Cavorting With Angels

“Don’t Die.”

It was the last thing my seventeen year old said to me before we headed out the door to the airport. I confidently promised we would not. But now, as I leaned into the stone, gripping a hank of chain for dear life and feeling the great yawning chasm 1400 feet below, it occurred to me that I might have been a bit hasty.

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I blame Hugh and Lisa.

Last fall we sat across the table from them, comparing notes on some of our favorite hikes, and Hugh began to talk about Angel’s Landing. He talked about sharp drop-offs, about walking along slender fins of stone, about the lengths of chain that were sometimes the only barrier between you and falling, about the sections with no chain, about the lady who just last year dropped to her death. My heart pounded as he talked about it. It sounded terrifying. And amazing. And somehow I knew in that very moment that one day I would find myself there.

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Angel’s Landing sits atop a towering stone spine with dizzying drop-offs on either side. It received it’s name in 1916 when Fredrich Fisher, while exploring the canyon, observed, “only an angel could land on top of it.” Yet, on this day, a number of less than angelic beings were clawing, crawling, pulling and praying their way to the top. And we were among them.

When we decided to give Mike a little more time at altitude to acclimate for Grand Canyon, visits to nearby Bryce and Zion Canyons seemed the perfect solution. Both were places we wanted to see and the combination would give us a chance to hike high (Bryce) and sleep low (Zion). And as soon as Zion was on the table, so was Angel’s Landing.

We began researching the hike. We watched a number of YouTube videos including this ridiculous one shot with a GoPro. They made my stomach hurt. Most of the time I thought we were insane to even be considering this. But, every now and then…

We had decided we would go as far as Scouts Landing, and then evaluate whether to attempt the remaining half mile along the ridge. I did not feel one bit better about it when I got there. What those people were doing looked impossible. A couple of strong, athletic looking guys who were just coming down stopped to talk to us.

“You going up there?”

“Not sure yet.”

“Yeah. I wasn’t either.  Just kept taking the next step. I might have even crawled a few times. But then, somehow, there we were.”

I told Mike I could do that much. I would start. However, I reserved the right to turn around at any point.

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I’m not going to lie to you, I was scared pretty much the whole time. But here is what I quickly learned. What ever was out there–ahead, or behind–looked impossible. But what was right in front of me was doable. Pull yourself up over this boulder. Grab the next chain.  Lean into the rock here because there are no chains and the path slants sharply.

Any time I stopped to look back at where we had been, I wanted to throw up. But I could always do the next right thing.

I kept thinking of my friend Gail. I don’t know how many times she has said to me, when I am in a situation that seems too hard and I can’t think how I am going to get to the other side and I wish everything were laid out nice and clean before me and it never is, “Just do the next right thing.”

There was always an awkward little dance as we encountered hikers coming down and we had to figure out which of us had the safest place to lean into or wrap arms around to let the other pass. Unintentional intimacy made us fast friends. Many spoke kind words of encouragement as we passed, and their generosity was like a long, cold drink of water. Refreshing and invigorating.

When we finally crested, I couldn’t decide whether to laugh or cry. After I had securely installed myself against a cleft of rock to keep  me from falling, I think I did a little of both. Then I took deep, full breaths of the cool air and felt the sun on my skin. I looked out over the valley and drank in the astonishing beauty of it. I gave thanks for safety and strength, for exhilaration and joy. And for the boy at my side with whom I had shared it all.

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Of course, we still had to get down from here. On the way up I had refused to look down at the valley floor below. But on the way back, that would not be possible. Occasionally, I caught myself holding my breath. But by some combination of walking, and scooting, and turning around and backing down particularly challenging sections, I finally found myself back at Scout’s Landing with all my pieces and parts still attached.

That night I lay in bed thinking back over the hike. My stomach started churning and my heart pounded and I found myself as frightened as I had been standing there at Scout’s Landing. Something about seeing it from afar and not having a task that demanded my attention made it far more terrifying. I have been thinking a lot about that ever since. There is a truth in there that I need to keep close to me.

A friend asked me recently why we do crazy things like this. It’s a fair question. And maybe this is it: It’s good practice. Frequently life throws circumstances at us that seem insurmountable. In those moments, it is easy to despair and lose hope. But, every time something we thought would kill us doesn’t, we are made stronger. And hope becomes more resilient. I will never hear Gail’s words–Just do the next right thing–again without thinking of this day.

Of how the impossible became possible
one terrifying step at a time.

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That which does not kill us makes us stronger. ~Friedrich Nietzsche

*Special thanks to Mike who took all the photos in the post except #2 (public domain), half of the bottom shot, and the obvious selfie. :)

Lean on Me

lean on meI wish I had learned earlier to trust others with the deepest parts of me. I wish I had understood that there are people who can know the worst about me and still love me, people who are willing to go to hard places and sit there with me as long as they need to, people who refuse to let me get stuck in my misery, who call out in me what is good. How different my life might have been.

For me, it took a crisis to plunge me, almost without my consent, into finally living vulnerably. It has been one of the great, good gifts in my life.

The same was true for my friend, Anne, though she got there much younger than me. She has written beautifully about that experience in her new book, Lean On Me.

Lean on Me is not a stale “how to” book with seven action points to automatically fix all your relationship woes. It is a story. A glorious, difficult, hope-filled story.

I am comforted in the idea that Jesus rarely instructed without parable. Truth is communicated through stories; they are principles that wear flesh and breathe air and feel pain and joy. Recalling a quote from Madeleine L’Engle, “Jesus was not a theologian. He was God who told stories.”

