”. Below were the names and numbers of the hosts. Er, host. Someone had taken black sharpie and scratched out one of the names, still identifiable as a woman’s name. Only the man’s was left. I had a guess who’d originally created the folder, and who was now responsible for its curation.

The internet clippings were fascinating, and explained the cabin’s name. Apparently, unbeknownst to me, I was on the very foot of an incredibly rare geological phenomenon: a ring dike. The first document was a printed out internet summary of the phenomenon from the geologists point of view, waving around words like “Intrusive rhyolite”, “Batholith” and my favorite “hyperabyssal magma chambers”. It ends with five different spots to visit, with driving instructions like “Good outcrops of pink fine- to medium-grained subporphyritic granite are exposed along the access road leading to the lumber yard.”

There were a few slightly boring clippings of “did you know there’s a collapsed circular crater of a hundred-million year old volcano right here in NH?” But the last one really got me. It started talking about how to open an interdimensional Star Gate on the Ossipee Ring Dike. It called out references to one of my favorite tourist holes, The Oregon Vortex, and generally seemed entirely batty and fun until it recommended crucifixion as a possible method of opening “Out of the chaos of nature symmetry occasionally emerges in the shape of mountains and humans, who when crucified or spun with Unity consciousness becomes a Star Gate for the earth in total.” Let’s stick with spinning with the Unity, lads. One of the charts even showed the mystical alignment with Chocorua, the mountain I had come here to see, as well as Mt. Washington and most amusingly America’s Stonehenge which WISHES it was the Oregon Vortex.

I laid aside the sheets with a satisfied sigh. I’d just been able to read something random cover to cover because I’d been interested. That was the whole point of this week alone in the mountains – to do what I wanted to do when I wanted to do it, because I wanted to do it. That said, few mornings have dawned as fair and bright as this one had. And one thing I definitely wanted to do was go hiking! In all my journeys to New Hampshire, my heart and gaze had been ineffably drawn to the White Mountains. I was very ready to hike the White Mountain trails – I’d even bought an annual parking pass! But I had never, in all my journeys, looked at the eerily perfect circle of the Ossipee Mountains which were the battered remnants of a long-lost volcano.

So instead of taking my Sunday jaunt up in the Whites, as planned, I pulled up an internet map of hikes in the Ossipees and laced on my boots. OK, sure, I couldn’t quite figure out where the trailhead was. But I was ready for adventure! My heart felt full as I drove open-windowed over a gravel road up through the heart of the circle of the mountains. New Hampshire moved from suburban to bucolic to rural as I drove. I passed white houses with peeling paint, lovely estates with exceptional views, trailers half-hidden in the woods and farms done over as wedding venues. I was passed by one car, which had been new and cool when I was in high school (cough) 20 years ago with a tattoo’d, half-naked man more than half-way out the moonroof. If I was feeling liberated, I was still driving too sedately for that guy. But he didn’t hassle me as the Trans Am sped past.

Indeed, the trail head was undiscoverable. I drove as far along that dirt road, well past the “single lane, note turnout locations” point. I finally had to concede I would not find the trail head I was aimed at. I’d driven into the heart of the circle, through a gulley in it, and I’d been looking to hike up to the mountains there and see the circle from the heart of it. Much to my surprise, the Trans Am was parked at what *looked* like trailhead parking. I hadn’t imagined tattoo’d Trans-Am guy as a hiker. But people can surprise you. I applied sun screen and bug spray, looked meaningfully at the mountain stream that *would* refill my water bottle on the way home, and headed up the trail.

I was greatly surprised to catch up to the dudes. (Of course there were two. Shirtless & tattoo’d may have been reckless hanging halfway out the car, but not reckless enough to attempt to drive while doing it.) The driver, carrying a camo backpack and wearing mismatched ankle-length argyle/cartoon socks, was looking at something off trail while his compatriot waited for him. Despite my epic lostness (and no cell connection) I couldn’t quite bring myself to strike up a conversation with them. They ignored me in the way only a pudgy 40 year old woman can be ignored.

