I’m breathing deeply of the cool and clean air that blows off of Lake Michigan, while my friends at home in northern California are wearing masks against the smoke that has filled the skies for a week now. Months ago I’d planned a trip to visit my oldest daughter Pearl and her family in their new home here in Wisconsin, and though I felt it necessary to delay my departure by a couple of days, I was finally glad to get out of town.
As soon as I boarded the bus that would take me to the airport, I began to relax, and when I did, and began to drop the burdens I’d been carrying, I felt the ache I’d been unconscious of before, and almost wept from the relief.
My eyes stopped burning as soon as I boarded the airplane, and what peace to sleep in a quiet neighborhood that night, with nothing threatening anywhere.
I’ve been taking walks with Pearl, visiting Port Washington with everyone after church, and in particular enjoying the wind and rain. Today I took a solitary walk and found a convocation of geese assembling by the little lake I can see from my bedroom window.
Of the grandchildren in this family, only Maggie and the Philosopher are still at home these days, both in high school. They introduced me to cheese curds and shared a few hugs already. We played Apples to Apples and laughed and laughed.
Back at my home, housemate Susan has a box of my important papers and things that she will take for me if she has to evacuate; with so many firefighters on task now and no high winds, it seems unlikely for my neighborhood. But four families I know have had their houses burn to the ground, and scores of friends have been evacuated.
The first night in Wisconsin I didn’t sleep too well, but after a walk and a nap, the second night I logged ten hours of deep rest. Then I woke feeling brand new, or like my old self. I’ll be here a few more days, and maybe will write again before the next stage of this journey.
DAY 6: Even though this is our departure day, and I have much to do — or maybe because of that — I linger in bed this morning and savor this cozy little part of my cabin experience. I wonder where that mouse ran to… don’t suppose a mouse would start making a nest in my suitcase overnight… hope not. My lips are really chapped, from the dry air. I haven’t looked at the weather station much but I did notice humidity of 25% yesterday.
We are all up and packing, cleaning, eating breakfast at the same time. The children eat leftover pancakes heated on a stovetop toaster. I have jerky and leftover cold green beans with pesto. No microwave here, so even my tea gets cold and I wouldn’t want to dirty another pan to reheat it.
Everyone ponders when they might next be up here. The Professor is hoping their family might come back every other year; Scout was lobbying for twice a month! But snow prevents us from using it more than three or four months of the year. I might return as soon as next week, but I might not. I may be all tripped-out and too weary from this year’s bounteousness of traveling.
I am cleaning my windshield — amazed that I remembered to do this — when four-year-old Ivy comes up and says, “Can I help you with that, Grandma? I can do your side windows; you can do the high parts and I’ll do this part down here.”
“Well, okay, thank you, Sweetie, that will be nice to have those clean, too.” I hand her a paper towel with Windex on it and she starts wiping. “Dad told me and Scout to help you and Mom as much as we could.” 🙂
My dear family drives off, after Pippin has accomplished 90% of the cleanup. A few last details… I’m almost out the front door when a chipmunk runs past me into the cabin. Oh, dear! I try to get on the other side of him to herd him back to the open door, but he runs into the back bedroom and disappears. My brother is due to arrive sometime this day — will I have to wait for him to help me? Mice are always with us, but I can’t lock up with a chipmunk in here.
While I muse over this and check my phone one last time before leaving the wi-fi, the little guy scampers down the hall and out the door. Whew.
I drive away from the lake and down the mountain, enjoying the quietness for one more hour at least — I won’t turn on my audiobook until I get out of the forest — and the smell of the trees. Today it’s the usual piney flavor that they exude especially on warm days, but when I arrived last week in the thunderstorm, oh what a mix of earth and plant smells the rain brought out; just breathing it put the essence of Nature Girl right into me.
That afternoon upon first entering the forest at about 5,000 feet elevation, I’d been puzzled about the smell, which was unfamiliar. It didn’t have any of that piney edge to it, and it was sweet and toasty. I wondered if the thousands of dead trees were changing the chemistry of the aromatics. But after a half hour, the distinctive incense cedar scent came in the window, and I recognized it as having been one element of the strange smell. I suppose that with all the different trees, shrubs and flowers that are blooming and fading, each day’s bouquet in each microclimate is bound to be at least a little bit different.
I stop to take pictures of granite expanses, with giant trees sprouting out of crevices… get back in the car, turn the key, the engine hums, and Bam! the Kinks are blasting, “All day, and all of the night!” What on earth? Why did my stereo suddenly come on, and what station could possibly transmit here? I gather my wits from where they’ve been bounced all around my skull, turn down the volume, the song changes…. I realize it is iTunes playing, through my new stereo’s Bluetooth function. “My” iTunes is 90% my late husband’s collection, which I haven’t spent any time adapting to my own kind of music; I never even listen to iTunes.
I begin to wonder if an angel turned it on, because for the next hour as I listen to the shuffle, it’s a sweet reverie I float in, reminded of times when he would play certain ones saying, “This is for you, Gretchen.” R&B love songs like “Always and Forever” by Heatwave: “I’ll always love you forever.” Atlantic Star’s “Always” includes a line about making a family who “will bring us joy for always,” something I have just been experiencing these last few days; I think over all the joy Mr. Glad and I shared over our children.
Now that I am thinking about him, I remember the time my husband and I stopped along this very road just to cut some manzanita branches to take home for Mrs. C. What a job that was! We staggered far up the bank through loose sandy soil so as not to uglify the least bit the view from the road, and all the bushes were surrounded by a stickery plant that impeded us greatly. But we accomplished our errand.
