Thursday, June 30, 2016

Fourth of July Adventure

         Every Fourth of July means flag waving and family picnics, parades and fire-works, hot sun and leisure, but for me there was only one truly memorable Independence Day – July 4, 1959, the day the star for the new state of Alaska was added to the American flag, the day I was in the 4th-of-July parade in Anchorage, Alaska, when I was fifteen years old.
         Because my father had always wanted to wash his feet in the Yukon River (a metaphor for seeing Alaska), the seven members of my family had left Atlanta, Georgia, a month earlier in a station wagon headed for Fairbanks, camping all the way across the country, through Canada, and up the Alcan. From Fairbanks we had driven south to Anchorage, aiming to be there on the Fourth of July.
         We arrived on July third and made camp a short distance outside the city, then all piled into the car to go into town. Our first stop was the tourist information center, where we inquired about 4th-of-July activities.         
         "There's going to be a grand parade tomorrow,” the woman told us. Then she asked what seemed like a non sequitur: “Where are you from?" When my father said, “Georgia,” her excitement grew.
         "Oh, that's wonderful!" she said. "Part of the parade is a line of cars, one from each state. We're only missing four states – and Georgia is one. Would you like to be in the parade?"
         And so it happened that I was not only in Alaska for the Fourth of July of the only year Americans waved forty-nine-star flags but in the parade itself. My sisters and I sat on the hood of our station wagon, which had been thoroughly cleaned from its layers of Alcan dust – four girls from Georgia, one of the original thirteen states, waving to the parade-watchers of this newest state we had come so far to see. My father drove the car, his Yukon-clean feet on the pedals. My mother held my brother on her lap in the passenger seat, letting him lean out the window to wave to the crowds.
         There was lots of flag-waving that day in Alaska. There was also a picnic, of course, that evening at our campsite, with traditional American Independence Day food. Finally, after waiting in vain for the light to subside enough for us to see them, we set off our fireworks. It was in all ways an ordinary July 4th, but it was also, in all ways, an extraordinary and memorable July 4th for a fifteen-year-old girl from Georgia.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Kerby Peak Hike

    A few days ago Mike and I were hiking up Kerby Peak, a good hard climb straight up a peak to the spectacular 360-degree view of valleys and mountains at the top. We hiked through some beautiful old-growth and a sunlit stand of white-shining bear grass and then into a section about half a mile from the top where the trail, on the steep hillside, goes through thick manzanita bushes interspersed with occasional rocks. Suddenly Mike, hiking behind me, let out a yell. I turned around, thinking he might have fallen, but he was still standing. Following his gaze, I saw, six inches at the edge of the trail I had just walked, a big, fat, mottle-patterned snake, coiled, flicking his tongue. 

    The pattern looked like a rattlesnake’s, but the color was maybe too green, we thought. We couldn’t see any rattles, but the tail was hidden under the coiled body. I was trying to get a closer look at the head, which did look pretty arrow-shaped but blended into the body so that it was hard to get a good look at it, when the head lifted – definitely arrow-shaped – and the rattles showed, rustling with that unmistakable sound. Rattlesnake.
    After a horrified moment of realizing how close I had come to treading on a rattlesnake, I laughed and said, well, I was on this side of him, but what was Mike going to do? He opted for the downhill detour, so down he crashed through the bushes and dead manzanita limbs then clambered up to meet me on the trail beyond striking distance. As we watched, the snake uncoiled – certainly the biggest rattlesnake I’ve ever seen (but isn’t the one in front of you always the biggest one you've ever seen?) – and, rattling gently, slid uphill under a rock, where it turned to look at us.

    Mike set a row of rocks across the trail so that on the return we would know where to be alert.
    As I continued up the mountain I kept my eyes on the ground, expecting rattlers around every bend, but we achieved the peak without further mishap. We marveled at its view, argued good-humoredly about which mountain was which, ate lunch, and descended.
    Even before I saw the line of rocks across the trail, I recognized the rattlesnake spot. I stopped and looked, and there was that same big fat rattlesnake coiled in the sun in the exact same spot he had been before. Mike went first, downhill through the manzanita, as I kept my eye on the snake. I followed him while he watched the snake for me (reminding me of swimming in the North Sea in Sweden, when my friend sat on the rocks above the sea watching for jellyfish as I swam). Safely on the other side of the snake, we were looking at it again, marveling again at its size and our safety, when we saw a family of five coming up the trail towards us.
    “It’s your lucky day,” Mike said to them as they walked up to us, “that we’re here to warn you about the rattlesnake on the trail ahead.” They craned their necks to see the snake and verify the truth of our tale. As we headed down the trail, they were beginning to make their way, one by one, through the downhill thicket of manzanita, keeping an eye on the snake for each other.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Hiking the Elliott Ridge

          This September I will be hiking the Alta Via 2 in Italy’s Dolomite Mountains for thirteen days with my friend Mike. The guide book says things like, “The day begins with a climb of the long and tortuous variety” and “An exhausting zigzag over barren scree precedes a lengthy section of near-vertical via ferrata.” I’m a little intimidated. If I’m going to do it, I have to be able to do it. To get ready, Mike and I plan to do a lot of hiking this summer.
            To begin, we did a 15-mile hike on Elliott Ridge the other day: up the Summit Lake Trail from Squaw Lakes, then along the ridge to Stein Butte and down Stein Butte to Applegate Lake.