Like any good story, it will speak to different people in different ways. Here are some of the passages that were particularly poignant for me.

On Practicing Vulnerability:

A great misunderstanding in the world is that we must wait until we feel safe to be vulnerable with other people. They must earn our trust and show us they will not take our wounds and cause them to bleed more. We misconstrue the wisdom of guarding our hearts, our life’s wellspring, as a command to build a fortress around them.

We are never safe from pain, and safety has nothing to do with vulnerability.

Vulnerability will hurt…It is a paradox: once we realize being vulnerable is never safe, we are then free to be vulnerable. We guard our hearts by giving them to the Guardian. We accept the fact that hurt will come. We see wounds as gifts. When this dramatic shift in our spirit occurs, fear no longer controls us.

I love the chapter Persevering Through Pain. On the “slow and inefficient work of God”. On letting “the waters of grace slowly, moment by moment, smooth out my heart.” Her Holy Week reflections and her ruminations on the struggles of both Paul and Christ are powerful. But the poetic and evocative language defies reduction. You simply need to read the whole of it.

On Receiving and Returning:

I did not see myself worthy to be served like this, so unconditionally…Why do you still love me? I feel so helpless…I continued pushing away the love that was trying to envelop me, to be lavished upon me.

I choose faith, and it says go, love, and believe. Enter in where there is pain and love. Do not worry about if it’s enough. Believe it is enough for the moment.

From Circles or Spirals:

No kind of action ever stops with itself. One kind action leads to another. Good example is followed. A single act of kindness throws out roots in all directions, and the roots spring up and make new trees. The greatest work that kindness does to others is that it makes them kind themselves. ~Amelia Earhart

The principle that we cannot give what we do not first receive works in reverse as we cannot receive what we do not give…It is a constant circle of pouring out and being poured into.

From Big Challenges and Small Steps:

…Sometimes my relationship with him felt empty. God appeared silent. It was only over the course of time that I recognized the hope he was giving me was often expressed through my relationship with others, spirit to spirit.

We will always feel a complex, two-sided longing–the craving for relationships and the desire to be on our own–creep in as we pull our feet through the mud of the daily. When this comes, we must take a heavy breath and command our spirits to rejoice and reach out…We are children of the One who has loved us in the past for eons and will love us into forever for eternity. A Man died in our place, painting us pure and lovely, and nothing can steal this away from us. Not even our own selfishness.

It has been my privilege to know Anne for several years now, and to see her walk the portion of her life chronicled in the book. She is a radiant grace-bearer and truth-teller, with her words, and with her life. I highly commend this book to you, wherever you find yourself in the world of community and sharing life with others. It will nourish and challenge you.

R2R2R: Day 2

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One of the heaviest rains of the season falls on the day between our hikes. At times, you cannot see beyond the stone walls at the edge of the canyon for the fog. We are very grateful to not be out in all that. We are also grateful for the ten degree drop in temperature that follows.

Despite the drop in temps, we choose to rise early again in order to be across the floor before the heat of the day. This time I begin in my fleece and gloves. We huddle at the shuttle stop with a father, son and uncle here to do their first rim to rim. Mom/wife/sister will meet them tonight at the North Rim and drive them back tomorrow.

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The South Kaibab trail is very exposed, meaning you get jaw dropping vistas all along the way. Of course, we don’t see much at our pre-dawn start. But it is fun to watch the head-lamps and flashlights bobbing like fireflies along the trail above and below us. When we reach Cedar Ridge we recall hiking this far with our children 8 years ago. We decide that was pretty ambitious given the youngest was only 9 at the time.

The sun paints the sky in muted cotton candy shades; a surprising counterpoint to the stark, jagged landscape. Puddles stand in the deep recesses of the path. Up close they are brown and nasty, but from a distance, they hold glassy bits of sky.

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Mike didn’t sleep well again and I know a part of him is worried about what this means. But as we move forward, as our bodies warm, we are both encouraged to find that nothing hurts. Our bodies feel strong. And the coolness, even in direct sunlight, is gift. Today’s hike will be very different because of it.

We have changed up our food supply a bit for day two and I love it! It was our goal to pack only enough food to last for day one. This we learned from last year. We made a resupply run to the market on Saturday. Some of the things we usually use were not available, and frankly we tired of those on Friday anyway, so we added  Pringles potato chips and Pepperidge Farm Chesapeake cookies to the mix. Every time we pull one of these out it feels like a decadent luxury. (Incidentally, we did pack electrolyte solution for both days. Not a good idea to mess with that).

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The sun has not been up long when we pass a supply train going down to Phantom Ranch. These quiet, gentle animals have served in the canyon in some capacity for years. They leave traces all along the trail. I trust I do not need to elaborate on that. :)

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We descend past layer upon layer of colored rock. Fragments of each layer make their way down the hillside and accumulate along the path and in creek-beds to create lovely kaleidoscopes.

It has gotten surprisingly warm by the time we reach the black bridge that will take us across the Colorado. You pass through a tunnel to reach the bridge and today with light and puddles, it takes on a peculiar charm.

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At Phantom Ranch, I treat myself to indulgence number two: Coffee. No cafe or dining establishment was open when we left for the trail, and a cup of java is sounding pretty amazing right now. I pull a chocolatey Chesapeake out of my bag and the combination is so delightful that I feel like I might float to the North Rim. Instead, I chatter my way across the floor and Mike surely wonders if that money could not have been better spent elsewhere. ;)

While at Phantom Ranch, we meet a group of folks who are part of a fitness ministry. As we talk, we learn that they were just in Franklin making a presentation at our former church, and we have mutual friends. It really is a small world. After all. We will play leap frog for the rest of the day, and run into them again tomorrow at breakfast.

