Category Archives: Nature

Thanking The Turkey

Yesterday was one of my favorite days. I don’t think I’m unique in loving Thanksgiving — there’s just something about the ritual of sitting around a table with people, be they friends or strangers, sharing food together. I like passing the potatoes. I like the community. I like the idea of us collectively taking a big breath in as a nation and thinking about what makes life truly rich.

Nothing says thanksgiving like a homemade sign

A great looking table for fifteen

After-dinner fiddle and folk songs

The most beautiful pie

Last year, I spent Thanksgiving fresh off the trail, having spent two weeks camping in Utah’s canyon land, and was amazed to wake up to warm toes and hashbrowns in Prescott, Arizona.

This year, I was just at the bottom of the hill at a friends’ house here in Tamworth, New Hampshire. They have a wonderful bond with their neighbors and so all were over for the good meal. Most of the food, in fact, was all grown by them in their shared garden — potatoes, beets, celeriac, squash, brussell sprouts, kale, onions. The cranberry sauce was made from berries harvested up the road (in the local bog!) and even the turkey had been raised and butchered by them.

Taking down this season’s turkey pen with gratitude and some relief

Farm stand all boarded up for winter

Cows earlier in September watching me watch them

New eating technique: get inside the trough

We’ve even got locally-grown mushrooms (these are “blue oysters”)

And locally-made biodiesel to run our farms! 

The funny thing is how normal this has become to me — to be eating what you grow and raise. I knew nothing of plants and animals when I lived in Chicago. I couldn’t tell you growing seasons for vegetables. I paid no attention to how far my blueberries had traveled to my table. I didn’t know that cucumbers are sort of spiky and I certainly had no clue how to kill a pig.

More poignantly, I can recognize a change in my relation to meat. I see what I eat as animal now — not just as a strange, never-living protein object. The fine bones in a salmon’s muscles remind me that he once fought his way upstream. The chicken once tucked her head into those buffalo wings. The fatty bacon strips were once a pig’s belly, laying lazily in the mud. Continue reading

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?”

Pele’s Island

Well, I haven’t written a word about my two months on the Big Island. I could blame it on the sparse internet and the black hole of cell reception that was my corner of the world but I’d be lying. I wanted a break; a chance to just feel out the place and see what emerged.

The issue now of course is that so much has happened, in my outer and inner life, that I’m at a bit of a loss for how to say it all. How can I describe falling asleep in my Kapoho shack, the tropical nighttime music of coqui frog, ocean, and confused rooster just outside the screen crowing at the moon? How can my words show you the dirt road twisting through the lush mango grove only to open onto the dry wasteland of a raw lava field? Can you see the tiny ‘ohia tree with its red blossoms emerging from that new rock?

I told my uncle my quandary when I made it to his house in Honolulu in April. How do I say it all, uncle? “You don’t,” he told me. He’s right, of course. You just “talk story,” as the locals call it, and let the stories go where they want to…

An active crater at Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park

A Kapoho shack

A pink blossom covered road, tucked away in Waipi’o Valley

The first thing that hit me about the Big Island, stepping off the plane from cushy L.A., was its rawness. Clocking in at under a million years old, Hawai’i is the youngest of the Hawaiian islands. (The oldest, Kauai, is six million.) Both originated from volcanoes and coral polyps where a new species might be introduced once every 20,000 years. (If you want to read a really dramatized version of this creation story, check out the opening chapter to James Michener’s 1959 classic novel on the islands.)

The Big Island is still in the active volcano stage with three of its five volcanoes going strong. You drive around and get to know places by what used to be there. “Oh, here was Kapoho town,” they say, and all you see is the gray black of the 1960 lava that took out the railroad, the general store, the homes, the cemeteries, everything. “Oh, here was the Royal Gardens, the famous black sand beach of Kaimu with its shady coconut palms.” Now, where there was ocean meeting sand, there is dried a’a (Hawaiian for “stony rough lava;” pronounced “ah ah,” like the sound you would make if you had to walk barefoot on it) extending for a mile to the sea. Continue reading

I’m Transcontinental

Well, I’ve made it to California.

Five months ago I sat with my Mom on a pier overlooking the Boston harbor. Last night, I walked down the long hill to Black’s Beach in La Jolla, San Diego and touched the blue Pacific.

View from on top of the hill (photo by Stacy Williams)

Sun beams over Black's Beach (photo by SW)

Beach walkers at sunset

Surfer boy and gull

It is a beautiful and overwhelming feeling to be here. From my drive west watching the country change to my time in the four corners (Colorado, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico), I feel, as the writer Annie Fitzsimmons says, “simultaneously powerful and insignificant.” She was talking about Arizona, its landscape and mystery, but I think it captures well the transcontinental journey.

I’ve been here over a week and it still hardly feels real. I left the quiet, snowy mountains of New Mexico on a Monday, found my first palm trees outside of Tucson that night, and then saw the ocean the next day. I ran to greet it in Santa Barbara, the Channel Islands luringly visible on the horizon.