            You who know the route are raising your eyebrows. “Diana,” you’re thinking, “that’s a 13-mile, not a 15-mile, hike. You wouldn’t be stretching the truth, would you?”
            No, I’m not, but I did manage to stretch a 13-mile hike into a 15.4-mile hike, not because I wanted to or needed to but because I made a mistake.
            It was fine going up Summit Lake Trail to the ridge – steep enough to give us a good work-out and make us sweat, but once we got on the ridge, the mugginess in the air lifted, the views of the Siskiyous were fabulous, the walking was easier, and our step grew lighter, though we were hustling a bit to get back in time for our respective evening activities. 

Then the trail started heading off the ridge, going downhill while the ridge stayed above us. This didn’t feel right. I remembered from having taken this trail before that we were supposed to follow the ridge, with some pretty steep up and down, till we got to Stein Butte, and then head down the trail to the Stein Butte trailhead at the Applegate Lake. But now, if we kept going, obviously we would end up at the lake but far from the trailhead, where my car was parked. Obviously we were no longer on the ridge. Obviously we had missed a turn somewhere.
            I should know better by now than to trust this intuitive feeling. My internal compass is utterly unreliable. My whole body is telling me that I should be “over there” or on a different trail or going a different direction. Intuitively, I know we’ve made a wrong turn. Once when I was a child on a family vacation, my father pulled into a gas station so all the kids could use the bathroom. When I got back in the car and my father pulled onto the road, I was absolutely certain he had turned the wrong way. My whole body was telling me we should be going the other direction, though of course it wasn’t true. But here I was again, feeling the same rightness, the same strong intuition that we weren’t headed right.
            Mike generously agreed to test my (always wrong, but he didn't know that) intuitive sense of direction, and we backtracked uphill to a place where we could look down into the Elliott Creek valley. There was no other ridge there, where I thought we should be. It wasn’t possible, Mike said, for us to have made a wrong turn. But that imaginary ridge was so strong in my intuitive space that I was still unsure, in spite of all the evidence right before my eyes, so I said could we just walk a little farther, just to make sure we hadn’t missed a turn (onto a ridge that obviously wasn’t there, but somehow I thought somehow might be)? Without even an exasperated sigh Mike agreed, so in the end we hiked 1.2 miles back the way we had come before I was convinced that the only route was the one we were on, so we hiked the 1.2 miles back to where we had turned around, then kept on going, and in about half a mile, we came to a place I recognized, which also conveniently had a trail sign, and my internal compass suddenly righted itself.
             I apologized meekly. Mike said it didn’t matter, since what we were doing was conditioning for hiking in the Dolomites, anyway. I reminded him that the guide book also said everyone who hikes Alta Via 2 gets lost at some point, so maybe we were in training for the Dolomites in more ways than one.
            It was a long hike, but I was never too tired to appreciate the views of the Siskiyou Crest or the spatterings of lupine and paintbrush or the occasional spectacular tree 
or the invigorating breeze and blue sky or the blue-green Applegate jade shining in the sun. We had to hurry to make our evening activities, but I was exhilarated by the success of the hike. Fifteen miles? Piece of cake. Dolomites, here I come!