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Between the cooling effects of the rain and the intermittent clouds, our trip across the floor today is a breeze. Before we know it, we are filling our bottles at Cottonwood Campground and commencing the seven mile climb to the North Rim.

From here on out, we are almost entirely in shade. There are moments when the breeze is almost chilly. Almost. We don’t talk much about last year, but we both remember slogging up this section of the trail, unsure whether we would make it out. Two switchbacks and a rest. Two switchbacks and a rest. Today could not be more different. Still, the section between the Pump House and Supai Tunnel seems interminable. When we finally see the tunnel, I have to resist the urge to kiss it. We reunite with friends from the trail, fill our water bottles one last time and sprawl out across the rocks for a final rest.

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This last section of trail we are traveling for the third time, yet we have never seen it. Last year, sunset overtook us before we made the top. On Friday, we began before dawn. I feel myself pulled forward by my curiosity. For the whole of it, we can see our destination above us. It seems so far away. But we have learned not to trust our eyes for distance here. They are unreliable.

Aspens, oaks and maples are changing their dresses for autumn, adding to the pastiche of color in the canyon. I keep stopping to take pictures. Some of them include Mike looking back at me with this expression that seems to say, “Really?! Again?!” I can’t help it. Everything is so pretty. And there is this bubbly something inside of me that already knows we are going to make it out of here, even if we have to crawl. And somehow, I want to capture this moment, to hold onto something of what it means to be here. To stitch memory into my body of the exhaustion and desire, the longing and fear, the determination and raw visceral urge, the glory. Yes, the glory.

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At the trail-head, we stop and sit for a space. I would like to say it is because we want to drink deeply of this moment and, while that might not be untrue, we mostly are just worn out. But it is the sweet fatigue that speaks of having accomplished what we set out to do. Of finishing the course. Of keeping faith. Our words of congratulation to one another are hollow beside the plain truth of being here. Of living to tell the tale. The full meaning of it will be unfolding in us for days to come.

And when life throws hard things at us, impossible things, we will remember this.

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Every second of the search is an encounter with God. When I have been truly searching for my treasure, every day has been luminous…I’ve discovered things along the way that I never would have seen had I not had the courage to try things that seemed impossible. ~Paulo Coelho

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Rim to Rim to Rim, particulars:

Stats: 45 miles; more than 10,000′ vertical gain; 13 hours the 1st day, 10:45 the 2nd; temp range 43*-95*
Hydration: Mike likes Gatorade G2 grape while I favor Skratch Labs raspberry and lemon. I began both days with Orange Juice in one of my bottles. Mike also used oj on day two.
Snacks included: Walnuts and almonds, Cliff bars, Pay Day candy bars, Sesame Rice Chips, Power Bar gels, Gatorade energy chews, Summer Sausage, Cheese sticks, Werther’s hard caramels, and the aforementioned Pringles and Chesapeakes. Mike breakfasted on oatmeal and I had yogurt and granola.
This and That: We both carried REI Flash 22 backpacks. My boots are Keen and Mike’s are Merrell. We both like wool socks; mine are Smartwool and his are Darn Tough. I would perish without Moleskin.  Several essential doTerra oils traveled in the handy keychain affixed to the outside of my pack. Walking poles are non-negotiable, in my estimation. Zip-off shorts with multiple pockets are the best. A bandana has a thousand uses. And the iPhone was camera, carrier of maps and other info, books, poems, prayers, and communication for the in-between day.
Sleeps: I highly recommend the Grand Canyon Lodge on the North Rim and Bright Angel Lodge on the South. Neither offers television if you are into that sort of thing, and cell service is intermittent at best. But for rustic charm and convenient access to the trails, they can’t be beat.
Eats: The North Rim’s Elk chili is famous (and fabulous!), and you can get it at any of their three eateries. If you leave without trying it you should be shot. Also, the Arizona Room at Bright Angel Lodge serves a mean Buffalo Burger. Recovery food, you understand. And the bicycle shop at the South Rim has great sandwiches and is conveniently located right next to the visitor center.

 

R2R2R: Day 1

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The sky spreads over us like a sapphire sea studded with stars. We swallow clean, cool air in gulps as we pass through the sweet silence of a world still sleeping. We whisper morning prayers as our flashlights sweep the path in front of us, all the while sinking lower and lower into the canyon.

It is a grudge match of sorts, this return to the canyon. A redemption. We came last year to walk from one rim to the other, rest for a day, then walk back. But illness prevented us from completing the second leg of our hike. So here we are in the predawn hours, treading this same bit of earth where we finished last year, hoping that the training has been enough, that the changes in our packs will serve us well, that we clear the floor of the canyon before it reaches its predicted high of roughly 100 degrees.

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Dawn breaks softly, color aching back into things. By the time we reach our first water fill station at Supai Tunnel, we pack away our flashlights. Sunlight creeps over the stones liberating their brilliant hues. All day long I will watch this magic. The canyon–with its layers of white, red, green, and violet stone; its deep recesses that bend light, or catch it and hold it hostage; its peculiar promontories and funky formations that cast long, irregular shadows–is a veritable playground for light.

We reach the floor ahead of schedule, but we remind ourselves that this first portion of the “floor” has a good bit of rough and rugged undulation. (A fact which none of the sources we read ever told us, and was a brutal surprise last year. So I am telling you now.) Two or three miles later, the trail begins a long, comfortable meander along the edge of Bright Angel Creek and the gurgle and plash of water is our constant companion.