Leaving snowy New Mexico

Black and gray silhouettes and pier

Under Scripps Pier #1

Under Scripps Pier #2

I’m in San Diego now, camped at my friend Stacy’s amazing grad student apartment on the edge of the ocean that I still can’t believe qualifies as University housing. I can hear the waves as I write this.

There are lots of things that can stir my soul but nothing comes close to water. I am a fish. Before this year, the furthest I’ve lived away from something I can swim in was four miles, and even that seemed far. I completely understand the man in Big Fish whose wife finds him in the bathtub one night, soaking while still in his pajamas. “I was drying out,” he tells her. (It also is one of the most touching scenes between a husband and wife, I think, in film.)

And more than just any water, I am near The Ocean. I can smell the salt and feel the faint moisture in the air. I can watch the surfers run to the waves and start to climb them. I can end my day and watch the orange sun descend below the horizon as a dolphin, feeding close by, watches too in between its breath and dive. Continue reading

Out In It, Again

A month ago I was reunited with a former flame. It’s been over three years (I’m sad to say) since we’ve enjoyed each other’s company. But, now that we’ve realized how better our lives are together, I doubt we’ll ever part again.

I’m talking about camping, of course.

The ranch I was working on near Monticello, Utah closed for the season on November 15th and so a farmhand friend and I headed to Canyonlands National Park (with a stop for pizza, long-awaited cell service, and to see if we could convince a couple others to come). For the next eight nights, we slept outside and, with temps dipping into the 20s, got used to wearing every single layer we own to bed.

There’s a certain rhythm to living your entire life outside that I love. I think it’s the simplicity of it. You wake up because that’s when the sun’s decided to wake up. You make a fire. You make oatmeal and coffee. (You do this because you’re more cold than hungry and because the act of doing it will warm you up too.) You strike camp. And then, one foot, two foot, go. You set out on your path.

Our first BLM campsite, curiously called "Hamburger Rock." There were a few hungry nights we wished it was more than just a name...

Start of our first day hike in Canyonlands looking out at La Sal mountains

Here's some nice red needles!

Meandering down the walls

Druid Arch, a not-too-shabby final destination

Continue reading

Glaciers

“All men who come here live but a part of the truth; tomorrow will not be the same as today. The true reality of this land is change. The snowflake melts. Mountains crumble.” –John Milton, “Nameless Valleys, Shining Mountains”

Matanuska Glacier, northeast of Anchorage, AK

Aialik Glacier, Kenai Peninsula, AK

It is truly awe-inspiring to see a glacier, and even more unreal to stand on one. I don’t know exactly why, but it got me. Maybe it’s because, for the first time, I was seeing with my eyes how earth as we know it formed. Standing at its terminus, I could feel the process and it was alive and loud and powerful and beautiful and as old as old can get.

All my life, all our lives, we experience the results of glaciers — lakes, valleys, polished rocks, striated rocks, precarious boulders on the sides of mountains or that stray one in a field — and they speak to us about a process that has come and gone. Maybe you’ve passed a brown sign on the highway that says “something-Moraine State Park” or “Drumlin Trail”? All are words that describe what glaciers have left — ridges and hills.

Even now, I’m sitting here in an armchair overlooking a rainy day on Lake George, a lake formed on the edge of the Adirondacks by the Laurentian Glacier a very long time ago. Here, I grew up learning that words like “kettle” are for the deep holes found in rocks where glacial water dripped, dripped, dripped for years. (Probably my first unsuccessful attempt to fully grasp time. Something can drip and make…a hole…in a rock?) The Native Americans back in the day would ingeniously fill these kettles with wood to cook: a natural fire pit. Nowadays, The Kettles is a restaurant up the street and I’m not sure most people get the name.*

That’s why seeing real, live, breathing glaciers in Alaska left such a big impression on me: I’ve been living at the end of the story and finally got to go to the beginning. I feel more complete for it.

Here’s a tour through what I saw… Continue reading

Tourism and the Whale

Another thought.

There is another side to Alaska that I sort of knowingly excluded from my description of the whale that day on the solstice. And that’s a system that I was, in my own way, a part of  — tourism.

It was not just me on the bay that day seeing the humpback. It was me and the ten other people in our water taxi. And the hundred people beyond that in the tour boat. And, you know, the 5,000 other people beyond that on the cruise ship. Granted we weren’t all looking at the same whale (in fact ours didn’t start breaching until we were the only boat around), but you get the picture.

The two big economic engines of Alaska side by side: tourism and oil (Seward, AK).

So why did I exclude this side? I think because of ego. Because we as humans often operate from this intense, individualistic place that tells us we are special. This becomes particularly pronounced as a tourist: you want to find what’s unique. You want to experience what no one else has. I wanted to be Hemingway’s old man alone on a skiff with the great fish swimming.

But I wasn’t. I really felt at odds with this reality throughout my time in Alaska. And it got me thinking a lot about how we humans interact with a wild place. Continue reading