Monday, June 6, 2016

Gratitude in Spring

    Every morning I awake with the song of birds. Sometimes I awake in the pearl of dawn to hear the first lilting tunes rousing the sun from slumber, as though that music is as essential to make the sun rise as Orpheus’s guitar. A second bird joins the first, and then a third, and suddenly what started as an aria and grew into a round has become an orchestra of fugues at fortissimo. At the first full light of day I go outside to drench myself in the glorious chorus. Like an audial equivalent of the tropical quetzal – a bird called, for its brilliant color, the resplendent quetzal – the songbirds of Southern Oregon bring rainbows of music to my home. As they warble with flourishes and glissandos, as they sing and twitter and whistle their call and response, I want to fall to my knees in an ecstasy of gratitude. “Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you,” I whisper, overcome with my gratefulness for this gift of music, all the more precious for its precarious existence, given the diminishing habitat of songbirds. “Thank you for forgiving us our trespasses against you. Thank you for returning. Thank you for singing.”
    Likewise, holding the stalk of a red peony, turning the head of the flower towards me, I erupt with psalmic paroxysms, hymns of gratitude, paeans of praise. Like David, I want to come before this presence with singing – “Thank you, thank you, thank you”: for this incomparable carmine color against the bottle-green leaves, for these deeply sinuous lines around the ellipsoidal center of almost hidden yellow, for this silhouette of van-Dyked edges. Thank you, oh peony, for being such a beautiful thing. 
    The next thing I know a breeze with a scent of wisteria has brought my chin up and widened my nostrils. The air is supercharged with perfume. Aromatherapy works its magic on my body – I stand taller to smell better, I breathe more deeply of life-giving air, my heart expands with the intense delight of inhaling the purple incense. My psalm of thanksgiving returns: “Thank you, thank you, wisteria, for this gift of your being.”
    To my surprise, this feeling of gratitude smacks of religiosity, even though I am not thanking God for the birds and the flowers. It’s not God or any god-substitute, like the Great Spirit, unto whom I give thanks but the thing itself. Those who would say I’m worshiping God in this way are welcome to that interpretation, but it’s not mine. I’m grateful to these living beings themselves for existing in my life, grateful to each individual bird who swells his tiny throat and twirls his little tongue to sing – though he isn’t singing for me. He doesn’t know I’m listening, just as the peony doesn’t care whether I look at it or not and the wisteria smells good because that is who it is. The birds sing because they want to sing; the flowers have color and perfume to attract the bees. I bask in these beauties by accident. If I interpret that song, that color, or that perfume as an ode to joy, I’m welcome to that interpretation. The bird sings. I listen, and my heart is filled with gratitude. Thank you, birds, for your song; peonies, for your blossoms; wisteria, for your perfume – not for existing for me, but for being creatures who exist, who pour their beauty into the woods, over the treetops, around the house, and into my soul.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Putting Mom and Dad To Rest in the Garden

            For almost a decade I’ve had my parents’ ashes in two tins in my closet, one marked “Mom,” one marked “Dad,” not knowing what to do with them. I was respectful of the fact that they were the remains of the physical bodies of my parents, but I have other things – my father’s wooden bowls, my mother’s paintings, some furniture and pictures and crafts from my childhood home – that are more warmly reminiscent of who my parents were. It seemed morbid to display the ashes in urns on the mantel and inappropriate to scatter them in Oregon or at my own home, a place that hadn’t meant much to either of them. So the ashes stayed ignominious in the closet.
            The same was true of my siblings’ share of the ashes, until last month, when my sister Laura provided the perfect occasion for closure. In a small corner of her neighborhood park in Atlanta, she created a memorial garden, planting azaleas, ferns, and spring wildflowers by a small creek and setting a flagstone path to wind around a dominant pine tree. She planned a small ceremony in mid-May to bury our parents’ ashes and the ashes of her husband’s mother and his first wife in that garden.
            On the morning of May 14, Laura took me; my sister Sharon; my brother, Lee; her son, Dave; and her husband, Jack, to the newly created memorial garden to do some preparation for the ceremony. Lee and Dave built stone steps from the street into the garden. I pulled up ivy. Sharon cut dead branches; Laura dug holes for the four bushes that would be planted over the ashes; and Jack hauled away sticks and limbs and armloads of ivy. After our work, as we were contemplating the garden, a barred owl landed in a near-by tree. Soon another owl joined him. Lee said we should call the garden Owl-Cove. (Dad, punster that he was, would love it!). Since the park committee had a rule against the display of personal names in the park, we decided that the finishing touch would be a bench with, simply, “Memorial Garden” inscribed on it. With those plans in place and the garden cleaned, we were ready for the ceremony
            Laura didn’t want it to be a ceremony, exactly, and she didn’t want it to feel morbid, so she asked five people to speak on behalf of the memorialized family members, instructing us severely to keep our remarks short. At 5:00 that afternoon, a fine spring-warm day, nineteen people, from both the Coogle family (Laura’s) and the Burch family (her husband’s), including four children, gathered at Laura and Jack’s house, then walked the half-mile to the garden. Laura said a few words about why we were there.
Laura and Jack, opening remarks
Then Sharon and I said a few words about Mom; Lee about Dad; Jack about his mother; and Jack’s son about his mother. Then the Coogles planted two hydrangea bushes, each of us pouring into first one and then the other our share of our parents’ ashes (amazed at what a large quantity of ash a cremated body can make) while the Burch family was doing the same with their family ashes in holes for a rhododendron and a Virginia sweet spire.
Larua and Sharon prepare the hole for Mom's hydrangea.
Lee pours Dad's ashes into the prepared hole, Sharon looking on.
            Then the champagne popped, and we drank champagne and talked with each other, and the children ran through the park, and then we all walked back to Laura and Jack’s house where Laura had prepared salmon and salads and hors d’oeuvres, impeccably made and beautifully served, which all the guests enjoyed in her lovely back-yard garden. 
In Laura's back-yard garden
That night, after everyone else had left, Laura and Jack cleaned up while Sharon, Lee, and I sat long into the night, talking together in the Georgia evening, watching the moon rise over the rooftop, aware of the recent presence of the adult children playing games with their young children and sensing ourselves as the elders, now, letting the consciousness of the time when our ashes will enrich the soil and our children will sit where we were then, diminish into the twilight.