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A network of old power poles follows the basic outline of the path. Some still have wire wrapped around beautiful glass insulators. My dad, an electrician, used to have some of these when I was a little girl. They fascinated me then and they fascinate me now. I have to resist the urge to shinny up one of those poles and pull one down and shove it in my backpack. Especially the blue ones.

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Sometimes the walls of the canyon crowd very close here, thrusting skyward in an unbroken line. They provide welcome shade from the slanting rays of morning sun. Gathered round their feet and growing impossibly from crevices in their sides are an astonishing array of plants. I am constantly distracted by them

We reach Phantom Ranch a little before 11am, almost an hour ahead of schedule. I pull a stack of postcards from my pack for our children and godchildren. These I stuff into a saddlebag which will ride out of the canyon later today on a mule, the only place I am aware of in the U.S. where mail is still carried this way.

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We refill our water bottles and eat a substantial snack. 14 miles in already and I am hungry. And here I make my biggest mistake of the day. Summer sausage is a classic trail food. We brought one from home thinking we might need it before we got to Phantom Ranch. I eat half of it, 3 1/2 ounces, reasoning that I need the protein for the climb, and that it is easier to carry it in my stomach than in my backpack. It is too much at once. I will pay for that.

We walk through Bright Angel Campground just before crossing the Colorado River and commencing our ascent. The thermometer reads 95 degrees. In the shade. It is 11:15.

The next 3 miles or so are almost entirely exposed. Shade becomes a scarce and coveted commodity. Every time we find a patch of it, we linger. My stomach full of fatty sausage and the brutal heat are a bad combination. I feel sick. When we come to our first creek crossing I plunge my bandana in and proceed to douse myself from head to toe. I squeeze the water over my head and let it run in cool rivulets down my neck and back. I press it against my face. I slather it along my arms, my stomach. Then, I dip the bandana once more and wrap it around my neck. The relief of this is delicious. And completely necessary. It will make all the difference. My motto becomes: Linger in every patch of shade, dip in every creek. The water in my water bottles is becoming sickly hot. But I make myself drink it. Must drink. Must. Drink.

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Coming into and out of Indian Gardens

Indian Gardens is an oasis, literally, halfway between the Colorado River and the South Rim. Native Americans planted crops here centuries ago and now cottonwoods and mesquite grow in the same stream watered soil. We stop here for our first water fill since Phantom Ranch. It is so good to drink cool water again I down my first pint before we leave. We rest for a bit in the shade. I lie on my back and drape my feet across the top of a bench. We visit with fellow hikers and laugh at jokes that only those who have seen the canyon as we have seen her this day understand. Some folks minister to their feet, others share snacks and advice. We leave our oasis refreshed and renewed with just over 4 1/2 miles to go.

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I am infatuated with the sky. Always. But especially here. Intense cerulean, the perfect foil for the fluffy white clouds that have been increasing all afternoon. Now and then, a gray one. Interloper. A light mist begins to fall. Gentle. Cool. Most welcome. I turn to take a photograph of the clouds and when I lift my eyes from my phone, I see it. The rainbow. I begin to wonder if there is a limit to how much beauty one person can stand. I am treading dangerously close to that border. I take about 40 pictures, pausing now and then to just exult in this moment. In being right here, right now. Feeling the great goodness of the Father in the air and the mist, in the grandeur of this place, in the excruciating beauty of water bending light, in the strength of my legs and my heart, in the joy of sharing all of this with my best friend.

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The last mile and a half prove to be a challenge for Mike. Fatigue, heat, and lack of sleep the night before have conspired to make him feel exhausted and sick. But he keeps moving forward. One step at a time.

As we come to the end of the trail, there are no cheering crowds, no medal around the neck. Just the knowledge in our gut that the work of the day is done. I am as tired as I have ever been. But my heart is full…

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*All photographs in the post taken with my iphone. The only one that has been edited is the one at the top. I deepened the saturation a bit to make the rainbow more plain. However, if you look at the rainbow shot inside the post (unedited) you will see I didn’t alter it much. The colors were just this marvelous. If you would like to see other photos from our adventures out west (more than I will ever be able to use here) you can visit my photo album on facebook. I believe you can get to it directly by clicking HERE. I plan to write about day two tomorrow, so come back if you want to know how it turns out. :)

Being an Account of Some Days in the Woods…

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Ghost Antler Lichen

We awake in the bedroom I grew up in. My dad slices a bowl of fresh peaches. Mom cooks eggs and sausage, biscuits and gravy. We talk and eat our fill. Charcoal clouds lie heavy in the sky, menacing.  Mike and I recount our last hike to Leconte, the one when we “almost died but didn’t”. We fill our water bottles, give hugs all around, and hit the road.

The rain begins almost immediately. We drive in and out of it over the next two hours. But then, just before we reach the trail-head, it stops. We strap on our packs, eager to be on our way.

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The hike to Alum Cave is one of the most popular in the Smokies because of interesting geological features, historical significance, and diversity of habitat. For the first mile we hike along Alum Cave Creak, its gurgle and leap a constant music, and sometimes there is a canopy of gnarled rhododendron. The first geological landmark is the Arch, created over hundreds of years as water washed away the softer layer of rock underneath the bedrock. We ascend a set of carved stone steps to emerge on the other side. I do admire this use of local materials–stone steps, log bridges–elements that already belong to the landscape.

