Category Archives: Good Stories

Birthday Climb

Last Sunday I rang in 27 years with a 5am wake up call and that nervous, whooshing, happy feeling you get in your stomach when you’re bound for an adventure.

I’ve come full circle back to New Hampshire and have been working on a farm around the corner from my Gramma’s house for the past month. When I lived here last August, I spent hours pouring over maps of the White Mountains, and even more hours hiking them, but somehow didn’t quite end up doing the big one.

Climbing up Huntington Ravine looking southeast at the White Mountains

Looking up at the top of the ravine

Going up some steep stuff

At an elevation of 6288 ft, Mt. Washington gets to brag about two things. It’s the highest in New England (“second highest east of the Mississippi” — but who’s counting?) and has some of the most unpredictable weather (“fastest wind speed ever recorded” — 231 mph if you are into counting). I honestly didn’t know how wowed I’d be by it. Not to be a total alpine snob, but hiking in Alaska can kind of ruin you for, well, anything that’s not Alaska. I was glad to be wrong.

I met my new farm friends at the end of the driveway and we bopped our way down the dirt roads, our morning sleepiness burning off slowly with the sun. After whittling down to one car, we pointed north, grabbed a quick breakfast, and were on the trail in an hour.

Great way to celebrate with new friends and a new challenge

Time for a snack and view break

Alpine meadow with cairns leading to Lion’s Head (coming back for that route sometime!)

Heading up to the Ball Crag

Even though we’ve all grown up in the area (and I can barely claim this having just spent summers visiting here), none of us have climbed Mt. Washington before. We dodged the crowds and headed up Huntington Ravine. We had it all to ourselves — scree fields, thin waterfalls snaking down rocks, yellow wildflowers tucked into cracks. A couple miles into Huntington, we found our favorite (and hardest) part of the day — a slanted rock slab where we twisted our arms and feet to find footholds. Giddy at the top, we rewarded ourselves with a snack break in the sun. We laid around and watched a few rock climbers pass, towing their gear towards some granite. “Great day to be out,” one said. It was.

An hour later we were way above the trees in an alpine meadow. Tall piles of rocks marked the trail and petered off into the distant fog. Another hour and we were in the clouds on top of Ball Crag.

Finding clouds, wind, and cool 50 degrees on top of the crag

We reached the summit not long after and had that odd experience where you go from wilderness to civilization in a matter of seconds — tourists, motorcycles, cars, a cafeteria, a train, even a U.S. post office. We skipped the lunch line, put on fleeces, and hunkered down under a rock to eat lunch. (I have to say farm cucumbers make for some surprisingly good trail eatin’.)

Compadres on the summit

Back in the trees, back in the sun and, 8 hours later, almost back at the car!

We chose Tuckerman’s Ravine for our way back. It was honestly a pretty tough climb down for me (nothing will make you feel more like you’ve just turned 27 than having a pack of 16 year-olds sprint by you ever 10 minutes), and we all were pretty happy to see the car at the end, but nothing could shake that good feeling of satisfaction at a day well done.

We switched from boots to sandals, pointed the car home, and had only one key question left to answer. “Hey, what’s for dinner?”

Homesteader Country

One day in New Mexico Nancy and I were inside peeling garlic and she started to tell me the story about how she came to the mountains with her goats. I had asked her a little about it when I first met her over lunch in lonely Grants, NM. She hadn’t had much to say then. Now, sitting side by side, empty buckets and a couple hours work in front of us, it was easy to talk.

Fence on the long road into the farm

House and old windmill one pink morning

House and old windmill one gray morning

Nancy’s lived up in the mountains near the Continental Divide in southwestern New Mexico for about thirty years. She’s had her goats there with her the whole time. Her dairy, The Coonridge Dairy, has got to be one of the most remote places I’ve ever been. Located about a two hour drive from the nearest booming town of 200 residents (named Pie Town for — you guessed it — its ample amount of delicious homemade pies), she lives in the heart of old homesteader country.

“Texies” and “Okies” arrived in Catron County during the Dust Bowl era of the 1930s. They came, as biographer Joan Myers writes in Pie Town Woman, an account of local homesteaders, “in any sort of conveyance that would roll.” The dream was to reach the fertile land of California but many couldn’t make it that far and settled instead on the open, scrubby ground beneath Alegra Mountain, or “Ol’ Legra” as its locally known.

Looking out over Catron County and the Sawtooth mountains

Abandoned steer out in a field grazing

Grab a homemade slice at either the Pie Town Cafe or the Pie-O-Neer!

“Life in such places,” Myers writes, “is not something to remember or wait for but just to live.” Most families started working the land — “proving up” — so that they could earn the title to their 160 acres (under the original Homestead Act of 1862; 640 acres if you were raising cattle thanks to a revised act in 1916). They built small 15′ by 30′ dug outs to live in, haled water by wagon to drink, and prayed that their beans and corn would grow. If they had a good season, they could sell some crops to the Pie Town general store in exchange for other necessities, but that was pretty rare.

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The Alternative Flute

Written last night after a long (but satisfying) day working on a family construction project at our lake house in upstate New York:

I stopped and started writing a few other things tonight but writing this story on this evening just feels right.