We played leapfrog like that all the way up the mountain. They were faster than me when moving. But they’d frequently stop and wander off the trail looking for… who knew? I was relieved when our strange procession was joined by a patient pair of adults cajoling what looked like a 4 and 2 year old to go up the near straight “trail” that was really ¾ boulder scramble. As I passed, praising the children for their effort, the mom stepped aside and instructed “Let this nice woman pass. She at least looks like she knows where she’s going!” Ah, irony!! But there were clear blazes (mostly), and I was pretty much never out of sight of my TransAm friends.

It took a shockingly short amount of time to climb from forest, to boulder scramble, to summit. And the summit was as worthwhile a goal as I’ve ever seen. The entire thing was covered in ripe blueberries, hearkening back to one of my favorite childhood books, “Blueberries for Sal”. I stopped and refreshed myself with them, and finally broke my silence to the two boys by commenting on their excellence. They opined expertly (and politely) on the crop and then leapt ahead of me one more time before the summit.

They were still milling around the border between summit and not-summit when I claimed the very best spot for sitting. I sometimes forget to wonder how gigantic, car-sized boulders get to the TOP of mountains, but not this time. I wondered whether it was volcano or glacier, fire or ice, that had deposited this boulder I sat on. Did it have intrusive rhyolite? I’d never know. I sat in the sunlight, strong breeze both blowing away pesky insects and drying the sweat from my back and hair. And I didn’t have to go anywhere, or do anything. I had my choice of views. Would I look south to the Lakes region of New Hampshire? (BORING!) Would I look east and see Ossipee Lake stretched out, nestled between green hills? (Better). Normally, I suspect, I would have looked north. There were the Whites, slightly obscured by a passing summer rain, too far away to be of any concern. I’d be watching for Chocorua. But my whole point this day had been to look away from the transfixing Whites and to this Ossipee mystery. So I turned my gaze west, to the still-unassuming hills I’d *meant* to hike. I sat with the sun and the breeze and my snacks (which involved both fruit and chocolate, although separately) and listened to the finally triumphant dad explain to the four year old how the carpet of blueberries was thanks to a forest fire four years ago. The mom and the two year old did not make an appearance, a tales whose history was easy to read.

I was peaceful, and quiet, and exactly where I wanted to be. Here I was, one day into my much-needed sabbatical, and I was resting. I released a breath that chased a portion of cortisol out of my body forever.

Now, many people can physically feel barometric pressure changes. Despite what I thought when I was a girl, it does not make me psychically attuned or special that I can feel when the barometric pressure drops. It probably didn’t help my 14 year old delusions of grandeur that I feel such drops as a sense of mystical forboding, as though something dire is coming and I need to be wary. In fact, that’s more or less what it means. The pressure drops and very often a storm follows.

But there on the fire-blasted summit of Bayle Mountain, in the Ossipee Ring Dike, I felt the ominous dread overtaking me like a wave drenching dry sand as the tide rises. A fast-moving cloud changed my sun-drenched perch to a greyed, chilled location. I pressed my palms to the (volcanic?) boulder, to reassure myself that my memory of the heat was a real thing. The sound of the songbirds was replaced by the cawing of crows – a sound I usually like. But in combination with the onrushing barometric dread and the dying of the light, it seemed like a bad omen.

I pulled my bag back onto my shoulders, stowed my no-longer-needed sun hat and told myself that it was just good sense to get off the mountain before the storm my senses was screaming at me about hit.

As I clumped heavily down the granite face (was it Biotite Granite or possibly Winnepesaukee tonalite?) I saw the TransAm Two huddled at that border between forest and summit, surrounded by charred logs, in a small cave made by two vast boulders. I thought about waving, but the weight of the barometric pressure pushed me on and I hastened down.

By the time I got back to the cheerful stream and my car, the weight had entirely lifted and the sun was shining. I took off my boots and waded in the water (I had learned not to do this if there was more hiking to be done, but I was finished for the day). I captured my flagon of beautiful river water and purified it with my light saber (ok, ultraviolet purification thingy) and drank it. I also marveled at just how wussy the soles of my feet were. As I child I would have danced across these pebbles. As a much stouter adult whose feet were entirely used to the wearing of shoes, the stones dug into my feet and the gravel got between my toes. The weird weight of the weather was entirely washed away in the dappled sunlight and annoying gravel.