The trail bends away from the creek here and we cross Styx Branch, considerably smaller and, on this day, dry. Along the way, I notice several dead trees, their branches cloaked in what looks like a fine frost. Lichens. Still able to find the nourishment they need in the decaying wood, the lichens become a beautiful ornament, a contrast of silver among all the green. And they provide food and nesting materials for a variety of animals.

Just before reaching Alum Cave Bluff, we come to Inspiration Point where we can see Duck Hawk Ridge with it’s “Eye of the Needle”, a circular opening in the rock which admits the blue of the sky, a delightful curiosity which I was unable to capture in a photograph.

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 Alum Cave Bluff is the final destination for many making this Hike. For us it is nearly half-way. The Epsom Salts Manufacturing Company mined this area in the early 1800s. Later, during the Civil War, it became a source of saltpeter, used to make gun powder. It is an imposing edifice, framing the world below. Our experience of it differed considerably on our ascent verses our descent, as you can see. We linger here for a bit, listening to the drip drip of water from the edge of the bluff, looking out over the great expanse of earth spread out beneath us.

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Over the next two and a half miles or so we are nourished by a proliferation of wildflowers (and fungi), occasional openings in the trees to jaw dropping vistas, and the sweet scent of evergreens, made more pungent by the recent rain. The last bit of the trail passes through dense spruce forest. It is dark and lovely, mysterious and magical. Then, the forest opens out again into a bit of a clearing, and we are arrived at Leconte Lodge. Last year, we only paused here for a bit to pour the water out of our shoes, hover around the wood stove, and try to dry out our clothes a bit before heading back down. But this year, we are staying.

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We are received by a dear man with a long white beard whose name I wish I remembered. He tells me the names of all the flowers growing up on the mountain. He also gives us our pail for fetching water and our orientation: “Here are the outdoor latrines. Here is the faucet for cold water, already filtered, ready to drink. This faucet (on the back of the kitchen) is where you will collect hot water (in the pail) for washing. Here is the dining room; dinner at 6:00, breakfast at 8:00, coffee and hot chocolate available any time. This is your cabin, the basin for washing, and your key to the latrine. Light the kerosene lamp like this. Do not turn the wick up too high or it will smoke the glass. This is your propane heater.”

After our orientation, we walk a half mile beyond the lodge to the highest point on Mount Leconte. There, Mike ceremonially adds a stone to the cairn that marks the third highest peak in the Smokies.

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We wash, put on a dry shirt and a fleece, take all our snacks to the metal containers in the lodge where they will be safe from small furry creatures, fill our cups with coffee and hot chocolate and sit on the porch til supper. When the dinner bell rings, we all gather round large tables with people we do not know, passing steaming bowls of beef and gravy, mashed potatoes, green beans, cinnamon apples, and a skillet of warm cornbread. The room thrums with conversation.

We turn in early, just as the rain begins. First a pitter patter, than a pounding of raindrops against the tin roof. Thunder booms overhead and lightening flashes in one window and out the other. And the raging storm becomes our lullaby. (I should here mention that outdoor bathrooms, while certainly adequate, are not especially charming in a storm.)

We wake to a world washed clean and a mist that moves before our eyes and all around us. We feast on pancakes and eggs, biscuits and apple butter, and steaming mugs of coffee and hot chocolate. We have an enthralling conversation with two musical brothers and their dad. The oldest brother is a sophomore at Eastman School of Music studying the clarinet. I ask him if he has played Rhapsody in Blue and he laughs. “Yes, but only the second clarinet part so far.” The younger brother plays mandolin and I wish Jake were here as we talk Chris Thile and Sam Bush. This is actually a trip built around him. They are visiting Appalachia to better understand the roots of bluegrass. Dad, incidentally, is a jazz pianist. And happily I wonder how, out of all the people in the world, we ended up across the table from them.

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Back on the trail, we are so deep in conversation, we miss a cut off and take a one mile detour before getting back on track. But the trail is so pretty and the morning so new and fresh and full of promise, there is no space for regret. The cloud that last night enrobed the top of the mountain has now slipped down over her sides. We stop sometimes to watch the mist moving around us til it makes us dizzy and we have to move on. Many of yesterday’s vistas are hidden today. On the other hand, new waterfalls have emerged along the cliffs and Styx Branch, which yesterday was dry, is gurgling and tripping all over itself.

At the trail head I give thanks that no bear tore open the soft top on my Jeep to get at the overripe banana I unwisely left inside. (This has been causing me no small worry once I realized what I had done.) We drive a few miles up the road to the Newfound Gap trail-head where we are treated to an astonishing view before even leaving our car. Here begins the serious part of our training. 1.7 miles on the Appalachian Trail (mostly up), then 3.7 on Sweat Heifer Creek Trail (mostly down), then, turn around and come back. The fog has lifted, the sun is shining, and it is hot.

The AT is over and around rocks, up and up all the way. When we reach the branch for Sweat Heifer Creek trail, two ladies remark that they went a ways down and were not thoroughly convinced it was a trail at all.  The high grass on either side leaning over the small strip of dirt tends to support their assessment. But this trail has been recommended by a seasoned hiker whom we respect, so we recklessly plunge in. Soon, the grassy sedge gives way to a soft trail of needles and leaves, wide and accommodating, though strewn with the occasional rock or root. We meander down and down, past the named creek, past spruce, then hardwoods, down and down.

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At bottom, we find the perfect spot for lunch. (Lunch being, I should here qualify, a shared summer sausage–I wish I could tell you how amazing this tastes on the trail when my body is salt deprived from too much sweating and I find myself thinking far too fondly of the salt blocks my dad used to put out for the cows–sesame rice chips, almonds and walnuts.) A restaurant would charge dearly for a view like this. And perhaps the luncheon would be more elegant, but I doubt it would taste better. “Nothing seasons food like a hearty appetite.” I can’t remember who said that, but it is oh so very true. We sit on the edge of the bridge with our legs dangling and savor each bite as though it were the only thing standing between us and starvation.