I’ve barely had time to think about where I was ten years ago today: Mr. Gunn’s eleventh grade U.S. History class. It was our first day and we were supposed to take a test on our summer reading, The Unredeemed Captive — the story of Eunice Williams captured at age 7 by the Mohawk during the Deerfield Massacre. (I don’t remember much of the story other than Williams decides to not return to her family in Massachusetts and, instead, lives out her whole life with the tribe — a choice that left an impression on me.)

I remember franticly looking the book over to cram for details before class. Before Mr. Gunn walked in. Before he sat down and told us about the “Twin Towers.” Before I had any idea what the Twin Towers were or looked like. Before September 11th was a date that meant something.

I remember by our afternoon English class everyone was talking about the draft — that this would become our Vietnam and all the boys I knew would go off to war. I remember thinking that was a pretty rushed conclusion to come to in a day but feeling the fear of it all the same; feeling like it could become real. And that possibility alone was enough to make the world suddenly become a place that was terribly unknown to me.

And this feeling has lingered. It’s lingered through a decade of choices from our leaders and everyday American responses that I can’t understand. I remember standing next to a man on that March day in 2003 when President Bush declared war in Iraq. I was in Florida with my family on vacation. He was cheering at the television. I felt so isolated in that moment — by his response and by my own nation’s.

This past decade has been filled with many moments like these for me; moments where I can feel the widening chasm between the collective actions of our country and my own beliefs.

But I don’t want to spend tonight dwelling on that. I want to close this day with a story about peace. It’s about making peace in your own corner of the universe, however you can:

The night before the fourth of July this year I was in Seldovia, Alaska. Originally established as a Russian fur trading post in the late 1700s, Seldovia is now a fishing town of 300. There are no roads connecting it to the rest of Alaska so people use boats or planes to get there. In true Alaskan charm, the tides are so high that houses are even built on stilts in some sections of town. (In fact, originally, the whole town was just a system of stilts and boardwalks.)

Sign going into Seldovia's bay

View of Seldovia's deep water dock at low tide

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It Started By The Fire

This story starts with a fire — like most good adventures. A fire. A fiddle. A hike. A lesson. A tsunami. And then, a beer.

On the top of Mount Marathon. Yes, that's a fiddle. Read on.

It’s June 22, the day after the solstice in the coastal town of Seward, Alaska and my first night in my new home aboard the Tumbleweed, a 36-foot sailboat in the small boats harbor (I’ll save that story for another day). I go for a walk to find something warm because living on a boat, although pretty much my ultimate fantasy, does get cold at night.

Out by the shore, I find a fire pit with some embers still glowing and a convenient log left by a family who bailed and went to bed. I’m standing up, warming my hands, when I see a kid strolling down the path with an old red hiking pack with lots of things strapped on. I’ve been in Alaska long enough to spot one: a traveler.

Around a fire is a great place to make a friend!

He’s got these tan arms that look like a man’s but his face is all boyish charm. And there’s another thing singularly traveler-like about him: he’s got the walk. The walk of a person who knows how to walk and walk and walk and walk some more. A kind of walk that has a purpose but doesn’t have a purpose at the same time. His whole life is in that walk. I invite him over.

He tells me his name’s “Chip,” or at least that’s what he goes by, and offers me some dried mangos he quickly digs out from somewhere. What follows is a night straight out of a Woody Guthrie song. (I know this for a fact because he later produces a mandolin, one of the many things strapped to his pack, and plays me a Woody Guthrie song.)

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Staying in Alaska

There is a lot to say about my time in Alaska — my awe of its wild beauty, good company, and real food — but I think this sums it up best:

I came to Alaska for a ten-day trip and left two months later.

I really was done for even before the plane landed in Anchorage.

As you fly way up north in the summer, the sunlight stays with you. It’s something I had experienced once before in Russia where I lived up near the Finnish border for the summer as a very lucky teenager. I love this kind of midnight sun — or belye nochi as they called it there, meaning “white night.” It gives a whole new pulse to the world; a sort of continuous magic to your days and nights.

So when my plane gets above cloudy Denver and finds the sun, I am giddy with anticipation. I write down: “I have that tingling sense of something great to come. I’m chasing the sun to the great north!” Continue reading

He said, “Only you know”

It finally hit me the other day, walking back to my apartment with the July air hanging heavy and days away from moving out, what to call this here thing.

I left my job in May after four great years in Chicago working in nonprofit communications (so I should be good at naming things, right?) and had always wanted to start something blog-like. All I needed was a name that could resonate and inspire me. A place I’d want to come to and write and share stuff with those kind friends that say “sure, I’ll read your blog.”

I had some ideas along the way. The first was “Wanderland.” Second, I think, was “Ready, set, open.” Neither felt quite right, like Goldilocks and her porridge. Over goodbye drinks, a friend suggested “Where in the World is Courtney S-M?” and I have to say I got pretty excited about dressing in a red hat and trench and living it up as the new Carmen Sandiego.

But walking home it hit me. I had been telling this one particular story from my recent time in Alaska a lot. So much so that I realized (by shouting “Yes!” out loud right – and I’m not even kidding – as thunder started to rumble announcing a shower) that it is more than just a story to me. It has become a mantra to come back to again and again in the dark and happy times.

It’s a pretty short but sweet story. Here goes: Continue reading