Even Kate Wolf’s “Across the Great Divide,” though it is melancholy indeed, evokes for me truths and realities of loss and change, and more importantly, of hope:
Where the years went I can’t say I just turned around and they’ve gone away
The finest hour that I have seen Is the one that comes between The edge of night and the break of day It’s when the darkness rolls away
And it’s gone away in yesterday Now I find myself on the mountainside Where the rivers change direction Across the Great Divide
Here I am driving on a mountainside myself, thinking on things that have in one sense “gone away” with the years. But Love remains. Though my life has changed drastically in the last three years, its direction has continued steady, thanks to Christ, “the true Light that enlightens every man,” Who will finally roll away all the darkness. I think about this quote, too:
What shall pass from history into eternity? The human person with all its relations, such as friendship and love.
-Father Georges Florovsky
Various things happen to slow my descent, like being stopped while a tall dead pine is felled and crashes in the forest right across my line of vision. Slow logging trucks, road work, my own stopping to snap pictures… I see lots of Sierra Vinegarweed and spend ten minutes watching bees and butterflies drink at the flowers.
Also, I’m very relaxed and wanting to put off as long as possible the moment when I leave the last tree behind me and find myself in the baking and bare foothills. That’s when I will switch to my audiobook, leave my happy meditation, and count my Mountain Diary as concluded.
(I returned home just last night.)
If you missed previous posts in this series, you can go back and start HERE.
DAY 4: I set out walking alone before breakfast, for back therapy. Yarrow and pearly everlasting flowers line the road, which has recently been resurfaced in places with granite gravel in 2-4 inch chunks. Yesterday when Scout and Ivy walked back from the lake they stopped their father every few feet to exclaim about a new piece that they had picked up, with unique sparkles or shape.
On return, I fry a pound of bacon, because you always have to do that in the mountains when you’re in a cabin where the bears can’t get at you. Scout and Ivy grab a crispy slice in one hand and a pile of blueberries in the other, and go out on the deck to play, waiting interminably it seems for the adults to do something besides talk – like take them out in the boats.
While the other adults are still making plans I decide to walk again, and take Scout with me. We head down to the lake and on the way he schools me in conifers, showing me red firs and lodgepole pines (aka tamarack, his father tells me), the most numerous tree species in this area.
As we come up through the forest behind the cabin, I check on the puffball I saw last month — remember, it looked like this:
— and it has puffed itself and exploded into a pile of cocoa powder:
When the canoeing group finally embarks paddles in hand, two-year-old Jamie and I remain in the cabin. This is the first time I’ve ever taken care of him alone. We play with dominoes, and read Machines at Work a dozen times while eating nuts that he holds in little bowl on his lap.
Tonight Pippin, understanding how much star-gazing means to me, does most of the work to set up the chaise lounge on the deck. Mice have demolished the pad so she makes a sort of mattress with blankets and Thermarest pads. Soon all the lights in the cabin are extinguished, the family are in their beds, and I stretch out in the dark darkness, flat on my back staring up.
Black tops of the lodgepole pines ring the patch of sky like a wreath. My view of the heavens is not wide, but it is deep. The first thing that happens is that I feel the stars’ presence like angels hovering over me, and I almost begin to weep. I think about what my friend Art said, that the sky is not empty, but full of angels, and try to remember if that was a reason that C.S. Lewis wanted to call his trilogy not The Space Trilogy but Deep Heaven. Space sounds empty, but like all of Creation, it is filled with God’s presence.
The fullness is overwhelming, but soothing. Cool air blows on my face. I drink and am strengthened. After a long time I carry my sleeping bag into the cabin and soon am sailing into dreamland like Wynken, Blynken and Nod.
Last weekend I spent a few days in the High Sierra at my family’s cabin, where the winters bring such deep snow, the village by the lake is only accessible for four months of the year – or if we’re so unlucky as to have a year of little snow, four and a half months.
Every year there is an annual meeting of the village property owners, and two or three community work days. I have never before participated, because I live far away. In the past I have let my sister and brother take care of these things, and count myself blessed to even get myself to the cabin once or twice a summer. But last week I was able to go up for the group effort, to work and attend the meeting!
The most fun for me was seeing the high country in July rather than my usual September, and the many wildflowers. I took hundreds of photos, and have been trying to learn the names of new species.
Even when I was cleaning out a culvert as part of the community work, I discovered some columbines and was glad I had my phone in my pocket, even if there was no cell reception.
Some flowers are tiny tiny, about a half centimeter in diameter, but even so, scattered like confetti below showier blooms, they make a nice backdrop. Those are my fingertips in the second photo down.
I haven’t figured out very many species, and some will no doubt remain a mystery for the foreseeable future, but Pippin helped me identify some right away via text messages. 🙂 The one below I found at a lower elevation and it is still unnamed. UPDATE: Thanks to Mary’s helpful prodding (see in comments), I have researched what these puffy things might be, and decided that they are probably Grand Mountain Dandelion, Agoseris grandiflora.
These I am sharing are just a few of the many I saw; there were also lupines, Pearly Everlasting, other penstemons, yarrow…. On a gravelly turnout Pussypaws (Calyptridium umbellatum) had bravely erupted heedless of cars that might soon crush them.
The Shooting Stars (Dodecatheon) were in wet areas. From my perusing of wildflower guides I’m guessing that the bright pink one is Jeffrey’s Shooting Star and the pale pink is Bog Shooting Star.
My plan is to return to the mountains a month from now. It will be interesting to see if I find any new species that bloomed a little later. Or do most of them pop out as soon as the snow has melted? I’m just glad that I arrived in time to meet them!