We retrace our steps, up being much more difficult than down, obviously, but not so very much slower, which is surprising. As we rejoin the AT, we meet up with a group of twenty-somethings here from New Jersey for ten days, sharing a cabin and hiking all over the Smoky Mountains. And I wonder why we were not more industrious when we were their age. They tell us which trails they have loved so far and ask what is down that peculiar, half-hidden trail we have just come up.

When it is over, we put on dry clothes and complete our toilet, as best we can, with a couple of wet wipes. Convincing ourselves we are somewhat presentable, we stop for pizza and beer to reward ourselves for our effort. And dream of the deep canyon, a few hundred miles, and just over a month, away…

Out-takes:

Ok, so there is only one outtake. And it is not so much as an outtake as a photo that I couldn’t figure out where to insert, but I love it so much and it is my blog after all so I can put anything I want to on here. So there was this tree, threatening to crush us on the trail to Leconte, and Mike had to hold it up…

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He is really strong. But maybe not that strong. ;)

*We are grateful to our friend Hugh for directing us to the AT/Sweat Heifer combo that gave us a chance to hike mostly down, then up, like the Grand Canyon.

**Also, I can not recommend highly enough the site hikinginthesmokys.com for trail info on all the major trails in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. He lists trails by difficulty, by features, and by area, and gives vertical gain, mileage, and thorough descriptions of each. Invaluable.

Mother of God

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It has been a process. Coming to know Mary, I mean. Still is.

For years she was mostly an ornament in the Nativity scene; the fretful parent when her 12 year-old goes missing; a grieving mother watching her dear one die.

Then, there was the year I was pregnant at Christmas. I thought a lot about her that year. I would run my hands over my belly and imagine her, feeling this miracle baby moving inside her, as she walked past whispers and pointing fingers on the way to the market or the well. Rehearsing the angel’s words over and over in her head,

“Rejoice, O Full of Grace, the Lord is with Thee. Blessed art Thou among women…You will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call his Name Jesus…that Holy One who is to born will be called the Son of God.”

A tender knowing opened between us that year. It was a beginning.

Five and a half years ago we stepped into a tradition that holds Mary in highest esteem. She is not worshiped, but she is constantly held before us as the example of complete surrender. She is the first one to bear God in her body. And, because of her, we can now bear him in ours. So we mention her often. Her images fill our churches alongside those of her Son, and of the saints who followed her example of surrender.

We ask her to pray for us. Because we believe those saints who came before us are ever in the Presence of God, we ask them to intercede on our behalf, just like I might ask you to pray for me. And this is where I have come to love her best.

In this season of grown-up or almost grown-up children whose lives are mostly their own, I have very little control. Perhaps I never had very much. But I still worry about them, I still want good for them. And so I pray. I have always prayed for them, but as more and more of their lives are out of my reach, I pray more.

And it is good to be able to ask Mary to pray for them as well. Because she knows. More than anyone, she knows what it is like to see your child have to walk a very difficult path. To be misunderstood. To pour himself out for others, then have those others turn on him. She knows what it is like to watch a child die. It is difficult to imagine any experience that would fall outside her compassion.

I speak to her of my godchildren and their families, friends that are hurting, young adults in my life who are navigating the world alone and who need a mother to watch over them. We grieve together over children in places like Syria and Iraq who are being driven from their homes. Hungry. Scared. In constant danger.

As we walk these stories together, as I bring my mother’s heart to hers, we are knitted every more deeply together.

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Today we commemorate her falling asleep in the Lord, and her translation to Heaven.

On Wednesday we gathered to decorate her funeral bier. Kenzie and I brought blossoms from our garden. That evening we sang songs of lament; tender, intimate, sweet. And the grief in those hymns, and the joy, was my grief, my joy. I kissed her icon with a love born of knowing.

“Receive, O Mother, from thy children our love and these hymns and odes to bid thee farewell which we offer from the depth of our souls.”

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Last night we celebrated her life. We considered the icon in which Christ holds her in His arms, as she so often held him, carrying her into heaven. Bringing his mama home. Our priest reminded us that just as she preceded us in bearing Christ in her body, so she precedes us in her entrance to heaven. And the words of welcome that Jesus speaks to His mother, he will someday speak to us.

“Come, My most lovely one and enjoy the beauty of thine own Son thy Maker. Come indeed, My Mother, come into divine joy and enter into the Kingdom.”

May it be so.

*Quote at the top of the page is from the first chapter of Luke. The others are from the Lamentations at the Bier of the Mother of God.

*If you are interested is spending some time with the Mother of God yourself, or would like to understand more of the teaching of the ancient church with regard to her, may I recommend these excellent resources:

Mary as the Early Christians Knew Her: The Mother of Jesus in Three Ancient Texts by Frederica Matthews-Green
Mary Mother of God: Her Life in Icons and Scripture by Giovanna Paravicini
Full of Grace a glorious recording of the music of Dormition Vespers by Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Chorale

In the Radiance of His Light…

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Everything is transformed in Christ into its true wonder. In the radiance of His light the world is not commonplace. ~Alexander Schmemann

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I had risen early for a run. The sun was just climbing out of bed himself, sending out long slanting rays, gilding cattails, painting auroras against the mist. I couldn’t stop looking at it. Everything was transfigured in this light. I kept stopping to snatch photos, trying to gather up souvenirs of this moment, this unrepeatable onceness. The way common ditch flowers and stalks of grass, tired old buildings and fields of corn were aching into their true selves, and for an instant I could see them as they really were.

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They were his closest friends.  True, he had been investing himself deeply in a group of men and women for three years.  But these three…they had gone deeper. And he wanted to share something with them.  Something very intimate.  An extraordinary moment.  A memory that would linger long after he was gone.  And he would be gone.  Soon.

So they climbed a mountain.  Mount Tabor.  Funny how much of his story had been unfolded, would be unfolded, on mountains.  The three planted themselves, but he walked on a little farther.  Suddenly, he was not alone.  There were figures on either side of him.  Figures from beyond…from the other…

And he was changed.

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The glory had simmered inside him for as long as they had known him.  Sometimes they caught glimpses of it in his eyes.  It had wrapped them round when he had calmed an angry sea.  It had filled their bellies with fish and bread and wine.  It had flowed from his fingers into people who were wounded and hurting and had made them well.  But now….now a visible glory radiated from him like fire.  His face shown like the sun and his garments were whiter “than any launderer could bleach them”.

The hymnody of the ancient church says Peter, James and John saw his glory that day, “as much as they could bear“.  It makes me think of the recurrent phrase that permeates the Gospel of John, “and his disciples believed in him”.  They believed…as much as they could.  And the next day, or the next week, they saw more of who he was, and they believed a little more.

He had been creating a space in them…for belief…for glory…

Today is the Feast of the Transfiguration of our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ. On this day I am reminded that God’s glory is all around me on a daily basis. I have only to walk with eyes open. And I pray that as I continue to look for His glory in humble places, that I will become able to bear more, and more of His glory. And that one day that I may see His Uncreated Light.

“Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world.“  ~John 17:24

Where the Wild Things Are…

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Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.
~John Muir

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I lie on my back looking up through a mishmash of leaves–silver, chartreuse, deep green–at a powdery blue sky. The cold of the stone presses against my hot skin and I feel it seep into me like ink in water. The taste of blackberries, harvested along the trail, lingers on my tongue; sweet and wild.

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And I am filled with gratitude: for feet that keep moving one step after another; for the boy beside me who is generously supplementing my store of water with his own; for extravagant, gratuitous beauty; for the gift of being wildly, utterly alive in this moment.

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I could have stepped on this little guy. He is only three inches across. But even tiny turtles receive their own measure of grace, and he and I were both spared the grief of his undoing. Meanwhile, I try to reconcile the fact that the same Artist who spread out the vast panoramas that we keep stumbling across also took time to mold the intricate copper mosaic of little bit’s ruffled shell.

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Keep close to nature’s heart…and break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.
~John Muir

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Everywhere we go we can hear the water. Gurgling, gushing, falling over itself, leaping over rocks, plummeting, dashing, stilling for a moment, collecting in pools, then being hurled through some impossibly narrow channel to form a funnel of foam. Sometimes it comes soft, droplets forming along mossy rocks, languidly lengthening til they tumble through the air onto a smooth shimmer of rock below, gliding effortlessly into some hidden underground cavern before oozing along the edge of a cliff in a slow meander to the stream below. All the while, the water is in me. Washing. Stilling. Despite the exertion of climbing over and around rocks, I feel my heart softening. Slowing. This is why I am here.

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One makes unexpected acquaintances along the trail. :) I think of the woman, nearly 70 I imagine, hair done, make-up on, practically bouncing on the uphill portion of the trail, smiling and greeting us as though she were walking to her mailbox. Mike and I are both taking notes. We make a promise to one another to still be on the trail–smiling!–when we are her age. There is the Indian family with their lilting, musical words, and another family from Brazil. And I wonder how they found this place when I have lived only two hours away from it my whole life and am only just now getting here.

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Boys will be boys. Especially when you get them away from all the responsibility and weight of the everyday. Maybe this is the best part. And we talk about things out here, this boy and I. The deep things that we never seem to have time for elsewhere. Here, we are insulated by all the trees and the air, the crickets and katydids, the water and the stone. Here we find a safe place for wrestling with hard things, and for dreaming, and for being utterly vulnerable. A great deal of growing into one another happens in these wild places.

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There is a testing that happens on the trail. A pushing beyond boundaries. A going farther than I think I can go. Choosing to do the hard thing because I know it is making me stronger. It is good practice. For life. And when the testing is through, there is deep thankfulness. And sometimes it looks like this: plunging hot, weary feet that have carried me over 23 miles of hills and rocks, roots and steps, bridges and boulders, into the icy cold of a mountain stream. And the sweetness of it flows into my body like a thousand amens, like a chorus of hallelujahs. And the veil between this world and the other is thinned. And I know that I would do it all over. Will do it all over. Again and again.

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O Lord, how lovely it is to be your guest:
Breeze full of scent; mountains reaching to the skies;
Waters like a boundless mirror,
Reflecting the sun’s golden rays and the scudding clouds.
All nature murmurs mysteriously, breathing depths of tenderness,
Birds and beasts bear the imprint of your love…
~Akathist in Praise of Creation

*The first four photos, as well as the last, were taken inside Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park on the trail from Signal Point to Mushroom Rock. The others were taken inside Cloudland Canyon State Park, one of the most beautiful state parks I have ever visited.

Though I have hinted at it here, I cannot tell you all it means to me to be in wild places. But I encourage you to give yourself a chance to find out. Look up the nearest state or national park in your area. Get out there for an hour or two. Take your time. Meander. Look closely. Leave your phone in the car. Go by yourself, or with someone you love. If you need inspiration, check out some of these resources:

Walden by Henry David Thoreau
Any thing written by Jean Craighead George, but especially My Side of the Mountain and Julie of the Wolves (Your kids will love these!)
Also, the books of Gene Stratton-Porter, especially Girl of the Limberlost
The poetry of Mary Oliver and Rainer Maria Rilke
The poetry and novels of Wendell Berry, especially the Port William series
The films: Into the Wild, Mile…Mile and a Half, 180* South
The prayers of Thomas Merton
Kim’s raw, audacious blog So Many Places
Backpacker magazine

A Company of Women

Most of the truly great women I have known are not very flashy. They do not call attention to themselves. Daily, they do a thousand small things that over a lifetime have an incalculable impact. The lessons they offer are quiet and subtle, and most of the time we do not even realize we are learning until one day we are aware that wisdom resides in us that is not of our own making. On this day, I would like to offer a word of gratitude to some of the women God has been kind enough to place in my family. Women from whom I have gleaned valuable truths about mothering and about life. I am ever in their debt.

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The Grandmothers

Grandma Howard taught me to make ordinary things extraordinary by making them beautiful. Even though she has been with Jesus for 20 years, I sleep every night under a quilt she made. And her love keeps me warm. And just any day now her precious peonies will fill her yard with fragrance and color. Again.

Grandma Nelson showed me that food is a love language. Her table groaned under the weight of her love for us. Her legendary chicken and dumplings, vegetables from her garden, and a whole array of homemade cakes and pies. There was always more than enough. There was always room for everyone. And each delicious morsel nourished far more than our bodies.

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My Mama

What did she not teach me? She taught me to love words, to play the piano, to sew my own clothes. She taught me that when you go out on a date you should have plans for every minute you are going to be out, or bad things can happen. :) She taught me to give a proper handshake and not to sing out of my nose. She taught me how to drive and how not to plant iris too deep. She showed me how to take on a scary disease with practical wisdom and extraordinary grace and how to find gifts in the hardest of places.

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Sisters in Love

Lori has taught me that sometimes mothering is letting go, and sometimes it’s going and getting. When Erin died in a car accident just before her ninth birthday, Lori walked this most excruciating of seasons with grace, and later comforted other grieving mothers in this same place. But when God called their family to bring home Keeli, then Ellie, from China, Lori was a bulldog, following all the paperwork trails and keeping things moving til she could bring her babies home.

Tammy teaches me to celebrate the uniqueness of each child. She throws the very best birthday parties, and they always say something very particular about the child. She has gone to basketball games, horse shows, 4H public speaking contests, even to the State Legislature to support her children in their many endeavors. She is, without a doubt, their biggest fan.

Candy taught me that sometimes mothering asks far more of you than you could imagine, but that it is always, always a gift. When Tucker was born with severe heart problems, she studied relentlessly to understand his condition, then became the one who tied together his disparate doctors when they did not communicate well. She poured all she had into caring for him and was grateful for every day of the 3 1/2 years she had with him.

Kristina is teaching me that love is a choice. When she married my brother, she got two tweens in the bargain who already have a mother they love. But with courage and tenacity, humility and kindness, she is walking this challenging path with grace, and I am inspired. Anna and Ethan are lucky to have two women in their lives who love them so.

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My Daughter

My daughter reminds me that love can be costly, but that it also is the source of the deepest joy. Many days, she rises before dawn to head into work and provide a life for her daughter. This year she bought a house after living frugally and saving diligently for three years. It has not been easy. But I rarely hear her complain. However, I do hear her laugh. A lot. She is having so much fun being a mommy. She treasures all the silly and confusing and unexpected and crazy things about having a three year old in the house. She is so gentle with her daughter; a trait that I am sorry to say she did not learn from me. But I am trying to learn from her.

In Her Third Year…

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Three years ago today, our world changed forever when our baby girl gave birth to a baby girl of her own. We could not imagine in that moment all the delights that awaited us. It has been a wild and exhilarating ride. And this year was exceptionally grand. It has been a year of letting go and moving on. A year of firsts. A year of long strides.

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In her third year she said goodbye to pacis, diapers, and the baby bed, and hello to a new dog, Cinderella (and Superman) underwear, and some pretty fabulous bunk beds. In her third year, she and her mommy moved into a home of their very own. In her third year she drank in language like milk, memorizing favorite stories and “reading” them aloud. (see below) In her third year she built roughly a million houses, palaces, and pieces of furniture out of Duplos and wood blocks. She painted pictures, and drew with markers, and sang songs. In her third year she danced. A lot.

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In her third year she learned to create fantastic worlds out of her imagination. She acquired a couple of imaginary friends and assigned them roles in the scenes she regularly acts out from films and books. In her third year she traveled to the beach and to the mountains, to tea parties and to the zoo. She delighted each of us with these words, “You are my best friend,” and “I been missing you all night morning.” In her third year, she befriended frogs, lady bugs, birds, and even a (slightly dead) bumblebee. She lit candles, breathed incense and prayed.

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In her third year, she helped all of us see the world again. New. With eyes of wonder. She taught us how to leap out of bed each morning in expectation that something truly wonderful awaits. Every day.

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In her third year, she stitched herself ever deeper into our hearts. She filled our lives with joy and delight. And magic. And extravagant love. Happiest of birthdays, dearest Kenzie!! I am awfully glad there is you in the world. In my world. God grant you many, many years!!

 

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*photo credits: The second and fifth photos taken by Kelsey. The black and white is a self-portrait. :)

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